Are you not entertained? Chekhov

Anton Chekhov‘s characters suffer. They lament because life is a waste, or they suffer from the sharp blade of unrequited love. Life is a jail sentence, and each stage is a desperate attempt at happiness that rarely endures. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite stories by him.

(1860-1904) 205 short stories, fourteen plays, and several novels and novellas.

“The Kiss”

A shy soldier with no experience with women is forced to attend a party when something miraculous happens. Taking a wrong turn in the mansion, he finds himself in a study in complete darkness.

Ryabovitch stood still in hesitation. . . . At that moment, to his surprise, he heard hurried footsteps and the rustling of a dress, a breathless feminine voice whispered “At last!” And two soft, fragrant, unmistakably feminine arms were clasped about his neck; a warm cheek was pressed to his cheek, and simultaneously there was the sound of a kiss. But at once the bestower of the kiss uttered a faint shriek and skipped back from him, as it seemed to Ryabovitch, with aversion. He, too, almost shrieked and rushed towards the gleam of light at the door. . . .

     When he went back into the drawing-room his heart was beating and his hands were trembling so noticeably that he made haste to hide them behind his back. At first, he was tormented by shame and dread that the whole drawing-room knew that he had just been kissed and embraced by a woman. He shrank into himself and looked uneasily about him, but as he became convinced that people were dancing and talking as calmly as ever, he gave himself up entirely to the new sensation which he had never experienced before in his life. Something strange was happening to him. . . . His neck, round which soft, fragrant arms had so lately been clasped, seemed to him to be anointed with oil; on his left cheek near his mustache where the unknown had kissed him there was a faint chilly tingling sensation as from peppermint drops, and the more he rubbed the place the more distinct was the chilly sensation; all over, from head to foot, he was full of a strange new feeling which grew stronger and stronger. . . . He wanted to dance, to talk, to run into the garden, to laugh aloud. . . . He quite forgot that he was round-shouldered and uninteresting, that he had lynx-like whiskers and an “undistinguished appearance” (that was how his appearance had been described by some ladies whose conversation he had accidentally overheard). When Von Rabbek’s wife happened to pass by him, he gave her such a broad and friendly smile that she stood still and looked at him inquiringly.

     “I like your house immensely!” he said, setting his spectacles straight.

Here’s a link to read the story in its entirety found on East of the Web.com

A single incident transforms Ryabovitch. From his dutiful existence, conditioned and dull, he intercepts the force of surprise and experiences the warmth of attraction. A soul unaware of how starved it is for romance and attention. One moment unmindful. The next, the flicker bursts to flame. I like stories written around turning point moments in life.

The Lady with the Dog (1960) 

Yalta. Who wouldn’t fall in love? Anna Sergeyevna (Iya Savvina) is a young wife and alone. She parades around the boardwalk with her fluffy white dog looking beautiful. She attracts the handsome, older banker Dmitriy Dmitrich Gurov (Aleksey Batalov), who is also married and alone. The two experience a passionate affair. When responsibilities separate them, Gurov returns home to his privileged life no longer satisfied. I don’t think Chekhov is saying we should dishonor our reputations and responsibilities. I think he means that we choose our lives and then find we are eventually stuck in them. His story may feel dated to viewers today, but his truths about love and relationships are universal.     

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

Louis Malle directed this twist on Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Theater director Andre Gregory and his actors, including Wallace Shawn as Vanya and Julianne Moore as Yelena, arrive at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York’s Times Square, making casual conversation among themselves. While still wearing their street clothes, the actors perform the play on a nearly blank stage. Julianne Moore is young and gorgeous as her presence tempts the frustrated Vanya. His life has been wasted behind the shadow of others. The film has a slow start which gains momentum and eventually becomes exciting. Chekhov’s language is mesmerizing. The questions raised by Vanya stay with you long after the film is over. Not sure I buy Wallace Shawn as Vanya, but Julianne Moore was marvelous. 3.8/5

The Seagull (2018) 

Do you like love triangles? Then you’d enjoy The Seagull. Age and unrequited love are major themes in this Chekhov play adaptation. Saoirse Ronan gives a satisfying performance as the ingenue Irena who falls for older Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) who is the lover of Russian diva Irina (Annette Bening). The cast delivered but none better than Elisabeth Moss who makes the most of her tragic character, Masha. I thought the execution of time by director Mayer disjointed. But I enjoyed the subtle interplay between the characters even though the large personalities were melodramatic to the point of distraction–but that just might be the camera editing which at times seemed choppy. Overall, the setting, the cast, the plot by Chekhov is an entertaining dark comedy. 4.5

What are your favorite adaptations, short stories or plays by Chekhov? 

Are You Not Entertained? A Pair of Movies and a Book

Here are a couple of movies and a recent book I can recommend to you.

You go right ahead and dislike Tom Cruise. Even if you sit in that camp, surely you can admire the star for performing his own stunts? What an exhilarating time I had watching the recent franchise installment written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. There a lot of reviews out there about Fallout, so read a good one by blogging buddy, Keith, found  HERE. Why is it good? It’s devoid of CGI, fast cuts, and the action sequences are shot on location. The team feels like a family and the twists and turns keep you predicting. Mentally and visually the audience is engaged. Are you interested in how films are created? I found these two video clips recorded on British television, The Graham Norton Show, with the principal characters, Tom Cruise, Rebecca Furguson, Simon Pegg, and Henry Cavill insightful.The first discussion surrounds the stunts and the second clip focuses on how Tom broke his ankle during production. Fallout is worth the price of admission and is the perfect summer adrenaline rush. 4.5/5.

The Royal Tailor (2014)

Lee Won-suk is a South Korean director whose 2014 film The Royal Tailor is one of the more beautiful films I’ve watched in a while. The story centers around jealousy, friendship, and betrayal during the Joseon dynasty of Korea (1392-1898). In the King’s palace, the Royal attire is run by austere Jo Dol-seok (Han Suk-kyu). For thirty years he has worked his way up from a commoner to the esteemed position as the head tailor. The neglected Queen (Park Shin-hye) needs a dress in a pinch and hires the innovative and charming young tailor, Lee Gong-jin (Ko-Soo). He falls in love with the Queen and becomes an unlikely friend. He introduces vivid colors and new styles which threaten the traditional offerings by Dol-seok, the head tailor. What’s worse, the young designer, Gong-jin, admires and likes Dol-seok, who secretly tries to understand his rival’s magical approach to creating designs. It is impossible to dislike the cheery young man. The story is more than a story about textiles (although one can’t help but be enraptured by the embroidery and see the costumes as art forms); the ache and betrayal felt by the royal tailor whose cerebral, traditional gowns can’t compete with the passionate, progressive creations of Gong-jin are heart-breaking. Highly recommended. 4.8/5

BOOKS 

Author Patrick DeWitt wrote a witty tale that felt like a Mark Twain fable with quirky characters and outrageous scenes the two brothers find themselves in. But the comedy is darker. There’s a sadness one can’t help feel for the narrator Eli who follows his raucous brother. They are assassins and it’s 1851 as they travel from Oregon to California. There is a quiet morality to Eli. He instantly falls in love with a whore and gives her all his money. He cares for a boy they find orphaned and is concerned for him. He saves his horse that most would kill. In the ruthless West, Eli is a lonely, lost soul and Dewitt creates a real voice in Eli. If you like dark comedy, you would appreciate this easy to read and beautifully written period novel. 4.5/5

And so I picked this novel because I saw the trailer in the theater and I liked the looks of the cast and the storyline. I wonder if they can translate the beauty and horror of the plot and the delicate yet ruthless brothers whose last name is Sisters. That’s the hard part about turning books into film. The imagination does a much better job creating an alternate reality that you can suspend your disbelief on. It’s a lot harder capturing the magic of words on a page to the film. I am hopeful.

Are You Not Entertained? Books, Shows, and a Film

I can recommend several books this month as well as an entertaining television series to binge on and one outstanding movie which deserves praise and recommendation.

BOOKS

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin (The Aviator’s Wife). The flavor of NYC elite starring Truman Capote and his socialite friends. Benjamin takes real people and imagines their thoughts and feelings. Historical fiction? No. Not a biopic. It claims to be fiction, but I don’t know how. It’s entertaining if you like Truman Capote, and peeking into the culture of the lives of the rich and famous in the 1950s and 60s. It’s not disclosed when, but a cable limited series of the book starring Bryce Dallas Howard as Truman Capote’s best friend, Babe Paley, wife of CBS founder William Paley is on the horizon. 3.5/5.

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom is historical fiction set on a Virginia plantation during the early 1800s. It follows the life of an orphaned Irish girl who is raised by slaves in the kitchen house. When she turns older, she is sent to live with white relatives of the owner of the plantation. It’s a saga that ends like a soap opera, but the historical climate is impeccably created by Grissom. 4/5.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is the best-written book of the lot. As one would expect since it is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. If the torn fabric between Vietnam and the United States during the war interests you, then you’d be quite satisfied. Its dark humor and dissection of both sides of the government are revealing and damning. 4/5

Thunderstruck by Eric Larson (The Devil in the White City) I found the history surrounding Guglielmo Marconi and his wireless communication very interesting. A second plot surrounds a murder of the (almost) perfect crime where the culprit is arrested due to Marconi’s invention. If you like Edwardian London, the history of the wireless, and the makings of ocean liners, you’d enjoy this well-researched historical novel. 4/5

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is a winner of the Booker Prize and spouts of magnificence but I cannot fathom why. It’s the staccato narrative which inserts ever line or so the source it came from that I find infuriating. The story surrounds Abraham Lincoln and the death of his son Willie in 1862. I’m all for research, but I’m accustomed to seeing the endnotes or the Bibliography after the fact rather than be the narrative. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. Please, tell me why you liked it. Should I pick it up and try again?

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia Macneal. I was trying to find a mystery. I rarely read them and so I milled around the mystery section at the bookstore and found the first of many by Susan Elia Macneal. I liked the topic–Britain during the Blitz, Winston Churchill, and a young woman who becomes not only his secretary, but solves the mystery of spies. Read this if you are reclining by the pool and your head is muddled from too many Margheritas the night before. You will then find it intellectually satisfying. Her strength was the descriptions of London. Her strength was the rise of her protagonist. She sets the historical climate well. Her varying POV discloses all the mystery, so it seemed self-defeating. Still. When you want easy entertainment, this is your novel. 3/5.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr is the right mix of intelligent writing and engaging plot. Set in 1896 New York, Carr’s best attribute is to create the historical climate of the city and the contrasting worlds of poverty, decadence, science, and technology into a thrilling chase of a serial killer. The tale is the American version of Jack-the-Ripper. You like ghouls and gore? You will like this story. Now that I’ve read the book, I’m anxious to watch the series starring Dakota Fanning, Daniel Brühl, and Luke Evans. 4.5/5.

SHOWS

She’s only my step-sister and mother’s not really crazy, just the result of badgering by greedy white guys.

Taboo (2017) is the BBC television drama series starring the marvelous Tom Hardy as James Delany who returns from Africa to London in the early 1800s with a key bit of property that would secure a trading route to China. It’s something the U.S. and the British would like to have. Delany outwits both governments and side steps death creatively. Its dark, foul plot is its weakness but deviousness was never executed by such a fantastic cast. My favorite character is played by Tom Hollander as the eccentric chemist who turns shit into explosives. If only a little light entered the dismal lives to balance out all the taboos and witchery. Did they all really say “fuck” so much back then? Or is this the sphere of influence of Games of Thrones? 4/5.

THE MOVIE

The Skin of the Wolf (2017) by Samu Fuentes

Blunt? Affected by the reclusive scenery? Grappling with morality? Sickness and Melancholia? Sounds like Chekov, doesn’t it? Well, this Spanish film is outstanding. I haven’t seen such a good movie in ages. Let the abandoned monastery in the Pyrenees and the wolves and breathtaking visuals seep in. Watch how the characters who say so little, say a lot. This is a story of a nineteenth-century mountain man whose loneliness motivates the purchase of two daughters. Unable to show tenderness, only when they are hurt does his sensitivity come through. Its subtlety might bore some. Critics thought it was too long and asked too much from the audience. I thought the haunting score, and the male-female dynamic of marriage fascinating. If you can hang on until the final act, you won’t be disappointed. Mario Casas gave an outstanding performance. 4.5/5

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