Tuesday, March 21, 2017

After All, Miss, This is France: Historical Accuracy and the New "Beauty and the Beast"

I saw the new live-action Beauty and the Beast on Saturday and I've been overthinking it ever since. (This is what happens when a bookish Millennial girl with degrees in Drama and French sees a remake of a beloved childhood classic about a bookish French girl.) So I have a few things to say about the adaptation, the changes it makes, and its historical accuracy or lack thereof.

Are you reading Shakespeare there? (CGI) Dan Stevens as the Beast, Emma Watson as Belle.
I appreciated some of the changes to the new version: the filling in of plot holes, and the attempt to show more of how Belle and the Beast's relationship develops. To that end, the filmmakers have included scenes where the characters bond over Shakespeare. (Belle is pleased to be living with a fellow book-lover and reads to the Beast from Midsummer's "Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind" speech.) Cute, but also rather anachronistic. In France in the 1700s, it's just possible that the Beast might have translated versions of Shakespeare's plays in that vast library of his, but it's unlikely that both he and Belle would revere Shakespeare above all other authors. At that time, the French still saw Shakespeare as déclassé, an uncultured Englishman writing sprawling plays that did not respect the all-important Three Unities. Belle and the Beast would be much more likely to read and discuss literature from their own country: the plays of Racine and Corneille, or maybe the essays of Montaigne. It's fun to imagine them reading Corneille's The Illusion, a play that has themes about artifice and looking deeper, and features a magic mirror that can show you what your loved ones are doing! (Also, it's a delightful play that was far ahead of its time.)

Another change in the new version is the addition of a lot of unnecessary backstory about Belle's family. We learn that Belle and her father Maurice moved to their "provincial" village when she was a baby, after her mother died of the plague. At first, this sounds slightly odd: wasn't plague a medieval disease, and doesn't this movie take place in the 1700s? (Why not smallpox or tuberculosis?) However, there were scattered outbreaks of plague long after the medieval Black Death epidemic, including a really devastating one in Marseille in 1720 (the Great Plague of Marseille). And if we assume that that outbreak killed Belle's mother, and further assume that Belle is about 20 years old when the main action of Beauty and the Beast takes place, we can pinpoint the exact setting of the film as 1740 — which was the year the original French "Beauty and the Beast" fairy tale was published! Brilliant!

The only problem with this theory is that the film makes clear that Belle and Maurice are from Paris, not Marseille, and as far as I can tell from Wikipedia, there were no Parisian plague outbreaks in the 1700s. I am left angrily shaking my fist at the screenwriters: "It would have been so easy to say they are from Marseille and not Paris and it would have been a great Easter egg for us history nerds!"

I suspect that both of these matters — having Belle and the Beast discuss Shakespeare, and saying that Belle and Maurice come from Paris — can be traced to a larger problem with movies made for mass audiences: the fear of including information that isn't 100% familiar to everyone. Belle and Maurice are Parisian, not Marseillais, because American audiences can be trusted to know where Paris is but may have never heard of Marseille. Belle and the Beast read Shakespeare, not Racine or Corneille, because those French authors are not part of Anglo-American culture. (I do like that they also show the Beast reading Arthurian romances; this strikes me as historically plausible, understandable to a modern American audience, and not quite as much of a lazy choice as Shakespeare.) Perhaps this is even why Belle's mother dies of the plague, rather than of something like tuberculosis. I suppose I shouldn't be looking to a nostalgia-flavored Disney remake to expose people to unfamiliar ideas, but it makes me sad when mass culture doesn't take the opportunity to try to tell a mass audience something they may not have heard before.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

"The Bell" by Iris Murdoch is a perfect English novel

Last November, I joined a book club for the first time. There's about 6 of us, we meet once a month, we focus on literary fiction. I had worried about what it would mean to outsource a significant portion of my literary reading to the dictates of the club, but I've discovered some wonderful books and authors through it. Like Iris Murdoch!

 The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love stories in which people retreat from the world with noble intentions, only to find that sex gets in the way. I love English novels where attractive young men go bathing naked in the woods and then other characters run across them and nothing will ever be the same. I love novels that are purportedly “character-driven” and “philosophical,” yet have a climax in which a whole lot of crazy stuff happens, and it’s shocking and inevitable all at once. I love novels with a vein of black comedy running through them that is so subtle, and so dark, that no one else in my book club thought it was a comedy at all. I love it when an author can make me hate a minor character* so much that I write Bastard in the margin practically every time he appears. I love it when an author sees through to the heart of her characters, especially when she reveals their self-deceptions and mixed motivations. I love novels in which there are patterns and symbols galore, waiting to be deciphered, yet the characters and their predicaments feel real, not the product of an airless literary exercise.

All of this is to say that I loved The Bell and I definitely want to check out more of Iris Murdoch’s huge oeuvre. (I shouldn't really be surprised; one of my most-read authors is A.S. Byatt, who was Murdoch’s protégée.) As I noted above, Murdoch is skilled at both plotting and characterization; I was also really impressed by how she sets the scene. Most of The Bell takes place in a single location: an English country house and its surroundings, which include a moat-like lake, some outbuildings, and a convent of enclosed nuns. Murdoch describes this fictional setting so precisely that I could draw you a detailed map of it, or wander through it in my imagination. Of course, when I do that, I also can’t help picturing her characters, with all their contradictions and foibles, running around the landscape too.

*Paul Greenfield, in this instance

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Iambs and Anagrams and Anapests, Oh My

Some sentences from my reading that have jumped out at me lately.
[Leon had said] "I can't help but picture an armada of floating parties." But the men were serious and reserved and afraid of pirates.
—From Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
This stopped me in my tracks, and not in a good way. In my copy of Station Eleven, the word "pirates" is printed almost directly below the word "parties," and I got weirdly distracted when I realized they were anagrams. Was it intentional wordplay? Inadvertent? What did it mean? I'm inclined to think it was unintentional (I'm enjoying Station Eleven, but its prose is not flashy or full of wordplay) and that an editor should have noticed how distracting it is. Then again, it can take a few editing passes to spot something like this. I like to think I have a good ear, yet I nonetheless wrote a line of dialogue containing the words "tectonics" and "ironic" (yeowch! inadvertent rhyme!) in my latest script, and didn't notice it till an actor read it aloud.
There's some pocket of rot in the oak of their soul that can only be patched up by watches.
From the March 20 New Yorker article on watch collecting, by Gary Shteyngart.
No, wait, forget what I said above about wordplay being distracting and worthy of removal by an editor. This sentence, this I love. The metaphor! The assonance and slant rhymes! The anapests! All in a sentence that purportedly was not even composed by Shteyngart, but is a quote from a watch-collecting acquaintance of his! I read it while on MUNI and then wanted to run around the city chanting it. It reminded me of another New Yorker sentence that had a similar effect on me, from an April 2014 article on caving, by Burkhard Bilger: "Their digestif has come to grief against a fissure wall." Perfect iambic rhythm and a jaunty internal rhyme on "digestif" and "grief"!

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

We'll Serve Anyone (Meaning Anyone) At All

I was rereading Macbeth this weekend and realized that the conceit of the Porter's first speech is basically the same as that of "A Little Priest" from Sweeney Todd -- making grimly satirical jokes about various British professions, that is, though in a context of damnation rather than cannibalism.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Feminist Defense of LA LA LAND

Mia (Emma Stone) strides ahead of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).
La La Land is one of the most talked-about, most awarded, and most love-it-or-hate-it films of 2016. But in all the critical conversation, I feel like something’s been overlooked: if it wins Best Picture in six hours or so, it’ll be the first Best Picture winner in over a decade to feature a female protagonist.

Much of the La La Land criticism I’ve seen focuses on the male lead, a jazz pianist named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), and his “out-of-touch,” “white-savior” attitude toward jazz music. Comparatively little attention has been devoted to the female lead, a struggling actress named Mia (Emma Stone). Often, when that happens, it's because the female character is no more than an accessory or a prize for the man—something that still happens depressingly often in prestigious Hollywood movies.

But I want to argue that La La Land is really Mia’s story, and that the movie subtly but persistently centers her perspective. Partly, this is because Stone acts circles around Gosling (IMO). Partly, this is because of my personal connection to the character of Mia: she is a woman in her mid-twenties who self-produces an original play and dates a jazz musician, which were also the defining events of my mid-twenties. But mostly, I think, it’s due to the inherent structure of the film.

Literally and figuratively, La La Land is Mia's story before it is Sebastian's. Her character, her life, her ambitions are introduced to us first. Moreover, her introductory sequence shows her as sympathetic and relatable: she gets coffee spilled on her, gives a thoughtful performance at an audition only to be ignored, goes out to a party with her pals, and gets caught in a jam when her car is towed and her phone dies. Sebastian's introductory scenes make him out to be a far less sympathetic character: his sister calls him out for his jazz-snob pretensions, and he gets fired from a gig as a restaurant pianist because he sees the job as beneath him and can't resist going into jazz improvisations when he was hired to play Christmas tunes. I don’t agree with the charge that La La Land takes an un-critical view of Sebastian; I think the film is well aware of his character flaws. It wants us to think that his attitude to jazz is kind of arrogant, while still being happy for him when he finds professional success.

As the film continues, Mia's backstory is fleshed out more than Sebastian's is. She's the character who gets to sing a climactic solo song, "Audition (The Ones Who Dream)," whose lyrics sum up the movie's message. And I read the fantasy sequence at the end as her fantasy, a trip through her thoughts. (It resembles an old movie musical because Mia loves old movies.) Significantly, Mia gets a surname, “Dolan,” while Sebastian only gets a nickname, “Seb.”

I’ve seen the criticism that Mia succeeds only because of Sebastian: he's the person who suggests that she write and produce a show, and who convinces her to go to the audition that makes her a star. But, while Seb bucks her up when she doubts herself, it’s false to say that her success is entirely due to his influence. Take it from one who knows: self-producing a play is a huge task that requires a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice. And the film doesn’t indicate that Seb gives Mia any practical help with her show, just occasional words of encouragement. Her own talents and ambitions are what allow her to complete the project.

Furthermore, La La Land shows Sebastian benefiting from Mia's advice, too. His longtime dream is to open up a jazz club called “Chicken on a Stick” on the site of a storied former jazz venue that is now a tapas bar. Mia tries to persuade him that “Chicken on a Stick” is a terrible name and that he should consider other locations, but Sebastian seems unmoved. At the end of the movie, though, we see that Sebastian has opened his club, it's in a different location, and it has the name that Mia suggested—“Seb's.” Sebastian's instincts were right when it came to Mia's career, but Mia's instincts were also right when it came to Sebastian's.

Sebastian and Mia look at the stars.
It’s even possible to read the middle of La La Land as a comment on the imbalance of emotional labor in heterosexual relationships. As Mia puts her one-woman show together and Sebastian goes on tour with a jazz-funk ensemble, their relationship becomes more distant and strained. To heal the breach, he suggests that she should join him for a leg of the tour. However, this implies a lack of respect for the work that she is making, which requires her to stay in Los Angeles. (She is self-producing a one-woman show that opens in two weeks and you expect her to fly off to freaking Idaho for you, Seb?) And, while Seb casually asks Mia to drop everything and go on tour with him, he isn't willing to drop out of a band photo shoot in order to see her show. It's not tit-for-tat; it's Sebastian asking Mia to make a sacrifice that he proves unwilling to make himself.

Indeed, La La Land captures the essential loneliness of being a jazzman’s girlfriend. The nights where he's up on stage playing music for swing dancers so you learn to swing dance, too, because otherwise you'd have nothing to do. The fear that he will always love his music more than you, that it will always come first. (My ex didn't like it if I phoned him before 10 PM because it might interrupt his practicing.) Seb thinks it’s disrespectful to talk over jazz music—my ex thought it was disrespectful if I read a book while he and his combo played jazz in a cocktail lounge.

The end of La La Land flashes forward to five years after Mia and Sebastian have gone their separate ways. Our overall impression is that Mia has moved on, while Sebastian hasn't. She has a husband, a baby, her face on billboards, and a room at the Chateau Marmont. Sebastian, it seems, is still single and living in the same apartment. But, when Mia unexpectedly encounters Sebastian at his jazz club, she allows herself to imagine the life they could have had together. Not only does this sequence allow us into Mia’s head in a way that we never are allowed inside Sebastian’s, but also, as this Vogue piece points out, it’s a fantasy of having it all. Mia imagines Sebastian accompanying her to her film shoot in Paris; she doesn’t imagine turning down a career opportunity in order to stay with him.

Admittedly, I wish La La Land gave us more information about what happened to Mia during those five years (and I wish Emma Stone did more to distinguish thirtysomething movie-star Mia from twentysomething struggling-actress Mia). What kinds of roles is Mia playing, how did she meet her husband, is she still writing? But that's because I came to love her character and therefore am hungry to know more about her. Her journey is longer than Seb's and takes her further. I don't feel particularly curious about Seb's life in those five years.

Decades of Hollywood movies have told women that love is the only thing worth having—a message that can be very damaging. Look at some other popular movie musicals that feature aspiring-actress protagonists. Funny Girl is the story of Fanny Brice’s abject, masochistic love for a no-good man. Moulin Rouge suggests that the upside of Satine’s tragic death is that it makes her boyfriend into a true artist. Never do we get the sense that La La Land’s Mia is just there to serve as her boyfriend's muse. And the overall message of the film is refreshingly modern and realistic: it says that love is wonderful and magical, but it’s not more important than your career. That the world needs dreamers, but you need to back up your dreams with hard work and patience.

I recognize that the feminism of La La Land isn't at all radical or intersectional: its female lead is young, white, straight, and beautiful. Nonetheless, I remain mystified as to why so many people are reading it as the story of a self-absorbed white-guy jazz pianist with a girlfriend who happens to be an actress. Why do people fail to recognize that Mia is the real protagonist, that her art matters as much as Sebastian’s does, and that his self-absorption is precisely why their relationship could never work long-term? Have we become so used to narratives that center the male perspective that we can't even recognize a female-centered story when it shows up before us, singing and dancing in Technicolor Cinerama?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

E. Gorey's Book of Practical Cats

It's Edward Gorey's birthday! The delightfully macabre writer and illustrator would have been 92 years old today. As a small token of appreciation, I'm posting my review of the edition of Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats that features Gorey's artwork.

The Rum Tum Tugger and his long-suffering owner. Illustration by Edward Gorey.
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I saw the musical Cats on Broadway at the age of 5, but I’d never sat down and read the T.S. Eliot poems that inspired the musical and constitute most of its lyrics. If you can banish the Andrew Lloyd Webber melodies from your head, many of the poems still make for amusing reading. Eliot is able to capture both the mischievousness and the dignity of housecats. The poems about aged cats “Old Deuteronomy” and “Gus the Theater Cat” are touching, and the characterization of “Macavity” as a cat version of Professor Moriarty is great fun.

I’d be wary of giving these poems to a 21st-century child, though: there is some racism against “foreign” animals (Siamese and Persian cats, and Pekingese dogs), and there is only one lady cat who gets a poem devoted to her (the “Old Gumbie Cat,” Jennyanydots).

The reason I bought this edition was its charming Edward Gorey illustrations: Gorey was a famed cat-lover, so this is a perfect match of illustrator and subject. (I particularly like the exasperated expressions on the faces of the Rum Tum Tugger’s owners, and the illustration of Macavity in an opium-den-like environment eating Beluga caviar.) Wouldn’t it be nice if the set and costume design of Cats had drawn inspiration from Gorey’s elegant, whimsical style, rather than going for that tacky ‘80s look?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Reading McCraney's Brother/Sister Plays

In honor of Black History Month and Tarell Alvin McCraney's Oscar nomination for the Moonlight screenplay, I decided to read his Brother/Sister Plays trilogy, which had been sitting on my shelf for a while. These plays made a big impression on me when I saw them in the Bay Area in Fall 2010, but I hadn't revisited them since then. (Click my "Tarell Alvin McCraney" tag to see my earlier posts about this trilogy.) Interesting that, in many cases, my opinions about these plays have remained the same, even though it's 6+ years later and I was reading the scripts instead of seeing them produced!

The Brother/Sister PlaysThe Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(4 stars for In the Red & Brown Water; 5 stars for The Brothers Size; 3 stars for Marcus.)

It’s not every day that a twentysomething playwright writes an ambitious trilogy that blends spoken stage directions, free-verse poetry, Yoruba mythology, and contemporary slang to tell the stories of an African-American community in the Louisiana bayou. But that’s Tarell Alvin McCraney’s achievement in his Brother/Sister Plays.

In the Red & Brown Water is our introduction to this world, and to McCraney’s inimitable voice. However, while the play’s style is unexpected and powerful, the story is kind of clichéd. Oya, the heroine, is torn between two men—the boring but reliable Ogun and the seductive but fickle Shango—and spends most of the second act despondent over her inability to get pregnant. Points to McCraney for trying to write a female-centered play, but I’m not sure he understands women as well as he understands men.

Ogun returns as one of the title characters of The Brothers Size, the trilogy’s centerpiece and masterwork. It is a tightly focused, 3-character drama with an ending that I find almost unbearably moving. The play delves deep into Ogun’s relationship with his younger brother Oshoosi, a charming fuck-up who recently got out of the penitentiary. Toward the end, the brothers lip-synch to a song—the script does not specify what song to use, but when I saw The Brothers Size at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in 2010, the production used Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” I can’t imagine a better song choice: this play is really all about the tenderness and vulnerability of black men, the love they have for one another, in a society that refuses to acknowledge that tenderness. (In this, The Brothers Size has some similarities with Moonlight, the acclaimed 2016 film that is based on a different McCraney play.)

Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet has a more lighthearted tone than the other two plays. It depicts the next generation of the community, centering on Marcus, a 16-year-old boy coming to terms with the fact that he is “sweet” (gay). While the play has many charming moments, I find it kind of imbalanced in terms of its structure. An important character shows up out of nowhere at the start of the second act, and the characters talk a lot about how a hurricane is about to hit, but the hurricane never arrives.