Monday, 23 July 2012

The Dark Knight Saga

Having watched all three movies in Christopher Nolan's take on Batman, it is time to salute what I personally think is the greatest trilogy of all time. A bold statement, I know. With a multitude of trilogies bouncing around, to apply such a tag to it has to be justified, whether it be completely subjective or not and the argument "because I said so" doesn't cut it.

First of all, I am a big fan of Batman. I find the whole mythology of it fascinating, as it is filled with contradictions and ethical dilemmas on a backdrop of action and adventure. I think Batman is the most accessible of all superheroes because he is not a superhero. He's a rich guy, who trained his body and mind long and hard for the task at hand. By that notion, with the right financing, anyone could be Batman. However, Batman was subjected to some bad storytelling. Let's be straight about this, Batman is a vigilante. The fact that he doesn't kill unless he has to doesn't escape the fact that he is a law breaker, acting out of vengeance caused by the murder of his parents. It is the paradox that when a city is engulfed in crime, they have to turn to a criminal to save them. Not only that but his existence spawned more deadly and destructive characters, whether they were reflections or the antithesis of Batman.

However, Joel Schumacher damaged a franchise by trying to camp up Tim Burton's initial gothic entries. Burton's take was satisfying at the time, with the casting of Michael Keaton proving inspired. However, those movies have not aged well. Schumacher's effort is more akin to a crime against humanity, turning a pitch black tale into a kid’s movie. So when Nolan decided to take on this terminal franchise off the back of high quality but not earth shattering movies, such as Memento and Insomnia, hopes were not high. However, I looked forward to the new take on Batman with much excitement. Things could only get better, I thought. Oh if only I had known how much better...

Batman Begins has become the definitive origin story for comic book heroes. From the first hour, you can tell that this is the story of Bruce Wayne, not Batman. Christian Bale doesn't don the cowl for the best part of an hour. Rather it focuses on his training, his motivation and most importantly, his fear. By taking the time to establish this, Nolan seats us comfortably in the journey Bruce Wayne is going to take. We all know that when the mask and cape go on, sooner or later, Batman will win. It is how it will affect the man underneath that becomes our emotional investment in the story. By pitching him against Ra's Al Ghul, Bruce Wayne symbolically battles the evil he so easily could have become. It was a brilliant film and hope was restored in the franchise, with teasers that the Joker was on his way whetting the appetite of me and millions of other fans.

The Dark Knight was a game changer. Described as the "Heat" of comic book movies, it moved away from the fantastical into a murky reality that makes every minute as disconcerting as it is absorbing. In a career defining performance, Heath Ledger's interpretation of the Joker took the Clown Prince of Crime right to the top of the all time villains list. Sure, Darth Vader could strangle you from a different room but the Joker could exist. An absolute madman who wasn't an idiot but a genius, one who was acutely aware of human nature and the frailties within that nature. That is the truly terrifying part of the performance, just how believable it was. We talk about iconic moments for a character and everyone who watches The Dark Knight will remember "I'm gonna make this pencil disappear."

In a cruel twist for our protagonist, the Joker shows Batman that everyone has a breaking point, using Harvey Dent as his trophy. This is torture for Bruce Wayne, who knows that he has been treading an extremely thin line and the Joker is not interested in knocking Batman off it. He wants to keep him on it for as long as possible for his own amusement and the sustained terror of Gotham City. Typically the middle act of any three part story tends to be the best. It is where conflict, darkness and loss are established and the stakes are raised. The Dark Knight did all of these things and seemingly burdened the final act with an impossibly high standard that people thought would not be reached.

They were wrong. In The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan created a final act that raised the stakes even higher. He drew the themes of the first two films together beautifully, embodied in the main antagonist Bane, who exudes the calm control of a Ra's Al Ghul with the destructive desire of a Joker. In a deliberate move by Nolan, none of the main villains have their origin explained because they are irrelevant. The story is not about them, it is about Bruce Wayne. In his grief over Rachel, mirroring the loss of his parents, he has become a broken man but a desire to help leads into a battle with the only opponent who is physically dominant over him. Whilst the subsequent fights are physically brutal, Bruce Wayne finds that his struggle is symbolical of the path he must take psychologically. He must no longer be the fearless warrior and cut himself loose of the rope of responsibility that keeps him trapped.

All of this is wrapped up in an epic tale that soaks us in a stunning spectacle that never sacrifices the story to do so. The Dark Knight Rises is a revolutionary tale turned on its head, where the oppressors rather than the oppressed rise up and overpower the city. It is elevated to a terrifying scale with Tom Hardy delivering a performance of balanced menace. At all times, you're convinced that Bane is in control, that nothing fazes him and that even bumps in his plan will just be bulldozed over. All of the cast turn in stellar performances, with Michael Caine's Alfred worthy of the top mention as the emotional core of the film, where most of his scenes are heart breaking yet beautifully portrayed. It is a finale that is satisfying and leaves enough ambiguity as to what happens next, so that people will talk about it for years until Warner Bros do something with the franchise.

Quite simply, all three parts are different but brilliant. A definitive beginning, middle and end are offered to the story of Bruce Wayne. None of the parts sag in any way, something that can't be said of most other trilogies. I could easily pick out the problems with all the obvious competitors for the Top Trilogy crown but I won't. Instead, I think we should salute the mastermind behind it all. Christopher Nolan is the greatest storyteller in the film industry right now. He is what Spielberg was, he is the franchise, the name you put at the top of movie poster and people will go to see it. Remember, he also gave us Inception in between making the Dark Knight saga, which is also a mind blowing piece of work. Whatever Nolan makes next, I will be there on opening night to see it. For now though, he should bask in the glow of making the finest trilogy ever. Oscar may not pay him with same reverence, no matter how much it is due, but the movie-going public, the box office and history will testify the monumental storytelling feat Christopher Nolan has pulled off. The Dark Knight has truly risen above all.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Objectivity Hypocrisy

Men are after only one thing or so I am told. It's normally true. I am only ever after one thing from a woman but try as I might, women don't seem all that keen to make me a sandwich. Apparently that is not what they mean though. Men are only after a woman for her body; that is what they actually mean. It is a term to show disdain at the male half of the species and I can understand that. No one should be objectified. People have minds, feelings, hopes, dreams and personalities. It is a view that not only has merit but is completely true and while some girls throw it out as a cheap insult, the objectification of women is a repugnant notion that ladies should not have to endure.

However, recent events have undermined this principled position courtesy of the behaviour of women. When men indulge in the viewing of pornographic material, they are generally met with the disappointment of women, especially if they are in a relationship with that man. It is a fair point since it can be construed as the first steps to cheating or sending a message that he is not satisfied with the relationship. There would be nothing more degrading than being in an emotionally involved relationship than for one party to turn around and admit that they want to just have non-committal intimacy with someone else. No matter how you dress it up as a bit of fantasy or fun, that is a cruel blow to the person who invested their heart into your happiness. This is a crime usually considered to be the domain of men. Well, the tables are turning...

I refer to the recent slew of sexualised fads that are primarily aimed at women and the soaring popularity of them. It started with the Twilight series. While the book series featured no erotic material whatsoever, the false romanticism it encouraged meant that some women would start measuring men up against characters in the book. Some women even took to saying "You need to read Twilight and learn some things from Edward Cullen." It was a flippant remark but every joke has a trace of truth or opinion in it. Why can't a man just be himself? Women would hate it if we did such a thing to them. It is the beginning of a hypocrisy of the objectivity of men, something that is just as insidious as men objectifying women.

It has continued with the massively successful Fifty Shades trilogy of books. For those who don't know, the book is fan fiction from the Twilight series. It focuses heavily on the BDSM relationship of the main characters and I am reliably informed that it is explicit in its detail (no, I haven't read it). Erotic novels have existed for a long time but never before has such a thing become a phenomenon, especially one that promotes the idea of using supposedly controlled violence as part of intimacy. It is dismissed as a bit of fun but the reality is that this is pornography. Just because there are no pictures doesn't justify it. Ironically, it is a novel that probably objectifies women more than men but by embracing it, surely women are lending validity to the idea that it is acceptable to objectify someone.

As this phenomenon sweeps the offices of our nation, it is surely no coincidence that a movie about male strippers comes out. Obviously such a movie is going to be aimed at women who want to see a bit of eye candy, where as the movies aimed at men in 2012 are superhero movies and action films, a number of them portraying women as strong, intelligent characters. This doesn't mean that men are suddenly saints. I have no doubt that too many of them are looking at media that objectifies women but I don't think we should approve of it from either side. My point is that it used to be believed that such objectification in the media was purely aimed at men, sexualising young female stars in the music, TV and film. It is no longer the case. Media markets now actively target women with similar material and they are embracing it openly after condemning men for doing the same thing.

It is not prudish to think that we should more of each other. I remember arguing that a builder wolf whistling at a woman was just him being complimentary about her looks and how on earth could that be construed as a bad thing. The woman in question then put something to me that I never thought about. She said "If he liked what he saw and wanted to know more, he would have come and talked to me. By standing up on the scaffold and leering and whistling at me, he had told me that he had got pretty much what he wanted from me." She's right. The builder didn't care that she had a Masters Degree, loved rock music or that she had an unhealthy addiction to Haribo. His thoughts ranged from "She's hot" to "I would" and no matter how you try to paint it, that is a crude way to think of a human being. No one should be thought of as a poster or a play thing.

This was a boundary that was typically enforced by women but now more and more are abandoning their post. Some will say that men do it, so why can't women? Well, just because one group does it wrong doesn't mean you should jump in. If we all took that attitude, we would live in a far more depraved society, not a more liberated one. So women should not be ashamed to stand their ground and tell men that they should value their minds first. However, they become hypocrites when they think they can demand this of men when they are busy objectifying men also. I don't say this to gain permission for a pernicious practice. I say this because I think we should all strive for an end to objectivity and hypocrisy.

It is time we valued each other for who we are, human beings and not human things.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

One Mistake

"You spend your entire life doing good but if you make one mistake, the world will use that to define you."

A profound quote but this not from some Nobel Peace Prize winner or literary great. This was a line spoken to me by a good friend, who is also a hero of mine. He is a man of integrity who I struggle to think if he has ever done something wrong in his life. Sure he is not perfect but if I look back on my life and it mirrors his, I'd die very happy. It made me wonder what made him say it.

Maybe he saw something in me. My mind was doing a heavy bout of self doubt when he blurted it out because you know who is the best at using indiscretion as a measuring stick? Ourselves. Flagellation, in a metaphorical sense, is such an easy thing to do that I have to believe that, for some people, it is a default position. I'm one of the worst for it. For all my supposed bravura, I am my own worst critic. I have three books published and even when I get good reviews for them, I still wonder if people are just being nice or whether they are actually any good. It is a stupid thing to think that my writing is deficient because all the evidence suggests otherwise. As I write this, my blog has received over 5,000 views from over 20 different countries. If that is not an endorsement that there are plenty of people out there who like what I write, then what is? There are more than enough distractions on the Internet that people do not need to persistently visit my blog to read my thoughts. They clearly do it because they like what is on here and yet I am filled with doubt. Stupid, I know.

However, I know I am not alone in this and it not just an internal thing. We love to pass on this deficiency of self worth on to others by defining them by their mistake. Let me give you a classic example from history. Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States. What do you think of first? Watergate, right? A political scandal like the world have never seen, where power, influence and dirty tricks where exposed as the tools of the White House. "I am not a crook" has become the defining phrase for the man unflatteringly nicknamed 'Tricky Dicky'.

Yet very few people remember that it was Nixon that ended US involvement in Vietnam, opened diplomatic relations with China and improved relations with Russia. This is the man that ended segregation in southern US schools, presided over Apollo 11 and started wars on drugs and cancer. Even reading all those facts, it will not matter. With time, you will join the masses of condemning him for his error. Yes, he abused his power. Yes, he lied. Yes, he was wrong but is it fair to forget all the good he did? Wouldn't it be fair to have a balanced opinion of him? It doesn't matter if we should because we don't have a balanced opinion of ourselves, so why would we extend that privilege to anyone else?

Those who work in offices know how demoralising a performance review can be. Corporations and management dress them up as constructive criticism but the reality is that they are meetings where your mistakes are listed and analysed. Typically your successes are skipped over swiftly. If you take a driving test, they do not care that you drove perfectly for 99% of the time. If you made one major mistake, even if it is your first in all your time driving, you fail the test. It is brutal regime where survival of the fittest is applied to egos and self esteem.

This is the one mistake we as a human race should change. We should stop defining people by just what they do wrong. I am not suggesting we should be naive about this and only see the good in people. Sure, Hitler rebuilt the German economy but that doesn't mean we should forget his ultimate role as leader of the Nazis and genocidal madman. This is not about trying to homogenise the horrors of the world. This is about thinking more about ourselves and subsequently more of others. We would be slower to assume the worst in people and we would be less cynical.

In fact, we'd come to realise just how great we are but then maybe that is what we are afraid of. Lower expectations come with smaller disappointments. Yet we forget as we crawl into our shell that lower expectations didn't end racial segregation, build bridges between enemies or put a man on the Moon. When we stop defining people by the one mistake they make, we tell them it is OK to make a mistake because when you do, an original thought may come along, something that may change a tiny thing or everything, as long we pursue it. Then greatness beckons because there is no greater way to be defined than as someone who conquered the mistakes they made.

The one mistake to be ashamed of is the one you don't overcome.

Monday, 2 July 2012

The YSA Convention

For those who have no clue what a YSA Convention is, this is not for you.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I feel it is time to share my insights with regards to this particular institution, since I have some experience in this particular field. I have been involved in the conception, consultation or organisation of five conventions and I am blessed to say that all have been very successful. For years though, I found myself frustrated that those who were in authority would not listen to me regarding these things. I thought of myself as someone whose opinion might be worth listening to, that may have merit. Well, it was ignored for years. I had sat on a series of convention ideas that were pretty much ignored. Fortunately I found extraordinary people in Liverpool to organise one of my ideas, which was a flash mob convention and they made it into something special. However, the concept was far more developed than a mere title and four word synopsis. It is here that I wish to share my opinion that turned into the vision I had regarding these weekends.
  • The primary focus should be improving social networks
Conventions are sometimes promoted as purely spiritual weekends but this is an incorrect view. They should be uplifting and have a strong spiritual element but that is only to supplement and enhance the real reason that people attend these things. The fact is that what you do over the weekend becomes arbitrary if people don't make new friendships and strengthen existing relationships. If you walk away from such a weekend having made new friends, then you feel like it was a good weekend and worth the money. Spiritual weekends should be a weekly experience, namely by attending church. Getting the YSA to pay to attend a church meeting extended over a few days is not only pointless, it is somewhat disrespectful to their respective wards. Everything a convention does should be built around the idea of helping people make and strengthen friendships.
  • Friendships are most effectively created by sharing unique and memorable experiences
A convention should be something people talk about afterwards and it should be something that the attendees can't or don't organise off their own backs. So if it is just two dances and laser quest, newsflash boys and girls, YSA do those things all the time. They will not talk about that for long. It will be forgotten in a weekend. YSA should be creative enough to use a weekend to create a convention that offers something unique. With the flash mob convention, it was very simple. Not a lot of people have been involved in a random dance routine or ad hoc street choir but once they are, it is something those who participated in will share as a spine of their friendship. Now I am not suggesting that every convention should be a flash mob convention. I am saying that each convention should offer something different and people should never be afraid to try something new.
  • Member's homes should not be used as sleeping stations
This is a notion that has carried on since Youth Conventions and it is not acceptable. Youth Conventions need to use member's homes for the protection of the children involved but once the attendees are adults, it is not right for any local member to open their doors to four or five strangers who say they are members of the church. Irrespective of it saving money, even church members can do stupid things and members should not be exposed to this risk.

Ideally, conventions should follow the same format as other conventions. The adults attending it should really take care of their own accommodation or the convention should be offering something. Sleeping at member's homes is a childish notion for the adults attending and overly demanding of the members. By providing more private places to stay, there is also a place for the YSA to get ready for any events through the weekend. Sure, the cost will be higher but it is time that we stopped playing the poverty card. Bishops and Wards can support those YSA who can't afford to attend and Centres for Young Adults can fund raise or pay for concessions.
  • Dances need to be smarter than usual
Dances are done almost every weekend. They generally lack imagination and increasingly they represent the complacency of activity organisation among YSA. So when it comes to a convention weekend, any "dances" should be something more than just a dance and calling it a formal dance does not count. That is just playing the same tunes but making us dress up in suits and dresses. That is utterly pointless and no one will talk about it. Remember, it has to be unique or special.
  • They should be YSA specific
This is more aimed at leaders and organisers of these conventions. Gathering YSA in a large group and then speaking about a topic that they are likely to hear in their own wards defeats the purpose of having them together. Conventions are an opportunity to guide the YSA culture in a righteous direction but it should always be done in an uplifting manner. Take General Conference as an example. The general sessions are usually gentle but plain speaking in their rhetoric. The blunter material is saved for meetings like Priesthood session.

However, they shouldn't stray into the areas that are light in scriptural support. So a Sunday session shouldn't be about dating. However, it should be about things that are relevant to the YSA, whether it be marriage, education or whatever else is relevant at the time. They should be attended by a Seventy or better. These conventions are attended by several hundred of the future leaders of the church in one of the toughest regions for religion. There is no better time to train them and they should be well prepared. Too often I have seen leaders, whether it be in Sunday session, a fireside or a lesson, just wing it. That is not acceptable. It demonstrates that the YSA are not a high priority. After the Youth, they are the highest priority, as they are the future leaders and parents.
  • A national calendar should be agreed in advance
Conventions can be great but you can have too much of a good thing. The problem is when they start to clash or even end up too close to each other. In my personal opinion, there shouldn't be more than 6 in the UK in one year. That equates to one every two months, for those with lousy maths skills. Also, a lot of YSA are students and most Universities tend to have their exams around the same time. Having a convention near to something as important as that sends the wrong message and is a distraction.

As a side note, it might be worthwhile considering a central website to advertise all conventions. It is all very well using posters and Facebook but the church has websites for everything else. A page with various tabs for all the approved conventions for the year would make things a lot easier, rather than the individual committees feel like they are carrying the burden of promoting their convention alone.

  • AOB
An item any Executive Secretary dreads... any other business. So I'll make this quick.

Conventions should be well documented and easy to share on social networks. Everything we do can turn into an opportunity to bring the name of the church out of obscurity. So there should be photos and videos a plenty from these weekends.

A database of YSA skills would be useful. This could also be kept on a YSA convention website.

For those who don't know, Sacrament should not be done at a conference. It doesn't happen at Stake or General Conference, so don't sulk because it is not done at YSA Conferences either.

Sneaking into Conferences or helping someone to do it should be subject to church discipline. If you steal tithing money, you will be in severe trouble. I'm not suggesting it is the same level of sin but it is still stealing from the church. Turning a blind eye to it or shrugging it off breeds a bad attitude that will only get worse down the road.

Age limits should be observed. People will say that there should be a few days leeway but they are wrong. God doesn't say "Oh you're 7 years and 363 days old, that's close enough, go ahead and get baptised." If you're under 18 or over 31 on the first day of the convention, you should not be attending it, unless you are helping the running of it in some way (a first aider, for example).

YSA's behaviour during the convention is their problem and not the responsibility of the organisers of the convention. If a YSA acts irresponsibly or dresses immodestly, it should be on their peers to correct them, not the organisers. YSA who are unwilling to act and try to delegate it to leaders are just being cowardly.
  • Conclusion
In conclusion, I gave a lot of years to these things. I can honestly say that they didn't give much back. In my time, I endured slanderous accusations, unfair criticisms and I even received three death wishes/threats. The people who take the time and effort to organise these things should always be appreciated. Sure, you don't have to like what they do and you are allowed to not like their ideas but if that is the case, show some respect and share those feelings with them privately and diplomatically. If your reasoning is sound and your rhetoric is genuine, they won't take offence, provided it is with the intent of improving things and not your moaning because the weekend wasn't all you thought it would be. I could praise and criticise individual conventions here if I wanted to but that would achieve nothing but offend the organisers.

Conventions should be uplifting and improve social networks. I believe The Genesis Project, held in Liverpool in 2012 was an example of how conventions should be done. Sure, no convention is perfect but it was unique, memorable and creative. That is what all conventions should aspire to and when they do, they won't just change weekends, they will change lives by giving everyone the key to a strong friendship; a shared experience instead of a distraction.