Friday, July 23, 2010

A movie about adoption, sort of

Yesterday I saw "I'm glad my mother is alive" ("Je suis heureux que ma mère soit vivante") , a much-praised French film which centres on the aftermath of an adoption, and is apparently based on a real case. It starts with 12-year-old Thomas, on holiday with his family, askig his father if his mother - that is, his birth mother - was pretty. The story unfolds in a series of flashbacks: four-year-old Thomas's young and not very bright mother Julie, doing her not very good best, goes off to work of some unspecified kind at night, leaving him in charge of his toddler brother. They're found by the authorities and taken into care. Then adoption is suggested, and the mother agrees. But on her last visit, she can't bring herself to explain to them that they're getting new parents. Later we see Thomas with a story and photos headed "Ma Mere", but that's the only hint we get that there may have been some attempt to help him understand his past. At 12 he gets furious when his schoolmates tease him about the adoption and his mother, attacks his brother for telling them, and says awful things to his father about not being able to have kids. His parents don't seem to have the faintest clue about why he's acting like this; they just get mad and pack him off to boarding school. He runs away, manages to persuade a social worker to give him his mother's new married name and address, and turns up on her doorstep. Now married and pregnant, she doesn't recognise him. Devastated, he leaves, hating her. At 18 he's working as a mechanic and living with his adoptive mother and brother - his father has had a complete mental breakdown - and he decides to see Julie again. On her own now, with a little boy, she's willing to have him around, and he's useful with the boy. What follows is an extremely moving and convincing portrait of a confused young man who finds himself attracted to his mother (who is, after all, only 17 years older than him), wants to look after his little half-brother, and gets driven out of his mind by love-hate feelings he can't understand. One day he stabs her and thinks he's killed her. But as the title suggests, he hasn't, and there is a resolution of sorts at the end.

The adoptive parents seem to have had absolutely no warning or advice on what might happen and how to deal with it - hence their incomprehension, anger and ineptitude. Yes, I know it's a fictional story, but sadly, it's probably broadly accurate all the same. The older a child is when the adoption takes place - Thomas was five - the more likely it is that very serious issues will arise later. At least in this case the children shared their new parents' ethnicity, country and language.

Genetic sexual attraction between opposite-sex children and parents, or siblings, who meet each other again as sexually mature adults is a well-known phenomenon. Usually, as in the film, it's not acted on, but the feelings involved must be incredibly confusing and distressing.

What interests me here is the lack of understanding of these adoption issues shown by much of the publicity and responses. Thomas's reactions to his situation as he grows up seem to be viewed as really weird and extreme, and also as basically all Julie's fault for "abandoning" him.

In my view, the film handles all the complex currents involved with immense accuracy, skill and sensitivity, thanks to both the direction (Claude Miller and his son Nathan) and the stunning performances of both child and adult actors. The stabbing comes as a terrible shock, and was the only part I found hard to credit - but I assume it did happen in the real-life situation this is based on (I haven't been able to find out).

COMMENTS: Update: the deleted comments were Chinese spam. I'm now moderating all comments and this problem seems to have disappeared.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Seeing and looking on a sunny afternoon

It's been an absolutely gorgeous day in Wellington. I had to go into town this afternoon and finished with time to spare, so I went down to the waterfront. The harbour was calm enough to reflect the few white fluffy clouds -an astonishing rarity for Wellingtonians. I walked round to the coffee shop at the bottom of the Herd St building where you can sit looking out at the sea and the boats - on a good day it's the best spot in town - and had a magnificent mochaccino, large, hot, strong and cheap.

Then I made a bad mistake. If there's print around I read it, so I picked up a fashion mag, the Australian Madison, and started leafing through it. It had a photo shoot featuring one of the thinnest, scrawniest, most appallingly anorexic models I've ever seen. I got out a pen and wrote "Anorexia rules" up the length of her white satin trousers. I should have just sat there, enjoyed my coffee and gazed at the harbour instead.

I had time to walk round to Te Papa to see "Paperskin: the art of tapa cloth", drawn from the collections of the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum, Te Papa, and a private collector. It's magnificent, and it's free - please go if you can.

But while you're there, please keep in mind one thing that goes almost unremarked and definitely unexplored in the exhibition as it's presented to the public: these amazing designs and beautiful textiles were mainly made by women, often working in highly organised groups. Here and there the makers are mentioned, in connection with particular pieces, but that's all.

There's a video of a cloth being made by women in the Eyelights gallery, which has more pieces on display, including some contemporary ones (a wonderful wedding dress, for example) that do have their maker's names attached. But generally there seems to be no real attempt to explore the highly gendered making of these beautiful creations.

Exploring further after I got home, I found the on-line catalogue for the exhibition. (If you can't go you can look at the barkcloth here - the pieces are superbly photographed.) The various essays in it say some very interesting things which there is barely a hint of in the exhibition itself.

The Preface by Nicholas Thomas, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Professor of Historical Anthropology, Cambridge University, makes the point that barkcloth has only recently been seriously studied, and explains why: it was made by women, and it was seen as merely decorative. In other words, he is saying that part of the point of this ground-breaking exhibition is its recognition of a neglected art form created mainly (and in many Pacific cultures, solely) by women. All the more reason, surely, to bring this out in the exhibition itself.

The essay by Maud Page, Curator, Contemporary Pacific Art at the Queensland Art Gallery, gave me part of what I was looking for too. Copyright rules forbid me from quoting it here, so I've simply linked to it. She writes about how groups of women in Papua New Guinea see their work, what it means to them, and the freedom different makers have to interpret the same landscape differently. She quotes Australian writer Drusilla Modjeska, who spent time with these artists: "When a woman comes into her vai hero (wisdom), it is not simply that she has learned the iconography, but that she lives it so fully that it forms, and informs, her relationship with the cloth."* And she discusses how groups of women far from home, for example Tongan women in Sydney, lacking traditional materials, feel compelled to get together in order to carry on making a form of cloth with whatever is to hand.

There seemed to be enough room on the walls of the large Visa Gallery to have got across some of these insights. Without them, the makers seem to be largely invisible.

*Drusilla Modjeska, ‘This place, our art’, in Omie: The Barkcloth Art of Omie, [exhibition catalogue], Annandale Galleries, Sydney, 2006, p.16.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Talking sense about Andy Haden

I should be writing about Andy Haden's stated views on women, sportsmen, sex and rape, and the various reactions to them. But I started reading some comments, e.g. on the Herald site, and became so depressed by the initial flood of mindless idiots praising Haden for "speaking his mind" and "telling it like it is" that I just couldn't find the right words. So instead I'd like to point you to some other excellent posts discussing this issue.

Russell Brown dissects not only Haden's comments, but McCully's reactions to them.

Steph at LadyNews takes apart Kerre Woodham's column taking pretty much the same stance as Haden; earlier posts look at what Haden said, what Charlotte Dawson said, what Key said... isn't it a shame that we can never get this level of media attention for the issue of rape itself?

As always, The Hand Mirror tells it like it is, gets a lot of Herald-type idiots coming out of the woodwork to comment, and deals with them.

And this Herald report contains some extremely sensible comments from Louise Nicholas.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Thirsting for fame

The 2010 Bulwer-Lytton competition for the worst possible opening sentence for a novel has been won by this impressive entry, sent in by Seattle novelist Molly Ringle:

"For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity's affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss--a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity's mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world's thirstiest gerbil."

You can read every category winner - Western, romance, science fiction, and so on -  here.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Mad Men strike again - don't fall for it

As a child of the 1950s, I was fascinated by advertising. My favourites were the ones using cartoon strips. Who could forget the gripping, full-page Horlicks cartoon story? The worried wife confiding in her best friend about her husband's lack of energy. The kind friend diagnosing the problem as Night Starvation. The solution: a mug of Horlicks at bedtime. The result: a reinvigorated husband, no longer suffering from Night Starvation, and a very happy wife.

But in those days I read the story for its own sake. I was only seven, so I didn't have a husband and I wasn't responsible for feeding anyone. What I liked was the pictures: when I grew up I wanted to be a commercial illustrator.

Advertising has come a long way since then. The brilliant TV series Mad Men captures the beginnings of today's incredible sophistication and subterfuge. You've probably seen, for example, ads for Dove "beauty" products on our TV screens, based around the notion of "real women". But in the US, Dove's marketeers have gone much, much further. They've created the "Dove Movement for Self-Esteem", whose website declares:

"Dove is committed to building positive self-esteem and inspiring all women and girls to reach their full potential- but we need your help. We're building a movement in which women everywhere have the tools to take action and inspire each other and the girls in their lives. It could be as simple as sending a word of encouragement to a girl in your life or supporting self-esteem education in your town. From mentoring the next generation to celebrating real beauty in ourselves and others, we can open a world of possibilities for women and girls everywhere. Will you join us?"

You're invited to sign up on-line and deliver a message: "What advice would you give to your 13 year old self? We'll collect these messages and deliver them to girls to build self-esteem in the next generation." But this message is optional. What they really want is your details so that they can "keep you updated about the Dove Movement actions, as well as product samples or special offers from Dove". You can opt out, but they'll still have your details and you won't hear about the Movement.

But wait, there's more.  A brilliant post by Claire on points out that Dove’s owner is Unilever, which markets a wide range of “beauty” brands in ways which run completely counter to any notion of female self-esteem. She includes video clips of ads for Unilever skin-whitening creams, weight-loss products and hair products which prey shamelessly on women's and girls' insecurities about their appearance, and one of the notorious “Axe” male deodorant ads showing hordes of extremely scantily clad women (they make the "Tui girls" look positively Puritan) pounding after a man using this stuff (running makes their breasts leap about), with the punchline "Use more, get more".

Real beauty? Real women? Building self-esteem? It's not a movement, it's an ad campaign.