Screening Classic Hollywood: “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953)

Recently, I decided to give the film How to Marry a Millionaire another watch. It’s an important film in Hollywood history and, as a scholar of classic Hollywood, I’m always looking for new ways of thinking about this particularly important period of film history. I’m sure glad I did, because I LOVED this film.

It’s all too easy these days to adopt a camp perspective on classic Hollywood films, to laugh at rather than with them. However, in my view How to Marry is one of those gems that really does age fairly well, and it’s quite easy to find yourself laughing with the jokes. If you don’t find yourself laughing out loud, then I think you might have something wrong with your sense of humour.

Part of what helps the film to age so well, I suspect, is the extent to which it is the women who motivate the action, drive the narrative, and dominate the screen. Oh sure, William Powell puts in a nice turn, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Bacall, Grable, and Monroe. In one particularly revealing sequence, each of the women dreams about their futures with their respective suitors, showing the extent to which each of them is determined to carve out a future on their own terms. You want each of them to find the wealth and emotional happiness that they desire.

Speaking of William Powell…there’s something almost tragic about the fact that Schatze chooses the young, foppish, and not very charismatic Brookman rather than Hadley as the man with whom she wants to build a life. I mean, come on, it’s William Powell, the man who played the Thin Man! How could one not fall in love with his urbane charm, his dazzling wit, and that old-fashioned handsome (if slightly weathered) face? Of course, though, I get it. This is postwar America, and Powell, and his character, are relics from an earlier era that have to be shunted aside to make room for the new crop of young men.

Of course, each of the female stars manage to overwhelm any scene in which they appear. Though Grable is fine as far as she goes, for my money the real entertainers are Bacall and Monroe, the former because she brings her signature bite and sass to this gold-digger role and the latter because, beneath the fluffy, buxom exterior one can still sense a fierce form of intelligence. As I watched this film, it occurred to me (not for the first time) what a tragedy it was that Monroe didn’t often get to play parts that really challenged her and, more superficially, that she didn’t get to wear glasses more often. For my money though, Bacall will always be the best thing about any movie in which she appears. That voice…it does it for me.

Visually, the film is stunning, putting both the widescreen and the Technicolor to full effect. The New York portrayed in How to Marry is a utopian world of sumptuous fabrics, snappy dialogue, witty banter, and simple, sheer beauty. Given that the film was shot in CinemaScope, it’s easy to see how it wishes to immerse the postwar spectator in a glorious, glittering world of affluence and romance. The opening and closing of the film heightens this sense of presence, including both an orchestra and curtains, both of which suggest that one is sitting watching a play rather than merely observing what is going on in another room.

At a deeper social level, How to Marry a Millionaire testifies to a culture still unsure what to make of the status of women. While the hegemonic gender norms that dominated the 1950s were already settling into place, American society still struggled to accommodate female desire. It’s worth noting that two of the three marry men who are incapacitated in some way, either because of financial misfortune or physical incapacitation. The final scene of the film has Brookman revealing his vast wealth to the gathered cast, the sight of which causes the women to faint (disappearing from the frame), thus allowing them men to literally have the last word. While the film attempts to recuperate the endangered masculinity that it has put on such conspicuous display in this final scene, these unruly women are not so easily tamed.

In the end, it truly is the women who own this picture and who show us, in 2018, that the 1950s were far less stable than we remember.

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Queer Classics: “Love, Simon” (2018) and the Epistemology of the (Digital) Closet

Once upon a time, if you were to look for a mainstream gay teen romance, you would have to look outside the Hollywood system to the indies. Even there, you’d be hard pressed to find a film about queer teens. If there is one thing that has been off-bounds for mainstream film, it’s the idea that anyone under the age of 18 has a sex drive, and this is even more true for the scandalous idea that teenagers might know they’re queer when they’re teens.

Fast forward to 2018, and a relatively small-scoped film called Love, Simon appears to have opened that door to representation.

Simon is your average, middle-class teenager in 2018. He lives with his affluent, accepting parents and a sister that he actually likes. He also harbors a secret that he’s gay. When he comes out to a fellow student whom he knows only via e-mail, he inadvertently sets the stage for a scheme by one of his fellow students to blackmail him with the potential releasing of his sexual secret to the entire school. Fortunately, this being Hollywood, things work out in the end, and Simon ends up uniting with his e-mail beau.

No matter how many times I watch a Hollywood romance, I always find myself choking up at the end. Perhaps, in this case, it’s because I wish that was how my own youth had been, or perhaps because I wish that there had been those kinds of films around when I was growing up. So, when I see two young queer people finding emotional fulfillment at the end of a film (with no baggage attached), I can’t help but feel myself moved by it and to see it, in the aggregate, as a good thing. And, if I’m being completely honest, it simply felt good to see a queer teen romance end happily and fulfilled.

Though of course the love story is the most important component of the film, it is also a meditation on the ways in which digital technologies–and the increasingly interconnected world they have made possible–continue to inflect and change the ways that young queer people interact with one another. Indeed, it is one of the structuring conflicts of the film. Simon’s entire way of being in the world of romance is mediated through technology–first the e-mail (sent on his very expensive Mac), then his repeated alerts on his iPhone, and of course the social media platform that unites the entire school. Simon, and his friends and classmates, must continually navigate the fraught territory of social media, with all of its perils and pitfalls.

What really stood out to me as I watched the film, however, was how much it illustrates that Sedgwick’s theory of the closet still holds true. For those not familiar with this concept, it is essentially the idea that the closet maintains a structuring presence in the life of any queer person. No matter how accepted we are in mainstream culture, no matter how much queer rights have been gained, there is always the reality that, as long as we remain wedded to a homo/hetero binary way of looking at sexuality, and as long as the hetero is assumed to be the norm against which the homo is measured, queers will have to go through the confessional act of “coming out.” Every new person we meet, every new social encounter we have, engenders the question “Do I tell them who I really am?”

This epistemology constitutes the entire plot of Love, Simon. Even in 2018, when it is has become so normal for young people to be open about who they are–and indeed to challenge the categories that have been used to make sense of sexual identities for the last 40 years–the old structures have proven surprisingly enduring. If we truly lived in a world that no longer organized itself around the homo/hetero binary, then Simon wouldn’t be rendered susceptible to his classmate’s blackmail (he threatens to expose Simon’s sexuality on the school’s social media platform). Instead, Simon, like queer people throughout the era of the closet, finds his identity split between his private and public selves, with social media as the hinge between these two spheres.

When his mother tells him that he looked like he was holding his breath, she sums up exactly how the closet works and how it feels to be in it, always and every day. The injunction to come out, the very fact that one has to come out in the first place, is the essence of living in the shadow of the closet. It’s important to remember that there are many (many) queer people who struggle with that part of their identity, who have to make a daily decision about whether or not they are going to reveal their true selves to others in their life. In that sense, Love, Simon is the perfect sort of Hollywood fantasy, one which shows the ideal way in which coming out happens.

It’s easy to dismiss Love, Simon as the worst sort of homonormative, teenage-angsty sort of film. The ending leaves us no plot thread unresolved, and as a colleague of mine pointed out, the ferris wheel sequence fits queer romance into a Hollywood model. Yet, I’m not sure I agree. There is a brief but revealing moment when Bram (the e-mail beau) asks, “Are you disappointed it’s me?” It’s unclear what he means when he asks this question, but I suspect that he’s asking if Simon is disappointed that it’s the black Jewish boy rather than the other more “normative” characters that have periodically flitted into Simon’s life. Let’s not forget that it’s still pretty radical to see a queer interracial couple appear in a major Hollywood studio film.

And that, ultimately, is the great cultural good of a film like Love, Simon. Sure, those on the coasts may not find the film as radical as they might like–and some might even find it downright regressive–but for me, I am glad that a film like this exists. And I’m glad that today’s queer kids will, at last, be able to see themselves up their on the big screen.

Reading Classic Hollywood: Demographic Angst (Alan Nadel)

As some of you who read this blog regularly know, I’m a passionate believer in the value of the public humanities. Now that I’ve finished the dissertation (yay!) and have a bit of time on my hands, and since I’ve been spending so much time reading books in film, I have decided to do my part in that project. I’m going to start posting reviews of books that I think would be of interest not only to those studying film from an academic perspective, but also to those who are fans of film and want to think more complexly and with more nuance about how cinema engages with the world that produces it.

To inaugurate this, I am writing about the new book Demographic Angst: Cultural Narratives and American Films of the 1950s, by Alan NadelI’ve been a fan of Nadel’s for some time now; in fact, his book Containment Culture (about the instability of atomic technology and the way in which this was reflected in the challenges of postmodernism) enormously influenced my own work on Cold War films. So, needless to say, I was very excited indeed to see that he had a new book coming out, which explores a new aspect of my favourite periods of Hollywood history.

Through a series of erudite readings of classic films of the 1950s–ranging from All About Eve to Singin’ in the Rain, from Niagara to West Side Story–Nadel demonstrates the ways in which the cultural texts of the postwar period reflected the ongoing debates and anxieties that characterized American culture in the aftermath of the Second World War. In particular, these films grappled with the tremendous changes in the American population that emerged after the victory. This was an era, after all, of unprecedented economic and population growth, a pinnacle of achievement that the United States had not yet achieved.

However, as Nadel ably demonstrates, the films of the era exposed the contradictions dwelling at the heart of the Cold War American unconscious. Though this is an era that has, in subsequent years, been understood as one of conformity, it was in fact deeply conflicted, for in its attempt to enforce a hegemonic understanding of normality, the dominant ideologies of the period inadvertently summoned up the anxieties they meant to quell. This endless conflict between opposites, Nadel contends, created the angst that was such a signature part of Cold War culture.

Nadel is a historicist in the finest tradition, and he shows how the angst emerging in the broader American culture found their reflection in the cinema of the era. These concerns include the issue of labour (reflected in the bodies and voices of the characters of Singin’ in the Rain and On the Waterfront), the plight of the organization man in the postwar business world (which can be seen in The Court Jester), the perils of female desire (exposed in films such as All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard), and the shifting understandings of the status of Puerto Rico in an era in which Communist Cuba was becoming an increasing presence on the global stage (explored through the narrative of West Side Story). Through these readings, the book shows how 1950s films were very much a part of their moment of production and, as such, co-creators of the ideologies upon which they drew.

Part of the book’s appeal lies in the way that it draws upon such a deep archive of primary materials from the period. As someone who recently did his own research into the discourses of the postwar world, it was exciting to see Nadel read them in ways that would not have occurred to me. Nadel’s ability to weave together the context and his readings of the films makes this an ideal book for those looking to gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of the 1950s, the many competing discourses that barraged those living in this profoundly uncertain time. In that sense, Demographic Angst is a particularly valuable book for those of us living in a similarly contentious period of demographic change.

Nadel, while very complex in his thinking and his interpretation of film, nevertheless manages to write in a style that is at once sophisticated and yet accessible to those outside the academy. If you want to learn more about the important cultural work that classic Hollywood films did in their time of production, there is much to gain from reading this book. Further, it’s clear that Nadel has a great deal of fondness for the films that he analyzes, and that he has a keen eye for the visual details that make the cinema of this period such a joy to watch.

If I have one slight complaint about the book as a whole, it’s that Nadel tends to be a little too literal in his associations between the context and the reflection in the film. Still, it is entirely possible that those watching these films would have understood them as participating and reflecting their own lived reality and the ideologies in which they were immersed. As Nadel ably puts it, however, these films also rendered visible–and thus forced an experience of–the contradictory impulses of postwar America.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book for the light that it sheds on the films of the 1950s. I’m one of those weird people who genuinely enjoys reading film criticism, particularly when it helps me to see my favourite films in new and exciting ways. I also like reading about films that I haven’t seen yet (as odd as that sounds). Indeed, sometimes it’s reading about them that makes me want to see them.

Demographic Angst is published by Rutgers University Press. It’s actually priced quite reasonably at around $30, so if you can you should buy a copy for yourself. After all, buying a scholar’s book not only helps them (if they sell enough copies they’ll eventually get a royalty) but also helps to demonstrate to university presses that there is a market for scholarship that exists beyond the libraries that typically purchase them.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “It’s a Miserable Life” (S2, Ep. 4)

Despite the sporadic nature of my updates to this series, I’m hoping to be a bit more consistent going forward. I’ve still got quite a few episodes to cover, after all. So, onward we go into season two.

In the fourth episode of the second season, the girls confront the malice and profound misanthropy of Frieda Claxton, their neighbor who does everything in her power to ensure that the old oak tree on her property is cut down by the city in its efforts to widen the street. When Rose loses her temper during a meeting of the City Council and shouts at Mrs. Claxton, the old woman dies on the spot, and the four women ultimately decide to pay for her funeral.

What is most striking about Mrs. Claxton is that she is unrepentantly misanthropic. Unlike the four stars of the show–who spend much of their time committed to social good–she straight up doesn’t like people. While the show doesn’t necessarily see this as a good thing (quite the opposite, in fact), it is refreshing to see a woman who doesn’t make any bones about the fact that she doesn’t feel the obligation to be nice to people just because that’s what she’s “supposed” to be like. Fun fact? She is basically what my Mom is going to be like when she gets to be that age.

The real highlight of the episode, though, is the scene at the funeral home, in which the four women have to contend with Mr. Pfeiffer (the “p” is not, in fact, silent). The scene is pure comedy gold, from Sophia’s threatening to give the funeral director a punch in his “pface” to the girls attempting to get the cheapest funeral and casket, since none of them really want to invest that much money into honouring a woman that none of them liked. The sequence also contains a sly reference to the popularity of The Cosby Show and indeed the centrality of television to the lives of those who lived in that far-off time before DVR. The whole thing is, quite simply, a hugely hilarious bit of comedy.

What I really like about this episode is that it shows us that Rose truly is a good, decent person. Sure, she has her moments when she lets her anger burst out inopportunely. However, her genuine devastation at the lack of attendees at Claxton’s funeral reveals how deeply Rose feels about the world around her, how she is determined to believe, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, that there is something good in the heart of even the most despicable person.

Indeed, this episode (like so many) contends with the incontrovertible fact of death and its increasing proximity. As mean as Frieda Claxton was, Sophia points out, she still deserves at least a measure of a funeral. Though she claims it’s good luck to pay for the funeral of someone you hate, one suspects that there is a recognition on Sophia’s part that death waits for all of them, and that it might be in all of their interest to save up some goodwill with the Almighty.

Next up, we come to one of my very favourite episodes, in which Dorothy’s gay friend comes for a visit.

Film Review: “Annihilation” (2018) and the Radical Dissolution of the Self

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

Some science fiction films are groundbreaking in the sense that they open up new ways of seeing and looking at the world. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one such film, as is Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Ridley Scott’s Alien. These films unsettle us, forcing us to live in a very uncomfortable sort of world, one that is both like and unlike the one that we experience in the everyday. Annihilation, with its unstable narrative, exquisitely unsettling visual composition, and uncanny sound design, is another such film, a reminder of the continuing power of science fiction to challenge our ways of making sense of the world…and of the cinematic image.

The film begins when Lena (Natalie Portman) is reunited with her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who had gone missing in an area known as the Shimmer over a year earlier. Determined to find out what caused his disappearance–and his physical breakdown after he re-emerged–she agrees to enter the Shimmer with a group of other women to discover the source of the disturbance, what it may want, and whether it can be reversed. Once there, however, they encounter increasingly disturbing mutations, including an alligator with teeth like a shark and a hideously disfigured (and utterly terrifying) bear. Ultimately, Lena must confront the entity that has formed the Shimmer, in all of its utterly alien intensity.

At the level of narrative, Annihilation poses a challenge. It is not a straightforward story, but is instead related largely in flashback from Lena’s perspective. However, as we quickly learn, there is much that Lena cannot explain, either to the scientists interrogating her in the army station outside the Shimmer. And, just as importantly, it’s entirely possible that Lena, having been affected (infected?) with the entity that has come to earth, may not in fact be herself in the way that we normally expect individual subjects to be. Perhaps, after all, she has become something entirely new, something capable of turning narrative against itself.

The film also registers a fundamental instability in the way we make sense of ourselves as discrete, self-contained subjects walled off from the external world. When Lena asserts at the end that she isn’t sure that the entity has a purpose other than the continual destabilization of life on earth, she gestures toward an uncomfortable truth: there are things in the universe that simply do not behave in any way that accords with our own limited epistemologies. This is particularly discomfiting, as the entire film’s narrative centers on a search for knowledge, a desire to understand what it is that has caused the Shimmer and driven so many soldiers to madness and death.

What’s more, the film is also a challenge to us as spectators. Through both its stunning visual and sound designs, the film engenders a feeling of a loss of self, something akin to the sublime. This emerges in two important ways, one small in scope and the other larger. In the first, smaller-scoped sequence, Lena gazes into a microscope at a dollop of her own blood, and she is dismayed to see her DNA–the basic structure of her identity–changing and mutating right before her eyes. This sequence is unsettling precisely because of its oscillation between the seen and the unseen. While Lena is able to see her innermost self rapidly transforming, her external self remains largely unchanged. This is in marked contrast to so many of the other characters in the film, who are shown losing parts of themselves, either to the predatory bear or to the more benign plant beings that gradually absorb one of the team members. This sequence engenders a profound feeling of unease in us as spectators, as we are forced to accept that, for all that we might like to think of ourselves as discrete subjects, we are constantly subjected to and changed by forces we cannot see or control.

The second is much more radical. The director has been very open about the fact that it is best seen on a big screen, and while I am not usually one who buys into the idea of medium specificity, but in this case the sheer overwhelmingly dazzling nature of the big screen really does make all the difference. There is a scene near the end where Lena finds herself face to face with the radical alterity that is the extraterrestrial being, and the screen explodes into a radiant nimbus that is rendered even more unsettling by the pulsing of the soundtrack. In this startling instance, the film invites us to feel as if we are being lifted right out of our bodies or, perhaps more precisely, as if our bodies have meshed with the film screen. Something, it seems to me, is lost in this exchange between the body of the film and the body of the viewer, and there is also something unsettlingly pleasurable about this experience.

Thus, the film’s title is not just about humanity’s propensity for self-destruction but also a distillation of the film’s challenge to individual subjectivity. In that sense, Annihilation is the perfect film for our current age, in which all truth–and all sense of self–seems to be in a current state of flux, disruption and, in the most extreme cases, implosion. The fact that the scientists who question Lena seem to have no more ability to explain what has happened than Lena herself does further calls into question the regimes of knowledge that govern almost every aspect of our being. And the fact that the film’s aesthetic remain so disturbing also registers, I argue, the angst of an era in which the old certainties are passing away and, somewhat surprisingly, turns those anxieties into a viewing experience that sends a quiver across the flesh, a shudder of pleasured revulsion.

Annihilation is a horror science fiction film in the best possible way, one that pushes the boundaries not only of what film as a medium can do, but also what we as spectators can readily bring into our own bodies, minds and, dare I say it, souls.

 

Reading History: “Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession” (Alison Weir)

Alison Weir continues to surprise and amaze me with her ability to bring something new to the stories of Henry VIII’s six queens. In Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession, she brings Henry’s most infamous queen to vibrant life, painting a portrait of a woman doomed to live in a period that is as beautiful as it is deadly, as full of peril as it is pleasure.

Contrary to what some might like to see from a new novel told from Anne’s perspective, Weir doesn’t attempt to make her into a saint. She is imperious, and she knows that she is smarter and cannier than Henry, who emerges from this novel as something of a spoiled brat who is as indecisive as he is cruel, as prone to folly as he is sparkling wit and intelligence. Raised in privilege and coming of age in the courts of Europe where women are the dominant voices, Anne returns to an England still very conservative in its views of women and the relationship between the sexes. Indeed, it precisely Anne’s inability to adapt to the restrictions of England that sets her on a collision course with her inevitable execution.

Throughout the novel, we get a sense that Anne wants something more out of life than is possible in the world in which she lives. She is, in many ways, a proto-feminist, a woman who chafes at the restrictions placed upon her by a culture that is so thoroughly dominated by men that it cannot even imagine that a woman would have a mind of her own. While this might seem anachronistic to some, it is worth pointing out that this was a period of rapid social change, and the evidence we have suggests that, indeed, Anne was quite responsive to the currents of social change that were sweeping through Europe, both in terms of the Reformation and the relations between the sexes. Unfortunately, Henry is far more conservative than he appears to be.

And this, ultimately, is what causes her downfall. Though she knows that she should do more to placate Henry and not endlessly antagonize him and downgrade him in front of others, she cannot seem to help herself. It is this constant oscillation between knowing the wise thing to do and being unable to do it that gives the novel its essential dramatic tension and that makes Anne’s story so profoundly affecting. We in the 21st Century view her sentiments as entirely justified, given that (I would assume) those of us reading women’s historical fiction feel at least a measure of feminist sentiment.

Weir’s style has truly matured since her earlier historical fiction outings, and though there are a few repetitive turns of phrase that mar the flow of her work, for the most part I was able to lose myself in this sumptuous world of sex, plotting, and politics. This is a world that is at once exquisitely courtly and yet also perilous, where the whims of a virtually absolute monarch can bring even the most powerful noble crashing down into ruin and death. As he points out to Anne, he can bring her down as quickly as he raised her up from obscurity.

Given that the entire novel is told from Anne’s perspective and is therefore somewhat limited, Weir still manages to capture the complex psyche of one of history’s most infamous women. She doesn’t shy away from the less appealing parts of Anne’s personality–particular her vengeful attitude toward the recalcitrant Katherine–but she makes these feelings understandable and explicable. She also deftly weaves in Anne’s unrequited love for Henry Norris, though she goes to great lengths to show that, however unhappy Anne was with Henry, and however much she did not really love him with her heart, she never went so far as to engage in a physical affair with another man.

Nor is Weir afraid to demonstrate the darker parts of the Anne Boleyn saga. The last scene of the novel details Anne’s experience after the sword decapitates her. While the science has yet to decide whether in fact one remains conscious after decapitation, Weir opts to end the novel with a (mercifully) short sequence. It’s one of those scenes that really sticks with you, long after the book is finished. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about this particular artistic choice, but Weir deserves a great deal of credit for being adventurous enough to end the novel in this way.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Weir’s novel. I must admit, though, that I am quite looking forward to the next outing, where we will get a glimpse into Jane Seymour, certainly one of Henry’s more enigmatic queens. If Weir does as expert a job at depicting Jane as she has with Katherine and Anne, then we are in for a treat indeed.

Film Review: The Utopian Pleasures of “Black Panther” (2018)

Every so often a film comes along that really and truly changes the contours of Hollywood filmmaking.

Black Panther is one such film.

I tend to be a bit hyperbolic in my praise of films that I really enjoy, and I will warn you right now that this is going to be on of those reviews. From the very beginning, I loved everything about this film, from the cinematography to the acting to its utopian sensibility. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is without question my all-time favourite of the MCU to date.

Coogler’s camera is a remarkably graceful one, and he relies less on the sort of breakneck editing that marks so much recent action cinema (and that can be quite disorienting and distracting when used, as it often is, to excess). There are several instances in which his camera actually follows the movement of the actor rather than relying on  It’s largely this graceful camera movement that grants Wankada its graceful beauty, which we are frequently invited to consume from above as the camera glides over the mountains and plains, all of it bathed in the piercing African sun.

Coogler’s camera is matched by the sinuous and smooth grace of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, who commands the screen with an understated intensity. While Boseman lacks the imposing physicality of his counterpart Michael B. Jordan (in the person of Killmonger), he nevertheless has a power all his own. The two are an intriguing mirror image of each other, each representing very different views of the world that systematically devalues the lives, experiences, and bodies of black people. While T’Challa believes in the necessity of looking after his people, even if that means turning his back on the rest of the world, Killmonger believes that it is only through violent revolution that the wretched of the earth can at last take control of their own destinies. The film ultimately argues that is only a synthesis of such ideas that can succeed.

Indeed, if I have one complaint about the film it’s that we don’t get to see more of Killmonger’s backstory. If we’re being completely honest here, Andy Serkis’s criminal mastermind Klaue is a bit of a distraction that could have been dispensed with in order to give us more time to learn about the tortured psyche of this film’s compelling antihero (I use that term rather than villain quite deliberately). While we do get some suggestive scenes of Killmonger’s backstory, more attention to his specific experiences as an African American would have allowed his personal philosophy–as tortured and destructive as it is–to have more heft within the film.

But let’s face it: the real stars of this film are the black women: T’Challa’s lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his general Okoye (Danai Gurira) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). These are some of the most kickass female characters to grace the silver screen, and they own every second of it. Can we talk about the fact that the elite corps of  Wakanda is comprised of women so powerful that, in one of the film’s climactic clashes, they can only be overcome with the use of war rhinos? And can we talk about the fact that finally (finally!) there is a young woman of color who is shown to be an acknowledged tech wiz (and a kickass warrior to boot)? And can we also talk about the fact that we have a woman of color who is a spy on the order of 007 himself?

And let us not forget Angela Bassett. While she doesn’t have a very large role in this film, she nevertheless grants some further grace and gravitas to the proceedings. She is also a pillar of strength for both her son and the kingdom at large, a reminder of the fundamental role that women play in Wanakda.

This film, like so much of Hollywood–and of superhero films in particular–offers up a utopian sort of pleasure. As Richard Dyer has outlined it, utopia provides imaginary solutions to the problems and shortcomings of everyday life in capitalist modernity, providing intensity, energy, community, transparency, and abundance. All of these are clearly on display in Black Panther, whether in the form of Wakanda’s phenomenal wealth or the scenes of action that sweep us up in their intensity. What’s more, Hollywood encodes into its form a sensibility that one can take action, that one’s body has the ability to transform one’s lived reality. Of course, for many of us we take that for granted, even as we acknowledge our own bodied limitations.

One can see this sensibility in the film’s sinuous cinematography that lifts us free of the mundane burdens of the regular world, but it also emerges in the stunning feats of action. T’Challa has strength that is both innate and also buttressed by his suit, and this allows him to move through the world–and to mold it–in ways that are denied those of more pedestrian origins. The fact that it is a man of color whose embodied agency controls the narrative makes its utopian pleasure that much more intense.

Black Panther is also utopian in terms of its reception. While there have been some who have (rightfully) critiqued the film’s politics, there have been just as many who have seen in it exactly the sorts of utopian pleasures that have long been explicitly offered to white audiences. There is something profoundly joyous about simply seeing so many beautiful black stars in one place, in a film that has been buttressed and funded by one of the most powerful entertainment conglomerates. Tempting as it is to wring our hands at the perils of being incorporated into the gears of mass entertainment, we must also acknowledge the profound emotional resonance such representation has for those who consume it.

It is my sincere hope that Marvel, Disney, and all of the Hollywood studios recognize what should have been obvious for quite some time now: it is indeed possible to make (financially) successful films that center on the experiences of nonwhite people will at last find the representation they deserve.

Hollywood, are you listening?

Film Review: “Samson” (2018)

I went into Samson expecting an absolutely dreadful viewing experience. After all, what more could one expect from a low-budget epic from a faith-based studio? I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t the chore to sit through that I thought it would be. It’s far from a “good” film, but that isn’t for lack of trying.

Indeed, on a scale of “awful” to “excellent,” I would have to rate the film at the lower end of “fair.” While some might find this too generous, I do believe in taking films seriously, regardless of how sloppy (or undeveloped) they might be.

While the film lacks the brutal, vicious intensity of DeMille’s Technicolor version (preferring instead the more “realistic” color currently in vogue in filmmaking), there are a few moments that have a certain savage grace about them. Samson’s murderous rampage that sees the death of several thousand Philistines is one such, though it relies more on fast-paced editing than the glam of special effects to accomplish its effect (which, given the budget, was probably a wise move).

Taylor James makes a fine Samson, with his slightly boyish face, overdeveloped musculature, and rakish (almost childish) charm. He is the perfect sort of grand fool, a man a little too fond of the pleasures of the flesh and a little too distracted from the grand destiny that God has decreed for him. In many ways, he’s the high point of the movie, for all that he’s probably the greenest of the actors.

That being said, there is much about this film that could have been so much better. There are some legitimately good acting talents that try to do the most with what they’ve been given–Billy Zane makes a good egomaniac as the Philistine king, and Rutger Hauer and Lindsey Wagner offer up the values of humility and family duty as Samson’s parents. However, it’s hard to shake the sense that the three of them are basically just earning a paycheck, but they do the most with the threadbare roles that they’ve been given.

Unfortunately, the film also has several talents who are less than stellar and are incredibly frustrating to watch. One of these is the villain of the piece, the Philistine prince Rallah, played with overwrought histrionics by Twilight alum Jackson Rathbone. While one might think that such a distinguished-sounding name might grant the role some sort of gravitas, that would be wrong. Rallah is basically a brat prince, with little or no convincing motivation beyond wanton cruelty (and not even interestingly staged wanton cruelty). Billy Zane would have made a far better villain and, had the screenwriters wanted to, they certainly could have played up the political angle. While they gesture toward the greater Mediterranean world with mentions of Persia and Egypt, these are frustratingly underdeveloped.

Oh, and did I mention Samson has a brother? Who’s blonde? And incredibly annoying? He, like Rallah, takes up far too much narrative space that could have been more usefully allocated elsewhere. For some reason that I personally cannot fathom, the writers decided that a brother would make Samson a more interesting character, when in fact the brother is more of a distraction than anything else. Add that on to the abysmally bad beards that everyone decides to grow after a narratively week segue of “many years later,” and you get a good sense of what the weak spots in the film are.

Indeed, Samson wastes far too many opportunities than it should have. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that it tries too hard to be an epic, and it just does not have the budget or the writing talent to make this work. Epics need to be long to be effective, and they should ideally feature truly eye-popping action, spectacles, and vistas. If Samson wanted to go that route, it should have upped the budget. Or, alternatively, it could have made this into more of a political or personal drama. But, by trying to play the game of the epic but not including the elements that go into that particular form, it ends up not succeeding as well as it might have. Which, as I’ve said, really is a shame, as they have some true talented to work with.

Most frustratingly, the film only introduces the Delilah subplot in the last 45 minutes or so of the film, and it lacks the dramatic tension that I suspect most people expect when going in to see a movie about the biblical Samson. After all, it wasn’t an accident that the titan DeMille chose to focus his story on Samson and Delilah, for he understood very well that part of what makes the biblical narrative so compelling is the power of sex. Unfortunately, the makers of this film didn’t seem to get that memo, and so this film is largely devoid of the sex. This Delilah has very little motivation and very little character development, and that really is a shame, as Caitlin Leahy is a fine actress and could really have done something meaty with the role had she been given the chance.

Instead, Samson seems far more interested in the relationships among men and between Samson and his good-girl sweetheart Taren (who is so milquetoast as to be a nonentity. At least the DeMille version had Angela Lansbury in the similar role). Which, while I’m as much of a fan of the homosocial as any queer scholar, that’s only true when the other male actors are interesting to watch. In this case, it isn’t.

All in all, I found Samson easy to sit through, and it was better than I thought it would be. However, I also found it immensely frustrating, precisely because it seems to deliberately not play by the rules of the game it has chosen to play. While I’m more than willing to sit through a “biblical” film, I at least would like it to be a compelling film in its own right.

Here’s hoping for next time.

Reading History: “Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World “(Alison Weir)

Elizabeth of York is one of those fascinating figures of English history. Part of this has to do with her elusiveness. As prominent as she was as a figure–the daughter of Edward IV, the wife of Henry VII, and the mother of Henry VIII–she remains something of a sphinx, always hovering on the edge of the frame, taunting us.

Fortunately for those of us in the 21st Century, the British historian and royal biographer extraordinaire Alison Weir is a practiced hand at excavating such tantalizing female figures.

Traditional historiography asserts that Elizabeth was largely overshadowed by the men in her life. This tends to be true of almost any biography or historical fiction about her (of which I include Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess). Elizabeth was the Yorkist heir that allowed Henry to solidify his claim to the crown, and she was the mother of one of England’s most (in)famous monarchs and, through her eldest surviving daughter, she is the ancestress of all subsequent English kings and queens. Yet what was she like?

Admittedly, Weir only has so much to work with, but it is refreshing that she gives Elizabeth more agency and control over her destiny than has been the case with many other interpretations (both fictional and nonfictional). She digs through the texts and archives of the period to show a woman who was at the center of the political life of her time, and while she may not have been the dominant personality that the other women in her family were–one thinks of both her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and her granddaughter, another Elizabeth–Weir convincingly argues that Elizabeth of York worked closely with her husband.

She also dispenses with the many myths that have grown up around Elizabeth, Henry, and Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort. While most people tend to assume that Margaret and Elizabeth had an antagonistic relationship, Weir asserts that this is based on a selective reading of the evidence. In fact, they probably had a cordial relationship with one another, as one might expect of two women invested in the survival and thriving of the monarchy.

Above all, Weir makes clear that Elizabeth was a survivor, a woman who managed to survive the untimely passing of her mighty father, the disappearance (and presumed death) of her two brothers, and the collapse of her mother’s ambitions for her children. Elizabeth emerged through all of this determined to forge a life for herself, for her husband, and for the several children that she bore him. While she might, understandably, have felt a fair bit of enmity toward Henry when they were first married, Weir convinces us that she was able to find a measure of contentment–perhaps even happiness–with the man who came into England as a conqueror.

As always, Weir pays exhaustive attention to the material details of everyday life in this period (at least as such things apply to those of royal descent). This can make for some tough going at times, but I will say that it does give the reader a very strong, detailed sense of the lives that these people led. I’ve always admired her willingness to get into the nitty-gritty of that world, somehow finding a way to make even the driest of privy purse expenses yield up significance about the lives of those who spent that money.

Of course, the figure of Richard III looms in the background of this biography, and it is quite clear that Weir is most definitely not a supporter of this most infamous of English kings. She remains in no doubt that he was responsible–probably directly–for the murder of his nephews. I don’t want to weigh in on that particular subject (I’m basically agnostic about it), but I do think it’s an essential part of how Weir views Elizabeth and her life.

While I was a little let down by Weir’s biography of Mary Boleyn, my faith has been utterly restored by this outing. While she’s not always the most graceful of prose stylists, Alison Weir does show us that it is possible to be a meticulous, rigorous historian even if you don’t have a degree in history. I very much look forward to making my way through more of her work.

Reading History: “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings” (Alison Weir)

By this point, Mary Boleyn has become best-known as the major protagonist of Philippa Gregory’s historical novel The Other Boleyn Girl, the (according to Gregory) younger sister of Anne Boleyn.

Alison Weir, one of my all-time favourite biographers of British royalty, undertakes an effort to excavate what we know of Mary.

And, as her work reveals, that’s not too much. Unfortunately, much of Mary’s life remains shrouded in mystery, precisely because she has been so thoroughly overshadowed by Anne’s dominance in the popular imagination of the Tudor period. It thus takes all of Weir’s considerable skills as a historian/detective to extract from circumstantial evidence details about Mary’s life, her loves, and her actions.

We do know (with a fair degree of certainty) that she was the mistress of the King of France, a dalliance that no doubt stained her reputation and endangered her future in the English court and may have rendered her particularly susceptible to the amorous attentions of Henry VIII (who always wanted to outdo his French rival).

And we also know that, contrary to the mores of the time, she ended up marrying the man she loved, at least on the second time around. Indeed, the decision to once again endanger her family’s fortunes by going against her father’s wishes may well have contributed to her later penury. Weir makes it pretty clear throughout the book that Mary was something of a black sleep among the Boleyns, particularly her father (anyone who has seen Thomas Boleyn in film will find this quite easy to believe).

Nevertheless, even Weir’s capable hands can only spin so much material out of these few threads of information. The book is one of the shortest that she’s written, and it feels like it. As a result, Weir sometimes has to resort to discussions of issues, people, and materials surrounding Mary, rather than the actual woman herself. Of course, this does give us a good sense of the world that Mary inhabited, as well as the various connections that she would have had as a member of a noble family. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Mary is a bit of an absence, a glaring hole around which we can construct a narrative but who nevertheless remains elusive.

Thus, if I have a complaint about this book, it’s that Weir tends to wander off on tangents that are only faintly related to the subject matter. Some of this no doubt reflects the fact that she could find relatively little to say specifically about Mary in the sparse sources, but it does make for difficult reading at times, particularly as Weir–as she often does–tends to indulge a bit too much on the material culture aspect of her biographies. If you want to learn about the many things that early modern nobility spent vast amounts of money on, you will learn much in this book.

For me, arguably the most interesting part of the entire book was the discussion of Mary’s two children, Catherine and Henry, both of whom became very prominent members of Elizabeth I’s court. Weir lays out a convincing case for Mary’s daughter Catherine being the result of her affair with Henry VIII (there was allegedly a pronounced physical resemblance between them), though the same is probably not true of Mary’s son Henry (ironically). Weir also goes into some detail analyzing portraits that may (or may not) be those of Mary.

Overall, I would rate this in the bottom tier of Weir’s books. She tends to make some assumptions and assertions that aren’t adequately supported by the evidence that she has presented. Such is certainly the case with her assertion that Mary’s mother Elizabeth was a woman of ill-repute, evidence for which is quite sparse and relies on a decidedly selective reading of what evidence exists. (For what it’s worth, Weir makes a more compelling case for this in her recent historical novel about Anne, Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession).

Nevertheless, even a low-tier Alison Weir outing is still a good read, and you will learn a great deal about the workings of the Tudor court, the luxuries and dangers of the period, and the fraught position that women occupied in this dangerously beautiful world.