Archive for March, 2008
When trying to describe Adam Rex’s novel The True Meaning of Smekday over the past few days, I’ve typically said it’s like Douglas Adams meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (A strange combo, yes, and perhaps even stranger because you will find the book in the children’s section of your local bookstore. Amazon tells me that the book is suitable for ages 9-12. As the novel’s heroine Gratuity Tucci would say, “Whatever.”) Go ahead and throw a little Mark Twain into the mix, too, because this post-apocalyptic road journey has biting social commentary and truly touching moments of bonding between human and alien.
Initially framed as a school essay, the novel begins in the year 2013 with eleven-year-old Gratuity and her cat Pig driving to Florida, where the invading alien race of Boov have forced all Americans to relocate. Of course, there are great parallels here to Manifest Destiny and Indian Removal, and the satire is skillfully delivered. Gratuity (also known as “Tip” to her friends) meets a fugitive Boov named J.Lo, and the three end up journeying together across the southern half of the United States.
One of Rex’s brilliant strokes is to make it hard to pin down who’s Huck and who’s Jim in this 21st-century adventure. Gratuity is human; J.Lo is a member of the conquering alien race. However, J.Lo is also an outcast among his own people—and Gratuity is African American. Gratuity herself has clearly read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and admires Mark Twain, even if she doesn’t approve of his female characters. One of Huck’s most famous lines is worked in subtly and appropriately, without calling attention to itself, but enriching the impact for those who recognize the reference.
Will 9-12-year-olds recognize the reference? Maybe not. I imagine the adventure-story aspects of the book will appeal to older children, but the parts I most enjoyed—bureaucrats who can’t conceive of taking any action if there’s not a proper form for it, UFO-believers still hanging out in Roswell because the recent, real alien invasion didn’t meet their expectations—will resonate more profoundly with the funny-bones of adults. Plus, the theme of alien invasion gets rather intense at times. We know that people and aliens alike get killed, though never exactly “onscreen.”
For older children and adults, though, the way the book addresses the theme of mass suffering may be helpful. I think I’m just going to quote one of my favorite scenes here, occurring just after Tip and J.Lo have survived torrential rain and flooding:
“When I was a little girl,” I said, sitting down, “the wallpaper in my room had pictures of the Noah story.”
“Pictures of forty nights of raining?”
“Well, no,” I said. Now that I thought about it, that wallpaper didn’t show any rain at all. Wasn’t rain the whole point? “No, it had cute pictures of Noah’s ark. His boat. Adorable little zebras and elephants and things. It’s a popular story for little kids, I guess because of the animals.”
“Little people like the animals,” said J.Lo, nodding and folding his hands. “Is true with the Boov as well.”
“You know what’s weird, though? It’s weird that the ark would be such a kids’ story, you know? I mean, it’s . . . really a story about death. Every person who isn’t in Noah’s family? They die. Every animal, apart from the two of each on the boat? They die. They all die in the flood. Billions of creatures. It’s the worst tragedy ever,” I finished, my voice tied off by a knot in my chest. I’d been speaking too fast without breathing, and I sucked down air before speaking again.
“What the hell,” I said, “pardon my language, was that doing on my wallpaper?”
J.Lo understood me well enough by now not to answer. So I looked off to the west in silence, and saw a thousand miles of hopeless wasteland before we reached Arizona . . .
J.Lo’s hand was on my shoulder suddenly, and he said, “Rainbow.”
I looked up. First at him and then at the sky where he was pointing.
. . . It was a perfect, bright, unbroken rainbow stretching over the western horizon like a door. It was so beautiful it looked fake. Above it was another, fainter one in reverse, and I exhaled and thought, of course. Of course there’s a rainbow. ‘Bout time.
Tip’s wallpaper exegesis leads me to believe I would enjoy discussing the Bible with her. I have a lot of respect for someone who is aware of and sensitive to all the horrible things that happen in the Bible and throughout human history and yet still responds to rainbows with expectation of a promise fulfilled (“’Bout time” seems to me like a paraphrase of many of the Psalms.). Incidentally, I thought of this moment from Smekday yesterday when I was in Barnes & Noble and saw religious studies scholar Bart Ehrman’s (or “Barty Crouch,” as he’s known for some reason among our circle of friends) latest book being promoted. Its title, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer, makes me want to laugh and/or snort—because, well, duh, of course the Bible doesn’t completely answer our questions about suffering. If it gave a pat, definitive answer, I don’t think we would have this thing called “the problem of evil” that philosophers and theologians have been arguing for centuries. The Bible seems to give several ways of looking at suffering, but the theme that runs throughout is pretty much what Tip’s experience suggests: it’s a mystery, but, somehow, God is faithful.
Anyway, I don’t mean to suggest that Tip’s commentary always has a theological bent. Sometimes she is quite discerning about elves, for example. When staying with the Roswell-ites, one of whom has a baby named Andromeda, Tip observes that Andromeda is dressed in “both her Legolas onesie and her Keebler booties. Which seemed wrong, you know—mixing two different kinds of elves like that.” Bravo, Tip. Tolkien couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly.
Also, I’ve noted before that post-apocalyptic literature tends to “reveal” or “uncover” the truth about human nature. The True Meaning of Smekday is no exception. As Tip notes, “Most people want to break other people’s things and roll cars over, but won’t unless their planets are invaded by aliens, or their basketball team wins the finals.” Or football team. Whatever.
In short, The True Meaning of Smekday is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Rex, whose previous work has been mainly in illustrating children’s picture books, includes entertaining “snapshot” illustrations, as well as occasional comic-book-style segments. And, as I hope I’ve indicated, Tip’s narrative voice is sharp, witty, and insightful. Find, read, and enjoy.
March 11th, 2008
Netflix recently delivered the DVD of Becoming Jane to our mailbox, because I wanted to give it another chance, to see if it offended my aesthetic and feminist sensibilities as much the second time. I wanted to listen to the commentary, to see how aware the filmmakers were of the implications they created (implications I’ve previously railed against here). And, yes, I did want to see James McAvoy again. I think he’s developing into a minor crush of mine. Or maybe it’s just the green velvet coat he wears in this movie.
My conclusions? The same things still irked me, some even more so, after hearing the commentary. However, I don’t think director Julian Jarrold and writer Kevin Hood were intentionally suggesting that a woman needs a man in order to write well; they do pay lip service to Jane Austen’s genius on the commentary. It’s frustrating, though, how unaware they can be of the messages they’re sending. Watching the movie the first time, I was probably most deeply offended by the conversation between Austen and Lefroy about Tom Jones, in which Austen came off sounding like a prude and Lefroy’s claim that Austen’s experience needed to be widened (read: she needed to know more about sexual attraction, possibly by reading “scandalous” novels like Tom Jones, but preferably by first-hand experience) before she could become a better writer was left unchallenged. Imagine my even greater irritation, then, when I learned from the commentary that Hood knew that Austen read Tom Jones before she ever met Lefroy. She read it on her own, which was quite shocking for a young woman of her day, but not something from which she shrank back. In the few references to Lefroy among Austen’s unburned letters, she mentions discussing Tom Jones with Lefroy, but she had already read it. He was not her teacher; he was not responsible for “broadening” her horizons. I don’t at all mind the fictionalizing of Austen’s and Lefroy’s relationship, but I do object to re-inserting old gender stereotypes into a situation where they didn’t actually exist.
Another thing irritated me more the second time around: in the first sequence in which Lefroy listens to Jane read aloud, he is bored and dismisses her writing as “accomplished.” Since we only hear her what she’s written in snippets, we don’t really get any opinion to the contrary. He gets the last word. So is it progress when, in the film’s final scene, we see him applauding and smiling at her reading? Sure, her writing has gotten better, and maybe his taste has improved, too, but it still leaves with him the final verdict, implying that his opinion is the one that really matters. I’m really torn about this scene, because it is really moving when read at the level of personal reconciliation—but the personal is all tied up with issues of gender and writing in Becoming Jane.
I’ve been thinking that part of my reaction to this scene may have to do with lingering anger towards Gilbert Blythe. I refer to the Gilbert Blythe of the Anne of Avonlea TV miniseries, which was a staple of my childhood. He tells Anne, who has been writing “highfaluting mumbojumbo,” to write about “the real people you care about right here in Avonlea.” (Yes, I can quote the movie word for word. Still. It’s embarrassing.) Eventually, she takes his advice, and he turns out to be right, because she gets a book published. He is right about her prior writing; it is silly. But why, why, why, in movies about women writers, does the man who critiques her writing in favor of experience and realism always have to be right? It makes me want to kick things.
Plus, why do they make Jane Austen look like Emily Dickinson in the movie’s final scenes? Was the white dress really necessary? Do we really need to bring every single stereotype about “old maid” women writers into one film?
In spite of my fury at some parts of Becoming Jane—and, as I hope I’ve made clear, that fury is really due to an accumulation of similar messages and not exclusively to this one movie—I do like other parts of it very much. I like that we get to view the economics of marriage from many different viewpoints, both male and female. I like that Mr. Wisely, Jane’s awkward suitor who has been dubbed a “booby,” turns out not to be a booby after all, and yet they still don’t get married.
Most of all, I like the dance scene in which Jane is listlessly going through the figures as Wisely’s partner until, seemingly from nowhere, Tom Lefroy whirls into place as her corner. It may be worth watching the whole movie just for this scene (or, alternately, you can just watch the scene on YouTube). James McAvoy’s “kinetic energy” (I quote one of his costars) and the subtle changes in the music make the moment. In the commentary, Jarrold also pointed out that Lefroy’s character has been absent from the screen for a while, as the focus has shifted to the Austens’ financial troubles, so when he finally swoops into view, the audience feels the delayed gratification as well.
Also, in case you’re as obsessed with the details of period music and dance as I am (which is probably unlikely, but oh well), the music in this scene is not included on the soundtrack. It is Purcell’s tune “The Hole in the Wall.” (Jarrold went on about how choreographer Jane Gibson wanted to use a dance that hadn’t been seen in any of the other Austen movies. Too bad that Gibson herself already used “Hole in the Wall” in the 1996 Emma miniseries–as well as in her choreography for Wives and Daughters. It’s a great tune and a great dance, but let’s not resort to false advertising.) Also, one of my favorite bits of the commentary explained how composer Adrian Johnston went through Austen’s music notebooks and used some of the themes from those songs in the movie’s score. The most obvious example is the use of the tune “The Irishman” in Tom Lefroy’s musical theme. You can listen to a snippet of “The Irishman” here, then hear the same tune repeated in the “Bond Street Airs” track on the Becoming Jane soundtrack. Why yes, I am a nerd.
March 8th, 2008
I wanted to like Michael Clayton. While I’m not as much of a Clooney-phile as many women seem to be, he’s a decent actor; the movie also stars Tilda Swinton (who just won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the film) and Tom Wilkinson, whom I’ve seen in approximately one movie per year for the past fifteen years and haven’t grown tired of yet. The movie’s plot summaries—along the lines of “a corrupt legal ‘fixer’ begins to develop a conscience after his colleague goes bonkers”—made it sound kind of like classic Hollywood, like something in black-and-white that Gregory Peck would star in. Plus, the director/writer is Tony Gilroy, the scribe behind all three Jason Bourne movies. If a writer can make your Otter like an action flick as much as I’ve liked the Bourne movies, he’s pretty good.
Unfortunately, however, Gilroy seems to have been determined to make Michael Clayton as different from the Bourne movies as possible while still working within the genre of conspiracy thriller. It’s like you can hear the gears clicking in his head throughout the movie: “Must . . . not . . . do . . . anything popular or crowd-pleasing.” It’s not just that it’s a “talkier” movie than the Bourne movies—I revel in ridiculous amounts of dialogue, so that doesn’t bother me. The biggest problem is actually the movie’s structure: it starts out in media res and then goes back to fill in the details. The first time we see Clayton in action, he’s already tired of his shady ways and beginning to suspect that his firm’s client, U-North, may be even more crooked than he thought. He’s also in precarious financial circumstances, he has family troubles, and, oh yeah, he’s a recovering gambling addict.
The problem with starting at Clayton’s lowest point is that we’re told that he’s really good at the sneaky, greasy things he does—but we never get to see him in action at his peak. Therefore, we don’t really know what he’s like before his “fall,” so to speak, a fall into conscience that seems to be spurred mostly by concern for his friend Arthur Edens (Wilkinson). Yes, his last name is “Edens.” No, it’s not subtle, especially since the first sign of Arthur’s mental instability is when he strips down naked in the middle of a deposition.
Arthur is the most interesting character in the film, not only because of the grand literary tradition of fools who speak truth, but also because, as Wilkinson plays him, you can also see the brilliance speaking through the madness. You can see why he’s been such a success in the courtroom—something you never see with Clayton himself. We don’t see anything of Clayton’s and Arthur’s relationship before Arthur bares it all at the deposition, though we’re told that Clayton helped Arthur years before when he had gone off his medication and had a manic episode. We don’t really see why Arthur matters so much to Clayton, though, perhaps because the movie spends so much time dealing with Clayton’s relationships with his equally dysfunctional siblings and son. We need to see more of the relationship between Arthur and Clayton to understand Clayton’s later actions.
As much as I enjoyed Tilda Swinton’s bizarre Oscar acceptance speech, I was a little surprised at her win, because her character wasn’t fully fleshed out either. Swinton, as Karen Crowder, the chief counsel for U-North, manages to convey the outline of a woman who’s fought to the top and will do anything to preserve her uneasy place there. The movie does hint that she’s both victim and villain—I found myself thinking that her story would be a lot more interesting than Michael Clayton’s. And Tilda Swinton could have done marvelously in the title role of a movie called Karen Crowder–one of the many, potentially better movies lurking within the unwieldy plot of Michael Clayton. As it was, we just got to see her put on a suit, sweat profusely, and speak with an American accent.
I’ve already voiced my opinion that The Bourne Ultimatum won all three Oscars for which it was nominated because voters realized they should have nominated it for Best Picture instead of Michael Clayton. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I do genuinely think The Bourne Ultimatum is a better movie. Plus, there’s more running and chasing and things that go boom—things that I do occasionally enjoy, believe it or not.
March 1st, 2008