Four Movies and a Novel

Books and movies — what a delight! The good ones take you away from reality and transport you into a world where it is within your power to accept and reject, to pick and choose. In a few little hours you discover ideas and feelings and facts. You live other lives.

Many years ago, as a rebellious teenager, I asked one of my most scholarly and respected teachers why read books. I liked reading and perhaps, at that point in my life, I was reading more than today, but I wanted to antagonize him, to provoke. He responded quickly and without hesitation: ‘I read because I don’t want to discover that my ideas and stories are not new.’ ‘I thought that there was nothing new under the sun,’ I responded with a smug grin. He said, ‘It depends on your point of view.’ Honestly, I didn’t think that his answers were particularly original or profound, but I remembered them to this day. And I know there is something else about being exposed to stories — the sheer pleasure of it.

Returning to Columbia, Maryland, from a month long trip to California at the end of December, my wife and I had a hard time adjusting to the East Coast time zone. For days on end, we stayed up until well after midnight. This messed up our mornings, but presented us with the opportunity to read at night and watch more movies than we usually do.

I don’t want to enumerate all of them, but I will list the most memorable, because, as diverse as they were, I found an invisible common thread.

Roma: a Mexican movie directed by Alfonso Cuarón explores the life of a live-in maid in the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, in the early seventies. We see a family coming apart at the whim of a philandering husband, a young dog joyfully jumping up and down, and students protesting in the streets and being violently opposed by police and bands of vigilantes shooting at them. Cleo is the main protagonist, and we witness her pain when she is abandoned by her boyfriend and delivers a stillborn child, and her dedication to the family she works for when she saves two of their children from drowning in the ocean, even though she does not know how to swim. The movie is immediate, direct, black and white. Maybe it’s me, but from the entire movie, the dog poop in the narrow entryway squashed under the wheels of their large American car was the most unpleasant and revealing moment of all. In the end the movie just ends. No happy end, no life advice.

Night Train to Lisbon: with Jeremy Irons as the Swiss professor who unwittingly uncovers an old love story during the times of the Salazar dictatorship in Portugal, again in the early seventies. Jorges is a resistance fighter and a pianist whose fingers are smashed with a meat mallet by the Butcher of Lisbon, the head of the secret police. The scene was as violent and cringe worthy to me as the one with the dog poop in Roma. I lived in a dictatorship myself in the seventies in Romania, and while watching the movie, with its beautiful views of Lisbon and the romantic philosophical musings of the professor, I was amazed to realize how little — beyond a vague recollection — I knew of that period in Portugal’s history. In the early seventies I was aware of other things happening in the world — the Vietnam War, the hippies, the music of The Beatles, and the Yom-Kippur war, but I did not know much about Portugal’s revolution.

West Side Story with Natalie Wood was made in 1961, when I was 11 years old. Hard to believe, but I had never seen the movie before, and I used to think that I know it somehow through osmosis, convinced that my forty plus years in the United States, my three year initial ‘stint’ in the New York metropolitan area and especially the echo the show and the movie had enjoyed in related cultural events, had given me an understanding of what the movie represents. How wrong I was! Sure, it is the story of Romeo and Julietall over again, but it is so much more. The anti-immigrant sentiment in the movie gave me chills. It was the Puerto Ricans then, it’s the Mexicans today (or maybe all immigrants, who knows?). The aerial views of the West Side’s Lincoln Square in Manhattan are the same. The poverty is the same. The police are the same. How much has changed since 1961? Anything? Maybe the meaning and the value of the songs in the movie — those that I had heard over the years, like America, Maria, and I Feel Pretty — became infused with a new symbolism for me.

Vice: this movie about Dick Cheney evidently and deliberately has two parts. The first part focuses on Cheney’s early years, depicting a mediocre and boring bureaucrat, the story slow and boring itself. In the second part the movie gets scary. It shows how, given a naive president — not to use a more negative epithet — this formerly nobody bureaucrat hooks the president like a fish, manipulates everyone around him, and becomes the most powerful man in the world. The war in Iraq has no real purpose, except to make his point. He is powerful for the sake of power alone — because he can. Ironically, the song Americaform West Side story is heard over the credits rolling — surprise! — in the middle of the movie.

In The Distance, a novel by Herman Diaz, takes place in the 19thcentury and tells the story of a young and very large Swedish man who attempts to cross the American Continent West to East in search of his older brother. The novel was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer. In his quest, the protagonist meets swindlers, prostitutes, Indians, pilgrims, bandits, naturalists, and survives his encounters with all of them. What fascinated me most were the moments when he is immersed in the surrounding wilderness alone with his feelings and thoughts. How powerful those moments are, while, as far as the action is concerned, not much is happening at all. It reminded me of The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, where Pi spends days, weeks and months adrift on a raft, lost at sea, the writing so evocative that you feel you are there with him. In the Distance, like Roma, just ends. Full stop. Håkan goes back to Sweden. Survival was all. Again, no happy reunion, no life advice, and contrary to the conventional novel writing canon, I don’t think the hero changes that much.

OK, so what’s the common thread between these? In today’s American landscape where our thoughts, our hopes and our fears are consumed by a roaring orange glow, where truth and fiction are intermingled, racism is on the rise, and one hardly knows what’s coming next, I wonder if it has always been like this.

The answer is yes. It is all about the human struggle, and more generally about feelings — anger, lust, greed, xenophobia, manipulation and love. Nothing is new. All is new, depending on your point of view.

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