Sunday, March 27, 2011

Still Living in That Time Before Cell Phones

I assuaged my guilt about my corny morning movie by going to the French Film Festival this afternoon, although I left with a guilt of a different kind.

For some real French film making, I chose Jacques Perrin's "L'Empire du Millieu du Sud," a documentary about Vietnam's endless struggle against invaders.

Things got off to a slow start when the sound failed, not once, but twice, so we got to see the beginning of the film three times before progressing any further. It was well worth it.

Director Perrin began by saying it had taken over ten years to edit the huge amount of unreleased archival footage of Vietnam gathered from all over the world.

Accompanying that was poetry and writings about Vietnam written by Vietnamese, French and American writers, all of whom had some association with the country.

Beginning with the French colonization of Vietnam in the 1860s ("Colonization is not a right, but a duty" claimed the French), the film traced the history of the country that has had no choice but to put up with outsiders.

The descriptions of the heat and the adjustments the French made when they moved to Vietnam were so telling. Tennis had to be played at 5 a.m. before the heat set in. 8-10:00 was for work and then it was lunch and nap time. Work resumed around 5, followed by dinner.

The evenings were devoted to pleasures; one writer spoke of dancing as much as possible to convince themselves that they were alive. Luckily, they had the Vietnamese to wait on them to make such a lifestyle possible.

As the film followed France's defeat by Germany in the 40s, the Japanese invasion and eventually the U.S.' intervention, the Vietnamese people are shown being wounded, killed, burned out of their homes and generally suffering in the name of aid. It was tragic to see.

As a major documentary dork, seeing so much actual footage (laying booby traps, parachuting out of planes, graphic shots of treating wounded soldiers, pulling artillery up massive hills by hand) was fascinating and utterly depressing. I was glad I had come.

To lift my spirits after such a dose of reality, I walked out of the Byrd and across the street to Chop Suey for a poetry reading.

David Wojahn began by saying, "It's so nice that VCU has more than just the top ranked Creative Writing program!" He introduced poet Gregory Kimbrell by saying he writes of Planet Kimbrell, a world away.

With references to Edward Gorey and schizophrenia, Kimbrell read his story poems. In "The Age of Miracles" he wrote of "Our great-grandfathers who had caught fire just looking at the forest."

"The Morning Ritual" yielded my favorite line: "Though sometimes the ship sinks and one did not know why," and resulted in two poets in the room nodding their heads as he read the last line. Poet-approved poetry.

Emilia Phillips had a wonderfully clear reading style, perfect for the musicality of her poetry. I loved "Creation Myth" and its line, "As a child, my grandfather ate dandelion sandwiches, nothing but Wonder Bread and weeds."

The visiting poet was Sebastian Matthews, the son of a poet. He began by saying, "How great to know that VCU is going to the Final Four and twenty people are in this room for poetry." My sentiments exactly (and way to go, VCU!).

Matthews had recently collected some of his father's last writings into a book and began with some of his jokes.
What did the elephant say to the naked man? How do you eat with that thing?
Marriage #4 for him and #3 for her: These two believe in the format.
Laughter followed.

Given today's weather, it was fitting he read his father's "More Snow" with the line, "Roads were ramps to ditches."

His father's last poem, "Sad Stories Told in Bars, the Reader's Digest Version" was memorable for the line, "Not much of a story, is it? The life that matters, not the life I led."

Then he turned to his own work and read a jazz-focused one, "Live at the Village Vanguard," with references to the sounds in the room during the performance. "The laugh lifts up to step over the bass line." Just the imagery of that line satisfied me in that same glorious way that music does.

"In a Time Before Cell Phones" he as much as made my case for the unfortunate losses the devices have brought to the modern life (although happily not mine), things like "meeting by coincidence" and "we slept soundly in the dark spaces" referring to classrooms and waiting.

How lovely to have my afternoon end with a validation of my choice to live a life in the moment, with no chance of interruption or need to connect beyond those who surround me at that time.

I knew that poetry was just what I needed. Well, that and an Industrial sub from Coppola's Deli immediately afterwards, but not having a cell phone, I had to walk over there to order it.

It was my distinct pleasure to do so.

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