Monday, February 9, 2015

Above: From Terrence Malick's The New World

Writers at the Movies

Everyone should go to the movies with a writer now and then. Writers know what makes a story work and are the first to praise a strong, tight script and blast a weak one to pieces (which can be just as entertaining as the film). A writer will reveal the critical meaning of the smallest detail of imagery and summarize the plot in all its mythic dimensions in a sentence or two. Attend a film with a writer and you’ll never watch a movie the same way again.

Film is the primary storytelling medium of our time, and in those 90 to 120 minutes a story unfolds much like it does in a novel or short story, with the added spectacle of images and sound. We still immerse ourselves in our own thought processes as we watch, identifying with characters and places and projecting our emotions on them, just like we do when we read. But movies, good ones, ramp up the power of skillful storytelling by presenting a story within “one sitting,” as Edgar Allan Poe recommended for artful short fiction writing, and with the “unity of effect” that Poe and Aristotle, the lawmaker of storytelling, demanded of the art.

Films that achieve unity of effect in a powerful way remind me that this is the goal of my writing. Poe said that writers should decide which emotion they want the reader to stew in (fear, horror, anxiety, shame, jealousy, etc.), and focus every effect—every word and idea—toward evoking that feeling. Filmmaker Terrence Malick is brilliant at this. Watching The New World (2005) or The Tree of Life (2011) puts you in a clearly defined space of mood and feeling through natural images and sounds that never lets up, mirroring the experience of reading a great novel. How many times have you read a novel and thought, ‘This could never be made into a film because the experience of reading it—the nuance and subtleties—can’t be translated into film’? Often, you’re right. But I believe, for example, that only Malick could have done justice to a film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a novel that thrusts you into a state of consciousness and feeling that comes back in all its profound despair every time you think about it, even years later. Malick knows how to do that with film.

As a writer, I try to learn about the mechanics of unity from directors like Malick and, in the case of War of the Worlds (2005), Steven Spielberg. The horrific, menacing tone of that film bled out from beginning to end and was, for me, the most precise reflection of the nightmarish darkness of the post-9/11 American psyche. It certainly was for me. I lived in Manhattan during 9/11, and watching the film filled me with the same hideous terror I had sensed when I woke from the gory nightmares that haunted me after the attacks, right down to the metallic taste in my mouth. Spielberg hit that nerve brilliantly and as a result helped us purge some of our still-fresh yet buried horror.

How did Spielberg do it? How did he prolong the menace? Next time you watch War of the Worlds, look at the colors, the decay; observe the relentless anxiety of every character; watch where the monsters come from—underground, where our universal fears live. Every element is devoted to one anguishing emotion: terror. Just like in a well-crafted short story or novel, nothing is wasted; nothing veers from the feeling tone that Spielberg so carefully defines through a palette of techniques used by every type of storyteller.

I not only learn more about good writing when I go to the movies, but I always walk away more inspired about the power of stories to move, connect, and even heal us.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

In Memoriam: Farewell to Larry Haverfield, Conservation Hero

The black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America, found a courageous ally in Kansas rancher Larry Haverfield. (Photo: Audubon of Kansas)

With the passing of Kansas rancher and conservationist Larry Haverfield on September 21, 2014, I am reminded of the interview I conducted with Larry for my "Green State" column in the Emporia Gazette in 2010. Haverfield had recently help save the black-footed ferret from likely extinction in his latest battle in the courts. In memory of Larry and in gratitude for his work, which his wife and family will carry on with the same courage and commitment, I am re-posting that article here:

Antonia Felix
October 1, 2010

Ferrets Win In Kansas Court

They’re endangered, they’re vital to the prairie ecosystem—and they just beat the rap.

Last week a federal judge in Wichita issued a judgment that will protect the Kansas habitat of the black-footed ferret, the most endangered mammal in North America.

The judge ruled against Logan County, which sought to exterminate the prairie dog population on a private 10,000-acre ranch. Poisoning off the prairie dogs, which are the favorite prey of the black-footed ferret population that was reintroduced to the ranch in 2007, would have been a death sentence to the ferrets.

Ninety-eight percent of the prairie dog population of the Great Plains has been wiped out, and the remaining two percent are still subject to the “kill them all” statute put into play in 1901, when a pre-conservation mindset saw the near extermination of the state’s whitetail and mule deer, wild turkeys, bison, pronghorn elk and prairie dogs.

A handful of Kansas ranchers are committed to bringing black-footed ferrets back from the brink of extinction, including the owners of the Logan County ranch involved in last week’s court action. Working with a coalition of groups including Audubon of Kansas and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), ranchers Larry and Betty Haverfield and Gordon Barnhardt reintroduced 14 black-footed ferrets onto their property in 2007. Another 10 were released into the adjoining Smoky Valley Ranch Preserve.

Home of the largest prairie dog complex in Kansas, the Haverfield-Barnhardt ranchland is ferret paradise.

The ranchers’ legal battles started in 2008 when they refused to allow Logan County exterminators to poison the prairie dogs on their property. A district judge recognized that the FSW had defined the ranch as a promising site for reintroduction of black-footed ferrets and slapped the county with a restraining order.

Logan County tried to repeal that ruling, but on September 20 Judge Jack Lively ruled that the restraining order would stand. The Haverfield-Barnhardt ranch and the 90-foot vegetative boundary that surrounds it are permanently off-limits to poisoning.

The prairie dogs are safe, at least from the county. They still have to contend with black-footed ferrets, golden eagles, burrowing owls, coyotes, ferruginous hawks and swift foxes, but Haverfield likes it that way.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “It’s nature’s way.” A healthy population of predators, combined with Haverfield’s method of frequently rotating his cattle’s grazing areas, has solved the problem of prairie dogs destroying wide patches of grassland on his ranch.

Randy Rathbun, the lawyer who represented the Haverfields, said the case was a matter of a federal law superseding state law. “The Endangered Species Act is the most broad legislation that any nation has ever passed to focus on endangered species,” he said, “and we had one of the most endangered mammals in the country. I didn’t see any way that a century-old statute was going to trump the Endangered Species Act.

Logan County’s aggressive stance on exterminating Haverfield’s property represents the “kill-them-all” prairie dog sentiment held by many ranchers. “The reason they were so intent on doing this treatment themselves,” said Rathbun, “is that they then try to charge this client back.” The county wanted to conduct multiple exterminations so that the bills would pile up and ultimately bankrupt the ranchers, he explained.

On top of constant pressure from the county, the Haverfields were sued by their neighbors, who claimed prairie dogs emigrated from their ranch. (The Haverfields, with help from Audubon of Kansas, have installed a fencing system that makes that impossible.) A judge threw out those suits.

“We don’t see very many people anywhere in the country who will withstand as much hostility as Larry Haverfield has, especially from the county,” said Audubon of Kansas executive director Ron Klataske.

I asked 74-year-old Haverfield where he and his fellow rancher Barnhardt get the strength to fight such prickly battles.

“It just happens Gordon and I are the same age,” he said. “When you’re that age, my feeling is, why not try to do the right thing? When you’re younger you have peer pressure and all that, but I don’t really feel that much at this point.”

Larry Haverfield, conservation hero. May we all grow so wise.

Monday, September 29, 2014

   Sorry, Mr. Gekko, but the future is in conscious capitalism.

On Dreaming, Human Nature, and the Obsolescence of Greed

Every night, the dreaming mind unrolls cinematic dramas designed to help us re-connect with our genuine selves. Our dreams work hard to make us emotionally honest and, as a result, more creative, resilient, and engaged in life. 

By tending to our dreams we pay attention, for example, to our genuine anger, our outrage at the injustice and abuses coming at us from the world. We experience those angry reactions in waking life, but we often ignore and bury them. We may be numb to them because we don’t think we can do anything to make a difference. We feel powerless and treat our anger like an annoying distraction that must be shoved aside. But the fact is, we are hard wired to care about our community, and our anger reflects our drive to protect it from the assaults of those who exploit and harm it. We dream about fire, killing, and destruction when our psyche is consumed with the anger we refuse to express in waking life.

As the psychologist James Hillman reminded us, Aristotle said that a human being is by nature a political animal. If we don’t live out our lives as citizens, as active participants in trying to make life-enhancing communities, we work against our true nature and get sick. Our dreams try to wake us up to our emotions and help us be more fully human. Being human means being concerned with others as well as ourselves—following Darwin’s thinking that human survival has depended on our social and empathetic instincts. As Dacher Keltner explains about Darwin’s message of survival of the kindest, “In our hominid predecessors, communities of more sympathetic individuals were more successful in raising healthier offspring to the age of viability and reproduction—the sine qua non of evolution.”

This contrasts with what he have been taught about natural selection. We learned—and are constantly reminded through our culture's obsession with self-interest—that we evolved successfully by developing a tooth-and-claw and aggressively competitive nature. But that is a misconstrued interpretation of Darwin’s thought. “Survival of the fittest” was not Darwin’s phrase, but the motto of those like Herbert Spencer who wanted to use evolutionary science to justify their racist ideas.

We have been misled about who we are. But science is changing that.

Biology, neurology, and other fields have proven that our greatest strength lies in our ability to empathize and cooperate. We are brilliant and adaptive and creative because we have nurtured ourselves in social groups based on kindness and connection. The concept of the cutthroat, rugged individualist as the heroic ideal is not based on human nature, but on human greed. And greed has been a powerful force in constructing all the pieces that make a society. But ours is not the only option of what a society can be.

We are creatures of the heart. Many aspects of our lives reflect this, even if much of our culture does not. But cultures change, and as scientific evidence about the dominance of our compassionate instinct becomes more mainstream, we will hear more about ideas like “conscious capitalism,” which is defined by a higher purpose than just making money and, according the Conscious Capitalism Institute’s Raj Sisodia, creating a business culture that embodies “trust, caring, compassion, and authenticity.”

People like Sisodia point to our more empathetic future with evidence found in businesses that fared better through the Great Recession by playing by compassionate rules such as not laying off employees. “There is a fundamental shift going on in the culture,” Sisodia said. “It’s not a drastic choice anymore between Communism and capitalism; everybody believes in free markets and free people. The question is how do we refine it? How do we create the best possible kind of free markets and free people?”

The best possible kind of free people are those healthy enough in body, mind, and spirit to enjoy their freedom. Who are willing to develop that well being through emotional honesty. Who value compassion and connection over crass self interest. We owe our survival to our drive to empathize and cultivate the common good. When we get sidetracked from that drive, we ignore our upsets over the exploitation, corruption, greed, oppression, crimes, and assaults that embattle our society in the name of progress and profit. Our dreams take up the fight until we own up to our emotional honesty and no longer need to dream of fire, but instead live out our dreams of a meaningful life. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

THE HOLLOW MEN: The Taxman Declares War on Poets

The Minnesota Department of Revenue says it’s been hoodwinked by a poet and a rock singer, and it wants its money back.

On Tuesday, April 23, 2013, MinnPost published an article about a Minneapolis couple, a poet and rock singer/songwriter, who are living a Minnesota tax audit nightmare because the state doesn’t believe they’re really artists. Their Kafkaesque ordeal reveals the real-life hazards and cultural betrayal of an ideology so narrow that it can only define value—any value—in terms of financial profit. These two artists don’t deserve professional status, the bureaucrats say, because they don’t make enough money off their work (what's "enough" is apparently at the discretion of the taxman): on the books they’re just “hobbyists,” so they shouldn’t write off their expenses.

Poet and college professor Lynette Reini-Grandell and her husband, musician Venus DeMars, are being dragged through the mud to set an example. "I personally am beginning to think it’s part of an attempt by one branch of the state government to discredit arts spending and take back the Legacy money," said Reini-Grandell. Minnesota’s tax-fed Legacy fund supports cultural and environmental projects. 

If it’s a crime for poets, writers, and musicians to not get rich off their creations, then we wouldn’t have heard much more from Mark Twain after he went backrupt. Walt Whitman would have been shut down for being the sluggard that self-published his first two versions of Leaves of Grass rather than waiting for a publisher to launch him. If Wallace Stevens had been cut off from writing poetry before his first book got published at age forty-three (another tinkering hobbyist), he wouldn’t have won that Pulitzer or National Book Award.

The very idea of measuring the value of artistic endeavor on its increasing monetary value and defining “real artists” as those who make formidable and ever-increasing profits can only come from the kind of culture-starved mentality that plagues a hefty slice of the GOP.

For a tax auditor to claim that poets and musicians who are not getting wealthy off their work are mere hobbyists displays a cultural ignorance that runs rampant in our consumerist society. Forced to justify their work, the plight of Lynette Reini-Grandell and Venus DeMars should ring alarms in the head of every parent who reads books to her children at bedtime, every teacher who devotes himself to instilling a love and respect for literature and the arts (and the critical thinking that goes along with it) to the next generation, and every citizen who has a creeping suspicion that there’s more to life than shopping.

The great irony of this story lies in the fact that Minnesota is one of the most cultured states in the nation, with Minneapolis ranked “the most literate city in America” for its wealth of writers, literary publishers, dance, film, music, and visual art, and for having more theater seats per capita than New York. Minnesota bred the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerlad, Sinclair Lewis, Bob Dylan, Joel and Ethan Coen, Garrison Keillor, and Prince. Creative people thrive here and move art in new directions. But according to the Minnesota Department of Revenue, those who aren’t getting fat on their work are just playing around. 

The Minnesota taxmen hell-bent on making an example of Reini-Grandell and DeMars represent a mindset that has hollowed us out. They and their kind prove that the United States is not a haven for creative, innovative spirits or even a democracy—as some artists clearly show us in their stories and images. As Brad Pitt’s character so bluntly states in the final lines of Killing Them Softly, “America’s not a country. It’s a business. Now pay me.”

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Dreaming of Deer

               You vanished
into the dark forest
where I could not follow,
where I longed to follow.

                  —from "God Puts on the Body of a Deer" by Rebecca Baggett

Monday, October 22, 2012

Minnesota's Own John Caddy Reads in Minneapolis

There was a nice crowd for the poet tonight at the "Literary Witnesses" series at Plymouth Congregational Church. Here are a few lines from "Feathered Ears," which appears in With Mouths Open Wide: New and Selected Poems (Milkweed):

     Owl's hunt is so still that when I see a talon flex
     I almost hear long hoarfrost crystals
     break and sift to ground.

Thank you, John, for three decades of more beauty than we can hold.

Jealous Left Us Speechless

Ten days ago, NAACP President/CEO Benjamin T. Jealous gave the keynote address at the 20th Anniversary celebration of the Roy Wilkins Center for Human Relations and Social Justice at the University of Minnesota. It will always be a memorable evening for me. Mr. Jealous, the youngest leader of the NAACP since its founding in 1909, gave the most inspiring speech I have ever heard. Period.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

September 11, 2012

Antonia Felix

In the beginning the hole
was darkness as solid as rock,
rock turned inside out.

Now, the night air drifts empty handed.
No more smoke to curl around nerves
and condense into nightmares,

But this: two
phantom limbs
throwing shadows on the river.

© 2002 Antonia Felix

Monday, June 11, 2012

FATAL REMEDY Book Launch at Minneapolis' Bryant-Lake Bowl Theatre

On June 9, I launched my medical thriller, FATAL REMEDY, with a talk and reading at Minneapolis' Bryant Lake Bowl Theatre. We had a nice crowd who had a lot of great questions afterward. Nothing like a fact-based thriller about naughty psychiatrists and illegal activities of Big Pharma to get an audience interested! Thanks for coming, everyone, and I hope you enjoy the book.

Friday, April 27, 2012

My Debut Fiction

My first published novel, FATAL REMEDY, is a medical thriller inspired by the controversy over anti-depressant drug therapies for children, ethical and criminal issues in psychiatry and the power of Big Pharma.

From the back cover:
When Minneapolis sports psychologist Anthony Robson refers his wife to a psychiatrist for a prescription, he believes he’s putting her in the hands of a trusted colleague. But when she becomes Dr. Clayton Shepherd’s latest conquest, Anthony’s life and family are blown apart. As he plunges into a breakneck mission to shut down a sexual predator, Anthony teams up with state medical board investigator and military medical tech Camilla Black to uncover the string of suicides, broken lives and crimes strewn in the psychiatrist’s wake. Along the way, Anthony and Camilla discover that they’re not alone in a race to strip the psychiatrist of his license to kill.
$16.00 US/$22.50 Can.
Trade Paperback | 331 pages

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tranströmer's Full Universe

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has won the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, which makes it a great day for those of us who have stood in awe of Tranströmer's unflinching depths for decades. We owe that experience to Minnesota's own Robert Bly, who published the first English translation of Tranströmer's work back in the early '70s.

I like to think my Swedish genes make me particularly vulnerable to Tranströmer's quietly innervated universe. Reading Bly's translation for the first time in my twenties reinforced my fragile wiring because the life Tranströmer beholds in objects validated my sense of things. Then, like now, his poems sounded a gong in my pantheistic heart.

After hearing the announcement, I pulled one of my most prized possessions from my bookshelf, Bly's Friends, You Drank Some Darkness, a translation of three Swedish poets, including Tranströmer. I remembered having it with me that hour or so in Stockholm when Tranströmer sat at the table in my friend's apartment in Gamla Stan, chatting with me about Bly (whom I hadn't met) and poetry. I brought a package of books for him that Bly had mailed to me upon my invitation to deliver it to Tranströmer during my trip. I was bold in my correspondence to poets in those days.

Tranströmer signed my copy of Friends that afternoon, thanking me for the package and commenting on the July heat above his signature. I think I served him ice water, but I'm not sure. I know there wasn't any air conditioning in my friend's place, a centuries-old building with wide, shallow staircases and in which, according to the neighbors, Queen Christina once lived. I remember the heat, my nervousness and Tranströmer's delight in seeing the inside of such an interesting building on Västerlånggatan. If I sounded ridiculous trying to talk about poetry, he never let on.

As I read some of the poems in this collection again, I'm more grateful than ever for Tranströmer's universe, in which we're given permission to ponder our machines as sentient companions and promise ourselves that we will stop and look more often:

Excerpt from "Morning Bird Songs"
(translated by Robert Bly)

I wake up my car;
pollen covers the windshield.
I put my dark glasses on.
The bird songs all turn dark.

Meanwhile someone is buying a paper
at the railroad station
not far from a big freight car
reddened all over with rust.
It shimmers in the sun.

The whole universe is full.
The Nobel Academy stated that it awarded the prize to Tranströmer "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality." I'm keeping that on file for the day I find myself in the classroom again, searching for a way to convince college sophomores that poetry matters. "It gives us fresh access to reality," I'll say. Everything is relatively fresh to nineteen year olds, some of them, anyway, so the point may be lost. But if they take notes, they may read it years later, when nothing that is supposed to matter seems to matter at all, and be inspired to look up a poem or two by Tranströmer, which will change everything.

Robert Bly

Thursday, July 14, 2011

July 2011: The Move to Home Sweet Home

HELLO, MINNEAPOLIS--it's great to be permanently back in my hometown!

The Pelli-designed Wells Fargo Center, taken from the top floor of the IDS Center in 2010 while presenting a speech on SCOTUS Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the Minneapolis Rotary Club.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Just Published: A Jungian Perspective on Sofia Coppola's LOST IN TRANSLATION

"Lost in Individuation: Elements of Archetypes and Individuation in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation," my archetypal analysis of the film, has been published in the International Journal of the Image, Vol. 1, Number 2 (Summer 2011). Click here for an abstract and ordering info (print and electronic).

Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) embody each other's soul figures of anima and animus when their paths cross in Tokyo.

From the abstract:

Processing images like those generated by dreams and myth, film can express symbolic language that speaks to universal human issues. Writer/director Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation is rich in symbols that arise on the journey toward maturity and wholeness that psychiatrist Carl Jung called individuation. Several elements of the setting reflect the “de-souled” world that propels us into individuation, such as phony lounge music, karaoke, rock-star video games and a superficial young actress staying at Bob and Charlotte’s hotel. Tokyo skyscrapers and elevators correspond to the mythological idea of the cosmic tree, a symbol of modern humanity’s yearning for connection to its roots in the unconscious. Billboards and Bob’s movies on TV symbolize his midlife crisis—an actor who has sold out to making lucrative commercials and now feels the pull toward more artistic work.

From image to multilayered image, this movie is a dreamlike trip into our deepest foreign territory and all-too-real confrontation with issues we bury at our own risk.

By viewing this film with an eye on the universal symbols that accompany individuation, Lost in Translation becomes even more compelling and primes us to look for similar imagery in other films.