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Archive for November, 2006

Dead Teenagers

Over the weekend, my friend and I rented Final Destination 3, what film critics call a ‘Dead Teenager Movie’ because the plot of the film (ha, plot) is entirely devoted to killing off teenagers in gruesome ways. Not my genre at all; in fact, FD3 was the first ‘Dead Teenager Movie’ I’d ever seen (but not the first movie about senseless gore–I’ve seen both volumes of Kill Bill).

Now, a lot of people hold the opinion that the sort of people involved in movies like FD3 are sick, disturbed people who have an obsession for killing teens. I don’t think this is the case; in fact, I can see how killing people in creative ways could be an art form. Death, as one of the doomed teens in the movie explained, “is simply the end of biological function.” A bonus feature on the DVD, an animated short called It’s All Around You (a very practical look at death; I very highly recommend the link) said it better. After a brief discussion of probability and a look at the statistics of dying in a plane crash, of bird flu, etc., they come to a very important point at the end of the clip when they display the final statistic: “ODDS OF DYING: 1:1.”

I think this is important because a lot of people (myself included) tend to forget that. It’s not worth wasting the text to write my thoughts on that statistic, because everything I could say about it has been said (and illustrated) with more clarity in the video. However, I would like to tie it back to what I said above. The sort of people who make movies like Final Destination are not disturbed, in my opinion. They simply acknowledge this statistic for what it means: that everyone will die. And they turn that into art.

People will die, whether of heart attacks or disease or a plane crash. Speculate about the afterlife as much as you like, but it doesn’t change the fact that one day, your biological life will end. In my opinion, killing someone in a creative way is similar to showing someone break a leg or even eating and sleeping, because by all means, some people may never break their legs in their lives but everyone will die. This is the point that Final Destination tries to get across; it is not just another ‘Dead Teenager Movie’, and in fact, the ‘victims’ of FD2 weren’t teenagers at all. The creators of the Final Destination series take something natural that is of great concern and significance to each of us–death–and make it into something spectacular (and to some, entertaining). I liken it to Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds: a look at what is definitely going to come upon us that some call morbid and others call the pinnacle of sanity.

For the people who make movies like Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, though, I’m not as sympathizing or at all impressed. Death is natural for everyone, of course, but I’m not convinced that having a psycho killing off teenagers in gruesome ways is the same as death itself catching up with people that escape it in Final Destination. Taking life away is a confusing idea because practicality fades away, leaving philosophy and religion to decide how horrible a crime that is. Until we can know for sure, slasher movies are stuck between the extremes. As for myself, I can watch death catch up with people who cheat it in movies like FD3 because death will eventually happen to everyone, but I don’t think I could sit through a movie of people getting chopped up into little bits by another person.

Kill Bill was another thing altogether, I think, because anyone who has seen it would attest to the fact that it was not at all intended to be realistic or sadistic. It did involve people being chopped up by other people, but the stylish lack of realism and emphasis on plot pointed towards something else. How else to explain my positive feelings towards Kill Bill after stating that I couldn’t watch people getting chopped up eludes me, but I can’t help but think of it as art instead of pointless sadism.

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Public education is all politics. Sadly, it’s common knowledge.

But I still don’t know why the BC Ministry of Education thinks that their advisory curriculum is a good idea. The class I sat through a couple of hours ago was one of the better ones (sad), and this was what the entire hour and ten minutes consisted of: define ‘transferable skills’ and list the transferable skills you possess (transferable skills being the skills acquired in school that can be applied elsewhere). As if it wasn’t painful enough to have to list ‘teamwork, organization, problem-solving, etc.’ for an hour, the assignment required the subsequent completion of a Ministry-approved reflection.

Upon looking over this reflection worksheet, I was intimidated by the very first question: “What is the purpose of identifying transferable skills?”

A very good question, I thought. Why was I asked to take time out of my day — to cut time from classes where I could have learned something or got ahead in my work — to write ‘leadership, teamwork, organization…’ on a piece of paper? Honestly, I’m not even sure how that makes the Ministry look good politically. Is this exercise an attempt to remind me of the valuable skills I learn in school, in the hope that I will pursue post-secondary work and get a decent-paying, white collar job? Will listing the transferable skills I learned in school make me a successful person?

To the adult readers out there: this is how public education is contributing to your child’s success. We list the qualities we have in one column, the qualities we don’t in another, and write about how the qualities we have will make us nice, successful white collar workers someday, coupled with a post-secondary education and a Graduation Portfolio with bureacratically-documented evidence (signed in triplicate) of us kissing the toes of their shiny black shoes.

Of course, like every student who hopes of one day becoming a successful, white collar worker, the answer I intend to put down is a lot less sarcastic and a lot more Ministry-friendly. There is satisfaction in lashing out at public education on a blog, and there is self-preservation in doing exactly what they tell you on the work you hand in. I have a hunch the Ministry won’t like it, but I still wonder, as I hope others will: “Why?”

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Colloquialism

While reading an article posted by College Parent in her blog College Admissions Madness, I came across the following phrase: “…and every teenager is spoiled with too many luxuries.” It provoked one of those thoughts that has come in and out of my mind before (a la my first post), this one being, ‘Spoiled’? That sounds pretty bleak. Are children/teenagers like milk, with specific instructions like, ‘Keep Refrigerated’? Can you honestly ruin a child?

This sort of thing has been on my mind a lot lately, the words so integrated into our social vocabulary that we use them without thinking. It’s astonishing how many of them there are: simple phrases like, “No way!”, “No matter,” or “Do you mind?”. Recently, I’ve sort of taken a step back and have started to examine what I say and why I say it.

Take my own examples. “No way!”; what does it really mean? It’s a phrase indicating an incredulous response (for the most part). We drop the phrase without thinking, but when you break it down and consider it, it’s like saying, “There’s no way (‘way’ as means) that could be true.” Similarly with a phrase like, “No matter.” What does it mean? Probably something along the lines of, “It’s no matter (‘matter’ meaning an issue) worth worrying about.”

“Do you mind?” is a tricky one to pinpoint, though, and there are a lot of similar phrases that I have to ponder over for a while to figure out why they mean what they have come to mean. We use “Do you mind?” as a way of saying, “Do you care?”, but why? My very confused grasp of guessing the reasons behind things (I have no talent for it at all) seems to think that ‘mind’ evolved into ‘care’ by ‘mind’ having, at some point, a transititory definition like ‘being of the mindful opinion’ and eventually came to mean what it does now.

It’s an interesting thing to think about how much of our vocabulary is socially derived. By that, I mean the phrases purely social in usage with no real meaning anymore, because of course our entire language is socially derived. It seems like such an insignificant thing to think about, I know, but consider a language that is pure colloquialism; such a language would be impossible to translate, and even harder to learn.

I’m very heavily reminded of a passage from Orwell’s Politics and the English Language; in fact, it says with clarity in one paragraph exactly what I spent several struggling to articulate (the asterix footnote is my own):

DYING METAPHORS. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are*: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a ‘rift’, for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.

OPERATORS OR VERBAL FALSE LIMBS. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

 

I applaud Orwell’s superior grasp of the English language. I really do. Politics and the English Language is solid proof that this is a man who knows how to write. For those of us who weren’t already convinced with Animal Farm and 1984, I mean. Ah, to have Orwell’s writing prowess… sadly, I’m guilty of many of the writing sins he condemns.

 

*Yes, most of these examples are quite obscure nowadays, but they were apparently very popular in mid-20th century Britain.

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The Vancouver Sun printed this increasingly disturbing story in the morning news.

The gist of it is this: two teenage boys (13 and 15) beat two elderly men (76 and 82) to death in a park washroom for their wallets. Instead of convicting them on charges of second-degree murder, the judge convicted them on charges of manslaughter. They may get out, without serious repercussions, on bail.

This would not be a particularly tragic article if not for the judge’s statement in his ruling: “Here it cannot be forgotten that the accused were 13 and 15 years of age at the time of the offence. The lack of life experience and the relative inability to see serious consequences accompanying an act are hallmarks of youth. On balance I have a reasonable doubt that the two accused meant to cause Mr. Thandi bodily harm knowing it was likely to cause his death.”

Feel free to actively disagree, but I believe that the judge’s statement can be summarized as such: thirteen- and fifteen-year-olds cannot understand that repeatedly beating an elderly man in the head with a baseball bat may kill them.

I hope that this comes across as absurd to my readers as it did to me. If the Canadian justice system thinks that a fifteen-year-old cannot understand that baseball bat + elderly man’s head = possible death, then I have no hope of ever being taken seriously in this country. After all, I will be fifteen next month. It’s depressing to think that if I were to beat someone to death with a baseball bat, the courts would think me too young to understand what I had done. All teenagers, in fact, know that taking a bat to someone’s head might kill them; the majority of us go a step further and understand that this is also a very bad idea.

If all a fifteen-year-old can get for beating two old men to death is a slap on the wrist, what sort of a message is this sending to teenagers? Go ahead and kill someone for pocket money; we think you’re too stupid to realize what you’re doing so there won’t be any consequences. Does the justice system really think that giving a teenager a slap on the wrist for murder at fifteen will make him an angel at twenty? God forbid; if this teen hadn’t killed someone, he would have been driving in a year. Isn’t that a scary thought?

You would think that a teenager mentally disturbed enough to beat an old man to death for pocket money would be in enough trouble even if the victim didn’t die, but apparently not in the Canadian justice system.

And they wonder why youth violence is on the rise. Here’s an idea, folks: maybe teens that murder old men should be held accountable for their actions. If they were actually punished for murdering someone, maybe less teens would consider it, hm?

Needless to say, I sent the Sun this letter in response.

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