Friday, August 04, 2006


While watching UNITED 93 in the theatre last week, the stunningly powerful new film about 9/11, I couldn't help but be impressed by the performance of the actor playing Ben Sliney, the head of the FAA, the utterly ordinary but singularly courageous dude who made the unprecedented decision to shut down all air traffic control in and out of the United States on the morning of that fateful, horrific day. He seemed so natural, so unaffected, so real; only a superior actor could pull that off, I decided. Probably had stage training, I reflected. Until I checked the web a few days later and discovered that the thespian chosen to portray Ben Sliney was none other than Ben Sliney. The guy. The real person.

I was shocked, though I shouldn't have been. He was so natural that he wasn't acting at all, it seemed to me -- which, paradoxically, is the best kind of acting there is, where you don't notice any acting at all.

And yet, of course, Ben Sliney was acting. He was recreating what had happened to him almost five years ago. (And, get this -- September 11, 2001, was his first fucking day on the job. Welcome to your new world...) He even admitted in an interview that he was asked to swear in the scene where he sees the gaping hole in the World Trade Center for the first time, even though he would never have sworn in real life.

How does a non-actor pull of such a natural performance? Is it easly to 'play' oneself? I don't think so. Think of all those fake news-anchors who can't even convincingly play themselves spouting small talk on a daily basis, let alone in a situation where you are re-enacting the most traumatizing event of your (and your nation's) life. Should he be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. You bet your ass he should.

I don't pretend to understand acting, though I judge it all the time. (Granted, I had the lead in my Grade 4 and 5 plays, portraying Ichabod Crane and Santa Claus, respectively, and my performance in my Grade 13 play undoubtedly helped us perform so well at the Sears Drama Festival in Brantford, Ontario, but hey -- who's keeping track right?) It's such a mysterious, undefinable process -- pretending to be somebody else. And yet we do it all the time, daily -- simulating emotions, feigning interest or concern, fatigue or enthusiasm.

But to do it on screen so seamlessly, in a such an understated, moving film -- I tip my hat to Sliney. He made me believe he was one hundred percent the character he was portraying.

Which he was. And still is.

Which is confusing, yes, but riveting nevertheless.


What are we to make of a book that begins as a rather routine police procedural set in modern-day New York (with a suitably brisk pace and better-than-average characerization) and ends with Alexander Graham Bell being attacked in Central Park in nineteenth century Manhattan by two thugs possessed by the personality of pawns from the late twentieth century who, using regression-reincarnation techniques, are unwittingly part of elaborate, though separate schemes by American and Soviet intelligence services designed to reverse the course of the Cold War by altering the very fabric of the space-time continuum, resulting in an alternate reality where one Super Power ends up ultimately being dominant over the other?

That's what happens in William Goldman's fascinating 1982 novel Control. Goldman, perhaps best known as the screenwriter of All The President's Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is also a sleek, provocative novelist. His books move. And this book moved in ways that I never, ever expected.

And so late in the game, too! This is a book that doesn't introduce its' science-fiction elements until three quarters of the way through, when the book is almost over. We think it's one kind of a book; it turns out to be another.

It's not a literary milestone, no, but fuck it; i's better than that. I can't remember ever reading another book that holds its cards so close to the vest for so very, very long. Usually, in fiction and film, fantastical, science-fiction elements are made plain and clear early on in a story -- well before the half-way point, at any rate. The novelty and absurdity and logic of this story, published at the apex of the Cold War, delighted me.

I wish more writers were brave enough and clever enough to introduce such potentially risky elements at a point in the story when many authors are already cruising into neutral.

Goldman doesn't publish many novels anymore, but Control, out of which I wasn't expecting much, did what so few thrillers do -- it actually thrilled.


It's interesting, watching people argue. Especially when they're arguing in a foreign language you don't speak. And especially when the people doing the arguing are eleven years old.

Something's going on -- of that you're certain. But you're not sure what it is. You see the anger elevated; you witness the rage, supressed. You hear words fly and spout, but you're not sure whether they are bad words or hideous words, hateful words or benign words. And because they're kids, you tend to dismiss the importance of the debate; you forget that childhood taunts sting and pierce.

But you keep watching. Looking for the spaces in the language. Watching spittle on lips. Suspicion in eyes. Malice in a shove. Refracted through linguistics, but evident, so obvious, sad and hateful and human.


The August, Asian edition of Reader's Digest features a beautiful picture of Baguio City in its' readers' photo section, a whole-page piece at the front of the magazine. There is the city I've been living in for the past nine month 1500 metres above sea-level -- the small houses dotting the mountains' green landscape, the white clouds bisecting the manmade structures and the natural-made beauty.

It's affirming, to see a place you're in (literally only miles away), in a full-colour spread in an international magazine. Affirming to know that people in Mongolia and China and Japan and Malaysia will look at that photo -- at the mountains, at the clouds -- and wonder about the houses, and the people inside them.


Craig said...

My wife has been to Baguio, but after five years in Manila I still haven't gone up there yet. I had a Filipino co-worker tell me once, thirteen years ago before I left the U.S. more or less for good, visit Baguio, but don't waste your time on Manila. It took a while to adjust to Manila, but heck, at this point it's almost home for me.

Scott said...

I was in Manila about a month ago and found myself overwhelmed. Baguio is seems positively quaint in comparison. But there there are compensations to be found in both small city and big city life -- though it's certainly worth heading up to Baguio for a few days, if only to cool off from the heat of Manila.