Monday, April 30, 2012

The April Cultural Roundup

Hey look closely - that's me in the poster with the red beret. I was one of four people featured in a documentary on the passengers, and the children of the passengers, of the Saturnia, an immigrant ship that brought thousands of European and Italian immigrants to Canada in the 1950s through to the 1970s. I wrote a little bit about that experience here.The documentary premiered on April 22, 2012 (in English) and on April 29, 2012 (in Italian) on OMNI-TV.

Gasland (U.S., 2010) directed by Josh Fox
Golem (Poland, 1980) directed by Piotr Szulkin
Brighton Rock (U.K., 2011) directed by Rowan Joffe
Saturnia (Canada, 2011) directed by Ferdinando Dell'Omo and Lilia Topouzova
Straw Dogs (U.S., 2011) directed by Rod Lurie
Carnage (U.S., 2011) directed by Roman Polanski 
Shame (U.S., 2011) directed by Steve McQueen
My Thai Bride (Australia, 2011) directed by David Tucker
Bully (U.S., 2012) directed by Lee Hirsch

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James

Launch of the Bosnia Herzegovina issue of Descant at Annex Live, April 10, 2012
Spring launch of Quattro Books at supermarket, April 24, 2012

Saturnia filmmakers and friends
Ferdinando Dell'Omo and Lilia Topouzova

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tadzio in New York

By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham (HarperCollins, 2010) 238 pages

The title, By Nightfall, implies the approach of death, or at the very least, the beginning of thoughts of mortality and thus the hunger for lost youth, lost desire. Michael Cunningham captures that so well here.

“The Mistake is coming to stay for a while.” Rebecca Harris announces to her husband Peter. Rebecca's 23-year-old brother, Ethan, known as Mizzy (short for "The Mistake" as he was born many years after his three older sisters), is dropping in to see his sister in New York. Yale drop out, possible boy genius, and a recovering drug addict, Mizzy is a gorgeous screw up who frequently is bailed out by one of his three sisters. 

Mizzy, who has just spent several months sitting in a Japanese garden pondering five stones in a effort to spiritually enlighten himself, has always lead a life of unrealized potential or so his sisters believe. He is now ready to do "something in the arts" and wants Rebecca and Peter to assist him with that.

Peter is a mid-level Chelsea art dealer who buys and sells art, searching for that elusive genius, searching for the beautiful in art, and, the meaning in life. His own life, in comparison, now that he is in his early 40s, appears dull and uneventful to him. Perhaps this is why he ends up in the arms of Mizzy who bears a disturbing resemblance to a young, androgynous Rebecca.

One day, Peter walks into the bathroom and, thinking it is Rebecca, pulls back the shower curtain and comes upon Mizzy. Confused, aroused, Peter quickly withdraws. Mizzy, naked, unashamed, has glimpsed something in Peter that he can happily respond to and take advantage of. Later he finds Mizzy standing naked in the living room in the middle of the night during one of Peter's frequent bouts of insomnia.

The character of Tadzio in Death in Venice
Before our eyes, Mizzy is suddenly transformed into Tadzio from Death in Venice and Peter is Gustav Von Aschenbach, the hapless older man who has fallen in love with him. The literary references are subtle but effective such as when Peter's stylist suggests he dye his hair darker (which harkens back to the lovelorn Von Aschenbach who tries to exhibit a more youthful appearance in the book by dyeing his hair too).

Peter's memories takes us back to his complicated relationship with an older brother named Matthew, who was gay and who died of AIDS years ago. It's a curious memory because Peter explicitly says that he was in love with both Matthew and his then platonic girlfriend Joanna, a now faded Midwestern beauty, who has long lost her teenage luster. He ponders:
You love your wife for many reasons, among them her resemblance (which you exaggerate in your own mind) to the unattainable girl of your adolescence, who preferred your older brother and you (fuck you) love her ever so slightly less now that she's not that girl any longer. You're drawn (erotically?) to her little brother because on one hand he reminds you of Matthew, and on the other, allows you for the first time in your life to be Matthew.  
Now it is Peter's turn to be the adored older male in Mizzy's eyes. 

When Peter becomes aware that Mizzy is still using and having drugs delivered to Peter and Rebecca's home he is conflicted but still protective of Mizzy (and aroused by him). Mizzy begs him not to tell Rebecca as it will inevitably lead to Mizzy being sent back to rehab.

When Rebecca suggests that Mizzy accompany Peter on the installation of a piece at a wealthy patron's home in Connecticut, Mizzy uses this opportunity to steal a kiss from Peter and tell him he has always been in love with him.
Michael Cunningham

The idea dazzles Peter. A whole new imagined vista opens up for Peter, images of a life with a young lover in an exotic location, even if temporary, excites him until Mizzy decides to leave unexpectedly and Peter's brief, erotically fueled dream shatters. In a parting shot, Mizzy threatens to tell Rebecca about what has transpired between them if Peter reveals the fact that Mizzy is still using. Peter must make a decision about what to tell Rebecca and what to do about his marriage.

I won't reveal the ending but all is not as it appears.

Cunningham has some sharp-eyed observations about the value and meaning of art, the commodification of art, the art market and the art consumer in New York.

I liked the ease with which he deals with the shifting emotions of a long-term marriage - there is comfort, there is love and security but there is also, at times, boredom, misplaced, futile desire for others, and a yearning for adventure as ridiculous as that may be.

Although I am unsure of how this fits in with the novel, Cunningham honestly documents Peter's troubled relationship with his twenty-something daughter Beatrice who, it is hinted, also might be gay, living in Boston with an older woman, tending bar and holding grudges against her supposedly career-obsessed father for near forgotten minor transgressions.  

Will I sound homophobic (or merely dim-witted?) when I say that although Cunningham is gay he writes about heterosexual desire and sex very well. I will a bit. He's simply a very good writer and is able to inhabit different personae with ease and grace. Punto e basta.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

This is England ...

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (Penguin Books, 1938) 247 pages

Graham Greene's book is an excellent example of 1930s British noir. Pinkie Brown is a seventeen year old "boy gangster" running a mob of much older men in the seaside resort of Brighton, England in the 1930s. At first his criminal doings remain obscure. His brutality does not - he is quick to eliminate people whom he perceives as a threat to his business. He soon becomes of interest to Colleoni an older, more successful mobster who wants to get rid of the competition if he can't enlist Pinkie as a minion.

When Pinkie fears that sixteen year old Rose, a local waitress, might reveal his involvement with the murder of Fred Hale, who assisted a rival gang in killing Brown's predecessor Kite, he is quick to court her with the intent of either marrying her or killing her to shut her up.

But Pinkie has a nemesis, Ida Arnold, a shrewd, flame-haired Brighton bar maid, who knew Fred very briefly and wants to determine the real reason he died. Officially, he died of natural causes but Ida doubts this and begins to ask questions first of the police, then of Rose who was the last to see Fred in the restaurant where she worked. Ida is like a "warship going into action, a warship on the right side in a war ..." He describes her as large, brassy, formidable, with a voluptuous figure and bust line. Ida is a good time girl who relishes simple pleasures (among them sex, alcohol and a few pounds in her pocket):
Life was sunlight on brass bedposts. Ruby port. The leap of the heart when the outsider you have backed passes the post ... Life was poor Fred's mouth pressed down on hers in the taxi ...
Pinkie Brown is a post WWI figure of juvenile male menace in an environment peopled by outsiders, "losers" and the impoverished. As the British writer Jake Arnott describes this type in "Mad, bad and dangerous to know", The Guardian, :
I remember when Johnny Rotten first appeared, full of anaemic fury; with the shock of recognition we knew at once who this sickly youth was. It was Pinkie.  
Pinkie is belligerent, smart but unschooled, angry, frustrated, prone to violence, absolutely committed to getting what he wants by whatever means necessary.

Johnny Rotten ... a punk variation of Pinkie?
Pinkie is a strange character; Greene never reveals to us how he got into crime. But we soon learn his most intimate quirks and fears. He actively dislikes women, seeming to intensely fear the physicality of sex and intimacy. The longevity of marriage, the process of birth, the cycle of life, repel him. The idea of being with a woman literally nauseates him and he courts Rose grudgingly and roughly. Rose, shabby, poor and plain, is only too happy for the attention and quickly succumbs to Pinkie's harsh dictates and requests for secrecy.
Greene describes Pinkie in this manner:
The Pinkies are the real Peter Pans – doomed to be juvenile for a lifetime. They have something of a fallen angel about them, a morality which once belonged to another place. The outlaw of justice always keeps in his heart the sense of justice outraged – his crimes have an excuse and yet he is pursued by the Others. The Others have committed worse crimes and flourish. The world is full of Others who wear the masks of Success, of a Happy Family. Whatever crime he may be driven to commit the child who doesn't grow up remains the great champion of justice.   
Ways of Escape (1981), Graham Greene, pp. 56-57, 61

Pinkie slowly begins to do away with all those surrounding him who know of Hale's death: Spicer, an older criminal colleague who lives in his boarding house, and then Rose, growing increasingly paranoid that she will tell what she knows. Because Ida keeps trying to convince Rose to leave Pinkie, Pinkie thinks that Rose is about to turn.

Firstly, he convinces the underage Rose to marry him at the registry office (after offering her indifferent parents twenty pounds for their "permission"). Pinkie and Rose return to Nelson Place, a neighborhood where Rose resides with her parents. Pinkie has an absolute horror of their home which, it appears, is not much different than the circumstances in which he was raised. They are poor, the home is slovenly and unkempt. The parents seemed inured to their own degradation and squalor which elicits a sort of horror in Pinkie. He has done his best to leave Nelson Place. Pinkie's disgust with Rose's origins (and his own) fill him with rage. He literally cannot stomach their presence.

His horror of the domestic is underscored by his visit to his lawyer Prewitt's home. Although Prewitt is visibly more prosperous than Pinkie and the gang, Prewitt's domestic situation represents a kind of hell for Pinkie and the reader. The house is by a railway line and the house shakes violently; the neighbor's radio is intrusive and annoying; Prewitt's wife resides in the basement like a sort of frightening troll, glaring at passersby - in her own kind of purgatory, reviled by her husband and hidden from the public.

The formidable Richard 
Attenborough as 
Pinkie in the1947 film
After Pinkie and Rose marry, the couple wanders the boardwalk forlornly. The girl is utterly passive, putting herself entirely in her new husband's hands. Pinkie tries to get a room at the Cosmopolitan, the fancy hotel that Colleoni resides in. The clerk takes one look at his youthful face and shabby attire and spurns him which pushes Pinkie into a rage. In the end they grudgingly return to the boarding house that he shares with the rest of the gang. The honeymoon night passes swiftly (for Pinkie) and mildly painfully (for Rose).

At a loss as to what to do, she goes to Snow's, where she worked as a waitress, to show off her new found legitimacy and meets a fellow waitress who is envious of her married state, eagerly asking if Pinkie has a friend. Rose feels lucky, inexplicably so, the reader feels. The girl is so deprived of love and kindness that even the controlling, abusive attentions of Pinkie seem a welcome relief to her.

Unluckily, or luckily, for Rose, Ida Arnold is still trying to dissuade her from being with Pinkie, posing as Rose's mother to gain entrance into their home and trying to convince her to leave Pinkie. Rose is ferocious in her defense of Pinkie. When Pinkie sees Ida leave it seems to him that his worst suspicions are confirmed.

He realizes that Rose fully understands his role in killing Hale and Spicer. He decides that he will trick Rose into committing suicide by proposing a suicide pact. He wants to convince Rose to kill herself with the assurance that he will as well - that the gig is up and they should just end their lives.They have committed one mortal sin (marrying under false pretense as Rose is too young and therefore not really being married). Why not commit another (suicide)? he urges. He knows that this will appeal to any sense of guilt Rose has as a Roman Catholic.

He takes her for car ride to a secluded place. She is aware that he has a gun in his pocket and he is pressuring her. Ida is in hot pursuit having learned something of what Pinkie is up to. I will not reveal the end but Pinkie gets very close to what he wants ...

And this is England ... a certain side of the lower cast of England at a particular time between the wars but could apply to the punks of the 1970s or the yobs of today. Seedy, violent, unpredictable, rough. Greene had seen the future and it is coloured ... Pinkie.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993) 249 pages

Today is the fifth anniversary of my starting the A Lit Chick blog! Who knew I had that much to say??

This is Eugenides' first novel. Labelled by some a "suburban magic-realist", he certainly tackles a topical issue - teenage suicide - in an atypical manner. The story is set in a sleepy Detroit suburb in the 1970s.

Cecilia Lisbon is an eccentric teenager who wears a ravaged wedding gown as her daily attire. She is solitary, odd - one of a brood of five much lusted after sisters who are not permitted to date. The novel begins with Cecilia's suicide during the one and only boy-girl party that the Lisbon girls are allowed to have at their home by their strict parents. Cecilia throw herself from the second story of the house and is impaled on the fence that encloses their claustrophobic, and ultimately self-imploding, home.

The story is told through an unnamed young male observer, a neighborhood boy, whose observations often begin with "we" - the collective male gaze as epitomized by the voice of a lustful teenage boy. Eventually the use of the first person plural grates ... Does the narrator represent all males? Is that what we are to assume?

We are told early that Cecilia's suicide is but the first of the Lisbon girls' suicides which lends an odd and anxious tone to the novel as we move towards its inevitably tragic end. The family falls apart, little by little. The house falls into disrepair, the garden and yard wilt and die, the girls and their parents withdraw from school and, essentially, from life. They no longer cook meals, or entertain, or socialize. They interact with no one. Even the local priest can't reach them with his ministrations. The novel then shifts focus to Lux, the prettiest of the Lisbon girls and the most obviously troubled one as manifested by her later behavior.

Lux captures the attention of the most popular boy at school who dares to ask her father Mr. Lisbon, a teacher at the school, if he might take Lux to the prom. The father reluctantly agrees when the boy offers to find dates for the three other sisters and they go en masse. This appears to be the beginning of Lux's personal rebellion when she alone defies the curfew and comes home late. Lux particularly acts out - surreptitiously making out with boys, eventually inviting boys/men to make love to her on the roof of their house under (or over) the unsuspecting gazes of the parents.

Instead of recognizing the injustice of their repressive ways, the parents tighten the reins. The girls send secret messages and ask for help - implying that they will run away with the boys who watch their every move. They display themselves before their lit windows at night in provocative ways.

Why did this novel start to irk me very early on despite some lovely passages and evocative descriptions? The girls are extremely passive. When they act out it always seems to appear as a way of attracting the boys at school and in the neighborhood. They appear purely physical beings. The workings of their tormented minds appear unknowable.

The girls exist only as objects of desire, as sexual objects. They are secret, mysterious, but perhaps this is Eugenides' point? From the perspective of a teenage boy - they are all of those things - indecipherable to the male mind. But there should be a reason why they behave the way they do. Isn't it the novelist's role to show us that? Or do the girls only exist for the boys' gratification in their fevered minds?

And what are we to make of the suicides - that they died as a result of sexual repression? Parental tyranny? The mystery dies with them and so does my interest.

The Lisbon girls as depicted in the 1999 Sofia Coppola film

Thursday, April 5, 2012

I need to talk about Kevin

When I met you, you were seventeen. I had just finished university and was dating your cousin R. You were such a sweet, attractive, gentle boy. And so warm and loving.

I felt an immediate connection with you.

I was surprised to find that you were very physically demonstrative. I was not expecting that from a member of R's family. You freely, and lovingly, would sling an arm over my shoulder or (in a special show of affection) tickle me behind the ear and call me by a pet name - Michie. I called you Kebbe which was what your maternal Japanese-born grandmother, now our grandmother, called you.

I felt your love for R and for me. I knew that you cared for me as I cared for you.

When our daughter J was born you easily shared your great capacity for affection and love with her - visiting her when your mother babysat J in the early years of her infancy; baking J not one, but two or three, special cakes or pies for her birthday (you were an exceptional baker); always generously remembering J at Christmas and on her birthday. Always demonstrating great love for her. What a tremendous heart you had! You loved children and they absolutely adored you. It saddens me immensely that you never had children. 

Did we love you enough? Did we show you that we loved you enough? Did we take the time to do that?

Lest I be accused of shining your halo too brightly let me say that even though we saw you as kind, gentle, lacking in malice, there was an element in you that was mysterious, unknowable, triste. I feel that we did not know you in your most private self. You were reticent, withdrawn at times. We were reluctant to prod into your private affairs.

In the last few years J said that she thought you looked sad ("un-Kevin-like" was her expression). I wish we could have shared your burdens, your troubles and worries. I wish you felt you could trust us with your sorrows if you had any.

On the night after the first visitation at the funeral home, I dreamt of you. The dream was not about you but you were there in it, standing in some cavernous, dark place that housed ... what? A restaurant perhaps? You were standing there with the rest of us, R's side of the family. It might have been one of those large venues that my husband's family favors for celebratory meals every so often. Now when I think of it, yours is the only face I remember in the crowd.

You were standing there with that slightly sad expression of ... what? Again, it was enigmatic, unreadable. It could have been sadness; it could have been stoicism. You were there, as if nothing had transpired, amongst us that night. Waiting. That's how I want to think of you. That you will always be there amongst us. Waiting.

Good night sweet boy ...