Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Movie Review: Goya's Ghosts

I have a friend who once proclaimed that history has little to teach us because it seldom repeats itself. (In her defense, we were pretty young at the time)

But the arrogance of youth aside, I think the reason some people fail to see themselves in the past probably has something to do with self-awareness (or rather, lack of) and an inability to see the forest for the trees.

I can already see people watching Goya’s Ghosts, an excellent movie I rented this weekend (out last summer), and ascribing Goya’s anguish to the cruelty of his time rather than the cruelty of human nature in general, and its propensity towards fanaticism over compassion.

There's nothing subtle about Goya's Ghost, with lines like “in these troubled times [we] deemed it necessary to bring [torture] back….” Of course, the church of the Inquisition never used the word “torture” either, but “the Question”, as in, “if you are put to The Question, God will grant you the grace not to falsely confess to something you’re not guilty of….”

Or: “[they] will shower us with flowers and rose petals in the streets…” the “they” in this instance referring to the regular people in Spain awaiting “liberation” from the monarchy and a corrupt clergy by Napoleon’s army (I'm too lazy to look up the actual transcrips, so there's some paraphrasing here. Sorry)

Goya watches one set of perverted ideals take over another set of perverted ideals, power passed around between a select privileged and lucky few like a game of high stakes hot potato, with regular people shouldering the human cost of this macabre game.

Nathalie Portman was great as an embodiment of human misery and helplessness, in the face of stacked odds and just pure bad luck.

We also get the benefit, throughout this movie, to see some of Goya’s body of work and how he synthesized and recorded all this pain around him. For that alone, I’d say the movie is worth it, especially for art buffs.

Ultimately though, my only beef with artists like Goya (and writers like Flaubert and Zola), who see things as they really are (as opposed to buying in to the optimistic, know-it-all stand of the established powers) and convey them to us as best as they can, is that ultimately they offer no alternative. Maybe this is why human nature is still so vulnerable to know-it-alls. We’d rather follow an asshole who’s convinced of what he’s doing, rather than a guy who tells you “look, I don’t know what the answer is, but this isn’t it. Hopefully I’ll know it when I see it”.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Lusting After...

... This Juicy Couture hot pink trench.

What better way to usher in the spring?

Friday, April 11, 2008

God vs. Allah: Using Language to Divide

Once, in my first year out of University, I had the chance to transfer to Hartford, CT with my company for six months. I jumped at the chance seeing as I've always loved travelling, any kind of travelling, even to Hartford in this case (at least I got to see plenty of nearby NYC and Boston....)

I also got my first chance to see real life Americans, in their natural habitat (as opposed to on TV) for the first time (I'd vacationed in Cape Cod for a few days once, which I'm not going to count since the only Americans I talked to were the store clerks).

It's an experience I'll forever be grateful for because the one thing that regrettably gets lost through all the media images of Americans and American culture the world is bombarded with every second of every day, is the genuine niceness and curiosity of the American people. The problem is that there is such a discrepancy between how much of the world they get to see in return, and the little they do see is distorted through media filters. Add to this the phenomenon of American credulity - that unshakable faith that what they are being spoon-fed through TV and politics and Hollywood movies is the truth - as opposed to the natural cynicism of the rest of the world, and you have the conditions for some really bizarre conversations.

Like say this one, with a fellow University student (I took a Spanish class at U of H while working in Hartford).

I can't remember what I was so adamant about, but I was adamant enough to say this to him at one point: "I swear to God, blah, blah, blah..."

At which point he interrupted me with "Wait a minute - you can't say that, you don't believe in God, you believe in Allah."

I think I just stared at him in disbelief for a few seconds, and then tried to explain that "Allah" was simply the Arabic word for "god" and that he believed in Allah too, and that all Arabic speaking people speak of "Allah" whether they are Christian, Muslim or Jewish (I won't comment on Buddhists or Hindus because I believe the Arabic word for polytheistic religions is different, but I honestly can't remember what it is right now - sorry). I’m not sure I convinced him.

I was reminded of this in a great article in The Los Angeles Times about the mutation of language, how new words are incorporated into language (especially English, as it’s always been receptive to foreign vocabulary), and how words can shed their meaning and acquire a new one, like one acquires a new coat, when they switch over to the other side.

But, the article says, one word that should not mutate is Allah, as people are accepting it means something different from the happy-go-lucky, forgiving God of the Bible. As if Allah were the Muslim version of Zeus, or Shiva or Thor.

He’s not. God is god. “Allah means” God, just like “r'abb" means “lord” and “sukkar” means “sugar”. That’s the honest to God truth. Or the honest to allah truth, if you prefer.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


I’m Baaaaa-aaaaack!

Cayman was beyond fantabulous, but I’m also very excited to be in Montreal. In very, very, VERY happy news (at least for me), the weather now seems to be firmly entrenched in the pluses (as in, not freezing) and most of the snow has melted. Hurrah! I even pulled out the old trenchcoat this morning, dusted it off, and wore it out with a pair of pretty autumn./spring boots.

I’ve officially survived my first Canadian winter in years. This warrants a pause.


Okay, now I can tell you about the first Lebanese chick flick I’ve ever seen. It’s called Caramel and it was Lebanon’s official selection for this year’s Academy Awards. Caramel is the French expression used to translate sukkar banaat, the sugary concoction Arab women have been using for millennia (and continue to use, even though it hurts like a mo’fo, because of how silky and utterly touchable it leaves your skin. It’s also 100% natural – you can make it in your kitchen) to remove body hair.

It was also one of the most delightful movies I’ve seen in a long time, partly because I saw it in Arabic and the authenticity and nostalgia hit home for me. Also, it was almost like seeing one of my own novels come to life – the story centers around a salon, the three women who run it, and their most faithful customers. Lalaye is a Christian Lebanese early-thirty-something having a tortured affair with a married man in a society where slipping away to a motel incognito is not exactly an option, Nissreen, a young Muslim Lebanese woman who should be thrilled about her upcoming wedding, except the groom comes from a stricter family than hers, and she hasn’t found the courage to tell him she’s not a virgin. Meanwhile, boyish Reema who mans the generator when the electricity gives out, ignores the attentions of the neighborhood “Johnny Bravo” in favor of a beautiful woman who shyly but wantonly abandons her luxurious long, black hair to Reema’s hands. Added to the mix are themes of growing old in an unforgiving environment, family – the one you’re born with and the one you create – and sacrifice.

That this movie was criticized as being a Lebanese version of Queen Latifa’s Beauty Shop annoyed me to no end. Here, here and here. And here. This is just like that stupid article that calls women the “dimmer sex” because they focus on the emotional side of things rather than the destructive side. The movie did not have to go deeply into the ravages of the war – the barely-hanging-on “B” from the signage of the salon is enough to show destruction, the hot water running out, the electricity suddenly and without warning shutting down go far in showing life in the wake of rationing, and the room that Layale (in her thirties) shares with her young teenaged brother speak volumes about life outside the US, Canada, and Western Europe where nearly everyone stays at home, in cramped quarters, until they’re married, no matter how old they are. There’s plenty more to say, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the plot.

Go see it if you can, it’s a gem of a movie told from a seldom seen perspective, and most importantly, it’s an honest, authentic movie that’s positive and uplifting as opposed to sad and depressing. Not too many of those out there!