Friday, March 21, 2014

The Interpreter

Africa. A continent so large it straddles three hemispheres:  two-thirds in the northern -- a north-western piece of that in the western -- and a third in the southern. Africa is second-largest in continent size and population (50% are 19 years of age or younger), yet what do we know about it, or care?  Yes, the horror of 1994 Rwanda, but on average, far too little other than the current Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa, and news junkies may be aware of conflict and atrocities in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Congo and Nigeria.                 

I'm old enough to remember large Neilson-provided maps of the world hanging in classrooms, a time when history curriculum and geography were primarily confined to North America, and sometimes more intensely local.  How I disliked the literal and figuratively provincial history of maritime sailing ships, how they were built and the prestige they brought.  Aboriginals were largely absent, and if mentioned at all, their proper tribal names were misspelled in accordance with English imprint.  By implication if not actual words, areas studied became significant only after colonialism and arrival of the white man to convert, exploit or "civilize," though never presented quite that way, of course.

Sadly, colonial powers and modern-day corporations were/are not alone in pillaging Africa. Their own leaders have too often been  predatory and brutal.  This March 19, 2014 news article may interest; it's on a just-released report on the "maladministration, corruption and inefficiencies" that conscripted R246 million South African tax dollars [$25.4 million Canadian] to build an opulent home for South Africa's President Jacob Zuma.

Here's a powerful piece on it as well, though more from a philisophical, ethical perspective.  Details aside, the principles and issues raised apply equally to us in Canada, and to all democracies. It's fittingly titled, "The end of innocence, enter the period of consequences."

The Interpreter is about a corrupt leader of a fictional African state -- one of their own --  and about those who oppose him and his regime. It involves the United Nations, a body whose noble principles and purpose often fail in execution, and those who serve it, directly and indirectly.  As with all good stories, it weaves public and personal together, effectively and powerfully.  Though fiction, it draws from reality. It shocks, informs, teaches, sensitizes, engages and entertains.  It's complex and brave, both about politics and matters of the heart. 

The story:

Dr. (PhD in education) Edmond Zuwanie (played by Earl Cameron) is President of the fictional Republic of Matobo, Africa. Once hailed as his country's savior, he's devolved into a brutal, corrupt dictator accused of ethnic cleansing. At the United Nations, France is proposing a Security Council resolution to refer Dr. Zuwanie to the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide.

Nicole Kidman gives her finest performance, in my opinion, as Silvia Broome, an interpreter at the United Nations.  Sean Penn is equally impressive as Tobin Keller, one of a  team from Foreign Dignitary Protection (branch of the U.S. Secret Service) assigned to cover Dr. Zuwanie's arrival and UN appearance.

Dr. Zuwanie has been given permission to address the UN General Assembly and returns to New York after a twenty-three year absence. His purpose is to announce reforms which he hopes will squelch the pending ICC resolution against him.

In an instance of art imitating life, as we in the real world watch Russia invade Ukraine and occupy and annex Crimea,  I was struck by these 2005 words in the opening scenes.  They're spoken by an interpreter translating words of a UN delegate:

We are presently in the throes of a great transition in humankind's affairs.  Modern technology is altering our world in ways that would have been impossible to fathom when the United Nations Charter was signed.  Peace, security and freedom are not finite commodities like land, oil, or gold which one state can acquire at another's expense.

UN Security Council - Wikimedia Commons
UN General Assembly - Wikimedia Commons

Director Sydney Pollack obtained first-ever permission, after initial refusal, to film at the United Nations once then Secretary General Kofi Annan was personally assured "the text and sub-text of the film would speak to the broader goals of the United Nations."  The UN scenes are wonderful.  They depict its architectural beauty, its grandeur, its powerful purpose and significance.  Pollack said  he liked the General Assembly best for "its scale, emotion and theatricality." Filming in the Security Council chamber was daunting since the Security Council can call a meeting on 3-hours notice, 24/7/365. Overall cinematography is stunning, and Darius Khondji, Director of Photography, said he included and considered the building a principal character.  Aerial views of New York are breathtaking.

Above all, this is a great story, suspenseful, affecting, brilliantly told.  It has multiple layers and storylines, and though fictional, it reflects actual geopolitical issues.  I write this after my third viewing over several years, and though I knew the story on subsequent occasions, I  loved each equally.  That won't be true for others, so I'll reveal no more of the plot here.  The film and first-time viewers deserve that.

Couple of points.  The film depicts backdoor UN manoeuvering by powerful countries; dispelling simplistic, idealistic concepts some of us may hold about what happens at the UN, and it makes brief, but powerful statements on class and race in snippets of dialogue:  "Can she cook?" was a female Keller colleague's retort, a put-down response to a listing of Silvia's extensive education; and "black or white?" was a question asked by Dr. Zuwanie's white Dutch mercenary security chief.

Beyond complex story, so well told it never confuses, is a component I've never seen elsewhere, a simple, yet heart-grabbing depiction of human grief and grieving that's as real as it is rare. Those of us who've lost mates will recognize it and relate.  Through the Silvia character, who has strong connection to Matobo and speaks its Ku dialect, we learn aspects of that culture's profound relationship with death and loss. ("Vengeance is a lazy form of grief.")

The story of two driven, secretive, haunted characters - UN interpreter Silvia and security chief Keller - who initially grate on each other; then slowly, gradually develop tenuous trust and eventually a unique bond, is as special and memorable as the film itself.  They're maturely written characters, beautifully interpreted by Kidman and Penn.

Durban, South Africa - Wikipedia Commons

National Geographic

August 2, 2014 Postscript

Helen Epstein, author of "The Invisible Cure: Why We Are Losing the Fight Against AIDS in Africa," and a former development consultant in Uganda for two decades, has written an opinion piece on Africa for The New York Times.

In a powerful, engaging manner, she summarizes conditions, politics and corruption and emphasizes the need for justice -- how responsibility for its promotion and adherence has been abdicated by the West -- and is now critically necessary.

"Africa's Slide Toward Disaster" is a welcome and urgent call to action.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

This Property Is Condemned

Ever been haunted by a movie?  So touched that seeing it again evokes anticipation and apprehension?

This is my movie ghost.  It occupies a special corner of mind and heart, a swirling mix of tenderness, complex personal relativity, poignancy and truth, all embedded in the Natalie Wood, Robert Redford characters.  In my mind they're forever young and beautiful, as they are here, except reality intrudes, tells me tragedy took one too soon, though the other is still productively with us.  It's the dual magic of movies - eternal fictional characters / ethereally beautiful humans.  Both actors have been in other great films, yet for me this is the best of both.  It weaves emotion, behavior and society into powerful tapestry.  It portrays truths still barely acknowledged these forty-seven years later.

Based on a 1946 one-act Tennessee Williams play, the script was co-written by someone we'd come to know well in future years, Francis Ford Coppola, together with Fred Coe and Edith Sommer.  Director Sydney Pollack's unique and complementary ability put it on the big screen.

Will watching it again be akin to returning to a childhood home where we find everything smaller and out of sync with memory?  A disappointment?  Or perhaps informed, even enriched by the prism of time and experience?

                                                     ------------ // ------------ // ------------

It's now "after," and it's a mixed bag - some new and changed perceptions, along with renewed reverence for Tennessee Williams, why I love who he was and what he wrote.

Spoiler warning:  The ending is included, something I wouldn't ordinarily do.  Two reasons: it's essential to story and theme, and the movie is probably not on most folks' viewing wish list.  It's a forgotten gem

The April 2013 print issue of Esquire magazine has Robert Redford on the cover, authentically depicting his 76-year-old face as only digital technology can.  A quote from the piece:

 [ ... Seventy-six years old, sun-baked and wind-whipped and ungorgeous at last, he's a handsome sumbitch ...]

I disagree; he's still gorgeous, just showing his age, an unforgivable trait in today's youth-obsessed culture.  Esquire's feature-length piece by Scott Raab chronicles Redford's life and career, even showcases sixteen movie scenes from 1962 through 2013.  This Property Is Condemned is never mentioned, though Redford's almost fifty-year friendship with director Sydney Pollack is.

A June 2011 GQ article does list this movie among 10 underrated [Redford] classics you need to see
Lightbox Image
The Story:

A slim dark-haired girl wearing a long, tattered, sophisticated dress, gaudy jewellery and faux hair flower, teeters along a train rail.  She sings Wish Me A Rainbow while holding a doll.  Her age is uncertain, maybe early teens.  A boy approaches, asks if she's seen his kite.  "No," but she asks him to hold Crazy Doll so she can use both arms for balance.  He does, but within moments she loses her balance, falls against him, and together they tumble down a steep hill.

Her immediate concern is for the 'diamond' she's lost from one of her many bracelets, not her skinned leg.

She:  "Principal damage done to my bracelet I guess, knocked out one of the diamonds."

He:   "Well, it wasn't a genuine diamond."

She:  "How do you know?"

He:   "Cause if it was, you wouldn't be out walking railroad tracks, not with a banged-up doll and a piece of a rotten banana."

Her name is Willie (because a boy was expected) and his is Tom.  She's not in school because she doesn't like it - school's not necessary - to be important and succeed in life she must be like Alva.  She remembers and reminisces about Alva; then, pointing to a ramshackle, boarded-up building in the distance bearing a sign reading   This Property Is Condemned   she begins her story.

Willie: Alva was beautiful, charming, magical.  She changed things so they were special; she attracted people and knew what's important in life.  I'm practicing to be just like her.

Alva (Natalie Wood) was her older sister, beautiful, flirtatious, possibly promiscuous, though that's unclear, the elder daughter of Mama Hazel who ran the now-derelict boarding house.  Filled with workers from the town's main employer, a railroad repair depot during the '30s, it was awash in male testosterone and social activity.  Alva was the main attraction, ensuring male income and interest, even romance that occasionally accrued to Mama.  All Mama's attention was focused on Alva - tutoring, exploiting, pimping Alva's femininity.

Willie:  Mama wanted Alva to be nicer to a much older man who really liked Alva and was paying Mama extra to get Alva to spend time with him.  He paid for a big 43rd birthday party for Mama, too.  But it was too much for Alva; she wiggled out of any dates and got away from him every time.  Mama's boyfriend, J.J., liked Alva, too.  A little too much. 

Ahead of his time, Williams was unafraid to depict what we now know is prevalent, inappropriate peripheral sexual interest and interaction within familial / romantic relationships.  Figures in a 2012 More Canada magazine article state:
More than 12% of girls report unwanted sexual acts before their 17th birthday, and the vast majority of victims still, despite public education, do not report their abuse.  Furthermore, among substantiated cases, apparently biological fathers are perpetrators in 9% of cases, stepfathers in another 13%.

Willie:  A good-looking, well dressed man arrived in town and rented a room from us.  He wouldn't say why he was here or how long he'd be staying.  He was different from the locals and seemed to like me.  He talked to me a bit, but seemed to dislike Alva.  She liked him though, as soon as she saw him.

Fictionally acknowledging Dorothy Nolte's Children Learn What They Live, Alva turns her charm and Mama-nurtured guile on this new man in town.  Owen Legate (Robert Redford) takes pleasure in rebuffing and subtly ridiculing her attempts to impress him.  He observes the interaction between Alva, boarders and Mama, and rebukes Alva:

Alva:   "Just because some people might think I'm beautiful, that doesn't mean I'm everybody's property."

Owen: "If you really thought you were beautiful, you wouldn't be anybody's property.  You'd be your own girl."
In spiteful response to a particularly painful interaction with Owen, Alva invites boarding house groupies to a communal moonlight swim where Mama's boyfriend makes a second, more determined, again-rebuffed pass at Alva.

Willie:  Dodson was a railroad town.  Our boarders had jobs at the train repair depot.  The town grew around it, and we all depended on it.  Wasn't long before we learned Owen was a hated "spotter" - someone sent by the railroad to lay off workers.  By this time Alva and Owen were friends, though she downplayed it to me.  Once Owen told workers their jobs were over, people didn't like her being with him, and they hated him - beat him up badly once.  The layoffs meant big trouble for Mama.  Without jobs there'd be no money and the boarders would move on.  Mama decided Alva should reconsider that older man she'd already refused to date, that he could provide a secure future for us.  You see, Daddy left long ago.  We were on our own.

In a signature scene, the one indelibly etched on my mind, beautiful Alva, wearing an exquisitely feminine, revealing white dress, meets Owen at the depot and walks with him toward an adjacent rail yard.  Intense, hate-filled stares follow them.  Owen questions why she came, noting the men don't like it.  She tells him she simply wanted to see and show him something.  At that moment Owen spots an abandoned passenger car with Miss Alva on its side.  Taking Owen's hand, she happily pulls him toward it.  They've become close, yet Owen is wary.

Inside the long-abandoned relic, Alva tries to envelop Owen in her imaginary world, a world of lilac-talcum-powdered train seats instead of dust, a sky of her preferred color, real snow in a snow globe, and an idealized concept of his job and travel.  She holds out a necklace she never removes, a gift from her father who made many promises and kept only one - writing Miss Alva on the exterior of the car and decorating the interior before leaving her a gift card that read  Hail my heart's delight, and farewell.                                                             

Alva asks Owen if he feels bad about laying off the men.  "No," he says grimly, he can't, he does it in every city he goes into, it's his job.  Alva senses he does and tells him so, then quickly reverts to fantasy, tells him he must smile on The Honeydew Express or the wheels won't turn.

With rising frustration, Owen thrusts reality at her, attempts to pierce her illusions - her "poetic nature," Alva calls it.
Owen:  "Why do you do that?  Why are you so fanciful?  Why do you make everything seem so special?"
Alva:     "Because it is."
Alva:     "What's your dream?"
Owen:   "I have no dream."
Alva:      "How terrible for you!"  

Owen is leaving for New Orleans next morning and wants Alva to acknowledge it.  Though she knows it's reality, she resists.  Her dream has always been to go to New Orleans on The Hummingbird Express, her name for the train that passes through. Owen's departure signifies both dream and love unrealized.

The scene crystallizes Williams' ability to reveal the lengths we humans go to survive confining, ugly lives, to make life tolerable, perhaps even beautiful, delusions that keep us sane and ward off the lonliness of being different.

It also depicts an aspect of arrogant cruelty and control, Owen's insistence that Alva adapt and adopt his matter-of-fact response to life and reality.  (Didn't see this as clearly years ago.)

Alva had two competing spirits - one that conformed and played out her expected/dictated role, a second that escaped into soul-comforting fantasy where the world existed more gently, beautifully.  But she knew and didn't disappear into the difference, unlike Blanche DuBois (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Laura Wingfield (The Glass Menagerie)

Mama finds Alva in Owen's bed next morning, sneers that Alva "didn't even lock the door," and dictates a newly-hatched plan.  They are going to Memphis where the persistent old and married gentleman-suitor will advance a loan to "set them up."  Implicit is Alva's attention and companionship.  Seeing Alva's shock and disgust, Mama responds scathingly, "If there's one thing I loathe, it's that innocent virgin look you put on your face!"  Encountering intransigent defiance, Mama first uses guilt - appeals on behalf of Willie, desperate finances, her maternal role - then, ultimately, emotionally-weighted character assassination, accusing Alma of being selfish, "just as your father predicted."

Meanwhile, Owen buys a one-way ticket to New Orleans, and while writing  "For Alva
                                                                                                                             To be used ... whenever"

on an envelope in the boarding house hallway, he overhears Mama on the phone giving details about their move to Memphis, emphasizing "Alva's just wild to go."  She hangs up and looks smugly, knowingly at Owen.  He bolts upstairs and confronts Alva in the shower.
Alva:    "Owen, don't say what can't be fixed."

Owen:  "You wonder about other things, other ways to live?  You wonder and you dream but you go on doing what you do.  That railroad carriage is enough for you.  That snowstorm, fake.  But it's enough for you because you're a fake, Alva.  You're a gyp.  You're not unique.  You're not even special.  You're just ...peculiar.  What in hell did I think was so magical or fanciful about a little whore who is just a little bit peculiar?"
Alva begs him not to believe Mama, but he has and does.  Unlike Alva who found ways to cope with her societal prison, Owen has completely surrendered to his. He and Mama have trapped Alva between two sides of the same moral coin.

We next see Alva at a club with the prospective old sugar daddy, Mama, and boyfriend, J.J.  Alva is drunk, hurt and bitter.  She thrusts ugly truth in Mama's face - that she's been the male attraction that benefited Mama financially and romantically, that even Mama's boyfriend lusts after her, stays with Mama just to be near her.

Mama responds with the jealousy and resentment she's always borne Alva, her beauty and youth.  Alva uses her currency, the one Mama created and nurtured, and offers J.J. intimacy in exchange for marriage.  He readily accepts.  Emerging from their first-night marriage bed, Alva takes J.J.'s money and leaves in darkness for New Orleans.

Alva wanders New Orleans, exploring, noticing, learning, absorbing -- gloriously free for the first time ever.  She finds herself, and heals her soul and spirit.   Owen finds her in a beautiful park one day.

Owen:  "I missed you, Alva.  Didn't know I would.  And New Orleans is not a place where a person needs to feel the pain of separation for long."
They reunite and are blissfully happy with the kind of tender, considerate, passionate relationship every romantic imagines.  Together she and Owen explore the city, even the above-ground cemeteries that long intrigued her.

Alva worries about Willie and her whereabouts.  Owen encourages Alva's search, offering to take Willie with them to Chicago.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, Mama arrives.  She's waiting as they arrive home together, scolds Alva for leaving the door unlocked.  She learned their address from Alva's cards to Willie.  She wants and expects Alva to leave with her, says the old sugar daddy is no longer in the picture, but she has other schemes and plans.  Owen wastes no time in telling her Alva stays with him; she's to get out.

Facing defeat, Mama responds, "Heard you're getting married."  Then, with cold, calculating, merciless cruelty, Mama chooses scorched earth.

                                 "Didn't she tell you?   That little girl's all wrapped up."
                                  "She and J.J. got married and the next morning, she went through his
                                   pockets and rolled him."

                                   "Tell him, Alva."

With hand to mouth, face contorted in horror and pain, Alva cries, "Oh, my God!"

Owen is dumbstruck, shocked, then with a look of disgust, says only, "What?!!"

Alva runs hysterically into teeming rain, having known, feared, and now experienced Owen's reaction.

Willie:  Mama ran off with a man named Sam and they're somewhere in Arkansas, I think.  Papa never did come back.  You know where Alva is now?  The bone orchard ... cemetery ... graveyard.  Her lungs got affected.  She died of the same thing as a heroine in a movie here recently.  It was beautiful, violins playing, old lovers come back.  I'm gonna live a long time like Alva, then die with all my jewellery, and someone else will inherit all my beaux.


A fan named BadZKarma99 has compiled actual film clips into a perfect micro narrative at


Wish me a rainbow
Wish me a star
All this you can give me
Wherever you are
And dreams for my pillow
And stars for my eyes
      And a masquerade ball where our love wins first prize
Wish me red roses and yellow balloons
 And black sequins whirling to gay dancing tunes
I want all these treasures, most you can give
So wish me a rainbow as long as I live

My words can't possibly  reconstruct or reflect the elements of poignancy, beauty, tension, youth, parental tyranny, dictatorial, unforgiving morality, love, loss and sorrow contained in the film.  There's darkness, and as I read the account above, I wonder that anyone would choose to watch it.  However, its genius is that all themes are submerged beneath an engaging story.  They require reflection.  On the surface it's compelling drama with exquisite cinematography and music.

Ultimately, it's a complex morality tale.  It depicts survival of the fittest, though it was never a fair fight.  It offers insight into the power of family dynamics, their enduring influence on all members, and the power of cultural morality to control and destroy lives.  It illustrates the power of the human spirit to adapt and cope, as well as the reality that love, even maternal love, can be twisted, manipulative, jealous and destructive. It depicts predatory lust that abuses proximity and trust.

Above all, it portrays truth - ugly, hidden, painful, and too-briefly, beautiful.  Like the boarding house itself, the characters were ultimately condemned property, compromised by life and circumstance.  Like the sign on the boarding house, the movie alerts and warns.

For some who personally relate, Williams says, "I see, I understand, and I will tell."

Dysfunctional motherhood and familial sexual misconduct were taboo in polite society forty-seven years ago, secret in all but  professional and  religious circles, and probably unimagined in the 1930s when the story is set. Motherhood was sanctified, still is unless crime or adultery are involved.  And still largely unacknowledged is a jealous resentment often borne by mothers toward daughters, a competition of sorts that simmers, bubbles up and is expressed/repressed in a vicious, recurring cycle.  Some mothers deny it exists, and perhaps for some it doesn't, others don't.  It's emerged occasionally in popular literature the past decade, and it's one of the last taboos. 

Williams served society best, in my opinion, and was again far ahead of his time, in not only depicting J.J's. lust for Alva, but his attempts to act on it, to embrace, paw and accost her in secret.  Though the movie was released in the sixties, heyday of free love and hippies, conventional society was still just that -- rigid, hidebound, disbelieving of much that was surreptitiously happening to young women like Alva.

A family friend suddenly appeared in my own dark teenage bedroom during those years, yet my mother didn't believe me twelve years ago (40 years later) when she demanded to know why I refused to talk with him when he called about a death in our family.  I was careful to never again get behind my first boss's desk after he ran his hand down my leg as I stood beside him, waiting for him to sign letters.  We young women were too often considered property, sometimes even by our parents. We weren't believed, even when we (rarely) dared tell.  "Mr. X wouldn't do that!"  Or, as is still shamefully the case today, "You must have led him on."  "What were you wearing?" We still haven't come as far as we'd like to believe.

Thank you, Tennessee Williams.  You knew, and you told.

Life has wonderful pictures and a great piece titled Tennessee Williams:  Portraits of an American Genius @


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

 Hallucinogenic scenes bathed in red, juxtaposed with an actual red-paint-splashed house, introduce us to a woman on the edge, a woman using pills and sleep in an attempt to sand off her interior pain the way she sands off the paint thrown against the stucco walls of her home.
We’ve just met Eva and we’ve no context, no clue on what’s happening.      

 Next we see her dressed professionally, getting into an old station wagon, also splashed with red paint, having what appears to be a job interview.  From the interviewer’s cryptic comment we assume there’s something important in Eva’s background, something she’s done, but she’ll be hired anyway, “as long as you can type and file.”  

 As Eva returns to her car, two women approach, one a 40-ish woman, her arm linked into a frail, elderly one’s -- her mother’s we assume.  As they move closer to Eva the younger woman says, “You’re smiling, are you?”  Then - now close - she raises her arm and slaps Eva viciously across the face, shouting, “I hope you rot in hell!”  

Eva remains there, unmoving, expressionless, without reaction, seemingly unaffected as though she’s operating in some parallel universe.  (Or, does she believe she’s deserved what just happened and accepts it stoically?)  The two women continue down the sidewalk, one’s arm through the other’s, supporting, protecting.
Thus begins We Need to Talk About Kevin:  harrowing and stunning, both in story and in perceptive, brutal honesty. 

 It reverses narrative so that a traumatizing, climactic event doesn’t overwhelm or permit oversimplification.                                 
My son characterized this film, from what he’d read, as impressionistic and non-linear with aspects of fantasy and horror.  He was right, and it’s exactly those perfectly applied elements that make it riveting, powerful and gut-wrenching. Sadly, they’ll also limit its audience.  So will its unusual camera angles and juxtaposition of past and present.

The film informs rather than entertains.  It took me to a place I’ve wondered about for years, a place that remains one of our last taboos, almost never mentioned or explored, at least not in readily accessible lay literature:  “How do parents of killers, especially youthful ones, cope in the aftermath?”

It’s eerily coincidental that I rented and watched this just before the horrific Colorado movie theatre massacre on Friday, July 20, 2012.  On The View a few days later (July 23rd), lawyer/journalist Chris Cuomo stated the 24-year-old shooter’s mother, who works in the mental health field, knew her son had psychiatric problems but was powerless to intervene or force treatment.  He was/is an adult, no longer subject to a mother’s control.  How sadly true of our mental health system and laws which protect civil liberties without providing adequate mechanism for preemptive intervention.  Mental health professionals can force it, but too often, too late.  

Strangely enough, I don’t recall hearing, “We need to talk about Kevin.” in the film.  Perhaps its absence symbolized the widening gulf of distance and denial that grew between Kevin’s father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), and his mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton).   Teenage Kevin was played believably, brilliantly, with quiet malevolence by Ezra Miller. Toddler Kevin was played by Rock Duer, and Kevin from ages 6-8 was played by Jasper Newell, whose performance disturbed me most.     

Nothing in the film is over the top; its effectiveness is in witnessing Kevin’s behaviour within a quiet, realistic depiction of everyday life, year after year.  Our sense of foreboding increases with Eva’s, though she never imagines the horror to come.

I’ll be honest here.  I’ve waited days before writing this.  I was emotionally overwhelmed and needed time to decompress and reflect.

There’s much I admire about this film: its courage in tackling the subject; its style, which will conversely keep many away; its sophistication in believing audiences will hang in and ultimately understand; its spare but effective use of music and impressionistic images; and finally, that it’s not overtly set in any country; it can be anywhere, anytime.  It’s a BBC production, yet it wasn’t until a near-final scene that I noticed an American flag decal near the rear window of a police car, signifying it was set somewhere in the U.S.  Until that moment, I believed it was set in England, given its tone and style.  It doesn’t involve guns.

It takes us on a mother’s bewildered, terrified parental journey through the progression and aftermath of a horrific event.  We journey with her, witness her tormented, lonely psyche as she sees, loves and cares for a son whose behaviour has been difficult from birth, and which only grows worse with the years.  He cries incessantly as an infant, so much so that we see her standing beside a jackhammering worker, just to drown out the crying for a short time.  Kevin is adept at tailoring his behaviour, so a doctor dismisses Eva’s concern. Kevin defiantly refuses to toilet train by age four, is willfully, purposefully and selectively destructive, secretly cruel, killing a family pet and blinding his sister in one eye, though all deviously without obvious proof.  He bears his mother a virulent animosity and plays mother against father with the finesse of a champion chess player.  Typical of Brit-quality cinema, none of this is graphic.  

As the years pass, Eva, a pre-marriage adventurer and author, becomes more and more isolated in her singular understanding of what she sees and knows of her first-born.  She loves him despite, and struggles with guilt and anger that only a mother understands.  Her loving, close marriage fades away as husband denies, then proposes simplistic reasons and solutions, ultimately questions her maternal instincts, then her sanity, and finally bails. 

At pivotal points, two background music selections made powerful, thematic impacts.  The first is Buddy Holly’s charming 1957 release, Everyday.  For anyone unfamiliar, here’s a YouTube link:
The second is In My Room, released in 1964 by The Beach Boys

Brave, important points:

  • In showing that Kevin was difficult from birth, it suggests genes and biology play a role in disturbed behaviour, that nurturing isn’t the singular or paramount determinant --still a controversial, debated issue within the mental health field.

  • Because of the above and society’s need to scapegoat, blame, and understandably find reason for the incomprehensible, many blame parents.  This film illustrates it powerfully.

  • Some children are difficult, even mean and cruel.  Children come with personalities, certain traits we parents can try to shape or modify, but we don’t always succeed.  We don’t want to admit it, choosing instead to believe the more comforting, appealing myth that all children are angelic and that something dreadful must have happened to cause antisocial behaviour.  Often it has, but not always.

The latter feeds into parental soul-searching if and when negative, possibly even cruel and destructive behaviour is noted in a child.  Am I over-reacting?  How can I think this about my own child?  and the kicker is a mate who says, “Oh for God’s sake, he/she’s just being a kid!”  or “I think YOU have the problem, he/she’s just bored,” or as Kevin’s father said, “It’s living in the city, we’ll move to the country.”

Additional pain comes when a parent or parents muster up enough courage to admit there’s a problem, reach out and seek help from an idealized mental health system, only to find it underfunded, understaffed, overwhelmed, sometimes lacking in competence, and sometimes unsympathetic, casting total blame on parenting style.

Adrift in much of the above, movie-mother Eva soldiered on to a horrific movie denouement that changes lives forever.  Surprisingly, and again bravely depicted, least affected is Kevin. 

"There but for the grace of God go I” should run through any parent’s mind as the credits roll.  

This film has much to show and teach us.

March 10, 2014 Postscript
The New Yorker has published an 8-page article on Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old who killed his mother, 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and eventually himself on December 14, 2012.  The piece is based on extensive interviews with Lanza's father and gives the reader a glimpse into how he copes with the impossible.  Here is the link:

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Wuthering Heights

Romantic love so powerful, so soul-consuming, it dominates and overwhelms two lives and endures in one, undimmed, beyond the other’s death.

Most are familiar with Emily Bronte's  Gothic novel.

A remote, sombre manor house named Wuthering Heights towers over bleak, windswept English moors.

A street orphan, dark in appearance and temperament, is brought there by the home’s well-meaning master.  Heathcliff grows up with resentful adoptive brother Hindley and Hindley's high-spirited, willful younger sister, Cathy.  Heathcliff and Cathy fall in tempestuous, ill-fated love which consumes, and ultimately destroys, both of them.

The classic endures, as does our fascination with it. 

I read the original in my teens, viewed different film adaptations over the years, re-read it a couple of years ago, and recently watched a 1967 BBC version on DVD.  

The latter is adequate and faithful to the novel, but lacks passion and intensity.   A young Ian McShane is Heathcliff, but without the towering voice and gravitas he exhibits today.  Angela Scoular was miscast as Cathy, but Anne Stallybrass is outstanding as Nelly, the maid.

The Brits produce quality theater, always attentive to detail; one I noticed was still a custom where I grew up. A small dark arrangement called a funeral crepe (sometimes just something black) would be placed on the outside of a home, usually the door, to indicate a death had occurred within. The custom has long-since disappeared, of course, and I’m really not a hundred years old.  In the film, a large black funereal bow appeared on the entrance to Wuthering Heights after the master, Mr. Earnshaw, passed away.

Two aspects of Wuthering Heights intrigue me:  the mystique of romantic love and the mystique of death.  Both captured my young soul; both still do.   

Death was glorified where I grew up, steeped in ignorance, secrecy, superstition, ritual, reverence and fear. 

Love was rarely expressed or acknowledged.  The word "love" was usually only heard in Bible quotations.  Emotion and love were repressed in the belief  they were embarrassing, almost shameful, and that they inflated and damaged ego and discipline.   Their role in reproduction was never mentioned – strictly taboo!  The stork brought babies, and there was visible discomfort with the religious virgin-birth concept.  Protestant churches fiercely avoided the word "virgin" altogether.

 Wuthering Heights took me away from the rigid, suffocating, dull social and intellectual boundaries of my youth; it confronted and challenged prevailing social taboos, and it spoke openly of great passion and love which death itself would not diminish.

Despite its darkness, the themes of Wuthering Heights are as provocative and thrilling today as they were when it was written over a hundred sixty years ago.  Devoted fans now post Twitter comments at #WutheringHeights and #EmilyBronte. There are Facebook pages for both.

Here are some beautiful excerpts from the film (hardly changed from the book) and from the  book itself:

Cathy to Nelly in the film:
Whatever our souls are made of, Heathcliff's and mine are the same.  Nellie, I am Heathcliff; he's always in my mind, not as a pleasure, but as my own being.  He IS me!

 Heathcliff in the film just after he learns Cathy has died:               

 I pray one prayer, Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living.  Be with me always, take any form, drive me mad, but do not leave me in this abyss where I cannot find you.  I cannot live without my life.
Heathcliff in the book when Nellie tells him Cathy has died:

And - did she ever mention me? he asked, hesitating, as if he dreaded the answer to his question would introduce details that he could not bear to hear.  
Her senses never returned; she recognized nobody from the time you left her, I said. "She lies with a sweet smile on her face; and her latest ideas wandered back to pleasant early days.  Her life closed in a gentle dream - may she wake as kindly in the other world!"    
 May she wake in torment! he cried, with frightful vehemence, stamping his foot, and groaning in a sudden paroxysm of ungovernable passion.  Why, she's a liar to the end!  Where is she?  Not there - not in heaven - not perished - where?  Oh, you said you care nothing for my sufferings!  And I pray one prayer - I repeat it till my tongue stiffens -- Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living!  You said I killed you - haunt me then!  The murdered do haunt their murderers, I believe.  I know that ghosts have wandered on earth.  Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad!  Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!  Oh, God!  It is  unutterable!  I cannot live without my life!  I cannot live without my soul!

Eighteen years later, Cathy’s husband dies and his grave is dug beside Cathy’s. Heathcliff secretly arranges for the sexton to dig on the other side of her coffin.

Heathcliff tells Nelly in the book:

I’ll tell you what I did yesterday!  I got the sexton, who was digging Linton’s grave, to remove the earth off her coffin-lid, and I opened it.  I thought, once, I would have stayed there when I saw her face again  -- it is hers yet!—he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change if the air blew on it, and so I struck one side of the coffin loose, and covered it up; not Linton’s side, damn him!  I wish he’d been soldered in lead.  And I bribed the sexton to pull it away when I’m laid there, and slide mine out too; I’ll have it made so; and then, by the time Linton gets to us he’ll not know which is which!
You were very wicked, Mr. Heathcliff!  I exclaimed, "were you not ashamed to disturb the dead?
I disturbed nobody, Nelly, he replied; and I gave some ease to myself.  I shall be a great deal more comfortable now; and you'll have a better chance of keeping me underground, when I get there.  Disturbed her?  No! she has disturbed me, night and day, through eighteen years - incessantly -- remorselessly - till yesternight; and yesternight I was tranquil.  I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep by that sleeper, with my heart stopped and my cheek frozen against hers.
And if she had been dissolved into earth, or worse, what would you have dreamt of then? I said.
Of dissolving with her, and being more happy still! he answered.

And tells Nellie in the film as he gazes at Cathy’s portrait eighteen years after her death:

You know I sleep in her room; when I walk on the moors I expect to meet her, and when I come back to Wuthering Heights I hurry in case she's there.  I only have to close my eyes and she is outside the window and in the room.  I open and close my eyes a hundred times a night, but she's too quick, she kills me, not by inches but by fractions; those breadths.  Last night when I saw her, I thought I might lay her ghost, but no ... no!  I know she is above the earth.

While the love story of Heathcliff and Cathy is central to Wuthering Heights, other tales are intertwined though I’ve not mentioned them. As much as they expand, inform and enrich, they’re peripheral.

I cling to the belief that a love like Heathcliff’s and Cathy’s can exist.  Perhaps I’m just a crazy, unrealistic romantic, but I still love and admire their love and devotion.

Generations have embraced this tale; something about it captivates and enthralls, but is such consuming love possible?  Normal?  Desirable?  Obsessive?   

Must romantic love be reciprocated to truly exist and endure, and if not, will it ultimately burn out? 

Where and when does romantic love cross into obsession? 

Can pre-death love endure at the same intensity after one lover is gone?

What impact does time and separation have on lost love?  Does it reflect the quality of the love, the lovers, or both?

On the latter question, a good friend recently shared a secret.  She’d unexpectedly become reacquainted with someone from her past, someone she’d been in love with thirty years ago.  They were young then, unsure of their mutual commitment, and ultimately went their separate ways.  Now, all these years later, it’s as though time stood still.  Cold embers reignited, and they’re once again powerfully drawn to one another.  A platonic relationship is complicated and unworkable, yet my friend says when they’re together, “I feel I belong there.” 

I saw my friend again a few days ago.  In response to my veiled reference, she gently shrugged her shoulders, acknowledging futility, yet her face lit up with warmth and happiness.  In return I could only say what I believe:  their special connection matters and maybe it’ll be enough.    

While obtaining my friend’s permission to disclose, she says she doesn’t believe the embers were ever really cold, at least not for her. 

 Don’t know the answers to most of the questions – they’re probably different for everyone.

What do I believe?

I believe that hearts and souls can connect, entwine and endure in ways as powerful as Heathcliff and Cathy’s. 

I also believe we can be powerfully attracted to more than one person at the same time.  It happens rarely, especially for women, and if it develops into love, I don’t think we love each the same way and to the same degree.  [Cathy didn't love Edgar Linton, the man she married, the way she loved Heathcliff.]  It's not a concept generally or warmly received or accepted and I don’t pretend to understand it, especially if it happens when one or both are already in love and committed, but do any of us fully understand attraction and emotion?  We can control emotions, or at least try to once we’re aware of them, but we don’t control their sudden, spontaneous emergence.  We’re often blindsided.

And for some, there'll be more than one great love in a lifetime.

My friend’s experience tells me romantic love can and does survive and endure.  As does “Wuthering Heights.”   Another movie version was released last year.  There are now more than twenty around the world, in addition to radio and stage productions. 

Read the book first, then watch a film version. 

The book ends this way:    

I sought, and soon discovered, the three head-stones on the slope next the moor; the middle one grey and half buried in heath; Edgar Linton's only harmonized by the turf and moss creeping up its foot; Heathcliff's still bare.

I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond

Great expectations; great disappointment.

Released in 2009, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond wasn't screened where I live, and there was a long wait for the DVD.

Now I wonder:  Did I sabotage fair assessment with my long and eager anticipation?  Were my expectations realistic?  Is it possible to put Tennessee Williams' work on the screen authentically today, given contemporary audience and financing challenges?

Teardrop Director Jodie Markell says she developed "an affinity" for Tennessee Williams as a teenager and read everything of his ever published.  Later, a New York acting school teacher, aware of her interest, introduced her to an unproduced collection of Williams' screenplays, among them The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond.  She identified with unconventional Fisher Willow, acquired rights, and shot the film in Louisiana in twenty-eight days.  Written in 1957, the story is set in 1923 Memphis.

Ms. Markell and I appear to value different aspects of Williams' work; she (from her own words) relates to his empathy for society's misfits; I to Williams' cogent exposure of society's hypocrisy, injustice, willful ignorance and cruelty.  While the latter themes are in the film, they're peripheral, muted and vastly subordinate to Fisher Willow and her personal emotional journey.

Director Markell also says she wanted to faithfully embody and convey Williams' words and story, yet the film lacks his historic essence, his fearless intent and remarkable ability to make us see and powerfully feel everyday kindness and ugliness.  

Paraphrasing a favourite line from Madam X,  
This film is not the substance of Tennessee Williams, only the shape and shadow.

The plot is available at Wikipedia:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

My Architect ~ A Son's Journey

In this poignant, powerful, moving, and for me, ultimately sad journey, we accompany Nathaniel Kahn as he navigates the labyrinth of his father's life.

His was no average father; he was visionary architect Louis I. Kahn, widely considered the most important architect of the second half of the twentieth century.  Nathaniel bravely exposes his heart and mind as he attempts to discover and make peace with the father he barely knew and lost to death at age eleven.  Nathaniel embarked on this exploratory film journey twenty-six years later, and the result received both acclaim and awards in 2003 and 2004.

Why sad for me?   Because the legacy of damage, pain and loss that haunted Nathaniel's soul and prompted this cathartic journey can't be underestimated, excused, or compensated by his father's greatness.  There are those who disagree.  Architect Shamsul Wares, standing with Nathaniel in the majestic, soaring, beautifully futuristic capital building of Bangladesh designed by his Nathaniel's father, tearfully and movingly tells the son:
He loved everybody; to love everybody, he sometimes did not see the very closest ones.  That is inevitable for men of his stature.
Where do our expectations of parental love, care, and devotion originate?   In our societal values and within the historic "sanctity" of marriage that has historically created "legitimate" and "illegitimate" children:  ugly, cruel terms I've always despised despite being "legitimate" myself.  How dare our institutions, some of them supposedly moral, just, and caring, stigmatize and degrade this way?!  And yet they did and still do.  Thanks to youth, this is finally changing.  Young people are rejecting these restrictive, discriminatory values and recognizing the less comfortable, less stabilizing but truthful human reality that while conception can occur out of great love, it isn't necessarily a considered or desired outcome.

Nathaniel was born out of wedlock in a less forgiving time. That he was conceived in great love is indisputable - we see and feel that during his brave conversations with his mother - but his father neither subscribed to, nor felt bound by society's conventions.  The love between Nathaniel's parents was manifested differently in him, as it always is with the children of any union.  Some of us accept this more easily than others.  Louis Kahn was a free spirit, a creative and eccentric genius who undoubtedly loved his son from the few glimpses we see; but who acknowledged his moral shortcomings.  He was a father who followed his own unique path, one that neglected the emotional needs and longings of his son.

Nathaniel doesn't directly address the brutal, judgmental morality of his youth, no doubt out of respect for his mother, but it must also have inflicted deep scars as he grew up. How could it not deepen wounds of lonliness and abandonment?

Everyone who takes this film journey will experience it differently.  It's a complex, remarkable, affecting trip via Nathaniel's mind and heart.  Along the way, we're exposed to some of Louis Kahn's magnificent architecture, his former colleagues, staff and friends, and those whom he loved. 

Kahn's Salk complex in California is a masterpiece, and is considered so by one of our greatest living architects, I.M. Pei.  Referring to it in a conversation with Nathaniel, he says:
Architecture must have an element of time.  How can you judge a work today?  Let's say a work by any one of these modern architects that you know about.  It's exciting and wonderful, and then what'll happen to it twenty, fifty years later?  That's the measure ... that's right.  That it'll always be as perfect as it was conceived.  The mystique may fade away, but the spirituality of that project will remain.  Now that building will stand the test of time, no question about it.
Nathaniel felt there was something spiritual about the Salk space and for the first time since his father died, while there among those buildings, he felt he was getting closer to his father.

While interviewing someone who'd worked with his father and had been unaware of Nathaniel's existence, Nathaniel was asked, "Did you know him (your father) well?"  Nathaniel replied, "I had a sense for him, and I saw him once a week, maybe.  That's about all."  Words delivered without emotion, yet conveying so much.

Louis Kahn was sixty-one years old when Nathaniel was born, had three different families all at once who lived within several miles of each other, but who never crossed paths until Kahn's funeral.

Two great architects, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis I. Kahn, created masterpieces and yet lived turbulent, chaotic emotional lives.  It makes one wonder about the nature of genius.

This film is about the complexity of the human heart; the courage to love in defiance of accepted societal values; the price that's exacted; the capacity to accept and forgive; and to ultimately find peace in the shadow of genius.

It bears repeat viewing, and its richness can't be overstated.  It lingers and haunts.

Nathaniel, I hope you found lasting peace.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Other Man

I once tried to engage a friend in a discussion of a film we'd viewed separately.  One aspect of it both puzzled and intrigued me, and I was eager for my friend's interpretation.  His derisive response was: "For God's sake Donna, it's just a movie!

For me they're never just movies, never just a way to pass time.  They're an art form as well as entertainment, and I especially like the provocative ones. They're life on film, or someone's reflection or interpretation of life or fantasy.  

My musing on this one will be a little different, because the movie itself is different, and because I've taken James Wolcott's Cinema Purgatorio article to heart.

The truth is that no one needs another's movie critique or recommendation.  I write about movies because it pleases me, and if it interests or gives something of value to a reader, so much the better.  I'm quite certain my comments on this movie, specifically as they pertain to marriage, will be at odds with many.

 The Other Man has good actors:  Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Antonio Banderas and an impressive English actress named Romola Garai.  I chose it on DVD because of Laura Linney and the subject.  Laura Linney's heartwrenching performance in Love Letters forever established her in my mind and heart.   I'm intrigued by titles, and the simplicity and clarity of The Other Man captured my attention - ironic, because much of this movie is really about illusion: the illusion of what we believe and think we know versus truth and reality.  It's also about social and moral convention, possession and obsession.  At its core, it's about the structure that marriage superimposes on any couple's relationship; and in this film, how marriage forced moments of beauty into secrecy.

The co-screenwriter (adapting from a short story by Bernhard Schlink) and director, Richard Eyre, terms it a psychological thriller.  I think it's more a character study and marriage autopsy, wrapped in a mystery. 

We meet a lovely and successful shoe designer, Laura Linney, long married to Liam  Neeson, who we later learn owns a computer software firm, and their beautiful young-adult daughter, Romola Garai.  Their home is in pastoral, secluded English countryside, a set of buildings reached by a road that leads through graceful, sloping fields, up a gentle hill and into a compound within a partial stone wall.   Beautiful, affluent isolation.

After a fashion event, Linney meets Neeson for dinner and poses some enigmatic questions to him about attraction to others and long-term fidelity.  He's taken aback, unsettled, unwilling to address them, even in the abstract.  Instead, he seeks assurance that she's not trying to tell him something, and after receiving it, assures her of his love and faithfulness in body and heart.  The exchange is brief but significant.

Next we're wondering if she's left him because he's at home, distraught, and attempting to give her clothes to their daughter, who tries to calm and console him.

The rest of the movie follows Neeson as he's consumed by his wife's absence and obsessed with excavating the tangible remains of her life.  He stumbles upon a password-protected file on her laptop, and his journey, his war of discovery begins.  She was his, and he's entitled to know everything about her, and by God he will!  How dare she keep anything from him!  Nothing stands in his way, not his daughter, not his corporate responsibilities, not even the law.

I'll not reveal more in case you'd like to see it for yourself.  The photography is exquisite and the acting is first-rate, but I was disturbed by the husband's apparent motivation and behavior, and this is where I'll probably offend sensibilities and defy established morality.

Marriage should not be possession; it should not be ownership of a spouse's body, mind and soul, and yet for many, that's what it represents - what it comes to - and I believe it's what society intends, particularly for females.

We see this extreme sense of female possession playing out regularly in the news in the horrific killing and/or mutilation of females who attempt to leave relationships or assert themselves.  We see it again in the outrage and sense of betrayal when one spouse learns the other has shared their sexuality or emotional intimacy with someone outside the marriage.  ... You were mine!  ... You belonged to me!  Little or no attention is paid to the reasons, or to the fact that human emotions are complex and unpredictable, and that marriage didn't confer ownership.

Fearing societal and/or spousal scorn, many females live safe but restricted lives within controlling marriages, accepting their social conditioning, believing they surrendered themselves to another's control and expectations when they made their vows.  To even question it philosophically, as Linney tried to do in this film, raises insecurity, defensiveness and anger. 

This film is not about domestic violence, at least not in the usual sense.  It is about a husband irrationally consumed with learning a wife's secret that could destroy him, given his fanatical sense of matrimonial possession.

In the DVD Bonus Features, Director Richard Eyre speaks of the betrayal theme, and how we may think we know someone completely, totally, and yet be wrong.

Perhaps we don't fully know our spouses because we're afraid to, because it would threaten our own sense of "ownership", our sense of certainty, power and control, and our fragile, romantic concept of adult love that equates it with being being loved totally, completely, solely, and to the exclusion of all others.

I advocate faithfulness in marriage; in fact, it's a beautiful component of love, trust and commitment.  What I profoundly abhor is when this expectation crosses into a mindset of territorial possession.  Marriage binds and constricts the female disproportionately in our society, even today, and Neeson's obsession in this film symbolizes it.  I found his character's behavior so disturbing and morally offensive (though it won't be to everyone) that I considered hitting the stop button.  I didn't because I wanted to learn  the secret and see how the story ended.  Am I glad I finished watching?  I have mixed feelings about it.

There are plot complexities I haven't mentioned, and difficult themes that were handled well and added richness, but I found the ending bizarre and unrealistic.   Possible but improbable. 

But then it's only a movie; and for many, not worth this much reflection.