Threads of an Atonement

I first encountered Ian McEwan’s Atonement from the film, directed by Joe Wright with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. I remember the film having that dreamy quality which is so often attempted in excess by amateurs. That the film managed to play this style well marks its genius, an early verdict that is justified more and more as the story unfolded. One scene, in particular, stuck with me that I looked forward to reading the book just to see how that visual transition translated into words.

First things first. I would not want to spoil anyone who has not yet read or watched Atonement the pleasure of its surprise. So, for the sake of this review, I think it will be safe to refer to that scene as “Briony’s reveal”. And also, I am getting ahead of myself by starting with a scene that is obviously a twist in the plot and so occurs in its later parts. And so we backtrack.

Our story revolves around Briony Tallis, budding writer and little sister to Cecilia Tallis who is, in turn, a childhood friend of Robbie Turner. One summer day, Briony becomes an accidental witness to a rising romantic tension between Cecilia and Robbie, a scene which she (mis)interprets through the eyes of a child. Shortly afterwards, things spin out of anyone’s control and Briony finds herself responsible for a crime the consequences of which play out for years.

The artistic work that is Atonement is many things and almost everything that I find it to be strikes a chord with me. As a novel it is self-referential, using Briony’s artistic endeavors to reflect on the relationship of an author with her work; it even features a kind of foreshadowing, if you can call it that, with Briony’s The Trials of Arabella. It is a love story, not one where knights save damsels but one where a happy ending is as much a possibility as damnation. It is a war story, portraying war in all the exhaustion and futility it delivers. It is also, to paraphrase from someone else, a classic English novel with the “c” word in it.

…he dropped forward and typed before he could stop himself, “In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long.”

It is at this point in the novel that the plot is stirred, the storm confirmed. You are not reading Pride and Prejudice, it seemed to say, where ladies and gentlemen spend almost a whole book in an emotional deadlock. In this story, women smoke, men are untrustworthy, and lives are ruined.

This is how Atonement sets-up its exploration of the burdens and complexities of growing up. Through the consequences of Briony’s misinterpretations and misplaced intentions, the novel waxes poetic on lost time and on a love that could have been. What keeps Atonement‘s take on this cliched plot element fresh is in how it gives context to the characters’ hopes and longings. For our lovers, there is the shadow of WWII hanging over them, around which they build their dreams and plans of being together. For Briony, that dread feeling of guilt never leaves and strengthens over time, which leads to her reveal, her act of atonement.

The years where Briony ages is obscured from the reader but her transformation, her growing up, is fleshed out well for the readers to follow. Taken plainly, the bulk of this work is not in how Briony atones for her faults but in how she grows the backbone to take responsibility of her mistakes.

“Growing up,” he echoed. When he raised his voice she jumped. “Goddamnit! You’re eighteen. How much growing up do you need to do? There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that?”

As someone who has, on multiple occasions, tried to spin up a story, I cannot help but admire Ian McEwan’s mastery of words (and, consequently, Joe Wright et. al.’s visual language). I am delighted to report that this is one of the books whose opening I’ve found to take me in at once, a sequence which was repeated well in the opening montage of the film.

McEwan also has that gift of voicing his character’s inner thoughts so well. It is what fleshes them out, what makes them real and tangible. His descriptions of Briony’s initial attempts at writing, her reactions upon her initial encounter with the aforementioned “c” word, places her so well as a kid. Later on, McEwan treats us with Robbie’s exhausted thoughts while walking a war-torn France. And then of course, there is Briony’s own experience in the war, a part of her growing up as much as her crime is.

All those praises said, I still think that Briony’s reveal is better handled as a visual experience. I may be biased, having seen the film first, but I can’t help but think that the way Briony’s reveal is done in the book would require a bit of experience with authors and the way they sign introductions, the extra leaves of their publications. It is not something which even most well-read people would’ve understood at once; I admit that, when I reached that point, it still took me a few moments to realize how the reveal was handled, and I have seen the film at that. Had I not seen the film, I think it will take me the first few pages of the succeeding part to realize what just happened. Not that I have a better suggestion in how this bit could be handled in the book.

Take the book, take the film, it does not matter. I think both works are sufficient to convince anyone that an atonement is an act that requires as much gravity as any act concerned with a heartfelt emotion.

Did she really think that she could hide … and drown her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness? … Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella … It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.


You Know What’s at Mountain View?

I stepped down from the plane into American soil a bit weary but completely awake. The flight was fully booked and, despite having more leg room than I expected, sitting for a flight of around twelve hours still took its toll. My legs felt odd from all that sitting. The whole flight I tried to minimize my trips to the toilet as I did not want to irritate/inconvenience the couple sitting beside me; I should not have taken a window seat. But given the circumstances of my trip, I don’t think I’d have a choice other than the window seat. After all, this flight was only booked around a week back.

(Author’s travel note: When taking flights, the window seat is cool if the flight isn’t too long and the cruising altitude isn’t too high. Otherwise, there won’t be much sight-seeing and you’re better off taking an aisle seat. For toilet breaks.)

Clouded Underneath

But don’t you think all that seating in an uncomfortable window seat is still so totally worth it just to see something like this? ;)

This story actually starts last October, during a particularly tiring week though not one completely devoid of fun. That was the week our office held its Halloween celebrations. Tired from leading our area’s decorations for the event, I ended that Friday sleeping on a sala sofa. I woke up at around dawn feeling a bit refreshed and took a bath. Afterwards, I checked my email and found an unread item from an “@google.com” email address. I shouted my surprise/amusement and caused my mother to panic.

By now, I’ve told the story countless of times already. Long story short, Google flew me to Mountain View for a job interview during the last week of February. I did not get in but I remember making a new year’s resolution last year and I’m amused to find out that I managed to eke out something akin to what I expected within a year.

I went alone, which is more or less my idea of travel, in contrast to tourism. I’ve experienced the kindness of strangers and talked to some really smart people. This experience is definitely one for gratitude.

During my first night, I happened to ride a taxi driven by a Vietnamese guy. We had a little chat wherein he learned why I’m in America. He was very thrilled for me in the same manner the people back home were very thrilled. He kept wishing me good luck while reminding me what privilege this is. I have not traveled much but I can’t help but think that had I been with a large group, the conversation would not have taken place.

My first order of business upon arriving at the hotel was to procure some dinner. I wanted to eat American food until I realized that America’s common foods are items I can easily buy back home: pizza, hamburger, fries. I loaded up Google Maps1 and decided on a Mexican place seemingly a walking distance away from my hotel.

(Author’s note: America’s foods did not come from America. Pizza is Italian. Hamburger is German. Fries is French. Totally a melting pot, America is.)

At this point I need to backtrack a bit in this woolgathering. I took my undergraduate degree in UP-Diliman, which has a campus larger than The Vatican. During my undergrad, I used to walk the distance from our department to the University’s exit. According to Google Maps, the shortest path from those two points, is 1.8km, roughly 1.12 miles. This should tell you what distances do I consider walking distances.

I started walking towards that Mexican place. I was wearing city shorts and sandals, which is what I’d wear for any hike in the Philippines, which is also mistake number one. California, you see, is biting cold. I’m aware that it is that part of North America closest to the equator but it remains way colder than the Philippines. Thankfully, I had the sense to keep my hoodie jacket on my person.

A few street crossings2 passed and I noticed that the Mexican place I intend to eat in is still nowhere in sight. At this point, every bit of exposed skin I had was numb and I started to marvel at how I took the number of food stops in the Philippines for granted; in the Philippines, you’d be hard pressed to find an urban stretch of several meters where there isn’t even a single stop selling any kind of food. I consulted Google Maps again, to make sure that my bearing is correct (it is) and that’s when I realized that the Mexican place I am trying to get to is 0.9 miles from the hotel.

I’m pretty sure my body language was shouting “TOURIST” during my first night, a body language expression that did not change for the length of my stay. With the cold biting at my skin, I began to wander in open establishments for some warmth and to maybe decide on alternatives to the Mexican place I’ve set as my destination. I happened into an amusing cross between a convenience store and a wine cellar clerked by an Indian man, judging by his turban. I did not stay long inside but, as I left the premises, the clerk followed me outside just to ask if I’m okay, not lost or what. After assuring him that all is fine (without, of course, conceding that I am a wondering wanderer), I finally decided to skip the Mexican place and just dine on pizza for my first night.

(Author’s note: Google Maps lists an establishment’s operating hours. If you are planning to visit any place at unsure hours, this is worth a check.)

The duration of my stay was only around four days. I did not go that far since I do not know how to estimate transportation costs. And yet, I’ve explored quite a lot. Did you know that Mountain View has a cozy public library? It’s been my dream of sorts to visit libraries in different places and Mountain View’s is a nice bonus first.

There’s this place in Mountain View—Castro Street—which earned my fondness the first time I went there. That small strip of space felt so me. In the ubiquity of American food even in Philippine soil, I began looking for Asian food and it was there3. It had two book stores, Books Inc. and BookBuyers, which both looked so cozy it’s a shame we’ve had so short a time together. It had a Taekwondo gym, and is near Mountain View’s Center for Performing Arts as well as the public library I’ve been raving about.

When my recruiting coordinator at Google informed me (via phone call) that I did not make it, she was apologizing that I bothered to take so long a trip for nothing. I wanted to tell her that it was fine, I enjoyed, and that the opportunity itself is a rewarding experience in so many ways. And it is. Until next time, I guess.

Thrilled and grateful as ever, as usual. ~Chad

Only in America.... Ramen!
BookBuyers

Castro Street

Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

Wonderlust
  1. I do not find Google Maps very accurate in the Philippines yet though I expect it to get better as Google now has operations here. But if there is anywhere in the world where Google Maps is supposed to provide good info, it’s at Mountain View, California. []
  2. Where I can count the number of other people I met with just the fingers of one hand. One. Hand. []
  3. Nothing Filipino though; all that’s in Castro Street is a Japanese and a Chinese place. []

For Dreams and Good Madness

All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.
~ T. E. Lawrence

2014 is just around the corner. Go dream with open eyes. And dream wilder!

Happy new year!


On Mirrors and Second Chances

Our story starts with an accident involving a seventeen-year-old girl, two deaths, and a second Earth. That’s right. A second Earth.

Lifelong astronomy-enthusiast Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) learns that she has been accepted into MIT the same night news about a second Earth hits the radio. Intoxicated from celebrating her acceptance into MIT, she drives home and literally crashes into the life (and car) of  John Burroughs (William Mapother), killing his wife, pregnant with their daughter, and his five-year old son on top of sending John into a coma.

She serves four years of prison time and, when she gets out, starts on a journey looking for the grace to forgive herself. She tries to apologize to a devastated John (who just woke from coma at around the same time Rhoda got off prison) but her nerve ultimately fails her and she ends up cleaning John’s house for free, all the while just waiting for the moment of her apology.

The story of how Rhoda struggles to find forgiveness is by no means unique but Another Earth still manages to stand-out with its beautiful visuals, evocative storytelling, and clever use of leitmotif. This is one of those films where you would really have to watch with the sounds on and please, whatever you do, do not try to enjoy this one with only subs—it is curious how Another Earth manages to evoke so much with so little words spoken. Indeed, I guess, pictures (and good ambient music) can paint a thousand words.

While certain elements of Another Earth‘s story definitely feels sci-fi, I am pleased to report that the whole story is something even non-sci-fi fans can find enjoyable. This is not the Star Wars/Star Trek kind of sci-fi. Think of the emotions the stories in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles evoke and understand that Another Earth will make you feel the same way. At its core, this film is very human.

In fact, the film turns a huge blind eye to science in portraying Earth Two. They dwelt more on what is beautiful and romantic about a second Earth rather than on what is practical and, admittedly, inconvenient. For a person like me, this lack of rigor would’ve been a very big issue. However, Another Earth‘s other merits managed to extract a larger amount of tolerance on my part. Another Earth is the kind of story that asks for a huge amount of creative license from its science-oriented viewers and I advice you to grant it. You will be pleasantly surprised.

I find it funny that a slew of other things popped into my mind while watching Another Earth. On the topic of Bradbury, that scene where Rhoda’s neighborhood reacts to the news that the second Earth is not just a second Earth but even possibly a mirror Earth reminded me strongly of the third expedition in TMC, a.k.a., Mars is Heaven. The scene where John asks Rhoda what she would do were she to meet herself inadvertently reminded me of the Choices xkcd series. Maybe, it’s as I said that the story takes on a certain formula, one no stranger to current viewers.

Also of note is the fact that Another Earth came into my attention because of Mapother’s involvement in another work I’m such a huge fan of: Lost. In Lost Mapother plays the role of a rather creepy and irritating antagonist named Ethan, one of “The Others”. However, while watching Another Earth, his performance strongly reminded me of another character in Lost—a protagonist this time—by the name of John Locke. It’s a compliment when an actor’s performance for a new role erases the ire a typecast from a previous role may have formed.

To sum up, Another Earth is a magical film about forgiveness disguised as a sci-fi film. Try counting how many characters actually figure in this film, how many minutes of dialogue it features, and marvel how little it is compared to larger-scale productions. But even at that, it manages to stand out and portray more than in two hours you may spend in other productions. Alas, beautiful things come in rarely.


Another Earth is a film by Mark Cahill starring Brit Marling and William Mapother. It premiered in the 27th Sundance film festival.


A Middle Installment for Middle Earth

I am far from being a Tolkien fan. I remember finding in my high school’s library an old and battered paperback of Fellowship of the Ring during my first year and trying to read it. A chunk of its cover was gone, torn maybe, patched with white heavy paper (cartolina) and it had that musty smell books get inside a library, in the company of fellow volumes, untouched for years. I got through around three-fourths of the book before all the songs with unearthly names tired me.

Like most of my generation, my main acquaintance with Tolkien has been through the eyes of Peter Jackson. While I’m aware that Tolkien purists would scowl at the liberties Jackson took with the material (like, hey Aragorn and Arwen’s love story was never really elaborated in the books), I do consider his work exemplary pieces of cinematic storytelling.

However, I also take the opinion that splitting The Hobbit into three movies is a liberty quite large to take. While I haven’t read the book, I’m pretty certain that the first installment of Jackson’s Hobbit was padded with all those chase scenes and sword fights. Glad as I am to indulge in the scenery and wonders of Middle Earth once more, the most significant scene I can find in the first installment was those which involved Gollum, frail for all he is, a victim of his own greed as much as of circumstance.

Come the middle installment of this ongoing trilogy, I think I’m starting to discern a similarity between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Where Fellowship ends soon after a rather tiring battle sequence with a note of promise of hope-after-hardships for the main cast, so does the first Hobbit installment. Where Two Towers ends after a battle victory which is really just a prelude for a larger-scale war awaiting in the next installment, the second Hobbit ends after the main characters earn a temporary reprieve against the dragon Smaug, and even provides a set-up for a larger battle in the third installment.

Make no mistake, I still find Jackson’s take on The Hobbit, liberties and all, an enjoying experience. Though purists may argue that Tolkien will not be pleased with liberties taken with his work, I think we can at least agree that Jackson did his homework before taking the liberties. His additions and diversions do not break the spell of Tolkien’s Middle Earth but they do weaken the power of the story.

Blame it on the decision to make a trilogy out of a single book but I find that the story lines we follow in Desolation of Smaug not cohesive enough to make for a compelling tale. Early on in the movie, Gandalf separates himself from the main party to investigate the Necromancer’s presence further. A little before the end, just after we’ve reached the climax of Gandalf’s and the dwarves’ story lines, we see Legolas run after some orcs while Tauriel stays behind to take care of an ailing Kili.

Contrast to the story lines we had to follow in Lord of the Rings—which all revolved around the problem of destroying the One Ring and defeating Sauron once and for all—the dilemmas of each story line in Desolation do not move around a central theme. Each party to his own, at least until the last moment when Smaug decides to lay waste on Laketown. By the time this happens, I still had my sympathies divided over the imprisoned Gandalf, the dwarves trying to outwit Smaug, Kili’s near-death brush and his dreamy admission of feelings for Tauriel, and Legolas’ pursuit. And even at that, Smaug only ties up two of the multiple story lines.

The bottom line is that after two hours, the story was unable to make me care for the characters enough. I will surely watch the final installment because I want to see more, not because I want to know what happens with Bilbo and company.

If it’s any saving grace, what Desolation lacks in its plot, it makes up for execution and technical merit. Desolation is as much eye-candy as eye-candy can go. While watching, I found myself smiling at the wrong scenes because I was thinking of the computational effort that went into the construction of the scene rather than on what is actually happening. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen dragons given facial expressions before Desolation‘s Smaug. And it is every-facial-muscle believable at that. The scene where molten gold pours on Smaug is also well-done. The fluidity of molten gold is something no mere movie maker will attempt. Jackson certainly knows how to play his strong cards.

As I noted earlier, Jackson seems to be replicating a certain pattern from LotR into Hobbit. And please, please, I hope that what There and Back Again takes from Return of the King is in how it herds its story into a rousing conclusion, one that viewers can actually care about. After all, it finally concludes what is meant to be a single installment tale.

Here’s to hoping that Jackson has more tricks to play hidden in his sleeve.