26 August 2011

True Grit and Winter's Bone

Not-quite a movie review:


I have certain issues with the trends in movies. On one hand, it’s nice that girls get to be part of the action these days, and aren’t always mere damsels in distress or MacGuffins* for the heroes. But on the other hand, I don’t always agree with or like the way this phenomenon is executed. Most of the time the women are no less objectified than they were when they were just dames to be rescued. Moreover, they are given unrealistic abilities that border on super-powers (or just literal super-powers) that make their heroism ring a little false. This is done for men and for women, but for some reason people think that when women are made unrealistically invincible it is 'empowering.' And I'm just not convinced that's accurate.


(*MacGuffin is a term used to describe an item that by its existence, or it’s having been stolen or activated, drives the plot-line. In poorly constructed stories it is usually a completely interchangeable item and you could absolutely get away with calling it “That thing” throughout the entire movie/book. “We must rescue the thing!” or “If we do not retrieve the thing, the world will end!”)

A Small Rant

So you have this recent rash of movies wherein a sexy lady—or a small girl, because that’s popular too—becomes the center of all the punching, kicking and bullet rain. On one hand, Bruce Willis’ John McClane (of Die Hard) is almost as unlikely a beast as one of Angelina Jolie’s slinky, cherry-lipped fighter-chicks. But there is a part of me that gets much more irritated when one of her lanky arms lands as hard a hit as one of Willis’ muscly ones. Ladies and gentleman, just because they added in a wince-inducing sound for the landing of the punch, does not mean that it would really land that way. In fact, I have this vague feeling that she would break her wrist.

Now, I’m aware that these types of movies do not purport to be realistic. I get that. So if Willis’ John McClane can escape a high-rise roof explosion by tying a fire-hose around his waist, to then shoot through a 35th story window, and make it in JUST IN TIME…why should I criticize the unlikelihood of tooth-pick sized girls throwing knock-out punches then striking a pretty pose?




Well, I’ll admit, one’s a fantasy same as the other. The latter is just THAT MUCH MORE unrealistic, while purporting to be just as likely, and I guess it begins to broach my limits for suspension of disbelief. Or perhaps it’s because, while I do not have experience with explosion-fire-hose-roof-rappelling-glass-shooting escapades, I do have experience with martial arts matches with guys. I’ve done Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and MCMAP (Marine Corps Marital Arts Program) with men—guys my size and guys bigger than me—and I’m telling you THE MOVIES LIE even more than they thought you did. I have an affinity for punching things, mind you. I’ve punched my knuckles bloody on a 75 ILB bag, and that’s half (or less than half) the weight of an average guy—and much softer. And it wasn’t hitting me back or anything.

So I know I can carry a guy who weighs more than me (to a point). But not as fast as he can. Not that that isn’t frustrating. But things can be frustrating and true at the same time. I am not that stellar a fighter, by the way, so I have not beaten a guy bigger than me in a straight match. Or even in a crooked match, frankly. I have, however, beaten girls bigger than me on occasion, and (once) a guy my size.

Just trying to put it into perspective here. I like a little more realism in my action movies than that. Just a leetle more. Besides you’re gonna have to do more than give her some pretty trickle of blood down her cheek to make me believe that she got beat up.


On to the real subject of the day, Movies That Got It Right:


Not so very long ago I watched two films—True Grit and Winter’s Bone—in rather close succession and I was impressed with both for the same reasons, despite each film having a very different tone, because they have similar elements, themes and strengths. The main similarity is that they have realistic, admirable female leads. Action films with female leads tend to make me roll my eyes. These did no such thing. I don’t want to review the movies so much as I want to comment on the viability of the characters they present as role models. Brief summaries for each ought to do (no spoilers).

True Grit: A remake of an old John Wayne Western in which a young girl, Mattie, sets out to avenge her father’s murder. She hires a hard, old wastrel of a Marshall to help her accomplish the task, claiming she needs someone with “True Grit.” They reluctantly team up with a Texas Ranger who is searching for the same criminal and though both the Ranger and the Marshall try to get rid of Mattie, she is the one with true grit, and she accompanies them. Given the era (late 1800’s, I think) this would have been quite bold and surprising.




Winter’s Bone: Set in modern day. The protagonist, Ree, lives in a poor rural area in the Ozarks and takes care of her two younger siblings due to her father’s absence and her mother’s incapacity. Drugs in general and meth in particular constitute a huge issue in the area—nearly everyone participates in one or more of the following: the manufacture, sale, distribution or use of meth. This includes Ree’s Dad, who is due to show up for a court date, but who has disappeared. Unless he is found, Ree’s family’s house will be handed over due to it being part of her father’s bail bond. The film follows her as she tries to either find her Dad alive, or prove that he is dead, so as to save her family’s home.




Two Sides of the Same Coin:

True Grit has comedic moments here and there and a milder take on a rather serious subject matter. Winter’s Bone is the more harsh—the darker—of the two films. Yet both take their young protagonists very seriously, and treat their individual circumstances with an even hand.

Additonally both films:

1. Are realistic in how they approach certain things, such as disparity in strength, social codes and local culture.

2. Deftly handle linguistic nuances: the rural idioms of the Ozarks in Winter’s Bone, and the westernness and almost jarring absence of contractions in True Grit.

3. Showcase a deep, driving love of family. Either to avenge the dead, or protect the living.

4. Have Protagonists that practically any young women could look at and say “I hope to God that I would be as strong and determined as she in such a circumstance.”

5. Have more or less incapacitated mothers, and fathers that are no longer in the picture (even though they drive the picture).

6. Male “mentors” who are less than moral, and less than worthy, but remain important to the protagonists.

7. Showcase both necessary flouting and manipulative/pragmatic utilization of local rule-of-law.

8. Pay attention to practical details of daily life and survival under harsh circumstances.
                                                                                     

Keeping up Appearances:

Regarding the gorgeous, well-dressed fighter-girl-type…you have NOTHING on the ladies depicted in these films.

These young women, though both quite beautiful in their own right, are kept somewhat plain for the roles they play. Steinfeld in True Grit has her hair in thick braided pig-tails—no foolishly flowing hair here—and she spends essentially the entire movie dwarfed inside a thick winter coat. Granted, she is quite a young actress still, so trying to make her sexy would have probably just been awkward. However people have tried it on 11-14 year olds in movies before. Anyhow, Lawrence of Winter’s Bone is also dressed in thick warming layers throughout the entire movie and though her hair is left down, it comes off as though it’s because she cannot be bothered to mess with it: more important things are happening than her hair. It even looks a little stringy and untended here and there.

Mattie:


And Ree:



Why am I emphasizing their respective appearances? I’m pointing it out because blessedly little fuss about it is made by comparison to movies like The Matrix, where the girl is tough and all—but she’s constantly in tight-fitted clothing in case people get bored of watching her be tough. (Don't get me wrong. I like that movie--the first one, that is--and I like that character.)


In True Grit and Winter's Bone, these girls are characters, not objects, and that is the essential reason I’m calling attention to their lack of glamour. Now, you shouldn’t have to dress a girl down to show her strength of spirit, but in the case of these films, I think it served well because it perfectly fit the scenarios in which they found themselves. And I suspect that to be the case for such circumstances broadly speaking. I hesitate to post pictures from boot camp or deployment to prove my point, but I found one that will suit:




See those gams? Yup that's me. Bling in the boots, helicopter-grease-stains on the cammies and eva’thing. Doing gritty work normally doesn't  permit you to wear fancy stuff.


Now, I read an article by an on-line e-zine writer, who guiltily noted that he wasn’t sure he was being any less sexist by cheering the onslaught of super-powered, tough chicks in movies and video games. Because they were all gorgeous, coifed, sexy, leather-clad tough chicks, so there was no loss of the original purpose (back in the day of damsels-in-distress): to look “hot.” (I’m generally not a fan of the use of that word. It implies a complete disassociation of person from body and is, therefore, not a compliment unless that person knows you really well and their regard for you as a person is long-since established. It is not a compliment in passing or new acquaintance. I have a tendency to chastise my little brothers should they be so foolish as to use that word about a girl they barely know in my presence. The youngest thought me silly.  I think he rolled his eyes. He's good with the ladies, so this is as yet unresolved.)


Regarding Violence:


Perhaps this is a silly reason to get irritated, but nevertheless I do get irritated when someone in the movies gets beat up and it doesn’t seem to really affect them at all—or it doesn’t really mar their appearance in a realistic way. It seems silly to me that they should continue to look fine, just with some delicate drops of blood on their face. What about bruising and swelling? Well Winter’s Bone remedies that nonsense by making its protagonists injuries painfully realistic.


(This is much the milder of the photos)

In True Grit, when Mattie first shoots a gun, it knocks her back, as it very likely would. These young women are taking on daunting tasks, but not blithely. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work out as planned. Mattie knows when to fight, when to yell for help, when to sit back and wait for the right moment...and when to shoot.





The Best Role Models are Those That Can Exist in Real Life:

The reason I’m making all this fuss over these films and over their depiction of young women is because it stands in contrast to a lot of the other stuff out there. Much like many irritating aspects of post-modern feminism, films and novels often try to portray strong women by falsifying them, their circumstances or their capabilities.

I believe that a New York cop could be a good shot and could throw a good punch, but I doubt he could jump onto and then off of a moving fighter jet (Die Hard 4: greatest, silliest scene). I believe that a young woman can take a brutal beating and recover, refusing to give up on protecting her family and their home, but if you make her knock out a guy with her pinky she becomes just as silly that fighter-jet scene. And if over-the-top action-thriller is what you’re going for, that’s fine.

But if you’re trying to show a strong person facing hardship—someone to respect and admire—and you have the gall to call them a role model for young women—it’s best to show them at a real-life level of strength.

So I point to these two films as examples of strength of character, untainted by fantasy, wish-fulfillment or Computer Generated Images. The virtues and gritty determination shown by these characters is not out of reach. It's not something to day-dream about, but something to truly have.


22 August 2011

A Review: Jephte's Daughter, by Naomi Ragen

Naomi Ragen’s novel, Jephte’s daughter, is about a young Hassidic (Jewish ultra-orthodox) girl who is raised in the United States, and is arranged to marry a young Hassidic scholar in Jerusalem. She must leave everything she knows and loves to marry a man she has only just met. It sounds like a traditional set-up for—I don’t know—a romance novel or some such. (It’s an arranged marriage!!! But will it become true love?!? No.)

But this is not a romance novel (though there are some slightly extraneous romantic elements towards the end) and I suspect this isn’t the best way to introduce this novel, at any rate.



The title of this novel is derived from a story in the book of Judges. Jephte (Spelled Jephthah in my translation) makes a horrifying vow to God, that he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house if he is granted victory in battle. He is granted victory. His daughter is the first sight for his eyes as he approaches home. And he is duty bound to sacrifice her. She accepts her fate and asks only for time to mourn that she will die a virgin.

The parallels between the story of Jephte’s daughter and the protagonist of this novel—Batsheva Ha-Levi—are pretty explicitly drawn so I don’t think I’ll be ruining anything for potential readers by expounding upon that parallel.

Batsheva has been raised in wealth and relative isolation, for there are not many Hassidic Jews in the area of California where she lives and where her father is a very successful businessman. Batsheva is her parents’ only child and as such, she is cherished and spoiled. She has an outside tutor (a young gentile college student by the name of Elizabeth) who has introduced her to the sorts of literature that the average Hassidic girl would never see from a mile off (Women in Love and Lady Chatterly’s Lover have the most frequent mention.)

Batsheva is beautiful. She is happy. She is “ill-acquainted with the ways of the world”. She is full of life and she loves God.  She does not lament much the confines of her religious life—firstly because she knows nothing else, and secondly because her confines are few by comparison to others of her sect. She has a yearning and passionate and artistic mind. She struggles, she questions, but she always comes back to her center of faith in God.


        “She loved those instances in the Bible where people took flying leaps of faith headlong into the fearsome unknown and God was always there, like a good father.” (Pg 23)

          “…the more she learned to admire the skilled hand, the wise eye of the artists and photographers she loved, the more she began to perceive the world as a giant canvas and God as the greatest artist of all. So that later, when she finally learned about Darwin, the idea was as absurd and incomprehensible to her as the suggestion that the Mona Lisa had come about because a few cans of paint had accidentally tipped over and dripped their colors onto a chance canvas” (Pg 28)

She is also very much only 18 years old at the beginning of the novel, and becoming increasingly curious about things such as sex, intimacy and romantic love.


       “But God had looked at all of this, His ideas, His wonderful sense of color and design put into action and had said merely that it was good. Not great. Not fantastic. Just good. But when he had looked at man and woman together, He had said it was “very good.” So you could just imagine.” (Pg 35)

But Batsheva’s father, Abraham Ha-Levi, feels guilty. He is the direct descendant of a famous line of Hassidic Rabbis, but instead of devoting himself to the Talmud and a life of poverty, he thinks he has been too perfunctory about his Hassidism and has made an awful lot of money.

Herein lies the sacrifice. In order to devote to God what he feels he must, Batsheva’s father seeks out a husband—the aforementioned Hassidic scholar in Jerusalem—who will reestablish with Batsheva the famous Ha-Levi line. He figures Batsheva will marry this man, they will have great scholars for children, and Batsheva’s father will compensate for his youthful rebellion and his lack of study. He sacrifices her to a very different life than she has known—and to a man she does not know—to ease his guilt.

I should mention that Naomi Ragen’s inspiration for this novel was the instance of a real life Hassidic woman who committed a homicide-suicide (she took her small child with her). Ragen wished to investigate the experiences and emotional state of someone who would do such a horrible thing.

So, be warned. Her marriage is not a good one. And this brings me to one of the most well-executed aspects of this story: Isaac Harshen. He is the husband and, without giving away too much, he is the cause of Batsheva’s emotional and psychological distress. He is essentially the villain of the piece.

But here is where I must truly commend Ragen. Even though I knew that Isaac would be the source of trouble at the out-set of the novel, I still hoped he would mend, hoped he would grow, saw chances for redemption and even understood (did not agree with, but could comprehend) many of his reactions. He starts out as a young, intelligent, handsome man who also knows very little of the world.

But he knows much of his world. In his community in Jerusalem he is well-thought-of and pious and shrewd. He knows, ultimately, how to wield his world against Batsheva.

Ragen does not make Isaac sympathetic in the strictest sense—he grows blatantly cruel—but she makes solid sense of the progression of his thoughts and behaviors. He’s not just unkind because the story needed him to be. You can see exactly how he got that way and why he chooses as he does. You can see it happening with chilling realism right before your eyes. When she describes the “hardening of his heart,” so to speak, towards Batsheva you can (or at least I can) recognize that same mode of thought in some past instance in my life. You know, that time you had both remorse and contempt as options and you saw some faint justification for the contempt and you chose it. Or the decision to capitalize on a miscommunication or on semantics to your own benefit. I’ve known myself to sometimes do the things the Isaac does, and that is scary…and an important truth to recognize—that we have that in ourselves.

From the point of Batsheva’s marriage, the story takes many a twist and turn (and indeed does some things I did not anticipate) and it consists of both good prose and a compelling story. I had to remind myself to look up at the subway stops to make sure I didn’t miss mine while I was reading this, I was so engrossed.

The book has rotating perspectives, giving liberty to drop into postitively anyone’s mind at any time, which I enjoyed. I don’t always like being restricted to one mind for hundreds of pages. It’s a personal preference. I have my own mind to deal with, don’t I? Plus it makes the characters more real, rather than just passing shadows viewed through a young girl’s eyes.

Therefore I would also like to mention a few of the other significant characters, some of whose roles in the story are best left undiscussed if you intend to read this.

Elizabeth:
The aforementioned gentile tutor. She is not much older than Batsheva, but wiser in the ways of the world—at least, in theory. Sadly she makes all the mistakes a girl in her position (young, smart, beautiful, passionate) ought not to make. There is a sub-plot of her involvement with a professor, but it is not superfluous. It is present to show-case the fact that, for all her freedom by comparison to Batsheva and other Hassids, she is still suffering and the choices she makes do not necessarily bring her happiness. She becomes disgusted with herself, and disillusioned with her lover.

Ultimately Elizabeth is a sweetheart, but never as riveting a character as Batsheva because she doesn’t seem to believe in anything. She’s just ‘awful nice.’ She is treated well by the narrative, but in a novel that acknowledges the centrality of God, that just doesn’t cut it. She’s an aimless sweetheart.

Professor MacLeish:
Pretty much a suave, pretentious jerk. His characterization is not as deep as Isaac Harshen’s, but it doesn’t need to be. He’s pretty peripheral. His primary purpose in the story is to provide a parallel to Isaac. To show that, just as Isaac adheres to the rituals and rules of his faith yet truly has no faith, Professor MacLeish adheres to the rhetoric and philosophies of his field of study, but has grown completely disillusioned with it. He carries on with the tune having lost the beat and any semblance of purpose.

David:
My absolute favorite section of the story consists of David’s struggle with God. David is preparing for priesthood in the Catholic church (a priest? What? I thought we were doing this story in a Hassidic neighborhood in Jerusalem! How did we get to a British Priest-in-training? Don’t worry about it.) He is struggling for his faith, struggling against God and ends up going on a trip to Israel to study the Bible and figure things out.

His struggle culminates in, perhaps, the most compelling passage in the whole book.
Note: Jacob is my favorite character in the Bible. The one with whom I can most relate. The passage shows David hiking out to the Desert and having it out with God—wrestling for His blessing. Even though I don’t agree with every single one of this character’s conclusions at the culmination of this scene, it is still very powerful and his story and struggles resonated with me in a way I cannot quite describe.

And The Rest:
There are some interesting arguments presented throughout the latter portion of the book, particularly interesting for someone familiar with both Judaism and Christianity. For instance, many Christians struggle with God’s wrath and the harshness in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) while finding Jesus’ message of love and faith a little easier to grasp (if not easy to live). A lot of people see the Old Testament and the New as the "wounding then healing" aspects of God, respectively.

Yet in this novel the opposite perspective is introduced, which I found interesting and ironic in light of the aforementioned:


       “Even “Love they neighbor as thyself,” that which he had always believed the most Christian of ideas, that, too, was written plainly in the Hebrew texts given to Moses. In many ways, its words seemed to bring him closer to the goodness and holiness he had always searched for than the harsh words of the new..., “Think not I have come to bring peace. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Pg 375)

Curiously, though Christian myself, I have always had an easier time breathing in the Old Testament than the new, for various reasons. I believe both are the word of God, but the latter is sometimes much harder for me to grasp. I just think it interesting to note, that some things that are ‘the easy part’ for some, are ‘the hard part’ for others. I’m also glad that the text pointed out some important things that Christians often forget:


        “He had been taught, had he not, that Jesus said, “I come not to change the Law, but to strengthen and verify it.” But it had never occurred to him, never seemed important to him, that Jesus himself came of Jewish parents, and the law he spoke of was the same law of the Jews.” (Pg. 375)

Vital information, if you ask me.

Anyhow, the conclusion of the story actually appeals to my affinity for blood-ties, although an opposite experience than that of a certain converting character can be found in real life in the form of Lauren Winner who wrote about her conversion from Orthodox Judaism (to which she originally converted from Reform Synagogue-going childhood.) to Christianity.  Her book, "Girl Meets God" is also highly recommended.



Conclusion:

I like that this is written about religion from the perspective of one who actually understands it, yet not for the religious shelves. Ragen intends a critique of many aspects of the Hassidic lifestyle, but she does not explicate hatefully. Nor does she give up on it all. Batsheva loves God. She believes in Him. She’s not written as a caricature of a religious person, which is rare when encountering a character found on, say, a shelf marked something other than religious fiction. That love and belief drips off the pages in a way that speaks to those who understand the language of faith. Since I don’t generally read stuff from the “Religious/Christian fiction” shelf I’ve been pretty hard up to find fiction that portray people of faith as anything but caricatures, nut-jobs or plot-devices. I intend to read many more Naomi Ragen books.




18 August 2011

Must Leave, Don't Want to Go

A film I watched recently—a film neither bad nor fantastic, and not the subject of the day in any case—in its best moments called to mind the poem “The South” by Langston Hughes. And once that poem was on my mind I could not get it off, so here it is.


The lazy, laughing South
With blood on its mouth.
The sunny-faced South,
            Beast strong,
            Idiot-brained.
The child-minded South
Scratching in the dead fire’s ashes
For a Negro’s bones.
            Cotton and the moon,
            Warmth, earth, warmth,
            The sky, the sun, the stars
            The magnolia-scented South.
Beautiful, like a woman,
Seductive as a dark-eyed whore,
            Passionate, cruel,
            Honey-lipped, syphilitic—
            That is the South.
And I, who am black, would love her
But she spits in my face.
And I, who am black,
Would give her many rare gifts
But she turns her back upon me.
            So now I seek the North—
            The cold-faced North,
            For she, they say,
            Is a kinder mistress,
And in her house my children
May escape the spell of the South.

This poem was first published in the 1920’s and, while I think it a beautiful poem in context, I think it so outside of context as well. There is a certain theme here that doesn’t really have anything to do with the North or South of Hughes’ day…nor necessarily with race.

It’s to do with home or that one place (or even that one person). It’s the place that raised you or fostered you, and it flows in your veins. The good, bad and ugly of it. Not everyone is going to have so contentious a relationship with a given place as that described in “The South”, but many do and it’s a heart-breaking thing.

The imagery Hughes provides puts into the mind’s eye a picture of a woman—a provocatively alluring woman—shamelessly scorning a man who would do almost anything for her. It’s sad enough when put in such finite, personal terms. But if that woman is a place? A city? A country? A way of life?

It’s a maddening push-and-pull as in the song Mehendi Rachi: “Though I’d love to leave some day, I dare not ever go”...though perhaps the other way around: though I’d love to stay someday, I dare not, I must go.

(And, by the by, it’s not entirely unlike Jane Eyre, who was fiercely tied to Mr. Rochester—and he to her—but she had to leave him first because he would have had her stay as a paramour rather than as a wife. And that would have been wrong and demeaning to her. Satisfying at once, and damaging in the long run.)

The circumstance the poem most reminded me of, though? That of Iraq, oddly enough.

Iraq is a place with beauty and history and roots and violence and prejudice. It is often called Bilad Al-rafidayn: The land of two rivers. Or Wadi Al-rafidayn (valley of two rivers, sometimes simply translated “Mesopotamia”.) These two rivers are the famous Tigris and Euphrates.

However there is a saying—common enough to have become the title of a book, even—that Iraq is the land of three rivers. There are two versions of what this saying means: Some claim the third river is blood. Others claim it is tears. They say this because the history of violence in Iraq is much longer and more complicated than our witness of the past decade.

And yet Iraq can make itself loved in spite of it all. When Iraqi poet Shawqi Abd Al-Amir catalogued a visit to his native country in 2007 he mentioned it’s allurement, despite his long absence.

(translations mine, from original)



None of us had dared to talk or suggest an outing, but the sun of Baghdad, the relaxation of Friday, and my arrival from Beirut all, in silence, called us to go out on this sort of tour, but we all know the dangers hidden behind such an endeavor.”

And, later, he makes note of people spiting the state of chaos in which they live. By living.

“The baffling thing is that when you are coming in from abroad—coming from the channels of television screens by which you only see the place bloodstained with its people, and blackened in appearance and imagery—when you enter the street and see how people are living and how they engage in their lives and daily work schedules, you almost forget. You forget all you’ve seen and you go down to the coffee shop and sit just like everyone else sits, as though nothing ever happened. This is precisely how life is more infectious than death.”

…and it is how the blood-ties remain in spite of everything. And why Langston Hughes wrote that he would love the South and give her gifts though she was passionate and cruel. And it’s why the ending of the poem is so painful. It doesn’t sound like a joyful flight from misery. It sounds like the heavy-hearted pulling away from a dangerous loved one. I wonder and wish if he could have—or should have—stayed and tried again to wipe the blood off her mouth.

Hard to love a place that might kill you.


16 August 2011

Jane Eyre(s)

Thank you Charlotte Bronte for writing a book that has been rendered so many times and in so many ways, that I can weigh the versions as I am about to.

Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books. I have read it a few times and it’s the sort of book that, while reading, I feel compelled to pause as I stumble across stunning sentences and exclaim about it to anyone in my vicinity. I may or may not want to read passages out loud to unsuspecting friends and family members. Over the phone, if necessary. It’s also one of those books that I have an occasional craving for, and that craving has recently been reinstated since watching both the 1996 (Zeffirelli) and the 2011 (Fukunaga) versions of Jane Eyre—both because each version has its own intriguing interpretation of this story I love, and because it reminds me of the things remaining that have not (or cannot) be translated to screen.

So as not to assume too much, a brief summary of the tale: Jane Eyre is a girl, cast off ungraciously by her relatives into a girl’s school. She is brought up under austere conditions and, at a tender age, takes a position as a governess for a young French girl in a large lonely manor. The master of this manor is the difficult and brooding Mr. Rochester (perhaps the very embodiment of the archetype) and the story is primarily about the fascinating interactions between the two—excepting a slight interlude which I shall refer to as “the St. Rivers part” during which Jane has fled the manor and Mr. Rochester and considers a different life.

The 2011 version starts at the above mentioned St. John Rivers house (in a-linear fashion) which—I must confess—is my least favorite part of the book. Frankly, I skip it every time I read Jane Eyre. Can I still call it one of my favorite books when I always skip several chapters of it? I don’t know. It’s probably a bad habit having been formed by reading it first as a teenager who simply had no interest in parts of the book that didn’t include interactions between Jane and Mr. Rochester.

I read many glowing reviews of this new version, which encouraged me, because I was suspicious of the two principle actors being rather too pretty and handsome for the respective roles of Jane and Mr. Rochester. Neither are supposed to be physically attractive—except to each other of course. Both, however, must be fascinating.

Sufficed to say that, while I wanted to love this movie, I came in with suspicions. And during the first few scenes I found many of them confirmed. The scene with Jane fleeing in the rain and stumbling all over herself seemed a little melodramatic to me. I actually half-liked St. John Rivers, which I never have, and I was still a little distraught over Jane’s appearance.

THE VARIOUS JANES
I’m normally not one to notice hair and clothes. I’m a dunce with such things. But for some reason the exact tint of Mia Wasikowska’s hair in the 2011 rendition of Jane Eyre bothered me. For all I know it’s the actress’ natural hair-color, but it was distracting at first. It didn’t help that I’ve always pictured Jane as dark haired, and this precise color of dull bronze seemed half-bizarre. In any case, the filmmakers did their very best to make Wasikowska look un-beautiful, when she is, of course, beautiful. She has young, dainty features. But I'll admit she did look almost homely every now and then.

Here is an example of her looking not at all homely:



And here is an example of her 1996 film counterpart, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg:




I should say right now that, by the end of the film, I was very much sold on Mia Wasikowska as Jane. However I should also point out that there is something singular about Gainsbourg as Jane Eyre. Gainsbourg has a very strange, atypical beauty that almost doesn’t seem like beauty at all, except in flashing instances. She’ll stun you with the personality behind those unusual features if you’re not prepared: this precisely fits the “unearthly” description used by Rochester in one the most classic lines of the original text ("You — you strange — you almost unearthly thing!")

She has an unusual jaw-line and a distractingly strange set of the mouth and you can see why Rochester would call her an imp, an elf, or something otherwise belonging to dusk and ‘the other.’

In this recent version, however, you get much more the sense of Jane’s youth and inexperience (Wasikowska is very young) and of how incredibly vulnerable she is simply by virtue of her age, gender and station in life. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Jane looked quite mature, whereas Wasikowska looks young in general and truly—in some scenes—like a mere child.

When Rochester just up and leaves without a word, you can see how confused and crest-fallen she is. It highlights how temporary his warmth towards her just might be (even if that turns out not to be the case, she has good cause to be wary) and also how barred she is into her current circumstances. He comes and goes. She stays. She can’t make him stay and she can’t go gallivanting after him either.


THE YOUNG JANES


I do still prefer the 1996 version for the “Young Jane” portion of the story, which features Anna Paquin.



Anna Paquin looked like a spirited, clever—potentially difficult—child. She had a right sharp fire to her, which you could envision being tempered with maturity. The young actress of the 2011 version does a very good job at what is asked of her. Nevertheless, I sense that, had she not been the undeniable victim at every bend and turn, her Jane would have come off as genuinely bratty. She even looks a bit like what I have generally imagined the mean sisters to look like. Perhaps this is not unintentional. Perhaps they mean to say in this that Jane, had she not struggled as she did—not been down-trodden as she was—she might well have employed her natural bluntness and strength by being a very precocious brat. Just a thought. Not an interpretation that would have occurred to me.


STORY AND EXECUTION


The cinematography is ceaselessly gorgeous and the dialogue in this 2011 version is excellent, and well in keeping with the tone of the book, to include gently spoken lines such as the following:

(St. John Rivers) “What will you do with all your fine accomplishments?”
(Jane)     “I will save them till they are wanted. They will keep”

And with that early line, Wasikowska’s Jane endeared herself to me.

Another marked difference between this version and the 1996 one is that the relationship between Adele (the young French student) and Jane is rather sweeter and fuller in this one than in the other. I can’t quite say why. It’s less stifled, I suppose. In the ’96 version the relationship between the titular governess and her pupil is very perfunctory and I liked that they gave it a bit more life in this one.

The meeting scene between Rochester and Jane never seems to change from version to version. I suppose there are only so many ways to contrive for a woman and man of that era and stratum in society to come within touching distance at first meeting, and helping a man who has fallen from his horse is probably a very effective one, so there’s no need to deviate there.

Also, the moment when I became truly confident in Wasikowska’s blonde, delicate, pale Jane was a dark-roomed scene in which Rochester accuses her of being an imp or an elf. And she says:

“Sadly they are all gone. Your land is neither wild nor savage enough for them.”

And poor old Ms. Fairfax, the housekeeper, is bewildered by the half-eeire tone of the conversation between the governess and the master. As though they instantaneously had a vernacular all their own for one another.


ROCHESTER

There’s trouble here. Michael Fassbender plays Mr. Rochester in this most recent rendition and he is far too handsome for it. He portrays Rochester marvelously, and I doubt anyone is going to complain much of his handsomeness…it’s just not accurate is all. He’s quite as gruff and mean as he ought to be, but the actor’s undiminished good-looks made the scene in which Jane says that she does not find him handsome rather silly…whereas in the book it is well established that he is, indeed, not a handsome man and her stating so was an example of her brazen frankness. 

He is compelling regardless, and does say some very ungracious things about Adelle and Ms. Fairfax. He also does the occasionally unlikely thing of helping out his gardeners. I like the idea that Rochester would go about working and hacking at roots with his hired hands…but I find it unrealistic (I need to re-read the book and see if there are any hints to that effect).

Furthermore, the scene following Jane’s rescue of Mr. Rochester from the fire is not to be described. It is too perfect for it. Lord have mercy on my fire-lit soul. If I can entice anyone into watching this by saying this is the best scene, but by refusing to give any particulars, than that is what I must do.


IN ADDITION TO THAT....


I liked that this version showed periods of gentle affection, not moving from grand drama to grand drama without pausing for breath. It gives some glimpses of normalcy before the next big thing.

However the film sometimes mistakes its viewers for die-hard fans. Since the director fiddled with the time-line, by putting the last third of the book at the beginning and interspersing the beginning of the book throughout that, I can’t help but wonder if this might confuse someone unfamiliar with the story. I strongly suspect it might.

On the other hand, the cold-hearted religious dialogue used to drive home Jane’s childhood misfortunes seemed ever-so-slightly over-played as though the audience was not aware of the era or setting...and this brings me to the role of God and religion in this film: it was scant and askew. 

This was a beautiful movie based off of a beautiful book but it did what so many story-tellers do these days: give remarkable strength to the character without acknowledging the source of that strength lest God come suddenly and compellingly into the picture. In the book, God is more than mentioned. He is pondered, debated, sought…and sustaining. He was misused or misperceived by the villains (the head of Lowood school and faintly by St. John Rivers) but also loved and trusted in by the heroines.

In the movie God is restricted mostly to the mouths of the villains. Positive scenes—such as when Helen talks of heaven—are allowed only because they are vague and occur in childhood. And Jane’s utterance of “God help me” towards the end was made to seem more a wild exclamation than an actual plea for God’s help. What this ultimately means is that Charlotte Bronte, a woman of the 1800’s—steeped in religion—had more courage and even-handedness in portraying both the blaring truth and the villainous misuse of religion than a modern movie-maker. Bronte understood that one doesn’t throw the baby out with the bath-water—which is something current filmmakers too often do when it comes to classic works that have God and the Bible flowing sure and lively in the veins of the story. When they extract God, or try to neutralize his relevance in the text, they often make the story go rather pale.

Take this quote from the book:

"Worn out with this torture of thought, I rose to my knees. Night was come, and her planets were risen: a safe, still night; too serene for the companionship of fear. We know that God is everywhere; but certainly we feel His presence most when His works are on the grandest scale spread before us; and it is in the unclouded night-sky, where His worlds wheel their silent course, that we read clearest His infinitude, His omnipotence, His omnipresence."

I just want it known where strong, unearthly, Jane got her convictions. The movie neglects it and—despite my many praises for the film—I was glad to be reminded of what was absent.
Therefore, I loved this movie, and I LOVE the book it came from.

Lastly:

At the end, the way Rochester looks out with his unseeing eyes is stunning, coupled with an equally rich last line:

“Awaken, then”

10 August 2011

Dance and Minstrelsy: A Review of The LXD

I am now going to review a tale of long-lost brothers, rebels, thwarted love, bionic men, chosen ones, unlikely and/or reluctant heroes, gun-slinging, bar-fights, magic shoes, bounty hunters, captured beloveds, separated friends and comedy. All this told almost exclusively through the medium of dance.


The LXD is both a web series and a group of dancers who have performed on So You Think You Can Dance and at the Oscars. Episodes in the series are short and to the point, ranging from five to fifteen minutes. Most clips are given a framework to clarify the context—a man with storybook in hand explains what you’re about to see.

The LXD webseries has the requisite overarching story to hold together its comic-book-like subplots. The dance styles vary, with most of it being street (hip-hop, breaking, popping, locking) with the occasional dash of ballet, contemporary, jazz or—!—TAP.

Just as the dance is a mish-mash of styles, so is the story. It includes elements of Harry Potter, Star Wars, X-men and pretty much any superhero tale you’ve ever heard of or watched. But that works marvelously in its favor because the dancing is the thing. You don’t want to have to worry about tedious exposition. All you really want here is a frame within which the dancing can work its magic. And it does. They use archetypes and use them well. The brilliance of this is that they are telling a classic “good guys vs. bad guys” story with all the favorite tropes (romantic, outcast, rebel, newbie, the broken one, love triangle) but they do it more effectively off-hand than others sometimes do with intent.


In these beautiful, brief episodes dance is utilized to represent everything: dance-offs mimic fist-fights; b-boys become defiers of gravity; robot-dancers have been mutated by the “bad guys” and so on. Initially it seems as though the dance itself is the weapon/super-power which the good guys will wield against the bad…but, by the second season, it becomes clear that powers are wielded through the dance. It’s like the force. Except that, instead of spinning around with a light-saber, you spin around on the floor and dance the bad guys down!


Once the mythos is fairly well established after the first season (which is to say, after eight or nine episodes scarcely equaling the length of a regular film) then the use of ‘dance-as-superpower’ reaches an increasingly high and effective function. It’s clever. It works for everything from bonding, to training, to school-boy rivalries, to romance, to excellent fight scenes.

 

But this should be no surprise, seeing as Dance is a language.

I will list a couple of what I found to be the most compelling episodes (and the two that I would avoid). For anyone with an interest in such things, and who likes it when dance thrives inside a storyline (or the other way around) I strongly advise you watch this.

My favorites are as follows:


1.      The Robot Love story, in which a man’s life has been saved—but at great cost. He is no longer a regular human. It turns out that his wife gave up her freedom to save his life, though he seems to have little-to-no memory of this. This one is all dance, and no words—only the occasional caption on the screen, comic-book style. It is sad and beautiful and actually genuinely touching. I’m not even the biggest fan of the “robot” style—but this dancer is particularly talented, and I loved the bittersweet tone of this episode, as well as the truly brilliant use of this style of dance. His robotic movement perfectly conveys the strangeness of his tampered-with body. Obviously something is awry, and that is part of why he moves that way.


2.      Elliot’s shoes: This is one of the cleverest bits of derivative story-telling. Kid (Elliot) finds shoes. Kid puts shoes on. Suddenly kid can dance. And he can’t really stop. It’s classic and a rather happier, more up-beat version of the ballet story The Red Shoes. Unlike the poor lass from The Red Shoes, his magic-shoes lead him to super-hero camp instead of causing him to dance himself to death. The dancer (who can be recognized from Glee and Step Up 3) doubles as an excellent actor—this cannot be said for all, I’m afraid—and he comically conveys the feeling that he really has no control over what his body does once those shoes are on him. He is fascinated by his own movement. (Oh, and he's one of the choreographers too, so don't be fooled by him looking so young and hilariously naive.)


3.      I Seen a Man: This one actually presents my favorite character in the story. The dancer is introduced by a street-corner prophet in a bit of spoken-word (“I seen a man who feels the soul through his soles…but his mind is not laced tightly”) and is first seen dancing alone with his vain imaginations in a dirty, empty warehouse. And it’s TAP DANCE. He is the “rebel” type, according to the minstrel of the piece. I love his character partly because he’s a tapper + hip-hop dancer…partly because his dance scene was so compelling…and partly because in real life the guy’s an amazing choreographer as well. I hold out hope that he may have a “dark past.”


4.      The Greater of Two Evils: This episode is a terribly clever (I keep using that word for a reason) depiction of a showdown between the two villains…or between their henchmen, actually. The music is pitch-perfect, and the stylistic differences between the two villain-camps makes for a fascinating show-down. I will not tell you who wins but, with dancing like this, it’s really hard to care. This episode is done without words. Instead it has 1920's silent-film style captions.


Here are the only two episodes I would advise skipping if you happen to be picky about the same things I am:


1.      Tails of War: The super-heroes go out on the town. Out to a club. Some evil mermaid-sirens are there. They do a siren dance. You do the math. It was too much for me.


2.      Rising: Now in all fairness this is an excellent episode. It means to mimic the style of a horror film, and boy does it ever succeed. It’s set on a Navy ship, where some vicious “eaters” (who dance a horrifying, twisting, contorting style and whose eyes are whited out for additional effect) have come to—I think—steal the soul of some young sailor and make him evil. So then the twisty-contorting guys and the now-evil sailor go about wreaking eerie havoc on the ship. It was clear that it was meant to seem demonic—so clear, in fact, that the makers of the episode felt the need to warn viewers, at the episode's outset, that they do not support a belief in the occult. I do not go for horror or anything demonic, seeming or being, so I skipped through most all of this one. Technically, I suppose, the fact that it made me so uncomfortable shows that they accomplished their goal of it being utterly ‘morbid and creepifying’. Ultimately I did not like it and would not watch it again regardless.

There are a couple of other fun little things like the fact that, in one of the episodes, there’s a fitting reference to how the dancers have to have ‘real-life’ jobs to cover up for their super-hero dance lessons—both from a classic Clark-Kent-works-at-the-daily-planet perspective, and from the plainer reality that most dancers probably have to have a day job, and can only ‘vigilante-dance’ on off-hours.

 

I was going to give it tempered praise, but I can’t! Each segment (minus the two mentioned) made the whole thing grow on me. I became enamored, and by the final episode of season two I was actually on the edge of my seat. And not just because of the dancing, but because of the story. Are they going to turn that one good guy evil? What happened to the robot guy’s wife? Why is the bounty-hunter guy—who mostly just stands around looking mysterious and anti-hero-like—so fascinating?! And why—WHY—did the Christopher Scott character not defeat the bad guys immediately with stellar tap-dancing? (I kept wanting to shout “just get out of the dust and back to the hard-wood floors! You can do it!) WHAT HAPPENS?!?!

I found myself completely wrapped up in the illogical logic of it. When the bad guys started throwing actual fists, I kept thinking “you can’t defeat them that way, you have to out-dance them."
By the by, season three starts this week, and here is a clip to whet the appetite for dance and minstrelsy:



And if you liked that, go ahead and watch this: