Sunday, October 3, 2010

Back in the U.S.S.R. (well, really GDR)

Yesterday, we watched The Lives of Others. It's been on my list of films to see for years now, and I'm not sure what's taken so long. I have to admit that I often don't choose foreign, subtitled films because I think it will be hard to pay close enough attention, and if I'm in a quilting mood, it really won't work. So, yes, the movie has been out for years, and I'm only just now getting to it.

What a powerful movie. I knew that it would be. In some ways, it's strange to think that the movie is set in the mid-80's, during my lifetime. It already feels like a million years ago, that time when Germany was divided, when we expected nuclear war at any moment, a time of check points and spies and covert operations.

The film revolves around a Stasi agent who monitors a famous writer and his actress girlfriend. The writer is not subversive at the beginning of the film; indeed, he's the darling of the Communist government. One of the government higher-ups is interested in the girlfriend, and the film asks what we're willing to pay/do for our art and for the freedom to practice that art.

Throughout the film, I kept thinking back to arguments that I used to have with my Air Force father during the early 1980's. I was an insufferable adolescent who thought that she knew it all. My Air Force dad had classified information that he was not about to share with me. I argued that at least the Soviet Union made sure that everyone had their life needs met, even if they didn't have freedoms. My father assured me that I didn't know what I was talking about, that freedom was far more important than food. In some ways, we were both right and both horribly wrong. The film shows the price of the Communist system. In Iron Curtain East Berlin, the clean streets have no graffiti. At the end of the film, children can't play kickball in the streets, and graffiti has colonized every wall.

I kept thinking about how lucky I am as a poet. I assume, and probably rightly so, that no government agency is keeping files on me. I'm not one of those baby boomers who would be outraged to find out that the FBI really could care less about me. Of course, having been born in the 1960's, it also won't surprise me to discover that there's a government file somewhere. As a poet, I can write whatever I want, and until recently, I could assume that maybe 200 people at the most might ever see it, unless I had phenomenal luck like Mary Oliver or Billy Collins.

Of course, the Internet changes everything. Now we're all being monitored, all the time, and we don't seem to care much. I talk to faculty members who talk about how they want to keep their phone number absolutely private, and I always ask, "Have you Googled yourself lately?" Most of us don't have truly private lives anymore.

I'm sure it's still possible to go underground, to live off the grid. But most of us choose not to.

For poets (and probably other artists too), this more exposed life has been wonderful, in a way. We have more ways to get our work out than ever before. We're not dependent on the few people who have the money to put together a book or a journal. We can network like we never could before. I've bought many a volume of poetry that I never would have, simply because I've read their blogs. I've bought volumes of poetry because a blogger whom I like recommends a particular book.

It's a brave, new world, in ways that Huxley and Orwell couldn't have predicted. It will be interesting in 25 years to see what parts of our current life make it onto film. What are the outrages that we're not as cognizant of simply because we're living through them or by them or far away from them? What will surprise us? What will we long for? What will we miss?

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