Stephen King’s The Shining: Like Father, Like Son.


Looking for the perfect book to read during Halloween? The Shining by Stephen King is a classic: one of the scariest books ever written. One reason for its popularity is the novel was turned into a celebrated movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duval in the main roles, back in the 1980s.

Rumor has it that King himself was not entirely happy with the movie adaptation. If you read the book, you will probably understand why. Although the movie is heavily inspired by the book, it takes a lot of detours from the original plot and skips important themes that play an essential subtext.

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In broad strokes, the novel tells the story of Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic with a short temper, who – unable to find a job anywhere else, after beating up a student at the school he used to work as writing teacher – is hired, with the help of a friend, as the caretaker of the sinister Overlook hotel for the winter months, taking his young wife, Wendy, and their 5-year-old son, Danny, with him.

The hotel is completely empty and isolated. To spice things up, Danny has the gift of precognition, popularly known, among the initiated, as the shining: he can read people’s thoughts, foresee the future, and have glimpses of violent incidents that took place a long time ago. Weird things start happening at the hotel. The family, especially the father and the son, are haunted by ghosts and unusual experiences.

Among the strange ocurrences that contribute to its sense of horror, the novel depicts a topiary – bushes and trees trimmed in the form of a rabbit, two lions and a dog – that seems to come to life occasionally; a dead woman who rises from a bathtub in room 217 (to this day, guests in many real hotels are said to turn down the offer to occupy the room with this number because of the novel); images of a mob murder that happened years before materialize in vivid form in front of the kid; in addition, mufffled sounds of a mask ball from the past are heard continually at night.images-2

Could all this be a metaphor for a darker link between father and son? The symptoms of something terrible lurking inside the boy and ready to blossom?

As the months go by and the winter becomes harsher, the claustrophobic atmosphere of the hotel inevitably starts to unhinge Jack Torrance, whose madness slowly sets in. He becomes a deadly menace to his own family.

(Watch the clip of one of the best scenes of the movie below. Warning: strong language is used)

Stephen King is not only a bestselling and prolific author, but he’s also really talented. His books are not just airport thrillers made out of a schematic formula meant to provide a couple of hours  of entertainement before being thrown out in the trash can at the end of your journey. The Shining, for example, can be read on at least two different levels. On a simpler, more straightforward level, we have the chilling mystery tale of a family stranded by heavy snow and lack of telecommunications, living alone in a more than 50-year-old luxurious hotel up in the mountains of Colorado.

An even more disturbing way of interpreting The Shining, however, is to read it as a vigorous metaphor for alcoholism, its genetic origins and terrible consequences: the story would consist of hyperbolic images translating the symptoms of that powerful disease that can be handed down from father to son to grandson, causing extreme anxiety, cravings, hallucinations, madness, violence, and, ultimately, death.

As backstory, the reader learns that Jack’s own father was an alcoholic. He would come home from his job as a nurse, smelling of booze and behaving nastily to his wife and kids. Despite being very fond of his father, Jack’s love wears out, as he witnesses a vicious beating his Dad administers to his Mom, for no reason at all.

Danny and Jack, for their turn, are quite close too. As a matter of fact, the bond between father and son is so strong that Wendy sometimes feels left out of their peculiar masculine world, and, as a result, even gets a bit jealous.

In an alternative interpretation of the novel, therefore, the closeness between father and son, Jack’s increasing madness at the hotel and Danny’s precognition gift can be easily understood as the addictive genetic inheritance handed down to the next generation, the beginning of what will become for Danny a full-blown disease in the future.

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Steven King himself was an alcoholic at the time he wrote the novel and the theme in The Shining reflects his own worries and unhappiness about the problem. Writing, after all, has always been a potent way of purging one’s own demons.

Whatever layer of the story you choose, rest assured it will scare the living daylights out of you, which is why the book is such a great thriller in all respects.The book sustains a very oppressive atmosphere, making it a rather dark reading experience – entirely suitable to celebrate your Halloween night. The tension in the story grows progressively unbearable, culminating in a gruesome climactic sequence. Not to be missed.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

What Does Bob Dylan Mean Today?


Bob Dylan’s poetry has been enchanting generations for more than half a century now. His songs remain as relevant and powerful as they used to be for the counterculture youth of the 1960s.

To this day, those songs continue to inspire, constantly featuring in contemporary movies and TV series, as a way to contextualize and illuminate universal themes and feelings. A Shelter from the Storm, for example, was recently used in the soundtrack of Danny Boyle’s biopic Steve Jobs as an effective tool to highlight the turbulent relationship between the Apple co-founder and his daughter Lisa; the poignant Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, marked the end of season one of the iconic TV series Mad Men, when Don Draper, its unstable protagonist, hits rock bottom, arriving at his suburban home at the end of the day to find out that Betty, his wife, has finally left and taken their kids away.

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On October 13 Bob Dylan was awarded one of the most important literary prizes in the world: the Nobel. To celebrate the recognition of one of the greatest poets of the XX century, let’s listen to his landmark anti-war hymn, BLOWIN’ IN THE WING (see You Tube video clip below), and reflect on its relevance for today’s audiences. With your study group, family or friends, discuss the questions below. You can share some of your answers with us in the comments section.

How do the 1960s in general compare to the 2010s? Point out some similarities and differences.

 What does the song Blowin’ in the Wind originally refer to? What could it refer to now?

 How would you rephrase the verse “how many roads must a man walk down before we call him a man”?

 What do we turn our heads to and pretend not to see today?

 What does the metaphor to look up and really see the sky mean?

 Enjoy!

Jorge Sette

 

 

 

Almodóvar’s Julieta


The critics are right: Almódovar is not the same. Julieta, his latest movie, is nothing like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which catapulted the Spanish director to international fame almost thirty years ago.

Julieta is more mature, serious and, in many respects, a lot better, reflecting the evolution and progressive refinement of a seasoned maestro. Of course, some fans will miss the raw humor and shock value of his earlier movies, which celebrated la movida madrileña, the cultural movement of the late 70s and early 80s that stood in direct opposition to the values and life style of Franco’s dictatorial years. In those days of la movida, it was necessary to burn the cultural bra to make a point. Those times are over, though. Besides, for more nostalgic viewers, quite a few of his movies of that era are available on Netflix, at your fingertip.

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 Julieta, on the other hand, belongs to the 2010s. It is allowed – strike that; required is the precise word – to be simpler and more contained. Nevertheless, it has kept the director’s inimitable voice and style: the bright colors, the Madrid touch, and the inscrutable strong women are still there. And even Rossy the Palma, one of the muses of his early years as a filmmaker, makes a comeback; her wondrous nose, uneven eyes and twisted mouth working their magic, in the role of a modern-day Cassandra.

Rossy de Palma La Ley del Deseo

Rossy de Palma in the 1980s.

I find it unbelievable that many critics will say that Almodóvar has never mastered the skills to tell a story. His narrative powers are weak, some say. Obviously, these critics abide by only one model of storytelling: the commercial cinema of Hollywood. Although I respect the claim that some narrative elements and archetypes make themselves present one way or another in every story ever told, they should be rearranged in as many different ways as creative directors can come up with. Almodóvar’s storylines do follow a structure – although an idiosyncratic one. Digression plays a big part in his method.

Without the digression, Julieta would be a simple tale about guilt. It’s the digressions that allow Almodóvar to present the viewer with unique images (an elk running in slow motion alongside a moving train at night; the bluest sea shown though the open windows of a living room in Galicia; the Swiss Alps shot in all their glory); intriguing metaphors: references to Homer’s Odyssey and the power of the sea to entice men like Ulisses and Xoan, pulling them from the safety of their houses and the comfort of their families; and one of the most original transitions between youth and old age in movie history: actress Adrian Ugarte is replaced by Emma Suárez at the sudden removal of a red tower.

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Pedro Almodóvar

Julieta is a delight to the eyes. You could just sit back for hours watching these beautiful women move around in fashionable clothes, stepping in and out of fascinating Madrid buildings, walking along its narrow cobblestone streets or just sitting in close-up against the backdrop of stunningly decorated apartments.

With the help of great actors and a stunning musical store by Alberto Iglesias, Almodóvar turns the straightforward story of a family marked by tragedy into a Hitchockian thriller – with echoes of Vertigo. Viewers will be met by twists and little surprises at every turn, relishing the journey. Almodóvar has developed the fearlessness of those who have nothing more to prove. He shoots his movies out of sheer pleasure. Who can blame him?

Au revoir

Jorge.

 

 

Janis: Little Girl Blue


The new documentary about the life of incendiary 1960s blues singer Janis Joplin, by director Amy Berg, has opened in São Paulo this week. Contrary to the classic biography on the singer – Buried Alive, written by Myra Friedman, and first published in 1973 – the documentary chooses to show a less torturous and painful facet of Janis, who comes off in the movie as an intelligent, charismatic and sensitive human being. An extremely talented woman, way ahead of her time, who looks to fame and acclaim to fit in and be loved, Janis’s short and intense life is celebrated, rather than mourned, in this mind-blowing film.

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Born on January 19, 1943, into a conservative and suffocating family, who wanted her to become a teacher, Janis grew up an outcast, the target of frequent bullying at school in the backward Texan city of Port Arthur. Unconventional, outspoken and aggressive, Janis broke the mold of what was expected from women in those repressive years of the 1950s and early 60s.

San Francisco

When zitty-faced and overweight Janis found out she would never become one of the curvaceous and cute models who leapt from the covers and pages of the women’s magazines everyone read when she was a teenager, she left home and headed for San Francisco. The neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury welcomed Janis with open arms. She had found her soulmates. She felt totally at home and could finally blossom as a woman and artist.

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Janis Joplin belonged on the stage. She would rip herself open in front of an audience. Her performances – many of which feature in the documentary, but can also be found on YouTube– are raw and soul-wrenching. Audiences – both in the live presentations depicted in the film and the one watching it from the comfortable seat of a movie theater – look on enthralled and silent – experiencing a jolt of pleasure, pain and self-realization, through the music emanating from this force of nature.

When I sing, I feel like when you’re first in love. It’s more than sex. It’s that point two people can get to they call love, when you really touch someone for the first time, but it’s gigantic, multiplied by the whole audience. I feel chills, explains the singer.

The movie narrates Janis’s story from her childhood in Port Arthur to her untimely death due to an overdose of heroin at a hotel in Hollywod at age 27, covering in detail all the phases of her meteoric career. Janis struggled with drug abuse from the very first years in San Francisco; the problem only got worse as she became more popular.

Monterey

The addiction, however, did not stop Janis from exploding to notoriety during the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, when she debuted as a full-fledged blues singer, mesmerizing the audience with a legendary rendition of Ball and Chain (see video below).

From then on, many doors started to open and Janis never stopped climbing the steps of success and recognition, as one of the best blues singers of all time. Stardom, however, which she had sought for most part of her life, proved elusive and unsatisfactory, after all. On stage I make love to twenty five thousand people; and then I go home alone, complained the lonely diva. She could never shut out her personal ghosts, insecurities and anxieties, unless she was working.

Career

Although, Janis Joplin recorded only 4 albums in her 4-year career: Big Brother and the Holding Company (1967); Cheap Thrills (1968) ; I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969) Platinum and Pearl (1971, released posthumously), her fame is enduring and she continues to captivate new fans with songs such as Cry Baby, Summertime, Mercedes Benz, Maybe, and Me and Bobby McGee (her best selling single).

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Janis Joplin – Little Girl Blue, the documentary – will surely enlist a new wave of fans. After all, many young people can’t wait to find music which is not as innocuous and washed-out as most pop songs they download from the Internet today.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream


It may seem surprising that I chose to review  a movie from 2007 in this post. Arent’t there any new movies good enough to deserve more updated commentaries? Well, the advent of NETFLIX blurred time lines, and today, at the tip of your fingers, you can access and pick either the latest episode of House of Cards, or immerse yourself as easily in a classic movie bringing your laptop or any other device to bed, and then not being able to sleep. Going to bed with your e-devices is, after all, considered one of the main causes of the prevalent insomnia and sleep deprivation most of us suffer these days. The flickering light will stay on in your brain for hours even after you switch the machine off and try to invite Morpheus in. I believe the god gets jealous of being relegated to a second post in your bed priorities, or third, if you take sex into consideration, and, as a consequence, will resist your call as long as possible – despite all the Ambien you might use to entice him.

The movie

Speaking of Morpheus, the movie we are discussing today has mythology and classic literature at its center (Cassandra and Dostoyevsky) and also dreams in its title and themes. Cassandra is a mythologycal  figure who, in the best known version of her story, rejects the advances of Apollo and is cursed with the power of prophecy which will not be believed by anyone. Tragic: you try to warn people against their foolish ways, foretelling their fateful outcomes, yet no one takes your predictions seriously.

Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream

Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream

Well, Woody Allen’s movie is a cautionary tale about ambition and the use of short cuts and quick fixes to get what you want. It’s a warning for those who cross forbidden and dangerous lines to achieve their dreams and aspirations. At the same time, we know humans will never change no matter what Cassandra says. Excessive ambition will always contaminate countless souls and the lure of short cuts is too strong to resist, despite its consequences.

In this respect the story is not new, it has been told innumerable times, we read about it in the papers every single day. Nevertheless they do not usually rely on charismatic actors such as Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell embodying the fateful ambitious brothers on their tragic path to destruction, stopping at nothing to get what they dream about, nor with the help of a great supporting cast to help tell the story, which is not uncommon in any Allen movie. Cassandra’s Dream would never be this strong movie if we could not count on the superb performances of this team.

The plot

The movie starts with the brothers, who have a very close bond, excited at the prospect of purchasing a small boat and trying to negotiate the price down with its owner. From the very first dialogue we realize they are not guys who play straight and are always trying to take advantage. Terry (Colin Farrell), a pill-popping, compulsive gambler with a drinking problem, works as a mechanic in a garage and is always lending expensive cars to his bother Ian (Ewan McGregor), who works in the family restaurant while trying to save money to start a hotel business in California. The story takes place in modern-day London, which, together with another Woody Allen movie set there, Match Point, makes the most of the amazing sights of the city in the beautifully photographed scenes.

The whole family – the two brothers, father and mother – is always shamelessly sucking up to a rich uncle – with shady deals all over the world – who visits them a couple of  times a year, and lavishes the relatives with presents and, sometimes, cash. Well, now, however, the stakes are higher: Terry owes a lot of money to hard-core gamblers and might have his legs broken if he fails to pay them back. Ian, on the other hand, can’t wait to get away from the greasy restaurant business and break free from his suffocating family to move to America with a newly-acquired theater actress girlfriend, who dreams of becoming a successful Hollywood star.

Greed

The uncle has the means, the power and the connections to make all this come true. All they need is to ask him. After all, they are family. Blood is more important than anything else, isn’t it? But blood costs blood: the rich uncle will lend both brothers the money and work his powerful connections to turn Ian’s girl friend into a star in exchange for a huge favor: he claims he can only count on Terry and Ian to get rid of  a business contact who knows too much about his shady deals and may send him to jail for the next 10 years. They must kill him.

Crime and punishment

In this Crime and Punishment kind of plot, the brothers decide to cross the line – there is no return – and do the deed. They kill the man. Before long, however, the Raskolnikov’s syndrome of not being able to live with the burden of the guilt overcomes Terry, who threatens to go to the police and surrender. Uncle Rich and Ian will not let that happen. Terry has to be stopped. Another line to be crossed.

Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream

Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream

The end

The face-off between the two brothers takes place against the backdrop of the Thames – the water playing the eternal metaphor of hidden and dark subconscious compulsions –  inside Cassandra’s Dream, the fateful boat they acquired at the beginning of the story, in a breathtaking sequence, where the bond and love felt by the two brothers get mixed up and destroyed by the ambition of cold-blooded Ian and the weakness of unstable Terry. The already stunning  actors’ performances rise a couple of notches for the grand finale – which, as a plot point, is even a bit anticlimactic.  Maybe this is on purpose, as we are mainly left with the facial expressions of Colin and Ewan forever engraved in out minds and wishing for more as the final credits roll on.

Human beings will never change, but Netflix viewers of Cassandra’s Dream will never be the same after watching acting of this caliber.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

Why “Orange is the New Black” will make TV history


We had The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. All these shows made history by breaking new ground in televison,  focusing on the excellence of scripts, stunning acting and great premises.

The Sopranos dared to show in our living rooms  how disturbingly  “normal” a Mob family could look as seen from the inside, and thus struck a powerful blow on corporate America by likening the lifestyle and “business” methods used by Mob leader Tony to those commonly employed by CEOs of huge companies throughout the world.

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Mad Men is all about contrasting society’s habits and especially womens’s  position in the workplace by focusing on a a group of advertisers in the 1960s – the coolest professional category at the time  –  and having us analyse the context with today’s eyes. Has it changed that much? Do men, although behaving more subtly, still have the same demeaning attitudes towards women in the workplace?  Food for thought. In addition to that, for those who work in the area of marketing, as I do, it’s fascinating to see how simple and direct it was for those Madison Avenue guys to lure and entice customers back in the sixties, when companies kept all the power of communication, especially through television,  as opposed to the shift and landslide caused but the Internet and social media these days, which have given the customer a lot more voice and power in dealing with product/service sellers.

Mad Men

Mad Men

Walter White, the iconic protagonist of Breaking Bad, taught us that not all human beings are stable enough to maintain a solid and permant state of sanity and acceptable social behavior intact when exposed to extreme circumstances and under brutal pressure (in his case, the fact that cancer would eventually kill him and leave his family – wife and two kids – financially unprotected, after years of slaving away as a chemistry school teacher). He decides then to use his brilliant knowledge as a scientist to start a new and illegal business, becoming the fearless and cold-blooded  drug dealer Heisenberg. Again, it’s been said that watching the show would easily substitute for a formal business course at Harvard! More than that, however, it demonstrates the lengths a person will go and the changes in personality that may occur as the result of one’s feeling abused and wronged by the institutions of one’s community.

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad

Now we are watching another one of these groundbreaking series American TV has been lavishing upon us for the past 15 years or so. They are becoming even more daring as they stand on the shoulders of previous giants. Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, for example, under the pretext of depicting the life of the inmates of a women’s federal prison, explores the feminine universe in all its details. The prison reflects of course what goes on with women in the American society as whole. With a lot of humor and irony, but also delicacy and poignancy, the show discusses the nuances of real (as opposed to stereotyped) lesbianism and homophobia, the violence and prejudice against minorities (women, blacks, latinos, homosexuals, immigrants, religious cultists and transexuals) and, not less interestingly,  how power is gained, maintained and lost at different times in a community. The show is very political in bringing to light the different kinds of negotiations and shady deals one has to strike at all hierarchical levels to survive and keep one’s dignity and rights in society. I will not say anything about the ensemble of great actors who compose the cast. Suffice it to say that the acting is superb and the actos’ looks are initially revolting – until you grow accustomed to them and realize that’s what real people look like. Unlike the fake ” ugly ” looks worn by the likes of Meryl Streep in Ironweed or Charlize Theron in Monster, the women in OITNB look rather common, it’s just that we are not used to seeing them on TV. I have just read an article on the Internet pointing out that the show is effectively changing peoples’ negative opinions and attitudes towards the minorities it featured. Besides great entertainment, what more can you expect from a TV show? Well done!

Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black

Do you watch Orange is the New Black? What do you think of it? Please leave a comment in the appropriate section of the blog before you move to another page.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette

5 features that make a movie or TV show great


In this day and age of superhero movies, I’m going to dare to give you guidelines on how to judge the quality of a movie. Great movies don’t make money, this is a fact. The reason commonly given is the populace is too dumb and unsophisticated to appreciate their merits. I don’t want to go into this discussion as it spills way beyond the scope of this humble post. However, the opposite is not true either: don’t think that just because a movie delivered a poor box office it deserves any praise. It may be simply because…well…it’s crap. Good movies usually:

1. Focus on character not on plot. Despite the well-known structure of storytelling dug out by mythologist Joseph Campbell and turned into a simplified manual for Hollywood scriptwriters, spelling out all the steps that need to be present in the hero’s journey for a story to resonate with the audience, writers and directors still need to highlight characters. The plot needs to be there, its phases followed in new and  creative ways, but strong characters are what we remember about the best films we see. We may not remember details of the story, but Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone in the Godfather, Robert De Niro’s Trevis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood in House of Cards  are unforgettable.

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone

Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone

2. Have complex characters. These great characters have the following common characteristics: they don’t comply to black and white codes of ethics, they tend to develop their own morality and follow it consistently; they show either superior intelligence, or charisma or beauty. Or all of them together. Understatement is their main weapon. They do not say everything: a lot needs to be inferred by their eyes, their turn of head, they way their mouths hang open for slightly longer than necessary. They are subtle and complex. We never get to understand their inner agenda to the full.

3. Have scenes played against the grain. Great movies catch the audience off guard, surprise them. They use, for example, as the commentary for a acene, a song  or piece of music that means its exact opposite or that does not belong to the historic period or place the story takes place. The use of LA CUMPARCITA in Woody Allen’s  Alice,  which takes place in contemporary Manhattan – the music plays as Mia Farrow’s and Joe Mantegna’s characters, after taking a magic potion that makes them invisible, pay the taxi driver and the doors of the car open for them to leave completely unseen; the voice over quips: “nothing shocks NYC cab drivers”  – enhances and adds to the humor and oddity of the situation.

Mia Farow as Woody Allen's Alice

Mia Farow as Woody Allen’s Alice

4. Let emotions emerge naturally. These movies do not manipulate their audience to make them weep. Sentimentality makes films that could otherwise be great syrupy and corny. Emotions must reflect real life and its poignancy to work as art. Think of the scene in Walter Salles’s Central Station in  which the character played by Fernanda Montenegro is shown, in a montage, writing a series of letters to relatives of people who are illiterate and therefore can’t write themselves. They are real people in this particular case  – but might as well be actors – from a small city in the northeast of Brazil, and the succession of short scenes showing these people dictating their messages breaks ones’ heart with their truth, simplicity and beauty.

Fernanda Montenegro in  Walter Salles's Central Station

Fernanda Montenegro in Walter Salles’s Central Station

5. Don’t show or say everything.  Life is not neat. Great movies reflect life yet show it through a more interesting angle. But not all must be solved in those two hours a movie lasts. Life is a flow and conflicts are rarely resolved in their entirety. There is no need to explain every character’s motives or reactions or  tie all the loose ends of the story by the conclusion of the movie or TV show. Let the audience wonder. Give them opportunity to use their imagination. Take the typical end of the iconic 2001 a Space Odyssey. If you haven’t read the book, and there’s no need to (it was written to go with the movie), the last 15 min of the movie are all up to you. What is going on? What does that trip to Saturn really mean metaphysically? What’s this guy shown in progressive stages of aging. Who’s this fetus in the intergalactic womb? The viewer will keep those images for a long time in their minds (in my case,  for decades!) and neve stop trying to figure them out.

2001 A Space Odissey

2001 A Space Odissey

Well, great movies are not supposed to follow recipes. So now throw all I said before out of the window and make your own rules.

Good luck

Jorge Sette.

Mad Men: the end of an era


No, I’m not making any references to the famous John Lennon phrase in the beginning at of the seventies (“the dream is over”), although this historical  period will coincide – I suppose  – with the historical time in the series when the storyline will be over.

I have not seen the second half of the last season of MAD MEN yet (it’s currently on). I’m in fact talking about the imminent end of one of the best and most revolutionaries TV shows of all time.

Mad Men

Mad Men

I clearly remember the first episode  of MAD MEN – it was already more than 10 min into the show when I switched on the TV, and, already in the armchair, took a punch in the stomach by what I saw: I had no idea what I was seeing. Could not label or classify it in any of the common categories we use for TV shows and movies.  Could it be the rerun of a famous movie of the nineteen sixties (the image looked too crispy and glossy for that, though), a soap opera, a miniseries? It all looked so strange and new.  Regardless of what it was, I was immediately hooked by the vivid colors on the screen,  the nuanced dialogue, the strange and depreciative way the women characters  were treated in the workplace, the out-of-place boyish and silly behavior of grown men in what seemed to be the setting of an advertising agency, the glamour of the characters’ wardrobe. What was going on?

I remember clearly that the first scene I saw showed the character Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in the process of  being hired for a job as a secretary (what else were women allowed to do back then?), but the atmosphere of the workplace seemed totally weird: men were being rude and sarcastic to women to their faces (some still do that today, but usually behind that backs), employees were chain-smoking at the office and nobody bothered. All the offices themselves seemed to have a fully stocked bar for whoever wanted to get smashed during work hours. Sexually inappropriate jokes were being thrown right and left among the male employees.

After hired, Peggy was given pointers by one tough Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) who seemed to be the personification of a sixties beauty – when women were supposed to be curvaceous, have a huge bust and impossibly narrow waistlines. Joan enhanced her looks by wearing stunningly colorful dresses for work, topped by a shiny updo of red hair, carrying an authoritarian  dominatrix look about herself, exuding sexuality and power: I had just met one of the most original and nuanced characters on TV history.

Then enter Dan Draper (Jon Hamm), from a classic stock of handsome movie stars from yesteryear, not very fashionable nowadays, incredibly seductive with his square chiseled jaw and deep dark eyes, a man’s man, who seemed to seduce all the women around. With eyes glued to the TV and ears attentive to every bit of non-naturalistic but expertly crafted dialogue, which exuded excellence, humor, insight, and irony, I wondered if that was one of the Oscar-winning movies I might have missed from previous years,

The last scene of this first episode was very eloquent, and gave away this was a new TV show I was not allowed to miss: Don Draper gets home. Despite all the unashamed flirting he exercised  during the office hours, he comes to a serene household in the suburbs, where a loving wife and two kids await. The spouse is blond and almost a caricature of a fifties housewife in the bland and domesticated way she looks, except you can immediatey tell from those eyes that Betty Draper (January Jones) is in reality a lot more complex psychologically than she lets on at first sight and more fitting for a jaded woman of the XXI century. Don walks up the stairs heading to the kids’ bedroom, tucks them in,  and kisses them good night in their sleep, as we hear the beginning of the beautifully evocative chords of My Fair Lady’s song ON THE STREET THAT YOU LIVE. We immediately sense  something is awfully off in that supposedly peaceful household. The credits begin to roll.

For the next 8 years or so,  I haven’t missed one single episode of MAD MEN (I tend to buy the DVD sets with the complete season, and spend wonderful weekends binging on it, never ceasing to be amused, surprised, awed and moved by the beauty, sophistication, elagance of dialogue, pathos, superp acting and general charisma of Mathew Weiner’s show.

Well, all good things come to an end. Let’s just hope that in the near future American producers and writers will fight hard to put out modestly successful shows, by the standards of American movies and TV anyway – like MAD MEN, and THE SOPRANOS, which preceded it – undeniably too refined to be appreciated by the barbaric masses who crowd the theaters with their stinking huge bags of  popcorn for the next installment of THE AVENGERS. In the case of Brazil, let’s hope TV people learn and try to shake and shape the sensibility of tired workers who get home after hours in the traffic to nagging wives and whining kids, and, beer in hand, can do nothing but resign themselves to watch catatonically  the pathetic episodes of the latest prime time soap opera or Reality TV show.

Streaming TV (Netflix and Amazon) is the future – we need more shows that push the envelope and, through fiction and documentaries, provide us with unusual angles and insights into life, which, for now, only good literature can impart.

Mad Men

Mad Men

I say goodbye to Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan, Betty,  Sally (the extraordinary child actor who plays the Draper daughter) and all the exceptional ensemble of the show with a deep pain in my heart. They will live in my mind forever, like characters of a Philip Roth novel.

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

Paintings in the Movies: Art within Art


I’m fascinated by the game of mirrors and metalinguistic reflections reverberating from the use of art inside art inside art inside art, and all the implications and possible interpretations that result from this spiraling labyrinth. More precisely, this post is about famous paintings that feature in movies either as a direct element of the plot, or, more subtly, as an aid to help compose the fabric of the subtext. I’ll cover 3 interesting instances of clever uses of famous works of art and artistic style in the movies, which always cause a jolt of pleasure in the viewer who recognizes them, and, as a consequence, is able to connect the dots and understand the references.

1. The Skin I live In, by Pedro Almodovar, 2011. Let’s start with this brilliant and fairly recently Almodovar, which was heavily criticized when it first came out for its alleged shift of style from what the director had been famous for. Well, if these critics meant the movie adds layers of complexity to Almodovar’s previous works, I couldn’t agree more. However, if they are implying the movie was not funny, I don’t think they got it. It’s hilarious, although in a somewhat dark way. In addition to the humor, one important aspect of the movie is the theme of the contrast between culture and nature, between what is innate and what is fabricated and handed down by civilization; how far can one go to change what is considered natural? Without going into too much detail about the plot of the movie, let’s just say it’s about a surgeon who thinks it’s OK to recreate the human skin in order to improve it. And he tests his theory on an unlikely guinea pig: the man who allegedly abused his daughter, and whom he has turned into a woman, through an unauthorized gender reassignment surgery! Too weird? Maybe. But the point here is to discuss the symbolic meaning of the painting that decorates the surgeon’s mansion in Toledo, and keeps popping up in the scenes where he goes up and down the elaborate staircase: The Venus of Urbino, by Titian, 1538. This painting summarizes the main theme of the movie: the idealization and beautification of the real world. In this case, a beautiful goddess, with flawless white skin, concocted by an artist, conveys the impossibility that she could be recreated outside of this imaginary world. She will not leap off the painting and exist in real life.

The Venus of Urbino, by Titian, 1538

The Venus of Urbino, by Titian, 1538

 

2. Skyfall, by Sam Mendes, 2012. By far my favorite 007 movie. Everything works perfectly to make this a classic: action-packed opening scene, dreamlike credit sequence showcasing Adele’s song, a lot of fighting and shooting throughout, stunning locations (London, Istanbul, Shanghai), sophisticated dialogue, superb acting. And, as the underlying theme, we are to led to confront the universal and always worrying issue of the inexorable passage of time and how human beings cope with it. The main theme is made explicit in an anthological scene (see video clip below) where an aging 007 meets his new and young quartermaster: Q. They are both at the National Gallery in London contemplating Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, 1838, which depicts an old ship being tugged somewhere to be destroyed. These are the best lines of the blistering dialogue that ensues:

Q:    Old age is no guarantee of efficiency.

007: And youth is no guarantee of innovation.

Do I need to explain anything else?

Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, 1838.

Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire, 1838.

 

Q meets James Bond:

3. Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese, 1973. In this movie the symbolism does not come from showing a specific artwork. However, you can tell the cinematography and art direction are heavily influenced by the style of Caravaggio. You seem to be watching the application in movies of Caravaggio’s artistic principles: Scorsese, just like his baroque predecessor, depicts the contemporary world (1973 New York) of the Italian Mob, shown in beautifully staged scenes where the technique of chiaroscuro or tenebrism predominates. Every scene seems to have the lighting coming from a single or, sometimes, two naked light bulbs carefully placed to focus on the foreground, where the action is taking place. The background is dimmed or blackened in shadows. The characters seem to behave as modern versions of Caravaggio and his mates themselves, rambling through the dark streets of VII century Rome (1973 New York) after nightfall, going to taverns (bars, and pool joints) and whorehouses (stripclubs). They are constantly gambling, getting involved in brawls and fights, some of those – in the movie – nicely choreographed to the Rolling Stones or the Beatles songs. In addition to that, you hardly ever see a shot without an element of the Catholic iconography featuring prominently in the setting: images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, crucifixes, photos of the pope and the interior of churches themselves. What would we call this? Post-modern baroque?

Caravaggio's Cardsharps, 1596.

Caravaggio’s Cardsharps, 1596.

Let us know what you thought of this post: write your feedback on the comments section of the blog.

 

NOTE: If you are into art, you may consider checking out our eBook series TEACHING ENGLISH WITH ART: http://wp.me/p4gEKJ-1lS

 

 

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.

 

 

 

 

 

OUR BLOG “LINGUAGEM” HAS HAD A GREAT FIRST YEAR!


HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE.

Please find below some official stats sent by wordpress.com on the blog LINGUAGEM. We’ve had a great first year. Thanks for the support and we will back stronger than ever in 2015.

BLOG LINGUAGEM: 2014 official stats

BLOG LINGUAGEM: 2014 official stats

 

 

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 8.48.34 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 8.52.35 PM

 

Au revoir

Jorge Sette.