Sometimes it’s hard to find exactly the right thing to watch in these very tough times. Here’s what I’ve seen lately.
I’ve noted this before, but I’m still watching. If you want to sign up and pay extra for HBO (Home Box Office), you could watch the series made by David Simon based on Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America. I think it’s over-acted, and I think Simon took liberties with the book – but the tv series certainly clips along. As I wrote in another post, the series is based on “what if” – what if Charles Lindbergh, America’s hero, flying ace – and homegrown fascist – had won the US presidency in 1940. And he appointed other right wing fanatics to his cabinet.
The then-US government singled out the Jews for special treatment . The treatment consisted of losing their jobs and being shipped to special “homelands” across the Midwest and the South in an effort to break the Jews’ perceived insularity, and their communities. The Plot Against America, the novel, was better thought out and more nuanced than what we see on the screen now– but here’s the trailer.
No African Americans featured in Roth’s novel – neither do they figure in the tv series so far.
“The Other”: in the US and Canada
And of course we know the reality– that it is –and was –Blacks who faced (and of course continue to be deluged by) daily discrimination, loss of livelihood, precarious living and murder in the 1940s America. Jews faced very different discrimination– but being white counts for a lot. Yes there was anti-semitism in the US and here. In Canada, Jews didn’t get some jobs, especially in Canada’s foreign service, couldn’t buy houses in some neighbourhoods, there was a quota on the number of Jews allowed into some universities’ professional faculties. For example, my mother, because she was an excellent student, was accepted under the quota of Jews allowed to study at University of Toronto’s dental school. There was a quota applied Jews in faculties of dentistry, medicine, and departments of physics and engineering. To put the best light on it, perhaps Philip Roth in his novel was exposing the slippery slope.
Somehow the Plot Against America doesn’t exactly “work” right to me. The novel is deeper and more thoughtful, the characters more developed. Watching the The Plot Against America series in today’s world, the emphasis on Jews is at a cost of ignoring the huge toll that racism exacts (and has exacted) on Blacks. At the end of each episode, the outrage and fear we are left with, feels misplaced and offers a slanted glimpse of reality 80 years ago. People can feel smug that nothing “so bad” is happening today. But it’s open season on jailing Black-Canadians, destroying them and their families. We see that now. I’ll ask everyone to read Toronto writer/activist Desmond Cole’s blog here which reports 36 people of colour killed by police in our country. Cole is the author of the bestselling book The Skin We’re In I reviewed here.
I’d like to suggest that every reader watch Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland — Bland, a black American, was a professional woman who worked for a university and ran afoul of a traffic cop. Cops in the cop shop killed her and got away with it. The film is more than shocking.
Another series on HBO is My Brilliant Friend. It is wonderful. Clearly taken from the Neapolitan quartet, four interlocking novels by Elena Ferrante, the film radiates the warmth, the disappointment and the tenacity of two women, who were raised as neighbours in the slums of Naples, in the 1950s.
I can’t recommend the novels highly enough, starting with My Brilliant Friend, then The Story of A New Name, The Story of the Lost Child and finally Those who Leave and Those Who Stay. The script of the tv series is excellent and quite faithful to the novels. Also the two lead characters were not professional actors, though many of the other roles are played by actors. When you watch, you really think you are in Naples, and the Italian spoken is in a dialect which causes the characters shame, but also a sliver of pride. There are English subtitles. First rate.
Films on Hoopla: they are free
If you have a library card for Halifax Public Library you can access Hoopla which is here. You can download e-books, and lots of films for free on this service. I watched The Wife, a recent Hollywood film based on the book of the same name by Meg Wolitzer. I’ve reviewed at least one of her books here. She’s a great, feminist writer. I had read the book The Wife, and the film isn’t quite as good. But still, it’s worth watching—though the characters in the film are a bit thin, and I can’t quite see Glenn Close as anything except a psychopath in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction. But The Wife moves fast, you see a bit of Sweden, and view the real hall where the Nobel Prize is awarded.
Years ago I read the fascinating psychological and political trilogy written by Stieg Larsson which began with the first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Published (posthumously) in 2005, six years later it had sold more than 15 million copies in the US alone.
When I visited Stockholm in 2011, I took the self-guided walking tour of the places noted in the books. The Hollywood-made film of the same name tries to capture more than one of the books. A warning, the violence is harder to see on the screen than to read in the books. Still, the violence and misogyny against women is presented loud and clear—and the invidious creep of fascism is ever present.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is on Netflix. Something tells me the Swedish version is better than the Hollywood one.
Finally last night I watched Phantom Thread, a feature film on Netflix. I found it too slow, too deliberate — thank goodness there’s not much dialogue. It’s supposed to be a “romance.” The lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis plays a wealthy women’s dress designer in London of the 50s or 60s. He falls in love with a waitress at a cafe and brings her to his studio to be his muse. The power dynamic shifts from him to her, but still I found the film long and somewhat predictable. You can give it a try– here’s the trailer.