Speculative Fiction and Literary Snobbery

When I was a kid spending endless hours in bookstores and invariably doing my English homework first (often to the detriment of most of my other classes) there was “literature” and then there was fantasy/sci-fi and an assortment of other genres of fiction. There was the occasional stray outlier–I first heard of Possession and Joyce Carol Oates’ writing in one of The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy yearbooks, and I studied Tolkien in class–but on the whole there were boundaries.

The thing is, the harder you look at these boundaries, the more arbitrary they are–or rather, the boundaries are based on the writer’s skill, not the aspects of the story. Personally I find this a bit silly. I wholly agree with categorizing novels according to the skill and grace with which a given writer tends to construct sentences, plots, and characters, but not the variety of story he or she tells. I am hopelessly fond of Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices series and have never liked anything that Hemingway wrote, but pretending that the former is in any way substantively better writing than the latter would be absurd; looking down on a novel or other narrative solely because it involves ghosts or dragons or alternate worlds without regard to the quality of the writing, no matter how good, is likewise absurd, but it happens all the time. Where the quality of the writing cannot be questioned, the fantastical elements are either ignored or minimized, or the novel is cast as one that deals with heavy philosophical or existential questions, as though the fantasy or sci-fi setting is irrelevant rather than, as is true in most cases, necessary to the framing of said question.

When dealing with novels that are truly great, the sort of novel that is always going to be in print and studied in high schools and universities for generations to come, the label of “fantasy” disappears–there’s the South American tradition of magical realism applied to the work of Marquez, Borges, and others, but for the most part there’s a strong resistance to admitting that fantasy or any other style of genre fiction can be well-written.  Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Bram Stoker’s Dracula–these are all usually, if not invariably, classified on bookshop shelves and in libraries as “Literature” with a capital L, and never as fantasy, because somehow the skill with which they are written exempts them from being genre fiction–genre fiction being something to be embarrassed about. Even The Book of Strange New Things, which is set partly in a dystopian future Earth and partly in a new planet we earthlings are colonizing as our own civilization is falling apart, is described as “genre-defying” and “defiantly unclassifiable.” No, it isn’t. It is entirely and unapologetically dystopian sci-fi, and has a couple of significant flaws that make me question why it got such a long list of rave reviews, but that’s a different blog post.

Even among fiction firmly classified as genre, fantasy and sci-fi seem to be a lower-class label. When I was in Boston I was telling Margaret about an online course I took I few years ago on fantasy literature; towards the end of my long-winded description of the books I read for the course, I remembered that it wasn’t focused on fantasy literature at all, but on historical fiction. The problem was that of the six books we read, the three I had the strongest memories of were as much fantasy as they were historical fiction, two to the extent that they contradicted the ostensible focus of the course. (It’s hard to discuss representations of the Salem Witch Trials in fiction when the main text for the class is for the most part devoted to a woman in present-day New England who dives head-first into a sexy romance with a local handyman while learning how to cope with her newfound ability to cast magical spells.)

My favourite book for the course was Yangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride, which deals with the practice of ghost marriages in late nineteenth-century China. There is some history–the beginning offers a clear explanation of the practice of ghost marriages, as well as some of the social divisions of the time and culture in which the story is set. The greater part of the action, however, takes place when the figurative titular “ghost bride” enters a realm of ghosts and demons, and is aided in her quest by a dragon who can take the form of a man. The fact that this novel is defined as historical fiction, while Amberlough and any novel dealing with Robin Hood are listed as fantasy, is beyond me, even as a marketing ploy. (My favourite novel version of the Robin Hood story is Jennifer Roberson’s Lady of the Forest. There is not the merest glimmer of magic in it, but because it’s a Robin Hood retelling, I have always found it shelved as Fantasy whenever I’ve noticed in a bookshop. The same is true of Robin McKinley’s version, The Outlaws of Sherwood, if I remember correctly, and Parke Godwin’s Sherwood, but I discovered them all on the shelves of the Fantasy section as a teenager. The Godwin version, at least, seems to be classified as historical fiction now.)

The Ghost Bride is fantasy. It no more deserves to be labelled historical fiction than Westworld or Firefly should be defined as Westerns. Why there remains a tendency in any corner of the reading world to look down on fantasy or any other sub-category of speculative fiction as inherently less good than other forms of fiction by virtue of its subject matter is beyond me; it isn’t as though Game of Thrones and the Marvel and DC comic book lines have been losing money for their creators. Neither is it a recent invention–the origins of fantasy lie in the mythology and folktales of every culture. Hopefully the growing number of writers who are as brilliant in crafting a sentence as they are in creating new worlds and compelling characters will continue to grow, and the literary snobbery of looking down on speculative fiction will finally become a thing of the past.

 

Amberlough

Goodreads is on the whole one of my favourite web sites, because I’ve had a mania for keeping a record of the books I’ve read and want to read since I was about 11. Getting to do so online where I can see the covers of the books while I write about them and compare notes with friends and virtual acquaintances has been hours of endless fun. The one thing that truly irritates me about the site is its recommendations algorithm, which keeps recommending that I read Fifty Shades of Grey, presumably because I read Outlander and liked it, and read most of the Twilight series in a fit of depression and wish I hadn’t. (Hate reading is a thing. I was thrilled to discover recently that I was not the only person guilty of doing this, although by no means do I encourage it and I’ve done my best to avoid any such rabbit holes since. There is no point in wasting time on poorly written books.)

I usually rely on friends’ recommendations or actively browsing through bookshops to find new authors I want to read; I pretty much ignore the Goodreads recommendations altogether unless I’m looking for books on some obscure aspect of history, for which its algorithm is oddly useful. Back in January, however, it kept insisting I look at Amberlough, so I forgive it its other failings and promise to stop muttering profanities at it as long as it isn’t pushing Ravished by a Rake or some other such rubbish.

Most of my new books these days are either kindle books on sale or second-hand paper books in decent condition; occasionally I’ll find that I like something so much that I need the audiobook and a physical copy. Sometimes, however, a book just deserves to be read in a good-quality hardback edition. I couldn’t manage without my kindle for long, but there’s a pleasure in reading a well-designed physical book that an e-book can’t replicate. I spent a couple of days looking at that lovely cover and decided I wanted this one in hardback.

I haven’t finished it yet–I was waiting for a time when I knew I’d be able to spend hours at a time reading, and it’s been a hectic six weeks–but I finally got a couple of hours when I was clear-headed and not overwhelmed with other tasks, and read the first quarter in one sitting. It is as good as promised. It is not your typical fantasy: There are no dragons, no magical powers as yet, no prophecies or chosen ones, and the setting is an analogue of 1930s Berlin rather than Middle Earth. Donnelly does what I had hoped China Mieville would do in The City and The City, but where I found Mieville’s work disappointingly dry, she knocks it out of the park. She has created “an alien world, faithfully described,” and her characters are as vibrant as the world she builds. The detail is plentiful and lush without detracting from the pace of the story, which quickly becomes intense–Amberlough is as much a political thriller as a fantasy novel.

As much as I love the Tolkein tradition in fantasy, worlds full of magic and dragons and mysterious curses, it’s refreshing to see a new novel that owes more to Bulgakov, Angela Carter, and political thrillers like The Crying Game than to George R. R. Martin. Her characters aren’t struggling with moral dilemmas disguised as quests or having to learn how to manage unexpected supernatural powers; they’re dealing with conflicts that strike closer to home for most of us, such as how honest we are with those we love, how much hardship we’re willing to endure for a political or moral ideal, sexuality and gender identity, and how to make a living when the odds are stacked against us, albeit some of these challenges are on a grander scale for said characters than most of us will ever encounter. Given the current climate of our politics in the West, it feels much more pertinent to real life than most novels, let alone most fantasy, usually gets.

I’m actually glad I didn’t hear about the novel until late January, because waiting more than a month or so for it would have been deeply frustrating. When I was in Boston I went looking for a copy, thinking that I’d read it on the plane ride home; the very helpful woman at the counter explained that it hadn’t been released yet, but that she could order it for me. Then she looked back at the screen and said “oh, I think we need this book. This looks good.” Yes, you need this book. Preferably in its lovely hardback form.

Two Beauties

Every book I have ever read has left an imprint on me. Sometimes it’s so slight as to be forgotten; sometimes, as with Robin McKinley’s Beauty, the mark is indelible. This telling of Beauty and the Beast represents the best of fantasy writing to me: a genuine sense of magic grounded with dimensional, fully realized characters, and writing that may be lyrical but never overwrought.

I did not realize until a couple weeks ago that McKinley–who wrote Beauty at the tender age of 18–returned to her favorite fairy tale as an adult to write Rose Daughter. Since on paper I ought to have loved it, it’s taken me some time to work out why I in fact disliked it so much.

What I did like: Lush descriptions, a carefully built world of real people with real jobs and problems and grime under their nails, the brooding mystery at the heart of the Beast’s story.

What I did not like, not one bit: The lack of magic. There’s plenty of magical accessories to the action of the story. Take your pick of sorcerers and greenwitches, invisible servants, unicorns. But there is no magic.

I took a playwriting class in college. I was terrible at it. I mean, that semester holds some memories so cringe-worthy that I can barely stand to touch on them 15 years later. The only thing my professor liked from me the whole semester was my final. I wrote 60 pages of a play in one night: I realized, at 11pm the night before it was due, that the piece I’d been laboring over for weeks was as dull and lifeless and hateful as everything else I’d done in that class. So I scrapped it utterly and started over with 8 hours left on the clock.

And overnight I wrote something magical–that is, a transformation took place on stage. It may not have been a play that anyone should ever produce (I never even wanted to finish it), but I had arrived at something. I stopped thinking about how an actor could change costumes that fast, or how something that size could get on stage, or how that effect would be visible to the back row; I just wrote the magic and it worked.

Robin McKinley’s Beauty is the true magic that I got a glimpse of that one frenzied night. Rose Daughter never gets there because it is crushingly concerned, like I was that whole awful semester, with how and why the magic could happen. It’s the difference between a rose blooming for a month and a day because it is enchanted, or because it happens to be from really great stock and its fertilizer was at just the right pH.

But Rose Daughter worked its own kind of enchantment on me–or broke one I hadn’t known was there. Over the past year I have written very little. I think about my novel and feel tired of it, defeated by it. Reading this lovely yet empty story by this wonderful author made me realize where I’ve gone wrong with my book. I’ve been looking behind the curtain, telling the stage manager what to do, worrying about how the sound will carry. As that so-frustrated professor kept trying to tell me years ago, I ought to be looking at what’s on the stage. That’s where the magic happens.

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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”.

Queen Girls

I’ve been hearing pronouncements and dire warnings about printed books and literacy itself dying out for–decades? Most of my life? A really long time. I was going through old books recently and found an ad from an advocacy group at the back of one from the early 80s warning that by the year 2000, it was estimated that only 20% of adults would be able to read. (Commas and apostrophes may be under threat, but whoever came up with that dark future plainly underestimated the popularity of computers and mobile phones.)

We have a variety of new and newly popular means of reading and listening to books, but the form isn’t going anywhere. People haven’t ceased reading and writing books; there are more than ever. While this has produced some markedly disappointing trends (*cough* Fifty Shades *cough*), it has been a joy to watch people take advantage of these new formats to find books that speak to their personal experience so much more easily, and the number of independent presses and self-published works that have taken off–particularly in YA and children’s literature.

One such effort I came across recently is a new publishing venture called Queen Girls, a currently small outfit that produces children’s books featuring real-life women who were heroes of their time. Their first book is Bessie, Queen of the Sky, about Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African- and Native-American descent to earn a pilot’s license, in 1921.

The kickstarter campaign for this first book is proving wildly successful, and there are plans for further titles in the future. The women running the imprint are focused not only on telling women’s stories, but on the achievements of women from a variety of backgrounds–stories that still aren’t being told as often as they should, because they come from other cultures, other classes, or just periods of the past that aren’t in fashion, so to speak, and are thus neglected. The illustrations are also lovely, which is a definite plus for attracting younger readers.

The books are designed for reading ages 4 to 8, and are available in e-format in English and in Spanish. The publisher is also partnering with literacy organizations here in the U.S. and internationally: For every book that is sold, another copy will be donated, in the interest of encouraging literacy and empowering girls. A limited edition hardback copy of Bessie, Queen of the Sky is available here, for those who prefer paper books. I find the book wholly charming, and look forward to seeing more titles in the series.

 

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: 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!

Now Playing: Brandi Carlile, ‘Before It Breaks’

Margaret got me hooked on Brandi Carlile. During one of my visits to Boston she played songs from Carlile’s first couple of albums over and over again; all I could think was how much she sounded like a female version of Ryan Adams, and while I wasn’t hooked, I was definitely piqued; when I got home I started looking up music videos, and realized that I’d seen “The Story” before. To be entirely honest I was hooked when I read that she had a tattoo of the Auryn from The Neverending Story on each arm; I figured that no matter what she sounds like, she’s a girl after my own heart.

I really fell in love with the music when she released her third album, Give Up the Ghost, which remains my favourite of hers. “Before It Breaks” is the loveliest of the songs therewith; there’s no music video for it, but this is an excellent performance, imperfect audio notwithstanding.

 

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.