Thursday, March 21, 2019

7 Films from the 1940s Every Feminist Should See

Like all ideologies, feminism alters over the course of time. A feminist who lived in 1870 advocated a feminism that had relatively little to do, in its specifics, with the feminisms of 1915, or 1968, or 2019. Because of this, it is not particularly fruitful to be concerned with classifying whether a film, book, or other work of art is feminist or not. A Sisyphean labor, such classification also yields little except the dubious comfort of interacting with nothing that might feel uncomfortable or challenging. However, if we concern ourselves less with yes-or-no questions and more with analytical questions, then feminist analysis can yield something more than a classification.

One can analyze any film through a feminist lens, but some films are more interesting in conversation with feminism than others. The 1940s is not typically seen as a significant decade in feminist history, but no matter, here are seven films, all of them rich with material that will prove of interest to feminists. I've chosen to omit the '40s films that are most often cited by feminists - like Katharine Hepburn's Adam's Rib and Woman of the Year, or screwball comedy His Girl Friday - not because they aren't great, but because they're already so ubiquitously discussed.

Chains ('49)
In the Anglophone world, Italian cinema in the 1940s is synonymous with neorealism, but Raffaello Matarazzo's melodramas, even if they share certain aesthetic traits with neorealist films, are not so hopelessly focused on male characters. In Chains (Catene), buxom Yvonne Sanson, looking like a cross between Joan Crawford and Anita Ekberg, plays a Neapolitan housewife whose life is torn apart when a sleazy ex-boyfriend (Aldo Nicodemi) arouses the suspicions of her mechanic husband (Amedeo Nazzari). Perfect domestic bliss topples at the mere breath of a rumor of a woman's misbehavior and even the strictest morality is no shield against the disasters that follow.

Cluny Brown ('46)
Lubitsch's oddball romantic comedy with a touch of melancholia and a tinge of bizarre pragmatism stars Jennifer Jones as the titular character, a Cinderella sent off to be a servant at a grand estate, whose great ambition, passion, and pursuit happens to be... plumbing. Lubitsch's magic touch permits him both to mercilessly lampoon the English class system and the pretensions of each class and to create a warm nest of sympathy for his very strange heroine. Charles Boyer, still debonair, and Peter Lawford, more rakish, and thus more delicious than usual, end up grousing over a different woman neither of them is terribly interested in, while Jones enjoys the attentions of a stuffed-shirt pharmacist. A weird, unclassifiable treat.

June Night ('40)
Ingrid Bergman stars in this tense Swedish drama, the last film she would make before coming to the United States. Bergman plays a young woman who attempts to break up with her boyfriend, a thuggish sailor, who shoots her. Although she survives, the ensuing trial and its attendant publicity harm her even more than the gunshot wound: slapped with a reputation as a cheap floozy, she flees to Stockholm, but finds that once men know anything of her past, she's little more than fresh prey. Though Bergman made some startlingly conservative films in Sweden, like the anti-abortion film Walpurgis Night, June Night castigates the violent sexual prerogatives that men use to justify harassment with simmering fury.

Madonna of the Seven Moons ('45)
As I explained at greater length in my review of this film, this Gainsborough melodrama escapes simplistic Madonna/whore dichotomies by actually splitting Phyllis Calvert's character into two personalities, one a delicate, saintly wife and mother and the other a fiery, sexually avaricious jewel thief. This psychological chasm is the result of sexual violence, but remarkably, the film reserves its judgment for the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of this violence. Though there might be little scientific validity in the character's illness, the film succeeds as a parable: if women are so easily divided into Madonnas and whores, it is the result of the shattering violence they face from men.

The Pirate ('48)
This splashy Technicolor musical stars Judy Garland as a daydreamy girl infatuated with her fantasized image of the ruthless pirate Macoco; she catches the eye of Gene Kelly as a scheming acrobat who isn't above impersonating said ruthless pirate. There are several fascinating scenes that will spark feminist interest. In an extraordinary ballet sequence, Manuela sinks into a masturbatory dream about the man she believes is the pirate she fell in love with from afar; the obviously sexual nature of the climactic dancing implies a female sexual interiority almost totally absent from mainstream filmmaking, especially of the '40s. The other scene is the one in which Manuela discovers the acrobat's deception and proves that he doesn't have a monopoly on ruthlessness.

Ritual in Transfigured Time ('46)
Maya Deren's first film, Meshes of the Afternoon, is often cited as a feminist touchstone in avant-garde cinema. This short, her fourth, is less concerned with individual psychology than it is with the ritual nature of social interaction. With virtuosic camera and editing techniques, Deren renders an otherwise altogether normal party as a dance of disconnection and metamorphosis. Novelist and writer of erotica Anaïs Nin makes an appearance.

The Wicked Lady ('45)
Another Gainsborough melodrama, this film stars Margaret Lockwood as a scheming aristocrat whose material successes fail to satisfy her, driving her to seek forbidden thrills as a masked highwayman. This film faced problems with censorship, in part due to Lockwood's low-cut bodices, but also for the frank way in which Lady Skelton expresses romantic and sexual interest and pursues the lovers she wants - one of them James Mason at his most smoldering. By the end, the increasingly ludicrous plot hangs by a tenuous thread, but The Wicked Lady is a deliciously naughty romp that threatens to leap past the boundaries that both patriarchal and feminist moralities draw around the vicious Lady Skelton.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

How Should We Read Louisa May Alcott's Poetry?

More than 130 years after her death, Louisa May Alcott is still one of the best-selling American authors of her generation, in large part thanks to her Little Women. This novel has been adapted twice in the last year alone, with yet another retelling due to be released later this year. Its perennial popularity has in large part determined Alcott's reputation: she is regarded, almost exclusively, as a sentimental novelist for girls. Though her gothic novels are back in print (even as many of her girls' novels go out of print), for most readers she remains Jo March's historical alter ego. 

I've read everything Alcott ever wrote that has been printed - all the novels, some of the letters and journals (many have not survived and a definitively complete collection of such materials is still not available), the vast majority of her short stories and novellas, her handful of autobiographical pieces... and her poetry. Though Alcott published a few poems in her lifetime and provided a fair number to be recited or sung at philanthropic events, her poetry tends to be totally marginalized in any assessment of her oeuvre. Is that a bad thing? 

To answer that question, one must consider what purpose these poems had for Louisa herself. In the pamphlet released by Orchard House, which collected the extant poems from numerous sources, from archives and manuscripts to the published novels, there are forty four poems. They are arranged chronologically, with the exception of "Love," which is undated, but by my estimation was certainly written in adulthood. It is striking, however, to see how few of these poems were written to be published as distinct works. A high percentage of the poems were written to accompany birthday or Christmas gifts. There are memorial poems that mourn both family members and friends - her most famous poem, "Thoreau's Flute," is among these. However, her best-known poem is almost certainly "Our Angel in the House," which she wrote originally after her sister Beth had died and later embedded in Little Women as the fictional Jo's elegy for the fictional Beth. While many of the juvenile poems are focused on nature - there are poems about robins, sunsets, and winter - or moral struggles to be good, in later life, the majority of the poems seem to have been written for specific events, for instance a meeting of the Concord Women's Club or a visit to the Newsboys' Home.

The poems that are most surprising and most fun, however, are the poems she wrote in mockery. Louisa had a wicked sense of humor, which she gleefully turned on herself as well as other people. In "Parody on the Graves of a Household," she impishly mourns the teeth she lost before she got dentures. In "The Downward Road," she and her sister May are "Yankee maids of simple mien" disgusted by the food they encounter in France, only to be entirely converted to "eels, mushrooms, pickled toad." In the end, they don't want to go home because the "Yankee" food is so bad! In "A Song from the Suds," which also ended up as one of Jo March's poems, she parodies the sort of ode usually made to more exalted forms of labor by celebrating "a glorious washing day."

Louisa's talents shine most brightly in these comic poems, and in none more so than "The Lay of the Golden Goose." In this fable-as-autobiography, Louisa tells the story of a scapegrace gosling who is shunned and tut-tutted by all the other fowls, until, when she grows up, she starts to lay golden eggs. Then all the birds who had once despised her hound the goose for more and more golden eggs of a literary sort. In the end, "So, to escape too many friends,/Without uncivil strife,/She ran to the Atlantic pond/And paddled for her life." By the end of the poem - one of her longest - the goose has recovered somewhat, but is settling down to produce more golden eggs. 

"The Lay of the Golden Goose" was not, as far as I'm aware, published during Alcott's lifetime. It reveals a great deal about how she regarded herself, both as an odd duck (ha!) in society and as a writer. Her "perverse" eccentricities and attempts to fly out into the wider world are cast as absurd, but they are also essential for the goose to contrive to settle down to lay her golden eggs. Louisa never tamed her rebellious streak, though she often attempted to tamp down her wilder impulses, and she was also, in contemporary terms, a workaholic. She worked intensely and at length, so much so that she nearly crippled her hand from gripping the pen for so many hours. She achieved her aim of supporting herself and her family, without recourse to marriage, but she paid for it dearly. Alcott seems to have loathed being famous - in Jo's Boys, she has her fictional alter ego, now a successful authoress, climbing out of the window to avoid autograph-seekers. This autobiography, though whimsical and comic, tells the story of someone who has never felt accepted or acceptable, who has attained worldly success, but finds the rewards dubious and the burdens heavy, and who, despite exhaustion, cannot shake a compulsion to respond to demands for more work.

I rank this poem and some of the others published in the pamphlet, especially the unexpectedly moving "Beds," "A Song from the Suds," "To My Brain," and the undated "Love," as worthy of critical praise. These poems can easily bear the weight of analysis. However, an issue remains: how do we read poems that were meant only for the intimate eyes of a few? We can do as I have done and sidestep the question, simply analyzing without fussing about the intended readership. But, in the case of Alcott's poetry, it seems better to remember where each of the poems in the pamphlet has been extracted from. Alcott never published a volume of verse; this posthumous collection, gleaned from so many sources, does not so much reveal her range as a poet as it reveals the many diverse uses for which Louisa wrote poems. It perhaps helps to think of the pamphlet as a scrapbook, rather than a collection of poetry, or to borrow from her own "In the Garret," as a set of "little chests.../Dim with dust and worn by time." In this way, the pamphlet does not so much contain a collection of poems as it does an eight-year-old's sketch of a robin, the card that accompanied a pair of slippers, a rose in memory of John Brown, a birthday cake, a Christmas carol, and many other small survivors of a rich life lived long ago. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

For Emily Dickinson, the Personal Wasn't All That Political

Emily Dickinson has become, with Walt Whitman, the founding poet of American poetry. She is beloved by both scholars and casual readers, the subject of endless volumes of literary criticism and the source of quotations for a plethora of Etsy products and Instagram images. It's common to lament that Dickinson didn't receive acclaim and was barely even published during her lifetime, never mind that she was ambivalent at best about presenting her work in print. It would be easy to assume that this lack of literary success while she was alive was the result of misogynistic publishing practice, but as Susan Howe has pointed out in an interview in The Birth-mark, "Emily Dickinson's inability to get her work published during her lifetime had almost nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman and everything to do with her originality." This is a more than fair point: American women writers can be counted among some of the most popular and critically successful during the nineteenth century, from Julia Ward Howe to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller to Louisa May Alcott, and many others forgotten by all but specialist scholars today. Women poets, in particular, were treasured by American readers, precisely because it was believed that women could voice particular notions of beauty, simplicity, and truth from the domestic sphere that men could not. Thus, women's publishing success in the nineteenth century was not a feminist victory in the twenty-first century sense, since it was predicated on biologically essentialist assumptions about gender.

Howe further argues that, "I think she may have chosen to enter the space of silence, a space where power is no longer an issue, gender is no longer an issue, voice is no longer an issue, where the idea of a printed book appears as a trap." Howe's contention is fascinating and worth exploring further, not least of all because it challenges numerous received notions of contemporary feminism.

Today, it is taken for granted in feminist circles that women ought to be, and ought to want to be, empowered and that empowerment is attained through self-expression. To remain silent is to be oppressed, suppressed, repressed. Feminists are supposed to raise their voices and speak. However, speaking is not in and of itself empowering. If no one is listening to you, or no one who is listening understands you, it is speaking, and not silence, that becomes oppressive. One of the central problems of women's lives, in this very moment, is that a woman's 'no' is often heard as a 'yes' or a 'maybe' or 'whatever you say, mister.' Further, if we are all speaking, we create cacophony, rather than empowerment.

Choosing to remain silent is not a refusal of self-empowerment, but it is also not a means of self-empowerment. Instead, that choice elides the question of empowerment altogether. It is to assert, staunchly, with Bartleby, "I would prefer not to." In Dickinson's case, the silence of not publishing her poetry was also a means of creating a space in which her poetry could be unharnessed from the constraints of the cold realities of the public literary forum. She did not need to write apologia for her unusual syntax, her idiosyncratic punctuation, her elliptical references and ambiguous grammar. She did not need to neutralize the ironic observations, hitting her targets like Robin Hood's arrows, or the small blasphemies that seem quite modern to us and might have seemed unfeminine and indecent in her own day. She slips out from under the carapace of womanhood in a society that only valued angels in their homes and unlaces the corset of regular verse insisted upon by the arbiters of poetic culture.

From today's vantage point, it seems a shame that Dickinson became the darling of American poetry only after her death, that her work was only published after her death. She can't tell us how the poems ought to look on the page. She can't tell us which poems are finished and which are fragments, if she would even have seen a difference between the two. But it's questionable whether this circumstance is a tragedy or a felicity. There is a quality in Dickinson's work that can't be pinned down. She is a literary butterfly that escapes every net. "Split the lark," she wrote, "and you'll find the music." But Emily Dickinson is one lark that we can't split open, plainly and simply because she repaired into a poetic world of her own making, one without any publisher but her own hand. Does that make her 'empowered'? Perhaps not. Can we really, in all sincerity, imagine the white-clad, slant-rhyming woman receding into the distant past wanting to be empowered? At such an idea, I cannot help but see her with a bemused, Mona Lisa smile. Feminism demands empowerment because it demands that women be visibly, vocally participant in the socio-economic sphere, but Dickinson didn't need to be empowered because her poetry didn't depend on the faddish caprices of society or the hollow rewards of capitalist economy. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Short Films for Fans of Anaïs Nin

Anaïs Nin is more famous for her personal life - particularly the sexual aspect of it - than for her writing, though of course, it can be difficult in her case to separate the two since her most read works are her diaries. They're heavily expurgated, but nevertheless frank and, unsurprisingly, it was her intense love affair with Henry Miller and his wife June that Philip Kaufman chose to make the theme of his biographical film. The focus on Nin as a sexual figure tends to overshadow all but the sexual aspects of her writing, not all of which was confessional narration of her sex life or erotica. In fact, her collections of erotica were published posthumously and, although the volumes of her continuous novel, Cities of the Interior, are certainly not lacking in intensely sensual scenes of sex and desire, I am struck every time I read her work by the delicacy of the way she describes music, interiority, the body as it dances or walks down a street, the oddity and eccentricity of people. Nin's lightning-strike poems and stories have little in common with Kaufman's film, which runs well over two hours, and wears its lengthy runtime rather obviously. It's safe to say that Nin, always experimenting literarily, sexually, and intellectually, would prefer an evening of experimental short films than a slog of a film that, despite Kaufman's long shots and copper-tinged lighting, isn't very sexy. Here are seven to start with: 

At Land (1944)
Nin actually worked with avant-garde director and scholar of dance Maya Deren on another of her films, Ritual in Transfigured Time. The two women had many obsessions in common, from dance to psychoanalysis, poetry, women's interiority and the dream. Deren wrote, directed, and starred in At Land, an elliptical oneiric journey that begins with a woman washed up on a beach. Though not as erotically charged as Meshes of the Afternoon or her dance-centric shorts, At Land dives deep in what Nin would have termed a woman's cities of the interior.

The House Is Black (1963)
Forough Farrokhzad's documentary about a leper colony is actually a film about beauty that breaks the heart. Farrokhzad narrates her only film with her own poems and passages from the Koran and the Bible, her lilting voice carrying us through scenes that could be horrifying if she didn't waft us as lightly as a feather through them. The eye of her camera refuses to see ugliness, capturing instead as beauty's opposite the suffering of those afflicted. 

The Man with the Suitcase (1983)
Like Deren and Farrokhzad, Chantal Akerman also appears in her film, as a fictional version of herself, a writer who finds she cannot manage to work because the presence of a house guest completely upsets her usual routine. Each time she sits down to write, she is assailed by the knowledge that the man staying with her might come in or go out; she tries to sneak into the bathroom unseen and scarf down breakfast before he wakes up. Whether one sees an allegory of the anxiety of literary creation or the coexistence of women with unwanted men, this film is remarkably funny!

Mermaid (Rusalka) (1997)
Nin's obsession with aquatic metaphors, with images of oceans, waves, and mermaids, would be satisfied by this gorgeous and astounding adaptation of the Slavic fairy tale of Rusalka, created by Aleksandr Petrov. Petrov is a magician whose films are animated by filming the transformation of oil paint as it dries on panes of glass. Visually exquisite, Mermaid dramatizes the tragedy of love spurned, chains of broken hearts drowning one after the other as each takes its revenge.

La P'tite Lili (1927)
Director Alberto Cavalcanti's collaboration with a very young Jean Renoir, acting opposite his then-wife and muse Catherine Hessling, is in a deplorable state and possibly past the point of being properly restored. Even so, this adaptation of the popular song (with the score arranged by modernist composer Darius Milhaud) is oodles of horror-tinged fun, jauntily telling us the story of the p'tite Lili, a bow-mouthed orphan who becomes a fallen woman and meets a nasty end.

Remembrance of Things to Come (2001)
Though often described as a documentary, Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon's impressionistic telling of French history through photographs taken by Denise Bellon, the latter's mother, throughout her life, has such a prismatic and specific to the point of eccentric approach to its subjects that it ought to be placed in its own realm: it shows us the truth, but it's a truth that is slippery and personal and contingent. This is history as diary - Denise Bellon's visions of her France show the country transforming, but they do not let us slip into a universalized, totalized mode of historical thinking. 

Themes and Variations (1928)
Today, Germaine Dulac's reputation rests on her groundbreaking film, The Smiling Madame Beudet, which is widely regarded as the first feminist film, but Dulac was a prolific, professional filmmaker and was constantly experimenting. I adored this exercise in montage and rhythm, cutting between a ballerina's limbs and the pistons of a metallic machine. Themes and Variations mesmerizes the viewer, who comes to actually hear phantom music through the silent film's manipulation of rhythmic editing.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Is Dario Argento's "Suspiria" a Dance Film?

Ballet isn't the most popular of art forms in the twenty-first century. In the United States at least, it probably owes its continued, if threatened, existence almost exclusively to the annual bonanza of The Nutcracker, a Christmas tradition that even those who would never dream of seeing any other ballet often hold dear. So it's perhaps no great surprise that most people will struggle to come up with many ballet films off the top of their heads. Most people will come up with Black Swan, Suspiria, and not much else. I, however, love ballet and have compiled a list of what I believe are the very best ballet films. Since then, I've found a few more that I would add to that list - Ben Hecht's preposterous but atmospheric Specter of the Rose and Dancer, a documentary about Ukrainian ballet wunderkind and bad boy Sergei Polunin - but I hadn't up until now seen the film that usually tops lists of films about dance: Dario Argento's Suspiria.

I didn't care for it, but that's no surprise. I don't tend to like horror films and I found it to be an alternately oppressive and silly experience. What I wasn't expecting, given its prominence in discussions of ballet on film, is that it really isn't a ballet film. Though set in what we are told is an elite dancing academy, there are no ballet sequences. The students only dance in one scene in the entire film and that scene makes it embarrassingly clear that Argento didn't bother casting dancers. Their gawky, awkward leaps and turns, uncoordinated and ungraceful, look ridiculous. Argento has a reputation for laissez-faire directing, but my goodness, the brief display in this scene is bad to the point of pain.

Perhaps a film needn't have actual dance sequences to have something to say about dance, but in the case of Suspiria, dance is essentially a means to an aesthetic end, but not an especially interesting one. Putting willowy girls in skintight black onesies onscreen seems to have been the most crucial reason for the Tanz Dance Academy (the 'Dance Dance Academy' if we translate the German - oh dear) to be a dance school, instead of, say, a cooking school or a painting school. Dance is totally beside the point.

Thus, I don't see any way in which Suspiria could be considered a dance film, though from what I have heard, without having seen it, Luca Guadagnino's remake could be so considered. What frustrates about this incorrect genre labeling is that it indicates the paucity of attention that actual dance films receive. Why should Suspiria be the automatic first choice for any list of dance films when it doesn't have any actual dancing in it? Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her, though rarely if ever classified as a dance film (except perhaps by yours truly) has a lot to say about dance and includes scenes of one of Pina Bausch's ballets. Calling Suspiria a film about dance is a bit like saying that Raiders of the Lost Ark is about teaching university classes or Casablanca is about how to run a bar. The 'Dance of the Hours' sequence in Fantasia, with its affectionately ludicrous choreography, its dainty hippos, airy elephants, and slithery crocodiles, expresses something of the sublime absurdity of the dance. Suspiria, on the other hand, is a film in which dance is nothing more than a minor ploy to get its heroine propelled into the academy of the occult.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Movie Review: "Home Alone"

'Tis the day before Christmas and thus the most appropriate day of the year to watch a Christmas classic. Christmas movies operate, pretty much universally, under an assumed myth that Charles Dickens lobbed at western culture like a very effective bomb: Christmas is the time of togetherness, when all resentments, fights, and struggles are forgotten and forgiven, and families reunite. It's the yearly opportunity to make everything right again. The reasons for this have been carefully plastered over as Christmas has become increasingly secularized and Santa's face obscures images of Jesus. Yet, this is - ultimately - a cultural myth that we have grasped onto because it's actually rather nice. In movies it becomes a strict law. Good people find their way into a family, surrogate or otherwise, and bad people... well, bad people better hope Kevin McCallister isn't at home. For kids of the '80s and '90s, Home Alone, released in 1990, is one of the most essential Christmas movies, redolent of video cassettes, Squeeze Its, and Mariah Carey Christmas singles.

The truism that has sprung up on the internet about this oft-watched film is that Kevin McCallister, played by adorable real-life train wreck Macaulay Culkin, must have needed major therapy throughout the rest of his life or else become a psychopath. However, the Christmasy pleasure of Home Alone derives from its extreme distance from any form of realism. Sure, there's no Santa Claus, unless you count Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom) as a Santa figure, no flying reindeer, no angels earning their wings, no ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come. But the seeming realism of the McCallisters' suburban mansion and their Beaver Cleaver familial dynamics actually demarcate the boundaries of anything we could reasonably recognize as real life. Home Alone is a Hollywood movie in the old studio sense: it establishes a scrubbed clean, upper middle class, white, mom-dad-and-cute-moppets family as the normal, and having defined that normal, merrily leaves realism in the dust for some surprisingly violent Christmas shenanigans. If realism had anything to do with it, then Kevin would murder the thieving intruders several times over.

It is more than easy to read Home Alone as a conservative American parable. The McCallisters are wealthy white people and the two crooks who covet their stuff are, respectively, an Italian (Joe Pesci) and a Jew (Daniel Stern). That is, the two ethnically marked actors are dumb, mean thieves and the blond, blue-eyed Kevin has to protect his comfortable McMansion against their intrusion. As the hero, he defends his property against the encroachment of people who don't belong and the happy ending, with the cranky crooks are driven away by the cops to nurse their third-degree burns, broken bones, and traumatic head injuries in jail, the McCallisters celebrate Christmas. All is well: Old Man Marley is reunited with his family, one of the best movie moms (Catherine O'Hara) gets back to her son with the help of John Candy and his polka band, and Kevin's siblings decide that he's only sometimes 'a disease.' Ah, the '90s.

Even so, Home Alone is so brilliantly paced and has such charismatic performances that it's hard to be bothered by its politics while watching it. The propulsive score by John Williams anticipates some of the magic of his work on Harry Potter. The film treads a delicate line between the horror of the real danger Kevin faces from the malevolent, if rather stupid crooks and the silliness of those crooks getting repeatedly and painfully bested by an eight-year-old. Remade today, it's hard to imagine the film not falling to one or the other sides of that line, either directly into gory horror (holiday horror movies have proved money makers at the box office) or else childishly cartoonish, stripped of its stakes and left a fluffy lump of treacle. Home Alone might be so much fun for me because it's a yearly tradition, ninety minutes that act like a temperature drop on bears, telling me to hibernate into a Christmas mood, but it's also a kind of Christmas movie magic that doesn't get made anymore. So, just as we still watch It's a Wonderful Life, even though it's an incredibly depressing movie about a guy who's going to have to face some very ugly music come December 26th, and Love Actually, even though it is essentially a movie about people so desperate for coupledom that they marry people who don't speak the same language or stalk their best friend's wives, we will still watch Home Alone, even though it is a movie about a small abandoned child with a genius for torturing petty criminals. Because that's what Christmas is all about!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Book Review: Evany Rosen's "What I Think Happened"

It's fairly rare for me to read a recently published, non-academic book since academia tends to insist on disdain for any non-academic book published less than thirty years ago, but one of the lovely things about the holidays is that, if you're traveling by plane, you have a nice, long chunk of reading time that would ill serve the intellectual requirements of the latest hot lit crit text. For my trip across the country, I chose Canadian comic Evany Rosen's What I Think Happened.

What I Think Happened is a book of comic essays on Rosen's various historical interests, from the dumpiest presidents of American history and Napoleon Bonaparte, to the current obsession with Nazi analogies and, well, cheese. Rosen is not a historian and explains this fact to us at length. In the introduction, she explains that she is a "failed academic" - by which she means that she didn't do very well academically while earning her B.A. However, she also describes herself as a "history nerd," so in the end she's writing, to quote the subtitle, "An Underresearched History of the the Western World."

Fair enough - the divide between academic and popular history writing is a major problem and it was probably only a matter of time before comics became our educators of history, just as they have become our journalists and political commentators on late night. I actually don't think it's a bad idea for people without expertise to write on history, or any other subject for that matter, but one of the reasons that, in the realm of politics for example, Stephen Colbert is so brilliantly funny is that he is extremely knowledgeable. In other words, he approaches his subject through comedy, but... he's also kind of an expert. And that's why he's worth listening to. Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder is decidedly not a good guide to British history, but its hilarity is in part due to the writers' ability to use history - since they evidently know it - by drawing on the funny bits, or else making changes that are even funnier if you know the truth.

Rosen can be funny, but the lack of research beyond cursory readings of Wikipedia articles - this is the method she cops to - hobbles the book not so much by its lack of depth or analysis, but because the comedy is weakened by generalization, summary, and an unfortunate reliance on platitudes to fill in the gaps between occasional, inherently funny historical details - such as the fact that Queen Victoria, bless her, was titled among many other things the "White Elephant" - and Rosen's own jokes. Her skill with funny dialogue, though only evident in "The Founding Fathers: A Brief, Totally Imagined Oral History," is exceptional. The essays that examine subjects that genuinely seem to excite her and inspire more research, nevertheless, are not necessarily the strongest in the book. The strongest are the essays that own up to a certain internet-centric style, that is, the flippant lists, quizzes, and trivia assortments that seem to belong on a blog rather than a book: "America's Dumpiest Presidents," "Some of History's Creepiest Artists," "This Part's Just About the History of Cheese." What I Think Happened indicates that the sort of no-research, snarky, too-cool-for-school (in this case, literally) style of the internet has managed to waft onto the soil of book publishing and get its roots down.

That might sound harsh, but I will admit that the book is pleasant and easy to read, at least if you're somewhat to the left politically. That is in part due to its comfort with its own assumptions. The political point of view of the book is garden-variety American liberal, although the author is Canadian and much of her analysis, such as it is, consists of pointing out how horrible life has been historically for pretty much everyone but rich white men. There is a certain degree of truth there, but it's not a particularly scintillating point. Her essay about Jane Grey, for instance, invites us to contemplate the fact that the executed queen who ruled for nine days was a teenage girl who hadn't had any evident ambitions for the throne, which is technically true, but also not especially interesting unless you are pitching her life story for a biopic miniseries aimed at teenage girls. See, here's the rub: I know a bit more than she does about the politics of the Tudors and their succession problems and that makes the essay far less enjoyable.

In that sense, What I Think Happened is a history book for laymen that will likely turn off even armchair experts. I didn't catch many outright errors, but there were a few (Wikipedia is marvelous, but always requires confirmation from another source), but perhaps my enjoyment of her commentary on presidents is partly due to my near total lack of knowledge of presidential history. Rosen doesn't hedge on this issue, rather, she explicitly and repeatedly draws attention to her lack of research. I just can't help believing that she could have written a far superior book if she had done one more thing and not done a different thing, to wit: she should have done a great deal more research, which would have given her writing far better tethering and she shouldn't have tried to give any kind of coherent summaries, as she does in her multi-chapter "Sort of Understanding the History of the British Monarchy: A Partial, Underresearched Timeline in Several Parts."  There's no point in the larger picture because the book can't - as designed - hold any authority as far as historical fact is concerned and it would be far funnier if, well, it stuck to the parts that actually strike Rosen as funny, and thus fun to write about.

In fact, Rosen herself also seems quite bored, but she compounds this by actually pointing it out. As the book progresses, footnotes that flag the bits that she didn't want to read about because of how much they bored her increase. And she eventually resorts to an even less historically informed friend to provide her with trivia questions, which she answers on the fly. These three chapters are actually embarrassing and not at all funny because they are made up of the kind of stuff she might see in a nerdy friend's social media feed, if you didn't actually know that friend and you did know that the friend is drunk.

These problems are then further compounded by an earnestness that comes through in both the introduction and the conclusion. Rosen lets the snark drop for paragraphs that pleadingly explain "I've found - almost exclusively on weird road trips with my dad - that the past, and its hideously cyclical predictability, has proven time and again to be a delightful and often hilarious coping mechanism for digesting the horrors of the present." She really wants history to mean something to us, but what comes across is that Rosen likes watching Ken Burns documentaries and going on battlefield tours with her dad, which she assures us, are very odd and quirky and weird things for someone to like doing.

I'm probably the wrong reader for this book. I'm an academic (though I did cringe a wee bit as I wrote that, only partly because we have turned a perfectly good adjective into a questionable noun) and have read quite a few more history books than Rosen has, at least on the evidence presented here. I don't tend to rate quirkiness for its own sake very highly and my sense of humor tends to resist snarkiness. However, Rosen displays such a talent for dialogue and is so clearly enthusiastic (when she isn't bored) that I sincerely wish that a more insistent editorial hand had led her in a better direction. It's her first book and I would bet her next will be better.