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Film Review: “Star Wars Episodes VII: The Force Awakens” (2015)

I debated about writing a review of this film. After all, the internet is literally full to bursting with thoughts, speculation, reviews, and box office analysis. But, since this is my own little corner of the internet, I thought I’d share my thoughts (I’ll largely eschew rehashing the plot, both the avoid spoilers and also because the internet is full of synopses).

First off, it is immensely satisfying to see the reunion of the key characters of Luke, Chewie, Han Solo, Leia, and of course the droids C-3PO and R2-D2. It’s hard to describe exactly what lends this series of moments their power, other than to say that it’s like seeing old friends that you haven’t seen in 30 years reunited once again.

Aside from the nostalgia factor, the four strongest appeals of the film were:  the reunion of the principle cast members from the original trilogy; Adam Driver’s portrayal of the broken and tragic Kylo Ren; the introduction of the most kickass heroine yet to appear in a Star Wars film; and the budding (b)romance between Finn and Poe.

I’ve always been a fan of Adam Driver’s, ever since I first saw his Byronic/Heathcliffian turn in Girls. Here, he brings that experience to good use, and his slightly elfin good looks lend an almost tender appearance to this torn and fractured character. Yes, it’s clear that he has begun his inevitable spiral into the horrors made possible by the Dark Side, but in the Star Wars universe there is always hope for redemption, and Driver’s particular brand of charisma makes me hope that there may be some for him when the trilogy reaches its conclusion.

For her party, Rey emerges as the film’s center. While she slides neatly into the role of the brave young hero (Joseph Campbell, anyone?), she is also a character in her own right. No small amount of digital ink has already been spilled debating whether she is the feminist character that Star Wars fans have been yearning for a long time, and I think that she is. She is resourceful and clever, independent and also complicated, yet driven by friendship and compassion. In that sense, she serves as the light to Kylo’s tortured shadow, the hope that perhaps, he can attain the redemption that eventually saved the grandfather that he so desires to emulate.

Lastly, we have the obvious romance between Poe and Finn. Okay, maybe it’s not obvious to everyone, but I certainly noticed a bit more than friendliness between the great pilot and the escapee from the First Order. The sharing of the jacket, their unalloyed joy at being reunited after a separation, all just seemed to contain more than mere friendliness. Do I think that the filmmakers will go full-on and make the ship a reality? Probably not. But still, they’ve given us more than a little to work with (the fact that it is two men of colour makes it even better).

But of course, no review of The Force Awakens would be complete without mentioning the soon-to-be iconic droid BB-8. He is definitely one of (if not the) most endearing robot I have ever seen (with the possible exception of WALL*E). I’m still not sure how those beeps and clicks can make the heart melt at their cuteness, but they do, from beginning to end.

There were a few rather unfortunate CGI moments, both of which raised the unfortunate spectre of the much-maligned prequels. While Supreme Leader Snoke has some potential as the successor to the great Emperor Palpatine, the CGI used to render him made him almost too-cartoonish. The same goes for Maz Kanata, who was just a bit too CGI for my own taste. While motion capture really does allow for a flexibility of facial movement not attainable with prosthetics, something about it just doesn’t quite work in The Force Awakens.

While The Force Awakens didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel when it comes to plot (even a cursory look at any synopsis will raise more than a few echoes of A New Hope), through some strange alchemy it manages to make itself stand out. I would say that this has a lot to do with the increased diversity on offer, as the powers that be seem to have finally recognized that both women and people of colour comprise a large part of the sci-fi audience. Whatever the cause, The Force Awakens is a delightful way to experience the Star Wars , both for those inhabiting it for the first time and those who have been there many times before.

Book Review: Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World

I recently had the pleasure of reading Verlyn Flieger’s scholarly book Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World. Well-written and thoroughly-argued, the book is a stellar example of sound literary scholarship and is necessary reading for anyone looking for a more nuanced understanding of Tolkien’s work and fantastic philosophy.

In essence, Fliger argues that, for Tolkien, the power of language and the power of light remain inextricably intertwined, with the former providing access to the latter. However, Tolkien’s acts of subcreation, especially as represented in his invented English languages, also suggest that language undergoes a never-ending process of (de)volution. While it comes to provide a more nuanced understanding of the world, it also becomes more distanced from the original light from which it originated. Given that in Tolkien’s view language constructs and springs from reality, this has far-reaching consequences.

Most compellingly, in my view, Flieger suggests that Tolkien’s work does not unambiguously elevate light over darkness. Instead, she suggests, Tolkien’s various polarities that exist within the mythos rely upon each other for their construction. Motivated by his Christian (and specifically Catholic) worldview, however, Tolkien also argues that while life, and history, is a long defeat (a Fall), it is humankind’s lot and duty to persevere and retain faith even in the certainty of that defeat.

She traces this motif through much of The Silmarillion. She has a clear, strong grasp of the nuances both of Tolkien’s invented languages (she focuses primarily on Quena and Sindarin), as well as the many branches of the Elves that emerged after their emergence in Middle-earth. She traces a number of interesting features among the most important figures in Tolkien’s most difficult yet ambitious work, including Feanor, Thingol, Beren, and Luthien.

Much of the book remains focused on The Silmarillion. It is only toward the end that Flieger shifts gears slightly and moves into a discussion of the ways in which the characters of The Lord of the Rings, pointing out how Frodo’s sacrifice is so powerful precisely because he journeys, willingly, away from the light of the West and into the encroaching dark of the East. Frodo’s fate, like so many tragic heroes, is to give up everything that he values so that others may possess them. He has given up and gone away from the light, yet there is hope, never entirely guaranteed, that he may regain it.

If there is one quibble I have with the book, it is the lack of a broader sense of the historical context in which Tolkien was writing. Admittedly, this sense may be due more to my own scholarly inclinations (I am an unashamed historicist), but to my mind it goes a long way toward explaining how Tolkien was not an escapist, but rather a writer struggling to come to terms with the world in which he lived.

For the most part, however, Flieger’s is an accessible yet nuanced exploration of Tolkien’s work. Her writing, clear and lucid throughout, makes her an ideal gateway for those non-academics seeking a richer understanding of the works of Tolkien. However, it is advisable to read The Silmarillion in its entirety before tackling Splintered Light.

There is something profoundly satisfying in reading a solid piece of scholarship. As one of those responsible for elevating Tolkien into the ranks of “legitimate” literature, Flieger’s work deserves especial praise. Rather than seeing Tolkien’s work as mere escapist fantasy, or indeed as mere fiction, Flieger allows us to see the way(s) in which it they work as a profoundly subtle and nuanced explorations of the deepest and most troubling philosophical questions haunting the 20th (and now the 21st) Century.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings: “The Ring Goes South”

Having departed the peace and serenity of Elrond and Rivendell, we now make our way through the various realms that lie between Imladris and Gondor. At last, the Fellowship makes its way to the fabled Dwarven kingdom of Moria.

What stands out most to me about these chapters is the sense of ever-present danger that has little or nothing to do with any of the obvious adversaries. The entity that that forces them from off the peak of Caradhras is not Sauron or Saruman (despite what you might think from watching Peter Jackson), but some unnamed elemental spirit of the mountain itself. Like the powers that dwell in the deeps of the Old Forest, most notably Old Man Willow, Caradhras does not ally himself with the political entities of Middle-earth, and seems to have a general (rather than a focused) hatred of those that go on two legs. Here, Tolkien suggests that nature is largely uncaring about the lives and goals of those that go abroad in the world, which itself raises an interesting question about scope. Is the Ring, when all is said and done, such a big thing in the vast scope of natural history?

Likewise the Watcher in the Water, which seems to be a malevolent creature not necessarily related to Sauron, though perhaps drawn out due to his growing influence over Middle-earth. The creature does seem to be drawn to Frodo, but that may have more to do with the generally malevolent power of the Ring than a specified attack on the hobbit, as such. What makes the Water such a compelling, and frightening, figure is that no one, even Gandalf,

This is, after all, a part of the world far from tamed. The great wars that have swept across this landscape have ensured that the realm of Hollin is depopulated of its former Elven population and the Balrog and the Orcs have ensured that Moria is now empty of the Dwarves who have twice attempted to maintain a kingdom there. As in so much of The Lord of the Rings, one gets a sense of vast antiquity, of a realm that has known a period of grandeur and splendour but has now fallen into ruin and desolation (the latter being one of Tolkien’s favourite words). Even the stones, Legolas notes, have begun to forget the presence of the Elves, indicating the great span of years between the height of Eregion’s/Hollin’s glory and the moment the Fellowship inhabits.

As with so much of Tolkien’s legendarium, the land itself seems to protect the memory of the world. Kingdoms and realms may come and go, but rocks and stones and earth maintain their memory, for a time at least. Eregion, like Eriador, is a realm that contains within it echoes, faint now and distant, of the splendours of the past.

There is also a moment of genuine tenderness, when Sam is forced to release Bill rather than attempt to force him through the Mines. This is one of those moments at which Tolkien is so adept, showing us not only the grand scope of the action (the Quest), but also the smaller moments of personal drama, wherein the members of the Company must make wrenching decisions about the seemingly most mundane incidents. While this is one of those moments that are easy to gloss over in the heightened excitement of the attack of the Watcher and the wolves, it is nevertheless significant in that it shows the small, personal sacrifices made along the way of a greater Quest.

Next up, we continue our journey into Moria itself, where we will encounter the tomb of one of the most beloved figures of The Hobbit, and where the mighty Gandalf will find himself challenged by the creature of darkness that dwells in Moria’s ruined halls.

The English Renaissance “Timeline”: Part II (23 December 2015)

Metathesis

Last week, I discussed illustrations, or “drawings,” of printed media from Thomas Fella’s commonplace book with the aim of thinking more broadly about the relation between printed media, visual culture, and memory in Renaissance England. This week, I’d like to explore these ideas further by turning to the work of another English Renaissance calligrapher, Esther Inglis:

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Fig. 1   Self-Portrait of Esther Inglis. Folger MS V.a.91, Fol. 1v.[1] (Click here to zoom in.)

The second of five children, Inglis was born in London around 1570 to French Huguenot refugees Nicolas Langlois and Marie Presot.[2] Inglis was taught calligraphy by her mother – a “skilled scribe,” according to scholar Elspeth Yeo.[3] Inglis, like Fella, was also influenced by John de Beauchesne’s popular book on handwriting, A Booke Containing Divers Sortes of Hands (Fig. 2).[4]

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Fig. 2   Example of “Italique Hande” from A booke containing divers sortes…

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Can a Queer Feminist Enjoy Tolkien?

The short answer to the question leading this post is…yes. The long, and more complete, answer, requires quite a bit of explanation. In order to do so, I’ve decided to address each half of the descriptor (queer feminist) separately, while offering some concluding remarks that bring them together.

As a queer man, I am always profoundly moved by the intense personal and physical relationships that emerge between the various male characters. Of course, the most notable such interaction is between Frodo and Sam. Truly, the relationship between them is one of the richest and most textured to be found in all of 20th Century literature (and much more so than most straightforwardly “queer” male literature, with some notable exceptions such as Maurice and Brokeback Mountain). Theirs is a relationship forged in the harshest of conditions, and it engenders a particular form of tenderness, both physical and emotional, that especially resonates with we  men who feel desire (again, both physical and emotional) for other men.

Now, I’m almost 100% certain that Tolkien, devout Catholic that he was, did not intend these relationships to be understood as in any way sexual, and I’m not really sure that I, irreverent queer reader that I am, see them that way either (though I know there are many who do). However, I respond to them in a way that is more raw and intensely emotional than mere friendship typically allows. In other words, I pick up on those elements in the text that resonate most strongly with my own experiences and encounters with the world. The queerness, then, is a latent possibility within the text, even if the author did not necessarily intend for it to exist. As the great cultural theorist and scholar Alex Doty pointed out, texts don’t have to be intentionally queer for audiences to pick up on and read them as such.

As a feminist, things are a bit murkier. There are, it is true, remarkably few women of any stature within The Lord of the Rings, though there are many more in The Silmarillion. Of all the women that appear, however, the two that most conspicuously embody what we might call “strength” are Galadriel and Eowyn.

Are these female figures somewhat marginal to the narrative? Perhaps, but I think that reading mostly misses the point. Galadriel, we know, is easily one of the most powerful Elves remaining in Middle-earth (the fact that he is entrusted with one of the three Elven Rings of Power is but one of the many pieces of evidence suggesting this). It is significant, I think, that she bears Nenya, the Ring of Adamant, and that it is through her power that Lothlorien remains unsullied and that, at the last, it is Galadriel who brings about the final dissolution of Dol Guldur and its dungeons and pits.

Yet, for my money, it is Eowyn who most clearly stands out to me as Tolkien’s most masterful female creation. Unlike Galadriel, she does not have native, supernatural power. Instead, she is a woman born into a culture that typically prizes male valour and martial ability. While she obviously possesses these things,she remains bound in a culture that can best be described as benevolently patriarchal. For all that she possesses formidable intellectual ability and skill with arms, the world in which she lives does not explicitly value these when they are found in the body of a woman.

Eowyn’s greatest tragedy, however, is the fact that she finds herself bound to the aging and frail Theoden. Tolkien has an uncannily adept eye for identifying, and portraying, the intensely contradictory feelings such a woman must experience. She clearly loves her uncle and is willing to take care of him, yet she also finds her deepest desires–to be a warrior–frustrated by her familial duties. In a turn of fortune, Tolkien ensures that it is Eowyn, rather than any of the more traditional male heroes, who brings about the death of the Witch-king of Angmar, easily one of the most powerful and menacing of the villains in the Third Age.  At last, Eowyn is vindicated, her name enshrined among the great heroes of Tolkien’s mythology.

So what about a person, like myself, who specifically identifies as a queer feminist, both in terms of politics and in terms of scholarship? For all of its flaws, Tolkien’s legendarium (including but not limited to The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion) display a remarkable complexity in the ways in which it articulates issues of gender and sexuality. Somehow, Tolkien manages to bring to bear the high spirit of European antiquity with the concerns of modernity to craft a tale that can be appealing to even the most contrarian and radical of readers.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings:” “The Council of Elrond”

Now, at long last, we come to one of my favourite chapters in the novel.  Now we at last learn what has kept Gandalf away for so long, as well as the long and tragic history of the Ring.

Certainly, Saruman is one of the chapter’s most compelling characters, for he reveals the extent of the corruption wrought by Sauron and the temptation of the Ring for the powerful and the Wise.  As Tom Shippey noted some time ago, Saruman is the consummate politician, willing and able to bend words so that they suit his purposes, attempting to lure Gandalf into rebellion against their sworn purpose.  As a man of craft and skill, he desires everything to be ordered, and it is this impulse that has at last seduced him into the Ring’s orbit.  What always strikes me about this is that Saruman has been led astray not by the proximity of the Ring (he has never seen it), but by a combination of his own inherently flawed nature his pursuit of the arts of Sauron, and his glimpses into the palantir.

This chapter also enlarges upon Gandalf’s character, revealing both his strengths and his weaknesses, his successes and his failures.  He openly acknowledges that fell unwittingly into Saruman’s delicately laid trap, and that he was remiss in not challenging Saruman earlier and in being content to wait.  Yet this chapter also reveals that he is both more thoughtful and more ethical than Saruman, despite the latter’s ostensible leadership of the White Council.  He also has a stronger sense of his own limitations, and it is this, perhaps more than anything else, that renders him one of the novel’s most ethically complex characters.

You know, it takes a great deal of literary skill to make what amounts to one long chapter of exposition into a compelling read, and yet somehow Tolkien manages to do exactly that.  Part of this has to do with the ways in which the Council is concerned with the fate of the Ring.  We learn in the process that Bombadil may be unaffected by the Ring, that the Elves cannot and will not actively partake in the quest to destroy it, for their day is ending.  The key, then, is responsibility and the taking of an action, even when they all know that they will most likely meet their deaths along the way.  It is precisely because they know this and yet choose to do it anyway that the sequence has such evocative power.  And yet, nestled within this forward thrust of movement and action there is still a twinge of backward-looking melancholy, as all there–Men, Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, and a Wizard–realize that the world they have known is coming to an irrevocable and inevitable end.

And what of the Dwarves?  Though they remain largely in the background, the fact that even Dain, and his neighbors in Dale, have begun to feel the bite of Sauron’s teeth, alerts us to the gradually expanding scope of the coming conflict.  While the Elves may choose not to partake in the action that is about to take place, both they and the Dwarves will eventually find themselves besieged, islands in a world of turmoil and impending darkness.  Here, the novel suggests that no one, no matter how much they may desire to be left in peace, will be allowed to remain impartial.

In narrative terms, the chapter skillfully weaves together past, present, and future in a complex skein (Tom Shippey refers to this as interlacement).  We not only get a broad glance at the vast sweep of the history underpinning the current emerging conflict, but also the immediate threats in the person of Boromir, who even at this early stage has begun to fall prey to the same sickness that seduced Isildur and Saruman.  As a result, we know that the past shall once again repeat itself, though this time with more tragic, but also more eucatastrophic (to riff off Tolkien himself) results.

The Fellowship

Book Review: “The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams” (Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski)

Given that it’s Tolkien Appreciation Month, I’ve been reading pretty widely, not just revisiting The Lord of the Rings, but also wading into the waters of Tolkien biography and secondary scholarship.  First up is the new book The Fellowship:  The Literary Lives of the Inklings:  J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams.

As its title suggests, The Fellowship charts the literary and scholarly fortunes of the four key members of the Inklings, a group of men that bonded over their devout Christianity and their belief in the power of fantastic literature to provide meaning to a disordered world plagued by anomie.  Though the cohesiveness of the group weathered many challenges, and while many men came and went during the course of its existence, the assembly left an indelible mark on each of its members, allowing each of them to produce some of the most remarkable works of imaginative literature in the 20th Century.

The authors have a strong grasp of the philosophical roots underpinning both Lewis’s scholarship and his fiction.  Indeed, their discussion of the former helped me, always a Lewis skeptic, gain a newfound appreciation for one of the 20th Century’s most noted Christian apologists.  To be quite honest, I’ve always found The Chronicles of Narnia to be vastly inferior to The Lord of the Rings, and the Zaleskis pay less attention to Lewis’s fantasy series and more attention to his many other works of scholarship, devotion, and fiction.  While not a Christian myself, the skill and aplomb with which the authors depict Lewis’s own conversion and subsequent intellectual and religious rigour granted me a deep and abiding appreciation for his genius.

There are also a few compelling observations about Tolkien’s work, including the note that Tom Bombadil represents an escape from the terrors of history that afflict the other characters.  The Fellowship allows us to understand Tolkien in all of his vast complexity:  a man of incredibly devout Catholic faith; a rigorous and vigorous scholar who wrote incredibly textured and insightful scholarship on his beloved Anglo-Saxon; and, bringing these two together, something of a visionary of fantasy, using the act of subcreation to show how fiction can both express God’s divine plan and bring us closer to that plan.  Yet, as with the other Inklings in the book, Tolkien was sometimes not very pleasant, and could indeed be quite cutting (almost vicious) in his criticisms of both his work and that of others.

Unlike many other reviewers, I actually found the portions of the book dealing with Charles Williams and Owen Barfield to be some of the most compelling.  It is certainly true that the two of them have become overshadowed by Tolkien and Lewis, but they were rigorous philosophers and compelling fiction-writers on their own, and the authors devote several chapters to looking at their thought and works.  Owen Barfield, as the last surviving of the central four, gains especial attention, and the authors do a creditable job of teasing out both his (admittedly rather strange) belief in anthroposophy and his intense commitment to finding meaning in all aspects of the universe.

All of the Inklings emerge as fully-fledged individuals, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree.  The book doesn’t gloss over the fact that the Inklings was ruthlessly exclusionary along lines of gender, and each of the men had character traits that could be downright unpleasant in certain circumstances.  The book does entertain a rather prurient interest in Warnie Lewis’s chronic alcoholism, which becomes a might distracting (which is a shame, considering he was an immensely well-regarded scholar of French history), and there are other casualties, including Mrs. Moore, C.S. Lewis’s long-time companion.  Yet these are minor flaws and don’t distract from the whole.

In terms of style, the book is accessibly and even entertainingly written.  It moves at a brisk pace, while also slowing down when necessary to move through the intricacies of the philosophical underpinnings of many of the men in the group.  While some have complained that these portions of the book are difficult to follow, I think that any reasonably educated person could grasp the basics of the discussion.  And, given that these men did see themselves as philosophers, this aspect of their intellectual and mental lives is worth addressing in detail.

All in all, The Fellowship does justice to at least the central four that served as the nucleus of the group during its most productive period.  Just as importantly, it allows us to see the ways in which they influence, and continue to influence, the literary and intellectual contours of the 20th, and the 21st, Century.

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Film Review: “Trumbo” (2015)

As a fledgling scholar working in classical Hollywood, I was very excited when I heard about Trumbo, the biopic about the famed member of the Hollywood Ten.  This group of screenwriters and directed would go down in history as a mostly principled group of men who refused to cave in to the anti-Communist paranoia that swept the nation in the wake of World War II.

The film essentially charts the process by which the Hollywood Ten is blacklisted by the industry due to their refusal to name names before HUAC.  After languishing at King Brothers Productions (during which he is also compelled by economic necessity to take on more and more projects), Trumbo at last begins to claw his way back into respectability with The Wild One.  However, it is not until a young actor and producer named Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and a dour director named Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) intercede that he finally breaks the blacklist, and Trumbo’s name is openly acknowledged in the credits of both Spartacus and Exodus.  The film ends with a vindicated Trumbo delivering a heartfelt and deeply philosophical address to gathered Hollywood dignitaries.

Like many recent dramas, Trumbo strikes a delicate balance between portraying the 1950s in exacting and delicate detail, while also excoriating the period for its hypocrisy and repressiveness.  The film does not allow for a great deal of ambiguity, and rightly so, as the fanatical overreach of HUAC destroyed the lives and careers of not just the Hollywood Ten, but also numerous other Hollywood professionals who saw their livelihoods demolished on even the faintest suspicion of Communist sympathies.

There are, fortunately, a few moments that undercut (or at least dilute) the more straightforwardly hagiographic tendencies.  As the third act progresses, it becomes clear that Trumbo is not quite the loving and affectionate family man that everyone has believed.  While the father/daughter film trope is a teensy bit on the lazy side, Cranston does a grand job bringing out the prickly and sometimes sanctimonious traits for which Trumbo became somewhat infamous.

While Trumbo is the driving narrative center of the film, a few other characters gain nuanced treatment.  Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) emerges as a conflicted and somewhat tragic figure, an actor desperate to salvage his reputation and maintain his livelihood.  Though we are not invited to condone his betrayal of his friends (including Trumbo), the film clearly wants us to sympathize with him.  He makes the best decision in a terrible situation, and while the relationship between him and Trumbo never returns to its

While perhaps not nuanced, per se, Helen Mirren does an absolutely marvelous job bringing Hedda Hopper to life.  Mirren has always excelled at playing powerful women willing to do whatever it takes to defend their principles, and say what you will about Hopper’s red-baiting, she was a woman stalwart in her (misguided) principles.  While the film may give her too much credit for the imposition of the blacklist, she does have some memorable (and vicious) lines, as when she reveals her racism by reminding Louis B. Mayer of his scrupulously disguised Jewish identity, as a trait he shares with many of his fellow studio heads.

Several of the other players deserve accolades.  John Goodman is splendidly vulgar as Frank King, Trumbo’s employer (a role that Goodman has honed to perfection).  Diane Lane, while conveying the long-suffering yet fiercely independent Cleo Trumbo, is rather underused, while Elle Fanning hits an unfortunately strident note as Trumbo’s increasingly resentful daughter Nikola.  And poor Stephen Root is almost invisible as Frank’s brother Hymie, while Dean O’Gorman captures the look of Kirk Douglas, without quite mastering the older actor’s unique verbal mannerisms.

Trumbo is one of those films that the Hollywood film industry loves to periodically produce.  By granting Trumbo the last word, it allows the industry to atone for the sins of the past and to lionize those figures who it once did everything its power to destroy.  The film holds valuable lessons for us in the present, as we find ourselves as a nation confronted with a not-dissimilar atmosphere of paranoia.  Like Trumbo, we should all be very wary of those who would mobilize our fears and make us give up those things that we value most about America.

Reading “The Lord of the Rings:” “Many Meetings”

Having escaped from the menace of the Black Riders, at least for a time, we can now pause to take our breath, reflect and enjoy, along with the characters, the peculiar and particular joys of the Last Homely House.

Memory runs deep in the Homely House, and it is a fixture of temporal and spatial stability in a world that seems to remain in constant flux.  While the outside world continues to hurtle toward destruction, somehow this place, one of the last vestiges of the vaunted and hallowed Elder Days, manages to survive despite everything.  It is here, perhaps more than anywhere else except Lothlorien several chapters later, that the hobbits begin to gain a firmer grasp of the larger world that encloses their tiny little Shire.  Time here, as in so many of the Elven places in Middle-earth, is not bound by the forward thrust of chronos so evident in the world outside (i.e., the emerging world of Men).

This chapter also contains one of the most philosophically compelling passages, made all the more so in that it is touched on so briefly.  As Gandalf gazes at Frodo, he muses that there is something slightly transparent about the hobbit, but also reflects that he may become as a glass full of pure water for one who has eyes to see.  Verlyn Flieger has a compelling discussion of this in her book Splintered Light, and to that already nuanced discussion I would only add that it presages Frodo’s gradual divorcement from the pleasures of the humble Middle-earth.  And I don’t think I would be going to too far to also suggest that this moment also highlights Frodo’s status as a prefiguring of Christ (though not, I would emphasize, an allegory for Christ).

There are, of course, some lighter moments in this chapter, and there is a certain almost nostalgic pleasure in learning of the happenings among the Dwarves who formed party that set off to Erebor so very long ago.  It’s hard not to chuckle a bit at the thought of Bombur being carted to table by four stout young Dwarves.  Yet even here there is a troubling note of impending darkness, as even Erebor has begun to feel the menace of Mordor and the outstretched hand of Sauron.

And then there is Bilbo’s song.  Again, I’m quite familiar with the temptation to skip over the poem, for to a first-time reader it can be quite a slog, especially if you don’t have the knowledge of The Silmarillion upon which it so thoroughly draws.  Coming into it with that knowledge, one marvels anew at the sheer vastness of Tolkien’s genius, as well as the ornate nature of the beauty that he created.  The fact that it was, in terms of the diegesis, composed by the “humble” hobbit Bilbo Baggins adds another layer.

As with so much of The Lord of the Rings, sadness is never far from the surface of this chapter.  We are left in no doubt that Rivendell has become something of an island, besieged on all sides by those would bring the world under its own domination.  Just as importantly, we know that the peace and serenity here cannot last, and that the Company will have to eventually have to depart.  While we do not yet know that they will all be journeying forward together, there is enough to suggest that, whether they go forward, backward, or simply stay in place, there is no escaping the great evil that threatens the entirety of their world.

Join me next time as I discuss one of my favourite chapters (yes, I know I say that about each one), “The Council of Elrond.”

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Queer Classics: “Carol” (2015)

Warning:  Spoilers for the film follow.

Some might consider it a bit premature to declare Todd Haynes’ film Carol a queer classic, but if the reviews are anything to go by, this new film will surely earn a place alongside the director’s finest work as part of the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s.  And as I can personally attest, it fully deserves the lavish praise it has so far received.

Based on acclaimed novelist Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the film tells the haunting and evocative story of the unexpected but passionate romance that develops between quiet store clerk Therese (Rooney Mara) and wealthy soon-to-be-divorcee Carol (Cate Blanchett).  While Therese struggles with her newly-awakened feelings of same-sex desire, Carol desperately attempts to maintain custody of her daughter Rindy during her bitter divorce from Harge (Kyle Chandler).  After Carol and Therese escape for a passionate weekend in Chicago, they must both decide whether their romance has the makings of something richer, deeper, and much more perilous.

As a number of other reviewers have noted, Haynes has a well-earned reputation for well-crafted films that tend to keep viewers at an intellectual distance.  Far From Heaven, for example, is an absolutely exquisite film, but its pastiche, like that of the 1950s Sirk melodramas upon which it is based, keeps us at arm’s length.  We are constantly invited to recall the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s, to contrast (and compare) that time to our own.

This film is also concerned with the repressive nature of 1950s American culture, as Carol’s liaisons with women endanger her custody of her daughter.  It is precisely because Carol has so much affective richness and resonance that it connects at a much deeper emotional level than the similarly themed Far From Heaven.  We understand that this is a world where the desire between women is strongly forbidden, and so there is always a faint feeling of anxiety underlying the romance.  This, in turns, makes the romance all the sweeter and more poignant, for we come to see the love as always existing in a state of precariousness, always subject to the possibility of discovery.

I have always been one of Cate Blanchett’s most ardent admirers, and this film has solidified my love.  Like the greatest actresses of classic Hollywood, Blanchett has the extraordinary ability to convey both strength and vulnerability, and these traits come to the fore as she portrays Carol.  Through Blanchett, Carol becomes both the object and the subject of desire, striving against the repressiveness of the society in which she lives to attain fulfillment in her life (the allusion to psychotherapy, while brief, is immensely troubling).  And Rooney Mara is simply delightful as the slightly elfin Therese, a young woman who chafes at the restrictions imposed upon her by both her gender and her class.

While Sarah Paulson for the most part hovers at the edges of the narrative as Carol’s best friend and former lover Abby, she turns in a wonderful performance as a woman who clearly loves Carol deeply.  The scene in which she confronts an angry Harge and denounces him for his failures as a husband is rousing, and her tenderness toward the bewildered Therese in the wake of Carol’s abrupt return to New York is touching.  Paulson, like her fellow actresses in this film, manages to imbue her character with charm, strength, and vulnerability.

At the formal level, the film showcases Haynes at the height of his powers, with a remarkable attention to lush and exquisite detail.  However, in this film the appearance is always at the service of the film’s emotional core, rather than the other way around.  The attention to detail, both in terms of the mise-en-scene and the cinematography, always acts as a slightly mannered surface to the fervent passions that always exist beneath the surface.  And the sex scene, which could have been salacious or trashy, is instead the culmination of the desire that has so long simmered beneath the surface, repressed by both the culture and the film itself.  It is truly one of the finest, and most erotic, depictions of same-sex desire I have seen in a film.

It’s been a long time since I have been touched so deeply by a queer film.  Actually, I would say that Brokeback Mountain was the last such film to do so (which says a great deal about the perils and unfulfilled promise of mainstream acceptance).  Now, I am glad to say that, 10 years later, I can now add another film to that list.  There is so much else I could say about this film, but I won’t spoil the ending for you, but if you don’t emerge with tears in your eyes (or just downright bawling) at the end of this film, then you should begin to doubt your humanity.

Score:  10/10