Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Frances Ha - a film review

All I could think of - throughout the many exalted scenes during this gem of a movie - was my sense of exhilaration.  I thought about this feeling.  This feeling made me think.  Both my senses and intellect were touched.  Few films build the bridge between both realms.  Frances Ha is such a film.  A rare and true one.  

As much as Frances floundered and no matter how pathetic her circumstance, one is drawn to her self-indulgent suffering for one reason:  because of her innocence.  She has no sense of the tragic to paralyze her.  She moves with love.  The love for her best friend being her anchor - the purest of loves.  Your best friend is not a lover or family; it is unencumbered by the messiness of sex and obligation.  Adulthood changes all this.  The purity of this love slowly withers, as the future ensnares and haunts us.  We often compromise around Frances's age.  We lose our innocence.   

27.  At an age when most start to think about their future and compromise on their dreams, she refused.  You can't fault Frances.  She may be arrested in her development; unable to graduate into adulthood.  But we all know what follows is a sham.  We atomize into our nuclear units; strengthening our domestic and professional concerns, but it doesn't make us any happier.  For many, we look back in wonder and yearn for what was lost.  

This is not a nostalgic film.  It does not make romance of what are also aimless and boring years.  There is not much that is glamorous about her suffering:  sexless, little money, no true friendships, little social connection.  All horrid.  And when the going gets worse, she regresses back to college - that idyllic time frozen in the American imagination.          

Besides all the wonderful ideas of youth, friendship and the growing pains of doing all this in New York, this is not what makes this film great.  It is the style and technique that will be talked about for years to come.  Some, especially those well versed in the French New Wave, will say the technique is derivative.  Derivations rarely have such wonder to them.  And some scenes, one in particular, of a running Frances to Bowie music, just took my breathe away.  I couldn't help yelping in delight at many other instances.  Truffaut never did that to me.           

Finally, an age old question:  Why does New York render so beautifully in black and white?  This film would still be good in color, though its faux analog nature, makes it shine greatly.  Perhaps New York's overwhelming greatness needs a minimalist filter; in order not to blind us.  Much in the same way you can never directly look at the sun.  You need some sunglasses.  Frances Ha are the perfect pair.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Guru X - Chapter 1

I remember exactly when it started, this feeling within me, that there was more to life than the way I was living it.  It was at the classic cinema house and I was watching a film from the 70s that I can’t recall the name of.  In the film, the sunlight danced off the street and out into the theater where I was sitting.  It was as if I could finally see the sun, as if it was more real than the sun outside itself.  

On my way home, looking around me, the world looked new.  I paid greater attention to detail and felt a connection to everything around me.  The old woman walking her dog.  The little girl watching her mother put on make-up.  The street lights, the cars, everything started to move in cinematic slow motion.  I started to ask and think why.  Why the man walked as he did.  What it meant when someone spoke the way they spoke.  I understood that the detail was not trivial.  That it spoke volumes about people’s personalities and histories.     

Film, or art in general, for the first time in my life, became more than just pleasant entertainment or an escape from reality.  It put me in greater touch with what was happening around me, my thoughts, feelings and - most importantly - the lives of others.  I became interested in the stories of people, and wanted more of it.  

After college, when I had more time, and was out of the structure induced on me since kindergarden, I started to question more about how one was supposed to live their life.  I started to read voraciously, and watch more films.  It started to change me and what I wanted out of my life.  

Before my engagement with art, I just desired and did what most successful, academically oriented people did - I got good grades, so I could make a lot of money doing something prestigious - like becoming a doctor, lawyer or an MBA on Wall street.  

This desire, upon my newfound relationship to art, crumbled, and I was disoriented.  I didn’t know what I could replace it with, though had a vague sense that there was something deeper out there that would be more fulfilling to pursue.  During one of my medical school interviews, which I undertook very half heartedly, I met a pretty blonde girl that would change the course of my life forever.   

Her eyes sparkled, there was a goodness to her face.  Regardless of what they say, you can tell the world from a person’s face.  We got to talking, and ended up taking the same bus back to where we were going in the city.  She laughed at every one of my jokes.  Really thought the world of me.  I had never gotten such approval from such a pretty girl before.  

Up until then, I was a quasi virgin.  Well, I had had passionate sex once, with a german tourist who had an Indian fetish.  Thankfully my roommate was away and we made love on the top bunk.  Post-coitus, as I lit up my cigarette, I started talking about Hitler.  “Hitler would be proud is us, wouldn’t he?  You know I am Aryan.  North Indians are Aryan.”  That didn’t go so well.  The next day I scrounged what little money I had and bought her a fat free frozen yogurt cone from Mcdonalds for 99 cents and took her on the Staten Island ferry - the perfect poor student date.  She left shortly after, and never got lucky till I met Blondie.      

As our bus stop was approaching, I told my new found blonde girl that I wasn’t sure about medical school.  And she said she was certainly going to take a year off.  She had received a grant to do an HIV/AIDS project in Namibia.  She was looking for some researchers..and might I be interested to go to Africa with her?  

There are those moments in life when you feel moved by destiny and you know exactly what to do and say, without thought or hesitation.  I said yes with conviction.  She jumped and smiled and we kissed.  And 3 months later, I was flying over the ocean to the mother continent.  I was finally living the life I saw in the movies and read in books.  I was about to have an adventure Jack Kerouac would have been proud of.

The anticipation of my departure was met by awe and intrigue by my friends and family.  I had turned into Mother Theresa without having done a thing.  This was 1999, and the humanitarianism and exotic travel that is common now, was rare then.  Or less known about, given the nascency of the internet and non-existence of social media.  

I took my hero worship with discomfort.  I was socially aware enough to know that if I really wanted to just help people, I would go to the south Bronx.  Namibia, on the African continent, that was something more; it was about adventure, self-actualization, a quest for the truth and to understand the world better.  It wasn’t just about helping people.  Though when I told people, the look in their eyes was something to behold.  They didn’t see it the way I saw and thought it was self-sacrifice; charity.  No matter how much I played it down, they mistook it for false modesty.  My adventure, my search for the truth, was slowly transforming into a campaign to end poverty and usher in world peace.  

I suppose this tendency is common in human nature.  To sanctify.  To deify.  To believe in the higher nature of man.  A man who is selfless and helps others.  I am not against this way of thinking.  I just found it oppressive and false, that’s all.  This happens a lot.  The idea of something is far more attractive that the thing itself.     

I arrived alone in Namibia, as my companion, said Blonde Girl ( I truly do not mean to objectify her by the color of her hair, but can’t think of any better way to mention her without using her name for which I have no desire to do as you will see why) would meet me soon after.  I was to be picked up by a local who worked for the American embassy and would be our local guide, driver and help us settle in as we got our bearings to undertake our project.  

Perhaps it is embarrassing to admit this, but I was one of those  people, who had very little idea what the continent of Africa was about.  I expected a Sally Struthers infomercial of suffering.  

Instead I was greeted by my local guide, wearing sunglasses and looking dapper in his finest designer clothing.  I expected straw huts, but Windoek is a regular looking city, slightly suburban in character, and we went straight away to a mall to have lunch.  As he used, perfectly, a knife and fork to cut his exquisite medium rare steak, I mentioned to my guide, without sounding rude, that I had expected something a bit different.  

I still remember this.  He took off his sunglasses to really look at me, and said:  What did you expect? That you were going to Zaire?  

I checked into a local hotel, and waited for Blondie to arrive.  There are 2 million people in a country the size of Texas in Namibia.  The landscape is dry, and there is not the usual density and squalor one would expect in a poor place, and a place being ravaged by the AIDS epidemic no less.  It was quiet and pristine.  

Soon enough, I went to pick up Blondie from the airport, and we met with the same exhilaration we had in New York and were eager to work and be together over the upcoming months though I did notice she was a bit agitated and nervous.  To be expected, I thought, as we were very far away from home and in Africa.    

Her dealings with the locals was slightly forced, awkward and afraid.  I told her to relax, and over the passing days, she was a bit more easy going and opened up to the newness of it all but I could still tell she wasn’t entirely comfortable as a minority for the first time in her life.  We were a long way from Kansas.

We bought a car - a huge white Land Rover - and took to driving across the country.  This helped to relax things a bit.  We would often be the only car on the road, and the landscape and the people, it was something out of a storybook.  When we arrived in Swakopmund, on the coast, where the sand dunes meet the ocean, we stopped the car and jumped out to revel in the beauty - the purity - of the place.  To this day the colors are etched in my mind.  The visceral aspect of the place is something to behold.    

The people were also kind and open.  I was acutely aware of the apartheid past that was all to recent in 1999 and wanted to be as sensitive as I could, though it is never easy as a foreigner.  You are kind of damned if you do; damned if you don’t - no simple way to make the human interaction easy given the history.

Up until then my only interactions with black people was through the lens of the African American experience.  Very different than the African experience.  I had Black friends in school, but it was always charged with difference.  What I mean to say, if one can even talk about this without sounding silly, is that it was never a natural relation and when someone asked me if I was attracted to Black girls, before leaving, I said no.  

What a completely stupid thing to say, when I think back on it.  I wasn’t attracted to Black women because I had little intimate contact with them.  I am convinced that if you become aware of another person’s inner life and struggles and thoughts, love follows and so does attraction.  

I used to feel that way about the Chinese until I started reading their literature and watching their art films.  Perhaps it is silly that one needs art to feel for another race, but that is just how it is.  Art sensitizes us.  Makes us human and allows us to understand the experiences of others.  And so does travel and interacting with people on an equal footing.  Ironically, I had to go all the way to Africa to have this;  a normal, relaxed conversation with black people as people.            

When it came time to get a house, Blondie wanted to be in an all-white enclave on the beach, for safety of course.  Our house was a mansion, for 400 dollars a month, we could live absurdly well.  I was reluctant, expressed my dismay, and was advised to be practical and not a Marxist.

I wasn’t being a Marxist.  I wanted to get to know people, to fall in love with them.  I felt moved by people’s lives and concerns, and felt anytime away from this exposure, was time wasted.  I could have been anywhere in that all-white enclave.  It reminded me of the West.  And I wanted to be in Africa all the time.  I wanted to be reminded of it in every moment.  I also did not want to be reminded of my difference.    

Perhaps I would have been okay with this if our work went off well.  But it didn’t.  Nobody trusted us, or took our work seriously, because we went to local villages in a car, if sold, could probably feed the entire village for years.   

When it got dark, we left, and went back to our seclusion.  I remember once, the locals insisted we stay and dance at the local disco.  Blondie danced for 15 minutes, half heartedly, and then insisted we leave; she felt unsafe.  She had this fear, deep down, she confessed to me, of black men.  She knew it was irrational.  She mentioned in passing how if she was raped, that we should have anti- aids drugs cocktails on hand to reduce the risk of HIV transmissions.      

I guess it didn’t help, that I suggested we play out rape fantasies to over come her fears.  That perhaps if I pretended to rape her, she could overcome the pain.  I was young, insensitive and stupid to suggest such a thing.  But I was frustrated by what was happening.  Why would a white women afraid of being raped by Black men come to Africa?       

I slowly became depressed and cynical.  And this led to anger, as if that romantic narrative of my life, who I thought I was and wanted to be, was being sullied.  That I was missing my chance at a certain sort of greatness that could only happen if I got Africa within me.  I did not want to be comfortable in Africa; I wanted it to change my dreary modern pathetic excuse for a life.  I wanted to live with the people, work amongst them, understand them and learn from them.  And here I was replicating all the worse stereotypes and missing out on my African Experience.

In the evenings, we would be in our mansion, when it was dark, often we became silent and read.  I became so bored I read War and Peace and Brothers Karamazov, in record time.  After awhile, I didn’t want to read more.  There is only so much escape your mind is capable of.  I would take the car out by myself to drive and think.  Especially at night, with the moon, and the sound of the ocean, I would drive recklessly on the beach.  Cascading the car into the waves.  I wanted to kill myself but was too young and full of life to do so.  I just needed a way out.  

There was one local pub to drink and eat that wasn‘t meant for rich white people and I would go there often to have a drink.  I was there one night, and heard a Southern accent.  It was distinctive and kind.  I looked over and there was this handsome, rugged American young man, surrounded by Namibian teenagers.  They were having pizza, and he had an air of a chaperone, a teacher, and that is what he was.  He was on a school trip with his English class, for a high school he taught in, in a remote village called Omaruru situated halfway between the coast and the capital city.   

I went over to him, immediately introduced myself and poured my heart out.  I told him I was at a loss.  That I had come to help and now was ensnared in this project and living a life that was most uncomfortable for me.  He looked at me, listened carefully, and told me:  just leave.  Pack your things and come to Omaruru.  To come and stay with him, as he lived in the teacher’s housing in the village, and would help me in time find a place to live.  He said I could help out in the school or the local clinic.  That something would work out.   

There was little hesitation in his manner.  And he had this calm demeanor, and the teenagers who were with him loved him, you could tell by the way they listened to him.  They started to speak to me also, told me to come.  I said I would think it over.  I said goodbye to them, as they were on their way back early in the morning.  I wanted to get his contact info and Zach said “Just show up - everyone knows me, am the only white guy in the village.” 

And that was it.  I had a point to escape to.  I find my mind focuses best when it has a goal, any goal to work towards.  And now I had it:  Omaruru.  But what of Blondie?  I felt she would be okay.  She controlled the grant money and would be fine.  I was the one venturing out into the unknown with nothing.  I knew, given her fears, she probably wanted to have me around and then I understood in a way why she wanted me to come with her here in the first place.  To protect her, make her feel safe.  And here I thought it was about love.    

I had to decide between her and Africa, and it was was easy choice.     

Guru X Prologue

A job.  Everyone wants a job now.  Job job.  As if that’s the answer to all our problems.  Wasn’t having a job uncool once upon a time?  Perhaps that’s the real legacy of 9/11.  It freaked everyone out so much that they went running to the security, stability - and the enslavement that comes with it.  

Maybe I am too Gen X, or something.  But in the 90s, the cool kids were doing their very best not to get a job.  Nobody wanted to end up as an extra in Office Space.  Sitting in front of a computer in a cubicle all day was a sign of failure, not success.  We all wanted something truer and, though not being sure what that was, were unconcerned to search for something else.  We were perfectly fine being jaded and bored by the system.  

Some things change though we are often re-sold the same false dreams, over and over.  Every generation makes the same mistakes, in essence.  We’re no different.  I did what I could to hold out as much as I could against The Man.  I did my share of adventures, but then I got a girl pregnant in France, and she called me to tell me she wanted to have my baby.  And I said sure.  Let’s make a go of it.  And when I hung up the phone, every cell in my body was vibrating with a joy I’d never felt before.  It was to be my new adventure:  fatherhood and having a family.  Who was I kidding?  

I’ve settled down now, into our little routine.  You know what I mean:  laundry, paying bills, making sure we have enough groceries and making endless lists of errands that take up the entire weekend.  It never stops.  The kid always needs something.  And maybe if I am lucky I can watch a little football.  Football.  I now totally get why Football is the quintessential American sport.  It’s a type of numbing respite.  The perfect thing to do when you feel like killing yourself, while you wait for the laundry to dry on Sunday afternoons.  

I have an office job now.  A job I like enough.  It’s not a commander-in-chief type of job, but nobody messes with me too much, and I have money to live in a decent place and go to restaurants and take little vacations to cozy spots.  It’s a not a corporate job, thank God, and even claims to serve the public good.  Somewhat true, though even do-gooders are beholden to the ever pervasive market driven culture.  Even our personal relationships, to a certain degree, are tainted.  Though perhaps I am getting overly cynical in thinking that.  Though all of us know people who are with people and associate with people to get something back in return and it makes me sick.  

When you are a child, you choose friends out of a simple, unexplained, attraction.  Not a sexual attraction.  It was far more intuitive back then.  When we followed our heart without doubting ourselves, or calculating.  

Now: we are all now ensnared in the profit motive, and the politics of lobbyists.  Everything is a racket in the end - doesn’t mean you give up or stop trying to make things better - but I can’t wax poetic about the difference I am supposedly making in the world or the people who surround me.  Or perhaps it doesn’t excite me because I go to meetings, deal with office dynamics, and endless emails like anyone else.  Perhaps the outcomes are different, than say, Phillip Morris, but our process and way of working is similar.  We too have the best brand managers in the business and look to convince people through the wonders of marketing rather than rational thought.  They sell cigarettes, we sell misery - and we both want your money and attention.  Getting rich and helping the poor are both enterprises now.  I have a difference telling one from the other.     

A real difference in the world would change the way we work, think and interact with one another.  It would be a new way of organizing society.  But that’s stuff for Communists or something.  Not for an energetic people, such as ourselves, in constant need of success and winning.  
I’m happy all the same, I suppose.  I’ve never been as fixated on happiness as most people do now.  Happiness was not the goal; freedom was.  As was living authentically and righteously.  I did not want to work for a corporation because corporations were evil.  Both in the senseless things they produced and what they did to the sprit of people who were a part of them.  I wanted to truly live, explore and transgress the boundaries of who I thought I was.  For at least some years of my life, this was true, and I was able to understand the world and my place in it better.  

Because that is what most interested me, with my studies, my travels and friendships.  I wanted to figure out who I was, what I believed in and why, and then try and bend that a bit.  To test my truth out there in the big bad world.

God, this probably sounds horribly pretentious and self-indulgent.  Especially nowadays when all people want is a job.  They study for a practical purpose and believe there is something noble about paying their bills on time and taking care of their families.  I get it, survival.  Responsibilities.  We all can’t be Don Quixote, and someone has to do the mundane to keep our society humming.  I just never wanted it to be me.    

I thought I could be one of those few who could help push history forward.  Who could save us from ourselves.  I was wrong.  But I tried.  At least I tried.   

The real change makers are still the robber barons.  Or robber barons turned robin hoods.  They still call the shots.  And the rest of us, well, we can be grateful if we can securely feed our families junk and buy them things they really don’t need.  

What do children really need?  An elite education and European vacations or a role model for how to live in these senseless and vulgar times?  And given the choice, I think any child would give up all the comforts of an elite life for a little more time with their parents.  Yet we continue to “sacrifice” and work long hours to give them “opportunities”, establishing a vicious cycle they are sure to replicate with their children.  What we are really doing is wasting precious time.  

If I am saddened by any one fact of modern 21st century living it’s this:  that I spend an inordinate amount of time on activity that in the end will make little difference to me on my deathbed.    

Because in the end, you’re just left with stories and stories drive human existence more than money does.  It’s important to have good stories.  In the meaning and consolation they provide; we feel less alone.  Whenever I am having one of those soul numbing days I step out and get a cup of coffee and I stare out and remember and re-live some of my stories in my head.  It comforts me.  In a strange way, perhaps that is what differentiates me now, from the regular masses who always followed convention.  I have a richer inner life to fulfill me, though at times it’s equally a torment.  

The old cliche goes: it is better to have loved and lost, then to have never loved at all.  I don’t know if the same goes for Greatness.  To have reached transcendent heights and to fall down and to not even realize just happened gradually.  Until one day, I realized the spark was gone.  The restlessness of my youth had vanished and in its place was a placid calm.  I no longer missed what I was I missing though I knew:  something vital was gone forever.     

I am glad I resisted as long as I did.  That I at least had some fun.  That for brief moments everything made sense and that life was not something to be drudged through.  That it could be lived.  That you could make a difference in your world and the world of others.    

So I am going to tell you a story.  Some say it is the greatest story ever told.  They say this because they are plebes who play it safe, have never stepped out of their world, and taken a fucking chance on anything.  Regardless of its merits; It’s my story.  Never to be confused with any other, and in a way, this is my victory over the awful, technological and robotic world I find myself in now.  My story keeps me feeling human.  I hope it makes you feel human, too.