Friday, 26 November 2010

Uncle Boonmee

Sometimes, when travelling, I've visited cultures that were so different to anything I've experienced before, that I've felt an uneasy dislocation from myself. It's almost like I've just woken up and don't know who I am, and the business of being alive is strange and absurd. Usually this feeling wears off after a couple of days in a new place, but I remember feeling it when I got lost in Bangkok, and I had it again watching Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. This is far from being a criticism of the movie; I think, although it's discomforting, this feeling of alienation serves to pull me out of the rut we all fall into of being absorbed in the day to day stuff we do, and makes me really THINK about my life and who I am.

This film set in Northern Thailand, is about a man, Uncle Boonmee, who goes back to his farm to die. It starts with a long, brooding sequence at dusk, when an ox (or maybe it's a buffalo, I'm not well up on different types of bovines) becomes restless and escapes into the jungle, where it is watched, but by exactly what the viewer doesn't know, at this point it's just a pair of glowing red eyes in the nightscape. Later, this scene, along with others, makes more sense, it seems to be an image from a former incarnation of Boonmee, although the film never explains this, just interposes these images in between the scenes depicting the central character with the people in his life, going about the ordinary stuff of everyday. By not following a more traditional narrative arc, but at the same time having a slow and gentle pace, the film seems to make the out of the ordinary events seem unthreatening, and I felt less concerned about trying to make sense of them

By day, Boonmee potters around his farm. His sister-in-law has come to visit him, and he shows her his bee hives, and introduces her to the workers who tend his trees. But at night events take place which may seem strange to Western eyes, but probably because they are rooted in traditional Thai spiritual beliefs, after their initial surprise, they seem to be easily accepted by the film's characters. On the first night, sitting at the table with two of his relatives, they are suddenly visited by the ghost of Boonmee's late wife, Huay, who has been drawn to visit him because she is aware of his sickness. Then a simian figure, with glowing red eyes is also drawn to their table. This turns out to be Boonmee's son, who disappeared many years ago, and became one of the monkey ghosts who dwell in the jungle. This strange group sit around the table, eating leftovers and looking at photos of family events the visiting spirits missed out on. I loved the silences, and the acceptance of events. If such creatures appeared at my table, I'd bombard them with questions about what had happened to them, but Boonmee and his guests relate to each other just as they did when they were all alive, and human.

The film follows Boonmee's last days and nights. Near death, he seems to be in a place, both spiritual and geographical, where the metaphysical becomes everyday. It reminded me of those times, after the loss of someone close, when everything seems charged with meaning and significance, and I've felt more aware than ever of life outside myself. The farm is on the edge of a jungle, which seems a mysterious, magical place, with resonances for me of the way William Blake, and much medieval literature, depicts forests, as places where one can, and will, meet creatures of dreams and imagination. My favourite scene is where Boonmee and his two living relatives go out into the night, and stumble through the forest to a womblike cave. But suddenly, the roof of the cave is lit by dots of phosporescence, or maybe even glow worms, and it looks just like a star lit sky.

I don't know if I liked the film or not, I can only say the time passed without me being aware of it, and the world seemed different when I left the cinema. Looking down at Brixton market from the heights of the train platform, even that familiar scene seemed magical and special. Maybe that's how the world really is all the time, when we care to take notice.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Friends and Fireworks

I haven't been feeling myself of late. The temptation is to withdraw, stay at home and have as little to do with the rest of the human race as possible. I think it may have been Sartre who said "Hell is other people". Whoever it was that said it was not a happy bunny.

But last Saturday, Nov 6th, we had arranged to have a group of our friends over for bonfire night celebrations, that is, food, bonfire and fireworks. We've done this for the last 4 years or so, ever since we moved into this house. It's becoming an annual tradition. It was very much a tradition of my childhood, that we would have the family over on bonfire night, and feed them Lancashire hot pot, with pickled red cabbage, followed by parkin (a tea bread not unlike ginger cake, but much stodgier). My strongest memory of those nights was actually staying indoors, comforting our several cats and dogs who were terrified of the fireworks. My collie, Shep, used to hide, shaking, under my bed, which I couldn't bear to see. He also used to do this whenever there was a thunder storm. Besides, I was quite a serious child and I could never quite see the point of fireworks. I did like making a guy though, which we we would plonk out on the street to collect money from passersby. One year, too lazy to make a guy, we put my little brother, Damian, out there instead. People got quite a shock when our guy moved.

But I seem to be going through a second childhood. Just as playing games with my young nieces and nephews is much more fun now than it was when I was their age, nowadays fireworks seem to be a thing of awe and wonder. Maybe they're just better quality fireworks. So we decided not cancel our party. I also thought that seeing friends, spending time with people who I knew cared about me, might prove somewhat restorative.

I felt I was noticeably quieter than usual, but no one commented on this. In any case, the noise of explosions was so overwhelming as to preclude much conversation. Our garden is not overlooked by buildings at the back, so we could see, and hear, fireworks going off all around. It was a bit like that trippy scene in Apocalypse Now, where one of the soldiers has just dropped some acid, and is trying to make his way overland during a bombardment. The noise was incredible, there were a series of booms, presumably from an organised display, that were so loud it felt like we were under attack by mortars. Actually, when I was a kid, I was convinced that this date was spelt 'bombfire night', which I still think makes more sense than bonfire. What the hell is a bonfire, anyway?

But I digress. We did the fireworks in two bouts, one early on, then the rest later, after my friend Ella had arrived. Bless her, it took her twice as long as it should have done to get to our house, due to packed buses on the way to the displays around London. Martin lit most of the fireworks, which made me quite anxious until I realised that as soon as he'd lit the fuse he scurried for cover into the garage at the bottom of the garden. My favourites are the ones that rise high into the air, then explode into a shower of colours, way up in the night sky. I've never been fond of the ones that sit on the ground and spew out colours, fountains I think they're called. They do seem a bit lack lustre.

We bought a fire pit this summer, and it was lovely, sitting around it, waving sparklers and listening to various people play guitar and sing (yes, we are a bunch of hippies at heart). I felt buoyed up by good company, free from my worries into the moment. A friend of ours, Mike, took some excellent photos. I was a bit puzzled at first as he had this peculiar gadget, with three bendy legs, which I thought was some kind of device for doing Indian head massage, until he attached it to his camera where it functioned as a very adaptable tripod. As he said, it's especially cool as it's a gadget that makes another gadget work even better.

That was over a week ago now, and I'm still not feeling myself. But I try to remind myself that other people, especially ones who know you well, and understand you, are not hell at all, but can be more like the other place.