This is a very funny album!
This is a very funny album!
In the idiom of celebrity reportage in Bollywood, a word that gets consistently deployed, like a dramatic leitmotif in a K soap, is “bold”. What strikes me about how media and our culture-at-large uses the word is that the primary undercurrent is not that of “bravery” or even “courage”. It is courageousness, yes, but people do not refer to the courage of “the act” so much as they refer to the courage of the actress believing that she could get away with it. There is a sense of surprise that such behavior was left unpunished and is not even being decried as much as it should. I find that when people talk about an actress being “bold”, they are invoking a valor rooted in notoriety. The gossip rags that peddle sexually charged photographs with lurid click-bait titles are the most prolific users of the word and they seem to follow the marketing model of making hay while the sun shines, with the implicit promise to their readers that a righteous rain shall inevitably make shower upon the errant coquette.
Queen is a movie that refuses to shift such a subtle knife into our heroine’s back in either script or tone, and for that reason alone, it comes off feeling as regal as the name would indicate. However, this is not to say that the movie is perfect. Royalty is rarely that simple.
The film is structured as a veritable tale of two cities: Paris and Amsterdam. The story of Paris is the story of the feminine half of Rani’s re-calibration. Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon) is our protagonist’s guide, a not-so-vestal Virgil that half-guides half-prods Rani into breaking out of her shell and nonchalantly delivers sage advice on matters ranging from bras to bacchanals. Paris is the story of a girl coming into her own. Amsterdam—with a cast of roommates that seem plucked from a United Colors of Benetton ad—is the male side of the equation. This city of sex and vice is where Rani finds her first bro-clique and the girl from Rajouri becomes a woman. Finding her gender equation adequately balanced for the first time, she finally gains the courage to ignore rounding-off errors like her douche-weasel ex-fiance. Put another way, we have a plot that plays out like a two-semester course: Remedial Gender Studies 101 & 102.
The trope of the Indian engineer is that of a latently capable slacker who somehow delivers at crunch time, someone whose charm lies in their self-assured capability, even if we see it only occasionally. Queen feels like the handiwork of exactly such an engineer; moments of steady quiet perfection, punctuated by more extended scenes where one can’t help occasionally clucking one’s tongue, like a professor examining an auditorium with single digit attendance. An egregious case in point would be the bicycling montage scenes with Vijaylakshmi (Lisa Haydon) that honestly, feel like an extended Whisper commercial set to song.
On the other hand, we have a scene that somehow manages to be as trite as it is emotionally complex: our heroine, Rani, kisses an Italian restaurateur, marking a dramatic end to the “finding yourself” portion of the film. It is her first kiss and she barely knows how to do it right. In any other movie, I would have cringed through the moment, yet Queen does not waver, and lets us inside Rani’s insecurities and apprehensions while the kiss itself is hurried and messy and delightfully ordinary.
While it may feel like several shrubs go unnoticed, Queen pays close attention to both the forest and the trees: it stays on message and captures the trivial trappings of middle class Indian life. From the (no doubt khap-approved) chowmein dates to the distant faux-French relatives debating the minimum shagun that would keep them from looking cheap, the India of Queen is outlined in concise yet expert strokes.
While the message of empowerment and self-determination rings home pretty clearly, Rani’s grandmother—joyfully irreverent and blithely unconcerned—has a more somber message embedded in her attitude: woman do get to be free of societal constraints, but only when white-haired, haggard and no longer of reproductive age. Her grandmother gains the “luxury” to stop performing her assigned gender role, only when she there is nothing subversive left to be repressed. Indeed, it felt like no one in her family would take too unkindly to her dropping a few f-bombs. While rightly mined for comic relief, this double-double standard is worth bearing in mind. Beloved Granny is a woman who has paid every toll on the road, and I expect it is a cause of immense pride to see her grand-daughter paving a new thoroughfare for herself.
Nationalist gol-gappa sentiments and an unnecessary second ending (the exultant leap at the rock show is the only happy ending Queen needed) aside, the film is heart-warming, deeply humanist, magisterial, but most importantly, it is a film about being truly bold.
Like a pile of stale magazines you didn’t have time to read when they were still relevant, ideas sometime settle inside resolute corner of your head, refusing to leave yet refusing to offer something sufficiently irresistible.
The reason I often delay reading magazines—or reading a book or watching a movie—is that I want to “experience” them, as opposed to just consuming them. “Experience”, however, is an ill-posed condition. In my head, I perhaps demand some cosmic mandala to align into a moment of choral perfection; a searchlight that blinks on and magnetically arcs toward the said item, as I am inexorably informed by the pit of my stomach that now, yes now, the moment has come for said “experience” to peak into its fullest flower.
Ideas, the really original ones, are a bit like adopted children. They come into your lives fully formed but they’re not really yours until you put some work in to shape them. Ideas go stale when you don’t do that. Work often means the rusty crinkly ugly process of getting them down on actual paper. The turbines of your ideas need to be spinning fast enough so that their voltage can spark lightbulbs in other people’s heads.
Sometimes ideas are born under the zodiac sign of Meh. They are born to induce a brief arching of the neck, a furrowed eyebrow, the Huh of a preponed orgasm.They are merely okay. Yet for someone like me, my constructive impulses are scheduled like a baton race. When the ranks contain a limping runner, some corner of my sympathetic nervous system refuses to can the well meaning but only mildly talented young’un. The same concern for humor’s lesser children often leads me to make jokes that cause groans and stares.
This rather lengthy prelude leads me to something that has been swimming around in my head for weeks now but like plankton in the churn, it doesn’t seem to be capable of doing anything more than drifting.
I put it out here now because I’m tired of thinking about it and trying to develop into some elaborate overarching thesis—not important enough for that—and I want to move on.
Here’s something I realized while reading about the Leonardo Di Caprio loss at the 2014 Oscars on this Buzzfeed article:
Go ahead and scroll through it first if you haven’t.
Now, what really amazes me about this post is how it convinces me that the Buzzfeed writer’s opinion is so thoroughly correct, when in fact, it need not be true at all. It’s just an image. We have no idea what DiCaprio’s exact state of mind is. It is almost certainly true that he is wrestling with some hard emotions in that moment right now but why are we so certain of it? Why does the image below provide such compelling evidence for that?
Why does it work to make you believe? What is its source of power?
I believe that the answer lies in two techniques from the theory of cinema:
The first is the axial cut, a film editing technique that nowadays is somewhat rare in Hollywood. It was however much more widely used in the early days of cinema. Here is a brief discussion and example I found online:
During the 1920s, axial cuts become a secondary tool of the American filmmaker, who now had many other camera setups available. But Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s, who adopted many American techniques in the name of modernizing their cinema, seemed to see fresh possibilities in the axial cut. For instance, in Dovzhenko’s Arsenal (1929), it becomes a percussive accent. The astonishment of a bureaucrat under siege is conveyed by a string of very fast enlargements.
Set to a burst of dramatic percussion, this kind of cutting alters viewers perception, enhancing the emotive power of the actor’s face.
My personal experience with this kind of editing, if I stretch myself hard to think about it, is mainly from watching Cartoon Network. As I think about it, this actually makes a kind of sense. Assuming that the age of the cut ensured that it had become a cliché with overtones of camp associated with it by the 80s, it makes sense for cartoons like Dexter’s Laboratory to use this technique in a kind of funny-yet-serious moment of villainous plotting by Mandark or something similar. Indeed my source goes on to talk about how The Simpsons has parodied the sudden drama induced by such a cut:
Something like that is being activated here in that Buzzfeed panel. It is the only panel in the post that is zoomed in, creating the feeling of an abrupt descent into the mindscape of DiCaprio. The pixelated aesthetic adds a layer of incongruity, of ambivalence that sets up our minds to accept suggestions from an outside agency about the meaning of what we are seeing. It is even to the assistance of the overall tone that we have internalized the parodic application of the technique; we are then able to be totally convinced by Buzzfeed’s DiCaprio manifesto while being cushioned by the reactionary mirth at the process we see unfolding. After all, Buzzfeed does not sell misery; it sells misery-as-meme. And memes are supposed to be funny.
The second technique that I see this panel borrowing from the grammar of cinema is the Kuleshov effect. Per Wikipedia:
Kuleshov edited together a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of Tsarist matinee idol Ivan Mosjoukine was alternated with various other shots (a plate of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman on a divan). The film was shown to an audience who believed that the expression on Mosjoukine’s face was different each time he appeared, depending on whether he was “looking at” the plate of soup, the girl in the coffin, or the woman on the divan, showing an expression of hunger, grief or desire, respectively. The footage of Mosjoukine was actually the same shot each time.Vsevolod Pudovkin (who later claimed to have been the co-creator of the experiment) described in 1929 how the audience “raved about the acting… the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman. But we knew that in all three cases the face was exactly the same.”
Kuleshov used the experiment to indicate the usefulness and effectiveness of film editing. The implication is that viewers brought their own emotional reactions to this sequence of images, and then moreover attributed those reactions to the actor, investing his impassive face with their own feelings. Kuleshov believed this, along with montage, had to be the basis of cinema as an independent art form.
I posit that the text preceding the zoomed in panel image works exactly like the stimulation cutaways (soup, coffin, et. al).
A bullet of heavy emotion, pointed straight at our pre-primed hearts. Once we see the image having just being made to read this sentence, our minds really don’t stand a chance of considering for a moment that maybe this image is really just a momentary, possibly meaningless screencap. We want to see DiCaprio suffering existential butthurt and we do.
It was at this point that I began to realize that Buzzfeed articles, in structure, resemble an unrolled spool of a silent film; the kind that had cue cards with text inserted before each segment of noiseless action, providing meaning and context. It’s really ironic if you think about it: some of our newest visual media works in ways exactly like some of our oldest visual media.
Reflektor is a song about the role of technology in alienating us from ourselves and the relationships we have with other people, in this “reflective age”. Dovetailing with this commentary on modern relationships (specifically, the one between Win Butler and Regine Chassange) are subtle allusions to a deconstructed version of the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice.
Win Butler has mentioned in interviews that one of the influences on this album was the essay “The Present Age” by Kierkegaard. You can see this in lines like:
We fell in love, alone on a stage
In the reflective age
The essay talks about two stages of society—the Revolutionary Age and the Reflective Age, the latter being explicitly referenced in the song as above, as well as the constant presence of the titular “Reflektor.”
The essay describes Reflective Ages are times of collective torpor, where passion is absent or easily drained away and abstractions such as “the public” or “the media” are invoked to remove meaning from any uprising or greatness. Skills that facilitate respectable ways to achieve such lethargy are valued.
The present age is one of understanding, of reflection, devoid of passion, an age which flies into enthusiasm for a moment only to decline back into indolence. […] If any generation had the diplomatic task of postponing action so that it might appear that something were about to happen, even though it would never happen, then one would have to say that our age has achieved as mightily as Revolutionary Ages. […] The present age is an age of advertisement, or an age of publicity: nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it. […] The Age of Encyclopedists is gone, when with great pains men wrote large Folios; now we have an age of intellectual tourists, small little encyclopedists, who, here and there, deal with all sciences and all existence.
He wrote of a different time, but analogies exist with facets of contemporary post-Facebook society. Notifications, icons, tweets, the ambiguous idioms of texting/chatting, superficial Facebook shares, social media based “protests”, the Buzzfeed-fication of news—have all become familiar, if weary, parts of the online experience.
Butler seems to associate the digital weakening in love and friendships as a symptom of a contemporary reflective society. The song talks about such feelings of isolation in lines like:
Alone in the darkness, darkness of white
where the white refers to the glare of the screens we stare at in isolation, or:
Our song it skips, on little silver discs
Our love is plastic, we’ll break it to bits
Where, he talks about how our very lives are now coded into the digital; an error in the machine now affects how we understand our pasts.
Presented against this milieu, the song talks about how Win and Regine met and got together:
We fell in love when I was nineteen
And I was staring at a screen
The two are firmly products of their age and line seems to suggest that the song is among other things, a meditation on the travails of love in such a time.
References to the myth of Orpheus & Eurydice are also ever present. Though not explicitly mentioned in this song, there are hints that—fair warning—I believe point to their story, upon closer inspection. Consider these segments:
Entre la nuit, la nuit et l’aurore.
Entre les royaumes, des vivants et des morts.
I thought, I found a way to enter
It’s just a reflektor (It’s just a reflektor)
I thought, I found the connector
It’s just a reflektor (It’s just a reflektor)
Thought you would bring me to the resurrector
Turns out it was just a reflektor (It’s just a reflektor)
Thought you would bring to me the resurrector
Turns out it was just a reflektor (It’s just a reflektor)
Thought you would bring to me the resurrector
Turns out you were just a reflektor
The lines in French talk about a place that is “Between the night, night and dawn. Between the kingdoms, of the living and of the dead”
You’ll find various interpretations for this, but what I find compelling is the idea that this is referring to one of the secret, and select, portals that allowed human being to enter the Underworld, realm of Hades. By their nature, they were sites of transition between dualities, of passage from one to the other—they mediated between the day and the night; the living and the dead.
The rest of the lines describe an Orpheus-figure entering the Underworld, finding the connector (securing safe passage to see the ressurector, i.e., Hades, and petition for the release of Eurydice).
This version because of the deconstruction because of the alternate lines that undercut the action by claiming “it was just a reflektor.” The trope of the descent to the underworld, in the reflective age, becomes a non-quest. There is no Charon to be bargained with, there is no Styx to be crossed, no Cerberus to be lulled and no Hades to be appeased. They have all become reflections—abstractions divorced from reality.
The true jolt comes when the Orpheus-figure realizes that “you were just a reflektor.” There was never any Eurydice to save, there was no damsel in distress, the damsel doesn’t care, the damsel is texting someone right now so go away!
Two final notes:
1) the line: “It’s just a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection” perhaps unintentionally evokes the idea of simulacra and simulation by Jean Baudrillard. A symbol that has become so adrift from being any kind of representation of anything real, that it refers to and evokes other symbols that are equally adrift from a representational connection to the real.
A really good example of this idea is a passage from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, where a couple of characters go on a road trip to a barn that is famous as the “The Most Famous Barn In America”:
"No one sees the barn," he said finally.
A long silence followed.
"Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
Another silence ensued.
"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.
He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.
"What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?"
The idea of photographs stealing something essential from an object corresponds to that of the symbol beginning to have meaning independent of its referent; this is something Win Butler refers to in the song “Flashbulb Eyes” on the same album:
what if the camera
take your soul
2) One final note: As an electrical engineer, I see a pleasing connection between the idea of a “reflection of a reflection” and the underpinnings of the kinds of modern communication technology the song talks about. It is a simple consequence of Maxwell’s Laws of Electromagnetism that light, radio, wifi and all other electromagnetic waves travel by a process of induction—a varying magnetic field induces a varying electric field, which in turn induces a varying magnetic field, which in turn induces a varying electric field…unto infinity.
This self-sustaining bootstrapped method of propagation is how all information moves. So, at levels both lowest literal and highest metaphorical, digital communication can be described as a “reflection of a reflection.”
Note: Cross-posting from https://www.quora.com/Song-Meanings/What-is-the-meaning-of-the-Arcade-Fire-song-Reflektor/answer/Ankit-Sethi
(Left: The Brothel of Avignon, Pablo Picasso, 1907; Right: Madonna of Foligno, Raphael, 1511)
I think it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the Stud-Muggu is one of the most defining binaries according to which a student at an engineering college in India may be classified. I am writing this post to reflect on an analogy I believe exists with the Madonna-Whore complex in psychoanalysis.
The Madonna-Whore complex in literature refers to a specific condition whereas in the popular idiom it has a somewhat looser meaning, characterized by a stereotyped way of thinking, rather than the earlier, narrower sense of a specific mental ailment. This motivates me to use the TVTropes.com definition of the complex rather than that from Wikipedia, as it better captures the popular dichotomy to which I’ll compare our studs and muggus. To wit:
The virtuous Madonna figure, possessing and protecting social virtue (and deploring sexuality) is an object of worship and everything that all females should aspire to be. However, sex is not part of this. Anyone who fails to live up to the Madonna standard is a Whore driven exclusively by sexual desire and (therefore) lacking in morality and humanity. An active sex life makes one a Whore… unless one is married, and sometimes not even then.
What occurs to me is this: Muggus are Whores and Studs are Madonnas.
This might not seem entirely obvious at first. One could argue that there is virtually no “sex appeal” associated with Muggus as there is with a whore, while Studs tend to be quite desired and frequent objects of sexual/romantic attention. I thought of this but the similarity strikes me as merely superficial and there are deeper resonances when one makes the opposing comparison.
Muggus are characterized by doing whatever it takes to secure good grades. They are perceived to be giving up fun, a social life, opportunities for out-of-classroom personal development for the sake of the “safe and easy” end goal of getting the best grades on homework and exams. Like the Whore, they do not “save themselves” for their real passion - that sport, that musical instrument, that company.
Studs are containers of virtue. Not virtues shared by your parents or professors probably, but they represent to you, that unique minuscule tottering unsure you, what seems to be the most amazing kinds of person to be at that point of time in your life. The ‘Stud’ classification acts as a means of distancing as much as applauding. When you tell someone, ‘stud hai bhai’ you compliment but you also elevate and apotheiosize. You want to put them on a pedestal because then it becomes easier to deal with. It is as much a tip of the hat to them as it is a wag of the finger to yourself. These are all attributes of the Madonna in its various forms. Madonnas represent the ideal, you-wish-you-could-be-that kind of womanhood as much as the Stud represents the ideal kind of college student everyone aspires to be. Furthermore, another crucial thing that Studs and Madonnas have in common is that they produce superlative wondrous output without never being seen rolling their sleeves up and toiling away covered in sweat and elbow grease in that particularly unglamorous way that characterizes a Maggu. The Madonna can birth Jesus and yet remain a virgin; the Stud can sing, dance, play, study, code without ever appearing harried or despoiled. Both are capable of Immaculate Conception.
At the heart of this analogy is the equivalence between a woman’s chastity and the student’s passion. Women with an unapologetic sexual desire are perceived as base, using their genitalia to advance a myopic, hedonistic agenda rather than for the miracle of birth; people who study and care about their courses and associated short term rat races to excess are perceived as sacrificing their once in a lifetime opportunity to explore their wild side, to find out who they are, to be “reborn” if you will.
Just as we have many studs, we also have many Madonnas. Representations of the Madonnas in the Western Art tradition abound in variety. The Madonna can be seen in prayer, as royalty, as devoted mother or as prophet; we have drams studs, lit studs, the various sports studs and many others. The painters of antiquity had shifting opinions about what was their preferred type of femininity; we too express personal preferences about the kinds of people we consider a Stud. Some kinds of studs go in and out of favor. And exemplary Stud in one particular activity can raise the cachet of that activity itself, creating room for copycat studs (CFA or HBS 2+2, anyone?).
I can even think of one Whore subtrope, that finds an analogue on campus. The Hooker with the Heart of Gold being our lovable go-to maggus who help us out with notes, exam prep and (the really cool Chandramukhi kinds) who even help you with cheating during exams. Do leave a comment if you can think of other sub-types of Maggus.
I think the best way to end an essay that introduces and explores a dichotomy is to break it at the end. In an earlier paragraph I said that calling someone a stud inherently involves pointing a finger at yourself. Why is that? The crucial thing about Studs is that, what they achieve is something that many of us - at least a plurality if not a majority - can actually conceptualize as possible within our realms of achievement. If we just binged-watched TV less, if we just slept earlier, if we wasted less time on cards and ‘bhaat’, hell, if we masturbated less - we could be studs too. We all think. But there is a third category that exists above and apart from this dichotomy. The person who gets a 10 pointer GPA for 5 semesters in a row, or the guy who has reached the highest theoretical level a violin player can - they cannot be called Studs. The word is inadequate, sounds wrong to the ear, an unforgivable shibboleth. Kharagpur offers only one word that I could think to call such a Hegelian synthesis of Stud and Maggu - they are Gods.
— Ankit & Mithilesh
"Can I have an apple fritter with a large coffee, please?" asked Susan of her server, repeatedly stretching and crinkling her eyes, as if fluffing an old pillow. “They’re still not doing too great with the sleeping huh?”, asked Tim. Susan stared at the rings on the formica table, wondering how much detail was worth the effort. “It’s still rare to see them sleeping for more than three hours straight. When they wake up, they try to be nice to me and stay quiet. They hold each other; they talk. Sometimes they cry. That’s what usually wakes me up.”
Tim nodded with a look of sympathy. “I can’t imagine what you must say to them. I’d run out of stuff pretty fast. Keep saying the same stuff over and over and be feeling like a total flake.”
"Well, I don’t do much of that now. The first couple of days that they stayed over, sure. I’ve come around to thinking that this is just something they need to do for a while. When I go in and try to talk, they usually have something definite that they wanna talk about."
"What kind of stuff?"
"That’s what. It’s little stuff from school - what teacher is mean to them and what kids they don’t like playing with. Sometimes it’s stuff about the TV shows they like to watch. It’s like they’re not processing this stuff at all during the day and they only think about it when they wake up at night."
Susan spotted the server coming back with her coffee and started to preemptively shake and tear a packet of sugar. Tim decided to take a few more bites of his eggs as he waited for her get her fix. After a couple of sips had gone down she decided to put something out there, “You know, they’re going to be keeping the cubs at the zoo for a while.”
"Yeah, that thing had cubs. Didn’t you read about it in the Ledger? Some people have even started a donation drive to help pay for the cubs’ living costs."
"Jeez, I didn’t know that thing had kittens. Are they big?"
"Not very. I think they were just a few months old. They’re why the lion was so aggressive, the park rangers said."
"Okay, so… why do you bring this up?"
"It’s nothing. I just that I thought that, umm, maybe I could take the girls to go see them."
"What?! Suze, forgive me for saying this but that sounds a little messed up. Are you expecting some magical human-animal oneness thing to happen with them? Because that’s not how it works. They’re not pets, even if they’re small. I know you’ve been the dutiful aunt and you’ve always been there in the girls’ lives, but you can’t know how this would affect them. It seems totally unnecessary. No, scratch that actually, it’s definitely unnecessary. And it’s probably harmful."
"Tim, I just wanted to hear what you thought about it. Now I do, I guess. Look, I understand what you’re saying but it’s been a couple of months now and I’m not sure the girls are…" and here Susan paused, cringing with displeasure, "Well, I don’t what’s the right word for it is but it’s like they’re just not progressing."
"Progressing? What is progress here, Suze? Grief is just not linear like that."
"I know, I know; it was an awful way to phrase it. But I just need to know that they’ve reached a point, like, from whereon, it will just get better, you know?. Right now, they’re still stuck, Tim. You don’t know how it feels to see that everyday. Hell, I’m still stuck. But that’s secondary. I know moving on is a long process but this car needs to fucking start. I think this could do something for them. I just need to know they’ll be okay. Not even okay with a capital O. A small o will do for now."
"They don’t know about this yet, I assume."
"I’m not sure how I’m gonna frame this particular idea. Suggestions would sure be nice, Tim"
"I would like to help you, but I think I’m gonna keep my peace on this one. You’ve know what I’m feeling about this."
Susan put down her coffee, looking at Tim. Her fingers still clutched the handle and Tim could see them trying insistently to twist the joint between handle and mug. A bit more space for her fingers and she’d have had the leverage to break it free.
"I’m not going to pretend to have the intuition with them that Kelly seemed to have. But I have to try. We’ll all go. The three of us. See if we can make something of this insanity."
"Well, I don’t think this is a good idea but the family and I will keep you in our prayers. Heck, we’ll even say a little something for those cubs."
"Heh, thanks a lot, Tim. Maybe you should teach me how to pray one of these days."
"Why isn’t Aunt Suzy at home?"
"Quiet down! I’ll look in my bag. I thought I remembered you taking it from me in the morning."
Justine bent down on the curb and unzipped her bag, looking for the spare key to their aunt’s house that she had given them - just in case. She wondered if Aunt Suzy would be back soon. Their aunt had been taking special care to be around when they got home from school. In the past couple of weeks though, she’d been missing lunch hour with them more often and they’d begun using the key to get inside. It was some consolation that their Aunt made simply the best sandwiches and she’d usually leave a couple of huge ones in a plate on the kitchen counter.
She was now 12 and was getting to the age where kids learn that grown-ups often make other grown-ups go back on their promises to their kids but it wasn’t either grown-up’s fault because everyone was just trying to make money and do nice things for their own kids. Ana was still too small to really get this, and so as Justine rifled through her bag, past loose crayons, pencils and reading assignment papers, searching for the spare, she decided not to share her opinions on Aunt Suzy’s increasing absences.
"Aunt Suzy will be mad at us if we lose it." said Ana, feeling annoyed with the grass outside, feeling annoyed with nothing.
Justine finally found the key embedded between the sheets of her reading material; she got up, dusted her kneecaps and let herself and her little sister inside.
Ana had found the sandwiches and handed one to her sister. “I’m bored.” she said.
"Yeah. Me too." Justine said.
They turned on the TV and climbed/sat on the couch. They chewed in silence trying to understand the mysterious love triangles in the soap operas playing at that hour. As Ana tried to pick out a speck of tomato peel stuck between her molars, she asked, “Do you think Mommy would have wanted us to eat so much peanut butter?”
"Ana, you ask that question about everything we eat. Aunt Suzy is feeding us fine. You don’t have to worry about it. Mom would be happy with how we’re doing." Justine paused for a moment, "She’d be mad about our grades, though."
"Classes are boring." Ana said simply, and continued to chew.
"I think I still like some." said Justine.
The girls woke up — they were still on the couch — and found Aunt Suzy back from work. She was chopping garlic and there was a saucepan on the stove that was already smelling good.
"Now, did you girl sleep away the whole afternoon? You should go out and play with the other kids in the street."
Justine groaned and buried her face back into one of the couch cushions. Ana got up to go pee.When she got back, Aunt Suzy turned down the stove, wiped her hands on the apron and walked up to them. Sitting down next to them she said, “Now girls, I want to talk to you for a moment. I was hoping we could discuss something that could be kind of important.”
"Do we have to go away?" Ana interjected, her face already a mixture of fear and premature acceptance.
Aunt Suzy moved quickly to comfort her niece, her troubled face already showing second thoughts about this whole damned idea.
"No no, honey. You KNOW that’s never going to happen while I’m around. I actually wanted to talk to you girls about something very different."
"What is it, Aunt Suzy?" Justine asked.
"Well you know about how the mountain lion that…, well, that attacked your mom, well, you know how it…" Aunt Suzy was struggling to continue.
"Didn’t they shoot it?" Justine responded with concern.
Seeing what Justine was thinking, their aunt lurched forward, “No, no, of course sweetheart, they got it for sure. That’s not the thing.”
"You see, the lion was a mommy too. And it had two baby cubs. Little things. The rangers are saying she was only trying to protect them."
"What are you saying?" said Ana perplexed with this turn in the conversation.
Aunt Suzy took a breath. “Girls, the cubs are at the City Zoo until the animal doctors decide they can go back to the forest. I was thinking it might be nice to go see them. Would you like to go?”
Ana, despite everything, was still a child of barely nine years, and couldn’t help widen her eyes in wonder at the prospect. Justine was watching Ana just as Ana instinctively turned sideways to look at Justine. It was a plea. Their aunt understood that Ana had just ceded her say to her big sister. She was interested but she wanted Justine to say yes first.
"How big are they?" Justine asked her aunt. Her voice sounded like it was mid-cough. Or mid-cry.
"Quite small. I called up the people at the zoo. They’ve just reached the age where they can eat solid food. I think we can help feed them if you’re super careful with them. But let me be clear, though. We don’t have to do this. Only if you girls want to. Only then."
There was silence for a while. Justine bent her head sideways, fiddling with her nails, as her aunt and Ana waited for a response.
"Well… I guess there’s no real reason not to." she finally said.
Their aunt hugged them both tight before saying, “I think I can get time off this weekend. I’ll call the zoo people. And we CAN cancel if either of you change your mind. Everyone will understand if you don’t feel like it.”
"Aunt Suzy, what’s for dinner? I’m hungry." Ana replied.
The bell at the diner rang as Tim walked in hurriedly. He scanned the moderately occupied place before locating the booth where Susan was sitting with her usual order of coffee and fritter.
"So! So! What happened!", he asked excitedly.
"Aren’t you going to apologize for keeping me waiting here for almost an hour?", answered Susan, her face not giving the slightest emotional preview to Tim.
"You know I’m sorry, Suze. Family stuff. Children make unreasonable demands sometimes."
"I suppose I’ll be experiencing some of that eventually with my nieces. Well, to answer your question, it was… umm, pleasant?"
"I mean, it was sweet. You have to understand, I didn’t really know what they would make of the cubs. I wasn’t going in expecting some kind of resolution. I mean, I wanted it. But I didn’t know how it would happen. They were a little afraid initially. And shy too. They were scared that the cubs would scratch their hands. But they managed to play with them for a bit. Fed them from a bottle. Gave it little bacon bits to chew on. The critters sure loved that stuff. It was okay. Even Justine, who I was more worried about, seemed to be okay with handling them. They didn’t want to stay for very long though, which is expected, I suppose. It—I mean—I guess they connected for a bit?"
"Do you think you got your progress out of this?"
Susan smiled, “Last night, they came into my room at around 3 a.m. I got concerned because they usually don’t get out of bed when they do wake up. But they said they’d been talking about it and they wanted to hand over their piggy banks to me. They asked me if I could give the money to that donation drive for the cubs.”
I had been murdering people. They were friends or possibly lovers of a close friend of mine. I killed them because I was very clever and thought of smart ways to do it. They had found me. It was right after an event that knocked everybody in our apartment building unconscious. This one had been particularly severe and the police had come. They rifled through my things and discovered the postcard I was going to send him. It had my condolences and expressed bafflement that three of his friends had died in such unlucky circumstances. Only problem was I had killed the third only last night and it wasn’t yet public. My faculties of deception are anisotropic. In front of the innocents of justice, I cannot lie. I immediately confessed and was arrested though I thought I was still a good person. It felt strange to face myself as a publicly known killer. I made such good jokes. How would this affect that, I wondered.
My jailors did not imprison me immediately. They took me to the Commisar, perhaps because I was a foreigner in this land. Which meant that the Commissar could help in ways other people here cannot, I was told in an impatient yet insistent voice. You must beg, beg hard boy, they said. I entered his office and then the blood in my lungs from this morning seemed to remoisten. My family was there; they had arrived somehow. Perhaps I had been unconscious longer than I thought and it was really the next day. I don’t know. They were crying and pleading my case, all of them. The children cried the hardest, shaking and bawling for my safety. My grandfather had assumed an undignified yet unashamed bow on all fours as he teared and asked for clemency. The Commissar seemed annoyed. He expected people in their prime to do the mewling. The old and the very young are both unsatisfactory and yet they cannot be denied. I knew it was certain that I would win some kind of pardon and yet I felt weak because I had not had to beg myself.
It was now a matter of time to get you out of here, the Commisar spoke. He let me read the news and I saw that several among whom I was once popular now denounced me in loud words. Several thespians that I did not for care much for expressed a desire to play me. Some wanted me to write a book. I thanked him and asked if I could go to my apartment and retrieve some personal items that I wished to take back to my old life. He said there was some tricky paperwork there but I could in the night, as long as I was discreet. People don’t appreciate gaping loopholes and tend to fix them.
I got back to my home and started searching for what I might miss. I spent too much time, all night, thinking about the life I was leaving behind. Many people saw me from the windows I think. One neighbor came by and said she still thought I was a decent person. We had never spoken before this. It became dawn and I thought to finally leave. I saw men covering the walls of the corridors with a strange dust and they screamed that I should not be here. The building was too damaged by the last event and was going to be demolished. They were the last of the work crews and they told me to leave immediately. As I ran down to escape the flames that were to come, I thought of my neighbor. I wondered how she happened to still be here. Her door was unlocked when I went there to check. Inside she lay unconscious, as did her three young daughters. They were on their floor wearing night clothing. I shook them and screamed as best I could. They were slow to wake, still under the spell of some drug or shared dream. I called out to them urgently and they began to move but already I could hear the machinery of earth moving away. This is why it all happened, I thought. I scooped up the three daughters and urged their mother to run for one last time. The rest of the stairs were quite difficult.
I am back to my own lands now and some people do still laugh at my jokes.
A couple of weeks ago I was watching an old Japanese movie called The Ballad of Narayama. Shot in 1958, the movie tells the story of an old woman who is closing the time when she must — in accordance with custom — depart from her impoverished village and trek up to the summit of Mount Narayama .A swift death (if one is lucky) from hunger, dehydration or the elements, serves as the final and ultimate sacrifice by the aged for the benefit of their grain-hungry families. This practice of ”Ubasute" or "abandoning an old woman" is apparently a subject of many Japanese folktales and legends.
The movie is shot as traditional theater in the Japanese kabuki tradition. This was one of the first of the first of many points of resonance that I felt the movie had with Lars von Trier’s Dogville. It is these connections that I decided to outline and compare through this post.
Dogville is a 2003 movie by Danish director Lars von Trier that is instantly memorable for its sparse sets (the houses and streets of Dogville are delineated by chalk) and the pantheon of acting talent that one finds in the movie, knocking on imaginary doors and traipsing through chalk outlines of gooseberry bushes.
Briefly, Dogville is a movie about a woman who is forced to take refuge in a tiny mining town called Dogville after fleeing from gangsters whose reasons to locate her remain mysterious till much later in the film. The town reluctantly and, later, enthusiastically accepts her, but in time the milk curdles, and she starts being manipulated, abused and vilified.
The Dogville connection first occurred to me in the opening frames of Narayama, which consciously attempts to inform the viewer at the outset that he or she is observing a theatrical performance — this is not simply a recorded play, but neither is it trying to observe the rituals of regular cinema.
(the opening shot of TBON, a hooded joruri crier announces the name and subject of the “performance” and parts the curtain after the overlayed credits sequence is finished)
Dogville chooses to begin with an overhead “God shot”, reminiscent of the maps provided to players in role-playing games (RPGs).
Both movies deploy narrators — a singular, solemn voice in the case of Dogville and a traditional chanting chorus in The Ballad of Narayama.
The questions to be considered here are —
a) why are they doing it?
b) is it working out for them?
The answer to the first question is distinct for each movie but somewhat interrelated. It is easier to tackle the case of Dogville first because it is documented that Lars von Trier takes inspiration from Bertolt Brecht’s theories about theater, specifically Verfremdungseffekt or the “Distancing effect”. The idea here is simply that for a piece of theater to drive home a message to the viewer, it is important to keep him or her distanced or uncomfortable, in some sense. This prevents them from retreating too deeply into the narrative, merely consuming characters and acts with a passive, uncritical eye. You want them to actively pay attention and think as opposed to just being entertained. The Ballad of Narayama, in unabashedly structuring itself as kabuki theater, attempts a similar distancing effect. The consensus is that the purpose there was to force the viewer to cast a clear-eyed gaze on the moral failings of a society that forces its eldest to cruelly end their lives perched starving on a mountaintop, without resorting to or revelling in tears and heartstrings. What’s really interesting here is latent connection between the two movies’ respective conceits. For it turns out that Bertolt Brecht’s theory was inspired by Chinese and Japanese theater forms, and indeed he first proposed the idea of the “distancing effect” in an essay titled "Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting".
The second question is really the two hundred million yen question though, isn’t it? The standard cliche of your mileage may vary, or — as a very smart lady once put it — you’ll have to suck it and see, applies here. For my money, I think both movies acquit themselves admirably, though their distancing techniques are interesting to compare.
Dogville's lack of sets does, after some initial distractions, manage to help me focus more on the characters and their moral arcs, rather than spending time thinking about what period the movie is set in, or stuff like what silverware they use to drink their coffee. For a movie that wants to be a parable, it is to its advantage to seem as “displaced” out of time, or “eternal”, as it can. The Ballad of Narayama, in its turn, manages to avoid becoming a bawl-fest, a strong potential for which would otherwise exist, given the touching, emotive performance by Kinuyo Tanaka, as the hunched-but-hale, optimistic 69 year old grandma Orin. It uses fakey stage lighting to differentiate night and day, rich and a tad over-saturated colors, matte paintings as backdrops… all in an attempt to constantly call attention to its contrived nature.
In both cases the unique staging, manages to convey a hermetic environment that mightn’t be felt so acutely if shot on location or a more expansive film studio. Both movies are trying to show how people fail each other when they are hard up in isolated environments with a lack of external accountability. Both movies depict a kind of adverse mutation that has taken hold under conditions of socio-geographical incest. Dogville shows us how these mutations develop, while The Ballad of Narayama depicts a community where (forgive me for switching metaphors) the cancer has already metastasized.
While Dogville distances via austerity, The Ballad of Narayama distances via opulence. Consider, for example, these two stills:
The still from Dogville shown above also captures what I thought to be a very clever point made by leveraging its open field. The top-center portion of the scene next to the bunk beds, depicts a rape in progress. Though in actuality it can be seen by anyone who chooses to glance thither, it is ignored by everyone on screen because the in-universe logic dictates that line-of-sight is blocked by imaginary solid surfaces. I thought this was a nice little comment about how often sexual abuse is quietly ignored among polite society.
The comparison does not simply end with stylistic devices though. Both movies feature female protagonists. Dogville has the young Grace and The Ballad of Narayama has the aged Orin. Grace is an outsider who is trying hard to ingratiate herself with the locals. Orin is as insider as it can get; she has seen 69 harvests of too meagre rice and is eager to leave the village and cease to be burdensome for her children and their appetites. Grace is kind beyond reason, and finds people demanding beyond reason. Both are naive, in their own ways. Frail.
(Grace quietly submits to being shackled and chained at the behest of the townsfolk after a failed attempt to escape from the terror of Dogville)
(Orin feels ashamed of her good health and perfect set of teeth. She is cruelly mocked by village children who sing of the “33 teeth devil woman”, compelling her to knock out her incisors on a grindstone. She expresses happiness at having made herself honorably decrepit as befits her advanced years.)
Both movies have different but coherent takes on the idea of evil festering in isolated communities. I’ll leave you to watch and decide what you make of the choices that these characters and others make.
I want to end with one final point of visual/thematic comparison. I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, but I also don’t think it harms the experience too much if I say that in one movie, the moral decay is conclusively dealt with, while in the other, it continues to survive, only to eventually, quietly, be defeated by the march of time. The nature of these two endings is captured in the energy (and lack thereof) of the final shots.
Moses, the town watch dog — hitherto only a chalk line with sound effects — finally comes alive and barks manically at the camera filming it from above. In the other case, the final shot is the only one in the movie that is greyed out, starkly contrasting a resplendently visual film. We see a steam engine and a train station, signs that the modern age has reached the village of Ubasute at last. Note that both of these scenes perform the same job: ending the illusion; pulling the subject out of their hypnotic spell.
there are bright lights on sunday nights
steady lanterns, wizened like zen masters
they hum with sobriety, next week’s memento mori.
heralds of renown unclaimed, award forestalled
yet comfortable, agreeably paused for the span of a sigh
like an inn on the eve of a tepid quest.
there are bright lights on sunday nights
buildings have halos that console me,
docked into grey starports on the other side of Venus
they glow still with rejuvenation
exhaling steam and reconciling concrete
for their languor and silent glory, I envy them.
there are bright lights on sunday nights
people outside then, are better
than other foot-stalkers you could meet.
they have stories of the week, to flush apart from
the usual dalliances with husbands and wives
a few run past in a hurry; they must be more important than I am.