Monday, April 9, 2018

Does Feminism Require Autonomy?

One of the central frustrations of being a feminist critic is that it is far too easy to get caught up in ultimately meaningless disputes about whether or not a particular writer (novel, poem, film, painting, etc.) qualifies as feminist, a question both irresolvable and constantly under debate, since art has no objective ideological content, inconvenient as that may be. Rarely do such disputes get at the crux of the issue, the theoretical problem at the heart of any classificatory system. In order to determine whether a given figure or work is feminist, we would have to define what feminism is. That's the particular, and massive rock, threatening in the shoals.

Though postcolonial criticism has problematized the conception of a universal feminism, there is still a strong tendency to assume that one's own feminism is the feminism. American feminism tends to be expressed in a rhetoric of empowerment, strength, and autonomy and thus, American feminist critics tend to seek out literature and art that reflects those particular values and enacts them through characters and the success of those characters. The blind spot for these critics (and I confess, I too have at times been willfully unaware of that blind spot) is Americentrism, the presumption that the American iteration of feminism is universal and universalizable. Classifying whether something is feminist or not isn't an especially enlightening exercise, but nevertheless that classification often determines the fate of a given work if it's written (composed, painted, etc.) by a woman. Women writers who can be assimilated easily into current American feminist paradigms stand a chance of being instated, or reinstated, into the canon, or at least the gender studies curriculum or woman-centric imprints of the publishing houses.

Witness the example of one of my favorite writers, Grazia Deledda. She was only the second woman to win the Nobel Prize and was publicly lionized by such writers as Giovanni Verga and D.H. Lawrence (who also translated one of her novels). She's one of the only women among her literary generation in Italy to achieve a lasting critical reputation, and, although she's not discussed as much as, say, D'Annunzio, she continues to have a presence in scholarly work and many of her novels remain in print. Such is the case in Italy.

In the United States, she is almost completely unknown. There are numerous reasons for this - few Italian writers have been enshrined in the canon established in the English-language world, only a tiny percentage of published works in English are translations - but Deledda could be recuperated, as other women writers have been, by feminist critics and scholars actively seeking out literature by women. In order for this to happen, more of her work needs to be translated. However, the claim that Deledda was a feminist writer (and thus worthy of institutional inscription in literature departments and publishing lists) is a tenuous one in the American context, simply because her books don't dramatize the specific, historically and culturally contingent values of current American feminism. Her heroines are not empowered in a contemporary sense; they are brave for daring to kiss a boy and accept a brother's beating afterwards, or for taking a train journey alone. They dress demurely and transgress the rules rarely and with trepidation, calculating their chances for success in secret. Her women do not enact autonomy by today's standards; they are not independent, not trendsetters, only rarely exceptional. Judged according to the standards of today's American feminism, this Italian writer who published her major works a century ago doesn't hold up.

The shame isn't that Deledda didn't anticipate the development of a future ideology in a foreign country; the shame is that this ideology is so narrow-minded that it can't conceive of a feminism that expresses different values. Deledda's female characters exist in a circumscribed world where any ambition, especially an artistic one, was looked upon as abnormal in a woman at best, sinful and outrageous more often than not. In today's America, despite structural and cultural limitations that are quite real, rhetorically women are expected to work, to have ambition - that is, they are expected to be autonomous. If autonomy is the yardstick by which we measure the worth of a woman's writing, then Deledda doesn't have much to offer. But, if that's the case, then feminist criticism is little more than a vigorously shaken sieve, sifting out the sand from what just might turn out to be fool's gold. Feminism has been theorized now for nearly three centuries as a philosophy of greater inclusion: what irony, then, that its current commentators are more concerned with excluding anything that might threaten its, and their, assumptions.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Against Fluent Translation

In the English-language context, it is typically assumed that a good translation is one that reads as though it had originally been written in English. The scholar and translator Lawrence Venuti calls this fluent translation, as opposed to foreignizing translation, which emphasizes the original's difference from English. As Venuti points out, there is a political dimension to which method a translator chooses, or a publisher accepts. If the translation is fluent, the text is domesticated, folded into English-language cultures and values; if it is foreignizing, it makes use of English-language cultures and values to make the text intelligible without assimilating it, at the very least signalling that the text is the product of a different cultural paradigm.

Despite the supremacy of the rhetoric of diversity in American liberal politics, the conservative impulse to render all translations fluent continues to dominate. Few translations (about three percent of American book-length publications in a given year) ever reach English-language readers and those that do are, almost without exception, fluent. Diverse literary voices are only acceptable if they are easily assimilated by American readers, easily interpreted along American political lines and social values. When translators are mentioned at all, they are either praised for clarity and accuracy (even when the reviewer can't read the original) or damned for awkwardness and obscurity. At the heart of this understanding of translation is a decidedly American assumption of human universality, a belief that emotion translates smoothly from one context to another without need for mediation, that an essential, cohesive self can be metaphysically expressed in a text, regardless of its original language, and that difference is identity-based and superimposed upon a foundational, generalized humanity. 

This means, in practice, that literary works that are thorny, difficult, recalcitrant, strange, that is, in some way, unassimilable, almost never get translated into English. Monolingual English speakers exist in a culturally coherent bubble, challenged only by alternatives that are nevertheless contextually intelligible. The current practice of translation permits American readers to presume their own normalcy and insists on a utopian, near-magic conception of communication across languages and cultures. Fluent translation is cultural isolationism clothed in anodyne diversity politics. Its a way to take credit for multiculturalism without confronting its challenges, self-satisfaction in the guise of humility.

This doesn't mean that every translation needs to be enormously challenging for English-language readers: it means that not every literary work can be rendered in smooth, lucid, concise English. It means that a genuine interest in openness to the other requires living with some frustration and discomfort, moments in which the reader realizes a given work wasn't written just for him. Foreignizing translation threatens the reader's narcissistic sense of normalcy and cultural superiority. It's impossible for any one person to learn all living languages, but foreignizing translation, translation that embraces alterity, with all its difficulty, with all its irreducible untranslatability, has the potential power to foment cultural exchange without the prerequisite of universalism, in itself culturally contingent. If diversity is to be genuinely valued in American literary culture, then fluent translation needs to be recognized as the assimilationist practice that it is, and foreignizing translation must be encouraged. If we can't tolerate a text that doesn't pander to our own values, how can we hope to be tolerant of human beings different from ourselves?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The 10 Best Italian Films Since 2006

When I made a list in 2013 of the best Italian films of the twenty-first century, I was so hamstrung by lack of access that none of my choices had been produced later than 2005. Since then, between a proliferation of streaming services and some exciting DVD releases, I've been able to access a wealth of Italian films, from comedies and documentaries to fantasy films and dramas. Sadly, Il giovane favoloso, or Leopardi, the film that I anticipated so breathlessly in my previous post, was a disappointment, but in compensation, here are ten wonderful movies. All of the films on this list are available with English-language subtitles and have seen international release.

Behind the White Glasses (2015)
This documentary about Lina Wertmüller, the brilliant director of Seven Beauties, Swept Away, and Love and Anarchy, is a charmer: a film that recognizes her extraordinary capacity to have fun, no matter what, no matter how dark or hopeless circumstances might be. Wertmüller discusses not only her films, but her musical collaborations with Nino Rota, her work as a very young assistant director with Fellini as he made 8 1/2, and her opera productions. Especially precious are the interviews with a lively, twinkly-eyed Giancarlo Giannini, the muse of her greatest films of the '70s. Though formally Behind the White Glasses doesn't break new ground, it has a bright and bushy-eyed quality that fittingly reflects the irreverent, but never fluffy character of Wertmüller's films.

Golden Door (2006)
Emanuele Crialese's hallucinatory drama about a family of Sicilian immigrants' journey to the United States is bracingly well-lit and slips in and out of magical realism like a dolphin, leaving behind the grainy, gritty style of neorealism for the hyper-intensity of hope amid agony. The film's original title, Nuovomondo, literally means NewWorld, and immigration is, indeed, portrayed as a voyage from one world to another. The widowed Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) hears the tales of man-sized vegetables and dragon-sized sheep, of roads paved with gold, that he's assured he will find in America, so he buys passage for himself and his sons. The scenes set on Ellis Island are heart-breaking, especially for those of us with personal ties to that haunted place.

Habemus Papam (2011)
Though not on a par with Caro diario or The Son's Room, Nanni Moretti's romp through the election of a new pope, released when the unpopular Pope Benedict was still the Supreme Pontiff, is one of his best recent efforts. Moretti assumes a lighter, less overtly politicized approach than in previous films; the institution of the papacy is less raked over the coals than lightly singed. Michel Piccoli plays Cardinal Melville, reluctant to accept the burden of the papacy, while Moretti himself plays the psychoanalyst secretly called in to cure the errant new pope of his desire to escape responsibility for global Catholicism. An especial treat is a scene of the cardinals playing an impromptu game of volleyball.

Loose Cannons (2010)
This sweet-tempered, sunny comedy directed by Ferzan Özpetek doesn't land every joke; it's warm and messy and occasionally veers into unintended farce. The performances, though, by Riccardo Scamarcio, Ennio Fantastichini, and Alessandro Preziosi elevate material that could easily slide into the typical hysterical, stereotype-dependent mainstream Italian comedy, while Özpetek's off-kilter weirdness (suicide by cake?) adds dimension to the quirkiness. Tommaso (Scamarcio) confides in his brother (Preziosi) that he's planning on coming out to their conservative, blustery father (Fantastichini), only for his brother to steal his opportunity, causing the father to have a heart attack. Meanwhile, Tommaso's boyfriend is driving up, expecting to meet the family. Fantastichini's mad-eyed paranoia that the entire city is mocking him recalls Saro Urzì as the dishonored father in Germi's Seduced and Abandoned, while the warm glow that pervades Tommaso's life when he ceases hiding his sexuality makes a better argument for inclusiveness than speechifying. 

My Brother Is an Only Child (2007)
Riccardo Scamarcio again stars in Daniele Lucchetti's tale of two brothers growing up in the turbulent '60s and '70s, but it's Elio Germano who steals the show as hot-headed troublemaker, Accio, who veers violently from a masochistic vocation for the priesthood to neo-fascist thuggery, only for his political extremism to be annihilated by its consequences on his radical brother (Scamarcio) and his alluring girlfriend (Diane Fleri). My Brother Is an Only Child is an ambitious film; it attempts to distill the complexity of extreme party and sexual politics through the relationship of two brothers. Remarkably, it succeeds.

Passione (2010)
John Turturro's homage to Neapolitan music strings together performances, both archival and new, from nearly every major performer to emerge from Naples in the past century, from Enrico Caruso to Sergio Bruni and Renato Carosone, all the way up to Pietra Montecorvino, Raiz, Peppe Barra, and Almamegretta. The rich miscuglio of traditions, from lyric opera to Arabic, Spanish, and African song, results in an exhilarating aural experience, matched by the pulsating rhythmic editing of Simona Paggi and the color-saturated, sinuous cinematography by Marco Pontecorvo.

The Sicilian Girl (2008)
Whatever moralism it might participate in, most mafia films assume the perspective of the mafiosi. It's rare for a woman to take center stage in such films, even rarer for her to be an ally of law and order, rarer still for her to be an agent and not just a victim. Based on the life of Rita Atria, a seventeen-year-old girl who became a star witness in the investigation of Cosa Nostra, the film fictionalizes her story, but director Marco Amenta, who previously directed a documentary about Atria, resists the worst sensationalist excesses. The Rita of the narrative film (Veronica D'Agostino, at times too shallowly expressionistic) begins keeping a diary after she witnesses the assassination of her father (Marcello Mazzarella). Obsessed with vengeance, especially after her brother (Carmelo Galati) is killed by the same assassin, Rita turns upon the whole mafia system.

Tale of Tales (2015)
Matteo Garrone's stunningly gorgeous and often gruesome fantasy film, adapted from three stories collected in Giambattista Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti, stars an international cast that includes Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, and Alba Rohrwacher. In the first tale, a childless queen impregnates herself by eating the heart of a slain sea dragon, while in the second, a king offers his daughter's hand to any suitor who can identify an exotic skin, in fact the skin of a grotesquely huge pet flea, and in the third, two old crones are courted by a prince enchanted by their ethereal singing. Garrone and his fellow screenwriters make no attempt to domesticate these slyly cruel stories, reveling in their strangeness and their witchy anarchy.

Vincere (2009)
Director Marco Bellocchio elicited from Giovanna Mezzogiorno her best ever performance, as Ida Dalser, Mussolini's (Filippo Timi) first wife and the mother of his son. Working with newly discovered archival materials, including letters and diaries, Bellocchio and fellow screenwriter Daniela Ceselli reconstruct a devastating history; Dalser and her son were considered threats to Mussolini's regime and thus they were separated and eventually incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals where both would die under suspicious circumstances, forgotten by posterity and excised from official records. The textured cinematography, with its velvety reds, inky blacks, murky browns, and silver-sheened greys, is by Daniele Ciprì. A masterpiece.

The Wedding Director (2006)
Another marvel directed by Marco Bellocchio, The Wedding Director stars Sergio Castellitto as a filmmaker in crisis, confounded by his latest project, an adaptation of Manzoni's I promessi sposi, who finds a flimsy excuse to flee to Sicily. There, he becomes entangled by an invitation from a prince to direct the wedding video of his daughter. Obviously responding to films like 8 1/2, Contempt, and All That Jazz, in which directors (re)enact personal and creative imbroglios by making a metafilm, The Wedding Director isn't brassy, nihilistic, or trying to exude a cool aesthetic. It's introspective, exploring the ineffable spaces that open up when relationships, whether with people or artworks, real or imagined, fall apart.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Film Review: Luchino Visconti's "The Leopard"

It's generally a mistake to watch an adaptation immediately after reading the book. The small details and nuances are still freshly vibrant and those neglected or omitted are irksome, while insignificant changes - the color of a character's eyes, a table instead of a desk, a conflation of a month into a few days - seem enormous. Such was my experience of watching Luchino Visconti's adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's epochal novel, The Leopard (Il gattopardo, or literally, The Serval). With Visconti as director, Nino Rota's score, Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography, a screenplay with contributions by Suso Cecchi d'Amico, and a cast including Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, and Claudia Cardinale, the film seemed like something I might have dreamed up, but the subtle pleasures of the book, contemplative, decadent, saturnine, were not the same pleasures of the film. On a first viewing, almost immediately after closing the covers of the book, I didn't care much for the film, despite its pedigree, and its achingly lovely evocation of a world long since dead.

Revisiting the film now, I realize that I was too caught up in looking for an exact replica of the novel, and that was not Visconti's project. The film is a masterpiece, in dialogue with its source material, but not a mere imitation. And this is fitting, for the most celebrated and famous quotation of the novel is in fact: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change." A more succinct translation of the concept of trasformismo, I am not capable of writing. Both novel and film follow the leonine, aging Prince Salina (Burt Lancaster) as he ironically observes the events of the Italian Unification from his ancestral estates in Sicily, giving his blessing to his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon), who falls in love with the bourgeois Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), a match that would have been impossible before Garibaldi's Red Shirts embarked on their famous climb up the Italian Boot.

Lampedusa was in fact the last Prince Lampedusa and the novel's politics speak to that fact, to his mourning for the end of his lineage  and the desecration of the family palazzo and to his ambivalence towards the Italian Unification, a long, bloody process usually celebrated as a decade of heroism, the extinction of a paternalistic, feudalistic aristocratic reign and the birth of representative government. Visconti, too, was an aristocrat, but he was also a card-carrying member of the Italian Communist Party, and for this he was known as the Red Count. The film adaptation diverges most from the novel by including a lengthy sequence, during which the protagonists are absent, of the battle between the Garibaldini and the Royalist forces for the city of Palermo. Reminiscent of the siege of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, it's a bloody, frenetic interlude, a gaping hole in the aristocratic decorum and sedate luxury of the Prince of Salina's life. However, the film subtly critiques the political despair of the novel: the transfer of power from occupiers, colonists, small monarchies, and the papacy to a national government, with the Piedmontese king at its head, was less a victory than a slight shift in power with monumental consequences. The radical democratic and egalitarian impulses of Garibaldi and the impassioned patriotic utopianism of Mazzini became mere rhetorical implements to toss away once Cavour's crafty diplomacy and power machinations succeeded as not merely a strategy but the very means of Italian governance, but in 1963, hope burgeoned that the evils of corrupt government, repressive social structures, and class inequality could be defeated. The prince's statement in 1860 that Sicilian poverty would last at least another century or two was not so pessimistic in a film made a century afterwards. The red of the uniform of the Garibaldini could just as easily be the red of the communists; the change in the noble Tancredi's uniform, from Garibaldino red to monarchical blue, is not commented upon at random. Red was defeated once, but red fights again in Palermo through the magic of film.

The political commentary, though, is fodder for academics; the film's beauty and sensuality, its immersive techniques, can be marveled at and reveled in by any viewer. Visconti achieves something perfectly in The Leopard, something he strove to achieve in all his films: the viewer has a distinct sense of being thrown into a real, living, vital world. There are doors to unexplored rooms, roads to populated towns, the books can be read, the dust can work its way into seams and wrinkles, a celebratory cake with green icing can be tasted. At the end of the ball, crushed flowers and torn bits of tulle and lace drift under the last dancers' tripping feet. There isn't a single character, even the savagely gorgeous Angelica, who doesn't sweat in the stultifying Sicilian heat. This miraculous recreation of a world in its death throes is more than inviting: the viewer actually becomes a fellow ghost wandering through the cobweb-draped, unused rooms of the Salina palazzo. This immersiveness, more than the complicated political and romantic events of the plot, justify the film's lengthy running time of more than three hours. One needs time to look at the chandeliers glittering with candles, the hunting dog taking a spare moment to dig under a rock, the dabbing of cologne on a handkerchief; one needs time to hear the crepuscular chanting of the rosary, the bird-like chatter of girls at a ball. More than once, the camera takes up the position of a character and Tancredi, or Angelica, or Don Calogero, her absurd father in an ill-fitting tuxedo, look directly into the viewer's eyes. 

Visually, each frame is like a painting; aurally, The Leopard resembles an opera: this is so in nearly all of Visconti's post-neorealist work. But only Senso rivals this film in its engagement with Italy as an invented nation. In the Divine Comedy, Dante dreamed up a unified Italian peninsula, and since then Italians and the Italian diaspora have either accepted some conception or other of what Italy actually means without thinking past rhetoric, or done what Visconti has done in The Leopard: try to create Italy anew from a fragmented history of the stitching together of distinct regions, an Italy that might perhaps never exist except in the future.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Didacticism of Fantasy

The conflict between good and evil is good business: superhero narratives, the Harry Potter and Star Wars leviathans, role-playing games, the majority of horror films, that is, the most valuable intellectual property right now promulgates moral paradigms that are dualistic and assumed as objective. Our fantasies take place on a military plane; as protagonists, we imagine ourselves incarnating good and creating utopias built upon the carcasses of the evil we have annihilated. It's tempting to believe that good pitted against evil has no genuine alternative but moral relativism, thought of as a doctrine that ranges from dunderheaded, sugary pap for the privileged to the sort of emptied out logic that skids right into justification for genocide. Of course, if we're honest with ourselves, most of the moralities by which we attempt to abide are relative, simply because otherwise we are positing ourselves in a vacuum, a hardly imaginable human state.

Magic, whether it's called the Force or a superpower, is the instrument of our fantasies, a weapon. Sometimes magic becomes a synonym for love or a sign of God's favor, but only if wielded by the hero. Is a vicarious belief in magic some kind of vestigial clinging, a childish regression in response to the traumas of modernity? Such is the framing we usually give to tarot card and psychic readings, even as we gorge on these stories of good and evil, and, more significantly, draw lessons from them. Why are these stories so valuable to us? Defenders (though heaven only knows why they need defending, given that their detractors are decidedly in the minority) argue that these stories teach us how to behave and how to define ourselves. They're supposed to galvanize us into taking action. In other words, they are didactic and inspirational.

For, despite a current allergy to the word 'didactic' (if I could only claim a dollar for each book or film review I've read of late that praises its object as not didactic, only to delineate its message, or what it teaches us), fantasy narratives, whether optimistic or pessimistic, are responded to as parables, stories that teach us how to be. This is why audiences get upset, for instance, if a protagonist says something flippant about a marginalized group. It's a problem not because the thing was said, but because we assume we're being taught to say it.

What would happen if we stopped searching for lessons or messages, stopped trying to decode a morality or ideology from our fantasy? I'm not arguing against analysis, but against analysis that presupposes that stories function first and foremost as instructional fables. The difference between art and propaganda can be difficult to parse and the line between them can be crossed and crossed again (for instance, in the case of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi films or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin), but propaganda is generally supposed to yield only one interpretation. If art does that, it's bad art. The strongest case to be made that pop culture has an artistic dimension, and isn't merely consumerist entertainment, lies in a refusal of didacticism. Thus, instead of evaluating the message of a film - usually a bromidic generality, such as 'be true to yourself' (every Pixar film's motto) - as either correct or incorrect, morally speaking, the critic would try to understand what good actually means in the context of the book or film, what evil means, what it means for a protagonist to be assumed as the character that aligns with good, why we assume that the reader or viewer only relates to the good characters, what it means that violence is so often evoked as a means to peace. A deeper analysis could yield lessons, but lessons aren't much use if the complexity of reality demolishes their meaning as soon as one attempts to enact them in our daily lives.

For instance, Pixar films, when interpreted didactically, usually yield up the lesson I cited above: 'be yourself and you'll be happy and fulfilled.' This is a lesson we like as a culture; it doesn't threaten capitalism - Buy this product and you'll be happy! Not happy yet? Buy it again! - and it falls into line with identity politics. But what the heck does it mean to 'be yourself,' even assuming there's such as a stable, discrete self? What if 'yourself' is a bully? What if 'yourself' is selfish, or prone to violent tantrums? And further than that, what does a happy ending look like for living, breathing people? The credits don't roll as soon as we've hit peak happiness. Politically engaged criticism, especially of pop culture, has fallen into a shallow evaluation process that evades questions of real import and displaces responsibility for moral progress onto works of art, letting people on the ground off the hook. Evaluative critical practice lets us believe that seeing a film about a woman superhero in the theatre somehow strikes a blow for feminism. It doesn't. An empowered female character in a film, or novel, or game, might make us feel better for a while, but her existence doesn't alter the gendered power dynamics that are active in our own lives. The real magic is the magic we perform on our own minds, a magic that deceives us into believing that finding the right lessons in our entertainment is the same thing as enacting those lessons in the world we live in. The Italian anthropologist Ernesto de Martino, in his extensive work on magic and ritual in the Italian South defined the practice of magic as a means of coping with a negative that cannot be overcome by the individual. If the deception we're practicing on ourselves is our liberal, 21st century, American magic, the unfortunate corollary is that we're doing it because the negative in our lives cannot be overcome by each one of us as individuals.

If the work of criticism is to have positive political repercussions, it has to start examining how art confronts the negative, not merely re-enacting the battle of good versus evil by dropping each book, movie, game, song, and so on, into a box marked either good or evil. If art merely teaches, and doesn't complicate, indoctrinates, and doesn't question, intones, but never sings, then it's no art at all. As critics, we can choose not to read didactically. We can choose to think rather than consume and reason rather than agree (or disagree).

Monday, February 26, 2018

Book Review: Carlo Levi's "Christ Stopped at Eboli"

Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli was first published in 1945. A fictionalized work of reportage, the book was a colorful, impressionistic account of the year Levi spent in exile in Southern Italy. Since that year at the height of the fascist period and the colonial war in Ethiopia, Italy, and the world entire for that matter, had undergone the tortures of World War II and its extramartial horrors. Levi wrote in hiding in Florence as the Germans occupied and then fled Italy. As a result, this is no ordinary work of journalism, nor is it an ordinary memoir. It recounts a moment of political suppression from the vantage point of a maelstrom. Levi couldn't consult any reference works; he had only his memory and whatever books he'd managed to squirrel away. He couldn't know whether the book he was writing would ever see the light of day, whether it would damn him forever as a subversive or re-open a political discussion that had raged since Italian Unification. As a result of the Allied occupation of Italy and subsequent victory in Europe, Levi's anti-fascism was vindicated and Christ Stopped at Eboli became the first major work of Italian literature to be published post-war.

I stress the climate of extreme uncertainty and risk because the book's hopefulness, its basic insistence on the human being rather than the mass, the individual rather than the representative, can't be taken for granted. Levi's cri di coeur was anti-fascist, a recording of the results of his anti-fascism, but he was also addressing a future, a future that he dared to hope wouldn't be fascist or totalitarian. At the same time, this is not a polemical work. Levi doesn't insist on democracy, or communism; instead he pleads for thinking beyond those forms of already theorized political governance that exclude the Southerners that had been seen, since before the foundation of the Italian state, as a problem to be solved. "It's necessary that we render ourselves capable of thinking and creating a new state, one that can't be fascist, liberal, or communist, completely diverse, but substantially identical forms of the same state religion." (All translations in this review are my own.) Fascism insisted on the new superman, a nationalist symbol that never came into being, while democracy required ready-made citizens, participants in a voting system estranged from everything the peasantry had known for centuries, and communism was too closely allied with a northern proletariat with no understanding whatsoever of the different problems and needs of the peasantry.

Levi's reflections on this issue are anguished, but utopian. However, his essentially humanitarianism didn't apprise him of his own blind spots. His cosmopolitan eyes saw the peasants he lived among as closer to animals than he himself; over and over, peasants are described as "animalistic," their movements and expressions are compared to those of sheep, goats, foxes. Women in particular have bestial qualities: "The women, closed in veils, are like wild animals. They don't think of anything but physical love, with extreme naturalness, and they talk about it with a freedom and simplicity of language that astonishes." This is not language that pleases us in this day and age; it smacks of colonial imperialism and its accompanying racism. The strangeness that we would call difference today puzzles him, amazes him, sometimes disgusts him. His compassion and pity are unable to get out from under the carapace of paternalism that his Northern bourgeois cultural background assumes towards the South. Still, Levi doesn't immediately dismiss Southern customs and he doesn't expect Southerners to metamorphose into the citizens envisioned by outsiders. There might be condescension in his meticulous recounting of, for instance, the practices of witchcraft or an alternate understanding of time, but he doesn't dismiss the first as mere superstition and the second as backwardness.

This recognition of strangeness, or difference, as having its own legitimacy may not seem especially ground-breaking today, but we are talking about a book published in 1945, based on Levi's experiences in 1935 and 1936. If he can't quite restrain a certain exoticizing, romanticizing impulse, he works hard, and sometimes successfully, to root out his own sense of superiority, at least where men are concerned.

Christ Stopped at Eboli is most precious as a repository for the rich treasures of a culture and way of life that would for the most part disappear by the end of the century. This is why the book, though lacking a rigorous methodology, has been so important for anthropologists. Levi records the legend of Maria 'a Pastora, a female bandit who rode away after her bandit husband's death and was seen no more. Was she a legend or a real person? Levi is intelligent enough to recognize that such a question has no meaning in the folkloric tradition of these towns. This slippage between what a cosmopolitan, post-Enlightenment culture delineates as real and imaginary or legendary isn't smashing a binary, but refusing the imposition of a binary. The supernatural creatures that dot the landscape, the fruschi and the monachicchi, the werewolves and witches, are not strictly separated from the human. Double natures are the norm rather than the exception and Levi hears many eye-witness accounts of people who encountered angels, demons, ghosts, and those pesky monachicchi, the souls of unbaptized children. Levi himself knows several witches, including his housekeeper, Giulia, who teaches him incantations and the secrets of potion-making. "The continuous magic of the animals and things weighs on the heart like a funereal enchantment. And nothing presents itself, to liberate oneself from it, than other modes of magic." Levi bends to this other world, compared more than once to an island in an empty, forbidden sea, and for brief, bleary moments succeeds in rivivifying an instinct for it. This world, he claims, exists outside of time and this lack of time, this rejection of linearity, makes it impossible to connect, let alone merge, the two worlds. It is a world defined by death, indeed his descriptions call up Dante's Inferno and the ancients' Hades. The landscape is quite literally strewn with bones.

Unquestionably, Christ Stopped at Eboli is deeply subjective, but it is not Levi who claimed objectivity - rather, his readers did. If the book is still read as the textbook on the Southern question, that's a sign of the larger culture's failure to distinguish that the book is an autobiographical novel, not a work of social science. Its idiosyncrasies and prejudices are not separable from the insights and ethnographic details. I see nothing sinister in this, the way I do when I read a work of deeply flawed, prejudicial social science such as Edward Banfield's The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, which claims to present facts rather than nonsensical propaganda, objective analysis rather than racist fairy tale, although Banfield couldn't understand a word spoken by the subject of his study. Like so many great works of literature, Christ Stopped at Eboli balances its gorgeous prose and dubious social criticism, its compassion and its snobbery, its artful juxtapositions and its flat-footed misogyny. Timelessness is an overrated quality; it's also one that is historically determined. Christ Stopped at Eboli isn't timeless: it belongs to the past, which is all to the good, for without such literary time machines we remain trapped, hopelessly, in the present.

Friday, February 23, 2018

6 Great Books by (Women) Nobel Laureates

The Nobel Prize in Literature, though still regarded by most literary establishments as the preeminent such award, and the only one with genuine pretensions to being considered a global literary award, has increasingly been viewed as a subject of controversy and critique. Some of these complaints are quite valid - how, indeed, can one jury assess all of world literature when so little is available in translation and its members can only read so many languages? - and some are a tad silly - some Nobel winners have faded into obscurity despite being awarded, a claim that seems to presume that a worthwhile writer couldn't possibly be forgotten (or rediscovered, for that matter). As one would expect, the Nobel Prize has been given to more men than women, and most of the winners are European. Rather than focus on all the thousands of worthy writers that the Swedish Academy hasn't honored - an endless, and ultimately thankless, task - a more fruitful approach looks at the long list of winners as one more source of great books for readers. With that in mind, here are six great books by Nobel Prize recipients, six of the fourteen women (out of 114 winners overall) who have won:

Reeds in the Wind - Grazia Deledda (1926)
Only the second woman to win the Nobel, Deledda wrote more than thirty books, most of them still unavailable in English. She is the most famous writer to emerge from her native Sardinia, with the exception of the political and cultural theorist Antonio Gramsci. Her most famous novel, Reeds in the Wind, set in Sardinia like most of her books, tells the story of the Pintor family, once noble and now fallen into poverty after one of the daughters ran away to the mainland and destroyed the family's honor. When her son, Giacinto, returns years later, looking for a share in the family patrimony, their faithful servant Efix, a martyr to guilt, sees a chance to expiate his part in the scandal. Unlike most of the writing on the Italian South and honor, Reeds in the Wind refuses to traffic in stereotypes, though it is deeply rooted in specifically regional traditions. Yearning and wistful, but without the pious sentimentality of poverty porn, this novel is a monument to a way of life that died long ago. I also recommend Cosima.

Dragon Seed - Pearl S. Buck (1938)
The first American woman to win the Nobel, Buck was not only a writer, but an activist who courted controversy with her progressive views on race and gender. Her writing, both stylistically and thematically, is quite out of fashion today, but her books built bridges between the West and the Asian countries, especially China, she refused to exoticize. She grew up in China and spoke fluent Chinese, but was banned from returning to her adopted country after the communist revolution. Dragon Seed, like most of her novels, is set in China; its protagonists are the peasants who suffered the Rape of Nanking when the Japanese invaded in 1937. Buck's insistence on privileging a view of history from the point of view of those with no political power is especially striking when one considers that this novel was published three years before World War II ended. I also recommend The Good Earth, The Mother, and Pavilion of Women.

Map - Wisława Szymborska (1996)
The first Polish woman to win the Nobel, Szymborska cultivated an elegant, acerbic, and ironically luminescent poetic style. Though she is often labelled an 'accessible' poet, and certainly her poetry offers a great deal of pleasure and rarely resists a simple surface interpretation, Szymborska's work yields rich sediments of meaning when read and reread with attention. She nimbly walks a tightrope between a visceral intimacy with her readers and a slightly sardonic aloofness. This is poetry that exudes an Arctic coldness that is nevertheless profoundly human and giving. Map collects all of Szymborska's poetry that has been translated (by Clare Cavanaugh and Stanisław Barańczak) into English.

Women as Lovers - Elfriede Jelinek (2004)
It's small wonder that cinematic provocateur Michael Haneke adapted Jelinek's novel, The Piano Teacher, since the director's surgical and pitiless take on humanity finds its match in Jelinek's radical, anti-capitalist, feminist critique of the state of things. The inherent violence of pornography and sex in a climate of misogyny is a constant theme in Jelinek's work. In Women as Lovers, two girls who work at an underwear factory take opposite approaches to marriage: one follows the inclinations of her heart and the other calculates on the best possible material future. In a capitalist economy run by men, there is a right choice and a wrong choice. This is bitter stuff, but it's also unfailingly brilliant. I also recommend Lust.

The Grass Is Singing - Doris Lessing (2007)
The author of more than fifty books, Lessing began her career with this searing novel set in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) about the twisted relationship between a white farmer's wife, miserable in the heat and perennial failure of her husband's agricultural efforts, and their black 'houseboy.' Originally published in 1950, the book catapulted Lessing into the center of raging controversies surrounding racial oppression in the British colonies. Though she would later write science fiction, Lessing remained resolutely anti-utopian throughout her career, cutting deep into the rottenness of racism, economic exploitation, misogyny, and imperialism without giving in to the easy temptations of didacticism or strident polemicism. I also recommend The Golden Notebook, The Fifth Child, and Mara and Dann.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage - Alice Munro (2013)
The first Canadian winner of the Nobel, Munro is justly worshiped as a high priestess of the short story. I remember the burst of devotional ardor that greeted the publication of this collection, and it is indeed a tour de force. Munro has a special talent for rendering the minute psychological meanderings of her often quite ordinary protagonists as fascinating as any epic journey filled with incident and drama. Two teenage girls write fake love letters to a middle-aged housekeeper, a woman with cancer simmers with fury at her cheating husband, a new widow finds an unexpected note in her dead husband's pocket. Munro's fiction is free of sensationalism, but has too much lyric subtlety and moral complexity to participate in a social realist tradition. I also recommend Friend of My Youth and Lives of Girls and Women.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Film Review: Baarìa

Giuseppe Tornatore's Baarìa has a big, expansive heart, but a rather disappointingly small brain. With an enormous cast and cameos by major stars, including a wordless, topless scene for Monica Bellucci, Baarìa exemplifies all of the best and worst tendencies of Tornatore's filmmaking, finishing up as a sweet, shallow movie. 

On the one hand, it's an enormous relief to see a film set in Sicily, and very specifically so, without getting sucked into the usual mafia exposé. The mafia isn't ignored, but it's not permitted to take center-stage. On the other hand, the politics of the film are so vague, despite the fact that the protagonist Peppino (Francesco Scianna) is a lifelong member of the Italian Communist Party, at various points running for election as a communist, that any perspective beyond the woolliest and faintest of sympathies for the left proves impossible. For those familiar with Italian politics, the outline of the various factions is there, but when Peppino's wife (Margareth Madè) scoffs at her husband's political commitments, it's hard not to agree with her: both he, and the film, are incapable of articulating a lucid political agenda. 

Tornatore, however, is more interested in exhibiting his memories of his hometown, Bagheria, than in digging deep into politics, and the film is more successful on that front. Many anecdotes take up only a scene or two, but strung together, they are the pearls of this film: a grandmother, a mother, and three children mop a tile floor and lie down on it in their skivvies to get relief from the heat, a painter tries to use locals as models for his painting of the apostles only to have the priest whitewash it to stop the gossiping during mass, Peppino's brother asks the pharmacist for medicine to make him die and the pharmacist obliges him with a harmless glass of liquor. Baarìa has some shocking, brief moments of violence and the occasional moment of awful taste - in the above-mentioned Monica Bellucci scene, a teacher tells the boys in his class they can watch Bellucci's prostitute with her client if they stay quiet - but the majority of it is just a string of disconnected memories, and it's at its best when it is just that.

As always, the women are beautiful or strikingly weathered. They have little to no personality and exist almost exclusively as objects of dreamy desire that will transform into humorless, nagging spoilsports once they become mothers. This is a film written and directed by a man who has never bothered to question his own views. The simple-mindedness of his writing of women is expected, but especially disappointing in a film that echoes the Fellini of Amarcord. Though Fellini was no feminist, there is room in his films for women to take up strange roles and to define themselves as stubbornly unstereotyped; Tornatore sees nothing but Madonnas and whores, virgins and mothers.There are no grotesques, like Fellini's enormous-breasted tobacconist, but there are moments of flat-footed magical realism, hobbled especially by low-quality computer imagery,  of coiling black snakes, smashed eggs, and statues of monsters. Tornatore doesn't succeed in blurring the line between dream and reality, so that these moments of premonition and nightmare instead reinforce that line. 

If Tornatore has a filmmaking superpower, it's his sentimentality. That's not generally a popular quality, but for English-speakers Italy is the country of la dolce vita, where love, wine, and pizza awaken Protestant Anglo-Saxons to the joyfulness in life. The addled, feel-good version of Cinema Paradiso that made Tornatore's reputation in the United States was stripped of its bitterness, so it confirmed that Italy was an amorous, gluttonous playground to the Americans for whom the film was recut. Even the director's cut is thoroughly sentimental, but it has a bite. Baarìa, instead, has lost its fangs, if it ever had them, and goodness knows it could have, but a strolling sausage-vendor's arrest by the fascists is played for laughs, no destruction from the American bombardment beyond a bit of flying plaster is shown onscreen, and the murders of communist party workers are merely discussed, their names unattached to bodies we can recognize. Sentimentality can be a wonderful thing: a nostalgia for the past can rescue the moments of happiness and connection that otherwise get lost when discussing the lives of poor, illiterate people and that richness restores a complexity to our total understanding of the dead, especially the dead who left behind no diaries, few or no letters, perhaps not even a photograph or a lock of hair. The value in Baarìa lies almost exclusively in its sentimentality, for sentimentality is a movement into the past that embraces and loves, that restores a little humanity to those usually defined by their misery. There is depth and substance in the small boys stuffing filched lemons into their shirts and the dancing couples, women with women and men with men, in two separate circles, but the film is otherwise resolutely shallow. One yearns for a little introspection to go with the wonder, a little questioning to go with the convictions. At two and a half hours, Baarìa lacks the piquancy and pith that might have given it a brain to go with its swollen heart.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Playing Russian Roulette with the Literary Canon

Debates about the literary canon, which continue to rage, though with less fury than in the '90s, tend to presume that the canon itself is relatively stable and unchanging. This opinion is stated as fact on Wikipedia. Complaints about the canon are usually founded in a critique of power structures: since wealthy, white men have historically held power over other people, their works have been enshrined within the cultural world as important, essential, and serious, while literary works by people who don't fall in that demographic are more often dismissed as specialized, fluffy, and inconsequential, or simply lesser. There is a lot of truth in this complaint, though in part the difficulty is rooted in a history of unequal power. As Virginia Woolf wrote nearly a century ago, if women (and by extension, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.) haven't produced as many masterpieces as men have, it's due to larger social and cultural structures: people who can't read or write, or afford writing materials, or be treated as human beings by publishers and editors are just not able to participate in the creation of a recognized culture. That stark fact, one that many of us find profoundly frustrating, does not, however, mean that the white male writers who dominate the canon can so easily be toppled from their pedestals. Shakespeare is essential because his work influenced nearly every western writer to live after him. No re-formulating of the canon will change that.

However, the belief that the canon is stable and unchanging seems utterly absurd to me. Canonical literature has something in common with pornography; as Potter Stewart said, "I know it when I see it." The difficulty is the same, since a clear delineation doesn't exist. We have no metric for determining whether a particular work is in the canon or not. As a result, the arguments about the canon tend to devolve into objections to finite lists determined as much by, for instance the languages the particular compiler can read or the university where he or she studied, than by the inequities of race, class, gender, and other demographic factors. This absurdity is thrown into stark relief when one speaks more than one language. On the English-language side, authors like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Jane Austen, John Milton, and Ernest Hemingway tend to be prominent in discussions of the canon, but on the Italian side, one is more likely to hear Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Leopardi, Manzoni, Verga, and Pirandello. The canon shifts constantly as it travels across borders, whether geographic, linguistic, ethnic, or anything else. It's true that women writers and writers of color are less likely to be included, but the canon itself isn't stable and really can't be without falling into irrelevance of its own accord. 

That should be heartening to those of us who feel frustrated treading water over the same texts a thousand times over. At the same time, one does have to reckon with pesky problems of lineage, influence, and context. Any Italian writer with even a high school education will have familiarity with The Decameron, The Divine Comedy and La vita nova, The Prince, The Canzoniere, and The Lives of the Artists. These are books that can't be dismissed and saturate the literary landscape in Italy, just as The Flowers of Evil, The Three Musketeers, Tartuffe, Madame Bovary, and The Red and the Black remain inescapable monuments in French literature, and Leaves of Grass, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, Walden, and Moby-Dick preside over American literary culture. These canons create a common language of conventions, myths, archetypes, and tropes that can be transgressed, altered, mocked, critiqued, attacked, or otherwise tampered with, but without that common language, it can be difficult to formulate a coherent discourse in any given context.

It should be a joyful task to constantly make and re-make the canon for anyone who cares about literature, not a subject for outrage and mockery. It is quite literally impossible to read every book in the canon, even if one restricts oneself to a single language. One needs to accept that the best-read person in the world will, unlike the Nowhere Man, have some holes in his education. Completism is impossible; the canon is a useful tool, despite its constant evolution, because it helps us chart a course through millennia of written material.

For universities and the professors and graduate students who teach there, the solution to the conundrum of both ensuring students have an understanding of literary history and not thus neglecting the majority of humanity that has written, unrecognized, throughout that history is to accept that we are mere mortals and no one can lay claim to a complete knowledge of literature. That is part of its fascination. I might choose to pair The Prince with Moderata Fonte's The Worth of Women, Shakespeare's sonnets with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's, Hard Times with North and South, or Madame Bovary with Indiana, but choosing one book means deferring all the others. It will always be possible to complain that some absolutely essential book is omitted from a syllabus, a recommended reading list, or a generalized curriculum. One person's Pilgrim's Progress is another's Faust; you may insist on Candide, while I insist on Letters from a Peruvian Woman. Instead of attacking the canon, we could instead make use of it, bend it to our purposes political or otherwise, and thus contribute to its evolution, but to do that, we have to accept the limits of our human condition. It's bitter news for any bookworm, but in trying to read everything, we'll die both glutted and unsatisfied.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Problem with Literary Necessity

It's become a commonplace of critical praise to claim that a book is necessary. Books that receive this supposed encomium are usually topical, obviously and evidently tied to an issue subject to heated discussion on twitter, late-night tv, and cable news. A necessary book has a clear, delineated point of view that expresses a politics that fits easily into our current political binary (liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, etc. etc.). It could be a novel with a protagonist who is transgender, or a refugee, it could be a polemic against a powerful figure, ideology, or institution, it could be a personal essay that dissects a traumatic experience. The critic who employs the word necessary is telegraphing his or her agreement with the political point of view of the book under review.

There's nothing inherently wrong with deeming a book necessary, but it's a word that, used without a consciousness of its purpose, says little to nothing about the book itself and much more about the reviewer and the reviewer's politics. It's a euphemism that signals a belonging to a particular club, a defensive deployment meant to shield the critic from attack in a deeply polarized climate dominated by quick outrage and increasingly quantified methods of critiquing literature, for instance, the starred rating rather than a complex analysis.

When the critic deems a book necessary, the label functions as a means of dividing the presumed readership of the book. Anyone who reads that a book about the mass incarceration of black Americans, for instance, is necessary, receives a signal not that the book has some crucial function to perform in the world (though it may or may not - the course of history will indicate whether or not it performs such a function), but rather that the book bolsters a political belief that he may or may not share. The reader who already feels outrage towards the situation of black Americans in prison will feel positively towards the book; the reader who believes that imprisoned black people fare no worse than white people will feel negatively. As a result, the first group may very well read the book, share the review on social media, or otherwise indicate support for it, while the second is unlikely to do those things, or might take an actively negative action, such as purposely giving the book low ratings on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. Any book with controversial or possibly inflammatory content, once it's reviewed within this critical economy of necessity, is subject to this binary (including books that attempt to critique, dismantle, or question the existence of a binary). If this demarcation sounds simplistic, that's because it is, but that is where the line is drawn by the word necessary.

It's a word that is nearly always meant positively, though its effects are anything but. It's a means of preaching to the choir. The problem is that necessary is so very rarely followed by the answers to the obvious questions: to whom? for what purpose? to what end? The critic takes for granted that the reader can answer those questions already, isolating the book among readers that are most likely to share its point of view. Instead of persuading individuals to allow themselves to be challenged and to question their immediate assumptions and opinions, the critic who talks of necessity presumes that not only is his point of view fundamentally correct, it needs no qualification and no explanation. Necessary is an encrypted word; decoded, it says: "Agree or you're wrong."

To demonstrate how important it is to follow up any description of a book as necessary with an explication of why, to whom, and for what purpose it is so, I will employ a highly inflammatory example: Mein Kampf is necessary. Now, if I were using the word necessary the way that it is most commonly used critically today, I would have just declared myself a Nazi. So I will answer the questions that ought to be engendered by that statement: Mein Kampf is necessary as a primary source for research for people who study Nazism and anti-Semitism because it was historically a crucial and widely-read text for followers of Hitler and helps to explicate the history that followed it. The truth is that Mein Kampf did perform a function historically, one that in retrospect we can recognize as necessary to the events that followed. The fact that that function was genocide on an unprecedented scale does not make it less necessary, only more horrifying.

In great part, the difficulty facing critics at this moment implicates the fraught issue of identity. As we increasingly use online aggregators, complete with ratings and mini reviews, to catalogue our likes and dislikes, we also increasingly conflate these quantified masses of data with our very identities. It's no wonder, then, that a book's necessity becomes conflated with the degree to which we agree with it. As a result, the critic risks being locked into a position that demands allegiance rather than analysis, answering a yes-or-no question instead of a why, or how. Politically speaking, this is disastrous. If a book's necessity is determined by whether or not we agree with it beforehand, then persuasion in literary form is no longer possible. A necessary book, in today's critical usage, is a sterile book, a book without the very power the critic claims for it. Before we claim that any given book is necessary, we need to confront our reasons for doing so, and if we do so, we need to say why.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

If It Ain't Broke, It's Probably Boring

Though the franchise has never been as centrally situated in the entertainment landscape until now, valuable intellectual property has been exploited across media since the advent of modernity. Little Women spawned theatrical adaptations and character dolls within less than a decade of its release; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein were major stage hits; A Christmas Carol all but invented the capitalist bonanza that we celebrate today. It's understandable that producers and publishers, not to mention toy manufacturers, make use of popular stories, characters, and concepts to produce more content, and therefore more money, but it also means that the same works get adapted over, and over, and over, and even over again. This is a shame because it often means that less famous works get forgotten and passed over. 

Do we really need two more adaptations of Anne of Green Gables? L.M. Montgomery wrote twenty novels and dozens of short stories. A miniseries of A Tangled Web, for instance, a novel with well over two hundred characters, or the Emily series, with its ambitious, sensitive heroine, would offer many of the same pleasures without simply retreading the same ground. In fact, given the current predominant taste for dark, gritty stories of trauma, Emily - with her strange 'flashes' that could be indications of supernatural power, or the residual effects of the trauma of her father's death and her own desperate feelings of abandonment - is a far more apropos protagonist than Anne, preternaturally sunny, a believer that "Tomorrow is always a new day, with no mistakes in it." 

Jane Eyre, too, has been adapted dozens of times (and with decidedly varying success), but Charlotte Brontë's other novels have been neglected: Shirley, with its radical, land-owning, gender norm-flouting heroine, was adapted, in 1922, while Villette, an intense and rich story of a repressed teacher, was adapted in 1970 for television, but neither adaptation is available online (the former may even be a lost film). And, while no one can complain that Charles Dickens's works are under-adapted, my favorite, Dombey and Son, has suffered from the low-budget constraints of old-style BBC filmmaking. It would be a treat to see Mr. Carker, Captain Cuttle, and the formidable Edith Dombey onscreen, instead of the next in an endless line of Ebeneezer Scrooges, Pips, and Oliver Twists. 

One could cite oodles more examples: we are forever getting a new Peter Pan, while J.M. Barrie's other (better) work, such as The Little Minister and My Lady Nicotine, is ignored; another Anna Karenina, while the more politically invested Resurrection hasn't been adapted for the silver screen since 1934; another Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, with nary a Boy who Left Home to Find Out about the Shivers in sight; another Treasure Island or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, instead of a Prince Otto or Catriona; an endless string of Austen adaptations, while her forebear Fanny Burney's novels have never once seen a screen adaptation. There are two more Little Women adaptations on their way, after two silent and three sound films, plus a number of miniseries, while none of Alcott's other novels have received a single decent adaptation. And I haven't even mentioned Shakespeare.

While in the scheme of things, repetitive adaptation is hardly a pressing problem, it indicates a lack of creative imagination and an excess of conservative calculation in filmmaking that prevents the production of films that insist on forging new paths forward, following wild and strange new directions, and thus - in fact, rather than rhetorically - increasing the diversity of cinematic vision. There are occasional flashes of the frisson of adaptation, the fruitful merging of the literary and cinematic at its most successful, but they are rare. One thinks of Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden, which transplanted Sarah Waters's Fingersmith from Victorian London to Korea under Japanese Occupation, or Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship, based on the blissfully hitherto un-adapted Austen novella, Lady Susan. It's remarkable that in an age that claims to value the new, original, and innovative, that our entertainment conforms so strictly to a focus on the most popular, most adapted works out there. We're spinning the wheels, but don't seem to be going anywhere. With literal millennia of literature to choose from, what a pity that we can't see the astonishing treasure trove we have in even a small neighborhood library.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Film Review: "The Rise of Catherine the Great" (1934)

Catherine the Great is one of a handful of historical figures, like Napoleon, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth the Virgin Queen, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, whose legend so exceeds the historical record that she proves an irresistible subject for filmmakers. Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Pola Negri, Jeanne Moreau, and Julia Ormond, among many others, have all played the Russian empress; in Alexander Korda's The Rise of Catherine the Great the part is played by German actress Elisabeth Bergner, who fled Nazi Germany for England after Hitler's accession to power and whose collaborations with Laurence Olivier and J.M. Barrie are of greater interest today for their sakes than for hers.

In fact, the most common complaint lodged against this sumptuous and historically fantastical film is that Bergner lacks charisma. She is accused of dullness, of vapidity, of artificiality, but I wouldn't call these charges quite fair. The screenplay, based on a play by Lajos Bíró and Arthur Wimperis, frames Catherine as an ingenue, devastatingly in love with the Grand Duke Peter before she sees him, easily softened by kindness, insistent on the right of the peasant to bread and the right of her mad and beloved husband to live. The domain where the young Catherine gained her skill in intrigue and her prowess in domination, the bedroom, must perforce remain off-screen; even under the less rigid censorship standards of England, as opposed to the absurd strictures of the Hollywood Production Code, the film suffers from the impossibility of allowing Catherine any but imaginary adultery. The centrality of sex in royal politics is not as prudishly papered over as it is in Hollywood films, but the insistence on Catherine's sexual purity as a sign of her morality, and thus right to be the heroine, prevents Bergner from delving too deeply into the most complex parts of her character. 

She stars opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., whose striking physical beauty isn't at all effaced by a blonde wig and a brilliant performance free of vanity. Fairbanks never attained the super-stardom of his athletic father, and is remembered today mostly for his debonair looks and his tabloid-sensation romance with the much older Joan Crawford, but as the Grand Duke Peter, volatile, moody, changeable, lusty, always contrary, and dangerously close to genuine insanity, Fairbanks proves his abilities as an actor. In the first scene of the film, without dialogue, he broods in his dacha as fawning courtiers sing songs and make love on cushions scattered on the floor. Staring into the fire, his ears prick up at the sound of a lady's tinkling laughter. He glances up and sees her, and the man, his dearest friend as it turns out, who ravenously kisses her arm and neck. Peter observes them a moment before taking the hand of the woman and leading her away. His entire character is established in this first wordless scene, a tour de force for directors Paul Czinner and an uncredited Korda, for production designer Vincent Korda, and for Fairbanks himself. He is matched by Flora Robson, as his strong-willed aunt, the Empress Elizabeth. Robson was an actress who became somewhat type-cast as powerful aging monarchs, even as a young woman, but she was consistently a stand-out in every film fortunate enough to include her. Here she is called upon to radiate power like the sun: her furious grip on power, Elizabeth claims, is all the more tenacious because she is a woman. Women ought to rule, she tells Catherine, for men lack the strength to do so.

In many ways, the film's story is beside the point. The title already says everything about the plot and even a glancing notion of Russian history reveals the ultimate fates of the characters. The real reason to see it is visual, not narrative: the enormous sets, grand rooms of state scattered with velvet and gilt furniture, ceilings painted with cherubs and adorned with candle-bestrewn chandeliers of crystal, balustrades set with roaring lions, and the lavish costumes, a sweeping, glossy black dressing gown for Peter, both rakish and hinting at his sickly mind, a fur-lined brocade gown for Elizabeth, making her seem twelve feet tall, glittering lace cuffs for Catherine as a princess, her luxurious shackles, as well as a stunningly boyish uniform, to match that of her regiment and to foreshadow her victory. Even if the drama passes without surprises or emotional highs, every frame is a treasure trove of exquisitely designed objects.

I can understand the reservations most critics have about this film, especially when compared to its predecessor, Korda's mega-hit The Private Life of Henry VIII, a film that made Charles Laughton an internationally renowned star and featured equally gorgeous costumes and sets with a story bursting with incident. The Rise of Catherine the Great moves at a more stately pace, its intrigues negotiated tacitly more often than not, its political alliances too clearly delineated by declarations of passionate love or loathing, but there is no scenery-chewing in the Laughton mold. Fairbanks, in particular, gives a performance quite modern in its subtlety, all the more striking given that it is insanity that he portrays so delicately. Yet, this film, in contrast to Henry VIII, embraces a more challenging and complicated perspective on despotism. The great rulers here are women, while men are essentially tools of power, dangerous, useful, alluring, but not eligible for the governance of empire. The throne of Mother Russia seems to demand a female body, but it would be too easy to simply stick a feminist label on Catherine and call it a day. Compassion, an abhorrence of cruelty, a horror of murder, a melting and maritally sanctioned adoration of a husband - these are the qualities that Catherine must combat in order to take power and save Russia from the wandering whims and tantrum-driven vagaries of Peter III. The paradox of queenship renders the political maneuverings of this film fascinating, for Catherine is both the perfect woman and the perfect empress, but cannot be both at once. Rather than a conflict between a mad emperor and a sane empress, The Rise of Catherine the Great traces the conflict between the woman who loves Peter and the empress whose rise to power necessitates destroying him.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Film Review: "The Triumph of Love" (2001)

It is perhaps a strange irony that the most performative literary genre, the play, rarely adapts well to the cinema. In the small gap between live performance on a stage and recorded performance on a set or dressed location, the difference between genius and imbecility lurks. This is made clear in Clare Peploe's adaptation of the 1732 play by Marivaux, The Triumph of Love, which despite its playful treatment of gender and flirtation with polyamory, fails to translate 18th-century sources of merriment into 21st-century comedy. Peploe injects the slightest of postmodern touches - an audience seated in transparent plastic chairs occasionally appears, looking frightfully bored - and sprinkles on a calcifying patina of progressive gender politics - the middle-aged Leontine is a scientist and seems to discover how to generate electricity. Though the soundtrack is mostly dominated by Rameau and a classically inflected score by Jason Osbourn, an electric guitar pops up at emotional moments, doodling at melodies that are not at all benefited by amplification. Such signs of contemporary provenance are jarring and distracting, but they are also rather slight and half-hearted. Rather than go for broke, Peploe makes a mere gesture at reinterpretation, and so makes neither a frightfully modern new version, nor an especially scintillating recreation of the original play.

Though produced by Bernardo Bertolucci (incidentally or not, the director's husband), and dominated by a story of seduction, deceit, and titillation, The Triumph of Love retreats to prudishness, partly faithful to Marivaux and partly a coy castration of the transgressive elements of the story. Mira Sorvino stars as a princess who disguises herself as an ardent young man in order to gain access to the rightful heir to the throne (Jay Rodan), who hates her as the daughter of the usurper. He is guarded by the misogynist philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his repressed sister (Fiona Shaw), while she is aided by her portrait-painting lady-in-waiting Corine (Rachael Stirling). The princess's plot involves seducing all three and ultimately restoring the rightful heir to the throne, without giving it up, by marrying him. All this is aided by two servants straight out of commedia dell'arte, Harlequin and Dimas (Ignazio Oliva and Luis Molteni). They are the only two Italians in the cast, which leads to an unfortunate ethnic metaphor: the aristocrats are all British and American, while the servants, buffoonish to a fault, are Italians speaking English with exaggerated accents.

Kingsley and Shaw both give deeply felt performances, too good for such a fluffy approach, and their inevitable, cruel disappointment shimmers like genuine gold on a bed of glitter. The effect, however, is to cast the dross into clearer light, thus highlighting the superficiality of the adaptation. It is upon Sorvino's shoulders that the weight of the film falls and she is not quite equal to it, never at all convincing as an ardent adolescent and too melting for a princess capable of such easy deception. She is not aided by a wooden performance by Rodan, who comes alive only when called to vigorous physical action, shooting arrows and stealing kisses with a zeal never felt in his line readings.

The Triumph of Love suffers not from being too stage-bound and static, as many play adaptations do, but from the resulting overcompensation. The camera swoops around trees, through carriage windows, and across long rooms, there are frequent jump cuts (at least some of which are meant to be self-consciously modern, but that more often come off as amateurish, or more worryingly, as though they couldn't get a decent shot together without one), and characters are constantly running about, presumably in order to do the next scene in a fresh location. The insistence on the possibilities of cinema, all those dynamic touches impossible in the live theatre, exposes the theatrical seams.

Since Marivaux's play resists being contorted into anything we could call 'realistic,' the filmmakers try to run the other way, into artificiality, affectation, and farce. Interestingly, the original play was a notable failure, possibly as a result of its heroine seducing multiple characters of both genders. This subversive element seems to beg for a deeper exploration of the dynamics of power, gender, sexuality, and monarchy, but the filmmakers get snarled up in the creaky turnings of the dramatic wheel. Rather than a fun, if slow-moving, romp in wigs and panniers, one longs for an anarchic dive into the treacherous waters of political and sexual machination, a pastoral Dangerous Liaisons or a gender-bent Rapunzel. This film is an attempt at a cappuccino without the espresso shot, and thus, despite its glossy costumes and sophisticated vocabulary, proves un-stimulating.