Monday, December 1, 2008

'Dear Frankie' and the Masculine Principle (a la Gerard Butler)

Dear Frankie (2004) is another of my Netflix pics. My husband and I were on the outs so he really didn't want to watch it with me. But he did anyway. Such a sport! Of course, he griped about it and his crankiness was wearing on me but we soon got into watching the previews first, then the movie credits (The soundtrack by Alex Heffes is capitivating) then suddenly we are watching a single mom (Emily Mortimer), her nine-year-old son Frankie (Jack McElhone) and her mother, a plump little woman who never stops smoking (Mary Riggans) as they settle into a small apartment in Glasgow, Scotland.

Frankie is a silent, dreamy deaf kid who uses sign language to communicate with his mother and writes notes to everybody else. He refuses to wear his hearing aid but is "a champion lip reader," according to his mom. Very quickly we learn Frankie has been getting letters from his dad since he left the family years ago. He's at sea aboard a British ship, the Accra, and sends Frankie stamps from all the places he visits when the ship docks. Frankie writes back to his dad and plots his ports of call on a big map of the world in his bedroom.

But at the same time we learn about Frankie's correspondence with his absent dad we find out that his mom is behind the letters from dad. She rents a post office box in a town a bus ride away where she picks up the letters Frankie writes to his dad.

Well, the film's plot turns on the Accra's surprise appearance off the shores of Glasgow and how Frankie's mom gets stuck with finding someone -- a stranger -- to pretend to be his dad while the ship is anchored in Glasgow's harbor.

Sound implausible? Well, it doesn't play that way, not for this woman reviewer, anyway. The film was directed by a woman, Shona Auerbach, and the script written by another woman, Andrea Gibb. It is a woman's film in that it deals with issues only women face. I won't go into all of them here. Jack McElhone and the actresses that play Frankie's mother and grandmother are pitch perfect in their depiction of a contented, though fatherless, family.

Sharon Small, who my husband and I recognized from The Inspector Lynley series on PBS's Mystery Theatre, is great in the role of a newly acquired family friend, and Gerard Butler is perfect as the bemused stranger she recruits to play the role of Frankie's long absent father.

Well, actually Gerard Butler was absolutely "brilliant," as the Brits would say, in the role of the Stranger, or the Rescuing Stranger, I should say. There he is up above, first (at left) as the Phantom in the movie version of Phantom of the Opera and then as the Spartan warrior, King Leonidas, in the film 300 (2006).

Butler's other film credits include major roles in the Christian Bale/Matthew McConaughey sci-fi flick, Reign of Fire (2002) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003). More recently he starred with Hillary Swank in P.S. I Love You (2007) and with Tom Wilkinson in the Guy Ritchie film, Rocknrolla (2008) But I find the roles in which he is pictured above to be most interesting in explaining his effectiveness as the Stranger in Dear Frankie. His role in the Phantom was conceived by Andrew Lloyd Webber for the stage musical which opened on Broadway in 1986 and which continues its uninterrupted run there today. In both the play and the movie which was adapted from it, the character touches a deep chord in the feminine psyche: the mysterious outcast, threatening and at the same time comforting, who brings The Music of the Night into the life of a young woman preparing to marry another, more conventional and socially successful man. Butler in his role as the Stranger in Frankie evokes the same emotional ambiquity and thus adds a muted but palpable tension to the plot.

The character of King Leonidas, the Spartan warrior, in 300, on the other hand, is overtly, if not stereotypically, masculine and Butler who endured round-the-clock physical training in preparation for the film embodies the role with the requisite and charismatic machismo. This quality comes across strongly in the Frankie role but in a far more subtle manner as a foil both to the boyish vulnerability of the nine-year-old Frankie and to the fiercely protective qualities of his mother Lizzie and his grandmother Nell. Butler's first appearance in the otherwise feminine (and childish) cast was riveting. He appears almost out of nowhere at Lizzie's table while she scans the restaurant as she awaits an arranged meeting with him. Silent and attentive, he listens as she explains her dilemma displaying no emotion whatsoever except an awkward willingness to go along with her plan. His initial meeting with Frankie who is as trusting and open as his mother is wary and reserved is another moment of stunning contrast.

I'll not spoil the movie by continuing here but will say that Dear Frankie is worth the seeing (I watched it twice and I never, ever do that). Jimmy, my husband, liked it too. If you want a contrasting opinion see Neil Young's (not the singer, I hope) Film Lounge. I also think it would be suitable for children around Frankie's age (9 years) and older. All around the acting is great. Emily Mortimer is especially fine as Lizzie, Frankie's mom. She sketches an emotional landscape which women easily recognize. I also enjoyed seeing Sharon Small out of her familiar (to me) role as assistant cop to Inspector Lynley. The Film Lounge reviewer mentioned above described Mary Riggan's portrayal of Frankie's grandma as OTT which could mean a number of things including: Over The Top, Off The Truck, and Off The Trolley, none of which apply in my opinion. I found her grandma reserved but tenacious.

Dear Frankie's also a great introduction to the Scots actor, Butler, who at 39, and with five new movies in various stages of development, is destined for even greater celebrity in the near future. Did I mention that he's a hunk? He is. But I suggest you see the movie before you check him out on YouTube where he is featured in some 13,400 videos.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Himalaya vs. Michael Clayton

I subscribe to Netflix because it seems to be the only way I can watch the foreign films, documentaries and independent films that I enjoy. I rarely enjoy American films being made today. My husband is always fussing at me because I never order the newer films. He likes action and newness though he usually watches my films with me and seems to enjoy them.

One we watched together was Himalaya (1999), based on story of the Dolpo Pa, the people of a village in the Himalayas of Nepal. The village was founded by wandering Tibetans, probably Buddhist pilgrims, long ago and is in the middle of nowhere surrounded by Himalayan peaks. Each year the villagers travel to a market in the foothills to trade salt for grain which they must have to survive. The salt is mounted on yaks which the villagers herd down treacherous slopes in sometimes brutal weather to reach the market.

In 1998, the French director Eric Valli made this film with a French crew and a cast made up of Dolpo villagers. The film was released by a Nepalese company and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. The dramatic journey is further enlivened by a conflict between an old chief and a young man with his own leadership abilities. The villagers do well in competition with the two other stars, the weather (a snowstorm) and the Himalayas. And the story is beautiful.

Making the film was an ordeal for the director and his crew, unaccustomed to the weather, living in tents and the isolation of the mountains. I am extremely grateful for their perseverance because I would never have learned about the beautiful Dolpo Pa, a people totally unaffected by Western civilization.

This brings me to the film Michael Clayton which my impatient husband rented from Blockbuster. We watched it the night before. George Clooney plays an attorney cum "fixer", one of three sons of a retired big city (New York) Irish cop. He's an ok guy: divorced, a gambler, whose restaurant business failed leaving him (actually his brother, an alcoholic) in debt to a shady loan operator. He works for a law firm whose clients are corporations fighting class action lawsuits among other things.

The plot hinges on one of his fellow lawyers in this firm who suddenly goes bonkers working on this particular case, a class action suit against a weedkiller manufacturer (Monsanto?) is poisoning the water table in a small farming community somewhere in the U.S. His friend, Arthur, played by Tom Wilkinson, a first rate lawyer in the biz, suddenly acquires a conscience, goes off his bipolar meds, loses it and in various ways, some rather colorful, compromises the client's defense against the poisoned farm families.

Tom Wilkinson came to fame as one of the bare-assed men in The Full Monty (1997), played opposite Sissy Spacek in In the Bedroom (2001) and Jessica Lange in Normal (2003), the TV movie about a middle-aged married man who decides to become a woman.

Michael Clayton
has an interesting plot which revolves around Michael, Arthur, the weedkiller case and the corporation's effort to deny responsibility at any and all costs. I won't spoil it. But I will say that I liked its insinuation that normal people take drugs to treat so-called mental illnesses which in fact may be caused by a guilty conscience and trying to stay afloat in the very sick culture we call global capitalism. Also, I really dislike Monsanto and its herbicide, RoundUp, which I choose to believe are hidden targets of the movie's script.

These movies are so different from one another. One is about sophisticated people in a city; the other is about peasants in a remote village in the Himalayas. Michael Clayton is about civilization and its discontents; Himalaya is about nature, human survival and community.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Surfing: an old dilettante's adventure

Somewhere recently I read that surfing the internet is good for old people because it stimulates their brains. Or something to that effect. It can also be a way of getting drowned, losing one's way (or mind) or feeling overwhelmed. My husband would add "wasting time" to the previously mentioned bad outcomes.

But let's stick to the positive.

Experts do say that stimulating the brain is a plus when it comes to staving off the ravaging effects of Alzeimer's disease. Apparently learning creates new neural networks in the brain and when the dread disease shuts down or clogs up some neural networks, the constant learner has more activated areas to back up their functions.

Whatever! (an insolent expression some think but a good way to cut to the chase; how about 'Well, anyhow?'...).

The fact is I'm genetically pre-disposed to surfing the web. It's my curiousity or what my father mislabelled my "dilettantism." Before there was an internet, when I was writing papers in college, I always prolonged the ordeal by going off on tangents during the research process. This was done the hard way with dictionaries, encyclopedias and the indices of books. At times -- many times -- this would lead to confusion and/or exhaustion. I would lose focus on my topic, forget the connections between ideas and facts and more or less wind up feeling like a failure. And I was always turning in late papers.

The internet makes things easier. Because it's so fast I get lost less frequently. If I do get lost there's always that trail of cookie crumbs (Firefox calls it "history") to follow out of the woods and back to the beginning. The so-called beginning.

The other thing is that as a retired old person I do not face the deadlines, restrictions and fear of negative judgments which plague college students or high school students for that matter. Fear is not conducive to clear thinking or writing.

Another good thing about being old is the confidence that comes from experience. Over time I have learned to trust my brain or rather I've come to respect my process of thinking. I've seen that my mental side trips, chasing of rabbits and other forays into the "not obviously related" are often quite productive. Either I learn something new that relates to another thing that puzzles me or I find that my intuition is right and what seemed merely tangential is not only relevant but central to my pursuit of understanding the original topic. Quite often I reach dead ends, but so what? It's no big deal. No one's going to punish me. Unless I do it myself and I try not to do that.

Well, I started off here with the idea of detailing a specific surfing adventure and I guess I got off track. Maybe I'll do that next time. Ciao.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Scots novelist Mina provides 'unlikely' heroine for our time

He stepped towards her, raising his hand
above his head and brought it down hard
on her face. Maureen's teeth sliced into her cheek,
her left eye flashed blankets of white light
and her mouth was suddenly filled with salty blood.

A heavy hush descended in the pub
as each man computed the difficult equation
of why a small woman with blood dripping
from her chin was nothing to do with him

Denise Mina, from her novel, Exile
Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2001, p. 304)

I found out about Denise Mina through National Public Radio. (WLPN, 90.3, here in Nashville). A month or two ago NPR was doing a series on writers whose fiction is set in real cities which are as indispensable to their stories as plot, protagonist and other characters. Mina's city, the setting for her detective novels, is Glasgow, Scotland. Most particularly, it is the Garnethill section of Glasgow, a rough working class area which fell on very hard times as a result of Margaret Thatcher's "economic revolution" in Britain.

By the way, Thatcher, a rigid free market ideologue, was a great pal, political and economic soul mate of Ronald Reagan. The economic policies of these two leaders, often called "supply side" or "trickle down economics" here in the U.S., set the stage for the global financial meltdown we are currently experiencing in part because they insisted on no government regulation. Wiklopedia's entry on
Thatcherism explains these policies and their effects quite well.

I was so impressed by Mina's NPR interview that I quickly ordered her debut novel, Garnethill, from ebay's After finishing that, I ordered Exile from Abebooks. These are detective novels, the first two in what she has called the Garnethill trilogy. The next one is called Resolution. Though my reading habits are quickly changing, I've never been a great reader of detective fiction but I'm pretty sure Maureen O'Donnell, the amateur detective of the Garnethill trilogy, breaks all the molds when it comes to crime-solving protagonists.

In fact, Maureen who is getting beaten up so ruthlessly in the excerpt quoted above has many of the personality characteristics of the classic loser. The words outsider, scapegoat, outcast also come to mind. She is a victim of sexual abuse by her father, a former mental patient, an anorexic chain smoker and a depressive who cries almost around the clock and contemplates suicide regularly. She is also a heavy drinker who appears to be on her way to becoming an alcoholic like her mother. And she curses like a sailor (or like an alienated working class 20-something from any urban wasteland on the planet).

You got to love her, right? Not exactly. I mean all the above traits might summon pity or even sympathy but not admiration. What is so attractive, captivating in fact, about Maurie is that she is still in process; she's still growing and learning, still growing up. Like so many young adults she's still an adolescent emotionally. With good reason. But wounded and miserable and worldly-wise as she is, she has the wisdom of one who is unable or unwilling to deny her feelings. As a result, she is spontaneously compassionate, completely unable (or unwilling?) to write off or abandon the other loser outcasts that come into her life.

I think Denise Mina's Maureen O'Donnell is a novelistic hero for our time which is to say that I think Mina is a novelist for our time. In my first post here on The Postmodern Dilettante, I wrote some of the things that give me heart. When I spoke of
"the voice of a writer, the strength and certainty beneath the words, something about the sound, the quiet sound of the storyteller's voice" I was thinking of Denise Mina. She's written several more novels since the publication of the two I've spoken of here. She's been described as a writer in the tartan noir genre of fiction which is supposedly reflective of Scottish history among other things.

I can see that. Mina's sex abuse victim cum (no pun intended) crime-solver Maureen O'Donnell displays the same stubborn sense of justice, the same bravery bordering on foolhardiness and the same spontaneous courage that characterized the two Scottish heroes portrayed by Liam Neeson in Rob Roy (1995) and Mel Gibson in Braveheart (1995).

The late architect Buckminister Fuller, one of my personal heroes, once wrote the following:
You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Let's say that quote from Exile at the top represents an existing reality, one in which we humans are prone to behave as those men in the pub who sat quietly by while a big bully beat up on a tiny woman. Well, in Maureen O'Donnell, Denise Mina has offered a new model of social behavior for a world desperately in need of one.

Isn't that what heroes and heroines are supposed to be? Desperately needed models of behavior? Said another way a heroine models specific behaviors which reflect the values a specific culture or civilization needs to act on in order to be decent, healthy and good.

And don't be confused here: the specific worthy behavior which Mina's Garnethill heroine models is this: because of her concern for others and despite her loser habits she transcends her victimhood and through the 'adventures' of caring for others discovers herself.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Travelling through time

My father once called me a dilettante which my very old Webster’s dictionary defines as 1.a person who loves the fine arts or 2. a person who follows an art or science only for amusement and in a superficial way; dabbler ; trifler. I knew Daddy was thinking along the lines of that second definition although I never felt his judgment of me was quite so harsh.

I didn’t take the criticism seriously. Dilettante is, after all, such a pretty word. It comes to the English from the Latin (by way of Italian, the most beautiful language, I think) delectare, to charm, delight.

As an adolescent, first, and then as a young woman, I wanted to understand things. I indulged in dilettantism because of my insatiable curiousity; at 65, I find my curiosity is unabated. Indeed, it has become obsessive. But why?

I have always been more observer than participant. At least, that's how it seems to me and it's not something I'm proud of or even happy about. Too much cognitive dissonance in general interrupted by moments of profound connection... With what?

And then the other things, the occasional recognition, for example, of another consciousness, another pilgrim in the way, an exemplar or a witness. Or the title of a book, or a stranger's face or the voice of a writer, the strength and certainty beneath the words, something about the sound, the quiet sound of the storyteller's voice.

Everything is so tentative and time is moving so fast...

Perhaps I am not a dilettante. At least not according to the dictionary cited above. A more recent edition even reverses the order of the two definitions giving more emphasis to superficiality than to love.

If I am a dilettante, it is only in the following sense: I have no expertise, no academic discipline, no mastery of craft or technique.

I am just a human being. I am a sojourner, a traveller through time; I want to know, I want to find, I want to see.

What is Real?