Rivkah Writes…

November 18, 2009

“Push,” Precious, and Perseverance

Filed under: Fiction,Movie Review — rivkahwrites @ 4:47 pm

I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver. That was in 1983. I was out of school for a year. This gonna be my second baby. My daughter got Down Sinder. She’s retarded. I had got left back in the second grade too, when I was seven, ’cause I couldn’t read (and I still peed on myself). I should be in the eleventh grade, getting ready to go into the twelf’ grade so I can gone ‘n graduate. But I’m not. I’m in the ninfe grade.

I got suspended from school ’cause I’m pregnant which I don’t think is fair. I ain’ did nothin’!*

I first read this opening paragraph of “Push,” the novel by Sapphire, about 12 years ago as an undergraduate. I was taking an Honors English class called “The Imagination of Childhood,” and the novel was part of an assigned reading list. The protagonist, Clareece Precious Jones, an obese,  black girl, pregnant by her father for the second time, does not mince words; having found her way to an alternative school and been inspired to write by her teacher, Precious tells it like it is and doesn’t let ignorance of grammar and spelling get in her way. And the horrific impact of her initial sentences, like sniper shot, gave me nowhere to hide. Like it or not, by the end of the first paragraph, I knew the grim catalogue of misery I’d be dealing with if I chose to read further:

  • Child abuse
  • Incest
  • Statutory Rape
  • Pre-teen and teen pregnancy
  • Early illiteracy and educational delays
  • Current educational deficits wrought by gross negligence
  • “Down Sinder,” or Downs Syndrome, possibly due to incest

Caught between shock, repulsion, and pity, I could have skipped the book and read an online review, checking in with more conscientious peers to see whether there was anything I had missed. But I didn’t – because by the second paragraph, I was hooked. Because Precious, who has seen precious few joys in her 16 years, mercifully buffers her readers from the worst of her trials with her matter-of-fact commentary; because she turns round and makes you laugh with some wise crack when you want to cry; because despite enduring monstrously adult hurts, she’s still a kid who doesn’t think it’s fair she’s being suspended due to her second pregnancy – after all, “I ain’ did nothin’!”

Bottom line, the combination of ignorance and knowledge, feistiness and victimization, child and woman, and the bizarre irony of situation that these qualities produce – as though Precious’ suspension from school comes anything close to the robbery of her childhood and innocence – all these elements made me want to stay with Precious, to persevere with her story, even though it was hard, just as I ached for her to persevere with her struggle, despite her many obstacles.

And “Push,” or perseverance, is what the novel is all about, something the brilliant movie version of the novel, “Precious,” by Lee Daniels brought home to me. First and foremost, Precious must push to transmute the negativity of her father’s pushing/assaulting – into the love she bears her children. She must also push to bring her children into the world, push to survive the unending misery of her daily existence, push to break through the literacy barrier, push to find hope and joy with her children, and push to transcend her anguish, as awareness gradually dawns upon her. Ultimately, Precious must push to take ownership of her name; to be valuable, lovable, cherished – to be Precious.  

From the novel “Push,” by Sapphire, Knopf, NY 1996

August 18, 2009

Hurts So Good: War as a Drug in “The Hurt Locker.”*

Can addictions ever be deemed positive? And if so, by what measure? These questions are brilliantly explored in “The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

On one level, “The Hurt Locker” is an astonishingly suspenseful movie, focusing on a 3-man U.S. bomb disposal squad stationed in Iraq. On another, the movie serves as a canvas against which basic human emotions are played out, along with complex motivations for the action we see.

Staff Sgt. William James, the movie’s protagonist and the actual bomb disposal specialist, does not enjoy war per se, so much as the thrill of mastering what makes Iraqi bombs – well, tick. His approach to war is that of the obsessive, single-minded genius, fascinated by the bombs he defuses, challenged by their structural complexity, and determined to locate and disarm their operating systems, even when his actions endanger both his own and his men’s lives. By contrast, James cannot quite manage the humdrum routines of civilian life. He is a man for whom, as the voiceover at the start of the movie observes, “war is a drug.” You can almost see a pre-military James finding less acceptable outlets for his recklessness – until the army teaches him to sublimate those tendencies and live life on the edge in the name of patriotism. Like any addicts, then, James both loves and needs to diffuse bombs, even though the means to his salvation may one day kill him.

But while James is impervious to fear, he is no psychopath. He shows affection and concern for an Iraqi boy with the unlikely name of Beckham; continually encourages Specialist Eldridge, the most inexperienced and apprehensive of the 3-man operation; is reluctant to brag about his accomplishments; and clearly wants to save lives – those of innocent Iraqis as well as Americans. Yet James’ careless bravery, irrespective of its results, angers and terrifies Sgt. Sanborn and Specialist Eldridge, for whom survival is the name of the game in just another dangerous tour of duty. While they’re counting down the days to the end of their deployment, James revels in the daily peril and once home, pines for his next Iraqi stint. Back in the combat zone, the cockiness returns to his eyes and the swagger to his tread. James is such a cocktail of recklessness, compassion, and naïveté, that you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat, uncertain whether to shake your head or cheer him on. He pulls off his protective gear to detonate a multiple bomb structure in the trunk of a car, claiming that “we’re dealing with enough ammo to blow us all to Jesus, so I may as well die comfortable”; is a pleased as a child when finally unearthing the deadly operating switch; and doesn’t even get angry when Sanborn, whom he technically outranks, decks him for ripping off his headphones in frustration. James isn’t in this for honor or pride – he just loves what he’s doing; nothing he’s done has come closer to feeding his adrenalin rush. Hooked, armed, and dangerously likeable, it’s no wonder James scares Eldridge and Sanborn; they never came to Iraq expecting to fight the enemy in their own back yard.

*A reference to a poem of the same name by Brian Turner, the Hurt Locker symbolizes, among other possibilities, the repository for the weapons and agents of destruction spawned by the war.

August 3, 2009

Expiation through Self-Sacrifice in “Gran Torino”

Many people would agree that the rational treatment for post-traumatic experiences is therapy of some kind. Nevertheless, this wouldn’t be everyone’s treatment of choice. Why? Because weakness, craziness, and/or femininity are stigmas that still cling to any kind of psychological help. As a result, fear of discovery may inhibit people in certain insular groups, such as holocaust survivors, and in certain professions, such as the army and the fire and police departments, from seeking this kind of assistance. Some turn to drugs and alcohol as an alternative means of numbing the memories; but others, stronger willed, draw a veil over past traumas, refusing to either talk about or refer to them. While this coping strategy allows many to function, it takes its own toll, forcing the individual to build a protective fortress around his or her emotions – a fortress that keeps family and friends out, and blocks meaningful human interaction. This theme has been visited frequently in literature and film, most recently and brilliantly in Clint Eastwood’s production, “Gran Torino.”

In the movie, Clint Eastwood is Walt Kowlaski, a retired auto worker and misanthropic loner so haunted by his painful experiences in the Korean War that he is unable to connect with other human beings, never mind his own family. Snarling, cantankerous, and unabashedly racist, Walt makes short shrift of the 27-year old priest who rashly promised his dying wife that he would persuade Walt to go to confession, dispatches his son and daughter-in-law with even less ceremony when they suggest Walt move to a retirement community, and churlishly rebuffs his new Hmong neighbors. With his wife gone, Walt’s only connections are to his 1972 Gran Torino, well maintained, but rarely on show – like Walt’s good heart – his dog Daisy, on whom he lavishes the affection he cannot show his family, and his barber with whom he exchanges heavily barbed racist repartee on a monthly basis.

Then circumstances throw Walt together with Thao and Sue, his young neighbors. Local gang members pressure a reluctant Thao into stealing Walt’s Grand Tornio as an initiation rite, but Thao fails when the old man catches him in the act. Gang members show up to “give him another shot” despite Thao’s clear desire to be left alone and his older sister’s furious attempts to protect him. When the altercation spills on to Walt’s lawn, he orders them off his property at rifle-point – and ironically becomes a hero to the descendents of a people he was once ordered to kill. Irony piles atop irony as we examine the full ramifications of Walt’s action. When he draws his rifle at the intruders, he doesn’t bother to distinguish victims from attackers. All he sees, in purely blinkered terms, is a bunch of trespassing gooks. Successive events, however, teach Walt to view his neighbors through a prism of grudging tolerance. After he saves Sue from hectoring young black men, Walt is exposed to this fearless young woman’s teasing attempts to draw him into her world. Having no trouble standing up to menacing gang members, Sue remains unfazed by the racist slurs Walt throws her way; she recognizes these as the defenses Walt has erected to keep the world at bay. In fact, she parries his verbal assaults with cheerful explanations of the people and customs Walt learned to demonize in surviving Korea’s daily horrors. Ultimately, Walt starts to run out of steam in the face of Sue’s persistence, along with that of his Hmong neighbors who continue to leave food on his steps as tokens of gratitude to their unwitting “hero.” He also reluctantly agrees to let Thao work off his Gran Torino-theft offense, and under his rough tutelage, watches the withdrawn young man gradually come into his own. In time, Walt becomes more connected to Thao and Sue than to his own family; more receptive to the community’s holy man than to his own priest; and more aware with every day that goes by, that this family will find no peace as long as gang violence against them continues unchecked.

When his neighbors’ home is subjected to a drive-by shooting and Sue is violently raped, events crystallize for Walt into an unspoken epiphany. Without articulating his intent to anyone, without even clearly articulating it to himself, Walt begins to prepare for battle: he has his hair cut and tips the astonished barber $10; he has himself fitted for a custom-tailored suit; he leaves Daisy with Thao’s grandmother, a woman with whom he shares a mutual bond of elderly mistrust – and he goes to church to make his confession, much to Father Janovich’s consternation – “what in God’s name have you done!” Never once amid these seemingly mundane events, heavily loaded with portent, does Walt’s grim humor flag, his courage wane, or his façade crack. He remains formidably cranky to the end. Significantly, the one sin Walt does not confess to is killing men under orders during the Korean War; he is about to atone for this in actions rather than in words.

When Walt confronts the gang members at their home, he draws out the tension until he is certain there are plenty of witnesses to what will ensue, secure in the knowledge that for him, this is the point of no return. Walt is not even carrying a gun when the gang open fire; significantly, he falls to the ground arms outstretched. Like Jesus, Walt dies to save others; unlike Jesus, though, his sacrifice expiates his own burden, redeeming his soul by bringing hope to the descendents of men he unwillingly shot in Korea. Precise and responsible to the end, Walt is ready for his burial – hair trimmed, custom-made suit ready to be picked up from the tailors. All that remains is for Father Janovich, the young priest’s forebodings confirmed, to deliver the sermon. And as the final pièce de résistance, Walt bequeaths his Gran Tornio to his emotional heir, Thao; freed of its owner’s burden, the material symbol of Walt’s goodness can finally see the light of day.

So what, actually, is Walt’s reasoning in his moment of epiphany? He comes to the realization, in common with his Dickensian analogue, another sardonic, nobly flawed character, Sydney Carton from “A Tale of Two Cities,” that nothing in his life is more important than saving those he loves, that nothing in his life stands in the way of his departure, and that ultimately, expiation through self-sacrifice is “….a far, far better thing I do now than I have ever done.”* We can only hope that, along with Sydney Carton, having fulfilled his destiny, Walt finds his way to “…a far, far better place…than I have ever known.”*

 

*A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. At the moment of sacrificing his life for his rival, for the sake of the woman they both love, Sydney Carton says:

“It is a far, far better thing I do now than I have ever done. It is a far, far better place I go to than I have ever known.”

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Fallen AngelMan in the Mirror: Michael Jackson and Dorian Gray, Susan Boyle: From Transcendent to Transformed, and The Dream Lives on: an Open Letter to Susan Boyle.

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