Friday, September 26, 2014

A Feminist Analysis of "Pirates of the Caribbean"

Pirates of the Caribbean is, by far, my favorite current franchise. Though the fourth installment was decidedly weaker than the original trilogy, all four films had witty, intelligent screenplays, fabulous swashbuckling set-pieces, oodles of character actors (which I sorely miss in most Hollywood fare), and everything of a piratey nature that one could wish. From a feminist point of view however, POTC is not nearly as satisfactory.

The first issue with the films is an issue for nearly every Hollywood blockbuster. The original trilogy has only four female speaking parts, two of which disappear after the first film and are given no character development, and the fourth film, meant as the first in a second trilogy, has two (plus Judi Dench's cameo and a singing mermaid). These films have enormous casts, with dozens of speaking roles. Women are severely underrepresented and this is, in and of itself, a major issue. One could argue that historically there were far fewer female pirates than male, but that argument is frankly moot given that in the POTC universe, there are cursed Aztec treasure that can turn you into the undead, damned sailors who become "fish people," a pagan goddess, mermaids, the Fountain of Youth, and various other forms of the supernatural and magical. History is not relevant here. The films could have been much improved by having greater gender diversity among the cast, but this is symptomatic of a larger trend across all Hollywood filmmaking, particularly films with bigger budgets.

In the original trilogy, the main female protagonist (and the primary romantic interest for the male characters) is Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). She is a supreme example of the bad-ass heroine, Hollywood's pandering and yet still misogynistic answer to complaints of sexism. Elizabeth objects to wearing a restrictive corset and becomes an equal political and military player in the complex power struggle among the various factions of pirates, English colonial authority, and the East India Trading Company. She also becomes adept at fighting both with swords and guns. However, she does all of this, despite the fancy speeches, in order to marry her true love Will, become a housewife on a Caribbean isle, and produce babies. Any strength, whether physical, tactical, or political, deployed with such a goal is disappointingly de-fanged. After three films in which she develops physical strength, leadership ability, and quite a bit of political cunning, would it have been too much to ask that Elizabeth actually make use of those skills? Elizabeth may not conform to the Georgian ideal of the perfect woman, but she certainly does conform to current standards.

Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), the human incarnation of the goddess Calypso, is an even more problematic character. She has been bound in human form by her human lover Davy Jones as revenge for her failure to keep their scheduled tryst. As her justification, she says, "It's my nature." This implies that this powerful female being is bound by her nature, denying her agency and justifying Jones's actions, a virtual enslavement that prevents her from acting according to her own desires. Enormously powerful, capable of controlling the seas and storms, the goddess Calypso is represented as fickle, capricious, dangerous, and motivated by revenge and jealousy. As such, she incarnates male fears of female power.

The two remaining female characters of the original trilogy both disappear after The Curse of the Black Pearl. The first is Elizabeth's maidservant (Paula J. Newman), who according to the wiki is named Estrella, though she is never addressed by her name within the film. She is a largely undeveloped character who functions primarily as a female companion with whom Elizabeth can discuss her possible engagement. After the raid on Port Royal, she disappears and we never learn her fate. The second, Anamaria (Zoe Saldana), is the only female pirate in the trilogy apart from Elizabeth. Anamaria is an intriguing character, not in the least sexualized and ripe for further development, but she didn't appear in further installments, most likely because Saldana's career took off and she was no longer tertiary character material. That's a genuine pity, since the little that can be gleaned about her character is quite positive; she is a fine sailor, unafraid to stand up to Jack after he steals her boat, and integrated into the otherwise all-male crew.

The main female character in the fourth installment, Angelica (Penelope Cruz) is perhaps the most misogynistically portrayed woman in the series. Angelica is meant to be a love interest for Jack Sparrow (sorry - Captain Jack Sparrow), but their amour was supposedly born when he seduced her right before she was to take vows as a nun; it's clear that this "seduction" was rape. She is both extremely manipulative and easy to manipulate, at one point even attempting to persuade Jack to do what she wants by pretending to be pregnant with his child, and her motivations are consistently driven by her affection for her father and her "love" for Jack, both men who treat her abusively. Like Elizabeth, Angelica is handy in a sword fight and capable of managing a crew, but unlike Elizabeth, she fails to develop her own goals and never emerges as a leader.

The mermaids in On Stranger Tides are deeply problematic. They are predatory and lure their human targets into the water with sexual posturing. Most disturbingly, in order to obtain immortality from drinking from the Fountain of Youth, the pirates need to obtain a mermaid's tear. Thus, the mermaids incarnate male fears of female sexuality and subjugating them allows their male conquerors to accrue extraordinary power through immortality. The ambiguous finish of Philip (Sam Claflin), the missionary who pities and eventually loves the mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), has even less heartening implications. As he dies, she kisses him and pulls him into the water; it is not clear whether this is a gesture of compassion and love or simply her predatory instincts kicking in, but once again we witness a supernatural female character being led by her dangerous instincts.

Beyond the characters discussed above, the series has a number of prostitutes, portrayed as lascivious, jealous, and quarrelsome, and a few Singaporean servant girls, both killed during a battle between the pirates and the East India Trading Company in At World's End. Interestingly, it is unclear what the relationship between these two girls is supposed to be; when the first is killed, the second becomes enraged and tries to avenge her. Are they sisters? Lovers? Friends? There was an opportunity to make something more of these characters, though given the extensive running time of At World's End, one could understand why that wasn't explored.

So what can be done to make the upcoming fifth installment, Dead Men Tell No Tales, less misogynistic? First, add a lot more female characters and integrate them into the POTC universe in an organic way, perhaps in one of the pirate crews. It would be preferable if those characters are not prostitutes or predatory supernatural beings. Second, give the female lead her own goals, untied to loving, protecting, or being subdued by the male characters. Third, give the female lead a conclusion that isn't tantamount to enforced domestication - both Elizabeth and Angelica end their respective story-lines stuck on a lonely beach awaiting their respective love interests. Fourth, have female characters that don't have any romantic story-lines, like the vast majority of the male characters.

As yet, little information has been released about the next film, though it is possible that it will be the last in the series. Realistically speaking, it's unlikely that any of the steps I've outlined above will be taken by the filmmakers. But I'm hopeful that, at the very least, a search for fresh material might lead the POTC team to explore different options for their female characters. Dead Men Tell No Tales will be released on July 7, 2017.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Writing as a Feminist Act in Novels for Girls

One of the first subgenres that fostered feminist writing was the girls' novel, or more generally the coming-of-age novel when it concerned girls. It was (and to a certain extent still is) dominated by women writers and was written almost exclusively for a female readership, particularly an intellectually malleable readership. By concentrating on girl protagonists, the genre, ipso facto, examined the questions young women face(d) upon entering the world as an adult, questions about romance, sexuality, work and career, moral agency and development, familial duty and duty to the self, friendship, and sisterhood. In cases where these questions were dealt with outside of novels for young girls, the writers and the books often faced intense ridicule from male critics. Elizabeth Gaskell was derided for her portrayal of labor unrest and reform in North and South (1855), male critics insisting that as a woman Gaskell was unfit to write politically. When the books were aimed at a young female readership, they often escaped similar critical ire because most of these books were (and in some cases still are) dismissed as lacking in true literary merit, mere works of moral instruction of no importance to "serious" literature. Of the most common threads that link the girls' novel with feminism, writing aspirations are quite prominent.

In one of the earliest feminist novels (not a girls' novel - it was written before the advent of the genre), Letters from a Peruvian Woman (1747) by Francoise de Graffigny, Zilia is a Native American princess brought to Europe as a curiosity. She finds her center of gravity in writing, first with a Native American form of documentation with knots and later with Western writing. Zilia is surely one of the most unusual characters in Western fiction. Her status as a woman of color already makes her rare, but, as depicted by de Graffigny as profoundly intelligent, justly proud, and critical of European social customs, Zilia is an utterly unique presence in European literature. The book is radical above all because it is not ultimately Zilia's fate to bend to the patriarchal custom of marriage - instead, she becomes a writer, self-supporting and no longer bound to any of her male benefactors.

In Mary Webb's Precious Bane (1924), Prue Sarn, born with a cleft palate, does not expect to be able to marry, although she is both physically strong and intelligent. Her difference is marked even further by her pursuit of education, an unusual ambition both because of her sex and her class (she belongs to a family of farmers). Though Prue does not seek out education for professional gain, it is nevertheless significant that she wants to learn to write above all else, that is, to exercise her own identity through language. This pursuit is an expression of self-worth, even with the crushing duress of being female in a patriarchal culture and being deemed valueless by that culture as a result of her cleft palate.

The theme of the girl writer is nowhere more prominent than in the work of L. M. Montgomery. In Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its sequels, Anne Shirley, though she works primarily as a teacher, writes romantic fiction, some of which is published (most memorably, by the Rollings' Reliable Baking Powder Company), while Emily of New Moon (1923) and its sequels are at their core the story of Emily's development as a writer as much as of her coming-of-age. While Anne does not achieve her adolescent dream of literary success, she never stops writing to please herself even as she navigates marriage and motherhood. Emily, on the other hand, achieves a great deal of success and her eventual relationship is based upon a partnership between two artists. She makes significant sacrifices for the sake of her career and doggedly pursues both financial and critical success even in the wake of personal tragedies.

In Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs (1912), Judy Abbott sets herself the task of writing and publishing her novel, a thinly veiled account of her brutal childhood in a foundling home, with the express purpose of both earning her living and paying back her college tuition, paid by the benefactor and correspondent whom she affectionately refers to as her Daddy-Long-Legs. This classic girls' novel has endured quite the firestorm, derided as sentimental, regressive, and maudlin, and while I will freely admit that it is indeed quite a sentimental book, it has surprisingly radical implications. Judy, far from being the fainting wallflower or the alluring Gibson girl, pursues literature and education for the express purpose of becoming self-reliant, of being independent from any form of charity, no matter how well-intentioned.

Though Grazia Deledda wrote more than thirty volumes of fiction and won the Nobel Prize in 1926, only a small number have as yet been translated into English. In her final novel Cosima (1936), an autobiographical rendering of a young woman's coming-of-age in Sardinia, the heroine desires above all else to tell stories and is inspired by the native legends of brigands and paganistic transformation that she has heard since childhood. Cosima starts her attempts at publication early, despite vicious local gossip, the morbid predictions of her scandalized family, and the demoralizing failure of her first novel. Another significant female Italian writer, Clotilde Marghieri, none of whose books have been translated into English, wrote structurally complex books, mixtures of novel, memoir, essay, and meta-text. Her development as a writer is a subject to which she returns frequently and with which are entwined her profound bond with Napoli and the countryside of Campania, her status as a married woman who nevertheless chose to live separately from her husband, and her determination to express female and feminine realities.

Surely the most famous novel about a girl writer is Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868). Jo March obsesses about becoming a writer and directly aligns this idea with male identity. She rejects any signs of femininity, from wearing her hair up and keeping her gloves clean to accepting gestures of chivalry from the men around her. Writing is one more means of rebellion, but more deeply it is what drives her to rebel in the first place. From her earliest plays and sensational fiction to the more reflective work of her adulthood, Jo defines herself by her writing. Her sister Amy's interest in painting forms a striking contrast with Jo's literary pursuits. While Amy pursues her artistic studies as a pleasant and engrossing occupation that will both make her more attractive as a potential wife and fill her time as a single woman, Jo's goals as a writer are both financially practical and creatively aspirational.

It should be stressed that for most of these heroines, writing is not in and of itself enough; most of them want to publish their work, that is, write as professionals rather than dilettantes. These girls do not want to simply express themselves imaginatively - they want recognition for it. The professional aspect of their aspirations is at the root of writing as a feminist act. These young women are not writing simply to "express themselves," to use a rather noxious and politically correct expression. A major epoch, for all of the above-mentioned heroines except for Prue Sarn, is the first successful attempt at publication, though it may be accompanied by disappointments, critical, financial, and familial.

In A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf identified the two essentials women need in order to pursue writing careers on a par with their male counterparts: the room of the title, or a private space from which others are barred, and a livable income. A number of critics have misunderstood Woolf's critique and understood these as requirements for good writing, rather than a good writing career, but Woolf is drawing a distinction. Many women throughout history have written great works - but without those two essentials few have have achieved the same professional success as their male counterparts. Private space and a livable wage enable independence, without which the pursuit of a career in the volatile literary world is untenable. Why do Jo March, Emily Byrd Starr, Judy Abbott, and Cosima focus on earning money, even above and beyond the pursuit of critical acclaim? Precisely because all of these heroines seek independence and autonomy.

The pursuit of privacy, both in the form of a physical space in which to write and of the right to develop one's thoughts without ridicule, is thus crucial to the adolescence of all these aspiring writers. Jo is given encouragement within her family, but does most of her writing in the garret, while Cosima and Emily both hide their activities from families that mock and disapprove of their writing and both rely on allies for access to the necessary materials, in Cosima's case her brother Andrea and in Emily's her cousin Jimmy. Many of these young women, including Emily, Jo, and Zilia, postpone or flat-out reject romantic entanglements that would have eliminated both their privacy and control of their financial earnings.

Writing is thus a significantly feminist act. It is both an appropriation of language, transforming it to reflect female experience and expression, and a means of accruing independence and professional success. 

There are of course examples of feminist coming-of-age fiction in which the professional aspirations of the protagonist are not literary. In A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) by Gene Stratton Porter, Elnora's professional interests are in education and naturalism, while in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret pursues labor reform and altruistic business practice. In Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark (1915), Thea Kronberg studies classical singing and pursues a career as a Wagnerian soprano. In Louisa May Alcott's Work (1873), one of her finest novels and my favorite, the plot details Christie's endeavors to find not merely work that will render her independent and solvent, but a vocation, and in Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886), Jo's pupil Nan doggedly pursues medical studies.

Work remains a profoundly feminist issue - many professions are still male-dominated and even where women have overcome the gender gap, significant compensation inequities are still quite typical. Writing in and of itself is no longer the radical statement it once was for women and this is all to the good. Although sexism continues to exert an influence on, for example, the distribution of literary prizes and fellowships, critical attitudes, marketing strategies, and inclusion in the literary canon, a woman writer is not, simply by writing professionally, extending herself beyond what we consider her natural role. Since 1949 when Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex and forever changed public discourse on feminism and gender, enormous strides have been made and now we face subtler challenges. Women continue to face silencing - women who speak out about feminism and women's rights face death and rape threats, for example - and, even as progress is made, the right to be part of the public discourse is still continually contested. Jo, Cosima, Emily, Zilia - these characters are no longer obviously transgressive, but their development as professional writers continues to mirror the subtler professional struggles of women today.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The 10 Best Pirate Films of All Time

Pirates continue to capture the public imagination, particularly with the revival of the swashbuckler over the past decade with Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. And no great wonder - pirates, both as cultural and historical figures, are absolutely fascinating. Historically, pirates often thrived in a truly democratic society, with all plunder divided equally, compensation for limbs lost, and captains elected by vote (and also removed by vote), in marked contrast to the near slavery and abhorrent conditions under which, for example, the crews of the English Navy lived. (For a fascinating read about historical pirates that gives a strong overview as well as biographies of the most notorious pirate leaders, I recommend Nigel Cawthorne's A History of Pirates: Blood and Thunder on the High Seas.) In the cultural imagination, fostered by Stevenson's Treasure Island and N. C. Wyeth's original illustrations, pirates are vivid, ribald, charismatic characters and it's no wonder that their adventurous lives have been the inspiration for many great films. Here are the ten greatest pirate films:

10. Peter Pan (1960)
Captain Hook is one of the most enduringly great pirate characters of fiction and one need look no further for a definitive interpretation of the crocodile-phobic pirate than Cyril Ritchard's delightfully witty performance. This version of Peter Pan (starring the marvelous Mary Martin in the title role) can be difficult to track down; it was originally produced as a live, color television broadcast and has happily been preserved. With splendidly clever songs by Mark "Moose" Charlap, Jule Styne, and Carolyn Leigh (with additional lyrics from Betty Comden and Adolph Green), including my favorite "Oh My Mysterious Lady," this version is essentially a filmed stage play, but oh what a wonderful one it is! Though the 1953 Disney version is probably the best known, nothing can top this marvelous telling of the classic J. M. Barrie story.

9. The Crimson Pirate (1952)
Burt Lancaster stars as Captain Vallo, a devious pirate captain who, along with his faithful sidekick Ojo (Nick Cravat), forms an alliance with a rebellion against the evil Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley). As thoroughly tongue in cheek as a film could be, The Crimson Pirate allows Lancaster and Cravat - Lancaster's long-time physical trainer - the chance to demonstrate their extraordinary athleticism, with many of the acrobatic stunts verging on the balletic. Originally written as a suspenseful serious drama, the first draft was thrown out because of the screenwriter Waldo Salt's communist affiliation; the final draft is the complete opposite, a feisty, wildly entertaining romp through pirate legends and a pure delight for any pirate film aficionado.

8. The Princess Bride (1987)
William Goldman provided the adaptation of his own brilliant satiric novel for this cult favorite directed by Rob Reiner. Cary Elwes stars as Westley, a farm boy, whose true love Buttercup, played by Robin Wright, is devastated when she hears the news of his supposed death at the hands of the Dread Pirate Roberts. Years pass and Buttercup is chosen as the bride for the eely Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), who is accompanied at all times by the six-fingered Count Rugen (Christopher Guest). Conspiracy, death-defying adventure, nail-biting escapes, and most of all true love - these are the stuff from which this superb fantasy is woven. The film is also supremely funny, with terrific performances by Mandy Patinkin, as a revenge-obsessed Spaniard, Billy Crystal, as Miracle Max, Wallace Shawn, as the Sicilian self-described mastermind who finds everything inconceivable, and Andre the Giant, as the good-hearted and immense Fezzick.

7. The Sea Hawk (1940) 
Consummate swashbuckler Errol Flynn was never better in his star turn as English privateer Geoffrey Thorpe in the very best version of the oft-adapted novel by Rafael Sabatini. Thorpe is one of a group of English sailors who call themselves the Sea Hawks and plunder the ships of the Spanish monarchy to fill the coffers of the English queen, but his blithe pillaging is complicated when he ransacks the ship of the Spanish ambassador (the impeccable Claude Rains) and his lovely niece (Brenda Marshall). Special mention should be made of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's stunning, vivacious score, one of his best, and also of Flora Robson's performance as Elizabeth I. More famous names like Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett may come to mind when we think of the great English monarch, but Robson is downright thrilling, particularly in her final speech.

6. The Pirate (1948)
One certainly doesn't immediately associate Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland, or Gene Kelly with swashbucklers, but they are the director and stars of this great unrecognized pirate film. Manuela (Garland) is a sheltered girl living in the Caribbean, her imagination inflamed by tales of the notorious pirate Macoco. Serafin (Kelly) is a womanizing traveling player who impersonates the infamous pirate, but finds that he gets a good deal more than he bargained for, as Manuela is no wilting wallflower. Manuela's intensely sexualized imagining of the pirate is sublimated in one of Judy Garland's best songs, "Mack the Black," and one of the most explosive dance sequences Kelly ever choreographed. Though more a fantasy musical than a traditional swashbuckler, The Pirate is a very under-appreciated masterpiece. This film also offers a rare opportunity to see the extraordinary Nicholas Brothers in Technicolor.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007, 2011) 
Though the latest entry in Disney's wildly successful franchise is decidedly weaker than the first three, the Pirates of the Caribbean films are a magnificent addition to the swashbuckler genre. This is first and foremost because the screenplays by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot are consistently and brilliantly witty, with an unusually well-structured plot given the complexity of the films, many homages to earlier pirate films, and a slew of running gags. The films are also among a very small number of contemporary films that employ a large cast of character actors, many almost as popular as the leads. The lead actors are also excellent, with Johnny Depp in his career-defining role of Captain Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush as the ultimate blood-thirsty buccaneer. One wishes that other current franchises were as well-crafted and smart.

4. The Black Pirate (1926) 
One of the earliest pirate films, The Black Pirate defined many of the key elements of the genre. Starring the dazzlingly athletic Douglas Fairbanks, the film is about a swordsman who calls himself the Black Pirate, set on avenging his father's death, and who is given the chance to secure power and save his own life if he successfully captures a wealthy merchant ship single-handedly and ransoms the noble lady aboard her. One of the earliest experiments in color filmmaking, this silent film dazzles with its spectacular stunts (many of which would terrify even the most hardened contemporary stuntman and probably wouldn't be attempted today), its outstanding fencing choreography, and Fairbanks's charismatic performance, one of his best. 

3. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Widely considered the best adaptation of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall's novel based on an actual mutiny that occurred in 1789, this suspenseful drama stars Charles Laughton in one of his best roles as the reprehensible, iron-fisted Captain Bligh and Clark Gable (rather disturbingly sans moustache) as Fletcher Christian, first mate, defender of the crew, and eventual leader of the mutiny. The film examines the miserable conditions aboard navy ships quite realistically and the screenplay by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, and Carey Wilson thrillingly depicts the complexities of life on a ship run by a tyrant. The film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture and garner nominations for Best Director, Best Actor (Laughton, Gable, and Franchot Tone all received nominations), Best Writing, Best Music, and Best Film Editing.

2. Treasure Island (1950) 
Stevenson's novel is the essential pirate novel and it is the source for dozens of now-common ideas about pirates, like the black spot, treasure maps marked with an X, and parrots as pets. This is my personal favorite version, both a strikingly well-written adaptation (the screenplay is by Lawrence Edward Watkin) and the first appearance of Robert Newton in what would become his signature role of Long John Silver. Newton invented pirate-speak for his performance and is still being imitated today; he would play the role again in two unauthorized sequels, Long John Silver and The Adventures of Long John Silver. He is joined by Bobby Driscoll (the voice of Peter Pan) as young master Hawkins and Finlay Currie as Billy Bones.

1. Captain Blood (1935) 
Captain Blood is perhaps the greatest swashbuckler of all time and stars Errol Flynn, the ultimate swasher and buckler, in his first major role, opposite Basil Rathbone, who gives another brilliant performance as a menacing villain, and Olivia de Havilland, the first lady of swashbucklers. The story follows a doctor whose good intentions lead him to an accusation of complicity of the Monmouth Rebellion. Sentenced to transportation and enslavement, he escapes and reinvents himself as Captain Blood, the honorable pirate, welcoming escaped slaves to his crew and preying on merchant ships in the Caribbean. Directed by Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk) and with an exceptionally good score by the great composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Captain Blood is the greatest pirate film of all time.

Honorable mentions: Captain Kidd (1945) starring the incomparable Charles Laughton at his most sneering; Blackbeard's Ghost (1968) starring the freakishly brilliant Peter Ustinov in unfortunately less than brilliant surroundings; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) directed by Australian Peter Weir and starring Russell Crowe in one of his best roles; Stardust (2007), which features Robert De Niro in an extended cameo as a gay pirate captain enamored of his reputation as a bloodthirsty killer; The Swiss Family Robinson (1960), one of the finest of the Disney Studio's live action films.

Monday, September 15, 2014

TV Review: The Paradise

The Paradise is a recent BBC production, (very loosely) based on a novel by Emile Zola, though one would be hard-pressed to find any trace of Zola's trademark naturalism. The show follows the staff at a luxurious department store in Victorian England, a veritable smorgasbord of sumptuous dainties and fashions. Joanna Vanderham, looking like a china doll with her long blonde hair, baby blue eyes, and porcelain skin, plays Denise, a young country girl who takes a job as a shopgirl at the Paradise, while Emun Elliot (looking astonishingly like Robert Downey, Jr.) plays John Moray, the owner and one might almost say impresario of the luxurious retail establishment.

The series at times plays like a love letter to capitalism, idolizing entrepreneurial business acumen and salesmanship, but its depiction is complicated by its detailed portrayal of class politics in Victorian England. By setting the series in a department store ("the new church - commerce" as Moray says), the rather confusing labyrinth of intercourse between the monied and working classes is amply explored. This aspect of the series is one of the most fascinating. While the sympathy towards the working classes and those who have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, like Moray, is certainly a product of our own times, the aristocratic characters are given their full due and their own class dilemmas are portrayed without malice or outright condemnation.

The show is most striking in its depiction of gender roles of the time, particularly in showing how women were constrained to do what the men in their lives wished of them, and how they were punished when they attempted to take their own way. Moray's main love interest, Katharine (Elaine Cassidy), a lady of high birth and in his words, a "confection of froth, frivolity, and fashion," is an example. Her father (Patrick Malahide) dislikes both Moray and his daughter's reaction to her lover, while Moray, though certainly attracted, holds her at arm's length and refuses to commit to an engagement. Katharine herself wants to love and be loved, to be happy in the marriage of her choosing. Although this part of the plot is undeniably romantic, the influences of social class, money, and contractual entanglements make it far more interesting than the average love story.

Far more interesting is the interplay between Denise and Miss Audrey (Sarah Lancashire), head of ladies' wear. Conversations between Miss Audrey and Denise often start as seeming commiseration, with both women deeply driven by their professional ambitions, but their ability to relate to each other is constantly undermined by the fact that they are both entirely under the power of the men around them. Even as Miss Audrey notes, "A babe in your arms is not fulfillment," and agrees with Denise that, "There's too much else first," she is so threatened by Denise's talent as a businesswoman that she forbids her to share her ideas. And yet even in the midst of their professional rivalry, Miss Audrey does everything she can to shore up Denise's resolve and not give up on her ambitions by allowing herself a romantic liaison, which in that time period would have signaled the inevitable end of her career. Though she is an undeniably prickly character, by the end of the series Miss Audrey was my favorite.

Denise, despite being full of innovative ideas for business, is forced to rely on the men around her to implement them, pitching her ideas and allowing others to take credit for them, even going so far in one instance as to write a formal business announcement for her uncle. At the end of the first episode she tells her friend, "I don't want to marry Moray - I want to be him." The series is not quite boldly feminist enough to follow this idea as wholeheartedly as one might wish, but Denise's conflicts are often between a desire for professional success and a desire to be kind to others, and not always between her career and romance. It is also Denise who sums up most clearly current pop-feminist ideology: "You say you've never regretted your choice, but what if you didn't have to choose? What if you could have had both?" These are good questions, worthy of being asked, but they are much more the stuff of current politics than the feminist politics of the time.

If the show has a flaw, it is that Denise is so angelic as to be nearly impossible and that Moray, in responding to her, is perhaps too readily understanding, but given that the show inevitably has a fantastic quality, this over-perfection can be forgiven, particularly since these perfections of character clash with pragmatic considerations and in fact create more conflict. The Paradise, like most television dramas, tends to be intensely dramatic, but the writers are savvy enough to focus on class conflict, business maneuvering, and the difficulties of friendship in an essentially competitive atmosphere, though naturally romantic conflicts are present, as well as suspicions of murder and abuse.

The dialogue is far superior to that of most other period shows; although there are occasionally slips in historical accuracy, overall the style, syntax, and vocabulary are of the period (Downton Abbey on the other hand fails utterly in this arena). As budgets for television rise, more period shows are being produced and ever more sumptuously: Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife, The Tudors and The Borgias, Mad Men and Masters of Sex, to mention only a few. The Paradise, with its emphasis on luxury and commerce, is particularly stunning from a production and costume design point of view, but the extraordinary detail, for instance in the display cases of the various departments of the store, is quite exquisite, indeed almost fetishistic, and for that alone, the show is well worth watching for anyone interested in fashion, design, or Victorian aesthetics.

The first season of The Paradise is currently available for streaming on Netflix. There is as yet no announcement of a date for the United States release of the second season.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why Non-Christians Shouldn't Reject The Chronicles of Narnia

Lewis's readers tend to divide into two camps: the Christian and the non-Christian. Though to most, Lewis is primarily known as the writer of The Chronicles of Narnia, his works of Christian apologetics, especially Mere Christianity, are certainly the most famous theological works of the modern era and could easily be considered the most influential across the spectrum of denominations. Lewis's identity as Christian apologist has colored reactions to his fiction, particularly the Chronicles, and has led to a fairly common crisis. Laura Miller writes in The Magician's Book (a wonderfully reflective and thoughtful book about her complicated relationship to the Narnian stories), "I was horrified to discover that the Chronicles of Narnia, the joy of my childhood and the cornerstone of my imaginative life, were really just the doctrines of the Church in disguise. I looked back at my favorite book and found it appallingly transfigured." However, although it's widely accepted that The Chronicles of Narnia can (and perhaps should) be read as Christian allegories, Lewis did not intend any such thing.

Lewis felt that one's personal spiritual convictions inevitably saturated one's writing, but he felt equally strongly that one ought not to insert a moral inorganically into a story. Rather, "the moral inherent in [the story] will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life." Indeed, this has certainly proved the case with many fantasy writers. Philip Pullman's atheist beliefs saturate his novels and form his stronghold in the rather overly combative dialectical battle he fights against Lewis in particular, as well as Christian fantasy writers in general. Like The Chronicles of Narnia, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels have strong Christological parallels and can easily be read as Christian allegory. Rowling herself is a Christian and a church-goer, her characters celebrate Christmas and Easter and clearly live in a Christian context, and she has said in interviews that Harry Potter's ultimate fate could be easily guessed if one knew of her religious beliefs. In one interview, she went so far as to say, "I believe in God, not magic." But Rowling has not written any works of theology, as Lewis did.

I'm not arguing for or against any particular religious beliefs - such an argument would be entirely outside the scope of this blog. But I am arguing, as vociferously as I may, against the rejection of great literary works on the basis of opposing religious beliefs. Yes, Aslan is a Christ figure, and, yes, the magical adventures in each of the books are more significantly spiritual journeys, and for those who reject Christianity, the presence of Christological allegory may not be enticing. But should such parallels constitute grounds to reject an otherwise brilliant, delightful, enchanting work of literature? To my mind, such an idea not merely silly, but parlous.

In order to understand what is in most cases a deeply emotional reaction of betrayal and anger, a feeling of being duped into embracing a rejected belief, one must disentangle the various components that lead to that feeling. Since many, if not most, fans of The Chronicles of Narnia are children when they first read them, many of the Christological parallels are less obvious at first reading, especially if the reader grows up in a non-religious or only casually religious household. Laura Miller writes that reading about Narnia was like "securing a portal." In her experience, as in mine, Narnia was not a mere fiction, but a very real place, a deeply visceral, if imagined, world that one could access through Lewis's extraordinary stories. This intense relationship to a fictional world is not unique to Narnia - many beloved children's books provide similar places to which one longs to go, like L. M. Montgomery's Avonlea, Rowling's parallel Wizarding world, Kenneth Grahame's riverbank on the Thames. But this strong emotional attachment and the feeling of Joy (Lewis's translation of the German word Sehnsucht, which translates as a nostalgic, bittersweet longing, but is a deeply complex word) make the realization or, one could say, revelation of Christological parallels fraught and emotionally complex.

For those who reject Christianity, the realization that The Chronicles of Narnia are works with a profoundly Christian heritage can be extraordinarily painful. But need one be a Christian in order to appreciate literature with a basis in Christianity? I think not. In fact, most Western literature has a strong basis in either a monotheistic religion or in a schismatic reaction against a monotheistic religion. The question then becomes whether or not one should reject literature on the grounds of religious belief with which one disagrees. It is at this point that we enter into dangerous territory. If we close ourselves off to all but completely or mostly shared points of view, we set everything else in opposition to what we believe. This is the root of intolerance. Literature offers a means of developing empathy and tolerance with the minimum of pain and the maximum of thoughtfulness and reflection. Further, the spiritual journeys undertaken by Lewis's characters have significance both within a specifically Christian context and within a looser Western moral paradigm. Eustace Scrubb's transformation into a dragon does not only teach him faith; it teaches him humility, the value of friendship, industry, and cooperation (as a start) - all qualities that have value whether one is Christian or not.

There are several reasons why Lewis, unlike other writers who have created similarly complex fictional worlds in which stories with Christian parallels are set (among fantasy writers, one thinks of Rowling, Tolkien - in his own words, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously at first, but consciously so in the revision" - and George MacDonald), has suffered such a severe backlash. First of all, he was prominently and vocally Christian and one of the best-known theologians of the modern era. Second of all, his literary reputation is splintered due to the prominence of his works across different genres, unlike, say, Tolkien, who is known almost exclusively for his fantasy writing, while his work in linguistics remains exclusively restricted to a readership of specialists. Third of all, Narnia matters too much to too many to fail to provoke profound emotional reaction. It is a testament to Lewis's luxuriant imagination and almost feral creativity that Narnia should matter so much that for non-Christian readers, the recognition of Christological parallels and allegorical interpretation constitutes a genuine emotional trauma.

In the end, the interpretation of The Chronicles of Narnia as Christian allegory is only one of many. As Laura Miller elegantly writes, "Lewis was cognizant of reading, the moment when the words of the writer mingle with the mind of the reader, as a kind of duet, with the reader bringing as much, in her own way, to the union as the writer." While one certainly can read The Chronicles of Narnia as a distillation of Christian ideas and beliefs, one doesn't need to do so. (And really, why must the most obvious interpretation be taken for, pardon the perhaps poor analogy, gospel truth?) To reject The Chronicles of Narnia because one is not Christian is to deny one's own agency as a reader. Agree with Lewis, disagree, argue with him in your own mind, compare, critique - but don't outright reject.

Monday, September 1, 2014

15 More Films Every Feminist Should See

There's been an unfortunate tendency of late to conflate the presence of so-called "strong" female characters with a film's overall politics, though there are numerous deeply misogynistic films with "strong" female characters and quite a few inoffensive, or even feminist, films that do not. Given that it's still quite typical for films to have only one major female character, she often exists alone within the cinematic universe, and is made to represent all women by default. It is far more important to have films that treat women like people rather than archetypes or cartoonish superwomen and it's even more important that films question broader notions of gender. Who cares if a female character is "strong" if she's surrounded by even stronger men, or conforms to imposed patriarchal ideals, or uses her strength only to further goals chosen by men and without exercising her own agency? There are any number of scenarios that render the presence of a "strong" female character utterly irrelevant by putting her in a context or having her perform actions that annul that strength. The films in this list all have female protagonists that have depth and exercise agency. These aren't necessarily feminist films; they're films that have a lot to say to feminists. For more great feminist films, see my original list, as well as my list of feminist period films.

Christopher Strong (1933)
Katharine Hepburn, at the very beginning of her extraordinary career, plays a glamorous aviatrix, Cynthia, too busy with setting new records in aviation and planning a daring round-the-world flight to care about romance. That changes when she meets Christopher Strong (Colin Clive, best known for playing Dr. Frankenstein), who is unfortunately married. The plot of this film is fairly conventional, though it's surprisingly frank about illicit sex and pregnancy outside of marriage, but for feminists, it is fascinating to see Cynthia - a pioneer in a male-dominated and highly dangerous profession - face the tragic consequences of pursuing what she wants in a society that holds her to absurd standards of morality.

She Done Him Wrong (1933)
The best of Mae West's films, She Done Him Wrong is set in a bawdy saloon where the show's star, Lady Lou, tells any man she wants to "come up sometime and see me." West was (and let's face it, is) an utterly unique presence in Hollywood cinema, unabashedly sexual and most definitely sexually active, busting out of tight bejeweled bodices, and never, ever apologizing. Despite playing characters of ill repute (to put it mildly), West always played women with their hearts in the right place and she always got her man - in other words, she had as much sex as she wanted and she never payed the price exacted on pretty much every other such cinematic character for decades to come. A very young Cary Grant plays the earnest Salvation Army worker who attracts the attention of Lady Lou.

The Lady Eve (1941)
Directed and written by the great Preston Sturges, The Lady Eve stars Barbara Stanwyck as Jean, an alluring card shark with her calculating eye on naive millionaire herpetologist Charles (Henry Fonda). Her scheme is stymied by the good intentions of Charles's staff, but having fallen for the guy, she decides to pull her greatest con to get Charles back. Stanwyck regularly pushed the envelope, playing daring characters; in this film, she defies convention by doggedly pursuing her man without becoming a femme fatale. Though one would be hard-pressed to call this film, with its heavy reference to the story of Adam and Eve, a feminist work, its gender politics are far from typical and are a fascinating study.

Salt of the Earth (1954)
One of the earliest American feminist films, Salt of the Earth languished in obscurity for many decades because it was made by black-listed filmmakers and denounced as communist propaganda, and indeed it has the euphoric fervor of Eisenstein's most powerful films. The film owes a great deal to the Neorealist movement, with its cast of largely non-professional actors, its pro-union sentiments, and its subject matter, a strike against a mining company. The film is narrated by Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas), a miner's wife who convinces the other women to join their men in the fight for better working conditions. One of my favorite scenes in all of American cinema is in this film; in it, the picketing women have been jailed by the police along with their children and continue to protest, chanting, "We want the milk," so that they can feed their little ones. An exhilarating document of social protest, set-backs, and change, Salt of the Earth is revolutionary.

The Glass Slipper (1955)
This retelling of Cinderella, one of my all-time favorite films, is also the only adaptation I've seen that, with one fundamental change, eliminates a good part of the deeply ingrained misogyny of the original fairy tale. In The Glass Slipper, Cinderella (Leslie Caron) is not sweet-tempered and docile - on the contrary, she is rebellious, angry at the injustice of her life, and struggling for independence. The story itself remains the same, but, by allowing Cinderella the latitude to be difficult and to develop as a person, learning both to care about others and to care for herself, the film gains in complexity and renders the fairy tale far less sexist. The dance sequences by Roland Petit and the score by Bronislau Kaper are some of the best of the Hollywood era and the cast includes the great character actors, Elsa Lanchester, Estelle Winwood, and Keenan Wynn.

The Trouble with Angels (1966)
Directed by Ida Lupino with a nearly all-female cast, this comedy set at a convent school, stars Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior and Hayley Mills and June Harding as the students who make her life Hades. Though at first glance, the film is just about the rather naive hijinks of the girls, there is a lot of depth to this film. Few films treat nuns as complex, nuanced characters, and in The Trouble with Angels, the decision to devote oneself to something greater is lauded without being rendered either simplistic or easy. It's also a film that, while conservative in its values, delves into an essentially female world and grapples with women choosing their paths in life without the influence of men. It is also quite significant that not one of the nuns is portrayed as retreating to the convent after a failed love affair; rather these women are nuns by vocation, pursuing their calling with decision and fulfilled by their choice.

Cabaret (1972)
Starring the brilliant and fantastic Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles, a sexually liberated cabaret singer in Berlin during the slow ascent of the Nazi Party, Cabaret is, hands down, the best musical of the 1970s, with great songs by Jon Kander and Fred Ebb, including "Wilkommen" and "Money, Money," brilliantly bawdy dances by director Bob Fosse, and knockout performances by Minnelli and Joel Grey. Sally is a free soul, though more determined to be unconventional than actually bohemian, and she's a prime example of the "modern woman" that emerged in the turbulent political climate following the first World War and would be forcefully domesticated following the second, until the advent of second wave feminism.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
This is the fundamental feminist film, absolutely required viewing for any feminist film buff. With a running time of well over three hours and a less than action-packed story, the film is demanding viewing, but well worth it. Belgian director Chantal Akerman takes the viewer through the tedious day-to-day routines of a housewife, lingering over each monotonous detail, and thus making a damning and powerful statement about the barren reality most women faced in the home. Delphine Seyrig, in the title role, is revelatory, channeling with a visceral and brutal intensity her boredom, frustration, and isolation as she makes a meatloaf, reads a letter, makes her bed, and has an orgasm.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
An ambiguous, ethereal, and genuinely creepy fairy tale of a film, Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock proves difficult to summarize. On Valentine's Day in 1900, a group of schoolgirls with their teachers visit Hanging Rock, an extinct volcano in Victoria, Australia. When three of the girls and a teacher disappear on the rock, repressed emotions implode and a desperate attempt to find the missing girls, or at the least, find out what happened to them, founders. Visually gorgeous, the film seems to miraculously channel something sacred, perhaps culled from the Aboriginal Dreamtime. For feminists, the film is something of a secret garden, wordlessly traversing the mysterious regions of love, sexuality, spiritual yearning, and psychic suffering.

Alien (1979)
Much has been written about possible feminist subtexts for this film, and, although I wouldn't say that Alien is really making a clear feminist statement, the character of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains unique in science fiction film. Ripley is the second officer in the tiny crew of the Nostromo, a commercial spacecraft on its way back to Earth. When they respond to an odd distress signal, they accidentally unleash a terrifying alien creature, a bizarre and almost indestructible monster that eviscerates its prey. The science fiction genre has proved particularly hostile to women, relegating female characters to supporting or insignificant roles, especially as romantic interests for the consistently male hero, or simply ignoring them entirely. Although this film was released in 1979, it is still exceptional, both within the science fiction and the horror genre.

Romance (1999) 
Catherine Breillat's film stars Caroline Ducey as a frustrated schoolteacher seeking intimacy in a series of increasingly risky sexual affairs, since her boyfriend (Sagamore Stevenin) pushes her away both emotionally and sexually. The film functions as a tour through the tortured sexual landscape women traverse within a male-dominated world, from rejection to orgasm, submission, and rape, and is one of the few non-pornographic films that features explicitly unsimulated sex (though one of the secondary characters is played by Rocco Siffredi, an Italian porn star). Romance invites many different interpretations, not all of them feminist, but, no matter the interpretation, it is a bold, unblushing reflection on the female body mired in a male world.

Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
If this film has a weakness, it's that it tries to have its cake and eat it too, simultaneously be an anti-romantic comedy and satisfy the rules of the romantic comedy genre. That being said, Bridget Jones is a genuinely flawed heroine, one who doesn't in the least conform to social standards for women, and particularly in a film squarely set in a genre that typically insists on near saint-like heroines, that is already a gigantic step forward. Bridget struggles with her weight (and really does gain and lose visibly), keeps exactly none of her new year's resolutions, makes a complete ass of herself at work, and never remembers to put her underwear in the hamper. The movies are filled with Average Joes; isn't it about time we had an Average Jane?

Irreversible (2002)
Gaspar Noe's film is really unpleasant to watch, but it has to be to make its point.While rape is commonly portrayed in films, it is rarely portrayed realistically. Irreversible is unbearable precisely because it shows rape as a brutal, violent, disgusting criminal act, while in most films, it's eroticized and sparks the usual round of was-it-or-wasn't-it think-pieces (the answer is almost always, yes, it was). Between its nausea-inducing camerawork and its subject matter, this film has polarized viewers since its premiere at Cannes, with huge numbers of theater-goers simply walking out. Irreversible may be the ugliest, most repugnant film I've ever seen, but if it weren't, it would simply be one more film that downplays the devastation of sexual violence against women.

Anatomy of Hell/L'Anatomie de l'enfer (2004)
Another brilliant film about female sexuality from Catherine Breillat, Anatomy of Hell (based on Breillat's novel Pornocratie) stars Amira Casar as a woman who pays a gay man (Rocco Siffredi, who works predominantly in hard-core pornography)  to watch her when she's "unwatchable." Not for the faint of heart, the film is extremely sexually explicit, but the sex is not extraneous. Breillat has mastered the art of the specific sex scene; how the characters have sex explains who they are, how they feel about each other, how the act changes them, and what they want. Power and dominance, orgasm, sexual communion, vulnerability, menstruation, the mysteries of physical difference - these are just the most prominent of the many themes Breillat explores.

Teeth (2007)
I had serious doubts about this film going in, as it seemed impossible that a film about vagina dentata, directed by a man, could truly be making a feminist statement. My apologies to director Mitchell Lichtenstein - Teeth is a brilliant comedic horror film that interrogates male fears of female sexuality by empowering its heroine to strike back at a culture of male sexual violence without forfeiting her own sexuality. Dawn (Jess Weixler) discovers her "adaptation" when her first sexual encounter escalates to a brutal rape and as she learns to navigate a world in which women are, ipso facto, sexually vulnerable, she embraces her unique abilities and turns the tables on her male aggressors (including a less than sensitive gynecologist). A rare feminist horror film, Teeth is as terrifying for men as it is satisfying for women.