Saturday, July 19, 2003

Last Tango, in Jakarta

It was Norman Mailer's book, The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing that got me interested in watching Last Tango in Paris. And yesterday during lunchtime with my colleagues at Ratu Plaza, I happened to come across its DVD which I promptly purchased together with a couple of other titles (The Animatrix, Salvador and Memento). Armed with this delicious selection, I decided to avoid my clubbing friends that evening and have mini film-festival in my hotel room instead.

Norman Mailer devoted almost an entire chapter in the The Spooky Art to analyze Last Tango in Paris. After watching it last night, I know why he was obssessed with it: The screenplay could have been written by Mailer himself - vulgar, sexual, brutal and shocking even to the not-so-prudish among us.

Not that the movie contains excessive nudity or sex but its unabashedly sexual premise, content and dialogue test the boundary of what we would consider decent for a mainstream film, even by our present-day standards. One must remember this was a movie made in 1972 - more than thirty years ago; imagine the kind of reaction it would have brought to the audience then.

And even more shocking is the fact that the movie stars one of the biggest all-time Hollywood actors, the God among actors themselves: Marlon Brandon. And back in 1972 the aging Brando was already showing signs of that ballooning belly that would become his trademark in later years.

With Brando as a middle-aged American expatriate in Paris and a young 20-year old Maria Schneider as his sexual interest, director Bernardo Bertolucci cooked up a concoction that induces intestinal discomforts to those who are used to seeing Brando in "nobler" roles in films such as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now or even A Streetcar Named Desire.

Imagine him, in his usual mumbling style, spewing lines like: "Your happiness is my ha-penis". And that is only one of his more "poetic" utterances in the movie - many of these lines are actually improvised by Brando himself. The effect is as much shock as it would be to an UMNO politician discovering that God also mencarut.

A plot about a man (Brando) and a young woman (Schneider) - both not knowing each other's name or background - meeting daily in a bare Parisian apartment to have sex provides the framework for director Bernardo Bertolucci to dwell on his exploration of grief and the sexual enigma of man-woman relationship. Maria Schneider plays the role of an almost cerubic-looking young woman who is repulsed yet attracted to a sexually sadistic Brando who himself is haunted by the suicide of his wife and seemed not interested to pursue a relationship beyond a sexual one.

Those who have seen 9½ Weeks starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke would immediately recognize echoes of Last Tango in it. Though not as visually erotic or sleek as its successor, Last Tango in Paris has less pretensions and has a rawer edge to it. Critics in 1972 hailed it as a work of art and a pivotal event in cinema history. Both Brando and Bertolucci were nonimated for Oscars for their works in this movie.

I wouldn't go as far as claiming that this movie is a work of art, nor would I dismiss it as smut passing off as art; but I still found it engaging and Brando's characterisation of a tired sadomasochist, honest and believeable. Like street graffitis, simple naked honesty often borders on vulgarity. And vulgarity, stripped of all pretensions, sometimes works better than any other artistic device.

Last night safe in my hotel room, surrounded everywhere by the vulgarity that characterizes so much of Jakarta nightlife, I found Last Tango in Paris rather congenial entertainment, for a quiet Friday evening.

Friday, July 18, 2003

The Immensity of Space & Time

As a form form 5 schoolboy in Malaysia, I was enthralled by astronomer Carl Sagan's documentary miniseries on science called Cosmos shown weekly on RTM at that time. I subsequently devoured all his books, which besides the best-selling book adaptation of the series, includes Broca's Brain and the Pullitzer Prize winner, The Dragons of Eden. What sticks in my mind still after all these years is a small and beautiful dedication Carl Sagan wrote on the first page of Cosmos to his wife:

"In the immensity of space and time, it is my joy to share a planet and an epoch with Ann Druyan....."

Or words to that effect, I cant' be precise as I am quoting from my rather unreliable memory.

Even though I live in Jakarta, I do not feel I am that far apart from my friends in Malaysia and other countries whom I communicate with frequently through SMS and e-mail. We, the Net generation are used to instantaneous communication - SMS, e-mail and online chat make us feel as if physical distances are of no bearing.

But we forget that we are able to communicate (two-way, that is) with each other because we share a common moment in time - we live in the same epoch. We are not able to SMS to someone in the Victorian era or chat with our descendants from the 22nd century. The separation of space has been conquered but the separation of time has so far been insurmountable.

Carl Sagan passed away in 1996. He even wrote a fiction: Contact, which became a bestseller and was made into a reasonably good movie directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey as a very unlikely priest. But I am digressing.

Time travel and all its resulting paradoxes is a hackneyed sci-fi theme. But in mathematical physics, time is not treated very differently from space. Einstein has shown us that space and time are intricately linked and that the phenomenon of gravity is nothing but a geometrical property of the space-time continuum. Even eminent scientist like Martin Rees in a recent interview with the BBC, does not dismiss that time-travel is a theoretical possibility.

We all know the pangs of being separated from our loved ones whenever we are away from home for long periods. Imagine the pain of separation by time - it is unbreacheable: That is the premise of the love story Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour which I happen to be able to catch again on HBO recently. It is not a movie that I would put on my top 10 list but the soundtrack by John Barry is unforgettable. There is also a recent Korean movie about a pair of lovers who communicate through mail across time but again I'm digressing.

We could remain stationary in space (or at least from our point of view, as the Earth, Solar System and the Milky Way galaxy are all moving) but we are constantly moving in time. In a previous blog entry, I discussed how each of us could perceive time differently. Blogging is an act of attaching thoughts to cyberspace, marked by time.

Let us marvel at the fact that, you and I now are sharing the same point in cyberspace and that our brief lifetimes happen to overlap within the vastness that is Time.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Wasted Bandwidth

The mind has a lot of unused bandwidth. If I remember correctly, it was Bill Gates who made that comment. Everyday as we go about our daily lives, we inadvertently allow plenty of blank spaces to pass through our field of vision - unadorned walls, blandly carpeted walkways, white ceilings - in between focussing our attention on things that we are really interested in. These are unused bandwidth. Wasted information real-estate.

Imagine if you have a KL map on the wall in front of your desk. As you go about doing your everyday tasks, inevitably your eyes would have scanned the information on the map into your brains hundreds or thousands of times. And subconsciously, they do register. Who knows, the next time you get stuck in a traffic jam in the city, your brain might suddenly come up with an alternate route unknown to you before.

We also absorb information that we do not even consciously see or hear. The advertising people are experts on this so-called subliminal messaging. In a movie theatre, one out of the 24 frames projected on the screen per second could contain advertisements or other types of messages and we would never even know it. Some religious groups also claim that certain rock bands inject subliminal Satanic worship messages backmasked into their songs. Samples of this are abound on the Internet.

On the more positive side, there's a whole industry of self-improvement products based on subliminal messaging. These range from simple relaxation tapes with gamelan music mixed with humpback whale songs, to nature sounds filled with the humming of tropical insects and the pelting of raindrops to synthesized music that is supposed to stimulate your chakras to French language lessons for sleep-learning.

I have a fondness for maps and I enjoy looking at them. When I was living and working in Singapore I used to have a large map of Jakarta city pasted on the wall of my bedroom. I ended up living in Jakarta.

Thinking back, had I known it would work so well I would have put up a poster of Sophia Latjuba instead.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

The Quintessential Rebel

The other day, I was watching news about a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong on the BBC. One of the demonstrators who was ranting and raving through a megaphone caught my eye - not because he had something interesting to say, but because he was wearing a T-shirt with a giant image of Che Guevara.

I'm not sure if the particular demonstrator was fighting for the same ideals that Cuban rebel Che Guevara was. But that black-and-white image of an unshaven youth with wind-swept hair, searching eyes and tilted beret has become a symbol of rebellion and revolution since the sixties. I remember a couple of years back, the photographer who took that picture of Che Guevara finally managed to win back copyright protection of the image which had over the years been considered public domain, and had even been used in a Smirnoff vodka advertisement.

Ernesto Guevara, known affectionately as "Che", was an Argentine doctor who joined Fidel Castro in the overthrow of the American-backed dictator General Batista in Cuba. The movie Havana directed by Sidney Pollack, starring Robert Redford and Lena Olin is set against the backdrop of this revolution. Though universally panned by the critics as a poor immitation of Casablanca, it is one of my favourite movies mainly because it has a good soundtrack and also because - OK I admit - I am a hopeless romantic. There is a scene in the movie where Lena Olin and Robert Redford were confronted by a group of guerilla rebels - not sure if it was intended: one of the rebels was made up to look unmistakably like Che Guevara. Or perhaps it's just that Che's image of a rebel has completely coloured our perception of what a rebel should be like.

Che Guevara became part of Fidel Castro's communist regime and was called by Time Magazine as "Castro's Brain". He was later to help guerilla fighters in other parts of Latin American and even Africa. And like all romantic rebels, he died young at the age of 39 while fighting with the guerillas in Bolivia in the sixties.

Thus his image still lives with us today, together with James Dean and Lord Byron as symbols of youthful idealism and rebellion. That iconic black-and-white image was my only "knowledge" of Che Guevara until I stumbled upon his book, The Motorcycle Diaries a few years back in Singapore. And surprise - it wasn't about politics or revolution but about travelling on a motorcycle, riding up the South American continent for 7 months after his graduation from the university. What a delightful read it was: one is able to share the experiences of a young Che Guevara, bumming around the different countries of South America like a Latin Jack Kerouac.

Never mind that Che was a communist; as the HK demonstrator showed, it is the spirit of rebellion that matters, even if you are demonstrating against Communist China. In his book The Rebel: An Essay of Man in Revolt, the French existentialist writer Albert Camus proclaimed:" I rebel, therefore I am". And no one personifies the spirit more than Che Guevara, the quintessential rebel.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Preaching Java to the Javanese

Having lived in Jakarta for one-and-a-half years I've come to appreciate the ethnic and cultural diversity that's present in Indonesia. When I first started travelling here during the mid-nineties I, and probably like many other Malaysians assumed that Indonesians are one homogeneous lot and not very different from the Malays in Malaysia.

That was during the start of the Internet boom and being employed by the company that invented the Java programming language, I used to do a lot of presentations and demos here in Jakarta evangelizing its many virtues.

Chatting with my customers during one of those coffee-break sessions, I was perplexed when one of them told me that she was planning to go home to Java during the weekends. Isn't Jakarta located on the island of Java? Aren't all Indonesians living on the island of Java, Javanese?

I was soon to realise being knowledgeable about the Java programming language doesn't automatically make me an expert on the Javanese.

To Indonesians, Javanese refers specifically to people from Central and East Java, excluding Jakarta. People born and bred in the Jakarta area are called Betawi. Jakarta is not Java. Even the people from West Java, though technically Javanese, makes a distinction of themselves from the Javanese of Central and East Java, preferring to call themselves Sundanese. And mind you, these are not merely geographical distinctions, these different groups actually have their own unique languages and cultures.

Malaysians who know Melayu might be able to understand a bit of the Bahasa Indonesia spoken by the majority of the people here. In Jakarta, the language spoken by the local Betawi people can be loosely considered to be representative of Bahasa Indonesia, even though the Betawi dialect itself contains many Chinese (especially Hokkien), Portuguese and Dutch influences. Malaysians will be surprised that certain words which we normally consider bahasa pasar like the Hokkien gue and lu, are widely used here and even considered hip - quite like the use of I and you instead of saya and awak by the younger generation of Malay people in Malaysia.

The Sundanese people have their own distinct language, and one can find it being spoken quite widely in places like Bandung, the center of Sundanese culture. Malaysians might be able understand 70 percent the Betawi dialect if it is spoken slowly, but don't even bother to try with the Sundanese language. Or Javanese for that matter.

The Javanese language is the most intricate of all. They even have their own writing script - which looks rather similar to Sanskrit. The language is subtle, aristocratic and full of nuances. The Javanese are considered the most cultured of the ethic groups in Indonesia. Though most Javanese are Muslims, theirs is a culture steeped in mysticism with heavy Hindu influences.

I have not even mentioned yet the subtle distinctions between Javanese from Central Java (based mostly in Jogjakarta and Solo) and East Java (based in Surabaya). Nor have I even started talking about ethnic groups from the other islands like the Bataks, Minangkabaus, Acehnese (Sumatra); Bugis and Torajans (Sulawesi); Balinese (Bali) and Ambonese (Ambon).

The book, A Fragile Nation - Indonesia in Crisis written by Lee Khoon Choy, the former Singaporean ambasssador to Indonesia during Lee Kuan Yew's era, helped me a lot in understanding the diversity of culture in Indonesia.

Nowadays I could sometimes be able to tell apart a Javanese from a Sundanese when most Malaysians would not even be able to distinguish the Indonesian Chinese from the native Indonesians. I still have a lot to learn, but I guess I have come a long way since those days of mine preaching the Java programming language to the Javanese.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Mindful on a Monday

I make it a point every Sunday night to have a moment of solitude back in my hotel room. It is an opportunity to reflect back on events of the past week before starting another. I realise how important it is to quiet the mind even for 10 minutes - it allows the mind to reset itself, to find its balance again and to allow residual thoughts to subside.

During his lifetime, Mahatma Gandhi had a practice of designating one day of the week as a day of silence where he would completely abstain from speaking and would only communicate through handwritten notes. His autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth is especially revealing about his many dietary practices and the austere discipline that he imposed on himself. For example, he would only eat vegetarian food that does not require any cooking such as nuts and salads, and he would limit his personal possessions to only five items whenever he is travelling. I read a greater part of that book early last year while I was staying at the Aston serviced apartments in Jakarta, lazing and sunning myself beside the swimming pool. It made me feel a little bit bad about my own bourgeois lifestyle then.

One of my favourite Indian gurus, Swami Vivekananda likened the mind to a lake and thoughts to ripples on its surface. When the mind is at peace, the ripples dissipate and one can see right through to its bottom. Imagine one's soul like a shining jewel at the bottom of the lake. With a mind calmed, we allow the true essence of our soul to shine forth by quelling and preventing the ripples of thoughts that obscure this inner light.

We may think that we have peace of mind when we are resting at home, watching TV, or sleeping. These activities perhaps would take our mind away from more stressful things but they do not necessarily make the mind ripple-free. At home, we are constantly engaged in conversations which brings out a whole gamut of emotional responses in our heads. Watching TV is mostly a form of escapism where we choose to react to stimulus from another world instead. Though we might claim that we are getting entertained or informed, our minds are constantly reacting and responding emotionally to the random chatter from the idiot box. Even during sleep, the mind is full of activity, as I've mentioned in an earlier blog entry on REM sleep.

How then can the mind achieve total and complete silence? Only through meditation and prayer. Hindus, Yogis, Buddhists, Sufis and Christian mystics all meditate because it is the key to spiritual realization. The Godhead resides deep in our souls, ready to blossom like a lotus, if only we could quell the waves and storms that rage through our mundane minds.

In meditation, the mind grasps a singular thought or object of contemplation and eliminates all extraneous thoughts, allowing the mind to be focussed like a laser beam to penetrate the inner layers of the soul. Prayer in contrast is an inside-out means of achieving spiritual peace. Instead of using our minds, we tune our hearts towards God and allow our complete being to be spiritually aligned; eliminating all discordant thoughts through the sheer power of our inner conviction. We pray with our hearts and meditate with our minds. Both are paths to spiritual enlightenment.

Monday is here and the madness of the week has begun. The waves are starting to build up and if we do not know how to control them, we might end up being trapped in the middle of a raging storm. We need to know how to manage our thoughts and our minds. We need to be mindful before our minds get really full.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Going to work in Tears

It is strange but pleasant to wake up early on Sunday - even earlier than what I normally do on a weekday. The sweepers are still out there cleaning the mess from Saturday night and I could see the mother bathing her child in the streets. I am lucky that I live in Jakarta center unlike many of my colleagues who have to spend more than an hour on the road everyday driving to work. My taxi trip to the office only takes 5 to 10 minutes.

I remember when I was working for a multinational in Kuala Lumpur way back in 1995, I used to have to wake up early at 6.00 am in the morning so that I could drive from my home in Subang Jaya to the city center, avoiding the traffic jam. I would reach KL at around 7.00 am - two hours before office starts. With so much time to kill, I would indulge myself in a lengthy breakfast at a Chinese coffee shop behind Jalan Raja Chulan.

It was strange driving to work so early: the sun would not be out yet, and you had to switch on your headlights. At that time I had already caught the audiobook bug; usually I would entertain myself to an audiobook like what I did in my later years commuting by bus daily in Singapore.

Though my audiobook taste veers towards the classics and non-fiction, at times I would also indulge myself in a contemporary bestseller. I remember once, listening to Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County, driving to and back from work. The book was later made into a movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, directed by Eastwood himself.

For a whole week listening to the book, I lived with the characters and was totally absorbed in the touching love story of Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson. On the day when I was driving to work listening to the concluding chapter, I had tears streaming down my cheek. Luckily I was spared the embarassment of having anyone see me in that state because it was still quite dark.

Nowadays in Jakarta I do not get to listen to many audiobooks anymore as I hardly need to spend any time commuting. But I remember fondly those early mornings of mine driving to work in KL, misty-eyed with my mind completely lost in Madison County.

I only found out the other day while perusing at the QB World bookstore that there's actually an epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County, published only last year. It is entitled A Thousand Country Roads. Maybe I'll catch the audiobook again.