American Graffiti

May 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Smug self-aggrandizing baby boomer bullshit. Is that too harsh?

The funny thing is that if I’d seen this five or ten years ago, I probably would have loved it. It’s got nostalgia for a bygone era (complete with malt shops!), a coming-of-age story, and a mix of lighthearted plots paired with serious themes–all movie elements I’m drawn toward. But the spending the last five years reading lots of obnoxious, baby boomer-penned New York Times columns about the millenial generation’s inability to move out of their parents’ houses, buckle down and get a job, et cetera et cetera has built up a certain animosity towards the fuzzy-wuzzy, romantic conception of the good ol’ days.

Let me get more specific.

  1.  This movie is so damn George Lucas-y. I’ll cut its initial audiences some slack, since the Lucas gimmicks that we’ve all come to know and hate weren’t yet defined. But to a generation raised on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, they grate. The entire character of Terry–the nerd of the group–exists solely for comic relief, and the kind of Lucasian comic relief that isn’t particularly funny to anyone over the age of 6 (see also: Jar Jar Binks, Short Round). His inclusion in the film makes about as much sense as Screech’s in the Saved by the Bell gang.
  2. This is more of a personal gripe, but god, I hate movies where we’re supposed to see a character as adorable and amusing while he takes advantage of older or disenfranchised people who haven’t done anything to him. I hate it ten times more when that character is an insufferable snotty teenager. This happens multiple times in this film (Terry hitting another car with his and then driving off, ordering food at the drive-in and leaving before he pays for it). Yes, I get this is supposed to be the sort of teenage fantasy world where the kids can get the best of cops, principals and other authority figures without having to pay for it–but I guess I’m a little too removed from that time in my life to find that kind of narcissism appealing. Also, get off my lawn and stuff.
  3. Fine, okay, most of the things on this list could mostly be summed up as “I hate Terry.”
  4. The movie treats its female characters as simply underdeveloped extensions of the male protagonists. While this certainly isn’t unique in Hollywood, the fact that it’s so blatant about it–and so lazy about not providing what could have been easy fixes–makes it stand out from its peers. The most obvious example of this is one that Pauline Kael once called Lucas out for: the fact that he only provides character epilogues for the four male leads at the end of the film. Lucas’s excuse for leaving the women out? That it would have taken up another screen. I rest my case.
  5. The women-as-wish-fulfillment-for-nerds angle is taken to absurd extremes here. Terry –have I mentioned that I hate Terry?–manages to pick up a beautiful but spacey blonde, and then, despite mucking up everything he could possibly muck up–failing multiple times to procure liquor for her and eventually having to borrow money from her, getting his car stolen–still manages to land a second date. And women throw themselves at Ron Howard, of all people. Ron Howard! Meanwhile, the two guys who you’d think might actually have women fighting over them–the hot rod racers played by Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford–end up alone. I think George Lucas may have been working out some of his nerd-revenge fantasies here.

I’m calling it now: this is one of those films whose legacy was based almost entirely on timing. As baby boomer critics are replaced with younger ones who don’t have a personal connection to the time period, its star is going to fall quickly. On the plus side . . . great soundtrack, though. But not great enough to make me forget how much I hate Terry.

The Trouble with Angels

April 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

It’s movies like this that make me regret the fact that I have no desire to have kids. My childhood was shaped by my dad’s taste in pop culture: The Princess Bride and the Indiana Jones series made frequent appearances; on the other hand, I didn’t see a Star Wars movie until I was 19–despite seeing Spaceballs at a fairly young and impressionable age, and no, I did not get the jokes. So naturally I have the same desire to torture my future, nonexistent children by ensuring that they’re the only ones in their kindergarten class raised on a steady diet of Esther Williams and Hayley Mills flicks in which they, too, fail to get the jokes.

What I love about this movie–which I will stop and watch any time I catch it on TCM–is that it has layers, alternating sweet and bitter. First you get the overarching plot: two girls get a Catholic boarding school education. Throw in the fact that it stars Hayley Mills, and immediately you think: God, it’s one of those movies. Cloyingly sweet and sentimental, a Catholic Pollyanna. But then you start watching, and you realize that Hayley Mills’ character is . . . well, kind of a bitch. Some of the things she does are mostly just naughty by 1950s standards–smoking cigarettes and mouthing off to an older woman in the opening scene, for example–but some of them are a little startling even by modern standards, like her response to the Mother Superior about the takeaway message from the heartbreaking Christmastime visit of a bunch of lonely grandmothers from a nearby nursing home: it’s that she hopes she dies “young . . . and very wealthy.” And then, just when you think that you’ve got the movie figured out, that it’s just about two girls rebelling and getting into and out of a bunch of wacky scrapes–then the movie’s ending gets all sentimental on you again. But the movie earns it, because slowly, over the course of all those wacky scrapes, you realize that the film has sneaked in little bits of background information that made you care about the characters on a deeper level, and that–although you didn’t realize it–you were witnessing Hayley Mills’ growth as a character the whole time. It’s really well done, but it’s one of those things that’s so well-done that it makes it look much easier than it is.

Bonus: it’s a coming-of-age story that has nothing to do with men. It takes place at an all-girls’ school, with an entirely female staff. Every relationship contained in it has to do with women: their friendships, their rivalries, their role models and teachers. Okay, there might be a hint at some latent daddy issues, but that’s it. Try finding that in a modern movie.

Bunheads

February 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m pretty sure that I wrote this novel when I was in high school. Then I threw it out because I realized it was too much like Center Stage. And then Sophie Flack dug through my trash, changed some names and rewrote a couple scenes, and handed this over to a publisher.

Side note: Seriously, the problem with Center Stage is that it used four of the five available ballet-related plots and thus ruined ballet story-telling for anybody else, lest they want to look like they’re ripping it off. And who wants to be caught ripping off Center Stage, of all the things? The Five Ballet Plots, for the record, are as follows:

  1. Girl tries to make it in the competitive world of ballet, but does she have what it takes? Often involves eating disorders or other health problems to up the ante.
  2. Unconventional ballet dancer (too mouthy, too overweight, whatever) chafes against the harsh restrictions of the ballet world. Often resolved by having her turn to modern dance or ending up at a less traditional ballet company.
  3. Ballet dancer is torn between the all-consuming world of dance and her other interests (usually these “other interests” involve “having sex with people who aren’t ballet dancers”) . Always resolved by her leaving the dance world.
  4. One or more “nice girl” dancers compete against the resident bitch (who is almost always a better dancer than they are). If this is a story aimed at children or young adults, the resident bitch usually turns out to be not so bitchy after all.

Number five is “ballet dancer goes mad due to the pressures of the competitive ballet world,” which obviously The Red Shoes and Black Swan have cornered the market on, so if you’re not ripping off Center Stage then you’re ripping off one of those. There are also the stock characters that turn up again and again: the charismatic but emotionally distant (or manipulative) head of the company, the strict former dancer and current instructor, the naive blonde ingenue. I’ve been writing a story set at the San Francisco Ballet for, oh, about six years now . . . Every three months I realize what I’ve written sounds way too much like Center Stage and am forced to start from scratch. It might be time to just give up entirely.

Back to Bunheads: It also uses the same four plots as Center Stage and most of its stock characters, albeit in a more condensed form, as it follows Hannah, a young corps dancer at a New York ballet company. Hannah is torn between staying with the demanding dance world or giving it up to go to college, and has a love triangle to match (college student versus balletomane). The ending is never really in doubt; the story is more about how Hannah will get to that conclusion. Sophie Flack’s main draw is ostensibly that, as a former professional ballet dancer, she’s in the position to give us some inside knowledge. Unfortunately that insider’s knowledge largely consists of “Ballet dancers are always on a diet and they hate dancing the snowflake piece in The Nutcracker“–the latter of which can be discerned from basically any dancer’s autobiography and the former of which is obvious to anyone with eyes.

Ms. Flack herself was famously fired after several years dancing for the NYCB, and a handful of interviews make it clear just how autobiographical Bunheads is. But Sophie’s Hannah isn’t fired; she chooses her destiny on her own terms. You can sense that this book worked as a kind of therapy for Flack, allowing her to write herself a happier ending, allowing herself more power than she actually had. Nothing wrong with writing a book as therapy, except that they generally do more for the authors than for the readers, and that’s certainly true here. Maybe I’m being a touch harsh–this book probably worked just fine as a guilty pleasure for the young adult audience it’s aimed at. I would have loved it at 15. (Then again, I had a raging eating disorder at 15, so of course I would love this.) As for the adult me, I guess it’s back to watching Center Stage.

The Great American Novel Project: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

December 12, 2011 § 2 Comments

“The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain

When I first started this project, Huck Finn was in the news for reasons you wouldn’t expect: publishers had put out a new copy of the book where all of Twain’s usage of the n-word was replaced by the word “slave.” It reminded me of a 1955 movie made out of the book, where producers, hoping to avoid offense, omitted any references to slavery and turned Jim into a white man. To a modern audience, the problems with that approach are obvious, but apparently the word-replacement approach–just a less egregious version of the same thing–was less overtly troubling, because this isn’t the first time it’s been tried.

Maybe it’s because I’m a writer–temperamental about my words, protective of them–that the whole thing sets me off. To a serious writer, the difference between one word and another is big. If Twain used the n-word, that’s because he meant to use the n-word. If he meant “slave,” he would have written “slave.” Don’t think it’s happenstance: Twain used the n-word repeatedly on purpose. He used it to make a statement about the society Huck Finn takes place in, that it’s so racist that even the characters we’re supposed to like use it over and over without regret, right up through the last chapter. Even minor changes to the text of the story can affect the author’s intention, and in the case of Huck Finn, those “minor changes,” the alteration of one word, seriously alter Twain’s intent: it makes Huck less ambiguous than he’s supposed to be, putting more emphasis on the “high-spirited scamp” side of his personality and less on the “product of his society (even though he would claim otherwise)” side. (It also shows that Jim is either patient or oppressed enough to put up with it, both significant aspects of the book.) The fact that Huck considers himself a loner, Dottie, a rebel is a major focus of the book; by changing the n-word to “slave” we significantly undermine the idea that this isn’t strictly true. At the end of the book, Huck claims that he’s planning on heading out west to rid himself of the burden of polite society, but since the ambiguous nature of his character has already been made clear, we can imagine that his future will end up quite a bit differently than he does. By changing just one of Twain’s words to something less offensive, we also change our conception of the book’s setting and characters. It’s not just a minor change.

Yes, Adventures of Huck Finn is a problematic book. Maybe as times change, we should examine the role it plays it the classroom–as a “classic” example of an anti-racist text–and look at other options that could fulfill similar functions. Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, August Wilson and Toni Morrison can cover similar ground and allow black writers to speak for themselves rather than relying on a white author to interpret for them. Maybe because of Huck Finn‘s complexities and controversy and capability to offend, it’s a book that should wait until college, where lit courses are largely optional and everyone in the class is there by choice. And certainly we should think about the way teachers present the novel, how their use of (or their allowing their students to use) the n-word in class can implicitly condone the same prejudices that Twain was hoping we’d react against. But changing an author’s words–their story, their intent–and wiping away a tiny chunk of history is never an acceptable option.

Previously: Moby-Dick

Next: The Great Gatsby

Anne of Green Gables (1934)

November 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

Jaded by too many early Hollywood book-to-movie adaptations where the film had nothing in common with its source beyond the title, I had low expectations for R.K.O.’s Anne of Green Gables. I figured they’d get the orphan part right, but she’d probably be played by a ringleted blonde rather than a pigtailed redhead, and no doubt the plot would be invented out of whole cloth . . . Imagine my eyes when Anne showed up looking just how I’d always imagined her, blathering about how awful it was to have red hair and asking to be called Cordelia and proclaiming things the White Way of Delight and the Lake of Shining Waters. The plot itself was a mish-mash of some anecdotes from the book and some made up ones (there’s a little Romeo & Juliet storyline inserted to keep Anne and Gilbert apart until the movie’s end), but they got Anne so right, I couldn’t even be mad, not even when they changed the plot to allow Matthew to live at the end. (Okay, that might have more to do with the fact that I love Matthew even more than I love Gilbert Blythe.)

I’ve always found it kind of strange that there’s never been a really great, really committed Anne of Green Gables movie made. The first three books of the series are tailor-made for it: pretty settings, period dresses, heartwarming drama, short episodic plots for children with short attention spans. The conservatives can approve of the family values; the liberals can approve of the fact that the “family” in question is non-traditional. The story is Canadian, and the Japanese inexplicably love it, so it’d do okay in the global market. The third book even has a love triangle that beats the pants off of Twilight‘s. It seems like a no-brainer.

The Student Prince

March 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Back in the first half of the twentieth century, when most people didn’t go to college, it held a certain mystique that it’s since lost. College, to outsiders, wasn’t about academics. It was about fraternity rituals and goldfish-swallowing, phone booth-stuffing and raccoon coats–with a side of copious drinking. Most people saw college as a bourgeios waste of time, a glorified finishing school for rich kids. But for those who had the money to attend, it had an entirely different appeal: college was where you went to become a man. (See: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.)

The Student Prince makes it clear that this is not just an American thing. The film, based on an operetta taking place in 19th-century Germany, follows the prince of a small German kingdom as he’s forced to attend one of Europe’s oldest universities in Heidelberg against his will. In the silent film adaptation that preceded this, he’s sent by his family to finish his education before he can take over the country, but in this film–playing up its more romantic recital of the story–he’s sent to develop his charm because his princess fiancee finds him stilted and contentious, trained for war rather than wooing. Unfortunately for her, at the university he finds himself developing a little bit more charm than she probably had in mind, ifyouknowwhatImean and I think you do.

At the inn where he’s spending the semester, Karl falls immediately for the sweet barmaid Kathie, who serves as his guide to student life at Heidelberg, which he initially finds baffling and raucous. The fact that nobody there gives him the full respect that his title commands is another wound. But with Kathie beside him, he quickly adapts–eating knockwurst like the other students, slamming his mugs of beer like a champ, following her advice on which student “corporations” (the German equivalent of fraternities) to join. In fact, he soon realizes that he’d rather hide his royal identity altogether.

Some things about college haven’t changed.

The Student Prince goes surprisingly deep into the traditional trappings of German student life. (This is all in the source material. What, you thought 1950s MGM would do historical research?) While the silent film largely had glossed over the depictions of college life in order to focus on the romance, The Student Prince goes so far as to integrate the German university traditions into the plot of the film. Two rival student corps fight over him–the snobbier of the two only once they learn that he’s a prince, the down-to-earth one from the very beginning. When the leader of the snobby Saxo-Borussians is offended that a prince would rather join the less prestigious Westphalians, they even settle the matter the same way turn-of-the-century corps members would–in a fencing duel. The winner is the one who manages to leave a permanent scar slashed across the loser’s cheek! Kathie’s fear over the result of Karl’s duel with the leader of the Saxo-Borussians is what forces her to acknowledge her heretofore hidden love for him.

One can’t talk about this film without talking about Mario Lanza’s beautiful voice, which–due to a casting dispute–handles the singing while Edmund Purdom appears on-screen. Purdom actually does a phenomenal job of the lip-syncing–I wouldn’t have known it wasn’t him had MGM not plastered Lanza’s name all over the bill. Ann Blyth is often underused, and this film doesn’t give her a whole lot to do besides look pretty and sing pretty, but she brings a sense of warmth and intelligence to Kathie’s character that I didn’t find in Norma Shearer’s silent version.

The film’s ending is surprisingly touching. The silent film gives the romance a different treatment: while watching the romance unfold is fun, you’re always aware that it’s a diversion, that at the end of the day he’ll have to go home and own up to his duties. But–unsurprisingly for a 1950s MGM musical–The Student Prince puts Karl and Kathie’s romance on display. You understand why they fall for each other, even after his nastiness at the beginning, and it’s genuinely crushing when you realize, right along with them, that they have no chance.

But despite the focus on the romance, that was never the point of the story in the first place. The point was that Karl had to leave home to become a man–to shift from his rigid, immature views on war being the focus of life. Through Kathie and his time at the university, he didn’t just learn about love. He learned about people. And when he returns home, ready to marry the princess and run the country after his grandfather’s death, we know he’ll be a success. (At least until World War I rolls in and kills off half his subjects.)

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