Monthly Archives: February 2011

the perks of being a wallflower

Interesting cover, interesting title. This book first caught my attention at a book sale a long time ago, but I only thought about reading it after Gian waved his copy in front of me, some days before he showed me after the quake. Being an envious reader, I borrowed both from the Rizal Library and started the first one halfway through The Passion. (Just in time, too: the film’s coming out in 2012, with Emma Watson playing Sam/Samantha.)

Stephen Chbosky’s the perks of being a wallflower is an epistolary novel made up of a year’s worth of letters from Charlie, a socially awkward teenager afraid of beginning his high school freshman year. Addressed to an unknown “friend,” the letters reveal the author to be a gifted, thoughtful yet extremely shy individual caught between the new, dizzying world of adolescence and a past that seems unwilling to let him move forward.

It’s been a while since I last held a book that’s this easy to read. The first time I cracked it open, I didn’t stop until I was almost half done with it. I couldn’t put it down; Charlie was too endearing to leave. Having been a wallflower all his life, he has grown used to watching things from the sidelines and making observations instead of “participating.” But despite the isolation it presumes, this vantage point allows him to see more than the ordinary person. He make casual revelations that are telling not only of the person being described but also of the one doing the describing, Charlie himself.

I enjoyed the first two sections of this book, but towards the middle it started to feel a little like just a lot of complaints in life: I’m so alone, nobody notices me. “Not everyone has a sob story, Charlie, and even if they do, it’s no excuse,” says the main character’s father. Ironically the novel’s plot itself reveals a reliance on too many unfortunate incidents—the exact stuff that make up “sob stories” (I’d make a list, but I don’t want to spoil it for anybody). At one point the tone made me want to put the book down and take a breather, but I still plowed through that chapter, almost willing it to get better. And it did; things picked up again near the end, and I at least closed the book with some sense of fulfillment.

…what’s the point of using words nobody else knows or can say comfortably?

‘…we accept the love we think we deserve.’

I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like that. That you wanted to sleep for a thousand years. Or just not exist. Or just not be aware that you do exist.

And all the books you’ve read have been read by other people. And all the songs you’ve loved have been heard by other people. And that girl that’s pretty to you is pretty to other people. And you know that if you looked at these facts when you were happy, you would feel great because you are describing ‘unity.’

Something really is wrong with me. And I don’t know what it is.

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It’s like all I can do is keep writing this gibberish to keep from breaking apart.

So I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there.

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Of course the title made me cringe, but I trusted Maki anyway. I probably should have, but I hadn’t heard of Wong Kar-wai before. He seems like the kind of director I should get to know better. In the Mood for Love begins with two married couples moving into neighboring apartments on the same day. Over the next months, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. So (Maggie Cheung) arrive at the common realization that their partners are engaged an illicit affair, and through this connection come to cultivate an unconventional relationship of their own.

The movie runs for a standard length of 90 minutes, but its atmosphere feels like a short film because of its subtle cinematography. With its use of spontaneous stills and unusual camera angles, In the Mood for Love presents a unique viewing experience, especially for Wong Kar-wai virgins like me. The camerawork intrigued me the most. I enjoyed its fascination with staircases, doorways, street corners—junctures that serve as meeting places for the two protagonists. Also, it continually finds new angles to shoot from, so you never even see the main characters’ spouses—a device I found poignant and telling.

Although generally very quiet and subdued, tension permeates almost all the scenes in this film, a quality enhanced by its unsettling soundtrack. Lying somewhere on the border between friendship and romance, Mr. Chow and Mrs. So’s relationship is marked by constant reenactments, which started with a seemingly innocent enough statement: “I wonder how it began.” In an attempt to understand their partners’ betrayal, they reenact scenes they deem pivotal to the affair and use this setup to rehearse their own plans for confrontation or departure. But throughout the movie, both characters exercise tremendous restraint. They resist obvious temptation not out of fear for public reprimand (though that concern remains) but because they do not want to engage in the same infidelity as their spouses: “We won’t be like them.”

According to Wikipedia the movie’s original title literally means “the age of blossoms” and refers to the Chinese metaphor for the passing time of youth. This corresponds to the film’s repeated emphasis on the end of an age. “That era has passed,” the caption states once. But this awareness only leaves the characters always looking back at those irretrievable moments in the past, forever haunted by the possibility of a different present.

‘You notice things if you pay attention.’

‘I didn’t think you’d fall in love with me.’ ‘I didn’t either.’

‘In the old days, if someone had a secret they didn’t want to share…you know what they did?’ … ‘They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud. And leave the secret there forever.’

He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

New speakers and time to kill: good enough reasons to start a three-hour flick. Maybe I should have known, or at least anticipated it, but the Omaha beach scene took me by surprise. There is almost no conversation, hardly any sound besides the steady rattle of gunfire and the soldiers’ occasional supplications to God. It relies on visual intensity, with such unforgettable images as a man with exposed intestines crying for his mother, a mutilated soldier dragging his detached arm, and a bloody sea lapping against a corpse-laden shore. Barely twenty minutes into the film, and tears had already stung my eyes. It was disturbing enough to begin with, but what made it more affecting is the fact that it really happened—obviously not in the same way but in just as devastating a manner nonetheless.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie follows a group of eight soldiers commissioned to execute an unusual order. Led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks), they seek out the youngest of four Ryan siblings (Matt Damon), a private whom circumstance has deemed deserving of a safe journey home. Amid the chaos of World War II, the soldiers fight for mutual survival, and on their way to completing their mission discover that something more than fate binds them together.

Although Saving Private Ryan presents a set of realistic battlefields, the real spectacle lies in the acting. Matt Damon is competent enough, but Tom Hanks gives a stunning performance, bringing to life an enigmatic leader who inspires respect from his men. Other actors also portrayed their roles well, in a way that seemed natural yet convincing enough to set them apart as individuals (Jackson the marksman is my favorite). Because of this, (the end of) their lives mattered beyond statistics: they weren’t just numbers to be counted or names to be sent along with a thousand other death notices. For war is a private affair: it shatters the individual and foments personal hatred, even against a latent awareness that both sides are only victims of a larger violence.

I do not want to spoil the ending, but at some point I became desperate for salvation, and although I did feel some disappointment at the deus ex machina aspect of it, mostly I felt relieved. I had grown so attached to the characters that I craved a happy ending.

‘All we can do here is die.’

‘Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.’ ‘What the fuck is that supposed to mean, Corporal, huh? We’re all supposed to die, is that it?’

‘Captain didn’t go to school. They assembled him at O.C.S. out of spare body parts of dead G.I.s.’

‘Sergeant, we have crossed some strange boundary here. The world has taken a turn for the surreal.’

‘And then one day you left. You left me, and I’ve been desperate ever since. I see you all over the sky. I see you all over the earth.’

‘Tell me about your wife and those rosebushes?’ ‘No, no, that one I save just for me.’

The Passion

I wanted so much to love this novel, I really did. Aea first told me about it two years ago, but I didn’t get a chance to borrow it until recently. Although it’s a very short book (about 160 pages), I only finished it after several days. That’s partly because I had tons of schoolwork, but honestly it’s also because The Passion didn’t really make a strong impression on me (I started another book halfway through the week). As I read, I kept in mind that it’s one of Aea’s favorite books and that other people like it as well—and perhaps that’s part of what ruined it for me. I moved from chapter to chapter, waiting for that point when I’ll realize this is a beautiful novel—but soon I’ve reached halfway, the end of the book, and still it had not come.

In The Passion, Jeanette Winterson weaves together a semi-historical, semi-magical tale of war, love, time, and mystery. It begins with a contemplative soldier named Henri, who leaves the French countryside for war, follows Bonaparte’s army until Russia, and winds up in Venice, the city of changes. Along the way he meets the horse-taming Domino, the far-seeing Patrick, and the red-haired Villanelle—a web-footed boatman’s daughter with whom he will share a tumultuous destiny.

The narrative is told from the alternating perspectives of Henri and Villanelle. While the former describes the somber uncertainties of a soldier’s life, the latter provides glimpses of a Venetian gypsy’s world—a whirlwind of disappearing water alleys, androgynous dealers, fanned cards, and constant gambles. And yet the story’s tone seldom changes throughout the book. Short, catchy lines repeat themselves at regular intervals: “In between fear and sex, passion is.” Here the writer’s self-confidence overflows; and although clearly meant to captivate, these repetitions end up just short of annoying. But the book does have its moments here and there, showing even through hazes of sentimentality. This much I have to give Winterson: her novel is strange, different, new; but although it seems tempting to concede to overwhelmingly positive opinions, it appears I cannot do so without lying.

Do it from the heart or not at all.

‘Will you kill people, Henri?’ ‘Not people, Louise, just the enemy.’

Perhaps all romance is like that; not a contract between equal parties but an explosion of dreams and desires that can find no outlet in everyday life.

I was happy but happy is an adult word. You don’t have to ask a child about happy, you see it. … Adults talk about being happy because largely they are not.

‘Trust me. I’m telling you stories.’

‘…every moment you steal from the present is a moment you have lost for ever.’

Soldiers and women. That’s how the world is. Any other role is temporary. Any other role is a gesture.

The night seems more temporary than the day, especially to lovers, and it also seems more uncertain. In this way it sums up our lives, which are uncertain and temporary. We forget about that in the day. In the day we go on for ever.

To kiss well one must kiss solely. No groping hands or stammering hearts. The lips and the lips alone are the pleasure.

If you should leave me, my heart will turn to water and flood away.

There’s no sense in loving someone you can only wake up to by chance.

I stayed because I had nowhere else to go. I don’t want to do that again.

‘I love you,’ I said, then and now.

Why did I imagine things would be different simply because time had passed?

Whoever it is you fall in love with for the first time, not just love but be in love with, is the one who will always make you angry, the one you can’t be logical about.

Duino Elegies

A note on the picture: this isn’t the copy I read, but I can’t find the cover of Elaine E. Boney’s translation online, so this will have to do. In this series of ten elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke ponders on man’s place in the universe, offering not so much explanation but reflection. He begins with laments on the tragedy of human impermanence and the inevitability of departures. Humans mourn death because we cannot see past it; we see it as the ultimate end. In this Rilke distinguishes humans from animals, who are more at one with the universe, who acknowledge that “Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life” (Norwegian Wood).

This disjunction between our transitory world and that of the angels—those “near fatal birds of the soul”—comprises an overarching theme in the elegies. “Here everything is separation, while there / it was like breathing,” Rilke says, referring to a time when we too belonged to a “womb,” like the animals with nature. Still there are those of us who come closer to this “first home”: children, innocent as they are, and lovers, who find infinity in the other. Yet as Boney remarks in her commentary, “The distance from one human being to another—even the beloved—is insurmountable.” In Rilke’s words: “Lovers, you who are each fulfilled by the other, / you I ask about us. You clasp each other. Do you have any proof?”

The most fragile of all beings, mankind exists to bring this earth into eternity, to transform it into the inexpressible: “Earth, is this not what you want: to arise within us / invisibly?” Here lies the value of our tenuous existence: “One time and no more. And we, too, / once. Never again, But to have existed / this once, even if only one time: / to have existed here on earth, appears irrevocable.”

My first reading of the elegies yielded hardly any enjoyment: because I read them alongside the commentaries, I found them dry, arid, without resonance. This is not to say that I didn’t appreciate Boney’s insights; without them I probably wouldn’t have understood the work. But honestly I didn’t want to understand everything. When I reread Duino Elegies last night I let myself be immersed in its mystery, and only then did I grasp the fullness of its achievement. Only then did I discover beauty.

Flipped (2010)

Nothing beats first love. Or so they say. (The cynic in me disagrees, but let’s ignore her for a moment.) When Philipp offered me the file some days ago, telling me that it’s about puppy love, I hesitated for a moment, but let him copy it on my flash drive anyway. I hadn’t heard about the film before, and I suppose I wanted it to surprise me. Banking on Philipp’s assurance that it was good movie, I watched it on Thursday with Maki and found it a pleasant enjoyment.

Based on Wendelin Van Draanen’s 2001 book of the same title, Flipped tells the story of Bryce (Callan McAuliffe) and Julie (Madeline Carroll), two eighth graders stumbling through their first experience of love. At seven, Julie sees Bryce for the first time when his family moves into the house across theirs. Fascinated with his “dazzling” eyes, she decides that it’s love and stalks him, forcing Bryce to spend the next six years avoiding her, until his grandfather makes him take a second look at Julie and something in him flips.

The movie (and I suppose the book as well) makes good use of its title. “Flipped” refers to Bryce and Julie’s contrasting perspectives, the unexpected changes of heart they both undergo, as well as the craziness of it all. As Bryce’s best friend Garrett says to him, “Have you flipped? What’s the matter with you?” Indeed, feelings fluctuate at a fast pace in this film, just like they do in real life. While not exactly relatable, the characters’ circumstances prove engaging enough to hold the viewer’s attention. Childhood preoccupations (chicken eggs, sycamore trees, the obsession with that perfect first kiss) and light humor combine to create an innocent, refreshing film—a rare find in today’s plethora of hackneyed plots and clichéd characters. Flipped provides the viewer with a chance to strip away adult skepticism and if not believe, then at least hope in the youthful dream of first love.

‘You can see the whole world from here.’

‘A girl like that doesn’t live next door to everyone.’

‘Some of us get dipped in flat, some in satin, some in gloss; but every once in a while, you find someone who’s iridescent, and once you do, nothing will ever compare.’

Norwegian Wood

I grew up with this novel. I first read it in the fifth grade along with 69 and The Catcher in the Rye, when my father unexpectedly brought home a stack of secondhand books. Practically overnight, I changed from an innocent eleven-year-old to a confused, world-wary girl. Norwegian Wood confirmed my suspicions about sex and introduced me to lesbianism. It was the most sinful book I had come across at the time. Unfortunately, I only had the second part (Kodansha English Library separated it into two volumes), so my first full reading came only this week, after Iggy graciously lent me his brand-new copy.

The novel tells the story of Toru Watanabe, a young man torn between his commitment to the fragile Naoko and the possibility of a real future with the free-spirited Midori. Amidst a whirl of alcohol, sex, music and youth uprisings, he makes his choice, and finds himself abruptly swept into an adulthood that leaves him forever looking back.

No sheep-man, no little green monster, no vanishing elephant: Norwegian Wood seems as normal as they come. But even without a Murakami spectacle, the book never gets boring. Song-triggered flashbacks, adolescent stories, casual conversations—even in these, this author is never dull. I confess to obvious bias. After all, this is my favorite Murakami novel so far. At eleven, I saw nothing in this book beyond sex and scandal. At twenty, I went into it with a whole lot less naiveté and came out much more fulfilled, albeit sadder. I only now begin to understand the strange bond between Toru and Naoko, born out of a shared sorrow. All throughout this novel, characters struggle to cope, to let the forward pull of time carry them onward, even as they bring along with them departures that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Words flowed easily from page to mind in this second reading. I recalled fragments from nine years ago: Naoko feeding the birds in her yellow raincoat, Midori standing beneath a streetlamp (drunk and clamoring for a tree to climb), Toru grieving beside a fisherman on an unknown shore. I had not realized it, but these images have stayed with me through the years, and somehow I have a feeling there they will remain—perhaps until the next time I stumble upon them again, perhaps forever.

I straightened up and looked out of the window at the dark clouds hanging over the North Sea, thinking of all I had lost in the course of my life: times gone for ever, friends who had died or disappeared, feelings I would never know again.

‘…when I’m really close to you like this, I’m not the least bit scared. Nothing dark or evil could ever tempt me.’

‘If I relaxed my body now, I’d fall apart. I’ve always lived like this, and it’s the only way I know how to go on living. If I relaxed for a second, I’d never find my way back. I’d go to pieces, and the pieces would be blown away.’

‘I want you always to remember me. Will you remember that I existed, and that I stood next to you here like this?’

‘Just once, I wanted to know what it was like to get my fill of it—to be fed so much love I couldn’t take any more.’

‘If I have left a wound inside you, it is not just your wound but mine as well.’

‘The dead will always be dead, but we have to go on living.’

It was as if I were writing letters to hold together the pieces of my crumbling life.

Somewhere inside me there was still preserved a broad, open space, untouched, for Naoko and no one else.

‘…you need to grab whatever chance of happiness where you find it…we get no more than two or three such chances in a lifetime, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives.’

Midori responded with a long, long silence—the silence of all the misty rain in the world falling on all the new-mown lawns of the world.