Saturday, March 29, 2014

The 7 Most Awesome Women from Swashbucklers

Most swashbucklers have a leading lady who functions almost purely as a love interest for the hero, a trope that is half-mocked and half-embraced in The Princess Bride, and wholeheartedly adopted in almost everything else, like the pretty island girls in Mutiny on the Bounty, though in that case, the girls might be more adequately described as sex toys. There are also more than a few swashbucklers that have no female speaking parts, or no female parts at all - one thinks of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. But, search long enough and there are some great female characters, swashing and buckling alongside of the men. None of the women on this list are genuinely feminist, but their presence alleviates the extreme phallocentrism of the genre.

Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) - Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007)
I was more than a little tempted to leave Elizabeth Swann off of this list. Don't get me wrong - I love the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I could watch them all day (and I have). The problem is that the character of Elizabeth (as well as the latest female lead, Angelica, played by Penelope Cruz) panders to politically correct ideas about female empowerment without rejecting the stubborn misogyny of gender politics in mainstream cinema. Elizabeth is a strong fighter, who by the end of the first movie is fully capable of rescuing herself as well as rescuing others - though the action of the first film is predicated on a damsel in distress scenario - and she even moonlights as a pirate captain, fully capable of being a leader in battle and at sea. What's frustrating is the ending - the pirates win, her true love Will is now an immortal only able to touch land once every nine years, and Elizabeth, the battle-hardened adventuress - what does she do? She sets up house on an apparently deserted island, barefoot and pregnant, waiting for her husband to come back. In nine years. In other words, Elizabeth is awesome until she has the chance to get married. There would have been an easy way to fix this. Will is off doing his job; why couldn't Elizabeth go off, doing what pirates do best? The answer - that would mean that Elizabeth actually is an empowered, independent woman, rather than an aspiring housewife who did all that badass stuff because marketing polls indicated that teenage boys think girls with swords are cool.

Arabella Bishop (Olivia de Havilland) - Captain Blood (1935)
In this, one of the greatest swashbucklers of all time, Arabella Bishop is the stunningly beautiful niece of the military commander of Port Royal. Captain Blood (Errol Flynn) is a doctor, caught giving medical care to a wounded rebel during the Monmouth Rebellion and sentenced to transportation and slavery, who catches the eye of Arabella. She buys him as an act of mercy, finding his forceful personality attractive and recognizing that it could cost him his life. Blood is resentful that he has been rescued by a woman, all the more so because he's in love with her. The balance of power inevitably changes and later, when Arabella has been taken prisoner by another pirate (Basil Rathbone, an actor who literally never gave a bad performance), Blood buys her, half to rescue her and half in retaliation for having been purchased himself, earlier in the film. Arabella never lifts a sword in this film, nor she does take command of a ship, but she is a shrewd politician and without her favors, our hero would never have been one. The fact that Blood can't really rest until he's readjusted the power differential is yet one more aspect of the deeply patriarchal politics at play in swashbucklers. Arabella may not be a feminist, but she's a strong, intelligent, politically savvy woman - and, let's be frank, there aren't that many such characters in films today, almost eighty years later.

Roberta (Janet Munro) - The Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
This film, one of Disney's finest live action films, is about a shipwrecked Swiss family who create a home in their idyllic island paradise, only for pirates to attack. The pirates attack because the family has rescued their prisoner, Roberta, a young woman who had disguised herself as a cabin boy when captured. The two older sons, Fritz and Ernst, are both enamored of her as soon as her sex is discovered, and their already contentious relationship becomes even more so as a result of their rivalry. Roberta is a proper young lady from London, far more used to dancing at a ball than battling an anaconda or shooting murderous pirates. And that's why she's such a wonderful character. Roberta starts out with almost no survival skills and by the end of the movie, she rides a zebra, holds her own against pirates, asserts herself sexually and romantically, and even teaches Ernst a thing or two about shooting a rifle. Again, Roberta's no feminist, but she develops strength, independence, and ingenuity in the course of her adventures.

Manuela Alva (Judy Garland) - The Pirate (1948)
In this Caribbean musical fantasy, the incomparable Judy Garland plays Manuela, a young woman whose fantasies are aroused by tales about the legendary pirate captain Macoco. Gene Kelly plays an unscrupulous womanizing traveling acrobat, Serafin, who decides to impersonate the pirate of Manuela's dreams in an attempt to get her into bed ("marriage" is really a euphemism in this movie). The most revolutionary aspect of Manuela's character is her unabashed sexuality, expressed both in her fantasies, dramatized in dance and featuring Kelly in some of the most flamboyantly sexy choreography in a Hollywood musical, and in the song, "Mack the Black." If she was easily swept off her feet, she would however be an unremarkable heroine - but she's not. Her discovery of Serafin's treachery results in a brawl of epic proportions, during which Serafin is made to realize he's certainly met his match. At least in an oblique way, this film - made in 1948 - examines female sexuality and sexual fantasy and it allows its heroine surprising latitude to be bold, sexually and physically.

Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) - Willow (1988)
Sorsha, daughter of the evil Queen Bavmorda, is a hard-as-nails military commander, ambitious, brutal, brave, and an expert with a sword. In the course of the film, she - of course - experiences a romantic and sexual awakening, which also awakens her sympathies for the just cause against her mother. It's worth noting that, although there is a misogynistic element to her political re-education, especially since it's achieved by "reminding" her that she's female a.k.a. sexual, she falls for a man (Val Kilmer) equally battle-hardened and even better with a sword. Though Madmartigan - yes, that's his name and you can thank George Lucas for that - is better, he's only slightly better, and he generally treats Sorsha as an equal in military situations, respecting her ability to take care of herself (and quite a few enemies to boot). Sorsha is undoubtedly one of the most awesome women in any fantasy film or swashbuckler.

Maid Jean (Glynis Johns) - The Court Jester (1955)
The Court Jester is a brilliantly funny send-up of swashbucklers and Arthurian epics. Danny Kaye stars as the jester, Hubert, eager to take up arms to restore the true king to the throne. He's in love with Maid Jean, his superior in the resistance and an acute military commander. She isn't at the top of the heap, but she's certainly in the upper echelons of command. Played by the lovely Glynis Johns, Maid Jean is a whip-smart political player, protecting the inept jester, rather than being protected by him. The true king is a mere infant and one would typically expect Maid Jean to be the royal caretaker, given her sex, but instead it is Hubert who is assigned childcare, from singing lullabies to changing diapers. When her sex makes her vulnerable, as in the scenes in which she is captured as a "present" for the royal pretender, she makes her weakness a strength, taking advantage of her access to the royal chambers and inventing a terrible contagious familial disease that keeps her potential rapist at arm's length. But, really, what gives Maid Jean a feminist edge is the fact that she is dominant in her romantic relationship, protecting rather than being protected, ordering rather than being ordered.

Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) - The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
The Adventures of Robin Hood is the greatest swashbuckler ever made and the film that crystallized our modern pop culture conception of the Robin Hood legend. In most Robin Hood movies, Maid Marian is a damsel in distress, a helpless girl enamored of the handsome outlaw, but utterly unable to do much of anything but await rescue. Not so as played by Olivia de Havilland in this, the definitive version. While in all versions Maid Marian has relative importance as a marriage object and a means of forging political alliances, in this one, she is active in politics. Her politics are not swayed by her attraction to Robin Hood, but rather by the terrible suffering of the people he shelters in Sherwood Forest. Her compassion and intelligence change her politics and only then does she allow herself to acknowledge her love for the outlaw. Maid Marian also works as a spy from within Prince John's castle and when she is caught she bravely acknowledges what she has done and faces the penalty - death - without tears or pleading. Her bravery and her capability, her refusal to stay passive in the face of injustice, her assertiveness, all make her the most awesome female character in the swashbuckler genre.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Revisiting "The Adventures of Milo and Otis"

Masanori Hata spent four years making his beloved children's classic, known in Japan as Koneko Monogatori or A Kitten's Story, and released in the United States in 1989, re-edited and with a brand new soundtrack, featuring narration by Dudley Moore and a wide range of classical pieces, as The Adventures of Milo and Otis. The film tells the story of Milo, a mischievous orange kitten, and his best friend, a fawn pug puppy named Otis, who is decidedly more staid and does his best to keep Milo out of scrapes. This friendship is put to the test when Milo hides in a floating box as a prank and ends up floating helplessly down the river. Otis, never swayed by a challenge, pursues the box, running along the shore.

The film is great for many reasons. From a purely visual perspective, this film shows more of the gorgeous natural variety of Japan than any other Japanese film. Milo and Otis travel through farm country reminiscent of New England, to swampy beaches like something out of The Dark Crystal, Grimmsian forests and cliffs with the ocean churning below. The film is beautifully shot, and appears to use natural lighting for many, if not most, of the daytime shots. The choice of using a narrator, rather than giving the characters specific voices, is part of what elevates the film above similar fare. Watching The Adventures of Milo and Otis recaptures the intensity of being read a story as a child, the film's beautiful visuals assisting our too often rusty adult imaginations.

From a narrative perspective, The Adventures of Milo and Otis is a fantasy of friendship, a parable that explores one of the most important bonds in our lives, as well as one of the most cinematically neglected. Friendship has lost a lot of value in popular culture, with cinematic friends more likely to be either sidekicks without personal challenges of their own, accepting of the protagonist as the center of the universe, or a potential love interest. In children's films however, friendship is more likely to be the focus, though even in children's films, the dominating focus of romantic love can be overwhelming. One of the reasons that Hata's film is so wonderful is that it doesn't present a perfect friendship.

Once Otis has been reunited with his trouble-making friend after rescuing him from a pit, his objective is to lead them home to their farm, but Milo has other ideas as soon as he lays eyes on Joyce. Otis feels, justifiably, left out in the cold and is utterly mystified by the silly behavior of the two enamored cats, and decides to strike out on his own. Otis soon understands Milo's behavior though, when he encounters Sandra. During the long winter, both Milo and Otis father families and in the spring, the dogs and the cats reunite to continue the journey home. The friendship between Milo and Otis grows and changes as the two characters grow into adulthood, with romantic love alienating them. Their reunion isn't a return to the all-encompassing loyalty that brought them on their adventure in the first place, but rather a new beginning based on their shared journey into the next stage of their lives. Unlike most children's films, which buy into fairy tale notions of forever, The Adventures of Milo and Otis is about how nothing lasts forever if it doesn't grow and change. Nearly a decade later, The Lion King would explore a similar idea, particularly in Elton John's song, "The Circle of Life," but this film is decidedly more meditative and sensitive.

It is unfortunate, given the film's visual splendor, that The Adventures of Milo and Otis, is not available in the original widescreen format, but the pan-and-scanned DVD at least gives an approximation of what the film looks like. The original Japanese version, which is about twenty minutes longer and has a completely different soundtrack (and presumably an altered story), is not available with English subtitles. One hopes that a special edition DVD with both versions might be released. But, despite these frustrations, The Adventures of Milo and Otis is a joy for both adults and children, gentle, profound, and elegant.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

10 Books for the "Anne of Green Gables" Fan

True book lovers inevitably reach several crises of a distinct nature in their lifetimes - finishing every published scrap by a favorite author and facing the emptiness of a life spent praying for someone to unearth something new in an attic or basement or somewhere. Anne of Green Gables and its sequels have been favorites of mine since I was a kid, and while there are of course the other thirteen novels, several hundred short stories, poetry, and journals that L. M. Montgomery has left us, there is, unfortunately, a finite number of them. My personal favorites, other than Anne, are The Blue Castle and the Emily books (Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, Emily's Quest). When one gets to the end of Montgomery's wonderful writing, what is there left? These ten novels should please readers who miss our dear friends, Anne Shirley, Emily Byrd Starr, and Sara Stanley.

Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom - Louisa May Alcott
Assuming that one has already read Little Women, the next best bet for the L. M. Montgomery fan is Eight Cousins, about young orphan Rose who goes to live with her new guardian and finds herself surrounded by eight boisterous cousins, all blond boys, and its sequel, Rose in Bloom, which continues Rose's story into womanhood. Alcott excelled at finding both the drama and the humor in the domestic lives of young women, just as Montgomery did. I also recommend An Old Fashioned Girl.

The Deepening Stream - Dorothy Canfield
Enormously prolific, influential, and popular in her lifetime, Dorothy Canfield has been unjustifiably forgotten. In this bildungsroman, Matey is the child of a difficult marriage, who nevertheless grows up as a cultured young woman, but one who must navigate the emotional dark forests of life largely on her own. Canfield's writing may strike some as old-fashioned, but her themes are timeless and her heroines are complex, deeply human women, struggling to gain a foothold in a man's world. I also recommend her children's novel, Understood Betsey.

Lucy Gayheart - Willa Cather
Willa Cather, though decidedly more urbane, was preoccupied with many of the same themes that preoccupied Montgomery - the tension between artistic ambition and social expectations for women, the difficult choices women faced when they did have talent and ambition, and the natural landscape as an internalized dreamscape as alive as any human being. In Lucy Gayheart, Lucy is a talented pianist who leaves her small Nebraska hometown behind to pursue a career in Chicago, where she meets a brilliant singer, Clement Sebastian. I also recommend My Antonia.

Reeds in the Wind - Grazia Deledda
Deledda is not well-known to the English-speaking world and it's high time this Nobel Prize-winner was introduced. Like Montgomery, Deledda had her magic island, in her case Sardinia instead of Prince Edward Island, and also like Montgomery, this island would infuse her work with an extraordinary appreciation for the natural world as a living being. In Reeds in the Wind, the Pintor sisters grow quietly older in their decaying house attended by their guilt-ridden servant, Efix, when their nephew, Giacinto, arrives, with somewhat unscrupulous hopes regarding the family fortune.

Cranford - Elizabeth Gaskell
My favorite Gaskell novel is a series of comic vignettes about a group of spinster ladies living in the provincial town of Cranford. Gaskell and Montgomery shared a sense of humor, one founded in the every-day, that was as appreciative of the follies and foibles of human beings as it was of the tragicomedy of domestic disasters. One hopes that Montgomery knew this novel because she would have undoubtedly enjoyed it. The mini-series starring Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Imelda Staunton, is absolutely delightful.
Girl of the Limberlost - Gene Stratton Porter
In this Indiana-set novel, Elnora is a poor young woman, living with her deeply embittered mother who blames her for her father's death. Elnora, however, is determined to escape her miserable home by earning enough money to attend high school. She does so by capturing moth specimens in the Limberlost swamp and selling them to collectors. This is a classic of the young girl's novel, a genre that has since morphed into the young adult novel, but its spirit is a hardy one, though it may have gone out of fashion. There is also a related novel about one of the minor characters, Freckles

An Unsuitable Attachment - Barbara Pym
Pym's work is currently undergoing a deserved renaissance. In this, my favorite of her novels, Ianthe Broome is an attractive librarian with no shortage of potential husbands, in particular the new minister Rupert Stonebird, but Ianthe causes a scandal when she gets involved with a much younger man with disreputable habits instead. Pym utterly ignored the literary fashions of the 1960s, when this book was written, reminding us that one doesn't need to follow the herd of writers and critics to write a classic novel.

Precious Bane - Mary Webb
I never miss an opportunity to encourage readers to track down a precious copy of this exquisite novel. Set in a rural community in Shropshire immediately after the Napoleonic wars, the novel follows Prue Sarn, a spirited young woman whose prospects for marriage and respect in the community have been destroyed by her having been born with a hare-lip. Prue learns to read and write from the local wizard, whose beautiful daughter has captured the eye of Prue's brother Gideon, who is as consumed by greed as he is by lust. This is another novel that I dearly hope Montgomery knew.

Daddy-Long-Legs - Jean Webster
The reputation of Jean Webster's novel has declined dramatically in recent decades, with many critics deriding its sentimental story as maudlin and its politics as anti-feminist, but frankly I think this novel is deserving of a reassessment. Judy Abbott is an orphan whose anonymous benefactor agrees to send her to college, an incredible luxury for a penniless woman without family, provided that she write to him regularly and make no attempt to uncover his identity. A central theme of the novel is self-determination, with Judy striving to achieve a successful career, pay back her benefactor, and establish herself independently - which sounds suspiciously like one of the most important feminist agendas of its time.

So, never fret dear fellow Anne of Green Gables devotees. While we may exhaust Montgomery's oeuvre, she is in company with a host of great writers who shared her extraordinary gifts for beautiful descriptions of the natural world, a gentle and cheeky sense of humor, an appreciation for the drama of domestic life, and vibrant, complicated, feminist heroines.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

How Literary Misconceptions Are Born from Poor Criticism

It is a common misconception that people who write can be understood through their works, and while, it is not a complete logical fallacy, it is too often the case that simplistic conclusions are drawn about writers, without taking into account the incredible complexities of the creative act and the complications of historical context. This is particularly the case with "autobiographical" novels like, just to cite a small sampling, The Bell Jar, A Farewell to Arms, Little Women, To Kill a Mockingbird, or In Search of Lost Time. But, the ratio between an author and his or her literary doppelganger(s) is not one to one and never will be; the relationship is infinitely more complex.

In a lecture entitled "Jung and the Writer," Robertson Davies complains about this sort of simplistic conflation: "The Jungian approach... has also caused me a great deal of annoyance, because once it became known that I was a student of Jung, large numbers of people have been quick to assume that I am nothing else." He gives an example of an irritating query: "Some characters in my books seem to be hostile toward their mothers - what was wrong between me and my mother, and why?" This kind of semi-critical reasoning is beloved by subpar students, scholars, and biographers the world over, but there will always be a fundamental difference between a writer and his or her creation, for, while the writer is an evolving human being that is not fully known by anyone (as is true of all human beings), the character is a human creation, and no matter how complex, can be known, at least by his or creator. Seen in this light, the absurdity of the query addressed to Davies becomes quite clear. One need not live through something in order to write well about it.

For, after all, are we to assume that Richard Adams must have lived among rabbits and immersed himself in lapine culture, in order to write Watership Down? That Dante did in fact journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, accompanied by a long-dead Roman poet and a beatific female presence? That Dickens was visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come? No, you say, that is patently absurd. And yet, it is the very same sort of question to which Davies objected. What is so insulting about the question is that it is based on an assumption that the writer has no imagination, although it is precisely this faculty that is most necessary to a good novelist.

That being said, a good biographer also knows that many clues to an understanding of a writer as a person are to be found in their works. The good biographer understands, however, that those clues are not to be extrapolated upon beyond their very limited scope. One could argue that all writing, from grocery lists to epic poetry, tax forms to text messages, class notes to novels, is autobiographical, and in a sense it is, because everything that we write reflects something of who we are. But it is often not something very interesting - I do not think anyone cares about what I planned to buy at the grocery store - or untraceable because it is not literal. That is why we must be so careful not to assume that a character is a mere authorial proxy.

We must also be careful not to imprint our contemporary notions of such monolithic concepts as gender, sexuality, race, progress, and technology on works and on writers of the past. To cite one prominent example, I have seen it argued many times that Louisa May Alcott must have been a lesbian, the reasoning usually being that she never married and had no strong romantic relationships with men. This is utterly ridiculous. First of all, it is unlikely that Alcott had any concept of lesbianism as a sexual identity, since the concept is a construction of the 20th century, and it is presumptuous in the extreme to assign her an identity that she herself would not have recognized. Second, Alcott did in fact have at least one strong romantic attachment to a man - a Polish revolutionary sometimes simplistically referred to as the "inspiration" (horrid word) for Laurie - and is not known to have had any romantic attachments to women. Third, and most importantly, choosing not to marry in the 19th century had completely different meanings and consequences than it does in the 20th and 21st. Alcott, by not marrying, was able to have a successful career, control her earnings and support both herself and her parents, and retain her legal rights to property. If she had married, her earnings would have belonged to her husband, he would have had the right to prevent her from publishing her work, and, in an age with absolutely no reliable means of birth control, she would have been saddled with the extreme exigencies of pregnancy and childbirth, at a time when huge numbers of women died giving birth. In this case, one needs relatively little knowledge of history to demonstrate that our contemporary notions of sexuality cannot be applied to a writer who is not contemporary.

Nor can such notions be applied to literature, though they so often are. A strong example of this kind of silly application is what has happened to Uncle Tom's Cabin. I've known very few people who have actually read the novel, but nearly everyone with whom I've discussed it is patently convinced that it is a racist book. In fact, it is one of only a handful of works written prior to the 20th century that portrays non-white characters as complex human beings (one also thinks of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko or Francoise de Graffigny's Letters from a Peruvian Woman). In the 20th century, the idea of a relatively passive black martyr didn't harmonize with either the political aims of the civil rights movement or with evolving ideas of race and power. But in the 19th century, Uncle Tom was a Christ figure and therefore an extremely transgressive positive figure, one that broke misconceptions and humanized those living in slavery. Uncle Tom's martyrdom must be understood in its proper context if we are ever going to be able to understand the incredible political impact of the book.

Without understanding the separation between a writer and his or her characters and that between both writers and literature and our ever-changing historical and political realities, one will never have any but the most superficial and inaccurate perceptions of literature, the same perceptions that led to the absurd and ridiculous movie, Becoming Jane, or the equally absurd Finding Neverland, and the same perceptions that lead to the adamant dismissal of worthy and sometimes even magnificent literary works. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The 10 Best Shakespearean Adaptations

I had the great good fortune a few months ago to see Mark Rylance and the Globe company in Twelfth Night and Richard III at the Belasco Theater on Broadway. The experience has probably spoiled me for Shakespearean theater forever, but it was definitely worth it. Since then, I've been thinking about how difficult it is to translate Shakespeare to film and how few really good Shakespearean adaptations are out there. Many of them are simply poorly produced and acted - like Renato Castellani's abysmal Romeo and Juliet or Michael Hoffman's A Midsummer Night's Dream - or disastrously oversimplified - like Baz Luhrman's pop-culture extravaganza,  Romeo + Juliet - or, most often, a terrible combination of both. These are the 10 best Shakespearean adaptations. 

11. Shakespeare in Love (1998) - Romeo and Juliet (sort of) - A bonus!
Shakespeare in Love is neither a Shakespearean adaptation nor a faithful rendition of the historical playwright's life. It's a period fantasy with next to no grounding in reality, vaguely referencing Shakespeare's most popular play. All that being said, it's really, really fun. Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard's script is witty and sweet, so that its utter implausibility ceases to matter. Joseph Fiennes is excellent as Shakespeare and Gwyneth Paltrow is effective as the fictional Viola.

10. Romeo and Juliet (1936)
Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer play the star-crossed lovers in this costly MGM production. Though they were far from teenagers, they both give excellent performances, as does the supporting cast, which includes Basil Rathbone and John Barrymore. Lavish costumes, sets, and cinematography make this one of the most visually stunning movies made by MGM, easily ranking with the even more lavish Marie Antoinette, and it's a showpiece for Norma Shearer, who, though largely forgotten today, was one of the greatest Hollywood actresses of her era.

9. Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Most consider this version the definitive cinematic adaptation of the material and it is certainly an excellent one. Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting as the teenaged lovers are stirring, but it is Franco Zeffirelli's direction, Danilo Donati's costumes, and Nino Rota's iconic score that make the film such a classic. At the time of its release, it was the most successful Shakespearean adaptation of all time, earning major money and major accolades from critics as prominent as the late, great Roger Ebert.

8. Romeo, Juliet, and Darkness (1960) 
This Czech adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Jiri Weiss, updates the love story to Prague during the Nazi occupation in 1942. Rather than Capulet and Montague, the young lovers are Jew and Gentile, sensitively portrayed by Daniela Smutna and Ivan Mistrik. This twentieth century reinterpretation of the romantic play focuses as much on politics as it does on love. Weiss was one of the great Czech filmmakers, but his work remains largely unknown in the United States.

7. Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
One of the few adaptations of the comedic plays which is actually funny, this cinematic rendition of the romance between saucy Beatrice and arrogant Benedick stars Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, supported by Denzel Washington, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves. Shot in the gorgeous countryside of Tuscany, this sexy, witty romp is a pleasure from first frame to last.

6. Henry V (1944)
Laurence Olivier, one of the giants of Shakespearean theater, stars as the English monarch, who, after a debauched youth with his crony Falstaff, led England to victory at the Battle of Agincourt. Henry V self-reflexively returns to the recreated Globe theater after each scene, constantly reminding us of the magic of theatricality. Both a critical and commercial success, this film would also earn Olivier an honorary Academy Award for his work as producer, director, and actor. Robert Newton, best known for playing Long John Silver, is a comic delight as Pistol.

5. West Side Story (1961) - Romeo and Juliet
One of the greatest musicals of all time and one of the finest reinterpretations of Shakespeare's most popular play is brilliantly brought to the screen by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. With one of the best musical scores of all time, by Leonard Bernstein, and groundbreaking and powerful choreography by Jerome Robbins, West Side Story is a gritty, bold, vibrant portrayal of rival gangs in Manhattan and the destruction they wreak on both themselves and lovers Tony and Maria. Even with the phony Puerto Rican accents, this film is marvelous.

4. The Lion King (1994) - Hamlet
Though none of Shakespeare's language remains in The Lion King, its reinterpretation of Hamlet is a powerful one. Simba is an overconfident lion cub, intent on inheriting his kingdom. His treacherous exiled uncle Scar (brilliantly voiced by Jeremy Irons) tempts him into danger, luring the rightful king Mufasa to his death as he tries to rescue his son. While it is undoubtedly the case that the Disney artists simplified the complex psychology and moral ambiguities of Shakespeare's masterpiece, The Lion King is much more than a kiddie flick, delving into such profound subjects as death, sacrifice, duty, and betrayal.

3. Throne of Blood (1957) - Macbeth
Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors of all time, directs this brilliant reinterpretation of Macbeth, set in feudal Japan. Toshiro Mifune, a ubiquitous (and fabulous) actor who appeared in such masterpieces as Seven Samurai and Rashomon, plays the feudal lord who descends to extreme depths of treachery, alongside his scheming wife (Isuzu Yamada), in his efforts to gain power. Although the story is significantly altered from the original play, as eminent a critic as Harold Bloom felt that it was the best cinematic adaptation of the material.

2. Richard III (1955)
Richard III is my very favorite of all Shakespeare's plays and my standards for any performance of it are extremely high. This version is both the best cinematic adaptation of the play and the best of Laurence Olivier's Shakespearean films. The incredibly good supporting cast includes such legends as Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, and Claire Bloom. A bloodthirsty scoundrel, a selfish paranoid, a manipulative schemer, and a dreadful king, Richard is both one of the most reprehensible and most fascinating of all of Shakespeare's many captivating protagonists.

1. Chimes at Midnight (1966) - Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Henry V, The Merry Wives of Windsor
Chimes at Midnight is a superlative work - in my opinion the finest that Orson Welles ever made, better even than Citizen Kane, and unjustifiably obscure. A copyright dispute has made it difficult to track down, but it is well worth the effort. Welles plays Falstaff, the tragic buffoon whose paternal friendship with Hal, the future Henry V, has greater depth than at first glance appears. This is a perfect film and, by far, the greatest translation of Shakespeare's masterful art to the screen - funny, suspenseful, satirical, and tragic.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What Makes an Art Form Elitist?

Many of my favorite things are regarded as "elitist" in the US, and I have more than once been accused of elitism because I like these things. It's an epithet that's more puzzling than anything else. Elitism is, by definition, advocacy of an elite as a dominating element in society. The consumption of art and entertainment is therefore not elitist, even in such cases as the work actively advocates the domination of the elite. Propaganda, subtle or not, is not a magical means of persuasion. As a feminist, I regularly consume works of art and entertainment that are not only not feminist but downright misogynistic. That doesn't mean that I give up my politics. That means that I read or watch or listen to a work that may oppose my own views without actively advocating for views in opposition to my own. We all do this. So why do we consider so many art forms elitist?

The obvious example is Shakespeare. In his day, Shakespeare was a combination of Tom Hiddleston and David Foster Wallace - he was cool. And he was anything but pretentious. Read with attention or see a good performance and be amazed at the preponderance of lewd humor, from fart jokes to cracks about anal sex. Shakespeare played to the Elizabethan equivalent of a mosh pit. Yet, today Shakespeare is the epitome of pretentious hoity-toity-ness, second only to opera in the long list of cultural institutions that are now labeled elitist.

And speaking of opera, its cultural position as boring, pretentious, only for fuddy-duddies entertainment is a fairly recent development. Opera has been around for more than four hundred years and for a large portion of that time was politically and socially, as well as culturally, relevant. Verdi was a superstar in his day, lending his name as a slogan for Italian unification and having his music sung in the streets by people from all walks of life. The issue with opera is that no one has actually seen or heard any opera. If I had a dollar for every person who has ever told me that he or she doesn't like opera and when asked, admits to never having been to one, I would be rich indeed.

What is opera about anyway, or Shakespearean theater? Sex. It's all about sex. There's some murder and insanity in there too, but mostly sex. And sex sells, has always sold, and will always sell. That's why Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is universally known as the movie with Romeo's butt. So, the issue isn't content because if it were, opera would be still be as cool now as it was back in the 1850s. But surely, being merely uncool shouldn't be enough to warrant a label of elitism. Bell-bottom jeans aren't cool anymore, and they are certainly not elitist. Same with MC Hammer (and his harem pants) or Gigapets or The Nanny - all things that were cool in their day (and all things that I liked or still like - except for the harem pants, which were never okay). 

Let's take another example: Henry Fielding's hilarious, sexy, comic novel Tom Jones. In the novel, the lovely Sophia, "though she was a perfect mistress of music, and would never willingly have played any but Handel's, was so devoted to her father's pleasure that she learnt" the music his less modern ear appreciated, that is, only tunes that were "light and airy," such as "Old Sir Simon the King" and "St. George he was for England." Back in 1749, Handel was cool. Sophia is a hip character and her musical tastes express that. Nowadays, Handel, when he's remembered, is the guy who wrote that Hallelujah song, but in his time he was the equivalent of Bruno Mars.

One could argue that expense is at the heart of a charge of elitism, but the argument doesn't hold water. Yes, opera and theater have both become prohibitively expensive. But the obscene ticket prices don't stop people from going to, for example, The Lion King on Broadway, or a Katy Perry concert - both of which actually cost more than a peanut gallery seat at the Met or excellent seats for Mark Rylance and the Globe Theater Company, which just ended their run on Broadway (and were absolutely fantastic). So elitism isn't a question of content or expense. What's left?

In the end, no art form is truly elitist (or rather, derided as elitist) until it is old, a fact which makes the charge of elitism all the more silly and adolescent. It is true that simply saying that old stuff is important is not going to do a damn thing. The recent film, The Monuments Men, is pretty messy, but it wouldn't be at all bad if George Clooney didn't continually chew our ears off about the importance of preserving art. I totally agree (and have panic attacks just thinking about the art that didn't make it through World War II), but Clooney, even with that gorgeous face, isn't convincing anybody that wasn't already convinced. People don't reject things like great art, theater, opera, etc. because they don't know they're important. They reject them because a charge of elitism actually means, "I am not familiar with this and it is too much work to keep an open mind about something that is not familiar."

Part of this is an ugly American legacy. The US doesn't have a particularly vibrant cultural history. After all, it is the country that produced "Oh, Susannah" and square dancing, which is not say that there haven't been great American writers, actors, composers, artists, etc. But we don't have centuries-old theater or opera companies, or orchestras, or museums, or artistic communities. Probably the greatest homegrown American art-form is jazz, which less than a hundred years ago was beyond cool and is now... elitist. Contrast that with Italy, which can lay claim to founding opera, ballet, and vernacular poetry (not to mention many of the disciplines that lead to the modern sciences), or England, with its centuries of great theater. In Russia, ballet is still a major art-form, integrated into Russian cultural identity. In Germany, people of all ages see Wagnerian opera. And the US? Jazz clubs aren't exactly flooded (though they do have a larger audience than opera or ballet, barring The Nutcracker).

There are a lot of historical reasons for our resistance to "elitist" art forms - Puritanical rejection of art, dance, and most other art forms is still very much alive, the US is a country of immigrants that often had (or have) little or no education, many vibrant cultural traditions were willfully eradicated through the genocidal treatment of Native Americans and Africans brought here as slaves, and the list goes on. But most importantly, the US is a very, very young country. It has existed for less than 300 years, and the concept of the US as a country is only slightly older. Contrast with England, for example, which is built on several thousand years of cultural traditions, back to the Druids and the shadowy civilizations that preceded them, or Italy, which, although only a unified country for 150 years, has existed conceptually since the the heyday of the Roman empire. And, until fairly recently in history (the second World War), intellectuals, artists, scholars, musicians, actors, playwrights, etc. had few motivations to emigrate to the US.

So, what makes an art form elitist? An elitist art form is old, first and foremost. But there is also the question of quality - art forms that require huge amounts of specialized training and talent are the ones that somehow inevitably end up being labeled elitist. That's the key - if you have to work for it, it's elitist. By working for it, I don't mean singing karaoke and being spotted by a talent scout, or releasing a video and having it go viral. I also don't mean things that pretty much anyone can do, like pop singing, which nowadays is digitally corrected for pitch, or blogging, the only existing bar to which is laziness. The art forms that get the elitist label have aged enough that the generation that consumed them is elderly and require real, genuine thought, training, and years of hard work.

What about non-Western culture? This where the uniquely American form of cultural hypocrisy comes in.  It is politically correct to be respectful of non-Western culture and therefore non-Western art forms usually get a pass (though Chinese opera and kabuki theater aren't about to make any headway). But ultimately, the US is a Western country, founded on Western political ideas and in Western social models. That doesn't mean we should reject non-Western culture anymore than we should reject all Western culture. This is a rare case where we can have our cake and eat it too - we could embrace everything, explore everything, from Tuvan throat singing to Bollywood movies, Bulgarian folk-songs to commedia dell'arte, Elizabethan theater to contact improvisation. There are endless possibilities if we reject the idea of elitist art forms, if only we were willing to delve into the unfamiliar, whether or not the crowd were with us.

In other words, we could treat art forms the way we treat food and become cultural gourmets, fat with discernment and understanding instead of calories.