Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Covert Feminism of Little Women

Louisa May Alcott is most famous for her very popular Little Women, her many other novels dwarfed by it success. It is being constantly adapted and referenced in popular culture - Joey even reads it on an episode of Friends. Even while the novel is still beloved by many readers, it has acquired a reputation for saccharine sentimentalism. Yet, the novel, despite the demands of conservative male publishers, retains the stamp of Alcott's feminism, even if today's social and sexual mores somewhat obscure it.

While readers today may see nothing out of the ordinary in Marmee's encouragement of her daughters' artistic aspirations, at the time the book was published this was quite radical. Marmee, like Alcott's own mother, wishes her daughters to be able to support themselves and to form strong, independent characters, free to choose either marriage or a career according to their desires. Jo's ambition to be a writer was at the time an essentially masculine aspiration and most of the great female novelists, including Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot (actually Mary Ann Evans), of the 19th century would use male pseudonyms at some point in their careers. Most young women of the time would have been taught that any artistic talents they had were mere "accomplishments," ornamentation that would render them more attractive to potential husbands. Not so with the March girls.

While readers and Alcott's publisher demanded that Jo marry, Alcott herself was resistant to the idea. She herself never married and she did not see this as a failure - quite the contrary. Jo, like Alcott, wanted a career, with the money and independence that goes with it, and she also, like Alcott, wanted to support her parents, an impossibility if she were to marry given that a married woman's earnings belonged to her husband. In fact, men of the time could legally do anything to their wives short of murder.

Jo's decision to refuse Laurie may disappoint romantics, but her choice is even more radical than most readers of today realize. The idea of romantic love culminating in marriage was a fairly recent one and marriage for women was still by necessity more about money and security than about love. Jo understands that she and Laurie are fundamentally unsuited. He loves luxury, high society, and fashion and he expects her to shoehorn herself into such a life; she could care less about such frivolities and isn't willing to change her character for others. But Laurie isn't just offering her a life of luxury. He's offering to care for her impoverished parents and sisters, something which Jo has been anxious to do since she was a teenager. Jo's refusal is a triumph of self-respect and mature thinking over what would be the easiest and likely most disastrous choice she could make.

When Jo does marry, she marries Professor Bhaer, a much older, impoverished, and not particularly good-looking man, who shares her interests and her values. He respects and supports her as a writer; Laurie, on the other hand, sees her "scribbling" as a hobby, a financial venture only due to necessity. (Laurie is even jealous of her writing before the possibility of a romance arises.) Alcott may have been pressured into marrying off Jo, but she does have her make a wiser and less romantic choice. Jo and Professor Bhaer are partners, both working as teachers in the school they start, both eventually becoming highly involved parents, sharing responsibilities rather than dividing them. This was not a normal scenario.

For the young women reading Little Women when it was first published, the March girls were relatable and attractive role models, women who valued their self-respect and moral integrity over money and position, self-sufficiency over helpless contingency, and partnership over compromising dependence. Women may have far greater freedom to choose a profession or a spouse today, but Alcott's feminist values are still just as relevant for us here and now.

Friday, July 26, 2013

9 Great Period Dramas for Grown-Ups

The period drama today tends to be a romantic fantasy, whether light-hearted or darker in tone, that fulfills a desire for higher-stakes lovemaking and the sublimation of an orgasmic high into the permanent state of marriage. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does rather limit the scope of our vision of the past. While most of the films on this list qualify as romances and many as fantasies, they have adult political and social subtexts, and the relationships between the characters are complex and less romanticized. All of the films on this list are set in the 19th century. 

Bright Star (2009)
This lovely drama recounts the true story of the poet John Keats and his sadly brief love affair with Fanny Brawne. The cinematography and locations are beyond gorgeous and the acting superb, particularly from Ben Wishaw who plays Keats. Jane Campion's screenplay is historically accurate and yet it feels quite contemporary. This is also a rare film that portrays writing as the hard work that it is.

The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981)
The mixture of fiction, metafiction, and history in John Fowles's original novel make it an unlikely candidate for a successful film adaptation, but screenwriter Harold Pinter brilliantly chose to make the film a drama within a drama. Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons portray the troubled Victorians of the period story and the actors playing them in the meta-narrative. Of particular note is the score, laced with viola solos, by Carl Davis.

Jane Eyre (2011)
There are many good adaptations of Jane Eyre (and also quite a few lousy ones) and I wondered when the trailer for this version was released whether it was really worth it to make yet another interpretation. But Cary Fukunaga proved that it is well worth it. Fukunaga's version stresses the gothic over the romantic, the traumatic over the nostalgic, at times resembling a horror film. More than any other adaptation, this one addresses the sexual ambiguity and repressed feminism of the novel.

Lorna Doone (2000)
This two-part television miniseries is a strong adaptation of the R. D. Blackmore novel. Its focus on a vanished English class, the yeomanry, is unusual. The casting is mostly good, though there are a few clunkers, but the story is interesting enough to overcome the limitations of the actors. Game of Thrones fans will be excited to see Aiden Gillen in a major role.

Middlemarch (1994)
The BBC consistently turns out high quality literary miniseries, but none of them has ever quite matched the standard set by Middlemarch. A complex portrait of a provincial town, teetering on the edge of social change and the industrial revolution, and of its denizens, the series addresses wealth and obligation, the limitations of generosity and idealism, class mobility, the impossibility of happy marriage within the meager confines of gender conformity, and a host of other complex issues. And it's really enormous fun.

The Piano (1993)
Another wonderful film from Jane Campion, The Piano has a highly unusual plot. Holly Hunter plays a mute woman who, along with her young daughter (Anna Paquin), travels to New Zealand to marry a landowner there (Sam Neill). She brings with her a piano, an instrument that has for many years replaced her speaking voice. The film's precise portrayal of the incremental and almost imperceptible steps that lead to violence is exceptional. Anna Paquin, at only 9 years old, is a stand-out.

Senso (1954)
My all-time favorite film from my favorite Italian director, Luchino Visconti, this operatic drama set during the tumult of the Risorgimento in Venice is extremely bitter and absolutely brilliant. From the opening scene at La Fenice opera house where Il trovatore is being performed to the battle of Custoza, Visconti presents scenes of a now vanished political and social order in decline just as the Italian states are being unified. Alida Valli and Farley Granger give their best ever performances, the sets and costumes are exquisite, and it's all accompanied by music by Verdi and Bruckner.

Tess (1979)
Roman Polanski's adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel can be uncomfortable viewing given the contrast between the film's condemnation of Tess's rape and Polanski's own behavior, but it is nevertheless a very good film. Though it was filmed in France, the atmosphere of 19th century rural Dorset is beautifully evoked and Nastassja Kinski gives a sensitive and nuanced performance of a complex and often contradictory character.

Wuthering Heights (1939)
Though this may not be the most faithful version of Emily Bronte's only novel, it remains the best film adaptation. Laurence Olivier embodies Heathcliff (I personally cannot accept any other actor in the part) and he is well supported by Merle Oberon as Cathy and David Niven as Edgar. Though the final scene is overly romanticized, the film as a whole is a fascinating exploration of obsessive love and revengeful ambition.

Friday, July 19, 2013

13 Great Sci-fi Books for People Who Don't Like Sci-fi

I'm not usually enthusiastic about science fiction, even though I love reading non-fiction about what we're discovering in space, but every once in a while I come across a science fiction novel that is so good that you don't have to like science fiction to like it. Since most of us read The Giver and Fahrenheit 451 in school, they aren't included on this list, but if you liked those, I'll bet you'll go for:

War with the Newts - Karel Capek
This novel by the great Czech writer satirizes the terrifying political situation Europe and the United States found themselves in during the 1930s, not only attacking nazism and fascism, but also American segregation laws and consumerism. The book describes the discovery of a race of highly intelligent newts, their enslavement by humans, and the war that erupts as a result. Fun fact: Capek is credited as the inventor of the word "robot."

The House on the Strand - Daphne du Maurier
This narrator of this novel has agreed to be a test subject for his biophysicist friend's new experimental drug, which, they discover, allows them to travel psychically in time, experiencing past realities without being able to act within them. Du Maurier doesn't write long pseudo-technical treatises, instead focusing on the effects time travel has on the characters' individual lives and emotions.

Science Fiction Quintet - Madeleine L'Engle
(A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, An Acceptable Time)
These novels may have been written for young adults, but they bear repeated reading and have much to offer to adult readers. A Wrinkle in Time begins with the revelation that there is such a thing as a tesseract and Meg Murray soon finds herself on an interstellar quest to find her lately disappeared father. The further books continue the stories of the Murry and O'Keefe families. L'Engle's uncanny ability to write fiction about metaphysical, spiritual, and scientific concepts, as well as her complex characters and imagined worlds, makes these novels, particularly the first two, rare masterpieces of young adult literature.

Mara and Dann - Doris Lessing
Lessing has written a lot of science fiction, but I have a particular affection for this dystopian novel about a brother and sister who are the last survivors of their race in a world that becomes less habitable and more dangerous every day. Lessing has a gift for character study, which is never overwhelmed by the demands of the science fiction genre. And if you like this one, there's a sequel!

Science Fiction Trilogy - C.S. Lewis
(Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength)
The hero of these novels is a philologist, Dr. Ransom, who finds himself swept into cosmic events while on a walking tour in the country. He travels to Mars and Venus and then starts an underground campaign against a disturbing organization on Earth, which conducts reprehensible experiments. Lewis creates a fascinating and morally complex world, rife with mysticism and political chicanery. The third book in the trilogy gets my vote for the best science fiction book ever written.

A Voyage to Arcturus - David Lindsay
This philosophic novel, reminiscent of Chesterton's fiction, set on an unexplored planet in a distant solar system had a heavy influence on Lewis's science fiction writing and its engagement with moral questions about good, evil, and moral choice sets it apart from run-of-the-mill science fiction. Maskull and two companions travel to the planet Tormance where Maskull undergoes a series of transformative experiences ending in a final revelation of cosmic significance.

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley's masterpiece, one she would never top, is the seminal science fiction work, a game-changing monument to the scientific imagination. Frankenstein is being continually rewritten and adapted, but it hasn't been the slightest bit tarnished. A moving portrait of perverse and misunderstood humanity, the book tells the story of a scientist obsessed with the regeneration of human life and the creature he creates. I've yet to meet anyone who didn't love this book.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

10 Best Picture Winners that Should Never Have Won

I frequently wish that a better movie had won the Best Picture statuette. Some years there isn't a better movie, or maybe the better movie was foreign and no one saw it or it didn't qualify. But some years, the Academy just screws up.

1938 - You Can't Take It with You
Now, I'm not saying this is a bad movie - far from it. It's a pleasant, uplifting bit of Capra-corn. But I do object to this win because the competition was so obscenely better. Two great crowd-pleasers, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Pygmalion, were nominated and so was Grand Illusion, a.k.a. one of the single greatest movies ever made. Since Grand Illusion was a foreign film, it was always a long-shot. But really, Academy - you chose a fluffy movie with some quirky characters over a ground-breaking masterpiece that examined class and anti-semitism among World War I soldiers.

1941 - How Green Was My Valley
John Ford's exercise in old country whimsy and tasteful tragedies completely misses the point of his source material. Richard Llewellyn's masterpiece about Welsh miners is extremely bleak and could really be deemed anti-nostalgic; the movie cuts out anything that can't be made to have a silvery lining or to compel cathartic tears with a background of choral music. Plus, Citizen Kane lost.

1944 - Going My Way
The fact that this shlock was even nominated is objectionable. In a year when Double Indemnity or Gaslight could have won, the Academy chose a comedy with Bing Crosby as a singing priest. This movie is so wholesome it should make toddlers gag - and this is coming from someone who cries during Little Women every time I watch it (frequently). This isn't not as good as the competition; it's just plain bad.

1952 - The Greatest Show on Earth
Without a doubt, the worst movie to ever win the Best Picture statuette, this bloated, boring melodrama set in a circus and starring Charlton Heston inexplicably made a lot of money, but certainly hasn't held up over time. It's also worth pointing out that Singin' in the Rain was not even nominated. This was really a lifetime achievement award for Cecil B. DeMille in disguise, but even so, it was the golden age of Hollywood and there were at least a dozen films that should have won over this.

1956 - Around the World in Eighty Days
I will admit that this movie is entertaining except when you're cringing over the racism and happy-go-lucky embrace of British imperialism. It was also a year of obscenely long movies with massive casts, so this one fit right in. What's frustrating is its lack of substance. It's just a silly movie with tons of famous people in it and scenes of not so authentic foreign cultures. Even The King and I, irritating as it is, was made with a minimal engagement with the realities of racism and imperialism.

1965 - The Sound of Music
I really loathe this movie. Christopher Plummer has apparently referred to this film as "The Sound of Mucus" and I completely agree. Lots of excellent musicals were made in the 60's and this was not one of them. The songs are so annoying that they could be used in lieu of water-boarding. Yuck.

1980 - Ordinary People
I'm not entirely sure why this movie makes me so nauseated, but it might have something to do with the endless repetition of Pachelbel's Canon or the therapist who apparently has no other patients but Timothy Hutton. There was stiff competition this year from Raging Bull, but most of my objection comes from a deep-seated dislike of this movie. Or Pachelbel's Canon.

1997 - Titanic
If any other movie had won in 1997, I wouldn't care. But this particular choice proved once and for all that the Oscars are a popularity contest. Yes, it made an insane amount of money. Yes, the special effects were fancy. The acting could have been worse, but there are three main reasons why this movie is awful: 1) The script was a daytime soap opera rewritten to be aimed at semi-rebellious teenage girls; 2) It posits that independent women prove their independence by learning how to spit; and 3) Celine Dion sings. And she sings the soapiest, sappiest song of all time.

2002 - Chicago
Everyone got really excited about this movie when it came out because it was the first major musical to come out of Hollywood in several decades. Perhaps it was the lack of other musicals for comparison that led people to believe that Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, and Catherine Zeta Jones could sing and dance - they can't. The only actual singer in the cast was Queen Latifah and she was the only one who belonged there. Musicals cast with actors who can't sing or dance should not win Oscars.

2011 - The Artist
I feel a little bad for including this on the list, but I have to. I think it's great that so many Americans were willing to sit down and watch a foreign film. Except that that's totally cheating because this film is "silent" and thus does not require subtitles. Granted, it was a really disappointing year - nearly all the nominees were politically correct to the nth degree - but still, it's kind of terrible that the only foreign films that ever win this award are in English or silent. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The T-rex Rampaging Through My Dreams

Back in 1993, I was watching the television when a preview came on for Jurassic Park - just the preview. I proceeded to spend the next ten years being chased and eaten by dinosaurs in my nightmares, while fighting back images of the T-rex chowing down on that guy on the toilet during the day. Now that I'm an adult, I decided to face my fears and watch the actual movie. After all, now I know that no one's on the verge of cloning dinosaurs, plus, Jeff Goldblum is in it. So, no problem.

Wrong. I watched Jurassic Park more than six months ago and that T-rex is back on a rampage in my head. What's weird is that I wasn't really scared while I was watching it, only occasionally startled at worst. It's just when I go to sleep that I remember that dinosaurs are freaking terrifying and there are crazy people who would totally try to clone them. And Jurassic Park isn't the only Steven Spielberg blockbuster that caused damage. I saw E.T. around the same time as I saw the infamous preview and that didn't go over well either. Towards the end of the movie, a lot of grownups in scary white suits hook E.T. and the little boy up to some terrifying machine that appears to be sucking the life out of them. The message I took away from E.T. is this - if a grownup in a white suit appears anywhere in the vicinity, RUN. This complicated trips to the pediatrician.

But E.T. isn't the only movie with traumatizing life-sucking machines. The Dark Crystal, which now that I'm an adult I consider an unheralded technical and artistic masterpiece, is a dark allegory about the nature of good and evil, but since Jim Henson made it, it got marketed towards kids. In this movie, the Skeksis (which now that I think about it are reminiscent of velociraptors) suck out the essence of the other races of creatures and drink it - cue the nightmares. They also control a race of beings somewhere between a mutant beetle and a tank. In fact, fantasy movies are perhaps some of the biggest culprits in the phobia-inducing department. While most traumatized people remember The NeverEnding Story for the horrific scene in which Atreyu's horse who is also his best friend gets sucked into a swamp that feeds off of sadness and (spoiler alert) he suffocates on the mud of sadness. Happily I never got that far. Unhappily, I didn't get that far because I was too busy being terrified by the first ten minutes in which a nothingness is engulfing the entire fantasy world like a black hole, if a black hole had red eyes and growled.

Then there's Disney, maker of many great films and mother-abandonment issues. And Old Yeller, which is about as appropriate for children as Saving Private Ryan. It's about a family's beloved dog that gets rabies and it ends exactly like it would in real life - they shoot the dog. I saw the movie when I was four and afterwards I wandered around the house in numb disbelief. I have now reached the fifth stage of grieving, acceptance, but I'll never forgive that frontier family. Only slightly less traumatizing is The Fox and the Hound, a charming animated film about two best friends who grow up to be homicidal hunting dog and vulpine victim. As far as I can tell the message of this movie is: don't kill your friends, but if your friends are different from you drop them immediately so you can get back to killing others of their kind.

But surely if there is one place that is trauma-free, it is Sesame Street. Wrong again. In Follow That Bird, Big Bird gets sent away from Sesame Street by a bird aid society so he can be with his own kind. His friends on Sesame Street start a rescue mission when they realize he wants to come home, but in the meantime, Big Bird has been kidnapped, imprisoned, painted blue, and forced to sing by the Sleaze brothers (literally). As a kid, this made me really nervous, but what really freaked me out was that they paint Big Bird blue. And then he sings this song:

Even though this time it seems 
Like I'm such a long way  
From any rainbows that might keep my dreams from fading  
Oh, no wonder I'm so blue

Then he begs some kids to call for help. If Big Bird were a kid, instead of a giant yellow bird, this movie would be rated R. (If it were animated, it would star the Rescuers.)

Then there are the movies kids aren't really meant to see. Stand By Me, that is, the only non-horror Stephen King movie, did a number on me when I saw the scene where the boys crawl out of a swamp and discover that they are covered in leeches. I don't really have context for this because I can't convince myself to watch it, but there are leeches in the boys' underwear. And if there is one place that leeches should especially never be it's in someone's underwear. But the very worst, the most irrevocable trauma any movie has ever inflicted on me was inflicted by Witness. Wikipedia tells me this movie is about Harrison Ford protecting an Amish kid, but experience tells me that Witness is a horror movie about death-by-silo. And this isn't crazy because people die in silos every year and they are clearly and obviously homicidal inanimate objects.

And yet, I'm still watching movies. But you won't catch me within a mile of a silo.