Thursday, June 18, 2015

Books on Film: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Now in its fifth season, TIFF's Books on Film brings together book and film lovers to examine great cinema that began as outstanding literature. Eleanor Wachtel, host of CBC Radio's Writers & Company, sits down with filmmakers, authors and experts to discuss the art of adaptation and the sometimes challenging passage from page to screen. This is the last film of the series in 2015.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (U.K./U.S., 1969) directed by Ronald Neame
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (Macmillian, 1961)

Miss Jean Brodie (portrayed by the inestimable Maggie Smith) is magnificent. She is independent, fiery, intelligent, sensuous, and if it were not for her disturbing and ultimately destructive admiration of Fascism she would be near perfect. Those of us who only know Smith as the acerbic dowager from Downton Abbey will be pleased to remember her seductive visage in this film.

A teacher in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1930s when Fascism, in the guise of Mussolini, had a glamorous, if dangerously misguided, sheen for many, she knows that she is made for  greater things and that the girls that she teaches at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls – the members of the much envied, infamous "Brodie set" – are made for finer things as well. After all, Miss Brodie is in her prime and has never been more sublime.

No matter that Miss Brodie is sometimes controlling and an insufferable snob. Windows opened more than six inches are vulgar. Rolled up sleeves on girls are common crudely suggesting washerwomen about to set about their work. No matter that she manipulates her girls, tortures them emotionally, segregates them by characteristics that she admires or envies. Sandy (Pamela Franklin), who will eventually become Miss Brodie’s betrayer is "full of insight" and a perfect "spy". Jenny (Diane Grayson) who will be “famous” for sex  and Miss Brodie hopes will become the future lover of one of her own lovers. Mary (Jane Carr) is pitifully dim-witted and will, of course, die tragically. Monica (Shirley Steedman) is famous for her "anger", her passion.

Spark comically highlights the dangers of charisma and passion (an essence of the allure of Fascism in the 1930's - when even high ranking politicians and British royalty in the West saw Hitler and Mussolini as bulwarks against the creeping "evil" of Communism) manifested in the person of Miss Brodie. Her attraction to power and "beauty" overtake the desire for the common good, overtake common sense, at times.
Ms. Brodie, who reputedly had a lover named Hugh who died on Flanders Field during the Great War, juggles not one but two lovers at the school – the sweet but feckless ginger-haired Mr. Lowther (Gordon Jackson) who teaches music and singing and the caddish art teacher Teddy Lloyd (Robert Stephens) who is so prolific in his sexual activity that he has six children by his wife Deirdre and still aggressively pursues Miss Brodie as well as one of her students.

The director clothes the seductive Smith in vibrant sensual colours illustrating her passionate nature - vibrant reds, lush purples, vivid pinks and oranges - and she starkly stands apart from the other dour, grey-clad school mistresses particularly the unfortunately named Miss Gaunt who does the malicious bidding of the headmistress Miss Mackay (Celia Johnson).

It is this sort of sexual charisma that alienates some of the other teachers, specifically the headmistress, who must see to it that this tall poppy is cut down to the appropriate size. To this end she encourages the girls to spy on Miss Brodie about her relationship with both men.
In the film, Teddy Lloyd is more obnoxiously portrayed than he is in the novel – he is lecherous and predatory in the book, yes, but on film we see him physically accost both Jean and Sandy and force himself on them in a brutal manner. The climate then was such that this behaviour was tolerated along the lines of “they can’t help themselves”. Today we would have a vastly different perspective on it. 

The magnificent Maggie Smith
Muriel Spark, the author, intersperses the narrative set in the present with flashes of the future fates of both Miss Brodie and the girls and this lends a melancholy air to the book despite the comedic elements (the film does not include the fate of the girls). In the film we never learn that Sandy will convert and become a nun, another girl will be a failed actress, etc ... In the film, the fate of Mary MacGregor is merged with the fate of different girl in the book who dies on route to fight in the Spanish Civil War, inflamed by Miss Brodie's exultations about Franco and fascism. But to illustrate the pernicious nature of Miss Brodie's view, we learn that Mary fled to Spain to fight with her brother in the mistaken belief that he was fighting with Franco's forces rather than against him with the Republicans as Sandy so heatedly informs Miss Brodie. 

Sandy appears inflamed by sexual jealousy and then the fear of Miss Brodie's political ideas. But in the novel, Miss Brodie never learns who her betrayer is. 

It is a more satisfying denouement in the film when Sandy openly confronts Miss Brodie and tells her both that she is Teddy Lloyd's lover (not Jenny as Miss Brodie had perversely hoped) and the one who betrayed her to the head mistress. It is clearer in the film that Miss Brodie is perceived as a dangerous influence and yet Smith's performance is so nuanced and carefully constructed that we can do little more than despise the beady-eyed Sandy when she destroys her teacher's future. 
We regretfully (and perhaps shamefully) sympathize with Miss Brodie's anguished cries in the halls of Marcia Blaine that the icy Sandy is nothing but an assassin. I couldn't help but hear echoes in her operatic cries of "Assasssin!" in the anguish of traditional Italian operas. She very much reminded me of one of these 19th c. operatic heroines - flawed, tragic and somehow eminently desirable.
Muriel in her prime

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Amazons of the Mediterranean Reading

 On June 7th, 2015 fifteen Amazons of the Mediterranean gathered at the Black Swan Tavern - they were comedians, poets and writers - serenaded by one brave singer/musician. They laughed, they commiserated, they shared ... and a wonderful time was had by all.

Our first set ...

Brave comedian Daniela Saioni leads the way ... 
La poetessa, award winning 
Gianna Patriarca
The always charming poet
Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews
Josie Di Sciascio-Andrews

Poet Giovanna Riccio schools us 
on the definition of "Amazon"
One of our Greek Amazons - the writer Tina Tzatzanis 
reading for one of her very first times

Serenaded by the multi-talented 
musician/singer Nigel Barnes
The writer and arts supporter Darlene Madott
Poet Silvia Falsaperla (truly the 
name of a poet), at her first reading
Talented writer Bianca Lakoseljac, a true trooper, who
drove five hours from up north to make the reading
Nicole Haldoupis,
writer & co-founder of untethered
Nigel opens the third set 
Sandra Battaglini, comedian extraordinaire

Poet Sonia Di Placido bound for
new literary adventures soon
Cristina Rizzuto
Cristina Rizzuto, 
author, traveller, bibliophile.
Daniela Nardi speaks about 
Città Aperta on June 23, 2015
Carmela Circelli,
philosopher, academic, daydreamer
Art director and Amazon poster 
creator Rob Fujimoto

Emcee & Organizer Michelle Alfano

Sunday, May 31, 2015

May Cultural Roundup

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Don't Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Muneeza in the Middle (Canada, 2015)
Going Clear (U.S., 2015)
Don't Look Now (U.K./Italy, 1973)
Tab Hunter Confidential (U.S., 2015)
Welcome to Me (U.S., 2015)

Friday, May 8, 2015

Books on Film: Don't Look Now

Sutherland and Christie
Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg (U.K./Italy, 1973) 110 minutes
Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier (Gollancz, 1971; republished Don't Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne Du Maurier, NYRB, 2008)

The May selection for TIFF's Books on Film is Don't Look Now, a Nicholas Roeg classic I have long overlooked and wanted very much to see. 

In the film, two traumatized parents try to overcome grief over the death of their only daughter Christine who drowned in a pond on their property in England. The original premise is based on a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, a master of the Gothic and unspecified, unnameable horrors especially those found within a marriage. One may read an excellent review of the film posted by the Criterion Collection here

John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) is an exacting professional refurbishing a church in Venice, Italy. Laura Baxter (the always exquisite Julie Christie) is his young wife who is trying to establish some emotional equilibrium after the child’s death. In the story, the couple have left England and travelled to Venice to console themselves after the child's death. John hopes that "life will become as it was before, the wound will heal, she will forget."

Laura becomes involved with two elderly British sisters visiting Venice that they meet in a restaurant – Wendy and Heather. Heather, who is blind, is said to have psychic powers and can communicate with the dead. Laura is desperate to hear any information about her child. John feels that Laura, though not religious, is in a "state of susceptibility" to the suggestion of the supernatural. The motives of the siblings are unclear and are suspect to John – are they helpful, maternal souls administering to Laura's sorrow or are they more sinister in their intentions? John, the blind sister tells Laura, is also psychic. We surmise as much when at the beginning of the film, John rushes to the pond seconds after the little girl’s death with a premonition that something has gone very wrong.

The sisters have an ominous message for the couple – Heather prophesies that John is in danger – and Laura insists that they leave Venice. The parents receive a message that their son Johnny has had a medical emergency while at boarding school in England and Laura leaves to join their son. In the story, this red herring suggests that this is the danger that the family is facing.

The extraordinarily beautiful Venice looks washed out and dirty here – not the Venice of romantic cinema, dreams and travel brochures. This is epitomized by, among other things, a broken, undressed doll lining a canal steps, the rats in the canal, the smudged, grimy looking buildings that are always shuttered from natural light. The canals are largely deserted and melancholy, reflecting the couple's ennui and sense of displacement. Roeg captures Du Maurier's Venice perfectly as exemplified by John's growing unease:
This is the true life. Empty streets by night, the dank stillness of a stagnant canal beneath shuttered houses. The rest is a bright facade put on for show, glittering by sunlight. 
Later John thinks disconsolately, "The experts are right ... Venice is sinking. The whole city is slowly dying." 

The couple also face a panoply of somewhat unwelcoming Venetians who offer their assistance grudgingly: the police officers skeptical of John's claims; the sour faced, black clad crone in the washroom who is present when Heather tells Laura she has seen Christine in her visions; the Bishop whose visage seems to say that he knows more than he lets on – the aspect of the Venetians is even  more dangerous seeming in the film. 

The Bishop has commissioned work on the Church of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children we are told. The Bishop presents a slightly disturbing, odd presence in the couple’s lives. In a harrowing, if somewhat prolonged scene, John has an accident on a scaffold within the church while examining a mosaic that needs to be repaired and nearly falls to his death (a dangerous stunt that Sutherland performed himself). We begin to sense that someone, or something, is in malignant pursuit of John.

After John survives the near fall he encounters the police fishing the corpse of a young woman out from the canal, by her heels, face unseen, resurrecting terrifying memories of his own daughter’s drowning. That scene, not included in the original story, lends a gruesome aspect to John's foreboding. There is a murderer on the loose we are told. John reflectively pauses before an Italian film poster of a Charlie Chaplin film entitled “Uno Contro Tutti” ("One Against All"). Signs affixed to construction sites proclaim "Venice in Peril". One feels the weight of the sinister forces that seem to oppose the couple. 

Roeg's shots of a cat behind a barred window in an apartment or a flock of dispersing birds seem disturbing, off putting. That which is commonly seen as exquisitely ancient or charming in Venice seems ruined, harbouring some archaic, unseen evil in Roeg's hands. The sisters in particular give John "an impending sense of doom, of tragedy". 

After Laura leaves for England, John sees (or imagines that he sees) Laura, dressed in black, riding on a vaporetto on the canal with the two sisters. She does not respond to his frantic calls. We feel that his mind is disintegrating. He searches for the pensione of the sisters and then reports that Laura is "missing" to the authorities even though he saw her leave for England. He tells the police that he knows that there is a murderer on the loose in Venice and possibly Laura is being held captive by the sisters. 

John is excitable and fearful as he searches for Laura and, seemingly, with good reason. He is being followed by a stranger in the calle; the police official he reports Laura's disappearance to is oddly nonchalant treating John's report in an offhand manner, carelessly doodling on a drawing of the two sisters as if they are of no import. Most importantly, John has many fleeting images of Christine's red coat in the alleyways of Venice which elude him.

The sisters are arrested, suspected of having done away with Laura but John soon learns that he is mistaken in his fears and secures their release. He continues to be pursued by visions (or apparitions) of Christine on the streets of Venice. There is a disquieting sense of doom as one wonders what is real and what is not. Laura returns from England and searches for John at the sisters' urgent behest (a scene also not depicted in the story).

Laura pursues John and John pursues "Christine", running through the streets of Venice at night, which makes no sense in the same way that a nightmare lacks reason or coherence. If you have walked the labyrinth of the Venetian streets you realize how confusing and horrifying that might be to a fevered mind especially at night.

John chases the the red hooded figure realizing that an unknown man is doing so as well. He surges forward to protect the small figure whom he feels is in jeopardy. In the end, John does possess the powers of prophesy as Heather predicted but he learns that too late to change the course of his destiny. 

Roeg's directing style has been described as "disjunctive". Perhaps. This editing style is now de rigueur in modern cinema but would have been somewhat revolutionary at the time of its release in 1973. Roeg is relying on the intelligence of the film goer to piece the narrative together coherently. It seems a particularly apt style of movie making when two of the main characters see both flashes of the future and are tortured by memories of the past. 

The film is only slightly marred by lingering shots of certain scenes which may have appeared intriguing in 1973 – an extended, superfluous lovemaking scene between the couple early in the film reflecting no doubt the new liberties of the cinematic era (in the story their lovemaking is summed up by one sentence) and the scene of John hanging precariously, and endlessly, from the scaffolding in the church he is refurbishing. Based on Sutherland's courage in attempting the stunt, one understands Roeg's desire to maintain the drama of the scene. Neither of these scenes appear in the short story which is tighter and more suspenseful.

These scenes, as well as Sutherland's exaggerated acting style, test the patience of the modern cinema goer somewhat. However, I cannot say I was not spooked by the film. I was indeed. 

Daphne Du Maurier

Thursday, April 30, 2015

April Cultural Roundup

Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto
The Sicilian Wife by Caterina Edwards (Please see review here)

Woman in Gold (U.S., 2015)
Citizen Kane (U.S.,1941)
Birdman (U.S., 2014) (Please see review here)
All Good Things (U.S., 2010)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Sicilian Wife

The Sicilian Wife by Caterina Edwards (Linda Leith Publishing Inc., 2015), 357 pages

Edmonton writer Caterina Edwards does not disappoint with her newest novel - this literary noir combines all the elements we expect from the genre and this talented and prolific writer: drama, passion and literary sophistication. Who else would be able to smoothly mesh the labyrinthian workings of the Sicilian police force and the mafia with quotes from the 5th c. philosopher Empodocles of Sicily, snippets of Greek mythology and fairy tales rooted in Sicilian culture?

The Sicilian Wife is the tale of two ambitious women, Fulvia Arcuri and Marisa De Luca, separated by an ocean but emotionally and intricately linked by a murder and a lover. 

Fulvia Arcuri, is the daughter of a mafia don in Alcamo, Sicily. She escapes to a life of relative normalcy in Canada after a love affair is savagely cut short by her lover's parents who are leery of the boy's association with the Arcuri family. 

Almost two decades later, w
hen a burnt body surfaces in Alcamo, Sicily after a horrific car crash,  Comissário Marisa De Luca, a police captain recently stationed in Sicily from the north, begins to investigate the true identity of the victim, Samuele Mazzolin - Fulvia's estranged husband - and her investigation leads her to Canada and Fulvia.

The story artfully alternates between Fulvia's repressive and brutal childhood lived in a gilded cage in 1970s Sicily including Fulvia's thwarted attempts at rebellion against her parents and the story then turns to the police investigation conducted by De Luca in the late 1980s conducted in both Sicily and Canada.

De Luca, a tough and resilient police commander, faces an equally hostile atmosphere in her workplace - disrespected by some, stalked and harassed by some unknown assailant who ransacks her home (is it the local mafia don, Fulvia's zio Antonio Arcuri, who fears the direction of her inquiries? Or is it one of her disgruntled, belligerent colleagues who resent her?) - she is both in possible jeopardy and stubbornly unmoving in her

Caterina Edwards
pursuit of the truth in the Mazzolin case. 

The women are also linked by one of Fulvia's past lovers - the handsome Alex who pursued a different, sometimes troubled, path from his wealthy, overbearing parents. The two college age teenagers - Fulvia and Alex - were passionately involved until his aristocratic family put an end to the relationship and Fulvia fled to Canada. Alex auspiciously crosses paths with Marisa in Rome during the investigation into the death of Mazzolin.

With suggestions that Fulvia's seemingly innocent husband Sam has possible links to the drug trade in Italy, both women in engage in a voyage of discovery that proves fruitful, searing and ultimately dangerous for both. 

Sensuous, fast-paced and erudite, The Sicilian Wife  satisfies on every level. 


You may purchase The Sicilian Wife here. Kindly also take the time to read a review of Ms. Edwards' last book, the memoir Finding Rosa here.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March Cultural Roundup

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (U.S., 1962)
Coriolanus (U.K., 2012) (please see review here)
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (U.S., 2010)

Sister Crazy by Emma Richler
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

The Delaware Literary Salon, March 22nd with Nigel Barnes, Diane Enns, Josee Sigouin
Descant, The Grand Finale, Revival, March 25, 2015

Basquiat: Now is the Time, AGO, March 29, 2015

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Delaware Literary Salon

Twice a year, my gracious and generous friends Antonio and Fadi host a literary salon in their beautiful home. They provide the food and drink and delicious desserts. The food is all home-made and spectacular. I am lucky enough to emcee and sometimes read.  
The repast courtesy of Antonio and Fadi

An old friend, the musician 
and songwriter, Nigel Barnes
Nigel Barnes is a singer/songwriter, who writes songs and then sings them. He finds it works best that way. He released a CD in 2006, called It Is What It Is. He is in a new band playing some of his songs and some covers. They are still trying to decide on a name, but are having a good time. Nigel has been performing on and off since he was about 13 years old. Let's not talk about how long that is, but over the years he has had the privilege to share a stage with some wonderful people, many of whom have become his friends. 

Diane Enns, essayist and professor 
Diane Enns is an ambivalent philosopher, trying not to let institutional life beat the beauty out of words or the life out of ideas. She writes about things she sees or reads, fledgling ideas, encounters and confluences, and random thoughts that won’t leave her alone. She writes in order to understand something she has witnessed or experienced, to provoke thought, or to indulge in the sheer pleasure of expression. Philosophy too often forgoes the beauty of reflection and its power to move, in favour of lifeless logic and argument. Thinking, imagining, feeling, contemplating, daydreaming, wondering — these are her preferred names for philosophy. It is “life worked out on the page.”

Josée Sigouin, novelist and friend
Josée Sigouin is an aspiring writer born in Montréal and now living in Toronto. She has traveled extensively in Asia, sparking an interest in South Korea, the setting for The Fifth Season, a first novel still in development. She currently works at the University of Toronto where she serves as managing editor for a corporate communications vehicle. Writing fiction provides Josée with the ideal space to explore wider creative horizons.

An appreciative audience
Our  hosts the fabulous Fadi and Antonio
The emcee, Michelle Alfano, who usually forgets
to take a photo of herself so this will have to do