Sunday, February 23, 2014

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is one of the few 19th century romantic novels to retain its popularity in our anti-romantic time, partly because it is much more than a conventional romance. It involves emotional undercurrents, the uncertainty of human wishes, social class, money, and the way of life in a remote corner of northern England.

The 2011 film version of Jane Eyre seems to have come and gone without much notice, but it's as fine an adaptation of a classic in its genre as I've seen -- more affecting than any of the slick, big budget versions of the Jane Austen books that have inundated us in recent years.

Hats off to Cary Joji Fukunaga's lively but un-gimmicky direction and Adriano Goldman's rich cinematography, beautifully conveyed in the Blu-ray transfer, but what mainly raises this Jane Eyre high enough above the ordinary to warrant a blog post is the casting of the central characters: Michael Fassbender as Mr. Rochester and Mia Wasikowska as Jane.

Fassbender gives us psychologically acute portrayal as the sad aristocrat who is drawn to Jane, a governess for the girl child in his care. Almost every line reading seems to suggest a meaning beneath the surface. This is unobtrusively superlative acting.

I had never before heard of Wasikowska, who hails from Australia. She is Fassbender's match in subtlety while confidently holding the screen. When Jane's heart was broken by the last-minute prevention of her marriage to Rochester, mine broke a little too. What greater compliment can I pay an actress?

As an aside, the Brontë family seemed always to be close to an abyss. It included novelists Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, two other sisters, and a brother, Branwell. I've visited their parsonage at Howarth, Yorkshire, along with the nearby church where the clergyman father, Patrick, was in charge. Even today you sense some finely tuned bleakness in the environment, the air charged with mystery. The film captures the strange atmosphere of the remoter parts of Yorkshire, although it was shot in Derbyshire and Oxfordshire.

The Reverend Patrick Brontë outlived his wife and all his children. It is scarcely possible to imagine what his final years were like for him.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

France's Mosque-teer president

Islam is "perfectly compatible with the ideals of France," said French President François Hollande in a visit to Paris's largest mosque to honor Muslim colonials who fought in World War I.

Because colonials fought in France's side a hundred years ago -- they probably had little choice in the matter -- Hollande believes that the laws of political and social physics have been superseded.

I was reminded of something I read the other day in Michel de Montaigne's essay "On Presumption," citing the words of a Chancellor Olivier: "The French are like monkeys, which go clambering up a tree, from branch to branch till they get to the top, and display their backsides when they get there."

It is French presidents, of course, who climb to the top.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Be my carbon-neutral Valentine

Dear Lilith,

You may be surprised that my Valentine's greeting this year comes to you via email. Don't misunderstand -- I still feel the way I always have toward you. (How's that? For me to know and you to find out.)

Until just the other day, it never crossed my mind how un-progressive Valentine cards are. They are truly a scourge on our beleaguered planet. My ignorance and arrogance on this subject was, I am happy to say, set to rights by an article in The New Republic: "Valentine's Day Is an Environmental Travesty: The Carbon Costs of Greeting Cards."

The socially conscious deep thinker Jeffrey Ball spoke truth to Hallmark Power:
According to the industry’s trade group, some 145 million Valentine’s cards are sold in the U.S. every year. Those cards are ridiculous not just because of the sappy sayings on their covers. They’re ridiculous because, on a planet of seven billion people, it’s nuts to buy a piece of card stock, place it into a paper envelope, and give it to someone who (I love you, honey) will smile at it, stuff it in a sock drawer, and, almost certainly, never glance at it again. It’s even crazier to buy said piece of card stock, drive it to the post office, and have the U.S. mail truck it to an airport and then fly it to its destination. ...

A U.K. company, Britannia Cards, advertises on a set of earth-friendly greeting cards, each bearing a photo of a flower, lion, or some other icon of nature. The cards are “fully recyclable & biodegradable,” the listing says. They’re also “carbon-neutral,” the company says, because the firm has bought enough “carbon credits” — chits representing investments in projects somewhere on the planet that have the effect of curbing emissions— to offset the carbon that’s emitted in making the cards. ...

Leanin’ Tree, a Colorado greeting-card maker, boasts that it prints its cards and envelopes on recycled paper made from trees grown in sustainably managed forests and printed with soy-based ink. “Our products,” the company says on its website, “are made with Mother Earth in mind.”
You know that Mother Earth has always been my significant other, but you are on the short list of co-equal partners as well. And to make the point, I have purchased 15 carbon credits in your name as a token of my commitment to Love of the Environment. Oh, and you too.

I am sure that you understand this change. It's one small step for your Pajama Boy, one great leap for personkind. After all, as Jeffrey Ball says, "The pulp-and-paper industry is a major carbon-dioxide emitter and water user. But an Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman said the EPA doesn’t track numbers for greeting cards." 

If you feel like reciprocating my reformed Valentine's greeting, consider a donation to our organization's lobbying office in Washington to encourage the government to track consumption of greeting cards. We can't get them banned without data showing the inconvenient truth.

Take heart (electronic). We've just about knocked Christmas out of the public sphere. If we can manage that, Valentine cards should go down easily.

I love your social and environmental concerns,


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Two hours in France

With no small surprise, I received an email invitation to a press luncheon called "Rendez-Vous en France" at the Sofitel in Washington, sponsored by Atout [sic] France -- French Tourism Development Agency. I am on various press lists, owing to my long tenure as a writer-editor on a magazine till recently, but have nothing to do with the tourism industry.

Well, why not? I accepted the offer, which was the reason for my Fauré -- I mean, foray -- to the capital mentioned in the previous post.

As it turned out, the hundred or so guests weren't travel writers either, although most worked for the media, including some major ones. I summoned up the nerve to introduce myself to a regular columnist at Barron's, whose reports from Washington's heart of darkness I have often read. We had a pleasant chat. 

The tourism agency was actually clever in its strategy, I think. There would have been no point in wining and dining travel writers and planners -- they're inundated with tourism promotions already. But writers in other fields might be more inclined to yield to the promised joys of visiting France, or at least dropping a favorable mention into their articles.

Let me back up a little. Sofitel is a French luxury hotel brand. I had never been in their DC outpost before, or even known about it; I think it opened recently. The Sofitel occupies prime real estate on 15th Street NW, around the corner from Obama's bunker. What I saw of the hotel -- the lobby and the meeting room in which the lunch and presentations took place -- was impressive.

The lobby was elegant but, wait for it, small. What a heartening contrast to the glitzy new hotels that try to knock you out with lobbies the size of football fields. No "smooth jazz" background music (or any background music) to assure you you're having the time of your life. Wood paneling. Indirect lighting. Hurrah!

I was received in the anteroom to the meeting/dining room by a French woman who could not have been more welcoming in the moment I was in her company. I am glad to find that at least some French women still have the traditional grace that one associates with them. There's no word for it in English because it scarcely exists in English-speaking countries. Call it a combination of infinite self-assurance, charme, warmth, and (with men, anyway) the tiniest hint of flirtation.

Not to say that it's a natural trait. It's artificial, but at its best doesn't feel artificial. For 30 seconds you are the spindle around which the world turns. I am hardly foolish enough to imagine it had anything to do with me personally, but I don't mind enjoying the illusion.

After the usual interval of conversation with people at the dining table (they had set out place cards, on what basis of selection I don't know), we were served a satisfying lunch. I allowed myself a glass of excellent white Burgundy. Meanwhile, the presentations went on.

They consisted of videos produced on behalf of visiting the regions Côte-D'Azur, Rhône-Alpes, Normandy, Midi-Pyrénées, and the French-speaking island of Martinique. In addition there were videos for Rail Europe, a one-stop shop for booking European train travel involving individual or multiple railroads, and Air France. I enjoyed all the come-ons, which were attractively photographed and sensibly short, perhaps five minutes each. In particular the Midi-Pyrénées in France's southwest caught my interest: it looks to have its own special character, as the American southwest does. 

Naturally there was no hint of France's political, economic, and ethnic troubles -- among other things, the country has the highest percentage of Muslims in any European nation as well as a huge influx of Africans. Neither group seems to have anything in common with the indigenous culture or is making an effort to blend in. Of course this is not a criticism of the tourism agencies for neglecting to tell that side of the story -- their job is to bring in the largest number of visitors who will leave behind the largest sum of euros when they go home. However, any tourist who is not au courant with the situation is likely to be in for a right old shock when they find Paris or most cities not much like their image from old movies.

As for Normandy, they are having a Liberation celebration this year, as it seems they now do every year. This is the 70th anniversary; just wait till you see the festivities for the 75th anniversary. I don't know, it's good to commemorate June 6, 1944, but I can't help wondering if it isn't turning into a carnival. What next, a theme park, Normandyland?  

The video included the usual, sterile film clips of the Allied soldiers emerging onto the beaches from their landing craft and one shot of the parachute troops dropped behind the German lines. They might have been gathering for a picnic as far as you could learn from the narration. While Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan may have over-dramatized the appalling conditions of the invasion, its depiction was a lot closer to the reality than the video's. The parachute drop was a mess, with most of the paratroopers (especially those who jumped at night) missing their assigned landing areas, and taking heavy casualties.

Okay, enough carping. I am grateful to Atout France for the invitation to the lunch and presentations. It worked on me. I want to visit France again.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Read this post or you're violating my civil rights

I happened to be in Washington, D.C. (the Imperial City) yesterday when I saw a poster on the side of a bus stop shelter:

Oh, I forgot -- article XXXVI, section 42, of the U.S. Constitution states: "No person shall be infected with the AIDS virus, nor shall the right of any person so infected to behave in such a manner as to infect another person be infringed."

St. Martin never heard of AIDS before he was killed, so it is generous of him to return ex post facto to continue his civil rights activity in a modern setting.

Curious to learn more about the civil rights aspect of this dreaded illness, I went online seeking more information. The poster is part of an "awareness campaign" sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

The foundation explains:
Currently African Americans account for 44% of all people with HIV/AIDS in the United States, yet only account for 12% of the population. Latinos account for 21% of all new HIV infections nationwide, yet only represent 16% of the U.S. population.
White privilege strikes again. The rate of HIV/AIDS in the white population must be increased accordingly so that the infection statistics are fair.

The explanations for the present discrepancy, says the foundation, "may be":
• Lack of access to clinics for care and HIV testing, as well as to condoms and safer sex educational opportunities.

• High levels of stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in these communities prevent people from learning their HIV status, or from seeking care and speaking honestly with their sexual partners if they know they are positive.

• Both society and the healthcare industry have marginalized members of these communities both on account of sexual orientation and race, blocking essential treatment, care, and education for those who need it.
Needless to say, there is no documentation for any of these statements. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation home page even links to a story headed "New Long Beach clinic opens to treat HIV patients." The clinic's lead physician is quoted: "We offer treatment without regard to ability to pay. If there is an FDA-approved treatment for HIV on the market, we have it." 

It is doubtful that the Long Beach center is the only clinic in the country with a similar policy. Regardless, all of them fall into the category of healthcare marginalizing HIV patients because of sexual orientation and race.

So remember, in our one nation under political correctness, the next time you want something make sure you present it as a civil right. You must unlearn old habits beaten into you by an oppressive society. Do not say to your waiter, "I'd like a cheeseburger, please." The proper phraseology is, "I have a right to a cheeseburger. Get your ass in gear before I file suit for violation of my civil rights."

“We offer treatment without regard to ability to pay,” said Dr. George Melikian, the clinic’s lead physician. “If there is an FDA-approved treatment for HIV on the market, we have it.” - See more at:
“We offer treatment without regard to ability to pay,” said Dr. George Melikian, the clinic’s lead physician. “If there is an FDA-approved treatment for HIV on the market, we have it.” - See more at:
“We offer treatment without regard to ability to pay,” said Dr. George Melikian, the clinic’s lead physician. “If there is an FDA-approved treatment for HIV on the market, we have it.” - See more at: