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The Magic Flute starts with a montage of faces, audience members waiting for the curtain to rise.  The close-ups encompass all ages, races, and genders, and I expected to hear “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” instead of Mozart’s overture.  Bergman returns the camera to one cherubic, red-headed poppet, but the others whip by like the faces of people waiting on platform as the subway pulls away.  Bergman doesn’t shoot the faces directly, but from a slight side-view, as if the camera were in the aisles.

My senior year of high school, I volunteered as an usher for the Denver Center Theatre Company.  My duties, once every three weeks, usually a weekend matinee, were to guide ticketholders to their correct seat.  I memorized the layout of the two theaters:  the Stage, a traditional semi-circle, and the Space, with 360° seating arrangement.

In the tiny usher dressing room, we were to put on red polyester vests over our white shirts (the rest of the uniform:  black pants, black shoes).  The vests were stored in a wooden box, and the other ushers – housewives, doyennes, other high school students; retirees — and I fought over the few vests sized for human beings.

But here’s the thing:  I’m not a fan of live theater.  I volunteered to fulfill the community service requirement for National Honor Society.  Volunteers also received a season’s subscription, but I never attended a single show.  Instead, I gave the tickets to my parents, who watched some and passed the others onto their friends.  I saw only glimpses and fragments of the shows, standing by entrance, waiting to lead latecomers into the back row ‘you-should-have-been-on-time’ seats.

Books and films, at least, have the appearance of permanence, but live theater is an inherently fungible art.  Its qualities fluctuate, dependent on the so many people:  playwright, stagehands, actors, director.  I wonder, sometimes, if I derive can pleasure reading the script than seeing the script performed:  a perverse form of auteur theory.  The printed page will always the same text, the film will replay in the exact way it did before.

I’m not, however, entirely immune to live performances.  I recently saw a performance of Madama Butterfly (the most frequently performed opera  in the United States) in Wilmington and, despite being seated behind a support column that obstructed half my view, I held my breath during the climactic note of “Un Bel Di Vedremo.”  But,, if anything, this emphasizes the ephemeral quality of theater:  you can only experience a chord progression, a particular phrasing once.  The next day, the timbre shifts, the tone changes ever-so-slightly.  There is no final product; each performance is a revision.  After its 1904 debut, Puccini reworked Madama Butterfly four more times.

After Fanny & Alexander, Bergman announced his retirement from film; he would henceforth concentrate on the theater.

I wonder how Bergman would have staged Madama Butterfly.  A stage saturated in crimson — costumes, backdrops, lights.  Instead of a steamer, a Norwegian icebreaker.  Pinkerton as God:  Lover, Savior, Disappointer.  The auteur who abandons His creations and is too cowardly to revisit them.


Tonight was the harvest moon — what the Vietnamese celebrate as Tết Trung Tu.  When I was young, the signs of Tết Trung Tu were unmistakable:  the invasion of mooncake containers at Asian supermarkets, gold foil banners hung across doorways, increased visits to the Vietnamese Buddhist temple.  When my family had our post-temple bowl of phở, out past the lot crammed with awkward Vietnamese parking jobs, the lion dancers (mostly students from a nearby tae kwon do academy) did their thing, undulating, thrusting, flicking the switch to make the lion’s Tammy Faye Baker-like eyes blink.

My sister told me about celebrating Tết Trung Tu back in Vietnam:  she and my brother made their own paper lanterns.  There were none of these pre-made ones, she said.  After dark, they paraded with the other children, lanterns tied to the end of a stick, a little piece of captured fire.

Last year, Matthew and I bought our lanterns (not home-made, alas) from two eager young girls fundraising for some Asian community center in Philadelphia’s Chinatown — I’m not sure which, since I’m a bad Asian.  The lanterns were mounted to chopsticks, and each had a tealight taped to its interior.  They were cheap, of course, but as they dangled off the edge of our porch, they insisted on their own beauty.

By 7:30, the moon’s glow had spread behind the houses across the street, a soft phosphorescence, like a jellyfish’s.  We sat on the brick stoop.  I made tea.  Matthew reviewed notes for tomorrow’s class.  Neighbors returned home and parallel parked.  We waved to them, and Matthew called to them by name, but if they saw our lanterns, they said nothing; maybe from where they were, the lanterns’ colorful aureoles couldn’t compete with the devouring streetlamp in front of our house.

As we sat, we shared a mooncake.  Buying them was almost a Pavlovian response:  Oh, look, September.  Mooncake time.  We bought two boxes:  one was a tin with the picture of what looked like a fancy hotel lobby; the other was a box lined with cloth, each mooncake in its own tin adorned with a kitschy portrait of a Chinese courtesan.  We skipped the green tea flavor, the mixed nuts, the pumpkin paste, and the red bean in favor of pure lotus paste.  (No salted egg yolks, however; Matthew finds them gross.)

And then we saw the moon.  We may have missed its low-to-the-horizon ruddiness, but when it appeared, full and bright, it seemed to have sprung from nothingness.  We blew out the lanterns and carried in our teacups.  I went upstairs to watch Autumn Sonata.

It’s said that Tết Trung Tu is a celebration for children.  Parents who have been too busy harvesting crops to play with their children use the festivities as proof of their affection.  Maybe Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman could have used some mooncake time:  tea; glowing lights; a warm, silent evening; a stray gray cat, strutting along the porch, demanding nothing more than a little attention.

My own juvenile delinquency was tame, compared to Antoine Doinel’s in The 400 Blows.  I had the benefit of loving, if perhaps at times smothering, parents, so my naughtiness and rebellion never came to a head.  Conjugating verbs wouldn’t have seemed that bad of a punishment; I did quite well in English.  But maybe conjugating them in French, in three different moods, would have made the task more unbearable.

That’s not to say that I didn’t raise hell in my own  non-confrontational way.  My equivalent to Antoine’s Rene was Danny, whom everyone else knew as Aaron (whom I just friend requested on Facebook, since this is the first I’ve thought of him in years).  He, similarly, knew me by a nickname as well.  He had lived across the street from me for over a year before we became friends, but once we did, we were inseparable. Danny was always a little more wild than I was, and he’d get in trouble more often, but he liked to bend rules until they were malleable, following the letter of the law, if not the spirit.  For instance, if he was forbidden to leave the house, we’d play in the doorway of his house until his father came home, whereupon Danny insisted:  “But you said…”

Our hobbies revolved mainly around X-Men comic books and getting in trouble.  During the summer, we walked from our house to the Kmart about a mile away.  And there, we’d shoplift.  Mostly Legos (me) or G.I. Joes (him).  I took Lego sets into the dressing room, and under the guise of trying on an ugly t-shirt, I stuffed the component bags of bricks into my pants, while Danny stood  outside.  He and I chatted loudly, asking how the shirt fit, to cover the sound of the crinkling cellophane.  It itched my thighs as I walked.  Danny, on the other hand, liked to duck behind the beach towel displays, a terrycloth curtain, and, there, extracted action figures, yearning to breathe free.

We nearly got busted once.  Danny had already gotten his stash.  He’d hidden them in the handpouch on the front of his sweatshirt.  And as we roamed the toy aisle, Danny said, “That woman is following us.”  I didn’t know which woman he was walking about, and he pointed her out:  middle-aged, curly henna hair, chubby.  “No,” I said.  “Are you sure?”  We waited in an aisle and saw her pass by.  She looked directly at us as she walked, true, did it mean anything?  Returning the G.I. Joes would have been foolish; look what it did, after all, to poor Antoine.

So we left.  And a few feet outside the door, she called out after us.  “So, you guys have any toys in your pockets?”

“No,” I said, because I didn’t.  “No,” said Danny, because technically, he didn’t either.  We turned our shorts pockets inside-out, and Miss Undercover Security looked disappointed but let us continue on our way.

That close call marked the end of us aiding and abetting each other’s shoplifting, even if the shoplifting itself didn’t abate.  Not on my part, at least.