Friday, October 29, 2010

Hergé: Red Rackham’s Treasure

“Red Rackham’s Treasure” is the immediate sequel to “Secret of the Unicorn," and though it cannot compare in literary genius or narrative impact, it is a worthy successor. So many years earlier, a ship belonging to naval legend Sir Francis Haddock was raided and taken by the notorious pirate Red Rackham. During the action, however, the pirate’s ship sunk, so Rackham made the “Unicorn” his new flagship. When Sir Francis escaped and blew up the “Unicorn,” the pirate’s horde of treasure sank with it. Now, many years later, intrepid journalist Tintin and Sir Francis’ descendant Captain Haddock work to recover the treasure and make their fortune.

The book is particularly notable for introducing the greatest of all absent-minded professors in the Tintin series: Professor Cuthbert Calculus. He is brought into the tale as the inventor of a submarine that will allow them to avoid detection by the sharks common to the area. Mostly deaf, and rather careless in his treatment of Haddock’s supply of liquor, he is always one to cause tension on board, especially when he converses with the Spoonerism-prone Thompson twins. Yet in the end, Calculus demonstrates his considerable good nature and child-like innocence by buying Haddock’s ancestral estate for him, using the government check he received for the submarine patent.

“Red Rackham’s Treasure” brings together almost all of the major heroes of the “Adventures of Tintin” for the first time. Tintin discovers the manuscripts pointing to the treasure; Captain Haddock commands the ship that will take them there; Calculus manages to stow aboard for his own reasons; and the twins Thomson and Thompson are brought on board at the last minute, to protect them from the prequel’s villain Max Bird. Bird is never heard of again, so this was pretty clearly an excuse to get the twins aboard, but I can hardly complain since they look so ridiculous in their attempts to act and dress as “old sea dogs.”

The settings are also pretty spectacular here. We quickly move from the piers of a Belgian port city to the Caribbean sea, then to a tropical island and (best of all) to an underwater vista comparable to Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” before returning to the grandeur of Marlinspike Hall. This is one of the most colorful books in the Tintin series, and one of the most delightful for young readers, including myself when I first picked up this book.

The genius of this story consists in its ability to subvert our expectations. There are so many false positives – those elusive moments when we are all but certain they’ve found the treasure – and false alarms contained in this adventure; it’s quite impressive.

Moreover, when the treasure is actually found [spoiler alert… darn, too late], it is almost an afterthought. The journey is the thing, along with all the incidental discoveries along the way. The real ending occurs when Tintin and Captain Haddock put on an exhibit at Marlinspike Hall displaying their various finds during the expedition: a statue of the loud-mouthed Sir Francis Haddock made by natives of the island where he was marooned, the figurehead of the “Unicorn,” and of course the three miniature sailing ships that figured largely in the previous book “Secret of the Unicorn.”

The lesson is twofold: treasure is always closer to home than we think, and the real treasure of historical artifacts isn’t in their monetary value, but in what they can teach of about the past. On that note of nauseatingly cheesy life lessons worthy of a 50’s sitcom, I will end.

To purchase, check out
Red Rackham's Treasure (Adventures of Tintin)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hergé: The Secret of the Unicorn

“The Secret of the Unicorn” is generally considered to be the best comic book in “The Adventures of Tintin,” both by fans and by its creator Hergé. It is not surprising, then, that this is the story Steven Spielberg chose to adapt to screen. Along with its sequel “Red Rackham’s Treasure,” this comic book comprises one of the most enjoyable romps in the entire series.

In narrative terms, this is probably the best and most coherent books in the series. The book opens in a marketplace, where Tintin meets the Thompson twins. The detectives are investigating a series of pick-pockets, but when they stop to buy a number of canes, they discover their own wallets had been stolen. Tintin, meanwhile, stumbles across a sailing-ship model and decides to buy it for Captain Haddock, just before two other antique collectors attempt to purchase it as well. When Tintin presents it to Haddock, he realizes that it’s identical to the sailing ship in the background of a portrait of his ancestor, Sir Francis Haddock.

This reminds Haddock of a sea-chest that belonged to his ancestor gathering dust in the attic, where he finds a cutlass (by which he terrifies his neighbors and landlady) and Sir Francis Haddock’s journal, in which he relates a sea battle with the dread pirate Roberts… er, Red Rackham. The panels alternate between Captain Haddocks’ dramatic storytelling and re-enactment of the events, and Sir Francis Haddocks’ experience of the events themselves. The effect is dazzling. Captain Haddock fights with the cutlass and his finger for a pistol, only for the next panel to show Sir Francis Haddock fighting in the same stance with a cutlass and an actual pistol.  When Sir Francis duels the terrifying Diego the Dreadful, Hergé depicts the pirate’s demise via Captain Haddock’s skewering of a cushion. These pages are a highlight of the comic book, and in my opinion of the series as a whole.

Returning to the modern day, Tintin discovers that his model ship was stolen and his apartment ransacked. He suspects one of the other collectors, but soon realizes the man's innocence when he finds that the collector owns an identical miniature that was also stolen. Tintin had purchased one in a matching set of sailing ship models. He soon discovers that there is a scrap of parchment hidden in the mast of each model, with a message from Sir Francis Haddock to his sons: the location of Red Rackham’s treasure.

The story proceeds with murders, mayhems, and pick-pocketing. Tintin is, predictably enough, kidnapped by the villains, questioned for information he could not possibly possess, makes a daring and clever escape, and ultimately discovers his kidnapper’s insidious plan.

The ending of the comic book is truly delightful. It turns out that, while everyone was busily trying to gather the three parchments, the serial pick-pocketer was stealing their wallets with those parchments. When Tintin and the Thompson detectives finally catch up with the man – Aristides Silk, civil servant and kleptomaniac – they discover his alphabetized collection of wallets, and Tintin finds the remaining scraps of parchment.

Before he leaves to share that discovery with Captain Haddock, Tintin reminds the detectives to look under the letter "T" in Silk's wallet collection. The detectives' realization that the entire section had been filled with wallets belonging to them... I still laugh when I read it.

It turns out that when each scrap of parchment is held together to the light, it reveals a message, along with a latitude and longitude where the pirate’s treasure would be found. But that story waits for the sequel: “Red Rackham’s Treasure.”

This comic book is probably the best in the series, both in literary terms and in narrative heft. The recurring motif of pick-pocketing neatly book-ends the central story, and there is an impressive diversity of settings even though the story occurs almost entirely within a modern city. The back-story of Captain Haddock’s ancestor is brilliantly written and sketched, and it is a true highlight of the entire series. Most of all, the story dovetails perfectly with its sequel: the works are distinct in style and in their setting, but coincide splendidly in narrative tension and dramatic movement.

To purchase, check out
Secret of the Unicorn (Tintin)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Hergé: The Crab with the Golden Claws

Today in Tintin Week we turn to “The Crab with the Golden Claws.”  As in so many stories, Tintin travels to an exotic foreign land and unmasks an international gang of professional bad dudes. This tale is particularly notable for introducing Captain Haddock, who will be a constant companion for Tintin in all subsequent adventures. “The Crab with the Golden Claws” is one of three Tintin books that is being drawn upon for the upcoming film “The Secret of the Unicorn,” directed by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

The story begins in Belgium. Tintin is taking his dog for a walk, and Snowy sticks his head into a garbage bin and gets it stuck in a tin of crab meat. They meet Thomson & Thompson in a bar, and the twins tell them about their recent investigation. Tintin realizes that one of the pieces of evidence the twins had gathered was a scrap of paper taken from the very tin can Snowy had found earlier. This sets them up for a wild ride: the name of a ship, the “Karaboudjan,” is written on the scrap, and when Tintin goes aboard to investigate he is kidnapped and imprisoned in the ship’s cellar by the first mate.

He escapes the cellar, only to meet the captain, an arrogant and alcoholic clod. I later grew fond of Captain Haddock, but in this tale he is maddeningly obtuse and gets in the way of everything. Perhaps this book is one of the reasons alcohol never appealed to me. I’m sure my decision had nothing to do with the white wine I accidentally drank when I was eight, because my grandmother had stored it in an apple juice carton. That wasn’t traumatic at all.

Anyway, Tintin and Haddock escape on the longboat, at least until Haddock burns the oars to keep warm. Then they’re shot at by a seaplane, but thanks to Tintin’s ridiculous ability to swim several hundred yards underwater while fully clothed and wearing  a raincoat, they capture the plane and fly it to Spain. Only they crash-land in the middle of the Sahara. Pity. Haddock, thirsting for a drink, hallucinates that Tintin is a giant bottle of whiskey. He almost suffocates Tintin, but is knocked out, courtesy of Snowy’s ability to wield a camel femur. They wake up in a desert outpost, having been picked up by a sentry patrolling the area, and are soon on their way to “Bagghar, a large Moroccan port.”

While drunkenly carousing the harbor walks, Haddock stumbles across the Karaboudjan, recently repurposes as the “Djebel Amilah.” He is kidnapped shortly thereafter for the commotion he caused. Tintin tries to track him, but fails. However, he discovers that Omar Ben Salaad, one of the wealthiest merchants in Bagghar, is the distributor of the tins of crab meat, and is the suspected head of a gang of drug runners that uses those tins for smuggling opium.

Tintin infiltrates the gang’s headquarters – Hergé clever alludes to the philosopher Diogenes who lived in a barrel, for a hint as to the secret passageway – and rescues Haddock. They escape, they are pursued, the police are called in, and Tintin triumphs. He returns home to Belgium and listens to tales of his exploits on the radio, and discovers that Captain Haddock has also returned, and is lecturing (without the least bit of irony) on “drink, the sailor’s worst enemy.” Unfortunately, he takes ill after he consumes a glass of water when he had thought it would be whiskey.

This is not the best of the Tintin adventures -- indeed, it is somewhat unremarkable. This was partly by design -- this was one of the first of the Tintin comics published after the Nazis invaded Belgium, and Hergé was forced to set aside his more controversial and politically oriented stories for lighter fare. But the locales are splendid, the story is coherent, and the art and the writing are top-notch. Not to mention that there should be some recognition for the first appearance of Tintin's enduring friend and companion-who-isn't-a-dog.

To purchase, check out
Tintin - Crab with Golden Claws

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hergé: Cigars of the Pharaoh

Today in Tintin Week, we're featuring a review of "The Cigars of the Pharaoh," the fourth published comic book in "The Adventures of Tintin" and an immediate prequel to "The Blue Lotus." Though it is not as well known (or as highly regarded) as its sequel, "Cigars" marks the crucial transitional period in Herge's writing, as he transitions from stereotyped location-driven fantasies to highly researched action-adventure escapades.

“Cigars” begins as Tintin is returning from a cruise vacation that had taken him from Shanghai in China to Port-Said in Egypt. He meets the deliciously daft Sophocles Sarcophagus, who shows him a papyrus with the secret location of the lost tomb of Pharoah Kih-Oskh. Dr. Sarcophagus is an early version of the absent-minded professor type that would ultimately lead Hergé to invent Professor Cuthbert Calculus, first introduced in “Red Rackham’s Treasure” and a regular recurring character in later stories.

Tintin is also investigated and arrested by Detectives Thomson and Thompson – this is their first appearance in the “Adventures," besides a brief showing that was ret-conned into “Tintin in the Congo." Their presence here is very different here than in later stories.  Where Hergé would ultimately make them laughably dense – often using them to parody European stereotypes of foreign cultures – in this adventure the twins are at least moderately efficient, and save Tintin’s life on several occasions (though they are of course outmatched whenever they try to arrest him).

Tintin also encounters Mr. Rastapopoulos on the cruise ship, and the set up for this character is brilliant, almost worthy of Hergé’s most mature work. On the ship Rastapopoulos is introduced as a random uncivil clod, much like other one-off characters, but a later random encounter in the desert reveals him to be a wealthy filmmaker who is friendly to Tintin. Their initial tension overcome, the reader is made to feel confident in Rastapopoulos’ character, notwithstanding the frequent (and sometimes glaring) hints that he isn’t trustworthy. Only by the end of “The Blue Lotus” is his true nature revealed: Rastapopoulos is the head of the international ring of opium smugglers and in general a Very Bad Man. He becomes a recurring villain in many of Tintin’s later adventures, such as “The Red Sea Sharks.”

The comic book is set in three primary locations: Egypt, Arabia, and India. Unfortunately, while these locations are depicted in a more realistic manner than Hergé’s earlier works, they seem to occupy a world in which Arabia borders the Indus River. At one point, Tintin flies away from a (distinctly Arab) desert city, only to find himself within the hour flying over a (distinctly Indian) jungle with (lions) tigers (and bears). Oh my. Needless to say, the transitions are a bit iffy.

As for the plot, it is borne on so many escapades and plot devices that description is bland even when reading is a thrill. Suffice it to say that there are Bad Guys, that Tintin meets these Bad Guys and interferes with their Insidious Plans without realizing the trouble he’d gotten himself into, and ultimately brings said Bad Guys to justice with wit, charm, and an ample helping of awesome. What more could you possibly ask for?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Herge: The Blue Lotus

**This week is "Tintin Week"!  I'll be reviewing a few of the immortal comic book adventures of the journalist Tintin and his ever-present canine companion Snowy.  Enjoy!**

When I was young I devoured Herge's classic comic book series "The Adventures of Tintin." Some of them were difficult to find, but I read them all, and some multiple times. However, when I grew up I put childish things behind me, or so I thought. But when I heard that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had put their respective careers on hold to produce a trilogy of live-action films adapting the Tintin adventures, I had the dawning realization that perhaps little 10-year-old me had better taste than I gave him credit for. So I did some research, and ordered the comic books at the library, and discovered the treasure of these books all over again.

Today in "Tintin Week," we turn our attention to "The Blue Lotus," which is simultaneously a sequel, Herge's first mature and genuinely great work, and the most famous entry in "The Adventures of Tintin." Herge published only a few works before "The Blue Lotus" and its prequel "Cigars of the Pharaohs."  But these works -- "The Land of the Soviets," "Tintin in the Congo" and "Tintin in America" -- were more or less self-standing stories that occupied the realm of pure fantasy.  They also conveyed a sometimes disquieting sense of humor. Those three books are frequently (and accurately) accused of conveying racist stereotypes, of depicting cruelty to animals, of treating the world from the insular perspective of a European imperial power.

"The Blue Lotus" changed all of that. It was the first demonstration of Herge's appreciation for real history and events, for communicating the breadth and depth of human culture and human nature through his art and writing. The comic is based on the infamous Manchurian incident in 1931 that led to the Sino-Japanese war and to the 1933 expulsion of Japan from the League of Nations. In brief, the history of these events: Japan wanted to occupy northern China (called "Manchuria"), Japan blew up one of its own railways in Manchuria and blamed it on Chinese radicals, and seized the rest of the territory in 'self-defense.' This incident is complicated by the presence of Europeans in Shanghai's "International Settlement," the ongoing turmoil caused by the British-orchestrated opium trade, and the Boxer Rebellion that resulted from both of the above..

In the midst of all this, Herge places the young journalist Tintin, hot on the trail of a massive international conspiracy of drug smugglers who are using the Japanese imperialist desires to further their criminal enterprise. The first panel places Tintin in India, in the home of the Maharaja of Gaipajama, after his successful prosecution of the same gang in "Cigars of the Pharaohs" (the much-inferior prequel of this same tale). He is brought to Shangai, to the home of the Japanese businessman Mitsuhirato. He orders a rickshaw carriage, and the large half-page panel that follows is really a thing to behold.

The mini-story that follows is immensely meaningful. A British gentleman steps off the curb and is nearly bowled over by Tintin's rickshaw. He begins to strike the rickshaw boy with his cane, but Tintin steps in front, breaks the cane, and blames the businessman for not looking before walking into the street. The businessman angrily retires to a club where his friends are waiting, and starts venting his outrage about being stopped from "teach[ing] the yellow rabble to mind their manners" and how great a debt the "natives" owe to "our superb Western civilization." In the course of this speech, he gesticulates wildly, strikes a waiter who is bringing their drinks, and then beats the "yellow scum" senseless. Modern readers may be amused, but this was a bold stroke for Herge, and perhaps an attempt to redeem his former caricatured depictions of other races.

Machinations arise. Tintin is faced with a number of people who wish him dead; he spends some time in prison; he is nearly beheaded by a madman who had previously saved his life; he is kidnapped aboard a brig and brought to the home of a man who calls himself a friend. This man is Wang Chen-yee, leader of the "Sons of the Dragon, a secret society dedicated to the fight against opium." They discover radio transmissions speaking of "The Blue Lotus," and Tintin goes to investigate. It turns out it is an opium den owned by the same Mitsuhirato, and Tintin is able to witness the Japanese crew that sabotages the Manchurian rail line.

A warrant is put out for his arrest, and Tintin evades it on several occasions -- at one point impersonating a Japanese general. He tries to visit Fang Hai-ying, a doctor who might help combat the 'madness poison' that Mitsuhirato is using to dispatch his enemies, but discovers that Hai-ying has been kidnapped. He also visits Mr. Rastapopoulos, a film director he'd met in "Cigars of the Pharaohs." When he makes another escape from Japanese custody, he walks along a rail line and meets many Chinese civilians displaced by the ongoing war and from the flooding Yahtzee river.

Tintin also rescues a young boy from that flood.  The boy's name is Chang Chong-Chen, and he reappears in several other adventures, notably "Tintin in Tibet." This is another remarkable passage, for Chang wonders why Tintin saved him when "I thought all white devils were wicked," and Tintin responds: "Different people don't know enough about each other." This allows Tintin (and by extension Herge) to explain the common European misconceptions of Chinese culture, errors which Chang finds grotesque and ridiculous and frankly rather laughable.

The final sequences are delightful, with plenty of twists and counter-twists provided (including one crucial twist that occurs right after a page turn, which is probably quite hard to do with a comic book of predetermined dimensions). I won't spoil it, besides to mention that Tintin finds a way to work in the detectives Thomson and Thompson in the ending, and uses them to parody the accepted European stereotype of Oriental culture. It's really quite funny to see them walk down a busy street of Shanghai in cloths fit for a medieval Chinese court, totally self-satisfied with their ability to disguise themselves and totally oblivious to the fact that every Chinese person in frame is following them around and laughing at them.

"The Blue Lotus" is an excellent work, one of the definitive "Tintin" comic books and a delight besides. In terms of historical significance, it ranks with the best of them. I can't say it's my favorite, but it is the seminal work in Herge's career and deserves a good deal of recognition for it.

To purchase, check it out on
The Blue Lotus (Adventures of Tintin)

Friday, October 22, 2010

"The Last Days of Disco" (1998)

**This is the third and final review for Whit Stillman Week. Our tour began in New York, then hit Barcelona by way of Chicago, and now returns to New York by way of Motown. Enjoy the music, and the meaning, of Stillman's third and (by all accounts) final film.**

“The Last Days of Disco” is the final installment in Whit Stillman’s trilogy of films in the lives of terminally talkative young people. As with his earlier two films, “Metropolitan” and “Barcelona,” the world of the film is sadly lacking in role models and authority figures. Unlike the boys of Never Never Land, these characters are very clearly bent on becoming adults, even as they flail about rather piteously for some semblance of solid ground. More importantly, these films are in stark contrast to the more modern fantasy “The Breakfast Club.” This is not a film about self-discovery or self-actualization, but about coming-of-age in a more traditional sense: growing up, leaving childish things behind, grounding oneself in the received wisdom of one’s parents and one’s culture. The characters do not seek to come to terms with they were, but rather with who they ought to become.

Directed by Whit Stillman, starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny
Content warning: some nudity and scenes of sexuality, some language, some drug use
The questions of identity and happiness run deeply throughout the film, and appear even from the first scene. The female leads are established immediately: Alice and Charlotte are junior editor assistants who work at a book publishing company and go to disco clubs at night to meet men. Alice is soft-spoken but virtuous – the sort of girl who can easily get trampled underfoot – while Charlotte is the sort of girl who does the trampling. She later justifies herself to Alice: “I’m not so much of a bitch as I might seem.” We first meet the pair as Charlotte positively brutalizes Alice for a litany of flaws, ending with the revoltingly ironic criticism that her friend is “too critical.” Charlotte goes beyond mere inconsiderateness: she is endlessly self-justifying, and deliciously manipulative. We are also introduced to a slew of male characters: Jimmy, the ad-man perpetually trying to get his clients into the exclusive disco club; his friend, Des, second-in-command at the club who gets in trouble for letting him; Tom Platt, the initially charming environmental lawyer; and Josh, the Assistant District Attorney who yearns for Alice, and yearns for a chance to say “Book this clown” just once in his life.

Stillman's film is is deeply, even reflexively ironic; this trait is expressed not only in the screenplay, but even in the casting. Tom is played by Robert Sean Leonard, the charming actor who plays Neil Perry in “Dead Poet’s Society,” who sets up all the right expectations for us to look at him as Alice does: as a prospective match. Alice herself is played by Chloe Sevigny, very much against type considering the rest of her career. Charlotte is played by Kate Beckinsale, who had only a few years earlier played the eponymous lead in the BBC adaptation of “Emma,” a similarly manipulative but essentially good-natured lady who grows up over the course of that film. Then there are in-jokes, as Stillman marshals characters from previous films across the stage. Ted from “Barcelona” counsels Jimmy about jobs in Europe, and notes wryly that “Barcelona is beautiful, but in human terms it’s pretty cold” (echoing some of that film’s critics). Audrey from “Metropolitan” is seen from afar, rumored to be not only accomplished (“the youngest person ever to make editor”) but tremendously perceptive (Charlotte was interviewed by her, and worriedly comments that “she saw right through me.”) These are circles within circles, ironies embedded within, even if only apparent to a film critic.

Soon into the film, Alice is persuaded to rent a railroad apartment with Charlotte and another friend, Holly, despite the pair's obvious incompatibility. This turns out to have been a horrid idea, as there are only two bedrooms, and both of Alice’s roommates seem to be as horny as rabbits. Alice herself loses her virginity to the lawyer Tom shortly thereafter, consummating a years-long infatuation. She had let Charlotte’s cruel words fester, especially the ridicule that had been heaped on her chaste ideals and “cold” persona, the frigidity of a “kindergarten teacher” in a sexually liberated age. Tom loses his charm after treating her as a one-night stand, dismissing her to the morning “walk of shame,” casually noting that he had cheated on his current girlfriend by sleeping with Alice, and revealing that he’d given her both gonorrhea and herpes to boot. But in Stillman’s world even the most unsavory characters can still demonstrate insight, and Tom has both in spades: he reveals that he had been attracted to her precisely because of her purity, and had deplored the “slinky seductress” act she had used to land them both in bed.

This revelation leads Charlotte to confess a much earlier (and if such a thing be possible, much greater) sin: while they were roommates in college, Charlotte had seduced any boy who expressed an interest in Alice, so Alice would think herself unattractive and begin to regret her purity. This is a pivotal moment, not only for Alice’s character, but for our understanding of Charlotte. It is here that we realize that, despite her pretense of confidence (exulting over the crowded dance floor “We are in complete control”) Charlotte is deeply, almost pathologically insecure, and that she lashed out at Alice precisely because she acted as such a stark reminder of Charlotte’s own inadequacies. From this point forward, the film works at reclaiming romance and sexuality from the controlling grasp of 'sexual liberation' that Charlotte (and later Des) represent.

In the middle of the film, we are treated to a remarkably penetrating discussion between Alice and her competing love interests Josh and Des on the Disney film “Lady and the Tramp.” Alice notes that she had watched it with her niece and found it depressing. Charlotte is incredulous (“A children’s film about loveable dogs is depressing?”) but Josh agrees. He notes that Lady is an essentially vapid princess-figure, while the Tramp is a self-confessed chicken thief, a criminal. Josh does quite a intriguing bit of analysis: “The film programs young girls to be attracted to the bad element, so that fifteen years later, when that kind of boy does show up, their hormones will be racing and no one will understand why.” He continues, “The only sympathetic character is the Scotty dog, who genuinely cares about Lady” but is dismissed as obsolete.

Josh takes a breath, and Des pipes in: “But isn’t it clear that the moral of the story is that Tramp changed, that he gave up his chicken-thieving ways and becomes a part of this rather idyllic family with Lady in the end?” The conversation rages, but it’s clear from their vehemence that both men have more than puppies on their mind. Josh is making the case that he’s the best fit for Alice since he is already has a noble personality: “We can change our contexts but we can’t change ourselves.” Des is (rather desperately) working another angle: he admits he is a ‘bad boy’ right now, but implies that by Alice’s influence he might learn to become good.

By the penultimate scene, it’s clear who was right. Josh gets the girl, and Des flees the country when his boss is arrested. In the taxi to their airport, he states his intention to “turn over a new leaf in Spain” then asks aloud: “You know that line from Shakespeare, ‘To thine own self be true’? It’s premised on the idea that ‘thine own self’ is something good, being true to which is commendable. But what if ‘thine own self’ is not so good, what if it’s pretty bad? Wouldn’t be better not to be true to thine own self in that case?” He admits he’s “running like a rat” because that is who he is, but recognizes that it would be far better if he were not true to his nature. Contra the loveable misfits of “The Breakfast Club,” it is neither finding nor accepting who you are, but improving who you are through virtue, that leads to happiness. Whether in conveying the depths of human emotion and experience, reveling the subtleties of irony and language, or presenting insight into the very nature of things, "The Last Days of Disco" remains a truly magnificent film that I highly recommend.

One final note: "The Last Days of Disco" is not a film about plot or big events. The narrative is framed by events, not defined by them. Josh may be the A.D.A. responsible for investigating the disco club for money laundering and drugs, but the story remains on how that affects his friendship with Des and his pursuit of Alice's heart. Besides a brief moment where Josh finally gets to say "Book this clown!" in arresting the club's owner, the drug bust itself is largely relegated to the background. Nor is this a film about big characters or personalities. The final words of the film are giving to Des and Charlotte, talking about how their “big personalities” overshadow the more normal-sized personalities of Alice or Josh, or the “itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini-sized personality” of Jimmy. This may be true – they were the most interesting characters depicted, and Stillman couldn't have sustained an entire film populated solely with people like Alice -- but it is not to their credit. Like Jane Austen in “Mansfield Park,” Whit Stillman contrasts a soft-spoken but virtuous heroine with a more effervescent but also amoral competitor, and there is no contest. Austen’s novel serves as an antidote to her other novels, which tend to present sparkling wit and vivacity as the best virtues in a person. The same applies here, as "The Last Days of Disco" is an antidote to the entire genre of romantic comedy. Love is not about a couple's ability to dominate the silver screen, but in their degree of virtue, which makes for far less compelling drama. Even so, is there any question that Alice will be happier than Charlotte, when all is said and done?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Barcelona" (1994)

**It's "Whit Stillman Week" at the Worthy of Note blog.  Enjoy this review of “Barcelona” which is rarer (but paradoxically considered more popular) than the other two films.**

“Barcelona” is the second of Whit Stillman’s three ‘Doomed Bourgeois in Love’ art-house films, and it is a very different sort of creature than “Metropolitan” or “The Last Days of Disco.” It is less sedentary than the former, less exuberant than the latter. Its themes are far removed from either of its fellows as well: the primary subject is beauty and love, as opposed to truth or virtue, though the film also touches peripheral questions of tradition, initiative and prudence.

Directed by Whit Stillman, starring Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman.
Content warning: some scenes with sexual content, mild language, and drug use.
The film begins with a montage of scenes that introduce us to the setting – Barcelona, the last days of the Cold War – and to the primary themes of the film. A suave European admires his lady in the mirror, complimenting her figure: “perfecto.” Trade fair girls, dressed in red, walk primly down the streets of Barcelona, admiring friends and glaring at strangers. A bomb blasts away the windows of an American library. The pursuit of beauty, the question of friendship and love, and the phenomenon of anti-Americanism – these are the key and recurring motifs.

We meet Ted, an introspective and soft-spoken salesman with the Illinois High-Speed Motorway Racing Company, whose inner monologue serves as our narrator. The other main character is his cousin Fred, a very outspoken American officer who is in Barcelona as the advance man for the Sixth Fleet. Fred is oblivious to others’ feelings, but remarkably sensitive to his own: he is both self-conscious and easily offended. Where Ted has trouble acting on thoughts and feelings, Fred has trouble not doing so. Fred is almost invariably impulsive. He takes other people’s stuff almost without a thought: “borrowing” the consul’s high-quality wine, and leaving IOUs for money taken from Ted’s safe at home. This gets him into significant trouble later on.

At the start of the film, Ted is recovering from a deep funk, ostensibly from a bad breakup with the sight-unseen Betty, but more accurately because he is essentially rootless. Tradition is key to understanding this film, as in “Metropolitan.” The early discussion about the Sexual Revolution and the promiscuity of Spanish girls touches this theme early on: “The Sexual Revolution really affected these girls. It turned their world upside down.” Fred offers the (all too common) counter-argument: “Don’t you think it’s possible that the world was upside down before, and now is right side up?” Ted pauses, and responds simply: “No, I don’t think that.”

Ted has tried to craft his own tradition, drawing from his sales background, from the literature of self-improvement (Franklin, Emerson, Carnegie, and Bettger) and from religious sources. In one scene of muted hilarity, Fred catches him dancing alone in his apartment to swing music while reading Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. “What are you, an adherent of some weird Glenn Miller based religious ceremony?” Ted responds: “No, Presbyterian.” “Presbyterian?” “Well, Protestant, then.” Fred’s girlfriend asks: “Protestant churches are like these?” Fred replies: “Pretty much.” Putting aside the veiled critique of Protestantism, the dialogue confirms that Ted is trying to identify with a tradition, even while remaining ignorant of what that tradition actually is.

The central statement of this theme comes immediately after this scene. Ted is railing against his cousin for spreading rumors among the trade fair girls of his sexual fetishism. Fred replies: “You are far weirder than someone into S&M. At least they have a tradition! You have no tradition. We have movies and books describing what S&M is about; I have nothing telling me what you are!” Ted is stung, but must recognize the truth behind the words. In an world “turned upside down” by sexual liberation and socialist influences, it is ironically those former bastions of tradition that are the least recognizable as such. In a society without faith, religion is as great an innovation as atheism would have been in the staunchly Catholic Middle Ages.

Moving on from the question of tradition, let us now treat the issue of love. After his break-up with Betty, Ted realizes that his infatuation with her beauty had ruined their potential friendship. In one of the more delightful lines of the film, he tells Fred: “I’m beginning to reconsider my attitude toward female beauty. I think it’s very bad.” Fred mocks him for this, and for his resolution to “only date plain or homely girls,” but that doesn’t stop Fred from using it to his own advantage later. When they stumble across girls en route to a party, Fred maneuvers to ride with the one who looks like she stepped out of a fairy tale. Ted is left with the two girls who look like hags or witches from said fairy tale. Yet he hits it off with one of them – Aurora – and she invites him to a concert.

The concert is a disappointment: Ted thought it would feature Lionel Hampton (and thus, jazz) but he had only misheard her say “Vinyl” Hampton (a cacophonous atonal mess). Moreover, the lady never even showed, but Ted manages to enjoy the evening with her replacement, Montserrat (who is, ironically, gorgeous). And then he falls in love with her.

There is a five-second snippet of film that really struck me. Ted narrates: “Everything was completely different now.” On screen, however, we only see Ted walking alone down the same semi-deserted street we had seen earlier in the film. Nothing had changed, but everything was different all the same. Profundity ensued.

The next scene reveals that perhaps Ted had merely fallen in love with the idea of Montserrat, the fantasy of looking into her eyes and seeing her soul. Certainly he is disconcerted the next morning when he learns that she tells him about her old flame Ramon, who had seduced her when she was 16… and then reveals that they never broke up, that she’s living with him though they consider it an ‘open relationship.’ At this discovery, Ted’s flabber is properly ghasted.

The two cousins soon meet Ramon at a party. He is a journalist, who holds that “all the old gods are dead… but in beauty” (specifically “of the female face and form”) “the memory of divinity remains.” We realize that it was he at the beginning of the film, examining a woman in a mirror and exclaiming “perfecto.” Yet that image itself contains the germ of criticism, that his ideal beauty is strangely flat: he will not admire a woman unless it is to a reflection, even when the woman is in front of him. He cannot withstand the three-dimensional complexity of a real female, and must reduce her to two dimensions before he recognizes her beauty.

Yet in addition to this strange naïveté, Ramon remains a smug playboy, who invents stories to fuel the anti-American fire. He speaks with hilarious ignorance of the “AFL-CIA,” and how the U.S. came to Europe to crush the progressive labor movement under the Marshall plan. He claimed that the recent USO bombing (depicted shortly before) had been a CIA pretext for the Sixth Fleet’s planned invasion of Barcelona, as the bombing of the “Maine” had heralded the Spanish-American War.

Ted is angered by Ramon, and tries to persuade Montserrat to leave him and move in with Ted. However, after a disastrous picnic in which Ted tries to explain U.S. foreign policy by analogy to ants and is spectacularly misunderstood, Montserrat leaves with Ramon and spends the night with him. It turns out that Fred had planted the seeds of their breakup by implying that Ted was looking to marry – which, for a sexually liberated girl in Spain, was just plain weird. “I think it is fascist for a man to immediately talk about marrying a woman he likes." Fred responses with some bemusement: “I don't think Ted is a fascist of the marrying type.”

Fred had also planted the seeds of his own undoing by lying to his girlfriend about working for the CIA, which she had passed on to Ramon and Ramon had published in his paper. At the same time, Ted discovers that his safe had been emptied, and he blames Fred (who he knew had taken money from it earlier). Fred is booted unceremoniously from the house, and goes to his girlfriend Marta’s house to find other accommodations. It turns out that she’s the cheating kleptomaniac herself – Fred finds her sleeping with another man, with envelopes of money stolen from Ted. Fred leaves her house distraught, repeating the self-improvement mantras he had earlier mocked, only to be shot by a motorcyclist on the way home.

Fred is taken to the hospital and remains in a coma for most of the rest of the film. Ted had heard that the sound of voices might speed recovery, and so maintains a constant vigil in Fred’s room, reading books aloud to him. At first, only Aurora shows up, with her friend Greta, to help care for Fred. When Marta finally does show up, it is to demand the money Fred had on him, which he had taken from her apartment… and so Ted learns that Marta had stolen the money, and Fred had been on his way to return it.

Over the course of the next few days and weeks, Ted and Greta grow quite close. At one point, he asks for her to leave so he could pray for Fred; she mishears him, however, and gets on her knees beside him to join him in prayer. The two bond over books, art, faith, and a shared loathing of Ramon. But the moment is lost when Montserrat arrives and makes her excuses.

Fred does recover: he wakes up to hear Ted praying for him, and exclaims “Give me a break!” The rest of the film fairly flies by: Ted anxiously awaits the arrival of the firm’s Chicago-based marketing manager, thinking he’ll be fired, only to learn that the CEO is dying and that Ted will be groomed to replace him. In the course of narrating his now-frequent trips to Chicago, Ted mentions his impending marriage, though the lady isn’t mentioned. The film settles back in Barcelona, on the wedding day. Fred reveals to Ted that he’s fallen in love with a girl, but is following Ted’s advice and taking is “really cool.” At that moment, Ramon appears and offers a faux-apology for the article that had gotten Fred shot, but does offer to make it up to Fred. Fred takes him on the offer, though we don’t see how.

The final scene is set in Chicago, where Ted, Fred and Dick (the marketing manager) are grilling hamburgers for the Spanish girls, who soon discover that American hamburgers are much better than the European kind. Ted gets in the final word on anti-Americanism: “See, we’re not such idiots.” However, our attention is mostly focused on the outcome of the love-and-beauty plot, which more closely resembles the end of a Shakespeare romantic comedy. Ted is now married to Greta! Fred is dating Montserrat – she was the girl he’d fallen for, and Fred must have asked Ramon to give her up so he could date her. Even Dick gets in the game, and is now dating Aurora!

Although… Dick is somewhat confused about something Aurora said, about leather underwear and weekends of fun. We realize that Ted had pranked Dick with the same story Fred had used much earlier on him. This is a bit of a cathartic moment, as we realize that Ted is finally a bit more confident and comfortable in his own shoes, while Fred has become a bit more reflective. Both cousins had learned from each other, and realized the virtues that the other’s personality had reflected. In Stillman’s world, the greatest victory is to learn those virtues that come least naturally to you, and by that calculation the cousins’ victories are great indeed.

“Barcelona” is a quick-paced film in which very little happens, at least by the standards of more conventional films. It is a profound contemplation of love and beauty… that is by the same token quite muted in its emotional impact. It is a mess of contradictions, yet cohesive despite them, or perhaps even because of them. Stillman is a master at making you think, and by that measure this is a brilliant film indeed.

Favorite quotes (besides the ones written above):
-    “Self-affirmation is great in theory, but whenever I try to put it in practice I get really depressed."
-    “The United States is like the ant farm of the world…. But no one in Europe can observe the ants directly.  They must rely on journalists and reporters to describe the ants. The problem is that those people all seem to hate ants.”
-    “Literary critics are always talking about the subtext, which seems to be the hidden meaning of the book. But no one talks about the meaning that isn’t hidden, the meaning that’s right on the surface… what do you call that?” “The text?” “Right, nobody talks about that."

Monday, October 18, 2010

"Metropolitan (1990)

**It's "Whit Stillman Week" at the Worthy of Note blog.  This week, I'll be reviewing three films by one of my favorite directors, Whit Stillman.  I hope you appreciate the reviews, and perhaps even the films.**

Whit Stillman is a rather obscure director, who produced a trifecta of films in the early 1990's that received critical acclaim and accolades, and shortly thereafter disappeared from public review. Yet those three films convey some of the most profound ideas ever treated on the silver screen. Stillman presents a world that is simultaneously elevated and oddly realistic. He treats humans as they actually are -- with small moments of epiphany, catharsis and barely discernible movements of the soul -- and humans as we wish they were -- with rich interplay of ideas and complete sentences. It is a challenge to even approach these films, let alone to appreciate them fully, but comprehension is immensely rewarding when it comes.

"Metropolitan," Stillman's Oscar-nominated first film (1990, Best Original Screenplay), presents the rather insular world of New York youth in the midst of the debutante ball season. They are the self-identified urban haute bourgeoisie, preppies for short, and the film is driven by their conversation. The movie begins as the members of the "Sally Fowler Rat Pack" leave a ball to head to the after-party, and stumble across the rather lonesome Tom. They insist he join them, and so they all head to Sally's apartment for an evening of upper class diversions and pretensions.

Each personality on display is a truly delicious mix of sincerity and facetiousness, insight and utter ignorance. Tom, the newcomer, serves as our eyes in this strange world, and we find him to be just as lost in the confusion as we are. On the other hand, Audrey, the shy and soft-spoken fixture of the group, serves as our emotional anchor to this world. Tom and Audrey seem to be almost polar opposites, but in their conversation and mutual respect we find the themes of this film.

The centerpiece of "Metropolitan" involves the concept of tradition. These are children on the verge of adulthood, but the adults themselves are almost entirely absent. Of the three adults who actually appear, two are relegated to wardrobe (Audrey's mother hems a dress, Tom's mother prompts him to return his tuxedo) while the third is a stranger who joins the group's conversation but is quickly shunted off to the side. Theirs is a world without authority, without role models, without tradition.

That is not to say that adults don't loom large in their conversation, even in absentia. Audrey worries that her father “believes himself to be a failure; but I don’t think he is!" Tom's parents had been divorced for several years, and though he initially considers himself "very close" to his father, he discovers his childhood toys dumped unceremoniously outside his father's old apartment and discovers that his father had moved across the country without telling him. It is a heartbreaking image -- a son no longer wanted by his father -- and made all the potent by our previous realization that Tom is truly lost without an anchor.

Tom can boast an active mind, but he has little understanding or appreciation of the past. For instance, he doesn't read actual literature, but prefers literary criticism (under Audrey's tutelage, he discovers the value of a good book by reading Jane Austen). Audrey, on the other hand, appreciates convention, even though she doesn't fully understand it.One of the girls proposes a game such that the loser must answer truthfully any question put to them. Audrey objects, saying that people don't go around revealing secrets for a reason, and that the game could be dangerous. Others respond that they can't think of why not, but Audrey replies: "You don't have to! Other people have, and that's why it became a convention." The game proceeds over her objections, and secrets are revealed, including one particularly hurtful to Audrey. Her own wounds vindicate her argument: it is wise to follow tradition, even when and especially when you can't think of the reasons for it.

By first impressions, Nick comes across as the antithesis of Audrey: a smug bastard who gives himself airs and lashes others with a biting wit. Over the course of the film, however, he grows closer to Tom and we see more and more of his true character. Nick is as quick to listen as he is to talk: he insults everyone, but is able to empathize to a unique degree. At one point, he persuades Tom to remain in the group by pointing out Audrey’s emotional vulnerability, and noting that she might be hurt by Tom’s departure. In a conversation about, of all things, detachable shirt collars, Nick comments that so many things are abandoned with time that ought not be. Tom replies, "You're obviously talking about a lot more than detachable collars."

Even the ending reinforces Nick's centrality to Tom's transformation. Nick is caught in a lie that damaged another preppie's reputation (though his excuse that it was "a half truth. A compilation. Like New York Magazine does!" actually appears accurate). Nick is excluded from the group after that point, and disappears to visit his (divorced) father and (evil) stepmother upstate. At the train station, he bids Tom farewell, but reveals that Tom is the last of the old guard, the one person who uniquely relates to the values Nick holds dear. That is the emotional turning point for Tom, and inspires him to fight for Audrey's honor when called upon in the next scene.

It turns out that Audrey didn't need defending, but had undergone a transformation of her own. Under the influence of Tom, she had learned to take initiative and act with prudential virtue: she flexed her allegiance to convention, but remained constant to virtue in practice. She had gone into the lair of an amorous preppie, to serve as a chaperone for her friend. She had in fact been defending the honor of another, when Tom shows up. In confusion, Tom notes that it was not what her hero Jane Austen would have done, but her only respond is to smile and acquiesce. She knows, and accepts, the distinction.

By the end of the film, the kids have grown up. From within their authority-less microcosm of modern society, they overcame the saccharine naïveté of their youth and latched onto a tradition and a mature mode of behavior. This is no "Peter Pan," no fantasy of eternal childishness. But nor is this "The Breakfast Club," in which adulthood is found through self-discovery. Indeed, defeating the misguided morals of the Brat Pack film may be considered at the heart of Stillman's work, particularly his final film "The Last Days of Disco." Rather, it is through a sense of tradition, of obligations to the social order, that the children find virtue and thus find happiness.

It is something of a joke that arthouse films are those in which nothing happens: they sometimes lack the sort of grand story or overarching plot for an audience to follow. Yet Stillman's films portray a much richer story than those of other films. Most are content to depict essentially archetypal characters reacting to events -- the stories occur externally, whether from changes in fortune, love or situation. The personalities rarely change as a result of events, and if they do the changes are generally superficial. Stillman depicts essentially real humans (if they are admittedly idealized conversationalists) who learn from minor events and grow as a result. The story occurs internally, and the movements of personality are complex and sometimes ineffable. If the results can be expressed at all, it can easily require an essay to fully comprehend. "Metropolitan" is one of those films that requires and rewards multiple viewing. Stillman treats film as a canvas for truth, not beauty, yet creates beauty through the characters developing their own humanity.

To purchase this film, check out
Metropolitan - (The Criterion Collection)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

E.M. Forster: Howards End

**This review was contributed by another new guest author, Thunderfist, who takes his name from the hero of C.S. Lewis' classic travelogue "A Horse and His Boy."  Enjoy!**

Although Howards End is one of my favorite books, it often slips my mind when I think about English literature. Part of the reason for this is that its author, E. M. Forster, occupies an in-between time in world history: the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Victorianism was on the wane but World War One had yet to destroy Victorian and Romantic ideals. In a sense, Forster’s oeuvre in general reflects this transition: A Room with a View, published in 1908, is a novel of the nineteenth century, a traditional comedy of manners set in Italy and pastoral England. Published eighteen years later, A Passage to India is a dispassionate, modern depiction of British colonialism in India. Separating these two novels in the oeuvre is only Howards End, which captures the poignant transition between two very different centuries.

I have a long history with Forster: when I was fifteen I watched the classic film adaptation of A Room with a View and fell in love with its gorgeous portrayal of Edwardian England. From the rich and ceremonious dinners to the long sweeping gowns to the gaslamps and open carriages, A Room with a View is a period piece par excellence. The novel is a delight of witty dialogue and tongue-in-cheek narrative, following the tradition of Jane Austen. It portrays a sunny world of youth in which relational conflicts are easily cleared up with heart-to-heart honesty and a final surrender to true love; and its characters play tennis, drink tea and go on picnics in Arcadian countryside scenes.

In a conversation with the Supreme Arbitress of Taste, we agreed that A Room with a View is a novel of Forster’s youth whereas Howards End is a novel of his maturity. Written only two years later, Howards End is set in cosmopolitan London and focuses on a cultured, artistic family of two sisters and one brother. In an echo of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the older sister, Margaret, is a sensible woman who tempers her deep feelings with practicality, and the younger sister, Helen, is an emotional and romantic woman whose feelings draw her into other people’s troubles. These women become friends with two very different families: the rich and businesslike Wilcoxes and the poor, struggling, but sensitive and artistic Leonard Bast and his wife. Both families draw on the Schlegels’ sympathy: Mr. Wilcox loses his wife, Ruth (also a friend of Margaret’s), and Leonard Bast is threatened with hopeless poverty and unemployment. The famous epigram of the novel is “Only connect…” and the novel is indeed about different isolated clans within the social and economic structure of England, whose only connection is the Schlegels.

The Schlegel girls occupy a place of freedom in the novel because they were born independently wealthy and have never been exposed to the hard, pragmatic aspect of making money. As their loyalties to the Wilcox and Bast families are taxed by love and misfortune, the underlying truths about both love and loyalty, about romantic ideals and real life, are questioned. At the center of the novel is a house, Howards End, a little old country house that becomes a point of contention between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes: it belongs to Mr. Wilcox but, as his wife’s property, is left to Margaret upon her death in a note. At a glance, the novel seems like a large jigsaw puzzle with the pieces easily fitted into place: Howards End represents England and the three families respectively represent the business class, the artisans, and the common folk. Who will inherit England?

But Howards End, both the novel and the house it takes its name from, are much more than that. They are an emotional and spiritual evocation of England and the people who already live in her, none of whom really “own” her but who must fight for and against each other in the struggle to love her, preserve her, and change her. That Forster wrote the novel in 1910, only four years before the First World War, adds an unintentional poignancy to the story: for this world in which the families’ struggle takes place is itself on the brink of traumatic change.
Howards End, though not considered Forster’s greatest novel academically, is probably his most famous and popular. The epigram “Only connect…” is deservedly often alluded to by the literary world, and contemporary British author Zadie Smith wrote her novel On Beauty as an homage to Howards End. In this sense, “Only connect…” functions quite literally, for Forster’s novel indeed forges connections across centuries and different literary movements, from Austen’s neoclassical Sense and Sensibility to Smith’s postmodern On Beauty.

Of course, the real worth of Howards End lies simply in its literary beauty. Forster’s turns-of-phrase, his descriptions and his superb characterizations give Howards End a poetic depth that is both modern and timeless. It is Forster’s swansong, his elegant, elegiac depiction of a world caught between Romanticism and Modernism, ideals and disillusionment, love and family loyalty, single-minded truths and over-arching truths. It precipitates Modernism with its own simplified but still romantic style, forging a beautiful complement to both past and future literary movements while avoiding complete attribution to either.
After this glowing review, I must admit I have mixed feelings about Forster. He has a distinctive voice that sometimes grabs me and sometimes leaves me cold. Only three of his stories resonate with me, and of those three A Passage to India, often deemed his greatest work, is a story I admire while finding it difficult to read. Forster’s early work has never caught my interest, but these last three novels, and for me personally A Room with a View and Howards End, achieve a particular kind of gorgeousness that comes from the very Forsterian voice that I occasionally have trouble with. In these two novels Forster's style becomes not only admirable but deeply touching. A Room with a View, whatever its immaturity, is nonetheless a perennially lovable romantic comedy; and Howards End achieves a quiet greatness with its subtle and graceful insights.

As an addendum, Merchant-Ivory’s film adaptations of A Room with a View (1986) and Howards End (1991) both rank as some of the best film adaptations I’ve ever seen. David Lean’s version of A Passage to India (1984) is also well worth watching.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Kathryn Stockett: The Help

**This guest post was contributed by Bookwyrm, an literature devotee who will be joining Worthy of Note as a regular co-author. Look for more reviews from her in the coming months!**

The Civil War was fought in the 1860s, right? Well, maybe it was the ‘60s, but Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help suggests that it was the 1960s. The book tracks the stories of three women—two black, one white—trying to make a living and do the right thing in the time of the Civil Rights movement. But their war is not fought on the front lines in Washington D.C. They bring the battle home, to the working relationship of black domestic servants with their white employers. This book is the story of an alliance between these women to treat people as people, no matter their color.

The winds of change are blowing in 1962. Rosa Parks has refused to budge on a bus, and Martin Luther King, Jr., is on the march to D.C. But in Jackson, Mississippi, there is an equally strong push to keep things the way they’ve always been. White women get married, set out the family silver on the table, and hire black maids like second-class citizens to clean their houses and raise their children. The Help gets inside their parlors and segregated bathrooms to find out what it was like.

Aibileen is a black woman of mature years. Employed as a maid all her life, her favorite part of the work is taking care of her employers’ children. She has raised 17 babies in her life, but none for more than a few years. She makes a point to resign her work at the time when the children come to realize the divide between black and white—when they no longer see her as a person. At the start of the book, she is caring for Mae Mobley, her 17th white child, and she determines that this little girl is going to be different.

Minny is Aibileen’s best friend: younger, sassier, and with five children and an alcoholic husband to support on her working salary. Her sharp tongue has gotten her fired more times than she can count, but she, too, has a story to tell. Working as a maid since she was a teenager, Minny learned from her mama how to clean a house and make a good caramel cake. But when she sees something wrong, she wants to say something about it, and there isn’t room for that attitude in Jackson.

Miss Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is twenty-three years old and a college graduate: a rare position for a woman in 1962 Mississippi. Her mother is afraid that her brains will ruin her chances of ever catching a man, but all Skeeter cares about is writing. Hairspray, clinking teacups, and catty society gossip make her long to get out of Jackson and be an editor in New York City. But for a single white woman with no independent income, that dream seems out of reach.

That is, until she starts talking to Aibileen and Minny and realizes that these women have stories to tell. She starts waking up to their world: a black man is shot at his home for leading an activism movement. Aibileen’s son is killed in a preventable accident due to white neglect. Black maids are imprisoned on a white woman’s word if they know too much. Yet the entire next generation of Jackson society is being raised by women like Minny and Aibileen, who have learned to keep their mouths shut or lose their futures. It’s time somebody said something about it. But Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minny have everything to lose. Skeeter has to decide whether to let herself be carried along by the status quo or stop and stand against it.

Although the themes of this book hit hard and close to home, its vibrant detail makes it engaging and endlessly readable. Stockett writes about the South with a familiarity that only a native daughter could capture. I could feel the sticky heat, smell the fried chicken cooking, and watch the okra growing in Aibileen’s garden. Their world is drawn in such distinct colors that there is no way it could be anything but real. It sweeps away the Leave It to Beaver façade of the late 50s-early 60s and dives deep into what was really going on in the ballrooms and tennis clubs and screened-in porches of the South during the Civil Rights Movement.

In the epilogue, Stockett explains that her vivid descriptions come from firsthand experience. She grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and was raised by a black maid named Demetrie. While no novel is a verbatim record of experiences, Stockett lets the tenderness of that relationship spill over into the personalities of the many maids in the book. They are captured like portraits done with a fine pen, free of generalizations and stereotypes. They are people so real you could send them a Christmas card.

This is a story about deciding whether to do what’s comfortable or what’s right. It doesn’t disguise the consequences: brave people don’t escape from suffering in this book. In fact, brave people are often those who suffer most, at least in the short run. But The Help made me feel almost like a visitor from the future, because now I can see the difference made by people who chose to go against their entire culture and treat all people like people.

**Bookwyrm is a bibliophile born in the wrong century. A native Californian, she is pursuing an English major at Seattle Pacific University. Her current job titles include editor, reporter, novelist, and freelance writer. When she’s not at work on a children’s novel or her senior thesis, she enjoys cooking, hiking, Irish music, old bookstores, and collecting technicolor socks.**

Friday, October 8, 2010

"Pride and Prejudice" (1980)

**This article was contributed by the Supreme Arbitress of Taste and is the final installment of "Pride & Prejudice Week.  I imagine there will be more reviews and responses to what has been posted, so keep your eyes peeled for those.**

For sheer accuracy to the book, I still maintain that you can't beat the 1995 BBC version, but surprisingly enough there's a contingency of people that prefer an early BBC adaptation from 1980. I honestly have very mixed feelings about this version. Although they did many things correctly--there's a lot to admire--I still feel like it's not as good as it's successor.

Elizabeth Garvie looks the part of Elizabeth Bennett better than any other
actress to take the role, but she lacks the sparkling personality though she's
certainly wise and reflective enough to fit the changes Elizabeth goes through.

Still, as this film remains largely unknown, I feel compelled to give a fairly detailed review. To start with, the opening credits of this miniseries are a delight to watch because they are a scroll over cartoon renditions of scenes from the episode which cannot help but make me laugh. The cinematography is not very good, but it beats other Austen adaptations of the era substantially. The music also is unremarkable without being bad. But really there's not much of it, and thus my remarks a limited.

Now let me talk about the Lizzie in this version, played by Elizabeth Garvie. I think she certainly had the look of Elizabeth, but she lacks the animation and cynicism central to the character. Instead we get a very quiet, reflective Miss Bennett, which makes her transition to greater self-awareness and love for Mr. Darcy more plausible than I've seen in any other version. Despite this I cannot get over how much she feels like of a pale imitation of the vivacious character we know and love in the first half of the film, so the performance ultimately falls flat for me.

This, however, is nothing compared to the fault of the Darcy in this version, played by David Rintoul. His is a one-note performance: cold. Seriously I don't think this guy so much as raises an eyebrow throughout the whole performance, and his proposal scene is one of the least convincing I've ever seen. The only commendation I will give him is that he looks the part admirably: tall dark and handsome in the extreme.

Now as to the minor characters. I feel like they're much more well-rounded than they are in the '95 classic, but at the same time much of the humor is removed in this process. The Bennett girls do look closer to their actual ages in the book, which I greatly appreciate, and Mrs. Bennett feels like a real person without being absurd. My main problem with the Bennetts in this is how much they deflate Mr. Bennett into a gruff chauvinist and a tyrant. All his mirth and wit seem to be removed, and thus he loses all sympathy in the eyes of the audience.

Outside the Bennet family, I don't feel like the minor parts were characterized as well because they has so little screen time. Sir William Lucas, the Bingley sisters, Charlotte, Mr. Wickham, and Mr. Gardener all seem to be there in name only, with no very distinguishing characteristics, which is sad because they add wonderful color to the narrative in the book.

I will, however, give this version points for two minor, non-Bennett characters. Mrs. Gardener gets credit first for being portrayed much more as as a confidant to Lizzie, wise and sagacious but lacking the streak or wry humor that makes her tease Lizzie about Darcy in her letter. So I actually still prefer the Mrs. Gardener from the '95 version, but I deeply appreciated the expanded role she was given in this one. The next role that I give them credit for is the ever-difficult Mr. Collins. This Collins is, to quote Blackadder, is "As thick as clotted cream that's been left out by some clot until the clots are so clotted that they couldn't be un-clotted with an electric de-clotter," which is just what we want in the character. At the same time, however, he doesn't seem as slimy or sniveling as he was in both the '95 miniseries and to a certain extent in the '05 theatrical release. This Collins is in awe of Lady Catherine without sucking up to her, which is how I've always pictured him.

One thing I give this version a lot of credit for incorporating is some of Austen's memorable narrative voice, much of which gets put into voice-overs by Lizzie and into the mouths of other characters by way of needed plot exposition. When you're dealing with an adaptation of one of the most quotable authors in the English language, it's important to pay homage to her memorable voice. Still, however, many of the best lines of the book remain omitted, including some of the best Lizzie/Darcy banter.

Then, of course, I will have to criticize this version for cutting the ending short, but since all the adaptations do that, I can hardly blame them any more than the others. I actually will express my satisfaction that they included a scene where the Bennetts invited Bingley and Darcy over for a party, and Lizzie tries in vain all evening to speak to Mr. Darcy. That scene does an excellent job at making us feel her frustration at not being able to express her thanks to Mr. Darcy . I also give this version credit for showing Mrs. Bennett's reaction to the news of Lizzie's engagement, which no other version to my knowledge shows, and which was always a favorite of mine from the book. Still, that is the final scene of the film, and its abrupt ending leaves viewers dazed and confused at the lack of a denouement as the credits roll.

"Did you admire me for my impertinence?" Lizzie asks Mr. Darcy

So how does this adaptation fare compared to the others? Well, it's leaps and bounds above the 1940 debacle with Laurence Olivier--it breaks my heart to speak against my ultimate Hollywood crush--and Greer Garson. Although it lacks the emotional depth and humor of both the 1995 and 2005 versions, it still a very good adaptation, sticking to the book nearly as well as the 1995 masterpiece. Still, because the acting is so wooden and the characters so miscast in many cases, it is not one I can watch very often with the same pleasure as the '95. At the same time, however,  it certainly does not inspire homicidal thoughts in me the same way truly bad adaptations do. So in conclusion, it's a credible and effort but not stellar work.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Pride and Prejudice" (1995)

**This article was contributed by Cinema Muse in response to the review of the 1995 BBC miniseries "Pride & Prejudice" posted earlier this week.**

Those of you who are regular readers of my blog Seeing Sepia will remember that this adaptation made #1 on my list of Top 10 Most Faithful Movie Adaptations from Novels of All Time. I did not give that award out lightly as a film buff and lover of classic literature. Of course I realize it's not perfect, since no adaptation can be, but I still don't think some of the charges Publius has made against it are entirely fair. Please bear in mind that he esteems it almost as much as I do, and he should by no means be lampooned for daring to find fault with it. It is not my intention to question his right to find fault with it, as indeed he is correct in saying that is overall stellar quality gives us license to concentrate on the minutiae. In that spirit, therefore, I mount my defense.

British-American actress Jennifer Ehle handles the complex character of Elizabeth Bennett with just the right amount of sweetness and cynicism.
I will start with his slight objection to Jennifer Ehle's portrayal of Elizabeth. In it he says that Elizabeth's cynical streak had been softened somewhat, but I don't think that's so. I think she gives plenty of looks in the film that show just how weary she is of hypocrisy and injustice, especially when Lydia's elopement comes up. Consider during that episode when she hears that Lady Lucas has given assistance several times: "Assistance is impossible and condolence insufferable! Let her triumph over us at a distance and be satisfied!" I think that's about as cynical as you can get. Also, you don't want Lizzie's cynicism to be too prominent, lets she lose the mirth for which we love her.

Publius also claims that because the production is shot so much from Elizabeth's perspective, all the other characters seem one-dimensional. I will grant him that in part. Many of the characters do seem one-dimensional, but I would argue that Mr. Darcy does not suffer from this problem nor does Mr. Bennett to a certain degree.

I actually like that we get to see the characters from Lizzie's perspective for the most part. It means that our reactions coincide more with her own. After all, if we don't agree with her condemnation of Darcy in the beginning, we would lose sympathy with her subsequent treatment of him. I think experiencing the narrative largely through Lizzie's eyes gives us a softer view of Mr. Bennett, and a harder one on just about everyone else, Jane notwithstanding. Mr. Darcy, of course, averts this problem partially because we have the few scenes from his POV that reveal his true affection for Elizabeth. Still, however, we are given little hint that his appearance of  haughtiness is partially due to shyness apart from a few instances of him being tongue-tied in Lizzie's presence, which could be easily attributed simply to his being in love. Those scenes, however, combined with my foreknowledge of shyness being the novel's partial explanation of Darcy's actions were enough to produce that impression on me. At the same time, however, it's subtle enough that the nuance will still be lost on Elizabeth, which makes her assumption of pride more plausible.

I also know that the reason that some of the characters aren't as well-rounded as they should be is because the filmmakers wanted to make sure that the humor of their actions still came across, and I feel that this adaptation preserves the humor better than any other version of P&P. For those of you who haven't read it the book, it is laugh-out-loud funny, and this adaptation is the only one in which I find myself laughing at the same scenes and lines as I did in the book. That is a very high compliment indeed. Unfortunately this also means that the film short-changes some of the deeper aspects of these characters, especially Mrs. Bennett and Mr. Collins. I can excuse this, however, on the grounds that even though Jane Austen is renowned for well-drawn, rounded characters, her primary intent with them was to provide humor, and thus it is more important that they fulfill that function than that they appear well-rounded at the expense of the humor. It's sad that it has to be that way, but as Publius pointed out, even in a 6-hour miniseries, there simply isn't time to flesh out all the characters.

One thing that Publius got spot-on was that this version like all the others before it doesn't seem to know what to do with Mr. Collins. Of course I think this version's Collins is the funniest one of the bunch, but he's way too slimy and not quite dense enough to fit the character that Austen wrote. In fact he's so transparently a grasping sycophant that it's impossible to believe that Charlotte can even have a modicum of contentment with him. And speaking of Charlotte, she's a character that isn't nearly explained well enough so that she comes off mercenary. This version shows that she's certainly as smart as Lizzie and doesn't have the looks to catch a man, but her lack of fortune and spinster status are never alluded to, and thus leave the audience as shocked as Lizzie when the engagement is announced.

As to Publius' claim that the cinematography lacked panache, I think first off that it exceeds all the previous BBC cinematography I've seen--but not subsequent--and secondly that it was made for TV not theaters, which means both budget and expectations were decidedly lower. I can easily excuse it because it so far above the home-video quality of the BBC Austen adaptations of the '70s and '80s as to be a positive breath of fresh air in comparision.
Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth and Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy perform the "up a double and back" figure from the English Country Dance "Mr. Bevridge's  Maggot," in a slowed tempo that emphasizes the stateliness and formality of their relationship and Mr. Darcy's personality.

Of the many good points that Publius spoke of, moreover, he failed to mention two of my favorites, namely the score and the dancing. The score is a mixture of period classical pieces, English Country Dance tunes, and original compositions by Carl Davies including the famous theme song. One thing I know that Publius and I both appreciate is how much of the music heard comes from Mozart. For example, Lizzie sings an aria from The Marriage of Figaro when she's at Pemberley, and the musical piece played as everyone arrives for the Netherfield Ball is from the wedding scene in that opera. In addition Mrs. Hurst plays another Mozart piano piece during the ballroom scene, and Lizzie plays another while she's at Rosings Park. This is particularly appropriate because Figaro and P&P are often compared to each other in terms of sparkling wit and social commentary. As for the dancing, I can say being an English Country Dancer myself that the dances are well-executed and are real Playford English Country Dances that existed at the time instead of being something the filmmakers created. That being said, many English Country Dance aficionados have pointed out that the dances chosen in the film were hopelessly outdated by the time of  P&P, but I think that's a minor point because it's still the same style of dance. It's not like the replaced it with the polka or the electric slide.

So yes, this film/miniseries does have some faults. Are they bad enough for me to retract the title of best novel-to-film adaptation ever? No. Until someone shows me one that captures all the events and the spirit of the novel as well as this one, I will still maintain that it is the most accurate I've ever seen.