Thursday, January 27, 2011

(Classic) Review: "Herland," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

"Life is a stuggle, has to be," he insisted. "If there is no struggle, there is no life--that's all."


Utopian fiction is a tricky business. It's generally a misnomer at best. Utopian fiction often falls into one of three categories: Utopia that turns out to be the utter opposite of paradise for some, if not all, of the inhabitants (dystopia); Utopia that turns out to be flawed in one way or another; or, a utopia that actually is heaven on Earth. The first two types of stories are generally more interesting. The third, unfortunately, is where Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland falls.

That's not to say there's not some very interesting ideas here. Herland was written near the beginning of the 20th Century, and many of Gilman's thoughts are ahead of her time. The main problem, however, lies in Gilman's choice of outlet. What may have been better suited for an essay is instead formulated as a sort of adventure novel that never quite gives us an adventure.

Herland revolves around a simple premise. Somewhere in the unexplored jungle lies a pristine, modern paradise populated solely by women. A group of intrepid (not really) explorers stumble upon what they call Herland, and the inhabitants teach them their history, their culture and their way of life. That's it. There are relatively few twists (the men try to escape at one point, fail, and are brought back). The ending isn't too unexpected. It's really more of a what-if essay than a fleshed out story.

In a somewhat interesting choice for feminist literature, Gilman uses male protagonists to filter the reader's view of the issues at hand. Our viewpoint character is Van Jennings, a sort of middle-of-the-road kind of guy who can see both sides of any argument. This makes for a kind of boring and timid "hero" (if you can call him that, which, now that I think about it, no, no you can't), but I can see why Gilman chose him. The reader is not really asked to follow along for any sweeping judgments. Instead, we identify with Van as he observes the other two male characters: Terry Nicholson and Jeff Margrave.

Terry is, to put it bluntly, an ass. He holds the traditional turn-of-the-century views of women, but escalated to sometimes comical levels. To Terry, women are silly little things with no real intelligence or capability, obviously the inferior sex, and only really necessary as a motivation for men. One of the best examples of his character: to him, the existence of Herland is less of a scientific impossibility than a social one. He argues against the concept of female-only reproduction (which, in one of the most speculative aspects of the story, is identified as parthenogenesis). But to him, the craziest part of this country is the idea of women living amongst themselves with no men to run the town, grow the crops, maintain and invent the technology and stop all that silly female bickering.

If Terry is the resident misogynist, Jeff resides squarely in the opposite side of crazy. He represents the pro-feminist camp, which is generally cool, but sometimes creepily approaches putting women on a pedastal (something, it should be mentioned, Terry does as well, but in more of a "women are so frail, they shouldn't do work" kind of way). I'm not sure if this is intentional on Gilman's part, or if Jeff is supposed to be a positive character and our modern ideas of feminism have just changed in the past 100 years. However, given the fact that Jeff is not our central character, I'd like to believe the former.

Jeff and Terry frequently spar over the roles of women in society, while Van watches on, giving us the novel's only real conflict. Unfortunately, this conflict becomes repetitive almost immediately. The woman claim they have accomplished some spectacular achievement, Terry says no, that's impossible because woman are stupid and silly, Jeff says nuh-uh cause women are awesome! All while Van nods his head and jots it all down in his mental notebook.

My other criticism, beyond the lack of a real plot, is that Gilman's female characters all sort of run together. A strange thought, isn't it? In a book about the exceptionalism of women, the women become exceptionally stale and boring. There's really no difference in any of them. They're all incredibly smart, capable, confident in themselves and their culture. The three women who end up getting paired off with the males (Ellador, Celis and Alima) seem different in temperament, but that's only because they are given different situations to react to  (Alima, who gets to deal with Terry, is obviously going to behave differently than Celis, who gets Jeff).

So what's to like about Herland? Gilman's subtle references to feminist thinking of the time. In one of my favorite passages of the book, one of the women brings up the concept of being trapped in one's own home and life:
"It's not the same thing at all," [Terry] insisted. "A man wants a home of his own, with his wife and family in it."
"Staying in it? All the time?" asked Ellador. "Not imprisoned, surely!"
"Of course not! Living there--nautrally," he answered.
The point being how silly it is to consider a woman's confinement in her home "natural." This is very likely a reference to Gilman's own The Yellow Wallpaper (a speculative-ish feminist story surrounding a woman's depression and confinement. It's absolutely fantastic). It is also oddly similar to Virginia Woolf's then-unwritten A Room of One's Own, though exploring the idea of living quarters in opposite directions.

It is moments like these that made me sit up and evaluate Gilman's work in the greater pantheon of feminist literature. To my disappointment, there were exceedingly few moments that made me sit up and consider her work in the realm of adventure or speculative fiction. Maybe this isn't so bad. I'm sure Gilman was more concerned about her feminist themes than whether or not her work could be adapted into a Syfy Original Movie. But if one were to read, say, a feminist western, one would hope that the work had something to add to both of those genres.

The most relevant passage in the book seems to be the one I quoted at the beginning of this post. Terry asserts that life must be filled with struggles to be worthwhile, and the women inform him that, no, living in a perfect world is perfectly satisfactory. In my interpretation, Gilman is speaking directly to the reader at this point. It seems evident that she knew that her story was more about the themes and ideas than any sort of character development. And she seems okay with that. I guess, in the end, that's all we can hope from an author -- that everything they do is done with full knowledge and purpose.

For fans of feminist literature, Herland is sort of a must-read. In fact, I'd assume most fans of feminist literature have already read it. That's like saying "If you're a fan of fantasy, you simply must read this Tolkien fellow!" But, as it is a very early example of utopian/futurist fiction, it may be of interest to specfic fans. And if that's your sole interest, you may want to skip Herland. It doesn't go much further than its synopsis. Instead, for feminist science fiction, go for any of Margaret Atwood's books (ignore her unfortunate views on science fiction), or the aforementioned work, Gilman's seminal The Yellow Wallpaper.


Herland can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Best Films of 2010, Part I

Okay, so this is a writing blog. Technically, I shouldn't even be mentioning films. Es ist verboten. VERBOTEN!

However, since I don't really have a dedicated cadre of readers expecting any certain subject, I am allowed the freedom to do whatever the fuck I want (like speak in German). With that said, let me introduce part eins of a two part series concerning films. Specifically, films released in 2010 (a year that seems universally reviled, but which I didn't really mind).

In the first part, I'm going to lay out my picks for the best movies of the year. Unlike the Academy, I'm going to keep it to five. Ten starts to border on ridiculous, and to be honest, I'm not sure there were 10 films that truly deserve the honor. Look at the Golden Globes. When you have to nominate god damned Burlesque and The motherfucking Tourist, you have too many slots. Note that I'm not a movie buff, per se -- there's still a few big name films from 2010 I haven't seen yet (127 Hours, The Fighter, and probably most egregious, The Social Network, which I'll discuss at the bottom). With that said, let's begin, in no special order.


1 - Black Swan 
Girl on girl action lolz! Nina is not amused.
First off, can I say how fucking stupid and dismissive it is when every single talk show host has to introduce this movie with "Any movie that can get guys to see a movie about ballet has got to be good! Derp derp! Girl on girl!" Black Swan is not about ballet any more than Fargo is about a city. It is the story of an artist struggling with perfection. It is the story of a family plagued by mental issues. It is the story of a girl forced to be sexual with no guide, no preparation. Black Swan is about a lot of things. It's not about ballet.

Now, I'm a sucker for weird movies, so Black Swan already has a leg up on the competition. My imagination tends to run wild with interpretation, and the director, Darren Aronofsky (who looks kind of like a chubby David Arquette), certainly invites that. If you're the kind of person who likes a straightforward story (and there's nothing wrong with that), you'll hate this. There's no two ways about it.

But beyond the surreal plot, there is much in the film to objectively enjoy. Black Swan is truly a movie where each aspect hits the mark and contributes to the overall effect. The score is spot-on. It blends Tchaikovsky's compositions with modern discernment to create a sound setting that is simultaneously chilling and heartbreaking. Portman's performance as coddled and confused Nina Sayers is magnificent. Not being nominated for Best Actress would be a travesty. I don't want to say that she can't top it, because I'm hoping she has a long and illustrious career in front of her, but I truly think she could retire tomorrow and still be counted among history's great performers solely for her job in this film. It's that brilliant. The symbolism is layered and complex. I find myself discovering new little motifs just replaying it in my mind, and I've only seen it once. For instance, did anyone notice the implication of Nina injuring herself with a mirror, of all things? Very interesting.

There are missteps -- Aronofsky relies too heavily on cheesy thriller tropes and unnecessary cheap scares. The characters and plot provide enough tension on their own. And I think it's fair to say that this is a love-it-or-hate-it film. I can absolutely understand some people not connecting. But in pure impact, Black Swan was without equal this year.



Long hair is looooooooooong
2 - Tangled 
Okay, if I'm a sucker for weird movies, I'm a god damned fool for musicals. Disney musicals? Forget about it. Aladdin, Little Mermaid, Lion King. Love 'em. The Princess and the Frog wasn't up to the level of those golden-age classics, but it was a step in the right direction. So I was cautiously optimistic walking in to Tangled. I expected to like it. I didn't expect to love it.

You know the basics. Rapunzel has really long hair. She's kept in a high tower by a wicked witch. She's rescued my a handsome prince. Roll credits. Of course, with John Lasseter in charge, we're spared that formula. Tangled's Rapunzel is a bright young girl whose kept in her tower not by any otherworldly power or feminine weakness. She's kept there by a jealous mother. Mommy dearest preys on her daughter's self-confidence to bolster her own. It's probably the best and most relatable theme in any movie I've seen this year, and it comes from a fairy tale. Imagine that.

Tangled is simply the best non-Pixar Disney animated film I've seen in ages, probably since Mulan (that's twelve years, if you're counting). And it's got probably the best female lead in their entire history. She's smart (and not just in a inconsequential way like Belle), she's capable, she's cute and she shirks the Princess Complex from the beginning. It's weird to say that, because in the end, Rapunzel is a princess. But unlike Ariel, unlike Jasmine, unlike Snow White, that fact doesn't really inform her character. She doesn't find out until the end of the movie, and truthfully, it doesn't matter. It's more important that she has a family that loves her and a partner who bolsters her confidence instead of stomping on it. Her royal lineage is beside the point.

Of course, Alan Menken's songs don't hurt. The man who composed The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Little Shop of Horros, among others, is used to great effect here. The recurring healing incantation ("Flower gleam and glow/Let your power shine") is as memorable and head-sticking as any Disney tune, and I See The Light joins Can You Feel the Love Tonight and A Whole New World in the list of great musical love themes. I won't say this is Menken's best work (that probably belongs to Aladdin), and there are fewer songs than I'd like, but it's enjoyable nontheless.

The actors work great. I'm not a huge Chuck fan, but Zachary Levi is charming as fuck, if you'll excuse my French. And of course, Mandy Moore is as cute as cute can be. She's one of those actresses who doesn't draw a lot of attention, but generally gives a great performance in whatever she chooses to do. At the end of the movie, I asked myself "Who voiced Rapunzel? She was really good. Oh ... oh wow! I didn't even realize!" That's just the kind of actress she is. But yeah, the two have chemistry. It just works.

Criticisms? A few. The movie felt short, was is probably a necessity for it to work as a family film, but it leads to the pace being a little too rushed. Specifically, the love story between the male and female lead kind of pops up out of nowhere, as if the writers realized "Crap, we need them to be in love now. Aaaaand BE IN LOVE!" And, as I said, I wished we got a bit more music (thought that's a criticism I can levy at other Disney films as well -- they seem to be afraid to go full musical). But all in all, this is one of those movies that makes me want to have a kid, just so I can show them that there are strong positive messages in this world.


3 - Toy Story 3
The darkest movie about small plastic
objects you'll see this year
Seriously? Another animated movie?

First off, fuck you, guy. Who the fuck do you think you are? Did you not read the part of this being MY BLOG? The stuff about the German words?
Second off, it should go without saying that there are animated films, and then there are Pixar films. I shouldn't even have to do a writeup for this. Just those two syllables -- Picks Czar -- tell you all you need to know. Yes, this movie is funny. Yes, it's poignant. Yeah, you're probably going to tear up. Yes, it's got John Ratzenberger. At this point, I'm almost not even excited to go see a Pixar movie anymore, because I just know it's going to be great. How fucked up is that? I'm actually disappointed because I know I'm not going to be surprised. It's like they made Cars solely for me to maintain a modicum of doubt.

It has this man.
Okay, enough fanboy gushing. Why does another animated film deserve to be counted among the best of the year? Because it's a masterful end (likely the end -- it should be) to a wonderful series. Because it tears at your heart without using cheap shots like Toy Story 2 or even, it could be argued, Up. The melancholy in Toy Story 3 is directly relevant to the journey of the characters. Not just the journey in this movie, though it certainly stands on its own, but the journey from the beginning of the series. 

When Toy Story 1 was released in 1995, I was the target audience. I was 8 years old. That's not to say it doesn't stand up, or that adults can't enjoy it just as much. Both of those are true. But Andy is and always has been the character whose life the events of the movie revolve around. Like Christopher Robin to Winnie-the-Pooh, Andy is the lens through which we view these persistent toys.

When Toy Story 3 was released in 2010, I was the target audience. What? This is still a kid's movie, right? True. And you're no longer a kid, you're a 23. You're a grown-ass man. True, too. But so is Andy. He's moved on. His childhood, like mine, is gone. It's never coming back. If the biggest misconception about Black Swan is that it's about ballet, the misconception about Toy Story is that it's about toys. It's not. It's about childhood. Always has been. Toy Story was about what it means to be a child. Toy Story 3 is about what it means to no longer be a child. That's why we cry. Not because we're afraid these toys are going to die, but because we fear the kid inside us already has.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Toy Story 3 deserves this honor. I could go in depth about the acting, the animation, Randy Newman's classic quirky soundtrack, etc., etc. But that's not why this movie is great. It's great because Pixar understands how to make a film meaningful to every single person who watches it. My nieces and nephews aren't going to understand these films the way I do, but they don't enjoy them any less. My parents aren't going to connect to them the same way I do. But they're going to see it through Andy's mother -- they've sent a kid to college. They've been through the process of packing away those action figures that seemed oh-so-important just a few years ago. In some ways, this is my most hoped-for film of 2010. I think we can all be pretty sure that Tangled isn't going to be nominated for Best Film. Even in a field of 10, the Academy isn't a big fan of animation. We all know The Social Network and The Kids are All Right will be on the list. Regardless of their merit, they're just the sort of films that appeal to critics. But Toy Story 3 transcends that. It truly deserves to be considered just as much as any live action film released this year.

Criticisms? Not really. The central conflict (toys shipped off to a kindergarten and have to escape) isn't the most memorable or original, I guess. But who cares? 

!!Spoiler Alert!!


Before I leave the subject, a bit more on the death of the child inside us. That theme is one of the most gutwrenching ideas in any movie I've seen in a long time, because it hits close to home for all of us. But the filmmakers know that. And so they give us the perfect ending. Andy sits down and plays with his old toys with a new friend, a little girl named Bonnie. He plays in the same way that I play when my 3-year-old niece hands me a bowl full of plastic vegetables and tells me it's my lunch. He plays in the same way I play when my 6-year-old nephew lays out a Nerf armory in front of me and tells me that I'm on his team. My inner child isn't dead. He's just finding new toys to play with.






4 - The Town
"And why do you think you deserve to
join The League of Handsome Men?"


Huh? No. Stop. Just stop. The Fucking Town? You're nominating A Ben Affleck Joint? No Inception, no Blue Valentine, no King's Speech, but you put a Bostonian heist film on here? That's retahdid, you fuckin' queeah.

Yeah, yeah, so it's Ben Affleck. Yeah, he's can be kind of silly. He was in Daredevil. He was in Gigli. GIGLI.

You know who else has been in some terrible movies and is kind of silly? Marky Mark Wahlberg. Oh, excuse me. ACADEMY AWARD WINNER Marky Mark Wahlberg.
So I try not to discount an actor solely because of some missteps, or some personal weirdness. If Robert Pattinson made a movie as entertaining as The Town, I'd get on my knees and receive his greasy glittering man-juice.

Obligatory. Say hi to your mother, plant.

Speaking of Marky Mark, I'd say The Town reminds me heavily of The Departed (a good thing!). The Boston setting and crime-focus is obviously a part of this, but they employ similar structures of unrelated characters and events winding into each other. The characters are forced into situations with no good options. It forces us to face what we would do these situations. But surely, you say, I'd never get involved with organized crime. But that's the thing. Affleck's character didn't really choose this path either. These people are often times born into crime. That's not to minimize personal responsibility -- I feel like the movie does a decent job of keeping Affleck's character real and imperfect -- but the whole point of the film is to paint a picture of a world many of those of us born into privilege (and yes, I consider myself privileged just in the fact that I had a stable home, love and support) can never truly understand.

Of course, the acting is where The Town truly shines. Affleck is very good. Jeremy Renner is very good. John Hamm is great. Of course he is. He's John Hamm. Brilliant casting. You want a flawed antagonist that the audience can't help but find charming anyway? Cast John Hamm. Also, I hear he's popular with the ladies.

The Town is not perfect. It treats its female characters as disposable. The lead character, Claire, is so forgettable that the writers literally forget about her in the second half of the movie. She's used as motivation for Affleck's character, and not much else. Blake Lively's (bleh) character is pretty much a drugged up version of the same thing. The message regarding her seems to be "Don't neglect your old lovers, or your rival will use them against you!" The females are pretty much just there for the males to use as leverage. It's unfortunate. And yet, the rest of the film is good enough for me not to care. Not an easy thing to do. So yes, there always has to be a Dark Horse pick, and The Town is mine.


5 - True Grit
Aw, do we have to bring Matt Damon with us?
You'll notice in the Black Swan entry that I didn't quite say that Natalie Portman should win Best Actress. Why? 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld. She's so talented that she shared this year with Annette Benning, Marion Cotillard, and the best performance Natalie Portman has ever given, and I'm not really sure who should win the oscar. My biggest achievement at 14 was deciphering Metal Gear Solid 2.

Yeah, let's see Little Miss Thing fit THIS into canon!


Ms. Steinfeld's acting, and the handling of her character, the headstrong ahead-of-her-time Mattie Ross, is the sole reason True Grit is on the list. It might be the reason it's on everybody's list. Seriously. I struggled. It barely made the cut. True Grit is a pretty good movie. It's not out of this world amazing. Jeff Bridges is funny. Matt Damon is good. The pace is perfect. It's a Coen movie. Like Pixar, that name brings with it a certain quality of expectation. But, it must be said, it sometimes carries a nagging "So What?" True Grit brought the "So What?" It brought it, it unwrapped it, and it took a picture with it wearing a fake smile for grandma. It simply wasn't that memorable. A cool adolescent girl tags along with a loose cannon US Marshal and a by-the-book Texas Ranger. She's looking for the man who killed her father. She finds him. Thirty or so years later, she's still smart, she doesn't need a man and she never really saw either of the two men again. Roll credits.

The problem I have with True Grit is the problem I have with a lot of Coen movies. I'm not asking for a "save the world" plot. But I frequently feel like there's some greater point, some deeper mystery that I'm missing. As you can tell from my Black Swan review, I am not opposed to finding my own meaning. But many Coen movies seem like simple, surface stories with just enough subtlety to make you think something else is going on. But damned if you're going to figure it out unless you have a Ph.D. in Film Studies. 

So if it's that flawed, why put True Grit on here at all? Because, simply, the character of Mattie Ross is that awesome. And I will fully admit to sometimes using that word inappropriately, but Mattie is truly awesome. When she speaks, you can't help but be transfixed. When the "responsible" men leave her behind, and she fords the river, emerging on the other side, sopping but dignified, you can't take the unconscious grin off your face. Some of it is due, no doubt, to the character in the original book. I can't comment too much on that; I haven't read it. Some of the credit has to be laid on the Coens. They coaxed a powerful performance from their child actress. And, of course, we can't forget young Hailee. She brings Mattie to life. I can't remember when I rooted for a character as much as I rooted for Mattie. You want her to succeed, even though the stakes seem fairly trivial, as far as conflicts go. If True Grit succeeds in any way, I think it's that. It is a simple story, but Mattie makes you care about it anyway.

I wouldn't be surprised if True Grit wins Best Film. The Academy loves the Coens, and it's generally deserved. I have grievances with some of their films, but it can't be denied that, objectively, they are fantastic filmmakers. This isn't their best film (Fargo), and it's not their worst (Burn After Reading). It is, as great movies go, completely middle of the road. And yet, if someone forced me to pick only 5 movies from 2010 for them to watch, I couldn't not choose it. Damn you Joel. Damn you Ethan. You frustrate me to no end, but I love you anyway.

Honorable Mentions
The King's Speech
Seriously, aren't there any other
actresses in that country?
The King's Speech breaks the mold of a traditional period piece. Colin Firth is fantastic, and is probably a shoe-in for best actor. The chemistry between Firth and Geoffry Rush is among the best I've seen in a long while. I particularly enjoyed the subtle focus on how technology changed both the world at large, and the lives of a royal family straddling two distinct periods. The story, untraditional as it may be, is pure charm. It's not quite lifechanging enough to make the top five but I'm certain it'll make the Academy's top ten, and rightff .... rightffffuuu .... deservedly so.


Inception
The finest spintop-based film since  Beyblade The Movie
What can I say? It's Inception. The acting is great, the gimmick is fascinating, and that action is superb. The rotating room is the most inventive fight scene since The Matrix. There are some plot holes here and there, and the pace falters in the third act (a snow level, Nolan? Really?), but it's destined to be a genre classic.




Others
I greatly enjoyed Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Easy A, Kick Ass, Harry Potter and the Adverb Macguffins: Part One, though none of those really deserve to be Best Film. They are just very entertaining. 

If there were a category for Best New Actress, it should go to Mia Wasikowska. She starred in Alice in wonderland and The Kids are All Right, the former of which I liked more than I had expected, and the latter of which I liked less than I had hoped.

Is she the third Wasikowska Brother?

All right. Moving on.

But wait, what about ... 
...The Social Network. Yeah, I know. It's the odds-on favorite to sweep the biggies. Best Film, Best Director, Best Writer. Maybe even Best Actor. Does it deserve it? I don't know, maybe. I haven't seen it. Shoot me.

I'll be rectifying this tomorrow, but I wanted to get this out there before the nominations were announced. I'll be considering Fincher's film when I pick my favorites from the official nomination. I'll let you know what I thought of it then. If you simply must know which of the above 5 I'd bump off to include The Social Network, assuming I love it, it'd probably be True Grit or The Town. Gun to my head, True Grit might fall to a very close #6.

I'll be writing up Part II in the next few days, after the nods are announced. It'll be the traditional rundown, selecting my favorites (note that word -- it won't be who I think will win, rather who I think should win). See you soon!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A confession

I've finished NaNoWriMo (50,000 words, a small novel or novella) something like 4 times. I've yet to finish a story. That is about to change.

Of course, even when this story is done and I can write the words The End on the bottom of the page (and then promptly delete them -- how cheesy would that be?), the novel is far from finished. Rewriting, adding, cutting (and cutting, and cutting): these are the things that turn mediocre ramblings into something that anyone would have half a mind to read. Take, for example, the first chapter I posted a few days ago. Nothing much has changed with regard to substance. Even when I first wrote it, more than a year ago now, it told the story of Victoria and her young ward, Emma, traveling to her former home of Arden to conscript her nephew. The story is the same. But the structure? The wording? The flow (or, in the case of the initial draft, lack thereof)? Day. And. Night.

So yes, I plan on replicating that process for each and every of the nearly fifty chapters (many of which may, thankfully, disappear entirely). But that's for later. For now, I can't stop being excited about the prospect of having a complete manuscript. It's intoxicating, the idea that I could send this document (.odt, natch) to someone and have them comprehend the complete story the way I do. It would be a chore to read, oh yes, full of plot holes, inconsistent characters, time jumps and plodding description. But it would be a story with a beginning, middle and end.

It has been one of my lifelong dreams to write a book, regardless of whether or not I can send it into the world at large. And though I have many dreams, this one is nearing fruition. I can't complain about that.

Matt Borgard is almost officially a novelist, I guess?