Friday, August 28, 2009

Another Face of Iran

Things I’ve Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2009) 333 pages

Azar Nafisi is a fascinating, courageous writer. I was captivated by her book Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003).

I saw this initially as one Iranian woman's journey as, firstly, a citizen of Iran, then, citizen of the world. Now I see it as a love story about herself and her parents.

Perhaps I, like many other Westerners, haven’t been diligent enough in seeking out alternative images of Iranians to the ones we see in the Western media: religious fanatics, conservatives who advocate the veil, mullahs, anti-Western vitriol prevail here in the media coverage. But there is another side to Iranian culture: a vast store of literature and myth, legends and a complex history with larger than life figures. There is a secular, intellectual, cultured Iran filled with citizens who have risked life and status to challenge authority and injustice.

Nafisi is such as person and this memoir, serves, I think in part, as a homage to her parents who probably contributed the most to making her so.

It is a painfully honest recollection of growing up in Iran and abroad and she has said that the book was “a response to my own inner censor and inquisitor” which urged her to keep quiet about family secrets (a trait we Sicilians share with Iranians).

Our parents are our first loves and honestly I don't believe that ever really changes for anyone ... Nafisi delves into her relationship with her parents: her thwarted, beautiful and volatile mother Nezhat and her cultured, sensitive, politically active father, Ahmad Nafisi, a former mayor of Iran, who was imprisoned for years under trumped up charges during the Shah's reign.

She details her life in a prominent politically active, intellectual family; being educated in Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S.; her first loveless marriage and sojourn in the States during the radical 1960s; her return to Iran as the Islamic revolution unfolds; her turbulent teaching career under clerical rule in Iran; and, her second marriage and the birth of her two children.

Both of her parents faced life changing events relatively early in life. Her mother had a complicated emotional life and a lifelong nostalgic desire for a previous husband who died at a young age and whom, she felt, could never compare to her second husband. Nafisi’s father, Ahmad Nafisi, feeling unacknowledged and undesired, threw himself firstly into politics (and served a prison term for his trouble) as Mayor of Iran and then into affairs with other women that the whole family knew about and tacitly accepted.

The Nafisi family lived through the worst of times in Iranian history: the reign of the Shah and the 1979 revolution. She honestly acknowledges her initial support of the Ayatollah Khomeini while a student in the U.S. because he denounced imperialism and the Shah. Had she read his book The Rule of Jurisprudence, she realized belatedly, she would have seen his misogynistic diatribes, anti-semitism and pronouncements against minorities ran contrary to her radical views.

Friends and family disappear into prisons, are murdererd in the streets, silenced by more radical forces. Family is torn apart by opposing views which support or denounce Khomeini. Nafisi loses a teaching post at a university because of her outspoken views, loses her passport and almost loses all hope for Iran.

Nafisi has enough self-knowledge that she recognizes how both parents contributed to her becoming a writer. Her complicated relationship with her mother and her mother’s exacting standards have likely turned her into the successful, highly driven person that she is who never accepted the restrictions that Iranian society imposed on her. Her father’s love of literature and poetry that he fed to her through stories and a recounting of Iranian history and art fed her romantic imagination.

One last passage which struck me forcibly because I identified with it so strongly:

"Sometimes I caught myself looking in the mirror and seeing my mother's face. I had never thought I looked like her, and when people told me I did, I would almost vehemently deny it. I looked like my father, I would tell them. Yet as the years went by I heard this remark more often ... It was not that I was like my mother in coloring or the slant of the eyes; it went deeper than that. There was an expression, a ghostlike intimation; as if a shadow had passed over my face. There she was in the mirror, not kind or generous, but cold and relentless."

Friday, August 21, 2009

Wild Nights!

After a truly awful day at work, I was not feeling reassured at all by the thought of J camping on Toronto Island with the threat of a storm coming on Thursday night. She was signed up for a Harborfront camp called "Beyond Outdoors" with her friend S. The plan was to canoe to the island (what?? how did I miss that when I read the camp description?), camp over night and canoe back the next day to the mainland.

Thursday day was moody but uneventful and the kids made it to the Island with no difficulties. J was on my mind and I couldn't shake my anxiety with the anticipation that it might be a bad night.

The torrential rain hit the city at about 7.30 pm. Lightening, intense winds, a complete downpour. Without J at home we have less incentive to cook. We had just zipped out to Square Boy on the Danforth for some souvlaki and Greek salad and got caught in the storm. We got drenched merely walking from the car to the restaurant.

I find my mother anxiety kicking in - I should have said no to the overnight camping I think. J and I had a silly fight when we dropped her off that morning at the bus and I didn't get a chance to kiss her goodbye. I hate mornings like that. It casts a pall on the whole day for me.

I call D, the mom of J's friend at the camp, who is also a good friend of mine.

Uh .. is there a contingency plan in case it rains, I ask timidly? Yes, she assures me. What about getting back to the mainland the next day? They are monitoring the weather and won't leave in the middle of storm obviously. D has spoken to the camp director herself which I probably should have done if I wasn't such a dope.
Luckily J calls moments later ... they are in the firehall and will spend the night there. They all sound cheerful and noisy and happy. Okay ... so that's good. Except now we are getting updates every 20 - 30 minutes from J's cell. Not so good ...

We are coming home ... we're staying ... we're coming home our gear is soaked ... we are taking the 10.15 ferry to the mainland.

R dutifully heads off to pick the girls up.

R calls, J calls ... we missed the ferry! By a minute mom, by a minute!! How will they get home? I don't know ... wait for another ferry maybe? When? I don't know ...

I get testy with R on the phone, he gets testy with me. After all, he is the one hanging around the dock for an hour. I'm at home in my warm jimjams merely biting my nails. I would like to say that he didn't hang up on me but actually he very politely did.
I'm a mother, get my kid off that island!! My system can't take that kind of stress. I am afraid of everything. Literally.
J calls back, we are waiting for a water taxi to pick us up. It's now eleven o'clock. Those poor counsellors, they deserve a medal for the night they are having. One idiotic mother who was contacted said she is not comfortable driving at night so the counsellors are compelled to take the child by subway up to Yonge and Lawrence. Un -f'ing - believable ... the sense of entitlement.

What about these poor kids who have to find a way to get everyone back home, forking over their own money to book water taxis, get back home and still come to work in the morning?

R and the girls straggle in at midnight - but the girls are happy and dirty and exhilarated. It's been an exciting night with the storm, being stranded on the island, the water taxis. They are glowing with their excitement.
Oy vey ...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"There is a certain charm in being near a dangerous being ..."

Carmen by Prosper Mérimée (Published in 1845 as a serial in La Revue des Deux Mondes) 48 pages

I sent a youtube link of Angela Georghiu singing La Habanera from Georges Bizet's opera Carmen to a friend when I learned that she had been accepted to grad school (shout out to Nyla - brava!). And that reminded me of the novella by Prosper Mérimée on which it was based and which I have not read for many years.

Ostensibly about gypsy life in Spain in the early 19th c., Carmen was first published serially in La Revue des Deux Mondes in 1845 and then two years later as a book. Mérimée was inspired by Antoine Francois Prevost's Manon Lescaut (1731). You may read the whole text here. It's very quick read at 48 pages.

The unnamed narrator meets Don Jose Navarro, a fallen nobleman turned dragoon turned bandit who is traveling in disguise. The narrator quickly guesses that Jose is a bandit and though warned by a servant that he should flee claims, "There is a certain charm in being near a dangerous being ..." The bandit saves him from possible death after the narrator also encounters Carmen, a bewitching gypsy, who steals his watch and urges Jose to slit the man's throat.

Carmen claims that she is Jose's romi ("wife" in gypsy culture) or is she? Carmen is as fickle and as wilful as all the stereotypes down through the ages have suggested.

Here is, literally, the mother of all Carmens, the original, much imitated, desired and reviled:
Her skin, though perfectly smooth, was almost of a copper hue. Her eyes were set obliquely in her head, but they were magnificent and large. Her lips, a little full, but beautifully shaped, revealed a set of teeth as white as newly skinned almonds. Her hair - a trifle coarse, perhaps - was black, with blue lights on it like a raven's wing, long and glossy. Not to weary my readers with too prolix a description, I will merely add, that to every blemish she united some advantage, which was perhaps all the more evident by contrast. There was something strange and wild about her beauty. Her face astonished you, at first sight, but nobody could forget it. Her eyes, especially, had an expression of mingled sensuality and fierceness which I had never seen in any other human glance. "Gipsy's eye, wolf's eye!" is a Spanish saying which denotes close observation. If my readers have no time to go to the "Jardin des Plantes" to study the wolf's expression, they will do well to watch the ordinary cat when it is lying in wait for a sparrow.

Carmen is compared to a raven, to a wolf; her hair is too coarse. Her beauty is strange and wild - perhaps she is not even human it implies; she is something feral, closer to an animal than a human.

Months later, the narrator and Jose meet again under very different circumstances. Jose has been arrested for murder and sentenced to death. He tells his story to the avid listener who records his tale before his inevitable execution.

Jose had joined the Spanish cavalry as a corporal to escape punishment because he had assaulted another nobleman. One day, as a dragoon, he was called upon to quell a disturbance in the cigar factory. The factory workers were composed entirely of women who, due to the extreme heat, all worked in their chemises. Imagine the setting. Imagine the writer imagining the setting and you will see the power of this story.

Jose was the unfortunate dragoon who had come to arrest Carmen for assaulting a fellow worker. She had made a "checkerboard" of the poor woman's face during a fight on the factory floor.

Carmen captivates him, speaking to him in his native tongue, Basque, and she persuades him to let her go. She toys with him saying that she is now his romi and brings him "home" for a night of lovemaking and then cruelly discards him in the morning. Jose eventually deserts the army to be with her.

"We were not made to grow cabbages," Carmen says to him tauntingly and urges him to become a bandit in the Andalusian mountains with her gang but to his horror the band that he has joined is lead by Carmen's husband Garcia de Borgone, a one eyed brute, who would just as soon sell the girl as marry her. Garcia's days are numbered as Jose cannot live with the knowledge that he shares Carmen with him.

Even with Garcia out of the way, Jose cannot eliminate all of his rivals, namely a young picador named Lucas. Carmen refuses to give up Lucas and foresees her demise at the hands of Jose (something that she had foretold from the start of their relationship with her fortune telling). Jose hands himself in to the authorities after he disposes of Carmen in a rage. He is a broken man who faces certain execution for his crimes.

Search in vain for any semblance of balance in the depiction of Carmen and the gypsies; hence, her enduring power as a symbol in literature, visual art, dance, opera.

We have an obsessive interest in gypsies in the West, more commonly known now as the Roma. Mérimée incorporates every stereotype about gypsies: conniving, murderous, amoral, acquisitive but powerfully attractive as well - possessing unusual beauty, strength, charm, regal bearing, wit. Carmen is portrayed as an almost supernatural being who outwits all who come in contact with her. Even her death appears to be of her own volition; she has determined how and why she will die.

This is much the same as the centuries old image of the bastard child borne of true passionate love: doomed, unwanted, illegitimate beings but invested with intense beauty and charm because the lovers had expressed true passion for each other. Perhaps we invest the thing we fear the most with almost unearthly attributes and extreme characteristics. See here for a quick cataloguing of the Romi in literature.

The composer Georges Bizet (1838 - 75) based the opera Carmen on this novella. It was not well received initially and its failure was said to have possibly hastened his death but he left us with many beautiful arias and choruses: La Habanera, Seguidilla, The Flower Song and the Urchins Song.

And Carmen lives on ... as a testament to the desire and fear that powerful female sexuality elicits.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Titanic destruction ...

R sent me this link about abandoned buildings in Hamilton photographed by Jonathan Castellino. Look at these photos ...

The picture above is of the Royal Connaught at King and John streets in Hamilton where R and I spent our wedding night (well, perhaps not the exact spot). The Connaught was the best hotel in Hamilton and very beautiful - now abandoned ... Sadly, I was reminded of pictures of the Titanic when I saw these, the striking combination of decay and elegance.

Apparently, in 2008, the realtor Harry Stinson made a proposal for a 100-storey building to be called the Connaught Towers to the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. It was to become the tallest building in Canada. Three months later, he closed up the Connaught Towers sales office in downtown Hamilton and the project was officially canceled.

Other pics on the site include the Lister Block and buildings in the downtown core. What an eye this guy has. Thanks Jonathan for sharing these.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Once were warriors

Fight Club (U.S., 1999) directed by David Fincher, 139 minutes (Spoiler alert ahead kids)

I've been thinking about the construct of masculinity and how it is built, what it is built on, the fictions and myths on which it is built (if these are fictions and myths). Maybe it's all this reading about Hemingway and Che Guevara. This film, which I saw many years ago, when it was first released floated back into my mind.

So enamored of the film am I that I went to search for the book at Circus, a neat little bookstore in my area.

When I saw the film again I recognized that I had slowly absorbed some of the writer Chuck Palahniuk's ideas into my own thinking - how, inadvertently, the role of men has been altered through modern civilization in the West. Men who, for many millennium, have seen themselves as warriors, as protectors, as men of action and, also, possibly men of violence now perceive themselves primarily as consumers. Of how consumerism has "emasculated" them to a certain extent and become the basis of their self worth. Heroism, personal valor, courage, physical strength are now not necessarily the barometers of masculinity. Material wealth and corporate success are now the barometers.

Of course, I am not advocating that war is good nor that physical violence is an intrinsic part of the male psyche. But I think that men who know and respect their father's and grandfather's exploits as soldiers and workers and the primary bread-winners find themselves at an impasse in terms of their identity today. It has left a generation of men lost and purposeless. I think this is what Palahniuk wanted to explore. It certainly is worth exploring.

So thoroughly emasculated are we led to believe the hero of the film Jack (Edward Norton) to be that he shops from IKEA catalogues and attends one of a number of support groups for the weeping men suffering from, in one session, testicular cancer. Could it be more obvious what Chuck Palahniuk, the writer of the novel upon which this film is based, thinks of men in the modern Western world?

It is a sometimes queasy, sometimes intriguing, treatise on the modern male who has lost his way.

The personal histories of Palahniuk's father and grandfather are loaded with graphically shocking violence. His father's own behavior towards him seems inexplicably aggressive. Perhaps it became an obsession, this concern with violence, something he believes he can't avoid or control or something that is embedded in his DNA.

Jack (the main character is unnamed but sometimes uses the name Jack when referring to himself in the third person) is described as the "byproduct of a lifestyle obsession" and this obsession has destroyed his true nature the film implies. He is so unhappy that he attends these support sessions merely for the privilege of weeping openly. He likes it so much he makes the rounds of other self-help sessions - various cancers, tuberculosis, alcoholism, etc ... He says when people think you are dying they really really listen to you instead of just waiting for their turn to speak. Jack finds himself weeping into the arms of Bob (Meatloaf), literally a ball-less former weight lifter who has developed breasts from a hormone imbalance.

Jack can't sleep and these sessions permit him that until he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). A smart mouthed goth-looking hottie, she populates the same sessions as Jack. He wants her out, he can't think or weep when she's there but she refuses to leave - it's a diversion which she finds cheaper than movies, and, she enjoys the free coffee.

Jack's life soon implodes. He meets the unbelievably hot and dangerous looking Tyler Durdan (Brad Pitt) on a business flight. Red leather jacket, loud shirt, cool punky hair, belligerent sneer ... completely captivating on screen. And don't even ask what the soap that he creates for his soap business is made from.

Jack's condo inexplicably blows up and he is left homeless. He seeks refuge with Tyler and Jack is soon exposed to Tyler's cocky nihilism. His anti-consumerist rant is foul-mouthed romp capped with a strident "Fuck Martha Stewart!" in the middle of it. Tyler lives in a dilapidated, filthy house with intermittent electricity and no worldly goods. It's a testimony to his disdain for possessions.

On their first night together, after three pitchers of beer, Tyler invites Joe to hit him and they begin a grimly joyous, fist filled fight which attracts other men, passersby anxious to participate.

Jack goes to work with bruises and cuts and a mouth full of bloody teeth. No one comments on this. He ceases to care about possessions, about work, about the therapy groups he once so avidly attended. Why? Because he was found his "true" nature? That of a fighter? A destroyer? Is that what being a man means here?

Every Saturday night the ritual evolves. Shortly afterward Tyler's clandestine fight club is born. The numbers grow. Surreptitiously, the phenomenon spreads. Neighborhood by neighborhood. City by city. State by state.

Tyler advises the men: "The first rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club. The second rule of fight club is you do not talk about fight club." Stripped to the waist, barefoot - the men fight in a cellar cheered on by dozens. "Fight club wasn't about winning ... afterwards we all felt saved," Jack tells us.

Tyler addresses the men in the club:
I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. Goddamn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

Things start to go awry ... Tyler sleeps with Marla much to Jack's annoyance. Tyler burns Jack's hand with chemicals as if to brand him. Jack quits his job and blackmails his boss into continuing to pay him as an outside consultant to subsidize the fight clubs.

The men are given "homework assignments" - picking fights with strangers, destroying a piece of corporate art or trashing a franchise coffee shop and wreaking general havoc in the city.

Tyler begins to build an army; its purpose is initially unclear. His acolytes move into the house. An underground movement begins called "Project Mayhem". Jack seems unaware of what's happening. Then Tyler disappears. Jack steps into Tyler's shoes. The movement assumes cult-like aspects (as if it didn't have one before). There are disciples everywhere enabling Tyler in his mission. A secret society of men devoted to mayhem.

Jack slowly comes to the realization that Tyler is a figment of his imagination, his id run wild and he is taking over Jack's consciousness. It's a shocking, delightful twist. Then we realize that we never see Marla in the same room with both men - one or the other but never both. And we understand why she is so angry with Jack. When she is with "Tyler" he is a super assertive, overtly sexual being. When she is with "Jack" he is a taciturn, uptight jerk who ignores her.

Tyler/Jack is planning to blow up ten buildings housing credit card companies with his small army so that they may all be "freed" from their consumerist obsessions. Jack "confronts" Tyler and a surreal battle ensues with Jack trying to drive Tyler from his mind and his life. Mayhem reigns. Is it a happy ending? You decide.

Ten years ago, the film disturbed me. Now I think I get it. I don't entirely approve but I get it.

But take a look at this glimpse of real fight clubs. Less than a month ago, New York experienced a Fight Club influenced bombing incident at a Starbucks. It ain't exactly Brad Pitt in a bloodied tee.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The power to break you

New Moon by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown & Co., 2006) 563 pages

This should have been called my best friend's a werewolf and ... my ex is a vampire. Again, I will not recap the plot in Meyer's second book in the Twilight series in great detail. You are either on board or not. The train is leaving folks ... I know I will not be able to persuade non-believers.

Okay, the general premise is enormously silly, I will grant you that. And yes, I sometimes hide the book when guests come over. And, oh, alright, when I leave the house with a book I rarely take this one in case people see what I am reading on the subway ... and yet, and yet. Ms. Meyer is on to something. She captures teenage angst so well. She captures desire and the loss of a loved one exceptionally well. Because it is a sort of death, the end of a relationship, especially if it is your first love.

I found that while I read the book I was doing what I often wish readers of my own fictional work wouldn't do, wondering: "Did this happen to her? How much does it reflect her own experience? Did Meyer lose someone close to her - how does she understand this depression that envelops Bella? How does she understand that pain so thoroughly?"

Meyer sets the stage early when Edward and Bella are watching a production of Romeo and Juliet for a school assignment and Edward claims that if Bella died he would try and kill himself by approaching the Volturi in Italy (more on that later). Soon after, a violent incident involving the Cullen family convinces him that Bella is not safe around the Cullens and the Cullens realize how dangerous it is to be around Bella with the risk of exposure should their true identities be revealed. They leave Forks suddenly and Edward leaves Bella. Quickly. Painfully. Brutally. It will be as if I never existed, he says. The phrase rings in her ears for months.

The book is, for nearly three quarters of it, a dark, bitter chronicle of Bella's depression and her efforts to deal with the situation. Bella thinks miserably: One thing I knew ... was how love gave someone the power to break you. I'd been broken beyond repair.

She is utterly lost and sinks into black hole which she barely recovers from. When the grief stricken Bella impulsively tries to approach a group of boys in town whom she thinks (mistakenly) might have almost attacked her the year before had Edward not thwarted them, I understand the impulse. I have never seen this described in print before.

When someone close to me passed away fairly suddenly at the age of sixteen, I found myself behaving irrationally, attracted to dangerous situations and people. I could not have explained it if I tried. I still can't. My actions were inexplicable to those around me. I only knew I felt a compulsion to be exposed to these things. So I understand Bella's obsession with riding motorcycles, with dangerous boys, with the ridiculous cliff diving that she sees some of the boys on the rez do. I get it. It's stupid and irrational. Completely. And yet I felt I had no control over my actions at the time either.

Meyer uses a heavy handed metaphor about Bella now being like a zombie in a horror film. Indeed, that would be good description for this condition in that you don't feel that you are in control of your emotions or actions and are pursuing a course of action which leads to disaster and possibly death.

The focus in this book is on her relationship with her best friend, the sweet tempered Jacob Black, who becomes a werewolf during the course of the novel. This leads me back to an earlier thought in a previous blog about the fear Meyer evinces about teenage boys: they are sometimes violent, feral, uncontrollable. Is this an anti-sex message as some have contended or a harsh truth - aren't boys more volatile at this age? It's an apt symbol for the intense mix of hormones and sexual desire during the teenage years. Jacob can barely contain himself after the "change" to werewolf which all the boys on the rez will eventually experience. Is this a metaphor for boys being unable to control themselves sexually as well?

There is an enormous importance placed on the chastity of youth in the Mormon faith which Meyer practices. One source I consulted stated that "The doctrine of this Church is that sexual sin—the illicit sexual relations of men and women—stands, in its enormity, next to murder." Hence, perhaps, Bella's chaste relations with Edward and then Jacob. Great passion yes, but sexual expression, absolutely no. Hence, the danger that sexual desire represents.

I remember being petrified of boys at that age. I didn't see them as potential loving companions with similar interests or as friends. I saw them as crude, violent, selfish creatures who took what they wanted. It might have been unfair generalization but I think it reflected the world as it existed for me then.

Here, in the West Side Story Jets vs. Sharks style showdown (which in itself is a modern spin on the original Romeo and Juliet story), the werewolves which include Jacob Black and the Indian boys of the Quillette tribe on the La Push rez who serve as protectors of the tribe, square off against the vampires, initially they are the "bad vampires" Laurent and Victoria but then also possibly the "good" vampires, the Cullens. The vampires must stay off the rez and refrain from killing humans which both Laurent and Victoria refuse to do.

At one point Bella openly muses what if rather than die, Romeo simply left, leaving Juliet with Paris, the man her parents wanted her to marry - would she have married Paris? Would it be possible to love another?

New Moon does keep you in suspense awaiting the couple's reunion and concludes with a Romeo and Juliet-like plot twist which compels Bella to go to Italy to save Edward from self-destruction in seeking out the Volturi, a group of vampires that he seeks to provoke so that they might destroy him as he vowed in the early chapters.

Despite the novel idea of accident prone Bella potentially saving anyone, there remains the ever present image of the powerful male who comes to the rescue of Bella - suicidal Bella cliff diving and then being miraculously saved by Jacob, Bella amidst the Volturi protected by Edward, Bella torn between two powerful, macho males - Edward her love and Jacob her best friend. And this is how it ends with Bella trying to reconcile the two boys with the now new threat of the Volturi returning to claim her some time in the future.

For Eclipse, book three, I am hoping there will a moratorium on the following verbs: gasping, chortling, chuckling, gawking, eye rolling, gaping. Again, can a sister get a competent editor please? It's young adult fiction - that doesn't mean it has to be sloppily written and/or edited does it?

Also verboten please: the coldness and beauty of the vampires, how solid and marble-like they are; the perfection of Edward's face, his voice, his scent, his everything; the "russet" colour of the Indian folks' skin. Indian folk come in all shades thanks to Europeans' thoughtful invasion of their lands and near destruction of its peoples even on a reserve the size of La Push.

I'm being a bit snippy here about these deets but you can bet that I will be reading the third book this summer.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Readings of poetry and short fiction
Thursday, August 6th, 2009
8.00 pm onwards

L’Espresso Bar Mercurio
321 Bloor St. W. (SE corner of St. George & Bloor)

Michelle Alfano
John Calabro
Domenic Capilongo
Darlene Madott
Jason Paradiso
Gianna Patriarca
Giovanna Riccio

Come early and enjoy the great food and ambiance at L'Espresso!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Contemplating "It"

It (U.S., 1927) directed by Clarence G. Badger, 72 minutes

Whatever “it” is (as once posited by Elinor Glyn in her eponymous 1920s novel), silent film actress Clara Bow certainly had it in abundance. Possibly this is why she still has appeal to our jaded 21st c. eyes, eighty years or more later …

As we were watching the b&w film, R dreamily noted that she had a very “modern” face. I wondered, does that mean sexy? Certainly she looks distinctly different than the other actresses in the film (as does silent film actress Louise Brooks in her own films) and I always wondered what was that magic quality that set them both apart on the screen?

Perhaps this is the same quality, or lack thereof, which makes me unable to watch Mary Pickford or the Gish sisters for long periods of time on film even though they are roughly of the same era. They seemed like such throw backs to the Victorian era. Such … simps. Passive, annoyingly virtuous to the extreme, and to my mind, boring.

Not so with Clara … even if in this film she is playing a slightly avaricious sales girl named Betty Lou who is after Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), the boss of the department store where she works. Betty loves men, seemingly loves to have a good time. Bow's image was of the quintessential flapper. Light-hearted, full of energy, reckless and hot tempered but sweet too.

Betty Lou does evolve and we see her as a different sort of woman by the film's end – a friend willing to destroy her reputation in order to save her best friend’s baby from being taken away by the authorities. A girl who refuses to be “kept” by the boss when she realizes exactly what he is after.

Cyrus Waltham, her boss, has read in the papers (erroneously it turns out) that Betty Lou is the mother of a fatherless child. This dampens his wick quite a bit and he tries to forget Betty Lou. As if he could ...

We are in Betty’s corner cheering her on when she determines that she will compel Cyrus to propose to her and then plans on rejecting him. She is unable to, she still loves him despite his despicable behavior. Because what is Betty truly guilty of? Falling in love with the boss? Trying to protect a vulnerable friend? Getting him back in front of his hoity toity friends when he humiliatingly rejects her?

This irrepressible charm and strength of will were the qualities that made Bow a star. Ten years ago when I first read Runnin' Wild, her biography by David Stenn, she was described to be, at the height of her fame, “bigger than Madonna”.

This "it" quality, sex appeal, the unnameable “it” that Glyn so coyly refers to in her book, originates as an early 20th c. phenomenon, and propelled Bow to fame and as easily cast her down when Hollywood and the public tired of her. With the onset of the talkies she seemed to falter with her troublesome Brooklyn accent and a phobia about the presence of a microphone. Poor health, the 1930s depression, and a sudden aversion to the glitz of the Jazz Age on the part of the public were the beginning of the end for Bow's career.

The tribulations of her overexposed life reminds us of many other celebutants and half baked starlets who came to fame so quickly, so easily at an early age (Bow was washed up before she turned 30), only to be cast down in the next instant.

Why is it so? There is that very human (or prurient?) element within ourselves which is attracted to those with enormous sex appeal but once they exceed the parameters of respectability or our patience (hello Courtney Love, Lindsay Lohan, Brittany Spears, Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie) they are soon derided and castigated in the most insulting terms. I can think of no equivalent experience for famous young men who implode before our eyes. James Dean? Monty Clift?

If anything, men achieve a sort of glamour in their self-destruction and/or promiscuity. They become, if possible, more desirous … their overt sexuality, addictions, crimes and petty misdemeanors, attracted fools and otherwise sensible women in droves.

Why do the innocuous entities such as Hilary Duff or Mandy Moore escape these diatribes and insults? Are they smarter? More private? More shrewd in public? Perhaps. Or are they also very careful in controlling their public images as sexual beings? Because this is the very quality that sinks the proverbial ship - a woman's overt sexuality, out of control sexuality, someone who is not controlled by a man or a family or society.

Now, do not imagine that I put any of these bold face names in the same category as Clara Bow – but I think I can safely suggest that once the public and media have tired of your real or presumed sexual antics it’s a quick ride to the dung heap of oblivion for many of them. You’ve gone from sexy, fresh and exciting to an intolerable skank who goes out without her underwear, pretty quickly. And then the claws are out to finish you off.

As sex obsessed as we may appear in Western society, there’s a deeply puritanical streak as well, ready to destroy the woman (usually it’s a woman) who has gone too far in her adventurousness. Witness all the rumors swirling around Bow towards the end of her film career: newspaper reports of, variously, incest, orgies, lesbianism, bestiality, abuse, that ubiquitous entire football team she was rumored to have slept with. And this probably contributed to the host of mental health issues that obsessed her at that time and until the end of her life.

The thing is for most young girls, once your self esteem is wrapped up in one area, your beauty, your youth, your sexuality – it’s a very hard road when you realize that those elements by which you define yourself (and others define you) are gone. What do you have left at the end? Not much that is valued either by yourself or others.