Thursday, December 27, 2007

American Dreaming

Dream Girls (2006) directed by Bill Condon

My sistah T (one of my "outlaws") lent me some DVDs which I missed this year and last and have been meaning to see for sometime. This is one of them ...

I remember clearly when my brother and I went through our Motown phase. We obsessively listened to a three disc set of the Supremes in the 70s, memorizing the lyrics, miming the actions, generally making fools of ourselves as only white folk can do when listening to black music (okay, so maybe that was just me)... so I do get it - the story of the Supremes is intriguing, a quintessential American rags to riches success story.

The story is well known and I think there is no need to reiterate the entire plot except in its most basic form. The film is a semi-fictitious version of the life of Diana Ross and the Supremes (here renamed The Dreams) and their rise to fame under the mentorship of Berry Gordy Jr., founder/owner of Motown Records in Detroit. There are a number of idealistic twists along the way typical of American success stories. That things did not end well for all concerned doesn't really fit into this fantasy paradigm.

Regrettably, the film has achieved the somewhat inconceivable: Bill Condon has managed to create an utterly boring cinematic vision of a dynamic group of black entertainers in one of the most crucial periods in black American music history.

Oh yes, it looks beautiful and the costumes, wigs and various scenarios where the Dreams appear are picture perfect but it utterly lacks depth. The music is uniformly awful, generic sounding and soulless, literally. Not for one minute do you believe these three girls grew up poor, or how much music meant to them as a way out of that life or sense the hunger that must have driven Berry to the sometimes malicious and criminal ends he resorted to to promote the careers of the Supremes and push a black pop group into mainstream American culture.

Here the Supreme group members Diana Ross have morphed into Deena (Beyonce Knowles), Florence Ballard into Effie (the famously rejected American Idol participant Jennifer Hudson) and Mary Wilson into Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose). The girls grew up in a time when black was not beautiful, where nappy hair had to be hidden by synthetic wigs. Black entertainers were still not welcome in certain establishments. Berry exploded on to the mainstream music scene destroying the colour bar forever on radio and musical venues.

Here Deena, Effie and Lorrell are taken under the wing of Berry-like music entrepreneur Curtis Taylor, Jr., (Jamie Foxx), owner of a car dealership and wannabe producer. Taylor is brilliant at spotting talent, cultivating it and pushing the group forward into the pop sensations they will eventually become. However, he is equally ruthless at eliminating all obstacles in the way. When Effie becomes a liability because she is too difficult, too heavy for the pop image that he is cultivating for the girls, he takes Deena as his lover and forces Effie into the sidelines as a backup singer even though she has the strongest voice.

Effie quits and lives nobly in poverty, giving birth to Taylor's child and never disclosing the father's identity. She struggles on, trying to re-establish her own career, is cheated out of a comeback by Taylor only to be resurrected by the saintly Deena who is horrified to learn what Taylor has done. Effie is reunited with the Dreams by a gracious Deena for a triumphant last song in the film during which Taylor slowly realizes that the little girl in the audience watching Efiie ... is .. gasp ... own child! Brother please. He (Jamie Foxx the actor) is much better than this material. He was, much to my surprise, superb in Collateral (2004).

Nothing feels authentic here. Knowles, despite her beauty and amazing voice, is what you would imagine: only passable as an actress. Foxx is compelling I admit. Eddie Murphy as James Thunder Early (perhaps representing an amalgamation of James Brown and other soul singers of the time) is unwatchable in his coarseness and vulgarity trying to represent, I think, what a badass this type of trail blazing singer probably was at the time. No wonder the critics raved about Jennifer Hudson - she is one the shining spot in the whole film. She is passionate. angry, volatile, real. You believe that she is Effie.

In real life Florence Ballard, the founder of the Primettes, which later became the Supremes, was fired from the group in 1967 over conflicts with Berry Gordy and Diana Ross (who had since become Berry's lover). She ended up on welfare and was attempting a comeback when she died in 1976 from heart problems.

Mainstream American filmmaking, which is obsessed with happy endings, can't seem to deal with the awfulness of this truth.

But you know, maybe the black community needs these cinematic fantasies too where the good guy triumphs and the villain is punished. Too bad that isn't the way life works.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Alpha Dog (2006)

Alpha Dog (2006) is based on the 2000 real events of drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood's (Emile Hirsch as Johnny Truelove) malicious conniving to kidnap and kill 15 year old Nicholas Markowitz, here named Zack Mazursky, who was the brother of a former friend/meth addict Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster), in order to eradicate a debt. The story is both too obviously done and thoroughly chilling in its details. Not as exploitative as Kids (1995) directed by Larry Clark. which seemed to revel in the sexual activities and mindless violence of underage kids, it comes a bit too close to achieving the same sort of effect.

Nick Cassavetes
' film is shot like a documentary with a "filmmaker" asking questions off screen, the principals labeled on film and chronological timelines indicating how the events transpired which lead to the death of Markowitz. It opens with "home movies" of what the viewer presumes to be the young men as boys set to a melancholy rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow". The message is clear, they start off so sweetly, then look what they become ... Apparently Cassavetes was inspired by the fact that his two daughters went to school with some of the boys involved.

More explicit "message" commentary comes from Sonny Truelove (Bruce Willis), father of Johnny Truelove, in which he implicates all the parents for the whole affair. The irony quickly reveals itself. Sonny is the main supplier for Johnny's drug trade and a minor criminal himself. His criminal activities fuel Johnny's. Sonny's "mentor" Cosmo (Harry Dean Stanton) is a semi-literate drunk. Apples and trees, apples and trees ...

Son Johnny Truelove is a malignant, vicious Napoleonic figure who orders about his crew of misfits and losers with an unquestioned imperialism in his drug empire. Elvis (Shawn Hatosy) is a none too bright lackey who, it is implied, is in love with Johnny and will do his bidding without compunction. Frankie (pop star Justin Timberlake) is the son of wealthy botanist and lives in luxurious circumstances in Palm Springs yet hangs with Johnny and the boys in the Valley.

Jake Mazursky, who is Jewish, is often the target of the underlying hostility the mostly white crew feels towards him. When he fails to collect on a debt that is owed to Johnny, he must find a way to pay. Jake's father Butch (David Thornton), an affluent white collar professional with a second wife Olivia (Sharon Stone) and a young son Zack, is reluctant to get more involved in Jake's debts which accumulate with his increasing habit. Jake is unable to pay his debt inciting vengeful violence from Johnny's crew. Jake retaliates, trashing Johnny's house, stealing his TV, defecating in his home.

Zack, naive, coddled by a loving but over protective mother, wants to be like half-brother Jake and gets caught in the middle of the violent feud. Johnny, Frankie (a very well chosen Justin Timberlake) and Tiko (Fernando Vargas) are driving through Zack’s San Fernando neighborhood, accidentally spot Zack and snatch him thinking they can hold him until Jake pays up.

Jake refuses to make a deal with Johnny. The boys, at loose ends about what to do with Zack, portrayed here as endlessly sweet and innocent, end up allowing him to hang out, smoke pot, flirt and have sex with a succession of vacuous girls including Julie (Amanda Seyfried), watch “gangsta” videos (again fingered as one of the culprits int the events here) and offer him pretty much the best time of his young sheltered life at their various homes. Zack promises not to run away and why would he? Only Frankie's girl Susan (Dominique Swain) is momentarily horrified by what has happened and the consequences but when assured that Zack will soon be returned she relents and joins in the general party. Zack somehow believes that being held hostage will alleviate his brother's dire situation, assuaging Johnny's anger.

Johnny starts to panic about how to return Zack and asks a lawyer for advice, when told that he is looking at a life sentence for kidnapping he asks first Frankie and then Elvis to kill Zack. Frankie refuses but Elvis eagerly takes up the challenge. The highly publicized ending is well known.

So who or what had failed this boy? Indifferent or overly liberal parents, the effect of drugs, machismo gone haywire, gangsta video culture, rap music, take your pick ...

Sonny Truelove is a lowlife criminal. Butch Mazursky is too uninvolved in his boys' lives, Olive too involved, prompting Zack's departure. Frankie's father, though very wealthy indulges in drink, drugs and threesomes in front of Frankie. Susan's mother, high on Ecstasy, is too self-absorbed to talk to Susan when she comes to her mother for advice.

It's horrifying, repulsive, and completely compelling. Cassavetes does a more than credible job in portraying the culture that spawned these horrific events. However, I can't help feeling that despite the obvious horror that the filmmaker is trying to display there is an almost prurient interest in the lives of these kids.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions

Visiting Mrs. Nabokov and Other Excursions by Martin Amis (Vintage Books, 1993) 274 pp.

I snapped up this book immediately at a used book sale this fall at the university where I work. The title and author were enough for me even though the essays/articles date back to the 80s and 90s ... Amis' bad boy charm and razor sharp intellect have always been attractive to me.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I suffered through the reading of The Rachel Papers, Amis' first novel, not because it wasn't any good (I thought it was a good first effort by a very young man) but because my sense of smell while pregnant was so intense that the peculiar scent of the old book, which had been passed through many hands at the library, almost undid me. But I soldiered on because I wanted to see what his first artistic effort would be like. And I'm glad I did.

I admit I have been selective in choosing which essays to read in this book, studiously avoiding the pieces on tennis, chess, poker and football (soccer to you and I here in Canada) or snooker with his former intimate and fellow author Julian Barnes (by the way this article predates their estrangement).

I was concentrating on the pieces on Graham Greene, John Updike, Madonna, V.S. Naipaul , the Rolling Stones, Salman Rushdie and, of course, the title piece "Visiting Mrs. Nabokov". He doesn't disappoint. He never does. He is always quick witted, erudite, acerbic.

One of my few complaints is that the pieces are sometimes too short but likely these are written according to the strict word counts of those newspapers and magazines that they were originally published in (The Observer, Vogue, Evening Standard, Tatler, etc ...). His razor sharp tongue seems to excel in deconstructing outsized personalities.

Read his assessment of Ronald Reagan's performance at the Republican convention in 1988 as described in "Phantom of the Opera: The Republicans in 1988" and his ruthless picking apart of the "mask" that Reagan assumed as the penultimate symbol of Republican royalty where he describes Reagan as "a gorgeous old opera-phantom shot full of novocaine".

Or read his clever summation of Madonna's artistic/mercenary motivations in producing the book Sex and the astute analysis of her success as being a triumph of will over talent.

Other pieces include Salman Rushdie living under the consequences of the Ayatollah Khomeini imposed fatwa, a long dissertation on Saul Bellow's More Die of Heartbreak, Naipaul's book on the ills of modern India.

It is a bit dated in the reading now but Amis is always a delight to read.

The Demise of the Tooth Fairy and the End of Santa

It all started with the tooth fairy ...

One day earlier this year J, my daughter, was talking about the tooth fairy and the loss of her latest tooth. She looked up at me and said coyly (I thought), "I wish that the tooth fairy would leave me just a little bit extra this time!"

Oh no, she must know, I was thinking as she said this. I pondered how I should start to broach this subject.

We've had our close calls. One or two of her close friends had warned her that Santa didn't exist and we always managed to talk her out of it, insisting that they might not believe but we certainly did.

She noticed some years ago that Santa's writing resembled her dad's block like printing and confronted him. We managed somehow to wiggle out of that and then started to type all our notes instead. That worked for a while.

Sometimes she would leave little "traps" for Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, with hand scrawled notes or messages on a small blackboard we had set up in the dining room which asked: "Are you real? Check yes here ___ or no ___" or "Did you like the cookies? Check yes here ___ or no ___"

"Well J," I finally started after some fumbling. "You know ... there's no tooth fairy... uh, right?"

"WHAT?" she exclaimed in alarm. She promptly burst into tears.

Uh oh ...

"So whose been putting money in my tooth fairy box then?" she asked with some desperation.

"Well, uh, well, um, I guess that would be me and your daddy" ... Arrrggggh - what have I done? I thought she knew, I thought she was just waiting for me to tell her. I thought ...


"I uh I ... um," Oh sh*t ...

"So does that mean (look of horror passes over her face) that there's ... NO ... SANTA?"
Please someone vaporize me right now ...

"There's no Santa? There's no Santa? Why didn't you tell me? Why did you lie?" Dark eyes flashing, look of anger, frustration, discovery, confirmation of fear, all in rapid succession passed over her sweet face.

"Well it's not really a lie baby ... isn't it a lovely idea that Santa comes and brings gifts to children? And we do believe in the Christmas spirit, that people should come together and share food and good times and be generous ..." Cue the violins please ...

She softened a bit. She was not so angry.

"And wasn't it lovely to believe all this time?"

"Well yeah ..." Long wistful silence. "So what about the Easter Bunny?"

"Uh, you'll have to ask your dad about that."

I thought: I'm not taking a bullet for the Easter bunny too, no way.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Margot at the Wedding (2007)

Margot at the Wedding (2007) directed by Noah Baumbach

This film is director Noah Baumbach's similarly themed follow-up to The Squid and the Whale which also tackled a dysfunctional, unhappy family and the fallout when their desires and familial resentments collide. He also directed Kicking and Screaming (2005) which now seems an aberration in light of these two films.

Here, the successful and spectacularly unhappy New York writer Margot Zeller (Nicole Kidman), travels to her family home for the prospective wedding of her estranged, slightly offbeat sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), with Margot's son Claude (the charming newcomer Zane Pais) in tow.

Margot has unexplained grievances against Pauline and seems determined to undermine the whole venture. Pauline is flighty, emotional and a little enthralled with her more successful, more beautiful sister. Margot quickly sizes up Pauline's fiancé Malcolm, the unemployed artist cum failed musician (Jack Black), and finds him wanting. He is simply not good enough for Pauline. Malcolm too appears under her thumb despite her coldness and rude behavior. But it's not just Malcolm.

Everything disappoints or alarms the acerbic Margot when she returns home. Margot insists Pauline has changed the family home to its detriment. She tells her son, the sweet-natured Claude that he has changed: he lacks manners, is embarrassing to her, smells offensive and is lazy and disrespectful to her sister. Margot cavorts with a male friend in front of Claude suggesting that she is having an affair. She tactlessly urges friends to consider that their son is autistic although the couple insists he has been tested. She seems unable to control her unpleasantness and selfish behavior.

As the wedding approaches, this odd configuration of personalities flails and struggles. Unpleasant, possibly violent, neighbors threaten the outcome of the wedding day and physically threaten Claude and Ingrid, Pauline's teenage daughter. The tree in the backyard is a bone of contention for them and must be cut down before the wedding. Margot appears on the verge of leaving her husband. An indiscretion on Malcolm's part with the babysitter Maisie (whose father is consorting with Margot) nearly ends his relationship with Pauline.

Despite the raves for The Squid and the Whale, the ennui of the educated upper middle class is only of limited interest to me but Kidman is always a revelation as an actor. She is utterly convincing as a brittle, self-absorbed narcissist who torments her son, betrays her husband (John Turturro), alienates her sister and almost sabotage's Pauline's marriage. The American director Mike Nichols has said that the mark of a great actor is that you always believe that they are just playing themselves on screen and this, I think, is true of Kidman.

Both films tend to have a washed out quality, pictorially, but the chemistry between Kidman and Leigh holds the film together for me. Some reviewers have expressed annoyance at the various neurotic characterizations ("a circus of family neuroses and bad behavior that perhaps a therapist could make sense of better than Noah Baumbach can" said one while another opined this: "a hugely pretentious, ugly and annoying follow-up" to his first film) but that's not what troubles me.

I think it's the sense of not knowing why these unhappy people are the way they are. I felt the same way about the father figure Jeff Daniels and other characters in The Squid and the Whale. It's not that it wasn't interesting to watch; it just felt so superficial and mysterious ... it's as if the director knows the secret of their unhappiness but won't reveal it to the audience or maybe he’s hoping we’ll figure it out on our own.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Just like the book by Nabokov

"They came to my house in a disembodied state of suspension, bringing to my living room their secrets, their pains and their gifts."
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2004) 347 pp.

One brave Iranian professor, Azar Nafisi, gathers a group of seven girls (Azin, Mahshid, Manna, Mitra, Nassrin, Sanaz and Yassi) together to read censored texts in her home in the late 1990s. Frustrated by life under Islamic rule in Iran, this book documents their oppression and enlightenment as women and as human beings, in a tyrannical state where girls and women are reprimanded, punished and sometimes imprisoned for having "too long" nails, for biting apples "too seductively", for allowing strands of hair to peek through their veils, for wearing makeup, for "Western attitudes". The pleasures of this small group are small but forbidden and therefore delicious: classical Western literature by Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Flaubert and Henry James; ham and cheese sandwiches; the removal of their veils in a private space; classic Hollywood movies, etc ...

The two photographs that Nafisi speaks of early in the book serve as a metaphors for the girls' dual existence. In the first they are shrouded in their chadors. It is difficult to distinguish them from each other. In the second, they have disrobed and are seen in a more intimate manner with their own clothes, unveiled, smiling, lively.

But although the book starts this way it is more than a recollection of the time spent with these girls; it is a political memoir of living in Iran through revolutionary times and Nafisi's transformation from a young "revolutionary" living as an Iranian student in America in the 60s to a wiser, more humane citizen of the world living in Iran as an adult in the late 70s and the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s and 90s. She evolves into an adult who recognizes that the draconian desires of her revolutionary youth sometimes had real and dangerous consequences in a state ready to punish and kill those who did not conform to the schemes of the 1979 Islamic revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini.

Early on, she relates a telling anecdote: when as a young cleric Khomeini was faced with an anti-clerical town official who named his dogs in a manner so as to insult clerics. He asked a leading political cleric how he should have proceeded. He was told "Kill him. You hit first and let others complain. Don't be the victim."

Nafisi, who is both intensely political and an avid admirer of classic Western literature, struggled as a young professor teaching her first year at the University of Tehran. She wanted to impress upon her students the importance of literature. In mock desperation, she even resorts to putting The Great Gatsby on trial in class. Where she sees beauty, some of her more radical students see corruption, decadence and the flouting of a perverse, materialistic Western culture.

Soon, the books that she loves come to represent what was lost in Iran during the Revolution: "When I left class that day, I did not tell them what I myself was just beginning to discover: how similar our own fate was becoming to Gatsby's. He wanted to fulfill his dream by repeating the past, and in the end he discovered that the past was dead, the present was a sham and there was no future. Was this not similar to our revolution, which had come in the name of our collective past and had wrecked our lives in the name of a dream?"

Her idealism is further destroyed when the government decrees that the universities must be shut down to re-examine their role in the cultural revolution. Books are banned, book sellers close because the areas around the university are too violent. Instead of teaching students she is on the street dodging police and bullets and roving gangs of militants intent on punishing those who "disobey" Islamic law as well as angrily opposing university officials who wish to impose the veil on all women, including its female professors.

Eventually she succumbs and begins to teach again at the Allameh Tabatabai University where she resumes teaching classic Western literature to sometimes reluctant students. She learns the fate of her older students: some imprisoned and raped or shot. Others are left to languish for imaginary violations, allegedly some appeared to be jailed merely for their beauty and the lust they inspired.

Henry James confounds her students more so than more complex writings by James Joyce for they cannot determine if the characters are "good" or "bad" (the beauty of James' writing I'd say, as the characters are shaded in such a way that these pronouncements are difficult to make with authority). Is Daisy Miller a brazen girl or a brave girl? Is the heroine Catherine Sloper in Washington Square foolish or independent and strong willed? The reading of Jane Austen prompts discussions about modern marriage in Iran where, to their dismay the girls find that they have fewer rights than their mothers, not more.

Yet Nafisi survives. She survives the Islamic Revolution; the devastation of the eight year Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s; the death of Khomeini; roaming, violent morality squads; government enforcement of the wearing of the veil, the departure or disappearance of cherished colleagues and students.

Nafisi decides to leave for America with her immediate family in 1997. She accepts a teaching position at a major unversity. This prompts different reactions on the part of her seven "girls" as she describes them. As of 2000, Nafisi wrote that:

Azin remarried and moved to California. Her daughter Negar had been taken from her by her first husband and she felt she had nothing to stay for in Tehran.

Manna writes poetry and continued to meet with Mahshid and Yassi to read and talk about literature until they both left for the U.S.

Mahshid is now a senior editor and publishes books of her own in Iran.

Mitra left for Canada, enrolled in college and had a son.

Nassrin sneaked into Turkey with the hope of leaving for London. She arrived safely but Nafisi learns nothing more of her after this.

Sanaz married happily and moved to Europe.

Yassi was accepted at Rice University in Texas and was completing her PhD.

Monday, December 3, 2007

F Words

And I have known the eyes already, known them all -
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,
T.S. Eliot (1917)

I have been thinking about the role of fashion in the lives of women for some time and I am going to brazenly suggest that “progressive”, intelligent women have very ambiguous feelings about fashion, at least those women in the upper third of the Western world in the 21st century. Fashion is sometimes seen as frivolous, superficial, and too silly to be of value to the average, no-nonsense woman.

I’m speaking not just of “Fashion” with a capital “F”, as in high fashion or haute couture, with its attendant sense that there are styles of dress that are being imposed on women by small groups of wealthy designers (mostly men), who are removed from our daily lives and experiences, and producing outrageous costumes at astronomical prices for an elite group of women. No, women have a problem with fashion period: how we dress ourselves, how we express ourselves through our way of dress, and, how we perceive others, particularly and especially, women.
Clothing evokes powerful feelings and can elicit intense emotional and physical reactions (well duh you are now thinking).

I have a theory that women quickly categorize each other by our fashion sense with a one rapid, raking look, up and down (we have all done it I fear), and then lump the woman into a clearly defined group: promiscuous (except we don’t use that adjective, we use the noun Barbara Amiel employed in Chicago during Conrad Black’s trial when she dismissed that female journalist); uptight (she lacks fashion sense); athletic (I wish I had her build so that could wear clothes like that); conservative (her clothes are boring - ergo she is boring!); trendy (she’s a slave to fashion); frivolous (cares too much about her clothes); snooty (spends more on her clothes than I do); trashy (men are attracted to her sexually because of her clothes), etc …

Now, how did Ms. Amiel dare to make that assertion about the female journalist. I’m betting that she merely looked at her clothes and her makeup and hasn’t had any other contact whatsoever with that woman to be able to determine whether she was, or was not, the “s” word. She sized her up quickly, malignantly, and uttered her pronouncement with withering disdain.
Amiel is a good example too of someone who is constantly scrutinized not just for her obnoxious right wing views (rightfully so) but for the way she looks. As much discussion in serious periodicals is spent on how good she looks for a 60 something, how much money she spends on her clothes, the fashion excesses her husband permits her, and, the outrageous photospreads (remember Babs sitting at the feet of Conrad anyone?) in fashion magazines.

It may sound extreme but I think it’s true. We, as women, are so obsessed with our looks and our sense of being evaluated by our looks that we can rarely be charitable about the fashion choices of other women. We are judged for our fashion choices not just by men, as sexual objects and/or objects of admiration, but by other females. And the women who say they don’t care, care just as much, perhaps more so.

As I look out the window of my little cubicle at the university in Toronto where I work I see groups of students flowing past all day long. Students rush past to classes or meetings with friends. They are a microcosm of urban Toronto: all races, all faiths, all shapes and sizes and shades. There is one common denominator that is easily discerned: they very closely resemble each other in style.

I see them in identical puffy winter coats or hoodies, low slung jeans, and trendy sneakers. There are studious looking, no make up kind of girls with the same sensible shoes and the same unadorned knapsacks slung over their backs. There are long legged athletic types trooping around with other long legged athletic types. Carefully made up girly girls, arm in arm, with identical cell phones, hairstyles, jewelry, and other girls who look like their sisters or cousins. And, I think, it’s not just because they are young.

I think it’s because they are female and seek what is familiar and comfortable and won’t make them too uncomfortable in their own circle of friends.

And I will toss around another F word: feminism. At the end of it all, I think most women, even what I would refer to as progressive, intelligent women with feminist beliefs determine if a stranger will be part of their “tribe” by their fashion sense, or lack thereof. And if said stranger doesn’t conform, there is no real kinship established between the women.

The high heel wearing fashionista will never share a latte and her heart with the Birkenstock wearing chum. The first will be eternally thinking “Oh why can’t she just do something with her hair when we go out?” The latter will secretly think the former spends way too much on manicures and should be devoting those resources to PETA or some other worthy cause.
But, no, no, you protest. That’s not true! I assure you it is. Look around you, look at your circle of friends (okay dear male reader look at your female partner or your sister or your mom and her friends). They will resemble you (or her if the reader is a male).

Soccer mom will cleave unto to soccer mom; sporty, athletic gal will cleave to similarly clad friend; high fashion career girl will share martinis with same. We need to surround ourselves with people that look like us – not necessarily the same race, or those with the same physical features, but here in multicultural Toronto and in most urban cities - we surround ourselves with people who have the same fashion sense. I could never be friends with woman who kept asking me how I get around on those three inch heels. The sheer absurdity of the question …

But men are the same you protest. Maybe. Maybe they gravitate to men that look like them, dress like them, have the same kind of car, play the same kind of sports, like the same kind of movies or video games. But do they reject other men as friends because of the way they dress as vehemently as women do? I don’t think they do. Certainly most would never comment on it. Or criticize the way other men dress.

Can you picture Tom after the hockey game, leaning over to Dave at the bar with raised eyebrows saying under his breath, “Can you believe what he’s wearing?” Uh, no.

I’m always surprised at the reactions of female colleagues who express pleasure that my eleven year old daughter abhors dresses and all the girly girl accoutrement of that pre-teen age. “That’s great!” or “She’s my kind of girl!” is the typical response. Why does disdaining “feminine” attire become an asset for a strong female? Will she be less independent or strong or capable because she does so? Tell that to Indira Gandhi or Margaret Thatcher (and I’m not citing them as role models for young women, I’m talking about whether their dress undermines their strength as women).

I’d rather my daughter didn’t associate independence or strength with style of clothing at all or make determinations about a woman’s value by the way she dresses.

I’m usually comfortable with my daughter’s choices even though it goes against the grain of my own girly girl tastes. Actually, in her sneakers, cargo pants and CBGB T-shirts she looks more like her dad in her style. I fought her tomboy impulses initially and then I realized that I was unconsciously trying to mold her into a tiny version of me which is what I think most mothers try and do on a subliminal level and that wasn’t fair or even remotely possible.

Now I think she must go her own way. I shudder to think of my mother’s own heavy handed and unhealthy investment in my fashion sense, and who, until I was in my late teens when I finally left home, would send me back upstairs to change if she disapproved of what I was wearing. It could be anything, an offending scarf, an ankle bracelet, makeup, an errant hairstyle. I think my daughter embraces her own style, perhaps subconsciously, because she is trying to make herself separate and independent from me. I think it’s a healthy, natural impulse.

And here I will raise that dreaded F word again: feminism. Feminism is not about me resembling you or following the lead of other women who may think that women are enslaved by high heels, lipstick and reading Vogue or Vanity Fair.

Feminism is about individual choice in all realms including how we cover or don’t cover our bodies.

Friday, November 30, 2007

From Lux to Louche in One Brief Life

Factory Girl (2007) directed by George Hickenlooper

Cruel as it sounds, there is something irresistible in a tale about a beautiful, rich girl who fails as spectacularly as pop icon Edie Sedgwick did in the 1960s. She has fascinated me ever since I read the oral history Edie: An American Biography by Jean Stein and edited by George Plimpton. And Warhol still fascinates as a recent documentary attests.

Edie Sedgwick, the so-called “It Girl” of the 60s, quickly became the poster child for the most vicious aspects of celebrity-obsessed culture in America. I don't really understand the negative reviews around this film such as this Village Voice article. I thought the performances were wonderful and I am not a particularly big fan of Sienna Miller who plays Edie. But she gives a sensitive and textured performance about a very fragile, troubled individual.

Sedgwick was a Harvard educated blue blood whose descendants date back to 1635 and include a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. She has a trust fund and a taste for the Bohemian and modern art. This, and art school, eventually leads her to New York with best friend Chuck Wein (Jimmy Fallon) and into the lair of
Andy Warhol, creepily and effectively played by Australian actor Guy Pearce, and the Factory, a former downtown hat factory which becomes the apex for the avant-garde scene in New York where film, visual art, poetry, drug use and general debauchery collide. The scenario is convincingly wrought, beautiful and enticing (utterly unlike the real Factory apparently). It is appealing despite the fact that we know it will lead to Edie's destruction.

Anyone here in Toronto who saw the exhibit Andy Warhol/Supernova: Stars, Deaths and Disasters, 1962–1964, which was guest-curated by film director David Cronenberg last summer/fall, will understand the appeal of this messed up, exciting, sometimes frightening world that Warhol created.

Fascinated by Edie, Warhol senses an opportunity to make use of this enchanting girl who favors the louche to the lux. Edie becomes the star of Warhol’s movies and an object of fascination for the media and the fashion industry. Edie's descent into drug addiction and mental illness is well known and well documented. This film attempts to gauge Warhol's role in that process. He is presented as fixated, even obsessed with Edie and her lineage.

Edie draws away from him and becomes romantically involved with a Dylanesque figure. The film presents a fictionalized representation of her love affair with Bob Dylan (Hayden Christensen) who is not specifically named as such in the film but is known simply as the "Musician". There were news reports that Dylan was going to sue the filmmaker if he was named.

Warhol is fascinated by the Musician as he seems to be by all stars. The Musician, in turn, seems repulsed by the world that Edie inhabits
eventually abandons her to marry someone else (fashion model and Playboy bunny Sara Lownds in real life). In the film, Edie's decline is clearly linked to his rejection of her.

Her addiction, lack of confidence, depression, implications of sexual abuse by her father, all debilitate her, scar her physically and emotionally so that she is no longer the media and fashion darling that she once was. Warhol wonders despairingly "Why does she want to be ugly?" He, too, abandons her as do Vogue fashion mavens such as
Diana Vreeland. She has become all that repels him: unkempt, slovenly, out of control. Warhol adherents advocate that she abandoned Warhol, thinking Dylan's stardom would bring her greater fame.

After she ODs, is robbed, nearly dies in a fire, and is repeatedly humiliated, Edie finally leaves New York for California, broken, broke, almost destroyed. She lives on, checking into a number of psychiatric institutions, eventually marries
Michael Post, a fellow psychiatric patient, but overdoses fairly soon after in 1971 by accident, or design. is unclear.

Michiko Kakutani said in her review of the 1982 Stein book, Edie's story "is not simply the story of one girl's tragic loss of innocence or one family's decline and disarray. It is also the story of what happened to this country during the 1960's and the consequences of those years when the past was disavowed and replaced by a hectic new gospel of sensuality and outrage".

What is that saying ... some people live only to serve as examples of how not to live?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Anna Karenina (1997)

The onset of Canadian winters and icy weather always make me think of Russia and Russia makes me think of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. When I worked at the ROM during a certain winter a number of years ago, I used to go to a nearby coffee shop which had a working fire place and curl up in a big chair and read my bruised copy of Anna Karenina. From my chair, I would watch the snow and wind swirl around outside my window and think how lucky I was to be there. I would imagine Kitty skating with Levin and Anna rushing from one engagment to another in a snow filled landscape.

By chance, my partner R happened upon the 1997 version of the film on television. Despite the mishmash of British, American and French accents, the story is too good and the Russian locale too beautiful for the film to be utterly ruined but it is hampered by the varying accents of an international cast and the attempt to fit the entire sprawling plot into a roughly two hour time frame. Notably, this was the first film production of Anna Karenina to be shot in Russia and for that we should be pleased as viewers.

I had read that when Tolstoy was conceiving the character of Anna she was quite a different sort of woman: vulgar, coarse, reveling in her adultery. But, slowly, inexorably, and much to his surprise, she became something else. She evolved into a sensitive, tortured and lonely woman of beauty and sophistication who succumbed to Vronsky because he appealed to an emptiness in Anna, to a lack of sensuality and love in her life.

Here, Anna Karenina (the French actress Sophie Marceau with a lovely but pronounced French accent) is the charming and beautiful sister of Stefan (Stiva) Oblonsky (American actor Danny Huston) who comes to Moscow to reconcile her brother Stiva and her sister-in-law Dolly after her brother's affair with the governess is uncovered. When she is met by her brother at the train station, she also meets Alexei Vronsky (Sean Bean) and the two are instantly smitten. Bean, an English actor from the north of England, has an appropriately noble Slavic profile and is suitably passionate in this role.

However, within moments of their meeting, a railway worker and peasant is accidentally killed under the wheels of the train. Anna feels it to be an ominous sign of things to come. The scene is set for tragedy.

Soon after, at a ball that Anna attends in Moscow with her brother, his wife Dolly and Dolly's sister Kitty (Mia Kirshner), Anna re-encounters Vronsky and sees that she has stolen Vronsky's attentions away from the very young, fragile Kitty. As a respectable aristocratic matron she resists but is aggressively pursued by Vronsky. Their affair begins in earnest.

Their passion alarms those closest to them not because it is immoral to have an adulterous affair but because the couple is so passionately in earnest that it threatens to upset the hypocritical facade that the upper classes have erected. Anna and Alexei will not play by the rules that the very rich have constructed: Do as you like but be discreet. They are not.

There are more premonitions of disaster. In the exact heart, or middle, of the novel Anna becomes pregnant. Vronsky accidentally fatally wounds his horse during a race and is forced to shoot the mare after the race. Clearly, his beloved horse Frou Frou is a also a symbol for Anna herself who is ultimately destroyed by Vronsky and his passions. But Vronsky, too, is more layered and complicated than the cad that he could have been presented as because he does truly love Anna and wishes to marry her.

After the birth of the daughter she bears with Vronsky, Anna decides to leave Karenin (Edward Fox) and live with Vronsky in Italy although this means that she cannot be with her son Seryozha or have access to him.

The Kitty/Levin subplot is extremely abbreviated here as is the spiritual turmoil that Kostya Levin (Alfred Molina) (who often voices many of the same theories that Tolstoy had) experiences about his religious beliefs and his purpose in life as a person of means with the power to effect change for "his" peasants and the land he owns. We see only small glimpses of these philosophical issues and his intensely despairing relationship with his ailing, drug addled brother who lives in degraded circumstances with a prostitute.

Kitty, after her romantic disappointment with Vronsky and subsequent nervous breakdown, marries Levin and leads a happy, productive life, in pointed contrast to the suffering that Anna undergoes. Also lacking here is the scene where Kitty demonstrates her mettle as she insists on being the one to deal with Kostya's dying brother even though Kostya attempts to shield her from the sordid situation.

Anna is forbidden to see her son but insists on doing so at great emotional risk. The scene in the book is heartrending. Here, the episode is so brief it fails to touch you. Marceau is so youthful that it's hard to picture her as the mother of a son this age. It is merely another in a series of disappointments for Anna of which there are many. Her husband will not sanction a divorce as he is under the influence of a high-minded society woman (Fiona Shaw) who is determined to make Anna pay for her "sins".

Anna travels rootlessly from country to country, from city to countryside, fearing that Alexei's mother has her eye on another young princess for her son to marry. Alexei is bored and restless and Anna grows increasingly jealous and unstable, haunted by terrible dreams. The dream in the novel was perhaps too frightening to show on film (Anna witnessing a peasant doing horrid, unpleasant things). Here Anna imagines herself under the wheels of a train, a silly, unnecessary omen of things to come.

Also missing is a pivotal scene where Anna insists at appearing at the opera without Vronsky and learning the full extent of her ostracization by high society in a way that Vronsky is not subject to as a sophisticated man of society. Vronsky objects and her refusal to comply is, in a manner, one more nail in the coffin of their relationship.

Marceau, as lovely and passionate as she is, emotes in a way that Tolstoy's Anna, does not. Greta Garbo who could be horrifically over stylized in her manner in the 1935 film always still epitomizes for me the quintessential Anna. Marceau is red hot, fiery, in her portrayal. But I think this is an error. Anna was passionate because she was desperate; she was at the end of her wits but she was dignified and always a woman of substance. Marceau plays her like a beautiful but impetuous teenager.

When Anna dies, the film chooses an extremely cliched manner of depicting her death, literally showing a candle being extinguished. Her horrific death is not shown, merely the aftermath; her body, lying in a railway shed, is seen at a distance by a distraught Vronsky.

In the end, Vronsky volunteers for the Serbian war against the Turks and seems stricken, lost. But somehow in the novel, you know that he will survive and essentially he has been untouched by the horror that he has witnessed and the sadness that he has caused in the lives of Anna, Karenin, her son and all those that love them.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Hours (2002)

The Hours (2002) directed by Stephen Daldry

A book of early essays by Virginia Woolf, which I recently discovered, made me think of this film again which I saw for the second time. Those that worship at the shrine of Woolf are a rabid lot. Hence, I approached this film, and the book The Hours by Michael Cunningham that it was based on, with a certain skepticism which is entirely unfair.

The book, inspired by Woolf's life and the novel Mrs Dalloway, felt slight when I first read it (perhaps that was a harsh assessment) and there is always that unreasonable scoffing assertion on the part of the Woolf admirer - how dare you tackle Woolf, try to emulate her, replicate her, in homage, or otherwise? But why shouldn't he? Everything is fair game for a writer. Cunningham has the right to write whatever he wants; we have the right as readers to judge it fairly.

So the film ... let's just talk about the film.

The film blends the three stories of three women: Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) and Laura Brown (Julianne Moore). VW's story is well known. Here she struggles to write her novel Mrs. Dalloway. We see her in the village of Richmond where she lives with her husband Leonard Woolf (Stephen Dillane) and entertains her sister Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson) and her children. She muddles through domestic issues with her servant Nellie, struggles to formulate the plot of Mrs Dalloway, debates internally about what will happen after we die. Clearly, the script sets the stage for her imminent demise.

Clarissa Vaughan, a upper crust Bohemian book editor in New York in 2001, whose story emulates that of Clarissa Dalloway planning her party in the novel, is also organizing a party to honour her friend the poet Richard Brown (Ed Harris) who has just won a prestigious prize for poetry. He affectionately calls her Mrs. Dalloway presumably because of her first name and the fact that she is "always giving parties to cover the silence". Richard has HIVand his health is poor; he struggles with his own inner demons and suicidal impulses. He faces the prospect of the party with dread as does Clarissa who has a presentiment of disaster.

The third woman is Laura Brown, a suburban housewife in L.A. in the 5os, pregnant with her second child, and with the care of a small son (a younger version of the poet Richard seen in earlier scenes). She is clearly unwell, barely managing her depression and her own sense of helplessness, as evidenced by her faltering attempt to bake a cake for her husband (John C. Reilly) on his birthday. She is overwhelmed. The impression is that for her depression is an ongoing problem. She decides to drop off Richard and check into a hotel with her own copy of Mrs. Dalloway where she plans to kill herself.

All three seek escape ... Virginia from her daily pain and internal anguish, Clarissa from her fears about Richard's instability and her suspicions that she leads a life of triviality, Laura from her depression and a stulifying suburban existence. In each, a sensitive individual manages, sometimes unsuccessfully, with their depression.

What I didn't realize until this viewing is that each segment of the three part story has a variation of the character of Septimus Warren Smith, the wounded. suicidal WWI soldier in Mrs. Dalloway: Virginia, Richard and Laura. Only Laura is spared, but just barely. In a way these characters are all a variation of Woolf or, at the very least, a physical manifestation of her mental anguish.

Initially disappointed with the film, I see it more objectively now. It has many moments of beauty and sensitivity with a haunting musical score by Philip Glass. Despite the hubbub about the prosthetic nose Kidman wore (no wonder Kidman was annoyed at that attention), Moore's somewhat somnambulistic performance and the presence of John C. Reilly who always manages to annoy me for some reason, it succeeds wonderfully.

It conveys the sense of the times (the 20s, 50s, bohemian upper class New York) so convincingly; the eras are portrayed so simply and effectively. The little Virginia Woolf in jokes entertain ... Richard hears voices in Greek (as did Woolf in the early stages of her madness), Clarissa Vaughan ends up living with Sally Seton (in the book it is an exciting youthful lesbian dalliance which comes to nothing for Sally marries and has a number of sons), the actress Eileen Atkins, who has famously both portrayed and written theatrical pieces about Woolf , appears in the flower shop as the flower seller.

Little touches like that impress the skeptic in me.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Fur Lined Prison

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006) by Steve Shainberg

I understand why this film might initially be perceived as off putting; it is not a traditional biopic with scenes from the life of this extraordinary woman. My first impulse was to dismiss Nicole Kidman in the lead role because she was too pretty and too fragile looking to play Diane Arbus. That early prejudice was soon banished when I actually sat down to watch it.

The film by director Steve Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson is a beguiling, unusual exploration into the workings of Arbus' mind as a photographer of the unusual, the strangely beautiful, the frightening. Please click here to see some of her photographs.

Diane Arbus (1923 - 1971) was born Diane Nemerov into a wealthy Jewish family that made its fortune from the fur trade as furriers. Diane, as portrayed here by Kidman, is a fragile, sensitive misfit with an alluded to, but unexplained, history of mental health issues who is unhappily working as an assistant in her husband Allan Arbus' (Ty Burrell) photo studio.

Allan, then a successful fashion photographer but later an actor, shoots innocuous fashion ads and Diane assists him by accessorizing the models and hosting fur fashion shows in their home. This they do for her affluent parents David and Gertrude Nemerov who are frostily, and effectively, portrayed by Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander. They seem bewildered and perhaps even affronted by Diane's personal demons. Diane is clearly uneasy in this world of artifice and fashion despite her pert dresses and gently feminine demeanor.

Soon Diane's attentions turn to the mysterious Lionel (Robert Downey) who has moved to a flat three flights above the Arbuses. Lionel, a fictitious creation, is a man, likely a former circus performer, covered in dog-like fur all over his body. We see intriguing, scratchy b&w film clips of Lionel hooded, led around in front of a roaring crowd. It seems that Lionel and his apartment are a metaphor for Diane's mind, for the repressed compartments of her mind: the obsessions, interests, sexual feelings, and passions which she cannot exhibit to the others in her life.

Production designer Amy Danger has created a beautiful, exotic and strange place where Lionel (and, in effect, Diane's mind and spirit) resides. It is a place where she slowly comes to know herself better at Lionel's instigation. Shainberg has striven to create an Alice in Wonderland "through the rabbit hole" world of wonders complete with a snowy white pet rabbit, framed b&w photos of circus "freaks", a workshop where Lionel makes (what exactly?) pelts of hair sewn together, a soothing pool in which Diane immerses herself almost like her subconscious.

Through her relationship with Lionel she begins to explore her interest in freaks. He introduces her to dwarfs, transvestites, circus performers, drag queens, people born with deformities like the armless woman who lives across the street, nudist camp devotees. At night, she leaves her home and her children and wanders the streets with a hooded Lionel in an exhilarating, frightening journey into the homes of people she is intrigued and frightened by.

Eventually she invites Allan to meet Lionel. She also invites her new friends to meet her family - they travel through a trapdoor leading directly from Lionel's apartment to her own - calling Dr. Freud, Dr. Freud please. Is this Diane introducing her art to her family and intimates? If so, her parents are horrified, Allan feels threatened, her daughter Grace is mortified and angry. Still Diane cannot keep away from Lionel or what he represents, her dark side, her forbidden thoughts. In seeming desperation, Allan grows a bushy beard as if to compete with Lionel's "fur".

But to no avail, Diane is completely drawn into Lionel's world, perhaps into madness, into a world which frightens and exults her. Lionel asks that Diane shave him clean (so that he may appear normal?) Is this what Arbus' work does, it makes her subjects "normal" to observers?

But Lionel is dying and when he does, it appears that Diane has achieved complete independence and the suggestion is that she leaves her family to pursue her art (I don't know if this is historically accurate, or metaphorically accurate, in terms of pursuing her art). The couple did divorce in 1959 which is very close to the time that this film is set.

Not sufficiently recognized when it was released, this film demonstrates how brave and ambitious Nicole Kidman is as an actress as well as the enormous talents of Steve Shainberg.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Fear of Poetry (and Other Phobias)

I attended an Art Bar poetry reading which featured three poets including the poetry of Karen Mulhallen, a friend. I can’t tell you how intimidating these proceedings seem to me at times. I repeatedly say to Karen that I am “afraid” of poetry and am reluctant to judge it (in terms of its quality) and I am only half joking. I am a little (afraid that is).

When Karen finished reading from her new book Sea Horses, her other friends present, all well versed, well educated, established writers and/or professors, were remarking on the poems - her allusions to the poetry of Al Purdy, her references to The Odyssey, the clever alliteration used, etc … I could only sheepishly murmur “That was lovely” (and it was - and sensuous and imaginative too).

I enjoyed the first reader, Steve McCabe, as well; his work was erotic and strange but appealingly so, accompanied by moody music and these odd, bright illustrations projected on to a screen which added a great deal to the reading I thought. The third reader, a spoken word artist Andrea Thompson, was young, energetic and fun - all three were so different, all three moved me in different ways.

And that’s the problem for me I think … I can only seem to respond on an emotional level to poetry. My instincts are so primitive, so unrefined, so uncerebral, that I can only think to myself “I like it or don’t like it, it moves me or it doesn’t.” I can’t analyze why the damn things work, why they move me (or don’t move me) or how they are put together, why they don’t seem to be well formed, etc … When I talk to poets/friends about this they always reassure me that this visceral reaction is fine.

But somehow I don’t think so. I think appreciation of poetry requires more than that. This hearkens back to my “What you get away with” blog a while ago … Just because I like it does that make it “good”? Does it make it art? No, I don’t think so. Am I afflicted? Am I unable to decipher the secret code that poetry sometimes appears to be to the neophyte? Am I afraid to like poetry? Am I still that unsophisticated working class kid from Hamilton with a chip on her shoulder who is afraid to use multi-syllabic words because her high school friends will think she’s a dork (nice friends eh?).

Even now, when my dear Mama who "calls it as she sees it" telephones I never tell her that I am reading instead I lie and say I’m cooking dinner, cleaning up, etc … never reading, because I still vividly recall her exasperation with my reading habits and her sense that it was a waste of time (mine and hers). I still hide books from certain friends(?) who only have caustic comments about the thickness or, seemingly to their eyes, complex nature of the reading material and often greet me with the exclamation “Aren’t we ambitious?” with a malicious gleam in their eye.

Am I afraid of poetry or am I afraid of not seeming to get it? I want to learn more. I just don’t know where to start. There are things I like but I am nervous to cite the poets I enjoy as I’m sure they will seem hopelessly old fashioned. See how insecure I am about this?

I enjoyed Camille Paglia’s Break, Blow, Burn subtitled Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World's Best Poems because I admired her energy and the enthusiasm she had for the poetry that she loved. I didn’t always agree with her reasoning but it was interesting to read what she thought was moving, emotional, beautiful.

And that’s what I’m looking for - moving, emotional, beautiful ...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Snow Cake (Canada-U.K., 2006)

This film, Snow Cake, likely slipped under the radar for you (as it did for me) but was recommended to me by a friend, AM, who has a special interest in the subject matter. It is a UK-Canadian co-production written by first-time UK screenwriter Angela Pell and directed by British director Marc Evans.

Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman) is travelling through Northern Ontario on his way to meet the mother of his son in Winnipeg. He is captivated, or perhaps coerced depending on your point of view, by a quirky (some might say annoying) 19 year-old hitch-hiker named Vivienne (Emily Hampshire) who asks him to drive her to Wawa, Ontario to see her mother Linda Freeman (Sigourney Weaver).

Vivienne is unperturbed by Alex's understated proclamation that he is an ex-con who has killed someone. They drive on. En route, Vivienne dies instantly in a car crash when their car is struck by a truck. Shocked and emotionally distraught, Alex find himself in Wawa to seek out Vivienne’s mother and personally explain the circumstances of the accident. Here Rickman's usually dour demeanour works perfectly. He is in anguish not only because of Vivienne's death but what it reminds him about his own personal history.

Linda, it turns out, is autistic, albeit high-functioning. She appears, outwardly, unaffected by the news of Vivienne's death. He becomes involved with her orderly, carefully constructed world. Linda lives alone and her autism manifests itself in obsessive neatness and order with a strict adherence to rules and procedures. For instance, she cannot touch garbage, that is Vivienne's job. She begs Alex to stay until Tuesday so that he can remove the garbage to the curb when it will be picked up. He agrees to do this and also arranges Vivienne's funeral which Linda seems unable to respond to.

Alex soon becomes intrigued by Linda’s beautiful, independent neighbour Maggie (Carrie-Ann Moss) who has periodically attempted to help Linda, to no avail. Linda maliciously describes Maggie as a prostitute (she is not) which provides some awkward laughs after Alex and Maggie sleep together for the first time. Maggie is soon warned by a rival suitor, the local police constable, that Alex is an ex-con who has killed someone. Although concerned, she does not question the circumstances of the killing but waits until Alex reveals that he killed the driver of a car who killed his own son some years before.

Too many coincidences perhaps, although all three of the principals, Weaver, Rickman and Moss, are wonderful. It could have a more saccharine ending but does not luckily.

Some critics have commented on the "overly mannered technique" of Weaver as the autistic adult Linda. I honestly don't know enough about this condition to agree although I did feel that this was so at times. I am presuming that the representation of this type of autism is reasonably accurate as I have read that the screenwriter Angela Pell has an autistic son. There is, too, a little bit of the sentiment in the writing that "people who are different are magical!" that this critic derided. I find this sentitment disturbing in watching the film. Could it be that autistic people are like us, mostly not magical, but perhaps only periodically so?

But I would not go as far as the film critic Rex Reed in this assessment: Snow Cake suffers from the same faults that plague most Canadian films: It drones itself to death with the pace of a drunken ant, and the ending takes longer than to arrive than Christmas morning. And Vivienne's artistic quirkiness irks rather than enchants. But this is a little talked of world that most of us have next to nothing in experience with so it is intriguing, beautifully shot and worth a look.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Fear and the Cataclysmic Imagination

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1997) 245 pp.

Shout out to friend MF for mentioning this book. I will cheerfully read anything that McEwan writes. Ian McEwan intrigues me because I often find that I am either completely blown away by his work such as The Cement Garden (1978) or Atonement (2001) or bored blind in novels such as Saturday (2005), On Chesil Beach (2006) and now Enduring Love (1997). Oftentimes, these slight novels, such as the three that I mentioned above, feel like longish short stories which have been padded to novel length much to the detriment of the story.

His novels often centre around romantic or familial love being threatened by an outside malevolent force: the lovers in Atonement are threatened by Briony Tallis' lies; the Perowne family in Saturday are literally threatened by violent thugs; the newly married couple in On Chesil Beach whose relationship is destroyed by their own sexual innocence and a coital "mishap"; Jack and his orphaned siblings when fate leaves them to fend for themselves when both parents die ... this book is similarly in that vein. McEwan, I think, mines his own fears about the destruction of love and family and his cataclysmic imagination to tackle such subjects.

In Enduring Love, Joe, a science writer, and Clarissa, a Keats scholar, are two longtime lovers, torn apart by the traumatic witnessing of a death (I won't reveal the details here but McEwan has ingenious ways of finishing off people in his novels sometimes). There are other witnesses to the accident, one of whom, Jed Parry, becomes obsessed with Joe and begins a sort of stalkerish lovesick pursuit of him.

Jed's obsession with colourless Joe is odd and unfathomable. It's not that these things don't happen, they do, it's that McEwan doesn't give the reader enough insight as to what is happening and why. It does not make sense to me that traumatic event would generate such an intense response in Jed.

Additionally, Clarissa's hostility towards Joe and her inability to sympathize with this nightmarish scenario is bizarre. Intelligent, sensitive Clarissa, inexplicably, becomes suspicious of Joe, wondering what he has done to create this scenario, suspecting him of some past involvement with Jed which he is unable to convince her this is not so. She implies that Jed's handwriting is similar to Joe's, that he has fabricated this crisis (to what end?). Is this the first thing a wife imagines when her husband is being pursued by a mentally unstable, religious fanatic who calls repeatedly, dogs your husband's steps and sends beseeching letters? I think not.

Jed's beseeching, religiously themed pleas for love in the letters are particularly uninteresting (perhaps it is my anti-religious bias).

McEwan, like all writers I presume, becomes utterly fascinated with certain topics and tends to dump his (to him fascinating) research like a lump of cold unpalatable food into our plates as readers.

In Saturday, for instance, his obsessions appear to be the detailed account of along, boring squash game (which McEwan is said to love) and enough bits about neurosurgery to convince the reader that, yes indeed, McEwan truly knows a great deal about neurosurgery.

In Enduring Love, his pet research projects are genetics and the poet Keats. Joe, the male protagonist is a science writer. Clarissa, his partner, is a Keats scholar. Now, admittedly, I am spectacularly uninterested in the former and fascinated by the latter so that discussions about DNA have me falling asleep and little tidbits about the long dead poet captivate me.

It is not until the final one third of the book that the reader starts to perk up and get excited by the permutations of this odd plot. A scene in a restaurant which demonstrates the extent of Jed's obsession shocks me back into my awareness of why McEwan is one of my favourite authors. There is usually at least one scene in each novel which is so shocking that I can't help wondering, in admiration, from whence the ideas come.

But the B movie ending disappoints and stretches credulity.

Monday, November 5, 2007

An Imposter at the Ball

What the (fill in the expletive of your choosing) am I doing here? I wondered as I drove up to Gilmour Hall at McMaster University. I had been invited to read a piece at a conference entitled “Italian Canadian Culture in the New Millennium” on a beautiful day in early November, organized by a trio of professors at McMaster in the Department of Linguistics and Languages .

One of the organizers, Asst. Prof. Paolo Chirumbolo (surprisingly young and “hot”, I noted to myself unprofessionally as I was introduced to him), had read an essay that I had written in an anthology of writers of Sicilian descent three years ago called Sweet Lemons: Writings With a Sicilian Accent and invited me to speak.

Many of the speakers were academics or had Ph.D.s and now have prominence in the cultural and business communities: the Italian Cultural Institute, the CBC, the Italian Chamber of Commerce Toronto. Then there is me, a lowly writer whose only claim to fame is a modest publishing CV and an acerbic blog where I give vent to my odd obsessions. I felt like an imposter at the ball …

I looked around the room and, reassuringly, I recognized a few faces. But, sadly as well, my thoughts echo the rebellious murmurings of my old friend CP, a poet, who has also been invited to read. He wondered, Dove la gioventu? (Where are the young people?) There were a sprinkling of fresh faced undergrads near the front sitting together and later acknowledged as Prof. Paolo’s students (of course). Another friend, the writer VF, wondered if we were only speaking to ourselves. This is a recurring theme at these conferences.

CP’s annoyance might have something to do with being positioned next to last in the reading lineup (lowly writer, me, is last, of course). Self consciously, I wondered if it was because I lacked the requisite initials after my name, no M.A., no Ph.D., and no elaborate treatise to read with a title like “Whither the hyphen in Italo-Canadian culture?” (this is a made up subject but indicative of what is read at conferences like this).

The first presentation was an astute, if longwinded, hour long dissertation by DP, dubbed "the the colourful former head of arts and entertainment at CBC Radio", on the use of the hyphen and its disappearance with the success of Italo-Canadian artists such as Nino Ricci, Antoni Cimolini or Richard Monette (who is half Italian, who knew?).

The other presenters tackled worrisome issues pertinent to the community. The words “cognitive ethnicity”, “invisible minority”, “metalinguistic”, “meta-histories”, "cultural data” and "Sisyphean" abounded …

Oh boy, did I mention that there was also me, reading a highly personal essay on race and identity which was mercifully short because I couldn’t bear these half hour monologues and that I was scheduled to read at FIVE O'CLOCK at the end of the day. I told very few people because the essay is highly charged and I felt I might lack the nerve to read it.

There was the usual Nino Ricci bashing ... "he's a sell-out, only produced one good book, the TV series of Lives of the Saints was atrocious", blah blah blah ... this unpleasant blather is so cliche, so typical of immigrant communities with chips on our shoulders - of course, we would attack the person who is the most successful amongst us. Especially reprehensible as I have never heard Nino Ricci utter one negative thing about the community or other writers in general.

Some standouts: John Calabro, writer and co-publisher of the new small press Quattro Books, who spoke from a personal perspective. He wanted writers to pointedly reject the current sentimentality and maudlin nature of Italo-Canadian writing (speak truth to power John). He then read a subtly subversive piece of fiction about a son visiting his parents in Woodbridge and provoking their anger simply by refusing a glass of homemade wine. It was a perfect metaphor for the alienation which some 2nd generation Italo-Canadians feel.

Something I noticed too, when the Sicilians amongst us spoke, we always mentioned that we were Sicilian, always, in our presentations.

Other questions poised: is Italo-Canadian writing as “good” as the writing of other Canadians? Yes, and no, the assembled panel reluctantly admitted: there is good writing and dreck (but this is obvious, no?). The questioner seemed to think that Italo-Canadian writing was subpar and cited the example of a recent anthology called Mamma Mia: Good Italian Girls Talk Back. I have not read the anthology and the title (not the content) did seem a bit cartoonish and commercial to me at the time, as if that stereotypical ejaculation summed up our culture.

But I was a bit shocked to learn that the editor of that anthology was seated amongst the listeners and it turns out that I know her. FS, a playwright, opined sagely that there is much that is good and much that is not great out there but we have to start somewhere. She is right of course.

Later a prof from Wilfred Laurier University read her piece entirely in Italian. The young girl beside me started to text and, obviously resentful because I couldn’t follow the speech properly, I begin to write this piece on McMaster letterhead. When the same prof leapt up and asked for water in English, the woman across from me muttered “Why didn’t she say that in Italian?”

And hey, by mid afternoon, I had figured out where the gioventu were folks ... according to a prof from York University they're on that newfangled Internet on their Facebook pages joining groups which ask pertinent questions of other kids of Italian descent such as: recollecting favourite things your Nonna has said, bonding with other people of mixed Italian heritage, or deriding insulting stereotypes of Italians in commercials. So as awkward and so ten minutes ago as a presentation on "Ontario Italian Facebook groups" sounded, it did seem to give us hope that the under 40 crowd is interested in our culture; they just manifest it in another way and in another form of media.

The conference soon (did I say soon?) drew to an end with a short film on a prayer group by SM, a charming professor of anthropology based in B.C. (quick shout out to Racalmuto - his father is from my parents' village in Sicily), a piece on the introduction of Italian food into Calgary in the 50s and then an entertaining presentation by my truculent friend CP, the poet, whom I consider to be 50% brilliant, 50% full of hot air (but hey, it makes for a charming mix).

Finally at five, I read my short piece (oh yeah - thanks CP for spilling water all over the lectern). I was nervous because it has to do with my father and race and certain unpleasant memories and I am keenly aware that people must be tired at the end of this long day. I made it through the essay, but just barely kept it together. The response was gracious, people were kind but I was disappointed by my reading. I have done better I know.

As I left, I was relieved that certain participants offered kind remarks and we traded parting comments on our mutual obsessions: our kids, the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Giuliano about whom I have written a novel, the special difficulties for women writers, the small magazines that we are a part of. A reporter from the Hamilton Spectator said she wanted to ask me some questions (we weren't able to connect but the article is printed here)...

Although I felt both physically and emotionally exhausted, I am glad I came; it is important to connect with like minded people. Hey, it’s the closest I ever come to walking into a room and thinking “These are my people.”