Sunday, December 9, 2007

Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night

When she was younger, my mother was madly in love with Yul Brynner. She told me that she married my father, in part, because she thought he resembled Yul.

My father at the age of 24

My father, while a very handsome man, doesn't resemble Yul in the slightest. Except maybe somewhat in the eyebrows. But who am I to disagree with my mother on this point? We all carry around our illusions of ourselves and our loved ones and for the most part, they should be left intact. Nonetheless, as a family, we watched and loved everything Yul Brynner was ever in. Of course, that included "The King And I." I believe the 11th or 12th time I saw it, my parents and I went into Manhattan to see the musical, starring the great Yul Brynner himself - in fact, if memory serves - it was his last performance before he died of lung cancer, and it was already a well known fact at that point that he did have cancer, which served to make the King's death at the end that much more heart-wrenching.

Many years later, WC and I made our college roommate, PT, watch the movie with us. PT is Thai, grew up in Bangkok, and was accustomed to an entirely different kind of life, a fact which only came up very occasionally, and only after we got to know her well. Every once in awhile, she'd make a reference to her family's compound, or how I shouldn't feel bad that I couldn't cook because she didn't know how to either before her family's live-in cook taught her.

WC and I thought PT would enjoy the movie as much as we did. We were wrong. She was outraged at the suggestion that the King would have had ANY contact at all with a low level servant (which is how a governess would be categorized). She loathed the characterization of Siam and its people and she was vocal in her utter disapproval and contempt for the movie.

PT: "The King does NOT walk around barefoot and shirtless!"
WC and me: "Really, he doesn't?!? Are you SURE?"

Of course now, I understand her feelings, and I think I felt similarly when I saw "Lost in Translation." I HATED that movie. I watched it when I was living in Beijing, an expat myself. I hated the characterization of the Japanese as so inscrutably FOREIGN. I mean really, Scarlett Johansson's character was PATHETIC. It's a gift to have the opportunity to have an adventure like that. And I firmly believe it's demonstrable of a fundamental failing in one's character to see only what is alien on the surface instead of what is familiar beneath. Her character should not have been depicted with such sympathy. But before I sound too strident, I have to admit, I did love that scene when Bill Murray's character was filming that commercial and the director gave about five minutes of instruction in Japanese, only to have the translator say, "Turn to the right." I think Scarlett Johansson is gorgeous and Bill Murray, FABULOUS, so I don't hold them accountable. I put the blame squarely on Sofia Coppola.

But back to Yul...

I've watched "The King And I" many times since college, and of course now I think of PT's outrage each time I do. But it has not diminished my enjoyment of the movie at all. Rather, my memory of her indignation has merely added a layer of fond nostalgia for her and for college.

In fact, it was on TV just the other day, and so of course, I watched it again. It's the final death scene that gets me (and everyone else) every single time. But there is a very specific moment that I wait and watch for, and no matter how many times I've seen, it BREAKS me. In that final scene, the King has had his bed moved into the library because he wants to be surrounded by knowledge. And his eldest son, the soon-to-be King, is describing the decrees he will make when he is King. All the attention is on the young prince, who is standing with his arms akimbo, pronouncing that his people will not bow, but rather, they will show respect by standing tall and proud. The King dies during that speech. And NO ONE sees it. No one is looking at him during that moment when life leaves him, his eyes close, and his hand falls to his side. I understand that there is something poignant and beautiful in the fact that the prince is forging forward into the future, and that all eyes are focused on the future.... but the King dies with no one watching. I find that immeasurably sad.

I suppose this means that when I finally go kicking and screaming into that good night, I will insist that all my loved ones surround me, not risk distraction by talking, and stare fixedly at me.

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