Film Review: “Phantom Thread” (2017) and the Dark Side of Desire

Some spoilers for the film follow.

Apparently, 2017 was in some ways the year of desire, or at least that is the impression I get having seen several of the contenders for Best Picture this year. Whether it’s the yearning to be free of small town life and smothering mothers in Lady Bird, the sweet summer of first love in Call Me By Your Name, or the powerful lust for a life outside of the confines of Cold War conformity in The Shape of Water, desire is everywhere.

And it’s darker side is to be found in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.

Phantom Thread is one of those films that’s deeply unsettling upon an initial viewing but slowly seeps into your consciousness as you think more about its impact on you. Perhaps it’s the film’s gorgeous attention to detail–both visual and auditory–or perhaps it’s the crisp performances from its leads. Whatever it is, this film burrows deep into your brain as the days go by.

Though it’s hard to summarize a film like this, here goes. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a renowned designer of haute couture, his gowns desired and sought after by society’s finest. He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), in a relationship fraught with quasi-incestuous ambiguity, and his daily life is governed by a very precise set of rituals which he rigorously enforces upon all who lives in his household. All of this is disrupted when he meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who slowly but irrevocably disrupts his daily routines as they both find themselves caught in the deadly tide of desire.

This desire seethes in every exchange, every frame, and every sartorial flourish, emerging at key moments to disturb our complacency as viewers. In this film, desire is not just as means by which people seek out a connection to one another, but also the way in which they are able to grasp something about themselves that evades their conscious understanding. Though the film establishes quite early on that Reynolds has a habit of dispensing with the young women who take his fancy, something about Alma–possibly her rakishness, her tendency to resist his control–seems to call to him in a way that keeps him from discarding her.

Desire also writhes beneath the surface of Day-Lewis’s face. Day-Lewis has earned himself a justified reputation for his ability to fully inhabit the characters that he plays, and he brings that to bear on his portrayal of Woodcock. Here, he portrays a man whose desire for control manifests itself in every aspect of his personality, from the rigour with which he approaches the design of his dresses to the absolute silence that he commands. This is a man who takes great care to sculpt his surroundings–including, it should be noted, his sister–into the form that he desires, and any disruption to that order causes an immediate outburst of rage.

And as much as the film’s visual palette is truly stunning, what stood out to me the most was its use of sound: the crisp delivery of the dialogue; the sumptuous rustle of cloth; the infamous scraping of the toast; the soft, delicate skritching of pen on paper. The sounds leap out of the screen, as unsettling as they are pleasurable, a reminder of the sheer physicality of this world. They grate against us just as they often grate against Woodcock, stitching us into his experience of his surroundings.

At the same time, sound also encourages us to see things from Alma’s perspective, to cheer for her as she cheerfully uses sound to break apart Woodcock’s meticulously ordered life. It is thus especially significant that Alma relates the film in voiceover, her voice asserting a measure of control into the narrative that forces us to rethink just how much Woodcock has over anything. But then, her entire presence in the film relies upon the power of sound, whether that is her tendency to always want to get the last word in an argument (one source of the film’s biting and rather acidic humour), or her deliberately goading him at the breakfast table by scraping her toast too loudly (and deliberately pouring the tea from a hilariously high angle).

As the film reaches its final third, Woodcock’s entire life, that he has crafted and sculpted with such meticulous and granular attention, has begun to crack. Cyril defies him at the breakfast table–something she has never done before–and one of his foremost customers has taken her work elsewhere. The film makes it clear that Woodcock’s brittle adherence to detail may well see the ruin of everything that he has worked so assiduously to maintain, both in his professional and personal life.

It is only when Alma begins poisoning Woodcock–thus rendering him incapacitated and totally reliant on him–that they begin to settle into their (deeply unsettling) primal rhythm. Each offers the opportunity to oscillate between control and abandon, a fierce frisson that will, Alma hopes, set the stage for their future together. Unlike Cyril, who has enabled Woodcock in his obsessive control, Alma constantly challenges him.

Ultimately, it seems to me, Phantom Thread explores the perilous nature of desire. It’s what drives (some of) us as human beings to seek out others, even as it is also what threatens to destroy us. Both Reynolds and Alma are individuals whose psyches are haunted by yearnings that they rarely openly articulate, in all likelihood because they cannot describe, even to themselves, what those desires actually are. And because the film seems largely agnostic about how we should feel about this obviously pathological relationship, it’s hard not to emerge deeply unsettled from the whole viewing experience (as many of my filmgoers did).

But then, perhaps that’s the film’s point. Much as we might like to pin desire down, channel it, or just plain understand it, part of it always eludes us. No matter how much we try to repress it, desire will always find away to erupt into our lives, disturbing the placid surface of our everyday reality.

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Film Review: “Star Wars: Episode VIII–The Last Jedi” and the Aesthetics of Resistance

For me, a new Star Wars film is always a cause for celebration. I would consider myself a casual fan, someone who both takes pleasure in the franchise and recognizes its tremendous cultural impact and value as a text worthy of examination. While I was happy with The Force Awakens, to my mind The Last Jedi is like a breath of fresh air, taking the series in some new and very interesting directions.

Picking up where the previous film left off, The Last Jedi continues detailing the struggles of the Resistance, recently decimated and on the run from the First Order. In this film, Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince Luke (Mark Hamill) to return from self-imposed exile to help his sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the other resistance leaders. Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) grows increasingly frustrated with the seeming complacency of the Resistance, particularly when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes over after Leia is seriously injured. Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on an effort to break the tracking device the First Order is using against the Resistance.

In its thematic concerns, Last Jedi carries on from the first film in the new trilogy. The First Order is ascendant, and throughout the film the Resistance trembles on the brink of utter collapse. The pacing accentuates this, as we are constantly led to sit on the edge of our seats, waiting for the dreadful final bomb that will wipe our heroes from the galaxy. Of course, the narrative tension is supplemented by the action-cinema aesthetics, the numerous explosions, whip-crack camera movements, and bodies in perpetual motion. Through this narrative, cinematographic, and editing patterns, the film leads us to feel how imperiled the Resistance is, how all it will take is one more death, one more catastrophe, and the First Order will succeed in rebuilding the totalitarian state.

These patterns are undergirded by universally excellent performances, and I continue to be totally on board with the increasing diversity on display in the Star Wars franchise. Kelly Marie Tran is the film’s breakout star, and her fierce portrayal of Rose Tico is both off-beat and touching.

Though she is only on screen for a very few scenes, Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo is also one of the film’s great stars. Dern has always managed to capture a peculiar mix of strength and vulnerability, and she brings that to bear in this role. Though our perception of Holdo is largely skewed by the perception of Poe, who thinks that she lacks the initiative to help the Resistance survive, her ultimate sacrifice was one of the film’s most beautiful, heartbreaking, and exhilarating moments. As with any great movie about resistance against tyranny, The Last Jedi makes it clear that there can be no victory without sacrifice.

On the “evil” side of things, Adam Driver continues to blow me away as Kylo Ren. This would be the easiest sort of role to do badly, in that he is essentially a spoiled man-child who thinks that the universe should bend to his will. Driver, however, makes the most of his own gifts to endow this character with a certain tortured beauty. Somehow, Driver manages to be both graceful and awkward at the same time, a tension that perfectly captures Ren’s profound inner conflict. He feels abandoned by everyone who he thought cared about him, and this has become key to his ruthless drive to bring the galaxy into order.

This reflects Rey’s own inner turmoil but, unlike him, she turns away (for the moment) from both the dark side represented by Kylo and the isolationism represented by Luke. Though she was similarly abandoned by her parents–whoever they are–she has given herself completely to the Resistance, and she recognizes, in a way Kylo does not, that attempting to force an order on the universe will only replicate the cycle of chaos and destruction.

What I’ve always loved about the Star Wars universe is that it tackles the pressing philosophical questions of our time. Is it really so bad to have a world that is firmly ordered in order to curtail the dangers of contingency and chance (as Kylo wants)? Is there value in the sort of exclusionary religion practiced by the Jedi, one that relies on genealogy and a select priesthood? (A friend of mine referred to this film as the Protestant Reformation of the Star Wars universe, and it’s an apt metaphor). The film has a philosophical heart, and that’s a refreshing thing to see in an action/science fiction/space opera film.

Though it risks finding resonance everywhere (as a friend recently pointed out to me), it seems to my eyes that the recent spate of Star Wars films has intervened in our contemporary moment. With the forces of tyranny, authoritarianism, and toxic masculinity in full flood, it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair, of wanting to just put your head down and hope that you survive. The Last Jedi, however, tells us that this is the way of the defeated, and that if we accept the brutality than we are complicit in the destruction of both ourselves and what we love. We must fight with every breath of our being, even though it is sometimes exhausting to do so (and even though it looks as if we might lose anyway).

This resonances stems in part from Carrie Fisher, who continues to exude a frail but resilient strength as an aging Leia. It was hard not to tear up every time she came on the screen, exuding her force of will and speaking in that faintly hoarse, slightly whispery way that is a hallmark of her recent performances. This is a woman who seems to know that she is fighting a rising tide but is determined to go down fighting.

In the end, The Last Jedi does give us hope that, even in the midst of great darkness we can still find the resilience and the strength to go on. And in these dark days, that’s a very heartening thought, indeed.

World Building (16): The Xhusts of Haranshar

Haranshar is a vast realm. In terms of size, it’s roughly the size of Asia, though perhaps slightly smaller. As a result, it encompasses a wide range of cultures, religions, and peoples, though they all obey theoretical allegiance to the Shah and to the Ormazdh faith.

The administrative heart of this mighty empire is the xhust of Hamarkahn, which takes up most of the western part of Haranshar. It is here, on the banks of the River Fagrish, that the great city of the shahs has grown up, splendid Tysphan (sometimes spelled Tysfan or Tysvan by those in the west). It was founded by the mighty Shah Kavastar, roughly 300 years before the time of the novel. It is without question the largest city on the continent of Aridikh, and it is also the most cosmopolitan. Almost all of the great religions of the world can be found there, as well as libraries, gardens, hospitals, and academies.

This xhust is also the location of Kheldylon, one of the jewels of the entire land of Haranshar, fabled for its magnificent gardens (the origins of which are said to lie in the reign of the Old Ones). To the north of this province is located Karshasp, one of the great fire temples of the Ormazdhites.

To the north and east is the xhust of Shakastan. It is a tundra-like landscape, though there are also several mountain ranges, which are the haunt of some of the fiercest warriors of Haranshar. There are relatively few major cities in the district, though Maraakh is one such. It is the home of one of the great families of the empire, who rule it as their own fief. The region is also known or its vast mineral wealth, which renders it both a very valuable commodity for Haranshar, as well as a possible source of trouble should any of their rulers decide to rebel. It is also, paradoxically, the site where it is believed that the great prophet Varagh received the illuminating word of Ormazdh.

The southern reaches comprise Pishapur, the highlands that are the traditional home of the reigning Haransharin. It is here that centuries ago, this seemingly disunited and fractious people united under their leader Xharyush and swept both east and west to conquer all before them. Within less than a decade, the entire continent would recognize his suzerainty. As a result, this province has frequently been paid more attention by the Shahs, and they have founded several major cities here.

The far eastern xhust is the wildest part of Haranshar, as well as the part that has least seen the power of the Shah. Only one of the Nine Great Clans hails from this region, and even their writ is restricted to the western edges of the district. The rest is a vast grassland inhabited by feuding tribes and chieftains. Though they supposedly have sworn allegiance to the Shah and to the Ormazdh faith, the reality is very different, as most of them follow their own chieftains and worship their own gods. They are notoriously bloodthirsty and willing to attack any who come to their territory.

A vast mountain range separates the steppes and the desert from the relatively rich coastlands that are inhabited by a very strange people. No one knows much about them, and they have only rarely sent ambassadors or representatives to the court of the Shah. It is known, however, that they guard, fiercely, a treasure, though it is not known what it is.

Technically, the kingdom of Ashkum is administered as part of this far eastern xhust, but the reality is that the rule of the Haransharin there is quite tenuous. In fact, it was only within the last fifty years that they were forced to officially swear obeisance. Even now, their powerful ruler the Kidakaia foments rebellion, aiming to bring her people out from under the yoke of bondage and into a new era.

At the time that the novels are set, the Nine Great Families of Haranshar–not all of whom are pure Haransharin–have begun to foment rebellion and anger in the xhusts. The generals are restless, and the people are yearning for something more. It just might be that a young renegade cleric from the Imperium will be the spark to the tinder.

Hot Take: How the Democrats Can Win Big in 2018 (and Maybe 2020)–“Dignity”

 

In his opinion for the majority in the case Obergefell v. Hodges, Anthony Kennedy wrote of those seeking the right to marry: “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” One word stands out to me about this opinion: “dignity.”

It’s no secret that the famously moderate Kennedy tends to place a lot of emphasis on dignity in his rulings, so his mention of it in the Obergefell decision is unsurprising. What might surprise some, however, is my belief that this term, “dignity,” might be the key to the future of the Democratic Party.

As the Trump era has unfolded–leading to ever-greater indignities, both large and small, the demolition of norms and institutions, and the general degrading of the office of the Presidency–it seems to me that there is one sure way that we Democrats can sell a vision to the American people. If Trump traded on easy solutions, finger-pointing, and xenophobia, it is up to us to show the American people that there is another way to conduct policy and, just as importantly, another way to comport ourselves as a republic and as a body politic.

The beauty of a stress on dignity is that it provides a way of addressing, meaningfully, in my view, the concerns of those who have in recent months suggested that the focus of the national party on “social issues” poses a danger to Democrats in traditionally conservative or moderate districts. Leaving aside the arbitrary and misleading distinction between economic and social issues (a subject for a later rant, I’m sure), it seems to me that it would be more effective and moral for Democrats in those areas to stress that their stances on LGBT+, racial, and gender issues are, essentially, about dignity. I would proffer that the majority of Americans, whether they fall to the right or the left of the political center, can at least agree on the fundamental right to dignity before the law.

Of course, this will require Democratic politicians to actually assert leadership, rather than simply acquiescing to the wishes and desires–no matter how destructive and backward they are–of their core constituents. There is a certain tendency among Democrats, particularly those who are vulnerable in states that Trump won, to think that any stance of theirs that is opposite to their conservative majority constituency will jeopardize their seat, and maybe they’re right. But it also occurs to me that people like Senator Joe Manchin (from my own home state of West Virginia) would do well to remember that there are many LGBT+ people in his state who crave the same dignity as their hetero kin. Their lives are just as important, their needs just as great, and their right to dignity as constitutional.

To some, this emphasis on dignity might come off as trite, or as respectability politics, and that’s true to an extent. However, if 2016 and its dreadful aftermath have taught us anything, it’s that we have a long, hard battle ahead of us, and we need to use all of the weapons in our arsenal. Maybe I’m naïve, but I like to think that the majority of Americans are decent folk, people who are willing to change and adapt. They’re not perfect, but with some notable exceptions they understand dignity and its importance, indeed its necessity, for emotional well-being.

Dignity, as a concept that (almost) everyone can sympathize with and embrace, may just give we Democrats a way out of the wilderness.

Queer Classics: The Agony and the Ecstasy of “Call Me By Your Name” (2017)

Warning. Spoilers for the film follow.

Call Me By Your Name opens with a series of snapshots of statues from antiquity, emblems of beauty, desire, and a world lost to the vicissitudes of time. About midway through the film, the main character Elio’s father refers to these statues, arguing that they dare us to desire, their faintly contorted forms contending with the perils of physicality.

In a similar way, Call Me By Your Name dares us to desire, to give ourselves up to the complicated, messy, infuriating yet delicious confusion of lust, love, and longing.

Set in the early 1980s in the north of Italy, the film follows young 17-year-old (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate student, as they contend with their burgeoning feelings for one another. Their friendship blossoms into an intense physical and emotional connection, before Oliver must return to the United States, leaving a heartbroken Elio behind.

In some ways, the film’s narrative reminds me more than a little of the tragic romance between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the youth Antinoös. It’s more than just the age difference–though that’s part of it. It’s about the aching beauty of youth, about the awareness that the passion that begins any relationship is doomed to cool in the fires of time. If you’ve ever read the heart-wrenching Memoirs of Hadrian, you’ll know what I mean.

The performances are…exquisite. There’s really no other word for it. Hammer has that sort of effortless male handsomeness that one associates with classic Hollywood, but it is his effortlessly masculine voice that truly stirs the loins. There’s just something deeply erotic about the richness of it, a deep purr that also reminds me of the best voices of classic Hollywood actors (I’m thinking in particular of Gregory Peck). I will say, though, that his character Oliver remains something of an enigma. We don’t really get to know him in the same way Elio,

For his part, Timothée Chalamet shines as Elio. He possesses the same sort of elusive beauty as the statues that his father so lovingly excavates. Several times, the camera catches him in profile, and I couldn’t help but notice that he bore a striking resemblance to those same ancient statues. Maybe it’s the turn of the nose, or perhaps it’s just the slightly elfin cast to his features. I’m not quite sure.

And, also like those statues, Chalamet manages to convey the gangly, tormented physicality of a teenage boy in hopeless love. There’s a certain anguish that Chalamet captures, both in his simultaneously graceful and awkward physical comportment as well as his ability to convey Elio’s uncertainty about his feelings for the golden-haired Oliver. The first half of the film sees the two of them existing in an uneasy tension, neither quite able to express openly the way they clearly feel about one another.

When they finally do consummate their affection, the camera is rather shy, not showing the details but leaving us in no doubt as to what is happening. In keeping the lovemaking away from the gaze, the film dares us to experience the erotic without the messy trappings of the prurient. The physically intimate relationship the two clearly share is conveyed in other, arguably more meaningful ways: through a gentle touch of a leg, the touching of one foot upon the other, a tender yet passionate kiss.

But, just as the statues of antiquity, for all their beauty, remain fragmented, beaten down and broken apart by the vicissitudes of time, so the romance between Elio and Oliver must contend with the fact that it will always be limited by their time together. Theirs is a connection doomed to flower and then instantly begin to fade, mirroring the exquisite fruits that so often appear on the table.

And that, to me, seems to be the film’s central interest. For as much as Elio is in the midst of his beautiful youth and as profound as this relationship with Oliver has been, time will inevitably wear away the hard edges of it. That romance, like all things, will fall victim to the vicissitudes of memory. And, for the film, it also falls victim to Oliver, who eventually departs, leaving a heartbroken Elio behind in Italy. When he calls his mother and asks her to come and get him, the heartbreak feels real and even now, a few days after I’ve seen the film, I still feel that gut-punch of the end of a romance.

Fortunately for Elio, his father (played by a scene-stealing Michael Stuhlbarg) is a man of infinite wit and wisdom. In a heart-warming (and wrenching) talk with his son, he reminds him that he shouldn’t crush the part of him that was hurt, in the hope that it will keep the pain away. Instead, he should remember the beautiful bond that he had with Oliver, recognizing that feeling is an essential part of what makes us human and what gives life its peculiar savor.

The film, like the ancient statuary with which it begins, attempts to capture an elusive, transient moment of summer. But of course, cinematic time waits for no one, and for all of the camera’s loving, lingering attention to the pleasures of the fleshly instant, it inevitably moves us forward. The summers of our life cannot be held, much as we might wish it were otherwise, and it is precisely because they are so transient that they pierce us with their intensity. We mourn the passing, even as we are in the midst of it. Call Me, more than perhaps any other film that I’ve recently seen, captures the fleeting nature of desire.

Call Me By Your Name is one of those extraordinary stories of queer love that stays with you. It’s not tragic, but it is bittersweet, and in that sense it ably captures the contradictions at the heart of so much queer love. While we have come a long way in terms of the societal acceptance of same-sex love, there are still many more mysteries to the queer heart, many of which don’t even have a name.

And yet still they call to our hearts.

World Building (13): The Anukathi

West of the continent of Aridikh (on which the Imperium, Korray, and Haranshar) are located, lies the great landmass known as Shumeru. This vast land is home to the people known as the Anukathi, who from time immemorial have haunted the imaginations of those living on the continent to the east.

There are many legends surrounding this mysterious people, but truth, as so often, is stranger than fiction. They are the progeny of renegade elohim who, when the various worlds were united as one, broke the law of the Name and lay with human women. When the One World was shattered by the cataclysmic clash between the Name and the Demiurge, the Anukathi were likewise scattered across dozens of worlds.

More often than not, they did not survive their encounters with their mortal cousins. It has been the good fortune of the Anukathi of this world that they have managed to maintain a presence on their continent and that the mortals who live there have largely been subservient to their wishes. As a result, they have been able to build a truly splendid and beautiful civilization, one that is the rival of any.

In large part, this is because they have been able to leverage the Art of Binding to reinforce their great architectural works with the daimons that provide the strength of aethyr, the purest and most powerful element. Given that they are, in essence, avowed enemies of the Name and all of their creations (including the daimons and the elohim), this should come as no surprise.

The Anukathi are tall and often slight of build, with coppery skin and black hair. Their eyes typically appear in some shade of green, though it is not unheard of for those in the purest bloodlines to have either brown or blue eyes. Though they are light, they are fearsome fighters, and before the establishment of the United Kingdom, they were prone to bloody wars between rival principalities and city-states.

There are roughly three castes in Anukathi society, with the priests at the top, the warriors and nobles in the middle, and the laborers and craftsmen at the bottom. The Anukathi are great admirers of tradition and stability, and thus this stratified society tends to not be very flexible. With very few exceptions, individuals are bound to stay within the caste into which they are born. While this is by nature restrictive, it means that, for several centuries, the Anukathi have enjoyed a particularly pronounced period of political and social flourishing.

They are ruled over by the High Queen Y’Narra, who rules from atop her zithurat. The other great houses of the Anukathi also remain ensconced in their zithurats, where they rule over their clients and over their districts. The Anukathi tend to be very urban-oriented, though there are numerous large estates scattered across the continent, most of which are in the hands of the great lords and landowners.

The High Queen is also the leader of the state (and only) religion, which worships the person of the Great Goddess, Ishatath, who is understood to be the font of all that is ordered, beautiful, and good in the material world. The Anukathi see the world beyond the flesh as one of frightening despair, and it is for this reason that they take every care not to succumb to wounds or fighting. Given that their elohim blood has gifted them with immortality, they are almost impervious to any kind of illness, though there is a possibility that they might be susceptible to diseases born from the continent from Aridikh. For this reason, and because of their innate distrust of mortals, any trading on their shores is strictly monitored, controlled, and disciplined.

Some native mortals can be found on the continent, though they occupy a largely subaltern position. However, the Anukathi are renowned for their sense of justice and fairness, and slavery as such is forbidden by their most sacred laws. Thus, almost every mortal is held in a form of serfdom. While they are technically free, their economic circumstances are such that they are bound to the land and to the lord.

As the events of the novel will demonstrate, there are deep currents at work in the land of the Anukathi, and it may be that their Queen has a greater destiny ahead of her than anyone thought possible.

Reading History: “The Last Tudor” (Philippa Gregory)

I’ve been reading Philippa Gregory’s books since around 2005, when I picked up The Other Boleyn Girl. I haven’t yet read all of then, but I’ve read enough to have a solid sense of her style and her interests and author, as well as her strengths and weaknesses as a writer of historical fiction.

Her most recent outing, The Last Tudor, puts Gregory’s puts all of that on display.

Broken into three parts, the book centers on the three Grey sisters: Jane, Katherine, and Mary. Jane, of course, has gone down in history as the Nine Days Queen, executed by Queen Mary as a result of her father’s foolish rebellion. Katherine, equally foolish, married a Seymour without first gaining the permission from the Queen, a crime also committed by her sister Mary, who marries a commoner and also finds herself imprisoned.

Jane, in keeping with the traditions of depicting her in historical fiction, emerges as something of a prig, convinced of her own wisdom, erudition, and piety. However, her self-assurance doesn’t keep her from being manipulated by others–notably her parents–into usurping the throne when her cousin Edward VI. Though frequently insufferable, Gregory does capture moments of genuine pathos with this quintessential Protestant martyr.

If only the same could be said of her younger sister Katherine. Though Katherine was surely a complicated and tragic character, in Gregory’s rather unsuitable hand she becomes an insufferable ninny, so swept up by her passion for the young Edward Seymour that she marries him without Queen Elizabeth’s permission, earning both of them imprisonment. As a character, she seems quite the dunce, especially as she moves from bad decision to bad decision. She can’t quite seem to wrap her head around why it might be that Elizabeth would see her as a threat, despite the fact that she constantly draws attention to the fact of her own superiority to her cousin.

It is Mary, ironically, who emerges as the most interesting and insightful character, though she also has the least to do. After her ill-considered marriage to Thomas Keyes, she is shuttled between various keepers. While her chapters are often witty and sardonic, the downside is that most of what she relates has to do with the travails of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. As a result, these chapters tend to drag.

All three sisters’ narrations are marred by one of Gregory’s increasingly prevalent tics: repetition. We endlessly hear about how one of the sisters might become the center of an effort to replace Elizabeth, how each of them is better than Elizabeth, how they all hate Elizabeth. I would probably have much more patience for Gregory’s consistent foibles if she didn’t have such a naked vendetta against Elizabeth I. Now, I’ll be the first to say that I’ve long been a fan of QE I, even though I recognize that she has a lot to answer for. Still, Gregory takes this to extremes, and she clearly believes that Elizabeth was responsible for the death of Robert Dudley’s wife Amy Robsart. Given that historians now agree that Elizabeth was most likely innocent, this is at best farfetched and at worst deliberately misleading.

It’s not surprising that the three Grey sisters would see their cousin the queen through their own perspective, but it does strain credulity that three members of the ruling dynasty would not be a little more canny about their life choices. Having been raised to be conscious of their royal connections through their grandmother Queen Mary, they surely would have realized that their marriages had consequences far beyond their personal happiness. What’s more, it’s quite frustrating to read them making these foolish choices, especially as, if they had been wiser and cannier about maneuvering through court politics, they might have seen their children on the throne rather than enduring years of grueling captivity.

In the last several Gregory novels, we hear incessantly about how infertile the Tudors are, how paranoid they are because of this, and how they will willingly punish (or kill) anyone who they perceive as a threat. While there is something to this, and while I am aware that Elizabeth could be quite malicious, Gregory’s lack of subtlety mars what might have been a nuanced exploration of the truly tragic fates of three interesting figures in the Tudor family.

I suppose my greatest frustration with this novel was the fact that the story could have been told better, either by Gregory or someone else. The author’s note suggests that she is moving on from the Tudor and I, for one, must reluctantly admit that this is certainly a good thing.

Film Review: “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” Reveals a Broken America

For quite a while after I watched Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, I couldn’t quite figure out how I felt about this bleak, scathing, deeply violent, and acidly funny film. It wasn’t until I was chatting with my partner about it, that it finally dawned on me. What was this movie about, really? Sure, it’s about a grief-stricken mother’s desire for justice for her murdered daughter, but to me there seemed more to it, some greater comment that the film was making (whether wittingly or unwittingly remains unclear).

It’s about the brokenness that’s slowly rotting away at the center of America.

To fully understand how I came to this conclusion, it’s important to both know what happens in the film and how it happens. Three Billboards details Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand’s) pursuit of justice for her daughter, who was raped, murdered, and burned. She particularly blames the police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who happens to be suffering from pancreatic cancer. Her crusade enrages officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a policeman who has already fallen under suspicion because of accusations that he tortured a black suspect in his custody. As this drama unfolds, we get a tortured, razor-sharp glance into the despair that seems to have set in in this small town in Missouri.

There’s something almost of a Greek tragedy about McDormand’s relentless desire to avenge her daughter. A modern-day Clytemnestra, her daughter’s brutal murder has forged her into a formidable weapon, one that has one destination that she is determined to reach no matter the cost. As capable as she is, however, she has her own prejudices, ones that, I would argue, are built into the privileged position she occupies as a white woman in Missouri. She throws out epithets with a careless abandon that are almost breathtaking in their effrontery, as when she torments Jason with the “n-word,” calls a fellow townsperson a midget (he’s played by Peter Dinklage, whose enormous talents are rather wasted in this role, alas), and she insults the dentist for his fatness. She’s a character so broken that she doesn’t even bother to hide her contempt for those who occupy a lower social strata than she does. The fact that she has black friends doesn’t keep her from using what is arguably the harshest racial slur there is when it suits her. And it also doesn’t keep her from being crude toward her only suitor in the film, whom she casually dismisses when it suits her and uses him in other cases.

Indeed, Ebbing is a town full of broken people. The houses cling to the hills, and the people are beaten down. To some extent, this film has something distinctly noir-ish about it, the sense that there really is no right or wrong, just a bunch of sad folks shuffling through life trying to grab what little bits of meaning they can. For Mildred this is seeking her daughter’s killer, for Willoughby it’s trying to find the killer and enjoy the last bit of time has with his family before his cancer takes him, and for Jason…well, I guess it takes the form of his desire to be a good cop. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

The film takes great pains to show how truly pathetic Jason is–a 40-something man who lives with his worn-out mother, whose only calling has been as a policeman. Rockwell imbues Jason with a certain ignorant belligerence, the sort of guy who got along well enough in high school but pretty much knew that he wasn’t going to ever leave his hometown. He’s fiercely loyal to his police chief, but I for one found him to be the most infuriating type of character. The film tries to grant him some sort of nobility, but I was left unconvinced.

Harrelson, however, does do a fine job portraying Bill, bringing his characteristic charm. I’ve always been a fan of the sort of careless charisma that Harrelson seems to exude. He’s crude, yes, but also intensely loving and, yes, noble. Of all the characters, he is perhaps the most likable, but he too is broken, his body inevitably failing him. The fact that he cannot solve the film’s central case renders his life tragic.

Three Billboards does possess a certain beauty to it, though, and it contains a number of scenes showing the rugged beauty of the landscape. As I was watching, I kept feeling the unsettling tug of familiarity. These could be people that I had known and grown up with. Part of this, I suspect, stems from the fact that the film was shot in the Appalachian parts of North Carolina, which bear more than a passing resemblance to my own home of West Virginia. Perhaps that’s why I felt (and still feel) a profound ambivalence about the film.

As I think about it, I continue to be perplexed by the film’s seeming agnosticism regarding Jason’s torturing of a black man in police custody. The film clearly has a fondness for even its most reprehensible characters–the redemptive arc it grants to Jason is particularly galling, especially in this political climate–and this leaves a distinctly bitter taste in my mouth.

If the film succeeds at anything, though, it is in showing us the bleak despair that has settled like a miasma into the heart of American consciousness. What we are supposed to do with that realization, however, remains unclear.

So About Tom Bombadil

In the vast universe of Tolkien fandom, there is perhaps no figure more polarizing than Tom Bombadil (though perhaps Peter Jackson is up there, too). Some Tolkien fans swear by this character, while others loath him. When it quickly became clear that he was not going to make an appearance in Jackson’s films, there was a similarly divided response. Some felt that this was a deep betrayal of an essential component of Tolkien’s vision, while others breathed a welcome sigh of relief. I was of the latter mind.

I’ll be the first to admit that for a long time I was decidedly not a fan of Mr. Bombadil. He was too foolish and silly, too full of sing-song and rhyme, to be pleasing to me. He just seemed so out-of-step with the other parts of the novel that I personally found infinitely more interesting. Try as I might, I just could not find the charm in the ridiculous. I read through these sections, but they always felt like a tedious hurdle to jump over, the one separating the quaint and enjoyable sections dealing with the Shire from when things got good starting with the incidents at Bree.

Through the years, though, I’ve come to really appreciate this interlude of the novel. Sure, it doesn’t have the soaring height of operatic grandeur that we see in the sequences, but it does have some truly sinister bits. Who does not feel a faint thrill of terror at the power of Old Man Willow, whose heart is rotten but whose sway over the Old Forest is unparalleled? Who doesn’t feel a faint chill upon seeing the barrows rearing above Tom’s house, knowing that there are wights living there?

On this most recent reading of the novel, however, it is the passages detailing the homely virtues of Tom’s house that provided me the most pleasure as a reader. Tolkien was an absolute master of creating atmosphere, of showing us how particular spaces and places were more than just settings. Places like the House of Tom Bombadil represent an entire way of life, an ethos that saturates every aspect of it. In this case, it is an oasis in a world grown increasingly chaotic. However, it is an oasis that is itself dangerous, a place that operates according to its own rules.

And it is precisely those own rules, which Tom alone seems to have mastered, that really sets this part of the novel apart. Bombadil remains an enigma to even the most devout and meticulous of Tolkien fans, and I for one think it’s better that we remain in the dark about whether he is one of the Maiar, or whether he is something else altogether. To some extent, Bombadil seems to exist outside of history. The events of the world outside–that have such dramatic, larger-scale historical consequences–don’t really seem to affect him in any meaningful way (recall that the Ring has no effect on him).

This is not to say that this sequence isn’t important in terms of history; far from it. After all, this does include the sequence in which Tom relates to the gathered hobbits the glimmers of the history of the North that the Hobbits, in their blissful ignorance, have largely forgotten. Though the reader doesn’t know it at this point, these are the rival kingdoms that emerged after the splintering of Arnor, as well as the rise of the Witch-king. There is something hauntingly beautiful about these tales, rendered all the more so by their inscrutability. They are part of the vast skein that underlies this particular thread in the pattern of Tolkien’s world.

And, of course, I would be remiss without mentioning the fair Goldberry. Unlike the other two prominent women in this universe–Galadriel and Éowyn–we don’t really learn much about her. She does, however, fit nicely into the way that Tolkien tended to view women, with her golden hair and her inscrutability. One gets the sense, though, that there is a great power that she, like Tom, keeps carefully concealed. Again, though, I see this as one of the things that makes her such a compelling character, and I am grateful that Tolkien doesn’t tell us more than he absolutely needs to.

So, I have to admit, I’ve become quite fond of Tom Bombadil. Comforting and enigmatic, powerful yet aloof, he remains one of Tolkien’s most fascinating creations.

And that is saying quite a lot, indeed.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Auntie Mame” (1958)

I miss many things about classic Hollywood, but one of the greatest casualties was the opening credit sequence. In fine classic Hollywood style, the opening to Auntie Mame is a riot of colors, designs, and patterns, a harbinger of the flamboyant personality embodied by Mame herself.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

When his father unexpectedly dies, Patrick is sent to live with his father’s eccentric, larger-than-life sister Mame (Rosalind Russell). Mame is full of wit, vivacity, and joy, swanning about New York with a social group as eclectic and flamboyant as she is. When the Great Depression hits, she manages to snare a Southern gentleman as a husband (Forrest Tucker), go on a world-wide tour, and even begin penning her autobiography. Unfortunately, her exuberant lifestyle clashes with Patrick’s upper-class aspirations. However, through it all she remains true to herself and in so doing forces Patrick to be true to himself as well.

From her very first appearance, Russell is nothing less than divine as Mame. With her glaring orange outfit, her rat-a-tat-tat, rapid-fire delivery, and distinctively husky voice, she is the embodiment of flamboyant femininity. She owns who she is, and she feels no shame about it. Her honesty is bracing but refreshing, especially compared to the stuffy, hypocritical, and disgustingly fake affect of Patrick’s soon-to-be-laws, who are the most loathsome type of New England WASP.

Beneath all of her exuberance, Mame has the proverbial heart of gold. Unlike his father, who treated Patrick with what amounts to contempt, Mame clearly has a profound fondness for her nephew. What’s more, she treats him as an adult rather than a child, and she bears him an affection deeper, richer, and more genuine than she has had for any of her other “hobbies.” This obviously extends into her fervent, and accurate dislike, of Patrick’s first love interest, and she accurately sees that this woman will lead Patrick into unhappiness.

Mame is fiercely protective of Patrick, and she gives him the chance to be loved for who he is rather than what his father (and his father’s patriarchal surrogate, Mr. Babcock) want him to be. Whereas they want to forge him into the same sort of frigid, buttoned-up man that they are (and they threaten to succeed), she wants nothing more than his happiness, even if that means telling him unpleasant truth that he doesn’t want to hear. With her profound ability to cut through the bullshit that bourgeois culture uses to obfuscate its own inner rottenness, Mame also exposes the hypocrisy of postwar American culture as a whole.

I’ve always thought that there was something deliciously queer about the Mame story and its various iterations. In this film, that queerness stems in part from Russell herself, who commands the screen with every biting remark and scathing witticism. She resists the dominant ideology that says that she should behave as an appropriate woman, and this liberates both herself and Patrick from the stuffy, irritatingly hetero pretensions of everyone else (including and especially his potential in-laws).

Mame’s queerness is particularly evident during the dinner party that she throws for the Upsons, in which her unruly energies–the flaming (literally) drinks, the pickled rattlesnake, the presence of her unmarried-and-pregnant secretary–are on full display. Unlike Patrick, who has internalized the shame of America’s upper classes, Mame has embraced her chosen family, and she reminds him of what he risks giving up if he joins with the Upsons, with their annoying accents, their restricted homes, and their too-sweet cocktails (nauseatingly sweetened with honey). The film makes it quite clear who has the right of it in this situation. Mame promises Patrick a life lived on his own terms, with a merry band of misfits, all of whom are united in their love of life.

Just as importantly, the queerness emerges in the film’s aesthetic, in the brash Technicolor that seems to exist for no other reason than existence. Blue is a particularly prominent shade, one that appears in both the décor of Mame’s magnificent home and in those moments when the screen fades, leaving Mame’s face saturated with blue. To my eyes, the blue conveys a sweet sort of melancholy so sharply at odds with the exuberant joy on evidence throughout the rest of the film. The film is sweet, but also a little sad, and it’s in the blending of those two sentiments that it really excels.

Auntie Mame is the very best sort of film that classic Hollywood can produce. Hilarious, touching, and gorgeously shot, it’s films like this that make me glad I watch these old movies. They help us to see that, even in a seemingly repressive and conformist culture like the 1950s, there was always the possibility of resistance, no matter how subtle it might seem. Life, as Mame says, is a banquet.

To put it bluntly, it’s a damn fine film.