Saturday, August 25, 2007

Brando for the Summer 4

What a transformation Marlon Brando exhibits from Vito Corleone, the aging patriarch of The Godfather (1972), to the despairing, sex-obsessed Paul of Last Tango in Paris directed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1972. I first saw the film when I was in university and it must have been the first erotic film I had ever seen. The Med Sci building on the campus of the University of Toronto would show great films weekly, on Friday nights I believe, in its auditorium. I was just beginning to see classic and "alternative" sort of films. I didn't really have much exposure to film until then. Mostly, I guess, I was bored and lonely, having just moved from Hamilton to Toronto and living alone as a student. I began to see films as a refuge of sorts.

It's been said that Marlon Brando used many personal details from his own life in his characterization of Paul, an American living in Paris, who manages a "fleabag" hotel frequented by prostitutes and junkies. He is trying to recover from the suicide of his wife Rosa. Wandering through an apartment for rent at 1 Jules Verne, he meets Jeanne (Maria Schneider), who is also considering renting the apartment. She is a 20 something free spirit engaged to a budding filmmaker.

They begin a highly charged affair, carried on anonymously, in the same apartment. Paul subjects Jeanne to a series of sexual humiliations but she returns again and again, clearly bored by her pretentious fiance Tom (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a seemingly Bertolucci-like filmmaker who sees the reluctant Jeanne as his muse. Paul insists angrily, even violently, that he has no desire to know anything about her.

Paul is coarse, vulgar, and mean-spirited towards Jeanne and clearly still full of anguish over Rosa's death. Either Bertolucci wished us to see Paul as an embodiment of the "real" Brando or used the details of Brando's acting career and real life as a spur to have the actor dig deep into his psyche for this role. The cleaning woman who wipes Rose's blood from the bathroom speaks nonchalantly of the conversation she had with the police regarding Rosa's suicide. She tells them of the many roles that "Paul" has held: a boxer (On the Waterfront), a South American revolutionary (Viva Zapata), a gangster (Guys and Dolls and The Godfather) as if she is reciting Brando's CV.

To Jeanne, Paul speaks about his father whom he calls a "whore fucker" and tough guy; his mother was a drunk who was often arrested and had to be dragged home, sometimes naked. Brando has spoken openly about both of his parents in this fashion in his biography. The language is profane and the script feels improvised, like a boy obsessed with scatological detail and a desire to shock the bourgeoisie. Particularly telling is a famous monologue in Tango
about his father forcing him to milk the cows before a date with a girl and feeling the shame of having manure smeared on his shoes and the smell permeating the air as he drove her to the basketball game.

Bertolucci has said that he had always held a fantasy about meeting an anonymous woman in a hotel and having sex with her, not knowing her name or any details of her life. Here Bertolucci's fantasies and Brando's tortured inner life collide.

There are Godard inspired scenes where the melodramatic music and mugging suggest that the actors have a Brechtian awareness of the camera in the style of epic theatre. Godard often adopted Brecht's use of "anti-illusive techniques to remind the spectators that they are in a theatre watching an enactment of reality instead of reality itself" in his films. You see this in the scenes with Jeanne and Tom. The music swells; Tom starts to "play" the role of film director and Jeanne complies with his ridiculous requests in front of the camera.

The film is painful to watch, in part, because Paul is so cruel to Jeanne and because he is in great pain. He is alternately extremely cruel and violent, then gentle and tender. He abuses his poor mother-in-law who wishes her daughter to be buried with the church's absolution and then reacts sympathetically, humanely, towards Rosa's lover Marcel (Massimo Girotti), another hotel occupant. He abuses his wife in her coffin calling her unspeakable things then weeps over her corpse unconsolably. The viewer feels that Brando has tapped into something very real, very frightening, as an actor.

This outburst before his dead wife seems to have cathartic effect on him and he then seems ready to embrace Jeanne completely. As if liberated from the terrible burden of his grief, he seeks her out and starts to spill out all his personal details in a dance palace during a tango competition and then chases her home as she becomes more and more terrified. It's as if she is more terrified of the reality of his life than the idea of having sex with a volatile, anonymous man.

Need I say, it does not end well.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Brando for the Summer 3

I have to admit that I am a Godfather fanatic, having seen the first and second films of the trilogy at least a dozen times. It was the only film that I ever saw my frugal Sicilian parents pay admission for in the 70s. Jokes about the interest of a Sicilian family in a Mafia film aside, I think they were particularly drawn to the fact that one rarely hears the Sicilian language on film. There is no written Sicilian. Children are not taught Sicilian in Sicily; they learn a northern dialect which has become the "official" language of Italy after unification in the 19th c. Most Sicilians speak their dialect and "proper" Italian. But that's a discussion for another day.

But there were other things that struck a chord, as a person of Sicilian descent, when I saw it: the importance of familial loyalty, the secrecy, the subjugation of women and children to the patriarch, first Vito Corleone (Brando) and then Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), the strong sense of vengeance that the family felt when wronged.

It seems redundant to reiterate the plot, it is so embedded in popular culture now: the phrases (see below for a taste), the plot, the physical appearance of the characters. So many phrases have become part of our pop culture heritage:

Luca Brazzi sleeps with the fishes.
I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse.
We're going to the mattresses on this one ...
Drop the gun, grab the cannoli.
I know it was you Fredo, you broke my heart. You broke my heart.
Everytime I try and get out they keep dragging me back in.
Never tell anybody outside the family what you're thinking again.

Brando, as head of the Corleone family, excels in portraying both a ruthless man and a man of great sentiment. All great mafia films and TV series (especially The Sopranos) hearken back to The Godfather (1972). It's hard to believe that Brando was only 48 in 1972 (he was born in 1924) when he played Don Vito Corleone a man who was meant to be in his 60s. Francis Ford Coppola talks with wonder of how when they met to speak about the role, Brando began to improvise saying "I see this man as a sort of bull dog" and he took pieces of cotton and stuffed them into the side of his mouth to illustrate the look that he thought was right. He began to speak in that raspy voice that he has now made famous.

Shocking to think now how much Paramount Pictures did not want Brando (or Pacino for that matter) as he was considered flighty, too expensive, unreliable, could not memorize his lines and a huge insurance risk. All realistic doubts at the time.

The script is so brilliant, co-written by Coppola and Mario Puzo, that it's hard to separate the talents of Brando from the writing. But you can see his dramatic transformation of the Don at the height of his powers at his only daughter's wedding: strong, decisive, powerful. And then the man he becomes after he is shot, nearly murdered by his rivals, and especially after his son Sonny (James Caan) is murdered. He is more lethargic physically as if he carries a great weight now; he is more tentative, fragile almost, as he turns over the reigns of power to his beloved son Michael.

The little tricks Brando uses to show the complexity of the man: the stroking and petting of cat even while he plots the mortal demise of his enemies, cavorting innocently with his grandson, amongst his tomatoes, dancing tenderly with his daughter at the wedding, insisting that the photographer wait for Michael to take the family portrait at the wedding.

It is the same brilliant character acting you see in The Sopranos: yes, these are reprehensible murderers who kill their enemies, extort, deal in prostitution, cheat on their wives, but Brando is still able to elicit our sympathy, our admiration for his fidelity to wife and family, to a certain set of core values.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Brando for the summer 2

The next film that I would like to recommend is On the Waterfront (1954) with Marlon Brando as the tortured Terry Malloy who struggles to be good, to do the right thing despite the odds against him. A failed prize fighter who took a dive on a fight at the behest of Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) a mob boss who "owns" him, Terry can no longer fly straight.

Brando made the film after director Elia Kazan, whom he considered a mentor and a friend, gave friendly testimony to the HUAC in the 50s. Despite his initial reservations, Brando gives an emotional, powerful performance. It is easy to imagine that Kazan and Budd Schulberg the screenwriter of On the Waterfront, also a friendly witness to the committee, very much saw themselves as beleaguered men of good will who stood up against an evil organization despite how history might see them now. Justifiably, many directors, screenwriters, actors and others who didn't testify saw their film careers destroyed when they ended up on the Hollywood blacklist.

Terry falls for Edie Doyle (Eva Saint Marie), the sister of Joey, a longshoreman who was testifying against the union bosses that controlled the docks based loosely on real life experiences of longshoreman Anthony Di Vincenzo. Di Vincenzo testified before the Waterfront Commission on the Hoboken, NJ.. docks and endured some ostracism for his activities. In the film, Joey Doyle had testified of the corruption of the unions, extortion, murder and intimidation exerted against the workers who stepped out of line. Terry becomes an unwitting pawn in Joey's death.

Brando captures the simplicity and innate sense of good that Terry has - he does evil but only accidentally, too simple-natured initially to realize the implications of his dog-eat-dog mentality and its effect on other people until he meets Edie.

The things that stand out for me now are not the famous "I coulda been a contender" speech with his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) or the violent confrontation with Johnny Friendly at the end of the movie where Terry leads the working men back into the docks. Perhaps these scenes have been too imitated, too much praised, to still have the punch they once had.

It's the more quiet moments that strike me now such as Terry listening to the priest Father Barry's (Karl Malden) speech when he declares that the murder of longshoreman Duggan, another whistle-blower, is a "crucifixion" just like the crucifixion of Christ. Brando says very little yet the trace of emotions on his face is powerful: contrition, fear, an awakening of conscience.

After his brother Charlie's death at the hands of Johnny Friendly's henchmen and Terry's testimony against Friendly he is abandoned by "friends". Joey's pigeons, which Terry has taken responsibility for, are all killed by a young friend shocked at his turning against the union bosses. He conveys more sorrow slumping against a wall after he finds the dead birds than any emotional speech might have done.

And his moments with Edie are wonderful. They seemed truly captivated with each other despite her suspicions of his involvement with Joey's death and his legitimate feelings of guilt. Saint Marie is exquisite here. Only nineteen, she conveys passion, innocence and courage in her small, defiant frame.

The 1950s tone of melodrama aside with its overwrought performances by Rod Steiger and Lee J. Cobb, the heightened musical score and bloody makeup in the last scene, the film is still compelling and Brando a revelation to watch.

(Source: with notes from

Friday, August 17, 2007

Brando for the summer

Marlon Brando by Patricia Bosworth (Penguin Lives, 2001) 228 pp.

At our local pool a few weeks ago, a friend glanced at my summer reading (a hundred year old "classic") and exclaimed in a half joking, half exasperated way: "Don't you ever just read trash?" Well dear friend, in this blog entry I can cheerfully answer yes.

With the Toronto International Film Festival less than a month away my thoughts turn to cinema so on an impulse I picked up the Penguin Lives edition of Brando's biography, a truly awful book about a supremely gifted actor.

My significant other did a sort of double take when he saw the author's name. "Isn't she a hack?" R asked. After a few pages, I could confirm this. However, after battling the first 100 pages of an Orson Welles biography which could easily cure my lifelong insomnia, I put it aside and greedily took hold of this biography. Orson has defeated me!

The writer and cultural critic Camille Paglia, whom I believe to be only half crazy, has declared that Brando "mumbling, muttering, flashing with barbaric energy, freed theatrical emotion from its enslavement by words". Here she is dead on ... think who preceded him, who the ideal leading men were thought to be in the 40s: actors such as Van Johnson, Robert Taylor, cardboard cutouts without a shred of originality or passion (at least on screen).

It's easy to sneer at the person that Brando became: odd, volatile, querlous, morbidly obese. His acting choices were unfathomable at times, his children and lifestyle sometimes reprehensible. But think what he once was! Aside from his physical beauty which was substantial, there was the magnetism, charm, intelligence, sexual power, originality - all the more poignant because it seemed to lay in ruins as he aged as if he was consciously trying to destroy it. Bosworth claims that he did so because he couldn't stand the pressure of being stared at, of being admired when he felt so worthless.

Set aside his difficult relationship with his alcoholic, abusive father, his doting but damaged mother who was also an alcoholic, his lack of formal education which shamed him ... No doubt all these factors damaged him, shaped him, made him who he is. We're not on the couch now. Let's just talk about his talent, specifically in five films where he particularly shines: Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), The Godfather (1972), Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Apocalypse Now (1979).

Watch Brando now in Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and you squirm in your seat a bit. The velocity of his brutishness as Stanley Kowalski feels overwrought, almost hysterical, but think how revolutionary it was in 1951.

The film is ostensibly about the emotional collapse of Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh), a fragile Southern belle who comes to live in the one-bedroom apartment in the New Orleans French Quarter of her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and brother-in-law Stanley. Blanche's fictitious lady-like past is blown apart by Stanley's savagery who is determined to tear her off her pedestal. But it is Brando who is absolutely riveting.

Here was a portrayal of a particular kind of working class man: potent, aggressive, and full of despair, like nothing that had ever been seen on stage or screen until Brando appeared in the Broadway version prior to this film. Finally, someone had stripped away the artificial layers of "acting" to expose the possibility of what character like this might really be like, what the relationship between two passionate but unhappy people like Stella and Stanley might be like. It was ugly, it might have been cruel, but it was true to life.

Am I a minority of one who finds Leigh grating in her faded Southern belle histrionics? Her characterization elicits the opposite response in me that the playwright Tennessee Williams wished to elicit. He wanted to show a beautiful and sensitive creature (Blanche) destroyed by the brutality of the world (Stanley). He wants my compassion for Blanche, instead I feel annoyance at her gimmicks.

She is much more effective in her quiet moments when she confesses how much she wants Mitch (Karl Malden), her suitor and Stanley's friend, to marry her or her serpentine approach towards the young boy who comes to the door soliciting. You see the traces of what finally drove Blanche out of her home town and into near destitution and subsequently madness.

Forget this Brando bio, pick up a copy of the movie (and some others that I will note in future blogs). If you live in the east end of Toronto, you probably know about a fantastic little video store called Revue Video at 207 Danforth Avenue (at Broadview). This is where I sourced most of the films I mention in this blog. You won't be disappointed.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Top these Girls if you can

Top Girls, soulpepper, Michael Young Theatre (June 26 - August 18, 2007)

In the 1980s my partner R went to England and saw a British production of Top Girls in London at the Royal Court Theatre and saved the playbill for me. I was so intrigued with the painting (of, I believe, the unfortunate queen Anne Boleyn) on the playbill that I always kept it, hanging it in my office wherever I worked. I was excited to see it in soulpepper theatre's line up this year ... oddly, R not so much. Perhaps it was a case of been there done that. But I decided to surprise him and take him to see this production anyway.

The structure of the play is non-linear, set in Britain during the beginning of the Thatcher years and fully gives vent to Caryl Churchill's rage against Margaret Thatcher and her embrace of Reaganomics and what Churchill perceives that it had done to the British psyche creating an atmosphere of avarice and callous disregard for the underprivileged amongst the more privileged.

What I remember best, and cherish most, about the play is its dreamlike opening sequence. Marlene (Megan Follows pictured above), an aggressive employment recruiter at the Top Girls employment agency, has recently been promoted to an executive position and sits down to a meal with a number of famous women, real and fictional, from history to celebrate.

These women include Pope Joan (Ann Marie McDonald), who, disguised as a man, may have been pope in the 9th c. (it is uncertain if she really existed); the explorer Isabella Bird; the character of Dull Gret (Liisa Repo-Martell) based on the subject of the painting Dulle Griet by Pieter Breughel; Lady Nijo (Robyn Stevan), mistress of a Japanese emperor; and Patient Griselda (Cara Pifko), the wife in The Clerk's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

They drink and revel in telling their personal histories each revealing one story more horrific than the last. The dialogue often overlaps, you need to listen with care that you don't miss the revelations that come fast and furious. Here is where I falter a bit with Churchill's political message: are we meant to infer that Marlene's sacrifices (more on that anon) are equal to that of the other characters' which include: Pope Joan's murder by an enraged crowd when it was discovered that she was a female; Isabella Bird's sacrifices as a mother in order that she may pursue her dreams of exploration; Gret who in the Breughel painting "lead a mob of other women dressed in aprons, charging into Hell fighting the devils"; Lady Nijo's life as a concubine whose children were forcibly taken from her; the fictional Griselda, a poor peasant chosen to be the wife of a Marquis if she promised to obey him always including accepting he removal of her two children whom she presumed to be dead.

In Act I, scene 2, we meet Angie (Liisa Repo Martell), Marlene's angry, volatile and may I say, none too bright, niece trapped in a small town outside of London and living with Joyce (Kelli Fox), Marlene's older sister whom the girl hates and openly speaks of killing. Repo-Martell is such an oddly compelling actress, excelling in these slightly disturbed lost girl roles. But she doesn't evoke sympathy, it's more like fear that she'll cut your throat if you turn your back - that's how powerful her anger is on stage. Kelli Fox is utterly convincing as the sister who is left behind with a child that hates her, a husband that abandons her and a sister who does not condescend to be with her either.

In the employment agency we see the machinations of the recruiters: the women clients cannot be married if employed, one is told she is too old to be a manager, and a host of other derogatory things are said or implied including Marlene hearing a complaint from the wife of a man whom Marlene has beat out for her promotion asking her to be gentle with him as he is depressed over the turn of events. In the midst of this, Marlene is surprised to see Angie appear at the office looking for shelter and a job much to the amusement of the other women. No assurances are made except for the offer of a temporary place on the couch.

It is only in Act II, scene II, which takes place a year before the previous two acts, that we learn that Marlene, not Joyce, is Angie's mother. Marlene has returned to visit with gifts because Angie has sent messages "from" Joyce asking her to visit. Angie is thrilled, Joyce not so much. I have read that Churchill was inspired by conversations with American feminists who celebrated individual achievements by women who gain wealth and power versus the socialist feminism of British women who strove for collective gain and progress. That dichotomy is played out between the two sisters in the last act.

Both sisters are utterly miserable and bitter. Joyce, because she has few options and Marlene, because she has so many and is still unhappy. This scene picks up on a decades old political quarrel between the sisters. Marlene is the prototypical obnoxious promoter of Thatcher's policies; Joyce is a left of centre politically aware member of the underclass who resents Marlene's freedom and sheer disregard for those who are not as fortunate as she is. The argument is overlaid by the classic career versus children debate. Follows tends to be shrill in her delivery (or maybe it's her politics as the character) but Fox never falters.

The question seems a bit dated now ... are we still arguing about whether it is possible to have both career and children? Aren't many of us doing precisely that now? Sometimes badly, sometimes with great strain, but it is being done at least here in the West. That is not to say that we don't need feminist principles or that all we need to do has been accomplished. But maybe what appeared thrilling and revolutionary 25 years ago, now seems a bit like preaching to the converted.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"Italy is only a euphemism for fate"

"Italy is only a euphemism for fate."
A Room with a View by E. M. Forster (Edward Arnold, 1908/Penguin Books) 256 pp.

A Room with a View (1985) directed by James Ivory

I remembered this book with delight and it seemed the perfect mid-summer reading fare. I had forgotten its casual racism despite E.M. Forster's intense love for Italy and all things Italian. It enchants while it mildly appalls at certain junctures. But I don't want to judge Forster, a turn of the 20th c. Englishman, by our politically correct 21st c. standards. The book is what it is. It is fascinating (and, again, mildly appalling) to view your own people through the lens of another people's eyes.

Twenty first century North Americans are no better in indulging in stereotypical fantasies and cliches in all forms of media whether it be the "holy Negro" of, say, the film The Green Mile or, slightly better but still cloying, the more admirable martyrs of the To Kill a Mockingbird book/film/play genre. We Westerners flip between violent stereotypes of gangsta rappers to celestial portrayals of persecuted minorities. Images of spiritual Indians (both the North American and the South Asian genus) abound. East Asians are immensely wise and stoic or ready to cut your throat at a glance in a some gangland killing. Latinos are humble peasants of the Mexican variety or vicious drug lords belonging to South American cartels destroying the youth of modern society. The greater the "otherness", the deeper and uglier the stereotype it seems. Either way a brother (or sistah) of any colour can't seem to get a break. So I will leave Mr. Forster's conflicted love of Italians alone in A Room with a View.

The 1985 film was lovely too - capturing the tone and feel of the book perfectly. Helena Bonham Carter epitomizes the sensitive, emotionally befuddled heroine Lucy Honeychurch perfectly. Her name says it all combining an endearing sweetness with a priggish, moralistic inclination to judge.

Our heroine visits Florence with her cousin cum chaperon Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith) and stays at the the Pensione Bertolini (modeled on the Pension Simi in Firenze where Forster once stayed with his mother) where she encounters both Italy and her fate. They meet the irrepressible Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott), a vociferous socialist whom a malicious minister, a Mr. Eager who is also touring Florence, has said has killed his wife, and his slightly morose son George (Julian Sands) who generously offer to exchange rooms in the pensione, in order allow the ladies the eponymous "room with a view". They reluctantly accept somehow fearing a lack of decorum in accepting the generous offer.

Conventional but high spirited Lucy is transformed by Italy after she and George inadvertently witness a quarrel and then a murder in la Piazza della Signoria. George recognizes that something has changed immediately; Lucy is more resistant. Despite her unspoken attraction, her middle class morality dictates that George is being ungentlemanly and too forthright despite his kind efforts to shield her from the scene in the piazza. His emotional response only frightens her as does Mr. Emerson's explicit request that the by now horrified Lucy try and love George.

Yet she has been liberated by this violent scene and George's attentions. Italy liberates because ... the passions are so raw there? One is surrounded by such intense beauty, by exquisite art? Because Italians are so emotional? Reading of the perception of the "otherness" of one's people can be a bit disorienting.

In the book Italians importune and annoy the English in the churches and on the streets; fight and kill each other in public places and then the murderers kiss the victims of the homicide in an act of remorse; lie and say their girlfriends are their sisters so that they may canoodle in a horse-drawn carriage, in full view of the shocked English tourists; connive to throw the unsuspecting Lucy into the arms of the sensitive, emotionally overcome George in a field of gorgeous flowers in the Fiesole countryside. George responds accordingly, because ... he is in Italy of course. Italy has the power to unleash passions in the repressed English.

Miss Bartlett is, inevitably, shocked and alarmed that Lucy has been so "taken advantage of" and whisks her charge to Rome away from these perils and into the waiting arms of Cecil Vyse (played wonderfully by Daniel Day Lewis in the film), a snobbish prig who has set his sights on Lucy as the embodiment of womanhood: beautiful enough to be admired, young enough to be malleable to his desires and absurd viewpoints.

When Lucy returns to her home in Surrey, she becomes engaged to the cultured but controlling Cecil whom Mr Beebe (Simon Callow), the local vicar who was also in Florence at the time of Lucy's visit, has disturbingly described as 'an ideal bachelor' whom should never marry (hmm perhaps Forster's not so subtle code for gay?). Mr. Beebe serves as a sort of one man Greek chorus commenting on Lucy's emotional awakening. He hopes that one day she will live as she plays her music as a passionate pianist.

The English tourists from the Pensione Bertolini reassemble in Surrey. Through Cecil's unkind conniving the Emersons take a villa on Summer Street near Lucy's home (unbeknownst to Lucy he does so to punish the local landlord whom he calls a snob). Miss Bartlett reappears. Lucy attempts to avoid George who feels compelled to kiss Lucy whenever alone with her. Mr. Beebe witnesses all (or most) of this.

Eventually, Lucy in her befuddled way breaks with Cecil because "he would not play tennis" with her brother Freddy (Rupert Graves). Of course this is not the real cause of her displeasure, merely a symptom. She dumps Cecil because of his incessant efforts to mold Lucy into some form of womanhood that she is not and because he is an overbearing snob who will not condescend to be kind to the people she loves. Forster offers a progressive view of what women should be able to do and Cecil is the epitome of those that seek to repress women even with the best of intentions.

George and, more importantly, his father convince Lucy that she is made for finer things and can only find love with a kindred spirit like George. As Lord Bryon said, all comedies end in marriage and this ends where it begins in the Pensione Bertolini, with George and Lucy on their honeymoon. Italy has proven to be their fate.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

There be real dragons here...

Midnight at the Dragon Café by Judy Fong Bates (McClelland & Stewart, 2003) 315 pp.

I read this book on the recommendation of my friend 21st Century Girl. I admit that I initially thought the book was going in a certain direction: immigrant family struggling in a new environment with a sensitive young protagonist documenting its struggles in the 1950s.

I did feel that I had been here before (as a reader and as person who comes from an immigrant family) and that the book was not mining new territory even though it was about a Chinese-Canadian family, a fairly rare occurrence in Canadian literature.

But at about 100 pages, things started exploding off the page for me. Su-Jen (renamed Annie in Canada) is a young girl who emigrates from Hong Kong to Canada with Jing, her beautiful but unhappy mother to join her father whom she has never met. Her parents were separated by the Communist takeover of China in the 1940s and Jing was compelled to marry Annie's father, a much older man, after her first husband and son died. Her mother is resentful of the new life that she is forced to take on in Canada, helping to run a family restaurant in the small town of Irvine, Ontario.

Life is uneventful at first (indeed the book is fairly uneventful in this section) and initially it appears that the characters are conforming to certain well worn Asian stereotypes: the quiet, hard working immigrants; dutiful, high achieving daughter, all leading solid, ordinary lives. They face overt racism, the cold of Canadian winters, a sense of alienation from the Canadian mainstream, and, the monotony of life in a small town.

This cliched image quickly collapses with the entrance of Lee-Kung, Annie's much older half-brother, who had been working in Owen Sound until he lost his job in another Chinese restaurant. Annie then stumbles upon a disturbing family secret that only she is privy to.

Annie's father's search for a mail order bride from Hong Kong for Lee-Kung accelerates (does her father know the truth?) and Annie's mother attempts to foil his efforts. Lee-Kung floats on, seemingly neutral, but plotting his escape from Irvine. And Annie watches as the whole thing unravels and she is paralyzed to act as she is too young to prevent the impact on the people she holds most dear.

Underlying the plot is Annie's mother's incessant listening to a Chinese opera surrounding the myth of the White Snake Goddess. This bodes well for no one!

I appreciated the disintegration of certain caricatures that white Europeans have about Asians: the passive wife, the dutiful sons and daughters, the seemingly placid nature of traditional Chinese families which here, barely conceals the jealousies, angers and festering desires of its family members.

Of course, I too react in a stereotypical manner thinking "Oh Judy, what did your mother think?" when I read the novel. Perhaps we as "ethnic" writers (how dated that phrase seems now in the 21st century) whose parents may not read or speak English well feel we are insulated from recriminations and prying eyes. No one we know well (or fear greatly) will read this, we reason, as we tap away at another revealing story that we would never dare speak of in front of family.

I wonder if this thought passed through Judy Fong Bates' mind as she wrote the novel? This is not to imply that it is based on her personal history but the story does shine a light on a certain aspect of immigrant life in the Chinese community that we usually do not see and certainly most would not willingly reveal. That, in itself, takes a great deal of courage.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Becoming (and Reinventing) Jane

The film Becoming Jane is based on the supposed early romantic life of author Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) and her possible flirtation and thwarted elopement with Thomas Langlois Lefroy (Scottish actor James McAvoy), a struggling law student dependent on a wealthy uncle who also supports Tom's family in Ireland.

It is said to be inspired by real events depicted in the book Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence who also served as the historical consultant on the film. It's directed by Julian Jarrold whose claim to fame is as the director of British TV series such as Great Expectations (1999) and White Teeth (2002), and his 2005 movie Kinky Boots.

I won't subject the film to the type of a scrutiny that will try to determine if it is historically accurate. I don't think that's fair to the film - it doesn't purport to be a documentary but a work of fiction - although I do admit membership in that large, and rather rabid, fan club which claims Jane Austen as one of their own.

The film realistically recreates what we believe to be Jane's life in the late 18th c.: her "oddity" as a female author and the discomfort that it creates for some in her small, country society; the unfair inheritance laws that effectively shut her out of a means of financial support when her parents die; the beauty and simplicity of her Hampshire country life; and, the constraints and challenges for one as bright and spirited as Jane was reported to be.

At first glance, Anne Hathaway appears too pretty to play Jane Austen and James McAvoy is, frankly, too plain to play the dashing Darcy stand-in Tom Lefroy. But there is real chemistry between the two and they do make you believe that these two unlikely persons, who clash so violently at first, could fall passionately in love, plan an elopement to Scotland and are appropriately crushed when they fail to consummate their plan.

There are intriguing bits too that you don't expect: Jane's gentle and loving relationship with her deaf brother; her brother Henry's secret love for their first cousin Eliza; a glimpse of the elder Bennetts' tomfoolery in bed; Tom's pugilistic battles, and, Henry and Tom's forays into brothels. I don't imagine we'd see these depicted on BBC remakes.

The only false note in the film, for me, is the enormous leap forward in time at the end where ... cut to "middle aged", tired looking Jane, famous author and unmarried woman, once again meeting Tom, now married well and father of a daughter. The aging makeup is silly and makes both look ill rather than older.

And the writers, Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams, didn't seem to trust their own ending ... they insist on showing us that Jane survives, is proud of her accomplishments and achieves fame in her lifetime. That even though she loved and lost Tom she is still independent and successful. Thank you for that Women's Studies 101 confirmation of the indomitable female spirit but the filmmakers are preaching to the converted aren't they? Whatever her disappointments, real or imagined, Jane Austen was an enormous success however you may want to measure success.

I don't think it's giving too much away to say that Jane never marries (as all the rabid Jane Austenites know). has an interesting, if slightly huffy, article called "See Jane Elope"about why we insist on creating a romantic past for Jane which likely did not exist. I don't think that's too hard to fathom.

Austen, as she so often depicted in her novels, seemed to suggest that a marriage between two equals (with a spirited, loving, respectful husband) was the achievement of a kind of heaven here on earth. Why wouldn't we, her readers, wish this for Jane herself?

Sunday, August 5, 2007

For Sale: Miss Havisham's House

This particular house on Broadview Avenue, which I have affectionately named Miss Havisham's house (please see blog entry on May 14, 2007) sits on the corner of of our street and Broadview here in the Riverdale neighborhood of Toronto, and is now for sale. Actually, yesterday I saw a sign that said it has been sold. It has been forlorn and neglected for years. Miraculously (for me), the house was featured in the August 4th ediiton of National Post in the Post Homes section.

I spoke to the real estate agent and he told me that the owner died last summer (he was in his sixties he said) and someone, I should have been more nosy but couldn't bring myself to ask, decided to sell. Was he incapacitated? Did he have children? How long did he live there? So many questions ...

The agent said that he had a survey for the house for 1918 but my suspicion was that the house was older than that. It was used as a doctor's office with two complete apartment suites above on the second and third floor.

Yesterday, I went to the library and poured through the Toronto Directories in the Toronto Reference Library on the 4th floor. I came upon the directories by chance one time in the library and vowed I would make good use of them one day. The directories, dating back well into the 19th c., contain an alphabetical directory of citizens, and a street directory. They also sometimes list their occupations. In early editions from, say the 1890s, you will come across very simple, charming notations such as:

Noah, carpenter, 16
Baldwin Street

Or sometimes with no surname at all:

Mary, 6 Claremount

And you realize as you scan the names how much the city has changed: the Robertsons, Jones, MacDonalds, Smythes have given way to a vast array of names ending in vowels or containing many consonants which likely would have given its old residents quite a shock.

This massive house has 17 rooms, a large wrap around porch and a boarded up coach house. The paint is peeling, the wood is decayed and rotting, the roof of the porch is broken through. The windows are broken or boarded up with chip board. The entire house is completely destitute looking. The floor of the third floor is so unstable that the agent did not recommend walking on it and would not hold an open house for safety reasons. Yet she is still beautiful in her decay.

It took a few hours but I found what I was looking for in the directories. Miss Havisham's house was built in 1907. A thrill passed through me when I saw that between the house of a certain Mr. Robert Yule directly to the south of the house I was searching for and the next house north of there, there were four unfinished houses being built in 1907. The next year, it was inhabited, and presumably owned, by a Dr. John A. Gallagher, a druggist and physician who had two business addresses, one on Gerrard Street and one on King Street E. He lived, possibly worked there for at least ten years. This would make the house 100 years old.

Perhaps the history of the house has mutated a bit with time? The agent told me that a physician had once owned and rented the two units above to two boarders. Could he possibly be referring to John A. Gallagher? Or was there a later physician as well?

I will keep digging and post my findings.

Good luck Miss Havisham - you deserve a family that will make you beautiful again.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

When the Astors Were Asses

When the Astors Owned New York: Blue Bloods and Grand Hotels in a Gilded Age (Penguin Group, 2006) 196 pp.

Bluebloods and luxury hotels? I had no idea how closely linked the Astors were with the creation of many of the luxury hotels in New York city: the New Netherland Hotel (1892), the Waldorf (1893), the Astoria Hotel (1897), the Waldorf-Astoria (1897), Hotel Astor (1904) and the St. Regis (1904) ... Interesting to note that so many of these hotels arose from a very unfriendly rivalry between two Astor first cousins John Jacob Astor IV (1864 - 1912) and William Waldorf Astor (1848 - 1919).

Hotels do hold a certain mystique for me. Oh hell, why not admit it? The most interesting sections of the book are the gossip.

I begin as Kaplan does ... John Jacob Astor IV died on the Titanic allegedly after handing his teenage bride into a lifeboat. Hitherto, John Jacob Astor IV had been unceremoniously and consistently referred to as Jack Ass for the multitude of idiotic mischief he was involved in. This seems a bit harsh in light of some of his life accomplishments: he was an avid inventor, financier of U.S. wars (perhaps a dubious achievement but certainly not seen as such at the time) and personally created some of the best luxury hotels in New York.

William Waldorf Astoria, his cousin and a notorious reactionary and Astor heir who renounced his American roots in his quest for a peerage (sound familiar Conrad Black?), was the lover of British writer and one time lover of Virgina Woolf Vita Sackville-West in his old age. She rejected him for an even older suitor much to his dismay. So did a great deal of the British upper crust for no matter how many millions he possessed, an American he was and he was someone who, they felt, spent his monies in a vulgar and ostentatious manner. Judge for yourself ...

His sumptuous estate, Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, England, would eventually serve as the site of two important events in British history. It was the meeting place of the "Cliveden set", a pro-fascist group of wealthy Britons who supported Hitler during WWII. They were immortalized in Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 novel The Remains of the Day.

It is also the setting for the beginning of the Profumo Affair where the ever-up-for-it Christine Keeler danced naked by the pool entrancing both John Profumo, Harold MacMillan's Minister for War, and Captain Eugene Ivanov, a Soviet intelligence agent in the 1960s. Apparently, the British public was shocked, shocked, to learn that highly placed politicians had paid sex with call girls who had little interest in Cold War hostilities.

Caroline Astor (nee Schermerhorn) married the III in the line and was so socially dominant that she was acknowledged to be the "Queen of the Four Hundred" in the late 19th c. by Ward McAllister, a "bon vivant", who said that "there were only about 400 people in fashionable New York" and apparently Caroline knew them all.

John Jacob Astor (1763- 1848) the grand old patriarch, who came before they started adding numerals to their surnames, was an uncouth, avaricious son of a German butcher who had the foresight to purchase vast quantities of Manhattan real estate thereby ensuring the prosperity of his descendants for the next 200 years.

One need only read up on the current plight of Brooke Astor who was married to Vincent Astor (1891 -1959), son of the unfortunate JJA IV who died on the Titanic (but not mentioned in the book), to know that the highborn continue to indulge in avaricious tricks and perfidy when their wealth is threatened.