Saturday, September 22, 2007

Total Chaos

"Marseilles isn't a city for tourists. There's nothing to see. Its beauty can't be photographed. It can only be shared."

--Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Chaos

The first volume in Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles Trilogy takes its French title (Total Khéops) from the Marseilles rap group IAM. The novel pulsates with the energy of the multiethnic, polyglot port city of southern France, where people of various Mediterranean descents--Italian, Spanish, Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, North African--mix uneasily. "You already heard a strange kind of French spoken in Marseilles," Izzo's narrator Fabio Montale, an "unimportant neighborhood cop," relates, "a mixture of Provençal, Italian, Spanish and Arabic, with bits of slang thrown in." The residents of the city are creating a unique identity that's not so much French as Marseillais. The city itself is a major presence in the novel.

As Montale investigates the deaths of two street criminals, his friends from adolescence, he mulls over the points at which their fates diverged. Izzo's prose is blunt and spare, in the hard-boiled tradition. He does experiment with shifting time unexpectedly--in the middle of a conversation you'll realize that the speakers have changed, and that Montale is reliving a memory from three decades ago. Then just as abruptly you'll be returned to the present. These unannounced temporal shifts are a bit disconcerting at first, but you quickly enter the flow of Montale's consciousness, where past and present intermingle. (The book has been translated expertly, to my ear at least, by Howard Curtis.)

Izzo has also made his narrator something of a gourmand, and the novel is filled with memorable descriptions of the preparation and consumption of spectacular meals. Don't pick it up when you're hungry.

The vivid setting, narrative experimentation and mouth-watering meal descriptions are welcome, because some aspects of the novel fall into time-worn clichés. There's the narrator Montale, a hard-boiled cop whose attitudes are a bit too sympathetic to the downtrodden to ring true; a hooker with a heart of gold; various beautiful women (including the aforementioned hooker) who apparently find unimportant neighborhood cops to be irresistible; and a multiethnic crew of thugs who possess enough guns to supply a small army. Of course, the street criminals are doing the bidding of those connected to the political and economic power structure, who are insulated from any danger of being brought to justice.

In that, as in the loving attention paid to food and sex, Izzo's novel bears a strong resemblance to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's Pepe Carvalho mysteries, which are set in another Mediterranean city, Barcelona. There's the same blunt language, incredible meals, gorgeous and inexplicably available women falling over each other to bed the middle-aged hero, and criminals who are ultimately too powerful to touch.

But despite its derivative aspects, Total Chaos is very much worth reading for the picture it offers of Marseilles, the city's mix of cultures and the new sorts of identities being forged there. A place where, despite daily racial tensions, the presence of the anti-immigrant National Front, and relentless pressures on poor immigrants, their vitality and resilience win out--at least until the next day, when it will start all over again. As Montale says, "That was the history of Marseilles, and always had been. A utopia. The only utopia in the world. A place where anyone, of any color, could get off a boat or a train with his suitcase in his hand and not a cent in his pocket, and melt into the crowd. A city where, as soon as he'd set foot on its soil, this man could say, 'This is it. I'm home.' Marseilles belongs to the people who live in it."


Saajan (1991) features two of my favorite Bollywood actors, Sanjay Dutt and Madhuri Dixit, and one of my least favorite, Salman Khan. The plot is relatively straightforward, at least for Bollywood: Aman is a crippled orphan befriended in childhood by Akash and taken in by his family. When the two boys become young men, Aman (Sanjay) has become responsible and thoughtful, and writes poetry under the pen-name Sagar; Akash (Salman) has become a frivolous playboy. Madhuri is Pooja, a bookseller who is Sagar's biggest fan. Aman, ashamed of his inability to defend Pooja one night when they're accosted by a gang, decides to make her believe that the young, rich, handsome and musclebound Akash is Sagar.

Yes, it's the Cyrano de Bergerac story, with the twist that Aman is Akash's adopted brother, and feels that he bears an unpayable obligation to Akash's family. Choosing Sanjay--an actor with brooding, soulful eyes and the smoldering physical presence of the young Robert Mitchum--to play the disabled poet Aman was a bold idea. Unfortunately the other two major casting choices are either completely predictable or befuddling. Salman is cast utterly to type as the playboy Akash. But if you're typecasting, why would you give the superb dancer Madhuri Dixit a major role as their mutual love interest, and then give her just one dance number? And the choreography for that one number is mediocre--although that's actually an improvement over the rest of the songs, for which the choreography is nonexistent. The music by Nadeem-Shravan and Amar Halidpur-Faiz Anwar is enjoyable, if not incredibly memorable on a first hearing (I did notice that the soundtrack was ranked number 28 in the all-time top 40 soundtracks in a recent BBC poll, so perhaps it grows on you), and Lawrence D'Souza's direction isn't particularly subtle. Still, I'd say it's worth seeing for Sanjay and Madhuri.

Two years later Sanjay and Madhuri would be reunited in the delirious Khal Nayak (1993), a film that gave both actors more room to deploy their considerable talents and appeal. In that film Sanjay plays a gangster's lieutenant and Madhuri a police agent who becomes his moll in order to send information to her police contact (and boyfriend) Jackie Shroff. Several of the dance numbers from the film have become classics, including the racy "Choli Ke Peeche" ("What's underneath my blouse?"), the wildly surreal "Palki Pe Hoke Sawar" and the Las-Vegas-on-acid title song. Madhuri and Sanjay's onscreen chemistry in Khal Nayak is electric, perhaps aided by their rumored offscreen affair. The obvious emotional connection between them renders the conceit of the film--that their onscreen relationship remains chaste, despite the fact that Madhuri is travelling alone with Sanjay's gang for months--utterly ludicrous. Nonetheless, the film is highly entertaining, mainly for Madhuri's superb dancing and the catchy music by Laxmikant and Pyarelal. (I'd recommend fast-forwarding through the frequent fight scenes that alternate with the dance numbers, though.)

Salman and Madhuri would later be reunited in what is inexplicably the most successful Bollywood film ever, Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! (1994). It's the glossy, big-budget family drama that Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) was apparently trying to supplant. HAHK has at least one bizarrely great dance number, "Didi Tera Devar Diwana" ("Sister, your brother-in-law is crazy"), which involves voyeurism, female cross-dressing, and shoe-stealing. Otherwise, the film succeeds (at least, as far as it does succeed, which with me isn't very far) mainly on the appeal of its all-star cast. That cast does include Anupam Kher, who is another Exotic and Irrational favorite.

If you're interested in seeing a young Sanjay Dutt, Saajan and Khal Nayak offer him in strikingly different roles; if you're interested in seeing a young Madhuri Dixit, in Saajan her talents are mainly wasted, while in Khal Nayak she's at her most ravishing (and the dances are entertainingly over-the-top). As for Salman, I have to confess that his appeal completely escapes me.

Anna Moffo as Madama Butterfly

To call someone an “overnight sensation” is usually the laziest sort of journalistic cliché. Usually years of training and dues-paying precede a performer’s “overnight” discovery.

But if the term can be applied to anyone with justice, it might be soprano Anna Moffo. In January 1956 she was a 23-year-old singer who, after graduating from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, had come to Rome on a Fulbright scholarship to continue her voice studies. Her professional opera debut had come just a few months before in Spoleto, a small city outside Rome, where she had sung the role of Norina in Donizetti’s comedy Don Pasquale. But then director Mario Lanfranchi cast this unknown singer in the lead role for his television production of Puccini’s tragedy Madama Butterfly. Broadcast by Radiotelevisione Italia on 24 January, 1956 (at least that's the date of an audio-only recording), Moffo's performance as Cio-Cio San made her--yes, overnight--an international star.

Video Artists International has released a DVD of this broadcast, and it’s easy to see why it created such a sensation. Moffo is a radiant and heartbreaking Butterfly; if she doesn’t quite look 15 in Act I, she is certainly very young-looking. She is slim and graceful, a convincing maiko; her dimples are irresistible.

And what a voice! Whether she’s soaring lyrically over the orchestra in her climactic aria “Un bel di” or floating delicately soft tones in her final moments of despair, Moffo’s singing is simply stunning.

She’s well supported by the Suzuki of Miti Truccato Pace and especially Afro Poli’s American consul Sharpless. Renato Coni’s callow American officer Pinkerton is self-involved and a bit annoying, and it’s not clear whether those are aspects of the character or the singer. And as the marriage broker Goro, Gino Del Signore (like every Goro I’ve seen) can’t avoid portraying a painfully racist stereotype.

The production is a bit threadbare, although Lanfranchi’s fluid camerawork makes the most of the somewhat cramped set. Oliviero de Fabritis’ conducting of the Orchestra & Chorus of Radiotelevision Italiana Milano is sympathetic; the sound is a bit compressed at climaxes, but otherwise acceptable (the gorgeousness of Moffo’s voice comes through clearly). The picture is a bit washed-out looking at places, and there are a few moments of poor synchronization between the soundtrack (recorded before filming) and the movements of the singer’s lips.

But if you’re willing to make allowances for the age and technical limitations of the source, which truly aren’t very bothersome, you'll be rewarded by Moffo’s amazing performance, for which no allowances need to be made. Over the following decade and a half she would go on to become a famous performer of both comedic and tragic heroines, until the toll that her meteoric rise and subsequent overwork took on her voice could no longer be disguised. But knowledge of Moffo’s own tragedy isn’t necessary to find her Butterfly to be truly heartbreaking. Moffo’s career was too short, but what a glorious beginning.