Screening Classic Hollywood: “Sudden Fear” (1952)

Say what you will, but no one could play a victimized, melodramatic heroine like Joan Crawford.  Her talents in this area are certainly on conspicuous display in the 1952 film Sudden Fear, in which she plays a popular and successful playwright Myra, who falls for a moderately talented actor Lester (Jack Palance), only to discover that he, along with his former lover Irene (Gloria Grahame) have hatched a plot to kill her.  Fortunately, she’s quite a bit brighter than they are, and so she manages to escape from them.  In the end, Lester runs over Irene in the mistaken belief that she is Myra (they are wearing a similar scarf), killing both himself and her.

One of the most compelling things about this film is the way in which it plays with voice.  It is due to the inadvertent recording of his plot by a dictaphone that Lester and Irene utilize to hatch their scheme.  The disembodied voice continues haunts Myra, an ethereal reminder of the fact that the man she has (admittedly foolishly) fallen in love with has decided that she is to be dispensed with in favor of his own desire for wealth.

There is something intensely, almost viscerally satisfying, about the fact that Lester, in his desire to kill his well-meaning and benevolent wife, ends up killing both himself and his conspirator.  Myra may be somewhat of a foolish and impulsive heroine, falling in love with a man that she barely knows and rendering herself vulnerable by attempting to leave her money and wealth to him.  However, it is precisely her generousness of spirit that makes Lester’s betrayal of her all the more despicable.  What’s more, he is absolutely ruthless in his attempts to kill her, chasing her relentlessly through the streets of San Francisco, his face and eyes becoming increasingly crazed as she continues to elude him.  Not surprisingly, we in the audience continue to cheer her on, and we feel vindicated at the poetic justice of his own destruction.

Crawford and Palance make for a compelling and somewhat unusual screen couple.  Palance was not the most handsome of movie stars, and his near-skeletal features always rendered him more appropriate for villainous roles.  He manages here to tap into a powerful male rage, one engendered in both the film’s diegesis and the broader culture by the ever-present male fear of not being able to provide or earn a living on his own.  You can practically see it seething beneath the surface, those deep-set eyes betraying the fury ever-ready to burst into the world.  Crawford offers a nice balance to him, a woman who has built her own successful career as a writer and who possesses a fundamental strength of character that allows her to survive the attempts to kill her.  However, she also exudes a certain measure of vulnerability, a willingness to believe, however foolishly, that she can also have love and completion with the man (seemingly) of her dreams.

In many ways, this film feels a bit out of its time, combining as it does the heightened emotions and victimized womanhood of the women’s films of the 1930s and the darkness of the film noirs of the 1940s.  Somehow, though, it manages to bring all of these elements together into a compelling film, and that final image of Myra/Crawford striding into the camera, head flung back in triumph, really brings it all together.  It is a stunning and uplifting reminder of the power of the Crawford star persona.  Even decades after her death, this persona manages to combine female strength and vulnerability in one indelible image that retains its power.

Score:  9/10

A new way forward: healing from depression (25 Nov. 2015)

Metathesis

I used to love goal-oriented words like “achievement” and “success”, but after my experience with depression, they’re more likely to make me uneasy than swoon. An inordinate focus on what I achieved, rather than an appreciation for my nuanced person, is part of what led to my struggle with mental health. Having refocused the way I interact with myself and the world makes me never want to go back to my old model of measuring self-worth.

six sigma

I want my life to be filled with a lot less of things like Jack Donaghy’s (30 Rock) Six Sigma seminars.                   

Earlier in my Ph.D., I lived for the feeling that came from a grant being recommended for funding or receiving positive feedback on a talk. There was a certain high that came along with external validation – particularly because I didn’t do enough to…

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Reading History: “The Secret Chord” (Geraldine Brooks)

Some writers of historical fiction have a particular knack for evoking a sense of the strangeness of a past culture, capturing in their language the ethos that drives a particular culture.  Mary Renault, Colleen McCullough, and Madeline Miller are examples of such writers, and with The Secret Chord, Geraldine Brooks proves that she can also be numbered among those with a keen understanding of the ancient world and an appreciation of its differences from the modern we currently inhabit.

Told from the point of view of Natan, one of the Old Testament’s most  famous prophets, the novel follows the rise of the biblical king David and his gradual decline, as well as the rise of his son Shlomo (known to us as Solomon).  We see David through Natan’s eyes, as a brilliant but flawed man who managed to forge a measure of peace and unity upon a fractious and warlike people.  David is also a man driven by passions, including his ill-fated (and, in this novel, explicitly physical) love of Yonatan, the son of tragic King Shaul, and his ruinous and ultimately catastrophic lust for the woman Batsheva, the wife of his general Uriah.  Natan stands with David through all of the trials that follow until, as the old king nears his death, he conspires with Batsheva to ensure that Shlomo inherits the throne.

David emerges from this novel as a compelling but flawed king, a man capable of bringing the scattered and feuding Jewish tribes together into a nation.  However, for all of his political and military abilities, he is also prone to his own sexual desires, and he is stubbornly blind to the numerous faults of his many sons.  It is the combination of these two flaws that ultimately rends David’s family and threatens to undo the unity of the kingdom, a fate only narrowly averted by the manipulation of Batsheva and her ally Natan.

While Natan is our access to this world, he is far from an idealized hero.  Like David, he makes choices that seem morally and ethically questionable from our modern perspective.  In perhaps his most important and morally dubious move, he lies to David about a promise that he supposedly made to Batsheva regarding Shlomo’s right to inherit the throne, taking advantage of his monarch’s aged weakness in order to usher in the period of greatness that he has seen as a result of his visions.  Is he justified in doing so?  Probably, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has taken advantage of an ailing man in order to bring about that vision.

Thus, Natan is also a hero who struggles to enact or maintain his own agency.  The Name constantly subjects Natan to a fate that he cannot control.  He does not get to choose when the moments of prophecy come upon him and, even when he is granted a vision of what is to come, he can only do what he thinks is best in order to bring about that period of future greatness.  Often, while the Name gives him the opportunity to see things that are denied to others, Natan is often unable to do anything to change the course of events.  He cannot, for example, do anything to stop David from his affair with Batsheva, and he similarly can do nothing to stop the assault of David’s daughter by her half-brother.  The sight is a blessing, but it is also a burden and a curse.

While this is undoubtedly a thoroughly patriarchal world, the novel does acknowledge the ways in which women in this culture are consistently devalued and treated as little more than either receptacles of male desire or as political pawns to be utilized as the men in their families see fit.  Rather than romanticizing the relationship between Batsheva and David, for example, is explicitly framed as a rape, though she ultimately realizes that she has much to gain by insinuating herself with David, and much to lose if she turns against him.  Such is the painful lesson learned by Shaul’s tragic daughter Michal, whose passionate love for David ultimately turns sour and bitter, as she is first ignored and married to another man, and then forced into a marriage with David.  Similar, though less tragic, narratives emerge around the other women in David’s life, for they all realize that their political and personal well-being, as well as that of their children, relies upon their proximity to the king and their ability to stay in his good graces.

If I have one complaint about the novel, it’s that it seems a bit too short.  There are some characters who ultimately fade into the background, never to be seen again (most notably Michal).  However, the brevity of the novel also gives it an narrative urgency that keeps the reader arrested and invested until the very end.

Once again, Brooks prove herself to be a virtuoso with the written word, her words as haunting and evocative as many of the passages of the Old Testament upon which it is based.  There are some books that are simply an aesthetic pleasure to read, and this happens to be one of them.  This novel is a must for those seeking a truly beautiful novel that brings the world of the ancient Hebrews to piercing and brilliant life.

Score:  10/10

My thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this novel to review.

Film Review: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 2 (2015)

You know, I have to admit to a fair amount of skepticism (I might even go so far as to say cynicism) about the recent Hollywood trend of taking the final volume of a book series and splitting it into two films.  While that has been a decidedly mixed blessing for The Hunger Games, the final film, Mockingjay–Part 2 manages to bring this sprawling YA epic film series to a stirring, and mostly satisfactory, conclusion.

The film picks up where the previous film left off, with Katniss recovering from Peeta’s failed attack on her life.  Deciding that she will finally take it into her own hands to assassinate Snow, Katniss goes with her elite team into the Capitol itself.  After Prim is killed in one of the last Rebellion-led bombings on the Capitol, Katniss agrees to be Snow’s executioner, only to assassinate the newly-declared President Coin, who was responsible for the death of her sister and has already shown that she will become just as cold and heartless as Snow.  Having accomplished her goal and set the stage for free elections in Panem, she retires to a life of domestic harmony with Peeta.

Of course, Jennifer Lawrence continues to be the highlight of the film.  As some reviewers have noted, she does seem to have outgrown this role a little bit, but she still fits quite easily into the action-heroine persona that helped to vault her into the realm of Hollywood super-stardom.  She quite ably portrays the deep emotional conflicts that Katniss must confront as she realizes and contends with the consequences of going to war against a brutal dictatorship.  She realizes, when it’s almost too late, that in war, and in politics, it is all too easy to become the very thing that you are fighting against.

As strong as Lawrence is, however, she is matched by both Sutherland and Moore.  Sutherland seems to take enormous delight in bringing the deliciously evil President Snow to life, savoring each line and and delivering in a voice that is disturbingly calm and reflective.  Say what you will about President Snow, he is a man who knows both himself and Katniss phenomenally well, and it is this particular form of self-possession that makes him such a compellingly dangerous enemy.  For her part, Moore manages to combine a certain icy stoicism with a political acumen that makes it all to clear that she is willing to do whatever it takes to obtain the power that she feels she can wield better than her predecessor Snow.  Due to Moore’s icy self-possession, we are left in no doubt that Coin will be just as despotic, and just as methodical, in her ability to kill for political reasons.

I did have a few small gripes with the film, mostly on the way in which it skates over some significant character development that would have helped it make more sense.  The rift that ultimately develops between Gale and Katniss is sketched out in the barest of terms, leaving much to the viewer’s interpretation (this might be a flaw of the translation from page to screen).  Still, one would think that with two films to work with, the writers could have found a way to make these gaps in characterization and plot logic a little less glaring.

If there is one significant complaint I have, it would be the coda, which shows Katniss and Peeta in wedded bliss, drenched in soft colour.  Katniss has gone from kick-ass action heroine to thoroughly domesticated housewife (with paisley dress included!)  Now, I realize that this is at least somewhat faithful to the novel, but still, it is so saccharine and trite that it undercuts the the sense of hope-tinged bleakness that has made these films so compelling.  It feels, to me at least, as if a studio boss somewhere decreed that the film was too depressing and needed a traditional Hollywood romantic ending to minimize the risk of alienating potential viewers.  It was easily the most frustrating moment in the entire series, a rather unfortunate circumstance given that it is also the scene that sees it to its conclusion.

All in all, however, this last installment of The Hunger Games franchise is a compelling and entertaining film, with a few reflections and political comments thrown in for spice.  Is it the most thoughtful and philosophically complex blockbuster film?  No, it isn’t, but then, it doesn’t really have to be.  Taken at face value, it is definitely worth seeing, and in this day and age that is no small accomplishment.

Score:  7.5/10

Behind the doors of psychiatric treatment centers (20 Nov. 2015)

Metathesis

McLean hospital

 Exterior of McLean Hospital, the institution referenced in Girl, Interrupted (photo by John Phelan)

 “Is it going to be like ‘Girl, Interrupted’?” I cautiously asked my husband before being taken to the psychiatric wing of our local hospital. He assured me it wouldn’t and, in unfortunate ways, he was right.

I spent less than four hours under the hospital’s care, but what I saw I did not like. I was wheeled on to the locked floor by two security guards, past patients that didn’t look like me; they seemed overwhelmingly middle aged and male. I passed people in hospital gowns and people who were not high functioning. I was terrified.

I was condescended to as I tried to explain why I thought this was a higher level of care than I needed. I had signed away my autonomy at check in and was now in the unenviable position of…

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Screening History: “Broken Arrow” (1950)

Released in 1950, Broken Arrow follows Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) desperately wants to forge a measure of peace between his own people and the Apache and is faced with opposition from both.  While he is able to forge a measure of peace between the Apache chief Cochise (Jeff Chandler), he is steadfastly opposed by the more bellicose Geronimo (Jay Silverheelds).  At the same time, Chandler weds the young maiden Sonseeahray (Debra Paget).  Unfortunately, there are those among the whites who are also unwilling to accept peace, and in the ensuing confrontation the young Native American woman is slain.  Yet Cochise does not let this stifle his attempts at peace, and the film does ultimately end with a measure of rapprochement between the two groups, while Tom Jeffords (in true western fashion) rides off into the distance, content that even though she is gone physically, his wife will always be with him in spirit.

Stewart brings a measure of his sympathetic star persona to this role (his antiheroic persona had not yet taken full shape as it would with other films of the 1950s).  He reads as a man genuinely invested in attempting to forge a measure of peace between two groups seemingly irreconcilably opposed to one another.  What’s more, he seeks to actually get to know what it is like to think like an Apache, not to take advantage of them, but to attempt to make a more peaceful world for both people.  In this film, Stewart also still retains some of the youthful appearance and charm that served him in such good stead in both the 1930s and 1940s, and he has not yet taken on the darker, more cynical edge that will become so central to his 1950s roles (especially those directed by Alfred Hitchcock).  Furthermore, it is his voiceover that bookends the film, leading us to accept (or not, depending on how resistant we are as viewers) the perspective on events that the film presents.

Chandler’s obvious redface aside (see below), he does bring a measure of gravitas and compassion to his role as the afflicted yet courageous chief.  This is a man who, at some level, realizes that his people are fighting a battle they cannot hope to win, and that continuing to resist as they have will ultimately result in their utter destruction at the hands of the white man.

The film is unstinting in its depiction of the brutality of the times.  Both the white men and the Native Americans commit atrocious acts against one another (one of the earliest  scenes in the film is particularly graphic, showing the Apache torturing a group of white men who encroach on their territory).  Furthermore, the film does not pull any punches in showing that the whites are just as willing to engage in sabotage and acts of violence as their Native American counterparts.  It is precisely the actions of a group of disgruntled white settlers that brings about the death of Sonseeahray and nearly derails the peace process completely.  Fortunately, Cochise insists upon the necessity of peace, showing that he, perhaps more than any other of the film’s characters, knows what is right and necessary.

The film’s most obvious narrative shortcoming, the shoe-horning in of a rather lackluster love plot between Paget and Stewart, can actually (in a more generous light) be seen as central to the film’s historical project.  The film, like so many westerns, attempts to work through the troubles posed by the Native American presence in broader American history.  Sonseeahray’s death, I would suggest, indicates the film’s awareness that the wholesale melding of Native American and white into a cohesive national identity is a project that will never be complete, will be infinitely deferred.

For all of its attempts to engender cultural understanding, the film still fails in one notable respect:  its use of white actors to portray Native Americans.  There is still something incredibly uncomfortable for me about watching films in which this takes place, and it serves as a potent and troubling reminder not only of the ways in which Native Americans have been oppressed throughout American history, but also how the representation of them has also served to further and exacerbate their alienation.

Score:  8/10

Words I Hate: “Offense”

In this installment of “Words I Hate,” I want to talk about the word “offense.”  It seems like a particularly timely moment to talk about this word, given the ways in which politicians on the right have consistently attempted to reframe systemic issues (racism, for example) as just another example of people getting too easily offended for their own good.  Claiming that students on college campuses get offended by name-calling or other acts of violence (either verbal or physical) allows us to dismiss their concerns as largely trivial.

As with “just,” “offense” (and its cousin, “offended”), allows us to assume that complex institutions and issues can be boiled down to the action of an individual and, perhaps more importantly, that it is actually the victim’s fault for being so touchy.  “Offense” allows us collectively to believe that there aren’t really any problems that can’t be solved if people just toughen up and learn to fight for themselves rather than relying on some other force (the government, university administration, etc.) to solve their problems for them.  If only people would learn to be a little tougher, to grow a thicker skin, then they would more able be able to deal with the problems they face (one say this line of argument trumpeted in recent issues of The Atlantic).

“Offense” is clearly one of the core concepts behind (entirely misnamed) “political correctness.”  It has become an insidious defense mechanism on the part of those who already occupy positions of power, and it has proven to be insidiously effective.  No longer are questions of inequality along lines of race, gender, class, or sexuality about deeply entrenched lines of power, agency, and economic and social benefit.  Instead, the reason those who occupy positions of privilege can’t do and say what they want with impunity is due to the ever-present threat of offending someone and setting off a protest that they will then have to deal with.

I would also like to point out that the use of the word “offense” is not limited to those who occupy positions of power.  It is sometimes used in some social justice circles and, while this is understandable, it also runs the risk of buying into the same sinister logic that those on the right consistently use to delegitmize social struggles of all kinds.  It behooves us as social and political activists to be as conscious our language as those we oppose.

Again, I’m not suggesting that we should constantly have to monitor or censor ourselves.  However, part of being a thoughtful, engaged citizen is being able to choose which words actually convey the meaning that we wish to express.  As the late theorist Roland Barthes reminded us, all words contain within them connotations that shade and influence not only how we choose which words we use, but also how those words are understood by others.  If we truly want to make it a better and more just world for everyone, we should think more carefully and critically about how we express ourselves in the public (and, hopefully, the private) sphere.

Reading History: “Devil’s Brood” (Sharon Kay Penman)

Sometimes you read a novel that leaves you feeling truly bereft when you turn the last page, not necessarily because you are sorry to be done reading it, but because the ending is so heartbreaking.  Such is the case with the last of historical fiction novelist Sharon Kay Penman’s trilogy about the relationship between Henry Fitz Empress and his fiery queen Eleanor of Aquitaine.

In this sprawling epic novel, Penman depicts the disintegration of Henry’s family from within and without.  Henry is a man who is too clever by half, and he remains unwilling to give up any authority or territory to his sons.  One after another they each rebel-Hal, Richard, Geoffrey and even, at the end, his favourite youngest son John.  Even Henry’s beloved wife Eleanor betrays him and is ultimately imprisoned.  Further tragedy strikes as Henry loses two of his sons before succumbing to his own bitter death, and the novel ends with Richard’s ascending the throne of his father’s domains.

Of the three novels based on the relationship between Eleanor and Henry, this is by far the most tragic.  This was a family of larger-than-life personalities, of men and women who were proud and powerful and unwilling to bend, even if it meant the destruction of their family and the ruination of the lands comprising their empire.  Time and again throughout the novel, the squabbling among the various members of the family end up imperiling the lives and possessions of the common folk who live under their domains

Devil’s Brood suggests that the relationship between Henry and Eleanor, and that between them and their children, was doomed by the very nature of their personalities.  None of them are willing to compromise, and all are valid in their reasons for being so stubborn.  One cannot blame Eleanor, for example, for putting the welfare of her duchy of Aquitaine over that of her marriage to Henry.  After all, it is the land of her birth, and she takes her duties as its leader seriously.  However, one also cannot blame Henry for wanting to make sure that his sons are trustworthy before handing over his political power to them.  Indeed, it is precisely his unwillingness to give them any independence that leads them all to rebel against him, revealing the fatal flaws of his imperial ambitions.

Penman never lets us forget that these are essentially human characters.  They are powerful yes–indeed, some of the most powerful people of the medieval world–but they are also incredibly flawed people.  Henry is as stubborn as he is brilliant, never willing to give in to the advice of others, even when following such advice would have saved a great deal of heartache for everyone involved.  Hal is a fundamentally good person, generous to a fault, but he is far too easily led and manipulated, which leads him to the many bad decisions that lead to his eventual downfall.

Eleanor, of course, emerges as one of the novel’s mainstays.  As one of the most powerful women of the pre-modern world, she is acutely aware of her own abilities, and the limitations she faces.  She is as stubborn and willful as her son and her children, but in many ways she is cannier than all of them, for she alone has the ability to see how the pieces fit together.  However, she is frequently unable to prevent the splintering of her family, can only watch in despair as each of her sons rebels against his father (and even, early in the novel, encourage them to do so).  And she continues to maintain her independence, even after Henry imprisons her for her complicity and keeps her there for many years.  When, at the end of the novel, she emerges triumphant and ready to take her place as Richard’s able assistant, free at last to be the ruler she knows she can be.  Yet even in her victory, Eleanor cannot quite forget the love that tore Europe, and her heart, asunder, and she will, no doubt, mourn Henry for the rest of her long life.

And as savvy readers know, it is actually John that will have the last laugh and whose line will continue the Plantagenet dynasty.  Given the strife that clove his family into warring factions, it is small wonder that he eventually became the grasping, cunning, and ruthless king that he did.  Of all of the novel’s characters, he is both the most broken and the most enigmatic, a son ignored by his mother, mocked by his brothers, and mostly pampered by his father.

All in all, Devil’s Brood is a compelling read, one that paints a portrait of an essentially violent, uncertain, unstable world.  As always, Penman leaves us wanting more and, fortunately for all of us, there are at least two more volumes in the Plantagenet saga.

Score:  10/10

NEW COLUMN! Words I Hate: “Just”

Since I’m all about spicing up my writing routine, I’ve decided to institute a new column here on Queerly Different, entitled “words I hate,” in which I will argue that some words are consistently misused or are used in such a way that they obfuscate meaningful and critical dialogue and discussion.  As an initial caveat, I will just point out that I am not suggesting that people should start censoring themselves, only that we should be more deliberate and nuanced in the way that we think about the language with which we express ourselves.

Today’s word is “just.”  And I mean this not in the sense of something that is right or ethical, but instead the word that many use to dismiss something, e.g. “it’s just a TV show” or “it’s just a movie.”  As a scholar and critical consumer of media, and one who loves to talk about these things in meaningful ways, I sometimes (I won’t say often), find myself confronted by those who just want to sit back and be entertained, who safely ensconce themselves in the false idea that any text is “just” anything.

When someone says that what they are watching is “just a movie,” they typically follow it up with some variant of “don’t read too much into it,” or “you’re reading into the text.”  Beneath the surface of the word “just” lies a worldview that suggests that what is immediately perceptible is all there is, that there can be (and perhaps should be) no act of interpretation on the part of the observer.  Of course, in my view, such a perspective is demonstrably and logically false, as we are always interpreting the world in some way, even if we are doing so at the level of affect or our bodies.  There is no transparent set of meanings that we can somehow absorb through osmosis (despite what many literalists might like to suggest about such texts as, for example, the Bible).

The word “just” often emerges as a defense mechanism, a way of shutting down any sort of discussion that might be troubling or in some way uncomfortable.  And the trouble with the word “just” is that it is so seductively easy to evoke, and yet it is also tremendously effective at what it is intended to accomplish.  How do you respond to someone’s strident assertion that they “just want to read” or “just want to sit back and not think”?  Why do academics have to be such killjoys, anyway, bothering our pleasures with all of this talk of interpretation and ideology and whatnot?  Why can’t they just let us be who we are?

As with any word, I think we would have a richer, more nuanced and truly democratic society if we would think about ourselves more rhetorically and become more aware of how we engage with the world around us.  And you know what?  I know that’s not easy, and that frankly that scares a lot of people.  But do you want to know something else?  Sometimes it’s good to be scared.