Wednesday, November 28, 2018

My take on the 4th episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

Episode 4 is certainly the dramatic high point of the series to date with two of the most compelling scenes—the dance party and the New Year’s Eve party. When I first read My Brilliant Friend, I remember thinking that if the novel were ever adapted for film, these two (along with the wedding scene) would be key scenes; they seemed written for adaptation as a screenplay.

The dance party at Gigliola’s house showcases Lila’s transformation into a beautiful, sexually alluring teenager with all the young men from the neighborhood vying for her attention. Lila has developed a passion for dancing which, like everything else she undertakes, she does extremely well. Elena watches glumly on the sidelines, realizing that Lila has far surpassed her in beauty and sexual attractiveness as she has surpassed her in intelligence and academic performance.

The party ends on a sour note as the Solaras demand that Gigliola’s mother ask Pasquale to leave ostensibly because his father was accused of murdering the father of other guests, the Carracci family, but more likely because Marcello Solara perceived Pasquale as a rival for Lila’s attention.

The Solaras are trying to stoke the tensions/ old hostilities in the neighborhood, just as Stefano Carracci surprises everyone by rejecting the revenge ethic so deeply ingrained in the culture of the neighborhood and inviting the Pelusos to his New Year’s Eve party. Stefano grew up in a world where insults must be avenged; in the first episode we see a teenage Stefano assaulting Lila for besting his brother Alfonso in a scholastic competition. Given his background, Stefano’s transformation is remarkable.

Reluctantly Pasquale agrees to accept Stefano’s invitation and on New Year’s Eve the old enemies gathered at the house of the Caracci family to celebrate the New Year together, with Stefano being especially kind to Signora Peluso, first filling his mother’s glass with spumante and then the glass of Signora Peluso.

One ancient quarrel was resolved but another was burning brightly. The young men of the neighborhood engaged in their New Year’s Eve battle, armed with firecrackers and explosives. The Caraccis and their former enemies, the Pelusos, were on one side and the Solaras and their allies on the other. The scene is beautifully choreographed ending when the brutal Solaras, angry at being out done by the Caraccis and their new allies, started firing real bullets.

Lila’s response to the episode reveals the emotional fragility that coexists with the steely resolve she so often displays. She appears to have a kind of mental breakdown—what she refers to as “dissolving margins.” The extreme anxiety appears to be connected to her worry about her brother who has become obsessed with the goal of becoming rich.

Lila’s intellectual ability has up to now been focused on languages and literature; she now turns her considerable intelligence to understanding the social conditions responsible for her family’s poverty. She turns first to Pasquale for an understanding of the rule of the fascists, then World War II, the near destruction of Naples in the Allied bombing, the post-war black market in their neighborhood and the growing influence of the Camorra crime syndicate. In Ferrante’s memorable prose, Lila saw the whole neighborhood complicit in these atrocities—-“Fernando the shoemaker, and my father, all—all—in her eyes stained to the marrow by shadowy crimes, all hardened criminals or acquiescent accomplices, all bought for practically nothing.”

Ferrante has done a brilliant job interweaving the political history with the characters’ personal lives and Costanzo has managed to do this as well in the film-- a medium that lends itself less easily to this integration of personal stories with the historical drama.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

My take on the third episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

When I tuned into episode 3, it was with regret that I would not see the two young actors playing Elena and Lila as young girls. I am happy to report that the actors playing the teenage Elena and Lila are every bit as good.

Titled “Metamorphoses” the episode depicts Elena’s discomfort with her changing body: the trauma of discovering that she is bleeding and having no idea what is happening, her emerging breasts which are drawing attention from boys in the neighborhood and the adolescent acne which torments her. Lila’s physical transition to young womanhood is much easier—no acne, no traumatic onset of menstruation.

For Lila the trauma is being deprived of the opportunity to go to middle school. In 1962, the Italian government instituted compulsory education up to the age of fourteen, about seven years too late for Lila. Lila’s despair at not being able to continue her education is heartbreaking; she took Latin books out of the library and continued to study on her own, enabling her to tutor Elena who was struggling with Latin grammar and syntax. For Elena, education was mostly a means to an end; she rarely appeared to take joy in learning. Lila, on the other hand, had a passion for learning in itself. The screen writers add a line of dialogue, which brilliantly conveys Lila’s passion for learning. When Elena asks her why she studies Latin, she replies, “Because it’s beautiful.”

Elena thought that Lila was still ahead of her in everything, “as if she were going to a secret school.” Elena’s complicated feeling about her friend and rival do not fully emerge in the film—in part due to the difficulties of finding visual equivalents for complicated, conflicting emotions and also perhaps because the director did not want to delve too deeply into the dark side of Elena.

In the book Ferrante writes that Elena admitted that in some hidden part of herself she looked forward to attending a school where Lila would never enter, where without competition from Lila she would be the best student, and that she might sometimes tell Lila about her experiences, boasting about her success. What makes Elena such a fascinating character is that she can present one face to the world, the impression of a “good girl,” while often seething with resentment and jealousy that she cannot fully acknowledge.

Maestra Oliviero, deeply disappointed that her star pupil Lila cannot continue her schooling, turns to Elena who now becomes her protégé. Elena is grateful to her but along with the encouragement, Oliviera also transmits her class prejudices, telling Elena to forget Lila and think only of herself and avoid any contact with boys like Pasquale Peluso--a construction worker, unlikely to ever go farther than that, and whose father was a communist.

The young men who posed a real threat to the girls in the neighborhood were not boys like Pasquale but the sons of the neighborhood organized crime boss, Marcello and Michele Solara who drove around the neighborhood trying to force young girls into their new car. Lila responds with anger and a growing feminist consciousness to the Solaras, a fury culminating in threatening Marcello with a knife if he ever again tries to drag Elena into his car.

The conclusion of this scene takes advantage of the resources of film. Elena notes that, when Marcello recovered her bracelet that had broken when she pulled away from him, he looked not at her but at Lila, suggesting his interest in Lila: ”It was to her that he said, ‘I’m sorry.’” In the film we see the play of complicated emotions as Marcello stares at Lila holding a knife to his throat: fear, fascination, sexual attraction. The soundtrack reinforces the sense that we are looking at a man who is beginning to fall in love. I’ve become accustomed to the soundtrack, which I found too melodramatic in the first episode; now it seems for the most part to hit all the right notes.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

My take on the second episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

Rather than the episodic structure and large cast of characters of the first installment, the second has a strong dramatic arc focusing on Elena and Lila and their families’ different responses to the girls' determination to continue their education. Lilia’s family adamantly refuses to consider it; Elena’s, albeit reluctantly, agrees.

Elena’s family has more resources. Her father could consider the possibility of his daughter continuing her education in part because his family was not as economically burdened as Lila’s, whose large extended family was supported by her father’s work as a shoe repairman. Ferrante signals this difference in the economic status of the two families in the description of the girls’ dolls in the opening pages of My Brilliant Friend, recreated in episode one of the HBO film. Elena recalled that her doll was beautiful and newer than Lila’s doll; hers had a plastic face and plastic hair and eyes and wore a blue dress that her mother “had made for her in a rare moment of happiness.” She recalled that Lila’s doll was dirty and ugly and had an old-fashioned cloth body filled with sawdust. The difference in resources between the two families was not great, but apparently just enough to foreclose the option of further schooling for Lila. I wonder how much of this I would have picked up from the film if I had not read the book.

The second episode portrays what my friend Sue found missing in the first installment-- two spirited young girls, who find pleasure in each other’s company despite their bleak surroundings. The big surprise of the film was Maestro Oliviero who in the book sometimes verges close to caricature. The woman who plays her creates a complex, sometimes sympathetic character passionately devoted to those few students she believes have exceptional promise and no doubt doing incalculable damage to those she dismisses as dunces. She recognizes Lila’s genius and is devastated that Lila cannot continue her education.

In the novel, Ferrante reminds us that what we are reading is filtered through the memory of a mature woman. Director Saverio Costanzo does something similar with voiceovers. However film doesn’t lend itself to these explicit reminders as easily as the novel and some reviewers have criticized Costanzo for excessive use of the voiceover. I actually think voiceovers should have been used more often, especially the scene where Elena tries to figure out Lila’s motivations in encouraging the trip to the sea and then insisting they turn back. In retrospect, Elena wondered if Lila, envious of Elena because her parents were allowing her to continue her education, had encouraged the trip, hoping that Elena’s parents would punish her by refusing to allow her to continue her schooling. Or perhaps, Lila had insisted they go back to avoid that very punishment. Years later, looking back at the incident, trying to disentangle Lila’s motives, Elena speculated that perhaps Lila had at different times wanted both outcomes.

The episode foreshadows the trajectory of their relationship in which deep attachment coexists with envy and hostility. Anger, jealousy, these are emotions film can convey. Complex, contradictory thoughts, deeply felt but sometimes barely understood—this is the province of the novel. So far I consider the HBO series a successful adaptation, but it has not shaken my belief that great novelists, and I include Ferrante in this category, provide access to the interior life of fictional characters in a way film cannot. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet reminds us of what only literature can do.

Monday, November 19, 2018

My take on the first episode of the HBO series My Brilliant Friend

November 18 was the date Elena Ferrante fans have been waiting for--the premier episode of the HBO series dramatizing My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. I’m not much of a television viewer and hated paying for HBO just to watch the Ferrante series, but I could not resist. Like many Ferrante fans, I approached this with some trepidation. Could this series possibly meet the expectations of Ferrante’s devoted fans? My answer is no, but…

Since I first encountered Ferrante in January 2013 I have been immersed in her world, reading all of her novels at least three times and writing a book, In Search of Elena Ferrante, to help me unlock the secrets of Ferrante’s power, to better understand why these books have had such a hold on my imagination and that of millions of readers worldwide.

The first episode has not shaken my belief that great novelists, and I include Ferrante in this category, provide access to the interior life of fictional characters in a way film cannot. Film may have replaced the novel as the principal story-telling medium of our age, but great novels like Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet remind us of what only literature can do.

However, it’s arguable that film can do a better job conveying a sense of a social world—in this case 1950s working class Naples where the protagonists of the Neapolitan novels grew up. And violent images have (at least for me) a greater impact in a film. Seeing someone savagely beaten has a greater immediacy and power than a verbal description of violence.

But literature provides a deeper context than film can provide. Ferrante interweaves the rise of organized crime in Naples in the aftermath of the devastation of World War II with the lives of her working class characters, describing the grip that Camorrist loan shark Don Achille has on the neighborhood in which Lila and Elena grew up. Without that background knowledge, the viewer cannot fully understand the reasons why Lila despite her superior talents takes care not to totally vanquish Don Achille’s son Alfonso in a scholastic competition, but instead “calibrated answers—in such a way as not to be beaten.” Going this far was itself a brave act and resulted in a brutal beating by Don Achille’s oldest son Stefano—an irony only fully appreciated by those who have read the book which ends with Lila’s disastrous marriage to Stefano.

So much happens in these books—it’s impossible to absorb it all in a first reading. And that may also be true of the film. My friend Sue Clee and I while watching the film both had moments when we weren’t quite sure what was happening and thinking we must have missed something. I can’t help but wonder what the film is like for someone who has not read the books.

The episodes are quite faithful to the book although the order is re-arranged somewhat and there is at least one episode that is not in the book. The elementary school teacher Maestra Oliviera delivers a feminist rallying cry urging the girls in her class to seize opportunity to do better than the boys. Granted this is implicit in Ferrante’s account: “Maestra Oliviero especially enjoyed taking us to classes where the girl students and women teachers could not be humiliated so much as the males.” I like the director Saverio Costanza’s choice’s to turn this into a feminist pep talk.

So on the whole the first episode is a faithful adaptation but it may miss something of the spirit of the book. Sue thought the book was not as dark as the film and that the book conveyed some sense of two mischievous girls just having fun. I think she’s right here; also, in the book some of the relief from the bleak vision comes from Ferrante’s evocative language.

I’m looking forward to episode 2 tonight.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Vote on Fair Work Week Bill is scheduled for Nov. 29

Although eliminating poverty would mean a considerable investment of resources on the federal level, Helen Gym’s Fair Work Week bill demonstrates that there is action we can take on the local level which can make a difference in the lives of low-income workers and move the needle on poverty. From my article which appeared in the Chestnut Hill Local

On Tuesday, Oct. 30, a standing-room crowd came out to support the Fair Work Week bill sponsored by Councilperson Helen Gym. The proposed legislation would impact the working conditions of the 130,000 employees in Philadelphia’s retail, food service and hospitality industries.

Currently, according to the California Institute for Research and Employment, 62 percent receive their schedules with less than two weeks’ notice and 53 percent have worked “clopenings,” consecutive closing and opening shifts with little time in between to commute, eat and sleep.

After three hours of testimony, much of it from service sector employees and their advocates about the devastating impact of unpredictable schedules on families, the Committee on Law and Government voted 6 to 2 in favor of moving the bill out of the committee to the full Council, with Councilmembers David Oh and Brian O’Neill voting no.

The bill as amended mandates that companies with more than 250 employees and more than 30 locations give workers their schedules with 10 days’ notice and requires compensation when work hours are changed without the mandatory 10 days notice. (The number of days of notice will rise to 14 starting in January 2020.) The legislation also requires employers to give work to currently employed part-time workers before hiring new employees.

The large turnout for the Oct. 30 hearing on the Fair Work Week bill suggests widespread support by community organizations, including Northwest Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Networks, and especially by women’s organizations who see the Fair Work Week bill as very much a woman’s issue.

The Philaddelphia Commission for Women has made support for the Fair Work week legislation one of its priorities for the upcoming year. The Philadelphia chapters of the National Organization for Women and the Coalition of Labor Union Women spoke in favor of the bill.

Nina Ahmad, former President of Philadelphia NOW and a current member of the National Board of NOW , noted that women increasingly make up the majority of low-wage workers. Women are still the primary caregivers for young children, responsible for making arrangements for childcare and medical care. Ahmad described the difficulties in arranging childcare faced by workers with unpredictable schedules:

With unpredictable weekly schedules, childcare becomes an ad hoc situation, cobbled together at the last minute. Since many centers require caregivers to pay a weekly or monthly fee, regardless of how often the child attends, holding a spot in a childcare center is often infeasible for workers who do not know when, or even if, they will work that week.

Further, workers with unstable schedules may not qualify for childcare subsidies due to fluctuations in income and work hours. To qualify in Pennsylvania, parents must work 20 or more hours a week, or work 10 hours and go to school or train for 10 hours a week. Relying on family, friends and neighbors to provide childcare – as most workers in low-wage jobs must do – is complicated by the fact that their childcare providers may also be balancing an unpredictable part-time work schedule at their own jobs.

Vanessa Fields, co-chair of the Policy and Advocacy for the Philadelphia Commission for Women and a member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, emphasized the Fair Work Week bill’s support for women struggling to escape poverty. With greater control over their working hours, they might obtain a GED, a college degree or other training that would enable them to obtain a better paying job.

Objections to the bill came from Councilman Allan Domb, who expressed concerns about whether the legislation would make Philadelphia businesses less competitive with the surrounding suburbs. Representatives from the hospitality industry argued that the hotel industry was especially vulnerable, given the unpredictable nature of hotel reservations.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass raised concerns about whether the city had the resources to enforce the bill. Deputy Mayor for Labor Richard Lazer replied that Mayor Kenney supported the goals of the bill and believed resources could be made available to ensure successful implementation. He also stated that the Mayor would like to see some unspecified amendments to the bill.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds-Brown expressed concern about the bill’s impact on existing collective bargaining agreements. However, Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, and other representatives of organized labor who spoke in favor of the bill, did not share Reynolds-Brown’s concerns. Since many low wage workers are not represented by unions, until these workers become organized, legislation will be the route to improving working conditions for most low wage service sector employees.

There are apparently now 10 councilpersons who have expressed support for the bill, one more than the nine necessary for passage. In addition to Helen Gym, there are seven co-sponsors: Jannie Blackwell, William Greenlee, Bobby Henon, Kenyatta Johnson, Curtis Jones, Maria Quiñones Sánchez and Mark Squilla.

In an interview on Oct. 31, Councilman Derek Green indicated his support.

“As vice-chair of the Law and Government Committee, I applaud Councilwoman Helen Gym for initiating this legislation to address poverty by giving employees a fair schedule and the opportunity to increase working hours,” he said. “I had some concerns about the unintended consequences of the bill and now think the amendments passed on Oct. 30 address those concerns and provide a balance between flexibility for employers and fairness for employees.”

He noted that he and Councilwoman Cindy Bass both voted to move the legislation out of committee with a favorable recommendation.

A vote on the bill is scheduled for Nov. 29 to decide whether Philadelphia will join the other states and municipalities, including San Francisco, Seattle, New York City and Oregon in passing a Fair Work Week bill.

Karen Bojar is a resident of Mt. Airy and a long-time Democratic Committee person. She is currently Vice-Chair of the Philadelphia Commission for Women.