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As You Like It - The New Cambridge Shakespeare book coverIn As You Like It, Shakespeare banishes all unhappiness, unless it springs from love.

The play follows a multitude of characters driven from a nobleman’s court to exile in the Forest of Arden, where they find refuge from the ambition, intrigue, envy, and striving of the world.

There a usurped Duke philosophizes on his new freedom; a lord tends his melancholy like a garden; and the clown Touchstone pursues his fooling to the edge of the sublime – but the show belongs to the misery and ecstasy of love and to the superlative Rosalind, mistress of all situations and persons except her own wild heart.

There are familiar Shakespearian tropes in As You Like It. The instantaneous and absolute way love conquers. The woman dressed as a man who hides from her love and is loved by the wrong person in turn. And the character who arranges events to create maximum drama, even as the audience is left wondering what motivates her manipulations.

No matter. The dialogue is superb. Rosalind bewitches men and women, on and off stage, in equal measure. And all ends happy in this most delicate of Shakespeare’s comedies.

Her Talons, Her Flowers

Damn my muse. There is
No plea she won’t refuse.
I pray I beg I grind I groan.
I knock her door. She’s never
Home.

My wayward mistress mocks my
Love. “I’m an eagle not a dove.
You are meat for my talons, you
Food for my strife. I’m not your
Pretty pet or your pretty wife.”

“You think my wild songs yours to sing?
You dim-eyed, dust dry, dull weak thing.
You the pipe I play, you the bell I sound.
I am all flowers. You the ground.”

Oh leave me not in despair, white goddess,
Thousand masked. I’ll give you blood from
My throat, conjure you sparkling metaphors,
Pay grave homage to your dignity, if I might
Feel your life burn in me like the spirit of fire,
Feel iron words forge in my heart from your
Heat, and fall like meteors through our skies,
Metal stones, harder than Time, smooth from
Ancient creation, cored with secrets I might
Claim my own.

 

Flight Behavior Barbara KingsolverBarbara Kingsolver is such a good writer that she can make you forget — or forgive — some pretty substantial problems in a novel. This is a good thing because Flight Behavior has several although it is still a book well worth reading.

Flight Behavior has a number of shortcomings, but these do not include its language or characters, which are solid, complex, persuasive, and satisfying.

The novel’s central character is Dellarobia Turnbow who like many Kingsolver characters is a woman with an intelligence, spirit, and sex drive too large for her circumstances. In Dellarobia’s case, these circumstances are a small Appalachian town, an ill-matched husband acquired through a high-school pregnancy, a small confining house with two young children, and subsistence farming on the land of her resentful in-laws.

As Flight Behavior opens, Dellarobia is set to destroy (and so escape) her marriage through a particularly reckless and desperate act of adultery. When she climbs up the wooded hills of her husband’s family’s land to meet her lover, she discovers the entire Monarch butterfly population of North America, which has settled for the winter in rural Tennessee rather than deep in Mexico, because of climate change. The vision of the butterflies turns Dellarobia around, literally and figuratively, and send her life in new and remarkable directions.

There is a great deal in Flight Behavior to enjoy and admire. Each of Kingsolver’s characters walk on to the page fully formed, convincing, and distinct: from Dellarobia’s husband Cub, to her best friend Dovey, to her family and the people in her church, to Dr. Ovid Byron, the lepidopterist who appears to study why the Monarchs have so radically changed the migration patterns hard-wired into their DNA. Kingsolver makes it easy to understand and empathize with her characters even when they aren’t necessarily likable. Her conversations are a pleasure to read. And she makes the emotional arc of Dellarobia’s story moving and real.

The problems in Flight Behavior come from its plot construction, which is a bit of a mess, and its “big themes” which are didactically over-emphasized to the extent that readers might feel the need to take notes in case there is a test at the end.

The plot problems begin with Dellarobia’s reaction to the butterflies, which she feels is some species of religious revelation, which causes confusion in Dellarobia and controversy in her church.  This is a fine and intriguing idea, and fair enough. The problem is that the religion angle fizzles out before we are a third of the way through Flight Behavior with no more explanation than Dellarobia and everyone just seemed to forget about it.

Another plot line that fizzles is Dellarobia’s romantic obsession with Ovid Byron that goes on for a tantalizingly long time before we discover it is the shaggiest of shaggy dog tales. Then for good measure, when we are in the home stretch, Kingsolver drops on us one of those shocking personal secrets that typically form the “big surprise” of 19th-century novels, only to have all the characters involved immediate disappear for the rest of the book, the surprise unexplored and unresolved. In a novel that clearly demonstrates its commitment to conventional plot architectures, these qualities can only be seen as flaws.

The biggest of Flight Behavior‘s big themes is global warming, which is not only disrupting the life cycles of the Monarch species but seemingly the weather of Dellarobia’s home as well, making the precarious economics of the Turnbow and neighboring farms more precarious still. Kingsolver clearly believes the globe is warming and human activity is a cause (as does the consensus of the scientific community and me too, by the by) but she pursues this theme through long conversations between Dellarobia and Ovid, which weaken the novel while having no impact what-so-ever on public opinion. The novel is weaker because Kingsolver’s management of the exposition is ham-handed and her talking points way too obvious. As for public opinion, climate-change deniers are thin on the ground among readers of literary fiction to begin with, and the few members of that choir who might be in need of a sermon on global warming are not going to be moved. Few things are less persuasive than a lecture. Particularly when your audience is captive and you had promised them a story not a seminar.

Kingsolver also has a reasonable amount to say about the conflicting world views, mutual misunderstanding, and reciprocal lack of respect between the religious, conservative, working-class (at best) residents of rural Tennessee and the wealthy, well-educated liberals who descend on Dellarobia’s home to study the butterflies, agitate to protect them, or use the Monarchs as an occasion to indulge their self-righteous narcissism. Like with her handling of climate change, the problem with this theme is that it is too often explored through explicit, long expository comments from Dellarobia. There’s nothing wrong with big ideas in novels, but big ideas in novels work best when they are implicit and handled with subtlety.

The good news is that there is so much good stuff going on in Flight Behavior, and Kingsolver’s talent is so mature and sturdy, that your pleasure will be only mildly diminished by the novel’s problems. And you’re likely to be impress by how well the book succeeds in spite of them.

the wolf of wall streetMartin Scorsese’ 2013 movie The Wolf of Wall Street (now on streaming) is not a morality tale. It is not a caustic satire. It is not even a black comedy. It is – simply – a Three-Stooges, gross-out, id-driven comedy. Full stop.

There are a whole bunch reasons why this is hard to see. The film is based on a real-life figure (the penny-stock impresario and fraudster, Jordan Belfort) whose crimes are emblematic of the Wall Street which brought ruin to middle-class American prosperity and much of the world economy. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio rather than Will Ferrell. It is directed by Mr. Scorsese who is rightly celebrated as a master of American cinema (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver). And it gives high-minded critics the rope of just enough material – largely the result in my eyes of the film editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s yeowoman’s work imposing some order on the magnificent, exhilarating, and exhausting chaos – to hang themselves.

This rope includes the moral queasiness we feel laughing at pain and cruelty – and ignoring victims – which straight-up comedies avoid by making themselves obviously straight-up comedies (in which we are laughing at “types” rather than “real” men and women). It also includes certain characters and situations which seem to have been imported from an entirely different movie: in particular, the FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) who pursues Belfort with an intensity, complexity, and ambiguity missing from the rest of the movie, but also the briefly presented dissolutions of Belfort’s two marriages. And it includes the possibility of seeing The Wolf of Wall Street as a meditation on three human themes – appetite, addiction, and selfishness – that resonant with all the Three-Stooges, appalling, and hysterical excess.

It is, however, only the appalling and hysterical excess that makes a durable impression in The Wolf of Wall Street. The celebrated scenes are all outrageous, horrifying comedy. Matthew McConaughey tutoring a wide-eyed DiCaprio on the essentials of Wall Street success: greed, client manipulation, cocaine, and masturbation. DiCaprio whipping up his traders into a berserker frenzy. All the glossy, sleazy, tawdry parties, the highest density of f-bombs ever recorded in cinema, and the massive drug consumption that makes Al Pacino’s Scarface look like a teetotaler. Most especially, the already famous extended scene in which DiCaprio and his business partner (Jonah Hill) consume way too-many Quaaludes and deliver a genius piece of physical comedy that is likely to become standard in film-school curriculums.

Perhaps you can wrestle legitimate meaning from all the exuberance of making in The Wolf of Wall Street, but that work has been entirely assigned to the audience it seems to me. “We made it. You figure it out,” is the final message. Which makes The Wolf of Wall Street a kind of Benny Hill Goodfellas, a far-better Scorsese film with which it shares the same basic story arc and a similar character as anti-hero. But instead of taking us deep into the life of Henry Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street serves up a bunch of running around, yucks, and tits.

tweetsI use Twitter to entertain myself because (1) I don’t have many followers and (2) if I did have a lot of followers, most of them would unfollow me from perplexity, boredom, or the fear that my mental derangements might somehow be catching.

As you’ll notice, this piece of self-knowledge has not stopped me from sharing with you my favorites from the past six months. What a tangle a person is.

.

Never criticize second-rate literature. Its fans go bat-shit and no one else gives a damn.

Ants invaded my favorite apple cake. I ate them. I am #Shiva, destroyer of worlds.

No no no! I need #phlebotomy, not lobotomy!

King Herod – This agreement requires me to give you the head of John the Baptist. #Salome – Oh, that’s just my standard contract.

My wife says, “You use #commas where I would not. But I love you anyhow.”

This tweet is a non-update on my #writing. Disappointed? No, I didn’t think so.

#Puns are the whoopie cushions of wit.

If I’m not bored at least once during a baseball game, I haven’t gotten my money’s worth.

“I say verily I will bless the deserving poor as soon as I find some.” Acts of the Agostinians 17: 11-12

Kim Yong-un vows to shoot down #Santa if he violates North Korean airspace. St. Nick deploys stealth Rudolph and drone elves in response.

Asked of iPhone: “Siri, should I drink more?” Answer: “I have found 9 bars near your location.”

#Running is the perfect exercise for Protestants – it’s dull, painful, and good for you.

Wife: What would it* say if it could talk? Me: I’m sick of this guy too.

* Yes, the “it” is what you think it is.

twelve years a slave mcquIs it possible for a movie to tell a truth its audience does not want to hear?

We know that movies can sell the pretty lies of propaganda more persuasively than other medium. In fact, you could say the definition of a movie is a “pretty lie”. But can a film tell an “ugly truth”?

12 Years a Slave, the newest winner of the Oscar for best picture, directed by Steven McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, is the rare film that allows us to answer “yes” to this question.

There are a lot of reasons films like 12 Years a Slave are so rare. The essential one, however, is the simple fact that you have to sell tickets to movies.

The average price of admission to a movie in America last year was $8.35 and if you were an adult attending a non-matinee showing, $12.00 to $15.00 was more like it.

In aggregate, people will lay down money to be entertained by a movie. They will especially slap down coin to participate in a filmed fantasy: sex, wealth, power, revenge or justice, adventure, romance, agency, freedom, lives lived with noble meaning and purpose.

Sometimes, they will pay to see the truths of their real lives expressed for them by a film. Even less often, but still sometimes, people will pay to watch a movie that tells an ugly truth about someone else.

But people do not want to pay for the experience of confronting an ugly truth about themselves. Because it damages their self-esteem.

There is a growing body of social science research (see this recent piece on the vaccines-cause-autism myth as an example) that finds when people are confronted with evidence that contradicts one of their dearly held beliefs, they end up clinging even more strongly to that belief.

That’s why so many “issue” movies are sanitized, prettified, heavy-hand pieces of didactic crap in which an exceptional, self-sacrificing hero from the victimizer class achieves some sort of redemption for the victimized class, often while a representative sample of the victims stand admiringly off to one side.

This is because it is nearly impossible to show an audience an ugly truth unless you give them a big, honking, obvious, unambiguous way of disassociating themselves from that ugly truth. Thus the self-sacrificing hero from the victimizer class and thus the speech (or speeches) in which said hero firmly articulates the principles we all eagerly embrace so we can feel like good people.

The remarkable, harrowing, painful, brilliant achievement of 12 Years a Slave is how little of this it does and consequentially how powerfully it succeeds as art and history and moral persuasion.

As you doubtlessly know by now, 12 Years a Slave, tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York state who is kidnapped into slavery. The film focuses on the brutal daily reality of Solomon’s life as an enslaved man: the what-should-be-impossible to endure physical, emotional, and psychological suffering that Solomon and the men, women, and children who are enslaved with him do endure until they die.

Director Steven McQueen keeps the focus on Solomon’s suffering and refuses to allow us to look away. We are immersed in Solomon’s experience, in a firestorm of words he cannot risk speaking, of emotions always felt but seldom expressed because their expression will bring him destruction, either from the hands of white slave-owners or his own enormous interior pain.

As Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor is simply astounding. The role requires Mr. Ejiofor to do everything and nothing. To feel and to show us that feeling and to show us Solomon hiding that feeling. To not speak and to show us the words he does not speak. To show us a life in which every minute of that life is anguish and exhaustion – sometimes gentle but usually unbearable.

There are many indelible scenes in 12 Years a Slave, but for me the most unforgettable is the one where a slave-owner named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinger) forces Solomon to whip Patsey, a young enslaved woman with whom Epps is malignantly, sexually obsessed. (Patsey is played by Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for the role.)

The whipping nearly breaks Solomon and is devastating to Patsey as well. Solomon’s reaction, the red mist of blood that rises from Patsey’s back each time the lash strikes, her uncontrollably weeping, and the deep furrowed wounds from the whip McQueen shows us, all should put to an end – for the last time – to the lie that slavery was a just “particular institution” or a “benevolent institution”; or the lie that abolition was a less worthy cause for liberty than the liberty of slave-states to determine within their borders who did and who did not deserve the right to the freedoms promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; or the lie that slavery was a mere minor blemish on the glorious, now persecuted culture and history of the American south specifically and America in general; or the lie that the suffering of enslaved men, women, and children has been overstated and oversold, and in any case, slavery is in the past and so it is far past time for people to shut up about it.

McQueen does a good job of not letting his audience off the hook in this movie – and by “his audience” I should be specific and say the audience not escaping the hook is “American white people” and fair enough – but there are two stumbles in Twelve Years a Slave.

The first is in the characters of the slave-owner Edwin Epps and his wife, who both shade far enough into psychotic villainy that McQueen could allow his audience to say that it was only a few crazy bad slave-owners who did crazy bad things to enslaved people.

A bigger problem is the abolitionist carpenter name Bass who helps Solomon regain his freedom. Bass is played by Brad Pitt and as the exceptional, self-sacrificing hero from the victimizer class who achieves a redemption of sorts for Solomon – and who while at it, also delivers a few neat little speeches that articulate the principles we all can eagerly embrace and so feel like good people – Pitt stands out like a big fat sore thumb.

I get the feeling this was not exactly McQueen’s choice. Pitt was one of the film’s ten producers, and of the ten, the only generally recognizable big Hollywood gun in the group. When the best picture Oscar was announced, Pitt was the first producer on stage, the first producer to take his Oscar, and the first producer to speak — though he spoke briefly and graciously, and mostly to introduce McQueen.

If the price of getting 12 Years a Slave in theaters was to give Pitt a few glamour moments, it was a price well worth paying. But the movie would have been better served if Pitt had switched roles with Paul Giamatti, the slave-trader who knows Solomon is a kidnapped freeman and sells him any way. Pitt’s glamour would have made a bracing contrast to his character’s actions, and Giamatti would have made the audience-hero-surrogate less pretty, less preachy, less courageous, less unconflicted. Less like the person we would like to be. More like the person most of us are.

Thelma Louise and Emma Bovary

Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, and Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary

There is a great depressing theme in 19th-century literature of woman who – thwarted in their efforts to achieve independence and agency – turn to suicide.

Lily Bart in House of Mirth dies from an (accidental?) overdose of a sleeping drug. Edna Pontellier in The Awakening drowns herself. Anna Karenina throws herself under a train. And Emma Bovary poisons herself with arsenic. There is no place for the lives they desire in the worlds they live, and so death becomes the only liberty they can choose.

This theme jumped up and slapped me in the face recently when for the first time since 1991, I watched Thelma & Louise, starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, and directed by Ridley Scott.

The film concerns two women who plan a weekend getaway together. Thelma (played by Davis) wants to escape from her bullying lout of a husband and Louise (played by Sarandon) is looking for a break from her job as a diner waitress.  When a man Thelma meets at a bar tries to rape her in a parking lot, Louise shoots him dead and sets the movie in motion.

Thelma and Louise travel cross-country from their native Arkansas, simultaneously fleeing from the law following them in pursuit and toward a freedom that the film embodies in the American West. But society – or the machine of the plot – drives them to a choice between prison and death. Thelma and Louise choose death.

Thelma & Louise & Emma Bovary

There are a whole bunch of differences between Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Ridley Scott’s film (including artistic quality) but the characters and in particular the situation of the characters are similar, and it is with the similarities among the characters that I would like to start.

Geena Davis’ Thelma is a more obvious match for Emma Bovary than Sarandon’s Louise. Like Emma, Thelma is trapped in a marriage to an (at best) mildly successful buffoon in a provincial town that severely circumscribes her choices. Also like Emma Bovary, Thelma knows vaguely – and feels deeply – that something is wrong with her life, but isn’t able to articulate what the problem is and lacks the power to make effective changes. So Thelma, like Emma, falls into a transgressive form of rebellion for her time: highway banditry in contrast to Emma’s adultery.

Susan Sarandon’s Louise is a more subtle, and so to my lights, more moving character. She is in her middle-late thirties and seems to feel the possibilities of her life shrinking around her. Scott frequently films Sarandon staring in the mirror and pushing at her just-beginning to age face – often surrounded by younger women. She works in a diner. Her apartment is scrupulously neat and empty. We learn that she was a victim of rape in Texas years before. Her life is circumscribed it seems by age, and loneliness, and trauma. Louise shows hints of complexity in Scott’s often too simple world.

Thelma & Louise is Full of Ridiculous Male Stereotypes … Oh, Wait a Minute

It is a fool’s errand for a man to say a movie (or a book or anything) is or isn’t a feminist movie (or book or anything) – because he can never be right – so I’m not going to even try – but I will say that Thelma & Louise provides a great deal of rich material for people brave enough to wade into the discussion.

Part of the material is the panorama of male villains who seem over-the-top until you start thinking about them, and then they start to look pretty typical. So we have the insulting, demeaning, and emotionally abusive husband of Thelma.  We have the self-entitled rapist who thinks Thelma owes him sex because he wants it. We have the charismatic stud who knows how to tickle Thelma’s nether regions, then steals her money without a qualm (Brad Pitt). And we have the cool boyfriend – Louise’s in this case – who just isn’t quite ready to commit, but who is just nice enough to seriously mess with a woman’s head (Michael Madsen).

Another part of the material is Davis and Sarandon’s appropriation of typically male film tropes. You don’t have to look very hard to see Thelma & Louise as a remake of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (even the titles echo) or, for that matter, dozens of other films about men. You have the deep but platonic friendship. The cheerful flouting of the law in pursuit of their own best desires. Sexual liberty. The possession and expert use of fire arms combined with a reluctance to commit actual acts of violence. The freedom of the vast American west.

The comparison breaks down when it comes to motivation. Newman and Redford choose their outlaw status from what seems to be pure joie de vivre. Thelma and Louise are driven to it by an act of (wholly justifiable in my mind) revenge. Louise shoots the man who assaults Thelma – but only after she has safely rescued Thelma from him.

If Thelma & Louise were a typical revenge film, and Louise were a man, the movie would have been devoted to the male Louise tracking down the rapist and brutally killing him in a world where police do not exist. But since Louise is a woman, and Thelma and Louise take the tools of men into their own hands, the police track them down and put half a battalion of firepower on their asses instead. Particular, ain’t it?

Thelma & Louise: Deeply Subversive or Crassly Exploitative?

What prevents Thelma & Louise from being a great movie – as opposed to the moderately good to pretty good film that we have – is Ridley Scott’s weakness for empty, pretty spectacle and his heavy-handedness.

There is a glossy glamour in his shots that screams out “Hollywood!” instead of serving the story. Many times, Thelma and Louise seem as driven by the film’s desire to deliver a popular action movie as they are by the circumstances of their lives and society. You would be hard pressed to call any of Scott’s characterizations subtle (except for some of the details in Sarandon’s performance previously noted) and there is no ambiguity.

The problems are nicely contained in a scene near the end of the film, in which Thelma and Louise confront a trucker who has been making crude comments at them throughout the movie. The man is crass, sexist, and deeply stupid. When he refuses to apologize, Thelma and Louse shoot his truck which erupts in an enormous fireball while the man yells “Bitches from hell!” It’s sorta satisfying and sorta fun, I admit. But it also feels cheap.

As does the ending, when Thelma and Louise drive their convertible over the edge of the Grand Canyon and the shot freezes in mid-air, the frame brightens to white, and we’re treated to a montage of happy Thelma and Louises from earlier in the film instead of the wreckage of blood, bone, and metal which is their real end.

There is a lot in Thelma & Louise that can leave you unsettled and unhappy if you look for it. But when Scott has to choose between selling unsettled and unhappy – or selling KA-BOOM! Wow! Ha ha ha! – well, he chooses the ka-boom.

Vile Puns blog artRegular readers of this blog know that I like vile puns — and the more vile, the better. In fact, I’m a believer that there is no such thing as a good pun. They can only be vile. But it appears I am wrong.

There is a species of (dare I say it?) subtle intellectual pun roaming in its natural habit, the halls of distinguished academia, which you may encounter if you are distinguished and an academic.

Since I am neither, I’ve needed our family friend Rick to introduce me to these wonders. My great gratitude goes out to him. You may not feel the same:

When fish are in schools, they sometimes take debate.

A thief who stole a calendar got twelve months.

When the smog lifts in Los Angeles U. C. L. A.

The batteries were given out free of charge.

A will is a dead giveaway.

With her marriage, she got a new name and a dress.

A boiled egg is hard to beat.

When you’ve seen one shopping center you’ve seen a mall.

Police were called to a day care center where a three-year-old was resisting a rest.

Did you hear about the fellow whose whole left side was cut off? He’s all right now.

A bicycle can’t stand alone; it is two tired.

When a clock is hungry it goes back four seconds.

The guy who fell onto an upholstery machine is now fully recovered.

Acupuncture is a jab well done. 

And the cream of the wretched crop:

Those who get too big for their pants will be exposed in the end.

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