Spinout

October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Spinout switches up the Elvis formula by–wait for it–giving us three potential love interests instead of two! It also more or less dispenses with the plot–which can be summed up as “Elvis just wants to play in his band, race cars and never get married”–in favor of the romance. That might be necessary, given that each of the three women is in a love triangle of her own. Six love stories, nine songs, and a car race (fairly derivative of the one in Viva Las Vegas) in 93 minutes–no wonder there’s no time for plot!

Elvis gets his two usual suspects, the sweet young thing and the seductive older woman (see Blue Hawaii, Tickle Me). The sweet young thing is a spoiled daddy’s girl–played by Shelley Fabares in her second of three appearances with Elvis–who runs his car off the road in the opening scene and later insists that her rich father blackmail Elvis and his band into playing at her birthday party. The rest of the band is considerably less affronted by the blackmail than Elvis, given the hefty paycheck they’ll receive, but Elvis insists he can’t be bought. The seductive older woman is played by Diane McBain, an author of books on male psychology, who insists that her stalking Elvis is “research” after she chooses him as her representative of the The Perfect American Male for her upcoming book of the same title. Beach movie star and former Gidget Deborah Walley plays the third love interest, a new type: the tomboyish drummer of Elvis’s band who nurses a puppydog crush on him. He never notices her longing looks and the gourmet meals she whips up for him–until the party at the end of the film, when–post-makeover–she comes down the stairs in a red dress and heels . . .

In contrast to the froth of Spinout, Elvis’s off-screen life was taking a different turn. He was focusing on the gospel album he wanted to release and reading about religion. On the set, he and Deborah Walley formed a friendship centered around motorcycle rides and religious discussion. Like Elvis, Walley had never been fully comfortable with the trappings of stardom–some sources claim she went so far as to try and convince Columbia Pictures execs that she had leukemia in order to get out of doing Gidget Goes Hawaiian. Walley credited Elvis with introducing her to spirituality and changing her life; while it may not have been related, she quit doing beach movies shortly afterward. Elvis also introduced Diane McBain to the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi, whose philosophy Elvis tried to follow, and gave her copies of his favorite spiritual books. Throughout Elvis’s life, he constantly struggled with the idea of his fame, asking spiritual teachers why God had chosen the path He had for him. Elvis considered himself a “searcher,” someone who wants to “know the truth, to know and experience God.” His explorations ranged from mainstream Christianity–he once told Pat Boone that he wished he could go to church like him, but that he was worried about distracting the church-goers from the preacher’s message–to Judaism and Taoism, Hinduism and New Age philosophy. He was always looking for spiritual answers to the problems of his fame, but they never came.

Of course, none of this was reflected onscreen. Instead, the ending of Spinout plays like an homage to the Tao of Elvis. Rather than settle down with any of his three prospects, he summarily matches each of them up with other men, then finds a cute girl on the dance floor and vows to stay single forever–setting us up perfectly for the next Elvis movie, and on it goes.

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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.

Romeo + Juliet

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.

The Great American Novel Project: The Scarlet Letter

February 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

My only exposure to Hawthorne thus far was a series of his short stories I had to read for my freshman year American lit class. For the most part I was unimpressed, and now, almost ten years later, most of his vaguely creepy, Romantic takes on Puritanism blend together in my head, like Poe with more religion and less pay-off. Still, there were a few of his stories–“Rappaccini’s Daughter,” for example–that intrigued me enough not to swear him off entirely. It wasn’t a coincidence, either, that Hawthorne’s stories that I didn’t hate were largely the ones where women played a large role, I was cautiously optimistic about The Scarlet Letter, despite its reputation for being the bane of most high schoolers’ short existences.

“Cautiously optimistic” turned out to be the right approach. There are plenty of aspects of The Scarlet Letter that will annoy the modern reader: its overwrought symbolism, the constant gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts to express anguish, its monotonous repetition of the same dreary themes. I can see why so many high schoolers hate it. But for a former English major with a slightly higher tolerance for boredom and a little bit of a puritanical streak, I found some things to like, too–the foremost being Hawthorne’s proto-feminist take on the sexual double standard and his explorations of how Hester’s transcending society’s boundaries led a greater degree of enlightenment. I’m not sure I could have handled five hundred pages of The Scarlet Letter, but given its short length, it was a fairly painless entry into this project.

Next up: my most-dreaded book of the whole project, the legitimately 500-page Moby-Dick.

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