Friday, December 23, 2016

The Skirmish on Christmas


This is a reprint from a blog posted a few years ago but I think it's still relevant...

Let me say up front that I have a healthy skepticism about the purported "war on Christmas" that is allegedly, and perennially, being waged by atheists, non-Christians and general purveyors of the destruction of Christian culture in the Western world. The biggest (and loudest) proponents of this view are, of course, Fox News and Christian televangelist Pat Robertson, ad nauseum, every Christmas season.

This war is, at best, perhaps a skirmish rather than a war - its militants are armed not with nuclear armaments but some lesser weapon ... say, machetes or, possibly, bayonets. 

What Fox News fails to acknowledge is that the Christmas spirit, such as it is, is omnipresent, pervasive, sometimes annoyingly so, in a society so obsessed with materialism and ostentatious public displays of wealth. It not so surreptitiously follows you into the drugstore, on to street corners, into the workplace, into every retail outlet and coffee shop with merchandise to peddle. It is virtually inescapable for those who do not celebrate it.

One minister recently offered an astute observation as to the biggest threat to the true meaning of Christmas: the rampant consumerism and monetization of everything having to do with Christmas, and not the godless heathens (like me) who don't believe in celebrating the birth of Jesus.

On the other hand, the crusaders against Christmas are tragically repulsed by, and rail against, the appearance of a lone Christmas tree at city hall, artfully designed nativity scenes in malls and the singing of Christmas carols by children in schools. 

I completely understand the unease of those who feel religious prayers should not be conducted in public schools and imposed on all, regardless of their religious belief. I, unconditionally, support the removal of religious symbols in almost all public spaces - the judiciary, municipal, provincial and federal offices, etc ...

Here is the secularist Annie Laurie Gaylor's triumphant crowing when she and fellow believers (or is that non-believers?) managed to have a nativity scene banned from Palisades Park in Santa Monica:
They [the secularists] showed the Christian people of the city what it feels like to have a public park promoting views that offend your personal conscience. These views were on public property that were supposed to be owned equally by everyone.
I agree somewhat and yet ... I can't help thinking what [fill in the indefinite article and  expletive of your choice].

Christmas has taken a distinctly non-religious character for many Canadians, newly arrived immigrant or long established citizen. In an on-line poll conducted by Abacus Data in December, 2011 of 1,004 respondents who were asked if they celebrate Christmas - no fewer than 86% in any given demographic category (and as high as 97% in one category) said that they did celebrate it - regardless of gender, age, province/region, religious affiliation, status as an immigrant or education.

I suspect that many of us do not necessarily celebrate the birth of Jesus - we celebrate something else, a tradition of being with family, gift sharing and charity. As one smart ass noted recently on facebook: "Just 'cause I say 'Merry Christmas' doesn't mean I worship Jesus." Indeed not.

But say we do try and eliminate all vestiges of Christmas from public life ... why stop there? Why not remove all religious paintings from publicly funded art galleries, forbid the singing of Christmas carols on the street and public spaces, halt all St. Valentine's, Easter and St. Patrick's Day celebrations in public schools, all holidays that clearly have a historical, religious Christian origin? No Valentines shared between schoolmates. No Easter egg hunts at school. No images of floppy Easter bunnies bearing chocolate eggs. No images of shamrocks or leprechauns.

But wait ... why not abolish Family Day in Ontario too? Doesn't that discriminate against some people? "What if you don't have a family?" one hapless female whined to me when it was announced that we would have a civic holiday in February named Family Day. Why ... were you raised by wolves? I wanted to ask. She was miffed by the name of the day. Okay, let's call it "Do whatever the heck you want day." Feel better now, girlie?

What a soulless, boring, fastidiously politically correct existence that would be ... to wipe out all the charming little rituals and customs that have a religious origin because some of us are alienated by Christianity (or any other religion or concept). Why eliminate that which is beautiful, charming, fun and artful - the sacred music and Christmas songs, the iconic visual art of the season, the nativity scenes, the Christmas fables for children, the sharing of wonderful treats particular to the Christmas season - because it may offend or is not in accordance with our own particular religious views?

This draconian perspective that requires that we eliminate all that potentially offends or alienates from public life will have a much larger, deleterious effect - it will destroy the goodwill and intentions of those who do not wish to offend, who are not bigoted, but merely wish to celebrate a Canadian tradition - because, yes, Christmas has become for many a Canadian tradition not a religious one, irrespective of one's faith. It's embedded in our culture and history. It's a part of our culture. Canadian culture.

Please, remove that which is racist, ugly and distasteful in society ... oppose intolerance everywhere, in every instance, but does Christmas really fall into that category?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

November Cultural Roundup


Art:
Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, Van Gogh and more, AGO, November 20th

Books: 
Brightness Falls by Jay McInernery
Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Monday, October 31, 2016

October Cultural Roundup


Films:
Queen of Katwe (South Africa/US, 2016)
Driving with Selvi (Canada, 2015)
The Others (US/Spain, 2001)

Events:

Learning Curves: The Moth in Toronto, Massey Hall, October 6th

Books:
Incidents in the Life of Markus Paul by David Adams Richards
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
The Girls by Emma Cline

Readings:
Draft 12.1 Reading Series at the Flying Pony, October 23th 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Ragged Edges of the Night




The night began to show ragged edges ...

The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House, 2016) 355 pages
**SPOILER ALERT**

Thank you Vincent Bugliosi, the attorney who successfully prosecuted Charles Manson and the Manson gang for the Tate/LaBianca murders of August 1969. He wrote the seminal non-fiction account of the murders, Helter Skelter, which was responsible for my life long aversion to all things hippie at the tender age of fifteen. And thank you Ms. Cline for reinforcing this very healthy fear with this new work of fiction.  

Cline evokes - I almost said beautifully but that seems an odd choice of words - the atmosphere which leads to the ensnarement of the fictional fourteen year old Evie into a Manson-like cult in southern California in the late 1960s. It is a chilling record of the tail end of the 1960s dream of freedom and liberation from convention, now, turned nightmare with the Manson murders.

Told from the perspective of the a middle-aged Evie, Cline poignantly portrays the fear and insecurities of the young teen faced with two self-absorbed, now divorced parents (dad makes off with his nubile assistant Tamar while mom is enamoured with a "gold miner" looking for financial assistance). But it is not only those circumstances. Evie is privy to the anxieties that many young girls experience (Am I pretty? When will I find someone? Why doesn't he like me?) and is eminently exploitable by outside forces. 

Wisely, Cline waits until hundred pages into the novel to introduce us to the members of the cult which gives her ample time to develop the character of Evie. She becomes drawn into the cult because she is lonely, pretty but unsure of it, and perceived as valuable to Russell - the fictional stand in for Manson. She also comes from an affluent family with a beautiful grandmother who was once a famous Hollywood star. Initially, she is not seduced by Russell but by the ragtag, barefoot hippie girls who troll the city in a mysterious black bus scavenging for food in dumpsters and likely also searching for susceptible young girls to join its commune. Evie is enraptured by the black haired, imperious Suzanne (representing one may safely assume Susan Atkins, one of the key Manson "girls", known as sexy "Sadie" by the Manson family) but she is inevitably seduced by Russell himself. 
My glitchy adolescent brain was desperate for casualties, for conspiracies that drenched every word, every gesture, with meaning. I wanted Russell to be a genius. 
Slowly, inexorably,  Evie is drawn into Russell's web largely because of her attraction to Suzanne which she barely seems conscious of. "Eve", Russell murmurs seductively. "the first woman." Roped into disturbing sex acts with Russell (as all the Manson girls are) Evie consoles herself that at least it wasn't coitus. 

She lies to her mother saying that she is sleeping at her (now ex) best friend Connie's house when she is at the ranch where Suzanne and the others live in shared squalor and a dripping disdain for the "pigs" (straight, conventional, non-hippies) whom they steal from, exploit and terrorize at Russell's command. She steals money from her mother and a neighbor and starts to assume the garb of the drugged out, teenage hippies with ne'er a word from her mother who is absorbed in her latest futile romance.

She is persuaded to have a threesome with the flailing rock star Mitch (who may represent the lost Beach Boy Dennis Wilson or the record producer Terry Melcher both of whom had ties to the Manson cult, Wilson much more so than Melcher) and Suzanne against her better instincts. Later, retribution towards Mitch who has disappointed Russell goes terribly awry and leads to horrible acts of violence. 

Initially, I wondered why Cline had situated the older Evie in the midst of her old friend's home saddled with two teenagers - Evie's friend's son Julian and his girlfriend Sasha - but it becomes clear by the end when Julian coerces Sasha to expose herself in front of Evie. Cline wants to underline the fact that young girls are still susceptible to these same pressures and humiliations - just as Evie was as a young girl (and, by logical extension, the Manson girls). And Julian becomes an object of Evie's scrutiny too - how did the little boy whom she watched play in a school concert grow up to poison and kill a dog? What element was at work in the male species that summoned forth such hatred and vitriol? 


Emma Cline
Almost two thirds into the novel, Evie begins to understand the underlying evil of the ranch and its malformed inhabitants - like an unbearable and unsustainable frequency that hums beneath it all. 

By the end of the novel, we are meant to infer Suzanne's violence and savagery is a direct reaction to the humiliations she experiences at the hands of the cult and men in general - it's a dubious argument but plausible. Why else does Cline mention a humiliating date with an older man that Evie experiences as an example of the indignities that young girls endure - she links it directly to Suzanne's anger and the violence that she exhibits. However tempting this theory, many of us have experienced these episodes of violation and we have yet to participate in the savagery of the Manson murders. The causes of this atrocity are much more complex than that and are perhaps unknowable.

Mercifully, the actual murders depicted here are less explicit that you might imagine and its fictional victims are somewhat concealed to avoid perhaps the expected censure or recriminations from critics. I will leave it to the reader to determine the extent of Evie's participation in the murders. 

I am sure that the subject matter has put off many readers as well. I remember a colleague's withering look when I mentioned this book: "How could you read that?" he seemed to imply and I had my reservations before I started it too. 

Cline is careful to incorporate real details from the historical record: the cast of the Manson villains are easy to recognize in the narrative for the most part; the squalor and destitution of the Manson ranch is replicated such as the scavenging for food, the dispensing of LSD tabs like Eucharists by Manson, the ravings of the cult leader and complete control of the family members, the sexual exploitation of the teenage girls to ensnare valuable assets, the sexual and emotional humiliation of the girls to ensure their servitude; the exploitation of wealthy relations; the raids into the homes of their unsuspecting neighbors to "spook" and punish them presaging the violence to come ... Cline adheres to the smallest historical details such as the Manson girls eating and discarding watermelon rinds into the kitchen sink the night that Rosemary and Leno LaBianca were murdered or the stealing of Dennis Wilson's gold records. 

If I were to lodge a criticism of the novel it would be the slightly odd sentence structure which at first appears fresh and unique but soon annoys - sentences sometimes read like a series of subordinate clauses or sometimes lack verbs. But the descriptions are sharp and fresh and the insights into human behaviour nuanced.  This is a major talent in the making. 

Lest we forget, amidst the fascination with the cult members (for it is easy to be captivated by the strangeness and violence), who exactly they killed during the two nights of their rampage on August 8th and 9th, 1969: Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring, Sharon Tate and her unborn child.

The Manson girls at trial (left to right):
Susan "Sadie" Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Lesley Van Houten
Note: As I read The Girls I was simultaneously listening to the enlightening ten part series "Charles Manson's Hollywood" on the podcast You Must Remember Thiscreated  and written by Katrina Longworth. It's a great audio companion piece to this book. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

September Cultural Roundup




Books:
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Films:

Birth of a Nation (U.S., 2016)
Transparent - Season 3 (U.S., 2016)
Jacki(U.K., 2016)
Paris Can Wait (U.S., 2016)
Neruda (Chile/Argentina/Spain/France, 2016)
Snowden (U.S., 2016) 
In Dubious Battle (U.S., 2016) 
Amanda Knox (U.S./Denmark, 2016)

Monday, September 12, 2016

In Defense of Beauty and Artifice

Natalie Portman (as Jackie) and Jackie Kennedy
Jackie (U.K., 2016) directed by Pablo Larrain, 95 minutes

The film, a biopic about the First Lady Jackie Kennedy, widow of JFK, specifically covers the period directly following the assassination of JFK. But it is more than that - it is an argument for the value of beauty and artifice in a troubled and unhappy world with the invention of the concept of the JFK presidency as a sort of Camelot first proposed by Jackie Kennedy herself. She was ideally suited for this - seemingly handpicked by Jack Kennedy for her beauty, her style and appreciation of arts and culture to add a dimension of sophistication to a previously lacklustre White House formerly peopled by the down home (and homely) Eisenhowers.

Jackie Kennedy, portrayed by the transcendentally beautiful and talented Natalie Portman, meets the Journalist (Billy Crudup) who is clearly meant to represent Theodore White (although he is unnamed here). Jackie had invited White to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis on the weekend following the assassination for an interview which was to become the basis of a Life magazine essay, dedicated to JFK, on December 3, 1963. 

The meeting depicted here is oddly hostile (if accurate) - she is cold, he is at times withering and unsympathetic, bordering on rude considering that she has just lost her husband in the most horrific manner imaginable. It was in this conversation that Jackie Kennedy suggested the image of the presidency of a sort of Camelot for Americans. (Later White appeared to resent being ensnared in presenting this sentimental metaphor.) James Pierson wrote a cogent piece on this on the 50th anniversary of the assassination in 2013.

The film shifts from the "present" (a week in November 1963 following the assassination) and the "past" (Jackie featured in the first televised tour of the White House in 1961). Initially, I thought it an odd juxtaposition but it appears shrewd and the heart of the film's premise as Jackie was used (or chose to present herself) as a symbol of a new sort of Presidency - modern, sophisticated, cultured - and this extended beyond JFK's presidency well into his death, his funeral, and for decades afterward.

A complicated image of Jackie emerges in the film: cynically accepting of JFK's dalliances but clearly very much in love with him; carefully manipulative of her public image (refusing to allow the Journalist to record that she smokes and other minor peccadilloes that might besmear her ladylike, upper crust image); tough and determined not to be be bullied by LBJ's minions in the aftermath of the assassination; persistent to the point of angrily aggressive in formulating the funeral plans that followed; and, more poignantly, drunkenly floating her way through the private residence of the White House dressed in the glamorous gowns she wore as First Lady, with strains of Camelot blaring in the background.

Jackie defied the Kennedy family in having JFK buried with the rest of the family rather than at Arlington with military heroes. She resisted LBJ's people who insisted on a safe, less exposed route to the funeral. She modelled the funeral on Abraham Lincoln's funeral who, it appears, was very much on her mind as First Lady.

The director Pablo Larrain re-enacts the 1961 White House tour (lead by Mrs. John F. Kennedy) with a specific focus on Jackie's interest in Lincoln and his spouse Mary Todd Lincoln. She repeatedly highlights the American historical artifacts and art that promote the value of these piece, emphasizing that these are equal to, or superior to, European art. During the tour (which may be viewed here in its entirety), Jackie, in her whispery, vaguely babyish voice, emphasized that Mary Todd was left destitute upon Lincoln's death and had to resort to selling the furniture bought when she redecorated the White House in 1861. She was reprimanded for her extravagances by her husband (wink wink to the modern viewer as Jackie was sometimes accused of the same). Jackie had made a point of retrieving the furniture purchased by Mary Todd and bringing it back to the White House. She opens the cameras to the Lincoln bedroom, his office (used as an anteroom for Jack Kennedy), and shows a snippet of wallpaper from the room where he was carried to after being shot and died. 


Pallbearers bore the casket of JFK to the East Room where the body of Abraham Lincoln also had lain a hundred years before. She chose the draping of the coffin borne by a single horse drawn carriage and that the mourners should walk to Arlington National Cemetery based on the Lincoln funeral procession. She chose to publicly include the children in the ceremony and to wear a traditional veil some might argue to bolster a heroic image, to create pathos and an historical comparison to the greatness of the Lincoln presidency. She knew the value of pomp and ceremony - she knew the value of beauty and artifice to soothe a republic in crisis. For the America of November 22, 1963 was a broken and wounded thing and she sought to heal it, for personal reasons no doubt but also to protect the legacy that she and Jack Kennedy sought to build. 

She knew the value of her role - if the comparison to Camelot and to the legacy of Lincoln was a myth, a beautiful mirage, it was a potent one that would sustain the nation. Jackie was well versed in playing the partner of an important and consequential man. She had been doing so since her first days as JFK's bride, and then wife and First Lady, at great personal cost.  

If his (and her) sacrifice had not been significant, what, then, had it been for? 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Birth of a Revelation


Birth of a Nation (U.S., 2016) directed by Nate Parker, 120 minutes

This year, for the first time in many years, I vowed that I would do something other than review the TIFF films I've seen. My thoughts were that I would write a short essay relating to themes about the films themselves. We could not have started the film festival with a bigger bang - Birth of a Nation - directed by Nate Parker.

This film is, undoubtedly, a substantial and important piece of cinematic art, by a relatively unknown entity. It is rare that the slow holocaust, which slave ownership in the Americas represents, has been documented by a black artist (with the notable exception of Steve McQueen's 2013 film 12 Years a Slave). Parker is a triple threat - he wrote, directed, and starred as Nat Turner, the leader of the 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia.  

Parker was astute enough to coop the name of the most famous pro-KKK film of all time by D.W. Griffith's, a silent film masterpiece, clouded with its own controversy. Who could forget the image of the "heroic" KKK riding to the rescue of the imperilled Southern whites at the end of the film? 

Now we learn, with shock and revulsion, after our initial excitement about this new film that there was another imperilled individual at the centre of the film's controversial reception - the alleged 1999 rape of Parker's classmate at Penn State. It gets more complicated. The alleged co-assailant was Jean Celestin who co-wrote the screenplay for Birth. Parker was acquitted; Celestin was convicted of sexual assault. The charge against Celestin was overturned some years later when a judge ruled his trial attorney was ineffective in his defense. 

I won't enumerate the details too closely here. They are easily accessed. The actions of the two men, during, and immediately after, were sordid and very disturbing and many would say completely inexcusable. How to reconcile this with the raw and beautiful and horrifyingly detailed film we saw? 

The depiction of slavery in the film is vivid - perhaps too vivid for some - the relentless lynchings for minor transgressions, the frequent beatings of slaves, the forced feeding of slaves who refused to eat, the rape of slave women, the sexual exploitation of female children, the on-going terrorization and persecution, the dehumanization. It's all there ... sadly it builds to a righteous crescendo for the film viewer. We witness the daily indignities and horrors that the slave Nat Turner endures until it reaches an unstoppable breaking point leading to the rebellion which lasted for 48 hours and lead to the massacre of 60 odd members of slave holding families (including his own “master” Sam Turner) as well as the killing of many more blacks - free and slave - by vindictive white forces after the rebellion is quelled.

But it s not merely the ugliness that is depicted so well ... it is the beauty of a slave mother's love for her son, for that son's love for his grandmother, the love between husband and wife, the joy expressed at a "wedding" between two slaves who clearly adore each other (Colman Domingo and Gabrielle Union), the care with which the tortured, whipped son (Parker) is administered by his family and clan. Parker captures it all. The rage, the love, the courage, the indignity, the bravery, the sense of community, the wasted human potential and talent. 

***

What does a sentient being with progressive views do with this information about Parker? What did we do when we learned of Roman Polanski's rape of a thirteen year old in the 1970s? (“It was a different time,” some say with sage nod.) Or the allegations surrounding Woody Allen's molestation of his adopted daughter Dylan? For many admirers (myself amongst them), we did nothing. Or  - in a different artistic field – how did we process the information of Pablo Picasso's brutal physical treatment of the women in his life? Or Miles Davis?

Largely, we continued to watch (and praise) their films, admire their art and music. Perhaps we did so with a troubled consciousness. Does it matter if they are long dead like Picasso or Davis? If I go to a Picasso exhibit or listen to a Miles Davis CD - do they profit from this? Or only in terms of the respect they still retain in the artistic community? If I attend a Woody Allen movie, he certainly does profit in a manner that Picasso does not. 

Roxane Gay, a prominent black feminist whom I respect a great deal, wrote a convincing opinion piece called "Nate Parker and the Limits of Empathy" in the NYT to the effect that she cannot separate the artist from the art and won't be seeing the film.  Nor can I at times if I am honest. Parker, unfortunately, will be imbedded in my consciousness as the talented director/likely rapist. I was conflicted about how to proceed and how much to support the film.

It gets messier: the alleged assailants are both black, the victim white. Some Penn students claimed that “Jennifer” (a name given to her to mask her identity) was ashamed that she had had sex with a black man and made up the rape accusations. If she did, she paid a very heavy price for that lie.

Arguments against supporting Parker are both factual and emotional: he did have sex with “Jennifer”, a woman who was intoxicated at the time. She claims she did not give consent, he says she did. We have a very different idea of consent to sexual intercourse today than we had in 1999. He is alleged to have “invited” other classmates to join in – one did (Celestin), one did not (Penn classmate Tamerlane Kangas who quickly left the scene according to testimony). Parker and Celestin, as well as others, were alleged to have harassed the young woman after she pressed charges. The woman eventually was so distraught that she left school and years of instability and depression followed ending in her suicide in 2012. Is Parker accountable for this?

On the other side of the argument: the charges were seventeen years ago and he was acquitted. How long should he pay for this crime, if indeed it was a crime? Today, he seems genuinely penitent but does not deny what he did. One of his co-stars, the actress Gabrielle Union who herself has been a victim of sexual assault, has spoken out to defend him in that she believes that he recognizes the magnitude of his actions and believes that he is a changed person – now a married man with his own daughters.

Then there is the matter of the seriousness and quality of the art he has produced. Should it disappear into oblivion because of what he did? It is historically important, beautifully constructed and we are presently in a virtual desert of works by black artists in the cinematic mainstream. Does that count for something? 

I saw the film, not because I don’t believe Jennifer’s allegations are false. I believe they are likely true. I am just uncertain that, henceforth, I must now avoid, discount, disregard, everything that Parker produces as an artist.

For some there is a compromise – see the film by illegal means so that he does not profit from it. See it because it is an important piece of history to remember. It is beautiful and painful and essential to understanding the American psyche. That’s right … I am advising you to commit a crime, to avoid rewarding a man who likely committed a serious crime where the end result was that an innocent woman killed herself.


~

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

August Cultural Roundup



Shakespeare in the Ruff's Romeo and Juliet
Books
In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag

Films:
Cafe Society (U.S., 2016)
Jason Bourne (U.S., 2016)
Bad Moms (U.S., 2016)
Ghostbusters (U.S., 2016)

Readings:
The Love Poetry Festival honouring Milton Acorn and Gwendolyn MacEwen, St. Andrews by the Lake, Centre Island, August 6th featuring Trevor Abes, George Elliott Clarke, Whitney French, Karen Mulhallen, Honey Novick, Robert Priest, Anna Yin

Exhibits:
Vivian Maier at Stephen Bulgar Gallery
Angela Grauerholz at Ryerson Image Centre

Theatre:
A Doll's House at soulpepper, August 27th
Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare in the Ruff, Withrow Park, August 28th 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

July Cultural Roundup


Films
Weiner (U.S., 2016)
Alice Through the Looking Glass (U.S., 2016)

Books
Stalin's Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan
The Rainbow Comes and Goes by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt

Art Exhibits
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, July 28

"Native Portraits: Contemporary Tintypes by Ed Drew", California Historical Society, July 30