21 September 2007

The History Boys

It's raining pretty heavily in Bangkok today and I quite like it, even though it's a bit of an ordeal to get back home. The uni hosted a charity concert this evening and the whole hall was quite packed. There was a surprise appearance of two ex-Chaliang members who performed one of their old songs. It reminded me of the old days when the band presented themselves as an optimistic alternative to the rather jaded Thai music industry. That one-time wonder was actually something very extraordinary, especially when we bear in mind the present-day standards of musical production which is sadly trite, confirming what Adorno and Horkheimer define as 'the culture industry', in which 'real' originality and talents are as scarce as people who buy legal CDs or DVDs in Thailand.

Anyway, enough complaining. Last weekend we had a chance to watch The History Boys, an English film directed by Nicholas Hytner based on Alan Bennett's script. It's quite touching and somehow oozes a lot of Britishness. The whole cast is carefully devised with token representatives from all groups of people: the good-looking one, the poor one, the fat one, the sporty one, the Indian one, the Black one, the religious one, and the gay one. But these ones turn out to be male and clever only, as they are all set to be groomed to enter Oxbridge. I think Bennett is aware of sexism this may have caused, so he uses the mouthpiece of Ms Lintott to complain about history being a series of mistakes committed by men and women are clearly excluded from this history-making. I wouldn't say that using Ms Lintott to balance this sexist undertone is right but was wondering whether Bennett himself is perpetrating this patriarchal myth knowingly by choosing to present the HIStory about boys anyway.

Sexism aside, what I think is great about this film is the script -- you get a lot of things to ponder after the film finishes. One of the things that Hector says touches me: it goes like 'one of the most difficult tasks of the teacher is to make his/her students realise that s/he is also human and the good teacher will try to make them realise this'. (I'm not sure this is exactly what they say, but if my memory is not too much like a sift, it should be quite like this.) Hector tries to show his students that he's also human, subject to homosexual desire, and his students are fully aware of that but never uses this to discriminate him. Perhaps in this way he's a better teacher than those who don't practise what they preach but turn out to reinforce the evils of double standard that are prevalent in contemporary society. The reason why he's called Hector is perhaps linked to his bravery in doing what he believes is right, like Hector of Troy, who dares to fight against Achilles even though he knows fully well that he's going to lose. Yet to stand up for what one believes or why justifies one's existence is what distinguishes Hector from other Greek heroes.

The film revolves around the clash of the titans -- Hector and Irwin, each representing different ways of teaching and gaining knowledge. Hector symbolises a traditional (and ideally humanistic) way of teaching, believing that to teach is to inspire. Irwin, however, begs to differ, as, for him, to feel is not as good as to play -- education is nothing but a game that needs good planning and strategies to get you through big universities. For Hector, knowledge should not be quantified as it has the plain purpose of edification of the whole personality, to make one grow up as a 'complete' human, whereas quantification is very important for Irwin as the school (as represented by a larger-than-life schoolmaster that reminds me of Principal Skinner of The Simpsons) needs to set records and students winning scholarships will contribute to the increase in budgets allocated to the school. Perhaps Bennett is satirising the contemporary view on education, in which everything needs to be evaluated on quantitative terms, and those that cannot be quantified (which are definitely more important, like the improvement of morality, maturity, and responsibility) are sadly overlooked.

I think I could catch a nostalgic feeling for traditional education in this film. Nowadays it's very difficult to find someone who likes poetry so much they can recite a full poem. In fact, poetry itself is a subject abhorred by students as they rather get quick fix from reading something that yields instant pleasure and knowledge, such as self-help books that are in clear format and ultra-reader-friendly. One needs time to ponder on poetry and it seems we have so little time to dwell on it nowadays we just discard poetry all together. In its place is a new way of teaching -- to look for gaps, errors, and hidden prejudices related to class, gender, etc. I'm not saying that this is wrong, but it's worth contemplating whether this will end up making students pessimistic.

However, I don't think we can return to Hector's world but we should somehow combine the good bits of Hector and Irwin. Irwin privileges the 'celebral' side of knowledge at the expense of happiness -- he seems like a good strategist, but we all know that a strategist seems to be too busy in thinking to be happy. Perhaps what we learn from this film is to negotiate carefully between to think and to feel. I think the gist of the film is this: the students learn how to steer through their lives through the comparison of these two teachers, rather than from their actual teaching. By seeing how different the ways of life their two teachers are, they realise that life is complex and can be led in more than one way and it's hardly possible to say which one is right. This is perhaps the 'real' education they get from this school. Not just that. The surprise ending also confirms that the actual teaching in classroom is not as effective as what the students can gather for themselves in real life.

I think it's getting too complicated and I won't blame you readers if you find my writing hard to understand. It's well past midnight and I had a long day ...

16 September 2007

Stepford Wives เมืองนี้มีความลับ

(Spoiler alert!)

The past week I got a chance to read Stepford Wives for the first time, after hearing about it for a long time. It's a fun read and the Thai translation didn't fare too bad. The plot is pretty straightforward, following suit the tradition of the suspense novel. Joanna Eberhart moves from New York to a small, yet pristine town of Stepford. The town has no crime records, no poor people, and every woman is beautiful and has big boobs, to the delight of their husbands. I'm pretty sure most of you out there must've known the plot, which is so much reproduced and parodied. Yet, the sheer amount of repetitions and parodies reflect the poignant and well-crafted plot, thanks to the talent of Ira Levin. (It's quite surprising to learn that a male writer can create a plot that captures the imagination of feminists!)

The truth that lies behind the perfection of Stepford may be linked to a pretty well-established tradition in Western literature, from romantic texts such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Hawthorne's 'Rappaccini's Daughter', and Hoffmann's 'The Sandman' to modern films such as The Invasion of Body Snatchers and The Village of the Damned. The use of robots as a conclusion may entail what Freud calls 'the uncanny', which points towards the unknown or the mysterious in something familiar or well-acquainted. In fact, in his essay on 'the uncanny', Freud does mention the use of robots and discuss its impact in Hoffmann's 'The Sandman' in great detail.

What the uncanny in this film points towards is perhaps that the identity of women is split in essence. This division at the core of female identity is perhaps the reason why the film is pretty errie, especially in its portrayal of female images -- not that they're so far from truth, but that they're so essentially true (of course, despite the exaggerations). Some women set these images in Stepford as their goal, aiming to be picture perfect to please their husband. Even Eberhart herself (I believe unwittingly) tries to please her husband, both physically and sexually. This division (to please men and to fight men) lies at the heart of female identity. This may be the reason why despite the overall picture at present that modern women have rights to do things and may do things better than men, when they see Stepford women still enjoy pleasing their husbands and doing household chores they can't help feeling nonplussed, not in the least because what these Stepford women do may be part of the desire that modern women keep repressed.

Well, what I'm getting at is this: that patriarchy is so strong and powerful that women, despite living in modern times, can perpetrate under this regime without knowing, as it penetrates into the deepest layers of their psyche. Even though we're at the moment (I believe) facing the third phase of feminism in which sexual difference is not as important as an investigation into the process whereby how this difference comes about in the first place, we cannot deny that it's the idea diffused only in the academia or among urban people who receive western education. Suburban or rural people, like people in Stepford, put their priority elsewhere: men, of course. (Even some of my colleagues and students, despite their well-grounded knowledge of feminism, still talk about men and how to get them!)

This fact can be related to another startling notion: that women, more than men, may be a main engine behind this sexual inequality. In the book, it's Bobbie who may have killed Joanna with a knife in the kitchen (symbolically a woman's weapon in a woman's space). This may reflect another dimension: that some women may enjoy the image of Stepford's feminine ideal and negotiate from that standpoint instead -- like using their wiles and charms to trick their husbands. They may resent putting themselves into the roles traditionally designated as masculine, such as bus drivers, miners, and engineers. They may want men to give up their seats for them on bus, etc. That's the reason why there's a good twist in the film, which emphasises the role of women in perpetrating the patriarchal ideology.
Well, we can call our moment now a disillusioned one, where women not only need to negotiate with men's power, but with their own repressive needs and desires (part of these of course are influenced by patriarchy). Women need to be frank with these and negotiate with their own ideals set out in the first and second phases of feminism. Hence, at the moment we have chicklit, which clearly shows that one of their priorities now is finding a good partner, not unlike those novels in the Jane Austen era.
Are women coming full circle? My answer is: of course not. Even though the history seems to be repeated and we are back at the starting point, it cannot be denied that we are here, disillusioned and more aware of where we're standing. But what I'm concerned is: what does this amount to? Where should the politics of feminism lie if this is the direction we're taking? Do we simply acknowledge the power of patriarchy and negotiate 'inside' it with more awareness? Hmm ... this begs serious thinking, which fortunately is not my task to answer ... It's for you all, readers, who are women.

09 September 2007


It's a typical Sunday, with nothing much to do ... as soon as I started writing the previous sentence, it came to me that I've got to give a lecture at Silpakorn next Wednesday and I haven't made any preparation, that I've got to be in a discussion group on Tuesday on outlawed drama (again for which I haven't prepared), that I need to choose a short story for the upcoming exam (again for which I haven't prepared), that I need to visit my uncle, spend more time with the three Ms (my Mom, Mat, and Madge), go to JJ, do ironing, etc. ... well, the more I think of what needs to be done, the more discouraged I feel in writing this blog.
Yet, I soldier on ... here is my latest entry on Premonition, starring Sandra Bullock and the rest of the cast whose names I can't remember. My first impression is that the whole film is built on promising premises: what if you have a chance to wake up in the future and realise what's going on? what if you know the future and have a chance to remedy errors?
It's a shame however that the film doesn't fulfill these. It plays too much upon the accuracy of the events, which is of course something that it should do. But this happens at the expense of the intensity of emotion and philosophical entanglements. The priest's lecture on fatalism looks ludicrous and out-of-place in the middle of the film. I don't know why this happens, but perhaps the film focuses too much on the unfolding of the actual events, rather than the philosophical complexity of the whole scenario. We are, I believe, given too little information about the protagonists to feel involved with them -- maybe they're too banal? In this case, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is much better. We feel their love and grow attached to them.
I know that in this film the couple actually become estranged from each other and no longer feel love for each other. But the film doesn't bring enough emotional subtleties to elicit this fragility. Once the audience doesn't emphathise with the characters, the whole philosophical complexity becomes so distant and totally disengaged from the whole series of events.
However, there's still something that I get from this film. Compared to Jerry McGuire, which we watched the other day on cable, Premonition somehow signals a shift in attitude towards life. In Jerry McGuire, what rules is a cheap psychological talk that makes you believe you can do everything (someone would've said that this is the American optimism of the 90s), Premonition shows an opposite direction (perhaps due to the pessimism after the 9/11 tragic incident): we cannot control everything, but if we can do our best within the limits of what we can do, that should suffice.
That is what I learnt from the film, and I should've by now realised that this is the best I can do to my weblog today. So I shouldn't linger but stop all this nonsense and go back to do ironing ...