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Poetry: "The Lesson" by Edward Lucie-Smith

21 February, 2009

[Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/jul/21/poetry.featuresreviews]

The Lesson

“Your father’s gone,” my bald headmaster said.
His shiny dome and brown tobacco jar
Splintered at once in tears. It wasn’t grief.
I cried for knowledge which was bitterer
Than any grief. For there and then I knew
That grief has uses – that a father dead
Could bind the bully’s fist a week or two;
And then I cried for shame, then for relief.

I was a month past ten when I learnt this:
I still remember how the noise was stilled
in school-assembly when my grief came in.
Some goldfish in a bowl quietly sculled
Around their shining prison on its shelf.
They were indifferent. All the other eyes
Were turned towards me. Somewhere in myself
Pride, like a goldfish, flashed a sudden fin.

Edward Lucie-Smith

The reason I love this poem so much is that every time you read it you can find something else in it. While it is indeed a poem about grief, at second glance it is also a poem about the loss of innocence, the cruelty of children, and the desire for pride and attention.

I love the way grief is personified. First, we see him ashamed for not grieving; his first thought is that he will be exempt from bullying for a few weeks. In the second paragraph, he explains how his “grief came in”, almost as if it had walked into the assembly hall like a person. Once again, grief is overshadowed, but this time by pride.

Lucie-Smith shows us in this poem how the truth of our own thoughts are sometimes more nasty and unnerving than we give them credit for. When he first learns of his father’s death, the boy cries – one would assume it is for grief and sadness, but this is masked by a layer of shame. But what is he ashamed of? Nothing more than the truth. He is a young boy, only ten years old, and is at a boarding school – he probably never got to know his father very well. And yet we feel, or we are conditioned towards, the need for grief at the death of a relative. Should he be ashamed? The answer to that particular question is left up to you, the reader. I automatically say yes, but there is part of me that says no, there is natural grief but he should not feel more than that.

The natural grief enters the picture in the second half of the poem. But along with that grief comes another cruel truth. Like any child of ten, the poet desires attention – and when he gets it, he feels that pang of pride.

The way “goldfish” are used in the second stanza particularly interested me. In their first usage, the goldfish are indifferent to the boy’s grief. In their second usage, however, he compares the pride he feels to a goldfish. Why? Usually, the repeated usage of an object or an animal is easily understood. Here it is more nuanced. Personally, I think it is because the boy and the goldfish are the only things in the assembly hall that are isolated. Everyone else is looking at him, a mass blur of faces. The goldfish does not care, and it is set aside from the crowd. In a way, he and the goldfish are in the same position. The “shining prison” can also be taken as a metaphor for boarding school as a whole, further solidifying the connection between the boy and the goldfish.

This poem remains one of my favourites. I feel this is one of those poems that can be interpreted in many ways, so I would love to hear what you think of it. Leave a comment.

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Short Film: Neighbours

23 January, 2009
Recently, the National Film Board of Canada made their collection available for free online for people in any country (take that, Hulu!). One of the many short films they have on their website is the 1952 Oscar-winning short Neighbours. Before I go any further, I must thank Weathereye for introducing me to the website and recommending this particular film.

You can watch the film at this link or see it embedded below.

(Warning: This film contains some violent images and may be NSFW.)

SPOILERS FOR THE FILM FOLLOW. PLEASE WATCH THE FILM FIRST BEFORE READING.

Before get into actually reviewing the film, let’s talk about when it was made – the year was 1952, and it was a very tense period for the world. Not a decade had passed since the Second World War had ended, and tensions were mounting between the capitalist and communist blocs. Just over three years ago, the Soviet Union and the United States had come head to head during the Berlin Blockade. The US, under the guise of the UN, was now fighting a bloody war in Korea. Although the threat of fascism had ended, it looked like the allies with different ideologies were turning on themselves.

When the film begins, it immediately using techniques of animation (stop-motion and otherwise), although the two characters are played by real people. There is no dialogue, but the hypnotic music more than makes up for it. The two men sit outside their houses, sharing a lighter and reading the paper. But as a small but beautiful flower pops up right between their homes, they turn violent and destructive.

The second part of the film is astonishing, considering the history that has taken place since 1952 – the two men continue to destroy each other until the flower itself is ruined, and their women and children are killed, their houses destroyed.

Neighbours could be taken as a metaphor for the Cold War, or just war in general. Indeed, it seems that McLaren predicted the vicious outcome of the war, what with the Soviet Union no longer existing and the US in serious debt and not to mention millions dead on either side and millions more in-between, but in fact McLaren is referring back to the wars that have ended already, for they all result in generally the same way, do they not?

The cinematic techniques used by McLaren are something to behold. Using methods usually reserved for puppetry and animation, he demotes both the men to the status of puppets, hence making it easier for us to identify them later on as nations of peoples rather than just two men. The music gets increasingly wilder as the two men go at it, and as I mentioned earlier, the hypnotic nature of the strange (but alluring) music puts the viewer in a kind of trance.

The violence that each man rages upon the other seems to come from nowhere; an action that is ultimately contrary to what they are fighting for – the beauty and simplicity of the small flower. Even after the flower is destroyed, they continue their fight, killing the other man’s wife and child. To the viewer, this part is particularly shocking. In fact, it was censored in some places for a long time. But to me, this section of the film is the crucial part, the moral conclusion. As the two men die and their graves are covered with flowers, McLaren leaves us with one final message, and it is a message that even today, 57 years after this short was made, we should heed.

9/10

Did you like the short? Did you like it as much as I did, or did you think it was terrible? Leave a comment either way.

Short Film: I Live In The Woods

23 January, 2009
Shown at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Max Winston’s I Live in the Woods has been creating some buzz lately. It is available for download at the iTunes US Store in the Sundance section.
Now, if you don’t have a US iTunes account because you don’t have a credit card or live in another country, it is in fact very easy to get one – all you need is an email address that you haven’t used to sign up for any account from Apple previously. Instructions on how to get an account (no credit card necessary) are here. Once you get an account, you’ll find all sorts of free goodies on there apart from the ten Sundance short films as well.

Get these films NOW, because they will only be available until Jan 25 – that means there’s just TWO DAYS left! I recommend you to get them all, there’s some really good quality in there. I’ll be reviewing/analysing some more of them soon.

SPOILERS FOR THE FILM FOLLOW THIS REVIEW. PLEASE WATCH THE FILM FIRST BEFORE READING (It’s only three minutes!)

In an age of CG animation, it’s always refreshing to see a good old-fashioned stop motion piece every now and then – but a lot of critics often laud stop motion animation films simply because of their nature. I’d read a couple of good things here and there about I Live in the Woods, but as I started to watch it I feared it was going to be one of those films. It starts out with the Woodsman frolicking about and singing about his love of the woods and woodland creatures, like in something you’d see on Sesame Street.

As the Woodsman goes on about loving “the little critters”, he suddenly begins to tear them apart – literally! This kid-friendly happy-go-lucky song and dance routine suddenly becomes a violent exposition of cruelty, as the Woodsman rips apart the jaws of deer and smashes in the faces of flying piranha. He then proceeds to challenge the only person who tells him what to do, the Man in the Clouds. In a logical but strange procession of the story, the Woodsman attacks and murders the Man in the Clouds.

I Live in the Woods is the story of a man who claims to love the nature around him, but in a fit of happiness goes on slaughtering all around him, leading to a final confrontation with God – whom he also slaughters. The first shock of seeing the Woodsman rip the woodland animals to pieces was a disgusting sight, but I think it’s an excellent way to tell the story. From shock to shock, Winston takes you further into taboo situations, asking uncomfortable questions.

The film can be interpreted in many ways, but I saw it as an exposure of the hypocrisy of our (or maybe specifically America’s) perception of God and winner-take-all mentality. In all his gory actions, the Woodsman is still singing in verse (albeit the switching of the background music to heavy metal) and taking ultimate joy in his dominance and control of the woods around him. Our idea of living in the woods is one of being in phase with nature and living off the earth, but the film takes the opposite direction in showing us a character who asserts sheer human dominance and power on all.

And then there is the topic of god. The man, having asserted his dominance over the woods he loves, challenges the moral authority, seeking to overpower god himself. That he achieves it comes as no surprise, as he continues on his happy rampage of victory and carnage. I interpreted this section as the continuation of human hypocrisy; we ordain a moral authority for ourselves, only to usurp it whenever we feel it is necessary. Of course, this viewpoint is conditional of the idea god is a human creation.

The last line of the film as the Woodsman takes God’s place is a particularly interesting one: “Not that this should make anyone feel weird … just another white guy with a different coloured beard.” This line makes this short film a great one for me. I see it as showing the winner-take-all instinct of people in general.

8/10

Am I over-analysing this three and half minute film? Do you have a totally different idea of what it’s about? Leave a comment …