Friday, May 04, 2007

False Idols

Earlier this week the Turner Classic Movies Channel aired a documentary, Brando. I only watched part of it, on the second night. It was interesting for several reasons and I may view the entire thing when it airs again later in the month. There was some insight about his life away from films, with footage of where he lived in Tahiti and an interview with an adult son from a Tahitian wife, where the son talked about Brando’s desire for tranquility and to be treated just like everyone else. There was a lot of footage with more contemporary actors; Jon Voight was particularly interesting to listen to because he talked about the art in Brando’s acting noting specific details that showcased the approach, and the other stars from The Godfather – Robert Duvall, James Caan, and Al Pacino talked about how much fun it was to make that movie with all the play that occurred among the cast between the takes. And there were interviews with directors, notably Arthur Penn, who talked about Brando’s knowledge of how to make movies, aptly illustrated with an example from The Chase where Brando suggested to Penn that they shoot a fight scene at a lower frame rate so that when it was played back at a more normal rate it gave an animated effect to the scene. Penn said he amplified the technique in Bonnie and Clyde and thanked Brando for giving him the idea.

Much of the bit I saw concerned the “hiatus” Brando took in his acting during the ‘60s, where in many films he seemingly did the movie for the paycheck and nothing else. Here was a guy who transformed the genre of film acting, yet then he either wouldn’t or couldn’t live up to the standard he had set for himself. It is a bit of a puzzle why with his obvious brilliance Brando didn’t seem compelled to push himself in his performances and select his roles more carefully to encourage that result. There was some speculation offered in the documentary that it had to do with the directors - there weren’t other directors like Elia Kazan, who directed Brando in several of the pictures where Brando set his reputation. The argument was that Brando needed somebody to play off who was as willing to push the envelope as he was. Lacking that, Brando had no alternative but to go through the motions; after all he needed the income and he couldn’t do the movie all by himself. It’s also quite possible that he got fed up with the corporate nonsense that goes into making a film. There was some discussion in the documentary about whether Brando became surly and difficult to work with during this period. Certainly, that was the reputation he developed. Then came the Godfather and Last Tango in Paris; the documentary has a good segment with Bernardo Bertolucci about that. Brando had his resurrection. But his acting never again showed the same intensity.

* * * * *

Yesterday Bob Herbert had a column about Paul Rieckhoeff, a veteran of the Iraq War and an articulate spokesman on behalf of veterans. The upshot of the piece is a disconnection between the soldiers and their families, on one side, and the rest of the population, including the federal government, on the other. In the column, Herbert quotes Rieckhoeff:

The president can say we’re a country at war all he wants. We’re not. The military is at war. And the military families are at war. Everybody else is shopping.

Though I’ve not been a soldier and can’t imagine the passion and anguish that war creates, I believe I can understand the disaffection Rieckhoeff and other veterans feel about how they’ve been treated by the rest of us. And while going to war is quite unlike acting, even when it’s Brando as the actor, I believe that Rieckhoeff’s disaffection is akin to the malaise Brando felt as an actor in the 60’s, creating a strong sense of an opportunity squandered.

So I can be sympathetic to Rieckhoff’s view. But it doesn’t change my belief that the war in Iraq was a mistake.

* * * * *

Also yesterday, I attended a conflict resolution workshop aimed at all the academic professionals in the College of Business here. As these things go, I thought this one was well done. The speaker advertised that the session would not really teach us anything new, but would give us a good frame of mind to think about conflict at work and how best to manage it. He delivered on that. Among the points he gave us were these:

(1) Conflict is a regular part of human interaction.

Most people view conflict with a negative disposition, but it can be an opportunity for learning.

One can deal with conflict either through a hard, soft, or principled approach. Any one of these may be the appropriate response, depending on the context.

Some people thrive on conflict and in other cases problems can be intractable so that even with the best response conflict might not resolve.

One further point that came up in the session is worth mentioning. Although we can likely readily acknowledge all four points in the abstract, in practice (this was illustrated through some of the simulations we worked through) many of us think of conflict only in negative terms and only consider a hard approach in response. The hard approach seems to be the first thing that comes to mind.

* * * * *

Via Barbara Ganley’s most recent post (thank you Barbara for returning to your blogging) I found Will Richardson’s recent post, “Technology is the Devil” and Other Observations. It so reminded me of a post not too long ago by George Siemens that I thought something must be in the air. I made some comments at George’s site along the lines of trying to be instrumental to address the issues – conflict resolution if you will. But my frame of mind has changed this week as a consequence of some of the experiences I mentioned above, so I’m going to give a more personal response this time around. Also, I should note that blogging is unlike giving a live presentation to an audience in many respects, though it may share some aspects regarding the care to work through a well thought out argument. Since my focus is my own blogging, it might only imperfectly tie into what Will and George are describing.

I don’t write blog posts as frequently now as I did two years ago, but as of late they’ve been getting longer and for the most part I work harder to get the argument and the telling to my liking. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I started I was bursting. I had a lot of ideas pent up and they had to get out. Through blogging I found a way to release them and out they came. That worked for a while and then I got some positive reaction from a few folks (here’s an example that got my motor going) and that provided some impetus to keep writing and push things a bit. And, of course, there’s learning by doing; time on task matters.

Underneath that, sometimes it’s invisible to me and I think that becomes a problem from time to time, there is a strange interplay between intensity and boredom. When I’m pushing my own ability to write and to make the argument more subtle, more layered, and better paced, well that’s intense – there’s no other word for it. Yet if I’m doing it for a while it starts to feel ordinary even when I’m making progress. It becomes part of the routine, so anyone should be able to do it and all I have to do is convince them of the value in putting in the time and that should be trivial, shouldn’t it? The value is self-evident, or so it seems to me.

Then I start to need those congratulatory messages via email or as comments to my post (“need” is definitely not the right word, read this piece by a graduating senior and see if it rubs you the wrong way to see why “need” is not the right word) because I’ve got to start to convince myself of what should be self-evident and then because my learning has plateaued I start to get bored and then want some ego stroking, in part as a time filler, and now we’re over the edge of the slippery slope and down we go. I can see it happening and I know I should just move on to other work or do some reading I’ve got to catch up on.

But I don’t because I there is a compulsion and it drives me. It’s that first reaction to conflict, in this case a conflict of my own making, with potential readers who don’t find my blog post at all (that theme also seems to be getting a lot of mention these days, for example see this post from webomatica which I found via Stephen Downes’ site) or those who take a look but don’t comment. In thinking about that compulsion, I’m reminded of a line from Sylvia Nasr’s book A Beautiful Mind, where John Nash was asked whether he tried to resist the schizophrenia when it first came to him and he reported that he didn’t resist because it seemed to him like one of his mathematical ideas; they came the same way.

In this post, to give a concrete example, I’m trying to tie to together ideas that might seem far apart – Brando, veterans of the Iraq War, conflict resolution, and promoting learning technology. When I list them like that, they don’t seem to work together well at all, do they? What about my narrative? Is that better? Is the weave tight? I don’t know. I never know. I need somebody else to react to it. That’s not ego stroking. That’s learning. That interaction is a must and it’s why there has to be at least some social aspect. It can’t be pure introspection. And then, of course, there aren’t readers on one side of the line and writers on the other. We’re on both sides and at the same time. So the social interaction has to be more and then I learn that my introspection parallels yours and vice versa and the interaction cascades and it fuels more introspection.

The idolatry is interspersed with the good stuff, the stuff we want to keep and promote. That’s the damning part. It means a period of excitement and creativity will be followed by a period of disillusionment and alienation. The question is not if it will happen; it will. The only question is when. And part of the reason almost certainly has to be that there aren’t a bunch of new friends to go along for the ride. It’s the new friends who fuel our imagination and from whom we learn.

Are those folks we’re trying to convince to use learning technology going to end up being new friends? Will and Barbara seem to have both thought (and maybe they still think this to some extent) that it’s the learning needs of the current generation of students that will impel the teacher to embrace the new approach. I’d look at the learning needs of the teachers. Are they bursting? In that case, we’ve got it made. Are they interested, but with some reluctance? What then is the right way to draw them out? Are they mostly fearful or simply not interested at all? In this case we’re in the role of the Iraq vets and they’re the ones thinking the war shouldn’t have been started. Can we empathize with that? It’s so much easier to think they’re deluded.

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