Saturday, August 20, 2016

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Just as we enter the cinematic drought of August, Meryl Streep comes to the rescue with Florence Foster Jenkins, a crowd-pleasing and bittersweet comedy biopic that is proving a hit with critics. Directed by Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen), the film is about a New York City socialite and philanthropist who cherished a dream to be an opera singer comparable to Lily Pons. The problem is simple: Florence cannot sing to save her life. Even so, she gives private concerts to her increasingly decrepit society friends, has Toscanini coming to her to beg for funds, and makes a recording that turns into a sleeper hit when it makes it onto the radio. Her ultimate goal is to play Carnegie Hall, where for the first time she faces music critics that have not been bribed into effusively kind reviews.

This makes it sound - and the promotional materials made it seem it would be - like a fairly typical inspirational movie about overcoming the odds and finding success. In fact, the movie wisely shies away from the expected narrative, bringing it to the point where it isn't entirely accurate to call it a comedy. Yes, Florence's screechings and wailings and groanings are hysterically funny, but the film complicates the way that we as an audience laugh at her. Florence is batty and oblivious, neurotic and blissfully un-self-aware, but she is also generous, sweet, loving, and genuinely eager to aid the suffering world in the only way she knows how: with music. The film is set in 1944, and while the war remains at the periphery of the story, it provides a catalyst for Florence, who longs to do something for the war effort. Streep doesn't hold back from being ridiculous, but Streep's Florence has a sincerity and a vulnerability that have a way of forcing us to feel actual pain at the hurt that our laughter causes her.

Streep is joined by Hugh Grant, as her husband, retired ham actor St. Clair Bayfield, and Simon Helberg, as her accompanist Cosmé McMoon (yes, that was his actual, honest-to-goodness name). Grant gives a subtle and ultimately moving performance, all the more so because he doesn't smooth out the rough edges of the character, his unscrupulousness and pomposity, his superficially well-meaning but ultimately self-serving secrecy. St. Clair and Florence have an unusual arrangement; they love each other, but live in separate apartments, while she pays the rent on both. St. Clair, however, is legitimately devoted to her, desperate to protect her from "the mockers and scoffers" and to ensure that she never find out how truly dreadful her singing is. Their affection for each other flouts every convention of the Hollywood definition of romantic love, yet makes for one of the most affecting and believable love relationships I've seen in recent films.

Cosmé, too, comes to care for his absurd employer. Helberg, best known for playing nerdy engineer Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory, is actually an amateur pianist and does his own playing, which is very welcome, as for once one needn't turn a blind eye to incompetent fakery, though the real Cosmé, judging from the recordings he made with Florence, was not a great pianist himself. Here too we have a character that eludes a stock type, not least of all because, as much as he comes to care for Florence, he remains mystified to the end by the incredible self-delusion that powers the Jenkins household.

For those who have not before experienced the glorious drollery of Jenkins's singing, the recording she made is available, and includes her renditions of the Queen of the Night's aria from The Magic Flute, the Bell Song from Lakmé, and a Bach arrangement that must have sent the eminent composer spinning round and round in his grave. One needn't know a thing about opera to appreciate the exquisite ludicrousness of her singing and it really does need to be heard to be believed. Streep does an excellent imitation, but she's still not quite as remarkably terrible.

There are several reasons that make Florence Foster Jenkins a strong contender for the best film of the year (so far, that is). For one, the movie is really, really funny, and in an unusually smart way. Opera singers will howl at the scene in which Florence is coached by Carlo Edwards (David Haig), exhorting her to find her voice "in the mask." There is a subtler undercurrent of wit, particularly musically speaking, that runs throughout the film. For another, here we have a rare protagonist indeed: a heavy middle-aged woman who has no talents and yet is so lovable that we root for her success, even as we know she didn't get it - she is famous today as the worst singer that ever lived. Finally, Florence Foster Jenkins insists that, even as we laugh, we remember that the people that we laugh at can be hurt, sometimes gravely. The film acquires emotional depth as we watch Florence donate a thousand tickets for her Carnegie Hall recital to the armed forces, who have become huge fans of hers because her ridiculous recording offers them some relief from their trauma and pain. They love her because she's terrible and knowing herself to be terrible is about as cruel a blow to Florence as there possibly could be. By the end of the movie, one has grown to care so much for this feathery wings and tiara-wearing heiress that comedy is left far behind. The line between laughing and tears blurs and disappears; Florence the singer never ceases to invite our ridicule, while Florence the person breaks our hearts.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Stunning Modernity of Jean de La Fontaine's "Fables"

While Jean de La Fontaine's Fables are reliably read by every French child in school, in the United States these sly moralistic poems are more likely to be encountered in translations that favor simplicity and sentimentality over sophistication and an accurate rendering of La Fontaine's language. This is par for the course, as so many of the most popular and influential works of European writers of fairy tales, fables, and myths are rendered saccharine through translations that excise anything disturbing or ambiguous. The tendency is exacerbated when these tales are adapted as films.

Yet, as a result, it is far easier for adults to dismiss the work of writers such as La Fontaine, Perrault, Basile, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Carlo Collodi, and even Rudyard Kipling (especially his Just So Stories) as childish and morally simplistic because we are so used to reading watered-down versions of their stories. Thus, Gordon Pirie's translations of La Fontaine's Fables, available through the Hesperus Press, are a welcome gift and a reminder that La Fontaine was one of the most urbane and sophisticated writers of his day.

What surprised me most about these brief fables, beyond their technical sophistication as poetry, was how ambiguous and sometimes pragmatic almost to the point of cynicism the morals are. The two most famous stories are probably "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse" and "The Hare and the Tortoise" and their morals are indeed fairly straightforward, but they are exceptions to the general rule. What is not straightforward is the gleefully sardonic tone in which these morals are told and the way in which they are complicated by that tone. In the first, the conflict is less between the luxuries of the town and the simplicity of the country than it is between a manner of life that is decadent and dangerous and one that is coarse but entirely safe: "But when I eat, I eat in peace,/And never have to bolt or flee./A treat that panic interrupts/Is not a treat at all, for me." The choice for the mice is not between a bad way of  life and a good way, but between gourmet meals accompanied by mortal danger or bland food eaten in relative calm. The usual moral that one would glean from the average picture book adaptation does not emphasize the mortal danger in which the town mouse lives, perhaps because it's deemed too scary, but the animals of La Fontaine's fabular world are not warm and fuzzy. They kill and eat what they kill and often use deception to obtain what they want, including other sentient animals that become food.

Many of the fables address politics directly and aim their morals at the reader as a member of the body politic, or even at national leaders. In "The Frogs who asked for a King," the frogs grow sick of their democratic system and beg Jupiter to send them a king. He complies, dropping from the heavens a log of wood, but the frogs again complain, asking for a king "who does something!" Jupiter, thoroughly annoyed, sends them a crane to be their king and the crane promptly massacres the frogs. When the frogs complain a third time, Jupiter replies, "As for the crane, your present king,/Just make the best of him, for fear/I send you one still more severe!" This a remarkable poem, all the more so because the fables were published between 1668 and 1694 and were dedicated to French royalty, including the Dauphin and Louis XIV's mistress Madame de Montespan. The poem, if anything, has gained in relevance as democracy has become the governmental model of choice for many of the most powerful nations. In the twenty-first century, we have witnessed the crumbling of weak democracies into dictatorships that rival the most decadent absolutist monarchies in terms of state control and pursued brutality with far greater zeal. Certainly it behooves us, especially in this election year, to remember the unhappy end of the discontented frogs.

Another astonishing political fable is "The Gardener and the Squire," in which a gardener begs help from the squire to kill the hare that is daily vandalizing his carefully tended vegetable patch. The squire arrives, all enthusiasm, with hounds and horses and a huge appetite. The crowd eats all of the gardener's food, while the squire makes love to the gardener's pretty daughter, and in the end the trampling of horses, dogs, and men destroy the garden entirely while the hare makes his escape through the enormous hole in the hedge left by the squire and his halloo-ing horde. La Fontaine addresses himself to the princes of small countries, warning: "Don't ask kings and emperors/To take an interest in your wars./Believe me, you'll be sorry,/The day they set foot on your territory." There is nothing child-like in this fable that, when it begins, is so reminiscent of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It's not meant for childish consumption and it too, like "The Frogs who asked for a King," is eerily relevant in an age in which proxy wars and jockeying foreign powers tear apart the Middle East and violence still simmers beneath the surface in the Balkans.

La Fontaine is remarkably sophisticated and forward-thinking when it comes to social ills as well. In the elegant "The Animals Struck by the Plague," the beasts come together in council and decide that "to appease the sacred ire,/And thus obtain a general cure,/He who is most to blame must take the onus/Of guilt upon himself, and suffer for the rest." The carnivores confess that they have eaten sheep and men and other animals, but argue that "it was a privilege/For them to end up in [their] jaws" and thus they cannot take the blame for the plague. Pirie's translation, one of his best, cleverly equates these powerful carnivores with the aristocratic classes they represent by calling them "animals who carried swords" - in La Fontaine, the beasts are listed, ending with "des autres puissances," that is the other powerful ones, which is less pithy. In the end, an ass confesses to have eaten a few mouthfuls of grace from another's field and he is judged the source of heavenly anger. The moral thus is one we neglect to remember today: "The judgment of a court of law/Is rarely lenient to the poor."

The fact that these fables continue to warn us against the same political and social ills, from which democracy supposedly should have rescued us, speaks to a tendency that in literary circles has evolved into a sort of allergy to anything deemed moralistic. Moralizing, we are led to believe, is conservative hand-wringing, a means of oppression and censorship, it's boring and closed-minded and unimaginative, it's reactionary and stifling and retrogressive. Utter nonsense, as becomes clear to anyone who reads La Fontaine, for stories with morals do not automatically lack complexity and they do not automatically push us to reinstate traditional mores. La Fontaine, in the seventeenth century, wittily damned corrupt courts of law for treating the poor by a different standard than the rich, and he did so in age in which class was discussed in educated circles as racially based, therefore justifying rigid class boundaries that benefited the wealthy and titled to the extreme detriment of everyone else. Social and political change requires taking moral stances and woe betide us if we fail to listen to those who teach us to view our society critically and, yes, morally.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Gaspara Stampa: Italy's Greatest Poetessa

The first work written in the Italian vernacular, most likely in 1224, is the "Canticle of the Sun," an exquisite paean to God's creation by the Other Christ, San Francesco of Assisi, and he was quickly followed by the greatest poets of the Renaissance: Dante, Giacomo da Lentini, Guido Cavalcanti, Petrarca, Boccaccio, Ludovico Ariosto, Michelangelo, and Torquato Tasso, to name only the most prominent. It is difficult to find many poems that can be definitively credited to a woman in this period. The first to be noted is usually Compiuta Donzella, but this is not a name - it is an epithet, meaning the Accomplished Demoiselle, for nothing is known of her beyond the few facts that she was from Florence and was writing poetry in the second half of the thirteenth century. Only a handful of her poems survive.

Though Gaspara Stampa is not the only woman whose poetry has withstood the ravages of history, she is widely regarded as the greatest of their small company, one which includes Veronica Franco and Vittoria Colonna. In fact, Stampa is widely regarded as Italy's greatest woman poet of all time. She was born in 1525 to a wealthy merchant family and she was raised in a home that played host to the cream of Venice's artistic, literary, and musical society. In addition to her poetry, it is likely that Stampa was also an accomplished musician and composer. Her 311 poems comprise a sonnet cycle that rivals those of Shakespeare and Petrarca, written out of the despair and torment she experienced following the collapse of her love affair with the Count Collaltino. Collaltino may have had significantly more social power than Stampa did while they were alive, but today he is remembered solely as the object of her poetically expressed love. Stampa passed away in the spring of 1554 and later that year her poems were published under the direction of her sister Cassandra.

Stampa's relative obscurity in the English-speaking world, and her decidedly secondary status to her male contemporaries in the Italian canon, can be ascribed to her gender. While Shakespeare, Petrarca, and Dante receive adulation for the baring of their souls in thrall to their aloof beloveds, elevating their personal torments to a universalized expression of the human (male) capacity to love, Stampa is always marginalized as a woman poet, making her achievement the expected reflection of her personal experience. Although her poems are a supreme example of the dominant poetic form and subject matter of her time, her work is interpreted as womanly because it is personal, while her male contemporaries' work is great because it attains the universal through the personal. Stampa's poems are not universalized as they would be had she been male, for critics, up until very recently men by default, did not believe that a woman could understand a man, as they were capable of understanding women. Furthermore, such all-encompassing love in a man is an expression of unusual virtue, of nobility and grandeur, while for a woman that love is simply the prerogative of her sex, her destiny to seek out a monogamous partner, and therefore her feelings are not counted extraordinary. Similar treatment would meet the sonnet cycle of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, three centuries later.

Stampa's poems are different in one crucial respect, however. While the majority of these poets writing love sonnets were dedicating their work to real figures (or composites of real figures), the most prominent loved from afar. Dante saw Beatrice only twice and they may never have spoken, while Petrarca's adoration for Laura seems to have been sparked by a glimpse of her in a church. In contrast, Stampa's beloved was actually her lover, not an abstract presence of beauty and grace, but a flesh-and-blood man. This is perhaps why her poetry, though very much of its age, seems more modern, more rooted in human experience, than so many of her contemporaries'. Her love is not an intellectual, purely internal experience, which may fire the imagination, but remains bounded to the dream realm of the fictional. Stampa, on the other hand, was drawing on the actual lived experience of loving and being loved; she did not have to imagine what message her beloved's eyes sent her, since she could actually talk to him.

To give some idea of the beauty of Stampa's poetry, I have written a very loose translation of one of her loveliest sonnets, "La piaga, ch'io credea che fosse salda." Better translators than I have rendered her work in English and I encourage readers who cannot read Italian to seek out her work in one of these iterations. I have made no serious attempt to retain the metrical rhythm of the original, choosing instead to privilege sense over form.

The wound, which I believed was healed
by the, by now, long absence and little love
of that stony and hardened heart,
colder still than cold coat of snow,
awakens once and again and grows warm,
and pours once and again blood and lymph;
so that my soul lives again in fear,
when by now it should be safe and dauntless.

Nor, even as I seek to add new cords
to my neck, may I do so without that old knot
hindering me more or less.
One often says that fire drives away fire;
but you, Love, that seek out my martyrdom,
make so that this in me, spent, cannot be.

I hope that this one, very imperfect translation of this exquisite poem suffices to pique interest in Stampa's work, for her poetry deserves a place alongside that of Shakespeare and Petrarca, but will not find it unless we read it. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sexual Empowerment and the Virgin Queen

Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, almost certainly was a virgin. That likelihood may not please the feminist viewer, but it hardly matters. In contemporary portrayals of the queen, notably Shekhar Kapoor's Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett, she nearly always engages in a sexual liaison of some sort of another. The reason is not terribly complicated: "strong women" to use the Hollywood parlance, or liberated women, are expected to have an exuberantly enjoyed, orgasmic sex life in order to qualify as a feminist figure. This is considered a signifier of feminism, one of the most visible and obvious, but it is in fact the imposition of a standard as rigid as any imposed by patriarchal structures.

While I wholeheartedly reject the notion that feminist characters must fulfill the most aspirational and utopian models in order to qualify as feminist, the imposition of contemporary standards of feminism - essentially the yin to traditional femininity's yang, given the inexorable stringency of idealistic impositions of definitional qualities - onto historical characters obfuscates the true significance of transgressive figures such as Elizabeth. This does a disservice not only to history, but to feminism.

Of course, there is no way to actually know whether or not Elizabeth ever actually had sex, but the evidence that she didn't is significant. Most obviously, she never married and never had children. That may sound like an absurdly unnecessary point to make, but it bears repeating. Elizabeth was a monarch, one of the greatest of England, who ruled for forty five years, making her one of the longest reigning monarchs in the country's history. Her reasons for refusing to marry were many and still hotly debated by historians, but at the foundation of any of those reasons is a consolidation of her power. Marriage would have meant a significant loss of her actual ability to rule. Her sister, Mary I, was married to Philip II of Spain and he became a co-monarch, thus able to wield equal power with his English-born wife. Most importantly, because he was male, Philip held control of and directed the English military. Elizabeth was brilliant, unusually so, and she cannot have failed to consider the effects of marriage on Mary's reign, all the more so given that Mary was the only example in of a queen inheriting the crown in contemporary English history that Elizabeth could study. Mary died childless, which allowed Elizabeth to ascend the throne.

Mary's reign was characterized both by her fervent religiosity and her desperate, eventually almost paranoid, struggle to conceive an heir. This could almost be said to be a family tradition. Henry VI was the only child of Edmund Tudor and Margaret Beaufort; this is likely because Margaret was only thirteen when she gave birth and may have suffered permanent injury as a result. Henry VI had four children who survived to adulthood: Arthur, Henry, Margaret, and Mary. Arthur died at fifteen, having been married mere weeks, making Henry VIII the heir. Henry VIII's difficulties obtaining a male heir continue to provide gossipy fodder for films, novels, and television shows, but he did have a son, with Jane Seymour, Edward VI. Edward died without issue. In other words, Elizabeth's family history had been darkly marked by the need for each successive monarch to beget an heir who would survive long enough to continue the line. It must have seemed, at times, a quixotic undertaking, as baby princes and princesses died and queens failed to carry their pregnancies to term.

This should be qualified by pointing out that any heir had to be legitimate. This would have been an especially sore point for Elizabeth, whose detractors would charge that she was illegitimate until the end of her reign, claiming that Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn had been bigamous. If Elizabeth had conceived a child out of wedlock, say in a romantic relationship with the married Lord Dudley - the fan favorite - it's highly unlikely that Elizabeth would have remained on the throne at all, and the resulting child would have been the locus of civil war. It's difficult to imagine that a woman as shrewd, crafty, and intelligent as Elizabeth would have allowed the possibility of losing power over an illegitimate child, all the more so given her own painful history of being disowned by her father and acknowledged only because there was such extreme urgency of establishing the Tudor succession. It is also worth noting that the Tudors always had detractors, who felt they had no claim to the throne at all, favoring the claims made by the Pole family.

Much has been made of Elizabeth's guardian Thomas Seymour's alleged advances. It's difficult to establish a definite interpretation of these events. Records indicate that he tickled and groped her in her bedroom and that his wife intervened only when she discovered them embracing, but the vocabulary used gives little indication of what Elizabeth's attitude was to this sexualized attention. Some scholars believe that this behavior - which today would be clearly defined as the sexual abuse of a minor, given that she was fourteen and he was nearly forty - can be faulted with traumatizing Elizabeth and making her pathologically afraid of sex. That's possible, but it's impossible to establish, all the more so because Elizabeth remained silent on these incidents. It's also possible that she didn't consider these incidents traumatizing so much as foolhardy. The age of consent at this period was twelve. Though Thomas Seymour would eventually be executed, partly as a result of scheming to marry Elizabeth and gain a controlling interest in the crown, whatever actually occurred remains unclear.

In any case, no child resulted and given the lengthy period over which these attentions supposedly occurred, it's unlikely that the abusive behavior came to intercourse - not least of all because a resulting pregnancy would have meant a charge of treason against Seymour, his wife (dead in childbirth before the abuse came to the attention of the king), and, possibly, Elizabeth herself, whose position was none too stable.

These incidents are not the focus of modern-day fantasy, however. Today, we prefer to imagine that Elizabeth enjoyed a sexual relationship with Dudley, and it's absolutely the case that he was a strong contender for her hand once his wife died, in unfortunately suspicious circumstances. The nobility was against the match and the threat of serious unrest, even revolution, made the marriage untenable, though he remained a significant figure until his death. Evidence suggests that Elizabeth did love Dudley, as she continued to promote him even when he married against her wishes and kept his last letter to her among her private things. It's important to note how strong the opposition to a marriage with Dudley was, as it's further evidence that any illegitimate issue would have been grounds for civil war.

The fact that must be faced is this: sexual empowerment is of very limited utility, if it can even be said to be possible, in a world in which women cannot control their own reproduction. Sexual empowerment is enabled by reliable forms of birth control, the most efficient of which are recent in invention, and safe childbirth - mortality rates have fallen, but even today, it is worth recognizing, childbirth is a life-threatening process for both the mother and the child. Elizabeth was a queen, an unusually competent ruler by any standard who faced enormously greater challenges than any king because of her gender. It's hard to believe that she would have made the mistake of risking her kingdom and her life in order to have sex out of wedlock. In a fictional rendering, the inconveniences of biology can be sidestepped, but in reality, Elizabeth had access to few means of birth control, none of them reliable. She also was painfully aware, as was any woman of the age, that childbirth meant risking her life - and risking the life of the queen of England meant risking England itself.

When contemporary filmmakers and novelists portray Elizabeth as sexually active, they fail to understand not only the historical context in which she lived but also what made her such a powerful monarch in a time and place in which queens were expected to occupy themselves with charity, religion, and peacemaking and leave governance and military matters to kings and councils. A sexually active Elizabeth is a frivolous, foolish, irresponsible Elizabeth. It treats her as a private person, which she was not. Better to give her her due: if Elizabeth I could be called a feminist figure, it's not because she was an empowered woman in the twenty-first century mold. She was an empowered woman, an empowered queen, that transgressed the bounds of sixteenth century queenship to become as great as any king. Governor, general, religious reformer, diplomat, even scholar: Elizabeth was all these things and more, but she was not a feminist and she hardly lived by the rules of twenty-first century feminism.