First Response: ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ 2/2

Part Two: Tarantino’s representation of women

To continue my exploration of expectation in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, (my critique of the ranch scene can be found here) I would like to discuss an aspect of the film that received a lot of traction in the run-up to its release and occupied commentators afterwards.

During the film’s promotional tour at Cannes Film Festival, a clip from Once Upon a Time’s press conference went semi-viral. It featured a journalist asking Quentin Tarantino about Margot Robbie, having been in films such as The Wolf of Wall Street and I, Tonya being given few lines as Sharon Tate in this film. The clip can be seen here. Tarantino unequivocally ‘rejects [the] hypothesis’ and Robbie answered that she ‘appreciated the exercise’ of using alone-time on screen to construct a character as opposed to being presented always in relation to or through interaction with others. This did little to convince some commentators upon the film’s release, including Clémence Michallon at the Independent, who concluded that Tarantino’s lack of dialogue for Robbie was indicative of Tarantino’s male gaze subsuming everything, which was both ‘insulting’ and ‘boring’.[1]

This has been a sticky issue in my thinking about the film. I am, as many of you aware, a big advocate for women being given nuanced, interesting characters in film. Having said that, I am not a strict disciple of the Bechdel Test, whilst I appreciate its importance as a basic bar for storytelling and representation on-screen.[2] (For the record: this film does pass the test). I really enjoyed Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, but it’s true that Robbie does not say much and this is slightly uncomfortable: Sharon Tate does little more than put music on, drive around in a delightful Porsche and dance about. I can absolutely appreciate the criticism; however, I think this is, ultimately, a simplistic argument, given the self-reflection at work in the film and because of the way in which Tarantino uses the film and its setting to play with history and expectation.

Similarly, I think it is important to highlight that having dialogue in a film does not necessarily save women from poor representation (see my footnote on the Bechdel test). The journalist at Cannes suggested The Wolf of Wall Street as a film where Robbie was given plenty of dialogue to work with, and yet Martin Scorsese’s representation of her was sexualised beyond belief. Robbie was front and centre of Suicide Squad as Harley Quinn, and yet here too she was hyper-sexualised and Zac Snyder gave her little to work with beyond that. Michallon at the Independent makes the case that in Once Upon a Time, Tarantino uses Robbie as Sharon Tate to convey a deified form of femininity: ‘a luminous, kind, generous angel of a woman whose heart seems wide open to the world. It’s a flattering depiction, for sure, but it’s also terribly reductive […] a lifeless, perpetually cheerful doll’. I would argue, in the first instance, that the fact that we see these former attributes as reductions is a damning indictment both of the nastiness we tolerate in society and the way in which we accept being open-hearted and kind as completely unrealistic. Sharon Tate was described with reverence by the likes of Mia Farrow and was famed for her generosity and kindness, there is no reason why this should not be significant in Tarantino’s representation of her here. Secondly, I would like to argue that through the film’s use of history as a fluid play-thing, Margot Robbie and Sharon Tate were not reduced within the narrative of the film, and that in more ways than focusing on one female character, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood waves in an empowered cohort of women and womanhood.

One of the most important parts of Michallon’s argument is that Tate does not experience any kind of personal growth and that ‘watching people just live is boring’. Of course, this is an extremely personal assessment: I happen to be an enormous fan of films where not a lot happens and what we are offered is an in-depth character study. What is so ironic about this claim, however, is that in real life, we cannot watch Sharon Tate live and we haven’t been able to since 1969. This is singularly important in the film. We might complain that not a lot happens because she spends a day on her own and she doesn’t talk to anyone, but there is some joy in watching a woman on a solo trip to the cinema (an exercise I would recommend all women indulge in/challenge themselves to at one point or another), enjoying time with her friends, dancing and having fun and preparing for motherhood when we know in real life that Tate was robbed of the chance of being able to do this. Furthermore, we are offered nuance in the dialogue-less-ness: in her interaction with a female hitchhiker, Tate drops off the woman, wishes her all the best on her ‘adventure’, thus suggesting that she spent the majority of the journey listening to someone else’s story; we are offered actual footage of Sharon Tate in the cinema that Robbie’s Tate watches, forming homage, an opportunity for self-reflection and, for us, a melancholy funhouse mirror of reality. It is an echo of the fact that this film plays with history, something that will be completely apparent by the end of the film.  Alternatively, although Tate is depicted as loving and loveable, the interpretation can be made that she displays smugness, vanity and happy-go-lucky privilege in her life as a white, blonde, beautiful woman; a kind of flip-side to the open-heartedness and generosity that some find so problematic. One way in which I think the film could have been improved is if Tate had had some kind of hand in killing the hippies in a badass, heavily pregnant way. And yet, just maybe, the best thing to do for a character who in life was a victim to such appalling violence, was to keep her removed from it.

pregnant

This is where bittersweetness seeps into the film: we know that in real life, she does not survive that night in 1969, and neither do her friends. When she offers Rick Dalton the opportunity to come into her house after the pool party of hippy carnage and the end titles begin to materialise on-screen, we know that we have reached the fairytale territory that only Hollywood can give us.[3] Primarily, it is Tate in the position of power: she is the one who could be a useful contact for Dalton, who spends most of the film choked up and flailing about, and not the other way round. She is the valuable, influential and powerful contact to have in the industry, not the male television star.  Additionally,  and similarly to seminal Tarantino revenge film Inglourious Basterds, which re-writes the history of the Second World War with Hitler and his cronies getting an epically fiery bloody death at the hands of escaped Jew Shosanna, in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood we are offered an alternative reality where Charles Manson’s blood-thirsty hippies don’t butcher Sharon Tate,  but get their comeuppance at the hands of Brad Pitt and a cute dog, and Sharon Tate herself is in a position to offer help and support to Rick Dalton in the loving and kind way that we have come to expect from her. Tarantino offers us a moment where history was very different: where bad guys are punished, the good survive and everything should have been OK.

And yet, despite the satisfying end that is put to the hippies, the heroics of Cliff Booth and his dog and the hilarity of the flame-thrower in the garden shed, the ending here is poignant and sad, as opposed to the jubilation and bad-assery of Inglourious Basterds . The camera lingers on Tate, Dalton and Tate’s friends from afar, as they introduce themselves and discuss the attack. Their conversation is barely audible, and the camera stays put, almost from a high CCTV angle, as they slowly follow one another into Tate’s house. A lot of space is created between the actors and the camera and, ergo, the audience watching. It enables us to sit within this strange liminal space where we can enjoy and revel in what we have just witnessed; but the distance cultivates a sense of knowing; a knowing that this did not happen. Tarantino wrote that Sharon Tate stayed alive and continued to live her beautiful life, but we know that she didn’t, murdered as she was in the most horrifying and violent way. Pertinently, the camera then stays on Tate’s Porsche and the other cars they have in the driveway, using the visual metaphors to reflect the power of the Hollywood machine to re-write and re-create things as we want them to be. Hollywood is itself a vehicle for change, for creativity and for embracing life over destruction; or, at the very least, offering the façade of that. It has a twofold power to reflect change and to exact change; to re-write history but also to ensure that the future is safeguarded. Ultimately, in this case, Sharon Tate can only stay alive in the movies.

Hollywood’s role in the film is developed and explored in numerous parts of the film, in particular with regard to the representation and role of women. Importantly, and as mentioned in my critique of the ranch scene, Cliff Booth does not have sex with Pussycat, the underage hitchhiking hippy with impressive underarm hair, in his car. This is not what she expects or, perhaps, what the audience may expect, particularly as this is a dynamic that has pervaded the film industry for as long as Hollywood has been functioning. Harvey Weinstein was a producer and collaborator with Tarantino for every single film he has written and directed, so the significance of this scene cannot be overstated.

Trudi

Similarly, one of the shining stars of the film comes in the form of Trudi, played by the delightful Julia Butters. At only 8 years old, Trudi almost steals the film and her character is one of the standouts amongst a cast of standout performances. Her endearing and academic approach to the craft of acting is refreshing, powerful and leaves Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton’s a gibbering, insecure wreck. Indeed, his entire self-worth on the set of the Western they are shooting together boils down to what Trudi thinks of his performance and his ability to achieve the performance, in particular through knowing his lines. In the scene where he gives himself a rollicking in his trailer, he mentions Trudi, berating himself to not show himself up in front of her. She, because of her commitment to her work, her ability to interpret and understand story, her thorough approach to research and her interest in the wider industry, is made out to be a force to be reckoned with. As with the subversive ranch scene, where Tarantino constructs the difference between psycho-killer hippies and the misunderstood, kooky youth, and thereby critiquing snowflakism, in Trudi we see the highest hope for future generations in film and beyond: doing their research, speaking their minds and not limiting themselves to who they think they should be. At the end of a long scene they shoot together, Trudi, who we know at this point Dalton completely respects and admires, tells him that he just put in the best acting performance she has ever seen, and Dalton immediately chokes up. His belief in himself completely stems from the way in which he is perceived by this precocious, wise and talented young girl and he can barely contain his emotion at having shone in her eyes.

As such, I believe that the argument that women are reduced in this film is not a very convincing one. Sharon Tate does not speak much in the film, it is true; but her role in the film, sensitively portrayed with the respect of Tate’s family in mind as much as for Tate herself, is to celebrate life and the power we have to construct our own narratives. If she had been killed at the end, then she would truly have served as a lifeless doll; but she lives, and she is glorious. She is not part of the overall plot because the plot is about two menopausal men trying to stay relevant. Robbie’s Tate does not have that concern and has ample time to while away the time, with added luxury of being on her own, both during the film and, thanks to the film’s revision of history, we can assume after the credits have rolled. To compound this, we have Trudi, a bright spark for the future who has plenty to teach the struggling Rick Dalton; and a man in Cliff Booth who respects the boundaries of power, age and experience by not taking advantage of a young girl. Tarantino has never shied away from giving audiences strong female characters, but in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood he provides a much more subtle offering, playing with our expectations and using a variety of characters and dynamics to do a great justice to the women of the film and the actors who play them.

 

[1] ‘Quentin Tarantino’s male gaze in ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ isn’t just insulting – it’s profoundly boring’, The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-quentin-tarantino-sharon-tate-margot-robbie-lines-a9061446.html [accessed 12:05, 19th August 2019].

[2] The Bechdel Test, created by Alison Bechdel, suggests that to pass a basic representational threshold, films must have more than one female character, the female characters must speak to one another and the female characters must speak to each other about something that does not involve a man. Of course, many culturally celebrated films do not pass this test, but then neither do films like Gravity, A Star is Born and Arrival, in spite of the lengthy screen-time afforded to women and where the quality of the female characters is exceptional. Equally, there are many female-centric films where women have plenty of dialogue and on-screen time, but their lives and conversations revolve around men.

[3] I want to add here that the irony of Dalton proclaiming earlier on in the film that he is ‘one pool party’ away from Roman Polanski and then fighting a hippy with a flame thrower in his pool becoming his ticket to friendship with Tate, is just hilarious.

First response: ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ 1/2

Part One: The Spahn Ranch scene

I went to see ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, on the 14th August 2019. As soon as the credits began to roll, opinions began to surface from cinema-goers around us:

‘It wasn’t very ‘Tarantino’ until the end’.

‘I wanted more of Margot and Leo together’.

‘Nothing happened’.

In many ways, this confirmed what I thought the whole film was reaching towards: expectation. Or rather, the dismantling and reflection upon what we want and what baggage we bring with us to a cinematic experience. The film focused on a number of things: the film itself, Tarantino as writer and director and Hollywood as a mechanism for hopes, dreams and ideology. In many ways, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was a perfect fit within Tarantino’s oeuvre, offering many moments of self-reflection, humour and a fluid sense of history. In two parts, I would like to discuss some important aspects of the film that stood out upon my first watch of the film: in the first, I offer a close reading of the ranch scene half way through the film and in the second, I challenge some of the commentary regarding the representation of women in the film, in particular Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate.

Primarily, I think it is important to acknowledge what I thought was problematic about the film and made for uncomfortable viewing. I was not a fan of the exchange between Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth and Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee. I found Pitt having to take his fake hair off before their fight absolutely hilarious, but I did not think the representation of Lee’s karate fighting, including all of his sound effects, were the homage that Tarantino claimed they were.[1] It fell into the realm of mockery, in the same way that Kill Bill Volume Two descends into a kung-fu farce for a while. Any subtlety around these moments in both films is lost, and Lee is reduced to a laughable caricature. Similarly, I found the storyline of Booth killing his wife and getting away with it in slightly poor taste. Arguably, there is almost a Gatsby-esque ambiguity to this story: even with the flashback of Booth and his annoying wife on a boat, it could be argued that this is an event fabricated through rumour and speculation of extras and film crew, neither confirmed nor denied. Yet, with the number of women who are killed every week by a partner or former partner still not being treated as seriously as the social issue that it is, including the fact that funding for domestic abuse charities in the UK comes from the luxury tampon tax that menstruating women are subject to, I am not sure that ambiguity on such a subject should be pissed around with.[2]

There are many aspects of the film where Tarantino is playful with expectation, in a script that is often light-hearted, funny and self-deprecating in a way that we have not seen Tarantino play with before. Primarily, there are the references to feet all over the place: Pussycat’s feet squished against Booth’s windscreen; Sharon Tate’s bare feet in the cinema; Squeakie Froome using her foot to point Booth to George Spahn’s room etc. Tarantino’s foot fetish is something of Hollywood legend and the fact that there were so many shots of feet in this film suggests that he wanted to take the piss out of himself and the rumours for as long as he is able to. Similarly, there was the mention of Spaghetti Westerns not being worth Rick Dalton’s time: Django Unchained is famously an homage to the Spaghetti Western genre also starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who was nominated for an Oscar in that role, who here plays Rick Dalton. Additionally, the long, weighty scenes spent filming Dalton’s Westerns, and Dalton’s typecasting in Westerns in general, perhaps pokes fun at the fact that Tarantino’s last film, and the film that succeeded Django Unchained, was The Hateful Eight, another Western that had a Roadshow running time of over three hours and was described as sluggish, slow and boring by many critics.[3] Tarantino doesn’t let himself off the hook in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and the film feels, in many ways, humorous and self-aware as a result. It doesn’t perhaps command the edginess of Pulp Fiction or the epic odyssey-feel of Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs or Django Unchained, but the humour is still on-point and the effect is a lightness that has rarely shown up in Tarantino’s films before, where crime and violence is purposefully more prolific and commonplace.

The part of the film that most demonstrates Tarantino’s toying with expectation comes when Cliff Booth is taken to the Spahn hippy ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The scene is already set for expectations and stereotypes being toyed with as Booth rejects the sexual advances of the hitch hiking hippy Pussycat on account of her age. She reveals that she has performed all sorts of sexual favours for men who have picked her up in the past. The couple have chemistry and Booth has signalled his interest in the number of times he spots Pussycat around Hollywood prior to their actual meeting; however, this white middle aged man decides to go no further with her when the sexual opportunity is presented to him on a plate. For a cinematic white alpha male to turn down a spontaneous encounter feels pretty progressive: James Bond certainly wouldn’t have done. It seems here that Tarantino is playing with what we expect from white leading men in Hollywood and, in turn, the representation of women, which I explore more deeply in my next essay. In a film that has ‘Treat Her Right’ by Roy Head and the Traits as its first soundtrack listing (with lyrics like ‘If you want a little lovin’ / You gotta start real slow / She’s gonna love you tonight now / If you just treat her right now’) Tarantino is offering something more progressive in the realm of relationships between men and women. It is appropriate that the stereotype of the older man involved with a younger girl is subverted, especially in light of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, and Hollywood itself becoming the epicentre of the worldwide #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

margaret-qualley-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-700x321

Once at the ranch, Tarnatino sets a ghoulish and eerie scene, with waifish young women and long-haired men looming about evidently having drunk the Manson Kool-Aid. Tension builds as Booth pushes to see his old colleague George Spahn, whom he suspects has been overruled and overrun by the hippy family. We are told, however, that he is ‘napping’.  A woman called ‘Gypsy’, played by the infamously controversial Lena Dunham, seems to be in charge of the place; George’s house is a dirty hovel; and Dakota Fanning, playing Squeakie Froome, is formidable with her piercing eyes, her commands and her commitment to watching television. Booth doesn’t take no for an answer and enters George’s room where… George is napping. George wakes up, becomes pissed off that he has been woken up, seems to be absolutely fine and wants to go back to sleep so he can watch television later. Tarantino builds up a big expectation that there is something rotten at the ranch, that George is probably out of his mind and that a big bust-up or reckoning is on the cards. However, everything is fine. Weird but fine. Squeakie is freaky, but she’s fine. She doesn’t lie to Booth about George being asleep and she is as ruthless about what she wants as Booth is himself. With Lena Dunham hanging about, in her first major on-screen role after the divisive and complicated Girls, we assume that there must be something questionable going on. Her casting in this part of the film feels almost deliberate precisely because she irks people and makes people uncomfortable. And yet, she is relatively harmless.

Similarly, and moments later, we begin to expect a big bust-up between Booth and Tex, a male hippy on a horse who is summoned back to the ranch after Booth beats up a guy who burst his tyre. Tex epically races back to the ranch, Tarantino giving him lengthy screen time as he rides through the canyon, providing beautiful wide panning shots of him galloping in the sunshine, as per the Westerns parodied at the beginning of the film. Unfortunately, he arrives too late because Booth has already driven off, happily listening to the radio. Over the course of his writing career, Tarantino has never shied away from surprising us with violence or building up action to a violent crescendo; yet, in the instance of Tex in particular, the time for violence to erupt is slightly out of joint. This is an opportunity for violence to bubble up into a lengthy fist-fight or shoot-out but he arrives too late. As such, I would argue, the opportunity for violence to be delivered to us on a plate is purposefully missed. Tarantino attempts to frustrate what we come to expect from a Tarantino film by holding our lust for quintessential Tarantino violence at bay. Booth beats up a hippy for puncturing his tyre and he kind of deserves it. Beyond that, there is nothing superfluous.

Furthermore, I would argue that casting the likes of Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning to lead an anonymous cast of slightly weird but, in the moment, harmless characters, is a nod to cultural anxiety held around youth. Lena Dunham is interesting casting because she is held simultaneously in high regard and disdain by the viewing public; Fanning, on the other hand, has successfully navigated child stardom, has a brilliant reputation in the industry and has many impressive performances to recommend her.  In a time where Millennials and Gen-Zers are treated with disdain for their focus on the climate crisis, identity politics and everything a conservative older generation decries as snowflakism, Tarantino delivers a bunch of layabout hippies who, in this moment, are weird but ultimately fine. The familiarity and renown of these actors in particular helps to convey and play with this. Of course, there is the spectre of Charles Manson looming over the hippies, but Tarantino makes the point to distinguish between a misunderstood misfit youth and actual psycho killers. To cement this, he uses another surprisingly familiar face: Maya Hawke, daughter of famous Tarantino regular Uma Thurman. [4] Hawke plays Flower Child, a member of the hippy group who abandons the three murderous ‘pig-killing’ hippies (whose exchange reminded me of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in Pulp Fiction), steals their car and leaves them in the lurch. Using such a recognisable face to play a weirdo but who wants no part in violence and carnage helps Tarantino to establish this spectrum of youth and to play with our assumptions and expectations. There are always going to be weirdos and arseholes, but not all of them are going to go on a killing spree; we may expect certain behaviours and outcomes from a group of people, or violence in a Tarantino film, but that is because we bring our own baggage of what we want and what we think with us wherever we go.

Tarantino is at an interesting point in his career where he can toy with being self-referential and also with the expectation of what we think we are going to get with a Tarantino film. He has a backlog of material with which people are extremely familiar and, as such, he can and does frustrate and toy with what he has constructed for us to want over the thirty years he has been writing. The ranch scene isn’t explosive and I can see how people might interpret that it all falls slightly flat and underwhelming, because nothing actually happens. However, with beautiful irony and in a way that builds up to the later chaos, this scene is rich with posturing, preconceptions and imagery, and I think that is perfect story-telling within the world of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. In some ways, this is a sunny, light and hopeful film and Tarantino leaves out violence until it is truly necessary at the end of the film (and he really goes to town with it in the best possible way). But that does not mean that the rest of the film is passive and blank: it seethes with tension, with frustration, weirdness and curiosities. As I will explore in my next essay, it is also tinged with undeniable melancholy and bittersweetness. Whatever expectations we have of a Tarantino film are healthily disrupted by the ranch scene in particular and I think it is a brilliant move on Tarantino’s part.

[1] ‘Quentin Tarantino Defends ‘Arrogant’ Portrayal of Bruce Lee in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’’, https://variety.com/2019/film/news/quentin-tarantino-bruce-lee-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-1203299921/ [accessed 17:07 19th August 2019].

[2] ‘The women killed on one day around the world’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-46292919 [accessed 21:24, 20th August 2019].

[3] https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_hateful_eight/reviews?type=top_critics [accessed 21:22, 20th August 2019].

[4] I want to show an awareness here that Maya Hawke’s presence in the film is an interesting one, considering her mother’s estranged relationship with Tarantino, who forced her to drive an unsafe car during the filming of Kill Bill. Click here for Thurman’s interview with the New York Times detailing the incident as well as the harassment and violence she was subjected to at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, Tarantino’s financier and creative partner: ‘This is why Uma Thurman is angry’, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/03/opinion/sunday/this-is-why-uma-thurman-is-angry.html [accessed 21:46, 20th August 2019].    

Love Note series – Bonus Disney Women

This little Disney series has been so much fun that I felt that I needed a bonus post. Today, I’ve decided to give some honourable mentions to Disney women who have enriched the stories they are in, have given fantastic comic relief and whose characters have become even more indispensable with every new viewing.

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, Sleeping Beauty, 1959

It pained me that in Maleficent, one of Disney’s best re-makes/re-tellings out of the thousands they’ve done, these women are reduced to squabbling, dim, clueless fairies. Of course, in the 1959 version, they also squabble and are crap at not using magic, see exhibits one and two:

Flora and Merryweather.gif

Fauna eggs

Yet, the three of them also end up holding the entire world together. They offset Maleficent’s curse on Aurora by ensuring she falls into sleep instead of death, they put everyone else to sleep, they fly to Maleficent’s castle to release Prince Philip even though it terrifies them and then help him to bring about Maleficent’s downfall. They are constantly busy saving the world and everyone in it and are integral to the film’s action. As such, Fauna, Flora and Merryweather ensure that in spite of some of the other problematic tropes in Sleeping Beauty, this animated film actually has the highest amount of female dialogue in the whole of the Disney oeuvre.[1] That is something pretty special.

 

Magnificent Marvellous Mad Madam Mim, The Sword in the Stone, 1963

This small dumpy woman, with her bright pink dress and purple hair, may not look like trouble but she is as feisty and frightening powerful as they come. I think of her as a pre-cursor to Winifred Sanderson from Hocus Pocus in many ways.

Mim sick

Winnie

Mim is ridiculous, darkly hilarious and appeals to all that is gnarly in ourselves. Obviously I don’t make it a habit to ‘destroy’ cute little sparrows for fun; but I find it funny just how funny she finds herself. She takes absolute delight in being grisly and her cackle cracks me up every single time. She is magic’s counter-balance to Merlin’s honourable, good-natured and learning-outcome wizardry, displaying considerable power and resolve. She doesn’t win the wizard’s duel, and rightly so, but she sticks two fingers up to Merlin’s borderline self-righteousness and I find her very enjoyable viewing.

Mim sunshine

 

Lady Kluck, Robin Hood, 1973

Klucky

Lady Kluck, or Klucky, is the real star of this film. She is Maid Marian’s lady-in-waiting and her contributions to the friendship and film include terrible badminton technique, Prince John impersonations, dancing and of course, her willingness to get stuck into a barney. She is loud, rambunctious, has a fantastic Scottish accent and her fearlessness in a punch-up is inspirational. Her best line comes during the carnage of the archery competition where she tells Maid Marian to ‘Run lassie, this is no place for a lady’, before rolling up her sleeves and slamming the Sheriff of Nottingham and a bunch of rhinos. This chicken is no wet hen and has excellent gif game.

Klucky funny

 

Kala, Tarzan, 1999

Kala

Disney as a creative institution is famous for severely lacking in representations of secure, loving mother figures. When Tarzan was released in 1999, Kala was brought to us by the divine Glenn Close, and became the overdue motherly role model that we had all been waiting for. At the beginning of the film, Kala goes through the unspeakable trauma of her baby being killed by a ferocious leopard called Sabor. When she hears Tarzan’s cries across the jungle, she discovers him alone, his parents also having been killed by the leopard. She rescues him and resolves to protect him from the dangerous world around him, whether that’s from leopards and other predators, but also the hatred of Kerchak, Kala’s partner who refuses to acknowledge Tarzan as his son. Kala’s love is boundless; she brings Tarzan into the safety of the gorilla family, teaches him that he isn’t as different to her as other gorillas make him out to be, and also embraces the grief-stricken realisation that she will have to let her son go. For me, this scene is up there emotionally with ‘Baby of Mine’ in Dumbo. Kala is warm, kind, brave and nurturing and definitely deserves some recognition.

Kala and Tarzan

 

Mama Odie, The Princess and the Frog, 2010

Gumbo

Mama Odie is a blind witch lady living in the bayou outside New Orleans, who Tiana and Prince Naveen visit to solve their frog problems. Mama Odie is friends with Ray and his firefly family and relies on the help of a snake called Juju to get around the place. The two form an excellent double act as Juju doubles up as a walking stick, plank and sous chef as Mama Odie makes her magical, clairvoyant gumbo. I think she’s brilliant because she introduces us all to the idea that what we want and what we need are very different things. I believe that what we think we want lies firmly in the realm of ego; it is often short-sighted, ruled by fear, lack and longing. What we need is something more deeply personal and actually evades us a lot of the time: the need for connection, boundaries, and the key self-awareness to know what makes us feel safe, comforted and loved. Mama Odie, with wit, an excellent gospel song and tons of energy makes that abundantly clear, paving the way for Tiana to reject Dr Facilier’s soul-selling proposition at the end of the film.

Mama Odie and Juju

 

[1] Female Dialogue

Love Note series – Meg

Meg, Hercules, 1997

Hercules Meg

Hercules really is the unsung hero of the Disney oeuvre (if you excuse the pun). This film is a fun anachronistic re-telling of the Greek myth, which introduces Ancient Greece and its mythology to gospel music, American consumerism (Thebes is the Big Olive and Hercules fronts an Air-Herc mosaic advertising campaign) and Danny DeVito as Philoctetes. It also introduces us to Megara, whose friends call her Meg, or at least they would do if she had any friends.

Have nice day

Now, if you are familiar with the original Greek myth, you will be aware that Hercules actually kills Megara and all of their children when he is driven mad by Hera, thus initiating himself into completing the twelve arduous labours to redeem himself. Disney devolved significantly from the ancient myth, for obvious reasons, and instead of killing Meg off, the animators created a super sassy, fabulous woman who also has her fair share of emotional wounds to negotiate and free herself from. Meg combines witticism and fiery comebacks with deep-rooted pain and vulnerability. Prior to the main action of the film, we learn that she sold her soul to Hades, the god of Death no less, to save the man she loved, who then dumped her for someone else. Ouch. I mean, we’ve all had bad experiences in our love lives, but that is as about as shit as it gets.

Meg Wounded

Meg’s journey, in many ways, sees her learning to open up her heart and allow herself to be emotionally healed enough to accept the love being offered to her by a kind, emotionally available man who really bloody likes her. This may sound a bit patronising, melodramatic or wishy-washy, but is there any arena in human experience that feels as vulnerable and, sometimes, scary as being in a safe, loving relationship, especially when situations you have found yourself in previously left you hurt, distrustful and determined to close yourself off? I’m not sure. Meg is determined to keep up her walls up and her heart closed to Hercules, whose honesty and desire to help other people makes him one of Disney’s most endearing men. Ultimately, Meg proves that she is one of the most fearless Disney women when it comes to love. She throws herself under a column to protect Hercules when he is at his most vulnerable, putting her own life on the line for him; who then puts his life on the line to save her soul from the Underworld.

Now, I’m obviously not suggesting that we all start throwing ourselves under collapsing buildings or finding our way to Hell for the people we love, but if we look through a metaphoric lens here, I think there is very little difference. Healthy, loving relationships, no matter if they’re with a romantic partner, family or friendships, are absolutely worth protecting, require commitment to your own inner work and wellbeing, even if that means dragging yourself through the depth of your own personal hell to deal with issues like trust and intimacy, and embracing your loved ones with an open, accepting and trusting heart. If Meg taught me anything, it was about freeing yourself from the chains of low self-esteem; that the idea of a femme fatale can be a veneer for a huge amount of insecurity and emotional damage; and that allowing yourself to be loved fully by good, kind people around you, is the scariest but life-affirming thing in the world.

Love Note series – Mulan

Mulan, Mulan, 1998

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Mulan holds a very special place in my heart. She begins the film as a slightly disorganised, hapless, disgrace (by ancient Chinese standards) and then channels her strength, determination and courage into saving the whole of China from the Huns, both as a soldier and, when she becomes a disgrace again for doing that, in a traditional hanfu dress. Even from a short synopsis, we can see that over the course of the film, Mulan effectively redefines what it means for a woman to bring honour to her family in China, and shows that placing women in arbitrary boxes based on gender and capability is not in the interests of individual women or society as a whole.

Mulan and Little Brother

One of the things I love most about Mulan is that she is resourceful, a creative thinker and easily comes up with ideas and solutions to benefit herself and others. Over the course of the film, we see her attach a bone on a stick for her dog Little Brother to chase whilst simultaneously spreading chicken feed; out of her whole army unit, she is the first to understand how to use two weights to climb to the top of a pole and retrieve an arrow; she uses a cannon to trigger an avalanche that destroys the vast majority of the Hun army whilst saving the lives of all of her comrades; and she devises a plan to rescue the Emperor by having her mates drag up. Her ingenuity coupled with the strength and combat skills she acquires (in particular during the song ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ where the main refrain is ‘we are men’, the irony of which is amazing), make Mulan an incredible force to be reckoned with. No wonder she seems so threatening and at odds with the confining moral and social standards that prevail.

Mulan Climbing

Like Pocahontas and Esmeralda, Mulan also conveys incredible emotional sensitivity. She communicates with her dragon guardian Mushu, has a precious relationship with her horse Khan and is a deeply reflective individual. Her greatest desire, apart from saving the life of her father who is too old to fight in a war, is to become comfortable with her own identity. Her journey over the course of the film is to work out how she can be in the world and be comfortable within herself, whilst also serving the needs of her family and making them proud of her. Whilst, as is archetypal, she is met with set-backs and obstructions, where she takes the opportunity to assess what she has done and who she is. Ultimately though, her self-perception and her own sense of failure all fades in the wake of her needing to make a choice to do the brave and right thing, which she almost always does.

When shit hits the fan with Shan Yu and his allies surviving the avalanche and moving to attack the Imperial City, Mulan doesn’t think twice about gathering herself together and going to raise the alarm and fight back. In doing so, she carves out a place for herself and ultimately earns the respect and gratitude of an entire country. As such, Mulan shows us that in spite of the negative voices around us and within us that tell us that we are not good enough, that we don’t belong and that we have nothing to contribute to the world, we should stir up enough courage to carry on anyway. Ultimately we are defined not by who we or others think we are, but by the actions we take and the way we conduct ourselves in the world. If we live by this principle, of trying to be good and doing the best we can no matter whether it’s fighting in a war or feeding some chickens, that is enough. The rest of the world will fall into place around you.

Crowd bwing to Mulan

Love Note series – Pocahontas

Pocahontas, Pocahontas, 1995

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Pocahontas is vastly underrated and one of my all-time favourite Disney films. I was transported from the very opening shots: America, covered in woodland and accompanied by indigenous drumming, makes me think of how truly astounding the continent must have looked and been before the environment and its native people were decimated and destroyed by white European colonial invaders. Pocahontas is not only an incredibly bittersweet interracial love story, but is a strong rebuke to colonialism and a love letter to Native American culture. Indeed, Russell Means, who voiced Pocahontas’s father Chief Powhatan, remarked that this film is the greatest representation of Native American culture and life ever seen in a Hollywood motion picture.[1] The screenwriters’ and animators’ attention to detail is second-to-none: from casting Native American actors, using indigenous language in the script, the inclusion of intricate jewellery and body art down to the positioning of the teepees at the beginning of the film, which all face in the same Eastern direction as they would have done in the seventeenth century, this film gives a sensitive and conscious platform to a beautiful culture. And at the figurehead of it all we have Pocahontas, described by the animators as Disney’s first depiction of a woman, not a teenager, in the animated title role.[2]

Pocahontas and John SMith

It does seem that Pocahontas operates on a different maturity level to most of the Disney princesses that precede her. I think this may have been because she was an actual historical figure, so extra sensitivity was required in the representation of her and her story, despite the heavy poetic license taken in the film. She risks a lot for the sake of a man she has fallen in love with, but the price for that isn’t losing her voice or developing Stockholm Syndrome (I’m so sorry Beauty and the Beast fans, I still cannot deal with that relationship dynamic!). She is presented as spiritual, closely connected to the animals, plants and people around her, demanding respect for her community whilst showing fascination for John Smith’s. She prevents a war and helps guide both sides to a place of tentative love and acceptance over hatred. And yet, she still manages to keep things light-hearted and sassy, as the situation requires.

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I love Pocahontas because she is playful, free-spirited and boundlessly curious. I love her relationship with best friend Nikomma who will happily tell her when she’s being a show off, which reminds me very much of my own relationship with my sister (I’m the show off). Indeed, my sister and I used to pretend to be Pocahontas and Nikomma when we were playing outside in the garden or on the beach (I was Pocahontas and Nicole was Nikomma, naturally). Pocahontas is deeply in tune with nature and her inner world, looking to the plants and animals around her, as well as her dreams for guidance and comfort. Her relationship with Grandmother Willow reminds me of mine and my sister’s relationships with our own beloved Grandma, and I love that she is willing to sit crossed-legged in front of her Elder to ask questions, heed advice and dialogue with her so that she might cultivate her own inner wise Self. Indeed, in many ways Grandmother Willow is Pocahontas’ inner wise Self, it depends on if you believe if she is actually real or just a figment of her imagination.

Pocahontas

Nowhere is this exploration of wisdom and connection with the natural world better explored in the film than during the song ‘Colours of the Wind’, written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. The song is accompanied by some of the most stunning animation that Disney has ever produced, and sees Pocahontas effectively deconstruct racist colonial narratives of who is considered civilized and who is considered savage. It is beautiful because the pithiness of the white colonial small-minded and deeply destructive dualistic ideology is visually dwarfed by the outstanding and overwhelming beauty of the natural world and the deep connection that Pocahontas sings of. My favourite line is ‘Come run through the hidden pine trails of the forest / Come taste the sun-sweet berries of the earth / Come roll in all the riches all around you / And for once, never wonder what they’re worth’. In other words, get over your racist capitalist bullshit John Smith and connect to something more powerful, more beautiful and more unifying.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHTikVNvbU [09:19, accessed 2nd July 2019].

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHTikVNvbU [12:53, accessed 2nd July 2019].

Love Note series – Disney Women (part one, Esmeralda)

Before I went on holiday last week I had a burst of writing energy and, before I knew it, had four posts ready to be published. They are quintessential Harping On taking-silliness-seriously, and I am very excited to provide a little bit of light relief for myself and anyone reading this. I didn’t post last week because I was busy reading, swimming and sunning myself (more thoughts on that coming soon), so I hope that this Love Note series will more than make up for it.

As some of you will know, Disney holds a particularly big place in my heart. Fantasia is one of my top five favourite films of all time; Disney films in general are veritable nostalgia-fests when you need them; they provide the ultimate songbook for shower sing-a-longs; and can be hot topics for debate whenever the situation arises. Deconstructing Disney has long been one of my favourite past times (see here for an example), and I think it is a worthwhile endeavour. Like the fashion industry, such is the Walt Disney company’s power and reach that whatever its commercial and creative decisions, both good and bad, it affects us all even if we don’t care about them. I’d rather keep my eyes and ears open to Disney and what they are doing than to keep myself ignorant.

In light of this, and on a lighter note, I have written my series of blog posts on four of my favourite Disney leading women. They are each inspiring, interesting and courageous in their own ways and have taught me a lot about what it looks like to be a woman with conviction, especially in the face of patriarchal bullshit. I hope you enjoy them!

First up…

Esmeralda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996

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Harping On legend has it that when I met Esmeralda at Disney World on my 5th birthday, I ‘lost my shit’. Esmeralda was very, very important to me. I had two Esmeralda dresses, a Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame pencil case, an Esmeralda doll and a tambourine. She was my absolute hero. She stood up to a repressed, privileged prick, Claude Frollo, who spent his entire life and career persecuting Roma gypsies like her, and actively abused and encouraged abuse of Quasimodo, whose mother he kills at the beginning of the film, who then hides behind his rampant sexual desire for her by calling her a witch. Like I said, a prick. She derides Frollo for his cruel treatment of those who are vulnerable and refuses to back down when told to do so. Esmeralda is uncommonly brave, standing up for what is right even though it comes at a great risk to her own personal freedom and safety.

Esmeralda

One of the most moving parts of the whole film comes during her song ‘God Help the Outcasts’, with music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. Whilst every around her prays for glory, wealth and fame, Esmeralda declares:

‘I ask for nothing, I can get by

I know so many, less lucky than I

Please help my people, the poor and down-trod

I thought we all were children of God’.

Here, she clearly declares that she doesn’t want to ask for anything for herself because she knows of people who are much more desperate and worse off than she is. Esmeralda is selfless in spite of her own hardship, putting the needs, trials and suffering of her community before her own.

What is interesting is that whilst she addresses ‘God’ throughout most of the song, Esmeralda actually begins the song by speaking directly to a statue of Jesus. She demonstrates that in spite of the way she stands up for others and for what she believes in, she has internalised some of the xenophobic elements of medieval Paris, providing the caveat:

‘Yes I know I’m just an outcast

I shouldn’t speak to you

Still, I see your face and wonder

Were you once an outcast too?’

It is a moment of complete vulnerability as she enters a conversation with Jesus and subsequently God, a divine power that is bigger than her and whose help and comfort she needs. By adopting the language of her persecutors, with the label ‘outcast’, it suggests that she holds an internal belief that she is not worthy or good enough for finding refuge in prayer or communicating with God so candidly. However, she then goes on to draw a line of comparison between the two of them, demonstrating a sophisticated knowledge of Christian doctrine by suggesting that because Jesus was also considered an ‘outcast’ in his time, and especially in the run-up to his death, then it must be appropriate for her to speak to him. He was vulnerable, tried to help the needy and stood up to and threatened power structures, just she like she does. It is a beautiful, heartfelt moment, giving us a window into her internalisation of her ‘outcast’ status as a gypsy but also her ability to appeal to that which is vulnerable and considered by society as ‘unworthy’ in others, thus rendering everyone truly equal.

Esmeralda’s kindness and humility, coupled with her fiery resistance, her don’t-give-me-shit attitude towards future honey Phoebus, and her divine friendships with Quasimodo and goat Djali, make her one of Disney’s all-time greats. She is one of the most important and indispensable characters in the story and a true inspiration. She taught me that resisting injustice and standing up for others who are more in need of help than I am requires an immense amount of courage and bravery; never easy to do, but important beyond measure.

Esmeralda and DJali

Love Note – A (Legolas) Mug of One’s Own

Over the weekend, I realised that this beautiful piece of crockery (see photos) is over 15 years old and my head nearly exploded. What better way to commemorate and celebrate it than to write a Love Note? None, I think you’ll agree.

Whilst it has always been inherently more acceptable to fawn over Aragorn, Boromir or (in my case) Haldir from the Lord of Rings, who are all obviously and exceptionally lust-worthy, I have always had an incredibly soft spot for Legolas. Yes, I think it’s problematic to my ego that he has better hair, cheekbones and skin than me; but there was something about his inspired use of a bow and arrow, his bilingualism and his intuitive power of interpreting tree emotions that really captured my attention when I first saw the Lord of the Rings films aged 10.

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In the years that have since passed, and the numerous re-watches they have brought, I have noticed that Orlando Bloom’s line delivery perhaps isn’t as slick as his hair and his archery skills are actually impossible (you can’t shoot more than one arrow at once and expect them to both go in a straight line, more snaps for the visual wizardry at Weta). Nevertheless, my love for Legolas has been immortalised in this exquisite, now slightly ageing mug.

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There he is, looking calm and slightly perturbed on the field of battle with his bow and arrow, the sepia tint adding historical and emotional weight to the whole situation. What is wonderful about Legolas, as with many of the rest of the Fellowship, is that he is willing to commit to a cause that is bigger than himself. From looking at his mug on this mug, he isn’t as consumed with his cheekbones and maintaining his lovely hair as people would have him; he is a representative for all the elves, putting his life on the line to rid the world of absolute fascist power, destruction and despair. He may not carry the charisma of Aragorn, but he carries the wisdom that 2931 years inevitably entails, so there is little wonder that he sometimes appears aloof and impenetrable. His camaraderie with Gimli by the end of the trilogy is the stuff of literary and cinematic friendship legend.

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To say that this is my favourite mug is an understatement. Whenever I have felt anxious, this is the mug I have reached for; the mug that has seen me through the entirety of school, university, the existential, economic and sartorial chaos of post-adolescence, and, of course, Brexit; the mug I have proudly presented full of tea or hot chocolate (never coffee) when treasured friends and family have come to stay; the mug that has helped me to nurse myself and others back to health through the tens of colds, sniffles and lurgies that have snottily bloomed over the years; and the mug that has allowed me to proudly live my Lord of The Rings love on a regular daily basis.

One of the many wonderful things about this mug is that it can help ascertain and flex the depth of knowledge and understanding of the Lord of the Rings franchise. The keen-witted amongst you will notice that Legolas does not actually say the line, ‘I do not fear the dead’, which is printed on the inner rim of the mug.

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In fact, no one does. The closest anyone gets to saying this line is Aragorn in The Return of the King, who declares ‘I do not fear death’ as he descends into the Dwimorberg mountain to secure the allegiance of the Dead Men of Dunharrow.

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Additionally, this mug purports to be merchandise (unofficial I realised in light of these inaccuracies) for The Return of the King and yet from the armour of the enemy soldier looming behind him, I can deduce that, here, Legolas is fighting Uruk-Hai. This means this film still of Legolas actually comes from the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers, where he, Aragorn, Gimli and Gandalf the White fought alongside Théoden of Rohan against Saruman, who helped to birth this breed Uruk-Hai in the first place. Not in The Return of the King.

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You may think that, in light of this, what is effectively, a cheap, inaccurate, probably knock-off mug is not really worth my un-ending love and devotion. In actuality, it makes me love it all the more. It is imperfect, evidently tried hard and just wants to serve up something warm and comforting, which it does every single time. I subscribe completely to Marie Kondo and basic tenets of Shinto philosophy that we must endeavour to surround ourselves and display in our homes belongings that spark joy in our lives. This mug helps to alleviate the doubts, frustrations and fears of my day: it is my absolute pleasure to bring it out and let it warm me.

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Love Note – Mustang

Sisterhood truly is the most potent, inspiring and exasperating relationship: where grievous bodily harm can magically turn into profound silliness, which can turn into deceptive and mysterious thefts of anything from books and clothes to biscuits, which can turn into profound existential bonding conversations about love, life and the Real Housewives (substitute RH with your mutual sisterly trash). Jane Austen knew it with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility; Louisa May Alcott knew it with Little Women; Phoebe Waller-Bridge knew it with Fleabag; and Deniz Gamze Ergüven absolutely knew it with Mustang. I re-watched Mustang a couple of weeks ago and it is still one of the most compelling and emotionally charged films about sisterhood I have come across.

The plot revolves around five sisters: Sonay, Selma, Ece, Nur and Lale, and told largely through the point of view of Lale, the youngest. The sisters live with their ultra-conservative grandmother and uncle in a small village in northern Turkey. One day, after Lale tearfully says goodbye to her teacher who is moving to Istanbul, the sisters go to the beach with some male friends and play in the water. They are spotted and reported to their guardians, who effectively turn their house into a prison and arrange marriages for the girls. It is at times devastating, brilliantly funny and an incitement to free spiritedness in all teenage girls, especially when confronted with the deepest and darkest patriarchal forces.

And those patriarchal forces are well and truly horrifying. One of the scenes seared into my memory is at the wedding, where the girls’ uncle, Erol, who has proven himself to be aggressive and violent not only with the girls but with their grandmother (his mother), stands drunkenly and happily in the middle of the dancefloor, eyes closed, firing his gun into the air. Where the girls had at first been dancing, they cower around him, clamping their hands to their ears as he shoots and shoots. When I first watched the film, I thought to myself ‘Why on earth is he happy? Why is he celebrating?’ He cares nothing for the girls beyond keeping their virginity intact and, with hideous irony, it is heavily suggested that he sexually abuses two of them. Maybe he is just happy that they are no longer his responsibility and that he’d fulfilled some kind of patriarchal role in getting them married off? I think this is part of the way there: in this scene, ultimately, Erol is relishing his power. He is the one with his hand on the trigger, asserting and revelling in his dominance over the lives and fortunes of his nieces. It is sickening and infuriating to watch.

Additionally, watching Lale learn how to drive holds such urgency and pathos. Selma tells her that she was unable to escape because she couldn’t drive and Lale refuses for that to become her reality too. She tries and fails and tries again to learn how to drive, enlisting the help of truck driver Yassin, even though she is easily only 11 or 12 years old. Driving is a right we so take for granted in the UK, but is a fundamentally powerful means of power and control in religious and conservative countries. The importance of women being allowed to drive in countries like Saudi Arabia is all the more pertinent after watching a film like Mustang.

Amongst the hellish religious conservatism that the film actively exposes and challenges, we see the enduring and undimming power and pleasures of sisterhood, in all its multi-faceted manifestations. Indeed, the gentle intermingling of relatively light-hearted sisterly dramas with the devastating cultural power dynamics is what makes this film at once irreverent and tragic. We see the sisters defending one another from beatings; breaking out of the house to attend a women-only football match, then gossiping and messing around in their bedroom. One sister tells of how she radically subverts the injustice and intrusion of virginity tests by partaking in anal sex to prevent ‘losing her virginity’, before later on warning another sister that she’ll rip her head off if she steals her clothes again. As such, the film perfectly balances the magically mundane sisterly qualms and quarrels with the bigger, scarier patriarchal violence that determines their freedom and their happiness.

In this, I think the film goes a step further than Jeffrey Eugenides and Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides: the Lisbon sisters are only ever a mystical figment of the young boys’ suburban imagination, never fully realised as ostensible young women with desires, quirks, tempers or interests, Lux being, perhaps, the exception. Mustang shows that coursing underneath all of the patriarchal violence, double standards and unfairness of being a young woman living under religious conservatism, is the understanding, camaraderie and mutual struggle of being a girl and having female siblings. It is both heart-warming and heart-wrenching and speaks to anyone who has had a sister who has driven them absolutely mad but who will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them through whatever chaos comes their way, patriarchal or otherwise.

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Love Note – Vincent Van Gogh

This is an anticipatory Love Note for when I get round to seeing a new film starring Willem Dafoe called At Eternity’s Gate. Dafoe stars as Vincent Van Gogh and charts the final years of his life in the South of France. I haven’t seen the film yet, so cannot possibly review or attest to how good the film is, but I am nevertheless excited to see one of my favourite painters depicted on screen. This is not the first time Van Gogh and his life has been depicted on screen: one of my favourite episodes of Dr Who brought Van Gogh to life through a very moving performance by Tom Curran.

vincent and the doctor

He was also represented in the visually stunning Loving Vincent, a truly extraordinary animated film that saw artists fluent in Van Gogh’s style paint frames telling the story of his final days. In both, Van Gogh was presented as tortured, immensely sensitive, almost living and breathing his wonderful art and terminally underappreciated and misunderstood.

loving vincent

I have loved Van Gogh for a very long time and I think what made him extraordinarily gifted was his capacity to paint both places and people. His style captures the nuance and intricacy of whatever it is he is looking at, and his paintings almost hum with vibrancy, no matter whether he’s painting a field scene or exploring the lines of a weathered and weary face. Additionally, he only ever painted or represented the world around him. He may have done this in an utterly original and inspired way, but it was always a reflection of what he could actually see. This put him at odds with his contemporary Paul Gaugin, who drew from his imagination to create people and figures in his paintings. Van Gogh, on the other hand, would never do this. This aesthetic and practical difference can be seen in Van Gogh’s Olive Grove and Gaugin’s Christ on the Mount of Olives:

Van Gogh Olive Groves

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This is not to say that Gaugin’s work is inferior in any way to Van Gogh’s (I actually think his Christ looks remarkably like Van Gogh in this painting, which is interesting), but it demonstrates a very interesting dynamic at work in Van Gogh’s art. His commitment to reflecting the world around him accurately, but with his own unique insight, makes his work at once highly personal and imaginative but always grounded in what is physical and real. It is endearing and almost egoless to bring such consciousness and attention to what he saw, rather than to emphasise the world by applying a story to it. Through Van Gogh’s art, we learn that the world itself is a story to tell, we don’t need to apply grand narratives of religion or myth to elevate it as such.

I have been fortunate enough to see Van Gogh’s paintings in the paint at both the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and from the Davies collection at the National Museum of Wales. What I learnt and what absolutely stood out to me, more than the tragic circumstances of his depression and his death, was that he was a masterful and learned technician. Whilst a lot of emphasis has been placed in popular culture on his naiveté and the impressionistic and emotional ecstasy of his paintings, what I learned was that he had an almost academic approach to art. Van Gogh developed his technique out of dedicated and meticulous study and practice. He took lessons from Anton Mauve in the Hague, studied colour theory through Charles Blanc’s colour wheel and through analysis of Eugène Delacroix’s paintings, explored pointillism and the un-mixing of colours through the work of Georges Sauret, experimented in a Japanese style through a study of Japanese woodcuts, and from his friendships with Toulouse Lautrec and Émile Bernard learnt about the versatility and vibrancy of pastels. Passionate and zealous as he famously was with his impressions and interpretations of the world around him, Van Gogh was a learned and masterful technician. I don’t think this should be overshadowed by the turbulence of his relationships or his volatile mental health. He may have found inspiration in his pain and darkness, but his expression of it came from hours, days and years of practice and development.

Here are some of my favourite pieces of Van Gogh’s work:

Van gogh the harvest

The Harvest, June 1888 – The warmth of the sun radiates in this painting, everything that summer should be.

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Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, c.1887 – I have this painting on a postcard hanging up in my flat and I think it is beautiful. The sun-scorched orange of his beard complements the bright blue of his clothes and background, and the green tinges around his eyes and brow convey his deeper emotional sensitivity.

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Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries, June 1888 – This is another painting on a postcard that I have hanging in my flat (courtesy of my boyfriend who loves this particular painting). It is reflective of Van Gogh’s interest in Japanese art.

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Rain – Auvers, 1890 – I saw this painting at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and it brought tears to my eyes. There is a battle going on here between the sunny warmth of the land and the deep, dark despair of the rain. It reminds me that no matter how depressed, anxious and afraid we may feel, the land needs to be watered to flourish; goodness, light and clarity come from embracing and moving through the dark and difficult times.