To The World on My Birthday: The Unseen Redemption

[The following contains spoilers for The Shawshank Redemption]

It sounds cliche to say it, but one of my favorite films of all time is Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption. The film was criminally neglected at the box office when it was released in theaters in 1994, earning less than $30 million domestically. It was also given a pass by Oscar voters, who gave it seven Oscar nominations but not a single win. When Redemption hit DVD, though, it became virtually a mainstream success, and has gained a huge following in the time since.

As a general matter, I do a lot of self-reflection. And when my birthday rolls around (as it has today), that's when the figurative, body-length mirror really comes out. This year, I've been thinking a lot about the fate of Andy DuFresne (played perfectly by Tim Robbins in the film). If you'll recall, DuFresne was convicted and sentenced to life in jail for the crime of murdering his wife and her lover. But the thing is, DuFresne was wrongfully convicted; even though he had murderous thoughts, he changed his mind at the last minute. A third party did the deed and DuFresne was given the blame.

While at first, DuFresne felt and appeared utterly defeated by the bleakness of his fate -- and who wouldn't be? -- eventually, he accepted his place at Shawshank State Prison and used his resources to help others. From a single act of kindness on top of a hot, tarred roof, DuFresne ended up opening a prison library, educating fellow inmates, and trying to make the world a better place. All the while, he was digging himself out of prison using a foot-long rock hammer. It took him a few decades to finally break free, a metaphor for how long it took him to dig himself out of the emotional hell he found himself in at the beginning of the film.

I think the film is absolutely, 100% brilliant. I wouldn't change a thing about it. But it only really shows you half of the story.

Towards the end of the film, when DuFresne is at his lowest point and apparently on the edge of suicide, he speaks with Red (Morgan Freeman) about the inescapable circumstance that the both of them have found themselves in:

DuFresne: My wife used to say I'm a hard man to know. Like a closed book. Complained about it all the time. She was beautiful. God, I loved her. I just didn't know how to show it, that's all. I killed her, Red. I didn't pull the trigger, but I drove her away. And that's why she died, because of me. The way I am.
Red: That don't make you a murderer. A bad husband, maybe. Feel bad about it if you want to, but you didn't pull the trigger.
DuFresne: No, I didn't. Somebody else did. And I wound up in here. Bad luck, I guess. It floats around. It's gotta land on somebody. It was my turn, that's all. I was in the path of the tornado. I just didn't expect the storm would last as long as it has.

These few words give the viewer a window into the years of neglect that happened off screen, before the movie even began. Did DuFresne's coldness drive his wife into the arms of another man? If DuFresne had been a little bit more loving, a little bit more warm, would the tragedy of his wrongful imprisonment still be a reality? We'll never know, but it's not difficult to imagine that the answer to these questions is "Yes."

We never get to see any of their marriage, nor are we privy to the health of their interactions and as a result, I think our understanding of the fullness of DuFresne's transformation is limited somewhat. Without seeing the kind of man he was before, it is harder to appreciate the man he ends up becoming. That's the real transformation that's the crux of the film -- not that of a wrongfully convicted, bitter man, but of an aloof, complacent, and ungrateful one. His metamorphosis is not from the depths of evil to the heights of good. Rather, it begins from a place of banality, of monotony.

Yet it strikes me that the way the movie chooses to depict Andy's character arc is still the most effective way to do leave DuFresne's former self to the imagination of the viewer. And so that's what I've envisioned it as: a soulless, sexless marriage, devoid of passion or purpose. In a way, DuFresne's jail sentence began long before he even arrived at the monolithic, imposing walls of Shawshank, albeit the former was a self-imposed term. His real-life imprisonment became a physical manifestation of what he was already going through.

Note that his crimes aren't necessarily that severe, and that most would consider his punishment disproportionate. But just as serious crimes such as rape and murder are most frequently committed by those who know the victim and not by some serial rapist/murderer, so the wrongs we inflict on others need not be extreme or newspaper-worthy to be completely devastating.

Play this while reading this post for maximum impact :)

But that's why the movie is so uplifting: because DuFresne does ultimately find his (drum roll please) redemption. The film offers hope in the fact that no matter what crimes you've committed, no matter who you've wronged or what you've done, you can still find salvation, even in the unlikeliest of places.

The life of Andy DuFresne does not map perfectly, or even somewhat, onto my own life. But I see myself as somewhere on the timeline of his character arc, constantly reaching for the ever-elusive light, waiting to emerge from a mile-long sewer pipe full of shit that I put myself in.

What Shawshank says to me is that it's only when you're put in a situation of utter hopelessness and desolation that the process of reconstituting yourself can begin. It is only when your circumstances are dire enough to destroy you that you really appreciate the heart-swelling goodness that life holds. Then, with this knowledge imparted, you act accordingly. You treat your friends and fellow man with dignity, decency, and kindness. You look to their joy as reward enough. You look to brighten the lives of others before you are gone. And you find peace in these things.

When my boss at /Film, Peter Sciretta, wished me a happy birthday last year, he re-affirmed his well-wishes by saying, "This year will be better than the last." Having experienced this past year, I can't really say that that's been the case. But I can say that I like that message of hope and optimism. No matter what has happened in your past life, the sun will still rise tomorrow, and you will still have a chance to turn it around.

In the year that comes, I will endeavor to learn from my past, but not to dwell on it. To look into the future with hope. To understand that darkness comes before dawn, and that the process of becoming a better person doesn't happen just in a few months or in a year. It might be decades. It is probably a lifetime.

Playing the Blues


[This post will be the first in a series.]

I love music.

Over the course of my life I've been blessed with the opportunity to perform in a variety of settings. There's nothing I love more than playing for an audience, and no situation in which I feel more alive.

Recently, I've been taken with blues piano. I was classically trained as a kid and was looking for a different way to apply my skills. The blues can be vital and energizing, but also convey profound sadness when necessary. I think it sounds more pleasing to the ear than jazz, yet the fact that it's improv-ed is something I find intensely appealing; no two performances can ever be exactly alike!

I've tried taking lessons but have found it difficult to get the right instructor. Usually the problems are logistical. Some weeks I don't have enough time to practice, while other weeks I have too much (and end up longing for more assignments). Sometimes I just don't have the time to drive to the instructor's place, and other weeks I find I've gotten to the end of a lesson only to question why I'm forking over $X for it. I understand that nothing can replace 1-on-1 lessons with a skilled instructor, and I hope to eventually return to that arrangement at some point. It's just not what will work for me right now.

So I sought out other means of learning. Specifically, I invested in a few piano books, including David Cohen's series of blues piano books. I found them to be decent-to-good, but the biggest problem with any book system: it will only take you so far. Books obviously have a finite number of pages, and even the thickets ones can't take you any further than what is contained inside the book. You can often exhaust the lessons within in a matter of weeks or months.

Enter Willie Myette, whose piano lesson websites I discovered while browsing the internet.

At first glance, Myette's system of learning piano appears to offer several advantages:

1) They lessons are incredibly detailed, and allow you to recreate the pieces Myette plays precisely, down to the note.
2) The lessons are relatively cheap (Current prices are about $300 for a year of unlimited access to all sites. Getting a piano lesson with a real-life instructor can often cost as much as $100 per lesson, especially if you live in the Boston area, which has been blessed with some amazing music schools.
3) The lessons are full-featured, in the sense that they come with sheet music and lesson plans.
4) Most importantly: Myette continuously updates the site, with new lessons every week. This last point is crucial, as it replicates one of the most appealing elements of having a real-life teacher at only a fraction of the cost.

In the next few months, I will be going through some lessons on Myette's website and seeing how I can improve my very, very limited blues abilities. I made a recent recording of myself just playing around so you can get an idea of where I'm starting at. Please note I don't consider the following to be performance-ready by any means. It is just a recording of me randomly improvising (poorly):


Can Willie Myette make me a better piano player? I'm eager to find out. Watch this blog for future entries tracking my progress.

The Podcasts I Can't Live Without

Photo (for blog post): Podcast setup

As a podcast host, I think it's important to constantly pay attention to the exciting things that other talented people are doing in this space. I listen to dozens of podcasts, so many that it's impossible to get to an episode of every single podcast I subscribe to on a weekly basis. Usually I save up a bunch of episodes, then take them all in with one fell swoop (i.e. when I'm waiting for a plane, or taking a very long drive).

There are a few podcast out there, however, that I must have a weekly dose of, lest I become moody and unpleasant. These are the conversations I feel I must be privy to, whose hosts I want to get to know more each week. These are the podcasts that I can't wait to download, load onto my iPhone, and listen to on my way to/from work. These are the podcasts with whom I am most grateful to regularly share my time with.

I wouldn't necessarily say these are my "favorite" or "the best" on my playlist. For example, you won't find This American Life, Filmspotting, The Bugle, Weekend Confirmed, Giant Bombcast, or tons of others that I listen to, even though I love these podcasts and find them all superlative. Those will have to wait for a separate post.

But there's something about the following podcasts...The comforting way their hosts interact. The creativity and gusto with which they execute their premises. The kismet that brought them to the place they are today. Anyway, without further ado, here are the podcasts I can't live without:

The IFC News Podcast - Matt Singer and Alison Willmore analyze a movie trope and then discuss how it's been deployed in movies throughout history. In my opinion, this podcast is a movie geek's dream come true, with tons of thoughtful references to movies past and present. But while the show's premise is great, I live for the moments when Matt will break into some bizarre, hilarious impression, or Alison will drop some obscure film knowledge that leaves me in awe of her wisdom. Add in some of the best listener feedback I've ever heard, plus a clever IMDB keyword game (with weekly prizes!), and this podcast becomes an absolute must-listen. Also, I'm pretty sure I have a crush on Alison Willmore. [iTunes] [Website]

KCRW's The Business - Kim Masters takes the most important entertainment news and talks to the people involved to get an inside perspective. I don't think this podcast gets enough credit for creativity with which it addresses its topics. For example, a recent episode was devoted to what behavior is acceptable in the writer's room, vs. what constitutes sexual harassment. To tackle this issue, Masters invited on a lawyer who has filed lawsuits against studios, and had him duke things out with a lawyer who has defended studios in the past. It was as informative a discussion as you could get on the topic, while still being entertaining.

Other recent episodes have included an inside look at how the Oscars were produced, and how the script for Battlefield Earth went wrong. For those interested in the industry (and for those like myself who cover it), The Business also features a short "Hollywood news banter" at the top of the show, which is a really good way to stay on top of the latest developments. At a scant 30 minutes long, you have to search hard to find a good reason NOT to listen to The Business. [iTunes] [Website]

On The Media - This is less a podcast about the stuff the media covers, and more a podcast about how the media covers it. For a news junkie like me, it's a goldmine of interesting factoids and fascinating reflections on the nature and the state of journalism in the U.S. and around the world. Recent episodes have included coverage of the history of the term "baby-killer" and how Google plans on creating a universal translator. Fascinating stuff. [iTunes] [Website]

Battleship Pretension - Each week, the Battleship Pretension podcast chooses a theme and tries to explore it to its logical conclusion, often with a fascinating and/or humorous guest. Tyler Smith and David Bax, two film school graduates, aren't necessarily the most dynamic podcast personalities out there, but what this podcasts lacks in bombast, it makes up for in intelligent discussion. Both hosts are incredibly articulate and careful in their locution, in a way that people who listen to my inane ramblings will probably find refreshing. But more than any of that, sometimes it's just fun to hear people who are good friends banter back and forth about random topics in a way that is not obnoxious. Also, I find both of their voices incredibly soothing. I think you will too. [iTunes] [Website]

Thanks for reading! Feel free to check out my two podcasts: The /Filmcast and The Tobolowsky Files