Saturday, April 12, 2008


Spike Lee's next film, Miracle at St.Anna, due to be released later this year, is based on a novel by James McBride, telling the story of a group of African-American soldiers fighting in Italy during World War II, making it sound like a slightly unconventional war picture, but it's actually an almost astonishingly moving story of hope, faith, magic realism and childhood faith. It has the potential to be Lee's best movie since Malcolm X, I think, and, if the fantastical elements of the novel are kept intact when translated to the silver screen, it can, potentially, have a lyricism and grace that is only hinted at in some of his early work.

Part of that 'grace' comes from the novel's concluding passages, which I won't give away, but the reader is left with the sense that life is a fragile enterprise indeed, one in which the ideas of 'security' and 'risk' are essentially synonyms. Accepting that, understanding that, acknowledging that the cosmos works in ludicrous ways, but that we nevertheless have to accept life's virtues and cruelties, is part of growing up. (The hardest part, I think.)

Certainly, having been in and around and under and beside cancer for over two and a half years, I've started to think a lot about 'risk' versus 'security'. Growing up, we're taught to choose the course in life that will lead to the maximum payoff -- not necessarily financially, though that certainly plays a role, but also in terms of identity. We should chart our progress towards the route that will lead to a comfortable sense of serenity.

But what happens if you have the cancer card thrown at you? What if you're told that your life is no longer in your hands, but in the hands of multiplying cells that may or may not divide at the appropriate rate? What do you do then, think then, choose then? Serenity may not be an option any time soon; survival may take paramount importance.

There's a paradox at the heart of 'risk' versus 'security', which is this: sometimes the biggest risk ends in stability. Or sometimes the most sedate form of existence leads to an accidental, head-first trip down the stairs of your latest villa in France. To think that we control life seems to me to be a fallacy of the human organism. We control what we think, and do, but not life itself. It exists outside of us, somehow.

Thinking of cancer makes you think of death and disease and decay and degeneration on a daily basis, but it also makes you think of fragile things, and fragility has its own, autonomous grace. Being fragile, we can shatter easily, but because of that delicacy, we can also feel more intensely.

So given this fragility, how should we navigate the oceans of life? I've said this before, but I always loved the story director Robert Altman once told, about two guys sitting on top of a boat, staring at the ocean surrounding them. "Look at all that water," the one guy says. And the other guy says: "Yeah, and that's just the top!"

So much more lies beneath.

In a fragile world such as this, there is no risk, and no security. Everything can collapse all at once, and everything may simply chug-chug-chug along like before. We may be fated to simply stand solitary in the middle of all that water, somehow balanced at the top, wondering what lies beneath.

Or, abandoning any notion of risk and security, we may be lucky or foolish enough, someday, to dive deep and see what waits to be found at the ocean's core.