Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Dead by James Joyce and John Huston

Timing may not be everything, but it can change how we see the world.

In my second year of college I read The Dead by James Joyce, beside the woman who would later be my wife.  We both agreed that it was probably the most dull text we had ever read in the arena of fiction.  I cannot deny that Joyce is a genius of the highest caliber, but that couldn't keep me from sleeping again and again through the story which seemed to be about nothing.  A party full of non-events to non-people.  Our teacher, when we dragged into class to discuss the story, said that boredom was the point.  That these people were not actually living, but they were, in fact, more dead alive than the memories of their dead.  Because of this horrid experience, I avoided the film.  Even though the film took only as long as it did to read the story, I didn't want to experience that "hour that felt like five" again.

But my film friends prevail, in time, and today I watched the film.  I had received it last week, before my good friend fell upon his bed without spirit and the paramedics struggled to return to him his breath and a self-perpetuating heart, to no avail.  That was before I sat at the bedside in a hospital with another friend, dying of liver cancer, unconscious but comfortable.  Before he passed yesterday afternoon, with his final words being three days previous.   That was before I could no longer control my tears, not at the death of my friends, which was good for them, but for my own loss of their souls, gone until I see them again.

Unlike the story, this film is bright with characters and the language, cloth and candles of the best costume dramas.  The script is about everyday people, but unlike the story, they shine in their mediocrity, representing Salieri's final cry in Amadeus in praise of the mediocre than J.K. Rowlings demand that our talent be worth more than "good job."  It is a celebration, not of Epiphany, but of lives half lived, and the dead who burned out in glorious moments.

Why are the dead so celebrated while the living so depreciated?  Because of the dead we recall an edited life.  I remember my friend's smile, his soft but wise words, his work in the church kitchen for his friends.  Over time, I will almost certainly forget his days, sometimes weeks of being so dizzy he could barely get up, watching movie after movie because he could do nothing else.  I will remember his small cardboard sign "One Coin Helps", begging for a few dollars to buy his Mountain Dew and his weed.  I won't remember the times I saw him drunk.  I will remember how he accepted abuse from his friend when he didn't deserve it.  I won't remember his anger against his other friend who disappeared and didn't call for a year and so ended up never talking to him again.  I will remember him noble, gently strong, loving, big-bearded, a pillar of strength amidst weakness.

Who can compete with memories of a noble man?  Who can compare?  No living person can ever be as good as the dead.  We honor the dead because they are no longer alive and, should they happen to die at the right time in their lives, we will never remember their weaknesses, only their strengths.  And so it should be, if we can.  If we have done more good than abuse, if we have saved the lives of those who are grateful.  A luck of the draw, perhaps, between saint and sinner.

I will never forget this film.  Not because of it's qualities, although they are many.  But because I watched it now, today.  This film will always be connected to this time, and like the dead, I will only remember the powerful emotions it pulled out of me.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Conversation Imagined While Watching Walker/The Journey To the West

A girl wanders by the red-robed Asian man, staring.  She comes closer, and then draws away, unable to make out any purpose.  A woman also passes by, nervously notices the monk, takes a picture and then giggles, and saunters down the stairs.  Many people pass by the Metro stairway, all politely ignoring the monk, avoiding him, pretending not to see him except for the girl, who is still transfixed.

She then hears a male voice clearly state, “Freak.”

She turns to the man, and find that he too is staring, although disinterestedly, at the slow moving monk.

Since he seems to be the only one with any interest in the man, she asks, “Why does he walk so slow?”

The passerby responds, “He is just some crazy Asian.”

Dissatisfied, she asks again, “Why does he walk so deliberately?”

The man spits at the monk’s feet and says, “He’s probably some dirty protester.  Wanting to shame us into not walking so quickly, to show off his ability and to demonstrate that we are all heathen for not taking up his disgustingly slow ways.”

Another man stops and speaks.  “I have heard of this condition.  Oliver Sacks speaks of it.  There are people who’s time sense is remarkably different than our own, and while they consider themselves acting and walking at the same time as the rest of us, from our perspective they are standing still, not communicating.  From their point of view, we are the ones who cannot stand still, who never finish a conversation.”

“That’s ridiculous,” said the first man.  “No one is like that.”

“Well, I suppose you shall have to take that up with Dr. Sacks.”  And both men left, one down the stairs, the other up.

A woman then came close to the girl and spoke quietly to her, “He is a performer.  See?  He is always striving toward the light.  He desires the light, for he desires attention.  Because he is in the light, see how the red of his robes reflects and bleeds all over the stairs, creating a symphony of color.  He does this, not for any protest, but because he wants to give the rest of us joy.”

An Asian woman, dressed in a suit, looking quite proper heard this and said in a clear, loud voice, “He is the Walker.  He is the ultimate radical Buddhist.”

“Ha!” said a young female, dressed to the nines.  “I don’t think he’s Buddhist.  He’s not even human.  How can he be?  He walks this way for hours—I know, for I saw him on the station earlier today—and he doesn’t cough, doesn’t sneeze, never stumbles, I’m not even certain he breathes.  He must be a robot.”

The Asian woman mildly addressed the fab girl, “Have you ever learned a musical instrument?”

“Sure, my mom made me take piano.”

“When you played the piano, in your course of study, did you ever get to the point where you ignored the notes and just played, forgetting all that you were taught about time and pitch and chord and just played because it was in your heart and in forgetting all your lessons, you knew, at that moment, that you had learned them all perfectly, for they were just flowing out of you?”

“I suppose… Yes.  Yes, I did.  When playing Ode to Joy at times it wasn’t a bunch of notes, but it was real music.”

“That, my dear, is called discipline.  It is when a human fully adopts a learned behavior that it becomes second nature to him. We can do it with anything—reading, typing, singing, talking, jumprope, video games—actions that become such a part of us that we do it without thinking, without considering what exactly we are doing.  So is this man seemingly ‘not human’, for he is so practiced at his art, his ethic, that he need not consider his actions.

“And yet consider is exactly what he is doing.  Little girl, I believe you asked why he is walking so slow?  He is doing that because every life is precious.  When we walk by quickly, when we speed by in our cars, when we fly in our airplanes, we pass hundreds, thousands even millions of separate living organisms every split second.  Some we pass by, some we trod on, some we breathe in, some we simply ignore… because we are moving too fast to take notice.

“This man, the Walker, and those who follow him, are the ones who slow down so that they might have the opportunity to notice every life.  To notice the life around us is the first step of compassion.  To have compassion is, at the very least, to refrain from taking a life that we might otherwise destroy without even knowing they exist.  To have compassion is to recognize the equality of life in an insect, in an amoeba, and giving them their due.  The Walker moves slowly so that life may be seen and honored by him.  He is the true Buddhist.”

A group of young men stopped and listened to her lecture, and one man at the front asked her, “So are you saying that the best man is the one who is in a coma?  The one who never moves, who never eats, but drinks from an IV?  Even this monk steps on insects.  He just knows he’s doing it.  Wouldn’t it be better if he were completely still?”

“No.  For he walks on the earth, not in a hermitage, but in the cities where thousands may see him and consider.  If they consider him, perhaps they will consider other life as well.  Perhaps they will learn the lesson of slowness and compassion.  Some have already taken on this task.  He is not just an observer, but a teacher to all who observe.”

And she briskly walks away to her next appointment.

The group of young men looked at each other and laughed uproariously.   The leader walked up to the Walker and spoke loudly to him, “So, grandpa, I think what she said was a bunch of horseshit, what do you think?”

The man in red continued his agonizingly slow descent.

“I think this gentlemen needs some help down the stairs, what do you think, men?”

“Certainly.  I would love to help the gentleman.”

“Well, fine.  I will take this arm, and you take the other.”

They gripped his arms and picked him up.  He remained still, as if he were still standing on the stairs.  Then one and the other threw his arms forward, causing him to descend the rest of the staircase through the air and land with a hard thump on the concrete pad below.

“Aren’t you grateful?  Have you no ‘thank you’ for us?”

The group of five surrounded him, kicking him and beating him, calling him ethnic slurs and filthy names.

Finally, their thirst for violence quenched, they stopped.  The leader looked up at the little girl, who saw the whole incident.  He cocked his head, tipped his hat and said, “That’s what happens to you when you stand out, you know.  Better to just be like everyone else.”  And they went their way as the little girl’s tears fell on the concrete. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Isolation of Safe (1995)

Juliane Moore is a soft-spoken, passive hous-- homemaker who develops multiple chemical sensitivity, which doctors cannot diagnose, and thus there is no treatment for.  This film is her journey to find acceptance and hope amidst a community that cares for her and supports her through the development of her illness.

Or IS that the film?  Is it a film about how those who have an unknown disease are ultimately rejected by everyone, even those who pity them or who claim to help them?  Is it a film about how people either reject or make profit off of those with unknown diseases, and placing the blame on the sufferer, thus making them more lonely and dejected than ever before?

This film moves quietly through the 80s, being one of the best staged "drop in this decade" I have ever seen.  I remember the 80s clearly, and every detail was perfect, from the wealthy houses in Southern California (where I grew up), to the aerobics outfits.  It uncomfortably placed me again in the "normal" lifestyle of the wealthy in the 80s, so much so that it felt like a drug flashback.  Even the disease of chemical sensitivity is perfect, as people I knew were diagnosed with this illness and they separated themselves from all of society despite their success in leading large groups of people in the past.

But more precise is the sense of hopelessness and isolation and guilt of those who suffered from diseases that have no cure.  This film has little plot, and the point of it isn't clear.  But Todd Haynes has said that he was inspired  by the experience of those in the 80s who suffered from AIDS, who experienced an illness that could only be explained by sexual activity (even when it wasn't carried by that means), and blame and horror came out of it.  What I love about this film, as opposed to other "AIDS films" is the broadness of scope.  Other films about AIDS sufferers look at the tragedy and drama that comes out of it.  This film quietly speaks of the more subtle experiences of those who suffer from illnesses that no one can understand, and how people politely reject you as a human being.  It is all the more powerful for that.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Spirit of the Beehive

I freely admit that Spirit of the Beehive is a top-shelf film, where the pleasures aren't easy to grasp. I was made that way on purpose, because it is a Spanish film about fascism, made in the waning years of Franco's fascist government.  I would put this film next to Stalker and A Moment of Innocence as great films about the nature of oppressive governments made under those very same governments.  Subtle, insightful and genius criticism that passes under the radar of censors.

One of the great things I love about this film is the humanizing effect of films.  Frankenstein is shown, which is one of the great humanizing classics, showing the monster as a whole sympathetic character, whose humanity is displayed under anger.  But this film inspires a young girl to see a rebellious soldier as human and in need of pity and care.  But the humanitarian impulse isn't without cost.  This simple, innocent act has terrible consequences.  To enact compassion makes one more human, but that same compassion can cause horrors to occur as well.  Silence and cowardice create safety, but at the cost of our souls.

The Spirit of the Beehive is slow, but also beautiful.  It is minimalist, but if we allow ourselves to dig deeper it has important things to say about our lives, about how we respond to the person we run across who is in deep need, no matter what they've done or who they are.

The Apostle: A Question Without an Answer

Sonny is a preacher somewhere in the South.  He finds that his wife is having an affair with a young man, and then she works to steal his church away from him and fires him.  Sonny later attacks the young man and kills him.  He runs from the town, changes his name and begins anew, establishing a new church and doing many good acts.

One of the main reasons I love this film is because it is a tour de force of Duvall's ability as an actor.   He begins with a series of scenes which poison us against the main character of the film and then spends the rest of the film confusing our perception of him and then eventually helping us appreciate him.   The performance is as complex as the character, infusing it with charisma and power and hypocrisy and, strangely, sincerity.  Pacino and DeNiro had powerhouse performances in the 70s to display their full ability to work under directors who had free range to exploit the abilities of their character actors.  Duvall, I feel, never had this opportunity in the golden age of director-guided films.  This is his film, where he shows the full extent of what he can do as an actor.

But more than just a character study, I think that this film is a film about religion in general.  Religion is one of the most powerful forces in human society, able to stir the deepest, strongest emotions and also to bring out the deepest speculation of the most meaningful concepts.  This has positive and negative aspects to it.  Religion creates amazing art-- cathedrals and magnificent music-- and it creates community which can accomplish great works of charity and philosophical thought.  But religion also stirs hate and it murders and it deepens bigotry and abuses those who do not deserve it.  Religion sets up standards that seem arbitrary from the perspective of those who stand outside of the logic of those standards, and those standard can seem noble to some and disgusting to others.

The Apostle presents religion in all its best and worst, wrapped up in the single person, Sonny.  In this one person we can see why religion deserves such respect and derision, why it is both powerful and silly, why it encourages both love and anger.  All the contradictions, hypocrisies, miracles, lusts, glories and carnality of religion are on display here.  Religion is humanity at its finest and lowest, and we see the full range of humanity.  No, we are not all Sonny.  But we are all somewhere in this picture, influenced by or repulsed by a person or community or organization that is just like him.

I love questions without an answer, but takes us down a long road while we consider the answer.  The Apostle is a question like that for me.