Wednesday, November 22, 2017

12 (Very Old) Movies for 'Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries' Fans

The Australian series, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, has just about everything I look for in a television show: a period setting - the Roaring 20s, Melbourne-style - and a liberated, confident heroine, a jazzy score and gorgeous costumes, vintage cars and airplanes, zippy dialogue, a to-die-for cast of characters that we laugh with and not at, homages to silent movies and Erté, and clue-strewn mysteries. In short, the show is a hoot. Though there are other television series one might recommend, like Poirot and The Bletchley Circle, the show's creators, not to mention the author of the original novels, Kerry Greenwood, have clearly watched their share of old movies and there are dozens that friends of the fabulous Phryne Fisher would love. Here are twelve that I particularly recommend:

Les vampires (1915)
This serial by Louis Feuillade is jaw-dropping. The titular Vampires are the members of an underground criminal organization, their crimes both brutal (the first episode is entitled "The Severed Head") and fiendishly clever (a pen with deadly poison in place of ink plays a key role), their style both ethereal and reminiscent of Edvard Munch's agonized, satanically inflected paintings, especially Vampire: the Vampires and their pursuers race up and down the sides of buildings, scamper across rooftops, up chimneys, and down wells, clad in black catsuits and balaclavas. Les vampires is high art pulp, anticipating Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.

The Marriage Circle (1924)
Ernst Lubitsch would later remake this silent film as a musical with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald with One Hour with You; this first version, starring an especially waxily moustached Adolphe Menjou, is a treat for several reasons, even if the remake is better. For one thing, it's a supreme example of how utterly superfluous dialogue can be, even for Lubitsch, who came to be known for his frothy, sparkling wit. Menjou spices his portrayal of the dashing, but put-upon doctor with a soupçon of vileness, while his wife Mitzi, the feral Marie Prevost, wrapped in slinky nothings edged in lace, is an explosive, extravagant eruption of sex. Lubitsch managed to laugh at the censors in every film; in this one, he's fairly roaring. 

Pandora's Box (1929)
Phryne Fisher's look, especially her sleek, black bob, was obviously inspired by Louise Brooks, who gave her most iconic performance in this magnificent melodrama directed by G.W. Pabst. Brooks plays Lulu, a sexually insatiable flapper who inspires satyr-like obsessions in men and women alike, obsessions that revolve around possessing her, a supremely liberated being. Violence punctuates Lulu's life, driven as much by the logic of economic need (and greed) in an imploding capitalist society as by desire for her body. Pandora's Box is a gorgeous phantasmagoria of Weimar-era cabaret-ready fashion, experimental sexuality, and the moral chaos unleashed by innocence and thoughtlessness.

Piccadilly (1929)
Happily restored in 2004, Piccadilly is an atmospheric melodrama that picks at the wounds at the intersections of class, gender, and race. Though she didn't receive top billing, the stand-out star is Anna May Wong, as Shosho, a Chinese dishwasher whose erotic dancing tosses her into the spotlight of the Piccadilly Circus, a London nightclub leaking money after its main act, a dancing partnership, breaks up. There are surprisingly subversive layers in the otherwise conventional thriller plot, in large part thanks to the subtle performance of Wong, who injects a tacit, but crystal-clear narrative of ambition, fury at being demeaned because of her race and gender, and pain at the costs of getting the accouterments of a luxurious life, knowing she'll never be more than an exotic object in the world she lives in. Look for Charles Laughton, in an odd cameo as a dissatisfied diner, and Cyril Ritchard as a seedy hoofer.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
Another collaboration between G.W. Pabst and Louise Brooks, Diary of a Lost Girl is a crime drama from the point of view of a rape victim, set in a world that sees her as sinful and wanton. Too sophisticated to be a straightforward morality tale and mesmerizing from the first frame, the film follows Thymian (Brooks), a coddled bourgeois innocent whose untroubled life is shattered by her father's smarmy assistant. Remarkably, the film succeeds in positing a moral that, in a less lucid and unromantic film, might cloy, but that works precisely because Pabst has depicted the world in all its colors, its brutalities and its beauties.

Night Nurse (1931)
Night Nurse is insane. It contains everything - and I really do mean everything - that we assume was simply never depicted in a film before the '70s: sex, drugs, nudity, unrepentant criminal activity, child abuse, swearing... you name it, it's here. Pre-code darling Barbara Stanwyck stars as the titular nurse, tough, yet tender-hearted, supported by a wise-cracking, often scantily clad Joan Blondell, and a sinister, moustache-less Clark Gable, cast very much against his expected type at the beginning of his career. The plot is a tad absurd, but this is grade-A pulp, a thrilling, ridiculous ride into a world where doctors and gangsters unite to defeat a nefarious scheme involving trust fund babies.

Mata Hari (1931)
This highly fictionalized biopic of the notorious exotic dancer who spied for Germany stars Greta Garbo, who elevates a pedestrian script with the lazy assurance of a cat batting a bit of hanging yarn. Opposite her Ramon Navarro preens, but has the glamorous looks to get away with it. The real reason to watch Mata Hari, though, is the parade of dazzling costumes draped on Garbo's alluring frame: her gowns and hats drip with metallic beading, sparkling gems, glittering brocade, her negligée is trimmed with fur, silks and satins shimmer in glossy, dreamily lit nitrate. One might crook a satiric eyebrow at certain bends in the plot, but the fashion is ravishing. 

Shanghai Express (1932)
Revered by cinema buffs for its astonishingly gorgeous chiaroscuro cinematography by Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe, Josef von Sternberg's erotic drama set in civil war-ravaged China is a showcase for Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong, ravishing in costumes by Travis Banton. The murky plot involves the sex trade, gambling, espionage, opium addiction, and racial politics (plus, some very veiled, but quite alluring suggestions of lesbianism), but the plot, tangled and fascinating as it proves on a first viewing, recedes in importance compared to the sheer glory of the light on Dietrich's cheekbones, shimmering behind black tulle, feathers, and satin.

Trouble in Paradise (1932)
A superlative masterpiece by Ernst Lubitsch, Trouble in Paradise features another of his famously steamy love triangles and stars Miriam Hopkins as a glam pickpocket, Herbert Marshall as an elegant con man, and Kay Francis (in her very best role) as a chic - and very rich - perfumière. Thievery, it turns out, pays very handsomely, though a startlingly moustached Edward Everett Horton does his best to get in the way. Impossibly witty, this is a film to watch with a champagne flute in one hand and a diamond bracelet adorning the other. 

Me and My Gal (1932)
This delicious, but unfortunately very difficult to find, movie stars Spencer Tracy as a cocky policeman whose heart has been captivated by saucy, street-smart waitress Joan Bennett. A rare gangster film of the era with a straight cop as the protagonist, Me and My Gal nevertheless cultivates an anarchic, effervescent sense of humor, reminiscent of everything amusing and nothing irritating in French farce. It was a huge flop when it was released in 1932, but the years have been very kind to it and it deserves a prominent place in director Raoul Walsh's filmography.

Pépé le Moko (1937)
The ruggedly sexy Jean Gabin stars as the titular criminal mastermind in this proto-noir set in the Algerian Casbah, where director Julien Duvivier proves that blinding sunshine in twisting, narrow alleys can be as tensely atmospheric as fog, mist, and cloud-strewn skies. Pépé lurks in the labyrinth of the Casbah, knowing that Inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) can never sniff him out, but the wily inspector espies an opportunity in Gaby (Mireille Balin), a lovely but slightly seedy woman, mistress to a wealthy man, and intrigued by the elusive Pépé. Pépé le Moko is Duvivier's masterpiece, a thrillingly suspenseful romance and a dreamily romantic crime thriller. 

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The last film Alfred Hitchcock directed in Great Britain before he moved to Hollywood, The Lady Vanishes is an Agatha Christie-esque mystery set on a train, with a veddy English sense of humor. The lady who vanishes is the cozy, constantly knitting Miss Froy, played by Dame May Whitty, who, incidentally, would have made a truly spiffing Miss Marple, while the vivacious Margaret Lockwood, a wide-eyed English tourist, searches ever more frantically for her. The cast is terrific, the standouts being Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as oblivious cricket enthusiasts, and the plot snaps to like a mousetrap.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

'Strong Women' Will Not Be the Answer

The past year has been a painful one, a year in which powerful men proved that the gains made by women are capable of being eroded, undermined, ignored, or reversed. The most prominent industries have been studded with high-profile cases of serial sexual assault, both state and federal courts have taken steps to eviscerate a woman's right to choose, and the world, globally, must daily face orange-tinted evidence of the worst of American prejudices.

Though the rhetoric is not new to this year, the call for art and entertainment featuring 'strong women' has intensified as the occasional sprinkle of salt in the wound has become a veritable saline flood. It would be lovely if an answer to sexism and misogyny could be unearthed in privileging one quality in fictional characters, or fictionalized depictions of real people, but if it were that easy, we wouldn't still be living in the world we live in.

On the one hand, strength is a very useful quality for any human being, and that's been true since the first australopithecus conked a saber-toothed tiger on its noggin. It's especially useful for women, who consistently face greater violence, merely by virtue of existing as women, than men do. Fantasies of strength enable an illusion that systemic violence can be overcome, one poke in a domestic abuser's eye and kick to a rapist's groin at a time, but these are fantasies that ignore the reality of the imperfectable human body. They trade the facts of the body, its vulnerabilities and weaknesses, for the dream of a body in flawless mechanical order.

Our heroines, the ones that get praised as signs of political progressiveness, better reflect our fear and terror  that we're not making progress than genuine progressive movement forward. Wonder Woman is the quintessential example, but 'strong women' as a trope has become so reified that it's a searchable genre on Netflix. The problem with using strength as a signifier of feminist progress is that it places all responsibility on individuals, while paying no heed to systemic injustice except as a purveyor of traumas that are overcome. 'Strong women' are survivors of their traumas, they 'kick ass,' they're 'fierce' and 'badass' and 'frickin' awesome.' 'Strong women' don't need to be rescued, despite the fact that real women (like real men) do, regardless of their strength, often need rescuing.

The Manichean logic of a feminism of strength is to simply oppose patriarchally mandated feminine weakness with a feminist mandated feminine strength. And in so doing, most women are either forced to conform to a feminist set of standards, or be excluded entirely. By focusing on exceptions, the Wonder Women who, by whatever combination of luck, natural gifts, and determination, succeed where most fail, the standards of patriarchy are not annihilated, but simply put upside down.

Fictional characters can't be equated, one-to-one, with living, breathing women, but our critical treatment of fictional characters reflects one prismatic facet of our general attitudes towards the female. Feminist culture, no less than the larger, uglier, dog-eat-dog patriarchy that surrounds it, won't listen to the voices of those women who betray a weakness. Hillary Clinton lost the election and now we can't seem to stop telling her to shut up. The silencing of women who fail to live up to the Wonder Woman standard has become a salient feature of feminist discourse and activism, fueled by this rhetoric of 'strong women.' I can think of no more alarming sign of the movement's deterioration. As long as a sick woman, a fat woman, a woman who cries easily, a woman who can't get past her traumas, a woman who loses, a woman who needs, a woman who fails, can't be feminist by definition, feminism is just another face for patriarchy. As long as we insist that only 'strong women' can be our heroines, only 'strong women' our icons, feminism fails.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Can the Epistolary Novel Survive?

What will happen to the epistolary novel in the age of email? Will it slip into the past, just as letters have? Or will it find new life? The novel in emails is not an epistolary novel, for emails are to letters what 300 is to The Aeneid: comparable in only the most superficial sense. The heroes and heroines of the new epistolary novel will be eccentrics, characters uninterested in conforming to the usual customs, or to be more contemporarily customary, trends, and unable to adjust to the hyper-evolution of technological change.

More than once I've come across a 'witty' article, listing off all the novels that would end on the first page if the characters had access to the technology that we have today. Jane Austen heroines discover their potential suitors' misdeeds on social media, Dickens's Pip finds out just who has destined him to great expectations before he's so much as bought his new London suit, Hamlet gets prescribed anti-depressants, and so on. Aside from the joke being rather obvious - haha, the past was different than the present - what these sorts of critiques, if I may deign to call them so, miss is the forest for the decidedly trite trees. The limitations and freedoms of any particular age are not simply tending to the now. What the epistolary novel accomplishes that no other form can is the relaying of specific relationships of specific characters with the illusion that the author has disappeared entirely. The characters speak, unmediated - though of course that lack of mediation is a trick, a sleight of pen, and conscious of their own speaking, shaping their discourse according to their interlocutor.

What we mean today by technology - mostly the internet and devices that connect to the internet and collect and store data - connects us more closely, but only in a superficial sense. Modernity has given rise to tools of immense communicative power and has equally created a culture of alienated, atomized individuals. The person who sits down and writes a letter, dares to write a letter, refuses to be deluded by the promises of instant connectivity, refuses to leap straight to the destination without making the journey. The person who writes a letter is not taken in the delusion of living in the future, in a pious superiority over the past.

The epistolary novel, then, if it is to survive into the twenty-first century and beyond, must be the medium of the few, the stubborn, the introspective, those who are unafraid of being out of the gaze of the many in order to seek communion with the few. The epistolary novel, once the province of blistering social satire, sentimental agony, the busy comings and goings of being in the world, must retreat to a new realm, that of the misanthrope, the cynic, the skeptic, but also the kindred spirit, the bosom friend, the rebel who genuinely doesn't care about appearing rebellious. This genre that exposed the hypocrisy, greed, and lasciviousness of a doomed class (Les liaisons dangereuses), that cleaved through snobbery, racism, and misogyny to deal the first blows of the feminist cause (Letters from a Peruvian Woman), turned over the seamy underbelly of sadomasochistic desire and terror (Dracula), shrieked the agony of an impossible love (The Sorrows of Young Werther), ran shivers up and down our spines and set detectives on our trail (The Woman in White), this revolutionary genre must seek its defiant course away from the mainstream, away from the proliferation of thoughtless, split-second exchange, and find its own, strange, singular way forward and into the unfamiliar future.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Book Review: Claire-Louise Bennett's "Pond"

Claire-Louise Bennett's Pond is an extended riff on interiority. One might be tempted to say female interiority, but by that logic, we should talk about Beckett's male interiority, or Proust's, or Joyce's. The femaleness of the narrator pops out at us because of the world we live in, while she herself remains stubbornly uncategorical. Described both as a novel and a short story collection, Pond isn't really either, but it's not not those things. It's a liminal work, one that deadpans its way into the cracks and fissures between consciousness and subconsciousness and taps almost uncomfortably deeply into the more swollen parts of the psyche. 

There is no plot and hardly anything in the way of even an isolated event. We are firmly embedded in the hyperconscious and unapologetic mind of a person for whom solitude and contemplation constitute the fabric of life; she gardens haphazardly, paints her bathroom, reads Die Wand, irons a boyfriend's shirt, tries to order oven knobs that are no longer being manufactured, and takes long, solitary walks. She lives in an ancient cottage, alternately cozy and ramshackle. Perhaps an academic, she gives little insight into her professional life, few friends or lovers acquire names, and she remains difficult to picture. Narrative is denied; thought is both substance and structure. It is not so much that we are listening to a stream of consciousness, but rather that we woke up one fine day inside of this woman who applies the most rigorous intellectual reasoning to domestic life and shows only the quirkiest, most gimlet-eyed concern for what other people think, or really her concern is more like curiosity, a wondering inquiry into whether someone will do something or react in a particular way and whether she can compel that action. When she throws a party, she is distressed when a person other than the one she imagined sits on an ottoman. Or, perhaps 'distressed' isn't the right word.

The right word might be 'nettled.' The emotional tenor of Pond tends to hew closely to the sorts of feelings that we experience daily, but rarely grant much importance. Instead of shrugging off passing observations, dreams, strange and seemingly uncompelled imaginings, the tiny sensations that together add up to a realization that one is alive, the narrator leans in, hard, and confronts them, examines them with microscope or telescope, her choice of closeness or remoteness as much whimsical as anything else. 

This sort of writing by anyone will be prone to accusations of navel-gazing and pretension. When the writer is a woman, it will be prone to even harsher accusations of frivolity, self-indulgence, and insipidity. Given the politically charged atmosphere, a defender of this 2015 debut might try to erect a shield of feminism; they wouldn't be completely wrong - it is still quietly revolutionary for a woman to live alone, to treat boyfriends as pleasing but relatively unimportant, to pursue her own, unsanctioned course - but they also wouldn't be completely right. Pond is a slantways book. It is a book in which vegetables, pond scum, cows, bikes, and blankets drift almost into the way of being characters, while people take on the semblance of leaves blown by the wind, dirt clinging to a boot, radio music carried on the air: notable, but no more important than things. Food, both prepared and eaten, the intrusions of animals into human space and humans into animal space, cleaning, both the body and the abode, are the most overt themes.

In essence, this strategy of slippage is a rebellion against "appearing to be located... that's what I object to, and somehow wish to dispel." It is a book that takes place in a specific cottage, in a specific network of country lanes, ponds, cow pastures, highways, gardens, and grocery stores, and the narrator herself is unquestionably specific, and idiosyncratic in her tastes. But, she won't stay still, either physically (her peregrinations are one of the threads by which the reader follows her) or mentally. Restlessness dominates. This quality allows the book to evade genre distinctions, without forcing a rejection of any particular genre, but it also allows the narrator to elude capture. We can't see her, but there's an uncanny, almost queasy feeling that she can see us. This discomfort, this slippage between being seen and being heard keeps the book insistently liminal, insistently not and yet not not. This is why the sign that marks the pond 'Pond' so irks and irritates the narrator, because "invariably this vital process is abruptly thwarted by an idiotic overlay of literal designations and inane alerts so that the whole terrain is obscured and inaccessible..." The narrator, though conscious of the potential violence that accompanies every woman, like a second heart beat, will not be designated, will not be the subject of warnings, but by the same token, she will erect no flag and storm no enemy. Definition destroys as effectively as an executioner's ax. Pond is murkily undefinable, but it hides in its depths fascinating, wiggling creatures, spiky reeds that puncture or break, rich earth where treasure is buried. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Rewrite of a Canonical Novel This Reader Wants and Needs

From the critically acclaimed - Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea being the preeminent example - to the pop hit - Gregory Maguire's Wicked, not to mention everything else he's written - the rewrite of a canonical novel from the point of view of a secondary character, usually understood as somehow badly served by the text that is, of course, equally the site of the character's origin, has become a genre unto itself. Some authors even beat their scions to the chase and write their own rewrites, like Veronica Roth, whose Divergent trilogy has an appendage in an additional novel from the point of view of the love interest, a fourth book about a character nicknamed Four, entitled... Four. In part, this drive to deconstruct and reconstruct classic narratives has an obvious political impetus, whether post-colonial, feminist, sex-positive, body-positive, queer-positive, or whatever other valence the author might write from. But, the fact remains that many of these efforts are also ways to cash in on the craze for intellectual property, especially IP in the public domain.

Given that these novels generally respond to readers' frustration over the way a particular character is represented, I would like to throw my hat in the ring, as a frustrated reader, and offer to whichever novelist will take the challenge the rewrite of a canonical novel that I most want to read:

Authors, wordsmiths, scribblers, where is the novel written from the point of view of Miss Barker's cow? Elizabeth Gaskell devotes a mere two paragraphs to this fascinating and tragedy-stricken character in Cranford. This unfortunate cow belongs to the spinster, Miss Barker, who loves her like a daughter, but is unable to save her from losing all her hair in a lime pit. We never learn the name of this poor, benighted beast, only that she was possessed of "wonderful milk" and "wonderful intelligence" and can take a little comfort in the pajamas that her benefactress Miss Barker sews for her. Oh poor cow of Alderney origin! Oh poor cow, deprived of her own voice! Oh poor cow whom "the whole town knew and kindly regarded," who was pitied and smiled at in her misfortune! Oh woe is cow! Where is the novel that will restore to us this cow's story, so simply sketched by Mrs. Gaskell, who was more concerned with telling the tales of spinster ladies?

You think I am joking, but really, in this topsy-turvey age of imminent disasters of the bleakest sort, isn't a novel about a bald cow in grey flannel pajamas exactly what we need?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How One Vocabulary Word Demolishes the Integrity of "A Quiet Passion"

The long-gestating Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion, garnered significant critical acclaim upon its release in 2016, with Terence Davies's direction, Cynthia Nixon's performance, and the film's overall 'poetic sensibility' earning especial praise. Whether one likes this film or not depends heavily on the viewer's tolerance for a distinctly artificial cinematic structure, far closer in feel to a theatrical performance in a stuffy, small room than the usual sumptuous opulence of a period piece. I could easily imagine an Emily Dickinson biopic remaining fixed within the four walls of the Amherst home where she lived, eventually, as a recluse, but in fact, Davies's film follows Emily to a concert and a schoolroom.

Rather than attempt to recapture the texture of everyday life, the fairly unruffled and uneventful unfolding of a unmarried woman's life in a small town, nineteenth-century setting, the film is made up of a series of tableaux vivants, scenes that function as miniature, but complete, dramas. For instance, the conflict of Dickinson's brother's desire to enlist during the Civil War and her father's adamant opposition plays out in one, long, elegantly structured scene. These dramatic set pieces are book-ended by interludes of montages of sunshiny flowers and bees, the narrow staircase, a pen scratching across a scrap of paper, and gauzy curtains, with Nixon narrating Dickinson's poetry.

I personally found A Quiet Passion all but intolerable and was frustrated by this greatest-hits approach to a poet who somehow both staunchly and elliptically resists definition. But, an antipathy to style, while it can have a solid and critically argued basis, largely comes down to a matter of taste. Davies's screenplay has a bigger problem and it becomes apparent with one historically absurd vocabulary choice.

In a scene in which Dickinson establishes her belief in proto-feminism and the abolitionist movement, Davies has her say, "Every fight about gender is a war." In part, such statements are symptomatic of a common rehabilitation of figures from the past. Dickinson, constantly misquoted or misunderstood, a beloved mainstay of literary Instagram, is folded into an easily digestible, twenty-first century feminist and anti-racist ideology. By putting twenty-first century into her nineteenth-century mouth, the need for mediation is side-stepped. It's undeniable that Dickinson was unconventional and rebelled against many of the strictures that held women captive to the whims of their male relatives. It's equally undeniable that she would never, under any possible circumstances, have said, "Every fight about gender is a war."

That's because Davies, politically correct to a fault, has Dickinson say "gender" instead of "sex." This piously panders to millennial feminism. The word "gender" did not acquire its current usage until the 1970s and the definitive split between "gender" as self-identity and "sex" as biology is even more recent. Although Judith Butler's extraordinarily influential Gender Trouble questions the rigidity of those definitions, her assertion that gender and sex are constructed rather than inherent has become increasingly accepted, at least in liberal communities.

These are ideas that have not place in Emily Dickinson's world. In that world, the nascent feminist movement operates on an assumption that sexual difference - undifferentiated from gender difference - entitles women to certain rights and protections. Later generations would make the claim that women are entitled to rights and protections, regardless of sexual difference. The distinction between gender and sex is incoherent gobbledygook in the nineteenth-century context.

One could say that I'm nit-picking, that to claim that the use of one word demolishes the integrity of the whole film is an overreaction. Perhaps. But, this kind of usage collapses all of history into two categories: acceptable and unacceptable and presumes that what is current is somehow always fundamentally more correct than what is past. In order for Emily Dickinson to be politically acceptable, she has to be a soothsayer, capable of reading the next century's seminal works of feminist and queer theory without loosening her corset stays. This does Dickinson a disservice, this does feminist history a disservice, and frankly, it reveals a naive feminist positivism that permits the worst sort of condemnatory discourse, dividing all people into good people, who use the latest correct terminology, and everyone else, the people who good people are supposed to silence and shut down, rather than engage with and debate.

The choice of the word "gender," over the historically accurate "sex," renders A Quiet Passion emblematic of the historical blindness and hard-lining that threatens to calcify feminist discourse into a rigid set of applied standards. The poet who wrote of the past, "Her faded ammunition/Might yet reply," the poet who insisted that "To fight aloud, is very brave/but gallanter, I know,/who charge within the bosom,/the cavalry of woe," deserves to be met on her own terms, not ours.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Film Review: "The Girl in White" (1952)

Director John Sturges's most famous films - Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Great Escape, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Old Man and the Sea - are quintessentially masculine films about violence, prejudice, the bonds formed by men in confined spaces with each other and with nature, and dogged heroism in the face of despair. It's thus quite a surprise to see his name in inky curlicues scroll by in the credits of The Girl in White, a biopic of one of the first women surgeons in America, Emily Dunning Barringer. The film's steadfast and clear-eyed condemnation of the facilely paternalistic chauvinism that Emily experienced only heightens the surprise.

June Allyson is perfectly cast as Emily, anchoring the film emotionally without a single one of her famous crying scenes, and she is supported by Arthur Kennedy as her colleague and love interest and Mildred Dunnock as the female doctor who acts as her mentor. Based on Emily Dunning Barringer's more prosaically entitled memoirs, Bowery to Bellevue: The Story of New York's First Woman Ambulance Surgeon, the film is a textbook example of the Hollywood biopic, dutifully showing us a formative inspirational experience, a series of successes and setbacks, and, of course, a romance, repeating the formulas that earned Madame Curie, starring Greer Garson, seven Oscar nominations a decade earlier.

There's no question that The Girl in White lacks significant conflict, with a plot that can boast predictability more than anything else, but this isn't a film that attempts to draw the viewer in with suspense, thrills, or theatrics. Instead, it's a quiet, unassuming, but  staunchly focused chronicle of one woman refusing to back down before sexism. Emily's superior phlegmatically explains to her that women shouldn't be doctors since they tend to mix up emotions and facts, her lover complains as he proposes marriage that he doesn't want to come home to find out his wife is out on a house call, a colleague insists that for three thousand years, the only medicine any woman has ever practiced is midwifery. This sort of casual, soberly expressed sexism doesn't make for stirring drama, but it does enforce a sense of how deeply ingrained assumptions about women's capabilities and duties were at the beginning of the twentieth-century. The locus of the film is its emotionally calibrated dissection of the barriers that women doctors faced and this alone renders it an unusual, and precious, document of feminist history, however romantically interpreted.

That feminism, however, hearkens back to the feminism of the narrative's time, the suffragette movement that would ultimately win the vote for women in 1920. This was the movement that campaigned for women to have the right to divorce their husbands without losing custody of their children, to attend universities and earn advanced degrees, and to control their own earnings. The Girl in White is all but free of the common markers of twenty-first century feminism. Emily's victories are painstakingly and gradually earned as she proves herself a surgeon as capable as her male colleagues. The highs are not so very high, and the lows are not terribly low, but The Girl in White manages to be an uplifting experience without turning the world on its head, as though sexism could be defeated by one woman doctor's rescue of a dying patient. It is a sentimental film, in the very best sense of the word. I can think of few films of this period that offer a similarly wholesome, cleanly romantic pleasure, though it certainly has much to offer to happy readers of Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, My Brilliant Career, or Louisa May Alcott's Work. Today, we may not blink an eye at the idea of a woman doctor - after all, even the conservative Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer could make a film in 1952 that insists on the absurdity of barring women from medicine - and that fact ought to guarantee The Girl in White a place, if a minor one, in the cultural record of the victories that feminism has won.

Friday, September 29, 2017

9 Great Works by Women Philosophers

Philosophy as a discipline has historically been and is still a highly male-dominated field and every few years it seems some prominent male philosopher claims that there simply aren't any great female philosophers. How wrong such men are! Far from there being few women philosophers, there are far more than could be represented on a short list such as the following. One could add works by Hypatia, Hildegarde von Bingen, Heloise, Moderata Fonte,  Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Montessori, Rosa Luxemberg, Audre Lorde, Shulamith Firestone, Rosi Braidotti, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous - and those are just the first names that spring to my mind. The following nine volumes are ones that I recommend for both their intellectual rigor and the subtle and variegated beauties of their diverse literary styles; all traverse a wide range of scholastic fields, from political theory to theology, photography to existentialism and more.

On Revolution - Hannah Arendt
Drawing on the taxonomy of human activity she set out in her earlier The Human Condition, Arendt compares the French and American revolutions, ultimately asserting that, contrary to the work of Marxist philosophers who generally favored the French example, the American revolution was the successful revolution, and the one to emulate. Though I strenuously disagree with her argument myself, since I would contend that Arendt's rather flippant dismissal of the role slavery played in this revolution of men who claimed to believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while owning slaves diminishes the strength of her position, there is no denying that On Revolution is a forceful, thought-provoking, and incisive work of political theory, one as fascinating and useful for those on the left as on the right.

The Ethics of Ambiguity - Simone de Beauvoir
Though her most famous text is The Second Sex, Beauvoir made other important contributions to both feminist and existentialist philosophy, most of them significantly underread. While her lover and erstwhile mentor Sartre announced a plan to formulate a system of ethics based on the existentialism laid out in his Being and Nothingness, it was Beauvoir in the end who did so in The Ethics of Ambiguity. Rejecting transcendent or independent moral imperatives, Beauvoir locates the possibility of an existentialist ethics in the fact of human freedom; the ambiguity of this freedom lies in the fact that human beings are both subject and object, both actor and acted-upon. While I am not wholly convinced by her argument, Beauvoir's book confronts the thorny problem of a post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima ethics for a modern, alienated world and is one of the essential texts of existentialist philosophy.

Garments Against Women - Anne Boyer
Though not technically a work of philosophy, Boyer's incisive, anti-capitalist, feminist prose poetry lends itself seamlessly to an application as theory and I say 'seamlessly' with intention: for, among the central themes that Boyer treats are the intersections between sewing and writing for women. As rooted in a Kansan landscape of strip malls, used clothing shops, and unemployment bureaus as the bird and tree-strewn dreamscapes one might anticipate in poetry, Garments Against Women can be fiendishly brilliant, lucidly analytical, lyrically lovely, and, not rarely, slyly funny. Boyer questions why the sewing of a dress, or the baking of a cake, is different, if it is different, from writing a poem, and why the question can only truly be posited when the sewer, baker, and writer is a woman. This book has proved of enormous theoretical value to my own work on feminism and the woman writer and I highly recommend it.

Gender Trouble - Judith Butler
Though Butler has long since moved on to new realms of theoretical inquiry, must crucially in Frames of War, Gender Trouble is probably the most significant American philosophical text of our age, the most influential, the most widely read, and certainly among the most misunderstood. Butler sets out to contest the monolithic universalism of even the concept of woman as unquestioned up until that point (1989) in feminist, and anti-feminist, thought. The book thrust the definitive wedge between sex and gender, two concepts unlikely to be sewn together again, arguing that gender, unlike sex, is inherently performative. Feminism, queer theory, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, and not a few social and political movements underwent a transformative chemical reaction on contact with Gender Trouble.

This Sex Which Is Not One - Luce Irigaray
In this collection of essays, Irigaray works towards dismantling the phallocentrism that contaminates all forms of discourse, whether spoken or written, wrestling with thinkers such as Marx, Freud, and Lacan, and covering a wide range of subjects, including the economic exploitation of women as objects of exchange and the divergence between male and female eroticism. Irigaray's work is firmly situated within a Marxist feminist discourse that was never especially comfortable for American feminists, but the barbed fury that courses through her sinuous sentences and the opalescent beauty of her style, abstract and yet rooted in the body, should suffice to persuade contemporary students of feminist theory to read her with avidity, if not agreement.

The Illegitimacy of Jesus - Jane Schaberg
This controversial work of feminist theology made Schaberg something of a pariah, though her credentials as a scholar of scripture were impeccable. The Illegitimacy of Jesus argues, through a close reading of the Gospels and other Biblical texts, that Mary was raped and thus conceived Jesus illegitimately. The miracle of Jesus's issuance from a poor, violated woman signals the true extent of Christian redemption. Such a reading of the infancy narratives is, obviously, revolutionary and thirty years after its original publication, the book provokes impassioned, litigious debate. It also, however, opens up a space wherein the experience of women can be not only thought, but felt, in theology.

Regarding the Pain of Others - Susan Sontag
Deeply indebted to Woolf's Three Guineas, this book, the last Sontag published before her death, concerns whether photography can be used to prevent, mitigate, or stop violence, or if its limits inure us to depictions of violence, thus desensitizing us as we confront an ever greater volume of images, delivered at ever faster rates. As always, Sontag refuses simplistic answers, neatly squaring a circle: war photography is almost unbearably important, as evidence, as historical record, but its utility is severely limited, for no matter how moved we may be by a devastating image, without living through the horror framed in the photograph, we cannot understand. The photograph permits us to know, in a limited, imperfect sense, but never to really empathize in the profound way that is demanded by the suffering of the victims of war. Sontag was perhaps never more rigorous, painstaking, or morally demanding.

The Simone Weil Reader
Weil's importance as a philosopher, theologian, and mystic is astonishing in light of the fact that she published only a handful of essays during her lifetime, dying at age thirty-four, though she managed to contribute new concepts to philosophy, Christian theology, and Marxist political theory. This collection, edited by George A. Panichas, includes her most celebrated pieces, including her "Spiritual Autobiography," a lucid and self-critical testament to her conversion, "The Iliad or Poem of Force," an extraordinary and gorgeously written analysis of force in the classical world that ascends to a poetically enunciated but uncompromising political theory as applicable to Vichy France as to Troy, "Factory Life," an emotionally uprooting and clear-eyed account of her time working at the Renault factory, and selections from Gravity and Grace, a cryptic and spiritually exhilarating set of notes or aphorisms.

Three Guineas - Virginia Woolf
Woolf's anti-fascist, pacifist, feminist polemic, published in 1937, ties the fight against the encroachment of Hitler, Mussolini, and all their supporters inextricably to the fight against the patriarchal oppression of women. The book is written in the form of a letter to a philanthropist who seeks a financial contribution to his anti-war efforts, a request that Woolf finds she can only answer by addressing the question of women's education and employment. Exquisitely calibrated, blisteringly ironic, and imbued with the urgent despair stirred by the sight of photographs of the corpses left by Franco's forces in Spain, this slim volume is a crucial text of both feminist and political theory. 

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?