Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Another cold day here in Minnesota. But very bright and sunny! I'll take it. I have been messing around with a new networking gadget, Networked blogs, which you will see on the side panel. If you are a reader with a Facebook page, but not a blog, you can click to follow Danger Harvests on your Facebook page. Or if you are already a follower, but just want to put you face up again - lol - you can do that too!

Last night, I watched a recent film based on the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was a French journalist and author. In his early forties, he had a massive stroke that left him totally paralyzed, without speech, and with only one working eye. Sounds entirely bleak, doesn't it? The movie, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, chronicles the last year of Bauby's life, during which time he learns to communicate by blinking to called out letters, and then uses this skill to dictate a memoir to one of his therapists. The actual memoir, which goes by the same name as the movie, was released just two day before Bauby's death. It sold 150,000 copies in the first week, and went on to become a best seller across Europe.

One of the most powerful things about the movie is the sense of care given to ordinary details of life. Much of the film is shot through the eyes of Bauby. You're in his mind, seeing what he sees, and given his circumstances, what he sees is fairly limited. However, there's an almost reverent quality to the way this film pays attention. Long pauses on the faces of people who come to see Bauby, and work with him. Repeated appearances of the beach outside the hospital, shot from only slightly different angles each time. Even a fly that lands on Bauby's nose in the middle of the film is given it's due.

In addition, the amazing capacity of the human imagination is on display in the film, as Bauby constructs alternate realities filled with romantic dinners and unwritten manuscripts finally written, as well as reconstructs his past, partly in an attempt to make amends to those he had harmed.

During an interview clip with artist and director Julian Schnabel, he says he actually didn't want to do this movie. It was more like it came to him, and he had to do it.

“I used to go up to read to Fred Hughes, Andy Warhol’s business partner, who had multiple sclerosis. And as Fred got worse, he ended up locked inside his body. I had been thinking that I might make a movie about Fred when his nurse, Darren McCormick, gave me Bauby’s memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Then, in 2003, when my father was dying, the script arrived from Kennedy. So it didn’t feel quite like taking on a commissioned job."

Towards the end of the interview, Schnabel says that the movie is kind of Buddhist, and I think he's right. One of the strong elements present was a sense that the condition of one's body - one's form - does not make or break being human. In some ways, Bauby was much more alive and awake during the last year of his life than at any time before then. And Schnabel's film doesn't show this by separating him from his body - it's through embodying exactly where he was at that Bauby exudes aliveness. Even his dreams and imaginations always come back to the present, sometimes almost seamlessly.

A friend of mine used to volunteer in a program founded by Matthew Sanford, a paralyzed yoga teacher. This quote from Matthew rings a similar chord to the movie:

"It took a devastating car accident, paralysis from the chest down, and dependence on a wheelchair before I truly realized the importance of waking both my mind and my body.”

Odds are that many of us will never experience this kind of physical devastation, but nearly everyone seems to face, at some point or another, a traumatic event or series of events that provide great opportunities to see life clearly and live it more fully.

After the film was over, I wrote this poem. There are more on my creative writing blog if you are interested. May we all be awake and fully alive.

How Many Tears

How many tears must I shed
before you see this life
for exactly what it is?

Endless white mountains
blocking every step;
the heart cannot beat
fast enough
to make a fire

Time has never been
an enemy,
but too often you have chosen
to make it so.

The ice on the river
barely goes below the surface;
even the pressure
of a single foot could break it,
if only you’d step forward.

There’s nothing lost
in crying, so long as
it’s let to stain you,
through the skin
straight to the marrow
without stopping
in front of mirrors.

How many tears must I shed
before you see this life
for exactly what it is?

A lone crow calling
from a barren tree;
the midnight moon
melting the snow
before these very eyes.


peter said...

dear nathan, thank you for writing about this film (and book): may many people go and experience it for themselves.

you're a many-talented man. your poem touched me deeply. tears, always tears: let them stain you to the marrow.

May i post it on blog as "sunday poem"?

David Ashton said...

Now I have to go out and find the movie.

Watching the trailer got me choked up.

So did reading your poem.

Thank you.

Nathan said...

it's a beautiful film in so many ways.

peter, sorry i didn't get back to you sooner. had a busy day today. you can certainly re-post my poem.

northierthanthou said...

It is a very moving film.