Why a story about a garbage can being thrown from a parking ramp injuring a tourist made me think of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Babel’

This is your gut reaction when you hear this story: 

It’s your outrage if a boy shot a bullet at a moving vehicle filled with foreign tourists.

It’s what you’d think if a woman left two children alone and unattended out in a desert.

It’s the disgust you’d feel if one of your patients tried to kiss you while you were cleaning her teeth at a dental office.

Five innocuous little words. What is wrong with you? Assigning blame without knowing everything.

But while the boy/woman/patient (and whoever might have thrown a garbage can at a tourist) were clearly at fault here, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning film “Babel” (2006) humanizes these actions and shows us that actions have consequences — no matter how good the intentions initially were.

The boy/woman/patient are not bad people, even though they might have all done bad things. They’re not monsters. They didn’t shoot at a tour bus, leave children alone in a desert, or attempt to sexually assault you out of hate, but rather love and pride. Iñárritu’s film explains the tower of confusion or misunderstandings that led to these situations in about 143 minutes.

The boy, woman and patient are all distantly connected in this story, which circles round and round like a kaleidoscope.

The patient is a teenage Japanese deaf girl (Rinko Kikuchi) who found the dead body of her mother after she committed suicide on their balcony. If that isn’t alienating enough, the girl finds it impossible to find love — especially when boys realize she can’t hear or speak. Her attempt to kiss her dentist was a perversion, yes, but it was also a very misguided attempt to find love.

The boy Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caid), who lives in a poor and rural community in Morocco, was driven by a bet with his brother Ahmed (Said Tarchani). Ahmed bet that his brother couldn’t hit the moving bus. Yussef proved he could. They never intended to shoot Susan Jones (Cate Blanchett), an American touring Morocco while on vacation with her husband Richard (Brad Pitt).

And Richard and Susan Jones, never intended to extend their stay in Morocco. Because they did and because they didn’t have anyone else to watch their children, Debbie (Elle Fanning) and Mike (Nathan Gamble), their babysitter Amelia (Adriana Barraza) faced an impossible choice: watch the children in San Diego or miss her son’s (Robert ‘Bernie’ Esquivel) wedding in Mexico. 

Amelia opted to shoot for the moon and brought the children she was babysitting to Mexico with her for her son’s wedding, but as an undocumented immigrant, Amelia had trouble returning to the states after the festivities.

It didn’t help that her nephew and driver Santiago (Gael García Bernal) got drunk at the wedding before he drove her to the U.S. border.

It didn’t help that they tried to cross the border with two kids that weren’t theirs.

Santiago, Amelia, Mike and Debbie do make it over the border, but in an attempt to shake the U.S. Custom and Border Control agents from their tail, Santiago left Amelia and the children in the middle of the desert with a promise to return for them. Santiago didn’t return. And Amelia briefly left the children to save them — to find someone who could give them food, water and shelter — even if it was one of the CBC officers they were running from.

Was that wrong?

And if so, what was wrong with that? That Amelia thought with her heart rather than her head?

Could that also be how the garbage can which hit a tourist got thrown from a parking ramp?

“Babel” makes us question what we see and second-guess what we value.

Meanwhile, a question like “What is wrong with people?” might not be so easy to answer.

“Babel” was written by Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu. The film was directed by Iñárritu. “Babel” won an Oscar for “Best Original Score.”

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Surviving ‘Chemistry’

Weike Wang’s debut novel “Chemistry” begins with a boy and a girl. The boy asks the girl the same question over and over hoping to get a different answer. And the narrator can’t quite make up her mind.

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“Chemistry”
By Weike Wang.
Knopf. 211 pp. $24.95.
2017.

Both are intelligent. The boy has a Ph.D. and the girl is working toward one in chemistry at a Boston college. (That’s where they met and started dating).

And the decision should be easy. It’s the next logical step.

The boy Eric is smart and thoughtful, gentle and easygoing. He cooks. And cleans. And walks the dog. But —

But his self-esteem is still in tact. And he isn’t a Chinese American riddled with a bad case of anxiety and imposter’s syndrome.

He’s a ginger.

If Wang wasn’t a scientist (who graduated from undergrad with a chemistry degree from Harvard) or a writer (who’s penned an impressive first novel), she could probably be a comedian or a psychologist.

In many ways, “Chemistry” is like a prescription for what’s wrong with me. Too insecure. Too indecisive. Too anxious. Too nice. Too Asian. Not Asian enough. Not good enough. Not good.

Wang, a Chinese immigrant herself, acutely articulates things I’ve felt that I’ve never told anyone else. (Like how “I don’t remember ever seeing my parents hold hands, or hug, or kiss. I wonder if this is why when I hear affectionate words, I want to jump off tall buildings despite crippling fear of heights”; or how “It might be true that I was raising my hand at nine months. It has become so instinctual to always still be polite. Like now, at this bar, where I have raised my hand a dozen times to ask a question. Can I have another drink? Another drink? Another?”; and how “It is the Chinese way to not explain any of that, to keep your deepest feelings inside and then build a wall that can be seen from the moon.”)

She has a knack for making you simultaneously laugh and ugly cry into your pillow.

Just reading the staccato sentences in “Chemistry” makes you anxious — as if your phone notifications were blowing up with messages like: “Your biological clock is ticking” and “And you have X days to find someone to spend the rest of your life with.”

Then the alarms go off — blaring louder than the ones before. You can’t seem to put life back in “Snooze.” Instead, things blow up in “Chemistry” — both slow and sudden, leaving a gaping hole.

But as you and the nameless narrator girl learn: you can survive.

My ‘Wicked’ past 

Call me sentimental, man, but the 2017 National Touring production of “Wicked,” starring Jessica Vosk as Wicked Witch of the West Elphaba and Ginna Claire Mason as Glinda the Good Witch, made me cry because it reminded me of the time and people who left handprints on my heart, helping me most to grow.

You see, “Wicked,” the Tony Award-winning musical written by Stephen Schwatz and Winnie Holzman based on Gregory Maguire’s rewriting of L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz,” was the anthem to my high school career. “For Good” was my high school class song. And my best friends literally sang “Loathing” and “Popular” in my ear since we were 13-year-old freshmen daring to defy gravity.

I’ve never seen the musical before, but my best friends were the Elphabas of my high school: smart, courageous, outspoken and different. (We all were in a way.) And perhaps that’s what united us. The fact that we were different.

I was never as brave as Elphaba or Glinda. As the child of immigrants with a funny sounding name, I’ve spent most of my pre-teen years trying to be invisible. But like Glinda at the Oz Dust Ball Room, they reached out, asking me to join their lunch table and included me. And that means the world when you’re young. It was brilliant.

They gave me my voice, and ignited my passions. We sang in streets and hallways; explored New York City, Disney and Cedar Point like they were the Emerald City; and listened to burned CDs of the original cast recording of the “Wicked” soundtrack even after it was scratched and skipping from overuse.

Together we were unlimited. Flying. Soaring. As we traded notes, books and secrets under stars.

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I wish everyone finds a friendship like Elphaba and Glinda’s — people who change you for the good. I know I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for them.

Looking for ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’

When I was 16-going-on-17, I did what Marina Keegan’s family and friends did — I put together a collection of my work until that point and printed it.

These 100-plus pages in total were edited (as much as they could be before deadline) and then stuffed into a Manila envelope and mailed to the Davidson Fellows Scholarship for Literature judges. I didn’t get the scholarship, but Marina Keegan’s posthumous collection of short stories and essays, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” reminds me of that body of work — how it was flawed but promising, hinting how I would still develop as a young writer.

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“The Opposite of Loneliness”
By Marina Keegan.
206 pp. Scribner. $15.
2014.

Keegan debut book, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” is full of hope, talent and potential, but you read it knowing that Keegan never told all the stories she could have. She died at 22 — five days after she graduated magna cum laude from Yale University.

The title of Keegan’s book is from Keegan’s essay of the same name, which was published in The Yale Daily News after her sudden and tragic death in 2012. After she died, her parents, teachers and friends compiled her fiction, non-fiction and journal entries into Keegan’s one and only book, “The Opposite of Loneliness.”

If I had died at 17 — five days after my high school graduation, I wouldn’t have wanted my friends and family to publish my work like this, mostly because I’m a perfectionist and I cringe when I re-read anything I’ve written before. The pages I had submitted in the scholarship application were filled with angsty poetry and undeveloped fiction. And while I love to see my name in print, I’m not sure if I would have wanted the world to remember me as imperfect.

Still, Keegan’s one and only book, “The Opposite of Loneliness,” is perfect in spite (or perhaps because) of its imperfections. Some of the stories and essays could have been more polished, but the fact that there are flaws makes the work that much more inspirational — like we, too, could achieve what Keegan did in her short, but full life.

There’s no denying Keegan’s gift. Her essays and short stories are full of life and human insight. In “Cold Pastoral,” she writes about the pain of knowing your partner was still in love with his ex-girlfriend; “Winter Break” is about falling in love as your parents’ relationship is falling apart; and “Hail, Full of Grace” is about encountering an ex years later and imagining what could have been. The most inspiring of these works is an essay which gives the book its namesake — the essay that tells us “how we’re young, so young, and how we have so much time to follow our dreams.”

I’ve never met Keegan, but through her words, I feel like I know her because she reminds me of the girl I was, am and could be — that girl who contemplated an English degree before she settled into journalism, that girl who spent her senior year in high school writing autobiographical essays for college applications, that girl who grew up with Shakespeare and Harry Potter and listens to NPR, that girl whose a writer with all the time to write and edit and re-write.

Why ‘One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter’ matters

If the title of Scaachi Koul’s first book “One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter” sounds like the title of a new collection of David Sedaris essays, perhaps that’s because Sedaris is one of Koul’s biggest role models.

His essays inspired Koul to become a writer. (Now she’s a senior writer at Buzzfeed.)

“Every word he wrote crackled in my brain and he was a guy, sure, a white guy, but I knew he was different in a way that I felt different,” writes Koul. “It changes you, when you see someone similar to you, doing the thing you want to do yourself.”

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“One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter”By Scaachi Koul
241 pp. Picador. $25.
2017

But whereas Sedaris wrote about growing up gay in North Carolina, going to speech therapy for his lisp, working as a mall elf for Christmas, becoming a migrant worker for a summer and traveling all over the world with his boyfriend, Hugh, Koul writes about being cut out of a skirt she tried on at a department store, shaving the hair on her knuckles and being afraid of getting vein cancer.

Yes, embarrassing and traumatic experiences that are funnier in hindsight, sure, but Koul made me cry whereas Sedaris always made me laugh.

At the heart of many of Koul’s personal essays is the emotional throw up of what it’s like to grow up as brown girl in the white ‘burbs of Canada with a first name no one could pronounce without an instruction manual (Hint: The first “C” in “Scaachi” is silent).

“Fitting is a luxury rarely given to immigrants, or the children of immigrants,” writes Koul, an Indian Canadian writer based in Toronto. “We are stuck in emotional purgatory. Home, somehow, is always the last place you left, and never the place you’re in.”

Koul’s contemporary book, ironically titled “One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter,” matters because it does more than cover casual racism, online harassment, rape culture and the normalcy of alcoholism. Within the 10-essay collection in “One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter” is a reflection of marginalized communities often not talked about enough in mainstream books, television, film or Western culture.

While Koul has written about identity and online harassment publically in the past, “One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter” is a vulnerable and insightful portrait of youth, loneliness and alienation.

There are many passages that I’ve highlighted since Koul seemed to describe my own experience so perfectly — like the feeling that “before we’re taught anything, we’re taught to hide.”

As a first-generation Chinese American immigrant growing up in the suburbs of Western New York, I know what it’s like to not belong — to be asked where you’re from because of the color of your skin, to always feel crippling self doubt and to lose the language and culture of your ancestors but for it to somehow still define you. To read about these experiences shared by another human is empowering because it makes you feel less alone. And to read about these experiences from someone like you doing something you want to do? Well, it allows you to dream — to know that your goals are still tangible because someone else like you has done this before and so maybe you can too.

“One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter” matters because of girls like me and girls like Koul, who somehow survive even when the world wants them dead.

“One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter” is expected to be published in the United States on May 2, 2017.  

‘Captain America: Civil War’ is an allegory for American politics

You’d think that an ultimate showdown between superheroes would be funny and absurd as Lemon Demon’s “The Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny,” but Anthony and Joe Russo’s superhero showdown “Captain America: Civil War” isn’t funny.

The only part that’s remotely funny is the banter in an almost 12-minute battle sequence at an airport.

Other than that, the painstakingly long two-and-a-half hour film is mostly about what keeps bubbling up in conversations: politics.

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, “Captain America: Civil War” centers on a political debate America’s all too familiar with: the battle between whether governmental bodies should have more or less oversight. In it, the Avengers become an allegory for America and representatives within the organization aren’t willing to compromise on how the Avengers should be governed.

Armed in his red Iron Man costume, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) stands with democratic values, believing that the United Nations should oversee the Avenger team. Donning a red, white and blue shield, Captain America (Chris Evans) sides with traditional republicans beliefs, advocating for less governmental control and more freedom of choice.

The resulting arguments aren’t pretty. They’re nasty, vindictive and very, very physical (These are the Avengers after all). Plenty of people get hurt. And even after the battles are over, the fissure remains.

“Captain America: Civil War” was directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo. The screenplay was written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. 

‘Marlena’: a coming-of-age retrospective wrapped in mystery and nostalgia

You know that scene in “Footloose” where the pastor’s daughter, Ariel, climbs through a window and straddles a moving sedan and pickup truck as they’re driving head-on toward a tractor trailer?

With age and perspective, you watch this scene with paralyzing fear — fearing that you’re about to watch a tragic car crash you can’t prevent. But when you’re young and living these moment, your friends cloak you with a coat of invincibility. As long as you’re with them, you feel like you can fly.

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“Marlena”
By Julie Buntin.
274 pp. Henry Holt and Company. $26.
2017.

Julie Buntin’s debut novel “Marlena” oscillates between youth and adulthood, wrapping mystery with nostalgia.

Ariel is how I imagine Marlena Joyner — the beautiful, wild and effervescent center of this novel.

Unlike Ariel though, Marlena doesn’t miraculously avoid collision. She dies tragically young before the novel even begins. Years later, Marlena’s ghost still haunts the thoughts of her best childhood friend, Cat.

Cat is twice the age that Marlena ever got to be. But even as she nears 36, Cat vividly remembers how it felt like to be 15 and to befriend her next-door neighbor Marlena — “to the first time I heard Stevie Nicks, to watching the snow fall outside the window with a paperback folded open in my lap, to the moment before I tasted alcohol, to virginity and not really knowing that things die, back to believing that something great is still up ahead, back to before I made the choices that would hem me to the life I live now.”

Each chapter pivots between Cat’s current life in New York City and her former life in Silver Lake, Michigan, a small dead-end town mostly populated by tourists in the summer. Her memories takes her back to the year when Marlena was still alive, the year when her mom had just divorced her dad and moved Jimmy and her to a town in the middle of nowhere northern Michigan — the kind of place where “there aren’t words for the catastrophic dreariness.”

The only light was Marlena, who was both danger and exhilaration — dangling the keys of friendship and peer pressure in the form of booze, pills and cigarettes. Cat was addicted to how friendship made her feel while “pretending to be girls with minor secrets, listening to Joni Mitchell with the volume turned up.”

Written in first person, “Marlena” seems like a cautionary tale, but it’s not a book about not living. It’s a book about remembering — remembering how the people in your life shaped how you are today.

‘Pachinko’: When life pushes you around, you have to keep playing

My family doesn’t often tell me stories, but I’ve seen their wishes and dreams in their actions. How they moved over continents for their children. How they scrimped and saved to send us through school. How they worked 18-hour days with no vacations, seven days a week. How they always made sure that even if we didn’t have much, we always had full stomachs.

For this, they traded the ease of communication, learning a foreign language in a foreign country when they were well into their early thirties. It wasn’t easy, but as my mother tries to explain to me, a parent lives for their children.

Sometimes I wonder if my parents gave up more than they gained by immigrating to America. For years, they’ve lost touch with their family and friends, isolated in an area where they didn’t know the language or culture.

My mom vividly remembers the helplessness she felt when I was feverish and sick as a baby. She tried to take me to a pharmacist, but she didn’t know enough English to explain what was wrong with her child.

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“Pachinko”
By Min Jin Lee
490 pp. Grand Central Publishing. $27
2017.

Years later, we still have trouble communicating. Google Translate can be a bridge to understanding, but it’s never enough — which is why a book like Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko” is such a treasure.

Lee, who is a first generation Korean American, writes about the immigrant’s journey with such incredible empathy that it almost feels like she held a magnifying glass on my family’s soul and started transcribing. Lee’s words express sentiments of love and loss — using the Japanese game of pachinko as a metaphor for life. (“Man, life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing.”)

This game almost spans an entire century — from 1910 when Japan occupied Korea to 1989 after Korea was split into North and South Korea following World War Two. The book follows four generations of a humble Korean family that immigrated from Korea to Japan.

The protagonist for much of the book is Sunja, the daughter of Yangjin and Hoonie, humble boarding house keepers on a small and coastal Korean village.

When she was 16, Sunja became pregnant with a married man’s child. Knowing that her son would become a bastard without a surname, Sunja takes a kind and sickly Korean pastor’s offer to marry.

The 26-year-old Korean pastor, Baek Isak, was a Christian missionary on his way to Osaka, where he had accepted a teaching position at a local church. He and his newly married wife, Sunja, were to meet his brother, Yoseb, and sister-in-law, Kyunghee, in Osaka.

While Yoseb and Kyunghee were thrilled to have more family close by, Japan didn’t welcome them. Koreans were seen as dirty, lazy and violent troublemakers who were quick to anger.

“Pachinko” beautifully and tragically chronicles how a woman raised her kids by peddling kimchi; how a man attracted to men was still expected to marry a woman; how Japanese kids cruelly sent death threats to their Korean peers; how a father couldn’t protect his son from racial prejudice and discrimination; how a Korean born in Japan could still be deported even if he spent his entire life there; how it feels like to pinball between two cultures and not belonging to either; and how try as you might, you can never escape your blood.

How the ’13th’ Amendment of United States perpetuated modern-day slavery

The 13th Amendment of the United States constitution was taught as a law of liberation: the one that freed slaves from servitude; however, Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated Netflix-original documentary, “13th,” reminds us that the blade that protects us can also maim us.

Yes, the 13th Amendment proclaimed that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States,” but the amendment also provided an exception — a clause that calls slavery by another name and makes it perfectly legal.

Inserted within the fine print of the 13th Amendment is the clause that explains how African Americans are still persecuted today. Convicted criminals don’t received the protection of the 13th Amendment. And so the 13th Amendment became a economic and political weapon that ensnared blacks through mass incarcerations.

DuVernay enlists the help of activists, historians and politicians to explain more than 150 years of American history. Interviews with figures like Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Jelani Cobb, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Angela Davis, James Kilgore, Newt Gingrich, Charles Rangel, Van Jones and Cory Booker explain how blacks continue to be criminalized.

“13th” is a disturbing and sometimes overwhelming portrait of how people of color have been wronged, but more frightening still, is how people of color continued to face persecution through legislation and the media. Stereotypes perpetuated in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” have been mirrored in modern political ads and news segments. However, like how a blade can simultaneously maim and protect, DuVernay also offers a weapon for the Eric Garners, Philando Castilles, Sandra Blands, Trayvon Martins, Oscar Grants and Emmett Tills. 

Only media and technology can change the narrative.

“13th” was written by Spencer Averick and Ava DuVernay. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary. DuVernay’s film “Selma” was nominated for Best Picture in the 87th Academy Awards.  

‘The Lobster’: a bizarre satire of loneliness

Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” is a piece of performance art exploring the meaning of love.

Written by Greek writers Efthymis Filippou and Lanthimos and nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay, “The Lobster” is about a series of bizarre rituals in a dystopian society where uncoupled humans are harvested for blood and body parts and then transformed to spend the rest of their lives as an animal of their choice.

Couples get to live in the city and grow old together, but when a couple divorces or when a mate dies, their partners are checked into a painful purgatory of sorts.

That’s where this painstakingly long two-hour film begins: with David (Colin Farrell), a man recently separated from his wife of nearly 12 years.

Without time to grieve, David’s immediately checked into the hotel — where hospitality staff strip him of his clothing and monitor his moves.

Singles and couples are segregated here with couples on tennis courts and yachts while singles are quarantined to other single-designated areas. The catch: singles must find a partner with a similar physical feature within 45 days or else they will be forced to spend the rest of their lives as an animal.

Even if that isn’t enough pressure to find a suitable mate, singles are forced to watch propaganda on why coupledom is better. A wife can rescue a man from choking to death while a husband can protect a women from being raped.

Lanthimos film is a disconcerting journey because for much of the film, you feel lost — wandering a world without knowing its rules. The voice of your all-knowing narrator (Rachel Weisz) seems more focussed on bizarre details like the color of David’s shoes than helping you understand. Just when you begin to get your bearings though, you hear three unnerving cords that make your whole body tense.

“The Lobster” is a frustrating experience — as if you were a puppet guided by a cruel and whimsical god. This one, Lanthimos, sends your ship to whirlpools and sharp rocks. You survive and persevere, somehow, but even if loneliness isn’t torturous enough, perhaps love is just as absurd.

“The Lobster” was directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Efthymis Filippou and Lanthimos. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay.