Friday, March 28, 2008

Blue and Angelic

The Blue Angel (German, 1929) directed by Joseph Von Sternberg

I had a real passion for Marlena Dietrich films when I was in my twenties (around the time I met R). Having seen this film again I remember clearly why. And despite the archaic message that certain women are evil temptresses who will lead to the downfall of virtuous men, I still love the film and the song that made her famous Falling in Love Again. Then again is it an archaic message? Perhaps not, this is not an uncommon view.

Marlena is such a stand out in every way. And it's not just her beauty, which is luminescent (her skin glows on screen like she is lit from within). It's the way she holds herself, her acting, her smirks of indifference, her elegance, even as the slightly trashy cabaret singer Lola Lola in a disreputable club. Did Von Sternberg deliberately choose those oafish, unattractive girls in The Blue Angel to contrast with Dietrich? Even though she is not quite the cinematic goddess that she will become in later years I think I liked her more here when she had this earthy, pretty quality that she exhibits as the unfaithful club singer with her curly dark hair, smirking bravado and slightly heavier frame.

Her acting is free of old fashioned cinematic mannerisms for the most part. Poor Emil Jannings, as the unfortunate Prof. Immanuel Rath who falls in love with her, seems to exhibit extremes of emotion that make the film viewer cringe today.

The film is based on the Heinrich Mann novel Professor Unrat. There is a nice synopsis and some lovely pics of the film here.

Prof. Rath (sometimes mocked as Prof. Unrath by his college students - unrath meaning garbage) finds some suggestive postcards of Lola Lola on his students and takes it upon himself to investigate this seedy nightclub they have been frequenting called The Blue Angel. He barges in like a German Eliot Spitzer (and we all know how that ended) to clear the place with his moral wrath and, of course, he is immediately smitten with the lovely, flirtatious Lola Lola. This guardian of the public virtue is reduced to holding her pots of paint and makeup as she prepares for each act, slavishly watching every move that she makes as his incredulous students, hidden from his view, watch.

A mute and forlorn clown, who works in the club, watches him dolefully from the periphery, foreshadowing the professor's tragic end, a silent, bedraggled doppelganger.

Of course his night of passion leads to the inevitable degradation and fall. We see from his waking up there in her bedroom how empty and bereft his home (and therefore his life) is compared to Lola Lola's; it's a brilliant metaphor for their lives. His house is dark, cluttered, depressing, filled with dusty books, a poor little bird that died unbeknownst to its owner and a surly maid servant who remarks tartly as she throws the dead bird into the furnace,"Well, he ceased to sing long ago". As did the Professor it seems.

Lola Lola's room is bright, filled with light and lined with gorgeous, illustrated club and circus posters and a ceaselessly chirping bird. She has fresh flowers, one of which she inserts into his lapel before he leaves for school to meet his fate.

The headmaster questions his judgment (the students have told everyone at the school all that has transpired). He leaves his post immediately because the headmaster insults his "future wife". He returns to the club, proposes to the incredulous Lola Lola who is poised to leave on a tour, and they marry.

He joins her on the tour and evolves from forbidding her to sell the naughty postcards to patrons to hawking them in the clubs himself. Without occupation, he is reduced to helping her dress, putting on her stockings for her, curling her hair. The message is clear: he has become emasculated by his desire (is this not the secret fear of many men?). He loses his occupation and his self esteem.

Five years pass and the professor has literally become a clown in the act. There are echoes of Leoncavallo's opera I Pagliacci here but unlike Canio, the murderous, jealous husband (who too is a clown) of that opera, Rath is too degraded by his misfortunes to act.

Lola Lola becomes involved with Mazeppa (the then hugely popular German movie star Hans Albers), a "strong man", whose path they cross when they are touring. As Mazeppa attempts to seduce Lola Lola, Rath prepares for his debut as the clown. They have returned to his hometown and all of the inhabitants have turned out to witness what has become of him.

Kliepert (Kurt Gerron), the vindictive manager of the troupe, uses Rath in his magic act, deliberately humiliating him, "magically" producing eggs and then smashing them against Rath's forehead, calling him a bird brain, urging him to crow as he did on his wedding night for the amusement of the wedding guests. The howls of laughter of the crowd, the humiliation of the act, his fleeting glimpses of Mazeppa's predatory moves on Lola Lola unhinge Rath mentally. He falls into a homicidal rage and then is placed into a straitjacket and restrained overnight by the frightened onlookers.

When he is finally released he staggers back to the college and finds his place in the classroom where he was held with such esteem (or so he thought) and promptly dies there, his hands clasping the desk in a death grip only to be found by the caretaker.

It is melodramatic and overwrought and Jannings is sometimes unwatchable, but Marlena still intrigues and amazes and you are entranced once again by her.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (Viking Press, 1962 - republished Penguin Group, 1970), 146 pages

Thi story has elements of classic suspense film "The Bad Seed", Jane Eyre and the movie "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" sprinkled with a very real post-Holocaust anxiety.

Something horrible has happened to the Blackwood family. The parents of the two girls in the story, a brother and an aunt all died of arsenic poisoning consumed through a sugar bowl during a family meal. All fingers point to Constance, the older of the two sisters, who cooked the meal but Constance was acquitted of the crime.

Now they live in isolation in their mansion with Uncle Julian, their father's brother, who somehow escaped the carnage, surrounded by suspicious and hate-filled townsfolk who wish them ill.

This book, at least initially, reads more like young adult fiction - perhaps I was influenced by the slightly gothic, graphic novel style cover featuring the main characters Constance and Merricat Blackwood surrounded by ominous looking townspeople.

Merricat (short for Mary Katherine) despite her odd interest in poisonous mushrooms and fantasy worlds appears to be, initially, a lovely, whimsical creature living an almost enchanted life despite what has happened. She buries "treasures" in the landscape near their home, ("All our land was enriched with my treasures ..." ) and weaves fantastic tales about life on the moon for her sister: "on the moon we wore feathers in our hair, and rubies on our hands." She plays with her cat; she summons up magic words to protect herself and her family, practices acts of magic.

Merricat is fanciful, a bit strange, and, potentially it seems, a ruthless opponent intent on eliminating certain unpleasant elements from her quiet life peopled only by her sister Constance, innocuous Uncle Julian and cat Jonas. When cousin Charles appears on the scene, we see the true extent of Merricat's powers and malignant feelings ...

Fiction writer Jonathan Lethem's introduction is particularly insightful; he describes Merricat as the image of a "presexual tomboy" although she is 18 - with a fear, I think, of maturity, of growth, of the inevitable fertility of femaleness. This is why Constance's attraction to cousin Charles is so threatening to Merricat.

Constance is her blue eyed, blonde haired princess, the idea of Charles "defiling" or even merely attracting Constance is too threatening for Merricat who takes to reciting the poisonous properties of local mushrooms within his hearing. Constance, hidden away in the house, is a sort of domestic goddess, cooking for all, pickling, baking, "neatening" the house, caring for the family heirlooms, protecting Merricat and all her secrets.

As Lethem points out, it seems that the "male principle" is a source of danger and fear for Merricat. Uncle Julian doesn't count; he is incapacitated in a wheelchair, neutered somewhat, incontinent, sometimes mentally confused and incapable of seizing control of the situation or the girls' lives - he is utterly dependent on them. Perhaps that was why he was spared that fateful night. All males (father, brother, now cousin Charles) and female authority figures (her mother, her aunt) must be eliminated. But Merricat, despite her oddity, has excellent instincts about who is a danger to her world and acts accordingly.

Jackson owes more than a little to the plot of Jane Eyre which adds to a suspenseful and chilling ending. For more Jackson read the short story "The Lottery", an even more frightening twist on paranoia and misanthropy.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Not So Good Girl

The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa (Faber, 2007) translated by Edith Grossman, 352 pages

So I am finally tackling the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa whom I have been thinking about reading for some time. It seemed a great novel to start with. In The Bad Girl Llosa reworks Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary one of my favourite 19th c. novels. Other reviews cite A Sentimental Education (which I have not read) as the source. A review in the New York Times lead me to this book.

Llosa's life long obsession with Flaubert is well known. In The Perpetual Orgy (1975), a book-length essay on Madame Bovary, Llosa states of Emma Bovary that he "knew that from that moment on, till my dying day, she would be for me, as for Léon Dupuis in the first days of their affair, ‘the beloved of every novel, the heroine of every play, the vague she of every volume of verse’”. He is clearly besotted with Emma Bovary but then again this book has a special place in my heart as well.

The story here begins in the 1950s with the 15 year old narrator Ricardo Somocurcio meeting Lily (whose real name is Otilia we later discover), supposedly a Chilean girl who has emigrated to Peru. Lily weaves a sensuous spell over Ricardo which is never dispelled even when she leaves Peru quickly and mysteriously. Lily is not Chilean but Peruvian and has masqueraded as a Chilean because she was poor - her crowd in Peru was much wealthier than she was, it was easier to "pass" this way. She takes on many guises/disguises during the course of his life in order to escape her poverty and indifferent fate.

Ricardo moves to Paris to work as an interpreter, a lifelong dream for him, and works for Unesco. He meets "Lily'"again and consummates his unrequited love for her.

She undergoes a series of transformations: firstly, she is Lily, the faux Chilean in Peru of the 1950s; then Comrade Arlette, the Cuban revolutionary in training in the early 60s in Paris; the sophisticated Madame Robert Arnoux (also the name of a character in The Sentimental Education), the wife of a French diplomat in the late 60s; Mrs. David Richardson, the wife of an aristocratic horse breeder in England in the 1970s; Kuriko, the drug smuggling mistress of a sadistic yakuza in Tokyo the 1980s. But how does she makes these incredible transformations, barely a mention of that ...

To my mind, the "Chilean girl" does not resemble the character "Emma Bovary" in the least. Obvious different historical circumstances aside, there doesn't seem to be a true emotional similarity. In my reading of Madame Bovary, Emma stumbles from one horrific sexual misadventure to the next because she is vain, shallow and superficial, yes, but she is also vulnerable, insecure and in search of passionate love influenced by her great love for romantic literature and music. She, and her family, pay the ultimate price for her foolish dalliances.

Emma is a weak, foolish woman but Flaubert makes her so real, so passionate that the reader cannot help empathizing with her foibles and romantic catastrophes.

Lily assumes guises and manipulates various men in her life to escape her poverty as Emma does to escape a stulifying, unsatisfying life under the thumb of her bourgeois family and then her interminably boring husband Charles Bovary.

But the "bad girl"in all her various guises never demonstrates vulnerability until very late in the novel and under very extreme circumstances which involve horrific violation and humiliation for her, almost cartoonish in its extremity and ugliness. She is thoughtless, rude, avaricious, mean but rarely vulnerable, sympathetic. It annoys me that the narrator rarely uses her name but always uses "the bad girl", "the Japanese girl", "the guerrilla fighter", etc ... But perhaps that is the point: that she has no real identity, that she is volatile and malleable.

Ricardo's attraction is indecipherable. Physical looks do not suffice as the sole reason especially as bodies age and desire wanes in middle age; a man does not chase a woman for 30 years solely for this. There is a lack, a weakness in Ricardo, which is never explored fully. The reader fails to understand the intensity of this emotion.

The sex scenes become hackneyed, routine in description. You are unable to comprehend Ricardo's ardour. There are one too many references to her "dark honey" eyes, her slender legs, her small form. She never materializes for me on paper. If she says that Ricardo tells her "cheap, sentimental" things in his expressions of love once, she says it at least a dozen times in the novel ad nauseum.

Flaubert's description of Emma's illicit carriage ride with her lover Léon Dupuis in Part III of Madame Bovary has so much highly charged eroticism in what is not revealed in that scene that it puts every "erotic" sequence (of which there are many) in this book to shame.

The novel cuts a broad, if unconvincing, swath across important historical circumstances: the Cuban revolution in the late 50s, the tumultuous political history of Llosa's native Peru, the "swinging" 60s in London, the onset of AIDS in the 1970s and the death of a close friend from that disease, and yet one feels nothing for these events, and understands even less.

The passages, which are filled with sometimes horrific, tumultuous events, are bloodless, dull. It reads as if these historical events and locations were researched through a detailed google search or a trip to the library. Even Paris, exquisite, historic Paris, feels flat and uninteresting in Llosa's descriptions. I don't know if it is the writer Llosa or the translator Edith Grossman who has left me so passively uninvolved. Perhaps my expectations were too high for this book ...

The descriptions are very cliché. Two very small examples ... referring to a Japanese character as "inscrutable" in the year 2007? The Africans (read the blacks) who allegedly violate one of the main characters are "savages". A character wanders around the Seine, reciting modern poetry and thinking of Juliette Greco while he contemplates throwing himself into the river ... really? That's what suicidal people do, even those with hopelessly romantic temperaments? In terms of good writing, it's stereotypical and an even worse sin: it is boring and unimaginative.

The indignities that the bad girl are subjected to are disturbing and, I fear, dwelt on too much and in too graphic detail. I wish Llosa had spent more time on developing her psychological portrait and less on the physical aspects of her degradation which really border on the prurient for me.

A few lines at the end of the novel rang true for me and expressed the infatuation Llosa (and some of us) have with Emma when he is speaking of Otilia here: "The truth was there was something in her impossible not to admire, for the reasons that lead us to appreciate well-made works even they're perverse."

I found my sentiments echoed (more eloquently perhaps) in James Lasdun's review in The Guardian a few months ago. My advice, go back to the master: re-read Madame Bovary. You will not be disappointed.

Friday, March 7, 2008

I Giardini di Marzo (The Gardens of March)

I Giardini di Marzo (The Gardens of March) by singer/songwriter Lucio Battisti (1943-1998)

Lyrics by Lucio Battisti thoughtfully provided by NB and trepidatiously translated by ALC with the assistance of NB. It's a very pretty song that you can see played here in a very groovy Leonard Cohenish sort of way.

Il carretto passava e quell'uomo gridava "gelati".
The cart passed and the man yelled "ice cream".

Al ventuno del mese i nostri soldi erano già finiti,

At the 21st of the month our money was already finished,

io pensavo a mia madre e rivedevo i suoi vestiti,
I thought of my mother and I saw once again her dresses,

il più bello era nero coi fiori non ancora appassiti.

the most beautiful one was black with flowers still unfaded.

All'uscita di scuola i ragazzi vendevano libri,
At the exit of the school, the children sold books,

io restavo a guardarli cercando il coraggio per imitarli,

I remained to guard them searching for the courage to imitate them,

poi sconfitto tornavo a giocar con la mente e i suoi tarli, then, defeated,

I returned to thoughts that ate away at my mind,

e la sera al telefono tu mi chiedevi perché non parli.

and that night on the telephone you asked me why I did not speak.

Che anno è, che giorno è,

What year is this, what day is this,

questo è il tempo di vivere con te;

this is the time of living with you;

le mie mani come vedi non tremano più

my hands, see, no longer tremble

e ho nell'anima, in fondo all'anima,

and I have in my soul, deep in my soul,

cieli immensi e immenso amore
immense skies and an immense love

e poi ancora, ancora amore amor per te,

and still more, more love, love for you,

fiumi azzurri e colline e praterie

blue rivers and hills and prairies

dove corrono dolcissime le mie malinconie,

where my sadnesses sweetly run,

l'universo trova spazio dentro me,

the universe finds a place within me,

ma il coraggio di vivere, quello ancora non c'è.

but the courage of living, that still, is not there.

I giardini di marzo si vestono di nuovi colori

The gardens of March dress in new colours

le giovani donne in quel mese vivono nuovi amori,

the young women in that month live new loves,

Camminavi al mio fianco ed ad un tratto dicesti "tu muori",

You walked at my side and at one point you said "you die",

"se mi aiuti son certa che io ne verrò fuori",

"if you help me it is certain that I will not go away",

ma non una parola chiarì i miei pensieri,

but not a word clarified my thoughts, c

continuai a camminare, lasciandoti attrice di ieri.
they continued walking, leaving the players of yesterday.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Inside In Bruges

In Bruges (U.K., 2008) Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh

Despite the embarrassment of asking for a movie ticket for "In Brew-gez" and realizing how I badly I mangled the name of the Belgian city of Bruges (should be pronounced more like "Brew-zsh"), I enjoyed this movie a great deal.

Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), respectively inept and adept contract killers, are banished to the Belgian city of Bruges after a hit goes awry in London and are asked to await instructions from their volatile and psychotic gang leader Harry (played with spitting mad accuracy by Ralph Fiennes).

Ken, albeit an experienced killer, is surprisingly a cultured, intelligent man and is enchanted by the historic medieval architecture and beauty of the city. Ray not so much, constantly and unceremoniously referring to the city as a "shit hole" and itching to get out. Ray is a nail biting bundle of neurosis with a guilty conscious and we soon find out why. He is wracked with guilt about the accidental death of a child during his first hit; hence, his banishment to Bruges by the imperious Harry, father of three and devoted to his own criminal code of honour.

Bruges is beautifully shot; we are as enraptured as Ken while he tours the churches, canals and galleries of this beautiful city. Gleason plays the aging contract killer with weary charm as he tries to look out for the near hysterical, always obnoxious Ray who is nearly destroyed by the guilt he carries.

Prowling the city at night, and bored with the traditional tourist attractions, Ray stumbles upon a film shoot in the city and meets Chloë (Clémence Poésy), a pretty if suspect cocaine dealer and sometime robber of tourists, as well as the diminutive actor Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), a unfriendly and volatile dwarf, who is working on the film. They form a hapless, volatile friendship.

Meanwhile Ken, unbeknownst to Ray, is ordered by Harry to kill Ray for botching the murder in London. Bruges, which the sentimental Harry remembers fondly from a trip he made as a child, is meant to be a last farewell gift for Ray whom Harry now deems as dispensable.

Despite his reservations, Ken is determined to follow orders and tracks down a now suicidal Ray to a public park. It would be unfair to reveal more but let's just say that Ken and Ray have their own code of honour and Harry is foiled in the end (or is he?). The spectacular ending involves the two contract killers, Harry who has rushed to Bruges to take care of the business himself, the blonde drug dealer her ex boyfriend/punk and the dwarf who are dealt with in quick succession.

Fiennes, wonderfully vicious here, is awfully reminiscent of another psychotic cockney gangster played by Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast (2000) from a number of years ago (also a terrific film).

Not all our questions are answered which is intriguing ... for instance, why does Harry order the hit? The victim appears innocuous enough. But is he? Does it have to do with Harry's reverence for children? Does Ray survive Harry's vicious pursuit? Unclear. What becomes of Ray? Also unclear and very intriguing.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Ora è l'inverno del nostro scontento

La settimana scorsa, R, mio marito, ed io, discutevamo dove volevemo vivere quando siamo più vecchi. Io voglio vivere nel un paese ch'è più caldo di Canada nel inverno.

R diceva, "No! Non voglio lasciare Canada. Non voglio andare a un paese ch'è caldo. E, primo di tutto, non voglio abitare in Miami!"

Era confusa, mai dicevo che volevo abitare là. Pensavo "Ma perché ha detto Miami?" Dopo pensavo che ci sono due programme televisive che amiamo: Dexter e CSI Miami. Tutte due sono fatti nella città di Miami. Sempre quando le vedevo, dicevo a R, "Ma che bellezza! Che musica! Che cultura Latina! Che acqua!"

Ma R ama la neve, l'inverno, hockey e pattinare.

No, non voglio andare a Miami. È troppo caldo anche per me, ed io sono Siciliana.

Forse Toscana o Venezia pensavo. Venezia non è tanto humida or calda. C'è l'acqua, i palazzi, i chiesi, il Guggenheim, l'arte, la Fenice, la Piazza San Marco, la musica ed il cibo del mare.

R era molto triste per un tempo e dopo ha detto, "Io non vado a nessuno paese che non ha una pista di ghaccio!"

Punto e basta.