DIRECTOR’S CUT by Arthur Japin

Book Quote:

“Death is the border of life. If it weren’t waiting for us there at the edge, we wouldn’t realize that we’re not just wandering around aimlessly but are heading somewhere. The border is what gives us directions. I see borders like that everywhere. They make us alert. They point to our limitations at the same time they show us all the marvelous possibilities within them.”

Book Review:

Review by Doug Bruns (JUN 8, 2010)

Federico Fellini’s oeuvre is widely recognized as a major contribution to modern culture. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, his movie, 8 ½ is ranked the third best film of all time by the British Film Institute (2002). His last movie, made in 1990, three years before his death, was La voce della luna (The Voice of the Moon). He was having trouble raising the funds for the movie and made a commercial for an Italian bank. The woman in the commercial bore a striking resemblance to his last lover, Rosita Steenbeek, a young Dutch actress. This period, leading to the end of his Fellini’s life is the story being told in Director’s Cut.

The story line is not complicated. A beautiful young Dutch girl, Gala Vandemberg, whom we meet in the early stages of adolescence, grows up and is befriended by Maxim, a fellow drama student. They form a unique Platonic relationship, Maxim protecting and lording over her; Gala offering companionship and the ever-present potential for something more. Leaving for Rome, her father, quite literally, hands her over to Maxim. With everything riding on Gala’s beauty they make a play for the attention of Rome’s most famous son, the acclaimed, and aging, film director, Snaporaz. (Snaporaz was the nickname Fellini had given to Marcell Mastroianni, his on-screen self.) Word on the street is that he is making another movie. Maxim, alas, is set adrift. Gala, her health precarious from youth, is fragile and troubled. She is easily swayed by the wiles of powerful and charismatic men. She breaks through Snaporaz’s inner-circle, eventually coming to his attention. She then does what she does best: beguiles him. He is smitten. His long-suffering wife, Gelsomina, looks on, used to the pattern. But Snaporaz suffers a stroke, just as Gala’s big break seems within her grasp and all is lost.

I found the character of Gala to be well-drawn and intriguing. She is mysterious, inviting, seemingly just attainable, a fragile vixen. She makes men yearn. But we know from the outset she is damaged, physically and emotionally. Her father schooled her on the classics and made her memorize passages from Virgil and Cicero, making her perform for important guests and academics in the hope of furthering his career. After she quotes Erasmus in Latin, a colleague declares, “A child of eight. Incredible! Jan, your daughter is a prodigy.” But it is just a parlor game and she cracks eventually, setting the pattern which will follow her into adulthood: she will perform for men who know they can use her, but she will eventually fail. Her character is particularly compelling. Here we find her, a young girl, happy and go-lucky, at a flower auction with her father. But disease is about to break over her:

“Something went badly wrong inside Gala’s head. She felt it happening while the big auction clock showed the flowers diminishing in value second by second. She listened to the water in the gutters. The words flowed together meaninglessly. They swirled around, then suddenly disappeared into the depths as if being sucked down a plug hole. She had no time to try to recapture the poems her father had drilled into her; it was all she could do to keep her own language under control.”

She is epileptic, we discover.

I was troubled by what seemed the cliché running throughout Director’s Cut: the attractive woman, drawn by men, used by men, falling into the snare of a wily famous older man, the faithful male companion of her youth cast aside. It felt like a rote premise, foisted upon a cultural icon for its form. But like so many clichés, it has a core truth. This, I discovered upon reading the author’s afterword:

“I’d met her in 1976 during the first rehearsal of The Mannequins’ Ball, when we were both studying Dutch literature in Amsterdam, fell in love with her, and have loved her ever since.

“I now believe that Fellini also genuinely loved her, but for a long time I didn’t want to see that. I was too young, too disappointed, or perhaps simply jealous. I especially blamed the famous director for taking the magnificent, strong, independent woman who taught me, as a young man, to live without caring in the least what other people thought, and slowly but entirely making her dependent on him, to the point that she finally was reduced to living in a tiny cell above a church in which he had installed her, doing nothing more than sitting by the phone, waiting for his call.”

I found the character of Maxim to thinly drawn and the least believable. His was the presence in the novel that worked the least well for me. Upon reading the afterward, I better understood. Maxim is, for lack of a more artful comparison, Japin, and the author, for some reason–I will resist the temptation to psychobabble–could not fully fill his own shadow. The curious thing about this discovery is, for me, how it enhanced the novel. The work appears more art-like when I understand the narration is pulled directly from the author’s experience–pulled directly being the key. That is to say, using the fabric of story telling, Japin has invited us to share a meaningful and direct personal experience. We walk with him through the analysis of experience. But he will not, perhaps cannot, fully reveal his profile. He himself, despite effort, remains slightly hidden and cloaked in his personal tale. It is a slight distinction, but a meaningful one; one which informs the novel in a most beautiful and telling way.

Ultimately, the book escapes the potential of exploitation. Gala might, in less capable hands, be rendered a plaything, Snaporaz mean-spirited, and Maxim, impotent. That does not happen. To the contrary. The reader knows the author loves these characters and has the capacity to show us his affection. It is lovely, indeed.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from X readers
PUBLISHER: Knopf; 1 edition (February 9, 2010)
REVIEWER: Doug Bruns
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More tales of starlets:

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by John O’Dowd

The Song Is You by Megan Abbott


June 8, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, italy, Literary, Translated, World Lit

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