Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The 13 Best German Films

German cinema and German filmmakers have long been groundbreaking, experimental, visionary, and willing to take on subjects too controversial, brutal, or complex for Hollywood. Germany produced the very first full-length science fiction film and many of the earliest horror films, while Lotte Reiniger became a pioneer in animation techniques and produced a full-length animated film a decade before Walt Disney. From these not so humble beginnings, German cinema gave us many great films. These are the best.

The Last Laugh - Der Letzte Mann (1924)
F. W. Murnau's early masterpiece stars Emil Jannings, one of the greatest actors of his time, as a hotel doorman whose pride and joy is his uniform. When the hotel manager deems him too old to properly represent the hotel, he is demoted to washroom attendant, a terrible humiliation that he attempts to conceal from his daughter and neighbors. Emil Jannings is extraordinary in this absolutely heartbreaking film about aging, humiliation, and loss.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed - Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (1926) 
The oldest surviving animated film, this magical fairy tale, inspired by The 1001 Arabian Nights, uses a silhouette animation technique invented by the filmmaker, Lotte Reiniger. The film is significant both for its astounding technical achievements and for its place in the history of women in film, but it is also a magical work of art, filled with sorcerers, witches, demons, and genies. The film has been restored and now includes the original color tinting.

Metropolis (1927)
Fritz Lang's dystopian masterpiece is a visual tour-de-force and the first feature length science fiction film. While the wealthy industrialists of the future live and rule in skyscrapers and spend their evenings partying, the workers who keep the machines running live in miserable underground communities. A saint-like prophet named Maria foresees the arrival of a mediator, just as a diabolical inventor plans to make a robotic woman in her likeness in order to crush the coming rebellion. From the explosively sexual to the spiritually transcendent, the nailbitingly suspenseful to the angelically mystical, this film is sublime.

Pandora's Box - Die Buechse der Pandora (1929)
G. W. Pabst's gorgeous silent masterpiece stars Louise Brooks in her most iconic role (and the one that launched a thousand bob haircuts). Lulu is transcendently sexual and utterly uninhibited, so mesmerizing that neither men nor women can resist her allure. Whether you interpret the film as an expression of misogynistic fear in the face of female sexuality or a parable warning against the impossibility of bringing female sexuality to heel through patriarchal oppression, Pandora's Box is one of the great essential films of world cinema.

The Blue Angel - Der Blaue Engel (1930)
Directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel is another great film about male sexual obsession and unbridled female sexuality. Jannings plays a respected professor who, in trying to shield his students from the sinful atmosphere of cabarets, becomes hopelessly entangled in his desperate desire for Lola (Dietrich), a cabaret singer. Dietrich introduces what would become her signature song, "Falling in Love Again (Can't Help It)," in what is widely considered the first major German talkie.

M (1931)
Fritz Lang's disturbing thriller stars Peter Lorre, in one of his most powerful performances, as Hans Beckert, a compulsive murderer and pedophile whose crimes are so heinous that the criminal underworld decides to put him on trial before the police can catch up to him. This was Lang's first sound film and his use of Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" as Beckert's leitmotif inspired the now standard practice of musical leitmotifs for characters in film. A brilliant, engrossing film that hasn't lost one scintilla of relevance or suspense.

Vampyr (1932)
Carl Theodor Dreyer's first sound film is by far the greatest vampire movie ever made. The film was funded by Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg who also starred under the name Julian West. How on earth does one describe this utterly unearthly film? Dreyer succeeds in terrifying by normalizing the horrors of the vampiric denizens of the village, keeping both the sound and the cinematography soft, so that the supernatural is suffocating, irrevocable, and inescapable. A horror masterpiece.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God - Aguirre der Zorn Gottes (1972)
Professional madman Klaus Kinski stars in Werner Herzog's notorious film about an obsessive Spanish conquistador certain that he is destined to find and conquer the legendary El Dorado. Filmed over five brutal weeks in the Peruvian rainforest, this movie is visceral in the extreme - its sweaty, bloody, mosquito-ridden reality is claustrophobic - and yet it also ascends to heights of delirious vision that straddle the boundary between nightmare and consciousness.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul - Angst Essen Seele Auf (1974)
This groundbreaking film by Rainer Maria Fassbinder was originally meant to be a time-filler between two other films, but it ended up being a small cinematic masterpiece. Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) is a Moroccan guest worker, alienated and lonely in his transient life, who meets Emmi (Brigitte Mira), an older widow. Their romance is looked down upon as "disgusting" because of their racial and age differences; Emmi's children smash her television and call her a "whore." There are no unqualified hopes or loves in this film, but it is nevertheless a powerful tribute to the diversiform workings of the human heart.

Europa Europa - Hitlerjunge Salomon (1990)
Agnieszka Holland's great war film is based on the true survival story of Salomon Perel, a young Jewish boy who escaped the Holocaust by posing as an Aryan, even (accidentally) becoming a Nazi war hero and studying at the Hitler Youth Academy. Holland never submits to the temptation of easy caricature. Good and evil in this film are more often the results of happenstance than moral strength or weakness - one of the many reasons that this film is outstanding.

Run Lola Run - Lola Rennt (1998)
This is a film that combines the frenetic pacing and art-pop style of MTV with a video game-like replay scenario that explores the philosophical friction between free will and determinism. Lola (Franke Potente) receives a desperate phone call from her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtrau), a small-time crook - if he can't get his hands on 100,000 marks in 20 minutes, he's dead meat, literally. The techno soundtrack pulsates through this film that plays like an eighty minute adrenaline rush. 

Good Bye Lenin! (2003)
Alex (Daniel Bruehl) and his rabidly socialist mother Christiane (Katrin Sass) are living in East Berlin right before the fall of the Berlin Wall. After Christiane has a heart attack, Alex is advised that a shock could kill her - and what could be more shocking than the collapse of socialist East Germany and the establishment of democracy? So Alex recreates a socialist reality for his mother in their apartment, even filming fake news programs and hiring children to sing socialist songs on her birthday. The film, directed by Wolfgang Becker, is accompanied by a beautiful score by Yann Tiersen.

The Lives of Others - Das Leben der Anderen (2006)
One of the finest films of the past decade, The Lives of Others is about Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler (an incredibly brilliant Ulrich Muehe) who is ordered to spy on the only non-subversive writer in East Germany, playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). As Gerd eavesdrops on Georg and his glamorous lover Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), he becomes increasingly involved in their lives and begins to question blind obedience to the state. From the incredibly accurate depiction of East German reality to the fabulous screenplay by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and the brilliant performances, this film is unquestionably one of the most essential films of German cinema.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The "Problem of Susan" Is a Gross Misreading of C. S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia"

Aside from extended rants from semi-adults stunned to discover that the Chronicles of Narnia can be read as a Christian allegory - as can Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien himself claimed that the work was fundamentally and consciously Catholic), and most hero narratives of the post-Christian era - and bent on complaining that they have been brainwashed (though apparently not effectively), the major complaint against C. S. Lewis's fantasy series is referred to as the "problem of Susan." Neil Gaiman has written a short story with that title about Susan's post-Narnian life, Philip Pullman has ranted extensively about it, and even the illustrious and usually on-the-ball J. K. Rowling has agreed with the "problem of Susan" theory.

The "problem of Susan" is an argument that attempts to parse out why Susan is the only one of the children who have visited Narnia who does not go to the Narnian heaven at the end of the apocalyptic final novel, The Last Battle. The argument states that Susan is excluded because she has discovered or is exploring her sexuality, based on these sentences - "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She was always a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up."

First of all, why are we assuming that nylons and lipstick express sexuality? Being grown-up may translate today to being sexual, but we also live in an age in which the coming-of-age story has come to be understood as, ipso facto, a sexual coming-of-age story. This was not always the case. And why emphasize the nylons and lipstick, and ignore the invitations? It is the inclusion of invitations that should invite a different interpretation. Alan Jacobs in his marvelous biography of Lewis, The Narnian, writes, "it is clearly not sexuality that is Susan's problem but rather an excessive regard for social acceptance: she wants to be 'grown-up' because she is at an age when being grown-up is the greatest possible good and being childish the worst possible crime. Susan has been distracted from Narnia not by sexual desire but by the desire to be within the Inner Ring."

The concept of the Inner Ring was fundamental both to Lewis's writing and to his private philosophies. Lewis felt that much of the evil in the world (or, after his conversion, many of the means by which the Devil promulgates evil) was due to a blinding desire to be part of a superior, enclosed elite. This concept came alive for him during his torturous years at public school where strict hierarchies led to flagrant physical and psychological abuse - what today we would consider hazing. Two of the children who visit Narnia, Edmund and Eustace, are both initially corrupted by striving to be in the Inner Ring. This attempt leads them to bully others and selfishly sacrifice those who love them, allowing themselves to be blinded by greed and spite. For Edmund, it takes a revelation of the White Witch's extreme evil and a near assassination, and for Eustace, a painful and agonizing transformation into a dragon, to recognize that it is more important to care for others, selflessly sacrifice oneself, and open one's eyes to the truth than to penetrate the Inner Ring. The evils of this sort of social conformity and snobbishness are also explored in That Hideous Strength, Lewis's great science fiction novel.

It's also worth saying that Lewis had very tolerant views towards the animal passions. Though he was intensely private about his sexual life, even in his diaries,we do know he loved good eating and drinking and felt that the physical pleasures in life were some of God's blessings. He absolutely did not believe in abstinence; he believed in moderation.

Thus, Susan is excluded from Narnia because she has turned her back on it as a childish thing and embraced a quest to join what we might call today the popular crowd. While Peter, Lucy, Edmund, and the others never let go of their belief in Narnia, Susan loses faith and thus could not perceive the joyousness of the afterlife, even if she were there, like the dwarfs who tragically believe themselves to be trapped in a smelly stable because they no longer believe in Aslan.

It's also worth saying that Susan is not necessarily shut out forever. If she regains her faith before her death, she would be brought back to the fold. Remember that in Lewis's conception of the Narnian afterlife, one may cross over to the English afterlife - the Pevensies are told that they can visit with their parents. Susan may rejoin her family and her Narnian friends. But she will have to cease trying to enter the Inner Ring.

Before we go on, I'm not arguing that Lewis wasn't a sexist - he absolutely was, at least while he was writing the Chronicles. I would argue that his views on women changed drastically as a result of his love for and tragically short marriage to Joy Gresham, but that's another subject. There are many examples of sexism in the Chronicles; the one that always bothered me the most is in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when Father Christmas tells Lucy and Susan that they are not to participate in the battle against the White Witch because "battles are ugly when women fight." But sexism is not the same as erotophobia or sexual teetotalism.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

8 of the Most Romantic Works of Classic Literature

It's one month until Valentine's Day! And while, of all the holidays we currently celebrate, Valentine's Day is the one for which candy companies can be held most responsible, it's still a rather pleasant holiday, barring the gooier aspects, and an excellent excuse to eat chocolate. It's also a perfect excuse to read some great romantic literature.

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise 
The torrid love affair of Abelard and Heloise, which culminated in a love child and the forced castration of Abelard, is recorded in their letters, written after they had become a monk and an abbess, as well as two of the most distinguished and esteemed scholars of their time. Inextricably bound up in medieval theology, their reflections on love, lust, and chastity are erudite, ardent, and impassioned. 

Persuasion - Jane Austen
The most unabashedly romantic of Austen's novels is Persuasion, the last novel she would complete before her death. Anne Elliot, the daughter of a baronet, has been persuaded to reject the man she loves, a young naval officer, because he is not of the same social rank. Eight years later, he returns, now a wealthy captain, but still embittered by Anne's rejection. Austen brilliantly delivers both a romantic story and a biting social critique, averring that women are as constant and rational as men. 

Sonnets from the Portuguese - Elizabeth Barrett Browning 
Originally written as a private document of Barrett Browning's growing affection for her lover and eventual husband, Robert Browning, this sonnet cycle ranks with those of Shakespeare and Petrarch. Including the much beloved, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways, " these 44 love sonnets are justly renowned for the sheer beauty of their language, but are also cherished as some of the most genuine and moving of all love poems. 

Camille - Alexandre Dumas, fils
Marguerite Gautier is a beautiful and consumptive Parisian courtesan who entrances the naive Armand Duval, but their romance is abruptly interrupted when Armand's father appears, appealing to Marguerite's better nature, to sever what he views as a financially and socially damaging relationship. This heartbreaking tragedy is the basis for Giuseppe Verdi's great opera, La traviata, as well as one of Greta Garbo's best films.

A Room with a View - E.M. Forster
Like Persuasion, this novel is both a romance and a social critique, and by far, Forster's most optimistic literary outing. Lucy Honeychurch is a prim young woman on holiday in Florence with her tight-laced chaperone, Miss Bartlett, who meets George Emerson, an idealistic young man, when his father offers to give them their room with a view. For Forster, Italy is almost a fairy kingdom, where passionate impulse reigns and sexual longing can be fulfilled, in contrast to the stuffy repression of Edwardian England.

Songs of Love and Grief - Heinrich Heine, trans. Walter W. Arndt
This bilingual anthology of Heine's wonderful and at times ironic or whimsical love poems, many of which have been set to music by great composers like Schubert and Mendelssohn, is a treasure, particularly for those who know enough German to use the translation as a guide rather than a straightforward rendition of Heine's work. Arndt chooses the obscenely difficult challenge of retaining the original metrical and rhythmical form of the poetry, succeeding far more often than he fails.

The Glimpses of the Moon - Edith Wharton
Nick Lansing and Susy Branch love each other and have very little money, but decide to marry each other, enjoy one year of marital bliss, and then divorce if one or both finds someone else who can provide greater social advantages. As sensual as The Age of Innocence, but with a wry sense of humor replacing the more serious social critique of the earlier novel, The Glimpses of the Moon is an erotic comedy of social manners set in 1920s Venice and one of Wharton's most entertaining works.

Flush - Virginia Woolf 
One more proof that Virginia Woolf was (and is) a goddess among us, this brilliant and utterly unsentimental novel narrates Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning's famous romance from the perspective of Barrett's spaniel, Flush. Unjustly considered a lesser work, in part because it's written from an animal perspective, Flush is an extraordinary stream-of-consciousness narrative that explores the bonds and separations between beings, whether human or canine, and the at times painful power of affection.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The 12 Best Biopics About Women

Nearly every biopic is about a man. 12 Years a Slave, Mandela, Captain Philips, The Butler, and The Fifth Estate all focus on men. And when a woman is the focus, she is usually paired with an equally prominent (or equally emphasized) man, as in Saving Mr. Banks. Those are just the most prominent biopics of 2013. The vast majority of best-of lists are dominated by movies about men - Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, Amadeus, The Pianist, The King's Speech - all wonderful movies, but why should the most critically acclaimed biopics always be about men?Ah yes, because the people that receive the most critical acclaim from the male dominated world are men. Here is a ranked list of the best biopics about women:

12. The Actress/Yuen Ling Yuk/Centre Stage (1992)
Ruan Lingyu, China's first great film star, is the subject of Stanley Kwan's genre-bending film. Maggie Cheung won numerous festival awards for her performance as the "Chinese Garbo," following her short and tragic life from her breakout film roles until her suicide at age 24. Although the film is not terribly accessible for Westerners, who are unlikely to have seen any of Ruan Lingyu's films, Kwan's decision to incorporate footage from her films, as well as sequences of reflection on what her stardom meant for the Chinese cinema with Maggie Cheung and Kwan as themselves, allows The Actress to transcend cultural limitations.

11. The Queen (2006)
Helen Mirren stars as Queen Elizabeth II, caught in the furor following Princess Diana's death and suddenly having to question her duty as a queen when the public demands official royal recognition of what she viewed as a strictly private matter. Mirren deservedly won a Best Actress Oscar and the rest of the cast, including Michael Sheen and James Cromwell, is uniformly excellent. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Morgan present a complicated and nuanced depiction of the roles and relationships of the members of the royal family and the British government with both respect and scrutiny.

10. Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken (1991)
Gabrielle Anwar stars as Sonora Webster, a young girl who runs away from home during the Great Depression, determined to become a star diving horses and make it big in Atlantic City, in this film based on the memoir, A Girl and Five Brave Horses. By far, one of Disney's best live-action efforts of the past few decades, this film has a delightfully vintage feel, using period songs and almost sepia toned cinematography to excellent effect. The DVD release is unfortunately presented in a pan and scanned format, though the original film was widescreen.

9. The Virgin Queen (2005)
Queen Elizabeth I has been a favorite biopic subject for over a hundred years. She's been played by Sarah Bernhardt, Jean Simmons, Bette Davis, Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, and Judi Dench, but none of these great actresses gave a performance as good as Anne-Marie Duff's in this BBC miniseries. Unlike most film depictions, this one is largely accurate, rarely deviating from the historical record. The costumes, sets, and locations are magnificent, the screenplay by Paula Milne is stellar, and the score by Martin Phipps, featuring the Mediaeval Baebes and the London Bulgarian Choir, and prominently setting a poem by the queen herself, is spectacular. 

8. The Miracle Worker (1962)
Both Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke won Academy Awards for their performances as Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller, in this film based on William Gibson's theatrical adaptation of Keller's biography, The Story of My Life. When Anne Sullivan arrives at the Keller home as a teacher for Helen, blind and deaf since infancy and unable to either understand others or make herself understood, she determines to both communicate with Helen and teach her to communicate back. Few films can boast such extraordinary, sincere, heartfelt performances.

7. Bright Star (2009)
Jane Campion's film at first glance appears to be about John Keats (a perfectly cast Ben Wishaw), but it is his lover, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) who really comes first. Fanny pursues Keats after she reads his unappreciated "Endymion," asking him to give her lessons in poetry and hoping for a great deal more. Their love affair unfolds with delicacy and a realism that, rather than making the story seem hopelessly modern, gives it an immediacy that few period films even try to achieve. It's worth noting that this is the only film on this list directed by a woman - and not because I didn't look for more.

6. Temple Grandin (2010) 
Temple Grandin is an extraordinary human being, but it was far from a given that a film about her life would reflect the down-to-earth values and compassion that she herself demonstrates as an author. This HBO film is an empathetic portrait of Grandin, who was diagnosed with severe autism at a time when autistic children were routinely institutionalized and yet went on to become a doctor of animal science, revolutionize and humanize conditions for livestock, and develop the "hug box," an innovative device that helps calm autistic children. Claire Danes's performance is a masterclass in acting.

5. The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) 
The brilliant and beautiful Norma Shearer plays the young poetess, Elizabeth Barrett, who, although an invalid, writes and publishes her poems, which sweep Robert Browning (Fredric March) off his feet. Their romance is impeded by Elizabeth's violently possessive father, played by Charles Laughton with a sinister gleam in his eye. Tragically, this fabulous film has never been released on DVD, though I still hold out hope that the Warner Archive Collection will release it. 

(This film will be airing on TCM, February 20th at 1 a.m. Vote for this film to be released on DVD!)

4. Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Peter Jackson's breakout hit is a blend of creepy horror, fairy tale fantasy, and coming-of-age story. Pauline and Juliet (Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet in astonishing screen debuts) are best friends whose bond is so intense that their parents determine to separate them, fearing their friendship is in fact a homosexual relationship. The two girls have created a fantasy world so enveloping that they lose themselves in its alternate reality and hatch a plan to prevent their parents from separating them, whatever the cost. An intensely disturbing and powerful film.

3. Out of Africa (1985) 
Sydney Pollack's drama based on the wonderful book by Isak Dinesen stars the always marvelous Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, who gave one of his best performances in this film. Karen Blixen enters into a marriage of convenience with her friend Bror and moves with him to an African farm. Though their marriage swiftly turns sour, Karen reinvents herself, managing her farm, starting a school for the children of her laborers, and starting a romance with adventurer Denys Finch Hatton. The film is worth watching for the gorgeous African landscapes alone, but the wonderful performances, direction, score, and screenplay make this film one of the best biopics ever.

2. The Lion in Winter (1968) 
Katherine Hepburn is as venomous as a viper and as cunning as a fox as Eleanor of Aquitaine opposite Peter O'Toole as Henry II, in a battle of wits over the succession to the throne of England, she favoring their son Richard and he their son John. Based on a play by James Goldman, the film is full to the brim with biting dialogue, complicated intrigues, and some of the finest acting ever captured on screen. Anthony Hopkins makes his film debut as the future Richard the Lionhearted.

1. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
This is the best film of all time, transcending every limitation of the genre. Carl Theodor Dreyer's masterpiece is a deeply spiritual portrait of one of the most enigmatic and fascinating of the saints. Renee Jeanne Falconetti's performance as Joan is unsurpassably the best cinematic performance of all time, perhaps even the best performance in any medium. Perfection.

Some honorable mentions:
Anne Frank: The Whole Story (2001) - A particularly accurate depiction of Anne Frank's life and tragic death, with a great performance by Ben Kingsley.
Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) - A lavish but overlong retelling of the life of Anne Boleyn.
Madame Curie (1943) - A decent if not terribly accurate depiction of the famed scientist's life starring Greer Garson.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The 6 Best Live-Action Movies with Animal Protagonists

Filmmakers learned early on that putting animals in the picture is pretty much always a good idea. Who doesn't love movies about animals? And thus, here is a list of the best live-action movies with animal protagonists. Since I'm excluding animated films, great Disney films like One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo, and The Lion King, as well as films like Animal Farm and Watership Down didn't make the cut. The horror and trauma that is the experience of watching Old Yeller precluded its inclusion.

6. Greyfriars Bobby (1961)
This film, based on a real incident that occurred in 19th century Edinburgh, is about a Skye terrier named Bobby who keeps vigil on his beloved master's grave. Both the graveyard caretaker (Donald Crisp) and a local restaurant owner (Laurence Naismith) compete for the dog's affections, but a dispute over who should pay Bobby's license fee - without which he will be put down - soon involves the entire community. If this sounds morbid, be assured that it is not, but if you're not in a puddle of tears by the end, you're neither human or canine.

5. MouseHunt (1997)
Nathan Lane and Lee Evans star as the Smuntz brothers, unscrupulous schemers who hope to turn their dead father's house, supposedly a lost architectural masterpiece, into a goldmine. There's only one problem - a brilliantly intelligent mouse with no intention of changing his residence. The brothers try everything from a vacuum cleaner to a demented cat to Christopher Walken as the creepiest exterminator of all time in an increasingly crackbrained effort to rid themselves of their unwanted housemate. Inappropriately marketed as a kids' movie, the film is hilarious, though the humor is quite violent and at times raunchy.

4. Babe (1995)
Babe is a sensitive young pig determined to escape Farmer Hoggett's axe and realize his ambition of being a sheepdog, or rather pig. Unlike previous talking-animal films, visual effects were used to make the animals appear to actually talk, a technology that has never since been used befittingly. In fact, this film won the Best Visual Effects Oscar, winning over Apollo 13. The film's particularly Australian brand of dark humor, a wonderfully restrained performance by James Cromwell as Farmer Hoggett, and one of the best final lines ever make Babe a genuine classic.

3. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993)
Both a suspenseful adventure film and a moving tribute to the bonds between animals and their humans, this film is about Shadow, Sassy, and Chance, cherished pets who find themselves inexplicably separated from their beloved humans and decide to brave the wilderness and return home. The score by Bruce Broughton is eloquently expressive, the voice performances from Don Ameche, Sally Field, and Michael J. Fox are excellent, and the animal performances are incredible.

2. The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963)
One of the most unjustly underrated of Disney's live-action films, The Three Lives of Thomasina, based on a novel by Paul Gallico, is told by its feline heroine, who lives in Scotland with her human child, Mary MacDhui (Karen Dotrice), and her father (Patrick McGoohan), the town's stern and unsympathetic veterinarian. The film's politics are very much ahead of their time, staunchly supporting animal rights and portraying those that mistreat animals as morally corrupt. A delicate and magical film.

1. The Adventures of Milo and Otis (1986/1989)
In Masanori Hata's film about the power of friendship, Milo, an orange tabby cat, and Otis, a fawn pug, are best friends growing up together on a farm. Milo, always in trouble, accidentally gets stuck in a box floating down a river, but Otis resolutely pursues, determined to rescue his friend. The cinematography is lovely and the many distinctive Japanese locations are stunning. The American cut has narration by Dudley Moore and a rather silly but pleasant song by Dick Tarrier, "Walk Outside."

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

8 Great Books Set in New York City

New York City is one of those places that seem to require a gendered pronoun. It's a city with such a strong identity that it obsesses and preoccupies artists. Many, many writers have buried their hearts in New York, setting their great novels there. Here are eight great novels set in the city so nice, they named it twice. I've left off many great children's books set in New York, like The Cricket in Times Square, Eloise, and Stuart Little

Auntie Mame - Patrick Dennis
This riotously funny novel is based on the life of the author's wildly eccentric aunt, whose passion for fads is outpaced only by her passion for her orphaned nephew. The book chronicles Mame and Patrick's adventures, in which Patrick learns many useful skills, such as how to mix the perfect martini and how to sneak out of prep school in order to take his aunt's pregnant protege for her evening constitutional. A major bestseller when it was published in 1955, it was soon adapted into a fabulous and very successful film starring Rosalind Russell.

Christ in Concrete - Pietro di Donato
One of the great American classics and the only major work of Italian-American literature, Christ in Concrete, written with the inflections and syntax of Italian-American English, tells the story of a family of Italian immigrants who work in the construction industry. The book's immense compassion for the hardships and prejudices immigrants faced when they arrived in this country seeking work is heartrending.This book should be far better appreciated and more widely read.

Time and Again - Jack Finney
Jack Finney's illustrated time travel novel is pure fun and one of the essential New York-set novels. Simon Morley is drawn into a governmental experiment in self-hypnosis as a means of traveling in time and sets out on a mission to solve the mystery of a partially burned letter from 1882. Finney thoroughly enjoys himself setting his characters in the midst of actual historical occurrences, from the burning of the New York World building to the assembling of the Statue of Liberty.

Washington Square - Henry James
James himself underestimated his brilliant novella, the writing style of which is strikingly different from his other major works, tending towards a simpler prose style than the verbose and convoluted manner he adopted typically. Catherine Sloper is one of James's best female characters - she is not beautiful or brilliant or fascinating, but she is extremely complex and James's nuanced portrayal of her embittering disillusionment is a triumph.

Certain Women - Madeleine L'Engle
One of L'Engle's best adult novels, Certain Women interlaces the stories of the biblical King David and an eminent actor obsessed with playing him before he succumbs to a final illness. It is through his daughter Emma that we experience the story, as she grapples with her difficult relationship with her father. L'Engle also wrote a number of young adult novels set in New York, including Camilla and The Young Unicorns.

BUtterfield 8 - John O'Hara
O'Hara's novel (later turned into a film starring a particularly glamorous Elizabeth Taylor) begins with a one night stand between a "happily" married man and Gloria, a promiscuous young woman who, almost in spite of herself, break's every social rule there is, and explores through a variety of perspectives the tumult of New York immediately after Black Tuesday and in the final throes of Prohibition.

Brooklyn - Colm Toibin
Eilis Lacey immigrates to New York in the 1950s, where she works in a department store and studies bookkeeping. Although she is terribly homesick for Ireland, Eilis slowly finds a place for herself in New York. Toibin's pacing is measured and lyrical and his eye for telling detail is impeccable. Though the novel never deviates from a quietly intimate tone, it still manages to address many social issues, from segregation and the immigrant experience to changing sexual norms and the emergence of new forms of popular culture, like television. 

The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton
This great novel won Wharton the Pulitzer Prize - the first to be awarded to a woman. Newland Archer, a gentleman and lawyer, is happily engaged to May Wellend, a match that all of upper-crust New York deems brilliant, but his faith in his own feelings is tested when he meets the scandalously divorced Countess Olenska, a woman who could care less what the best families think of her. Other great New York-set novels by Wharton are The House of Mirth and Old New York.