11/26/2005

JFK-Downtown Xing/Park-Kendall/Kendall-Downtown Xing/Downtown Xing-JFK

I have no other word for Washington Street this afternoon than "orgy". I prefer the sexual to the spending kind, and frankly have more resources when it comes to the former than the latter, but was nonetheless impressed and even blew a small wad (of cash, that is) at Barnes & Nobles and Brattle Books, myself.

The first leg of my journey took me from JFK to Downtown Crossing in a respectable 16 minutes. I waited eight minutes on the platform at JFK, and although the whistle blew to indicate the next inbound train would be coming on the Braintree side, it actually arrived from Ashmont. Man, they are tricky. But the Braintree train pulled in seconds after the Ashmont train had left, so no biggie. The danger in such cases is that the second train will usually putter along at a slower pace so that the the two aren't too close together down the line, but we made good time, and were never stalled on the tracks.

The train was not crowded. There were plenty of empty seats here and there. At Broadway, I think it was, the Strange Little Man got on. There was just something about him that was slightly off. You know the type. Can't put your finger on it, but there's something. He came in the door nearest the section I was in (at the end of the car) and went up to a seat near the very end between two passengers that had a Herald on it and a duffle bag under it, and, frankly, a very scary man in the seat next to it. He looked uncannily like Brendan Gleeson's "Mad-eye Moody" in the latest Harry Potter movie, and was slightly sprawling, so that there really wasn't much of a free seat next to him at all, when you got right down to it. Nonetheless SLM moved to pick up the Herald, and take the seat, at which point Mad-eye snatched the paper and barked, "get the fuck outta here!" His tone was a strange mix of irritation and familiarity. Like he was not surprised that SLM had moved in on him, like, in fact, he'd expected it, like it happened all the time. They seemed, somehow, to be arch-nemeses from time immemorial.

Well, SLM's reaction was to turn on his heel immediately and with admirable precision, and march off to the extreme other end of the car, as far from Mad-eye as possible, to the last available seat, where he sat strangely erect and snapped open a paper, opening it so wide that his arms were fully extended. I felt sorry for SLM, even though I thought he had probably brought it on himself. But then we all make bad decisions on occasion.

I watched him for a moment and then looked over to my left, and across from Mad-eye there were three--count 'em--three!--seats in a row free at the end of the car. Hmm. I almost felt that Mad-eye was justified, then, in a way, for his outburst. I mean, we have all met our own immortal arch-nemesis in some one or other of his or her many incarnations, in the queue at the supermarket, in the car in front or behind us on the freeway, maybe even on the T. Sometimes you're not in the mood for an epic battle with your immortal enemy, and just want to be left alone. You might tell him to fuck off. I mean, I can understand it.

I met my friend Chuck downtown, and we went to the gym together. Afterwards, we headed to the Kendall for a movie. At my suggestion, we went to see Paradise Now, about two Palestinian suicide bombers, one of whom is played by the beautiful, brooding Kais Nashef. He finds his complement in the radiant Lubna Azabel. The bombers themselves and their families are portrayed with a sympathy some might find shocking, but those who arrange the bombings and recruit the martyrs are further from our sympathies. There is something downright Mephistophelian about Amer Hlehel, who informs the two best friends that they have been chosen as martyrs. He is full of slogans about how those who fear death are already dead. When the more earnest and naive of the two, Khaled, played by Ali Suliman, asks Hlehel, who's all business relating the nuts and bolts plan of attack, what happens after they blow themselves up, he stops short of rolling his eyes and snaps, "two angels will pick you up." "Are you sure?" Khaled asks. "Yes," Hlehel replies curtly. Kais Nashef's Said is more complicated, and has mixed motives for his actions, but I will leave it at that. It's worth seeing, anyway.

After the movie, I said goodbye to Chuck and rode the red line back to Downtown Crossing, making good time again. A three minute wait at Kendall, and 7 minutes to Downtown Crossing, where I wanted to do a little shopping, or thought I did. The problem with a movie as enveloping and emotionally affecting as Paradise Now is that it gets you thinking like its protagonists. I am particularly susceptible to certain types of characters, and Kais Nashef's Said was one that for a couple hours after I saw the movie inhabited me. That's the only way I can say it. I don't know if I should admit it, but Matt Damon's Bourne infected me similarly, so that when I left the cinema after seeing The Bourne Supremacy I felt, in an absurd but palpable way, like I was Bourne. It didn't last very long. I was in rural Indiana at the time, and there wasn't much intrigue to exercise my fleeting Bourneness on. But walking through the crowded shopping district I could feel a tinge of Said in me.

I did a little shopping, but by the time I found the book I was searching for, my misanthropy was on its way to a critical mass. So I'm standing in line, and there is a middle-aged woman sort of in line in front of me but sort of standing off to the side. She had three books and was bent over a display inspecting one. I figured she was in line, too. Then another woman comes up and, because we were both sort of to the side, asked me if I was in line. I said, "I am," and asked the woman in front of me if she was, too. "I am now," she said, imperiously. I was like, whatever. I mean, a simple "yes" or "no," sweetheart. I should have said, "well, the end of the line is back there now, honey."

It was definitely time to head back to the old bat cave. I fought my way through the madding crowd (and crowds are just mobs that have yet to be incited, you know), and was whisked back to JFK almost as quick as Dorothy back to Kansas when she clicked her ruby pumps. Three minutes on the platform, eight in transit. Can't beat it.

1 Comments:

At 11/29/2005 4:55 PM, Blogger mmennonno said...

I got upbraided today for what I wrote here about the movie Paradise Now. The main point of contention, and it is a valid one, centered on conflating the character of Said with Jason Bourne in The Bourne Supremacy, which could be seen as both morally repugnant and practically psychotic. All I could say in my defense was this:

In the film, Said is a three-dimensional character. But essentially he is an incarnation of the literary and cinematic "angry young man," an archetype that goes back as far as humanity has been keeping records, but whose incarnations have multiplied in modernity. For me, Said resembles a character from Dostoyevsky, and he is clearly meant to. He is not a religious fanatic. We never witness him in prayer. He never speaks of religion, of God, Heaven, or the virgins that are supposed to meet the martyr there. He is—and is clearly meant to be—intelligible—in his psychology—to a Western—secular—audience.

Now, this is fiction. I don’t know if there is a scrap of reality in this depiction of a Palestinian suicide bomber. On reflection, one would seemingly have to be either a fully indoctrinated religious fanatic or a genuine psychopath to carry out the deed. Said is neither. This may be the gravest sin of the film for those more intimately knowledgeable of the real-life situation over there: that Said’s motives, when articulated, resemble those of “the angry young man,” with whom we naturally sympathize, though we may be horrified by the carnage that results.

When I spoke of walking through the crowd and feeling as though the character was in me, I was not thinking of "Said, the suicide bomber," because the strange triumph of the film, but its most troublesome aspect as well, is that until the very last moment, Said is not the suicide bomber. Said is the Outsider. Just as Bourne was in The Bourne Supremacy, just as Raskolnikov is in Crime and Punishment. It was The Outsider who inhabited me for a short time after seeing the film. I had no visions of doing anyone violence, I simply felt apart from the bustle about me as if viewing it in slow motion on a silent screen. (That may not be all that much more reassuring, but welcome to my world.)

I know it seems as though I'm digging myself a hole with these comparisons, but aside from the specific context of the film, the moral choice faced by Said's character is not uncommon in literature. It is, in fact, a stock of modern narrative. The fact that, after agonizing over what he perceives as his "fate," Said makes the morally repugnant choice is precisely what makes this film tragic. And it is supposed to be tragic. Were his humanity not so fully established, we would feel nothing. The message of the film, however imperfectly it comes across, is that the humanity of these Saids is the last best hope, that if there is still the chance in them for moral deliberation, if there is still the possibility to choose not to go the nihilistic route of suicide bombing, then there is still a conscience, and a hope.

I was flippant, as I said, to mention the charisma of the actors but gloss over what really made their performances powerful.

Part of what makes this a controversial film is, of course, its very timeliness. We have grown rightly cynical about the director as provocateur, who uses a situation of which many have an intimate emotional connection, that stirs passions, to make a trivial point, or worse yet, simply to provoke reaction, to make a name for himself. This film is not quite that. Every step of the way, the narrative takes great pains, while humanizing the characters, to argue against the choice to pursue violence. Though the characters themselves present conflicting views, the director never wavers. The film would be unwatchable otherwise, because we would feel complicit in the crime.

I am well aware of the tricks and tropes employed by directors to manipulate our sympathies—this was another thing I got a good dressing down about. Charismatic actors. Moody music (there is no soundtrack in this film, by the way). A “voice of reason” who stands in as the “moral conscience” of the film. These are all ways that movie makers manipulate us. But none of these tricks are employed by director Hany Abu-Assad for the purpose of praising desperate acts of violence, or those who commit them. Rather, they are employed in an attempt to portray the social attitudes and pressures, the economic circumstances—the whole constellation of relationships, the milieu of desperation and outright nihilism that is exploited by a few politically-minded people who prey on the weak to carry out their agenda.

As I said, I don’t know if someone like Said really exists. Is he a romanticization of something truly and utterly heinous, for which any sympathy is misplaced, wasted? For which a humane portrayal is not merely naïve, but really tantamount to complicity in the evil of the acts such creatures commit? My critic, whom I respect, has lived in Israel, and is unconvinced, I think it’s fair to say, that there is, in reality, any such person as the character of Said, and that the film’s portrayal of such a person is irresponsible, to put it mildly. Not having lived through the constant threat of suicide bombings myself I have to defer to her experience in this.

But somehow, in a broader sense, it seems the nihilism of Said is real, and we should examine it, even at the risk of exposing the humanity of people who commit these inhuman acts.

 

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