Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Problems, Big and Insignificant.

I think I should begin by offering a disclaimer: the majority of my friends (meaning people I hang out with) are younger than me. I don’t know how this came to be, but I think I can remember when it happened. Around 2008, I was living with my girlfriend (now wife) in a cozy apartment on Margaret Street in Binghamton, New York. The ceilings were high, the backyard tiny, and the utilities taken care of by our landlord. I was hanging out with my high school friends at the time, each from the previous year’s graduating class. My friend Steve moved to Syracuse with my brother, while my friend Justin and I hung back. This essentially left him as my lone source of platonic companionship. He got married, had a kid and our time together dwindled quite unsurprisingly. This led to me meeting two friends from a band that I had played shows with about a year before. They essentially threw shows and parties at their dilapidated house on Chapin Street, only a fifteen minute bike ride from my apartment. If I always seem to come back to “the music scene”, it’s because indigenous art has pulled me out of many funks, and in this case it stalled obsolescence.

I cherish these friendships, even as I’m made fully aware of the desperation that upholding them ensues. Put simply, I sometimes can’t keep up. Just last Sunday I was invited to go “gorge jumping” in Ithaca, an invitation I had to decline for various dad reasons. At 32, I absorb vitality however and whenever I can though my wild days are waning swiftly. In this way I can relate to a lot of the awkward pandering and embarrassment endured by Josh and Cornelia in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young. Like Tara and me, they have their snug dull existence shaken up by pesky youngsters, only in Baumbach’s world everyone eventually becomes full-fledged villains. This misanthropic turn of events is more in step with his early films where bitter/tetchy middle-aged/upper class white rascals stare down their noses at everyone brave enough to step in front of their peripheral vision with nothing resolved and no lessons learned. This movie is kinder, more in line with his previous Frances Ha, which finds him looking benevolently upon the same type of young soul that his latest gazes at with an indignant leer. This works for the first half of the movie because the japing isn’t exclusive to the youth but the movie unfortunately wanders into the ethics-in-documentary-territory where characters reveal their true colors and the movie loses much of the whatever pleasure and insight it had to begin with.  

Of course, while watching the movie Tara and I laughed uncomfortably at Josh’s unfortunate style and social decisions while part of me wondered if she was really just relating too much to the material. There is devious montage where Baumbach swiftly chronicles the divergences between the old and the young; the Roku vs. the VCR, typewriter vs. computer, etc. The basic idea being that younger people are finding uses for the things old people threw away hoping they will somehow mature them beyond their years whilst old people lap up the convenient technology being hurdled at the young in hopes that it will hinder aging. As I said before I’m not opposed to absorbing vitality, and being from Binghamton, which is second in America for both obesity and depression, I approach spots like the ones filmed in gentrified Brooklyn with a mixture of horror and shame. On one hand, these bastards are just a shallow/entitled scourge driving out the indigenous population and wearing matching uniforms to better identify friends and foes. They are the non-conformists who think that by shunning convention they aren’t actually conformists. And we squares are bitter about their very existence, mostly because we’ve settled into our tedious ruts but partly because their style is so fucking stupid. So I find myself in the city quite often, usually in the anodyne hotbeds, and have the nerve to return home feeling disgruntled and disgraced in many of the same ways that Josh is. I can see how this annoys Tara, but I’m not entirely ashamed of my pathetic self. While I’m not eager to wear a fedora or don wingtips without socks, I’m also not willing to capitulate myself to the ways of the Twilight Zone. I’m going to travel, and by gum I’ll sop up whatever cool rites I please, regardless of whether or not they stay or matter.

While We’re Young ends with an image that’s supposed to leave our ill-fated couple at an age assimilation conundrum. It ponders the parental path of least resistance and its emotional value in this modern hopeless age, all of these trivial problems dwarfed when side by side with Abderrahmane Sissako’s magnificent Timbuktu. In this movie, which I have frequently called a masterpiece with little to no reluctance, Jihadists infiltrate and occupy the West African city with foreseen tragic results. Timbuktu has dealt with the scary realities of Sharia law since 2012 so the events have chilling reality. Mauritania born Sissako spent most of his life in Mali, thus he undoubtedly bared witness to a passive way of life being interrupted and sent on a slow decline towards complete religious rule as well as all of the suffocating repercussions therein.

In Timbuktu the majority of our time and empathy is reserved for a cattle herder named Kidane, his wife Satima, and their daughter Toya though we get mini-glimpses into many lives throughout. Kindane’s rural existence is relatively peaceful in contrast to his municipal neighbors. He lives with nominal dealings with the invaders until a slip in judgment renders him a criminal, requiring him to face the full extent of Sharia law, but more on that later.

The opening of the film is the image of a young gazelle being chased by the Jihadists, who are urged to not shoot it but to “wear it down,” a frighteningly clairvoyant symbol for the sorrow ahead. But while I’m certainly painting a gloomy miserable picture for you, Timbuktu isn’t as one-dimensional as all of that. The villains are villains in their livelihood alone but they aren’t completely stripped of their humanity altogether. The boss for instance, an older Libyan gent, exhibits a certain kind refinement in several instances even as he is ultimately obliged by his faith to act the part of a bully. This is a big part of the point here; that duty-bound men are dangerous in their predestined lack of options. It’s just another form of erroneous desperation, where most crimes find their impetus. Sissako isn’t excusing anyone, but in the age of such thunderous terror as we’ve seen lately many seem to prefer their villains cackling and pillaging, the lack thereof in Timbuktu sparked Mayor Jacques-Alain BĂ©nisti to ban the film sight-unseen from the Paris suburb of Villiers-sur-Marne.

As the gang enters, they enter incompetent and fairly pitiable like most men. They find themselves bumbling straightforward tasks such as riding a motorcycle, driving standard, or even speaking clearly. Being a multilingual throng they can barely speak to each other, which is fitting considering the capricious rules they are obliged to impose. These are laws that force women to wear gloves while handling fish while covering their heads, each of these much against their will. They also require all fun activities subsist such as futbol or singing. The townsfolk mimic the latter to no consequence while the act of making music proves to be the catylist for the “justification” of violence that these otherwise inconsequential oppressors have been waiting for. The city’s tranquil pace proved a sturdier fortress to penetrate, but they eventually wore them out as forseen. From there we get a glimpse into the horrors of Sharia law from lashes, forced marriage, and a horrific image of an adulterous couple buried to their heads and stoned to death.  

----- While it’s tempting to pat ourselves on the back too loudly from our comfy Western perch, it’s important to note that this type of zealous aggression isn’t exclusive to Islam, though they are certainly the current poster boys for the type of foolhardy behavior that disgruntled sociopaths that religion seems to attract. The net spreads wide and typically snatches the likes of lost men with a wearisome lack of self worth. I’m reminded of the pathetic ineffectual dopes who ruled over Trinity Baptist Church in Burlington, Vermont where I was forced to attend following the death of my grandmother. This creepy congregation was under the antiquated teachings of the nefarious Bob Jones, who if left to his own devices would probably enact a similar horrifying coercion had it not been for Legislative, Executive, Judiciary institutions that thankfully keep militant Christians somewhat at bay. The bottom line being that Ayaan Hirsi Ali had a point when shedding light on the intrinsic problem of religion rather than the constant insistence that it’s just a few guys “distorting” things. Similarities always seem to include the male gender and a healthy dose of anger and frustration towards their own unimportance. ------

Back to Kindane and his moment of weakness which begets similar acts; Sissako never belittles the impact of his actions and nor does either make excuses. This is, for me, where the true heart of the movie emerges. It would be good enough just as a political act but the relationship between Kindane and Toya distinctively shows how all acts of violence are inherently tragic in the pain left behind in their wake. That Timbuktu makes no distinction between the death of an apparent killer (though the act itself is very complicated) and the death of anyone else, including the innocent, is the wellspring of its luster. Kindane acknowledges as much, telling that us that death is in us from the moment we enter the world and therefore should not be feared. His only fear is what will happen to those he loves, those left helplessly behind. Without spoiling the finale, which admittedly gets a bit too frenzied, I’ll say that his final act of humility/protest is among the most beautiful humanist gestures ever put on film. I tried to describe it to several people, each time I got a big knot in my throat. Sissako ends as he began, panic stricken youngsters running aimlessly into the dunes, out of breath as the trespassers had planned. They are finally worn out.

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