Cashback — Boredom, Sexuality, and Beauty

Cashback Movie PosterFilm:

Cashback, 2006

Starring Sean Biggerstaff and Emilia Fox.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

When art student Ben Willis dumps his girlfriend Suzy, he develops insomnia after finding out how quickly she moved on. To pass the long hours of the night, he starts working the late night shift at the local supermarket. There he meets a colorful cast of characters, all of whom have their own ‘art’ in dealing with the boredom of an eight-hour-shift. Ben’s art is that he imagines himself stopping time. This way, he can appreciate the artistic beauty of the frozen world and the people inside it – especially Sharon, the quiet checkout girl, who perhaps holds the answer to solving the problem of Ben’s insomnia.

My Thoughts:

I subscribe to NetFlix instant and it is through their recommendation that I happened upon this quirky, independent British film.  It reminded me that despite how sexualized American culture is/may seem, we do have puritan roots compared to Europe.  This film is filled with nudity of all kinds, some that would make an American film NC-17.  At first it shocked me a little, but I do think that it served a purpose, as well as could provoke a discussion that perhaps the religious and secular shy away from, and I will delve into that more later. I just wanted to be upfront about the content of this movie since I’ve noticed the promotional materials geared to Americans tend to neglect it (I was surprised myself).

This film started as an 18 minute short film.  Due to it’s critical acclaim and Oscar nod, the writer and director, Sean Ellis, turned it into a full length movie.  This film is an exploration of how the main character, Ben Willis, views the world.  Because he is an insomniac and an artist the whole quality of the film is dreamlike.  It’s actually quite beautiful and some of the shots really capture the art of film, as opposed to just its story telling ability.

In fact, beauty is a central theme of the entire film.  Ben Willis is attending art school in the hopes of becoming a painter.  It is clear that he is enamored with the female form and women are his muse.

Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it ~ Confucius

There is a real juxtaposition between his wonderment, how he revers women and the beauty of their bodies, and how the rest of the males in the film do.  His male coworkers are juvenile and look at porn and hire strippers.  In return they do not get very far in relationships, since the women can see the vileness and crassness they exhibit.

Ben, on the other hand, is different.  In the film he has the ability to stop time, something I have always wanted.  It is his way of dealing with boredom and monotony.  At first, when he does so, he looks at all the women.  He undresses them.  This is a really challenging part of the film for me, being a woman and thinking about how unwillingly exposed I would be in that situation, completely unaware of what Ben was doing.  However, I think it is a true metaphor for what men (and women!) do to each other in our vain imagination.  How frequently have people talked of “undressing with the eyes”?

ALAS! ALAS! O LOVERS OF WORLDLY DESIRE! Even as the swiftness of lightning ye have passed by the Beloved One, and have set your hearts on satanic fancies. Ye bow the knee before your vain imagining, and call it truth. Ye turn your eyes towards the thorn, and name it a flower. Not a pure breath have ye breathed, nor hath the breeze of detachment been wafted from the meadows of your hearts. Ye have cast to the winds the loving counsels of the Beloved and have effaced them utterly from the tablet of your hearts, and even as the beasts of the field, ye move and have your being within the pastures of desire and passion. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

I think Ben’s undressing though is less sexual, and more focused on the Eve-like true beauty of women (at least I hope so 🙂 ).  Ben was sexualized at a young age when he and his best friend found his father’s stash of dirty magazines.  Through the film it is clear how much of an effect that had on both him and his best friend (who pays for strippers and chases women to no avail).  I think this also speaks to the taboo on discussing sexual topics, since these children discovered all this on their own, without any parental guidance.  These topics are hard to talk about, especially in religious households that value chastity, but not talking about it does not mean that children will not be exposed.  I do not have an answer as to what is the best thing to do, but I do think “ostrich syndrome” doesn’t help.

Speaking of chastity, Ben’s budding relationship with Sharon, and his fascination with her is incredibly chaste in comparison.  All his drawings of her are of her face and eyes, and he sees her beauty through her expressions, her dreams, and her inherent nobility.  She is different than the other hooligans working the night shift.  She is learning Spanish and wants to travel the world.  He respects her and is enamored by her, and when is given the opportunity to kiss her merely pecks her on the cheek.  It is their first kiss (again pretty chaste, not the tongue filled make out kisses we are used to in Hollywood) that breaks the spell of his insomnia.

For when the true lover and devoted friend reacheth to the presence of the Beloved, the sparkling beauty of the Loved One and the fire of the lover’s heart will kindle a blaze and burn away all veils and wrappings. ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Unfortunately when Ben takes Sharon to a party, his ex is there.  She corners him and kisses him, and Sharon sees, though she turns to run before seeing him pushing his ex away and rejecting him.  Ben pauses time, but he cannot rewind it.  He knows the hurt he has caused and wants to stay in this moment as long as he can before Sharon runs away and cries.  He knows how important trustworthiness, fidelity, and respect are and in that moment he lost them.

The ending is beautiful, and while I have already given so much away, I will save that.  If you end up watching the film, Ben’s character shines through with his consideration, fortitude, and love in the final scenes.

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within. ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Your thoughts?



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The Visitor — Unity amid Diversity

Film:The Visitor Movie Poster

The Visitor, 2007

Starring Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman, Danai Jekesai Gurira, and Hiam Abbass.

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

Widowed professor Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins, in an Oscar-nominated role) discovers an immigrant couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), squatting in his Manhattan flat and becomes wrapped up in their lives when Tarek is thrown into a detention center. A wonderful Hiam Abbass co-stars as Tarek’s mother, who forges an unlikely connection with Walter. Director Thomas McCarthy’s indie drama was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards.

My Thoughts (warning… after paragraph one there be spoilers):

First of all, wow.  When I finished watching this movie I wanted to run and hug every member of my family.  Unfortunately nobody was home.  This movie does not sugar coat.  I would still call it a “feel good” movie, despite it’s painfully realistic ending, and highly recommend it to all who have not seen it.  It is an example of when art can transcend and speak to the soul, at least for me.  And with that, onto the content and discussion.

The film opens with scenes from Walter’s (Richard Jenkins) life.  It becomes pretty clear early on that he is a sad and isolated person, a widower who has not gotten over his wife’s death and has been living much of his life on auto-pilot.  I think this can happen to a lot of us, especially in grief.  Depression runs rampant in America as we all struggle to connect, to find our place and purpose in life.  It can be overwhelming to feel so alone.

He strives to learn the piano, which we discover later was his late wife’s instrument.  Music is his way of reaching out and trying to stay connected, and when he fails to perfect the piano his hope seems lost.  People often talk about the power of music, and it is true that it can uplift us.

We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high…  ~Bahá’u’lláh

The trajectory of his life changes as he is forced to go to New York for a conference.  It turns out Walter has kept an apartment there.  Presumably it is where he and his wife used to live, so he cannot bear to part with it but also has not lived there in a while due to the memories.  When he arrives he discovers a couple living there, unaware that he owned the place.  Zainab, from Senegal, and Tarik, from Syria, are a French speaking, Muslim couple who happen to also be illegal immigrants.

Walter initially kicks them out, but his heart warms when he realizes they have no place to go, so he allows them to stay.  Perhaps it was compassion, perhaps it was curiosity, or perhaps it was his soul crying out to end his lonliness.  This choice turns out to change his life, or rather to reawaken him.

I would like to pause here and talk about how amazing this premise is.  It really brings me hope.  Here are people from three continents, working and living together, to break through cultural barriers to learn about one another and the grow and share.  I find that absolutely beautiful.  New York City has often been described as the capital of the world, and the most diverse place on earth, but I think that all throughout the world more mixing is taking place.  Just look at the President of the United States.  Barack Obama is not just the first Black US President, but he is the first mixed-race US President, with a family that spans from Kansas, to Hawaii, to Kenya, and Indonesia.

Tarik takes the time to show Walter how to drum.  Tarik has taken an African drum and Middle Eastern musical influences and brought them together with jazz into a band.  He shows Walter this style, and slowly but surely coaxes him through it.  Walter loves it.  He may not be able to connect to the piano the way his wife had, but he can drum and through the music a smile is brought back to his face, and courage to his heart.

Unfortunately, after Tarik took Walter to a drum circle in Washington Park, he was stopped in the Subway and taken into custody for being Syrian.  Tarik was sent to a detention center waiting deportation.  Neither Zainab nor Tarik’s mother Moona could visit because their status was also in jeopardy. Walter takes it on as his duty to visit Tarik, being the only one who can.  Tarik opened his heart to Walter and shared his music, and Walter wanted to show love in return.

This is where the movie gets pretty sad.  Despite Tarik having applied for asylum due to persecution, it was not granted.  Everyone had to wait, and despite lawyers and appeals, it was to no avail: Tarik was deported.  Walter, however, was changed, and the film ends with him performing the drums in the subway, the way Tarik wished he had been able to do.

This film really plays with the notions of citizenship and of justice.  In this global world people strive to make new homes in new places.  Immigration is a controversial issue in America, and land born of immigrants.  If there were not global inequalities and injustices people would not become desparate enough to leave their home and family to come to NYC.  Walter had been a professor of Economics, studying Development in Third-World/non-Western/Developing countries, yet he had no solution.  This is more than just an economic, but a spiritual issue.

It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth  is but one country, and mankind its citizens.  ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Or as The Bible put it in Leviticus, and reaffirmed by Jesus Christ in Matthew:

Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

In this modern world, with global travel and the internet, everyone has become our neighbors.  We may not be able to solve the large problems, after all the security became tight in response to terrorism, but we can work on the small ones.  Tarik did by helping Walter through a difficult time, and through showing love and compassion.  Walter did the same by trying his best to support Tarik, even if all he could do was visit.

There are small things we can all do, whether it is visiting a neighbor, or trying to learn more about other cultures and peoples, that can help the world through this time of transition.  We are no longer tribes, or even countries, but the world as one, and this film tried to wrestle with a topic we are all wrestling with in one way or another.

Your thoughts?


MirrorMask — Our Dual Nature

Film:MirrorMask Poster

MirrorMask, 2005

Starring Stephanie Leonidas and Jason Barry


Synopsis (from IMDB):

Helena, a 15-year-old girl in a family of circus entertainers, often wishes she could run off and join real life. After a fight with her parents about her future plans, her mother falls quite ill and Helena is convinced that it is all her fault. On the eve of her mother’s major surgery, she dreams that she is in a strange world with two opposing queens, bizarre creatures, and masked inhabitants. All is not well in this new world – the white queen has fallen ill and can only be restored by the MirrorMask, and it’s up to Helena to find it. But as her adventures continue, she begins to wonder whether she’s in a dream, or something far more sinister.

My Thoughts:

In the same tradition as Labyrinth or The Neverending Story, this film follows a girl who’s imagination takes her into a fantasy world.  This world is dark and visually stunning, and the the film is bursting with artistic creativity.

The film opens with one white and one black puppet, which turn out to be the girls socked feet.  This theme of black and white, of dark and light, of the good and bad within everyone is explored throughout the film, and merely foreshadowed here.  It is this theme that I would also like to explore throughout this post.

After the puppet show we have the inciting incident, an argument between Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) and her mother (Gina McKee) over growing up and the world of circus life.  Shortly afterwords Helena’s mother is hospitalized and Helena blames herself wishing she had not been so mean.  This incident is processed through Helena’s imagination as we take a journey with her to an alternate world created by her drawings and dreams.

On this journey she soon meets a juggler (Jason Barry):

Valentine: What did you say your name was?
Helena: Helena.
Valentine: Helena. Helen. Helen-nun-nuh… it’s a bit drab, isn’t it? You know, you should think about changing that. Go for something with a bit of dignity and style, mixed with a bit of romance. Something like… ‘Valentine’.
Helena: Why? What’s your name?
Valentine: Valentine.

Valentine proves to be a friend and ally as they journey together to fight the shadow enveloping this fantasy land.  They soon discover the White Queen is asleep and the Black Queen (both played by the actress who plays Helena’s “real” mother) is mourning her lost daughter, the Anti-Helena,  causing the balance to be upset.  These are two aspects of her mother, and two aspects of herself, and we soon discover two aspects of Valentine when he sells her out to the Black Queen for reward money.

In man there are two natures; his spiritual or higher nature and his material or lower nature. In one he approaches God, in the other he lives for the world alone. Signs of both these natures are to be found in men. In his material aspect he expresses untruth, cruelty and injustice; all these are the outcome of his lower nature. The attributes of his Divine nature are shown forth in love, mercy, kindness, truth and justice, one and all being expressions of his higher nature. Every good habit, every noble quality belongs to man’s spiritual nature, whereas all his imperfections and sinful actions are born of his material nature. If a man’s Divine nature dominates his human nature, we have a saint.

~ `Abdu’l-Bahá

Valentine redeems himself and helps rescue Helena, but they fear it is too late, that she may be trapped in this world because the escaped Anti-Helena is quickly tearing down the drawings and burning them.  In the end she makes it back, more aware of the bad behavior in her, and the importance of both forgiveness and apology.   This story is one of growth, and reflection.  We all have masks but what we need are mirrors, mirrors that can help us see how our thoughts and actions effect other people and have consequences.  Helena learns this, and cultivates the virtues of forgiveness and responsibility along the way, and grows to be a better person.

“To err is human, to forgive divine.”
Alexander Pope

Your thoughts?

Slumdog Millionaire — Love Overcomes Adversity

Film:

Slumdog Millionaire, 2008

Starring Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, and Frieda Pinto

Synopsis (from Fox Searchlight Pictures):

The story of Jamal Malik (Patel), an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, who is about to experience the biggest day of his life. With the whole nation watching, he is just one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees on India’s “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” But when the show breaks for the night, police arrest him on suspicion of cheating; how could a street kid know so much? Desperate to prove his innocence, Jamal tells the story of his life in the slum where he and his brother grew up, of their adventures together on the road, of vicious encounters with local gangs, and of Latika (Pinto), the girl he loved and lost. Each chapter of his story reveals the key to the answer to one of the game show’s questions. Each chapter of Jamal’s increasingly layered story reveals where he learned the answers to the show’s seemingly impossible quizzes. But one question remains a mystery: what is this young man with no apparent desire for riches really doing on the game show? When the new day dawns and Jamal returns to answer the final question, the Inspector and sixty million viewers are about to find out. At the heart of its exuberant storytelling lies the intriguing question of how anyone comes to know the things they know about life and love.

My Thoughts (SPOILERS!):

My first thought is this- if you haven’t seen this movie, do it, now.  It is worth driving an hour to the nearest big city and going to an art-house theater, trust me.  Also if you haven’t seen this movie, I warn you, this post may have spoilers.  That being said if you want to continue reading I would be thrilled.

Now, onto the film.  There are many spiritual themes in the movie, including love, destiny, and the need for the elimnation of poverty.  The film focuses on the life of Jamal, a Muslim who grew up in the slums of Mumbai (may the city be in our thoughts and prayers due to the recent terrorism there).  We learn of his story through his participation in a game show, and how the answers to the questions relate to periods throughout his life.  Early on the film sets up the two major characters in Jamal’s life – his brother Salim, and his love Latika.

It is clear that he and his brother are tied together, two side of the same coin.  Their teacher refers to them as “Athos” and “Porthos”, two of the three musketeers, that is how close they are.  But, for how close they are they have radically different characters.  Jamal is younger, more idealistic, hopeful, as well as pure, whereas Salim is older, an inherent schemer and survivor.

Early on we see their characters diverge when Salim locks Jamal in the outhouse for taking too long and costing Salim a customer.  The biggest moviestar in India was landing in his private helicopter and Jamal is determined to see him, so he plunges through the hole to the vile muck below in order to escape.  Covered in human waste he rushes to the crowd and his commitment is rewarded with an autograph.  Jamal is ecstatic, but only briefly because Salim ends up stealing the prized signed photo and selling it for a buck. Devastated Jamal pleads to his mother, but there is nothing that can be done except to forgive his brother.

“Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.”  ~Bahá’u’lláh

Their dependence on one another is solidified when acts of violence erupt in their slum as radical Hindus attack them for being Muslims and their mother is killed in the fray. This moment is incredibly sad, and more so when one thinks of all the unnecessary strife between people of different faiths when each religion holds similar principles such as the sanctity of human life and the golden rule.  So often in the United States, especially post-9/11 we are shown the violence caused by radical Muslims, but I think this scene is incredibly important in showing that Muslims too can be victims of violence and persecution.  If only we could all take to heart that:

“The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God’s holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife.” ~Bahá’u’lláh

Looking back at Jamal and Salim, the now orphaned brothers, only about 7 and 9 must depend on one another.  Salim, being the older brother, makes it clear that he must now be the leader and provider of the family.  To do this he must make the hard choices in order to protect Jamal.  This adds more depth to his character.  Now it is as if his sins are a way to keep Jamal pure, protecting him from having to make the morally ambiguous decision.

Enter Latika.  An orphan, like the boys, we first meet her standing in the rain.  The boys have found shelter, and Jamal wants to let her share, but Salim vetoes.  Again we see Jamal’s purity and inherent “goodness” and Salim’s view that survival means looking out for themselves.  In the end Latika is invited in when Salim is sleeping, and her friendship with Jamal is solidified.

The three frequent dumps where they can find scraps of food as well as rubbish to clean up and sell.  It is here that they are discovered by a man who runs an orphanage.  At first he seems like a savior, providing them food to eat, shelter, a place to sleep, and other kids to learn and play with.  However, it becomes clear there is a dark side to this seeming utopia as the kids are taught how to be more effective beggers through learning songs and holding babies.

Here it becomes even more evident that the extremes of wealth and poverty need to be eliminated, because these children have fallen through society’s cracks and are now being taken advantage of because they have no other options.  It is sad that so close there are wealthy neighborhoods where the crime bosses and moviestars live.

Salim who is obstinate and strong becomes the right-hand-child to the bosses, acting as a bouncer of sorts and keeping the other kids in line.  His ego is puffed up and he treats the other kids roughly, but all this changes when he is given an assignment, to bring a fellow orphan to the bosses.  The orphan sings a song he has been taught very well and is praised for it.  The boss says he is ready, and then chloroforms him, and proceeds to blind the child with a hot spoon.  This is because singing blind children make more money begging.  Salim wretches, unbelieving that these men would take away a child’s sight to make some extra money.  Even that is a line he can’t cross morally.

Then he is told to bring Jamal over.  He plays along, but his protection instincts are fully alerted.  He does not want Jamal to suffer the same fate, and so when the time comes to chloroform Jamal, Salim instead throws the bottle in the face of the man, grabs Jamal’s hand and runs.  Latika, watching from the bushes, runs with them.  They know they must escape or they will be beaten and probably blinded.

Soon the kidnappers catch up to them as the children are about to board a train.  Salim makes it up first, and pulls up Jamal.  Then it is Latika’s turn, but as Salim holds her he lets go.  Jamal is appalled, but Salim claimed it was Latika who let go and that she is strong and can fend for herself.  However, this is another instance where for Salim protecting himself and his brother is more important than anything else.  For him Latika was a sacrifice, a way of slowing down their pursuers.

The boys then spend the time on trains selling odd things, and stealing from passengers out of desperation.  Eventually they make it to the Taj Mahal where they realize they can make a lot of money out of gullible tourists who also have much guilt for not being able to help end the poverty they see all around them.  Yet another instance of how these extremes of wealth and poverty cause disunity, as the impoverished are so desperate and in need that they thieve and deceive the wealthy, foreign tourists, probably leaving them with a dislike of India as a whole.

Though out time Jamal convinces Salim to return to their native Mumbai and to get legitimate jobs at a restaurant and to look for Latika.  Salim makes it clear that he is placating Jamal, and that he likes this life they now have, preying on tourists.  He also reminds Jamal that of a city with tens of millions of people he is not likely to find Latika.  Again the character traits of idealism and hope on the one-hand, and cynical survivalism show through in these brothers.

Jamal runs into the blinded friend on the street singing, and gives him a US$100 bill he had stolen from a tourist at the Taj Mahal that he had been saving- partially out of penance, and partially to find information about Latika.  The blind boy tells him she is in the redlight district and goes by the name of Cherry.  Jamal is ecstatic and goes to tell Salim.

Together they go, and find her, about to have her virginity taken for a high price by an old man, and the Orphanage Boss is clearly now her pimp.  In order to save her, Salim brandishes a gun and kills the boss-man to the shock of all involved.  It is clear there is no going back.  The three “musketeers” reunited seek shelter in an abandoned hotel, where Latika tells Jamal she knew he would come back and save her.  Unfortunately Salim, drunk, and clearly destroyed from having killed for the first time, kicks Jamal out of the room and makes it clear that because he saved their lives and saved Latika from prostitution he deserved her virginity. Salim’s moral compass has now completely dissolved as he broke his brother’s heart and violated the girl he claimed to have saved.

When Jamal returns Latika and Salim are nowhere to be found.  Years pass and he is alone.  He makes his way in the world legitimately first in the restaurant, but finally as an assistant at a Phone Company.  It is here that he rediscovers his brother by finding his phone number in the directory.  He had first tried Latika but did not know her last name so she was impossible to find.

His brother is thrilled to take the call and sets up a time to meet.  Unlike Jamal, he has not gone the legitimate route.  He is now a thug for the biggest mob-boss, who he sought protection from for killing the smaller orphanage running crime-lord.  Jamal imagines throwing his brother off the building, and ends up punching him, the most violent action he has taken thus far.  His brother pleads for forgiveness and claims that he didn’t mean to abandon him but that he and Latika had to flee because the security guard for the hotel had come.  Jamal is still skeptical.  He asks about Latika, and his brother says to forget about her, that she is the property of the mob-boss now.

Jamal finds her anyway, posing as a dishwasher, and convinces Latika to run away with him.  However, their attempt is unsuccessful and she is recaptured and cut with a knife as punishment.  Jamal is devastated that he harmed Latika and when he finds that the mob-boss has moved fears he will never see her again.  That is why he sought out to be on “Who wants to be a Millionaire?” because he prayed she would be watching and that they would find each other again, even if he didn’t win the money (but if he did, he would use it to help her escape and provide a good life for her).

Unfortunately, because he was an uneducated slumdog, the producers of the show thought he must be cheating.  This is where the movie began, with him being tortured into telling them how, and it is where we are at the end, feeling bad for our honest hero who just happened to know the answers claiming it must be destiny.  Despite all the adversity he stuck to the truth, even if it meant a lot of torture.  However the thugs could see that he was being honest and convinced the producer to hear out his explanation before judging.

In the end our hero’s virtue is rewarded and he is reunited with Latika as well as won the $20 million, but not without the help and sacrifice of his brother.  Salim, upon seeing his brother on TV and seeing Latika’s hope, gives her his cell phone and helps her escape.  She wants him to come with her, but he refuses saying he will stay behind and stall.  He then takes all of the mob-bosses money and a gun, and fills the bathtub with it and hides out there.  When the boss discovers that Latika is missing he knows Salim is to blame and bursts into the bathroom which Salim had barricaded.  Salim procedes to shoot and kill him, but the Boss’s other goons kill him and as he bleeds he turns the cash into literal blood-money.  It is clear that this is both Salim’s last attempt to protect his brother, and his attempt at redemption to allow Latika and Jamal the happiness they deserve, and to make up for his betrayal of them both earlier in the film.

Jamal and Latika are unaware of this, and are reunited when Jamal uses his “Call a Friend” lifeline and calls Salim’s number, the only one he knows, and Latika is the one with the phone.  She desperately gets to the phone just in time but is of no help since she doesn’t know the answer.  It doesn’t matter though, because he has found her, and he puts it in fates hands as 60 million fellow Indians watch, hoping to see this literaly rags to riches story pan out.

It does, and the film ends with Latika and Jamal embracing at the train station, and then a Bollywood style dance number over the credits.

This film was incredibly heart-warming, and I could barely touch on all the spiritually potent content there was packed into the beautiful film full of hope, tragedy, and redemption.

Your thoughts?