"Ah! By my word! there is something singular about you..."
-Rochester to Jane Eyre

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Attraversiamo: Going Full Circle with EPL

Millions of people (granted, mostly women) have read Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love. It's not for everyone. Some people hate it because it has become for women what Twilight is for teenage girls---a guilty pleasure.

But for me this story isn't so much about finding love after another failed relationship. The settings are wonderful (Italy, India, and Bali), but they don't make the story.

Elizabeth Gilbert has lost her sense of self. She lost it to her first husband in the hopes of becoming the perfect wife. She lost it to her rebound relationship to a younger man (David) in the hopes of forgetting her failed marriage. This story isn't new. She's not the first person to travel to a different country (or in her case, 3 countries) to find God, love, and a sense of self. But that's the beauty of it. Gilbert is the everyman "woman?" we can all relate to.

There may be some who would righteously argue that she spends the first half of the memoir hopelessly self-involved (and why can't she just travel to three different states instead of three different countries? if I had the money that she had...maybe I could do the same thing, and blah, blah, blah).

However, when you've lost everything. When your only companions are loneliness and depression, you've got to be selfish. You've got to cling to the only piece of you that's left and fight for it tooth and nail.

Gilbert organizes her memoir into three sections in 109 japa malas (or beads that Yogis use to stay focused during meditation). The end result is a beautifully-woven strand of tales told from one woman's perspective and from one woman's determination to find balance in her life.

I found Eat, Pray, Love four years after its publication, four years after it being lauded by critics and by Oprah, and four years after it had made its way to every woman's book club in America. Like Gilbert, I had just come out of yet "another" failed relationship. I wasn't happy with the way school was going. I wasn't sure if I had made the right decision to move out here to Boston. I wanted my old life back---the life of English Club meetings, of being the brilliant Pollyanna of Kent State's English Department, of hanging with friends at the bar two blocks from my house, but that was all gone. I wasn't the golden child out here. I was just another fish in the pond. And it sucked.

For so long, I've tried to define myself in exterior terms. The English Major. The Good Son. The One Who'll Go Far. The Boyfriend. And then in early April, it all came to a crashing halt. I didn't think I could do it. It being Boston. It being Emerson College. It being on my own. I was terribly homesick and I wanted nothing better than to go home to Ohio and cry on my mother's shoulder. But I couldn't. She was there. I was here. And I had the inexplicable feeling that I had no idea what I was doing, who I was, or what I was going to accomplish here in Boston.

I came to the book in a vulnerable state and I found a companion in my loneliness: Elizabeth Gilbert. So what if she was a thirty-something year old woman and I'm a twenty-something year old gay man.

But early on in the memoir, I read a line that hit close to home, "Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, you recognized yourself as a friend." Why would anyone want to be friends with themselves, I wondered. And then I realized, "Wow dummy, you've got work to do."

Of course not everyone is going to have the same experience reading Eat, Pray, Love that I did. Some will think its nothing more than chick lit memoir fluff. But it's not. It's a way to reconnect with something you thought you've lost--your sense of self.

I just saw the film version of the movie starring Julia Roberts, Javier Bardem, Billy Cruddup, and James Franco last week. The movie wisely chose to avoid a lot of the internal monologue and stick more to the wonderful "journey" that Liz goes on by "eating, praying, and loving." For what it's worth, I liked the movie. It remained faithful to the book, while at the same time, making it conducive to the medium that is film.

The memoir and the film adaptation may not be for everyone. But for me, it was like revisiting an old friend. And reminding yourself, that yes, sometimes, it is possible to "attraversiamo," or cross over and go full circle.

Monday, August 9, 2010

"Are you the sweet invention of a lover's dream or are you really as wonderful as you seem?"

If you know me, you'll know that the fairy tale Cinderella is in intregal part of my life. I can't really verbalize to the best of my ability. I'm sure many other little gay boys and heterosexual girls fantasized about being Cinderella as children. But there's something inherently lovely about Cinderella.

Cinderella is probably the world's greatest and most recognizable fairy tale, hence its popularity in various adaptations in literature, film, and music. One such adaptation is Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, adapted three times (1957, 1965, and 1997).

I grew up watching an old Beta tape version of the 1965 version starring a young Leslie Ann Warren as Cinderella, Walter Pigeon as the King, Ginger Rogers as the Queen, Celeste Holm as the Fairy Godmother, Stuart Damon as the Prince, Pat Carroll as Prunella, and Barbara Ruick as Esmerelda, and Jo Van Fleet as the Stepmother.

Last week, I watched the original version that was written for Julie Andrews after her success on Broadway as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. It's hard to compare Julie Andrews and Leslie Ann Warren. One because Julie Andrews of course will always trump Warren in vocal ability. However, I do think that they both play Cinderella very differently. At first, I found Warren's version more true to the fairy tale, but I see merit in both performances. Andrews plays Cinderella as an optimistic, stiff-upper-lip Brit. It's similar to Eliza Doolittle, but with 30% less sass. Cinderella is a tragic figure that has suffered a life emotional and physical hardships. Andrews looks perfectly at ease and quite happy "in her own little corner." But she doesn't look like she has such a terribly unhappy life. Even her clothes don't look Cinderella-like. They far more resemble Belle's blue and white peasant outfit from Beauty and the Beast.

On the other hand, Warren's performance is naivety manifested.Her face is purposely smudged with cinders and her clothes definitely resemble that of a scullery maid. Whereas Andrews plays the part with optimistic hopefullness, Warren plays Cinderella as a sad, naive young woman. I don't think either performance is necesarily the "definitive" one, but I do think each woman portrays her with great distinction.

As far as the other characters are concerned, there is certainly more comedic timing between the 1957 version's King and Queen(Howard Lindsey and Dorothy Stickney) over stuffy Walter Pidgeon and tapless Ginger Rogers.

But Stuart Damon's portrayl of the Prince is definitely superior to Jon Cypher's not only in vocal ability, but in look and feeling. Cypher looks far too old to be the Prince in my opinion. And Damon's voice radiates with a cool intensity when he sings the added song from South Pacific, "Loneliness of Evening."

Jo Van Fleet's stepmother is definitely more wicked than Ilka Chase, but the stepsisters are equally good in both versions. Pat Carroll (who would later do the voice of Ursula in The Little Mermaid) almost steals the show with her creaking knee.

"I cannot help it mother,"- she says.

"Yes, you can, rub some unicorn oil into it!"- Van Fleet.

I couldn't find a video of the 1965 version, except this awesome mashup with Disney's 1950 version.

Ruick does equally well batting her eyes incessantly. In the 1957 version Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostly (Bernice of Designing Women fame!) portray the stepsisters with hilarious results. Ballard is Portia, who must live up to her "namesake" in intelligence, but fails miserably. Ghostly, on the other hand, with great comedic timing puts the "joy" in her namesake.

Now, if you had a fairy godmother, who would you prefer, zainy Edie Adams or grandmotherly Celeste Holm?

I'm gonna go with Edie Adams. In the 1957 version, Adams is just Cinderella's godmother. Cinderella has no idea of her magical abilities. I liked that aspect. Also towards the end of the musical, Adams cheekily tells a palace guard to arrest Andrews for trespassing on the palace grounds and that "you should try the slipper on her, just for a laugh!"

It is this kind of sarcastic, cheeky humor that packs a punch over Celeste Holm's dreamy-eyed whimsicalness.

The 1957 version was live, whereas the 1965 version was taped. Both versions have ridiculous sets, yet for the time they were impressive. The costumes in the 1965 version must have been tie-died in some kind of psychodelic laundry. Apparently the 1957 version was broadcast in color, but the only remaining copy on DVD is in black and white. So I have no basis to judge the color schemes in that version; however, the costumes themselves are more Regency Period ala Jane Austen than anything else.

Overall, of the two versions I liked the ending to the 1957 version the best. The stepmother and stepsisters immediately did a 360 and became nice to Cinderella with comedic results. Within the 1965 version, the ladies' conversion is definitely forced with a shout from the Prince.

Both versions are equally charming. Now, to get to the latest remake from 1997 with Brandy, Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg, Victor Garbor, and Bernadette Peters.

The idea is good. Have a multi-racial cast. Check. Have a black Cinderella for a change. Check. Have an even more magical atmosphere than the previous two....ugh negative.

The main problem is that our heroine Brandy cannot act and her singing abilities are subpar to Andrews and Warren. Bernadette Peters is the saving grace of this superficial mess as the stepmother. Thank God they gave her her own song to sing.

I've still always wondered how a white king and black queen can produce a Pacific Islander son?

But I digress, if you want to enjoy Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, stick to the original or its equally charming remake in the 60s. Avoid the 90s like the plague and you just might make it past midnight for a happily ever after.

Surprising Acts of Faith

Yesterday, I went back to church. Church with a capital C.

If you know anything about me, you'll know that I was raised Catholic, and went through 14 years of Catholic grade school and high school hell. This was filled with endless Wednesday morning masses which were always followed by choir practice. Thank God I never wanted to be an altar boy. It wasn't as though I didn't consider it. I just didn't want to get up that early in the morning. There was always something inherently distasteful about going to church as a child. It didn't feel like a treat. It was a chore. There was only one way of doing things and it was by the Catholic Church's teachings.

Around the time of the 2004 Presidential Elections, I had already came out in high school and our lovely deacon decided to go on a tangent about the sanctity of marriage ala "the gays can suck it". My mom graciously told me I did not have to accompany them to church after that. She herself had to leave a few years later after this same deacon (or monsignor..who the fuck can keep the different pompous titles straight anyway?)went off on gay rights again, and then, just for good measure, went after pro-choice women. Hence to say, my family's a little divided on the subject of religion.

My grandmother (may she rest in peace) was a fervent Catholic, but also a wonderfully generous and kind woman who loved me unconditionally. I feel that her naivety in some matters towards the church hurt her, yet in the long run, it didn't seem to matter. She died with her faith fully in tact and in support of the catechism.

Since I've moved out here to Boston, I've thought about trying a new church from time to time. The United Church of Christ is a very friendly nationwide, inclusive organization. One such church (which I'll not name) is located in Jamaica Plain near my work. So I went.

Lesbians and gays ahoy! They were everywhere. I'm sure there are plenty of catholic gays and lesbians, but not at St. Joe's in Canton, Ohio. So hence to say, I was a bit shocked. But after that initial shock wore off, I felt a great sense of welcoming...at first.

Later on in the service, it felt more like a recruitment center.

"Join the Marines!" was the initial vibe I got from the men and women in attendance there.

"You should join our book club!"

"There's another young gay man who's here for the first time as well. You should sit with him!"

You, you, you. It started to sound like a cult.

And then probably the worst thing happened. During one of the readings (I think it was the second Saturday of Easter...who really cares?), I realized something.

"Oh God, not this story again! Not the story about Jesus and Peter and the loaves of bread and fish!"

Isn't there anything new to read, I wondered. But that's the problem. I've heard all the stories before. That's one of the main problems with religion and with church in general. Histories and literature are recycled constantly. This isn't necesarily a bad thing, but it gets stagnant pretty fast for someone like me.

So what's one to do? Become an atheist? An agnostic? Nah, not for me. I do believe that some kind of higher power exists outside of myself. I'm not disciplined enough to try Buddhism or Hinduism. And I'm only converting to Judaism if I marry a Jewish doctor (I gest!).

There's always been a kind of allure about religion to me. Not so much the priests and the customs and traditions, but I've always been fascinated by nuns. The Nun's Story with Audrey Hepburn, Agnes of God with Anne Bancroft, heck, even Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg. There's something serenly beautiful and calming about living a chaste life devoted to God. And then, I wake up.

But yesterday, I went to the United Parish in Brookline. They have a tradition where if anyone's a new member or "visitor" that person must stand up in front of the congregation and receive a flower. Now, this part I was digging from the very beginning. I've always been a boy that likes getting flowers. And even if it was only a singular pink carnation, it still smelled sweetly and the gesture was quite lovely.

I didn't know any of the songs, except "How Great Thou Art" (which I only knew because Dixie Carter's Julia Sugarbaker sang it on an episode of Designing Women), but it didn't seem to matter. The minister was a woman, which was another huge plus. I've always done better with women in positions of authority (mom, my boss, Katharine Hepburn, you name it!) and this woman had a sweet disposition to her nature.

In her homily (I don't know what they call it in Protestant churches), she talked about her struggle as a child to actually feel God's presence under strict catechism. It hit close to home.

I've always been one of those people who've always been guilty of only praying when the chips are down.

"Please God, let me get an A in this course!"

"Please God, let me get a new job!"

But sometimes, it's better just to be thankful for what you have, and to pray that it stays that way.

I don't know if I'll keep going back to the United Parish, but I do know, that I felt very welcome. And that's a start.

Bon Apetit!

Last week, I had the delightful experience of going to Pierrot Bistrot on Cambridge Street across from the Charles River for the second time. My pallet hasn't experienced that much French cuisine over the years, but after my experience, I'm hungry for more.

"Pierrot" originates from a stock character of a pantomime, an almost clown-like persona. Normally clowns scare the beezus out of me (To this day, I refuse to watch Stephen King's IT ), but at Pierrot, the atmosphere was delightful.

I arrived just after they opened around a quarter to 6 and it was very quiet, except for a group of regulars that paraded the back corner of the place. We started with an order of crabmeat and salad. I had the beef medallions with Bearnaise sauce and frites (lovely, French, French fries). The house champagne had a zeisty punch to it and was circled with sugar around the glass.

The last time I went there I ordered the beef bourguignon because Meryl Streep convinced me it would be as amazing on screen as it would be in my mouth. And it was.

Pierrot Bistrot is the perfect French dining experience, especially if you're there with someone you love.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Fiddle Dee Dee!

There is something inexplicably marvelous about the southern belle in literature and pop culture. She represents dual personas: the virginal, gentile good girl on the outside and the saucy spitfire within. For me, Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara for me represents the first mainstream portrayal of the southern belle.


“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.”

There in the very first sentence of one of literature’s most epic novels sums up the appeal…charm. A woman does not have to be a stunning beauty, but she does have to know how to use her own feminine powers. However, as charming as Scarlett can appear on the surface, there is always something burning beneath those fiery green eyes. Mitchell turns the world of the “Old South” upside down and in doing so transforms her heroine into a righteous capitalist bitch.

 Marvelous, Oscar-winning actress Vivien Leigh as Miss O’Hara

Nevertheless, there is something almost admirable about Scarlett’s determination “to never go hungry again.” Essentially, she is a survivor. One can still wear one’s petticoat and still manage a lumber mill. One can go through multiple husbands and still come out on top. Status is very important for the southern belle. It signifies not only security, but also a significant amount of control.

Charm equals survival. And in the post-Civil War world, these southern belles knew that if they wanted to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, they needed a quick mind and a buxomly-showing dress.

Enter the second phase of the southern belle: The Early 20th Century Southern Aristocrat. Take for example, Regina Hubbard Giddens, from Lillian Hellman’s marvelous play “The Little Foxes.” Whereas Scarlett craved money and security, she also still wanted love and affection. Here, the southern belle transforms into something else…a calculating, sterile beauty.

Regina Giddens, wants her husband Horace to invest in her brothers’ scheming plans to construct a cotton mill, despite his protests. When Horace suffers a heart attack, Regina refuses to help him and watches as he clings to the stairway dying.

 Bette Davis’s Regina Giddens in Samuel Goldwyn’s 1941 classic, The Little Foxes

But Regina isn’t the only path the post-Civil War southern belle could take. Hellman gives Regina Giddens a perfect foil in her sister-in-law, Birdie Hubbard, a woman who still longs for the nostalgia of the good old days of the south, but who is so docile against her domineering husband that she has taken to secret binge drinking.

Patricia Collinge gives a delicate performance as Birdie

Hellman sets up two very distinct paths for southern woman in the play. They can either become hard and calculated or lose their ability to feel, or they can turn into nostalgic, fearful fractured creatures. It looks as if Zan (played by Teresa Wright in the film version) will remain naïve and innocent like her Aunt Birdie. However, Hellman offers a separate option for Zan, one that combines both features in these two distinct paths- survivor who has not lost her ability to feel.

Here we enter a post WWII southern belle, one that like Birdie has lost her sense of self, yet kept her sense of nostalgia. Enter Tennessee Williams and a character that gives Scarlett O’Hara a run for her money: Blanche Dubois.

 Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh

 Blanche comes to New Orleans seeking sanctuary. Gone are the days at Belle Reve, the family’s ancestral home. Williams patterned Blanche after his own fragile sister and the darkest traces of himself. It is the late 1940s and she is in her early 30s, unmarried, poor, yet still possessing a misguided romantic hope that she is 16 and the brightest belle at the ball. Like Birdie, she has turned to drink, but Blanche has also succumbed to the darkest parts of her nature.

Charm has transformed into something that was quaint, elegant, and expected of a southern belle, into innocence destroyed-promiscuity and the seduction of young boys. Her reputation permanently damaged, she goes to her sister, Stella, for a chance of redemption. There she meets Stanley. His mere presence is unsettling to the dainty, dreamer that is Blanche. She wants to create “enchantment.” She doesn’t want realism, she wants “magic.” Along with Anna Karenina and Ophelia, Blanche Dubois is one of literature’s most tragic heroines.

 Unlike Scarlett, who believes that there always is “another day,” Blanche dissipates into madness and is eventually institutionalized.

 Until know, the southern belle in literature has always been portrayed as a somewhat dainty, refined young woman. It is refreshing that author Harper Lee gives us a “stunted southern belle” in the form of tomboy, Scout Finch. Atticus Finch’s only daughter learns about life’s lessons that hard way through racism and intolerance. Scout dislikes wearing dresses. She would rather just be one of the boys.

Mary Badham as little Scout Finch with Gregory Peck

Scout paves the way for another character, one that may be unfamiliar to those who are not as fond of comics as I am— the X-Men’s own southern belle, Anna Marie Raven, aka Rogue.

Rogue was created in 1981 by writer Chris Claremont and artist Michael Golden as a villain for the popular, yet boorish heroine, “Ms. Marvel.” Under the tutelage of her foster-mother, the villainess shape shifter Mystique, Rogue attacks Ms. Marvel and accidentally absorbs her powers of strength, flight, and invulnerability. Rogue’s tragic flaw is her mutant ability. With the slightest tactile touch, she can absorb the abilities and memories of others, almost to the point of leaving the victim in a permanent coma. Rogue grew up a tomboy like Scout, and lost her first sweetheart to the tragic circumstances of her powers.

After a brief stint as a villain (kicking the crap out of Captain America and The Mighty Thor I might add!), Rogue reformed as a young X-Man. Over the years, under different writers, Rogue may have come off as a bit “ahem” white trash. However, she has matured into a thoroughly modern woman with a passionate heart for the X-Men and for the young mutants under her capable care.

Rogue is the amalgam of three of the above-mentioned southern belles, Scarlett O’Hara, Blanche Dubois, and Scout Finch. Her tomboy self matures into a fragile, yet at times coquettish woman. She cannot touch. She can only flirt. Yet even that is like Blanche, tragic because it leads to nowhere. Only recently, under the pens of writer Mike Carey has Rogue finally evolved. She now has the ability to control her life-draining touch. Hopefully, she'll dump fussy Gambit and move onto more mature men like Magneto.

The southern belle remains a permanent character throughout literature and pop culture, regardless of her incarnation. Of course, I'll be around to see it. After all tomorrow is another day!

Batter On!

Tuesday night, I went to my very first Red Sox game. They were playing my home team, the Cleveland Indians. At first, there was a moment of nostalgia. Memories of Cleveland’s greatness in the 90s flashed before my eyes. They faced the Atlanta Braves in 1995. Lost. They faced the Seattle Mariners in 1997. Lost again. 15 years is a long time to make it to the World Series.

As I looked over the program guide, I tried to look for any familiar players’ names. I didn’t recognize a single one, except Grady Sizemore. I only know him because of his leaked camera phone pictures featuring him poising standing in front of a mirror, pecs ahoy with only a large white coffee mug to cover his bat. Apparently this year, Cleveland makes up the youngest players in major league baseball. Rookies, rookies everywhere, not a drop to spare!

I don’t remember much of what Jacob’s Field looks like (I was only 10 and I vaguely remember bringing a stack of X-Men comics to the game with me to pass the time), but memory aside, I don’t think it could hold a candle to Fenway. The name symbolizes tradition and greatness. And this is coming from someone who still doesn’t exactly understand when it’s a ball and when it’s a strike.

The whole experience was very ‘Woman of the Year’ with me in the role of Hepburn. Dazed and confused as I was, I still had a great time. Baseball, next to hockey or soccer, is one of the easiest games to follow. I still don’t know what the hell a third down or a fourth down is in terms of football.

My hat wasn’t nearly as big as Kate’s.

As nostalgic as I was to see the Indians, I had my Red Sox hat on. For me, it wasn’t as though I was betraying my home team. Rather, I was getting a new home team. Ya know, one that actually wins. And they did with a score of 3-1 against Cleveland.

Someone once told me that you can’t truly say you’re a true Bostonian until you’ve experienced Fenway. I may be a rookie, but at least I’m now in the game.