decision to leave

on the flight from JFK to dubai, i saw ‘decision to leave.’ beautifully crafted by park chan-wook, it’s a slippery film, hard to pin down or categorize. it’s romance, mystery, crime, and detective story. it’s about obsessions, repetitions, imaginings, watching and being watched, recordings, replays, metaphors, poetry, death, murder, desire, and fantasy. it slides back and forth in time and space, even in language and translation (chinese and korean). an evasive, fatalistic, seductive film that takes its time (2 hours 18 min). makes me long for richer, more challenging and inventive filmmaking and storytelling than what we see celebrated in the US.

my review: triangle of sadness

saw ‘triangle of sadness’ by ruben ostlund, then went back and watched ‘the square’ again. will rewatch ‘force majeure’ as well. what a brilliant, hilarious, provocative filmmaker. have been thinking about his work and how to encapsulate it. he likes to invert or complicate what is ‘normal.’ he strips away western society’s veneer of civilization, exposes its violent vulgar core, and pokes holes in what is considered the social contract.

he does this stylistically as well, by inserting sounds and visual disturbances in his scenes (an elevator door that keeps closing in the middle of an intense convo, baby cries during a marketing pitch, chairs crashing to the ground while a couple confront each other after an awkward one-night stand, etc).

he reaches for some of the mightiest, most glittery symbols of high culture (modern art, fashion, even winter sports), roots them out from their aesthetic safe place, and reveals the social rot, money, privilege, and absurdity they engender.

his films are always set in exclusive, elitist contexts – a bougie ski resort, a contemporary art museum, a luxury yacht – where the rich and beautiful prance and prevaricate about their wealth. a russian capitalist who quotes ronald reagan, a cute old couple who’ve made their fortune as arms dealers, a museum curator who is proudly liberal but couldn’t cut it without the privileges he wields, art collectors and aristos who remain paralyzed in the face of an assault on one of their own, how power hierarchies can be flipped like a switch, how the elite are completely bereft of survival skills, ideas of masculinity, the marginalization of people of color, horrors of the service industry, capitalism and homelessness, capitalism and art, beauty as trade and industry, the list goes on.

there’s always so much to unpack.

Scene from Triangle of Sadness

Farha on Netflix

i finally watched ‘farha,’ a film by jordanian director darin sallam, on netflix last night. i knew that it’s a film about the nakba (or the catastrophe) in which more than 700,000 palestinians were forcibly expelled from palestine in 1948, to make room for the jewish-supremacist state of israel.

i also knew that the israeli government has been applying pressure on netflix to censor/remove the film from their library. a bit funny considering the heretofore love affair between israel and netflix. you can read about it in belén fernández’s excellent piece ‘netflix and israel: a special relationship’ in which she shows how “netflix has been willingly subsumed into the israeli hasbara industry.”

the nakba is a vast and important episode in human history, yet sallam’s approach is small, specific, and spare. the story is told through the eyes of a 14-year old girl who becomes an unwitting witness to shocking atrocities committed by israeli soldiers. as we spend most of the film seeing the world through farha’s eyes, we too are called to witness and testify.

the experience transforms farha – gone are her dreams of studying in the city and investing her life in her community. the nakba was meant to destroy palestinian society, very deliberately, one bureaucratic and military step at a time, over multiple decades and generations.

israel’s war on ‘farha’ is enraging. not only because palestinians might be some of the few people in the world who are not allowed to tell the stories of their own dispossession and ethnic cleansing, but also because the facts of what we see in the film are not new. the terror (including theft, rape and massacres) wielded against palestinians during the nakba is well-known and well-documented, including testimonies by israeli soldiers who carried it out.

u’d have to live under a rock not to have heard of the deir yassin massacre, for example. many parts of tel aviv itself are built on depopulated palestinian villages.

in any case, the bots are out in huge numbers trying to sabotage farha’s ratings, so pls watch the film, ‘love’ it on netflix (two hearts), make an imdb account, give the film 10 stars, go to the film on google and letterboxd and give it 5 stars. write a review if u like.

let’s make sure we see more stories by and about the oppressed and their histories, and less state propaganda packaged as art. we can make a difference.

the prime of miss jean brodie

watched ‘the prime of miss jean brodie’ again last night, with the magnificent maggie smith. this film, made in 1969, always shocks me on account of its boldness and contemporary relevance. the characters, including the titular jean brodie, are deeply flawed, their trespasses unsettling, the emotional tenor of the film (novel by muriel spark) is ambiguous, everything painted in grey, without the comfort and predictability of black and white. in short, it’s a fearless portrayal of life with all its contradictions and unsavory realities (including the allure of fascism). i remember a teacher somewhat like that in high school, back in islamabad. it was an all girls school. i was never in her orbit but she created some commotion in our midst, before being let go.

from the metamorphosis by franz kafka

it’s incredible that this book (written in 1912) continues to be a propos, fascinating, a literary feat today, in 2022, exactly 110 years later. it provokes disbelief and uproarious laughter, remains steadfast as a masterpiece, and ends with heartbreaking pathos.

there are as many interpretations of ‘the metamorphosis’ as there are readers (and that means a lot). some believe that gregor samsa “like other of kafka’s doomed protagonists, errs by failing to act, instead allowing himself to be acted upon.” others draw comparisons to willy loman from ‘death of a salesman’ and write about the degradation of modern capitalist work. there are those who see a freudian twist to the story and focus on gregor’s overbearing father. still others think the metamorphosis relates to gregor’s sister, grete, and her evolution over the course of the novella.

my take is sobering. to me the metamorphosis is about othering. the idea of otherness has been addressed elsewhere but mostly in terms of gregor’s own alienation, loss of identity, and lack of agency.

i see othering that can make someone seem ugly, disgusting, and less than human. without being threatening, difference can be turned into something dangerous and attacked with impunity. and this change can happen overnight, so that the other can now be crushed underfoot, starved to death, and left to die.

in the same way, children can be arrested, villages bombed, people tortured with the benediction of the law, and those committing the violence whine about being the victims. it’s always the monster who forces their hand.


tomm el-saieh’s work at the clark art institute

i went to the clark institute to see tomm el-saieh’s work.

his paintings are kaleidoscopic, pulsating, shimmering. they push and pull. they embody languages, sounds, hieroglyphics. they feel like sacred scrolls, like maps with districts, neighborhoods, borders and connecting grids, like cities or skin cells that grow, evolve and transform organically, much like his paintings.

he uses patterns, abrasions and erasures. they are disorienting. one must focus and refocus one’s eyes. parts emerge, recede, resurface. they throb, balloon, shift. like a shallow depth of field where the foreground and background keep switching.

the paintings have texture, like quilted fabric. i’ve never wanted to touch a canvas so much.

my favorite is kafou (below) from carrefour, a commune in haiti – i couldn’t stop looking at it. then there was canape vert, vilaj imajine and wanga neges.

tomm el-saieh was born in haiti, where his family has had roots in port-au-prince for 5 generations. his father is palestinian-haitian and his mom israeli. he lives and works in miami.

my review: blonde

i have not watched (neither do i plan to watch) ‘blonde,’ a fictional biographical film written and directed by andrew dominik and loosely based on a novel about marilyn monroe’s life, as imagined by joyce carol oates – yes, the number of ‘removes’ from the actual woman at the center of this ceaseless capitalist production is astonishing.

the reviews, especially by women, stating how the film ends up being soft porn with expensively produced cinematography would have kept me away, but the film is so much more problematic. it turns marilyn into a victim (something she resisted throughout her life), it is crassly graphic in how it shows affairs, abortions, and miscellaneous sexual assaults that never happened, not only does it objectify and diminish marilyn monroe (all over again) but it also exploits ana de armas, the young actress playing her (the director seems to have a fetish for some of her body parts).

many of these borderline art/adult films are written, directed and produced by men. remember ‘blue is the warmest color,’ a french film by abdellatif kechiche? it became famous for its graphic lesbian sex, but it was pretty obvious that the sex scenes were written and choreographed by a man. later on there were accusations of sexual assault, bullying and aggressive behavior on set. it seemed to fit.

as a woman i find it unbearable that our usefulness/import is still so intimately tied to our bodies. whether to cover us or disrobe us, whether to allow us to use contraception or not, give birth to a child or not. some of us are forcibly sterilized while others are not allowed to end unwanted pregnancies. some of us can be killed for not covering our hair while others are utilized to fulfill gross male fantasies and compromise our body sovereignty.

it has always enraged me that 99.9% of victims portrayed in western detective novels and crime thrillers are women and the methods used to torture, kill and mutilate them ever so creatively are invented by men. it normalizes violence against women. even as we cringe, there is something lurid about it that teases, tempts, raises the stakes. we are told the movie is make-belief, controlled, safe. but real life is not, and this is where we continue to struggle.

as fascism takes over the world, one election or coup as a time (look at italy’s giorgia meloni), all i know is that it will get tougher for all of us out here who are not straight, white, able-bodied, european men. this is the time to understand true intersectional feminism and fight together as equals.

delusions of the twitterati

all social media platforms are terrible (including FB, IG, whatsapp, etc) but i find twitter particularly unsettling. it’s not just the vicious back-stabbing and habitual fightiness, it’s also the unbearable snobbery. this idea that twitter is better than other social media for its 280-character repartees from the woke literati. some are better than others, but puleeezzz…

The Stranger by Albert Camus

From ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus

Illustration by Yeji Yun

-There was the same dazzling red glare. The sea gasped for air with each shallow, stifled little wave that broke on the sand. I was walking slowly toward the rocks and I could feel my forehead swelling under the sun. All that heat was pressing down on me and making it hard for me to go on. And every time I felt a blast of its hot breath strike my face, I gritted my teeth, clenched my fists in my trouser pockets, and strained every nerve in order to overcome the sun and the thick drunkenness it was spilling over me. With every blade of light that flashed off the sand, from a bleached shell or a piece of broken glass, my jaws tightened.

-But most of the time, he was just a form shimmering before my eyes in the fiery air. The sound of the waves was even lazier, more drawn out than at noon. It was the same sun, the same light still shining on the same sand as before. For two hours the day had stood still; for two hours it had been anchored in a sea of molten lead.

-All I could feel were the cymbals of sunlight crashing on my forehead and, indistinctly, indistinctly, the dazzling spear flying up from the knife in front of me.

-When I was first imprisoned, the hardest thing was that my thoughts were still those of a free man. For example, I would suddenly have the urge to be on a beach and to walk down to the water. As I imagined the sound of the first waves under my feet, my body entering the water and the sense of relief it would give me, all of a sudden I would feel just how closed in I was by the walls of my cell. But that only lasted a few months. Afterwards my only thoughts were those of a prisoner.

my review: elvis

went to see ‘elvis’ yesterday with my sister and nephew. first baz luhrmann film i’ve ever liked. it’s obvious that he’s a devoted fan, so he reins in his frenetic (sometimes grotesque) filmmaking. three things: austin butler is electric – he plays elvis with intense physical and emotional energy and heart. i love that elvis’s career and music are situated bang in the middle of black culture and musical brilliance. and finally, the film allows us to connect to elvis as a human being. that might seem superfluous but for someone who was turned into a larger-than-life brand and money-making machine, it’s moving to break through all that dazzle/packaging and come face to face with human vulnerability. the hold his agent, colonel parker, had on elvis feels abusive and suffocating. reminded me of brittney spears and her struggles and how fame in a hyper-capitalist society can trap, oppress and even destroy.

more about elvis in the film vs in real life here.

#elvis #elvismovie #elvispresley #bazluhrmann #austinbutler #filmreview #maraahmed

my review: ms marvel

friends, i’d like to draw ur attention to ‘ms marvel.’ so i’m not a fan of the marvel universe – i find all of it as inspiring as a coke commercial. but i appreciated representation in ‘black panther’ and i am stunned by the unprecedented, unapologetic and bold brownness, easternness, global southness, south asianness, muslimness, and girlness of ms marvel.

based on sana amanat’s pakistani american marvel superhero kamala khan, the series is a coming of age story but in a context we’ve never seen before. there’s talk about the hijab, scenes at the local mosque, plenty of bismillahs and mashallahs, protective south asian parents, etc but none of this is self-conscious or cartoonish or an existential crisis (such as in ‘ramy’). there’s also clear-eyed depictions of islamophobia (police surveillance and bigoted FBI agents) but they’re all part of what our superhero must vanquish and come packaged with wit and humor.

the cultural and linguistic references are vibrant and real (nazia hassan, what???) and the 1947 partition is at the center of the story. love how the lower third in flashback scenes specifies ‘british-occupied india.’

also love how kamala’s family history holds the key to her powers, but only her matrilineal history, going back all the way to her great grandmother aisha. her nani is played by samina ahmed (another wonderful treat) who lives in an old mansion in karachi.

oh, and the graphics and music are brilliant.

the creators of the series are all brown people from south asia and the middle east. i know it’s disney, but this is a strong step forward that should be supported. we can do it thru viewership and by giving it 10 stars on IMDB. believe it or not they are tracking all that stuff and deciding ms marvel has flopped because too ethnic, too unrelatable, too childish (yeah, only white men or skinny white ladies in sexy costumes are universal).

show u want more diversity by watching the series, creating an IMDB account (super easy) and ranking/reviewing. i wish our kids could have plugged into such stories when they were growing up. but it’s not too late for generations to come.

What is beauty anyway?

Alex Greenberger: At stake in Lorenza Böttner’s art was often the concept of beauty itself—what it means to be aesthetically pleasing, and who gets to be considered as such. Western male artists throughout art history have often personified beauty in the form of a nondisabled cisgender white woman—think Praxiteles’s sculptures of Aphrodite or Peter Paul Rubens’s voluptuous females. Böttner’s paintings and performances put that notion to the test by attacking bourgeois images of this sort and cleaving open gender binaries.

[…] One recurring figure in Böttner’s work is the Venus de Milo, the millennia-old ancient Greek sculpture that has been considered a paragon of beauty for many. In its current state, the sculpture lacks arms, much like Böttner. Why, she wondered, do so many people still considered the work beautiful, even if they wouldn’t say the same of her body? To accompany one performance, first staged in 1982, in which she took on the sculpture’s guise, she discussed that paradox. “A sculpture is always admired even if limbs are missing, whereas a handicapped human being arouses feelings of uncertainness and shame,” she wrote in a pamphlet explaining the work. “Changing from sculpture into human being, I want to make people aware of this problem.”