Monday, December 24, 2018

Christmas Movie Review: "Home Alone"

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

4 Great Pennsylvanian Writers

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 2, 2018

An Alternate AFI List

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

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