Monday, June 23, 2014

e.e.cummings and the movie "her"

The movie "her," directed by Spike Jonze, is certainly the most unsettling and thought-provoking film that I've seen lately.  It ventures beyond the standard range of "romantic comedy" to engage with big themes, questioning the demands of love, the role of technology in our lives, and what it means to be human (or non-human, as the case may be.)


The setting is Los Angeles, the time frame, very near future.  The plot centers on a dull and depressive nerdy character, Theodore Twombly, (Joaquin Phoenix)  who is mourning a failed relationship.  He works for a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, composing fake love letters for strangers, while his own love life is a blank page, devoid of any personal attachments.   Theodore's salvation comes in the form of  a female voice on a new computer operating system (OS1) named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). The virtual woman is not only artificially intelligent, but witty, insightful and readily available for conversation, companionship and sexual stimulation.  Her disembodied presence- relayed via an earphone - offers the perfect cure for Theo's doldrums, and he soon shifts from down-in-the-dumps melancholic to lovestruck ecstatic. 

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix)

Things start to go awry with the happy couple as Samantha's emotive capacity expands and evolves along the lines of human consciousness.  She starts to feel, create and question.  Theodore finds her occasional lapses in attention and her growing need for validation annoying. Samantha's habit of inserting a breathy sigh between sentences, once a turn-on, becomes a source of irritation.  Theo bluntly points out that she doesn't require air.  His expectation of exclusive devotion (and complete control) is dashed when he discovers that she is serving thousands of other clients and is intimate with hundreds of them.  


Samantha:  I'm yours, but along the way I became many other things.
Theodore: You're mine or you're not mine.
Samantha: No, I'm yours and I'm not yours.  

 It's not the message Theo wanted to hear from his darling OS soulmate.  


Spike Jonze presents us with content that leans toward the dark side, but his cautionary tale is cloaked in the most appealing, fruity colours that make this film a joy to watch.  There are scenes bathed in apricot light, and rooms furnished in shades of lemon, raspberry, kiwi.  The future looks like a pleasant place, if you're not bothered by the fact that people relate more to their gadgets than each other.  In the street scenes, solitary figures drift, heads bent down, focusing on their screens.  It's a world where eye contact and social interaction have become extinct.  I find it frightening, though the visuals are seductive - just like the Internet.

In an interview with The Guardian, Jonze says:

"In some parts of the world like right here, (L.A.)  you can feel the future coming toward you and a lot of it, in terms of things like convenience, availability, accessibility, beautiful design, ease of use - is getting better all the time.  We wanted a kind of clean, calm, warm Utopian future that has the same struggles and longings to connect that you find everywhere; feelings of isolation and loneliness." 

When not watching movies, I've been pondering the poetry of e.e.cummings, reading familiar verse that takes me back to university English Lit.classes.  This time around, without the tutorial dissection of  the poet's quirky punctuation, odd line breaks, and invented vocabulary, the underlying themes explored by cummings stand out as prophetic and profound.  As it turns out, the filmmaker and the poet have a lot in common.

e.e. cummings 1953

pity this busy monster, manunkind,

not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
your victim (death and life safely beyond)

plays with the bigness of his littleness
--- electrons deify one razorblade
into a mountainrange; lenses extend
unwish through curving wherewhen till unwish
returns on its unself.
           A world of made
is not a world of born --- pity poor flesh

and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical

ultraomnipotence. We doctors know

a hopeless case if --- listen: there's a hell
of a good universe next door; let's go

- e.e. cummings

Friday, June 20, 2014

Lavender and the last Queen of France

My recovery time has been filled with armchair gardening; lavender dreams untroubled by any of the physical work required to make the vision a reality.   The memory of fragrant purple fields in Provence prompted me to order 200 lavender plants (Hidcote and Munstead)  from the local nursery.

Provence: rural charm 



Lavender plants cultivated in Chicago, delivered to my backyard
 Edgar LeBlanc the nursery owner planting rows of lavender
While the planting and watering were in progress, I finished the last chapter of Evelyne Lever's fascinating biography "Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France."  


Marie Antoinette had her own garden dreams cultivated on the grounds of Versailles courtesy of Richard Mique, King Louis XVI's royal architect.  Between 1774 and 1787, the northeast corner of the estate was transformed into a pseudo-rustic hamlet set on the banks of an artificial lake.  The fantasy village included a Flemish style thatched roof farmhouse, a barn that doubled as a ballroom, a windmill, a lookout tower, a dovecote, a vineyard and two dairies.  Marie Antoinette's folly was both a playground for herself and her entourage, and a miniature working farm with field crops and herds of livestock tended by peasant employees.   While the Queen and her intimate friends enjoyed fresh strawberries and ice cream in the dairy,  farmhands toiled at the harvest, bringing in flax, corn, wheat and rye. 

Hameau de la Reine

The Queen's lavender
Marie Antoinette ordered 2000 rose bushes to beautify the grounds, along with hyacinths, tulips, irises, violets, wisteria and lavender.  Lavender tea was used as a remedy for royal headaches, and no doubt it was indispensable to a queen who suffered the wrath of the general public and the malicious gossip of fickle courtiers.  She was heavily criticized for creating a fake hamlet, which was seen not as picturesque landscaping, but as a distasteful mockery of the lower classes.

"Perhaps by spending a little more, Her Majesty would have been able to erase the look of misery worn by our real hamlets within a radius of thirty leagues and improve the dwellings that are the homes of so many decent citizens, instead of representing them in their hideous decay," wrote the Marquis de Bombelles in his journal.

Author Evelyne Lever is more sympathetic to Marie Antoinette's aims, and makes the case that the construction of Hameau de la Reine was an attempt to counter the rigidity of royal life.

"The building of a hamlet in the middle of a landscape restored by gardeners and architects to mirror nature - this was indeed an idealized setting where refined luxury could blend with innocent purity, thanks to the magic connected with the soil, exalted by the loftiness of the Garden of Eden.  Worldly joy and pastoral simplicity meet in this hamlet, a chateau and paradise where the real order of society is artfully reconciled with nature's ideal order.  This stage-set village of light opera well expressed the dream of purity which consumed the happiness of the worldly-minded.  Being reunited with nature through this transposition gave suggestive power to those individuals who were not particularly gifted for imagining things beyond the limits of the real."

Portrait of Marie Antoinette in hamlet attire: muslin dress and straw hat
 Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1783
All gardens, whether decorative or utilitarian are essentially flights of fancy.  A bed of flowers planted in the yard with the hope of adding a splash of colour, fragrance and texture for a brief season is nothing more than a bit of whimsy taking root.  Where else, but in the garden, can our wildest and most vivid dreams come true?



Friday, June 6, 2014

Calculated waiting

When you hear "ruptured appendix" doesn't the thought of  "emergency surgery" immediately come to mind?  It did when the doctor at Georges Dumont Hospital in Moncton relayed the results of my CT scan on April 17th.  I had experienced abdominal pain for more than 24 hours before going to the Emergency Department, and had used a hot water bottle for relief during a restless night (a home remedy, I learned later, that is not recommended for an inflamed appendix.)

My expectation of a swift surgical removal turned out to be a completely old-fashioned notion, based on medical practice of the horse-and-buggy days.  The narrative in a story by Alice Munro might have influenced my thinking.

 "When I was young, there seemed to be never a childbirth, or a burst appendix, or any other drastic physical event that did not occur simultaneously with a snowstorm.  The roads would be closed, there was no question of digging out a car anyway, and some horses had to be hitched up to make their way into town to the hospital....

When the pain in my side struck, therefore, it had to do so at about eleven o'clock at night, and a blizzard had to be blowing, and since we were not stabling any horses at the moment, the neighbours' team had to be brought into action to take me to the hospital.  A trip of no more than a mile and a half but an adventure all the same.  The doctor was waiting, and to nobody's surprise he prepared to take out my appendix."                                             
-  Alice Munro, "Night" in "Dear Life"
A 1940s poster (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)
In my case the attending doctor explained that the best approach would be to let the body resolve the crisis and delay the knife for at least six weeks. The waiting period would apparently make surgery less traumatic, less invasive and less risky.  "A better outcome," was what he predicted.   I was skeptical, but soon assumed the role of patient patient, accepting intravenous antibiotics and shots of morphine to take the edge off.

Waiting is not easy, especially when you're not feeling well enough to enjoy the usual distractions.  I could read my Kindle in bed, of course, but had difficulty retaining the meaning of words.   I was an emotional wreck, probably a side-effect of the strong drugs I was taking.  A bowl of red Jello presented on my lunch tray was enough to bring me to tears.  I couldn't help recalling that just a few weeks earlier I had been a carefree Euro traveler, sitting at a cafe on the Onze Lieve Vrouweplein in Maastricht with an order of this....


Brand beer and bitterballen, a Dutch treat
After five days in hospital I was released with instructions to take all of the prescribed medication, take it easy and continue waiting.  Surgery - a laparoscopic appendectomy - was scheduled for June 2.


Day surgery, bedside view
With the appendectomy now done and the healing process underway, I don't regret the time spent waiting for surgery.   Those weeks of prescribed rest allowed me to slow down and accept physical limitations, a dress rehearsal of sorts for the inevitable constraints of aging.  When I do get back to normal and resume active gardening, traveling and hiking with gusto, I'll be sure to savour every moment.


" Rivers know this: there is no hurry.  We shall all get there some day."
- A. A. Milne,  "Winnie-the-Pooh"