Wednesday, November 25, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

There's a scene that comes about halfway into Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and very early in the romance between its main characters, Joel and Clementine.  After a less than ideal first meeting, Joel visits Clementine at her workplace in search of a second chance, and though she's willing, she also matter-of-factly lays down the ground rules of their fledgling relationship.  "Too many guys think I'm a concept or I complete them or I'm going to make them alive," Clementine tells Joel, "but I'm just a fucked-up girl who is looking for my own peace of mind."  A beat, and then the two shift character, into the Joel who is deleting his memories of Clementine following the failure of their relationship, and the Clementine in his head, who acts as his tour guide in a nonlinear reenactment of it.  Ruefully, Joel admits that he didn't heed Clementine's warning.  "I still thought you were going to save me.  Even after that."

Marc Webb's (500) Days of Summer, from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Webber, recalls Eternal Sunshine in several important ways.  Like Kaufman's film, it is nonlinear story about a romance, told after its failure, but lacking Eternal Sunshine's SFnal component, it holds out no similar hope for a happy ending for Tom, a wannabe architect who writes greeting cards, and Summer, the girl who, over the course of 500 days, he meets, falls desperately in love with, dates for several months, is dumped by, and spends several more months getting over.  Perhaps the most important similarity between the two films, however, is that Tom is exactly one of those men Clementine is wary, and weary, of--the kind of who wants the woman in his life to be an adventure and a way of imbuing it with meaning.  But then, (500) Days, and Tom, seem to be an amalgamation of so many other romantic comedies and their heroes.  Like High Fidelity's Rob, Tom is a man who thinks that compatibility in pop culture likes and dislikes is the same as compatibility of personalities (and perhaps even that those likes and dislikes are a meaningful way of evaluating a person).  He's got a bit of Nice Guy about him--his reluctance to acknowledge his feelings for Summer, even when asked point blank, very quickly transitions from charmingly insecure to cowardly and manipulative--and not a small amount of Apatovian man-child.

All of which is to say that (500) Days of Summer is a great deal more unromantic than even its premise and title suggest, and much more than it seems to think it is.  It seems almost unkind to criticize a film as eager to charm as this one, but that charm is rooted in the assumption that we, the viewers, will be rooting for Tom and Summer to make it work, to find a loophole in the ending we're promised by the film's beginning.  This was not my experience.  Almost from their first meeting, it was clear to me that Summer and Tom were poorly suited to one another, and maybe to relationships in general, not only because of the sheer tonnage of neuroses, insecurities, and immaturity that weigh Tom down throughout most of the film, but because Summer is such a complete blank, to him, it seems, almost as much as to us.  In the bleak months following their breakup, Tom is advised to get over Summer by following Lawrence Durrell's edict (attributed to Henry Miller) of turning her into art.  It's left to us to judge to what degree we should take this as a meta-statement on the film (just as we need to decide how seriously to take the film's opening titles, which promise that any resemblance between its characters and reality is a coincidence, "Especially you Jenny Beckman.  Bitch."), but the fact remains that Summer is much more a work of art, a construct, than a person.  Tom, we're told, has been conditioned by pop culture to anticipate The One, and the magical, true love that will accompany her.  What matters to him in his relationship with Summer is not who she is, but how that relationship conforms to his image of what love should be like.  When Summer brings him to her apartment for the first time and tells him intimate, personal stories about herself, the voiceover drowns her out, telling us how thrilled Tom is to be at this crucial relationship milestone.  What's important isn't what Summer is telling him about herself.  It's that her stories are capped by what the voiceover calls the six magic words: "I've never told anybody that before."

Nor do we ever get a sense of the nature and tenor of the relationship between Tom and Summer.  Even before they become involved, Summer warns Tom that she doesn't believe in love and doesn't want a boyfriend, and no matter how intimate they become she insists that they are merely friends.  It's never clear whether she's given him fair warning, or mixed signals.  In their last meeting, after her marriage to a man she met shortly after breaking up with Tom, Summer tells him that with her new husband, she knew almost immediately "what I was never sure of with you."  Which puts an entirely different spin on the relationship--it's not that Summer didn't believe in love, but that she simply didn't love Tom.  So which is it?  Is Summer selfish ("you always do what you want," Tom tells her in that last meeting) or just someone who knows what she wants?  Is she a user, leading Tom on even though she knows she doesn't love him, or just a fucked-up girl looking for her own piece of mind?  We never find out, and don't seem to have been expected to care, and neither, it appears, does Tom.  The film's title turns out to be much less of a pun than it at first seems.  Summer isn't a person so much as she's a season, a phase, an experience Tom needs to go through.

And hence the failure of the film's attempts to charm, despite throwing every clever storytelling device imaginable at the screen--its nonlinear structure, a counter that ticks back and forth between the 500 days, a voiceover that seems to be imitating Jim Dale's work on Pushing Daisies, a musical scene, a pseudo-documentary, a medley of 70s art-house film parodies expressing Tom's misery after the breakup, fantasy sequences, split-screens, and Tom's wise-cracking ten year old sister, who imparts her worldly wisdom, and the film's morals, to her clueless brother.  Romantic comedies work because they provide us with the vicarious thrill of infatuation, making us party to what in real life is a private enchantment that often leaves outsiders befuddled.  As Tom puts it, during a burst of greeting card creativity he experiences when things are still going well with Summer, "I Love Us"--it's the entity that the characters create together, the back and forth between them, that is at the heart of a good romantic comedy's appeal.  But there is no Us in (500) Days of Summer, no sense that Tom and Summer have created something that transcends the two of them as individuals.  We see a few cute scenes between them in its early days, a few rather tepid fights towards its end (despite Summer saying, when she breaks up with Tom, that they fight all the time), but almost nothing of the actual substance of their relationship, and almost no sense of what Tom-and-Summer were like.  Without that invitation into the relationship, the vicarious effect of most romantic comedies isn't achieved, and Tom and Summer come off the way real couples do when they, to take examples from the film, sing to each other on their cellphones from adjoining rooms, or compete to see who can yell 'penis' the loudest in a public park--annoying and self-absorbed.

There is, of course, another way of looking at (500) Days of Summer, and that is that for all that he recalls the heroes of many romantic comedies, at his core Tom has more in common with their heroines--the ones who are hopelessly romantic and desperate to find The One, who can't imagine themselves happy without a man, can't believe that any man will want them, and are too caught up in their obsession with romance to notice the men who bring it into their lives.  Summer, meanwhile, plays the commitment-phobic, emotionally withdrawn Wrong Man--a reversal that the film stresses in one of its earliest scenes, in which Summer explains that she's breaking up with Tom because they've been fighting like Sid and Nancy, then clarifies that in this analogy, she's Sid.  When Summer reveals, in her last meeting with Tom, that she never loved him, what comes to mind is Sally Albright, wailing after making a similar discovery about a man who wouldn't commit to her: "All this time I thought he didn't want to get married.  But the truth is, he didn't want to marry me!"  If you read the film this way, the fact that Summer isn't really a person becomes less important, because what Tom needs to get over isn't the individual woman but the idea that he needs a woman to be happy, and that fulfillment and a sense of self-worth can only be achieved in the arms of a soulmate.

Even this more satisfying take on the film, however, isn't completely so, because despite the role reversal at its heart, (500) Days of Summer still trades in many of the gendered tropes and assumptions of its genre, making for an uneasy mixture.  Summer may not be a person, but she is a weighty presence in the film--far too weighty for someone whose sole purpose is to be the means of achieving the main character's personal growth.  As opposed to, say, High Fidelity, which uses Rob's ex-girlfriends to achieve a similar goal and, like (500) Days, sketches those female characters very thinly as a result, (500) Days tries to romanticize Summer.  There is a sense that the writers can't help but shift their focus to her, can't keep from making her as charming and adorable as they can.  Instead of showing us Tom's infatuation with Summer and using it to illuminate him, they try to make us share that infatuation, and let Tom get lost in the shuffle.  More disturbingly, there is the fact that making ciphers out of female characters, treating them like saviors or villains, but never real people, is something that traditional romantic comedies do quite often.  (500) Days is using an allegedly anti-sexist role reversal to justify employing sexist tropes.

The biggest problem, however, with reading (500) Days of Summer as Tom's coming of age story is that at the end of the film he hasn't really done so.  He's more confident, better able to deal with rejection, and taking steps to improve his life on his own rather than waiting for a woman to give it meaning--great strides all, but despite all of them Tom still hasn't let go of his binary concept of love.  In the wake of his breakup with Summer, Tom, like so many other foolish and self-absorbed characters before him, decides that love must not exist, that it is a fantasy dreamed up by greeting card writers like himself.  In their last meeting, the now-married Summer tries to dissuade him of this cynicism.  It's not that love doesn't exist and that the search for The One is pointless, she tells him.  It's just that she wasn't The One.  Which is fine as far as it goes, but what neither Tom nor Summer seem to have considered is that it's possible for love to exist and still be entirely unlike what pop songs and, yes, romantic comedies, make it out to be.  For all that he's learned, Tom still doesn't realize that love is so much more complicated than his concept of it, and requires, among other things, treating its object as a person rather than a concept.

The relationship between Eternal Sunshine's Joel and Clementine flounders because once the first flush of infatuation fades, they can't deal with the real, messy person they find themselves entangled with, and their decision at the end of the film to try again holds out some hope for success because both acknowledge the inevitability of this disenchantment, and vow to find out what lies beyond it (though in his original script, Kaufman famously undermined this hopeful ending by revealing that Joel and Clementine spend the rest of their lives failing at their romance, erasing their memories of each other, and trying again).  Tom, who never reaches that stage in his relationship with Summer, doesn't seem to have realized that it exists, so that when his story ends on what it seems to think is a similar note--Tom meets a new girl (rather sickeningly named Autumn) and the counter that's accompanied his relationship with Summer drops to (1)--it's hard to feel as hopeful as we do at the end of Eternal Sunshine.  For all his hard-earned wisdom, there's no indication that Tom has learned not to think of women as concepts, merely that some concepts might not complete him.  That's by no means an unusual conclusion for a romantic comedy--the traditional, female-centric often end on this note (though this is also one of the reasons that the genre is generally considered to be such a critical and artistic wasteland)--but (500) Days of Summer has positioned itself as this year's off-beat, intelligent romantic comedy, and it is disappointing to discover that at its heart, it isn't so different from the Hollywood product to which it pretends to offer an alternative.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Recent Reading Roundup 23

It's been a long time since I did one of these, so long that some of the books I read in the interim have already faded so much in my memory that I can't comment meaningfully on them.  Here are my thoughts on the ones that have lingered.
  1. Sunnyside by Glen David Gold - Gold's long-awaited follow-up to the enormously enjoyable Carter Beats the Devil features the same careful attention to period detail, and the same seemingly effortless evocation of early 20th century Americana, but it is also so shapeless, so caught up in the desire to make Meaningful Statements, that it becomes the exact opposite of Carter--a genuine chore to read.  Like Carter, Sunnyside is a When It Changed novel, this time focusing on film, and particularly film star celebrity, rather than television.  But whereas Carter made a relatively modest statement--that the invention of television changed the face of public entertainment, in the process putting acts like the superstar magician out of business--Sunnyside tries to tie the growth of Hollywood and the celebrity culture into just about every major event of the beginning of the twentieth century, including World War I, arguing that the emergence of people who are famous simply for being famous was also the death knell of the old, aristocratic world order.  At best, it's an oversimplified argument, and when Gold uses it draw connections between Charlie Chaplin's early film career and World War I, the novel--which starts out with the same verve and sense of fun that made Carter Beats the Devil such a joy to read--collapses in on itself.  It certainly doesn't help that the characters are uniformly unpleasant, most especially Chaplin, the heart of the novel, whom Gold portrays as a narcissistic user.

  2. Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory - Gregory's debut novel, after several years as a well-respected short story writer (his "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" was one of my favorite short stories from 2008), takes place in a world in which spirit possession is a fact of life.  With seemingly no rhyme or reason, random people are possessed, not by demons, but by archetypes--The Truth, who punishes liars, The Kamikaze, who possesses Japanese men and compels them to crash planes, The Captain, who appears on battlefields to lead troops to victory.  What's best about this novel is its worldbuilding--Gregory's fashioning of an alternate history influenced by possessions (Eisenhower is killed by The Kamikaze, O.J. Simpson doesn't live to be acquitted) and of the ways in which human society has changed to accommodate the possibility of possession, deal with those who have been possessed, and try to explain the nature and cause of possession.

    Less successful is the novel's plot, which centers around and is narrated by Del Pierce, a thirtyish man still struggling to recover from his possession as a child by The Hellion, a trickster spirit which takes young boys and forces them to commit dangerous and destructive mischief.  After years of shaky mental health, aimless wandering, and a haphazard job history, Del begins to feel genuinely unbalanced, and fears that he has somehow trapped the Hellion, and that the demon is trying to get out and take over him again.  The novel's focus on a mentally unstable main character whose exposure to the supernatural has led to a lifetime of inadequacies and disappointments brings to mind Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle, but Pandemonium lacks that novel's admirable resistance to settling into the thriller plot, and soon introduces a paramilitary group convinced that the possessing entities are aliens, and a secret society trying to understand the demons by studying Jung's Red Book, both of which tend to obscure Del himself.  Not helping matters is the fact that Del's journey throughout the novel consists mainly of learning the truth about his possession as a child, but as I had guessed that truth very early in the novel I quickly grew impatient with the characters and how long they were taking to realize it.  I was much more interested in the questions it raised about personality and personhood and the nature of the possessing demons, which Gregory, by delaying the novel's main revelation, left himself very little time to explore.  This is, obviously, to blame Pandemonium for not being the novel I wanted to read, but that's a risk an author takes when they hinge their entire plot on a single revelation, and in my case that risk didn't pan out.

  3. Warlock by Oakley Hall - Perhaps the simplest way to describe Hall's 1958 Western is that it is Deadwood in book form--a sprawling, beautifully written, unflinching examination of the myths and realities of the American West.  The town of Warlock has been plagued by outlaws and ruffians, who have repeatedly driven out or killed the representatives of the law provided by a distant and uncaring territorial government.  The town's merchants and prominent citizens decide to hire a gunslinger, Clay Blaisedell, to act as Marshall and bring order to Warlock.  From this simple and familiar premise Hall crafts an enormous and complicated tapestry of characters and points of view, all chewing on and providing different perspective on the novel's central question--what, if anything, gives Blaisedell the right to kill?  It would be a vast oversimplification to say that good and evil are not clearly delineated in Warlock.  Rather, Hall turns a searching but sympathetic eye on each and every one of his characters--Blaisedell, the town's deputy John Gannon, a former member of the gang menacing the town, the merchants who hired Blaisedell in an attempt to bring Warlock into the civilized world, the local judge, who rants and raves that Blaisedell's presence represents a refutation of civilization and the rule of law, and yet has no effective law to offer in his stead, Blaisedell's friend, the cynical, dangerous saloon owner Tom Morgan, Kate Dollar, a former prostitute who blames Morgan for pitting Blaisedell against her lover, the local miners, who are striking for safer conditions (and whose leaders the merchants try to persuade Blaisedell to run out of town), and even the outlaws themselves.  Warlock is about many things, but perhaps most importantly, it is about the allure and horror of violence and bloodshed, the way that the gunslinger, be he Marshall or outlaw, is simultaneously a hero and a villain, and the near impossible complexity of the attempt to craft a peaceful, lawful society through force of arms.  But this is only one of its many themes and pleasures.  If you're feeling Deadwood withdrawal, or just in the market for an engrossing read, I highly recommend Warlock.

  4. Just After Sunset by Stephen King - In the introduction to his most recent short story collection, King talks about falling out of the habit of writing short fiction, and becoming reacquainted with the form during his stint as guest editor for Best American Short Stories, in the wake of which he decided to try his hand at writing them again.  Which leaves me with two possible explanations for how disappointed I was by Just After Sunset, despite being a fan of King's, and particularly of his short fiction, for many years: either King still hasn't gotten back into the short story groove (and is still so famous and bankable that no one is willing to force him back into it) or I've outgrown his writerly ticks.  Most of the stories in this collection are slow and familiar, but what manages to obscure even the occasional successful moment in an otherwise failed story--the central romance in "Willa," in which the main characters have been waiting for what seems like forever for a train to replace their stalled one; the apocalyptics ending of the vignette "Graduation Afternoon," in which a townie girl grits her teeth through her upper class boyfriend's graduation party--is King's reliance on folksy speech patterns.  It used to be that, if nothing else, you could count on a Stephen King story to sound real, as if an actual person was talking to you (or to someone else), their every word choice a reflection of their personality and a reason to keep reading.  In Just After Sunset, King seems to have lost his voice(s).  His narrators and protagonists sound contrived, even fake--aiming at the folksiness of his previous novels and short stories, and failing so badly at the attempt that they sound ridiculous.  Only two stories manage to survive this failure of voice--"Mute," which veers away from the something-nasty-in-the-woodshed template that seems to underly most of the stories in the collection, and delivers a magnificently nasty punch in its final revelation, and "A Very Tight Place," in which King gets, quite literally, down in the dirt when he traps his protagonist inside an abandoned port-a-potty and describes, with obvious relish, the visceral horror of his attempts to escape.

  5. Eclipse 3, edited by Jonathan Strahan - The third installment in the controversy-ridden original story anthology series represents a departure from the previous two volumes on almost every level--the tenor of the stories, the authors, even the (quite lovely) cover design.  In his introduction, Strahan explains the shift, in a rather roundabout way, by describing Eclipse 2 as science fiction oriented.  The implication, one takes it, is that Eclipse 3 is fantasy oriented, but both characterizations strike me as inaccurate.  There are science fiction stories in Eclipse 3 just as there were fantasy stories in Eclipse 2, and the difference between the two volumes seems to have more to do with the type of genre story they feature.  If Eclipse 2 leaned towards the purely generic, pulp-inspired end of both genres, the stories in Eclipse 3 are more literary (the significance of the fact that Eclipse 2 was dominated by male writers whereas 3's table of contents is dominated by women is left as an exercise for the reader).  I was underwhelmed by Eclipse 2, and Eclipse 3 reveals that it's not the type of stories that was my problem so much as Strahan's editorial taste.  My reaction to both volumes is, in fact, almost identical--there are a few stories I like very much, one or two decent ones, and a whole mass of pieces I genuinely disliked.  The standouts are Karen Joy Fowler's "The Pelican Bar," which very nearly outdoes "What I Didn't See" for flimsy generic connections, but is nevertheless quite harrowing in its descriptions of the protagonist's hellish experiences in a reeducation camp for wayward teens, and Maureen F. McHugh's "Useless Things," a stately, plotless but evocative piece about life in the wake of economic and environmental collapse.  The best story in the anthology is Nicola Griffith's "It Takes Two," in which a female executive for a high tech company struggling to overcome the boys' club atmosphere in her profession ends up hacking her brain to get ahead in business.  Despite a shaky premise, "It Takes Two" is a meaty story that comments intelligently on several thorny issues.  The remaining stories, however, are so disappointing, veering too often towards tweeness and sentimentalism, that I'm genuinely torn about whether to continue with this series, which for the second time around has delivered much too low a ratio of good stories to bad ones, but also includes what I suspect will be a couple of my favorite stories of the year.  I guess we'll have to see how the Eclipse 4 table of contents shapes up.

  6. The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt - We end as we began, with a historical novel about America the first half of the twentieth century.  Hunt's slim, dreamy novel about the last days in the life of the inventor Nikola Tesla seems like the polar opposite of Gold's Sunnyside.  Instead of a sprawling cast and huge stakes this is a very intimate story, with only a few characters--Tesla himself, Louisa, a young chambermaid in his hotel, and her immediate family--and hardly a plot in sight.  Instead, Hunt moves back and forth between the major events of Tesla's life--his arrival in America, his adversarial relationship with Thomas Edison, fading into obscurity even as his greatest invention, alternating current, becomes the industry standard, consumed with obsessions both fantastical and merely too forward-thinking for their time--and intersperses them with Louisa's personal crises.  For all their differences, however, The Invention of Everything Else is ultimately as shapeless and unsatisfying as Sunnyside.  Hunt seems to have done her research, but her overwhelming focus on her characters' interiority leaves her with hardly any space to develop a sense of period--1943 reads just like 1893, and given the non-linearity of Tesla's narrative I was often at a loss to guess when a particular scene was set.  This might not have been a problem if the characters themselves weren't so unbelievable, but I struggled to accept any of them--not just Tesla, who in Hunt's hands is literally a mad scientist who concocts plans to talk to Mars and resurrect the dead, but also Louisa--as actual people rather than mouthpieces for a rather stultifying melange of cod-philosophy and surrealist images.  There are a few moments of genuine emotion in the novel--a short interlude describing Louisa's parents' courtship and her father's experiences during World War I, a trip to the beach Louisa takes with a suitor--but for the most part The Invention of Everything Else gave me nothing to grab onto.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2009 Edition, Part 4

My God, it will not end.  Progress report: Community and The Good Wife remain very good.  Stargate: Universe seems to be using the loosest possible interpretation of 'plot' (it would be nice to think that the two episodes in which the characters gloomily contemplate their imminent demise as the ship flies straight towards a star, only for its automated systems to save them at the last minute, represent the nadir of the show's storytelling, but as we're only seven episodes in that seems unlikely) while expending most of its energy on soapy shenanigans.  But since most of the characters are underdeveloped, the relationships between the main castmembers are nearly nonexistent, and the writers show little or no flair for enjoyably trashy, Melrose Place-style plotting, it's hard to care about X's affair with Y and A's unrequited crush on B.  The show seems determined to alienate the franchise's core fanbase without doing enough to capture a new one.
  • White Collar - Yet another entry in the subgenre of charming, effervescent crimesolving dramedies whose main appeal is their characters and humor (see also Monk, Psych, Leverage), White Collar stars Matt Bomer (the criminally underused Bryce Larkin on Chuck) as a master forger and art thief, and Tim DeKay (Jonesy from Carnivalé) as the FBI agent who catches him and then recruits him to work in the white collar crime division. Frothy enterprises of this variety are usually a pretty delicate balancing act--the plots have to be tight enough to obscure their silliness; the character interactions compelling but not too deep or angsty--and White Collar doesn't seem to have found that sweet spot.  The three episodes I've seen have been slack, and though Bomer and DeKay play well off each other, most of their meaningful interactions are with other characters with whom they have less crackle and pop.  Also disappointing is the fact that, though the pilot featured two interesting female characters--a wealthy society matron whom Bomer's character charms into giving him a swanky place to stay, and a lesbian FBI agent (whose preference neatly obviated the sexual tension between the top-billed single female character and the single male lead which often seems obligatory in shows of this type)--in subsequent episodes these have been, respectively, disappeared and replaced.  Though I'm glad to see The Middleman's Natalie Morales getting work, her job in the first episode of the season seems to have been to wear three different revealing outfits, and in the second, to moon over Bomer's character.  Which is a shame, because even within the restrictions of its deliberately shallow format, White Collar's pilot gestured at issues of class and wealth--both Bomer and DeKay's characters are middle or working class people moving in upper class circles, and they have very different attitudes towards the finer things in life--and with Leverage already starting to go off the boil, I was in the market for a new show of this type.

  • Emma - Again, not a fall pilot, but the BBC's latest adaptation of the Jane Austen novel.  Between the already quite good Gwyneth Paltrow film adaptation, the still-painful memories of the abysmal "Jane Austen Season," a series of cut-rate, uninspired adaptations of several other Austen novels from a few years ago, and the fact that writer Sandy Welch's most prominent work is a mediocre version of Jane Eyre from 2006, I had very low hopes for this miniseries, but it turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  It's not perfect, by any means, and especially when considered as an adaptation--though Emma is by no means an uneventful novel, four hours seems to have been too long for Welch, mainly because she has drastically reduced Harriet's presence in the story. This alteration seems to be a consequence of Welch's take on the novel, which in her hands becomes a meditation on the warring desires to make a home for oneself and go out to see the world--Emma representing the former, and Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax the latter.  This is, to say the least, a rather strange approach to take with a Jane Austen novel.  With the possible exception of Persuasion, it would be impossible to describe any of them as ambivalent on this point, and Emma, which begins with its heroine already the mistress of an estate and ends with her husband leaving his home to join her there, is perhaps the most decisive in extolling the virtues of domesticity.  The more Welch stresses this theme, the more she seems to have imposed her own story (one not too dissimilar to the one she told with Jane Eyre) on the original work.

    Still, taken as a work in its own right, the miniseries offers many pleasures.  Despite her shift in emphasis, Welch hits many of the novel's key scenes beautifully (though not, sadly, its most crucial one, Emma's cruel joke at Miss Bates's expense).  After two decades of near-constant Austen adaptation, I've built up a gallery of my favorite character portrayals, some of which crop up even in otherwise dreadful adaptations--the younger Bennet sisters in Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax in the Kate Beckinsale Emma--to which we can now add Johnny Lee Miller's turn as Mr. Knightley (all the more notable when one considers that, with the honorable exceptions of Colin Firth's Mr. Darcy and Ciaran Hinds's Captain Wentworth, Austen's male leads tend to fare rather poorly in adaptations, often fading into the wallpaper).  Miller plays Knightley as an appealing blend of self-assurance and self-doubt.  In the early parts of the miniseries, his abrasive intelligence is proudly on display, but as the story draws on we see his growing awareness that the same qualities that made him an excellent foil for Emma in his capacity as her surrogate older brother might be entirely unappealing in a potential lover.  His simultaneous dismissal of the fashionable, flattering young men he views as his rivals for Emma's affections, and growing envy of them as he realizes how ill-suited he is to their manner of courtship, is very well played.  Miller has fantastic chemistry with Romola Garai, who plays Emma, and Welch furnishes the two with several magnificent arguments, either embellished from conversations in the novel or invented, which show that chemistry off.  Garai herself, though she doesn't quite unseat Gwyneth Paltrow, is very good as Emma, and my main complaint against her is that between her blonde hair, wide mouth, and tendency to smile broadly and bug her eyes, she kept reminding me of how Katee Sackhoff used to play Starbuck in her more lighthearted moments, which as you can imagine is a strange association to make when watching a Regency romance.  On the whole, then, Welch's Emma is far from definitive, but it is nevertheless worth a look both for its reflections on the novel and as a piece of entertainment.

  • V - In a word, yawn.  Like the now-defunct Eastwick, V is a show with a shocking secret that everyone already knows (which is why spoiler campaigns like this are so utterly pointless), but whereas Eastwick tried to compensate for this predictability by cramming its pilot full of events and character introductions, V's premiere is slow and slack, hitting the story's salient points (the aliens have arrived; they're creepily perfect; they're really man-eating lizards) with so little verve and conviction that it feels less like a reboot of the original series and more like a lifeless imitation of it.  Given how familiar the story is, it would probably have been impossible for the remake's writers to replicate the original series's eeriness and slowly mounting horror (I say this as someone who watched the original V as a young child, though I know that those who have returned to it as adults have generally come away disappointed), but they don't seem to be aiming for any other tone, and their insistence on following the original's plot makes no sense in light of the changes they've made to its premise.  The main character is an FBI agent, who at the end of the pilot has a foolproof way of identifying stealth aliens and definitive proof that they have secretly been on Earth for many years.  And yet instead of going to her superiors with what she knows, she forms a resistance group with an admittedly very cute priest.  A potentially even greater flaw is the fact that as this lead character, Elizabeth Mitchell has all the charisma and range of expression of a cucumber.  If it didn't seem more than likely that V will prove a dud, I'd wish that Mitchell had switched roles with FlashForward's Sonya Walger, who is clearly better suited to the task of acting as a counterweight to Morena Baccarin's fantastically creepy alien leader.

    On a side-note, the show's writers and actors can protest all they like, but if they're not deliberately writing V as anti-Obama propaganda, they're using so many of its tools and buzzwords (which are, as Fred Clarke repeatedly tells us, also the tools and buzzwords of evangelical rapture-nuts) as to make no difference.  For pity's sake, the pilot could not have stressed that the evil aliens' evil plan for evil world domination begins with universal healthcare any more if there had been title cards to that effect.  Which, when you think of it, is a neat trick, because at the same time that they're telling us that peacemakers who urge humanity to embrace its nobler urges are actually wannabe tyrants secretly plotting our demise, the writers are also announcing that all the recent expressions of humanity's worst urges--war, genocide, terrorism, racial and religious strife--have happened at those same aliens' instigation.  So we don't have to listen to those pesky peacemakers, because really, we're rather peaceful ourselves, when left to our own devices?  Makes perfect sense.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Thank Goodness for Small Favors

TV site CliqueClack interviews Defying Gravity creator James Pariott about his plans for the now-defunct series's future, and his revelations about the planned storyline for the character Nadia--a no-nonsense, unemotional, extremely sexually aggressive German woman--put even the most fail-tastic of science fiction shows to shame:
Nadia — She had quite the odd hallucinations, didn’t she? Who was that man she kept seeing, and why did he look so much like Nadia? As Parriott revealed to me, some fans of the show got it right in their guess that she was, in fact, a hermaphrodite when she was born. The choice was made for her when she was 11, by her parents, which sex she’d ultimately become. So that man we’re seeing is actually what Nadia would have been, had they chosen to raise her — or him — as a man.
Now, here’s the wild kicker. All those DNA changes that are happening with the crew, caused by Beta and the other artifacts? Well, they would eventually wind up causing Nadia to gradually turn into a man.
Parrriott also said that it was planned for Nadia to really have a more significant presence in season two. “If you see the way we wrote her, she sort of had that male sexuality about her, that ‘fuck ‘em and forget ‘em’ mentality. So we wanted to write her sort of as a male character in a female body.”
As you may recall, I wasn't terrifically impressed with Defying Gravity to begin with, and in its later episodes the show lost what little charm it had when it downplayed its trashy soap opera aspects in favor of a dull and drawn out SFnal story, but I wasn't actually glad, even thankful, for its cancellation, until I read this.  Honestly, I'm willing to forgive this entire crappy fall pilot season just for knowing that there is no chance in hell that this abominable storyline will ever see the light of day.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Future History, Repeated

In my post about The Children's Book, I suggested that historical fiction might be broadly defined as fiction that takes place in a time and setting not directly experienced by its author.  Within that definition one can distinguish between different kind of historical novels according to how close they come to recorded history, to the people and events in the history books.  A historical novel can center entirely or for the most part around fictional people living ordinary (for their time) lives in the past (The Little Stranger, Sacred Hunger, Possession).  Or it can describe fictional people being caught up in momentous events (Octavian Nothing, Year of Wonders, The Children's Book).  Or it can place fictional characters at the epicenter of the great changes of their time, sometimes rubbing shoulders with historical figures, sometimes taking their place (Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles, The Baroque Cycle).  Or it can dispense with fictional characters and plots altogether, and simply fictionalize the recorded events of the past.

Hilary Mantel's ecstatically-received, Booker-winning Wolf Hall is of the latter type.  It follows the rising fortunes of Thomas Cromwell, counselor to Henry VIII and one of the chief architects of the English Reformation, from the downfall of his patron Cardinal Wolsey to that of his enemy Sir Thomas More.  It's the kind of historical novel I tend to view with distrust, which tries to make stories out of recorded events and characters out of real people.  I've written before about my unease with works that try to fictionalize reality.  A person's life, be it ever so important and full of event, is not a story, with structure, themes, and most importantly, a point, and to reduce it to one is to diminish it, and that person, in some ineffable but very real way.  And whereas works like The Other Boleyn Girl or the television series The Tudors reshape the events of history into a genre that wears its unreality on its sleeve--respectively, a romantic melodrama and a trash soap opera--and thus defuse that inevitable diminishing, Wolf Hall is told with a straight face, as a naturalistic novel that purports not only to describe events as they were but to describe Cromwell as he was.  It thus borrows significance from history even as it embroiders it and twists it into a shape that suits Mantel's purposes.

It's a difficulty that Mantel herself seems aware of.  Some way into the novel, Cromwell travels to France with Henry's entourage, and has an audience with the French king, Francis I.  As the two discuss their hopes for more friendly relations between their countries, Francis breezily observes "Who now remembers Agincourt?"
[Cromwell] almost laughs.  'It is true,' he says.  'A generation or two, or three... four... and these things are nothing.'
It's a startling exchange, and it takes a few moments to realize just why it's startling--because the event that will make Agincourt immortal won't happen for nearly 70 years, when a playwright trying to curry favor with a queen not yet born will write a piece of hagiography about her ancestor, and tie Agincourt to a piece of writing so sublime that it will come to epitomize valor, leadership, and courage on the field of battle.  To put it another way, very few of us remember Agincourt as it was, or the significance that Cromwell and Francis I attach to it, but very many of us remember the spin Shakespeare put on it in a piece of historical fiction.  The story, so long as it's sufficiently well told, is much more powerful than the fact, something that Cromwell is very much aware of, seeing as much of his service to Henry involves passing laws and proclamations that change the nature of reality and rewrite the past, turning a legal wife into a mistress, a legitimate daughter into a bastard, a pope into a bishop and a king into the head of the church.  "It's the living that turn and chase the dead," Cromwell thinks at the end of the novel.  "The long bones and skulls are tumbled from their shrouds, and words like stones thrust into their rattling mouths: we edit their writings, we rewrite their lives."

There has, of course, been much rewriting of the lives of the movers and shakers of the English Reformation, and as much as it is (an attempt at) a straight retelling of that history, Wolf Hall is response to these retellings.  The general consensus they--and most particularly Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, to which Wolf Hall often seems like a direct response--have reached about Cromwell is that he was a grasping, unprincipled man, willing to adopt any creed and mouth any ideology in order to get ahead, as opposed to Thomas More's staunch adherence to his beliefs, which eventually lead to his death.  In Mantel's hands, More becomes dogmatic and intractable, his ironclad belief the root cause of his pitiless pursuit, torture, and brutal execution of anti-Catholic heretics, whereas, as Dan Hartland points out, Mantel makes a virtue out of Cromwell's lack of conviction:
Those around Cromwell are characterised by an allegiance to a system: More’s Catholicism, Norfolk’s feudalism, Wolsey’s royalism. Cromwell, on the other hand, has an almost Nietzschean approach. “I distrust all systematizers, ” wrote the philosopher, “and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” Mantel’s Cromwell likewise believes in personal respect and education, a fully humanist perspective which sets him at odds with the medievalised England to which he is born. Mantel sees his meritocratic rise – from smith’s son to soldier, trader to merchant, lawyer to Lord Chancellor – as a symbol of the birth of our modern age.
I would go even further and say that Mantel makes a virtue out of Cromwell's lack of integrity and sense of personal dignity as well (the latter is presumably linked to his humble origins, which leave him, unlike the nobles around him, indifferent to his family's honor).  Several times over the course of the novel, Cromwell visits prisoners condemned for their words--the heretic John Frith, condemned by More; the self-proclaimed prophetess Elizabeth Barton, who had threatened Henry with divine retribution for casting off Catherine of Aragon and marrying Anne Boleyn; and finally, More himself.  Each time, he counsels the prisoners to lie, recant, and compromise their principles in order to save themselves.  "I would advise anyone to get a few more weeks of life, by any means they can," he tells Barton, advising her to 'plead her belly' in order to delay her execution, and the final conflict of the novel, between Cromwell and More, hinges on More's refusal to compromise his immortal soul by swearing an oath acknowledging Henry as the head of the church in England and the legality of his marriage to Anne.  What in A Man for All Seasons was treated as the crowning glory of More's saintliness is, in Wolf Hall, described as the epitome of his arrogance and self-regard, with Cromwell, instead of the devil trying to tempt More away from righteousness, portrayed as a humanistic angel trying to save More from himself.

But Wolf Hall doesn't simply depict Cromwell as a modern person, but as a modern literary character.  If Mantel is storying history, she's doing so in the style of the 20th century stream of consciousness novel, and her study of Cromwell reveals a very familiar type of person--complicated and conflicted, never entirely possessed by a single emotion or completely certain of his feelings.  The novel's storying of history of overlaid by an almost impressionistic journey through Cromwell's past and present, and his concerns are larger than the affairs of state he's tasked with--securing the future of his children and wards, mourning for his wife and daughters, cultivating relationships with the heretics, freethinkers, and the merchants who are remaking Europe, slowly and imperceptibly wresting power away from the feudal lords.  Mantel's Cromwell may not hold to a system or a creed, but he does have a goal--a stronger, more prosperous England, whose wealth is held by its government rather than by Rome, and whose people, high-born and low, aren't held back by tradition and superstition.

So Wolf Hall does three things--it retells the story of the early years of the English Reformation; it is a character study of Thomas Cromwell as a modern humanist; and it is a meta-commentary on historical fiction and how it can come to supersede historical facts.  Each of these elements is extremely well done, and the novel, despite its brick-like appearance, is such an engrossing read that I very nearly swallowed it whole.  But I find myself falling short of the rapturous praise it's received in other quarters, and I think this is because these three elements end up warring with each other.  Cromwell is the heart of the novel, but how seriously can we take Mantel's hagiography of him when even she's poking holes at it?  And if we were tempted to read Wolf Hall as the character study of a fictionalized Cromwell, there is its careful, almost meticulous attention to detail, to even the smallest events of the period, to contend with, which insists that we take it seriously as a realistic and accurate representation of its era.

I'm not quite as down on the novel as Dan Hartland, who, despite enjoying it, concludes that Mantel goes too far in portraying Cromwell as an accidental politician, and ultimately makes him almost a Mary Sue, but I do feel manipulated by her use of history.  Wolf Hall ends with More's execution, which might be said to be the apex of Cromwell's career--his last and most powerful enemy vanquished, his immediate goals--the marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn, the divestment of England's ties to Rome--achieved, but rather conveniently leaves off the actual, more bitter, ending to his story.  Mantel has said that she plans to write a sequel to Wolf Hall covering Cromwell's downfall, but it's hard not to feel that she cut the story off when she did not because she wanted to write a duology but because it would have been so much harder for her to spin as sympathetic and humanistic the events of the last five years of Cromwell's life, in which the very mechanisms he put in place to stave off the corruption of the church end up enabling the corruption of the state, and the same tools he used to get rid of Catherine and cement Henry's power will be turned against Anne and finally himself, turning a faithful wife and a loyal counselor into traitors.  Whether or not the sequel was in Mantel's mind when she sat down to write Wolf Hall, the fact remains that, taken on its own, it makes for a confusing statement--simultaneously relying on history, and our familiarity with it, for its significance, and expecting us to ignore those bits of history it finds inconvenient.

Wolf Hall is the third of this year's Booker nominees I've read, following The Little Stranger and The Children's Book, which I believe is a personal record (still on my to be read stack is Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, but I'm not particularly drawn to either of the remaining nominees).  Each of these historical novels is an accomplished, engrossing, albeit seriously flawed read, but if I had to pick a favorite, I would probably give the Byatt the slightest of edges over the Mantel, not so much for being a better book but for treating history in a way that I'm more comfortable with.  As I wrote at the time, Byatt doesn't so much story history as report it, and as problematic and frustrating as this approach can be, it did at least draw a line between the fact and fiction that kept me from being knocked out of the story, as I repeatedly was during my reading of Wolf Hall, by the realization that, for all her acknowledgment of the unreliability of any fictional representation of the past, Mantel was selling as historical fact a bit of mythology.  It is, of course, inevitable that any work of historical fiction will twist and shape the facts of history to fit its own story, but I prefer a work that acknowledges this inevitability to one that pays lip service to it, but also expects us to forget it.