Saturday, July 25, 2009

Quando c'è Che (When there is Che ...)

Quando c'è Che ... the rules seem to change. I am conflicted about this powerful image. And I am conflicted about this man's life and whether I should be enamored of this photograph taken by Alberto Diaz Gutiérrez, known as Korda.

This photo is used now to sell everything from T-shirts to knick knacks and the blank paged journal which I purchased at the UofT Bookstore and in which I wrote this initial entry. As a more conservative friend noted wryly, "Che must be spinning in his grave" watching this capitalist explosion of merchandising imagery and idolatry. He is now, as the writer Alvaro Vargas Llosa describes him, a "quintessential capitalist brand".

Was he a liberator and a true hero of the revolution? Or a murderer and a tyrant? Or all of these things at different points in his life? Is carrying his image about akin to carrying a picture of Stalin (who, by the way, Guevara admired). Would it be any different than walking around wearing a crucifix? Surely Catholicism has been responsible for many more deaths than Che and the revolutions in South America he might have spawned.

In this corner ... Che, liberator of Cuba, revolutionary par exemplar, murdered by the right for his leadership as a Communist and guerrilla. A man who forsook his bourgeois origins and the certain prospect of a comfortable, middle class life as a doctor.

In that corner ... a ruthless pursuer of Communist ideals and the building of a new Cuba. But he also laid the foundation for the totalitarian state that Cuba became where citizens were executed without trial, imprisoned if they disagreed with the government (or in the past simply if they were homosexual) and which still prohibits its citizens from leaving or emigrating legally.

Certainly his language was violent and unambiguous in his pursuit of Communist ideals. His actions followed suit killing both known and suspected enemies and authorizing others to do so as well. Hundreds (some say thousands) of deaths are attributed to him or to those following his direct orders. Alvaro Vargas Llosa noted in his 2005 New Republic article in "The Killing Machine: Che Guevara, from Communist Firebrand to Capitalist Brand":

After witnessing American intervention in Guatemala in 1954, Guevara radicalized and become convinced that the only way to bring about change was by violent revolution. He wrote in a letter to home: "Along the way, I had the opportunity to pass through the dominions of the United Fruit, convincing me once again of just how terrible these capitalist octopuses are. I have sworn before a picture of the old and mourned comrade Stalin that I won’t rest until I see these capitalist octopuses annihilated."

Vargas Llosa claims that in 1958, after the Cuban guerrillas took the city of Sancti Spiritus, Guevara tried to impose "a kind of sharia, regulating relations between men and women, the use of alcohol, and informal gambling". Not only was he unsuccessful but he seemed unable to control these impulses in his own life.
Most notoriously when he governed La Cabana, a prison holding those suspected of counter-revolutionary activity in the early years of the Cuban revolution, he was ruthless in his eradication of opponents and responsible for the death of hundreds of prisoners. In 1961, Guevara openly opposed the "right of dissidents to make their views known even within the Communist Party itself".
So the list is long and disturbing (only a tiny portion is noted here): murder, deprivation of human rights, theft of personal property, a single minded desire to force others to conform to his vision, hypocrisy. And certainly, the list of abuses are sometimes compiled by rabid anti-communists and Ayn Rand devotees (hello - welcome to the Internet) but Vargas Llosa, a respected political journalist born in Peru, does not appear to be one of these loony tunes with an agenda. But this might bear further inquiry which I will pursue.

So does embracing the artistic image (even if beautiful, artistic, powerful) condone the actions of the man? Is it immoral and illogical if I recognize these actions to be criminal and immoral but still covet the image, the other facets of the man, admire the image and show it to the world?

And what of my enthusiasm for the bandits Salvatore Giuliano, Jesse James and Ned Kelly - described variously as freedom fighters, terrorists, liberators, rebels. Even the notoriously unphotogenic John Dillinger of the 1930s has recently had a makeover - could they find a more handsome man than Johnny Depp to play him in the Public Enemies?

I have a framed album cover of an old LP which tells the story of Giuliano's life from when I was child. It sits above my writing desk (a gift from my sister) on the wall. Giuliano, killer of one hundred men, mostly carabinieri, and the presumed instigator of the attack on peaceful Communist supporters at the Portella della Ginestra. Should I take it down? Burn the 300 page fiction manuscript I wrote on his life? Renounce my interest in him?

I think we should be responsible for our fetishes, our little fantasies of romance and rebellion which may distort the truth. But I also think that, unfortunately, decades from now when the names of the dead are forgotten, these evils will also be forgotten or ignored for a more romantic viewpoint such as the one I have embraced about Giuliano.

Giuliano's transgressions are almost sixty years old and he is still venerated like a saint in Southern Italy. Jesse James has been dead since 1882 and he still elicits sympathy and admiration rather than repulsion or hatred. Ned Kelly is still a folk hero in Australia.

Their notoriety still grows, devotion swells, transgressions are seemingly forgotten ... so too with Che I think. Who mourns for the murdered lawman, the unfortunate bank teller or the bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time? Many admire a bad boy if you catch him on the right angle of the lens.

So I'm thinking, maybe I do not necessarily ditch the image but certainly ditch the idolatry lady.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A 21st c. Darcy

Twilight by Stephenie Meyers (Little, Brown & Co., 2005) 497 pages

Even though I am not quite through the book (I am racing through the last fifty pages), I will venture an opinion. And you know how shy I am about venturing an opinion. I was trying to understand the appeal of this book for teenage girls and tweenies (like my daughter) as well as motherly types (such as myself).

As any sentient being living on this part of the planet knows, the book and film are a huge phenomenon, nearly approaching the hysteria of the Harry Potter series but more appropriate fare for teens rather than children. Indeed, when the first Twilight book came out there was all this blather about the new J.K. Rowling floating about.

What is at the root of it I wondered. I think I understand this better now having read the book. I won't reiterate the plot: if you are a fan you know it; if you despise the franchise you have stopped reading this blog long ago.

And this entry is not even about the quality of the writing (which I find a bit mediocre at times - where was her editor?) or the ingeniousness of the story (which I think is quite clever and fascinating) but more about why it is appealing to women and teenage girls.

When Bella Swan, the Twilight heroine, picks up an omnibus of Jane Austen's novels I had my aha! moment. Meyers effectively capitalizes on the fantasy of the dark, mysterious, and possibly dangerous, hero that many women are infatuated with in both their fantasy and real lives.

In fact, Bella comments on the similarity of the name of her beloved Edward with the names of the male heroes in the Austen novels as she leafs through them, ironically seeking a diversion from thinking about her object of desire, Edward Cullen, but leading the reader (us) directly to the origins of Meyers' narrative template right back two hundred years.

Edward Cullen, the ageless and beautiful (as we are incessantly told by Bella) 17 year old vampire is haughty, sullen and superior (as well as handsome and withdrawn) which sounds suspiciously like my favourite Austen hero Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

Edward, a 21st century Darcy with fangs, initially attracts all with his beauty and superiority as a male specimen then repels with his haughtiness. Initially, only Bella (and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice) come to learn of their more nobler manly attributes: courage, strength, intelligence, and a paternalistic desire to protect, and shield, the woman they love.

Edward Cullen purportedly belongs to a superior class of beings, vampires, as does Darcy (the aristocracy).

In another instance, we see another Austen hero, John Knightley, is scolding, over protective and paternal (much like Edward Cullen) in Emma yet at first Edward Cullen appears bookish and withdrawn like the more subdued Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility.

And Bella easily resembles a classic Austen heroine: quirky, smart, seemingly blending in with the crowd with no remarkable attributes yet she easily captures the heart of the hero who notices her for her differences and her indifference to him.

Elizabeth is initially belittled as a potential mate for Darcy: she is too poor, not pretty enough, not cultured enough (or so she is deemed by Bingley's sisters Caroline and Louisa) as is Bella by the rest of her highschool mates in Forks. They can scarcely believe that Edward has singled her out: strikingly pale, clumsy and unathletic, unaware of her own attractiveness, and uninterested in clothes or boys or flirting.

Darcy, like Edward, blames himself for his desired one's misfortunes when sister Lydia runs away with Wickham and damages the reputation of the Bennett family in Pride and Prejudice. Bella's life and family are endangered by the "bad" vampires tracking her. Both men take it upon themselves to right the situation: Darcy will bribe Wickham into behaving honorably towards Lydia while Edward spirits Bella away from the tracker to protect her and her father Charlie. Neither family initially knows the true extent of the men's devotion and selflessness.

Bella prevails in the end, therefore we prevail ... the average girl deemed to be special, beautiful and handpicked by the most desirable boy in town. It taps into that fantasy extremely well.

The book also adds that element of danger that some women secretly seek out: being with Edward can literally kill Bella because of his attraction to her as a human and his need for blood. They are passionate but not sexually active. Some reviews I read implied there was an anti-sex message rooted in Meyer's Mormon beliefs implicit in the book.

Possibly, but I don't necessarily read it as such. I read it as an expression of the teenage fear of the male animal and sexual relations and fear of the unknown: will I be overpowered by him? will I lose myself in him? do I want him that much? am I willing to give up my sovereignty in exchange for sexual fulfillment? Clearly Bella is willing to take that chance ... she puts herself and even her own father in jeopardy as well.

This feeling of the need of girls and women to surrender to a grand passion is alive and well. And many of us are still very susceptible to it. It's quite a ride ...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Two charming men and a teenage vampire

I am taking Fridays off and treating myself. I decided to take off a few months from my book club too and read ... junk. Well, that's unkind. Something light. I wanted to read Twilight which has enthralled my tweenie daughter and many of her friends as well as many women my own age ... hmm what is that about, I wondered. It is a an incredible phenomenon and a little inexplicable at times.

But, hey, I'm as shallow as the next girl, I like a pretty face, such as the one belonging to my future son-in-law Robert Pattison who plays Edward Cullen, the lead, in the film released this year.

So I am sitting in Starbucks blogging away expanding on my theory that Edward Cullen, the young teenage hero of the book, is actually part of a long literary tradition at least dating back two hundred years to Jane Austen and her enchanting depiction of the dark, mysterious stranger (hello Mr. Darcy!) in several of her novels. I just went on Meyer's blog today and saw that Edward was indeed named for Edward Ferrars in Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

Coincidentally, at the coffee shop, I am sitting beside two very well educated men ... obviously academics, articulate, serious. I'm trying not to listen but I hear snippets: Israel, Sharon, blogs, etc ...

As I pack up to leave, one of the men says, "See this young lady has a blog [he had been trying to convince the older man to start one] - what are you blogging about?"

Me: "Uh ... it's about ... the ... image of the dark, mysterious stranger ... as seen in Jane Austen's work ... and in Twilight, you know ... the teenage vampire book and film ..." But they were very gracious about it and didn't make me feel too silly.

Meanwhile I had been talking to this man. Argggh, I felt so foolish ... but the idea (the Austen connection) is interesting to me so I will be expanding on this thought in a future blog. And I urge you to take a look at Jeffrey Dvorkin's blog which raises some interesting issues about the media and journalism.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Tell Mama

A Place in the Sun (U.S., 1951) by George Stevens, 121 minutes

The film director Paul Schraeder recently said in an audio interview on BBC 4 that sitting in a dark room with strangers watching a film in a theatre was rapidly becoming a thing of the 20th c. not the 21st. But it is hard to imagine a film of this quality and beauty on a small screen. Despite the melodrama of the plot, the b&w images are so vivid, so lovely that they still enchant fifty years later.

The film was based on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. The plot of the book was based on a true incident. According to The Literary Encyclopedia the book demonstrates "the strong desire felt by the have-nots for what they see as the almost mystical world of the moneyed; a world, they are taught, that is the rightful aspiration of everyone, and worth obtaining at any price".

I remember the book, which is actually much more lurid and complex than the film. There is more of a back story as to the central character Clyde Griffiths' motivations and history (here named George Eastman). The desperation is more pronounced, more understandable in the book.

It seems fitting that the first image that George Eastman (Monty Clift) has of the good life is a glamorous cheesecake ad for his wealthy uncle's company. He travels from Chicago where he works as a bellboy and soon gets a position in his uncle's lingerie shop having impressed his uncle.

A lonely, insecure boy he glimpses Angela Vickers (the exquisite Elizabeth Taylor) at his uncle's home and instantly falls in love. Lowly George, the son of black sheep Asa a Christian missionary, is not deemed good enough to associate too closely with his uncle's family or circle. Presumably Asa is deemed a failure as he is financially unsuccessful and has not achieved the material success his brother has.

George must settle for the sweetly simple but common Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), an Eastman factory girl and to frequenting low rent dives for entertainment. That is, until he receives a justly deserved promotion and appears to be, perhaps, finally accepted into his uncle's affluent circle.

The longing look he gives Angela is no less intense than the one he casts at his uncle's home or belongings when he is finally permitted to attend a social event at his home. Material acquisitiveness commingles with lust for George. In the setting of the beautiful home, among beautiful things and glamorous people, George and Angela fall in love while Alice pines for him in her shabby bed sit and George arrives four hours late for a small birthday celebration that she has prepared. Alice is not as simple as George might imagine and immediately intuits that George has become seduced by his uncle's lifestyle and Angela.

The chemistry between the Clift and Taylor is magical ... particularly during the oft shown dance sequence at Angela's parents' party where they profess their love for each other. The camera is poised over Angela and George's shoulder and fixed on their beautiful faces as they whisper endearments to each other. I had read that Stevens, the director, had coached Taylor as to what to say to Clift in this scene (the "Tell Mama" line). And there is a glimmer of something in Clift's face, of surprise, or arousal, which greets this line and makes the scene more poignant.

Things quickly sour when Alice tells George that she is pregnant. She attempts to find an abortionist but fails and gives George an ultimatum at the beginning of the summer: he must marry her by September 1st or she will go to the local papers.

Angela invites George to her cottage and soon a plan formulates about how George can rid himself of the whiny Alice. It's comic how quickly the sweetness and simplicity of the Alice character turns to annoying and nagging. And as dastardly as George's actions are, one can't help wishing Alice out of the way especially when she threatens to expose him before the Eastmans and Angela.

Alice is soon disposed of although it is unclear if George meant to follow through with his plans. George must pay for his avarice or his desires ... he must atone for aspiring too much and paying the ultimate price for this.

When the person who is convicted of Alice's death is on trial, the sequence feels more drawn out than it should be in the film as if to convince the viewer that he must suffer commensurately for his crime. The crime of desire. The desire for life, for wealth, for beauty. All of which elude George.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

It tolls for thee ...

Death of a Loyalist Soldier, photograph by Robert Capa, September 5, 1936

It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as a religious experience and yet it was as authentic ... it was something that you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that your own death seemed of complete unimportance ... But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight.
For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940) 507 pages

I had forgotten the formality of Hemingway's "translation" of the Spanish language here. It takes a while to get back into the rhythm of the speech - the "thee"s and "thou"s and "hast"s, etc ... as Hemingway's attempts to approximate the formality of the Spanish language (but in the English language).

The absurd, over the top machismo of his oeuvre is still appealing to me - his obsession with masculinity and defining it, demonstrating it, idolizing it, rattles my teeth at times. Despite the bravado and posturing he often seems a lonely, fragile man to me. Still he was a superb writer. One of my literary heroes.

And though at times it reads like an advert for the Spanish tourist board (especially the end of chapter 8) which sings the praises of the beauty of Spain and its inhabitants it is still an immensely appealing story of valour and personal courage. But what saves his overzealousness for me is his sharped eyed view of the Republicans and their flaws.

Robert Jordan, an American and expert dynamiter fighting the fascists in Spain during the Spanish Civil War in June 1937 over the course of three days, has come to a small town behind enemy lines to blow up a strategically placed bridge. He rendezvous with a guerrilla troop of Republicans who are to assist him in blowing up the bridge. They are lead by Pablo, the once ferocious leader of the Republicans in this area, who notoriously had ordered the elimination of almost all the fascists within a village in a brutal fashion. More on that later ...

Pablo seems to have lost his nerve, or appetite for blood perhaps, and is being supplanted by his wife Pilar, a very strong and determined anti-fascist who is even willing to sacrifice Pablo for the cause. There is also Anselmo, a sort of father figure for Robert, and various other peasants who have been enlisted to the cause.

The Republicans are also accompanied by a young girl named Maria, who has been ill used by the fascists and has fallen in love with Robert. The two are immediately drawn to each other and she becomes his, virtually given to him by Pilar who has decided that Robert can best take care of her.

There is a foreshadowing of what is to come when Pilar reads Robert's palm but refuses to tell him what it says. The sense of impending doom permeates all that follows.

Robert is immensely romantic, both in love with the Republican cause and with the tender Maria, with Spain itself: its food, drink, the beauty of the countryside, the customs, language and rituals. But he is not fooled by the Spaniards. He realizes that, "Of course they turned on you. They turned on you often but they turned on everyone They turned on themselves too." The book illustrates the brutality of both the Nationalists and the Republicans during the war.

There are lovely passages where we see a gentler side of Jordan during the conflict. He imagines Maria in Montana, in the midst of a pleasant domesticity and realizes this will likely never happen. He dreams of their life in together in Madrid. He dreams of Garbo, he dreams of Harlow. In short, he dreams of the happiness which eludes him during the course of his work in Spain.

Despite this gruff exterior, this is the writing of an intensely romantic and passionate man ... the interminable and clumsy speech on how much he loves Maria ("I love thee as I love liberty and dignity and the rights of man ...") illustrates as much.

Robert senses that Pablo is slowly losing faith in the cause and may do something drastic. Pablo seems haunted by the memory of the killing of the fascists which he ordered. The men were dragged one by one and made to pass through a long line of Republican supporters who hit the men with flails and then pushed them over a cliff to their death - it's a graphic and bloody and very long sequence related by Pilar. This scene appears to be based on real events that took place in Ronda in 1936. I wonder about the meaning of this - is it to illustrate the Republicans could be as brutal as the Nationalists?

But a decision has to be made about Pablo who is endangering the mission with his drunkenness and volatility and the group decides that it is Robert who must kill him. Robert keeps a wary eye on him as the defacto leader of the group.

On the eve of blowing up the bridge, Robert tries to bolster his confidence thinking of his grandfather's exploits, the very man who killed Union soldiers and Indians as a soldier of the Confederacy.

Masculinity, the cult of masculinity, the construct which we create and build and fortify with myth and emotion, of which Hemingway was a worshiper, requires tokens of affirmation ... why else would warriors take the heads (as in this novel) or scalps, war bonnets, arrowheads (as Robert's American grandfather did) of their slain opponents which Robert nostalgically reminisces about in chapter 30. Robert's idealism about war seems to stem from conversations with his paternal grandfather who fought in the American Civil War. Read in this chapter Hemingway's almost erotic fetishization of his grandfather's saber, his pistol, which was also the pistol that Robert's father killed himself with (Hemingway's father also killed himself). Remember that pistol because Robert does ...

Vidi Robert's long interior monologue about his father's suicide using his grandfather's cherished pistol. He calls his father a coward and hopes that he has his grandfather's courage. He muses that his father might have been different if his mother had not bullied his father.

With two or three digressions and plot twists, the bridge is blown but there is a cost ... which Robert and the others must pay. And Robert must determine if he indeed does have his grandfather's courage in the end.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


The Diary of a Lost Girl (Germany, 1929) by G.W. Pabst, 104 minutes

The divine Louise Brooks never fails to mesmerize even eighty years after this b&w film was made. One of my absolute favourite actresses. Pabst, very famously, fell in love with Brooks during the shooting of Pandora's Box (1928), the first film they did together, and it shows in every shot of Brooks in both films. Like the husband says, "Those Germans sure knew how to light a girl ..."

Brooks plays Thymiane Henning, the teenage daughter of a pharmacist (Josef Rovensky), seduced (some descriptions of the film say raped) by her father's pharmacy assistant, Meinert played by the unnervingly sinister looking Fritz Rasp.

Henning, her father, hypocritically has also taken to seducing and impregnating his housekeepers without repercussion much to the shame and horror of Thymiane.

She gives birth to an illegitimate child. As neither Thymiane nor Meinhert want to marry, the girl is forced to give her baby away by her father and is then sent to a militaristic girl's reform school run by a sadistic Director (Andrews Engelmann) and his equally frightening and cruel wife (Valeska Gert) who appear to derive sexual pleasure from tormenting the girls. Her father comes under thrall to Meta, a conniving housekeeper whom he eventually marries and who does not want Thymiane around.

Pabst had a genius for selecting the right faces for the silent screen: the greedy, selfish Meta; the evil, frightening faces of the Director and his wife; the lecherous father Henning; the weak-willed but good-natured Count; the dour, prudish family that eventually drives Thymiane away; the vicious, predatory Meinhert ...

In one of the few inadvertently and oft shown comic scenes, Valeska Gert bangs on a drum ecstatically while the overtaxed girls exercise violently before her and it is clear that she is deriving a sadistic erotic pleasure from the activity. In another disturbing scene, the Director forcibly removes lipstick from fellow reform schoolmate Erika (Edith Meinhard), then keeps the lipstick which he stealthily applies to himself when alone.

Resourceful Thymiane escapes from the school with her friend Erika and the aid of the sympathetic Count Osdorff (also someone spurned by his family) and with the aid of the other girls who physically restrain the hated Director's wife and steal her keys. It's an amazing scene where we see the two malefactors almost drown in a sea of hands and legs as the girls overwhelm them. It's like an image of locusts devouring their prey!

Thymiane searches for her child only to learn that she has recently died. She wanders the streets completely desolate and then finally searches for Erika, her only friend, who now works in a brothel. Thymiane soon joins Erika in her trade slowly seduced by the company, the beautiful clothes and good cheer of the house. Sadly, it appears the only place which has extended any kindness to her.

There is a bit of a silly subplot about Thymiane marrying Count Osdorff and getting her inheritance from her father's estate in atonement for his abandonment of her. Thymiane promptly gives away her inheritance to her stepsister as her step-family is now destitute. The count ain't too happy either as he was expecting a sizable inheritance to share and soon ends his life. But the Count's father takes responsibility for his son's fate and decides to assist Thymiane financially.

Returning to the reform school as a wealthy trustee, Thymiane now enjoys a life of privilege, and decides to use her new role to help girls such as Erika.

According to the mores of the times, bad girls must suffer for their misdeeds but, surprisingly here, Thymiane triumphs over her enemies despite giving birth to the illegitimate child and a life of prostitution. Of course, in order to redeem herself in our eyes, she must vow to assist other girls in similar situations ... and she does.

As saccharine and cliche as the film can be, Brooks shines in every scene, her beauty is extraordinary, like the picture of a sun in the middle of each frame - conveying sorrow, joy, pleasure, anger across her exquisite features and for the most part her acting is remarkably restrained in style compared to those flailing around her trying to convey intense passions.

What pleasure she gives us on the screen! If only her life had been a happier affair (read her autobiography Lulu in Hollywood for more detail). I urge you to see both this film and the more morally complex Pandora's Box.

More on Louise Brooks:
  • The Girl in the Black Helmet by Kenneth Tynan, reprint of a 1979 New Yorker article
  • Louise Brooks by Barry Paris (Knopf, 1989)
  • A Conversation with Louise Brooks by Richard Leacock, an interview during the filming of Lulu in Berlin (1984) which may be viewed on the Pandora's Box (Lulu) DVD released by the Criterion Collection.