Some three decades ago, Elaine Newton, a humanities professor at York University, Toronto, approached a sabbatical leave and sought a required academic pursuit to round out an upcoming year of adventure. Vacationing in Naples for the first time, the literary expert glimpsed a sign announcing the soon-to-be Philharmonic Center for the Arts (now Artis—Naples). Inspiration struck. “I thought, ‘During the day, nobody uses a Philharmonic. What if I could start a book club here? What if I could be seen lecturing in the United States? Would that be good enough [for the university]?’”
“It’s a nice idea,” Phil founder Myra Janco Daniels told her. “[But] they don’t read in Naples. They golf.”
“It’s a beach community,” Elaine protested. “And it’s a retirement community … everybody reads!”
Myra offered a compromise: Give up to four lectures in the 22-seat boardroom and see how it goes. Ticket sales opened. Demand dwarfed capacity. Elaine’s lecture moved to a bigger space. The nearly 300 seats sold out, and over time, she added a second session, and then a third. Myra came back to her and said, “This is ridiculous. We’ve got to move to the big hall.” And so, Elaine took the stage in the 1,477-seat Hayes Hall. Naples indeed reads.
And, to Elaine’s delight, it watches—having grown from two “dinky” movie screens in the early 1990s to several multiplexes, and a film festival, Naples International Film Festival (NIFF), which is in its 15th year and gaining national acclaim. It was a natural fit for Artis—Naples to acquire the fledging festival in 2017, given the success of the two film-centric programs the cultural institutions had at the time, including Elaine’s Four O’clock at the Movies series.
This season marks the 34th for Elaine’s Critic’s Choice book series and the 28th for her Four O’clock at the Movies. In both, Elaine chooses a title, delves into it (“inhabits” it, in the case of books), and dissects it for plot, craft, character development, theme. The sessions routinely sell out. Elaine exudes a passion for story, curiosity about the world, and conviction that books and films can challenge us, expand our worldviews and, ultimately, bring us together. Yes, even in these polarizing times. No, especially in such times. “The real value of storytelling, of literature, is empathy,” she says.
This month, Elaine Newton returns to NIFF, where she leads post-viewing Q&A sessions for screenings with filmmakers and moderates panel discussions comprising filmmakers and producers, along with lesser-known specialists, like gaffers, sound engineers and camera operators. “[Audiences] get to hear different perspectives,” she says of her audiences. “These are creative, curious, passionate people.”
Elaine disappeared into stories as soon as she understood language. “I grew up in a working-class house that was not full of indulgences for the children, my sister and I, but was full of both books and music,” she says of her Toronto upbringing. Her father read to her, beginning with myths and fairy tales, inspiring endless games of make-believe. He was an “omnivorous” reader, and she adopted his open-mindedness. (She also inherited his athleticism; during the first half of that sabbatical year, she hiked to Mount Everest’s base camp.)
Movie-going, too, was a family affair and a cherished Saturday ritual among her college friends. The outings inspired conversation. “It seems to me that the whole thing is about looking at the world, either our world or a different world, and looking at people or ourselves through the lens of the page or the screen,” she says. “Everyone’s vision is quite different. To come together as a community of two or 22 or 200 and talk about it is the whole point. It expands you.”
Elaine recoils at the different view of literature emerging in the United States. “I have never imagined that there ever would be even a question of censorship in my lifetime,” she says. “It is unimaginable to me that Toni Morrison is taken off the shelf. I mean, I cannot conceive of it.” To her, stories challenge assumptions and provoke critical thinking. In December, she’ll teach Yellowface by R.F. Kuang, a novel that explores cultural appropriation and the question of who has a “right” to tell what tales. “I do understand that there are many groups, minorities, cultures that need to speak for themselves. But it should not prohibit those of us who are capable of imagining to speak—not for them, but with them.”
Not every selection is so weighty. Elaine chooses bestsellers and cinematic blockbusters (though she’ll exclude Barbie in deference to her male attendees despite delighting in the film). She’ll open this season with Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus. “I’m teaching that because everybody read it for a year, and it was important for me to honor that.” She always teaches the Academy Award for Best Picture winner. Mostly, she considers a diversity of voices, styles, ideas—and craftmanship, her first criterion—when choosing a season’s lineup. Her book choices come from a summer reading list she curates annually. Films are trickier. She’ll open with Oppenheimer in December but must otherwise wait to see what discussion-worthy movies play in Naples this winter. The film industry is muddled with strikes and a post-pandemic audience that favors the couch to the cinema, but she believes it will persist. “I’m going to be the eternal optimist. It’s such a rich medium.”
As for books? Rumors of literature’s demise, circling since the advent of television, appear to have been greatly exaggerated. “It’s inconceivable that the future won’t always hold the same joys of reading that I’ve always had and that my children have had and that my grandchildren have,” Elaine Newton says. If Elaine’s popularity is any indicator, we know in Naples that certainly holds true.
See photos from the most recent Naples International Film Festival.