Archive for June, 2007
There’s no denying that Judi Dench is a great actress. She may not have deserved her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her few minutes on screen as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, but we all know she won that because Academy voters felt guilty about not giving her the Oscar she deserved the previous year for Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown. She’s great. However, when she’s allowed to get away with playing a charming/cantankerous upper-class British elf, she does. Goodness knows she’s earned the right, and she’s still enjoyable even when she’s on autopilot. Still, if the Dench-moxie is all a movie has going for it, it’s not going to work.
Thus, Mrs. Henderson presents . . . not much interesting. It’s the tale of a rich British widow who, on a whim, buys a theater and hires an artistic director with whom she charmingly spars (and, apparently, loves?) for the rest of the movie. But—gasp!—this darling old bird suggests that the theater gain novelty status by featuring topless girls in its shows. My, my, she’s cute and naughty. Cue tittering here.
About halfway through, we stop with the twee and turn to the melodramatic, as World War II begins, and the nude musical revue bravely soldiers on through the Blitz. By the end of the film, we learn what we’ve already sort of guessed, that Mrs. Henderson has an entirely noble motive for exploiting naked young women: her son died in the First World War, and, afterward, as she was going through his things, she discovered a nude postcard among them. She realized that he had probably never seen a naked woman in real life. So, brave Doughboy lads, it’s all for you: thanks to Mrs. Henderson, you can see some live bosoms before you’re blown to bits! How touching.
If you’re expecting any sort of meaningful meditation on the ethics of nudity in art, you won’t find it here. According to the British government, the show is okay as long as the girls remain motionless—because that’s more like the nudity you’d see in great works of art in a museum. I have friends both in the fine arts and the theater who have wrestled with the ethics of nudity in their fields (particularly from a faith perspective), and there’s nothing here to help in weighing the issue. According to Mrs. Henderson, what did God give women these parts for, if not to show them off?
I’ve heard several people describe Mrs. Henderson Presents as “The Full Monty, only with women”—which it decidedly is not. For the record, The Full Monty is one of my favorite movies, so this is hardly an unbiased view, but one of the things that’s so great about that movie is that it’s not about the nudity. It’s about a lot of things: working-class industrial Britain, men and their body image, male bonding, how various characters deal with failure. And it has an alternately hilarious and poignant script. Mrs. Henderson Presents is about, well, Judi Dench acting cute.
One of the most puzzling things about the movie is that it’s directed by Stephen Frears, who recently guided Helen Mirren to near-goddess status this past awards season for The Queen. Mirren’s performance in The Queen is everything that’s lacking in Judi Dench’s performance in Mrs. Henderson Presents. As you’re watching, you don’t think, “Wow, that Helen Mirren is doing an amazing job”; you forget about Helen Mirren herself, because she melts so completely into the role. She never steps outside it for a knowing wink at the audience. Part of this may just be the difference between the two actresses, but, as I’ve said before, Dench can still pull off a great, unself-conscious performance: from what I’ve heard, she does so in last year’s Notes on a Scandal.
So does the problem lie in Frears’s direction? Maybe in part, but he did such a fabulous job with The Queen that I’m not willing to lay all the blame at his feet. He’s directed a wide variety of films in his career, some of them much better than others. I think one of Frears’s own comments may be important in understanding why his movies are of such varying quality: “I can’t write,” he says. “I don’t think I’m even particularly good at telling a writer what’s good or what’s missing. So, actually having someone who can do that is a godsend.” I don’t think God sent him a very good screenwriter for Mrs. Henderson Presents, whereas The Queen’s writer Peter Morgan seems to be one of the best working today. After all, the (screen)play’s the thing . . .
June 30th, 2007
A couple of days ago, Cinematical posted an interview with Amelia Warner, the 25-year-old actress who plays Maggie Barnes in The Dark Is Rising (which has apparently finished filming!). She doesn’t come across as extraordinarily eloquent, but there are a few items of interest in the interview.
First, given her description of her own character, it seems the movie veers off a bit from the book’s plot (which may be fine, if it’s well done–but I’m not reassured of that yet). Warner says of Maggie, “I’m not really allowed to say very much about her — she’s kind of like a mystery. You don’t really know what side she falls on, and in the story, she appears to be a new girl at the school. The character of Will sees her in the village and kind of develops a crush on her, and she’s just kind of lingering around. But she’s there to look after Will and to make sure that nothing bad happens to him, and she’s going to protect him.”
Hmmm . . . an 11-year-old boy has a crush on a 25-year-old girl at his school? Granted, I assume Warner is playing younger than her actual age, but still . . . why add adolescent sexual tension when Will is still very much a child, albeit an Old One? In the book, it’s Maggie who has a bit of a crush on one of Will’s older brothers. And she’s very much on the side of the Dark.
The next bit has to do with director David L. Cunningham’s religious affiliation (he has family connections to Youth with a Mission and University of the Nations, both evangelical Christian organizations, and has spoken of himself as a missionary to Hollywood). Here’s the Cinematical question and Warner’s response:
“There’s been some talk about why Fox chose David Cunningham, who is known for being an outspoken evangelical Christian, to helm this movie — did you get that vibe from him on set?”
AW: “No! I didn’t know that David was kind of known for that. I didn’t know that he was at all until, like, two days before we wrapped. I’m really unobservant. But I mean, you know … people say that Walden is really Christian as well. It’s difficult because the story, in essence, I guess it is about those kind of things. It’s about light and dark. So you could look at that and say ‘that’s really Christian,’ but I mean, I think the themes of most stories could be seen that way. So I don’t think that he … I didn’t get the feeling and there was absolutely no talk of Christianity or those kinds of things being pushed forward, I don’t think. I mean, you could definitely read the script and go ‘Oh wow, that has a real Christian undertone’, but I think you could say that about a lot of things that are kid’s stories. They’re always about good and bad, and about being on the good side.”
I’ve been interested in the choice of Cunningham as director since I first heard about it. The only previous work of his that I’ve seen is his World War II prison-camp movie To End All Wars, which, in addition to numbing you with gruesome violence, suggests the healing power of forgiveness. But, given that, in spite of the good-vs.-evil themes (and it doesn’t really turn out to be as simple as that) in Cooper’s books, there’s a bit of a condescending–some would even say “hostile”–tone towards Christianity in The Dark Is Rising, and I’ve been curious to see what Cunningham would do with that. I still don’t know. The tone of the question-and-answer is interesting, though–it seems almost akin to “Did you know your director was a neo-Nazi?” or something like that.
June 26th, 2007
Check out Alan Jacobs’s speculations about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The first few are fairly common consensus: R.A.B. is Regulus Black, Snape will die a noble death, Dumbledore used Legilimency to tell Snape to kill him. There are thoughtful observations here, but the argument gets really interesting on the issue of Harry as Horcrux. Here’s Jacobs’s theory:
“Among Potter fans, an idea which has gained in popularity over the last two years is this: When Voldemort tried unsuccessfully to kill the infant Harry, he made Harry himself, or perhaps the scar which the boy received at that moment, a Horcrux. There are two problems with this theory. First, we are told that when a Horcrux is made the soul is placed in “an object outside the body,” but it is not clear how that “object” could be someone else’s body, since there would already be a soul located there. Second, the theory assumes either that Voldemort didn’t try to kill Harry at all—which contradicts Voldemort himself, who says that he tried to kill Harry—or that a Horcrux can be made accidentally.
I do not think it possible that a Horcrux could be made without intent and care; but the idea that despite what he has said Voldemort did not mean to kill Harry at all, but rather to make him (or his scar) into a Horcrux, is intriguing. I have been extremely skeptical of the whole scar-as-a-Horcrux idea until one thought came to my mind. It concerns Godric Gryffindor. Bear with me for a moment, please, as I descend into the bottomless cavern of sheer speculation.
- Dumbledore believes that Voldemort wanted four of his Horcruxes to be associated with the four founders of Hogwarts: Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Voldemort’s own ancestor Salazar Slytherin.
- But one problem with this scheme, if indeed it is Voldemort’s scheme, is that the only known relic of Godric Gryffindor, a great sword, rests safely in the office of the Headmaster of Hogwarts.
- When Harry fought against the great basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, he pulled that very sword out of the Sorting Hat, and Dumbledore told him that “only a true Gryffindor” could have done that.
- Harry takes the Headmaster to mean simply that the Sorting Hat did the right thing when it placed Harry in Gryffindor House—but what if there’s more to it than that? So far, we have learned nothing at all about Harry’s father’s family, though that is his wizardly side (his mother came from Muggle stock); in fact, Rowling has been curiously silent about that half of Harry’s ancestry. We do know one interesting fact, though: that Harry’s parents lived in a village called Godric’s Hollow—and the only Godric we have met in the six books so far is the great Gryffindor. Could it be that, just as Voldemort is the only known descendent of Salazar Slytherin, Harry is a (or the) descendent of Godric Gryffindor?
- If so, that would make him, from one point of view, a “relic” of Gryffindor, and therefore a potentially fit location for a Horcrux. It is at least possible that when Voldemort came to the infant Harry’s house that fateful night he had something other than Harry’s murder on his mind. In any case, I feel sure that we will learn much more about Harry’s ancestry in the seventh book, and that it will illuminate the nature of the bond between him and Voldemort. We may even discover that there is a reason why—this is something Voldemort’s ghostly image notes when he meets Harry in the Chamber of Secrets—why they even look alike.”
I like it. What do y’all think?
I have to admit, I’m not entirely looking forward to Book 7, because Rowling does humor so much better than she does anything dealing with good and evil (or anything of mythic proportions, really, except Snape–and I am eagerly anticipating Snape’s death, because it will no doubt be redemptive). I will enjoy the general cultural flurry surrounding the book’s release, and if my loving husband and I can share the book nicely, we’ll no doubt have it finished within 48 hours.
June 25th, 2007
(This review also appears at LookingCloser.org)
So many times in the past decade, we’ve heard a film lauded as “the return of the movie musical.” Evita. Chicago. The Phantom of the Opera. The Producers. Dreamgirls. Next: Hairspray. Though Chicago has its Best Picture Oscar to back its claim, these “reborn” movie musicals often seem to fall flat. Part of the problem may actually lie with the style of the more recent musicals themselves: stage shows like Phantom wowed audiences because they jacked up the “spectacle” factor of theater to new heights and in fact tried to challenge cinema’s monopoly on razzle-dazzle—but it’s actually difficult for film to convey the visceral thrill of having a three-dimensional chandelier come swooping down over your head. Film, however, can capture finely tuned emotions in a close-up on a character’s face, in a shot of calloused fingers strumming a guitar—and it’s this intimate aspect of the medium that Once, the new “Irish rock musical,” successfully embraces.
Once, which has been charming film festivals, critics, and audiences alike, is about as far from grandiosity as you can imagine. In fact, the label “musical” is a little misleading, because all the movie’s songs occur in the context of rehearsals or performances by the musician characters; no random bursting into song here. Glen Hansard, real-life lead singer for The Frames (the band for which Once’s writer/director, John Carney, was formerly a bassist) , plays a Dublin busker moping after his lyin’, cheatin’ girlfriend (as he relates in a hilarious song called “Broken Hearted Hoover-Fixer Sucker Guy”—in addition to busking, he also helps out with his father’s vacuum cleaning business, hence the “Hoover-Fixer”).
He is prodded back into life gradually through the tenaciousness of a young Czech immigrant woman, also a musician—and, even better, she’s a musician with a broken vacuum cleaner. Once’s protagonists, known simply as the Guy and the Girl, discover how well his guitar-playing and her piano-playing blend, and they wonder if this musical harmony means that they are meant to be together romantically.
Once has also been dubbed a “love story,” and it is one, but not in the standard Hollywood mode. The love between Guy and Girl develops into the true kind of love that will sacrifice self-interest for the sake of the other. In some ways, the relationship between Guy and Girl actually reminds me of the relationship between the two main characters in Lost in Translation—both pairs have other commitments, but both pairs are drawn together in part by their shared status as outsiders. Guy and Girl, however, are much more easily likable and probably less in need of anti-depressants than Bill Murray’s and Scarlett Johansson’s characters. And, as compared to Lost in Translation, Once suggests much more hope in the ability of humans to communicate with each other, at least through music.
Watching Once, I several times wished for subtitles, for the song lyrics as well as the dialogue. The Dublin accents can be difficult to decipher. In spite of sometimes making up my own lyrics when I couldn’t understand the real ones, I didn’t feel mystified at any point about what the characters were feeling. Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who plays the Girl, are not trained actors, but they are musical collaborators in real life, and they prove to be powerful performers both of their own songs and of the dialogue written by Carney. The lyrics certainly give us a window into the characters’ lives, but it’s not necessary to understand every word.
Carney chooses the phrase “visual album” rather than “musical” to describe Once’s genre, and it’s true that, in some ways, Once is like a concept album illustrated with film. The music is the primary driving force, and the story seems to form organically around the songs—you never get the feeling, as you sometimes do in a musical, that the composers scratched their heads and said, “Now how can I make a song fit here?” No, as much as I love 1940s and 1950s musicals, I think the era of the “I’m going to break into song now” movie musical is gone. It either has to be done with self-reflexive cynicism, as in the hospital delivery-room dance scene in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, or simply and naturally, as in Once.
Once’s low budget is almost as famous as its rave reviews: the movie was made for under $200,000. (A higher budget had been planned, and rising star Cillian Murphy was slated to play the role of the Guy, but when he backed out, the film lost some of its producers. It’s only at that point that Hansard was cast as the singer of his own songs.) One of the things I noticed about Once was that neither Guy nor Girl had a cell phone—an oddity indeed in contemporary, tech-savvy Dublin, and no doubt a symbol of their outsider status. The lack of cell phones could also be a metaphor for the movie itself: a low-tech movie without glamour or special effects, relying on old-fashioned methods of communication—and delighting us, without the razzle-dazzle.
P.S. A couple of people have reminded me that Moulin Rouge is one recent movie musical that has succeeded artistically, critically, and popularly. True. And I like it, too. However, it is different from your standard movie musical in that (1) like Once, it never was a stage show; and (2) most of its songs aren’t original. In fact, the latter characteristic is one of the reasons it’s so interesting: the anachronism of 1980’s rock music in around-1900 Paris works, strangely. The movie does have one original song, “Come What May,” which is pretty standard musical fare in that it’s two people singing their feelings to each other. Maybe I’d like this song better if Ewan McGregor’s singing voice didn’t make me cringe.
June 25th, 2007
You may know John Patrick Shanley as the writer behind 1987’s Moonstruck. Or you may be more familiar with his plays, such as Danny and the Deep Blue Sea and the more recent Doubt, which tend to explore the small operations of grace in the lives of broken people. I’ve been particularly eager to see Doubt, and though the screen isn’t exactly the same as the stage, at least Shanley will be directing the film (I hope this is a good thing).
I’m even more thrilled that Amy Adams has a role. I’ve been a big fan of hers since I saw Junebug. This seems like it will be a much less comic role than her previous ones, but I’m looking forward to seeing her demonstrate her versatility.
Doubt’s story involves a pedophilia charge against a Catholic priest (and, no, John Patrick Shanley is not that Shanley), but, from what I’ve heard, the truth of the matter isn’t entirely clear. Expect something complex and meaningful, coming to a theater near you, probably in 2008.
Mink and Ben, this post goes out to you!
June 24th, 2007
Via LookingCloser.org, here’s a response to the AFI list pointing out the lamentable lack of women directors (as in, none on the Top 100 list, and only 4 among the list of 400 nominated films). How many of the films have you seen on the counter-list of the Top 100 American Films Directed by Women? I got some catchin’ up to do, I admit.
I’m guessing there’s also a notable absence of films directed by African Americans, Asian Americans, or Latinos.
In looking over the two AFI lists again, I realized that one of the differences between the old one and the new one was the removal of The Birth of a Nation. Interesting. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable voting for The Birth of a Nation myself, as it was a piece of racist propaganda. But it sure was influential and culturally significant, which are two of the AFI’s criteria. There seems to be a greater shift towards taking a film’s message into account–which makes it all the more ironic that there are so few female directors or directors of color on the list.
June 21st, 2007
It’s been a decade since the American Film Institute’s first 100 Greatest [American, Award-Winning, Influential] Films of All Time came out, and the new one doesn’t really seem that different. Titanic made it on at #83, so blech to that. The biggest difficulty with either list is that it pretty much limits you to big Oscar-winners (one of the selection criteria is that the film should be a “major award winner”). Thus, I’m surprised to see that The Fellowship of the Ring made it on the list, instead of Oscar-decorated The Return of the King (all three Lord of the Rings movies were on the list of 400 nominees, from which these 100 were elected). Here’s the 2008 list (you can also view the 1998 list for comparison):
1 CITIZEN KANE (Welles, 1941)
2 THE GODFATHER (Coppola, 1972)
3 CASABLANCA (Curtiz, 1942)
4 RAGING BULL (Scorsese, 1980)
5 SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (Donen & Kelly, 1952)
6 GONE WITH THE WIND (Fleming, 1939)
7 LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (Lean, 1962)
8 SCHINDLER’S LIST (Spielberg, 19930
9 VERTIGO (Hitchcock, 1958)
10 THE WIZARD OF OZ (Fleming, 1939)
11 CITY LIGHTS (Chaplin, 1931)
12 THE SEARCHERS (Ford, 1956)
13 STAR WARS (Lucas, 1977)
14 PSYCHO (Hitchcock, 1960)
15 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Kubrick, 1968)
16 SUNSET BLVD. (Wilder, 1950)
17 THE GRADUATE (Nichols, 1967)
18 THE GENERAL (Keaton & Bruckman, 1927)
19 ON THE WATERFRONT (Kazan, 1954)
20 IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (Capra, 1946)
21 CHINATOWN (Polanski, 1974)
22 SOME LIKE IT HOT (Wilder, 1959)
23 THE GRAPES OF WRATH (Ford, 1940)
24 E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (Spielberg, 1982)
25 TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Mulligan, 1962)
26 MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Capra, 1939)
27 HIGH NOON (Zinnemann, 1952)
28 ALL ABOUT EVE (Mankiewicz, 1950)
29 DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Wilder, 1944)
30 APOCALYPSE NOW (Coppola, 1979)
31 THE MALTESE FALCON (Huston, 1941)
32 THE GODFATHER: PART II (Coppola, 1974)
33 ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (Forman, 1975)
34 SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (various, 1937)
35 ANNIE HALL (Allen, 1977)
36 THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (Lean, 1957)
37 THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (Wyler, 1946)
38 THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (Huston, 1948)
39 DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (Kubrick, 1964)
40 THE SOUND OF MUSIC (Wise, 1965)
41 KING KONG (Cooper & Schoedsack, 1933)
42 BONNIE AND CLYDE (Penn, 1967)
43 MIDNIGHT COWBOY (Schlesinger, 1969)
44 THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (Cukor, 1940)
45 SHANE (Stevens, 1953)
46 IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (Capra, 1934)
47 A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (Kazan, 1951)
48 REAR WINDOW (Hitchcock, 1954)
49 INTOLERANCE (Griffith, 1916)
50 THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (Jackson, 2001)
51 WEST SIDE STORY (Robbins & Wise, 1961)
52 TAXI DRIVER (Scorsese, 1976)
53 THE DEER HUNTER (Cimino, 1978)
54 MASH (Altman, 1970)
55 NORTH BY NORTHWEST (Hitchcock, 1959)
56 JAWS (Spielberg, 1975)
57 ROCKY (Avildsen, 1976)
58 THE GOLD RUSH (Chaplin, 1925)
59 NASHVILLE (Altman, 1975)
60 DUCK SOUP (McCarey, 1933)
61 SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (Sturges, 1941)
62 AMERICAN GRAFFITI (Lucas, 1973)
63 CABARET (Fosse, 1972)
64 NETWORK (Lumet, 1976)
65 THE AFRICAN QUEEN (Huston, 1951)
66 RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (Spielberg, 1981)
67 WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (Nichols, 1966)
68 UNFORGIVEN (Eastwood, 1992)
69 TOOTSIE (Pollack, 1982)
70 A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (Kubrick, 1971)
71 SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (Spielberg, 1997)
72 THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (Darabont, 1994)
73 BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (Hill, 1969)
74 THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (Demme, 1991)
75 IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (Jewison, 1967)
76 FORREST GUMP (Zemeckis, 1994)
77 ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (Pakula, 1977)
78 MODERN TIMES (Chaplin, 1936)
79 THE WILD BUNCH (Peckinpah, 1969)
80 THE APARTMENT (Wilder, 1960)
81 SPARTACUS (Kubrick, 1960)
82 SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (Murnau, 1927)
83 TITANIC (Cameron, 1997)
84 EASY RIDER (Hopper, 1969)
85 A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (Wood, 1935)
86 PLATOON (Stone, 1986)
87 12 ANGRY MEN (Lumet, 1957)
88 BRINGING UP BABY (Hawks, 1938)
89 THE SIXTH SENSE (Shyamalan, 1999)
90 SWING TIME (Stevens, 1936)
91 SOPHIE’S CHOICE (Pakula, 1982)
92 GOODFELLAS (Scorsese, 1990)
93 THE FRENCH CONNECTION (Friedkin, 1971)
94 PULP FICTION (Tarantino, 1994)
95 THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (Bogdanovich, 1971)
96 DO THE RIGHT THING (Lee, 1989)
97 BLADE RUNNER (Scott, 1982)
98 YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (Curtiz, 1942)
99 TOY STORY (Lasseter, 1995)
100 BEN-HUR (Wyler, 1959)
Upset about the list? Then fill out your own ballot. I’m pasting below my list of the top 50 out of the 400 nominated films (well, out of the ones I’ve seen), including the 5 write-ins allowed to all voters. My list is kind of a combination of my favorites and movies I may not like so much but recognize as artistically good. Alas, my extreme dislike of Gone with the Wind or anything by George Lucas doesn’t allow me to even begin to consider their potential artistic merit. Apologies beforehand for my inordinate love of musicals, Alfonso Cuarón, and Gregory Peck.
The Otter’s Top 50 AFI-Nominated Films (in rough order)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Chariots of Fire
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Mission (write-in, if it counts as American)
Singin’ in the Rain
A Man for All Seasons
In the Heat of the Night
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (write-in)
The Princess Bride (write-in)
My Fair Lady
A Little Princess (1995, write-in)
Sense and Sensibility
The Shawshank Redemption
Bringing Up Baby
Children of Men (write-in, again not sure whether it counts as American)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Driving Miss Daisy
12 Angry Men
West Side Story
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The Producers (1967)
The Grapes of Wrath
The Lion King
It Happened One Night
On the Waterfront
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
The Sound of Music
The Maltese Falcon
The Philadelphia Story
A Streetcar Named Desire
Field of Dreams
June 21st, 2007
A few weeks ago I posted about my discovery (again, thanks to Dormouse) of mystery writer Laurie R. King. I started with the Kate Martinelli series (set in the present—or near-present—day) and have just completed the first of the Mary Russell series (set in the 1910s and 1920s and featuring Sherlock Holmes). It’s called The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (who knew that Sherlock Holmes had an apiary?), and it’s delightful.
From some point in her nineties, Mary Russell, born in 1900 to an American father and a Cockney Jewish mother, recalls her teen years, during which she met and learned from—and grew to love—Sherlock Holmes. When I say “love,” I don’t mean necessarily romantic love, though it seems from summaries of the rest of the books in the series that Russell and Holmes will indeed marry at some point. This love is a meeting of the minds, a partnership that is no less passionate for being intensely cerebral, and it is one that becomes deeply grounded in trust.
Okay, now I’ve made The Beekeeper’s Apprentice sound like a romance novel, which it isn’t. Nor is it exactly what many people would consider a mystery—the several crime-puzzles contained within the novel aren’t particularly complex or challenging as a “whodunit.” Nor are they meant to be. King, I would argue, is more interested in Mystery than in mysteries. Her novels trace the enigma of finding companionship in the midst of loneliness, of the healing of a soul.
And now I’ve made it sound like psycho-babble, which it isn’t, either. King’s writing is often hilarious, and the skilled construction of her sentences is a relief from less graceful or witty prose. She even has demonstrated the ability to write as well in third-person contemporary American language as in first-person 1910’s British language (albeit with a few unobjectionable anachronisms thrown in for effect).
But, anyway, back to the Mystery/mystery point. In a passage rather similar to some essays on King’s own web site, Russell says of the period during which she was studying theology at Oxford, “I did not think of myself as a detective; I was a student of theology, and I was to spend my life in exploration, not of the darker crannies of human misbehaviour, but of the heights of human speculation concerning the nature of the Divine. That the two were not unrelated did not occur to me for years.”
Yes. Good. I like that. Not only does knowing human sinfulness help us to understand God better, but, as when Holmes admires a criminal’s brilliant, if twisted, mind, we can also see the glory that God has planted in human nature. It’s kind of like the best of Calvinism mixed with the best of the Enlightenment.
King’s Holmes is rational to the core, but he is a good deal more vulnerable than the Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (I have to admit that I’m not that familiar with Doyle’s stories, though). He is retired, after all, and before Mary Russell stumbles (literally) upon him, he seems to be wearying of life. By the way, King’s Holmes is a little younger than the canonical one, which she addresses in the novel by having Holmes say that “Watson,” as his biographer, felt that his protagonist would be more respected if he were not quite so young as in real life. Thus, we have a Holmes who is in his fifties during the 1910s.
Russell (as she is called by Holmes) is a tomboy of sorts, but not in the clichéd way of much recent fantasy or adventure fiction. “Tomboy” is not the defining aspect of her personality, nor is “bookworm,” nor any other label that might be applied to her. The undercurrent of her traumatic past also helps to keep any easy stereotypes at bay.
Russell is also 5’11”, which allows her to carry off physical feats not possible for tiny Veronica Mars (Could Russell crawl through a dog door, though? I think not!). The Beekeeper’s Apprentice really made me think about how the physical is so often a key plot point in a story involving a female detective. Do we ever think so much about a male detective’s height or weight, and how it affects the story’s action? Discuss.
June 19th, 2007
First, a confession: Volver is my first Pedro Almodóvar film. I’m still learning what make his films distinctive. Already, I feel like I need to watch Volver again in order to fully appreciate it.
For one thing, it’s hard to classify the movie as a particular genre. Most label it as a “comedy,” though I’d say it’s definitely a dark one. It also has some elements of melodrama, not to mention hints of the supernatural.
Moreover, I have trouble determining my initial response to the film, because it’s very risky character-wise. The main character, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), seems inaccessible in her matter-of-fact, business-is-business busy-ness—until, towards the end of the movie, you learn one fact about her character that changes your whole perception of her. Suddenly, all her previous actions make sense. It’s almost like Almodóvar invites and expects repeat viewings.
For most of the film, Raimunda bustles around (with her famously padded posterior*), telling various characters she’s too busy for this or that. She doesn’t seem to have the time to deal with her teenage daughter’s emotional trauma or to go to the funeral of her beloved aunt. Granted, this is because she has to dispose of her husband’s corpse—and find a way to make a living in his absence (though she was the primary breadwinner even when he was alive).
Yes, the women of La Mancha are busy; unlike the most famous “Man of La Mancha,” Don Quixote, they have no time or leisure to go crazy. Though the film refers to how the fierce Manchego wind can drive people insane, these women are do-ers, not dreamers. Almodóvar says in his commentary that these, in essence, are the women of his youth, women like his mother. But his film imbues even their mundane household tasks with significance. Throughout the film, we see Raimunda washing dishes in the kitchen sink, then later washing her husband’s blood off a knife in that same sink, and finally using that knife to chop vegetables in the restaurant she has opened.
(I should mention that the film doesn’t entirely take place in La Mancha; Raimunda’s apartment and restaurant are both in Madrid, but she is a native of La Mancha, and it’s clear that the region haunts her in more ways than one.)
The few men of Volver are drunkards, slobs, sexual offenders. If these were truly the sort of men Almodóvar grew up with, no wonder his movies are famous for focusing on women. I can’t decide whether I’m touched or troubled—or both—by the very close relationships the director has adopted with a series of favorite female actors as his muses. These relationships aren’t sexual (Almodóvar is openly gay), but the mutual idolization society that has formed between Almodóvar and his current muse, Penelope Cruz, is so intense that it seems like both parties are bound to be disillusioned at some point. But, on the other hand, maybe that’s the kind of risk that has garnered his works such praise.
A former Almodóvar muse, Carmen Maura, has an important role in Volver as Raimunda’s mother, who may or may not be a ghost. For me, Maura’s Irene was the most interesting character in the film. Like the other women in the film, she seems more a woman of action rather than of deep reflection. A few years of near-solitude, haunting her elderly sister’s house, seems to have given her time, however, to decide how to respond emotionally to the events of her life and her daughters’ lives. When she openly deals with some of the tragic family history, it opens up the opportunity for the other characters to do so as well.
In some of its themes, most notably dealing with family sexual abuse, Volver reminded me of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding. It’s easier to immediately like Monsoon Wedding: when the sexual offender is cast out, everything explodes in joyful color and sound. Volver is in some ways more subtle and in some ways more over-the-top. I should watch it again . . . but there are so many movies in my Netflix queue! Maybe I’ll rewatch it in a couple of years, after I’ve seen some other Almodóvar flicks.
*For several months surrounding Volver’s release, it seemed no one could discuss the film without mentioning how Cruz wore bottom-padding for the role. The explanation I’d often heard was that Almodóvar didn’t think she looked “Spanish” enough. According to Cruz in a DVD-extra interview, that wasn’t the case at all. Rather, since Cruz’s character had given birth as a teenager—and Cruz herself has never had a child—the goal was to provide a more realistic figure, with the wider hips of a woman who’s gone through childbirth. Interesting that the U.S. media fixated on “ethnic” appearance, while the true explanation had more to do with common biology (albeit biology that Hollywood commonly ignores).
June 11th, 2007
Actually, I don’t have a complete explanation for the current popularity of “post-apocalyptic” film and literature. Writer Cormac McCarthy, prodded by Oprah in his first-ever TV interview this week, suggests that it has to do with 9/11. I would think Hurricane Katrina would be an even more scary parallel, but, sadly, that doesn’t seem to have made such a mark on the national consciousness as our suddenly realized vulnerability to “foreign” threats.
Anyway, just think over the past year: in movie theaters we’ve had Children of Men and Apocalypto (the latter of which I have no intention of seeing, though I suppose it could remind us that widespread cultural disaster has happened in the past without the dawning of THE Apocalypse). Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road won the Pulitzer Prize this April—and, perhaps even more significantly, became an Oprah’s Book Club selection. “Post-apocalyptic” is suddenly the word on everyone’s lips.
But what does it mean? According to the common usage, “after a big, bad thing happens.” In the original Greek, however, “apocalypse” means “unveiling”—or “revelation,” as we are more accustomed to seeing it translated. What gets unveiled or revealed in the biblical book of Revelation? Pretty much everything that was in the dark. Evil is revealed for what it is. As is Jesus, who finally appears as conquering king, as well as suffering servant.
However, in the post-apocalyptic art of today, human nature is more often the subject of revelation—and there’s nothing wrong with that. Putting humanity on the brink exposes both our depravity and our God-given goodness—often both within the same heart. This is what we see most clearly in The Road.
On the surface, it’s a simple story in a bleak setting: a tale of a nameless father and son merely trying to survive in a land where most plant and animal life has died after some unspecified disaster (some readers have suggested that it’s a nuclear holocaust—whatever the cause, the earth is covered with ash, and the man and the boy have to wear masks to keep from breathing it in). Marauding bands of bearded men have turned into cannibals and rapists, and the father is determined to protect his son from them at all costs.
I have to admit that I thought of these marauders as Reavers (from Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity universe); unlike Whedon, however, McCarthy is largely uninterested in how these Reavers became Reaver-ish. They’re just there, as if every human has the potential to turn into one if, under certain extreme circumstances, he begins making evil choices. Father and son not only have to protect themselves from the physical threat of the Reavers (it’s easier to just call them that, even though the novel doesn’t), but also from letting the Reaverishness creep into their own hearts.
The father refers to the Reavers as “the bad guys,” and the boy keeps asking for reassurance that he and his father are the “good guys.” What entails goodness is never fully explained, though it certainly involves not eating dogs or other people. According to the son, it also means helping people they encounter on the Road. The father is not so sure about this, because he loves his son and is reluctant to give up anything (canned food, etc.) if doing so would lessen the boy’s chances of survival. He reasons that the few non-Reaver people they encounter are near death anyway, so it’s not worth helping them. The boy has a more compassionate ethical code—is it inherent, somehow inborn, or has it been taught to him by his father at a slightly less desperate time in their lives?—and he begins to doubt the “good guys” label. At one point, he tells his father that he doesn’t want to hear any more of his stories because they’re not true: “in the stories we’re always helping people and we don’t help people.” Ouch.
Nevertheless, The Road is also about serendipity and the persistence of goodness. In this, as well as in the father-son theme, it reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s recent novel Gilead, though that book was about the unseen beauty in ordinary things, while The Road is about how marvelous a tin of beans seems in extraordinary circumstances. (The prose styles are also about as different as one could imagine!)
Oprah’s interview with McCarthy suggests that much of this attitude comes from his own experience, even if under very different circumstances from those of the characters in The Road. He tells a story of one time when he was so dirt-poor that he couldn’t even buy toothpaste. The day he ran out, he happened to go out to the mailbox, and there was a free tube of sample toothpaste. A lifetime of these occurrences leads McCarthy to say in the interview, “Life is pretty d— good, even when it looks bad, and we should appreciate it more. We should be grateful. I don’t know who to be grateful to . . . but you should be thankful for what you have.”
Oprah: “You haven’t worked out the whole God thing yet?”
Cormac McCarthy: “It would depend on what day you asked me. But sometimes it’s good to pray. I don’t think you have to have a clear idea of who or what God is in order to pray. You could even be quite doubtful about the whole business.”
Just when McCarthy seemed to be getting on a roll, freely giving his opinions without being poked and steered by Oprah, she switched topics and asks him how he feels about having many more readers now. Grr! I wanted to hear more. (By the way, you can hear excerpts from the interview online at Oprah’s Book Club, though you have to be a member—it’s free to join—to do so).
At times, both father and son wonder what they’re living and journeying for; they long to take the path of the boy’s mother, who said, hauntingly, “I am done with my own whorish heart,” and went off alone to commit suicide. Occasional flashes of goodness are part of what sustain father and son, but even more than that it’s the courage to continue on even when no goodness is visible. And, as the father says, goodness will find them. “It always has. It will again.”
It’s strange for such a bleak book to not be depressing. It’s not depressing, though it will stick in your mind long after you’ve finished it. What is depressing is that some readers (see Oprah’s forum) respond to its poignancy by thinking about how they should stockpile some canned goods for the future. Ack! Well, the human heart is a mysterious thing.
June 7th, 2007