Thursday, December 16, 2010

COLIN FIRTH -- Please Talk Dirty To Me Again

I just reviewed THE KING'S SPEECH -- my money is on this film to take most of the Oscars.
You can read it at Rover Arts - ( -- the link is on this page, below. Let me know what you think -- have you seen this film, yet? You must!

Things I did not say in that review:
I LOVE COLIN FIRTH. What I find so remarkable about this man (apart from the obvious, I-want-to-run-my-hands-through-his-hair-and-commit-unspeakable-acts of-savage-love-on-his-person) is his ability to rise in the acting firmament as a romantic lead and then veer in any direction as a character actor. 

From Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and Mark Darcy (ha-ha--we all got it) in Bridget Jones's Diary, to my strong favourite, the character in Love Actually who falls in love with a Portuguese woman and learns the language well enough to finesse his way into her heart and her family's, to a complete about face in last year's Oscar-worthy performance in A Single Man, as a grieving homosexual, replete with stylish Charles Nelson Reilly eyeglasses à la director Tom Ford's artful take on the 1960s.

Did I mention I loved him as the brooding, enigmatic Vermeer in Girl With A Pearl Earring? Did I mention I love whatever he does and that he probably knows it? Did I mention that I'm onto him...he prefers not to smile (but what dimples!) and more often than not presents the promise of something yet to come; a dark, mysterious personality who speaks in smooth modulated tones, stingy with his smiles, as though they represent a naked, caught-off-guard facet of his personality. Or, maybe, he just doesn't think much of his smile. Ah, yes, the wonders of thespian applications.

I didn't mention in my review that if you want to hear Firth's take on unutterably dirty swear words, you'll get a thorough review of them, in TKS -- mind you, as George VI, but, hey, you close your eyes and imagine what you want, right?

I didn't mention that Colin Firth not only tackled the painful stammer of George VI in a masterful way, but actually raised his voice timbre to match the king's. I noted his manner of walking, as well.
Firth really became that monarch and that's the difference between play acting at something, and actually inhabiting a character.
I drank in every pulse at his temple, every throb along the jaw, and I always sink comfortably into all that passionate expression simmering beneath the surface of his eyes.

I didn't mention how much I love Marcelle waves in hair -- Helena Bonham Carter's hair, to be exact. Nor did I point out how very much Claire Bloom submerged her own persona into that of Queen Mary's.
I scarcely recognized Anthony Andrews -- remember him as Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited?
Geoffrey Rush is brilliant as Lionel Logue.

There is rich detail in this film. A veritable feast. One ironic twist comes at the end. As King George delivers the momentous speech to rally his subjects toward vanquishing Germany, the swell of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, second movement, surges upward with great poignancy.

But enough. Let's just say, I saw the film twice and had a bollocksy good time.

The Power of One

I am going to miss American diplomat Richard Holbrooke -- I think the world is noticeably diminished now that he's gone. Too soon. Much too soon.

I was peripherally aware of his work through the years in a general sort of way, but always of the opinion that he was a diplomat of substance and tremendous personal integrity.

And then I discovered the Power of One and shortly after that, I really paid attention to his words and deeds. We were of similar minds.

You know how you grow up hearing ancient axioms like "the pen is mightier than the sword" and that one person can change the world? And you know how frustrated you feel when you see evil out there and you want to make it stop but feel your words will fall on deaf ears or that your donation of a measly buck to a cause will be of no use because what's needed is an ocean of money-- not a teaspoon, and no one else is contributing, so what's the point?

That feeling of frustration and anger worked overtime on me in late 1993.

I had been in a lather -- a serious one -- since 1992 when the Bosnian War got underway. As months wore on, stories of madness, violence and mass rapes dominated the news along with the words "ethnic cleansing." News of concentration camps was reported. The Serbs were going after all the Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and their political and military actions were spearheaded in Sarajevo and elsewhere by fiendish sicko, Dr. Radovan Karadzic. 
I feel pretty much the same about Karadzic as I do about the Nazi Dr. Mengele. Karadzic was a psychiatrist. Guess he had some inkling into the depths of shame and self-loathing 20,000 women would experience during rape and afterward. He really knew how to get his jollies.

I never understood why the rest of Europe turned a blind eye to what was happening only miles away from the nearest wine bar and hot plate of pasta.
And where was the UN?
And where were the millions of available Muslims in the world to save their brethren from this ethnic cleansing?

I was being deliberately naive because I didn't want to think the world had learned nothing since World War II and Hitler's near-eradication of the world's Jews.
I didn't want to think that when people said "Never Again" it was ever going to be more than a symbolic reminder.

I certainly didn't want to think that most of the world's Muslim community didn't care about Muslims of the former Yugoslavia because they were "too western" and therefore not really good-quality Muslims.

And then one evening as Christmas approached, CNN did a story out of Sarajevo. They interviewed a woman standing on the balcony of her apartment. 

I was struck by many things at the same time. 

In the first place, her apartment building looked just like all the other apartments built in the 1970s in most North American cities. A slab of concrete, a high-rise, with standard issue sliding windows etc. Hers, however, was riddled with bullet holes.
The next thing that struck me was the obvious similarity between Sarajevo and Montreal. We are officially "sister cities" and as I gazed at the rooftops and remembered with fondness, the recent Olympic Games held in Sarajevo, I was overcome with an incredible sense of disbelief. How on earth could all this be happening, right in the glare of the lights of the CNN cameras?

Finally, what brought me to tears was the woman herself. She was wearing fashionable red-framed eyeglasses and watering potted vegetables on her balcony as she spoke to reporters. She said she had no lights, no heat, little food, and no hot water. She said this had been going on for two years. Soap itself was scarce. I think she was a professor, I am not sure, but definitely a well-educated professional. Anyhow, as she spoke, her voice took on a tinge of bitter sarcasm. Staring into the camera she said in a calm voice that the people in the west didn't care about her or anyone in Sarajevo or Bosnia. She spoke in such matter-of-fact tones that I felt my blood run cold.
"I care," I yelled at the screen. "Goddammit to Hell, I care!"

Days later, as I sat in warm tub of bath water, holding a fragrant bar of soap I had received as a holiday gift, I began to shake and cry. Suddenly, I started chanting names: Sarajevo, Mostar, Tusla, Srebrenica, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belsen...and then, I knew what I had to do.

The Power of One.

I sat down and wrote a strong op-ed piece for the Montreal Gazette. I said that towns in Bosnia were not meant to live in the annals of history in the same way the Nazi camps did. And yet, and yet, why was I chanting them with the same horror? I accused the world. We had always used the excuse of so-called ignorance when it came to knowing what was happening in the Nazi concentration camps. But, what was our excuse now?
I implored people to take action. I accused the UN of being a broken promise in the East River. I said I had heard that woman on her balcony and I was not impervious to her pleas.
I challenged readers and journalists to rally, to go with me and march on the UN if necessary, if our own governments refused to act.
And, I exhorted people to rise to their better  natures. We are, I said, made of Gandhi and Joan of Arc. I just knew that people had to be more good than bad and indifferent.

Sensing I might have tapped into a zeitgeist of some kind, I rented a PO Box because I had a feeling I might receive mail.

The story ran in the Gazette, and was then picked up by the wire services and appeared out west, and the Calgary editor smartly placed the piece alongside a picture of the Sarajevo marketplace which had just been bombed.

Do you know how many letters I received? More than 1,200. 

Ordinary people wrote, local and far away. School teachers had their children write to me, draw pictures. I got some mail from Holocaust survivors and some mail from Nazis -- why the Nazis were upset, well, I guess it's because I had mentioned how names lived in infamy when they had no business doing that. I even got mail from prisoners who wanted to send money. Everyone was touched, everyone was angry, everyone wanted to help. 
And that's when the Bosnia Help Committee and other organizations contacted me and then I was able to direct people and donations etc. to the right places in Washington and Ottawa.

Through all of this Richard Holbrooke was actively pursuing positive and decisive action. What a horrible, horrible failure we made of things with the UN who were not mandated to shoot and fight, and who ended up running for their lives out of Szrebrenica while men were rounded up and major assassinations and crimes against humanity rained down.

Nevertheless, Holbrooke, cobbled together the Dayton Accord and finally, the war stopped. He was tough and determined. I was grateful for that.

In 2008, he returned to Bosnia and said he was reminded of his Jewish grandfather who had had to surrender his worldly possessions to the Nazis and run for his life. Holbrooke supposed one didn't have to be Jewish to imagine the kind of anguish and horror of the Bosnian War.
I realized he and I thought about the same things.

On a personal note, I have to say, that each and every letter I received as a result of my editorial made me cry. Strangers spoke so eloquently. I was moved more than I can say by the outpouring, and proud of Canadians and thankful for them touching me and making me feel less alone, as I had, apparently, done for them.

Of all the writing I have ever accomplished, that one small editorial and its ripple effect has to be the finest use of my "pen" to date.

I remember hugging those letters (which I still have locked away) and saying out loud, "If I were to die now, it would be all right. I finally did something good. Something to be proud of."

Indeed, I had proven that each and every one of us is imbued with great power and resolve, and that it only takes one act, one book, one idea, one incredible sense of drive and determination to help change the world.

Something to think about as we all gather around hearth and home this holiday.

I would love to know where that lady on the balcony is these days. I would love to wish her a continued good life filled with hot water, soap and electricity -- things we take for granted far too easily. I hope she has changed her view of ordinary people in the west. 

Finally, and not the least of this post, my sincerest condolences to the Holbrooke family -- and my deepest gratitude to a great man.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Days That Will Live In Infamy

I don't know why the beginning of December is fiendish. Perhaps an astrologist has an explanation or maybe a numerologist. All I know is it's getting awfully crowded in these, the days of infamy.

On December 6th, twenty-one years ago, a young man, named Marc Lépine, walked into Montreal's École Polytechnique, an engineering school, and killed fourteen women, all of whom were the best and brightest of students, because he decided he hated women. He hated feminists. He hated that he had not succeeded in love.
He killed himself when he was done. The incident remains the largest case of mass murder in Canada.

On December 7th, 1941 Japanese forces bombed the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor -- reasons too numerous to mention, except to note that the Japanese were already engaged in conquering China and Korea and wanted more in the Pacific rim. Crippling the US would have been a way to buy more time to carry out their plans, or so they thought. It doesn't matter now because the long reach of history explains over decades the whys and wherefores of what led up to Japan's political aspirations and what befell the entire world through the war years ending in 1945 and post war. Suffice it to say the Pearl Harbor attack, unexpected and shocking on a Sunday morning, spelled death for 2,402 military personnel and wounded 1,282.
Within hours, Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States, as well.

On December 8th, 1980, a disenfranchised man, Mark David Chapman, shot and killed former Beatle, John Lennon. He was forty years old.
Chapman killed Lennon because he wanted to be a somebody everyone would remember.
On Wednesday, it'll be thirty years since Lennon's last breath. The world will take notice and pay tribute. Did Chapman win?

All in all, a very busy week.

This year, it is different for me. I am marking the events with a blog entry. When I have finished, I will have finished. News blackouts unless a new disaster strikes.

 I have lived through the following:

Assassination of John F. Kennedy, 
Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X.
The Manson murders
The Jonestown massacre -Jim Jones
The morning the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up
Waco Siege - death of David Koresh and Branch Davidians
Death of John Kennedy Jr.
Death of Diana Princess of Wales
Oklahoma City Bombing - Timothy McVeigh
September 11, 2001
Space Shuttle Colombia destroyed on re-entry

and that's certainly not all, but it is enough.

Why am I relating this?

I've given thought over the years to my days of weeping and breast beating, the abject grief and shock, the rage, the total physical displacement of what seemed like my orbit, my axis -- falling, shifting horribly in the pit of my stomach. Grief will always knock me flat.

But I have learned something. It's what actor Sidney Poitier once said -- when he was young he thought he could and would change the world. When he grew older, he realized the only thing he could change was himself.
"Be the change you want to see," said Gandhi.

Not easy. But, one thing I know for sure -- if you are sane and you want to stay that way, you have to choose sanity every waking moment. God knows there are plenty of crazy people on this planet, and plenty of events we cannot control. So, I say a silent prayer, keep a small place of remembrance in my heart and move onward. Ever onward.

Banting and Best, the Gutenberg press, the moonwalk, Louis Pasteur, Victor Borge -- a world bursting with miracles and mirth. They, and a million other wonders deserve my attention.
As Lennon put it, "In my life, I've loved them all."

Reindeer and Stew

Holiday Mug from Pier I Imports  $8 CDN.
The snow arrived Monday. It was simply a matter of time. It didn't fall in big fluffy flakes. It came in a powder, blowing and squalling with insignificant accumulation, as if to say, "I'm here now, I am not planning to melt, and I will grow fierce and icy and make your driving hell." And it continues into the night. Eventually, the centimetres will add up, finally convincing disbelievers that winter tires really are necessary. That rasp hitting those ears? It's not cousin Freddy playing with the garden hose again. It's frostbite.

Time for the boots and gloves and voluminous coats. Time for the fashion-forward scarves, hats and mufflers; the half-hands and furry leg warmers, many of which will scream hot red, pink, purple, yellow, gray and winter white.

If it's one thing Canadians do well, it's winter with an attitude, a kind of western capitalist denial that spring blooms are locked up for six months in hothouses.

When Canadians travelled to the U.S.S.R in 1972 for the now-famous series of Canada-Russia hockey games, it was unquestionably easy to spot them in the audience. A sea of drab, mirthless Communists sat like black pebbles in a rock garden riotously overtaken by florid cheeks, smiling faces and colourful parkas and toques. I am quite sure those Russians were startled and envious.

I watched the snow from my window today and counted my blessings. I am often reminded how little things make a difference. I was feeling blah last week, so I bought the Pier I mug above. It's a sweet happy mug, with great lines, wonderful cheeriness, and a rim that is neither too thick to be sloppy nor too thin to be mistaken for fine china.

A simple mug lifted my spirits. Not that a million dollars in the bank wouldn't do the same, but since that doesn't seem to be handy at the moment, I'll happily take my mug and consider what my whimsical reindeer and I might do together. We are the purveyors of dreams.

Another blessing -- I have so many! is the circle of grandmothers on my shoulders. I had three grandmothers -- my maternal great-grandmother, Celia, whom I called Grandma Kaufmann -- I lived with her for a few notable years -- my maternal grandmother, Edythe, whom I called Grandma Edie, and my paternal grandmother, Rebecca (Rivka), whom I called Grandma Becky.

Today, as the snow fell, I thought of Grandma Becky and her wonderful chicken stew.

She called it "russeleh" -- which is my made-up spelling for a word I think is akin to Romanian, but then, again, it could be some kind of Yiddish, or even possibly, a Grandma Becky word alone.

The stew is simple. As Grandma always said, "First, you need an onion."
(In fact, she used to hit me with a wooden spoon whenever I wondered what I should use to cook a dish, if it wasn't dessert. "What, are you crazy?" she'd  wave the spoon, "you use an onion! How can you ask?")

So, you slice a big onion, and some potatoes and lots of carrots.
Then you pour a "spoon" of oil into a stew pot, add your onions and cook until tender. Then, you add pieces of chicken. I use breasts and thighs, boneless.
You brown a little, then add your carrots and potatoes. I usually put the vegetables on the bottom and the chicken on the top.

Seasoning? Another story.
Salt, pepper, garlic, onion powder, sweet paprika. And the magic ingredient.
Now, my sister and I have discussed this at length because the secret ingredient is cinnamon and my sister thinks it's not really true -- it's just that one day Grandma probably used it by mistake owing to bad vision, or on purpose when she was all out of paprika. I like to think the cinnamon was deliberate. Either way, I use it and it's delicious and since she was Romanian, it seems totally reasonable to me that she'd use a spice like that.
I say this, even though Grandma was not averse to dumping a teaspoonful of jam into my coffee when she was out of sugar.... (By the way, I was taught that an ellipsis of three dots always ends with a period if no words follow.)

Anyhow, the real secret to this stew is the water you add -- just a little. You watch carefully as the water disappears into the potatoes and carrots, add a little more, until the veggies are tender. And, then you let the pot start to dry out so that the onions and carrots caramelize. You add a little more water, wait and watch until it glistens with oil, and you are done.
On a day like today, a humble "russeleh" fills the house with that homey warmth only found in tales of the "old country" when the snow was unforgiving, the sky was black with crows and bleak, but you had one another, you had a bowl of love to nourish your spirit.

I explained all of this to my gentile reindeer and I have to say, he liked the story. Tomorrow, as the snow continues, I shall tell him another.