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Everything I know I Learned From Art


Having just watched No God No Master, a 2012 film about the Palmer Raids of the 1920s and, peripherally, the railroading and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, it occurs to me that everything I know about history I have gleaned from movies, novels, and song lyrics. Before seeing

Sacco & Vanzetti (Photo: Wikipedia)

Sacco & Vanzetti
(Photo: Wikipedia)

this movie, I did not know that Emma Goldman was deported from the US, never to return. I had no idea what the Palmer Raids were, and though I knew about Sacco and Vanzetti, I was fuzzy on the details (though I knew a bit from Holly Near‘s song Two Good Arms.)

This is not the history they teach in American schools—at least, it’s not anything I was taught.

Thanks to Doris Lessing I know something about colonialism in Africa. I learned about the French Revolution from Marge City of DarknessPiercy‘s City of Darkness, City of Light. I know the history of India from dozens of novels by Indian writers, most notably A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and, to a lesser extent, the film Gandhi. Recently I’ve gotten a dose of Nigerian history from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Lest anyone think I’m swallowing works of fiction or Hollywood productions whole, I almost always look up the facts online afterwards; even before the Internet, I did my homework, especially when writing book reviews: I compared Piercy’s details in the abovementioned book to those of historians Will and Ariel Durant—Piercy, who does exhaustive research for her novels, was remarkably faithful to the facts.

When I was in my teens, my twenties, and beyond, I read so many books and saw so many movies about the holocaust and slavery that they no longer fascinated but enraged and depressed me, until I finally swore them off; besides, I could probably write up a syllabus for each. Recently I added domestic violence to the list; having worked in a battered women’s shelter some years ago, I don’t need anymore painful education in that department either.

I don’t listen to music, read literature, or watch movies in order to learn, but because it’s what I love to do. Still, it makes me furious that I wasn’t taught important historical events in school, where they just threw dates of wars and generals at us, not to mention lies about our country. It just goes to show that in the end, as Virginia Woolf noted, it’s the artists who’ll save us.



Nowhere Boy: Film Review

movie posterNow I know why I’ve always disliked the song “Julia”—the only Beatles song, other than the misogynist “Run For Your Life”—that I’ve ever said that about. It’s so dirge-like and mournful, so different from their usual upbeat fare, including their ballads. Having just seen Nowhere Boy, the story of John Lennon and his two mothers (Mother Julia and Aunt Mimi), I know why the song is such a downer: it is in fact a dirge, a kind of epitaph for the woman who gave birth to John and cared for him until he was five, when Mimi took and raised him.  Nowhere Boy brilliantly takes a slice of John’s life, short in duration but deeply significant, to create a film that encapsulates almost everything we  need to know about Lennon to understand the man and his music.


The movie opens with John as a 16-year-old madly in love with American rock ‘n’ roll, but with no musical knowledge or training.  Through a series of events he comes in contact with his mother, Julia, who he hasn’t seen since he was five. At that time his father tried to take him from her, planning to drag him off to New Zealand. Julia passively let him go, but her sister Mimi grabbed him from his father and, with her husband, raised him.

Mum is now remarried with two daughters, and thrilled to see her long-lost son—who lived right around the block from her! Julia’s a lively gal, and behaves more like John’s girlfriend than his mum in every gesture and act, but this is never commented upon in any way by anyone. Julia’s husband doesn’t want John hanging around so much; apparently Julia’s prone to breakdowns, and he thinks she can’t handle it. And Mimi–well! It’s the age-old story of the sensible devoted woman who fed, washed and looked after John all these years being shoved aside for the flighty beauty who abandoned him.

Unfortunately, the story went a little differently, according to Julia Lennon’s bio in Wikipedia, than this cinematic portrayal; actually, not a little but quite a lot: “After complaints to Liverpool’s Social Services by her eldest sister, Mimi Smith (née Stanley), she handed over the care of her son to her sister. ” Additionally,  Julia saw John almost every day, and by the time he was eleven (and not, as the film tells us, 17) he was frequently staying overnight at her house. Having read the story after seeing the movie, I can’t help but question its point-of-view entirely.

One place where history and art agree, however, is that Julia influenced John’s development as a musician. In the movie she hands John a mandolin and teaches him to strum (“think Bo Diddley, she says”) and she’s always singing and dancing with him. “Why can’t I be Elvis?” he moans, and Julia replies, “Because the world is waiting for you to be John Lennon.” That quote is just too beautiful to complain about, even if the screenwriters made it up.

AaronTaylorJohnsonWhile John and Julia are getting to know each other John forms a band, begins performing, and meets Paul McCartney.  Thomas SangsterPossibly the best thing about Nowhere Boy, at least to my pure delight, is the casting for John and Paul: respectively, Aaron Johnson and Thomas Brodie Sangster. Each of them slips into his persona so effectively that after awhile they begin to look like the originals—and it couldn’t have been easy, psychologically, to play a pair of beloved icons for an audience mostly familiar with them. Their relationship is portrayed from the start as a rivalry, but I don’t know if the filmmakers were being faithful to reality or merely to legend.

The end of the movie is a matter of historical record, but if you don’t know it and don’t want to, stop reading. I didn’t know it, and was stunned when Julia got hit by a car and died.  When the movie was over, the song “Julia” kept slogging relentlessly around in my head on its endless loop of grief, and I had to play it—only to find that, knowing what I do now, I no longer hate it at all.Paul


The Before Trilogy: Review

English: Ethan Hawke at the 2007 Toronto Inter...

English: Ethan Hawke at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cover of "Before Sunrise"

Cover of Before Sunrise

Before Sunrise
Before Sunset
Before Midnight
starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy

As series go, the “Before‘s” aren’t half bad. I’ll even go so far as to say that, as entertainment, they’re two-thirds great: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are quite compelling. Each could stand alone, but why make them do that when viewing without pause a six-hour saga spanning half a lifetime is so much fun? That’s the joy of rentals, I’ve discovered: watching an entire season of Homeland or Breaking Bad over the course of a few days is so much more satisfying than weekly viewings dragged out over several years.

The plot of the Before trilogy sounds on the surface deceptively simple: boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl. In Before Sunrise, Jesse, an American played by Ethan Hawke, meets the French Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train speeding through Europe the night before he’s heading home. His plane leaves from Vienna in the morning, and when the train reaches his station he spontaneously asks Celine to get off and spend the night with him. This is not an indecent proposal, since he has no money for a hotel and plans to roam the city streets all night. After a beat or two she says yes—oh, to be young, for only the young take such risks! And hey, if she hadn’t gone, look what they, and we the audience, would have missed.

Parting is such sweet sorrow: after a night communing with Vienna and each other, they agree to meet in the same place in six months’ time to see if they still feel connected. As the sun rises, the first movie ends, leaving the audience suspended.Before Sunset

The second film, Before Sunset opens with Jesse hawking the novel he wrote based on what happened before sunrise. He’s in Paris giving a reading—as if! First-time novelists are rarely if ever whisked by their publishers on worldwide publicity tours accompanied by their own personal limo driver. Maybe this occasionally happened in, say, 1948, but certainly not  in the 90s when the movie takes place. That’s just one of the ways in which the Before‘s get the writing life wrong: in other scenes Jesse tells anyone he happens to meet the entire plot of his next as yet unwritten novel, a sure sign of the rank amateur.

Caveat, Jesse: Talking about an unwritten book guarantees you won’t write it. That’s not some superstition, either: when you talk out the story you dissipate the creative energy needed to write it. If you tell it first, by the time you get to a blank page, the story’s gone stale, and you have nothing left to say.

The first two Before‘s cover the most exciting phases in a relationship: meeting, anticipating, getting-to-know-you, and testing reality. No matter how many times it’s been told, these remain engaging; thus, the first two Before‘s cannot fail. Well, maybe they can, but they don’t.

Before MidnightThe trouble with Part The Third is a lack of conflict, at least for the first half. As any writing teacher will tell you, without obstacles there’s no story, especially no love story. Before Midnight opens on an almost ideal relationship. Only later, when the couple go off alone, away from their kids and their friends, does the plot thicken with a blowout. Here comes conflict in spades; the problem is that Jesse and Celine—mostly Celine, true to life—raise just about every issue you’d expect to be a source of strife in a contemporary relationship. I could have recited verbatim this part of the script, in which today’s couple conflicts are explored ad nauseum—which is predictably tedious. I may be wrong: perhaps if I were 35, married, and afraid my husband planned to haul my ass out of Paris to live in Chicago…well, then, sure, I’d relate to Before Midnight the way I related to  Diary of a Mad Housewife in 1970. At that movie I sobbed my heart out : the protagonist’s story mirrored my own.  Thus, I can see how a good portion of today’s audiences related to and loved Before Midnight.

I could write an entire blog, if not a whole book, on another aspect of the third movie: Celine as a mother. For most of the film the

couple’s two daughters are invisible, either off playing somewhere, or asleep, or left with friends while the duo runs off for a romantic interlude. I couldn’t help but notice this, since every time I’ve created a fictional character who’s a mother, editors and agents have demanded I devote more time to the kids even when they have nothing to do with the story. I’ve been told that if I don’t, readers will dislike the main character: she’s seen as a Bad Mother. (As I said, it’s a whole separate blog I hope to get to someday.)

Of course, I didn’t lose sympathy for Celine—but then, I wouldn’t. I wonder about other viewers; after all, it’s clear that Celine’s career is a more important part of her life than motherhood. In Before Midnight, though, this somehow seems natural. A sign of changing times? French sensibility? Or is Celine just an unusual woman?

Julie DelpyJulie Delpy’s performance improves by leaps and bounds during the course of the trilogy.  In the first two movies she’s an okay actress—but it’s in the latest installment that she really blossoms. Maybe it’s just because here she gets to play anger; whatever the reason, her acting chops have clearly evolved.   It brings to mind the cliché that women reach their prime in their mid-thirties—only it isn’t such a cliché: in Before Midnight Julie the actress and Celine the character seem to have reached the peak of their powers. Celine’s career is about to take a great leap forward, and by movie’s end I fervently hoped Jesse wouldn’t drag her off to Chicago to waste the best years of her life.

We may never know—unless, that is, a fourth sequel is on the way.

What Jane Austen Was Telling Us

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Unknown It was about ten years ago that I first read the work of Jane Austen. She wrote only six complete novels before she died at 41, and they’re all easy reading, so I zipped through her entire oeuvre. A few weeks ago I learned that Pride and Prejudice is 200 years old, which inspired me to re-read it. I liked it more the second time around, and resolved to re-read all her books. Then, oh happy day! I discovered I’d somehow missed Mansfield Park; I don’t know how that happened, but I tore through it in two days, and so far it’s my favorite. Moving along, I just finished Northanger Abbey, a satire, and my least favorite, on both first and second reads.

P&P filmI’m becoming somewhat obsessed, as so many Jane Austen fans do. I rented the 1930s film version of Pride & Prejudice, with Lawrence Olivier (be still my heart) and Greer Garson, as well as a more recently filmed Mansfield Park in which the heroine, Fanny Price, does double duty as Jane the writer, and sociological elements such as slavery are added to the plot. I’ve listened to podcasts fashioned around various aspects of Austen’s life and work, and Googled up academic papers and discussion groups. Still, I’m a rookie compared to Jane-ites and other Austen fanatics—in SoCal, for instance, a group stages an annual ball in which participants dress, dance, and eat like the middle classes of Austen’s day.

In emails to friends and in journal writing I’ve found myself channeling Austen’s style. This has happened to me before: writers with particularly strong voices—Doris Lessing and Margaret Atwood are two—seep into my brain when I’m reading them, and their style emerges in my own. I don’t do it on purpose, and it only occurs with a few select writers. I’m not saying, believe me, that I think I am half as good a writer as these Englishwomen; it’s that something in their tone is simpatico with me and I easily fall into their style. Because of this, whenever I’ve written a novel—six to date—I’ve had to stop reading fiction for the duration. Many sacrifices are made by writers, but for me this was surely the greatest.

Jane Austen BookIn the case of Jane Austen, my propensity to let her burrow so deeply under my skin is partly due to her primary focus—human behavior and the dynamics of their relationships. She’s generally referred to as “a writer of  manners,” which amounts to the same thing; I’m just putting a more contemporary spin on it. One critic pointed out that Austen doesn’t bother to describe her characters’ physicality—yet they’re more vivid in my mind than are those of most authors: their looks come through in the attention given their personalities with all the details and contradictions. And, interestingly, I myself rarely describe the characters in my fiction—or if I do, it’s from a sense of obligation. I’m not interested in painting scenery either; my main focus has always been on people’s psyches, individually and in relation to one another. Austen is big on nature’s beauty, but she typically shows hill and dale through the eyes of the people viewing them. Even the landscape becomes part of her characters; she doesn’t describe it simply for the sake of providing a pretty backdrop.

I only recognized this similarity in our approach upon my second readings. The observation has to do not so much with re-reading, though, as it does with my present state of mind.  I’ve lately come to realize that human beings are terribly flawed. I don’t mean to say that up until now I thought people were perfect—far from it!—but I now see that these flaws are innate, part of human nature. Previously I expected people to behave much better than they, or we, do, and when they didn’t, as they inevitably did not, I carped and complained and was forever offended by cruel words and careless intentions. Because of this, I am considered a “negative” person.

I’m afraid what I’ve actually been is like Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey: on a quest to find someone who won’t disappoint me, I frequently grab at first impressions, before someone’s flaws make an appearance. Then, after I’ve known someone long enough for their human flaws to emerge, I become bitter and angry. This has occurred so many times it’s a wonder I haven’t seen the dynamic sooner. I have Jane Austen to thank for this dawning clarity.Northanger Abbey

I suppose it’s one of life’s challenges to accept the truth about human beings, and I think this is what Jane Austen was saying in her novels. This is what she wanted to show us: that people’s behavior is flawed, and cannot be otherwise. Although her heroines in contrast to the people around her come off as nearly perfect, each one has an epiphany, a moment when she realizes her own flaws, her own bad behavior, and vows to improve. That is the other thing Austen was saying: that we must yet strive for improvement, and learn to accept others’ flaws, since we too are flawed. We cannot be otherwise since we are, like every flawed being around us, human.

La Dolce Vita

Marcello MastroanniLa Dolce Vita

Marcello Mastroanni
La Dolce Vita

Art both reflects and creates culture.

I love that pithy phrase: so much truth in so few words. I first heard it circa 1974 when I was running around Manhattan performing home-grown drama with Womanrite, a feminist theater collective (another pithy phrase, but somewhat less truthful and praiseworthy). I thought about these words, and the idea behind them, after watching Fellini’s La Dolce Vita last night.

It was my first viewing, except for the famous scene of Anita Ekberg frolicking in a Roman fountain with Marcello Mastroanni—named Marcello in thela-dolce-vita

film as well. It’s frequently shown as cinematic homage or in nostalgic documentaries. Anyhow, it occurred to me that, while my generation and my mother’s went gaga over Fellini’s movies, a 20- or 30-year-old watching La Dolce Vita today probably wouldn’t think much of it at all. We were awed by all things Felliniesque—but now that the whole world is Felliniesque, his stuff doesn’t rock the way it did back in the day.  Someone born into today’s world is likely to find La Dolce Vita unremarkable outside of its sociological context.

Art creates culture. How much of the world we live in sprang fully formed from Federico Fellini’s imagination? Art reflects culture. Was Fellini predicting the future, or simply portraying the times he lived in? My favorite writer-guru, Doris Lessing, says that predicting the future is merely a matter of studying the present with full consciousness, then logically extending that vision. Fellini saw hints of what was coming, and presented a logical conclusion, or rather evolution, in film.

Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini

When I visited Rome in the mid-90s, Federico Fellini had just died, and his funeral procession passed by my hotel. If I, who actually lived during Fellini’s lifetime, find La Dolce Vita unremarkable, younger people must surely see even less in it. Yet when it came out in 1960 it was considered scandalous.

Take a good look, kids, at  today’s scandals. There’s your future.