Haley Littleton

Haley Littleton is a recent graduate in Literary Studies and Communication. In between academic programs, Haley volunteers at Ruminate Magazine as a reader and Marketing Intern and writes for TheoMag. Haley likes to think and write about poetry, philosophy and political theology. You can read more of her thoughts at haleykit.wordpress.com and follow her on twitter @haleylittleton

Andrew Wyeth Painted Me Home

Cover image: “Last Light”, watercolor on paper, 1998 @Greenville County Museum of Art, ©Andrew Wyeth

When I moved out to Colorado from South Carolina, I was embarrassed by my Southern origins. My voice still raised at the wrong inflections, still drew out vowels into two or three syllables. I wanted the sophistication and sleekness of the city, not the cracked feet of my grandmother’s kitchen table surrounded by patterns that died in the 1970s. I wanted a change of scenery. I traded a field of red clay for a vista of cascading mountains.

And then, as I began to be away for longer periods of time, home became this idealized notion. Home was a cool summer evening in the country, with fireflies flitting by that we would catch in Mason jars, as my mother brought out fresh sweet tea with a smile. Then, I would go home, and the humidity would suffocate, the bugs would bite and there was no sweet tea to be found, with all the sounds of nature drowned out by arguing. We didn’t even live in the country anymore; the trees barely hid the encroaching neighborhoods behind us.

 

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A few years ago, on a trip home, my father begged me to go to the local art museum to see an exhibit by his favorite artist. There’s a tradition of amateur painters in my family, one that I was unkindly left out of. My father was taught to paint by my great-aunt. The houses of my family have always been lined by my father’s oil colors, mostly of nature, scenes of places he’s been and seen. I always found it odd that my father was such a talented painter, aside from being an engineer and businessman. I always cherished this secret artistic side of him; it made him much more sensitive to the “aliveness” of the world around him. I think it was that sort of view of the world that he wanted to pass on to me.

I chuckled at the idea of my town having an impressive museum, but his favorite artist was on display, so I trudged along, cursing the humidity as we drove amidst open fields. This was the first time I experienced Andrew Wyeth. I quietly maneuvered among his temperas and watercolors, with my father explaining certain techniques. Wyeth’s concept of home dispelled the idealism and communicated a reality I had forgotten. I wanted to cry right in the middle of the small gallery. My father looked sympathetically at me like he understood and knew that I had grasped the meaning of it.

To this day, he can’t really verbalize how he feels about Andrew Wyeth’s paintings, just that “they feel like home to me.”

The stark contrast of the yellowed land and green growth, light and dark, in Wyeth’s paintings mirrored the dry fields of my childhood, my grandfather’s hands, the decrepit auction house on the side of the road, and the bushes bursting with blackberries behind the train tracks, reminding me that my roots were rugged and dry and tough. But they were real, and that was what mattered. Attachment to reality, tradition, history, the people and places, staying and not running away, seeing the beauty in the ordinary—all these notions fluttered from Wyeth’s paintings into my head, like the lone feather floating amidst a barren field in one of his watercolors. I needed to reconsider home.

What is home and why is an Andrew Wyeth painting the closest I’ve ever gotten to understanding it?

Philosopher James Tuiedo wrote that getting to a philosophical understanding of home requires us to rethink our understanding of safety, fragmentation, and transcendence. At the core of one’s understanding of home is the understanding of identity and self-perception. In our concept of home, we “materialize and territorialize” who we are.

Home is a place where we make dynamic and continuous connections between the past and the present, always reevaluating who we are in light of it. Tuiedo writes:

“Caught in a chiasmic relation of immanence and transcendence, we are assimilated to a dynamic interplay of familiarity and difference, as if we were weaving together threads of nostalgic security and transformative growth.

Ultimately, we understand home through our creative preservation of it.

This sort of creative preservation of home seems to be what Wyeth was getting at. Richard Meryman writes in his biography of Andrew Wyeth that his

“‘truth’ is the essence of objects and people, everlastingly elusive, teasing him forward. He says, ‘I want to get down to the real substance of life itself.’ The route to his goal is realism, because ‘the object is the art, not what I make of it.’

The land itself is the art; the home itself is the art. Perhaps home is the opening of eyes to the present value, rather than what I may construct it to be: the relationships of family members, though sometimes tainted with arguments, yet always abounding in love, and the land that doesn’t ask for much but gives a lot.

How do you understand the land? How do you understand where you live? In Wyeth’s paintings ­­­­­home becomes art. I think this is at the heart of the American Pastoral movement. Not the bucolic, edenic sort of pastoralism that mirrors that of a Thomas Kinkade painting, but a kind that wrestles with the beauty and bone of the land, its hardness and harvest. My problem is not accepting the idyllic beauty of some corners of my home; it’s accepting the yellowed, withering field behind my grandparents’ house that sporadically produced undersized apples and over-ripe berries as a form with value and beauty. It’s accepting the unsavory parts of the cultural heritage I come from. Perhaps that why Wyeth’s paintings stood out to me. The landscapes he painted were dry, hardened, and bare, unyielding from their depiction of a difficult culture, and yet flowing with grace and elegance.

"Winter Fields," 1942. Tempera on canvas, 17 1/4 × 41 in. (43.8 × 104.1 cm).  Whitney Museum of American Art, © Andrew Wyeth

“Winter Fields,” 1942. Tempera on canvas, 17 1/4 × 41 in. (43.8 × 104.1 cm).
Whitney Museum of American Art,
© Andrew Wyeth

My problem is not accepting the idyllic beauty of some corners of my home; it’s accepting the yellowed, withering field behind my grandparents’ house that sporadically produced undersized apples and over-ripe berries as a form with value and beauty.

Is home merely an escape from fragmentation? Tuiedo suggests that if this is our sensation of home, we will continually be disoriented by the changing circumstances of life that embed themselves within our concept of home. If safety is the key concern, can one feel at home when the circumstances are uncertain? If wholeness is the goal, what shall we do when the cradle of we what consider home is broken?

But what happens when one sentimentalizes home? Tuiedo suggests that we may find homeless in the warmth of the hearth and more in the fire within it, the seed of transformation and change. When you try to escape the wildness of home, you lose the true understanding of what it is. Andrew Wyeth was not a sentimental man. In his biography Andrew Wyeth: A Secret Life, Meryman recounts Wyeth’s disdain toward a painter who painted the sea in fluffy pastels. The sea was supposed to be wild and hard, not comforting. He did not have many attachments to people, as his wife Betsy pointed out, but had deep attachments to the land.

We may find home less in the warmth of the hearth and more in the fire within it, the seed of transformation and change.

Andrew Wyeth painted the hardness of the people and landscape of Cushing, Maine. Christina Olsen, who is the poised woman dragging herself across the ground in Wyeth’s Christina’s World, was a woman of intense pride, who would sooner leave the house as a soiled, stinking mess than bow to weakness.

In Walden, Thoreau urges us to seek out the unfamiliar in the home we have grown accustomed to, to find wonder within it, to embrace the wild as a means of disorienting our complacency in our home. Embracing the arguing and the messy relationships, as well as the hardened land, might bring a new level of transcendence that was missed before. As a family friend, Elizabeth Sargent, remembers about Wyeth,

“Andy was always so interested, gulping in all of life. His mind was open and receiving everything, every impression. You could see his imagination in his eyes – far away. With Andy you feel the earth is always new.

Perhaps we can come to see home as a place of continuous newness, a place that simultaneously subverts and redeems itself.

But, ultimately, I found in Wyeth’s paintings, what is home if it is not some sort of love? There is a love for the ordinary, and the love of roots, rugged as they may be, that draws one towards home. It is this sort of love that American pastoralism and Wyeth are trying to communicate, and it is neither a pretty nor an ephemeral love. As Wyeth himself says, “I think one’s art goes as far and as deep as one’s love goes. I see no reason for painting but that. If I have anything to offer, it is my emotional contact with the place where I live and the people I do.”

Wyeth’s art stems from a love of home and a love of the commonplace:

“The hardest thing for a young person is to see romance in the surroundings of the commonplace. We cease to see the quality of an electric stove against a window. If you believe in it, have a love for it, this specific thing will become a universal. Of course, the mundane has got to have a life, but it all depends on how strong your imagination is.

Wyeth’s painting is a mixture of paradoxes: hardness and love, harsh realities and comforting landscapes. It is, as Pete Candler puts it, “the human longing for home and the melancholy alienation of human existence.” But, Candler also points out, Wyeth understood the deepest level of reality: “reality is itself magical.” A world created as good that deserves a response.

This, with Wyeth’s help, is what I have come to see home as: a place of deep metaphor and goodness. If I truly love my home, I will not just love the beautiful, easy parts of it, the parts that overwhelm with grace. I will also love the toughness of it, the parts that are not what we might consider beautiful, and yet are real. Sentimentality is not my struggle with home; I can quite easily do that in my head when I am away. It is about returning and staying and embracing all that comes along with a place. In a sense, I am always returning home, both physically and metaphorically, always trying to creatively preserve it within my memory and writing.

If I truly love my home, I will not just love the beautiful, easy parts of it, the parts that overwhelm with grace.

I perched on the faded front porch, staring at the tattered auction sign across the street, in a place I had avoided for the past six years but found myself happy to be back in. Crunching one of the sweet pickles my grandmother made, I let the juice trickle its salty path down my hand to wrist to forearm before wiping it off. The sounds of a sputtering lawn mower, spring bird, and buzzing gnat serenaded the muggy, warm air. Grandfather bent under the hood of his old Chevy, while my father busied himself with the engine; mother and grandmother made lunch inside. I couldn’t help but feel like a child again, spending a summer day at their house, playing hide and seek at the railroad tracks, picking blackberries that would stain my mouth dark red. This was home. I think maybe this was what Wyeth was trying to get at the whole time.

A Film About Coffee

Haley Littleton and Brandon Loper, the Director of the first full-length documentary on the production and consumption of free trade coffee, had a chat about their favorite drink. 

Haley: The title is short and to the point. Brandon Loper’s documentary is exactly what it sounds like: a documentary about the production, creation, and preparation of specialized coffee. But the film is much more than the ubiquitous title describes. Since it is one of the first films produced about the rise of specialty and direct trade coffee, perhaps it is worthy of such a simplistic title. With “specialty coffee,” the film explores coffee roasters, such as Stumptown and Blue Bottle, who are focusing on high quality direct trade beans and using “slow” brewing processes, like the the syphon, pour over, Chemex and Aeropress.

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Director at Avocados & Coconuts, Loper admits that he usually works on commercials, but he didn’t want the the film to be a commercial about the coffee industry. His main interest in the film is the interaction between coffee lovers and and coffee itself: “No matter the quality of your cup, people who love coffee, love it. Coffee is about people, and people are what I’m interested in ultimately.

Those of us who love coffee have our own fond memories of it. Personally, coffee makes me nostalgic for my childhood, remembering the smell of my father’s coffee drifting throughout the house, signifying the morning before the sun did.

Brandon: A Film About Coffee is a love letter to, and meditation on, specialty coffee. It examines what it takes, and what it means, for coffee to be defined as ‘specialty.’ Through the eyes and experiences of farmers and baristas, the film offers a unique overview of all the elements—the processes, preferences and preparations; traditions old and new—that come together to create the best cups. This is a film that bridges gaps both intellectual and geographical, evoking flavor and pleasure, and providing both as well.

The idea for the film came when I was  introduced to specialty coffee. I was having this “coffee journey” that I had a hard time explaining to most people. I’m from Alabama, and I was used to drinking Folgers with Hazelnut creamer (it’s important to remember where we’ve come from… ha!). I only started drinking coffee in college to impress a girl. It worked; we now have been married for almost 8 years and have an adorable little 15-month-old girl, Eleanor Olive.

Haley: Being well acquainted with Alabama (not to mention, I started drinking black coffee to impress a guy, but that is neither here nor there). I can relate to Loper on a few points: mainly the lack of knowledge of coffee as an agricultural product. Like any other fruit, there are enormous variations. The need for the documentary arises from the myth that the production of coffee is quick, easy and always accessible.

Loper’s conception of coffee shifted when he began to explore some of the better-known specialty coffee roasters, specifically Blue Bottle after moving to San Francisco. Brandon recounts how five years ago, he had a coffee at Blue Bottle called Misty Valley from Ethiopia and the blueberry flavor was off the charts. This spurred on his dedication to understanding the varieties and complexities of coffee and, consequently the production of the film, now two years in.

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Brandon: When we moved to San Francisco, I was pretty excited and enthralled about all of the new opportunities at hand.  San Francisco kept me energized and constantly pursuing something better, I found. It was the same way with my discovery of coffee. It’s a little embarrassing, but here are the beginning sketches for the movie, which started as a very informal blog I used to document my coffee experiences.

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Haley:  The film follows the development of direct trade coffee from its creation, in Rwanda and Honduras, to its preparation in coffee hot spots like Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Tokyo. One of Loper’s favorite things about making the film were the site visits. He recounts filming in Honduras

Brandon: When you find yourself in Peña Blanca, Honduras with four coffee professionals a few things are guaranteed: You will most definitely eat baleadas (wheat flour tortillas with mashed fried beans) every morning. And they will be up and stirring before you, ready to hand you a cup of coffee brewed with their simple, yet very functional travel coffee setup.

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Brandon: This trip originated out of a conversation in the lovely balcony at Sightglass coffee with Kevin Bohlin formerly of Ritual Coffee Roasters , now with his new coffee company, St. Frank Coffee. Kevin told me how he was going to brew coffee for a farmer at his house and then make espresso drinks for several farmers in the area and let them taste their coffee roasted and prepared in a more delicate way. Sold. The results were so good that you’re going to have to wait for the film to see what happened.

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Haley: The aesthetics of the film are merit-worthy: camera angles catching the subtle drips of a syphon machine or helicoptering over the lush, green fields of Rwanda. But the film is also laden with hints of ecology, human rights, and an understanding of fair trade, containing valuable information aimed at reorienting the way we view coffee. For such a niche industry, many are apt to leave the “specialty coffee” industry to the handlebar mustached hipsters that it attracts. But the agricultural and gastronomical aspects of the industry are intended for everyone. The film works directly to combat our agricultural ignorance of the coffee crop.

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Brandon: When you take on a subject like coffee, you could focus in on a number of different topics, whether it’s chemical reactions, the history, the beauty, the taste, or the terrible injustice present in cultivation. One thing that I really wanted to include in this film is the harvest. The green buyer is a key difference in the quality of coffee that you are drinking right now. They are there on the ground with the farmers and at the wet mills cupping the coffee, deciding what tastes best for your morning cup. When your at home getting ready to grind that fresh cup, pour a little out for your green buyer.

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Haley: The film follows coffee producers at the Rwanda Trading Company through the complex and meticulous process: harvesting, washing, shelling and drying the berries through a multiple step process. This process must be carefully detailed; one slight change in any part of the process can drastically change the taste and quality of the berry.

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Haley: The economics presented in the film may push people over the edge to buy specialty and direct trade coffees.  I asked Loper why specialty coffee and direct trade coffee were gaining so much cultural traction.

Brandon: First, flavor: coffees that are classified as specialty coffee are picked, processed, roasted and brewed better than a commodity grade (cheaper, mainline brands) coffee. All those things make it taste better. Second: coffee has a huge social impact on a large number of people located near the equator. 

Haley: People, first, come to see that specialty coffee actually tastes better than cheaper coffee. Then the consumer comes to see that spending a bit more on a bag of coffee not only has an effect in quality, but in fairness, as well. When asked how direct trade coffee benefits producers and farmers, rather than subsidized, industrial crop, Loper responds that it’s all about cost per pound in specialty versus commodity and the fair balance of wages.

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Brandon: Specialty coffee can go for  $3-5 dollars a pound versus a commodity grade coffee going for about $1.5-3 dollars a pound. While in Honduras, I heard story after story about how this farmer sold to the commodity market last year, and this year he separated his lot, moving towards the specialty market, and got 3 times as much money. So it’s partly an education thing, having a great mill in your town that will support farmers who want to start separating is really invaluable.

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Haley: Farmers are actually getting paid the fair market value of the coffee that they are creating. Moving towards direct trade and single origin coffee isn’t about “hipster” pretension, but creating high quality coffee and mutually beneficial agrarian partnerships. Specialty and single origin coffees cost more, but one can be fairly certain that the producer is benefiting from the transaction fairly. It seems to be a win-win: higher quality coffee that provides fair wages to those who produce it. The only hurdle left is our cultural mindset that wants things quick and cheap. Specialty coffee, on the other hand, is slow and interested in market place partnerships. 

Haley: Many of us have emotional reasons that connect us to a brimming, dark cup of caffeinated glory, and, for Loper, the human aspect of coffee is the force of the film. While it may take twenty minutes for the perfect Chemex to brew, those twenty minutes are about stimulating conversation, cultivating community, and remembering that good things come to those who wait.

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Brandon: I really want people to walk away with a lasting feeling that there are people behind each cup of coffee that they drink. I believe thinking about others as the first thing you do in the morning is a special  way to live your life, and you can do that while enjoying your morning cup of coffee.

Haley: Loper and Avocado and Conconuts are still working through the process of promoting the film.

Brandon: We are currently planning our tour. It’s kind of like being in a band, we have gotten over a hundred location requests and we are working to fulfill whilst making the physical and digital copies of the film for people to purchase. We are distributing independently, which is really fun, but it’s a lot of work.

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For now, the Portland premiere will be on May 29 at Laurelhurst Theatre and the San Francisco premiere will be June 3 at Castro Theatre. Those who don’t live in Portland or San Francisco can request a screening in their town. You can also sign up for A Film About Coffee’s newsletter to learn when the movie will be available for purchase.

House of Cards

The public has come to assume the worst in politicians. We assume that there are back room deals, plays for power and bargaining within the various administrations. But the Netflix series House of Cards not only confirms our suspicions, assuring us that it isn’t as bad as we thought – it shows us that it’s even worse.

The series, released onto Netflix in its entirety to allow for “binge watching,” is certainly “binge worthy.” The show follows the devious Democratic Majority Whip Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, as he weaves a meticulous web of manipulation in order to rise to power and gain revenge. The first season was met with such enthusiasm that Netflix is set to release the entire second season on February 14 while it begins filming the third season.

The first episode opens to Underwood quietly killing a dog that has been hit by the car. He looks directly at the camera and speaks to the viewers:

There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act. Who will do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.”

Thus, Underwood is established as a man of brutal pragmatism who the audience is inclined to trust as the sole narrator, but also someone who the viewer is to fear. The opening continues at a party celebrating the election of Democratic elect, Garret Walker, and Underwood commands the room and the audience’s attention, as they are unwittingly pulled deeper into the plot. Even a simple aside glance to the audience is a serious and fearful thing. Underwood clues the audience in on the background, flaws and motivations of the people and situations around him. One is both amazed and cautious of his vast knowledge.

In a lecture sponsored by The Guardian, Kevin Spacey comments about the appeal of his character:

“He has no allegiances to party, to titles, to forms, to labels: He doesn’t care whether it’s Democrats, Republicans, ideology or conviction. What he sees is opportunity and the chance to move forward. OK, he’s a bit diabolical but he’s also very effective.”

Underwood may be effective, but at very morally questionable costs and consequences. He devours anyone who gets in his way, and simply uses and discards other people. It appears that all people are simply pawns in the game of his revenge, moving the pieces like a skilled chess player. Frank’s calculated power grabs outweigh any sort of moral calculus: He doesn’t bat an eye while paying prostitutes thousands of dollars to keep quiet and forcing others to make political suicide.

Many have compared Frank Underwood to Richard III, a Shakespearean villain at his finest. In Richard III, a power hungry and deformed prince aspires to the throne and decides to kill anyone who gets in the way. Underwood doesn’t necessarily kill those in his way, but he does squash political careers and disgrace those who defy him.

Kevin Spacey was starring as the villainous king before he took the role of Frank Underwood, which allowed him to practice his menacing asides. Spacey told NPR that he “was able to actually look into people’s eyes all over the world and see how much they relished it, and how dangerous it was, and how sporting and naughty they felt in being sort of brought in and made Richard’s — and now Francis’ — co-conspirators.”

Both Frank Underwood’s and Richard III’s asides to the audience make one complicit in their actions. They are not heroes, but they are the characters that the audience must follow, perhaps to their own demise. Underwood knows that he’s bad and revels in it, as a fully aware agent, having his own form of twisted integrity.

Comparisons have also termed Underwood as a modern “Machiavellian” agent. The idea is confirmed by David Fincher, producer of the show:

“The idea of Machiavelli taking you under his wing and walking you through the corridors of power, explaining the totally mundane and crass on a mechanical level to the most grotesque manipulations of a system that is set up to have all these checks and balances was just too delicious.”

The common quotation by Machiavelli asserts that it is better to be feared than loved, but it is best to have both. Underwood employs both fear and love. He strikes fear in those whom he manipulates but, with his Southern charm, he can quickly turn to assure the other characters that he has their best interest in mind. Underwood makes his enemies and allies believe that he is only doing what’s best.

We’ve seen the power obsessed politics movies before, but House of Cards’ calculated, ruthless “butchery” takes them a step further, showing the gory human condition on display. In other movies, one expects the villains to have a stroke of conscience, but viewers of House of Cards have long since given up the idea that Frank Underwood will atone for his sins. And in some strange turn of events, we feel as if we are rooting for him. What, but divine retribution, could stop a man like that?

One of the most interesting and telling scenes with Frank Underwood is toward the end of the season when he enters into the sanctuary of the church he attends. Viewers are given a glimmer of hope that Underwood might repent, or show some form of conscience but instead he presents us with a monologue:

“Every time I’ve spoken to you, you’ve never spoken back, although given our mutual disdain; I can’t blame you for the silent treatment. Perhaps I’m speaking to the wrong audience. Can you hear me? Are you even capable of language, or do you only understand depravity? … There is no solace above or below. Only us — small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.”

Underwood’s conversation with God provides a complex, and deeply orthodox, understanding the human condition and its lust for power. Those who are surprised by this cold-hearted quest for power are not well acquainted with Augustine or the capabilities of the human condition. It is not money that Underwood is after. For him, money is a trivial choice over success. Money is a mansion that will fall apart in ten years while “power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” It is the age-old Christian narrative: humans seeking to be God and seeking to rule.

St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in the late 300s A.D., wrote his colossal life work The City of God amidst the crumbling of the Roman Empire, political corruption and confusion within the early church.

Augustine comes to describe the human condition as a “twisted knottiness” that only God can straighten out. He calls mankind’s basic human problem the passion and drive to dominate and subjugate others: the libido dominandi. Augustine argues that people, after the Fall, are constantly trying to bring others to subjection to his or her will. As R.A. Markus writes in Saeculum: History & Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Augustine’s work does not consider fully “political thought” but there are certain political implications that Augustine ascertains from the condition of man. Mankind wishes to be its own ruler, apart from any allegiance to God, and makes others follow accordingly.

This certainly seems to describe the aspirations of Frank Underwood as he weaves a web of lies and political deals that bring all those around him into submission to his will. Underwood’s motivating factor is to dominate others, to assert his power over them. Underwood has defied any sense of divine retribution, acknowledging a mutual disdain, and continues like a villain lusting for power rather than purity. This is, from Augustine’s and the Christian perspective, the ultimate downfall of man.

But what Underwood may soon learn from Augustine is that those who follow after these passions of domination are never at peace and never satisfied. They are always striving for a false power that can be instantly snatched from the grip: they do not rest. Frank Underwood does not rest, for his house of cards can come tumbling down around him at any time. Several times during the season, it appears that all of his ends are unraveling and he must frantically squelch the rebellion.

In Augustine’s mind, those who enact the libido dominandi have no possibility of rest. Men make horrible gods, and their kingdoms usually end disordered and tattered with tension, much like the Roman Empire.

Augustine wrote that society must become about minimizing disorder and keeping men from “devouring each other like fish.”  All is subject to the distortion of domination, every ruler and leader – there is no one above it. Frank Underwood chooses to revel in it, but he may soon come to find that he is not the masterful orchestrator he imagined.

The question is how accurately this “immorality play” has to do with the real condition in D.C. Should the public fear that the politicians in power have only the goal of more power in mind? Alyssa Rosenberg points out that Underwood has no concern for the consequences of his actions, whether it’s a strike that puts thousands of teachers out of work or closing 12,000 jobs at a shipyard simply for political power. The emphasis isn’t the substance of the matter but the game-like manipulation of it. Rosenberg argues that the show buys into the worldview of manipulation while being enamored with the ugliest parts of Washington.

But the “morality” of House of Cards and its exposé of the human condition is worth noting, whether the show identifies it as a problem or not. The manipulation and games may prove for good, thrilling television, but it also serves to squelch our naiveté about those in power.

If one subscribes to Augustine’s assessment of the human condition, we should not be surprised by the immorality that is hidden behind doors and political deals. That is not to say that we adopt cynicism and distrust any good willed attempt by politicians to help people. There are genuine people within the political process. But, we must not let our inclination to assume the best in people cloud our judgment of the capabilities of evil that power can bring. These things are just beyond the tips of our fingers, so easy to access at the cause of “pragmatism.”

While Frank Underwood is a complex and compelling villain, we must soberly understand that this is not an abnormality. Given the circumstances and the power, any one might be inclined to do the same. Perhaps many already do. There is still a need for checks and balances, for accountability within the processes of power, because it is so easy to slip into the twisted human condition of Augustine’s libido dominandi. The lust for human power is strong but the kingdom it builds is merely a house of cards; it can just as easily and quickly crumble around us.

Walter Mitty, the Critic, and the Believer

“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention,” Sean O’Connell, played by Sean Penn, philosophizes in Ben Stiller’s recent blockbuster, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

The film follows the daydreaming, droll, and unexceptional negative assets manager of Life magazine, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), as the magazine transitions through a merger. Mitty’s final job is to publish the last cover photo, negative 25 by renegade photojournalist Sean O’Connell. O’Connell calls the photo his “masterpiece” and the “quintessence of Life.” But when the negative is missing, Mitty is sent on a wild chase across the globe in an attempt to track down O’Connell and discovers that life is brimming with possibilities if one is willing to get up and go.

The film, hailed by some to be the millennial form of Forrest Gump, reached for Oscar aspirations, but, in the minds of many critics, it fell short of its lofty goals. On Rotten Tomatoes, the rating of the critics was a lowly 49 percent, and on Fandango’s rating system, the critical response was “So-So.”

Mike LaSelle of the San Francisco Chronicle remarked that the film was “logic lost in a dream,” in which an air of whimsy had to be continually pumped throughout, lest the film collapse like a soufflé. Dana Stevens at Slate expressed frustration: “Neither the spiritual insights nor the jokes always hit the mark, and sometimes one cancels out the other, giving the film a curiously neutral, blank quality.” On Rotten Tomatoes, however, 76% of the audience liked the film, with an average rating of a 3.8 out of 5. Search the tag “Walter Mitty” on Tumblr and you will find a multiplicity of posts, some with thousands of likes. It seems that indifference on the side of the critics is unbalanced with the public response to the film.

The movie struck chords housed deep in some hearts, while others found it too idealistic and enigmatic. The disparity between the critics’ and the public’s reaction to the film provides a lens into the way we have come to understand and view art.Within the bounds of traditional film and aesthetic criticism, many of the critics’ observations are accurate. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not the darling of criticism. It is a bit of an anomaly with an almost nostalgic look at life. Luke Buckmaster argues in his review of Mitty that the film is a “sort of cinematic gateway drug that plays around with art film concepts for audiences who don’t necessarily want to watch an art film.” The quote appears to suggest that the critical value of the work is degraded when an artist creates with the enjoyment of the people in mind. High art is for the critics, and low art is for the people.

But this is a false dichotomy: all art is intended for all people.

Art isn’t just for those with aesthetic terminology and critical facility but for the general public as well. The problem with criticism is that, at times, it can dull our emotional faculty for experiencing art for the sake of emotion and instruction. Perhaps Mitty asks us to lay down our critical minds for a time and to imagine what life could be. As Mitty hikes treacherous mountains and jumps out of hovering helicopters, a sense of possibility exudes from the, albeit implausible, circumstances.

The question is then: do we believe in the possible? What the disparity between the critics and the audience forces us to take into account is our own cynicism. Are we able to accept the dazzling optimism that the film presents us, or will we grumble and lump it with the plight of the naïve? Perhaps there is something to learn from the viewer who feels the film without understanding the complex narrative, cinematography, or structure of it? What then, as critics and viewers, can we glean from the film? What gives the film a its emotional resonance are its accessibility, simplicity, and sentimentality.

Buckmaster before commented that Mitty is an “art film” for those who don’t want to watch an art film. This is exactly what makes Mitty valuable. It grants accessibility into the strange world of “art” films. The film, though imperfectly, takes the forms of art films and communicates them in a way that resonates with the general public. While most general filmgoers would not be drawn to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life on their own volition, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty may nudge them closer to appreciating the cinematography, slight but poignant narration, and subtly of the film’s message.

The Wall Street Journal’s review argued that what made the film feel dissociated was the blurred line between fantasy and reality, in which one couldn’t tell if Mitty dreamed he jumped into the Arctic or whether he actually did. But this blurring is intentional and structural when one considers the genre of magical realism. Magical realism is characterized by a highly detailed, realistic setting that is interjected with something strange and unbelievable. The laws of nature and physics are set aside for the creation of a new reality brimming with possibilities and interactions between the characters and their physical worlds.

Did Walter Mitty really just jump into the window of a fiery building? Did he actually sweep the woman he loves off of her feet? While some of the visions are more fantastical (i.e., him being a Latin Arctic explorer), some of the visions are woven into scenes that are undeniably real. Because of the setup of Mitty’s visions, one is led to question the things he does in reality. Did he really just fly in a helicopter in Greenland with a drunken pilot and plunge into the sea? Yes, in fact, he did. This is the beauty of Mitty: the film creates a realistic and accessible magical realism. The people in the film do not grow magical pigtails like in Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but they do harness the powers of fantasy to go on improbable adventures, such as trekking through the Himalayas and bribing the Yemen border patrol with cake.

Aristotle wrote that art should recount “probable impossibilities rather than impossible probabilities.” By using an accessible form of magical realism, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminds us that life is exciting in its probable impossibilities, the things that can occur that you would never imagine in your dreams, though one would not suggest attempting to outrun an exploding volcano in Iceland.

The beauty of the movie is its simplicity, which criticism can often overlook, creating a film that is simple in its narrative and plot. The film suggests that our minds do not need complicated story lines or movies brimming with action to find wonder. Mitty asks us to stretch our aesthetic concepts in the genres and films we have become accustomed to. Can we still be excited by beautiful shots of nature? Does the subtle spark of potential love still move us? Or we are too glutted on hyper-realistic, over-exaggerated spectacles to relate to the beauty of a quiet mountaintop and the patience of waiting for a snow leopard?

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is like the roll of negatives from O’Connell: picturesque moments strung together to communicate something about life. What makes Mitty work is its well-crafted emotional message. One might be inclined to buy a longboard or a ticket to Iceland immediately after exiting the theater. The film reminds viewers to go, do, be, explore, and hope. As David Carr from The New York Times wrote, “[I]t is a reminder that dreams are meant to be lived.” Many may criticize the film for being overly idealistic and sentimental. But what is wrong with being a little sentimental? When was it necessary to simply accept reality as it is? Most of art and human action has been striving towards creating things as they ought to be. Gritty realism is necessary, sure, to account for the grim occurrences of life, but have we forgotten that there’s some beauty in it all too? Let us not forget that despite all our problems, we’re alive and beautiful things exist.

Sean Penn’s character tells Mitty, while waiting for the illustrious snow leopard, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” If beauty does not ask for attention, then that assumes that we, as humans, must be paying attention. It’s easy to be distracted. It’s easy to watch the repeatedly gruesome stories on the news and become cynical of life and cynical of people achieving their “dreams.” “Dreams” seems to be a dirty word, an idea you had in college but grew out of like an old sweater. But if we are to take O’Connell’s quotation seriously, then it may be time to look a little hard for beautiful things around us. Maybe things like beauty, hope, and wonder are not givens, but things to be searched for.

The film explores the “quintessence of Life,” a phrase that the enigmatic Sean O’Connell uses to describe his life work, twisting the phrase to be both about the magazine and the lives that we all lead. Are we reaching for the quintessence, or are we rather comfortable to stay where we are, entertained but unhappy and unfulfilled? Could we shake the cynicism out of our bones? Emily Dickinson wrote that “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Maybe hope is also a longboard on the roads of Iceland.

The film whimsically explores what happens when we give beauty, wonder, and love their way and our attention. There is a safety in detachment because it assumes emotional stability, but there is much more to gain by embracing vulnerability. If we would become less detached and more vulnerable toward art, we might find a way to dispel our cynicism and learn to believe again.

The motto for Life magazine in the film is “to see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel: that is the purpose of life.” The Secret Life of Walter Mitty asks each of us if we are ready to adopt this motto for ourselves. It is much easier to critically analyze the film than to take up the dangerous emotional response that the film asks of us. The choice is ours.