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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:


Is it true that only a French man can understand love and a woman's heart? Perhaps not, but director Eric Rohmer certainly does and happily proves it once again in his affectionate Autumn Tale.


From priests, rabbis, teachers and authors come the 35 essays and articles collected in The Book of Women's Sermons The reflections on the limits of faith, the presence of evil and the certainties of aging and death are from a female perspective.


The swift-turning legal thriller Out of Order will send chills in August; Cinema Serenade 2 collects themes from the golden age of  films, including My Foolish Heart, Now, Voyager, and Casablanca.  Play it, Sam.


Autumn Tale  
Written and directed by Erik Rohmer 

      Summer is a time for young romance that rarely endures but is as  effervescent as a single chilled glass of champagne. Autumn love is more like a goblet of red wine, strong and rich and sending lasting warmth throughout the body.  For Magali, one of the two central characters of Erik Rohmer's latest film, making wine has become her life's occupation. A widow in the Rhone Valley, she is in her 40s and living alone in the country. She concentrates on the work of her vineyard, unwilling to acknowledge her loneliness. Her childhood friend, Isabelle, is an elegant, happily married career woman with a penchant for matchmaking. At the same time that Isabelle takes out a personal ad to find a suitable candidate for Magali,  Rosine, the sometime girlfriend of Magali's son, is plotting to bring her together with an older teacher with whom Rosine had an affair. He is an insufferable egotist attracted only to young women, but the redoubtable Rosine (the enchanting Alexia Portal) persuades him that she and he can remain friends only if he is involved with someone she admires. 
      Isabelle finds a likely suitor in a polite, intelligent businessman and when she goes to their arranged assignation, passes herself off as the wine maker who is leading a lonely life and is looking for a companion. She flirts with him and teases about whether she is or is not attracted to him. She finally confesses to her true mission, and persuades him to at least meet Magali. The well-intended machinations of Isabelle and Rosine come together when both men show up at the wedding reception for Isabelle's daughter. 
     Rohmer, now 79, is one of the few active directors from the heady days of the 1950s and '60s when the  'Nouvelle Vague'' was the bright hope of French cinema. A master of subtlety, he has retained the light  and affectionate touch that has long since won Americans'  hearts. This film, in French with subtitles,  is every bit as delicious and as smart about women as My Night at Maud's, which he made in 1969, and Claire's Knee, which came out a year later. Dark-eyed Beatrice Romand, who starred in  Claire's Knee, infuses Magali with an intelligence and introspection that plays nicely against the more vivacious, witty Isabelle of  Marie Riviere. Rohmer has used the pair in many of his past films, and their scenes together are fresh and natural. Rohmer is a 'straight-ahead' director,  filming scene after scene of people just talking to one other. It's a minimalist approach, without fancy fades and cunning cross-cuts that reveals far more about love, its mysteries and possibilities than all the over-hyped extravagances of, say,  Eyes Wide Shut.  A tale told in autumn, it is wise and winning, and a film for all seasons. 


Amen to That

The Book of Women's Sermons
Edited by E. Lee Hancock (Riverhead; 276 page )

      Men in the pulpit,  women  in the congregation. In churches and synagogues, the dividing line between the sexes was  fiercely defended for centuries, and, heaven knows, it still exists in some houses of worship. A grandmother of the Rev. E. Lee Hancock, who assembled and edited the 35 sermons in this collection, made an astute observation about the age-old tradition. "Why my dear,'' she told Hancock, who was planning to go to seminary, "women let men be up front in the church. Otherwise, the men wouldn't participate.'' If she's right, men may have to re-think their participation because over the past 30 years, female voices have risen to challenge  the way we think about good and evil, about our response to those not like ourselves, and about the nature and existence of God. 
     A good sermon is really a dialogue, and the listener--or in this case, the reader--should be free to agree or disagree and be willing to be engaged by a closely reasoned argument and deeply felt, honest expression. All of these are present in this compendium, and there's much for even a non-believer to consider.  Hancock, a Presbyterian minister for more than 20 years and a teacher at Drew University Theological School, has gathered  a mighty chorale of voices-- priests, rabbis, preachers, authors and scholars--from a variety of religious backgrounds. There's no goody-goody piety here, but thoughtful and strong-minded arguments by women speaking their mind on issues that weigh on society:  homelessness, the environment, gay rights, racism and domestic violence. 
    Peggy Halsey is an activist working against family abuse for the United Methodist Church, and asks  "What will it take for our churches and for their leaders, both clergy and lay, to become partners in seeking solutions to the evils of violence against women and children?"  It will take a new view of the marriage covenant, Halsey says, as well as a re-interpretation of Biblical passages that are used to justify abuse ("Spare the rod and spoil the child"), and a recognition that forgiveness is a long process of healing and not cheap grace. In her essay, United Church of Christ minister Louise Green focuses on the exclusion of homosexuals by religions and by religiously-minded individuals.  It is not enough to be neutral or simply to be nice to those we perceive as unlike us. "Not to stand with those who are persecuted is in fact to stand with those who perpetrate violence against them... We may need to say that hatred, bigotry and malice toward our neighbors is wrong.'' Her church and some of its local conferences and associations have taken such a position. 
    Several of the sermons question faith in action from a uniquely feminine  point of view. The Rev. Mary Lynnette Delbridge, an ordained Moravian minister in California, examines a brief passage, just seven Biblical verses, that make for uncomfortable reading. In the story, a Canaanite woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter. His followers urge him to send her away, and he dismisses her pleas, saying he is meant to care only for the lost sheep of the houses of Israel. Still she persists. Kneeling to him, she  begs, "Help me.'' He replies with an insult:  "It is not right to take children's bread and throw it to the dogs.''  But the woman's only concern is to see her beloved daughter made whole, and will endure the harshest words.  "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table,'' she reminds him. Jesus changes his mind, and the daughter is instantly healed.  The woman's words, evidence of her tenacious faith, Delbridge writes, "shame Jesus into claiming the best part of himself and the best he knows of God.'' In Delbridge's interpretation of the text, the unnamed heroine is the advocate to beat all advocates. She wouldn't get out of Jesus' face, and today, Delbridge writes, "She's in my face just as she was then,'' exhorting us to persevere and storm the gates of heaven and hell if need be for those we care about. 
   How do we worship a God who is so unlike us? wonders author Alice Walker, who grew up in the rural, segregated South.  Remembering the power of her mother's unquestioning faith and  devotion to the little wooden church where the parents and children went every Sunday, Walker writes that it hurts her to think "how tormented the true believers in our church must have been, wondering if, in heaven, Jesus Christ, a white man, the only good one besides Santa Claus and Abraham Lincoln they'd ever heard of, would deign to sit near them.''  Walker as a child could not connect the idea of sin with the honest and hard-working parents she loved, and couldn't send her mind in search of a God who never noticed "the innocent hearts of my tender, loving people.''  We might choose to worship Nature, Mother Earth, Walker suggests, and as we do, "we begin to recognize our sweet, generously appointed place in the makeup of the Cosmos. We begin to feel glad and grateful to be here.'' 
    At the end of the 1981 film Time Bandits, a young boy asks the Creator why there is evil in the world. The busy Creator gives only a curt answer:  Something about free will. A psychoanalyst, Dr. Ann Ulanov is also a professor at Union Theological Seminary offers a more complex view in an essay focusing on Herod's massacre of the Bethlehem's young children.  The slaughter of the innocents is almost an almost unthinkable evil, but as Ulanov explains, we can  recognize it only because we know goodness. It is the existence of goodness that allows us to see evil and once seen,  "We can dare to touch it and find ways to deal with it.'' Little comfort in that, a reader might think, but Ulanov goes on to explain that good is not overcome, because "in the light of evil, the invincible power of God's goodness shines forth.'' In our century,  the Holocaust has framed the question of good and evil again, leaving us again to doubt the nature and presence of God. Why did God turn away from such evil or does the empty silence of heaven mean that God does not exist? Rabbi Donna Berman of Connecticut sees the Holocaust as making a new covenant between God and Jews. From the experience of suffering has come a mandate to relieve suffering and bring healing.. "In what better way can we honor the lives of those we have lost?"  she asks. 
     Death and aging are taken up in two quietly eloquent sermons. In a wonderfully imagined article titled "God Is a Woman and She Is Growing Older,'' Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig invites us sees the wisdom and grandeur that comes with aging. God sits at her kitchen table and opens the Book of Memories, looking at us as her children, the many beautiful colors of our skin, all that we have accomplished and invented. Other things about us disturb her:  the wars we started, brothers enslaving each other, our spoiling of the home she made for us. And she misses us, and can anticipates the response we'd give to avoid a visit: "We're so busy,'' or  "We'd love to see you, but we just can't come tonight.'' But , the writer tells us, if we did go back and see her once more we might come to understand that the passage of time teaches us how to live with dignity and that each added day makes us more like God. 
     A Unitarian minister, the Rev. Rebecca Edmiston-Lange, relates the last summer days she spent with her 85-year-old mother. On first seeing the aging woman, she shocked by her worn, frail appearance. Feeling a need to do something to help, she takes on the onerous chore of weeding the garden.  Her mother has a deep fondness for daylilies, those plants that bravely flower for just a day, and Edmiston-Lange laboriously pulls up the weeds around them. One day she takes her mother out into the garden and asks the names of all the varieties of daylilies, so that in the fall she can take some back to her own garden for planting. The quiet hours together, with the daylilies as the currency of their love,  is transcendent, and Edmiston-Lange writes that "Time is running out for her. But here she is and here I am and time with her is precious and full and blessed. And the pleasure I take in being with her cannot be compared.'' 

 And Consider This:

Cinema Serenade 2 (Sony )
  Can anyone  listen to As Time Goes By and not instantly think of Bogart and Bergman finding each other again in a Casablanca cafe?  The song underscored the poignancy of Rick and Ilse's past together and the final sad parting that had moviegoers reaching for their handkerchiefs. The melody makes up one of the themes from twelve classic films of the 1930s and '40s, Hollywood's Golden Years. It was an astonishing time for music in the movies, with composers like William Walton, Max Steiner and Erich Korngold, a refugee from Nazi Germany, turning out lush scores for the big studios. Violinist Itzhak Perlman, recording with the Boston Pops Orchestra conducted by John Williams, interprets the familiar melodies with subtlety and an unabashed appreciation for what the music meant. He evokes the heartbreaking, swelling emotion of My Foolish Heart  and the poignancy of forbidden love from Now, Voyager.  In a refreshing departure from the usually overwrought orchestrations, Perlman gives delicacy and simplicity  to the haunting Tara's Theme from Gone With the Wind. 
   There's a touch of regret and a longing to recapture the past that comes along with the shortening days and slanting light of late summer. Cinema Serenade 2 fits a bittersweet mood as perfectly now as it did then. 

Out of Order by Bonnie MacDougal (Ballantine; 400 pages)

         Our litigious society has made the law so much a part of popular culture--the TV program "The Practice,'' Court TV, the O.J. trial--that it's sometimes hard to know what's real and what's fiction. Americans can't get enough of either one. Taking from both, Bonnie MacDougal stirs them up and brings them to full boil in the legal thriller Out of Order.  A trial attorney, MacDougal knows her law. She also knows how Washington works and the back-room deals that grease the wheels of local politics as well as those in the more august realms of Congress. With sly references to the President's troubles with Ken Starr, she makes the book seem as topical as today's headlines.  
  McDougal has been called a female John Grisham, and that's not far off the mark. Everyone in Out of Order seems to have a secret. Campbell Smith, a savvy lawyer, newly married to a rising star in her firm, has the biggest one of all. She has carefully erased her past, and thought she was safe until her husband's unexpected decision to run for Congress. A white-maned Senator from Delaware is hiding the truth about a grandson's identity, and the Senator's wife keeps quiet about the mistress tucked away in Washington. An influential, married lawyer has a get-away place, complete with companion, by the sea. A General and a campaign manager are making whoopee, and Campbell is torn between her handsome husband and an architect who is on the lam--but let's stop there. Three murders, two trials and an inside view of the dark arts of electoral politics add up to a terrific summer read that's both chilling and steamy. Case dismissed.


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