Category Archives: Films

On the Relationship of Myth and Story

The_Lord_of_the_Rings_Trilogy

Image from the lotr.wiki.com

Please note: This is a very long post. It is based on a talk I gave yesterday (October 28, 2017) at the C.S. Lewis Festival in Petoskey, Michigan. Consider yourself warned!

 

The study of myth seems to me to take three different paths:

  • Anthropological / Archeological: the study of classical mythologies (Bulfinch’s Mythology, Edith Hamilton)
  • Religious / Transcendent: the spiritual meaning of myth (Karen Armstrong, Joseph Campbell, Sigmund Freud)
  • Structuralist: the study of the same structures that recur in myths (Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell, Roland Barthes)

This is all interesting, but I would like to back up a moment. I feel like I’ve arrived a dinner party, and that somehow I missed the first two courses. I feel as if I might get some kind of mental indigestion if I don’t start over at the very beginning.

The fact is, I want to know something more fundamental about myth and its function.

  • I want to know what it is and how it works.
  • Specifically, I want to know what distinguishes myth from other forms of story-telling.

Because for me, Story-Telling is what distinguishes human beings, homo sapiens, from all other species on this planet, as far as we know.

  • Studies have shown that crows have memories
  • Studies have shown that chimpanzees use tools
  • Philosophers are now beginning to agree that animals do indeed have consciousness

But we—we should be known not as homo sapiens (wise man, the man who knows), but as homo narrans—the speaking man, the man who tells, who narrates—story-telling man.  Because it is clear to me that we humans communicate largely through story-telling, and this story-telling function, this tendency to rely on narration, is what makes us human.

I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a little while as I tease this out. I’d like to say that by the end of this essay, I’ll have some answers to the questions I posed (what is myth, and how does it work, and what is the difference between a really good story and a myth)—but I’m pretty sure I won’t. I may, however, ask some more questions that might eventually lead me to some answers.

So here goes. To begin with, a few people who weigh in on what myth is and what it does:

Roland Barthes, the French post-structuralist literary theorist, says that myth is a type of speech, a system of communication, a kind of message. In a way, Barthes and JRR Tolkien are not really different on this point, incredible as it is to think of Barthes and Tolkien agreeing on anything at all, much less something so important to each of them.

  • They are both incredibly passionate and devoted to the concept of language
  • Barthes, in his book Mythologies, which I have shamelessly cherry-picked for this essay, says that the myth’s objective in being told is not really important; it is the way in which it conveys that message that is important.
  • He says that “the knowledge contained in a mythical concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations” (119).
    • But this isn’t as bad as it sounds, because myths actually don’t need to be deciphered or interpreted.
    • While they may work with “Poor, incomplete images” (127), they actually do their work incredibly efficiently. Myth, he says, gives to its story “a natural and eternal justification…a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact” (143).
    • Myth is a story in its simple, pure form. “It acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences…” (143).
  • You can see how this view of myth kind of works with the myth-building that Tolkien does in The Lord of the Rings, which works with simple efficiency, whose very images are incomplete to the point of needing clarification in Appendices and further books like the Silmarillion. Yet even without having read these appendices and other books, we grasp what Tolkien is getting at. We know what Middle-Earth is like, because the myth that Tolkien presents needs no deciphering, no real interpretation for us to grasp its significance.

Tolkien, I think we can all agree, was successful in creating a myth specifically for England, as Jane Chance and many other scholars have now shown to be his intention. But is it a novel? Some might argue it isn’t—myself included. In fact, what Tolkien created in The Lord of the Rings is less a myth (I would argue that we only use that term because Tolkien himself used it to describe his work and his object—think of the poem “Mythopoeia,” which he dedicated to C.S. Lewis) than it is a full-blown epic.

For my definition of epic versus novel, I’m going to my personal literary hero, Mikhail Bakhtin, a great thinker, a marvelous student of literature, a man who wrote with virtually no audience at all for many years because he was sent into internal exile in the Soviet Union. In his essay “Epic and the Novel,” Bakhtin attributes these characteristics to epic:

  1. It deals with an absolute past, where there is little resemblance to the present;
  2. It is invested with national tradition, not personal experience, arousing something like piety;
  3. There is an absolute, unbridgeable distance between the created world of epic and the real world.

The novel, says Bakhtin, is quite the opposite. It is new, changing, and it constantly “comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing. The novelist is drawn toward everything that is not yet completed” (27).

I think the three characteristics of epic described by Bakhtin do in fact match up nicely with The Lord of the Rings: absolute past, national tradition, distance between the actual and the created world. But here’s another thing about epic as described by Bakhtin: “The epic world knows only a single and unified world view, obligatory and indubitably true for heroes as well as for authors and audiences” (35).  It would be hard, indeed impossible, to imagine The Lord of the Rings told from a different point of view. We need that distant narrator, who becomes more distant as the book goes on. As an example, imagine The Lord of the Rings told from Saruman’s point of view, or from Gollum’s. Or even from Bilbo or Frodo’s point of view. Impossible! Of course, we share some of the point of view of various characters at various points in the narrative (I’m thinking specifically of Sam’s point of view during the Cirith Ungol episode), but it couldn’t be sustained for the whole of the trilogy.

The interesting thing here is that in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien took the novel form and invested it with epic. And I think we can say that against all odds, he was successful. On the other hand, C.S. Lewis, in his last book Till We Have Faces, took a myth (the story of Cupid and Psyche), which is certainly more closely related to epic than it is to novel, and turned it into a successful novel. This isn’t the time and place to talk about Till We Have Faces, although I hope someday that we can come together in the C.S. Lewis Festival to do that very thing, but I couldn’t help mentioning this, because it’s striking that Lewis and Tolkien, while they clearly fed off each other intellectually and creatively, started from opposite ends in writing their greatest creative works, as they did in so many other things. It’s almost amazing that you can love both of them at the same time, but of course you can. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do.

But I’m losing the thread of my questions here. What is myth? Can we actually have modern myths? Can someone actually set out with the intention of creating a myth? And can a mythic work spontaneously just happen? Another question needs to be posed here: if this long book, which is probably classified in every bookstore and library as a novel, touches on myth but is really an epic, can a novel, as we know it, become a myth? This forces us to tighten up our definition of what a myth is and asks us to think about what myth does.

Karen Armstrong, I think, would say yes, to all three of these questions. In her book A Short History of Myth, Armstrong follows the trajectory of myths through time and argues that the advent of printing and widespread literacy changed how we perceive and how we receive myth. These developments changed myth’s object and its function—and ultimately, it changed the very essence of myth.

Armstrong points out that myths and novels have similarities:

  • They are both meditative
  • They can both be transformative
  • They both take a person into another world for a significant period of time
  • They both suspend our disbelief
  • They break the barriers of time and space
  • They both teach compassion

Inspired by Armstrong and by Bakhtin, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a stab at answering my questions. And I’ll start by defining a modern myth as a super-story of a kind: a novel (or a film, because let’s open this up to different kinds of story-telling) that exerts its power on a significant number of people. These stories then provide, in film professor and writer Stuart Voytilla’s words, “the guiding images of our lives.”

In short, a modern myth has these characteristics:

  1. It belongs to a certain place and time. Like epic, it is rooted in a time and a place. It might not be far removed from the actual, but it cannot be reached from the actual.
  2. It unites a group of readers, often a generation of readers, by presenting an important image that they recognize.
  3. It unites a group of readers by fostering a similar reaction among them.
  4. It contains identifiable elements that are meaningful to its readers/viewers. Among these might be important messages (“the little guy can win after all,” “there’s no place like home,” the American Dream has become a nightmare”).

In other words, a mythic story can be made intentionally, as Star Wars was by George Lucas after he considered the work of Joseph Campbell; or it can happen accidentally. Surely every writer dreams of writing a mythic novel—the Great American novel—but it’s more or less an accident. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a mythic novel of American, until it was displaced by To Kill a Mockingbird.  And I would note here that having your novel go mythic (as we might term it—it is, in a way, like “going viral,” except mythic stories tend to last longer than viral ones) is not really such a good thing after all. Look at Harper Lee—one mythic novel, and that was the end of her artistic output—as far as we know. A mythic novel might just be the last thing a great writer ever writes.

Anyway, back to our subject: a  modern myth gets adopted rather than created. Great myths are not made; they become. So let’s’ think of a few mythic novels and see how they line up with my four characteristics:

  1. Frankenstein
  2. Star Wars
  3. The Wizard of Oz
  4. The Great Gatsby or Death of a Salesman—take your pick.
  5. Casablanca
  6. The Case of Local Myths—family or friend myths, references you might make to certain films or novels that only a small number of people might understand. A case in point would be the re-enactments of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that take place each year around Halloween.

In essence, my answer, such as it is, to the questions I posed earlier comes down to this:

Modern myths are important stories that unite their readers or viewers with similar emotional and intellectual reactions. Modern mythology works by presenting recognizable and significant images that unite the people who read or view them. As for what distinguishes modern myths from other forms of story-telling, what tips a “normal” novel or film over into the realm of “mythic”—I don’t have an answer for this. I only have a couple of vague, unformed theories. One of my theories is this: Could one difference between myth and the novel (“mere” story-telling as such) be that myth allows the reader/listener to stay inside the story, while the novel pushes the reader back out, to return to the actual world, however reluctantly?

And let’s not forgot what Karen Armstrong wrote about myth: “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum [created by the loss of religious certainty and despair created by modernism] and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of the past” (138).  Armstrong’s closing sentence is perhaps the most important one in the book: “If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world” (149). With this in mind, perhaps it’s time to go and read some more, and find more myths that can help us repair and restore ourselves, our faith in our culture, and in doing so, the world itself.

 

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A Reader’s Dilemma: On Books and Racism

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Image from Wikipedia

What does one do when one is reading a book that is entertaining but turns out to be blatantly racist? Does one stop and refuse to read it? Does one relegate it to the status of those books which, as Dorothy Parker famously said, deserve not to be set aside lightly, but thrown with great force? I pose this question as an ethical problem, not merely as a matter of taste.

 

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Wikipedia image

The book in question is Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan, a man more famous as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was made into a movie by the young Alfred Hitchcock some twenty years after its publication. John Buchan was a career diplomat who served in South Africa in the aftermath of the Boer War and as an intelligence officer in WW I. He is perhaps most famous, however, for becoming the Governor General of Canada in 1935, and by most accounts, he did a good job, as evidenced by his declaration, as Doug Saunders reports in this article, that Canada’s strength as a nation depends on its cultural diversity.

 

As one of his first public acts, Buchan created the Governor General’s Literary Awards, among whose later recipients number Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munroe, Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, and Rohinton Mistry. By most accounts, then, Buchan was a fairly good guy, a champion for diversity and the arts, and a pretty good story-teller. So what am I to feel and to think when the first-person narrator of Mr. Standfast expresses open derision and contempt for conscientious objectors? Or when I read passages in which he makes fun of certain characters’ profound desire for peace, for an end to the debilitating war that has cut short hundreds of thousands of lives, hopes, and aspirations, an end to a war that has robbed not one but several generations of their hopes and dreams? What am I to feel when I see another passage which documents a disgusting contempt for the budding African movement towards self-determination, lines so replete with a complacent sense of superiority that I hesitate even to bring myself to quote them here? Such lines are particularly offensive to me because I have been reading Njabulo Ndebele’s excellent book, Fools and Other Stories, which offers a compelling view of life in Soweto, South Africa. So it infuriates me when Hannay, the narrator of Buchan’s novel, reports on “a great buck nigger who had a lot to say about ‘Africa for the Africans.’ I had a few words with him in Sesutu afterwards, and rather spoiled his visit.” It is significant, I’d argue, that the narrator offers neither the Sesutu words themselves, nor a translation, nor even a summary of them, an omission that renders his boastful declaration of a logical victory over the African speaker both empty and bombastic.

And yet I don’t think the answer to my anger and dismay about this is to throw Mr. Standfast across the room. Or perhaps it is to do just that, but then to go and pick it up again, after my temper has cooled, and go on reading it. Certainly my enjoyment of the novel will be less than if I had not encountered such ugly things in the narrative. After all, I would like Stevie Smith’s poems much better if I hadn’t come across baldly antisemitic sloganism in her Novel on Yellow Paper. (As it is, I like Smith well enough to have named one of my cats after her.) Rather, I think the lesson to be learned here is that racism comes in many forms; that, in all probability, it resides in every single human being. Furthermore, we must remember that we cannot eradicate racism by simply looking the other way, by trying to ignore its presence–either in our heroes or in ourselves.

Only by confronting racism dead on, by calling it by its true name without trying to excuse it, can we quash it when it rises up, as it will continue to do for the next few generations at least. At the same time, we cannot afford to dissimulate, as the Introduction to my edition of Mr. Standfast (Wordsworth Classics, 1994) does when it attempts to excuse Buchan: “Some of the language and many of the attitudes find little favour today,” the anonymous editor explains, “and have prompted some commentators to label Buchan with a number of those epithets that are fashionable among the historically illiterate. It should be remembered that Buchan was a high Tory politician, and also that the views he expresses are relatively liberal for his time.” No–this isn’t good enough. Let us admit once and for all that in this book at least, Buchan wrote as if he was a deplorable racist.

But let us also admit that the novel in question is a mere snapshot of him taken in 1919, and that it is unfair to judge the entirety of his life by this snapshot. It’s possible that he changed by the 1930s; but even if he didn’t, we can learn from his example. We can look at his works and see how very far we’ve come, and we can, without dissimulation or censorship, confront his racism for what it is: we can critique it, we can condemn it–and then we can move past it. If we choose not to, if we set the book down, then we miss out on the experience of reading it, and I’d say that would be a victory for racism, because it would shut down our capacity to explore human experience in its great variety.

I am not willing to foreclose on  such experiences. I believe that I am strong enough as a reader, indeed, as a person, to encounter racism in literature and to move past it so that I can gather a more complete picture of human culture, not as it should have been, but as it was. Distasteful as it can be to read reflections of ugliness, we must continue to do so if we want to try to understand our past and to control both our present and our future.

For me, it’s simply a matter of honesty. And so I will grit my teeth, shake my head, and continue reading Mr. Standfast. If it’s a good book, or even a spectacularly bad one, I may even write about it here in a few weeks.

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Buchan and Hitchcock, image from the Hitchcock Zone Wiki

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On Becoming Professor Brulov

There’s a part in one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, Spellbound (1945), in which Ingrid Bergman, a clinical psychologist, takes Gregory Peck, a man who has amnesia and may have commited a murder, to her former psychology professor’s house to hide out from the authorities. Professor Brulov is the epitome of a German academic: eccentric, kind, and highly intelligent, he is genuinely happy to see Ingrid Bergman, who, he says, was his best assistant. It’s a wonderful part of an interesting movie, but lately it’s taken on even greater significance for me.

I first watched the movie on television as a teenager, at which time I identified with Ingrid Bergman (of course I did–the movie is all about Freudian wish fulfillment, after all). Some years ago, as a middle-aged professor, I watched it again with my students when I taught a course on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and I realized with a rather unpleasant shock that I had evolved without realizing it from the young, attractive, and inquisitive Dr. Constance Peterson into the aged, almost-but-not-quite-grumpy Profesor Brulov. (In Mel Brooks’ hilarious spoof of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, High Anxiety [1977], Professor Brulov is transformed into Professor Lilloman, which the protagonist mistakenly pronounces as “Professor Little Old Man.”) And, while it has taken me a few years to accept this transformation, I’m now fairly comfortable with my new, much less glamorous, role as mentor to my former students.

The reason is simple. Constance Petersons are a dime a dozen. The world is filled with beautiful young people making their mark on the world. But Brulov–he’s different. In fact, he’s quite special. Think of it this way: When Peterson is in trouble, she seeks him out, and Brulov helps her without asking any difficult questions, despite the fact that he knows she’s lying to him. He trusts her even more than she trusts him, which is touching, in a way. And so one thing that this very complex movie does is set up the idea of a mentor relationship between Brulov and his former student. It’s an interesting side angle to the movie that I never really noticed before.

And, now, in my retirement, I am learning to embrace this new Brulovian stage of life. I have had very few, if any, mentors in my own career, so while I’m not too proficient at it yet, I hope to grow into the role in the years to come. The way I see it, we need more Professor Brulovs in this world; we can’t all be Ingrid Bergman or Gregory Peck, after all. I’m happy that my students remember me with something other than aversion, after all, and so becoming Professor Brulov is, at least for now, quite enough for me.

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Five Fascinating Facts about Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin holding a Charlie Chaplin doll. Source: Wikipedia

Charlie Chaplin holding a Charlie Chaplin doll.
Source: Wikipedia

 

Most of us know Charlie Chaplin as a star of silent movies, the iconic Little Tramp–a clown who made millions laugh during some of the hardest years of the early twentieth century. But he was more than a comic genius. I’d argue that even if he’d never been the most successful film comic to date, he’d still be remembered for the following achievements:

  1. Chaplin composed the tune “Smile,” as the background music for his masterpiece Modern Times (1936). A decade and a half later, John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added the lyrics and title to the song, producing a major hit for Nat King Cole. It has since been recorded by Tony Bennett, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Josh Groban, and Robert Downey, Jr., as well as by the Japanese singer Misia.

2. Chaplin was one of the founders, along with  film pioneer D.W. Griffith, Hollywood power couple Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo (former Treasury Secretary under President Woodrow Wilson, his father-in-law) of United Artists Film Studio. Their goal was to maintain and preserve artistic independence in creating their own film work.

  • Original list of Stockholders of United Artists. Source: Wikipedia

    Original list of Stockholders of United Artists.
    Source: Wikipedia

3. The only earned Academy Award Chaplin ever won, despite his iconic stature in the film industry, was for the score of his film Limelight (1952). Turner and Parsons again added words to the tune, creating the song “Eternally.” Because Chaplin was exiled from the United States when Limelight was produced (see below), the Oscar was not awarded until 1973. The song was recorded by many artists, including Jimmy Young, Petula Clark, Michel Legrand, and Sarah Vaughan. (Yes, that’s a very young Claire Bloom below; she was Chaplin’s co-star in this fascinating film.)

4. When Chaplin sailed to London in September of 1952 for the premiere of Limelight, he was informed that he could not re-enter the United States without submitting to an interview regarding his political and moral behavior. At the height of McCarthyism, this revocation of Chaplin’s re-entry permit was tantamount to political exile. Chaplin, disgusted by what he called the “hate-beleaguered atmosphere” of  the U.S., settled in Switzerland, returning only once to the land that had seen his rise to stardom, in 1972, to receive an honorary Academy Award.

 

5. Chaplin was not only a great comedian, but also a philosopher who worked in the medium of film. The Great Dictator (1940)  a powerful political satire that addressed the growing threat posed by Nazism–was made before the United States had declared war on Germany. (Incidentally, Chaplin worked on the score for the film as well, but the music was credited to Meredith Willson, who would go on to write The Music Man.) These days, in the midst of political unrest, Chaplin’s final speech of the film is frequently cited as an appeal to logic and sympathy in the face of mechanistic and rote obedience to power.

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Film and Classical Music

One of the things I miss about teaching now that I’m retired is the ability to explore ideas and themes with others. I often compared teaching–at least, teaching at its best–to driving a tour bus. Sometimes you stop the bus and point out some interesting things (and in fact that is pretty much your purpose in life as a teacher), but often people on the bus know some pretty interesting stuff, too, and teaching at its best is when everyone starts sharing their information and their ideas. That part of my life still exists, but in a much smaller form, and I can’t rely on a job to make it happen any longer.

Hence this post. If I were still teaching, I’d be formulating a course on Film and Music, much as there are courses on Film and Literature, or Film and Shakespeare, or Film and Madness. But since I’m not planning on teaching such a course, I thought it would be fun to make a list, the kind you see on Buzzfeed, or even better, on InterestingLiterature (a great site, and not just because I had a guest post on it once) that highlighted some interesting movies that focus on classical music. Fair warning, however: some of these movies are not readily available, and only one of them is well known.

  • We’ll begin with the most famous movie in the list: Amadeus. Now, don’t get me wrong; I loved the movie when it came out in the 1980s, just as everyone else did. But I found it a bit dull and overacted when I watched it again a few months ago. Certainly it is a long movie, but it is visually spectacular. The music is excellent, too. If you haven’t seen this film, it might be good to start here, if only because everyone will expect you to have seen it.
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Image from https://rovingpsyche.wordpress.com/2015/05/13/cinema-review-amadeus/, which provides an excellent review of the film.

 

  • Here’s a little gem that fewer people have seen than Amadeus: It’s called Nannerl, La Soeur de Mozart, or, in English, Mozart’s Sister. I found the portrayal of a very young Mozart and his sister in their family setting both refreshing and appealing. The Mozart in Amadeus can be quite bratty and silly, but in this film, such antics are easier to take, because here Mozart is ten or so years old. Of course, the film centers on Nannerl, Mozart’s older sister, whose musical gifts are acknowledged but circumscribed by her father. The intrigue portrayed in the film is fanciful yet appealing, and the music is, once again,  excellent.
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Image from a revew by Ty Burr which appeared in Boston.com

  • Mention Henry Purcell at a cocktail party, and you’ll receive blank looks. Most Americans don’t know that Henry Purcell was the first really great English composer. The film England, My England provides a view of Purcell’s life in a creative, time-tripping way: focusing on the attempts of a 1960s playwright to create a drama based on Purcell’s life, it spins off into that life itself, returning at times to its trendy 1960s setting. The musical scenes are pleasing, and the portrayal of Purcell (by Michael Ball) is convincing, drawing the viewer into the world of Baroque England.
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Image from Imdb.com

 

  • Emily Watson is one of my favorite actresses, so it makes sense that I would put the film Hilary and Jackie on this list, but I need to warn my readers that this film can be deeply troubling. It deals with Hilary and Jacqueline du Pre, musical prodigies who emerged on the classical music scene  in the 1960s, Hilary as a flautist and Jacqueline as a cellist. Be warned: Jacqueline died at the age of 42, having suffered from multiple sclerosis, which cut short her career when symptoms arose in 1973. The film is grueling at times, and not just because of the onset of the disease. And it is controversial as well, since it presents an unflattering view of Du Pre at times. But it provides a fascinating look at this important 20th-century musician, whose work has been described  as both ground-breaking and definitive.
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Image from Imdb.com

 

  • I’ve saved the most unusual film for the end. In fact, the only way I was able to watch this film was by streaming the entire thing on YouTube. This film may not be for everyone: it follows the early life and career of Carlo Broschi, who took the name “Farinelli” when he appeared on the early 18th-century stage as a castrato singer. But it is an excellent film about a difficult subject. Like the  other films on this list, it is largely fictionalized, but the music is interesting and appealing, and the story itself so unusual as to be intriguing. To recreate the sound of a castrato’s voice, the voices of a female soprano and a male countertenor were digitally merged, resulting in this amazing aural amalgam. It is a unique and gorgeous sound–but you might want to compare it to this rendition of Handel’s aria (“Lascio chi’io panga”) by the male soprano Philippe Jaroussky, which relied on no such digital manipulation. Which is better? Add your comment below to join in the conversation. And please let me know if you know of other movies I should add to this list.
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Image from YouTube

 

 

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A Pair of Blue Eyes

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I’ve reached a stage in my career as a professional reader in which I feel free to pick up books and read them on a whim. Although I’m very serious about my reading–in fact, I find it very difficult to belong to a book club precisely because I cannot give up my freedom about what I will read and when I will read it–I no longer plan my reading along a program or a goal. For example, I used to try to read all the Dickens novels I’d missed, which is how I got through Martin Chuzzlewit and Barnaby Rudge, which are not bad novels, but certainly not Dickens’s best. (In fact, Americans especially might get a kick out of Chuzzlewit, because apparently not much has changed since the book was published; Dickens is a pretty harsh judge of American society.) These days, however, I just grab a book at random, or for the silliest of reasons.

I still focus on the Victorian novel in my spare time, even though I’ve been making forays into early 20th-century American literature, necessitated by the fact that I’m teaching a class on Ernest Hemingway. In this way, I’ve read The Good Soldier, The Sun also Rises, and The Great Gatsby in recent weeks. Of the three, I like Hemingway’s the best and think it the most important of the three works. I even tried watching the new film version of The Great Gatsby, and found, to my family’s disgust, that I needed to add it to my list of movies I could not watch: thirteen minutes into the film, my loud and muscular critique of it forced them to eject the DVD and hastily seal it in its envelope, to be mailed the next day. I didn’t even make it long enough to see Gatsby himself.

Last year at a library book sale, I picked up a copy of Thomas Hardy’s 1873 novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. Hardy is a bit late for me, as a scholar: I tend to focus more on early Victorian, even pre-Victorian novels than on the end of the period. But somehow I got the notion that in one of Hardy’s novels, he has a heroine, or perhaps a supporting character with my middle name–Avis. Aside from the car rental business, it’s a rare name, and I’ve always been curious about this character whom I’ve never encountered.

That’s why I picked up the novel, but not why I kept reading it. In fact, there is no character named Avis in the book, although the heroine’s name is the equally, or perhaps even more, unusual “Elfride.” (I will have to keep looking for Avis in his other novels, apparently.) A Pair of Blue Eyes is an early Hardy novel, and it contains some obvious weaknesses. For one thing, coincidence plays much too great a role in the novel. In addition, it’s garishly melodramatic: in the middle of the novel, a character falls off a cliff, and proceeds to dangle there while the heroine partially disrobes to make him a means of escape, giving rise to the term “cliff-hanger,” according to Wikipedia. But the end of the novel is lovely surprise, with a whisper of the kind of non-judgmental proto-feminism that Hardy will later become known for in Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

A Pair of Blue Eyes may not be as important a novel as Bleak House or The Sun also Rises, but it’s pleasant reading, and well worth the time spent on it during a season of relentless snow and ice. I look forward to the next Hardy novel I’ll be reading: Two on a Tower.

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On Mondegreens and Willful Misunderstandings

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia–Lucy the Australopithecus 

Once in a while, I hear about a new movie that I really want to see. It doesn’t happen often, because I really prefer old movies to new ones; I’m happiest when watching a movie from the 1930s or ’40s, and it takes a bit of gumption for me to sit down to watch a movie in color–a fact that really throws my students for a loop. Action and superhero movies bore me, and I usually end up falling asleep during them, or checking my wristwatch several times throughout the film.

But once in a rare while, I hear about a movie that really sounds interesting. The operative word here is “hear”: what I really do is hear the title, then ignore the movie’s description and single-handedly create a movie that I’d really want to see. The most recent example is the film Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson. Now, a very quick internet search brings you to the official site, but that’s not the movie I envisioned when I heard the title. Somehow, I decided this movie was going to be about the discovery of Lucy, the hominid remains that shook up the world of anthropology in the 1970s. I created an entire plot in my head, which, while shadowy and only partially formed, revolves around archeologists. It’s set in the dry, dusty plains of Africa, where the drama emerged from a slow process of discovery, perhaps involving scholarly rivalry and personal conflicts, and maybe even a love story. This Lucy is, in my warped view, a recipe for a wonderful film, and every time I bump into the real film’s advertisements, I find myself quickly dismissing them, overwhelmed by a sense of ineffable disappointment.

Years ago, I did the same thing with the film Glengarry Glen Ross, which I decided was a film about Americans on a fishing trip to Scotland. It was a little like Deliverance, without the violence; perhaps it would be better to say that my sense of the film was that it was like Brigadoon, minus the magic and the music. Apparently, I couldn’t be further off in my characterization of the film.

I think we need a word to describe this type of willful misunderstanding, where, like Wordsworth in his poem Tintern Abbey, we encounter films which we “half create” (line 106) making unique alternative-reality films that exist only in our own minds. After all, because these alternative films arise from a misunderstanding, they’re not that much different from a mondegreen–a misunderstood song lyric, and there’s a whole slew of websites devoted to them. (You can read about them here and here.) Everyone has a mondegreen story to tell, usually involving a small child. For example, my daughter asked me, when she was five years old, why, in the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” the lamb’s fleas were white as snow, since the fleas on our little Sheltie were definitely black. Was it a different kind of flea? Or were Geordie’s fleas simply dirty?

At any rate, this topic has me thinking about the ways we misunderstand the things we hear about, and, because I deal with the written word so much, the things we read. Don’t worry–I’m not going to launch into a critical essay (though I am tempted to talk about Much Ado about Nothing, a Shakespeare play that focuses on the way we misread people and texts). Instead, I’m going to bring up a memory from my early childhood. My parents, in an apparent effort to provide their three children an introduction to the great books, bought us a volume of stories entitled something like “Great Stories of the World.” In this volume was a short synopsis of myths and legends mixed helter skelter, arranged with no attention to provenance or significance. Thus Beowulf, the first story in the book, was followed by an adventure involving Pecos Bill. I probably never made it past these two stories, which is why, as a graduate student studying Old English, I always felt I was missing something–until I realized that I was waiting for Pecos Bill to come in at the end of  Beowulf and slay the dragon, saving Beowulf and giving him a ride back to his mead-hall on a cyclone.

I’m not sure whether other readers have this experience, but I do remember a fellow graduate student explaining that, like most of us Victorianists, she had seen the movie Oliver! well before she ever read the novel. During the movie, she explained, after Bill Sykes beats Nancy so savagely, she watched, transfixed, and noticed that although Nancy’s body is obscured behind a wall, she could detect her leg moving–and so as a small child, she decided that Nancy was not dead. Wounded, perhaps severely, but not dead. That impression, she explained, held sway each time she re-read the novel, and she had trouble convincing herself that Nancy had indeed been killed by her vicious boyfriend.

So I issue a call to readers–two calls, in fact. Have you ever misunderstood something in a film or a book and preferred your misunderstanding to the reality? And, if so, do you have a suggestion for what to call this situation? I look forward to your responses!


 

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My War with Westerns

If you’ve read this blog for a while, or just snooped around a bit, you will remember that one of my earliest posts was on movies that I couldn’t finish, which is available here. But recently I’ve found another film to add to the list, and perhaps an entire genre as well.

The film in question is 3:10 to Yuma. I actually walked away from the television about halfway through the film, bored with and tired of what seemed to be a predictable plot with lots of violence to keep it moving. But I’m not sure the film itself is to blame. Maybe it’s actually a good film of its kind; maybe I just don’t like Westerns. When I talk about genre in my classes, I always point out that genres, like clothes,  are subject to fashion trends through the years. For example, remember leisure suits from the 1970s?

leisurebirth

From the website Plaid Stallions: Reliving the 70s a Catalogue Page at a Time

Truly awful, right? Consider literary (or film) genres as if they were clothing, and you’ll see what I mean about trending fashions in genres. If 1970s was the decade of horrors like the leisure suit in terms of clothes, the 1590s were the decade of the sonnet in England. Everyone who was anyone was writing them–kind of like children’s books in the last decade or zombie/vampire/supernatural stories today.

What does this have to do with Westerns? While I’m not an expert on film or on Westerns, it seems safe to say that the heyday of the western film was the 1950s and 1960s, spilling over to television in those years as well, with shows such as Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, The High Chapparel, and of course Bonanza. Doing any Western film today kind of seems like revisiting an older art form, but in this case, it really is a remake: 3:10 to Yuma is a remake of the 1957 version of the film starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, a version I haven’t seen, but which I strongly suspect I would not like either.

Why? The answer is simple: I’m a woman, and the Western is a man’s genre.

I realize that is a loaded statement to make today, in an era of gender liberation, an era of liberation from gender itself. But let me point out why I left the couch last Saturday night to go play my guitar when confronted with another 45 minutes of watching a film I couldn’t connect with. It wasn’t the violence, or the cynicism, or even the sexist attitudes of the characters: these are things that I can understand and accept, given the plot and setting. Rather, it’s the fact that there are no women in the movie for me to identify with. In other words, while watching 3:10 to Yuma, I was left with the  choice of identifying with either  the prostitute or the faithful wife, neither of whom get a lot of time on screen–unless I wanted to do some cross-gender fantasizing, which is fine when it isn’t forced down your throat.

It kind of makes me want to slap the director. “Really?” I want to say to him.  “We wait fifty years for a remake of a movie, only to duplicate the sexual stereotypes that probably made it a B-grade movie on the first go-round?” It seems like a monumental waste of time to me. I kept hoping that the boy William, who follows his father off into the sage on his mission to deliver Ben Wade to justice, would turn out to be a girl. I even concocted this whole story about how William’s parents created this switched gender for her in order to protect her from marauders and would-be seducers. In the end, I realized that the story I was making up to get me through the movie was, in fact, far more interesting than the movie itself, which is why I stopped watching it in the middle.

The truth is, I can accept a film that has gender stereotypes when it’s made in the 1950s and 1960s; we don’t quit teaching The Taming of the Shrew just because it’s antifeminist, after all, because we can explain its outlook from a historical perspective. For much of recorded history, women have been given the short end of the stick, so to speak, and it does no good to deny this. In fact, studying such depictions of women might even help us understand other forms of oppression, so I get the idea of tolerance for gender stereotypes in older films. But I expect more from a contemporary film, and I’d love to hear from readers out there if there is, in fact, a Western that does not demand we step into a mental straitjacket when we watch it.

Any takers? Leave your comments below, and I’ll start expanding my Netflix queue.

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On Sappy Movies and Why We Should Watch Them

tatb04

The other night, I watched a 1957 movie called Tammy and the Bachelor. It’s a sappy movie, starring Debbie Reynolds and an unbelievably young and handsome Leslie Nielsen, and it’s famous for its theme song “Tammy,” which was a number one hit on the charts when the movie came out. Both the song and the film are saccharine, however, and I’m embarrassed not only about watching it, but about having to admit that I actually liked it, too. But, as I pointed out in last week’s blog, the internet was made expressly for embarrassing disclosures, so I’m going to go ahead and write something here that I’ll probably regret in the near future: there’s nothing wrong with watching a movie like Tammy and the Bachelor, and, in fact, we’re may actually be missing out on something important if we don’t watch them from time to time.

I’m not really defending the movie or saying it’s great cinema. The truth is, Tammy and the Bachelor is over-the-top schmaltzy. In case you don’t remember or have never seen the movie, it’s all about a young backwoods girl who lives on a houseboat in Mississippi with her grandfather. Together, in a kind of Our-Mutual-Friend kind of beginning (and, on reflection, this movie might just be a 1950s reconstruction of Our Mutual Friend–Dickens was, after all, the king of schmaltz, and Tammy lines up quite nicely with Lizzie Hexam), they go downriver to salvage flotsam from a plane crash. While there, they unexpectedly discover a survivor: the bachelor of the title, played by Nielsen. The inevitable romantic attraction follows. It’s a simple plot, filled with amusing but highly improbable events. Tammy, as she is played by Debbie Reynolds–lovely, down to earth and somehow naive and nubile at the same time–is a far cry from our contemporary sense of the rural south (as in Duck Dynasty). Yet somehow, by the middle of the movie, there were enough really funny moments to make me forget how silly it all was. By the time Debbie sings her signature song, I was really enjoying the film–and forgetting to be embarrassed by it.

And then, as I thought about it, I discovered all kinds of reasons why it isn’t so bad to watch these old and outdated movies. True, Tammy isn’t thought-provoking. But neither are a lot of the movies in theatres today. The plot is completely predictable–where it’s not predictable, it’s implausible–and there’s blatant and troubling racism in the film (although there are extenuating circumstances for it). But it portrays a young woman who has interesting ideas and isn’t afraid to voice them, even when doing so gets her into trouble. That’s a small victory, yet an important one for a 1950s movie.

But here’s the real reason why I think we’re missing out when we don’t watch these old romantic comedies. It should come as no surprise when, at the end of the film, the destitute (but somehow fresh-faced and thoughtful) Tammy winds up with the impoverished but genteel David Brent, who appreciates all the quirks about Tammy–even her unorthodox ideas about life, which she tends to blurt out at inopportune moments. Their mutual on-screen chemistry and occasional sexually charged comments allude to an active and healthy romance to come. It’s good, clean, sexual fun, in fact: no power games and no using sex as a means to something else.

Ok, so this probably doesn’t really happen in real life. But neither do many of the plots from the kind of movies that are privileged today. And shouldn’t young people have some place they can go to–besides Disney’s animated films–where healthy sexual relationships are portrayed? Is relentless realism such a good thing that we can have nothing else? Are we so far gone that only by grafting romantic love onto supernatural, blood-craving vampires can we actually become interested in it any more?

If that’s the case, then I echo Thomas Carlyle, who said, “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe” (Sartor Resartus). Let’s put down Fifty Shades of Grey and waste our time instead watching pointless, silly movies. At least we’ll feel a little more peace and contentment when the credits are rolling. Films like Tammy and the Bachelor give us something simple and (dare I say it?) pure to aim for in our own lives, and heaven knows we need a little more of that.

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February 19, 2014 · 1:58 pm

What I Learned from Mrs. Goldberg

TheGoldbergs

A few nights ago, I was looking for a break from the tedium of grading freshman compositions, and, in the course of doing the 21st-century equivalent of flipping channels (paging through Netflix on my smart DVD/TV set-up), I discovered something I had never known before: The Goldbergs.

Apparently, in the 1950s, before there was Archie Bunker or The Jeffersons, before Will and Grace and The George Lopez Show, there was a situation comedy about–get this–a Jewish family from the Bronx that moved to Haverford, Connecticut. I was floored, absolutely gob-smacked to discover this, because I thought (silly of me, I know) that diversity was a modern invention. And by modern, I mean a within-my-lifetime kind of thing. But apparently it’s not. After the shock of that discovery wore off, I had another shock to deal with: I, the person who has watched way too many episodes of Gilligan’s Island , who has a fondness for Mrs. Trumble in I Love Lucy, who knew the members of the Little Rascals at least as well as my own cousins, I had never been aware of this show. How could that happen?

If you’ve never watched the show, you might want to take a look at this teaser. Apparently someone else is aware of The Goldbergs; Aviva Kempner has created a documentary about the show (which has nothing to do with the brand-new ABC show of the same name). Here’s a link to the trailer:

I don’t pretend to be a more authoritative voice about Mrs. Goldberg and Gertrude Berg’s effect on the early days of television and radio in the United States than Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Susan Stamberg, but I do have a little something to say about Molly Goldberg and what she’s taught me after having watched a handful of episodes.

Molly is a woman of say, fifty to sixty years of age. She doesn’t try to be younger or more attractive. And it is clear in every moment of the show that she doesn’t need to. No one expects her to apologize for or cover up her age ; she is respected for being a smart, caring, and active woman. This is what Molly teaches us: it’s okay to be over fifty. Many older women today are trying to negotiate that tricky passage between the days of youth and attractiveness and the days of maturity. Unfortunately, we have few role models to help us navigate. Molly is a good role model. From her, I have learned that being thin, or wrinkle-free, or fashionably dressed isn’t as important as it seems to be.

Secondly, Molly cares about the people she lives with. She tries hard, even when she’s rebuffed. I think this is an important lesson for us today, and I wonder when our television shows stopped teaching it. When did laughing about people’s stupidity or meanness become more appealing to viewers than watching how characters negotiate the common difficulties of living together? These difficulties can be funny, too, but they are not dehumanizing. Molly teaches us what it means to be human and live in a social environment that may be less inclusive than we’d like it to be.

Most of all, Molly Goldberg is just a nice, lively character. I’d like to say that she’s larger than life, but the truth is she’s not, and I think that’s why I like her. She’s one of us–when we’re at our best. I say we could all do with a little bit more of Mrs. Goldberg in our lives.

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Filed under Films, Television, the Goldbergs