Monday, 13 January 2014

One Half and Three Quarters

Bhinneka Tunggal Ikawhich is said to roughly translate as ‘Unity in Diversity’, is Indonesia’s national motto. It was also coincidentally the motto of the international high school which I attended. The intent is clear, well meant, and a move toward greater enlightenment. Indonesia contains a multitude of ethnicities, although one is overwhelmingly dominant. Even though they have the luxury of residence in one of the world’s most remarkable melting pots, by law the country’s citizens are limited to one of six religions. 

At school I had a teacher who made attempts to impart some fairly radical ideas on us. I like to think he is a fairly common fixture in schools whose pupils have a little luck. While his subject was history, I don’t recall being asked to commit many important dates to memory. On United Nations Day, the primary school pupils were asked to wear their national costume and march around the playground waving their country’s flag on a stick. Our local radical saw fit to make some controversial comments about the proceedings. He questioned the value of it all. The ostensible purpose of the event was to celebrate the diversity of our surroundings, but could it be that more sinister ideals were being taught to the youngest among us? Was it really just an introductory class to jingoism? 

More recently I was asked to host a seminar on ‘Cross Cultural Understanding’, here in Jakarta. The purpose was to share the wisdom accrued from my own bi-ethnic parentage, and itinerant youth. The participants thought nothing of expressing their concerns about eroding their own sense of national identity were they to become too assimilated by a foreign culture - especially linguistically. I tried to explain in polite terms how nonsensical it was to assume that speaking Indonesian could be a source of national pride, pointing out its obvious debts to other languages, English among them. Indeed, the scolds who are so troubled by the deluge of foreign media that Indonesian youth are inescapably fond of, would do well to look in a mirror on a typical day and compare their mode of attire to that worn by their ancestors, whose culture they claim to be the torch bearer for. 

I do have a home other than Indonesia, thousands of miles away in Scotland. I long ago chose not to live there. It’s mostly the climate which gets me down, although having been blessed with an appearance which is not obviously European, I also enjoy being able to walk the streets of Jakarta unmolested by racist epithets or threats of violence. Having said that, I do give a great deal of contemplation to which country better affords me a more comfortable existence. Much of Europe in theory holds itself to progressive ideals which in practice it is often forgetful of, while developing Indonesia, still reeling from the effects of a decades-long strong-arm dictatorship, frequently publicizes its commitment to puritanical mores which it, in turn, can be very absent-minded about.     

The news tells me of the land of my fathers taking a very hard line on immigrants, both legal and illegal. While the land of my mothers is still swamped by such an impenetrable bureaucracy that my hope of ever making it a truly permanent home for myself and my young son tends to wither. Although my son does at least have a document saying he’s allowed to stay here legally until he’s an adult - which I think is the least the government can do given that he’s a quarter more Indonesian than I am, if you’re prone to making such qualifications. 

The world’s incredibly resilient desire to carve itself up according to invisible lines of demarcation appears to be having an allergic reaction to the vaccine known as ‘globalization’. Anybody who has picked up a newspaper any time during the last few years will see that Indonesia is no exception. However, perhaps because it is so richly endowed with difference, phobic prejudices are directed inward even more than they are at other nations. Sometimes with horrifying results. Many of its politicians, with notably admirable exceptions, appear as cheerleaders to this unfortunately human brand of madness. A favourite trick being to pander to the fragile temperaments involved by making public statements expressing a similar inability to contain sensitivity. Such public displays of indignation come of as better suited to a maligned infant than a professional diplomat.      

The differences between members of different nations, and tribes, are clearly not all imagined. We are, like it or not, physiologically different according to ethnicity. Where that leaves myself and my son in the grand scheme of things is anybody’s guess - he appears to be growing up with more chiselled facial features, which he may see as a blessing once adolescence kicks in. But the differences between men and women are obviously far, far greater. And the differences that exist between any two people selected at random are infinite in number. The problems two neighbours living in a homogeneous community are bound to endure are far more real than than any perceived threats from the next village, city, or island. 

So while I am happy to talk about any personal knowledge I can muster concerning cross cultural harmony, there is a human being deep down in my heart who wonders as to the necessity of it all.  

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Lingo Frankenstein

Anybody reasonably knowledgeable on the subject will readily admit that language evolves. Shakespeare's sonnets and Stephen King's tales of horror may technically have been written in the same language, but the ability to understand the latter does not necessarily mean being able to understand the former. English itself has a reputation as being possibly the most malleable of all languages. Not just slowly evolving, but also existing contemporaneously as a vast myriad of discrete dialects, native to different regions and socioeconomic classes.

Long ago a small country's impetuous desire for world domination laid the foundations for the need of a lingua franca. That is, the lingua of the British Empire, insinuating its grasp across continents via colonization and trade. A process that planted powerful roots over the centuries - roots which exploded like landmines almost as soon as the world wide web stepped on each one of them.

Now, in the grand tradition of colourful patois such as pidgin English, Singlish, and Hinglish, there has emerged a new champion which is wider reaching, and further removed from its parent than any of its predecessors: bastard English.

Bastard English precludes the need for any formal or informal tuition. All one needs to do to demonstrate proficiency is pluck a few voguish sounding words from any English language pop song or Hollywood film and proceed to insert them liberally into one's native language during speech or when typing out text. The absence of a point is no obstacle in the creation of BE prose. Nouns that are incongruous both semantically, and by their proximity to other words, are accepted by others equally willing to mangle verbs and place them haphazardly within an entirely different language. Those on the receiving end may either reciprocate with similarly high minded gibberish, or feign to have overlooked these pearls of wisdom - cryptic yet ostentatious, indecipherable yet beyond reproach. Either way, no party involved will be worse off at the conclusion of the exchange.

BE is simultaneously both everywhere and nowhere. While there is no questioning its ubiquity, not only in the halls of cyberspace, but also throughout old media, its unruliness, and complete and utter absence of syntax, mean it is the holy grail of the world's leading etymologists. You will never come across a book containing helpful tips on how to acquire a set of everyday phrases in bastard English. 

A partial key to its success is the way it lends itself so neatly to the world of social media - meeting places that know no geographical boundaries. Those who thought they had trouble communicating with people they didn't really know in the physical world, now delight in the knowledge that the experience not only exists online, but has been enhanced by the fact that almost everybody involved is now united by an ignorance of absolutely everything that is being said. Native speakers no longer bow to cries by crusty fuddy-duddies that some approximation of a standardized language should be observed in order to maintain a semblance of clarity. Rather, the new guard revels in the notion that they are now able to projectile vomit whatever thread of stray thought may be occupying their minds in the moment, via keyboard, to be preserved by the data miners of cyberspace for a potential eternity. Future generations communicating via CGI, grunts and hand signals will marvel at the chaotic complexity of their unintelligible ancestors.  

To state that BE is solely practiced by a bored, underachieving underclass would be giving the youth of today far too much credit, and a gross exaggeration. Any nascent democracy politician worth his salt will have long ago realized that BE lends itself to politics like no other form of communication. For oratory purposes, it is unbeatable, instilling the speaker with a false sense of confidence and the listener a false sense of promise. Its real genius being the ability of its unique opaqueness to disguise its fitting vapidity.

We worry about our children learning nothing in school, and going on to do nothing in life. A shrinking, globalized marketplace with a labour force swelling out of proportion followed by ever diminishing returns. Instead why aren't we learning from the future which has already arrived? To hell with the abysmal current state of public education. The biggest educational problem has already been identified and is easily soluble. We now know there is a common language which can be used to interconnect small, medium and large enterprises. Old world governments and emerging economies. One language exists, and its greatest claim to fame is that everybody and nobody can understand a single sentence of it. 

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Professional Criticism


noun \ˈkri-tə-ˌsi-zəm\

Every now and again I spot warning flags raised about threats to the survival of film journalism. They are obviously not imagined threats. Indeed, I began reading the reviews of Todd McCarthy routinely because he was let go by his longtime employer, Variety. McCarthy's peers obviously saw this as a travesty of justice and I read several pieces entirely about their feelings on this, significantly increasing my awareness of his writing. Fortunately, Mr McCarthy later got a steady job writing for The Hollywood Reporter, who maintain an exceptionally well designed site, which I find allows me to keep up with a lot of film news while I am riding the bus to work. The Internet is generally considered the culprit responsible for cutting into the profit margins of print journalism, although if I had had the internet as a teenager, I would have been able to learn much more about film, having grown up in places where access to media was not always simple. Perhaps this is the praise-tempered-with-cynicism that is the meaning behind the internet meme that has been growing ever ubiquitous; 'well done internet'.

It seems to me that there is a strong sentiment pervading the times in which we live questioning the need for learned criticism. It strikes me as being an odd one. Cinema, television, and music are art for the masses; most of us spend disproportionate amounts of time on at least one of these. Escapist entertainments are fine, often better than fine, and occasionally rise up to become milestones for future generations to pore over and analyze in minute detail. James Cagney's many starring roles in the 30s clearly were not intended to be dissected as gallery pieces close to a century later, but there is no denying Cagney's ability to rarely seem to be acting, rather almost always charging out of the screen, fully embodying the scripted character. Decades before 'method acting' and 'Marlon Brando' had been drilled into the lexicon of movie-goers. There is also the fact that he worked with directors who are now revered as auteurs like Michael Curtiz and William Wellman. 

But now we live in an age where the average worker has a career that is existence defining, dedicating exhaustive hours of service. Never mind the hours still needed for a healthy family life, and if you are a single-parent such as myself, many more of these hours are needed. We are now also bombarded by a plethora of entertainment (hopefully art) of such an intense volume that the chance of making the wrong choice and spending a couple of hours recoiling in revulsion because our intelligence is under assault is high. Especially as the main distributor of film has often decided that the key to keeping its bottom line strong is to cobble together badly shot scenes of expensive garbage, with recognizable faces, then set the marketing machine on overdrive.   

Despite this being a method that is showing increasingly diminishing returns, the ostensibly arthouse successes of recent months being a hopeful indicator, I doubt we will ever reach a stage when entertainment barons are not desperately trying to force-feed audiences empty-headed - and ludicrously expensive - nonsense. It is also becoming clear that the studios see developing countries, such as the one where I reside, as being a replacement dumping ground for their celluloid atrocities.

The blogosphere is all very well as an outlet for hobbyists like me. But I generally find it necessary to look to established voices to learn more about what is out there to watch during the precious few hours I can spare away from home for personal entertainment during a given month. I crave practiced prose, the benefit of years of experience and more knowledge about film-making than I can possibly hope to forget. I have subscribed to certain writers for years now and with the familiarity which this brings, I find that it is even possible detect from a less-than-flattering review that I personally may yet be interested in seeing the title - such is the power of the critic's words. I read about most of the films I watch for the first time from these same writers. Be it a revived silent, a non-English language film, or an ostensibly shallow genre piece bearing subterfuge for those looking. Given the limited opportunities to socialize presented by my aforementioned situation, I often find that it is in print, with unwitting participants, that the real discussion is to be had. Most rewarding of all is the ability to progressively seek out entertainments, art-as-entertainment, and every now again the kind of artistic statement that leaves one under its spell days, or quite possibly years, later.

I pity (yes, pity!) those who seek to be entertained, and instead end up wallowing in the bottomless depths of whatever inanity Hollywood has decided to unleash during the summer blockbuster period. The chances of finding thoughtfulness, or well-crafted escapism (usually thoughtful itself) go up during the present award season. However, so far I have only been able to count on one hand the number of award frontrunners to make it to local screens, while the possibility of wandering into a film ridden with queasy-cam, CGI, yet devoid of a single intelligent idea is precariously near. 

The internet is awash with remedies to this, expounded by wise minds who are as in love with the world of film as much as the people who make films. A furniture-dwarfing HD television seems to be an essential piece of equipment in the home of an upwardly mobile family, while digitally restored DVDs are revelatory when compared to the rotten VHS tapes which were all that were available not so very long ago. It is baffling that more people do not put such modern technology to better use, when good free advice is a few clicks of the mouse away. I take special content in having rarely subjected myself to films that I have actively disliked over the years.


Rotten Tomatoes





The Guardian - Film

The AV Club

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Correction: someone professing to be Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out an error in this post. It doesn't seem likely that this poster is a fraud, despite my initial surprise that someone of Mr Rosenbaum's stature would stumble upon my amateur writing. In any case, it is a significant error, which I have left in, but drawn further attention to in the comments. 



I have just finished watching Jack Reacher, the latest genre film starring Tom Cruise. The film itself is a well crafted slice of action, which on the face of it offers nothing new to the mainstream. Although after a while one starts to feel a pattern to the very straight-faced delivery of a series of overtly macho lines of dialogue. And there is also the fact that the film-makers, in an uncharacteristic move, chose not to ignore the fact that if a man looking like Tom Cruise walked into your average bar, he would turn the heads of many a lady. Jack Reacher is more parts John Shaft than John McClane.

I enjoyed Reacher more than might be wise to admit in public, and I knew that when entering the cinema, which is why I bought my ticket. I have long wondered when the film's director, Christopher McQuarrie was going to produce a follow-up to his 2000 directorial debut, The Way of the Gun, which got written off as  another Quentin Tarantino bandwagon jumper, when its real crime was more likely that it drew from some of the same influences as Tarantino. Never mind the director, I am an unabashed fan of Tom Cruise, the movie star. 

The persona of Cruise was at the forefront of my mind as I entered the cinema. The most recognizable male face in film for as long as I can remember, he is also well-known for his odd, problematic personal life. Most notably, his high standing in the Church of Scientology and his marriage to Katie Holmes, many years his junior. A marriage which ended with all interested parties in the media clearly taking the side of Ms Holmes. 

I have no special fondness for the controversial faith that is Scientology, but more to the point, I have no idea as to why the Cruise-Holmes union ended abruptly other than what I have read in the papers. I am not entirely sure why I should care about such things? Scientology courts nothing but bad press - usually along the lines of its newest members having their personal finances eloquently plundered by the church. My personal view of the faith is dim. However, I have yet to hear of its high priests systematically abusing minors, then having their crimes covered up by their supreme leaders. Nobody in Hollywood ever had their reputation dragged through the mud for pledging allegiance to Roman Catholicism. 

Indeed Scientology is said to have played a key role in the Cruise divorce. But again, it seems to boil down to differences of opinion, with nobody being forced to act against their will, and Holmes making a clean exit.

This is all tabloid fodder which feels insignificant given the state of the world, but try as I might, the topic became unavoidable as it quickly found its way into non-tabloid media outlets. As far as I know Cruise has never been accused of a felony. I severely doubt I will ever get the chance to spend quality time socializing with him, so I cannot find it in my heart to worry about whether he is of sterling character or not. I am much more concerned about the man on the screen, than the individual who believes in some fairly far-flung ideas about the origins of man. I do admit to having read biographies of famous people, but most of them are dead already. Additionally, they are biographies which are more likely to reveal what went on behind the camera than in front of it, let alone during a highly intimate conversation with a loved one. 

Thankfully, 2012 was a genuinely good year for film, that produced more high-quality craftsmanship than highly-gossiped about scandalous behaviour. Mind you, as the year came to an end, Spike Lee managed to launch a personal tirade against one of his peers that struck me as being worth gossiping about. I do of course refer to his very public yet very personal ire for Quentin Tarantino's revisionist slave epic - Django Unchained. As I consider QT to be among the greatest director's alive (and on a clear track to becoming one of the greatest ever), I am eager to see whether Lee's anger is founded, although for now, like Mr Lee, have not managed to watch the film in question. 

The ultimate case of private behaviour affecting perception of art in modern times must be Roman Polanski. Here is a man who drew revulsion from his biggest admirers when it became known that he had had sexual intercourse with a minor. The cynic in me feels that this decades-old incident would now be long forgotten were it not for the fact that, facing a sentence far harsher than the norm at the hands of an attention-seeking judge, Polanski fled the scene of the crime, America, and has yet to return. A lover of film such as myself is faced with the heinous act of a man who admitted to sex with a thirteen year-old when he was well into his forties, yet also created such monumental milestones of cinema such as Chinatown, Bitter Moon and The Pianist.   

 There is no question in my mind that his prowess as a director in no way condones his crime. But having said that, his art did make me curious as to the circumstances of the crime itself. They are murky indeed, and many of Polanski's detractors who are in the habit of levelling false accusations against him would do well to read up on the actual event. There are also the facts of Mr Polanski losing his entire immediate family in the Holocaust, and later on having his wife and unborn child brutally murdered by the Manson Family. Both before he committed the act which would stain the rest of his life so far. There is also the victim of the crime, Samantha Geimer, repeatedly pleading with US authorities to drop their pursuit of Polanski, as well as publicly forgiving him. 

I enjoy watching his movies, and make a point of seeing them when they are playing at the cinema. I cannot avoid thinking about the private life of the man behind them, public as it is. However, I do not believe that I am committing any kind of ideological transgression by watching, and enjoying. If Polanski had not felt that he was looking down the barrel of a gun, unfairly pointed in his direction, and had not fled the country, I cannot imagine that many among us would be paying so much attention to a crime of statutory rape committed so long ago, regardless of how heinous it unavoidably is.

The scholarly film critic and film writer, Jonathan Rosenbaum, famously refuses to watch Elia Kazan's classic boxing-gangster movie, On the Waterfront. This is not a comment on the film's worth as a piece of cinema, but is entirely to do with Kazan naming names when his back was put up against the wall during the McCarthy communist witch-hunts, and the film being allegorical to this - expressing Kazan's frustration at the condemnation which he in turn received from his peers. It is almost certain that Kazan's actions ruined entire families, by incarcerating breadwinners, and/or putting them on the infamous Hollywood blacklist, which prevented them from finding work. 

Yet I cannot imagine how I noble I could find the temerity to be, if I myself were being blackmailed by my own government, with the choice being information, or ruination. On the Waterfront, like many of Kazan's films, also happens to be one that passionate observers of the craft should watch. 

I do not want to imagine what immoral or misguided act would be the one so reprehensible so as to cause me to boycott an artist. I do not really want to think about it, because I do not want to be somebody who imposes my own moral judgement on people whom I have never met.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Accidental Tourist (1988)

The first time I watched this Lawrence Kasdan film, I was of a more callow age than I am now. I felt the powerful impact of its cinematic lyricism, and could see the appeal of its story in broad strokes. Yet I was deeply wrong in my understanding of the movie's essence. I saw a conventional story of romance, as lived out by very quirky characters; their quirks being a humourous device to set the film apart from an infinite number of antecedents. Having watched 'The Accidental Tourist' again, a decade later, what I saw was a group of people who are in fact portrayed as being painfully normal. Life doesn't fall into their grasp with the same ease as it does so often for the average Hollywood cardboard cutout. Rather, they move through their existences with timid hope and awkwardness, reminiscent of so many personalities to be found among the real world multitudes. It is a story largely about affection, but it is also one heavily detailing loss. While the romance may be drawn as the most prominent plot arc – perhaps necessarily so – for the main character of Macon Leary (William Hurt), it is not just a more fulfilling relationship than his vacant marriage, but also an opportunity for him to overcome the loss of his murdered son, for whom he will inevitably feel more profound affection. The final scene of the movie is staged so that some might expect a romantic reunion akin to that of 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'. Instead Macon's final on-screen meeting with Muriel (Geena Davis) is given second billing to his greater acceptance of the loss of his son.

Like all films that I enjoy the most, I feel great empathy with Hurt's character. I don't think I could be accused of resembling him much, and I cannot begin to imagine the pain of losing a child to a violent death. However, the dysfunctional, awkard characters that are the Learys are not wholly foreign to me. And, like those of my own family, their dysfunctionality does not seem ripped from the pages of Reader's Digest, but carries its own idiosyncrasies and would require volumes to describe and reference.

There's nowt so queer as folk, as my Scottish father has been in the habit of saying for as long as I can remember.

Though the Learys do seem odd on the face of it. Macon's job, as the eponymous Tourist, is to write travel guides for people who don't enjoy travelling. I personally loathe the stress of packing and catching planes, but consider exotic food and surroundings to be among the greatest of luxuries. The Accident Tourist's readership is of a different breed; the business traveler who hates absolutely everything about leaving home, and will go to great lengths to find hotdogs in London that taste just like the ones served in Yankee Stadium, as promoted by an unconvincing London hotdog vendor. The greatest irony being that Macon literally is the Accidental Tourist, and therefore must endure what are personally some of the worst inconveniences he could imagine, so that others will not suffer as much. In addition to eating foreign food, readers are cautioned about loquacious strangers – the guide's advice is to bring a book so that unsolicited conversationalists will think you are busy, the modern equivalent would be a smartphone.

In his unnamed American city of residence, Macon spends an inordinate amount of time with his three siblings, who are still single and live together. The whole family shares endearing traits, such as routinely getting lost in the neighbourhood which they have lived in for all their lives, and an OCD-like fastidiousness when it comes to groceries. That Macon lives apart from his siblings suggests that while he is woven from much the same cloth, he is slightly more socially evolved.

At the beginning of the film, we are plunged immediately into the muted drabness of his life. Subtle mentions are made about the dead son throughout the film, including one invaluable scene where he tries to make laundry arrangements more ergonomic using a skateboard. As in 'Body Heat', Kasdan and Hurt work together with Kathleen Turner, who plays Macon's wife, Sarah. She is by no means a bad person, and if their lives had not been so catastrophically altered by a cruel twist of fate, it is easy to see them living a quietly satisfied life together. As it is, she understandably cannot come to terms with the void that has been created in their household and announces her need for a separation.

Soon afterward, we are also introduced to Muriel as Macon's subsequent love interest, who could not be more opposite to Sarah. And as such, her effusiveness and lust for life are a far cry from Macon's detached relationship with the world. Soon however, there is perhaps a realization that while similarities are useful in a relationship, one that is complementary can possibly lead to an even more hopeful dynamic. There is also Muriel's son, a fragile boy – fatherless and allergic to everything, including pizza. While she is probably initially attracted to Macon because of his solemn handsomess and shy politeness, there must also be a part of her that sees his fatherly qualities from the outset. Unlike as it is with many love triangles of fiction, the question of whether Sarah or Muriel is the better human being is beside the point. Instead, we are encouraged to foster the belief that people change. In an ideal marriage, emotional growth is a shared requirement, but in the case of a lost child, the need for difference could not be more forgivable.

I started watching films that involved the participation of Lawrence Kasdan long before I was aware of him as a craftsman. He was of course a principal collaborator on the 'Indiana Jones' and 'Star Wars' franchises – films that are by and large so entertaining that they permit 'serious' filmgoers to forget that 'franchise' is a pejorative. But he has also created a body of work of extremely personal films, including the estimable 'Grand Canyon', which bears similarities to 'Tourist' with its themes of loss and human kindness. Even in westerns like 'Silverado' and the much maligned, admittedly lopsided 'Wyatt Earp', the characters feel like people who are thinking about their actions, not just mindless templates reused in last summer's big studio blockbusters.

'The Accidental Tourist' is my favourite of them all, which would likely not be the case were it not for William Hurt leading the cast, without ever diverting too much attention away from his costars. Unlike other great actors who are best known for their sheer presence when on film, Hurt seems able to play anybody. The laconic private eye in 'Body Heat', the chauvinistic professor in 'One True Thing', the gay prisoner in 'Kiss of the Spider Woman', or the downright scary mobster in 'A History of Violence'. In 'Tourist' it's as though he reached into his own soul and wrenched out a grieving father. The social hangups are also ably displayed, but they are secondary descriptors, as are his mishaps of passion. Grief is what defines the character of Macon, until he is gradually afforded what small amounts of reprieve can be expected.

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There is also a dog in the film called Edward. For most films a character like Edward would be the biggest reason to recommend them.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Enjoying Fun

Voluntary Smiles

Last night I had the good fortune to attend the wedding party of two friends. It was a modest, yet elegant affair, with choice Manadonese cuisine, and ad lib beer and wine. The groom was a little worried about the quality of the wine, but the fact that I drank it ad lib the entire evening could perhaps be taken as an indicator of potability. Albeit, perhaps not a decisive one. The groom had also taken it upon himself to construct his own mix of songs for the proceedings, and the slightly retro, but largely happy, popular music suited the intimacy of the proceedings well. The music was loud enough to be enjoyed, but not so loud that you couldn't easily enjoy conversation at a normal volume. The bride and groom mingled freely with the guests, who evidently were closely acquainted with at least one of the newly weds. In fact, looking around me, none of the guests were obviously bored or irritated. The couple already being amongst the happiest and most well matched one is likely to encounter, now have the added benefit of having been married under the most agreeable of circumstances, having provided their close friends and relations with a night to remember. 

Reviewing a wedding may seem odd, but to be fair, and to sum up the long-held observations of visitors to this country, most Indonesian weddings are the antithesis of fun.
I've been to a significant number of such ceremonies, although when I do get an invitation, while I have nothing but warm feelings for people I know, getting ready to embark on the next phase of their lives, I don't get out my calendar and reserve the date in question and don't often feel guilty if I ultimately don't attend. One aspect of most local weddings I've been to, is that the guest lists are so extensive, and the bride and groom in such a state of mental anguish, that it seems unlikely the presence of members of the outer limits of their spheres of influence register whatsoever. The reasoning behind inviting enough people to populate a Scottish village to a reception strikes me as being two-fold. Firstly to ensure pomp and grandeur, and secondly to pay for the damned thing. As it is a local tradition (I've been told a fairly recent one) for guests not to bring presents to a wedding, but rather an envelope containing a donation. In fact, it is common for personal gifts to be rejected in favour of monetary ones, in writing, on the invitations. 

On the face of things, it wouldn't seem unusual to assume that any real festivity is denied thanks to the complete absence of alcohol when getting married in the archipelago. I once put this gaping error to a good humoured Manadonese gentleman, at least fifteen years my senior, gearing up for his second holy union. His unabashed reply was to say, 'yes, but we have macaroni schotel!'. It hardly struck me as a suitable substitute.  

But, to paraphrase that popular old adage - you probably don't need drugs to have a good time. My experiences of conventional local wedding receptions have been as follows:

1. Arrive and seek out the bride and bridegroom, they will inevitably be affixed to two thrones at the centre of the room, with smiles affixed to their faces. A queue of well wishers has usually already formed, which must be joined. 

2. After a cursory, congratulatory, handshake is undertaken with the newly married couple and their respective parents, the next course of action is to help yourself to food. To complete these first two steps in reverse order should trigger deeply felt, personal, shame.
3. After procuring (and I don't use that word for show) food and eating it, there might be some dessert available, but depending on how promptly you have arrived, you may have to move fast to partake of this.

4. Then you might engage in some very light banter with any other guests you know. Finding such people can be tricky. 

5. I think after you've taken care of the handshaking part, you're really free to go. Not entirely courteous, but again, it's not entirely likely that anyone will notice.

6. You could choose to stay for photographs with the bride and groom. These can be quite nice mementos, especially given how easy photo sharing is nowadays, although they are invariably photos which are the opposite of candid.

7. I've noticed cake cutting some of the time, but being no stranger to deeply felt shame, I rarely stay long enough for that part.

I'd like to comment on music, but I fear that might get a bit too insulting. Suffice to say, it's rarely music that could possibly comply with the tastes of the bride and groom, nor anybody I know well. 

One of my personal, favourite, truisms to impart during discussions about the moribundity of Indonesian weddings, is that the funerals I've been to have been a lot more fun. Not because they've been routinely blessed with the refreshments of an Irish wake, but rather because people are generally more relaxed, loquacious and showing signs of actually enjoying one another's company. One mighty source of mirth at a funeral I attended was the casket getting dropped as it was being moved out of the living room. No corpse slid out, but I did get the feeling that such an eventuality wouldn't have detracted from the lightness in the air. I suppose the laughter is a mechanism to deal with grief, but why can't it be applied more to what is meant to be one of the happiest days in the lives of two young people? 

Coincidentally, I was speaking to a female friend yesterday. While we've known each other for a very long time, geographical constraints and the busyness of our lives had disallowed us from keeping fully abreast of the other's developments. Recently we've talked a lot, and the odd life anecdote brought forth to the table provides moment for pause. Knowing her now, married to a man who appears to have been a fine catch, with three children, I had taken it for granted that her own marriage had gone forward without  easily avoidable hindrance, according to local custom. Yet it turned out that in a spate of the kind of small-mindedness which I am growing increasingly accustomed to, her fiancee had not been accepted by most of her family. As she put it to me, she was sure that this was the man for her, and they went ahead and got married regardless. Consequently, only seven guests were present to witness their nuptials. Her husband has  since proved himself to be an able breadwinner, and otherwise reliable family man. Given the irrefutably of his distinguishing qualities, with the passage of time, my friend's extended family welcomed him to the fold. However, there appears to be a high probability that the nine people celebrating that life-defining occasion, with reportedly austere surroundings, will have a memory to share with one another not to be found on an assembly line of perfunctory handshakes.  

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Inner Freedoms

"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." - Oliver Cromwell (writing to the Scottish church)

After governments in North Africa ignited a white hot rage in their citizens, the fury appears to be spreading to similarly mismanaged states, with Bahrain and Iran making headlines as I ate my cereal with banana at 5.00 this morning. Ever since Tunisia rocked the world, 1998 and Indonesia's own era of reformasi has been prominent in my thoughts as well as how, despite many success stories, the nation has progressed very little on a number of fronts. 

While the Arab world takes centre stage, Indonesia has been making headlines for quite a different reason. The lynchings of members of the Muslim Ahmadyiah sect, justified by the sect's deviations from mainstream Islam, have been deemed too graphic for Indonesian television. Given the very low standards of local broadcasters with regard to censorship of violence, I am confident I will never have cause to seek out the footage. Shortly after these unspeakable hate crimes, riots erupted in Temanggung, Central Java, as a man was considered to have got off too lightly on charges of blasphemy; despite having been given the maximum sentence allowable by law. Nothing short of death was deemed sufficient by angry mobs burning down churches. 

In the wake of the overthrowing of despots far, far away from where I now sit, too little rememberance seems to have been paid to events which took place in Indonesia thirteen years ago. When the will of the people also persevered in the face of violence, from security personnel and shady agitators alike, to dethrone one of the most corrupt dictators the world has known - the Republic's second president, Suharto. Never punished for his crimes against humanity, he died under the most comfortable state healthcare available, having retained  many of his privileges as an ex-head of state.

By contrast, under the draconian, hardliner instigated, anti-pornography bill, a local musician has been sentenced to three and a half years in prison  for filming himself in the act of sexual intercourse for personal usage. It goes without saying that his real crime was to allow the footage to be stolen and consequently disseminated via the internet.

In Indonesia, there is still a strong tendency to afford elders respect, no matter how undeserving they are of it, and Suharto, who ruled for 31 years, may well have come off as the consummate patriarch to many. The severely obvious hypocrisy of arbitrary judicial decisions goes unchecked by an unfortunately significant number of citizens who are easily smart enough to know better. Judgement is clouded by fear of religion (read: fear of hell) and elders, and it is in this way that despite its being able to enjoy many of the benefits of democracy, there is a marked absence of a certain kind of freedom in this country.

One casual dicussion on eternal souls which I had with one of my Muslim ex-girlfriends went approximately as follows:

Her:The existence of an afterlife is important to me.
Me: Not so much for me, I'm more into enjoying the life that is staring us right in the face as we speak. 
Her: I would feel better if you could try and embrace the concept of an afterlife too.
Me: Let's look at it in a different light, many of your best friends are Christian, right?
Her: Yes.
Me: Doesn't that mean that you're compelled to believe they will all go to hell?
Her: (very pained facial expression) I don't want to talk about this anymore.
Me: Come on, surely you can see what I'm getting at?
Her: Yes, but I don't want to think about it. 

And we changed the subject, partly because she was vehemently against going further, and partly because I could see that she was genuinely upset. But for me it was a pivotal point in my understanding of how a vibrant, finely-tuned, young mind can become stuck by self-serving ideologies inflicted on the young by previous generations. How can we really have freedom of expression (including freedom of religion), when we don't even have freedom of thought?