“Call Me By Your Name”

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There are few films like Call Me By Your Name.

A work of art by Luca Guadagnino, an Italian film director, his 2017 film Call Me By Your Name is nothing short of a masterpiece.

Set in Northern Italy during the early 1980s, the show traces the story of a 24-year-old graduate student, Oliver, who goes to stay with his professor’s family as a research assistant. During the course of the summer, he gets to know the family, including their 17-year-old son, Elio, and they fall in love.

The uncomplicated plot is perhaps precisely the reason for its success – Guadagnino was not bogged down by multiple twists, turns, and complex antagonists.

Highly thoughtful and deeply relatable at its core; it is, put simply, a coming-of-age story about love and what it means to be a human.

The beauty of how every scene was shot and framed, coupled with a perfectly curated soundtrack, made watching the film an entire experience in itself.

Showing, not telling

Guadagnino was unafraid to let silent scenes do the talking – It was all about the subtext and what was not explicitly said.

By showing and not telling, he has perfected the art of allowing the audience to really access the mood of the scene and interactions.

For instance, there were plenty of silent scenes. At the party, Elio stares forlornly at the lively dance-floor where Oliver is seen having a good time with Chiara.

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Elio is also often seen in a restless state. He fidgets on his bed, reads his book uneventfully, or paces the space he is in. Elio’s emotional turmoil, and anxieties at the prospect of Oliver disliking him, come through from his behaviour and mannerisms.

Most significantly, in the farewell scene, Oliver’s classic farewell greeting “Later” was not uttered.  Instead, the farewell involved a quiet hug, followed by a profound silence as Elio watched the train leave.

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Ambiguous but highly suggestive dialogue

The characters also communicate through ambiguous dialogues, such as the scene where Elio and Oliver go to the town and have a bizarre conversation around a statue.

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E: Well, if only you knew how little I know about the things that matter.
O: What things that matter?
E: You know what things.
O: Why are you telling me this?
E: Cause I thought you should know… Cause I wanted you to know. *Mutters under this breath* Because I wanted you to know, because I wanted you to know, because I wanted you to know.

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E: Because there is no one else I can say this to but you.
O: You saying what I think you’re saying?
Elio nods coyly.

This dialogue makes no sense unless it is taken in context i.e. It took place after Elio brooded over a quote (“Is it better to speak or die?”) in a story that his mother had read him.

The entire scene, although making no reference to love nor sexual orientation, was a subtle but powerful indication that Elio clearly felt it was better to speak. And that seemingly ambiguous conversation with Oliver provided them with some clarity to kickstart their relationship.

Symbolism and motifs

While uncomplicated, the film was far from simplistic.

Through symbolism and motifs, the audience gains insight to the concepts that Guadagnino is interested in exploring via Elio and Oliver’s relationship.

Desire and sexuality

Ancient Greek statues and peaches were important symbols in Guadagnino’s narrative about desire and sexuality.

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When talking about the Hellenistic statues, Elio’s father says that the statues have a nonchalant, “ageless ambiguity… as if they are “daring you to desire them.”

Oliver, after remarking that the statues look incredibly sensual, gazed upon the curved figures with wonder, as if contemplating his own desires.

The statues, as a symbol of ageless desire, surface constantly in the entire film.

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The peaches also relate to the same vein of thought.

The fruits first appear at the beginning of the story, where Elio is seen plucking peaches to be juiced – A delicious drink that both of them enjoy together.

As the story progresses, Elio undergoes a sexual awakening, and the peaches become a metaphor for his sexual fantasies and imaginations of being Oliver’s lover. Oliver, upon discovering this, tries to take a bite of the peach, but is stopped by a distraught and embarrassed Elio.

This time, they no longer share the saccharine sweetness of the peach. Instead, the incident is one that suggests the fear of abandonment and judgment, especially for Elio.

Religion, faith and doubt

It is also worth noting that Elio and Oliver are both Jewish.

Elio tells Oliver that his mother often says that they are “Jews of discretion.” After meeting Oliver, however, he wears a necklace with the Star of David upon learning that Oliver too, is Jewish and wears a similar necklace.

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This can be read as a subtle shift in the outward manifestations of Elio’s identity. He is slowly coming to terms with who he is, and what he is comfortable projecting –  Including his desire for and connection with another man.

Elio’s seeming confidence, however, is tempered by doubt, evident from the feature song in the film’s soundtrack, Visions of Gideon.

While it is about faith, the song also weaves a subtle overarching narrative of doubt.

In the bible, Gideon was “a man who continually needed signs from God to be assured of His will, yet when he did act, he did so mightily.”

Elio is likened to Gideon, who took the plunge to believe in something larger than himself. However, this did not come without doubt.

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When an inevitable goodbye descends upon them, Visions of Gideon also takes centre-stage as Elio’s response to Oliver’s absence.

Faith and bravery, while they make for a beautiful encounter between two people, may also be accompanied by painful and life-altering consequences.

The song lyrics question the summer relationship: I have loved you for the last time. Is it a video? Was the summer encounter with Oliver something that is now forever out of reach in their physical reality, doomed to loop for eternity as mere memory?

Falling in love is a human experience

Although the film is about two men falling in love, you will not notice any of the tired tropes that always seem to be present in gay films: There was no heterosexual antagonist ready to shut down the romance. There was no awkward coming out scene, or opposition from a heteronormative community.

In fact, people hardly seemed to think that homosexual relationships are anything out of the ordinary.

The relationship between Elio and Oliver was treated as is, free from the societal prejudices so prevalent in our daily realities.

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And ultimately, the story’s conclusion cannot be reduced to heartbreak. It is about longing, awakening, faith, and baring your soul to another human being.

With all its tumultuous misgivings, life is and should be a collection of these precious encounters.

Elio’s father reaffirms this in a knowing conversation with Elio: “Right now, there is sorrow, pain… Don’t kill it, and with it, the joy you felt.”

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“What have you been busy with?”

It gets harder every month.

Writing, and doing so consistently, always demands discipline.

It is easy to give excuses, like “Work has been hectic” or “I’ve been busy with other things lately;” but well, who isn’t? And when it comes down to the real question, “What have you been busy with?”

That’s when it becomes crystal clear:

If you don’t make it happen, you are not making it your priority.

When I was in school, I promised myself that I would write something on WordPress every week.

You have to write, I told myself, even when it gets hard. The more you write, the better you get.

When I started work, I promised myself that I would write something at least once a month…. After all, I was already writing so much at work. Once a month seems fair and good.

I sometimes ask myself: If I really love writing so much, why did the fatigue set in so quickly?

I don’t have answers, but I can hazard a guess. And that is the curious problem of doing what you love as a career – You are being paid to do so much of it that when you have pockets of free time it becomes the last thing you want to do.

Of course, I know plenty of people (like my editor at work) who simply cannot stop writing, even when they are on leave. They love what they do, they are good at it and they never pause for a break.

But perhaps we all have different thresholds of how much we are willing to do something we love. Maybe some of us just crave variety.

But we all get 24 hours everyday. For many, spending time with their family is a priority. For some, a full eight hours of sleep is a priority. (It kind of is, to me.) To others, exercising is a priority – They would forgo late nights with friends and perhaps even sleep, just to squeeze workouts into their day. (That used to be me.)

We all spend each minute, each hour, differently. We never have no time for anything – It is only a question of what we make our priority.

And there is nothing wrong with that. Especially if you know exactly what you want and what you’re doing to make that happen.

I barely have anything figured out, and I can’t say I know exactly what I want. But my mind brims with small plans for myself, and I’m taking each day as it comes.

With these other priorities, I’ve acknowledged that this WordPress has taken a backseat. I also understand that this WordPress might be something I have to (eventually) gently let go of one day.

However, it will do me good to remember that life has its curious twists and turns, and we never know where we will find ourselves.

We will always be moving on to the next Great Perhaps, which is terrifying but also incredibly exhilarating.

 

P.S. I’ve forayed into the realm of surreal memes! So here’s a shameless plug for a Facebook page I’ve created with a colleague. We are very proud of it.

 

You can never be fully prepared for someone’s death

If there is something I have learnt from my early twenties, it is that you can never be fully prepared for any scenario.

You can imagine and re-imagine living life without a particular person in a bid to prepare yourself for their death. And then the inevitable happens, and you still find yourself lost.

Routines are disrupted as people are forced out of their beds at 2 in the morning when the hospital calls and gently recommends that family members come visit. Several hours later, everybody goes into a flurried frenzy applying for leave and making calls for funeral arrangements.

The more experienced ones move like clockwork as they go through various procedures with almost surgical precision. Others, like myself, fumble through each ritual.

Each practice has a symbolic meaning, but I was not brought up to understand its cultural significance. Ultimately, I understand that the main gist of it is to reaffirm the significance of the deceased in the family, offer final respects, and prepare them for a blissful afterlife.

It has only been a day but everyone is already pale with exhaustion – There is so much to do, so much to account for. I wear what I am given, I bow when I am told, I kneel when I am told. I refrain from saying “goodbye” and “death”. My hands are stained from rolling kimzua ingots.

Each bag of kimzua, folded and ready, is almost cathartic. It is easy to be lured in by the assurances that rituals bring. But to me, funerals are for the living, and not the dead.

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The doctors define life as brain activity, or pulse. But in my opinion, breath is not truly life. With months of travelling to and fro the hospice, weekend after tireless weekend for months on end, we have witnessed the slow but sure deterioration of the physical body. Life is not about being constrained to a bed and being fed liquids periodically, unable to interact with others.

At the wake, Mama said that we did not need to bring his walking stick, among other belongings. “不需要了。现在让他好好走。” (No need for that, he can walk properly now.) In his last gasping breaths, death was more of a release.

Death of a family member really forces you to put your life into perspective. What does it mean to live, what does it mean to lose?

I’ve accepted that death is an eventuality, but the loss creeps in during pockets of time when I am no longer occupied by the demands of the funeral.

As a rational individual, I understand more than anything that life is always in transition. Birth, sickness, old age, decay and death. My father said: “If daddy is like this next time, don’t feel sad. It is part of the stages of life.”

So why the slow weight that settles upon my chest?

When I am alone, I look at photographs on my phone and it does not hit me like a wave of bricks. The memory reel plays – It is a series of flashing images and sound in my head.

I struggle to even post a photo caption. I take to wordpress, but it is no better. I have no clear narrative of what I am trying to say and end up waxing lyrical about vague concepts of death and how the living cope with it.

Have I always been this creature of sentiment? Possibly. But something that I am certain of is impermanence and transience. The yellow dye on my hands will fade, the funeral garb will eventually be stowed away and forgotten, and we will get used to living without him.

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Inspiration and the states of crisis that follow

“When women write about themselves, why does it become a frivolous matter? Why is it that when men talk about their feelings, their experiences are taken to be a universal truth?”

Women’s experiences and feelings should not just exist as narratives of the margin. And so, in the past month, I have been working on an exciting project to bring women’s voices into the public consciousness.

It started with a bunch of emails, nothing more than pixels floating around the great big web of digital everythings. But I cannot emphasize enough the importance of meeting inspiration in the flesh. Most people do not wake up intending to become role models or a source of hope for another warm body in this world. And yet, they sometimes become an accidental hero.

When you meet these people it seems like they could be a neighbour, another stranger in the queue for coffee, a person you sit next to on the bus. But as they spoke, I was incredibly moved by the stories that poured forth.

There were so many quotable lines, such as “I rather go in a blaze of glory than live a long, mediocre life.” It was never intended to be a tagline for a cover photo, but the conviction was so strong that passion was somehow beautifully articulated with an incredibly well-woven sentence.

These women had dreams, and they went out and did something about it. They did not spend their life contemplating or planning down to the finest detail, hoping there will be a right moment when they are ready. That “right moment” will never come, and if you spend your life waiting, you will spend your life being mediocre. No. You have to go out and do what you think, not just think about what you can do. And then finally, you need to have the grit to see it through.

It started off with a seed of inspiration that sprouts a cliched hope. There is a frenzied bubbling of all the possibilities of pathways as they spoke – I can do anything, be whoever I want to be. I just have to rush into the world with arms wide open, and dare to keep dreaming.

Lessons from the cats downstairs

In the past half a year or so, I’ve undertaken the task of befriending the cats at my condo.

I’ve noticed some of them since they were kittens. At that time, they darted into bushes when I walked by them, but they also meowed to get my attention (from afar), clearly too afraid to get close. They were (and some of them still are!) wary creatures that relied on signals from their mother to determine a stranger’s trustworthiness.

Since then, I’ve patiently tried to earn their trust – With food, slow movement (in order not to startle) and lots of backing off when necessary. It was a really long process that demanded my patience, but most importantly, there are several insights that can be drawn from the past few months.

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The first is related to the trustworthiness of humans.

Why should we as humans expect great and kind things from strangers whom intentions we don’t know of? The cats sure never expected it. Perhaps they know better than any of us that it is always safer to be wary, than to trust a stranger and get fucked over.

The untrustworthiness of humans can really be appalling sometimes. It is revealed in petty fights, low-brow insults, lies and hypocritical behaviour. As humans, we are inconsistent, and I too am guilty of this.

However, what matters is the self-awareness to acknowledge our mistakes and inconsistencies, and to do better next time. This doesn’t mean that we never do wrong again, nor does it guarantee that we will never make the same mistake. All it promises is that we have the capability to see where we have done wrong, and make amends.

Cats do not care about your self-awareness or your ethics. To them, you just need to show that you can be trusted via certain actions (e.g. giving them food, not touching their bellies, and giving them space when they show signs of stress). This is sufficient proof.

Humans, unfortunately, are more complex. What constitutes sufficient proof for humans? Humans inherently lack credibility, and I believe that not everyone is worth my trust nor my time…but they are at least worth my kindness. It’s a commitment that I have made to practice not just patience, but also love without expecting anything in return.

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This brings me to my second takeaway from my time with the cats – They have made me realise that I am someone with more love than I originally thought. It’s a simple but also surprising conclusion for someone as cynical and skeptical as I am.

These furry creatures elucidate the joy of giving (one salmon biscuit at a time), and this joy is a powerful and hopeful one. I have never considered myself as an “animal person”. Yet, here I am, always carrying a bag of salmon biscuits in my tote bag so I can feed the cats I meet.

My love for cats extend beyond just friendly felines, but even those who are hostile and slow to warm up to human interaction. Even if they take my biscuits and run, I still derive satisfaction from giving.

This is something which I find more difficult to understand and accept with human beings, but I still have to try.

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Some cats can be delightfully affectionate. However, they also have their moods.

Their mood may affect how they act around you, for instance, they may not want to be touched as much when they are annoyed by something. Alternatively, they may scratch you when they are feeling distressed and you get too close.

This bears striking similarity to humans. When we are irate, we snap at others. When we are distressed and someone has said something that hits too close to home, we may lash out with an attack that hurts them.

Just like us, cats have the capacity to give and receive love. However, as animals, they also have lots of instinctive reactions to the environment around them that cannot be controlled.

Herein lies the difference between us and cats – which is my third takeaway – We have the capacity to control our reactions such that we do not hurt others. We can choose to be loving and kind despite our fleeting feelings of anger or frustration.

Yet, we always forget that this is a choice.

Many would retort that it is not a choice, and I understand that feeling – It’s not so straightforward. Rage, sadness, frustration – they are all afflictions that cling to our skin and bones. But what we lack is not the capacity to be kind in times of turmoil, but the practice.

The cats are good practice for me. Even when they scratch me sometimes, I still want to choose to love them.