Archive for February 21st, 2010

Aida Begic’s Snow

Filming Chabrol’s Les Biches [Bad Girls] in Paris

Dear Friends and readers,

For my third entry about the MLA meeting at Philadelphia just after Christmas this year, I’ll report on two film studies and two translation sessions. Both of these arts are injured by the persistent accusation they are secondary, inferior to originally written texts. I’ve been studying films for a few years now, and for about 15 years translated poetry.

I went to “Paris on the Periphery in Literature and Film” (Tues, 10:15-11:30 am) for the sake of the place named: the admiral, I and Izzy spent a magical time in Paris one Christmas, and at least a good time the following summer for a week, and there’s nothing potentially better (I prefer to think) than a film set in Paris. Izzy and I saw an intelligent Paris with Juliet Binoche just this fall (2008). The underlying theme was the irony of how Paris is an obsession as an (upper class) image while this is denied by keeping it at the periphery.

Maggie Finn’s paper was on Julien Duvivier’s still remembered and popular 1936 La Belle Equipe. It’s the story of 5 working class male friends who win a lottery together and pool the money to rebuild a ruined house. Three men leave the collective before it’s done: one goes to Canada, one is expelled from France, one falls off the roof. The remaining two becomes rivals for the same woman.

Male bonding (yes that’s Jean Gabin)

The construction story was not meant to be political, but rather about a community which forms through an act of territorial reconstruction. The film was immediately interpreted allegorically as leftist, a popular front film. Two endings were filmed; a vote was held, and the happy ending won. The collective ending could equally be fascist though, and the women are secondary creatures, and presented as having no knowledge of life outside their local France countryside. If we look at the story more closely though, we see that Duvivier wants us to see the untenable fractures within the group. What’s loved is the depiction of working class leisure activities, Sundays in the country, montages of appealing individuals. These moments are Utopian.

The second paper, Philip Usher’s “Sex in Saint Tropez: Paris as Periphery in the French film (1956-64),” centered on the mythic use of a fishing village not far from Paris where painters had gone in the 19th century. It became a quiet Utopian winter resort and then morphed into a glamorous summer one. Films privilege as a place where sex is fulfilling.

Chabrol’s Les Biches, which begins and ends in Paris, shows us two women who sexually desire the same man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and one another; ironically Paris becomes a site of escape from St Tropez. This film uses the widespread myth that characterizes lesbians as narcissistic; the sexual tensions are strong:

Stephane Audran and Jacqueline Sassard

One of Brigitte Bardot’s films interweaves images of the island with her, and the island becomes a place associated with the female libido. In some stills she slowly emerges first naked feet and then her body on the sand.

Here she is traveling inbetween

Jean-Paul Belmondo became associated with these. Sous le soleil is the most recent instance of a Paris-St Tropez story.

The last paper, Lia Brozgal’s “The Center Cannot Hold: La banlieu parle cefran,” was about banlieu literature. Banlieu is a term which describes the immigrant suburbs of Paris where unconnected, underprivileged ghetto people live. She spoke of a trio of novels which features people who might as well live thousands of miles from France when it comes to participating in its culture, getting decent jobs or places in school. The author’s success was ironic she said, for how he is part of the Parisian elite. She denied he had had a coherent political message.

The respondent Patrick Bray made sense of this panel: he said he lives in midwest Illinois, a periphery of a periphery and finds that Americans react obsessively to the idea of Paris as an elegant upper class arty place. It’s highly varied, and the old spacial exclusionary places (the heart of the city around the river) has internalized a state of mind about itself. Paris becomes a presence in movies. The banlieu is the place of deprivation (one must see La Haine). If we look at what is filmed, we find that often Paris is shot in studios (made up), and so too can New York City be, but places like St Tropez must be shot self-consciously on location and in summer.

It seemed to me these films swirled about class envies, dreams, and exclusions more than anything else.

At noon on the same Tuesday (12:00-1:15 pm) I attended “Reading Women Directing, Reconceptualizing Women’s Spaces in World Cinema.” The general theme was how in Bosnian, Peruvian, international films by women center on how women have had to cope with the war conditions of counter-revolution in these countries, and especially rape. How they survive by scrounging a living and how they make tenuous friendships to do this. The Indian film differed: it’s about the emotional undergirding of family life.

The first paper, Patricia White’s “Aesthetics and Politics in Transnational Women’s Cinema” argued women directors have to struggle against stereotypes coming from a global Hollywoodization. She dwelt on The Milk of Sorrow by Claudia Llosa who lives in Barcelona. Her film is about mass rapes used by the army as a strategy of war. In her book, Theidon documents a number of testimonies from women who were raped by as many as thirty men at a time, atrocities that often times resulted in pregnancies.

While her aim is to redefine women so they will not be shown just as victims, she does concentrate on how women are abused: an earlier film is the story of a father who inflicts incestuous sex on his daughters. Desperate acts are everywhere: one woman puts potatoes in her vagina to prevent violation. Her mode is expressionistic rather than realistic. National and local identity are central to the lives of her characters. She addresses class conflicts: in one film a white women refuses to pay her servant who sang a folk song for her.

Milk of Sorrow: the woman is working out how not to be mistreated
Magaly Solier and Efrain Solis

Meta Mazaji, “Balkan Women Filmmakers: Marking the Trail in Aida Begic’s Snow.” The Balkan film industry (such as it is) used to be hyper-masculine (only men directors); now they join in world cinema festivals where 40% of the directors at one film festival were women. The problem is success is leading to returning these women to falsifying what the women’s movement is about. Begic is determined to disseminate how women experience war: they were raped as a matter of course during ethnic cleansing in the 1990s. Her movies do soften women’s experience which was devastating.

Prof Mazaj also discussed Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica has a heroine who struggles to create a life with a child who was the product of a horrifying rape. Vivid simple images convey her trauma; the words though are evasive, hesitant. She wants to evoke the pressure of situations on women. The story concerns Esma, a single mother, works two jobs while struggling to raise her 13-year-old daughter Sara amid the ruins and wreckage of Sarajevo’s Grbavica neighborhood, an area that functioned as a death camp during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

Mirjana Karanovic

In these movies women escape to dream landscapes in which the female director constructs a life which reflects female subjectivities. Prof Mazaj also spoke of books which take the reader into this unfamiliar or little know territory of women’s cinema outside the western European and Hollywood-UK ambit, but I could not take down the names.

Expressionist dream scene from Begic’s Snow

The last paper, Srimati Mukherjee’s “The Impossibility of Incestuous Love: Women’s captivity and national liberation in Rituparno Ghosh’s Utsab. A Bengali family returns to their ancestral home; the family had moved away during the war to make money; we see the women reconceptualize themselves. The mother had been complicit in leaving her daughter in the home to bear the burden of family traumas. We see how women are used as a form of gift exchange (a trafficking in women), deprived of an identity. This girl’s husband displays horrible verbal brutality. The home does seduce as a place of comfort; instead we see it’s where she is violated, and where she re-enacts what led her mother astray. Some cousins’ love for one another is rare happy moment in the film, so too the deep love of this woman when a mother for her son. A very moving moment at the close of the film when the women now a mother makes breakfast for her son and has to watch him reluctantly walk away. She has suffered so and her one pleasure is making him breakfast.

Ritupparno Sen Gupta

The repression which takes such strong hold in Bengali family life is symptomatic of national public life. She suggested that incest (emotional more than physical) is a familiar if hidden feudal experience, and that rape functions as a voyeuristic experience. Such films are careful to present this difficult material gently.

This MLA meeting was supposed to have translation as its major topic and there were many sessions about translation. I went to two. Each one had one good paper. I probably make a mistake to go to one with such a general topic, “The Disciplinary Challenges of Transation Studies” (Sunday, 3:30-4:45 pm), but I thought translations of texts in languages I knew nothing about would be full of material I couldn’t appreciate. In the event the papers were too abstract: except for one.

Alisa Steadman’s “Releasing the Remainder: The Politics of Translation” hit sparks when it was realized the editors and publishers she was describing were in the room. Steadman had translated a minor French text, Julie de Murat’s Voyages de Campagne, 1699, a text originally marginalized because it had formalistic features outside of the mainstream. She called it a free-flowing hybrid text which combined classical with salon culture. As Venuti and other translation scholars have said, readers today want a fluid modernized text: you are literallly close enough, but you change grammar and tone, paragraph and syntax to make the sentences flow in the modern way. She had tried to stay close to the text: the term for parts of texts that stays close to marginalized features is “remainder.” She wanted to communicate the spirit of the original. It has been published 5 times in the 18th century.

She found that Bucknell editors didn’t want her text; they said it “lacked literariness.” Eventually it was published. She told her story to show us the difficulties of putting either a close translation or more free one into a respectable book marketplace today. Here you see a discussion of how it has been published in the modern form.. It’s really a delightful rich fairy tale.

It was a little demoralizing to watch Prof Steadman begin to half-apologize for her paper, and say how the press had been right to reject her translation; it was more upsetting to see how the people in the room regarded the kind of thing I’ve done: I put my work on the Net. But then I’m no professor and if I had told myself I needed to publish in a conventional book I would never have done the poems in the first place and I know lots of people have now read and loved them. Prof Steadman might have gone on (I thought the paper was going in this direction) to tell how such a marginalized unusual text can function creatively but she did not.

The thought did strike me that what Andrew Davies does is modernize, turn individual quirky and sometimes “remainder” type texts into something fluid in the filmic world.

The other session I went to should have been a rare eye-opening privilege to me since it was about Italian translations and texts. My two translations are from Italian poets, Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara. It was not because not on translation art as such nor Italian poetics. Nonetheless, there was much of interest.

Irene Zanini-Corda’s paper on Elisabetta Caminer Turra did tell the truth about Turner that Turner’s journalism work is dull by talking of how Turner wrote for money and to make herself a career but this takes us away from the work; similarly Zanini-Corda emphasizes how vicious were the attacks on Luisa Bergalli Gozzi as a way of destroying her husband. We did see how treacherous the world of translation politics can be — as translated texts are often ones wanted for some political moment. Gozzi’s book was dedicated to women and she urged them to read and study, and her literal translation of a feminist text by Madame de Genlis unveiled a French enlightenment woman’s world to her readers.

She was the first woman to gather a large anthology of poetry by women together.

Paola Gambarota’s paper was on Melchiore Cesarotti’s Ossian, a central text for the romanticism of the later 18th century, loved by (among others) Germaine de Stael (an inspiration behind Corinne which Austen valued above Milton). Prof Gambarota said that Cesarotti tried for a balance between an available 18th century Italian and a text which conveyed the nostalgia, melancholy, romance of the imagined Scots identity. By using Italian conventions and figures Cesarotti challenged the idea of a national identity and presented a universal ideal. In his text the ideals of individual liberty are defended.

Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840), Sylphide, a visual manifestation of the romantic spirit the Ossian poems belonged to.

One more blog to come, a sort of miscellany: a paper on Margaret Oliphant from a Scots session, and then brief accounts of sessions on George Eliot, Simone de Beauvoir, and Margaret Atwood; a few remarks on eating in central Philadelphia and the hotels for a few very cold days, and how I watching Andrew Davies’s Little Dorrit on my laptop into the night. And I’ll have done.


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