by Tushar Madhav
It is a long winding railway track in front of the two of them—Leonard and Virginia Woolf, sitting unnerved with each other on a railway platform bench, a couple of days ahead of when Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the waters of the town river. “We left London so you could find peace, Virginia,” says Leonard, his forehead screaming of terse nerves. “You cannot find peace by avoiding life, Leonard,” Virginia replies with her usual elegance. A train arrives at the station, fuming away to glory.
It is a long winding road in front of the two of them—Gilbert and Arnie Grape, standing on the highway a few days ahead of Arnie’s 19th Birthday. He has managed to survive 18 years and hence. Nothing seems to be visible in the oblivion—except for a hope. Suddenly a trail of trailers appears like every year. “Is that Becky?” Arnie asks. “Yes, that’s Becky”, Gilbert replies, “We could go anywhere, now. Anywhere!”
It has been two days since I watched The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002) and a few hours since I finished watching What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (Lasse Hallström, 1993).
There is no reason per se why these decade old films draw my attention today. Impressionist as you may call me, but the two films have left an important mark. A mark to understand what brings cinema closer to life. And how life draws from cinema. Quite different from each other, these two films also have a lot in common.
It is simply a philosophical imagination of the filmmaker (or the writer) what we get to witness in The Hours: one novel affects people spanning over several years and spaces. It is a philosophy of connections—tracing and finding the missing blocks here and there. What’s eating Gilbert is an unnerving account of an atypical American family dealing with psychosis, obesity and fear. Within its deeper tapestries it confronts the matters of bonding—through explorations, split decisions and holding firm to the ground. Both films have a looming fear of death—and an attempt to understand life in the perspective of death. Both the films rely on bonds and connections—some levitating, some gravitational.
So what is life after all but a bundle of bonds and connections we make with each other? What are connections or bonds but the unsaid vibes and undetermined intuitions we sense? We may believe in them or not, but they exist. Laws of human-nature and cycles of life run beyond all control of our existence. To be able to notice and pay attention to the little connections these spinning cycles leave behind is the key to keep moving ahead—is the key to spinning a new story.
What makes cinema so special? A medium which is so intangible yet bears a tenacity of being immortal and cross-temporal. Contrasts of black-white, living-dead, real-imaginary and good-bad—all exist within the two-dimensional hemisphere of the cinematic frame. I often imagine scientists working on a machine that could achieve a graphic equalization with our dreams. With this machine I would wake up every morning and look into the monitor to see what I had been dreaming all night. It would be crazy, yes. Phenomenal, yes. Mind-blowing! But so is the medium of cinema. For it can leap over the boundaries of time and space, create parallel worlds and make us dwell into the thoughts which may otherwise only exist as abstractions. The power of Cut-to… The synergy of beginning and the end.
Somewhere in the middle of her story (Mrs Dalloway), Virginia Woolf is caught up with a difficult question—Who should die in the novel? To that Leonard asks—Why is it important for anyone to die in the story? Virginia Woolf has a stern and logical reply—Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more. It’s contrast. It’s right, she says to herself, the poet must die—the creator must die.
There is an old tree by the Grape House in a small town of Iowa. That tree has branches and leaves. Those branches leap up to the house’s window. The window is made of all glass. Through the glass the Grape family can take a look outside. Inside, they live, survive and wait for the little Arnie to grow up (or die anytime). It is on the old tree where Arnie hides himself from everyone, ecstatic with a belief that none can ever see him there.
Soon to be 18, Arnie knows death much closer than anyone of his age would, for he has witnessed his father hanging from the ceiling. He has also told his big brother and Hero, Gilbert – ‘I could go any time’. So when Arnie kills a little insect with the flap of the mailbox, he goes crying to his hero brother feeling sorry for what he just did. Arnie and Gilbert have no father, no hero figure to look up to. For Gilbert the concept of hero does not exist. For Arnie, Gilbert is the strongest super-hero he has ever seen.
It is for the same reason that over the years Gilbert has made Arnie stay grounded to the belief that while he is up on that old tree, no one can see him. It is a bond based on trivial lies—lies that help Arnie survive.
How critical are hope and survival to each other—interdependent and mutually inclusive. As I think about Arnie, who is suffering from a fatal mental disorder, I imagine him dying almost at the same instant as we’re told about his disease. The thought of him being alive comes only a little later. Am I pessimistic? Maybe. Hope survives though. Much like Virginia Woolf’s argument of the contrast, here too, Arnie’s mother dies in her sleep in order to keep Arnie alive. The cycle of human existence.
So from where does Virginia gather the insights for her story? They say that imagination is only an abstraction of reality, and dreams only a manifestation of unfulfilled desires. Half-filled tumbler of the past, and only as much thirst of the present—that is the connection between what has left us by and what is bound to come.
A little girl moved by the death of a sparrow in the garden inspires Virginia to seek redemption for her heroine. Hope springs from the cold waters of gallows—end of one must create the beginning of another. While burying the sparrow in the mud, the little girl dressed in blue asks: “What happens when we die?”
“What happens?” Virginia is forced to think. We return to where we came from.
“I don’t remember where I came from”, the girl says clueless.
“Nor do I.” Virginia is pushed way into the future in the form of several women who must find connections between their lives and hers.
1921—Virginia writes in her book: Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
1951—Laura Brown reads in her book: Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
2001—Clarissa announces to Sally: Sally…I think I am gonna buy the flowers myself.
A blossoming connection among women who have no idea who they are. I wonder if someone at this point of time is living a moment exactly like mine. I wonder this moment would return to someone else in the future. I wonder this moment that time itself can be so ephemeral. A tiny scoop of the clock.
Two generations of women are affected by a story written by Virginia Woolf who was caught up in her own set of doubts and confusions. To be able to find peace, she drowns herself unaware of how consequential her story could be. Years later, a pregnant woman (Laura Brown) doubts her integrity as a mother and wife, and finds solace in the character of the book written by the woman who drowned herself. Last minute panic makes her emerge from a palpable suicide. Several years later, another woman (Clarissa Vaughan) is caught up in a similar fix. Being a Mrs Dalloway that she is, she must organize a fantastic party for her beloved dying poet friend (Richard) who recently won a prestigious award. But something is unravelling her. Has she been lying to herself about her feelings for this friend—for he always makes her feel complete, yet at the same time so trivial? So what must this Mrs Dalloway do? Throw a party like any other day and rejoice in her revelry, or confront a strong impulse of an emotion that may unshackle her forever? Ironically, she doesn’t really have to find an answer to these doubts for the answer has already been written by the writer who drowned herself. “The poet must die, the creator must die”.
“This is what we do Richard. This is what people do. They stay alive for each other” – Clarissa tells disillusioned Richard.
“Dear Leonard”, writes Virginia. “To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. Leonard, always the years between us, always the years. Always the love. Always the hours.”
So if we were really able to slice it, slice time, then distribute it; distribute time over spaces and centuries and then look back over our times spent, would we all still be as abysmal as we are now? If we were to stop the moment where it is and then hold it, hold it there until we came back to it after a long, long journey, journey over spaces where we had distributed the time, would we still catch the moment as it is? It would be too much to ask for, I guess. I must be leaving a trail right now, I must be building a bridge to something I am unaware of. That must be the beauty of time we all celebrate. That must be my contribution to time.
Arnie and Gilbert’s mother finally manages to walk up to the attic room where her daughters had put a bed for her ages back. It takes courage and strength and motivation for a woman as fat as her to walk up that flight of stairs. She lies down on the bed after seven years. She deserves it. That she deserves to rest is what her children tell her. She calls for her boy Arnie who is still rejoicing on his 18th birthday. Before Gilbert leaves the room to call Arnie, his mother tells him, “You are my knight in shimmering armour, did you know that?” “I think you mean shining”, he replies. “No shimmering,” she says. “You shimmer, you glow.” Then she sleeps.
Richard has just removed all the wrapping paper off his room’s windows. It is bright inside now, and there is a look for palpable freedom on his face. Clarissa enters and is astounded by the brightness inside. How bright is it? Richard says, “Like that morning, when you walked out of that old house and you were eighteen, and maybe I was nineteen. I was nineteen years old, and I’d never seen anything so beautiful. You, coming out of a glass door in your early morning, still sleepy. Isn’t it strange, the most ordinary morning in anybody’s life?”
“I have stayed alive for you, but now you have to let me go,” says Richard, sitting precariously at the window. “Would you be angry if I died?” And before the quintessential Mrs Dalloway can answer, he throws himself down, fleeting into the ground.
The story does not end here though for it has to end where it all started.
* This article originally appeared in the author’s personal blog ECT etcetra on 29 January 2013