April 26, 2007

Admit One

"My time at the paper may be coming to the end, but the internet isn't going anywhere." This thought vaguely occurred to me somewhere around the beginning of April. I've appreciated the YellowJacket even more this past year as an excuse to go see and write about movies. I do that plenty on my blog, too, of course, but for some reason I don't like doing it exclusively.

Well, to make a long story short (or I will ramble on ad nauseum about the development of my thought processes), I have a new blog. I'm not abandoning the old blog, by any means. This will be here for the foreseeable future, and I don't intend to post any less on it than I do now. Meanwhile, I expect to post between 2 and 4 times a week (on average) on the new site. My plan is to refrain from duplicating content as of when I got the new site up and running . . . I'm not going to double-post.

The new blog is "Moviegoings," and the subheading is "Your One-Way Ticket to Fabulous Fun for the Whole Family!"

Just kidding. It's actually: "The Search for Truth, Beauty & Meaning in the Movies." In reality it is probably both more and less than that. However, rather than attempt to explain further here, I had probably best direct you to this, the site's introductory page. That quote at the top is from The Moviegoer by Walker Percy . . . which I really need to finish reading sometime.

You'll find that I have my entire list of movies-watched available, with all relevant posts cross-referenced, a growing list of links to the movie-related sites I frequent, and the beginnings of a "treatise" that I can direct people to if and when anything like the previously mentioned tiff should arise again. I've already got some brand-new content up during the past two weeks as I was putting it together, so go check it out.

The purpose of "Moviegoings," beyond what I've stated there, is to have a somewhat professional-looking topical blog where I do my best to consistently post at my highest level of writing ability. This blog has been (and will continue to be) my sandbox. Hopefully "Moviegoings" will be an edifice of some sort.

Incidentally, there are a lot of great writers that read my blog right now, and I know that many of you have a glancing interest in this topic as well from time to time. In my ongoing search for fresh content, I would be more than happy (thrilled, in fact) to post guest submissions in the form of movie-related essays or reviews . . . with, of course, the slight caveat that I reserve the right to reject out of hand anything that I don't feel fits with my personal vision for "Moviegoings" and you aren't allowed to be offended about it. Seriously, though, consult with me anytime if you've got something. And, yes, I allow pseudonyms if that's your thing.

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April 25, 2007

A Spot of Bother

A few months ago I watched with amusement and admiration as Peter Chattaway and Jefferey Overstreet responded to attacks on how they review films, both secular and Christian. Less than a month after that, the reviews that Randy and I write for the YellowJacket came under heavy fire in the form of a series of increasingly angry e-mails from a LeTourneau professor to our editors (and cc'd to the Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs).

The e-mails arrived just in time for spring break, and as they singled me out specifically multiple times for comment (Randy was pointedly ignored throughout the exchange, even though we wrote the reviews and responded to the e-mails together) we were given free reign to defend ourselves. There were three e-mails to respond to, and they got successively longer and more high-pitched (for lack of a better term).

At this point, the less I discuss them, the better. I am still infuriated and deeply upset when I think through the whole thing. Randy and I worked on a response for several days, with help and input from a few of our friends. We wanted it to be reasonable, respectful and above-reproach, and when we finally sent it off it seemed like our best chance to start a dialogue.

The response we got was a blow-off. Randy was again ignored, and the professor claimed to have no interest in talking to me (as a graduate), but preferred to talk to "current members of the YellowJacket staff." To have the gall to attack me multiple times in such a highly accusatory fashion and then say "I don't care to hear what you have to say" . . . well, I had to struggle to get beyond just seeing red. The overall response was extremely high-handed and holier-than-thou, and obviously not in the least interested in an honest discussion. There was an assumption that any argument I made was automatically invalid within the context of LeTourneau's community of "adolescents" who "smell of hormones."

In fact, the tone of the entire correspondence, while indicative of an admirable compassion for students (credit where credit is due), was even more indicative of a total lack of respect for them. These words were from someone speaking to children, someone who expected to be listened to and obeyed, not someone who was genuinely interested in opening up a topic for mature discussion between adults.

The feeling I get sometimes about having this kind of dialogue outside of the Church or Christian community is that some Christians feel we should be presenting a united front. So, can we discuss it amongst ourselves? Heavens, no! This is supposed to be a Safe Environment. It's full of weaker brothers. Even we even so much as talk about this stuff, you'll have them stumbling left and right.

Randy and I talked with our editors and decided to end the correspondence there, as this individual was obviously not deserving of the effort and feeling we were wasting in a fruitless discussion. The editors, in a move that I personally felt was rather too kind (although it was also motivated by concerns regarding space), printed only the initial, somewhat sane, letter that had been written to them. I have little doubt that, had the student body caught wind of the tone of later letters, the response might have been vociferous and decidedly unkind.

I, meanwhile, requested and received permission to write an editorial about offensive content in the movies and a responsible approach to it. This was not intended in any way as a response to the letters to the editor . . . I had already responded to those. Rather, I felt that if there were any validity to the concerns about the impact of our movie reviews on the LeTourneau community, this would be my "word to the wise" for anyone who might be troubled. I was slightly dismayed when my editorial was presented as a "counterpoint" to the printed letter, particularly since I knew how the professor who wrote the letter would take it, but I was glad to have the message out there.

Since the publication date, I have received no word from this professor (although I more than half-expected an angry e-mail in my inbox the day after). However, I have gotten word from multiple sources that the new plan of attack is to malign the paper from the safety of the classroom, where dissent is unlikely and easily managed. That sounds like an abuse of authority to me, but I'm not really up on professorial ethics. Well, two can play at that game. I, at least, shall have the decency not to name names, and the comment section is, as always, open. My time at the paper may be coming to the end, but the internet isn't going anywhere.

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April 21, 2007

Do Bureaucrats Have Souls?

Joshua Bell, one of the greatest violinists in the world (he played the music for The Red Violin), set up shop in a Washington D.C. Metro station a few weeks ago during morning rush hour. He pulled out his violin, a 1713 Stradivarius (one of the finest instruments in existence), set up his open case in front of him with a little "seed money" in it, and played some of the best classical pieces ever composed for nearly 45 minutes. Literally thousands of people passed within earshot during that time. Fewer than half a dozen people actually stopped to listen. He pulled in $32.17.

This article ("Pearls Before Breakfast") has the whole story (and I do mean the whole story . . . it's really long). It is an excellent article. Asa sent it to me. Go read it.

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April 19, 2007

Ding Dong!

And back we went to the Dallas area for another evening of live entertainment. This time it was Wicked, first published as book over ten years ago before emerging as a Broadway musical in 2003. Wicked is a fun, clever deconstruction of The Wizard of OZ from the perspective of the witches.

The scene opens with Glenda the Good confirming rumors of the happy demise of the Wicked Witch of the West (Elpheba hereafter). One bold citizen asks if it is also true that Glenda and Elpheba were once friends, and the remainder of the story operates via flashback as we explore the development of these two characters (who first meet at school) leading up to the infamous melting. Along the way, the story tweaks the origins of Dorothy's beloved traveling companions and offers plenty of cool twists and turns, particularly for those familiar with the original plot.

The sets and costumes . . . actually, the entire atmosphere . . . in this production are enchanting and fantastical. The choreography is lively and fun to watch. Most of all, though, the music is pure magic. Probably nearly half of the songs are "my favorite," and even the ones that aren't are really good. I would say that the music is much stronger in the first act than it is in the second (particularly in terms of the finales of each). However, the second act is where the plot kicks into high gear, and it has some of the best non-musical sections.

Of the eight songs I find the most enjoyable, six appear in the first act (and four of those are in the first half of the first act). The second act songs are a lot more about plot development, while those in the first act are more about character development. This is an almost inevitable failing, I suppose, but it is a failing nonetheless. All of the music is good, as I say, but nothing from the second act is stuck in my head right now.

I have to admit that I have a certain fondness for deconstructive reimaginings of familiar stories. Till We Have Faces is, of course, my favorite C.S. Lewis book, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my favorite movies (yes, I know it's a play . . . I've never seen it staged). Drawing a relatively minor character out into the limelight and using their perspective to cast a new light on a series of events has got to be one of the most fun exercises in speculative fiction.

Wicked is actually surprisingly similar to Till We Have Faces in many ways, come to think of it. A comparison/contrast between the characters of Orual and Elpheba would probably yield rich results. Both undergo somewhat parallel transformations over the courses of their lives, rejecting the powerful authorities they had once revered. Both have what could be classified as "destructive love" for the people they care about. Throwing these analogous elements into sharp contrast, though, would be the way in which they are viewed and handled within the context of their respective stories. There are obviously very different worldviews at work here, and thematically the priorities are not the same.

Speaking of themes, Wicked explores some very interesting territory. Okay, sure, at its heart I think it boils down to a rather frivolous musical, but there's still a lot going on here. Wicked examines prejudice, honesty, and whether virtue is more than skin-deep. Most of all, though, Wicked is about historiography. Okay . . . not really. Still, it is very aware that history is often, as Napoleon said, "the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon." Or, in this case, the version that people in charge have decided to agree upon.

Actually, what struck me the most was that the difference in perspective between The Wizard of OZ and Wicked comes down to the difference between the way a child (Dorothy) sees things, and the way an adult sees them. Dorothy is an ingénue, and as such she believes that people who are nice to her are good people and people who aren't are wicked people. She cannot tell the difference between the truth and an artful lie (which we already know is the wizard's specialty), and she is very easy to take advantage of.

With that assumption in place, it is not very difficult to believe that this story is more realistic than the other. Wicked simply takes the fantasy material and tacks on the reality that good and evil are rarely as clearly defined as we would like outside of . . . well, fantasy.

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April 09, 2007


I was listening to a news report on the Bott Radio Network on the way back from lunch, and I was alerted to a legislative controversy that I didn't even know existed. Frankly, I was rather shocked to hear, first that the issue in question is not a foregone conclusion that was dealt with years ago, and second that it is a source of disagreement at all.

The issue is whether to make perceived sexual orientation (specifically homosexuality) part of the already existing federal hate crimes law. What that basically means is that if someone were to, say, kill you because you're gay or because they think you're gay, it would be considered a hate crime. Cuz, see, it's a crime and the motive was hatred.

The particular report I listened to was not very informative, and I was only half paying attention when I suddenly heard the commentary. Of course, this proposal was laid at the doorstep of the gay agenda, that great blight and scourge on American society. The suggestion was made that, not only had reports of hate crimes against gays been inflated and blown out of proportion, but that perhaps a substantial number of the reported crimes had even been faked in order to garner support for the amendment.

I did a little poking around to see what it was all about, and discovered that, indeed, this bit of legislation has not been well-received in all quarters. 'Well, that's odd,' I thought. 'I wonder who would be opposed to having less hatred in the world? . . . Oh, Christians. Wait . . . what?!' It seems that Christian organizations everywhere are loudly decrying the passage of such legislation as persecution of Christians.

When a significant minority group which often falls victim to prejudice, even violent prejudice, has its chance for a little extra protection blocked by a religion that has an obvious bone to pick on the grounds that the protection offered would squelch said religion's right to defame said minority, I think even a half-wit can identify precisely who is experiencing persecution. The assertion is that this amendment is directed specifically against the Christian faith. If said issue is that big of a deal to said faith, then I would counter-assert that said faith needs to get a life.

Is it just me, or do Christians claim the most "persecution" from the groups we are most willing to persecute, discriminate against, villify, and condemn in our turn? When even we cannot be charitable to those who hate or disagree with us, I shudder to think that we may be forced to rely on the charity of the unbeliever. Our voices grow ever more shrill and demanding in their insistence that Americans be governed by our principles and our principles alone, all while framing events as an apocalyptic struggle for an entire way of life.

We blindly place our faith in ultimate victory on shakey ground like the general rightness of our cause and the supposed fundamentalist Christian origins of our system of government. Meanwhile, we burn the bridges labeled "reason" and "tolerance" and "love" that connect us to the very people we should be reaching out to. Should our faith in the system ever prove unjustified (as it seems likely to), our precious rights and values will be left completely at the mercy of those we have made our mortal enemies. Sure that's bad, but my point is that we ourselves are more than a little responsible for drawing the battle lines so recklessly and raising the stakes so impossibly high in a conflict we might not win.

Anyway, in specific terms, the chief objection is that this legislation would supposedly make it possible for anyone in America who publicly calls homosexuality a sin to be charged with a hate crime. Scary-sounding terms like "thought crime" and "police state" are being thrown around. Well, first, let's get one thing straight. These Christians aren't against a police state because they value personal freedom. They're against a police state because they don't get to be the police. They aren't fooling anyone but themselves when they say otherwise.

Aside from seeming to obscuring the issue and making us all look like Nazis, I don't know whether these claims have any potential credibility. I really don't. But here's what I do know: According to this publication on hate crimes from the Department of Justice, in order for something to be classified as a hate crime, it first has to be an actual crime i.e. "murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, aggravated assault, simple assault, intimidation, arson, and destruction, damage or vandalism of property." There have been federal hate crime laws on the books for nearly 40 years. If "hate speech" were covered under these laws, wouldn't we have seen some sort of crackdown on groups like the KKK before now?

There's certainly some interesting room for discussion here, were anyone willing to breathe deeply and calm down. What is the proper balance between freedom of expression and wanton intolerance? Should hatred be illegal in its own right? I haven't really fleshed out my own ideas about this yet, but I don't see the problem here.

Meanwhile, is there any particular reason to believe that general sermonizing would be placed on the same legal footing as KKK protest marches or cross-burnings? Assuming, even for a moment, that that would be the case and that such activities would be considered hate crimes (and neither assumption seems plausible), I'm still having a hard time casting the bulk of my sympathy in the direction of the "God Hates Fags" crew or their less inflammatory bretheren.

Seriously, is our right to proclaim the sinfulness of homosexuality from the rooftops really more important than their right not to be bullied, beaten, and killed? We aren't Old Testament prophets, dispatched to lecture everyone on how naughty they are. We're supposed to be about unconditional love, and that's not what this looks like to me.

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April 05, 2007

Chariots of Fire: Best Picture, 1981

The 54th Annual Academy Awards ceremony was hosted by Johnny Carson, and introduced the Best Makeup category (thanks to the outstanding work done on The Elephant Man the year before). Chariots of Fire was nominated for 7 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Costumes, and Best Supporting Actor (Ian Holm). It lost Best Director to Warren Beatty for Reds. Reds was also nominated for Best Costumes, which is rather ironic. Chariots of Fire had a number of Edwardian costumes reserved for use after Reds (set during the same period) had finished with them. When Reds went over schedule, the costumes became unavailable and other arrangements had to be made. Chariots went on to win the award.

Meanwhile, Best Editing went to Raiders of the Lost Ark (Reds and Raiders were also both Best Picture nominees). Ian Holm lost to John Gielgud for his performance in Arthur. Interestingly, Gielgud also played a minor role in Chariots of Fire as a character who regards Ian Holm's character somewhat disdainfully. Chariots won its other nominations for a total of 4 awards.

The movie follows two very different men, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who both ran and won gold medals for Great Britain in the 1924 World Olympics in Paris.

Abrahams is an Englishman of Jewish descent attending Cambridge. He is obsessively competitive and cannot conceive of losing. All his life he has felt that he has something to prove, seeing prejudice (real and imagined) against his race all around him. He believes that victory on the racetrack will not only cement his right to be called an Englishman, but that it will justify his very existence. "If I can't win, I won't run," he forcefully declares. But later, in a moment of doubt, he admits to a fellow athlete: "That is your secret, contentment; I am 24 and I've never know it. I'm forever in pursuit and I don't even know what I am chasing."

Liddell is a Scottish Protestant whose parents are missionaries to China. He feels called to follow them there, but first he wishes to glorify God by racing in the Olympics. His sister, Jenny, worries that spending time racing instead of attending to his ministry will damage his commitment to the Lord. His response: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure." He is truly not interested at all in personal glory. When he wins a race, he capitalizes on the gathering of people to reel off an impromptu sermon (and what a handy metaphor to go from!).

Abrahams finds his perviously unshakeable confidence faltering after he loses a race to Liddell, and recruits a coach to improve his form. As the big race nears, he finds himself intimidated. "I've known the fear of losing but now I am almost too frightened to win," he says. We see the elation of victory rush to his face as he crosses the finish line, but his success leaves him feeling strangely empty. Having achieved his purpose, he begins to feel keenly the void it left behind. Victory for self-glorification has failed to give him meaning.

Liddell faces a very different problem when he discovers that the heat for his race is to be held on Sunday. He will not run on Sunday, standing firm on that principle even when pressured by a small group of the nobility and the prince of Wales himself. He recalls not only the worries of his sister, but also his privileged position as a very public representative of his faith. And, most of all, he believes in the importance of following his convictions about God's law, even if no one is watching. People are watching, though, and soon his principled stand is receiving world-wide press.

His countrymen and his fellow Christians have every reason to be proud of him, but there is still the matter of his being able to run. This is solved when a fellow member of the British team offers Liddell his spot in a different race. Just before the race, one of the American runners hands Liddell a paper with 1st Samuel 2:30 scrawled on it: "He who honors Me, I will honor." Liddell goes on to win the race in his own strange way: head thrown back, mouth wide open, hand clutching the note. And then, elated but without missing a beat, he goes on to become a missionary to China. His entire life's focus is to glorify God, and there will always be ways to do that.

Abrahams lived until 1978, and stayed involved in athletics throughout his life. His funeral bookends the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the movie. Liddell died in a prison camp in China near the end of World War II. As Chariots of Fire informs us just before the credits, "All of Scotland mourned."

My one complaint would have to be directed at the music. Shocking, right? I mean, the opening theme of Chariots of Fire is legendary, and the score won an Oscar. There are parts of it, indeed, that are quite excellent, but overall I found it intrusive. More than anything else, the score grounds this movie solidly in the decade in which it was made. So much synthetic music; so very 1980s. If they had just done the same things with more conventional instruments, there wouldn't be such a jarring sense of anachronism. I have always felt that with a historical movie like this, the music playing over scenes should not be something that the characters would be confused or baffled if they heard. It ought to fit somehow with their time and place, either in style or instrumentation.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty good movie, made all the more excellent by its thematic elements. It manages to come across more as historical fiction/biopic material than as inspirational sports movie, which is all to the good. This may be the closest thing to a Christian movie that has won or ever will win an Oscar, with the possible exception of A Man for All Seasons (in fact, producer David Puttnam was searching for a story about conscience in the same vein as that film when he stumbled across the story of Eric Liddell in an Olympic trivia book). The lead actors get completely lost in their characters, and all of the performances are marvellous. Chariots of Fire also truly evokes its period setting, and I was particularly impressed by the difficulty of reproducing so convincingly the Olympic games of 80 years ago.

As for the other movies that came out that year, they're a pretty rum bunch (as you might expect from the early '80s). The only other truly great movie I've seen from this year is Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is certainly a heavy contender, but perhaps not quite as worthy of the Best Picture award. That aside, I don't think anyone will argue with me when I say that Raiders should have won Best Original Score. The themes from that movie are even more popular than the still well-known Chariots theme, and John Williams never made the desperate mistake of abandoning the traditional symphony orchestra when scoring movies.

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April 04, 2007


Read my VisualDNA Get your own VisualDNA™

Via Randy

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April 03, 2007

To Days of Inspiration

At nearly 4:00 on Saturday afternoon, Rachel and I set out with Gallagher and Becca in one car, following Anna, Scholl, Randy, and Barbour in another. We were all headed for Fort Worth to catch a live performance of the Broadway musical Rent at 8:00. I passed the time with an excellent history of the composition of the King James Bible and an entertaining history of Christian rock while the Rent soundtrack played in the background.

Then we ran into a bit of trouble in Dallas. Namely, that we weren't supposed to be in Dallas. It turns out that there is a grouping of street names in Dallas identical to several of the street names surrounding our destination in Fort Worth. Lame. Fortunately, after a hurried consultation revealed a set of directions on our parking passes, we had just enough time to book it over to our actual destination, find a small pizza joint, and bolt down a large pepperoni pizza before the show began. Afterwards, we searched diligently until we found a Steak 'n Shake, and between this, that, and the other, we didn't get back to campus until 3 AM.

The show was magnificent. I own the movie and the abridged movie soundtrack, but I thought this was much better in some ways. It wasn't quite as good in others . . . Mainly, if I hadn't seen the movie first, some things might have been difficult to follow. But I had, so that wasn't really a problem. The movie version also cut out several numbers, including a really great song called "And It's Beginning to Snow" that is one of my favorites. I thought the actors really got into their roles more on-stage, and there was an emotional electricity that was lacking in the screen version.

The musical is based on La Vie de Bohème. It follows a group of starving artist types living in New York City as they struggle to survive and create over the course of a single year. It is not the sort of musical that I think a conventional Christian worldview incorporates easily, with what could easily be perceived as a glowing endorsement for Bohemianism (a rejection of society's values in all forms), open approval of homosexuality, advice to live by the whims of the moment without regard for consequences, and so on.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I think Rent has a great deal to offer a Christian audience: artistically, intellectually, spiritually, and (of course) thematically. Allow me to explain.

First, Rent is a really good musical. It's not my favorite ever, but it's one of them. It has a well-developed cast of likable characters and a rich setting. The songs are all horribly catchy, and there are several real show-stoppers mixed in amongst many are just pure fun. Just about anyone should be able to appreciate its merits on an artistic level alone, to say nothing of the rest.

Second, Rent has a great deal of valuable insight into the culture it is examining. I think all too often we dismiss the value of understanding cultures that we should be reaching out to. It is perhaps easier to recognize the importance of this when in a foreign country, since we have to learn a whole new language with its own idioms and history in order to even communicate. But why would anyone suppose that those principles don't apply just as much when reaching across worldviews as when reaching across the world itself?

As such, if you're interested in the philosophy and subculture represented in Rent, the musical is a great place to begin. At the least it would be worth experiencing as a point of entry with the show's large and growing following. A whole lot of people are attracted by something that they see here. Maybe it's worth figuring out what that is.

Third, if you watch Rent and come away (like the Plugged In reviewer did) with only the sense that you've just watched a commercial for a lifestyle you don't agree with . . . Well, congratulations on your ultra-shallow analytical skills. This may be an expression of the Bohemian lifestyle, certainly, but it is hardly a glorification of it.

These people's choices have not been affirmed by society or circumstances, by any stretch of the imagination. They've obviously had a lot good times in the past, but by now they are definitely on a downward spiral. They live, starving and freezing, in the worst conditions. Two of them suffer from the consequences of destructive addictions. Four of them are dying of AIDs. Almost all of them carry the scars of fractured or fracturing relationships. This willingness to take such a raw and honest look at the realities of this life smacks of a certain commitment to truth.

This is a commitment sorely lacking in a good 99% of Christian movies, which do not care to acknowledge the fact that, regardless of your lifestyle or religious affiliations, life is not all cotton candy and fabergé eggs. In fact, Rent's gravest misstep comes when it succumbs to that same hollow formula at the very end. The moment rings incredibly false, all the more so because it has rung so true up to that point. We are happy that the story has ended well, but really, who could see it for the first time without rolling their eyes when Mimi invokes the hackneyed "light at the end of the tunnel" gag. It cheapens everything the musical has accomplished. Despite that, there is a great deal of value in the truth of what we have seen before this.

Finally, I would say that the central narrative tension of Rent (although it is rife with subplots) is the question of relationships (especially the one between Mimi and Roger). Angel and Collins have the perfect relationship: a selfless commitment to the other person that doesn't dwell on the past or the future. They serve as a contrast to Roger's fear and Maureen's unwillingness to give up playing the field. Mimi and Roger meet just after Roger has declared his deepest desire: to leave behind just one song to be remembered by, so his life (a mess of drugs and death and AIDs) won't have been a complete waste.

Throughout the couple's long coming to terms, he hangs on to that desire as he has first expressed it, unwilling to give it up. The creative process is a convenient excuse for him to insulate himself from more painful relationships. But what he finally realizes (almost too late) is that he has not only cut himself off from a relationship that is more fulfilling even than an artistic legacy, but in so doing, he has cut himself off from the source of his art itself.

Take a chance on love first and everything else will be added unto you. Tomorrow is not soon enough, because today might be the last day you have. It's not so much about disregarding consequences for impulsive behavior as it is about taking advantage of every fleeting moment you have. We may not have a system by which to measure the value of how someone spent their life, but if they have at least truly loved and been loved, then they haven't wasted their time.

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