Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cultural notes from the Eastern Plains

I am writing from San Martin, Meta, on the exotic Eastern Plains of Colombia.  This is my first time in this region, though all I have gotten to see of it thus far is the cool but sticky night (a la Central Wisconsin summer evenings) here in my humble yet expensive hotel.  The place is not a dump by any means, but in any other region of the country a hotel this pricy would have a lot more amenities and style.  As is, I'm paying over $50US a night for little more than a one-story motel with a pool in the center.  I guess the easy money flowing through the Eastern Plains (from drugs, from other contraband, from oil wells) drives up prices for everything, even in a small, remote town like this.

From the bus window I also got to see a bit of the expansive landscape.  Broad grassy plains are punctuated by wide rivers with more white rocks than rushing brown water, and frequent gallery forest (the tropical forest that crops up along the edges of small waterways, like a little strip of Amazon rainforest running in a gash through the plains), mirrored by an equally flat sky with low, lumpy clouds like the tussocks of grass and clumps of forest below.  To the east there is no limit to the vista, unlike the rest of Colombia with its constant frame of mountains surrounding anywhere you go, while to the west the mountains descend into hills delimiting the geography.  It may be a cliche, but the sunsets here are really amazing, with the sun disappeared behind the mountains, lighting up the western face of the clouds with pink and gray O'Keefe-strokes.  This is a departure from the highland tropics, where the sun's quick descent from a high angle leaves little room for plays of light, and is furthermore blocked by the horizon of mountains.

Beholding this alien and novel beauty from my bus seat was a surreal experience.  Outside I descended from flat highlands down steep green-and-stony valleys into the verdant plains, while inside I was treated to five hours or so of ultraviolent, mean-spirited, poorly-conceived films.  First was "Hitman", which treated me to scenes of mutilation, torture, and lots of execution-style killings.  Next up was "Orphan", which not only rehashes the old prejudice of adoptees as maladjusted and unlovable demons, but is full of extreme violence such as hammer bludgeoning and stabbing.  Finally was Stephen King's "Cat's Eye", which while less extremely violent than the other movies, was full of cruelty (and the plot moved along at a snail's pace).  The movies left me tense and stressed, and they seemed especially inappropriate to me as Colombia is trying to get away from a culture of callous violence.

Other recent cultural consumption:

The movie Closer, which I watched with my wife after not having seen it for a few years.  The dialogue is sharp and witty, though I can't say it's realistic since no one actually talks like that.  Director Mike Nichols is not able in this movie to paint a convincing picture of functioning relationships.  I realize the movie is mainly about the messy breakups and explicitly skips over the interim of relative harmony, but frankly there's little there to make me understand why any of the characters are sad about breaking up anyway.  The only positive, working aspect we see of any relationship is coy nonsense-talk when they first meet, and then a lot of references thereafter to a hot sex life.  No one ever actually shares with each other, takes care of each other, has fun together.  We never see anyone looking beyond the tip of their dick or their clitoris.  Oh yeah, and with the exception of Clive Owen, all the actors are gaunt and bony and morose.  Who would even want to be with Jude Law, or Julia Roberts, or Natalie Portman?  It's good they don't show any graphic sex scenes--those three are so skinny and androgenous that I wouldn't know who was who!  That said, the breakups are depicted with shocking accuracy, from begging to anger to name-calling.  Perhaps the best line is when Clive Owen is grilling Julia Roberts about what sex acts she engaged in with her lover, and after getting her to tell him, he says something like, "Thank you for your honesty.  Now fuck off and die, you fucked-up slag."  Ouch.  And my final praise for the film is that it shows each character being dishonest or disagreeable in a different way.  Those who come off best are Clive Owen, who is very sincere in his desires but also selfish and brutish, and Natalie Portman, who is clearly sincere in her love for Jude Law, but turns out to be completely lying about the facts of her identity.

Another movie we saw was "Malena", an Italian movie (though US-produced, it seems) starring Monica Bellucci.  I am unfairly prejudiced about modern Italian cultural creations, which seem to me naively self-centered and frivolous, but this movie had a good mix of Italian frivolity, honest male coming-of-age, and the complex moral issues and desperations that arise in wartime.

I also recently saw two TV shows, the first US sitcoms I'd seen in a long time.  One was Modern Family.  It is well-written and funny, and in an innovative format.  In that respect I liked it.  But on the other hand, and without getting all blustery and self-righteous, I do have to say that its offhanded depiction of Colombia through the character of Sofia Vergara is not accurate, and is even borderline offensive.  As a gimmick to get laughs from a generic representation of a clueless foreigner, I guess it works, but there are a lot of inaccuracies there.  I want to clear up a few for anyone who's interested. 

First off, Colombians generally don't eat a lot of spicy food.  There's always a bowl of spicy sauce in restaurants, and a lot of people like to drip some on their food, but Colombian cooking usually doesn't even use hot pepper in the actual recipes.  I assume Modern Family's creators are looking to insert an exotic quirk when they have their character love spicy food, and they are probably mixing up Colombia with Mexico and Peru, which do have very spicy cuisines.  But in fact, in my limited travels to different parts of the world, the country I know well where people eat the spiciest food is in the US.  My wife and I believe other Colombians that visit are often surprised at how much we like hot peppers in the US, in both our homegrown and our immigrant cuisines.

Secondly, Colombia is not now the murder capital of the world.  While it was far ahead of most countries in official homicide rate for most of the 1980s and 1990s (though I wonder how much of this is due to worse reporting and statistics in other countries, as well as whether Colombia's war deaths were for some reason counted as homicides), for the past ten years or more it has been moving down the list, and depending on the methodology used, right now Colombia's murder rate is far outpaced by a number of Central American and African countries.

Lastly, many of the linguistic errors Sofia Vergara made for laughs in the episode I saw are not very realistic.  For instance, she didn't know the English word for helicopter, though it's basically the same in Spanish.  Again, maybe it works for comedy, but it's really just a silly trope to get cheap laughs from someone who's different.

The other show I saw was the Big Bang Theory.  It was my second episode I'd ever seen, or actually the second partial episode I've ever seen.  A year and a half ago a friend was visiting me in Colombia and I saw some of the show as he watched it.  And this time I selected the show to watch on my personal seatback TV screen on a short flight between Barranquilla and Bogotá, but the flight ended before the episode did.  The show seemed well-written and sharp (I believe some of its creators were also involved with the excellent show Roseanne), and in my own odd way I felt like my life had certain things in common with the interface of academic endeavor and social relations depicted in the series.  It also made me feel good because I reflected on the difference between the single guys presumably my age or older, who are generally self-absorbed and still searching for romance, and my married life with its obligations, joys, and trials.  I am very happy to be where I am--I'm the type of guy who wouldn't find much meaning in my life if I were just on my own, and not responsible for other people in my family.  I respect individuals who whether by choice or circumstance don't have children or a spouse, I understand that even entire societies may opt for the single, professional lifestyle as a standard model, and in fact I wonder if childless singledom is in fact a more socially and ecologically sustainable lifestyle than others.  But being ensconced in a personal situation and a culture where big families are the norm, it was a surprising reminder of other ways of living to see The Big Bang Theory and the lifestyle it depicts.

On a slightly related note, I was reflecting recently on the nobility of family life.  I've mentioned before in my blog that as a twenty-something in the US I felt that middle-class life there was bereft of much meaning, because the pursuit and generalized presence of physical comfort robbed life of much drama.  In the past two months, as I've traveled Colombia giving my sustainability lecture, I have often mused on what I would do if I were kidnapped, a very unlikely but still real possibility.  My conclusion is always that I'd do whatever it took to get back to my family, just as I'd do anything to keep them safe.  And this has led me to the realization that even in the relative calm and comfort of the middle-class US lifestyle, love and family imbue life with meaning and drama.  Thankfully, many people in the US don't have to make extreme choices or do extreme things for their loved ones, as they might in other countries and cultures where violence and desperation are an integral part of everyday life.  But the fact that many people in the US or elsewhere will never be faced with a life-or-death situation doesn't mean that they don't bear a bravery within, the capacity to do great things for the people they love.  I think of my love for my wife and child, and the lengths I would go to (though will probably never have to) to keep them well, and I think of the people in my family who have loved and raised and stood by me in my life, and I see an inner strength that puts the lie to my youthful conception of life in the US as void of drama or nobility.  And many of the people who have most cared about and for me are single and childless, but they have sacrificed or would sacrifice just as much for their extended family (including for me) as I would for my wife or kid or mother or whoever.

I finish this blog as I watch some stupid sitcoms on the hotel room TV, on a channel seemingly devoted to run all the big-name sitcoms from the past ten years or so.  First up I caught an insipid bit of Two and a Half Men, with its predictable jokes and mean spirit, and then some of vapid, milquetoast Friends, which I still can't understand how it became such a phenomenon in the US and in the world at large.  It seems to me that Big Bang Theory and Modern Family (despite the latter's cheap ethnic jokes) are a real cut above these other two shows in their writing and relevance.  I mean, the latter two are still silly and limited by their predictable sitcom format, but they do try to speak to real life.

At least that's my two cents from the Eastern Plains of Colombia.

No comments:

Post a Comment