Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Iron Claw of Trauma and Toxic Masculinity and Going Beyond the Family Cult

Still from the movie with wrestling brothers Von Erich on a sports show
It is rather strange that someone who does not like wrestling or fighting should enjoy movies about them. Oddly enough, I am not referring to David Fincher's Fight Club, a classic for many, a masterpiece for others but which failed to impress me, and I thought that, at least in some ways, it contributed to instead of being critical of toxic masculinity. Yet, when it comes to family drama/trauma, two of the best movies out there are Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior and Sean Durkin’s The Iron Claw. Both films tackle fighting and competing in the ring, and both have endings that broke my heart and made me cry.

As usual, there will be spoilers galore and then some, so proceed with caution; it is best to have already watched the movies and trust me they are worth your time. While Warrior focuses on mixed martial arts, a sport that I find violent and abhorrent, The Iron Claw tackles wrestling, and yet interestingly, both are driven by dysfunctional families with flawed fathers at the helm. While in the former, the father is an alcoholic former boxer, played stunningly by Nick Nolte, who fails to hold the family together, in the latter, the father is an imposing figure that demands unconditional loyalty and unwavering obedience and respect from all its members.

While Warrior focuses more on the sibling rivalry between two rather different feuding brothers, the impetuous and rebellious Tommy (Tom Hardy) versus the family man Brendan (Joel Edgerton), in The Iron Claw, it is the unity and the cultlike adoration of the father that is its focal point. What moves us more is the fact that the latter is based on a true story and the various devastating and heartbreaking tragedies are not just a figment of the imagination but are grounded in real-life flesh-and-blood people and experiences. While Warrior moves us, The Iron Claw cuts deep.

Fritz Von Erich is the glue that not only holds the family together, but he is also the existential driving force of every individual within this circle. He projects his own dreams and failures onto his family. Essentially, he wants each of his sons to succeed where he personally failed, namely, to make themselves a name in the field of wrestling. The Iron Claw is his signature move and his legacy, but it is also symbolic of the tight grip he has on all his sons and his wife.

Not only are they to be blindly obedient to his wishes regardless of their own desires and passions, but they must be disciplined and hard-working throughout. There is no room for individuality or finding your own talents or even creating your own life; they are supposed to do as he says without doubts or hesitation. The ideology or reasoning is that the world out there is not a safe nor a fair place; yet there are two ways to protect oneself and to reach success: one, it is important to be physically and mentally strong to thwart opposition and challenges, and two, the family must remain united and support each other to the max.

The Von Erich family is a brand and a cult-like entity. Interestingly, one of filmmaker Sean Durkin’s previous movies Martha Marcy May Marlene dealt with the repercussions of identity and trauma after having been in an abusive religious cult. The gospel in this case are the sayings and proclamations of the father and the ring is the place where salvation can be attained. The tenet is masculinity in its rawest and most muscular form, men who fight and bully themselves to the top with an iron will and with no room for emotions or vulnerability. When in pain, be it physical or emotional, one must man up and suck it up as Kevin (a brilliant Zac Efron) is painfully reminded of throughout the film.

Not all the sons commit to this ideology because they believe in it but all of them accept and embrace it because they want to impress their father and yearn for his love and respect. In the case of Mike, the youngest of the clan, he would much rather be a musician, and yet, he is discouraged from doing so and is thrown into the ring against his will. Each of them suffers the consequences and breaks down from the physical and emotional tolls, and sadly, only one of them manages to eventually stand up against the abusive father and break away from this cycle of trauma.

To rationalize the amount of tremendous suffering they must go through as a family unit, they catch and hold on to the belief that the family is cursed. At first glance, it may look like it but when we look and dig deeper, we see that the curse is trauma itself, a trauma that is propagated by false and unhealthy beliefs and lifestyles. Everything becomes centered on wrestling with the coveted belt as the Holy Grail, the same way others may blindly and unquestionably worship religion, money, or political ideologies to reach their aims and purposes. Neither of them is bad per se, but when it becomes an obsession and a compulsion at the expense of life itself, then it poses a serious problem.

So much so that two of the Von Erich brothers (three in real life!) commit suicide. They are unable to continue living under the tyranny of such an utterly restrictive, bleak, joyless, and pointless world. Slowly, the family unit becomes more and more disentangled and fragmented, and only Kevin is left at the end. He who had dedicated all his life to the support and wellbeing of his brothers whom he loved dearly and whole-heartedly was on his own now with all his brothers having passed away.

Yet, fortunately, he manages to break away from this vicious cycle and from the grip and power of his father. Anyone who has not experienced abusive relationships or a dysfunctional family of that ilk may criticize its members for staying and holding on against rhyme and reason. But it is much easier said than done.

Your family is the starting point of life. Views and values are shaped by its members, and they become embedded and embodied by each person. As you take them at face value and for the God-given truth, it is very hard, but not impossible, to shake it off and look beyond it. Cults tap into that mindset and often claim to be your ersatz family to better control your mind and behavior while they restrict the contact with others who are not likeminded. This is because often a close third-party outsider could serve as a sounding board and can encourage one to move away from the abusive and toxic environment.

In this case, a lot of credit must go to Kevin’s wife Pam (Lily James) as presented in the movie. She is the very opposite of toxic masculinity and unlike Kevin’s subdued and submissive mother Doris (Maura Tierney), she does not go along with it, nor accept or tolerate it. She is a strong, determined, and independent woman who knows from the get-go what she wants. This becomes apparent in the first meeting of the two. Like other fans, she asks Kevin for his autograph, but then, she basically makes him ask her out. Kevin is shy and has had little contact or experience with women (he is a virgin), but none of this poses a problem here as she makes up for all that and rectifies the situation.

But it is not just this determined quality that makes her stand out; it is also and further bolstered by her empathy. She understands and supports him. On their first date, after he talks about the pain of losing his elder brother (yes another one!) at a young age, she hugs him and gives him what his mother is unable or unwilling to provide him with, emotional support.

At the same time, he supports her and her ideas and lifestyle. She bluntly tells him on that first date that she wants to have children but that she also wants to work as a vet, and if he would be all right with all that. He does not hesitate and accepts. We can see that the toxic masculinity is not ingrained in him; it is just used as a means or a tool to please and wring and wrestle love and respect from his father.

When Kevin finally goes against the will of his father by not only giving up on wrestling but also selling the company, he ends up becoming a stay-home Dad. He seems much happier in this role and embodies this lifestyle and in a sense also transmits it to his two boys. The trauma bolstered and fueled by toxic masculinity has come to an end. He can tune into and be himself with a healthy sense of being male albeit with muscles and a bad haircut.

And then, there is the unforgettable and heartbreaking ending as he is watching his kids. They are engaged in playing sports, and he suddenly begins to cry. His sons immediately come to his side. For the first time, Kevin processes his grief and immense pain and tremendous loss. He says that he used to be a brother and that was his raison d’être before having his own family. In an impulsive act and show of beautiful empathy, his sons tell him that they could be his brothers if he wants.

And that makes him (and us!) cry even more. When Kevin apologizes for crying, as it is not a masculine thing to do, the kids, i.e. the new generation, tell him that it is in fact quite a natural thing to express one’s emotions and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. And they are right, and with them all, we can cry freely regardless of age and gender, and be free to be ourselves while loosening the iron grip and bolts of toxic masculinity and letting it rest in peace.


Saturday, May 11, 2024

The Dark Side and Misguided Passion of Bizet’s Carmen


I have now been to various opera productions by the Vancouver Opera and have enjoyed them all, some more than less, but they have been excellent experiences, nonetheless and regardless. It turned out, not by design but by fortuitous circumstances or maybe even impulsivity, that this year and season, I ended up attending each and every one of them.

The one that was highest on my list was The Magic Flute, which I absolutely loved and actually saw for the second time, the previous one had been put on by the UBC ensemble various years ago. To Don Pasquale I went by accident and did not regret it all. Both, I went to by myself, reason forthcoming below.

And then, there was Carmen. This opera was never high up on my list, which is a bit ironic for someone who has studied 19th century French literature and who loves and relishes in unbridled passion and romance and the bright and dark side of desire. The music has wonderful bits of course, but overall, it did not manage to sweep me off my feet. And yet, as my wife had her eyes set on it and reproached me (among a host of many other things) to have missed a previous production some years ago, I felt compelled and obliged.



Like concerts, these types of events one is fond of and tends to look forward to. One ensures that nothing encroaches upon the date and expects and hopes that it will be a resounding success. And as I am wont to do, I meticulously plan things in advance, leave little to chance and (try to) ensure that nothing goes wrong. Well, many things can still go wrong.

For starters, I have the tendency to arrive much too early to events. Usually, I attend the pre-talk but, on that day, I did not feel like it, and yet, I had allotted a good solid hour to get to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, which is about a twenty-minute bus ride and a thirty-minute walk. The weather forecast included some rain after a few sunny days, but I assumed we should be fine.

The annual BMO marathon scheduled for the same day was in the back of my mind, but previous events of that caliber had not interfered in significant measure and led to only minor delays. We had a lot of extra time factored in just in case.

Yet when we stepped out, we noticed that this time it was different. There was an insane amount of traffic on our street and a noticeable lack of buses in the direction that we were planning to head. I suggested to grab umbrellas and walk, but it was immediately and forcefully vetoed. My wife chose to call a cab. I doubted that would be fruitful and merely pointed at it but was attacked on the spot. Like often, I shrugged and went along.

The cab ride was a disaster. It turned out that others were attempting to take the side roads as well and we were often caught in traffic that moved at a snail’s pace. Time was dangerously approaching showtime and bottled stress and frustrations culminated during this slow-motion ride through hell. The accusations flew from both sides, and although the cab driver did not speak Spanish (I presume), he could feel the tension between this quarreling couple.

And that was the exact reason I had gone to the opera by myself. The day I told her that I would go to Mozart on my own, there was an argument as well. I just did not want her to cast shadows on my enjoyment of that masterpiece; I was aware that it could and would happen with Bizet but was not as fazed by it. And this is not limited to the opera, watching Barbie with her was an ordeal as well, yes, Barbie for goodness’ sake!

All stress and worry for nought, we arrived there on time, but she gave me, as is wont to happen in such situations, the silent treatment. She would not even give me mono-syllabic responses. I could not wait for the music to start but felt sad and let down that I would not have anyone to talk to about and on the event. Lo and behold, two charming women sat by my side, and they were very pleasant and easy to talk to.

I do not know their names (I kind of wished I had asked them, but I wanted them to remain anonymous here; notwithstanding, I did tell or rather warned them that they would be mentioned in my post) and will refer to the first one as the German lady and the other one by my side as the first-time opera attendee.

We talked about how opera was such a unique and immersive performance that involved a high level of expertise in multitasking. Not only were the people on stage asked to sing, often challenging arias and had to do so quite often in different languages, but they were also supposed to act, move about, and in some cases even fight with each other and do minor stunts. In fact, they even had a knife fight in this opera.

The German lady told me how she was interested in learning Italian to be able to understand opera from the region and she also mentioned an Italian singer by the name of Giovanni Z. (for the life of me I cannot recall his full last name) who would turn and transpose German folk songs into Italian, which sounded interesting, daring, and challenging.

Meanwhile, our cherished first-time attendee was looking forward to this event and I was hoping, almost praying that it would turn out to be a thoroughly positive and enchanting experience for her (sadly, it was not) so here is to hoping that she will still continue to visit operatic events even after this letdown of Carmenic proportions.


Love for the Exotic, Uncommon, and Unattainable

In the opera, Don José is presented with two options. He could choose filial duty, his mother an invisible yet imposing presence via her letters brought by the charming messenger Micaëla, a village maiden who his mother suggests as a potential mate and spouse, and on the other side, the passion and desire for the attention-seeking and -grabbing Carmen who bursts on the stage and turns the head of all the soldiers present.

While the reasonable choice would have been the good and faithful girl sent by his mother, he chooses to go for the person that attracts him much more and on the spot. But duty and doing the right thing is one thing, following one’s desires and passion is another. He is smitten with the fiery Carmen, her appeal apart from her unparalleled beauty and uninhibited demeanor also comes from being a foreigner, having Spanish and Gypsy blood in her.

When she gives him the eye and the rose and basically encourages him to pursue here, there is no way back for this young soldier. He is even willing to go to prison for her (twice actually but the second time is for a completely different and much more sinister reason) and he consciously commits a misdeed for her by letting her escape from the shackles of the law.

This sacrifice of his does not go unnoticed by her so when he is released months later, she awaits him. She professes her love to him, which should be taken with a grain of salt as she has a long list and history of pervious lovers, but he takes it in completely, and again, against all odds and reason.

Yet when she discovers that he was planning to return to his post, she feels slighted. She wants all his attention and asks him to go even further and sacrifice his duty and livelihood for her. They would roam the mountains on horseback together living a fulfilling life of crime if only he deserted his post. For someone with narcissistic tendencies, it is always a matter of all or nothing and even all is just not enough or good enough for them.

When put on the spot, Don José hesitates for a moment, and she gets annoyed and angry. She even questions his love for her because if he really loved her, he would do absolutely anything to be with her. Ironically, he does show her at the end what is willing to do in the name of what he perceives and designates as love.

At this point, the impulsive young soldier gives in to the domineering Carmen and decides to go along with her fantasy; he is under the impression that he is in love with her, and worse, he believes that she loves him back. We already know and feel that it is not going to work out as there is another boy in town, the flashy and overly confident toreador Escamillo.

Leading a life of freedom and adventure is a recurring theme of this opera. In her view, she represents both; she gives no man her heart at least not for a long period of time, and she is free to reject anyone as she feels fit. Love is a free-roaming bird that is unbound and can go and land wherever it pleases, she sings with gusto.

As such, Don José is certainly not a good match. He is a go-between because the toreador just seems so much better suited to her temperament and lifestyle. Escamillo is a free spirit and a rebel who does not believe in rules and boundaries. In comparison, Don José is bland and boring and utterly naive. In this production, there is really nothing special about the young soldier, neither his looks nor his costume design, he is wearing jeans, and as one my opera companions stated, he looked like a “country bumpkin.”

Add to that the lack of chemistry between the two leads in this opera, perhaps due to the last-minute switch as the person destined to do Carmen had to cancel, and it seems implausible and even improbable that she should choose him.

The problem is also that we as the audience do not buy it, and even worse, cannot feel it. The actors sang very well and were proficient and professional throughout, but the main relationship never came to life and did not convince us and when they fail to resonate with us, the opera suffers as a result.

Neither me nor the charming ladies beside me felt the passion and love that was portrayed here, and it took away from our enjoyment and identification with the two characters. Yet, when she chooses Escamillo, it makes perfect sense, but he is just a foil and counterpoint to the rather insipid Don José, and we know too little to care about the toreador, merely that he appears to be the male version of Carmencita. But his entry on a motorcycle was quite impressive and it was easy to see and understand why everyone was a fan and was cheering for him, and if anyone was worthy of Carmen’s infatuation, it would have to be him.

Finally, since we find it hard to feel for and understand Don José, the ending makes little sense to us and does not have the emotional impact it should have had. She does seem to entice him and to egg him on by repeating that she would rather die than to be with him, but the fact that he commits this horrendous deed what is commonly referred to as a "crime of passion" seems rather far-fetched in this production.

As neither character is particularly likable, none of us shed a tear for them, which is unfortunate because good and classic opera is supposed to be a focal point and magnifying glass for the feelings and passions of life. Here, we did not care for either and were not particularly moved by their actions. One of them ends up dead, the other in prison, and neither is or was free nor was there much to speak of in terms of passion, adventure, and let alone, love.

Saturday, May 4, 2024

The Serendipity Plus Synchronicity Equation and the Dilemma and Challenges of Finding True Love

Overlooking a peaceful lagoon
Call it coincidence, happenstance, or fate, but often, there seems to certain elements missing from the equation of love. This goes beyond emotions and connections and even further past attraction and infatuation. When it comes to love, there are different shades and colors that come into play as there are so many different kinds and types of love, but here, I will be focusing on romantic love and meeting the person one is meant or destined to be with.

Before we take a closer look at the special someone, let us talk about love itself. I see love as something that cannot be willed or brought into existence. It is more akin to the allegorical representation of Cupid hitting us with an arrow. Often, it is unexpected and can happen in an instant. We may run into someone and suddenly feel a warm feeling around the heart.

It can also appear unexpectedly. We may be suddenly feeling differently about a friend or a co-worker. This may be initiated through a specific word, gesture, action, or moment, merely a shift in feelings and perception, or an epiphany. In other words, how we see and feel about a person can suddenly and unexpectedly shift. It is like having the rug taken from under your feet and you are left floating in the air. Love almost always has a weightless air about it, and as Kundera might attest, the lightness can be unbearable if it lacks a calibrating counterpoint or influence. Love can also suddenly fly out of the window and leave us emotionally stranded.

Some people believe that there is a soul mate out there, the “perfect partner”, the designated person who wholly understands us and fully complements us. Others say that such a concept, entity, or person is merely a figment of the imagination and wishful thinking. That does not however preclude that any relationship must go through difficulties and challenges and only with the right amount and level of care, communication, and commitment, one can turn it into gold and attain lasting joy and happiness.

Yet not just anyone can do the trick for us. The problem, if you want to call it as such, is that each of us is unique, not only in personality but also in our past experiences, and we are often strongly influenced by unconscious negative thoughts, feelings, moments, and narrative patterns in addition to the constant rewiring and readjustment that our mind and heart go through due to living in and traveling through time and space. Put differently, we are not only different to begin with, but our experiences constantly mold and shape us in unique and idiosyncratic ways.

Notwithstanding, there is an underlying and utterly complex network of connections and requirements necessary to meet someone special, let alone the one. First off, there is the matter of timing. To physically meet someone, we need to occupy the same time and space. This could be a café, a bar, a workplace, church, or a party, but we need to be there at the same time.

Secondly, we need to notice each other. How many times have we walked past someone who has looked at us with sparkling romantic or longing eyes, and we just did not register it and walked on. There is a level of awareness and mindfulness necessary that goes beyond merely occupying the same space.

Let us say that our eyes do meet. If it is a stranger in a public place, the next step can be very difficult, again relative to personality characteristics and personal experiences. One or both may be too shy or timid to initiate the interaction. How many thousands and millions of people pass each other with a half-smile but do not utter a single word. How many matches and connections could have been potentially made if one of them had the guts to utter a simple hello to the other. Ironically and sadly, we find it much easier to express our anger and dissatisfaction than our interest and curiosity.

But we are going to assume that all these hurdles are met and overcome. We meet the other person, we perceive and notice the immediate chemistry, we strike up a lively conversation, and a connection is made and established. What is the next step?

It depends. This is where another facet of synchronicity is at play. We have had the fortune to meet the person we are meant to meet and both of us noticed and realized this. It is for a lack of a better word, love at first sight. We are going to assume that there are no other complications, they are not tourists, do not have visa issues, do not live too far away, etc.

Yet what exactly is each person’s relationship status? To claim that two people who are soul mates would meet in the prime of their lives while both happen to be single and do not have any other major concerns and impediments in terms of entering a life-long relationship seems like a bit of a stretch. At the least, one of them may be in a relationship, serious or not.

This is an added complication, especially if one has been in a longer intimate relationship or if one or both is married and even has a family. Serendipity may in fact bring us together at any point of our lives and what if we had an established path and were now asked to make a serious detour. Should we drop and abandon everything to engage in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or should we just ignore it and let it fly? Should we fight and repress it?

The cynic and the realist would not engage in such a risky if not reckless undertaking. We may feel the spark and chemistry, but we do not know the other person. To take a leap in such a way and manner can be akin to suicide, the potential ending of everything that went before. Do you put all your money on a single card? Are you fully aware of the chances and probabilities at play and what a loss would and could mean to you and others around you?

And yet, like anything worthwhile and fulfilling in life, one must make a decision and even sacrifice or give up a thing or two in the process. It is never easy and that could be a sign that it is a potentially meaningful choice. So far, we have considered synchronicity, various coincidences and happenstances putting us on the same path of life regardless of our current circumstances, relationship status, and other types of considerations.  

The good news is that if you believe in fate or destiny, it tends to be, thankfully, stubborn and insistent. It does not just let go or drop the endeavor but will give you various signs and signals like Gatsby’s flashing green light on the bay or other more hidden and subtle clues. Dreams may also play a role and guide you in a certain direction. It is, however, each individual’s responsibility to see and recognize this and then to decide what to do about it. Fate cannot, and of course will not, force you to be with the ideal mate; love though a forceful feeling is much too precious for that and can be ignored, downplayed, and repressed at one’s own cost and peril.

Love is also rare. Although some claim to fall in love every other day, that may be doubtful because love is not a common or ordinary thing or feeling. If you are asked to think about a person that you have truly loved, that is with emotion, passion, and abandon, there tends to be only a few or perhaps just one person that comes to mind.

If it is the person, you are currently with, then count yourself lucky, but the relationships we have are not always based on true love. There are other factors that are being considered, which factor in this choice and equation. Some of them may be unconscious like the quest for a father or mother figure or replacement. Others are more practical as certain types of evident benefits, such as finances, status, looks, or connections.

Even if you have married your high school sweetheart, you may have doubts now, whether they are justified or not. Or you may meet someone else who makes your heart skip a beat, and you are certain it is not merely attraction but goes much deeper than that.

Many hearts are broken on the path of life. Some of the people may not have been a good fit for us; we may feel a lack of love, interest, difference in priorities, or even a clash of personalities that can become more pronounced over time. And some people change. It could be us or the partner, or both. If the path we are talking about is significantly different, one or both would suffer in the process.  

As can be seen, love is fickle, precious, and has a mind of its own. It can come out of nowhere and drop and enter into our lives unexcepted, perhaps even wreak a little or a lot of havoc, or it might never cross paths with us. At the same time, we might be too occupied and preoccupied to see and feel it. We may be set on a routine that gives us comfort and safety and are not willing to budge even a bit despite not feeling fully alive throughout.

In that sense, love is a bit like vocation. You may be engaged in work that is pleasant, brings in sufficient amount of money and that you are good at, but it just does not fulfill you in a profound sense. It is not the dream job you had imagined in your childhood and so something will feel amiss, and you may not find lasting joy and fulfilment. Love is not that different in the sense that you know when it is there but unlike vocation it cannot be conjured or realized with work and effort only. There is a magical and even mystical aspect to it that can be often out of reach. While we have a certain say and can influence certain actions, some things will remain out of reach no matter how hard we try.

But when you are fortunate enough to have serendipity knock at your door, listen up. Consider answering, if only out of curiosity at first or because it is the polite thing to do. Unlike coincidence, serendipity tends to be fortunate, and it often includes elements of synchronicity. It is not commonplace and may not occur again. It is the universe communicating with you and trying to get through to you. It has the best intentions in mind. But in the end, you are the one who has to respond and take action, and it is your call after all.