Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Feminist Rebuttal to Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century

I've become increasingly wary of ranking works of artistic and cultural value as ranking has become increasingly central to the way criticism functions and is understood. Rarely is a consensus ranking particularly interesting, since consensus irons away the fascinatingly idiosyncratic choices that an individual might make. What we agree on is far less thought-provoking than differences of opinion. However, consensus rankings can be a powerful illustration of sociocultural dynamics in the literary world precisely because they demand a certain degree of agreement.

One fascinating consensus ranking is Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century, a list of the top hundred books that 17,000 French respondents nominated in response to the question, 'What books have remained in your memory?' One interesting aspect of this list is that it isn't a list of the 'best' books of the twentieth century, but rather a list of the most memorable. A memorable book could, in theory, be memorably bad, though judging from the list, most respondents chose well-respected, critically acclaimed books.

Out of the hundred books on the list, only twelve were written by female authors. The choices range from major feminist texts such as Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex to experimental novels by Marguerite Duras and Marguerite Yourcenar and a mystery by Agatha Christie, as well as essential works that witness the horrors of totalitarian regimes, such as Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl and Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. The range among this small percentage of the list is impressive; far less impressive is the ratio of female authors to male. Had the list been limited to books by male authors, it would have been essentially the same list; the same cannot be said for the reverse.

Thus, I propose to offer alternatives to the books chosen by the respondents of Le Monde's poll. For each book written by a man, I choose a comparable book written by a woman. The original choices are in brackets and all of my choices not originally written in English are available in translation, unlike some of the books from the poll. Without snubbing the books written by male authors - many of which, such as Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, are favorites - I hope this exercise serves to remind us that the canon is, and should be, elastic. While one hundred is a nice, round number, no scientific law insists that only that many and no more can be considered the most memorable of the twentieth century.

1. Chéri by Colette [The Stranger by Albert Camus]
2. HERmione by H.D. [In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust]
3. The Giver by Lois Lowry [The Trial by Franz Kafka]
4. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt [The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry]
5. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck [Man's Fate by André Malraux]
6. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing [Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline]
7. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse [The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck]
8. In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda [For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway]
9. Precious Bane by Mary Webb [Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier]
10. The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf by Kathryn Davis [Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian]
11. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
12. Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein [Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett]
13. This Sex Which Is Not One by Luce Irigaray [Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre]
14. Wise Child and Juniper by Monica Furlong [The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco]
15. Prison of Women by Tomasa Cuevas [The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn]
16. Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wisława Szymborska [Paroles by Jacques Prévert]
17. Collected Lyrics by Edna St. Vincent Millay [Alcools by Guillaume Apollinaire]
18. Ruddy Gore by Kerry Greenwood [The Blue Lotus by Hergé]
19. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
20. Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture by Sherry B. Ortner [Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss]
21. Herland by Catherine Perkins Gilman [Brave New World by Aldous Huxley]
22. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin [Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell]
23. The Book of Dragons by E. Nesbit [Asterix the Gaul by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo]
24. Progress of Stories by Laura Riding [The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesco]
25. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher [Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality by Sigmund Freud]
26. The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar
27. Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin [Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov]
28. Orlando by Virginia Woolf [Ulysses by James Joyce]
29. Arturo's Island by Elsa Morante [The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati]
30. Lust by Elfriede Jelinek [The Counterfeiters by André Gide]
31. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy [The Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono]
32. Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill [Belle du Seigneur by Albert Cohen]
33. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy [One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez]
34. To the North by Elizabeth Bowen [The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner]
35. Reeds in the Wind by Grazia Deledda [Thérèse Desqueyroux by François Mauriac]
36. Eloise by Kay Thompson [Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau]
37. Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield [Confusion of Feelings by Stefan Zweig]
38. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
39. Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala [Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence]
40. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery [The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann]
41. Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
42. Suite française by Irène Némirovsky [Le Silence de la mer by Vercors]
43. In Pursuit of the English by Doris Lessing [Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec]
44. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey [The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle]
45. Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil [Under the Sun of Satan by Georges Bernanos]
46. The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton [The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald]
47. Women at War by Dacia Maraini [The Joke by Milan Kundera]
48. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath [Contempt by Alberto Moravia]
49. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
50. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus [Nadja by André Breton]
51. A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym [Aurélien by Louis Aragon]
52. Restoration by Rose Tremain [The Satin Slipper by Paul Claudel]
53. The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington [Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello]
54. In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield [The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht]
55. Catherwood by Marly Youmans [Friday by Michel Tournier]
56. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle [The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells]
57. An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillesum [If This Is a Man by Primo Levi]
58. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley [The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien]
59. Les Vrilles de la vigne by Colette
60. Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop [Capital of Pain by Paul Éluard]
61. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin [Martin Eden by Jack London]
62. The King's General by Daphne du Maurier [Ballad of the Salt Sea by Hugo Pratt]
63. The Laugh of the Medusa by Hélène Cixous [Writing Degree Zero by Roland Barthes]
64. The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan [The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll]
65. On Fortune's Wheel by Cynthia Voigt [The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq]
66. Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag [The Order of Things by Michel Foucault]
67. The Moon by Night by Madeleine L'Engle [On the Road by Jack Kerouac]
68. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf
69. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
70. Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing [The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury]
71. The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras
72. Selected Poetry by Emily Dickinson [The Interrogation by J.M.G. Le Clézio]
73. Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute
74. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller [Journal, 1887-1910 by Jules Renard]
75. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen [Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad]
76. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés [Écrits by Jacques Lacan]
77. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes by Lynn Garafola [The Theatre and Its Double by Antonin Artaud]
78. The Group by Mary McCarthy [Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos]
79. The Archivist by Martha Cooley [Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges]
80. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner [Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars]
81. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain [The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare]
82. Obasan by Joy Kogawa [Sophie's Choice by William Styron]
83. 19 Varieties of Gazelle by Naomi Shihab Nye [Gypsy Ballads by Gabriel García Lorca]
84. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith [The Strange Case of Peter the Lett by Georges Simenon]
85. Kinky by Denise Duhamel [Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet]
86. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor [The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil]
87. I Had Seen Castles by Cynthia Rylant [Furor and Mystery by René Char]
88. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers [The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger]
89. The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier [No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase]
90. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling [Blake and Mortimer by Edgar P. Jacobs]
91. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid [The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke]
92. Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro [Second Thoughts by Michel Butor]
93. The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
94. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter [The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov]
95. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford [The Rosy Crucifixion by Henry Miller]
96. Sudden Rain by Maritta Wolff [The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler]
97. New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver [Amers by Saint-John Perse]
98. Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding [Gaston by André Franquin]
99. The Liars' Club by Mary Karr [Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry]
100. The Third Eye by Mollie Hunter [Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie]

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Film Review: "The Purple Rose of Cairo"

As a general rule, I'm not a fan of Woody Allen. I find his neurotic self-absorption and flippant yet pretentious sense of humor all but unbearable and rarely find him as witty, clever, or innovative as many critics seem to, so I went into The Purple Rose of Cairo with no little skepticism.

The premise of the movie - a movie character walks off the screen and into the arms of a sweet girl in the audience - essentially reverses the plot of Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr., in which a projectionist dreams himself and the girl he loves into the movie he's showing. Mia Farrow plays a waitress, Cecilia, on the outs with her boss, married to a lout who spends all his time on dice, and who, more than anything else, loves the movies. The Great Depression is in full swing and the movies that bring a smile to her face are musicals and pictures about high society people in exotic locales. Then one day, the character of Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), "honest, dependable, courageous, romantic, and a great kisser," walks off the screen because he's fallen in love with Cecilia and wants to be real.

Allen plays down the fantastic element of this premise, with copious dialogue from the vast majority of characters commenting on the impossibility of a fictional character walking around in the real world and expressing outrage and astonishment. The porousness of the screen is never explained, but once the Hollywood actor who plays Tom (also Jeff Bridges) arrives to try to corral his double back into the movie, Cecilia has to decide between the real and the imaginary. Her choice is predictable, but Allen denies us the expected Hollywood happily-ever-after. Those sorts of endings are only for the movies.

In essence, The Purple Rose of Cairo is an extended riff on one joke. Sometimes it works brilliantly, particularly with the scenes of the movie-within-the-movie's characters alternately panicking and whining because they can't continue the picture. Van Johnson, star of studio pictures like In the Good Old Summertime and The Last Time I Saw Paris, has a delicious, and easy-to-miss cameo as one of the disgruntled characters. However, Allen, though he may be known for his 'witty' dialogue, doesn't have a perfect ear for the the snappy, slang-ridden writing of '30s cinema. A clunky self-consciousness steals into a lot of the lines in the movie-within-a-movie, which is too obviously a pastiche and never convinces as a real hit picture. The best lines are less willfully cartoonish and quite quotable: "I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional but you can't have everything;" "I'm sorry. It's written into my character to do it, so I do it;" or "I don't get hurt or bleed, hair doesn't muss; it's one of the advantages of being imaginary." The movie is most convincing, not to mention most fun, when Allen uses a softer, lighter touch, in a totally different register than, say, the zany slapstick of Sleeper or the arch flippancy of Annie Hall and Manhattan. But even in this more bittersweet mode, The Purple Rose of Cairo feels wafer-thin, like a short film extended to feature-length.

In part, this is because the movie drags in an element of intellectual theory - implicit references to Pirandello, Deleuze, and Kracauer - that it can't quite bear. The movie's structure depends on a strict demarcation between the real and the fictional that a body can pass over as though going through a door, but the two worlds never actually fuse or collide: the boundary is stable. While ostensibly examining the blurring of reality and a fictive world, The Purple Rose of Cairo actually enforces the stark difference between the two. Many of the wittier lines rely on this; for instance, someone points out that, in the movie-within-the-movie, the champagne is really ginger ale. (Some of the clunkier plot elements, such as Tom Baxter's fake money, do as well.) Yet, even the earliest film theories and philosophies have subtler things to say on the issue of the 'real' vs. the cinematic. All Allen really does is point out the commonsensical difference and the fact that a real person can't inhabit a fictive world for long. Heck, Keaton's film is vastly more intellectually complex.

Allen also shoehorns a critique of religion, attempting to make it dovetail with a confused notion of the screenwriters as gods, which is both philosophically muddled and badly integrated into the film as a whole (though in one moment, rather funny - when the movie-within-the-movie's priest insists that nowhere in the Bible does it say a priest can't be imaginary). Cecilia brings Tom to a church as part of his education in the real world and where he ends up getting beaten up by Cecilia's irate husband. This scene occurs in a church in order to set up Tom's later naive line about "thinking about very deep things." Tom is a wee bit of an airhead, but what he's saying about the screenwriters as gods is actually supported by and large by the movie, rather than criticized, or even complicated. There's something grating to me about a critique of religion that is so flat-footed and intellectually vacuous, a potshot that veers off into nothing.

Even so, there are more things to like in The Purple Rose of Cairo than to dislike: the jazzy score by Nick Hyman, Diane Wiest in a small, though glam role as a red-lipsticked prostitute, the evocatively sparkling sets and costumes for the movie-within-the-movie. It's a relief to have Allen kept off-camera and it's a pleasure to look at such a meticulous recreation of a small New Jersey town in the '30s. While I wouldn't go anywhere near calling The Purple Rose of Cairo a masterpiece, I would call it the high point of Allen's career.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Is Bridget Jones a Feminist Character (And Does It Matter)?

Helen Fielding's hit novel, Bridget Jones's Diary, and its subsequent film adaptation directed by Sharon Maguire and starring Renée Zellweger are unquestionably popular, with sequels both literary and cinematic extending Bridget almost into a franchise unto herself. Online feminist response to characters like Bridget Jones tends to be divided between fans of romantic comedies and chick lit and detractors who condemn such genres as a priori anti-feminist. The first group points to Bridget's relatability and the flaws and imperfections that nevertheless don't exclude her from the possibility of exciting, sexually satisfying relationships. The second group points to Bridget's preoccupations with her romantic status, weight, and food intake and sees her as self-involved and in thrall to patriarchal social imperatives, while her narrative arc is defined by a modern iteration of the marriage plot.

Both critiques are fair and both are, in a way, correct, but each rests on an assumption that feminism dictates a particular way of being for women, and especially female characters, assumed as role models and mirrors. The contradiction lies in diverging understandings of what feminism means and what it should accomplish, but despite their opposite conclusions, the two viewpoints both suffer from an ideological fallacy.

Champions of Bridget Jones subscribe to a feminist imperative to represent women as 'real people,' that is as flawed people, without punishing them for their imperfections. This means, in practice, that these characters exist in narrative universes that are highly traditional in structure, but in which they do not abide by the traditional standards of femininity. These deviations, however, tend to be superficial and slight, for instance, clumsiness or a habit of saying the wrong thing at the worst moment. The character must be imperfect, but also likable. From this angle, Bridget is feminist because her success, in this case romantic in nature, is not circumscribed by the character traits that mark her as flawed. Her ultimate happiness is a reward for being herself, proof that one needn't be a Barbie doll to get a modern-day incarnation of Mr. Darcy. She is, at base, a nice person, her worst quality arguably flightiness, and this is enough to make her worthy.

Detractors instead subscribe to a feminist imperative to represent women as they should be and the world as it should be. As a result, a feminist character must consciously reject societal expectations of how women ought to behave, feel, and think. A feminist story cannot revolve around men, especially men as romantic partners. From this perspective, Bridget Jones's Diary as a whole is anti-feminist because the narrative traces Bridget's romantic involvement with men and Bridget herself isn't feminist because her ultimate goals - a sexy boyfriend, a thin body, a demeanor that reflects 'inner poise' - are subservient to the larger social expectations that women confront. Instead of declaring and actually believing that she doesn't need a man to be happy, Bridget really does want a relationship and only occasionally expresses feminist beliefs, rarely acted upon.

Both camps share two fundamental problems, though each approaches them from the opposite direction. The first issue is judgment. In both cases, a female character is judged by an imposed standard derived from feminist ideology. But, whether the preference is for representations of (superficially) flawed women who get the guy or liberated women who have no need for men and can take them or leave them, a judgment is made. As soon as that happens, an impulse towards freedom and liberation for all women is confined to a small, special class of women - those who attain success and happiness, whether it involves a man or not. This doctrine is disastrous politically, but not especially insightful as far as literary or film criticism is concerned. If Bridget Jones is going to be held to such high standards, whether getting the guy of her dreams or rejecting the romance she actually wants to prove a political point, then feminism is transformed into yet one more form of oppression for women. Freedom of choice is withheld; feminist credentials are issued or denied according to how well or not a woman has met ideological standards. Judgment is both a dubious critical device and a nasty political one. Since we tend to view characters, rightly or wrongly, as proxies, models, or mirrors, condemning a character for failing to be a feminist is another way of punishing women who don't fall into line.

The second issue is whether or not romantic relationships with men can legitimately be the primary focus of female characters', and by extension women's, lives. This is a very old debate, that can be traced directly back to the earliest feminist discourses, including some materials from the French Revolution. The issue turns on the function of stories and whether one believes they ought to show reality or a projected and hoped-for possible reality. It might be nice to allow for both types of stories and to consider, on an individual basis, whether a given story is depicting one or the other. The truth is that for many women romantic relationships with men are a primary focus for at least a period of their lives. If we punish women for that, we're no better than the billions of men now and throughout history who consider themselves entitled to punish women who don't make those relationships a primary focus. If feminism opens up new doors for women, it's debatable whether it should also close other doors in the process.

In the end, whether one believes Bridget is a feminist character because she's relatable, likable, and romantically triumphant or that Bridget is not a feminist character because her needs and desires are directed principally towards appearing attractive to and attaining a relationship with a man, this sort of evaluation risks creating a parallel set of rigidly enforced standards for women, as suffocating and unyielding as the insidiously evolving standards of patriarchy. Rather than simply checking a box, 'yes' for feminist, 'no' for everything else, feminist criticism ought to be a subtler examination of how and why feminism operates, or fails to operate, in the cultural sphere. If it's merely a matter of sorting the goodies from the baddies, then feminist criticism, far from revolutionary, is following exactly in patriarchy's footsteps.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Genre Fiction Shouldn't Be Considered 'Serious' Literature

It's become trendy to lament the critical drubbing reserved for certain popular genres among, ironically enough, the American literary establishment. In the pages of the New York Times Book Review and similar literary gate-keepers, one will find such comments applied to the graphic novel, true crime, horror, chick lit, bodice rippers, and science fiction. Though nearly every critic who stages such a defense depicts himself as a lone voice, it's a hugely popular and pretentious way to signal a lack of pretension. This attitude extends the logic of diversity to genre and it's embraced as a form of progressive politics.

This is silly, which is not to say that there aren't genuine political prejudices at work in the contempt displayed for certain genres, most obviously romance. While there's nothing wrong - and a heck of a lot right - with analyzing the politics and artistry of such books, there is something wrong with pretending that genre labels are somehow discriminatory and a means of oppression. Genre labels are functional; they help readers find the sort of book they want to read. The truth is that genre fiction is less 'serious' than literary fiction, for the simple reason that genre fiction subscribes to certain structural, aesthetic, and narrative formulas, while literary fiction rejects, or at least attempts to reject, formulas. There might be a significant grey area here, but it is possible to make the differentiation.
 
The formulaic nature of genre fiction is part of its appeal. Horror fans want to find thrills and scares in their novels, mystery fans want to solve crimes, romance fans want amorous fantasy and titillation. The subversion of the formula is more often than not what allows a work of genre fiction to make the leap over into literary fiction. (Established literary names will also usually have their genre efforts shunted over to the realm of more 'serious' literature - whether it's fair or not, an author's reputation matters a lot when it comes to a book's reception.) Ultimately, the genre formula is the draw, and not a defect, a feature, rather than a bug.

The current American literary scene discourages negative reviews and encourages puff pieces, while the world of literary social media is dominated by political crusades against books and writers perceived as intolerant or politically out of line. This atmosphere of hair-trigger outrage, gushing support for the literary enterprise, and corporate-flavor marketing puts critics in a less than comfortable position. The American literary establishment has always prized the middle-brow and lifted a mocking eyebrow at the high; now, critics prove that they're not evil by not merely embracing the low-brow, but defending it as though it were in mortal danger, though of course the very genres that are being treated as damsels in distress are the least imperiled. Those are the books that hit the best-seller list.

None of this means that genre fiction is without value; rather it means that its value lies precisely in its difference from literary fiction. Readers turn to genre fiction for the same reason that they might go to see a superhero movie or stream a song by Taylor Swift. The formula is dependable, even the big twist is dependable, since that twist is part of the formula, just as the modulation and bridge are in a pop song. 

Being a fan of Helen Fielding and Marian Keyes, queens of chick lit, doesn't prevent me from recognizing that their work, charming and chummy and toothsome as it is, is not serious literature. They absolutely deserve their success, but they, and their fellow genre writers, are not experimenting with form or convention, or tackling the more difficult and contentious aspects of either individual or collective life. Their heroines are likable and relatable. Their endings are upbeat. The darkness is always sweetened with light. And that's great! Because those things are what I want from chick lit. Something similar could be said of almost any genre, depending on the particular reader. I happen to enjoy books about young single women whose lives are messy but fun and someone else might go for books about people with superpowers saving the world or detectives with a past solving a gruesome murder or teenagers doing all the screwed-up, slapdash things that teenagers do. Those preferences are not stupid or demeaning, but neither are they worthy of praise. They're merely an expression of mood and taste.

The idea that refusing to call genre fiction serious is somehow an insult presumes that seriousness is good, but seriousness is only good when it's in the right context. That's why we laugh at people who act deadly serious while, for instance, getting interviewed on the news in their skivvies. It's also why we feel scandalized when someone tells inappropriate jokes after someone's dog died. By wringing our hands over the critical reception of genre fiction, critics don't rescue it from an unjustly ignominious failure. Rather, they pander to a public that has fatally misunderstood identity politics.

Increasingly, readers identify themselves with their tastes. It is not unusual to hear someone say that he identifies as a Star Wars/Batman/Harry Potter/John Green, etc. etc. fan. Unsurprisingly, the people most keen to revile critics of their favorite stories and characters are straight white men, so it strikes me as possible that this blurring of the line between who we are and what we like is rooted in a desire, especially on the part of those who are decidedly not marginalized, to claim injury in the face of diversity. If we really are what we like, then every time a critic pans, or even just gives a lukewarm reception to, something we like, then the review becomes an insult, but here's the rub: we're not what we like.

Criticism is worthless if it's merely a concession to dominant tastes or strident fandoms. Genre fiction isn't junk, but it deserves a critical evaluation that considers it in its proper context. Liking Gillian Flynn or Dan Brown better than Kazuo Ishiguro or Marilynne Robinson doesn't mean Flynn and Brown should be judged by the same standards as their more critically acclaimed colleagues, nor does it mean that you're somehow a lesser person. It just means you prefer Flynn and Brown. No one can demand that the whole world subscribe to his or her individual taste. Even the attempt is obnoxious and puerile. The best thing both for readers and for the literary world at large is to have the widest possible range of literature to choose from, stretching from the fluffiest, most escapist genre fiction to the most complex, erudite, and gymnastically written literary fiction, with an equally wide range of applied critical standards. Rather than argue about which books are the most important and relevant and necessary, maybe we could stop ranking and start reading.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Problem with a Modern "Auntie Mame"

Last year, Annie Mumolo, co-writer of Bridesmaids and Joybroke the news that she had begun collaborating with Stan Chervin, co-writer of Moneyball, on a modern-day adaptation of Auntie Mame, to star Tilda Swinton as the madcappiest of madcap aunts. The project, not even written yet, already smells (or stinks, depending on your tolerance for the Academy) of Oscar nominations.
 
The 1958 adaptation of Patrick Dennis's bestselling novel starred Rosalind Russell in one of her most iconic and brilliant roles. The movie hewed much closer to the stage play than the novel, which is essentially a series of linked short stories about Mame's various escapades, a choice that was all to the good. The fabulously witty team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote both Broadway and Hollywood hits, including Singin' in the Rain, gave Mame her most quotable line ("Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!") and imbued the film with a rapid-fire pacing that suited Russell's screwball comedy chops to a T.

A second adaptation, simply called Mame, came out in 1974. Based on the musical version of the play, the movie starred Lucille Ball and it is hopelessly bad, a treacly, ponderous marzipan elephant of a film that has all the awful hallmarks of '70s musicals and none of their kitschy charms. Ball, in particular, is a great disappointment, coming off as sad, old, and bored.

The films shrink the time-frame slightly, and leave out a number of chapters, most notably the one set during World War II in which Auntie Mame adopts six British refugee children, whose more charming qualities include shoplifting and playing at pimps and prostitutes. I think it's fair to assume that the new adaptation will also streamline the narrative and leave out a fair number of escapades.

Now, I'm not going to start boo-hooing about the remake-itis epidemic running rampant in Hollywood. There's nothing wrong with remaking an old project as long as you do it well. The fact that very few people in Hollywood seem capable of doing it well is a different issue. But, still, I find it hard to believe that this new Auntie Mame is going to work, even with the majestically chameleonic Swinton.

That's because this new adaptation is going to be reset in the modern day. Herein lies the problem. Some books adapt well to other time periods, especially if the writers don't stick too closely to the source material. Think of Clueless, adapted from Jane Austen's Emma, Bridget Jones's Diary, adapted from Pride and Prejudice, Carmen Jones adapted from Mérimée's novella and Bizet's opera, or Cruel Intentions, from Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses. But I don't think it will work for Auntie Mame. Part of the issue is style and part of it is content. Just as Mame is constantly inhabiting different roles (and buying extravagant wardrobes to match), Dennis uses carefully delineated aesthetics to indicate the politics, status, wealth, and worthiness of the characters. Style, whether in terms of fashion or comedy, will be a massive problem. Certain audiences are not going to deal with Mame's dabbling in various cultures, swanning about in saris with swamis, tramping in tweeds and brogues with Irish poets, or drawling her 'r's with yankee-hating plantation-owners. This play-acting is at the very crux of Mame's personality. She is remarkably unprejudiced for a woman of her time, welcoming Jews, homosexuals, and many other marginalized people into her home, but that doesn't make her behavior politically correct by today's standards. It's possible that Mumolo and Chervin will come up with some clever way of letting Mame play without stepping on anyone's toes, but the subversiveness of the character will be hopelessly neutered if they take it too far.

Much of the comedy of the various stories rests on the specific historical moment in which the novel and films are set. It will be difficult, for instance, to figure out why Mame would need to take in her pregnant, abandoned secretary Agnes Gooch in a world in which many women choose to become single mothers without a whiff of scandal. While much of the politically incorrect stuff will undoubtedly be cut, especially the giggling Japanese houseboy, Ito, none of the stories will have much substance left in the modern world.

It seems likelier that Mumolo and Chervin will try to milk comedy from the collision of Auntie Mame with modern life: social media, online dating, texting, avocado toast, and the like. But unless Auntie Mame is a time-traveler, there won't be a collision. Mame adores the new and modern, she is as mutable as fashion, and would have no trouble changing tastes as fast as twitter storms gather, break, and pass. Whole new scenarios will have to be dreamed up for Mame.

However, the reason I most doubt this new adaptation is this: Mame is enormously wealthy. Her many obsessions are fueled by a large disposable income. Mame without money isn't Mame. But in the wake of the Great Recession, the expensive eccentricities of the mega-wealthy are difficult to laugh about. While the tech moguls, Wall Street brokers, and CEOs buy Caribbean islands, recreate Hobbiton for their weddings, keep a plane or two on call, and think themselves magnanimous if their companies offer ten cents per coffee for charity, millions of people worldwide go hungry. In the prosperous '50s, when Patrick Dennis introduced the world to Auntie Mame, desperation wasn't a dominant cultural flavor. Now, a reborn modern Auntie Mame will have to endear herself to us in a world where the difference between the haves and the have-nots is becoming ever more gargantuan. I won't say it can't work, but I'm not feeling confident. Can we like a madcap millionairess anymore?

Thursday, July 27, 2017

10 Sports Movies for People Who Don't Like Sports

Give me an 'S'! Give me a 'P'! Give me an.... oh, yuck, sports movies, definitely among my least liked film genres. I can understand why someone would want to play a sport, but I'm at a loss as to why anyone would want to spend hours upon hours watching other people play. As a result, few sports films hold my attention, let alone enjoy my sympathy, for very long. However, I firmly believe that a true cinephile will find treasures even amid the most unappetizing dross and, so, here are ten sports movies for people who, like myself, don't like sports:

Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
This charmer directed by Gurinder Chadha stars Parminder Naga and Keira Knightley as young women who want to play soccer against their families' wishes and Jonathan Rhys Myers as their coach and eye candy. Jess's conservative Indian expat family forbids her participation in sports and tries to hustle her into an arranged marriage, while Jules rebels against her mother's rigid conformity to femininity, which comes to a head with an embarrassing display of misplaced homophobia. Ultimately, Bend It Like Beckham is a frothy romantic comedy with a soupçon of social commentary, starring girls wearing cleats instead of heels, a pleasant means of wiling away a rainy afternoon.

Breaking Away (1979)
This quietly brilliant dramedy stars Dennis Christopher as an aimless guy in Bloomington, Indiana, a passionate cyclist who exuberantly embraces all things Italian. With no more jobs at the local quarry and no serious plans to enroll at the university, he and his friends (Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley) are unmoored from their own futures. The four end up competing against the university teams in the Little 500. The screenplay by Steve Tisch won a much deserved Oscar and the sensitive, warm-hearted, but rather thorny performances do it justice. What elevates Breaking Away above the run-of-the-mill coming-of-age movie lies in its refusal to succumb to simplistic Hollywood solutions without tipping to the other extreme into existential despair. Perfectly balanced between drama and comedy, dejection and blithe good humor, bitterness and sugar, this film pleases whether the viewer would snooze through the Tour de France or not.

Good News (1947)
Directed by choreographer Charles Walters, Good News exists in a lily-white fantasy world where college students cheer the football team, stay thin on a malt and milkshake diet, and take classes only to impress the girls. June Allyson, somehow both a student and a librarian, tutors quarterback and heartthrob Peter Lawford and they end up hotfooting it at the most choreographed prom this side of High School Musical. Unquestionably silly, this film in distress is rescued by lively, pithy songs, some wacky Technicolor costumes, and frenetic, virtuosic choreography. 

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
This delightful comedy, recently released by the Criterion Collection, stars baby-faced Robert Montgomery as an eccentric, sax-playing boxer who is accidentally collected by his anxiety-ridden guardian angel (the brilliant character actor, Edward Everett Horton) fifty years before his time. The angel's boss, Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains, utterly perfect), gives him a second chance, in a different body, since his own has already been cremated. Though the movie at times betrays its origins as a stage play, it radiates a sweetness that is never cloying and a robustly chipper sense of black humor. 

National Velvet (1944)
Clarence Brown's adaptation of the Enid Bagnold novel stars Elizabeth Taylor as a horse-mad kid who sets her heart on her gelding, The Pie, winning the Grand National Steeplechase, Mickey Rooney as an embittered former jockey, and Donald Crisp and Ann Revere as Taylor's taciturn, if supportive parents. An undisputed classic, National Velvet shines as a superlative example of a family picture, as powerful for adults as it is for children. It also gave Mickey Rooney a rare opportunity to flex his dramatic acting muscles in a role tailor-made for the scrappy actor, while Taylor is radiant in every sense of the word.

Olympia (1938)
While The Triumph of the Will betrays not the slightest deviation from slavish devotion to Hitler and Nazism, Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia is a more complex beastie, for the visionary director allows herself to be distracted from her reprehensible politics by her artistic sensibility: Jesse Owens's victory is too plummy to avert the camera's eye, or downplay its heart-stopping triumph. If the politics of Olympia are a tad confused, the artistry and sheer beauty of shot after glorious shot of Olympic athletes are undeniably mesmerizing, especially after the transition from the first part, "Festival of Nations," to the second, "Festival of Beauty." 

Rocky (1976)
To my surprise, Sylvester Stallone's wildly successful boxing film completely beguiled me, winning me over with a vulnerable performance and a sensitive screenplay from Stallone, expert montage work by editors Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad, a quirkily unconventional leading lady in Talia Shire, and Bill Conti's score, which somehow hasn't been spoofed to death. Though the core of story is the fight between Rocky and the heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the emotional heft of the film is built up from the richly drawn life of an Italian immigrant neighborhood in Philadelphia, its shops and street markets, a too-fleeting savor of a culture that's all but disappeared.

Surfwise (2008) 
Doug Pray's oddball documentary about the Paskowitz family captures both the winning charms and the mangy miseries of a ruthlessly idealistic adherence to the countercultural forces of the 1970s. Doc Paskowitz, disgusted with the emptiness and conformism of American middle-class life, leaves behind his medical practice and hits the road, taking his wife and nine children along for the ride (in an obscenely cramped trailer). The family's passion is surfing, but the carefree, back-to-nature ideologies that Doc embraces also come with bone-scraping hunger, a struggle to attain basic literacy, the impossibility of lasting friendships, and a total lack of privacy, along with endless opportunities to ride the waves. Pray is wise enough to let us sit with the tangled mess that idealism has wrought for this family, wise enough to withhold absolute judgments without falling into credulous acceptance.

Third Man on the Mountain (1959) 
A solidly crafted and consistently entertaining live-action Disney film, Third Man on the Mountain is formulaic, but succeeds in demonstrating why the formula came to be in the first place. James MacArthur stars as a Swiss youth determined to follow in his mountaineer father's footsteps, Michael Rennie is his mentor, Janet Munro is his spirited, adorable sweetheart, and Laurence Naismith gives a memorable turn as a crabby climber-cum-chef. Filmed on the Matterhorn, the film is worth watching for the dizzying climbing footage alone.

Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937)
I have a huge soft spot for this first team-up of my beloved Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Garland plays the plucky niece of a boardinghouse landlady (Sophie Tucker, criminally forgotten today) and something of a mascot for the jockeys who board with them. Had Freddie Bartholomew not been replaced by the far less charismatic Ronald Sinclair, the film would have more powerful star credentials, but as it is, it's a bubbly romp at the race tracks. As far as sports movies are concerned, Garland debuted the year before in Pigskin Parade, an unusually silly and ungainly football musical, recommended for Judy completists only.

Readers, what sports movies do you recommend for people who are apt to take a catnap at the ballpark, snooze at the ice rink, and seek a sad solace at the bottom of a thermos at the football arena?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Narnian Women, Part 2: "Prince Caspian"

In the second published volume of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis calls the four Pevensie children back to Narnia to aid Prince Caspian, the rightful heir to the throne, in his war against the usurper, his uncle, Miraz. It is the most martial volume in the series and its stakes - not merely the kingdom, but the life, spiritual and literal, of Narnia and its non-human creatures - are immensely high. From a gender standpoint, the split between the roles of men and women is even more pronounced than in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. While Peter, Edmund, and Caspian concern themselves with battle, political strategy, and succession, Lucy and Susan remain with Aslan, to act as his handmaidens as he reawakens and revives the ancient supernatural beings that human beings have all but destroyed. This is an ancient dichotomy, hardly confined to the western world: men are warriors and women midwives, men bring death and women life.

As in the first volume, Lucy is the true protagonist and her faith in Aslan is unshakeable. When she and her siblings are lost in the forest, on their way to succor Caspian, it is she alone who can perceive the signs Aslan leaves for them to follow, but no one will believe her. Only gradually do they realize that Lucy, as ever, can be trusted. Her faith is perfect and pure and her fundamental truthfulness and trustworthiness establish her as the character whose moral goodness is beyond reproach. Lucy's imperfection are venial, forgivable, and what mark her as human. 

Susan, on the other hand, is showing clear signs that her faith has begun to weaken. While Peter doubts Lucy, and Edmund, though unsure, chooses to follow her because it was she who led them right when they first came to Narnia, Susan doesn't only doubt. She condescends to her sister, treating her with contempt and dismissing her visions of Aslan as mere fantasy. Susan, already, requires much more than belief to sustain her. She is falling prey to the adult sin of skepticism, mistaking cynicism and suspicion for sophistication and superiority. Still, Susan is ultimately able to see Aslan when he reveals himself, and unlike the followers of Miraz, her love and faith are reawakened by the revelation. This reawakening in Susan mirrors the reawakening of Narnia; from the devious stratagems of political and social chicanery they are both delivered, but by this, it is also proved that both are susceptible to corruption.

It's worth noting, however, that it is Susan's horn that calls the children back to Narnia and thus, indirectly, her power that rescues Caspian. In this way, Susan's benevolence, her easily provoked pity, and her protective instinct, expressed through the horn, continue to nurture something of her spirit in Narnia, as she was in the purity of her faith.

The most flamboyant character in the novel, who at least reads as female, is the Hag. She and a Werewolf present themselves to Caspian as allies, hoping to convince him to use dark magic to summon the White Witch from the dead. Though the Hag is little more than a personification of supernatural evil, it is highly significant that she does not appear alone. This evil, this more ancient and mysterious evil, not so easily defeated as Miraz, his scheming courtiers, and their irreligious soldiers, has two defendants in the Hag and the Werewolf. They represent their respective species, but they also emphasize that evil has its male and female, just as good has. Thus, the Hag attains great importance, as we try to understand Lewis's construction of Narnian gender. Both evil and good, though they might be expressed differently, may take dominion of women, just as they may of men.

The delightfully named Queen Prunaprismia is King Miraz's consort. When she successfully delivers a baby son, Caspian, tolerated as a royal heir before, becomes Miraz's mortal enemy. She shares her husband's ambition and has been a cold and contemptuous aunt to Caspian. Caspian's mother, on the other hand, the true queen, has already died before the prince can retain any memory of her. His tutor, Cornelius, assures him that she was a kind and gracious queen and implies that his loyalty to Caspian is partly due to his embrace of the old Narnian beliefs and customs, but also in gratitude to the late queen. This pair of queens again demonstrates Lewis's firm understanding of women as active agents in Narnia. Their beliefs and their loyalties define their characters.

Caspian's nurse, the female counterpart to his tutor Cornelius, like him fosters the prince's spirituality by recounting to him from a young age the history of the Golden Age of Narnia. These tales arouse a keen longing for those halcyon days in Caspian and set him firmly on the path towards Aslan and the fertile, riotous, and highly diverse country that has been all but conquered by the invasion of men. Just as the Hag and the Werewolf denote the female and male halves of supernatural evil, the nurse and the tutor, acting as guides and surrogate parents, denote the female and male halves of faith.

There are two more female characters worth mentioning in Prince Caspian. Gwendolen is a dreamy and discontented schoolgirl, who, like Caspian, longs for the old Narnia and rebels against the boring and false pseudo-history that her teacher, Miss Prizzle, expounds. Gwendolen, by approaching Aslan with love, is embraced as a true Narnian and one of the humans who will remain, a representative of merely one sort of creature among equals, while Miss Prizzle, who is both thoroughly indoctrinated and a vocal exponent of false doctrines, is terrified and runs from Aslan. Innocence, an openness to wonder, and a capacity to laugh all mark Gwendolen as a true Narnian, but it is also notable that her status as someone who is oppressed for her (correct) beliefs, even if they are at first merely instinctual, renders her especially sweet in Aslan's eyes. Lewis, like so many British boys of his generation, suffered cruelly at the brutal public school he attended and his harsh condemnation of schools, and the teachers and bullies who thrive there, is a recurrent thread in his writing. It is thus unsurprising that Aslan frees this child believer from a school, rather than a prison or a workhouse.

The proliferation of pairs that contrast gender roles, but also emphasize a certain degree of spiritual parity, makes manifest a signal truth in The Chronicles of Narnia: while men and women usually have different roles to play, they are equally responsible as far as their faith and their moral responsibility are concerned. Men are political actors, governors, fighters, judges; women are healers, comforters, supports, mothers. However, both men and women can be teachers, for the truth of what they teach rests on their beliefs and beliefs are not gendered.

Read "Narnian Women, Part 1: 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe'" here.