Friday, May 31, 2013

May Cultural Roundup

OCAD University Graduate Exhibition, May 5, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013) by Baz Luhrmann

Studio Saint-EX by Ania Szado
Straight Man by Richard Russo
The Testament of Mary of Colm Toíbín (Please see review here)

(Not So) Nice Italian Girls & Friends reading featuring Nancy Jo Cullen, Koom Kankesan, Elizabeth Ruth, Ania Szado, Terri Favro and Bocelli at QSpace, May 29, 2013

Friday, May 24, 2013

Like black angels gone mad ...

In the trench you could see nothing and noise rushed like black angels gone mad ...
A Man Could Stand Up - Book Three of Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford (Originally published 1926) 347 pages

I love this 1926 copy of  A Man Could Stand Up I acquired from the library,  which is literally falling apart in my hands. I like to imagine a Canadian soldier having held this same book, assessing it, and determining that yes (or no) "This is what the late war was like ..." as Ford muses in the preface of this book.

And so our saga of our benighted hero Christopher Tietjens in Book Three continues .... please see reviews of Book One here and here.

The novel begins on November 11, 1918. WWI has just ended. Valentine Wannop is working as a "physical instructress" at a private girls school. Valentine is contemplating her future. Nearly 100 pages are devoted to Valentine's receiving a phone call from her former friend Edith Duchemin (now Lady McMaster) offering to bring together the two thwarted lovers - Christopher and Valentine. She is told that Tietjens is in a nursing home and appears to have been abandoned by Sylvia his wife, that he is penniless, mad, that his new home is empty and deserted. Valentine is wondering about Edith's motivations. This is the whole of Part I. Perhaps this is why Mr. Ford may alienate potential new readers ... but stay with us my friends.

As Part II of A Man Could Stand Up begins, Tietjens is still at the front, the end of the war is nigh. Tietjens is wondering idly that if he raises his head above the trenches would he invite gunfire from the Germans ... does he desire it or fear it one wonders? It gives great meaning to the title. But, as with all the titles in this tetralogy, it has multiple meanings. For Tietjen's Sgt-Major in the trenches, "a man could stand up on a hill" refers to the freedom (and peace) of doing so without the fear of being killed. 

Tietjens  has his challenges at the front: a mad and belligerent C.O. with whom he serves as second in command; a subordinate officer with a grudge (McKechnie) and a vicious tongue; a timid Lance-Corporal who reminds him of Valentine; the boy soldier Aranjuez who loses his eye before Tietjens; the spread of influenza and a lack of food undermining the troops ...

I have not read much war fiction but it seems to me that this book (as well as the second book in the series No More Parades) is particularly graphic and dispiriting about the ravages of war such as this chilling passage of a figures he spies in a no man's land between the Brits and the Germans:
And, suspended in them, as there would have to be, three bundles of rags and what appeared to be a very large, squashed crow. How the devil had that fellow managed to get smashed into that shape? ... There was also-suspended, too, a tall melodramatic object, the head cast back to the sky. One arm raised in the attitude of, say, a Walter Scot Highland officer waving his men on. Waving a sword that wasn't there ... That was what wire did for you. Supported you in grotesque attitudes, even in death! 
And there is the casual cruelty of war that Ford captures so well as when a gunner chased "a fat miserable German" about the hillside.
His action, when he had realized that they were really attending to him, had been exactly that of a rabbit dodging out of the wheat the reapers have just reached. At last he just lay down. He wasn't killed. They had seen him get up and walk off later. Still carrying his bait can! His antics had afforded those gunners infinite amusement. 
The war elicits hatred, as one would imagine, but perhaps towards a unforeseen object of dislike: towards civilians and its rulers: It was the civilian populations and their rulers that one hated with real hatred. Now the swine were starving the poor devils in the trenches!

Tietjens dreams of the day that he might be with Valentine - these are surprisingly modest aspirations:
You seduced a young woman in order to be able to finish your talks with her. You could not do that without living with her. You could not live with her without seducing her; but that was the by-product. The point is that you can't otherwise talk. You can't finish talks at street corners; in museums; even in drawing-rooms.
He realizes that he can't live with Valentine at his ancestral estate Groby. His tenants and neighbours would sooner countenance a "doxy" (floozie) from the servants' hall than a "lady". They expect the bedding of a doxy from their masters but not a lady, daughter of his father's oldest friend, from whom they expect "quality" so he must search elsewhere for accommodations.

But united they are ... when General Campion swoops in and relieves Tietjens of his command sending him back home. Valentine meets him in his barren new home, even though she has not been invited, merely beckoned by Lady McMaster's disturbing telephone call. Valentine is joined, unexpectedly, by the "Pals" of the battalion who have agreed to meet here on Armistice Day: mad McKechnie, one eyed Aranjuez and his wife Nancy ...

Sylvia, pointedly, is not there, finally having given up hope of reconciliation. Will our hero be happy? On to Book Four The Last Post ...

Tietjens at war ...

Friday, May 17, 2013

Towards the Green Light

The exquisite Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan

The Great Gatsby (Australia/U.S., 2013) directed by Baz Luhrmann, 143 minutes 
The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald (Originally published 1922)

The Great Gatsby has proven a formidable book to try and represent on film … and woe to those who have tried and failed as the critics' knives will be out forthwith. Announcements that Baz Luhrmann, considered a cinematic showman and, some might say, an impresario of excess, was to tackle the book met with both frenzied excitement and derision. If you loved Luhrmann's William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) you were optimistic and giddy in anticipation. If you hated those films (and Luhrmann haters are legion) you were dismayed at the idea of Luhrmann tackling one of the best loved American classics of all times.

I had a chance to see the film last weekend with three friends. We possessed varying levels of enthusiasm about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby - from wildly impassioned devotee (me) to largely indifferent long ago readers of the book. I re-read the book every summer and plan to do so again this summer while in NYC.

As I watched the credits roll I had mixed feelings … I felt that certain characters had been miscast.

Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), a talented and versatile actor, is, unfortunately, too old for the part. DiCaprio, now in his late 30s, is meant to represent a young man newly released from the army a mere four years before in 1918 (although there were mature soldiers in the war, Gatsby was not one of those). DiCaprio is too intense, too arrogant, too jaunty a persona, for the role. The accent DiCaprio uses is a mystery to me ... I'm not sure if it works as a obvious false construction of what he (Gatsby) believes is what an upper crust person would sound like or it is merely just wrong for the role.

Gatsby, despite his great wealth, is extremely vulnerable and insecure. The sudden amassing of his great wealth through illicit means demonstrates how desperately he wants to prove his worth to Daisy. And extremely naive. Money, that great American idol and symbol of success, is not enough to capture this golden girl. As Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband, so brutally points out, Gatsby lacks the unattainable prestige of inherited wealth and status ("We were born different. It's in our blood"), symbolized, for Gatsby, by the green light at the end of the Buchanans' dock on which he is fixated as he languishes in his Long Island mansion.

Oheka Castle ... said to be an inspiration for Gatsby's mansion
Carey Mulligan, lovely and vulnerable as the southern belle Daisy, sometimes has an accent as fleeting and ephemeral as the beautiful vintage dresses she wears in the film. And there is very little chemistry between the two main characters. But Mulligan does display the precise amount of vulnerability and self-absorption that the character warrants.

Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway) has that dumbstruck look that he carries from film to film and that doesn’t quite work here. However, the Australian actor Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s husband the philandering polo player, is spot on – cruel, ignorant, almost feral, and totally terrifying especially in the final confrontation at the Plaza Hotel where the men almost come to blows over Daisy. Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson, Tom’s mistress, is a little too crude, a little too obvious – yes, she’s meant to be a “cheap floozie” but Myrtle has legitimate reasons for feeling trapped, feeling cheated by her life in the flat above the garage and her slovenly husband George Wilson (impressively, if briefly, portrayed by Jason Clarke); however, the script gives no sense of that disappointment. For this I blame the costume/ production designer Catherine Martin and the director.

Certainly the CGI enhanced scenes - of Gatsby’s home on the fictional West Egg, the Buchanans’ lavish estate in East Egg (inspired by the old money locale of Manhasset Neck on Long Island), the orgiastic parties at Gatsby’s mansion, aerial views of the island of Manhattan - are vivid, often beautiful, but sometimes the effects and scenes are overwrought, overwhelming, and clearly unconvincing. 

When Myrtle is struck by Gatsby's car (with Daisy driving) her body flies up into the air surrounded by shattered glass spurting like tiny stars and skims the heights of Dr. Eckleburg's spectacles on the fabled giant, omnipresent billboard - not once, but twice, in the film. 

I felt at times as if Luhrmann did not trust the source material and that he felt he had to heighten the comedy or drama of certain scenes ... no need to make the attendees at the little impromptu party at Myrtle and Tom's hideaway on 158th Street more ridiculous, or sad, than they already are. The characters are sad and seedy but the designer clothes them in ridiculously bright colours and strange clothing with clown like makeup for the women (Myrtle, her sister Catherine and a neighbour named Mrs. McKee) and absurd little physical quirks for the lone man (Mr. McKee, an aspiring, foppish photographer). Or take the organist Klipspringer's character, who is depicted as a sort of mad, bizarre looking musical genius rather than an intriguing secondary character who haunts Gatsby's mansion and parties. 

The filmed scenes of the parties are riotous and frenzied ... was every party goer compelled to behave like a frat boy at his first party with alcohol? The action is too frenetic, too forced. Every inch of the screen is crammed with undulating, squirming partyers. Again, Luhrmann doesn't trust us to understand the excesses of the age as depicted by Fitzgerald on the page.

Of course, despite the predominance of black musicians and singers on the soundtrack black Americans play virtually no role in the book except as a source of bemusement or suspicion (when Nick passes a trio of haughty blacks in an expensive car he is condescendingly amused at their supposed sense of superiority) or in Tom Buchanan’s tirade to Nick, Daisy and Jordan Baker, Nick's erstwhile love interest, about having to beat back the coloured hordes or face the demise of white civilization. 

But in the film, as if to atone for this deficit and Luhrmann's heavy reliance on the talent of black artists on the excellent soundtrack, the black characters are essentially very pretty, shiny ornaments in the background - the entertainers and dancers at Gatsby’s parties and at a speakeasy that Gatsby takes Nick to with the gangster Meyer Wolfsheim – dressed in sumptuous, revealing costumes or as smartly dressed but indistinctly defined musicians who dutifully entertain the masses of white revelers. This is accentuated by their perfect, flawless skin and fully toned bodies.

The most annoying new element in the script is Nick's commitment to a sanatorium after Gatsby's death (this is how the film starts). This permits the filmmaker to tell Gatsby's life story as Nick writes it down for his doctor. This is a vast deviation from Carraway's character - he is not a broken man but an immensely disillusioned one, who has seen too much and been sickened by what he has seen in the destruction of Gatsby's life. One advantage of this technique is it allows the filmmaker to print Fitzgerald's words on the screen as Carraway writes them ... this highlights the more beautiful passages of the book.

I missed the exclusion of small sections from the book that were omitted - Meyer Wolfsheim's pathetic refusal to come to Gatsby's funeral, Gatsby's barely literate father Mr. Gatz coming for his remains and revealing some sad memories of the young Gatsby's aspirations, and, Nick's confrontation with an unrepentant Tom Buchanan on the streets of NYC long after Gatsby is dead. And Luhrmann doesn't even dare touch on the blatant anti-Semitism in the book regarding the Wolfsheim character (loosely based on the notorious gangster Arnold Rothstein). 

One thing that did remain with me was the music – a melange of hip hop and rap (Jay-Z, Kanye West), romantic moody melodies (Lana Del Rey, Beyonce, Sia, Gotye), and re-orchestrated classics (Brian Ferry). But they strike exactly the right mood despite the anachronistic nature of the 21stc. musical choices made by Luhrmann. You may listen to the soundtrack here ...

But I have to say, the film and its images have stayed with me ... it might be worth another look.  
Two of the best things in the film: Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Lark Ascending, Hysterically

No More Parades - Book Two of Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford (Originally published 1926) 309 pages

Just as the phrase "Some Do Not" has multiple meanings in the first book (please see a review of the first book here), so does the phrase "No More Parades" in the second book in Ford Madox Ford's tetralogy Parade's End. No more military fanfare, no more games, no more false glory, nor more illusions, as our hero Christopher Tietjens attempts to absent himself from his wife Sylvia' treachery and Valentine's ardor, which he cannot reciprocate, by returning as an officer to the war in France. 

I admit I struggled with the first two books: the pace seemed off, the characters unsympathetic, the rituals of the aristocrats odd but I kept thinking, and yet, and yet ... there is something here. 

The war occupies much of the second novel and the story is largely set over a few days in Rouen, France in 1917. Tietjens is once again serving in the military as an officer preparing new conscripts for the front line; Sylvia is (temporarily) in a convent nursing her wounds over Tietjens' seeming emotional indifference towards her and Valentine is ministering to her famous novelist mother's needs back in England and teaching as a physical instructor at a girls' school. 

Or is Sylvia in a convent? Tietjens, while dealing with the exigencies of war and other various difficulties (men dying before him, men not returning from leave, men embroiled in disputes with each other), receives a note that Sylvia is nearby in Rouen, waiting to see him. Here the stream of consciousness style that Ford adopts works very effectively (dubbed by Ford as "Impressionism") with Tietjens as he moves swiftly from the more immediate concerns of war to thoughts of the two women. Eros (love) and Thanatos (death) war mightily in his battered consciousness.

Our hero at war ...
Ford has an elliptical narrative style that alludes to an event and then sometimes does not discuss or refer to it for many more pages. Late in the novel, Tietjens must explain the details of Gen. O'Hara and Sylvia's old lover Perowne colliding at Sylvia's hotel room door at 3 a.m. to General Campion in copious detail ... stalling the narrative somewhat and belaboring an important point: Campion no longer trusts Tietjen's judgment and banishes him to the front.

Julian Barnes, who wrote the preface for the newly issued Parade's End and a wonderful article in the Guardian, noted that even though there is very little actual sex in the book, it is thoroughly saturated with thoughts about sex.  

Ford dealt with the sexual antagonism between male and female in a new way, not obliquely, not superficially. Sex is a worrisome business, sexual feeling is tortuous. "It's woman against man," Tietjens laments, "Now and ever has been." Few books posit the antagonism between the sexes so brutally.

Sexual feeling pervades all in the book ...  

The aristocratic society that Tietjens inhabits, due to the machinations of his enemies and of Sylvia's jealousy, has deemed him to be a frightful womanizer, a "rip" as he describes it, based on virtually no evidence at all. Sylvia's actions are reprehensible in Book One and largely off camera but in Book Two she withdraws into a self-imposed celibacy principally, it seems, to wound Tietjens. Tietjens is often obsessed with the sensual physical aspects of the

The alluring Rebecca Hall as Sylvia Tietjens
two women: Valentine's quivering lip and fresh visage; Sylvia's "glorious halo" of hair, her beautiful clothes, even a scene where he witnesses her use a powder puff in intimate areas has the power to move him. A lark* that Tietjens hears in France appears "oversexed" to his ears in its unusually "hysterical" singing. A soldier wants leave to go and deal with a wife suspected of infidelity back home and is blown to bits when he is denied leave and must remain in camp. Another officer wants a leave to divorce his wife but then decides, cannily, that it is easier to share one's wife with her lover. Mark, Christopher's brother, suspects that their father's generous financial support of Mrs. Wannop the novelist (Valentine's mother) is because of some past affair with the older woman or that he fathered her child (it is not). Most seem to have very degraded impression of their fellow human beings. 

I imagine that some of these scenes and the dialogue would be perceived as coarse and vulgar for its time, overly sensual, disturbing.

Graham Greene, another British writer who edited an earlier edition of Parade's End in the late 1940s and greatly admired Ford's handiwork, described Sylvia as evil. Ford does indeed depict her in the novel as a "snake that fixes a bird" but this doesn't quite do justice to Sylvia's personality. It is not until Book Two that we begin to understand, a little, her motivations and feelings towards Tietjens. 

I spoke of  Tietjens' misogyny but it is no match for Sylvia's antipathy towards the male sex and its motivations: '"You went to war when you desired to rape innumerable women ..." she derisively proclaims of men.

General Campion, Tietjens' immediate superior (and godfather) warns Tietjens: "For the morality of these matters is this ... If you have an incomparably beautiful woman on your hands you must occupy yourself solely with her." Tietjens fails to do this ... whether he is overly respectful towards her privacy and standing in society or merely vindictive, his actions seem to push Sylvia further into extreme acts of vengeance.

By the novel's end General Campion is so disgusted by the business between the married couple and its effect on the battalion where Tietjens served, that he sends Tietjens back to the front line and what he says will be a certain death. No more parades he admonishes Tietjens. Shall he survive it? On to Book Three ...

The Parade's End novels include: Some Do Not (1924), No More Parades (1925), A Man Could Stand Up (1926) and Last Post (1928).

*When I read this passage I could not help thinking of Vaughan Williams' very beautiful melody"The Lark Ascending" that you may listen to here. Williams wrote the composition in 1914 while watching troop ships cross the English Channel at the outbreak of the First World War.

Sylvia meets Tietjens in Rouen

Friday, May 3, 2013

On Hathahating ...

Wherefore the Hathahating?
As I pass ads for Gwyneth Paltrow's new released cookbook It's all good I shudder a little. Why does she irk me so? She used to generate (perhaps still does) such animosity amongst women in particular. Exhibit A: Katrina Onstad's recent snooty "review" in the Globe. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy Onstad's writing but this is the sort of response that Paltrow routinely provokes in women. But why? Paltrow's attractive, smart, seemingly a devoted wife and mother, a very good actress, seemingly a lovely person. It's that phrase It's all good ... I can't help thinking: everything ... is ... just ... perfect ... for ... Gwynnie. 

Now, luckily for Paltrow, and unfortunately for Anne Hathaway, she has been replaced in a phenomenon that I will describe as "the general enmity of the public towards high profile people whom we will never meet and dislike for no discernible reason ..."

But the two women have very similar qualities in the public perception and when I saw the book I finally figured out why (at least in my mind). They remind me of woman I know, S, a friend of a friend, who once looked me in the eye at a party and, speaking of her child care arrangements cooed, "I have the perfect life!" You can't point to any one quality and say she's a bad person or an evil person and yet, in our crowd, she elicits the same sort of animosity - S is a phony, S is unbearable, S is insufferable to listen to. You want to run shrieking from the room when you see her enter it.

How can I explain how annoying this sort of comment is ...  the phoniness of the "good girl" for whom everything is perfect, ideal, wonderful, great, fabulous! It's all good ... how I loathe that phrase!

Firstly, because it is a lie. Nothing is perfect especially in domestic situations. Especially for women. There's always a wrinkle, a problem, an issue. Especially if there are children and family involved. Why pretend otherwise - can you not fathom that this would annoy other women who struggle with these issues daily? The caregiver who didn't show up. The kid with the ADS. The husband who works too hard (or not enough) and is not fully engaged with the family. The failing student. The aging parent one must care for. The restricted household budget.

And so it is with Hathaway who appears to lead a charmed life except for that unfortunate Italian boyfriend who ended up in jail, he who shall not be named ...

Hathaway, too, is attractive, smart, articulate, talented, worthy of praise, award winning, a good role model for young women. But the facade is seemingly so thin and so brittle ... She appears so tightly wound. It's as if, if she revealed a true negative emotion or real fact about her life the whole edifice  would come  tumbling down in a torrid avalanche of Maybelline, glitter and pink lipstick.

And I always think, scratch at the surface of a "good girl" and you will find something else. Not a bad person but ... a dishonest person, a rigid person, who has very high expectations of herself and others and doesn't like to be thwarted or challenged.

Or ... maybe I am just a bad, bad girl and can't stand seeing anyone else be happy. Yeah, that must be it.
No it's not Gwynnie, no it's really not ...