Dissertation Days (2): All Over the Place

I’m a little all over the map today. Got some strong work done this afternoon, and I think the early bits of contextualization are coming together somewhat coherently. I wrote some new material in those early sections, primarily about the postwar desire for children as a bulwark against the terrors of the atomic age and some stuff about the ambiguity of the postwar figuring of the atomic bomb as explicitly female (it’s weird, believe me). So, that felt good.

This evening…well, I’ve cannibalized a lot from an earlier draft, which isn’t a bad thing, but it rather makes me feel like I’m cheating when I tell people I’ve written 2,000 words today. But still, it’s not entirely cheating if you also do some revision on those bits that you’re copying and pasting from that earlier draft, right?

I feel like the three close readings that I offer are coming together. It would probably help if I wasn’t so scattershot in my composition process, bouncing from one section to another with basically no rhyme or reason, but that’s basically my writing process, as weird as that sounds. It sometimes does a number on my productivity, but I think at this point I’ve actually managed to harness it into a force for productivity.

I’m going to take the weekend off, as is my usual practice. I’ll probably still be thinking over the project the whole time, mulling over ideas, trying to think if there is a better, more concise, more accurate way of representing the chaos of jumbled ideas in my head on the actual page. That’s always the hardest part for me. I know that I’m onto something important and that I have a contribution to make; it’s just getting it into written words that’s always the hard part.

I suppose I should also keep a record of my word count. It’s currently sitting at a little over 9,000 words. The upper limit of this chapter is 18,000, so I’m basically halfway there. At this rate, I should be ready to submit a revised draft to my adviser by the second week of May. That will mark roughly a month and a half of revision time which, for me, isn’t so bad.

Well, I’m almost at my 400-word limit. TLDR version: I wrote some stuff today, some of it coherent. Monday, I’m going to make sure 5 pages are ready. 

I can do this.

Dissertation Days (1): Revision, Revision, Revision

Since I’m a fan of new initiatives, I’ve decided to start keeping a semi-daily record of my progress on my dissertation, in order to keep myself accountable and to help me keep track of my progress. And, since I love being publicly visible, I’m going to do so here.

Each post will be strictly limited to 400 words. I have a tendency to get wordy, so this will help me learn to be concise.

As some of you know, I’m currently in the process of writing my third chapter, which argues that colour in the midcentury historico-biblical epic expresses a desire to escape from modernity and its associated pressures (the atomic bomb, the dreariness of labour, the irrevocability of time) into the world of antiquity, flush with desire and visual/sensory plenitude. At the same time, these films also force an encounter with history’s terror through the spectacle of destruction.

So, the feedback from my adviser on the first draft called for some deep revisions, and I’ve been hard at work on that for the last two weeks. I’m now almost halfway done with the draft that I think I will resubmit, and that feels pretty gratifying.

The historical context is a lot more coherent, and I think I’ve managed to curtail my typical “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach,” in which I basically toss together all of my research and hope for coherence (it usually isn’t very coherent). Even now, even after all I’ve written and all the progress I’ve made, it’s surprisingly difficult

However, as I’ve made my way through this version, I’m happy to say that I’ve managed to find my own voice and to articulate my own arguments, rather than having them drowned out by the cacophony of competing voices that I tend to rely on overmuch.

So, when tomorrow dawns, I plan on continuing the progress that I’ve made so far. As of now, I’ve been doing a lot of cannibalizing of early drafts, drawing in the more coherent parts. I’ve got a pretty strong grasp of the broad contours of the argument, so now I have to do the hard part and start filling in the gaps in the piece. It’s always the hardest part of the process, to figure out what exactly it is that I am trying to do and say in each part of the chapter.Ugh.

Dissertation writing is hard, but here’s to a productive day tomorrow.

TV Review: “Feud”–“Hagsploitation” (S1, Ep. 6)

A friend recently remarked to me that, every time he watched an episode of Feud, he felt as if nothing significant had transpired. As I continue to watch, I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him. While there is still much to love about this series, it does feel like it’s beginning to drag a bit, weighed down by its own pretensions.

In this episode, Joan attempts to resuscitate her career by acting in cheesy horror films, while Bette also struggles to find roles that are worthy of her talents. However, Aldrich is determined to cement his legacy and so, even as his marriage falls apart, he proposes another entry in the “Hagsploitation” genre (a term allegedly coined by Jack Warner), and he hopes to reunite Crawford and Davis and continue to exploit their antipathy toward one another.

The relationship between Aldrich and Bette, as always, continues to ring the truest and to have the most emotional depth. There is an undeniable chemistry between Sarandon and Molina, and they carry this over into the fondness that these individuals have for one another. They understand one another, even more so now that Aldrich is faced with a life without his wife (who has told him she wants a divorce due to his inability to truly privilege her in the face of his work).

As always, though, it is Lange who steals the show, and she manages to continue wringing the role of Joan for all of the pathos that it’s worth. While it remains unclear whether the real Joan Crawford–if we can even speak of such a thing–would ever have shown the type of vulnerability that Lange conveys, the fact remains that Lange combines strength with vulnerability. Lange’s Crawford is knowing and understanding about what the world is like, and the world of Hollywood in particular, but this knowledge does not give her any sort of comfort. Knowledge in this context proves to be just as much a burden as it is a blessing.

She does, however, display a true spine of steel when her brother threatens her with an alleged video of her performance in a stag film (the rumour of the existence of such a film ultimately sunders her friendship with Hedda). While she pays off his demands, she does so because she values her career and her accomplishments above everything else, and she is not about to let a money-grubber, even if he happens to be related to her by blood. Thus, when she finds that he has died during an emergency operation on his appendix, her first move is to cancel the payment on her check. For Joan, family is a burden, yet another sacrifice that she must make in order to solidify her career and the reputation that she has taken such an effort to maintain.

However, while I still take a lot of pleasure in this show, it’s clear that it’s starting to run out of steam a bit. I’ve thought for some time now that it would have probably made more narrative sense for this to have either been two episodes shorter or to have been released all at once. For me as a viewer, the appeal of the show continues to lie in the performances and the sumptuousness of the image, rather than in the narrative. I’m not sure that this is entirely as Murphy intends it, but I have long felt that his skills as an image-maker and as a casting agent far excel his skills as a creator of long-form drama. I suppose that we will have to wait until the final episode to see if my theory is proven correct. (Note: while he is not the writer or director of most of the episodes so far, his imprint is indelibly stamped on the series as a whole)

Overall, I found this to be a touching entry, but I’m still a little unclear about what the series in the aggregate will look like. If the series’ purpose was to show the ways in which women are exploited in Hollywood and their interests sublimated in the service of men’s profit, then that mission has already been well-accomplished. However, one can hop that there will be a deeper takeaway by the end, one that merits the expanded frame of the narrative.

TV Review: “Feud”–“And the Winner Is…(The Oscars of 1963)”

In the most recent episode of Feud, the lead-up to the Oscar ceremony gains momentum, and the chasm between Bette and Joan continues to widen until it is irrevocable. When Bette loses the Oscar to Anne Bancroft, largely as a result of Joan’s scheming, the bitterness is fully set, and there will be, can be, no turning back for any of them.

There’s a nice little aside included in the episode, in which the majestic, statuesque, and ever-so-slightly over-mannered Olivia de Havilland, suggests that the feud between her and her sister Joan Fontaine was one fabricated in large part by a media determined to sow dissent.  There is a slight bit of hypocrisy in this episode, however, in that a subsequent scene shows all too clearly that Olivia had no love for her sister, and that the bitterness between them was quite real indeed.

Though de Havilland has been hovering on the edge of the screen since the series began, it’s only now that she has finally come into full focus, as the episode shows us the close relationship between Bette and Olivia. One can sense in Olivia’s somewhat distant performance a hint of jealousy and bitterness about her friend’s success and talent. As she remarks, Bette always saw her as Melanie from Gone with the Wind to her Scarlett, and she acknowledges, with just a trace of sadness, that that is true. Graceful and statuesque as she is, she knows that as far as Hollywood and the broader public is concerned, she will always be one of the system’s lesser lights, a minor star in a galaxy full of supernovas like Davis.

The other bit player in this episode who also begins to emerge into a fuller light is Judy Davis’s magnificently waspish and poisonous Hedda Hopper. For all of her vitriol and bitterness, Hopper is convinced of the rightness of her poison pen, which she has honed to a fatal point. The episode also reveals that she is as riddled with contradiction as any other woman in Hollywood. She criticizes Davis for being vulgar, and yet she makes a spurious claim that Bette Davis uses one of her Oscars as a doorstop in her bathroom. Yet she sees all of this as justified, her self-understanding as the moral compass of Hollywood rendering her inviolable from any trace of true self-reflexion or criticism.

Once again, Lange’s Crawford continues to wring the pathos from the script. When she says that something in her broke at the word of the Oscar nominations, for the very first time I felt like I was looking at the actual Joan Crawford on screen before me. Her visage showing all of its alcohol-produced flaws in the glaring light of the California sun, she has clearly begun a descent into desperation that ends, embarrassingly, in a phone call to Geraldine Page in which she convinces the younger actress to step out of the Oscar ceremony and an equally uncomfortable and pathetic visit to Anne Bancroft (who eventually wins, allowing Crawford to step out onto the stage). Yet even these moments are full of pathos, as Sarah Paulson’s Geraldine Page proudly announces that Hollywood should be made to look at what they have done to Crawford, and Bancroft graciously concedes to Crawford’s request.

Lange’s Crawford emerges in these scenes as a peculiar mixture of pathetic and malignant, someone driven by her own chronic sense of fragile self-worth.  As she tells George Cukor in one of the episode’s most affecting lines, she is not bigger than this pettiness, a stunning confession that reveals the extent to which she has come to understand her zenith as inevitably and irrevocably past.

(On a random note, I also appreciated the episode’s use of mirrors, in which constantly forces the characters to look at themselves and to face the unflattering light in which they so frequently paint themselves).

All in all, I found this the best episode yet of Feud, and yet also the most tragic. The final scene, in which Joan comes home from her pyrrhic victory was one of the most affecting the show has yet produced. As Crawford sits alone in her bedroom, gazing at the statue, one can’t help but reflect about all that has been lost as the feud between the two women grows ever more venomous. It is truly one of Hollywood’s greatest tragedies.

TV Review: “Feud”–“More, Or Less” (S1, Ep. 4)

Having finally watched last week’s episode of Feud, I am at last ready to share my thoughts. In all, I found this to be the best episode so far, in that it really does a great deal to flesh out the stakes of Baby Jane for everyone concerned, not just the principals, but also those who surround the production.

The opening sequence highlights the extent to which both Joan and Bette have found themselves on the losing end of an industry controlled and manipulated by ruthless (and not terribly likable) men. Both of them have, by this point, become aware that their fortunes may be irrevocably in decline, the possibility of a comeback tainted by the “B” movie status that has already begun to stick to Baby Jane and to taint its artistic pretensions.

The responses of the two women reflect a great deal about their respective personalities. While Bette handles the demotion to the junior leagues with biting sarcasm by taking out a classified ad, Joan spews out f-bombs to her utterly uncaring agent and his cronies. Throughout the episode, Crawford emerges as the one more attached to her rapidly-fading stardom and Davis to the fact that she can’t get roles that challenge her craft (this dichotomy has now become so much part of Hollywood history that it’s become fact).

Lange continues to bring Joan to life in a particularly compelling way. There is an almost frantic energy to Lange’s portrayal, as she teeters on the edge of utter collapse. She sees the writing on the wall of her career, and she is determined to do everything in her power to stop the downward spiral, including distancing herself from Bette and from any other woman who might taint her aspirations, even when that means distancing herself from the very people who would be happy to help her.

The scene at the premiere highlights how dependent Joan has become on the glamour of stardom. The colour and lighting here is quite warm, an evocation of Crawford’s renewed sense of vitality and happiness that she has once again returned to being adored by her legions of fans. One also gets a sense that the episode is making a conscious reference to Lange’s role of Big Edie Beale in Grey Gardens, which also featured her in the role of a woman clinging to vitality in the face of adversity.

For all of her talent, however, Crawford knows something that the others seem reluctant to acknowledge: the golden age of classic Hollywood is well and truly over. When she turns down Pauline’s efforts at jumpstarting her own directorial career, she does so not (so she claims) because the latter is a woman, but because she’s a nobody. Crawford is old enough and wise enough to recognize that Hollywood is a cruel and ruthless business, and she is just cutthroat enough to do what needs to be done to ensure her own legacy (it doesn’t hurt that she’s also being manipulated by the waspish Hedda Hopper).

Despite how despicable he can be at times, Molina’s Aldrich continues to come across as affable, accomplished, and likable, if more than a little self-centered and misogynist. He knows as much as the women do that his career is on the line, and indeed that, for all of his aspirations, he is not, after all, fated for greatness. Even his success with Baby Jane, however, is not quite enough to rescue him and elevate him to the status of an auteur. In a taut and unpleasant conversation with Jack Warner, the latter makes the cutting observation that he is nothing more than a journeyman, it’s a remark that hits all too close to the bone.

Feud is a delicious treat, but it’s also far from subtle. With Joan Blondell and Olivia de Havilland (Kathy Bates and Catherine Zeta-Jones) as the film’s chorus, we are left in no doubt how we are supposed to feel about the characters and their circumstances. For all that, though, the show continues to hold up a none-too-flattering mirror to the machinery of Hollywood, an industry that still has a lot of distance to go in terms of the way that it treats women.

Monster and Men Part II: Healing Toxic Masculinity, Disney’s new Beast

Metathesis

!Spoilers for Disney’s new live-action Beauty and the Beast follow!

Last week, I discussed Gaston from Disney’s new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. I was interested in how the film makes space to complicate Gaston’s character while opening into a discussion concerning trauma and scenes of toxic masculinity.

This week, I’d like to talk about the new Beast from this latest film, and how his character functions within the story to reveal methods for healing situations of trauma, grief, and toxicity, especially when read alongside Gaston. As I previously suggested, viewing the Beast’s progression throughout the narrative reveals a path from reactivity, rage, and domination, to a space of receptivity and self-reflection. This runs directly counter to the character of Gaston, who moves into a more and more violent and toxic space as the film progresses. The Beast models a series of behaviors that allow for…

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Reading Tad Williams: “To Green Angel Tower: Part 1” (Book 3 of “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn”)

I must apologize for taking so long to finish up this post. I have been on the road quite a lot that past couple of weeks, and have just now (finally!) finished the first half of To Green Angel Tower  (yes, I still have the mass market paperback, which split the final volume into two halves). Having done so, I can now offer a few remarks on what constitutes one of the greatest works of fantasy of the latter half of the 20th Century.

First, a brief word about the artwork for the cover. From the moment I bought these books at Waldenbooks all those years ago, I have loved the cover. There is just something piercing and perfect about Michael Whelan’s renditions of Miriamele and Simon, paired with Jiriki and Aditu. It is very rare that I find a cover that captures my own mental image of a character, but this one seems to capture the world-weary mortals and the continuing intensity of the Sithi. I would even go so far as to say that this is my favourite cover of a fantasy novel, showcasing the best of Whelan’s always-extraordinary talents.

I won’t spend too much time reciting plot summary, other than to note that the novel starts bringing all of the characters together. While the Sithi finally ride forth and return the control of Hernystir to its people, Simon, Binabik, and the others overcome significant obstacles to cement Josua’s position of strength, while Miriamele, Isrgimnur, and Camaris finally make their way to the Stone of Farewell.

This novel, perhaps more than the ones that preceded it, shows us in full measure the powerful sweep of historical events that often pick humans up in their midst and hurl them against the rocks of fate and chance. All of the characters, both major and minor, bear the scars of their travails, and it’s hard not to feel at least a stab of pity even for Elias, whose own folly and poor judgment have led his father’s kingdom and all of his accomplishments to the edge of ruin (and perhaps beyond). They are all of them, even the Storm King and his ally Utuk’u, bound by historical forces that they cannot quite control or name. The true tragedy, to my mind, is that so many of them can’t even recognize the limits of their own agency. History is a prison from which none can ultimately escape.

For all of its attention to the grand sweep of history, however, it is at the level of the personal that the book truly succeeds. Williams has a deft and deep understanding of what makes people work. Both Simon and Miriamele have been through some of the hardest and most trying encounters a human being can endure, and while they clearly have feelings for one another, they do not yet know how to express them in a way that is mutually satisfying. Each of them remains locked in an emotional prisoning not entirely of their own making, afraid to really render themselves vulnerable to one another and thus express their love.

Other, more minor characters also have their own tragedies. The princess Maegwin has become trapped in her own mind, wandering the lonely roads of madness, while Count Eolair, the man who loves her and whom she loves in return, can only look on and hope for the best. Like Simon and Miramele, the seemingly grand history in which they are caught up has begun to take a tremendous toll on both their physical and emotional well-being, and in staging this drama Williams manages to show us the costs of history, the way in which it affects the lives of those who, so we might think, are those who are in the middle of the story.

However, while the younger heroes are of course the center of the narrative, it is also worth pointing out that Cadrach, at least as he is revealed through the eyes of the princess, is also a tortured and mutilated soul. He struggles against the darker and baser parts of his nature, and yet he always manages to come up short. It is hard to know precisely what to make of him, considering that the only access that we as readers get of him is what Miriamele thinks and believes, but even that is enough to tell us that he cannot escape his deeds in the past. While the full extent of his complicity remains something of a mystery, enough has been revealed to show us that, in some way, whether large or small, he has been pivotal to all of the events that have unfolded.

Though the entirety of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is, of course, an epic, it is also, I would argue, an embodiment of the highest aspirations of the tragic mode. The great schism between the Sithi and the Norns is one of the great and terrible events of the series, and while it lies back in the mists of time for humanity, it is one of those signature events that still dominates the fortunes of those living in later days. Indeed, had the two families not been sundered, it’s possible that the events that are even now taking place might have been prevented, and a great deal of bloodshed and brutality avoided. And yet that is precisely what makes the events of the novel so heartbreaking. So much pain might have never have happened, so many lives could have been saved if only certain events had not transpired. And yet, like all tragedies, the events keep us moving ahead, helpless to stop what is about to happen.

I’m currently hard at work reading the second part of To Green Angel Tower, so I’m hoping to have my thoughts on that ready for public consumption by the end of April. I have to say that I’m really enjoying both re-reading these novels that played such a large part of my youth, as well as sharing my thoughts about them with those of you out there in the dark. As always, I invite you to comment and reflect on your own reading encounters with “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.”