Imagine that

Before I even turn the first page of a novel, I have to find the appropriate actor or actress to fill the part.  So many screenplays are now adapted from best-selling novels, so a trip to IMDB often suffices.  Why do we need those individuals in our mind’s eye?  Lets be honest now, they aren’t hard to look at either.

When I first read “Fifty shades of Grey” they were still casting for the roles so I was lucky enough to have my own image remain intact.  As many of you know, the book started as a fan fiction that was written for Bella and Edward from Twilight.  Well that’s easy then because you just have to imagine Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson playing some emotional and physical games.  Done.  As soon as the trailer for the actual movie was released though, my illusions were shattered and I knew I would never see the film.

First off, I personally do not know what the big scandal is with consensual BDSM.  To put it bluntly, it’s just what gets you off.  Some people like to be called sweetheart, others, well, prefer something else.  As long as it’s between two consenting adults, it’s none of our business.  We clearly have two very public instances of when it’s not alright, like when you slap a woman on the side of her head because you’re a quasi Canadian celebrity, or when you drug women to rape them.  That is not okay.

Returning to “Fifty shades” though, the casting was particularly disappointing because of the aesthetic.  I don’t think I’m being particularly superficial here since film-making is built on the principle of finding representatives to tell a story; part of that is how they look and carry themselves.  As soon as Jamie Dornan came on the screen I knew that he was too attractive and well, Dakota Johnson was a bit too sweet.  The appeal of Robert Pattinson is that he’s slightly dirty and disheveled but can still pull off a suit better than most men because he of his edge.  His history of participating in the underground London scene with all that it entails, including the substance abuse and complicated sexual pairings, somehow just is part of his physicality.  Similarly with Kristen Stewart, she doesn’t look like every other girl that you went to high school with.  Her features and personal style are a bit more unusual and couture.  She’s different and has an infuriatingly bratty attitude that you know would attract a damaged control freak like Christian Grey.

Though the writing is obviously not going to win a Pulitzer, the novel has its own market and appeal.  For all those people assuming that it’s only stifled housewives who are buying it, your thoughts are sexist and demeaning towards individuals who raised you.  Their free labour is in one of the hardest and most under-appreciated sectors in society.  Secondly, everyone has fantasies and it doesn’t make them a bad person.  There is nothing to be ashamed of.  A high-horse on the other hand is nothing to be proud of.

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Extraordinary

Over the holidays I saw films about two inspiring men (Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking), and yet I’m much more interested in the extraordinary women, or the co-stars.  Obviously.  First is Alan Turing, whose involvement in intelligence service for the British government during World War II is portrayed in The Imitation Game.  The success of this film lies in offering up something for everyone; for those who came for the strategies of combat, secrets and lies and others who wanted to know more about Turing’s humanity, everyone will go home satisfied.  It stands to say that Turing is incredible.  Hell, I even learned about the Turing system in my beginners Computer Science class in high school.  His brilliance is special but he lived within a society where he never quite fit.  Whether that’s from his sexual orientation and the persecution he suffered from it, or his lack of social know-how that meant that he was never quite accepted.  Either way, it was this perception of his own difference that he battled with his entire life but also what made him more open-minded.  It’s this history of being dismissed that made him consider the talents of Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), in spite of her sex.  Yes Clarke was smart and participated in very important work that she will never be credited for, but what’s also compelling is her relationship to Turing.  She was his friend when everyone thought that he was strange and a misfit.  She saw beyond his interest in codes to his ability to think bigger than anyone else.  Imagine how much her friendship was worth when he was treated with such little kindness his entire life.

In The Theory of Everything Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones) is Stephen’s university sweetheart and wife who was there from the beginning of his carefree days as a student to when his body began to give way.  She is the mother to his children, the woman who fed him and clothed him and set him off to work.  She is the light that kept things in perspective even when things probably were very dark.  Jane Hawking also has a Ph.D.  You would never think that would you?  That such a strong, selfless, awe-inspiring woman would also be so accomplished.  They showed it briefly in the film, the struggle, when she’s trying to study amidst the noise of the house, when she found the time to focus on her mind when I’m sure her body and soul were so very tired.  Jane was there as Stephen Hawking was making his mark and she bore it all.  She was steadfast when he initially said that they didn’t need help because they were a “normal” family.

What is it with these extraordinary men and their obsession with being normal?  You would think that they were far too special for something banal like fitting it.  The pull is always there though, that desire for some reprieve since it’s so much easier to be ordinary.  It’s no surprise then that the Hawking marriage wore down.  You can only go through so much together before you seek something a bit lighter, non?  Who wants to live with all of that weight?  With the end of Turing’s life you are sad for him.  Not for his life, but that he won’t see what an impact he’s had.  That it takes so long for the world to catch up.

Both films are beautiful in their own way.  One brings forth larger and relevant issues of security, identity, and social acceptance.  The other gets at the complexities of marriage and the politics of living with someone, the hurt we cause and the outcomes of this history of flaws.  But both provide hope, to continue on our paths because one day, you’ll be somewhere fine, the sun will shine, and all will be right with the world.  Perspective.  Both offer perspective.

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Iconoclast

Remember when you were young and thought “when I grow up I will finally get to do whatever I want?”  We said it again and again, to get through awkward phases and strict curfews.  But you soon learn that being mature often means that you do things that you don’t particularly want to do because it makes other people happy.  But that’s fine, the rest of the time you set the agenda and you stay the course.

For the longest time I had a pixie cut.  When I was a child it was because Burma is a tropical country and it’s hot.  Then I moved to Canada and my mom wanted it to be neat and tidy.  In my adolescence it was because I swam.  During high school I just liked visiting the hairdresser and did not have the patience to grow it out.  Andrew teases me that my short hair kept him from being attracted to me initially.  I don’t doubt that there’s some truth to this because teenagers can be such tools, myself included.  I recall how everything meant something back then because we cared so much.  So in my youth there weren’t many actresses whom I could look up to or try to emulate.  Most of them were blond, hell in my school being blond meant that you were automatically pretty.  That is why I adored Winona Ryder and wanted to be exactly like her, minus the questionable taste in men.  She did date Matt Damon though before she started stealing lipsticks.  Sure she had her issues but she is talented and her bone structure is sublime.

I also liked the movie Reality Bites.  This film contributed to my fascination with love triangles for such a long time.  In real-life though these types of situations rarely produce good results.  People get hurt, aren’t particularly brave and more often than not you either settle or feel guilty.  I also liked the concept of working hard to make your dreams come true after college.  But again, I was suspicious of how it was portrayed.  Sure sure, it’s romantic to have fun with your friends and not sell out but damn, that life looked really hard and they kind of looked dirty.  Granted it was the early 90s, maybe now they’d all be wearing suspenders or something.  I didn’t actually want anything to do with this “cool” version either.

But the very best thing that this movie offers my generation is to heed us to take our time.  When everyone is telling you to just grow up already, remember to also enjoy yourself and keep sight of the prize.  Live and learn because you will get there.  Robert Pattinson once said in an interview that as soon as he started being known for his messy hair, he got a haircut.  Not all of us were meant to take the guided tour.

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So you go

In my mind Before Sunset is the most romantic movie ever made because you know, that’s what I would want in an encounter, to talk talk talk talk talk.  Seriously though, what is left unsaid, especially when the situation is complicated, is absolutely delicious.  It’s even better than acting on it because there is a tension.  A tension because you feel something and can either stack it up to a thing of your past or firmly place it in your future, fully aware of the damage that it will cause.  There’s the scale right?  To judge if it’s worth it?

I think different people will measure the stakes differently.  It’s clear that Jesse and Celine try very hard to be realistic and careful but they cannot help themselves.  I mean they couldn’t help themselves the first time.  You only get off a train with a perfect stranger if you’re up for those games.  And those are the best, most exhilarating games that you remember much later on when you have the “good” life.  Who doesn’t love the beginning when you don’t know someone very well but just know how much you like them?  Before Sunset is the best of the trilogy because those fantasies are more grounded.  At this point they’ve had some lovers and are more self-aware so they feel like they can be as objective about the dilemma as possible.  And so they go.

While I say it’s the best though, it’s certainly not the most real.  If you want honesty, as raw as it comes, then watch Before Midnight to see what true intimacy means.  Building a life with someone always results in scars and resentments right up there with the love.  It’s just the way it is.  So when you’ve been married and have had two kids, talk talk talk talking can be dangerous territory because you may not want it all to be said.  But I’m an optimist and like to think that they re-group and try again, precisely because of those moments by the Seine, when they were brave enough to say what they felt and not what they should have.  You do not bulldoze over your life for just anyone.

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Racket

I watched Twilight.  Not just the first one but the whole damn saga and I’m not embarrassed in the least.  Someone with an Ivy League education was equally as excited to watch Eclipse with me at the Thai-Burma border.  So if it’s not above her all you judgey people can take a walk around the block.  Plus, it was mainly for Robert Pattinson.  Yes, my teenage dream transferred from Channing Tatum to that “complicated” London bloke.  Weird.  Though right now you might want to lay off some of the “stuff” Patty.  Just look at Leo Dicaprio to see what too much Ibiza does to the system.

Anyways, have you ever consumed popular books or films to see what exactly all the hype is about?  You soon learn that some of the praise is mainly created through noise and good PR while others actually do deliver.  But popularity produces targets and snobs who feel that these well-liked things aren’t particularly special.  The game-changers never like to be part of the crowd.  I get that, but sometimes it’s nice to smell the roses even if everyone and their mother are doing the same.

Now here’s my take on two blockbusters and one of them even has a Robert Pattinson connection.  Ha.  At the height of its hype it seemed like everyone was talking about “50 shades of Grey.”  Sure it’s not exactly Tolstoy or Ondaatje but it was still entertaining.  I don’t understand how people expect NPR content for every single thing that is produced and consumed in the world.  The smutty parts didn’t exactly thrill or shock me but was definitely an education.  It made me pause and say hmm, I didn’t know there was a method for that.  At the end of the day though it’s not the whips or the room full of toys that excited me.  It’s the powerful man I like, not the handcuffs he offers.  Give me a fully clothed man over Magic Mike any day.  Ideally he’d be reading a paper in the Paris sun with wayfarers and a nicely cut suit.  The Robert Pattinson connection is that “50 Shades” started out as a Twilight fanfic.  So, basically Patty is Christian Grey.  I dig that.  He looks accomplished without being too pretty.

The other successful novel that fully provides what it’s selling is “Crazy Rich Asians” but perhaps I like it for different reasons than the average reader.  It is set in the elite circles of Singapore where the wealth and privilege goes back generations and is not from recent investment in natural resources or whatever else is making money these days.  No, these families exploited people during the colonial era and actually did a good job of protecting their assets.  They were not subjugated by the Europeans but also had a hand in subjugating others.  The premise is that an educated Asian-American woman goes to visit her boyfriend’s family and quickly learns that she is out of her league in his world.  She can’t quite read the social signals or transactions and everyone thinks that she’s fond of him for the wrong reasons, when in fact she only recently learned of his privilege.  Plus clearly in their eyes she is not good enough for him since her blood does not have even a hit of blue.  The first thing I love about this concept is that we are not in Victorian England or Downton Abbey to witness how the upper echelon of racialized individuals operate.  Secondly, the very first chapter that takes place in a European hotel lobby makes up for every instance we’ve had to feel subhuman.  When we were thought to be uncouth (when we weren’t) or to loud (when we aren’t).  Again, the majority of us will never live this reality but the author Kevin Kwan does, and he does not hold back.  You know that he is writing about his cousin’s second wife’s mother-in-law or whomever else is part of his network.  God, I wonder if they still speak to him.  I promise that they turn a nose up that he’s selling their secrets for some pocket change.  The fact of the matter is though that in many societies it still matters who your grandparents were and what your name signals.  Of course there should be more social justice and vast differences in wealth disparity is unfortunate.  But there are certain practices that do stand the test of time.  I do agree that it is gauche to talk about money and there is something to be said about being secure enough about your positioning and where precisely you stand.  Pride and arrogance are two very different things and have varying outcomes.

I will forever roll my eyes at those who are too good for certain programs or products.  Sure, it many not be your thing but it doesn’t mean that someone else can’t find value or connect with it.  Yes, I would never watch those teenage mother shows but maybe it is someone’s current reality or will convince others to prioritize other endeavours.  It’s like these people want everyone to consume bran cereal all the time when a bit of marshmallows or raisins even could liven things up.  Come on now.

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New

I find that cliches become honest when they are spoken with such heart.  Especially when they are attached to earnest and articulate 22 year olds.  “I figure I was born alone, I’m not afraid to die alone either,” said a fellow commuter on why he wasn’t looking to enter another serious relationship, for now.  Who knew that riding the subway would provide such richness.  Wow, I certainly did not have this grounded sense of self in my early twenties.  The only thing of consequence I did at this age was get my essays in on time and even that was sometimes a challenge.

At the core of his contemplation is something that we all fear: to end up on our own.  There is such stigma attached to not following the normative timeline for life’s goals.  Having a hard time finding a partner to love and one to love you back is often deemed to be a huge misstep.  But what are we willing to sacrifice, what parts of ourselves are we willing to compromise to not look like a fool?  Which you aren’t by the way.  The reminders mostly come through social rituals of holiday dinners where you’re told to celebrate in packs.  The greetings arrive with matching sweaters, smiles and altered teeth.  These are the postcards that some long to send and are willing to commit to empty relationships to obtain that facade.  They long to put up the appearance of the perfect life.

Gwen Stefani in the song “New” begs, “don’t let it go away, this feeling has got to stay.”  The lyrics are relatable precisely because we all know that the electricity of discovering someone new will not remain.  All new things eventually become old.  I don’t think we could survive that form of excitement for the long run.  Passion becomes comfort to be more sustainable, to allow your heart to pace itself.  Wouldn’t we all end up in padded rooms otherwise?  How much fighting and make-up sex can one really take?

But asking the “what ifs” is perfectly common.  When the urgency wanes you wonder if someone else could help you reclaim and maintain that spark.  It’s the tail of the dragon that we continually chase.  That first hit.  Like the protagonist in the Italian film The Last Kiss realizes, the hard way I might add, that exploring those questions can make you end up with a wreckage where your life had been.  Kissing that young, reckless thing was not worth losing someone who actually understands you.  History builds the rapport and unconditional support and losing that hurts like hell.  You also ask yourself, who exactly is left “out there”?  Is there someone who you would actually want to devote yourself to?  Are you equally worthy of each other?  Maybe.  But I think that’s the gamble you take.  If you do decide to leave and make your own way, you know that there is the chance that you might end up alone.  That there might not be a whole lot of other people whom you want to take your clothes off for.  Cause really, if you don’t want to see each other naked what is the point?

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Represent

One of the more defining moments of undergrad consisted of a student stating that she didn’t see Denzel Washington’s colour when she watches his films.  That’s about when the class went to hell in a hand basket.  Another student who is of Filipino descent retorted that she wished that she could see her image on TV, that she also wanted her story to be told.  Because you know, it’s true, however distorted or limited the representation is, we still want to be present.  We want our beauty, history and cultural practices to be counted.

You don’t know how exciting it was for me to grow up actually seeing Asian characters on weekly dramas.  I loved that Christina Yang (Sandra Oh) was a surgeon, so driven and slightly socially awkward.  Ming-Na’s character on ER was so empathetic and likeable.  John Cho made guest appearances and you felt sorry for him that he worked too hard during residency and drove over someone with his car.  God, were they all doctors?  I’m cool with that.  I liked this version of the assertive, well-adjusted and intelligent representations of my Asian heritage.  I much preferred this to the geishas, silent and meek companions or much of nothing at all.

But my question is, where are all the South Asian men?  We sure have a long way to go but there is hope.  If you’ve never seen the film Cairo Time please go rent it right now.  Like tonight.  It beautifully portrays a friendship and attraction between Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig when she comes to visit the North African city.  He serves as her companion to navigate the scorching streets and customs with more ease.  The Egyptian culture is so beautifully rendered here through food, dance, family and colours.  It’s brilliant.  He is educated, liberal and works for the UN.  This was the most positive and progressive representation of a South Asian man I had ever seen.  Usually they are relegated to being terrorists, police officers or Saudi princes.  This is similar to roles that Riz Ahmed (pictured below) is taking on of late.  I’ve written of him briefly before but in short, he is an MC, attended Oxford, was a shit-disturber at his posh high school and is formed fully of charm and wit.  I hope that he keeps working because I am actually excited for what he will bring to the table.  In Closed circuit, which got awful reviews but I quite enjoyed, he is quote on quote a villain but as a member of MI5 he still complicates his exact motivations for carrying on the fight against terror.  Ahmed adds more complexity and layers to where the British Muslim man exactly stands and it’s fascinating.  We need more of this.

So my objective for writing this post is to remind us of the power of the media and films.  They are not just sources for information or entertainment but help to act out the different textures of our lives.  Observing one interpretation of a similar problem that you’ve encountered or a present one that you’re still grappling with, can allow us to tease out what kind of resolution we’re seeking.  It helps us accept that more often than not there are no answers.  It is also a rush to feel that difference is being represented.  That difference is not considered ugly.

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