It’s only when you feel taken care of or protected that you can afford yourself the luxury of crying.—Boxing Day tsunami survivor María Belón, consulting with screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez on the authenticity of her experience for the 2012 film The Impossible.
As you may have already surmised, this will not be the standard-issue Valentine’s Day piece.
Recently I went to see the movie The Impossible. If you are unaware of it, the film tells the fact-based survival story of a family visiting Thailand for their Christmas holiday in 2004. They are separated by the terrifying arrival of the Boxing Day tsunami, which comes in the film’s opening minutes—and then the balance of the narrative concerns itself with how the mother (Naomi Watts) and her son (Tom Holland) make their way through the wasteland created by nature’s destruction and are eventually reunited with the father (Ewan McGregor) and the other two boys (Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast).
For reasons I will keep to myself, the movie was deeply, profoundly upsetting. I never thought I’d live to see the day when I thought I might have to leave a movie theater before the film ended because it was too painful to watch. I stuck it out—a testament not just to the film’s brilliant craft and raw power, but to how it managed not to simply wallow in tragedy, but also to reveal our great capacity for human compassion. Truly, this was a story about love.
That got me to thinking about Valentine’s Day. And that got me to thinking about the fact that, unlike that fortunate family depicted in Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona’s supremely humane film, some may have the misfortune to greet any given February 14th not as a time to celebrate a thriving, ever-deepening romance, but instead mourn its untimely loss.
And that led me to revisit Michael Winterbottom’s film A Mighty Heart.
Dawn will soon rise over Karachi. Curled in Danny’s warm embrace, I feel safe. I like that this position is called “spooning” in English. We are like spoons in a drawer, pressed to each another, each fitted to the other’s shape. I love these sweet moments of oblivion and the peace they bring me. No matter where we are—Croatia, Beirut, Bombay—this is my shelter. This is our way of meeting the challenge, of confronting the chaos of the world.—Mariane Pearl, A Mighty Heart, Chapter One
The opening paragraph of Mariane Pearl’s book (which I am now in the midst of), because news reports have made us already familiar with the broad arc of this tragic story, hits you with tender and terrible impact. Daniel Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal living in Pakistan with Mariane—herself a journalist and five months pregnant—will soon be kidnapped and eventually beheaded by terrorists. His 2004 murder was filmed by his killers, and the obscene video posted online to shock the conscience of the world.
The desperate search for Pearl was conducted by way of unusual alliances between men and women; there were intersections between Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus; between the FBI and the Pakistani police force; between those whose politics and prejudices might have been naturally opposed during “everyday” life, but were forgotten or put aside in the service of a righteous good.
To return to Mariane’s first words in her book: What they make clear is that the defining crisis of her life will be faced in a manner gravely opposite to the way she has come to expect. “Confronting the chaos of the world” will be done without her husband by her side. There will be no shelter for her as the crisis reaches its vile conclusion.
The 2007 film, while not made with an enormous budget, was nevertheless a financial failure in America. It was greeted with some controversy—including disapproval from at least one of the real-life subjects of the film—but the media stir didn’t begin to reach the volumes achieved this year with the discussions of the hunt-for-Bin-Laden film Zero Dark Thirty. Like the Kathryn Bigelow picture, however, A Mighty Heart has been criticized for remaining too “matter of fact” to work as drama; it was argued that Pearl himself was not the center of “his” own story; and, most absurdly, the casting of Angelina Jolie was attacked on grounds of racial political correctness. The fact that Mariane Pearl herself desired Jolie in the role seemed to make little difference to those with that axe to grind.
Moviemaking is a business of course, and it is always hoped that every effort will turn a profit. Fortunately for those most intimately invested in the “success” of this film’s creation, the making of the movie was, for them, less about money than about completing an act of loving tribute. In Mariane’s words, in telling a story that needs to be said. About an “ordinary” man and the woman who lived through losing him.
Remember when I said at the outset that I was going to keep to myself the reasons I was so shaken by my viewing of The Impossible?
As we come to this point, I have reconsidered that.
In July of 2012, I lost my beloved partner Susan, age 46—three years my senior–when she ended her nearly four-year journey through brain cancer. She was a licensed clinical social worker drawn especially to helping emotionally disturbed children; her limitless generosity reminded me much of Naomi Watts’ character in The Impossible. Like Daniel Pearl, Susan had a mischievous sense of humor. Also like Pearl, she was courageous and kind; she too was taken from this world too early, leaving behind loved ones whose grief can be arranged into words (and this I know because I delivered her eulogy), but words that will remain forever inadequate to meet that place in the heart so transformed by the loss.
Unlike the Pearls, Susan and I were afforded the gift—or perhaps the burden? Maybe it’s best to call it the opportunity—of confronting our departure from each other together for some time. Towards the end, before she lost most of her ability to speak, Susan asked precious little of me in terms of obligations to be carried out after her death. She made one very specific, and heart-wrenching, request: that I allow myself to experience love again.
The future of love after such devastation is, of course, highly personal for all who live through it. For some, the arrival of Valentine’s Day might mark a reminder they are unable to love again, or have freely chosen not to do so; for others who have discovered love once more, they may rightly mark the day as a celebration of that lucky triumph.
Others may find themselves, as I have, passing through the 14th with a strange mixture of fathomless sadness and a reawakening of love’s possibilities, brought on by the happiest memories of its onset and then the joys real love can bring—as well as the vast, unpredictable fears surrounding its pursuit.
She’ll laugh in my face! No. ‘Tis the one thing in the world I fear.–Cyrano
Not too long ago I watched, for the first time, Jose Ferrer’s brilliant turn in the 1950 screen version of Edmond Rostand’s revered play Cyrano de Bergerac. Like many of my generation, I came to a movie version of this material first through Steve Martin’s warmly updated Roxanne. The period trappings of the Ferrer film might be realized on a modest budget, but thanks to the polished sincerity of the cast, what emerges most clearly is the fascinating lead character—and I don’t mean Cyrano; I mean love.
Love, the one thing the swashbuckling soldier Cyrano fears.
Love, the mad invader that rends his boundless wit to silence.
Love, that force that wakes a mighty heart to beating once more to turn the selfish into the selfless.
Unlike the happier ending of the 1987 Martin film, the Ferrer picture remains closer to its theatrical source by allowing for Cyrano’s death. That tragic element is mitigated by his victory; the poet comes close to leaving the world without permitting the truth about his love for Roxane to emerge, but he dies not only realizing he mustered the courage to conquer his greatest fear, but that conquering it afforded him the ultimate reward of knowing, if only for a few fleeting moments, that she loved him as well.
The three movies I offered here are all evocations, to varying degrees of accuracy, of real people. I think too of the many and memorable fates of the movies’ great fictional couples—of Rhett and Scarlett; Nick and Nora; Rick and Ilsa; Don and Kathy; Superman and Lois; Jude and Sue; Jack and Ennis; the Little Tramp and the Flower Girl. Vivid guides to the abundant pathways of love, to be sure, but imaginary all the same.
Because the love my Susan and I shared was real, or to borrow Mariane Pearl’s beguilingly flattering description of her husband, “ordinary”–meaning it was deeper, richer, and more mysterious than the most outlandish fairy tale—I have not an ounce of regret for having chosen a life with her. And having borne witness to the worst that can befall love, were I to recognize it anew, I would summon the courage to undertake it again. Susan wanted as much love in the world as could be realized.
And there I find the oddest conundrum. She is gone, and so there is less. And yet—there is more.
You can see now?
Yes, I can see now.