Others and Outsiders

Some films beg to be watched twice. The truly great ones invite repeated viewings. One film that I come back to time and time again is Babette’s Feast. This Danish production from 1987 is a masterpiece of understated, but profound, storytelling. And, having watched it again recently, I caught something I hadn’t seen before.

Set in the spare and bleak Jutland region of Denmark in the late 19th century, it follows the lives of two sisters, Martina and Philippa, beautiful daughters of the leader of a strict Protestant holiness sect. We see in the beginning how both overcome worldly temptations to remain true to the teachings of their father. We are shown how they dedicate their lives to serving their small, dwindling congregation.

One day, when they are much older and their father has long since passed away, a stranger appears at their door. Babette, exiled from France, presents Martina and Philippa a letter of introduction from a famous French tenor who had spent some time in Jutland many years before. In the letter, he begs the sisters to take Babette in as a housemaid, noting that “she can cook.” By small degrees, we are shown what his understatement really means.

To me, the story is ostensibly about the beauty of giving. The joy of generosity. The charism of selflessness. But. There is something deeper, more subtle, at work as well. We see it in the character of proud and cosmopolitan General Lorens Löwenhielm. He is with this group of people on the occasion of a French feast, prepared by Babette, to honour the centenary of the group’s once-beloved leader. These frugal and plain people are concerned that the worldliness of this French food (turtle soup, quails in pastry, cheeses, wines!) will corrupt them. So they resolve to partake of the meal out of respect for Babette, but earnestly, as if they had no sense of taste.

However, General Löwenhielm, as the worldly outsider, realizes from his surprising first sip of fine amontillado sherry, that there is something very special about the meal. He constantly recognizes and declares the wonder of the food and drink that is presented to him, course by course. And the small group is pulled in by his words and delight. Reluctantly at first, but by the end, they are also savouring the food and wine with pink-cheeked joy.

And here it is. The unexpected punchline of this parable. The character we need to focus on to “get” this story is not Babette, but General Löwenhielm.

It was he, the outsider, that transformed the occasion. The group’s resolve to treat Babette’s offering, her sacrifice, as a mere meal melted because of this one man who saw/smelled/tasted what the insiders did not want to see or smell or taste. It is to their credit (their salvation?) that they allowed their eyes and noses and tongues to waken.

And it’s always like that. Things such as homogeneity and strict obedience to dogma and doctrine invariably lead to stagnation. We need the “other” to point out the delights and beauty that come when let go of our resolve to stick to what we know. We need outsiders to demonstrate the wonders of those things that we fear will somehow corrupt us. And, we need to be willing to open up, even if reluctantly at first, to see and smell and taste these things for ourselves.

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Shadow and ghost

Sinto saudades do Brasil.

I feel nostalgia for Brazil.

That short sentence in Portuguese would be fairly easy to translate, were it not for that middle word: saudade1. It’s a nostalgia that’s bittersweet, often incorporating a sense of hopelessness combined with a longing for something that probably never was. It’s one of those supposedly untranslatable words, one that only makes sense in its own language. Essentially, saudade is…

———-

There are so many things I could write about being a seven-year-old boy who, in the space of 48 hours, was moved from my home in Curitiba, Brazil to my new home in Winnipeg, Canada. Things about adjusting to a new culture, learning a new language, trying to fit in. All of those things are important.

However, the thing I think about most revolves around the question, “who would I have been if…”  Who would I have been had we stayed in Brazil, had my parents not felt like they had to do something drastic in order to make a better life for them and us?  Who could I have become had I been able to finish my schooling in Brazil? Who would I be now had I grown up under the Cruzeiro do Sul (the Southern Cross)?

It’s not often, but I do sometimes wonder about this other part of me that was lost when we moved. And where do I now find this shadow, this ghost? Do I find this piece of me by moving back to Brazil?  Most likely, not.  Brazil hasn’t been my home in a very long time. In fact, our little home, our house, no longer exists. It made way for a bingo hall parking lot.  Perhaps it’s a matter of realizing that this lost piece of me is truly gone, and that I’ll never recover it. But. That yearning is still there. That call home…

———-

And that, I believe, is as concise a translation for saudade that I can provide.

___________

1OK, if you’d like to hear how to pronounce saudade, simply click here, and then click on the little “Listen” icon in the bottom right corner of the box. Do it. It’s a beautiful word.

Oh, and here’s another beautiful word.

 

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Seven Samurai

On the anniversary of the birth of Akira Kurosawa, I find it necessary to write about one of the finest films ever created: Seven Samurai. A review by me would be wasted words. Everything I want to say about it has been said so much better by film critics everywhere. What I will talk about is how it came into my life, because like many good things, it came to me by a circuitous path.

If I remember correctly, Seven Samurai first came to my attention via Cheers, that staple of Thursday night TV in the 80s. The gang was going to Sam Malone’s place to watch The Magnificent Seven. Diane, ever the scholarly dork, invited herself along, saying that she wanted to compare it to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, upon which it was based. I’m sure there was rolling of eyes and snide comments by Carla, but these are erased from my memory. So. That was the seed. And it lay dormant for many years.

That seed was watered and germinated by a staggering, punch-in-the-gut novel I read sometime in 2002 (I think): Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. No, this is not the novel that the Tom Cruise yawn-fest was based on. It is the story of a single mom, trying to raise a gifted son, who in turn is searching for his biological father. One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is that the mother uses Seven Samurai to present her son with male role models, in the absence of a father. This simple stroke of genius got me thinking that I really need to watch this film. And so I did.

Like I said, it came to me by round-about means. It’s like the movie was trying to find me, waiting for the right moment. Yes, romantic fluff, but that’s what it feels like. But I finally watched it for the first time, not long after reading the novel. And I fell in love with a movie.

The tale is not complex: the struggle of the weak against a stronger foe. What makes this film so special lies in how well it was written, the nuances in character of the various Samurai and villagers, and the way it was filmed. Each of the Samurai (technically, they’re Ronin, since they all are without a master) adhere to the same code, but all are slightly different in character. Likewise, the villagers: all face the same threat, but they see things differently regarding how to deal with that threat. Sometimes, motivations are up front and obvious. Sometimes, character is revealed bit by bit, with hints here and there, until we’re presented with shattering A-HA moments.

And then the film itself. It is basically a masterclass in the various techniques of filming and editing to tell a story that will keep people interested for over three hours. This is when it’s handy to have the Criterion Collection’s DVD or Blu-Ray to watch: for the two brilliant commentary tracks, one of which deals with the more technical and artistic aspects of the film.

I will put it this way: the movie as a whole is a masterpiece, but there are moments within that masterpiece that are so beautiful, so well filmed, that even if I am watching it by myself, I will get up out of my seat and shout “You fucking genius” or some such thing (some variation of “fuck” is usually involved, no other word will suffice).

Enough. All these words are just my lengthy way of saying this: there is no way to overstate how good this film is, how beautiful it is. All superlatives (with or without expletives) apply. Make sure, however, to buy or rent the Criterion edition. You will thank me.

To close, here’s a trailer:

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Memoirs of the Golden Age

I love a good memoir. I find it fascinating to read a thoughtful account of a person’s life, or a period of their life. It goes beyond chronology. If an author can only talk about what he did and when he did it, then I am almost immediately bored. Give me context in a greater setting. Give me insight into the times and people included in the book. I don’t want to merely know what happened, and when. I want to feel as if I’m just a little bit behind you, watching and hearing and feeling the events of your life unfold.

I also love many movies that came out of Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s. Casablanca. Gone With the Wind. Notorious. I love the actors of that era: Humphrey Bogart. Cary Grant. Lauren Bacall. Ingrid Bergman. I’m tempted to say that the glamour of that era was more substantial, but I’m probably wrong. That being said, it does feel like fame then was different from what fame and celebrity are today.

So. Combine these two things: a good memoir and the golden age of Hollywood. What do you get? Two marvelous books by David Niven: The Moon’s a Balloon and Bring on the Empty Horses.

Niven, while a recognized name, never reached the level of Hollywood royalty that actors like Bogart and Grant did. However, he was a part of an close circle of great actors and actresses, directors and producers, and all the hangers-on and wanna-bes. The stories he tells are the somewhat intimate accounts of the day-to-day lives of these friends. And all without stooping to gossip or mud-slinging, or worse, fawning.

He tells his stories not to expose, not to air anyone’s dirty laundry. On the other hand, he does not gloss over faults and flaws. He presents himself and those around him with a humble honesty. And humour. Niven, being a true Englishman, possessed a beautifully quick, dry wit and the book is great combination of sober introspection and insight, and side-splitting laughs.

It’s simple. If you enjoy well-written memoirs, these books are for you. If you’re into the films and actors of classic Hollywood, these books are for you. If you enjoy both, and you don’t already own these books, then I judge you. Well, not really. But I do insist that you obtain these titles. Now.

To close, I leave you with an anecdote about the great director  Michael Curtiz (1912-1962) that gives the title to Niven’s second book. I still remember reading it for the first time years ago, and laughing about it for days afterward:

Mike Curtiz was the director of The Charge of the Light Brigade and his Hungarian-oriented English was a source of joy to us all.

High on a rostrum he decided that the right moment had come to order the arrival on the scene of a hundred head of riderless chargers. “Okay,” he yelled into a megaphone. “Bring on the empty horses!”

[Errol] Flynn and I doubled up with laughter. “You lousy bums,” Curtiz shouted, “you and your stinking language… you think I know fuck nothing… well let me tell you — I know FUCK ALL!”

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Joy Lies in the Curve

When you see the masthead image for this blog, what goes through your mind? Dangerous driving conditions? The daily commute? The monotony of the road? Adventure? When I asked this question on Twitter about a month ago, those were the kinds of answers I got. And so today, I’d like to explain briefly what it means to me.

The image itself is cropped from this larger picture, taken by my brother. I was at the wheel of his Subaru WRX, driving on Interstate 80 in Nevada, heading home from visiting our Oma in California. We got caught in a sudden rainstorm in what is normally a hot, dry and cloudless wilderness.

On one level, this image represents some very specific memories. Looking at it, I can remember how tense and alert I felt on that July day in 2003. The sheer surprise of such a windy downpour. The bittersweetness of driving home after visiting far-away relatives.

And, like any good picture, there are also more abstract representations. Most important of these, for me, is that bend in the highway in the middle distance. That curve in the road that shows, bit by bit, what lies ahead only if you continue forward. Toward the unknown. And that same curve also obscures what has just been passed. You look in the rearview mirror and your past is no longer visible. The gas station, the rest area, road signs are all diminished by time and distance. A metaphor if ever there was one.

Growing up in a church community, I was taught to stay on the “straight and narrow path.” Yet, the more I experience, the more I realize that the joy of life lies in the curve. And so, for now, the image above will remain as a kind of icon for this blog. Driving on through good times and adversity, revealing in increments what lies ahead.

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A scene in a café

First, a brief introduction. Posting fiction scares me a little. I feel exposed, and not in a good way.  What follows is a brief snippet that’s probably a part of a longer story. I wrote it after hearing David Bowie’s Slow Burn while having a cup of coffee at my favourite café. It’s almost exactly as I wrote it: only a few minor edits.

Fair warning. Contains  some explicit (and implicit) language.

—————

Slow Burn at the Good Earth Café

I remember it like this.  Sitting in the Good Earth Café, reading Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd.  I heard the chime that signalled someone’s entry, and looked up.  It was you.  At that moment, the opening guitar hook from Bowie’s Slow Burn started playing on the café’s speakers.  We both said “nice” at the same time and, hearing each other, our eyes met and locked.  Knowing smiles, like both of us telling each other that we had excellent musical taste.

I asked you if you wanted to sit with me, something I never do with strangers, and you consented.  You paid for your coffee (black, no sugar) and sat in the chair across from me.

And we exchanged.  Names. Musical likes, apart from the obvious Bowie.   Films.  Books.  So much more.  You liked 70s glam and French chanteuses from the 1940s. Me? The Wedding Present was my musical love.  You loved French cinema.  Me?  Spanish.  You loved the Brontës, but were not snobbish enough to forgo the pleasure of good old-fashioned smut. Me? Atwood and Hardy. And good old-fashioned smut.

We talked about family.  Mine, big.  Yours, small.  Mine, scattered across the globe (US, Brazil, Ukraine). Yours, all within a 200km radius.  Mine, deeply conservative Christian background. Yours, mostly non-religious with a smattering of hardcore atheism.  I was the oldest of six siblings. You, the middle of three.

We didn’t exchange last names.  Too soon.  We didn’t talk about hopes and fears, nor desires and aversions.  We didn’t talk about what drew us in or what pushed us away. Nor how we began and ended our days. We avoided talk of sacred and profane.  I think we both knew that if our conversation would continue beyond that day, we’d bring all those abstractions to light. Slowly, bit by bit. Each one a kind of tease to pull the other along. A fascination. A sparkling lure.

I looked up and caught you gazing at me.  Shyly, you averted your eyes. When they returned to me, you found my gaze upon you. And it turned into a kind of tennis match, a back and forth of furtive glances.

Who broached the subject of sex? I can’t remember, but it feels as if neither of us brought it up, that it was sitting with us, that it had appeared ex nihilo when my eyes met yours.  Perhaps it was there in Bowie’s “Slow Burn.”  That brilliant guitar hook and our eyes meeting: that’s what brought sex to life.

No matter. I sensed that you and I both shared a common philosophy with regard to sex: the importance, the significance of the thing was the thing itself, and the whys and wherefores were wasted words.

I remember. Sitting at the table, talking with you, my eyes darting back and forth, scanning you.  Your eyes. Your chest. Your eyes again. Your forearms. Your chest. Hair. Eyes. Chest. Willing my mind to interpolate the shape and size of your breasts, the narrowness of your waist, the double curve of your hips and ass. The triangle formed by the dimples in your lower back.

Yes. Undressing you with my eyes, that old cliché.  I amazed myself at my ability to hold up my end of the conversation, what with visions of your naked body in front of me, and the steadily expanding bulge in my pants.

And then I noticed your eyes. Not the colour. Brown, right? I noticed your pupils. Dilated. Wide. Excited. Taking everything in. Gathering as much information as possible. A tell-tale sign of arousal.

And I noticed then, you seemed to be straining forward when you spoke. No longer casual. Intense.  And a look on your face, mirroring mine, that said, “I need to fuck you. Now!” My mind raced with the logistics of this need.  My place was at the other end of town, one and a half hours and two buses.  Your place? A two-hour flight and fifty-dollar cab ride away.

I spoke, finally, almost stuttering out the words, “A hotel.  There’s one around the corner.  The Sandman.  Let’s go.”

For a minute or so, we looked at each other in silence, shyly, almost apprehensively, like virgin newlyweds.  I felt something akin to terror. But not a fear of you. More a fear of the strength and intensity of this lust for you.  And it was lust that day. No feelings of tenderness. No sentimentality.  Only that animal desire that drives people to fuck. The kind of lust that seems to create desire and feed it at the same time.  A feedback loop, amplifying and distorting almost beyond recognition our most basic and simple imperative to reproduce.

With these thoughts racing around in my mind, as we got ready to find the hotel, all I could manage to say to you was, “I am so fucking horny right now.”

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Reading inertia

I feel like I’m in a bit of a reading rut these days. I’ve picked up a few books, started reading them, and abandoned them, unfinished. Usually less than halfway through.

This happens to me every so often, and I think it comes from a kind of overload. Too much good literature and I get feeling a bit bloated and logy. Too much literary turkey dinner, if I may make a bad analogy.

This is all my fault, too. I rarely read anything other than what people like to call “literary fiction.” More character- than plot-driven stories. Sometimes very dark themes. What draws me to this “genre” is that every once in a while, I find an author who has such command of the English language that I can tell s/he is playing/painting with words. Duluth by Gore Vidal. The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. Two virtuoso performances. Rich reading.

But now, I’m left with the feeling like I’m too full to read. Like I need to go on a diet of sorts. Or detox. I don’t know.

I was in a similar spot a couple of years ago. No books would hold my interest. Until. Aimlessly wandering in fiction stacks of our public library, I happened upon The First Casualty by Ben Elton. That name made my eyes go wide. The co-writer of one of the finest TV comedy series (Blackadder) was also a best-selling novelist. The final season of Blackadder was set in the trenches of World War I, and here was a book that told of a murder investigation in those same trenches.

And. It wasn’t what I would normally call literary fiction. It was populated by interesting characters, but it was the plot that kept everything going. Elton, having written for TV and film, knows a thing or two about pacing. I started reading the first couple of pages there in the library and I was hooked.

I took it home and devoured it in less than a day. It was a page-turner unlike any I’d read before. Each page made me want more. When I finished it, I went back to the library and borrowed more of his books. Those done, I revisited books I’d previously read. Started reading one of Stephen Fry’s novels, realized I’d read it before, but continued on because it was a damn good read.

The momentum from that initial thrust by Ben Elton has lasted up until quite recently. I guess I’m looking for that next book, the one that will open my eyes again. I guess that makes this post the most round-about way of asking, “Hey, you know a good book I can read?”

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