Monday, April 26, 2010


I put my stupid hat on when I left work today. Just before I got in my car I noticed something hanging from the rearview mirror of another car. After I stood there for minute trying to read it and figure out what it was, I noticed two people in in the front seat of the car. They were probably saying, "Why the hell is that freak staring at us?"

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Themes of the Individual vs. Society in the Film Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame

This is a speech I recently presented at a Toastmasters meeting. 

Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831. It has been made into several movies, including a popular black and white classic in 1939 and the well-received Disney film in 1996.

The book and movies explore several themes, but I want to concentrate on one in particular – that of the Individual versus Society. This is a literary theme where a character's main source of conflict is with society, or with social traditions.

A sub-theme of the Individual versus Society that I identify with (and that I may have made up) is about the pressure by society to not be different. About compelling the individual to blend in. Sure, society pays lip service to “being yourself” but when you look around, everyone is asking you to look a certain way or act a certain way. Being true to yourself, regardless of what society thinks, is a timeless theme.

It's ultimately about the breaking of societal norms, when those norms are immoral or unethical. For example, society judges us on how we look. And here, the ideals of society are in direct conflict with what is good and right. All you have to do is turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or watch a movie, and you can see how important outer beauty is. And yet, we all know deep, down, that that’s wrong.

In the early 1930's Alduous Huxley wrote Brave New World partly in response to a fear of losing one's identity as the world became more industrial and fast-paced. To highlight this them, one of the characters in the book compares being different with murder, coming to the conclusion that being different is much worse. He says,
“Murder kills only the individual...Unorthodoxy [being different] threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at society itself.”
In the Disney version of the film, our protagonist is Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre Dame. He is hideous. He knows he is deformed and ugly. He has a bit of a phlegmatic temperament and tells his gargoyle friends in the Notre Dame cathedral things like, “I'd never fit in. I'm not normal.” From the very beginning of the movie, we see that he knows that with the importance that the world places on how we appear, he would never be welcome by the townspeople. As a baby, he was so disfigured, that the powerful Judge Claude Frollo, after accidentally killing his mother nearly threw him down a well before being stopped by the Archdeacon outside the cathedral. But Frollo persists, pronouncing “This is an unholy demon. I'm sending it back to hell, where it belongs!”

Which, upon reflection, isn't exactly the kind of scene I'd write for a children's animated film.

But Judge Claude Frollo, the story's antagonist, is convinced by the Archdeacon of Notre Dame to raise the child under his charge.

We see what type of man Frollo is in a scene of the movie that takes place soon after, when he sings to Quasimodo, “You are deformed, and you are ugly.” Since Quasimodo never leaves the cathedral, he wants to attend the annual Festival of Fools, which Frollo calls a gathering of “Thieves and hustlers and the dregs of humankind, all mixed together in a shallow, drunken stupor.” He sings to Quasimodo, “They'll revile you as a monster.” And Quasimodo echoes, “I am a monster.”

I promise this was a kid’s movie.

Frollo represents everything that is evil about our society, only existing to promote what he feels is right and ignoring everyone else's welfare.

Judge Frollo brings in Phoebus, Captain of the Guard, because he despises the gypsies who have infested Paris and wants to eradicate them. Frollo is the part of society that propogates these hateful feelings against anyone that deviates slightly from his idea of normal. He explains to Phoebus that his job will be to find the hidden sanctuary of the gypsies and bring an end to them.

So the Festival of Fools begins. Being a public official, Judge Frollo must attend, and is accompanied by Phoebus.

But Quasimodo, disobeying Frollo’s desires also comes to the Festival.

And there, he meets the beautiful gypsy Esmerelda, who shows him kindness. She is, indeed, the only person to ever truly treat him with any kind of love because everyone else is afraid of how repulsive he is. And when he is treated like a monster at the Festival, she is the one that comes to his rescue, in direct defiance of Judge Frollo, who demands that she be detained by Phoebus.

As Esmerelda leads the guards on a merry chase, Phoebus seems entranced by her. He chases her into Notre Dame, but cannot arrest her in the church, so he sets her free.

Quasimodo helps her escape the cathedral though guards are stationed at every door. He has finally found someone who can look through his outer shell and see who he really is. He is completely smitten with her, and his Gargoyle friends (remember, this is a Disney movie) sing to him and convince him that she's in love with him.

Now we cut to Frollo in his bedchamber, where we find out that not only is Quasimodo in love, and not only is Phoebus completely taken by her, but Frollo is also infatuated with the exquisite Esmerelda.

There he sings a song titled Hellfire, and this is probably the creepiest scene I've seen in any Disney movie. He sings about how he, too, is in love with Esmerelda, “Tell me, why I see her dancing there, why her smoldering eyes still scorch my soul.”

As an image of Esmerelda dances in the flames and smoke of his fireplace, he continues, “Like fire, Hellfire, this burning in my skin; this burning desire is turning me to sin.”

Seriously? I’m wondering now if I should have watched this with my 7-year-old daughter.

Frollo goes to find out what Quasimodo knows, mentioning to Quasimodo that he will have a thousand guards attack the hiding place of the gypsies at dawn. This tricks Quasimodo and Phoebus (who has now turned against Frollo) to go to warn them. They unintentionally lead Frollo there followed by all the guardsmen, who capture Quasimodo, Phoebus, Esmerelda, and the gypsies.

Quasimodo is sent back to his tower in chains and watches as Esmerelda is about to be burned at the stake. But, at the last minute, our protagonist breaks free, climbs down from the tower, saves the girl, takes her up to Notre Dame, holds her above his head and in his booming voice, cries, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”

In the chaos, Phoebus is freed, the gypsies are rescued, and probably all of Paris is saved from Judge Frollo. He of course climbs the church and attempts to kill Esmerelda and Quasimodo, but in his haste to murder them, falls to his death.

And so we come to our, uh, happy ending.

Does our protagonist, the repellent, revolting Quasimodo, going against all tradition, get the girl? Of course not!

Esmerelda marries the handsome captain of the guard. And Quasimodo's ok with it; almost as if he realizes that he is too much of a monster to be loved by someone so beautiful. And the worst part of society triumphs over the individual. In the end it's Quasimodo who saves Esmerelda's live, putting into motion the events that save all the gypsies and lead to the death of Frollo. But, alas, that's not enough to allow him to be a normal part if society and he lives his life alone in Notre Dame while the beautiful people live happily ever after.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Lent, Addiction, and Failure

Today is Easter Sunday. Lent started on Ash Wednesday this year on February 17 - about 40 days ago, not counting Sundays. Many Christians take this time of year to think about the time Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his ministry, and his impending death at the end of his ministry (remembered on Good Friday).

This year, during Lent, I attempted to be more observant of the fasts, and to attempt to make it more of a season of confession, repentance, and reflection. Once again, I failed miserably.

I planned to observe the Friday fasts, which are, if I read correctly, a single normal-sized meal, as well as two smaller meals that don't add up to a whole meal. Plus, no meat. (Meat is considered warm-blooded animals, so fish is OK.)

Also, I decided I'd give up coke. So no soda. No pop. At all.

And, I made a daily commitment to read, study, and pray. To take some time to take a spiritual inventory. Of where I am, where I need to be.

I did OK on the first two. Just OK, because I messed up eating meat at least once on Friday, and stretched the "small meal" thing a bit. Also, I slipped up on the cokes a few times. But it was better than last year when I messed early on, and by the end, I was completely disregarding the commitment I made.

But that last one, I totally blew. I started reading the Bible through a while back - and thought I'd Twitter comments at
@ChronoBible (Chronological Bible). I wanted to pick it back up during the last 6 weeks, but didn't really. And I didn't spend the time in reflection I intended, either. More than usual, I guess. Which is good. I guess. But nothing like I intended.


But I think I learned something. The Fridays were a real eye-opener. I've talked a lot before about food, and eating, and gluttony. It's a struggle I've had all my life. Although, I was a skinny kid, and it really didn't show up until I was in college. (By the time I gained the freshman 15 - and the sophomore 15 - people were saying I looked good. But then came the junior 15, and the senior 15, and the 2nd-year senior 15...)

Back to Friday fasts. I'm not sure what hole I'm trying to fill by shoveling piles and piles of food into my mouth. But for some reason, during this season, I realized the obvious. I just don't need to eat so much.

Well, duh.

But this is why I've always been fascinated by psychology. How can I know a simple fact, for many, many years, yet not fully comprehend, understand, and internalize the implications of that fact except through some weird spiritual discipline? It's things like this that give me faith.

The first two steps in a 12-step program are:

1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable


2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

It's been this 40-day process that has given me a different way of looking at eating. I have to say it's that "Power greater than myself" that did the work.