Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Namesake

Once in a rare while, I see a movie that simply takes my breath away; something achingly beautiful, so familiar it seems I know these people, or come to know them in the brief time in the theater. They keep on living after the credits roll, not in a tidy happily ever after way, but in a true, messy, lovely and painful way. Mira Nair has directed two films that fall into this category for me, Monsoon Wedding and now The Namesake.

The Namesake, based on the book by Jhumpa Lahiri, is a story about a family. Like every story about a family, it is actually many stories, the stories of each member of that family, together and apart. The beginning for one is the next chapter for another and sometimes, agonizingly, the last for yet another. It is the story of Ashok Ganguli, a man inspired by a grandfather’s gift and a horrible tragedy to move far from home. It is the story of Ashima, the lovely bride he takes with him, who struggles with desperate homesickness, but comes to love her new country. It is the story of Gogol, their son, raised with all the advantages of a life in American suburbia, who must come to terms with who he wants to be; an American boy with Indian parents or an Indian American? A dutiful son or his own man?

I’ve recently become enthralled with Showtime’s new series This American Life. The day after I saw The Namesake, I watched an episode of This American Life which included a story about a woman who was struggling to leave the Mormon faith without turning her back on her family. There was the most exceptional quote which seemed strangely relevant to the movie I’d seen the day before:

Choosing not to become the person your family expected is painful. You have to leave their world completely so you can make sense of your own life. But fate lures you back in whenever it can, to give you the chance to measure the distance between their world and yours, and see if its just as far as you remembered.

Gogol spends much of the film fighting that lure of fate, trying to broaden the distance between his world and his parents. Like many a young person, he discovers the hard way that a determination to be “not like” his parents is not sufficient to count as an identity.

Mira Nair is an amazing director. She find beauty everywhere; in the mad, vibrant, filthy streets of India or a non-descript cul de sac somewhere in American suburbia. Through the eyes of a newlywed wife, the landscape of a New York winter appears black and white compared to the world from which she has come. As she waves to her husband through a window as he trudges off to work in the snow, you feel the oppressiveness of that white open space upon her. It is as if he has left her to fend for herself on the moon. Fans of Mira Nair's work will recognize her touches, including an impromtu song and dance number which seems both out of place and perfect.

There is something so incredibly American about this story. Frightened young wives from every corner of the globe have stood in dingy American tenements, overwhelmed by mysterious questions like how to do laundry in this strange land. Unless you are full blooded Native American, somewhere in your history, you have an ancestor who did the same thing. Somewhere in your history, you have an ancestor who despaired of the Old World ways of their parents, struggling to understand why they would come all this way just to insist on eating their cereal with curry powder and peanuts. The further away we get from our original ancestors' trek to this country, the more we’re inclined to believe that we are somehow separate from the immigrant experience, when in fact America is a tapestry created by the immigrant experience.

This movie got me thinking about my own scrap of the tapestry, so I thought I'd end this review with my own immigrant roots, and a nod to everyone along the way who had dreams bigger than their original country could contain. My granny on my mom’s side was born in England. She came here with her family to Illinois, by way of Canada. She was an illegal immigrant until she reached adulthood and, though her parents were successful business owners, they lived in constant fear of being found out and deported. My granddad’s mother was from Holland, and I’ve still got a handful of distant cousins who live there. On my Dad’s side, I know less, except that we’re Heinz 57: Scotch, Irish, German… whatever they could pick up along the way. My grandma was born in Oklahoma, but headed West with her family during the Dust Bowl, just like the Joads.

What does your scrap of tapestry look like?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Gee Cardinal Krupke: An Ode To My Favorite Tyrant

It’s hard to know where, exactly, my bizarre affection began. Perhaps it was upon reading The Autobiography of Henry VIII, the novel, despite its title, by Margaret George. Perhaps it was during my college years when I majored in British History. Perhaps it has some connection to my life as a cradle Episcopalian. Regardless of its origins there is no escaping the truth. I love Henry VIII. He’s absolutely my favorite tyrant in all of history.

This affection has caused me no little embarrassment. I’ve found myself making the oddest arguments in defense of his wacky antics. I get cranky when people say he broke with the Church just to get a divorce. You know, it wasn’t just to get an annulment (not a divorce) from his first wife that he caused all that ruckus with Rome. He was standing up to Rome’s political manipulations and attempts to weaken England in favor of Spain. Truthfully, Henry was relatively pious and not a big fan of divorce, which is why he beheaded which is why he beheaded two of his wives instead of just divorcing them.

Like I said, the oddest arguments, the sorts that cause sprains. When a friend of mine heard they were beginning a series on Showtime about Henry, he rather crankily referred to Henry as, I believe, a psychotic sociopath. Well now really. That’s a bit much. He wasn't all that bad, just misunderstood. Deep down inside him there was good! (There was good! There was good! There was untapped good. Likeinside, the worst of him was good.)

Certainly Henry has had an ongoing image problem, particularly in Hollywood. You usually see the fat, boorish Charles Laughten version. Or the fat, boorish and whiny Richard Burton version. Or the executing his best friend Robert Shaw version. Most of his portrayals seem to involve gratuitous eating of turkey legs and copious amounts of “off with his head!!”-ings. Which isn’t to say that Henry wasn’t rather corpulent by the end, or that he didn’t tend to have people who irritated him killed (but seriously now, what sixteenth century monarch didn’t?). It’s just a bit one sided, like judging The King (the other one) solely on his Fat Elvis, television shooting days.

Even if you do think that Henry VIII was a psychotic sociopath (but seriously now, what sixteenth century monarch wasn’t?) you cannot claim that Henry led a boring life. Six wives. Many more female conquests. Untold number of dead and living offspring. Telling Rome to go ‘f’ itself. Dragging England from small dog to big dog status in Europe.  It's a shame that Shakespeare's play had to be the sanitized version, since a more factual representation would have given Macbeth a real run for its money.  It probably also would have gotten Shakespeare executed.  

Which brings us to Showtime’s new series The Tudors. I admit I was a wee bit excited when I heard about this series, excited enough that I actually changed my cable subscription from HBO to Showtime. Weeds. The L Word. Dexter. None of these shows, as interesting as they seemed, were enough to entice me away from my HBO. But a drama about young Henry? Be still my heart! Henry VIII could kick Tony Soprano’s ass eight ways til Tuesday. “Him and what army?” you ask condescendingly. Well his freaking army is what army!

After watching the first episode of The Tudors, I like what I’m seeing so far. Henry was a walking bundle of contradictions, which is honestly where much of his fame comes from.  He has come to represent both the best and the worst a monarchy has to offer.  He was an educated, learned patron of the arts, as well as a bruiser and an athlete. He appreciated humanist philosophy which suggested that the primary duty of a king was to improve the lives of his people, but he longed to build an army and kick whomever’s butt he could, primarily the French.

He fantasized about military victory, but backed more than one clever treaty with his enemies which avoided battle. He loved his first wife, but was an inveterate womanizer. He had deeply held religious beliefs and a strong sense of duty to God, but he wrested the Church of England away from Rome and pillaged the holdings of the Church in England. He loved his daughters, but almost destroyed his empire trying to get a son. He loved his friends dearly, until they failed him, at which point he would destroy them. He was all these things, fine and lousy, brilliant and terrifying, and The Tudors gets that.

The Tudors gives us Young Henry, as opposed to Old Henry, showing us rather clearly that Harry was at one point in his life hot. He didn’t get all that tail just because he was the King. Well, he probably would have gotten just as much if he’d been King Quasimodo, but he wouldn’t have gotten as much willing and enthusiastic tail. Like many a football player, age and injury eventually transformed muscle to fat, but when he was young, he was the bomb.

I’m not convinced that Jonathan Rhys Meyers is the best choice to play Henry, at least based on the fantasy version of Henry I have in my head. Don’t get me wrong. Rhys Meyers is hot. H-H-O-T-T.  Hot.  But Jon is a bit effete for Henry, despite his obviously sculpted biceps. He’s under tall, for one thing. Henry was known for being one of the tallest guys in the room, and despite scenes referencing the King’s very fine calf muscles (apparently calves were like the six pack of its day), I have seen no evidence of them so far. Plus, Henry was fair (his daughter’s Tudor red hair came from somewhere) rather than dark and smoldery. I suppose I always envisaged him a bit more like this, or perhaps this, or even this.  But Meyers does capture his charm and impetuousness, as well as his fierce temper.  And did I mention that he's HOT? 

Like all filmed adaptations of history, the show has got telescoping problems, bouncing liberally across time and space to cherry pick the interesting. But if we wanted reality, we’d be watching the History Channel, so shame on me, really, for noticing or comparing any of these things to my history books. So far, the show is darned entertaining, and Showtime has not let me or my favorite tyrant down.