Opposites part 5 — Jean Said Makdisi's "Crisis, with Glossary of Terms Used in Times of Crisis"

 
Jean Said Makdisi.  Image via  middleeastmonitor.com .

Jean Said Makdisi.  Image via middleeastmonitor.com.

 

Jean Said Makdisi’s essay “Crisis, With a Glossary of Terms Used in Times of Crisis” (from her collection Beirut Fragments) captures life in war torn Beirut during the 1980s.  The madness of war is brought home not through descriptions of mangled bodies but rather through snippets of what people do during such situations.  And one thing people try to do is to go on with their lives.

Thus, her essay is filled with opposites.  She and her family ride out mortar fire in a bomb shelter, and the next day, she drives to her office at the university, where she meets with fellow professors about the Freshman English program.

The following scene, filled with opposites, evokes an especially striking and unexpectedly convincing portrait of people trapped in war.


One night, the phone rings.  “Aren’t you coming?  We’re waiting for you.  Have you forgotten that you are invited to dinner?”

“You’re joking.  First of all, I had forgotten about it.  And if I had remembered I would have assumed you had canceled.”

“Why should we cancel?  Everyone’s here.  Come on: We’re waiting for you.”

“But—“  “Come on; there is nothing tonight —ma fi shi.

I confer hurriedly with my husband.  At first we agree not to go.  It is madness to go out, and who feels like a dinner party at a time like this, anyway?  A few minutes later, we shrug at each other.  Why not?  We have to live, to grasp enjoyment when it comes.

The party is hilarious.  After the tension of the last few days, a sense of abandon overcomes us.  I am relieved that there is not political discussion of causes, effects, and apportionment of blame; none of that confidential exchange of highly significant gossip and anecdote; no prognoses; no quarrels between politically opposed partisans.  I am sick of this talk.  Everything changes around us but this never ends, going on and on, amid knots of bent heads and earnest faces.  Only once does the subject of the war come up.  A professor of political science whose opinion is taken seriously says, “It’s all over.  This ceasefire is going to hold.”  An explosion of machine guns and mortars answers his words even as he utters them.  He raises his glass in a mock toast.  “Vive la guerre,” he says, joining in the laughter, recognizing with the rest of us the futility of trying to make sense of what is happening.

As the evening progresses, so does the battle outside.  We eat our dinner tyring to keep our minds off the noise.  At one point, one of the guests pauses, looks around at the apparent mindlessness of the proceedings, and then says quietly to me, “Someone should record this madness.  Someone should write all of this down.”

Finally, we can no longer ignore the situation as shells begin to fall nearby.  We hastily take our leave and make our way home through the empty streets.  By the time we get back, the battle is in full swing.  We barely have time to collect the children and get to the shelter.  For a short time, the glow of our evening’s enjoyment strengthens us, but this soon fades as the gravity of the situation deepens.

—“Crisis, with Glossary of Terms Used in Times of Crisis”
From Beirut Fragments by Jean Said Makdisi, pp. 43-44


The second half of the essay is written like a phrase book for a wartime Beirut. Thus the phrase ma fi shi in the above excerpt is explained . . .


 shu fi?          What’s going on?
fi shi?            Anything wrong?
fi shi              Something
ma fi shi        Nothing

These apparently innocuous phrases are actually part of a life-saving code that Lebanese have developed in the face of sudden violence.  You might be driving along the bustle of the city, or on a scenic mountain road, and come to a traffic jam or a deserted stretch of road.  Either of these could spell trouble.  “Shu fi?  Fi shi? (“What’s going on?  Something?”) you ask a passerby or a fellow driver.  “Ma fi shi” (“Nothing”).  “It’s just a traffic jam or an empty road,” he answers.  Or else “fi shi” (“Something”)—he has heard shouts or shots or, at any rate, something untoward—he is not quite sure what.  The clinching “Al’ane” might come, and the responding question, “Bain min wa min?” (“Between whom and whom?”) might lead to your identifying the elements involved.  On the other hand it might not, and you could go home, having come within an inch of your life, none the wiser.

Ma fi shi” may also be used ironically, as when all hell has broken loose but you say, “Ma fi shi,” and smile bitterly.

—“Crisis, with Glossary of Terms Used in Times of Crisis”
From Beirut Fragments by Jean Said Makdisi, p. 50


Strange how scenes of dinner parties emerging and then ending amidst battles and the ironic exchanges of fellow commuters capture something of the true terror of war.  Jean Said Makdisi’s insights into how war feels for those caught up in it turns on the very idea of how oppositions collide.


Thank you for reading.

Opposites part 4 — Bill Yates's "Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink" photos

 
 
This is not the photo one might expect to see in a documentary series about a roller-skating rink, and yet everything here that is unexpected is exactly what deepens the sense of reality.  Part of an amazing documentary series by photographer Bill Yates.  Image via   lenscratch.com .

This is not the photo one might expect to see in a documentary series about a roller-skating rink, and yet everything here that is unexpected is exactly what deepens the sense of reality.  Part of an amazing documentary series by photographer Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

From the Orlando Weekly:

“In September 1972, photographer Bill Yates was wandering the back roads of Florida when he stumbled across the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in Hillsborough County.

Every weekend, for the next 7 months, Yates documented the skaters, the go-go girls, the booze, the humidity, everything. He shot over 600 photographs, but the negatives were packed away and forgotten when Yates moved to Providence to go to school at the Rhode Island School of Design. 40 years later, the photographer unearthed this amazing time capsule.”

Note the expressions on the faces of the onlookers, who feel something other than swept up by the moves of the dancers in front of them.  Their detachment and, in some cases, defiance opens up and deepens our sense of what is happening in the room.  Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via   lenscratch.com  .

Note the expressions on the faces of the onlookers, who feel something other than swept up by the moves of the dancers in front of them.  Their detachment and, in some cases, defiance opens up and deepens our sense of what is happening in the room.  Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

In Lens Scratch, Yates describes the undertaking:

I had just purchased a Yashica Mat at a pawnshop and as usual I was out riding around looking for something to shoot. I happened upon an old wooden structure built in the 30’s in rural southern Hillsborough County (Tampa, FL) – the sign read Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink. That weekend in September 1972, I ran 8 rolls through the camera. After that I photographed nearly every weekend until late spring of 1973. I was 26 years old. That first weekend I was met with curiosity and suspicion by the skaters. The next weekend I returned with proof sheets which I stapled to the wooden siding of the rink’s interior. For some, complete disinterest in the images. For others, it was as if they were staring at themselves in the mirror – they couldn’t get enough. The skaters became like actors parading their bodies, confronting one another for an audience – the camera. Though the roller skaters may not have thought of themselves on a stage, they were no less explicit and physical in their stagecraft. Some of the scenes were unapologetically theatrical. Young men aggressively wrapping arms around their girlfriends’ necks, gesturing uncomfortably for the camera – a sexual come-on, an uncensored performance. Yet others were deadpan. I soon became wallpaper – I was there, but I wasn’t – just snapping the shutter.”

Here are a few more of Yates’s stunning photographs of the roller rink scene.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via    lenscratch.com   .

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via    lenscratch.com   .

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via    lenscratch.com   .

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via    lenscratch.com   .

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Notice how the photos themselves capture emotions that are both opposed to and yet an essential element of this milieu.   Somehow, the idea of sweethearts roller skating together is deepened by glimpses of alienation, fatigue, defiant anger, booze, and cigarettes. 

A photo series that captured innocent hand-holding skaters with fawning smiles would have missed out on the deeper liveliness of adolescence, so deftly captured here where innocence collides with its opposite. 


Thank you for reading.

Opposites part 3 — Harpo

 
Harpo Marx.  Image via  biography.com .

Harpo Marx.  Image via biography.com.

 

That clowns have a scary edge to them is well known.  The observation, however, is less frequently made of comics, where it is equally true.  The best comics inspire laughter that draws upon delight but also fear.  (Think of how Shakespeare's fools not only entertain but deliver frightening truths.)  One of Richard Pryor's most famous routines was a reenactment of a heart attack.  

This all points back to the principle of Opposites, one of twelve 'guideposts for actors' identified by Michael Shurtleff in his book, Audition. Harpo Marx's performances routinely bring together opposites—joy and anger, libidinal aggression and prepubescent innocence, and more.

One particularly striking set of opposites in his work is that between slapstick and the sublime, especially evident when he pauses to play a harp solo.

Note how these instantaneous shifts in and out the sublime do not negate the slapstick that precedes it.  To the contrary, these moments deepen both the slapstick and the entire performance.  

The sublime is a crucial element of the Marx Brothers' humor at large.  Without it, Groucho's wagging eyebrows are merely waggish.


Thank you for reading.

Opposites part 1 — Killer of Sheep

 
Charles Burnett.  Image via  blog.nwfilmforum.org .

Charles Burnett.  Image via blog.nwfilmforum.org.

 

In his classic book on acting, Audition, casting director Michael Shurtleff offers a series of twelve guideposts that help actors enrich their performance.  The fifth of those is Opposites.

Whatever you decide is your motivation in the scene, the opposite of that is also true and should be in it . . . 

Think about a human being: in all of us there exists love and there exists hate, there exists creativity and there exists an equal tendency toward self-destructiveness, there exists sleeping and waking, there exists night and there exists day, sunny moods and foul moods, a desire to love and a desire to kill.  Since these extremities do exist in all of us, then they must also exist in each character in each scene.  Not all opposites, of course, not this exhaustive listing I’ve just given, but some of them.  If it is a love scene, there is bound to be hate in it too; if there is need, great need, for someone, we are bound to resent that need.  Both emotions should be in the scene; it is lopsided and untrue if only one is.

Michael Shurtleff, Audition, pp. 77-78 

We saw how this applies to narrative in our discussion of bridges, where one section of a song or book or film can challenge and thereby deepen the surrounding ideas.

Charles Burnett's masterpiece, Killer of Sheep, shows this principle in action, especially in its portrayal of children.  

Note how these scenes are made richer by the opposites play and war.  The games these children play are both fun and frightening.  They have life-and-death hovering over them, which not only adds realism but also depth to our sense of their emotional life.


Thank you for reading.