Monday, 31 May 2010

Sex and the City, Liz Jones, and Me, Blondie

Well that was fun. I've now been personally attacked by Liz Jones for a little VT I made for the BBC on romantic comedy, linked to Sex and the City 2. (I'm not linking to her piece in the Daily Mail because I don't want to be sullied by it. You can google if you want to find it.)

Here's what Liz has to say about my little film:

The final straw in the whole PC backlash was when a snooty blonde American academic pontificated on BBC2’s Newsnight Review that the romantic comedy is dead, and why on earth do we no longer (yawn) have strong female role models?

Listen, blondie, you obviously didn’t spend enough time as a child in front of the telly. Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday was about to throw in the typewriter and get married, and indeed ends up happily ever after with Cary Grant (a plot followed as closely by SATC the TV series as Bridget Jones mirrored Pride and Prejudice).

Sex And The City 2 deals with the issue of being married to a monosyllabic nightmare who only ever wants to watch TV, with the menopause, with the mundanity of motherhood

Blondie cited The Philadelphia Story, as if this were some homage to women’s lib.

Can I remind you that Kate Hepburn, an unemployed heiress, gets smacked in the mouth by Cary Grant, apologises to her father for being a shrew, promises to behave, and gratefully marries the aforementioned wife beater and recovering alcoholic in the closing credits.

Hi there, I'm the Blondie. *waves*

I'll leave the incoherence of Liz's piece behind, and simply point out a few of the most egregiously stupid of the things she says about me.

First, it is a two-minute VT, produced and edited by the BBC. Liz obviously hasn't made very many films, or she would know that I had very limited control over what was done in that film: only the words I speak are definitely mine.

For the record, I say nothing in the film about The Philadelphia Story. If there were images used from the film (I haven't watched it yet, as I hate watching myself on tv), that was not my idea. In fact, The Philadelphia Story is a Taming of the Shrew tale, as I have written elsewhere, so it is not a feminist exemplum. Actually Katharine (not "Kate," Liz, you never met her, but perhaps you don't know how to spell Katharine?) Hepburn is supposed to have told playwright Philip Barry to make the heroine "like me, but make her go all soft at the end."

I only mention "Katharine Hepburn" in the piece. Liz seems to be under the impression that The Philadelphia Story is the only film she made. There were others, Liz - more than 50, in fact.

Second, in calling me "Blondie," Liz seems to believe that knowledge is correlated with hair color. The idea that my hair-color symbolizes anything about me, or what I know, is just the kind of stupid thinking you'd expect from a brunette. Grow up, Liz, and get off the playground. The same goes for my being "snooty" and - gasp - an academic. Name-calling is a terrific substitute for an actual argument, and prejudice and presumption is much easier than thinking.

Actually, Liz, I know more about screwball comedy (that's what they're called) in one blonde hair follicle than you will ever know. My family would be convulsed with hysterics at the idea that I didn't spend enough teen years in front of the tv: I never left it, and I watched nothing but old black and white films for years. I have written about them, read about them, and watched them, all of them (and I mean all of them) for decades. I own, and love, screwball comedies that I can assure you, Liz, you've never heard of.

As for His Girl Friday, as I wrote in the comment to Liz's column, I made the connection between this film and Sex and the City three years ago, in the Spectator. Perhaps Liz got the idea for the comparison by reading my 2007 column? It's here.

The idea that His Girl Friday is the ur-plot of Sex and the City is, frankly, moronic. His Girl Friday is based on a play (The Front Page) that was about two men, an editor and his star reporter; in 1940 director Howard Hawks had the brilliant idea to make the reporter a woman, and a classic was born. But Walter Burns, the Cary Grant character, is a bastard - he's charming, and gorgeous and fabulous in every way except that he has no morals and treats Hildy (Rosalind Russell) like shit. Deciding that this Cary Grant character - a cheater, liar, thief, manipulator - is infinitely preferable to the Cary Grant character in The Philadelphia Story seems, let's say, rather an arbitrary choice.

I adore His Girl Friday in every way, but let's tell the truth about it. It has no connection to SATC except that Carrie is supposedly a "journalist"--but a tough investigative newspaper reporter she ain't. There are no other parallels whatsoever, beyond the so general as to be meaningless. Those are probably the ones Liz was thinking of.

But the most amazing part is that Liz assumes I haven't seen this specific film because it wasn't mentioned in a 2-minute tv film. By that logic, I also haven't seen, or heard of anything in this list either, which I just happen to have on file despite my startling ignorance of the genre (the asterisks indicate films I especially recommend):

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  1. It Happened One Night (1934)**
  2. Twentieth Century (1934)
  3. The Thin Man (1934)*
  4. The Gay Divorcee (1934)
  5. The Richest Girl in the World (1934)
  6. Hands Across the Table (1935)
  7. Red Salute (1935)
  8. If You Could Only Cook (1935)
  9. Remember Last Night? (1935)
  10. She Married Her Boss (1935)*
  11. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)*
  12. My Man Godfrey (1936)*
  13. The Awful Truth (1937)**
  14. Nothing Sacred (1937)**
  15. The Bride Walks Out (1936),
  16. The Ex-Mrs Bradford (1936),
  17. The Princess Comes Across (1936),
  18. Love on the Run (1936),
  19. The Moon’s Our Home (1936),
  20. Theodora Goes Wild (1936)*
  21. Wedding Present (1936),
  22. Breakfast for Two (1937),
  23. Double Wedding (1937),
  24. Easy Living (1937)**
  25. History is Made At Night (1937) *
  26. I Met Him In Paris (1937),
  27. It’s Love I’m After (1937),
  28. Libeled Lady (1936)*
  29. Love Before Breakfast (1936)
  30. Love is News (1937),
  31. Second Honeymoon (1937),
  32. Topper (1937),
  33. True Confession (1937)*
  34. Bringing Up Baby (1938)**
  35. Bachelor Mother (1939)**
  36. Holiday (1938)**
  37. Midnight (1939)**
  38. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938),
  39. The Mad Miss Manton (1938),
  40. Having Wonderful Time (1938),
  41. Joy of Living (1938),
  42. Merrily We Live (1938),
  43. Vivacious Lady (1938),
  44. 5th Ave Girl (1939)*
  45. Café Society (1939),
  46. Eternally Yours (1939),
  47. It’s A Wonderful World (1939),
  48. His Girl Friday (1940)**
  49. Ball of Fire (1941)**
  50. The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)*
  51. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)**
  52. The Lady Eve (1941)*
  53. The Palm Beach Story (1942)**
  54. The Philadelphia Story (1940)*
  55. My Favorite Wife (1940)*
  56. Too Many Husbands (1940),
  57. Turnabout (1940),
  58. Hired Wife (1940),
  59. I Love You Again (1940),
  60. No Time for Comedy (1940),
  61. Public Deb. No 1 (1940),
  62. He Stayed for Breakfast (1940)
  63. Love Crazy (1941),
  64. Mr.and Mrs Smith (1941)
  65. The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)
  66. To Be or Not to Be (1942)*
  67. Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)

I end the list there for various reasons I won't enumerate now, and which Liz wouldn't understand anyway. Anyone else reading this, do yourself a favor and if you haven't seen these films, get a hold of them and enjoy. I'll be laughing with you in spirit.

I've also written about screwball and the great women who starred in them here: and here and here

So Liz, there you have it. You were talking out of your ass, as usual. And I'm quite sure that neither Katharine Hepburn, nor Rosalind Russell, would want me to take this crap lying down.

Wizard of Oz

Here is a piece I wrote for the Guardian on the Wizard of Oz, before it was cut for space (22 May 2010).

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As Britain prepares breathlessly for Sunday’s finale of Over the Rainbow, Drew Barrymore announced plans to direct Surrender Dorothy, the story of Dorothy’s great-great-granddaughter, who apparently uses the ruby slippers to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (the reports are unclear about whether she’s been resurrected, or it’s her great-great-granddaughter, too) in her attempts to conquer Oz and Earth. The Wicked Witch used to just enslave Munchkins and monkeys; now she’s a rather more ambitious imperialist.

Meanwhile, Robert Downey, Jr. is rumored to be making a Disney prequel explaining how the wizard ended up in Oz, at least two CGI productions have been proposed, and something called The Witches of Oz, which will star Christopher Lloyd as the wizard.

Oz is clearly enjoying a renaissance. In part, as some have already noted, these are predictable efforts to capitalize on the recent success of new versions of old classic fantasies, from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to Lord of the Rings. But there is something particularly appropriate to The Wizard of Oz returning to our screens, both large and small, and to the West End, right now.

L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, as America emerged from a recession in the 1890s. Its most famous film version appeared in 1939, as America tried to decide whether it was emerging from the Great Depression, and whether to enter the war in Europe, or continue to avoid it. It has become a truism that the films of the Great Depression offered escapism, but this facile observation doesn’t begin to explain the power these films still possess to comfort even modern audiences. Like all the greatest Hollywood films of the 1930s, The Wizard of Oz offers a master class in consoling philosophies, the art of running away from your troubles—and what will happen when you return.

Dorothy seeks a life over the rainbow, her own fantasy of avoidance, of running away from the grey life of agrarian survival in the Kansas dustbowl. But when she dreams of crash-landing among beings with magical powers (including a great deal of symbolic flight), she drags her home along with her and drops it on a witch. Home was never so comforting: it doesn’t just save Dorothy, it liberates all the enslaved munchkins. For the rest of the film, Dorothy tries to get home, but Dorothy is exactly like her friends, who already have the brains, heart, and nerve they seek—she never left home at all: she brought it with her. So when she “learns” that there’s no place like home, the implication is not that she’s lowering her standards and resigning herself to her lot in life, but that you can, in fact, go home again. As the “Optimistic Voices” (so-named by the screenplay) sing: “You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night”…

Films like The Wizard of Oz (and Gone with the Wind, which came out in the same year) were immense hits with an American audience that had been grappling for the best part of a decade with rampant homelessness and despair because they offered myths of survival and return. By contrast, many of our most popular contemporary stories focus on leaving home: fantasy sagas like Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars cycle, or Pirates of the Caribbean are initiation stories about young men learning to be heroes, stories of journey, adventure, quests, and king-making. Such imperial fantasies are quite at odds with the very domestic stories of the Depression. In times of comfort, stories of leaving home are signs of independence and power; in seasons of want, stories of leaving home are signs of desperation.

No surprise, then, that our own grandiose age of peddling endless ambition should shift the focus either to fantasies of saving the world, or to the wizard, the man behind the curtain—who’s now the man perched on a golden throne every Sunday night deciding the fate of Dorothy. The pragmatic opportunism of Professor Marvell, who grabs his power where he can, was part of the problem in the original story. The wizard is just a humbug; how typical that we should turn him into a hero, or pop him onto a throne. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

Sarah B for Blog

Welcome to my belated blog, which will be used primarily to publish my journalism, both so it is one place authored by me, and also to give me the chance to publish full versions when pieces are cut for space, which happens more and more as our dying papers give less and less space to cultural and arts criticism.

I hope you enjoy reading it. Comments are of course welcome, as long as they are courteous.

Review of Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

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Here is the full review, before it was cut for space by the Observer (30 May 2010)

Historians and scholars have long debated the relationship of art to the Holocaust, a debate referred to in shorthand as “the limits of representation,” which asks: does the sheer scale of the Holocaust mean that any attempt always risks trivializing or oversimplifying it, reducing the horror to a story that can be read, put away and forgotten? Can the Holocaust adequately be represented? Henry, the protagonist of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, the follow-up to his prize-winning 2002 The Life of Pi, is a writer who decides to challenge the fact that no “poetic license was taken with—or given to—the Holocaust,” and represent its evil and suffering in a new way.

Henry bears a striking resemblance to his author: like Martel, Henry’s second novel, a charming, poignant tale of the humanity of animals, was an unexpected success, bringing prizes and fame. For five years Henry has labored on his next project, a “flip book” that combines Holocaust novel with Holocaust essay, representing the catastrophe in, he fondly believes, an original way. Henry’s publishers deem the book itself catastrophic, and Henry staggers off into writer’s block and self-pity. He and his wife, Sarah, move to some interchangeable cosmopolitan city--“Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin”—where Henry amuses himself by waiting tables at a fair trade café, playing the clarinet and acting in amateur theatricals.

One day Henry receives a package in the mail, with a letter and Flaubert’s story “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator,” a fable about a boy whose greatest pleasure is killing animals. If you don’t know Flaubert’s story, never fear: Martel devotes 15 pages to summarizing and quoting long passages of it. He also explains that “hospitator” means, basically, host; at book’s end we learn that Henry’s surname is L’Hôte. The package also includes part of a play about two characters named Beatrice and Virgil, standing in a road, by a tree, trading cryptic epigrams. The first excerpt consists of their efforts to describe a pear; later they debate what to do next (“We should go, then? / We should”) and offer sophomoric philosophizing about something they call the Horrors: “How can there be anything beautiful after what we’ve lived through? It’s incomprehensible.” Not nearly as incomprehensible as the clumsiness of this from a writer capable of Martel’s grace.

The letter writer just happens to live in the same city as Henry (though no one knows that Henry moved there). A taxidermist, he also just happens to be named Henry. (Flaubert and Beckett, meet Mr Dostoevsky.) Beatrice, in fact, is a stuffed donkey, Virgil a stuffed monkey on her back (see what he did there?); they are the taxidermist’s “guide to hell.” Martel thoughtfully helps out readers struggling with all this literary virtuosity: “Hell? What hell? Henry wondered. But at least now he understood the connection to The Divine Comedy. Dante is guided through inferno and purgatory by Virgil and then through paradise by Beatrice.”

Like the reader who needs help understanding Martel’s allusions, Henry the taxidermist needs help writing his play, A 20th-Century Shirt (Beatrice and Virgil are living on a striped shirt. Don’t ask) and writer Henry inexplicably agrees to assist. The result is a book by turns pretentious, humorless, tedious, and obvious. All of the characters are there to be manipulated: Henry is endlessly blind to the evident, while all the other characters are cardboard cutouts propped around the novel: his wife, Sarah, might better have been named Henry’s Pregnant Wife, as she is otherwise a gesture. Even less credible is the sinister taxidermist Henry, who is meant to be menacing but whose only real threat comes from the possibility that he might bore the reader to death.

Taxidermist Henry reads ersatz-Beckett out loud for pages at a time, or pontificates on the fate of animals and the ethics of taxidermy; otherwise he is a cipher until the end, when he suddenly provides the novel some much-needed but quite unbelievable action. Host Henry delivers wooden, overwritten speeches ("I noticed that a donkey has an appealing terrestrial solidity--it's a good, solid animal--yet its limbs are surprisingly slim. It's as firm yet lithely connected to the earth as a birch tree”) and explains Martel’s allusions to the reader.

Attempting to manage the problems he has created in trying to mix allegory, psychology, metafiction, mystery and a parable about the Holocaust (not to mention our inhumanity to animals) in under 200 pages, Martel also makes Henry explain the book’s flaws: “There seemed to be essentially no action and no plot in it. Just two characters by a tree talking. It had worked with Beckett and Diderot. Mind you, those two were crafty and they packed a lot of action into the apparent inaction. But inaction wasn’t working for the author of A 20th-Century Shirt.” No kidding.

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“About what happens in the play,” Henry tells Henry, “in effect what happens is they talk about talk.” This means that in effect what happens in the novel is they talk about a play in which what happens is they talk about talk, and they talk about silence, and they talk about horror, and they talk about the unrepresentable. Then a few bad things happens from which we are entirely insulated by all of the talk, all of the silence, all of the abstraction, and the fact that this is a taxidermist we don’t like narrating a play about a stuffed monkey and donkey to a protagonist whose total solipsism insulates us even further from caring about any of it.

At the end, author Henry develops some “games,” twelve brief questions posing to the reader the kind of moral quandaries William Styron so successfully dramatized in Sophie’s Choice: would you allow your son to endanger his life to try to save the rest of the family? If you knew people were about to be killed and you couldn’t stop it, would you warn them? If only Martel had bothered to dramatize any of these dilemmas, and think through the answers rather than abdicating responsibility to the reader, he might have produced a novel that didn’t show the limits of representation quite so painfully.

© Copyright 2010 Sarah Churchwell. Do not reproduce without prior written permission.