Monday, December 31, 2012

December Cultural Roundup

Once more into the breach ... Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting at the AGO

Anna Karenina (U.K., 2012) directed by Joe Wright (please see review here)
Silver Linings Playbook (U.S., 2012) directed by David O. Russell (please see review here)

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
The White Album by Joan Didion
Katherine Mansfield: A Darker View by Jeffrey Meyers

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Film Club

The Film Club: A True Story of a Father and Son by David Gilmour (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2007) 244 pages

When this memoir begins, Jesse is a sixteen year old with few ambitions, a dislike for formal schooling and a very anxious father. David Gilmour, a film critic and former broadcast journalist, is apprehensive to find an alternative to formal education for his son. He permits Jesse to drop out of school and doesn't demand that he get a job if the boy agrees to watch at least three films a week with his dad and let him "home school" Jesse on cinema. Dad's only stipulation: no drugs.

As a parent, this proposition raises the hair on the back of my neck (and pretty much everywhere else). How can this plan succeed? You can see Gilmour wavering when he glimpses the serious gaps in Jesse's knowledge base: Where is Florida? Is South America a country? Is the U.S. across from Lake Ontario? Is it merely a poor sense of geography or something more serious happening here? Oy ... you can feel the rising panic in Gilmour's writing. Am I doing the right thing here? he wonders.

I don't think I need to go over the films discussed here ... there are the classics (The Godfather, Chinatown, The French Connection, Hannah and her Sisters), the obscure films (Onibaba, Un Flic, Stick), the trashy, illicit ones (Showgirls) all accompanied by fairly banal commentary but that's not the point. The point is the adventure, the experiment. Will it work? Will it waken Jesse from his teenage lethargy?

Gilmour obviously loves his son deeply. Parental love is not that much different in its intensity than romantic love I find. Gilmour is an unabashed sensualist and obsessive in his interests. Read any of his other novels and you will see what I mean. A Perfect Night to go to China is a wonderful book about the loss of a son through a father's negligence. The anguish in that book is palpable; it stayed with me for weeks.

Gilmour's diligence and interest towards his new role in Jesse's life is demonstrative of this intensity. He is meticulous in his choices for Jesse and watches him compulsively for signs that the experiment is failing, that he is failing as a father.

It's easy to be in love with one's child and to be a little in awe of their physical beauty. After a particularly distressful breakup Jess has with a manipulative girlfriend, when David manages to make Jesse smile, it's "like wind blowing ashes off a beautiful table." In one scene, Jesse, a strapping lad of 6' 4'' in his late teens is rattled by the fear of his father's displeasure and honestly tells him so. To his credit, David confesses to his son how much effect the boy has on him. How true, how poignant, how little they know the power they have over us emotionally.

Through David's eyes we see Jess struggling with romantic relationships, undesirable jobs, Vanilla Ice rapper aspirations, and the possibility of a very bleak future when one has not even acquired a highschool education. It's a frightening scenario for a parent. But interestingly, David's future is not that much brighter at that point. While highly educated, intelligent and often holding high profile jobs in the media, he is underemployed and as he nears fifty, he fears that he is unemployable in a regular capacity. In a fit of desperation he even asks a bike courier who is roughly his age if he can put in a good word with his boss about a possible job. The revelation is painfully honest, excruciatingly so.

Despite Gilmour's sometimes overly effusive or trite observations on the films they viewed (which he helpfully cites in the index), we learn something about manhood or Gilmour's ideas about what manhood should be. When, on a holiday, he follows Jesse as he ventures away from their hotel in Cuba, beguiled by a couple of suspect Cubans into a bar and they narrowly escape what we suspect will be a beating and/or a robbery. He (and we as the readers) are strangely elated by his macho posturing. Gilmour's primary reaction is, "I did something for my kid. He still needs me." And believe me, that's a rare feeling as teens approach young adulthood.

This engaging story is sometimes marred by Gilmour's quirks and prejudices - despite his own obvious personal failures (which he does not fail to talk about here) he is an insufferable snob at times. Here he surveys the group his son works with telephone soliciting funds for a "fireman's magazine" in a grubby back room: " ... a dead end white kid, a Pakistani, an overweight woman with a tub of coke in front of her ..." So ... a kid you deem worthless, a "foreigner", a woman with weight issues ... and your son, the grade 10 drop out with obnoxious table manners is the gem in this grouping?

He keeps imagining his son driving a lonely cab at night. A legitimate worry but also very ... what is the word I'm looking for? Elitist. Why is a a grade 10 drop out too good to drive a cab or spend time with the people he mentions? How do you think we end up in these positions? Do any of us aspire to take low paying jobs? No, we are forced into them due to lack of education, poor language skills, bad luck, poor decision making, fate. Remember, you tempted the gods when you bid him leave school at that age.

Jesse does redeem himself, I won't reveal how, but he does. And that kid that I wanted to grab by the scruff of his neck and haul off the couch actually turns out to be a sensitive, sweet kid with promise. Bravo papa.

The Gilmour boys ...

Monday, December 10, 2012

How did you get this number

How did you get this number by Sloane Crosley (Riverhead Books, 2010) 271 pages

I was mean to Sloane Crosley when I reviewed her previous book (like, mean-to-a-kitten mean) in a manner that I generally don't like to do in reviewing the work of another writer. Please see here for that review. She seems a thoroughly likable person; however, privileged people living in NYC who get publishing contracts at youthful ages are definitely in my cross hairs. Especially if you write about fluffy topics. So I was somewhat pleasantly surprised when I picked up this book at one of the University of Toronto's used book sales this fall and read the first essay.

It is a comic/melancholic essay entitled "Show me on the Doll" about a (possibly) ill advised trip to Lisbon on the cusp of turning thirty, which Crosley claims was so not a big deal. But, apparently, tooling around in a foreign city where you speak not a whit of the language in the dead of winter is ... not fun. But what I like about it is what it does not say rather more than what it does say. Being alone on a journey is not fun; reaching a landmark birthday is dispiriting at times. No matter how glamorous the locale and the idea of this trip, there is a sort of sadness attached to it when you don't have someone to share these memories with. She adapted to the lack of language skills, the awful semi-pornographic TV, weird men following her around, her sense of displacement, the loneliness, and was saved by ... a trio of clowns in a cafe.

Crosley is eminently more engaging when she writes about her travels. I enjoy the fish out of water, self-effacing feel of these pieces about trips to Lisbon ("Show Me on the Doll"), Alaska ("Light Pollution") and Paris ("Le Paris!").

In Alaska, as the member of a bridal party, she witnesses the accidental death of a small cub struck on the highway by a vehicle that she's riding in - it's thoroughly upsetting and eye-opening. In Paris, she attempts to (somewhat traumatically) engage in confessing to a priest in the Cathedral of Notre Dame to a priest who speaks very little English (did I mention that Crosley is Jewish?). It's a bizarre and surprisingly touching essay. 

As is "Take a Stab at It" about finding suitable living accommodations in NYC and almost finding accommodation in a former bordello. Her growing attachment to the idea of being in close proximity to the ghosts of the prostitutes of the bordello is touching (and strange).

For me, this is much more engaging than recounting past injustices suffered at the hands of a mean girl in essays such as "If You Sprinkle" about a most unfortunate slumber party during middle school and encountering said mean girl many years later or "An Abbreviated Catalogue of Tongues", an essay on one's childhood pets categorized by animal. This cutesy approach to essay writing makes me groan. Invariably these pieces are solipsistic and boring.

By the final essay, "Off the Back of a Truck", she has lured me back ... the story alternates between her somewhat covert relationship with "Daryl", a warehouse worker who is likely selling her stolen luxury goods at highly reduced prices, and her relationship with "Ben" - a too good to be true prospective lover who may, or may not, have recently ended an eight year common law relationship to date Crosley. It makes for a clever analogy: Crosley is stealing from this upscale retailer and, unknowingly, possibly another woman's partner. Or, perhaps ... Ben is "stealing" Crosley's love away in the same way she is "stealing" through Daryl. It is the most mournful essay in the collection, unusually so, deliciously so.

I detect an underlay of sadness here that was not so evident in the first collection. I think I like Crosley with a broken heart, whose dreams are a bit shattered. The glib smart mouth is subdued and a more soulful quality has emerged. The kitten is growing up. And likely I should stop being mean to it. Very likely.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Her Crowning Glory

Frida Kahlo's Diego on My Mind
A woman's hair is her crowning glory.
1 Corinthians 11:14-15

In October 2012, the Art Gallery of Ontario set up photo booths outside of the gallery to draw in  visitors to its new exhibit Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting. You could affix a long, black strip across your eyebrows, to approximate Kahlo's famous "unibrow", take a photo, and then receive 50 per cent off admission to the exhibition on October 27th.

I found this a tad disturbing. I know that previous art exhibits elsewhere had tried something of this sort, specifically having to do with Dali’s moustache … apparently this was very successful and mostly non-controversial. Why is this different, I wondered, because it feels very different.

A woman’s hair is laden with meaning in almost all cultures … sexually, politically, culturally. A great deal of hair is indicative of sexiness, fertility, youth (vedi Bardot or, more currently, Rihanna or Lady Gaga). Big or messy hair can also be threatening (political activist Angela Davis or punk rocker Courtney Love) to mainstream culture - signifying defiance of female docility or resistance to societal norms. Yet, generally, a great deal of hair in many contexts is seen as acceptable, inviting, sexy.

But not when it is on a woman's face; a hairless face is sacrosanct, hair on a woman's face is verboten. Too much is what ... masculine, unattractive, butch? A surplus of hair (in this case, Frida’s unabashed moustache and bushy eyebrows) is atypical in Western culture and, therefore, often the subject of mockery or fun. Frida, a beautiful woman, if unconventionally so, is reduced to a series of "ugly", unfeminine physical attributes.

Despite the prevalence of products to remove hair on females, we like to pretend that this is an anomaly, an aberration in women, at least in feminine women. According to Euromonitor International, a leader in strategy research for consumer markets, retail sales of depilatories reached a total of CDN$199 million in Canada in 2011. I know, I know ... I love a good pair of tweezers myself having been blessed with inheriting my father's generous eyebrows.

We know it exists, we know it’s just part of being human, of being female … we just don’t like it very much in females. 

But ultimately, this small, light-hearted promotion at the AGO is disrespectful. Not only is it disrespectful to her as a woman, but, as importantly, disrespectful to her as an artist. When you take a major female artist who belongs to an ethnicity that seems to have a more relaxed attitude towards facial hair and make that the focus of our interest as viewers of art, it takes on a certain meaning – of derision, amusement, condescension. 

I know the intention was to be playful, to lure into the gallery patrons who might not ordinarily come to an art gallery but it’s very demeaning – the equivalent of having people don fat suits in imitation of Diego Rivera, who, obviously, was a man of expansive girth. Why not do that? We don't do that because it's rude and disrespectful of his talent.

Women come in all shapes and sizes and colours and, yes, even hairiness … when you reduce Kahlo to one aspect of her physicality you are demeaning all the fine work that she has accomplished. Is she just the slightly eccentric Mexican woman who wore peasant dresses, didn’t remove her facial hair and posed with monkeys? Or is she something more? 

Is she also being derided because she painted about "female" concerns - her inability to become pregnant, her physical ailments due to her accident and illnesses, her obsessive love for Rivera, her focus on self-portraits ... does that perhaps add to the dialogue in terms of making her less worthy of esteem?

If she is something more, more than a series of interesting tics and physical attributes, which I presume that the AGO believes as they are featuring her work in a major exhibit, then show it. Prove it. Treat her with the respect she deserves.