What Doesn’t Happen

It is not that things should be published. But I believe now that it is important that they exist.

– Evan Shipman, as quoted by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast

Wong Kar Wai made a movie called In the Mood for Love, and of course my pedantic self is constantly tempted to refer to it by the original Chinese title, Fa Yeung Nin Wa, just to feel superior, except I can never remember and had to google it just now.

Tony Leung and Maggie Chung in “In the Mood for Love”

Anyway. It tells the story of two adulteries: one that happens, though no screen time is devoted to it, and one that doesn’t happen at all.

The former has been the subject of books, essays and films all over the world; we’ve seen, perhaps have participated in, versions of it countless times. Sometimes it leads to a lifetime of happiness, sometimes to a lifetime of ruin. At any rate, this story is boring.

What I’m interested in–and what Wong Kar Wai devoted the length of his movie to–is the adulteries that don’t happen at all.

Milan Kundera was similarly interested. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes:

Apart from her consummated love for Tomás, there were, in the realm of possibility, an infinite number of unconsummated loves for other men.

When I was much younger, I had this idea: I would write a short story where nothing would happen. It would have words on a page, and would last a good number of pages, but nothing would happen. I didn’t know how to write it, of course, and I never did. It was much later, when I was finally able to see Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation without falling asleep, that I began to have some inkling of how such a thing could be done. And while I may never get around to doing it, I feel more strongly about it now than I ever have.

lost-in-translation-11

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in “Lost in Translation”

See, I write and talk a lot: for work, to friends, and every Saturday to a group of young girls, my girls, who air their grievances and share their dreams and sometimes look to me for some sort of wisdom, the same way I sat at the feet of my professors and waited for them to reveal what it was that I needed to do with my life without the condescension we so often get from our parents. And while I enjoy it, I often get tired of hearing myself talk (and this is why I’m so reluctant to blog!); in fact, I suspect this is partly why I read so feverishly: to subdue my own annoying voice by immersing myself in a cacophony of others, the masters, men and women who have gone before and whom history has judged to be certainly much wiser than me.

In a way, I have found freedom of expression rather suffocating. Not that I am an advocate for censorship, which I am not; only that I feel like this culture we have built of oversharing on the internet (which, arguably, is precisely what I am doing now) has made us infatuated with flowery words and grand gestures. We are saturated with information, with words and things, that the words and things that used to be precious have become common–and, worse, have become commodities. While adulteries are old stories, free sex–free not just from monetary cost, but also from commitment, emotional weight, long-term consequences or judgment from society–has become relatively easy to come by. Friendships used to take effort and investment; today a “friend” is someone who can view your pictures on the social network. We have taken the same words and used them to mean less.

It is no longer surprising (anyway, perhaps it has never been) that a man and woman who are attracted to each other, even if one or both of them were married, would get into bed. The desire, perhaps even love, is there, and must be expressed: we live under the tyranny of expression.

What surprises us is the stories of those who do not.

This is where Wong Kar Wai’s film draws its strength, why Lost in Translation stings more sharply than does Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful. Instead of titillation, they offer silence, and we’ve forgotten the power of silence. Not that it’s our fault; it’s easy to forget because it’s so quiet. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. It’s difficult to imagine a romance without all the right words being said. Words are powerful too, you see, but not nearly as much.

Roger Ebert writes in his review:

“Lost in Translation” is too smart and thoughtful to be the kind of movie where they go to bed and we’re supposed to accept that as the answer. Sofia Coppola, who wrote and directed, doesn’t let them off the hook that easily. They share something as personal as their feelings rather than something as generic as their genitals.

These movies are not about cultural or religious repression. I would even go as far as saying they are pro-sex, giving sex back the luster and gravity it has lost by being so available for so little. They are about mystery, about giving meaning back to the small gestures: a pregnant glance, a kiss, fingertips slowly touching the side of a foot.

The most intimate scene in Lost in Translation

the most intimate scene in Lost in Translation

This is what I suspect: that silence and restraint are more important now than they have ever been, precisely because consummation is so commodified. The loves that don’t happen at all actually happen, except they don’t take the form of cheap expression that most other loves do, and that is why they are more valuable.

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