film


My friend Caroline was asking me, “Do you have any pleasure or joy right now? You must have pleasure or joy in something, even if it’s only smoking.”

And I couldn’t think of anything. It’s not true, of course: the other day I went on a walk to the park with a friend and had a wonderful time. Smoking isn’t really a pleasure right now – more like, for the first time, a tic – and food isn’t that awesome when your stomach has been clenched into a knot for a month, but there are moments, tiny little flashes of a once and future life where the day-to-day is not measured in degrees of intolerable. I acknowledge that. But the best thing I could come up with to tell Caroline was, “Well, sometimes I feel satisfaction in how I’m handling things.”

There have been many of those moments. There have been times, not infrequently of late, when I wanted to lash out at K., to recriminate, to say something demonstrating how wrong he is. The most obvious example is when I snooped in his text messages and found several to that coworker that I had talked to him about, the one whose relationship with him seemed too intimate and too flirtatious, the one whose sublet he took when she went away for the holidays and he moved out. My gut had been telling me that there was something up. He’d been denying it. So between Christmas and New Year’s, when my father-in-law was staying here to help out, K. left his phone and I read his texts.

There was one in particular that made the bottom of my stomach plummet. It was dated three days after he moved out, and it read, “All is well. I found Salinger nestled among your pillows. I wish I’d found you.”

Circumstantial evidence, to be sure. And also none of my business, as well. But it seemed to confirm what I had suspected. My FIL, Mark, was crushed. He closed his eyes and said, “That’s despicable,” and “I was really hoping that wasn’t part of the picture.” And those observations pretty much reflected my feelings. I mean, you don’t text your coworker that you wish you’d found her in bed with you unless…well, unless there’s a mutual understanding that that would not be undesirable. Do you? And there were others… “miss you J.” and references to her return.

(I know, I know, hypomania blah blah. I do have to say that as unlike him as it would be to make that kind of radical, swooping faux pas in the context of no relationship with this person, it’s always possible.)

(Naturally, I don’t want to use her real name, even though it’s a common one. It’s my practice to use pseudonyms for anonymity, but I try to find ones that replicate the feel and origin of the originals. Her name is a Biblical name, Hebrew in origin, so let’s call her “Jezebel” here. It’s close enough.)

Anyway, he was coming to get his phone and his laundry (which I’d finished) the next day, and I was going to ask him for his key back and tell him, “You know that reunion you’re looking forward to with Jezebel? When you’re with her, think of these children. Think of how they cry every night because you’re not here. Think of them waking up and screaming an alarm scream and looking for you while you’re fucking her.”

Because I was hurt. And because it seemed to reflect on the reasons for his leaving; suddenly he hadn’t just left because he’d freaked out and been unable to deal with his kids and with me, and he hadn’t just left because he had lost faith in our marriage, or because he no longer felt it was worthwhile to keep the promises he’d made, but because he explicitly wanted to break those promises with a coworker he’d been spending more time having fun with than he’d spent with me.

But I didn’t say that. When he eventually came, I sat him down and told him what I knew and told him that I still believed in him and his love for us and in our family and that I was asking him to consider, truly consider, coming back.

He said, “Can I have my phone back?”

It hurt. But it also felt good. Because instead of lashing out as I’d wanted to (and as another friend had confirmed he completely deserved), I’d represented the reality of a family that loved and missed him. Even though it fell on deaf ears.

You know that scene in the movie The Mission where Jeremy Irons (the christlike monk) tells Robert DeNiro (the vengeful monk) that, “If might makes right, then love has no place in this world,”? And then promptly gets shot?

This is like that.

Sometimes it feels awesome. Sometimes you know you’re taking the high road and it is so clearly, obviously better. I mean, Robert DeNiro’s character wants to take up arms and kill people. He’s compromising who he is. He’s tarnished and petty and taking a horribly wrong step toward vengeance.

And what happens in the movie?

They both get shot.

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I probably would have posted this earlier in the week, but I’ve been trying to sublimate the dread I have for Thanksgiving. You could say I’m a party pooper, and you’d be right, but I have no use whatsoever for Thanksgiving, except perhaps as an exercise in self-flagellation.

Anyone with an interest in American history can tell you that the Native Americans have gotten a pretty shitty deal. I was reminded of this recently, when my husband forced me to watch the heinous Colin Farrell-mobile The New World, in which scores of sweaty, grimy colonialist goons exemplify the ethos of the title, i.e. that This World is New Because We Didn’t Know About it Before, in a plodding celebration of the white man’s mental limitations. Not even the presence of the talented Christian Bale, here totally emasculated by a role that shows him slavishly lapping up Farrell’s leavings (in the person of Jewel’s Peruvian cousin), can redeem more than two hours of this kind of self-congratulatory drivel. But I digress. This movie is only relevant to Thanksgiving in the sense that it gives a pretty accurate idea of what Thanksgiving celebrates, which is that Europeans came to America and fucked it up and the inhabitants saved their asses anyway with a gift of corn and beans before being rounded up and herded off to Oklahoma.

Are you hungry yet?

So anyway, somehow Thanksgiving just doesn’t give me the urge to stuff myself full of massive quantities of stuffed bird swimming in greasy gravy filled with giblets, and since I spent eighteen years as a vegetarian before succumbing to the lure of foie gras on the Ile St.-Louis one spring afternoon, I don’t fully understand what giblets are, anyway. I think they come in a clammy, string-wrapped bag. I suspect them of being gristly. Or maybe just gummy. I must admit I’m not quite comfortable with them. I have no quarrel with giblets, but they should keep to their own.

My personal history with Thanksgiving doesn’t help this aversion. Since my parents’ divorce when I was in middle school, all holidays involved splitting the day in half; a noonday meal at Dad’s followed by a chilly trek down to the 54 bus, which was running on “holiday” schedule and inevitably made me wait an hour, followed by a grimy ride with an assortment of bums, crazy ladies, and other odorous folk reduced to bus-riding as a survival tactic, followed by having to shove down a second holiday dinner at Mom’s. Of course, not eating was not an option either place; Dad is, of course, Chinese and would have found it massively insulting had I not eaten Herculean quantities of his over-salted meal, whereas Mom, occupying second tier as usual, might have felt slighted had I not done her undercooked Brussels sprouts justice (and for added guilt, it was usually her birthday).

So having to convincingly dig in to two Thanksgiving dinners is probably enough to give any adolescent a dislike of the process, but there’s another piece to the puzzle: the hereditary eating disorder. Those who have experienced this know what a scourge it is and how difficult it is to escape: you spend your early childhood watching your mom act out her bizarre relationship to the refrigerator, sometimes even implicating you in it (in my case, her refrain was, “Oh, Honey, why did you make me eat so much?” — as if a six-year-old could make a thirty-five-year-old consume an entire half cheesecake). You watch your mother glance in mirrors and moan about how fat she is, and when you hit puberty you decide that that’s what womanhood is, it’s a cycle of self-loathing and guilt-mongering, and you also become convinced that you are fat, so fat that it’s repulsive to even look at you. Even if you are 5’4″ and weigh 86 lb., because (thank God) you take after your dad’s side of the family. Even if the other half of your heritage involves competitive speed-eating. With chopsticks.

So that was my Thanksgiving: two dinners, lots of guilt, the trauma of the parental schism reenacted viciously (he wouldn’t so much as give us a ride in her direction, she couldn’t mention him without tearing up). And then there was my sister.

I’ve written about my sister in these pages before, and I think it’s only fair to get a third party description of her, um, unique character. So I’ll give you my dear friend Grant’s assessment, in the context of a conversation we had some years ago. I had apparently told him about something my sister planned to do that, to me with my skewed vision of reality, didn’t seem that outlandish, and he responded,

“Yeah, but your sister is ka-RAZY.

Out of the spirit of generosity, I should say that in this case, we can lay the blame for my sister’s insanity directly at my parents’ door. Not only did they pass on the twin streams of Chinese eating duty and hereditary Body Dysmorphic Disorder, but sis was a little younger than I when the Iron Curtain of Hatred fell down between our parents, so maybe it wormed its way deeper into her subconscious. By the time she was fourteen, she was subsisting on a diet of water and lettuce. Every three weeks she’d indulge on a Roman scale and eat a whole loaf of bread in one sitting, and then presumably hate herself, but her net daily calorie intake was still probably only in the double digits. She was all too eager to walk a mile through frigid rain to the bus stop (having been kicked off the track team), and she didn’t even mind the hour-long wait, which gave her the opportunity to jog in place in the little ditch on the side of the highway while we both got hit with sheets of rain churned up by passing cars, but once we sat down at the table, she was no picnic.

My parents were united in their bafflement at her refusal to ingest food, so they tactfully ignored it and urged me to eat twice as much to make up for it. And, well, my sense of self-preservation wasn’t so strong in those days. So by five o’clock on Thanksgiving Day, I was usually either lying on the floor as my bowels rioted in protest, or trying not to throw up in the ditch by the bus stop.

Once I moved away for college, I never came back for Thanksgiving. I spent a lot of happy holiday afternoons strolling around upper Broadway, eating Tasti D-Lite and loitering in the Barnes and Noble when the weather got bad. But now I have the great misfortune of living in my hometown, and we’re invited to my mom’s house for Thanksgiving (I am thankful that my dad has since moved away; does that count?), and, the pièce de résistance, my sister is now living with my mother (having fled her latest fucked-up relationship once again), and so we will all be together.

I can barely contain myself. In fact, I can’t think of a better way to commemorate the day, except maybe being forced to march a thousand miles in bare feet and smallpox blankets.

What are you thankful for?

You probably have no idea who Andy Lau is, which is the only reason the failing and increasingly fickle Scorsese can get away with putting Matt Damon in his shoes. Scorsese’s blatant rip-off of Hong Kong’s genius Infernal Affairs in the fulsome and Cro-magnon hamfistedness of The Departed is unfortunate for all kind of reasons: the religious clichés, Damon’s chinny stone-face, the explicitly articulated insistence on the film’s drama residing in the emotional trauma these torn loyalties cause our heroes (in other words, a total lack of affective subtlety portrayed, to add insult to injury, by Damon’s total lack of affect), the fact that Jack Nicholson has been playing the same character for thirty years, Leonardo Dicaprio’s hairstyle (who does he think he is, Gavin Newsom?)…

but let me assure you that, had you any idea who Andy Lau is, you would be even more appalled. His subtle (there’s a new vocab word for you, America!) portrayal of the gangster mole rising through the ranks of the force and Tony Leung (you may remember him from almost everything Wong Kar-wai has ever done, and with good reason)’s heartbreakingly restrained cop planted at the big boss’s right hand exist in luminous monochrome that puts the greasy technicolor of The Departed to shame.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Matt Damon was great in Team America: World Police. But he should stick to what he knows. By participating in this travesty of plagiaristic xenophobia, Damon’s invited some pretty harsh criticism, and now a billion more people are wondering, why is this guy famous?

I have become increasingly dubious about Kenneth Branagh. He’s jowly, he’s pompous, and let’s be honest: that bleach job in Hamlet made him look like a bloated and badly aging version of Spike, the evil-cum-evil vampire Buffy alternately rejected and shagged as her series died its painfully slow death. But I have to give him one thing: he immortalized Henry V’s courtship scene for me. Forever. So much so that, as I was just trying to justify Shakespeare’s genius to a student of mine, my head was full of nothing but a brash and smirking Branagh asking Emma Thompson if any of her neighbors could tell whether she loved him. I’ve read that scene dozens of times, and it’s genius, but I have to admit I only noticed how genius after that fateful day as a high school freshman, sitting next to my nail-biting friend in the theatre and quivering at Branagh’s sexy audacity.

There. I said it.

Go on, y’all. Your Netflix is waiting.