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)
About midway through Lincoln, I had a disrespectful thought--about the movie, I mean, not the president. Because it struck me that I had seen the narrative structure before. And I had: the film is, dare I say it, more than a little reminiscent of the musical 1776. Without the sometimes questionable score, I mean. Or the puns on adverbs. And with an assassination. But both the plot (determined advocate for position X ticks off a lot of people, while everyone jockeys for votes) and one of the underlying messages (history's heroes are, in the end, human beings like everyone else, with all that entails) are the same. So too is the film's critique of political purism: winning means compromise, even if compromise opens up space for disaster down the line. (Screenwriter Tony Kushner seems to enjoy needling conservatives and liberals in equal measure.) In the case of 1776, the compromise--over slavery--is precisely the problem that Lincoln is trying to repair in Lincoln. Obviously, this is a coincidence, and Kushner should feel free to rage at me if he wants (not that he'll ever see this review).
More seriously, like a number of professional and amateur reviewers, I felt that this film couldn't make up its mind: was it a film about a Great Man or about a post-idealistic politician? As a general rule, Lincoln is much more interesting when it is the latter than the former. Lincoln raging at his insubordinate cabinet, frustrated son, or unhappy wife, or Lincoln musing over the tension between his oath of office and the technical legality of his actions, co-exist uncomfortably with the Lincoln stared at reverently by his servants and subordinates. (Gore Vidal's novel Lincoln, which lets us inside Lincoln's head only once, takes a more hardheaded approach: there's considerable fear leavening the reverential lump, as all of the characters slowly realize that, in one way or another, they've deceived themselves about who Lincoln is and what he's capable of doing.) In particular, the assassination struck me as a structural misstep, not least because of the sentimentalized tableau around his bedside (complete with gentle halo of white light, no less). We know he's going to die, but that doesn't mean that the film needed to include the assassination (especially not offstage); if anything, moving straight to the second inauguration speech from the amendment's passage would have been more fitting. Finally, there's the film's odd split between its political rhetoric and what appears on the screen. On the one hand, some of the politicans (especially Thaddeus Stevens) sound like they've been reading up on contemporary social justice rhetoric; on the other hand, as Kate Masur and others have noted, the film pays virtually no attention to the existence of Black activism in the period--even though two notable activists, the White House servants William Slade and Elizabeth Keckley, are featured prominently in the film! (Masur rightly calls their portrayal here "generic, archetypal characters.") Only the pointed queries from the soldier at the beginning hint that the Black population was not simply watching from the sidelines.
As some of you may have noticed, Disney didn't just buy LucasFilm; it promised to make yet more Star Wars films. (Not that there have been any SW films since Return of the Jedi, of course.) Allow me to modestly propose that Disney has overlooked a back catalog of intellectual properties that could be easily adapted into animated films.
1. THE FILM: Bleak House.
THE PRINCESS: Esther Summerson.
HER PRINCE: Woodcourt.
MERCHANDISING OPPORTUNITY: "Little Jo" dolls, accessorized with a broom that has interchangeable bristles ("clean" bristles, "dirty" bristles).
DISNEYLAND ATTRACTION: The Skimpole Maypole (overlay of Dumbo the Flying Elephant).
THE SCENARIO: After years of being mistreated by her Evil Guardian, young Esther is befriended by an affectionate talking bear named Jarndyce (song: "The Second Key on the Right"), who brings her to a mysterious castle known as Bleak House. Bleak House, we soon learn, has long been under the spell of a Scary Witch named Chancery Court (song: "Grim Grinning Guineas"). Esther's warm and loving ways soon bring a new light to the castle--so much so that even the spiders decide to help her clean it (song: "Webbing While You Work"). Meanwhile, Jarndyce, in the guise of a performing bear, entices the young nobleman Woodcourt to the castle. They all live happily ever after, except for...
DISNEY VILLAIN DEATH: ...Chancery Court, who falls backwards off the balcony after she is frightened by one of Esther's much-loved spiders.
2. THE FILM: Wuthering Heights.
THE PRINCESS: Catherine Earnshaw (you know, the first one).
HER PRINCE: Heathcliff.
MERCHANDISING OPPORTUNITY: Stuffed bulldogs named Mo, accessorized with multiple collars (a spiked collar, a velvet bowtie, and so on).
DISNEYLAND ATTRACTION: Wuthering Heights dark ride, featuring cute creatures on the moors. Lots of moors. Pretty much all moors (replaces the Alice in Wonderland dark ride).
THE SCENARIO: After years of being mistreated by an Evil Orphanage Owner, young Heathcliff runs away and finds himself lost on the moors (song: "Step in Grime"). There, he is discovered by the mysterious young Catherine, who lives in a tumbledown farmhouse, Wuthering Heights, with only her pet mouse Nelly Dean for company (song: "Some Day She'll Drop a Crumb"). Heathcliff immediately falls in love with Catherine; however, he soon discovers that she is under a spell cast by the Scary Wizard Edgar Linton, who decided he wanted Catherine for himself after she was bitten by his pet bulldog Mo. Now, Catherine can only think of Linton's money (song: "I've Got No Rings"). Luckily, Nelly Dean manages to befriend Mo, and they help Heathcliff find the anecdote to the spell. They all live happily ever after, except for...
DISNEY VILLAIN DEATH: ...Edgar Linton, who falls backwards into a midden after being attacked by Nelly Dean.
3. THE FILM: Dracula.
THE PRINCESS: Mina Harker.
HER PRINCE: Dracula (come on, it's trendy now, right?).
MERCHANDISING OPPORTUNITY: A line of "Sweet Blood Red" makeup products for little girls, all conveniently available at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.
DISNEYLAND ATTRACTION: Seasonal Halloween overlay of the Haunted Mansion.
THE SCENARIO: After years of being mistreated by an Evil Chiropterist, young Dracula escapes to England, where he has a series of comical misadventures involving his dietary habits (song: "Let It Flow, Let It Flow, Let It Flow"). Dracula finally resolves to leave his vampiric ways and become a vegetarian instead (song: "It's Not Easy Eating Green"). However, he soon attracts the attention of a Scary Lawyer, Jonathan Harker, whose beautiful wife, Mina, is under a terrible spell: she cannot eat anything except paprikash prepared by Jonathan's pet dormouse, Hubert G. Thremnodikins III. Dracula immediately falls in love with Mina, and realizing that Jonathan was the one who cast the spell, he seeks to liberate her with the help of a friendly talking elephant, Van Hulking ("Hi Diddle Dee Dee, Who's Got a Stake for Me"). Together, Dracula and Van Hulking persuade HGT III to put garlic into the paprikash, which breaks the spell. They all live happily ever after, except for...
DISNEY VILLAIN DEATH: Jonathan Harker, who falls backwards into the Thames after Van Hulking threatens to sit on him.
4. THE FILM: Jude the Obscure.
THE PRINCESS: Sue Bridehead.
HER PRINCE: Jude Fawley.
MERCHANDISING OPPORTUNITY: Little Father Time wristwatches.
DISNEYLAND ATTRACTION: Stones of Venice Tower of Terror (renamed version of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror).
THE SCENARIO: After years of being mistreated by an Evil Renovator, Jude Fawley runs away to build circus tents. However, he soon becomes fascinated by a beautiful young woman, Sue Bridehead, who is absolutely not his cousin. Sue makes magical paintings that predict the future (song: "Who's Been Painting My Future Sched?"), and one day sees a Scary Architect (known only as Camden Society) trap Jude in a ruined building. Fearing for Jude's safety, Sue and her best friend, a cuddly owl named Little Father Time, seek out the Scary Architect (song: "The Flying Buttresses Song"). Together, they manage to avert Camden Society's plot and bring Jude home, making Sue Bridehead a feminist action princessTM. They all live happily ever after, except for...
DISNEY VILLAIN DEATH: ...Camden Society, who falls backwards off a gargoyle after being spooked by Little Father Time.
5. THE FILM: Dubliners.
THE PRINCESS: N/A.
THE PRINCE: N/A.
MERCHANDISING OPPORTUNITY: "The Dead" snowglobes, featuring Mickey Mouse (as Gabriel Conroy) and Minnie Mouse (as Gretta Conroy) in cheerful Christmas costumes.
DISNEYLAND ATTRACTION: New costumes for the relevant meet-and-greet cartoon characters.
THE SCENARIO: Billed as "Fantasia for the twenty-first century," Dubliners combines classic hand-drawn Disney animation, the 3D experience, and atmospheric music by Elton John. Beloved Disney characters like Goofy, Donald Duck, the Mad Hatter, and, of course, Mickey and Minnie romp through musical settings of James Joyce's short stories. Notable episodes include "Eveline" (Ariel the mermaid finds a prince, escapes the sea, and lives happily ever after), "The Boarding House" (Daisy Duck's mother introduces her to a fine young goose, and they live happily ever after), "A Painful Case" (Scrooge McDuck meets a lonely Cinderella, discovers the meaning of friendship, and lives happily ever after), and, of course, "The Dead" (Mickey and Minnie Mouse go to a party, sing Christmas carols in the snow, and live happily ever after).
DISNEY VILLAIN DEATH: None. There is nothing downbeat whatsoever about this film.
When I saw the extended trailer for Cloud Atlas, I thought that the result was going to be either a total mess or something brilliant. Predictions being what they are, I was wrong on both counts: this adaptation of David Mitchell's complicated novel is not that much of a mess (although I suspect some of the multiple plotlines will be unintelligble without prior acquaintance with the book), but it's not especially brilliant, either. The film cuts rapidly between six plot layers: Adam Ewing, lawyer, and the moral effects of his encounter with an escaped slave (1840s); Robert Frobisher, composer, and his misguided attempt to latch onto the coat-tails of another composer, now aging and ill (1930s); Luisa Rey, reporter, and her investigation into the mysterious goings-on at a nuclear power plant (1970s); Timothy Cavendish, publisher, and his seriocomic adventures when a crook wants a bigger cut of his royalties (2012); Sonmi-451, a fabricant worker at Papa Song's cafe, and her discovery of both consciousness and the possibility of social change (a dystopian, post-global warming world some centuries on); and, finally, Zachry, one of the few survivors in a post-apocalyptic village, who encounters a Prescient from Earth's last remaining advanced culture (another several centuries on). Everything happens simultaneously; we rarely rest in any one plotline for more than five minutes or so. All of the plots are linked by themes of imprisonment (both literal and figurative), exploitation, and the relationship between individual choice and social change. As Adam Ewing reminds his slave-trader father-in-law at the end, "what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?"
The Wachowskis have done their best both to simplify the novel and to make it more upbeat. Thus, the ambiguous relationship between fiction and reality in the novel, which persistently sabotages the supposed veracity of all of its plots, disappears entirely in the film: there's nothing to indicate that anything's wrong with Ewing's journal, the film version of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish appears to be based on a "true story" (as is the Luisa Rey novel), the Archivist doesn't query Sonmi-451's narrative, and so on. Frobisher's relationship with Ayrs, the decrepit composer, unravels far more crudely in the film, without many of the underlying complications involving Jocasta or Eva (absent from the adaptation). More drastically, the Sonmi-451 plot no longer involves the revelation that the Union rebellion is, in fact, a government-managed trick; instead, the rebels are all true martyrs for their cause, and Sonmi's relationship with Hae-Joo becomes a genuine romance. (This undermines novel-Sonmi's greater self-consciousness about her narrative work, which emerges from her awareness of "plotting" in a larger sense.) Similarly, Timothy Cavendish gets to make things right with his own long-lost beloved. And Meronym and Zachry wind up leaving the planet (!) and living happily ever after with lots and lots of grandkids. (All this added romance makes the outcome of the Sixsmith/Frobisher plot much more frustrating.) In other words, the Wachowskis rewrite most of Mitchell's novel in comic mode, substituting a paean to the power of love for the novel's far more pessimistic assessment of humanity's likely future. Apparently, we're not going to completely do ourselves in.
Despite eliminating much of the novel's metafictional character, the Wachowskis do try to emulate its rampant pastichery. Alert viewers, for example, may notice hints of Peter Jackson's Ringwraiths hanging out alongside shots that appear directly lifted from Star Wars (check out the Neo-Seoul fighter pilots). The Ewing and Frobisher segments look like Hollywood prestige period films, complete with loving shots of Ayrs' ancient mansion and lushly-colored nature imagery. By contrast, the washed-out interiors of the nursing home in Cavendish's plot owe something to One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (as, obviously, does the nurse). As much as I hate to say it, Meronym's white jumpsuit (which apparently repels dirt...) looks suspiciously like Wilma's uniform in Buck Rogers. And the orange-brown tones of much of the Luisa Rey segment does have a seventies feel to it. In terms of design, the post-apocalyptic Zachry plot felt the least convincing; I felt like I was looking at Planet of the Apes-style sets plunked down randomly somewhere. But in general, the film's use of pastiche functioned more as a historical signifier than as a reflection on the nature of narrative--except, perhaps, for the Luisa Rey detective plot, with its self-aware budding mystery author.
Much has been made of the decision to have the same actors playing multiple roles, crossing both genders and races in the process. The excuse for having white actors playing Asians (and other races), in particular, has been that the characters are reincarnated again and again across the plots. As Mike Le pointed out when the trailer appeared, and again more recently, this excuse makes precious little sense: instead of slapping terrible yellowface makeup on Caucasian actors--and really, as MANAA argues, the Korean makeup is appallingly, distractingly bad, especially on Hugo Weaving--one could adopt any number of other approaches to the reincarnation motif. Like, say, casting a Korean actor when one was called for. In fact, I thought that reusing the actors badly blurred the novel's own quite limited use of reincarnation. Strictly speaking, in the film, the only characters in each plot who overlap thematically are the leads and anybody played by Hugo Weaving, despite local differences. One can draw a line from Ewing to Frobisher to Cavendish etc. etc. etc. But all of the actors multitask, which makes life distinctly confusing: the ship's doctor, the hotel manager, and Hoggins are connected, but not to Tom Hanks' other roles, while none of Jim Broadbent's characters match up especially well. (The famously chameleonic Broadbent, by the way, tends to disappear entirely into his makeup, whereas Weaving's distinctively-angled features are impossible to camouflage.) By the same token, it's not clear why Ewing and Frobisher are played by different actors! I found the gimmick much more distracting than just casting different performers across the board; one could have achieved the reincarnation effect just as well using cross-cutting, more verbal echoes (as with Haskell Moore's and Boardman Mephi's dialogue), and more recurring objects (as with the button).
Operating on the assumption that it's never too early to think about syllabi, I'm contemplating what to do with the return of Brit Lit II in the fall. My syllabus for this course has always been unapologetically old-fashioned, in the sense that I treat it as an introduction to major authors only; I've never seen the intellectual point of "canon-busting" for students who have never encountered the canon, and therefore don't understand the stakes of the busting, let alone what's being busted. (My students soon grow familiar with my eternal "And look, here again is why you need to read Paradise Lost" refrain, which goes along with the "please read The Pilgrim's Progress in your copious spare time," "yes, Shakespeare is necessary," and "if you're an English major, you need a Bible" refrains.) However, I also ask students to write papers about works that are not on the syllabus--or, sometimes, works that are on the syllabus, but were deliberately not discussed in class--and here's where the less-familiar authors creep in, even at the introductory level. There are two primary pedagogical reasons for this approach: a) it frees students from the constraints of pre-existing classroom discussion; b) it opens up opportunities for them to show that they can translate reading skills from text to text.
One of my favorite ways of sneaking other authors into a course is to work with texts that revise, appropriate, respond to, and otherwise rework those on the syllabus. Thus, we get Felicia Hemans on Lord Byron, Mary Robinson on S. T. Coleridge, half of the known galaxy on Shakespeare, and so forth. A variant is to have students read/watch adaptations--which, of course, pose their own set of problems, the most serious of which is the dreaded "fidelity" issue. As anyone who has ever taught adaptations knows all too well, students with no experience in this area sometimes default to conjuring up long lists of similarities and differences (cue instructor: ARRRGH) without an argument. Yes, yes, differences, but what are they doing there? Ergo, the poor beleaguered instructor needs to somehow head the default off at the pass. And that means...demonstration day!
Paragraph three, and I've yet to address the title of this blog post. (Hmmm. My grade appears to be dropping.) I've never taught any Lewis Carroll in Brit Lit II--in fact, I've never taught Carroll at all--and I thought it might be fun to a) get a little Alice in Wonderland into the mix and b) do some work with adaptation/appropriation. What I think I'll do is pull the "Mad Tea Party" chapter along with a brief extract from a Victorian etiquette manual, and then have the students look at some clips before they come to class. But which ones? Many of them will have seen Disney's Alice in Wonderland (1951) as children, but it can't hurt to have them look at it again (although I suppose I'll have to explain that the Hatter has somehow been amalgamated with Humpty-Dumpty). There are some extremely surreal versions out there: e.g., Gavin Millar's Dreamchild (1985), with scary muppets (Dark Crystal mode, not Sesame Street) as Hatter and Co., and Jan Svankmajer's Neco z Alenky (1988), with battered, primitive-looking toys. Equally surreal is Jonathan Miller's dreamy Alice in Wonderland (1966), although it risks sending viewers off into a different kind of dreaminess. I'd like to sneak in a couple of ballet adaptations, Christopher Wheeldon's (2011) and Glen Tetley's (1988) (not YouTubed), both of which pose more extreme difficulties for talking about adaptations of Carroll; as reviewers of Wheeldon's ballet kept pointing out, it's awfully hard to confine an Alice to dance and mime. And there's the 1999 TV adaptation, I suppose, but I really dislike it--possibly because I find Martin Short grating, possibly because it just seems to drag on forever. Whatever their approach, both the straight-up adaptations and the more revisionist appropriations tend to bring out what U. C. Knoepflmacher calls the "unremittingly hostile" (173) quality of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare; the chapter's humor has a habit of deflating when visualized. In any event, I have the summer to make up my mind...