Thursday, June 9, 2016

Shakespeare on Film: West Side Story

Richard Beymer & Natalie Wood (as Tony & Maria)
West Side Story (U.S., 1961) directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 152 minutes, TIFF Lightbox, June 25, 2016, 3.30p
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1597)

This year represents the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 1616. TIFF is celebrating the bard with a series of films inspired by the classic plays with "All the World's a Screen - Shakespeare on Film" which runs until July 3, 2016. This is the first review for that series ...

Is there a sexier reiteration of the Romeo and Juliet theme than West Side Story? I think not. I can feel the collective eye rolls of many Spanish speaking people when they think of how beloved this film is by non-Latinos such as myself. But it works so beautifully with the themes of Romeo and Juliet - the blossoming of young love, the tribal opposition of family and clan to the lovers, the sense of reconciliation (albeit perhaps temporary) at the end after tragedy ensues.

There is a reason that a balcony that once allegedly held the 13 year old Juliet in Verona, Italy endures as a site for lovers from around the world - the myth lives on ("Juliet", whomever she might be, never stood on this balcony by the visits continue unabated). The story of the lovers dates back to at least the 15th century with a tale of two teenage Italian lovers in Masuccio's Novelle (1472) although Shakespeare likely learned the tale through various English incarnation,s perhaps more recently Brooke's Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562).

The film opens on the balletic, joyful moves of the Jets, native New Yorkers and sons of immigrants, dancing through the gritty west side of Manhattan - and the Sharks, recent immigrants from Puerto Rico - on their respective New York turfs (representing the age old rivalry between the clans of Montagues and the Capulets). The opening sequence elegantly portrays the tensions between the two groups. No matter that are actors are closer to 25 than15. One gang is fair skinned or freckled and "hip", the other is olive skinned, sleek, and well dressed. Both are impoverished and victimized by the cops and the system. Neither wants to cede the neighbourhood to the other. The boys spread their arms like winged, joyful creatures surveying their meagre land.

Tony (Richard Beymer as the Romeo figure) is a former Jet beseeched by Riff the Jets' gang leader (Russ Tamblyn as Mercutio, Romeo's kinsman) to attend a dance where an ultimatum will be presented to Bernardo (a physically perfect George Chakiris representing Tybalt), leader of the Sharks to start a "rumble", a gang fight.

In the play, before the lovers meet, Mercutio speaks to Romeo of an enchanting dream of Mab, queen of the fairies, enticing him the night before the mask at the home of the Capulets. Here Tony senses "Something's Coming ..." Something exciting, something wonderful.

Mab, queen of the fairies,
Johann Heinrich Füssli, c. 1788
Jerome Robin's choreography at the dance is sensual, frenetic, uninhibited - expressing a beatnik ecstasy, an exuberance, which presages the youthful cultural revolution that will soon follow in the mid 1960s. The Sharks and their girls are all reds, pinks, purples and burgundies (hot); the Jets are all blues, yellows and oranges (cool).

A vivid visual line separates the two groups with the exception of the image of Bernardo's sister Maria (the exquisite Natalie Wood as Juliet) in a demure white dress with a red sash which initially she abhors. She is meant to be with Chino (as the figure of Paris, a Capulet kinsman who wishes to marry Juliet) but she tells Anita she feels nothing when she looks at him.

The wisps of vivid colour part on the dance floor, literally, and Tony beholds his Juliet. They undulate gracefully towards each other, barely moving at first, then gently mimicking the energy of the Jets, the dramatic flounces of the Sharks. Bernardo roughly pulls his sister Maria way from Tony.

My only love sprung from my only hate!
Act I, scene 5

Juliet murmurs at the masked ball when she realizes that Romeo is a Montague. She is already entranced.

It is a "madness most discreet" and has taken hold of both of the young lovers. In Shakespeare, true love is sacred. When Tony repeats Maria's name (in the song "Maria"), as an incantation, the dance hall in the church falls away and all we see are the windows of the church hall and the crosses that adorn it as if sanctifying their new found love.

Bernardo warns Maria to keep away from the "American". Nardo's girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno) pleads with Nardo to give his sister some freedom. After all, they are in America. On a rooftop adorned with a faded billboard ad featuring the smiling bland face of a blond woman (like a promise of what America is or could be), the Sharks and their girls debate the virtues of their new country in the song "America". The Spanish accents are broad - after all, George Chakiris was actually of Greek origin and Natalie Wood was most decidedly not Spanish - the Puerto Ricans are gently comic caricatures but caricatures nonetheless. The divine Moreno is everything a fiery Latina is imagined to be on film but who can argue that the scene is not joyful, riveting, wittily written, exciting to watch?

Tony finds Maria's apartment through a back alleyway and climbs the balcony (the Capulets' orchard in the play). The intensity of the balcony scene in Act II, scene II is no less passionate here. They confess their love in the duet "Tonight" and plan to meet the next day at Maria's place of work, a bridal shop.

Juliet's balcony at Via Cappello, No. 23, Verona
Maria's attire slowly changes to signify her emotional and sexual awakening - from the virginal white dress of the dance, the pale yellow of the dress she wears in the bridal shop where she works, the creamy lavender she dons when she waits for Tony the night of the rumble. In the last scene of the film, the dress is red, with a black mantle, evocative of the fullness of her maturity, sexual and otherwise.

In the bridal shop, Maria's confidence soars ("I feel pretty") inspiring her skeptical co-workers. When Tony arrives by the back door, the couple imagines telling their families of their engagement and their marriage with only the elegantly dressed mannequins as their witnesses. Maria wears a white veil and Tony a top hat - beneath a cross shaped window as if in a church. In their minds they are as secretly wed as Romeo and Juliet were wed by the Friar.

But that night, the Sharks and Jets are to meet at Doc's soda fountain for a war council. Doc (representing the sympathetic Friar Laurence in the play) urges the Jets to avoid trouble, "When I was your age ..." he begins wearily, to which Jet gang member Action replies, "You were never my age!"

For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring ...
Act III, scene 1

These boys have troubles that their immigrant, impoverished parents perhaps have never faced, parodied in the song "Officer Krupke". Parents who drink and violently quarrel, beat their children, pedal drugs, are "sexually deviant", and are largely absent as parents. The boys are adrift and cling to their turf and gang as a replacement for all they lack. And the "foreigners" - the Puerto Ricans who are also U.S. citizens - threaten that tenuous prize they cling to.

Maria convinces Tony to go to the rumble, to stop the fighting. He has convinced them to fight hand to hand with no weapons, or so he thinks. When Tony tries to intervene he is attacked and Riff steps in. Riff is stabbed and killed by Nardo; in a moment of panic, Tony kills Nardo too. The gangs disperse with the sound of the police siren. The die is cast.

When the lovers reunite in Maria's apartment, she despairs, "It's not us, it's everything around us ..." Hate and distrust contaminate their love. "There's a place for us," they plead in "Somewhere". There is still hope that they can escape the racism, the narrowness of their lives. The couple spend the night together and are found the next morning by Anita who begs Maria to stick with "one of your own kind" in "A Boy Like That." But Maria persuades Anita of the rightness of her love. Love supersedes all ...
I have a love and it's all that I have, right or wrong. What else can I do? I love him, I'm his, and everything he is, I am too. I have a love and it's all that I need, right or wrong, and he needs me too. I love him, we're one. There's nothing to be done. Not a thing I can do. But hold him, hold him forever, be with him tomorrow ... When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong, your love is ... your life.
Maria persuades Anita to go to Doc's and tell Tony that she is being detained by the police. Tony is hiding in Doc's cellar protected by the Jets. When Anita insists on seeing Tony the Jets attack her and are on the verge of raping Anita when Doc intervenes. She is so furious that she tells the boys that Maria is dead, killed by a vindictive Chino, the boy whom her brother wished her to marry. In despair, Tony runs into the streets calling Chino's name, begging him to kill him too. Maria hears his cries and joins him in the school playground and at the moment of their physical contact, Tony is shot by Chino.

Maria grabs Chino's gun and accuses them all of killing Tony, not with a gun, but with their hate. In the last shot, she leaves the school ground, wrapped in the black mantle, as if following a funeral cortege. The boys, together, from both sides, pick up Tony's body and carry him out. At last, a tenuous peace, but at what cost?

Some elements of the film have not aged well ... the attempt to capture the feeling of beatnik influenced youth culture of that age ("Okay Daddy-O!"), the belittlement of Baby John (who likely, we assume as modern viewers, is gay) and the shunning of Anybody, a tough tomboy who is refused entry in the Jets, flows against the zeitgeist of today. The faux New York and Puerto Rican accents sometimes irk albeit the screenplay by Ernest Lehman which is by turns witty and emotionally honest. Richard Breymer, a talented dancer and actor, strains the imagination as a former hardened gang member as do many of the twenty somethings playing teenagers.

But the exquisite performances of our lovers Tony and Maria still touch the heart and the message remains relevant, especially in these Trump times: racism wounds, even kills, and endangers society's most vulnerable members. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay




Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Book Three of the Neapolitan Novels (Europa editions, 2014) 418 pages
***SPOILER ALERT***

The third book in the Neapolitan Novels series opens with the revelation that Gigliola, Michele Solara's wife and a former friend of our protagonists Lila and Lenu, is dead. The once beautiful Gigliola is now a broken, physical wreck - her beauty and body ruined, her dead body abandoned on a roadside. For the reader, it appears a terrifying harbinger of the future troubles of our two protagonists that we have come to love.

It is now 2010. Lenu has not seen Lila in five years and recounts a night spent with Lila in which Lila details the difficult time she has had since she abandoned her husband, the successful grocer Stefano, and her comfortable life style as a stylish Napolitana matron married to one of the richest men in the neighborhood forty years before. Things have not gone well for Lila it seems.

At the end of The Story of a New Name, Book Two in the series (please see here for a review), Lenu has published her first book of fiction and is poised to be married to Pietro, a mild mannered if dull academic from an important family. Italy is in the throes of political chaos in the 1960s. Lenu's book is promoted (and scorned) as a prototype of an exciting, new type of modern woman in Italian society provoking mixed reviews for its risqué material some of which is based on her real life experiences as a young woman such as her unpleasant deflowering at the hands of Nino's lecherous father Donato on the beaches of Ischia. With despair, she notes that the only thing that her Naples neighbors want to speak of regarding her book is the "dirty bits".

Lenu is thrilled (and mortified) to re-encounter Nino, her long-time object of love and now also an academic, at a public reading at which he defends Lenu's book before the old guard - a cantankerous professor who dismisses her book. When Lenu's future mother-in-law invites Nino to a post-launch celebration she is both terrified and aroused at the possibility of a final tryst with Nino before her impending marriage. With the arrival of her fiancée Pietro, these hopes are dashed. But that is not the last we see of Nino.

With a lingering regret, Lenu proceeds with her engagement to Pietro. The sting of class disparity wounds her - it's not just the clothes and material possessions of her in-laws, it is the manner in which they speak, their political and cultural interests, their confidence that fills her with insecurity and despair. She feels that the stigma of her humble origins clings to her like a bad smell.

Invited to speak at a university campus about her book, Lenu gets swept into a student demonstration and re-encounters her old university flame Franco with whom her future sister-law Mariarosa is sleeping. She also meets Silvia, a young radical with a newborn baby, which triggers an almost nostalgic desire to be with Lila as well as new maternal feelings in the soon-to-be bride. Lenu learns that Nino is the father of the newborn, whom he has abandoned (as he did Lila's child Gennaro). The ugliness of this revelation is like a punch in the face for the reader; we have pinned our hopes on the virtuous Nino as an exemplar of a new type of manhood which shines against the background of the young women's brutal upbringing and dealings with men.

This encounter cements Lenu's desire to reunite with Lila and try and help her and her child Gennaro.


Lenu returns to her family home in Naples before the wedding, drowning in her mother's hostility and resistance to her modest, areligous wedding plans. Pietro must (and does) charm the Carraci family - the hostile mother, the under-confident father, the boorish siblings. (Later we learn from Lenu’s biting perspective that Pietro is only natural when dealing with his “inferiors.”)


Soon Lenu is summoned to Lila's bedside; Lila is ill and appears to be dangerously hallucinating. Lila speaks of her experience in the sausage factory where she works: the harsh working conditions, the sexual harassment of female employees, the interminable hours, the brutality of Bruno the owner and one time friend of Nino's. Meek, gentle Bruno has become the ruthless, abusive employer who invites female employees into a private room to sexually harass them and suppresses union activity.


As Lila becomes more politically active, she also immerses herself in the violence surrounding the labour conditions in the factory. Anti-union fascists clash with left wing activists - Lila notes with surprise old friends and neighbors on both sides of the political conflict – on the factory grounds. Lila is blamed as she had provided information about conditions at the factory. After being summoned to Bruno's office, Lila encounters her old nemesis Michele Solara who, it appears, has been paying Bruno to keep her employed. After suffering through his insults, Lila quits in a rage - an act of rebellion she can ill afford.


Lenu takes charge of Lila and her child using all of her power and in-laws' contacts to protect her friend - obtaining her final wages, seeing to her medical needs, caring for Gennaro. We see the advantage of class and connections that Lenu's pending marriage to Pietro affords - access to the best doctors, lawyers and political contacts. But an encounter with her old professor and her daughter Nadia, who has taken up with Pasquale, a construction worker from the old neighborhood, present a different slant on Lenu's involvement in the affairs of the factory. Conditions have worsened they say bitterly - those brave ones who agitated for reform were punished, those were remained silent rewarded. Worse, for Lenu, her professor appears to have more respect for Lila's efforts than Lenu’s writing and barely speaks of Lila's book. Ah, the ego of a writer. Lenu leaves mortified and angry.


Her brief sojourn in Naples reveals a group of unhappy and dissatisfied friends and family. What use are all the fine things that Lenu has purchased for her own family if she cannot bear to be with them? Despite her marriage to Michele, Gigiola bitterly complains that Michele is still in love Lila and treats his wife like a whore. Alfonso confesses he is gay and marries Marisa only to escape detection of his true desires.


Once married and living in Florence, Lenu immediately becomes pregnant regardless of her desire to put off bearing a child for a while. Lila meanly predicts difficulties ahead for Lenu and has somehow “jinxed” Lenu’s pregnancy. The child has trouble latching, likely has colic and Lenu is worn down caring for both child and household. We finally see what Pietro is made of - apparently not much. He resents Lenu's complaints of being overwhelmed, does little to help her and even complains when his mother comes to assist them. There is some sort of bitterness between mother and son – does he resent his mother's professional accomplishments? Would he prefer that Lenu remain a devoted housewife and mother whose career is secondary to his? It is a terrible realization for Lenu - no matter what your class or status - in this society, at this time, your needs are always secondary to your male partner's.


When Lenu learns that Bruno, the factory owner, has been savagely murdered in his office she first suspects that it is Lenu who was responsible – but the truth is more shocking than that. The leftist violence seems to engender a desire in her to leave and join the orgy of violence and percolating revolutionary strife rather than remain a wife and mother.


Reluctantly, Lenu bears a second baby. She appears to withdraw into a more domestic role, her confidence shattered. But unlike Lenu, Lila appears to be excelling - obtaining a career in the computer industry with Enzo, now her partner, and forging a relationship with Solaras’ businesses much to Lenu’s horror. Lenu cannot escape the old neighborhood when her sister begins to live with Marcello Solara, when the Solara matriarch is murdered, when she learns that Bruno was likely murdered by Nadia and Pasquale. Violence in the old neighborhood continues - old friends die or are beaten for their political beliefs. The subtext is ominous – she will never escape from these people, from the violence and treachery, from the sense of degradation and self-hate.


Lenu attempts a second novel. Pietro is uninterested in her progress. Her mother-in-law dislikes it and even Lila appears repulsed by its explicit content. Marriage appears a kind of nightmare which "stripped coitus of all humanity". Pietro disappoints, motherhood disappoints; she feels that her education has been for naught.


And then re-enter Nino, our presumptive Prince Valiant of the Naples slums who approves of her creative efforts and urges her to finish her second book (is there a more potent aphrodisiac for a progressive woman – a man who thinks you are smart and a talented writer?). Now married with a rich if vulgar wife and a son, Nino befriends Pietro only to betray him.


Shockingly (am I the only reader to think so?) Nino and Lenu start an affair. She demands that he leave his wife, he demands she leave Pietro. Both do and in the final scene they are aboard a plane to France. Is it possible that Lenu will finally be happy? On to Book Four …



























Monday, May 30, 2016

May Cultural Roundup


From the documentary "Suited" ...
Literary
Salotto Letterario celebrating the publication of Exploring Voices (Italian Canadiana, 2016), May 1st

Films:
Tower (U.S., 2016)
Obit (U.S., 2016)
Handsome & Majestic (Canada, 2016)
Suited (U.S., 2016)
Life Itself (U.S., 2013)
The Bad Kids (U.S., 2016)
Circles (Sweden, 2016)
The Incomparable Rose Hartman (U.S., 2016)
Zimbelism (Canada, 2016)
Chi-Raq (U.S., 2016)
Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (U.S., 1966)
The Nice Guys (U.S., 2016)

Exhibits:
Beloved Martina, Mercer Union, May 4th
Douglas Kirkland: A Life in Pictures, Izzy Gallery

Books:
Bettyville by George Hodgman
A Boy's Own Story by Edmund White
Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave by Elena Ferrante

Architecture
Open Doors, May 28th & 29th

Saturday, April 30, 2016

April Cultural Roundup

Madama Butterfly
Opera
Madama Butterfly, The Met: Live in HD, April 2nd with Kristina Opolais and Robert Alagna

Books
Old School by Tobias Wolf
Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine
When Everything Feels like the Movies by Raziel Reid
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
M Train by Patti Smith

Hot Docs Films:
The Legacy of Frida Kahlo (Japan, 2016)
The Voice (Canada, 2016)
Spirit Unforgettable (Canada, 2016)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

March Cultural Roundup

Exhibits
Tunnel Vision: The Story of Toronto's Subway at Market Gallery
Outsiders: American Photography and Film at AGO, March 13, 2016

Books:
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

The Story of a New Name

The Story of a New Name - Book 2 Youth by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions, 2013) 471 pages
*** Spoiler Alert ***

Before we proceed, please read this review of book 1 ... 


When we left Lila at her wedding reception at the end of book 1, she has experienced a terrible betrayal. The shoes, which she worked so hard to create with the assistance of her brother and father, the Cerullos, have been given (or sold) to the dreaded Marcello Solara, the son of a Camorrista and a much feared loan shark in their Napoli neighborhood.

This abrogation of trust devastates Lila, who storms out of the wedding but she is persuaded to return by Stefano Caracci, the groom. She withholds her fury until their departure in the convertible leaving the wedding and gets into a terrible altercation with Stefano. The hostility climaxes with a devastating act of violence on their honeymoon. I'll say no more on that if you have not read the scene. 


Stefano's imperative is stark: subdue her now or forever lose his ascendancy as a male and as a husband. He warns her: 

"What are you doing, be quiet, you're just a twig, if I want to break you I'll break you ..."
How often I have heard those words. Not from a husband but from someone in my family more powerful than me, someone who intimidated me. The words chilled me, not because they were so strange but because they were so familiar. 

Lila confronts a brutal reality. For her this is the end of a certain fantasy because Stefano stood in sharp contrast to the brutality of the Solaras to request a favour. Now she sees that Stefano is merely a variation of Marcello or Michele Solara. As a wife she is expected to succumb to any, or all, of Stefano's demands. She is beaten, and often, as the text suggests through Lenu's horrified observations. 

But she exacts her revenge. When Lenu shares her worries about her boyfriend Antonio's imminent conscription (the simple mechanic Antonio serves as a poor substitute for the cerebral Nino), Lila drags Lenu along with her to the Solaras' café. Lenu understands how inappropriate and uncharacteristic this is - that Lila, a married woman, should ask a favour of these two who still covet the beautiful Lila - mortifies Lenu and makes her fearful for her friend. Lila's sole object is to humiliate her husband, whom she no longer loves nor respects.

Antonio is so angry at Lenu's perceived interference that he breaks with her and willingly enters the army. Still fixated on the studious Nino, the son of the lascivious Donato who tried to interfere with Lenu last summer at Ischia, Lenu languishes physically, emotionally and academically. Nino has gone to England to work and learn English (and has a fifteen year old girlfriend, the daughter of a professor) much to Lenu's despair. 

When she sees the girl, Lenu is chastened by the girl's beauty and a subtle perception that the girl belongs to a "higher" class than Lenu. How devastating is that realization of class difference ... she feels that she will never be as beautiful nor as prized as Nadia, the girl that Nino cares for, because of her "superior" origins. 

Whatever Lenu is experiencing, it is is soon eclipsed by Lila's troubles. Now pregnant, Lila forgoes returning to school and devotes her energies to managing the new grocery store that her husband is building. Angry and resentful about the pregnancy, Lila appears to be on a collision course with everyone in her life, feeling like a commodity bought and sold by her husband. Lila despises children, despises her pregnant body - correctly viewing herself as the means by which the Caracci clan might perpetuate a dynasty and that she is merely the instrument through which this is accomplished. 

Lila's antipathy towards the child is so pronounced that when she miscarries at ten weeks, those around her willingly believe that she has caused it. Both Lila and Stefano are vilified for this - Lila for the "refusal" to carry a child and Stefano for his inability to impregnate her - she is perceived as a witch, he as a weakling. 

Lila clings to Lenu ... she even offers to pay Lenu to spend the summer with her which Lenu agrees to only if they go to Ischia, an island off Naples, where the Napolitani vacation and where Lenu knows that Nino will spend his summer. Her instincts pay off and she indeed encounters him but becomes aware of a disturbing development: Lila ,who has forsworn reading and further education, becomes interested in both upon meeting Nino. In some twisted sense of rivalry, Lila appears to try and ensnare Nino, the one boy that Lenu truly cares for. Is this payback for the humiliation that Lila now feels before the more educated Lenu? 

Lila initially denies her emotional involvement but at every juncture Lenu witnesses their intimacy. On the eve of Stefano's return to Ischia (he comes only on weekends), Nino dares to read a letter from his girlfriend Nadia before Lila which throws Lila into a rage. She demands that he break with her and he, in turn, demands she leave her husband. Later, she confesses that she revels in the idea of Nino abandoning the professor's daughter for the shoemaker's daughter. Class consciousness permeates all, the girls cannot escape it - the engrained sense of inferiority, of otherness, of class resentment.

Lenu tries to convince Lila of her folly which prompts a long (a page long) feverish avowal of Lila's love for Nino much to Lenu's shock and dismay. Lenu is heartbroken by this betrayal but something has been awakened in Lila - love and sexual intimacy with an equal - and she refuses to abandon it.



When the lovers scheme to have one night together in Barrano, they make Lenu their unwilling accomplice, who is filled alternately with both hate and love for the innamorati. 

Lenu, crushed by Nino's new obsessive interest in Lila tells herself that "... men are all made from the same clay." Even the worthy Nino is a mere man susceptible to Lila's charms. The path of the two girls diverge: Lenu receives a scholarship and goes to university in Pisa; the now pregnant Lila runs away with Nino to live in secret, in squalor, as neither has money. But even Nino cannot withstand the volcano that is Lila and eventually abandons her and returns to his family.


Relief floods over the reader, when we learn of Lenu's scholarship and acceptance to the university. Escape Lenu, escape, we silently plead. We stand with Lenu when she looks at family, home, neighborhood, street, and wishes to flee from these sordid circumstances.

When Lila is discovered by a neighborhood friend Enzo, he persuades her to return to her husband. But this is a short-lived, fiery solution to Lila's dilemma ... and we are left with another cliffhanger about Lila's fate.

I have spoken of the lack of beautiful writing in this series. But Ferrante's (or the translator's) awkward phrasing do not put me off even when faced with lines such as these regarding the deflowering of one of the female characters: "... the nightime mass of x [you will read yourself who I am referring to] communicated to me nothing except a sensation of nothingness" - an awfully awkward way to say that the loss of virginity by the predatory male cited here meant nothing to the girl. Or a phrase such as this: " ... he behaved as if their hostility because he had sold himself to the Solaras were a gripe that made no dent on their friendship." There are many such instances as these.

But I forgive all, everything, every misplaced word and clumsy construction, because Ferrante taps into a source of anger in me that I cannot name or properly voice. And now, on to book 3. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

My Brilliant Friend


My Brilliant Friend - Book One: Childhood, Adolescence by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions, 2012) 331 pages
                                                         *** Spoiler Alert ***

Who is this Elena Ferrante and why has she captivated so many?

I approached the series with some healthy skepticism – Ferrante's four part series has had a volcanic effect on the literary establishment. I engaged with some reserve and not a small part of jealousy. The language was not beautiful or elegant I quickly affirmed (I don’t know who is to blame for this – Ferrante or the translator Ann Goldstein). The scenarios are frighteningly bleak and many characters very unsympathetic but ... the scenes are so powerfully wrought and touch on the inequality of the young female in Italian society so profoundly that it is impossible to ignore or dismiss. 

It pecked away at me - it reinforced the many small and big things I had seen and experienced as a young female and adult in an Italian family: the lowered expectations for girls of a certain class, the disrespect accorded them, the inordinate emphasis on physical beauty and sexuality, the achingly painful aspirations of the two girls Elena and Lila who wanted more, so much more.

In the first novel of the Neapolitan series, Elena Greco, also known as Lenu, tells the story of a tempestuous friendship with Lila Cerullo (also known as Lena), which spans sixty years. Their beginnings in a poor Napoli neighborhood in the 1950s are humble but their aspirations are not. Already I am smitten ... I was known by both names as a girl - Lenu and Lena. This pains me somehow. It makes their travails much more immediate. I identify with both - the cerebral, bookish girl and the sexy, bad girl. 

The girls compete in all areas of their lives – Lenu, daughter of a porter, is bright but Lila, daughter of an equally impoverished shoemaker, is brighter and they both know it. This ignites a lifelong rivalry – profound, if largely unspoken – in intellectual achievement, their physical looks and love interests. At all stations of their personal development, Lenu feels dwarfed by Lila even while she witnesses the ugliness of Lila’s daily existence. Once when she defied her father’s wishes, Lila is unceremoniously thrown out of a window.  The shocking nature of the scene has a visceral effect. The lives and happiness of these young girls are worth nothing – if they are not valued as sexual beings, as wives and mothers, they seem to have no value at all at times. 

When Lila’s parents are unable to afford education for her beyond elementary school, Lenu is both distressed and relieved but at last here, academically, Lenu might shine and overshadow her friend. Lenu excels with the assistance of sympathetic teachers and a yearning, inquisitive mind. Thwarted by her parents, Lila and her brother Rino focus on the design of a pair of shoes that they hope to sell with the Cerullo name and become a thriving business that will sustain her family.

Lila develops into a rare if prickly, foul-mouthed beauty coveted by all the boys in the neighborhood and in particular by Marcello Solara, son of a Camorrista and loan shark - the wealthiest man in the neighborhood who runs a prosperous café. Marcello and his brother Michele Solara are rich, violent, dangerous bullies, universally feared and hated. She aggressively rejects his advances despite her family’s imprecations even while he courts Lila and the whole family with gifts and offers of financial support. Marcello even goes so far as to offer to buy the hand-made shoes that Lila has created.

When Lenu is afforded a chance to escape to Ischia for the summer to care for some children, she seizes the opportunity. At Ischia, she falls in love with Nino, a studious boy from her neighborhood who is the son of a poet and a reputed womanizer. Finally, she sees herself as desirable, worthwhile, but only because Nino has bestowed a kiss on her. Excelling academically will not do, a boy must validate her sense of self-worth. The summer is almost ruined by the advances of Nino's predatory father Donato - he has distinguished himself in the neighborhood by bedding Melina, an unstable, impoverished widow who has become obsessed with him. 

Ferrante’s eye is unsparing and unsentimental towards Italian family life. Lenu’s mother is dreadful – mean spirited, cold and physically repulsive - she initially objects to Lenu’s small summer adventure. If she is unhappy why should her daughter be happy? This last item might seem a small literary distinction but to have an Italian born writer cold-heartedly analyze the patriarchal nature of working class life and wade through the treacly stereotype of maternal love in Italian culture is truly revolutionary for this reader.

Lila appears to find a way out of poverty by accepting the attentions of Stefano, a local grocer, who displays courtesy and respect for Lila. With his attention (and money), she grows even more beautiful and the couple plan to marry.

The final scene of book 1 is the wedding of sixteen year old Lila and Stefano. Lila faces  a horrifying discovery – Stefano, whom she has exalted and loved above the rest, has decided to throw in his lot with the hated Solaras in some sort of business enterprise.

I admit that I was lukewarm on the plot until the wedding scene. Lenu observing Lila at the church:
"As a child I looked to her ... to escape my mother. I had been mistaken. Lila had remained there, chained in a glaring way to that world from which she imagined she had taken the best."
Lila is now trapped in her role at sixteen. Inspired by Nino's intelligence and seriousness, Lenu vows to escape her family, her neighborhood, her life. 

What follows for Lila is horrifying ... and must be discussed in book 2. 

Monday, February 29, 2016

February Cultural Roundup


Films:
Inside Out (U.S., 2015)
Twenty Feet from Stardom (U.S., 2014)

Books:
The Paper Men by William Golding
Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Oscars 2016: Spotlight



Spotlight (U.S., 2015) directed by Tom McCarthy, 2 hours, 8minutes
Nominated for Five Oscars:
Best Directing
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Film Editing
Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

As a recovering Catholic, I am still very much interested in the workings of the Church. And … the ways in which it does not work. This is one of those stories – a faithful retelling of recent true events.

As the film opens, the Boston Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), meets with Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) who is the head of the "Spotlight" team - investigative journalists given a long leash and lead times in preparing challenging stories at the Globe. The team includes Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). [Side note: the actors met with the real journalist and trailed them for months capturing accents, walks, mannerisms, etc ...]

Baron requests that the team look into allegations that the Archbishop of Boston knew that a reputed pedophile Roman Catholic priest, named John Geoghan*, was sexually abusing children and did nothing to stop prevent him from having access to his congregation or removing him from the Church.

The team uncovers a pattern of sexual abuse of numerous children and the workings of Boston Archdiocese to bury this information. Connecting with a victim's rights advocate leads to a list of a possible thirteen priests and additional investigation then yields an ever-widening circle of eighty-seven possible abusers. The team searches for the victims to verify the story. This is the most difficult part of the film – witnessing grown men break down and weep in light of their revelations to the reporters. It uncovers the trail of substance abuse, shame, turmoil and self destruction that the secrets fostered in the men for decades. Some do not survive the shame of the abuse. 

The film handles the issue of sexual abuse discreetly, sensitively – no explicit re-enactments of the abuse just the powerfully wrought effects on the men. It also demonstrates the tremendous power of the church where even those victimized by the abuse sometimes turn with anger towards the reporters for allegedly maligning the Church.

The story also skilfully navigates the underlying distrust of the journalistic motives of the new editor Marty Baron because he is Jewish in the largely Irish American, primarily Catholic, milieu of Boston and Massachusetts.

The events of 9/11 force the reporters to set aside their investigation for a time. Soon after, Michael Rezendes confirms the existence of public documents that confirm Cardinal Law was aware of the issue and ignored it. (Regretfully I admit that although, I love Ruffalo but I am always, always aware that he is "acting". Here, he mimics some irritating tics that the real Rezendes possesses.) With these documents, the team plans to publish their findings in early 2002.

Sacha Pfeiffer also uncovers an early clipping published by the Boston Globe in 1993 that briefly mentions the possibility of the depth of the abuse. Robinson (Keaton), the Spotlight team leader, realizes that he was the reporter who wrote the story having been given, at that time, a list of twenty alleged pedophile priests  - a story he never investigated fully.

Once the story of abuse is printed the team is flooded with messages from witnesses stepping forward with their own stories. The team won a Pulitzer Prize for their work. 

For me, the implicit message is … who is to blame? We, all of us, believers and adherents of the faith, are all to blame for our blind acceptance of the authority and moral infallibility of the church’s leaders.

The film also resurrects our faith in journalism – one much battered by reduced financial resources of the news media which limits the scope of investigative journalism, a recent parade of unethical and/or plagiarizing journalists and the constant bashing of reporters by political opportunists like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz who play hard and fast with the truth and malign a free press. 

This film gives me a thrill ... in an All the President's Men kind of way.  
~

* In a "maybe there's a God" sort of news flash - this defrocked priest, accused of molesting 150 other children, was strangled by a fellow inmate in prison in 2006. The priest's killer was enraged after Mr. Geoghan arrogantly brushed off criticism that he had "destroyed all kinds of lives."

Monday, February 1, 2016

Oscars 2016: The Martian



The Martian (U.S., 2015) directed by Ridley Scott, 141 minutes
Nominated for Six Oscars:
Best Picture
Best Actor (Matt Damon)
Sound Editing
Production Design
Visual Effects
Adapted Screenplay

Matt Damon, in explaining the appeal of this film, has said that audiences often enjoy watching super smart people solve problems. If so, this is the film for you.

Set two decades from now, in 2035 ... the Ares III manned mission to Mars gets caught in a dust storm forcing the crew to abandon the surface of the planet. Astronaut Mark Watney (the ever likeable Matt Damon) gets lost in the storm and is knocked unconscious. Fearing that he is dead, the crew, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) leaves him behind.


When Watney awakens, he returns to the crew’s living quarters and begins a video diary. By his calculations, the crew would only be able to return in four years at the earliest. Watney, a botanist, calculates that he may be able to survive in the meantime by creating a farm with Martian soil utilizing toilet waste, hydrogen extracted from rocket fuel (which has been oxidized by burning), and leftover potatoes that had been saved for a Thanksgiving meal for the astronauts. I think you will be surprised how interesting it is to watch a sexy astronaut grow potatoes on Mars to a series of rousing disco tunes - these were favoured by his commanding officer Melissa Lewis.

Back on earth … in reviewing satellite photos of Mars, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the Mars mission director, discovers that Watney has survived. A decision is made not to inform the Ares III crew which is on its way back to Earth on the Hermes spacecraft.

Watney establishes communication with NASA on earth (don’t ask me how but it was elaborate and ingenious). A space probe is prepared for Mars to give Watney additional supplies until Ares IV returns. A series of mishaps ensure the audience’s suspense – the tenuous potato crop is destroyed, the supply probe explodes after lift-off. Have no fear, the Chinese government, ever sympathetic to the West, is on the horizon with a solution to help retrieve the American astronaut.

Several plot factors are at work here that are particular to American cinema – the concept of international cooperation to save one lone, lonely but plucky American; a feisty crew defying the orders of NASA not to return to Mars despite the possibility of death, the ingenuity of said astronauts. The crew on the Hermes vote unanimously to return to Mars’ orbit to try and retrieve their comrade. They do, of course they do.

That’s what I love about the American spirit – effortlessly optimistic, narrowly focused, always successful in whatever hare-brained scheme they devise. And that’s what I dislike about it too. As if everything should work out merely because there exists this burning American desire to triumph against all odds.

I did enjoy the film - the effects were spectacular, the acting consistently good (although I think Kristen Wigg is wasted here – any “basic white girl” would do in this role). But what was the point of the film, the larger goal? That Americans can do anything? That the human spirit is indomitable? That even mere earthlings with good old American gumption can vanquish space? Yeah, I’ve seen that movie too.