Ruby Sparks (movie review)

Five years ago the movie Ruby Sparks appeared briefly in theaters. Reading the newspaper reviews intrigued me and I wanted to view the movie, but it was gone again before I had a chance to see it. This summer, using birthday gift money, I was able to buy a DVD of the movie. It arrived in yesterday’s mail. I watched it last night, and I am pleased to report that it met and exceeded my expectations.

The central premise of the plot is that a novelist creates a character—the title character of the film—and then she suddenly becomes a real person. This story retells the Greek myth Pygmalion, in which a sculptor falls in love with a statue he has carved and a goddess transforms the statue into a living woman. Of course this story has been retold many times in a variety of settings. Ruby Sparks does a better than average job of making the main characters believable, set in a twenty-first century California city.

Paul Dano plays the writer, Calvin, and Zoe Kazan plays the title character. (Kazan also wrote the script for the movie.) Brief appearances by Elliott Gould, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas add texture to the film. Calvin is approaching his thirtieth birthday, having written the Great American Novel while still a teenager. Like many prodigies, Calvin struggles to meet the high expectations triggered by his early success. Early in the movie he is shown in a counseling session in which his self-doubt and fear of failure are clearly revealed. A girl he first meets in two separate dreams, coupled with a suggestion by his counselor, ignites Calvin’s imagination and sends him into a writing frenzy, creating a romantic novel starring his dream girl, Ruby Sparks.

The character of Calvin is well established when the appearance of the real Ruby Sparks begins to be foreshadowed. Her sudden manifestation in his kitchen causes Calvin to doubt his sanity, a verdict in which his brother concurs. Two revelations follow: other people can see Ruby and interact with her, and Calvin can cause Ruby to speak fluent French by adding a sentence to his novel. Calvin soberly locks the text of the novel in a desk drawer, and then he and Ruby establish a beautiful romance.

Of course the magic relationship does not last forever. Ruby wants more excitement than Calvin’s reclusive life offers. She increases her independence until Calvin begins trying to manipulate her through his writing. His own emotional problems are magnified in her behavior, until an ugly and inevitable confrontation between author and character occurs, vividly depicted by Dano and Kazan.

The pace of the movie follows the inner life of the author. His emotional disorders are subtly portrayed in a variety of ways without becoming distracting or insulting. His eccentricities—such as using an obsolete typewriter for his work—are important to the story. Yet many of the reviews I have read this morning miss the point, treating the pace, the actor’s work, and the details—such as the typewriter—as flaws.

Ruby Sparks covers far more than emotional disorders. It delves into the relationship between artists and the products of their art. A creator wants to be in control, yet the creator must also allow the art to develop in its own way. Characters find their own voice, begin to make their own decisions, and even force changes in the plot of the work. I am sure that painters, sculptors, and composers of music can share similar stories of the ways their creations overpowered them and forced them to change the work they were doing.

That said, Ruby Sparks is not a flawless movie. The characters are foul-mouthed and have no respect for the marriage bed (although fornication is not depicted on-screen). The ending tries to be both charming and ambiguous and instead is unsatisfying. One cannot be certain whether Calvin has learned from his experiences or if he is doomed to repeat his mistakes again. Like many good movies, though, Ruby Sparks manages the little nuances which carry the story of the movie without relying solely on dialogue and action. It is more than a romantic comedy; it is a thoughtful approach to creativity and the loneliness of the artist. For that reason alone, I recommend it. J.


The image of God

What makes people different from animals? The first chapter of the Bible reports that the first man and the first woman were both created in the image and likeness of God. “Image” and “likeness” are synonyms in this verse–Biblical Hebrew frequently uses two words to convey the same idea. But what does it mean to be created in the image of God?

Some people believe that the image of God is an immortal soul. They go on to say that animals do not have an immortal soul, since they were not created in the image of God. However, the new creation is described as including animals, such as lions, wolves, lambs, and even snakes. If God can have these creatures in his new creation, surely he can also restore our favorite cats and dogs and horses. Whether or not he will do so remains to be seen, but there is a passing reference to the spirits of animals in the book of Ecclesiastes.

God’s attributes include omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. In other words, there is nothing God cannot do, no place exists where he is not present, and there is nothing God does not know. Men and women do not have these qualities; there are limits to our power, we exist in only one location at a time, and we do not know everything. Like God, though, we have intelligence and wisdom that surpasses that of animals. Perhaps our thinking ability is part of the image of God that exists in us.

God created, and people create. Beings that create have a sense of beauty which is shown by their creations. Beings that create also express a sense of humor in their creations. Beings that create are able to use objects as tools to accomplish their goals. In all of these ways, men and women are more like God than like the animals made by God.

When God created, he spoke things into existence. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God works through words, and men and women also communicate with words. We do not have the power to cause things to happen merely by speaking, but words remain useful, even essential, to our existence.

God is holy, righteous, and just. Men and women also know the difference between right and wrong. We might not always do what is right, but generally we know what is right. Our moral sense may also be part of the image of God that exists in us.

God has power, but God is not power. God has knowledge, but God is not knowledge. God has righteousness, but God is not righteousness. Only one quality of God is described as God, and that quality is love. Twice the apostle John wrote, “God is love.” Love flows among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Even if God had created nothing, God would still be love because of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

To be created in the image and likeness of God, then, means to be created so we can love. We were created to love God whole-heartedly. We were created to love our neighbors as ourselves. All the rest of the commands of God tell us how to love, but the basic command to love teaches us our purpose. When we love, we are God-like. When we fail to love, we fall short of displaying God’s image. When we fail to love, we fall short of our Creator’s purpose for our existence.

The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is selfishness. The more we love ourselves, the less we can love God and our neighbors. True love is sacrificial love. It gives to others and does not demand repayment. True love allows others to be important rather than insisting upon being at the center of attention.

Animals have intelligence to varying degrees. They can solve problems, they can reason, and they can learn. Some animals are creative. Elephants doodle, birds sing, and some fish redesign their environments for purposes of beauty. Many animals create tools out of materials at hand. Animals use language and communicate. Chimpanzees have been taught sign language. Cats and dogs understand dozens of words that they hear men and women speak. Even some insects are capable of passing messages to one another.

Some animals even have a sense of right and wrong. Dogs know when they have done something their owners did not want them to do, and they can express guilt for their wrongdoing. Cats also know when they have broken the rules, although they do not express guilt as frequently as dogs do. Other animals can be trained to do various things, and they know when they have met expectations or failed to please their trainers.

I find it hard to believe that my cats don’t love me. Our relationship is defined by more than food and fresh water. My cats like their people. They like to hear the sound of our voices, even if we are talking to each other and not to them. They like to be pet and scratched, and they have their own gestures to show the love that they feel for their people. If I have been away all day or asleep all night, they greet me when they see me again. We have a genuine relationship based on love, even if I bear the image of God and they do not.

It seems that animals that spend time around people pick up some human characteristics. We teach them to have a moral sense because the distinction between right and wrong is important to us. We teach them to love because love is essential to what we are. When our ancestors were told to rule over the animals of God’s creation, God’s intention was that we be caretakers and not abusers. When we take good care of the creatures entrusted to us, they become a little more like us. That reflects the wisdom of the Creator who put us in charge of his world. J.

The muse: a femme fatale

Last month I attended a public lecture given by a local painter. Toward the end of his talk, he began to speak of the muse. Since ancient Greece, artists and creative people spoke of the Muses as spirits who guided them in their work. This painter did not have kind words for his muse. As well as I can remember, this is what he said: “The muse cares about the art, not about the artist. She will use him to produce art until he drops dead from exhaustion, and she does not care. At any whim she can cast him off and abandon him without a second thought. The muse is not the artist’s friend, because the artist is the tool of the muse.”

I may be embellishing his words a bit, but I have captured the essence of what he said. Few creative people are in love with their muse. Writers do not write because it’s fun to write—writers are driven to write. Painters and sculptors and others involved in the visual arts feel the same way. Musicians perform music, not as a hobby but as a compulsion. I have known many musicians. I have noticed that their feelings about people who dabble in music vary between amusement and scorn. If music is just a hobby—if music is not the only reason to go on living—then that amateur performer is not considered a true musician.

Every art is populated by starving artists. Only a few in each field reach the heights of fame and wealth. Most take on another job to support themselves while their hearts remain dedicated to their art. One of my musician friends made contact with the drummer who performed with Santana at Woodstock. The man still drums in small clubs for a pittance. With his immense talent and his minutes of fame, today he is a classic image of the starving artist.

Creative people often seem to have emotional problems of one kind or another. From severe mental illness to deep depression, artists seem prone to live unhappy lives. The suicide of an Ernest Hemingway or a Robin Williams reminds the rest of the world of the pain many artists carry inside themselves day and night. Who is to blame? Is it the fault of the muse that artists suffer? Can only those afflicted by pain supply the rest of the world with entertainment and with awe?

Soren Kierkegaard compared poets to the victims in ancient Sicily who were roasted to death in a hollow bull a king commanded an artist to devise. The screams of pain generated from within the bull by the victim sounded like music passing through the contraption. Reportedly, the designer of the Sicilian bull was the first victim to be tested in its flames.

Aristotle said something to the effect of “there is no great genius without a touch of madness.” He may have been thinking of Socrates, who was often considered to be mad. Socrates claimed to be inspired by a semi-divine spirit (the actual Greek word is “demon”) and would sometimes stop and stare into space, even in the middle of a conversation. Other wise people have compared the link between genius and madness to the link between roses and thorns.

Kurt Vonnegut, on the other hand, felt that creativity comes from being an outsider. He said that the mentally ill, along with Jews and homosexuals and other outsiders, are forced to see the world in a different way because they were made outsiders. When they describe the world which they see, they are discovered to be creative.

All this seems to say that the muse is a cruel mistress, a femme fatale, who uses the artist for her own ends without regard for the artist’s happiness, comfort, or even survival. Perhaps in a perfect world art can be produced painlessly, but we do not live in a perfect world. The burden of the artist, the driving force of the muse, is part of the reality of existence in this world. In the movie A League of Their Own, the manager is talking about baseball when he says, “Of course it’s not easy! If it were easy, everyone would do it.” What is true of baseball is true of art as well. J.

Fame, creativity, and depression

One of the most shocking news items of 2014 was the suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams. How could a man so talented, so seemly full of laughter and joy, choose to end his life? It seemed that Robin Williams had it all: fame, money, and the love of millions of people. Yet Robin Williams was terribly sad. He spoke openly about his battles with depression. People in his life believed him and tried to help him. Health professionals took care of him. Somehow, one night, it was not enough. Depression won, and the world lost Robin Williams.

Many famous people publicly acknowledge their battles with depression. Are famous people more likely than the rest of us to be depressed? Probably not—we just hear more about their struggles because they are famous. The prevalence of depression among the famous is most likely about the same as its prevalence among the general population. Maybe famous people feel safer talking about problems that the rest of us prefer to keep hidden.

On the other hand, some observers have noticed a correlation between creativity and depression. Not that depression makes people creative—just the other way around; depression saps the ability to create and to communicate. But people who see themselves as outsiders, members of minority groups and others at the edge of society, frequently produce more art (music, literature, etc.) than the general population. These people often have a stronger sense of humor, which again seems to be fed by their perception of themselves as outsiders. If creativity and humor are evoked by estrangement from the world, by a sense of alienation, then a correlation between depression and creativity does not come as a surprise.

Soren Kierkegaard, in writings such as The Concept of Anxiety (also translated as The Concept of Dread) and The Sickness unto Death, seemed to suggest that depression is a normal reaction to the way things are in this world. By “the way things are,” I do not so much mean wars and poverty and crime, but rather the individual experience of sensing the difference between who I truly am and who I could be and ought to be. Satisfaction with that difference, Kierkegaard indicated, is worse than being depressed over the difference. Yet the chasm between who I am and who I should be is unbridgeable. The only sensible response to becoming aware of that difference, it would seem, is despair.

Of course, neither you nor I can experience another person’s emotions or can tell how another person truly feels inside. I do not know if my depression is like that of others or is unique. All I can do is to describe how I feel in the midst of an emotional trough. I wake up in the morning, and getting out of bed is a chore. Brushing my teeth is a chore. Taking a shower is a chore. I push myself to accomplish these chores, even though I cannot think of a good reason to do them. I drive to work, but I am not interested in the things I will do at work. The family might plan some entertainment together—a movie or a baseball game—and I go along to be a good sport, but I would rather sit alone at home. Worst of all, when I am driving, I imagine what it would be like to drive the car off the side of the bridge into the river. I can find no good reason not to do it. I am not looking forward to anything in the near future, or in the distant future. If a doctor told me that I had an advanced case of cancer and I could not be saved, I would take that as good news, not as bad news.

That is how I feel when I am depressed. I assume the feeling is similar for other people. But what causes this feeling of dismal despair? Depression, as far as I understand it, is a symptom with various causes. For that reason, the same solution is not effective for all people facing depression.

It seems that there is a genetic predisposition to depression; people from some families are more likely to experience depression than people from other families. Depression can be the result of chemical balances in the human body. It can be a response to current, on-going stresses; or it can be a response to events from long ago—sometimes events that are remembered, and sometimes events that are forgotten.

Some people can find relief from depression by getting proper nutrition, accompanied with enough sleep each night and enough exercise each day. Others take medicines that help to relieve depression. Others need therapy to discuss their current stresses and past problems with a therapist. Still others, including Kierkegaard, find solace in religion. Often several of these sources of relief are needed in combination. What works for one person does not work for the next person. Just because I swallowed a certain pill or attended a certain church and started feeling better, I cannot conclude that every person with depression should take that pill or go to that church.

Well-meaning people try to help. “Cheer up,” they say, “Things can’t be so bad.” They encourage the victim of depression to be busy doing other things, especially things that help other people. “Then you won’t have time to be depressed,” they say. Still another solution—one I tried for many years, until I accepted that it was not working—is to ignore the feelings of depression, do the right thing in spite of those feelings, and pay them no mind.

We all have bad days now and then. Depression is like a string of bad days. It is like a bad cloud that will not go away. It is like a trap with no hope of escape. Depression is a most dangerous symptom precisely because it robs its victims of hope, convincing them that things will never improve no matter what they do.

If you know these feelings, I hope you are finding help. If you have not looked for help—if, like me, you tried to fight your way through on your own—please take the next step. See a family doctor, to find out if your depression is a symptom of some physical problem. See a counselor to talk through your feelings and to track them back to their origin. Reach out for help, call out for help, and keep looking until you find help. You are worth it. And you can be happy again.

If you know someone who appears to be under that cloud, talk to that person. Listen to that person. Encourage that person to get professional help. He or she is worth it. And he or she can be happy again.

Thank you for reading.