Sunday, April 12, 2015
Strangely enough, Ms. Joshi wrote a short story in 1996 that seems to echo the plot of "Force Majeure." The film, shot by Ruben Östlun, is about a man who leaves his wife when an avalanche descends on a French hotel while the family is on a family trip. Ms. Joshi's story "The Best Sand Painting of the Century" has a similar moment. This is not uncommon for Ms. Joshi, she often finds that her stories get echoed by more famous Western writers and filmmakers with greater access to finance and distribution. Thankfully, "The Best Sand Painting" was published by Emanations in 2012, so she has proof her work predates the Swedish film. The story also appears in her book "The Prediction," published in 2013. Read on...
SCENE 11: THE HOTEL
May we take your coat, madam? The head waiter had on a maroon bow tie and a benevolent smile. A group of young men hovered like a brood of black and white butterflies at his side. They swarmed around them, helping them off with their coats, gently, firmly maneuvering them through the huge hall. The walls of the old hall was covered with mediaeval French tapestry, and there were pink Persian designs beneath their feet. When they got to the table, the brood of handsome young waiters slid them into their seats, and stood around waiting, their hands folded on top of each other, identical smiles on their faces.
It's a pleasure to see you, madam, said the head waiter to the woman. Alex couldn't believe people still spoke like this in this day and age. Marie inclined her head graciously. She took out her glasses from her leather case and looked at the menu. She wanted to try the new aragula salad. She conferred with the waiter, who suggested the salmon to go along with it. I’ll have the plat du jour, said the younger boy, not looking up as he put his napkin on his lap. A young waiter scarcely older than him inclined his head politely and said: Plat du jour, sir. Alex rolled his eyes and looked out of the windows. The mountains were so near he could walk out of the big glass windows and climb through and disappear on the other side.
“Well Alexander ? Are you going to be pleasant and talk to us or are you going to sulk all evening?”
"I don’t see the point of this whole trip, dad."
The woman leant forward, rustling in her silk and tweed outfit and addressed him in a hushed voice, as if what she had to say could only be heard by him: “David wanted to spend some time with you, Alex. He felt you were becoming distant from him. He wanted to take you and Phil skiing so that you could spent some quality time together.” It was embarrassing to watch her when she tried to avert a confrontation between them. Somehow, she always made it worse.
Alex did not look at her. He had always felt nothing but contempt for this woman with her tasteful outfits and her vapid smile. She was a dainty ornament that his father sported on his lapel. He wanted to ask how spending his spring break skiing with his father and stepbrother would ever heal that chasm that had been widening for the last fifteen years. He looked at the faces that surrounded him: Marie, with her eyes anxiously darting at his father, who sat there with his double chin and eyes snapping with cool anger at the arrogance of his older son, Phil who was turning out to be a carbon copy of his dad, filled with the knowledge of his own power. He looked at them all and realized the hopelessness of ever making them understand. He lowered his eyes, picked up his water glass and gulped, and replied in an expressionless voice:
"I would appreciate it if you stopped calling me Alexander, dad. My name is Alex.”
* * *
Alex sat across from his father, watching the man eat. He watched him wrap the spaghetti around his fork, and put it in his mouth and swallow it as neatly and economically as he could swallow up small countries in real life. His father was the driving force behind several corporations that exported food from small countries: bananas and coffee and chocolate and sugar, all the sweet things of life that people took for granted in North America. He had started out as genetic researcher in an Ivy League institution, and then had expanded and expanded until now he owned the whole fucking world. Sometimes Alex felt tired even just looking at him, looking at the arrogance that swelled his frame until he felt like he was looking at a grotesque caricature of a human being.
“Alexander. How are your grades? I hope they are worth all that money I am spending on you.”
God, how he hated him. He had only agreed to come on this trip because his mother had begged him: she could not afford to pay for his school fees, and he needed to maintain diplomatic relations at least until he graduated. Alex hated the feeling of having to crawl for the sake of money, but he could see where his mother was coming from. He sat there in the big echoing dining room on the Louis XV chair with the pink satin and the tassels, and his anger with the whole situation slowly ebbed away. It required too much effort to maintain it. It could not stand up to the magnitude of this place, this time, this moment. The whole atmosphere came towards him and smothered him in its velvety grip.
He watched them as if they were colorful fish floating past in an aquarium, his father with his slightly balding head throwing his head back to laugh, a playful carnivore of some sort. Marie twittering like a little green and gold angelfish by his side, Phil snapping his fingers at the waiters, a little eel with an electric sting.
It’s my pleasure, sir, he hears the waiter saying to Phil.
The voice comes across in a distorted blur, as if he is hearing the voice coming through water from fifty thousand miles away. It is all so ridiculous. He would not have been surprised if the whole scene had disappeared before his eyes at that moment: it all seemed so unreal anyway.
* * *
“Attention deficit disorder? That does not happen to anybody in our family, Alexander. You better straighten out that while you’re at it.”
Alex felt his face flush. He would never have brought up the topic anyway, but his father was so gently ironical about his grades he had to defend himself. He turned away, and stared at the T.V that the waiters had placed discreetly out of view behind a wooden screen, where people could check out the tennis semi-finals if they wanted to. He could hear an excited commentator going on about Agassi.
There is a gentleman who wanted this handed to you, sir, says the waiter, as he puts a tray with a piece of cream-colored paper on the side. Alex’s father picks up the note and flicks it open. He reads it, and then glances to his right. Its Anderson, he says, and waves. A sharp faced looking man sitting two tables away inclines his head and comes over.
“Small world,” says Anderson, smiling and taking the scene in with his shrewd eyes. Alex watches him shakes hands with his father. “Mr. Anderson and your father used to go to the same golfing club when we lived in New York.” explains Marie breathlessly in a pleased aside to Alex. The man is charming Marie, kissing the tip of her fingers, admiring her pearls. He tries the bluff genial tack on the boys. Phil answers with private school polish. Alex glowers at the man. Unfazed, the man turns back to David, murmuring “Charming boys.”
“Frank is a well known critic in the art world. He researches for Christies. He thinks I should invest in some sculptures that he is convinced is going to fetch a lot of money in a few years' time. Weren’t you, Frank?”
“It would look absolutely stunning on the walls of your living room, Marie. Dave, this is an insiders tip. If you buy those things now, their value is going to triple in a few years time. It's a bargain.”
“I’m interested,” says David, looking Frank in the eye. “I’m definitely interested.” They get up and walk away.
What a great family bonding trip, Alex thinks as he watches his father and Frank talking by the window. They have clinched a deal of some sort: they are both smiling and pumping their hands up and down. The T.V screen has switched from Agassi to some news commentator calmly talking about a missile from China that is hurtling down to the earth and might survive the reentry into the atmosphere. Great, thinks Alex. We can all die right here and I wouldn’t have to deal with this anymore.
* * *
Frank has left his party and joined their table. He is sitting besides Marie, entertaining them with stories about the most famous art robberies of all times. “When the Mona Lisa disappeared for the sixth time...” A sudden crackle of static rises up like a harsh cough behind them. It is the head waiter turning up the news. He is watching it intently, with the stealthy surreptitiousness unbefitting to a head waiter.
They all turn to see where the noise is coming from. “Another news junkie. Even faultless French waiters have their sins,” smiles Frank and is about to resume his trend of thought when he lets out an involuntary "Shhh.." as he snaps back and listens intently. The voice continues: “..An out-of-control, two ton Chinese spy satellite could fall out of orbit as early as tonight, and there's a chance it could survive reentry and smash into the ground, the Air Force said. The North American Aerospace Defense Command has been tracking the FSW-1 Chinese spy satellite since it was launched on Oct. 8, 1993. It was only expected to be up there for about 4 years, said Major Justin Boylan. Now its finally coming back." A crackle of static obscures the rest of the sentence as everybody waits, without knowing what they are waiting for.
. "...weighs 4500 pounds and is the size of a small car. The satellite has on board a diamond encrusted button commemorating Mao-Tse Tung's 100th birthday and a 24 carat gold mold for printing U.S banknotes, according to a report last year by China's Xinmin Evening News. The report said the items were among the souvenirs put abroad the satellite in hopes the space trip would increase their value.”
Frank turns back, his eyes glittering with an almost insane gleam in his eye: God. If that thing were to survive reentry, that mold would fetch the biggest price of the century.
Maybe you could make more money by using the mold to print your own banknotes, suggests Alex.
Frank looks at Alex for a moment, almost as if he cannot believe what he has just suggested. "Alexander. Apologize!" snaps his father furiously. Frank smiles, regains his composure, smiles again and sighs: “Boys will be boys.” Then he closes his eyes, smiles, and says dreamily: “But things like that never happen in real life, do they?”
* * *
Alex is getting tired of listening to his father. Money. That’s all he ever talks about, with Marie accompanying him his passionate performance like a tenor on the side. When it comes to money she can summon up as much enthusiasm as his father can. That’s why they have stayed together. They share the same overwhelming passion in their lives. He turns away from the voices going on: “The Horsteins have brought a Vermeer. We could buy some of those old ones, it would be a good investment...” He is bored. He wants to be back in his grungy college apartment, with his friends who are all working at five dollar jobs. He stares out of the window, hoping for something to break up the sense of deja vu he feels whenever he starts listening to his father and Marie talking. He stares at the mountains, willing the stillness to break, willing for something to happen. The sky retains its sunny brilliance. The snow sparkles on the peaks. Nothing moves.
Phil snaps his fingers at the waiters. He hates Phil. If he does not stop doing that, he will have to tell him to stop it soon. He wants to go out. He is beginning to sweat. It is too hot in here, or else it was all that fancy cheese and strange fish that he ate that is making him feel dizzy and nauseous. He is beginning to see weird things. Marie’s face floats towards him, distorted out of proportion, its angular boniness accentuated as he stares at the specks of powder on the tip of her nose. The bald spot on his father’s head shines like an upside down bowl. Phil is like a little monster sitting at one end, snapping and snapping his fingers, an evil gnome with a smile wrapping him up in his own smugness. That is when, glancing out of the window in desperation, he sees a small white cloud gently moving down from the peak towards the hotel.
The cloud gathers momentum. As he watches, it gets bigger and bigger, a whiteness of elemental force rushing down towards the hotel at the speed of a runaway train. He says: “Dad. I think its an avalanche.” His father continues to talk. The sound builds up over the crackle of T.V, an ominous howling that picks up decibels as the white cloud gets nearer the hotel. A wierd ohhhhhhhhh...Confusion. People getting up, half out of chairs, what the... The avalanche hits with a sound that if it were to be reduced to a simple crunching would be the sound of the World Trade center falling on Manhattan. It dumps five tons of glacial snow and ice on top of the hotel, and then continues on down the hillside.
* * *
Screams. He can hear the screams in his head. He knows he has to get out before the snow compacts. He stumbles towards the light, cutting himself on the broken glass as he heads out of the French windows. Outside, there is a stunned group of people crawling out of the debris. Marie is holding Phil and babbling hysterically about her lighter. As he stumbles out of the snow, he can see his father desperately pawing out of the ground. A stranger helps him out. He staggers over towards them.
“I’m cold.” Alex had never known that Phil could whine like a snivelly kid.
"Cold as a popsicle," says Alex, laughing through his chattering teeth.
They settle down in the snow for help to arrive. The sky is the intense ultramarine of the Northern skies.
“Dave. Do something.”
“I don’t know. You’re the man,” Marie replies acerbically. It was the first time Alex had heard Marie replying to his father with spirit.David has the cornered look around him. For the first time in his life, he does not know what to do. "Dad, this is turning out to be the greatest family trip I have been on for a long time", Alex says from between his chattering teeth. Shut up, his father says, too tired to say more.