Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Movie Review: "Home Alone"

'Tis the day before Christmas and thus the most appropriate day of the year to watch a Christmas classic. Christmas movies operate, pretty much universally, under an assumed myth that Charles Dickens lobbed at western culture like a very effective bomb: Christmas is the time of togetherness, when all resentments, fights, and struggles are forgotten and forgiven, and families reunite. It's the yearly opportunity to make everything right again. The reasons for this have been carefully plastered over as Christmas has become increasingly secularized and Santa's face obscures images of Jesus. Yet, this is - ultimately - a cultural myth that we have grasped onto because it's actually rather nice. In movies it becomes a strict law. Good people find their way into a family, surrogate or otherwise, and bad people... well, bad people better hope Kevin McCallister isn't at home. For kids of the '80s and '90s, Home Alone, released in 1990, is one of the most essential Christmas movies, redolent of video cassettes, Squeeze Its, and Mariah Carey Christmas singles.

The truism that has sprung up on the internet about this oft-watched film is that Kevin McCallister, played by adorable real-life train wreck Macaulay Culkin, must have needed major therapy throughout the rest of his life or else become a psychopath. However, the Christmasy pleasure of Home Alone derives from its extreme distance from any form of realism. Sure, there's no Santa Claus, unless you count Old Man Marley (Roberts Blossom) as a Santa figure, no flying reindeer, no angels earning their wings, no ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come. But the seeming realism of the McCallisters' suburban mansion and their Beaver Cleaver familial dynamics actually demarcate the boundaries of anything we could reasonably recognize as real life. Home Alone is a Hollywood movie in the old studio sense: it establishes a scrubbed clean, upper middle class, white, mom-dad-and-cute-moppets family as the normal, and having defined that normal, merrily leaves realism in the dust for some surprisingly violent Christmas shenanigans. If realism had anything to do with it, then Kevin would murder the thieving intruders several times over.

It is more than easy to read Home Alone as a conservative American parable. The McCallisters are wealthy white people and the two crooks who covet their stuff are, respectively, an Italian (Joe Pesci) and a Jew (Daniel Stern). That is, the two ethnically marked actors are dumb, mean thieves and the blond, blue-eyed Kevin has to protect his comfortable McMansion against their intrusion. As the hero, he defends his property against the encroachment of people who don't belong and the happy ending, with the cranky crooks are driven away by the cops to nurse their third-degree burns, broken bones, and traumatic head injuries in jail, the McCallisters celebrate Christmas. All is well: Old Man Marley is reunited with his family, one of the best movie moms (Catherine O'Hara) gets back to her son with the help of John Candy and his polka band, and Kevin's siblings decide that he's only sometimes 'a disease.' Ah, the '90s.

Even so, Home Alone is so brilliantly paced and has such charismatic performances that it's hard to be bothered by its politics while watching it. The propulsive score by John Williams anticipates some of the magic of his work on Harry Potter. The film treads a delicate line between the horror of the real danger Kevin faces from the malevolent, if rather stupid crooks and the silliness of those crooks getting repeatedly and painfully bested by an eight-year-old. Remade today, it's hard to imagine the film not falling to one or the other sides of that line, either directly into gory horror (holiday horror movies have proved money makers at the box office) or else childishly cartoonish, stripped of its stakes and left a fluffy lump of treacle. Home Alone might be so much fun for me because it's a yearly tradition, ninety minutes that act like a temperature drop on bears, telling me to hibernate into a Christmas mood, but it's also a kind of Christmas movie magic that doesn't get made anymore. So, just as we still watch It's a Wonderful Life, even though it's an incredibly depressing movie about a guy who's going to have to face some very ugly music come December 26th, and Love Actually, even though it is essentially a movie about people so desperate for coupledom that they marry people who don't speak the same language or stalk their best friend's wives, we will still watch Home Alone, even though it is a movie about a small abandoned child with a genius for torturing petty criminals. Because that's what Christmas is all about!

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Book Review: Evany Rosen's "What I Think Happened"

It's fairly rare for me to read a recently published, non-academic book since academia tends to insist on disdain for any non-academic book published less than thirty years ago, but one of the lovely things about the holidays is that, if you're traveling by plane, you have a nice, long chunk of reading time that would ill serve the intellectual requirements of the latest hot lit crit text. For my trip across the country, I chose Canadian comic Evany Rosen's What I Think Happened.

What I Think Happened is a book of comic essays on Rosen's various historical interests, from the dumpiest presidents of American history and Napoleon Bonaparte, to the current obsession with Nazi analogies and, well, cheese. Rosen is not a historian and explains this fact to us at length. In the introduction, she explains that she is a "failed academic" - by which she means that she didn't do very well academically while earning her B.A. However, she also describes herself as a "history nerd," so in the end she's writing, to quote the subtitle, "An Underresearched History of the the Western World."

Fair enough - the divide between academic and popular history writing is a major problem and it was probably only a matter of time before comics became our educators of history, just as they have become our journalists and political commentators on late night. I actually don't think it's a bad idea for people without expertise to write on history, or any other subject for that matter, but one of the reasons that, in the realm of politics for example, Stephen Colbert is so brilliantly funny is that he is extremely knowledgeable. In other words, he approaches his subject through comedy, but... he's also kind of an expert. And that's why he's worth listening to. Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder is decidedly not a good guide to British history, but its hilarity is in part due to the writers' ability to use history - since they evidently know it - by drawing on the funny bits, or else making changes that are even funnier if you know the truth.

Rosen can be funny, but the lack of research beyond cursory readings of Wikipedia articles - this is the method she cops to - hobbles the book not so much by its lack of depth or analysis, but because the comedy is weakened by generalization, summary, and an unfortunate reliance on platitudes to fill in the gaps between occasional, inherently funny historical details - such as the fact that Queen Victoria, bless her, was titled among many other things the "White Elephant" - and Rosen's own jokes. Her skill with funny dialogue, though only evident in "The Founding Fathers: A Brief, Totally Imagined Oral History," is exceptional. The essays that examine subjects that genuinely seem to excite her and inspire more research, nevertheless, are not necessarily the strongest in the book. The strongest are the essays that own up to a certain internet-centric style, that is, the flippant lists, quizzes, and trivia assortments that seem to belong on a blog rather than a book: "America's Dumpiest Presidents," "Some of History's Creepiest Artists," "This Part's Just About the History of Cheese." What I Think Happened indicates that the sort of no-research, snarky, too-cool-for-school (in this case, literally) style of the internet has managed to waft onto the soil of book publishing and get its roots down.

That might sound harsh, but I will admit that the book is pleasant and easy to read, at least if you're somewhat to the left politically. That is in part due to its comfort with its own assumptions. The political point of view of the book is garden-variety American liberal, although the author is Canadian and much of her analysis, such as it is, consists of pointing out how horrible life has been historically for pretty much everyone but rich white men. There is a certain degree of truth there, but it's not a particularly scintillating point. Her essay about Jane Grey, for instance, invites us to contemplate the fact that the executed queen who ruled for nine days was a teenage girl who hadn't had any evident ambitions for the throne, which is technically true, but also not especially interesting unless you are pitching her life story for a biopic miniseries aimed at teenage girls. See, here's the rub: I know a bit more than she does about the politics of the Tudors and their succession problems and that makes the essay far less enjoyable.

In that sense, What I Think Happened is a history book for laymen that will likely turn off even armchair experts. I didn't catch many outright errors, but there were a few (Wikipedia is marvelous, but always requires confirmation from another source), but perhaps my enjoyment of her commentary on presidents is partly due to my near total lack of knowledge of presidential history. Rosen doesn't hedge on this issue, rather, she explicitly and repeatedly draws attention to her lack of research. I just can't help believing that she could have written a far superior book if she had done one more thing and not done a different thing, to wit: she should have done a great deal more research, which would have given her writing far better tethering and she shouldn't have tried to give any kind of coherent summaries, as she does in her multi-chapter "Sort of Understanding the History of the British Monarchy: A Partial, Underresearched Timeline in Several Parts."  There's no point in the larger picture because the book can't - as designed - hold any authority as far as historical fact is concerned and it would be far funnier if, well, it stuck to the parts that actually strike Rosen as funny, and thus fun to write about.

In fact, Rosen herself also seems quite bored, but she compounds this by actually pointing it out. As the book progresses, footnotes that flag the bits that she didn't want to read about because of how much they bored her increase. And she eventually resorts to an even less historically informed friend to provide her with trivia questions, which she answers on the fly. These three chapters are actually embarrassing and not at all funny because they are made up of the kind of stuff she might see in a nerdy friend's social media feed, if you didn't actually know that friend and you did know that the friend is drunk.

These problems are then further compounded by an earnestness that comes through in both the introduction and the conclusion. Rosen lets the snark drop for paragraphs that pleadingly explain "I've found - almost exclusively on weird road trips with my dad - that the past, and its hideously cyclical predictability, has proven time and again to be a delightful and often hilarious coping mechanism for digesting the horrors of the present." She really wants history to mean something to us, but what comes across is that Rosen likes watching Ken Burns documentaries and going on battlefield tours with her dad, which she assures us, are very odd and quirky and weird things for someone to like doing.

I'm probably the wrong reader for this book. I'm an academic (though I did cringe a wee bit as I wrote that, only partly because we have turned a perfectly good adjective into a questionable noun) and have read quite a few more history books than Rosen has, at least on the evidence presented here. I don't tend to rate quirkiness for its own sake very highly and my sense of humor tends to resist snarkiness. However, Rosen displays such a talent for dialogue and is so clearly enthusiastic (when she isn't bored) that I sincerely wish that a more insistent editorial hand had led her in a better direction. It's her first book and I would bet her next will be better.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

4 Great Pennsylvanian Writers

These four writers all spent significant times in their lives in the state of Pennsylvania, the state where I myself grew up. Three of these writers were born in the state and all four spent significant periods living in the state. Other great writers with ties to the state include Louisa May Alcott, Willa Cather, Lois Lowry, Jerre Mangione, Donna Jo Napoli, Philip Roth, and Ben Lerner (incidentally, my former neighbor!).

Lloyd Alexander - The Chronicles of Prydain 
Alexander wrote novels for children and young adults that created coherent, character-driven narratives out of legends and mythologies, also writing original fairy tales with a whimsical sense of humor, not unlike the work of Natalie Babbitt. His most beloved series, The Chronicles of Prydain , is based on the Welsh Mabinogian. The books follow Taran, an apprentice pig-keeper who becomes a hero, Eilonwy, a princess under an enchantment more like Ronia the robber's daughter than the Princess Aurora, and Gurgi, a creature without a history. They are pitted against the Horned King and his army born of the Black Cauldron. These books are high fantasy of the most satisfying variety: Prydain is a rich, fascinating world and the little band of protagonists are marvelous imaginary companions. Highly recommended, especially for devotees of Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons.

Pearl S. Buck - The New Year
Most of Buck's novels are set in China, where she grew up, or elsewhere in Asia; this particular novel is a recasting of the Madame Butterfly story, set in Korea during and after the Korean War. Soonya, however, is not a self-sacrificing blossom who wilts with the loss of her overly idealized love. When the American soldier who left her pregnant comes back to claim the child, since his American wife can't have children, he returns to a mature, world-weary woman and not a naive girl. Her decision is no less fraught: the possibility of her child growing up fed, clothed, and educated in a prosperous country that fights its wars abroad is the same possibility that she will never see her child again. Buck excels at depicting connections across the cultural divide between Asia and America, connections that both alienate, but also form complex bonds of affection, need, and desire.

H. D. - HERmione
This imagist poet is both the twentieth century's heiress to the ancient Greek and Latin poetic traditions, from Sappho to Catullus, and a modernist influenced by Pound and Freud, who also anticipated the fragmentation of genre that would intensify with post-modernism. This experimental novel departs from the opaque lucidity of her poetry and is more reminiscent of the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay or the early prose of Virginia Woolf. In stream-of-consciousness style, H. D. narrates the inner world of Hermione 'Her' Gart, a character who is widely read as autobiographical. For Her, life presents a series of traps and escapes that both transform into each other, like shifting magnetic poles, or blend together seamlessly, until she is trapped by her escape, and escapes by means of entering a trap. Self-discovery is as much failure as success; agency and passivity are rarely so distinct as we usually believe. A modernist masterpiece that still doesn't have the recognition it deserves.

John O'Hara - Ten North Frederick
O'Hara is, in some ways, a typical mid-century American male writer, whose books, set in New York, California, and his invented Pennsylvanian town of Gibbsville, reflect the vision of white America seen in Hollywood movies, though with far more sex and unpunished immorality. However, O'Hara unlike writers like Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, and John Updike, who seem to be his obvious compatriots, was perfectly capable of writing complicate, sympathetic portraits of women, including middle-aged and elderly women and women who indulge in affairs and enjoy sex. In this novel, a family saga, Joe Chapin's life, along with those of his wife, children, and mistress, implode as he pursues a political ambition that demands the appearance of stable moral conservatism, no matter what seamy goings-on that appearance might hide.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

An Alternate AFI List

Actor Paul Scheer and film critic Amy Nicholson are currently running a podcast, Unspooled, on which they watch and discuss the movies on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest American films of all time. As part of the show, they debate together about whether each film should be included on the list and are also compiling their own re-ordering of the list. As with any such project that purports to identify the greatest anything of all time, there are always possibilities for disagreement - that is what makes the lists interesting. Consensus is boring. So here is my own revision of the AFI list. Films I haven't seen are in parentheses and replaced. Films that I either don't think belong on the list, or that I think could be replaced by a superior but similar film (as in the case of Buster Keaton's The General), are crossed out. There are two things I'd like to note about my revised list: 1) my list includes films directed by women, which the original AFI list does not; and 2) the biggest impact that my own tastes have had on the below choices is reflected in a shift from certain genres, such as war films and stories about disaffected, angry men, towards others, such as period pieces, musicals, and stories about families and women.

1. Citizen Kane
2. The Godfather Household Saints
3. Casablanca
4. (Raging Bull) The Night of the Hunter
5. Singin' in the Rain
6. Gone with the Wind
7. Lawrence of Arabia
8. Schindler's List The Mortal Storm
9. Vertigo
10. The Wizard of Oz
11. City Lights
12. The Searchers True Grit (2010)
13. Star Wars The Adventures of Robin Hood
14. Psycho
15. 2001:A Space Odyssey
16. Sunset Blvd.
17. The Graduate
18. The General Our Hospitality
19. On the Waterfront
20. It's a Wonderful Life
21. Chinatown
22. Some Like It Hot
23. (The Grapes of Wrath) The Salt of the Earth
24. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial Housekeeping
25. To Kill a Mockingbird
26. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Spotlight
27. High Noon
28. All About Eve
29. Double Indemnity
30. Apocalypse Now The Dark Crystal
31. The Maltese Falcon
32. The Godfather Part II Dangerous Liaisons
33. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest The Sting
34. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
35. Annie Hall When Harry Met Sally
36. The Bridge on the River Kwai
37. The Best Years of Our Lives
38. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
39. Dr. Strangelove Design for Living
40. The Sound of Music The Glass Slipper
41. King Kong The Princess Bride
42 .Bonnie and Clyde
43. Midnight Cowboy What Price Hollywood?
44. The Philadelphia Story
45. Shane
46. It Happened One Night
47. A Streetcar Named Desire
48. Rear Window
49. Intolerance
50. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
51. West Side Story
52. Taxi Driver
53. (The Deer Hunter) Letter from an Unknown Woman
54. M*A*S*H The Producers
55. North by Northwest
56. Jaws Queen Christina
57. Rocky
58. The Gold Rush The Kid
59. (Nashville) She Done Him Wrong
60. Duck Soup To Be or Not to Be
61. Sullivan's Travels
62. (American Graffiti) Little Women (1994)
63. Cabaret
64. (Network) A Star Is Born (1954)
65. The African Queen
66. Raiders of the Lost Ark Willow
67. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Dinner at Eight
68. (Unforgiven) The Magnificent Ambersons
69. Tootsie My Fair Lady
70. A Clockwork Orange Alien
71. (Saving Private Ryan) All Quiet on the Western Front
72. (The Shawshank Redemption) Badlands
73. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
74. The Silence of the Lambs
75. In the Heat of the Night
76. Forrest Gump Pollyanna
77. All the President's Men
78. Modern Times Young Frankenstein
79. (The Wild Bunch) Grand Hotel
80. The Apartment
81. Spartacus
82. Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans
83. Titanic Giant
84. (Easy Rider) Lost in Translation
85. A Night at the Opera The Great Waltz
86. (Platoon) Paths of Glory
87. 12 Angry Men
88. Bringing Up Baby Roman Holiday
89. The Sixth Sense The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
90. Swing Time Stormy Weather
91. (Sophie's Choice) Camille
92. GoodFellas
93. (The French Connection) Touch of Evil
94. Pulp Fiction Fargo
95. (The Last Picture Show) Norma Rae
96. (Do the Right Thing) Killer of Sheep
97. Blade Runner
98. Yankee Doodle Dandy The Court Jester
99. Toy Story Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
100. (Ben-Hur) The Black Pirate

Thursday, November 22, 2018

6 Novels for Fans of George Sand

The work of George Sand can seem virtually inexhaustible: she wrote two to three novels every year of her adult life, more than ten volumes of memoirs, many plays, and countless articles, letters, and other miscellany. Sand cultivated a robust sense of wit and regional humor, and even more robust sense of social purposefulness, attacking injustice vigorously, especially that of the inequality of the sexes under the law and the exploitation of the peasantry. Sand, being French, naturally enough wrote in French, and her work is not as widely available in English translation as her stature would lead one to expect. Though translations continue to be published, often by academic presses, the impassioned reader of George Sand may conceivably run through Indiana, The Miller of Angibault, LéliaConsuelo, etc., and be left looking for more. Here are six novels to fill the gap:

Shirley - Charlotte Brontë
The most socially invested of Charlotte Brontë's novels, Shirley follows its titular heroine's efforts to enact labor reform by reforming the labor practices on her own land. Shirley is in the unusual position of  being a young woman of independent means, no guardians, and a will to forge her own individual destiny. In contrast, the local mill owner, Robert Moore, is eager for progress obtained by any means, no matter how ruthless, whom Shirley hopes to reform and her friend Catherine, a beautiful orphan, hopes to interest in more romantic pursuits. The novel unites serious-minded inquiry into social reform, a vision of romance as the partnership of equals, rather than the domination of a man over a woman, and lush descriptions of pastoral and agricultural Yorkshire life; it is, thus, a fitting companion to George Sand's work, both her romans  champêtres ('rural novels') and her critiques of marriage, such as Indiana or Valvèdre.

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
Gaskell, too, explores the intersections of labor, reform, class, gender, and romance in the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman whose cleric father's spiritual crisis throws her into the turmoil of a Manchester-like factory city. Furious at the conditions under which the mill workers suffer, she sets herself against the hard indifference of John Thornton, the mill's owner and a man who knows nothing, and wants to know nothing, of charity. North and South dramatizes the opposition of true virtue and its mere appearance, as demanded by morally vacuous social norms. Like Sand, Gaskell portrays friendships across class, and even marriages across class, visions that may not strike us as utopian now, but that were downright radical in mid-nineteenth century Europe.

The Return of the Native - Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy, perhaps more than any other writer, French, English, or otherwise, is George Sand'a literary heir. He, too, wrote 'rural novels' and in them directed a near ethnographic eye on the customs of pastoral life that would disappear with the coming of the railroad, the tractor, and the urban boom. He, too, wrote novels that ostensibly take place in the world in which he wrote, but that nevertheless had a slight fairy touch of enchantment as eerie as it is charming. In Return of the Native, one of his greatest novels, Clym Yeobright returns to his native Egdon Heath from Paris and the diamond trade, where he is entranced by the witchily gorgeous (and exotic - she's half-Italian) Eustacia, but while he returns to what he sees as an idyll, all she wants to do is escape to the glamorous continent. Both a full-blooded melodrama and an incisive critique of the social ramifications of unbending marital and sexual mores.

Manon Lescaut - Antoine François Prévost
This novel inspired one great opera, by Massenet, and a very good one, by Puccini. It tells the story of the teenage Manon, lovely enough to inspire self-sacrificing adoration on the part of the Chevalier des Grieux, a disinherited aristocrat, and the lust of the wealthy M. G... M..., eager to pay for her services with jewels, gowns, delicacies, and whatever debauched fun she can invent - with the sole exception of the one she wants most, the attentions of Des Grieux. In other words, Manon is a doomed heroine the second she lets the veil covering her blue-eyed beauty drop away. Though nearly as salacious as Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses, Manon Lescaut is far less cynical in its treatment of love. Its tragic denouement is equally one of redemptive catharsis. 

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe
Like Sand, Stowe believed that social and moral change for the better could be best argued for through novels that dramatized the suffering of the innocent, the villainy of those who sustain and profit from injustice, and the way forward through both legal reforms and adopting a socially invested ethics. This novel, though rarely read today, has fallen into disrepute, due to the co-optation of its characters in racist minstrel shows, and it is undeniably old-fashioned in its lauding of Christ-like self-sacrifice and silent suffering as an ideal, but it is also one of the more nuanced abolitionist treatises written by a white person in the nineteenth century and remains a moving work of fiction.

Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman - Mary Wollstonecraft
Though George Sand was ambivalent about women as political actors (despite her own notable political activity during the 1848 Revolution), she was staunchly in favor of equality before the law and, like Wollstonecraft, argued that the problem with marriage was the near total tolerance of extreme abuse on the part of men and zero tolerance for women who committed the slightest transgression. This unfinished novel, a companion piece to her landmark A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, is about a woman whose brutal husband has her incarcerated in a mental asylum, though her 'insanity' is actually her objection to his lecherous extra-marital affairs and frittering away of their fortune. Lest the modern reader find this premise absurd, consider this: not only was this egregious practice entirely legal; it was common enough to be frequently cited by early feminists as an unassailable case of the injustice of inequality before the law.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

What George Sand Offers Twenty-First Century Feminists

When George Sand is remembered in the anglophone world, a rare occurrence to begin with, she is often evoked as a feminist figure, a woman who wore pants and smoked cigars, left her husband, enjoyed many love affairs, and supported herself and her children with her writing. It is this figure of social transgression, rather than her novels, her criticism, or her ideas that are remembered, this figure that gets cinematic treatment, for instance in Impromptu, in which she pursues her affair with Chopin, and in Children of the Century, in which she pursues her affair with Alfred de Musset. Sand's literary reputation in English has declined because shockingly few of her books are translated, most of those translations are only available in expensive editions published by academic presses, and, whereas during her lifetime any educated English-speaker had working knowledge of French, today French is no longer considered requisite for a good education.

As a result, Sand's reputation as a feminist lies almost exclusively on the way she has been represented, as a figure that anticipates many later feminist concerns. However, in her own time, Sand was controversial, not only for her personal life - including a much publicized separation from her husband, which made her the object of scandal, mockery, and severe censure - but for her novels. In Lettres d'un voyageur, a set of letters she chose to publish, some of them revisions of private missives to friends like Liszt and others meant as public avowals, the twelfth and last is addressed to a critic who, while praising her style, denigrated what he saw as the message of Sand's oeuvre: a condemnation of marriage.

Sand takes umbrage at this accusation. She insists that she does not condemn marriage as such, but rather that "Every kind of marriage will be intolerable so long as custom persists in showing unlimited indulgence to the errors of one sex while the austere and salutary rigour of past ages is retained solely to judge those of the other." In other words, Sand's critique of marriage is not an attempt to destroy the institution of marriage, but rather an insistence on marriage as a partnership rather than a system in which men take ownership of women from their fathers. So far, so modern! However, Sand's defense of such a vision of marriage rests on a foundation that we are less likely to recognize as feminist in twenty-first century terms. Rather than both sexes being granted the same indulgences and freedom, she contends that both sexes ought to be held to the same high moral standards that women alone were held to. For Sand, inequitable marriage customs corrupted marriage, by permitting licenses to the husband alone. Society's moral laxity is at fault, and the men who gleefully profit by it, but marriage could be re-sanctified under more rigorous moral conditions.

Sand agrees that novels, like fables and fairy tales, ought to have a moral: "I'd have thought that, since frivolous stories have to have some kind of moral, one might do well to adopt this one: 'Women's misconduct is very often the result of men's savagery and infamy.' Or this: 'Lying is not virtue: cowardice is not abnegation.' Or again, even this: 'A husband who light-heartedly neglects his responsibilities to indulge in blasphemy, merriment and drink is sometimes less excusable than the woman who betrays hers in tears, sufferings and propitiation.'" Marriage as a state is characterized, ideally, by mutual responsibility, respect, and selfless virtue. Far from hostile to marriage and domesticity, Sand instead exults them as ideals, but deplores the reality, which falls so astonishingly short of the ideal.

We often claim that a person of the past whose values at least superficially echo our own as being ahead of their time. This assumes that all history tends towards our present moment and inevitably develops towards a more perfect moral system, which assumes that the past is always inferior, and we are forever attaining the best of all possible worlds. It seems easy to call George Sand a woman ahead of her time - she had love affairs! she spent part of her life as a single mother! she earned her own living! she wore PANTS! However, that is an assessment that ignores the nuance and exactitude of her thinking. She hardly thought her status as a single mother, churning out upwards of ninety novels, thirty-some plays, and huge amounts of miscellany, was a liberated or happy one. Again and again, Sand attacked what she saw as the root of women's misery: the moral corruption of men, poisoning the very institutions that ought to have been the fortress of virtue. Divorce is a means of undoing damage, not granting freedom. In Indiana, the titular heroine's marriage is bad because her husband is an old man and she is only just of age and in Valvèdre, adultery with an adored lover is rendered bitter and hateful because it is merely another state of mutilated morality, in which loss and sin destroy ephemeral happiness. Divorce could avert tragedy, but only because the original marriages are morally corrupt. For Sand, the reform to be made is not just the legalization of divorce, though that's certainly a start, but rather a revolution in marital custom. Marriage ought to be based on both a reasonable assessment of how well-suited the prospective pair are in terms of age, temperament, and interests, and a response to the emotion we now take for granted in such relationships: do they love each other?

Thus, to merely claim George Sand as modern feminist lost in the nineteenth century is a shallow co-optation of a writer who, far from anticipating contemporary demands, represented an alternative to our own way of thinking, certainly contingent on her own historical moment, but one that might be worth revisiting, if only to force us to consider where our own values and notions of reform might be lacking.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

TV Review: "Scarlet and Black" (1993)

Can anyone truly be sincere? Is anyone ever able to spurn hypocrisy? These questions haunt Stendhal's novel, Le rouge et le noir, and they are central to this television miniseries adaptation directed by Ben Bolt and written by Stephan Lowe, re-dubbed, Scarlet and Black. The series is largely faithful to the events of the novel, but rather than critique it as an adaptation, I will judge it according to its unique merits. 

Ewan MacGregor, very young and very dashing, plays Julien Sorel, a carpenter's son with a prodigious memory, which earns him a chance to be educated by the local priest. Napoleon has been defeated and has died in exile and the Bourbon monarchy has been restored, but Julien reveres Napoleon and longs to thrust himself back in time, to join his army and follow him to glory. Since he rarely speaks of his treasonous hero worship, Napoleon (Christopher Fulford) has become his imaginary friend, an interlocutor who urges him constantly 'To Arms!' This phantom Napoleon, however, is a boy's imagining, a mixture of Long John Silver and D'Artagnan in his ripe old age. It is by means of this figure that Julien renders each event in his life in the terms of a military campaign, a way of gazing at the world that obscures the motives of other people and makes of him an unwitting foil for them.

Julien insists at first that he is meant for the priesthood. There, he believes, is where power has concentrated since Napoleon's exile. In the series, Julien sees Napoleon standing in front of crucifixes. He prays, but to a purely secular god, a god who seemingly has nothing better to do than encourage a confused young man to essay each mundane occurrence of his life as though it were Waterloo. His mentor, the priest - the first of many - doesn't think that Julien is sincere in his religious vocation and instead arranges for a position as tutor to the children of the mayor. Insulted by the condescension of Madame de Renal (Alice Krige), he sets about trying to seduce her with all the haplessness of the eighteen-year-old he is. Even so, he succeeds. 

How is it that this callow man, only barely a man, seduces a woman of religious conviction, devoted to her children? The answer lies in the questions I posed above. Julien sees every interaction in his life through the lens of his obsession with Napoleon, but each and every person who encounters him finds him opaque. He impresses through small demonstrations that would seem to indicate undisclosed talents - he can recite the entire New Testament by heart, he obligingly shimmies up to the top of a church to deposit a ceremonial feather - that is, he fakes it until he makes it. However, this fatal combination of opacity and talent allows those around him to find in him the figure that they assume is hidden within him. Thus, a priest believes him to be a believer, above the frivolities of society, while an aristocrat re-invents him as the bastard progeny of a noble, a revolutionary assumes him as a co-conspirator, and women imagine him an ardently impetuous lover, prepared to risk death to make love to them.

Julien takes on each role presented to him with fervor, but he cannot oblige everybody without eventually betraying someone. Some roles, such as loyal, discreet secretary to the Marquis de la Mole (T. P. McKenna) and disdainful Romeo to his only daughter (Rachel Weisz), are simply incompatible. The imaginary Napoleon pushes Julien to view each favor, each order, each new position, that flatters his vanity and makes him feel liked, as something he has chosen for himself, directed into being. As a result, Julien throws himself out of his depth again and again, until his rash actions land him in a hole he can't emerge from, even with the efforts of a surprising number of people who love him. At the crucial moment, he asks 'What does this have to do with me?' 

In the end, Julien will not save himself because that choice, one of the first that he, and not a mentor or lover, would make regarding his future, would, he claims, make him a hypocrite. Julien believes that he lives by the Napoleonic code, but instead he lives by the pursuit of pleasures and luxuries, the illusory signs of power that he never comes close to actually attaining. His phantom Napoleon is a convincing rhetorician; Julien, acting always on sincere impulse, cannot see that his sincerity is the most fickle part of his character. It is pleasant to be loved by an aristocratic woman - it means sex and an interlude of asserting himself over someone of a higher class - and it is unpleasant to be rejected by her - hence, he does everything to win her back. But, even in this instance, he mopes about, until the worldly Comte de Beauvoisis (Crispin Bonham-Carter) tells him what to do. He is constantly sincere, lying only when instructed to do so by someone else (and thus sincerely doing his best to oblige), and thus he is a preternatural hypocrite.

The performances of the actors are mannered, but so they should be: these characters are profoundly conscious of taking poses and playing parts. Even the least affected, the priest Pirard (Stratford Johns), uses his round, red, pock-marked face as a canvas depicting whatever emotion is best designed to achieve his aim. Sincerity and hypocrisy are not contradictory, but complementary, and this is true whether one wears the black uniform of the priest or the scarlet uniform of the hussar. 

The series benefits from an unusually rich symphonic theme by Jean-Claude Petit, evidently influenced by Romantic composers like Berlioz and Schumann, expressive cinematography (decidedly unexpected for a '90s television production) by John Mcglashan, with inky blacks and gashes of red emphasized above all other colors in the palette, and costumes by Odile Dicks-Mireaux that convey not only each character's class, politics, and attitudes towards love, but their emotional state in each scene. The sound design is marred by a distracting and near constant background noise of bird songs and calls, including one I couldn't identify that sounded so exactly like the mews of kittens that I actually paused the series, thinking there were cats outside my window. This one flaw, and the need to know a fair bit about French politics in the nineteenth century, are all that is likely to diminish the viewer's enjoyment of Scarlet and Black.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Marlene Dietrich's 7 Best Performances

Of the platinum blondes of Hollywood history, Marlene Dietrich is probably the most enigmatic. Her particularly androgynous erotic image - the icily glamorous man-woman in top hat and tails - has been endlessly imitated and parodied. This prismatic image, inseparably male and female, desiring and desired, gazing and gazed upon, doesn't split apart. Dietrich always insists on both.

While her status as a glamorous film star is unquestionable, her credentials as an actress are on slightly shakier ground. That indelible image tends to blot out the memory of her particular performances, not to mention Madeleine Kahn's rendition of "I'm Tired" in Blazing Saddles. But Dietrich was a better actress than the parodies suggest and her integrity is undeniable: this is a German woman, of impeccable 'Aryan' heritage, who began pouring her energies, and her money, into helping Jews emigrate from Germany when Hitler came to power. Although she herself was fervently anti-Nazi long before her adopted country of the United States entered the war, she agreed to play ethically compromised German characters after the war, giving some of her best performances embodying the tacit sympathies, shrugging apathy, and selfish comfort that she herself had abhorred. Here are her seven best performances:

7. Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
Dietrich has a relatively small role in this star-studded effort directed by Stanley Kramer, a flawed film that nevertheless features incredible performances by, among others, Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift. Like a number of German and Austrian actors who had emigrated, like Werner Klemperer, Conrad Veidt, and Hedy Lamarr, Dietrich was determined to confront the horror of the Third Reich, in part by taking on roles such as this one, Frau Bertholt, the wife of a Nazi general who has been executed. Dietrich was not happy with how she looked in this film, which she made immediately after a fourth face lift, but her performance is both humanizing and unforgiving.

6. Touch of Evil (1958)
This paranoid noir directed by Orson Welles stars Charlton Heston as a Mexican (yes, yes, I know) cop, Janet Leigh as his angelic American wife, and Welles himself as Hank Quinlan, a cigar-chomping American cop with the ethics of a mad bulldog. Dietrich, in a black wig and spangled earrings, barely has more than a cameo as a madame without much patience for Quinlan's bitter, repressed nostalgia, which she astringently diagnoses as the mental bloat that matches his paunch. Though her scenes are brief, Dietrich is in many ways the film's conscience: she lacks the desperately clutched ideals of Heston's cop, the blonde innocence of Leigh's bride, or the racist pragmatism of Quinlan. A razor-sharp irony drenches her every glance and lift of the eyebrow.

5. Blonde Venus (1932)
Blonde Venus is mostly remembered for its salacious musical numbers, with Dietrich donning a white tuxedo with sparkling lapels and, in the striptease number, "Hot Voodoo," a blonde afro and a gorilla suit. These explosively transgressive images are strange indeed in a film that is otherwise a fairly conventional melodrama about a self-sacrificing wife, whose cabaret career leads her astray from her husband (Herbert Marshall) and son and into the arms of a glamorous playboy (Cary Grant), but Dietrich's performance is phenomenal. Her sexuality was perhaps never put to better use, since it is as evident in her stage performances as it is in her stable marriage. Instead of motherhood neutralizing her eroticism, it further reveals its startling primacy. Dietrich was a rare Hollywood star who was neither femme fatale, nor girl next door, and her healthy, freely expressed, mature sexuality defined her as force to be reckoned with, even in a film as ultimately conservative as Blonde Venus.

4. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
Dietrich's flashy role in Billy Wilder's courtroom drama, based on an Agatha Christie story, all but upstages one of the all-time great hams, Charles Laughton, who plays the finicky barrister, Sir Wilfrid. In this film, she plays the German wife of a weasley younger man (Tyrone Power, in his final and perhaps best performance), accused of murdering an elderly lady for her money. At first, Dietrich seems cast according to type, but the twists of the plot soon lead the viewer to question whether she really is the icy-blooded, two-timing glamour puss that she initially appears to be. She, Laughton, and Elsa Lanchester as Sir Wilfrid's tyrannical nurse steal scenes from each other, nearly as rapidly as the plot upends our understanding of just who killed Mrs. French and why.

3. The Blue Angel (1930)
Dietrich's star zoomed to its zenith in this massively successful film, the first feature-length German talkie. In it, she plays a seedy, yet seductive cabaret singer, Lola Lola. Already donning her signature top hat, straddling a chair and singing "Falling in Love Again," she arouses an erotic obsession in a formerly strait-laced high school teacher played by Emil Jannings. Dietrich doesn't play Lola Lola as a vapid gold-digger. Instead she chafes against the proprietorial jealousy of her male lovers, even as she realizes that she can only survive in the tawdry clubs where she makes a living by pandering to their desires. When the pudgy professor proposes, Dietrich laughs - not out of cruelty, but because she is genuinely surprised and touched; that scene alone demands recognition of Dietrich's talent as an actress. The film is also notable for launching the remarkably fruitful collaboration between Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg.

2. Shanghai Express (1932)
Another film directed by Josef von Sternberg, Shanghai Express, more than any other Dietrich film, exploits the exotic qualities of her beauty. Draped in exquisite gowns by Travis Banton, Dietrich exudes allure as Shanghai Lily, while the creamy ivories and whites and velvet blacks of Lee Garmes's cinematography make her appear all but otherwordly, a fallen angel in silk and lace, a rare moth flitting through snow. The style here is the substance, an orientalist fantasy so feverishly ripened that it becomes all but abstract; the plot, a pulpy tale of courtesans, opium merchants and addicts, and Chinese warlords, is essentially an afterthought. An exquisitely gorgeous Anna May Wong costars as Lily's 'companion.'

1. A Foreign Affair (1948)
This underrated comedy written and directed by Billy Wilder was filmed in the rubble of post-war Berlin and it offered Dietrich her first chance to play a role as an ex-Nazi, a task she would take on a number of times. In this instance, she plays Erika, a cabaret singer rumored to have been the mistress of either Goebbels or Göring, or both, but this time she's no Lola Lola. Erika claims she does what she must to survive, but she never quite squares her calculations with her spontaneous impulses of decency, and her collaboration is not ultimately forgivable. The film also stars John Lund, as a less than entirely scrupulous American soldier, torn between the smoky charms of Erika and a corn-fed, down-home Iowan senator on a diplomatic tour, played by Jean Arthur, a prude convinced to let her inner daffiness out at sight of Lund. Though this film can be laugh-out-loud funny, A Foreign Affair is periodically hit by the aftershocks of the horrors of the war, small moments as bitter as absinthe that make the black humor of Sunset Boulevard seem downright honeyed. Dietrich was never better, revealing the rottenness that can dwell in a human being, who simply prioritizes her own comfort over the welfare of others, not a monster, but a fellow traveler.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Incredible Humanity of Hannah Arendt's Friendship with Heidegger

Hannah Arendt is one of the few intellectuals of the twentieth century to retain a reputation among non-academics. Her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, again became a bestseller in 2016, decades after its first publication in 1951 and her book on the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, remains highly controversial and highly influential. Arendt was one of many brilliant Jewish intellectuals who left Germany as refugees in the wake of Hitler's ascension to power, but before that she was a star student at the University of Marburg. It was there she met and studied with Martin Heidegger, a philosopher who was about to publish his most influential work, Being and Time, and a married man of thirty five who soon began an affair with the seventeen year old Arendt.

Such a relationship would already trouble us in this day and age, but the concern is compounded because of Heidegger's queasily ambiguous participation in and support for Nazism. Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Although he ceased active involvement in the Party in 1934, keeping his head down for the remainder of the duration of Hitler's regime, he never left the Party and even after the war never publicly expressed regret for his participation. He never spoke about the Nazis' extermination of Jewish people and the closest he came to recanting was an off-hand comment about his own stupidity. Controversy continues to swirl regarding his attitudes towards Nazism and anti-Semitism. Since the publication of his Black Notebooks, in which several damning anti-Semitic comments appear, and especially as his defending colleagues and friends have passed away, Heidegger's unrepentant Nazism and implicit anti-Semitism have been increasingly accepted as the unfortunate truth, even as his philosophy continues to be a frequently cited touchstone in scholarship.

Hannah Arendt believed that Heidegger had made an "error," that he had fallen into a dangerous, but forgivable intellectual flirtation, and that his philosophy was not tainted by Nazi ideology. She was not alone in supporting him, though there were many equally prominent intellectuals, such as Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas, who believed that Heidegger's involvement with the Nazi Party revealed intrinsic problems and tendencies towards Nazi ideas in his philosophy. After the war, Arendt resumed an affectionate correspondence with Heidegger that would continue until her death. Their friendship was interrupted by the war, but seemingly intact. How are we to parse the Jewish refugee Arendt's lifelong defense of the Nazi supporter Heidegger? 

Heidegger obviously played an essential role in Arendt's life as an intellectual mentor, but he was also her first lover, and a man with whom she shared an extremely complicated relationship that traversed the terrain of romance, friendship, and Socratic exchange. Emotionally speaking, Arendt was confronted with a profoundly flawed man who nevertheless she continued to love. Though this presents a shattering psychological conundrum, love and friendship are not based on ideological agreement, but on a more total engagement with and commitment to another, different person. However, Arendt, ever the rigorous thinker, left signs of the intellectual work that permitted her to excuse Heidegger, to forgive him, to continue to cherish him as a mentor and a man. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, she writes:

In all fairness to those among the elite, on the other hand, who at one time or another have let themselves be seduced by totalitarian movements, and who sometimes, because of their intellectual abilities, are even accused of having inspired totalitarianism, it must be stated that what these desperate men of the twentieth century did or did not do had no influence on totalitarianism whatsoever, although it did play some part in earlier, successful, attempts of the movements to force the outside world to take their doctrines seriously. Wherever totalitarian movements seized power, this whole group of sympathizers was shaken off even before the regimes proceeded toward their greatest crimes. Intellectual, spiritual, and artistic initiative is as dangerous to totalitarianism as the gangster initiative of the mob, and both are more dangerous than mere political opposition.

This passage is found in chapter ten, "A Classless Society," under the second heading, "The Temporary Alliance Between the Mob and the Elite," and it reads suspiciously like a defense of Heidegger. In her analysis, Arendt puts the totalitarian ideology into the active role of seducer and the errant intellectual into the passive role of the seduced. This choice of vocabulary is instructive, since it encompasses an element of beguilement with a connotation of gendered violence. Nazism is the Don Juan to Heidegger's Donna Anna. Though she admits that the support of intellectuals contributed to the legitimization of the Nazi regime in the international community, she insists that the labor of philosophy is inherently incapable of shouldering the burden of creating a totalitarian regime. On the one hand, it is true that your average working men probably wasn't spending his lunch hour poring over Being and Time, but on the other, Heidegger did wield a great deal of influence on the German philosophical community, his book was hailed (is still hailed) as a work of genius, and German scholars were not divided from the rest of the intellectual and artistic world, as American scholars are today. Can one really describe Heidegger, who, despite his diminished political involvement lived through the Nazi era unmolested, as a "desperate man"?

Still, Being and Time, though it can certainly be interpreted through a lens of Nazi ideology, does not declare a political allegiance or plan of action, as Hitler's own Mein Kampf does, or "Woman as Thing," by the most vicious of fascist philosophers, Julius Evola. Heidegger's involvement does not ascend to the level of Italy's most prominent philosopher of the fascist period, Giovanni Gentile, who ghost-wrote Mussolini's "Doctrine of Fascism." One would be hard-pressed to assign Heidegger a significant influence on the trajectory and development of Nazi regime, but such a standard ignores the responsibility of the individual, which Arendt is usually so keen to insist upon. By the end of the passage quoted above, the seduced intellectual has nearly become a victim, since his work is so dangerous to the regime. Yet, the worst that Heidegger suffered, either during or after the war, was to be deemed a Mitläufer, a fellow traveler, and be denied the opportunity to teach - that is, until 1951.

The question of Heidegger's guilt could not possibly be resolved in a brief essay, but Hannah Arendt's extraordinary ability not just to forgive her friend, not just to refuse to turn her back on him, but to defend her friend, publicly, and discover paths of forgiveness through intellectual labor reveals the incredible humanity underlying Arendt's work. Arendt, a Jewish woman, had the fortitude and compassion to forgive by means of the work that Nazi thinkers would have deemed her unable and unfit to perform: by means of philosophy. Whether she was right about Heidegger or not, Arendt's actions towards him could not have been more starkly opposed to the totalitarian ideologies she denounced.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Feminist Rebuttal to the "Sight and Sound" Top 50 Critics' Poll

Sight and Sound has a tradition of polling critics every ten years, asking them to rank the fifty greatest films of all time. Inevitably - of course - such a ranking will have both a streak of quixoticism (how on earth, with more than a century of filmmaking, is one to really make such pronouncements?) and the flattening effect of consensus, since the most idiosyncratic, obscure, and odd films won't make the cut, once all the numerical shenanigans are done. (And I do mean shenanigans - this is a poll of fifty films that actually has fifty films on it.) Still, it's worth noting that in the last poll, conducted in 2012, only one film out of the fifty that made the list was directed by a woman: Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. So, here is an alternative list of fifty great films, all directed by women, each of which offers an alternative to the choices in the original poll. This is not to say that the original choices aren't great films. Many of the choices are among my very favorites, such as The Passion of Joan of Arc, Some Like It Hot, and The Rules of the Game. Rather, the alternatives are meant to expand the scope that any poll can offer and to remove the inherent gender imbalances that still prevail in both film criticism as practiced and the very concept of hierarchizing works of art.

1. Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation [Vertigo]
2. Mai Zetterling's Loving Couples [Citizen Kane]
3. Larisa Shepitko's Wings [Tokyo Story]
4. Lina Wertmüller's Love and Anarchy [The Rules of the Game]
5. Frances Marion's The Love Light [Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans]
6. Lana and Lilly Wachowski's The Matrix [2001: A Space Odyssey]
7. Jane Campion's Top of the Lake [The Searchers]
8. Germaine Dulac's The Smiling Madame Beudet [Man With a Movie Camera]
9. Forugh Farrokhzad's The House Is Black [The Passion of Joan of Arc]
10. Sally Potter's Orlando [8 1/2]
11. Sarah Gavron's Suffragette [Battleship Potemkin]
12. Dorothy Arzner's Christopher Strong [L'Atalante]
13. Chantal Akerman's Je, Tu, Il, Elle [Breathless]
14. Larisa Shepitko's Ascent [Apocalypse Now]
15. Diane Kurys's For a Woman [Late Spring]
16. Anne Fontaine's The Innocents [Au Hasard Balthazar]
17. Jane Campion's The Piano [Seven Samurai]
18. Mai Zetterling's The Girls [Persona]
19. Pina Bausch's Café Müller [Mirror]
20. Gillian Armstrong's Women He's Undressed [Singin' in the Rain]
21. Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon [L'Avventura]
21. Catherine Breillat's Romance [Contempt]
21. Lina Wertmüller's Seven Beauties [The Godfather]
24. Suzanne Schiffman's Sorceress [Ordet]
24. Gillian Armstrong's Oscar and Lucinda [In the Mood for Love]
26. Liliana Cavani's Beyond Good and Evil [Rashomon]
26. Margarethe von Trotta's Vision - From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen [Andrei Rublev]
28. Laetitia Colombani's He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not [Mulholland Dr.]
29. Germaine Dulac's The Seashell and the Clergyman [Stalker]
29. Agnieszka Holland's Europa Europa [Shoah]
31. Nancy Savoca's Household Saints [The Godfather Part II]
31. Anna Biller's The Love Witch [Taxi Driver]
33. Shirley Clarke's The Cool World [Bicycle Thieves]
34. Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid [The General]
35. Petra Epperlein's Karl Marx City [Metropolis]
35. Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol [Psycho]
35. Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
35. Lina Wertmüller's Camorra (A Story of Streets, Women, and Crime) [Sátántangó]
39. Agnès Varda's Vagabond [The 400 Blows]
39. Chantal Akerman's La Captive [La dolce vita]
41. Ida Lupino's The Bigamist [Journey to Italy]
42. Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank [Pather Panchali]
42. Ida Lupino's The Trouble with Angels [Some Like It Hot]
42. Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress [Getrud]
42. Věra Chytilová's Daisies [Pierrot le Fou]
42. Sharon Maguire's Bridget Jones's Diary [Playtime]
42. Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell [Close-Up]
48. Liliana Cavani's The Skin [The Battle of Algiers]
48. Agnès Varda's The Gleaners and I [Histoire(s) du cinéma]
50. Francesca Bertini's Assunta Spina [City Lights]
50. Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed [Ugetsu Monogatori]
50. Maya Deren's At Land [La jetée]

Friday, August 10, 2018

June Allyson's Top 4 Performances

June Allyson was one of the most popular stars in her day, a husky-voiced, adorable girl next door as famous for her magnificent crying scenes as she was for a sunny, infectious smile. She had a scrappy quality that lent her bubbly onscreen persona an edge of rebelliousness and determined ambition. Very pretty, but not stunningly beautiful, small in stature, Allyson could play much younger than she was, but she especially excelled in roles that called for a hard edge around her essential sweetness. Here are her four finest performances:

4. Connie Lane in Good News (1947)
Good News is widely regarded as the best of the so-called 'college musicals,' and it's a showcase for the qualities that made Allyson so popular. She plays Connie Lane, a librarian and French tutor hired by football star Tommy (Peter Lawford), who hopes learning the langue de l'amour will get him in chilly new girl, Pat's (Patricia Marshall) good graces. The dance numbers are wildly dated - a number called "Pass the Peace Pipe" is particularly spectacular - but robustly athletic and infectiously cheery. Allyson's lack of pretension serves her in good stead as a young woman who's had to earn her own way and only gradually, as he matures, comes to see Tommy as a potential boyfriend. Allyson and Lawford were repeatedly paired and their relationship's growth comes across as sweet and wholesome, a partnership of two people who respect each other, rather than the power coupling that Tommy originally pursues.

3. Dr. Emily Barringer in The Girl in White (1952)
In my review of this film, I praised it for its "emotionally calibrated dissection of the barriers women doctors faced" in the 19th century, and indeed, although The Girl in White is decidedly short on the sorts of anthem-creating, triumphal moments contemporary feminism tends to glorify, it offers a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic depiction of what it meant for women to enter the medical profession. Allyson's performance as a young woman determined to become a doctor, come hell, high water, or haughty men doctors, is spunky, steely, but also soft and romantic. Instead of imitating the male doctors, Allyson's Dr. Barringer takes a different, yes, feminine approach - and in the process shows her colleagues a thing or two. The strongest scenes in the picture feature Allyson sparring not with the obnoxious doctors who won't give her the time of day, but with the one (Arthur Kennedy) who encourages her to pursue medicine until he decides to propose.

2. Leslie Odell in Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945)
Allyson is especially heartbreaking in a role that, played by the average Hollywood ingenue, could have proved disastrously maudlin, but not with her, not least of all because Allyson knew something about this character's misery: Leslie has lost her ability to walk after an accident, while Allyson nearly suffered the same fate after being crushed by a branch when she was a child. Leslie, confined to her room, takes comfort in the sweet attentions of Jimmy (Robert Walker), but realizes she may very well lose him when he becomes infatuated with a princess (Hedy Lamarr) staying at the hotel where he works. This romantically melancholic film is more occupied with dreams and fantasies of love than with letting the characters fulfill those dreams. Thus, despite its decadent romantic aesthetic, Her Highness and the Bellboy is less a fairy tale than an interrupted dream of a film.

1. Jo March in Little Women (1949)
Although Allyson was most often cast as the lovely girl that the guy has to learn to love, in contrast to a flashier, more glamorous rival, this type-casting often resulted in her characters ending up in relationships that were more accepting of personality differences and that left room for them to pursue professional goals. Allyson is my favorite Jo March, in part because her performance is so staunchly unsentimental and so grounded in the character's development as a writer. In this version, her refusal of Laurie (Peter Lawford, again, looking decades too old for the part) rings true because her Jo is so constantly, insistently unromantic and for once, one believes her when she says she prefers romance to "be confined to the page." The common line on this version is that it's the most romanticized and politically regressive, but as Jo, Allyson is far less affected and theatrical than Katharine Hepburn and not at all tremulously dreamy like Winona Ryder.

Though she doesn't have a cultish following like Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe, and she doesn't have a die-hard, devoted fanbase like Esther Williams (though why, I will never understand) or Carole Lombard, and none of her films tend to be regarded as masterpieces, June Allyson deserves to be better remembered and recognized. She exuded rays of sunshine from every pore, that is, when a storm of tears wasn't clouding her over, and we could all use more sunshine these days.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Stupidity of the New Oscars Category for Popular Film

This morning news broke that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be introducing a new awards category "around achievement in popular film." While Slate's commentator, Marissa Martinelli, objected principally because such a new category marginalized the films it ostensibly is meant to include, the idea is wrong-headed for numerous reasons, most of them founded on fundamentally silly notions of what the Oscars mean.

Any film critic is going to assume that the Academy is going to get it wrong, for a plenitude of reasons. For one, many of the films later recognized as masterpieces in any given year aren't even eligible for the Oscars. In the case of foreign releases, they need to have distribution in the United States, if they're not submitted by the country in which they were produced for the Best Foreign Film category, but in all cases, failure to get the right distribution at the right time can mean not qualifying for the Oscars. 

For another, the Oscars don't, and have never, actually recognized the 'best' in film. Awards are given as a statement of politics (Crash, being the most obvious one), or because a highly achieving individual hasn't managed to snag one yet and is getting elderly (Cecil B. DeMille, for the bloated and ironically titled The Greatest Show on Earth). The assessment isn't based on stated criteria, so the taste of the (notoriously old, white, male) Academy voters largely determines what wins, and those voters tend to be conservative and keen on protecting the industry. It's common knowledge that many voters don't even watch the films, voting based on their impressions of what is 'important' or 'significant' at the time. As such, the fury that accompanies every 'unjustified' loss becomes absurd: there is no objective evaluative method to determine the best film, performance, screenplay, etc. 

Thus, the Oscars are not, and have never been, a good measure of the best films and contributions to films. The choices of nominees are heavily weighted towards American and British films, produced and distributed by major studios who have the clout and financial resources to woo voters, and advertised and released widely. Let's take a look at an example, the Best Picture nominees of 2004: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways, and the winner, Million Dollar Baby. They were all distributed by major distributors like Warner Brothers, Miramax, and Universal, and even the indie, Sideways, got distribution through Fox Searchlight, which is about as mainstream an indie distributor as you can get. They have big name directors - Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese - and big name stars - Hillary Swank, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx. They're the sort of projects that have historically appealed to Academy voters: three are based on true stories, four are redemptive stories of people who make huge sacrifices for success, and even the outlier, that indie, is as tightly structured a narrative as any MFA workshop instructor could ask for. 

The notion that Academy voters ignore box office (and thus popularity) is absurd. Every one of those 2004 nominees made well over 100 million at the box office and two made well over 200 million. Those are not small box office returns. It's true that mega-blockbusters rarely get nominations in the so-called 'major' categories, though they more often than not sweep through the technical awards, for achievements in sound mixing and editing, special effects, make-up, and so on. However, mega-blockbusters are also designed to appeal to teenage boys and young men - the Academy voters are old men, not at all the audience those superhero movies and special effects extravaganzas are meant to appeal to. Even if a blockbuster is a fantastic film, by design, it will seldom have much attraction to Academy voters, who already fail to watch all nominees, let alone most of those films eligible for nomination.

The problem boils down to a series of false assumptions: first, that the Oscars are supposed to reflect objective excellence in global cinema; second, that the Oscar nominations are based on unfair criteria (they are based on no meaningful criteria); third, that the Oscars ought to reflect a majority opinion; fourth, that the majority opinion can be based off of box office returns. Popularity is not the same as excellence, though the two can coincide. But even if the Academy had nominated, say, Mike Leigh's quiet chamber drama Vera Drake, or the introspective German release, The Edukators, for Best Picture in 2004, the idea that failing to choose popular films is somehow prejudicial remains a fallacy. Awards in excellence are not democratically granted because the film industry is not a democracy. The new category promises to be a flat-footed, decidedly unwelcome, and essentially stupid category not because it continues to marginalize the most popular films (which is quite a whingdinger of an idea in the first place, since marginalization and popularity are antithetical by nature), but because all it accomplishes is the distribution of more awards to more films that, whether they are excellent or not, have earned a lot of money. It is purely redundant and a signal that the Academy Awards are nothing more than an exercise in industry self-congratulation. 

Then again, why the hell should any of us give a damn about the Oscars? For the record, my nominees for 2004 would be A Very Long Engagement, which I would make the winner, Head-On, Downfall, Vera Drake, and Howl's Moving Castle, five films that together received seven Oscar nominations, with no wins. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

What Elizabeth Taylor - The Novelist! - Tells Us About Writing in "Angel"

In Angel, novelist Elizabeth Taylor gives us a biography of a fictional Edwardian writer, Angelica Deverell, her heady rise and disastrous fall. Angel is not a genius, she is not even talented. She writes verbose, flowery, ludicrous, deadly serious tomes full of aristocrats tippling champagne and enchanting royalty with their exquisite beauty, wearing crimson velvet evening gowns and losing their virginities in games of poker. She dislikes reading, claims her main influences as Shakespeare and (a mispronounced) Goethe, disdains research, and absolutely refuses to have a copy editor touch The Lady Irania or An Eastern Tragedy. When she tires of European aristocrats, she simply sets the story in ancient Greece or a harem in a vague location in the East; as she claims "Human nature never changes," such new settings require no study. Her long-suffering editor is forced to invent a Mr. Delbanco, the "man behind the scenes" who serves as a scapegoat for every decision that brings down Angel's wrath. Her books sell: the public devours their escapism and the critics howl over their absurdity. Angel, having no sense of humor, least of all about herself, believes the critics to be insanely jealous of her literary prowess and to have thus marked her as an enemy. In old age, she takes to paying off the ever mounting bills with signed first editions of her works.

Taylor's magic in Angel is to present the reader with an extremely eccentric, morally vacuous, undeservedly self-righteous, and totally untalented character, a writer whose books really are plainly and simply bad. And since Angel doesn't have the smallest capacity to laugh at herself, the critical barbs and ridicule are horrifically cruel. Yet Taylor isn't cruel to her creation. She parades out this figure and refuses to lampoon her. The reader doesn't get impatient, in part because Taylor's style, elegant, yet clean, with an ever so slightly acerbic edge, is quite pleasant to read, but also, and more importantly, because Angel - in modern terms, profoundly 'unrelatable' - is plumbed to her very depth. It becomes difficult to laugh at her, no matter how many times she describes things as "corruscating," when her suffering is so vividly described, when her success, soon and irrevocably quashed by a hairpin turn in taste precipitated by World War I, blooms into failure and leaves her mouldering away in a decaying mansion, sparring with a cranky chauffeur and trailing around in fungus-infected evening gowns.

For writers, Angel has a message it would do us well to heed, for in it, Taylor reminds us that the throes and struggles are hardly proof of genius, or even workaday competence, but part and parcel of the writing process, whether the end result is Hamlet (Angel considers those who mock her "those who would sneer at Shakespeare because they could not write Hamlet themselves") or utter junk. Depictions of great writers and artists, whether in literature or film, often forgive monstrous behavior, fruitless self-destruction, neglect and cruelty of all sorts, as the worthwhile price for the works of genius bequeathed to posterity. That's bunkum as those miseries are the stuff of human life, not genius, the stuff of life, rather than creation. The same behavior can as easily yield trash as treasure, more easily trash, if we're going to be honest. Taylor, in depicting Angel barbed with foibles, follies, caprices, and freakishness, but with wildly different results, reveals the hubris and absurdity of our notions of literary genius. Angel's eccentricity - and her monstrousness is more aesthetic, nowhere on a par with the evil antics of, say, Rimbaud or the titillating scandals of George Sand - is considered absurd because her books are dreadful; if she were churning out the likes of The Age of Innocence or Howards End, the same eccentricity would be imitated and coddled. 

Thus Angel becomes an exercise in humility, not merely on a metatextual level, as one of the great English novels of the twentieth century, but also because it patiently and almost tenderly extracts the canker from the flower of genius. It is not how much one suffers, not how hard one works, not even how much money one makes or how many celebrities want to meet one, but a complex alchemical process that might produce a literary philosopher's stone... or else, nothing but dross and singed, foul-smelling dregs. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Why Do We Laugh at Melodrama?

In these dark times we live in, some give vent to rage, some bewail misfortune - and some have discovered what an extraordinary weapon of resistance laughter can be. Certainly, we knew this before. After all, who isn't familiar with Hans Christian Andersen's wise child, who noticed the absurd emperor's nakedness? Through laughter, pretensions of grandeur, founded on vanity and lies, can be toppled with the greatest of ease. Laughter is a means of fighting violence with nonviolence, physical aggression with a counterattack of wit.

Laughter, however, can also be a weapon of ignorance, or simply cruelty. Laughter is not a purely singular force that punctures abusers of power; it works equally well as a means of denying a powerless person's worth, especially a marginalized person. Think of the scene in Carrie when a bevy of girls throw tampons at her, yelling at her to 'plug it up,' while she quite literally thinks that she is dying. The joke is horrendously cruel and acts as a catalyst for an outbreak of violence, is itself an act of violence. Laughter, it's true, is an exceptionally powerful weapon against tyrants, but its power isn't diminished when it's wielded against those without power.

These days, few audiences have much patience for melodrama. I use the term without any pejorative connotation, since the melodrama is a genre, just like horror, science fiction, or any other more popular type of narrative. Once a mainstay of novels, cinema, opera, and theater, the melodrama has been relegated to the comedy section through laughter - but is it laughter of the first or second type? It's hard to see in what way laughing at tragedies, created by social strictures, providential coincidences, and fated circumstances, could be interpreted as an act of resistance. There is nothing to resist against, except perhaps an emotional response.

I recently attended a screening of A Woman of Affairs, starring Greta Garbo and directed by Clarence Brown. The film's racy adult themes - including very broad hints at a homosexual relationship between men, drug use, syphilis, and lots and lots of sex - tend to be interpreted as the rum in this Dirty Shirley, the sugar in the otherwise gag-worthy medicine, though this attitude misapprehends melodrama as a genre. Such themes were, and would be still if it weren't moribund, hallmarks of melodrama. After all, their heroines are often courtesans and ruined women. Though it was a treat to see the film on the big screen (it is currently streaming on Filmstruck, as part of their spotlight on Garbo), it was not a treat to watch it with an audience that found every acknowledgment of unhappiness screamingly funny. Garbo's brother wallows in a stupor of drug use after his dearest friend, and presumably lover, committed suicide on his honeymoon with Garbo - people were slapping their knees. Garbo protects the man's reputation, by letting authorities believe her own promiscuity drove him to suicide, instead of blackmail over embezzling, and presumably his gay relationship - hear them roar. Garbo, having just suffered a miscarriage, agonizingly clutches a bouquet of flowers as though it were an infant - the snickers became howls.

To be generous, I realize that most people are unfamiliar with the conventions of silent films and I assume that at least part of this reaction can be ascribed to ignorance, to failing to understand the implications. No title card announces that Garbo's character has just had a miscarriage for instance, but an astute adult viewer shouldn't have too much trouble understanding this.

But, this laughter has an insidious and disgusting meaning. I can only imagine that the same person who thinks it's funny that a heartbroken, closeted man in the final throes of drug addiction is crying, or that a woman could die of heartbreak after a life-threatening miscarriage, abandoned in the hospital and rejected by society, could hardly be especially empathetic. The person who laughs at melodrama - and this is supremely well-acted melodrama - prefers to assert a snide self-superiority, far more mannered than the gestures of agony on the screen. That person insists that any strong feeling that hasn't been diagnosed by a psychiatrist is tosh, bollocks, balderdash, baloney, rubbish, drivel. That person thinks that any love, hate, fury, desire, or passion that leads to tragedy is hilariously avoidable.

Moderns may say, how absurd - the courtesan should just marry the aristocrat and screw the consequences, or why doesn't she just go to the doctor and cure her tuberculosis before it's too late? Why don't these people just buck social convention, why don't they just take care of their health, why don't they ignore any feelings that don't let them, as the social media mavens would have it, follow their bliss?

Those questions, accompanied by snickers and hoots, not only ignore historical reality - there are no antibiotics in the middle of the nineteenth century and just look at Lord Byron's conquests alone to see how happy people who bucked conventions turned out to be - but they also refuse emotional engagement, which is exactly and primarily what melodrama asks of its viewers, readers, and listeners. People who laugh at melodrama give themselves permission to laugh at the emotions they don't dare confront themselves, in a socially sanctioned lifting of the taboo of, say, giggling at the misery of a woman who has lost her mind after having a stillborn child. The exercise of empathy is part and parcel of the experience of the melodrama, and so the melodrama cannot have an audience in a cultural world that divides feelings into positive or pathological. That is why moderns laugh at melodrama: because misery, anguish, agony, and adoration have been compartmentalized and shoved into a box marked 'sick.' Today, we feel a passion for a brand of gelato with a cute logo, which would be fine, except... people still die of heartbreak. People still commit suicide. People still get incurable illnesses, have miscarriages, see their children reject them, have affairs and destroy their marriages, drive their cars into ditches. Some people are miserable. And a few are even still capable of sacrificing themselves for others. Those realities that melodrama dramatizes with full emotional engagement have not been overcome. And as long as that is the case, laughing at melodrama should embarrass us far more than melodrama itself.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

4 Books for the Hermione Grangers of This World

Let's be real: the Harry Potters and Ron Weasleys of this world aren't great readers, but the Hermione Grangers sure are! Here are four fantastic books for bookish types that unite a love for study and knowledge with gorgeous language, a sharp intellectual facility, and, you know, magic. All of them are written by women who might very well have considered joining the Society for the Protection of Elvish Welfare.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke
Clarke's novel is an alternate history that pulls off the genuinely magical trick of seeming to have been composed when it is set, in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars. Pedantic, fussy Mr. Norrell believes himself to be the only practical magician in the English realm and he gets the shock of his life when flighty, but charismatic Jonathan Strange pops up, casting far showier and more dramatic spells. Labyrinthine in plot, elegant in language, devilishly complex in its construction of character, and both unique and historically erudite in terms of its explanation of magic and prophecy, this novel is above all a book for readers who go into raptures in libraries and hysterics at the sight of an e-reader. Few fictional tomes are as tantalizing as those in this book. Hermione Granger wouldn't be able to put it down.

Wise Child - Monica Furlong
This darkly enchanting novel is about the apprenticeship of its young protagonist to a white witch named Juniper in Medieval Scotland, whose powers, both magic and moral, are tested when her mother Maeve, a black witch, reappears in her life. Though in some respects reminiscent of T.H. White's Arthurian novels, The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King, Furlong had a rare gift for refocalizing both the Middle Ages and our contemporary ideas about witchcraft, morality, mysticism, and women's roles in society through a profoundly gynocentric lens. The lines between witch and woman, good and evil, Christian and pagan, are redrawn from that new perspective, making this young adult novel far wiser than one would expect. A novel of education that Hogwarts' best student would eat up.

Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner
Though it has begun to gain a reputation as a long-lost feminist classic, Sylvia Townsend Warner's 1926 novel, her debut, remains perhaps too odd a beastie to be entirely absorbed into the canon. Predating A Room of One's Own by three years, Lolly Willowes recounts the biography of a spinster who, enchanted by a bouquet of chrysanthemums, decides to pick up and move to the country village where the flowers were grown. At first contentedly installed in Great Mop, Lolly's idyll is interrupted by the unwanted intrusion of a nephew, but a certain mild-mannered gamekeeper, sometimes known as Satan, drops by to lend a hand... As much, if not more so, an elegantly comic novel about the foibles of the upper crust and the oddities of English rural types than it is a fantasy about a witch, Lolly Willowes has a light touch, managing to be both the perfect cozy teatime read and a biting, yet empathetic satire of spinsterhood. Hermione might save this one for retirement!

Orlando - Virginia Woolf
Woolf's most experimental project in biography, Orlando follows the adventures of a seemingly immortal Elizabethan swain, whose androgynous beauty suddenly and without explanation becomes a woman's over night some decades later. This metamorphosis thrusts the former ambassador to Constantinople into the bondage suffered by women for centuries. Woolf's cool, gentle, and precise sense of irony is the guiding spirit over this novel that is at once a work of English history and a dissection of what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman through the development of feminism. Though it is almost never considered as a fantasy novel, the book viscerally tastes and smells of magic, of an alternative to all the rational, reasonable, 'enlightened' ideas of the patriarchal world, fashioning a new logic out of all that is usually excised from history. Though Hermione generally prefers scholarly works, this one would surely appeal to her intellectual appetites.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

6 Movies for Fans of "Hocus Pocus"

There are inevitably some movies that a person simply can't judge according to anything approaching critical standards. I don't mean liking movies that are bad (or so bad they're good - my favorite in this category is the extremely silly The Magic Sword), but rather movies that are so deeply embedded in one's life that, well... their flaws are as much virtues as flaws, if flaws can even be found. For those of us of the home video generation, certain movies have become cult favorites not only because of their kookiness, kitschy-ness, or quirkiness, but because we've seen them so many times that we can quote them from opening to closing credits.

Hocus Pocus was savaged by critics upon theatrical release, but as a staple on the Disney Channel, it became an adored Halloween classic for 90's kids. Its combination of witchcraft, snark, and celebration of the sibling bond squared the circle of family entertainment, throwing Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker as a trio of featherbrained witches into the midst of a heartwarming story of a brother looking out for his younger sister. Though slightly more kid-friendly than, say, The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, the fun of Hocus Pocus lies, at least in part, in growing into the buried adult humor, especially in Midler's performance. The stakes in Hocus Pocus are significantly higher than in your average kids' Halloween film. Whereas in the far tamer Halloweentown, the kids are threatened by being frozen in time (though the movie never succeeds in making that threat especially menacing), in Hocus Pocus, a child has died within the first five minutes of the film. The witches are funny, but they are also genuinely evil and genuinely dangerous. Max, Dani, and Allison are not saving a cartoonish fantasy world; they are trying to keep each other alive. The witch sisters aren't smart, but they are powerful. This counterbalance to the absurd humor rescues the movie from wallowing in silliness and places it squarely in the horror-comedy genre. 

Doth I protest too much? Perhaps, but it seems likely that Hocus Pocus could end up as the kiddie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! At least part of its cult status is due to the difficulty of finding films that are similarly creepy, yet ludicrous, wacky, yet scary: here are six recommendations for Hocus Pocus fans, each with a quote to match!

"I smell children."
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Though often dismissed as the lesser Mary Poppins, given its combination of animation and live action, its no-nonsense, magical protagonist, songs by the Sherman Brothers, and the presence of David Tomlinson, it would be better to call Bedknobs and Broomsticks the darker Mary Poppins. Instead of the specter of workaholism menacing the nuclear family in an otherwise sunny and secure world, in this film, the Blitzkrieg and Nazi raiders are the dangers posed to three refugee orphans, the witch - played with a deliciously schoolmarmish stiff upper lip by Angela Lansbury - forced to take them in, and the charlatan who just happened to stumble on a genuine book of spells (Tomlinson). There is a scrappier quality to the storytelling, but the effects are top-notch, culminating in an incredible scene of an army of animated - as in moving, not drawn - suits of armor going toe-to-toe with Nazi gunners.

"I put a spell on you and now you're mine."
Bell Book and Candle (1958)
This Hollywood oddity is usually remembered today as the inspiration for Bewitched. A frigidly feline Kim Novak stars as a bored, barefoot witch in Manhattan, who sets her spells on her clean-cut publisher neighbor, played by Jimmie Stewart in his final leading man role, with the help of her cat and familiar, Pyewacket (played by Novak's actual pet!). The romance is enjoyable enough, but the witchy shenanigans of the supporting cast are far more fun: Jack Lemmon plays a bongo-playing, mischief-making warlock with a creepily glazed smile, Elsa Lanchester is a daffy, gossiping witch with a gypsy sense of style, and Hermione Gingold is the grand-dame of the magical set. With weirdly diaphanous costumes by Jean Louis and set design by Cary Odell and Louis Diage that draws inspiration from the avant-garde Greenwich Village club scene of the time, the movie is an eccentric charmer, dipping only a toe into transgressive politics, but unafraid of combining wackiness and tragedy.

"Go to hell!" "Oh, I've been there, thank you. I found it quite lovely."
I Married a Witch (1942)
French auteur René Clair directs this Hollywood comedy starring Veronica Lake as a witch who, after being torched in Puritan Salem, comes back from the dead to wreak havoc on the descendant of her accuser, a twitchy politician on the eve of both his wedding and gubernatorial elections, played by Fredric March, only to accidentally drink her own love potion. Again, the supporting cast is fabulous, with Cecil Kellaway as Lake's demonic father, Robert Benchley as March's friend, always ready to take a stiff drink in his place, and Susan Hayward as March's shrewish fiancee, a thankless role that she enlivens with a double dose of venom. Fast-paced and frothy, this film would fit snugly in the oeuvre of either Ernst Lubitsch or Preston Sturges (who was an uncredited producer). Like so many mainstream films about witches and the men they love, the ending frustrates, but this film is otherwise delicious.

"Hang him on a hook and let me play with him!"
The Love Witch (2016)
The Love Witch, written, directed, produced, scored, costumed, designed, and edited by Anna Biller, is one of the most singularly weird witch movies ever made, drawing as deeply on Italian thrillers and gialli of the '70s as it does on swoony romance paperbacks, tarot cards, and Renaissance Faire culture. Samantha Robinson, in a star-making performance, plays Elaine, a witch so bent on amorous fulfillment that she overdoes it every time, leaving a trail of dead would-be Romeos in her wake. A psychedelic color swirl of reds, pinks, purples, greens, and yellows, nonchalant nudity, and a poker-faced sense of humor elevate the occasionally clunky dialogue, though that clunkiness may very well be part of the point. Elaine is so deeply ensorceled by millennia's worth of misogynistic notions of love and romance that the magic she performs on men to force them into a performance of that love turns in on itself and is reborn as the same kind of violence patriarchy enacts on women; if she speaks in women's magazine platitudes, it's no wonder. You will be singing "Love Is a Magickal Thing" for weeks afterwards.

"Max likes your yabbos. In fact, he loves them."
Miranda (1948)
This sweet, subtly sexually transgressive British comedy follows the adventures of a mermaid, played by the exquisite Glynis Johns (Mary Poppins, The Court Jester), who persuades a vacationing, and decidedly married, doctor (Griffith Jones) to take her to London with him to see the sights. She's always wanted to attend the opera at Covent Garden, you see. Johns's mermaid is irresistible to men - including a very young David Tomlinson sans moustache - and soon has a string of straying beaux, happy to overlook her diet of raw fish and her total lack of commitment, but the lovely thing is that, for once, the mermaid isn't a siren luring men to their doom. She just likes everybody and likes to have a good time. She treats all her conquests with the same cool and generous lust - and the ending is not one you're going to see in a Hollywood film! The inimitable and brilliant Margaret Rutherford plays an eccentric registered nurse.

"You know I always wanted a child. And now I think I'll have one. On toast!"
The Wicker Man (1973)
Robin Hardy's folk-song-laden horror film has acquired a carapace of spoofs and spoofs of spoofs, but it remains a stubbornly unique contribution to the genre, remake be damned. A sternly religious policeman (Edward Woodward) flies out to a remote Hebridean island where a child has been reported missing and finds himself in a hotbed of pagan ritual, led by Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee in a no-holds-barred, go-for-broke performance. A collection of kooks, from Diane Cilento to Lindsay Kemp, round out the cast, but despite the hijinks, a mixture of Summer of Love sex, nude Waldorf School-style games, and Hieronymous Boschesque processions, The Wicker Man ceases to be a fish-out-of-water comedy blended with an Ealing Studios satire in the final scene, all the more haunting for being such a hairpin turn in tone.