The Marriage Plot

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.

The Opposite Sex

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 . . .

Your Cheatin’ Heart

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.

Mildred Pierce

December 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

Mildred Pierce is a women’s weepie baked in a film noir crust. Knowing that the source material was from crime writer James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), I assumed that the noir aspect of this film was his, too. After watching, I was surprised to find out that Cain’s novel pretty closely follows the “weepie” portion of the film, with nary a bullet fired. The noir framing device was added by screenwriters due to pressure from the Breen Office, for reasons I shall not spoil. (The Kate Winslet Mildred Pierce miniseries follows the book much more closely, if that’s what you’re into.)

The movie opens with bullets fired in a beach house, taking down mustachioed Monty Beragon. We don’t see the killer, although we do hear Monty gasp, “Mildred!” before he dies. Shortly after, we see a fur-clad Mildred on a foggy pier, appearing to contemplate jumping off. A policeman persuades her not to, and in the extended intro that follows, she has a drink with old friend Wally Fay, who expresses surprise that she’s learned to drink good liquor, and invites him back to the beach house where Monty’s body still lies on the floor. They head downstairs without noticing him, though, and here Mildred slips out the back, leaving Wally to be apprehended by the police when he finally discovers the corpse in the living room. Soon afterward, the cops take Mildred down to the station to get her side of the story, where we get into the flashbacks that form the bulk of the film.

The film deliberately plays with us here, with the fur coat, taste for expensive booze, and the disappearing act all implying that Mildred will be the femme fatale in what is already a very shadowy noir . . . then immediately flashing back to a sunny California bungalow where the very same Mildred wears an apron and bakes pies. She’s the mother to two children, spoiled Veda and tomboyish Kay, and wife to Bert, although their marriage is on the rocks. As the flashback unfolds, Bert and Mildred divorce, and Mildred must learn to support herself and the girls–at first as a waitress, much to Veda’s dismay, and then as the owner of an ever-increasing chain of restaurants. Meanwhile, Mildred is falling for her business partner, the wealthy playboy Monty Beragon.

Still playing with us, the film’s actual femme fatale is the innocent-looking Veda. And Mildred’s fatal flaw is that she can’t see her daughter for what she really is, toiling at the restaurants so that V. can have the best of everything–dresses, singing lessons, new cars–while Veda schemes and social-climbs behind her mother’s back and humiliates her to her face. Equally spoiled is Mildred’s boyfriend Monty, who grew up rich but no longer has as much money as everyone thinks, and who’s taken to accepting handouts from Mildred as her business empire grows. Slightly better at recognizing his sins than Veda’s, Mildred breaks up with him, but their separation doesn’t last long . . . which leads us to the disastrous conclusion of our story: a retelling of the murder in the opening scene, this time with the blanks filled in. Throughout Mildred’s tale, evidence has mounted up as to exactly who committed the murder in the opening scene. The question that remains is why?

Mildred Pierce is a one-of-a-kind film. Most noirs are centered entirely around the worlds of men, detective offices and dark alleys–but this one takes place in sun-soaked kitchens. Women in traditional noir play victims or femmes fatales, but never does the story center around them. In Mildred Pierce, the entire film is about Mildred and Veda’s relationship with each other; the men in their world are merely satellites. (In fact, the gender flip is completed by Monty functioning as something of a femme fatale–homme fatale?–himself.) Despite this, one can also make an argument for the story’s inherent sexism. While Mildred is a business tycoon–far more successful in that realm than any of the film’s men–by the end of the story, she’s lost it all. As in all good Greek tragedies, Mildred’s inability to see Veda clearly causes her own downfall, the decimation of both her career and personal life. Are we supposed to see this as a punishment for her stepping beyond the traditional confines of the “woman’s sphere”? Or is it simply collateral damage, with Mildred casting off all her tethers into the proverbial fire, in order to start anew?

Teenage Rebel

May 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

The movie is called Teenage Rebel, and here’s one of its promo posters:


(I also dig this Italian one.)

But far from the visions of black leather and liquor flasks that this marketing campaign conjures up, the most rebellious thing that anyone does in this movie is to leave her mother’s house without asking in order to hit up the malt shop. Literally. The malt shop.

The film is frothier than a root beer float, and while the producers were clearly trying to capitalize on the success of Rebel without a Cause the year before, it’s hard to see how they thought they were going to get away with it. It’s got Ginger Rogers in it, for pete’s sake!* And malt shops! But while their promotions department was ripping off Rebel without a Cause, somebody who would eventually contribute to the 1961 film The Parent Trap must have had their eye on this movie . . .

While Deanna Durbin’s Three Smart Girls is generally regarded as the forerunner for The Parent Trap, and Lotte and Lisa is the acknowledged source material, I’d hazard a guess that somebody at Disney liked this Ginger Rogers vehicle an awful lot, too. Teenage Rebel has no twins, but there’s an awful lot of other plot recycling going on. Let’s recap: Its protagonist is a child of divorced parents who live on opposite coasts, one in California and one in the Northeast. The California parent is cool and relaxed–the “I’m not your dad, I’m your friend” kind of parent–while the east coast parent is uptight and high-strung. Their respective houses, too, reflect their personalities, with the California house warm and sunny and the east coast house stuffy and imposing. The plot revolves around the father getting remarried to someone the daughter perceives as a gold digger. Also, there’s a Big Dance where Everything Changes.

Granted, these are pretty standard movie tropes–and The Parent Trap uses them in much more enjoyable and effective ways than Teenage Rebel tries to. I’m not alleging plagiarism, just inspiration. Still, it’s odd that so many of the same stereotypes would be employed in exactly the same ways from film to film . . . and I’ll touch on the whys and wherefores of that in an upcoming post, “Best Coast: Teen Movies and the California Dream.”

* This film is worth watching if solely to see how good Ginger looks at 44. But that’s pretty much the only reason.

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