What's at Stake?

How do you know when you really know someone?

This is a question that I've pondered often over the years. It has usually happened with someone I thought I knew well acted in a way that was inconsistent with the person that I thought I knew.

In one case, a friend walked away from our friendship. And did so with intention and announcement.

In another case, a friend essentially disappeared. Changed jobs, twice; moved, twice, and the links, even those online disappeared.

I've thought about this over the past few days as I've reflected on seeing James Cameron's technological marvel, Avatar. You should see Avatar in 3D. It is an experience that you should have to see how far the digital film technology has come to be able to create the scenes you'll see.

That said, I was disappointed with the film as a story. I sat there in the theater detached from the story. I thought, "What size HD TV will I need to watch this at home." "Imagine Lord of the Rings with this level of visual effect." "Isn't this Dances with Wolves in Space?"  Granted there is an interesting moral question at the heart of the in-story Avatar technology, but the context and story that is wrapped around it is not. It is too much a retread of simplistic themes we've seen elsewhere.

What makes for a compelling story is compelling characters? What makes for a compelling character is the same thing that makes it possible to really know people.

We need to know what is at stake for them. We need to know what they fear losing, not just what they love.

In Avatar, the Stephen Lang character, Colonel Quaritch is a cardboard cutout of every blood-thirsty maniac soldier we seen before.  He is a cartoon caricature of those who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq right now. We know that because for this Colonel, he has nothing to lose. His only concern is completing his mission. It is what he believes in. We don't really know this man. He's just a vehicle for moving the story along, providing some dramatic contrast between the good guys and the bad guys. As a result, he distracts from the story and makes it less interesting.  It is the real reason that movie Westerns lost favor with the public. Now the setting is outer space.

As a result of watching Avatar, I am rewatching The Lord of the Rings. The story is filled with the realization of what is at stake, of what could be lost, and therefore, what truly matters to people. It is the kind of story that I wish Cameron would have written. Here's a comparison between these two fantasies.

For Frodo Baggins, if he fails in his quest, he not only loses his life, but the Shire as well and all of Middle Earth is lost. Here we see author JRR Tolkien's lament for the loss of the simple human scale values of the medieval world to a modern culture of technology that rules all of us.

For Jake Sully, to foresake his human life to live permanently as a Na'vi seems as normal and simple as changing jobs. Did the world and the people from where he came not mean anything to him? What would his mother say of his choice? Is he just a nice version of Colonel Quaritch, only living to complete the missions given him by his superiors, detached from his humanity with nothing really to lose but his disability?  Is this what he found in the Na'vi? Is their primal culture more authentic and humanitarian than the technological, consumer one that he has lived in all his life? Or is it that he finds something that he really wants - the girl? - that is not worth losing? It isn't really that clear to me.

It is common for people today to speak about what they are passionate about. It is an indicator of what they believe in and what they love.

However, until we understand what they fear losing do we truly know people. It is a far greater motivator than desire. When we know what is at stake then we know what truly matters.

Welcome to America, Maestro Morricone

Ennio Morricone is coming to America. Well, his music has been here for over 40 years, but he is coming to conduct his first concert in America. If you don't know who Morricone is, I'm sure you've heard his music.

The NYTimes has a nice article on him. Here's a hint of the man.

Mr. Morricone chooses his commissions based almost entirely on his trust in the director, he said. “Sometimes I read the script, sometimes I read the main part of the story, and sometimes I just watch the film when it’s done and that’s it,” he said.

“When you work in cinema, you can’t exclude anything,” he added. “Lately I have scored a film, and the film had not been shot yet. It was just being shot, and I just heard the director’s story of the film. This is not as negative as it seems to be, because it gives the composer the possibility to just express music — music and only music.”

Mr. Levinson (Director Barry Levinson) said that unlike many film scorers, Mr. Morricone does not want to hear the temporary music many directors use while shooting. He watches a movie without accompaniment and takes notes, sometimes coming up with themes immediately. “They usually give you less time than necessary, but I usually ask for a month,” he said. “When I have to compose I have no holidays. I write every day. And Saturday and Sunday are even better, because the phone doesn’t ring that much.”

There are a number of very fine compilations of his music. I suggest the following:

Yo Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone - very nice.

A Fistful Of Film Music: The Ennio Morricone Anthology - Two discs from his music from the many Italian spaghetti Westerns filmed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Cinema Paradiso: The Classic Film Music Of Ennio Morricone - Disc has some of his more famous compositions from The Mission, Once Upon a Time in the West and the Untouchables.

This will start and inspire the acquisition of more of Morricone. 

There are also more treatments of his music, such as Metalica's use of Ecstasy of God (my favorite Morricone tune), John Zorn's avant guard homage The Big Gundown and soundtrack music of his less conventional work, Crime and Dissonance.

The richness, beauty and breadth of Ennio Morricone's work suggests that no only is he a creative genius, but that his focus is not simply on some narrow self-expression, but rather an artist who interacts with the film maker to tell a story.  In the deluxe set of discs that comes with Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, there is one about Morricone.  Remarkably, Leone had him write  and record the music before filming.  Then during filming, they would play the music as the film rolled. This is particularly telling in the climatic scene of the three protagonists who are in search of a cache of gold.  It is one of my favorite scenes as Eli Wallach's character Tuco runs in circles through this huge cemetery looking for an unmarked grave. As the camera follows him in circles, the music continues to gain momentum.  Tuco's own obsession to find the gold also gains momentum.  It is a masterful scene as the whole movie is.

I never tire of listening to Morricone. Whether it is his spaghetti westerns or his music from The Mission, The Untouchables or the numerous Italian films, Ennio Morricone is the master of film music. 

Welcome to America Maestro!!!   

Here are some of the over 500 films and television shows that he has scored:
Mission to Mars (2000)
City of Joy (1992)   
Casualties of War (1989)    
Young Einstein (1988)
Cinema Paradiso (1988)   
The Untouchables (1987)
The Mission (1986)
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
White Dog (1982)
The Thing (1982)   
"Marco Polo" (1982)
Days of Heaven (1978)
A Fistful of Dynamite (1971)   
Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)   
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)   
For a Few Dollars More (1967)
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966)

The Hope of The Children of Men

First Posted on January 6, 2007.


I don't review a lot of movies here, even though I see a lot of them. Most are not worth a comment. That is not the case for the just released The Children of Men, Alfonso Cuaron's film treatment of P.D. James mystery.

The lead character Theo near the beginning of the movie says,

I can't really remember when I last had any hope, and I certainly can't remember when anyone else did either. Because really, since women stopped being able to have babies, what's left to hope for?

Precisely, there is no reason. It is a long, slow extinction of the human race.  Celebrities are not just young celebrities, but the young themselves.  Their deaths are viewed as tragic and additional confirmation that the world is dying.  Chaos has gripped the earth because there is no hope. 

The story as told by Cuaron is not a conventional one.  There are twists and turns that make sense in the context of the world as it exists on the screen.  It may be one man's story, but it isn't about one man. It is about where the whole human race finds its hope. 

The story line is simply that for 18 years, no woman has given birth to a child.  All women are infertile.  The world is in upheaval. Because woman can't babies?  They are linked, but it seems much more that society has just broken down, and infertility is symbol of that decline. 

Into the story comes a 1960s style political protest group updated for the 21st century that is planning an Uprising to take over Great Britain and give freedom to the millions of illegal immigrants that have been rounded up into camps. People still go to work, but there is no joy in it. People sit at their desks peering at the faces of loved one's on a computer screen.  The interiors and exteriors give us the impression that there is no hope, nothing to look forward to, and as a result violence and brutality rule the day.  It is a bleak picture without a clear reason why things have declined to this point.

Theo, played by Clive Owen in a role worthy of an Oscar nomination, is contacted by his ex-wife, who is one of the leaders of this political revolutionary group. She seeks his help to transport a woman to the coast of England to meet a boat.  The woman as it turns out is pregnant. The first in 18 years. This simple fact in the hands of a different director would become the focal point of the story. Not here.  Yes, she's pregnant. Yes, the story revolves around her journey to the coast. But it is the significance of this pregnancy as a symbol of hope and fear that is the focal point of the story.

This is a movie to see in a theater with strangers. Why? Because the world in the film is filled with nothing but strangers. Everyone is a stranger because there is no intimacy, no common societal bond except for the loss of hope. It is a marvelous narrative twist by P.D. James to give the sentence of death to the whole human race, yet it isn't a death by execution but by extinction. The loss of history, memory, time and by extension the future.  As a result, all people are strangers to everyone else.

I won't say anything more about the story except this.  When the turning point comes - and you'll know it - you will begin to feel what the characters feel. Hope.  It is as powerful and touching an experience in a theater as I have ever had.

We live in a world where we can mask our loss of a sense of hope.  We cover it up with all sorts of addictions. We live in denial and passive aggressiveness.  Are we a society on the verge of dissolution as that which Children of Men depicts?  I don't think so. Not here in the West. But I do believe that there are places in the world where this is the case, that anarchy reigns and as a result there is no hope.

Is hope that important?  In the immortal words of St. Paul from that famous scripture read during countless wedding ceremony. "Of these remain, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love."  This is not just true on a religious or spiritual level. It is true on a practical, organizational level.

Hope in The Children of Men is not in the men and women who live now, but in those who will be born in the future.  They are not simply progeny. They are a legacy that links the past to the future and gives purpose and meaning to the present.

P.D. James who wrote the book that the movie is based on has regularly written her mystery stories in the context of some biblical or religious truth.  Here in The Children of Men we catch a glimpse of what it was like for the shepherds and wise men to visit a hay barn in an out of the way village in Palestine.  And what they see there is the embodiment of their hope for the future. Something or someone to believe inthat gives them reason to go on.

The Power of Dreams and The Journey of Longing

Picasso_quixoteOne of the most universal human experiences is to dream.  It is at the heart of every entrepreneur's ambition to create something unique and personal. But behind that most hopeful and optimistic dream is an experience that is darker, the experience of longing.  The connection between dreams and longing is rarely, if ever discussed in relation to leadership.  Yet, because of it, not only are they universal human experiences, but they are powerful motivators of both action and inaction.

One way of understanding this experience is to see life as a journey.  A journey of longing and fulfillment.  This has come home to me recently as I've reflected upon three films that have a journey at its core, but in each, the journey carries deeper implications of life. The films are the recent trilogy, the Lord of the Rings, the musical, Man of La Mancha and, the classic The Wizard of Oz.  In each the central characters are driven by their longing for some place or some purpose beyond themselves.  It is powerful and compelling. And each are worthy to be revisited in reflection upon this theme.

In The Wizard of Oz, young Dorothy Gale finds herself at odds with her caregivers, Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, as her dog Toto has brought trouble to the family from the wealthy matron, Mrs Gulch. Here's the exchange that leads to the signature song of the film.

Auntie Em -Now you just help us out today and find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble.
Dorothy - Someplace where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place Toto? There must be. Its not a place you can get to by a boat or a train. … its far, far away … behind the moon, beyond the rain … (Music)Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high. There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby. Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue. And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true. Some day I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me. Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, that’s where you’ll find me. Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly. Birds fly over the rainbow, why then oh why can’t I. If happy little blue birds fly beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I.

In her journey to find her way home, she encounters three characters who each in their own way are traveling a journey of longing. The Scarecrow longs for a brain, the Tin Man longs for a heart, and the Cowardly Lion longs for courage. In the scene where the three have their ultimate encounter with the "great and powerful Oz", each discover that what they longed for was not something they did not possess, but something that they didn't not know they already had. And in just a moment, their longing turned to a dream fulfilled.

The film ends with Dorothy waking up from her dream to find her family and friends surrounding her bed. She recognizes that all her companions on her journey are people right there in her own backyard. The film ends with Dorothy's declaration,

Oh, but anyway, Toto, we're home. Home! And this is my room, and you're all here. And I'm not gonna leave here ever, ever again, because I love you all, and - oh, Auntie Em - there's no place like home!

While the sentimentalism maybe Hollywood at its best, the emotional core of this story is the experience of longing as loss, of separation, of incompleteness.

This too is at the heart of Miguel Cervantes great novel, Don Quixote de La Mancha, that was so movingly developed for the stage and screen in the musical, Man of La Mancha. Cervantes, a poet, an actor, a revolutionary in medieval Spain is thrown into prison, and he presents his story of Quixote in story and song. He tells his audience of prisoners,

I shall impersonate a man. His name is Alonso Quijana, a country squire no longer young. Being retired, he has much time for books. He studies them from morn till night and often through the night and morn again, and all he reads oppresses him; fills him with indignation at man's murderous ways toward man. He ponders the problem of how to make better a world where evil brings profit and virtue none at all; where fraud and deceit are mingled with truth and sincerity. He broods and broods and broods and broods and finally his brains dry up. He lays down the melancholy burden of sanity and conceives the strangest project ever imagined - -to become a knight-errant, and sally forth into the world in search of adventures; to mount a crusade; to raise up the weak and those in need. No longer will he be plain Alonso Quijana, but a dauntless knight known as Don Quixote de La Mancha.

He tells them what has driven him to this journey.

I've been a soldier and a slave. I've seen my comrades fall in battle or die more slowly under the lash in Africa. I've held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, yet they died despairing. No glory, no brave last words, only their eyes, filled with confusion, questioning "Why?" When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Too much sanity may be madness. To surrender dreams - -this may be madness; to seek treasure where there is only trash. And maddest of all - -to see life as it is and not as it should be.

Here is a man on a journey of longing. His longing is not for a home or a brain or a heart or courage, but for virtue and justice in a world lacking in such. He enters a shabby village and is captivated by the village whore, Aldonsa. He sees her not as she see herself, which is how the village's rabble see her. Instead, Quixote sees purity, beauty and goodness in this woman. And his journey of longing as a knight errant is joined with her own journey of longing to be treated with dignity and genuine love. His journey, his quest is best summed up in Joe Daron and Mike Leigh's classic song: The Impossible Dream.

To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe, to bear with unbearable sorrow, to run where the brave dare not go. To right the unrightable wrong, to love pure and chaste from afar, to try when your arms are too weary, to reach the unreachable star. This is my quest, to follow that star - no matter how hopeless, no matter how far. To fight for the right without question or pause, to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause. And I know if I'll only be true to this glorious quest that my heart will be peaceful and calm when I'm laid to my rest. And the world will be better for this, that one man scorned and covered with scars still strove with his last ounce of courage. To reach the unreachable star.

Don Quixote's journey of longing is transformed into a dream of ambition, a quest for something higher, better, greater than what he has experienced. The journey of longing is the result of our own experience with loss, incompleteness, sadness, the brokenness of relationships, the lack of purpose or personal failure. It is real. And it is what every leader faces in him or herself everyday, as well as every person they encounter.

The much more familiar Lord of the Rings trilogy of books and films is also about a journey of longing. It too is a quest. The difference is that the longing is more than personal, it is communal. The "Fellowship of the Ring" made up of hobbits, dwarves, elves, wizards and men recognize that the survival of their world, of their civilization, their community is dependent upon their taking a journey together. The journey is a real one that brings them face to face with brutal force, with evil. It tests all they have. Their courage, their belief in one another and themselves, their capacity for change and adaptation. They are on a journey together. The dream is faint, the longing ever present, and by their determination, they are ultimately successful. But not without cost.

It is important for leaders to understand that buried deep in the heart of each person they lead is desire. The desire maybe for peace, quiet and security. It could be a desire for greatness. It maybe to have life's questions answered. Whatever that longing in the human heart, when leaders connect with that longing, they have connection to people that physical proximity will never provide.

For leaders to understand their followers' journey of longing they must understand their own. They must understand how to turn that longing into a dream. The power of a dream is that it is hopeful and optimistic. But it rises from longing in the heart.  It is personal. It is emotional. It is as powerful a motivator as we can find anywhere.  Clarify the longing that you have.  Transform that into a dream of accomplishment, of achievement, of impact.  And people who long for the same, will find you and follow you. 

Honda has picked up on this theme and developed a wonderful video that chronicles their history through the image of a man singing the Impossible Dream as he drives various Honda vehicles. It is silly and wonderful at the same time. Thanks to Bill Kinnon for pointing to it.

Star Wars: myth, religion, leadership and community

Having watched Star Wars III opening night at midnight, and read Instapundit's catalog of reactions, I could not help but think back to 1977 when the original was released. Then it seemed so modern and visionary.  George Lucas was using a sci-fi form to explore mythology and religion. 

Today, the mythology surrounding the Jedi and the Sith seem strangely shallow and non-descript.  I kept thinking about The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films during the show.  As in LOTR, the struggle between good and evil in Star Wars is real.  Yet, even with the focus on Anakin's personal struggle, the depth of myth and/or religion is strangely lacking.  Is this because Lucas didn't think about it after drafting his original plan?  Is it because their is no shared ritual that connects the Jedi to average people, ur, beings?  Is it because there is really no community as such, just individuals inhabiting a diverse, political, quasi-mythological world?

I know that there have been claims that the religion in Star Wars is essentially Eastern in nature.  But I don't see it.  The myth is of the contemporary sort that there is some indecipherable life force that inhabits all people, and is left with that.  It isn't really a moral universe, as it is a universe with some convenient moral affirmations - May the Force be with you.  But the Force must be of pretty pale Deist sort if the Jedi couldn't tell that they were about to be ambushed, or that their young-lings were about to be massacred.  This treachery seemed to have a reality about them that nothing else in the film had.  It was what captured my emotions.  The stealth of the Palpatine and the mediocrity of the Jedi.

What I left with in the end is that the Jedi were ultimately no match for the Dark Side, and it is only by their own individual force of will, training, and ingenuity that they succeed.  Whatever there is to believe in seems shallow and banal.  Is this really a picture of the contemporary church to Lucas?  If so, what then does the Sith represent?  The church's secular counterpart, the political realm of power?

As a leadership development specialist and planner, I enjoyed watching the film from this point of view.  It occurred to me that the Jedi Council is a rather dysfunctional board.  Sure they deliberate, but based on what criteria? Their feelings?  Ultimately, the leadership is a reflection of George Lucas himself.   The Jedi govern based on intuition and personality.  Palpatine on Machiavellian force of cunning and will.  As I have reflected on this the past couple days, I am surprised at how poorly the Jedi are portrayed.  They are master individualists, but they do not seem to know how to leverage their strengths as a team.

It makes me wonder what would have happened if Palpatine had gained control of the Ring.  Poor Sauron...no match for the Emperor.

Finally, what is missing from these last three Star Wars is what was present in the first three of the series -- a joi de vie, most explicitly characterized in the romanic tango between Princess Leia and Han Solo.  The woodenness of the characters stands in stark contrast to the characters in The Lord of the Rings.  In that series of three films. the core of the film is on the relationships between members of the Fellowship.  They care for each other, are willing to sacrifice for one another, and are a picture of genuine diversity.  In Star Wars I, II and III, the relationships exist like online instant messenger acquaintances.  Relationships based on the slimmest common interest.  This certainly isn't the picture of the relationship between Frodo and Sam.  Even Ewan McGregor, one of my favorite actors, couldn't produce the same level of pathos needed to become a real person.

What Stars Wars proves is that George Lucas is the master of the visual effect, and Tolkien the master of myth and character.   One is viewed as an escape, the other as a validation. 

In Good Company

It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it worth a look.  The film, In Good Company, that goes into national release on January 14, is about the life in a large corporate organization.  The story looks compelling.  Go to the website linked above.  Look at the trailer, read the story line and then do the Diversions.  This is an excellent site.  Rarely have I left a movie site feeling that both I know what the movie is about, and I really want to see this.  After I see it next week, I'll comment on it.

For bloggers, Hugh Hewitt sends along the following:

I just had an update from movie marketer extraordinaire Jonathan Bock that since my 7 PM posting last night(1/5/05), over 100 blogs have responded to the offer for free tickets to an advance screening of IN GOOD COMPANY. Impressive.

So, Jonathan has added a bonus: any blogger who signs up for the free tickets and then posts this offer and a link to the IN GOOD COMPANY trailer on their site will be automatically entered in a contest to win their very own private screening of IN GOOD COMPANY in their town. The winner can either fill the screening with their friends and family, or see the film alone with that special someone – it’s entirely up to them. One lucky blogger here in the US will win. Sign up at info@gracehillmedia.com and send them your link. And of course, all the non-winners will still be eligible to attend an advance screening in their area.