Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream


It may seem surprising that I chose to review  a movie from 2007 in this post. Arent’t there any new movies good enough to deserve more updated commentaries? Well, the advent of NETFLIX blurred time lines, and today, at the tip of your fingers, you can access and pick either the latest episode of House of Cards, or immerse yourself as easily in a classic movie bringing your laptop or any other device to bed, and then not being able to sleep. Going to bed with your e-devices is, after all, considered one of the main causes of the prevalent insomnia and sleep deprivation most of us suffer these days. The flickering light will stay on in your brain for hours even after you switch the machine off and try to invite Morpheus in. I believe the god gets jealous of being relegated to a second post in your bed priorities, or third, if you take sex into consideration, and, as a consequence, will resist your call as long as possible – despite all the Ambien you might use to entice him.

The movie

Speaking of Morpheus, the movie we are discussing today has mythology and classic literature at its center (Cassandra and Dostoyevsky) and also dreams in its title and themes. Cassandra is a mythologycal  figure who, in the best known version of her story, rejects the advances of Apollo and is cursed with the power of prophecy which will not be believed by anyone. Tragic: you try to warn people against their foolish ways, foretelling their fateful outcomes, yet no one takes your predictions seriously.

Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream

Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream

Well, Woody Allen’s movie is a cautionary tale about ambition and the use of short cuts and quick fixes to get what you want. It’s a warning for those who cross forbidden and dangerous lines to achieve their dreams and aspirations. At the same time, we know humans will never change no matter what Cassandra says. Excessive ambition will always contaminate countless souls and the lure of short cuts is too strong to resist, despite its consequences.

In this respect the story is not new, it has been told innumerable times, we read about it in the papers every single day. Nevertheless they do not usually rely on charismatic actors such as Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell embodying the fateful ambitious brothers on their tragic path to destruction, stopping at nothing to get what they dream about, nor with the help of a great supporting cast to help tell the story, which is not uncommon in any Allen movie. Cassandra’s Dream would never be this strong movie if we could not count on the superb performances of this team.

The plot

The movie starts with the brothers, who have a very close bond, excited at the prospect of purchasing a small boat and trying to negotiate the price down with its owner. From the very first dialogue we realize they are not guys who play straight and are always trying to take advantage. Terry (Colin Farrell), a pill-popping, compulsive gambler with a drinking problem, works as a mechanic in a garage and is always lending expensive cars to his bother Ian (Ewan McGregor), who works in the family restaurant while trying to save money to start a hotel business in California. The story takes place in modern-day London, which, together with another Woody Allen movie set there, Match Point, makes the most of the amazing sights of the city in the beautifully photographed scenes.

The whole family – the two brothers, father and mother – is always shamelessly sucking up to a rich uncle – with shady deals all over the world – who visits them a couple of  times a year, and lavishes the relatives with presents and, sometimes, cash. Well, now, however, the stakes are higher: Terry owes a lot of money to hard-core gamblers and might have his legs broken if he fails to pay them back. Ian, on the other hand, can’t wait to get away from the greasy restaurant business and break free from his suffocating family to move to America with a newly-acquired theater actress girlfriend, who dreams of becoming a successful Hollywood star.

Greed

The uncle has the means, the power and the connections to make all this come true. All they need is to ask him. After all, they are family. Blood is more important than anything else, isn’t it? But blood costs blood: the rich uncle will lend both brothers the money and work his powerful connections to turn Ian’s girl friend into a star in exchange for a huge favor: he claims he can only count on Terry and Ian to get rid of  a business contact who knows too much about his shady deals and may send him to jail for the next 10 years. They must kill him.

Crime and punishment

In this Crime and Punishment kind of plot, the brothers decide to cross the line – there is no return – and do the deed. They kill the man. Before long, however, the Raskolnikov’s syndrome of not being able to live with the burden of the guilt overcomes Terry, who threatens to go to the police and surrender. Uncle Rich and Ian will not let that happen. Terry has to be stopped. Another line to be crossed.

Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream

Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream

The end

The face-off between the two brothers takes place against the backdrop of the Thames – the water playing the eternal metaphor of hidden and dark subconscious compulsions –  inside Cassandra’s Dream, the fateful boat they acquired at the beginning of the story, in a breathtaking sequence, where the bond and love felt by the two brothers get mixed up and destroyed by the ambition of cold-blooded Ian and the weakness of unstable Terry. The already stunning  actors’ performances rise a couple of notches for the grand finale – which, as a plot point, is even a bit anticlimactic.  Maybe this is on purpose, as we are mainly left with the facial expressions of Colin and Ewan forever engraved in out minds and wishing for more as the final credits roll on.

Human beings will never change, but Netflix viewers of Cassandra’s Dream will never be the same after watching acting of this caliber.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

Teaching English with Art: Vincent van Gogh


Teaching English with Art: Vincent van Gogh.  This seventh volume of our successful series of eBooks combining ENGLISH TEACHING AND ART is a wonderful supplement to any coursebook or extra materials your students may already be using in the English class. It contains 30 speaking and writing activities (now including specific vocabulary exercises) for classroom use, based on some of the most striking works by one of the most beloved  and controversial  artists of Western Culture, VINCENT VAN GOGH.

The objective of the eBook is to expose the students to art while teaching English, fulfilling therefore one of the tenets of effective language acquisition: providing a realistic context for the language to be learned and practiced as a means to an end. Your students will love to exercise their English discussing the works of van Gogh. This is a proven way to make language acquisition fun and effective by creating in the classroom an atmosphere of interest, motivation and emotion. Each activity is clearly correlated to the COMMON EUROPEAN FRAMEWORK OF REFERENCE (CEFR), and the level is stated next to it.

Click on the image below to download the ebook:

Click on the image above to get your copy from the KINDLE STO

Click on the image above to get your copy from the KINDLE STORE.

Check out the video clip on the ebook TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: VINCENT VAN GOGH

For other books of our series, click here: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

Teaching English with art

Teaching English with art

Takeaways from Four of Philip Roth’s Best Novels


Philip Roth died last night at 85. This article was written a couple of years ago.

For the usual readers of this blog, it’s no surprise that I consider Philip Roth the best living North American writer. This opinion is shared by many other people, so I’m not alone in this assumption.  I was lucky to have read my first Roth – although in Portuguese – when I was still in college: Portnoy’s Complaint. Of course, I was duly scandalized by the  account of the life and troubles of a young Jewish American man who does not refrain from telling the explicit details of his sexual activities to a silent therapist. Maybe I was not as shocked as the readers who first came across the book when it came out in the 1960s, but the late 1980s in Recife, Brazil, were still pretty conservative for the likes of Roth. As a matter of fact, I would say the whole world still is.

Novels by Philip Roth

Novels by Philip Roth

Roth does not mince words. He is brutal and unsentimental in the depiction of his characters,  despite the love and care you sense he feels for most of them deep down, if you read his novels attentively.  He tends to strip men and women of their social disguises, digs deep, and exposes them almost cruelly to our judgment. Some say he is a misogynist in his portrayal of women. Well, if you read Sabath’s Teather, in which he creates one of the most disgusting and at the same time fascinating male characters in Western literature, you may change your mind. He can be as harsh towards men, after all. The world is in general tougher on women and, therefore, misogynistic itself. Roth’s novels are a mere reflection of life as it is. More precisely: his novels illuminate angles and dark corners of life we try to hide from our eyes and thoughts.

This blog post has the simple objective of listing 4 of my favorite Roth novels and what I personally took away from them. Please don’t take my word for it. Immerse yourselves in the original sources and feel free to interpret them as you feel you should. The comments below may be entertaining, though. However, I’ll never presume they reveal the essence of each of the discussed works.

1, Nemesis: New Jersey in the mid 1940s. A horrible outbreak of polio causes mayhem in a peaceful community. Children are badly affected, especially the ones who live in the Jewish and Italian quarters of the city. Few families are not hit by tragedy. It’s practically impossible to run away from it. Are the gods against them or are they on their own in a world ruled by the random manifestations of an indifferent nature. Does it matter? The only option left for humans struck by horror and tragedy is to accept it and find a mental way of coping with the debris. Nothing else makes sense or will help our species. Stand up for yourself and fight on your terms. Throw your javelin with all the beauty and strength of a God (an image you will find in the book) and defy your peers in Mount Olympus.

2. American Pastoral: Winner of the Pulitzer prize for best work of fiction in 1998.  This novel tells the story of the idyllic life of a perfect upper-middle class American family,  eventually shattered to pieces when the sweet and amorous daughter grows up to become a rebel teenager and join militants in a protest against the Vietnam war, allegedly planting a bomb in the local post office and killing a bystander. She then runs away, disappearing forever from home. I guess the takeaway from this book is given in the first chapters, in a different context, when we are still in the story outside the story,  which makes the complex framing structure of the novel. Do we really know what people are like? Nathan Zuckerman, one of Roth’s recurrent characters, who may function as his alter ego, shares this painful truism with us: “You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. … The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”

3. Sabbath’s Theater: Not for the faint of heart, this book depicts the progressive moral and physical deterioration of a man who has never had any other ambition rather than entertain people through running a marionette show in the streets of New York. It’s when this puppeteer blurs the limits between what you can do to your dolls as opposed to other real human beings that the problems start. You cannot manipulate people without suffering serious consequences. The dolls will turn on you eventually and your life will become a nightmare. The most amazing thing about the book is the ability of the writer to turn one of the most repellent characters ever created in Western literature, Mickey Sabbath, into a sympathetic and even lovable person for a legion of fans, who can sense all the humanity that oozes out of him.

4. The Human Stain (spoiler alert: you can’t discuss this book without giving some essential info away – in my defense, all I can say is the info I’m about to share will be revealed in the first chapters of the novel anyway.) This novel is not a whodunit kind of work, rest assured. A Jewish former professor and dean of the fictitious Athenas College in Massachusetts is forced to resign after, going through the roll call,  asks the class if a couple of listed students who never show up and whom he never met personally “are real or spooks”.  It so happens that in those days of the end of the 1990s spook was a loaded word, a derogatory epithet for African Americans. In the intolerant and hypocritical climate of the reign of the politically correct, the professor is the perfect scape goat, and everyone who’s ever held any grudge against him jumps at the opportunity to tap into the incident to profit from it, by destroying his reputation. Unjust, unfair, stupid. Worse: Professor Coleman Silk is in truth an African American  himself, who, for excelling in boxing when he was young and having light skin, passed for white in the eyes of a number of influencial people on his way up the sport’s ladder, and decided to assume this fake persona. He had been a youth in the 1950s and realized he would never have the same opportunities of a white person to fulfill his potential no matter how hard he tried. He is offered a way out and takes it, abandoning his family and his previous life, and recreating himself as a completely new person, whose potential could now be tapped to the full. He becomes the Jewish professor Silk. But he will pay dearly for it and for breaking other conventions of the times. He is a born transgressor.  A fighter. The reader is therefore left with the painful and disturbing question of whether he/she would have done the same thing. Haven’t we all done something similar to some extent in our lives: compromising, betraying, discarding deeply ingrained beliefs and principles to succeed and get ahead? Or at least to be given a shot at the possibility of winning, when all the odds are against us? A powerful and uncomfortable novel, I can’t stop returning to it. I’m always going back to Silk’s saga to reflect on my own values and how truthful I still remain to them.

American Writer Philip Roth

American Writer Philip Roth

If you have the chance, get one of those books and read them. I can guarantee they will change you somehow.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

Why are you afraid of teaching English through art?


As most of you know, we have launched a series of supplementary eBooks,  TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART,  based on the works of famous artists, to help the students practice their English (for further info on the series, please click here http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS).

We have received an overwhelming response in terms of feedback. Sales fortunately are doing well too. However, we realized that some teachers are hesitating to use the materials for a number of reasons. Having gone through all the feedback we have been getting, we decided to write this post to answer some of the most frequently asked questions by teachers (or even students) about the materials.

I can't teach English through art!

I can’t teach English through art!

1. Do I need to be an art specialist to teach from these books? Of course not. The idea of these books is to extend vocabulary,  speaking and writing practice, providing more interesting and customizable topics that resonate better with the students and foster more engaging and genuine participation in the classroom. You are a language teacher, no one expects you to be an art connoisseur. Treat the topic as you would any other topic you find in more traditional course books. All the info you need  about the particular artist featured in the eBook (so far, we have Matisse, Picasso, Caravaggio, Monet and Norman Rockwell) can be found in the introduction to the book.

2. What should I teach the students about the artist? As I said before, you will find a quiz and a brief summary on the artist’s life and times in the introduction to the book and  some texts on more specific topics related to a certain painting after or before some exercises. Basically we should give the students some idea on why this artist gained so much popularity, what are the main characteristics of his/her style and the historical context he/she lived in. If possible, add an interesting anecdote about his/her life to lend  some color to your lesson: such as the fact the Caravaggio is allegedly the only great artist who committed murder; or that Monet dedicated his time to art as much as he did to gardening in his old age; or that Picasso did most of his work in a dark and damp studio at night using the feeble light of candles. A quick watch on a couple of videos on YouTube will give you a lot more info than you can possibly need, if you wish to expand your understanding of the artist. Alternatively, you can assign this pre-research to the students themselves, as part of the lesson: “get all the info you can on (artist’s name) and be prepared to talk about him/her at the beginning of the next class”

Artist's life and times. Guernica by Picasso.

Artist’s life and times. Guernica by Picasso.

3. I don’t know anything about topic/task based speaking activities or process writing. As these are the main methodological points used in the series you should familiarize yourself with them. These are important areas any language teacher should master. You need to study them. A good start with be to read the following posts in this blog: Topic-Based versus Task-Based Speaking Activities (http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1nJ) and Writing: Focus on the Process not on the Product (http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1ot).

4. I can’t deal with technology. These are eBooks, so I completely understand the resistance some teachers may feel towards them. Not many people read eBooks yet. However, believe me, this is the future and there’s no way back. You can check all the practicalities of ebooks in the following post 7 Reasons I prefer eBooks to Print ones: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-yC. As for our series, all you and your students need to do is download the KINDLE app for free and install it on any device you can possibly have. It works in all systems, mobile or desktop. Get help from your students, they will know how to do it. And they will feel pleased to show the teacher how tech savvy they are. Then go to the KINDLE STORE on Amazon.com and download the eBook of your choice.

Print books versus eBooks

Print books versus eBooks

5. Which book shall I pick? At this point, we have 5 eBooks featuring a different artist each (Matisse, Picasso, Caravaggio, Monet and Norman Rockwell). They are all very popular and liked all over the world. But of course, you and your students will have your preferences. Each book has exercises at different levels (from beginner to advanced), so my recommendation would be for you to conduct a needs analysis with your class before choosing the first book. Show them the covers, show paintings (loads of pictures available on the Internet) by each artist and get them to vote for the first artist they wish to work with. I’m sure your lessons will become so succsessful you will cover the whole set of eBooks we have on offer eventually though :).

TeachingEnglish with Art: 5 artists to pick from. Matisse, Picasso, Caravaggio, Monet and Norman Rockwell.

TeachingEnglish with Art: 5 artists to pick from. Matisse, Picasso, Caravaggio, Monet and Norman Rockwell.

I hope we could answer some of your questions here. Good luck with the lessons and do not hesitate to contact me if you have more questions. We will be launching more eBooks of the series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART soon.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

 

 

What’s the job of art?


It’s hard to define art: be it music, literature, visual arts, drama, etc. I would prefer to say that life would be impossible for most people without it. Call it escapism, if you wish.  Life can be very dry and purposeless without the varnish of art. It can be very lonely. Even meaningless. As Tennessee Williams once said:

“What implements have we but words, images, colors, scratches upon the caves of our solitude?”

Art is any expression of human emotion and feeling. It’s the telling of a story. We are all artists one way or another. This does not mean our work will be recognized in our lifetime or sold for millions of dollars in galleries, but what counts is what it does for you. The officially recognized great works of art follow criteria that varies according to time and audience. Their market value rises and lowers  at different times. So, we, as simple viewers or artists, should not care about what is considered by the experts GREAT ART. Give yourself the right to make or evaluate art,  based on your own guidelines. More than that, every piece of art which can transport you to a world that makes you happier, or feel more intensely, or evoke cherished memories, or give you hope and peace should count as great. It can be your creation or someone else’s.

I never forget the moment I first saw painter Peter Paul Rubens’  Samson and Delilah (picture below), while roaming the halls of the National Gallery in London. I did not know that painting. It beckoned at me from a distance and made me walk, transfixed, in its direction, wide-eyed and excited. Sensual, colorful, showing  unusual uses of a number of light sources to illuminate the scene,  and telling a story: that is all I wanted from a painting. I may have spent the next 20 min standing in front of the huge painting staring at it, looking like an idiot, with a silly smile glued to my face. Then I went back there two more times in the course of a 10-day vacation in London to experience the power of that painting again – it’s a good thing the National Gallery has free admission!

Samson and Delilhah, 1609, by Peter Paul Rubens. National Gallery, London.

Samson and Delilhah, 1609, by Peter Paul Rubens. National Gallery, London.

I found a copy of the painting on the Internet and excitedly emailed it to some of my close friends telling them how I had felt looking at it. That’s another thing about great experiences, it’s hard to enjoy them alone, you need to share. This post is obviously part of this need.

As for literature, another great type of  humanity’s artistic achievement, how many times have I drowned my sorrows by reading a novel by Philip Roth (one of my favorite writers, as many of you readers of this blog already know): the misery and problems of his characters far outweigh mine and serve as solace by giving me a deeper understanding of human beings. Roth is brutal and I doubt he intends to offer any comfort to the reader through his stories – but he does, regardless of what his original aim might be.

Author Philip Roth

Author Philip Roth

At the end of 2014, having some free time, I had the idea of combining two of my greatest passions – the English language and visual arts –  in a project: the series of ebooks of the series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART (for further info check out this post http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS ). I figured I could not be alone in enjoying studying a foreign language in the context of powerful images that would take me beyond the walls of the dreary language classroom and make me dream. I was right: after self-publishing eight ebooks and with a ninth coming out soon, I noticed that many other people all over the world shared my passions.

When I was a language/literature student in college, we had a very dry and uninteresting subject: Portuguese literature. I appreciate some may love it – art is individual and personal. But I must admit I loathed the company of Camoes and his  jingoism, despite the excellence of the teacher and her love for the subject. One day, however, she surprised us with a different approach to the teaching of the boring Portuguese literature of the Baroque era: she brought a projector to the classroom and contextualized  some of the visual art movements – which are inevitably reflected in the literature of the time – by showing works of famous artists. That was my first contact with Velázquez and his “borrachos”, partying with Bacchus. The teacher’s explanation of the painting and the artist was vibrant. The class was in awe. We were always in a hurry to leave the session and enjoy our cheap beer on Friday evenings (those were evening classes). That day, however, most people couldn’t care to leave when the class came to its official end, and let the teacher carry on for as long as she wanted. We had started to refine our taste: it was better to see Bacchus inebriate his minions than go out to Olinda and get drunk ourselves.

The Triumph of Bacchus, Velázquez, 1628, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

The Triumph of Bacchus, Velázquez, 1628, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Au revoir,

Jorge Sette

5 features that make a movie or TV show great


In this day and age of superhero movies, I’m going to dare to give you guidelines on how to judge the quality of a movie. Great movies don’t make money, this is a fact. The reason commonly given is the populace is too dumb and unsophisticated to appreciate their merits. I don’t want to go into this discussion as it spills way beyond the scope of this humble post. However, the opposite is not true either: don’t think that just because a movie delivered a poor box office it deserves any praise. It may be simply because…well…it’s crap. Good movies usually:

1. Focus on character not on plot. Despite the well-known structure of storytelling dug out by mythologist Joseph Campbell and turned into a simplified manual for Hollywood scriptwriters, spelling out all the steps that need to be present in the hero’s journey for a story to resonate with the audience, writers and directors still need to highlight characters. The plot needs to be there, its phases followed in new and  creative ways, but strong characters are what we remember about the best films we see. We may not remember details of the story, but Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in the Godfather, Robert De Niro’s Trevis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in House of Cards  are unforgettable.

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone

2. Have complex characters. These great characters have the following common characteristics: they don’t comply to black and white codes of ethics, they tend to develop their own morality and follow it consistently; they show either superior intelligence, or charisma or beauty. Or all of them together. Understatement is their main weapon. They do not say everything: a lot needs to be inferred by their eyes, their turn of head, they way their mouths hang open for slightly longer than necessary. They are subtle and complex. We never get to understand their inner agenda to the full.

3. Have scenes played against the grain. Great movies catch the audience off guard, surprise them. They use, for example, as the commentary for a acene, a song  or piece of music that means its exact opposite or that does not belong to the historic period or place the story takes place. The use of LA CUMPARCITA in Woody Allen’s  Alice,  which takes place in contemporary Manhattan – the music plays as Mia Farrow’s and Joe Mantegna’s characters, after taking a magic potion that makes them invisible, pay the taxi driver and the doors of the car open for them to leave completely unseen; the voice over quips: “nothing shocks NYC cab drivers”  – enhances and adds to the humor and oddity of the situation.

Mia Farow as Woody Allen's Alice

Mia Farow as Woody Allen’s Alice

4. Let emotions emerge naturally. These movies do not manipulate their audience to make them weep. Sentimentality makes films that could otherwise be great syrupy and corny. Emotions must reflect real life and its poignancy to work as art. Think of the scene in Walter Salles’s Central Station in  which the character played by Fernanda Montenegro is shown, in a montage, writing a series of letters to relatives of people who are illiterate and therefore can’t write themselves. They are real people in this particular case  – but might as well be actors – from a small city in the northeast of Brazil, and the succession of short scenes showing these people dictating their messages breaks ones’ heart with their truth, simplicity and beauty.

Fernanda Montenegro in  Walter Salles's Central Station

Fernanda Montenegro in Walter Salles’s Central Station

5. Don’t show or say everything.  Life is not neat. Great movies reflect life yet show it through a more interesting angle. But not all must be solved in those two hours a movie lasts. Life is a flow and conflicts are rarely resolved in their entirety. There is no need to explain every character’s motives or reactions or  tie all the loose ends of the story by the conclusion of the movie or TV show. Let the audience wonder. Give them opportunity to use their imagination. Take the typical end of the iconic 2001 a Space Odyssey. If you haven’t read the book, and there’s no need to (it was written to go with the movie), the last 15 min of the movie are all up to you. What is going on? What does that trip to Saturn really mean metaphysically? What’s this guy shown in progressive stages of aging. Who’s this fetus in the intergalactic womb? The viewer will keep those images for a long time in their minds (in my case,  for decades!) and neve stop trying to figure them out.

2001 A Space Odissey

2001 A Space Odissey

Well, great movies are not supposed to follow recipes. So now throw all I said before out of the window and make your own rules.

Good luck

Jorge Sette.

Modern times or the girl who almost got run over by my bike


It’s no news that most people, including me, spend 90% of their waking hours staring idiotically at the various device screens we carry around wherever we go – or, more likely – wherever we stay, motionless. My eyes keep shifting from my iPhone to the iPad to the laptop, and back to the iPhone again for hours on end.

We all check our social media news feed and timeline hundreds of times a day, count the likes and shares on the latest clever joke or quotation we posted, watch carefully the pictures of what our friends are eating, the problems they are having with traffic jams or with their kids.  I didn’t use to care at all what my friends’ kids did over the weekend or the costume they wore for the latest school function: now I follow these events with the attention and interest I used to devote to facts such as  the beginning of the Iraq War or the the inaugural speech of Queen Dilma. We won’t stop answering our messages about nothing on whatsapp or looking for our next prospective date on Tinder. The date will never happen in the real world, as one of the parties will cancel 5 min before the scheduled coffee, but this does not stop us from keeping trying and hoping for the best. Do married people do the same? Is that how they have lovers and affairs today?

I can’t cook well, but the Internet emboldens me to pass on tips on the kinds of seasoning and ingredients my relatives should use on their pasta for their next Sunday lunch – by the way, I will not be taking part in it, as they live in Recife, some 3,000 km from where I live –  and offer expert advice and consolation to my cousin who broke up a 10-month-old relationship  with her boyfriend, with the authority of a marriage councellor.

The current times are no doubt different from how we behaved only ten years ago, when our lives were more real than virtual. But what worries me is not to know if this is worse. I’m not complaining.

I have always been an avid reader and nothing in real life compares to the excitement I get from a well-written novel by Philip Roth  or an insightful factual book by Malcolm Gladwell, from whom I learned that, to excel in anything at world class level,  one needs to devote at least 10,000 hours to the practice of that skill: I counted nervously how much time I had left on Earth based on the average longevity of the members of my family – maybe I should have left the women out of the calculations, as they tend to outlive their men by many years – and was thrilled to find out that I still could pick a skill and try to become a Leonardo da Vinci at it.

I could still become a Leonardo da Vinci if I practice for at least 10,000 hours.

I could still become a Leonardo da Vinci if I practice for at least 10,000 hours.

 

So, if life as portrayed in fiction and non-fiction books is so much more enticing than reality, who are we to judge the validity of the virtual lives of today’s world – especially teenagers’ and kids’ – who have never known any other kind of life?  This is just a fact of human history, an unexpected turn taken by the course of our species,  and there is no way we will ever be the same again. Artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing  and genetic engineering are already on our doorstep, and the possibility of cloning yourself so you can have the ideal partner for life cannot be that distant in time.

Let’s embrace change. Disturbing? Definitely. But life is exciting for this very reason. Some people claim that it’s death that gives life meaning. We wouldn’t be able to love or appreciate anything if we did not know there would be an end to it. Soon.  Well, death is a kind of radical change, so the same goes for technology – we are living and appreciating a totally new life style, more and more isolated from the real (as opposed to virtual) contact with other human beings and nature, and getting used to it at an amazingly fast pace.  I foresee a time when the only opportunity we will have to be touching other people’s skins will be during the Carnival in Vila Madalena, when it’s impossible to avoid the barbaric crowds gathering around you, and I can’t refrain from flinching at the idea. Can’t we all do our own ALALAÔ from the comfort of the hammocks in the verandahs of our tiny apartments via Skype?

Physical contact with other people will be considered more and more dangerous and rare, as we immerse in our virtual worlds, moulded to our own tastes and specifications. Yesterday,  for example, I eagerly anticipated a time when, riding my bike,  I wouldn’t run the risk of running over a beautiful teenage girl who all of a sudden crossed my path at Parque Villa Lobos in Sao Paulo with her head down and eyes glued to the screen of her smartphone. As I yelled to warn her against the imminent catastrophe, she simply looked up at me with a defiant look in her face and carried on crossing the street as if I was just an annoying piece of Candy Crush Saga which wouldn’t align to her taste! I should have kept using the stationary bike at home.

Au revoir,

Jorge Sette.

 

 

 

 

Mad Men: the end of an era


No, I’m not making any references to the famous John Lennon phrase in the beginning at of the seventies (“the dream is over”), although this historical  period will coincide – I suppose  – with the historical time in the series when the storyline will be over.

I have not seen the second half of the last season of MAD MEN yet (it’s currently on). I’m in fact talking about the imminent end of one of the best and most revolutionaries TV shows of all time.

Mad Men

Mad Men

I clearly remember the first episode  of MAD MEN – it was already more than 10 min into the show when I switched on the TV, and, already in the armchair, took a punch in the stomach by what I saw: I had no idea what I was seeing. Could not label or classify it in any of the common categories we use for TV shows and movies.  Could it be the rerun of a famous movie of the nineteen sixties (the image looked too crispy and glossy for that, though), a soap opera, a miniseries? It all looked so strange and new.  Regardless of what it was, I was immediately hooked by the vivid colors on the screen,  the nuanced dialogue, the strange and depreciative way the women characters  were treated in the workplace, the out-of-place boyish and silly behavior of grown men in what seemed to be the setting of an advertising agency, the glamour of the characters’ wardrobe. What was going on?

I remember clearly that the first scene I saw showed the character Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in the process of  being hired for a job as a secretary (what else were women allowed to do back then?), but the atmosphere of the workplace seemed totally weird: men were being rude and sarcastic to women to their faces (some still do that today, but usually behind that backs), employees were chain-smoking at the office and nobody bothered. All the offices themselves seemed to have a fully stocked bar for whoever wanted to get smashed during work hours. Sexually inappropriate jokes were being thrown right and left among the male employees.

After hired, Peggy was given pointers by one tough Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) who seemed to be the personification of a sixties beauty – when women were supposed to be curvaceous, have a huge bust and impossibly narrow waistlines. Joan enhanced her looks by wearing stunningly colorful dresses for work, topped by a shiny updo of red hair, carrying an authoritarian  dominatrix look about herself, exuding sexuality and power: I had just met one of the most original and nuanced characters on TV history.

Then enter Dan Draper (Jon Hamm), from a classic stock of handsome movie stars from yesteryear, not very fashionable nowadays, incredibly seductive with his square chiseled jaw and deep dark eyes, a man’s man, who seemed to seduce all the women around. With eyes glued to the TV and ears attentive to every bit of non-naturalistic but expertly crafted dialogue, which exuded excellence, humor, insight, and irony, I wondered if that was one of the Oscar-winning movies I might have missed from previous years,

The last scene of this first episode was very eloquent, and gave away this was a new TV show I was not allowed to miss: Don Draper gets home. Despite all the unashamed flirting he exercised  during the office hours, he comes to a serene household in the suburbs, where a loving wife and two kids await. The spouse is blond and almost a caricature of a fifties housewife in the bland and domesticated way she looks, except you can immediatey tell from those eyes that Betty Draper (January Jones) is in reality a lot more complex psychologically than she lets on at first sight and more fitting for a jaded woman of the XXI century. Don walks up the stairs heading to the kids’ bedroom, tucks them in,  and kisses them good night in their sleep, as we hear the beginning of the beautifully evocative chords of My Fair Lady’s song ON THE STREET THAT YOU LIVE. We immediately sense  something is awfully off in that supposedly peaceful household. The credits begin to roll.

For the next 8 years or so,  I haven’t missed one single episode of MAD MEN (I tend to buy the DVD sets with the complete season, and spend wonderful weekends binging on it, never ceasing to be amused, surprised, awed and moved by the beauty, sophistication, elagance of dialogue, pathos, superp acting and general charisma of Mathew Weiner’s show.

Well, all good things come to an end. Let’s just hope that in the near future American producers and writers will fight hard to put out modestly successful shows, by the standards of American movies and TV anyway – like MAD MEN, and THE SOPRANOS, which preceded it – undeniably too refined to be appreciated by the barbaric masses who crowd the theaters with their stinking huge bags of  popcorn for the next installment of THE AVENGERS. In the case of Brazil, let’s hope TV people learn and try to shake and shape the sensibility of tired workers who get home after hours in the traffic to nagging wives and whining kids, and, beer in hand, can do nothing but resign themselves to watch catatonically  the pathetic episodes of the latest prime time soap opera or Reality TV show.

Streaming TV (Netflix and Amazon) is the future – we need more shows that push the envelope and, through fiction and documentaries, provide us with unusual angles and insights into life, which, for now, only good literature can impart.

Mad Men

Mad Men

I say goodbye to Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Betty,  Sally (the extraordinary child actor who plays the Draper daughter) and all the exceptional ensemble of the show with a deep pain in my heart. They will live in my mind forever, like characters of a Philip Roth novel.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

Start your blog today: what are you waiting for?


I have some 2000 friends on Facebook.  Of course not all of them are close friends, but also family and business peers. Most of all are in ELT (ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING)  one way or another: as teachers, publishers, writers, distributors or students. Of course, our news feeds are packed with info about methodologies, new materials, suggestions on lessons, and self-congratulatory posts on how great it is to be a teacher. The latter, I must confess, are not among my favorite posts: you didn’t see Steve Jobs talking about how great it was to be a brilliant marketer all the time. He presented us the results of his work in terms of concrete products. Of course, with teaching, not all products are tangible, customers are more likely to talk about the quality of our service. However, if we are teachers, we should be teaching on the Internet: not only languages  – our main job – but other stuff we have fun with, things we like, activities we are good at and we can share with other people.

Sharing your interests and expertise with the world.

Sharing your interests and expertise with the world.

We live in a fascinating age where we can show our work on as many and varied platforms as we care to look for: photos on Instagram; videos on YouTube and Vimeo; pictorial suggestions and ideas on Pinterest; snippets of your expertise on Twitter; blogs on WordPress…. to name just the most common. I’m surprised you guys – the experts in inparting knowledge and sharing strategies in meaningful and structured ways –  are not doing that more often online. Most of you keep posting cat pictures and your latest dinner photo on Facebook. That’s fine: some of the cats are even cute, but you can do so much more.

Everytime I go through my news feed I’m fascinated to find out how my friends know about so many different and interesting things:  pets and how to treat them, unusual recipes, places to go to on vacation, art, suggestions on movies to watch, you name it. Most times, however, they just share a copy of something written by another person they might have come across online and expand  a little bit on that.

Well, do more.

Create a blog on the topic and let us learn from you. I have no idea how to cook, and would love to read a simple cooking blog written by any of my friends and would be glad to share with her the results of my efforts, for example. If, for some reason, you don’t like to write, use pictures, videos, cartoons. The important thing is to come up with a story. Create a thread that can lead us to what you are trying to teach us, the goal you wish us to reach. Make it didactic and systematic, set exercises, answer our questions, help us. Who knows, you may even make money out of it, if it gets great readership.

I myself started a blog (LINGUAGEM: jorgesette.com) a year ago just for fun, discussing not only language, my favorite topic, but other themes I enjoyed (movies, art, books, culture, TV shows,  marketing, sales),  but now the blog is becoming more and more professional, as it’s helping me promote the language eBooks I publish on Amazon.com. As I write in English, I’m easily read all over the world, and it’s really gratifying the sense of pride and accomplishment you get when  I see my humble stuff being read in the US, India, Pakistan, France, etc.  This year (2015) we’ve been getting more than 3000 views per month,  and getting stronger.

So, my recommendation is don’t think about the money first: publish something on the Internet for fun: gather an audience, build a network,  and make new friends. Then, if it works out, turn it into a business.

Don’t waste time: start teaching us today! It’s fun.

On the other hand, for those interested in reading how a professional blog for customers should be written, please refer to my previous article: Should you have a blog as a marketer:

 http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1bv

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.