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.

Hugo

December 13, 2011 § 1 Comment

When people talk about “the magic of the movies,” they always talk about film’s ability to take you away from your life and transport you somewhere else for a few hours. To live in another world, to see it through someone else’s eyes. This is always the go-to argument for why movies’ popularity peaked during World War II–people just needed to be distracted from their problems, preferably with a cheesy Technicolor musical starring Betty Grable. And although I love the movies, that’s something I’ve rarely ever experienced. Even with movies I like, I almost never feel swept away, transported somewhere else, not wanting the experience to end. Even with movies I like, I still check my watch.

But Hugo did it for me. I bookmarked the movie this summer, when I saw a preview for it and was immediately enchanted. You know how I feel about Cute Kids in movies? The way I feel about Anguished Kids is just about the exact opposite. So take one Anguished Child, put him in a romantic historical setting, have him create a new family from scratch (one of my favorite plotlines, especially when it involves previously Anguished children) . . . throw in some beautiful clocks, shots of a snow-encrusted Paris, and a puppy or two, and I’m yours. And when you take into account that Hugo revolves around the art of storytelling–mostly in the form of movies, but also with a book or two–of course I was going to fall in love. I had to.

Hugo, based on a novel called The Invention of Hugo Cabret, follows a young orphan who’s in charge of winding the clocks at a 1930s Paris train station. The one reminder he has of his father is a broken-down automaton rescued from a museum. Hugo makes friends with a girl named Isabelle, the two of them sneaking into the movies and tricking the train’s boorish inspector. But when they realize that she holds the key that unlocks his automaton, the two of them are entangled in a curious mystery that involves a toymaker, Hugo’s father, and the early history of cinema . . .

Unfortunately, the film’s marketing is pretty much killing it. While its previews depicted a high-energy children’s film, this isn’t really a film that caters to children’s tastes. It takes a while to get going, and even once it does, it’s still never particularly zippy. The slow pacing, combined with a historical focus and a lack of one-liners, means that some children will have trouble sitting through this one. Hell, so will some adults. The fact that a film has a child protagonist and no swear words does not necessarily mean it’s a children’s film, and that’s true of Hugo.

As of now, Hugo has only made $33 million at the box office, about a fifth of its very generous budget. Of course, the critics are loving it. They have a tendency to adore anything that celebrates the magic of film, as Hugo does in spades. And if it can pick up some steam through awards season, enough buzz may build to keep it going into January. The chances of it recouping its costs, though, look slim, and that’s unfortunate, because this is a wonderful movie–one during which I didn’t check my watch even once.

Don’t tell me the lights are shining anyplace but there: the World’s Fair on Film

June 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Chicago’s White City of 1893 was a quintessential American city, forced up out of marshland by sheer willpower and molded into Venetian-style waterways framed by magnificent Beaux Arts buildings just in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition to open, then abandoned to fire and decay as it drew to a close. It was a beautiful spectacle. One visitor described it:  “. . . there are some people who are letting the chance of seeing this White City, that rose like a Venus from the waters of Lake Michigan, slip from them forever. They are missing the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War.” It inspired two of America’s greatest wonderlands: L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City of Oz and Walt’s Disneyworld. And yet despite this, it’s never been the setting for a film. That drought will allegedly end in 2013, when Leonardo DiCaprio adapts Erik Larson’s spectacular book The Devil in the White City to the screen. In the meantime, I set out to find a few other fair-set films to enjoy . . .

Centennial Summer (set during the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876)
The film: Fox’s response to the popularity of Meet Me in St. Louis (see below) was to put out their own world’s fair-set period musical. Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell are sisters who compete for the love of a Frenchman who’s come to town to prepare the French pavilion for the Centennial Exposition. The fair: Despite fears of an international boycott, the United States’ first official world fair went off without a hitch. This exposition was the first to feature a women’s pavilion, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Heinz ketchup both made their debuts. The arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty were on display during the latter half of the fair, and for fifty cents, you could climb up to the torch’s balcony; these fees helped to fund the creation of the rest of the statue.

So Long at the Fair (set during the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1889)
The film: This 1950 British suspense film features Jean Simmons and David Tomlinson as siblings who venture to Paris for its world fair. After a night of Paris revelry, though, Jean awakens to find that every trace that her brother ever set foot in Paris–from his signature in the hotel’s guest book to his hotel room itself–has disappeared, and the hotel’s owners claim he was never there. Jean teams up with Dirk Bogarde–the only other person in Paris who remembers interacting with her brother– to solve the case of his disappearance. The fair: Held to celebrate the centennial of the storming of the Bastille, the Paris Exposition of 1889 is most famous for introducing the Eiffel Tower to the Parisian skyline. At the time, the statue was much hated and considered an eyesore. Writer Guy de Maupassant, when asked why he ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant most days despite hating the structure, responded that the reason he ate there was that it was the only place in Paris where you couldn’t see the Tower! Overseas, things were a little different–four years later in Chicago, the desire to outdo the Eiffel Tower led to the creation of the first Ferris wheel.

Meet Me in St. Louis (set during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, 1904)
The film: This is, of course, the mother of all fair films, but the fair itself is mostly a framing device that only truly appears in the charming last scene of the film. The plot is a loosely connected series of vignettes about the Smith family and their five children (including Margaret O’Brien and Judy Garland at her most wonderful), culminating in Mr. Smith’s anguish-inducing announcement that he’ll move the family to New York for a job, taking them away from all their friends and new beaux–not to mention causing them to miss the upcoming world’s fair!. The musical, which used a mix of period songs (“Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” “Under the Bamboo Tree”) and ones written specifically for the film (“The Trolley Song,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) to great effect, inspired a number of other period musicals over the next few years, including On Moonlight Bay, The Belle of New York, and the world fair-set Centennial Summer. The fair: The 1904 Olympics, which had originally been awarded to Chicago, were relocated to St. Louis in order to be held concurrently with the exposition. Things were run so poorly–with the events being spread out over months and many non-American athletes not attending–that it nearly killed the Olympics off entirely. The fair was well known for popularizing ice cream served in waffle cones, and many other food products–from peanut butter to Dr. Pepper–were introduced or popularized there as well.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (set during the Golden Gate Exposition, San Francisco, 1939)
The film: Sidney Toler stars as the controversial Chinese-American detective, who investigates the death of his friend after he supposedly commits suicide on a flight home to San Francisco. This film, like the Elvis one below, was not a period piece, being filmed and released at the same time it supposedly took place. The world’s fair setting is mostly a gimmick, since it barely appears. The fair: This exposition celebrated the completion of the city’s two new bridges, the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. Treasure Island is an artificial island created specifically for the fair; afterwards, it was used as a naval base.

It Happened at the World’s Fair (set during the Century 21 Exposition, Seattle, 1962)
The film: Of all the world’s fair films, this Elvis Presley vehicle actually gives us our biggest glimpse at the fair itself–from the Space Needle to the monorail–as Elvis and his friend spend most of the movie hustling for money to buy back their cropduster. (Yeah, I think they were running out of plots at this point in Elvis’s career.) Taking the “cute kid” conceit of earlier Elvis films to its logical extreme, Elvis plays baby-sitter to a girl named Sue-Lin, who herself plays matchmaker between Elvis and Joan O’Brien, a nurse working at the fair. The fair: The Cold War colored all aspects of the 1950s, including the plans for this fair. Its intention was to prove that the United States wasn’t behind the Soviet Union, science and technology-wise, which led to this exposition’s focus on the future. The Cold War would play an additional role in the closing ceremony of the fair, when John F. Kennedy’s scheduled appearance was canceled due to what was later discovered to be the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Seattle fair also included an “adults only” portion, including naked “Girls of the Galaxy” and an R-rated puppet show. Don’t wait for any of that to show up in the Elvis film, though!

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