Monday, March 31, 2014

Il faut vous accrocher à l'humain qui est en vous et vous survivrez

After suffering a stroke in December 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby - the former editor in chief of the magazine Elle - found himself a victim of 'locked-in-syndrome:' fully paralysed, trapped inside his diving-bell-esque rigid chamber of a body and only able to blink his left eyelid.

Yet instead of wallowing in self-remorse, Bauby composed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in his head over the course of his paralysis and then proceeded to 'write' it via (for medical terminology's sake) "partner assisted scanning." Here's how it worked: a very patient and dedicated nurse/significant other would read the alphabet out-loud (an alphabet rearranged in order of letter usage frequency) and Bauby would simply blink his left eyelid to select letters and spell out sentences.

Such a system resulted in the publication of Le Scaphandre et le Papillon in 1997, and the production of a film (I am about to review) 2007. I decided to watch The Diving Bell and the Butterfly over the weekend primarily because I'm reading the original text in French class but also because I wanted to justify staying up late. Plus, who can resist the temptation of watching a film that was nominated for 4 Academy awards?

In the beginning of the film, we observe the world through Bauby's lens - through his blinking (and sometimes wandering, men's gaze-esque if you know what I mean) left eye. There's an incredible, instantly gripping dialogue sequence where Bauby zones half in/out of consciousness while doctors and nurses peer at him and repeatedly speak to him in assuaging tones - and all the while Bauby is muttering in the background, trying to piece together his own conclusions.

Then, one can't admire the genius camera work that ensues when Bauby blinks - and opens his eyes again to reveal to us audiences a snapshot of his past, of his moving/fast-paced life as editor in chief of Elle. Throughout the film, such 'clips' recur to not only add a bit of much-welcomed movement to the film but to also reveal much about Bauby before his stroke. Indeed, there's a part in the book where he wonders to himself whether the nurses around him know anything of his identity before he became paralysed. Perhaps the movie's visual flashbacks are attempts to reconstruct some of that identity.

Above all, the film - like the book - highlights two main facets to Bauby's situation: firstly, it reveals how his condition affects his life and relationships. Indeed, there is a brilliant scene where a fly lands on Bauby's nose and he - unable to lift a finger - watches it with a wild eye before it is swatted away. On a more emotionally-striking level, the one-sided phone calls he has with his father and lover are heart-wrenching .... not to throw in a major plot spoiler but when Inès calls and he responds "chaque jour je t'attends," have your tissues ready.

Secondly, Bauby's story compellingly reveals the indisputable force of imagination, without which the book would have never been written. And it is imagination that sends Bauby on mental holidays and fantasies, scenes the film pays particular attention to.

Another little detail the film honed in on was capturing tiny symbolic motifs - from the corner of the camera frame, one will see a tiny butterfly flutter by the window...

Also, the soundtrack is fabulous and I haven't been able to get La Mer out of my head for a week already.

All in all, The Diving Bell and The Butterfly is a stunning film, one that certainly does the book justice (although perhaps not Bauby himself, as his friends seem to argue).

There is no doubt that Bauby sits on the highest tier of human competence - it is remarkable that his strenuous internal-editing, determination and focus evolved into a 100+ page novel. And upon reading the novel and watching the film, one may understand how Bauby's imagination, free as a butterfly, was what kept him tethered to reality - and will inspire readers and audiences for generations.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

That moment when what you read/watch = your life

"Most of the miseries of the world were caused by wars, and when the wars were over, no one ever knew what they were about." Gone With The WInd, 1939

Me when I attempt to assess the effects of WW2...

Monday, March 24, 2014

Listicle 2

Sunday, March 16, 2014

12 Years a Slave // Why, How and When

I watched an extraordinary film this morning -
12 Years a Slave, this year's Best Picture, tells the compelling and harrowing tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) - a free black man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.

When Solomon is first captured, he is told that "survival is about keeping your head down,"to which he responds, "I don't want to survive. I want to live." Although it is this determination and stubbornness that keeps him alive and eventually sends him back home to his family, the 2-hour long cinematic journey in between is brutal and heart-rending.

Firstly, let's discuss how the film begins: the first shot of the film is of a group of slaves, lined up, with sorrow etched into their faces and taking orders from a white man who announces that they are going to be playing the "cutting game" - what a chilling first line. Then the camera shoots through the leaves (no pun intended) and slowly unfolds the sight of the slaves hacking away while their masters sit on trucks, fanning themselves... yet the morbidity of the first line, of the slaves' labour coined a 'game' by the white men, does not dissolve.
It reappears when Tibeats' (Paul Dano! Wow, he grew up) singing serves as the voice-over for the slaves' cotton-picking. It reappears when black children are frolicking in the background while Solomon is slowly choking on the noose. And it appears - sickeningly - when the slave-seller is doing the roll call right after Solomon is shipped to New Orleans. Dressed as a school teacher, complete with spectacles and a book, the slave-seller orders each of the slaves to stand up when their new, fake names are called. When Solomon refuses to answer to 'Platt,' things turns ugly; he hits Solomon and Solomon must concede. Thinking of 'school teachers' in such a context, I was reminded of the 'school teacher' in Beloved, a character who shows - as does this film - that: No slave owner is ever 'good.' There is no 'mediation.'

I do not merely refer to the rather obvious case of Epps (Michael Fassbender), but even Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Sure, Benedict looks all nice-priest-y with his curled locks and blue eyes, and one could argue that he attempted to buy Eliza's children; also, let's not forget how he gave Solomon a violin and  cut him down from the tree. BUT, harking back to what Eliza said - if Solomon were to inform Ford of his condition, what would Ford do? And indeed, how does he respond to Solomon's plea? "I can't hear this."

Similarly, Mrs. Ford seems initially sympathetic to Eliza's condition, but "your child will soon be forgotten" is hardly a comfort; moreover, "I can't have that sort of depression around" is as good of a death sentence as there ever was. Speaking of wives and women, Mrs. Epps, of course, is the cruelest woman in the film, envious of Patsey and hating the feeling of being 2nd-rate to the "queen of the field."As we watch her torture Patsey, there's an overarching question of: how could you do this to your fellow woman? And overarching that, the film revolves around the even larger question of: HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO YOUR FELLOW MAN?

Every time I cried in the movie (especially when Patsey was being whipped - all that pain for a small, white tablet of soap), it was because I found myself watching one of the cruellest acts a human being has ever done to another human being, another life - I was watching life at its darkest and direst. Not to sound melodramatic, I was crying for humanity. How does humanity churn out someone like Epps?

But to take this review in a psychological direction, let's talk about Epps for a moment. I believe Michael Fassbender delivered the best performance in the film. Epps is a madman. Definitely unhappy and angry - two emotional states that can translate into ugly, relentless and horrible violence. He is, in some ways, in love with his "queen of the field." Patsey is his highest asset, his most prized possession. He even prefers her to his own wife, and carries the child he bore with Patsey around delightfully. He is near-destroyed when he thinks Patsey has run away, and initially cannot even bear to whip her (a sight that his monster of a wife watches with inward satisfaction, Madame Raquin-esque). Thus Epps represents not only a specimen from the extremist-end of the racism spectrum, but also the type of insanely-devoted slave masters of the South; so obsessed with his property that he is madly attached to his slaves.

Musically, this film was also a success. I was very much affected by the violin playing throughout, be it a jive or some form of screeching coming from the crude hollowed stick fashioned by one of the Native Americans. Don't even get me started on the broken strings, the broken violin on the floor - dashed dreams, a crushed past ... perhaps it is because the rippling of tightened strings and the rub-wood noise are all familiar sounds to me. Let's also not forget the songs sung during the cotton-picking, and Roll, Jordan, Roll in particular is stunning. Solomon's facial expressions when singing that song are gut-wrenching; the scene in general reminded me of the community gatherings in Beloved.

Alas, it is only Bass, the Canadian (Brad Pitt), who finally risks his life for Solomon. I nearly forgot Pitt was in the movie, it was a nice surprise when he showed up. But the problem isn't over when Solomon is finally saved. 

At the beginning of the film, one of the slaves who was captured with Solomon is released quite early. Although Solomon shouts his name, there is no response - and at this point, we wonder 'Why?' Why not help him?' But at the end, we understand. When Mr. Parker comes to rescue Solomon, and he bids Patsy goodbye, the question becomes 'How. How to help her? How to help those millions?'

So although the film ends with Solomon with his family, it is this last question and the image of Patsey, miles away with Epps the madman, that latches onto the audience. The question of How do we help these slaves - when put in a modern context, applies to not only slaves but also any human being in the dark abyss of torture, of unjust imprisonment, of repression.

So, 12 years a slave for Solomon, but uncountable years of suffering for all those who have been enslaved and are being enslaved. The 2.5 hour mark may signify the end of the film, but certainly not the end of the world's harsh cruelties. The question is not why or how after watching the film, but when -

When do I decide to do something about it?

Thursday, March 6, 2014


Saturday, March 1, 2014

The future tense, immense as outer space

Morning in the Burned HouseMorning in the Burned House by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Old age, love, loneliness, war, mourning - one could tuck such themes into the thick, wintertime blankets of Margaret Atwood's poetry collection, Morning in the Burned House

Of the five 'chapters' into which the collection is divided, the second is particularly powerful; in poems such as Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing and Ava Gardner Reincarnated as a Magnolia, Atwood    presents prostitutes as goddesses - superior, desirable, assertive. "I'd rather be a flower [...] to be trampled," says the speaker in Ava Gardner, than the "sad destroyers" who ride into war. "Rats and cholera have won many wars," she says. There's a sort of feminist grit and anti-war sentiment that accompanies Atwood's poems in the first three chapters; She writes of sex, "messy love," (Asparagus) lust and battlefields. She does so boldly and transparently.

Yet it is the fourth chapter in the collection, containing 12 poems about the death of Atwood's father, that bears the most sorrow. At once, the 'grown woman' life portrayed in the second chapter is 50 pages behind. We trade Helen of Troy/Sekhmet/Ava Gardner for the flower girl, the younger 'I,' the daughter watching her father slide into the unrelenting arms of cancer.

"Time is another element you never think about until it's gone," (King Lear in Respite Care) laments the speaker as she sees that her father, attacked by the "industrious [cancer cell,]" (Cell) is beyond convalescence:
Gone are the days
when you could walk on water.
When you could walk.

The days are gone.
Only one day remains,
the one you're in.
The sadness from all the other poems in the collection seem to join hands in this particular chapter; the sadness from the the second poem of the collection (A Sad Child) migrates across chapters 2 and 3 to reach 4, and the last poem, from which the collection takes its name (Morning in the Burned House), also carries residue of the poems in chapter 4. It's 20 pages of grief and introspectiveness. In Down, she asks herself, and we ask too, "what are you supposed to do with all this loss?" The answer almost seems to emerge in Oh: "we decorate pain." We write about it, and Atwood has certainly turned it into poetry.

As she writes in The Fire Place,
Earth does such things
to itself: furrowing, cracking apart, bursting
into flame. It rips openings in itself, which it struggles
(or not) to skin over. The moon
doesn’t care about its own
craters and bruises. Only we can regret
the perishing of the burned place.
Only we could call it a wound.
Only we - humans - are victim to "snow's huge eraser" (Shapechangers in Winter), and the "old thread, old line of ink twisting out into the clearness we call space" (Down)

Morning in the Burned House is a strong collection; there is grief, beauty and tenderness - all of which Atwood spells out unflinchingly.

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