Tuesday, July 10, 2018

4 Books for the Hermione Grangers of This World

Let's be real: the Harry Potters and Ron Weasleys of this world aren't great readers, but the Hermione Grangers sure are! Here are four fantastic books for bookish types that unite a love for study and knowledge with gorgeous language, a sharp intellectual facility, and, you know, magic. All of them are written by women who might very well have considered joining the Society for the Protection of Elvish Welfare.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke
Clarke's novel is an alternate history that pulls off the genuinely magical trick of seeming to have been composed when it is set, in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. Pedantic, fussy Mr. Norrell believes himself to be the only practical magician in the English realm and he gets the shock of his life when flighty, but charismatic Jonathan Strange pops up, casting far showier and more dramatic spells. Labyrinthine in plot, elegant in language, devilishly complex in its construction of character, and both unique and historically erudite in terms of its explanation of magic and prophecy, this novel is above all a book for readers who go into raptures in libraries and hysterics at the sight of an e-reader. Few fictional tomes are as tantalizing as those in this book. Hermione Granger wouldn't be able to put it down.

Wise Child - Monica Furlong
This darkly enchanting novel is about the apprenticeship of its young protagonist to a white witch named Juniper in Medieval Scotland, whose powers, both magic and moral, are tested when her mother Maeve, a black witch, reappears in her life. Though in some respects reminiscent of T.H. White's Arthurian novels, The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King, Furlong had a rare gift for refocalizing both the Middle Ages and our contemporary ideas about witchcraft, morality, mysticism, and women's roles in society through a profoundly gynocentric lens. The lines between witch and woman, good and evil, Christian and pagan, are redrawn from that new perspective, making this young adult novel far wiser than one would expect. A novel of education that Hogwarts' best student would eat up.

Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner
Though it has begun to gain a reputation as a long-lost feminist classic, Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1926 novel, her debut, remains perhaps too odd a beastie to be entirely absorbed into the canon. Predating A Room of One's Own by three years, Lolly Willowes recounts the biography of a spinster who, enchanted by a bouquet of chrysanthemums, decides to pick up and move to the country village where the flowers were grown. At first contentedly installed in Great Mop, Lolly's idyll is interrupted by the unwanted intrusion of a nephew, but a certain mild-mannered gamekeeper, sometimes known as Satan, drops by to lend a hand... As much, if not more so, an elegantly comic novel about the foibles of the upper crust and the oddities of English rural types than it is a fantasy about a witch, Lolly Willowes has a light touch, managing to be both the perfect cozy teatime read and a biting, yet empathetic satire of spinsterhood. Hermione might save this one for retirement!

Orlando - Virginia Woolf
Woolf's most experimental project in biography, Orlando follows the adventures of a seemingly immortal Elizabethan swain, whose androgynous beauty suddenly and without explanation becomes a woman's over night some decades later. This metamorphosis thrusts the former ambassador to Constantinople into the bondage suffered by women for centuries. Woolf's cool, gentle, and precise sense of irony is the guiding spirit over this novel that is at once a work of English history and a dissection of what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman through the development of feminism. Though it is almost never considered as a fantasy novel, the book viscerally tastes and smells of magic, of an alternative to all the rational, reasonable, 'enlightened' ideas of the patriarchal world, fashioning a new logic out of all that is usually excised from history. Though Hermione generally prefers scholarly works, this one would surely appeal to her intellectual appetites.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

6 Movies for Fans of "Hocus Pocus"

There are inevitably some movies that a person simply can't judge according to anything approaching critical standards. I don't mean liking movies that are bad (or so bad they're good - my favorite in this category is the extremely silly The Magic Sword), but rather movies that are so deeply embedded in one's life that, well... their flaws are as much virtues as flaws, if flaws can even be found. For those of us of the home video generation, certain movies have become cult favorites not only because of their kookiness, kitschy-ness, or quirkiness, but because we've seen them so many times that we can quote them from opening to closing credits.

Hocus Pocus was savaged by critics upon theatrical release, but as a staple on the Disney Channel, it became an adored Halloween classic for 90's kids. Its combination of witchcraft, snark, and celebration of the sibling bond squared the circle of family entertainment, throwing Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker as a trio of featherbrained witches into the midst of a heartwarming story of a brother looking out for his younger sister. Though slightly more kid-friendly than, say, The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, the fun of Hocus Pocus lies, at least in part, in growing into the buried adult humor, especially in Midler's performance. The stakes in Hocus Pocus are significantly higher than in your average kids' Halloween film. Whereas in the far tamer Halloweentown, the kids are threatened by being frozen in time (though the movie never succeeds in making that threat especially menacing), in Hocus Pocus, a child has died within the first five minutes of the film. The witches are funny, but they are also genuinely evil and genuinely dangerous. Max, Dani, and Allison are not saving a cartoonish fantasy world; they are trying to keep each other alive. The witch sisters aren't smart, but they are powerful. This counterbalance to the absurd humor rescues the movie from wallowing in silliness and places it squarely in the horror-comedy genre. 

Doth I protest too much? Perhaps, but it seems likely that Hocus Pocus could end up as the kiddie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! At least part of its cult status is due to the difficulty of finding films that are similarly creepy, yet ludicrous, wacky, yet scary: here are six recommendations for Hocus Pocus fans, each with a quote to match!

"I smell children."
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Though often dismissed as the lesser Mary Poppins, given its combination of animation and live action, its no-nonsense, magical protagonist, songs by the Sherman Brothers, and the presence of David Tomlinson, it would be better to call Bedknobs and Broomsticks the darker Mary Poppins. Instead of the specter of workaholism menacing the nuclear family in an otherwise sunny and secure world, in this film, the Blitzkrieg and Nazi raiders are the dangers posed to three refugee orphans, the witch - played with a deliciously schoolmarmish stiff upper lip by Angela Lansbury - forced to take them in, and the charlatan who just happened to stumble on a genuine book of spells (Tomlinson). There is a scrappier quality to the storytelling, but the effects are top-notch, culminating in an incredible scene of an army of animated - as in moving, not drawn - suits of armor going toe-to-toe with Nazi gunners.

"I put a spell on you and now you're mine."
Bell Book and Candle (1958)
This Hollywood oddity is usually remembered today as the inspiration for Bewitched. A frigidly feline Kim Novak stars as a bored, barefoot witch in Manhattan, who sets her spells on her clean-cut publisher neighbor, played by Jimmie Stewart in his final leading man role, with the help of her cat and familiar, Pyewacket (played by Novak's actual pet!). The romance is enjoyable enough, but the witchy shenanigans of the supporting cast are far more fun: Jack Lemmon plays a bongo-playing, mischief-making warlock with a creepily glazed smile, Elsa Lanchester is a daffy, gossiping witch with a gypsy sense of style, and Hermione Gingold is the grand-dame of the magical set. With weirdly diaphanous costumes by Jean Louis and set design by Cary Odell and Louis Diage that draws inspiration from the avant-garde Greenwich Village club scene of the time, the movie is an eccentric charmer, dipping only a toe into transgressive politics, but unafraid of combining wackiness and tragedy.

"Go to hell!" "Oh, I've been there, thank you. I found it quite lovely."
I Married a Witch (1942)
French auteur René Clair directs this Hollywood comedy starring Veronica Lake as a witch who, after being torched in Puritan Salem, comes back from the dead to wreak havoc on the descendant of her accuser, a twitchy politician on the eve of both his wedding and gubernatorial elections, played by Fredric March, only to accidentally drink her own love potion. Again, the supporting cast is fabulous, with Cecil Kellaway as Lake's demonic father, Robert Benchley as March's friend, always ready to take a stiff drink in his place, and Susan Hayward as March's shrewish fiancee, a thankless role that she enlivens with a double dose of venom. Fast-paced and frothy, this film would fit snugly in the oeuvre of either Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges (who was an uncredited producer). Like so many mainstream films about witches and the men they love, the ending frustrates, but this film is otherwise delicious.

"Hang him on a hook and let me play with him!"
The Love Witch (2016)
The Love Witch, written, directed, produced, scored, costumed, designed, and edited by Anna Biller, is one of the most singularly weird witch movies ever made, drawing as deeply on Italian thrillers and gialli of the '70s as it does on swoony romance paperbacks, tarot cards, and Renaissance Faire culture. Samantha Robinson, in a star-making performance, plays Elaine, a witch so bent on amorous fulfillment that she overdoes it every time, leaving a trail of dead would-be Romeos in her wake. A psychedelic color swirl of reds, pinks, purples, greens, and yellows, nonchalant nudity, and a poker-faced sense of humor elevate the occasionally clunky dialogue, though that clunkiness may very well be part of the point. Elaine is so deeply ensorceled by millennia's worth of misogynistic notions of love and romance that the magic she performs on men to force them into a performance of that love turns in on itself and is reborn as the same kind of violence patriarchy enacts on women; if she speaks in women's magazine platitudes, it's no wonder. You will be singing "Love Is a Magickal Thing" for weeks afterwards.

"Max likes your yabbos. In fact, he loves them."
Miranda (1948)
This sweet, subtly sexually transgressive British comedy follows the adventures of a mermaid, played by the exquisite Glynis Johns (Mary Poppins, The Court Jester), who persuades a vacationing, and decidedly married, doctor (Griffith Jones) to take her to London with him to see the sights. She's always wanted to attend the opera at Covent Garden, you see. Johns's mermaid is irresistible to men - including a very young David Tomlinson sans moustache - and soon has a string of straying beaux, happy to overlook her diet of raw fish and her total lack of commitment, but the lovely thing is that, for once, the mermaid isn't a siren luring men to their doom. She just likes everybody and likes to have a good time. She treats all her conquests with the same cool and generous lust - and the ending is not one you're going to see in a Hollywood film! The inimitable and brilliant Margaret Rutherford plays an eccentric registered nurse.

"You know I always wanted a child. And now I think I'll have one. On toast!"
The Wicker Man (1973)
Robin Hardy's folk-song-laden horror film has acquired a carapace of spoofs and spoofs of spoofs, but it remains a stubbornly unique contribution to the genre, remake be damned. A sternly religious policeman (Edward Woodward) flies out to a remote Hebridean island where a child has been reported missing and finds himself in a hotbed of pagan ritual, led by Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee in a no-holds-barred, go-for-broke performance. A collection of kooks, from Diane Cilento to Lindsay Kemp, round out the cast, but despite the hijinks, a mixture of Summer of Love sex, nude Waldorf School-style games, and Hieronymous Boschesque processions, The Wicker Man ceases to be a fish-out-of-water comedy blended with an Ealing Studios satire in the final scene, all the more haunting for being such a hairpin turn in tone.

"Booooooooooooooooooooooooooook!"

Saturday, June 16, 2018

5 Essential Italian and Italian-American Documentaries

For the 250th (!!!) Unbearable Bookishness of Blogging post, I recommend five fantastic Italian and Italian-American documentaries, uniting two of my great passions in my life, my ethnic heritage and a film genre that rarely gets the support it deserves.

Frank Serpico (2017)
Italian-Americans are dogged by the stereotype of the mafioso, but few in our community offer as resounding a refutation of that stereotype as Frank Serpico, the cop who exposed corruption in the NYPD and became a cultural icon even before the hit 1973 film about his life starring Al Pacino. Directed by Antonino D'Ambrosio, this film does a superb job of narrating Serpico's undercover work, his fight against corruption, and the shooting that nearly killed him, but it's the story of the aftermath that makes this film so compelling. Was the shooting an accident or was it a frame-up? Was the delay in getting help to a wounded cop the result of a mistake or a closing-up of the ranks? Without sugarcoating Serpico's rather prickly personality, the masterful editing by Karim Lopez makes a cogent case for his ongoing sense of paranoia and persecution, delicately peeling away the calcified layers of conspiracy theories, lies, and self-serving glorifications that have obscured the truth.

Italianamerican (1974)
Martin Scorsese is a towering figure in the international cinema world, but in this film he's a young guy with a camera spending a Sunday at home with his parents. Produced after the breakout success of his Mean Streets, this documentary could almost be an average Italian-American son's home movies, if it weren't so beautifully constructed. Catherine and Charles Scorsese, already accustomed to playing small roles in their son's fictional films, talk about their experiences as Italian immigrants, the wine-making and religious processions and meatball recipes they brought to America, and the hardships, prejudice, and strange name changes that America gave them in return. This film has become increasingly precious as the Italian diaspora in America has assimilated or transformed into the 'brain drain' of today. It's a testament to the vibrant, rich - and delicious! - nature of Italian-American culture. Catherine Scorsese's meatball recipe is included in the credits!

Love Meetings - Comizi d'amore (1964)
Although Pier Paolo Pasolini is far better known for his Marxist-Catholic film, The Gospel According to Matthew, or his brutal post-neorealist film, Mamma Roma, my very favorite of all of his films is this documentary. In it, Pasolini travels around Italy and asks the people on the street what they think about sex, love, homosexuality, divorce, reproduction, and prostitution. Occasionally he checks in with novelist Alberto Moravia, psychologist Cesare Musatti and (ex-fascist) poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, representing the intellectuals of the time; though at first these interviews seem bizarrely condescending, Pasolini subtly undermines notions of cultural and social authority by contrasting these two sober, articulate men with the anarchic, irreverent variety of the ordinary people on camera. Pasolini is not interested in neutrality, but he resists the polemicism that must have been so tempting when dealing with interviewees who believe that the stork brings babies, that divorce is evil and will cause the destruction of the state, or that brothels are necessary for men to remain healthy enough to work. Neither cruel nor patronizing, the film combines a bracing political realism and a lyrical quality rare in contemporary documentary filmmaking. 

Tosca's Kiss - Il bacio di Tosca (1985)
One would be forgiven for assuming that Daniel Schmid's lovely homage to opera was nothing more than a heartwarming little tour for grannies and aging music critics, but instead this visit to the nursing home Giuseppe Verdi founded in 1896 for retired opera singers is a treat that is both a love letter to the art form, but also a dry-eyed examination of what it means to devote one's life to music when it means sacrificing everything else. The star of the film is undoubtedly Sara Scuderi, a diva who sang Tosca with Beniamino Gigli at La Scala, but the denizens of the nursing home are a colorful bunch, throwing open old costume trunks to model their favorite roles and playing out scenes from Rigoletto in the hallway. Ultimately quite bittersweet, Tosca's Kiss is essential for opera fans, but has much to say to someone quite ignorant of its appeal: Scuderi and her compatriots are facing death with dignity and joy mixed with sadness through the medium that devoured their lives. There is stunningly little sentimentality in their outlook on what's left of their lives and the film declines to make up the deficit.

Women of the Resistance - La donna nella Resistenza (1965)
Available as a special feature with the Criterion release of The Night Porter, this film was one of the documentaries that the young Liliana Cavani directed at RAI for television broadcast. It is a precious document, for it collects the testimony of Italian women who participated in the resistance movement against the Italian fascist and Nazi occupational forces. Their contributions were rarely publicly acknowledged, although, as we discover through this film, they were not only helpmates, but protagonists in the struggle, fighting alongside the celebrated heroes, being tortured alongside them, sent to concentration camps with them, and in some cases, dying with them. Cavani's direction is scrupulously hands-off. The camera lets the women entrust their testimonies to the camera, with little ornamentation or emotional manipulation. Simple narration explains some of the shocking footage of atrocities, but otherwise acts merely as an echoing, less important voice in the chorus. Though not at all easy to watch, this obscure little film refuses to reify heroism: these women pay for every act of compassion, courage, and struggle, and pay dearly, for the rest of their lives. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Film Review: "Gone to Earth"

American audiences have rarely been able to see the original cut of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Gone to Earth because American producer David O. Selznick, believing it to be a poor star vehicle for his wife Jennifer Jones (and perhaps also itching to be the main creative force on the picture), recut and even reshot significant portions of the film for the stateside release, retitled The Wild Heart, and by most accounts, an incoherent, condescending mess, marred by explanatory title cards and an obvious toy fox instead of the charismatic animal used during the shooting. Despite the continued affection and admiration for the Powell-Pressburger productions, many of them masterpieces, Gone to Earth is still awaiting a proper release in the US, though one can find it coming and going on streaming sites and all-region DVDs. This is a great pity, as it deserves to be considered among their 'lesser' works, with the caveat that a lesser Powell-Pressburger is a gem and a treasure by the standards of ordinary directors. 

Based on a powerfully expressive, exquisitely modulated novel by Mary Webb, the film follows the wide-eyed, artless Hazel Woodus, for whom the dearest creature in all the world is Foxy, the fox she saved as a cub. Hazel has the fortune, or rather the misfortune, to be not only beautiful, but, raised motherless and with no playmates but foxes, cats, and rabbits, astoundingly innocent. Her two pursuers are Edward Marston, a chaste minister who believes that the purity of his love can protect Hazel from harm and himself from acknowledgment of his own desire, and Jack Reddin, the local squire, a sensual, earthy man whose pleasures up until he meets Hazel are brutally physical, whether bedding women or hunting foxes. Hazel is torn between them, torn between the spiritual calm and domestic neatness of a life with Edward, a life in which she can trust that Foxy remains unharmed, and the, for her, incomprehensible carnal attraction of Reddin, with his broken down, but grand estate and trunks full of magnificent dresses, left by his dead ancestors. But Reddin 'has blood on him,' since his main pursuit in life is fox-hunting. Hazel's innocence, Marston's earnest religiosity, Reddin's selfish, possessive desire, and Foxy's vulnerability swirl together into tragedy. The final scene of this film is utterly extraordinary: even watching on a tiny screen, with a significant interruption in the middle, those last five minutes flattened me and left me sobbing. 

In the film, Hazel is played by Jennifer Jones - but one of the first things an audience has to forgive if they're going to give themselves over to the magic of this film is to accept that Jones's complete inability to sound at all English, let alone speak in the Shropshire dialect, can be passed over as a venial flaw. Jones, though, is a bewitching presence on screen. Her accent may be atrocious, but her smiles, and the way she capers across fields, or cradles Foxy, are more important to her performance. The rather thankless role of Marston is given to Cyril Cusack, exceptionally good given how little of the meat of his character in the book can be transferred to the screen. Marston's struggles are moral, interior, and deeply repressed; Cusack succeeds in exposing the naïve futility of his self-sacrifice without making him look ridiculous. The true star of the production is Powell-Pressburger favorite David Farrar, as Reddin, whose violet eyes shoot lightning bolts of passion, fury, and incredibly sexiness, without softening the cruelty of Reddin's nature. In interviews, Michael Powell said many times that Farrar could have hit the zenith of stardom, if he had wanted to, but Farrar seems to have been utterly deaf to the call of fame. He is, indeed, a magnetic, seductive force in Gone to Earth.

The screenplay was a collaboration between the two directors and is generally quite faithful to the book, like all adaptations cutting a great deal, though usually with a calculated good taste. Only one scene is added, Hazel's baptism, which neatly conflates a number of smaller, though highly significant instances into one, more visually dramatic episode. The cinematography by Christopher Challis is stunningly gorgeous, though I will quibble that it is not as brilliant in its use of color to create mood as Jack Cardiff's work in Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes. The music by Brian Easdale, one of the most important of Powell and Pressburger's regular collaborators, opens up the ferally romantic world of Webb's Shropshire and dramatizes the conflict between sexual desire and fear, God as love and God as terror. With a less evocative score, it's difficult to believe that Gone to Earth would be at all convincing. It is as good an adaptation as possible, but it does not quite measure up to the novel, lacking its piercing, pitiless philosophy, written in such heavily scented, adorned language and yet so fearfully modern in its treatment of God, sex, violence, and innocence. Webb's book is a tragedy of near Biblical proportions; the film does not quite achieve the same grandeur. Even so, it ought to be considered, along with A Canterbury Tale and The Small Back Room, an essential Powell-Pressburger work, another jewel in the crown.

Monday, May 28, 2018

What's Wrong with Rhyme?

Both meter and rhyme have gone out of fashion in English language poetry. A poet submitting poems in formal verse to almost any editor in the U.S. or the U.K. will get a rejection letter and sometimes a note recommending the use of less traditional structures. Free verse reigns absolutely supreme. The evolution of style is not sufficient to account for such an extreme rejection of meter and rhyme. After all, something can be passé and still perfectly acceptable - within my own lifetime, I've witnessed leg warmers become cool and uncool more than once - but the case of poetry is different.

The intensely close-minded attitude towards poetry written in any regular metrical structure, whether blank verse or rhymed, is indicative of the deep-rooted infection of progressivism. This model of human progress, clung to so tenaciously across so many sectors of English language culture, presumes that the progression of time marks constant, steady improvement. A progressivist believes that every generation gets stronger, sturdier, smarter, and more capable. This ideology permits us to feel self-righteous contempt towards those who came before us and assume that we always know better. It insists that all new insights are somehow more advanced than old ones, that new views, political or otherwise, are somehow more correct. This is why one speaks of 'progressive' and 'retrogressive' ideas. But it's a slippery ideology, since, despite the listing of facts to argue for its veracity, how can we define 'better'? For instance, a longer lifetime is often pointed to as an argument for progressivism, but such an argument fails to examine why a longer life is better than a shorter one, and what those additional years are like qualitatively. 

In the realm of poetry, progressivist ideology dictates that older forms, themes, and styles are superseded by new ones, to be eclipsed forever or revived only in specific (and often ironic) instances. As a result, free verse is presumed to be 'better' than metrical verse, a judgement so extremely superficial that it's almost laughable without the pressing weight of ideology behind it. Even a very great genius, writing in the style of Shakespeare, or Goethe, or Baudelaire, or Browning, is sure to get the stinkeye. Underlying this attitude is a skittish rejection of anything that smacks of elitism, even though few literary worlds are as constricted and difficult to access as that of poetry. Many people will argue that those formal structures were invented, utilized, and celebrated by rich (at least, sometimes) white men, which, although true if very generalized, ignores every woman poet from Aphra Behn to Phillis Wheatley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Emily Dickinson, who not only wrote poetry in metrical forms, but also significantly innovated those forms. That attitude also simultaneously and tacitly excises poetry from the non-western world for consideration. The argument evacuates itself by ignoring the very poets - women and men and women of color - it claims to champion.

It's also been argued that free verse is more accessible for readers, though why that should be the case, given the preponderance of rhyme in, say, pop music, is unclear. Rather, it seems that free verse is supposed to be more accessible for the poets. With its total flexibility of structure, free verse appears at first glance to be easier to write than metered verse, but this is a fallacy. It is certainly easier to plop down a bunch of words with line breaks and call it poetry than to write a technically flawless sonnet, but this equates a bunch of words with poetry - and poetry wouldn't exist if that were so. In fact, I would argue that it is far harder to write free verse than metrical verse because writing in meter forces a greater consideration of the economy of word usage. If one only has five metrical feet to work with, the poet must consider every tiny syllable, every punctuation mark, and thus a first draft is born with  - by necessity - a tighter construction and more thought-through vocabulary. Free verse, on the other hand, requires far greater discipline of the poet: the free verse poet has to have a much more acute ear, sensitive to subtle nuances of rhythm, and a more exacting eye, attentive to the precise shapes of lines upon a page. 

I don't argue for a see-saw shift in stylistic convention, but surely we could be a tad more open-minded, and allow the poets of our own age the freedom that we claim to desire so deeply in a political sense through the choices of their own structures and forms, whether that be a Petrarchan sonnet or a rap-inflected riff. Why do we have to choose? How much richer would our poetry be if there was cultural tolerance for all structures and forms, instead of only a tiny, ideologically compromised fraction? 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Film Review: "Madonna of the Seven Moons"

The Gainsborough melodramas released in the 1940s were hugely popular with British audiences and mocked by critics. These films took place in dramatic period settings, with actresses in gorgeous, ornate costumes and hats, and sensational plots centered around women transgressing social boundaries, falling in love with rogues, thieves, highwaymen, and Heathcliff-like monsters, and even tasting the forbidden pleasures and pains of murder and robbery themselves in some cases. This focus on women's lives, with a particular emphasis on sexual autonomy or lack thereof, make these films fascinating for contemporary viewers.

Madonna of the Seven Moons, directed by Arthur Crabtree who had previously been a Gainsborough cinematographer, has been described by some as lurid, by others as stuffy, but I'd say both camps - the sensation-seekers who watch the pre-code pictures to get a glimpse of Marlene Dietrich's breasts and the oh-so-cool types who disdain any show of emotion that isn't strictly justified by the most gritty forms of trauma as overblown - are projecting their own understandings of what melodramas are on to a film that delves into what it means to be a woman through a character who is both Madonna and whore, but then again, neither.

In the opening scene, a pig-tailed Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert) in her convent school uniform is picking flowers in a field. A man approaches her and begins to undo his belt. A close-up shows her terrified face as she runs from him; the shot fades to black. In the next shot, she cowers in her room, in agony. This rape scene is all the more devastating for eclipsing the rape itself and instead centering the viewer's attention on Maddalena's anguish. Even by the end of the film, no one, not even the physician who attends her, ever finds out about this rape. It remains an unspoken secret with fateful consequences, but remarkably, given the film's religious values, Maddalena is framed as completely innocent, both before and after the fact. This sexual trauma profoundly affects her life, but it doesn't make her guilty - on the contrary, it absolves her later of a violent act that prevents the same trauma from occurring to another young girl.

However, this is not a movie about a woman surviving rape and becoming empowered. Instead, Maddalena, a good Catholic girl, agrees to marry the man her father has chosen for her, Giuseppe (John Stuart), and it turns out to be a good marriage in the conventional sense - not a passionate love affair, but a stable, caring relationship largely devoid of strong emotion. Her fervent religiosity as much as her extreme sensitivity mark her as a Madonna figure; she spends her life in good works. Her husband goes so far as to teasingly call her a saint. When her daughter Angela (Patricia Roc) returns from an English finishing school with an English diplomat boyfriend (Alan Haines, a puppyish and much less handsome David Niven look-alike) and some decidedly not convent-approved lingerie, Maddalena becomes increasingly agitated. After a chance encounter with a "dancer" (that is, a gigolo, played by Peter Glenville) with his eye on the pretty, pert, and still somewhat innocent Angela, Maddalena faints. When she wakes, there is a strange glimmer in her eye. She rises, draws a symbol of seven moons on the mirror with lipstick, and runs from the house with the contents of her jewelbox in her handkerchief. Maddalena's transformation is a literal one: she becomes Rosanna, a sultry, fiery, and sticky-fingered creature whose lover, Nino (Stewart Granger), is a thief with more than a little sex appeal. These two women in the same body are living two lives that collide and shatter, leaving hearts broken, bodies bleeding, and souls won back to God.

A pat psychological explanation is given for Maddalena's condition by family friend and doctor Ackroyd (Reginald Tate). He surmises that some trauma in childhood caused a rupture in Maddalena's psyche, splitting her personality. When anxiety and pain threaten to become too great, she takes refuge in the second personality, running from her sumptuous palazzo, devoted husband, and philanthropic works. However, no one in the film ever discovers what trauma wreaked such havoc. Only we, the viewers, know why Maddalena split into Madonna and whore.

At first glance, this dichotomy seems like one more tiresome iteration of the usual scenario, one where the whore must be destroyed and the Madonna martyred, but because the audience knows that it was a brutal rape that caused the psychological split, a different interpretation emerges. Sexual trauma forces Maddalena to repress her sensuality and so she becomes a near saint, but here's the trick: the film refuses to let Maddalena deny her sexuality. It's there within her, lurking whenever emotion overflows its boundaries. The whore personality, the underworld creature ready to knife her rival, permits Maddalena-reborn-Rosanna to engage in a smoldering romantic affair. She and Nino both during the course of the film devour pieces of fruit, letting the juice drip down their faces; while the demure Maddalena could never take such sensual pleasure in her food, the earthy Rosanna can. The character is torn between the body she can enjoy and the body that has been despoiled, a free expression of her desires and the utter repression of even the slightest reminder of physical feeling. The true villain in the film is not the murderous impulses of the human Id, nor Nino, the petty criminal, nor sex for the fun of it: the villain is rape and any man who attempts it. If Maddalena's ultimate salvation is found in God, it's in a conception of God as intensely forgiving and understanding.

Madonna of the Seven Moons is a melodrama in the true sense of the term: it is a story about fairly ordinary people swept up into tragedy by circumstances beyond their control. It is difficult to see how a film that delineates such an exacting polemic against rape, while still portraying consensual sex as happy, romantic, and fulfilling, could be called lurid, and even more bizarre to call it stuffy. The psychology may strike the modern viewer as fairly antiquated, especially since split personalities in particular have become such a cliche of both weepies and thrillers, but in this case, a fairly simplistic idea of psychic rupture allows Crabtree, screenwriter Roland Pertwee, and star Phyllis Calvert to excavate and complicate the Madonna-whore dichotomy in a world where sexual violence against women is a fact of life. They accomplish this without rejecting Catholicism for blasphemy or vice versa. Sexual innocence is redefined: Maddalena's loss of virginity makes her no less good, and not even her extra-marital affair, pursued by Rosanna, makes her less good. Instead, sexual evil is staunchly defined as abuse, as one person taking another by force. Madonna of the Seven Moons lets us have our melodramatic cake and eat it, progressive sexual politics and all, too.

Monday, May 14, 2018

She's No Beauty: The Continuing Trope of the Ugly Duckling

It still strikes us revelatory, provocative, perhaps even shocking, when heroines aren't beautiful. It's presumed that any woman who could hold a reader's, or a viewer's attention for more than five minutes must be beautiful or else some sort of novelty, who fascinates by virtue of bucking the convention. But even the 'unconventional' heroines tend to be beautiful, or at least quite attractive, by most real-world standards: they simply don't recognize it because women - yes, still today, and probably for generations to come - are indoctrinated into a belief in their own ugliness. Bridget Jones isn't actually ugly and fat: the pressure to be prettier and thinner translates into a vicious cycle. We're not supposed to believe that she looks to other people as she does to herself. And even the "American stick insect" who makes Bridget feel so very unattractive in comparison would, were she the heroine of her own novel and not the nemesis of the heroine, feel just as desperately ugly and fat. The recent Amy Schumer film, I Feel Pretty, is predicated on this very idea. Schumer's character has to suffer a concussion in order to appreciate her own good looks. A silly controversy (prior to the film's release!) resulted when people expressed outrage at the premise of the film. It wasn't clear whether these very angry people were upset at the intimation that a woman as attractive as Schumer could have low self-esteem or if they were upset because the premise acknowledged the reality that actual looks bear little correlation with how a woman sees herself, but in any case, the movie hit a sore spot. Constant complaints are lodged that heroines are too beautiful for a real woman to aspire to be her, but at the same time, the longing for beauty and for a recognition of being beautiful means that calling a heroine anything but beautiful invites a firestorm.

And when a heroine really isn't attractive by conventional standards? Then she's an ugly duckling, and her confidence makes her into a swan. Confidence replaces beauty and paradoxically renders the heroine beautiful precisely because she isn't beautiful. Her other qualities - her intelligence, perhaps, or her kindness, or her selflessness - shine through the exterior and beautify it. In other words, ugly heroines are never allowed to remain ugly. To remain at the center of a narrative, she has to be made beautiful in some fashion or another. Ugliness is still strictly associated with character; the heroine is both beautiful because she is a heroine and a heroine because she is beautiful. Expanding the definition of 'beautiful' does not shake the basic requirement that beauty is necessary for a woman to have a story worth telling.

The feminist iteration of this usually insists on a beautifying quality that is often considered the compensation for plainness or ugliness: cleverness. Jo March, Anne Shirley, Sybylla Melvyn - these feminist heroines are not described as beautiful, but find me the film adaptation with a Jo, an Anne, or a Sybylla who isn't beautiful. Their 'ugliness' might consist of visible freckles, mussy or frizzy hair, a plain dress, or an unflattering bonnet. Ugliness can be resolved with simple make-over because it isn't ugliness at all, just a lack of self-esteem. The trick that gets pulled off is that Jo, Anne, and Sybylla when viewed as role models let us have our cake and eat it too. They are clever, ambitious girls, girls who must fight to earn their livings, support their families, and win a chance at the life they want, all this, yes - but they're also beautiful. In our imaginations, we touch up their portraits; through the gorgeous faces and trim bodies of film stars, they shake off the last vestiges of plain looks. Thus the needle is threaded. As soon as the plain or ugly girl is visualized, she is transformed at once, from a witch to an enchantress. Inner beauty always gets translated into outer beauty.

One writer who came very close to refusing to beautify her ugly duckling was Mary Webb. In her novel, Precious Bane, the heroine Prue Sarn has a harelip, or a cleft palate as we would say today. Because of this, she is considered unmarriageable at best, a dangerous witch at worst. Prue mourns the possibilities that are closed off to her because of her disfigurement (and because of her poverty and class - these things weigh heavily as well), but she also accepts that those possibilities are not to be. Webb, however, does not let her heroine languish in misery, she does not leave her buried in a farm she can't inherit, while her brother can, she does not let every person without exception dismiss Prue as a hopeless case. She meets Kester Woodseaves, a weaver who also brings down the ire of his neighbors when he intervenes and prevents a bull baiting. These two characters are superior in both intelligence and feeling than their countrymen and they both recognize those qualities in the other. But Kester is beautiful and Prue is not. His inner qualities appear in his face; Prue's are hidden by hers.

The happy ending is delicious! Why shouldn't Prue, this extraordinary, fairy-like creation of Mary Webb's, not marry the man she loves, a man who sees those extraordinary qualities that are invisible to everyone else? She argues against it, insists that he choose a girl who matches him in physical beauty, even pleads with him to recognize her own ugliness and to instead "marry a girl like a lily." But Kester won't give up. He tells her, "I've chosen my bit of Paradise." He then kisses her "full upon the mouth." Mary Webb comes as close as any writer I've encountered has to letting her heroine be loved, really and deeply loved, preferred to a far lovelier girl, without insisting on some sort of quasi physicalized transformation. The ugly duckling is no swan at all, but an ugly duck who has nevertheless found a handsome drake. The especial magic of this ending lies in the fact that Kester's love doesn't transform her into a "bit of Paradise," but recognizes that she always was a "bit of Paradise." As long as we are too afraid to let a plain or ugly heroine remain so even on the occasion of the fulfilling of her dreams, we continue to enforce the beauty standards that many of us who consider ourselves feminists deplore. If every ugly duckling must grow up into a lovely swan, then beauty, whether inner or outer, remains a gendered requirement for recognition and happiness.