January 21, 2012 § Leave a comment
The Reluctant Debutante stars Sandra Dee as a sweet but stubborn California teenager in the midst of a London season and, as such, is essentially just Gidget Goes to the UK. Inspired by the last round of court presentations for the Queen in 1958, the film chronicles the trials of Jane (Dee), who goes to visit her British father and his new wife, and is (reluctantly, of course) thrust into the social whirl of debutante season. Through the gauntlet of balls and parties, Jane falls for one man–who her stepmother considers below her station and whom both her parents worry might be a date rapist in disguise–but is also pursued by a parent-approved but nauseatingly boring one. Of course everything is sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction by the end, helped along by a few last-minute cinematic plot contrivances.
This film is simply a trifle, but it’s an extremely enjoyable one. Real-life couple Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall star as Jane’s father and stepmother, and they’re so funny that the story ends up being more theirs than hers. (This being pre-Dee stardom, they get top billing, too.) Angela Lansbury has a fun turn as Kendall’s meddling friend. Since the movie was based off a play, the script has a farcical, madcap flavor to it at which Kendall and especially Harrison excel, culminating in a drawn-out but hilarious living room scene where the two attempt to spy on their daughter. Director Vincente Minnelli keeps the pace flowing at a clip, and of course, Minnelli being Minnelli, everything is beautifully set and staged. The plot is a little dated–the idea of Jane dating a man who forces himself on her is treated with boys-will-be-boys heedlessness rather than any real cause for alarm–but the whole thing is just so fun that that’s easy to overlook.
- “Let’s Get Physical“: a PopMatters column on Kendall’s physical acting in this film and Les Girls
December 5, 2011 § 1 Comment
With my distaste for the emphasis on Manly Man Stuff in fantasy books established, perhaps I should have started with an author other than George R.R. Martin. Martin is known as a fantasy author who includes more sex than most (although I don’t find it to be gratuitous, perhaps because my last foray into genre fiction was that of romance novels). His books take place in a sexist medieval-esque society where the threat of rape seems omnipresent, and like with most male writers, I can never quite tell where he’s going with that. Most of the time, of course, he makes it obvious that the modern reader should find it repulsive, but occasionally the undertones hint that maybe he’s intellectually getting off on having free reign to write a society where the male characters (including the ones the audience is most supposed to identify with) can essentially do whatever they want. I had the same issue with Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy–though ostensibly he was writing about how horrible it was that so many men treat women so badly, the fact that his books were blatant wish fulfillment cast a weird pall over the moralizing. It’s like the preacher who can’t stop talking about how sinful something is because it gives him an excuse to think about something he’s not supposed to think about. No one can ever quite trust the man who writes multiple graphic rape scenes just to convince you of how terrible rape is.
Still, watching a couple episodes of the Game of Thrones television show sold me on the fact that Martin was able to write compelling female characters, so I decided to give it a go. Now, after finishing the second book, my thoughts are decidedly mixed.
When discussing strong female characters, the obvious choices are Daenerys, Arya, and Catelyn. Cersei is “strong” in a Hollywood sense, in that she’s tough and pulls a fair portion of the plot strings, but she isn’t particularly compelling yet. (I have a feeling that if she doesn’t end up dead by the end of the next book, that might change–there’s only so much you can do with the kind of one-note villainess she’s played up to this point.) Sansa probably isn’t compelling to the average reader because she’s so damn passive, but that’s exactly what makes her so interesting to me: because, contrary to what we’d love to think, that’s exactly how 99 percent of us would react to the situation she finds herself in. But Dany, Arya and Catelyn are the biggies, and that’s why it’s so frustrating that characters with so much promise end the first book so static.
To be fair, I love Dany. She gets the “hero’s journey” storyline of the first book, from terrified puppet to independent woman, and it is awesome. But she’s the only female character who has any kind of self-actualized journey at all. But the rest of the women remain archetypes rather than individuals: Catelyn the Mama Bear, Arya the Warrior Princess, Sansa the Innocent Maiden, Cersei cut from the Evil Stepmother cloth despite not actually being a stepmother. I’m holding out on passing judgement on this precisely because of it lot of it seems to stem from Martin’s writing style. His pace is plodding, and characters develop slowly. When you have 1000 characters name-dropped in the series, most of them will remain cardboard cutouts at best–the fortunate flip side of this being that when you have 7000 pages to flesh out the series, quite a few of them won’t. As I got into the meat of the second book, previously passive characters started to move. Arya is getting the foreshadowing of a pretty epic revenge plot, while Catelyn’s character is getting subtle gradations that weren’t present in the first book. Daenerys is still getting the most interesting storyline of the entire series. New female characters continue to be introduced, and a couple of them seem as though they may end up transcending their current stock characterizations.
Martin’s world is so vast that I’m beginning to think that the series is better graded as a whole, rather than by its parts. Characters that appear to be one thing in one book often end up being another by the next. Still, even as a serious reader, it’s hard for me to maintain the patience required to watch this whole thing play out. Asking your readers to wait 3000 pages before your characters see some interesting development–let alone 5000 or 6000 pages before you get to the core of your story–is pretty ballsy. I’m dreaming about an alternate universe where Martin had a perceptive but vicious editor who cut out the endless nonsense the author spends pages waxing about which sigil belongs to which house. These books could have been reduced to 600 pages max without losing any of the story whatsoever, and they should have been. Although I guess we also would have lost some of that Manly Man stuff where Martin describes every single move a character makes in a battle. God forbid.
November 26, 2011 § Leave a comment
Disney had gotten widespread complaints that their princesses weren’t feminist enough since the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s, the fairy tale films that were Disney’s bread-and-butter for many years now seemed archaic. Disney switched to animal-based films instead–cute kitties and puppies are always solid sellers, and animal protagonists allowed Disney to sidestep potential pitfalls regarding gender and race in a world where popular views on what was appropriate seemed to change monthly. But after a string of sub-par animal-based flicks, and the en masse retirement of a number of animators from Disney’s “classic” era, the company was anxious to move in a different direction with a new group of artists. Disney, of course, knew that they had made their name on princess stories, and Walt Disney himself had planned a production of The Little Mermaid as one of the company’s first projects, although it was shelved when he couldn’t find a way to make the storyline work. But the persistent concerns about the princesses’ passivity lingered.
In order to make a princess story work for the new generation, Disney had to make three significant changes in their princess heroines:
1) Take her from dependent to independent. Disney’s Original Princess Trio (Snow White, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella) never learn to fend for themselves. When Snow White is ousted from her house, she’s taken in by a handful of dwarves to cook and clean before being passed on to her prince. Aurora gets similar treatment, but the dwarves are replaced by a trio of fairies. Despite Cinderella’s stepfamily’s cruel treatment, she only leaves them when she, too, is rescued by a prince. None of this was particularly suprising when the films were originally made–they’re films that were created pre-women’s lib, based on hundreds-year-old tales–but they wouldn’t work for an ’80s world of shoulder pads and Charlie perfume.
2) Take her from passive to active. Both Snow White and Aurora spend significant chunks of their storylines asleep, and when they are awake, they mostly sit in their cottages or wander through the woods, singing about how someday their princes will come. Cinderella, while awake, spends the bulk of her film on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floors, or waiting on her stepsisters. All of this waiting doesn’t make for a very exciting movie, nor for very strong characters. For a modern princess, you needed to make some of the plot dependent on her actions, rather than just making her an unfortunate victim of an ill-timed curse or a jealous stepmother. And if you could make her complicit in her own salvation, rather than allowing the man to do it for her, then all the better.
3) Give her a personality. Make it a good one. The early princesses seemed basically interchangeable, aside from hair color: patient, demure, naive. The takeaway message, then, was that their ultimate fate–the prince and the castle and the happily-ever-after–were a reward for their beauty, not their behavior, and certainly not for their intelligence or strength. For its updated princesses, Disney was going to have to transform them from princess archetypes into individuals with motivations and complexities. Hell, give them a few flaws, even. It’ll make for a better story.
Let’s call Ariel a midway point. A prototype, so to speak. Compared to what came before, she’s a vast improvement. As opposed to the complacent, docile Original Princess Trio, Ariel is fiercely independent. In fact, she’s headstrong to the point of recklessness, as the movie’s very first scene–wherein she almost gets herself eaten by a shark–makes clear. She refuses to bow to the will of male authority figures, whether that authority figure is her physically imposing father or the little red crab, Sebastian. While Ariel isn’t complicit in her own salvation during the final battle, the way later Disney heroines would be, she does manage a role reversal by saving Eric earlier in the film. Nor does she neatly fit the passive damsel-in-distress mode that earlier heroines had. Disney seemed to opt for the best/worst-of-both-worlds theory here; Ariel can more than take care of herself underwater (as that initial shark fight would demonstrate), but on land, she’s utterly dependent on others. Still, unlike the earlier princesses, she’s not merely an unlucky victim of chance; she actively takes a role in everything that happens to her. The loss of her voice, and ultimately of her underwater home, is her choice.
Perhaps the most improved aspect of the story over earlier princess tales is that Ariel actually has a defined personality. Her impetuousness is matched only by her enthusiasm, but her most prominent trait is her curiosity regarding all things human–forks and tobacco pipes and candlestick holders, which she stores in an underwater vault. Societally-stunted intellectual curiosity will become something of a trademark with the early Disney Renaissance princesses: Ariel just wants to see how people live on land, Belle just wants to read books, Jasmine just wants to see something outside of her palace walls. It’s a little overdone by its third iteration, but here at the beginning it’s still fresh and new, and, if we’re taking it allegorically, quite touching: her father, King Triton, is essentially a bigot who’s terrified of those barbaric humans, while Ariel opens her heart to everyone because she can see their essential goodness underneath.
And ultimately there’s something vaguely progressive about the fact that Eric falls in love with Ariel for her voice. With the old princesses, it was clear that their beauty was the major draw–but for Eric, though Ariel looks like the girl he thought he loved, and is clearly gorgeous, it was her voice that he fell in love with. Without it, he enjoys her company, finds her fun enough to be around–but he’d clearly like her more if she had something to say. Come on, people. It’s a metaphor!
Still, there are problems. Significant problems. Like the fact that the woman is ready to make a Faustian pact to give up her legs in exchange for a man–that would be a major problem. And although Ursula is one of the best Disney villains ever created, she was blatantly patterned after drag queen Divine, which creates some troubling subtext–Disney’s queer villain subtext is a post in itself. And Ariel’s excitability and recklessness at times are taken to such extremes that she comes off as a legitimate bimbo, when I think what they were going for was more along the lines of, you know, Zooey Deschanel. But when this is what we have to compare it to, I think Disney deserves a little more credit for busting up the damsel-in-distress mold than they’re usually given.
November 22, 2011 § 1 Comment
After watching MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, I was struck with the urge to watch Romeo + Juliet and see how it had aged. Despite watching both it and the (much more critically acclaimed) Zeffirelli version at the same age, I still have vivid images of the former imprinted on my brain while all scenes but the latter’s morning-after bit have been neatly excised. (And that only because we had to watch it in English class–the experience of watching bare-assed actors in front of your 14-year-old classmates was too emotionally traumatic to bear.) I was counting on it to have aged badly, in the same way Moulin Rouge! once felt so emotionally resonant and deep and tragic and I cried at the ending every time, etc. etc., but now just feels like a cheap carnival. I am a perennial setter of low expectations.
It’s funny how, at the time, Leo and Claire seemed like a relatively well-matched pair. He was known more for his teen heartthrob status than for his middleweight acting skills, and she was (fairly) fresh off My So-Called Life. I recall her being the Thinking Boy’s Hollywood Crush in those days: accessibly pretty, smart or at least capable of appearing so in interviews, could act, more or less. Nowadays, if you go to the IMDB message boards (always good for a diversion), you get a lot of hysterical 13-year-olds wondering why they cast someone SO UGLY opposite Leo, and how it should have been someone more famous. His respective star rose exponentially after this proof of his likeability as a romantic hero anticipated the next year’s Titanic; hers has been falling ever since she was declared persona non grata during post-Brokedown Palace interviews.
At any rate, the acting was even more cringe-inducing than I remembered it being. Even at 14, I still remember watching it and occasionally thinking, “This is just Too Much.” A number of the actors yell their lines as opposed delivering them. (On the plus side, all the yelling probably gave Mercutio’s Harold Perrineau good practice for his incessant “WAAAAAAAAAAAALT!”s on Lost.) But if there’s one thing Baz Luhrmann can do, it’s fully commit to an artistic vision. Neon crosses flanking pews in a church aisle, Christ the Redeemer rip-offs, priests with tattoos, “When Doves Cry” washing over you from the choir loft–the blend of the holy with the profane permeates every crevice of the film. (This academic paper more fully explores the subject, if you’re into that kind of thing.) There’s not a single scene here that could belong in another movie. Even the “two characters provide exposition in the back of a car” scenes are punctuated by the cross that dangles behind the two. In fact, crosses are so ever-present that they even appear in the + of the title.
It’s that commitment that makes the movie work for me, even when the actors’ delivery is all wrong (WAAAAAAAAALT) or when they don’t appear to know what they’re saying. It’s the same reason that Moulin Rouge! worked despite the 1980s pop songs appearing in a turn-of-the-previous-century setting. In both films, Luhrmann attends to the commitment to his “vision” (eye-rollingly pretentious as that is) so completely that the films become fantasies. Romeo + Juliet isn’t set in our world any more than Moulin Rouge! was; it’s set in an alternate universe with an alternate history all its own. In that world, maybe the actors’ over-the-top line delivery is just how people speak. In that world, maybe Danes’ delivery of Shakespeare actually makes sense.