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112_box_348x490In one of the visual gags in Playtime, Tati puts the viewer in a voyeuristic role, framing the scene from the outside of an apartment building.  Inside, two families face each other, ostensibly watching a boxing match on the in-set televisions mounted on their respective side of the shared wall.  But from the outside, the families seemingly react as if they are observing each other.  For instance, as the father on one side begins to disrobe, the father on the other side shoos his daughter away, as if he does not want her to look upon the other man’s nakedness.

I visited Bác Thu Dang’s apartment once, with my parents.  We were on our way someplace else, I think, because I can’t think of any reason why I should have been there.  I was eight or nine at the time.  His apartment was a one-bedroom, and the whole place was cluttered, as if there was no way a whole life could have fit into that space.  We sat around a kitchen table, and, on the chair next to me, was a stack of newspapers that was almost as tall as I was,  The appliances were lumbering, 70s avocado-green beasts, covered in a thin, opaque film of grease.  My parents and Bác Thu Dang spoke in animated tones, but I couldn’t understand what they said.  Bored to distraction, I began looking through the stack:  newspapers in English, newspapers in Vietnamese, unopened mail.

But then, near the bottom, there it was.  A porno mag.  It wasn’t the first I’d ever seen, of course; I knew the location of every dirty magazine at home.  I had also become quite adept at sniffing them out at the houses of other relatives too:  underneath mattresses, at the back of closets, in child-accessible storage spaces.  It was as if, by discovering where others had hidden their sexual secrets, I could learn how to hide my own better.

But this magazine was different.  Up to then, everything I’d seen, despite promises of SHOCKING and UNCENSORED, was pretty much softcore.  What the couple (white man, Asian woman) did in this magazine, the others had only suggested.  I was enthralled, even as I tried to appear nonchalant.  The thrill of the forbidden, of discovery—but when I reached its end, I was confused.  All that white foamy stuff?  That’s a lot of spit, I thought, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized that I had seen my first cumshot.

I thought differently about Bác Thu Dang after that. Afterwards, whenever I encountered him, I thought I could detect, underneath his unflagging joviality, sadness, loneliness. As he moved, I thought I could see him carrying squalor and poverty and pornography around like a phantom limb. I didn’t suspect that these would one day be as much a part of my life as they were of his. The voyeur never considers his own position.  He presses his nose up against the glass of another person’s life. He pretends to know what’s going on inside. He pretends that what he sees is a joke. He never considers that he is also being watched.


111_box_348x490Bác Thu Dang was not a blood relative as far as I know. Vietnamese family trees are notoriously convoluted, with the farther branches of second uncles and cousins twisted and labyrinthine. But I suspect that his bác was an honorific, the way that some Vietnamese refer to Ho Chi Minh as Bác Hồ — Uncle Ho. (My parents refuse to speak Ho Chi Minh’s name in any incarnations — their version of the 614th mitzvah.)

I knew nothing of Bác Thu Dang’s life. My father told me, at one point, that he worked as a janitor. He spoke very little English, but in Vietnamese, he had a knack for puns: slight tonal shifts, switched consonants. When he came over for visits — once a week, it seemed – he and my parents played cắt tê for nickels and took sips of Remy Martin V.S.O.P. until they were red-faced from laughter and alcohol. My mother let me taste her drink (Remy and 7-Up) and sporadically explained what was so funny. I suspect that most of Bác Thu Dang’s jokes were dirty.

One Christmas, Bác Thu Dang gave me a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, and I ate them all, except for three — one of each color: green, red, silver. I had a habit of hording candy — in a Sucrets tin, one of each flavor out from a bag of Jelly Bellys kept in a Sucrets tin; in a lidded jar, the accumulated cherry pieces from a Halloween’s-worth of SweeTarts. A few years ago, when I was cleaning out my childhood desk, I found those three Kisses, still in their bag, crammed in the back of a drawer. They’d dissolved into dust by then, eaten by something larval, their foil pocked with holes. This was my last physical reminder with Bác Thu Dang, but still, I threw the bag away.

I’m struck by how M. Hulot reminds me of Bác Thu Dang: the tall frame, the long face, the air of calm bufuddlement. I don’t recall ever seeing Bác Thu Dang without a hat, most often a droopy fishing hat that sat low on his head, much like the one M. Hulot wears on his holiday. The similarities end there: Bác Thu Dang also wore large glasses, and his front two incisors were nicotine-stained and slightly twisted, giving him the appearance of an overbite. But he was a familiar sight in our house, a constant presence in our lives.

Until he wasn’t. At some point, the visits stopped, I’m not sure why. There hadn’t been a quarrel that I was aware of, and when my parents encountered him, they were still convivial. But the level of closeness wasn’t there anymore. Maybe the friendship had simply run its course. The young boy in Mon Oncle never questions why his uncle is suddenly no longer a part of his life; he instead forms a stronger bond with his father.

For me, I know there’s must be another secret stash of chocolate somewhere.

110_box_348x490For a number of years, Matthew and I had a New Year’s Eve tradition: we would go to bed early—well before midnight—and when the new year came, we’d rouse to the noisemakers and the fireworks, and turn to each other, and mumble ‘happy new year,’ and kiss, and then go back to sleep.


This year, we went to a friend’s house for an evening of board games. Foil hats, hors d’oeuvres, plastic leis. Ball drop, champagne toast, kiss, Auld Lang Syne. Then it was time to go.

The highways were empty. No tractor trailers, only a few other cars. Everyone, I suppose, was enjoying their night off, except for those bartenders, policemen, taxi drivers, and hospital workers who kept the world in working order for us to return to the next day. On the drive, Matthew said that he could see fireworks from between the buildings of Wilmington, but by the time I looked, they had dissipated.

Matthew went to bed soon after we got home. I watched M. Hulot’s Holiday. On New Year’s Day, Southerners eat black-eyed peas and collard greens to represent prosperity. The Irish eat ham and cabbage. Maybe watching M. Hulot’s Holiday signifies gentle humility. Or having gimlet humor towards the world. Or maybe I, myself, need a vacation on the Brittany coast. As I watched, the movie was punctuated, from outside, with occasional bursts. Fireworks—or perhaps gunfire, both wholly American traditions.


Towards the end of the film, M. Hulot accidentally sets off a shed full of fireworks. Some of them hit the pension where he’s staying in what director Terry Jones describes as an “artillery barrage.”

“It’s almost as if,” Jones says, “Tati was mounting a military assault against the stuffy old world of the past.”

The racket wakes the other vacationers, the lights in their rooms turning on one by one. And as they leave their rooms and gather downstairs, where raucous jazz plays, they begin—begrudgingly—to have fun.


New Year’s Eve, 1999. We weren’t afraid of the Y2K bug—not really. But, just in case, two hours before the catastrophe hit, Matthew drove me in his green Jetta (named Clio, for the muse of history) north from Denver. We had planned it so that when midnight struck, we’d be over the Wyoming border, but still far enough away from Cheyenne to miss the cataclysm. At midnight, we pulled into a scenic overlook on the side of the highway. We got out of the car—after all, it, too, had an internal computer and may have been susceptible to spontaneous combustion. It was cold, I remember, though there was no snow, and we huddled beneath the light overhanging the highway, the orange glow almost nuclear in its brightness. At midnight, to the north we could see fireworks, and to the south, another set of fireworks. The wind, with sharp teeth, brought the sound of distant explosions. And we stood there, holding each other, until we were sure that the world hadn’t ended after all, and then drove home.