Monday, July 25, 2011

Water, Chocolate and Silver Tassie

The actions of Pedro (Marco Leonardi) and Tita (Lumi Cavazos), the lovers in this 1992 Mexican movie Like Water for Chocolate, directed by Alfonso Arau, cannot stand up to ethical scrutiny. Unable to marry Tita because in her family the youngest daughter must stay single to look after her parents, Pedro marries her oldest sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) to be near his true beloved. Tita too is not innocent, as she leads her kind doctor on, finally breaking their engagement to be with Pedro. But the film is not about ethics so much as it is a fable about an all-consuming love. It opens with Tita's great-niece retelling the romantic story as she has heard it from her mother. It is also about the stories that women, across generations, tell each other. The story, for instance, about having a box of matches inside each of us, that must be lighted one at a time. If lit all at once by an overwhelming passion, the conflagration will kill us, as it does to Pedro and Tita when they finally consummate their love.

Reinforcing that framework of women's transmission is the food motif. Tita discovers that she has the power to infuse her cooking with her emotions. As Saleem discovers too in Midnight's Children, this power is more passive than active. It is the power of the helpless. The really powerful in the movie is family custom, represented by the matriarch (Regina Torné). This is a male perspective, I think, but the male director identifies at least in part with Tita who ultimately finds the courage to rebel against tradition. The middle sister Gertrudis (charismatic Claudette Maillé) runs away naked with a soldier and returns as a commander of men. In her the director gives a picture of the strong independent woman that feminists like me admire, but he is also saying, I think, that he is not Gertrudis. He is Tita who cooks and cries.

The cinematography is beautiful, with a fiery red and orange palette. The food preparation is finely observed. The supporting cast is very good.


The Silver Tassie, written by Seán O’Casey, is a protest against war, specifically, World War I, but it does not want anything to do with pity. It eschews character development, the most common means of eliciting pity. As Frank McGuinness writes in the program note, "The demands of this experiment also ensure that O'Casey keep in creative check that response so readily, too readily, available to any contemplating the waste of The Great War--pity for the dead, pity for the doomed, pity for the unknown, unnamed mass of suffering human beings enduring this torture."

The protagonist Harry Heegan is an unlikable and unintelligent braggart, played by Garrett Lombard almost too sympathetically. When he returns from the war, paralyzed from the waist down, and finds his sweetheart with his best friend, we don't pity him so much as pity his circumstance. The distinction is crucial. Far too often our sympathy is dependent on someone else's likability. It takes a larger sympathy to see that war is pitiless, not because it kills this person we like or that person we admire, but simply because it kills. The play promotes a kind of impersonal sympathy, if that is not too much an oxymoron.

The same feeling extends to the survivors. It is too easy to judge the sweetheart Jessie Taite (Charlie Murphy) for abandoning Harry. But because she is such a nonentity, a character that the play deliberately refuses to develop, it is hard to hate her very much. Instead her circumstances become abstracted from her character, and we consider the simplified but powerful abstraction for its own sake. The Cup Final win, achieved in Act 1 during the soldiers' leave, is finally celebrated after Armistice in the last Act. It is both proper and ironic to celebrate. Even the detestable Susie Monican (Clare Dunne), who forced religion down on everyone, allows herself to drink and dance in relief. At the end of the play I did not judge the party nor pity Heegan, but am compelled to acknowledge the logical consequences of war. The last image of the play was that of the battered wife Mrs. Foran (Marion O'Dwyer) trying to drink from the battered Cup, the Silver Tassie, and falling down to the floor, drunk.

GH and I watched this Druid Theatre Company production, a part of Lincoln Center Festival, at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater yesterday. It was directed with flair by Garry Hynes and designed by Francis O'Connor. Eamon Morrissey and John Olohan were tremendous as the choric comic pair Sylvester Heegan and Simon Norton. Of all the songs in Act 2 sung by the boys resting by their tank, I liked best the heartbreaking "Stretcher Bearer's Song."

Oh, bear it gently, carry it soft--
A bullet or a shell said stop, stop, stop.
It's had its day, and it's left the play,
Since it gamboll'd over the top, top top.

Oh, carry it softly, bear it gently--
The beggar has seen it through, through, through.
If it 'adn't been 'im, if it 'adnt been 'im,
It might 'ave been me or you, you, you.

Carry on--we've one bugled reason why--
We've 'eard and answer'd the call, call, call.
There's no more to be said, for when we are dead,
We may understand it all, all, all.

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