Friday, February 08, 2008

Kung Hei Fat Choi

"Congratulations and be prosperous" is the English translation of this traditional greeting for Chinese New Year. I went to Chinatown yesterday with Dr. Holly to look for the big celebration to inaugurate the Year of the Rat, but we found the district closed up tight for the holiday. The big parade, we soon learned, had been held the day before. Traffic was sparse but the sidewalks were filled with people dressed mostly in red, a color thought to be good luck. They were going from temple to temple to light candles and incense and gain merit for their ancestors. We stopped first at Wat Traimit and pushed through the crowds to see the world's largest golden Buddha (3 meters tall and weighing in at 5.5 tonnes). We saw monks blessing people with doses of water, and other people collecting their fortune for their new year from different booths and even from a vending machine. From there we walked through Odeon Circle, where a large Chinese arch dedicated to the King has recently replaced an old movie theater, to the Thien Fah Foundatiuon which has provided free medical treatment to the poor since the days of Rama V. The Foundation's temple has a large golden statue of the Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, or Guan Yin in Chinese. Usually depicted as a woman, this particular sculpture has rather mannish features. On the way out, as we started to stroll down Chinatown's main drag, Yaowarat Road, we ran into Dennis Cooper sitting on a sidewalk bench. I had met the tattooed farang two weeks ago up in Surin where he lives with his Thai wife. He is an old friend of Jerry's who wrote a chapter about him in Bangkok Babylon. After a life of excess, he is currently awaiting a liver transplant. It was Dennis who told us we had missed the parade the day before. So we did the next best thing. We found a packed dim sum restaurant and gorged ourselves on the little delicacies.

Last Tuesday was Mardi Gras (also known as Fat Tuesday), one of the few celebrations ignored by Thais, and it was followed by Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, forty days of fasting, penitence, self-denial and prayer in preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter (which comes this year on March 23). For the past few years, as I explored my Catholic identity, I have tried to take this challenge seriously. But here in Bangkok I just can't get excited by anything that involves spiritual flagellation. Right now I feel too unsettled to undertake a disciplined goal. Theravadan Buddhists also celebrate a lent of sorts. It comes during Vassa, or the rains retreat, a period from July through October. Monks spend this time in meditation, and lay people adopt ascetic practices similar to those of Christians, giving up meat and/or alcohol. But if the goal is letting go of the ego and the self-centeredness that fuels it (important in all the world's religious paths), then spiritual effort it seems to me can only be counter-productive. By pursuing perfection we can only strengthen the muscle of I.

Bob Dylan might be the most egocentric performer of all in a profession that heaps rewards on selfish efforts. But, as can be seen in the unhappy case of Britney Spears, fame is a double-edged sword. I have just watched Todd Haynes' unorthodox biopic of Dylan, "I'm Not There," in which he uses six actors to portray the illusive singer at different points in his career. Each character, in a way, tries to be something he is not. The 11-year-old "Woody," played by a black actor (Marcus Carl Franklin), carries a guitar that says "This Machine Kills Fascists" (just as did Woody Guthrie, Dylan's mentor). Jack Rollins, played by Christian Bale, is Dylan during his folk period; he drops out to become a pentecostal preacher. Cate Blanchett is marvelous as Jude Quinn, Dylan during the 1960's when he was an obnoxious druggie (at one point she tells a room full of syncophants that "I'm the only one with balls in here."). The late Heath Ledger is Robbie Clark, an actor who plays Rollins in a biopic of the singer's life, and his struggle with marriage (Charlotte Gainsbourg is emotionally riveting as his abandoned wife) probably represents Dylan's divorce from his wife Sarah. Other sides of Dylan include a poet named Arthur Rimbaud (played by Ben Wishaw) and Billy the Kid (Richard Gere). Different segments are photographically distinct (black and white photography for Blanchett's scenes, reminiscent of D.A. Pennebaker's 1967 documentary of Dylan, "Don't Look Back").

I recall buying the singer's second album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," when I lived in Berkeley in 1963, and I saw him perform live at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival when I managed to get press passes and stood right in front of the stage. Bob and his girlfriend, Joan Baez, were awesome. The next year word came to England where I was living that Dylan had sold out, had traded his acoustic guitar for an electric one. "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" documented the transition from protest folk singer to rock and roller. I loved both albums, and in particular "Like a Rolling Stone," the 6-minute anthem with Al Kooper's great organ riff. The next year Dylan was seriously injured in a motorcycle crash near Woodstock and he disappeared from view for a year and a half. Some speculated that he just needed a break from the public who only wanted him to write "finger-pointing songs." Haynes ends his film with this crash, and two of the characters in his version of the Dylan's life apparently die.

When Dylan recovered, he changed his style to country music with "Nashville Skyline" and "Self Portrait." I missed the bite in his voice, and the fierce drive of a rock band that propelled the earlier post-folkie sound. So I became one of many who disliked the "new and improved" Dylan. Since then he has gone through many changes, reinventing himself with each new CD, and he continues to perform before large audiences. But despite the autobiographical Chronicle several years ago, he remains an illusive figure. Who is that masked man anyway (for we all certainly have masks)? And, more to the point, why do we even want to know? In his film, Haynes shows the incredible pressure celebrities feel from people who are under the illusion that they know them. When I was in my twenties I used to dream about making love to Joan Baez and hanging out with Dylan. But I was so much older then, and I'm younger than that now.

1 comment:

Ed Ward said...

Ah, but do you mean elusive or illusive?

Sorry; it's a nit I often pick.