Saturday, April 18, 2015

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg: The Epitome of Romance

Embrace between main actors of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg
On this year's Valentine's Day, I decided to acquaint my wife with a romantic French musical I had seen more than a dozen years ago in my French cinema class. I had already been in love with the nouvelle vague before taking that course, so I brought to it not only passion but also a rather good degree of knowledge. I occasionally winced when our professor mixed up director's names and could not believe my eyes that a masterpiece like Truffaut's Jules et Jim was not chosen as course content and was slightly shocked that Godard had also been excluded, while films like Hiroshima mon amour made the cut. And then one day our professor played us this particular French musical of telescopic colours and proportions.

The French film-maker Jacques Demy to me was rather unknown since he is rarely mentioned in the same breath of the most distinguished directors of this magnificent and revolutionary movement. And in my younger years, I had shunned musicals as a rule and winced again at re-runs of Sound of Music, a particular favorite among my parents, and I had not seen Singing in the Rain but only associated with and related to it in terms of Kubrick's bloodcurdling version in Clockwork Orange. The only musical I had embraced as an adolescent was Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar because it combined, in my view quite successfully, the gospels with rock and roll.

What made Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg different from other musicals of those times was the astonishing experiment to have every single line of the movie sung by their respective actors. So we have the characters, car mechanics in the beginning, singing in the repair shop about how they are feeling and what they are planning to do over the weekend as they wash their greasy hands under running water. All of this is so immersed in bright candy colors that it makes your eyes hurt.

It took me a while to get used to the colors and the constant singing, but after a while when the story began to get going I felt more comfortable with the whole situation. I began to find this Demy film accompanied by the brilliant jazzy and romantic score of the great Michel Legrand rather interesting. The story is as romantic as it gets, and even in my younger adult years it moved me. The conclusion was rather tragic, especially for the hopeless romantic I was back then who effectively lacked life experience.

But the movie stuck with me. I still remembered the beginning and the ending and a beautiful duet sung by the two lovers in the first part. It took me a long time to find this jewel, but finally for this year's Valentine's Day I managed to showcase it to my wife. And it not only stunned me in ways I had not thought and felt about the movie and its director before, but it left me teary-eyed.

If you have not seen it yet, please be aware of major spoilers coming up right about now: The story is simple and as lean and straightforward as possible. A young woman falls in love with a young man who enlists for the army and will be absent for a couple of years. She is devastated and begs him to stay; he does not listen to her but is confident that their love will outlive their temporary absence. They swear to each other eternal love and have a night of (I assume unforgettable) sex.

The girl's mother is the owner of the umbrella shop. She is shocked that her daughter is thinking and talking about love, but moreover, she is worried about her clandestine meetings with him. It does not help that he is a penniless, aimless and ambitionless young man (his dream is to own his own garage one day). It so happens that the mother is suffering financial difficulties since her shop is not bringing up sufficient dividends.

As she is pawning her favorite jewel, chance has it that she runs into Roland Cassard who happens to be a jeweler, but more importantly he is rich, young and good-looking (a triple benefit considering the dire circumstances). The pawn shop owner turns her down as it is a risky business to accept her jewel, but Cassard steps in and is eager to please the mother and her accompanying beautiful daughter. He is not however aware that this young woman he has set his eyes on is, in fact, pregnant from her lover serving in the army.

This is where Demy's brilliance becomes to me apparent only now. Roland Cassard is a character who has been in one of his earlier films called Lola. There he finds himself enamored with the woman who turns him down. As a result, he leaves town and goes to become a rich jeweler.

In Les Parapluies de Cherbourg he admits to the mother that he had been in love once. We are given a brief flashback of a stairway in the movie Lola, something which the unacquainted and untrained eye will completely miss out on. The way they meet is also an echo and reference to how he meets a younger version of the woman he loves. (This is getting too complicated so I will leave it at that and hope you watch Lola either first or after this movie to fully understand and appreciate this film.)

In fact, although there is not much characterization here, we know from the previous film that Cassard is a good and honorable gentleman. So it comes as no surprise that he accepts the young woman with expectant child of another without much hesitation. They get married, which saves business and keeps the two women out of financial disaster.

The young woman's decision comes not easy, but she has stopped receiving letters from him and simply assumes that either he found another woman, or else, he has died. It is also upon her mother's bidding and the financial hardship and impending doom that she accepts to marry Roland despite not being in love with him.

So the next part is the return of our young hero. He is fine, but he had suffered a minor leg wound, which had kept him in hospital for some time, hence he had not written to her for a while. To his shock and surprise he finds out that the shop is closed and his beloved has moved. He has only his aunt, who is taken care of by a timid young woman who happens to be in love with him. So when the aunt dies, he still keeps her around. In fact, he marries her, which makes her very happy.

Flash forward. He has managed to save up for his garage and one snowy winter when his wife and young boy called François leave the gas station, the other woman with her (and his!) child Françoise stops to fill up her gas tank. They immediately recognize each other. Their love is still there alongside pain, guilt, and awkwardness. They are trying to come to terms with their emotions (singing to each other of course) and they are interrupted by one of the gas attendants who asks whether she wants leaded or unleaded gas.

He has already made up his mind though. He does not want to see his daughter waiting in the car and wishes her well. She is visibly moved and does not explain to him her own feelings or her situation. And why should she. The past is gone and both are set on their new lives. Their love is nothing but a remembrance of times past.

Now this I had interpreted as a sad ending, but now as a family man I reconsider it as a happy one. The final scene is indeed one of joy. His wife and child return; he hugs and kisses them, and they all go inside together, a happy family. He chose them and gave up his love. She, on the other hand, will return to Roland Cassard, and the status quo will remain.

If this is not romantic to the nth degree, I do not know what is, and the music swirls to a crescendo of violins. Normally, I would be bothered by it and wince, but I am too moved and find it indeed appropriate, especially when considering the turbulent emotions each of the main characters must have been going through at the time. And Jacques Demy is a definite force to be reckoned with, not only in French cinema, but in general. Ironically, this movie lost in the Oscars to the Sound of Music!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Happy versus the Spiritual Man

An empty stool facing brightly lit windows

Years ago I used to be more spiritual than I am now, that is, if by spiritual we mean somebody who actively thinks and reads about spiritual matters. In my youth, it was one of my main preoccupations. I devoured books on anything remotely spiritual, and I gained more knowledge on religions and philosophies both of the Eastern and Western kind, and I read upon (but rarely practiced) meditation.

It seems that my mind craved spiritual enlightenment as well as romantic fulfillment. Perhaps the two were connected. My yearning for and lack of a romantic involvement had led me to the path of spirituality and flared my spiritual fervor. In fact, it is the lack itself that drives us, the driving motivation for actions, be it because of a lack of relationships, lack of success or recognition in a career, or a general lack of confidence and security in oneself.

It also seems that once one's lacks are filled and one's needs are met, then there is little more to strive for. Many choose or end up on the spiritual path because they are unhappy with the status quo or are simply unhappy and miserable. Even an existential crisis, the question of what it is all for and about or what happens to us once we are no more can increase our desire for spiritual knowledge and practice.

But once the desires are met, in other words, once one realizes how happy one is, then some of the fervor dissipates. Who needs a spiritual quest, if you are simply happy with who you are and what you have. If I have enough inner and outer tranquility, I would see no reason to want to have more of it, and then I can relax and enjoy what I got.

This can be related to money and success as well. We will never have or rather feel we have enough of each; there is always a step further and higher one could go since the grass is always greener around us. It is then hard, if not impossible to draw a line, and we become addicted to these things, the same way a gambler finds it hard to quit playing. There is always one more bet one wants to take, one extra hour or job one wants to work, one level higher one wants to reach on the ambitious and endless career ladder.

But once you are happy with what you have, this extra incentive diminishes and makes less sense and loses its main driving force. Looking at myself now, I am at a stage where I feel that I am quite happy with how everything has turned out. Of course, that does not mean that I will stop working nor is about throwing the towel or retiring, but it takes off some of its edge. I still have an evident responsibility to make money for my family, to ensure a level of safety and prosperity for them, but when it comes to spirituality, it has taken a backseat, and it is not one of my urging priorities anymore.

In other words, I do not need ersatz happiness; I do not need spirituality to fill my needs at this point of my life. I live for my own family and enjoy every bit of time I get with them and gladly transform any money into events that satisfy us as a unit. My only communication with the spiritual world is by means of thanks and gratitude since we as a whole have been exceptionally lucky.

If anything this is a snapshot of current circumstances, and evidently one will go through different phases of life. I am aware that my son will grow up and carve his own life down the road and my own priorities will have to be shifted and adjusted to the circumstances. Also the closer one gets to one's own inevitable demise, the stronger the current of spirituality will most likely take hold. The fact that I am thinking and writing about this might be also a sign of an upcoming midlife crisis, a critical re-evaluation of what has been, what is and what will be.

But in such moments in which I find myself these days, I stop looking for enlightenment because I do not see what it could give me that I did not already possess. I remember that there were moments in my past where I got a glimpse of what spiritual enlightenment would look like, and it scared me. It was a feeling of hovering a few inches above the ground (to paraphrase a Buddhist monk) and to feel that brushing one's teeth was an accomplishment in itself (to paraphrase John Lennon).

Suddenly, I had felt that there is very little more I wished to accomplish. Because indeed life is itself its own reward and accomplishment. One did not need fame or money or anything else people are after in their pervasive state of delusion because none of that really mattered. That realization scared me because it would kill all my ambitions, and deep inside, my non-spiritual side, or, if you like, the ignorant and selfish part of me did not want to just throw the towel and stop where I was.

In fact, there is nothing more anti-capitalist than that, and it is the opposite of so-called self-improvement or growth. Our Protestant work ethic would dissolve in a heartbeat because instead of desperately looking for God's love and approval, we would already have earned them, and work would be replaced by feelings of pleasure, by enjoying other people's company or by simply gazing at clouds for no apparent reason whatsoever. Idleness would not be frowned upon nor declared a sin, but embraced with a whole and satisfied heart. Being will become the aim and replace a world of doing.

Nowadays, I am happy and still seek or desire money and fame, but with much less intensity than before. It has become a matter of menial indifference instead of one of life and death. I still would love to make it, so-to-speak, but I do know that I already have and can accept an existence of little importance to the outside world but still of relevance to my close and intimate circles. Likewise, spirituality is less something that I look for in an outward manner but it shines forth as gratitude I feel inside and a hope that others will see it so as well.

Peace has become less an abstract fantasy but a concrete everyday reality. I have moments of them, while I also still battle other types of moments where one does not see or think clearly. And yet, the overriding feeling is one of being happy (I sound like the Pharrel Williams song now) and of projecting that through the daily grind and petty problems one encounters here and there. Problems will come and go, but hopefully one's contentment will remain in place like solid rock.

Spirituality to the happy man is to be at peace with oneself, one's surroundings and in harmony with the powers that be. It is inner and outer happiness and contentment that make spirituality redundant and superfluous. Or, in fact, everything becomes spiritual and always has been so, and we are merely chasing our own tail when we look for it outside of ourselves; we can find it only when we fully embrace it!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Nietzsche and the Drive for Artistic Perfection: Whiplash Movie Review

Movie poster of young drummer posted by maxresdefault
No matter how acclaimed or technically crafted a film may be, one cannot escape the fact that films are an intensely personal experience, which more often than not will elicit a subjective response. I generally liked the heavyweight movies of this year, the likes of Boyhood (2014) and Birdman (2014) and those heaps of awards are definitely deserved for their respective merits.

But the film that I thought was perhaps the best of the year was the overlooked and underrated A Most Wanted Man (2014) with another great and brilliant performance by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film that most moved and inspired me so far (I have not gone through the whole list of best picture nominees as of yet but have been thoroughly impressed by the outstanding Foxcatcher (2014) which, for some odd reason, was not even nominated as best picture) is the little film Whiplash (2014) that has big ideas on its mind.

This movie struck a nerve within me in a way that Birdman's ego crisis of a failing artist failed to do. Somehow the characters in the latter seemed too distant and bizarre for me to take to heart, whereas both Andrew and his sadistic teacher Fletcher hit closer to home. This may be partly because I am in the teaching profession (though I assure you alongside numerous character references and student evaluations that I am not even half or five percent as mean as that guy!) or it may be because I used to have one such teacher in high school myself, or more likely because I can relate to the quest for artistic perfection and integrity in a world that is satisfied with half measures and restrained passion.

Let us recap quickly and try not to spoil the movie for those who have not seen it. Although it is rather difficult to give much away here as not much happens, which might be actually a spoiler for those who believe that much will happen. On the surface this looks like a host of other movies that tackled the subject: a young aspiring musician (artist, writer, athlete) meets a teacher who changes his life (for the better).

However, what makes this movie different and unique from others is the characterization of the mean teacher Fletcher and the questionable impact he has on his protégé. Now Fletcher is a real “bad ass,” the likes of which we have rarely seen on the screen and not even Louise Fletcher (!) as Nurse Ratched is as remotely evil as this guy. To give an example, he seems an affable and caring person when he asks the young student Andrew about his parents (his mother left him when he was a child; his father is a second-rate writer and high school teacher), but only moments later he uses that same information in front of the other musicians to belittle and ridicule the mortified student.

All this is apart from the verbal abuse that would put a satisfied grin on Full Metal Jacket's drill sergeant and the physical abuse (he throws a chair onto Andrew who barely ducks in time). What makes this guy even more despicable is that he does not change his tactics. Fletcher does not become a good person in the end; in fact, once the credits roll, we can see him continue in the same vein without any remorse whatsoever.

And yet, he is not evil personified. Deep inside, he means to do good, or so he thinks. We see him not as a teacher but also as a musician playing jazz in a small bar. And he plays with so much feeling and depth that we are surprised to see that there are any feelings behind his thick skin. (Another instance for those who have seen the film would be when he is teary-eyed and talks about a former student of his who had died young, but most of this pain may have been because he must have realized that he was more than partially responsible for the young man's death.)

It is in that bar scene that he finally reveals himself to the young drummer Andrew. He tells him that all that he wants is to push for artistic greatness in his students. He is not interested in creating interchangeable, uninspired and insipid “Starbucks jazz;” he wants his students to excel and become one of the greats. Hence, he pushes his students by crossing lines and limits so that they not only work as hard as they can (until their fingers bleed and their minds reel), but that they manage to give their all (and more) to achieve their fullest potential.

His concept of the vanquishing artist with no holds barred reminded me of Nietzsche's drive for greatness. The master artist has fulfilled himself and as a rule stands beyond and above the multitude and the mass. He has not only found and realized himself, but he is the artist par excellence. He is the Mozart of classical music, the Charlie Parker of jazz, or the Jimi Hendrix of rock 'n' roll.

These musicians may have been geniuses, but even they must unlock their potential through single-minded and unwavering practice. With great art comes great sacrifice. Incidentally, they all died young because they burnt themselves up like a shooting star. As Andrew himself put it earlier at a dinner table in which football seemed to outweigh music, he would rather die young without friends as one of the greats than live a long and pointless second-rate life (a direct stab at his middling father).

Andrew believes he has the necessary talent to be great, and as a result, he decides to fully focus on his practice. He plays until his hands are sore and literally bleed. He shakes off a serious car accident to play the drums for an important competition, and he “sacrifices” his would-be girlfriend by prematurely ending their budding relationship because his sole focus and occupation, not to say obsession, is his music and his music only.

His desire is almost mystical in its scope and no wonder that he follows his master to the very end. In such a view, Andrew is the monk who shuns earthly life and turns his whole being looking upwards towards the divine and the heavenly realm. Fletcher then becomes the Zen master who is ready to cut his pupils' limbs if that can help them achieve the much sought and highly valued state of satori. The student ready to sacrifice his psychological health and well-being to achieve this state follows blindly the voice of his admired and, in the student's eyes, successful master not unlike the disciples who followed Jesus (though the latter did occasionally succumb to moments of doubt and wavering).

But how far should the master go? Does he not realize that he is causing psychological harm to his students? Does he not have any boundaries of decency and compassion? Does he lack humanity? No, Fletcher responds. If you are a true artist, you will not break under the pressure but rather come out reborn with renewed strength and vigor. The real artists' passion and resourcefulness is never-ending. They will not break, and if they do, that means they were no artists in the first place.

This would be a case of survival of the best and fittest. Only those who got what is worth will survive. These are the Navy SEALs of jazz, and only the very best, the elite can survive. And if they do, it means they have what it takes to be a veritable artist. He is only separating the wheat from the chaff and preparing those who make it for everlasting greatness, which is much more important than a single person's life.

The force and drive that knows no limits and achieves what only few can achieve in the world reminded me of some of Nietzsche's ideas regarding the Übermensch. It is also not unlike the observation of Jesus that only few will walk that straight narrow road. Jesus himself had this single-minded focus and passion. To all of these great people, it is their cause and their persistent and unwavering aim bound with their serious commitment that makes them great.

If we look at those who excel today, it comes at a great price. They have to work and practice hard. No one wakes up a brilliant musician or writer. We may have a knack for it; it may come easier to us than to others, but we need to constantly work on it and if we want true greatness, we must sacrifice anything that is not related to it, anything that distracts us from the path.

Yet also, a part of greatness is not following others. In that sense, the timid and reserved Andrew takes a decisive stand at the end of the film: He willingly defies his master. In fact, all this time, he was worried about proving himself and his worth to his teacher, and now he just does what he knows to be best.

That is the great independence of a true artist. He does not follow the dictates of others, but in fact, he creates the rules which others ought to follow. They set standards. They surpass their masters and teachers. They create something, whether a work of art or a musical composition that will stand the test of time and will live on forever.

Fletcher is indeed a flawed individual, but he is the kind of person that someone like Andrew needs. And he does not need him in the traditional sense of learning, but rather as a necessary obstruction to overcome. What Fletcher has in the end taught him was to overcome his own limits and to unlock and liberate the musical genius that was lying dormant deep within him.

When that moment comes, the never satisfied and always critical Fletcher shows a brief moment of satisfaction, and Andrew has managed to kill the Buddha, to outshine the master on his own path toward salvation, his own and fully merited conviction that he has reached artistic greatness or perfection. Well, at least one such moment that he could from now on continuously build on through steady practice and output.