Friday, September 22, 2017

The One Taboo "Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed" Won't Touch

The anthology, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum was hailed as "hugely significant" (The Atlantic), "provocative" (Vanity Fair, The Rumpus), and "searing" (The Washington Post, The Huffington Post) when it was published in 2015. And indeed the book tackles one of the most stubbornly entrenched taboos of our society: the choice to remain childless.

The essays in the collection range from rather academic surveys of data harnessed to an argument, like those by Laura Kipnis and Jeanne Safer, to lyrical memoirs of childhood, like those by Courtney Hodell and Sigrid Nunez, and harrowing accounts of trauma, like M.G. Lord's essay, or sarcastic humor pieces, like Geoff Dyer's. Any childless person will be familiar with the enraging circumstances every childless woman, and not a few childless men, encounter on a regular basis and the usual arguments and reasons that people whip out when justifying their choice of childlessness. For the open-minded parent, some of these essays might reach for "hugely significant," "provocative," and "searing," but for your average thoughtful, childless person, the theme ends up being a bit of yawn, though some of the essays are fun reads.

In her introduction, Daum declares that her intention was to prod us, as a society, to "stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption - and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness." But there's one taboo that neither Daum nor any of the sixteen contributors dares to confront straight on: none of them are prepared to state, or defend those who state, that they plain and simple don't like kids.

Essay after essay presents the reader with a protest that each of these writers loves kids, but decided, for various and sundry reasons, not to have their own. Here we find the sore spot, the social bruise, that no one dares to palpate. Only one writer comes close and - quelle surprise! - that writer is Geoff Dyer, a straight man. He vehemently demolishes every argument in favor of parenthood with a sarcastic flourish. He complains about the grossness of the entitled little brats who frequent the fancy school in his neighborhood, but moderates his tone for the state school kids who gratefully accepted his used tennis balls.

That's the closest this book gets to acknowledging that you're not a monster if you don't like kids.

A brief, incomplete tour of protestations of adoring the wee ones:

"Let no one say that I didn't spend the equivalent of a year's college tuition hauling my beloved niece and two nephews to the movies regularly during their formative years, bribing them into good behavior with pricey buckets of popcorn and gallons of soda. Let no one say that I didn't do my best to imbue them with my values... and subtly shape them in my image, a project that continues to this day... 'Who's your favorite grown-up' I wheedle..." - Laura Kipnis

"Meanwhile there are a lot of kids in my life. I have six nieces and nephews and I am the godmother of my best friend's son and daughter." - Kate Christensen

"I have friends who are in grammar school, and my favorite movie date for the past six or seven years is presently a junior in high school." - Michelle Huneven

"What I do know is that I have nieces and nephews whom I'm proud to see growing into interesting, thoughtful people. I have friends whose children I adore - even children I haven't met yet... I call all these buns-in-ovens 'Porkchop,' and I look forward to passing along my own wisdom and being part of their lives." - Danielle Henderson

Blech, where is the vomiting emoji when you need it? I could have drawn at least one similar quote from every essay but Dyer's, attesting to each author's love for children. In Meghan Daum's introduction, she baldly embraces the taboo, writing, "We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people's children, which in turn enriches our own lives."

There, in stark black and white, a big, enormous, flashing sign that says: "We're not evil because we like children! We like them, we really, really like them!" There's the taboo that these seventeen childless writers didn't even try to dismantle. Rather, they retrenched behind it. Childless people aren't selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed, it's implied, because they still love children. They just don't have any of their own. But what exactly is so terribly wrong about not loving children, or even hating children? This collection would have had a much better claim to being "hugely significant," "provocative," and "searing," if just one of these writers had had the chutzpah to consider whether loving a child really is a prerequisite for being a human being worthy of being heard, recognized, and respected in our society.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Film Review: "Polina"

Polina, directed by Valérie Müller and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, is ostensibly a film about a classically trained ballet dancer finding her artistic voice. She achieves this by giving up a chance to join the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow and wafting off to France with a boyfriend who previously deflowered her on a heap of tutus. In fact, Polina is the story of a woman for whom dancing is a form of self-expression rather than an art form.

Polina, played as a young woman by Anastasia Shevtsova, wears a perpetual pout, grim, sullen, and inexpressive. She drifts, between silence and insolence, practice and idleness, ambition and apathy - indeed, it's a wonder so many people try to stick with her. Though the camera lingers lovingly on her puffy lips and her wide blue-green eyes, it's hard to say whether that physical surface refuses to yield its psychological secrets, or if there aren't any secrets there to hide. 

Little insight is given into just why Polina feels so stifled as a dancer. She complains that she's sick of "mindlessly executing other people's choreography," but what neither she, nor the filmmakers, seem to realize is that the mindlessness is not soldered onto the performance of other people's choreography. The mindlessness is all Polina's, her boredom, her vacuous disengagement, her sullen refusals to cooperate: none of that is to be found in the ballets that she studies with teacher after sympathetic teacher. Her move from ballet to modern dance is framed as liberation from an overly disciplined, ego-erasing classical technique. I could buy this if the little bits and pieces of choreography that we get to see - there isn't a single, uninterrupted dance sequence in the entire film - weren't so derivative, so blatantly in line with what modern dance is, and has been, for decades, which is surprising given that Preljocaj is quite a respected choreographer. It's impossible to glean why so many people believe in the talent of this incessantly reluctant dancer, since the dancing that the expressions of the actors insist is so moving is... okay, not bad, pas mal

To be fair, blame for this choreographical failure should also be apportioned out to cinematographer Georges Lechaptois and editors Fabrice Rouaud and Guillaume Saignol. Close-up shots, perhaps a legacy of the graphic novel source material, preponderate, claustrophobically cutting off the tops of heads and the tips of chins. The obviously hand-held camera bounces and wavers through shots of static, seated actors, not so severely as to make the audience queasy, but enough to be distracting. The dances suffer most egregiously as a result, with frequent cuts to teary-eyed observers watching the dances chopping up every choreographed scene. Full-length shots are exceedingly rare and, when we get them, seem accidental, the roving camera falling to right or left just enough to squeeze in those feet. No dance will ever look especially impressive on film unless the camera shows us the whole body. An outstretched arm here, a hand on a gauzily wrapped waist there, an upturned face, these offer nothing more than a vague shadow of a movement, body parts rather than a body. 

If the film is meant to be a critique of the stuffiness of classical ballet in favor of the freedom of modern dance, which is, true, somewhat more open-minded towards new, and especially female, choreographers, that critique is both shallow and too vehement. Preljocaj himself switched from ballet to modern. He started working with such lights of the modern dance world as Merce Cunningham - in 1980. I could buy Polina's change in allegiance if the film took place a hundred years ago, during the cataclysms of the birth of modernist ballet, or even during the '80s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but modern dance is already more than entrenched within establishment dance. The vapidity of Polina's balletic rebellion lies in the total lack of artistic risk involved in the decision to move to modern. 

However, maybe Polina shouldn't be considered a dance film, but rather a coming-of-age drama in which the heroine just happens to be a dancer. Her rebellions against her teachers, her slow, painful drop from the Bolshoi to street-dancing in Paris, her self-consciously adolescent self-abuse, then become illustrations of the malaise of being young, relatively talented, and poor. As such, the film offers the pleasures of much young adult literature, both endlessly self-pitying and insistent on the pursuit of 'art,' an art that at bottom isn't about the perfection Polina's Russian maestro (Aleksei Guskov) tells her all artists pursue, but working out the personality kinks that the child of a social worker, rather than a smuggler, might work out in therapy. The dialogue is littered with the sort of generically mystical bromides that are supposed to be deep; for example, "Don't dance. Show me what it's like to look at God."

As a whole, though, Polina is too earnest to be pretentious, too studiously and naively serious. The fact that Polina smiles twice in the entire film illustrates how desperately lacking in a sense of humor both she, and the film, are. While it's true that perhaps the greatest modern choreographer, Pina Bausch, exhorted us to "dance, dance, otherwise we are lost," she also had enough a twinkle in her eye to choreograph an en-pointe piece in which the ballerina danced with veal in her toe shoes. The despair in Polina is unleavened with either the smallest speck of laughter or joy or the withering gravitas of an intellectually grounded postmodernism. Adolescent dancers going through an angsty period might connect with this film, but for the rest of us, it's a slog.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Feminist Rebuttal to Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century

I've become increasingly wary of ranking works of artistic and cultural value as ranking has become increasingly central to the way criticism functions and is understood. Rarely is a consensus ranking particularly interesting, since consensus irons away the fascinatingly idiosyncratic choices that an individual might make. What we agree on is far less thought-provoking than differences of opinion. However, consensus rankings can be a powerful illustration of sociocultural dynamics in the literary world precisely because they demand a certain degree of agreement.

One fascinating consensus ranking is Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century, a list of the top hundred books that 17,000 French respondents nominated in response to the question, 'What books have remained in your memory?' One interesting aspect of this list is that it isn't a list of the 'best' books of the twentieth century, but rather a list of the most memorable. A memorable book could, in theory, be memorably bad, though judging from the list, most respondents chose well-respected, critically acclaimed books.

Out of the hundred books on the list, only twelve were written by female authors. The choices range from major feminist texts such as Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex to experimental novels by Marguerite Duras and Marguerite Yourcenar and a mystery by Agatha Christie, as well as essential works that witness the horrors of totalitarian regimes, such as Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl and Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. The range among this small percentage of the list is impressive; far less impressive is the ratio of female authors to male. Had the list been limited to books by male authors, it would have been essentially the same list; the same cannot be said for the reverse.

Thus, I propose to offer alternatives to the books chosen by the respondents of Le Monde's poll. For each book written by a man, I choose a comparable book written by a woman. The original choices are in brackets and all of my choices not originally written in English are available in translation, unlike some of the books from the poll. Without snubbing the books written by male authors - many of which, such as Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, are favorites - I hope this exercise serves to remind us that the canon is, and should be, elastic. While one hundred is a nice, round number, no scientific law insists that only that many and no more can be considered the most memorable of the twentieth century.

1. Chéri by Colette [The Stranger by Albert Camus]
2. HERmione by H.D. [In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust]
3. The Giver by Lois Lowry [The Trial by Franz Kafka]
4. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt [The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry]
5. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck [Man's Fate by André Malraux]
6. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing [Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline]
7. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse [The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck]
8. In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda [For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway]
9. Precious Bane by Mary Webb [Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier]
10. The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf by Kathryn Davis [Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian]
11. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
12. Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein [Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett]
13. This Sex Which Is Not One by Luce Irigaray [Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre]
14. Wise Child and Juniper by Monica Furlong [The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco]
15. Prison of Women by Tomasa Cuevas [The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn]
16. Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wisława Szymborska [Paroles by Jacques Prévert]
17. Collected Lyrics by Edna St. Vincent Millay [Alcools by Guillaume Apollinaire]
18. Ruddy Gore by Kerry Greenwood [The Blue Lotus by Hergé]
19. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
20. Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture by Sherry B. Ortner [Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss]
21. Herland by Catherine Perkins Gilman [Brave New World by Aldous Huxley]
22. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin [Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell]
23. The Book of Dragons by E. Nesbit [Asterix the Gaul by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo]
24. Progress of Stories by Laura Riding [The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesco]
25. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls by Mary Pipher [Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality by Sigmund Freud]
26. The Abyss by Marguerite Yourcenar
27. Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin [Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov]
28. Orlando by Virginia Woolf [Ulysses by James Joyce]
29. Arturo's Island by Elsa Morante [The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati]
30. Lust by Elfriede Jelinek [The Counterfeiters by André Gide]
31. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy [The Horseman on the Roof by Jean Giono]
32. Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill [Belle du Seigneur by Albert Cohen]
33. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy [One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez]
34. To the North by Elizabeth Bowen [The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner]
35. Reeds in the Wind by Grazia Deledda [Thérèse Desqueyroux by François Mauriac]
36. Eloise by Kay Thompson [Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau]
37. Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield [Confusion of Feelings by Stefan Zweig]
38. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
39. Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala [Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence]
40. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery [The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann]
41. Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
42. Suite française by Irène Némirovsky [Le Silence de la mer by Vercors]
43. In Pursuit of the English by Doris Lessing [Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec]
44. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey [The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle]
45. Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil [Under the Sun of Satan by Georges Bernanos]
46. The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton [The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald]
47. Women at War by Dacia Maraini [The Joke by Milan Kundera]
48. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath [Contempt by Alberto Moravia]
49. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
50. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus [Nadja by André Breton]
51. A Few Green Leaves by Barbara Pym [Aurélien by Louis Aragon]
52. Restoration by Rose Tremain [The Satin Slipper by Paul Claudel]
53. The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington [Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello]
54. In a German Pension by Katherine Mansfield [The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by Bertolt Brecht]
55. Catherwood by Marly Youmans [Friday by Michel Tournier]
56. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle [The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells]
57. An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillesum [If This Is a Man by Primo Levi]
58. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley [The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien]
59. Les Vrilles de la vigne by Colette
60. Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop [Capital of Pain by Paul Éluard]
61. My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin [Martin Eden by Jack London]
62. The King's General by Daphne du Maurier [Ballad of the Salt Sea by Hugo Pratt]
63. The Laugh of the Medusa by Hélène Cixous [Writing Degree Zero by Roland Barthes]
64. The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan [The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll]
65. On Fortune's Wheel by Cynthia Voigt [The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq]
66. Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag [The Order of Things by Michel Foucault]
67. The Moon by Night by Madeleine L'Engle [On the Road by Jack Kerouac]
68. The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf
69. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
70. Mara and Dann by Doris Lessing [The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury]
71. The Ravishing of Lol Stein by Marguerite Duras
72. Selected Poetry by Emily Dickinson [The Interrogation by J.M.G. Le Clézio]
73. Tropisms by Nathalie Sarraute
74. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller [Journal, 1887-1910 by Jules Renard]
75. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen [Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad]
76. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés [Écrits by Jacques Lacan]
77. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes by Lynn Garafola [The Theatre and Its Double by Antonin Artaud]
78. The Group by Mary McCarthy [Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos]
79. The Archivist by Martha Cooley [Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges]
80. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner [Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars]
81. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain [The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare]
82. Obasan by Joy Kogawa [Sophie's Choice by William Styron]
83. 19 Varieties of Gazelle by Naomi Shihab Nye [Gypsy Ballads by Gabriel García Lorca]
84. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith [The Strange Case of Peter the Lett by Georges Simenon]
85. Kinky by Denise Duhamel [Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet]
86. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor [The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil]
87. I Had Seen Castles by Cynthia Rylant [Furor and Mystery by René Char]
88. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers [The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger]
89. The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier [No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase]
90. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling [Blake and Mortimer by Edgar P. Jacobs]
91. Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid [The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke]
92. Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro [Second Thoughts by Michel Butor]
93. The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
94. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter [The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov]
95. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford [The Rosy Crucifixion by Henry Miller]
96. Sudden Rain by Maritta Wolff [The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler]
97. New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver [Amers by Saint-John Perse]
98. Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding [Gaston by André Franquin]
99. The Liars' Club by Mary Karr [Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry]
100. The Third Eye by Mollie Hunter [Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie]

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Film Review: "The Purple Rose of Cairo"

As a general rule, I'm not a fan of Woody Allen. I find his neurotic self-absorption and flippant yet pretentious sense of humor all but unbearable and rarely find him as witty, clever, or innovative as many critics seem to, so I went into The Purple Rose of Cairo with no little skepticism.

The premise of the movie - a movie character walks off the screen and into the arms of a sweet girl in the audience - essentially reverses the plot of Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr., in which a projectionist dreams himself and the girl he loves into the movie he's showing. Mia Farrow plays a waitress, Cecilia, on the outs with her boss, married to a lout who spends all his time on dice, and who, more than anything else, loves the movies. The Great Depression is in full swing and the movies that bring a smile to her face are musicals and pictures about high society people in exotic locales. Then one day, the character of Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), "honest, dependable, courageous, romantic, and a great kisser," walks off the screen because he's fallen in love with Cecilia and wants to be real.

Allen plays down the fantastic element of this premise, with copious dialogue from the vast majority of characters commenting on the impossibility of a fictional character walking around in the real world and expressing outrage and astonishment. The porousness of the screen is never explained, but once the Hollywood actor who plays Tom (also Jeff Bridges) arrives to try to corral his double back into the movie, Cecilia has to decide between the real and the imaginary. Her choice is predictable, but Allen denies us the expected Hollywood happily-ever-after. Those sorts of endings are only for the movies.

In essence, The Purple Rose of Cairo is an extended riff on one joke. Sometimes it works brilliantly, particularly with the scenes of the movie-within-the-movie's characters alternately panicking and whining because they can't continue the picture. Van Johnson, star of studio pictures like In the Good Old Summertime and The Last Time I Saw Paris, has a delicious, and easy-to-miss cameo as one of the disgruntled characters. However, Allen, though he may be known for his 'witty' dialogue, doesn't have a perfect ear for the the snappy, slang-ridden writing of '30s cinema. A clunky self-consciousness steals into a lot of the lines in the movie-within-a-movie, which is too obviously a pastiche and never convinces as a real hit picture. The best lines are less willfully cartoonish and quite quotable: "I just met a wonderful new man. He's fictional but you can't have everything;" "I'm sorry. It's written into my character to do it, so I do it;" or "I don't get hurt or bleed, hair doesn't muss; it's one of the advantages of being imaginary." The movie is most convincing, not to mention most fun, when Allen uses a softer, lighter touch, in a totally different register than, say, the zany slapstick of Sleeper or the arch flippancy of Annie Hall and Manhattan. But even in this more bittersweet mode, The Purple Rose of Cairo feels wafer-thin, like a short film extended to feature-length.

In part, this is because the movie drags in an element of intellectual theory - implicit references to Pirandello, Deleuze, and Kracauer - that it can't quite bear. The movie's structure depends on a strict demarcation between the real and the fictional that a body can pass over as though going through a door, but the two worlds never actually fuse or collide: the boundary is stable. While ostensibly examining the blurring of reality and a fictive world, The Purple Rose of Cairo actually enforces the stark difference between the two. Many of the wittier lines rely on this; for instance, someone points out that, in the movie-within-the-movie, the champagne is really ginger ale. (Some of the clunkier plot elements, such as Tom Baxter's fake money, do as well.) Yet, even the earliest film theories and philosophies have subtler things to say on the issue of the 'real' vs. the cinematic. All Allen really does is point out the commonsensical difference and the fact that a real person can't inhabit a fictive world for long. Heck, Keaton's film is vastly more intellectually complex.

Allen also shoehorns a critique of religion, attempting to make it dovetail with a confused notion of the screenwriters as gods, which is both philosophically muddled and badly integrated into the film as a whole (though in one moment, rather funny - when the movie-within-the-movie's priest insists that nowhere in the Bible does it say a priest can't be imaginary). Cecilia brings Tom to a church as part of his education in the real world and where he ends up getting beaten up by Cecilia's irate husband. This scene occurs in a church in order to set up Tom's later naive line about "thinking about very deep things." Tom is a wee bit of an airhead, but what he's saying about the screenwriters as gods is actually supported by and large by the movie, rather than criticized, or even complicated. There's something grating to me about a critique of religion that is so flat-footed and intellectually vacuous, a potshot that veers off into nothing.

Even so, there are more things to like in The Purple Rose of Cairo than to dislike: the jazzy score by Nick Hyman, Diane Wiest in a small, though glam role as a red-lipsticked prostitute, the evocatively sparkling sets and costumes for the movie-within-the-movie. It's a relief to have Allen kept off-camera and it's a pleasure to look at such a meticulous recreation of a small New Jersey town in the '30s. While I wouldn't go anywhere near calling The Purple Rose of Cairo a masterpiece, I would call it the high point of Allen's career.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Is Bridget Jones a Feminist Character (And Does It Matter)?

Helen Fielding's hit novel, Bridget Jones's Diary, and its subsequent film adaptation directed by Sharon Maguire and starring Renée Zellweger are unquestionably popular, with sequels both literary and cinematic extending Bridget almost into a franchise unto herself. Online feminist response to characters like Bridget Jones tends to be divided between fans of romantic comedies and chick lit and detractors who condemn such genres as a priori anti-feminist. The first group points to Bridget's relatability and the flaws and imperfections that nevertheless don't exclude her from the possibility of exciting, sexually satisfying relationships. The second group points to Bridget's preoccupations with her romantic status, weight, and food intake and sees her as self-involved and in thrall to patriarchal social imperatives, while her narrative arc is defined by a modern iteration of the marriage plot.

Both critiques are fair and both are, in a way, correct, but each rests on an assumption that feminism dictates a particular way of being for women, and especially female characters, assumed as role models and mirrors. The contradiction lies in diverging understandings of what feminism means and what it should accomplish, but despite their opposite conclusions, the two viewpoints both suffer from an ideological fallacy.

Champions of Bridget Jones subscribe to a feminist imperative to represent women as 'real people,' that is as flawed people, without punishing them for their imperfections. This means, in practice, that these characters exist in narrative universes that are highly traditional in structure, but in which they do not abide by the traditional standards of femininity. These deviations, however, tend to be superficial and slight, for instance, clumsiness or a habit of saying the wrong thing at the worst moment. The character must be imperfect, but also likable. From this angle, Bridget is feminist because her success, in this case romantic in nature, is not circumscribed by the character traits that mark her as flawed. Her ultimate happiness is a reward for being herself, proof that one needn't be a Barbie doll to get a modern-day incarnation of Mr. Darcy. She is, at base, a nice person, her worst quality arguably flightiness, and this is enough to make her worthy.

Detractors instead subscribe to a feminist imperative to represent women as they should be and the world as it should be. As a result, a feminist character must consciously reject societal expectations of how women ought to behave, feel, and think. A feminist story cannot revolve around men, especially men as romantic partners. From this perspective, Bridget Jones's Diary as a whole is anti-feminist because the narrative traces Bridget's romantic involvement with men and Bridget herself isn't feminist because her ultimate goals - a sexy boyfriend, a thin body, a demeanor that reflects 'inner poise' - are subservient to the larger social expectations that women confront. Instead of declaring and actually believing that she doesn't need a man to be happy, Bridget really does want a relationship and only occasionally expresses feminist beliefs, rarely acted upon.

Both camps share two fundamental problems, though each approaches them from the opposite direction. The first issue is judgment. In both cases, a female character is judged by an imposed standard derived from feminist ideology. But, whether the preference is for representations of (superficially) flawed women who get the guy or liberated women who have no need for men and can take them or leave them, a judgment is made. As soon as that happens, an impulse towards freedom and liberation for all women is confined to a small, special class of women - those who attain success and happiness, whether it involves a man or not. This doctrine is disastrous politically, but not especially insightful as far as literary or film criticism is concerned. If Bridget Jones is going to be held to such high standards, whether getting the guy of her dreams or rejecting the romance she actually wants to prove a political point, then feminism is transformed into yet one more form of oppression for women. Freedom of choice is withheld; feminist credentials are issued or denied according to how well or not a woman has met ideological standards. Judgment is both a dubious critical device and a nasty political one. Since we tend to view characters, rightly or wrongly, as proxies, models, or mirrors, condemning a character for failing to be a feminist is another way of punishing women who don't fall into line.

The second issue is whether or not romantic relationships with men can legitimately be the primary focus of female characters', and by extension women's, lives. This is a very old debate, that can be traced directly back to the earliest feminist discourses, including some materials from the French Revolution. The issue turns on the function of stories and whether one believes they ought to show reality or a projected and hoped-for possible reality. It might be nice to allow for both types of stories and to consider, on an individual basis, whether a given story is depicting one or the other. The truth is that for many women romantic relationships with men are a primary focus for at least a period of their lives. If we punish women for that, we're no better than the billions of men now and throughout history who consider themselves entitled to punish women who don't make those relationships a primary focus. If feminism opens up new doors for women, it's debatable whether it should also close other doors in the process.

In the end, whether one believes Bridget is a feminist character because she's relatable, likable, and romantically triumphant or that Bridget is not a feminist character because her needs and desires are directed principally towards appearing attractive to and attaining a relationship with a man, this sort of evaluation risks creating a parallel set of rigidly enforced standards for women, as suffocating and unyielding as the insidiously evolving standards of patriarchy. Rather than simply checking a box, 'yes' for feminist, 'no' for everything else, feminist criticism ought to be a subtler examination of how and why feminism operates, or fails to operate, in the cultural sphere. If it's merely a matter of sorting the goodies from the baddies, then feminist criticism, far from revolutionary, is following exactly in patriarchy's footsteps.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Genre Fiction Shouldn't Be Considered 'Serious' Literature

It's become trendy to lament the critical drubbing reserved for certain popular genres among, ironically enough, the American literary establishment. In the pages of the New York Times Book Review and similar literary gate-keepers, one will find such comments applied to the graphic novel, true crime, horror, chick lit, bodice rippers, and science fiction. Though nearly every critic who stages such a defense depicts himself as a lone voice, it's a hugely popular and pretentious way to signal a lack of pretension. This attitude extends the logic of diversity to genre and it's embraced as a form of progressive politics.

This is silly, which is not to say that there aren't genuine political prejudices at work in the contempt displayed for certain genres, most obviously romance. While there's nothing wrong - and a heck of a lot right - with analyzing the politics and artistry of such books, there is something wrong with pretending that genre labels are somehow discriminatory and a means of oppression. Genre labels are functional; they help readers find the sort of book they want to read. The truth is that genre fiction is less 'serious' than literary fiction, for the simple reason that genre fiction subscribes to certain structural, aesthetic, and narrative formulas, while literary fiction rejects, or at least attempts to reject, formulas. There might be a significant grey area here, but it is possible to make the differentiation.
 
The formulaic nature of genre fiction is part of its appeal. Horror fans want to find thrills and scares in their novels, mystery fans want to solve crimes, romance fans want amorous fantasy and titillation. The subversion of the formula is more often than not what allows a work of genre fiction to make the leap over into literary fiction. (Established literary names will also usually have their genre efforts shunted over to the realm of more 'serious' literature - whether it's fair or not, an author's reputation matters a lot when it comes to a book's reception.) Ultimately, the genre formula is the draw, and not a defect, a feature, rather than a bug.

The current American literary scene discourages negative reviews and encourages puff pieces, while the world of literary social media is dominated by political crusades against books and writers perceived as intolerant or politically out of line. This atmosphere of hair-trigger outrage, gushing support for the literary enterprise, and corporate-flavor marketing puts critics in a less than comfortable position. The American literary establishment has always prized the middle-brow and lifted a mocking eyebrow at the high; now, critics prove that they're not evil by not merely embracing the low-brow, but defending it as though it were in mortal danger, though of course the very genres that are being treated as damsels in distress are the least imperiled. Those are the books that hit the best-seller list.

None of this means that genre fiction is without value; rather it means that its value lies precisely in its difference from literary fiction. Readers turn to genre fiction for the same reason that they might go to see a superhero movie or stream a song by Taylor Swift. The formula is dependable, even the big twist is dependable, since that twist is part of the formula, just as the modulation and bridge are in a pop song. 

Being a fan of Helen Fielding and Marian Keyes, queens of chick lit, doesn't prevent me from recognizing that their work, charming and chummy and toothsome as it is, is not serious literature. They absolutely deserve their success, but they, and their fellow genre writers, are not experimenting with form or convention, or tackling the more difficult and contentious aspects of either individual or collective life. Their heroines are likable and relatable. Their endings are upbeat. The darkness is always sweetened with light. And that's great! Because those things are what I want from chick lit. Something similar could be said of almost any genre, depending on the particular reader. I happen to enjoy books about young single women whose lives are messy but fun and someone else might go for books about people with superpowers saving the world or detectives with a past solving a gruesome murder or teenagers doing all the screwed-up, slapdash things that teenagers do. Those preferences are not stupid or demeaning, but neither are they worthy of praise. They're merely an expression of mood and taste.

The idea that refusing to call genre fiction serious is somehow an insult presumes that seriousness is good, but seriousness is only good when it's in the right context. That's why we laugh at people who act deadly serious while, for instance, getting interviewed on the news in their skivvies. It's also why we feel scandalized when someone tells inappropriate jokes after someone's dog died. By wringing our hands over the critical reception of genre fiction, critics don't rescue it from an unjustly ignominious failure. Rather, they pander to a public that has fatally misunderstood identity politics.

Increasingly, readers identify themselves with their tastes. It is not unusual to hear someone say that he identifies as a Star Wars/Batman/Harry Potter/John Green, etc. etc. fan. Unsurprisingly, the people most keen to revile critics of their favorite stories and characters are straight white men, so it strikes me as possible that this blurring of the line between who we are and what we like is rooted in a desire, especially on the part of those who are decidedly not marginalized, to claim injury in the face of diversity. If we really are what we like, then every time a critic pans, or even just gives a lukewarm reception to, something we like, then the review becomes an insult, but here's the rub: we're not what we like.

Criticism is worthless if it's merely a concession to dominant tastes or strident fandoms. Genre fiction isn't junk, but it deserves a critical evaluation that considers it in its proper context. Liking Gillian Flynn or Dan Brown better than Kazuo Ishiguro or Marilynne Robinson doesn't mean Flynn and Brown should be judged by the same standards as their more critically acclaimed colleagues, nor does it mean that you're somehow a lesser person. It just means you prefer Flynn and Brown. No one can demand that the whole world subscribe to his or her individual taste. Even the attempt is obnoxious and puerile. The best thing both for readers and for the literary world at large is to have the widest possible range of literature to choose from, stretching from the fluffiest, most escapist genre fiction to the most complex, erudite, and gymnastically written literary fiction, with an equally wide range of applied critical standards. Rather than argue about which books are the most important and relevant and necessary, maybe we could stop ranking and start reading.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Problem with a Modern "Auntie Mame"

Last year, Annie Mumolo, co-writer of Bridesmaids and Joybroke the news that she had begun collaborating with Stan Chervin, co-writer of Moneyball, on a modern-day adaptation of Auntie Mame, to star Tilda Swinton as the madcappiest of madcap aunts. The project, not even written yet, already smells (or stinks, depending on your tolerance for the Academy) of Oscar nominations.
 
The 1958 adaptation of Patrick Dennis's bestselling novel starred Rosalind Russell in one of her most iconic and brilliant roles. The movie hewed much closer to the stage play than the novel, which is essentially a series of linked short stories about Mame's various escapades, a choice that was all to the good. The fabulously witty team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote both Broadway and Hollywood hits, including Singin' in the Rain, gave Mame her most quotable line ("Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!") and imbued the film with a rapid-fire pacing that suited Russell's screwball comedy chops to a T.

A second adaptation, simply called Mame, came out in 1974. Based on the musical version of the play, the movie starred Lucille Ball and it is hopelessly bad, a treacly, ponderous marzipan elephant of a film that has all the awful hallmarks of '70s musicals and none of their kitschy charms. Ball, in particular, is a great disappointment, coming off as sad, old, and bored.

The films shrink the time-frame slightly, and leave out a number of chapters, most notably the one set during World War II in which Auntie Mame adopts six British refugee children, whose more charming qualities include shoplifting and playing at pimps and prostitutes. I think it's fair to assume that the new adaptation will also streamline the narrative and leave out a fair number of escapades.

Now, I'm not going to start boo-hooing about the remake-itis epidemic running rampant in Hollywood. There's nothing wrong with remaking an old project as long as you do it well. The fact that very few people in Hollywood seem capable of doing it well is a different issue. But, still, I find it hard to believe that this new Auntie Mame is going to work, even with the majestically chameleonic Swinton.

That's because this new adaptation is going to be reset in the modern day. Herein lies the problem. Some books adapt well to other time periods, especially if the writers don't stick too closely to the source material. Think of Clueless, adapted from Jane Austen's Emma, Bridget Jones's Diary, adapted from Pride and Prejudice, Carmen Jones adapted from Mérimée's novella and Bizet's opera, or Cruel Intentions, from Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses. But I don't think it will work for Auntie Mame. Part of the issue is style and part of it is content. Just as Mame is constantly inhabiting different roles (and buying extravagant wardrobes to match), Dennis uses carefully delineated aesthetics to indicate the politics, status, wealth, and worthiness of the characters. Style, whether in terms of fashion or comedy, will be a massive problem. Certain audiences are not going to deal with Mame's dabbling in various cultures, swanning about in saris with swamis, tramping in tweeds and brogues with Irish poets, or drawling her 'r's with yankee-hating plantation-owners. This play-acting is at the very crux of Mame's personality. She is remarkably unprejudiced for a woman of her time, welcoming Jews, homosexuals, and many other marginalized people into her home, but that doesn't make her behavior politically correct by today's standards. It's possible that Mumolo and Chervin will come up with some clever way of letting Mame play without stepping on anyone's toes, but the subversiveness of the character will be hopelessly neutered if they take it too far.

Much of the comedy of the various stories rests on the specific historical moment in which the novel and films are set. It will be difficult, for instance, to figure out why Mame would need to take in her pregnant, abandoned secretary Agnes Gooch in a world in which many women choose to become single mothers without a whiff of scandal. While much of the politically incorrect stuff will undoubtedly be cut, especially the giggling Japanese houseboy, Ito, none of the stories will have much substance left in the modern world.

It seems likelier that Mumolo and Chervin will try to milk comedy from the collision of Auntie Mame with modern life: social media, online dating, texting, avocado toast, and the like. But unless Auntie Mame is a time-traveler, there won't be a collision. Mame adores the new and modern, she is as mutable as fashion, and would have no trouble changing tastes as fast as twitter storms gather, break, and pass. Whole new scenarios will have to be dreamed up for Mame.

However, the reason I most doubt this new adaptation is this: Mame is enormously wealthy. Her many obsessions are fueled by a large disposable income. Mame without money isn't Mame. But in the wake of the Great Recession, the expensive eccentricities of the mega-wealthy are difficult to laugh about. While the tech moguls, Wall Street brokers, and CEOs buy Caribbean islands, recreate Hobbiton for their weddings, keep a plane or two on call, and think themselves magnanimous if their companies offer ten cents per coffee for charity, millions of people worldwide go hungry. In the prosperous '50s, when Patrick Dennis introduced the world to Auntie Mame, desperation wasn't a dominant cultural flavor. Now, a reborn modern Auntie Mame will have to endear herself to us in a world where the difference between the haves and the have-nots is becoming ever more gargantuan. I won't say it can't work, but I'm not feeling confident. Can we like a madcap millionairess anymore?

Thursday, July 27, 2017

10 Sports Movies for People Who Don't Like Sports

Give me an 'S'! Give me a 'P'! Give me an.... oh, yuck, sports movies, definitely among my least liked film genres. I can understand why someone would want to play a sport, but I'm at a loss as to why anyone would want to spend hours upon hours watching other people play. As a result, few sports films hold my attention, let alone enjoy my sympathy, for very long. However, I firmly believe that a true cinephile will find treasures even amid the most unappetizing dross and, so, here are ten sports movies for people who, like myself, don't like sports:

Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
This charmer directed by Gurinder Chadha stars Parminder Naga and Keira Knightley as young women who want to play soccer against their families' wishes and Jonathan Rhys Myers as their coach and eye candy. Jess's conservative Indian expat family forbids her participation in sports and tries to hustle her into an arranged marriage, while Jules rebels against her mother's rigid conformity to femininity, which comes to a head with an embarrassing display of misplaced homophobia. Ultimately, Bend It Like Beckham is a frothy romantic comedy with a soupçon of social commentary, starring girls wearing cleats instead of heels, a pleasant means of wiling away a rainy afternoon.

Breaking Away (1979)
This quietly brilliant dramedy stars Dennis Christopher as an aimless guy in Bloomington, Indiana, a passionate cyclist who exuberantly embraces all things Italian. With no more jobs at the local quarry and no serious plans to enroll at the university, he and his friends (Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley) are unmoored from their own futures. The four end up competing against the university teams in the Little 500. The screenplay by Steve Tisch won a much deserved Oscar and the sensitive, warm-hearted, but rather thorny performances do it justice. What elevates Breaking Away above the run-of-the-mill coming-of-age movie lies in its refusal to succumb to simplistic Hollywood solutions without tipping to the other extreme into existential despair. Perfectly balanced between drama and comedy, dejection and blithe good humor, bitterness and sugar, this film pleases whether the viewer would snooze through the Tour de France or not.

Good News (1947)
Directed by choreographer Charles Walters, Good News exists in a lily-white fantasy world where college students cheer the football team, stay thin on a malt and milkshake diet, and take classes only to impress the girls. June Allyson, somehow both a student and a librarian, tutors quarterback and heartthrob Peter Lawford and they end up hotfooting it at the most choreographed prom this side of High School Musical. Unquestionably silly, this film in distress is rescued by lively, pithy songs, some wacky Technicolor costumes, and frenetic, virtuosic choreography. 

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)
This delightful comedy, recently released by the Criterion Collection, stars baby-faced Robert Montgomery as an eccentric, sax-playing boxer who is accidentally collected by his anxiety-ridden guardian angel (the brilliant character actor, Edward Everett Horton) fifty years before his time. The angel's boss, Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains, utterly perfect), gives him a second chance, in a different body, since his own has already been cremated. Though the movie at times betrays its origins as a stage play, it radiates a sweetness that is never cloying and a robustly chipper sense of black humor. 

National Velvet (1944)
Clarence Brown's adaptation of the Enid Bagnold novel stars Elizabeth Taylor as a horse-mad kid who sets her heart on her gelding, The Pie, winning the Grand National Steeplechase, Mickey Rooney as an embittered former jockey, and Donald Crisp and Ann Revere as Taylor's taciturn, if supportive parents. An undisputed classic, National Velvet shines as a superlative example of a family picture, as powerful for adults as it is for children. It also gave Mickey Rooney a rare opportunity to flex his dramatic acting muscles in a role tailor-made for the scrappy actor, while Taylor is radiant in every sense of the word.

Olympia (1938)
While The Triumph of the Will betrays not the slightest deviation from slavish devotion to Hitler and Nazism, Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia is a more complex beastie, for the visionary director allows herself to be distracted from her reprehensible politics by her artistic sensibility: Jesse Owens's victory is too plummy to avert the camera's eye, or downplay its heart-stopping triumph. If the politics of Olympia are a tad confused, the artistry and sheer beauty of shot after glorious shot of Olympic athletes are undeniably mesmerizing, especially after the transition from the first part, "Festival of Nations," to the second, "Festival of Beauty." 

Rocky (1976)
To my surprise, Sylvester Stallone's wildly successful boxing film completely beguiled me, winning me over with a vulnerable performance and a sensitive screenplay from Stallone, expert montage work by editors Richard Halsey and Scott Conrad, a quirkily unconventional leading lady in Talia Shire, and Bill Conti's score, which somehow hasn't been spoofed to death. Though the core of story is the fight between Rocky and the heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), the emotional heft of the film is built up from the richly drawn life of an Italian immigrant neighborhood in Philadelphia, its shops and street markets, a too-fleeting savor of a culture that's all but disappeared.

Surfwise (2008) 
Doug Pray's oddball documentary about the Paskowitz family captures both the winning charms and the mangy miseries of a ruthlessly idealistic adherence to the countercultural forces of the 1970s. Doc Paskowitz, disgusted with the emptiness and conformism of American middle-class life, leaves behind his medical practice and hits the road, taking his wife and nine children along for the ride (in an obscenely cramped trailer). The family's passion is surfing, but the carefree, back-to-nature ideologies that Doc embraces also come with bone-scraping hunger, a struggle to attain basic literacy, the impossibility of lasting friendships, and a total lack of privacy, along with endless opportunities to ride the waves. Pray is wise enough to let us sit with the tangled mess that idealism has wrought for this family, wise enough to withhold absolute judgments without falling into credulous acceptance.

Third Man on the Mountain (1959) 
A solidly crafted and consistently entertaining live-action Disney film, Third Man on the Mountain is formulaic, but succeeds in demonstrating why the formula came to be in the first place. James MacArthur stars as a Swiss youth determined to follow in his mountaineer father's footsteps, Michael Rennie is his mentor, Janet Munro is his spirited, adorable sweetheart, and Laurence Naismith gives a memorable turn as a crabby climber-cum-chef. Filmed on the Matterhorn, the film is worth watching for the dizzying climbing footage alone.

Thoroughbreds Don't Cry (1937)
I have a huge soft spot for this first team-up of my beloved Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Garland plays the plucky niece of a boardinghouse landlady (Sophie Tucker, criminally forgotten today) and something of a mascot for the jockeys who board with them. Had Freddie Bartholomew not been replaced by the far less charismatic Ronald Sinclair, the film would have more powerful star credentials, but as it is, it's a bubbly romp at the race tracks. As far as sports movies are concerned, Garland debuted the year before in Pigskin Parade, an unusually silly and ungainly football musical, recommended for Judy completists only.

Readers, what sports movies do you recommend for people who are apt to take a catnap at the ballpark, snooze at the ice rink, and seek a sad solace at the bottom of a thermos at the football arena?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Narnian Women, Part 2: "Prince Caspian"

In the second published volume of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis calls the four Pevensie children back to Narnia to aid Prince Caspian, the rightful heir to the throne, in his war against the usurper, his uncle, Miraz. It is the most martial volume in the series and its stakes - not merely the kingdom, but the life, spiritual and literal, of Narnia and its non-human creatures - are immensely high. From a gender standpoint, the split between the roles of men and women is even more pronounced than in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. While Peter, Edmund, and Caspian concern themselves with battle, political strategy, and succession, Lucy and Susan remain with Aslan, to act as his handmaidens as he reawakens and revives the ancient supernatural beings that human beings have all but destroyed. This is an ancient dichotomy, hardly confined to the western world: men are warriors and women midwives, men bring death and women life.

As in the first volume, Lucy is the true protagonist and her faith in Aslan is unshakeable. When she and her siblings are lost in the forest, on their way to succor Caspian, it is she alone who can perceive the signs Aslan leaves for them to follow, but no one will believe her. Only gradually do they realize that Lucy, as ever, can be trusted. Her faith is perfect and pure and her fundamental truthfulness and trustworthiness establish her as the character whose moral goodness is beyond reproach. Lucy's imperfection are venial, forgivable, and what mark her as human. 

Susan, on the other hand, is showing clear signs that her faith has begun to weaken. While Peter doubts Lucy, and Edmund, though unsure, chooses to follow her because it was she who led them right when they first came to Narnia, Susan doesn't only doubt. She condescends to her sister, treating her with contempt and dismissing her visions of Aslan as mere fantasy. Susan, already, requires much more than belief to sustain her. She is falling prey to the adult sin of skepticism, mistaking cynicism and suspicion for sophistication and superiority. Still, Susan is ultimately able to see Aslan when he reveals himself, and unlike the followers of Miraz, her love and faith are reawakened by the revelation. This reawakening in Susan mirrors the reawakening of Narnia; from the devious stratagems of political and social chicanery they are both delivered, but by this, it is also proved that both are susceptible to corruption.

It's worth noting, however, that it is Susan's horn that calls the children back to Narnia and thus, indirectly, her power that rescues Caspian. In this way, Susan's benevolence, her easily provoked pity, and her protective instinct, expressed through the horn, continue to nurture something of her spirit in Narnia, as she was in the purity of her faith.

The most flamboyant character in the novel, who at least reads as female, is the Hag. She and a Werewolf present themselves to Caspian as allies, hoping to convince him to use dark magic to summon the White Witch from the dead. Though the Hag is little more than a personification of supernatural evil, it is highly significant that she does not appear alone. This evil, this more ancient and mysterious evil, not so easily defeated as Miraz, his scheming courtiers, and their irreligious soldiers, has two defendants in the Hag and the Werewolf. They represent their respective species, but they also emphasize that evil has its male and female, just as good has. Thus, the Hag attains great importance, as we try to understand Lewis's construction of Narnian gender. Both evil and good, though they might be expressed differently, may take dominion of women, just as they may of men.

The delightfully named Queen Prunaprismia is King Miraz's consort. When she successfully delivers a baby son, Caspian, tolerated as a royal heir before, becomes Miraz's mortal enemy. She shares her husband's ambition and has been a cold and contemptuous aunt to Caspian. Caspian's mother, on the other hand, the true queen, has already died before the prince can retain any memory of her. His tutor, Cornelius, assures him that she was a kind and gracious queen and implies that his loyalty to Caspian is partly due to his embrace of the old Narnian beliefs and customs, but also in gratitude to the late queen. This pair of queens again demonstrates Lewis's firm understanding of women as active agents in Narnia. Their beliefs and their loyalties define their characters.

Caspian's nurse, the female counterpart to his tutor Cornelius, like him fosters the prince's spirituality by recounting to him from a young age the history of the Golden Age of Narnia. These tales arouse a keen longing for those halcyon days in Caspian and set him firmly on the path towards Aslan and the fertile, riotous, and highly diverse country that has been all but conquered by the invasion of men. Just as the Hag and the Werewolf denote the female and male halves of supernatural evil, the nurse and the tutor, acting as guides and surrogate parents, denote the female and male halves of faith.

There are two more female characters worth mentioning in Prince Caspian. Gwendolen is a dreamy and discontented schoolgirl, who, like Caspian, longs for the old Narnia and rebels against the boring and false pseudo-history that her teacher, Miss Prizzle, expounds. Gwendolen, by approaching Aslan with love, is embraced as a true Narnian and one of the humans who will remain, a representative of merely one sort of creature among equals, while Miss Prizzle, who is both thoroughly indoctrinated and a vocal exponent of false doctrines, is terrified and runs from Aslan. Innocence, an openness to wonder, and a capacity to laugh all mark Gwendolen as a true Narnian, but it is also notable that her status as someone who is oppressed for her (correct) beliefs, even if they are at first merely instinctual, renders her especially sweet in Aslan's eyes. Lewis, like so many British boys of his generation, suffered cruelly at the brutal public school he attended and his harsh condemnation of schools, and the teachers and bullies who thrive there, is a recurrent thread in his writing. It is thus unsurprising that Aslan frees this child believer from a school, rather than a prison or a workhouse.

The proliferation of pairs that contrast gender roles, but also emphasize a certain degree of spiritual parity, makes manifest a signal truth in The Chronicles of Narnia: while men and women usually have different roles to play, they are equally responsible as far as their faith and their moral responsibility are concerned. Men are political actors, governors, fighters, judges; women are healers, comforters, supports, mothers. However, both men and women can be teachers, for the truth of what they teach rests on their beliefs and beliefs are not gendered.

Read "Narnian Women, Part 1: 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe'" here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Narnian Women, Part 1: "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe"

No attempt at a feminist analysis is going to succeed in unearthing a feminist politics in C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. It has become received wisdom that Lewis was a misogynist, though a devoted reader will observe a slow, but definite evolution in his attitudes towards women, especially after he began his complex romantic relationship with Joy Davidman Gresham, but even in his first nonfiction book, The Allegory of Love, published in 1936, Lewis offers a marvelously empathetic and brilliantly compassionate analysis of Chaucer's Cryseide, a character for whom he has pity, recognizing that she is 'unlikable' because she can't overcome her vulnerability. By 1956, the year he married Gresham, Lewis published an astoundingly gorgeous and combatively transgressive retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, narrated from the perspective of Psyche's hideously ugly, but deeply sympathetic elder sister, Orual. That same year, the last volume of The Chronicles was published, though it had been completed several years earlier.

The first volume of The Chronicles, published in 1950, was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, though Lewis, ever the busy bee, had already written three of the seven books. The project began in 1939 when Lewis and his brother Warnie were saddled with three evacuee children from London. For the first time, Lewis was spending considerable time with children, all three of whom were girls. The two old bachelors were at their wit's end, with no idea how to entertain these kids, but it was natural for Lewis, who had been writing stories in the fantastic mode since his early childhood, to turn to writing fiction as a solution to the woes of precipitous and un-wished-for surrogate fatherhood.

In striking contrast to his earlier science fiction trilogy, which had few female characters, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has many, including two of the four protagonists, two of the supporting characters, and the villain. The gender politics of the novel are not simplistic, but rather rooted in medieval conceptions of manhood and womanhood, as expressed in the ancient literature that Lewis studied as a scholar. The split between male and female is absolute and inviolable: Narnia is entering its Golden Age and the demarcations between good and evil, summer and winter, love and hatred, man and woman, are clearly marked. Men and boys are expected to fight battles, protect the innocent, defend their honor, and wield swords; women and girls are expected to nurse the wounded, offer succor to the despairing and fearful, devote themselves to the will of Aslan, and wreathe the victors with garlands. "Battles are ugly when women fight," Father Christmas opines, as he presents Lucy with a dagger to be used only in self-defense. However, a certain transgressive anarchy lurks in the Narnian world: there are only four human beings, the four Pevensie children, and these rules apply to them, but far less clearly to the other creatures of Narnia.

Lucy Pevensie, the youngest of the four children and the first to enter Narnia, later known as the Valiant, proves, beyond all other humans who enter Narnia, the most unswervingly loyal to Aslan. Her faith alone holds steady, no matter what she encounters, while all others, even her brother Peter, the High King, experience moments of doubt, or even disbelief. In this way, Lucy is the model of girlhood in the Narnia universe. The qualities that dominate her character are her truthfulness, her readiness to forgive a wrong, her bravery, her impish sense of merriment, and her total incapability of either breaking her word or betraying a friend. However, Lucy is not a paragon: in this first volume, she shows an impetuous imprudence and needs to be restrained by wiser heads and her trustfulness is worrisome to her elder brothers and sister. Lucy is a rather miraculous imaginative achievement for the monastic old bachelor. In her, Lewis gives us a little girl who feels utterly real, and whom anyone might want to befriend.

Her older sister, Susan, the only one of the human children to enter Narnia to be lost to it at the close, shows signs even in this first volume that her faith will prove weakest. Already, she plays the mother to her siblings, an attitude that indicates her overeagerness to put aside childish things. Many have interpreted this as Lewis's condemnation of female sexuality, but even a cursory reading of, for instance, The Allegory of Love, assures us that Lewis was hardly inclined to condemn sex. Rather, the problem with Susan is that she is seduced by conformity, not adulthood and not sexuality. She follows the crowd and is prepared to give up her belief in Narnia, to dismiss it as a game of pretend, in order to be accepted. Throughout all of Lewis's fiction, the conformist impulse is consistently censured, bad from every perspective, not only because it eviscerates faith, but because it is a fundamental betrayal of one's inner life. Her beauty, her tendency to vacillate, her changeability, all these qualities mark her as a feminine ideal, a Guinevere, and it is she (though notably not Lucy) who at one point must be physically rescued by her brother Peter from the predation of the wolf Maugrim. In this first volume, Susan is still unspoiled and her prudence, concern for her siblings, cheerful helpfulness, and pity for the wounded cause the Narnians to dub her the Gentle.

If we understand Aslan as a Christological figure, which many do, though this is not required for a lucid interpretation of the story, then Lucy and Susan are childish counterparts of Mary and Mary Magdalene, staying close to the lion in his martyrdom and joyfully celebrating his resurrection. Their status as children represents their innocence and lack of guile or power-hunger and thus they are fit to rule and usher in the full Narnian spring. Their virtues are those extolled by the medieval poets and their vices are those of children. Lucy and Susan are the models of Narnian womanhood in the Golden Age. 

The White Witch, also known as Jadis, is not human, but she is unquestionably female and styles herself as a queen. Her pallor not only associates her with winter, but indicates a certain vampiric quality . Traitors are her "lawful prey" and it is her right to draw traitors' blood. Her reign of winter also recalls Dante's lowest circle of Hell, where traitors are doomed to everlasting imprisonment in ice and where Judas is forever gnawed in Lucifer's gaping mouth. Lust for power, unrestrained fury, vengefulness, spitefulness, and cruelty are the traits that dominate the Witch's personality. These same traits are, in later volumes, the qualities of evil men. Although the Witch is beautiful, it is a terrible, awe-inspiring beauty, utterly unseductive. While Lewis offers clearly differentiated models of goodness for men and women, evil muddies the waters: the Witch's opposition to Aslan casts her out of any acceptable paradigm of womanhood. Her femaleness is dissolved and rendered indistinct as a result of her total submergence in evil.

There are two more female characters, one a very positive figure and the other somewhat negative. Mrs. Beaver, with her husband, is the children's key ally in their flight towards Aslan, who, they hope, will rescue their treacherous brother and release Narnia from her wintry enchantment. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver become the Pevensies' guardians. Mrs. Beaver is welcoming, kind, cautious, and protective. She is constantly preoccupied by the all-important task of feeding her loved ones and ensuring their comfort. That is, she's a cozy, consoling maternal figure, someone who can brighten a long day's march with a thermos of tea, but not someone who will be useful when it comes to battle or politics. She is typical of mother figures in Lewis's fiction - that is, idealized, but largely ineffectual - and it is tempting, though Lewis would object as he did not believe in literary analysis via biography, to see in this an ambivalent longing for the mother who died when Lewis was only nine.

The last female character in the book is not Narnian at all. She is Mrs. Macready, the old professor's surly housekeeper who dislikes children and scolds them for being underfoot. Her failure as a maternal figure renders her unsympathetic and she is unable to conjure up the slightest shred of compassion for the four children who have been sent far from their parents and who, daily, must wonder whether they still have a family to go back to in London. Since Mrs. Macready is, of course, not Narnian, she is very much part of the mundane human world, engrossed in its petty concerns. That being said, her role in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is crucial: she unwittingly herds the children into the wardrobe, as they try to evade her and her guests. In a way, as sour and unpleasant as Mrs. Macready is, the children have cause to be grateful to her, for without her, there is no Narnian adventure.

Since The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe narrates the birth of Narnia's Golden Age, it is also the volume that, more than any other except perhaps The Magician's Nephew, which narrates the birth of the Narnian world, reveals an idealized, almost utopian fantasy world. While Peter and Edmund, kings of Narnia, come to be known as the Magnificent and the Just, Susan and Lucy, the two queens, are the Gentle and the Valiant. Grown up, the Pevensies mirror the paragons of Malory's Arthurian romance or Chaucer's epic of Troilus, but there is a crucial, indeed radically modern element that differentiates them. The Pevensie children are not of noble birth; their nobility, their fitness to rule, is expressed through their actions and their faith in Aslan. Overall, while Lewis does not offer feminist models, he creates a model of Narnian womanhood that rests on medieval conceptions of the nature of a noble lady, while permitting that model flaws and agency, particularly as far as her faith is concerned. In the world Lewis created, a girl's hand of friendship is as powerful as a witch's enchantment.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Movie Review: "The Little Hours"

Is anybody still shocked by the idea of a nun having sex? What about a nun swearing? What about a nun practicing witchcraft? What about a nun taking drugs? Jeff Baena's The Little Hours rests on the assumption that at least some people, willing to see an R-rated comedy, will be so, but given that it comes to us decades after the peak of the nunsploitation genre, the existence of such an audience seems questionable. The kind of person who tries to get Harry Potter banned would certainly have a problem with this film, but the people coming to see Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, and John C. Reilly? Probably not.

The Little Hours is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of one of the most famous of the tales in Boccaccio's medieval masterpiece The Decameron. Critic after critic has written that the movie is "not your mother's Boccaccio," making it very obvious that they have never read its hundreds of pages of lascivious priests, orgasmic nuns, country bumpkins tricked into jumping into a vat of shit, vengeful women planting their lovers' heads in flower pots, promiscuous pirates, and sex puns. If anything, the film is rather tame compared to the source material. In this particular tale, Massetto (the puppy-dog-eyed Dave Franco), on the run from a lord with a perpetually constipated expression (Nick Offerman), takes refuge in a convent, pretending to be deaf and mute. The nuns (Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, and Alison Brie) are bored with the tedium of their root vegetable-heavy diet and their schedules of gardening, laundry, embroidery, and prayer. The virile young handyman, who they believe can't betray them if he can't speak, becomes their sex toy, while the dotty Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) fudges the convent accounts and the local priest (John C. Reilly) tipples the sacramental wine.

The cast is solid, though the strongest players are underused. Molly Shannon gives a warm, only slightly off-kilter performance that supports the more flamboyant turns by the younger actresses, but doesn't give vent to her considerable comedic gifts, while John C. Reilly manages to shine in a thankless role as a sinning, but very kindhearted priest. Aubrey Plaza is flamboyantly grumpy, and good fun, but her performance lacks the depth she brought to her role as April on Parks and Recreation, while Alison Brie is appealing, though a bit bland, and Kate Micucci is alternately nebbishy and hysterical, though not hysterically funny. Dave Franco acquits himself well as the picture's eye candy and is funniest in his deaf-mute scenes. Unfortunately, I must confess that Nick Offerman, in the most cartoonish role, is gruffly tiresome.

There is nothing especially subversive going on here, given that the story is nearly seven hundred years old, but the real kicker is how gentle the humor is. Despite the centrality of sex in the story, there is very little nudity and the characters have pretty vanilla, if rabbit-like frequent, sex. Drugs are ingested only accidentally, and all of these characters are happy drunks. There's a sort of dopey sweetness in the way these characters ultimately demonstrate a live-and-let-live tolerance for heresy, sex for pleasure, and sex for love. Though Nick Offerman rattles off a litany of his favorite torture devices, no torture is shown on screen, and a witch's coven is devoid of evil, more like a women's friendship circle than a satanic cult. This is partly due to the half-baked dialogue, reportedly largely improvised, which makes the whole movie feel like a loose-limbed open rehearsal. There are some strong comedic ideas, but few are developed enough to elicit more than a chuckle.

Visually, The Little Hours is sun-drenched, flower-strewn, and rather strangely, clinically clean. The music, borrowing heavily from actual medieval compositions, including a piece by Hildegarde von Bingen, is remarkably beautiful and contributes to the mellow, pleasant atmosphere, while also providing a few inches of emotional depth. Witchcraft or no witchcraft, one cannot believe the devil exists in the world of this film, so sunnily and anachronistically tolerant. While the original story ends with an image of a convent overrun with small children, the nuns praised for taking in so many 'orphans,' The Little Hours rigorously ignores the more inconvenient realities of the medieval period - no birth control, the severe penalties exacted on women accused of witchcraft and heresy - and opts instead for an adolescent reverie of repression giving way to sex-soaked freedom.

This is not the first adaptation of this particular story: it is the basis for the second story in Pasolini's Il decamerone, released in 1971. Pasolini reveled in the dirt, blood, sweat, and semen of the Middle Ages, and his nuns are far raunchier than Baena's, his approach more explicitly splits sex apart from love, but while Pasolini gives the audience a good poke in the eye, Baena offers a slightly sweaty bear hug. The Little Hours has much in common with the pudgy donkey that the sisters fight over: a bit dim, prone to forage aimlessly, plodding, and fuzzy, but also rather cute in an unassuming way.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

8 Documentary Projects I Would Love to See

Documentary films tend to fly under the radar, finding few viewers outside of the rather small group of people who, like myself, make a point of watching documentary films. Many of us work, or have worked, in the field and want to support the continued efforts of documentarians as storytellers, activists, historians, and intellectuals. Some truly outstanding documentaries have been produced just in the past five years - my favorites include Stories We Tell, Blackfish, Amy, and Meet the Patels - and I am eagerly awaiting the opportunity to see new and upcoming films such as A Suitable Girl, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan, and The Farthest. Hoping that the genre continues to flourish, here are eight subjects that I would love to see a documentary about:

Continued Disenfranchisement of Native Americans:
The systematic genocide, enslavement, forced migration, and segregation of Native Americans has resulted in their making up less than 1% of the current United States population. Their total marginalization from American cultural and civic life has been even more egregiously compounded by continued attempts to disenfranchise them and those attempts should be both documented and made better known.

Duelling:
Duels, the practice of two men attempting to bloody each other in order to restore their honor, are really very bizarre and I have yet to encounter any explanation, historical or otherwise, that helps me to understand how the practice flourished for centuries in Europe. What does this practice say about western ideas of masculinity?

Henry James's Sexuality:
Though most scholars at this point are agreed that Henry James was almost certainly gay and a virgin, his literary output was remarkably shrewd about sexuality. A project that combines an exploration of James's sexuality with literary analysis and a historical grounding in the history of queer sexuality in the nineteenth century would be especially welcome for Pride Month. 

Independent Bookstores:
The doomsday prediction that brick-and-mortar stores would disappear forever have proven false, but the people who found and operate bookstores have to be unusually resilient and passionately literary people. This is the stuff of which delightfully quirky documentaries are made. 

Irish Women Nationalists in Northern Ireland:
The fascinating history of women's efforts to resist British hegemony has yet to be told. A documentary that builds on the brilliant feminist ethnographic study, Shattering Silence, by the Basque anthropologist Begoña Aretxaga, would be a welcome addition to the fraught cultural discussions around gender, political agency, postcolonialism, and nationalism.

Joan of Arc:
The patron saint of France has been the subject of numerous narrative films, including what I believe to be the greatest of all time, Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, but I would love to see a documentary project on this country girl that rode into battle and died a martyr to her faith, and it must be added, her gender.

Seamstresses:
In the western world, sewing is all but a lost art, something that the craftier-minded of us might take up for a hobby, but that few rely on for a living. And yet, in many parts of the world and for many centuries, sewing is and was one of the few ways women could earn a living. Though feminist academics have begun the work of understanding the meaning of handiwork in women's lives, a documentary could make that story legible for those outside of the academy. 

Women Directors Under the Hollywood Studio System:
Though they were certainly a tiny minority, women did direct films under the Hollywood studio system and their lives and filmographies are a crucial, and often ignored, part of film history. From Dorothy Arzner to Ida Lupino, Frances Marion to Lois Weber, these women made careers in a man's world and they have not yet been celebrated enough.

Monday, June 26, 2017

14 Films for Fans of Simone Weil

Few writers resist a reader's love as Simone Weil does. She is both utterly unforgiving and almost supernaturally compassionate, thus it is a profoundly difficult task to read her works with any seriousness without succumbing to an obliterating sense of one's own unworthiness, guilt, and privilege. Even so, Weil's writing is undergoing something of a renaissance in academia and, despite her obscurity in life, she has come to be recognized as one of the key intellectuals of the twentieth century. Politically a very, very unorthodox communist who refused membership in the party, whose hierarchies she felt eviscerated the principles of the doctrine, and spiritually an adherent to mystical Franciscan Christianity who nevertheless never formally converted to the Church, Weil tends to beguile readers with one set of ideas only to chase them away with the next. Her uncompromising intellect, her unstinting habit of practicing what she preached, her asceticism, her humility, these qualities are not easy for anyone to swallow. Our egos are inevitably bruised when we read her work and we inevitably resist applying the stringent political and spiritual instruction that proves so difficult to argue against. Still, I am drawn to Weil and find a rather bleak spiritual solace in her work.

Here below is a list of films that are as brilliant and exacting in their examination of politics, spirituality, especially Christianity, and the human capacities for violence and compassion as Weil's writings. Weil has not been the subject of a biopic (and, lord, she would hate that idea), though there is a documentary, An Encounter with Simone Weil, that, without putting too fine a point on it, is embarrassingly bad, a first-person 'spiritual' exploration of Weil's work by a filmmaker who is entirely close-minded to Weil's religious thought and mostly uses her writing as a means of grappling with her own liberal guilt, though somehow she is never motivated to actually undertake any kind of activism or spiritual practice. At one point, she hires an actress (a spectacularly bad one) to impersonate Weil so that she, the filmmaker, can ask her if she should feel bad about her privilege. This film is not worthy of Weil, intellectually, politically, spiritually, or in any other way. Here are fourteen that are:

The Ascent (1977)
The brilliant Soviet director Larisa Shepitko's last film before her death in a car accident at age 41, The Ascent is a devastating and bleak drama about the agonies of two soldiers, one an idealist and the other a pragmatist, lost in the snow and captured by enemy Germans during World War II. A meditation on violence and the will to survive, this crushing film offers a sort of a sort of nihilistically positive point of view: martyrdom is a torment, but death in righteousness doesn't damage the spirit as cruelly survival without.

Earth (1930)
Soviet director Alexander Dovzhenko's masterwork cannot be easily dismissed as propaganda, in part because it is too aware of the pain suffered by individuals, even if they believe in collective goals. Earth is about the conflicts that arise between peasants and kulaks over collectivization and the revolution in agriculture promised both by Soviet politics and new technology like the tractor, but Dovzhenko's lens remains attentive to subjects often sidelined in such films: the beauties of nature, the contentious moral compromises between political and spiritual ideals, and romantic love.

The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
Weil experienced spiritual revelations of a mystical nature at Assisi and favored Saint Francis throughout her life as a spiritual model and guide, moved by his embrace of poverty, his rebellion against institutionalized Christian practice, and his openness to God and all God's creatures. This film, Roberto Rossellini's best and his most persuasive argument for Christian ethics, offers a series of parable-like tableaux about Francis and his followers. The joy of this film is to be found in its unexpected and loving sense of humor, at times verging on slapstick - human beings can be as ridiculous in this film as they can be worthy of succor.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
Pasolini's rather vexing film draws on Matthew's gospel and the canonical writings of Marxism to depict Jesus as a political radical and possibly homosexual, without undermining the miracles, mysticism, and preoccupation with religious dogma of the Biblical text. Controversial from its inception, Pasolini later felt that the film was too religious and not Marxist enough. I cannot honestly say I like this movie, but it is one of the most intellectually brilliant films ever made to contend with Christianity and communism in equal measure.

The House Is Black (1963)
This devastating short film directed by Iranian poet and filmmaker Forough Farrokhzad combines footage of the inhabitants of a leper colony with Farrokhzad's own gorgeous poetry and passages from the Bible and the Koran. Never exploitative, The House Is Black is a potent and insistent reminder that the least of human beings is still a human being.

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)
"God is not a torturer." So says the priest in this evocative spiritual tincture of a film, bracing, clarifying, and ethereally moving. Director Robert Bresson is probably, other than Dreyer, Weil's closest cinematic cousin and this, of all his films, delves most deeply into what it means to be a Christian, an ethical human being, and a person afflicted by illness.These same concerns animated Weil's work both as an intellectual and as an activist.

The Little Matchgirl (2006)
Unquestionably the only Disney film that could bring Weil to mind, this animated short based on the Andersen fairy tale moves the setting from Denmark to Russia, just before the Revolution. With a color palette of deep violets, cloudy blues, and soft wintry whites, the film's aesthetic style is in stark contrast to most Disney animation, with a storybook quality that holds pockets of darkness just out of the frame. The filmmakers have claimed the choice of setting wasn't political, but there is a tacit and questioning approval of the aims of revolutionary Russia, whether they wanted it to be there or not.

A Man Escaped (1956)
My favorite of Robert Bresson's films, A Man Escaped mesmerizes despite its austere aesthetic, its paucity of dialogue or back story, and its simple plot. A stark and quiet protest against oppression, the film is about Fontaine, a Resistance fighter imprisoned by the Nazis during the French Occupation, who plans his escape from prison. Bresson expresses a complex anti-fascist politics that, without dramatics or overt emotionalism, accepts with clear eyes the cost of those politics. Had Weil lived to see it, I can imagine this would have been a favorite film.

Medea (1969)
One of Weil's best essays, "The Iliad or the Poem of Force," is a rigorous work of scholarship that examines force, a complex term that encompasses violence across many definitions, in Homer's epic. Most films set in the ancient world fall prey to narrative methods that obscure the strangeness of these age-old myths and legends; not so in the case of Pasolini's adaptation of the Medea legend starring Maria Callas in her sole, non-operatic film role. A rare film that treats the violence of the ancient world with the aloof fatalism of the Greek texts.

Modern Times (1936)
The first twenty minutes of this film, before it descends into a more conventional Little Tramp melodrama, offer perhaps the most satirically brilliant treatment of the agony of the assembly-line worker ever put on film. Hysterical (in both sense of the term), frenetic, and mechanically inventive, these scenes of Charlie Chaplin's crazed proletarian are an indictment of factory work under capitalism only slightly less convictive than Weil's account of her time at the Renault factory, "Factory Work."

Ordet (1955)
Dreyer's extraordinary film could almost count as a new Christian testament. Johannes has lost his mind after studying Kierkegaard and believes himself to be Jesus Christ. He meanders through his community, pleading with his family, neighbors, and minister to return to the faith. Rare is the film that can depict a miracle that, in its mystery and strangeness, convinces precisely because it is free of either magic or rational explanation.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Simone Weil is probably the only modern figure that can rightfully be compared to Joan of Arc, two politically engaged, spiritually devout Frenchwomen who rebelled against the Church without losing their faith. I believe that Dreyer's masterpiece is the greatest film of all time, leaving all others far behind, and that Falconetti's performance as Saint Joan is the greatest ever captured by a camera. I recommend that this film be viewed with Richard Einhorn's oratorio, "Voices of Light." 

The Red and the White (1967)
Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó's anti-war film is set during the Russian Civil War and depicts the savagery and barbaric senselessness of warfare. The film is without protagonists and the camera roves like a startled and curious beast across fields and forests, witnessing one act after another of violence that begets violence that begets violence. By eschewing traditional narrative and character development conventions, Jancsó succeeds in a critique that simply cannot be interpreted in favor of war, unlike most other pacifist war films, for heroism simply ceases to exist.

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)
Marcel Ophuls, one of the finest documentarians of film history, spent his career tirelessly interrogating the atrocities of World War II. This extraordinary film excavates the complex and secretive history of the French people under German Occupation and the Vichy government. Ophuls dares to point a finger at the holes in the self-serving mythos of a rebellious and resisting French citizenry, demonstrating with both righteousness and a refusal to generalize, that the horrors visited on French Jews could not have succeeded without collusion, whether tacit or active. I recommend that the viewer read Weil's "What is a Jew?" in conjunction with this film.

Friday, June 16, 2017

10 Novels for Fans of Fellini's Films

There's no denying that Federico Fellini was among the true maestri of Italian cinema. Plenty of filmmakers have aspired to emulate Fellini's style - one thinks of Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, with its teasing autobiography, a deliberately tacky sense of pizazz, and surreal musical numbers, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, with its flamboyant dreams that ooze a distinctly queer-inflected straight sexuality and its bamboozled, confused male protagonist, Wes Andersen's The Grand Budapest Hotel, with its layer-caked strata of eccentric and hat-wearing hotel denizens and its hapless hero gazing with puppy-dog-eyed adoration at a man who wears perfume, not to mention Pedro Almodóvar's entire filmography - but Fellini remains irreducibly Fellini.

Pressed to offer an opinion, I would say that I love Fellini's films, but that wouldn't be strictly true. Unlike the films of Visconti, say, or Lina Wertmüller, I don't consistently love Fellini's films. I adored La strada, Amarcord, and Nights of Cabiria, but loathed Satyricon and Juliet of the Spirits, while The White Sheik actually bored me and I could literally shred apart Roma into two equally sized films, one I hated and one I loved, the bits and pieces all jumbled together as is. His two most celebrated films, 8 1/2 and La dolce vita, left me with a heap of disparate reactions that I can't manage to amalgamate into a coherent critical opinion. Fellini was enamored of shooting scenes of people eating that are so disgusting that after watching them I gag at the thought of food for days. Yet, in the end, Fellini offers so much that I love, from a fashion parade of priests in neon-lighted vestments to a mascara-stained tear rolling down Giulietta Masina's face, a mad uncle camping out in a tree shouting "Voglio una donna!" (I want a woman!) to Anita Ekberg swooning over a white kitten, the Nino Rota scores, the tinsel, Marcello Mastroianni in sunglasses, and the endlessly glorious hats.

Here, then, are ten novels for the Fellini fan:

Collected Fictions - Jorge Luis Borges
The dizzying, mind-bending, intellectual games of Borges's fiction, which strays through infinite libraries and labyrinthine gardens, are not merely inventive, as stunning as their inventiveness may be. Borges's understanding of the book, as a talismanic object, a world unto itself, the essence of possibility, has much in common with Fellini's understanding of cinema, its open-endedness, circularity, and perverse traversing of the space between artificiality and realism. The dream, as subject, texture, and medium, saturates both men's work. Among my favorites of Borges's stories are "The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero," about a biographer's investigation of an Irish nationalist's Shakespearean murder, "Emma Zunz," Borges's only story with a female protagonist, a woman who plots a queasy revenge, and "Deutsches Requiem," written as the final confession of the commandant of a Nazi concentration camp.

The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
Bulgakov's wicked sense of political humor, twisted and yet ultimately quite evocative and devout Christianity, and self-reflexive explorations of what it means to be a man and a writer make him something of a more tortured and distinctly Russian Fellini of literature. Both were masters of playfulness deployed in the service of political and social critique, whether sly or brutal, and both obsessed over the grotesque. In The Master and Margarita, Professor Woland arrives in Moscow with his cronies, including a vodka-swilling, pistol-waving black cat and an angel of death, to put on a magic show and recruit a lovely young witch to host Satan's Grand Ball. The witch in question is Margarita, the grieving lover of a politically dissident novelist, the Master, whose novel about Pontius Pilate landed him in an insane asylum. This is a superlatively great book.

The Adventures of Pinocchio - Carlo Collodi 
Forget the Disney adaptation: The Adventures of Pinocchio is bizarre, creepy, riotously illogical, and nearly as terrifying as Struwwelpeter. In a sinuously plotted story that defies cause and effect and whose morality is both Manichean and constantly slipping sideways, Pinocchio isn't an innocent learning right and wrong; he's a nasty, stealing, selfish, unpleasant little brat who is not only the cause of his mother's death, but dies himself multiple times in gruesome ways, including being hanged. Despite the darkness and horror, Collodi's book has a robust, and distinctly Florentine, sense of humor. Add in its fascination with traveling performers, circuses, freaks, and overeating, and one must imagine this was one of Fellini's favorite books. 

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel García Márquez
A surreal recreation of family history threads through both the writing of García Márquez and Fellini's films, most obviously in Amarcord. One Hundred Years of Solitude is very specifically local, even as it has become the most famous and critically well-regarded work of Colombian literature, its sprawling story of the Buendía family, founders of Macondo, an attempted jungle utopia, metamorphosing into a reflected national history. Fatalistic and dream-like, sparkling with gems of wit and astonishing beauty, this book enchants and mesmerizes, even as it embraces a rather pessimistic view of humanity's inherent flaws.

The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
This impressionistic and at times almost hallucinogenic novel recounts the unification of Italy, distilled through the morbid and resigned reflections of the aristocratic Prince of Salina, the aging, leonine patriarch of a decadent family, moldering away in a crumbling palace. The Prince, confronted with revolution and class upheaval, sees the monumental changes with which his nephew is so enamored, as he is of the gorgeous but bourgeois Angelica, with a gimlet-eye. The novel's world-weary conclusion that everything must change, so that everything can stay the same, is compounded by the hothouse effect of Lampedusa's descriptive powers; long after reading the book, one will be able to smell the rotting corpse of a soldier in a blooming garden. Luchino Visconti's epic film adaptation is brilliant, with its painterly compositions, but doesn't quite capture the moribund magic of the novel.

Doctor Faustus - Thomas Mann
Leaping into the interstices between reality and madness, labor and creativity, Mann adapts the legend of Faust in this deeply intellectual saga of a composer's quest for musical greatness. Adrian Leverkühn's simultaneous striving for a new music beyond any music yet composed and descent into corruption, madness, and cruelty is mirrored in the cultural and political history of Germany, the philosophical decadence of Nietzsche's Superman and bewitchment with death and the shrieking nationalism of the Nazi Party. Mann's resistance to delineating what is 'reality' and what is the product of Adrian's syphilitic imaginings echoes Fellini's openness to the surreal, strange, and magically true.

Ada, or Ardor - Vladimir Nabokov
This, my favorite of Nabokov's novels, is written as the unfinished, heavily annotated memoirs of Van Veen, a famous psychologist whose lifelong love affair with his sister, Ada, obsesses him in his old age. Set in an alternate Earth, called Demonia or Antiterra, the novel's world fuses together diverse aspects of the 19th and 20th centuries, an uncanny blend of the familiar, the historical, and the purely fictive. Ada, or Ardor could thus be classified as science fiction, but it reaches far beyond one genre, encompassing erotica, family saga, scholarly treatise, poetry, and suicide note, and its devilish linguistic complexity requires a cursory knowledge of Russian and French. The novel is cosmopolitan, campy, lurid, ethereal, punning, and as literarily incestuous as its characters. Pair it with 8 1/2 for a potent head-trip, LSD not needed.

Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie's magical realist history of India's independence owes as much to Bollywood films as it does to postcolonial theory. Saleem Sinai is one of the blessed, or perhaps cursed, children born in the first hour of India's existence as an independent republic, each endowed with a magical gift. Saleem has a powerful sense of smell and the telepathic ability to bring all of these children together to plot and plan, but his nemesis Shiva seems determined to destroy the bond they all share. Rushdie has a bouncy sense of fun, even as he sends Saleem out into repression, poverty, and war in India and Pakistan. Like Fellini, he refuses to take his country's history too seriously, while making an impassioned and pained gesture of love for that country, its culture and its values.

Higglety Pigglety Pop!; Or There Must Be More to Life - Maurice Sendak
Sendak's picture book may be less than seventy pages long, but in it one finds a rich and nuanced philosophical story, a rare book for children that doesn't cling ghoulishly fast to optimism. Jenny, a shaggy white dog, has everything there is in life, but it's not enough, so she sets out to be the star of the World Mother Goose Theater, only to discover there is something she lacks: experience. So, she seeks out experience and it takes her to some very dark places indeed. Higglety Pigglety Pop! is infused with an agonized sense that there really might not be more to life and yet its whimsy, sweetness, and puzzled curiosity keep it from getting bogged down in pure pessimism. As complex as any weighty tome by Kant, Hegel, or Schopenhauer, but much more fun to read!

Conversations in Sicily - Elio Vittorini
Written in simple, colloquial Italian, Vittorini's experimental novel follows a man in a profound and quiet despair, for he sees humanity as hopelessly lost, hopelessly irredeemable. A southern migrant working in the north, Silvestro heads home to Sicily to visit his mother on her saint's day, encountering strangers and family members, some of them dead or perhaps not there, and engaging in conversations that operate almost like a secular catechism. Usually interpreted as a veiled critique of fascism - and indeed, Vittorini would be imprisoned by the fascists for his political writing and resistance work - the book adheres to a dream-like sense of stasis, echoing repetition, and meandering forward movement and anticipates post-modernism. Silvestro's journey, his encounters and observations, the strange, highly localized, and yet, for me at least, comfortingly home-like details such as a frittata in the shape of a fish, form a quiet, calm, and still insistent protest against the pain of poverty, oppression, and the impossibility of truly knowing another human being.