Thursday, February 26, 2015

Suggested reading: Jenny Diski and Oliver Sacks

The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises....I try but I can’t think of a single aspect of having cancer, start to finish, that isn’t an act in a pantomime in which my participation is guaranteed however I believe I choose to play each scene.

—Jenny Diski: "A diagnosis" (London Review of Books, 11 September 2014)

Jenny Diski is writing a series of articles in the LRB chronicling her experience of cancer, or, as she puts it in the first article in the series linked above, "another fucking cancer diary." Her articles have followed two threads: the first is about her disease—the medical system's depersonalizing and clinical (in both senses) treatment of cancer patients, together with the physical and emotional effects of her radiation therapy. The second thread is an extended reflection on her adolescence and young adulthood, when after a suicide attempt and her committal to a psychiatric hospital she was taken in by a woman she'd never met, a former classmate's mother: the writer Doris Lessing. Lessing, who died in 2013, fictionalized their relationship in two novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1973).

Diski is writing "sidebars" to her LRB series on her blog, This and That Continued. The latest news is not good: she has radiation burns from her cancer treatments, and those treatments have also inflamed her pre-existing "mild pulmonary fibrosis," making breathing and movement difficult. And she fell recently and broke her wrist, which is causing her acute pain and making it difficult to type. She writes,
What started out as [a prognosis of] 2-3 years if I had the treatment is now an unknown quantity. I’m a miserablist, so it’s not surprising I’m feeling that death is rather imminent….So I’m not cheery or brave or serene at the moment….it hasn’t been a good week, and I’m fucking fed-up. And sorry for myself. What, should I keep a stiff upper lip?

"A sidebar: How's it going?" This and That Continued, 19 Feb 2015

The same day that Diski posted this sidebar on her blog, another announcement was made in an even more public forum:
A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.

—Oliver Sacks: "My own life: Oliver Sacks on learning he has terminal cancer," New York Times, 19 February 2015
Sacks goes on to anatomize his feelings on learning this news: a sense of serenity, of clarity, of focussing on the essential and detaching from daily cares and worries about the future. He writes,
This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
Of course, Diski's and Sacks' disparate perspectives on their impending deaths reflect their basic dispositions. Diski is skeptical, critical (of the system in which she finds herself unwillingly embedded, and of herself), and pessimistic; Sacks is learned (the title of his piece is taken from the philosopher David Hume's brief autobiography, written when he discovered that he was dying), observant, and, if not optimistic about the ultimate outcome, at least positive in his approach (he repeatedly uses words such as "gratitude" and "privilege"). The prospect of imminent death seems to expose our truest self.

Nonetheless, I can't help noting that their circumstances are very different. Sacks is 81, an age when it seems natural to come to terms with your own mortality. Diski is in her sixties, more than two decades younger than the most common age of death for British women. Sacks reports being virtually pain-free, while Diski is experiencing unremitting pain and frightening spells where she struggles to breathe. I think in her situation I, too, would have difficulty maintaining equanimity and detachment.

This page includes links to Diski's entire series so far, some of which require a subscription to the LRB (well worth the cost, which is under $2 per issue). Sacks reports that he has completed an autobiography which will be published in the spring. Our sad knowledge is that there will come a time, all too soon, when their voices will fall silent.

Update 8 April 2015: Jenny Diski has published another installment in her series, "Like A Lullaby" (LRB, 9 April 2015). Her page on the LRB site states simply, "Jenny Diski still is."

Update 1 September 2015: Oliver Sacks died yesterday at his home in New York City; here is a link to his New York Times obituary.

Update 28 April 2016: Jenny Diski died this morning. The LRB has posted a brief notice on its blog; the Guardian has published a short obituary.

Update 29 April 2016: All of Jenny Diski's articles for the LRB are now available for free; see her LRB contributor page.


For more posts on Jenny Diski, see:

The Sixties: Diski's personal history of a time of sweeping cultural, social and economic changes.

Making a Costume Drama Out of a Crisis: Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, and other "Vicwardian" costume dramas.

For another post on Oliver Sacks, see:

Music As A Drug: Musicophilia: On "the overwhelming and at times helpless sensitivity of our brains to music."

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"This is why people think they dislike opera": Verdi's Aida

Halfway through the Emmy-Award-winning video of the Metropolitan Opera's 1989 production of Verdi's Aida, I turned to my partner and said, "This is why people think they dislike opera."

The problem isn't the level of artistry on display. The cast is filled with stars, who are all in excellent voice: Plácido Domingo, Aprile Millo, Dolora Zajick, Sherrill Milnes. In 1989 James Levine, the conductor, was in his 17th year as the music director of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which is deservedly considered one of the premier orchestras in the world. So the music, which includes some of Verdi's most beloved arias and instrumental interludes, is performed at a very high level.

But opera is not just music, it is also theater; and that's where the problems come in.

The libretto. Despite its four-act length and the huge cast it requires, Aida is one of the most frequently performed operas. According to the Repertory Report, in the Metropolitan Opera's history it is second only to Puccini's La bohème in the number of performances (more than 1100; on average, one out of every 25 performances at the Met has been of Aida).

But in spite of its popularity, I've somehow managed not to see Aida until now (Elton John's version doesn't count), and I was surprised at how dramatically static much of it is. In Antonio Ghislanzoni's libretto scenes of conflict alternate with scenes that do nothing to advance the action or give us a greater insight into the characters' emotional dilemmas.

In the first scene, we're introduced to the central love triangle, in which the Egyptian warrior Radamès (Domingo), who is loved by the Egyptian princess Amneris (Zajick), instead loves the captive Ethiopian princess Aida (Millo). We also learn that an Ethiopian army has invaded Egypt, and that Aida is torn between her love for Radamès and her loyalty to her country and to her father, the Ethiopian king Amonasro (Milnes). But in the scene that immediately follows these urgent revelations, Radames is slowly—very slowly—girded and armed for battle at the Temple of "Vulcan" (the Egyptian god Ptah). This scene brings everything to a screeching halt.

This same pattern is followed in the next act. After a key confrontation between Aida and Amneris, in which Amneris falsely tells Aida that Radamès has been killed in order to learn her true feelings about him, the next scene is the famous triumphal march, which features a seemingly endless parade of supernumeraries striding across the stage in a victory celebration that goes on, and on.

Aida was commissioned for the opening of the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo in 1871, so perhaps that's one explanation for its emphasis on ceremony. But ceremony does not make for compelling drama. For some, this is the sort of thing that makes grand opera grand, but in my view Verdi could easily have cut an act's worth of inaction from Aida. Finally in Acts III and IV the story is moved forward: Radamès decides to flee with Aida and Amonasro, only to have their plans overheard by Amneris—but the eruption of passion and conflict takes too long to arrive.

The production. Sonja Frisell's production has been hugely popular at the Met: it has been in the repertory since 1988, and is still being used (it was most recently revived this very season). It is based on elements of the original 1871 premieres in Cairo and Italy, as well as other 19th-century productions. In its echoes of those productions, whose costumes and sets were based on then-recently discovered ancient Egyptian artifacts, ruins, and wall paintings, the Met's version is striving for some sort of authenticity (whatever that might mean in the context of opera, the most artificial of art forms). But whatever the intention, too often the result is incongruous. Domingo, a handsome and elegant man, is made to look distinctly inelegant in Dada Saligeri's costumes:

The costumes do no favors for Dolora Zajick, either; her lapis peacock headdress looks more like a turquoise turkey:

These designs were evidently based on those for early productions of Aida:

Knowing this, though, doesn't make them less distracting.

Another incongruity: note the weathered, half-buried ruins:

The opera is set at a time when the Old Kingdom at the height of its power, and so it makes no sense for the characters to be wandering among ruins. Perhaps the ruins are mean to suggest the lesson of Shelley's Ozymandias about the ultimate fate of all empires, or perhaps (like the costumes?) they are meant to provide a frame of the 19th-century archaeological fascination with Egypt. But since everything else in the production seems to be functioning on a literal rather than symbolic level, having the characters stepping around ruins on Gianni Quaranta's sets just looks anachronistic.

And the less said about Rodney Griffin's choreography for the dance interludes, the better:

But unflattering costumes, anachronistic sets and awkward choreography could be overlooked. There is something about this production can't be overlooked, though:

Millo and Milnes, Ethiopian characters portrayed by white singers, perform in brownface.

Race is an important issue in Aida: the love of Radamès and Aida crosses not only boundaries of national enmity, but of ethnicity. If this is something you want to emphasize in your production, my suggestion would be to hire African-American singers. If you want a particular singer in a role regardless of the identity of the character, then I'd suggest color-blind casting. At the Met and elsewhere the great African-American soprano Leontyne Price portrayed Cio-Cio San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni, Liu in Puccini's Turandot, and Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. It amazes me that a major cultural institution in the late 20th century would think that putting white singers in brownface was an acceptable practice.

As I say, if Verdian grand opera is to your taste, the musical qualities of this performance are outstanding. But I think in the future if we're ever tempted to put this Aida on again, we'll leave the picture off.

Update 4 August 2015: For the upcoming production of Verdi's Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, the white tenor performing the title role will not wear blackface. The New York Times article reporting this departure from operatic tradition quotes the Met's general manager Peter Gelb as saying "That was a tradition that needed to be changed." I'm hopeful that the next production of Aida will also be blackface-free.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Queen (2014) won six Filmfare Awards last weekend, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress.* It's been showered with other awards and appeared on many year-end best-of lists. I found it to be a modest and likable film, especially because of the performance of Kangana Ranaut as Rani ("queen" in Hindi).

On the day before her wedding—almost literally while the henna is drying on her hands—the shy and demure Rani is abruptly dumped by her London-returned fiancé Vijay (Rajkummar Rao). Rani decides to go on her bought-and-paid-for honeymoon trip to Paris and Amsterdam by herself, and (amazingly) her parents agree to let her go. Adventures—some heartwarming, some cringe-worthy—ensue.

There's the couple having noisy sex in the next hotel room; the bewilderment and anxiety of ordering meals or negotiating taxi rides in languages she doesn't understand; being stopped without her passport by the police; wandering alone and watching the happy couples who seem to be everywhere; fighting off a purse-snatcher; going to a disco and getting drunk for the first time; having her first hangover.

Rani has the good fortune to get taken under the wing of the free-spirited Vijaylaxmi (Lisa Haydon), the hotel staffperson who (we discover) was the woman having sex next door. She's also a single parent, although childcare never seems to be an issue as she shows the wide-eyed Rani around Paris and takes her shopping and clubbing (which is where the first hangover comes from):

"Hungama Ho Gaya" was originally sung by Asha Bhosle in the 1973 movie Anhonee; this remix, with an interpolated section from Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter" "California Dreamin'" of all things, is by soundtrack composer Amit Trivedi with additional vocals by Arijit Singh.

When I first heard about the film, Ranaut did not seem like an obvious choice for the naïve Rani. A former model, Ranaut's major roles before this included a young office worker who is sleeping with her boss in Life in a…Metro (2007), a coked-out supermodel in Fashion (2008), a Golden Age Bollywood star in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010), a loud, tough-talking gangster's moll in Tanu Weds Manu (2011), and a shape-shifting mutant with an endless series of glam outfits and hairstyles in Krrish 3  (2013).

But Ranaut gives a highly believable performance as an ordinary young woman tentatively beginning to discover her strength and resourcefulness. Thanks to the cinematography of the late Bobby Singh (who died while the film was nearing the end of shooting), neither the look of the film nor that of Ranaut herself has the high gloss of most of her previous films. In Queen, she is radically deglamorized:

Ranaut's performance is one of the things that makes Queen very much worth seeing. Another is that it's a woman-centered story in a medium which is mainly, not to say relentlessly, about the hero's journey. Queen is so woman-centered that Ranaut is in almost every frame, which is both a virtue and a shortcoming. The film is so focussed on Rani's story that some of the other characters (particularly her changeable fiancé Vijay) can seem a bit sketched in.

The movie avoids some major potential pitfalls (spoiler alerts for those who haven't seen the film): Rani does not fall in love with some dashing European man, although she does experience her first kiss. When she winds up with three (carefully multiethnic) male roommates at her Amsterdam hostel, they are protective and not predatory. And when Vijay learns about the new Rani and finds her to tell her that he'd like to get married after all, Rani realizes that she no longer feels governed by other people's expectations.

Despite director Vikas Bahl's attempts to establish an atmosphere of realness with street scenes, hand-held cameras, and ambient lighting, the movie doesn't avoid a certain amount of filmi contrivance. Would parents who don't let their daughter go to the bank or to a café without taking her little brother Chintu (Chinmaya Agrawal) along as a chaperone let her fly to Europe alone? In Amsterdam there are those improbably helpful hostel roommates, and an improbably supportive Italian restaurateur who impulsively puts Rani in charge of his street-food booth. And Queen's portrayal of Asians borders on caricature, as with her Japanese hostel roommate Taka (Jeffrey Ho), or a group of Asian tourists who start snapping pictures of Rani throwing up outside a restaurant (because Asian tourists photograph everything, of course).

But these are minor flaws in a very enjoyable movie. In its affirmation of the value of friendship and the need to find your own path, Queen delights; and Ranaut's performance deserves all the accolades it has received.

For another (even more positive) review of Queen, see Filmi Geek.


* Where were these Filmfare voters two years ago when the similarly low-key but charming English Vinglish, which is also about a woman discovering inner resources on a foreign trip, lost out for Best Film to Barfi!? Just asking.