Saturday, May 27, 2017

Auntie Mame Is the Antidote to Our Franchise Woes

Summer is around the corner and the behemoth franchise installments have already begun with this weekend's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (it's big and stupid and hugely fun, and Paul McCartney is in it, and so is Faramir, I mean, David Wenham). While it seems that POTC has been finally defeated by the last rotting of the endlessly expiring Johnny Depp-Disney romance, I had the dubious pleasure of seeing trailers for the latest Transformers film, a franchise that lumbers with the grace of a drunken wildebeest, and the next Star Wars movie, a franchise that galumphs with perhaps more visual panache but just as much intent to sell toys. Hollywood has become so lost in franchise-land that this stuff is beginning to play like parodies of itself and something must be done.

Ladies and Gentlemen: it's time to call in the big guns. It's time to call in Auntie Mame.

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Auntie Mame and the Beast
In this reboot, Auntie Mame convinces the Beast that he's much sexier as he is, since hairy is in this season, sets him up with her secretary, and redecorates the castle. She teaches the beast-human hybrid babies that life is a banquet and starts a weekly coffee klatsch with the enchantress. Songs and highballs are enjoyed by all.

Auntie Mame's Guardians of the Galaxy
Auntie Mame finds the magical orb in an antique shop and turns it into a chandelier. The Guardians arrive to try to steal it, but instead they get sloshed and Chris Pratt cries in Auntie Mame's arms about his dead mother before she gives him a make-over. After a rousing impromptu speech against intolerant attitudes towards tree-human hybrids, Auntie Mame decides to establish a rest home for them. They all live there. 

The Fate of the Furious Auntie Mame
Auntie Mame drives very fast cars, provokes fireball explosions, and squeezes Vin Diesel's biceps. She hijacks a helicopter, a submarine, a tank, and an aircraft carrier. She live, live, lives.

The LEGO Auntie Mame Movie 
Auntie Mame is transformed into a Lego figurine and has a marvelous time building several new mansions out of Legos. Lord Business gives up his evil plans when he falls in love with her and spends the rest of the movie holding her shopping bags and looking after her Lego poodle, while waiting for her to agree to marry him. Capitalism still wins because this is a movie about copyrighted toys.

Kong vs. Auntie Mame
Auntie Mame works out King Kong's inferiority complex with hot pink hair dye, glitter, and a session with her Hungarian therapist, but not before they have a screaming match, which Auntie Mame wins, and a chest-thumping contest, which Kong wins, but only because Auntie Mame forgot to wear her spanx that day. 

Fifty Shades of Auntie Mame
Leather BDSM dungeon + fabulous gold corset + rattlesnake hors d'oeuvre + Auntie Mame = an awake audience. Auntie Mame becomes a dominatrix and Jamie Dornan can relax and stop trying to be interesting.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Movie Review: "Firelight" (1997)

William Nicholson's Firelight (1997) is a highly unusual animal: a period film that is not based either on a novel or on a true story. This is easily enough to pique my interest, as I adore period films and endless iterations of the same stories can get tiresome indeed. As a novelist and veteran screenwriter, Nicholson seemed primed to offer a narratively rich film in his debut venture as a director.

Alas. Firelight attempts to be many things, from erotica to moonlit romance, to gothic tale, feminist apologia, and heartwarming family drama, and succeeds in no respect. The story drifts uneasily among its period trappings, approaching complex adult emotions and choices and rendering them in paint-by-numbers fashion. Sophie Marceau, astonishingly gorgeous with a pout worthy of Isabelle Adjani, plays Elisabeth Laurier, who is so desperate to pay off her father's debts that she agrees to have sex and bear a child with a mysterious nobleman in want of an heir, a woefully miscast Stephen Dillane, who doesn't ever seem to wash his hair. They have three increasingly torrid nights together, she gives birth to a daughter, and spends the next seven years... well, it's not really clear what she does during those seven years, except produce a book's-worth of flowery watercolors, but in the end she becomes her long-lost daughter's governess.

The opening had the potential to be as prudishly tawdry as a Harlequin bodice ripper or as cerebral and clinically cold as the sex scenes in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman. Nicholson strides right through the middle, offering us a few carefully narrated minutes in which firelight is portentously discussed and the two lovers engage in sex that is neither the act of a man paying a reluctant prostitute nor two people enjoying a bit of illicit sex for a cause. Instead we get all romance, flickering light, heaving breasts, and murmured conversations littered with phrases that scream "these two people are in love, FOR REALS." To paraphrase Bridget Jones, this can't just be shagging, a weird obsession with firelight means true love.

For all that, Nicholson actually has an extraordinary talent for a freshman director for creating exquisite compositions. If the film never quite feels like the silly romance that it is, it's because of the painterly palette of blues, greys, soft washed-out reds, and a veritable plethora of all shades of white and ivory. Icy water, frosted windows, and snow-covered beaches are used to great effect. There are occasional moments of visual wit, as when a shot of aristocrats dancing the polka cuts to a shot of round-rumped sheep trotting in a meadow. Firelight looks so classy that one can be swept away at times, though the clumsy and too frequently obvious and vague dialogue inevitably interferes. The montage of years passing had the potential to be something really lovely, an aching evocation of longing, but it's spoiled by narration so shallowly melodramatic that the images are almost tarnished.

There is nothing wrong with melodrama. Indeed, the melodrama is one my favorite genres. But operatic emotions fall flat in the quiet of a polite period piece when the characters remain amorphous and tied to hackneyed conventions. Elisabeth supposedly engages in what amounts to short-term prostitution for the sake of her father - whom we never see and about whom she never speaks. It's assumed, rather than shown, that she adores her daughter. Most viewers will probably accept that readily enough, but it's a snooze. Nicholson wants us to root for her and as a result, every potential for a bit of selfishness, nastiness, frustration, or anything really beyond perfect maternal martyrdom and carefully repressed and adoring desire for the man she had sex with three times, is jettisoned with fancy speeches. She's awfully nice for an impoverished governess forced into prostitution and the sale of her daughter.

In the same way, we are supposed to root for Charles Godwin (spoiler alert, I suppose, for his name). The fact that his wife is paralyzed and possibly brain-dead  - how they've kept her alive for ten years is anyone's guess - is somehow supposed to make his dubious actions entirely acceptable, even self-sacrificing, for a romantic hero. The fact that he hires a woman to screw him and bear his heir is TOTALLY HONORABLE because his wife can't do it.

I wish these characters were totally unlikable because then their actions and choices might be compelling. Nicholson never allows them to be pressed to the wall, everything is explained and justified. These people have no trouble articulating their emotions, maybe because they're awfully simplistic. Every scene is a momentous confrontation, the crux of a conflict that is quickly resolved, anticlimax after anticlimax, but there are few glimpses of these characters actually living out their lives. There are occasional sparks of insight into the condition of being female in 19th century England, especially poor and female, but they aren't supported by the story, which at base is nothing more than a fairy tale. Elisabeth speechifies about the prisons in which women live their lives to the (atrociously obnoxious) child Louisa, but mopes over the less than scrupulous Godwin because he can't put her in his most attractive prison. There was potential for this film to be about how impossible truly ethical choices were for poor young women who couldn't be the angel in the house, but any political content is well and truly smothered by a moony romance and an acute need to verbalize every emotion.

The actors are hampered by ponderous dialogue and a story that rushes to resolve every conflict with the grace of buffalo. Sophie Marceau emotes, but to no avail, Stephen Dillane gazes soulfully at her and leaps naked from a lake, in an unfortunate tribute to Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice that points up this film's considerable flaws. Dominique Belcourt plays the child, Louisa, well enough, but I am at a loss as to why anyone cares very much for such an unpleasant, snobbish little brat. Christopher Gunning's score insists on an unearned earth-shattering romanticism, which unfortunately emphasizes the gap between emotion explicated and emotion acted, but Nic Morris's cinematography is lovely, and the only genuine treat the movies offers.

Would I go easier on this film if my taste for original period dramas were better satisfied? Probably. Watching Firelight, I was distracted by the potential I saw for a much better film, one that grappled with the complicated politics of sex, romance, and parenthood between two people holding totally unequal power due to gender, class, and wealth, that allowed its characters to have flaws that aren't immediately justified or brushed aside, that rejected thoughtless romance in favor of a story with some sting, that trusted the viewer enough to understand what's going on and who the characters are without stating everything baldly. Over and over again, this film presents alternate paths, tantalizing glimpses of more interesting narrative directions, and over and over again, Nicholson ignored the fork and plowed straight ahead.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Jo March Isn't a Failed Feminist

As American feminism has leaned ever harder into the idea that emancipated women are successful in their careers, Louisa May Alcott's Jo March has become a more tendentious figure. While in all of the movie adaptations, the climax of the story comes with Jo's publication of her book about her and her sisters' childhood, sometimes called My Beth if not the more obviously metafictional Little Women and her engagement to Professor Bhaer is inextricably tied to her success as a published author, in the novel, Jo follows a much less cinematic, and much less straightforward, path to success as a writer. In fact, her authorial successes are insignificant in Little Women; it is not until she is well into middle age, in Jo's Boys, that her books bring her fame and fortune (and irritating fans showing up on her doorstep looking for souvenirs). Since most readers don't continue the March trilogy past Little Women, twenty-first century feminists often express disappointment that Alcott's novel isn't 'feminist enough,' a coded way of complaining that Jo doesn't achieve enough.

There's a pernicious assumption in this interpretation of Jo's trajectory as a feminist character. It's true: at the end of Little Women, she has put aside serious literary aspiration to focus on the school she co-founds with her husband and the task of raising her two children. That is, she ends up adapting to the exigencies of surviving as a woman of her time. But, if Jo's feminism depends on her success, then feminism becomes the exclusive ground of the exceptional, the select few who succeed against all odds. The reader is asking to have her cake and eat it too: Jo must be a relatable, flawed character, but her life must be tied up into a bow of perfection. Many academic feminists lament that Jo marries, accepting the dichotomy of career vs. marriage that Alcott herself deconstructs for her character. Never mind that Jo's marriage is a happy partnership in which they share parenting, teaching, and nursing duties. Never mind that most people, feminist or not, hope to have families of one sort or another. But, even beyond these points, Jo does succeed: it just takes her a while.

In other words, Jo doesn't have the flashy, simplistic, up-and-away success narrative that Hollywood has trained us to expect. Instead, she has minor successes and failures, publishes a few things, including books, here and there, tries many different genres and styles, tosses out old work and struggles with new ideas, and allows her understanding of her craft to evolve through hard work, reflection, and a refusal to give up. When Jo says, "I haven't given up the hope that I may write a good book yet, but I can wait, and I'm sure it will be all the better for such experiences and illustrations as these," she's hardly given up all possibility of a career for a life of housewifery and motherhood. Rather, she's accepted that writing a good book is damned difficult, and very few people are going to make it on a first try. She's still writing.

She's also still working. Jo's interest in teaching and caring for a houseful of boys doesn't spring out of nowhere. She takes great pleasure in 'bringing up' Laurie and takes credit for his turning out so well. More importantly, she expresses her intent to found a school with as much enthusiasm and determination as she did with her literary ambitions. "I used to think how, when I'd made my fortune, and no one needed me at home, I'd hire a big house, and pick up some poor, forlorn little lads, who hadn't any mothers, and take care of them, and make life jolly for them before it was too late... I love so to do anything for them," Jo gushes, as she acquaints her family with her plan.

We risk entrenching ourselves in a calcified and rigid structure of feminism in which success and happiness are given exacting definitions and become standards. Jo's 'feminist credentials' haven't been violated because her writing career is realistically portrayed as difficult and roundabout, or because she marries a man, or because she becomes a mother. Jo makes choices in an effort to be a useful, contented, and fulfilled person. The vocabulary may have changed - today feminists might prefer healthy, happy, and self-actualized - but it hardly seems feminist to criticize the self-empowered choices of any woman, fictional or not. The issue at the heart of critiques of Jo's feminism lies in a denied wish fulfillment. Readers want Jo to 'have it all' because they want to 'have it all.' The sooner that we recognize that 'having it all' isn't actually on the table for anyone, even the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world, the sooner modern feminism can start shedding the patriarchally infused imperative to succeed, or be stripped of one's 'feminist credentials.' If success is the metric against which a person's feminism is measured, then feminism is nothing more than another way of policing who women are, what they do, what they choose, and how they live. Jo would still be a feminist even if she failed spectacularly because feminism expresses a belief in a basic equality between men and women, not the achievement of that equality.

Life is hard and requires an endless series of compromises, false steps, mistakes, and failures. If we can't let our fictional characters be less than paragons, what are we letting ourselves in for?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

What "The Paradise" Tells Us About Labor and Gender Politics Today

BBC's The Paradise (2012-2013) is one of my very favorite television shows, a tantalizing mixture of gorgeous clothes, glamorous sets, romance, and melodrama with a good dose of wish fulfillment tossed in there. The show is very loosely based on Emile Zola's The Ladies' Paradise (Le bonheur des dames), but those readers hoping to find similar enjoyments as those offered by Bill Gallagher's sugar-dusted confectionary of a show won't find them.

Zola's novel portrays the lives of shopgirls, small and failing businessmen, and the high-flying department store capitalists that are filling their pockets without the slightest concern for who suffers (or dies) as a result. The BBC show, in contrast, cultivated a bevy of comradely relationships that connected the salespeople, the managers, and even the ambitious owner, creating an enviously edenic web of friendships, convivial compromises, emotional support, and business victories. The novel describes in biting detail the vicious maneuvers of a staff reliant on hard-won commissions, the misery of blistered feet, the danger of sexual harassment, the necessity for the shopgirls to take lovers in order to survive, and the brutal and unjustified firing of people who commit such irregularities as eating a lunch containing garlic. While in the show, the angelically blonde Denise skyrockets into her employer's good graces with her ingenious business ideas, in the novel she is summarily fired when her brother comes begging her for money to entertain a mistress. Even when the novel's Denise is rehired, having caught the eye of the Bonheur's owner, her ascent to power is owed to his sexual interest, rather than her brilliant business ideas.

The sexual politics of the novel emphasize sex as commodity, sex as something to be bought and sold. While the novel's Mouret, the despotic owner of the Bonheur, simply invites whichever salesgirls he desires to dinner and 'dessert' whenever he feels like having sex, in the show, the rechristened Moray proves remarkably chaste, a monk to the service of commerce. In the novel, Denise is the only virgin in a sea of young women whose sexual lives could fill a dozen bawdy volumes and her refusal of Mouret is partly a horror of sex as such and partly a deeply embedded sense of the fitness of things: she respects herself too much to have sex before marriage and she believes marriage with Mouret to be impossible because of the difference in class. The TV show, decidedly twentieth-first century in attitude, sweeps away class difference, dismissing it as mere snobbery, easily overcome by the family-like camaraderie that develops as the Paradise's staff make pots and pots and pots of money. But, this seemingly progressive attitude merely extends the sexual repression of the upper and bourgeois classes to the working class as well.

Zola was the leading proponent of a philosophy of novel-writing that later critics dubbed naturalism. His purpose was to describe, in exact, rigorous detail, the political, social, economic, scientific, religious, infrastructural, familial, etc. upheavals taking place in industrializing France. Bill Gallagher shifts the location to England, shedding most of the political content as a result. Mouret becomes Moray: the rather vicious, if seductive and charming, and misogynistic capitalist becomes a charismatic, somewhat vulnerable, and romantic wunderkind salesman. While in the novel, Denise develops from a quaking, terrified country bumpkin into a smooth-as-cream saleswoman, respectful, aloof, and paternalistically compassionate, in the show, Denise becomes the resident genius of the Paradise, the source of the gimmicky marketing ideas that keep the enterprise afloat, but also easily swayed into a romance with her boss. The book's Denise would be scandalized by the show's. From practicality and self-respect, the character shifts to capitalistic inventiveness and moony-eyed romance.

These changes totally alter the fundamentally transactional nature of any and all sexual relationships in the world of Zola's novel, the inevitable result of a world in which the pursuit of money in and of itself, over and above class aspiration, becomes paramount. His thundering criticism of capitalism is reinforced by his carefully researched depiction of the sex lives of the shopgirls. The wide-eyed virgins of the show are scrubbed-clean, doll-like versions of the novel's sexually experienced harlots. While in the show, romance becomes the cover for a striking lack of sex, in the novel, all the girls except Denise are having regular sex, and enjoying it. Sex becomes a problem only in the event of a pregnancy, which is not tolerated. The novel's shopgirls are dismissed the moment they begin to show and some are doomed to miscarriages, desperately lacing themselves ever more tightly in their corsets until they collapse and are carted away to die. In the show, none of these girls succumb, and those who have in the past, did so for love, not desire, and not money.

Why? Why, in a show made in a supposedly more sexually liberated time in history is sex outside of adoring love and marriage suddenly taboo? The answer lies in the two works' diverse understandings of capitalism. Zola portrays the Bonheur as part-machine, part-monster, an inexorable behemoth that spews out goods and devours money. The small shopkeepers whose businesses are ruined are not simply sad, melancholic people who retire to the country, as in the show's version of Denise's uncle. They are all but literally chewed up and spat out. These people starve, go mad, attempt suicide, get dragged from their collapsing homes, waste away, tottering miserably in the funeral caravans that become a regular feature of the death throes of the old world and the birth pangs of the new. The show erases this agony. Its characters are fundamentally nice people, people whose success is worth rooting for. Commerce reigns as benign goddess.

The show takes for granted that capitalism is a good thing. People don't suffer from other people's success; they suffer because they fail to be successful in the capitalist market. It's taken for granted that Moray, Denise, Miss Audrey, and all the other characters are to be congratulated because it's taken for granted that making money is a wholly good thing. Denise's uncle fails not through the ruthless business practices of Moray and his ilk, but because he refuses to modernize. He never appears to go hungry, even if he loses all his customers.

Thus, sex gets subsumed into romance; its transactional nature, as a commodity, as something bought and sold, gets erased. Characters are not summarily fired for tiny infractions, or no reason at all. The brutal, calculating maneuvers for power of the novel are tamed into friendships so tight-knit that they seem almost impossible. Cruelty dissipates, capitalist transcendence is achieved. That doesn't mean that the TV show is bad, but it does mean that it espouses a pro-business stance that reveals much about the world in which we live. The Paradise is an escapist fantasy, a many-tiered and richly iced cake of materialism, but the malevolent, sinister side of capitalism that Zola so damningly excoriates is as tame as a leopard on a leash, its claws tastefully sheathed. Those who suffer under capitalism are so many unseen ghosts; the heroes are the people who rake in the money. Moray is the Steve Jobs of department stores, Denise is the Sheryl Sandberg of shopgirls, the model for leaning in, but it behooves us to ask whether any capitalist enterprise has ever fostered the cuddly, feel-good atmosphere of The Paradise. I think not.

Zola specialized in clear-eyed honesty, the most scrupulous and research-verified depiction of truth. In this adaptation of his The Ladies' Paradise, he would have ruefully seen the total rout of social critique. That's the high price we pay for the victory of capitalism.