In Praise of “My Mad Fat Diary”

I’m an Emu

This post may contain spoilers and large images that may compromise slower internet connections. Read at your own discretion.

Some time last year, I stumbled upon a television show while browsing through Tumblr. Episode snippets would grace my dashboard in the form of animated GIF screen captures that gave away very little about the premise of the series to the average outsider, and I would find myself scrolling past… at first. What triggered me to finally give “My Mad Fat Diary” a chance is that its soundtrack clued me into the fact that it is set in the 1990’s, and the central characters are teenagers. It was an interest out of personal resonance, since I, too, was growing up around that time, and still harbour an attachment to the era, musically. Sure enough, it was as though people took my playlists from back in the day, and threw it into the telly.

To summarise, the British comedy-drama is loosely based off My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary, a darkly humourous memoir by Rachel “Rae” Earl. It focuses on the author, then a 16-year-old girl (played by the brilliant Sharon Rooney), whose issues with body image as well as mental health come to a head, and she lands herself in a psychiatric hospital, after attempting suicide. “My Mad Fat Diary” itself starts on the day of her release.

During Rae’s recovery, she is told to keep a diary, and the entire show is mostly narrated from Rae’s hilariously crass, heart-rending, and brutally honest point of view. In fact, just minutes into the pilot, the viewer gets a look into Rae’s tumultuous relationship with her mother (played by Claire Rushbrook) and her inner demons regularly confronted by her therapist (played by Ian Hart), as she regains her footing back into a life she had temporarily left behind. She is a hormonal, boy-crazy teenager who demonstrates good taste in music — Blur, Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene, Eels, The Stone Roses, plus other bands on which the storyline is brilliantly contingent — and looks forward to a reality in which these would be her central focus. But, she continues to shoulder the burdens of her past and present as she reunites with her childhood best friend Chloe Gemell (played by Jodie Comer), while also trying to rub shoulders with her mate’s new clique: the sweet Izzy (played by Ciara Baxendale), party animal Arnold “Chop” Peters (played by Jordan Murphy), token hipster Archie (played by the dashing Dan Cohen — admittedly, the one who caught my attention), and smouldering-bad-boy-slash-fan-favourite Finn Nelson (played by the adorable Nico Mirallegro).

Novocaine for the Soul

Television is now saturated with sex, drugs, and violence, many of which distract the public — perhaps intentionally — from demographics fighting for media representation. Rae not only finds herself as the poster child for those who are subjectively outside conventional standards of appeal, but one who is also portrayed as fully capable of many colours of experience. Popular culture has long shied away from writing in big people — especially women — as fully actualised individuals capable of a healthy sexual appetite and awareness. “My Mad Fat Diary” confronts this ridiculous and unspoken ‘rule’ head-on.

In Praise of 'My Mad Fat Diary'

I wasn’t kidding.

Rae fantasises about men, and not just in terms of run-of-the-mill pre-packaged literary kind that often presents itself in the form of a book with a shirtless adonis slathered on the cover. She knows what she fancies, and expresses it — autonomous agency, and all. In fact, “My Mad Fat Diary” approaches sexuality — female sexuality, in particular — with a refreshing frankness. Here, women’s pleasure and their anatomy are no longer products of myth, hidden away from the limelight as punishment for existing, but fact. Though out there, it doesn’t cross over into the vicinity of gratuitous. It also tackles other sensitive topics like self-harm, eating disorders, bullying, divorce, nudity, homosexuality, pornography, drugs, abortion, consent, assault, death, to name a few, in a similar manner. Had this show been around during my own vulnerable years, I can imagine it being incredibly helpful, and it’s heartening to see it have precisely that impact to some today.

Sabotage

Between moments of female fantasy and outspoken crudity, Rae constantly belittles herself for her weight, her appearance, her brashness, and more often than not, finds herself in a crippling state of existential crisis. Sometimes, they are funny, but none of these moments serves to be in any way self-deprecating. The opposite sex takes an interest in her, and she can’t see why. Her inner turmoil is real, with no degree of mincing, and the hurtful comparisons she makes of herself to Chloe are just as painful to the viewer as it is to the characters rooting for her.

In Praise of 'My Mad Fat Diary'

The writers of “My Mad Fat Diary” have also managed to craft her as someone who fits snugly between a heroine and anti-heroine, because she isn’t always aware of her capacity to be the former, even when she is. Her multi-dimensionalism is a reflection of every single one of us: flawed and perfectly human. We’re not consistently brave nor prudent as heroes are so often painted, but there are times when we can and are. Rae isn’t always likeable. In fact, sometimes, she can be downright exasperating. The decisions she makes when under the influence of insecurity and occasional self-absorption makes you want to shake her shoulders as much as the other characters would.

On and On

But, by being able to disagree with her choices, the viewer is able to see the struggles of everyone else. Izzy, with her rosy outlook and occasional ditziness, fears confrontation. The teenaged me would have related to her the most. Finn, even with his keen ability to understand Rae and the rest of the gang, lacks direction of his own. Chloe, despite her conventional beauty and an external confidence that drives Rae into fits of jealous rage, constantly bases her self-worth on beauty magazines and the approval of the men in her life. Her low self-esteem and relatable suffering is a product of issues still prevalent to this day. Viewers cry and triumph with her, the latter particularly after she survives rape. Archie, the good-looking and seemingly well-adjusted history aficionado, finds no solace inside nor outside the closet. He questions his friendship with Chop when he falls prey to homophobic bullying. Chop, who is so caught up with his image of bringing humour into the group, fears standing up for the vulnerable and being it himself. In fact, it can be argued that Chloe, Archie, and Chop are victims of the patriarchy in their own ways.

That does not include the trials of any of the secondary characters. The adults of the show, too, suffer and grapple with their identities, proving that suffering does not start and end at one’s teens. Yet, it is Rae who brings them all together. She makes the right connections when it is needed the most.

To Be Continued

The third and final series is being filmed as I type this, so if Oasis still speaks to you on a spiritual level, get watching. “My Mad Fat Diary” is riddled with wild scrawls of an era comfortable with glorious chaos. Clever references to the 1990’s are abundant: flannel jackets, Dr. Martens boots, giant watch wall clocks, fuzzy pens, raves, tie-dye shirts, camouflage fabric, tracksuits worn in public for reasons other than exercise, that yellow smiley face we all know, blue eyeshadow, you name it. But, between all the nostalgia, there are some really beautifully composed scenes.

In Praise of 'My Mad Fat Diary'

“My Mad Fat Diary” is the first show I’ve found myself emotionally invested in after a long time… which is saying a lot for someone who doesn’t watch much television. The accessible quality of the story also closed the gap between screen and couch, so when its future seemed very nebulous for months after the end of the second series, many were just waiting. Now, with only three more episodes left, I can only begin to imagine the pressure that all involved are going through to ensure the swan song is perfect. My own hopes are the same as theirs, with exception to a small musical request: the inclusion of “Don’t Go Away” by Oasis somewhere.

No pressure, of course.

The Normal Heart (2014)

The Normal Heart (2014)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.

Overview

In a struggle still relevant today, Larry Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart, premiered its third revival on May 25th, 2014. Twenty-nine years after its success at The Public Theatre in New York City, — and three years after its critically acclaimed Broadway production, — American director Ryan Murphy breathes life into the public health advocate’s work once more. The heartbreaking story of the HIVAIDS crisis in the early 1980’s is a jarring perspective to how far society has come with regards to awareness of the still-incurable condition. Equipped with a stellar cast, the 133-minute HBO television film extends beyond the exclusive confines of the theatrical stage, and reaches into our homes to remind us that the combat for a cure needs to continue.

Storyline

“The Normal Heart” opens in 1981 on the way to a summer party over at New York’s Fire Island Pines. A nervous but excited writer, Alexander “Ned” Weeks (played by Mark Ruffalo), steps off the boat and toys between confidence and nervousness. Moments later, the host, Craig Donner (played by Jonathan Groff) brings him over to a beach house. When there, Ned greets Craig’s boyfriend, Bruce Niles (played by Taylor Kitsch), and they exchange pleasantries before the latter partakes in a mildly amusing hijink.

Later, during a series of games and sports taking place in the sun, Ned and Micky Marcus (played by Joe Mantello) stroll down the beach. The two have a catch up on each other’s lives, and parts of their exchanges imply previous sexual tension between selected members of the circle. After a brief glimpse into Ned’s image among his brethren, Craig collapses onto the sand after a spell of light-headedness overcomes him. People rush to his aid, and he walks off the beach with Bruce by his side. Later that night, Craig blows the candles off his birthday cake with moderate difficulty. Shortly after Micky’s remark about his singlehood, Ned spends an evening watching minglers at a party from the outside, but a chance encounter during a solitary stroll implies that he may have had anonymous pleasures of his own. On the boat ride back to the mainland, Ned stumbled upon an article in The New York Times titled “Rare Cancer Diagnosed in 41 Homosexuals”, which prompts him to get in touch with Dr. Emma Brookner (played by Julia Roberts) for more information on the condition.

What was supposed to be an question-and-answer session in a casual visit to turned into a full-fledged examination by the curt, but well-intentioned doctor. In the waiting room shortly before his physical, Ned has a brief conversation with a man named Sanford (played by Stephen Spinella), whose purple lesions from Kaposi’s sarcoma and gravity of his situation are already apparent. They both absorb the harrowing reality that it may already be too late for him. Ned learns about what is currently known about this mysterious cancer and the fact that he doesn’t exhibit any of the dreaded symptoms. Dr. Brookner, after learning of his reputation in the gay community through her assistant, Buzzy (played by B.D. Wong), requests his help to spread the word of this illness. Ned responds with some insights about the politics that go on within, and she is less than sympathetic. Just as she dismisses him, a convulsing Craig is brought into the clinic by Bruce and Micky. Dr Brookner recognises Bruce as the former partner of another patient who had only succumbed to the illness just three weeks prior. Hours later, the terrible cycle would repeat itself.

Craig’s death is enough to drive Ned to organise a meeting of local gay men in his apartment. Dr. Brookner is given the floor. She tells them that while evidence of the possible perpetuation of this disease is through sexual transmission, her requests to confirm this theory is currently subjected to funding bureaucracy. Her subsequent appeal for them to stop having intercourse in the meantime does not bode well with those in attendance. Many remind her of their numerous trials to be accepted as fully-realised members of society. The reaction quickly reaches fever pitch, and she leaves. Ned is aware that many have gathered that night in hopes of finding sexual gratification, but proceeds to announce his plans to start an awareness organisation and help centre. Many walk out on him. So, he reaches out to Felix Turner (played by probably the most perfect-looking man on the planet, Matt Bomer) for a signal boost in the media. Despite his pleas being rejected on the grounds of angering mainstream demands, a relationship blossoms between the two. It doesn’t stop Ned from pushing forward. In the grassroots level, charity drives and independently published newspapers are given a lukewarm reception. On a trip back to Fire Island, the friends throw Craig’s cremated remains into the ocean, supposedly a gesture marking the very last time he had beckoned a new year of his short life — or had celebrated anything.

After making his initial request to his brother, Ben (played by Alfred Molina), for legal support, Ned goes with Dr. Brookner to visit the additional patients that have been discreetly admitted under her care. By then, the condition has been crudely labelled “GRID”, or the Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease. There, he sees Sanford again, but this time, the disease has rapidly progressed and he is afflicted with dementia. By then, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, or GMHC, — have enough members to formalise their existence. The faces of GMHC now include fashion model Albert (played by vague Matt Damon look-a-like, Finn Wittrock) and Tommy Boatwright (played by Jim Parsons), and they all meet to coordinate their first public appearance. The group choose Bruce as the organisation’s president, after a majority express their reservations towards Ned’s aggressive approach. There is visible tension between Ned and Bruce, supposedly stemming from Craig, but the two are willing to put aside their differences in methods. During a night about the town, Bruce, who seen more than his share of dying lovers, expresses his feelings for the now-infected Albert. Ned declares that he is enamoured with someone, too. The drunken confession ends messily in the middle of a cold shower, and the fundraiser takes place soon after, to rousing success.

However, the initial USD 53,000 made would not prove to be enough. Ned’s belligerence in television interviews jeopardises the organisation’s initial impression, and brings forth the frustrations of the by many closeted who are forced to acclimatise with societal majority for their own safety. Meanwhile, Ben’s homophobia nearly costs him his brother, and Ned witnesses the true horror of AIDS when it takes root in his very own reality. The two strongest members of GMHC continue to disagree, and each conflict proves to be more embittered than the last. In the midst of the escalated voices and calls for change, the amount of people dying from AIDS continues to rise.

Verdict

Heart-wrenching and an imperative watch. What was supposed to be just over two hours of my time turned into a six-hour emotional rollercoaster and hard look at my conscience. Despite searching for the answer, I never found out why Larry Kramer would name his work “The Normal Heart”. But I’d like to think that it would require precisely and only that to be moved by it. Many have claimed the newest adaptation is a far cry from the impact of the original format, which I haven’t personally seen yet, but the entire cast appears to have done an incredible job in their respective roles.

The several faces from the 2011 Broadway run who have re-appeared for the 2014 version have put forth a new dimension to the story. Jim Parsons reprises his role as activist Tommy Boatwright, and succeeds in removing himself almost completely from his most renowned role as “The Big Bang Theory”‘s Sheldon Cooper. Some quirks remain, such as the natural halting gait familiar in the socially awkward theoretical physicist, but he is anything but. He lays on the profanity, demonstrates a capacity for affection… and throws in an impressive punch, too boot. Joe Mantello, who played Ned Weeks in the previous theatre production, takes on the role of Micky Marcus. He is stellar as the character, and delivers a heartbreaking performance of a man enraged by the inactions of his country, whose very identity is causing doors of opportunity to close around him. It is safe to say that Micky’s emotional breakdown and his near-attack of Ned is my favourite bit of acting in the film.

Mark Ruffalo and his take on Ned may seem too brash and almost purposeless for some. I’ll admit, it is also how I felt at the first watch. However, after a second run, I realised that with every major social issue struggling to be heard and valued — AIDS awareness, included — a hard voice is a necessary inconvenience. The words of Ned Weeks may have been irreverent for a community still struggling to gain the most basic of rights, but his refusal to compromise does not form out of thin air. More than thirty years on, science has witnessed break-throughs that only those living around the time of the outbreak can only dream of seeing. This includes a possible cure for HIV. Yet, many groups continue fighting to live properly. Things may be markedly better, sure, yet the long-time targets of disenfranchisement — women, children, immigrants, homosexuals (still), to name a few — still need to push through the many glass ceilings the frightened, misinformed segment of society continue to erect.

Catapulting any social justice issue right into the public eye begins with deciding between a non-confrontational approach and bellowing at the majority with complete abandon. Deep inside, we all hope for the uninhibited second option. But to start a revolution means to have been hurt enough.

We need more Neds out there.

The Monuments Men (2014)

The Monuments Men (2014)

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.

Overview

Back in my undergraduate years, I took two semesters of art history. It fostered in me a love for the subject, and when I learned that a biopic about the MFAA, or the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program, was in the works, I was over the moon. “The Monuments Men” presents itself as an interesting marriage of art history and war history, a creative endeavour in which American actor and charismatic gentleman George Clooney directed, produced, and starred. Unsurprisingly, he brings a lot of his own into a part of history that many connect with — some to a large degree. Perhaps in that fact alone, I should have known that I would enter the cinema giddy with excitement, and leave two hours later, feeling a little lukewarm about the whole thing.

Storyline

The film opens inside the Saint Bavo Cathedral‘s Joost Vijd chapel. Men work to remove Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb) from the altar, each enduring a sense of urgency. They load the paintings into a truck, and another gives them clothes to use on their southbound escape to Brussels along with information that the Germans are to arrive from the east. After a couple words of blessing, it is then revealed the ones involved in the moving of these works are priests. The vehicle drives away quickly from the premises, a scene that bears a disturbing resemblance to the hiding scene of “The Sound of Music”. It would be revealed later that en route to the destination, the two religious are killed by the German opposition, and the art stolen.

In the occupied French capital, Claire Simone (played by Cate Blanchett), a curator, is forced to entertain Nazi officers overseeing the accumulation of stolen art for Adolf Hitler’s later-unrealised Führermuseum and the personal collections of some high-ranking Nazi officials. When asked to prepare champagne for her guest and his associate, Dr. Viktor Stahl (played by Justus von Dohnányi), Simone maintains her placid exterior. But when she retreats into the kitchen, she betrays her loyalties when she spits into goblet then instructs the charge to do the same. Unbeknownst to him, Stahl enjoys the drink, as divisions of the work are being decided. Beyond the confines of their pristine corners, the horrors of the Second World War continue to manifest.

Half a world away, Frank Stokes (played by George Clooney) makes an impassioned presentation about the state of the arts and the fragile state of much of the world’s culture to a panel, which includes the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Naturally, it meets with some misgivings, but Stokes counters with his plan of action, and manages to get the green light to jumpstart his own mission: to go into the war itself retrieve the stolen art from the hands of Nazis. With this, Stokes and British officer Donald Jeffries (played with Hugh Bonneville) assemble The Monuments Men, and key members consist of museum curator and director James Granger (played by Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (played by Bill Murray) whose introductory scene was given probably one of the best colouring work of the entire film, art dealer and director of design Jean Claude Clermont (played by the dashing Jean Dujardin), dance director Preston Savitz (played by Bob Balaban), and sculptor Walter Garfield (played by John Goodman) — with Private Sam Epstein (played by Dimitri Leonidas) following closely as a German translator.

The Monuments Men complete basic training, and the operation underway proceeds as planned. Five of them arrive at Normandy by sea, and get a preliminary look at the artwork that has already been retrieved from German hands. Granger and his terrible grasp of French, on the other hand, embark on an alternate route via Deauville to find the director of Musée National d’Art Moderne, if he is still alive. Back in Paris, Simone makes her way home, only to find out that her apartment has been broken into by Stahl. She receives the devastating news that her brother, had been killed in action. Because he is discovered to have had been part of the Maquis by the time his death is officially recorded, Stahl gives her little time to grieve. He confronts Simone about the true nature of her allegiances, and storms out, leaving her in tears. She soon learns that Stahl has taken all the items from her gallery and is planning to send them to Germany. Running out to the station, she plans to confront him, but Stahl takes shots at her while hanging off the moving train. He misses, but the anguish of seeing the dissolution of a large part of her life’s work is evident in Simone’s face. The city is liberated shortly after, but despite treading carefully between her work and her patriotism, she is mistakenly assumed to be a Nazi collaborator, and is arrested.

Meanwhile, the other members of the unit encounter conflicts of their own. Campbell and Savitz placate a young soldier with some midnight smokes, and then head to Merkers. Granger, who flies to Paris via biplane, visits Simone in prison. He fumbles over his French once more, and she eyes him distrustfully, thinking he is the American counterpart to the already disastrous art heist. Their first encounter concludes with a lot of tension, and Granger knows he has to do much more to earn her trust. Garfield and Clermont nearly take out a gun-wielding child, but later, things do not end well for one of them. In Belgium, lone ranger Jeffries lays down his life for Michaelangelo’s Madonna and Child (Madonna of Bruges), protected only by a single gun and the memory of experiencing its reverent beauty as a child. When Stokes receives news of the casualties, he begins to realise that the true cost of restoring generations of life and culture is far greater than he expects.

Verdict

George Clooney’s recent effort is worth watching for its collection of light moments, but despite the way film carries itself, do not expect anything substantial. “The Monuments Men” read like a war-time edition of the “Ocean’s…” franchise. It was chock-full of witty banter, A-list actors, and other tricks of the Hollywood trade — including the one pivotal scene which moves the entire theatre to the brink of tears — but despite being incredibly well-equipped, it proved itself to be neither a fitting tribute to art nor war history. Even though Clooney may not have intended this, the film may have even inadvertently gone as far as making light of the life-threatening missions taken by the actual MFAA in their collective effort to preserve chunks of history.

Sure, one could argue that cinematically portraying the assault of the world’s culture can only bring down the morale of its viewers, thus, ultimately the sales of the film. To a certain extent, that is true. Laying bare the lives of those who have suffered under the marauding hand of war as well as the many artistic pioneers behind those works, whose existence has mostly known tragedy and lack of appreciation, would not make for an uplifting 118-minute run. Considering how “The Monuments Men” has been generously marketed — aside from its beautifully designed official website, an educational microsite, a support microsite, an official Tumblr, and even an off-shoot virtual journal of curator Claire Simone, to name a few, — it is obvious there is no shortage of backing. Still, in the eyes of those looking to “The Monuments Men” as an examination of the past, it under-promised and — dare I say it — came off, instead, as a brilliant public relations move on the part of the United States. But, if that was the ultimate motive, then, touché.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013)

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.

Overview

The last time I reviewed a book on this website, it was a work by the same author. I read it almost four years ago, and whatever sentiments I’ve harboured when engrossed in the pages can now only be recalled by going over what I wrote about it after the fact. The same applies to past experiences, be it impressive or unremarkable: the more often it is conjured, the quicker the arrival of the sobering realisation that we only remember the last time it came to mind. The constant dissonance between present day and what has been filed can make one wonder if the average adult is, in fact, a child occupying a much larger body. Neil Gaiman has long been famous for doing away with the delineations of time, what with his writings constantly jumping across its intended age brackets. In the 2013 children’s fantasy, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he once again explores the precisely that.

Storyline

The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with the protagonist revisiting his hometown for a funeral. He dreads the possibility of enduring the usual chatter with vague faces, all instantly recognisable once upon a time, but now only united in their somber garb. Just before finds himself in the thick of it all, he stops by his where his boyhood home used to be, then proceeds down another road. Despite its physical transformation over the years he’s known it, the carries a story well over the asphalt surface, — and later across the bumpy ridges of the narrower dirt stretch — lost over the years.

Somehow, he knows when to stop his car. He exits his vehicle at the Hempstocks’, and makes his way to visit a very good and incredibly unforgettable friend. Past the sharp stench of cow dung, he makes his way to the red-brick farmhouse, in hopes of a reunion that would make his return less grievous. Gradually, he senses the familiarity of his surroundings. He enters and is greeted by the matriarch. She remembers him and who he is looking for, but lets him work through his own memories. He asks if he can wander out out back to the duck pond that has defined a significant part of his childhood. After he sits, briefly gazes at his reflection in the water, and spends a few moments reacclimatising himself with what used to be familiar even in the dark, he suddenly remembers Lettie Hempstock. Then, comes everything else. The hazy excerpts of the events that transpired four decades ago become as clear as the passing seconds he spends on the bench, and the body of water in front of him seems to grow a lot larger…

… and he finds himself turning another year older in the midst of his books, after no one attends his birthday party. Unbeknownst to him, a life-defining adventure is just down the road.

Verdict

It took me a while to get to the meat and potatoes of the story, — even once setting the book aside and returning to it with fresher eyes — but Neil Gaiman’s recent work is, as always, vivid, both in its beautiful and painful moments. The Ocean at the End of the Lane has been lauded as a fairytale for adults, which possibly means it is probably as metaphor-laden as it is an innocent recollection. In fact, the common perception of fairytales are catered for children does not mean the stories within are devoid of conflict. Original versions are grisly, and that alone tackles the modern notion of whether or not little ones are truly immune from witnessing evil in the rawest form their young minds can handle. It is also said that some elements of the story are semi-autobiographical, which intrigues and frightens me equally.

This isn’t also to say that what may or may not have actually transpired was distorted by misinterpretation. The main narrative sits right between the two phases, with the adult protagonist acknowledging present day only in the beginning and the end of the novel. In its broadest definition, it is ageist to assume that a child’s narration is less reliable than an adult’s. The in-between realm has been masterfully approached by Gaiman in his previous work, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane is no exception.

Being an adult is usually accompanied with unspoken yet strict norms of how to behave, structure thoughts, and perceive things. All of them take a united front against our inner child. Rationalising events puts things in perspective, but at its worst, it takes away the story’s power to heal and repair the wounds sustained by the hard knocks of life. The protagonist, who seeks temporary respite from the close proximity of death, instinctively takes to his and eleven-year-old Lettie’s ocean and, like many other times, indulges in a time less encumbered. For part of an evening, he is seven years of age once more, finding inspiration and courage in the hand of his older friend to look into the eyes of the dark.

Love Garage 2014: Phoenix

Gigging in ‘Hard’ Mode

A couple of weeks ago, French alternative rock band Phoenix performed live for Love Garage 2014, and it was a concert that I almost missed. Tickets for their much anticipated show had been on sale since the end of 2013, and I found myself somewhat deliberately waiting for the last minute. It was only when I was standing in one of the city’s popular bookstores actively promoting the event with a friend who reminded me moments before, that I decided to do something about it. Looking back, I’m glad I went, because it made me realise that I have never watched any of my favourite musical groups without my behaviour being dictated by modern day’s digital reality, and the rainy night of January 17 offered precisely that.

Ever since the start of the year, Jakarta had been riddled with heavy downpours — lately, to the point of flooding — and post-precipitation temperatures in the low twenties. However, the morning of the event itself met with calm weather, which aroused suspicion in the minds of more cynical concert-goers, and the question of safety for all attending in the event of rain. By mid-afternoon, the large cloud that had accumulated over the general area in which the show was to take place seemed to refuse to budge, and I had to accept the reality that I was not going to return home dry.

The Real Thing

After a filling dinner and a post-meal coffee, my friend and I made the approximately ten-minute walk to the open-air parking lot of eX Plaza. There were many milling around the lobby, and the queue leaked well beyond the doors of the mall into the rain-drenched drop-off. One by one, we exchanged our vouchers for proper tickets, then ventured outside into the late Friday night. We meandered through clusters of youngins forming lazy lines and soaked scalpers seemingly desperate for a little extra pocket change. Holding my friend’s large umbrella, we braved the elements for a spot at the security check-point. The crew were brisk, knew what they were doing, and despite the drizzle, we didn’t have to open the umbrella for the duration of the process. However, when we emerged from the ticket scrutinies and camera inspections to get a good look at the crowd gathered, we knew we had arrived way too late for a decent standing position. We still attempted to squeeze through the throngs of people, but the amount of equipment being wielded by those around our general area, we only managed to penetrate through two or three rows before meeting an impermeable layer of heads and shoulders, with absolutely no view of the stage, whatsoever.

Up until this point, the light rain had been our main contender. But, just minutes before the concert was due to start, the light caresses of water graduated into heavier pelts, forcing many — including us — to hastily tuck away our gadgets en masse. The arrival of Thomas Mars, Laurent Brancowitz, Deck d’Arcy, and Christian Mazzalai onto the stage only but forced the cheering collective forward. Moments later, the gig kicked off enthusiastically with a performance of “Entertainment”, causing the crowded lot to quickly transform into an ocean of bouncing umbrellas.

Love Garage 2014: Phoenix

Somewhere in the beginning of the concert, I was able to get a glimpse of Mars himself through the curvatures of two poncho-covered heads. Despite the harrowing state of the weather and the gradual wetness making itself known on my clothing, I went for my camera and took a photo of the stage, knowing that the rain would prevent me from repeating the gesture for the rest of Love Garage 2014. It is the only visual documentation I have of both the band and the underlying purpose of that entire evening.

Love Can Save the Universe

While I was able to keep track of the setlist through their songs, I was largely unable to see the performance taking place a stone’s throw away. My friend and I were also taking turns holding the umbrella, while I was trying to keep my belongings dry. By the end of the evening, I was completely soaked, except for a small part of my upper left side that remained unscathed, which is where my camera and phone were tightly tucked. I was lucky to not have suffered any material damage, as a result.

There was no encore that night. The weather forced Phoenix to cut their show short out of safety concerns, but I fully understood the move, whether the event organiser was thinking about the welfare of their guests, the audience, or both. Yet, as I switched from watching the large television screen projecting the action onstage to stealing occasional glances at the disco ball situated above the crowd while it reflected a combination of stage lights and lightning, I couldn’t help but notice the almost “analog” circumstance in which all of us found ourselves. Without the instantaneous ability to tell others that we were doing at that very moment, we had no other choice but to fully dedicate our attention to the present.

Someone I know likened that night to the concert-going culture of the 1990’s, and since I only started this hobby a handful of years ago, it is something I wish I could have experienced myself. That particular slot in Love Garage 2014 may just as well be the closest I will get to doing so. I also knew very little about the creative thought behind the philosophy of the festival name. But, as the people huddled underneath a plethora of umbrellas while Phoenix rocked everyone’s soaking wet socks off — some even linking their umbrellas with others to create a larger provision of dry shelter — I realised that having no distractions was the romance itself. It was a truer, connection to others that was unassisted by technology, and it felt very, very lovely.