Friday, May 28, 2010

Harold Fine Is Just Fine, Thank You

"Kiss my ankh."
-Peter Sellers as Harold Fine

As hilarious as Inspector Clouseau, Clare Quilty, Chance the Gardener and Dr. Strangelove are to the pop culture conversation, there must be a little bit of room for Peter Sellers’ Harold Fine. In the mostly forgotten 1960s film, I Love You Alice B. Toklas, he plays a very straight Los Angeles lawyer whose life changes one night after accidentally gorging himself on pot brownies. Giving up the suit and tie he grows his hair long and moves in to a swanky bohemian pad with Nancy (Leigh Taylor-Young), his gorgeous hippie paramour.

As far as I know, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas is the first great caricature of the 1960s counterculture, satirizing the movement’s embracing of Native American dress, Mao fetishism, Warholian weirdness, astrological infatuations, colorfully painted automobiles, and most especially, its language. (“Groovy… yeah, very, very groovy scene,” Harold says to his brother, Herbie, with the enthusiasm of a man greeting his dentist: it seems that already in 1968, the exclamatory power of ‘groovy,’ had slipped out of fashion.) Consider Harold’s conversation with a guru regarding his path of knowingness:

Guru: “How can you know a flower if you don't know who you are? Who are you? Do you know who you are?”

Harold: “I’m trying, Guru, I’m really trying.”

Guru: “When you stop trying, you’ll know who you really are.”

Harold: “I’m trying to stop trying.”

With the Guru

How many well-intentioned truth-seekers have been ripped off by such ambiguities substituting for life advice? Coming from a rational background—the law— in which arguments must be substantiated with some degree of proof, the semantics of Hippie colloquialism have begun to wear thin for Harold, especially when their general meanings really do seem to indicate general emotions.

This dearth of substance hits Harold when he discovers his lovely Nancy painting flowers on some handsome stud’s back. She is doing this because she “likes him,” but reassures Harold she likes him too. Enraged, Harold yells, “Is there anybody you don’t like?” This acting out of possessiveness betrays hippie etiquette and when she confronts him on his desires to be free, Harold cries aloud, “You bet I want to be free, but I want to be free with you alone.” It appears, thus, Harold would like to eat his pot brownie and have it too. Bourgeois love dies hard, especially when the girl you love is as gorgeous as Nancy.

The film climaxes at a party with Harold suffering a bad trip, but this being a Peter Sellers film, it is more ridiculous than frightening. I Love You Alice B. Toklas is a vision of the 1960s that can only exist within Hollywood, a place where hitchhikers don’t get molested and junkies don’t OD in the bathtub. As much as it has its fun at the movement’s expense, the film embraces the counterculture as well— marijuana certainly makes Harold Fine a better person. He may use the word “love” as casually as any bell-bottomed babe but there’s an awareness of his feelings and the needs of others that didn’t exist when he was a straight attorney. And having experienced the best and worst of both worlds, Harold remains committed to his revelations, abandoning his fiancé, Joyce, at the altar a second time so that he can find himself. Strutting down a busy Downtown street in an tuxedo, a stranger asks where he’s going, to which Harold cries, “I don’t know and I don’t care but there’s gotta be something beautiful out there, I just know it.” Harold’s choice is the filmmakers’ of course, and more than just an ending, it suggests that for all the silliness and naivety involved in finding oneself, it’s worth it.

Who needs a house when you have a girl like Nancy?

One last interesting parallel: I Love You Alice B. Toklas premiered in October, 1968. Though it wouldn’t be released until July, 1969, Easy Rider had already finished principal photography and was undergoing a lengthy editing process. It had a very different take on the counterculture. Like Harold Fine, Captain America and Billy the Kid want to be themselves, living apart from conventional social constructs. They take to their bikes to see America, a paranoid and dangerous journey in which they are martyred for their choice of freedom. Easy Rider thus feels like a cautionary tale, while I Love You Alice B. Toklas endorses the skewing of conventions wholeheartedly. One can't help but dissect the irony in this just a little: was it accidental, this bewildering of their intended audiences or were the mixed messages intentional? No wonder nobody says, ‘groovy,’ anymore…

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Long Egyptian Night Coming

In his novel, The Yacoubian Building, author Alaa Al Aswany employs a clever literary technique: a single, crumbling edifice and its population within serves as a metaphor for the decline of Egypt. Literature works well with restrictions and better with the ghosts of nostalgia and this trick could be well disposed for use among other residential landmarks with storied pasts (the Beverly Hills and Chelsea Hotels with its long-term guests come to mind, as does the Chateau Marmont Hotel on the Sunset Strip, a setting that could strip rock and roll to its essence, and perhaps, its popular decline). Decline is a popular theme in literature and for the fictional residents of the Yacoubian Building old enough to remember, change is not usually a good thing. Present circumstances, at least (the novel’s setting is the winter of 1991 during the onset of the first Gulf War), prove intermittently corrupting, debilitating, and horrible—those of a delicate cast, it seems, do not fare very well in modern Cairo.

Built by an Armenian businessman in 1937, the real life eponymously named Art Deco structure once housed Cairo’s elite but Third World capitals have their own kind of ‘white flight’ not dissimilar to ours (the rich gravitate towards greater space for their golf courses, swimming pools, manicured lawns— not so different from their Long Island or Montecito counterparts— it is a flat world, after all) and the inhabitants within Al Aswany’s novel represent various paradigms of contemporary society: political wannabes, Francophile dipsomaniacs, gay journalists, scheming tailors, and Islamic terrorists. Okay, perhaps not exactly. Rather than being an honest survey of urban Cairo this description of characters might appear handpicked at prima facie but Al Aswany has written a great book, one to my mind, is very nearly to his Cairo as Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is to Bombay, The Master and Margarita is to Mikhail Bulgakov’s Moscow and What Makes Sammy Run is to Budd Schullberg’s Hollywood— a novel that is so evocative of time and place it defines a society as well as its culture’s plight, better (and certainly more poetically) than any history is capable of. And like these other great novels, there’s a lot of anger there. Its stand against a social system, with which it finds fault, is a brave one.

There is no central plot in The Yacoubian Building— Al Aswany weaves between characters, whose stories do not always intersect: Zaki Bel el Dessoui is a wealthy, aging, alcoholic womanizer reminiscing over the glorious pre-revolutionary past; Taha el Shazili is the doorman’s son who fails at his policeman’s test and is politicized enough to become a suicidal terrorist; Malak is a shirtmaker conspiring to hustle himself into a better apartment; Hatim Rasheed is a gay journalist who’s in love with a married soldier from the country, whom he bribes with gifts to woo his affection; Hagg Muhammad Azzam is a self-made millionaire opportunist aspiring into politics, an individual whom betrays his religious averring when he drugs his concubine mistress in order to force an abortion against her will.

But to my mind, the hero of the story is Busayna el Sayed, a young, beautiful woman who has to work to support her family, which involves indulging the sick petting of her boss for a mere ten Egyptian pounds reward (about two dollars worth). Like another character in the building, Abashkharon, a factotum to the philandering fleshpot el Dessouki wielding a prosthetic leg as “moral blackmail,” Busayna is compelled to use her body for whatever tiny, if not shameful, gains available to her. Inspired by her fetching figure, the charming lecher, el Dessouki, hires her as his assistant but eventually falls in love with her integrity. With his fond memories of an elegant, pre-revolution Cairo, El Dessouki might despise the impoverished, insular, religiously fundamentalist nation Egypt has become (Al Aswany’s prose describes drinking alcohol in Cairo as very nearly a speakeasy affair) but the old gentleman flinches when Busayna mocks his nationalism in the most important speech of the novel:

“You don’t understand because you’re well off. When you’ve stood for two hours at the bus stop or taken three different buses and had to go through hell every day just to get home, when your house has collapsed and the government has left you sitting with your children in a tent on the street, when the police officer has insulted you and beaten you just because you’re on a minibus at night, when you’ve spent the whole day going around the shops looking for work and there isn’t any, when you’re a fine sturdy young man with an education and all you have in your pockets is a pound, or sometimes nothing at all, and then you’ll know why we hate Egypt.”

Busayna is speaking of her own hardships, but she may as well be reporting for all the world’s fellaheen, whether they are Indians, Africans, or even Americans. The language resonates, particularly in its locale and environs: The Yacoubian Building was the decade’s biggest selling Arabic novel. It’s remarkable that such a book could be published and popularized in a country notorious for its censorship (it’s even been adapted into a film and TV series though in sanitized forms). As a work of art that challenges the status quo, the novel spits in society’s face: the government is portrayed as corrupt, barbarous, nepotistic, irreligious, and despotic— torture is described vividly. Malice, perversity, and cravenness pervade the motivations of much of the remaining characters. Egyptian society, here at least, seems to be tearing itself apart.

But how does one of the country’s annual seven million tourists perceive this? Well, he or she doesn’t. Although the Egyptian government fails to provide for the poor, an infrastructure catering to the needs of tourists is very well established. And why not considering the profits? High admission prices, luxury hotels, comprehensive tour programs are big, big business. In the popular press, Egypt is safe enough to visit but dangerous enough that individuals are advised against doing so on their own, a happy medium for a government quite enthusiastic to exploit a rich heritage they had absolutely no part in creating. This concern for travelers’ safety is a fallacy predicated on Egypt being a Muslim, and therefore dangerous, nation. Handholding becomes de rigueur so that in their ten-day ‘adventure,’ the average tourist’s interaction with Egyptians is limited to souvenir peddlers, waiters, concierges, bellboys, drivers, and the ubiquitous tour guide, an air-conditioned experience filtering the traveler’s participation to a culturally predetermined test formula.

Another way of looking at the Cairo skyline

It’s often the case that in the interests of tourism a country’s glorious history will overshadow present-day realities. In perhaps no other country is the disconnect between myth and reality so vast as it is in Egypt. Moreover, the historical gap between the marketed fantasy and the onerous reality is equally prodigious. Between the New Kingdom and modern Egyptian state, the fellaheen have suffered incompetent and taxing governments under Persians, Greeks, Romans, Circassians, Turks, and the British. Even religion has a long and varied history so that between Aman Ra and Allah, believers might have prayed to Zeus, Jupiter, and Jesus Christ— you can witness this textured history in ancient temples where stone-cut reliefs of Horus have been plastered over with painted Last Supper scenes, the facial features chiseled out by Muslim iconoclasts.

In most countries, it’s common to see as many locals as tourists at famous monuments, but not in Egypt. In fact, in the interest of state-sponsored tourism (and thus tourists) whole neighborhoods are being razed in order to recreate the glory of ancient Egypt, as in the Nile Valley region where the Sphinx road between the Luxor and Karnak Temples is being restored, displacing entire neighborhoods and thousands of people who are not being adequately compensated for the loss of their homes. For the casual tourist or amateur Egyptologist, the government’s initiative may seem a matter of course. After all, when the scales are weighed between the visual recreation of a glorious dynasty and the miseries of a few thousand peasants, which side do you think the majority of Nefertiti fetishists will find purchase?

Tourism: an inexhaustible machine

Egypt’s President Mubarak came to power in 1981 after the spectacular assassination of Anwar Sadat. Egyptian society has been in a “state of emergency” ever since. What this means is the suspension of habeas corpus, civil rights, and an impartial justice system. Dissidents, radicals, journalists, religious fundamentalists, and free thinkers are routinely jailed and tortured. Yet, Egypt is often held up as a model of the region’s potential for democracy. These tone-deaf proclamations as well as financial support (Egypt is the second highest recipient of U.S. aid— two thirds of which goes to military spending and police espionage used to oppress its citizenry) reveal the utter depths of American hypocrisy. Mubarak is eighty-four years old and expected to die soon. One of his sons, his rapacious reputation preceding him, is being groomed as the heir apparent. This is not a happy prospect for the impoverished Egyptian and in the cafés, many Egyptians, even those in middle-class positions who have benefited from the regime’s policies but whose moral instincts are disgusted by its behavior, are open to a people’s revolution. The land, so fertile with history, may burst into the international spotlight yet again.

As for fate of the characters in The Yacoubian Building, most end tragically, but the final scene finishes the novel on a happy note, one of love redeemed and survived in spite of the brutal reasons it shouldn’t. It may seem maudlin to some after so much tragedy, tagged on by a publisher’s recommendation, softening the political hammer but in its own way it works. Because readers, and by that extension human beings, need a reason to hope.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

That's the Way the Tortilla Crumbles

Although globalization has sped the process that colonialism began, integrating and importing different cultures and people into foreign lands, America remains foremost among the world as a nation of immigrants. The indigenous excepted of course, all Americans come from somewhere else. The ancestors that founded our American lines thus once upon a time endured a very brave journey to be here. There is no shortage of mythologizing these romantic origins and my family is no different. Collecting and adding up various stories of apocrypha, my great grandfather and progenitor of the American Lotmans was born in the Ukraine port city of Odessa. An army captain stationed in the Black Sea during the First World War, when the Russian empire collapsed into revolution, civil war and a pogrom against Jews, Captain Lotman went AWOL, gathering his wife and his brother’s family and fleeing the violence. It took nearly three years for them to walk across Europe—a Europe at the time devastated by war, revolution and the Spanish influenza— three years sleeping in barns and stealing chickens before they made it to the South of France where there was a little money and a ship to take them to New York and beyond, to Chicago, where lived a cousin with a tailor shop. Was this really how my American line was born or was it much more ordinary, bureaucratic, sanitized? I prefer to celebrate my great grandfather’s adventure regardless of disputations. As the famous line from the John Ford western advocates, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Even the most hard-line, bigoted nativist waxes starry-eyed fables about the time his or her ancestors came over, glossing over the fact they were once aliens, maybe illegal, probably culturally and linguistically confused and likely despised for their efforts in trying to make a better life. The hatred reserved for Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians and the bulk of our South-of-the-border neighbors was once reserved for Wops, Micks, and Pollocks. Immigration is one of those issues that will never go away. Just last month, the Arizona state government passed Arizona SB1070, legislation also known as Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, which proposes police activism in interrogating suspected aliens regarding their papers and facilitating punitive measures for those in violation. Boosters of the bill deny any kind of racial profiling involved but it’s hard to imagine a white guy driving a Lexus being asked to provide proof of citizenship. Elsewhere this week an Alabama gubernatorial candidate in his TV ad proclaimed sanctimoniously that if elected he’ll make sure that Driver's Ed. tests are administered only in English and in California, a Republican congressman wants to deport U.S. born children of illegal immigrants, defying the Constitution.

Even those sympathetic to our melting pot heritage have precarious loyalties in moments of national crisis. Just look at attitudes towards Germans during the First World War, the Japanese at Manzanar, and Middle Easterners and South Asians after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. In normal times as well fear has been the catalyzing agent for the proclamation of draconian measures. While it may be true that immigrants commit crimes, you could argue just as exhaustively that it is poverty, more than culture, that is the inspiration. What is nearly always missing from the talking heads in the bully pulpits is some compassion and desire to understand the roots of the problem. It does not require tremendous common sense to realize that a human being will seek out his best opportunities for food, shelter, and work. What’s a thinking man with a strong body to do when his country suffers forty percent unemployment and his country’s biggest source of revenue is work remittances from the United States? It’s a problem, all right, and always it seems the solution is the reflexive ‘kick ‘em out, build a wall,’ answer. Never mind that California and the whole Southwest was once Mexican territory until an imperialistic war of the 1840s saw it ceded to the U.S. for a paltry sum. Never mind that we’ve damned the Colorado River and built so many aqueducts that by the time the river reaches Mexico, it’s so small and insignificant farmers are going bankrupt by the thousands. Never mind that without illegals picking lettuce out in San Bernardino farms for three dollars an hour, we couldn’t enjoy the very cheap produce we love drenching our low-fat Ranch dressing over. Never mind all that. It’s their fault, not ours, that people are scared, starving and killing each other.

It is not the artist’s responsibility to put the issue in perspective, but he or she can dramatize it in such a way that creates a sense of powerful empathy. T.C. Boyle does this admirably in his novel, The Tortilla Curtain. Published fifteen years ago, it feels as contemporary, relevant and urgent today as it did then. Compared favorably with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a similar story of migrants, prejudice and their tragic trajectory, Boyle quotes Steinbeck’s character in the lead-in to his novel, “They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.”

Dehumanization is omnipresent in Boyle’s story, beginning when Delaney, a liberal white naturalist, runs over Cándido, an illegal alien crossing Los Angeles’s Topanga Canyon road at an inauspicious moment. Delaney doesn’t speak Spanish, the injured Cándido knows no English, and the unfortunate action is resolved by Delaney’s handing over twenty dollars to the battered Cándido. Explaining the resolution to his incredulous wife, Kyra, later, Delaney says, “I told you, he was Mexican,” as if that reduces the transaction into its simplest terms.

Nevertheless, their lives are herein interwoven and Boyle adroitly switches chapters between his characters without ever losing momentum. Delaney and Kyra represent the wealthy liberal’s contradictions. They live in a gorgeous, secluded enclave named Arroyo Blanco. The neighborhood, which owes its name and architectural style (Spanish Mission) to the culture of the undesirables it aspires to keep out, decides to put up a security checkpoint and when that doesn’t seem far-reaching enough, a steep wall is erected to enclose the community to the exclusion of others— Arroyo Blanco works as a fair enough metaphor for America itself and the futility of preventing the outside world from coming in. Kyra, a hotshot realtor, is particularly sensitive to the clustering of Mexican day laborers in certain convenience store parking lots and its inverse relation to property values. Although, she must have awareness such an action will have dire repercussions for those doing what they can to eke a living, she makes a phone call to immigration to “clean up” the streets. She doesn’t even feel guilty about this nor does she appreciate the choice of language. For Delaney, whose sympathies are always with the natural world he writes about, it doesn’t take much— a stolen car, a piece of graffiti, a low rider with tinted windows and rumbling bass speakers ominously encountered— before his feelings towards illegals are destabilized so that a personal vendetta develops in his mind between himself and the man he hit to a degree that violence becomes a rational solution.

As interesting as his psychological descent may be, what makes Tortilla Curtain so powerful is Boyle’s compassionate portrayal of Cándido and his young, pregnant wife, América. Cándido has been coming to El Norte for years to do backbreaking work, from Idaho’s potato fields to West Hills landscaping, never managing to secure that elusive tarjeta verde. América has come with him on the premise of a better life, which in her estimation is as little as a small apartment and three meals a day, not the stuff of Horatio Alger riches, but then Cándido, though clever, industrious, and diligent, is working in a cruel, violent world, which is one in which an individual, no matter how much his efforts, good intentions or small contributions to the local economy, runs the risk of deportation and the loss of everything accumulated and saved.

The Tortilla Curtain

Cándido is a victim of bad luck and the capacity of human beings for greed, thoughtlessness, and self-absorption. Promising América a better life, he is ripped off in Tijuana, humiliated at the border, reduced to squatting homeless in a creek bed, hit by a car, robbed in Canoga Park, and when things are finally beginning to improve for him and his pregnant wife, Cándido unwittingly sets off a catastrophe that not only ruins everything he’s worked for but nearly kills him. It is not for a lack of effort that prevents Cándido from getting ahead but a complex social structure that despises him for his efforts:

Cándido was a sinner like any other man, sure, but no worse. And here he was, half-starved and crippled by their infernal machines, bounced from one to another of them like a pinball, first the big jerk with the Elvis hair and then the pelirrojo who’d run him down in the road, the very one, and his gangling tall awkward pendejo of a son who’d hiked all the way down into the canyon to violate a poor man’s few pitiful possessions. It was too much. He needed to go to confession, do penance, shrive himself somehow. Even Job would have broken down under an assault like this.”

Of course, there is some symbolism suggested in the choosing of a character’s name such as Cándido; a point is being made, an apologue being wrought and an interesting one at that. His namesake, a character created by a secularist in pre-Revolution France, leaves his native village behind in order to discover if it is true as his mentor Dr. Pangloss teaches, that this is the best of all possible words. Like Job, like Cándido, he discovers it to be a violent, soul-stricken place. In the end, the Candide of the French imagination returns home reassured that though the world may be horrible one can run a clean, lovely garden— your joys and ambitions will not fail you if they remain small scale. The big difference between the Candide of French literature and the Cándido in America is that our Cándido doesn’t need philosophy or its gratuitous hypotheses—his goals have always been a small home, food, maybe some house plants, and a woman and children to love. Of course these humble dreams are not uniquely Cándido’s own but remain a universal value to nearly every brave, hardscrabble immigrant who has ever strode boldly into the unknown world.