Whatever hurts you through the night

Warning: Some spoilers for ‘Scenes from a Marriage’

Occasionally, I watch something that moves me in an almost primal, instinctual way. Back in 2020, it was probably the three-part movie ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby’. Yes, it was dismissed by most as pretentious drivel, but for me, it drew me into the tangled lives of its two protagonists, encouraged me to invest into both their narratives and have me dangled by my ends on the fate of their story.

At the start of 2022, it was ‘Scenes from a Marriage’.

Again I was drawn into the tangled lives of its two protagonists, encouraged to invest into both their narratives and was dangled by my ends on the fate of their story. I know how it looks. The common denominator of both being Jessica Chastain. Perhaps she is just drawn to playing characters in brooding relationship dramas that have just the perfect quotient between strength and vulnerability. The type of female protagonist that just lures me in like an idiot.

‘Scenes from Marriage’ revolves around the lives of Jonathan and Mira. Through the five-episode miniseries, we get impressions from Jonathan and Mira’s marriage taken from selected moments of their union and it paints a messy picture of betrayals, sexual attraction, and selfishness, ultimately coming to a place of queer peace by the end. It is the English-language remake of the 1973 Swedish television miniseries by Ingmar Bergman.

I found so many scenes from the show poignant and powerful from an emotional standpoint. The one that comes to mind immediately was the scene where Mira was feeling the full weight of her guilt after dumping the revelation that she had been unfaithful on Jonathan and is looking to leave immediately. She haphazardly pulls a luggage bag out of the closet and starts forcing clothes with the hangers on into the bag together with her shoes and the bag wouldn’t close. Jonathan tells her to stop, moves her aside, and proceeds to remove the pieces of clothing from their hangers and start folding the clothes and placing them neatly into the bag. The scene lingers on for longer than scenes of these sort normally does, with each passing second more excruciating than the last. With each piece of clothing folded and tucked neatly into the bag, I felt a sharp pang of pain. It’s a powerful scene that tells the story of Jonathan’s dutifulness towards the marriage and how he thought that by excelling in this, that would be his gift of love to his wife. Yet, it meant so little to her because she was hurting so much more because of other things he was doing. That after he was done tucking everything neatly into the bag, she still took it and left. I sometimes think we invest a lot into the idea that a marriage functions on a single narrative line and everything branches from that, when the truth is a lot more complex than that. What we see as a line is actually a whole world of intricate narratives pulling each other to and from each other, each with a story that is screaming to be heard.

The other, perhaps a little more controversial scene that I personally found poignant was the one in the fourth episode where in the midst of a house move and Jonathan trying to get Mira to sign the divorce papers, they have sex in the living room. As a scene on its own, it would not be very meaningful except you realise later on in the episode that Jonathan slept with Mira to confirm that she no longer had a primal hold on him and that Mira slept with him because she had already lost her job, her relationship with her boyfriend and just wants to ‘come home’ to what she had with Jonathan before by using the one thing she thought she had over him, her sexuality. More specifically, his sexual desire for her. Both parties turned to that primal corner of the relationship and manipulated that to their respective benefit.  It firstly shows that people are at their core incredibly selfish when it comes to self-preservation but it also speaks to a larger narrative – that for a marriage to work, like truly work, it requires two people to sacrifice so much and be constantly at the top of the game. That if we turn in 5.5 performance too often, it can all collapse from under you. Before you know it, your marriage is a walking carcass, shuffling around meaninglessly without any purpose other than the simple wish to die with some dignity.

Which brings me to the point I wanted to make with this post. As much as popular media right down to the gossips of your social circles will try and have you believe that all marriages die by the force of a single blow, I’ve come to realise through my own experiences as well as the experiences of the people I know, to confidently propose the hypothesis that this notion is not true for most relationships or marriages. From the outside, observers and commentators prefer the cleanness that a ‘single blow’ provides. That the marriage died because of the infidelity of the wife, the financial tardiness of the husband or the meddling of their respective mothers, etc. It just makes for a snappier conversation, a soundbite that we send into the gossip ether and not have it return with more questions than we are prepared to negotiate.

Every scene was intense

That is blatantly irresponsible though. Not just because speaking of these ills should not be done even of your most mortal of enemies and is mostly in poor taste but also because such a superfluous closing paragraph to a complex and intricate entity such as a marriage does it a great disservice, given how important that union was for both parties at some point in their existence.

Instead, I’ve come to realise that a marriage almost never dies because of a single blow, but instead from a thousand cuts. An infidelity is admittedly a large, large cut and is often a fatal blow but is only so because of the hundreds of cuts that came before that.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not exonerating people who commit infidelity nor am I downplaying the act in itself. Marriage is a commitment between two people and no matter how crisply contemporary you want to spin your story, infidelity is a huge violation of that commitment. What I am saying that there are times where infidelity is merely the byproduct of a broader disease and in those cases, if there was a greater effort placed in avoiding cuts, things may have turned out rather differently.

Jonathan and Mira had many smaller cuts before Poli came along. There was Jonathan’s inherent judgment of Mira’s poor performance as a mom which he constantly hangs in front of her in the form of how good he is with Ava their daughter. There was Mira’s obvious misgivings about Jonathan’s religious upbringing and how that had affected him as a person which probably began as something cute and interesting about him but eventually grew into an ugly crutch that she despised. There was probably some judgment on Mira’s part on Jonathan’s career choices and how she enjoyed hanging that over him in the form of her meteoric career.

Some cuts in a marriage can be avoided and are at times, completely unnecessary. We just have to be a little more proactive in reading the signs and recognising the dangers. Do I have ‘cuts’ in my marriage? Of course. No marriage is without these cuts but I have placed more effort in recent years to being more concerted in my efforts to avoid them. Sometimes I find myself doubling back to assure my wife after I’ve said or done something, just to dispel any doubts that might linger because of an act or statement. The war in marriage is almost never fought and lost on an open battle field but in dark silent corridors. Be very wary of what is not said as much as what was said.

I also make more of an effort to ensure I don’t take my wife for granted on anything she does for this marriage and family by thanking and appreciating her for the most menial of tasks from washing the dishes to watering the plants (although she should do this cause she’s the one who brings them back always). Lately, I’ve been telling her how proud and appreciative I am of her for carrying our unborn daughter.

The way I’ve learned to look at it is that each cut I can prevent, is one less cut that can kill my marriage. And each passing day I have no additional cuts is another successful day for the happiness of my marriage in this life. Yes, it’s a little cynical but not all forms of cynicism is bad. I’ve found some to be quite handy in difficult times. In any case the institution of marriage, in regards to the collective human species, has gone past the ‘forever yours pretty cards’ phase a long time ago. It’s been under attack for a while now. A lot, if not most, seem to end either in bloody acrimony or aimlessly shuffling around as a living dead. So perhaps trying to adorn pretty veneers is no longer the best way forward. Perhaps it’s time to hunker down, keep your heads low and to finish this race well.

After all, we are only tasked with stewarding this marriage in this lifetime so every good day is a step towards a good end.

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Sweetest kill

“I want you flat on your back. Helpless, tender, open with only me to help. And then I want you strong again. You’re not going to die. You might wish you’re going to die, but you’re not going to. You need to settle down a little.” – Alma, Phantom Thread (2017)

The line above rounded off a gorgeously-affecting movie with a drop of cough mixture, leaving us with taste, perhaps a little too bitter in the mouth. It was a cunning sleigh of hand, a slap from your blind side. For the length of film, you were working on the pretense that what we would see unfold is love eventually warming the oddest of hearts, and you would be forgiven in thinking that was what you got in the end, but what we got was really not a tale about love.

It was a tale about addiction.

That Alma was willing to accept Reynolds in whatever shape, form or posture, just as long he was present and that Reynolds was essentially willing to subject himself to whatever contortion just to have her continue to be around, reeks of something a lot more nefarious than love should be. I consider myself to be fairly open to rather leftist iterations of what love could look like but this really does not look like love. It looks more like addiction.

Which then set me off on a lengthy thought process about how it would look like to be addicted to someone. I mean it’s certainly plausible, since Robert Palmer had a hit about it back in 1985. Then again he sang about being addicted to love, which may be slightly different from being addicted to someone. Okay, overthinking again. In any case, it’s irrelevant (the plausibility of the Robert Palmer song’s contents), given that I am someone who recovered from being addicted to someone. So it does happen.

It’s ironic because having someone be ‘addicted’ to you may be a prose that can be celebrated by selected public as an acceptable expression of love. To some it is the promise land – to have someone be helplessly fawning over you.

But yet the dysfunctionality presents itself in its byproduct. You would be hard pressed to defend the idea that an addict is simply someone who loves his drugs too much. It’s a little more sinister than that. So to equate that to love seems a little too radical even for someone who is more fluid with these things.

So if you are someone who enjoys the idea of someone potentially being addicted to you, then you are not behaving like a lover, but like a drug. You put yourself out there and hope that someone gets hooked-in, line and sinker. You may think what you’ve reeled in is a lover, but what you’ve caught is really an addict.

The dysfunctional relationships and friendships I’ve had in my life have always looked a lot like addiction. I may have tried to label them as a severely sacrificial form of love but in hindsight, they actually looked a lot more like an addiction – the drug being the person you are addicted to.

I’ve since considered the symptoms I was showing at the time when I was in those dysfunctional relationships; the abandonment of logic and principle, alienating friends and loved ones; a constant need for the person to be around; severe anxiety when there are signs that I can no longer be with the person; mounting financial problems driven by the need to service the addiction; severe rationalization of situation no matter how obvious that things were not going well, etc. I could go on.

Like an addict, you are quite powerless to stop yourself from being addicted. People have asked me why I subjected myself to those relationships and friendships? Why couldn’t I see how destructive they were? Why did I allow myself to be hung so far out to dry? Why did I behave with so little dignity?

To be honest, the answer is I don’t know.

It does look really cloudy on the inside. There is some awareness that things are not well but you fear even entertaining the thought of not having your drug anymore. So you hold on with all your might and hope the drug doesn’t destroy you too much and that people around you do not notice how it is changing you, killing you.

I have at times described this addiction as a kind of imbalance. I can see it quite clearly in some relationships and friendships, even today. I suppose an ex-addict will always be able to spot another addict. What does it look like? To put it simply, it looks a lot like one party having a lot more dependency on the other. Like how an addict is completely vulnerable to the whims and fancies of the drug they are addicted to and is willing to do just about anything to ensure they don’t ever lose it. I see it in their body language as a couple, I see it in the words they use, I see it in the decisions that are made.

And it still scares the daylights out of me when I see it today, even in others.

I sometimes do worry if that addiction has damaged me irreparably. But then, I am also comforted by the realisation that this worry keeps me on the edge, so I can ensure that I never fall into it ever again. The important thing I’ve realised from my addiction is that the drug is merely just a manifestation of what I desired. If it’s not that person, it would’ve been someone else. They became the drug because I desired to be an addict. I desired to be an addict because I was broken inside.

Contrary to what the hits tell you, love is not blind, love doesn’t have to bite, love doesn’t make you lost and love doesn’t make you lose yourself.

But a drug would. So don’t do drugs.

My instincts are the enemy

I once scoffed when a friend told me that the reason why her brother broke up with his girlfriend was because, ‘she felt too good for him’. 

I scoffed for two reasons. The obvious being that it sounded like a blatant cop-out. The kiss before the punch. ‘No longer attracted to you anymore’ or ‘I’ve fallen for another person’ not cutting the mustard for his nice-guy image perhaps? It’s like the choice between shooting someone cleanly in the head and ending their misery in a split-second or elaborately trying to hang them on a noose and watching the life drain slowly from their eyes. Assuming you really needed to end someone’s life, I don’t think I need to point out to you which is the better option. 

The second reason I scoffed was that it felt like he was pissing on my meal. A large portion of society are trying to get to a point where they are happy. Or at the very least, happier than where they are at the moment. Some of these people do not know the first thing about where to start getting there. And here comes my friend’s brother who found the door, but decided to slam it shut cause it looked too inviting. 

Sure, in longer hindsight I can recognise that my prejudice grossly oversimplifies the idea of happiness and just how difficult it can sometimes be to allow yourself to be happy when it finally arrives at your doorstep. 

I am at a place where a decade ago, I would define as being ‘where I wanted to go’. I got the girl, I got a home and I have a job that I do not hate. I have enough time to catch up on my TV to unwind on some weekdays and to serve the community at my church on most Wednesdays and some weekends. I am no longer the Arthur Fleck-type character that can’t seem to pull his life together no matter how hard he tried. After 42-years of existing, I may be finally be coming to something resembling equilibrium in my life. Took a while, but I finally got here. 

But yet, I have this almost subconscious compulsion to find something to be unhappy about even when things are going splendid. Perhaps there are those of us that are built with a little more complex parts. Parts that are too intricate so there are more opportunities for the machinery to break down. At least, that is what I say to console myself.

‘You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.’ 

Jin Lee, Columbus (2017)

I’ve been thinking about this quote that zipped almost pass me in the gorgeous sleeper drama Columbus that I watched recently. It’s one of those films that appears to be about nothing, but is really about everything. 

I love films like that sometimes, beyond the smash-grab kaiju films that mostly fill me with glee. Films that can draw you into their solitude somehow by draining all excesses of entertainment, until all that is left is just an emptiness that almost reflects the pockets within the major events of our lives, films like that intrigue and attract me. I almost always feel the same after the credits roll on them. I would like to know more about what happened to the characters. Did they get to where they needed to go? You almost always don’t. And from that minor feeling of frustration and cluelessness, births a kind of fictional loneliness in the heart that I am somehow attracted to. 

I sometimes think I have a sordid love affair with loneliness. I know it is wrong, but I can’t help it. I keep retreating back to that place of despair, like a dog that voluntarily walks back into a small cage, even though they’ve been set free from it, I’ve been conditioned by a kind of loneliness throughout my life and I feel the need to sometimes retreat back there when the lights are the brightest, to hold its hand occasionally just to be sure that it’s cold, unloving comfort is still there if I need it. 

Perhaps my unconscious need to feel this loneliness occasionally mirrors my choice of films. That for every loud, banging blockbuster I watch, I seem to need to dial it all down back into a tiny little arty movie about two unrelated people who meet in a gorgeous charming town and find some solidarity in their respective solitude. Perhaps it is a bid to balance out the diet, with films as is with life. That only in constantly reminding ourselves of unhappiness that we can truly appreciate happiness. Again, this sounds like something I would say to make myself feel better about not feeling better. There is a special kind of insanity that I feel sometimes, being in this body, straddled with this mind.

You grow up around something, and it feels like nothing.

Perhaps the trick is to think of this nothing, as something.