Take my Wife, Please
Wednesday night I trekked down to Chinatown, to the Great Star Theater, to see BLACK MARKET COUPLE. It felt good to be in the ‘hood. Something just relaxed in me, the mild vigilance of city living dropped away, replaced by a sense of affection, commonality and excitement at going someplace new but somehow familiar. This was my first time at the Great Star (how did that happen?), but as soon as I saw the marquee, I felt like I’d been here many times before. The English sign spelling out “Great Star”; above it, the vertical Chinese sign. A few doors down, the Bund Shanghai restaurant, and Pearl City across the street. This was a neighborhood theater, a place where all your friends gathered, and you could watch a film and eat next door, turning the streets into the open-air hallways of your house, making a home in a corner of a country that still hadn’t decided whether to embrace or reject you. It did both.
Perhaps I had been here before, in a past life when I was a young Chinese boy sneaking into the movies, eager to see films about people he could relate to, the sentiment only now returning to me, evoked by place. Or maybe my feeling was just an echo of the Great Star itself. Welcoming so many people it loved, it was welcoming me. The Great Star wanted to be loved, and so it sent out a wave of affection to me. What made the Great Star great was surely the joy it had contained and created over all these years. Surely that leaves an imprint somewhere in the memory of the Earth.
Passing through the small lobby, I passed through a doorway into the theater itself. My eyes were filled by the cavernous expanse: a high ceiling, and row after row of plush red seats. “Wow,” I said to myself. The silver screen, framed by red curtains seemed like it was held up by a jerry-rigged suture of rope, an intimate touch of human hands doing the best they could to bring the screen to life. I found my way to a seat just a few rows from the front. I turned around and chatted with a woman in the row behind me, who turned out to be Meredith Brody, the film and food critic who wrote an excellent recap of the opening weekend of CAAMFest for Indiewire. The Superfans were uniting. Another woman was carrying a bag filled with four boba drinks. “You came prepared,” I said. She laughed. “They’re not all for me!”
The scene, with the rows of red seats all on the same level, allowing for connections and dialogue, reminded me of the Kabuki before the Sundance renovation. I remember conversations across rows. I remember seeing friends on the other side of the theater, and waving at them to join me. I remember representatives of community organizations getting up before each screening to introduce their groups, to the wild support, cheers and applause of enthusiastic audiences. I remember lining up on the second floor of the Kabuki before screenings, and reuniting with friends I hadn’t seen in a year or more. I still remember the time that the woman I’d had a crush on, but who’d rejected me, saw me in an aisle seat, and asked if she could sit next to me. I said yes, my heart thumping, and we made conversation; she complimented me on my jeans, the ones with a hole in the knee, distress that wasn’t fashioned by a designer but that I or the world had created on our own, and I squirmed nervously, happy and sad all at once. Where is she now, I wonder? I wish her well.
Ozu’s film “The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice” has a lovely description of the ideal relationship between husband and wife. “It should be like eating ochazuke. Intimate, familiar, primitive and relaxed.” The Great Star, the old Kabuki, the old SFIAAFF, some other events this year like the Fellows Showcase and the Young Historians, Living Histories program – had these four qualities. Others, less so. I hope this weekend in Oakland will have that special vibe. I sometimes fear that as CAAMFest starts to take on a bigger, more ambitious role (CAAMFest may have an event in Singapore this year, Masashi tells me – that’s exciting! Do you need a Superfan?), it will lose its intimacy, its family feel. Change is inevitable, but without intimacy, we feel disappointed. CAAMFest is like a romantic partner to me, and there are times in the last few years that I felt she was turning her back to me, looking for a better dance partner. Comcast, Buick and Singapore Airlines have taken the place of nonprofit organizations in delivering messages before each screening. My lovely partner, my dear friend-of-the-heart, needs to work and make a living – she does so much good in the world – but I don’t see her as much. Maybe we need a couples’ counselor. Or group therapy; the number of sold-out shows seems to have declined. Where is everyone, and why are they not hanging out with me…
I laughed loud and hard at the antics in BLACK MARKET COUPLE. An overworked man needs a vacation, so he “borrows” his friend’s wife to have an excuse for a honeymoon trip to San Francisco, and to collect the presents his coworkers bought for him when he fabricated the marriage. Meredith said I laughed “louder than the film warranted”, but that’s me. How could I not laugh at this spectacle, the wonder of it all: Chinese immigrants vamping for the camera, acting up a storm, all the expressions of personality and vibrancy lifting from their faces and now into my own memory and the memory of the Great Star. In black-and-white days, they showed their colors. In some ways, they were doing better than us now. Around me, I could hear women and men chattering loudly in Cantonese, commenting on the film. Never before have I wanted more to understand Cantonese: what were they saying? The theater was filled with their life. I wished I could collect their voices, replace the clutter of my papers, books and magazines with their music; build a cabinet of curiosities filled with sounds to remind me of the sparkle of the lovers of the Great Star.
Berkeley Psychologist Dacher Keltner writes about the power of “awe” – a transcendent state of encountering something so large and inexplicable by one’s mental constructs, so vast it makes you feel lost in its expanse, overpowering the ego and the small s-self, and yet making you feel part of something very big. The Grand Canyon. A Giant Sequoia. The Great Star. CAAMFest. All are enlarging yet intimate experiences. This feeling of awe, Keltner writes, is part of our evolutionary heritage, because it brings us together. When we experience awe, we become more generous, more connected to each other, less self-centered. We feel love, and peace.
There were also a subtext of the film: a woman who is traded about by men as if she had no will of her own, yet finally finding a way to assert herself and get the man she wants.
That’s my kind of gal. Do you have to win her, or does she choose you? Maybe both.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. sometimes feels like an Ozu in a J.J. Abrams world. On a mission to explore new worlds and seek out new life forms, he trained on Dagobah with Yoda, and came to Earth to learn from Basho, Pharrell and Goh Nakamura. He moonlights as a psychiatrist and writer. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter here, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks. Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein says “I think it will be inspiring to many, many people.” More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.