Thursday, August 29, 2013

Tongues of Men and Angels


This week I finally got around to seeing Joe’s Wright’s extraordinary movie Anna Karenina starring Keira Knightley at her least mannered and most impressive. I remembered the critics as being widely divided about the staging of the movie’s action within an old theatre, some seeing it as “deliberate, showy artifice” (Chicago Reader) and “artistic hubris” (New York Times), while others declared it “an intoxicating spectacle” (USA Today) that “sings, dances, and finally soars” (Washington Post).
In my humble opinion, it was a triumph. I’d had my own doubts about how the setting would work, but they were swept away almost immediately by the beauty and originality of the visual effects. The movie has been called hyper-stylized, which is true but the staging not only didn’t deflect attention from the characters and their tortured emotions, it actually enhanced the unfolding of the drama. Click here to see a video about the genesis of Joe Wright’s concept.

The movie is choreographed (by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui) more like ballet than a traditional stage play, which added a welcome freshness to the depiction of the social context in which Anna’s doomed love story unfolds. The costumes (by Jacqueline Durran) are utterly stunning – just enough off-center to surprise and dazzle but not distract.  And once again (see my earlier post about his adaption of Parade’s End) Tom Stoppard does an extraordinary job of extracting the heart and soul of novel and transferring its essence to the screen.
Of course seeing the movie took me back to the book, which has long been on my top five list of novels for its complex characters and immaculate structure. All the climactic scenes that had resonated with me in Tolstoy's book were gratifyingly made flesh in the film. For example, take the ballroom scene where young Kitty Shcherbatsky, who had expected to receive a proposal of marriage from Count Vronsky, sees that he has eyes for no one but Anna. Compare Joe Wright's depiction of the scene here (note the innovative choreography) with Tolstoy’s description below:  
“[Kitty] saw that they felt as if they were alone in the crowded ballroom. And she was struck by the bewildered look of submission on Vronsky’s face, usually so firm and self-possessed – an expression like that of an intelligent dog conscious of having done wrong. If Anna smiled, he smiled in reply. If she grew thoughtful, he looked serious. Some supernatural force drew Kitty’s eyes to Anna’s face. She was charming in her simple black gown, her rounded arms were charming with their bracelets, charming the firm neck with the string of pearls, charming the unruly curls, charming the graceful, easy movements of her little hands and feet, charming the lovely, animated face: but in that charm there was something terrible and cruel.”
And here’s a still (above) and Tolstoy’s description (below) of the climactic horse race where Vronsky has a terrible fall and Anna cannot hide her feelings from her husband or the rest of the aristocratic crowd that surrounds her:

“... at that moment the race began and all conversation ceased. Karenin, too, fell silent as everyone stood up and turned towards the stream. Karenin was not interested in the race and so did not watch the riders but began listlessly scanning the spectators with his weary eyes. His eyes rested on Anna. Her face was pale and set. She was obviously seeing nothing and nobody but one man. Her hand convulsively clutched her fan and she held her breath. He looked at her and hurriedly turned away... when Vronsky fell and Anna moaned aloud there was nothing very out of the way in it. But immediately after, a change came over Anna’s face which was positively unseemly. She completely lost her head. She began fluttering like a caged bird, at one moment getting up to go, at the next turning to Betsy.

      ‘Let us go, let us go,” she said.

      But Betsy did not hear her. She was leaning over and talking to a general who had come up to her.  Karenin approached Anna and courteously offered her his arm.

      “We can go if you like,” he said in French; but Anna was listening to what the general was saying and did not notice her husband.

      ‘He’s broken his leg too, they say,” said the general. “This is beyond everything.’ ....

      She now saw an officer running across the course towards the pavilion, from the place of Vronsky’s accident. Betsy waved her handkerchief to him. The officer brought news that the rider was not killed but the horse had broken its back.

      On hearing this Anna sat down hurriedly and hid her face behind her fan. Karenin saw that she was weeping and that she was unable to keep back either her tears or the sobs shaking her bosom.”
All I can say is see the movie and read the book - in whatever order you prefer. They are both masterpieces.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Blessed are the Peacemakers

Senator Mitchell surrounded by colleagues on the Congressional Iran-Contra Committee - July 1987

On July 13, 1987, I was standing around with my colleagues in the offices of London Weekend Television (where I worked at the time) watching live TV coverage of the US Congress’s hearings into the Iran-Contra affair. The Reagan administration had been accused of selling arms illegally to Iran and funnelling the proceeds to the right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua in direct contravention of the law.
Marine Lieutenant Oliver North had been a key staff member for the National Security Council, which was the government body accused of carrying out these illegal operations. For several days resplendent in his be-medalled uniform Colonel North had testified to the committee, defiantly claiming responsibility for the illegal scheme and for covering it up when word of the scheme had leaked out to the media. He was brash, unrepentant, and adamant that his actions – though illegal – were right. He claimed to have defied the law of the land because of the intensity of his love of God and Country.

On this particular day, it was the turn of a bespectacled wonky-looking Senator to question Colonel North. As his allotted time drew to a close, the Senator in a gentle New England drawl made a powerful statement (watch it here) that firmly but with great courtesy undermined the bombastic testimony of Colonel North.

“Of all the qualities the American people find compelling about you, none is more impressive than your obvious deep devotion to this country. Please remember that others share that devotion and recognize that it is possible for an American to disagree with you on aid to the Contras and still love God and still love this country as much as you do.
Although he is regularly asked to do so, God does not take sides in American politics, and in America disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism... Indeed, it’s the very fact that Americans can criticize their government openly and without fear of reprisal that is the essence of our freedom and that will keep us free.”
This legislator with the large, red-framed glasses and a way with words was Senator George J. Mitchell, Democrat of Maine. From that moment on, I became his devoted fan and I wasn’t alone. The Senator received thousands of letters and phone calls of support from people who were delighted that someone had finally said what they’d been thinking throughout the long investigations into the Iran-Contra affair.

Senator Mitchell went on to be elected Majority Leader of the Senate in 1988 and to fight for health care reform alongside then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. But it wasn’t until after he had retired from the Senate in 1994 that he went on to his greatest achievement so far – brokering a hard-fought peace agreement that ended the decades-long sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

In the Senate, he had garnered a reputation for being a skilled, patient, and judicious mediator between sometimes implacable opponents and that was what made President Bill Clinton see him as the ideal man for the Northern Ireland job.  

For more than two years, Mitchell flew back and forth across the Atlantic every week – from New York, to London, to Belfast, and back again. The fact that he came to be enormously respected by all factions was the glue that kept the talks going, but as the negotiations neared a climax in April 1998, his master stroke was to set a rigid deadline. As he explained in his 1999 book Making Peace, he told the delegates:

“When we start on Thursday morning, it has to be clear to everyone that we’ll continue until we finish, one way or the other. There can be no discussion of a pause or a break...There’s not going to be a break, not for a week, not for a day, not for an hour. We’re here till we finish. We’ll either get an agreement or we’ll fail to get an agreement. Then we’ll all go out together and explain to the press and the waiting world how we succeeded or why we failed.”
His determination worked. At 5pm on April 10, 1998 - Good Friday – Senator Mitchell was able to announce to the world that “the two governments [of the UK and Ireland] and the political parties of Northern Ireland have reached agreement.” When the agreement was put to the ballot, it was overwhelmingly welcomed by the population on both sides of the border - 71.2 percent of people in Northern Ireland and 94.39 percent in the Republic of Ireland voted Yes. And in the 15 years that have followed, violence in the Province has been minimal and the two communities – Catholic and Protestant – have lived together in cautious harmony.

The Irish writer Colum McCann has called Mitchell “The most incredible politician that I know of from our times, for certain.” In an article in the New York Times in March of this year called “Remembering an Easter Miracle in Northern Ireland,” McCann wrote, “Mr. Mitchell’s great skill was that he learned to embrace silence. He sat at his table and listened to speech after speech... He was unpaid and initially unheralded, but he fell in love with the people and allowed them to talk through their vitriol... He kept listening. He tolerated death threats. He pleaded, he cajoled. And even after the agreement was signed, he understood that only history would bring it home."    

In his most recent novel, Transatlantic, McCann – a National Book Award recipient – ventures to fictionalize George Mitchell’s thoughts and feelings as he strives to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

Welcome to Belfast International. Contents in the overhead bin may have shifted during flight. The stewardesses fuss with his jacket. He is whisked through security once more, out past the small cafĂ© and the newsagent’s where he takes a quick glance at the newspaper headlines on the small metal racks. Nothing of damage. A good sign. Outside, the vague smell of farmland manure hangs in the air. Three cars waiting. Gerald, his driver, greets him with a nod and a lift of the case. In the car Gerald passes back a sheet of numbers. A small jump in his chest that it might be bad news, but it’s the baseball scores, copied from Reuters, handwritten. He scans them quickly. Opening Day. Ah, yes, Hail and hallelujah. The Sox have won.”

Thus can great political acts inspire literature.

Holding the signed Good Friday Agreement - with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahearne (left)
and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (right)- April 1998

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Where the Sky Meets the Sea

Bali Ha'i - a still from the 1958 movie South Pacific

Across just a short stretch of ocean from Tahiti lies the mysterious island of Moorea, nine miles NW to be precise. According to Polynesian legend, the island’s volcanic ridges constitute the second dorsal fin of the fish that became the island of Tahiti – that’s how close the two islands are. Anyone standing on the shores of north-western Tahiti has a magnificent view of Moorea’s dramatic jagged skyline, made famous around the world by the film South Pacific, in which it appeared as a stand-in for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s invented island of Bali Ha’i.
Throughout many years of research in library reading rooms and hunched over my computer, I’d read account after account of this awe-inspiring view of Moorea and had come to think of it as being almost a mythical place, like Shangri-La - or indeed Bali Ha’i itself.

Herman Melville (the author of Moby Dick) wrote in 1842 of the “the romantic elevations of Eimeo [the old name for Moorea], high above which a lone peak... shot up its verdant spire.” Thirty five years later, the Scottish artist, Constance Gordon-Cumming described the island as looking “weirdly grand; huge basaltic pinnacles of most fantastic shape towering from out of the sea of billowy white clouds, which drifted along those black crags.” In 1891, the American painter John La Farge brought an artist’s perspective to his description of the sunsets behind Moorea, “the fantastic island that has made a distance of blue and gold to our days at Papeete... even in the evening or in the afterglow, when the sunset lights up in yellow and purple the sky behind it.”  
In 1914, the American writer and traveller Frederick O’Brien described Moorea as:

“the most astonishing sight upon the ocean that my eyes had ever gazed on... Its heights were not green like Tahiti’s, but bare and black … a long sierra of broken pinnacles and crags which had all the semblance of a weathered and dismantled castle... The confused mass of lofty ridges resolved into chasms and combes, dark, sunless ravines, moist with the spray of many waterfalls, which nearer became velvet valleys of pale green, masses of foliage and light and shadow. The mountains of Moorea were only half the height of Tahiti’s, but so artfully had they been piled in their fantastic arrangement that they seemed as high, though they were entirely different in their impress upon the beholder.”
And in 1951, James Michener, whose stories of his wartime experiences in French Polynesia were the source for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s libretto for South Pacific, wrote, “From Tahiti, Moorea seems to have about 40 separate summits: fat thumbs of basalt, spires tipped at impossible angles, brooding domes compelling to the eye. But the peaks that can never be forgotten are the jagged saw-edges that look like the spines of some forgotten dinosaur.” 

I longed to stand where these people had stood, looking out at that haunting island with its primordial mountainous skyline, but the cost of a trip to Polynesia was more than my husband and I could justify. But in late November 2007, encouraged by my then agent, we took a leap of faith, maxed out a credit card, and got on a plane to Tahiti so I could see the place I was writing about with my own eyes. 
After a long delay at LAX and an eight-hour flight across the Pacific, we arrived in Tahiti at night, dog tired and travel stained. We were driven in a rickety cab through the humid darkness to our hotel. It was very late and we were dying for sleep, but the air conditioning in our room refused to work, which meant a laborious process of repacking and moving to another room before we could fall into bed.  

We woke next morning to a hot and beautiful day. Our room looked out onto the cargo ships docked in the port of Papeete and the green hills behind the town. An interesting view, especially as everything in Tahiti related in some way to my book, but with nothing very fantastical or mystical about it. But then my husband, who had gone off to explore the hotel while I showered and dressed, came back to the room in a state of suppressed excitement. He led me down a flight of stairs and out to the edge of the hotel’s infinity pool and pointed.
And there it was on the horizon, looking exactly as I expected, exactly how it had been described. And that was the moment when I realized I was finally there, standing in the land where I’d been living in my imagination for so long - and promptly burst into tears.

Moorea in the morning
Moorea in the evening