“Queen to Play” (La Joueuse)

(A new way to “mate”)


Directed by Caroline Bottaro, 2009

Starring Sandrine Bonnaire and Kevin Kline

I saw a French movie last night called “Queen to Play” (La Joueuse aux Echecs) about a middle-aged woman who works as a house cleaner. She is married and has a teenage daughter. Her love life is lacking: a distracted, working class husband supports her but is more interested in the traditional family status quo (the wife makes the meals and is there for her husband when he wants to make love; also there waiting when he doesn’t feel like it) than in encouraging her in her own personal growth. She sees a sultry young American woman playing chess with one of her house-cleaning clients, and winning. There is something alive and seductive about the game itself and the power it accords women (the queen is the most powerful game piece), and she resolves to learn to pay chess. Chess is, of course, a metaphor for her self-actualization and fulfillment. By persuading a reclusive doctor client of hers to teach her the game, she progresses in her skill. She is driven. She wants to learn not only the rules of engagement, but also how to win. In the end, despite the town’s rumor mill and her own husband’s jealous suspicions, she has her way. She not only gains a thorough mastery of the game, but also sparks an evanescent romance with her mentor, which culminates in a single meaningful kiss and nothing more. Here she has reached a turning point. She has ventured very far toward the horizon of her dreams, but to continue her chess-playing visits would destroy her family; besides, an extra-marital romance was never her intention. The kiss was rather a side effect of the self-realization she has attained. Then she makes love with her husband, and resolves never to see her former client/mentor, and to give up chess. Finally, her daughter and her mentor’s remembered words convince her to pursue her dream. She enters a chess tournament in Paris and wins.

That film, like other well-conceived and executed literary works, has inspired me in my creative endeavor. Not only the plot of the story, but also a vibrant, tangible memory of the feelings and mood associated with the character’s development, have stayed with me.

Good writing, when it comes directly from the source (the impulse), and is played through with sincerity, has meaning and staying power.

Kurosawa Saw it Coming: Fukushima Meltdown

One of the most visionary, artistically impactful filmmakers of the 20th Century, Akira Kurosawa, vividly and presciently portrayed the March 11, 2011 meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in his 1990 film Dreams. A series of 30 short vignettes, grouped into eight “chapters” representing Kurosawa’s dreams, viscerally and accessibly bring to a point his philosophy and life wisdom, mellowed and refined throughout his 60-year filmmaking career.

Mt Fuji in Red

In the chapter “Mount Fuji in Red,” Mount Fuji begins to glow red and intensify in color and brightness in an eerie, menacing way. The edges of the mountain begin to dissolve, and six explosions are seen, coming from behind the mountain. People in the crowded countryside begin to scatter like ants, terrified. Roads are jammed with cars of people trying to flee, and the cars are abandoned on the road as their passengers take off on foot. The young male protagonist (presumably Kurosawa himself) asks if Mt. Fuji is erupting, to which a young lady accompanied by two small children replies, “It’s worse than that. Didn’t you know? The nuclear power plant has exploded.” At this point, a middle-aged business-man, consumed with worry replies, “The six atomic reactors. They’re exploding one after another. Japan is so small there’s no escape.”

The scene of utter chaos abruptly changes to a quiet, windswept seaside landscape, littered with people’s belongings; the only people left are the young man, the lady with her children, and the businessman. “Where did they escape to?” asks the young man. “To the bottom of the sea,” replies the now remorseful businessman, pointing with a gesture reminiscent of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Then different colored clouds begin to blow across the shore. The businessman, whom we now connect with the power plant as an engineer or upper manager, names the kinds of radioactivity that the colors represent: red is Plutonium-239–one ten-millionth of a gram causes cancer; yellow is Strontium-90 which causes leukemia; purple is Cesium- 137; it affects reproduction, causing mutations and monstrosities. Even the dolphins in the ocean are doomed by the radioactivity, he reflects. He ponders a life of radioactivity-provoked disease and suffering, and concludes it is better to die right away.

The young woman poignantly cries about the injustice of the situation for her children, who have a whole life ahead of them.

“Man’s stupidity is unbelievable, ” concludes the businessman, before jumping off of the cliff into the ocean.

In the film, the accident is attributed to human error, the only real digression from the actual event. But we had Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island, and both of those disasters were caused by human error.

Kurosawa died in 1998, thirteen years before the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, causing 25,000 immediate deaths, meltdown of the 6-reactor Daiichi nuclear plant, and massive radioactivity pollution to the land, air, and sea that is still taking place and is reaching all waters and continents of the globe. Government officials are only now admitting that the gravity of the disaster is on a par with that of Chernobyl in 1986. The nuclear elements mentioned in Kurosawa’s film, even when “spent,” have radioactive half-lives of MILLIONS of years. While only a handful of deaths will be attributed directly to acute exposure to nuclear fuels and waste products–those who battled the meltdown in direct proximity to the nuclear reactors– the millions of painful cancer cases, birth defects, skin rashes, respiratory problems, and other serious chronic health ailments that will be passed along from generation to generation will probably never be officially counted or revealed.

The moral of the story: Listen to your visionaries, and don’t mess with nuclear energy.