Feb 01

“Women Talking”: Book and Film

To some, this may sound like the kind of verbose material more fit for a stage play than a film. But Women Talking, adapted by the writer-director Sarah Polley from Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel, is vibrant cinema. Shirley Li, The Atlantic

Although it’s not just the women who’ve seen Women Talking who get it, I believe the women reviewers overall might get it better. But as Bob Mondello, NPR, states: “Anyone clear-eyed about the world today will recognize the truths that these women are talking.”

A brief summary of the book Polley adapted for the screen. Lily Meyer, NPR, indicates that the novel’s author, Miriam Toews, penned a pertinent Author’s Note (part of which also introduces the film):

Between 2005 and 2009, she explains, eight men in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia raped many of the girls and women in their community, first rendering them unconscious with cow anesthetic. Women Talking is ‘both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.’ It is also a work of deep moral intelligence, a master class in ethics beautifully dressed as a novel.

Women Talking is comprised of the conversations that occur over the course of a couple days while the men go away to attend to related legal issues. Katrina Onstad, The Guardian: “One woman defends these conversations: ‘There’s no plot, we’re only women talking.’ It’s a brilliant meta-line that functions as a pre-emptive strike against critics. And the ‘only’ is sharply ironic: in this place – as has often been the case throughout history – women talking is not a small thing, but is in itself action and hence plot.”

Regarding the movie version, Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “The women meet in the barn and discuss their options, boiled down to three: 1.) Do nothing 2.) Stay and fight 3.) Leave the community.”

They ask the only man left—a former apostate named August, who has returned to the community as a schoolteacher—to ‘take the minutes’ of their meeting. (None of the women can read or write.) ‘Taking the minutes’ is an artificial device, but it’s the book’s organizing principle.

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post:

Within the first few minutes, the main characters make their cases with ferocity, quiet logic or transcendent spiritual belief, depending on their temperament: Pregnant Ona, played with beatific calm by Rooney Mara, proffers her idea of a just outcome, wherein the men agree that women will be equal and educated members of a reconfigured community. Claire Foy’s Salome, outraged at what has been done and condoned, is far less serene, as is spiky Mariche (Jessie Buckley), who advocates for staying, with misgivings that become clearer as the women’s debate ebbs, flows and finally comes to its exhilarating conclusion.

Emily Zemler, The Observer:

Each character has her own beliefs and experiences, but they all want the same thing, which is to feel safe. Ona (Rooney Mara) remains optimistic despite what’s happened to her. August loves her, but she is desperate to find a life outside the colony…Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy) stand in as the elder generation, who have been wronged for even longer. Frances McDormand, also a producer, plays a colony leader who is opposed to any discussion of leaving.

Safety from the Sexual Trauma

More from Hornaday: “‘I’m sorry,’ says August (Ben Whishaw)…’One day, I’d like to hear that from someone who should be saying it,’ comes the reply.”

Emily Zemler, The Observer: “It would easy to call Women Talking a #MeToo movie, but it’s a lot more than that. These aren’t trendy conversations; they’re long-held struggles that people of all genders have faced for generations.”

Lindsey Bahr, Chicago Tribune: “‘Women Talking’ is not melodramatic or desperate or exploitative. It is astute and urgent and may just help those previously unable to find words or even coherent feelings for their own traumatic experiences. And hopefully it might just inspire more works of wild female imagination.”

Two Other Themes: Forgiveness, Leaving Vs. Fleeing

Tomris Laffly, The Wrap: “The debate that unfolds around forgiveness in ‘Women Talking’ remains a radical one throughout, one that differentiates between forgiveness that’s often seen as ‘permission to do more of the same’ and true, unforced forgiveness. Equally invigorating is the women’s logical dissection of the unapologetic autonomy that sets ‘leaving’ and ‘fleeing’ apart.”

May 09

“The Joy Luck Club”: Mother-Daughter Issues

Suyuan: Not expect anything! Never expect! Only hope! Only hoping best for you. That’s not wrong, to hope. Jing-Mei ‘June’ Woo: No? Well, it hurts, because every time you hoped for something I couldn’t deliver, it hurt. It hurt me, Mommy. And no matter what you hope for, I’ll never be more than what I am. And you never see that, what I really am. Mother-daughter dialogue from The Joy Luck Club

The above lines from Wayne Wang‘s The Joy Luck Club (1993), a film about the lives, past and present, of four Chinese women and their 30-something Chinese-American daughters, are the most memorable from my long-ago viewing.

From Janet Maslin‘s film review, New York Times: “…both sweeping and intimate, a lovely evocation of changing cultures and enduring family ties. Admirers of the best-selling novel [by Amy Tan] will be delighted by the graceful way it has been transferred to the screen. Those unfamiliar with the book will simply appreciate a stirring, many-sided fable, one that is exceptionally well told.”

There’s a narrator, June: “…Ming-Na Wen has the pivotal role of June, who is off to find her long-lost siblings and whose going-away party becomes the pretext for bringing all these characters together. June is still mourning the recent death of her mother, which makes it odd that the party is so lavish and jolly that it includes barely a trace of grief.”

Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com, further explains the premise: “The ‘Joy Luck Club’ of the title is a group of four older Chinese ladies who meet once a week to play mah jong, and compare stories of their families and grandchildren. All have made harrowing journeys from pre-revolutionary China to the comfortable homes in San Francisco where they meet. But those old days are not often spoken about, and sometimes the whole truth of them is not known.”

Generations clash: “In America, the mothers find it hard to understand the directions their daughters are taking. Some marry whites, who have bad table manners. They move out of the old neighborhood into houses that seem too modern and cold. One daughter despairs of ever satisfying her mother, who criticizes everything she does.”

Arguing last year for The Joy Luck Club “to be forgiven by Asian Americans”—the ones who’d rejected it under the pressure of it being the only film representing this particular population—Inkoo Kang (Slate) wrote:

The epic, gut-wrenching, emotionally layered melodrama gives tear-jerkers a good name…(I)t’s still surprisingly resonant, even modern. In the China scenes, the mothers fight for survival amid war, sexual assault, and life-destroying marriages. Lindo gets off relatively easy by ‘only’ being affianced to a stranger at age 4. (In her teens, she cleverly schemes to escape her arranged marriage.) As a girl, An-Mei learns that her mother, who became a lowly fourth wife after the death of her first husband, was raped by her new spouse, then had her child from that attack stolen by a more powerful wife. These traumas influence how these mothers raise their Chinese American daughters, most of whom are on the verge of marriage or divorce. ‘You don’t know the power you have over me,’ cries Lindo’s daughter, Waverly, fearing that her mother doesn’t approve of her fiancé. ‘Nothing I do could ever, ever please you.’ But Lindo, who had been fearing that her swanky, corporate-lawyer daughter is ashamed of her, is determined to make Waverly understand—by telling her own journey toward valuing herself—how much she trusts her adult child’s judgment and ability to make her own choices. The scenes in which daughters Lena and Rose reclaim their self-worth from the men in their lives are as satisfying and relevant as any in feminist movies today.

I’ve often considered re-seeing this highly female-centric film. Watch the trailer below:

Aug 02

“Monkey Mind”: Author Daniel Smith, Living With Anxiety

Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, by Daniel Smith. A new book. Anxious to read it? Well, you can. It’s been out since early July.

First off, what is “monkey mind?” I first became familiar with this via one of Natalie Goldberg‘s books on writing. In an interview I found online, she explains her interpretation of this Buddhist term: “It refers to mental activity that creates busyness which keeps us away from our true hearts.”

Daniel Smith offers this definition on his website:

monkey mind (mung ke mind) n. A state of being in which the thoughts are unsettled, nervous, capricious, uncontrollable. [Chinese xinyuan, Sino-Japanese shin’en]

Also on his site is his personal introduction to his book in which he states, “It’s about anxiety so acute and chronic that it permeates every waking moment, affecting your body and mind, your friendships and relationships, your work and your will…”

Anxiety has been part of his life perhaps always. “The condition is genetic. My father was anxious. My mother was anxious. My grandparents were anxious. Probably my ancestors were all anxious…”

This excerpt from the publisher approaches the book’s essence from a more universal perspective:

In Monkey Mind, Smith articulates what it is like to live with anxiety, defanging the disease with humor, traveling through its demonic layers, and evocatively expressing its self-destructive absurdities and painful internal coherence. With honesty and wit, he exposes anxiety as a pudgy, weak-willed wizard behind a curtain of dread and tames what has always seemed to him, and to the tens of millions of others who suffer from anxiety, a terrible affliction…

In her article in Newsday, Marion Winik gives us the back story to Smith’s condition, starting with a brief statement from him:

‘The story begins with two women, naked, in a living room in upstate New York.’ In what is possibly the most awful story of losing one’s virginity ever recorded, 16-year-old Smith was on a road trip from his childhood home in Plainview to a Phish concert when he was taken advantage of while drunk and stoned by a pair of unappetizing older lesbians. This terrible experience set off a nightmare of despair and anxiety…

Fortunately, Marilyn Smith was herself a lifelong anxiety sufferer who had become a therapist. What she couldn’t do for her son with sympathy, hugs and conversation, she made up for by doling out Xanax and sharing a copy of the guided relaxation tape she had made for her clients. Sensibly, she found him another therapist but, unfortunately, the squat blond woman was a body double for one of his violators. ‘It was as if Esther had returned to help me sift through the confusion she had wrought, only now she wore long floral skirts and accepted Blue Cross Blue Shield.’

To say the least, not a good introduction either to sexuality or to young adulthood—whether the abusers were “unappetizing” or not. Also, not a good introduction to therapy—though it wasn’t the therapist’s fault, of course, that she so resembled one of the perps.

Oliver Sacks, author of The Mind’s Eye and Musicophilia: “Daniel Smith’s anxiety is matched by a wonderful sense of the comic, and it is this which makes Monkey Mind not only a dark, pain-filled book but a hilariously funny one, too. I broke out into explosive laughter again and again.”