Victoria Jelinek


Halloween

Cambodia Pchum Ben RitualModern Halloween can be traced back to the Celtic Festival of Samhain (Sow-in), which took place two thousand years ago in Ireland, Scotland, and Northern France. Samhain marked the end of summer and the harvest, as well as the beginning of the dark and cold months. For these cultures, winter intuitively symbolized death, and this has remained the case in the arts and literature today. Two thousand years ago people commonly believed that the boundary between the worlds of the dead and the living were blurred at this time, which made it easier for Druids to make predictions about the coming year.

Prophecies such as this were an important source of comfort and direction for these tribes during the long, dark winters. However, the same was true of all societies at this time, who were equally dependent on a volatile, natural world. Celebrations marking the end of the growing season and a heralding in of the winter months, as well as folk traditions that told of the day when the boundaries between the living and the dead were lifted, were common everywhere. The manifestations of the celebrations differed slightly from country to country, from festivals, parades, bonfires, and costumes, to gatherings of families and loved ones in cemeteries to pray for the dead, to feasting or fasting, but the concept remained the same. The ancient celebration of the contrast between life and death, the living and the departed, is intuitively experienced when the changing of the seasons occurs. In parallel to Samhain, there was, and is, the “Dia de Muertos” in Mexico, born of the Aztecs; “Ged Gede,” a voodoo festival from Haiti; “Chuseok” in South Korea, born from an ancient Shamanistic ritual; “Tutti i Morti” in Italy; “Pitru Paksha” in India; “Dzien Zaduszny” in Poland; and “Pchum Ben” in Cambodia, for example.

The fact is that on a subliminal level, societies throughout the world recognize the magical possibilities inherent in the natural world, particularly at this time of year. In my opinion, the questions that follow are why it is that the Gallic rituals dominated to become our modern idea of Halloween? And, will the modern world return to these tribal rituals dominating culture – the consulting of priests, the convening with spirits, the sacrificing of animals – now that we are once again dependent on a volatile natural world?

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Philomena

philomena-movie-poster-2After losing his job as a spin-doctor for the government, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) resolves to return to journalism. Then the story of an Irishwoman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) happens upon his doorstep. As a teenager in the 1950’s, she had a child in a convent that she gave up. A secret she has kept for 50 years. Together, Martin and Philomena set out to find him.

Philomena confides in her daughter that in her teens she had a baby boy out of wedlock. Disowned by her family, she was sent to a Magdalene home in County Tipperary, where she endured forced labor, seeing her child for just an hour a day. In order to leave the home, she would have had to pay 100lbs – an unimaginable sum for her at the time – or stay for four years. One morning, a couple takes her son away in an expensive car, along with the daughter of her best friend, and Philomena is advised to put her son out of her mind. Believing she has committed a grave sin of the flesh by having sex and conceiving a child out of wedlock, Philomena keeps her secret until the event of his 50th birthday, when she confides in her adult daughter. Is he still alive? Is he a drug addict? Is he homeless or lost? Every mother’s worst fears flicker through her mind.

This is harrowing subject matter, but writers Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope make the astute decision to distil Philomena’s story through a man who, initially, isn’t interested in her story, and the film keeps this remoteness throughout. While the two characters come to a mutual understanding of each other, they do not alter who they are as a result of the experience. Additionally, despite the themes of cruelty and injustice of the Magdalene homes, and the disgraces of Ronald Reagan’s administration, this is a droll film. Praise notwithstanding, there is one aspect of the film that leaves this writer troubled by its inclusion as well as the script’s nomination for best screenplay at the Oscars. There is a scene in which Philomena and Martin meet her son’s adopted sister, who came with him from the convent. Mary (Mare Cunningham) states they did not have a happy childhood, and suggests cruelty on the part of their adopted father, but this is not developed. She claims that Philomena’s son never mentioned or considered their origin, Ireland, or his biological mother, a fact that is later completely discredited. I was left with many questions about Mary’s motives for lying, and the inclusion of this scene in the film, and believe that without developing these provocative storylines introduced here (which the film did not) this scene should have been cut. Its insertion niggled me, and I suspect its inclusion is a clumsy attempt to create a sense of ‘jeopardy” before the third act. It is, I believe, the subject matter, with all of its historical and ethical implications, its humorous treatment, and the talent of the actors that make this film a great picture.

 



The Pregnancy Diaries – 3

Tall oaks from little acorns grow.”   Jean de la Fontaine

The other day, a girlfriend I know in Paris told me that she’s expecting her third child. This surprises me. We knew each other at film school in Los Angeles and she was not the type of woman you’d imagine with a child, let alone three (she was so single-mindedly ambitious and talented). Then, oddly enough, another girlfriend here in Chamonix told me over coffee the other day that she had “finally” convinced her husband to have a third child. I mentioned these bits of news to my husband at breakfast and to my surprise, he suggested we try for three, also! I reminded him that I’m only a couple of months into the present pregnancy, so not a good time to talk about more pregnancies. Also, technically, I’ve had three pregnancies in two years – perhaps this is my allotment? Besides, I said, I never intended to have children at all, so one will be great. At his look of dismay, I joked that he could try for two more with his next wife.

I started to think about the people I know with kids stateside and those I know in France. I’m one of three children – I have a brother and a sister. Aside from my siblings, who each have two children, everyone I know with kids there has just one child. The same is true of my friends in England. Then I got to thinking about the people that I know in Chamonix with kids, which is about a dozen. In fact, I only know a few people here without kids. And, everyone I know here has two or three (after I miscarried the second time, I told my husband that I couldn’t live in Chamonix childless because it’d be too depressing for me). After discussing it with several of these friends with ‘only’ two children here, I discovered that a few of them are intending to have another pregnancy; a couple of them are unable, lamentably, to have a third child; and a couple of them are happy with two.

So I looked into statistics to see if my ring of acquaintances is distorting my perception that folks in France have more children than folks in the states. Much to my surprise, it isn’t. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average number of children to a U.S. family is .94. This makes sense. In addition to the fact that almost everyone I know there has one child, the rest of those I know have none. According to Eurostat, part of the European Commission, France is only second behind Ireland. All jokes about the Catholics and Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal aside, this came as a surprise to me. France is the only other country, besides Ireland, in the European Union to report a fertility rate “in excess” of 2.0 per woman. The lowest fertility rates are in Eastern European countries, such as Latvia and Hungary, with an average of 1.3 per woman.

The reports that I perused said that in the 1970’s through the 1990’s, birth rates – at 3.8 per family post WWII – declined. According to these statisticians, this is attributed to an increased use of birth control, women having careers, higher education in general, and women having children at a later age. Currently, in the U.S. one out of every 12 women who are having their first child are 35 years old plus! In Europe, the age is 29.8. But, if increased birth control, women having careers, higher education in general, and women starting families later are the reason for lower fertility rates, in general, then why are France’s numbers rebounding? Is it the fact of stellar healthcare? But other E.U. countries have great health systems. Is it a reflection of family values? But what about Italy with its notion of the family being of primary importance? Is it a simple trend, here? A ‘Keeping up with the Jones’ sort-of-thing? Perhaps my pregnancy, and the birth of my child, will reveal more?