Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tree of life

After months of wait, I finally got to see Terrence Mallick's new masterpiece - Tree of Life. It is never good to see a movie with too much expectation, and I had carefully avoided reading much about this work. So, when the movie unfolded into an orchestra of Universal creation, I was astounded. I was not expecting an hour of a musical journey taking me through the creation of life. That anyone could attempt such a feat in a movie was impressive.
Tree of Life brought together the dichotomy of a vast cosmos versus individual life. Many times, a cosmic order is used as a salve for personal tragedies. God has a much larger scheme, the Universe has a much larger scheme, your personal sorrows are small. But is it comforting to know that you are nothing in that much larger scheme, that you could suffer personal losses and the Universe will just move on? Would it not be more satisfactory if you were the center of the Universe and the world would come to a halt if there was a hitch in your journey? It is possible that much of human angst is caused by the knowledge of being miniscule. Perhaps this is what causes Jack O'brien's (Sean Penn) angst and restless wanderings.


This film is a journey - into the memories of childhood, into the realm of Universal knowledge, and finally into the beyond. As a middle aged man, Jack O'brien remembers growing up in a small Texan town with two brothers. They have an idyllic childhood, spent in blissful afternoon excursions, looked upon by an angelic mother and a doting, though disciplinarian father. The brothers are happy in each others' company. There is just one scene in which sibling rivalry is mildly indicated: a toddler Jack looks upon his baby brother with curiosity, expecting him to play with him and then goes to throw tantrums when he finds no response. Mallick has captured a whole range of emotions in such subtle, ethereal scenes. There is very little dialogue in the entire movie. People whisper to themselves, or sometimes it appears that only bits of conversations are overheard by the camera/viewer - none of the words are spoken for the benefit of the viewer. In the movie are the rebelliousness of growing up, an exploration of personal failure and how it changes a person as a father, and more overpowering - a deep sense of loss. When Jack's younger brother dies at the age of 19, the whole family is thrown off, especially the mother, who wanders restlessly in the woods, seeking an answer from God. She asks: 'They say he has gone to God, but was he not with God all the time?' Her confusion, and sense of being wronged is deeply touching. Jack's misery is more lasting, as he tries relentlessly to keep the memory of his brother alive. His mind continues to wander, until one day, in the afterlife, he meets his family again and smiles in the togetherness.
It is hard to know whether Mallick is pitching a war between personal losses and the vastness of continuous life, or if he is trying to find comfort in the continuity of life. It seems like he is still wondering, as am I. But I am sure I will look forward to the blu ray release in October - so that I can enjoy the magnificent scenes on my personal screen.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Loving Sabotage

Loving SabotageLoving Sabotage by Amélie Nothomb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nothomb's short novel is a curious work. It is the story of a child, narrated by herself, but filtered through growing up. Filtered here does not mean filter out,because Nothomb does not really filter out her thoughts, obsessions and world view of childhood as she writes this. But she lets some of the latter experiences seep into the tale, a quote from Wittgenstein here, a little reference to Lolita there. It is remarkable how she never seems judgmental or dismissive about the fantasies of nonage - that is perhaps the most outstanding quality of this book, which lets it be a story told by a child and allow a child all its seriousness.

The book is about a part of Nothomb's own life, spent in China as a diplomat's daughter. Most diplomatic families live in colonies (which Nothomb christens ghettos) that are separated from the local population. As a result, many different nationalities come together in a microcosm of the outside world. Like the outside world, children from expat colonies indulge in their own wars, form their own alliances and chose their own enemies.

At appropriate intervals Nothomb, the child is funny, and these comic sightings keep the book interesting. Though the narration is based in China, there is little China that you meet - it is just somewhere out there, and never penetrates into the story, which is a bit disappointing, especially because the back-cover gives you the impression that it is going to be about an imaginative childhood in a troubled country (I immediately imagined Pan's Labyrinth, my fault, but you always anticipate based on what you have already experienced). Yet, there are certain short but astute observations, particularly on the secretive nature of Chinese government.

In all ways, the book is a capsule of a larger, more conscious adult life taken by a child. She experiences war, love, suffering and lives in a microcosm. All in the space of three years.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Stretched tragedy in Marias

Someday I would like to write an essay on the title above. Someday soon I hope. It's just that I do not have the mindset of a literary student, and have not written essays since high School. But there is something so characteristic about Marias' writing and his penchant for elongating a tragic/unpleasant situation which begs writing about. He wrings out the misery, repetitively and pulls it out on the pages in the most discomforting manner.
In Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, one of the spins is about an affair that Gogol's wife is having. While reading through the affair, I was constantly anticipating an explosive, uncomfortable moment when Gogol would find out about it and feel cheated/humiliated. So I was pleasantly surprised when the author cut through that moment and skipped into the future. From there, Gogol only looked back upon the moment when he had found out about the affair - you can feel that time has already softened the hurt, it is merely to keep the records straight is why the reader is being told about it. You are not expected to sympathize or feel involved. It has happened, done with. As a reader, it is a relief to be spared the emotional turmoil.
But not so with Marias - he does not let you escape. At the outset, he will tell you that the tragic event has happened. But that distance of past never comes as as escape. He then begins to describe the moments immediately before and after the tragic event. In excruciating details. At the beginning of Tomorrow in Battle Think on Me, (which I am reading now), he tells you that a woman dies in the arms of a man she had just recently met. You instinctively want to escape the horror of this man, who finds himself in another man's house, his amorous interlude with this man's wife suddenly thwarted by her unexpected death. He is left alone in the house with a child of two years, torn between the horror of staying with the child in the house and explaining his presence to the husband in the morning, or the coldness of leaving the child alone with his dead mother. And Marias, unrelenting, makes you live that horror yourself - for 100 pages or so. You find yourself worrying about the sick woman whom you already know will die. Upon her death, you worry about the child, and worry about how you will explain the affair. It is curious however, that through those unpleasant pages, you suddenly begin to get comfortable, no longer as afraid or tensed as the first few pages, just treating it as a practical problem. The possibility of confronting the husband no longer seems as intimidating as at the beginning.

Perhaps this mulling over tragedy is what makes him a master. That and his ability to conjure up the most unpleasant situations (have you read A Heart So White where a newly wed wife shoots herself, or the mega-book your Face Tomorrow, where a multiple of such unpleasantaries unfold)