Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: "Night Flight" by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery is remembered today, above all, for his beloved children's fable, The Little Prince, but that particular work is anomalous within his oeuvre, which mostly consists of writing about aviation, both fiction and non-fiction. His 1931 novel, Night Flight (Vol de nuit in the original French), is a typical example of his style and his favored subject matter. Taking place over one night in which an airmail pilot and his wireless operator are lost in a storm flying from Patagonia to Buenos Aires, the novel shifts perspectives, providing a kaleidoscopic portrait of the lives around Riviere, the boss and the man who keeps the night flights going through.

Riviere sees himself as a lone hero and his own reflections sometimes verge on the Napoleonic. He is likened (and likens himself) to a war-weary general, unable to sympathize with his men for fear of softening them and abating their courage, and even to a god, dispensing the virtues necessary to spur men to great heights and guiding their planes through the treacherous South American mountains and over the Atlantic. Even his employees see him in those terms. Robineau, the inspector, "likened himself to the N.C.O. who joins his wounded general under fire, follows him in defeat and, in exile, plays a brother's part." Andre Gide, in his preface, subscribes wholeheartedly to this view of Riviere, lauding his "superhuman heights of valor" and "nobility." I must confess myself less convinced of the heroism of the stoic airmail director.

It seems likely that Saint-Exupery would ascribe my skepticism towards his hero as a result of my being a woman, member of that half of humanity Riviere wants to "thrust... aside," for "mothers and women are not allowed in an operating theater." There are only two women in the novel, both unnamed pilots' wives. They are opaque and interchangeable, but Saint-Exupery seems less interested in empathizing with their suffering as they send off their husbands to possible death with each flight than in using their emotional power as an oppositional force against Riviere's hyper-masculinity and insistence on action even at the cost of human life. The wives are described as guardians, ensconced in an elevated domestic role, frequently described in conjunction with flowers, books, and beds, the emphasis of bodily descriptions falling heavily on breasts and lips. Riviere, reflecting on facing the lost pilot's wife, thinks, "Hearing that timid voice, he could but pity its infinite distress - and know it for an enemy!" Pitting himself against the, to him, feminine world of inaction and ordinary life, Riviere forges ahead and relegates human suffering to collateral damage in the, to him, heroic battle for dominion over the night.

Gender, however, is not really at issue. Saint-Exupery divides humanity into types for a larger purpose (echoing the actions of Riviere): the pilots are brave, handsome, and unafraid, their wives are maternal, loving, and beautiful, the mechanics take pride above all in their labor, and the peasants are simple and immured in an eminently "natural" daily life. Saint-Exupery is far more interested in the experience of flight itself than in his characters, deployed rather as symbols. The exception is Riviere, the man at the controls, and this is perhaps why I find him so unconvincing.

Night Flight is nevertheless an astoundingly beautiful novel. Saint-Exupery opens up the mystery of human flight and illuminates the extraordinary experience of being a pilot in the early days of aviation. On nearly any page of the novel, one finds passages of luminous beauty: "The engine's five-hundred horse-power bred in its texture a very gentle current, fraying its ice-cold rind into a velvety bloom. Once again the pilot in full flight experienced neither giddiness nor any thrill; only the mystery of metal turned to living flesh." And again: "Now all grew luminous, his hands, his clothes, the wings, and Fabien thought that he was in a limbo of strange magic; for the light did not come down from the stars but welled up from below, from all that snowy whiteness." With writing as gorgeous as this, character, and even plot, lose their cruciality.

That being said, Night Flight pales in comparison with Saint-Exupery's memoir of his life as a pilot, Wind, Sand, and Stars, which is simply the best book on early aviation that exists. It's heart-stoppingly beautiful, but Saint-Exupery is also at his best when dealing with actual people, rather than types, and he himself comes alive as a charismatic trailblazer. In Night Flight, Riviere seems to be the author's stand-in, directing the various workers under his command like the pieces on a chessboard in a game against Nature; in Wind, Sand, and Stars, a very human voice describes how men transcend the limits of our physical space, rising to heights hitherto only dreamed and mythologized. Saint-Exupery disappeared in 1944 while on an Allied reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean, the last in a life of heroic exploits. He was a far greater hero than the Riviere of his imagination.

The translation by Stuart Gilbert is over all very good, though he occasionally succumbs to awkward phrases that could have been more smoothly Anglicized, one example being "It rejoiced him" - it's not so much incorrect or inaccurate as jarring for an English-language reader. Saint-Exupery's language is coldly poetic, an icy counterpoint to the poetry of Rimbaud. Occasional elegant French phrases simply elude translation into English, a harder, more structurally rigid language, but the radiant qualities of Saint-Exupery's shine even through the sporadic imperfections of the translation.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The 6 Best and 6 Worst Features in the Second Harry Potter Movie

Truth be told, I love Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and I think it's one of the best films in the series. That being said, certain unfortunate tendencies began to rear their ugly heads in this, the second, Harry Potter film, and that would be far more forgivable if they hadn't spawned a movies-long tradition of creating yawning plot holes and inconsistent characterization. The second Harry Potter film cuts out significant portions of the book - including Nearly-Headless-Nick's deathday party, Lockhart's ill-advised Valentine's Day festivities, and all of Peeves's mischief - but overall, it's a strong adaptation that rarely strays too far from the book's plot or the logic of Rowling's fantasy universe. I've already discussed the fifth film in a previous post; here are the 6 best and 6 worst features of the second Harry Potter film:


6. Ron's reactions
Of all the child performers in the Harry Potter series, the unheralded genius was Rupert Grint. Whether it's disgust for the gooey self-regard and silly vanity of Lockhart, unholy terror of a nest of gigantic arachnids ("Spiders... why couldn't it have been 'follow the butterflies'"), or panic as the Whomping Willow takes a good swipe at his Ford Anglia, Grint's reactions to the scenes around him are unfailingly perfect. Grint is never for a moment out of character and his willingness to both see the ridiculous in others and act ridiculous himself keep Rowling's wicked sense of humor alive in the series.

5. The Dursleys have a dinner party and lock Harry in his room
Some of the best cast actors in the entire film franchise were Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw, and Harry Melling as Harry's revolting relatives, the Dursleys. Their scenes are often the funniest in the films and in Chamber of Secrets they're particularly good in two scenes, one in which they prepare to entertain dinner guests and another in which they try to prevent Harry from escaping out his window. Griffiths, who sadly passed away in 2013, clearly relished playing Uncle Vernon and it's a joy to watch his performance. These actors' impeccable delivery make their scenes the most consistently entertaining throughout the series.

4. Richard Harris as Dumbledore
Another of the best cast members, Richard Harris, tragically passed away after completing the second film. Though Michael Gambon does a credible enough job, Harris embodied the complicated character and his interpretation of Dumbledore is definitive. Harris had a gentle whimsy, compassionate depth, and, for all his mildness, an aura of powerful magical ability. While Gambondore teetered on the edge of self-parodying gravitas, Harris as Dumbledore was infallibly the complex, waggish, formidable wizard, a clear descendant of Merlin, of Rowling's creation. His passing left a gaping hole in the franchise that no actor, no matter how accomplished, could fill.

3. Creature designs
The creature designs are fabulous in Chamber of Secrets, from the mandrakes to Aragog and his hordes of arachnid compatriots. Though Dobby looks a bit less like Putin in my own imagination, the house elf, rendered digitally, is a compelling, convincing, and very sympathetic character, though at least some of the credit should be given to Toby Jones's voice performance. Fawkes the phoenix and the basilisk, rendered both digitally and with animatronic puppetry and other practical effects, both invariably convince the viewer that they are real, living and breathing creatures. The success of the creature design in this film can in large part be attributed to the blended use of computer graphics and practical effects, though the extraordinary work done on Dobby shows how amazing CGI can be when done well.

2. The climactic battle with the basilisk
The climax of the film is, of course, Harry's battle with the basilisk. A complex fight scene involving a lot of effects and fight choreography (particularly tricky given the precision required for the effects), the lengthy battle is one of the most impressive set pieces in the series. Chamber of Secrets is arguably the most cinematic of the books and this scene, brilliantly executed, is one of the most satisfying action sequences in contemporary filmmaking. From Christian Coulson as the spine-chillingly handsome and already vicious teenaged Voldemort to the stunning Chamber of Secrets set, this is a great moment for the series overall.

1. Polyjuice transformation
The Polyjuice potion was an essential part of Harry's adventures and it makes its first appearance in this film. In the book, its effects are described as "a horrible melting feeling, as the skin all over [Harry's] body bubbled like hot wax" - that potent imagery is exactly what is rendered onscreen, as Harry transforms into Goyle. It's a far more interesting and convincing transformation process that the simplified version used in later Harry Potter films, most prominently in Deathly Hallows. Details like this are what make the series so much fun, but more importantly, they allow the Wizarding world to take on substance and plausibility.


6. Mrs. Weasley's crochet outfit
Though it may be a small visual detail, Mrs. Weasley's weird, drapey, rainbow-colored crochet outfit, worn on the day Harry arrives at the Burrow, is the most nightmarish costume in all eight films. Its ugliness is outweighed only by its absurdity. I loathe it.

5. Wanton destruction
Big-budget movies almost always come loaded with a lot of explosions, but the property damage in the Harry Potter films is quite intense. The rogue bludger doesn't just attack Harry; it rips through support beams, rendering the quidditch arena, I would imagine, very unsafe, and eventually explodes at the words "finite incantatem," which should just make it fall harmlessly to the ground. Nearly every spell, no matter what it means, sends someone sailing across the room or shatters something, while apparently drinking polyjuice potion not only makes one feel sick, but also compelled to smash the glass from which one has drunk. It's hard to see a justification for the added destruction, bangs, and blasts because the plot already has a heck of a lot of those things to begin with, from the flying car's crash into the Whomping Willow to the pixies' mayhem and Harry's battle with the basilisk. Must all the sets and props be smashed as well?

4. Harry falls out of the flying car
During the flight in the Ford Anglia on the way to Hogwarts, Harry inexplicably tumbles out of the car and has to be pulled back in. Given that the book already has a substantial number of thrilling moments and close calls, this addition is unnecessary and frankly a clear bid at reminding the audience that they paid to see a special effects film. It's a pointless, needlessly melodramatic addition to the already long flying car scenes. 

3. Bonnie Wright's entire performance as Ginny
Bonnie Wright is plainly and simply the worst cast actor in the entire series. This would have been the moment to recast her, given that she had only one scene and one line in The Sorcerer's Stone. The emotionless, wooden mediocrity of her performance in this film is dwarfed only by her increasingly stultified performances as the series progressed. Her chemistry with Daniel Radcliffe is about as thrilling as a wet sock. Ginny is one of the most vibrant and vivacious characters in the book; that's why Harry finds her so attractive. Bonnie Wright appears to have the emotional range of a flobberworm.

2. Hermione explains the term "mudblood"
This particular scene was a major misstep in that it introduced an odd inconsistency in character. Malfoy has just called Hermione a "mudblood," which causes Ron to attempt to curse him. The curse backfires and the three friends repair to Hagrid's hut until he stops vomiting slugs. In the book, Ron is enraged, Hagrid is appalled, but Hermione and Harry, who both grew up in Muggle households, understand that the word is rude without knowing what it means. Hermione's extensive knowledge is academic, but she, like Harry, is ignorant of many of the social realities of the Wizarding community. In the film, it's Hermione who explains to Harry what the word means - that it's a derogatory term for a Muggle-born - but this makes no sense. The only one of the three who would understand the implications of this term is Ron and given the importance blood status plays in the plot, particularly of Chamber of Secrets, reassigning those lines is a contradiction in logic.

1. The clapping, bizarrely captive audience
I'll admit that the entire staff and student body of Hogwarts clapping spontaneously at Hagrid's return at the very end of the movie does make me rather happy because Hagrid is great. However, this started a horrible trend that dogged the Harry Potter films to the bitter end. Emotional moments have audiences, patiently listening and emoting with the hero, even though in most cases, the characters are eavesdroppers who don't have the first idea what's going on. In Half-Blood Prince, all the students and staff stand around watching Harry mourn Dumbledore, even though the lion's share have no clue that Dumbledore and Harry were anything other than headmaster and pupil. In Order of the Phoenix, all of Harry's friends show up to watch him struggle against being possessed by Voldemort so that they can make awkwardly sympathetic faces. Aside from the fact that it's incredibly cheesy, the audience effect is also rather condescending because it seems to imply that the film's audience can't be trusted to know when the big emotional moment has arrived. In Chamber of Secrets, most of the students barely know Hagrid - why on earth are they clapping and oh so thrilled because their school's gamekeeper came back and got a hug from a student, that up until mere hours before, they suspected of being the heir of Slytherin? Hundreds of students sitting quietly and attentively, observing an emotional moment with no meaning to them - this is silly and weird, but worst of all, it stretches the verisimilitude of the film very close to its breaking point.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Best Films of the 21st Century (So Far)

Though it often seems to me that few decent films are being made anymore, once I actually sat down to look at what has been produced over the past fourteen years, I was pleased to realize that, far from withering away, cinema is still in its full flower. Any best-of list is going to be subject to the idiosyncrasies of its compiler; one will notice, the majority of these films are foreign and not in English, while all but one of those in English are British or co-productions. While the United States may produce most of the blockbusters, few American studios are interested in investing money in films of artistic value, preferring to concentrate on short-term dividends derived from following trends and providing entertaining fodder without politics or deeper subtexts. The following fourteen films are the very best of 21st century cinema, so far:

2000 - Memento
Christopher Nolan's second film remains perhaps his most radical (and successful) exploration of subjectivity, perception, and deception. Guy Pearce stars as Leonard, a man who is unable to form long-term memories and, desperate to revenge the murder of his wife, tattoos any information he receives onto his body. The film weaves together complex sequences, the scenes in color in reverse chronological order and those in black and white moving forward in time, forcing the viewer to constantly reconstruct the meaning of the events and exchanges onscreen. The film's grimy, gritty atmosphere, decidedly in opposition to the slick glossiness of Inception, lends it a queasy realism.

2001 - Amelie (Le fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain)
Jean Pierre Jeunet's romantic gem catapulted Audrey Tautou to international cult status and redefined the romantic comedy genre, lending it a quirky, surrealistic charm. Amelie Poulain is a shy and retiring young woman with eccentric hobbies and a yen to make the world a friendlier place. From afar and through his equally eccentric hobbies, she falls in love with Nino (Matthieu Kassovitz), a dreamer who alternately works at a carnival and a porn shop. Though the film is the very definition of twee, there isn't a single misstep into mawkishness or cheesiness; it succeeds as a bubbly, candy-colored fantasy through Montmartre, a romantic comedy that eschews both romance and comedy in favor of a deeper, if phantasmagorical, exploration of attraction and individual purpose.

Runners-up: The Last Kiss (L'ultimo bacio), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Piano Teacher (La pianiste), The Son's Room (La stanza del figlio), Y Tu Mama Tambien

2002 - Talk to Her (Hable con ella)
Pedro Almodovar is one of the greatest living directors and his finest film is this stunningly gorgeous, disturbingly erotic meditation on what it means to love an unknowable woman. Though Almodovar is famous for making films centered on female experience, particularly sexuality and friendships between women, Talk to Her focuses on two men, both in love with comatose women. Marco (Dario Grandinetti) pines over his matador girlfriend, who has been gored by a bull, and forms an abiding friendship with Benigno (Javier Camara), a nurse who ventures into a dangerously sexualized fantasy about the former dancer he cares for. In one of the most stunning scenes - both for its erotic beauty and its deeply upsetting subtext - in Almodovar's visually sumptuous oeuvre a man shrunken to the size of a thumb explores his lover's body in a black and white, silent pastiche of antique pornography.

Runners-up: Far from Heaven, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Russian Ark (Russkij Kovcheg)

2003 - Good Morning, Night (Buongiorno, notte)
Marco Bellochio's gorgeous, poetic, and perfect film tells the story of the 1978 kidnapping of Aldo Moro (Roberto Herlitzka) from the point of view of the one woman (Maya Sansa) among the radical Brigate Rosse, a militant Marxist terror group. Blending the facts (Bellocchio also directed a documentary about the kidnapping) with a dream-like exploration of the woman's psyche, haunted by the collective memory of suffering in both Russia and in Italy, still reeling from the Bolshevik Revolution and the second World War, the film is a moving and deeply complex portrait of both Italian politics and what they mean, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, for politicized Italians. Good Morning, Night is a masterpiece.

Runners-up: Goodbye, Lenin!, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

2004 - A Very Long Engagement (Une long dimanche de fiancailles)
A second collaboration between Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Audrey Tautou, A Very Long Engagement is a dazzlingly complex film about Mathilde (Tautou), a young woman who firmly believes that her lover Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), reported missing and presumed dead in the trenches of World War I, is alive. The film has a number of decidedly French humorous moments, but it is at its core a profound meditation on what World War I wrought upon the French and an unsentimental paean to romantic love. A dizzying array of colorful characters, a serpentine plot that involves them in a military cover-up of shocking corruption and brutally arrogant insouciance, and beautiful sepia-infused cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel contribute to one of the best war dramas of the century.

Runner-up: Anatomy of Hell (L'anatomie de l'enfer)

2005 - C.R.A.Z.Y.
Jean-Marc Vallee's coming-of-age drama set in Quebec in the 1960s and 70s is about Zac (Marc-Andre Grondin), who, growing up with an authoritarian father (Michel Cote) and a pack of rowdy brothers, struggles to accept and to convince his family to accept that he's gay. The film captures the zeitgeist of the era in a way that's reminiscent of the show The Wonder Years, in its use of clothing, music (David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Giorgio Moroder, and Charles Aznavour, to name just a few of the featured artists), and technology; it's also one of the few gay or lesbian coming-of-age films to interpret that coming-of-age in a wider scope, moving far beyond sexuality, depicting Zac in all his dimensions.

Runners-up: Brokeback Mountain, The Constant Gardener, Conversations with Other Women, Paradise Now

2006 - The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)
One of the most devastating films of all time, The Lives of Others follows an emotionally repressed Stasi agent (an incredibly brilliant and subtle Ulrich Muhe, in his last film role) in East Germany five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, who is assigned to oversee the surveillance of the last non-subversive writer (Sebastian Koch) left on the socialist side of the wall. The agent soon becomes obsessed with the writer and his glamorous lover (Martina Gedeck) and for the first time questions whether his absolute loyalty really is owed to the socialist state. Upon the film's release, those who had lived in East Germany expressed amazement at the accuracy of the film's depiction of reality under the totalitarian regime.

Runners-up: The Fall, Jesus Camp, The Prestige, This is England

2007 - Stardust
Stardust is one of the best fantasy films of recent years, though it failed to garner critical acclaim. Adapted from Neil Gaiman's novel, the film is about Tristan (Charlie Cox), a boy who discovers that his heritage is a bit unusual: his mother is a princess turned witch's slave. Tristan travels from provincial England to the magical kingdom of Stormhold where a star (Claire Danes) has fallen and is pursued by a group of malevolent witches and where princes roam in search of a ruby that will grant he that finds it inheritance of the throne. The cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer in a fiendishly ghoulish performance as a witch bent on restoring her youth, Robert De Niro as a closeted pirate captain, and Peter O'Toole as the ailing king with a truly wicked sense of humor.

2008 - The Reader
Though it's easy to frame this film as a World War II movie, that classification misses the point. Michael Berg (David Kross as a teenager and Ralph Fiennes as an adult) is only 15 when he meets Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet), a tram conductor two decades his senior. After she helps him home when he's sick in the street, a gift of flowers meant as a token of gratitude sparks off a passionate, but morally dubious, affair in which Michael reads aloud to Hanna in a sort of erotic exchange. As an adult, he discovers that the woman who introduced him to both sex and literature is in fact an illiterate Nazi, accused of horrifying atrocities. The Reader is an unexpectedly subtle and morally complex film, more about love, sex, and art than about the chilling legacy of the Holocaust.

Runners-up: Everlasting Moments (Maria Larssons eviga ogonblick) , The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Jo-eun nom nappeun nom isanghan nom)

2009 - The White Ribbon (Das weisse Band)
The White Ribbon is an incredibly disturbing film, even for director Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher, Amour), and it is really, really not for the squeamish. Set in a small German village just before the advent of World War I, it examines a cancerous penchant for violence, callousness, and cruelty festering in the repressed Lutheran community. Christian Berger's stunning black and white cinematography renders the atrocities onscreen all the more horrifying, precisely because we aren't accustomed to seeing such things in a period piece. A profoundly moral film, utterly unafraid to delve into the darkest recesses of the human spirit, The White Ribbon seeks to uncover what spiritual malignancy could have produced the generation that supported Hitler.

Runners-up: Bright Star, Fantastic Mr. Fox, A Single Man

2010 - Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux)
Based upon a real incident in which seven Trappist monks were kidnapped in Algeria during the brutal civil war that began in 1991, this French film stars the great Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, and Phillip Laudenbach as a few of the monks who choose to remain in the monastery despite the risks posed by fundamentalist militias. Director Xavier Beauvois favors a spare palette of colors, sounds, and movements, preferring a meditative pacing that accurately reflects the monks' routine, based around prayer, the celebration of mass, and works of charity for the Muslim community with whom they live. Of Gods and Men is a heart-breaking, deeply religious film that draws a stirring portrait of the costs of believing in peace and charity in a violent, sectarian world.

Runners-up: Fish Tank, Four Lions, The Princess of Montpensier

2011 - A Separation (Jodai-e Nader az Simin)
Asghar Farhadi's intimate drama is about Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moaadi), a married couple on the verge of divorce in Iran. While Simin is eager to emigrate, Nader refuses to leave his father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), who is completely incapacitated due to Alzheimer's disease. Their fraught marriage is tested even further when an incompetent caretaker (Sareh Bayat) accuses Nader of pushing her and causing a miscarriage. This profoundly adult film explores the legal and emotional minefields of modern-day Iran, where payments of blood money nullify court cases and religious hotlines operate twenty four hours a day to help determine whether any given action may be sinful. A truly essential film.

Runners-up: 50/50, Jane Eyre

2012 - A Royal Affair (Ein kongelig affaere)
This sumptuous Danish film directed by Nikolaj Arcel is about King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Folsgaard), his queen Caroline Matilda (Alicia Vikander), and the idealistic German physician Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen), who brings the radical ideas of the Enlightenment to the Danish court and becomes caught in the tempestuous marriage of the constantly feuding monarchs. The cast is uniformly excellent, but the real standout is Folsgaard, who, at only twenty eight, is electrifying, illuminating the complexities of a character alternately tortured and entranced by the vagaries of his madness. The costume design by Manon Rasmussen and the set and production design by Niels Sejer are, in and of themselves, worth the price of admission.

2013 - Her
Spike Jonze's meditation on relationships and compatibility in flux with technology is one of the few films to examine the personal and emotional impact of technological change on ordinary human beings. Joaquin Phoenix, in perhaps his finest performance, plays Theodore Twombly, an isolated man who makes a living writing personalized letters for other people. He purchases an intelligent operating system (Scarlett Johansson, whose bouncy voice performance is the weak link in the film), hoping it will assuage his overwhelming loneliness and soon finding that it (or she?) has become his romantic partner. The production design by K. K. Barrett reveals a decidedly futuristic and yet viscerally real glimpse into what could lie ahead, with slight alterations to shape, color, and texture in the designs, while the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is rich and translucent.

Runners-up: Europa Report, Gravity

2014 - The Grand Budapest Hotel 
Wes Anderson's aesthetic world view attains its fullest expression in this wildly funny, sweetly candied, and at moments heart-breakingly moving film about a grand European hotel in its heyday. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant as M. Gustave, the perfumed, sexually ambiguous, fastidious, and above all profoundly charismatic concierge of the hotel, who takes young Zero (Tony Revolori) under his wing and makes him a lobby boy. The film has a dizzying number of great actors waltzing on and off, from Bill Murry and Willem Defoe to Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, and Jeff Goldblum, while Wes Anderson has never written a better screenplay: witty, elegant, a confectionery masterpiece with more substance than most serious dramas.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The 7 Most Engaging Pig Characters in Literature

Pigs are adorable, intelligent animals that have a gotten a bad rap because they are really quite gluttonous, but given our current foodie culture's extreme gourmandizing, who are we to judge? I've always had a soft spot for pigs, perhaps because of the marvelous pig characters of literature. Here are seven truly delightful porcine literary characters:

Babe (Babe, the Gallant Pig - Dick King Smith)
Dick King Smith's most famous character is a loyal friend, determined aspirant to his chosen vocation, and all-around nice guy, a pig that escapes becoming Christmas supper by becoming Farmer Hoggett's sheep-herding miracle. Babe excels at sheep-herding by politely requesting of the sheep to go where the farmer wishes them to, astonishing the clueless human spectators with his success. Babe, the Gallant Pig (known in the U.K. as The Sheep-Pig) is a lovely little tale with a wicked, almost Dahlian, sense of humor. The film is great too.

Freddy (Freddy Goes to Florida, et. al. - Walter R. Brooks)
The hero of Freddy Goes to Florida and its sequels, which are about the talking animal denizens of the Bean Farm, moonlights as a detective, a magician, a newspaper editor, and many other professions. Freddy is the "smallest and cleverest" pig and he usually leads the charge in every adventure, often relying on knowledge he has gleaned from a voracious reading habit, and in particular from his idol Sherlock Holmes. The Freddy series was enormously popular in the '40s and '50s; many of the books are finally in print again after decades in obscurity.

Hen Wen (The Chronicles of Prydain - Lloyd Alexander)
Hen Wen is a rare oracular pig, able to foresee the future and reveal hidden or lost knowledge. In this superb fantasy series based on Welsh mythology, she plays a crucial role, both by furnishing the heroes with much needed information and because she is coveted by those, like Arawn Death-Lord and the sorceress Achren, who would use her magic to accrue power. Her care-taker is the hero, Taran, of The Chronicles, and his involvement in the epic battle to save Prydain ensues as a result of his attempt to rescue Hen Wen. Her character is loosely based on a legendary sow from Welsh mythology, who was implicated in a prophecy concerning the welfare of Britain.

Lester (Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic - Betty MacDonald)
MacDonald's charming series is about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, child behavior expert and widow to a pirate, who knows a solution to every mother's worst nightmares and every brat's most obstinate habits. Lester is one of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's many animal friends, who live with her in her upside-down house. What makes Lester so very delightful is that he is supremely polite and well-mannered, so much so that he is introduced to a nasty little boy to teach it some much needed table manners. Few human beings could aspire to the delicacy and refinement of Lester's eating habits, though he may be a pig.

Piglet (Winnie-the-Pooh - A. A. Milne)
Timid and easily spooked, Piglet is Pooh's dearest companion and he is capable of extraordinary sacrifices for the happiness of his friends, to the point of giving his beloved home to Owl. Piglet has a terror of such large animals as heffalumps and woozles, but when not terrified, he's really a very pleasant sort, always ready a to share a "haycorn" and a leisurely stroll through the Hundred-Acre Wood. He is also the subject of a "Respectful Pooh Song," composed by Pooh in honor of his friend.

Snowball (Animal Farm - George Orwell)
George Orwell's disturbing allegory has a number of prominent pig characters, but I favor Snowball, Trotsky's (and to a lesser extent Lenin's) stand-in, who opposes Napoleon (Stalin's counterpart) in a bid to control the newly human-free farm. Snowball is the idealist among the pigs, writing the original commandments meant to ensure equality among the animals and using his intelligence and enthusiasm to inspire them to revolution. He is brought down by Napoleon's dogs and his reputation smeared beyond recognition, tragically living to see his idealistic utopia become a dictatorship.

Wilbur (Charlotte's Web - E. B. White)
Wilbur is the very best porcine character in literature. As his beloved friend Charlotte writes in her web, he is indeed "some pig," "terrific," "radiant," and "humble," and his gentle nature makes him a friend to all, even the rat Templeton, who is inevitably ruled by his greedy stomach. Wilbur is very much a pig, enamored of his four-times-daily slops and rolling about in the manure, but he's not at all lazy or selfish. Charlotte's Web is E. B. White's masterpiece and one of the greatest American novels of all time.