Friday, December 27, 2013

The 10 Best Epistolary Novels

My love affair with the epistolary novel began with the discovery of the Dear America series - beautiful hardbacks with ribbon bookmarks and deckle-edged pages that were fictional diaries with young heroines set all over the United States from the first arrival of European settlers to the mid-twentieth century. Since then, I've sought out the best of the best epistolary novels. Here is the creme de la creme:

The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins established many of the fundamental tenets of the detective novel in The Moonstone, which tells the story of a precious diamond, stolen from a Hindu temple, belonging to Rachel Verinder, a wealthy English heiress. The diamond is stolen from her on the night of her eighteenth birthday, unleashing a complex plot tracing the efforts of Rachel's lover, Franklin Blake, to recover the diamond and earn her hand in marriage. The Moonstone is extremely suspenseful and beautifully written.

The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
Collins's other great masterwork is The Woman in White. Walter Hartwright meets a mysterious woman in white on his way to a position as a drawing master at Limmeridge House. Once arrived, he notices that his student bears an astonishing resemblance to the white-clad woman he met on his way. Widely considered the best of Collins's novels, this early work of detective fiction is also notable for its condemnation of laws that committed married women to a state of extreme financial dependence and vulnerability.

Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman
Set in thirteenth century England, this Newbery Honor winner is one of the few children's books that can truly be regarded as a feminist work. Catherine is the daughter of a minor English lord and at fourteen she is inundated with potential suitors, the lion's share old, ugly, and lecherous, but Catherine has more than a few tricks up her sleeve and is determined to avoid a state of uncomfortable matrimony. As historical fiction, the novel is wildly successful, painting a detailed and nuanced portrait of medieval life, from the food to religious practice, sanitary habits to dress.

The Sorrows of Young Werther - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Goethe was only 24 years old when he wrote his best known and most beloved work, a thinly veiled autobiographical novel depicting the tragic and unrequited love of Goethe's alter ego Werther for the beautiful and engaged Lotte. The book is acutely romantic, in every sense of the word. Goethe famously said, "It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him."

Letters from a Peruvian Woman - Francoise de Graffigny
Revolutionary in a number of ways, de Graffigny's critically renowned novel is about Zilia, an Incan princess kidnapped and brought to Paris, where she is viewed as an exotic curiosity. Zilia records her journey, from the terror of her first encounters with Europeans and the traumatic separation from her family, culture, and land, to a satire of French culture as seen from Zilia's point of view and her transformation into an independent and promising young authoress. Absolutely feminist and one of the earliest efforts at a sympathetic and humane portrayal of a non-European from a European author, this is one of the greatest novels ever written.

Les liaisons dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Laclos's novel is a salacious and deeply voyeuristic exploration of the sex lives of the French elite in the hedonistic days before the French Revolution brought the aristocracy (temporarily) to its knees. The perverse sexual intrigues of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil still have the power to shock, when they don't titillate. The 1988 film version based on Christopher Hampton's theatrical adaptation is excellent.

The Screwtape Letters - C. S. Lewis
In Lewis's brilliant satiric work of Christian apologetics, morality is turned topsy-turvy in the world of Our Father Below. Senior demon Screwtape addresses his letters to junior demon Wormwood, who has been assigned the task of aiding a man known only as the Patient to his irrevocable damnation in opposition to the Enemy, as the denizens of Hell refer to God. Most modern editions include Screwtape Proposes a Toast, an after-dinner speech given by Screwtape at the Tempters' Training College for junior demons.

Anne of Windy Poplars - L. M. Montgomery
The fourth book in Montgomery's eight-book series about the adventures of Anne Shirley, this novel covers three years of Anne's life during which she teaches at a high school. Her letters are addressed to her fiance Gilbert Blythe, a medical student. Anne writes to Gilbert about the trials and tribulations of teaching in a small clannish town and dealing with Katherine Brooke, a deeply embittered fellow teacher. As warm, funny, unpretentious, and heartwarming as Anne of Green Gables

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
Famously written for an informal contest to see who could write the best horror story, Frankenstein is one of the most influential books of all time, spawning dozens of films and theatrical adaptations, one of the first science fiction novels ever written, and also one of the most moving depictions of alienation and loneliness. An eccentric scientist named Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with discovering how to recreate life from dead tissues, but he rejects the creature he has brought to life, releasing him into an unfriendly and intolerant world.

Daddy-Long-Legs - Jean Webster
Judy Abbott grows up at the John Grier Home, a tyrannically run orphanage, until she is fifteen, when an anonymous patron agrees to pay her way through college, provided that she write him monthly letters and make no attempt to discover the identity of her benefactor. The novel is gentle and funny and filled with witty pencil sketches. The 1919 film adaptation starring Mary Pickford is a wonderful adaptation and one of the most affecting of Pickford's many films.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Where Are the Strong Women in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek"?

I knew nothing about Star Trek as a franchise before watching the 2009 movie, but I had heard a lot about why J.J. Abrams decided to tackle the project. He has said that he was attracted to the project because the female characters were "strong women." This phrase has become a favorite term in Hollywood and it's supposed to attract a female audience base, without uttering that most dreaded of dreaded words - feminism. Hollywood should be striving to provide us with strong female characters, but using the phrase doesn't make one-dimensional, one-note stereotypical female characters "strong." Nor does paying lip service to the female characters' intelligence or savvy, if those qualities aren't perceptible. I watched Star Trek in order to be entertained, but I was also hoping that I would see a rare sci-fi film with multi-dimensional, complex, and yes, strong female characters.

That's not what I saw. Of the four female characters, Kirke's mother is the first we meet. We learn two things about her - she loves her husband and she loves her new baby. That is all we ever get to know about her. Apparently, she has a job, but we are granted no insight into what sort of a person she is, what she wants, what she does, or anything else at all. It isn't possible to make a judgment call about how strong or weak she may be because her character simply has no depth or multi-dimensionality. Then there's Spock's mother (played by Winona Ryder!). We can intuit that she's fairly courageous, given that she's willing to marry someone of a different species and move to a different planet. Explicitly, we know merely that she loves her husband and son. Like Kirke's mother, Spock's mother lacks enough depth to really judge how strong or weak she is. Both of these characters fit into a stock character mold - the Loving Mother.

Of the younger generation, there are two female characters. There is Uhura and her green (literally - is that some sort of weird Star Trek thing?) roommate. The roommate appears in very few scenes and I'm not sure if we ever learn her name. In one scene, she hooks up with Kirke only to be interrupted by Uhura, and in the other she looks triumphantly at Uhura when she gets a better assignment than the smarter Uhura. From the dialogue, we learn that the roommate sleeps around - in other words, she's a "slut." The first scene has two purposes for the green roommate: 1) to show her as close to naked as possible and 2) to establish that Kirke is a stud even though he's having no success with Uhura. But that leaves this particular character in a highly cliche position: she's a slut and a bitch. It's the same misogynistic double standard we can't seem to shake as a culture. The green roommate sleeps around; she's a slut. Kirke sleeps around; he's a stud. The green roommate is competitive; she's a bitch. Kirke is competitive; he's macho - and he not only gets what he wants, but he's a hero.

Uhura is thus the only possible strong female character left. First of all, we're told that she's smart, but we see only one instance of her actually exercising her intelligence (unless telling Kirke to buzz off counts). It's also never even a possibility that she go on the more dangerous parts of the missions. Contrast that with the badassery we see from every major male character, even leaving Kirke and Spock out of the picture - the captain withstands torture and even though weak shoots the bad guys, Sulu turns out to be a whiz with a sword, 17-year-old (!) Pavel saves the hero and helps figure out battle plans, the Scotsman (MacDougray? MacDonald?) is so brilliant that he figures out some supposedly impossible beaming technology that saves the heroes. Uhura translates some stuff and her work is fairly unnecessary to the success or failure of the mission. While the male characters wear practical uniforms, Uhura and the other female characters wear miniskirts. And, completely unnecessarily, we see Uhura strip down to her underwear in one scene. I know Zoe Saldana is a beautiful woman, but that is pandering. Is Uhura weak? Not really. But neither is she a particularly strong character, except emotionally - the one kind of strength we as a culture are happy to consider female. In other words, the character of Uhura is a good girlfriend who does her job, but stays out of the fighting.

So, out of four female characters, we have two Mothers, one Slut, and one Good Girlfriend - nary a genuinely strong female character to be found. Part of the problem is that, for some utterly inexplicable reason, the film industry insists on considering science fiction as an inherently male-driven genre and thus caters to a male audience and alienates a female audience, thereby artificially enforcing their own misguided idea. (A similar process happens with romantic comedies, which cater to women and alienate men.) This is absurd. Give me a sci-fi movie with complex female characters in powerful roles, moving the plot forward and stepping in when heroic action is required, and I will totally be there. But at the very least, don't feed us this politically correct nonsense about "strong women" when it boils down to a smokescreen to cover the usual one-dimensional female bodies on display in their underwear.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

8 Great Guilty Pleasure Books

Whether your guilty pleasure is genre fiction, trash, or erotica, sometimes it's the only thing that will hit the spot. A steady diet of great classics and literary fiction can give you bookish indigestion if not peppered with the occasional guilty pleasure - here are eight books that are fast, fun, and sinfully delicious.

Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
Fielding's novel is better than any other chick-lit out there, with the diary format lending itself well to the book's chatty tone. Bridget is deeply relatable, utterly flawed, prone to ridiculous disaster, and yet so charming and guileless that you believe she really could attract her Mr. Darcy and transition from Singleton to Smug Married - a legitimate everywoman. Though thank God, most of us don't have a mother like Bridget's. Enormous fun.

Dragon's Milk - Susan Fletcher
The first of Susan Fletcher's Dragon Chronicles, Dragon's Milk is intended for a young adult audience, but it's pure escapism for people of all ages. Kaeldra has the rare ability to communicate with dragons and as a result, she becomes entangled with a nest of baby dragons when the only cure for her foster-sister's illness is dragon's milk. As I've written before, children's fantasy tends to be better written and less bound to the conventions of the genre; Dragon's Milk is a strong example of that principle.

Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married - Marian Keyes
Marian Keyes is the queen of good chick-lit. Her novels are hilarious and though they're far from feminist, her sardonic sense of humor chips away at some of the more egregiously misogynistic aspects of the chick-lit genre. Lucy Sullivan, the heroine of this novel, is a mess - she's broke, all her boyfriends are jerks, her roommates are bitches, and her father's an alcoholic. A funny and un-embittered, if sometimes alcohol-soaked, paean to being single and female.

A Summer to Die - Lois Lowry
Lowry's first novel, written more than fifteen years before The Giver, is utterly melodramatic. The title is not an exaggeration. Meg is angry and confused when her perfect sister Molly becomes seriously ill and, unable to cope, she takes refuge in photography. Those who are squeamish, beware - this has the most graphic childbirth scene I've ever come across in a young adult novel (or any novel, for that matter). I loved this kind of misery-porn when I was a kid (and I kind of still do).

Truer Than True Romance - Jeanne Martinet
Using the original graphics from insanely misogynistic romance comics (published between the 40s and the 70s and all written by men), Jeanne Martinet rewrites the stories to better reflect both the wacky illustrations and actual romance, as lived by women. Titles include "Loving Gay Men!", "The Job from Hell!", and "My Heart Said Yes, But My Therapist Said No!" The perfect antidote for a romantic comedy binge.

Delta of Venus - Anais Nin
Forget Fifty Shades of Gray. No one tops Anais Nin when it comes to erotica. Her writing is gorgeous and gloriously gynic, inclusive of diverse forms of desire and unconstrained by phallocentric sexual norms. Nin was utterly fearless when it comes to dealing with taboo sexual subjects, from incest and pedophilia to voyeurism and homosexuality, and she was writing in the 1940s, when Alfred Kinsey's scientific study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and its companion volume on female sexuality were being banned right and left as "pornography."

Divergent - Veronica Roth
As fast-paced as an action movie, Roth's super-violent dystopian young adult trilogy takes place in a futuristic Chicago where all of humanity has been divided into five factions, based upon virtues - Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. Tris, born into an Abnegation family, discovers that she is Divergent, that is, that she has conflicting traits and is not clearly aligned with any particular faction. Divergence is both a strength and a liability, especially as power struggles between the factions intensify. 

Jackaroo - Cynthia Voigt
Set in a pseudo-medieval kingdom, Jackaroo follows Gwyn, an innkeeper's daughter who doesn't believe in the legendary Jackaroo, a Robin Hood-like outlaw who aids the poor, until she is stranded in a remote cabin during a snowstorm with a handsome nobleman, whose clothing matches the descriptions of the legends. Gwyn is a vibrant character and her central conflict - she must choose to either marry or remain single for life - lends urgency to her coming of age story. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

No More Mobsters or Guidos, Please

Italian-Americans, as I've written about in a previous post, suffer from generally negative representations in American popular culture and especially in American cinema. In fact, a study conducted by the Italic Studies Institute in 2001 found that of the 1,220 American films produced since 1928 with Italian-American themes, no less than 40% depicted Italian-Americans as mobsters. While films like The Godfather, Good Fellas, and Mean Streets are well-known, critically acclaimed, and have saturated popular culture with images of Italian-American mafiosi, there are films out there with Italian-American protagonists that are neither mobsters, nor Guidos (a stereotype that has become all the more nasty and pervasive since Jersey Shore). You just have to look more closely to find them.

First of all, there's Marty - a charming drama starring Ernest Borgnine about an Italian-American butcher living with his mother in the Bronx who meets and falls in love with a young schoolteacher at a dance. The film won the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Writing awards at the Oscars that year, beating out The Rose Tattoo, another film about Italian-Americans, starring Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster (whose Italian accent is, shall we say, notta so putty). Anna Magnani brings her usual vibrancy and depth to her performance in this adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, but the film suffers from the severe miscasting of Lancaster, usually so good, who is simply out of his depth. 1955 could have been a landmark year for Italian-Americans in film, but neither of these films, depicting Italian-Americans as sympathetic protagonists, neither criminals nor spaghetti-slinging restaurant managers, made a deep impression on the way audiences thought, and think, of Italian-Americans.

In the 70s, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Martin Scorsese were making it big as major players in the film industry, their careers spurred forward by mafia-themed movies. However, in Serpico, Al Pacino, in his first film after The Godfather, plays an Italian-American, who speaks dialect with his mother, based on Frank Serpico, the real-life policeman whose refusal to cooperate with corruption in the police department created a major inquiry and a crackdown on corrupt cops. Pacino doesn't play Serpico as a put-upon hero, though his actions are heroic and his courage quite remarkable, but rather as a deeply complex and not necessarily likable man who refuses to give up on his youthful idealization of the police. For Italian-Americans, the portrayal of one of our own as a law-abiding, courageous cop is a welcome breath of fresh air.

The most successful films about Italian-Americans, besides mob movies, are undoubtedly comedies. The two most prominent, Moonstruck and My Cousin Vinny, were both big hits and are genuinely warm, funny films that do reflect a lot of the great things about Italian-American culture that make us proud to be who we are. But best of all is Martin Scorsese's brilliant, wonderful, delightful Italianamerican, a documentary starring his parents, a film that says more about Italian-American culture in 49 minutes than all the mob movies stuck together. The problem remains however that Italian-Americans can't catch a break, on either the silver or small screen. For every Marty, there are dozens of The Godfather; for every Frank Serpico, there are dozens of Pauly D. There's a reason why 74% of Americans assume that all Italian-Americans have mob connections, even though less than 1% of us do. Until we start seeing more dynamic, diverse, and honest representations of the Italian-American people, these stereotypes will continue to define us in the eyes of others.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Liking "12 Years a Slave" Does Not Make You a Morally Superior Person

One of the most common comments on Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, both from the press and from the general public, is that it's morally obligatory to watch this film. Now, there's no doubt that 12 Years a Slave is one of the only American films ever made to deal with the horrifying realities of slavery in a truthful and unvarnished way, while there are dozens, if not hundreds, of films that glorify the Old South and paint a rosy picture of happy Mammies and content cotton-pickers, from The Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind, Judge Priest to Jezebel. Taking an honest look at one of the ugliest stains on our history is absolutely a positive. Considering oneself morally superior for praising the film and because one empathizes with Chiwetel Ejiofer's character Solomon Northup - not a positive. Not at all. And yet, I've encountered this smug self-satisfaction all over the place.

The first issue is that empathy does not mean experience. In a recent interview, a journalist asked Mark Wahlberg about the rigor of his training for Lone Survivor, a film about Navy SEALS in Afghanistan, and Wahlberg responded with an extended rant. Though the press generally concentrated on the aggressive tenor of the rant, Wahlberg was making a really good point, one that both the people who make the movies and the people who watch the movies should take to heart. Wahlberg was basically saying that pretending to go through brutal experiences, like an extremely dangerous and high-stakes military undertaking, can't come close to the real experience. Movies like Lone Survivor and 12 Years a Slave are brutal viewing, but they can't come anywhere close, either for the actors or the audience, to what the people these characters are based on actually suffered.

The fact that we feel empathy for these characters isn't a testament to our own moral judgment; rather, it's a testament to the efforts of the filmmakers, actors, editors, cinematographers, etc. who have produced a film that compels us to feel empathy. It's easy today to say that slavery was wrong because it's part of the past, and so, films that deal with that subject matter are asking us to reflect, not to take action. That reflection is worthwhile and can have concrete and positive results. But, it's a little too easy to take the moral high ground when these difficult situations are, in the present, purely hypothetical. I might believe that I would have strenuously disagreed with slavery, as I do today, had I been alive in 1841, but I can't know that. No one can. Projecting ourselves into a complex moral reality of the past is merely a thought experiment.

So, let's stop congratulating ourselves on liking 12 Years a Slave for its politics and insisting that watching the film is an expression of those politics. Let's start talking about the film itself.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The 8 Best Italian Movies of the 21st Century (So Far)

I'm getting extremely excited about Il giovane favoloso (The Fabulous Youth - they're going to need a better title in English) currently shooting in Italy about the great Romantic poet, Giacomo Leopardi, directed by Mario Martone and starring Elio Germano. I'll just have to pray to the distribution gods that this film will make it stateside. But, while we're waiting for what promises to be a gorgeous period drama, there are many great Italian films out there that have made it across the Atlantic. Due to the woeful market for foreign releases here in the United States, the most recent films on this list are from 2005.

8. The Tiger and the Snow (La tigre e la neve), 2005
Roberto Benigni's modern-day fable is partly Sleeping Beauty and partly a reworking of the plot of his internationally acclaimed 1997 film, Life is Beautiful. Benigni plays Attilio, a ridiculous but endearing literature professor, hopelessly in love with Vittoria (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife in real life). When Vittoria is seriously injured in Iraq, where she has gone on a research trip, Attilio risks everything to save her. Benigni's trademark humor, half slapstick and half pathos, strikingly beautiful camera compositions, and a lovely song by Tom Waits make this film a pleasure, if at times a bittersweet one.

7. I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura), 2003
Set in 1978, the year in which kidnappings in Italy peaked, I'm Not Scared, based on the internationally successful novel by Niccolo Ammaniti, tells the story of Michele, a young boy growing up in the impoverished South who stumbles upon a kidnapping victim, a boy from a wealthy Milanese family, who is being held for ransom. Director Gabriele Salvatores elicited wonderful performances from the child actors, mostly local non-professionals, and the vivid cinematography captures the beauty and menace of the dry and poverty-stricken countryside.

6. Crime Novel (Romanzo criminale), 2005
Based on the true story of the notorious Banda della Magliana, a criminal organization that was enormously powerful from the early 1970s until the early 1990s, this film is a showpiece for many of Italy's leading actors (including Kim Rossi Stuart, Pierfrancesco Favino, and Stefano Accorsi), a taut and rather bloody thriller that manages to be intensely bitter and quite humanizing at the same time. Three young Roman delinquents, as close as brothers, build their criminal kingdom from nothing, eventually becoming the real rulers, if not nominally, of Rome, but police commissioner Scialoja is determined to bring them down.

5. The Embalmer, (L'imbalsamatore), 2002
This first film by Matteo Garrone (Gomorra) starring Ernesto Mahieux, Valerio Foglia Manzillo, and Elisabetta Rocchetti, is a twisted love story set in the bizarre world of taxidermy (a more accurate translation of the title is The Taxidermist). Peppino (Mahieux in a Donatello Award-winning role) employs Valerio as his assistant, imparting to him all his knowledge of taxidermy and becoming increasingly infatuated with the gorgeous young man. Valerio, however, prefers the beautiful Deborah to the short and much older Peppino. Banda Osiris provides a haunting, jazz-infused score.

4. The Last Kiss (L'ultimo bacio), 2001
Gabriele Muccino directs Stefano Acorsi and Giovanna Mezzogiorno in a film that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of its time. The central story follows Carlo and Giulia, a middle-class couple in Rome, expecting a baby. They are outwardly happy, but Carlo is terrified of the irrevocable responsibilities the baby will bring and grasps at a fling with a younger woman, in a misguided attempt to feel young. Carlo's friends and Giulia's mother (played by 60s starlet, Stefania Sandrelli) also struggle with their relationships, as they transition to the next stage of life and long for the freedoms of youth. Skip the abysmally bad American remake with Zach Braff. 

3. Primo amore, 2004
Another twisted love story from Matteo Garrone, Primo Amore is about Vittorio (Vitaliano Trevisan, who also collaborated on the screenplay), a goldsmith obsessed with finding love  - but only with the thinnest of thin women. When he meets Sonia (Michela Cescon), he determines that's there's no point in waiting: he'll create the thinnest woman possible. At times this film plays like a horror movie, not least because of how brutally (and truthfully, it should be noted), the realities of living with anorexia are portrayed. The award-winning score by Banda Osiris is beautiful.

2. The Son's Room, (La stanza del figlio), 2001
The best of Nanni Moretti's films is this devastating, heartbreaking, and utterly moving portrait of a grieving family. Giovanni (Moretti) and Paola (Laura Morante) live a comfortable middle-class life, with two well-adjusted kids. When their son Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) dies suddenly in a scuba diving accident, they are forced to confront themselves and their relationships with each other. If this sounds brutal, be assured that it is, but it's also one of the most moving films about grief ever made, precisely because it's totally lacking in melodrama. 

1. Good Morning, Night (Buon giorno, notte), 2003
One of my favorite films of all time, this drama directed by Marco Bellocchio is a re-imagining of the 1978 kidnapping of Italian prime minister and leader of the Democrazia cristiana Aldo Moro, from the perspective of his kidnappers, the Brigate Rosse. Maya Sansa stars as a member of the Brigate Rosse, torn by her sympathy for Moro, played by Roberto Herlitzka. Both a fascinating portrayal of the contradictions of radical politics and a heartbreaking depiction of the moral costs of following one's beliefs, this haunting film is one of the most perfect films of the 21st century and is likely to remain among them as the years go by.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

6 Great Movies Set in the Jazz Age

Continued obsession with The Great Gatsby and fairly regular attempts to make it into a decent film (notably, with little success) have led to a pop-culture love for the Roaring Twenties and all it's come to represent - illegal booze, jazz music, flappers, the rise of free love, and pre-code cinema. Here are six great films set in the 1920s to keep your appetite whetted for that elusive and seemingly unattainable great adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

Auntie Mame (1958)
Based on the bestselling novel by Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame stars Rosalind Russell, in a deliciously funny role tailor-made for her, as the madcap aunt. The film opens in her luxurious Manhattan apartment on Beekman Place in the Roaring Twenties, where newly orphaned nephew Patrick meets his aunt for the first time, and where Mame first informs him that "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!" A lush and memorable score by Bronislau Kaper is the icing on the cake. 

Bad Girl (1931)
Frank Borzage, though not terribly famous today, was one of the great directors of the twenties and thirties and his films were major players in the first Oscars ceremonies. His Bad Girl, despite its title, is about a perfectly decent couple (Sally Eilers and James Dunn), ordinary people doing their best to deal with marriage, careers, and an unexpected pregnancy. The film is surprisingly moving and one of the few Hollywood films of its time that gives a realistic portrayal of working class people. Some of Borzage's other great films include Seventh Heaven, a heartrending World War I drama set in Paris, and The Mortal Storm, one of the earliest Hollywood films to address the atrocities committed by Nazis against Jews.

Pandora's Box (1929)
Louise Brooks, in her most iconic performance, stars as Lulu in Georg W. Pabst's silent masterpiece. Lulu is a force to be reckoned with, so sexually alluring to both men and women that they are ready to commit any act, no matter how reckless, for the chance to possess her. Whether you interpret the film as a misogynistic expose of the dangerous excesses of female sexuality or as a feminist parable about the impossibility of containing female sexuality within patriarchal constraints, Pandora's Box is one of the essential films of silent cinema. The Criterion release includes four scores, two orchestral, one improvised on piano, and one cabaret-style. 

Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Certainly a top contender for the best musical of all time, this fabulously entertaining film stars Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, and the glorious and hilarious Jean Hagen. Kelly and Hagen are popular silent film stars, who suddenly have to adjust to making talkies, the only problem being that Hagen's tones are less than dulcet. The songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed are great fun and the performances of them are iconic and remain fresh, despite frequent imitation. 

Some Like it Hot (1959)
Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are down-on-their-luck musicians who witness the St. Valentine's Day massacre and, in a desperate bid to save their skins, dress up as women and join an all-female band, whose singing star is Marilyn Monroe, wearing an ever-diminishing series of sexy gowns. Things get complicated when Spats Columbo (George Raft) shows up for a convention of gangsters, calling themselves the Friends of Italian Opera, at the same hotel where the band is playing. Billy Wilder's film is often and justifiably cited as the greatest comedy of all time. 

Splendor in the Grass (1961)
William Inge's Oscar-winning screenplay tells the story of Deanie (Natalie Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty), a teenage couple, whose desperation to sleep with each other attains ever more melodramatic proportions as their parents and teachers attempt to pressure, wheedle, and terrify them into abstinence, even as Bud's sister, Ginny (Barbara Loden), becomes the epitome of the flapper. Splendor in the Grass is one of the most painfully raw depictions of adolescent love and desire ever put on film, aided by splendid performances all round and brilliant direction by Elia Kazan.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Six 19th Century Novels Every Feminist Should Read

Long before our grandmothers were born, women, and a few wonderful men (John Stuart Mill first and foremost), were striving for a more equitable society for women. Writers in the 19th century tackled social reform in their novels as a catalyst for change, from Dickens protesting the abysmal conditions of the workhouse in Oliver Twist  to Wilkie Collins voicing support for fairer inheritance laws in No Name. The women on this list were, in the main, self-avowed feminists, but even those that were not, saw writing as a means of combating social injustices. As usual I have tried, in the cases of authors like Alcott, Eliot, and Bronte, to choose less familiar works.

 A Long Fatal Love Chase - Louisa May Alcott
Written in 1866, but not published until 1995, this brilliant gothic novel by the author of Little Women stands in vivid contrast to Alcott's works for young girls. The longest and most fully developed of her sensational stories, this novel was originally rejected both for its length and its controversial content. Rosamund is a lonely and isolated young woman, trapped on an island with her cantankerous guardian, until she is swept off her feet by the Mephistophelian Phillip Tempest. After a hasty marriage, Rosamund discovers that her husband has another wife and rather than crawl into the corner and die (as most heroines of her time would have done), she makes her escape, commencing the chase of the title. A strikingly frank depiction of sex and sexuality, set in a world where women were owned, virtual slaves, by their husbands.

Shirley - Charlotte Bronte
Bronte's second published novel is set in Yorkshire during the Napoleonic Wars, a time of civil unrest and economic hardship. Shirley is an unusual heroine and a joy for feminists - an unmarried and completely independent woman landowner, whose lively interest and involvement in her own business concerns leads her to philanthropic efforts for the working classes. Her friend, Caroline, is a more traditional female character, though she also struggles against the constraints and hypocrisies of her society. While the overt theme is the political and social agitation caused by industrialization, the book offers an extremely critical implicit examination of women's roles in a rigid patriarchal society. 
Romola - George Eliot
Romola is a brilliant and highly cultured young woman living in Florence in 1492 - Columbus has just sailed to the New World and Savonarola is about to embark on his frenzy of religious reform and rebellion against the Medici family, which will culminate in the Bonfire of the Vanities and a series of bloody riots. Amid the religious and political turmoil, Romola undergoes a startling transformation from a naive girl easily led into a bad marriage to a strong woman whose deeply felt compassion gives her life purpose. The theme of duty is central to Eliot's story, particularly when the duty of obedience transforms into an equally strong duty of resistance.

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert was charged and eventually acquitted of obscenity when Madame Bovary was first published, a trial that rendered the work notorious and extremely popular. It's no wonder that the overzealous found the book obscene - this early realist work is about Emma Bovary, a bourgeois wife whose boring and tedious marriage drives her to seek romantic thrills in adulterous affairs. Emma is first and foremost a romantic, unable to accept that the humdrum reality of respectability even qualifies as real experience. While Flaubert can hardly be considered a feminist, his critique of bourgeois marriage and his scrupulous refusal to condemn Emma's adultery make the novel a milestone for feminists.

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
In Gaskell's social novel, Margaret Hale is forced by circumstance to move from an idyllic country home to the bustling industrial town of Milton (based on Manchester) where her observations of the cruelties and deprivations suffered by the working classes leads her to fierce disputes with John Thornton, owner of one of the town's cotton mills, and involvement in the campaign for political reforms for workers. Margaret becomes an advocate and friend to the mill workers and a force for peaceful change, eventually embarking on business propositions of her own, informed by the labor struggles she has witnessed and supported. North and South was severely criticized when it was first published, with male critics averring that Gaskell, as a woman, could have no genuine understanding of the complexities of industrialism and the labor market. Feminist and Marxist critics have since embraced the novel for its prescient political stance.

Valvedre - George Sand
Any of George Sand's novels could be included on this list, but Valvedre has the unfortunate distinction of being less well-known. The novel is a scathing critique of traditional ideas of femininity and the catastrophic effects such ideas had on love relationships during a time when divorce was all but unobtainable. Henri is a young botanist, eager to fall in love, working in the alps with a distinguished naturalist, Valvedre. When Alida Valvedre arrives, already discontented in her marriage, she and Henri tumble into a precipitous affair, defined by their closely held and delusive romantic ideals. All three protagonists are deeply sympathetic; their choices are tragic because of the social restrictions under which they live. As usual, Sand's female characters are complex social and moral beings. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

L. M. Montgomery: The Forgotten Feminist

When one searches for great proto-feminist and feminist writers of the past, certain illustrious names appear again and again: George Sand, George Eliot, Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin. But when we look back at writers like Louisa May Alcott, L. M. Montgomery, Gene Stratton Porter, and Jean Webster, they are usually dismissed as writers of juvenilia and it can be hard to see how revolutionary their feminist politics were and how fiercely they were expressed in their novels and stories. In many ways, these authors, who wrote primarily for audiences of young women, did as much if not more for feminist progress than the more aggressive and overtly political feminist writers, writing for an adult public.

Take Montgomery for example. Her heroines have professional ambitions, they crave independence and they work to get it, their romantic interests are secondary to goals central to their identities, and they strive to be self-determining social entities. Montgomery doesn't preach or discuss politics. Her characters express their politics through their decisions and choices. This is more radical than it first appears. Most young women protagonists in books of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had no professional ambitions. Work was born of necessity, not ambition, and women were not expected to have a vocation, a calling. Montgomery was one of the writers who blew that idea to pieces. While some of her heroines have success and others do not, their professional ambitions were unusual in and of themselves. Anne Shirley (from Anne of Green Gables and its sequels) and Emily Byrd Starr (from Emily of New Moon  and its sequels) both become published authors and cherish this accomplishment far above all others and both delay romantic attachments so that they can have a chance at a career.

Today, the have-it-all generation takes issue with that kind of decision, but Montgomery understood all too well what it meant to mix marriage and a career and she also understood that young women needed heroines who were brave enough to follow a career, even at the risk of remaining an "old maid." These young women have their romantic entanglements, but they are never willing to give up their own identities in the process. Anne Shirley never thinks of herself as Gilbert Blythe's girlfriend - she thinks of herself as a writer and a teacher. Emily Byrd Starr, like Jo March in Little Women, is beloved by a man jealous of her writing and unable to countenance a relationship in which he is not supreme - both young women ultimately reject these suitors. They cannot give up their occupation for the sake of a man.

Not that romance is inherently anti-feminist. What is so remarkable about these heroines is the way they exercise choice when it comes to romance. They experience great loves, but they don't lose sight of themselves in the midst of it. Most of these loves develop out of friendships; that is, the relationships are reciprocal from the start. Anne and Gilbert, Emily and Teddy, Valancy and Barney - all these couples come together with mutual interests, shared confidences, and the recognition of individual goals and desires. In The Blue Castle, it is Valancy who proposes to Barney and not the other way around - an extremely radical step in the right direction, flouting tradition and giving Valancy as much agency as Barney. The romantic and marital choices of these heroines are made freely and purposely and this is precisely because they are not afraid of saying no and staying single. They have other, more important irons in the fire.

Montgomery and other writers similarly ignored  should be recognized for their contributions to the feminist struggle. Their work remains relevant today, even more so in the economic conditions under which we've been living since 2008. It remains extremely difficult for women to balance careers with families and there is an alarming paucity of heroines in literature and film who are more focused on their professional and personal ambitions than their romantic lives, but L. M. Montgomery and so many of her compatriots provided us, a hundred years ago or more, with feminist heroines that have been the companions of young women and lodestars guiding the way to a more equitable future.

Monday, November 4, 2013

10 Movies Classical Musicians Will Love

I have a lot of pet peeves about the way music, or really any of the arts, is portrayed in films. I hate the silliness of the ecstatic composer (poet, painter, etc.) writing down his inspired work in a euphoric frenzy. No years of hard labor for them! Or the actors "playing" instruments so inexpertly that kindergarteners could give them a run for their money. There are many other similar annoyances that ruin otherwise decent films for people who know music. I've already shared some great novels about music; here are 10 great films about classical music and musicians that musicians themselves can enjoy.

Amadeus (1984)
Amadeus is a great film, historical inaccuracies notwithstanding, replete with some of the best performances and recordings of classical music ever put in a movie. Legend has long held that Antonio Salieri was mortally jealous of Mozart's prodigious talent and that it was Salieri who anonymously commissioned the glorious and tragically unfinished Requiem - historical evidence contradicts this, but it's nevertheless a great story. Tom Hulce's polarizing performance as Mozart is a work of genius or a travesty depending on one's point of view, while F. Murray Abraham as Salieri plays him as a man capable of villainy and yet deeply empathetic and appreciative of true artistry. The costumes by Theodor Pistek are sumptuous and beautifully reflect character and social class, from Mozart's fluffy pink wig to Salieri's unadorned and darkly colored frock coats.

Death in Venice (1971) 
This adaptation of the Thomas Mann novella directed by Luchino Visconti stars Dirk Bogarde as Gustave von Aschenbach, a composer (in the original novella he is a writer) who becomes obsessed with a stunningly beautiful Polish boy while staying in Venice for his health. Aschenbach watches the child from afar, unable to fully understand his feelings, but unable to tear himself away, even as disease descends on the city. In Visconti's film, Aschenbach is Mahler's alter-ego, with his third and fifth symphonies playing the part of the fictional character's music. A meditation on human mortality and the dubious immortality of art, beauty, whether corporeal or artistic, and the tenuity of temporal bonds.

Fantasia (1940) 
Disney's masterpiece was not a success when it was first released - it was too avant-garde and too culturally sophisticated for popular audiences, hard as that is to believe now that it's considered a kids' classic. The idea of pairing classical music with animation, particularly abstract animation, was daring and new. From the stunning abstract sequence set to Bach's Toccata and Fugue to the comic ballet of animals set to Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours, from Mickey's enchanting fantasy set to Paul Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice to the powerful and frightening Chernobog surrounded by ghouls set to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, every section in this film is dazzlingly ambitious. Leopold Stokowski conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in one of the greatest masterpieces of avant-garde filmmaking.

Kolya (1996)
Directed by Jan Sverak and written by and starring Zdenak Sverak, Kolya, set just before the Velvet Revolution, is about Frantisek, a confirmed bachelor and cellist, who has lost his position with the Czech Philharmonic because he is deemed politically subversive. A sham marriage with a Russian woman ends up landing him with the care of her 5-year-old son, Kolya, who speaks no Czech. Frantisek slowly and sometimes ineffectively faces the challenges of being a father, worrying over the boy when he's sick, giving him violin lessons, and eventually fighting for the right to be the boy's permanent guardian. Kolya is an eloquent and heartbreaking film.

The Pianist (2002) 
Roman Polanski's film stars Adrien Brody, in a truly amazing performance, as Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist and Holocaust survivor whose memoirs are the basis for the film, though many of Polanski's own memories as a Holocaust survivor were also included. The film's accurate depiction of the Warsaw ghetto and the atrocities committed there makes for brutal viewing, but the film ultimately finds small sources of hope amid overwhelming despair. Szpilman's identity as a musician permits him to hold on to his sanity, even as his family, home, and career are taken away from him and destroyed. Though not for the faint of heart, The Pianist is an exceptional film.

The Piano (1993)
Jane Campion's critically acclaimed film stars Holly Hunter as a mute woman sent to New Zealand to live with a husband she has married by proxy without having met him. She brings with her her illegitimate daughter (a superb performance by 9-year-old Anna Paquin) and her piano, the instrument that has acted as her sole means of expression since she ceased speaking. Campion's original screenplay tells an absolutely original story about female agency and expression within repressive social constructs, frustrated sexual desire, and the miniscule events that can suddenly escalate into violence. Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill contribute excellent performances.

Three Colors: Blue (1993)
The first of renowned Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy, this film is a reflection on emotional liberty and the bonds that connect human beings to each other. Juliette Binoche stars as a woman, devastated by the violent loss of her child and her husband, a prominent composer, in a car crash, who tries to cut herself off from all human interaction as a way of coping with her grief. Questions soon arise as to the actual composer of the works credited to her husband and she becomes entangled in the decision to complete a final work, a piece on the Unity of Europe. The cinematography by Slawomir Idziak and the score by Zbigniew Preisner, as well as Binoche's harrowing performance, enrich this complex and ultimately sublime film.

Tosca's Kiss (1985)
Daniel Schmid's documentary film brings us into the lives of the retired opera singers that live in the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a nursing home founded by Verdi in 1896 and a refuge for musicians that have devoted their lives to their art. The retirees reminisce about their professional lives, singing their favorite arias and scenes, trying on their old costumes, pulling out old photographs and phonograph records. A moving portrait of both the sacrifices and the rewards of an operatic career, Tosca's Kiss is an essential film for classical musicians.

Vision (2009)
Margarethe von Trotta's biopic of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century Benedictine nun and one of the most prominent mystics of her day, is a meditative rendition of the extraordinary life of a woman who, in her fight for religious reform and greater spiritual rights for nuns, could be considered one of the earliest feminists. Hildegard was also a scholar, philosopher, natural scientist, poet, and composer and the film uses her gorgeous music to excellent effect. Barbara Sukowa's performance is powerfully understated and the recreation of medieval convent life is evocatively rendered. 

The World of Henry Orient (1964)
Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth give wonderful first-time performances as two teenage girls obsessed with a has-been womanizing concert pianist, played in a delightfully sleazy performance by Peter Sellers. Screenwriter and novelist Nora Johnson based her story on her own childhood obsession with Oscar Levant, who musical fans will know from An American in Paris and The Band Wagon. A particular highlight is the concert scene, in which Peter Sellers plays a parody of modern music - one of the most musically literate comedic scenes ever in a Hollywood film.

Monday, October 28, 2013

9 Great Period Dramas for Grown-Ups (Part 2)

The pleasures of period dramas are greater than the beautiful and, to our eyes, exotic costumes, and the recreations of vanished cities and societies. Period drama, in delineating antiquated social problems, customs, and conventions, exposes our own modern problems, customs, and conventions all the more clearly, by highlighting the differences and not infrequently the similarities between the past and the present. While the movies on the first list were all set in the nineteenth century, this list covers more ground, from the 1750s to the 1930s. Given my love of period drama, odds are there will be a third installment.

Barry Lyndon (1975)
One of Stanley Kubrick's most fascinating and complex films, Barry Lyndon, based on the novel by Thackeray, recounts the adventures of its hero, from the battlefields of the Seven Years' War to the gambling parlors of the most chic spas and resorts across the continent to the boudoir of Lady Lyndon. Director of photography John Alcott, determined to give the film a more historically accurate atmosphere, shot all of the interiors without recourse to electric light and won a well-deserved Oscar for his extraordinary cinematography.

The Bostonians (1984)
This adaptation of the Henry James novel was a difficult and unlikely project, but Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala brought its story of nineteenth century feminism, misogyny, and eroticism brilliantly alive. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Olive Chancellor, a wealthy single woman determined to improve the lot of her sex and deeply infatuated with an innocent and charismatic inspirational speaker (Madeleine Potter). Her erotically charged monopoly of her friend is complicated by the arrival of a dashing and very old-fashioned Southern landowner (Christopher Reeve).

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
A pair of extravagant diamond earrings are the axis around which the characters in this film revolve. They are first sold by Louise, a cosseted noblewoman whose opulent lifestyle leads her into debt, who tells her husband that they were stolen, only for the jeweler to send them back to the husband, and as the earrings pass from hand to hand, the stakes for each of the characters grow steadily higher. Director Max Ophuls has a remarkably intuitive grasp of gender inequity and his films consistently portray complex and deeply unhappy women, trapped by their marriages, social position, and lack of occupation.

Howards End (1992)
Merchant and Ivory's best film and one of the best literary adaptations of all time, Howards End, based on the brilliant novel by E. M. Forster, is a kaleidoscopic social portrait of the relationships between the classes in Edwardian England: the Wilcox family are affluent capitalists, the Schlegel sisters, two cultured and socially progressive young women, represent the bourgeoisie, and the Basts are a lower middle class couple. A beautiful score by Richard Robbins, Tony Pierce-Roberts's cinematography, the most gorgeous I've ever seen, and first-class performances by Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, and Samuel West make this one of the finest period dramas of all time.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
This sumptuously romantic tragedy set in early 20th century Vienna, another wonderful film by brilliant director Max Ophuls, stars Joan Fontaine as a young woman infatuated with a handsome concert pianist and womanizer (Louis Jourdan) who has no idea that she exists. From this slim premise emerges a richly moving and complex love story, a fairy tale about unrequited love, its sentimentality cut by a thick vein of astringent realism. One of the few truly flawless films ever made.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
As good as, if not superior to, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's second feature is based on the Booth Tarkington novel and recounts the downfall of the wealthy Midwestern Amberson family, brought low by the modern age, represented by the automobile. Welles makes superb use of his favorite actors, from Joseph Cotten to Agnes Moorehead, and inspires wonderful performances from B-actor Tim Holt and forgotten muse of the silent screen Dolores Costello, and although purists may complain that the final editing was taken over by the studio, the result is one of the most sophisticated, bitter, and intelligent American dramas of the 40's.

My Fair Lady (1964)
With a knockout score by Lerner and Lowe, gorgeous couture by Cecil Beaton, and lively direction by George Cukor, this musical adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, is purely delightful. Rex Harrison gives one of his best performances as Professor Henry Higgins, a deeply arrogant and even more deeply misogynistic scholar of phonetics, who, along with his friend Colonel Pickering (charmingly portrayed by Wilfrid Hyde White), decides to transform Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) into a convincing aristocrat. Hepburn is enchanting and extremely funny, particularly at the Ascot races where she bawls at Dover to "move your bloomin' arse."

The Remains of the Day (1993)
Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins star as the housekeeper and butler of Darlington Hall, where a meeting of politicians has been convened in an attempt to negotiate a peaceful detente between supporters and opponents of Hitler's regime. Hopkins is the perfect domestic servant - unflappable, efficient, all-seeing, and utterly invisible - and while Thompson is equally efficient, she refuses to ignore Lord Darlington's ugly support of Hitler and his anti-semitism. A fascinating glimpse of the moral pitfalls and complex interdependencies that emerge in the relationships between domestic servants and the people who employ them, The Remains of the Day is the thinking person's Downton Abbey.

A Room With a View (1985)
Another wonderful collaboration from Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, this faithful adaptation of the E. M. Forster novel is about Miss Lucy Honeychurch, a prim young English miss whose passions are aroused on a tour of Italy, where she meets George Emerson, a free-thinking and unabashedly romantic young man, whose father has offered her their room with a view. An astute selection of Puccini arias, exquisite locations and cinematography, and a witty script give Forster his due as a perceptive and ingeniously critical chronicler of English manners and transgressions.

Friday, October 18, 2013

6 Tragically Unfinished Books and Why We Should Read Them

Many authors leave behind unfinished work. While it can be enormously frustrating to be deprived of the character and plot resolutions, and most unfinished work will lack the polish of a fully revised manuscript, these writings so often reveal unexpected facets of a writer's genius, provide glimpses of the birth of new ideas, or are purely and simply beautiful works of art. Just as Mozart never finished his sublime Requiem and Leonardo da Vinci never finished his Gran Cavallo, these authors never finished their great books.

6. Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman - Mary Wollstonecraft
This novel would have been the fictional counterpart to Wollstonecraft's revolutionary feminist treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a dramatic depiction of the abuses and limitations women were forced to live under within marriage, an institution that Wollstonecraft felt was patriarchal and injurious to all women. Maria, trapped in an unhappy marriage, has been locked in an insane asylum by her husband (this was an entirely legal practice at the time), but she finds ways of preserving her well-being through a romantic affection for another unjustly imprisoned inmate and a friendship with the servant entrusted with her care. This friendship is significant because it marks perhaps the first instance in feminist fiction of a binding friendship between women across classes. Wollstonecraft died before completing the manuscript, leaving us with a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been a seminal work of feminist fiction.

5. The Dark Tower - C. S. Lewis
This is a short fragment of a possible sequel or prequel to Lewis's science fiction trilogy, which Lewis scholar Walter Hooper rescued from being burned by Lewis's brother in a moving day bonfire (an act that makes my blood curdle - what ended up in that fire?). The manuscript is less than a hundred pages, with occasional sections irrevocably lost, and there is some debate about its authenticity, but unpolished and unfinished as it is, the draft starts an engrossing and fascinating story about time, memory, identity, and self-determination. A fictional version of Lewis, along with Elwin Ransom, the hero of the science fiction trilogy, and other scholars at Cambridge come together to experiment with a "chronoscope," a device that allows them to see some sort of alien world they call "Othertime." An adventure in interdimensional travel commences, though sadly we'll never know just where it was to bring us.

4. Dead Souls - Nikolai Gogol
This satiric masterpiece about the flaws of the Russian social character ends mid-sentence. Originally meant to be a trilogy, with each part a parallel to the three parts of Dante's Divina Commedia, Gogol only completed part one. Chichikov, in a cunning attempt to become wealthy and powerful, travels through the countryside offering to buy "dead souls" - serfs that had died but remained on census records and were taxable until stricken from those records - thereby gaining legal ownership rights and the chance to take out a substantial loan against his serfs. Chichikov is one of the best characters of Russian literature - cunning, complacent, morally corrupt, and yet guileless - and his string of misadventures is both hilariously absurd and unexpectedly tragic.

3. The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Originally intended to be the first part of a massive epic novel that was never completed due to Dostoevsky's death, The Brothers Karamazov is a spiritual and philosophical novel that examines morality, free will, and religious doubt. After Fyodor Karamazov, a callous and brutish landowner, is ruthlessly murdered, his sons' lives are torn apart - Ivan is on the verge of a psychological breakdown, Mitya is suspected of the murder, and Alyosha tries desperately to keep his family from falling apart. Enormously wide in scope and shot through with the visceral pain of complex moral dilemmas, this is one of the truly essential classic novels.

2. The Confessions of Felix Krull - Thomas Mann
A parody of Goethe's autobiography Poetry and Truth, Mann's last novel tells the story of Felix Krull, a narcissist and conman, whose flexible morals reward him with a life of sumptuous luxuries and hedonistic love affairs, always on someone else's bill. Krull writes his memoirs, claiming to fully condemn himself to honest self-reflection, and excelling rather at self-important apologetics. The unexpected windfalls and disasters are engrossing, and Krull's egotistical fatalism and capricious whimsy are delectably charming. This book is also proof that Mann had a sense of humor, and a well-developed one too, something that is often lacking in his other great works, much as I love them.

1. Suite Francaise - Irene Nemirovsky
Nemirovsky had completed only two of the five planned parts of her novel in 1942 when she was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus. The first part of Suite Francaise follows a group of diverse people, from all walks of life, living in Paris as the Germans march in and defeat the French, while the second part is about the inhabitants of a German-occupied French village as they adjust to defeat and occupation. The fact that Nemirovsky was writing these scenes as they actually occurred gives the novel a visceral intensity and heartbreaking immediacy. A rare work that allows us, decades later, to relive the terrifying uncertainty of the early years of World War II, this novel would have been an extraordinary achievement if Nemirovsky had survived the war and finished it, but her death renders the work all the more significant - it is a first-hand record of what life was like, without the reflections of hindsight, and a testimony to a great and silenced voice.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Very Best Films of the 70's

The 1970s were an intense decade - modern terrorism reared its ugly head, the disastrous war in Vietnam came to an end, Iran had a revolution, and thirty five nations signed the Helsinki Accords, an agreement guaranteeing human rights and freedoms. The cinema was no less troubled. The notorious Hays Code was replaced in 1968 by a form of the ratings system that we still use today and the years following were ones of cataclysmic change. Though many filmmakers, particularly in Europe, had been pushing the limitations imposed by censorship for a long time, the 70s were a time of intense and graphic exploration of adult themes, particularly sex and violence, in the cinema. Since I couldn't manage to restrict myself to just one choice per year, I've included some runners-up.

1970 - Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
Elio Petri's satire of police corruption stars Gian Maria Volonte' in one of his finest performances as a respected police inspector who murders his mistress so that he can see if his colleagues will actually charge him for it, becoming increasingly desperate as the investigation founders. The combination of Dostoyevskian drama, blistering satire, and the turbulent politics of the time make for a potent viewing experience. A perfect example of the scathing political commentary many Italian filmmakers have integrated into their work.

Runners-up: Deep End, Little Big Man

1971 - Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Gene Wilder's iconic performance as Willy Wonka, a witty and sophisticated script by the novel's author, Roald Dahl, and David Seltzer, and fabulous songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley are just a few of the reasons this film is a masterpiece of the grotesquerie and the joy of childhood. Without pandering to more comfortable conceptions of innocence and wish-fulfillment, the film explores the disgusting effects of the materialistic consumerism and greed the parents teach their children, the exception being the charming and unselfish Charlie Bucket, played by non-professional actor Peter Ostrum.

Runners-up: A Clockwork Orange, The Sorrow and the Pity, Harold and Maude

1972 - Sleuth
Tour-de-force performances from Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine (who both received Oscar nominations) and a mind-bogglingly unpredictable plot make this superb film a classic. Andrew Wyke (Olivier), an aristocratic and eccentric writer of crime novels, has discovered that his wife is having an affair with Milo Tindle (Caine), a hairdresser and self-made man, and he invites him to his estate where they become involved in a tense competitive game, humiliating each other as more entangled secrets come to light.

Runners-up: Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Solaris, Cries and Whispers

1973 - Amarcord
Fellini's semi-autobiographical surrealist film recounts the coming of age of Titta during the Fascist regime. The comedic antics of Titta and his compatriots are punctuated with moments of nostalgic poignancy and an affection for the vagaries and perverse innocence of adolescence. The funniest scenes involve a parade of ecstatic jogging Fascists ("Mussolini has got balls this big!"), a madman who refuses to climb down from a tree unless he's brought a woman, and the most dangerous pair of breasts in movie history.

Runners-up: The Long Goodbye, Fantastic Planet

1974 - Young Frankenstein
Mel Brooks directed and Gene Wilder wrote and starred in this hilarious and yet emotionally dramatic send-up of classic monster movies, with a fabulous supporting cast including Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Madeleine Kahn, Marty Feldman, and Peter Boyle. Frankenstein's scientist grandson returns to the castle, where he decides to recreate his grandfather's experiments in reanimation. Unfortunately his assistant has stolen him a brain belonging to one "Abby Normal." The score by John Morris is lush and romantic, underpinning the sincere drama underneath the comedic routines.

Runners-up: Chinatown, Blazing Saddles, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

1975 - Picnic at Hanging Rock
In this suspenseful film by Peter Weir that offers no simple explanations, several schoolgirls and their teacher disappear into a recess at Hanging Rock while on a school outing, leaving their companions devastated and bewildered. The question of what has happened to them accrues ever more complex spiritual and psychological dimensions as the film progresses, with the haunting music of Gheorghe Zamfir and the delicate cinematography by Russell Boyd (achieved by stretching a bridal veil over the camera lens) deepening an already fraught atmosphere. 

Runners-up: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Barry Lyndon, The Magic Flute

1976 - Carrie
Brian De Palma's adaptation of the Stephen King novel has made an indelible mark on pop culture and continues to have a major influence on horror films (a remake directed by Kimberly Pierce comes out this week). When a group of girls in Carrie's gym class bully her after she gets her first period, the gym teacher punishes them so severely that it inspires a sadistic prank at the prom. The supernatural elements are largely peripheral until Carrie hits her breaking point, but, after, all this isn't so much a film about the horror of supernatural powers as it is about the horror of high school. 

A caveat: I haven't yet seen Taxi Driver, The Ascent, or 1900, all films that are likely to supersede Carrie.

1977 - The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
This is the finest film that the Disney studio produced between Walt's death in 1967 and the Disney Renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989. Based on A. A. Milne's beloved stories for children, the film is comprised of three linked episodes, centered around Pooh's adoration of "hunny," Eeyore's dogged attempts to find a house for Owl, and Tigger's acrimonious relationship with Rabbit. Though undeniably a children's movie, the voice performances are brilliant, the animation is top-notch, and the dialogue doesn't reveal the full extent of its wittiness until you're an adult.

1978 - La Cage aux folles
The owner of a drag nightclub (Ugo Tognazzi) has his life turned upside down when his son asks him to meet his potential and very conservative in-laws, while his long-time partner and star attraction (Michel Serrault) decides to take his role as substitute mother very seriously indeed. The radicalism of this early depiction of a fulfilling and happy (if flawed) gay "marriage" is easy to miss today, but the unpretentious and warm humor hasn't aged at all. The American remake doesn't hold candle to the original.

Runner-up: Days of Heaven

1979 - My Brilliant Career
One of my all-time favorite films and a feminist masterpiece, Gillian Armstrong's feature debut is based on a landmark Australian novel by Miles Franklin. Judy Davis plays Sybylla, a headstrong young woman determined to have a brilliant career, despite the limits of her 19th century world and provincial upbringing, who meets the wealthy and debonair Harry Beecham (Sam Neill). Her romance with him is soon in conflict with her artistic and professional ambitions. Historically accurate and yet still painfully relevant today, My Brilliant Career examines the decisions women face when they are not willing to be submerged in roles defined by the people around them, rather than by themselves.

Runners-up: Breaking Away, Being There, The Muppet Movie

Monday, October 7, 2013

How Feminist Are the Disney Princesses? (Not Much)

Like pretty much everyone of the home-video generation, I grew up on repeated viewings of Disney films. While I'm convinced that many of those films are masterpieces, as a woman and a feminist it can be really hard to swallow the female characters and particularly the princesses, especially when the Disney company seems to think the definition of feminist is "woman who sometimes speaks or does things" - a definition which actually asserts that she is alive, not feminist. It doesn't help that the princesses barely qualify as women - Cinderella is 19 or 20, Pocahontas is 18, Belle is 17, Aurora, Ariel, and Mulan are 16, Jasmine is 15, and Snow White is only 14. And nearly all of them get married at the end of the movie because child brides always live happily ever after. The princesses are all idealized personalities - modest, innocent, unselfish, sweet-tempered, virginal, and most of all, beautiful. Simply being those things doesn't automatically make them un-feminist, but do these characters have any feminist qualities? (Since I haven't seen more recent films like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, I haven't included their heroines.) 

Snow White
Snow White's primary talents are domestic - she excels at cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry and she playacts a maternal role with the dwarfs. Her sole ambition and dream is to be carried off to Prince Charming's castle where they will live happily ever after. However, she also has an unexpected strength - an ability to recover her equilibrium and positivity after traumatic events. After she runs into the woods to escape her stepmother's assassination plot, she does get hysterical, but after she's expressed her fear, she begins to think practically and figure out where she's going to sleep that night. Snow White's hopes may be entirely tied up in Prince Charming, but she shows surprising self-sufficiency in the meantime.

3 out of 10.

The most mature and even-tempered of the princesses, Cinderella is also the most confined by circumstance. While all the other princesses seem to live in relatively comfortable if not downright luxurious households, Cinderella's family fortune has been squandered and her stepmother has complete financial authority. While it may be easy to question Cinderella's submission to doing the work of a household of servants, she has no means of supporting herself outside of her stepmother's control. She is undeniably oppressed, but she is also acting responsibly within the confines of a situation dictated by the patriarchal society in which she lives. She's far from a revolutionary, but she retains a strong sense of self and finds ways of lightening her burdens through friendship. It's also interesting that Cinderella never explicitly states what her dreams are, beyond "a dream is a wish your heart makes." 

4 out of 10.

Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)
Though there is a fatalistic quality to Philip and Aurora's meeting and falling in love, Aurora chooses Philip as much he chooses her, without caring about social station (fate takes a hand there) or familial obligation. Unlike in the traditional fairy tale, Aurora sees a familiar face when she wakes up, rather than being kissed (or in some versions raped) awake by a total stranger. While it is true that her dreams and ambitions are bound by romance and marriage, Philip's dreams are equally romantically and maritally focused. Ultimately Aurora is the victim and Philip the rescuer, but the dynamics of their relationship, far more egalitarian, have already been established. Aurora is almost entirely passive, following more powerful personalities, but it is worth noting that Philip is rather passive as well. He shows determination to defeat Maleficent, but he's pretty helpless without the (female) good fairies.

2 out of 10.

Ariel (The Little Mermaid)
Ariel is willing to give up everything - her family and friends, her ability to return to the only world she's ever known, her ability to speak - for the sake of a man who doesn't know she exists. The loss of her voice is crucial because it deprives her of any means of communicating complex thoughts or feelings. She is reduced to expressing only the most basic of emotions with simple gestures and facial expressions. Because of this, she is unable to form an actual relationship with Eric, continuing to hero-worship him, even as he treats her like a meaningless distraction. Although her infatuation with Eric is the catalyst for her decision to barter her voice for human legs, she had an underlying interest in exploring the human world long before she saw him and her enthusiasm for new experiences, like riding in a carriage or seeing a puppet show, stems from that enthusiasm. Her ambitions are primarily romantic, but she also has a strong desire for greater knowledge and understanding.

4 out of 10.

Belle is frequently cited as a feminist Disney heroine, due to the fact that she reads books - mountains of books. But what is she reading? Apparently, in her favorite book, "she meets Prince Charming, but she won't discover that it's him til chapter three." Reading is far from an inherently feminist pastime - novels and fairy tales are traditionally women's literature. The reading argument would only sort of make sense if she were reading philosophy or natural science or some sort of book traditionally considered suitable only for men. Belle's actions are usually reactions to her feelings for the men around her, and though she, like Ariel, is sometimes rebellious, ultimately she is a dutiful daughter and girlfriend with no ambitions of her own, despite her avowed desire for "adventure in the great wide somewhere" - that only works if by adventure she means being held prisoner in place of her beloved father by a really angry guy that she eventually marries.

3 out of 10.

The main problem with Jasmine is her stupidity. She is one dumb broad. She spends significant time crying over a boy she is told was beheaded and then, when she realizes that the prince she's dating is the same guy, she never stops to wonder, who got beheaded? How the heck did he get out of that mess? Aladdin of course describes her as smart because that would be the politically correct thing to do, but doesn't change the fact that she's stupid. Jasmine makes a lot of noise about not being "a prize to be won," which is all very nice except that that is exactly what she is. While she does choose the guy who loves her rather than the power of the sultanate, she remains the path to the throne - and the option of not getting married is never considered because the kingdom needs an heir. And by choosing Aladdin as her husband, she's also choosing him - a completely uneducated boy without any training in statesmanship - to take control of an absolutist government. Her personal choice might be smart for her, but for the sultan's subjects.... I'd be a bit concerned.

4 out of 10.

First of all, let me relieve my feelings by saying that Pocahontas is maddening - it takes a fascinating historical occurrence and comes up with a version in which Native Americans speak English and wear mini-dresses and those Europeans wouldn't have been such meanies if it weren't for Governor Ratcliffe. Now that I've got that off my chest, back to business. Pocahontas relishes her freedom and her solitude, but sees marriage as a duty to her father - "Should I marry Kocoum? Is all my dreaming at an end? Or do you still wait for me dream-giver?" The unfortunate implication is that her dreams are wrapped up in some shadowy male figure, which she eventually identifies as John Smith, who provides her with her dreams. This highly adolescent attitude posits her decision as a choice between reality and adulthood with an actual husband or an airy fairy dream-fueled mirage with an imagined ideal. In the end however, Pocahontas chooses to remain with her own people rather than leaving for England with John Smith and leaving behind everyone and everything she's ever known or loved. Her own life and happiness is tied up in her identity, rather than the man she loves.

6 out of 10.

Mulan spends most of the movie disguised as a man, strengthening her body and developing fighting skills, and taking the substantial risk of losing her life if she is discovered. In the early scenes, her tomboyishness and inability to fit in are demonstrated by her total incapacity in such traditional feminine skills as serving tea and putting on make-up. Mulan is undoubtedly the most physically formidable princess and the one most capable of taking care of herself. She doesn't abandon her familial obligations; rather, she reinterprets them to fit her own personality. Her relationship with Shang is also the most complex of the Disney repertoire of romantic couples - she and Shang develop a friendship and a brotherly bond, which only develops into romantic interest at the very end of the film. Shang does rescue Mulan at some points, but Mulan also rescues him, creating a positive reciprocal bond, with less clearly defined gender divisions. Mulan is also the only one of the princesses that's allowed to be imperfect and make a fool of herself.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

If You Think Sex Was Invented in the Sixties, Read These Books

Human beings have always had a distinct taste for the bawdy and salacious, but it isn't uncommon in our modern age of swoonily nostalgic Janeites and easily accessed pornography to assume that sex as we know it was invented at Woodstock in 1969, a renascence of the distant Roman Empire's debaucheries. Not so. Every era has produced its own erotic literature and relished it. While there's little doubt that sex in Victorian literature was a wee bit more, ahem, refined, even the Victorians, whom we so love to deride as prudish and repressed, made up for it with a booming trade in prostitution and pornographic photographs. All of the books on this list were written, and most published, before 1800.

The Metamorphoses - Ovid (8 AD)
Chronicling history from creation to Caesar's deification, and recounting more than 250 mythic stories in the process, Ovid's masterpiece is one of the most influential works of Western literature. Ovid's favored theme is love in all its incarnations, from the lustful love of Venus for Adonis to the self-love of Narcissus, the tragic love of Orpheus for Eurydice to the jealous love of Juno for Jupiter. Sex in the Roman mythological universe is a lavish cornucopia of experiences, which makes modern day pornography look rather tame.

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (1616, written 12th century)
Abelard and Heloise were two of the most brilliant minds of ecclesiastical Medieval society, lovers whose tempestuous affair led to an illegitimate child and Abelard's castration at the hands of her incensed relatives. Abelard became a monk, a renowned philosopher and teacher, while Heloise became an abbess and one of the few respected and admired female scholars of her time. Their correspondence centers on religious and spiritual concerns, but also divulges the history of their legendary amour.

The Decameron - Giovanni Boccaccio (1353)
A group of young men and women take refuge in a country estate from the plague raging in Florence, where they pass the time telling stories on different themes. Sex, the most conspicuous theme, is portrayed as both a healthy human impulse and an undeniable appetite. The clergy, particularly cloistered nuns and traveling monks, are as susceptible as the troublemakers, gamblers, and aristocrats. The stories, ranging from the side-splitting to the tragic, weave a colorful and kaleidoscopic tapestry of 14th century Italian life.

The Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer (1400)
The seminal work of English language literature, Chaucer's magnum opus is a collection of tales related by the diverse men and women who meet on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The prologue of the Wife of Bath, in which a sexually rapacious woman exhausts her husbands to death with her unending demands, is the most notoriously lascivious of the tales. The book is heavily influenced by The Decameron, particularly in its often humorous depictions of the clergy. 

Pick a Shakespeare, Any Shakespeare (1589-1613)
Shakespeare is undoubtedly the king of sexy one-liners, puns, and metaphors, and nearly every play has examples, from Romeo and Juliet to As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream to Hamlet. Take this advice on women that Mercutio gives Romeo: "Oh that she were/An open arse and thou a poperin pear." Or this from "Sonnets to Sundry Notes of Music:" "Were kisses all the joys in bed,/One woman would another wed."

Moll Flanders - Daniel Defoe (1722)
Written as the memoirs of a reformed prostitute and thief, Moll Flanders follows its anti-heroine from her birth in Newgate Prison to a mother facing transportation to her eventual penitence and return to an honest way of living. The book's frank depiction of female sexuality, prostitution, and incest, and in particular Moll's eventual good fortune, has made it a frequent target for censorship.

Tom Jones - Henry Fielding (1749) 
Tom Jones is a foundling child, adopted by the Squire Allworthy, who despite his affection for his foster son, objects to Tom's pursuit of the virtuous Sophia. Tom's situation as a bastard of unknown parentage is the occasion of biting social satire, but his amorous adventures with various ladies of both ill and sound repute would give Casanova a run for his money. Tom Jones is a comic gem.

Les liaisons dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782)
This epistolary novel tells the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, aristocratic ex-lovers who exact a heady revenge on each other by seducing and humiliating the innocent and virtuous, recounting their successes and misadventures in a malicious correspondence. Whether interpreted as a condemnation of the excessive vices of the blase aristocracy or a salacious and voyeuristic glimpse into their luxurious debaucheries, this novel is a guilty pleasure.  

The 120 Days of Sodom - Marquis de Sade (1905, written 1785)
Written while the Marquis was imprisoned in the Bastille, this notorious novel is about four wealthy men who repair to a remote castle and indulge in every conceivable sexual and sadomasochistic scenario they can think of. Deeply misogynistic, the unfinished work portrays sex as a parade of rape and torture, most of it committed on women. Though I can't recommend a book that I find repulsive, look no further for confirmation that our ancestors weren't as straitlaced as we might think. In the Marquis's own words, "the most impure tale that has ever been told since the world began."

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

8 Novels for the Aspiring Writer

If one subject fascinates writers, it's becoming a writer. And so, here is a list of novels about writers, writing, and reading with much to offer to every aspirant to the literary profession. I've left out, as usual, a few of the more obvious and frequently cited novels about writers and writing, like Pale Fire, and I've included a number of novels that are usually dismissed as juvenile and definitely don't deserve to be.

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
Without a doubt, one of the best-known and most beloved books about an aspiring writer is Louisa May Alcott's classic novel and, while it's inspired many generations of girls to want to write, it's often dismissed as merely a children's novel. The evolution of Jo's writing from the macabre and sensational to the tender and profound is both funny and enlightened, a nostalgic treasure for all of us who "scribbled" when we were young. And as I've already discussed in a previous post, it's a milestone for feminists.

The Neverending Story - Michael Ende
A phantasmagoria of metaphysics, philosophy, and ecstatic imagery, Michael Ende's fantasy masterpiece is about Bastian, a fat, unpopular, and not particularly brilliant boy, who cuts class so that he can read a forbidden book. That book turns out to be The Neverending Story, which starts out as the story of Atreyu on a quest to save Fantastica and the Childlike Empress, but slowly draws Bastian into itself until he himself is creating the story. Ende's novel demands to be reread and it offers new revelations with every perusal.

The French Lieutenant's Woman - John Fowles
Brilliantly blending historical fiction, literary criticism, and philosophical reflection, this novel tells the story of Sarah Woodruff, a Victorian woman abandoned by her French lover, who fascinates Charles Smithson, engaged to be married to Ernestine. Fowles does not write a straightforward narrative, rather offering the reader multiple endings and interpretations, throwing out clues and red herrings, and even appearing as a character himself. This novel offers all the pleasures of a Thomas Hardy novel with the intellectual games and intertextuality of Umberto Eco's novels and criticism.

Letters from a Peruvian Woman - Francoise de Graffigny
This novel is told from the point of view of an Incan princess, kidnapped by the Spanish conquistadors, rescued by the French, and brought to Europe as a curiosity. Zilia records her trials and thoughts first with an Incan method of knot writing and then with European writing, grappling with the traumatic parting from her native world and her budding ambitions as a writer. Significant both for its sympathetic and complex portrait of a Native American and its fiercely feminist politics, Letters from a Peruvian Woman is essential reading for all women aspiring to be writers.

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing
Anna Wulf is a writer living in London in the 1950s, struggling to synthesize four notebooks (on her memories of Southern Rhodesia, her involvement in the Communist party, material for an autobiographical novel, and her emotional life and dreams) into one work - the golden notebook. As Anna delves deeper into her project, the lines between reality and fiction begin to disappear, as the act of writing becomes the act of living. Lessing's novel explores Communism and Stalinism, the Cold War, the developing feminist movements and the politics of sex, maternity, work, and, most of all, writing.

Atonement - Ian McEwan
On the eve of World War I, Briony Tallis witnesses a sexual encounter between her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie, the son of the family housekeeper, misconstrues it, and wreaks havoc on both of their lives as a result. The novel is ultimately a meditation on the reasons a writer writes and what is accomplished by writing. By far, McEwan's finest work to date, Atonement is heartrending, poignant, and exquisitely written.

Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, Emily's Quest - L. M. Montgomery
Though other Montgomery heroines have literary ambitions, notably Anne Shirley and Sara Stanley, Emily Byrd Starr is the one that follows her desire for success the furthest and hardest. She is also the most like Montgomery herself. An exceptional rendering of the child's voice (and later the adolescent's) and an astute portrait of an emerging writer are only part of what makes these books so wonderful. Emily is one of those rare characters who becomes a real friend to her readers

Daddy-Long-Legs - Jean Webster
Another book that has inspired countless young girls to write, Jean Webster's oft-maligned epistolary novel is certainly dated, but nonetheless delightful. Judy Abbott is an orphan given the chance to go to college, provided that she write regularly to her anonymous patron. Ornamented with comic sketches, Judy's letters chronicle her personal and artistic growth, and in particular her rigorously self-imposed reading and writing regimen. I disagree with critics who have deride the book as "anti-feminist" - Judy is independent, staunchly practical, and determined to be self-sufficient.

(As an aside, I'm almost positive that My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, which was made into a fabulous film by Gillian Armstrong, deserves to be on this list, but it is out of print and I have not yet located a copy.)

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Letters, Diaries, and Private Papers: Should We Publish Them?

In April of this year, a volume of Willa Cather's previously unreleased correspondence was published, despite her explicitly stated desire that it remain private. The editors of the letters, in defiance of her will, decided to publish them anyway, justifying their decision by arguing that her personal (and legally expressed) desires are of less importance than her place in the American cultural legacy. The editors make what is in these cases a frequent assumption - that Cather's position as a literary figure annuls her right to privacy, even when it is legally invoked in a will. Is it ethical, or at the very least justifiable, to publish private letters in such a case? The question is particularly perplexing given that interest in Cather's sex life is one of the main catalysts for publishing them.

 One of the most popular literary figures of all time, Jane Austen, is also one of the most elusive, thanks to the fact that her sister and closest confidante, Cassandra, burned much of her correspondence and other private papers. As a result, biographers and literary voyeurs can only speculate on many aspects of her private life. Cassandra's actions have been deplored by scholars and biographers, who have reproached her as short-sighted and prudish. But Cassandra was protecting her sister Jane (as well as her entire family circle), not the writer, not the public figure, but the private individual. We may regret the loss of the material, but condemning Cassandra is absurd, particularly given that she and her brother arranged that both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey be published after Austen's death. Cassandra looked after both the private and the public legacy of her sister in a way that, we can speculate, Austen would have approved. (It's worth noting that Austen's novels were not published under her name until after her death.)

In some cases, the ethical implications of publishing seem more clear-cut, especially when letters and diaries are testaments of a major historical event. Diaries and letters of victims of the Holocaust, most prominently The Diary of Anne Frank, have immense importance - they are testimonials of the millions of voices silenced in concentration camps and death marches. Of course, this situation seems clear-cut to me, but many may disagree. After all, we have many published testimonials by such brilliant writers as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Perhaps the line I've drawn is arbitrary - who gets to decide when an historical event is of such a magnitude that all related documents ought to be made public? One could argue that any public person's letters and diaries have significance to the public - whether the person is an artist, writer, movie star, politician, scientist, or soldier. Anne Frank, however, was a private person. Her status as a public person was attained only with the publishing of her diary. One could even argue that any diary or correspondence has significance as an historical record, something we routinely do with any written material more than a hundred years old. One could say that the expiration of a certain amount of time renders the issue of privacy null and void, but how do we determine that amount of time?

The traditional association of men with public life and women with private life has also led to differing attitudes towards private writing by men and by women. Men's diaries were more often records of their public lives, their careers and extracurricular concerns, meant to be passed down to male descendents, while women's diaries were records of private family life, their emotions and domestic concerns. Naturally there are exceptions, but the patriarchal imprint of an outmoded societal structure lives on today in our attitudes towards diaries and letters. The critical focus changes. We read C. S. Lewis's letters in order to gain insight into his writing and his Christianity; we read Sylvia Plath's letters in order to gain insight into her troubled marriage. These divisions are slowly breaking down, but there remains a tendency to treat women's private writing as more personal and more intimate, a reflection of the person rather than the writer (or artist or scientist, etc.).

When a public person chooses to publish diaries and letters, they are usually edited - potentially hurtful or libelous comments are excised, other people's secrets concealed, passages about sex are toned down. The writer is able to craft what he or she deems an acceptable persona. These are not dishonest representations; they are simply crafted for a particular audience, just as private diaries and letters are. In the case of some private individuals, names and other identifying information is changed - a classic example is A Young Girl's Diary, a diary that Freud felt was of the utmost importance in understanding the psycho-sexual development of girls.

In Willa Cather's case, the choice to publish her letters is unethical, but also inevitable. The thorny issue of publication has to be determined on a case-by-case basis, though if there is money to be made, publication will most likely always win. The significance of a person's private papers, to history and his or her cultural legacy, should be considered, but so should the expressed desires of that person, particularly if expressed in a legal document. At the very least, we, as readers, need to acknowledge the breach of privacy we necessarily commit when we read letters and diaries,no matter how old they are, no matter who has written them.