Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cast Away

The funny thing about being stranded on a desert island is that it polarises reality. Things go from being normal, everyday stuff of the blah kind to being absolutely horrible (the event that makes the person be stranded in the first place - in this case, a plane crash) and then absolutely awesome (the person is in a place probably none of his friends will ever get to experience in the same way he has). It's not surprising that the film Cast Away starring Tom Hanks grossed nearly half a billion dollars at the box office. At least, not to me.

It's one of those films that you can go back and watch again and again and never seem to get sick of. It's what I call philosophically rich, because each time you watch it you discover something new; not about the screenplay but about yourself. About human nature and the world.

The film is a love story at its most basic level. Man is about to propose to the woman he loves but has to leave on a plane for his work as a FedEx analyst. Cue tragedy. He winds up on a rocky, isolated, totally deserted island in the middle of the Pacific with no hope of getting away on his own, thanks to the suicidal reef chain which completely surrounds the island. Meanwhile, his true love, back home in Memphis, USA, believes she has lost him forever.

From the beginning, you don't expect it to be a fairytale of any sort. It's a relief, in our Know-it-All age, actually, that the movie is never set up romantically but in fact reeks of reality. And that reality imparts a peace and a space in which to think. You can really put yourself in the poor man's shoes as he tries to break open his first coconut and light his first fire. Things most of us have never had to do before. He contends with Nature for his most basic needs, while trying not to lose his sanity to the utter vacuum of loneliness that is forced upon him.

In the middle of this One Man Land is the tiny feeling, like a hope, that maybe he is not alone. It is the hope of being reunited with his loved ones, of being a human among humans again. This is what is kept alive in his bruised body when he gazes at the picture of his pretty fiancée (Helen Hunt) and transforms a volleyball into the head of a person he can have intimate fireside chats with. And Tom Hanks can still, even in a nightmarish situation, make a harmony of comedy out of the littlest actions. He takes all that we are in today's world and successfully strands it on a beach in the middle of nowhere. From his stumblings on the seashore as he goes after shipwrecked FedEx packages, to his use of an ice skate to chop his trousers into shorts, to the beautifully inarticulate way he hollers at the wind after gashing his palm in an unsuccessful fire-starting attempt. And I haven't even mentioned the most noteworthy aspects (the ones you really can't be eating when you watch them; just biting down on something).

Aside from the great story, this film parades a series of wonderful images through our minds. There is so much packed into every tiny scene. For instance, when Hank's character Jack Noland, hits a breakthrough when starting his first fire, he is stunned and actually stops mid-action to look, almost questioningly, at his 'mate' volleyball, whom he calls 'Wilson'. Almost as if he expects the volleyball to come alive and shout, "Surprise! It was me that did it!" At the summit of the island, his failed attempt to test-drive a self-hanging with a heavy tree trunk turns to triumph when later, realising he needs the extra rope to build his raft, he sets the trunk - in the shape of a man with arms outstretched in love or worship - down on the summit in full view of the sea and anyone travelling on it.

Robert Zemeckis (director) has found a way to create an intimate dialogue between the character and the audience. When we see Jack back home in civilisation and he picks up one of those snazzy lighters you use for the stove, and repeatedly presses the trigger to ignite and re-ignite it and watches the perfect flame dance into existence, we, the audience, are in his thoughts and heart. We are with him as he travels in his mind from his one world of almost unconscious convenience and privilege, to the beautiful but savage world where he bleeds, blisters and hungers for hours to light his first fire on that desolate island. We understand his feelings and sense that wrenching feeling that comes from being torn from one reality to another with all meaning and context distorted like the particles in some Einsteinian cosmic phenomenon.

A man goes from being a servant of his beeper and his watch, to being ruled by the sun, the tides, the wind and the primary forces of nature. You can't help feeling excitement at his triumphs and victories as he learns more about the world and how to cohabit with his surroundings in a sustainable manner. And in that excitement there is also a tinge of sadness, because who among us will ever have such a life-changing and enlightening experience? Sure, we could all visit that little rocky island in Fiji, but it would be as tourists or members of a community that would sustain us. How many people today actually go out and learn things on their own? How many people meet a whale face-to-face and glance into its eyes while all alone in the middle of the open sea, and sensing the chances of survival are not much better, if not much worse, than those of imminent death?

Cast Away is a fantastic movie because it makes us think about those questions. It interrogates what happens to a person's perception and understanding when they have had an experience very few people have. It is a movie about reality and a movie about possible reality.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


It was a sunny, blindingly-golden day when I first saw him. He sprang out from behind a corner on the heels of my young nephew who was answering my call. Perhaps he thought I was calling him. Or her. I couldn't tell because my new friend was a young goat. The cutest little goat you ever saw. All white with a skinny little neck and ears that stuck out and twitched the flies and insects away.

It was one of those moments when you know something interesting is about to happen. You just have a feeling. I knew Kid Billy and I would share some minutes. Whether good or bad I'll let you decide.

Nephew took off for town with mum and dad leaving me alone with ol' Billy. Could I just leave him there and go home? No, he pretty much wanted to follow me around wherever I went. The thing that was bugging me was I didn't actually know who he belonged to. I'm not so up on goat knowledge that I can distinguish goats by sight and be able to say confidently, "Oh there you are Kostaki! I thought you were Marika coming up to play another trick on me. Where's your sister?"

So up and down the village streets I roamed, Billy on my heels, looking for some old granny in black or a hardened old man with a telltale worried look about the brows that would enable me to dispose gracefully of my charge before enjoying a cold frappé back home. But the streets were deserted. I'm thinking, "Great. These people let their animals roam about and just assume they'll come home when they get hungry."

As it turned out, Billy wouldn't get hungry at all; he was finding quite a lot to nibble and munch on at the side of the road, among wild grasses and the feet of twisted olive trees in abandoned lots. Sometimes he looked completely engrossed in his feeding and I took the opportunity to try and make a quick getaway and leave the little bugger for someone else to find. But no sooner would I step away a metre than the little smart-ass would suddenly lift up its head and come running after me.

I decided it couldn't be helped. I would lead him to my auntie's goats which were tethered a short way up the winding street in a wild patch of raised grass among thorns and bushes. I knew she only had 2 goats of her own. Maybe this one was a relative that was being fattened up by a neighbour. Who cares? I thought. They all know each other anyway. The place was too small for a spider to get lost. Old Billy would get home somehow.

So up the road we trudged, me leading the way, cute little kid following some metres behind. Every so often he would stop at the side of the road to graze and poke. The sun was making me impatient and I now knew his tricks, so I didn't stop to wait for him. "Ela! Ela! Come on! We're not stopping here. Come!" and back running after me he would come. We finally reached the copse whereupon I realised a scrambling climb was in store, if we wanted to get up to where the other goats were tethered. On the slippery, scratchy, huffy, puffy and, of course, dirty, way up, I silently marvelled at the unsung courage and toughness of women in villages everywhere, Greek or otherwise, that they could live like this every day, tending their animals, scrambling up impossible slopes so they could find suitable grazing places. I suddenly understood why I hadn't been able to find a manicurist in nearby Kalamata; they weren't needed.

Finally, Billy was face to face with 2 of his own kind. They were a mother and child team, both older than him, and perhaps disposed to act mercifully. For, after a few moments of carefully and curiously sniffing his backside, they took him into their fold. Hooray! He was accepted. I felt a marvellous sense of achievement. While the 3 were exchanging introductory pleasantries, I made a quick, slippy getaway down the other side of the hill. Looking back, I saw that Billy had finally stopped looking for me or trying to follow me. He was happily gorging himself on the thick clumps of grass while mother and child team looked on in amusement before going for seconds themselves.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

I don't care if people think I'm precious. The thing is, I love my cleanliness and my little daily rituals and routines and little, neaty thingies. I will now finally admit - online and so not boasting of the slightest ounce of pluck - that I am a bloody, prissy, fussy, uptight, nervous, fluttery, fastidious piece of poncy PRECIOUS.

There are a couple of possible explanations for my current predicament. One, and the most obvious, is my mother (who I love to bits, just to make it clear early on) and her absolutely maniacal, pathological abhorrence of any germ matter of any kind anywhere near the vicinity where she or her immediate family draw breath. From a young age, from the flower of my puddle-splashingly enthusiastic youth, I was brought to the unpleasant realisation that there were certain things that I must avoid at all costs. Mud, public swimming pools, friends' houses for sleepovers and cats and dogs ranked at the top, as did food prepared by strangers (especially if they were not as pathologically maniacal towards hygiene as herself). Perhaps there was a time when I could still have grown up to be adventurous enough to use public toilets without first covering the seats with wads of toilet paper, but through the fanatically anti-germ child-rearing process, that point quickly disappeared, like a half-glimpsed train station from the window of a dizzy express.

The second possible cause is heredity. I come from a long line of Nazi cleaning ladies on my father's side and an even longer and more fanatical one on my mother's. One of my mother's sisters once stayed with us for a while and I can still remember the way she used to interrupt some of her tete-a-tetes with my mother to bend down and pick up absolutely nothing from the floor to throw into a waiting decorative ashtray on the coffee table. "What is it, kháti?" Mum would ask. Auntie would tell her in their language that it was some crumb or speck (which she herself had not dropped, as that would make world headlines), while I looked on with a mixture of bewilderment and exasperated affection.

So to get back to the topic, these are may see it or they may not, but simply typing it makes me feel better. Or maybe I just want to believe that. Nothing is really certain. Life is a risky parade of inconvenient events, sometimes masquerading as serendipities.