Just Beneath the Surface

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I’ve been considering the various explanations of the film, “Life of Pi” and its meaning. My first impression was that this was a prototypical example of magical realism. Ang Lee’s direction captured the novel elegantly. The use of CGI was not distracting – the tiger and orangutan were portrayed believably. Then my friend, Mark, introduced me to his metalinguistic view – that Pi is a story about the power of story-telling. “Life of Pi” shows what happens when a writer who, after recently abandoning a novel he’s worked on for two years, interviews a man named Pi who tells the writer a strange, disturbing tale that is also wonderful but thoroughly implausible. The Writer does not fully believe. So Pi tells an “alternate” story based on the same events as the first, but which is not as fanciful. Pi then asks the writer, “Which story do you prefer?”

The first story is a fantasy about a boy and a tiger, shipwrecked and sharing a lifeboat in the Pacific for 277 days. The boy experiences strange events, visions of beauty and horror in the depths of the ocean and floating among the stars; he briefly stays on a floating, carnivorous island inhabited by thousands of meercats. Eventually, the boy is washed ashore in Mexico where he recovers. While in the hospital, the ship’s investigators question him about his lifeboat experiences. They don’t believe his story of sharing the lifeboat with a starving tiger so he tells a second story which is more realistic and also more troubling.

The writer, when asked which story he prefers, answers, “The one with the tiger.” Pi then responds, “so it is with God,” suggesting to the writer and the viewer that God prefers to communicate with fanciful, meaningful stories, even if the stories are not literally true. The power of Life of Pi owes more to imagination than to verisimilitude. The fundamental idea is that we humans are emotional creatures who respond to stories that resonate in us, whether fact-based or not.

A further consideration about the religious message in Life of Pi, and the truth of God and his interventions in our lives, considers all three faiths that young Pi explores. The Writer character, promised a story that would make him believe in God, questions adult Pi about the influence of each one. Pi struggles to reconcile the differences between faith interpretations – specifically Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, acknowledging each contains valuable elements, even as they tell different stories. What he knows is that faith elements helped him survive his ordeal at sea.

Pi does not believe that any of the world’s religions have cornered the market on the truth and his intention is not to proselytize a specific dogma. Rather, his stories are intended to help the Writer consider which version of the world he prefers. Is it the version where he makes his way, without regards to the mystical, or the other where he can accept a presence greater than himself? That writer, like the Japanese investigators and we viewers, choose the latter.

Setting aside the story’s religious elements, an alternative theory takes a psychological perspective. And, as a psychologist, this perspective resonates with me. The characters in both stories, animals and people, represent various elements of the self – the brute, the innocent, the seeker, the protector. It is the raft, something Pi constructs himself and where he must retreat in order to save himself from the malevolent tiger, that represents faith. Does Pi truly co-exist with the tiger for those 227 days? Or is the animal story a defense mechanism that allows Pi to survive the rescue? To be able to live with the memory of the horrors he experienced with the others who survived, only for awhile?

Life of Pi is a moving story. And it is effective in its ability to reveal without showing, those elements of faith and survival that lie for all of us, regardless of our disparate experiences, just beneath the surface of our told stories.

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The Garden of Allah villas

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The Garden of Allah Hotel, villas and pool
Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA

From 1927 when the private residence of Alla Nasimova, silent screen siren, was converted into apartments until 1959 when the villas were sold to a bank and bulldozed into history, the Garden of Allah villas hosted Hollywood luminaries, gangsters, bohemians and barflies. Its expansive pool was the private playpen for studio heads, stars and starlets in the 1950’s, hedonists whose late night celebrations were the bane to the more staid patrons of their Sunset Blvd. neighbor, the Chateau Marmont.

The Gardens of Allah were famously the subject of Joni Mitchell’s iconic, “Big Yellow Taxi.” The Eagles’ Don Henley penned a song about the villas, “Garden of Allah,” as well. For the Laurel Canyon collective of the 1970’s, including Mitchell and her beau, Steve Stills, the hotel, villas and their 64 X 45 pool represented a lost bohemian’s paradise sprawled in the pre-war wastelands between LA and Beverly Hills. Some of the best known guests at the Marmont slummed it in the Garden of Allah’s cosy bungalows. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Erroll Flynn, Dorothy Parker, and Humphrey Bogart. When Richard Harris was tossed from the Marmont, where did he go? The Garden of Allah, of course.

The Garden of Allah was specially popular during the Prohibition; the villas’ pool parties never wanted for high spirits. John Barrymore kept a bicycle at his suite so as not to waste time traveling between parties scattered throughout the complex. Wives were kept at the Chateau, mistresses at the villas. Even Jean Harlow cross-crossed the street to keep her husband and lover apart.

By the mid-fifties as the Hollywood studio system was dismantled and more pictures were shot on location, the villas were in decline. Their guests were likely to be hustlers and transients. The bungalows were in disrepair and sorely in need of attention. The land was worth more than the hotel. In 1959 it was sold and demolished. There was a closing party at the Garden just before it was destroyed. Its contents were sold and the walls came down. They built a savings and loan on the sites with a sprawling parking lot.

Don’t it always seem we don’t know what we got ’til it’s gone?

For many years, the bank building that replaced the Garden of Allah displayed a miniature replica of Nasimova’s original home and pool in its lobby. Visitors could imagine the high times of Hollywood’s golden era on the expansive lawn overlooking Sunset Boulevard. But since 2007, even the miniature is gone. What became of the scale model of the villas so long on view? Are they misplaced, like the crate holding the ark of the covenant, per Indiana Jones? Or long discarded, lost in some mountain of unrecyclable detritus? Does some unlikely character have them squirreled away in his (or her) illicit collection?

Who knows where the model went?

Hollywood’s legendary Chateau Marmont

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I’m reading “Life at the Marmont: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Legendary Hotel of the Stars, Chateau Marmont,” by Raymond Sarlot, the hotel’s owner from 1975 – 1991, and Fred Basten, an accomplished chronicler of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Together, Sarlot and Basten explore its history, dispel its myths, and flesh out the legends of the incomparable Marmont Hotel. The book was originally published in 1987. In the 2013 Penguin Books edition, Basten provides an afterword that brings the Marmont Hotel’s elite guest list up to date.

As you might expect, the book contains a treasure trove of celebrity stories and gossip, from the 1930’s through the 21st century. Hundreds of people were interviewed for the book, including former guests Lauren Bacall, Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, Glenn Ford, Louis Malle, Robert Osborne, Lynn Redgrave, Ginger Rogers, and Donald Sutherland. The authors also share stories about the hotel itself, its renowned decor, long-tenured staff, and less well known, private playpens that existed outside of public view. Chateau Marmont overlooks Sunset Boulevard, but the views that these authors reveal are much more intriguing than the Los Angeles skyline.

The story of the Marmont parallels the evolution of early Hollywood, through its heydays in the 40’s and 50’s, and the studios’ challenges from radio, television and digital media. The book links the past with the present in a steady stream of intriguing episodes. Yes, it’s gossipy but the authors are respectful; for example, they handle to unfortunate death of John Belushi with care and compassion. Its stories aren’t limited to actors, either. Sarlot and Basten include events that featured writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, studio chiefs like Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer, and musicians like Edith Piaf, Mick Jagger, and John Lennon.

This book contains all of the glamour, the fantasy, and the dishy-ness that any Hollywood Babylon junkie could want. It’s a fun read and I recommend it whole-heatedly.

Study Abroad

In May, 2013, the University of Limerick’s International Education Division’s Summer School hosted our MOSAIC group, which consisted of students from Maryville University, Columbia College, and Central Methodist College in Missouri. We joined students from colleges and universities across the United States attending UL summer school. Students chose from six different courses taught by UL faculty, including classes in Irish Literature, Sociology, Law, Film and media, History and Creative Writing. The apartments they shared, each with private rooms and en suite bathrooms, were located in Cappavilla Village on the north campus, overlooking the River Shannon, and included full kitchens with daily breakfast service and housekeeping. Students were provided with vouchers for lunch and supper that could be used at any of the on-campus cafes and restaurants.

Excursions to major Irish attractions were provided by UL, including a trip to the nearby Craggenowen and Bunratty castles, Limerick Milk Market, and more distant excursions to the Burren, the Atlantic shoreline at Kilkee, the Flying Boat museum in Foynes, the Falls Hotel in Ennistymon, and to Dublin, where students visited the Guinness Storehouse, Croke Park Stadium (home to the Gaelic Athletic Association), and the Book of Kells in Trinity College. Two of our MOSAIC students attended one of the World Cup 2014 qualifying matches between Ireland and the Faro Islands while in Dublin. We were also hosted with food and drink vouchers to attend the UL annual Party on the Plaza, celebrating the university’s accomplishments during the previous year.

Our MOSAIC sponsored excursions included a trip to the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, the Aran Islands and Galway Bay, and the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. Students participated in a photography contest sponsored by the University. Our MOSAIC students, Gabrielle and Mack, took first and second place respectively. Gabrielle’s first-place photo from her trip to the Dingle Peninsula can be seen on the UL International Education, Summer School web site.

MOSAIC students also received credit for our Maryville University study abroad course, “Exploring the Culture of Ireland.” Examples of their essays and photo essays included reflections on The Troubles, GAA Irish sports of hurling and soccer, the fallout from the Celtic Tiger economic bubble, Bloomsday and the books of James Joyce, and the Irish diaspora. For 2014, UL will again offer courses in Irish Literature, Sociology, Law, Film and media, History, and Creative Writing, and they will add two new courses: Irish Myths and Legends, and Nursing.

Ireland is known internationally as the Land of a Thousand Welcomes, and the faculty and staff at University of Limerick demonstrated that sentiment every day of our experience there. I strongly recommend this study abroad opportunity for undergraduate students who want to earn 6 hours of credit and experience three weeks immersed in Irish culture. For more information, visit the MU Study Abroad web site: http://www.maryville.edu/globaled/study-abroad/

Summer Reading

Ah, summer. When serious readers can indulge their guilty pleasures. Mine includes the serial crime novels of James Lee Burke. This summer, I’m reading #20 in the Dave Robichaux novel series, “Light of the World.” Burke’s novels are very popular summer reads. Their publication dates frequently occur in July. He’s won the Edgar Award twice for Best Crime Novel of the Year. Early in his career, Burke was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and NEA grant, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Two of his Robichaux novels have been made into films.

“Light of the World” received mixed reviews this summer but I’m undeterred. I’m a fan, not just of the writer but of his characters, Dave and Cletus. I’m willing to suspend disbelief, despite the fact that both of these former New Orleans cops and Vietnam vets are, by my calculation, well into their 70’s and yet still capable of tramping through wilderness and lugging heavy armaments when needed.

Burke’s plots are fairly straightforward. It’s character development that emerges as his great strength as a crime novelist. I find myself coming back with each new novel to join these compelling characters in their world of victims and villains, heroes and anti-heroes. I’ve dabbled in other crime series, including Sue Grafton’s alphabet series and Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware, but none have captured my imagination like James Lee Burke.

Dancing at Lughnasa

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“Dancing at Lughnasa” (pronounced “Loon-sa”) is the story of five sisters – the Mundy family – living in rural Ireland in the 1930’s. The sisters live under the cloud of one sister’s indiscretion that resulted in her bearing a “lovechild.” The story is set in County Donegal, in Northwest Ireland. Christina’s love child is Michael, a small boy who is beloved by his mother and aunts, and who narrates the film.
There’s also a long lost uncle, Father Jack – a missionary priest. He returns home to County Donegal, sick with malaria and possessed with dark secrets. As the film progresses, Michael’s father, Gerry, returns from his wanderings across the country as a failed salesman and ne’er-do-well.
The dynamic relationships between the sisters carry the film, even though tragedy ultimately awaits them all. One by one, they encounter disappointments, losses and desertions with the passage of time. Their lot is hopelessness and desperation in lives brought low by inescapable circumstances.
Released in 1998, “Dancing at Lughnasa” juxtaposes the rural Lughnasa community’s pagan celebration with African tribalism; it draws our attention to the hypocrisy of the Church’s appropriation of pagan festivals only to ultimately denounce and deny them. The people of Lughnasa long for the joys of the pagan world and this is echoed in the most famous scene of all – when the women, even the imperious Kate, lose themselves in wild dancing, kicking up their heels joyfully – as if to say wordlessly, “to hell with propriety and decorum.”
This story began as a play by Irish playwright Brian Friel. It illustrates the themes of loss, emigration, responsibility, and the judgmental atmosphere towards women which prevailed in Ireland in the time in which it was set. To an extent, those social conditions continue for many Irish women today.
The main characters are Kate (Meryl Streep) who is the only one with a source of income as a teacher, Agnes (Brid Brennan), who we recognize as the caretaker of the other sisters, Rose (Sophie Thompson), a simple-minded girl, Maggie (Kathy Burke) the extroverted, worldly one, and Christina (Catherine McCormack), Michael’s mother. The return of Father Jack (Michael Gambon) and Gerry (Rhys Ifans) lead to a series of misfortunes that disrupt and ultimately destroy the unity of the 5 sisters.
Despite its less-than-optimistic message, I can whole-heartedly recommend “Danicng at Lughnasa” to anyone seeking to understand Ireland’s past and the struggles of its women, in particular. Where the scenery is lush, viewers are transported to that idyllic image of Ireland that many of us possess. Where the misery is palpable, we experience the desperation and dread of these sisters who through the course of the film we grow to love.

When the Luck of the Irish Ran Out

I read this book last spring, prior to my first trip to Ireland. It was an easy read for someone with a passable understanding of finance. It included just enough history to put the events of the last two decades into perspective. It also gave me insights into what I’d find in a place that had risen meteorically and then just as quickly, fallen hard.
The subtitle of Lynch’s book reads, “The World’s Most Resilient Country and Its Struggle to Rise Again.” I understood how well this description fit the Irish after spending five weeks in Limerick, Dublin, Belfast and the West, reading their newspapers and seeing the national and local news programs, and meeting the people.
The impact of the Celtic Tiger era of prosperity and growth, from about 1990 through 2007, was transformative. The hard choice for young, educated Irish to either emigrate and embrace opportunity or remain in Ireland and accept little opportunity seemed to disappear. Standard of living improved to a point where many Irish were living better than their British counterparts. But growth was spurred in large part by politicians, bankers and developers whose misbehavior and malfeasance occurred on an epic scale. Irish culture itself was re-shaped by the rapid and dramatic changes that took place during the era.
Lynch’s book is enlightening on several fronts. He exposes the people in power who lived lavish lives on borrowed money along with the ordinary Irish men and women who were victimized by their misdeeds, but who also turned a blind eye as evidence mounted that the Celtic Tiger, like an Easter candy treat, was hollow. He focuses also on the growth of materialism, something quite foreign to the collective Irish identity of the past where having material things was associated with being British, not Irish.
Having read When the Luck of the Irish Ran Out I was better prepared to understand Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart. It prepared me to ask questions of our Irish hosts about emigration as jobs disappeared along with the money speculators collected as deposits on housing and industrial developments. I read with interest about the ongoing effects on Irish banks.Along with trips to see the beautiful countryside near Killarney and Connemara, I visited the skeletons of buildings left unfinished in Limerick and Dublin. I read in detail the terrible impact of these poisoned mortgages on banking in Ireland. I saw the neighborhoods where poverty remains – not so different from those troubled times before the Celtic Tiger when so many Irish were on, as Lynch describes it, “the losing end of history.”
This spring, I plan to see more of Ireland than I did last year – to travel to the Wicklow Mountains, for example, and to spend the day in Dublin during Bloomsday. But I’m also curious to see what has changed in the last year with employment, housing, politics and education. And to gather as many stories as I can from my Irish friends.