The Straight Story (1999)

directed by David Lynch
written by John Roach  and Mary Sweeny

Often, I love the opening shot most of all. (In fact, the first shot has been the only tolerable part of plenty of terrible films). The Straight Story begins with a gliding abstract made from the rows of an  Iowa corn field. Our view gently turns to follow, and then pass barely over, a combine cutting its first row through the field. Beautiful to look at, and a nicely gentle hint at a film which follows an absurdly slow-moving vehicle across the midwestern landscape.

The film’s pace, especially after its opening third, is strikingly relaxed. But don’t think of anything like a 1950s melodrama… Straight Story, more than requiring patience, is patient. Taking a close look back at the opening credits, I found a sensible fact. The editor – crafter of Straight Story’s dawdling pace – was also a co-writers of the spare, unhurried script.

Also in the opening credits, the name of the director rings an odd bell. Not many people follow directors, or give them much thought. But a (very) few call out a widely known signature. David Lynch is certainly one of these… and Straight Story – far from creepy, frightening, confusing and perverse – is almost as different as possible from Lynch-expectations. It is – literally a Walt Disney production. (The credit immediately precedes Lynch’s own name).

Straight Story’s narrative follows Alvin Straight, travelling by lawnmower to visit his estranged brother. The film drastically condenses the trip (240 miles, which actually took Mr.Straight six weeks to complete) – a wonderfully strange counterpart to the film’s overwhelmingly slow sense of pace. We watch Alvin sharing evenings and one barstool afternoon with strangers – with a teenage runaway, members of a cycling tour, a fellow veteran, and a country priest… plus an undefined span in the backyard of a kindly stranger while waiting for repairs.

These encounters move at the same speed as Alvin’s lawnmower. Long silences are studded with sadness, memory and wisdom which manage – against all odds – to be sentimental, but not saccharin.  I think it’s gentleness which avoids me bracing with annoyed cynicism. Despite straightforward simplicity, I don’t feel whacked over the head.

A caveat… There are aspects of Straight Story which I have to will myself to get through. I am tired of celluloid simpletons, here Alvin’s daughter Rose. Maybe it’s important that Alvin has a daughter in his mind, maybe it’s important that somebody both tries to convince him not to go on his ridiculous road trip, and then understands that he must.
To be honest, the film’s opening quarter – which seems to be trying to be quaintly cute – comes off as juvenile.  If you’ll forgive, it makes the rest of the film seem even better.

Straight Story ends with one last encounter. Alvin, and us along with him, eventually reach his brother Lyle.  After all that way, they say very little to each other. But what pair of estranged brothers would?

Watch, through his eyes, Lyle’s mind churn.

“Did you ride that thing all the way out here to see me?”


After school

September 29, 2010

Weaving Our Stories Into the Carpets of Afghanistan
Huffington Post. September 17, 2010
written by: Seema Jilani

I am as American as it gets and a bit too Texan for my liking: “y’all” occasionally creeps into my colloquialisms. But originally, my family hails from Pakistan. In my culture, we have a great love of carpets. Carpets, spicy food and colorful, kaleidoscopic clothes with too much bling. Yes, it is because of the fine embroidery, but mostly it is because some carpets can take generations to make. Between the carefully knotted silk threads you will find our family histories. Carpets function as anything from a prayer mat to a dining table, but really, they are breathing, animated family photo albums.

My mother taught me how to shop for carpets:

  • Double-knotted are always woven tighter. Each knot carries the burden of the other, so the carpet will last longer if it is tightly interwoven.
  • Make sure the colors are made from vegetable dye and not chemicals. Natural is always better.
  • An intricate design doesn’t make a fine carpet. Simple is more meaningful.
  • Look at the back, not just the front. It’s where you can see the carpet’s depth and it’s where the character lies.
  • The carpet should not be perfect. Flaws indicate that it is man-made. Asymmetry makes it valuable and lends it authenticity. Some flaws will make you cringe, but they are a reflection of humanity.
  • The rug is not just for you to place in your living room, or to be trampled upon by high heels at a cocktail party while people swirl martinis. Women have sewn their lives into it. They have whispered about their husbands, gossiped about in-laws, and exchanged riveting hopes and dreams while their fingers diligently worked the loom. Take your shoes off and don’t tread heavily. Respect their stories.

As I left Afghanistan, I felt how humans are woven together — sometimes a bit too closely, sometimes not closely enough. I realized that this stunning tapestry of life we find ourselves in unravels when we are not intricately enmeshed. There is a sense of camaraderie amongst my patients — that sentiment that I will carry you, and you will carry me. It is something we could all stand to learn from. Each knot carries carries the burden of the other, so the carpet will last longer if it is tightly interwoven.

We cannot come to the negotiating table with false promises, fake alliances and mouths full of venom. It takes genuine, wholesome attitudes of sincerity to make honest deals that will pave the way for progress. Natural is always better.

I recently assisted in a surgical procedure in Kabul on a young boy. The chief surgeon was an Afghan man. I didn’t know how he would respond to a woman in the operating theatre with him. At the start of the case, our fierce Asian eyes met over surgical masks. He handed me the scalpel and stepped aside from the patient, offering me the prestigious first cut on the patient. The simple, powerful gesture showed his immense respect for me and his willingness to yield to an outsider, not to mention a female physician. Simple is more meaningful.

The back is where the depth is.
It is not in burqas or in the front page news. It is in the details: the back stories of women helping other women succeed, or how Afghan doctors extended their hospitality to a Pakistani-American, or how Pakistan’s borders are open to offer medical care to Afghan children. It’s in the story of a widow who buries her ten children, but also in the one where a young Afghan couple in love rejoices at the birth of their daughter. It’s when Afghan doctors are ecstatic over a few medical textbooks an American doctor bought for them. It’s in the fact that everyone is a victim, but no Afghan is consumed by their victimhood.

The chronicles of Afghanistan will continue long after military forces withdraw. It is up to us to decide whose narrative we choose to engrave in our carpets. We cannot continue to paint this region with broad strokes of rhetoric akin to re-runs of Three’s Company: massive amounts of chaos and confusion (Jack), interjected with a few sleazy references to women (Larry), some emotional blackmail (oh-so-cute-Chrissy), and a smart alec quote (Janet), followed by a hollow, yet authoritative one by a General (Mr. Furley). Afghanistan has more substance than “X amount of people killed again in Blank-abad Province,” and a cliched reference to Alexander the Great and the Soviet invasion. Tread lightly and respect their stories.

Some flaws will make you cringe, but they are a reflection of humanity. I struggle with the idea of sharing my faith with a people whose vision of Islam is vastly different than mine. Until we Muslims collectively recognize that our religion is being raped by zealots who are ignorant of the progressive texts of Islam, all our future holds is more atrocities committed in the name of Islam.

The flaws lend a degree of authenticity. There is something to be said for my Afghan colleagues who initially suspected I was a Pakistani spy, but who later realized that I was just a doctor treating Afghan children. As much as I complain, I like having to prove myself to the Afghan people. I respect the fact that they are a bit suspicious and that their threshold for fake niceties is low. I enjoy rising to the occasion to prove that my intentions are pure, and not poisoned by ulterior motives. I admire the intelligence it takes to cultivate such a seasoned litmus test for people. Their refined radar for artificiality resonates with me.

As I close this chapter in Afghanistan, I hope I have approached my medical work and my writing with a sense of responsibility. I hope I have told a few Afghans’ stories with truth and allowed their dignity to flicker through, that I have done their magnificent and inspiring stories justice.

I chose pediatrics because I wanted to advocate for a forgotten population, and perhaps I was a delusional, young hippie when I thought I could be the voice for the voiceless. Shoved to the periphery, children are the most marginalized demographic of the world’s population, but also the most insightful. My pediatric patients are the colors in this great tapestry and without them, there would be no vibrance, no depth to my life. Natural, simple, and innately keen judges of character, children have taught me more and healed my heart more than I could ever hope to do for them. They understand things we struggle with, like dying young. “I’ve been chosen to leave this world early because the walk home is easier when you are younger. I have less suitcases than you grown-ups,” one of my patients with cancer once told me. She was 9 years old. They get it, more than we ever will.

Now back in the U.S., I am honored to have received several letters from my Afghan colleagues asking me to hurry back. We are woven together now. The way to keep this great carpet brilliant and strong for decades is to continue to hold the Afghans up, to continue to advocate for their children. We must do more than begrudgingly allow them a few crumbs from the table. We must sit on their floors with them, drink their teas, eat together, share tales of our families, and shower affection on their children. When we step up to the plate we will we be accepted as friends and more importantly, sewn into the tapestry of their lives. If we can weave our stories together tightly enough, what a magnificent carpet we would share – one we could all be proud of, and one that holds tender tales that we can pass on to many generations

photo by: Majid Saeedi -GettyImages

a bird in hand

September 27, 2010

photo by Denis Zaporozhtsev

a bird in hand is likely to peck at your fingers.

Clyfford Still: “1949-G”

September 26, 2010

Clyfford Still "1949-G"

You bungle, I cry foul.

September 25, 2010

On this day in 1997:
Two Mossad agents bungled an assassination in Amman, Jordan. The target was Khaled Mashal, a member of the Hamas leadership. (He was, in 1997, the “Chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau”).
As is not uncommon, they were carrying non-Israeli passports. (Stealthy spy stuff aside, an Israeli passport will not get you far traveling around the Middle East).
In this case, this time, the passports were Canadian.

Its not really very surprising that Mossad was able to get their hands on foreign passports.
It is quite possible that these were forged from scratch.  They may have been fabricated by altering passports belonging to Canadian-Israeli citizens. Dual citizens, living in Israel, have complained of being asked (pressured) by authorities to lend their foreign passports for use by such hit-squads. In other cases, dual citizens have protested that their identities were stolen by Mossad.
A little further, it is not impossible that foreign states have helped Mossad create their fake identities. Of course, they make a show of protesting when the media reports note that a hit-squad was carrying their passports.   It seems like a pretty simple favour to do for a state considered a friend… and besides, the governments involved are hardly sympathetic towards Hamas.
In the 1997 case, very little — a show of finger-wagging, and the temporary recall of the ambassador — was done in response. This unfortunately is the norm… the Israeli government continues to sign off on Mossad’s use of foreign passports.
The problem?
(a) The practice troubles (border hassles to personal safety) those who travel in the Middle East on (real) Canadian passports.
(b) If  we confine ourselves to bit of protest over the use of forged passports, we are missing a golden opportunity to condemn a state’s use of  murder to eliminate their opponents.
(c) We must accept that — partly our own fault — the practices will continue… both the forging of (more) reputable passports the use of murder. Indeed, continue it does. Most recently, a Mossad hit-squad killed  Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. (A Hamas figure, reportedly a target because of his role in the killing of two Israeli soldiers twenty years ago). The hit-squad was traveling using forged British, German and French passports.

I want to tell myself that it slips by because we are distracted,
but maybe we don’t see a problem with murder?

Tuffala Trees

September 24, 2010

3-5 trees, KwaZulu-Natal

5 trees, KwaZulu-Natal

“…Once upon a time there had been no rift between humanity and the divine. Gods strolled in the garden in the cool of the evening. Nor were human beings divided from one-another… It is a unity which is impossible for us to imagine in our more fragmented existance, but in almost every culture the myth of this primal concord showed that human beings continued to yearn for a peace and wholeness that they felt to be the proper state of humanity. They experienced the dawning of self-consciousness as a painful fall from grace. The Hebrew bible calls this state of wholeness and completeness shalom. [Buddha] spoke of nivarna…”

from: Buddha.
Karen Armstrong

Maggie and me

September 22, 2010

“There is no such thing as society.
There are only individuals”

Margaret Thatcher.

Striking for its straight-forward bluntness, I have never encountered an ideology
so perfectly opposite
to my own.

The Science of Sleep (2006)

(written and directed by  Michel Gondry)

What follows has suprised myself a little. I am normally less interested in a film’s plot than the way in which it is shot and assembled.  What follows is largely devoted to the plot of “The Science of Sleep” (SoS).

It’s not that this film lacks craftsmanship.
But maybe it’s for the best… it’s plot which interests most people, and the story in SoS is far enough from the mundane.

Stephan has returned to his childhood home in France, an apartment belonging to his mother.

The ridiculous toque which Stephan wears is a first hint of his character. This unfolds as childish, akward, dazzlingly imaginative… and crumpled by how difficult all this make his life.

Stephan can barely make himself understood in French.

The job which has been arranged for him turns out to be nothing like he had expected.

He is charming. He is socially both delightful and inept.

The film swerves in and out of sleep. Some dreams are surreal, others are only subtlely distorted. Dreams fold into each other, they open like a Russian doll which we don’t realize we’re opening.

We experience Stephan waking from a dream, then find that what we had assumed to be wakefullness drifts into nonsense. Wakefulness cuts off dreams some dreams after only a moment, others are sustained through elongated swirls. Some dreams are lucid, some are completely out of control, others fall in and out of the dreamer’s grasp. Sometimes Stephan is startled by finding himself in a dream, other times we all fail to notice.

Watching Stephan through his dreams, I keep marvelling… yes, our brains are amazing for their ability to concoct spectacularly bizzare imagery. But even more wonderful is our brain’s capacity, in that dreaming moment, to be calmly convinced.

Not every moment of every dream is absurd. Not every waking moment makes any sense.

As Stephan says in a moment of whimsy: “The brain is the most complex thing in the universe… and its right behind the nose”

As it befuddles the separation of dreaming and awake, the film is filled with wonderful oddities. Glasses which allow you to “see real life in 3D”, a sink pouring cellophane water, a “one second time-travel machine”, a galloping stuffed pony, objects like Oldenurg sculptures, a universe build from cardboard tubes.

The story is full of hopes which turn out to be foolish, disappointment which turns out to be misplaced, kidding which which suddenly stumbles into catastrophe.

All of this reminds me that sometimes what is real is fantastic. We call this play… twiggling the line between real and make-believe. Pretending is difficult enough to manage within oneself, but to play with others is doomed to (at least) occasional disaster.

Are you we pretending? Are we still kidding?

Is Stephan awake. Are we are we dreaming?

One last reason that The Science of Sleep appeals to me:  There are many times when I wish that dreaming and the wakefulness of day-to-day were closer together. Dreamscapes might improve reality, so often horribly dull.

I forgot to mention that movie revolves around a love story.   Anyway, it’s sweet.