Humanity

 

Some amazing things have happened this month.

We had the Olympics. In spite of its many flaws (corporatism, commercialism, professional athletes taking part, doping/drugs, vainglorious American soccer players), it can still be seen as a way for people to test their physical limits. I’m not one of those people who love intellectual or artistic pursuits, and have a disdain for sports and athleticism.  At its essence, sport is play. That we place such a huge emphasis on winning at all costs, well, that’s a societal issue.

We also achieved something massive in the scientific arena. We put a vehicle on Mars.  That we as a species are able to do something like that is staggering. The mind boggles at the audacity of it, and the intelligence and sheer will to make it work.   And DOING it, knowing full well that it might fail miserably.  Yes, there will be people who bring up the fact that the public money used to send this little car to Mars could have been spent on people here on earth who are vulnerable and need help.  Another societal issue.

However, something else happened on the same day that Curiosity landed on Mars: a man walked into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and killed six people.  All that physical and scientific achievement of the Olympics and the Mars landing was negated for me. We have come so far in terms of training our bodies and minds, but we are still as intolerant and xenophobic as we’ve ever been. We have achieved a lot, but really haven’t evolved past tribalism.  We run faster and fly further, but we still don’t see ourselves as one interdependent humanity. A massive societal failure.

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Two Reunions

Over the past five days, I’ve managed to have two mini-reunions with former college/university classmates. I suppose I should specify that “college” was, in fact, “Bible college.” Yes, I began my post-secondary career with a view to becoming a minister. Or theologian. Something in that area.  But that story may be the topic for another day.

The first gathering, this past Friday, was fairly surreal.  Here I was, a man who’s put so many miles between who he was and who he is becoming, dealing with people who hadn’t really changed at all. Yes, some were now married with children, and all were definitely older.  But their way of seeing the world seemed to be stuck, and maybe even entrenched, in the way all of us began at Bible college.  I recognized most of them as the exact same person they were all those years ago. And the stories we told, the things we shared, were mostly about our college days. The present rarely came up. The future, not at all.

I’m not trying to be too critical here. I recognize that for some people, that’s how life works best. But not me. I don’t like stasis. Of course, chaos isn’t a good option for me either, but I like to feel like I’m evolving, even if only in the way I see the world and people around me.

My second mini-reunion was last night. The three of us got together for coffee at a downtown café and just chatted and laughed for a couple of hours. We touched on the past, but most of what we talked about, wanted to know about each other, focused on what was happening in our present lives, and where we thought we were going. Always present (even if sometimes unspoken) was “what’s around the corner?”

Another difference between the two reunions was that I was invited to the first, but initiated the second. The first was a case of, sure, I’ll go, but I’m not going without some booze.  The second was one where no liquid courage was required. One was surreal (a good surreal, but odd none the less), while the second was a joy from the first greeting.

Meeting people from the past is odd, isn’t it? And if all that’s there in the room with us is nostalgia, then it becomes a struggle to remember stories, anecdotes, and Jack Handey quotes, to add to the conversational ping-pong. The past is all there is. But, if meeting old friends is about using nostalgia as a marker for the road we’ve taken and the way to talk about our futures, then it becomes more than a reunion.  It’s then about remembering why we became good friends and realizing that all this talk of today and tomorrow is ensuring that we’ll always be good friends.

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Same story, two perspectives

The normal order of things is to read the book first and then see the movie adaptation. With The Secret in Their Eyes, I reversed that order. And I’m glad I did.

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the film version of this story. To me, it’s a brilliant movie, almost perfectly realized. Based on how good it was, I decided to buy the book from which it was adapted. It is easily one of the best books I’ve read in the past five years.

Set in Buenos Aires in a time period ranging from the late 1960s to the early 90s, it reads like gritty noir combined with a story about unrequited love. There’s murder and revenge. Unspoken and unspeakable words. Questions being asked silently, with the eyes.  In fact, the literal translation of the Spanish title is The Questions in Their Eyes.

At its simplest, the novel and film tell the story of a court clerk, just retired, who has decided to write a book about a rape/murder case from the past that has lived with him and haunted him for more than twenty years. The film uses flashbacks to jump back and forth between past and present. The novel switches between third person voice for the present, to first person when we’re taken back to the past in the form of the protagonist’s manuscript.

But the similarities end there. In almost every other regard, the novel and film are very different. The main character in the book is Benjamín Chaparro. In the movie, he’s Benjamín Esposito. Sandoval, the brilliant but troubled alcoholic in the book is transposed into a kind of comedic foil (still alcoholic) in the movie. The investigating detective (Baez) is fairly insignificant in the movie, but plays a major role in the novel.  Even the long standing romantic tension between Benjamín and Irene, his superior in the court, feels very different.

One of my favourite scenes in the movie takes place in a fútbol stadium in the midst of a game between Buenos Aires rival teams Huracán and Racing Club. It is here that the rapist/murderer is found and caught. It’s an intense, edge-of-your-seat sequence.  In the book, nothing like this takes place. The Racing Club team is only mentioned in passing in the chapter where the fugitive is caught thanks to a scuffle with a railway conductor.

I’d be annoyed by all these differences were it not for the fact that both movie and book are beautiful. And, had I read the book first and then watched the adaptation, I think I might have dismissed the movie. The differences are jarring at times, but the quality of the storytelling in both cases renders those changes almost irrelevant. Both tell essentially the same story, but from completely different perspectives.

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Sheer Lunacy

It’s hard to write about some things.  And not necessarily things that weigh heavy on my mind, or might be seen as controversial. Nothing like that. Sometimes, it’s because the subject is dear to my heart, and I don’t know that I can set down words exactly how dear it is to me.

Reading this blog post reminded me that the moon is one of those things for which I often can’t seem to find the right words.  I feel almost foolish writing that, because these days, spiritual connections with celestial objects is so very unscientific. But for me, the moon is still mysterious enough to warrant a kind of worship.

One of the major lunar mysteries are the phases. Oh, I know that it’s understood why the moon waxes and wanes, why it goes from full to new and back to full again.  I don’t care about any of that. I long ago forgot to remember the hows and whys of the moon’s phases, and I love that ignorance. I love that it preserves in me that primitive sense of mystery and wonder associated with this beauty in the sky.

I also don’t keep track of her rising and setting. I prefer chancing upon the moon, a surprise on the way home from work, or while stepping out at night to buy milk at the corner store. A random glance skyward, and there she is. And there she is. Always taking my breath away. Always filling me with that sense of wonder.

But most of all, the moon connects me with the one I love. According to Google Maps, she and I live just under 1,342 miles apart (as the crow flies), but a simultaneous glance at the moon can shrink that distance to almost zero. I am looking at the moon as it’s being looked at by her. She is looking up at the moon as it’s being looked at by me. Always, the moon is pointing me to her. Even when I don’t see it in the sky, the mere thought of it sends my spirit to her front door.

And there it is. The ultimate mystery of the moon. Its power to draw two people together. Yes, I know, science will say that the moon, in fact, does not have any such power over interpersonal connections. However, since science can’t even agree on whether caffeine is good or bad for us, I will happily give in to the mystery of what the moon can and cannot do.

I’m beginning to come across as a love-addled boy, but I don’t care. There is so much joy in the foolishness of love. No. Foolishness is the wrong word. Let’s call it what it actually is: sheer lunacy.

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Cinematic Perfection

There are few movies that I would consider perfect, flawless. The Godfather, and its sequel. Seven Samurai.  Das Boot. All of them are perfect because they tell compelling stories about what it is to be human, what it is to be alive. One of my favourites, one that I’ve watched more than a dozen times since I bought the Blu-Ray, is The Secret in Their Eyes, a film from Argentina that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for 2009.

Simply put, this film tells two overlapping stories: a retired legal counselor from Buenos Aires looking back on the biggest mystery of his career (the rape and murder of a young woman), which at the same time compels him to re-examine the “love that got away.” It also tells us about the young husband of the murder victim, and how he deals with loss, grief and the desire for justice. The film jumps back and forth between the “present” and the criminal investigation twenty-five years earlier, in 1974.

Most of the film is subdued and subtle, sometimes quite heavy, but with moments of humour to lift us from the tragedy. Only at two points are viewers drawn to the edge of their seats. There is an exciting and tense middle section (a kind of visual fulcrum) where the main suspect is captured in a crowded soccer stadium in the middle of a tense match between rival teams. And then, the climactic conclusion, where we see how justice has played out over the course of 25 years.

We also see the story of two different men: Benjamin, the retired counselor, a man in love with Irene, his superior, and Ricardo Morales, who has lost the love of his life to a senseless act of violence. Each one of them dealing with questions of love and justice, both of them finding different ways around the questions.

In my mind, the film is perfectly cast, filmed and scored. Listening to the director’s commentary on the Blu-Ray, you are shown the motivations behind the casting decisions, the choice of camera angles, and even the colour palette of the film. You see the film as if watching a painter create a masterpiece. I’m actually watching it as I write this and am having trouble taking my eyes off the screen. Stunning.

A final word about the Blu-Ray version of this film (it may also apply to the DVD version). It has one minor flaw, but also one thing that sets it apart from all other movies I’ve watched at home. The flaw is that the main menu can’t be accessed directly. You have to skip through four separate previews for other movies. An annoying but minor inconvenience.

What sets it apart from other films on DVD/Blu-Ray is the main menu screen. The menu itself is fairly simple. But, the way music and graphics are used is quite amazing. A brief piece of the soundtrack (one of the main themes that runs throughout the film) combines with a series of brief clips from the film and is perfectly, seamlessly looped. Actually, loop is the wrong word. To me, it feels more like a Möbius strip. It’s one of the only movies out there that, if you fall asleep watching it, won’t wake you up with annoying loud music or flashy graphics when it goes to the main menu at the end.

The themes of this film are common. Things like lost love, unrequited love, the desire for justice. What sets it apart is the way in which it was created. Watching it, you see that it was made with care and love, by artists wanting to create something beautiful. And succeeding almost beyond what they could dream of or hope for.

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Love

How do I write about love without coming across like a mystic-wannabe, or a hormone-addled teenager?  Maybe something like this…

The Romantic Comedy is one of my least favourite movie genres. More often than not, rom-coms ask complex questions about the nature of love and relationships, but present answers or solutions (sometimes even morals) that are much too simplistic. The main one being that “if we want it badly enough, we’ll have our ‘happily-ever-after’ ending.” They also tend to perpetuate that foulest of myths (outright lies?) that there is one special someone for each of us.

There are a few movies that don’t fit this mould. One of them is “Moonstruck.” And there is one exchange between main characters in that movie that goes against everything that we’ve told and taught about what love is, or should be. It comes close to the end of the film, an exchange between the two main characters. It goes a little like this:

LORETTA

A person can see where they’ve messed up in their lives. They can change the way they  do things. And they can even change their luck. So maybe my nature does draw me to you, but that don’t mean I have to go with it. I can take hold of myself and I can say yes to some things, and no to other things that are gonna ruin everything. I can do that. Otherwise, you know what? What good is this stupid life God gave us? I mean, for what? … Are you listening to me?!?

RONNY

Yeah. Everything seems like nothing to me now, against that I want you in my bed. [ skip ahead a bit] Loretta, I love you.  Not… not like they told you love is. And I didn’t know this either, but love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess. We… we aren’t here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. Not us! We are here to ruin ourselves, and… and to break our hearts, and to love the wrong people. And die! I mean, the storybooks are bullshit! Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get in my bed!

———-

I love language like that. The words go against what we’ve been taught and shown, but they ring true. They may not be the TRUTH, but they carry it, like an overtone.

And here is the beauty of movies like Moonstruck (and Love Actually, for that matter): they use language that many could try to see as universal, but then present multiple perspectives on love (via secondary characters and story-lines) that show loving people is still more complex. Aside from analogies and metaphors, love cannot be put into words.

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To Hannah

I’ve written many “letters not sent” in my life. The one that follows is from a NaNoWriMo story I started writing about two years ago. I think. It’s in the jumbled mess that is my spiral-bound notebook…

—————

To Hannah, Nine Days After Your 40th Birthday

I remembered your birthday, Hannah. I am cursed to remember your birthday until the day I die.

Thankfully, you are a vague memory these days. A spontaneous recollection whenever I see a red Toyota truck drive by, or see a calico cat sitting in an apartment window.  Mostly, I remember you by smell. You rarely wore perfumes, or used scented soaps, so you always smelled of you alone.

And that’s a difficult thing to pin down, isn’t it? How do we smell when we don’t decorate ourselves with perfumes?  What is a human smell, besides salty? Besides “vaguely of seawater?”  So, I’d always say that you smelled like “Hannah,” and I know that no one else has ever, or will ever smell exactly like you.

And some days, the right combination of molecules combine in the breeze and in my nose and my brain immediately pulls up your file. I recall everything in an instant. What songs you’d sing when you were happy. How your voice would soften when you were angry. The arc of your arm that night you threw your engagement ring at me because of some perceived slight. How you adored your cat, but hated my parents. All these stabbing memories, triggered by a random amalgam in the air around me.

What I hate more than these flashing memories is that the whiff of “Hannah” in the breeze ignites a sudden panic that I’ll bump into you in the street, or in the park, or in my hallway. My brain convinces me that because I smell this smell, you must surely be near. And then? What would I say to you that wouldn’t give away the fact that I hate myself for still caring about you? Every stammered word would be evidence, convicting me of loving you still, in spite of the way you tore out my heart over breakfast on the 20th of April, fifteen years ago.

But it’s always just your random smell.  You never appear. You left, and I never saw or heard from you again.

This disjointed letter has no chance of finding you, so I’m going to print it and burn it. Maybe you’ll smell the smoke of copier paper and toner in the breeze wherever you are, and think of me. I doubt it.

J.P.

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