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Archive for the ‘Synonyms for Intrigue’ Category

Beyond Rangoon

Saturday, March 27, 2010 @ 11:03 PM  posted by Mark

The only film in our series of journeys Around the World & Into the Past, Beyond Rangoon features Patricia Arquette as American doctor Laura Bowman, who is traveling through Southeast Asia in 1988 when she gets caught up in the Burmese democratic struggle led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Far from a vacation, the voyage is designed to help Bowman forget about the brutal murders of her husband and son, and Arquette plays Bowman as a blank, a woman with no affect and little connection to the world around her. As she tours the temples of Rangoon with her sister, she feels as dead as the great stone statutes of Buddha, and rather than soothing her grief, the exotic sights and sounds merely concentrate it.

One night, Bowman awakes to a racket of chants outside her window, and she steals out of her hotel room and into the streets, where she encounters a student protest against the repressive Burmese military dictatorship. She joins the protest, half in a dream, and witnesses Aung San Suu Kyi—the petite woman who would eventually win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to bring democracy to Burma—as Suu Kyi stares down the guns of the Burmese military, sweeps them aside seemingly with the force of her will, and speaks to the masses of students gathered to hear her.

Bowman finds something to cling to in this rally, and she returns to her hotel room energized. Unfortunately, she has broken curfew, and the police are waiting for her when she returns; though they decide to allow Bowman to continue with her tour group to Thailand the next day, she discovers that she has lost her passport at the rally and is forced to stay behind while the American embassy issues replacement documents. Her sister travels ahead to Bangkok with her tour group, and Bowman is left to fend for herself as the Burmese government declares martial law and violently squelches the student uprising.

Left on her own for a day in Rangoon, with explicit instructions not to leave the embassy, Arquette’s character decides not only to go into the streets but to leave the city limits, which is strictly forbidden to foreigners. From there, the adventure really begins: grief-stricken and with nothing to lose, Arquette takes every dangerous opportunity that comes her way, and she eventually ends up among a group of student revolutionaries in hiding from the military. Now she has no papers, no way back into the city of Rangoon, and no clear idea what to do next, other than swim with the current of fate.

Partly a primer in Burmese politics, partly a taut thriller with an unlikely heroine, Beyond Rangoon grounds its tale in the struggle of Patricia Arquette’s character to feel anything at all after the loss of her loved ones, drawing frequent parallels between her personal tragedy and the sufferings of the Burmese protestors. At times heavy-handed and simple, the film’s politics can hit you like a sledgehammer, but the winning, warm performance of U Aung Ko—the central force in the movie’s little coalition of rebels—humanizes these politics, which, after all, champion democracy in the face of violent oppression.

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Arquette’s blank affect often acts as a cipher that allows each audience member to react individually to the action, and her transformation at the end of the film is convincing; but there are also many times during the course of the narrative when her blankness alienates the viewer, giving her dialogue a hollow, perfunctory ring. At these times, the extraordinary Malaysian locations and director John Boorman’s deft handling of both small interiors and massive crowds save the film from wallowing in its own pathos—Boorman knows when to ratchet up the thrills and when to linger on a poignant sunset.

Beyond Rangoon exemplifies the Euro-American tourist at the end of the colonial era, stumbling blithely into political turmoil partially of our own creation; and the film offers yet another example of complex local politics simplified through white Western eyes; but Beyond Rangoon also shows us the benefits of reaching out across borders, and it becomes a rare cinematic vehicle: a political thriller that thinks friendship is a transformative force.

You can find it on DVD or YouTube.

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Memories of Amnesia—or, Is Your Brain Out to Get You?

Monday, February 22, 2010 @ 11:02 PM  posted by Mark

Today begins a week-long series I’m calling Sickness, Death and Other Inconveniences, whose theme you’ve no doubt already gathered. Since the body is our vehicle through this world, its splendid daily operation, occasional breakdowns and eventual and inevitable failure fascinate us. Even a common illness like a head cold (from which I’m now suffering, and which inspired this series), can seem like a harbinger of death and cause metaphysical reflections. (Perhaps I just need a better grade of chamomile tea. . .)

As our organ of primary understanding and the seat of our self-awareness, the brain holds a special place in the pantheon of the body, and not just its literal special place in the bony bowl at the top of our spines. The brain’s illnesses pose potentially unresolvable paradoxes about the nature of identity itself and about the accuracy of our understanding of the world. Memories of Amnesia, a novel of brain damage and its effects, by neuropathologist Lawrence Shainberg, addresses issues of mind and body and the curiously circular self-awareness of a mind investigating its own brain.

The narrator, brain surgeon Isaac Drogin, notices early on in the novel that he is suffering symptoms of a brain irregularity that he commonly diagnoses in his patients. When Drogin asks a colleague to examine him, his fears are confirmed—Drogin has a progressive brain disorder—and he begins a highly self-conscious observation of his own deterioration, in which he is both doctor and patient. The problem, for the reader, is that Shainberg’s narrator has told us that the condition he suffers from makes his grasp of reality unreliable, so it quickly becomes unclear whether or not anything Drogin observes about himself and his surroundings is true, despite the accurate and complicated jargon that the doctor uses to describe his condition.

The novel’s highly readable medical passages take us behind the scenes in the theater of surgery and in the grand opera of the self, describing neurosurgical procedures with disturbing clinical accuracy and explaining correlations between brain chemistry and thoughts with uncanny metaphysical insight. Sometimes, as you read, you become so aware of your own brain processing the language you’re reading that the language itself become secondary to your thoughts about yourself processing it. The ultimate paradox of the book—that the brain constructs a self that the self cannot find in the brain, even when the self is a neurosurgeon—comprises the main metaphor of the book, which is the hall of mirrors that modern self-consciousness has become.

Shainberg handles the philosophical implications of his story with perverse wit. Once Dr. Drogin decides that a belief in a Self separate from the body is the ultimate neurological function, he declares war on his own brain: in order to prove that he really does exist apart from his brain and that his sense of identity is not merely an illusion of his own neurology, Drogin attempts to undermine his brain’s functioning and liberate himself from it.

His wife, who may or may not be named Martha or Marjorie or Marcia, cheers him on. “You’ve got more courage than anyone I know!” she says. “You’ve challenged your brain! Rebelled against the tyranny of thought! The whole charade of language and memory.”

The doctor’s rebellion leads to an extraordinary climax, in which narrative point of view, the concept of the self and even observable reality are all called into question. Memories of Amnesia begins off-kilter and grows more convincingly askew as it progresses, until, when you put it down, the world of the book seems normal and the world around you seems to have shifted.

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Romeo & Juliet Make an Omelet

Sunday, February 14, 2010 @ 11:02 AM  posted by Mark

The classical idea of romance is tragic—the lovers want something they really can’t have in this lifetime, and so someone must ultimately be sacrificed to the idea of love. Romance survives as an ideal precisely because it can never quite be realized in this imperfect world, where a collicky baby keeps Juliet up half the night and then Romeo prattles irritatingly at the breakfast table about the Veronese government. Imagine Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after, surrounded by a brood of yammering children, Romeo with a paunch and baggy eyes, Juliet with stretch marks. Their days are filled with the (possibly happy) tedium of everyday life, but happy or sad, the idea of eternal union was not what Shakespeare was going for—that’s not romance—it was the ideal of eternal longing.

Romance has a tough time in this modern world because of our many freedoms: we are free to marry or not, to sleep with our lovers or not, to divorce and remarry without censure, and no one really believes in immortal damnation for the soul who commits adultery or divorces or defies the will of the parents by eloping with someone from another kingdom. In our individual lives, the barriers to love that once inspired romance have disappeared, and without real obstacles, the ideal of romance simply does not apply. That’s why there are so many absurd, unbelievable obstacles thrown in the way of modern lovers, which make both their romance and their union ridiculous (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, anyone?). But does the ideal of romance survive today?

Happily, yes.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is not, in its main concerns, a romance. It asserts the redemptive value of art in a world where not all mistakes can be confessed or forgiven. However, the romance around which the major action revolves is classically romantic with a modern twist—not only are the lovers sacrificed for the ideal of Love, their romance takes place only after the lovers are already dead. It’s an ingenious way for us to eat our cake and have it to: by displacing the romance with a metafictional device, McEwan creates a satisfying romance in the classical sense and uses it to make a statement about storytelling itself. One of the best novels of the aughts.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient features a straight up classical romance, with real obstacles of class, adultery, enmity and the lure of Impossible. The fact that it won the Booker Prize indicates how much we still long for the classical myth of Romance in our fictions and that, however self-aware and detached our modern attitude toward love, compared with earlier eras, we’re not beyond believing that our feelings are more important than life itself. The tragic sacrifice of the lovers in this novel return us to a conception of romance as ethereal, impossible and desirable.

Alain de Botton’s charming novel On Love is a prime example of what happens to romance in modern times. Witty and deft, the novel nevertheless replaces all the tragedy of classical Love with mathematical calculations, the exaltation of the everyday over transcendent passion, and the acknowledgment that any particular romance is just one in a string of romances that you will indulge and that will fail before you settle into marriage. A delightful book, with its share of surprise, discovery and romantic gestures, On Love captures the true-life experience of love for many of us moderns: engaging, essential but not transcendent. The One True Love has been replaced by the one you happen, by luck and effort, to work out all the details with. No lightning strikes or love potions here.

Finally, I would like to recommend the tale that started it all, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Quite a few versions exist, with minor variations, but this is the Bedier version. It’s a medieval story, so it has a fairy tale ring to our modern ears, and it has everything you want in a romance: passion, longing, adultery, battles with giants, dangerous voyages and most of all, a love to die for. As the model for all romances that came after it, right down to The English Patient, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult is still the best tale of love you can find: quick-paced, moving and tragic, it will make you long for the days when everyone knew what romance was and knew how to make real romantic gestures.

On a personal note: though the story of romance has been degraded by modern freedoms, I would still say that it’s possible to use the old, tragic gestures to express true love. Today, Valentine’s Day, my wife and I will be attending a matinee of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, after which I will make her favorite dish for dinner, which we’ll eat by candlelight. Is that romantic??

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Library of Babel: My Friends

Thursday, February 4, 2010 @ 12:02 AM  posted by Mark

Emmanuel Bove’s slender first novel My Friends follows World War One veteran Victor Baton down some of the the seediest alleys in Paris in a futile search for companionship. The novel’s title is ironic because, in fact, Baton has no friends, and though his misery would love to find some company, Baton chooses potential friends poorly and is either betrayed by or alienates them each in short order. The novel is charming in its sympathy for the down-and-out, for characters who don’t fit into the obvious order of things, and it shines when it portrays the emotional complexities of well-intentioned but damaged and ultimately self-serving people. The wry glint and ironic humor of the scenes keeps them from becoming maudlin or depressing.

The highlight of the book is Baton’s encounter with Neveu, a friendless, depressed man who is collecting stones along the Seine. When Baton approaches to ask why Neveu is collecting stones, Neveu tells him that he is about to drown himself, and he needs ballast to drag him to the bottom of the river. Baton decides to help Neveu collect stones, and then he decides to throw himself into the river as well. By the time they’ve collected enough stones to do the job, Neveu and Baton have become friends, and they decide to go to a cafe instead of killing themselves; but Neveu takes advantage of Baton’s generosity, spends all of his money on wine and then disappears into a brothel with Baton’s last penny. Baton never sees him again. It is difficult to imagine from this description that the scene is funny, but it is.

The novel’s clarity, wit and emotional complexity save it from pathos, and Baton’s plight, like the plight of Gregor in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” represents the dilemma of the alienated modern individual. Baton is ambitious in his way but does not want the mind-numbing low-wage jobs he can get; he’s poor and lonely, but he can’t connect to the impoverished loners around him; and his war injuries make him both a hero and an embarrassment to his society, which can no longer understand him. My Friends is smart, droll and surprisingly companionable for a book about alienation; it makes you feel—just as Baton feels about his absent friends in the novel—affectionate toward its author and certain that you could never get along with him. Originally published in 1924, the English translation by Janet Louth appeared in 2000.

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Library of Babel: Waterland

Thursday, January 28, 2010 @ 12:01 PM  posted by Mark

Graham Swift’s Waterland brilliantly chronicles the mid-life crisis of high school history teacher Tom Crick, who makes sense of his life by placing his difficulties in the context of the lessons he teaches about the French Revolution. What are his difficulties? His wife has gone mad and kidnapped a stranger’s baby from a supermarket, which lands her in a psychiatric hospital; his school is cutting its History Department, forcing Tom into early retirement; and his students, led by the rebellious teenager Price, are becoming increasingly difficult to control, since they know that History will no longer be required as a separate course and Mr. Crick no longer has the power to discipline them. In response, Crick throws out the textbook and, in place of standard European history lessons, tells the children intimate stories of his own life, in part to show them how personal and national histories can influence each other, and in part as a way to make sense of his life to himself. Crick’s history lessons begin to swerve into personal therapy encounters, as he reveals details of the rise and fall of his family’s brewery, his childhood exploits in the fenland of East Anglia, and the development of his wife’s madness.

The resulting narrative blends European history with racy personal confessions, jumps back and forth in time to tell a family saga spanning 250 years, and draws connections between global politics and individual motivations, placing Tom Crick and his students at the center of a vast sweep of uncontrollable events.

The wit and energy of the writing, line by line, carry the reader from the most lovingly detailed scenes to the most abstract philosophical ruminations. The complexity of Waterland‘s narrative arc, the subtlety of its emotions and the mystery at its heart make it great. It is not a flawless book—its ending is unsatisfying—but it is a novel of great beauty, intellect and heart.

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