Saturday, January 6, 2018

Film Review: "The Rise of Catherine the Great" (1934)

Catherine the Great is one of a handful of historical figures, like Napoleon, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth the Virgin Queen, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, whose legend so exceeds the historical record that she proves an irresistible subject for filmmakers. Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Pola Negri, Jeanne Moreau, and Julia Ormond, among many others, have all played the Russian empress; in Alexander Korda's The Rise of Catherine the Great the part is played by German actress Elisabeth Bergner, who fled Nazi Germany for England after Hitler's accession to power and whose collaborations with Laurence Olivier and J.M. Barrie are of greater interest today for their sakes than for hers.

In fact, the most common complaint lodged against this sumptuous and historically fantastical film is that Bergner lacks charisma. She is accused of dullness, of vapidity, of artificiality, but I wouldn't call these charges quite fair. The screenplay, based on a play by Lajos Bíró and Arthur Wimperis, frames Catherine as an ingenue, devastatingly in love with the Grand Duke Peter before she sees him, easily softened by kindness, insistent on the right of the peasant to bread and the right of her mad and beloved husband to live. The domain where the young Catherine gained her skill in intrigue and her prowess in domination, the bedroom, must perforce remain off-screen; even under the less rigid censorship standards of England, as opposed to the absurd strictures of the Hollywood Production Code, the film suffers from the impossibility of allowing Catherine any but imaginary adultery. The centrality of sex in royal politics is not as prudishly papered over as it is in Hollywood films, but the insistence on Catherine's sexual purity as a sign of her morality, and thus right to be the heroine, prevents Bergner from delving too deeply into the most complex parts of her character. 

She stars opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., whose striking physical beauty isn't at all effaced by a blonde wig and a brilliant performance free of vanity. Fairbanks never attained the super-stardom of his athletic father, and is remembered today mostly for his debonair looks and his tabloid-sensation romance with the much older Joan Crawford, but as the Grand Duke Peter, volatile, moody, changeable, lusty, always contrary, and dangerously close to genuine insanity, Fairbanks proves his abilities as an actor. In the first scene of the film, without dialogue, he broods in his dacha as fawning courtiers sing songs and make love on cushions scattered on the floor. Staring into the fire, his ears prick up at the sound of a lady's tinkling laughter. He glances up and sees her, and the man, his dearest friend as it turns out, who ravenously kisses her arm and neck. Peter observes them a moment before taking the hand of the woman and leading her away. His entire character is established in this first wordless scene, a tour de force for directors Paul Czinner and an uncredited Korda, for production designer Vincent Korda, and for Fairbanks himself. He is matched by Flora Robson, as his strong-willed aunt, the Empress Elizabeth. Robson was an actress who became somewhat type-cast as powerful aging monarchs, even as a young woman, but she was consistently a stand-out in every film fortunate enough to include her. Here she is called upon to radiate power like the sun: her furious grip on power, Elizabeth claims, is all the more tenacious because she is a woman. Women ought to rule, she tells Catherine, for men lack the strength to do so.

In many ways, the film's story is beside the point. The title already says everything about the plot and even a glancing notion of Russian history reveals the ultimate fates of the characters. The real reason to see it is visual, not narrative: the enormous sets, grand rooms of state scattered with velvet and gilt furniture, ceilings painted with cherubs and adorned with candle-bestrewn chandeliers of crystal, balustrades set with roaring lions, and the lavish costumes, a sweeping, glossy black dressing gown for Peter, both rakish and hinting at his sickly mind, a fur-lined brocade gown for Elizabeth, making her seem twelve feet tall, glittering lace cuffs for Catherine as a princess, her luxurious shackles, as well as a stunningly boyish uniform, to match that of her regiment and to foreshadow her victory. Even if the drama passes without surprises or emotional highs, every frame is a treasure trove of exquisitely designed objects.

I can understand the reservations most critics have about this film, especially when compared to its predecessor, Korda's mega-hit The Private Life of Henry VIII, a film that made Charles Laughton an internationally renowned star and featured equally gorgeous costumes and sets with a story bursting with incident. The Rise of Catherine the Great moves at a more stately pace, its intrigues negotiated tacitly more often than not, its political alliances too clearly delineated by declarations of passionate love or loathing, but there is no scenery-chewing in the Laughton mold. Fairbanks, in particular, gives a performance quite modern in its subtlety, all the more striking given that it is insanity that he portrays so delicately. Yet, this film, in contrast to Henry VIII, embraces a more challenging and complicated perspective on despotism. The great rulers here are women, while men are essentially tools of power, dangerous, useful, alluring, but not eligible for the governance of empire. The throne of Mother Russia seems to demand a female body, but it would be too easy to simply stick a feminist label on Catherine and call it a day. Compassion, an abhorrence of cruelty, a horror of murder, a melting and maritally sanctioned adoration of a husband - these are the qualities that Catherine must combat in order to take power and save Russia from the wandering whims and tantrum-driven vagaries of Peter III. The paradox of queenship renders the political maneuverings of this film fascinating, for Catherine is both the perfect woman and the perfect empress, but cannot be both at once. Rather than a conflict between a mad emperor and a sane empress, The Rise of Catherine the Great traces the conflict between the woman who loves Peter and the empress whose rise to power necessitates destroying him.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Film Review: "The Triumph of Love" (2001)

It is perhaps a strange irony that the most performative literary genre, the play, rarely adapts well to the cinema. In the small gap between live performance on a stage and recorded performance on a set or dressed location, the difference between genius and imbecility lurks. This is made clear in Clare Peploe's adaptation of the 1732 play by Marivaux, The Triumph of Love, which despite its playful treatment of gender and flirtation with polyamory, fails to translate 18th-century sources of merriment into 21st-century comedy. Peploe injects the slightest of postmodern touches - an audience seated in transparent plastic chairs occasionally appears, looking frightfully bored - and sprinkles on a calcifying patina of progressive gender politics - the middle-aged Leontine is a scientist and seems to discover how to generate electricity. Though the soundtrack is mostly dominated by Rameau and a classically inflected score by Jason Osbourn, an electric guitar pops up at emotional moments, doodling at melodies that are not at all benefited by amplification. Such signs of contemporary provenance are jarring and distracting, but they are also rather slight and half-hearted. Rather than go for broke, Peploe makes a mere gesture at reinterpretation, and so makes neither a frightfully modern new version, nor an especially scintillating recreation of the original play.

Though produced by Bernardo Bertolucci (incidentally or not, the director's husband), and dominated by a story of seduction, deceit, and titillation, The Triumph of Love retreats to prudishness, partly faithful to Marivaux and partly a coy castration of the transgressive elements of the story. Mira Sorvino stars as a princess who disguises herself as an ardent young man in order to gain access to the rightful heir to the throne (Jay Rodan), who hates her as the daughter of the usurper. He is guarded by the misogynist philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his repressed sister (Fiona Shaw), while she is aided by her portrait-painting lady-in-waiting Corine (Rachael Stirling). The princess's plot involves seducing all three and ultimately restoring the rightful heir to the throne, without giving it up, by marrying him. All this is aided by two servants straight out of commedia dell'arte, Harlequin and Dimas (Ignazio Oliva and Luis Molteni). They are the only two Italians in the cast, which leads to an unfortunate ethnic metaphor: the aristocrats are all British and American, while the servants, buffoonish to a fault, are Italians speaking English with exaggerated accents.

Kingsley and Shaw both give deeply felt performances, too good for such a fluffy approach, and their inevitable, cruel disappointment shimmers like genuine gold on a bed of glitter. The effect, however, is to cast the dross into clearer light, thus highlighting the superficiality of the adaptation. It is upon Sorvino's shoulders that the weight of the film falls and she is not quite equal to it, never at all convincing as an ardent adolescent and too melting for a princess capable of such easy deception. She is not aided by a wooden performance by Rodan, who comes alive only when called to vigorous physical action, shooting arrows and stealing kisses with a zeal never felt in his line readings.

The Triumph of Love suffers not from being too stage-bound and static, as many play adaptations do, but from the resulting overcompensation. The camera swoops around trees, through carriage windows, and across long rooms, there are frequent jump cuts (at least some of which are meant to be self-consciously modern, but that more often come off as amateurish, or more worryingly, as though they couldn't get a decent shot together without one), and characters are constantly running about, presumably in order to do the next scene in a fresh location. The insistence on the possibilities of cinema, all those dynamic touches impossible in the live theatre, exposes the theatrical seams.

Since Marivaux's play resists being contorted into anything we could call 'realistic,' the filmmakers try to run the other way, into artificiality, affectation, and farce. Interestingly, the original play was a notable failure, possibly as a result of its heroine seducing multiple characters of both genders. This subversive element seems to beg for a deeper exploration of the dynamics of power, gender, sexuality, and monarchy, but the filmmakers get snarled up in the creaky turnings of the dramatic wheel. Rather than a fun, if slow-moving, romp in wigs and panniers, one longs for an anarchic dive into the treacherous waters of political and sexual machination, a pastoral Dangerous Liaisons or a gender-bent Rapunzel. This film is an attempt at a cappuccino without the espresso shot, and thus, despite its glossy costumes and sophisticated vocabulary, proves un-stimulating.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

7 Novels for Jane Austen Fans

Jane Austen remains one of the single most beloved and oft-read novelists in the English language, her novels the subject of countless adaptations, her characters familiar even to those without the patience to read of them, but her six novels, handful of unfinished novellas, and juvenilia don't hold out long. Though Austen's appeal is rather unique, intimately tied to a subtle, sardonic sense of dry humor and a perfect grasp of the follies of even the most sensible people, I offer to the forlorn Austenite seven novels that might procure her some little consolation:

Evelina - Fanny Burney
Burney's work was hugely significant to Austen - her second novel, Cecilia, supplied the title of Pride and Prejudice - and her first novel is a monumental achievement, both for its wit and charm and for the fact that its success proved that women, too, could write masterful fiction. Evelina is an epistolary novel and bears the stamp of Samuel Richardson's influence. It follows the fortunes of its titular heroine, a young naïve whose mother's scandalous elopement and grandmother's even more disreputable liaisons threaten her social standing and her marital prospects. Though Burney had an infallible nose for the idiocies of fashionable society and an ironic sense of humor to mock them, today one is struck by the frustration and yearning expressed in her descriptions of the indignities, fear, misunderstandings, and perils that attended even the most privileged of young ladies in the eighteenth century.

Tom Jones - Henry Fielding
A delightfully convoluted romp through the bedrooms, alcoves, and haystacks where the roguish Tom takes his pleasures, Henry Fielding's magnum opus follows the titular rascal as he discovers the true nature of his parentage. Since he is illegitimate, he cannot inherit his foster father's estate nor marry the lovely young Sophia Western, a paragon of virtue fond of the latest music, Handel, though her father begs her to leave off such modern noise. Though a veritable gold mine of historical commentary that ranges across British politics, religion, morality, and sexual politics, the novel is worth reading, more importantly, because it is pure fun. 

Letters from a Peruvian Woman - Françoise de Graffigny
This novel first published in 1747 is often credited as the first feminist novel: and it does, indeed, venture a scathing critique of misogyny, racism, social hypocrisy, and the evils of enslavement to fashion and reputation. It is narrated by a Peruvian princess, kidnapped by Spanish colonialists and subsequently captured by the French. To make her separation from her homeland, her people, and her fiancé Aza more bearable, Zilia keeps a diary of sorts, recording her impressions of the strange and bizarre customs of this new land, France. Brilliant, acidly sarcastic, but also heartbreaking and wistful, Letters from a Peruvian Woman is a singular work of genius. 

Les liaisons dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Though sex is just as dangerous a pastime in Austen's universe, it is carefully veiled in removed narration; after their elopement, Lydia and Wickham are not seen again until they are married, while poor Colonel Brandon's ward never appears at all. Laclos, far from clinging to propriety, crooks a nastily satirical eyebrow at morality and proceeds to expose the seamiest, most scandalous sex games of dissipated aristocratic life. Desperately bored and with no occupations but gambling, balls, court appearances, and operas, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont amuse themselves by challenging each other to ever crueler feats of treachery, seduction, and social ruination. If Austen is like a cup of perfectly brewed tea, Laclos is like a glass of delicately poisoned cognac.

The Mysteries of Udolpho - Ann Radcliffe
This is the novel that so fired the delirious imagination of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, the ur-novel of the Gothic realm and a must-read for the Austen devotee. The orphaned Emily, shut up in the forbidding and possibly haunted castle of Udolpho, lives through a series of chilling horrors as she fends off the advances of the Count Morano, favored by her aunt and her sinister Italian aristocrat husband, and pines for the dashing Valancourt. Though meandering and often anticlimactic, The Mysteries of Udolpho may yet undergo a rise in popularity since it offers many of the terrifying, titillating delights of films like Crimson Peak and television series like The Tudors.

Indiana - George Sand
Indiana is barely more than a child when she is married to the elderly Colonel Delmare; the consequences of this socially sanctioned, but otherwise wildly unsuitable mismatch propel the tragic events of this 1832 novel. Politically cogent, righteously fiery, and yet exquisitely, almost daintily written, Indiana is an extraordinary first novel. George Sand sets part of her book in the French colony oÎle Bourbon; Indiana's foster sister, Noun, is of mixed racial descent and her sympathetic portrayal is highly unusual for a work of this period.

Maria; or the Wrongs of Woman - Mary Wollstonecraft
Left unfinished after her death from complications after childbirth, Wollstonecraft's radical feminist novel demolishes in systematic fashion nearly every argument one could make in favor of the institution of marriage. The heroine has been shut up in an insane asylum, modeled on Bedlam, and deprived of her child, the result of an attempt to leave her husband, who gambles, frequents prostitutes, brings them to destitution, and repeatedly rapes her. By illustrating the extent to which the extension of male power over women could be abused, Wollstonecraft both made an unanswerable case and rendered herself quite unpopular in her own time. Though Austen herself was no radical feminist, the creator of Wickham, Willoughby, and Crawford might likely have felt sympathy with poor Maria.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Metropolitan Opera Should Not Be Another Casualty of Sexual Abuse Allegations

Something unexpected is occurring in the world right now. Abusers are being named and shamed and people are actually giving a damn. In politics, business, sports, journalism, entertainment, the arts, and many other fields, powerful men are being accused of sexual assault and the victims are being given some credence, their allegations taken seriously, and in a few cases, criminal investigations have been opened. This isn't the first time this has happened, but never before have so many people come forward and demanded justice. Unfortunately, we haven't figured out what that justice should look like. In the case of those who hold political office, the loss of that office seems like an obvious step, though, in the political realm, abusers are not being taken down as easily in other areas. In the arts and entertainment industries (though hardly all areas - the gaming industry has been suspiciously absent from the headlines), abusers are losing their jobs, being stripped of awards and honorary degrees, being ejected from professional organizations, and having their projects suppressed, censored, or canceled. Few are actually being brought up on charges and the very real power that significant wealth and connections wield has not been stripped from the majority. But, good work has been started: a policy of total non-tolerance for sexual harassment, abuse, and assault is being brought to bear.

That doesn't mean that justice is actually being served. So what if these hugely privileged men lose a few privileges? There has been a general attitude that these men are 'finished' professionally, but that remains to be seen. The charges against Roman Polanski, merely to cite the most notorious case in Hollywood, have been proven in court, but he not only remains at large: he's continued to make films which critics have embraced, films that have earned profits and awards. A new attitude is emerging, at least for the present, that demands that abusers' work be shunned, ignored, or even destroyed. The point of this is to punish the abuser, to deny him access to the cultural conversation. But, punishment is one thing, redress another and reform yet another.

The question really does arise: who benefits from the repression, destruction, or cancellation of projects associated with these vile men, who have abused their positions of power in many cases for decades? It would be one thing if the projects that were being taken down were clearly vanity projects (like, at this point, every tiresome, repetitive film that flat-footedly quotes Bergman Woody Allen makes), but the projects that are endangered are not, generally speaking, vanity projects, with the possible exception of I Love You, Daddy, the creepy secret film Louis C.K. premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.

Killing television series, films, production companies, periodicals, and arts organizations of all stripes doesn't solve any problems. Is punishing one (horrible, unacceptably abusive) person worth the simultaneous punishment of everyone who, for whatever reason, is involved in those projects? That seems to give these powerful abusers even greater power, since it treats their very image as so toxic, and so powerfully toxic, that it cannot be borne, rather than diminishing their power by refusing to grant it to them anymore. It's true that some creative situations have been found: Kevin Spacey's scenes in All the Money in the World has simply been excised and replaced with new scenes, with Spacey's character played by Christopher Plummer. But that kind of solution can't be applied when the project in question is an institution. And that is the case for the Metropolitan Opera.

Already speculation swirls on the fate of the Met, following allegations of pedophiliac abuse supposed to have been perpetrated by music director emeritus James Levine. These allegations have been the stuff of the rumor mill in the classical music world for decades. Everyone I know and knew in classical music, not to mention I myself, had heard gossip about Levine. It was common knowledge - this is the refrain we are hearing again and again as more and more allegations are lodged. It's true that Levine had a special relationship with the Met, a particularly intimate one, since he was not only its music director, and a popular one with donors, for decades: he became its representative face, almost its ideogram.

Levine is retired, so removing him from his position is impossible, though his formal title of music director emeritus could be redacted. An attempt at erasure, which has been the approach taken by NBC with Matt Lauer, could be made, though it would require erasing the Met's whole history from 1976 on, and with it all the contributions made by all the great conductors, musicians, composers, librettists, and production designers that have worked at the Met. Any real punishment, beyond the merely symbolic sort of retracting awards and so on, will have to come in a court of law in the form of charges. Whether that will happen depends on many factors. Changes to the Met are inevitable anyway, as the new music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, takes up the reins.

If the allegations against Levine are true - and I follow a policy of believing the victims rather than the alleged perpetrator in such cases - then he should be held accountable, to the full extent of the law. But, the loss of the Met would be incalculable, an annihilation of a crucial foundation stone of culture in the United States. The Met is one of the last employers of musicians, dancers, choristers, and those who work on sets, costumes, and backdrops that provides regular work, with good salaries. It is the only opera house to operate on a full season, scheduling more than twenty operas and two hundred performances a year. Its broadcasts on radio and in cinemas permit access to world-class opera to the entire country. American culture cannot bear that loss.

It is tempting, in the midst of so many horrifying, heart-breaking stories of suffering, to zealously silence, censor, destroy. We have to approach each case with delicacy, not for the sake of these men, but because we risk harming others in our eagerness to punish abusers who fully deserve punishment. Those men don't deserve the power to take down people innocent of wrong-doing, artworks that were the fruit of collaboration, or institutions that produce and support the vitality of culture.

Monday, November 27, 2017

The Small Literary Golden Age of 1945

1945 saw the publication of Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi and Uomini e no by Elio Vittorini in Italy, Animal Farm by George Orwell and Brideshead Revisted by Evelyn Waugh in Great Britain, "The Aleph" by Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina, and The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre in France. It was also, for a confluence of serendipitous happenings, a banner year for a veritable bounty of books I loved in childhood. Such a rich variety of children's books, or gently probing books for adults, might seem in retrospect strange for such a year, a year of so much death and horror, the dropping of the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the beginning of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the Nuremberg Trials, the division of Korea into American and Soviet-occupied zones, a year of suicides and bombardments and mass rape. Or perhaps it's not so strange. Children are born and grow up even amid the most hideous of atrocities and outrages and it is in those times and places especially that such worlds of magic, solace, yearning, and joy are most needed. Here are eight novels, all published in 1945, that shine a light of comfort in dark times.

Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren
Pippi Longstocking is a rollicking, joyous children's novel, without a shred of sentimentality,  but born of isolation and physical misery: Lindgren began telling her sick daughter stories about the red-haired, super-strong Pippi to help her through pneumonia and wrote them down as a novel after she was confined to the house with her own injury. The books (for the success of the first Pippi book led to a series) are irreverent, direct, and obdurately silly and Pippi is an early, though anarchic, feminist role model for small girls, for she tears through conventions of femininity with a devil-may-care attitude.

The Small Rain - Madeleine L'Engle
L'Engle's debut novel was written for adults, but by the '80s and '90s, when I was discovering her work, her reputation rested on her young adult novels and most people discovered her writing for adults only after devouring those works for younger readers. The Small Rain follows Katherine Forrester from her neglected childhood, abandoned by a traumatized mother to a flamboyant Broadway-actress aunt, to the beginnings of womanhood. Katherine aspires to a career as a pianist and much of the novel concerns her search for kindred spirits who can understand the profound need for music that both sustains and torments her.

Strawberry Girl - Lois Lenski
Lenski became something of an embattled figure among parents and librarians because of her refusal to coddle children, especially privileged children, from the upsetting truths of poverty and social oppression. Her mission was to foster social compassion in children and she chose to do so by rejecting the sugar-coating that her detractors insisted was due to the innocence of (privileged) childhood. Strawberry Girl, along with Indian Captive, is one of her best books, set in the early twentieth-century in Florida, among poor 'Crackers' (the word is hers - these books are not politically correct by today's standards). In this novel, young Birdie becomes entangled in a family feud, the result of a fundamental conflict between a strawberry farm and free-range cattle grazing.

That Hideous Strength - C.S. Lewis
The last, and best, in Lewis's science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength manages to be both an Arthurian saga and a dystopian thriller creepy enough to unsettle even with the glut of dystopian fiction we're bombarded with today. Lewis paints a bizarrely gorgeous imagining of a possible post-war England, in which budding academic Mark Studdock takes a post at the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, despite their odd interest in a wood rumored to be the burial place of Merlin and his wife Jane's fears following terrifying nightmares of a severed head. Of all the books on this list, this one is most obviously a child of the war, but one that succeeds in making a hopeful and forward-looking plea for education and against totalitarianism.

Heaven to Betsy - Maud Hart Lovelace
The fifth out of ten in the Betsy-Tacy series, which began publication in 1940, Heaven to Betsy brings its young literary aspirant and her friends into adolescence. Lovelace recreates a lost, innocent world, reminiscent of the late Victorian fantasy of Lady and the Tramp, romping through sing-alongs, picnics, ouija board divinations, and fudge-making. Betsy has her kerfuffles - her taste in boys leads to heartbreak and she decides to change her church denomination - but the point of these novels is not plot. Rather, they are like scrapbooks of a happy, privileged, enviable young womanhood, their characters vivid and lively, and their crisply articulated encouragement of a girl's ambition enough to leaven them when they get too sugary.

The Pursuit of Love - Nancy Mitford
There is a whole delightful comedic genre dedicated to nutty English aristocrats and Mitford was a master of that genre, what with being a rather nutty aristocrat from a truly bonkers family herself. Though the book is buzzy and frothy as champagne, Mitford sneaks in a good bit of political commentary, with her characters mixed up in the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance. Though the romantic, tragically inclined Linda is the heroine, far more memorable are her Uncle Matthew, a 'Kraut'-hating aristo who so dearly loves to hunt that he substitutes his own children when he can't get hold of a fox, the Bolter, so-named for her habit of scampering off to a new man when the latest has gotten boring, and Davey Warbeck, a hypochondriac writer.

The White Deer - James Thurber
Thurber's high fantasy tale of magical transformation, questing, and true love recalls William Goldman's The Princess Bride, successfully mixing an aloof satire and clever word-play with a poignant and sincere fairy tale reminiscent of Andersen and Perrault. The three sons of King Clode, two hunters and a poet, set out to win the love and hand in marriage of an amnesiac princess, transformed from a white deer. Richly imagined and remarkably original given its Medieval trappings, The White Deer is enchanting.

Stuart Little - E.B. White
E.B. White's first children's novel follows Stuart Little, a slightly pretentious mouse born to a human family, who sets out on an adventure to find his best friend, a white bird named Margalo. The book's ambiguous ending resulted in my toddler self throwing a terrific tantrum, as I couldn't bear not knowing what happened next, but as an adult, one is struck by White's evocation of a lived life, a strikingly realistic texture in a novel about a mouse who carries a cane as a fashion statement and drives a car that has an invisibility switch. Though not on a par with his masterpiece, Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little is an odd, whimsical, meandering story, of the kind the best sort of parent might make up at bedtime.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

12 (Very Old) Movies for 'Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries' Fans

The Australian series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, has just about everything I look for in a television show: a period setting - the Roaring 20s, Melbourne-style - and a liberated, confident heroine, a jazzy score and gorgeous costumes, vintage cars and airplanes, zippy dialogue, a to-die-for cast of characters that we laugh with and not at, homages to silent movies and Erté, and clue-strewn mysteries. In short, the show is a hoot. Though there are other television series one might recommend, like Poirot and The Bletchley Circle, the show's creators, not to mention the author of the original novels, Kerry Greenwood, have clearly watched their share of old movies and there are dozens that friends of the fabulous Phryne Fisher would love. Here are twelve that I particularly recommend:

Les vampires (1915)
This serial by Louis Feuillade is jaw-dropping. The titular Vampires are the members of an underground criminal organization, their crimes both brutal (the first episode is entitled "The Severed Head") and fiendishly clever (a pen with deadly poison in place of ink plays a key role), their style both ethereal and reminiscent of Edvard Munch's agonized, satanically inflected paintings, especially Vampire: the Vampires and their pursuers race up and down the sides of buildings, scamper across rooftops, up chimneys, and down wells, clad in black catsuits and balaclavas. Les vampires is high art pulp, anticipating Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.

The Marriage Circle (1924)
Ernst Lubitsch would later remake this silent film as a musical with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald with One Hour with You; this first version, starring an especially waxily moustached Adolphe Menjou, is a treat for several reasons, even if the remake is better. For one thing, it's a supreme example of how utterly superfluous dialogue can be, even for Lubitsch, who came to be known for his frothy, sparkling wit. Menjou spices his portrayal of the dashing, but put-upon doctor with a soupçon of vileness, while his wife Mitzi, the feral Marie Prevost, wrapped in slinky nothings edged in lace, is an explosive, extravagant eruption of sex. Lubitsch managed to laugh at the censors in every film; in this one, he's fairly roaring. 

Pandora's Box (1929)
Phryne Fisher's look, especially her sleek, black bob, was obviously inspired by Louise Brooks, who gave her most iconic performance in this magnificent melodrama directed by G.W. Pabst. Brooks plays Lulu, a sexually insatiable flapper who inspires satyr-like obsessions in men and women alike, obsessions that revolve around possessing her, a supremely liberated being. Violence punctuates Lulu's life, driven as much by the logic of economic need (and greed) in an imploding capitalist society as by desire for her body. Pandora's Box is a gorgeous phantasmagoria of Weimar-era cabaret-ready fashion, experimental sexuality, and the moral chaos unleashed by innocence and thoughtlessness.

Piccadilly (1929)
Happily restored in 2004, Piccadilly is an atmospheric melodrama that picks at the wounds at the intersections of class, gender, and race. Though she didn't receive top billing, the stand-out star is Anna May Wong, as Shosho, a Chinese dishwasher whose erotic dancing tosses her into the spotlight of the Piccadilly Circus, a London nightclub leaking money after its main act, a dancing partnership, breaks up. There are surprisingly subversive layers in the otherwise conventional thriller plot, in large part thanks to the subtle performance of Wong, who injects a tacit, but crystal-clear narrative of ambition, fury at being demeaned because of her race and gender, and pain at the costs of getting the accouterments of a luxurious life, knowing she'll never be more than an exotic object in the world she lives in. Look for Charles Laughton, in an odd cameo as a dissatisfied diner, and Cyril Ritchard as a seedy hoofer.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
Another collaboration between G.W. Pabst and Louise Brooks, Diary of a Lost Girl is a crime drama from the point of view of a rape victim, set in a world that sees her as sinful and wanton. Too sophisticated to be a straightforward morality tale and mesmerizing from the first frame, the film follows Thymian (Brooks), a coddled bourgeois innocent whose untroubled life is shattered by her father's smarmy assistant. Remarkably, the film succeeds in positing a moral that, in a less lucid and unromantic film, might cloy, but that works precisely because Pabst has depicted the world in all its colors, its brutalities and its beauties.

Night Nurse (1931)
Night Nurse is insane. It contains everything - and I really do mean everything - that we assume was simply never depicted in a film before the '70s: sex, drugs, nudity, unrepentant criminal activity, child abuse, swearing... you name it, it's here. Pre-code darling Barbara Stanwyck stars as the titular nurse, tough, yet tender-hearted, supported by a wise-cracking, often scantily clad Joan Blondell, and a sinister, moustache-less Clark Gable, cast very much against his expected type at the beginning of his career. The plot is a tad absurd, but this is grade-A pulp, a thrilling, ridiculous ride into a world where doctors and gangsters unite to defeat a nefarious scheme involving trust fund babies.

Mata Hari (1931)
This highly fictionalized biopic of the notorious exotic dancer who spied for Germany stars Greta Garbo, who elevates a pedestrian script with the lazy assurance of a cat batting a bit of hanging yarn. Opposite her Ramon Navarro preens, but has the glamorous looks to get away with it. The real reason to watch Mata Hari, though, is the parade of dazzling costumes draped on Garbo's alluring frame: her gowns and hats drip with metallic beading, sparkling gems, glittering brocade, her negligée is trimmed with fur, silks and satins shimmer in glossy, dreamily lit nitrate. One might crook a satiric eyebrow at certain bends in the plot, but the fashion is ravishing. 

Shanghai Express (1932)
Revered by cinema buffs for its astonishingly gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography by Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe, Josef von Sternberg's erotic drama set in civil war-ravaged China is a showcase for Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong, ravishing in costumes by Travis Banton. The murky plot involves the sex trade, gambling, espionage, opium addiction, and racial politics (plus, some very veiled, but quite alluring suggestions of lesbianism), but the plot, tangled and fascinating as it proves on a first viewing, recedes in importance compared to the sheer glory of the light on Dietrich's cheekbones, shimmering behind black tulle, feathers, and satin.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)
A superlative masterpiece by Ernst Lubitsch, Trouble in Paradise features another of his famously steamy love triangles and stars Miriam Hopkins as a glam pickpocket, Herbert Marshall as an elegant con man, and Kay Francis (in her very best role) as a chic - and very rich - perfumière. Thievery, it turns out, pays very handsomely, though a startlingly moustached Edward Everett Horton does his best to get in the way. Impossibly witty, this is a film to watch with a champagne flute in one hand and a diamond bracelet adorning the other. 

Me and My Gal (1932)
This delicious, but unfortunately very difficult to find, movie stars Spencer Tracy as a cocky policeman whose heart has been captivated by saucy, street-smart waitress Joan Bennett. A rare gangster film of the era with a straight cop as the protagonist, Me and My Gal nevertheless cultivates an anarchic, effervescent sense of humor, reminiscent of everything amusing and nothing irritating in French farce. It was a huge flop when it was released in 1932, but the years have been very kind to it and it deserves a prominent place in director Raoul Walsh's filmography.

Pépé le Moko (1937)
The ruggedly sexy Jean Gabin stars as the titular criminal mastermind in this proto-noir set in the Algerian Casbah, where director Julien Duvivier proves that blinding sunshine in twisting, narrow alleys can be as tensely atmospheric as fog, mist, and cloud-strewn skies. Pépé lurks in the labyrinth of the Casbah, knowing that Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) can never sniff him out, but the wily inspector espies an opportunity in Gaby (Mireille Balin), a lovely but slightly seedy woman, mistress to a wealthy man, and intrigued by the elusive Pépé. Pépé le Moko is Duvivier's masterpiece, a thrillingly suspenseful romance and a dreamily romantic crime thriller. 

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The last film Alfred Hitchcock directed in Great Britain before he moved to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes is an Agatha Christie-esque mystery set on a train, with a veddy English sense of humor. The lady who vanishes is the cozy, constantly knitting Miss Froy, played by Dame May Whitty, who, incidentally, would have made a truly spiffing Miss Marple, while the vivacious Margaret Lockwood, a wide-eyed English tourist, searches ever more frantically for her. The cast is terrific, the standouts being Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as oblivious cricket enthusiasts, and the plot snaps to like a mousetrap.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

'Strong Women' Will Not Be the Answer

The past year has been a painful one, a year in which powerful men proved that the gains made by women are capable of being eroded, undermined, ignored, or reversed. The most prominent industries have been studded with high-profile cases of serial sexual assault, both state and federal courts have taken steps to eviscerate a woman's right to choose, and the world, globally, must daily face orange-tinted evidence of the worst of American prejudices.

Though the rhetoric is not new to this year, the call for art and entertainment featuring 'strong women' has intensified as the occasional sprinkle of salt in the wound has become a veritable saline flood. It would be lovely if an answer to sexism and misogyny could be unearthed in privileging one quality in fictional characters, or fictionalized depictions of real people, but if it were that easy, we wouldn't still be living in the world we live in.

On the one hand, strength is a very useful quality for any human being, and that's been true since the first australopithecus conked a saber-toothed tiger on its noggin. It's especially useful for women, who consistently face greater violence, merely by virtue of existing as women, than men do. Fantasies of strength enable an illusion that systemic violence can be overcome, one poke in a domestic abuser's eye and kick to a rapist's groin at a time, but these are fantasies that ignore the reality of the imperfectable human body. They trade the facts of the body, its vulnerabilities and weaknesses, for the dream of a body in flawless mechanical order.

Our heroines, the ones that get praised as signs of political progressiveness, better reflect our fear and terror  that we're not making progress than genuine progressive movement forward. Wonder Woman is the quintessential example, but 'strong women' as a trope has become so reified that it's a searchable genre on Netflix. The problem with using strength as a signifier of feminist progress is that it places all responsibility on individuals, while paying no heed to systemic injustice except as a purveyor of traumas that are overcome. 'Strong women' are survivors of their traumas, they 'kick ass,' they're 'fierce' and 'badass' and 'frickin' awesome.' 'Strong women' don't need to be rescued, despite the fact that real women (like real men) do, regardless of their strength, often need rescuing.

The Manichean logic of a feminism of strength is to simply oppose patriarchally mandated feminine weakness with a feminist mandated feminine strength. And in so doing, most women are either forced to conform to a feminist set of standards, or be excluded entirely. By focusing on exceptions, the Wonder Women who, by whatever combination of luck, natural gifts, and determination, succeed where most fail, the standards of patriarchy are not annihilated, but simply put upside down.

Fictional characters can't be equated, one-to-one, with living, breathing women, but our critical treatment of fictional characters reflects one prismatic facet of our general attitudes towards the female. Feminist culture, no less than the larger, uglier, dog-eat-dog patriarchy that surrounds it, won't listen to the voices of those women who betray a weakness. Hillary Clinton lost the election and now we can't seem to stop telling her to shut up. The silencing of women who fail to live up to the Wonder Woman standard has become a salient feature of feminist discourse and activism, fueled by this rhetoric of 'strong women.' I can think of no more alarming sign of the movement's deterioration. As long as a sick woman, a fat woman, a woman who cries easily, a woman who can't get past her traumas, a woman who loses, a woman who needs, a woman who fails, can't be feminist by definition, feminism is just another face for patriarchy. As long as we insist that only 'strong women' can be our heroines, only 'strong women' our icons, feminism fails.