About Jaclyn

I'm a total bookaholic! Fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, YA, science fiction, I read practically anything and everything. I also love talking about books, and chatting about books with people who love them as much as I do!

Shakespeare on Film | TIFF Cinematheque | Divertimentos: The Films of Matias Piñeiro

Among the many, many reasons I’m a huge Shakespeare nerd is that I love the way he subverts gender conventions. His plays are well aware of the limitations imposed upon women in his society, yet, writing for one of the most powerful female monarchs in history, he subverts these expectations. While it’s too simplistic to say his plays are empowering for women, some of them certainly play with the fluidity of gender roles, and particularly in his comedies, explore the freedom of disguise.

One of my favourite Shakespeare comedies precisely because of this play on gender roles is Twelfth Night. A pair of twins (one male, one female) are shipwrecked and separated on an island and somehow end up in an absolutely ridiculous love quadrangle, which is complicated by the fact that one of the twins, Viola, is in disguise as a man. How much of gender is determined by external signifiers such as clothing? How topsy turvy will the world really turn if we reject social conventions on these signifiers? The play itself is hilarious farce, lighthearted entertainment, yet a closer read reveals multiple points of potential discussion.

It comes as no surprise therefore that Shakespeare’s work can be interpreted time and again, and still appear fresh each time. For Argentinean filmmaker Matias Piñeiro, Shakespeare is not so much a basis of his works, as a springboard from which his films can take off and create something wholly new. This weekend, TIFF Cinematheque presents a retrospective of Piñeiro’s work, introducing Toronto audiences to his films as well as featuring Piñeiro’s Carte Blanche selection, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution (1964), which is loosely based on Stendahl’s 1838 novel The Charterhouse of Parma.

Film still from Viola. Courtesy of Matías Piñeiro

Film still from Viola. Courtesy of Matías Piñeiro

On Sunday, April 6 at 5:30 pm, TIFF Cinematheque presents PIñeiro’s Viola, the director’s riff on Twelfth Night and named after the heroine of Shakespeare’s play. Far from a direct presentation of the Bard’s work, however, the filmmaker creates a completely separate experience. Brad Deane, programmer of the PIñeiro retrospective, states that “while Piñeiro’s films are immensely pleasurable experiences, they can also be difficult to define,” and that is certainly my experience with Viola and its accompanying piece Rosalinda (inspired by Shakespeare’s As You Like It). Both films feature actors as actors reciting Shakespeare lines. Ostensibly rehearsing for a production, their repetition of particular phrases and scenes propel the plot forward, and advance the story of these actors as characters. This play within the play motif is a clear nod to Shakespeare, who used it in such a range of plays as Hamlet and Midsummer Night’s Dream, often using the multiple layers of disguise (actors on stage disguised as characters who are actors disguised as other characters) to reveal some truth.

The actual Shakespearean source narrative is not present in any coherent, recognizable form – Piñeiro’s films are indeed best described as “riffs” on Shakespeare rather than interpretations thereof. Shakespearean influence threads through the work, and possibly to a much more impressive degree than I was able to catch myself. Similar to Shakespearean comedies, Piñeiro’s films are rife with romantic entanglements — couples breaking up, getting back together, simmering with repressed passion — all expressed obliquely, at times only through a certain look between two characters as they recite lines from a Shakespeare play.

Film still from Rosalinda. Courtesy of Matías Piñeiro.

Film still from Rosalinda. Courtesy of Matías Piñeiro.

Rosalinda, the work that began Piñeiro’s fascination with Shakespeare is a short film that TIFF Cinematheque will air immediately before Viola. Featuring a group of actors rehearsing As You Like It in a country house, this feels like a director playing with form and testing the waters somewhat. It’s a vignette of a film, and not a bad one, though the film is so self-consciously obvious in its play with form that the characters don’t really emerge fully as individuals and their story beyond the play never really takes root.

In contrast, Viola feels like a much more confident, much tighter film. The film follows an all female ensemble that mashes up Shakespeare plays to create a completely new plot, and a bike courier who delivers her boyfriend’s pirated DVDs and who eventually crosses paths with the actors. Here is Piñeiro letting loose with his riff on Shakespeare, and it’s a stronger, more compelling film as a result. I love the idea of an all female cast, which completely overturns the all male cast Shakespeare had to work with. Just as Shakespeare used the cross-dressing aspect of male actors playing female parts to explore nuances of disguise and gender roles, Piñeiro presents his own interpretation of this, with female actors taking on the male roles.

I also love that the Shakespearean lines were mashed up from a variety of sources, and Piñeiro takes this a step further in the repetition of rehearsed scenes, where sections of dialogue are alternately selected and repeated, then lines are dropped and other sections of dialogue begin at various points. Each repetition sounds new, and even though we can recognize certain phrases as having been said before, there are varying levels of urgency and emotion in the delivery, such that it seems to mean something different each time.

In one particularly compelling scene, a pair of actresses are rehearsing a scene where one (playing a man’s role) conveys a message of love to the other on behalf of another man, yet soon finds himself captivated by the woman’s beauty. In this particular iteration of the scene, the actress playing the woman’s role is awaiting a call from her boyfriend, about whom she isn’t completely sure. As the actresses rehearse the same scene over and over, the sexual tension between them intensifies, such that it soon becomes unclear how much of the attraction between them is part of the rehearsal, and how much of it is real. Just as in Shakespeare, the line between disguise and reality is blurred.

Divertimentos: The Films of Matias Piñeiro will be at TIFF Bell Lightbox March 3 – 6, and the filmmaker will be present at all the screenings. Along with Viola and Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution, TIFF Cinematheque will also present Piñeiro’s films The Stolen Man and They All Lie, which are derived from writings by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, a nineteenth-century intellectual, activist and former president of Argentina. The full schedule for the weekend is available on the TIFF website.

Trailer for Viola:

 

 

Review | The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, Padma Viswanathan

18142312How does one deal with the loss of loved ones to a bomb on a plane? How does one cope when, twenty years after the attack, suspects are finally brought to trial for the crime? Psychologist Ashwin Rao, who lost his sister, niece and nephew in a fatal bombing of an Air India flight from Vancouver, deals with his grief by writing a book on the families of other victims on that flight. He becomes particularly drawn into the story of one Canadian family, whose members have dealt with their grief in very different ways.

In The Ever After of Ashwin RaoPadma Viswanathan explores various ways that people respond to loss. Through Rao’s eyes, we see the unique difficulties of facing such a violent, unexpected death for a loved one — in one particularly powerful scene, two men from the same family search through images of bodies salvaged from the crash, looking for anyone from their family. One of them looks through the photographs methodically, column by column and row by row lest he miss faces he recognizes. The other lets his eyes dart around, barely registering on one photo before moving to another spot, haphazardly chosen. The reason, the first man realizes and relates to Rao, is that the second man wants to register only his own family members; he doesn’t want the burden of anyone else’s grief.

Along with grief is an undercurrent of anger throughout the story. Rao refers to a book on the bombing written by Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise, and the inadequacies of the text to properly represent the tragedy. For example, a passage in the book refers to the children on the flight, how well they and their families have assimilated into Canadian life, and how tragic their deaths were. Rao points out, and quite rightly, that the children’s “Canadian” traits were  and should be completely irrelevant — the tragedy of their deaths is simply because they died. Tied in to this is Rao’s anger at the Canadian government’s handling of the bomb. Other than their apparent incompetence in solving the crime, Rao compares the bombing to 9/11, and wonders why America took 9/11 personally whereas Canada seemed to consider the bombing an Indian tragedy, rather than a Canadian one, despite the number of Canadians on board.

The root of this anger is political, and it turns out that Rao was in India when Indira Gandhi is assassinated in 1984 and anti-Sikh sentiment turns violent. The horror of the riots is heightened by its contrast with the silly, manufactured horror of a haunted house Rao has set up for the neighbourhood children to introduce them to Halloween. Viswanathan is at her best when contrasting innocence with horror, and continues in this vein when dealing with victims’ stories, particularly families’ memories of the children on the flight. Later, some of the families blame Sikhs for the Air India bombing, echoing the violence back in India.

The thrust of the book is more personal than political however, and soon Rao sublimates his own grief and anger and focuses on the subjects of his book. While these stories are interesting in their own right — the family patriarch for example turns to religion, his daughter is stuck in a sexless marriage, and so on — the story to me loses some of the momentum that propelled the beginning so well. The writing is still solid throughout, as the author switches between perspectives, but the fire has been dampened somewhat, and the story never quite reaches its peak.

+

Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Listen to the Squawking Chicken, Elaine Lui

18339631Not just anybody can call their mother a squawking chicken and get away with it; then again, from her memoir, Elaine Lui (Lainey Gossip) has a pretty distinctive mother. “As soon as you hear her, you’ll never forget her,” Lui promises, revealing that “Squawking Chicken” is actually a nickname her mother earned when growing up in Hong Kong because of her “wailing siren” of a voice. We don’t literally hear the Squawking Chicken’s voice and Listen to the Squawking Chicken is ostensibly more about the author’s relationship with her mother rather than the mother herself, but indeed it is the character of the mother that dominates this book and leaves a lasting impression on the reader’s mind.

A quote often used in the book’s publicity, and it captures the feel of the book perfectly:

Most people think I’m exaggerating at first when I talk about the Chinese Squawking Chicken. But once they actually spend some time with her, they understand. They get it. Right away. She’s Chinese, she squawks like a chicken, she is totally nuts, and I am totally dependent on her.

With such a title, Lui faces the risk of turning her own mother into a caricature, yet her obvious affection for the woman shines through, and even at her most “wailing siren” moments, Lui’s mother still retains the complexity and tenderness that makes her such a memorable figure.

The Squawking Chicken is at times a harsh mother, her love for her daughter expressed by making sure her daughter is well equipped for life’s disappointments. On the subject of Miss Hong Kong, she immediately dismisses her daughter’s chances, saying that her daughter didn’t inherit her good looks enough to be a contender for the title. When asked why she tells her daughter ghost stories rather than fairy tales in bed, she quite reasonably points out that it is the hard times that we should prepare for, not the good things that will happen. And when her daughter gets a bit too proud of a high mark in class, the Squawking Chicken loudly and publicly bemoans her arrogance given such an inconsequential achievement. In a world and at a time when children are routinely praised just for trying, it may be difficult to appreciate this somewhat harsher form of parenting, yet underlying it all is such an obvious desire for her daughter to be prepared for life.

Lui also gives us insight into her mother’s story, which reveals much about why she may have adopted such a parenting style. The image of the demure Chinese woman is a completely outdated stereotype, yet Lui’s mother does challenge the traditional Chinese adage about not airing dirty laundry in public. She is fearless in taking any family member’s dirty laundry to public eye, and in one of my favourite scenes, loudly and publicly confronts the mistress of one of her friends’ husband. The reason for this becomes clear as we learn more about her childhood, and the incident that tips her over and forces her to unleash her voice is horrific and somewhat inspiring, a superhero-level epic origin story that transforms an ordinary, nice woman into a remarkable figure.

Lui’s mother is fearless, because she has to be, and she teaches her daughter this same fearlessness. She is a dominant figure in her daughter’s life, and certainly after this book, she will also be a dominant figure in our imaginations. Peppered throughout the book as well are some useful life lessons — don’t cut bangs after thirty, eat a papaya a day (but for Lui’s husband, it must be a banana instead, because reasons) and don’t be “low classy”. Likely, nothing will happen if you don’t obey, and anything that does happen is likely just self-fulfilling prophecy. But, just in case, it can’t hurt to eat that papaya, can it?

+

Thank you to Random House Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.