“There are stories the man recites quietly into the room which slip from level to level like a hawk…She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.” – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
At age sixteen he was just beginning to learn of the world. There were things beyond…art houses in the city where stories from foreign lands and birthed in independence flickered in the animated darkness before communities of the willing. Amongst the suburban sprawl of his homeland across the river, the purveyors of these urban establishments spawned a megaplex like no other where established fare mingled with independent films and cross continental tongues whispered hotly in the darkness of small air-conditioned screening rooms smartly furnished. It was here his parents took him one night to see The English Patient.
Closing in on his 34th year on this earth and looking back (somehow having circled back to this suburban sprawl now naming a spot his adjacent to that very megaplex which has passed through as many hands as he has homes), he longs for those innocent days…that wonder of experiencing something on-screen he had never experienced before – a painterly, carefully constructed, flawed and blistering work of art splashed across a silver screen. A romance with the cinema was born then as he watched the elliptical tale of human frailty and survival against the backdrop of the world’s greatest war.
He would dream after of a beautiful nurse in a bombed-out Italian nunnery…of music from a surviving piano…of a fatally burned patient telling his story…of swimmers painted upon the walls of ancient caves…of a romance in the desert amidst the winds and the sand and of an oasis both physical and of the mind.
Later, more worldly, he would deduce there were artistic items rightfully argued to be greater in that year. The Fargo. The Secrets & Lies. The Breaking the Waves. But The English Patient was first. The first love. The one looked upon fondly, even if with a blush…a sense of embarrassment, as backlash has riddled the film’s legacy, and he often wonders how some will react to his recitation of love for that damned thing.
Though he laughed at Elaine Benes’ derision…her hot dismissal, her raging against the propensity of erudite urbanites sidling their sentiments with gushing critics over lush films tailor-made for award’s consideration…he marveled at the Seinfeldian homage to the film it critiqued so harshly…the overlaying stories…the burned Neil who George Costanza tried to out-Neil in the name of lust…the ego-driven rivalry of old men wanting to be the “#1 Dad”…the smuggling of Cubans (people not cigars) by the idiot Kramer…the pain and yearning of not being able to see “Sack Lunch” because of cruel twists of fate…the Magic Pan incident. All in all, he concluded, much like the pompous copyediting twit for the J Peterman Catalog, that the film…the episode…it ravished him.
“A novel is a mirror walking down the road.” – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
In his 33rd year, after familiarizing himself with Ondaatje through other works, through Divisadero and The Cat’s Table, he finally overcame his reluctance in reading the novel that inspired both the film and the episode…the source material, which he always feared would be colored through cinematic and sardonic lenses, impossible to discern what was actually on page from memories of the film, from feelings sincere rendered laughable through the prism of comedy, through natural feelings of regret and longing for times which have long since passed and places (like that megaplex, still standing but a ghost) which no longer exist as they once had.
He wondered at the deeper focus on the nurse…on the Sikh bomb defuser, on the different ways in which the characters’ backstories…some more defined or more ethereal than on screen…intertwined and interacted, breathed life into and out of each other. On screen sandstorms brought lovers together in cinematic fashion and courtly men brought pretty girls up to the tops of chapels through ropes and pulleys to view medieval etchings by breathless candlelight. On page, some of these events were only implied…perhaps imagined. Ages of participants were rendered differently, time lapses blurred…place and POV shifted sometimes within the same sentence. If only he could touch the stories…but they, the people, the moments, the emotions drift away in a fractured, fevered yet tempered, epilogue where futures are imagined and memories of those melancholy times spent in Italy with the English patient eternally on a death-bed are always just gently passing by on the crest of the winds blowing over the houses thousands of miles away from each other built to shield the separated former lovers from the storms of war.
THIS English Patient…of the page…of the mind…the heart…is one etched for all time. And there is nothing shameful or laughable about that kind of art.
Written by David H. Schleicher