Masculinity in crisis: ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’

Trigger warning: this essay has mentions of suicide, self-harm, sexual harassment and sexual abuse.

From the cultural grapevine, I came to be aware of The Catcher in the Rye as both a young man’s coming-of-age-story and, through fraught and bitchy Twitter threads, that liking this novel, in particular men liking this novel, was a hallmark of being a ‘nice guy’ or possessing generally bad literary taste. I don’t take my cues from what my fellow literature graduates lounging about on Twitter say is good or worth reading, but I can honestly say that I did avoid The Catcher in the Rye until recently. I am a big fan of American Literature and writers: Maya Angelou, Kate Chopin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, Maggie Nelson, Nathaniel Hawthorne are big favourites,  and the length of Salinger’s novel is hardly anything to get stressed about. Yet, the novel does carry somewhat of a baggy reputation for centring on a privileged young man getting into scrapes in New York and being generally ‘rebellious’. Like Jessie Thompson, in an essay for Penguin, it didn’t necessarily feel like a priority for me to read it.[1] That was, until, my boyfriend told me it was one of his favourite books. In fact, the first time I had a conversation about The Catcher in the Rye was with a friend at university; he said that it was the sort of writing that made him want to write. How could it be that two men I knew well, trusted their opinions, could like a novel that was elsewhere reviled and pointed to poor cultural taste?

At the beginning of the summer, I read the novel for the first time. What I found was sardonically funny, obviously full of angst, but also a profoundly moving piece of writing. I read the story of a young man who feels at odds with the world around him, who sees education as pointless in a world of privilege and bullshit; who suffers from intense self-hatred, and finds his only solace in the company of his sister and some nuns. Although Salinger has Holden Caulfield compare himself, through negation, to David Copperfield, the nineteenth century figure he reads most as an iteration of, I would argue, is Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Of course, the plots of these novels are very different, but the same disillusionment seeps through both. Where, however, Raskolnikov fashions his antipathy, anger and resentment into murder, Caulfield directs his inward; as much as he hates the world and the people in it, famously using the moniker ‘phonies’ to describe people throughout the novel, he struggles with himself the most. So much so, he tends towards self-harm: having obsessive thoughts about being shot (‘what I’d do, I’d walk down a few floors- holding onto my guts, blood leaking all over the place’), purposefully winding people up so that they’ll hurt him (the fight with Stradlater on p.39 sees Caulfield provoke a violent response for two pages), and wandering around Central Park in the freezing cold having wet his head, thinking about his dead brother Allie, ‘pneumonia and dying’.[2]

Not only did this novel move me, but it became obvious that reading it was vital. I have long joked about ‘masculinity in crisis’ when I see or experience sexist behaviour, and I think it is as important to laugh at the likes of Donald Trump as much as to resist and protest him, his disgusting ideologies and all that he represents, with anger and derision. However, it is important that we do have serious, constructive conversations about masculinity and what it means to be an emotionally healthy man. In The Catcher in the Rye Caulfield is explicit about his depression, stating that ‘what I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window’. It could not be clearer that Caulfield does not see his life as worth living. Furthermore, towards the end of the novel, after hastily leaving his old teacher Mr Antolini’s apartment after an incident verging on sexual harassment, Caulfield reveals that ‘when something perverty like that happens, I start sweating like a bastard. That kind of stuff’s happened to me about twenty times since I was a kid. I can’t stand it’.[3] It is heavily suggested here that he has suffered sexual abuse and harassment as a child which, along with the trauma of losing his brother and seeing a fellow student kill himself, serves as an understandable and very deep root for his depression and disaffection. This novel is not the ramblings and larking about of a ‘rebellious’ teenager, even though it is at points dry and funny; it is about a young man struggling to cope with a plethora of horrifying events. It surprises me that the novel has been, by certain factions, culturally maligned; almost in tandem with the way in which men’s mental health has been diverted from and underplayed since time immemorial.

And yet, what is so beautiful about The Catcher in the Rye is that in spite of Caulfield’s trauma and his anger with his peers and the adults in his life, he evidently cares a great deal about his sister, Phoebe, and children in general. Phoebe is integral to Caulfield’s happiness, and he finds support and comfort in her: ‘Old Phoebe didn’t say anything, but she was listening. She always listens when you tell her something’.[4] Phoebe is presented as an old soul in spite of her youth, who will give him the space and time to talk and be heard. He refers to her repeatedly throughout the novel, even buying a record for her pre-emptively, before accidentally breaking it. He tells her that the only thing he ‘wants to be’ in life, is stood at the edge of a cliff:

‘What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day’.[5]

Caulfield effectively tells Phoebe that he wants to act as some kind of protector or safety net, preventing children from falling to their deaths whilst they are running around and having fun. In spite of all of the pain he carries around with him, Caulfield is ultimately someone who wants to help, who wants to be of service to others, in particular those who are young, innocent and temporarily free from the trappings and traumas of adulthood. It is a really noble aspiration. This cements the idea, for me, that this is a novel about a young man having serious difficulties orientating himself in a world that has made him suffer, full of people who do not acknowledge his and, most likely, their own pain.

*

When I first planned to write about The Catcher in the Rye, I thought a worthwhile comparison could be made with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel with a challenging and dark insight into depression, trauma and recovery in a young woman. This novel shook me, scared me and deeply connected with me when I first read it in 2014. I think it is important that if we take the representation of mental illness seriously in The Bell Jar, the same gravity should be extended to The Catcher in the Rye; it should not be undermined because it focuses on the suffering a young, white man. When we are living in the middle of an epidemic of young men taking their lives, understanding the root cause of such terrible pain is essential.[6] As such, I am reluctant to draw the two into such a completely direct conversation here, because I do not think it is wise to compare and contrast the experiences of mental illness between men and women in the space of a blog post. The roots of both, I believe, lie, to an extent, in the way in which patriarchy and capitalism prioritise a rampant toxic hyper-masculinity that leaves no place for the more traditionally feminine realm of feelings and emotions. Compounded with trauma, loss and the myriads of emotional pain that a human being is able to experience, depression and anxiety abound. Of course, men and women experience all of this in different ways, and it is important to remember and honour that distinction. Luckily, something else came along only this week that offers a much keener opportunity for comparison of masculinity, whilst also, clearly acknowledging Plath and the experience of women.

NFR

On 30th August 2019, Lana Del Rey released her sixth studio album Norman Fucking Rockwell! It is brilliant in so many ways and whilst I’ve loved all of her work, her interplay of satire and authenticity in this album is at its most sophisticated. Upon listening to it, I noticed that the people and relationships she discussed were separated and mingling between several positions. We had Del Rey’s typical ‘golden bad boy’ and ‘a sad girl in a mess in a party dress’ dynamic; we also have a withering partner who half-lovingly mocks her ‘man-child’ partner who indulges and wallows in his own misery, blaming his bad poetry ‘on the news’.  But we also saw something more obviously serious. We have repeated references to a man struggling with his wellbeing and sense of self in ‘California’, a man who pretends to be stronger than he is, who wishes he was ‘doing better’. In the same breath Del Rey presents a woman who is a fixed point of strength and comfort, telling him ‘And honey, you don’t ever have to act cooler than you think you should / You’re brighter than the brightest stars’. She acknowledges the pressure that this man is under to appear and conduct himself in a certain way in the world, in particular as a strong, cool man who has no insecurities or worries. She is there to tell him, from a position of acceptance, that he is OK, just as he is.

Del Rey expands on this further, and gloriously, in ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’. She tells her partner ‘You lose your way, just take my hand / You’re lost at sea, then I’ll command your boat to me again / Don’t look too far, just where you are, that’s where I am / I’m your man’. This is such an important, playful line because she holds the position of a healthy, anchored woman in this relationship, and yet refers to herself as ‘your man’. It harks to the Leonard Cohen song ‘I’m Your Man’, where Cohen unpicks what it means to be a man in a romantic relationship, by effectively declaring to his partner that he’ll be anything she wants him to be: ‘If you want a driver, climb inside / Or if you want to take me for a ride / You know you can / I’m your man’. Of course, in a healthy relationship, such a degree of self-effacement is problematic, but Cohen’s play with what it means to be a man is nevertheless important. What both singers suggest is that what it means to be a healthy man is a lot more fluid, and maybe, perhaps, feminine, than a dominant patriarchal culture suggests. By feminine, I don’t mean necessarily a defined gender category, but something more archetypal: that which is nurturing, loving and spacious; as opposed to the masculine that is determined by boundaries, order and discipline. All of which, I might add, are absolutely fine and necessary. However, when what is masculine is privileged and prioritised culturally and societally, these morph into authoritarianism, perfectionism and aggression and their offsets: disdain for emotion of any kind, depression, isolation and alienation. In Norman Fucking Rockwell! Del Rey suggests that the conception of hyper-masculinity that her lovers struggle with can be deconstructed; similarly, she presents herself, in these songs at least, as an embodiment of both masculine and feminine, yin and yang; a grounded, integrated woman in a position to offer support, understanding, protection, love and hope. Again, I want to emphasise that this is not a limiting conception of what it means to be a woman or a man, but are archetypal facets that exist in and embody all human beings, no matter which gender you identify with.

As such, we can see that it is, perhaps, not an accident that Holden Caulfield turns to the comfort of his sister and some nuns during his deepening existential break down. As esteemed Jungian psychotherapist Marion Woodman suggests, over centuries we have culturally disavowed, repressed and persecuted the feminine; and yet, the feminine is what we need and yearn for to bring balance to the patriarchal shit show that continues to cause such violence and misery. It was so in the 1940s of The Catcher in the Rye as it is today, as explored in Norman Fucking Rockwell!. After meeting the nuns and giving them money, Caulfield says:

‘I couldn’t stop thinking about those two nuns. I kept thinking about that beat-up old straw basket they went around with when they weren’t teaching at school […] that’s what I liked about those nuns. You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It made me so damn sad when I thought about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything. I knew it wasn’t too important, but it made me sad anyway’.[7]

He compares the nuns with other women he knows, his mother and his friend’s mother, who would not get involved with any charity work akin to the nuns’ collecting, if it meant standing out in the cold, being bored or not getting any recognition for giving up their time (or, as Caulfield describes it, ‘the only way she could go around with a basket collecting dough would be if everybody kissed her ass’). I would argue that Caulfield feels sad because the nuns, their charity, their kindness to him and their interest in literature (all displayed in the previous chapter) are marginalised and excluded from ‘swankiness’; the trappings of patriarchal capitalist society, with its expensive restaurants, and its hierarchies predicated on wealth and social class. Furthermore, on a deeper level here, I think he mourns the superficial incarnation of femininity in women that props up the hyper-masculine status quo that being ‘swanky’ represents. He feels sad that the simplicity, honesty and good faith of the nuns is not rewarded or as valuable as status.

Of course, Del Rey’s conversation about masculinity and femininity does not end with ‘Mariner’s Apartment Complex’: she pertinently turns her attention to the specific suffering and demons that women carry with them. In the album’s last searing and deceptively simple waltz ‘hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but I have it’, she references The Bell Jar writer by name, as she has been ‘ tearing around in my fucking night gown /  24/7 Sylvia Plath’. Like The Bell Jar, which is full of the vague promises offered by fashion magazines, internships, graduate school and ski trips (the ‘swanky’ mentioned in The Catch in the Rye), in this song Del Rey references the vacuous but toxic draw of superficial perfection: the world of debutantes, pink dresses, bright smiles, yachts and all. She does not find belonging in that world, instead finding home on the stage. And yet, she softly sings that she is ‘A modern day woman with a weak constitution, ’cause I’ve got / Monsters still under my bed that I could never fight off /A gatekeeper carelessly dropping the keys on my nights off’. This suggests that in spite of the work she has done to represent everything that a modern woman should- success, renown, independence, sexual freedom and financial stability- she is still plagued late at night or when she feels emotionally and spiritually weak by the monsters under her bed. The insecurities, fears, shadows and darknesses of psyche that, to an extent, we can never fully get rid of. The song is a defiant ode to the womanhood that is so rejected in patriarchal culture, but also a tentative and terrified look into the malevolent eyes of the difficulties, restrictions and fears women live with and have learnt to internalise.

I believe that The Catcher in the Rye and Norman Fucking Rockwell! speak to each other well on this important issue of masculinity and male pain. I consider the two to be allies in this regard. I think it is important that both texts highlight the potential of the feminine to relieve suffering: if men and women are going to be free from both subtle and overtly blatant violence and injustices of patriarchy, a re-examination of what it is to be a man is essential, which involves re-integration of the much maligned feminine (think about every single time a boy has been told not do x ‘like a girl’). I think a cultural re-reading of The Catcher in the Rye would be extremely useful, so that we can collectively learn not to minimise men’s pain, reducing it to ‘rebelliousness’ or simply angst. Furthermore, I think it is important that Del Rey has made the effort to distinguish clearly between the different types of male and female pain, whilst presenting so many positions and perspectives on her album. She has been careful to not pit men and women against one another, weighing one type of pain or suffering as more important, which I think is a very mature and brilliantly-handled.

 

[1] https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2019/jun/i-thought-catcher-in-the-rye-was-just-for-obnoxious-teenage-boys.html

[2]The Catcher in the Rye, J.D Salinger, (London: Penguin, (1958) p.93; p.140

[3] Ibid., p.174.

[4] Ibid., p.151.

[5] Ibid., p.156.

[6] ‘Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. In 2015, 75% of all UK suicides were male’ https://www.thecalmzone.net/help/get-help/suicide/ [accessed 4th September 2019].

[7] Ibid, p.103.

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 – Paris report

We’ll always have Paris.

I have just returned from seven days in Paris and, predictably and gratefully, had a wonderful time. Prior to the trip, I concocted a three page day-by-day itinerary filled with activities, but also consciously carved out some time for some more spontaneous and impulsive things too (anxious traveller, moi? Absolutement).

Sacre Coeur

August is a famously quiet time in the city because many of the locals go away on holiday. However, we found the first week in August to be a pretty excellent time to visit: our Eurostar tickets (booked in November) were £52 each for a return (less expensive than it is to get from Nottingham to London on the train…); certain museums in the city are free to enter on the first Sunday of the month and, because it was quieter, the queues were short (we managed the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay for free, but also available were The Louvre, the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou and many others); and going later in the summer meant that even with temperature highs of 29°C, we avoided the sweltering and sticky heats of June and July.

The benefit of spending a whole week in Paris is that we left barely any of the city unexplored. From our AirBnB base near the Place de Clichy in the 18th arrondissement, a delightful intersection of four arrondissements and in close proximity to my all-time favourites Montmartre and Pigalle, the whole city was at our fingertips. I would like to share some of my favourite places and moments from the trip. These may be food for thought if you are or intend to go to Paris at any point in the future, or if you just want to while away an afternoon thinking about those cobbled streets, beautiful buildings and all the amazing food. Like I will be.

Vegan food

Virginia Woolf’s old adage ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well’ is one that I take very personally, seriously and ecstatically live my life by. Therefore, first thing’s first: the food we ate. We did a lot of our own cooking to cut down costs, but we did have some fantastic vegan meals out:

Abattoir végétal

Abattoir Vegetal.jpg

This is a lovely restaurant in the 18th arrondissement with a neon sign outside, fresh-feeling interiors and lots of hanging plants. They specialise in seasonal dishes, organically sourced food and organic wines by the glass and bottle. We went a couple of times to this restaurant and sampled the Green Augustine Buddha bowl of legumes, raw and cooked vegetables, smoky tofu and fresh leaves in a smoky balsamic glaze; the Funky Burger made with beetroot, vegan cheddar, pickles and sweet potato fries on the side; and the Hot without Dog made with falafel, grated carrot, red cabbage, ketchup, mustard and sweet potato fries. For dessert we had chocolate cake, and drank our way through both meals with a bottle of organic red. I couldn’t deal with it then, I can’t deal with it now. So much yumminess.

SO NAT – Notre Dame de Lorette

SO NAT

If I went into this trip sceptical about the tastiness of Buddha bowls and their capacity to actually fill you up, I stand completely surprised and corrected. The large Buddha bowls at this cute little café in the 9th arrondissement, down from Pigalle and just before Opéra, were delicious, hearty and required no emergency snack afterwards. My Buddha bowl contained breaded aubergine, pomegranate seeds, lentil dahl, all sorts of colourful veggies and leaves, vegan sour cream and red quinoa. It was ridiculous. MW’s had ginger, rice, BBQ tofu and, again, veggies on veggies on veggies. It was all fresh, came in big portions, was so healthy and tasted rich and delicious.

Maoz

One of the many amazing things we encountered on our trip to New Zealand last year was the healthy fast food franchise Pita Pit: a Subway of sorts that features meat but also specialises in falafel. Add to that some humus, pitta bread and multiple veggie accompaniments (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, carrot, sweetcorn, jalapenos, olives etc.) and you have the beginnings of an addiction. We visited roughly 15 over the course of six weeks and have no regrets. We have found nothing to compare in Nottingham, so when we found Maoz, a falafel and pitta shop, in the Latin Quarter, we were stupidly excited. The novel difference here? The assortment of Middle Eastern fillings (pickles, fatoush, salads, onions etc.) was presented as self-service. We had a joyful time stuffing our own pita pockets full to bursting with fresh, perfectly seasoned toppings. Maoz is unmistakeably a delicious, quick vegan lunch option, right next to Notre Dame Cathedral and Shakespeare and Company.

Bike Rental

Holland Bikes

In a city like Paris, tours of all shapes and sizes are prolific. We would have loved to have done a tour: I had high ambitions for some form of a champagne booze cruise. Alas, this did not happen but we were very much content to explore on our own. Holland Bikes are a well-reviewed tour and rental service in the city and around France, so we decided to use the Pick and Go service to rent two Dutch bikes from the Arc de Triomphe depot. Renting a bike is so much fun and you can cover so much ground in a short space of time. Plus, Paris has excellent infrastructure for cyclists and e-scooter riders, so despite the heavy traffic in parts (we categorically avoided the wacky races of Place de la Concorde and Étoile de Charles de Gaulle) it felt very safe getting around. We cycled from the Arc de Triomphe down to and around the Bois de Boulogne, then back up and around to Trocadéro, the Champs de Mars, Invalides and along the Seine. We had so much fun.

Parc Monceau

Park Monceau.jpg

There are so many beautiful and shaded places to relax in Paris, which I am sure were absolutely essential during the 40°C+ heats the residents experienced this summer. The Place de Vosges in Le Marais came highly recommended, and we enjoyed the classic Tuileries gardens and Luxembourg gardens on the Left Bank. Whilst walking home on our last afternoon, we headed for the Parc Monceau which is in the 8th arrondissement, just off the Boulevard de Courcelles. Although the park has stylised elements like a little Venetian bridge, a Classical colonnade to emulate ruins and the most charming old carousel, there was something about more primeval about this park, compared to the more clipped and manicured lawns of the big jardins. We sat on a little green bench people-watching for a good long time in this prettyish wilderness.

Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris

YSL Museum.jpg

Oh boy. Pour moi, a trip to Paris was never going to be complete without a slice and dice of fashion history. I plan to write a longer post about the YSL Museum, but it’ll summarise it briefly here for now. Yves Saint Laurent never used to be one of my favourite designers; perhaps controversially, I have been more of a fan of the edgier Saint Laurent incarnation of the brand under Hedi Slimane and Anthony Vaccarello. I was, however, aware that he is an inescapable part of fashion history, after being made head of Dior at the age of 26 and for the successful couture house he built in his own right. What became clear to me from the exhibits in the museum was that, like Christian Dior (you can read my analysis here), Saint Laurent’s prime aim in design was to make a woman feel her most confident and beautiful. I find this to be such a validating and comforting thing. Even though fashion is so much to do with comparison, beauty standards, perfectionism, ageism, white and able-washing, what I have noticed is that oftentimes at the centre of a brand is a sensitive, empathic and deeply creative person who just wants to make women feel good. I really appreciate that in Yves Saint Laurent and his contributions to fashion. Furthermore, he was famously one of the first designers to champion the use of non-white models, pioneered the trouser suit and established his Rive Gauche collection to make fashions accessible and affordable to ordinary people.[1]

Mondrian dresses.jpg

The building on the Avenue Marceau is home to his formidable archive, including the epoch-defining Mondrian dresses, the extensive jewellery collection and this absolutely perfect ensemble:

YSL dress

 

I was able to walk through a reconstruction of his study, watch films about his work and his partner Pierre Bergé and soak up the beautifully presented collection pieces. I must also add that the museum is wonderfully air conditioned, was relatively quiet and, all-in-all, a genius way of preserving Saint Laurent’s creative legacy.

Montmartre cemetery

Montmartre Cemetery.jpg

This was a go-to last time we came to Paris and, being so close to our apartment, was definitively on our itinerary again. Cemetery-visiting may seem like quite a morbid activity, but I believe that visiting cemeteries helps to really contextualise a place and the people in it. To really know and understand a city and its different people, to get an insight into what they value, treasure and, ultimately, to understand their approach to living life, a clue can be found in exploring how they treat their dead and the way they design and use their communal and private spaces of remembrance and reflection. Even if we have not visited Paris, many people are aware that it is a city associated most commonly with love, art and revolution. This, I would argue, is reflected in their cemeteries, which are uniquely Gothic and gorgeous. There is a joie de vivre and gravitas evident in the Parisian cemetery, and Montmartre in particular, which makes it a space in which life, family and creativity are celebrated and revered. Of course, I couldn’t help thinking that it is only the wealthy and respectable who could have afforded such exuberant graves. Additionally, in no other cemetery have I felt that the burial of the dead is used to so confirm and validate the people left behind. It is in this capacity that I think gloom seeps into the cemetery: both in the potentiality that the wealthy dead were desperate to be remembered and that the living left behind were so desperate to build something in place of their lost loved ones.

Many famous people are buried in this city, and their resting places are free to visit and open for visitors to pay respects. Whilst Père Lachaise is one of the biggest and most famous- we saw the graves of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and the Mauthausen Holocaust memorial- Montmartre cemetery is smaller and nestled into the Western corner of the village. Stretching underneath the Rue Caulincourt bridge, it is easily visible from the road and its fantastical rows of grand crypts and family sepulchres look like something from The Phantom of the Opera. We visited specifically to lay a rose at the grave of Vaslav Nijinksy, the lead dancer of the Ballets Russes, choreographer of The Rite of Spring and, I recently found out, a passionate vegetarian. I have mentioned here before that The Rite of Spring has been a very important piece of music and dance to me, and I wanted to show my gratitude to this extraordinary sensitive and surreally gifted man who helped collaborate on and create such an awe-inspiring piece of cultural history.

Nijinsky

 

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/obituaries/archives/yves-saint-laurent-models-couture [accessed 14:41, 13th August 2019].

Love Note – Beach Books Reviews

Whilst on holiday, I managed to get through three books out of the stack of four that I took with me and, as you can probably imagine, I took great pleasure in spending the majority of my day reading. I was helped along by the books themselves, and what started off as me playing catch up with the most popular contemporary literature from the past few years became an interesting immersion in literary bingeing. Thanks to a combination of formal and linguistic trickery, the novels I read signalled to me that binge-culture has made one giant leap from television to literature. Of course, there have been many page-turners that people have read at record speeds, with many others being described as un-put-downable, I’m thinking Gone Girl, The Da Vinci Code, every murder mystery or thriller ever published. But, there is something to be said for the novels currently trending that have a swept-away-in-one-sitting quality to them that is immensely enjoyable, but also indicates that we are, perhaps, as bad as ever at taking our time to enjoy our media and entertainment, allowing the experience of enjoying them to mature and mellow over the course of days or weeks. This is not a criticism per se, but something I became quite aware of.

Here are my reviews of the novels I managed to read, and I would love to hear your thoughts!

Normal People – Sally Rooney

Normal People

I enjoyed reading this novel more than I actually enjoyed the novel itself. The lack of speech marks is one of the most discussed and obviously experimental aspects of the novel and there are a number of reasons why I think Rooney opted for removing formal punctuation. Primarily, its absence helped to propel the pace along as quickly as possible. Speech, internal dialogue and description in the novel melt into one another seamlessly, and before I knew it I was flying through the novel at electric speed. The subtle mingling among and between Connell and Marianne’s internal and external worlds is compelling, and perhaps goes some way to perform the confusion and fluidity of their romantic entanglements. These were powerful, to an extent: Connell’s struggles with social status, class and privilege combined with Marianne’s abusive family trauma form a murky, disorientating bedrock to their sexual and emotional relationship. Yet, whilst they were immersive, these entanglements began to wear thin for me. Of course, culturally and artistically we are rarely given an insight into healthy, responsible relationships to aspire to, but Connell and Marianne’s story really did begin to feel like a rather prolonged game of kiss chase that could have been resolved with some honesty and proper communication. Whilst I enjoyed the fast pace, the story became increasingly frustrating.

The novel has been revered as a refreshing insight into modern relationships, yet all I saw was prolonged adolescence. The question that arose during my reading of it was: why don’t people talk to one another honestly about what they want, need and expect from a relationship? Of course, many people do not have the answers to these questions themselves, which is why the romantic landscape has always been a mass of tension, confusion and a channel for our own neuroses, precisely because the terrain is so horrifyingly vulnerable. I think I would like to see stories where people grapple more with the deeper core fears that relationships can elicit than indulge in surface-level dabbling. This is because for Connell and Marianne, like with everyone else, there is ample emotional material to explore. For example, it is heavily suggested that Marianne has an eating disorder, but there seemed to be no exploration of this, and I think with such a big, important and truly devastating area of mental health, vague allusions are irresponsible. Normal People is absolutely compelling formally, but the story and characters lacked the maturity and deep excavations of relationship politics that I may have come to the novel expecting.

Daisy Jones and The Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones

Just as Sally Rooney fiddled with formal punctuation to create a sweeping, pacey narrative for Normal People, Taylor Jenkins Reid did away with conventional prose altogether to construct the mock-oral history that is Daisy Jones and The Six. The language is presented like a play or a screenplay, rapidly interchanging between characters, their opinions and their contrasting perceptions of how past events unfolded.  This, as with Normal People, makes for an extremely fast-paced and romping read, and I scoured my way through the drug-filled emotional and musical rollercoaster that is the rise and collapse of fictional rock band ‘Daisy Jones and the Six’. It does not surprise me at all that Reese Witherspoon picked this up for production so quickly: the screenplay layout of the novel lends itself to a visual medium so well, and the construction of authenticity and, almost, reality of this fictional band is begging for actors and musicians to literally flesh the whole thing out. Additionally, the novel harks back to the seventies and the loves, losses, betrayals and creative headiness of the Fleetwood Mac era; a band history integral to the fictional machinations and dalliances that we see unfold in the novel. It manages to effectively combine warm nostalgia, with, and rightly so, a thorough dissection of emotional pain, addictions and toxic relationships, and I think it is on the whole successful.

The novel follows Daisy Jones, the child of rich, famous and self-absorbed parents who do not seem to care about their only daughter. She seeks refuge in narcotics, drinking and a rock and roll groupie lifestyle on the Sunset Strip at the age of fourteen. Billy Dunne and his brother Graham hail from small town Pennsylvania; their father leaves them early on in their childhoods, and as teenagers, they found a band that goes on to be called ‘The Six’. Billy develops addictions to alcohol, drugs and sex with groupies, whilst his loyal, passionate and amazing wife Camila waits at home for him. In fact, Camila, for me, was the best character in the novel. Whilst Daisy is super beautiful, glamorous and an emotionally tortured Bambi, Karen Karen is a veritable badass, Graham is a sweetheart and Billy is an endearing and somewhat extremely self-righteous mess, Camila is an unwavering beacon of solidity and support whilst the people around her flail and crash about, high on concoctions of drugs, fame, creativity and self-hatred.

Whilst there are many excellent pearls of wisdom and sassy quips in the novel, exploding bullshit around sexism, music, friendship and love, one of her quotes stands out to me the most: ‘I think you have to have faith in people before they earn it. Otherwise it’s not faith, right?’ She supports and believes wholeheartedly in the best versions of her loved ones when they’re at their absolute worst, even when that has meant she has suffered as a consequence of their actions. There are so many times when she could have chucked in the towel with her relationship with Billy, and some would argue that perhaps she should have. Camila, however, doesn’t tolerate terrible behaviour and she definitely does not stay in a relationship where red flags abound: she sets boundaries, expectations and trusts in her husband’s best self and ultimately propels him on his road to recovery. Sure, her story isn’t a romanticised and drug-addled one, which I think, despite a lot of its efforts, the novel still constructs for the enigma that is Daisy Jones, Camila is strong, knows herself and is the responsible adult we should strive to be. It is for this reason that the ending of the novel is incredibly bittersweet and I would love to discuss it here and with people at some point. Send me your thoughts please!

Circe – Madeline Miller

Circe extract

This was hands-down my favourite out of the three books I read (and the only one I thought to take a holiday snap of!). It was heart-wrenching, magical, modern and yet felt beautifully and brilliantly in-keeping with the ancient framework from which it hailed. The story, whilst a reimagining, felt bedded in Homer’s mythology: all the key ancient rituals and practices were present, for example xenia, or guest-friendship, which is illustrated so beautifully in the novel as a dance of wits, manners, generosity and covert motive-seeking between host and visitor. It enlivened what the original treats as a societal staple, illuminating it with nuance and tension. We also got a crash course in the wars of the Titans, various mythological characters like Daedalus, Medea, Jason and Ariadne, alongside the predictable and anticipated arrival of Odysseus, and the very unpredictable arrival of Penelope and Telemachus (I loved this!). The novel was able to powerfully break apart some of the simplistic tropes that the character of Circe has carried with her for thousands of years. No longer does she carry the motiveless malignity of the original: the scheming nasty witch woman who seduces Odysseus and turns all of his men into pigs. She is sensitive, attuned to the natural world, desperate for approval she never gets, uses violent magic in self-defence, but isn’t immune to the fear and anger-based trappings of ego. Ultimately she becomes the source of her own very particular, self-cultivated power, and it is immensely joyful to read.

I did disagree, however, that Miller presented Circe as some two dimensional empowered ‘superwoman’, as reviewed by The Times.[1] This is a novel where the central protagonist constantly aches: she aches for belonging, she aches from the sweetness and loss of love, whether that’s with a partner, siblings or children, and she aches from the bullying and torture at the hands of her horrible family and the all-powerful, oftentimes selfish, meddling gods. This does not mean to say she is weak, but she is certainly not presented as some all-powerful, sassy superwoman. What strength Circe has is developed from her ability to endure, and what a whole host of trials she is forced to deal with. Whether it’s being confined to an island, acting as a midwife at the birthing of the Minotaur, living under the wrath of Athena, being manipulated by Hermes or being raped by sailors, this woman is put through the absolute wringer. She emerges all the more patient and trusting in herself and her capability of putting up with bullshit, but, again, not a superwoman, whatever that even means.

What I loved about this novel was that Miller actively redistributes the motiveless malignity accusation with which Circe has been cast around the hosts of horrors that is the supporting cast of gods, demigods and men, who act with violence, without fear of repercussion, because they can. She is repeatedly trapped and confined by the whims and desires of others and, of course, fate itself. Over the course of the novel, she learns that in spite of having magic, she is powerless to resist the power of the gods, the desires of the human heart, and the unrelenting changeability that characterises life, whether it’s defined by mortality or immortality. 300 years pass over the course of Circe’s story, making it perhaps one of the most comprehensive coming-of-age stories I have ever read, because it spans enough to time to develop that most important hallmarks of maturity: perspective. Maybe that’s why so many of us never get there.

I really could not have enjoyed this novel more and I am racing to get a copy of Miller’s early novel ‘The Song of Achilles’, which tracks the relationship between Achilles and his lover, Patroclus.

Song of Achilles

 

[1] ‘Circe by Madeline Miller – back as superwoman’, Siobhan Murphy https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/review-circe-by-madeline-miller-back-as-superwoman-37kctxgss [accessed 10th July 2019].

Love Note – Beach Books

I love reading but, I am going to confess, I am pretty bad at investing in and dedicating time to contemporary literature. I have spent many years covering English and Russian classics from the nineteenth century, being swept away by Shakespeare and his (mostly male) contemporaries and reading novels, poetry and plays from the early twentieth century. Aside from the latest releases from Naomi Klein, Arandhati Roy and Margaret Atwood, I have tended to swerve away from contemporary literature for a long time and I don’t think this is particularly wise. I think reading amazing historical works of literature is always going to be important; but I don’t think this should be completely at the expense of what people are producing and writing right now.

Therefore, to accompany me on my beachy holiday (3 days and counting!) these are the contemporary novels I am packing with me:

Circe

Circe – Madeline Miller, 2018

Why I’m excited about it:

This is my get out of jail free card: Circe is a re-telling of the Greek myth of Circe, one of the most interesting and famous characters in Homer’s Odyssey. So yes, even though the subject matter here is veritably ancient, it promises to be a contemporary, new perspective of a controversial character. If you’re not in the know, in Homer’s work she turns Odysseus’s men into pigs, seduces Odysseus, puts him and his men up for a year and loses some of her power. I studied Classical Civilizations at A Level where we read the Odyssey in its entirety, and I was always healthily sceptical of Odysseus’s heroic credentials (I am more of an Aeneas fan, but to each their own). In particular, I think the way he gets off with women left right and centre whilst his poor wife Penelope stayed at home for twenty years fighting off suitors is pretty questionable (read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad for more). I am excited to see where Miller takes the Circe character and her story from Homer’s narrative: the whole single, powerful woman must be a witch thing needs a serious rethink.

Daisy Jones

Daisy Jones and the Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid, 2019

Why I’m excited about it:

Reese Witherspoon is a pretty good weather vane for anything pop culture-related (see her performance and production credits for Legally Blonde, Big Little Lies, Gone Girl and Wild). Now, she is set be an executive producer on a TV adaptation of this book, only published in March 2019, which she claimed to have read in one day. Additionally, the first time I actually heard about Daisy Jones and the Six was on Claudia Winkelman’s Sunday evening show on Radio 2, where she absolutely gushed over it for how immersive and compelling it apparently is. My interest: officially piqued. The novel purposes to follow the lives and loves of a fictional seventies rock band, which screams of Fleetwood Mac levels of intrigue. If there is any time to pop on some rose-tinted glasses and have a wallow in seventies rock and roll, it’s on a warm beach.

Normal People

Normal People – Sally Rooney, 2018

Why I’m excited about it:

This book was a bit of a sensation last year and I am curious about this bandwagon. The only bits of it I have seen have come from Zoe Kazan’s Twitter and apparently there are no speech marks. I find this disconcerting but I am willing to embrace the uncomfortable. I once took a crap version of James Joyce’s Ulysses on a Greek island holiday and failed to sufficiently commit to the challenge due to sea, sun and sand-induced lethargy. I am in no way comparing Normal People to Ulysses, but I am thinking it may, potentially, have the right amount of formal, linguistic and emotional difficulty to suit the serious lazing about I have planned. We’ll see what happens. I hear that Normal People is based in Ireland and that it follows a relationship between Connell and Marianne, both from the same rural town but from very different worlds. The novel promises a sweeping and refreshing love story about two people who can’t seem to escape each other or themselves. This excites me.

Americanah

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2013

Why I’m excited about it:

Firstly, the cover of this book is beautiful and I like staring at it. Secondly, Adichie is a supremely articulate and intelligent woman. I loved her TED talk about the importance of feminism, the importance of teaching boys about gender equality and deconstructing toxic masculine stereotypes, and I encourage everyone to watch it. You can do so here. Even though this talk has been seen over 5 million times, Adichie is primarily a very successful writer of fiction. I have never read any of her novels or short stories before, and Americanah looks like a great place to start. The novel follows a Nigerian couple separated by war and dictatorship in their home country, who are forced to build new lives separately in the USA and UK. The novel tracks their separation, new experiences abroad, and their reunion. The novel explores the brilliance and pitfalls of globalization including, most specifically, the burden and barriers of race that Africans experience in the West, something these characters in particular don’t feel keenly in Nigeria. Americanah feels like it’s going to be an important, challenging read and I am ready for it.

Love Note – Inspector Javert and Alyosha Karamazov

AKA men who look at the stars

Last Thursday, I went to see the touring production of Les Misérables at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. In a signature Elizabeth Harper move, I bawled my eyes out pretty consistently throughout the entire production [SPOILER ALERT]: during ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, when Gavroche was shot, when Éponine was shot, when Enjolras was shot, when Marius sings ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ and, finally, during Jean Val Jean’s death with the lyric ‘To love another person is to see the face of God’. I’m not a Christian, but I just think that is the most beautiful idea: there is something spiritually transcendental about loving another human being from your very core.

Turning into a weeping willow aside, I enjoyed Les Misérables because I got to see one of my favourite characters being performed in the flesh: Inspector Javert, who sings ‘Stars’, my favourite song in the musical.[1] Javert reminds me of another of my favourite male characters, who I like for very different reasons but, incidentally, also has a beautiful and interesting relationship with the stars. I am going to offer a short and snappy comparison between Inspector Javert and Alyosha Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

On a very basic level, I want to sit Javert down and tell him that everything is going to be OK and that he just needs to ease up on life. For those who are not familiar with the story, Javert is born in jail to parents embroiled in poverty and crime and raises himself in life through his dedication to the law and authority. He becomes obsessed with Jean Valjean, who, in Javert’s singularly black and white worldview, is a thief and an inherently ‘bad’ person. Javert looks to the stars as his guiding lights of order and control within the chaos of revolutionary France, and of his own personal history:

‘Stars

In your multitudes

Scarce to be counted

Filling the darkness

With order and light

You are the sentinels

Silent and sure

Keeping watch in the night

Keeping watch in the night

 

You know your place in the sky

You hold your course and your aim

And each in your season

Returns and returns

And is always the same

And if you fall as Lucifer fell

You fall in flame!’[2]

Click here for Philip Quast’s rendition of the song: 

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He sees stars as pinpricks of certainty, surrounded by a dark, unknowable vastness. He is invested in certainty, predictability, of a specific and very dichotomous construction of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’. He perceives Jean Valjean as Lucifer: a rebel, a traitor, and someone who must be brought to justice. In his search, he is unrelenting, and has no room for mercy or any sense of moral ambiguity. I find Javert so endearing and interesting because he believes completely and utterly that order and control are what keep himself and the world a safe and just place. As a character, I think he speaks to anyone who, at one point or another, has believed that ‘being good’ has in some way protected them from the storminess of life and the people within it. Certainty, however, is an illusion. It is his inability to accept that life is impermanent, fluid and precisely uncertain that leads to his loss of faith: in, what is for Javert, an unprecedented act, Jean Valjean spares his life, thereby undercutting the embodiment of ‘badness’ that Javert has spent decades projecting onto him. It leads to Javert in turn sparing Jean Valjean’s life, which he cannot fathom, he cannot reconcile with:

 

‘I am reaching but I fall,

And the stars are black and cold,

As I stare into the void, of a world that cannot hold.

I’ll escape now from that world;

From the world of Jean Valjean.

There is nowhere I can turn. There is no way to go on!’[3]

 

The world of Jean Valjean is a world of disorder and chaos that overwhelms Javert. He feels abandoned by the stars, consumed by the darkness that he has kept at bay all throughout his life by being so devoted to a very literal interpretation of law and order, good and bad. This, eventually, leads him to take his own life. Interestingly, he does this by throwing himself into the running waters of the Seine, the river being a stark embodiment of the fluidity and tumult that Javert could not accept.

Alyosha Karamazov, on the other hand, rediscovers his faith and love for all of humanity through looking at the stars. His spiritual guide and mentor, the Elder Zosima, dies midway through the novel. His corpse begins to rot, which sends shockwaves throughout the monastery: the superstition is that a truly holy man’s corpse would not rot, but would instead stay pristine and intact. Young and still slightly naïve, Alyosha is swayed by the mutterings of his fellow monks, and begins to doubt the spiritual integrity of the Elder Zosima. Throughout the novel, Alyosha is presented as a character whose goodness, his joy and his desire to help the flailing and chaotic people around him are all expressed through his face. If you’re interested, this essay (‘The Faces of the Brothers Karamazov) is a brilliant summary of the various faces within the novel. One of Alyosha’s faces that the writer of this essay doesn’t mention, however, is Alyosha’s face after the rotting of the Elder Zosima’s corpse. Where his face is closely related to beauty and youth before this point, it changes, at what the narrator refers to as a ‘critical moment’:

‘Alyosha suddenly gave a twisted smile, raised his eyes strangely, very strangely, to [Father Paissy] the one to whom, at his death, his former guide, the former master of his heart and mind, his beloved elder, had entrusted him, and suddenly, still without answering, waved his hand as if he cared nothing even about respect, and with quick steps walked towards the gates of the hermitage’.[4]

In this moment of doubt, which is confirmed as such in the next chapter by the narrator, Alyosha’s normally bright and entreating face becomes different, almost cynical and manic. To see someone described as almost angelic become ‘strange’ signifies an unnerving change in the character. In a novel where much of the action involves the men of the Karamazov family passionately rushing about with Alyosha in their wake trying to tie up all the loose ends, here we see Alyosha himself caught in a storm. This is further emphasised by the uncomfortably long sentence, broken apart by commas, almost as if the words are panted with the effort of hurrying.

Yet, it is the stars that help Alyosha to re-discover his faith, hope and love for life and all of humanity. The following is one of my favourite pieces of writing I’ve ever read. Gear up, it’s a long one:

‘Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars… Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears…,” rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and “he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang again in his soul. But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul. Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind-now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages. He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy. Never, never in all his life would Alyosha forget that moment. “Someone visited my soul in that hour,” he would say afterwards, with firm belief in his words…’[5]

 

Where Javert lost his faith in order and the dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, the stars for him turning into a great void of chaos and confusion, in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha is humbled and overcome by the joy of life because of the stars. Under the celestial wonder of the Milky Way, Alyosha comes to understand and appreciate the depth and beauty at work in every human being. Whilst Javert is consumed by the abyss, Alyosha cries with joy, ‘even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss’. Furthermore, where Javert throws himself into the waters of the Seine, Alyosha accepts the uncertainty and ecstasy of a life of difference and love, and throws himself to the floor, finding himself on solid ground. It is this paradoxical acceptance of uncertainty, chaos and tumult that helps Alyosha to find a sense of stability, and of his place in the world. Ultimately, and again unlike Javert in the most tragic sense, Alyosha’s reconciliation with mystery and ambiguity leads him to a place of forgiveness and gratitude. It brings him to love himself and all of mankind, no matter what has been done or whatever will be done. It is a moment of irreverence, peace and boundless love, steeped in the wonder of living life hopefully. In short, a piece of writing everyone would do well to keep in mind.

These men remind us that in looking at the stars we have a choice about how we perceive ourselves, our place in the world and, indeed, the universe. Javert’s story is poignant in its tragedy; Alyosha’s for its eruption of joy. Carl Sagan said that ‘we are a way for the Cosmos to know itself’: these two beautifully crafted characters, in their relationship to the stars above them, provide two compelling and very moving blueprints. In the musical and in the novel, we see them play out the archetypal human experience of living with uncertainty and mystery in their own very different but no less endearing ways.

 

 

[1] My assessment of this character has purely come from the way in which he is portrayed in the musical version of the novel (I will get round to reading it at some point) but considering how well-loved and culturally important the musical is, I think that is enough.

 

[2] ‘Stars’, Les Misérables, Claude Michel Schonberg / Alain Albert Boublil / Herbert Kretzmer

[3] Ibid.

[4] The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky transl. Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear (London: Vintage Books, 2004), p.337.

[5] Ibid., p.362-3.

Love Note – TV 2019

After watching the first season of Netflix’s Master of None in 2015, I casually appropriated Dev’s declaration that we were living in the ‘Golden Age of Television’. I mostly bring out this phrase when I want to irritate my boyfriend with semi-pretentious cultural musings, but I think it has fairly accurately described the creative output for the small screen over the past few years. Of course, there have been great television series prior to the Noughties and Teens of the 21st Century, but the quantity of high-quality and compelling drama available to binge watch and tune into every week is at an all-time high. Indeed, I feel like I’ve reached a personal saturation point with all this television. There’s always something I feel like I ‘have’ to watch, that I ‘can’t miss’, a show that’s absolutely amazing. I’m sure they all are, I really do. I just don’t have the time or the emotional energy to spend on them all. When I watch a TV show, I get utterly and overly enthralled and involved with what’s going on, which means that I just can’t commit to all the ups and downs and twists and turns to all these shows all at the same time. It’s just too darn much! Additionally, I spend a lot of my waking time at work or getting to and from work and, as a result, my down time feels very precious to me. Watching TV every night of the week just isn’t the most valuable use of my time. I’ve consciously tried to read more, do cooking, go to the gym and catch up with friends over the phone or face-to-face so that I really make my free time meaningful.

Having said all of that, I am really looking forward to 2019’s TV offerings. They are all returning shows that I have become very emotionally attached to over the past few years. Continuing these stories, or re-emerging myself in the style of the anthology shows, is a very exciting prospect. I may be a bit of a stick in the mud when it comes to watching TV, but these shows are going to have my undivided attention. Obviously, writing a Love Note before watching the shows is pretty presumptuous, because they may all turn out to be crap. This is as much a Love Note to healthy anticipation as it is to the good stuff on the box.

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True Detective – Season 3

I watched the second series of True Detective before the first and hold the perhaps unpopular opinion that it is as every bit as amazing as its predecessor. True Detective season 1 saw the birth of the McConaissance, was thrilling to watch and brought existential malcontentedness to the small screen in an utterly compelling and accessible way. Yet, season 2 was every bit as fraught and tense, if not moodier. The inner turmoil of the main characters was drawn out like a long spool of string, with episode 6 in particular providing revelations and the most heart-stopping escape scene I have ever watched on TV. Additionally, Vince Vaughn’s performance was transformative.[1] After a long break, we have the next series starring Mahershala Ali and I am very excited for the broody detective and emotional work to commence.

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Big Little Lies – Season 2

There’s no denying that Big Little Lies was a commercial and critical success when it was released in 2017, with its haul of awards at the Emmys, SAG Awards and Golden Globes a testament to the fact. It’s set to get even bigger with the arrival of Meryl Streep playing Alexander Skarsgard’s mother, as we inevitably witness the fallout of the chaos that revealed itself in the last series. I loved Jean Marc Vallee’s direction of the first season, with its patchwork, dreamlike construction of the women and their entangled, complicated lives; but I am as excited about Andrea Arnold who has taken up the mantle this time round.

game-of-thrones

Game of Thrones – Season 8

Last season ended with a hell of a ‘holy shit’ moment. Spoiler alert guys, but The Wall is down and personally, I am terrified that that has spelt the end of Tormund who was on The Wall at the time. We’ll just have to wait and see. What we have been building up to since the first moments of the first season is coming to fruition and there’s no doubt that the final twists and turns of this amazing series are going to be epic. I have long had a sneaking suspicion that Game of Thrones is an allegory about climate change (stupid humans fighting amongst themselves, burning children, catching greyscale and having sex whilst ignoring/unaware of the Night King and his army of the dead accumulating momentum) – but maybe that’s an article for another time. I am slightly sheepish about the feature length episodes that we will have to commit to, but it’s the biggest conclusion to a TV series, perhaps, ever. I’m here for that.

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Stranger Things – Season 3

I was so glad that the Duffer brothers decided to take a break between the second series and the third. Whilst I loved season 2, it felt like there had been a slight rush to get it out after the unbridled success of the first. As such, it was suffering a little from what I’ve called Star Wars Syndrome: there were a few new characters and a few new tensions to explore, but the main premise and action was very similar. Instead of exploding another Death Star, the cast were once again turning Joyce’s house into a living and breathing map of The Upside Down and Eleven used her powers to stop the monsters. Now that the writers have had some breathing space, I think Stranger Things 3 is going to be a cracker. In particular, I’m looking forward to my faves returning to the screen: Steve, Erica and Joyce.

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills Season 9 CR: Bravo

The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and New York

My beautiful beloved trash. I have so many questions: what the hell happened between Lisa Vanderpump and the rest of the Beverly Hills gang? What on EARTH is Brandi Glanville doing back? Will Lisa Rinna’s pill bag make an appearance? How will Carole Radziwill’s exit affect group dynamics in New York? Will Dorinda get messy after another dirty martini? Will Bethenny Frankel stop picking on Ramona and just accept that she’s slightly unhinged but the best thing since sliced bread? SO MANY QUESTIONS.

 

[1] My friend and I watched episode two first by accident, which opens with Vince Vaughn delivering a monologue about his father whilst staring at a mould stain on the ceiling. We thought this as an unbelievably audacious way to begin a series and were totally here for it. We soon realised that the disorientation we experienced soon afterwards was not a narrative construction but the fact that we’d missed an entire hour of set-up. Nevertheless, Vince Vaughn’s acting here is just amazing.

Love Note – Non-Christmas Christmas Films

I am not a Christian, but I have always loved Christmas. I acknowledge that in many ways it has become a consumerist shadow of its former religious and spiritual self; but nevertheless, I have been lucky enough to have lived 26 Christmases so far full of fun and festivity. Additionally, the idea of ‘peace on earth and good will to all men’ has never felt timelier or more desperately needed. The story of a displaced family and the birth of their baby in the most humble and desperate of circumstances is still very much a story for our times.

The festive period is as much about the build up to Christmas as it is about Christmas Day itself. There is no shortage of Christmas activities to get involved with, for example listening to music, writing cards, ice skating, baking, wearing jumpers, drinking mulled wine and eating all the food available with family and friends. Watching films has always been an excellent way of tapping into the Christmas spirit and I don’t need to tell you that there are a plethora of films about Christmas that are worth digging out every year. In addition, I have a few favourites that always make their way out in December that aren’t necessarily specifically festive, but embody a little bit of what Christmas should be all about.

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To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962 – A gorgeous old film based on a gorgeous book about justice, growing up and both protecting and fighting for the vulnerable. In place of a bearded man in a red coat handing out gifts, we have Gregory Peck’s masterful turn as Atticus Finch: wise, caring and as much of a sensitive, commanding presence on his porch as he is in the courtroom. This film is the gift that gives on giving.

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Edward Scissorhands, 1990 – The tenuous Christmas link comes with the large presence of snow that Edward creates with his scissorhands (and the fact that the magical Danny Elfman score has been used in a plethora of Christmas adverts over the years). This film is a fairytale set in sugary suburbia, rooting for the societal underdog against the backdrop of fickle public opinion. It is important to note that I have fallen out massively with Johnny Depp over recent years, but I am still so here for Winona Ryder.

life-of-brian

The Life of Brian, 1979 – This could technically be classed as a Christmas film because it begins with the nativity of Jesus and Brian, and then follows their lives up until the latter’s crucifixion. But I am including it here because as well as being absolutely hilarious, the film propagates heavily for critical thinking as opposed to mob-like sheep mentality. Plus there’s a useful Latin lesson in there for anyone interested.

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101 Dalmatians, 1996 – This film’s stars are adorable spotted puppies and Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil, leaving little else to be said. I have written previously about how, killing animals and psychopathy aside, Cruella might just be one of the greatest style icons of all time and that view still stands. Fashion aside, however, this film primarily revolves around family unity, adventure and features delightful snowy countryside. Perfect Christmas fodder.

New Zealand: podcasts we listened to

I have come to the podcast game very late indeed. Friends have been recommending podcasts for years and years but I just never got involved. Whenever a cultural phenomenon or ‘thing’ has been hyped up and managed to pass you by, which for me also includes watching Jumanji, Jurassic Park, Breaking Bad and listening to any albums by The Arctic Monkeys, it’s hard to motivate yourself to get on the band wagon. Feminist friends and film buffs have linked me all sorts, yet I have remained a stick in the mud and never got round to listening to any of them. Apparently, however, it took the prospect of four 11 hour flights and six weeks of driving around New Zealand in a campervan to get me out of the gate. Armed with my recommendations and CastBox newly downloaded onto my phone, I sunk my teeth into the following shows:

My Dad Wrote a Porno

My Dad Wrote a Porno

I did not know what I was getting myself into with this podcast, except that it had caused the friend who recommended it to keel over with laughter whilst out on a run. It is potentially the weirdest concept ever: Jamie Morton reads out the erotic novel Belinda Blinked, written by his dad under the pseudonym ‘Rocky Flintstone’. Alice Levine and James Cooper critique, comment and cringe along as we are dragged through the absurdly lascivious world of Belinda Blumenthal, the sales director and sexual maven of Steele’s Pots and Pans. Any lingering Freudian weirdness- that of a son reading his dad’s erotic constructions- is soon eclipsed by the novel’s monumental and unintentional hilarity: it is unpredictable, graphic and glorious. Part erotic novel, part business manual, part prolonged plotless and syntactically challenged sexual insanity and part fake news in its explorations of the female anatomy (Peter Rouse did not grab Belinda by the cervix to pleasure her), Belinda Blinked had us hooked from the beginning. Even when vivid images of men in black thongs, breasts hanging like pomegranates and the most perverse tombola ever conceived left us feeling, quite frankly, nauseous, no journey across the South Island of New Zealand felt complete without finding out what madness was going to happen next. Driving, cooking and breathing were all compromised whilst listening to My Dad Wrote A Porno but it is certainly one of the most entertaining, if questionable, cultural productions I have decided to commit to.

Serial logo

Serial

About four episodes into Serial, we made the executive decision to stop listening to it. I have finished the podcast since returning to the UK, so I feel equipped to talk about it, but whilst in New Zealand, it had to be put aside. Listening to Serial was unsettling and jarring. On a surface level, hearing the gruesome details of the murder of Hae Min Lee was practically guaranteed to freak us out when we were camping alone in some secluded woods outside Rotorua. However, what unnerved me about Serial was not just the story that was being offered, but how it was being offered and why it was being offered at all.

Serial has been hailed as a cultural achievement for marrying investigative journalism with podcasting, bringing both to an enraptured mainstream audience. It has also been met with heavy criticism for its ethical ambivalence, using the murder of a young woman as entertainment and instigating listeners to turn into would-be detectives to pick holes in the court case against Adnan Syed. It is worth remembering that Hae Min Lee’s family have been extremely critical of the podcast in this regard, saying that ‘unlike those who learn about this case on the internet, we sat and watched every day of both trials – so many witnesses, so much evidence’, and for whom the whole experience of the case being resurrected through Serial has evidently been traumatising.[1] I think what is important about this quote, in addition to the enormous emotional distress that Lee’s family continues to experience, is the reference to all the witnesses and evidence that the family came into contact with. The problem with Serial is that so much of the information that viewers receive is secondary, so we are relying entirely on the honesty and integrity of Sarah Koenig to tell the story.

This becomes problematic when we know that Serial’s main intention is to entertain, not inform: Ira Glass, one of the producers of the show, described the aim of the podcast as: ‘We want to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, but with a true story, and no pictures. Like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving’.[2] The aim of the show was to create a compulsive listening experience, in the same vein as House of Cards, Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black and any of the other shows that are uploaded to be binged on. This means, therefore, that it has been constructed in a certain way to keep us involved and on edge: important details and evidence can potentially be withheld or strung out to help build tension; Koenig’s own doubts become our doubts because she is leading us through evidence that we have no access to; and with its cliff hangers and teasers, it certainly does leave you perversely wanting more. It was so unnerving to listen to because I didn’t trust the facts because Koenig didn’t trust them, but also because I didn’t trust Koenig. I kept asking myself why she was doing this, what was the whole point? We receive the story as secondary information, yet Koenig acknowledges herself in an episode called ‘Rumors’ that some of the calls she gets from the public after the podcast’s broadcast were secondary information, and so inherently untrustworthy. It begs the question: how much of the entire podcast is actually reliable?

The main argument in favour of Serial would be that it has helped advance Adnan Syed’s journey to overturn his conviction; giving a man who has always professed his innocence impetus and evidence to appeal, thanks to public exposure and interest in the inadequacies of his defence and the case made by the prosecution. The shortcomings of the American legal system are laid out for us and it’s only right that an innocent man shouldn’t be condemned to live his life behind bars. It’s hard to argue with this; however, my problem with Serial is, again, to do with its process. In my opinion, one of the most revealing moments was when right at the end, we learn that Syed writes a letter to Koenig from prison, outlining how the whole experience of talking to her has disrupted the emotional equilibrium he has established living his life in prison. He writes that he has become anxious and afraid of judgment, and he’s looking forward to the whole experience being over. If the argument is made that Serial has helped Syed in any way, close attention has to be paid to this letter. The podcast has been emotionally damaging for Hae Min Lee’s family to live with, but this moment suggests that it has been emotionally damaging for Adnan Syed too.

Serial is an interesting listening experience and I’m glad I returned to it once we were back in the UK. However, I think we have to be very careful with real life stories, in particular those involving murder, that we don’t just consume them for entertainment. In the aforementioned quote, Ira Glass describes the people involved as ‘characters’, even though they are not imaginative abstractions. They are real people who live with the reality of what happened in 1999 and with the reality of wannabe detectives attempting to work out their lives for them on the internet. We might think we know everything about this case as a result of listening to the podcast, but I think it is ultimately untrustworthy, and needs to be regarded with a healthy degree of scepticism.

The Guilty Feminist

The Guilty Feminist

There are many aspects of this podcast that I love. Not least, it has introduced me to absolutely hilarious female comics that I had somehow spent my whole life not knowing about, for example Dana Alexander, Bisha K Ali, Desiree Burch and Sindhu Vee. In addition, any show that invites Gemma Arterton as a guest to talk about sexism within the film industry is on the right track: that woman is a much underappreciated theatrical and feminist icon whom I have loved unwaveringly since her seminal performance as Tess Durbeyfield in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The Guilty Feminist is really great at making feminists feel better about our inconsistencies. In particular, the podcast provides a space for women to acknowledge that, against our better judgement, we can and do align ourselves with various sexist and patriarchal standards that we have been conditioned our entire lives to adhere to. In particular, this can revolve around the way we look, our expectations of men and how we perceive and judge other women. It is non-judgemental about this, making a point to laugh and make light of our ridiculous double standards. In doing so, the podcast encourages women to show the same empathy and compassion we hold for other women and their struggles, with our own internal contradictions and patriarchal anxieties. It is fun, funny and I’m not going to stop listening to it any time soon.

Perhaps my only criticism would be that at times, the podcast doesn’t want to be radical enough. I very much enjoy the focus it brings to women’s charities, youth campaigns, the burden of emotional labour etc. However, the outlook isn’t, at times, the transformational approach to feminism that I subscribe to. This manifests at times in the economic discussions that take place, which predominantly revolve around the pay gap. In one episode, entitled ‘It’s a Man’s World’, the argument was made that to help companies understand the value of women, feminists needs to adopt the language of economics to make our case of being ‘economically viable’ more convincing. I take issue with this because the language of economics is ultimately patriarchal. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be in a situation where women are generally paid less, are told that tampons are luxuries or suffer the most at the hands of austerity thanks to cuts to local services, childcare and crisis centres. Furthermore, whilst many women raise awareness of these issues through writing, speaking or on their political platforms, women seem to be consistently absent from the actual conversations and decision-making. If we were to use the language of economics to make ourselves more palatable to men, we would be using the language of patriarchy to get onto a better footing within the patriarchy. If we want to remove patriarchal structures, which extends to racial structures too, we need to change the language that props the entire system up.

Ultimately, however, the podcast is a great comforting and affirming endeavour. Women put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect (and I definitely include myself in that) and this podcast strips these unachievable and unrealistic expectations away. I think both women and men will be all the better for listening and engaging with it.

I would like to thank Char Bender, Mark Beer and Jess Action for their excellent recommendations. I’m finally catching up with you guys.

[1] ‘Serial case: victim’s family offers rare statement before hearing resumes’ [accessed 12:59, 12th June 2018] https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/feb/07/serial-case-hae-min-lee-statement-adnan-syed-hearing-baltimore

[2]This American Life channels True Detective in popular new podcast’ [accessed 18:49, 14th June 2018] https://www.motherjones.com/media/2014/09/ira-glass-sarah-koenig-julie-snyder-serial-podcast-this-american-life/