an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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movie review: Limi Girl – part one

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Jacinta: Hurray we’re going to do a movie review.

Canto: Yes and it’s a beautiful, quiet and powerful Chinese movie, co-written and directed by Roy Cheung made in 2014 and set among the Limi people, an apparently rather impoverished tribal group in Yunnan Province, near the Burmese border. The Limi people have their own language, part of the Tibetan group, but the film is in Mandarin, not surprisingly, as Limi is spoken by only around 30,000 people.

Jacinta: It’s certainly an affecting movie about the trials and tensions of a very basic rural life, the generational changes, the lure of the city, the yearning for something more, the pull of home and safety… it’s a universal story of tradition versus change, and the heartache of those torn between.

Canto: So the film, which is available on youtube, starts as the central character, Xiumei (Shi Yan), returns to her home village from studying in the town of Shifang, in neighbouring Szichuan Province, much to the delight of her little ‘sister’ Gaidi. But Xiumei hasn’t returned in triumph, she’s ‘dropped out’, and the village women have gathered to taunt her about her failure. Her humiliated father is forced to apologise and promises to pay back the money he’s borrowed for his daughter’s education.

Jacinta: And when we first see Xiumei she’s in city clothes, unlike the village women and girls, who all wear the same outlandish pillowy head-dresses and navy blue robes. The village huts are of rickety logs and thatch, set in a landscape of rock-strewn hills and streams. Physically beautiful, it’s clearly a tough environment for eking out a living.

Xiumei angrily faces the angry villagers

Xiumei angrily faces the angry villagers

Canto: Xiumei comes to her doorway and confronts her critics. From the conversation we learn that she has given up college because she wants to be a dancer, though it’s confusing – she promises to repay the money, she promises to return to college, she’s defiant and angry. She retreats inside, and Gaidi comes in to comfort her, and to ask if she’s heard any news from Szichuan about her (Gaidi’s) parents.

Jacinta: So Gaidi isn’t actually Xiumei’s sister, but possibly a cousin, who’s in the care of Xiumei’s parents – another burden for this poor couple.

Canto: Xiumei hasn’t any news and can only show the girl a postcard of Shifang, which she stares at sadly. In the next scene, in a beautiful mountain shrine, Xiumei is back in traditional dress, burning incense to the Buddha along with Gaidi and the village women. She asks to be blessed to go to college again, while Gaidi prays to be reunited with her parents in Szichuan. Then we follow a bus rolling along a mountain road. Inside the bus, a young man, Heigo, is returning to the village. His mother is in the local hospital and he’s returning from Guangdong to check on her… or so it seems.

Jacinta: And in these scenes we see again the rugged beauty of the landscape, a contrast to the unhappy yearnings of the humans. Guangdong by the way is a coastal province bordering Hong Kong and Macau, well to the east of Yunnan.

Canto: So we find out about Heigo through another passenger who greets him, and tells him laughingly that his mother has tricked him – she’s just luring him home to marry his ‘childhood sweetheart’, Shugio – as has always been intended. Heigo looks annoyed and asks after Xiumei – he’s heard she’s back. His friend, though only wants to talk of Heigo’s coming wedding to Shugio, and how lucky he is.

Jacinta: So this is how it’s shaping up, an inter-generational contest. The main characters in the film are the young – Xiumei and Heigo, and Shugio, Heigo’s intended, and little Gaidi. Heigo has been tricked into returning, and Xiumei is under pressure…

Canto: Heigo gets off the bus before it reaches the village. He’s clearly thoroughly peed off, but while he sits muttering by a brook, Shugio arrives on a motorbike. A strange sight, in her traditional costume. She’s annoyed that she had to come all this way to meet him, having heard from his friend that he got off the bus early. And Heigo is annoyed too and reluctantly goes back with her to the village.

Jacinta: Yes, he sees Shugio as part of the family group colluding to entrap him. The motorbike, I think, is an interesting symbol. It testifies to the rough terrain, more easily negotiated on a motorbike, but it’s also the only motorised object, the most advanced piece of technology in the movie.

Canto: Along the road to the village, with Heigo driving, they encounter Gaidi, with Xiumei carrying a heavy basket. Gaidi hails Heigo, her ‘cousin’. He greets her happily, but is particularly keen to chat with Xiumei. He follows her up the hill, while impatient Shugio calls him back. Xiumei’s response to him is cool but friendly enough, and she allows him to accompany her, while irritated Shugio drives off with Gaidi as pillion.

Jacinta: He clearly fancies her.

Canto: Yes but her views aren’t so clear. So Shugio and Gaidi arrive at Shugio’s mother’s house – she’s weaving, a bridal costume perhaps – but she’s disappointed to find Gaidi arriving instead of Heigo.

Jacinta: This is a confusing scene. She asks Gaidi, ‘where’s your cousin’, meaning Heigo, and Gaidi says, according to the subtitles, ‘cousin is taking sister Xiumei away on a motorbike’, which is either untrue or nonsensical.

Canto: Yes, there’s only one motorbike in the movie, and Shugio was riding it. If Gaidi is lying, it’s not to keep Xiumei out of trouble. It doesn’t make sense. Anyway, Shugio’s mother scolds Gaidi and tells her she’s not to see Xiumei again.

Jacinta: From this scene we realise that Gaidi lives with Shugio and her mother.

Canto: In the next scene, Heigo is punting Xiumei along in a boat on the river.

Jacinta: Being very helpful – he was last seen carrying her basket for her.

Canto: Their conversation here is revealing. Heigo asks why she didn’t answer his many letters. She says she didn’t want to distract him from his work, and he responds that his work, as a supervisor, is utterly boring. She changes the subject, asking him about his ‘wife’, Shugio, and of course he responds that she isn’t his wife – yet.

Jacinta: Yes and there’s nothing apparently coquettish about this reference. She seems to be reminding him about his commitment.

Canto: Which seems a bit harsh. We don’t know if he’s ever made a commitment, it all seems to be about family assumptions. Anyway, Xiumei next praises Shugio’s cleverness and hard work. Certainly not encouraging his attentions. The scene ends strangely, as Heigo takes up a sorrowful song, cheerfully sung by washerwomen on the bank. It’s a song of lovesickness, and Heigo howls…

Jacinta: So ends the first part. It looks like it’s going to be a long review.

Screenshot 2016-06-10 16.04.49

Heigo joins in the song


Written by stewart henderson

June 10, 2016 at 4:28 pm

night flight to Dubai

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imageIf you’ve come here looking for Bondesque hijinks click off now. The plane was a Boeing 777, with I think 10 passengers abreast, 3x4x3 with 2 aisles. I take this from Dr Google as much as from unreliable memory, there are apparently many ways of fitting out a 777. Our seating was on the left side facing forward, my TC had the aisle seat, I took the centre, and the window seat was taken up by a late-comer, who thus dashed our hopes of moving up one and gazing into the outer dark. This gangly young Englishman’s trials in clambering over and around us to get to his seat were a promise of discomfort to come.

It was a 14-hour flight to Dubai, starting at around 2200 but due to time zones and date-lines etc we’d be arriving at 0530 the next morning. As mentioned, I’ve had plenty of advice about pills or treatments for whatever might ail me on the flight but in truth I prefer remaining unmedicated as far as possible, and in my sixtieth year I’m pretty well drug-free, if you except life’s absolutely necessary pleasures, caffeine and alcohol, and I’m ever alarmed by and resistant to the collections of meds many of my peers feel forced to take against Alzheimer’s, anaemia, angina, anxiety, apnoeia, arthritis and let’s not get started on the rest of the alphabet. So all I took was some nasal spray and chewing gum as a defence against ‘plane brain’, aka aerosinusitis, and this worked a treat.

I didn’t sleep a wink in those 14 hours, though my reliable but argumentative TC insisted I had some winks, possibly as many as 40. Of course I was wide awake as I could possibly be for the take-off, but I mustn’t exaggerate my terror, it was nothing compared to the Mad Mouse. What made sleep impossible was the discomfort, the novelty and the anticipation, a mèlange of unbeatable distractions. My window-side neighbour was asleep within minutes of take-off, which didn’t stop him jabbing and kicking me when he shifted positions. There was a dearth of space between me and the seats in front and I felt timid about leaning my seat back too far. As time went by I became obsessed with my legs, which didn’t have room to straighten. I tried pushing my arse right back in the seat, I raised it up awkwardly, but just couldn’t get my angles right. My TC on seeing me squirm suggested I take some exercise in the aisle, as per the advice of all experts, but I perversely refused such an easy solution, and didn’t leave my seat until just before touch-down. Which turned out to be one of the highlights of the flight – possibly the longest pee in my peeing career.

Of course it’s hard to look back over so many years of peeing and pick out some, or any, of the great ones, and in any case peeing is such a subjective thing. For example, we’ve all experienced the agony of desperately needing a pee but being nowhere near a publicly sanctioned pee-place. In such circs your distressed state will disable you from conducting pee-stream studies of any kind; the last thing on your mind will be your PB in this activity. I’d go so far as to say that the physical release, the sense of near-weightless joy caused by these outpourings has been probably my most spiritual/religious experience. A true feeling of Salvation, as far from mere bean- or pee-counting as can be had.

Anyway what was intriguing about this mighty slash after 13 hours or so of being plied – necessarily, given the arid aircraft atmosphere – with coffee, fruit juice, and more pure unadulterated water (my least fave drink) than I usually consume in a month, was that, until my legs finally communicated to me that they really had to be stretched, I felt no great urge to relieve myself. Even after several minutes of quite exhilarating straightening and muscle-rubbing in the aisle, my loo visit seemed more after-thoughtful than necessary, so I was in a kind of neutral, clear-headed state when I observed my pee go on and on, leading me to thoughts of PBs and such. If it wasn’t my longest ever, was it in my top 10 (or top 5 if it was in the top half of the 10)? How could I tell? Clearly there is one pee I’ve had in my life that is my longest. Is this in any sense important? Well, maybe. Interesting, certainly. Though on reflection it isn’t so much the longest but the largest by volume that’s important* (or merely interesting) for presumably sometimes the pee runs more feebly than at others; the valve, so to speak, being plus ou moins open – constricted or dilated due to the vagaries of the weather, state of health, age perhaps or even just state of mind. Maybe one day scientists will hatch a device to be implanted in the midriff to measure the highs and lows of pee-flow. Maybe they already have, it wouldn’t suprise me, the utility of such is clear. But it would also allow some champion to claim the Biggest Pee, another entry to add to the Guiness Book of Perhaps Not so Pointless Records. And as I sat back in my now more comfy seat readying myself for Dubai, I thought of another perhaps not so pointless PB that I might just have broken, in that at some point during this flight I may have reached a higher distance above sea-level than ever before. Now how could that be monitored in our monitor-loving age? But then again, sea levels rise and fall, so….

Dubai lights. We watched the perfect landing on the screen before us. The airport was pale in the breaking dawn and glittering with artificial light. There were planes everywhere. Already it was 28 degrees outside.


*Just as the Nile is the longest river but the Amazon is by far the largest by volume. The Amazon wins.


– The food was plentiful, varied and delicious IMHO, and the service was excellent, under sometimes difficult conditions.

– You need to see things from a baby’s perspective. As they’ve not yet developed sophisticated means of either conveying or receiving info, their instinct is to make as much noise as possible to make absolutely sure that others know they’re suffering horrendous agonies or experiencing the most frabjous joy. So nature has furnished them with the most impressive noise-making equipment for this purpose. It’s highly adaptive, another fine example of evolution at work. Ear plugs next time, though simple perspective taking can be sufficient.

– Not having a tech-savvy 13-y-o as my TC it took most of the flight to work out the functioning of the on-board entertainment (the first 2 hours just to get the headphones plugged in and operational). The movies were mostly boorish but I found one, Carol, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel I actually read some 20 years ago, a book/film about longing, desire and hope, regardless of sexual preference really, very much the sort of thing I’m drawn to. Reminds me of my fave Jane Austen novel, Persuasion. Highly recommended – I got teary. Fine performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Also recalls to my mind my fave line from the KJ Bible, perhaps my fave line in all litt: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’.

Couldn’t settle to anything else much, though I did find a silly thriller very much starring Olga Kurylenko, the Most Beautiful Woman Who Has Ever Lived according to my ever-changing judgment (OK is always more than OK, I like to say), but not even her loveliness and her formidable ball-breaking superhero role could force me to see the shamefully silly shenanigans to the end. Better to watch L’Annulaire again, and again.

– Aerosinusitis. I did feel a painful buid-up after take-off but then came a sudden but sort of slow uncorking and brightening of sound, rather pleasurable, and I had no further problems on the outbound flights.


Une presence francaise at Dubai airport

Une presence francaise at Dubai airport



Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2016 at 12:13 pm

Pourquoi science? – inter alia

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So as I approach my sixtieth year I’m in a mood to reflect on my largely wasted, dilettantish life (at least seen from a certain perspective… ).

It seems to me that my two older siblings and I were largely the products of benign neglect, if that’s not too unfair to my parents, who seemed largely pre-occupied with their – highly dysfunctional – relationship with each other. Anyway this neglect had its advantages and disadvantages, and it was offset by at least one key decision of my mother (by far the dominant parent). She had us taken to the local library once a fortnight to borrow books, and there were always books aplenty in the house, including at least two sets of encyclopaedias. So from the age of six or seven until I left home, the local libraries became a haven.

From almost the beginning though I felt a difference between learning, which was a thrill, and school, which I suffered in silence. My first strong memory of school comes from grade one, when I was five or six. My teacher asked me to read from our class reader and I had to tell her that I’d forgotten to bring it from home. She blew up at me. ‘You’ve forgotten it again! What’s the matter with you? How many times have I told you,’ etc etc. I was extremely humiliated. I was learning that I was vague, forgetful, disorganised, and it was all too true. Shortly after this, I arrived at school and discovered I’d forgotten my reader again. I was so scared I hid in the bushes until break time, when I rejoined the class unnoticed, apparently (though probably not). I remember the sense of being defiant and tricksterish.

It’s funny that I’m now a teacher who checks students’ homework and has to admonish those who don’t do it, because as a kid in primary school and later in high school, when the issue loomed much larger, I never did any homework. Not once, ever. I even got caned for it in high school. And suffered endless screaming fits from my mother when the matter was reported back to her. I remember many sleepless nights fretting about how to survive the next day’s questioning, but still I was unable or unwilling to comply. I spent a lot of my school days staring out the window, daydreaming of freedom. One day I watched a tiny bird – a hummingbird, I thought, but we have no hummingbirds in Australia – hovering a bit driftily above some bushes, for ages and ages. What an ability, what a perspective it had! And yet it felt constrained to hover there. Maybe only humans could free themselves from these ‘natural’ constraints.



I concocted an idea for a novel, which I confided to my sister, of schoolkids rising up and throwing out the teachers, establishing an ‘independent state’ school – an idea I probably took from Animal Farm. She was very enthusiastic, probing me on the details, assuring me it would be a best-seller, I would become famous. I became briefly obsessed with contemplating and planning the takeover – the secret meetings, the charismatic leader, the precisely organised tactics, the shock and dismay of our former masters, the nationwide reaction –  but of course I soon stumbled over the outcome. Surely not Animal Farm again?

I learned over time that Elizabeth, our town, was the most working-class electorate in South Australia, with the largest percentage of labor voters in the state, and possibly even the country. Of course, one had to take pride in being the biggest or the most of anything, but what did it mean to be working-class? Was it a good or a bad thing? Was our family more or less working-class than our neighbours? I was discovering that interesting questions led to more questions, rather than to answers. That, as Milan Kundera wrote, the best questions didn’t have answers, or at least not final ones. Of course, the provisional answer seemed to be that it wasn’t good to be working class, or middle class, or upper class, but to move beyond such limitations. But I was learning, through my library reading, which increasingly consisted of Victorian English literature for some reason, that class wasn’t so easy to transcend.

I continued to struggle as my schooling moved towards the pointy end. Classmates were dropping out, working in factories, getting their first cars. I was wagging school a lot, avoiding the house, sleeping rough, drinking. My older brother started an economics degree at university, probably the first person in the history of my parents’ families to do so as the prospect of university education was opened up to the great unwashed, but I was unlikely to be the second. I recall wagging it one afternoon, walking to the end of my street, where the city of Elizabeth came to an abrupt end, and wandering through the fields and among the glasshouses of the Italian marketers, armed with my brother’s hefty economics textbook, and getting quite excited over the mysteries of supply and demand.

And so it went – I left school, worked in a factory here, a factory there, went on the dole, worked in an office for a while, got laid off, another factory, moved to the city, shared houses with art students, philosophy students, mathematics nerds (whom I loved), wrote volumes of journals, tried to write stories, ritually burned my writings, read philosophy, had regular bull sessions about all the really interesting things that young people obsess about and so on and on. And I haven’t even mentioned sex.

I’d always been hopelessly shy with the opposite sex and wrote myself off as eternally poor and inadequate, but I loved girls and fantasised endlessly. I felt guilty about it, not because I thought it immoral – I never had any moral qualms about sex, which made it all the more easy to dismiss religions, which all seemed to be obsessed with regulating or suppressing it. I felt guilty because sexual daydreaming always seemed the lazy option. I was like Proust’s Swann, I would tire easily from thinking too much, especially as those great questions never had any easy or final answers. So  I would give up and indulge my fantasies, and even the occasional unrequited or unrealistic passion for real female acquaintance. I remember hearing of a celebrated mathematician who would wander homeless around the USA I think it was, couchsurfing at the homes of mathematical colleagues male and female, inspiring them to collaborate with him on mathematical papers, so that he held a record for the most papers published in peer-reviewed journals. An attractive female colleague laughed at the idea of an affair with him, because apparently everyone knew he was entirely asexual, had never been heard to even mention sex in his life… Could this be true, I wondered, and if so, how could I create for myself a brain like his? It seemed to me that Aristotle was right, the pleasure derived from certain types of contemplation was greater than sexual pleasure (though dog knows I’d hate to forgo sex). I’d experienced this myself, grappling with something in Wittgenstein, reading a passage over and over until an insight hit me and set me pacing around my bedroom all night long talking to myself. But maybe it was all bullshit.

So now to get to the heart of the matter – pourquoi science? As a youngster I read novels, and sometime works of history – one of my first big adult books was a very good biography of Richard III, which I read at 14, and which came flooding back when Richard’s body was miraculously discovered recently. But I never read science. At school I quickly lost track of physics and mathematics, while always being vaguely aware of how fundamental they were. Through philosophy in my early twenties I started to regain an interest, but generally I’d resigned myself to being on the arts side of the great divide.

One book, or one passage in a book, changed this. The book was Der Zauberberg, or The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, which I read in 1981. This was the story of Hans Castorp, a young man in his mid-twenties, as I was when I read it. As a tubercular patient, he was sent to a sanitarium in the Alps for a period of enforced idleness, where he encountered a number of more or less interesting characters and was encouraged to grapple with some more or less interesting ideas. Wrapped up on his loggia, he was reading some books on fundamental science, and fell into contemplation, and in a passage of some fifteen pages he asked himself two fundamental questions, both of which branched off into a whole series of sub-questions (or so I remember it). They were: What is life? and What is matter? And there was something about the way Mann animated this Castorp character, as ordinary a fellow as myself, and made me identify with his questioning and his profound wonder. It just flipped a switch in me. These were the questions. They could easily fill several lifetimes. No reason ever to be bored again.


I immediately went out and bought my first ever science magazine, Scientific American, and throughout the eighties I bought each monthly issue and read it cover to cover, not always understanding it all of course, but gradually building up a general knowledge. Later I switched to New Scientist, and nowadays I read the fine Australian magazine Cosmos, as well as listening to science podcasts and reading the odd blog. I’m far from being a scientist, and I’ll never have more than a passing knowledge – but then, that’s all that even the most brilliant scientist can hope for, as Einstein well knew.

But here’s the thing – and I’ll expand on this in my next post. It’s not science that’s interesting – science is just a collection of tools. What’s interesting is the world. Or the universe, or everything. It’s the curiosity, and the questions, and the astonishing answers that raise so many more questions. For example – what is matter? Our investigations into this question have revealed that we know bugger all abut the stuff. And when we were young, as a species, we thought we knew it all!

Next time, I’ll focus more deeply on science itself, its meaning and its detractors.



Written by stewart henderson

March 12, 2016 at 8:30 am

why is the after-life so appealing?

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You could say that the question this post poses is both rhetorical and not. Why wouldn’t living forever, whether through cycles of reincarnation, or as a disembodied ‘ancestor spirit’, or in heaven, jannah, elysium or wherever, be appealing? And what could possibly be appealing about the finality of death?

But it’s worth exploring this question more deeply, as I believe it’s a major key to understanding many aspects of religion and ‘spirituality’. I’ve written about this subject before in the context of children and the origins of religious and magical thinking, but this time I want to focus on the afterlife in more detail.

I like to focus on childhood because it’s fertile ground for thinking beyond the bounds and the limits of our mortality and our physical constraints. Shapeshifting, super-powers, magic, and the absolutes of good and evil, they come very easily to young children, and immortality is just another element of that thinking. I want to emphasise this because I object to claims made by some atheists that a lot of this thinking, about magic and absolutes and immortality, is irrational. I don’t think that’s a useful term in this instance.

I’ve given the example, which I’ll repeat here, of kids playing life-and-death games like cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, goodies and baddies. When a kid’s shot dead, he accepts it reluctantly, lies down for a few seconds, then declares he’s ‘alive again’, and this encapsulates time-honoured attitudes towards mortality.

Because death is literally unimaginable, and kids, with their vivid and unrestrained imaginations, don’t need much time to work that one out. What’s more, even playing dead is boring. Not moving, holding your breath, trying to get your brain to shut down its thinking and imagining, it’s all hard and unnatural work.

On the other hand thinking about the afterlife can bear rich fruit. To give just one of hundreds of literary examples, Dante’s Divine Comedy divides the afterlife, from which no-one can escape, into 3 realms, hell, purgatory and heaven, with each realm being divided into nine, or actually 10. Nine descending circles of the inferno, with Lucifer lurking at the bottom as number 10, nine rings around Mount Purgatory, with the garden of Eden at its summit representing number 10, and nine celestial bodies of heaven, with the tenth at the top, representing the Empyrean, filled with the essence of god. And their are various other divinely numerical schemes operating throughout the work. Another very interesting depiction of the afterlife occurs in Plato’s Republic, in which a soldier, Er, brought from the battlefield as a corpse, reveals himself after a number of days not to be dead but unconscious, and on recovering consciousness tells a richly detailed tale of the afterlife, which he’s been privileged to witness, and also to recall, as he was excused from the requirement of drinking from the river Lethe’s ‘waters of forgetfulness’.

The two points to be drawn from these afterlife descriptions is, first, that they offer great scope for the imagination, but second, they’re constrained by the particular time and space of their own culture, not unlike current descriptions of UFOs and alien abductions. So the Divine Comedy is a large-canvas imaginative rendering of Christian revelation and eschatology as experienced, at least by one atypical individual, in thirteenth and fourteenth century Italy, while Er’s tale reveals much of how Greeks living not far away but nearly 2000 years earlier might have imagined the life to come.

Interestingly, while there are many cultural peculiarities to these descriptions, they have one key feature in common – the afterlife constitutes a punishment or reward for the life lived on earth. It’s a theme repeated in many religions, as well as in beliefs in reincarnation which aren’t strictly religious. There are those who manage to believe that, even though there’s no deity pulling the strings, we get reincarnated into something ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ depending on how we behaved in the life just completed. How this happens, without some conscious being making judicial decisions, is not a question that seems to bother their brains. But what interests me more is that this kind of thinking goes back a long long way. It appears to have a very powerful appeal, one that, as I’ve said, is way too prevalent to be dismissed as irrational.

So I want to explore not only why the afterlife is so appealing, but why a particular kind of afterlife, based on perfect justice, is so appealing. I prefer ‘perfect justice’ to ‘divine justice’, as it takes away the religious trappings while preserving the most important ideal of many religions – the ideal hope that nobody will evade proper justice in the end.

Again I turn to early childhood, a period when rationality and logic mean little, to look for clues to this appeal. I suspect that one of the great events of childhood, or it might be a series of events, is the experience that your parents or your guardians are not the all-protecting beings that you’d more or less unconsciously assumed them to be. I think this experience is made much of in certain branches of psychoanalytic theory, and I associate it with the name of Jacques Lacan, but I have a very limited acquaintance with his views or theories.

In talking of all-protecting beings, I’m really thinking of them in god-like terms. Beings who protect us from harm caused by dangerous objects or predators, but also from harm caused by our own ignorance or folly, by correcting us and guiding us. Our early survival is, of course, entirely dependent on being nurtured by these all-protecting entities, so that it’s all the more shocking when, at some stage in our development, we actually see these entities, even if only for brief moments, as actually threatening our existence. I’m not sure when this may happen. It could be at a very early stage, when, say, a mother refuses the breast to her child, resulting in a screaming fit, and perhaps a great sense of inner trauma and crisis. Or it could be later, when the child has developed an independent sense of justice and realises, or at least strongly feels, that her parent is punishing her unjustly, and quickly infers from this that the parent could be a real threat to her freedom and even her life.

I see an obvious association between this very real experience, which may be near-universal in humans, and the garden of eden story, though the fact that in the eden story it’s the humans who have ‘fallen’, rather than the gods, is well worth pondering. It seems to me that monotheistic religions, by creating a perfect deity or parent, shift the focus of the world’s obvious injustices from that parent to the children, which has at least the advantage of avoiding what could become a problem for children who ‘see through’ their parents – the problem of blame-shifting. Not that this has always stopped  irate believers from berating their perfect Dad for their sufferings.

Of course the more developed way of seeing the parent-child relation is as one between two faulty, all-too-human entities, but face it, the seemingly utterly powerless child and the seemingly all-powerful parent are neither likely to possess such equipoise, at least not for long. Both are profoundly frustrated, the child at not being able to get the parent to see the justice of her situation, or at least at not being able to penetrate the imperviousness and the mystery of the parent’s judgment, and the parent at not having the power to transform the child by his judicious punishment. Frustration leads to idealist fantasies, in which everyone understands each other, everyone judges and measures each other in perfect understanding and harmony. Of course this never happens in this world, bitter experience reveals this, especially in the harsh and often desperate environments out of which so many religions have been born.

It all happens in another life, in another world, another place, a world that doesn’t bear too much thinking about it, but a world that can absorb all the hope aimed at it, all the dreams of the ‘faithful’. In absorbing all these hopes and dreams and cries for justice it just keeps expanding, like a balloon, ever more diaphanous, amorphous, enticing. Who’d want to be the prick that bursts it?

Written by stewart henderson

December 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm

why is l’Annulaire so charming, enfin?

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Pardonnez-moi, mademoiselle, voulez-vous regarder mes specimens?

Here, for a change, is a film review. Though I’m a wannabe science nerd, I can’t help now and then returning to my roots, as an uberkool arts dude. Fact is, though I’m a regular listener to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcasts, I can’t even pretend to be interested in their sci-fi movie and tv-series passions and references (pace Doctor Who), with rarely a mention of classical or even modern literature or cool art-house movies.  C’est pitoyable!

So I’m going to treat myself here to something that comes much more easily to me than science writing.

I first saw the so-Frenchy-so-chic film l’Annulaire (The Ring Finger) a few years ago, and was gripped, though I must admit I was barely able to see past the absorbingly delightful presence and performance of Olga Kurylenko. Not that I’m beating myself up over this – Kurylenko’s beauty and aloneness and vulnerable little glances and smiles and moments of languor would provide plentiful fuel for any sensualist’s fire, be she male, female or otherwise. She’s perfection in this role.

But seeing the film for the second time the other day, and via SBS on demand, so that I could treat it as I would treat a good book, rereading certain passages, going over things I didn’t quite catch, luxuriating in the best moments and effects, I gained a richer experience, while also noting a few flaws. In fact some of the clunkier elements of the film only serve to enhance the authenticity of Kurylenko’s performance.

Kurylenko plays twenty-one year-old Iris, about whom we know nothing except that she’s working in a lemonade bottling factory in the beginning of the film, where she has an accident, badly cutting her ring finger. We next find her wandering though a port city, nursing her bandaged finger, looking for work. And also looking for love or sex or some kind of romantic adventure. For example, while wandering along the docks, she sees a ferry filling up with people and decides impulsively to board it. On the trip across the water she finds herself watching a young man who finds himself watching her. She looks away awkwardly but when the ferry arrives at its destination – an island or maybe just the other side of the harbour, it’s all a bit vague – she follows the young man, in a sort of irresolute stalking manoeuvre, into a park or garden, where she loses track of him at a set of forking paths. She’s about to retreat completely, but finally takes one of the paths which leads her to an austere old building. On the door is a note advertising a job as a clerk to help with specimens – no experience required, apparently. She decides to apply. Ans so the real fantasy begins.

Now the film’s opening scene, before the credits roll, takes place inside this ‘lab’, with the white-coated ‘doctor’ discussing the preservation of a specimen of fungus – mushrooms in fact – with a serious-looking young woman. It doesn’t make much sense, but this is the weird world the solitary Iris is about to enter. She’s already rented accommodation in the port town, time-sharing a motel room with a sailor who works on the docks. She wanders about the room, staring at the docks and the water, wondering about the man’s clothing in the wardrobe and on a hanger by the glass doors facing the sea. Features are emerging – water, solitude, longing. And also, the heat – or, to use the much more evocative French word, chaleur. Iris drips with sweat in the hospital where her finger is treated, and half-faints with the heat in the reception area of the hostel where she applies for a room. The heat promotes a languor, a slowing of pace, a slightly hallucinatory, unreal effect.

So Iris is invited into this ‘lab’ by the ‘doctor’. He’s a walking cliché, you might say, but a very deliberate one. He’s never without his white coat, he’s quite a bit older than Iris, he’s silent, austere, masterful, and apparently entirely focused on his thoroughly enigmatic vocation. After a brief interview, she becomes his employee, his dependent, even more unsure of her role and her tasks after his explanation of them than before. But she enters into the arrangement willingly enough, in keeping with her driftily adventurous spirit.

So after securing this employment she removes the bandage from her ring finger, as if it has gained strength, or the security it symbolizes has been reinforced. Before starting work the next day, she drifts through the port’s red light district, and ponders in the room she shares with the sailor, with its twin beds – brief, elliptical sexual signs.  At work, her boss, who seems the sole occupant of the old building, is at turns forbidding and benevolent, unpredictable, a bit like that Judeo-Christian god, keeping her alert and a little on edge. Mostly, though, he’s friendly and reassuring, so she’s happy to stay with the adventure. On her second day, she sleeps in and has to rush, but not before noting and fondling the sailor’s coat hanging in the wardrobe. She has left one of her dresses on the hanger, billowing beside the open glass door, for him to contemplate in her absence.

Iris’s nameless boss shows her the mushroom specimen he’s prepared in a test tube, and they contemplate it together, in a moment of low-key, tentative intimacy – with more than a touch of the predatory on his part. It’s a bit of a Q and A session, with the doc explaining the meaning and significance of the specimens. They’re symbols of loss – the mushrooms grew on the property of someone – the girl – whose house burned down. The specimens aren’t given to the clients, they’re kept at the lab. Clients can come to see them, but usually don’t. They’re simply symbols of closure, not for nostalgia but for preservation and separation of the past. It’s an odd and not entirely convincing conceit, but it has a certain romantic asceticism to it. At the end of this session Iris brings to mind her ring finger, which she sucks, lost to emotion. The faces here are in extreme close-up, and Iris/Olga is becoming painfully irresistible.

derriere chaque bonne femme, un homme de mystere

derriere chaque bonne femme, un homme de mystere

Back at her rented digs, Iris passes the sailor in the hall, and learns that this is the young man she time-shares with, and her curiosity is clearly piqued, as is his. All without a word. At work, while noting that the ‘doc’ sometimes disappears through an apparently forbidden door, she meets a new client who wants a piece of music preserved. Not the sheet music but the notes themselves. Written for her by an ex-beau. The woman, of middle age, is plainly still in love and suffering. Iris is kind and slightly overwhelmed. After the client’s departure, she hums the notes of the music to herself. In one of the old building’s interminable corridors, she’s pulled out of reverie by a little boy’s musical tapping, and the response of a woman further down the hall, who almost supernaturally disappear as suddenly as they appear. So there are other residents, occupants, denizens of this place…. Iris smiles deliciously.

The doc makes one of his sudden appearances, and silently peruses the musical manuscript, comments on the intense heat, promises air-conditioning…. then he invites her for a word, down to his inner sanctum, behind the forbidden door. It appears to be an old municipal baths, a cool retreat from the chaleur. They’ve now become more intimate, closer. Intensity is captured in close up, and In Iris’s shifting expressions, the playful smile, the flicker of fear, the innocent uncertainty. The doctor announces that her shoes are of too poor quality for her role and her person. He has bought her a beautiful new pair, blood red. She unwraps them with astonishment, with wonder, with pleasure, with some concern. ‘How did you know my size?’ she asks, the laughter dying on her face. She doesn’t know what to make of this man, who has saved her, after a fashion, and given her some adventure, after a fashion. She half-heartedly refuses the shoes but he insists, and he puts them on her himself. Foot fetishists will love this scene, and Iris/Olga’s expressions here are priceless. She near faints away when her foot slips into the shoe. The doctor explains that he knows her shoe size just by looking at her. He’s a naturalist after all. He gets her to walk before him with the new shoes, telling her she must wear them at all times, whether he can see her or not. Another god-type demand, and she don’t look too happy about it. Nevertheless, and inevitably, we next see her wearing her new shoes around the docks.

In her motel room, she finds a vase of little purple flowers – a gift from her young room-mate? She’s delighted, and she investigates a book he appears to be reading, and his passport…

One day she arrives at work soaked from the rain. The doctor, as always, distant, controlling, but benevolent, makes her a hot toddy, and helps her out of her wet clothes, in the underground baths. All perfectly normal behaviour from a caring employer. She submits like a slave, and yet she always shows spirit, her eyes widen in wonder as he explains that he’ll take her wet things to be dried and ironed ‘by the woman in room 233’. ‘Is she the one who plays the piano?’ she asks. ‘No, that’s the woman in 209’, he replies, providing, like a rare morsel of food, some information about these ageing lingerers in the old building.

The doc doesn’t take advantage of Iris’s near nakedness, but leaves, with her garments, while she awaits him, wrapped in a towel and an air of confusion. Clearly, another barrier has been breached. And next we follow Iris, fully clothed again, as she trots behind her master to visit the piano lady, to ask her (and in fact demand of her, with the doc’s usual cordial firmness) to play and so preserve the musical ‘specimen’. While in the lady’s room, Iris sees a photo of a lot of young women standing in front of the ‘laboratory’, which was then, perhaps, a nursing school, or maybe a home for fallen women, we don’t know. To one side stands our doctor, white-coated of course, and apparently ageless, as if he’s struck some Faustian or Dorian Gray-style deal. On examining this photograph, Iris exchanges a meaning gaze with the doctor, who remains as inscrutable as ever. It’s actually a key scene – the doc has also invited the other lady, the ‘clothing lady’ we might call her, into this room to hear the music, perhaps as a witness to the ‘specimen’, and glances are exchanged also between Iris and the clothing lady, who smiles knowingly, and between the clothing lady and the doc, who smile to each other in apparent collusion. The mind leaps to the idea, or the knowledge, that this woman is one of the young lasses in the photo, and that some kind of strange, sexual, harem-like happenings are being referred to, in the most civilized, tea-and-scones kind of way. The clothing lady also shows an unwonted, but silent, interest in Iris’s shoes, as if she’s well aware of what’s what in regard to them, much to Iris’s embarrassment. But as we see in another lingering scene on the docks, Iris is fascinated, almost obsessed, with these shoes of hers.

The next scene is also key. Iris receives a new client, a softly-spoken, impoverished-looking elderly black man, who wants a specimen made of the bones of a sparrow who’d been sharing his flat for years, before dying of old age. While they discuss this, the man comments admiringly on her beautiful shoes. Turns out he’s been a shoe-shiner at La Gare Centrale (another vague designation) for the past 50 years. He points out how perfectly the shoes fit. ‘Let me give you advice. Even if they’re very comfortable, don’t wear them too often. Or, young lady, you’ll risk losing your feet. Can’t you see there’s hardly any room between your feet and the shoes? That proves the shoes are taking possession of your feet?’ ‘Possession?’ asks Iris. ‘Exactly,’ says the man (it all sounds so much more intime in French). He offers to shine her shoes if she will visit him at his work station.

The film continues with inexplicable moments and incidents – she hears piano music, and tries to investigate, then the phone rings, someone wants a specimen of a shadow, she thinks not, but as she responds, the clothing woman creeps about in the corridor behind her bearing flowers…  She works late, pondering over the sparrow bones, and is discovered by the doc, who makes small talk about her new hairstyle.

Back in her motel room she massages her feet thoughtfully, dreamily… Then, back on the ferry, on her way to work, she sees the young sailor, on a bridge, watching. She stands up, faces him and smiles, youth and hope, sensuality at a safe distance. Then he’s in the motel room, sniffing at one of her dresses – as you do – and hanging it up to blow in the sea breeze.

Meanwhile, the chaleur oppresses. Iris, at work, opens up her blouse for relief, without realizing that the doc has made one of his sudden appearances at her door. He complains of the heat driving away the clients. She has buttoned up and is discomfited by his presence, especially when he asks after her shoes…  He asks that she help him put his specimens in order during this quiet period, and so she follows him, but they end up in the basement, in the cool spaciousness of the old baths… And here the doc becomes an old charmer, after his fashion. He reminisces about the young women showering there, the running water, the soap and froth and chatter, and all that nakedness. Iris asks about those women, and the women from rooms 223 and 209. Yes, he says, they were there, and just about your age, then. But now, all is dry. No water, no soap… Those women have now aged, there’s only you and me (or ‘I’m not ageist, but…’)

So now the moment of seduction has arrived. He leads her to the centre of the baths, undresses her slowly, and we hear her breath and see her desire. She lies on the floor, naked, and he, still in his lab coat of course, enters her, at once brutal and slightly ridiculous. He pulls her on top of him, and urgently asks, as you do at such moments, ‘Is there anything you’d like preserved? We all need specimens.’ ‘Me too? Even you?’ she wonders. ‘Yes. Think, there must be something you’d like as a specimen. Let’s look at it from a different angle. What’s your most painful memory? Something awful.’ ‘I lost the tip of my ring finger.’ ‘What happened?’ ‘I lost it, in lemonade, in the factory. I fainted.’ ‘So your ring finger will never be the same?’

Back in the motel room, Iris is contemplative but happy. She swings gaily from an old tyre in the docklands, watched, unbeknown, by the young sailor. Then back at work she falls asleep on the job, dreaming of the shower and the young girls, watched by their white-coated doc, and meanwhile the young sailor is in the motel, apparently dreaming of Iris.

When she arrives back at the motel she finds a note. The sailor, Costa, is leaving and would like to meet her. He asks for a rendezvous at a local bar. As it turns out, the bar’s pretty wild – sailors, girls, every port and all. Iris turns up to see Costa being accosted by a likely lady. She takes flight and Costa pursues her – in the languid and tentative manner that’s the signature of this film. He stares up at the motel room; she emerges, stares briefly at him, then retreats, shuts the door, extinguishes the light. Hope’s deferred, making the heart sick.

She showers in sensual water. At work, the doc asks her for help with his specimens again. She’s uncertain – what about the clients? They won’t come in this uncertain weather, he assures her. He offers her an apron, as if to say, ‘this time, no hanky-panky’.  Among the burgeoning specimens, she asks him where they might be put, as they accumulate.  ‘Perhaps we may have to use the baths’, he suggests. This alarms her. ‘When the bathroom is turned into a preservation room, what will we do then?’ she asks, with delicious innocence.

That’s enough for the doc, and we’re back in the underground baths, and this time the sex is uninhibited, symbolized by the horrifying fact that the doc has taken off his lab coat. But who is Iris thinking of, the doc or the sailor?

Afterwards, she returns to the motel. Costa has left her what appears to be a box of chocolates. She lies on his rumpled bed…

Back at work, the young woman of the mushrooms, who has a burn on her cheek, returns. She asks Iris if she can have another specimen. She, too, is beautiful. The doctor is called for, assures her he can help, and leads her off to the lab. Iris is  upset, jealous, and tries to raise questions, but the doc, authoritarian as ever, orders her to get on with preparing the paperwork. So – power, authority, invested in maleness. Iris feels insecure, humiliated. Through the day she serves other clients, but is ever-watchful for her ‘rival’. She goes to the door of the lab and tries to open it, to no avail. She wanders the docks again, thinking, dreaming of the red shoes, his hands on her feet, her legs… Back in the motel room, a storm rages, and she’s alone. At work again, she searches desperately for traces of the girl, and her specimen. She’s beside herself. She encounters one of the elderly ladies, who talks to her about her work. ‘Most of those who’ve worked here didn’t last long. They would just vanish.’ ‘What about the previous girl?’ ‘Yes, she was about your age. I remember particularly the sound of her shoes. Neat, regular. I’m very sensitive to sound. No I don’t remember the colour of her shoes.. Where did she go? Who knows? I hope you don’t leave so suddenly…’ Discomfited by the older woman’s slightly mocking tone, Iris cuts short the conversation, and continues in search of her rival’s specimen. She finds a photo of a girl, of her age, wearing striking shoes. As she stares at it, it begins to fade, disappear. Will Iris disappear so suddenly? She hurries off, disturbed, harried. Covered in sweat, she’s drying herself off when she encounters a new client, a silent Chinese man, who leaves in her possession a mahjong set. While she’s examining it, the doc makes another of his sudden appearances… He asks her to put it on a shelf, but the set opens as she picks it up, and all the pieces scatter over the floor.

The masterful doctor tells her that every piece must be put back where it belongs, if it takes all night. So, watched over by the master, she languidly, interspersed with periods of sleep or catatonia, picks up each far-flung piece and puts it back in its place. Heavy symbolism no doubt lost on me. When she finishes, the master takes her in his arms. ‘We’ve seen the morning in together,’ she says, as though this is a sign of love rather than power. ‘Take me to the lab,’ she adds. ‘I’m the only one who can go there’, he says. ‘But what about the girl with the burn?’  ‘That was about a specimen. They have priority.’ ‘So I’ll be able to go there if I ask for a specimen I can keep forever?’ He doesn’t respond, but sucks her ring finger tenderly. She seems content…

She visits the shoe-shining man, who is very pleased to see her. She assures him about his specimen, and he applies his special cream to her shoes. ‘Were the shoes given to you by someone?’ he asks. ‘Are you in love with him?’ ‘I sometimes wonder,’ she says. ‘I don’t know, but I can’t easily leave him.’ ‘It’s because of your shoes. If you don’t take them off, you’ll never get away. Get a specimen, so that your feet will be free.’ ‘I don’t want that.’ ‘Do you want to go back there?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Well, I will say goodbye then’, says the shoeshine man. ‘I won’t see you again.’ She looks at her finger, and makes her return, via a long tunnel. I don’t pretend to know what all this means.

La belle Iris reve de son annulaire

La belle Iris reve de son annulaire

Back at work, Iris writes a specimen label or ticket – ‘Iris, ring finger.’ She takes this ticket down to the lab. Outside the door, she takes off her shoes. With her shoes in one hand, her ticket in the other, she knocks on the door. It opens, and all we see is bright light. She drops the shoes, and disappears into the light.

Make of this what you will, it’s a beautiful film exploring love, desire, security, connection, power and vulnerability – and not just that of Iris – all in a deceptively simple, unadorned package. Clearly I’ve been self-indulgent in my descriptions here, using them as an excuse to linger over the film’s most memorable scenes, which for me aren’t the overtly sexual scenes but the covertly sexual ones – characters in isolation, loving and longing, hungering and recalling.

I’ve mentioned clunkiness – the occasional continuity error, and scenes and characters that added little, apart from more mystery. For example, a little boy often appears in the scenes at the lab – an impish spirit who watches over Iris. Is he the product of one of the doc’s dalliances with his employees? Is he a prisoner or a free spirit? I suspect he’s a more integrated character in the book on which this film was based – a ‘cult erotic novel’, so the blurb goes, by Yoko Ogawa, and the director, Diane Bertrand, didn’t quite know what to do with him. Some of the clients, too, seemed superfluous to requirements, though I’m quite prepared to accept that I may have missed a few nuances.

But in spite of this the film succeeds, not least because of the central actor’s performance. Olga Kurylenko is now quite a big name, but I suspect I’ll always associate her, first and foremost, with this very demanding, make or break role. In writing this piece, I very willingly researched the captivating Kurylenko, and frankly it moved me beyond bearing to uncover this delightful interview, apparently set up in her own home, maybe in about 2010, in which among other things she talked of The Ring Finger, her movie debut, as one of those rare experiences in which she fell in love with the character… Olga, in this rough-as-guts video, as far from media hype as you can get, reveals herself to be as delightful, warm and genuine as Iris, a woman who recognises her good fortune, but who has genuine talent, and an emotional depth that shines though on and off screen. I feel strangely proud of her after having learned so much about her, as if she were a close relative who has realised her dream. I cannot recommend this film, and its star, highly enough.

Written by stewart henderson

September 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm