Sunday, February 18, 2018

Film Review: Baarìa

Giuseppe Tornatore's Baarìa has a big, expansive heart, but a rather disappointingly small brain. With an enormous cast and cameos by major stars, including a wordless, topless scene for Monica Bellucci, Baarìa exemplifies all of the best and worst tendencies of Tornatore's filmmaking, finishing up as a sweet, shallow movie. 

On the one hand, it's an enormous relief to see a film set in Sicily, and very specifically so, without getting sucked into the usual mafia exposé. The mafia isn't ignored, but it's not permitted to take center-stage. On the other hand, the politics of the film are so vague, despite the fact that the protagonist Peppino (Francesco Scianna) is a lifelong member of the Italian Communist Party, at various points running for election as a communist, that any perspective beyond the woolliest and faintest of sympathies for the left proves impossible. For those familiar with Italian politics, the outline of the various factions is there, but when Peppino's wife (Margareth Madè) scoffs at her husband's political commitments, it's hard not to agree with her: both he, and the film, are incapable of articulating a lucid political agenda. 

Tornatore, however, is more interested in exhibiting his memories of his hometown, Bagheria, than in digging deep into politics, and the film is more successful on that front. Many anecdotes take up only a scene or two, but strung together, they are the pearls of this film: a grandmother, a mother, and three children mop a tile floor and lie down on it in their skivvies to get relief from the heat, a painter tries to use locals as models for his painting of the apostles only to have the priest whitewash it to stop the gossiping during mass, Peppino's brother asks the pharmacist for medicine to make him die and the pharmacist obliges him with a harmless glass of liquor. Baarìa has some shocking, brief moments of violence and the occasional moment of awful taste - in the above-mentioned Monica Bellucci scene, a teacher tells the boys in his class they can watch Bellucci's prostitute with her client if they stay quiet - but the majority of it is just a string of disconnected memories, and it's at its best when it is just that.

As always, the women are beautiful or strikingly weathered. They have little to no personality and exist almost exclusively as objects of dreamy desire that will transform into humorless, nagging spoilsports once they become mothers. This is a film written and directed by a man who has never bothered to question his own views. The simple-mindedness of his writing of women is expected, but especially disappointing in a film that echoes the Fellini of Amarcord. Though Fellini was no feminist, there is room in his films for women to take up strange roles and to define themselves as stubbornly unstereotyped; Tornatore sees nothing but Madonnas and whores, virgins and mothers.There are no grotesques, like Fellini's enormous-breasted tobacconist, but there are moments of flat-footed magical realism, hobbled especially by low-quality computer imagery,  of coiling black snakes, smashed eggs, and statues of monsters. Tornatore doesn't succeed in blurring the line between dream and reality, so that these moments of premonition and nightmare instead reinforce that line. 

If Tornatore has a filmmaking superpower, it's his sentimentality. That's not generally a popular quality, but for English-speakers Italy is the country of la dolce vita, where love, wine, and pizza awaken Protestant Anglo-Saxons to the joyfulness in life. The addled, feel-good version of Cinema Paradiso that made Tornatore's reputation in the United States was stripped of its bitterness, so it confirmed that Italy was an amorous, gluttonous playground to the Americans for whom the film was recut. Even the director's cut is thoroughly sentimental, but it has a bite. Baarìa, instead, has lost its fangs, if it ever had them, and goodness knows it could have, but a strolling sausage-vendor's arrest by the fascists is played for laughs, no destruction from the American bombardment beyond a bit of flying plaster is shown onscreen, and the murders of communist party workers are merely discussed, their names unattached to bodies we can recognize. Sentimentality can be a wonderful thing: a nostalgia for the past can rescue the moments of happiness and connection that otherwise get lost when discussing the lives of poor, illiterate people and that richness restores a complexity to our total understanding of the dead, especially the dead who left behind no diaries, few or no letters, perhaps not even a photograph or a lock of hair. The value in Baarìa lies almost exclusively in its sentimentality, for sentimentality is a movement into the past that embraces and loves, that restores a little humanity to those usually defined by their misery. There is depth and substance in the small boys stuffing filched lemons into their shirts and the dancing couples, women with women and men with men, in two separate circles, but the film is otherwise resolutely shallow. One yearns for a little introspection to go with the wonder, a little questioning to go with the convictions. At two and a half hours, Baarìa lacks the piquancy and pith that might have given it a brain to go with its swollen heart.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Playing Russian Roulette with the Literary Canon

Debates about the literary canon, which continue to rage, though with less fury than in the '90s, tend to presume that the canon itself is relatively stable and unchanging. This opinion is stated as fact on Wikipedia. Complaints about the canon are usually founded in a critique of power structures: since wealthy, white men have historically held power over other people, their works have been enshrined within the cultural world as important, essential, and serious, while literary works by people who don't fall in that demographic are more often dismissed as specialized, fluffy, and inconsequential, or simply lesser. There is a lot of truth in this complaint, though in part the difficulty is rooted in a history of unequal power. As Virginia Woolf wrote nearly a century ago, if women (and by extension, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.) haven't produced as many masterpieces as men have, it's due to larger social and cultural structures: people who can't read or write, or afford writing materials, or be treated as human beings by publishers and editors are just not able to participate in the creation of a recognized culture. That stark fact, one that many of us find profoundly frustrating, does not, however, mean that the white male writers who dominate the canon can so easily be toppled from their pedestals. Shakespeare is essential because his work influenced nearly every western writer to live after him. No re-formulating of the canon will change that.

However, the belief that the canon is stable and unchanging seems utterly absurd to me. Canonical literature has something in common with pornography; as Potter Stewart said, "I know it when I see it." The difficulty is the same, since a clear delineation doesn't exist. We have no metric for determining whether a particular work is in the canon or not. As a result, the arguments about the canon tend to devolve into objections to finite lists determined as much by, for instance the languages the particular compiler can read or the university where he or she studied, than by the inequities of race, class, gender, and other demographic factors. This absurdity is thrown into stark relief when one speaks more than one language. On the English-language side, authors like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Jane Austen, John Milton, and Ernest Hemingway tend to be prominent in discussions of the canon, but on the Italian side, one is more likely to hear Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Leopardi, Manzoni, Verga, and Pirandello. The canon shifts constantly as it travels across borders, whether geographic, linguistic, ethnic, or anything else. It's true that women writers and writers of color are less likely to be included, but the canon itself isn't stable and really can't be without falling into irrelevance of its own accord. 

That should be heartening to those of us who feel frustrated treading water over the same texts a thousand times over. At the same time, one does have to reckon with pesky problems of lineage, influence, and context. Any Italian writer with even a high school education will have familiarity with The Decameron, The Divine Comedy and La vita nova, The Prince, The Canzoniere, and The Lives of the Artists. These are books that can't be dismissed and saturate the literary landscape in Italy, just as The Flowers of Evil, The Three Musketeers, Tartuffe, Madame Bovary, and The Red and the Black remain inescapable monuments in French literature, and Leaves of Grass, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, Walden, and Moby-Dick preside over American literary culture. These canons create a common language of conventions, myths, archetypes, and tropes that can be transgressed, altered, mocked, critiqued, attacked, or otherwise tampered with, but without that common language, it can be difficult to formulate a coherent discourse in any given context.

It should be a joyful task to constantly make and re-make the canon for anyone who cares about literature, not a subject for outrage and mockery. It is quite literally impossible to read every book in the canon, even if one restricts oneself to a single language. One needs to accept that the best-read person in the world will, unlike the Nowhere Man, have some holes in his education. Completism is impossible; the canon is a useful tool, despite its constant evolution, because it helps us chart a course through millennia of written material.

For universities and the professors and graduate students who teach there, the solution to the conundrum of both ensuring students have an understanding of literary history and not thus neglecting the majority of humanity that has written, unrecognized, throughout that history is to accept that we are mere mortals and no one can lay claim to a complete knowledge of literature. That is part of its fascination. I might choose to pair The Prince with Moderata Fonte's The Worth of Women, Shakespeare's sonnets with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's, Hard Times with North and South, or Madame Bovary with Indiana, but choosing one book means deferring all the others. It will always be possible to complain that some absolutely essential book is omitted from a syllabus, a recommended reading list, or a generalized curriculum. One person's Pilgrim's Progress is another's Faust; you may insist on Candide, while I insist on Letters from a Peruvian Woman. Instead of attacking the canon, we could instead make use of it, bend it to our purposes political or otherwise, and thus contribute to its evolution, but to do that, we have to accept the limits of our human condition. It's bitter news for any bookworm, but in trying to read everything, we'll die both glutted and unsatisfied.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Problem with Literary Necessity

It's become a commonplace of critical praise to claim that a book is necessary. Books that receive this supposed encomium are usually topical, obviously and evidently tied to an issue subject to heated discussion on twitter, late-night tv, and cable news. A necessary book has a clear, delineated point of view that expresses a politics that fits easily into our current political binary (liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, etc. etc.). It could be a novel with a protagonist who is transgender, or a refugee, it could be a polemic against a powerful figure, ideology, or institution, it could be a personal essay that dissects a traumatic experience. The critic who employs the word necessary is telegraphing his or her agreement with the political point of view of the book under review.

There's nothing inherently wrong with deeming a book necessary, but it's a word that, used without a consciousness of its purpose, says little to nothing about the book itself and much more about the reviewer and the reviewer's politics. It's a euphemism that signals a belonging to a particular club, a defensive deployment meant to shield the critic from attack in a deeply polarized climate dominated by quick outrage and increasingly quantified methods of critiquing literature, for instance, the starred rating rather than a complex analysis.

When the critic deems a book necessary, the label functions as a means of dividing the presumed readership of the book. Anyone who reads that a book about the mass incarceration of black Americans, for instance, is necessary, receives a signal not that the book has some crucial function to perform in the world (though it may or may not - the course of history will indicate whether or not it performs such a function), but rather that the book bolsters a political belief that he may or may not share. The reader who already feels outrage towards the situation of black Americans in prison will feel positively towards the book; the reader who believes that imprisoned black people fare no worse than white people will feel negatively. As a result, the first group may very well read the book, share the review on social media, or otherwise indicate support for it, while the second is unlikely to do those things, or might take an actively negative action, such as purposely giving the book low ratings on sites like Amazon and Goodreads. Any book with controversial or possibly inflammatory content, once it's reviewed within this critical economy of necessity, is subject to this binary (including books that attempt to critique, dismantle, or question the existence of a binary). If this demarcation sounds simplistic, that's because it is, but that is where the line is drawn by the word necessary.

It's a word that is nearly always meant positively, though its effects are anything but. It's a means of preaching to the choir. The problem is that necessary is so very rarely followed by the answers to the obvious questions: to whom? for what purpose? to what end? The critic takes for granted that the reader can answer those questions already, isolating the book among readers that are most likely to share its point of view. Instead of persuading individuals to allow themselves to be challenged and to question their immediate assumptions and opinions, the critic who talks of necessity presumes that not only is his point of view fundamentally correct, it needs no qualification and no explanation. Necessary is an encrypted word; decoded, it says: "Agree or you're wrong."

To demonstrate how important it is to follow up any description of a book as necessary with an explication of why, to whom, and for what purpose it is so, I will employ a highly inflammatory example: Mein Kampf is necessary. Now, if I were using the word necessary the way that it is most commonly used critically today, I would have just declared myself a Nazi. So I will answer the questions that ought to be engendered by that statement: Mein Kampf is necessary as a primary source for research for people who study Nazism and anti-Semitism because it was historically a crucial and widely-read text for followers of Hitler and helps to explicate the history that followed it. The truth is that Mein Kampf did perform a function historically, one that in retrospect we can recognize as necessary to the events that followed. The fact that that function was genocide on an unprecedented scale does not make it less necessary, only more horrifying.

In great part, the difficulty facing critics at this moment implicates the fraught issue of identity. As we increasingly use online aggregators, complete with ratings and mini reviews, to catalogue our likes and dislikes, we also increasingly conflate these quantified masses of data with our very identities. It's no wonder, then, that a book's necessity becomes conflated with the degree to which we agree with it. As a result, the critic risks being locked into a position that demands allegiance rather than analysis, answering a yes-or-no question instead of a why, or how. Politically speaking, this is disastrous. If a book's necessity is determined by whether or not we agree with it beforehand, then persuasion in literary form is no longer possible. A necessary book, in today's critical usage, is a sterile book, a book without the very power the critic claims for it. Before we claim that any given book is necessary, we need to confront our reasons for doing so, and if we do so, we need to say why.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

If It Ain't Broke, It's Probably Boring

Though the franchise has never been as centrally situated in the entertainment landscape until now, valuable intellectual property has been exploited across media since the advent of modernity. Little Women spawned theatrical adaptations and character dolls within less than a decade of its release; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein were major stage hits; A Christmas Carol all but invented the capitalist bonanza that we celebrate today. It's understandable that producers and publishers, not to mention toy manufacturers, make use of popular stories, characters, and concepts to produce more content, and therefore more money, but it also means that the same works get adapted over, and over, and over, and even over again. This is a shame because it often means that less famous works get forgotten and passed over. 

Do we really need two more adaptations of Anne of Green Gables? L.M. Montgomery wrote twenty novels and dozens of short stories. A miniseries of A Tangled Web, for instance, a novel with well over two hundred characters, or the Emily series, with its ambitious, sensitive heroine, would offer many of the same pleasures without simply retreading the same ground. In fact, given the current predominant taste for dark, gritty stories of trauma, Emily - with her strange 'flashes' that could be indications of supernatural power, or the residual effects of the trauma of her father's death and her own desperate feelings of abandonment - is a far more apropos protagonist than Anne, preternaturally sunny, a believer that "Tomorrow is always a new day, with no mistakes in it." 

Jane Eyre, too, has been adapted dozens of times (and with decidedly varying success), but Charlotte Brontë's other novels have been neglected: Shirley, with its radical, land-owning, gender norm-flouting heroine, was adapted, in 1922, while Villette, an intense and rich story of a repressed teacher, was adapted in 1970 for television, but neither adaptation is available online (the former may even be a lost film). And, while no one can complain that Charles Dickens's works are under-adapted, my favorite, Dombey and Son, has suffered from the low-budget constraints of old-style BBC filmmaking. It would be a treat to see Mr. Carker, Captain Cuttle, and the formidable Edith Dombey onscreen, instead of the next in an endless line of Ebeneezer Scrooges, Pips, and Oliver Twists. 

One could cite oodles more examples: we are forever getting a new Peter Pan, while J.M. Barrie's other (better) work, such as The Little Minister and My Lady Nicotine, is ignored; another Anna Karenina, while the more politically invested Resurrection hasn't been adapted for the silver screen since 1934; another Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, with nary a Boy who Left Home to Find Out about the Shivers in sight; another Treasure Island or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, instead of a Prince Otto or Catriona; an endless string of Austen adaptations, while her forebear Fanny Burney's novels have never once seen a screen adaptation. There are two more Little Women adaptations on their way, after two silent and three sound films, plus a number of miniseries, while none of Alcott's other novels have received a single decent adaptation. And I haven't even mentioned Shakespeare.

While in the scheme of things, repetitive adaptation is hardly a pressing problem, it indicates a lack of creative imagination and an excess of conservative calculation in filmmaking that prevents the production of films that insist on forging new paths forward, following wild and strange new directions, and thus - in fact, rather than rhetorically - increasing the diversity of cinematic vision. There are occasional flashes of the frisson of adaptation, the fruitful merging of the literary and cinematic at its most successful, but they are rare. One thinks of Park Chan-Wook's The Handmaiden, which transplanted Sarah Waters's Fingersmith from Victorian London to Korea under Japanese Occupation, or Whit Stillman's Love and Friendship, based on the blissfully hitherto un-adapted Austen novella, Lady Susan. It's remarkable that in an age that claims to value the new, original, and innovative, that our entertainment conforms so strictly to a focus on the most popular, most adapted works out there. We're spinning the wheels, but don't seem to be going anywhere. With literal millennia of literature to choose from, what a pity that we can't see the astonishing treasure trove we have in even a small neighborhood library.

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.