Summer's not official for another month yet, but my post-semester break gave me a chance to catch up with West Coast friends and do the things I normally don't have time to: check random cultural events and read a frakin' novel.
Went to a screening of Smile Pinki, a sort of anti-"Slumdog" that won the Oscar this year for best short doc. Done by Megan Mylan, who also did the devastating Lost Boys of Sudan, the film is simple and deeply undramatic, and I mean that as a compliment. Basically, we follow closely a few families in Uttar Pradesh, India, helped by Smile Train, which provides free surgery to kids with cleft lips and palates.
Surgery to fix this birth defect is relatively simple. Not getting it can cripple a child for life. Pre-surgery, the kids in the movie can't speak properly, have trouble eating and drinking, and are kept from school to avoid ridicule and shame for the family. The arc of the film is simple: social worker locates children, parents take long trips (mostly on foot) to get to the hospital in Banares, surgery is done, child is rendered "normal."
Yet aside from the feel-good aspect of the film, what struck me was how this was about everyday heroics: of the social workers who don't judge families' reluctance to engage with authorities or their superstitions or fatalism; the families and neighbors who sacrifice a lot to get these kids to the hospital; the doctors who perform over 3,000 surgeries a year. Recognizing her own position in the larger situation, Mylan said in a Q&A after the screening, "What's important is empowering local doctors to be able to do the work using their own judgment."
The short will screen at MoMA June 7 as part of The New India film series.
And now for the coincidence. I arrived at the screening with a copy of Jeff in Venice/Death in Varanasi (the latter city is also known as Benares/Banares/Kashi), a dyptich novel (or a doubled novella) which is likewise deceptive in its simplicity.
I love Geoff Dyer and will read anything he writes, even a crazy letter (see comments) he submits as a non-submission for an anthology on literary mortification. Out of Sheer Rage was a painfully hilarious book about the impossibility of writing a decent book about DH Lawrence, and But Beautiful, about jazz, is one of my all-time favorite pieces of music writing. I was also touched more than I understood by his meditation on Camus in Oran.
So, this novel (which is infinitely better than the similarly pun-titled Paris, Trance) starts, duh, riffing off Thomas Mann. But Jeff Atman, the addled, jaded junketeer mag writer in the first half, like all of Dyer's entropy-seeking writer types, experiences the perfect love affair (perfect, because it only lasts a few days and has no room for disappointment).
Tucked into all the dismissive, louche party-hopping quips (he is in Venice for the Biennale with all the other art-fkrs) are committed, sincere immersions into art and its effects on the desiring viewer (kinda reminded me of the art-appreciation moments of Talk to Her and of my own encounters with pieces like Las Meninas). All while sniffing coke off a mirror used to view a Tintoretto ceiling. The vibe is light, silly, but sediments into melancholy, hunger, middle-aged panic.
And then there's the second half, about an unnamed writer (a later Jeff?) who goes to the ghats, the funeral pyres by the Ganga, on a travel mag assignment and just stays. Yet again, what could be a silly European man-goes-native cliché reveals unexpected depth, about what one needs in life, what constitutes fulfillment and how difficult it is to let go of desire.
Are Indians mere background? Yes and no. Because the writer's vague quest is, in the end, irrelevant to the people around him. He eventually blends into the background, and ends up either enlightened, fevered, insane or all of the above.
Geoff Dyer. Crazy white man I like.