Friday, June 24, 2016

French movie Friday: L'ecole pour tous

I'm beginning to think that foreign movies starring children are likely to be a good bet. Evidence: the French gem La Guerre des Boutons, the chilling German Nackt unter Wolfen (shudder) and then of course, Les Choristes. Far from being annoying or precocious, the kids somehow sparkled so effortlessly that it left me reeling. 

L'ecole pour tous then is another example. The protagonist, a petty criminal named Jahwad, somehow ends up impersonating a middle-school teacher of French literature. The class he is assigned to is known as the 'dregs' of academia. Even the real teacher would have his job cut out for him. As expected, Jahwad plunges in right up to his eyes, fumbling frantically. Incredibly, the original teacher, the hapless real Jean-Christophe Despalin, helps him along. 

Jahwad's daft friend Yasin, his accomplice in their petty crookery, hangs around trying to understand Jahwad's gig but never does. And there are the other teachers at the school, a decently hilarious bunch especially the lady with the voice like a Sergeant at boot camp. 

Finally, the kids themselves. Oh what an absurd bunch they are! Engaging in what would be considered way-over-the-top banter in my home country, they somehow manage to convey the essential innocence of the very young under their layers of disgruntled, disruptive mob mentality. Scratch that, these kids would not exist in India. Or they would simply be put in jail. For life. But this is French cinema after all. I've come to expect a certain lighthearted absurdity with a vast acceptance of every possible stripe of humanity, and this I got.

The lead (Arie Elmaleh) carries off physical comedy with a feather touch, an able if frail foil to the robust tomfoolery of the teenagers. You feel for the teachers for sure, but I found myself rooting for the rambunctious 8th-graders here. And that's quite a feat for a mere movie to achieve, he he he. 

Director: Eric Rochant
Overall rating: 7/10

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Insert witticism here

I had a friend a few years ago who suddenly dropped out of touch deliberately. She ignored messages and phone calls for months, before I stopped attempting to contact her again. It left me feeling baffled and prickly. I analyzed my every action the last time we had met, attempting to find a reason for the sudden withdrawal. What else can you do? I finally assumed that some major change or loss had occurred in her life and it would be wisest for me to let it go. 

And then we saw each other by accident, at a cafe. She came up to me and we had this awkward conversation. I didn't put on any false airs of being happy to see her but asked her frankly if she was okay. She seemed ill at ease: too hearty, and even a little embarrassed. She ended the brief meeting by promising to call me, which I found odd. She never did call. This must have been six years ago. 

Two nights ago I suddenly decided to text her again. (I never deleted her number.) She explained her point of view, and even if it made no sense to me, I can empathize. The conversation we had was interesting in that it was stripped of all social niceties, and so felt like a relief. This is a big part of the reason for my not having a life-of-the-party personality. I've been called snobbish, standoffish, overly serious, and too businesslike. I have been accused of 'thinking too much.' 

All that means is that when I have a conversation, I want to converse. I am fully engaged and need full engagement from the other party. I am hesitant to open up to people because I'm not sure if they feel the same. No judgment on my part, but I find small talk of little interest. If I cannot have a meaningful exchange I simply prefer not to have one at all. I realize that the problem lies in the definition of 'meaningful'.

I don't know where this post is leading. I think the crux is that I crave authenticity in relationships, a quality I find sadly lacking. Of course over the years I've skimmed off many people who I deemed too unable to understand my point of view, but I still find that a few people I am close to for various reasons are on the other side of the bridge when it comes to openness and speaking their mind.

I'm stuck in this state of feeling baffled and prickly. If only I could hurry up and be one of those people who have a witticism for every time they feel like this.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Readings: Not that sort of girl

Can a long marriage and  a long love affair go hand in hand? This is the central question of this quite astute and insightful story by the reliable Mary Wesley. Told in a no-nonsense, typically English way, it follows the memories of one Rose Peel i.e. Mrs. Ned Peel, just after being widowed. We first meet Rose just after Ned has died. Nicholas and Emily Thornby, her childhood friends, also show up in the first chapter (and fittingly, in the last).

And then Rose starts to reminisce, starting in childhood and her somewhat thorny, disquieting relationship with the twin siblings Thornby, and moving on to her youth and the two main men in her life: Ned Peel, hasty husband, and Mylo Cooper, lifelong passionate love. She meets both at the same time. So why does she opt to marry Ned if she really loves Mylo? Here begins the examination of Rose's character. Through the author's careful pulling back of the layers, you begin to see all the in-between shades of a person's choices, circumstances, motivations, and desires. Not only Rose but all the cast of characters blooms slowly under this insightful pen. 

So we go along for the ride through the years before and after WWII. Rose matures quickly from a shy teenager into the confident mistress of an ancestral estate and its farms, mothers a child, and all the while continues to nurture her love for the elusive Mylo. Elusive because he works for the secret service and travels between England and France at highly erratic intervals. Thus Rose is stranded so to speak, once he leaves her after a rendevouz. Ned the husband is either away in the war or lives in London working during the week and this facilitates the lovers' meetings. Rose's housekeepers, the Farthings, play a surprising but important role in this relationship also. 

What of her relationship with Ned? The writing style here is so convincing that one can have no doubts imagining such an arrangement, a marriage arranged if you will, between two young people in that era. Also a revelation is the suddenly evolved character of Rose's mother after Rose's father passes away; the chapter where she and her mother meet for lunch is the funniest one in the book albeit in an almost mordant way. 

Told without judgement, this is a story about love and life. To distill further, it examines the consequences of craving security while simultaneously being in love with someone who represents the opposite. I'm sure there will be readers who cast a harsh eye on the doings of Rose and Mylo, but I was so struck by the authenticity of the writing that I could not do so. Yes, it was infidelity. And yet (such is the power a writer holds) you understand. That is the great triumph of this author Mary Wesley. I first read her in the droll and engagingly polished The Vacillations of Poppy Carew, and I'll be reading more for sure. She published her first novel at age 71, maybe that explains the altogether sophisticated and effortless style.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Food findings

Yesterday was one of the hottest days of the year. So what did J and I do? Walked to the gym (a good 12 minutes) at noon. Serves us right then that after the workout we decided we were going to faint and to prevent that we would need cooling beverages, stat, that had a bit more oomph than our already-warm water bottles.

Of course we found ourselves in that new little ice cream place located cleverly just opposite the gym. It's a purveyor of Italian ices and creams. And what did J find there, actually paying attention while I drooled witlessly at the pictures of mint chip cups and double chocolate scoops? A mango ice, but sprinkled with cayenne pepper powder and squeezed with lime! I pounced. To make matters better, the owner is a kindly old chap who looks indulgent while you slurp, making you feel you are being watched for the day by a grandparent.

Then today was another little inferno. Triple digits if you please. Fahrenheit, not Celsius of course, can you imagine that, ha ha. But today thankfully we didn't walk but drove to the tiny Sri Lankan place we'd tried once eons ago. Again, I pounced. Something just came loose in my brain at the sight of that food and the smells. Of course the proprietress helped too, matronly and talking in that sing-song Sri Lankan English. There was fat unpolished rice with potato stew in coconut milk, tender green beans, a spicy fried rice and an atomic-level fish curry. Plus a choice of really enticing salads and sambols: one with kale and coconut, one with dried coconut and red chillies, and another with little eggplants and onions. (I had all.) Also the dessert, a heavenly sort of flan with palm sugar that goes by the delightful name of wattalappam

And the regulars kept streaming in, making their inside jokes, catching up with news, squabbling over menu choices and so on. Sri Lankan t.v. was playing. All this and the intense heat shimmering outside gave us the impression we were back in the lovely Bertie's Lunch House somewhere in Colombo, where we had a very beautiful meal one day a few years ago. 

And now, because gluttony is so thankfully rare, I have just eaten a demure nectarine for dinner. That and a homemade popsicle. But Sunday lunches should be devilish. If only my stomach had a respectable capacity to be gluttonous more often.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Drink, put out the fire, and wait

Sometimes it seems like we're living in a world of electronic nannies. Alarm clocks, phones, and every other kind of reminder known to man or beast keep going off. First there's the app I put on my phone to remind me to keep drinking water through the day. (I've been told I don't drink enough, hehehe.) So this reminder keeps reminding me dutifully enough by producing on my phone the sound of a very loud drink of water being poured. And this I appreciate, except for the fact that it pours water even while I'm on a phone call. The other party once asked me in alarm, "What's that???" "Er," I had to answer foolishly, "It's er...that is, I have....uh..."

Well it's not for nothing that I've named the water app the Sea Hag. She's never satisfied no matter how much I update her. Always gargling at me, the fiend. Then there's the seat belt reminder in our car, of course every car has it but that's of no consequence here. No sooner has your posterior touched the seat and you are in the process of belting up, that it starts to go off in a most high-pitched way.  It always gives me the horrible impression that an explosion of some sort is imminent. Sigh. And not to mention that blessed fire alarm in our apartment. Last year one time there was a wisp of smoke, a wisplet really, that went up just before J turned off the oven. That was it, the alarm began. "Fah-yer" she intoned in her insistent way, "Fah-yer". (The lack of urgency in the tone was particularly chilling when combined with the persistence). We scrambled around to open doors and windows and flapped our arms in front of her face but she wouldn't let up. "Fah-yer," she continued, relentless, "Fah-yer." For this performance she has earned the name Dame Naggie Smith. 

Also last year was that one occasion in San Diego when J and I were waiting to cross a street. Cars were still going so obviously we weren't about to leap into the traffic. But no. We had to be told, to "WAIT". This from an extremely aggressive masculine voice issuing from the walk button. "WAIT, WAIT!" he carried on. Finally the tape got stuck, and he went, "WAIT, W-W-W-W-WAIT" making him sound extremely unsure but extremely insistent at the same time. We're still a bit scarred by him, I think. There are times in L.A. that we will imagine we hear the same voice shouting at us while we wait at the crossing. Still, it's preferable to the free-for-all and all-are-free-to-die method of street crossing that one follows back in India I suppose. Pugilistic electronic nanny seems a shade better than death by flattening on M.G. Road, but just a shade.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Foreign movie Friday: Gianni e le donne

Lately I've come to appreciate small, intimate movies that are in the 'slice of life' style. This Italian gem I recently sampled is a worthy example. 

The eponymous Gianni is a retiree in Rome, somewhere on the long end of middle-age. His wife still works, thus he is sent off on various domestic errands during working hours, and this he is content to do. Then there's his somewhat confused daughter and her equally shiftless boyfriend who has moved into their home. There's Gianni's rich, demanding mother who has him at her beck and call. And then there's his friend and peer Alfonso, a rakish lawyer who attempts to get Gianni off the straight and narrow and into the fast lane of late-age sexual/romantic dalliance.

Now this straight and narrow as it were, is very much Gianni's choice. It's just that he has reached a point where he is seemingly invisible to the young women around him. Invisible and inaudible. He is touchingly earnest in his realization, accepting it with a kind of shrugging melancholy. But he has the persistent Alfonso to keep nudging him away from this acceptance; even if we don't know if 'Alfo' is actually successful with the women himself. 

And there are a few very beautiful women around poor Gianni. First the downstairs neighbor, a hazel-eyed sprite who flirts with him relentlessly, turns out to have passed off her dog-walking duties on him. Then the identical blond twins, Alfo's clients; Gianni's mother's caretaker; another woman who is an old flame, and yet another who is an old acquaintance: they make up the rolls as he shambles around amiably trying to see where he can get.

Street life in Rome appears in tantalizing vignettes, as does the stupendous house belonging to Gianni's very old mother. Then there's the scene where he gets lost with the neighbor's St. Bernard. (It's an Italian St. Bernard named Riccardo! I was wildly in love.) And the three old men who sit around on the side street all day, one of them in perpetual sweatpants. There are many such little moments, and it makes you feel like you are looking in through a very accessible little window into the lives of these characters. Ultimately you don't know whether to root for Gianni because that would result in infidelity. At the same time you are wishing for him to have just a little bit of luck...and it is in this easy engagement with your sympathies, whether with Gianni or with any other character depending on who you are, where the script scores. 

There's another film that came before this, Pranzo di Ferragosto, as a kind of first part to the Gianni life stories. However that one didn't catch my attention like this one did, so I'm hoping there will be a third. Gianni e le donne is wry and sweet, meant to be savored for its moments rather like a glass of good wine that slowly freshens you up on a hot afternoon in the plaza.

Director: Gianni Di Gregorio
Overall rating: 7/10
English title: The Salt of Life

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Language, interrupted

My first brush with Spain was when I was very little. Someone had given my dad one of those yearly agendas that had photos from all over the world, the theme that year being children. There was this one photo of a group of Spanish girls about my age, dressed up in traditional costumes, hair pulled back with flowers, earrings, and those long knit shawls that I think are called mantillas. They were against the backdrop of some marvelous old stone church or other in the countryside. I was hooked. For some reason, I preserved that picture. I think I even gnawed at it in hopes that I would end up there, through the sheer force of my will and my newly-acquired canines. (Do 8-year-olds have canines? Don't know.)

Years later I had a friend, a sailor who spent nine months of the year sailing up and down South America. He had had to learn Spanish and had several language books; so what did I do but cleverly persuade him to part with one. (He had moved on to Portuguese.) It was in this way that I got started on vocabulary and basic grammar. I had a lot of time in those days, in fact due to the circumstances I had to stay home. And then one afternoon I watched a t.v. show on the famous walking pilgrimage of Spain, ending in a town called Santiago de Compostela. Again, my only desire was to somehow defy the laws of physics and find myself there. Alas, I did do my research but was beaten before I started. I didn't try to gnaw on the t.v. though, maybe that would've worked this time around.

Youth being what is is, I eventually found a way to escape. Not to my beloved Spain, but to another country, one which actually ended up paying me to stay and study there. Har har. But for some reason it's only now in my third innings here, so to speak, that I have really endeavored to master the language again.

And while master is not quite the suitable verb, I can now stumble along in rudimentary espanol. In fact, I frequently get mistaken for a Mexican chica and become engaged in conversations with perfect strangers. Sometimes I have to sheepishly declare myself when the speaker gets too carried away and rattles on at 90 miles an hour, but most of the time I pull it off. Now to come up with a good Spanish name. Celestina Garcia? I like that; it's the name of the character I played in a school production aged 9, in which my sister had to slap someone, but that's another story.
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