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Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Brooke and Jane (Eyre) Go To The Movies

In Books, Mental Mai Tais on March 30, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Jane Eyre and Ray La Montagne opened a few weekends ago to limited release.  I had to see it first before anybody else, so Jane and I got all tarted up, grabbed Sarah and drove to LA.  I had three Diet Cokes that morning, so I wasn’t fit to drive, which is how I got put in the backseat, and since I couldn’t move, I talked.  That’s how Sarah got the video – once I’ve edited out the profanity (Jane talks like a trucker on the third day of a junk-food fast), I’ll post it.

Adapting a classic novel into a film is an epic suckfest for any director – you’re either going to try to do something wholly original and alienate at least fifty percent of your demographic; you’re going to try to remain faithful to the book and want to claw your skin from your face because your highly-paid, highly-sensitive actors are going to feel as though they’re not free to express themselves, or you’re going to try to create a commercially successful film which will elicit endless sniping from the op-ed columnists and absolutely kill your Rotten Tomatoes percentage.   It’s not easy to repeat the triumph of A&E’s Pride & Prejudice, and to be brutally honest, I really hope no one does.  For reasons best known to someone smarter than me, that damn film has somehow been granted canonical status, and nearly every bit of resulting fan-fic has somehow managed to incorporate it into the author’s pathetic attempts to recreate Austen’s characters.  I have no interest in watching that happen with Jane Eyre, and for this reason, I’m disposed to being super-lenient when it comes to critiquing film adaptations.

We thought it was pretty well done.  I, for one, think that Joe Wright ought to get a cut of the profits, because Cary Fukunaga blatantly ripped him off – there was enough soft lighting to satisfy Loretta Lynn on her worst day; every third shot of Michael Fassbender (Rochester) and Mia Wasikowska (Jane) was backlit (apparently someone told him lifestyle shots are chic, now) – he even used the same composer.  Easily the most unsubtle attempt at cinematic-plagiarism I’ve ever seen.  He did mix it up a bit by telling the story in a non-linear fashion, which was both refreshing and appropriate, considering how Jane’s character develops over the novel, and he stayed pretty true to the book.

It’s too bad that Jane didn’t take my bet, because there was no wet-shirt scene.  Instead (in between snippets of Gretchen Wilson and Fleetwood Mac [someone didn’t put their iPhone on silent]), we got treated to a scene of Mia Wasikowski (voss-eh-KOV-ski) trying to sneak a peek at Michael’s boy-parts, which I thought was terribly rude.  I didn’t see him ogling the twins; if she’d have caught him trying to watch her button her chemise she would’ve slammed the door in his face.  Dame Judi Dench didn’t get nearly enough air time (though Fukunaga did try to do more with her character by making her less austere and more matronly), but she did well, as we knew she would.  I can’t say that I thought the gentleman who played St. John Rivers quite handsome enough to do the part justice, but he did a good job portraying the well-meaning, ascetic hierophant who tries to win Jane to a life of religious passion.  His foil, the Rev. Mr. Brocklehurst, was also well-done, but came across as more awkward than cruel and domineering (directors heretofore have usually cast him as a straight-up sphincter [no pun intended], so perhaps this was Fukunaga’s way of attempting a more charitable interpretation of the character).

Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds) did a great job as Rochester – he made very good attempts at rudeness, curbed vulgarity and a rough manner; he has an expressive face and can portray fierceness, levity, and charm in good turn; he was sarcastic and bitter, winsome and genteel, all without missing a beat.

So why Fukunaga decided to sack him and have Ray LaMontagne do the reunion scene, I’m not quite sure.

So, Jane Eyre has just paid the modern-day equivalent of the taxi-driver the modern-day equivalent of his month’s rent to take her from the modern-day equivalent of a Howard Johnson to the modern-day equivalent of a house in the Hamptons.  She stumbles along, eyes blinded to the beauty of an English countryside spring, looking for her lost love, and what does she find?

A hipster.

A bona-fide, dyed-in-the-wool, I-used-Arcade-Fire-for-my-documentary-soundtrack-in-2007 hipster, complete with the comb-over and the jeggings and the most magnificent beard you ever saw.  Sitting bolt upright (no angsty slouch for Rochie), oxfords at an appropriate angle, hand resting on a cane so vintage you never even missed the pipe.

I was really grateful that the entire theater started sniggering, because no amount of Jane’s pinching and Sarah’s exasperated eye-rolling was going to get me to stop.  I mean, I know we’re aiming for a certain look and attitude with the rain and the mist and gloom and the Seasonal-Affectiveness Disorder, but damn – I half-expected him to whip out a Fender and start crooning ‘Rock and Roll Radio’.  It was at this point that I heard Stevie Nicks and the rest of the gang start shouting, ‘You can go your own waaaaayyyyyyy, go your own waaay-eeeaaaaaaayyyyy…’  and I really lost it, and as Jane was getting seriously pissed, I excused myself and went out to covet the theater’s display of the Criterion Collection.

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Girl Talk (The Non-Greg Gillis Sort)

In Books on March 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm

(Dorothy Sayers was pretty cool – she wrote mystery stories, hung out with C.S. Lewis, enjoyed a good pipe and sherry, and was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford.  Two of her lectures, compiled in a small book (and by ‘small’, I mean a good freaking gust of wind will blow it down to 5th Avenue, so be sure to sit inside the coffee shop when you read it) entitled Are Women Human? are the subject of the following essay.)

I was playing with my friend’s pipe in the bookstore where he’s a manager, alternately staring into the tobacco bowl and pointing the shank at him emphatically.  I had just popped it between my teeth when one of our professors walked in.  He started for a moment, as this was the first time in our four-year acquaintance he’d seen me with a pipe in my mouth.  “Oh,” he said, slightly taken aback, “do you smoke?”  “’Course,” I said, in a bald-faced lie.  “I’m a good Presbyterian girl.”  He laughed.  “Just like Dorothy Sayers, huh?”

I knew that Sayers was a good friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but I hadn’t known that she smoked – or that she was a Presbyterian (she wasn’t).  That she smoked is understandable, certainly – a woman who spent a great deal of time with British academics in the 1930s had to learn to like the smell of tobacco, whether it was considered ladylike or not.  Since Sayers had already singled herself out by graduating from Oxford, dabbling in popular theology and spending the majority of her time in the company of men (singularly gifted men, at that), she may not have considered pipe-smoking the most extraordinary thing she’d ever done.  Being ordinary was never really her scene, so it’s always fascinated me that the ‘ordinariness’ of women should have been a particular theme to emerge from her writing.

It’s that very subject that’s the focus of her essay, ‘Are Women Human?’  In this address, given in 1938 to an unidentified women’s society, she writes that much of the confusion that has lately arisen regarding the role of women in society would be easily dispelled if people would simply refrain from determining the spectrum of women’s interests by their sex.  Just because a woman is a woman, it doesn’t follow that she may not wear pants, study Aristotle, or become a mechanic – her essential femaleness is not, in itself, an inhibitor for her doing any of these things.  Much has been said about the psychology behind the recent phenomenon of women’s participation in activities that have commonly fallen within the province of men, and Sayers writes that the most popular explanation for their interest is that ‘women are just copying men’.

Her first response is to deny this – certainly, women may be ‘copying’ men in the sense that the men wore pants and went to university first, but (if they are reasonable women) their reason for doing so is that (like men) they find pants more comfortable than skirts, and their particular intellectual interests have compelled them to further study that can only be had in a university.  The fact that they’re pursuing a path generally trod by their brothers hasn’t factored into their decision.  But even supposing that assertion to be true, what else would you have women do?  Sayers asks. The domestic vocations that have traditionally occupied them (i.e., growing and preparing food, managing their estates, designing and manufacturing clothing) have all been appropriated and industrialized by men.  Their ‘estates’ have gone from self-sufficient farms to two-bedroom flats.  Even if all of them wanted to remain at home and raise their families, the lack of necessity for constant attention to home-maintenance and the inability to comfortably house a large family makes their confinement to the hearth unreasonable.

Moreover, Sayers writes, there’s nothing very extraordinary about a woman’s wishing to pursue a professional (as opposed to a domestic) vocation.  While it’s true that many of them choose not to study biomedical engineering or a career in the money market, (and indeed, are not suited to doing so) the appearance of a woman in these fields shouldn’t generate controversy.  A common trait is just that – a common trait, not a universal constant.  True, most women prefer to marry and raise children – but it doesn’t follow that a woman can or ought not, by virtue of her femininity, to enter academia and business.  Women are human beings, like men, and have the same needs and desires that expect fulfillment.

It’s this last point that Sayers belabors to an almost fatiguing degree – ‘women are human beings’.  This staggering revelation forms the bedrock principle behind her entire argument and (from the fact that she brings it up every two paragraphs) is the material point that she believes deserves the greatest consideration – the fact that women are human beings. Since women share common physical, intellectual and emotional needs with men, it shouldn’t surprise them (men) that they want to do the same things that men do.  They need food, shelter, and exercise; they desire ‘interesting occupation, a reasonable freedom for their pleasures, and a sufficient emotional outlet.’  Women may seek to fulfill these needs and desires in different ways, but the ultimate object remains the same.

This is all very well, and I agree with her – men and woman are both human beings, and certainly share similar desires and interests.  My objections are not with her argument per se, but with the suppositions upon which she builds it – first, that there is such a thing as a non-sexual human being (as though one could contemplate a human that was both not-man and not-woman), and second, that it’s by virtue of the similarity of female humanity to male humanity that women ought to be accorded the same respect and opportunities as men.

While both sexes are human, I think it particularly important to the dignity of both to remember that there are male humans and female humans, and that while there’s much we share, there’s much we don’t.  Sociologists, feminists, and citizens of the Ivory Tower are very fond of harping on the ‘socialization of the sexes’, and how our differences are greatly exaggerated by the ideals propagated therefrom.  This is very true, and has certainly caused trouble in ages past.  However, I don’t think it in our best interest, having hit one end of the spectrum, to spin about and go sprinting down to the other end – while society does tend to exaggerate our differences, it didn’t create them.  The answer is not to boil each other down to our lowest common denominator and relate from there – it’s to learn how to appreciate one another’s differences and be willing to work within the parameters that they create.  To do otherwise degrades the unique qualities of both and fosters the false belief that if we could just rid ourselves of our disparities, there’d be a significant decrease in the amount of friction in many male-female relationships.  Our problem is not our differences, but rather the sinfulness that insists upon their mortification for the sake of the individual.

Sayers’ exhaustive illustrations of the many ways in which women are similar to men almost led me to believe that her argument was founded not upon her firm belief that women are human beings, but upon her demonstration that women are human beings in the same way that men are. That is to say, women exemplify their humanity in the same way that men do, therefore, they ought to be afforded the same opportunities and considerations.  This is true, certainly – Sayers demonstrates that effectively – but it’s a poor argument, since it unconsciously affirms the very thing that Sayers would like to deny; namely, the superiority of the humanity of men above the humanity of women.  If I understood her correctly, she appears to have held male humanity as the standard against which the dignity of female humanity was judged against.  It would better serve her purpose to argue that the dignity of women does not lie in the fact that they are human in the same way that men are human, but in the fact that like men, they too bear the image of the living, triune God.  While female humanity shares much with her male counterpart, that oughtn’t to be the reason for which she’s granted the right to pursue whatever life she will.  To do so is to impose an essential hierarchy (where we are told that, in Christ, none exists) and to hold women to a standard they can’t attain to.

Sayers’ aim in this essay is to establish the point that women, by virtue of their humanity, ought to be accorded every appropriate courtesy and opportunity to express their intrinsic natural needs and desires.  They are not superior to men; neither are they inferior, and while the majority of them may choose to satisfy the essential urges of their humanity in a manner different from that of men, it doesn’t follow that all of them must do so.  If a woman evinces herself capable of doing a job traditionally performed by a man, she ought to be allowed the opportunity to do it, and not denied on the grounds that she’s a woman.  While I have some reservations about the latter part of this thesis, I have no argument with it generally.

My concern lies with the premises supporting the conclusion – the premise that the dignity of women is founded in their shared humanity with men.  Sayers’ presence was welcomed in the Inklings’ discussions because she showed herself to be Lewis’ and Tolkien’s intellectual companion, but part of what distinguished it was the fact that hers was a female presence.  Her sex set her apart, not because she was a sensitive woman and Lancelyn Green, Barfield, et. al. were a lot of quasi-anencephalic brutes, but because her person, intellect, and conversation all testified to the glory of her Creator and the equanimity with which he dispenses his gifts.  While her femininity certainly didn’t determine her opinions on Dante or the method with which she analyzed Malory and Beowulf, its influence leant a perspective and nuance to her interactions with texts and authors, which (judging from the fact that they welcomed her repeatedly over the course of several years) they probably appreciated.  She, in turn, likely reaped treasures untold from her fellowship with men who were celebrated for their wisdom and piety as much as their literary accomplishments.  These are the sorts of rich rewards that are to be had when men and women take care to respect and appreciate one another’s humanity, not because our similarities make it reasonable, but because we see Christ in our differences.

Freedom

In Books on March 4, 2011 at 10:24 am

(So I know I said I’d do Othello, and I promise that I will, but I’m really bored of the classics right now and wanted to do something contemporary, just to show that I’m, like, ‘with it’, or whatever.   That I don’t spend my life in my room unless I’m running or driving to Mum’s to watch United.  Also, I just got this in the mail, so I’m gonna be out of commission for a while.  Enjoy.)

Freedom’ is a word that gets bandied about a lot, mostly by politicians and ideologues.  They shroud it in historical nostalgia and glittering, indeterminate progressive garb, tapping into the subjective warmth and tempered patriotism it elicits in their hearers.  What exactly we need to be freed from and what we’ll do with that freedom once we have it, they never bother to clearly elucidate.  Why should they?  Freedom is good.  We want to be free.  The problem with their side-stepping is that it doesn’t address the question that’s becoming ever more prevalent in a society addicted to instant gratification – what does one do with one’s freedom?  There’s no lack of it, especially in the United States, where we have the ability and license to do pretty much anything – buy whatever we want, see whatever and whomever we will, go wherever and whenever we choose.   But what should we do with our freedom?  Once we know what we can do with it (and, more ominously) what we ought to do with it, is freedom still something that we want?

This is the question that Jonathan Franzen explores in his book, Freedom. The story has been touted as a commentary on contemporary American marriage and family life, but it’s also an insightful examination of how our political and economic environments influence those relationships – how the systems that facilitate our freedom (in the political sense of the word) help determine our freedom in our interactions with our spouses and children.   Politics are the driving force behind Patty Emerson’s aristocratic New York family – her father is described as the quintessential WASP attorney; her mother is a state assemblywoman.  So much does the political machine dominate the Emerson’s relationship with their daughter and with one another, that when Patty is raped at seventeen by a classmate, both her mother and her father counsel her against prosecuting the offender and his wealthy, influential family.  This confirms what Patty has suspected all along – that in her family of sophisticated, philanthropic parents and cultured, artistic siblings, she is nothing more than the aberrant gene, manifesting itself as a dumb jock.  As a result, she throws herself into sports, her intensely competitive nature acting as both a refuge and coping mechanism.  It was economic considerations that prompted Walter Berglund’s ancestors to leave their native ‘socialist’ Sweden for the free-market opportunities of the United States.  The problem was that once they had their freedom – the freedom to make more money, live where they chose and socialize with whom they would – they didn’t know how to use it.  As a result, they essentially gave themselves over to the impulse of the moment, and before very long, were again shackled by the poverty they sought to escape. Not only does it enfetter the Berglund forebears to a life of indigence and ignominy, it extends down the family-line to Walter.  His father’s attempts to mortify his (Walter’s) artistic tastes by forcing him to clean the blood and urine out of the carpets of the family’s decaying motel and his mother’s inability to effectively defend him to her husband confirms Walter’s sense of inadequacy, and he retreats (literally) into nature, finding the peace and comfort he seeks in the Minnesota woods.

The story centers around Walter and Patty trying to free themselves from the cycle of self-destruction that has characterized their family history – instead of allowing economic circumstances to dictate his decisions, Walter attempts to establish a new economic foundation in society; a static one focused on the preservation of nature, rather than it’s consumerist exploitation.  Instead of yielding to the feminist agenda and familial pressure that compels her to pursue a vocation outside of her home and family, Patty becomes a stay-at-home wife and mother, determined to be the nurturing and encouraging parent she lacked.  The tragedy is that despite their recognition of their sins, and their earnest, genuine desire to mortify them, they simply can’t – like dogs returning to their vomit, they are condemned to repeating the same mistake, even while they acknowledge their damning effects on themselves and their relationship with each other and their children.  In her autobiography, Patty repeatedly acknowledges Walter’s manifest superiority to Richard Katz, his aloof, hipster-than-thou best friend – his selflessness, his courage, his kindness, his unconditional and absolute love of herself.   But so great is her need for a competitive environment that she cannot refrain from pursuing Richard – his shrewd manner and aloofness present a challenge to tempting to ignore.  While Walter recognizes that there’s a significant problem in his marriage, he cannot help but view confrontation as synonymous with abuse, aggression, and domination – the very traits he abhorred in his father.  Since he cannot address the difficulty on his terms, and won’t attempt to on his wife’s, he retreats into his conservation work (again, into nature) and concentrates his energies on preserving his refuge, rather than repairing his relationship.

If the sociological statistics are a correct, then this is a very faithful portrayal of most contemporary American marriages – husbands and wives find themselves not just visited by their own sins, but hounded by those of their fathers, condemned to repeating their mistakes and suffering for wounds of others’ infliction.  Their frustration and disappointment are aggravated by the promises of saccharine self-help books and motivational speakers who readily offer Band-Aids for their cuts, but cannot provide a cure for the compulsive desire to cut.  The spouses that are fortunate enough to be able to recognize and own their problems are still powerless to find a solution – they cannot fix their problems because their being and way of being has been formed and developed by them.

Even though the story ends happily, with Walter and Patty reuniting after a six-year separation, it’s an uneasy happiness.  Although they’ve both been reconciled with their remaining family members, we don’t see any scene of reconciliation between Walter and Patty themselves.  Patty simply shows up at their summer home, and Walter simply lets her back in – there’re no apologies, no explanations, not even an attempt at an explicit resolve to do something differently.  One is tempted to close the book with the cynical expectation that it won’t be long before the whole cycle repeats itself again.

While it’s not a particularly uplifting read, Freedom is a faithful, well-written illustration of the sort of lives we as Christians have been called out of – the tragedy and agony of a life characterized by an endless repetition of sin and suffering for sin.  Although Walter and Patty pursue freedom, they’re hindered in their pursuit by their limited understanding of what true freedom is and what it’s for – they appear to view it as the absence of restraint; a casting off of the shackles that have bound them (i.e., the abuse and rejection of their parents, their pathological need for affirmation).  What they fail to realize (what they cannot realize) is that true freedom brings with it the power to act – to act wisely and well; to use one’s gifts, talents and resources for what is good and true.  Such is their (and our) sinful estate that we cannot attain this freedom in our own power – it can only be found in Christ.  Because he gave all of himself – his life, his being, his will – freely, we may take comfort in the fact that (unlike Walter and Patty) we are not condemned to these actions.  We may find ourselves looking for ultimate affirmation in our spouse, a sense of worth in our vocation, and liberation from the pain and trauma of our past, but we may rest in the knowledge that Christ has risen victorious for us, thereby freeing us from the devastating cycle of our sin.  It is in him, through the work of the Holy Spirit, that we are granted the freedom that not only breaks our bonds, but gives us the will and desire to use that freedom to bind ourselves both to himself and one another in love.