June 30, 2012
My mother once told me that she refused a marriage that had been arranged by her father and uncle. I gave her credit for her chutzpah, because I knew how stern and single-minded those Lebanese gentlemen were. Of course, given the possible consequences for me, I was also grateful for her decision.
Mom took that stand sometime in the 1930s. I don’t know if arranged marriages were more common then, but they are still practiced now, even in the United States, and they are increasingly an anomaly in an era in which couples as often as not dispense with marriage itself.
The practice of this tradition in the 21st century — specifically among observant Muslims and Orthodox Jews — is the subject of Arranged, a 2007 movie based loosely on the personal experience of executive producer Yuta Silverman.
The story concerns Rochel Meshenberg (Zoe Lister Jones) and Nasira Khaldi (Francis Benhamou) who begin their teaching careers the same fall at a school in Brooklyn. Rochel wears the conservative clothing expected of an Orthodox Jewish woman and Nasira wears Muslim garb. These outward signs of their religious identities lead their students to openly express the expectation that the teachers hate each other. The students’ open expression of this assumption, and the teachers’ means of addressing it prompt the school principal, Mrs. Jacoby (Marcia Jean Kurtz), to make some very inappropriate observations about the way the teachers dress and in general how they adhere to the religious traditions of their families.
While the young women are dealing with issues in their new careers, their families are busy trying to arrange marriages in keeping with centuries-old practices. Nasira takes this in her stride, but Rochel’s rejection of a series of unappealing prospects creates tension in her family, and especially between her and her mother, Sheli (Mimi Lieber), who is determined to settle Rochel’s future and protect the family’s image in the Jewish community.
These circumstances have the effect of creating a bond between Rochel and Nasira — a bond their parents don’t appreciate. As a function of this friendship, the mischievous Nasira decides to directly intervene in the selection of a spouse for Rochel.
This low-key film, which was shot in about two weeks, is laced with attractive characters and talented actors. From my perspective as neither Jewish nor Muslim, it seems to be respectful of the traditions of both peoples even while it comes down on the side of cultural openness and personal freedom.
June 29, 2012
Every so often, acting trumps story. That’s the case with “How About You?”, a 2007 Irish film based on a short story by Maeve Binchy.
I can’t speak for the short story, but the film is predictable. Thirty-something Kate Harris (Orla Bradley) runs a residence that is occupied by older people, including four who are particularly nasty. Kate’s sister, Ellie (Hayley Atwell), appears unexpectedly to ask Kate to help her finance a trip around the world Ellie is planning with her boyfriend. Kate clearly doesn’t approve of Ellie’s lifestyle but grudgingly gives her a job cleaning the house and attending to the needs of the residents. Ellie develops an interest in sweet, fragile Alice Peterson (Joan O’Hara), and tries to take the edge off Alice’s loneliness — with a little smoke as part of the remedy.
But Ellie has no patience with the sour quartet that includes the widowed former judge Donald Vanston (Joss Ackland); the spinster Nightingale sisters, Heather (Brenda Fricker) and Hazel (Imelda Staunton); and former singer-actress Georgia Platts (Vanessa Redgrave).
As Christmas approaches, most of the residents leave for the holiday, but not these four. Meanwhile, Kate receives word that her mother has suffered a stroke. Kate wants to be with her mother and leaves the reluctant Ellie to manage the house and look after the unholy quartet.
Kate warns Ellie that the house is constantly being inspected by a local health official who could drop in at any time. With Kate gone, Ellie makes an effort to maintain control, but the unreasonable demands of the residents wear out her limited patience.
In her climactic conflict with the group, Ellie confronts them with the unvarnished truth about the way they are living. They take her remarks to heart, and gradually they reveal the events in their past lives that brought them to this house and turned them into such bitter human beings.
I won’t describe how the story turns out, but suffice it to say that not many viewers would be surprised.
In spite of the see-it-coming-a-mile-away resolution, the film is worthwhile because all of the characters are interesting and all of the actors are talented. The most complex figures are the Nightingale sisters, one of whom is a skillful artist and the other a pool shark. We learn only enough about their dark family background to be tantalized, but we never hear the details and we never witness the denouement.
The title of the film is a reference to the song by Burton Lane and Ralph Freed that Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland introduced in the 1941 film Babes on Broadway. The song is heard several times during this movie, including a barroom rendition by Vanessa Redgrave.
June 16, 2012
A phone rang in the newsroom at around 8:30 am, and the caller had a problem. He was a shift worker who got off a half hour before and had been in the nearby tavern long enough to get into, first, an argument and, second, a wager.
This was happening in Perth Amboy, long before the advent of the Internet or, for that matter, desk-top computers. The reporter taking the call was surrounded by mechanical Royal typewriters. But none of this context was of interest to the caller. He needed an answer, and he needed it soon. The question: “Is a giraffe’s tail as long as its neck?” There was money riding on the answer and, one suspected, paper money.
The reporter didn’t promise to resolve the question, but he did promise to call back one way or the other.
The reporter riffled through the meager reference materials in the newsroom but did not find the answer. With an air of futility, he called the nearby Staten Island Zoo, and located a person who provided information that may or may not have settled the wager. The giraffe’s neck is about six feet long. Its tail is about three feet long, but the tuft of hair at the end could double the length. The reporter called the pay phone at the tavern, repeated the data and hung up, praying that there were no weapons on the premises.
I recalled this incident the other day when I heard on National Public Radio that a listener had complained about a report on All Things Considered about a round of layoffs at a group of newspapers in the South. The listener wanted to know why the NPR news staff thought the layoffs of journalists was any more tragic than the layoff of anyone else. I didn’t hear the broadcast the listener was referring to, so I don’t know if the NPR staff exhibited some disproportionate sympathy for people of their kind, but the exchange reminded me of something I don’t hear much about in the reporting and commentary on the decline of newspapers in the United States.
The giraffe incident was a lighthearted example of the role local newspapers have played in their communities, a role that usually dealt with far more serious issues than animal anatomy.
The local newspaper was the last resort for many folks who were trying to settle wagers, finish their homework, or save their homes, their families, or their lives. There is no way to calculate the number of questions that were answered or problems that were solved by personnel at the newspapers that employed me for more than 40 years. Occasionally these matters resulted in stories; sometimes they were very big stories. But in countless instances, the news staff acted as exactly what it was, a surrogate for the public, and might spend hours or days or weeks wrestling with an issue that never generated a word in print. “You are the voice of those who have no voice,” one of my publishers once told me, and we all took that seriously.
The news staff, cumulatively, had skills, knowledge, and contacts that many people did not have. And in the days when newspapers had significant circulation and influence on public opinion, the voice of a journalist on the other end of the phone was, for many, especially those in public authority, vox Dei.
But for those who called, whether readers or not, we constituted the only place to turn.
A friend once told me about a young woman, an immigrant, who was working in New York City as a translator. Her grandmother had come from the Old Country to visit her, and never went back. The grandmother’s visa had long since expired when she started to show signs of dementia. Because of the grandmother’s immigration status, the granddaughter was afraid to seek help but at the same time was afraid to leave her grandmother alone during the day. What, my friend wanted to know, did I intend to do about it? These folks had no connection to the newspaper; they lived in another part of the state. I called whom I needed to call and soon had a promise that the elderly woman’s immigration status would be normalized so that she could get the care she needed.
That’s one example. The women and men I worked with for four decades could contribute dozens, scores, of stories of that kind. I don’t know what will replace that resource, that safety valve —that friend who won’t turn away—in the life of a community.
June 8, 2012
The authors of a new book on baseball describe the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred on Dec. 7, 1941. The writers continue: “The next day, calling it ‘a day of infamy,’ President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on the Japanese and their allies, Germany and Italy.”
The ambiguous pronoun makes it unclear which day Roosevelt was referring to — December 7 or “the next day” — but the record shows that was December 7 and that Roosevelt did not call it ‘a day of infamy’ but ‘a date that will live in infamy.’ The record also shows that Roosevelt did not mention Italy or Germany, both of which declared war on the United States about a month later.
The title of this book is “You Stink!” It is a compilation of what the authors, Eric Wittenberg and Michael Aubrecht, regard as the worst teams, players, plays, and decisions in the history of major league baseball.
In my opinion, the book is pointless and, despite the authors’ disclaimer to the contrary, mean spirited. What else but a mean spirit would prompt writers to spend their time compiling a monotonous stream of statistics to memorialize the failures and disappointments of one team and one player after another. There is nothing original about that, despite the author’s claim that their purpose was to write something original about baseball. Any baseball fan knows that there is much more failure than success in the game; reporting on the failures alone, without the context of the successes, is sophomoric.
But, then, everything about this book is childish, which is especially jarring because of the credentials the writers present: one is an “award-winning Civil War historian,” and the other “dedicated his studies to the histories of Major League Baseball, the Civil War, and the American Revolution.” These history buffs report that the Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1953 World Series. It was the Yankees.
The adjectives alone are suffocating. How bad was that batting average, that ERA, that season, that decision? It was “atrocious,” “staggering,” “eye-popping,” “wretched,” “anemic,” “terrible,” “mind-boggling,” “horrible,” “pathetic,” “dismal,” “stunning,” “miserable,” “incredible,” “ghastly,” “abysmal.”
There are grammatical errors, a few misspellings, and outrages in style that affect almost every sentence. There is a quote from Roger Maris used twice in the same chapter and numerous other lapses that suggest that this book and a competent editor were never in the same county.
One of the most conspicuous signs that this book is headed for deep discount is the case of poor John Humphries, whom the authors singled out for opprobrium as the worst catcher of all time. Humphries appeared in a total of 103 games over two seasons in the 1880s. He played catcher in only 75 of those games. It is true that Humphries committed 74 errors in those 75 games, but no serious student of baseball would take into account such a short career in ranking fielders. To emphasize their point about Humphries, the writers included a photograph of him, except that any 15-year-old kid would know that that picture wasn’t taken in the 19th century.
That’s a picture of the other John Humphries, who is in the photo above left, the John Humphries who pitched in the majors in the 1930s and 1940s. The John Humphries whose humiliation was probably sufficient without any help from these writers, is in the photo above.
Wait for the movie.
There used to be a TV panel show titled Life Begins at 80. That may be true, and I’ll find out in about ten years, but meanwhile Gianni Di Gregorio has gotten a head start.
Di Gregorio is an Italian filmmaker who got people to take him seriously when he was in his late 50s. He did it with a film called Pranzo di Ferragosto, known in English as Mid-August Lunch or Lunch for Ferragosto. “Ferragosto” — from the Latin meaning “feasts of Augustus” — is a mid-summer holiday that has its origins in the Roman Empire.
Di Gregorio, who has said that he had trouble getting financial backing because his 2008 film is about old people, directs and plays the principal character — Gianni. The use of the name is not so much the result of a lack of imagination as it is a result of the autobiographical aspects of the film.
Gianni, the character, is a middle-aged man who lives in Rome with his aged mother in a condominium they cannot afford. Gianni hasn’t paid the maintenance fee in two years, and the condo administrator comes around to say that Gianni and his Mama may be evicted. But the administrator has a problem that Gianni is in a position to solve, and the quid pro quo would be cancellation of some of Gianni’s debts. The administrator wants to take a short vacation, and he would like to leave his own aged mother in Gianni’s care. Gianni is in no position to turn down this offer, and he agrees to accept the woman as a guest.
Almost simultaneously, Gianni’s family doctor arrives for a house call. He, too, it turns out, needs a place to park his Mom — and there’s something in it for Gianni. When the doctor arrives with his mother, he brings along an aunt as well, and suddenly Gianni finds himself the chef and maître d’hôtel for a gaggle of ancient females who don’t always do as they are told.
The story of this odd situation and the events that result from it are told in this film, which DiGregorio directed, in manner so understated that one gets the feeling of observing people going about the minutiae of their everyday lives. Much of the dialogue (in Italian with English subtitles) consists of mumbled sentence fragments. The interchanges among the characters feels so natural that I suspect that much of the story was filmed without a firm script, or perhaps with no script at all.
If the cast didn’t depend heavily on a script, that would be appropriate, because several of them were not actors. For example, Valeria De Franciscis, who plays Gianni’s mother, was a family friend who, the director wisely thought, fit the part. De Franciscis was so well suited to the role that she played Di Gregorio’s mother again in his 2011 film, “The Salt of Life.”
Mid-August Lunch was well received when it first appeared and won some prestigious awards. It is highly regarded for the light touch with which it portrays some of the realities of middle and old age. It also reflects the relationship many Italian men have with their doting and possessive mothers. Many a tenor has enthusiastically sung about this phenomenon: “Mama . . . Tu sei la vita, e per la vita non ti lascio mai piu.” And, in fact, Di Gregorio shot much of this film in the apartment in which he lived for many years with his elderly mother.
Di Gregorio is, by reputation, a charming guy, and he certainly communicates that through the character in this film. He got off to a late start as a filmmaker, but I hope we’ll be seeing him and his work a lot more,
June 3, 2012
I still argue with the voice on my GSP. Don’t look at me that way: You do it, too! The voice has a British accent; we call her Petula. And I still argue when I want to stay on I-95 and she tries to send me onto US-1. But I do have a little more respect for her — or, at least, for the device — now that I’ve read Chad Orzel’s book “How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog.”
Orzel, a professor who also wrote “How to Teach Physics to your Dog,” explains in this more recent book that the technology of global positioning systems relies on a principle of the theories of relativity first formulated by Albert Einstein. A principle of the special theory of relativity holds that a clock that is in motion will “tick” increasingly more slowly as the speed of its motion increases. The general theory of relativity, on the other hand, holds that a clock runs faster the higher it is — that is, the greater its altitude in the gravitational field.
The atomic clocks aboard the GPS satellites speed up because of their altitude and slow down because of the speed at which the satellites orbit the earth. At the altitude of those satellites, the clocks are quickened more than they are slowed, but they are still keeping time at a different rate than clocks on the surface of the earth. Each satellite emits a radio signal with the time on its atomic clock. The GPS unit picks up two or three of those signals, calculates the difference between the time on the satellite clock and the time on the surface of the earth, and uses that information to determine the distance to each satellite and, from that, the location of the unit on the ground.
Pretty cool, huh?
Still, I don’t read about physics because I’m interested in the practical applications so much as because I’m interested in the theories and principles. It can be mind-bending stuff, but if given enough concentration and persistence, it can lead to some moments of enlightenment about how the universe works. And studying the theories of relativity, in particular, can be an eye-opening series of reminders that things are not always what they appear to be.
Orzel’s technique in this book is to explore the special and general theories of relativity, and some other matters, as though he were discussing them with his real-life dog, Emmy. This is the writer’s way of making the material more accessible to people like me, but frankly, it gets tiresome. The dog’s constant references to Orzel as “Dude” and the overworked jokes about Emmy’s appetite, disdain for cats, and fixation with chasing rabbits, grow old pretty quickly. And the premise crumbles as the dog begins to talk about physics as if she were a graduate student at Princeton.
I think anyone who picked up this book thinking that the dialogue with the dog, and the use of dog-world examples, would make physics easier to understand would be disappointed. Orzel’s explanations are clear, but he could have been just as clear without the input from the dog. More important, with or without the dog, a reader won’t get much out of this book without focusing attention on it, frequently stopping to think hard about what Orzel has just written, frequently re-reading paragraphs or whole sections and consulting the glossary at the back of the book.
Both the special and general theories of relativity depend on the idea that the laws of physics work the same for observers who are in motion and observers who are stationary, even though an event — such as a person dropping a ball from above his head to the floor at his feet on a moving train — will appear differently to the person dropping the ball and a person observing the event while standing still on the station platform.
An interesting thing that comes up again and again in Orzel’s book is the fact that researchers are still discovering implications of these theories that Einstein expounded at the beginning of the 20th century. Already Einstein’s work has led to the understanding that the mass of an object is a measure of its energy and the two properties are connected by the constant e=mc²; that time and space are expressions of the same thing; that gravity bends light; that large objects bend space; that a moving object shrinks in length in the direction in which it is moving — the faster it moves, the more it shrinks.
Orzel’s also discusses black holes, those concentrations of mass so dense that even light can’t escape their gravity; the principles behind nuclear energy — both the relatively weak energy that holds atoms together and the enormous energy that can power cities or destroy them; the discovery that the universe is expanding at a constantly increasing rate; and the likelihood that this expanding universe began as a single point that exploded in what we know call the “big bang.”
The dog? I can take or or leave her. But reading this book — some of it two or three times — was worth the energy (which, by the way, equals mass times the speed of light squared)