Friday, November 28, 2008

An appetite for spirituality

This weeks' New York Times Critic's Pick video review is Babette's Feast.
You can watch the NYT review by A.O.Scott here.

Babette's feast was written by Isak Dinesen, and made into a 1987 film by Danish Director Gabriel Axel. The three main characters are women. Two, elderly spinster sisters, are running a small protestant community in a remote and barren land. The community was started by their father, now deceased, and practices an austere form of the religion. They are pious and strict, yet the community is not at peace - there are frictions, making it seem very unlike the ideal state presented in the Acts of the Apostles. The sisters do not live their own lives. They live out their father's will - all is about duty, and their own loves, desires, passions and even God given gifts are sacrificed at the altar of duty.

Into this world or order, blandness and predictability comes the third woman, a French woman, fleeing war. She is very unlike them. She brings about spirituality via the creation of beauty in cuisine, and draws out the nuances and varieties from what we typically think of as being a single, monolithic appetite.

For a while, as Babette prepares her meal of thanksgiving, the sisters look with horror at her work and believe it will bring evil and harm to the community. In this, they are sincere but so wrong. Before partaking of the meal, the members of the community, all elderly, conspire to taste the food, but refuse to enjoy it.

At the end of the meal, their guest, an elderly General who has tasted the good life and seen the world, but carried an emptiness in his heart (for he was the unsuccessful suitor of one of the sisters) finds himself astounded and spiritually moved by the magnificent meal in the austere setting (a setting that to him had represented the end of love and hope in his life).

While watching the film, one thinks of how before fully understanding, Francis of Assissi not only denied his appetites, but also mistreated his body, seeing it as the source of his appetites. Towards his end, he began to recognise that his body was a gift, one he should have taken better care of and better respected - perhaps at this time, he also began to realise that all appetites are good - none should ever be over indulged, but neither should any be denied.

A few other thoughts that come from watching, are about how the main characters are all women, how Babette does not speak the language nor attempts to change the mindset of the community that is giving her refuge. In providing them the feast, she is trying to thank them in the most sincere way she knows how. In her sacrifice of all her wealth, and the food and drink, there is an aspect of the Last Supper hovering in the shadows, just out of sight but with a presence one can feel over the marvel and color of the glorious food.

This film is truly food for thought. (Just couldn't resist - my apologies).
I got to watch it many years ago, and it still haunts me. There's another film where food plays a very central role, and that is just the opposite - it's very surreal, but equally enjoyable (in a perverse way) - I'll write about Tampopo another day.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Before Sunset

I had the pleasure of re-watching this brilliant movie today.
Or rather, re-listening. It was playing on my video iPod, and the iPod spent most of it's time in my pocket thanks to my standing in a crowded bus. I smiled a lot while listening, enjoying the humor and regular digs and outrageous and totally untrue statements Celine and Jesse hurled at each other. There's something to be said for listening, rather than watching, a movie that's primarily dialog driven. It really works this way.

One cannot help but compare this film to Before Sunrise. In the earlier film, you see 2 young people, critical of their parent's lives and while realising they weren't perfect themselves, "knew" they were going to do much better.

Now, in Before Sunset, they seem to have done worse than even their parents had done. The future does not look good, and they blame their unhappy lives on their stupidity of not ensuring the 9-year ago meeting at the Vienna train platform by at least exchanging phone numbers.

They allowed that night they spent in Vienna 9 years ago loom so large in their lives as to destroy their future. They can't get over it.

One recalls the final lines from Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. ... And one fine morning ---- So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

In the early part of their Paris reunion, Jesse and Celine are cautiously getting to know each other again in a Parisian coffee shop. They speak of living in the moment, which brings back the earlier scene where Jesse is describing the possible plot of his next book - in which one can live two moments - one in the present and one in the past - simultaneously. Just like the characters, in living their current meeting simultaneously with their past meeting, we viewers who have enjoyed the first film are also watching two films simultaneously. As we watch "sunset", out minds are reliving "sunrise" - looking for parallels of word, image and concept.

They grow in anguish as they talk about the near misses. How fate seemed to keep bringing them so close, and yet not letting them connect. Like the 2 magnets a child holds facing each other - close enough to feel the force of attraction pulling the magnets together, but with just enough force to keep them from closing that final less-than-a-millimeter gap that stands in the way of union.

The dialog throughout is superb, but there are two parts I choose to highlight in this post. It just doesn't read as well as it's heard - thanks to Celine's expressive french accent, and Jesse's laid back manner.

Jesse: I was once a... ...a drummer in a band.

Céline: You were?

Jesse: Yeah, we were pretty good, actually. But then...the lead singer guy, he was just so obsessed with us getting a record deal. (Céline reaches into her bag and withdraws a cigarette.) You know, it's all we talked about, it was all we thought about, getting bigger shows, and everything was just...focused on the future, all the time. And now, the band doesn't even exist anymore, right? And looking back at the shows we did play, even know, (motioning for emphasis) it was just so much fun! Now I'd be able to enjoy every minute of it. Can I have a drag? (She hand him the cigarette.)

Céline: Well, your book has been published, that's... that's a pretty big deal, and you've been all around Europe with it. Are you enjoying every minute of it?

Jesse: (Exhaling smoke, and shaking his head.) Not really...

Céline: Not really? (They both laugh.)

Jesse: Do you have another one of those?

Céline: Yes, of course. (Hands him a cigarette.) Um, here. (He takes the cigarette and taps it 3 times on the table.) In my field, I see these people that... (Hands him her cigarette so he can light the one she has given him.)...uh, sorry...come into it with big idealist visions of becoming the new leader that will create a better world. They enjoy the goal, but not the process!

Jesse: Right.

Céline: But the reality of it is that the true work of improving things is in the little achievements of the day. And that's what you need to enjoy, just in that field.

Jesse: What, what do you mean, exactly?

Céline: Well, for example, I was working for this organization that helped villages in Mexico. And their concerns was how to get the pencils sent to the kid in these little country schools. I was not about big revolutionary ideas, it was about pencils. I see the people that do the real work and what's really sad, in a way, is that...the people that are the most giving, hard working and capable of making this world better, usually don't have the ego and ambition to be a leader. They don't see any interest in superficial rewards, they don't care if...if their name ever appear in the press. They actually enjoy the process of helping others, they're in the moment.

Jesse: Yeah, but that's so hard! You know, to be in the moment. I just feel like I'm...designed to be slightly dissatisfied with everything. You know? I mean, like...always trying to better my situation. You know, I satisfy one desire, and it just... agitates another, you know? Then I think, to hell with it, right? I mean, desire is the fuel of life, I mean, do you think it's true that if we never wanted anything, we'd never be unhappy?

*****and another............

Céline: (Shaking her head with eyes nearly watering.) You's not even that. I was...I was fine, until I read your fucking book! It stirred shit up, you know? It reminded me how genuinely romantic I was, how I had so much hope in things, and now it's like...I don't believe in anything that relates to love. I don't feel things for people anymore. In a way...I put all my romanticism into that one night, and I was never able to feel all this again. Like...somehow this night took things away from me and...I expressed them to you, and you took them with you! It made me feel cold, like if love wasn't for me!

Jesse: I... I don't believe that. I don't believe that.

Céline: You know what? Reality and love are almost contradictory for me. It's funny...every single of my ex’s...they're now married! Men go out with me, we break up, and then they get married! And later they call me to thank me for teaching them what love is, and…

Jesse: (Smiling sympathetically.) Oh God. (Rubs his face with both hands.)

Céline: …and that I taught them to care and respect women!

Jesse: (Pointing at himself.) I think I'm one of those guys.

Céline: (Yelling.) You know, I want to KILL them!! Why didn't they ask ME to marry them? I would have said "No", but at least they could have asked!! But it's my fault, I know it's my fault, because...I never felt it was the right man. Never! But what does it mean the right man? The love of your life? The concept is absurd; the idea that we can only be complete with another person is...EVIL!! RIGHT??!!

A good place to read the script:

The first of the segments above really got my notice, because just the Sunday night before, I'd spoken to my Aunt, who's a not-so-young nun working in a small convent way out in the Sabah jungles. I was asking her what Laura and I could bring on our trip for the nuns and the people they serve, and was ready for big asks. Her reply surprised me.
"Erasers and Ball Point Pens"

After more prodding, I got her to accept a lot more, but after a week of thinking what she wanted us to bring for her, foremost in her mind are what I would think of as being very small things!
Yet, this situation is exatly mirrored in the film, where Celine speaks of transporting pencils to outlying villages in Mexico.

I'll end with a short return to the Great Gatsby. The BBC recently ran a radio dramatization in 10 parts. It was abridged and I was suprised at how much I got out of the broadcast. I had read (carefully!) the book, and enjoyed it a great deal. But now, listening .....I found myself with a new and stronger appreciation of how Fitzgerald conveyed his ideas with his use of language - things that I had missed while reading.

Sometimes, using a different sense to experience something familiar to another sense results in a new experience.

Which was certainly the case with my listening, rather than watching the film Before Sunset.

A film I would readily summarise with the phrase "boats against the current".

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Where Fresh and Sea waters meet

I came across a NewScientist video on the Dead Water Effect in an eMail newsletter on Friday.
It caught my eye not because it was NewScientist (I used to read every issue in the library at CJC during my JC years) but because of the recent completion of the Marina Barrage.

Where fresh and sea waters meet, the place becomes more interesting. You have creatures living there that thrive in both environments. And some that you won't see anywhere else (mud skippers come to mind). Over time, the sea water in the basin is going to be displaced by the fresh water brought in by the Kallang and Singapore rivers. Given the size of it, that'll be a long time. Fresh water will tend to "float" on top of the denser sea water, and with the barrage shut most of the time, there won't be tides to mix the fresh and sea waters around.

In the final episode of David Attenborough's excellent "Planet Earth" series, he has a segment where the Ganges River meets the sea - the creatures that live there, and how the water has changed from when it first originated high up in the himalayas. And in Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything", Bryson has a section that talks about how layers of water, less dense warm layers and more dense cold layers, interact to give rise to complex systems that pull and push sections of water around the oceans. These water flows are influenced by, and influence in turn wind currents and storm systems, and the delivery of rain, our source of freshwater, to our lands.

I'm thinking of where that interface where different human communities, with their distinct ideas and practices mingle and interact. How interesting hybrids arise, how there is sometimes dilution, sometimes strengthening. But always creating something new, and feeding into a system of energy flows that is too big and complex for us to understand, and that ultimately creates the future of humanity.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Storm

There was a big storm last night. The rain fell hard and loud. Reaching out to pull the windows shut, my right arm was all wet and cold from the 3am downpour. It wasn't long before the lightning and thunder came. I kept the windows in your old room slightly ajar, and the door open, to allow the cool, rain-fresh air flow through, and carry with it the sound of the drops on the leaves outside.

I love listening to and watching storms.

The last one I had a chance to enjoy was on Tuesday lunchtime. Obama had just stormed into the White House as president elect. I needed to go somewhere quiet to recover from the excitement of the morning, and Colbar in Portsdown was the place.

I don't think you've been there before, but Colbar is a relic from the times the British forces were still in Singapore. There were many places like this in Changi and Seletar. Restaurants run by locals, made of plank that ended 3 feet short of the ceiling, with the difference made up by a lattice of sticks or a wire grid so that the air could flow through. The Colbar building is like the houses and shops of old. It's easy to imagine the geckos hiding in the corners, emerging when insects roam too close to the naked flourescent tubes. It's easy to imagine leaks in the roof, with pails and rags placed to catch the drops that inevitably come through when the rains come.

And come they did. A nice, good downpour that made the sky dark and created quite a din as it hit the roof. I glanced at the number plate I'd brought along from the ordering counter that would tell the servers which dish belonged to me. (I'd ordered a rice and beef curry)

It was number 44.

A nice coincidence, because the gentleman who has just won the election was to become the 44th president of the USA.

A thought about Obama's victory.
Should we thank George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the Neo-Cons for doing such a bang up job of destroying the US' image abroad, it's own economy and bringing the global financial system to the edge of collapse to the extent that America would be willing to vote in a black man for the nation's top job?

Would that would be like saying it's good that Hitler perpertrated the evil that he did, so that men like Oskar Schindler and Maximillian Kolbe could demonstrate their heroism to a world badly in need of heroes?

Bond the Avenger

Quantum of Solace....
I saw it tonight.

It's all summed by towards the end, as Bond drops Camille off at a train station in a small, out-of-the way Bolivian town railroad station. Before they part, she tells Bond that he's a prisoner, and hopes that he can be free one day.

That got me thinking.

Bond in this film didn't have a sense of fun. No relishing of the good things in life. When he drinks his martinis in the first class lounge in the plane, it's not for hedonistic pleasure. It's to dull his senses. He gets a grand room in the grandest hotel in La Paz, and some company from the very primly British Ms Fields. But there does not seem to be any joy in that either. People remark that he looks like he hasn't slept in days. He hasn't.

This is not the Bond of Connery, Moore or Brosnan. (I don't consider Lazenby or Dalton as worthy Bonds). This is Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson in a designer Suit, an Aston Martin and the body and moves of an athlete/gymnast. The Craig Bond is a silent, brooding person without joy or zest for life. He's a prisoner and is out to avenge those who harmed and took away the love of his life. Very Eastwood. Very Bronson. Not Bond.

That aside, the plot was good. It was actually one of the best written Bond plots I've encountered so far - very real world. I was fascinated to see Britain's foreign affairs ministry cavorting with the evil organisation, all in the name of securing the oil if felt was being snapped up by the Americans, Chinese and Indians. The oil that Russia and the Middle East were offering in less than friendly terms. Reminds me of how many big organisations have large departments working at odds, hardly aligned for the ultimate national good, seeking only to succeed in their narrow KPIs for the sake of career, glory and power.

Camille Montes (played by Olga Kurylenko) was totally believeable as a Russian-Bolivian Spy. Hard to believe she's ukranian - she does sport a latin-american look. Her "origin story" was reminiscent of O-Ren Ishii (the leader of the Yakuza, and her personal assassins, the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill). Recall the young girl who sees her family brutalized and killed before her tear stained eyes by a sadistic, evil man, and then her house is set on fire while she's still in it.

Seeing a black Felix Leiter was a joy, given today's announcement of Barack Obama's winning the 2008 US Presidential Elections.

It's just as well Q did not make an appearance in this film. He would not have fit. Q was about gadgets. About surviving like a lab rat in the subterranean depths of a large, confusing and officious organisation. About a bit of fun.

Best Tech in the movie? The table inteface in the early M debriefing, and later the glass wall display where the name search for matches for Dominic Greene are running. Nice visualizations, M has better interface design programmers than Tony Stark has.

No fun in this Bond film. Just lots of very well choreographed action, and a fascinating, real-world storyline. Good stuff, but still not in the league of the Connery films.