Sunday, January 27, 2008

Second Languages and the Singular Girl

I am an anomaly, an aberration. I am singular and unusual in that I am of Italian descent and yet do not conversely easily in Italian. I am rather ashamed of this. Both of my younger siblings are proficient. Their Italian speech is ... mellifluous. Yes, mellifluous. My speech, alas, is not.

I have a love/hate relationship with the language. I love the sound of it, am proud of my heritage and resent myself for being so weak in my command of the language. I have been negligent. I no longer speak it well and the less I speak it the more anxious I feel when I do speak it.

True, I have had my traumatic experiences. We spoke a dialect at home - a Sicilian dialect - which was at variance with the official Italian (read Northern dialect and Northern imposed) taught here at school and in Italy, even in the South. Don't even get me started on the unification of Italy and its cultural and social byproducts. Other Italians, heck other Southerners, did not understand me well when I spoke it.

I tried in highschool to take a few courses in Italian. It was harder than I thought and I didn't fare so well. My marks were fair to middling. I always came up with the wrong word for something and I remember well the gales of laughter I would inspire when I spoke to my non-Sicilian friends in Italian.

When I tried to speak my highschool Italian with my extended family they wickedly imitated my seemingly "posh" inflection and word usage. That shut me down pretty quickly. Ah, we are such a tolerant people. Note to self: stick to dialect at home.

I left home at 18 and came to Toronto to get my degree. I had very little cause to speak it except when I came home to Hamilton to see my family and then that became more infrequent when I got established in my work, married, had a child etc ... My partner is not of Italian descent; some of my friends are but we don't speak in Italian. Curse maybe, speak no.

It's a tough crowd back at home in Hamilton, especially with my mother and sister reprimanding me for not remembering how to say, oh for instance, something essential like sesame seed and such (it's giuggiulena from the Arabic giulgiulan by the way). As the oldest sib, this adds another level of shame. I exaggerate only a little here.

For years I have said to myself that I would try and re-learn it but I was intimidated. I am a notorious coward when it comes to doing something that I know I don't do well. But a friend said that she was considering studying Cantonese at the School of Continuing Studies at UofT. I thought, "I should probably do something about this after thinking of it all these years".

Before I go to class each Monday night, I try and psyche myself up. I feel like that SNL character Stuart Smalley sitting in front of the mirror with a smile plastered on my face and saying "You're good enough, you're smart enough, and dog gonnit, people like me!"

Luckily, my instructor Paolo is utterly charming, like the sweeter, older uncle whom I never had. The class, mostly of Anglo or Northern European descent, seems enchanted as well. They get that dreamy Italophile glow when he speaks the language, especially to another Italian born person with perfect inflection such as the instructor in the class next door.

I usually think (enviously), "Wow, I'd love to have that effect on people when I speak Italian." With a little hard work, I might still do that.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Maybe we should be afraid of Virginia Woolf

Carlyle's House and Other Sketches by Virginia Woolf and edited by David Bradshaw (Hesperus Press, 2003) 56 pp.

This slight book is a series of seven short sketches which were not meant to be published but served as exercises for a young VW at the turn of the century. The sketches themselves are not extraordinary but point the way to the elegance of future novels and the acerbic nature of her personal diaries. The most interesting part of this book is the commentary appended with a historical context for her writing which is written by David Bradshaw.

Five of the sketches stand out for me ...

In "Carlyle's House", VW visits the home of eminent Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881) and his wife Jane Welsh. Here Bradshaw suggests that the Carlyle marriage perhaps resembled that of Virginia's parents Leslie and Julia Stephen who had a close but intense relationship. Her father was a friend of Carlyle's and VW had visited his home as a young girl with her father.

Leslie Stephen was said to have moaned after Julia's death, "But I am not so bad as Carlyle am I?" Apparently he was. Some might argue that Leslie's self absorbed demands, and the stresses of managing a large family, drove Julia into her final illness and death. A brief aside: there are some lovely personal photographs of the Stephen family at this website taken from father Leslie's private album.

"Miss Reeves" is one page long and is based on VW's perception of Amber Reeves, a well known Fabian and the one time lover of H.G. Wells. VW exercises her well known razor sharp insights, comparing Reeves to "the girl whose mother was a snake". Bradshaw notes this reference is to Robert Browning's poem "Porphyria's Lover" ("porphyria" meaning snake). But also, VW surmises that Reeves is "so much determined to embrace everything that she fails".

Coincidentally, I have also begun Katie Roiphe's newest book Uncommon Arrangements which chronicles seven unconventional marriages/relationships between the literarti in early 20th c. Britain among whom are included the ever priaptic Wells and yet another lover Rebecca West who also bore him a child.

In "Cambridge", VW has afternoon tea with, and scrutinizes in quick succession, the Freudian psychoanalyst James Strachey (1887 - 1945), brother of one time Virginia Woolf suitor Lytton Strachey; the mathematician H.T.J. Norton (1886 - 1937) and the poet Rupert Brooke (1887 - 1915). She writes of them that she was conscious that "not only my remarks but my presence was criticized. They wished for the truth and doubted that as woman could speak it or be it" and then adds more charitably that "I had to remember that one is not full grown at 21".

She leaves with the dispiriting thought that "it seemed as though the highest efforts of the most civilized people produced a negative result. One could not honestly be anything." It has the ring of truth to it, as if excessive education immobilizes you and prevents you from living in a way. You are like rarefied flower in a hothouse. Haven't we all met people like that?

Ottoline Morrell, the aristocratic host of many a Bloomsbury literary salon is similarly skewered in "Salon". VW's assessment is honest but vituperative. She uses words like "careful", "elaborate", "passive rather than active" to describe Ottoline. But, as always, it comes down to her looks, for none of us can forgive a woman her ugliness. Ottoline is "remarkable if not beautiful" and "takes the utmost pains to set off her beauty". The suggestion is that she fails in this for VW concludes that she has the aspect of "some marble Medusa".

The worst piece of writing is, I think, "Jews". The title alone alarms, as if she believes that her observations pertain to all Jews. The thinking is sloppy and mean-spirited, compeltely unbalanced in its perspective. Anyone who knows VW's personal writings, letters and diaries is aware of her really unpleasant anti-semitism despite her marriage to Leonard Woolf and her sympathetic portrayal of a Jewish family in her last novel The Years. She, who famously said that she hated "the sound of the Jewish voice", etc ... softened somewhat it seemed when she aged but that is not evident here. She profiles the wife of a wealthy stockbroker, here named simply Mrs. Loeb, whose spouse became a connoisseur of opera and operatic singers.

It is truly offensively written even though meant for her eyes only. The physical person of Mrs. Loeb repels her: her girth, her expansiveness, her desire to marry off all young eligible women like VW. The food served "swam in oil" and was "nasty". She adds "of course" after this remark as if it is a foregone conclusion. Bradshaw, while condemning the anti-semitic remarks in the commentary, emphasizes that this bias was not uncommon amongst the upper classes. Still it shocks to read it today and he tries a little too hard to explain this ugliness, I think. Could she not be a great writer and a nasty anti-semite? Ezra Pound, Simone Weil par esample ...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The still palatable work of literary fiction

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood (McClelland & Stewart, 1969) 281 pp.

This book was one of the selections made by my book club. I groaned inwardly when it was suggested. Why is a bit of a mystery to me. I think Atwood is a great writer but I have not read her work in a number of years. I've talked a bit about this block that writers seem to have about Atwood in a previous blog. I think the last Atwood book I had read was Alias Grace, a piece of historical fiction which I loved.

I am at least astute enough to realize that the book is meant to be comic; however, its humour eluded me somewhat. I will say that it does now have bit of a dated feel to it.

Marian, the 20-something post-grad protagonist, seems poised between two contradictory worlds: the repressed 50s morality of her workplace colleagues at Seymour Surveys where her three colleagues are prissy virgins (which she is most definitely not) and her amoral roommate Ainsley who, a true libertine of the late 1960s, schemes to seduce Len, one of Marian's friends, as a potential father for her yet-to-be-born child.

But neither is she like her other friend, the perpetually pregnant Clara, who lives in cheerful squalor with her three children, all babies or toddlers, and husband Joe. Clara seems diminished, or spent, by the ordeal of having three babies in such close succession with her graduate school dreams behind her.

I don't want to make the mistake of assuming that Marian's views were Atwood's views at the time of the writing of this book. But Atwood was born in 1939 and she would have been 30 when this book was published. She was perhaps experiencing some of the trepidations and anxiety that Marian felt. The fear of commitment to one person for the rest of one's life in marriage, the sense that a married woman/mother was this alien element whom she could not relate to, was also familiar to me when I was that age.

I admit that I have felt these emotions too but reading them expressed here and after years of trying to conceive a second child leave me cold and a bit angry in reading them (an emotional, irrational response I admit - why should I care if a woman expresses distaste about marriage and/or pregnancy? It's her choice).

Marian's language about her friend Clara's pregnancies is so filled with fear and disgust (she refers to her "tuberous", "swollen" body) that it alarms me somewhat. Was I, too, that shallow and stupid? Oh yes dear reader. I was filled with dread, at one time, at the prospect of pregnancy; I did fear it. I did look at pregnant women as if they were an alien species and asked myself how could they do it, why did they do it? It shames me now to think of it.

The book seems to suggest a young girl's sometime repugnance with the female body as it matures, its fecundity and fleshy expanse. Hence, this passage about her work colleagues:
" ... they all wore dresses for the mature figure. They were ripe, some rapidly becoming overripe, some already beginning to shrivel; she thought of them as attached by stems at the top of their heads to an invisible vine, hanging there in various stages of growth and decay ..."
The women's bodies were, she thought, "a liquid amorphous other" which she can barely stand to contemplate.

Marian's fiance Peter, a previously marriage-phobic overaged frat boy, is an uptight, sexist jerk (don't hold back Lit Chick, tell us what you really think). One wonders what the attraction is for Marian. His safeness? Middle class predictability perhaps?

And yet to my mind Marian is also inexplicably drawn to the gangly, extremely odd Duncan whom she encounters during one of her interviews for Seymour Surveys. The character is so strange, so pathetic, it boggles the mind as to why Marian is attracted to him with his extraordinarily strange habits (i.e. his compulsive ironing, his obsession with mummies at the ROM) and his overly educated, if useless, psychological speculations about himself and his roommates unless it is because he is offbeat and serves as a foil to Peter's controlling WASPish snobbery.

Around the time that Ainsley is successful in becoming pregnant, oddly enough, Marian experiences a distaste for, firstly, meat, then eggs and a host of other things (is this a rejection of rampant consumerism? rejection of middle class sustenance and propriety?) until she is unable to eat anything.

She begins to cast a more critical eye at Peter and her life. She seems to deliberately want to sabotage her future by inviting Peter to meet Clara and Joe at dinner, flirts increasingly with Duncan at various trysts, has dinner with him and his overprotective roommates whom Duncan describes as his "parents".

There is a telling passage during that dinner where one of the roommates talks about a thesis on Alice in Wonderland and you, as the reader, begin to have a sneaking suspicion that this is Atwood's slightly skewed version of that tale. Marian is a modern day Alice at a Mad Hatter's party with Duncan and roommates Trevor and Fish as the other party goers.

There is a beautifully written scene where Marian is staring into a mirror and looking at two dolls on either side of the mirror, one dark haired, one light haired. She starts to imagine what they think of her, that they are staring at her. The blonde is is merely "staring" but she comes to think that the dark one is probing into her mind and seeing into her. You begin to realize that Marian is possibly going mad; hence, her eating problems and general nervousness.

The day approaches for a crucial party with Peter's friends where Marian will formally be presented as his fiancee. In a fit of anxiety, Marian invites all of her friends who are sure to upset Peter and his circle: the prissy virgins, the pregnant Ainsley, Duncan and his roommates, Clara and Joe ... even the unfortunate Len shows up and promptly creates a scene.

This is, the reader thinks, the supposed denouement and a flat one it is with Marian literally running from Peter, his camera in hand, taking photographs of the party goers and alarming the skittish Marian who flees, looking for Duncan at the local laundromat (don't ask - another one of his peculiarities). Eventually, they listlessly wander the city looking for a motel to consummate their relationship... oh the comedy!

But, finally, when I read the last ten or so pages I got it. Marian was a consumable product to be used, and used up by Peter, by Duncan, by her employer, by society. Yet she turns the tables on them and no one is able to possess her or consume her. And in her final act of rebellion she releases herself from this spell which has prevented her from eating, from living, from moving forward. She breaks free from all of them.
And now I see how Peggy made her bones among the literati ... and became the high priestess of Can Lit.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Eastern Promises (2007)

Eastern Promises (2007) directed by David Cronenberg

Like him or hate him, David Cronenberg is extremely talented and a truly original artist. I have had my rocky moments with Cronenberg particularly with his
early work. His hermetically sealed fantasy worlds don't always work for me. Intrigued by his controversial 1996 film Crash I was just barely able to get through it because I was pregnant with J and was very sensitive about images of blood and gore (I have overcome this aversion somewhat).

Eastern Promises, which I tried to see at TIFF last year to no avail, features two of my favourite actors: Viggo Mortensen and Naomi Watts. The scene opens with pregnant 14 year old Tatiana, a junkie and prostitute, trapped into slave labour by the Russian mafia, hemorrhaging to death in a pharmacy.

Anna Khitrova (
Naomi Watts), a midwife of Russian/British heritage, working at a London hospital, delivers a baby girl from the unconscious Tatiana. Anna is immediately drawn to the child possibly because of her miscarriage some time before. Tatiana dies during childbirth with no identification other than her diary which is written in Russian and holds a business card for a restaurant known as the Trans-Siberian which is run by a dignified old Russian named Semyon (the German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl).

Semyon is a sophisticated, elegant man who loves his grandchildren, teaches them the violin as well as serving gorgeous, sumptuous meals for his upscale Russian patrons. But this serves as a facade for his real business which is the trafficking of underage prostitutes from Russia. He serves as a sort of don in the Russian mafia known as
vor v zakone (literally meaning Thief-in-Law).

Searching for an address to notify Tatiana's family of the birth of the little girl, Anna seeks Semyon out to determine if he knows Tatiana and she explains that she has the diary. Shrewdly, he offers to translate it for her and asks her to drop it off. Semyon quickly realizes that both he and his son Kiril (
French actor Vincent Cassel), a violent, and likely closeted, psychopath are both implicated in the rape of the underage Tatiana.

Semyon admits to her that the diary has damaging information about his son Kiril. He offers to find the address of the baby's mother's family in Russia in exchange for the original diary, while implying that the baby may be harmed if Anna does not provide the diary.

Through her Russian-born Uncle Stepan's reading of the diary, Anna also learns that Tatiana was lured to London with promises of a job singing, forced into prostitution, "broken in" or raped by Semyon and then injected with

Anna realizes that Semyon must be the father of the baby girl whom she has now named Christine.

Anna also meets Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen), Kiril's "driver" who is also referred to as an "undertaker" for his role in cutting off the fingers and removing the teeth of a fellow vor who has been assassinated for spreading "lies" about Kiril, specifically that he is a drunk and a queer. Nikolai helps Kiril dispose of the body in the
River Thames.

Mortensen is phenomenal in this film ... smoothly capturing the look, stance, hair, clothing, criminal
tattoos (more on that later) of a vor even in the subtle way he moves his body, his head. He's utterly convincing.

When Semyon learns that Kiril ordered the murder of the rival Russian vor, he berates Nikolai for not advising him then commands Nikolai to get the original diary from Anna almost as proof of his fidelity. Nikolai reads it and then hands it over to Semyon for burning. Nikolai learns that Anna's uncle is Russian and is also ordered to kill Stepan on the assumption that Stephan knows too much.

Semyon promotes Nikolai to the rank of captain and Nikolai is tattooed with a captain's stars on his chest in an uncomfortable scene where he is cross examined, stripped to his underclothes, by members of the Russian mafia elite who read his tattoos as if they were a police report. Here, and in a later scene, we see the extent and importance of the tattoos which tell a man's complete criminal history: what his crimes were, how many sentences he has served, his rank in the mafia.

Semyon has very specific plans for Nikolai for he is then lured to a bathhouse (apparently a traditional meeting place for vors where a man's tattoos and hence his criminal history is on full display) and that puts him in the path of two Chechen killers who have been told that he is Kiril (i.e. responsible for the death of their fellow vor from an earlier scene).

The ensuing scene is amazing, with a naked, tattooed Mortensen fighting the two fully clothed
Chechens armed with knives. After an extremely violent fight, Nikolai stabs and kills the Chechens and is seriously wounded.

While recovering from his wounds, it is soon revealed that Nikolai is an undercover officer with the
FSB (Russian Federal Security Service (a successor to the KGB) and is working with the British police. Scotland Yard wants to remove him from the operation for his own safety but he declines and plots to have Semyon eliminated.

To say more (and I think I've said too much already) would ruin the ending. To a certain extent the bad guys are foiled and the good are rewarded but there is a great deal of ambiguity about Nikolai's fate at the end. The last shot is very reminiscent of the final scene of The Godfather.

All is as it should be in Cronenberg's world.

Y tu mamá también (2001)

Y tu mamá también (And Your Mother Too) (2001) directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Gael Garcia Bernal's directorial debut Deficit (2007), which I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, reminded me a great deal of this older film: the obtuseness of upper class privilege amidst the poverty and deprivations of Mexico, and, a representation of extreme class and racial differences between those Mexicans of European descent and those of Indian descent.

Tiny, perfect Bernal. So versatile and charismatic ... I can't think of three more different, textured performances in the recent past: the teenager Julio in Y tu mamá también, the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevera in The Motorcycle Diaries and Santiago, a Mexican badass in Babel.

During the Q&A with Bernal after the screening of Deficit, as the audience was filing out, one man behind me started to "scream" in a loud whisper of female hysteria "Ga-el! Ga-el!" The women nearby giggled nervously but he pretty much echoed what we were all thinking ...

This was the first Mexican film that made me consider the middle class of Mexico, how very different these lives were from the stereotypic images of the working class and "peasant" Mexicans that we are often presented with in American film and TV.

In the film, we meet Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), two seventeen-year old Mexican boys of different classes. Julio is middle class, although in moments of conflict, Tenoch calls him a peasant and elicits a tirade of abuse from Julio. Tenoch's family is very wealthy. They are, for instance, invited to a wedding where the Mexican President is present.

At that wedding, they meet Luisa (Maribel Verdú), a gorgeous twenty-eight year old Spaniard, whom we will soon learn is unhappily married to Jano, a distant cousin of Tenoch’s. The boys are self professed Charolastras, Mexican slang meaning "space cowboys", with eleven edicts that have to do with the predictable things that 17 year old boys are interested in: masturbation, girls, fidelity to each other, male friendship.

The boys, now slightly drunk and very turned on by Luisa, impetuously invite her to accompany them on a road trip to Boca del Cielo (Heaven’s Mouth), a non-existent beach with an appropriately romantic name. A few days later, Luisa, receives some difficult news and coupled with revelations of Jano's newest infidelities accepts their offer.

On the way, the boys vie for Luisa's attentions, reveal their experiences with girls (or lack thereof), and, are alternately seduced by the unhappy Luisa who shows them a trick or two in that area. As one review phrased it, Luisa is the "catalyst of self-discovery" for the boys in more than one way.

But director Cuarón is clever at subtly revealing the "real" Mexico underneath the privilege and infantile squabbling of the three. On the road, they obliviously pass ordinary Mexicans being harassed by the police and the military, see the poverty and the devastation of the countryside and encounter the generosity of rural people. They seem inured to it all, with the boys arguing whose penis is bigger or who was a bigger traitor when they screwed the other's girlfriend. Luisa, although older is no better at times, haranguing the boys about their sexual ineptitude, immaturity and their obvious betrayal of their own charolastra ideals.

When they accidentally come upon a beach whose name actually is Boca del Cielo they all seem to find some stability. Luisa is at peace, deciding to stay on with the humble fisherman and his family they have met. The boys get to know each other a little better than they had anticipated in unexpected ways. However, when they return home their new intimacy unnerves them and they never share the closeness they had before the trip. They meet one last time and Tenoch reveals one last devastating detail about Luisa that Julio did not know.

I loved it and I loved Bernal as a vacuous, spoiled teenager who is changed forever by Luisa and this trip through Mexico.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Saving souls, one naked girl at a time

Black Snake Moan (2006) written and directed by Craig Brewer

I have been avoiding this film - my perception that the subject matter was lurid (young Southern white girl held "prisoner" by older black man in his home to "cure her of her wickedness") really repelled me when I first heard of it. Perhaps I was being too harsh in my initial dismissal of the film. Hmm, perhaps not. Based on the reviews, I am not alone is in having mixed feelings about it.

Rae (Christina Ricci) who might uncharitably be referred to as white trash is left beaten to a pulp, half naked, by the side of a road by the friend of her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) who has just left for military training.

The girl is troubled, promiscuous, indiscriminate about who she sleeps with. This is the "friend's" revenge on her after he tries to screw her and she laughs him off.

She is found by by the aptly named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) who is recovering from his own troubles and regains his dignity and his sense of calm after his encounter with Rae. Lazarus is a blues musician turned farmer. His wife of many years has just left him for his younger brother. He ministers to the girl and it is not immediately understood why he keeps her rather than bring her to the hospital. He seems to have religious motives in helping her. As she is completely delusional and keeps trying to run out of the house, he chains her to the radiator. Hmm, interesting salvation technique Lazarus.

Oddly, her fits of promiscuity are presaged by almost epileptic fits of trembling. Perhaps this a medical condition that we, the general public, are unaware of?

But hey, why not throw some clothes on her Lazarus? Because it's more intriguing, or possibly sexy, to have a shapely, pretty girl like Ricci (whom I consider to be a talented otherwise) slithering around on the ground half naked and in chains? Okay Christina, we get it - you lost weight some time ago and you are in superb shape. For at least half of the film she is wandering around in a small cut off top with the Confederate flag, white panties and barefoot.

He walks her around the fields like a mule for exercise, puts vaseline on her wounds, lectures her on her promiscuity. I can't get past the silliness of having her in chains for much of the film. It's a voyeuristic, silly, sexist conceit. Even though we are meant to be reassured that Lazarus' interest is not sexual (he has his eyes set on a an older, pretty pharmacist who has taken a liking to him) the absurdity of a rational person chaining another to a radiator to rehabilitate her is so offensive, so patently meant to titillate that is hard to forgive the writer/ director this plot conceit.

Of course, after violent objecting to her confinement, Rae develops a sort of Stockholm syndrome and rather than try to escape she even avoids detection by outsiders. The chains come off and she has become a new person: more assertive of her rights: she confronts her mother about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother's boyfriend, she wears the clothes that Lazarus has purchased for her, visits a bar to hear Lazarus sing the blues. She seems mesmerized by Lazarus' singing, wrapping herself around his legs at his feet while he sings. Ai yi yi.

Ronnie returns, unfit for military combat and frantic about Rae's whereabouts. He eventually tracks her down, thinks she is sleeping with Lazarus, almost kills Lazarus but is talked out of it by the overpowering charisma and courage of Lazarus.

Here's where this "magical Negro" idiocy kicks in which I have talked about before ... you know there are a number of creative white people who believe that black people, because they have suffered a great deal in the past (and still do to a certain extent), can have these mystical powers of persuasion or healing. This film I think buys into this sentiment.

Lazarus persuades Ronnie to talk to a preacher friend and soon the couple is wed with Lazarus and his lady friend as witnesses. Ronnie wraps a silver chain around Rae's waist during the wedding ceremony as a symbol of what - her radical transformation? Her link to Ronnie? Her past suffering with Lazarus?

They leave and the last shot is a sign that perhaps both have changed and can help each other. Oh boy ... and all because of one brave, determined black man was willing to chain a white girl to a radiator.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Half Nelson (2006)

Half Nelson (2006) directed by Ryan Fleck

I have to admit that Ryan Gosling would not be the first actor who comes to my mind when thinking of serious dramatic actors especially after the atrocious The Notebook (2004). Okay, it made me cry (a lot!) but it was horribly maudlin and manipulative. I didn't think much of him until I saw him in last year's Half Nelson where he plays a crack addicted history teacher working in a school in a troubled neighborhood in Brooklyn. I get what Rachel McAdams sees in this guy now.

The film, written by Anna Boden and her partner the director Ryan Fleck, explores the bond between an idealistic junior high school teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) and promising student Drey (Shareeka Epps) who accidentally happens upon Dan and uncovers his secret life when she catches him smoking crack in the locker room after a basketball game.

It also explores Drey's relationship with a charismatic drug dealer named Frank (Anthony Mackie) who initially appears to be taking Drey under his wing as an obligation to her older brother who's in jail for dealing for Frank. Unfortunately, Frank has his own plans for Drey, using the sweet faced girl as a drug courier.

Gosling impressed me with his understated performance and the complex ambiguity of his character. He's not a particularly nice guy and certainly doesn't play it that way despite the fact that Dunne teaches in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood riddled by drug dealers, is writing and illustrating a children's book on dialectics(!), coaches girls' basketball, has a weakness for cats and genuinely cares about the kids he teaches.

Yet this saintly image of Dan is belied by a character who also smokes crack in his off hours, trolls for drugs on the mean streets of Brooklyn, comes on to, and nearly sexually assaults, a fellow teacher who has befriended him, sleeps around most nights with strangers after a good old fashioned drunk, and alternates between treating Drey with special attentions (cooking her meals, driving her home after games, trying to keep her away from Frank) and then a junkie's post drug hangover scorn and abuse.

When he becomes aware of Frank's over zealous attention Dan actively tries to intercede by going to Frank's house and pleading with him to leave the girl alone. But Gosling is so self assured and matter of fact that it never descends into melodrama. When he comes face to face with Frank, he isn't a hero, just a skinny white guy walking into a veritable viper's nest of dealers and losers and you can almost read his thoughts that perhaps this wasn't the smartest of ideas. Instead of the inevitable violent confrontation you can see that Dan is somewhat charmed by the smooth talking Frank who is trying hard to win Dan over.

Dan doesn't cater to the kids. He is one of the few white faces in a largely black and Hispanic school. He doesn't condescend, or is overly nice, to them. When they screw up or act up he has no compunction telling them so or advising them to get lost when they annoy him.

And Drey watches out for him too, checking up on him when he doesn't show up at school, etc ... At every turn you dread that the plot will take a creepier or stereotypical turn: Frankie will sexually abuse Drey or Dan will turn out to be some sort of pedophile and not just an idealistic teacher who deeply cares about these kids. Rachel, Dan's ex, will save him, or that pretty Hispanic teacher will do it. Dan will kill Frank or Frank will harm Dan.

But no, it never goes there.

Nor are we reassured that everything will turn out well at the end. When Drey comes face to face with Dan during a routine delivery of crack to an unknown address and Dan calmly hands over the money, the look of resignation of Dan's face and the look of understated shame on Drey's is riveting ... this is enough of a shock to force both to try and change but as the film ends there seems to be no guarantee that Dan will kick his habit or Drey will keep off the streets and avoid her brother's fate.

Many times, the film took me to unexpected places, avoiding the obvious maudlin choices and stayed with me long after I saw it.

A note on the title which I found intriguing but was indecipherable to me when I first saw the film; here is director Ryan Fleck's explanation from an interview with

“We knew we were intending to make a very subtle and evocative movie and one that doesn’t over-explain everything, and we thought the title should match that,” explains Fleck. “It’s just a metaphor. A half nelson is a wrestling hold, as you may or may not know, but it’s something you can escape from, even though it’s very tricky. It’s just like a metaphor for struggle. It works for addiction or political struggle or anything and that’s sort of it. It’s also a Miles Davis song that’s probably about the same thing. That’s it. (Laughing) But I’m starting to think with the success of Snakes on a Plane that we should have called it Crack in the Classroom or something like that.”