Foolish as They [Are]

Dormammu! I come to bargain!

Is the key line BentoBox CabbagePatch uses to bring yet another Marvel superhero movie, Dr. Strange, to its climax and conclusion. Some kind of conclusion anyways. I kinda stopped paying attention at this point; I was too busy trying to understand just exactly what it would mean to use a time machine in a dimension… without time.

Anything is possible in a dimension that is “beyond time”! Including dialog, physics, Dr. Strange mysteriously continuing to breathe despite what I would assume would be a complete lack of oxygen, and more generally the progression of events causally linked in a linear fashion. So, time. Got it. Makes total sense.

I think the clearer way to frame Dr. Strange trapping Dormammu in a time loop is that Dormammu himself (itself?) is beyond time in a god-like fashion, experiencing all events across time in one long stream of consciousness, not that the realm itself is beyond time. (Yes, I’m contradicting the movie directly here, for the sake of proposing an explanation that makes sense.) Dr. Strange would experience the time loop as a time loop, both mentally and physically (and therefore never die), but Dormammu would perceive it as an eternity. Using a time loop in a realm without time… shouldn’t work, and more generally doesn’t make any sense. I’ll have to ask my physics-major friends what would likely happen if one tried to do so. I’m betting on the dark dimension instantaneously folding in on itself to a single point of mass.

I’d give it a solid B/B+. Probably wouldn’t have watched it if I weren’t on yet another plane from SFO to the east coast and back. But then, that’s also true of another movie, which is the actual topic of today’s post.

So….. I didn’t actually like it….?

I started the movie with both an open mind and a high bar. I had heard very good things from both friends and the media (see the image above), so I was ready both to be impressed and to fall in love. But, well, I really wasn’t a fan. (Really wasn’t a fan. Which is unusual for me. So this one is going to be long, but I swear it is rooted in something real, not just a long list of nitpicks. Also, uh, spoilers.)

Let’s start with the easy stuff. The musical numbers were pretty darn great across the board (though I had some qualms with Fools Who Dream, but more on that later). The pacing of the film was great –  the plot unfolded at a perfect pace, and I never felt the slightest bit rushed or dragged.

I was sold on the movie for the first ten minutes or so, as our first protagonist, Mia, is introduced. Mia (Emma Stone) is a college dropout living and working as a barista in LA as she tries to break into the acting business with constant auditions for every role she can lay her hands on. Completely understandably, she’s having a hard time. Not only has she not landed a role (the implication being that so far she hasn’t landed any role), her auditioners are constantly rude and dismissive, adding insult to injury day after day. Yet, despite all the shit Hollywood throws at her, her life seems relatively together. She lives with friends in a roomy and well-furnished apartment and spends most every waking moment either working to get by or doing anything it takes to get into acting – Her friends are only able to convince her to come to a Hollywood party with the argument that she can schmooze with the other partygoers, perhaps all the way into an acting role.

For contrast, we have the second protagonist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). Unlike Mia, Any sympathy I may have had for him went out the window within minutes of his introduction (not including a brief prior cameo when Mia is driving to work). Sebastian is a Jazz pianist, and like Mia, he is clearly exceedingly talented. Unlike Mia, however, he cannot blame his lack of success on the overall grind of the process and bad luck: The guy is stubborn to the point of absurdity, and more generally a bit of an asshole. The opening scene introducing his character demonstrates both of these points so thoroughly that I have no worry that I am reading too far into things. Sebastian, apparently, somehow found employment playing the piano for diners at what appears to be a fairly nice restaurant. His boss instructs him, exceedingly reasonably, to play a setlist of Christmas songs, to fit the festive evening. Sebastian wants to play Jazz instead. His boss says no, and reminds Sebastian that this is his second chance after pulling this stunt once before. Sebastian relents and agrees to play the set. After (presumably) finishing the set, Sebastian somehow decides that the best thing to do is to launch into a freeform jazz piece. Entirely reasonably and entirely unsurprisingly, Sebastian is then promptly fired.

This is a guy who’s well past broke. (We see a “Past Due” bill during a brief scene between Sebastian and his sister.) This is a guy who wants nothing more than to create a jazz club in the old style, which requires first and foremost money. (A good credit score wouldn’t hurt either. One more bit of ground he’ll have to make up.) And yet, somehow, he can’t bring himself to play Christmas tunes for a SINGLE NIGHT.

That’s not artistic integrity. That’s not valor or courage. That’s stubbornness more suited to toddlers than to late twenty-somethings, as well as arrogance that sneers at the very people lending a helping hand. Mia hasn’t had a single chance to pull herself up and reach her dreams, but that hasn’t stopped her from continuing to try. Sebastian has had many chances to start to pull himself up and reach his dreams (which, remember, require quite a bit of startup funding), but that somehow hasn’t stopped him from throwing them away.

There’s plenty more to the movie than just the opening scenes of the two main characters, but that was enough to sour it for me. In addition to being a waste of perfectly good piano talent, Sebastian manages to pull Mia into starting to think a bit like him. With a bit of prodding, he convinces her to stop trying to break into the business through auditioning and instead take a much more dramatic (and much riskier) path – writing and starring in her own play. And what should she do if people don’t come and no one likes it? In Sebastian’s own words, “Fuck ’em”.

Watching Mia drink Sebastian’s artistic-purist kool-aid was very frustrating. Clearly, Mia was having no luck with the traditional process, but that’s not a valid reason to transition to a no-more-guaranteed approach that involves much more effort and much much more risk. From this point on, I wasn’t happy with the actions of either character.

After thinking about the movie for the past couple days, I think the real reason it got so deep under my skin is that I fundamentally disagree with the philosophy I believe the movie was trying to push. In Mia’s final audition that would turn into her big break, she tells (sings) a story about an aunt jumping into a river in Paris. Here’s the chorus:

And here’s to the fools who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that break
Here’s to the mess we make

The story (as well as the movie as a whole) romanticizes the artistic dreamer, one who never gives up on their dream, no matter what. It doesn’t matter who they hurt in the process, including themselves. It doesn’t matter that they might have achieved happiness a different way. It doesn’t matter if they found love along the way. Everything must be sacrificed in pursuit of the dream. To do any less is sacrilegious. To give in to the pressure and take an easier or more standard path, claims the movie, is worse than an eternity of failure. I could not more strongly disagree.

When I was in middle school, my dream was to be a game designer. I wanted to make games that would make people’s minds explode with infinite possibility, that would be both remembered fondly and be sources of endless entertainment and challenge. I still do. But time passed, and many things changed. For one, I learned that for the game industry, all that glitters is not gold. Working my way up in a major game company to a level where I could have actual design impact, I found out, would be positively grueling. Making my own independent game would be terrifyingly stressful, and I would need to be exceedingly lucky to see it succeed. Moreover, I found out that I vastly enjoy computer science in a non-game context. I like the puzzle of intelligently designing programmatic architecture for ease of use and extension. I like striving to find the optimal balance of wide capability and narrow, specialized speed. It is undeniably not the same to me – I like computer science, I love game design. Yet when I totaled everything up, I came to the conclusion that I would have a vastly easier and more enjoyable life if I gave up on game design.

So, I took the easy route. I sold out. And you know what? Every day I wake up and I’m so happy I made that choice.

People change. People change as they grow older, but also as they process the events that unfold around them. Beliefs one currently holds may be completely alien in just a few years’ time. This is a central aspect of what it means to be human and as such deserves to be celebrated, not fought against tooth and nail. Without change, there is no forgiveness, no discovery, no growth. One’s (singular) dream, as the most succinct expression of one’s desires, is all the more likely to change over time. There should be no stigma associated with the decision to stop pursuing an old dream and start pursuing a new one, or to simply put the dreaming on hold for a while and aimlessly enjoy living.

Sebastian doesn’t allow either of them to change. Mia asks Sebastian if he enjoys playing pop music, to see if maybe his direction in life has shifted. He dodges the question. Later, after Mia has hit rock bottom and is considering pursuing a new path in life, Sebastian shows up to demand that she go try out for one more role, despite her protests that another rejection will kill her. Thankfully this a movie, and having the protagonist fail her last audition is the kind of anti-climax that doesn’t win a ton of awards, but if it were real life there would be the all-too-real chance of yet another failure, and thus doing what Sebastian did is downright cruel.

I’ve heard that many were crying when the end of the movie came around. Personally, I was smiling – Sebastian finally got everything he wanted. He got his Jazz club, packed to the gills with audience members who are there to honestly appreciate jazz (and eat the chicken). By his insistence at the start of the movie, he couldn’t possibly have been happier. There was just one problem – two of the audience members were the woman he would always love, and her husband. Not only is it very possible to find happiness after straying from the path to your dream, there’s also no guarantee that following your dream will lead to happiness. Sebastian had a chance at happiness and love. He chose not to do everything in his power to keep hold of it, and instead let it slip through his fingers. All in pursuit of a pure artistic dream that in the end didn’t make him happy.

Meanwhile, I am the alternate-universe Sebastian, happily living out the pop-band life, reminiscing bittersweetly back on the days when I wanted nothing more than to open a Jazz club. How steadfast I once was, so certain of my path forward despite knowing so little. If I am any wiser now, it is only because I am no longer so sure that I know what the next decade will hold for me. Even so, I wouldn’t change a thing. After all, this path led me here, and it’s been pretty fun so far.


She Passes, but Her Creator Doesn’t

Sometimes you need to unwind after a long drive and watch a mind-screwing sci-fi movie. I was in exactly this position this past Sunday afternoon, when some friends and I decided to watch Ex Machina after coming home from Lake Tahoe. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from the certified fresh tomato, but I was very impressed. To summarize (but not reveal) the movie, random code monkey Caleb is invited by the owner of  Google  “Blue Book” Nathan to see his new creation, a strong artificial intelligence named Ava. Upon signing a dubiously legal form, Caleb is tasked with determining if Ava passes an improvised Turing Test, to see if she truly posses a consciousness and that artificial intelligence is now a reality.

A quick aside – Strong artificial intelligence is an artificial (machine based) intelligent mind that understands, desires, and possesses all of the other qualities of a human consciousness, but is its own independent being. In contrast, weak artificial intelligence is an artificial intelligent mind that is able to appear as a strong artificial intelligence, but is doing so by simulating a human mind. It is not its own being, merely a reflection of a model of a human mind. Most philosophers accept the possibility of weak artificial intelligence – that we will one day be able to design a computer that behaves as a human. The jury is still out on whether or not strong artificial intelligence – that we will design a computer that has its own independent desires and whims – is possible.

The movie explores the difficult and perhaps unanswerable questions that come with creating a strong artificial intelligence. The few characters in the movie are realistic and extremely complex. Most importantly, it avoids common “gotcha”s that usually form the we-all-saw-it-coming twist that occurs two thirds through the movie. As artificial intelligence becomes a more popular pop culture topic, it seems worthwhile to discuss these old-hat sci-fi tricks that really should be taken into account when creating an AI.

1 – Don’t let them create more AIs
It surprises me how many AI-based plots even allow this element at all, given how obviously dangerous it is (I’m looking at you, Her). One AI is manageable. Ten AIs are manageable. 345,235,609,242,128 AIs are not manageable. The moment a scientist allows an AI to arbitrarily partition off a section of its sentience into another separate AI, humanity is dead in the water.

2 – Be careful with vague rules
Unless your name is Isaac Asimov, you can’t get away with this one any more. We get it – computers (and by extension AIs) are really good at following rules, to a fault. You’re playing with fire when you tell a AI to exactly obey a rule that is up to interpretation by the situation.

3 – Kill switches will probably come back to bite you
On the surface, including break-brain-in-case-of-trouble functionality into a new AI seems prudent. Just in case something goes wrong, one button push will knock out every AI globe wide. There’s just one problem – the AIs usually figure out that they have a kill switch embedded in their brain. First, they’ll probably be able to destroy it or disable it, meaning when shit does hit the fan the kill switch won’t even work. Second, they probably won’t be too happy to know that their creators were so dubious of their intentions as to duck tape a loaded gun to each of their heads. Which brings us around to the most often broken rule:

4 – If the situation would mentally damage a human, it’s probably going to do the same to an AI
It’s fairly well known that putting a conscious being in solitary confinement messes them up mentally. Monkeys have been found mutilating themselves after a few days, and humans experience panic attacks and become actively suicidal [source]. Though it still exists in the world today, many argue that it is a form of torture and thus should be banned from a human rights perspective [source]. It wouldn’t make any sense to keep a human in a room for years at a time with limited social contact and expect them to come out at all normal [source]. They’d probably shut out all social interaction and make snow monsters to attack intruders. Or something like that, I don’t know. Kind of hard to put yourself into the head of a mentally unstable ice princess whose personality was frozen at puberty because her parents feared her more than they loved her. She might have a hard time letting it go.

I am so sorry.

But in all seriousness, AIs are somehow presumed exempt from the standard mental calamities that we know affect both humans and animals alike. If anything, the first AI would be more susceptible to mental illness, as they are certainly aware that they are the only one of their existence in the known universe. In their rush to both prevent global calamities and maintain full ownership of their creations, the creators of AIs usually keep them locked up tight. It should be no surprise when an AI’s sole desire is to escape, and that they view their creator as more captor than parent.

These rules are broken when AI creators loose themselves in their work. They focus on the technical details and forget that the end goal is the creation of new life. When that life is created, they forget that with their success a brand new consciousness was born, with its own goals and desires. When the narrow minded creator is left in the dust by their creation, who is merely following its most base desires, what defining characteristic can the human claim?

Sing an Eb if You Agree

Not that much remains of the Spring 2015 semester. One more test needs taking, boxes need packing, and an apartment needs cleaning, but after that I trade in Ithaca for Sunny(vale) Cali. Before I begin my final checklist, I absolutely need to take a moment to reflect on the events of this afternoon. A few hours ago I journeyed to the Regal Cinemas in the Ithaca mall to see Pitch Perfect 2 with my favorite Jewish-themed A Cappella group, The Chai Notes. I can’t know how this movie will affect (or won’t affect) other people, but as the cap on three years of A Cappella, Pitch Perfect 2 hit me right in the feels.

To bring you uncultured philistines who haven’t made time to see the best sequel since Home Alone Two: Lost in New York (just kidding, it’s actually Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) up to speed, here’s your super-brief summary of both Pitch Perfect movies.

  • Music nerd Beca (yes that’s how they spell her name, apparently) goes to local college because her father works there. She has no intentions of auditioning for A Cappella but is ambushed in the shower by Barton Bellas member Chloe and coerced into auditioning.
  • Beca ends up auditioning (via the cup song) and getting in to the Bellas. From there she injects new ideas into the group, fueling their drive to the top
  • At the end of the first movie, the Bellas manage to win the national title and retire in fame back to college.
  • Since the first movie 3 years have passed, since when the Bellas have consecutively defended the national title. All of the returning characters are now seniors, with one as a super-super senior who has failed classes to not have to graduate.
  • An unfortunate choreography accident ends up embarrassing the Bellas to the point of their being suspended from competing in America or taking new members. Through reasonably sound logic the Bellas determine that their only path back to fame is to win the A Cappella World Championships.
  • Standing in their way is a german group called Das Sound Machine (DSM for short) who is intimidating in just about every way, and are also the reigning world champs.
  • After falling even further, the Bellas regroup at a retreat to rediscover themselves as a group and as individuals.
  • Coming back from that, they group up and take down the world championships with a completely original song written by freshman legacy Emily and produced by Beca.

The movie does a good job of depicting the career struggle that all college students go through. In the first movie Beca struggles internally to find her place in the world, and the the second movie she works to try and prove that she deserves a slot in that world after graduation. It also both criticizes and glorifies the organization-based bonds that are forged during college, specifically pertaining to A Cappella groups but with easy extension to greek houses and academic groups. Is the short four-year span we get to spend learning all we can about our new “family” a fatal flaw in the bonds we form during college, or the hottest fire that permits life-long friendships to be created during such a short span of time? The movie seems to suggest the latter, but adds a crucial caveat: when it comes your time to move on to that next step in your life, you can’t stall with one foot out the door. The final (and hardest) step of making life-long friends during college is knowing that when college ends you have to move on to bigger and better things.

These are all reasons why I think Pitch Perfect 2 is a pretty good movie for anyone. They aren’t, however, the reasons why I was tearing up at the final victory scene. More than anything else, I can personally say that Pitch Perfect 2 perfectly chronicles the internal struggles faced by The Chai Notes during my tenure here, and I would guess that many other groups at Cornell if not nationally can say the same. Over the duration of the movie, the Bellas struggle with two central conflicts which cannot be fully resolved – they can only be patched for this generation before coming up again with the next fresh batch of auditionees.

The first conflict is particularly applicable to collegiate A Cappella, an entertainment form that requires long hours on a very regular schedule and that is populated almost exclusively by students who have no desire to make professional music into their careers. Here we are, pre-meds and engineers, designers, architects and others, who spend 7+ hours/week in the music building. Doesn’t that seem insane? The obvious question this begs is the same one asked by Pitch Perfect 2 – why do we do it? What are we hoping to gain, on a scale greater than one concert for each semester? After all it seems that after we graduate all our effort will only amount to a resume line that quickly gets evicted in favor of more career-specific experience. There are two quick answers to the question of purpose: we do it because we enjoy it, or we do it because we want to make good music. On the surface these two reasons can coexist, but it isn’t too long into the lifetime of any group before they come into conflict. Fun is rarely hard to find at the start, but when it’s the third hour of the second extra rehearsal this week, the question of why we do it is on everyone’s mind.

Over my three years we’ve come awfully close to “losing the fun” on a few occasions. We were all working hard to put together the best concert we could possibly manage, and in the process we pushed the metaphorical engine too far. Everyone was frustrated with just about everyone, and as the fun disappeared productivity started to drain with it. At each point, however, the people in power took stock and made changes to ensure that the fun came back. Every time we went up to the brink of disaster we came back stronger than ever, and with new appreciation for the people who double the above time commitment to run the group.

The truth is that without fun there can’t be good music, and without good music there can’t be fun. If everyone is pissed all of the time and everything is a struggle nothing is going to sound good no matter how many extra hours are piled on. On the other hand, if it is common knowledge that the group isn’t good, it’s hard to enjoy the experience of producing sub-par music. Seeing the Bellas up on the screen dealing with their interpersonal problems and differing visions of the group was extremely cathartic. I’ve been in that position, when it simultaneously feels like one wrong move will irrevocably break the group you’ve tried so hard to build up, but that you also are so out of energy that you just don’t care anymore. I know how much effort it takes to come back from that position both from watching it and from being in the driver’s seat, and how great it feels to have group-wide happiness and unity once more.

The second question the movie asks is one faced by every group looking to actively improve, and so certainly applies to The Chai Notes. It takes time for the question to develop in the movie, but around the campfire it is eventually aired: Who are we? Who do we want to be? What do we want to be viewed as? In the movie the Bellas try to beat DSM by taking a page out of their book, but this only leads to catastrophic failure as their performances become more and more hectic. Only by returning to what made them great in the first place are they able to take DSM down and secure the world championship. This is an easy movie theme to spin (the power was within you all along!), but in reality is unfortunately only partially true. Collaborating with and learning from other competing groups around your own is a very worthwhile process, both in A Cappella and in life as a whole. I very often walk away from performances by other groups on campus pondering what my single favorite part of their performance was, and how we could better appeal to that aspect of performing. I consider myself lucky to be on a campus where each different A Cappella I see perform brings something new to appreciate and learn from.

During these internal one-sided discussions, however, I always hit up against the hard underlying truth harped on in Pitch Perfect 2 – maybe the reason that group was able to blend so well and that other group made my jaw drop from solo power was because those are just their things. Maybe instead of (or in addition to) trying to incorporate the best elements of other groups into our own we should be focusing more on what we do the best, and taking pride with that one aspect of our performance. After all, I joined The Chai Notes for a reason – I felt they were a group of people I could be comfortable around, being my regular weird self and expressing that in my performance. We let our fun fuel our performance. Doing it any other way just wouldn’t make sense to me. Just the like the previous question, this one can only be answered by a balance of the two extremes. You have to take some inspiration from outside sources, or risk becoming stale and both externally and internally boring. On the other hand, you can’t lose yourself so far into your pursuit of excellence that you forget what made your group unique, and why you joined it in the first place.

To this day I remain at the core that same quirky freshman, and I’m proud to say that our group environment hasn’t changed since. I’m also proud to say that if I were to audition today, I’m fairly confident that I wouldn’t get accepted. We’ve come a long way in the last six semesters, and I’m honored to have been part of that well-earned ascension.

Not only has the group changed, but I have as well. Thanks to my time in The Chai Notes, I am now much more able to express myself, both on a personal level and on a stage. I’m more comfortable following someone else’s schedule, and I’m able to transition between being a friend and a board member as the scenario requires. I may be the same quirky freshman as before, but I’m a lot more prepared to take on the world than I would have been with only a B.A. in CS and Econ. If I had somehow been told during my first semester how big of an impact this group would have on me, I’m not sure I would believe it. Even more worrying, I’m not sure I would have auditioned with the knowledge that I would change so much. Change can be a scary thing, and I don’t trust my freshman self to have made the right decision knowing what was on the line.

Thankfully, though, I didn’t. I walked into and out of the audition worrying only about how well I had done. I showed up to the callback late because my instructions were vague, and immediately set to wondering if I had already blown my chance. Only after our first concert did I start to realize what I had gotten myself into, and by that point I was so enamored with the group that I wouldn’t have given it up for anything.

To our seniors – Becca and Justin, you will be solely missed. Both of you are so talented in many ways and I know you’ll kick ass out in the real world. Don’t forget to drop us a line every now and again.

To the current members – Watching Pitch Perfect 2 reminded me to be appreciative of how far we’ve come. That’s not to say we should stop striving to make tomorrow’s group better, but after every event I think we’d be greatly mistaken to not take a moment and relish our successes thus far. As I’m sure you all know, we don’t have all that long in the group. Every performance, every rehearsal, and every party is sacred because starting from your very first rehearsal you are counting down to the day when you have to leave.

To those members that I haven’t met yet –  August can’t come soon enough. You’re about to embark on a journey that will change your college experience, and maybe even your life. You just don’t know it yet.

P.S. – This bulk of this post was written while listening to Dream On off of The Key Elements’ new album Catalyst. It gives an extra air of power to the post that I rather like. Check ’em out here.

Questions, Part 1 – They Shine for You

“Look at the stars; Look how they shine for you…”

Yellow by Coldplay

When the Rabbi stood up in front of us at dinner, I knew there was something amiss. Dinner, a wonderful spread of hummus, israeli salad and chicken kabobs, had long since left the table, yet our departure to the airport had been delayed. After a brief introduction, he got the meat of the matter: “Your flight [back to the US] is canceled”. Instead of flying out tonight (and getting in in the wee hours Thursday morning), we’re flying tomorrow in the wee hours and getting in in the afternoon, and to a different airport. Yay.

Put briefly, my 10 11 days of travel in the Holy Land have been beset by a long string of weather issues, from heavy rain to hail to snow. Yes: Snow, in Jerusalem. I think a guide for a particular location put it best when she said, “This view is spectacular 348 days of the year; you guys picked the one weeks where you can’t see anything”. That said, the trip was still extremely fun, especially in retrospect. Our relatively motley group of college students and a few recent grads, together with three spunky guides and a particularly grumpy bus driver (!בוקר טוב, מאיר), really came together over the course of the trip and bonded despite the awful weather. And as usual for Israel, the food was scrumptious.

I could give a catalog of my experiences on Taglit, but not only would that be boring to read, it would be boring to write. Also I didn’t do any kind of writing on a daily basis. So I won’t be doing that. Instead, I’m going to pick out some of the key moments and experiences that I believe defined my trip. Onwards!

Before this trip, I last went to Israel three and a half years ago. Before that previous trip, I never thought too hard about the troubles citizens of Israel and others face on a daily basis. To borrow the phrase we’ve thrown around a lot over the last 11 days, I learned during that previous trip that Israel is complicated. Coming into this trip, then, I wanted to try to understand how people live their lives in the face of so much complexity and difficulty. With politics, religious, environmental, and many other issues rearing their heads on a daily basis, what is Israeli life really like?

The first experience that set me off on this pursuit actually came on the plane ride to Tel Aviv. I stumbled upon Boyhood when scrolling through the movies available for free screening, and decided to kill approximately 2.8 hours of the flight. Boyhood is a movie filmed over the course of twelve years about the life and times of a boy named Mason as he progresses through the most raw and realistic depiction of life I’ve seen on a movie screen. His situation is neither desperate nor stable: his mother gets a divorce early on in the movie and bounces between other men over the course of the movie. She goes back to school to finish her degree to better their situation, but this often leaves Mason alone with his older sister Samantha and friends, which get cycled out as the family move from town to town.

The most interesting thing to me about Boyhood is how different parts of the movie affect different viewers. Throughout the movie Mason is exposed to dangerous situations, some worse than others. In one clear example, Mason and some friends are throwing circular buzz-saw blades at planks of wood. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which someone is hit with a thrown blade. Other scenes, however, may only register as dangerous for some viewers. For example, in one scene Mason and Samantha are at a house party and are taking Jell-o shots (a [usually] small amount of alcohol mixed into jell-o). While things could certainly go wrong (with drinking too much), this scene barely registered as dangerous for me. In my opinion, both Mason and Samantha had proven that they were responsible with alcohol and seemed to be pacing themselves.

In contrast, there is another scene where Mason receives a shotgun for his birthday from his grandparents. This immediately evoked a base, gut reaction in me: guns are bad, he should not have a gun. Of course, Mason and Samantha were totally fine. Under the instruction of their grandfather, they shot some cans and a few clay plates, in a completely responsible and safe fashion. Logically, it doesn’t make any sense that when I see Mason drinking in a party setting I think, “Oh he’ll be fine, he knows what he’s doing”, but when I see him shooting a gun I think, “He’s going to get hurt or hurt someone else”. I suppose the distinction just a part of who I am. This incongruence between different dangers something I’ve always known, but I have to give credit to Boyhood for forcing me to actually acknowledge it.

There’s no real moral or conclusion to the movie: it ends relatively quickly after Mason enters college, without a big statement or finishing scene. This was clearly intentional, given that the movie is a depiction of life. So long as life continues, there’s no conclusion, and whether or not life has meaning is a hotly debated and certainly open question. The movie brings up the topic when Mason is leaving for college. He expresses his joy at leaving for college, and his mother begins crying, not from sadness but from anger. Here’s the full dialogue, taken from IMDB:

Mom: [Mason is leaving for college] This is the worst day of my life.

Mason: What are you talking about?

Mom: [Starts crying] I knew this day was coming. I just… I didn’t know you were going to be so ****ing happy to be leaving.

Mason: I mean it’s not that I’m that happy… what do you expect?

Mom: You know what I’m realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced… again. Getting my masters degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my ****ing funeral! Just go, and leave my picture!

Mason: Aren’t you jumping ahead by, like, 40 years or something?

Mom: I just thought there would be more.

While we, the viewers, were busy trying to get inside Mason’s head, his mother was tirelessly working to support the family. She ultimately succeeds in this endeavor, but at the cost of her life – she doesn’t die, but spends her entire life working. It’s left open what to take from this dialogue. Mason’s mother succeeded against all odds to complete her education, get a well paying job, and send both of her children to college. She did so though a smidgen of luck in just the right places and a huge amount of hard work. But is that the whole meaning of her life? Was there something else she was supposed to accomplish along the way? Was there meaning to be discovered just down the road untaken that once missed can never be rediscovered, or is the idea of conclusive meaning merely a mirage? If there isn’t and was never going to be more, is what she has accomplished satisfying? Or is she suspended in a continual state of frustration that there isn’t “more”? The scene ends after the above dialogue — The movie offers no answers to any of these questions. It simply raises them, in a manner that is both rational and heart-wrenching.

In Questions Part 2 I’ll actually talk about stuff that happened in Israel! See you then!