"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review: Brave

A new Pixar movie is always exciting, except when it's Cars 2, and especially when it's the year after Cars 2. After all the slightly annoying and visually assaulting previews for animated movies, there's a little breath of amazement that you're actually sitting there about to see this movie, and then comes the short, which takes your breath away and plunges you into that whimsical, wide-eyed mood, and then the movie starts.

Some reviewers seem to have found that things turned a bit sour at that point, when Brave actually started. I disagree. In fact, I wish I hadn't read any reviews before I saw it, because I found myself, at the beginning, feeling a bit doubtful, not wanting to give myself over entirely to the film. Which was silly of me, because Brave is a fairy tale movie - not the critical, edgy kind, but the sincere, enchanting kind - and the only way to approach it is with sincerity and a readiness to be enchanted.

Eventually, I got over myself and my doubts, and I really enjoyed the movie. First off, it's just....gorgeous I guess is the right word. You may have heard people talking about Princess Merida's hair, and how many computer programs it took to make it look so good. Whatever you have heard, it's nothing compared to actually seeing it onscreen. It's incredible. I'm not even going to try to describe it, because you just have to go see it for yourself.

Aside from the hair, the thing that impressed me most was the animation of the animals. Merida's horse, Angus, appears to be the most amazing horse in the world. Forget Shadowfax. This horse embodies the beauty of motion. He's just spectacular. There's a sequence at the beginning of the movie where Merida rides around the Scottish countryside, shooting arrows and climbing cliffs, which is utterly and wonderfully exhilarating - and not just because of the stirring soundtrack (which by the way is great).

But then things turn a little darker, and Merida gets off her horse and must fend for herself on her own two feet. Thanks to my recent year of fairy tale research, I can sum up the story as an interesting variation on the animal bridegroom tale type. Normally, a princess marries a prince who is under a spell that turns him into an animal (a pig, a polar bear, etc.), and she must break the spell by undergoing some trials and proving her love for him. Brave puts a good twist on this tale by making it about a princess and her mother instead of a wife and her husband. Not to give too much away, but there's a transformation, a spell to break, and a mutual love to prove, but it's all between mother and daughter.

This of course is not really a departure from the fairy tale genre, since many of them feature tension between mothers and daughters. One review I read actually gave the film flak for falling into this trope and giving the mother a hard time, but I actually appreciated that this film avoids the polarizing and annoying binary of saintly, but usually dead mother and evil, ugly, awful step-mother/witch. Merida's mother is not ugly, nor is she cruel, and Merida herself is not the perfect young lady that most fairy tale heroines are. Both of them are complicated, both have strengths and weaknesses, and both must change in order to achieve a happy ending. Yes, the mother, Queen Elinor, has a particularly tough time of it, but then so does Merida.

One thing that surprised me about the movie is how domestic it was. I've come to expect a significant journey motif from Pixar movies and fantasy movies in general. And when Merida first ventures into the woods, I expected her to continue venturing, but instead she turns right around and heads home. The rest of the movie swings back and forth between woods and castle, between wild and domestic, between magical spells and very human dilemmas. And I think that's a great strength for the movie. It doesn't try for too much, which might disappoint some people looking for another Up or Wall-e. But I applaud Pixar for setting themselves a good story and telling it without reaching for the stars (pun intended).

Now I must address the question of feminism and female role models. Merida is Pixar's first female protagonist, a thing not to be taken lightly. And they went whole-hog on the girly movie route by making it a mother-daughter story. And Merida is an awesome female role model, to be sure. Problem is, she's kind of like a lot of other female role models in the fantasy world - spunky, tomboyish, beset by unattractive suitors, etc. That's all great, but why, I ask, can we not have a girl who is presented by a series of very attractive, perfectly acceptable suitors, and still says no?

In fact, the treatment of masculinity in this movie is just as comment-worthy as that of femininity. Basically, Pixar is telling us that men (or ancient Scottish men) are ugly, stupid, vain, proud, crass, thoughtless, violent hunks of flesh. Merida is a tomboy, but she's not really like her brothers or her father; she's better than them. Or at least she becomes better. One could read this as the story of a young person trying to straddle a very polarized gender divide - between the too prim lady and the too chaotic man - or, more generally, breaking out of categories and, as the film explicitly says, making her own path.

What's interesting is that eventually she takes her mother, but not her father or brothers with her along this new and improved path. Her three triplet brothers undergo a similar transformation as the mother, but I think we would be surprised to find that after their adventure, they had changed any of their mischievous, havoc-wreaking ways. Nor does King Fergus, Merida's father, have any reason to change. He and his comrades do change their minds, but not themselves. So we have a film that, on the one hand, presents stereotypical masculinity and femininity as two extremes, neither desirable, but, on the other hand, shows the women changing and the men staying just the same. I don't really know what to make of it. (Scroll down to see the rest of my tangent about gender in this movie, which I put in a separate post below.)

And so I leave you with a picture of adorable young Merida. Intellectual, recent-graduate-of-a-women's-college analysis aside, this is a good movie. Better than some critics have made out. I kind of can't wait to see it again. I really liked the focus on the mother-daughter relationship in all its complexity, both joy and difficulty; I was, as I hoped, blown away by the animation and the beauty of the visuals; and I like, although with a few reservations, the message of the movie. Another year of Pixar gone by, and a good one. Finally, if you enjoyed Brave, please check out The Secret of Kells, an even more magical adventure set in ancient Ireland with stunning animation and a beautiful soundtrack. If you like ancient Celtic atmospheres and/or animation, these make a lovely pair.

A tangent on femininity and archery

This was originally part of my review of Brave, but it got a little out of hand. Just a quibble I've been turning over in my mind recently. To be read as an addendum to that review if you like.

Can we stop with the girl archers extraordinaire now? It's been fun, because archery is awesome. However, I suspect some weird association between young women and archery that is based on the fact that archery is somehow a more delicate, and certainly a more distant, sport/weaponry than swords or hand-to-hand combat. (I'm not trying to belittle archery here, just saying it seems to project a different quality and a different set of virtues than other modes of fighting.) Quick, name three recent portrayals of archers. I can think of Katniss Everdeen, Princess Merida, and Legolas. So, two girls and an elf. Now, elves are not paragons of classical masculinity. The whole point of Legolas is that he's like a cat, never leaving a trace and never receiving a trace either - his blond hair remains perfect as he shoots down enemies from afar.

I think that the media is trying to keep girls, even when their tomboys, within the boundaries of elf-style fighting.
Thing is, one of the best things about heroes is that they get extraordinarily beaten down and scuffed up and yet still carry on, against all odds. They're super human. One kind of super humanity the kind where you're not human, you're an elf, and your elf-eyes see everything, and your aim is very, very good. Another kind is where you're a woman, and you have great skills like archery and horseback riding and bravery, but you still keep ending up in the hospital or you fall off your horse for no good reason or no one believes in or celebrates your prowess, or your hair always stays perfect no matter what scrapes you get into.

 Then there's another kind, which we can call the Aragorn-style hero, where your body is not kept safe or pure or distanced from the action. You go way past the point where most people would give up and lie there awaiting death, and you carry on steadfastly without even flinching. By the end of the day, your flesh is utterly mortified, but, here's the thing, your soul (to speak in shorthand) remains pure and valorous, and you are more of a paragon because of the physical reality you have endured. This kind of hero is, I believe, extraordinarily attractive to a lot of people. You find him in film noir and fantasy and probably a lot of action movies, although I don't really watch those. Yes, there's a separate issue to be discussed about representations of violence, but that doesn't change the fact that I would like to see, just once, a female Aragorn.

If you have thoughts on this, please share in the comments, because I'm very interested in continuing the discussion, and I'm still working out my own thoughts about this issue.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Review: North & South

Here's what happens when you search for "North & South" on Tumblr: Lots of pictures of Richard Armitage's face. This is understandable, since he plays John Thornton, a handsome, brooding type and variant on the Darcy trope. However, it's a pity there's not more balance between his face and his co-star's, Daniela Denby-Ashe, who plays the wonderfully opinionated and passionate heroine, Margaret Hale. Part of what makes this miniseries so great is their two faces - both unusual and enormously expressive, even when they're just staring intensely out of windows (which they do for inordinate amounts of time).

I'm certainly a sucker for romantic costume drama. There's just something so refreshing about a movie where the hero has only to loosen his cravat (I'm using this term very carelessly, but if someone knows what to call the amazing wrap-around tie Thornton wears, please let me know) or the heroine let her shawl slip from her shoulders to ratchet up the sexual tension from high to sizzling.
I know, the use the word sizzling about a movie that's set in northern England is pretty odd, but these two actors and characters are truly perfectly matched in their verbal sparring and their ability to make the absolute most of a close-up. And the beautifully done setting and costumes (minimalist by comparison to some more lavish dramas, but still very effective) just makes it even better.

The story concerns the changes Margaret undergoes when she is uprooted from her idyllic life as the daughter of a parson in rural southern England and must move to the cold and strange world of a northern industrial town. But she's certainly not a passive player in this story. She has strong opinions, but more importantly, she also wants to inform herself and refine those opinions when faced with the debacle of industry and labor politics in her new home. She is possessed of a generous spirit, but she's also very stubborn. She seemed to me a wonderful embodiment of the complicated person that one becomes when one's natural inclinations clash with what society expects - in her case, she is caught between being a good daughter and a good christian and pursuing her own betterment and education. The great thing is that none of this is presented too baldly. She doesn't yearn to become a working woman or go to school, she doesn't rebel against her parents, or anything like that. But she strains against the boundaries of life in ways that feel very real. She talks out of turn at dinner parties and refuses to shake people's hands when she feels it isn't the right thing to do. But later she listens to what people thought of her behavior and adjusts herself - though only partially - to what they expect. She certainly makes me want to read more of Gaskell's work and see in more detail how she crafted her heroine.

The other aspect of the movie that its fans on Tumblr fail to note is the its political dimension. Margaret's journey is not just about finding love or becoming more tolerant of the northerners and they of her. She also discovers and must come to terms with the complicated realities of industrial labor. Thornton runs a cotton mill, and several other key characters work there, so much of the story revolves around the intractable battle between "masters" (as they call the mill owners) and workers, especially those trying to start up a union.

In this respect, the movie reminded me very much of Henry Green's novella "Living," or rather a combination of that book and "Pride and Prejudice." Of course it was originally a book, too, written by Elizabeth Gaskell, whose work I've never read but am now curious to. I found the treatment of the politics quite good because it never fully worked things out. Margaret is truly torn between trying to understand the worker's plight and the master's difficulties, and through her we get to see both sides in a relation that is never black and white.

All in all, this series is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys period pieces, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Henry Green, good dialogue, and attractive faces gazing broodingly out of windows.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Travel: Pacific Northwest Road Trip, part I

No blogging for a while because I took myself out of the internetosphere for a week to go camping up on the northern California coast and to visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR.

I'm not very experienced in travel writing, and I don't really want to write an exhortation to visit the ocean or the redwoods (although you certainly should, because they are rare and awe-inspiring, and the state parks need support). But I do want to record my own experience of walking through incredibly old forests for days on end, because it was such a relief and a good change from my daily life. I live a very busy life, partly by choice, but that element of choice is actually one of the biggest stresses in my day to day existence. Urban modern life is just so chockablock full of choices - what to eat for breakfast, whether to start the day by working or by blogging (I opted for the latter today, but only as long as I'm sipping my tea), what brand of shoes to buy, and how many skirts to pack in my suitcase. To name only a few of the forks in the road that I encounter over the course of a single day.

These are obviously extremely good choices to have. Nothing in particular rests on them, and they imply a plethora of opportunities and resources. Many people would love to have these choices on their plate, and I don't blame them. But I find decisions, even the smallest ones, extremely difficult to make, sometimes to the point of excruciating. I constantly find myself torn between loving the variety and possibility of my life and the allure of a simpler life where there would be less things cluttering my mind at any given moment.

So it was wonderful to spend a week doing only a certain set of things: walking (mostly preset trails), reading (only brought one novel), eating (same porridge for breakfast every morning), setting up and taking down a tent (a comforting routine), and sleeping (one mat and one sleeping bag, no decisions over how many blankets or pillows I needed). Minimalism, basically, was a really good experience to get back to (I spent a lot of time camping in my childhood, but I hadn't been for years).

I don't think I could ever cut my life down to that scale permanently, at least not at this stage of it. I love clothes and food and music and travel too much to settle for less variety in any of those. My taste is varied and I like it that way. But I'm also trying to live more with the attitude that life is relatively long and that it's OK to settle for less at certain moments. I can get to the other stuff later. And if I never do, then at least I'll have enjoyed and experienced the things I did more fully.

In that vein, I turned down an interview opportunity recently for a job at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I was going to try to squeeze in some work experience before starting my course in the fall. But then I realized that I was grasping for too much and making my life complicated. There were a lot of difficult choices involved in pursuing the job, and my making the one decision to turn down the interview, I freed myself of all those other choices. Which means that instead, I'll get some other choices about what to do with the few weeks of free time I've now got, but as John Green said in a recent video, I can always just go to an art museum, which sounds just about perfect right now.

Well, I meant for this post to be a bit more of a summary of my trip, but instead you got some rambles and reflections. Perhaps I'll fill in with a part two later this week talking about the plays I saw in Ashland. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Review: Une vie de chat

The words that come to mind immediately when talking about a good animated movie are "delightful," "inventive," and "charming." A Cat in Paris (or Une vie de chat in the original) is all of those things. However, it's also suave and beautiful. It's sleek and vibrant at the same time - literally vibrant, in fact, since the animation (which I believe is hand-drawn) actually seems to pulse as the shadows and highlights play across the faces of the characters. It's really quite a wonderful little movie.

The story is classic without being clichéed: a little girl is kidnapped by the gangster who killed her father and saved by her detective mother and by a cat burglar who is friend's with the little girl's cat, Dino. The best part of all this, is that most of the film takes place on the rooftops of Paris (including a beautiful set-piece on Notre Dame). Watching rooftop chase scenes is always thrilling, even for people who are afraid of heights (like me), but watching these animated characters leap lightly and sinuously over impossible gulfs and land on impossibly thin narrow ledges with acrobatic ease is something else.

The characters are neatly drawn, wit amazingly expressive eyes. They actually seem to move like cats as they tiptoe along high walls and race after each other through and over houses and streets. The actual cat, Dino, is a wonderful invention, with crimson stripes and a turquoise nose. In typical cat fashion, he binds all the characters together and saves the day several times without seeming too concerned about anything at all.

I saw the movie in a theater filled with children, and it was nice to think they were seeing an alternative to the loud, raucous movies that Hollywood likes to feed to children these days. It's a perfectly accessible film, with chase scenes and a bumbling group of gangsters who provide regular comic relief (if watching a cat wander through Paris isn't enough to put a smile on your face). But nothing is overstretched or amped up the way they are in a lot of films these days. The scary and the funny and the sweet are presently gently and moderately - which was plenty. For one little girl behind me, the scares kicked in the moment the little girl climbed out of her bedroom window into the night, proving to me that a lighter touch is really all that's necessary for both children and adults.

For older viewers, the movie also offers a nice homage to noir films. I thought in particular of To Catch a Thief, in which Cary Grant is a retired cat burglar who also has a feline companion. So if you like beautiful animation, Paris, noir, cats, or any combination thereof, then this is a movie I heartily recommend to you.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

May Things

This post is inspired by italktosnakes's new video Things I'm Into: May! which you should all check out. Anyway, the idea is to recap a month, not just with the books one's read or things one's done, but all the stuff that's worth sharing and recording. I think it's a nice idea, anyway.

Summer fruit: I love love love summer because of the strawberries and blueberries and blackberries and peaches and nectarines and cherries and apricots, etc. etc. And this morning I just discovered a really spiffy way to eat fresh peaches that I wanted to share:
  • Cut your peach in half and take out the pit. 
  • Spread fromage blanc on the cut side generously. 
  • Drizzle honey over the fromage blanc. 
  • Shake a light dusting of cinnamon on top of the fromage blanc as well. 
It's a little messy, but oh so good. I'd include a picture except that I just ate the last bite....

YA literature: This is sort of a thing I've been rediscovering. I suppose I read it when I was actually a "young adult" (although frankly that term seems to apply to me more at age 22 than at age 15 or whatever), but I also read a lot of regular books, by which I mean adult books, I guess, although I'm not sure I subscribe to that differentiation, given the fact that I enjoyed said books before I became a fully-fledged adult. But after four years of college, some easy reading feels great - I mean easy in the sense of a story that just sucks you along with it, as opposed to a book that makes you stop and deconstruct sentences.

So far, I've finished the Hunger Games trilogy and The Fault in Our Stars, both of which came very highly recommended and still managed to exceed my expectations. I wouldn't rank either of them as in any way lesser than other books, nor are they written carelessly, or with regard only for story, not style. It's just that they don't beat you up (except maybe emotionally) while you're reading them. They don't judge you for wanting to turn the pages very quickly and find out what happens next before you sit back and think about metaphors.

In short, they feel friendly. I enjoy intellectual sparring as much as the next person, but sometimes it's just nice to sit down with someone who will tell you a story.

I suppose that's it for now. Let me know in the comments if there's anything you've discovered in the last month that you simply must share.

Happy June!