Monday, November 22, 2010

Life is a cabaret

Sally Bowles’s powerful closing song, “Life is a cabaret,” sums up her choice to turn away from reality, taking the cabaret as a great escape from the burden of society’s troubles. But the actual message of the film Cabaret is exactly the opposite: escapism is dangerous for the individual and to society as a whole.

The choice of a musical to highlight the dangers of escapism is quite ironic because it is typically for pure entertainment. Somehow the director, Bob Fosse, in using film techniques such as crosscutting and montage, was able to enhance the message that escapism is wrought with dangers. Through his characters and plot, Fosse showed us the inherent dangers that escapism brings. Through Sally and Brian, he showed us the dangers for the individual, and through the hedonistic baron, Max, the dangers for society.

Yet, the image of Liza Minnelli singing “Life is a cabaret” continues to linger on and remind us, not of its dark message, but of the fleeting joy and delight in leaving your troubles outside. The song offers us a fantasy, for we can see that outside of cabaret, life is anything else but. This rings a bell in today’s politically unstable world (the terrorists are out to destroy us and sow anarchy everywhere) and depressed economy (people are losing jobs and their homes as the economy remains in shambles). What better way to forget our troubles than to escape in fantasies, in what entertainment can offer: the Internet, Facebook, YouTube, video games, Hollywood and Bollywood, sports, sex, gambling, porn, alcohol and drugs. Even religion is targeted as a form of opiate, like a potent drug, albeit metaphysical, capable of relieving one’s depression and worries in life.

One person stands out from my experience whenever I am reminded of escapism. To caricature him as the epitome of a happy-go-lucky type is doing him a great disservice. From all appearances, he’s more than the sum of his parts. Or he is just a great escape artist, better than Houdini or Steve McQueen.

This guy I’m talking about plies his taxi around the busy streets of Toronto. He drives his own cab and hires out two or three more, so he could qualify as an entrepreneur, rather than a lowly cab driver which has become a ubiquitous job for male immigrants from South Asia. Nothing mysterious or quirky about him—unlike Robert de Niro in the film The Taxi Driver—although he talks like a straight-shooter like de Niro. “You talkin’ to me,” it could have been him mouthing de Niro’s famous line with the typical accent of a New Yorker.

While wandering around or gallivanting with his friends—happy and inebriated revellers like him—he would tweet to his group in the Internet about his musings on life and almost everything under the sun. Never a dull moment for this guy, or even his colourful commentary of life around him. Nothing seems to dampen him, even if you intimate or insinuate about his obvious lack of refinement. If you do this, he’ll predictably come back at you jabbing and stinging like a butterfly, almost like Ali and Pacquiao combined. He doesn’t get mad, but can make your blood boil that you wish you could just dunk his head. Everything to him is a joke; he wears the cap of the eternal jester. Sometimes you wonder, is this guy for real? Like Nietzsche’s Übermensch? What could be the true persona behind his mask of invulnerability against the weight of everything others seem so incapable to bear?

Sometimes, people could be just like this fellow I know. He might be in an escape mood every time, trying to mask his own problems and frailties, but it is too hard to tell. Unlike others who are so transparent. One guy who pretended he belonged to a group tried too much to blend in, flaunting his association with known members of the group with tall tales about his exploits. It was obvious that he wanted people to notice him, to pay attention to his presence, so he concocted an intricate web of fantasy which he thought would last. But time and the truth finally caught up with him and he was exposed.

Is this happy and content cab driver like Sally Bowles? Are they both trying to escape reality? One in the cheerful life of the cabaret, where everything is warm and beautiful? While the other, steering his cab wherever his fare would tell him to go, unmindful of all the troubles around him, not even the potholes on the street.

In a letter to his chat-group sometime ago, our man about town belittled the intelligence of anyone who thought it was a good idea to write a petition to kick out a non-member, even suggesting that intelligence can become hazardous to one’s health (whatever it meant). Then ending his missive with a plea for everyone to ignore him, he wrote: “Don’t mind me. I’m just a donkey with a hangover last night. Please forgive me.” How, in heaven’s name, could you not possibly burst in laughter and not simply forgive this hapless guy?

Sally in the movie was caught up in the cabaret lifestyle, choosing to be detached from life outside or around her. She chose the world of the cabaret, yet she lost everything and gained nothing. She lost her father’s respect, and lost both Brian and Max, too. Most importantly, she lost an intrinsic part of who she was, the life inside her.

We all know, at least those who have watched Cabaret and still vividly remember the film, what happened to Sally in the end. But we don’t know how to divine what the future holds for our guy in the cab. Sally Bowles’s downward spiral reflected the grave consequences of running away, of escaping. For our man, no one can really tell. Maybe someday he’ll leave us with these words: “Sorry, this cab is taken.”

I have chosen to write about these two characters to demonstrate that reality is, most of the time, what life offers in real time, and not the full-length story we see in a film. Reality is ongoing, non-stop and the end may or may not happen soon. Cinema, on the other hand, is over after one-and-a-half or two hours.

The paradox is that running away from reality in the film shows us it’s not always going to end living happily ever after. On the other hand, our guy who simply brushes aside life and its troubles in gay abandon, seems to run away with it and enjoys being in his own cabaret. One time he told me that life is just a joke, and he might not be kidding after all. Perhaps, he is not running away or escaping like Sally. In spite of everything, he could be running with reality tagging along with him.

Take one more time to reflect on one of his rants: “What have we proven out of all this brouhaha? Aha, I know what it is. One, lots of intelligence but lack of common sense. Two, lots of animosity but lack of compassion, respect and love. And lastly, lots of big egos but lack of life experiences.”

Most people feel the need to escape their real life (that’s why reality shows are a hit), but often what they really want to run away from is their thoughts about their life. Our man in the cab seems to possess the rare ability to forget all his fears, worries or disenchantments. He doesn’t let his mind spin round and round, for if he does, he knows what happens to most, his mind will never shut off. It will control him, and that will annoy and exhaust him to no end.

Perhaps, this is the key to a wonderful and happy life: the ability to shut down one’s brain and thoughts and just keep on living life as you see it. When you happen to be on the street downtown, flag down a cab and ask the man on the wheel if his name is Ray and what keeps him going. You may learn a lesson or two.

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