Search This Blog

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin – Baldwin bolted inside

Are you one of those people who pride yourself on your willpower, on your ability to make a decision and carry it through? If you’re indeed one of those, then James Baldwin would have a thing or two to tell you. I think, we all probably, in one phase of life or another, believe that we are able to achieve whatever future goals that we lay down, that as long as we put in the hard work, the harvest time would soon come. But without faith and humility, can it be so?

For I am – or I was – one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all – a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named – but elaborated systems of invasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not….I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me.” - James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room.

Before wrapping my work for 2009, I was in the middle of reading a very tasty novel that I’ve found during one of the Lifeline’s book fairs. The reading continued as I took the book with me back to Brisbane to spend the Christmas and New Year break with the folks. The book sharply shines some lights on the subjects of emancipation, masculinity and of course love. From a writer who was a civil rights activist and a close friend of the jazz legend Nina Simone, you can expect accurate and at times, poetic social commentaries on the cultural differences of Paris and New York, on masculinity and self-deception.

New York through James’ eyes is ‘It’s very high and new and electric – exciting, it’s hard to describe. It’s very – twentieth century’; ‘All the time to come. There’s such power there, everything is in such movement. You can’t help wondering - I can’t help wondering – what it will all be like – many years from now’. And Paris, it is simply ‘No city is more beautiful than Paris’; ‘Paris is old, is many centuries. You feel, in Paris, all the time gone by. That isn’t what you feel in New York’

A good book I believe make you see a certain aspect of our human nature or allow you to philosophise certain ideas as you digest the words. What I got out of the book is that if you denial certain part of yourself in order ‘to allow no room in the universe for something which shames and frightens me’ then you are no more than a ghost of your reality, you’re not really living a full life. Giovanni, I believe, represents an idea of what a real human is, someone that understands love, someone who is generous with his emotions and stands up for his dignity. Above all, within the decisions that he makes, he allows room in the universe for things that might shame and frighten him. Though his fate was tragic, I believe his life is much more fulfil, in comparison to David (the main character), who has yet to distinguish his real self and his ideal self and therefore the process of accepting his ‘real self’ has not quite progressed.

While I can’t help but feel certain connection of James Baldwin’s to Satre and Flauberts’ view on existentialism, for it seems as though those who live like real humans, their fate always end in tragedy (Giovanni, Emma Bovary and Matthieu Delarues), but these perhaps are real decisions made by the authors – a decision to make the characters humble, and their fates are at the mercy of more things than can be named…

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – the oblivion of our film critics.

How do you get people to believe in something out of their own will? In other words how do you acquire a ‘faith’ or ‘belief’? Faith as the great Virgina once put (from her novel Day and Night) ‘She looked at the lemon-colored leaflet, and thought almost enviously of the faith which could find comfort in the issue of such documents…She read Mr. Clacton's statement with a curious division of judgment, noting its weak and pompous verbosity on the one hand, and, at the same time, feeling that faith, faith in an illusion, perhaps, but, at any rate, faith in something, was of all gifts the most to be envied’. As much as I envy Mrs Woolf for writing such a brilliant line, I whole-heartedly agree with the woman.

Now, what has the movie got to do with my previous paragraph of ranting? It is my ‘belief’ that the film is a highly religious one, exploring deeply within the issues of religion, acquiring faith and facing your personal morals. The mystical, beautifully penurious, Rimbaud-esque theatre troupe is run by doctor Parnassus and his two young assistants who have the purest of hearts. The troupe in its original and penury appearance in amidst of the contemporary and present world, is not attracting a great deal of the crowd, by this, I believe Mr Gillian, the film director indicates that faith is difficult to find among people of the modern world. The arrival of Tony, a man understands material beauty, wealth and marketing, changes the troupe’s success. This is where the questions of purity and acquiring faith come into play, where is the purity in acquiring faith amidst of all the marketing and manipulation?. For those who choose to enter Dr Parnassus’ imagination, they find themselves lost in their own imagination and desires and by a process that isn’t portrayed in the film, salvation, and much happiness are found without the material wealth of our world. As the story unfolds, character’s intentions and fates are laid down; justice and fairness are shown to each of them. The character Tony, especially, faces his own morals and fears. The film I believe is highly metaphorical and contains many symbolic concepts; Terry Gillian’s intellectual is sharply exercised to intertwine his story with wonderful colours and symbolic images.
However, as obvious as it is to me, none of what I discuss above is mentioned in the reviews of the movie critics. Most appreciates the film because it is Heath Ledger’s last cinematic appearance, other than that; these are what generally have been said about the film:
• Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic – ‘It's neither a coherent, discrete work nor a zany tribute to the late actor (Heath Ledger). The first hour contains long, pointless scenes that you just know would have ended up on the cutting-room floor had Ledger lived, but no one could bear cutting them now’
• Matt Pais, Chicago Tribune – ‘a dizzy spell of visual fantasy and rickety plotting. I'd rather get lost in a filmmaker's warped mind than spend a second in the head of a director with nothing up there’
• Even our own David Straton, At the movie – ‘on one level this is a typically chaotic and rather overdone fantasy from Terry Gilliam, but Gilliam’s style – brash, noisy, a bit annoying, tends to detract from the magic of the enterprise’. Magaret Pomeran – ‘And, he does go overboard. It is a bit repetitive. It is a bit long but, there's no one like him (Terry Gillian) in film’.

It is a perhaps that Terry Gillian’s hypothesis regarding faith and the modern world is further proven by the critics’ comments. For unless, one knows faith and understands religion, one would come appreciate the film with ease and enjoyment, and for those who don’t, then they perhaps would get lost, and find it chaotic and long. After all, faith is the most envious gift of all and is often received by the purest of heart. For even with much experience in film, education and intelligence, the critics in their oblivious minds, did not receive the gift of faith. As for Heath Ledger’s performance, it’s a wonderful adieu and a most relevant message to our modern world.

I recently purchased a most peculiar book by Gustave Flaubert ‘Dictionary of Received Ideas’, it is indeed a dictionary. It amazes me how all these ordinary words have such distinctive meaning to Mr Flaubert. And so it is with Terry Gillian, in the movie, you can see that the act of climbing ladder, the shattering of mirror, the giant shoes and perfume bottles (of an old woman imagination) etc…these too, have very distinctive meanings to the director.