Saturday, April 28, 2012

They're going to live forever

Tonight I could write about things that come in groups of 101. Dalmatians, perhaps? Or...yeah, pretty much dalmatians.

But instead I'm going to make a convoluted and esoteric argument about how different aspects of life seem to come together to send you messages. In some cases, like today, these are self-reflective messages about how the concept of living is such a paradoxical concept.

I've been discussing the movies Vertigo and La Jetée to death for the past couple of weeks in one of my classes. We've gone through the films, psychoanalyzing the characters and trying to understand the filmmakers' reasons for pursuing certain thematic elements.

One of the thematic elements we've touched on relatively frequently is the fear of mortality. This, in conjunction with an overarching argument about fear of castration (yes, you read that right) is the basis of our study of the film Vertigo, and why I've had to suppress my unconscious mind assuming every tall image in a movie is a phallic symbol.

Getting back on the topic of mortality, though, I realized how often the subject comes up in my own life - especially today. This morning, I watched the movie The Descendants with my dad over breakfast. We sat down in the mid-morning, assuming we'd be able to catch at least 30 minutes of the movie and then head out to run some errands.

Once we were just over half an hour in, we could no longer fathom leaving this movie to a later viewing. Both of us avoided the subject of the time, presumably just so we could continue absorbing this film and all of its pure genius.

The Descendants tells the story of a father and his two daughters facing the impending death of their respective wife and mother who has been in a coma since getting into a motorboating accident. They must face her mortality squarely when it is stated in her will that she should be taken off life support if there is no hope for a recovery.

The story has many other discoveries and plot turns that I won't divulge (Warning: I do share one major plot point later in this blog) because I really do believe in the value of mystery in bringing power to a film, but I will say that the concept of death in the film really made me look inward more than I'd like to.

Later in the day, after my dad left for his flight back to California, I decided to watch Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. This movie is based on my favorite book of all time, Jonathan Safran Foer's novel of the same title. In the book and the film, narrator/protagonist Oskar Schell loses his father in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It's an incredibly touching book and unbelievably pertinent for someone who has lost a parent.

The Descendants left the question of coping with death slightly unaddressed. Since the characters were dealing very much with the present circumstances, from the mother's coma to unaddressed secrets to a plot of land that needed to be sold, there wasn't that much reflection on the condition of death itself. That being said, it was one of the most amazing films I've seen in my life and I loved it for what it was.

But Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, despite being an inferior attempt at translating a novel to the screen, possessed a beautiful underlying message about the need for answers in the event of an untimely death of a loved one.

I've had to struggle a lot myself with that feeling. Though I never had a physical means with which to search for answers - Oskar had a key that he found in a vase in his father's closet - I've always tried to find ways to look back into history and find little pockets of memories that I can associate with my mother.

Which brings me back to Vertigo and La Jetée. Bear with me for a second while I explain myself.

In both of these films there is a scene where a character - in Vertigo it's the femme fatale and in La Jetée it's the male narrator - points to a mounted tree stump that has labels on it, commenting on their place in the universe. When Kim Novak does this in Vertigo, she is explaining how the span of her life only spans a few rings of the giant tree. For La Jetée's narrator, it's a science fiction-y look at the vortex of time as represented by rings in a tree trunk. He points outside the tree, into empty space, and says that he is from there (since he's traveling from the future his being outside concrete time is true in a literal and figurative sense).

Today, I showed my dad around campus a bit. I walked him into one of my old lecture halls, where I had class two times a week in fall quarter. We walked in and I asked him what it felt like to be there when he wasn't a student.

For a while we talked about being in a place that isn't really your own. I thought about when I had visited my mom's alma mater, UCLA, and she showed me around to the large lecture halls to give me a feel of what life was like for her when she went to college. But for me as a kid, it was an experience not of placement of myself in the scene, but of seeing ghosts of the past and future. I walked into the UCLA stadium-seating lecture rooms and imagined to myself not only that the place had existed years before me and would continue to exist years after me (I would only be a few rings in its tree), but that I also stood in a place that represented my future collegiate life, where I floated outside the rings of the figurative tree.

Thinking about my mother walking me around UCLA back then and me walking my father around my school now, I started to reflect on my relationships with them, the ephemeral and the everlasting.

In one respect, the experiences you have with the people you love are on their own very tangible timelines. As someone lives, they remain part of your life, case and point. When they pass away, they are gone. The relationship is no more.

But, taking a page from Vonnegut perhaps, I also believe that there are infinite ideas to explore in your relationship with someone, even when that relationship doesn't necessarily exist in our 3-dimensional world. Considering a fourth dimension - à la Slaughterhouse-Five - there is also this underlying notion that whatever we've lost still exists in some capacity. Even if they've passed on, we can still meet our loved ones half way if we try and connect with them.

This isn't a spiritual argument as much it is one based science, fact, human nature and psychology. When we've lost someone, we're quick to start searching for ways to bring them back. With Oskar this was through the key he found in his father's closet after his death. With the characters in The Descendants, this came in the form of answers about (Attn: Spoiler Alert!) the alleged infidelity of the comatose mother.

I found my mom in the physical sense that day when she showed me her college classroom. We were together quite literally exploring the campus. But I also found her in an everlasting sense. By just experiencing that with her, I was getting to learn a piece of her life that placed me elsewhere on her timeline - even if it was colored by my own thoughtful interpretation. For just a moment I was back in college with her - and the mental image I created that day is one I'll always carry with me.

Every experience we have with others puts us on infinite timelines. While our space on Earth may seem static, like two separate rings on a tree, by the very fact that we've existed outside of the bubbles of our own inner consciousness, we've extended ourselves into timelines that far outlive our own.

I like to say that this quells all my sadness about losing my mother at such a young age...but it doesn't. Still, the fact that I've been able to essentially perform my own version of a search for a lock that matches my key through internal and external research into my mom's life, makes me understand the dichotomy that exists in life itself. And it gives me hope that I can bring my father into my life, too, by just allowing him to look at a lecture hall and imagine me sitting in class twice a week.

We only live so long, but in this universe there is always a way to transcend your own time - to live forever. If only by sharing and searching.

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