...An Academy Award really is a bit on the heavy side. It's not like you want someone to go, "Hey, catch!" (unless you're prepared to experience serious bodily harm). If nothing else, they must make excellent dumbbells. I suspect my relative lack of upper-body strength disqualifies me from winning an Oscar at any time in the future--too much danger of my dropping the thing during the telecast (and you know how embarrassing that would be). Someone needs to do a survey of Oscar-nominated performers' gym attendance in the weeks leading up to the ceremony.
(No, I didn't win an Academy Award. Yes, I did get to hold one this afternoon.)
It's the first night of Chanukah, I'm in the middle of grading...clearly, I should be watching ballet. Ahem. I posted at greater length about Alice when I saw the National Ballet of Canada perform it a few months ago, so just a few comments here:
My sense that the ballet works better in the cinema or on video than on stage continues--it benefits strongly from closeups and editing, especially in the more crowded sequences, like the courtroom scene.
Of course, on stage you don't lose audio for several minutes at a time. Most of the Cheshire Cat and Caterpillar scenes were totally silent (which, in the case of the latter, meant that the boombox joke at the end didn't work). Fortunately, we did have the Mad Hatter's taps. However...
...for me, at least, the Mad Hatter's Tea Party fell utterly flat this time. McRae was great, of course (it's his role), but the sheer nastiness of his characterization needs to be moderated a bit by his interactions with the March Hare and the Dormouse, and he was not in synch with either of them, acting- and sometimes choreography-wise. It's not clear how much rehearsal he got with this March Hare, whom he was having some trouble partnering. Matters weren't helped by the March Hare's total blankness; Ricardo Cervera managed to make the character three-dimensional, but that didn't happen here. Speaking of which...
...despite the slaughter of the bunnies, which took out first Edward Watson (the original White Rabbit, injured) and then Cervera (his last-minute replacement, also injured), Alexander Campbell (Cervera's really, really last-minute replacement) was a terrific White Rabbit/Lewis Carroll. Like Dylan Tedaldi, whom I saw with the NBoC, Campbell is Watson's physical opposite in every respect, a classic demi-caractere dancer (short, muscular, compact) rather than tall and leggy. (As Lewis Carroll, he also looked about twelve, which was a little disconcerting; some aging makeup might be in order.) Even if the long arabesque lines Wheeldon developed for Watson didn't always suit Campbell's physique, Campbell's footwork was outstanding and the characterization was just great--that was the best visual rendition of an AARRRRRGHHH I have seen in some time. I found myself watching Campbell more than almost anyone else on stage.
As the Queen of Hearts, Zenaida Yanowsky continues to own this ballet. The "tart adage" was especially funny; bonus points to Bennet Gartside, the Four of Clubs, who ramped up some of the comic business from last time.
Bonus points do not go to the camera work. Despite what I said above, some of the decisions made no sense whatsoever, especially in the Mad Hatter's Tea Party ("the Hatter is over there, sir," I found myself muttering at one point, "why are you shooting this minor action over here?"). Similarly, while the closeups help the characterization of Alice and the Knave, they're not so good while they're in the middle of a pas de deux and the audience wants to see, um, the dancing.
Darcey Bussell is...not a natural interviewer, and perhaps should be politely retired.
Early on in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the apes go through a captured bag and discover a sketchbook that includes, among other things, a photograph of a woman who is probably the deceased mother of Alexander (teenage son of Malcolm, the human good guy). Later, Dreyfus (the human not-so-good-guy) weeps over the electronic photographs of his own lost family. Caesar, taking brief refuge in the house in which he grew up, sees a picture of himself with scientist Will Rodman, and later finds a brief video clip of them interacting. These moments momentarily unite all the characters through the phenomenon of recorded memory, brief snippets of time captured on camera or video, but they also emphasize that all of these images are of the dead (Will presumably having died of simian flu between films). Notably, these images are all easily lost or alienated from their owners: the sketchbook can be stolen (and returned), the electronic photos were obviously inaccessible for years, and Caesar's images of his life with humans remain in the human house. The fragility and potential disappearance of these memory traces seem connected with the film's emphasis on moving on, dramatized in Alexander's changing relationship with his stepmother (who has herself moved on from the death of her daughter, Sarah) and, in general, its call for a kind of strategic forgetfulness that goes beyond forgiveness. By contrast, Koba, the bonobo who tells Caesar's son Blue Eyes that "scars make you strong," carries his past experiences inscribed upon his body; it is no coincidence that suffering and rage constitute his identity. During the assault on the city, Koba tells his human prisoners in their cage that now they'll get to have the same experiences as the apes did--in other words, he avenges his own tortures by reenacting history. But the film offers a different lesson about scarring in the form of Blue Eyes, who is mauled by a bear at the beginning. For Caesar, the scarring is the opportunity to learn about how to "think" before behaving impulsively, about how to avoid the same situation in the future. For Koba, as I have suggested, scarring carves the past into the present. In effect, the film leaves the humans scarred in Koba's sense, not Caesar's.
Specifically, the Vasili Livanov/Vitali Solomin Hound of the Baskervilles (Sobaka Baskerviley), which we're discussing in the Sherlock Holmes and adaptation course next week. One of the telefilm's most striking revisions of the original comes in its treatment of Sir Henry Baskerville. Sir Henry, as Holmes fans will recall, has spent most of his life out in the wilds of the USA and Canada before returning to take up his place as heir to the Hall; he's certainly rather less polished than his English counterparts, but "there was something in his steady eye and the quiet assurance of his bearing which indicated the gentleman" (ch. 4). Arguably, the moment in which he casually hands over his "old wardrobe" to Barrymore, as his new English clothes have been delivered (ch. 8), counts as a subtle moment of naturalization: the Americanized Englishman returns to his proper roots, despite his desire to update Baskerville Hall to the latest American technological standards. Nevertheless, as is frequently the case in the Holmes stories, the outsider doesn't fare well at the plot's hands: the gentleman winds up with "shattered nerves" (ch. 15) and must make a global grand tour before he can once again begin to think of his grand plans for modernizing Baskerville Hall. (In that sense, he's a reverse Watson--Watson, after all, begins the series in a bad way, thanks to his time abroad.)
The Russian Sir Henry is no gentleman at all. He enters the story loud, impolite, appallingly dressed (a gigantic fur coat), and carrying...a saddle. (Quipped one reviewer, "Overacting doesn't come much better.") He puts his feet up on the table. He's a sloppy drunk (and is drunk for a good chunk of the film). Indeed, he's the source of most of the film's comic relief, whether it be his would-be efforts to dress up as a proper English gentleman, or his running battle with Barrymore over the locked drinks cabinet. In a particularly bizarre moment, he lets off steam by galloping around the moors in a set of Western chaps while shooting off his pistol--a transplanted cowboy stereotype. (Or, as another reviewer marveled, an "over-the-top cowboy motif and a bonhomie verging on psychosis.") In other words, the film never propels us towards thinking about Sir Henry as carrying even the potential for revitalizing the decaying Hall; indeed, he conspicuously fails as an authority figure, as his inability to properly handle Barrymore implies, and his consistently bizarre behavior suggests that he cannot be rescued for proper "Englishness." The comic ending is, in its execution, exceptionally creepy. Sir Henry, bedridden and voiceless, is infantilized by Barrymore's chattering wife, who baby-talks him while feeding him the English "cereal" (porridge) he loathes; eventually, he smiles back at her and obediently eats his cereal, while Dr. Mortimer and Barrymore look on approvingly. The would-be aristocrat becomes an overgrown child--the condition in which he has, it seems, really existed all along, enabled by his wealth. In this 80s-era Russian translation, revitalizing the aristocratic traditions of the Hall is not, then, the way forward...
At dinner, my mother asked me what I was going to say about the latest Star Trek film. In my best oracular voice, I intoned, "I am thinking deep thoughts." "How can you have deep thoughts," she inquired, "about something that shallow?"
...Which is, indeed, the problem, both with the film and, alas, this blog post. After the first installment in this reboot, I wondered if the new series was going to have enough brains to handle the implications of a universe in which there was no Vulcan, given the centrality of that planet both to the universe's scientific advances and to its diplomatic record. If film #2 is any indication, the answer to my question is--nope, it's not. Oh, there's a quick mention of exploded Vulcan, and another cameo from Spock Prime, but that civilization's now near-total absence doesn't appear to affect anything. Instead, we have a bizarre terrorist allegory, clearly inspired by the dangers of arming (or waking up) insurgents and hoping that they'll do your bidding afterwards. But the terrorist in question has no particular reason to behave as he does; he's awake, he's got nothing better to do, so hey, might as well get ride of the "inferior" types? Star Trek: Into Darkness wants to say something about terrorism and how we respond to it--don't be like the terrorists being the main takeaway there--but it runs quickly away from the "why" question and towards multiplying lens flares. Lots of people die in the film, but they're collateral damage of the wowzer FX; the "big" death does earn some sniffles, I admit, but it's also cheapened because you know it's going to meet the great reset button in the sky. (At least Spock's death in Wrath of Khan felt permanent at the time, because Nimoy did want out for a while.)
Plotwise, the film is amazingly incoherent (io9 had this covered). It attempts to hold things together with some Big Themes, like the Importance of Family, and the Power of Community (it takes an Enterprise to take out Khan, the raging individualist! And ooh, the big scary ship doesn't need lots of people to run it, hint hint!). But mostly, the film is special effects strung along a weak thread of something which occasionally wakes up and remembers that it's supposed to be a plot, which unfortunately leaves the viewer plenty of time to wonder why Benedict Cumberbatch is playing a character named Khan Noonien Singh, and whether his fate is supposed to be a shout-out to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I will admit from the outset that my enthusiasm for Baz Luhrmann's aesthetic has always been, shall we say, minimal--which means that I am not The Great Gatsby's ideal viewer. Then again, most critics have already singled out what struck me as the film's greatest problems, especially Tobey Maguire's half-note performance as Nick and Luhrmann's overall substitution of glitz for serious engagement with Fitzgerald's novel. (Shallow people are the subject; it does not follow that the film itself must be shallow.) But I'd like to add two things:
1. The triumph of writing. The Great Gatsby invokes and inverts one of the classic Hollywood signifiers for "adaptation on the screen!": putting the book on film. In the notorious example of Robert Stevenson's Jane Eyre (1943), for example, the "book" is not Bronte's Jane Eyre at all, but an entirely new and more overtly political chunk of text. (You can see the book beginning at 1:13.) Luhrmann doesn't put The Great Gatsby at the beginning; instead, the frame shows us Nick rediscovering himself through writing-as-therapy, with the completed typescript at the end. The spartan quality of the typescript, in stark contrast to Gatsby's tacky glamour and the Buchanans' old money luxury, suggests the possibility of a disciplined way out from the film's meaningless revels, sexual escapades, and general debaucheries. Unlike either Gatsby or the Buchanans, Nick turns out to be capable of focused labor, "authentic" creative production; writing transforms him because it is work, even physical work (we see his handwriting, see him collapsed in front of the typewriter, etc.). Nick has, in a sense, earned his redeemed identity, in a way that the endlessly self-inventing Gatsby has not.
2. Race and realism, except when it isn't. We figure out pretty quickly that Tom Buchanan must be a bad guy, because he goes on about the dangers of rising African-American power and miscegenation, then later uses an antisemitic slur for Meyer Wolfsheim. Racism/antisemitism function as historical markers, that is: the twenty-first century viewer knows that these attitudes are bad (or we're supposed to, anyway), and that Buchanan represents something rotten. And yet the film tries to play with race. The African-American characters are almost entirely in the background, true, thinking goodness-knows-what about the whites they're serving or entertaining--but then the speakeasy is strangely well-integrated, and there's Nick's encounter with a group of African-American partiers in a car driven by a white chauffeur. In other words, is Buchanan anachronistic then or now? Or is it supposed to be both? Or, again, should we take the simultaneous omnipresence and invisibility of the African-American characters as a symptom of Nick's own mindset, a fantastic, distorted mental camera? Casting Amitabh Bachchan as Wolfsheim distracted me for a slightly different reason, as it felt like Luhrmann was trying to subvert Jewish stereotypes without knowing that there was a Jewish community in India. (Not being a telepath, I could be wrong--and, granted, one would not expect a Jew from India to be called Meyer Wolfsheim.) More to the point, though, the film does nothing to evade the antisemitic implications of having a Jew be, in effect, the true, new-money power behind Gatsby's glitzy facade; making Wolfsheim scarier than the novel's original is not exactly much help.
Sherlock Holmes is moving along; we're about to start on Charles Marowitz's Sherlock's Last Case, which is aimed at audiences who have always wondered why Watson didn't just slug Holmes across the jaw and toss him in the Thames. (Alas, the ending is less satisfying from that POV than the end of Act I.) Meanwhile, we watched the Rathbone/Bruce Hound last week, and everyone was pretty appalled by Bruce's Watson--which is hardly an unusual reaction. Still, the angst was useful for moving the students in a different direction: making your instinctive gut responses ("This Watson is an utter fool! Why does Holmes even put up with him?!") into prompts for further reflection ("OK, but what does the film get out of making Watson an utter fool?"). Once the question about Foolish!Watson's narrative function was on the table, the students quickly moved beyond GRAR and into more complex issues, especially the way in which the film sets up Holmes as a national superhero--the ending pretty much says this explicitly--and uses his relationship with Watson to emphasize his status as protector of the "innocent." (In this context, the film's cheeriness about Holmes' drug use is quite fascinating.) Because, as the class concluded, Bruce's Watson isn't simply a fool; in many ways, he's a child, in need of paternal oversight.
The success of Lincoln and Argo, along with the tense debates over Zero Dark Thirty, has been responsible for reviving a centuries-old question: what is the proper status of the historical in historical fiction (or, in this case, film)? Strictly speaking, this is really a subset of a far older question about the right relationship between any fictional representation and reality, which we could pursue all the way to Plato and Aristotle. And that question, in turn, brings up an equally old problem: what does fiction do to its readers/viewers? In the early modern and modern era, for example, we have Don Quixote and its descendants (e.g., Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote); the anti-Gothics of Jane Austen, E. S. Barrett, and William Beckford; Flaubert's Madame Bovary; and the like, all criticizing the deadly combination of fictional excess (or inaccuracy) and readerly gullibility. Of course, modern readers may scoff at the assumption that some people really believed that romance narratives were somehow "real," and yet we have our own equivalents--the notorious "CSI effect" (which may or may not be true) being an example. From the flip side, arguments in favor of fiction suggested that narrative could provide the innocent reader with guides to courtship (How and How Not to Do It), make us better people (by learning to identify with characters and, thus, other humans), or even clarify the existence of God (divine providence being "clearer" in fiction). Everyone agrees that we learn something from fiction. But what?
These questions are understandably more pressing when it comes to historical fictions, where cultural memory (and, not infrequently, national politics) are at stake. Maureen Dowd tells us that her "pet peeve" is "filmmakers who make up facts in stories about real people to add 'drama,' rather than just writing the real facts better." But she doesn't really wrestle with writer Tony Kushner's argument about Lincoln: "He said that in historical movies, as opposed to history books where you
go for 'a blow-by-blow account,' it is completely acceptable to 'manipulate a small detail in the service of a greater historical truth.
History doesn’t always organize itself according to the rules of drama.'" There's a conflict here, that is, between the demands of genre conventions and narrative form, on the one hand, and facts, on the other. Kushner describes standard operating procedure for historical novelists from Walter Scott onward: to the extent that an imaginative work can make truth-claims about history, it does so through the overarching narrative, reserving the right to move things around/rewrite inconvenient details/consolidate characters/whatever in order to make the narrative function successfully within its generic constraints. Emphasizing narrative gets you Waverley; emphasizing facts gets you, well, Queenhoo-Hall. (And yes, I've read Queenhoo-Hall. I nearly fell asleep over it--and given what I normally read for my research, that tells you something.) We expect history to aspire to objectivity, even if its reach exceeds its grasp; historical fiction tends to be more pronouncedly presentist. (Is Lincoln about the Civil War era, or is it about twenty-first century politics? Or both?) But then, as critics have long pointed out, what does it mean to determine that this or that fact can be twisted or tweaked? I can recall the historian Kali Israel being deeply annoyed about what happens to Sir Charles Dilke in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (blink and you'll miss him--he's the guy screaming about how we should get rid of the monarchy), for reasons very similar to Dowd's. Here's the thing: we cannot separate this new "fact" about Dilke from the film's narrative arguments concerning the role and nature of modern monarchy. And so we're back to that tension between narrative and fact again. There's a reason why these questions remain forever unresolved...
ETA: As I continued to think about this topic overnight, I was suddenly struck by Dowd's choice of facts. In the very same newspaper, Kate Masur had noted the distorted representation of William Slade and Elizabeth Keckley, who were political activists, not simply White House servants. And yet, this depature from facticity doesn't make it into Dowd's article. In other words, objections raised at the level of fact have their own political valences; they're not simply cries of "objectivity!" and "reality!" raised against narrative distortions.
Some people were asking about what "The Curious Case of the Adapted Detective" looks like, so here it is. Bear in mind that this is my department's upper-division theory seminar, so that the post-Doyle Holmes universe becomes a case study for talking about adaptation, appropriation, and the sometimes exceptionally fuzzy line between the two. Because of in-class tech constraints, we're dealing with fairly conventional media--novels, film, TV--but the students have leeway to research Whatever They Want, which, when it comes to Sherlock Holmes, is a stunningly wide range of material...
Given the immense quantities of Holmes out there, and the necessity of giving the students ample time to prep and discuss the secondary texts, I had to make some v. sad decisions--chief among them being that I wound up eliminating the RDJ/Law Holmes (OK, I don't actually like the films as Holmes films, but they're significant in terms of certain trends). Ultimately, for pedagogical purposes, I opted for a straight run of variants on the Hound, giving us a baseline for comparison.
The class assumes no prior knowledge of the original stories. The literary pastiches come in groups: two very different (and either bleak or sardonic) accounts of how the Holmes/Watson partnership "ended"; two attempts to rethink Holmes and his methods in the context of WWII and the Holocaust; and two more...unusual...takes on the canon.
Introduction and tour
A Study in Scarlet
Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Five Orange Pips," “The Speckled Band,” “The Engineer’s Thumb” (Adventures)
Leslie Haynsworth, “Sensational Adventures: Sherlock
Holmes and His Generic Past” (Project Muse)
Hound of the Baskervilles
Hound of the Baskervilles
“A Scandal in Bohemia” ($1.99 on Amazon Instant Video, or you may borrow DVD
from me); Hutcheon, Theory of
Adaptation, ch. 1
1st group presents:
Hutcheon, ch. 2
Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)
Short paper due 2/22
2nd group presents: McFarlane, Novel to Film, Pt. I
Last Sherlock Holmes Story
3rd group presents: Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation, chs. 2,
Dibdin, Last Sherlock Holmes Story
Marowitz, Sherlock’s Last Case
Individual meetings with instructor; prospectus due 3/15
The Final Solution
4th group presents: Stef Craps and Gert Buelens, “Traumatic Mirrorings:
Holocaust and Colonial Trauma in Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution” (Project Muse)
Research discussion day—post queries and finds to the Wiki
Annotated bibliography due 3/29
A Slight Trick of the Mind
Vote by 4/1: watch EITHER the Livanov Hound
of the Baskervilles OR the Brett Hound
of the Baskervilles, both available on Amazon
5th group presents: Neil Caw, Adapting Detective Fiction: Crime,
Englishness and the TV Detectives, ch. 2 (eBrary)
Watch The Hounds of Baskerville
from Sherlock, season 2, available
6th group presents: Balaka Basu, “Sherlock and the (Re)Invention of
Modernity,” Sherlock and Transmedia
Fandom (eBooks Library)