05 July 2011

First take on vibrators on TV, gas hogs and ‘Tree of Life’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —The TV ads I saw a few days after returning here involving three women in a spirited conversation about using vibrators for sexual pleasure represented a frankness about sexual matters that I haven’t witnessed in a while. Blunt discussions about sexual pleasure just do not occur in the public sphere in Afghanistan, even Kabul, the relatively liberal capital, where I have lived and worked the better part of the last two and a half years. Married couples in Afghanistan don’t hold hands in public, much less unmarried singles. Uncovered female hair in public is unacceptable virtually everywhere, save the American university where I taught.

Let’s just call it my cultural adjustment. A travel writer and historian I recently read said first impressions of a foreign culture are invariably more meaningful because they contrast so sharply with our ethnocentric norms. Within a week, we make adjustment to the new culture, and the contrast washes away, so record your initial impressions, he advised. That process works similarly returning to the familiar culture after an extended stay away.

The high-mileage Chevrolet Cruze (42 mpg on the highway, says the manufacturer) was the top-selling car in June in the United States, according to industry figures, suggesting that American public might be edging away from its obsession for large, low-mileage gasoline “hogs.” But a closer read of the story dampened that interpretation. The best-selling vehicles for the first six months of 2011 were pick-up trucks, lead by the Ford F Series followed by the Chevrolet Silverado, which get about half the mileage of the Cruze.

More than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban areas, so it’s safe to conclude that most of these pick-ups are not working vehicles and that many are purchased largely to convey status with little concern for their global ecological footprint. Now this denial feels familiar, I thought.

Last night I saw Tree of Life, this year’s Palme d’Oro winner at Cannes, directed by Terrence Malick. It is wildly ambitious and almost unavoidably pretentious—how do you wrestle with the primordial existential questions and not run that risk? The film still succeeds, less as a literary exploration with crackling dialogue translated to the big screen, but as a fully cinematic text with arresting, sometimes hallucinatory photography, an anthemic soundtrack, and character development driven by behavior that we watch unfold with little spoken explanation.

I confess that I am surprised this film was even produced in the States because the “story” has little commercial appeal, although it does have the bankable acting presence of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, the latter in a minor role. Without them, I suspect the film would have great difficulty gaining distribution.

Photo: Cottonwood tree in fall on irrigation ditch in Albuquerque's north valley.

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