Sunday, July 31, 2016

July Cultural Roundup

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

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

San Francisco Day 5: Return of the Jet-Lagged

Wish I could just click these together and go home
I am ready to go home ... it's been fun but I miss Toronto. Our house. Our devilish cats. My garden. We long for diversion, then pine for the familiarity of home. Humans are so strange. So wilfully difficult. 

We have a lovely breakfast at Aveline, 490 Geary St., located in the Warwick Hotel across the street from the hotel. Griddle cakes and avocado and eggs on toast. Nice! 

Afterwards R and J go to Union Square on Post St., so named for the rallies held in support of the Union forces during the Civil War - for a quick look around. I sit in the lobby and read. Mama is so boring. And so tired. And the lobby is so lovely with its red wood and its pretty illustrations of animal motifs. 

As we are anxious to avoid the security crunch we experienced at Pearson Airport when we left Toronto, we arrive three hours early, breeze through past long line ups in security (we are unsure why - is it because we are virtuous Canadians?) and learn that our flight has been delayed one hour. So here we sit for four hours eating salt water taffy from the duty free store, Japanese fast food in a crowded restaurant, bad coffee and other junk food as there will be no food on the flight. Would that we could click our heels Dorothy style and just arrive home.

The plane finally leaves at 5.40pm - an hour and three quarters later than initially planned. No explanation, no announcement. I would love to support Air Canada but it makes it hard to do so. I take a smidgen of a sleeping pill to steady my nerves but episodes of The Mindy Project soothe me as does my book - a memoir called In the Darkroom by one of my new fave writers Susan Faludi

We arrive at 1am and take a fake cab - R soon realizes this guy's car has no markings and he complains about us using a credit card ... but who has $70 in their pocket at 1am? Not us. The man asks if R is arriving from China. China? R's family is of Japanese descent and has been in Canada for over 100 years. R was remarkably polite. Hello multi-cultural, diverse Toronto, we're back ... 


Saturday, July 30, 2016

San Francisco Day 4: As the Rainbow comes and goes

Thanks to the pot smoking bros in the hotel room next door (whose pot smoke leaked into our room all night long), we asked to be transferred to a new room - and moved up six floors to a spacious King courtesy of the kindly concierge. But this smell is everywhere in the hotel which surprises us all. 

We are in a rush to pack in a few more outings as it is our last full day in SF. On our way to the California Historical Society, 678 Mission St., we grab a quick coffee and a pastry at Boudin Bakery, 170 O'Farrell St. There is an exhibit we want to see called "Native Portraits: Contemporary Tintypes by Ed Drew", photographed by an African-American vet who toured Afghanistan who has an acute eye for capturing the suffering and dignity of others. 

Then we are off to the Castro district. We stop firstly at Takara Sushi, 4243 18th Street, for some excellent Japanese food just off Castro.

The Castro district appears very affluent - I don't imagine it was always so. Its roots are working class (once it housed scores of North European immigrants and then the Irish and Italian) and it has become a place for queer people to gather and live safely. It's clean, pretty, well maintained and evidently very proud of its history. 

R at Reveille Coffee
Along its Rainbow Honor Walk, it has a series of bronze plagues in the sidewalks commemorating
important LGBTQ figures from history - Virginia Woolf, Tennessee William, James Baldwin, Sylvester and many others. There is a Harvey Milk Plaza and rainbow flags at every corner. It was good to see J feel and understand LGBTQ history a little bit. The Castro Theatre (the image is iconic and is the first thing I think of when I think of the Castro district) is beautifully maintained in the Art Deco style of the 20s and 30s. The businesses appear successful and are filled with customers. One drawback: the smell of urine is everywhere in this city! Here in particular because there appear to be many adorable couples walking their dogs. We all love the inclusive atmosphere and approving looks we receive. 

Refreshments at Reveille Coffee at18th St. and Castro - I am definitely not cool enough for this coffee shop (although R and J are). I wait there while my peeps check out the GLBT History Museum, 4127 18th St. ($5 admission) - not for the faint of heart!

We should invest in Uber - because they have made fortune off of us on this trip. Back to the hotel to rest ...

Later in the evening we go to the City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave. In the heart of Little Italy, lit up like Christmas with pretty hanging coloured lights strung across the street and located in the North Beach area. At night it reminds me of a Coppola film of New York's Little Italy. 

The press and bookstore is the original home of the Beats - Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg. It was the first press to publish Ginsberg's Howl. The bookstore was founded by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 and the press still publishes a dozen volumes a year. It's beautiful, done in dark wood throughout, and quirkily laid out with many twists and turns and pathways, and very much larger than I imagined. I find a volume of Susan Sontag's Regarding the Suffering of Others. I am absolutely thrilled to find something special here as a memento.

Later we wander around North Beach and settle on dinner at Tamarind Hall, a Thai Street Food and Bar, 1268 Grant Ave., for some excellent Thai food. Loud, overcrowded, a little slow with the service but very good with an amiable serving staff.


Friday, July 29, 2016

San Francisco Day 3: Keep It Weird Haight Street

At the geographic heart of the storied youth revolution of the 1960s on Haight & Ashbury ... The area is what you imagine when you think of San Francisco in the 1960s: a strong hippie vibe, the smell of marijuana, lots of head shops, and small stores with names like Earth Song and Tibet Stars. The smell of pot is everywhere. It's a shock to see an American Apparel store or any chain store for that matter and, to its credit, these stores are far and few between on this strip. "Keep Haight Street weird" a chalk board intones cheerfully ... indeed, they are doing their very best to do so. 

Some Painted Ladies ... 
It's such a curious combination of the old hippie ideal and the new, very wealthy SF economy ... when you stand on the corner of Haight & Ashbury and look north or south of Haight you see these beautiful "Painted Ladies" (gorgeous Victorian houses painted in three or more colours) that must be worth well over a million dollars. Meanwhile a barefoot, forlorn looking blond haired boy in ragged clothes passes us, armed with a pointed stick gathering garbage from the street like something out of Dickens. He wears some sort of yellow vest but is barefoot - a municipal employee or merely a good citizen?

Interesting places to see ... The bookstore Bound Together: The Anarchist Collective, on 1369 Haight St., where I purchase a copy of Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit and which, clearly, I am sorely in need of. The store has the added distinction of having its window broken by racist skin heads in the 1980s. A gentle, very aged hippie works the cash with grace and a quiet charm.

Amoeba Records, 1855 Haight St., and Rasputin Music, 1672 Haight St., are both home to thousands of vinyl records for my two record nerds.

Coffee to the People, 1206 Masonic St., is a coffeehouse off Haight with passable coffee but, more interestingly, it features decorated tables containing pictures of dozens of buttons with political slogans.

While R and J search for vinyl I wait on the periphery of Golden Gate Park at the base of Haight Street - not the best idea for a timid soul such as myself. The park is filled with a combination of homeless people huddled together in groups seemingly with all their belongings, affluent tourists renting bicycles to ride through the park, supervised groups of children on an outing and young faux hippies. Middle class mom most decidedly does not fit in so I move along noting the numerous prohibitions on drug use, smoking, camping, etc ... likely all ignored. 

If you are in the mood for tapas and surly service by very attractive Hispanic men you might try Cha Cha Cha, 1801 Haight St. and cap it off with ice cream at Ben & Jerry's right on the corner of Haight & Ashbury.

Crashing at the hotel very exhausted from the day ... then off to a late dinner at Farmer Brown, 25 Mason St., a "soul food" restaurant that is a ten minute walk from the hotel. Tremendously good food, great, rowdy atmosphere, good music ... We choose jambalaya, pickled chips, cornbread. Excellent service and atmosphere. J has some food left over so he asks for a take out carton and gives the food to a man on the corner. The kid is a good'un. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

San Francisco Day 2: Turning Japanese, I think we're turning Japanese ... I really think so

J at the SFMOMA with a friend ... 
Lovely breakfast in the Red Velvet Room in the hotel ... the kid is sacked out and it's just the two of us. The husband is annoyed with the perceived fussiness of the old married couple beside us who make the waiting staff run around in circles with everything from serious requests ("No salt in the dish!") to frivolous ("When my wife comes please make sure there is no ice in her water."). Sometimes R reminds me of the Woody Allen character in the film Annie complaining about the Marshall McLuhan "expert" in the cinema line behind him ("I can't ignore him, he's spitting on my neck!" Allen rages futilely, as does R when I tell him to ignore the couple)

The three of us walk down to SFMOMA, 151 3rd St. - seven floors of modern paintings, multi-media art and sculpture. We are there for several hours and only make it to the top three floors. R is reluctant to leave. I am a philistine and eager for a break - rest and sustenance please!

On the way to SFMOMA ... What is this? 
Later when we return to the hotel we have a disappointing lunch at Katana-ya, 430 Geary St., a Japanese restaurant, across the street from the hotel - very good food but sloooow service, sloppy presentation (which is very uncharacteristic in the presentation of Japanese food), millennial 'tude. and nothing is cheap here whether it's of high quality or not.

After lunch we venture into Japantown west of the Mission, which J is eager to see. We learn this is one of only three Japantowns left in the U.S, all of which are in California. The area is not beautiful - clean perhaps but a bit antiseptic and virtually bereft of people on the street unlike the hurly burly of the Mission district further east.

We talk about how we know of no such similar entities in Canada - certainly not in Toronto, perhaps in Vancouver but it is unlikely. After WWII and the internment of the Japanese, the Japanese Canadians were ordered to disperse geographically (R's mother's and father's families travelled east to Ontario eventually and settled in Toronto where they met and married) and were ordered not to engage with other Japanese people. That law was in effect for many years after the war. Perhaps this is why the Japanese here rarely intermarry with other Japanese Canadians and the community is so fragmented. At least this is our theory. 

J spies a curious store called Diaso Japan, 22 Peace Plaza, that sells household products for $1.50 -
"Everything for $1.50!" he says excitedly. He goes on a spending spree with small gifts and Japanese food items. He is also intrigued by a small, somewhat claustrophobic mall called the Japan Centre that is almost all filled with Japanese merchandise and food. In a shop called Sakura, Sakura I spy, and purchase, a heavenly red paper parasol for less than $10. Completely impractical but gorgeous.

R finds a charming, small independent book store called Forest Books, 1748 Buchanan St., across from the Japan Centre. I purchase an exquisite hard copy of Taking Tea at the Savoy - a book about afternoon tea for a friend with whom I practise making the ever elusive scones that I crave. It is here that I meet the ex-monk (now the current bookstore owner) with the elaborate theories of why the number of homeless have proliferated in the city. A lovely man, eager to talk. 

I am exhausted and not hungry so I decide to stay at the hotel and sleep. My babies venture out for a disappointing meal at the overcrowded, loud and overrated Sears Fine Foods, 439 Powell St.

I don't know what this is ... but I like it.  But is it art?

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

San Fancisco Day 1: A Streetcar Named Diversity

One of the fabled SF cable cars ... 
Flying Air Canada through Pearson airport is as annoying as expected (thus the moaning about first world problems begins, she notes coyly). Arriving at 6.15am for a 8am direct flight still takes us one and a half hours to pass through several security points and we barely make it to the plane on time - arriving at 7.45am at our gate. No food is offered during the flight except for what you pay for with the exception of mediocre coffee or a soft drink. R and J are blissfully asleep. Of course, I am awake for the entire flight comforted only by bad movies, TV shows and tidbits of bad airline food I must purchase. The only way I can fly without fear is if I imagine I am sitting in big shaking box and not think too much about what's outside. 

A BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) subway trip takes us almost to the Clift Hotel, 495 Geary St., in the heart of the Mission district. We purchased preliminary tickets for a trip from the airport on the subway - later we learn it's a rip off at $60 when we could have taken an Uber for $35.

The Mission District is problematic, as I mentioned in my previous entry. This part of the city reminds me of NYC in the early 1980s - garbage everywhere, reeking of urine, many homeless on the streets - that's not my memory of San Francisco. Are things worse or am I more aware now?

[Editor's note: Awkward segue ...]

The Clift is a luxury boutique hotel with clean, modernly designed, funky furniture and elegant decor but she is not a cheap date. We have J set up in a cot in our Queen sized room. It's a bit of a tight squeeze. One great thing the hotel offers is if you forgo a daily cleaning to save on water and the toll on the environment you receive a $15/day voucher that you can use in the hotel for discounts on food and drinks. We take advantage of this.

It is cool here! And I mean that in the weather sense (as well as the "cool" sense). It never goes above 18 degrees while we are here - we were expecting warm weather. We left a sweltering Toronto where it hit 40 degrees this summer and came to fall-like weather. 

The city is rife with Europeans - German, Italian, Spanish, Northern European with indecipherable accents, French tourists ... everywhere you go. Many of us dragging luggage and holding maps in the middle of the sidewalk. We are comfortable here ... in that we blend in, we don't stand out, no one really stares at the bi-racial family with the queer kid. J says, quietly happy: "I could live here." He could, we could. 

A very late breakfast at Lori's Diner, 336 Mason St., as we are starving. No breakfast, no lunch, no fair Air Canada! It's a faux 1950s style diner that serves a solid if not particularly inexpensive all day breakfast, with friendly staff, and it is just around the corner from the hotel.

Snacks and drinks in the Redwood Room at the hotel with the offspring in the late afternoon after we rest and unpack. It's a beautiful lounge for adult drinks and hipster snacks. So strange (and nice) to share drinks with J who is now a young adult.

We walk over to Powell and Mason to catch the famed cable car north ($7 per person). It travels along Powell into North Beach, the heart of Little Italy. I force the family to go ... I am excited about it even though the two drivers are grumpy and loud and the cable car crowded with dopes playing Pokemon Go instead of looking at this amazing city.

This is where Beat culture meets Italian culture - the haunts of the poets and scoundrels Corso, Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Cassaday, Ginsberg. At the last stop of the cable car (where the two drivers manually turn the car around to go in the opposite direction on the track), we walk southwards into the North Beach neighborhood.

We find a charming Italian restaurant called Piazza Pellegrini, 659 Columbus Ave., for generous portions of linguine, gnocchi, margarita pizza, arugula salad, two drinks, and cannoli to finish ($108 plus taxes & tip). An excellent meal! I am among my people ... it is good to be Italian!

And an Uber home courtesy of the kid who appears to be navigating most of our technological issues ...

A Broken Heart In San Francisco

It is not uncommon, as that hoary cliche goes, to leave one's heart in San Francisco ... I leave a broken heart here as someone who loved the city, or the image of what the city was in my memory. I usually do a chatty list of places we went to and things we did when we travel. I can't do that exclusively in good conscience this time.

I had been warned by a good friend who had recently travelled here. She said that the Mission District where our hotel was located was "sketchy" and was shocked at the number of homeless people she saw there. She carefully advised no night time trips alone. 

As beautiful and exciting as the city is in some quarters something has gone desperately wrong. The much touted Mission district is filled with the truly destitute - more than just men and women who look like they have slept in the rough a few nights. These people have been on the streets for years and they are entirely destitute - very unclean, bedraggled, torn and dirty clothes in utter ruins and clearly mentally ill - talking to themselves, initiating arguments with the real and the imaginary.

As we stepped off the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), luggage in hand, walking to our hotel, a man kneeling and facing a building storefront, doing I know not what, turned around, looked at the three of us and said, "This is a very violent neighbourhood." We looked at each other and walked on, tongue-tied.

Granted I have not been in San Francisco for decades ... R and I had ventured here in the 1990s and stayed in a hotel in Oakland, CA courtesy of a business sponsored trip I was offered at the time. Even then we were warned to not walk about on the streets in Oakland so we dutifully travelled by transit or cab to SF for our daily exploits. Then, it was Oakland that was considered risky for tourists, not San Francisco. 

Sadly it reminds me of NYC in the 1980s - garbage strewn everywhere, the smell of urine permeates, many homeless, truly desperate people in a thriving tourist area overrun with us tourists. 

I met a lovely man in bookstore who said he was a former monk and now the owner of the store. He had an elaborate explanation about the increase in homelessness involving no less than several right wing local politicians, the slithery Karl Rove (yes, that Karl Rove) and the selling of a portion of the city's real estate to Chinese nationals. I could not fathom what was true and what was not ... but I do know the situation seems very much worse than I recall and it makes me rethink if this is where I want to spend my money if the local pols are going to blithely let the situation regarding the homeless continue. 

Hopefully I can add these entries with a little more sensitivity as to what the city is truly like. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

June Cultural Roundup

West Side Story (U.S., 1963)
Love & Friendship (U.S., 2016)

Rosedale Art Fair

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Did you ever have a family by Bill Clegg

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Shakespeare on Film: West Side Story

Richard Beymer & Natalie Wood (as Tony & Maria)
West Side Story (U.S., 1961) directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 152 minutes, TIFF Lightbox, June 25, 2016, 3.30p
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1597)

This year represents the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 1616. TIFF is celebrating the bard with a series of films inspired by the classic plays with "All the World's a Screen - Shakespeare on Film" which runs until July 3, 2016. This is the first review for that series ...

Is there a sexier reiteration of the Romeo and Juliet theme than West Side Story? I think not. I can feel the collective eye rolls of many Spanish speaking people when they think of how beloved this film is by non-Latinos such as myself. But it works so beautifully with the themes of Romeo and Juliet - the blossoming of young love, the tribal opposition of family and clan to the lovers, the sense of reconciliation (albeit perhaps temporary) at the end after tragedy ensues.

There is a reason that a balcony that once allegedly held the 13 year old Juliet in Verona, Italy endures as a site for lovers from around the world - the myth lives on ("Juliet", whomever she might be, never stood on this balcony by the visits continue unabated). The story of the lovers dates back to at least the 15th century with a tale of two teenage Italian lovers in Masuccio's Novelle (1472) although Shakespeare likely learned the tale through various English incarnation,s perhaps more recently Brooke's Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet (1562).

The film opens on the balletic, joyful moves of the Jets, native New Yorkers and sons of immigrants, dancing through the gritty west side of Manhattan - and the Sharks, recent immigrants from Puerto Rico - on their respective New York turfs (representing the age old rivalry between the clans of Montagues and the Capulets). The opening sequence elegantly portrays the tensions between the two groups. No matter that are actors are closer to 25 than15. One gang is fair skinned or freckled and "hip", the other is olive skinned, sleek, and well dressed. Both are impoverished and victimized by the cops and the system. Neither wants to cede the neighbourhood to the other. The boys spread their arms like winged, joyful creatures surveying their meagre land.

Tony (Richard Beymer as the Romeo figure) is a former Jet beseeched by Riff the Jets' gang leader (Russ Tamblyn as Mercutio, Romeo's kinsman) to attend a dance where an ultimatum will be presented to Bernardo (a physically perfect George Chakiris representing Tybalt), leader of the Sharks to start a "rumble", a gang fight.

In the play, before the lovers meet, Mercutio speaks to Romeo of an enchanting dream of Mab, queen of the fairies, enticing him the night before the mask at the home of the Capulets. Here Tony senses "Something's Coming ..." Something exciting, something wonderful.

Mab, queen of the fairies,
Johann Heinrich Füssli, c. 1788
Jerome Robin's choreography at the dance is sensual, frenetic, uninhibited - expressing a beatnik ecstasy, an exuberance, which presages the youthful cultural revolution that will soon follow in the mid 1960s. The Sharks and their girls are all reds, pinks, purples and burgundies (hot); the Jets are all blues, yellows and oranges (cool).

A vivid visual line separates the two groups with the exception of the image of Bernardo's sister Maria (the exquisite Natalie Wood as Juliet) in a demure white dress with a red sash which initially she abhors. She is meant to be with Chino (as the figure of Paris, a Capulet kinsman who wishes to marry Juliet) but she tells Anita she feels nothing when she looks at him.

The wisps of vivid colour part on the dance floor, literally, and Tony beholds his Juliet. They undulate gracefully towards each other, barely moving at first, then gently mimicking the energy of the Jets, the dramatic flounces of the Sharks. Bernardo roughly pulls his sister Maria way from Tony.

My only love sprung from my only hate!
Act I, scene 5

Juliet murmurs at the masked ball when she realizes that Romeo is a Montague. She is already entranced.

It is a "madness most discreet" and has taken hold of both of the young lovers. In Shakespeare, true love is sacred. When Tony repeats Maria's name (in the song "Maria"), as an incantation, the dance hall in the church falls away and all we see are the windows of the church hall and the crosses that adorn it as if sanctifying their new found love.

Bernardo warns Maria to keep away from the "American". Nardo's girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno) pleads with Nardo to give his sister some freedom. After all, they are in America. On a rooftop adorned with a faded billboard ad featuring the smiling bland face of a blond woman (like a promise of what America is or could be), the Sharks and their girls debate the virtues of their new country in the song "America". The Spanish accents are broad - after all, George Chakiris was actually of Greek origin and Natalie Wood was most decidedly not Spanish - the Puerto Ricans are gently comic caricatures but caricatures nonetheless. The divine Moreno is everything a fiery Latina is imagined to be on film but who can argue that the scene is not joyful, riveting, wittily written, exciting to watch?

Tony finds Maria's apartment through a back alleyway and climbs the balcony (the Capulets' orchard in the play). The intensity of the balcony scene in Act II, scene II is no less passionate here. They confess their love in the duet "Tonight" and plan to meet the next day at Maria's place of work, a bridal shop.

Juliet's balcony at Via Cappello, No. 23, Verona
Maria's attire slowly changes to signify her emotional and sexual awakening - from the virginal white dress of the dance, the pale yellow of the dress she wears in the bridal shop where she works, the creamy lavender she dons when she waits for Tony the night of the rumble. In the last scene of the film, the dress is red, with a black mantle, evocative of the fullness of her maturity, sexual and otherwise.

In the bridal shop, Maria's confidence soars ("I feel pretty") inspiring her skeptical co-workers. When Tony arrives by the back door, the couple imagines telling their families of their engagement and their marriage with only the elegantly dressed mannequins as their witnesses. Maria wears a white veil and Tony a top hat - beneath a cross shaped window as if in a church. In their minds they are as secretly wed as Romeo and Juliet were wed by the Friar.

But that night, the Sharks and Jets are to meet at Doc's soda fountain for a war council. Doc (representing the sympathetic Friar Laurence in the play) urges the Jets to avoid trouble, "When I was your age ..." he begins wearily, to which Jet gang member Action replies, "You were never my age!"

For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring ...
Act III, scene 1

These boys have troubles that their immigrant, impoverished parents perhaps have never faced, parodied in the song "Officer Krupke". Parents who drink and violently quarrel, beat their children, pedal drugs, are "sexually deviant", and are largely absent as parents. The boys are adrift and cling to their turf and gang as a replacement for all they lack. And the "foreigners" - the Puerto Ricans who are also U.S. citizens - threaten that tenuous prize they cling to.

Maria convinces Tony to go to the rumble, to stop the fighting. He has convinced them to fight hand to hand with no weapons, or so he thinks. When Tony tries to intervene he is attacked and Riff steps in. Riff is stabbed and killed by Nardo; in a moment of panic, Tony kills Nardo too. The gangs disperse with the sound of the police siren. The die is cast.

When the lovers reunite in Maria's apartment, she despairs, "It's not us, it's everything around us ..." Hate and distrust contaminate their love. "There's a place for us," they plead in "Somewhere". There is still hope that they can escape the racism, the narrowness of their lives. The couple spend the night together and are found the next morning by Anita who begs Maria to stick with "one of your own kind" in "A Boy Like That." But Maria persuades Anita of the rightness of her love. Love supersedes all ...
I have a love and it's all that I have, right or wrong. What else can I do? I love him, I'm his, and everything he is, I am too. I have a love and it's all that I need, right or wrong, and he needs me too. I love him, we're one. There's nothing to be done. Not a thing I can do. But hold him, hold him forever, be with him tomorrow ... When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong, your love is ... your life.
Maria persuades Anita to go to Doc's and tell Tony that she is being detained by the police. Tony is hiding in Doc's cellar protected by the Jets. When Anita insists on seeing Tony the Jets attack her and are on the verge of raping Anita when Doc intervenes. She is so furious that she tells the boys that Maria is dead, killed by a vindictive Chino, the boy whom her brother wished her to marry. In despair, Tony runs into the streets calling Chino's name, begging him to kill him too. Maria hears his cries and joins him in the school playground and at the moment of their physical contact, Tony is shot by Chino.

Maria grabs Chino's gun and accuses them all of killing Tony, not with a gun, but with their hate. In the last shot, she leaves the school ground, wrapped in the black mantle, as if following a funeral cortege. The boys, together, from both sides, pick up Tony's body and carry him out. At last, a tenuous peace, but at what cost?

Some elements of the film have not aged well ... the attempt to capture the feeling of beatnik influenced youth culture of that age ("Okay Daddy-O!"), the belittlement of Baby John (who likely, we assume as modern viewers, is gay) and the shunning of Anybody, a tough tomboy who is refused entry in the Jets, flows against the zeitgeist of today. The faux New York and Puerto Rican accents sometimes irk albeit the screenplay by Ernest Lehman which is by turns witty and emotionally honest. Richard Breymer, a talented dancer and actor, strains the imagination as a former hardened gang member as do many of the twenty somethings playing teenagers.

But the exquisite performances of our lovers Tony and Maria still touch the heart and the message remains relevant, especially in these Trump times: racism wounds, even kills, and endangers society's most vulnerable members. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Book Three of the Neapolitan Novels (Europa editions, 2014) 418 pages

The third book in the Neapolitan Novels series opens with the revelation that Gigliola, Michele Solara's wife and a former friend of our protagonists Lila and Lenu, is dead. The once beautiful Gigliola is now a broken, physical wreck - her beauty and body ruined, her dead body abandoned on a roadside. For the reader, it appears a terrifying harbinger of the future troubles of our two protagonists that we have come to love.

It is now 2010. Lenu has not seen Lila in five years and recounts a night spent with Lila in which Lila details the difficult time she has had since she abandoned her husband, the successful grocer Stefano, and her comfortable life style as a stylish Napolitana matron married to one of the richest men in the neighborhood forty years before. Things have not gone well for Lila it seems.

At the end of The Story of a New Name, Book Two in the series (please see here for a review), Lenu has published her first book of fiction and is poised to be married to Pietro, a mild mannered if dull academic from an important family. Italy is in the throes of political chaos in the 1960s. Lenu's book is promoted (and scorned) as a prototype of an exciting, new type of modern woman in Italian society provoking mixed reviews for its risqué material some of which is based on her real life experiences as a young woman such as her unpleasant deflowering at the hands of Nino's lecherous father Donato on the beaches of Ischia. With despair, she notes that the only thing that her Naples neighbors want to speak of regarding her book is the "dirty bits".

Lenu is thrilled (and mortified) to re-encounter Nino, her long-time object of love and now also an academic, at a public reading at which he defends Lenu's book before the old guard - a cantankerous professor who dismisses her book. When Lenu's future mother-in-law invites Nino to a post-launch celebration she is both terrified and aroused at the possibility of a final tryst with Nino before her impending marriage. With the arrival of her fiancée Pietro, these hopes are dashed. But that is not the last we see of Nino.

With a lingering regret, Lenu proceeds with her engagement to Pietro. The sting of class disparity wounds her - it's not just the clothes and material possessions of her in-laws, it is the manner in which they speak, their political and cultural interests, their confidence that fills her with insecurity and despair. She feels that the stigma of her humble origins clings to her like a bad smell.

Invited to speak at a university campus about her book, Lenu gets swept into a student demonstration and re-encounters her old university flame Franco with whom her future sister-law Mariarosa is sleeping. She also meets Silvia, a young radical with a newborn baby, which triggers an almost nostalgic desire to be with Lila as well as new maternal feelings in the soon-to-be bride. Lenu learns that Nino is the father of the newborn, whom he has abandoned (as he did Lila's child Gennaro). The ugliness of this revelation is like a punch in the face for the reader; we have pinned our hopes on the virtuous Nino as an exemplar of a new type of manhood which shines against the background of the young women's brutal upbringing and dealings with men.

This encounter cements Lenu's desire to reunite with Lila and try and help her and her child Gennaro.

Lenu returns to her family home in Naples before the wedding, drowning in her mother's hostility and resistance to her modest, areligous wedding plans. Pietro must (and does) charm the Carraci family - the hostile mother, the under-confident father, the boorish siblings. (Later we learn from Lenu’s biting perspective that Pietro is only natural when dealing with his “inferiors.”)

Soon Lenu is summoned to Lila's bedside; Lila is ill and appears to be dangerously hallucinating. Lila speaks of her experience in the sausage factory where she works: the harsh working conditions, the sexual harassment of female employees, the interminable hours, the brutality of Bruno the owner and one time friend of Nino's. Meek, gentle Bruno has become the ruthless, abusive employer who invites female employees into a private room to sexually harass them and suppresses union activity.

As Lila becomes more politically active, she also immerses herself in the violence surrounding the labour conditions in the factory. Anti-union fascists clash with left wing activists - Lila notes with surprise old friends and neighbors on both sides of the political conflict – on the factory grounds. Lila is blamed as she had provided information about conditions at the factory. After being summoned to Bruno's office, Lila encounters her old nemesis Michele Solara who, it appears, has been paying Bruno to keep her employed. After suffering through his insults, Lila quits in a rage - an act of rebellion she can ill afford.

Lenu takes charge of Lila and her child using all of her power and in-laws' contacts to protect her friend - obtaining her final wages, seeing to her medical needs, caring for Gennaro. We see the advantage of class and connections that Lenu's pending marriage to Pietro affords - access to the best doctors, lawyers and political contacts. But an encounter with her old professor and her daughter Nadia, who has taken up with Pasquale, a construction worker from the old neighborhood, present a different slant on Lenu's involvement in the affairs of the factory. Conditions have worsened they say bitterly - those brave ones who agitated for reform were punished, those were remained silent rewarded. Worse, for Lenu, her professor appears to have more respect for Lila's efforts than Lenu’s writing and barely speaks of Lila's book. Ah, the ego of a writer. Lenu leaves mortified and angry.

Her brief sojourn in Naples reveals a group of unhappy and dissatisfied friends and family. What use are all the fine things that Lenu has purchased for her own family if she cannot bear to be with them? Despite her marriage to Michele, Gigiola bitterly complains that Michele is still in love Lila and treats his wife like a whore. Alfonso confesses he is gay and marries Marisa only to escape detection of his true desires.

Once married and living in Florence, Lenu immediately becomes pregnant regardless of her desire to put off bearing a child for a while. Lila meanly predicts difficulties ahead for Lenu and has somehow “jinxed” Lenu’s pregnancy. The child has trouble latching, likely has colic and Lenu is worn down caring for both child and household. We finally see what Pietro is made of - apparently not much. He resents Lenu's complaints of being overwhelmed, does little to help her and even complains when his mother comes to assist them. There is some sort of bitterness between mother and son – does he resent his mother's professional accomplishments? Would he prefer that Lenu remain a devoted housewife and mother whose career is secondary to his? It is a terrible realization for Lenu - no matter what your class or status - in this society, at this time, your needs are always secondary to your male partner's.

When Lenu learns that Bruno, the factory owner, has been savagely murdered in his office she first suspects that it is Lenu who was responsible – but the truth is more shocking than that. The leftist violence seems to engender a desire in her to leave and join the orgy of violence and percolating revolutionary strife rather than remain a wife and mother.

Reluctantly, Lenu bears a second baby. She appears to withdraw into a more domestic role, her confidence shattered. But unlike Lenu, Lila appears to be excelling - obtaining a career in the computer industry with Enzo, now her partner, and forging a relationship with Solaras’ businesses much to Lenu’s horror. Lenu cannot escape the old neighborhood when her sister begins to live with Marcello Solara, when the Solara matriarch is murdered, when she learns that Bruno was likely murdered by Nadia and Pasquale. Violence in the old neighborhood continues - old friends die or are beaten for their political beliefs. The subtext is ominous – she will never escape from these people, from the violence and treachery, from the sense of degradation and self-hate.

Lenu attempts a second novel. Pietro is uninterested in her progress. Her mother-in-law dislikes it and even Lila appears repulsed by its explicit content. Marriage appears a kind of nightmare which "stripped coitus of all humanity". Pietro disappoints, motherhood disappoints; she feels that her education has been for naught.

And then re-enter Nino, our presumptive Prince Valiant of the Naples slums who approves of her creative efforts and urges her to finish her second book (is there a more potent aphrodisiac for a progressive woman – a man who thinks you are smart and a talented writer?). Now married with a rich if vulgar wife and a son, Nino befriends Pietro only to betray him.

Shockingly (am I the only reader to think so?) Nino and Lenu start an affair. She demands that he leave his wife, he demands she leave Pietro. Both do and in the final scene they are aboard a plane to France. Is it possible that Lenu will finally be happy? On to Book Four …

Monday, May 30, 2016

May Cultural Roundup

From the documentary "Suited" ...
Salotto Letterario celebrating the publication of Exploring Voices (Italian Canadiana, 2016), May 1st

Tower (U.S., 2016)
Obit (U.S., 2016)
Handsome & Majestic (Canada, 2016)
Suited (U.S., 2016)
Life Itself (U.S., 2013)
The Bad Kids (U.S., 2016)
Circles (Sweden, 2016)
The Incomparable Rose Hartman (U.S., 2016)
Zimbelism (Canada, 2016)
Chi-Raq (U.S., 2016)
Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (U.S., 1966)
The Nice Guys (U.S., 2016)

Beloved Martina, Mercer Union, May 4th
Douglas Kirkland: A Life in Pictures, Izzy Gallery

Bettyville by George Hodgman
A Boy's Own Story by Edmund White
Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave by Elena Ferrante

Open Doors, May 28th & 29th

Saturday, April 30, 2016

April Cultural Roundup

Madama Butterfly
Madama Butterfly, The Met: Live in HD, April 2nd with Kristina Opolais and Robert Alagna

Old School by Tobias Wolf
Dreams of My Russian Summers by Andrei Makine
When Everything Feels like the Movies by Raziel Reid
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
M Train by Patti Smith

Hot Docs Films:
The Legacy of Frida Kahlo (Japan, 2016)
The Voice (Canada, 2016)
Spirit Unforgettable (Canada, 2016)