Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘On Books’ Category

Literary Novels

Do you want to write a Literary Novel but don’t know how to start? Fear not!

Follow these 11 easy steps and you too can write a masterpiece of fiction. Soon, you will enjoy critical praise, fawning audiences, fancy cocktail parties, cushy academic appointments, prestigious fellowships, and modest sales. Does that sound good? Then let’s get it going!

Step 1 – Make your Literary Novel Serious

It’s the rare comic novel that joins the pantheon of literature. Comedy works in your favor if you excel at tragedy too (Shakespeare), if it is suffused with deep undercurrents of sadness (Chekhov), or if it comes with dazzling social insights (Austen). Otherwise, you are condemned to lightweight status no matter how blinding your brilliance.

Step 2 – Make your Literary Novel Sad

A corollary to Step 1. No one who is happy is a serious person. Happiness indicates you are entirely lacking in the basic insight necessary to be sad or that you have been hoodwinked by capitalism, the church, the NFL, Cosmo magazine, the makers of antidepressant medication, or the Republican party.

Step 3 – Make your Literary Novel characters Introverts

Extroverts don’t sit in rooms by themselves reading about other people’s lives. They are out in the world living their own lives. Always make your Literary Novel about your audience. Your audience is introverts.

Step 4 – Make your Literary Novel characters Introspective

A corollary to Step 3. Being an introvert doesn’t do you much good unless you are living your interior life more deeply, more consciously, and more fiercely than everyone else is living theirs. Passionate introspection and self-conscious brooding are to introverts what sky-diving and tech start-ups are to extroverts: high-status ways of demonstrating you are more successful than your peers.

Step 5 – Make your Literary Novel characters Hyper-articulate

A corollary to Steps 3 and 4. It doesn’t do you much good to live a passionate interior life if you can’t get the damn thing out of your head and into the world prancing around impressing people. So make your characters impossibly articulate especially in circumstances that should render them speechless, such as tumbling inside a fatal avalanche or porking the hottie of their dreams.

Step 6 – Make your Literary Novel Big

This is especially important if you are a male writer. Size definitely DOES matter to the male literary novelist and the bigger the better. You don’t want to be dangling some elegant slender volume praised for its jewel-like perfections when you are standing next to Jonathan Franzen, do you?

If you are a woman, you have it easier. You can say exactly what you want to say, in exactly the number of words you need to say it – and no more – and trust the intelligence and good taste of your readers to recognize your qualities. You should also trust you will hear a lot of sniffing about lady writers.

Step 7 – Make your Literary Novel Boring

Never make the mistake of entertaining the reader. You might accidentally become a popular success and popular success is for hacks. (Just ask Shakespeare or Twain or Fitzgerald or Nabokov or … well you get the point.)

The easiest way to make your Literary Novel boring is to assume that every passing thought you have is a rare gift to the world that must be shared. If you’ve ever used social media, this should be simple enough. Another easy way to bore the reader is to avoid plot. Be sure to let people know your book is deliberately boring by giving interviews in which you talk about subverting reader expectations or offering a stinging critique of the zombie-producing distractions of a debased all-for-profit culture.

Step 8 – Use Big Words in your Literary Novel

Hey, we coughed up forty bucks for the hardcover version of your frickin’ doorstop. We want our money’s worth. That means big words and lots of them. Even if they don’t quite work in the sentence.

Step 9 – Use Obscure References in your Literary Novel

A corollary to Step 8. One of the most important reasons people read Literary Novels is to look and feel smarter than people who don’t. Obscure references are essential to this process. So make sure you put in plenty. I mean, you do want to be the next Sirin right? (Did you get my reference? You did? Welcome to the club! You didn’t? Ha ha!)

Step 10 – Criticize Society in your Literary Novel

You should always criticize society in your Literary Novel as long as you are criticizing its insidious lack of liberal progress. Never criticize society for being too progressive. That is not literature!

Express outrage no one has fixed the problems you identify. Imply every problem would magically disappear if it weren’t for the malignant, soul-deadening, tyrannical machinations of the power elite. Do not make the mistake of offering solutions to the problems you see. Literary Novels are not in the solutions business.

Step 11 – Make your Literary Novel Difficult

This is the most important step of all. Your Literary Novel must be difficult to read. Remember, a truly original work of art is indistinguishable from a hot mess to its first audience. Further, no one is going to spend the time carefully reading an interminable and terminally boring new Literary Novel to figure out if it is a hot mess. They are going to play it safe and praise the book instead. This works great for you unless you really are a genius in which case, honey I’m sorry to tell you, you’re screwed.

That’s it! I look forward to your Literary Novel appearing in The New Yorker ten years from now. I did mention these bastards take a long time to write, and cause you unbearable suffering while you write them, didn’t I?

 

Read Full Post »

american sniper eastwoodPretty lies sell. Politicians know it. Hollywood knows it. Clint Eastwood knows it – although perhaps he did not intend to sell pretty lies when he made American Sniper. But pretty lies are what Eastwood delivers. And in them rest the sources of the controversy, and the complications, of the movie.

As you likely know, American Sniper tells the story of Chris Kyle, an American SEAL who is famous for being the “deadliest sniper in American history” with 160 confirmed kills to his name. The movie is far more interested in telling the story of the impact Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq had on him and his family, however. Much of that story is not pretty and much of it is true.

There Is Much Ugly Truth in American Sniper

There are quite a number of ugly truths wrapped around the pretty lies of American Sniper, which do a good job of giving the pretty lies of the film the appearance of “truth by association”.

Eastwood does not make war look fun. He makes it look like a tough, exhausting, dangerous job — Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post nails it when she called American Sniper a “professional procedural”. (The single exception is the scene where Kyle kills a rival sniper with a headshot from nearly a mile away. We follow the bullet in slow motion as if we were watching The Matrix.)

Eastwood certainly doesn’t make war look pretty. In one scene, one of Kyle’s friends is hit by assault rifle fire that instantly deadens his expression. He dies seconds later. In another scene, one of his friends is shot in the face, and we watch as the man chokes on the blood gurgling in his throat. Kyle’s sniper rifle blows holes the diameter of coffee cans in the bodies of the men, and the woman and the child, he kills.

Eastwood shows us the impact of war on soldiers. We are there outside the operating room when they die. We attend their funerals and see the grief of the family they left behind. We see soldiers trying to recuperate from horrible wounds in hospitals back home, and then try to build a new life with broken bodies and broken spirits.

We see what the war does especially to Chris Kyle’s wife, Taya, played by an excellent Sienna Miller. One of the strengths of American Sniper is just how much attention and respect it pays to the suffering of the wives (all wives in this case) of soldiers at war. And we see the impact of the war on Chris Kyle himself through the outstanding performance of Bradley Cooper – richly deserving his best-actor nomination – who in scene after scene, quietly and almost motionlessly, conveys the anguish of Chris Kyle’s job.

After Kyle shoots an armed enemy, he exhales and drops his head. Then he sniffs and returns to looking through the sight of his rifle, as if each shot were a burden he would need to carry and for which he would need to ultimately answer. This is particularly true after the famous opening sequence, when Kyle has to decide to shoot a young boy who is running toward an American patrol with a grenade, and then shoot the boy’s mother who picks up the grenade after her son is killed.

Later in the film, another boy picks up a grenade launch dropped by a dead fighter and seems to be attempting to aim it at an American patrol. “Put it down, put it down, put it down,” Kyle whispers as he fixes the boy in the sight of his rifle, a look of horror spread across his face. His relief when the boy drops the weapon is palpable.

Balanced against these many ugly truths – and they are very ugly indeed – are the pretty lies of American Sniper. These lies are very pretty indeed. The ultimately overwhelm the counter truths. And these lies start with Chris Kyle.

Chris Kyle: An Ideal and Idealized American Soldier

By all reports, the real Chris Kyle was in many ways the man American Sniper shows him to be. A tough professional elite soldier who joined the military to defend the United States from terrorists. A loyal and unwavering friend. A loving and devoted husband who struggled against the damage the war did to himself and his family, and who then committed himself to helping other veterans with the same struggles – including the man who killed Kyle in 2013.

But there are other parts of Chris Kyle that are absent from American Sniper and which are less than ideal. For example, the movie portrays Kyle as modest and reluctant to discuss his work. The real life Chris Kyle seems to have been much less modest. He actively promoted himself as “America’s most lethal sniper” and made good money doing it.

Kyle’s bragging also extended to things he didn’t do. Kyle claimed to have killed two carjackers in Texas and gone to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to shoot looters. No evidence for these claims exists. Kyle also claimed to have punched Jesse Ventura for criticizing the Iraq War. Ventura won a $1.8 million libel judgment against Kyle.

You could say that these were a few moments when Kyle’s mouth got ahead of his brain. You can’t offer the same defense of some of the opinions Kyle published in his autobiography. Such as these:

“I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.” [From the introduction.]

“I missed the excitement and the thrill. I loved killing bad guys.” [On why he wanted to go back to Iraq.]

“It was like a scene from ‘Dumb and Dumber’. The bullet went through the first guy and into the second…Two guys with one shot. The taxpayer got good bang for his buck on that one.” [On firing at two insurgents on a moped.]

These are not the words of a modest and selfless soldier, doing the hard work most people are unable or unwilling to do; not the words of the Chris Kyle portrayed in American Sniper who is celebrated by much of the nation as hero. These are the words of a person who enjoyed being paid by the U.S. government to go on a murder junket. And there is nothing pretty about them.

What Exactly Does “Fighting for Freedom” Mean?

As amazing as it sounds, the prettied up Chris Kyle isn’t the prettiest – or biggest lie – Eastwood tells in American Sniper. That distinction goes to the justification the movie presents for the Iraq war. Or more precisely, the lack of justification for the Iraq War the film presents.

War is a brutal business and when a war is necessary (and I do believe some wars are necessary) then we need men like Chris Kyle to fight them; and if these men are less than perfect in their motivations, and less than perfect in their actions, it is nonetheless indecent to criticize them for their imperfections. Men like Chris Kyle are the means to the ends we pursue, and if we don’t like the means then we shouldn’t pursue the ends.

The problem is that American Sniper utterly ignores questions like these. Instead, it takes at face value, unexamined and unchallenged, Chris Kyle’s justification for the Iraq War, which is the pretty, glittering, noble-sounding phrase that he was “fighting for freedom”.

But what does “fighting for freedom” mean in the context of the Iraq War? Don’t look for the answers in American Sniper because they ain’t there. Which leaves us to guess.

One possibility is that “fighting for freedom” means protecting the United States from existential threats – that is from enemies that have the ability to destroy America and the freedoms it guarantees its citizens. In this case, there are two important questions: Was Iraq an existential threat? and if so Was invading Iraq the best response to this threat?

The answers to both questions have been definitely settled as “no” for everyone not living inside an intellectually dishonest fantasy land. (They were also clear to many before the war began.) The same answer holds true for the claims that we were fighting for Iraq’s freedom, and that all that was need to create a stable democracy in a peaceful Iraq was to get rid of Saddam Hussein. History – if you wanted to bother looking at it – would have told you otherwise.

In this context, perhaps “fighting for freedom” means we don’t want to admit we launched a war of choice out of a combination of fear, incompetence, stupidity, vanity, bravado, and magical thinking. Or perhaps “fighting for freedom” means that it would be too painful to admit the Iraq War was a mistake after all the sacrifices made by our soldiers and their families.

Or perhaps “fighting for freedom” means that we really just want to kick somebody’s ass; we aren’t too particular about whose we kick; and we need some high-minded sounding excuse to go do it.

This is an offensive suggestion. The problem is … of all the possible definitions, it makes the most sense. If you were really serious about protecting America, you would believe it is worthwhile to carefully assess threats and deliberately choose the best response, weighing risk against benefit. And examine and learn from mistakes. Yes? If you were really serious about spreading freedom, you’d look at the places where it was done successfully, and the many places it wasn’t, then get serious about exactly what it will take and how hard it will be.

If on the other hand, you’re a fan of the shit-kicking approach to foreign policy – Let’s go kill bad guys! – and you see military intervention as simply a whole lot more awesome version of the National Football League – then “fighting for freedom” full stop, end of discussion, is all you need.

American Sniper: Catnip for Red States

Eastwood has claimed in his public statements that American Sniper is a “character study” and that the film is “anti-war”. Neither one of these claims holds up to scrutiny.

In terms of Chris Kyle, not only are the ugly pieces of his character left unstudied in American Sniper, they are substantially prettied up. This idealized Chris Kyle, with all the storytelling and myth-making fire-power of an accomplished director behind him, is made by the movie into “the” portrait of “the real” American soldier. Too tough, too brave, too accomplished, too loyal, too tender, too strong, too steady, too vulnerable, too modest, too selfless – just flawed enough to be too heroic – to be true.

It’s hard to be anti-war if you make the impact of a war ugly (which Eastwood does) but make the reasons for fighting that war noble when they ain’t. Or put it this way. When horrible sacrifices are justified by beautiful lies, the lies don’t become horrible. The sacrifices become beautiful.

Considering the total effect of American Sniper then, the pretty lies are stronger than the ugly truths, and leave the stronger impression. No surprise then either that the film has the knickers of liberals in a twist or that American Sniper is a smash-hit success in Red State America. It’s perfect catnip. It acknowledges the horror of combat and the heavy sacrifices of military families, while telling us soldiers are heroes who volunteered to fight a good and necessary war. Based on all the reports of cheering during the movie, sounds like the shit-kickers got their money’s worth too.

Read Full Post »

Selma MovieFor a movie as universally praised – and as well deserving of that praise – as Selma, the film is getting curiously little positive attention lately.

Despite examining the life of arguably the most important American of the 20th century (Martin Luther King Jr.) and one of the major events in that century (Civil Rights), the discussion of U.S. history Selma has provoked is dominated by questions of the film’s representation of Lyndon B. Johnson, the president during the Selma marches.

And despite being better written, acted, and directed than the vast majority of films Hollywood produces, including the “issue” films through which the industry loves to celebrate itself, Selma was largely snubbed by the Oscars.

The question is Why? Having considered carefully, I’ve come up with the answer. Because director Ava DuVernay didn’t make the white guy the hero.

Now this sounds like the kind of provocation on which bloggers depend, but it happens to be my true opinion. And highly defensible. Here’s why.

Selma the Movie Versus History

The first thing to know about any work of art that dramatizes historical people and events is that when the needs of the dramatist conflict with the truth of the historian, the truth of the historian always loses.

This is the nature of storytelling, and we would all be better off if more storytellers would acknowledge this fact up front and more historians would stop bitching about storytellers failing to do their jobs for them, and instead embrace the opportunity to talk about history that movies like Selma offer.

The right questions we should ask film-makers like Ms. DuVernay are What did you change? and Why did you change it?

These are the questions DuVernay answered in a January 5 Rolling Stone interview. She reduced Johnson’s role in Selma because she was “interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma” and because she wanted to portray Lyndon Johnson as a “reluctant hero”.

That is what she achieved. Watching the movie, and reviewing the historical arguments swirling around it, the worst you could say about DuVernay’s LBJ in regards to the Voting Rights Act is that he saw it as somewhat less of a priority than the historical LBJ. But both Johnsons worked with Dr. King, both Johnsons cared about the bill, and both worked to get it passed.

You wouldn’t know this from the reaction of Joseph Califano, a top Johnson aid from 1965 to 1969, who acts as if DuVernay did a full-on Shakespearean Richard III hatchet job on Johnson; who claims Selma was all Johnson’s idea and implies LBJ cared more passionately about voting rights than the people of the Civil Rights movement; and whose self-righteous appeal to the “facts” of history don’t quite fit the facts he quotes (see the New Yorker article).

Califano and other critics are on much more solid ground when they complain that the movie portrays Johnson as behind the FBI secretly taping Dr. King’s extra-marital affairs. If they want to ding DuVernay for that, have at her. While I think the spying is important to include in Selma, the way DuVernay included it in the film is clunky and her defense of the inclusion, clunkier.

But in all the outrage over the horrendous slander against Lyndon Johnson people like Califano express, it would be nice if they paused to also express some outrage at the government spying on one of its own citizens to stop him from claiming rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Or perhaps even a little outrage over the fact that men in the pay of government routinely beat the living sh*t out of people – beat these people with impunity and without consequence – as they tried to claim the same rights. If the truth about LBJ in 1965 is worth getting upset over, shouldn’t the truth about everyone else in 1965 still matter too?

Selma the Movie, What Sells Tickets, and The Great Oscar Snub

The answer is clearly “no” or the experience of the men and women of the Civil Rights movement would be part of the conversation too. To understand the reason why it’s not, the best place to go is Hollywood.

Hollywood is even more attuned to what people want than governments, because while governments can make you give them money whether you like it or not, Hollywood has to convince you to open your wallet through pure selling.

Mostly what Hollywood sells are fantasies of sex, money, love, power, and freedom from social restraint. Occasionally, they sell stories about inspiration, uplift, and redemption. And occasionally within this subset of inspiration, the stories are about real people and real events.

But there are rules that must be followed. Some of these rules are that such movies should be simplistic, over-obvious, and end in triumph. An iron-clad rule is that they must make the audience (that is “white people”) comfortable by assuring them they are right-thinking, right-acting human beings firmly on the right side of history.

Call this the Dances with Wolves model or if you like, the “white savior” model, which is what DuVernay told Rolling Stone she wanted to avoid making Selma. And boy she sure did.

Her Selma gets the formula half right. The movie clearly identifies the “bad” white people like Alabama Governor George Wallace and Selma Sheriff Jim Clark who we can all congratulate ourselves for despising. But Selma then fails to give us (again “us” means “white people”) the counter-balance of the unambiguous white hero whose actions are absolutely essential to achieving the ending’s triumph and with whom we (“white people” still) can identify.

DuVernay takes away LBJ as simple hero and then does more. She mixes into her Lyndon Johnson qualities that fall between those of the obvious hero and those of the obvious villain – those inaccuracies previously discussed. She has King say all those who do nothing while innocent people are killed share complicity in those killings. And she closes the movie with Common and John Legend singing a song (“Glory”) that explicitly connects Selma to Ferguson, which when you compare the news footage of the two events look, ah, kinda similar.

The result? A whole lot of white people going frickin’ bat sh*t because Selma suggests that maybe they aren’t quite as right-thinking and right-acting as they’d like to believe.

This seems to me to be the heart of the matter. The objections to the historical inaccuracies in Selma look strangely out of proportion to the inaccuracies themselves until we see them as damaging the image of LBJ as “white savior” and so damaging the self-esteem of people like Califano who want to identify with him as such. What else would explain Califano over-playing Johnson’s importance to voting rights, after bitterly complaining Selma under-plays it, except that Califano is reflexively defending his self image?

This also explains the strange pattern of Oscar snubs the academy has bestowed on Selma. No person associated with Selma was nominated. Many of these nominations went to other less accomplished, though perfectly serviceable “serious” films like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. Only Selma the movie itself and the closing song were nominated. In other words, things.

Things the academy can claim as their own, celebrate, and congratulate themselves as right-thinking, right-acting people for celebrating.

That is what they sell, after all.

Read Full Post »

Tock Tick

Tick tock as we drink our coffee.
Tick tock as we check the scores.
Tick tock as we sip our cocktails.
Tick tock when we close the door.

Tick tock the clothes are dirty.
Tick tock the bills lie unpaid.
Tick tock the lawns grow wilder.
Tick tock the beds sleep unmade.

Tick tock our griefs grow colder.
Tick tock days are long in age.
Tick tock the twilight’s failing.
Tick tock the low candles fade.

Read Full Post »

The Lady Has a Point

“Well that one was happiness,” says my wife.
“Cut my throat, jump a bridge, take my life.”
You didn’t like it? “I liked it fine. It’s all the
Darkness I could leave behind.” That’s not me.
“Really?” Those words are the stone demons that show
Black angels have been cast from the temple of my soul.
“Okay sure. But if you must in the quarry of poetry toil,
How ‘bout a little more cathedral, a little less gargoyle?”

 

© 2014 Peter Galen Massey

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »