Friday Fave: Dirty Dancing

This week in oh hell I feel old now: Dirty Dancing celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in a scene from the film ‘Dirty Dancing’, 1987. (Photo by Vestron/Getty Images)

Are there any women who have seen this film and don’t like it? I don’t think I’ve met them. There used to be a time when I was certain that a few of my friends wouldn’t like it, so I never asked; I later found that they did like it, very much so. There are very few films of which this is true–maybe The Princess Bride and Labyrinth? (Which also both turn 30 this year, as does Some Kind of Wonderful. 1987 was a hella good year for films.)

I was nine when the film came out, but I don’t think I was allowed to see it until I was 11; I spent a few weeks in England with family that summer, and remember practicing dance steps on a short brick wall in my grandparents’ garden, in imitation of the scene where they dance on the tree that had fallen across the river. (It may have been that I just hadn’t had the chance to see it until then–I can’t remember when we got our first VHS player, and it was usually 18 months between a film appearing in the theatre and being shown on tv back then.)

I will never get bored of this film. It’s an awesome love story, but for a simple storyline there’s so much more going on. I love that as a coming-of-age story, Baby spends very little time agonizing over her choices; she has her moral convictions and they stand her in good stead. As a love story it is in some ways the quintessential fairy tale romance, but it abandons the usual narrative of one partner on an active campaign to win the other’s heart. Baby is smitten the moment she sees Johnny, but she does not set out on a campaign to win his heart, first being convinced that she doesn’t have a chance and second because, having found a cause that she can help, she’s too busy learning to dance. In between being refreshingly, honestly awkward. It is Johnny whom we get to see falling in love, a la Pride and Prejudice but with the social roles reversed, with a woman who irritates the hell out of him until he recognizes that she isn’t just another spoiled brat who thinks she can have whatever she sets her eyes on.

I think the quality of the acting in much of the film is stellar, and often overlooked because it isn’t a heavy drama. Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze had worked together on a film before, and weren’t overly impressed with one another; halfway through filming Dirty Dancing, they were finding it so hard to work together that the director had to sit them down and show them their screen tests to make them see what they were capable of. The only hint of this evident in the finished film fits perfectly to the characters’ personalities and frustrations when Baby is trying to master the Mambo to exhibition level–there is no trace of it in the last third of the film. Their chemistry is electric all the way through. Jane Brucker also deserves notice for playing Baby’s jealous, shallow older sister Lisa to perfection.

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The politics in the film remain relevant, thirty years on. It focuses on class divisions that U.S. public discourse has often preferred to pretend don’t exist, and portrays female sexuality and the consequences of making abortion illegal without shaming Baby and Penny for their actions. I particularly like that a story dealing with themes that are as serious as it gets, particularly in today’s political climate, ends with sheer, uncomplicated joy. Baby’s father apologizes to Johnny and reaffirms his love for Baby, Baby’s mother demonstrates that she does indeed get both her talent and her good sense from her, and Baby and Johnny get to walk, if not ride, off into the sunset. I have often wondered if Johnny would have moved down to Massachusetts to stay close to her, and if Baby would have given up joining the Peace Corps for him. Or convinced him to go with her.

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The thought of doing remakes of films like this usually fills me with dread–surely there are new stories to be told without wasting the money on rehashing a story that has already been told to perfection. The sequel (prequel? companion piece? almost entirely unrelated film about dancing that they just tacked the name on to and gave Patrick Swayze a cameo in?) they did about ten years ago was entirely forgettable, which is quite an achievement for a film starring Diego Luna and Romola Garai. In this case, however, I would honestly like to see an updated version of the story, focusing on race and/or LGBTQ equality in addition to class issues, particularly given the current attempts to reverse Roe v Wade. It would be interesting to hear how many people would decry a classic film being “politicized”.

Friday Fave: Ballet

Like many small girls at the age of four or five, I went through a phase of wanting to be a ballerina when I grew up. This was preceded by having wanted to be one of those people who bags groceries and then a football player, so I’m sure my mother was relieved by this. Me being me, however, I was always determined to do it myself, without the need for actually learning what was involved in the art from someone who knew what he or she was doing. This resulted in a dislike of the ballet class I was duly enrolled in, and permanent damage to the big toes on both of my feet because I was certain that I could master pointe work if I just learned to balance. I retained a desire to possess one of those pink-and-white ballet boxes and a fondness for wearing leather-soled ballet slippers around the house, but soon after this I discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, and Robin Hood, and moved on to even less practical daydreams of being an adult in times other than the one in which I lived.

I didn’t pay much attention to ballet again until I was sixteen and happened to see a brief Vladimir Malakhov performance on television one Sunday, back when the A&E channel in the US actually showed Arts and Entertainment programming. I waited patiently for a repeat, or other performances; the only thing that I could find were recordings and screenings of the Nutcracker. Finding these interesting but not especially inspiring, I gave up and returned again to my books and music.

The Christmas before last I saw an ad that PBS was airing the film of Matthew Bourne’s production of Sleeping Beauty. I noticed the costumes more than anything else–all sparkly and lace-trimmed goth aesthetic–and set it to record. I had other things on my mind at that time and didn’t bother to watch it for a couple of months, but when I did, I was hooked. I did like the costumes and the twist on the classic story, introducing vampires and other new elements to an old fairy tale, but I loved watching the dancing. It isn’t classical ballet by any means–lots of dancing barefoot, and I don’t remember any pointe work–but this was my gateway drug. It was like discovering a new genre in fiction I’d never paid attention to before, learning the terminology, the different periods of dance, watching enough to distinguish between the styles of specific choreographers and dancers.

I have learned enough to have preferences, but I’m still an amateur, not a proper fangirl yet. I haven’t found anything that bores me in the field–every production I’ve seen yields something interesting in terms of the techniques of the dancers, the way the movements tell a story, the costumes. I have acquired five different performances of Swan Lake, without meaning to specialize in a particular piece; the thing about relying on the handful of fairy-tale-inspired ballets that keep drawing audiences back generation after generation is the consequent need to reinvent and reinterpret the stories to keep them alive. There are classic versions with sumptuous sets and costumes, and there are stripped-down versions with modern choreography and, Matthew Bourne’s production, most of the genders of the roles switched.

I recently read Jennifer Homan’s Apollo’s Angels (2011), in order to learn something of the history of the art. I do recommend it as a thorough introduction to the origins and different regional styles of the art through the centuries, but I disagree strongly with her assertion that the art is dying if not already dead. Choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor are hammering out new ways to tell stories through dance, and dancers are again becoming prominent pop culture figures, drawing new audiences and more importantly inspiring new generations of dancers–Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin, Steven McRae, Carlos Acosta, and most of all Misty Copeland, are known to audiences beyond dedicated ballet aficionados, and are bringing ballet back to international prominence. There are companies such as the BalletBoyz, who created a dance to commemorate the centenary of World War I, and the collaboration between the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet to create a new version of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, with the singers shadowed by dancers who illustrate the opera as it is sung.

There are so many amazing dancers that it would take too long to go into even a handful here–aside from those mentioned above, Eric Underwood, Zenaida Yanowsky, and Lauren Cuthbertson are always well worth watching. Vladimir Malakhov is still a prominent figure, more as a director and advisor these days than a performer, although his Caravaggio (2009) is as vital and enthralling a performance as anything done by younger dancers. My current favourite, though, is Edward Watson. There’s something shallow in a lot of the emotion portrayed in a lot of the stories told in ballet, generally a necessary side effect when the aim of the art is making such strenuous and difficult movement look effortless. Watson has a particular gift for making the emotions his characters are possessed by feel real, especially the darker ones–grief, fear, desperation, and madness. His performance in Mayerling, as the hedonistic and unbalanced crown prince of Austria who is obsessed with his mother, abuses his wife, and eventually kills his teenage mistress before killing himself, is as compelling as it is disturbing; he is even more magnetic as Gregor Samsa in Arthur Pita’s adaptation of The Metamorphosis.

Alongside the old standards of fairy tales, there are new works appearing every year based on literature, from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll to Virginia Woolf. There are also works that follow Balanchine rather than MacMillan or Ashton in dispensing with a storyline altogether in favour of pure expression and form. Next time you’re looking for something to watch online, give a ballet a try–it isn’t all tutus and sugarplum fairies and Tchaikovsky. Now there are sets decorated by Swarovski, costumes by prominent fashion designers, music by Jack White. I’m entirely convinced there’s something for everyone, if only everyone would give it enough of a chance.

 

Friday Fave: Last of the Mohicans (1992)

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Whenever you see a film made from a book, the standard response is “the book was better.” This is usually true, to be fair; the problem is that it’s such an automatic response these days I often wonder if the person telling me that has actually read the book. (These are usually strangers who are unaware that reading novels is about as vital as eating to me.) However, it isn’t invariably true. There are some perfectly good films that have remarkably little to do with the book that supposedly inspired them (Easy A, 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless) and some excellent films that alter the story they are based on in minor or sometimes drastic ways but turn out to be so good that I can’t bring myself to care (The English Patient, The Princess Bride). And then there are films that are so, so much better than the book, such as Body of Lies (2008), The Assassination Bureau (1969), and most of all Last of the Mohicans (1992).

I’ve never understood why James Fenimore Cooper is still taught in schools–a book having been a bestseller during a certain period is not the same thing as it actually being a great novel. (Imagine Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer being taught in high schools.) (Actually, don’t. If that ever comes to pass, please don’t tell me.) Cooper apparently felt no burning need to write or create stories, nor demonstrated any particular talent for it at an early age; he was reading a novel one day and decided it was no great challenge, so he sat down to write his own. His lack of any inherent genius for the form shows in the inconsistency of his characterizations and many other flaws. I tried to read The Last of the Mohicans when I was fourteen, found the female characters unbearable, and gave up. Later, the year I studied American Lit in high school, on the one day my English teacher devoted to Cooper and the other early American writers we would not cover (we read Hawthorne and several poets from the time instead), he explained that Cooper’s novels contained a number of lovely descriptions of the long-vanished New England wilderness, but not much else worthwhile, and referred us to Mark Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” (Very much worth reading, if you haven’t already.)

I can’t think of any other instance where so poor a novel has been made into so compelling a film. I have a feeling that the film of The Last of the Mohicans is variously dismissed by critics and adored by some fans solely as a visually stunning romantic adventure (emphasis on the romance), due mostly if not entirely to the famous scene of Daniel Day-Lewis shouting at Madeline Stowe “No matter how long it takes, no matter how far–I will find you!” I’ve always found this to be decidedly unfair; there’s a lot more to the film than Hawkeye and Cora’s undying love, dramatic and gorgeous as it is. It is about the reasons that the American colonies rebelled against Britain, without being about the revolution itself; it also offers a wealth of detail about people lived in the 18th century, and particularly attitudes towards women during that time, again without being preachy or even intentionally feminist. I have no idea whether Cooper had any intention of earnestly mourning the loss of the indigenous American cultures that European settlers wiped out, but those who made the 1992 film evidently did. Alongside the love stories and the conflict between settlers and the military, the film dramatizes some of the more subtle methods used eradicating native cultures and populations. Most people know about the smallpox blankets, the Trail of Tears, and the massacre at Wounded Knee, but the damage done by alcoholism, the exploitation of native populations as servants and cat’s-paws, the co-opting and whitewashing of indigenous traditions aren’t common knowledge in the same way. The titular Last of the Mohicans at the end of the story is a man mourning his only son, and the end of his tribe with him, but the grief is simply personal; it is the loss of a culture. It feels wrong to me to say I like this, but in the same way I treasure Dark Hour of Noon and the film Wit, I find it valuable–it is beautifully done and important to revisit, even when it is hard to do so.

There are a thousand other things to like about the film. The sharp little glints of sarcasm in the dialogue, particularly those between Hawkeye and Cora; Jodhi May’s excellent turn as Alice, making what could have been an insipid and useless character compelling and heartbreaking; Eric Schweig, just because; the soundtrack; the locations where the filming took place. Seriously, you could watch solely for the views of the Blue Ridge mountains and you wouldn’t be wasting your time.

One of the more unusual, though certainly not unique, problems afflicting fans of the film is that when it was released on dvd, for some reason it was decided to release a different cut of the film. Then, when the blu-ray came out, a definitive director’s cut was released (because apparently Michael Mann hadn’t made up his mind when he did the first director’s cut…). There are at least three (possibly four) versions of the film; the second, the first dvd version, cuts some of the best lines. (They did the same thing with the new Ghostbusters. It’s quite maddening.) The differences between three of the versions are discussed in detail here, if anyone is interested; if you can get the original theatrical release, I recommend that one, at least to watch first. After that, the Definitive Director’s Cut restores some of the missing lines, if not all. The first Director’s Cut is still the film, still plenty to see and enjoy, but definitely the worst of the three.

 

Friday Fave: Whiskey

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I haven’t met many varieties of alcohol I didn’t like, but whiskey is my favourite. It will get you plastered, certainly, if that’s what you’re looking for, but drinking it solely to get drunk is really quite a waste; it is best when savoured slowly, and well worth the time and patience to learn the distinct qualities of the different brands and types, be it American, Canadian, Scottish, Irish, or Japanese, single malt or blended, rye, Kentucky bourbon, etc. (If you want to know what decent whiskey tastes like, avoid the aberration that is Fireball at all costs.)

It still has a reputation for being a man’s drink, which is a pity; happily, this seems to be changing. (There is an organization dedicated to introducing more women to whiskey in its many forms, and cocktails made therefrom, called Women Who Whiskey. If you’re interested and over 21, do join up.) If you’ve ever watched Mad Men, you’ll know what an old fashioned is, but there are many, many more whiskey cocktails to enjoy. It also makes a good digestif and is awesome in Irish coffee, although I strongly recommend not trying this if you have anything you need to focus on in the following hour or two, and workplaces generally frown on the practice. With good reason. I personally believe that it’s demented to spend more than two or three hundred dollars on anything meant to be eaten or drunk, unless doing so for charity, but when it comes to whiskey I do at least understand the pricing given the aging process, the rarity of older whiskeys, and the fabulous decanters used for some of them. Happily a good quality bottle of scotch can be had for $40 or so.

So if you haven’t tried a good whiskey before (and you’re old enough to do so and not driving afterwards–seriously, I can get tipsy on a couple of mouthfuls on an empty stomach, and I drink often enough to have a moderate tolerance), make this your week to ask a trusted bartender or knowledgeable friend to recommend you one. My current personal favourites that are commonly available are Glenmorangie, Highland Park, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, and Redbreast; everyone has their own. On Tuesday evening we might all need one.

Friday Fave: Vampire Films

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The Hunger (1983), starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and David Bowie

Vampires actually aren’t my favourite paranormal theme: I much prefer ghost stories. The trouble is that ghost stories made into films are usually rubbish, in my experience; there are a few notable exceptions, such as The Others, but on the whole they’re a disappointment unless done tongue-in-cheek. I’ve never found werewolves a particularly appealing theme either, again with the occasional exception such as An American Werewolf in London. Vampires are the reverse–often (although not invariably) dull in fiction, but frequently excellent as subjects for film stories. As supernatural/paranormal type films go. When I was a teenager, The Lost Boys (1987), (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) were the best recent offerings of the genre; after that the focus seemed to shift to ghosts and all the horror films inspired by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Saw (2004). There were the Underworld and Blade franchises, and the occasional silly or incredibly dark vampire film (Van Helsing, 2004; 30 Days of Night, 2007), but while Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were going strong on television, there was a bit of a dip in production of films about vampires.

Then came Twilight. Love the series or hate it–I’m closer to the ‘hate it’ end of the spectrum, although I did read all of the books in a single binge during a fit of depression–Stephenie Meyer did bring vampires back to the forefront of pop culture. The first book in the series came out in 2005; in 2006 there was a sudden burst of vampire films, and the vogue has remained in effect since then, dominated, of course, by the film adaptations of the books. Lots of these films are dross, of course, but there have been a few gems in the flood.

Let The Right One In
Let The Right One In

Let the Right One In (2008) was in theatres at the same time as Twilight. Everyone I knew went to see Twilight; few people I spoke to had even heard of Let the Right One In, which I felt to be a crying shame, because it’s an excellent film regardless of genre, and so much more interesting than its more famous rival. Most vampire films incorporate some element of sexual attraction in their vampires, or else make them horrific, repellent creatures (Coppola’s Dracula manages to do both); Let the Right One In takes a different approach, telling the story of a lonely boy who befriends what he thinks at first another similarly lonely child; the sweetness of relationship between the two makes the child-vampire Eli’s predatory nature all the more eerie. The two kids in the lead roles, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, are brilliant–Leandersson is currently studying theatre and seems intent on pursuing acting as a career, but Hedebrant seems to have abandoned acting for music, which is the film world’s loss but, I presume, music’s gain.

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Byzantium

Byzantium (2012) flew even further under the radar than most of the artier vampire films. I remember reading a review of it and thinking I wanted to see it, but somehow I got it into my head that it was a tongue-in-cheek vampire story about a girl’s boarding school. (I have no clue where I got this idea. All I can think is that I was reading a preview or review of American Horror Story: Coven, which started at about the time Byzantium would have been released on dvd, and I conflated the two in my memory. It wouldn’t be the first time my mind has played such a trick on me.) I forgot about it until I noticed it playing on one of the film channels and recorded it; even then it took me a couple of weeks to get around to watching it. I particularly regret this–it’s one of those films that would look particularly good on a big screen.
Byzantium isn’t tongue-in-cheek in the slightest, but neither is it a blood-and-guts horror film. It’s a little like Twilight in being at its core a romance between a vampire and a human, but it’s also an engaging, if flawed, thriller. This time the tension isn’t between vampires and their human prey; it’s between the race of vampires, here a sort of eternal Victorian men’s club a la Boodles or The Athanaeum, and the only two female vampires in existence, who are being hunted down for violating the rule of the order (i.e. that only men should be vampires). It’s a feminist vampire story, something that, to my knowledge, is entirely new in the genre, unless you count Buffy. It isn’t perfect; Gemma Arterton’s and Sam Riley’s characters are well-acted but inconsistent in their aims, and their respective about-faces at the end of the story, though necessary for the conclusion, make little sense psychologically. Saoirse Ronan and Caleb Landry-Jones, on the other hand, are pretty much perfect. (Landry Jones, unprepossessing as Banshee in the X-Men franchise, is absolutely magnetic as the terminally ill Frank, and would be worth watching even if the rest of the film were terrible.) The film also features Thure Lindhardt and Jonny Lee Miller being evil and Tom Hollander and Maria Doyle Kennedy being cluelessly human. Its greatest weakness is its title–Byzantium is ostensibly the name of a bed-and-breakfast in a small coastal resort town in Britain, which presumably opened some time in the sixties or seventies. I can’t imagine an English family opening a B&B called Byzantium in any decade, even the swinging sixties. A bar, maybe, but not a B&B. Interesting and evocative as a title for a vampire film; completely at odds with the tone and locale of the story that the film unfolds.

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The Only Lovers Left Alive

The best and most recent of my favourites of the genre is Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), which features Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the eponymous lovers (Adam and Eve), Mia Wasikowska as Swinton’s wayward (well, possibly psychotic) younger sister, and John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe. (The Christopher Marlowe.) There is some existential angst and fear of a mysterious plague that is killing vampires, but mostly the story is a snapshot of what Adam and Eve experience during the course of one of their rare reunions, on this occasion interrupted by Eve’s younger sister Ava. There really isn’t much in the way of gore or terror in this one; it is instead littered with a wealth of cultural references and gorgeous cinematography. It is the most accessible of Jarmusch’s films, and the most elegant of Tom Hiddleston’s–well, except perhaps for his turn as Henry V in the BBC’s The Hollow Crown (swoon). I’d like to add a superlative for Tilda Swinton, but when is she not unheimlich and beautiful in a performance?

There are certainly other excellent vampire films, but if I covered them all we’d be here all day. (If you haven’t seen The Hunger, do, because–well, David Bowie is in it, do you need another reason?) Also, if you’re looking for a novel dealing with vampires that is not modeled on either Anne Rice or Stephenie Meyer, I strongly recommend Lauren Owen’s The Quick–a bit steampunk, a bit literary, all kinds of awesome. And of course there is the original, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Happy Halloween!

Friday Fave: Ben Whishaw

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I have a hard time narrowing down lists of favourites. I love questions such as “what are your desert island discs” or “name your seven favourite books” but I find them challenging to answer, because in my mind I have to run through a list of a dozen or two and then weigh them against one another–which ones do I think are qualitatively the best, and which do I find most appealing for personal reasons, some emotional significance or love of a particular character? Chopin is in every way a superior musician to Jeff Buckley (well, we don’t know what kind of voice Chopin had), but I would be just as grieved by not being able to listen to the latter as I would if all of Chopin’s music were suddenly taken from us.

I have lots of favourite actors, to the point that the appellation ‘favourite’ usually feels pointless–there are those I feel capable of excellent performances, who likely number a couple hundred or so, I haven’t counted, and then there’s everyone else. Awards for best acting nearly always go to deserving recipients, in my opinion; it’s just that there are so many fine performances in each year’s crop of films and television shows that which ones get noticed seems to be more like a lottery and less like a process of elimination, usually based on who’s prettiest. 2009 was a good year for film, and the nominees for the 2010 Oscars and Baftas were all worthy. The problem to me was that Jane Campion’s Bright Star, and its stars Abbie Cornish, Paul Schneider, and most particularly Ben Whishaw, weren’t among them.

There are good actors, and then there are the likes of Paul Newman, Michael K. Williams, Tilda Swinton, for whom every performance is compelling, even in poorly directed films, and flawless when paired with a good director. Ben Whishaw is this caliber of good, which seems to be widely agreed among film and theatre critics whose opinions make it into print, and yet he’s received a paltry number of nominations, let alone awards, considering his body of work. The man is living, breathing art; there were performances as good as his turn as John Keats (and I don’t feel that any of the awards won by The Hurt Locker), but Bright Star was every bit as good as An Education.

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He is not your average box-office draw–he lacks the matinee idol looks of George Clooney or Tom Hiddleston–but he’s beautiful to watch. There is a grace and vulnerability to him that informs every character I’ve seen him play. Even in roles such as Grenouille in Perfume and Shakespeare’s Richard II, rather than undercutting the darkness of such characters, his slight frame and gentleness serve to make those characters more insidious. When he’s playing a character such as John Keats, Ben Coulter in Criminal Justice, or Freddie Lyon in The Hour, it can be devastatingly charming–or just devastating. He’s one of those actors for whom I will automatically buy everything he’s in just because it’s him and I know he’ll be worth watching, but I haven’t been able to watch Lilting yet, because it came out at about the time my mother died and until recently I’ve been quite sure I wasn’t able to handle revisiting that magnitude of grief. I’m almost there.

His stage performances are apparently almost legendary. I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before–probably about Hamilton–but why isn’t releasing performances of plays and musicals on dvd/blu-ray/streaming a thing like it is for opera and ballet? I’m entirely sure people would be as happy to buy a recording of a stage play as they would a film or tv show featuring a favourite actor, and there are so very many film stars to who do stage performances on the side. (There is a series of very good recordings of Shakespeare and Marlowe plays staged at the Globe Theatre, but this series is a rarity.) Whishaw’s performance of Hamlet opposite Imogen Stubbs is recorded on film, but it’s locked away in a vault in somewhere in London and only available to view if you sign up for an appointed time. Surprisingly enough there aren’t many people who can hop on a plane to come visit.

His voice by itself is almost as compelling as his performances. Here is a rendition of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, which plays during the closing credits of Bright Star. The background music is arranged by Mark Bradshaw, now Whishaw’s husband. It is the perfect end to a perfect film.

Friday Fave: Possession, by A. S. Byatt

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“Vocabularies are crossing circles and loops. We are defined by the lines we choose to cross or to be confined by.”

A.S. Byatt’s Possession is a perfect treasure-box of a novel. I keep a shelf of books in my room of those works that have changed my life, changed how I look at the world: Possession is one that I take with me when I travel, like a literary comfort blanket. Dark Hour of Noon was the first of those; unless I count Jane Yolen’s Sister Light, Sister Dark and Sheila Finch’s The Garden of the Shaped for introducing me to fantasy and sci-fi, Possession was second, and possibly the most significant. I had always known I wanted to study English at university–what else does a person do when reading is as important a part of her life as eating and breathing?–but when I finished Possession I knew I wanted to make a career in the literary world beyond being a writer, be it as an academic, in publishing, book-binding, something. It also instilled in me a life-long habit of hunting through second-hand bookshops looking for lost treasures.

I discovered the novel via one of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror yearbooks with the gorgeous Thomas Canty covers, among the list of novels worth reading at the back. I’ve always found this a bit odd, even at my first reading; it is not a fantasy novel, although it does incorporate a few short fable-like stories and a lot of discussion of mythology on the part of the main characters. I looked for it at my local bookshop because I liked the title, and because it had won the Booker Prize; I didn’t know what the Booker Prize was (I was fourteen, and had only a hazy idea of what the Internet was at that point), but it sounded interesting. When I found it, I fell in love with the cover alone, and it remains one of the most perfect choices in terms of using a preexisting painting to illustrate a book, in my estimation.

I had been reading adult novels for years at this point and by no means did this end my love of sci-fi and fantasy (or comic books, which I had also discovered a few months before), but this changed my taste; I stopped reading the small, cheaply bound paperbacks, quickly coming to the conclusion that most literary fiction worth reading came in the larger-sized paperbacks with better quality paper and fancier covers. I discovered The English Patient and E. M. Forster shortly afterwards, and remained convinced well into my twenties that being published by Vintage was almost a guarantee that a novel was good. I continue to hope that someone will make a mini-series out of it–the film version with Gwyneth Paltrow was a good film, but was pretty loose in its telling of the story, and a great deal had to be cut out. A version starring Ben Whishaw and Romola Garai and directed by Suzanne Bier would probably be close to perfect, although I know this will never happen.

The intersections of the two parallel stories told in Possession have so many layers to them that in over twenty years of re-reading this novel it’s never become “predictable”–I know the story, but can’t memorize the intricate turns of the narrative because each reading highlights some different aspect, or in the months since my previous reading I’ll have learned something new that reveals a different significance to some scene or reference which I never noticed before. It is an investigation of all the different meanings the concept of possession can have, from the physical to the legal to the paranormal. It is a mildly satirical portrait of academia, and the impact of feminist theory on traditional literary criticism; it is an explication of what feminism and feminist theory represents, and why it is necessary; it is a literary detective story; it is an homage to the mythology and its influence on culture and the imagination; it is an exploration of the different ways sexuality shapes our lives and the consequences of denying it–personally and culturally. It is two (literally and figuratively) related love stories, one Victorian and one contemporary, one doomed and one founded on hope. At its core, it is itself a love letter to art and literature, to how a work of art is born as an expression of one’s own identity and goes on to shape the identities of others. It is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, and if you haven’t read it already, you’re missing out.

“An odd phrase, ‘by heart,’…as though poems were stored in the bloodstream.”

 

Friday Fave: Thandie Newton

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I had been planning on watching Westworld in the way I’ve planned on watching most of the new shows that HBO and Showtime have rolled out over the last three years or so–just barely remembering to set the DVR, not paying attention to who the leads are until the opening credits. I know the shows will feature compelling visuals and fine acting; I also have faith that they almost invariably feature strong writing. (Although season two of True Detective severely tested that faith. Severely.) I never question if these shows will be good; it is always a matter of whether the story will appeal to me. Even with the shows that I like, though, I tend to be lackadaisical about getting around to watching them; I only have an hour or two a day to pay attention to a TV show on weekdays, and I find that they often benefit from being watched in longer chunks than an hour at a time, so I save them up for weekends when I do the ironing.

Shows that I like so much that I simply lack the patience to save up several episodes for a mini-marathon are increasingly rare–there was The Killing, the first couple of seasons of Downton Abbey, Borgen, season 1 of Rogue, last year’s Deustchland 83, and now Westworld. I read a few conflicting reviews, one focused on Evan Rachel Wood and another, more critical, claiming that the show “starts off with a bang but then falls down a rabbit hole of Lost-style strangeness.” I disagree particularly with this last, as much as I usually like Vox’s reviews–my impression was the show’s writers and producers know exactly what they want it to be, there is one central mystery of which all the “disconnected” mysteries are threads, and if the rest of the season measures up to this first episode it will be a fine and particularly creepy exploration of our fear of AI. Just because it’s subtle doesn’t mean it’s a mess–there is no bad here, as far as episode 1 goes.

And there is this cast, this amazing how-did-they-cram-so-many-awesome-people-into-one-show cast. Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Sidse Babette Knudsen, Evan Rachel Wood, Jimmi Simpson, Ben Barnes, and most of all Thandie Newton, who was the heart of the aforementioned Rogue until she left it and it was ruined.

I’ve loved Thandie Newton’s work since I saw Flirting on TV one afternoon, years and years ago. It was one of my favourite films for a long time, until I read about the director John Duigan’s abusive relationship with her; I haven’t been able to watch it since. In some cases I can separate what is on screen from what happened off-screen, but this is not one of them.

Fortunately there is a wealth of other excellent work Newton has done since, in addition to being an outspoken women’s rights activist and having, from all indications, an enviable family life. She’s never fallen into the trap of being typecast, doing comedy, drama, and action–she’s as adept at costume drama as she is at being a total badass, on screen and off. This will serve especially well in her role in Westworld, which, if the hints in episode one pan out, will be far more complex than simply an android sex worker. I find it a bit frustrating that all the articles I’ve read on the series thus far have been either breathless or cross in discussing the presentation of sex in the show (and most of them refusing to acknowledge that there is a difference between portraying sexual violence with the aim of highlighting its negative effects and doing so gratuitously), but only a few have mentioned the questioning of the nature of free will that the show explores, and none at all have even touched on the matters of consciousness and identity that made this first episode so compelling to me. I’m thrilled that Newton has a new role as promising as Grace in Rogue was, and I look forward to seeing where she takes Maeve.

Further reading on some of the activism Newton is involved with, and her own blog:

One Billion Rising

V-Day

TED Talk: Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself

ThandieKay

 

Friday Fave: Marley Dias

Stretching out on a pile of books this large was one of my childhood fantasies. Unfortunately I didn’t own this many until I was in my late teens, by which time it was less appealing as a physical activity.

Marley Dias is one of my heroes. Her story started spreading over the Internet at the beginning of this year, when she founded the #1000blackgirlbooks movement. I loved books every bit this much when I was eleven; I had approximately 0% of her social awareness, discipline, or self-confidence. Over twenty-five years later, I have some of her social awareness and a tiny bit of her discipline, maybe a little more self-confidence than I started with, but I’m still lagging waaay behind. I still 100% hate being in front of a camera. Forget just being a role model for kids; a lot of grown-ups could learn a thing or two from her.

In addition to her ongoing book campaign,–she has hit her target, but why quit when you’re ahead?–and BAM, a related project/website she runs with her friends Briana and Amina, the magazine Elle recently invited her to edit a special edition ‘zine called Marley Mag. (I’m not entirely sure how a ‘zine is different from a magazine; is this a new thing, or just shorthand for the same thing we pick up next to the grocery-store check-out?) She is self-possessed when meeting the likes of Oprah and Ellen, and not a little photogenic; that she finds time to do all this and still attend school on a regular basis–and still read books–amazes me. I get a little tired just thinking about how much energy that must take.
I’d put money on her becoming the Lin-Manuel Miranda or Misty Copeland of the publishing world by the time she’s 30 20, at the rate she’s going.

I might have mentioned a time or twenty that I’m an avid reader; I also work in the publishing industry, and am a writer myself. I hear and read a great deal about how literacy is dying, people aren’t learning handwriting any more, everyone’s reading e-books and computers instead of printed books, and thus not absorbing as much of what they read. Insofar as that is true–and I agree that it is, at least in part, although all the dire warnings from the 1980s that by the year 2000 only a fraction of the population might be able to read proved wildly overstated, and I suspect that the predictions of the extinction of the printed page will prove similarly exaggerated–it is on us to keep that from happening. There are severe problems with the educational system, to be sure, and they do need fixing, but no one is going to enjoy reading if they only do it in the schoolroom and then in the workplace. Bemoaning the loss of literacy and writing skills makes no sense when as a nation we take such brief notice of people like Marley and other kids with similar, if less revolutionary, aims, such as Blake AnsariTyler Fugett, Evan Feldberg-Bannatyne, and Kirstin Shipp. I love that someone this young, with a bit of star quality and a ton of ambition, has made the celebration of reading and a demand for greater diversity in literature her mission in life. This is how we can save our literary culture. More power to her, and all those who have decided to emulate her.

Friday Fave: Cheese Chasers

Cheese has always been a serious matter in my household. My father is in general one of those people unwilling to spend more than absolutely necessary on what he needs; if I’m buying a packet of cocoa powder, or a cut of meat, or a new phone, he has always found it necessary to query why I’m buying this or that particular brand or style, and inform me (usually more than once) that I would have spent less if I’d bought said thing somewhere else, or a different brand’s version. There are, however, a few things he does not compromise on: marmalade, bread, and cheese. Never once has he argued with me over the price of a loaf of bread, and anything labeled as “cheese food” or “spray cheese” is not allowed in the house. We bought Velveeta once to make nachos, but it was pronounced a failure. I do remember a brief period from my childhood when we had Kraft slices at home, possibly because I had begged for them–I have absolutely no memories of taking them to school for lunch, but I think we used them for cheese toast–but when Cabot cheese appeared in our local supermarket, that was the end of individually wrapped, plasticky cheese. I also remember my mother describing how someone had told her that she cooked macaroni and cheese for dinner at least once a week, because it was so tasty and saved her money, and wondering how it could possibly save her money when a block of cheese for the dish cost so much; I’m not sure my mother had ever realized, at least at that point, that a box of macaroni and cheese mix included powdered stuff that resembled cheese sauce when prepared.

As long as there has been high-quality cheese available in our local supermarkets, preferably imported from the UK or France or Italy, there has always been a block of cheddar in our refrigerator. It is often accompanied by a piece of brie or camembert, and more recently, Danish blue. I’d make a great many more trips to the Whole Foods cheese counter if my income allowed. (When I lived in Edinburgh there was J. Mellis Cheesmongers, one of the nicest cheese shops ever. Mellis has six locations in Scotland; I’ve lived within a five-minute walk of three of them, at various times. Of the many, many things I miss about Scotland, this is one of them. If Atlanta has anything comparable, I haven’t found it yet.) Costco has been, if not a life-saver, at least a great boon in this regard.

Image result for cheese slices tv show

One of the perks of frequently housesitting for friends is getting to watch the cable stations that my own provider doesn’t carry. A few years ago I was channel surfing and came across a show called Cheese Slices, or Cheese Chasers. (It seems to have different names depending on where it’s aired.) It’s a half hour program devoted entirely to cheese, and honestly, given how much people love cheese (it’s as addictive as a drug, apparently, did you know?) I don’t know why no one thought of this years ago. Each episode is devoted to a different region of the world known for producing a specific variety of cheese, and the host, Will Studd, goes to different commercial and home-grown businesses that produce the cheese. They discuss each variety’s history, the milk it’s made from–often accompanied by shots of the herds kept to produce said milk–the legal restrictions it’s subject to, and usually a meal or two that features the cheese. I find it fascinating, and endlessly irritating that it’s only available in broken-up segments on YouTube–I’d happily buy the series on dvd if it was available; episodes are available for purchase on his website, but I don’t know what the cost is per show. I suspect it’s more than I’m willing to pay, at least for now. There are clips available on YouTube, if you hunt for them–look for Will Studd, because if you just do a search for “Cheese Chasers” you get a lot of clips of a classic cartoon episode by the same name. If you happen to have a cable service provided that carries the otherwise ridiculous Wealth TV (now labeling itself A Wealth of Entertainment), keep an eye out for it.

Studd himself is an evangelist for unpasteurized milk and dairy products, which I don’t entirely agree with. I do think it’s silly to prohibit the sale of unpasteurized cheeses, because they do have a flavor that can’t be achieved with pasteurized milk, and can be delicious; I don’t know of anywhere that prohibits the making and consumption of sushi, as long as any such sale is accompanied by the obligatory warning about the possibility of becoming sick from eating uncooked fish. On the other hand, the law on the sale of unpasteurized milk exists for a good reason, as grotesquely and effectively illustrated in an early episode of Boardwalk Empire. People can easily see the difference between uncooked and cooked fish, chicken, and meat; pasteurized and unpasteurized milk, and the cheese made therefrom, isn’t similarly distinguishable at a glance.

But back to the cheese. Each episode finishes off with a meal–many of them are simple picnics, pairing the cheeses with local meats and wines, and some require specific pans that I don’t have access to, or techniques I haven’t mastered (I *will* make a proper frittata one day. I will), but there was one recipe that I am going to try just as soon as I find the right sort of cheese. I wish I could link to the original clip, or give credit to the family who seems to have thought of this (unless it’s a traditional local dish that I just haven’t been able to guess the name of, I did try searching by ingredients), and the next time I get a chance to see the episode I will (it’s in episode 6 of season 1, I think), but until then, try this, it looks delicious.

You will need a bowl at least 3 inches or so deep and a saucepan large enough to fit the bowl easily inside. A steamer insert would also be handy, but isn’t necessary. Fill the saucepan an inch deep with water and bring the boil. While the water is heating, crumble or shred a few slices of Lancashire cheese and sprinkle them in a ring around the edge of the bowl. Crack an egg into the center of the cheese ring. (Amounts of cheese and egg can be increased according to how many people are sharing the dish.) Cut a fresh Roma or other small tomato or two into thin slices and arrange them over the cheese in a ring. Set the bowl carefully into the pan of boiling water–use an oven glove or a dishtowel to avoid burning yourself. (This is where the steamer basket is a handy thing, if you have one.) Cover the saucepan with its lid and allow to steam for five minutes–more time may be necessary if you’ve got more than one egg. Remove the bowl carefully from the pan, again being careful not to burn yourself. Serve with a loaf of crusty bread, toasted or fresh. Spoon the melted cheese and poached egg onto the bread as you eat. Comfort food at its finest, and great for a cool autumn or winter morning.