December 15, 2011 § 1 Comment
Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides, is written in the style that prompts many critics to use the words “dreamy,” “evocative,” “meditative.” In it, a group of boys watch as their neighbors, a quintet of blonde stair-step sisters, kill themselves off. As the dreamy, meditative, depressed 16-year-old I was when I read it, it should have spoken to me . . . but it didn’t. I was frustrated by the presence of the boys, who served to distance the reader from the Lisbon daughters. Who cares about the stupid boys? I kept thinking. I want to know more about the girls! But they remained frustratingly elusive.
Later, in college, I found out that there was a name for this: the male gaze. That distance was a stylistic device that Eugenides had, apparently, employed on purpose. But its purposefulness didn’t make it any less annoying. In fact, the fact that he had intended to discount the more interesting girls’ narrative in favor of giving us the blander boys’ perspective made me even more irritated than when I thought he’d done it by accident. No matter how beautifully the book had been written, I couldn’t get past that, and I’ve avoided Eugenides since then, even after all the praise for his second novel, Middlesex. If he couldn’t get women right, how was he going to handle a character who was intersex?
Reviews of his most recent novel, The Marriage Plot, piqued my interest enough to hesitantly come crawling back, though. Starting out on graduation day at Brown University in the early ’80s, the book covers a love triangle between the brilliant-but-bipolar scientist Leonard, the romantic, book-obsessed yuppie Madeleine, and the globe-trotting religious scholar/seeker Mitchell. And I really enjoyed it, despite not wanting to enjoy it. I flew through the book’s 400 pages in three and a half days, a feat that–at least with literary fiction–usually takes me much longer. I liked the books’ parallels between religious ecstasy and madness, the heroine’s preoccupation with Victorian novelists, the voyeuristic travels in the world of 1980s WASPs. But the entire time, I just couldn’t shake the idea that Jeffrey Eugenides was really benefiting from being Jeffrey Eugenides here–had the book been written by a female author, especially an unestablished one, it wouldn’t have gotten a crumb of attention. Women who write love stories–no matter how self-aware, no matter how good–are treated as silly, unambitious, feminine. Eugenides only gets away with it because he’s a Serious Writer and a man. Not his fault, of course, but it still hampered my ability to like the book without reservations.
And the problems I had with The Virgin Suicides still existed here. Even when we were supposed to be in the heroine’s head, his descriptions of her still felt disturbingly male gaze-y. Her character development largely seems to exist in the form of a first-page listing of the contents of her bookcases (a writing device I hate, for the record). Even the two men who want to marry her consider her a bimbo. (In an early scene, Mitchell actually says to her face, “You’re not attracted to me physically. O.K., fine. But who says I was ever attracted to you mentally?”) And the book’s most revelatory scene is one that she’s excluded from entirely–it takes place between the two male leads, who have, up until this point, not been able to stand each other. Leave the serious plot to the menfolks, honey, is the takeaway message here. Madeleine is just a contrivance–one we can use to compare the religious Mitchell with the scientific Leonard, one that can force them to talk to each other and relate to each other when they’d have no reason to otherwise. She’s not an individual, just a plot device.
William Deresiewicz, in his review for the New York Times, articulated a number of the concerns I felt but didn’t put words to while I was reading:
“As for Madeleine, she is given nearly half the novel, including its longest, opening section — not surprisingly, considering her creator’s fascination with female experience — yet she somehow recedes behind the screen of Leonard’s needs. Her character is almost wholly reactive; even the ways she resolves her relationships with Leonard and Mitchell are reactive. To put it in Hollywood terms, she doesn’t have a “journey” as the others do. You could see this as the point — it’s how young women often are [Editorial comment: ew.]— but the novel doesn’t seem to be aware of what it’s doing. In fact, Madeleine is the one character who does discover her vocation and, even more ironically, it’s to be a feminist scholar of the Victorian novel. Yet despite the topic’s supposed thematic centrality, we hear very little about this development. (Among other things, we never do find out what those “thoughts on the marriage plot” are.) “They didn’t once ask if she had a boyfriend,” Madeleine happily thinks about a couple of fellow aspirants who befriend her at an academic conference — yet it is all the novel asks. “
The treatment of manic-depression is equally shallow. The character of Leonard–who many view as a thinly veiled ode to David Foster Wallace, although Eugenides swears this was not his intention–displays basically every textbook symptom of bipolar disorder, each in the most textbook way possible. Yes, I know this was the early ’80s. I know treatment of bipolar disorder was not what it is today. I know plenty of people with bipolar disorder do display similar symptoms to Leonard’s. And yet it seemed that Eugenides had done most of his research by reading an article in a ladies’ magazine about how horrible it was to be married to someone with the disorder, because Leonard displays every horrifying manic symptom that could possibly exist, often simultaneously: binge-drinking, gambling away huge sums of money (and giving away the rest), molesting teenage girls, proposing marriage, jumping off balconies. It all just devolves into one long bipolar caricature with no nuance.
But like I said, I finished the book in three days. So I guess that, despite what I think, I just really like sexist books about love triangles.
December 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
One of the 1950s’ cinematic quirks was taking straight movies from the 1930s and ’40s, and making mediocre musicals out of them. It’s how we got High Society (The Philadelphia Story), Silk Stockings (Ninotchka), and She’s Working Her Way Through College (The Male Animal), just to start. It’s also how we got The Opposite Sex, derived from the 1939 classic The Women, about a Susie Homemaker type whose husband leaves her for a showgirl, and the group of friends who surrounds her in his wake. The Opposite Sex takes about 70 percent of The Women’s wit and charm, and replaces them with a bizarre mish-mash of musical numbers. “Dere’s Yellow Gold on the Trees”? What is this? And why is it mixed in with a singing cowboy number and a couple of smoky ballads?
The movie might still have worked, though, with a more charismatic lead. This was the only real failing of The Women, too–it was hard to root for Norma Shearer, and grows harder by the year as the views espoused in the film grow more and more outdated–but The Women had a lot to fall back on. The Opposite Sex needed a heroine we could root for, and June Allyson was not it. Or maybe it’s just me–Allyson’s “perfect little wifey” persona has always bugged the hell out of me, and her whiskey-&-cigars voice just frustrates me, hinting at a darker, more interesting side that never comes. While watching The Opposite Sex, I found myself hoping that her showgirl rival, played by Joan Collins, would win out. Probably not what the filmmakers were going for . . .
December 11, 2011 § 1 Comment
Hank Williams was an alcoholic and a drug addict. His relationship with his wife, Audrey, was marked by infidelity and abuse, physical and emotional, on both sides. Naturally, somebody decided his life story–centered around this relationship–made good material for a schmaltzy 1960s musical helmed by Gene Nelson, most famous for directing two of Elvis’s more insipid films, Harem Scarum and Kissin’ Cousins. Picture an insipid Elvis musical where the King plays an early country music star with a drinking problem, and Your Cheatin’ Heart is pretty much what you get.
Of course, not all of this was MGM’s fault. Audrey Williams, who controlled Hank’s estate and served as technical advisor on the film, had final say on what flew. The version of the story she okayed was highly whitewashed. While Hank’s alcohol abuse is shown, his drug abuse is not. It doesn’t explain the reasons for his death at 29, which were likely drug and/or alcohol-related–in the film, he’s supposed to be clean, refusing to drink anything harder than soda in the last few moments of his life. The film barely depicts any abuse and hardly hints at their separations–in the movie, at the time of Hank’s death, he’s still married to Audrey! (In real life, the two of them had divorced for the second time six months before, and he had impregnated another woman before marrying a third.) Audrey did allow a flawed picture of herself to be presented–she comes across as a profligate spender, buying new fridges to replace month-old ones, which stresses Hank out so much he turns to the bottle. But despite this, the film is still biased in her favor, showing her mainly as the driving force behind Hank’s stardom, pushing him to succeed because he had no faith in himself.
We think of the musician biopic cliches as being relatively modern developments–discussion of them flared a few years back as Ray, Walk the Line, and Notorious were released in quick succession–and rarely anyone bothers to trace them back beyond The Buddy Holly Story in 1978. But almost all of them are in place here: opening with a tragic childhood event, the underprivileged upbringing, a whirlwind of newspaper headlines to denote a rise to fame, a slow descent into alcoholism and drug abuse, the rocky first marriage, using songs to comment on the action, the recovery from addiction (presented largely off-screen). Had someone told me that the script for Your Cheatin’ Heart was an early draft of Walk the Line, I would have no trouble believing them.
Audrey has been much maligned by Hank Williams fans over the years, and the fact that this film was released ten years late and presented such a varnished account of her relationship with Hank has–like many other things–been blamed solely on her. Maybe it’s my tendency to root for the underdog here, but I’ve got to go to bat for her, just a little bit. Being married to an addict is no picnic even under the best of situations, and when the addict in question is both abusive and untrue . . . well, that’s bound to put some stress on your relationship. Maybe the most interesting thing about Your Cheatin’ Heart was how it made me consider Audrey in a way that I hadn’t before. Here was a chance for her to rewrite history–not to completely alter the truth, just to massage it a little bit. To give herself the happy ending that she and Hank were denied in real life. She could write the other women out of the picture–not just the insignificant affairs, but his second wife and his unborn child with another woman. She could write away his addiction, putting him through a recovery that never stuck in real life. She could make clear her intentions for his life–that regardless of how it actually played out, she wanted the best for him. She could create her own ending: the two of them, happy together, with Hank sober and successful and appreciated, if only for a little bit. Wish fulfillment, all of it. But understandable.