Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A dedication to Orlando the Marmalade Cat

Orlando may be a city in the United States and the first name of a Hollywood actor, but most importantly, Orlando was the name of my marmalade and white cat. There was also a literary Orlando the Marmalade Cat in a series of children's picture books by Kathleen Hale. The Orlando of the books had a beautiful lady wife and three kittens and an old master who lived alone apart from his cats who Orlando protected proudly.

I got my Orlando for my tenth birthday from Dr. Morphet when we still lived in Durban. Dr. Morphet was (or perhaps still is) a famous veterinary surgeon on the Berea who was forever adopting animals. He is a large man who always dressed in the customary white shirt, white shorts and long white socks with braces to hold the whole ensemble up around his belly. He has a cloud of white hair, a gruff voice and a cockatoo that runs from one shoulder to the other across his wide back. There is also a big Rottweiler he had taken in after it was abused by its former owners who is so gentle I could easily believe he was the Buddha re-incarnated. There was also a permanently pregnant cat with all her kittens running around. I believe these were all quickly adopted by Dr. Morphet's army of loyal pet-owners.

Orlando was not one of the numerous progeny of the veterinary cat. He was a skittish half-grown kitten who Dr. Morphet had been called to rescue after he had been abandoned behind some hospital bins. I was so excited to hold him for the first time, and he must have been excited too because he was never one of those cats that would wriggle out of your grasp every time you picked him up.

He was a gorgeous cat to hold. He had fur that was not too fine but not too long either. He didn't have the squashed, confused-looking face of a Persian; his head was gracefully set on his shoulders and his mouth curled up in the perfect way to convey absolute contentment when he was sprawled across someone's lap or across my desk (on top of all my work!) in the sun. He was mainly ginger but had a white stomach and chin with a little island of ginger in the middle. His wide green eyes was incredibly expressive. When he was being taken to the vet, he would make his body limp and heavy and his eyes would shut off, or when he bit me too hard (he liked biting every now again like he was still a kitten playing with me) and I gave him a sharp tap to stop he would whirl away and then turn back to glare at me balefully.

He wasn't only the crouching aggressor(as many of my friends who became victims of his playful bites might have thought): one of his most moving communications was to come up close to me when I was standing next to him and he was on a table, press the top of his head against my side and hold it there. He would even occasionally - but only very occasionally - touch his nose to mine and look into my eyes, which is something that cats don't generally like doing.

He wasn't exclusively mine as he liked roaming from bed to bed in the house, sharing his patronage with all the family or people who stayed at our house for a while. On the day before I went back to University, however, he would always return to me and act particularly lovingly like he knew I was going away. I don't want to anthropomorphise him, for that would be a betrayal. I do think, however, that it is naive to suppose that animals cannot feel a strong bond with humans after so much time in the same company.

I'm not surprised he knew as he was a companion who was more faithful and constant than some of the friends I've made. He saw me grow up in Durban at Durban Girls' College, and then in Port Shepstone and finally over my holidays at my four years at Rhodes. He was there through all the different stages of my life, always nudging my book or journal away at night so I could pay attention to him, or coming in after I was asleep and creating a little nest of warmth at the foot of my bed. Many other things changed in my life, but he was a constant.

Until he began declining at the end of last year. We tried to feed him different food or put him on medication, but in the end he had throat cancer and several other problems and it was cruel to force him to live anymore. When he died I suddenly felt a real sympathy for cat ladies all over the world that everyone makes fun of. They lose friends when their cats die, and when my father buried Orlando in his large, South Coast garden, I lost one of my dearest, long-time friends.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Agora (or get ready for the Epic-ly long blog)

Shaun de Waal is my favourite film critic. His acerbic wit and insightful commentary is clearly well-informed by incredible knowledge of many different film genres and movements, as well as the history that they portray. As a young film enthusiast, I eagerly awaited Barry Ronge's "Screenplay" and his film critiques in the Sunday Times, and then when my tastes became a little more sophisticated, I stopped reading them as I found them inaccurate, maudlin or plain silly. I have seen him endorse films over-enthusiastically that were really only a little above average, and decided that he is clearly one of those critics who is being paid by someone to write what they want people to read about films.

Not so Shaun de Waal. I have come to trust that when he says a film is good (which is very seldom) I know I have to go to see it. His criticisms are also educative because they often include extra tit-bits of history not included in historical films, or damning criticism regarding the frequent homophobic portrayals of gay people or gay issues. At the core of his critiques, however, there is always a nuanced interaction with the film itself.

Which is why I was a little disappointed by his critique of "Agora". "Agora" is an historical film set during the fall of the Roman empire when Christianity had been legalised and they were setting out to convert all the remaining pagans. Rachel Weisz plays the central character with great sensitivity and skill: Hypatia, a pagan Greek philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who is brutally murdered by the Christian mob (by brutally I mean stoned to death and then attached to a carriage and dragged around the square to show the people) for refusing to convert and disobeying the alleged words (and by alleged I mean that some Christian scholars argue that the letters to Timothy were not written by Paul at all) of the first epistle from Paul to Timothy 2: 9-15. This forbids women from adorning themselves in prayer and from teaching or "hav[ing] authority over a man" (NIV).

This verse is very much in keeping with the bloody and unequal historical time. Hypatia is the only female philosopher among the pagans and is only allowed to be so because her father was also a famous and learned philosopher. She has students who respect her enormously but she is not allowed any say in what happens to them and the men have to argue on her behalf. She also (along with the other pagans) own slaves whom they control absolutely. An important (fictionalised) early scene is when Hypatia's father lines up his slaves and demands to know which one of them owns a cross he has found and is therefore a Christian, saying he will whip them for it. A man slave lies and says he is Christian and takes the punishment for a fellow slave. This is an incredibly Christ-like act. Ironically, after he has converted and left Hypatia (whom he loves: another well-acted and scripted plotline) to become a free man, he becomes the one who inflicts pain on others. When Hypatia's time comes to die, he euthanises her before she is stoned rather than offering to take her place. Tragically true to form for many Christians, becoming a Christian drives out all his higher Christian instincts of love and self-sacrifice for the greater good.

I digress, but the point I am trying to make is that it is a film that handles complex moral issues and vividly portrays some of the shameful things that people do to each other because they deny other people's humanity. These shameful things also happen because people insist on being unquestioning or compromising in their search for truth.

The film also fails for me on several levels. The camera keeps zooming out to focus on the galaxy and the stars, which - in the beginning - is quite beautiful, but eventually becomes a tired cinematic trick to fill in the awkward gaps in between the narrative. This is quite frequent, as the narrative has to keep jumping years or decades, which is always done by zooming out with a few lines of text to keep the audience informed. This is a clumsy way of tying the narrative together.

The narrative itself is a kind of timeline of Hypatia's life related to growing Christian violence, and as such, is more a strung-together sequence of events than a well-structured plot.

Also, Hypatia's main concern is about whether the universe is heliocentric (sun-centred) or geocentric (earth-centred). She also spends much of the film trying to figure out how (if the earth revolves around the sun) the earth can move closer or further away from the sun if the earth moves around the sun in a circle. I felt more than a little sceptical at the thought of that level of philosophising taking place at that time. de Waal's critiques of Ridley Scott's Robin Hood making long speeches about democracy in the Middle Ages come to mind, and yet de Waal failed to comment on this kind of inaccuracy in "Agora".

I do see however, that by making Hypatia an advocate of the Heliocentric model and the Christians advocates of the geocentric model (this is clumsily done in the film), Hypatia can be indirectly compared to Galileo. He too was an advocate of the heliocentric model, and was put under house arrest for the rest of his life after being tried by the Spanish inquisition. Of course Galileo was placed under house arrest in the home of the wealthiest man in the province, but that's another story.

As Galileo is one of the heroes of the anti-Christian cause, "Agora" is clearly - for the most part - vehemently anti-Christian. I was reminded of the TED talk of Richard Dawkins in which he appealed to atheists to be out and proud. It seems the atheists have claimed Hypatia as a pre-atheist hero, and this film is one of many to come that celebrates atheism and denounces religion. It is for this reason that I imagine de Waal was so excited he over-looked "Agora"'s weaknesses.

It seems that whenever atheists see something that is pro-atheist they get so excited that their critical faculties fly away momentarily. In this they are scarily like many Christians who may feel compelled to endorse ridiculous films because they are Christian. "Agora" is better than many of those ("Faith Like Potatoes" is particularly dire) but it was not as good as de Waal made it out to be. One should get angry at the brutality and wilful ignorance of the Christians in the film, but one should not stop thinking or being critical because of it. de Waal got caught up in his own anti-Christian rhetoric, and that was when he lost both his focus for the article (the film itself which became of secondary importance) and his usual uncanny accuracy in determining the quality of a film.

"Agora" is about a violent clash between people with different beliefs. If atheists and Christians and all the people who believe in other things that I have not even got around to mentioning in this blog do not start respecting each other's beliefs and individual freedoms, I can only see more violence. It is no use saying - like Dawkins - that if everyone stops believing, there will be peace, or like the abusive and controlling Christians in the film that if everyone believes the same thing then it will be heaven on earth. Both of these are impossible situations, and the sooner people's primary priority becomes the well-being of others no matter what their beliefs (as long as, of course, those beliefs are not harmful in their turn), the less the situation in "Agora" will be repeated. Discarding one's critical faculties when being faced with these issues - even in so small a thing as a film critique - is a step in the direction of wilful ignorance for a cause, which is never a step towards a higher awareness.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Grandmother Adventures: An Introduction

An adopted grandmother is something that I would imagine is without precedence. Yet for as long as my sister and I can remember, there has always been Granny Pam. She is not a relation of ours, but we know her childhood stories, have eaten her delicious home-made biscuits (seldom made following any recipe) and have climbed the trees in her garden just like any grandmother. And yet she is not any grandmother, for even if there were a precedence for adopted grandmothers and one could imagine them all in a line in twinsets and neatly permed hair, our adopted grandmother would still stand out.

Granny Pam's hair is not permed and short, it is long and always elegantly swept up around her head. She is equally graceful when back-packing and bussing around Malawi alone (at 74) as she is in three-inch heels (at her present age of 83) and a long lack dress going off to a party or a play. Her hobby is fine needlework and she can cook huge, elaborate meals for important events like a society hostess of the earlier part of the twentieth century. When asked what she wanted to do for her eightieth birthday, however, she said skydiving. And she did.

She has almost always lived on farm properties on the KwaZulu Natal north coast. This means that as far as one can see, fields upon waving fields of lush, green sugar cane surround her properties, and make wonderful walking places, her large dogs bounding on ahead or around us. At other places there have been chickens wandering around the garden and then the most delectable scrambled eggs in the morning, a deep nutritious yellow. It is her cats however who dominate the house. Maximum, Minimum, Malawi, Mouse-tache and Ugly-Mugs (guess why) are just a few of the feline characters of epic proportions I came to know in her house. And there have always been beautiful gardens filled with abundant flowers, fruit trees, fragrant herb gardens and large branched trees perfect for climbing and thinking. On one of the longer holidays we stayed with her, I remember sitting cradled in the branches (rocking me and creaking as it is moved by the wind) reading Shakespeare's As You Like It. I could not think of a more perfect setting.

Shakespeare is one of her favourites, and I remember her teaching her extended family's (that of her long time domestic worker, Christina) children their Shakespeare texts for school. In the days when she had a nursery school (pre-1994), those same children and the neighbouring black children would attend as well. They would be pushed into cupboards and hid under beds when the stern inspectors paid a surprise visit. Granny Pam would greet them as they arrived with her charming smile and manner, pleading ignorance to knowing about any black children attending her school.

She would even write and direct nursery school plays for the children to learn and perform. At the end of each year, the parents would come crowding around the outdoor-amphitheatre that had flamboyant trees forming a proscenium arch over the stage.

One year, she had a little girl at her nursery school who could not walk. Her knees were unable to support her, and as a result, she had to crawl everywhere. Granny Pam - initially - did not know what to do with her in the play. She was an extremely intelligent little girl, and such a talented person could not crawl on the stage all night. It was then that Granny Pam hit upon an idea that is quite typical of her imaginative skill. If this little girl could not walk onto he stage as a character, then she would fly on as the fairy princess. Her father made her a harness, and at the appropriate moment during the play - thanks to Granny Pam - the fairy princess was able to swoop down from the flamboyant trees.