a suburban tragedy

I might have mentioned before that I don’t believe in spoilers. As a matter of fact I sometimes read the last pages of a novel first just to see what to expect. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been able to read detective novels, I simply don’t care who did it, I’m more interested in the criminal’s every day life, how they like their coffee and what they think about in a crowded bus (well, this part isn’t very hard to imagine). After watching Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road twice, I decided to give the book a try too. There’s nothing more thrilling for me than a psychological suicidal drama; the more depressing and hopeless and with a more predictable ending, the better. I guess it’s a cathartic thing, like the effects of a Greek tragedy. You watch somebody suffer, identify with them, with their terrible trials and tribulations and somehow get purified in the process and can get back to your own (possibly troubled) life with a clearer head and a slightly braver heart.

At first glance the ancient Greek hero’s tragedy seems a great deal more purposeful and dignified, it’s all in the name of an ideal, a tradition or duty, or it’s a punishment for hubris. A housewife depressed in her spotless suburban home seems far removed from any such thing. Still, hers is also a tragedy of hubris, it is the tragedy of the modern man that tries to live up to his or her own illusions of what life is supposed to be like and never giving up on the dream that life holds extraordinary promises. April, one of the main characters, is the tragic heroine of this novel, who wants to live up to the dreams of her youth and cannot conform to a numb suburban life, but, like Jay Gatsby before her, she is chasing an illusion and dies a ridiculously unheroic (to say the least) death, doing that. Not incidentally she bears the name of what T.S. Eliot called “the cruelest month”. She is beautiful and smells like fresh lemons and, like the month she is named after, she both represents and reminds all the other characters of their youthful aspirations, of the promises of life that remained unfulfilled as they all settled for the comfort of routine and the ordinary. Her presence both stirs them back to life at times, for brief interludes, and painfully reveals to them their failure, mediocrity and weakness. Like any tragic figure she has to die consumed by her own impossible dream, letting the rest of the characters continue on with life as we all know it. Her death is both painful and a relief to them. There’s a beautiful scene after her death when their family friend (with whom April has had a brief affair) looks at his wife who wears a torn bathrobe, has tangled hair and smells like cooking and, comparing her to the beautiful April, he is no longer struck by her ordinariness in a negative way, but sees it as a metaphor for the life that goes on and is thankful for what he has previously perceived as something negative.

There’s something beautifully old-fashioned about this drama; I guess the irony of post-modernity has made us less sensitive to the modernist tragedy of mediocrity and it’s harder to take it so seriously. There’s almost a vintage allure to the image of the suicidal housewife; they don’t make housewives like that anymore…


extremely long and incredibly boring

I both hated and loved Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I loved it for its experimental typography, moments of humor and for the story of the grandparents and hated it for its sappiness, idealized characters, overly done gimmicks  and the pointless ending. The movie takes the worst parts of the book and adds some more hollywoodish bad stuff to it, creating a concoction that can be hard to bear. If you’ve read the book you’ll probably get angry at the ridiculousness of the adaptation and if you haven’t, you’ll probably fall asleep after shedding a tear or two. Either way, you’ll probably have to pinch yourself hard to be able to stand the two hour long cinematic trauma orgy, like the main character repeatedly does in the movie. The only thing that kept me going was waiting for the moment when the old guy played by Max von Sydow would start talking and tell the kid in a Darth Vader-like voice with a German accent: “Oskar, I am your grandfather.” Yeah, that never happened.

academic rock’n’roll

I’m not sure I trust Terry Eagleton, but I do like him. You gotta love a self-proclaimed Marxist that defends religion; there’s something in this combination that is so contradictory that it might actually produce something honest. On the other hand, the missionary “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (whom Eagleton groups together under the nickname Ditchkins) has always smelled a bit funny if you ask me. I’m not a believer, but their dismissal of religion has seemed to me as dogmatic as the subject of their rebuttal. And, to over simplify it, that’s pretty much the main point of Eagleton’s critique in his lectures, published under the title Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. He points out the incongruity and inaccuracy of their criticism of religion and the fact that they are just trying to replace one ideology with another, which, incidentally, functions quite similarly. The most spectacular part of these lectures is his reading of the bible, which he calls conventional, but which points out the radicalism and revolutionary content to be found particularly in the New Testament, embodied in the figure of Jesus who appears to be a radical socialist, semi-anarchist in his portrayal. He does not defend any religious denomination or current church of any kind, quite the contrary, he emphasizes their role in corrupting the message of the bible. All in all it’s a fascinating take on religion and understanding of freedom and human limitations that he expands upon and his lecture like style is extremely charismatic and often tongue in cheek. It made want to read the bible again (completely this time) and make up my own opinion about this Jesus guy and the role of religion; unlike the works of Ditchkins, which have made me suspicious of the term atheist and afraid to call myself one.

An article about the Eagleton-Ditchkins debate here and an interview with the man here

the cat in an empty room

I guess it’s not bad to be remembered in the sometimes poetically exhaustive words of Wikipedia, as someone who “compared Joseph Stalin to the abominable snowman. She also wrote about onions, cats in empty apartments and old fans in museums.”

I’m not much of a poetry reader, but Wislawa Szymborska’s always seemed to me as familiar as tiny epiphanies I’ve had and then immediately forgotten. Her words carry that same cryptic clarity as Emily Dickinson’s and the same touching way of dealing with the tragic, but denying  it tragicness (yes, I know this word doesn’t exist, but I think it should).

Wislawa Szymborska

A Little on the Soul

Periodically one has a soul.

Nobody has it all the time

and forever.

Day after day

year after year

can pass without it.

Sometimes only in rapture

and in fears of childhood

it dwells within longer.

Sometimes only in the astonishment,

that we have become old.

It rarely assists us

in strenuous pursuits,

such as moving furniture,

carrying suitcases

or tromping through a road in tight shoes.

While filling in forms

and chopping meat

it usually takes the day off.

In a thousand of our conversations

it participates in one,

and not even necessarily in one,

preferring silence.

When our bodies start aching more and more,

it silently leaves the ward.

It’s funny:

it doesn’t see us immediately in a crowd,

it sickens at our attempts at mere advantage

and the shrill clamor of business.

Joy and sorrow

are not all that different to it.

Only in the combination of them

does it stand up.

We can rely on it,

when we are certain of nothing,

and when everything seizes us.

It doesn’t say where it comes from

and when it will disappear next,

but it clearly awaits such questions.

It looks like,

as much as we need it,

also it

needs us for something too.

And a poem-like excerpt from her Nobel speech:

“I sometimes dream of situations that can’t possibly come true. I audaciously imagine, for example, that I get a chance to chat with the Ecclesiastes, the author of that moving lament on the vanity of all human endeavors. I would bow very deeply before him, because he is, after all, one of the greatest poets, for me at least. That done, I would grab his hand. “‘There’s nothing new under the sun’: that’s what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn’t read your poem. And that cypress that you’re sitting under hasn’t been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same. And Ecclesiastes, I’d also like to ask you what new thing under the sun you’re planning to work on now? A further supplement to the thoughts you’ve already expressed? Or maybe you’re tempted to contradict some of them now? In your earlier work you mentioned joy – so what if it’s fleeting? So maybe your new-under-the-sun poem will be about joy? Have you taken notes yet, do you have drafts? I doubt you’ll say, ‘I’ve written everything down, I’ve got nothing left to add.’ There’s no poet in the world who can say this, least of all a great poet like yourself.””

the future is weird

I want to hate Miranda with her theatrical weirdness and hipster clothes, I want to yell at her “man, put yourself together, get a decent fuckin’ haircut and some normal clothes so I can enjoy your damn movies” (and she actually does for half of the movie). She manages to capture things that preoccupy me and are so real and poignant, but I can’t concentrate on that because of her damned ridiculous cutesy weirdness. If I manage not to get pissed off and continue on, I’m always surprised and she manages to provoke questions, epiphanies and emotions that haunt me for days. I’m trying to look at her differently and think of her need to put her filmic persona in the movie as something similar to Charlie Chaplin or Woody Allen, but maybe because she’s a woman her self-irony sometimes strikes me more as ridiculous rather than comedic, narcissistic rather than brave. I’m still trying to figure out what it is about her that bugs me and so many other people I know and how much of it has to with my own fear of ridicule more than with her.

But anyway, The Future is probably the best film about the state of this generation that I’ve seen so far. And yet I’m somehow ashamed to admit it. It’s weird, sometimes funny, but mostly sad in a very strange way, not in the heroic tragic way, not in the suicidal way, but in an accepting and very nihilistic way. The image of a couple, each with their own laptop in from of them, physically near to one another, but mentally in parallel worlds, is like looking in a mirror reflecting my own life and its strangeness. The TV as a means of brainwashing is already a cliché, but we are still discovering what it means to spend half of your life in front of a computer, connected to the world. With the TV you had limited access to some channels you could choose from, but with the internet you have access to unlimited information, entertainment, shopping, the lives of others, dating, anything really, it’s like a portal to infinity. This flood of information is the power of the internet both in a positive and in a negative way, it democratizes information but it also causes a paralysis of the spirit and of initiative. It’s easy to see the internet as an immensely positive invention, our access to knowledge is so easy and immediate. Still, whenever my old father asks me how exactly the internet works, I find that I cannot explain, which creeps me out somehow as it shows me that unlimited access to information creates a lot more guilt with regard to the things that you do not know, or as Miranda July’s character says in the film, one day you realize that you are so far behind with the news that it makes no sense even trying to keep up.

Then there is our generation’s relationship to time. I found myself often talking to my friends recently about how time seems to just speed by us and that strange feeling of seeing days, months, years go by without even noticing and what’s worse without really doing anything, growing up, creating something, becoming wiser in any way. The other big elephant in the room is the strange uniformization of the bullshit-apple-“think different” generation, which made us all believe we are unique and special and potentially great artists of some kind. And what happened with the internet is that you realize there are billions of people just as special as you are.

If you want to kill a great idea that passed through your mind, well all you have to do is google it and realize it’s out there already. Someone said that this is a generation of designers, not of artists and somehow consumer culture is bringing art into our mundane life in a way that kills its aura. You get a Picasso printed table cloth and everyone is writing their life stories on blogs, everyone’s a photographer, a singer, or an artist of some sort and if they put it up on the internet they get an audience. A panda sneezing got millions of views and that’s not even the worst thing out there, heck, I might have been responsible for at least 5 of those views.

I was always against elitism in art, but lately I find myself craving those old elitist days, when art was something you felt privileged to have access to, not something you can download in 30 seconds and then forget all about in the next 30 seconds, and when you had to find more elaborate ways to express your opinions about someone’s creation than a thumb up or down. There’s something about this new power of the masses that makes me feel powerless. The same as the character in the movie that sets herself the task of creating 30 dances in 30 days, but ends up paralyzed in front of her laptop watching youtube videos of other women doing the same thing. Well, she’s the artsy contemporary ballet type and they’re more the pole dancing, hip-hop types, but the distinction becomes irrelevant when they are competing for views on youtube.

But the film is not just about these cultural issues; there are also the essential questions about what it means to be human, the constraints, but also the comforts of civilization, human relationships and the point of it all, living while being conscious that we are gliding away towards death every day, the things we put ourselves through in order to fulfill our idea of ourselves only to be bitterly disappointed, the numbness of daily routine and the trap of thinking we can escape it, the desire to feel alive and important, living in a time when we know we are at the end of our rope in so many ways, living with no higher outer guidance and this vague dictum of fulfilling ourselves. All these big questions are raised through the most mundane scenes possible, with nothing noble or dramatic about them. In fact it’s all anti-dramatic. Just like life, perhaps even a bit more ridiculous.  And that cat talking so poetically about time, entrapment, civilization, love and death is the clearest example of the ridiculousness of her genius; we’re all that cat: taken from the wild put in our cages where it’s nice and warm and it’s no longer all about survival, we can rejoice, we get love, but also a hightened self awareness and a tragic sense of the passage of time.