Catching up with old friends, even virtually, always fills me up with nostalgia over time passed. We aren’t young guns anymore, starting out in life, thinking we know everything and finding out we know nothing. We’ve been there. We found out we knew nothing. We now know that, at least. We’ve also changed, and nothing accentuates the transformations suffered over the years more than a long talk with an old friend. I used to be kind and patient, he said. Those were the things he praised me for. Kind and patient. I should have seen it as a compliment. Instead, it felt like a slap in the face. I used to be kind and patient, all the good attributes for someone who’s very dim. They are kind because they’re not bitter with the world’s reality. They are patient because they’re not curious and anxious about finding out all the world’s truths. Being kind was something I’ve been striving towards and hearing someone call me that is indeed lovely. But being patient, when I know I’ve just failed being that, feels like a step back, a regression. I wish I could be wise enough to be patient and kind. Instead life has made me angry and hasty. I rush doing things because I feel I am running out of time. I’m in my 30s and people much younger than me have arrived to where they needed and more importantly, wanted to be. Yet I am bargaining with myself as to what it is I need to achieve by this age. Once I’ve passed a certain age, a new bargaining process begins and I am running out of examples of late achievers. Yet, I’m told it’s not a race and slowing down might have its benefits. At the same time, when you’re past your early-twenties, your mid-twenties, heck, even your late-twenties… your excuses are running out. You find out it was a race after all and to quote Pink Floyd “you’ve missed the starting gun.”
Here I am, left with “patient and kind” stapled on my forehead, when I’m anything but. I am looking back at my patient and kind self. Do I want to go back to that or keep running with the angry impatient self I’ve got? Would it make a difference in the… long run?
I feel my heart rate going up. I’m blaming the coffee and unspent energy throughout the day. My smartwatch tells me I’ve only burned 1245 calories today. Only 500 steps and yet I feel exhausted. Outside the window there’s a constant flickering light coming from somewhere undetermined. It looks like an ambulance light, with its amber waves of danger spreading across the neighbourhood. I can’t see the ambulance, just its emanating light, like a bodiless threat, all encompassing. What has happened? Who needs the ambulance and why? The light keeps hitting against the window, as if to awake me from apathy. I’m awake. Are you? What shall we do, now that we’re awake? There is no siren yet, just the sound of traffic. People go about their business, as normal. Is it normal? Will there be a new normal soon or shall we go back to the old normal we’ve known for so long, the normal that led us to this situation?
What situation, do you ask? The one where a divine or maybe not so divine intervention released a new virus into this world. One that can and will mutate. One that’s already wreaked havoc with so many lives. One that was not considered a big deal until quite recently. And yet, panic has now set in throughout the land. Suddenly the siren outside reminds everyone we’re not living in normal times. The heart races even faster. The siren sounds the same as always, yet the wail feels heightened somewhat. Is the army out on the street already? The quiet streets aren’t calm. The siren has stopped, but pulsating light at the window has burst in through the curtains. Here it is dancing on the ceiling and the walls. It reminds me of the apocalyptic fresco one always finds outside orthodox churches.
Is there a silver lining in all this? Maybe, just maybe this imposed or self-imposed quarantine might lead to an assessment to our condition as humans. We’ve been living like gods, superstars. We are all the protagonists of our little daily narratives that unfolds on social media. We live our lives in the limelight now more than ever and we’ve built egos “the size of cathedrals” (to quote the devil in one of my favourite films). The rush of doing things has taken the place of in-depth thinking and self-reflection and, in spite of what some might say, there can never be too much thinking. We are guilty of too much bad thinking, which infringes on our time and simply leaves no room for any positive thinking or self-reflection. Maybe we could find time to do that today. Maybe we could exercise some patience, wisdom and kindness instead of anxiety, anger and fear.
I have never been a fan of Lady Gaga’s music, although I must admit that she is a very talented musician. She is, I believe, one of those rare artists who, despite having recycled various images from various other outrageous pop and rock stars (Madonna, Marilyn Manson), is writing her own material instead of having an army of producers behind her success, which I respect.
Lady Gaga has been recently quoted as having said that she wanted to be an actress first and singer second. Although I am more than slightly envious of her talent as a singer, I must say she has convinced me much more with her abilities as an actress. Her choice of feature debut is an appropriate one, which has given her room to showcase her talent as a musical performer, with the added bonus of stripping away all the Lady Gaga layers and artifices that her ‘little monsters’ are so used to. She is laid bare in front of us and what we see is genuine and genuinely moving.
A Star is Born is in its fourth incarnation and probably its most visceral since that hair-raising dressing room speech in the 1954 version. The film, directed beautifully by Bradley Cooper in what is surprisingly his directorial debut, follows the well-known Star is Born narrative (legend has it that it was inspired by real life marriage between Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay): established star has a drinking problem and he’s on a downward trajectory when he meets aspiring star who turns out to be his soulmate.
Lady Gaga plays Ally, the aspiring star in a way that makes you forget she’s the super mega pop star half the planet idolises. She is convincing as an insecure singer-songwriter who, despite dreaming big, won’t sing her own songs and thinks her nose is too large. When country singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) meets her at the drag queen show, she is performing La Vie en Rose, a homage to the great French singer Edith Piaf. Only after spending some time with him does she confide in him and sing one of her own compositions, in what may be one of the most romantic scenes ever to take place in a parking lot.
The romance is tumultuous, marred by drunken stumblings that translate into full on arguments, but ultimately the love between the two rises above Jackson Maine’s inner demons, at least for long enough for the two to marry. Ally becomes the successful singer Jackson had predicted she would become, soon carving a name for herself, independent from that of her husband. It’s important here to highlight that the musician Ally aspires to be and ultimately becomes is a very different one from who Lady Gaga is as a musician. Unlike Lady Gaga, Ally is shy, less ambitious and has to be convinced to believe in her own values as an artist, which is why Jackson’s role as mentor is all the more important.
The narrative isn’t forced, despite playing slightly like a Cinderella story. It has enough humour, heartbreak and naturalness to pull the “this could never happen” element off. My only criticism is the added element of Ally’s manufactured star persona. The film hints slightly at her having sold her artistic integrity for fame when it shows us an orange haired Ally performing an R&B style song, half naked on SNL, but doesn’t follow that idea up any further. I believe the story was already rich enough without suggesting that Ally’s star image wasn’t what she wanted, but what was imposed on her from a manager with dubious intentions. At the same time, one might argue that without Jackson’s guidance, she wouldn’t be strong enough to stand up for herself and the type of music she wants to make.
I shall not spoil the film for the 1 or 2 people who aren’t familiar with the narrative, but it’s a rollercoaster of emotion, harmoniously performed, directed and shot. No wonder Lady Gaga found it so hard to shake the character off at the end of the day. As an added bonus, Sam Elliot’s in it.
For those needing proof that Buster Keaton had genius running through his veins, that he wasn’t just a comedian “in slapshoes and flat hat”, go watch Sherlock Jr.(1924). Most of his 1920s films are exquisite and worthy of praise. Orson Welles considered The General to be the greatest Civil War movie ever made (and Buster himself as one of the most beautiful people to ever be photographed). For me, Sherlock Jr. eclipses his other masterpieces (yes, even The General), due to its perfect harmony of playfulness, tragedy, comedy, absurd and a form of self-mocking misery that, unlike Chaplin’s, makes no excuses and asks for no lenience.
As exquisitely technical and historically accurate as The General is, as humorously sweet and cleverly directed Our Hospitality is, I find Sherlock Jr to be Buster Keaton’s most accomplished work. We are accustomed to his work ethic, where nothing is left to chance, where the gags are so elaborate and hilarious that you find yourself half laughing half gasping in awe. We know all that. His independent work of the 1920s was exquisite. Yes, even College and Spite Marriage.
What separates Buster Keaton for me from the likes of Chaplin and Lloyd transcends mere slapstick. It is Bunuel-like surrealism, a multi-layered vision and an understanding of the cinematic medium light years ahead of his peers through which Keaton was able to bend time, space and matter. Keaton started flexing his whimsical muscles with The Playhouse, during which he was unable to perform his usual gravity-defying stunts due to an ankle injury. He perfected his dream-within-a-dream, rule-reshuffling universe with Sherlock Jr., a masterpiece which served as inspiration for the likes of Woody Allen and John McTiernan, to name a few.
With Sherlock Jr. he took the classic detective story, cut it into little pieces, jumbled them all up then pasted it all together. The result is 44 minutes of cinematic perfection. Scenes of gorgeous romantic yet electrifying sensibility - check! Heartbreaking scenes caused by miscommunication and injustice - check! Action packed scenes - checked! Absurd scenes in which we doubt not only what we are seeing but also the reality of our own lives, Matrix-style - check! check!
The only way to appreciate the eccentricity of such a film like Sherlock Jr is to watch it with the Club Foot Orchestra score. Controversial as it may be, I really loved the Club Foot Orchestra score for Sherlock Jr. Eerie yet playful, zany yet sensual, minimalist yet sophisticated, just like the man, just like the man’s work. Music is especially important for a silent film and I feel that the Club Foot Orchestra managed to capture the energy, innovation of the film as well as romantic quirkiness of Buster’s character. Special mentions of the pool table scene and the chase sequences. The music for the pool table scene, which was meticulously arranged, perfectly illustrates the difficulty with which the actual scene was shot (it took Buster a week to get all the perfect pool shots – there was no fakery involved). The music for the chase sequences are a blend of Mr. Bean and James Bond, which, I believe, perfectly encapsulate our hero’s nature: suave yet childish, sexy yet naïve, boyish and manly all at the same time. Buster would have appreciated the experimental nature of this original score, given that he worked for originality and innovation all his life.