A search for author V.S. Alexander’s background yields the Amazon page for his (or her) debut novel, The Magdalen Girls, and a short paragraph of details which includes the author’s literary influences: “Shirley Jackson, Oscar Wilde, Daphne du Maurier, or any work by the exquisite Bronte sisters.” That these authors inspired this one should come as so surprise—The Magdalen Girls is a story of repression, of history slowly revealed, of reality transforming from one gothic horror to another. To write a novel about the “laundries” of 1950s Ireland depends on that brand of darkness, certainly, and Alexander pulls the curtains as tight against the light as he can—but to the point, perhaps, that most of his story’s intended expression disappears from sight, leaving the reader somewhat uninvolved with the emotional truth of the horrors themselves.
And there are many horrors occupying Alexander’s attention. The forceful imprisonment of young women at convents, their snatched infants, the abuse at the hands of family members—the list goes on and on. But what better material for a budding novelist? Anyone can see that Alexander has done his research, and even after all the carnage and his interpretation of facts, he concludes The Magdalen Girls with an author’s note signifying his reflection and personal respect for the moral complexity in the history of organizations like the Catholic Church. What’s curious, though, is how much of that self-acknowledged complexity must have disappeared when Alexander put his fictional account to paper.
For example, the two young women at the center of the novel, Teagan and Nora, never quite separate in terms of personality or behavior enough to distinguish them. On the base level, both characters do reside in certain stereotypical spheres; Teagan reads as a beautiful, easygoing girl who finds herself betrayed under innocent circumstances, and Nora reads as a spitfire with clipped wings. But Alexander doesn’t quite elevate them beyond that initial introduction, and their personalities weaken even more once joined in friendship with perhaps the only consistently remarkable character in the novel—Lea, the devotee with a tendency toward mysterious, holy visions. Even Mother Superior (who is also referred to in the text, in an initially confusing way, as Sister Anne), the novel’s designated villain, exists mainly as a cartoonish caricature of a Disney bad guy, with little of Alexander’s intended complexity embodied by the character herself. The revelation of her tragic origin story and subsequent atonement fall flat in the novel’s final pages, when the hundreds of previous ones did little to promote her potential depth or subtlety. Many of these failings, however, should have been redirected by an editor with an eye for redundancy and technique. All the novel’s internal, italicized monologues expressing what the audience already knows, for example, could have been better implemented—and elicited more empathy—as more detailed, specific language in the text itself.
To be fair, even the promos for this novel don’t seem to know how to deliver the story 100 percent. Several other reviews state that fans of the 2014 film Philomena, the story of an elderly woman seeking out the son she bore and had taken away from her as a teenager in a Magdalen laundry, would find a favorite in The Magdalen Girls. The two stories share the same setting much of the time, sure, but the comparisons end there. Philomena, after all, stars two venerable actors at the hands of a screenplay that capitalizes on their own intuition as emotional human beings, with characters growing deeper and more complex with each passing scene. No inner monologues, here. But Dench and Coogan tell us everything we need to know, and in a way that leaves room for the audience’s own involvement. Then again, Coogan and Dench have long held clout as some of the best thespians (and in Coogan’s case, best film writers) working today. The Magdalen Girls is only Alexander’s first novel.
In the end, The Magdalen Girls, as a manuscript, may not have been totally ready for the printing press. But that only means that a student of creative writing will find much to learn here, as might a student of history. And if it’s the students that Alexander is after, then he won’t find a better audience anywhere else.
I received this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
In Greek and Roman mythology, the furies (or Erinyes—“the angry ones”) are creatures represented as the female embodiments of justice and vengeance, born from the primordial goddess of Night more powerful than Zeus himself, and tasked to punish the unjust. Well-meaning civilians honored the furies as patrons of legal and moral order, and although often depicted as hellish beasts arising as bats or as storm clouds, they were also not incomparable to the three Graces of charm, beauty, and creativity.
How fitting, then, that director George Miller would clarify his continuation of the Mad Max saga—this time, a film led by female defenders of justice in a crazy, mythical future—with the subtitle Fury Road.
I can’t be sure that Miller or his cast intended this interpretation of the title, since the dominant emotion on screen certainly screams of fury in the vernacular sense, but I’m almost certain that they did. After all, I don’t think anyone who hires Eve Ensler for the specific purpose of consulting on all things feminist would overlook the obvious equalization and overwhelming competence of the women in this film, and how the very appearance of them in the male-dominated world of action blockbusters might as well rarify them as otherworldly creatures.
But it isn’t just their number that makes Fury Road’s women notable. Rather, it’s their characterization amidst their surroundings that seems to have garnered people’s attention and praise. Neither the camera nor the titular male hero, for example, observe them as sexual objects, as the repeated line “We are not things,” illustrates. Female lead Furiosa, after all, doesn’t even arrrive on screen with all her body parts in tact, eliminating a sense of perfection in favor of the intricacy and resourcefulness symbolized by a prosthetic arm. The women are also allowed to feel sadness and doubt, emotions too often lost on all kinds of action heroes, regardless of gender (and also used to great effect, I might add, in Netflix’s amazing take on Daredevil, another action series way ahead of the curve, in my opinion).
Even the subtleties of Charlize Theron’s constantly-watering eyes—on the verge of tears or just withstanding the biting dust?—spoke volumes about the complexities of heroism. She is, like the mythical furies of ancient Greece, a tenant of a sort of underworld, accustomed to witnessing suffering and subjugation, dedicating what may be the last of her life to punishing the perpetrators. In this instance, the symbolism also suits the specific pain of female suffering, a feeling of social lowness also attributable to recognizable phrases like “the glass ceiling,” beneath which many women find themselves. And yet, even in a hellscape, the film hangs tight to themes of fertility and growth, and not just the biological kind. Here, even an elderly woman world-wearied of the fight for justice still tries at every opportunity to plant seeds of flowers and fruit, filled with hope—another theme of the film—that one day they might prosper into a new environment. Change, after all, doesn’t happen overnight. It must be tended with patience by people like Furiosa, who withstand all sorts of bad weather until the roots take hold.
But it must also be tended by people like Max, which is why I’m frustrated to hear remarks’ like ones I found by self-proclaimed feminist writer Anita Sarkeesian, who wrote:
“Mad Max’s villains are caricatures of misogyny which makes overt misogynists angry but does not challenge more prevalent forms of sexism. Viewers get to feel good about hating cartoon misogyny without questioning themselves or examining how sexism actually works in our society. It makes me profoundly sad that mainstream pop culture now interprets feminism to mean ‘women can drive fast and stoically kill people too!’”
Her last statement, especially, fails to take into account the work these action sequences do to to enhance the equalizing goal of the movie. Fury Road may not give a lecture on the history of sexism and how it works in society, but it does suggest an idea of how sexism might be undermined and conquered.
To see this, people like Sarkeesian must be willing to observe the film’s male leads as well, and note how Miller manages to subvert even traditional action-movie characters into something beyond driving fast and stoically killing people—which, I might add, is a gross oversimplification of Fury Road’s plot.
All of the interactions between Max, the slave Nix (played by Nicholas Hoult) and the rest of the female cast, for example, unfold in ways that simply don’t rely on the presupposition of sexism. Neither the camera nor Max/Nix ever gawk at the women’s bodies in an overtly sexual way, regardless of what they look like or what they wear. In fact, although the film obviously depicts the physical abuse and subjugation of women, Max experiences some of these things for himself as “Blood Bag,” Nix’s way of reducing Max to only his body. Contrariwise, when Max meets up with Furiosa and the wives, he never thinks twice of Furiosa’s physicality (not even the strangeness of her missing arm), and never expects her to be anything less than his equal both in and out of combat. Max is also willing to cooperate with Furiosa during a scene where he fails to use two of his last three bullets to take out an approaching threat, instead letting Furiosa, the better shot, use his shoulder as a mount to snipe them away. And in a surprising overturn of the “Blood Bag” situation from earlier, Max—previously forced to siphon his blood to Nix—chooses to give his blood to a dying Furiosa of his own volition, becoming a hero not through “driving fast and stoically killing people,” but through healing.
Nix, too, previously depicted as a loony villain intent on achieving glory in a fiery death in Immortan Joe’s service, also achieves heroism through sacrifice. He may still die a fiery death, but he dies it a free man, thinking not of being the “manly-man” he’d been taught to be, but acting out of the love he learned from the wife Capable.
For a film so full of death and destruction, I find Fury Road so notable for the way it uses these events to make way for the ideas I mentioned earlier—of hope, growth, and rejuvenation. Not just through the act of a woman fighting to save other women (which is already rare enough in action films), but for the men who see them as the heroes they are. Max—and later Nix— doesn’t view these women as creatures in need of a helping hand or a charitable push, but as people to admire and emulate, and to whom he would sacrifice part of himself to ensure their victory. In the final scene, they have left the truck’s secret compartment, succeeded in the secret mission, and hoisted onto a platform before a cheering crowd, finally raised above the hell of their desert life. Perhaps it takes a little fury, after all, for a woman to serve justice in plain sight.
As I shuffled out of the movie theatre after Avengers: Age of Ultron, the number-one movie in America, I wondered why I hadn’t liked it. I knew Hawkeye’s secret family had nothing to do with how I felt (the scenes at his safe house may have been among the most interesting parts of the film). I didn’t even care about Black Widow’s infertility (I could have sworn that the “monster” she referred to had nothing to do with her lack of babies and more about the fact that she used to live of life full of remorseless killing). I enjoyed the first Avengers well enough and I like Thor and Captain America and Iron Man and the rest of the team. But I just didn’t care about what happened to them this time around, and I suddenly cared even less about Joss Whedon’s protestations and explanations I’d been reading about for the past week. And I like Joss Whedon, too.
Instead, I started to hear the voice of my latest creative writing teacher echoing her first and foremost critical question of sub-par short stories: What is the emotional truth? In those types of student stories, the rest of us reading them were usually uncertain about what we should have focused on—what character, what scene, what event, what theme—and why we should care at all. We could conjecture and conjure sub-text that might make certain themes appear, stitching our own links between disassociated acts to try to make them come together as a whole, intentional message, but sometimes we all had to sit back and realize that the story just wasn’t working on those levels and needed to be fleshed out. It needed life. Soul, even. So my teacher would ask us her first question in a different way: What makes the story live?
But what does “emotional truth” even mean, and what does it have to do with the enormous, thrashing mashup that is Age of Ultron? Most working definitions might call forth the importance of creating empathy, allowing for deep connections between readers and characters through the conflict of the narrative and the meaning inferred between the lines. It’s supposed to create a “truth”—an interpretation of the world or a worldview, perhaps—that often rings truer whilst reading the fiction than it would whilst reading plain facts in the news or a dissertation. It’s supposed to give the readers something to take away.
I’m speaking now of fiction in literature, but the same elusive concept can be applied to comic books as well.
At 2012’s Baltimore Comic-Con, Marvel editor Tom Brevoort spoke about the importance of emotional truth when reviewing stories for the brand’s famous super heroes.
“The trick of stories is to reveal an emotional truth,” he said. “You want to effect the reader, make them feel…something.” In other words, just as X-Men is a metaphor for tolerance, or Thor a metaphor for the bond between family, a story must in some way resonate with readers regardless of whether they’re already fans of hammer-wielding thunder-gods.
Still, I found that the question of emotional truth, even by Brevoort’s simple definition, is often difficult for writers in my class to answer, especially when the story on the table may have been the result of hurried stress in the midst of other school assignments, and not a true vision desperate to be told. I wonder if the same thing could be said of Joss Whedon and the famous difficulties encountered during the production of Age of Ultron.
Interestingly, Tom Brevoort’s role as an editor, not a writer or an artist, is crucial to discussing these problems about how to draw out the ever-necessary emotional truth of not just a story, but a whole comic book—or, for the purposes of this blog, the massive, overarching film franchises like the entirety of Captain America, or the epic super-franchise of The Avengers.
In the same talk, for example, Brevoort speaks about the importance of the editor’s role as the “first reader”—essentially the first audience—of the book, whose primary role is to “figure out whether the story works, [whether] it’s exciting, and, ‘do I care at all.’” He suggests that Marvel stories “are ultimately about individual people” and that every story they do is “usually about metaphor.” And if the individual people are important to the story, then their identities and roles are also important. An editor, Brevoort said, needs to ask, “Why is this is a story that can only be told with these characters? If this is a story that can be taken out and do a global find and replace for Spider-Man, this is not really a story about Spider-Man.”
Lastly, Brevoort makes special mention of a misstep especially pertinent to Age of Ultron: “You don’t want to just make ‘stories about stories,’ meaning books that just reference other comics, or exist only to fix a continuity mistake from five years prior.”
Why, then, does the Avengers series break almost all of these story-telling rules from the mouth of Marvel itself?
Age of Ultron, after all, disregards individual stories in favor of an enormous ensemble cast, twelve of which are superheroes or exhibit superpowers (counting Idris Elba’s brief appearance as Heimdall and Ultron just being Ultron), to which Whedon admittedly tries to attach some emotional truth, but not always successfully. For example, Ultron spouts his lines about God versus Man, freedom versus restraint, preservation versus evolution, but we see little evidence of internal conflict until his final confrontation with Vision at the end of the film. The audience is told through Ultron’s spooky renditions of Pinocchio’s “I’ve Got No Strings” that he desires freedom, but what does the film actually show the audience about Ultron’s sense of being bound? If he truly does desire freedom as a rational being, then why does he seem written off as insane or maniacal? He even calls himself “evil” after calling the Avengers “good people.” Ultron, then, risks falling back into the trope of a simple antagonist, even when the film wants to paint him as a complicated creator-god.
When the Vision—arguably the most characterized protagonist in the film—confronts Ultron at the end of the movie, we don’t even know why we should believe that Ultron really is “afraid of death” when we’ve been given no sense of Ultron’s relationship to ideas of mortality.
And despite Whedon’s apparent amusement at fans’ confusion in response to the Black Widow’s romance with Hulk, is it that hard to believe that the last Avengers movie and Natasha’s arrow necklace in The Winter Soldier seemed to be leading audience to believe that she and Hawkeye really were more than friends? And that her relationship with Bruce appeared from nowhere? Even in Age of Ultron, Natasha still seems more attached to Hawkeye, who goes to locate her while Bruce doesn’t seem too outwardly concerned. If so many fans perceive so many continuity issues in this matter, than perhaps they might actually exist in spite of Whedon’s protestations.
Why, too, render Quicksilver’s death unemotional and inconsequential by means of failing to develop his character, especially since, as a new character, that should be the first thing accomplished? Why is he reduced to a punchline, his constant frown the only evidence of his war-torn past? Since Whedon admitted to shooting an alternate version of the film where Quicksilver survives his wounds, we can only assume that Quicksilver didn’t need to die to make the story work. Come to think of it, I reckon that an argument could me made wherein none of the original Avengers actually need to be themselves to make the story work.
After all, the story seemed to want to be about Ultron and the Vision in the first place, as both were given some of the most compelling dialogue hinting at “emotional truth” the film had to offer, and yet both characters were sidelined in favor of action sequences and wise-guy cracks from the rest of the Avengers. I would argue, for example, that the most telling moment in the film arrives when the Vision sees his physical form for the first time, reflecting over the human-made lights of the human-filled city, visibly moved by his new birth. How ironic that a robot and an android would offer us the most compelling view of humanity in a movie filled with super-humans.
Perhaps this comes down to my own selfish wishes in the end. I wanted to learn more about Pietro’s conflicts before he died, and about Wanda’s relationship to her brother. I wanted to learn more about how Ultron and the Vision feel about their inhumanity. And I wanted to learn more about what rest of the Avengers felt about any of this at all.
I’m tempted to think that something so populated with characters as The Avengers just can’t work out the way fiction writers and Marvel creators intend for good storytelling, and that the story of Age of Ultron lost itself before it really began, failing to weave an “emotional truth” until it appears all at once at the end of the film. But since Marvel seems to be intent on making superhero movies until the end of days, that gives plenty of time for all the evolution Ultron kept talking about. Perhaps then, at the close of the last Avengers, we will see the story that has been hiding between the lines all along.
There’s been a lot of hatred and prejudice clogging the news outlets this winter, even during a time of year when a large percentage of the world is supposed to celebrating the arrival of Christmas and flurries of warm, fuzzy thoughts. Even if you’re not celebrating Christmas, there are still plenty of reasons to have warm, fuzzy thoughts. And the warm fuzzies, you know, can cross cultures, languages, climates, and skin colors. They can be profound, too, or silly.
In the midst of so much intolerance and confusion, of bitterness and cynicism, I feel, once again, that a little bit of a good movie can do a lot to bring to mind the silliness of war and the healing power of peace and understanding, even under the most ridiculous of circumstances. Which is why, today, I recommend—seriously—the movie Elf.
I’m not the least bit kidding when I say that Elf is maybe one of the most accessible portrayals of cross-culturalism in popular film. And despite its abundance on several networks during Christmastime, it’s film that a lot of people, I think, wouldn’t automatically approach with a critical eye, probably because it includes Will Ferrell in yellow tights eating syrup spaghetti and belching for ten seconds straight. That’s totally understandable.
But if someone were to explain Elf’s plot to someone who had never seen it before, I don’t think the explainer would be able to ignore some key elements that come to light once the movie is broken down to the bones. Especially during these modern days when so many aspects of other “cultures” or “races” are proposed to be unavailable and incomprehensible to people outside those specifications.
Ferrell plays Buddy the elf, an adult human raised from infancy in the culture of the North Pole, but who struggles to fit in with his family and peers due to physical differences that limit him from participating comfortably in their lifestyle.
While Buddy loves the world he grew up in, he jumps on the chance to find his birth father and experience New York City, hoping to expand his family and bring Christmas cheer to as many people as possible.
When he enters the world of New York, Buddy becomes an immigrant. He bears the evidence of cultural difference in his clothing, his gait, his social interactions—all of which are normal to him, but strange and uninviting to the native New Yorkers he encounters. He also hilariously misunderstands the workings of the city itself, using revolving doors as theme park rides, playing hopscotch on crosswalks, and eating cotton balls at the doctor’s office, mistaking them for candy. Buddy is a true “Other,” a term made famous by postcolonial writer and critic Edward Said to describe the way marginalized groups are often perceived as weak, bizarre, and unequal to a group in power (which, as colonialism has taught us, is not always the majority group). He even makes his own father uncomfortable.
Later, under his father’s insistence that Buddy try harder to integrate into New York society, Buddy lands a job at a toy store where he meets Jovie, a woman who, although a New Yorker herself, is certainly more withdrawn from society than Buddy is. She, not the “immigrant Other,” is the one without a voice in this scenario, suggesting that even a native inhabitant of a certain place or culture can be made into something of a subaltern, something of a silent figure whose true story we may never know. Despite her amazing talent for singing, for example, Jovie fears performing for crowds more than anything else. Ironically, it’s Buddy, cast out from his father’s attentions, who is the first in the film to hear her sing and recognize her gift.
But the film doesn’t let these alienated characters remain within the critical opinion that different worlds and ideas cannot combine into something harmonious. In fact, the longer Buddy stays at his job, expressing his own strong suit for décor and general Christmas cheer, the more his boss and coworkers recognize his differences as valuable, unique talents. And after leaving his doubtful stepbrother Michael amazed with his skills in an over-the-top snowball fight against some school bullies, Michael suddenly becomes more interested in Buddy’s previous life. The two become close friends, marking an important moment in which different outlooks or experiences do nothing to prevent the closest bond of all—the bond of family.
In the end, Buddy, his human family, and Jovie save Santa and his crashed sleigh from becoming stranded in Central Park by—in a literal interpretation of the harmony that comes from breaking down barriers—“singing loud for all to hear.” Jovie finds her voice, Buddy finds acceptance, Michael finds passion, and Buddy’s dad uncovers the reality that even two people sprung from the same branch can be completely different, and yet still fall victim to the transforming emotion of love. The cultural connection is complete, and in the epilogue, the audience finds out that Buddy and Jovie even start a family at their own at the North Pole, a literal rebirth of an ideal union between once-conflicting worlds.
And the best part of all: Buddy succeeds in gaining acceptance in the new world without having to change himself. His elf culture remains perfectly intact, as do his personal nuances (like insisting on sitting on Papa Elf’s tiny lap back at the North Pole), suggesting that integration can be achieved without sacrificing individuality. The merging of the two worlds requires more tolerance, not less oddity.
This may seem like an overreaching analysis of a movie about an adopted Christmas elf and his grumpy old man, but sometimes it’s good to find un-marketed layers of the media we absorb every day. Because if people spent more time figuring out what makes people come together instead of arguing about what keeps them apart, then even the most trialing of experiences can become an opportunity to mend bonds and revive the equally distributed treasures of diversity.
Interstellar enjoyed a well-received wide release a couple of weeks ago on the tail of much praise and fanfare and several posts on my own Facebook feed from people celebrating its beauty and achievement. And I agree—Interstellar is mostly a fantastic film (besides the obvious problems of paradox that always mess with wormholes), and had I more time before this post’s due date arrives, I could think of a hundred things to which I’d like to apply a little personal philosophy, or a little analyzing, or just a little happy rant about Hans Zimmer’s legendary score, among other things.
But since I have not the time, I’d like to substitute my working history as an English major and talk—just talk—about what made this film especially meaningful to me, by which I mean one of the film’s grandest recurring themes: the recitation of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
The poem in its entirety reads as follows:
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Or, if you like, you can hear it read by Anthony Hopkins, who I’m pretty sure does a much better reading of the poem than Dylan Thomas himself, for some reason:
I have been told time again, in the tradition of many famous authors and poets, that a good reading of a piece of art must—more often than not—eliminate the presence of the artist completely, focusing clean on the subject at hand and the message within. But the thing is, there is a message without the text, and I have usually found that a piece of poetry is almost always improved in scope when it is considered hand-in-hand with the life and times of its author. In the case of Interstellar, even a little foreknowledge about Dylan Thomas and the strangeness of “Do not go gentle” in the midst of his chaotic life and lexicon amplify the film’s cathedral tones to new depths.
Thomas lived a fleeting life, dying before the age of 40 during a flash of fame—not unlike the sudden destruction of a fiery star. And burning he was; a drunk, a liar, a “lord of misrule” wearing the mask of recklessness, never in one place or state of mind for long. He seemed to be, like the workings of the universe itself, something of a wild card.
And yet “Do not go gentle,” written just a few years before Thomas’ death, takes on an unusual physical form to have been birthed from such a character. It is, compared to much of the rest of his work, a rather mathematical poem, arranged in a formal poetic style called a villanelle: a 19-lined poem with the rhyme scheme ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA ABAA in which there must must be two refrains and two repeating rhymes. The first and third lines of the opening tercet must be repeated alternately in the last lines of the next stanzas. In the final stanza, the refrain must serve as the poem’s two concluding lines.
A careful poem for a careless man whose personal involvement with this poem enlightens one of Interstellar’s central themes: the desperate boundlessness of love.
Thomas famously wrote “Do not go gentle” under the inspiration of his deteriorating father—an eerie detail, again, given Thomas’ own death not far on the horizon (dare I say… the event horizon?) As if it could be written from a child to his father, but also, perhaps, to the poet, from himself. This secret history gives enormous power to Interstellar’s narrative, which sees a father denying the inevitable fate of the deteriorating Earth for the slim chance to save his children’s future in a “rage against the dying of the light.”
In this sense I must absolutely disagree—through pure virtue of this poem’s inclusion in the film—with critics who write that Cooper’s relationship with his children is too understated, too poorly crafted to amount to its intention of being the driving motive in Interstellar, and thus kills its emotional core. In fact, it is the perfect characterization of the microcosm within “Do not go gentle,” which witnesses the remoteness of fathers protested in echoing cries by Thomas’ child-voice—the desperate sob for reparation from an infant creation to its aloof, spiraling creator. And it’s true—to Interstellar’s Murph, Cooper is her whole world. And if we were to take anything at all from this movie, it’s the refrain that “love transcends space,” even the space between a parent and his children.
In simple terms, the poem serves as a love song to humankind, by humankind, but also as a brush against the interaction between humans and the universe.
Nature, as Anne Hathaway’s Amelia Brant suggests, is terrifying an intense, but not evil. It can be met with. We can observe its craft, much as Thomas does in the careful, defiant lines of “Do not go gentle.” The poem is both rebellious and respectful—the exact same approach used by Cooper as he faces his mortality in the unfathomable dimensions of space-time.
Thomas wrote in a letter once, “I like things that are difficult to write and difficult to understand. I like redeeming the contraries….” Perhaps, then, this is the lens through which we must encounter the universe of Interstellar and “Do not go gentle.” Perhaps it is the lens through which we must encounter all things.
I went to see the film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl this weekend, expecting to love it. The creepy trailers had drawn me in, convinced me of the suspense, the drama, the did-he-or-didn’t-he question that I was sure would drive the movie—most of those things, I suppose, still turned out to be true. The problem, though: while the film certainly retained its drama throughout its (overly long) running time, it lost, by the movie’s midpoint, the two things I had most looked forward to. That is, the suspense and the big question.
The result: a surprising amount of boredom toward a movie marketed as a murder mystery.
Even while sitting in my theatre seat, I wondered why I wasn’t feeling it. The first act gripped me, sure, but then lost me as soon as the mystery was essentially solved right before my eyes in the second act. From that point on, the best part of the story disappeared, and characters once swathed in complexity now became simpler, more monstrous, incomprehensible psychopaths.
To me, anyway. I wondered then, whether this film so tied up by the recession and marital problems, lawyers and the media, might be more suited to the critics—people, for the most part, much older than me, with more automatic experience in those areas.
Plus, I admit I wasn’t prepared for—and didn’t much care to answer—the question raised a thousand times by the (real life) media about whether Amy, the missing woman, represented misogyny or misandry, and what that means for the perception of women everywhere.
By the second act, for example, I erased any notion of Amy Dunne having any sort of position to artistically represent “all women” as they are perceived by “men” or the “media.” Personally, as a young, unmarried woman, I couldn’t care about this particular woman driven mad by the world, by her husband, by the type of femininity imposed on her by her parents—if one of these reasons are really to blame. Never once in the film was she portrayed as embodying any sort of admirable quality at all. Why should I care about the state of Amy Dunne when she dismisses herself—and others—from the moment I meet her? She only wants to hurt people.
While I do perceive this movie as being far more feminist than anti-feminist, I still can’t quite melt with praise calling it an honest depiction of the ways that society controls women and forces them to play certain roles, then lets men do as they please. Because I can’t imagine how Nick and Amy Dunne in any way characterize collective “men” and “women,” even in their most ignorant, prejudicial states. Their story seemed too isolated, too driven by selfishness and insanity, to ever represent a collective discussion on modern gender roles.
Despite my language, I admit that I can acknowledge this as an excellent film. Great acting, great style, great score, unusual circumstances. But what I had been told about it just wasn’t what I saw—what I perceived.
Besides, in a story blown up into this collective representation and symbol of feminism, in a world where female protagonists appear in a dismal percentage of films, why must we restrict those characters to these Amy Dunne-like “strong” women, and not include a dose of goodness almost always applied to “strong” men?
Anyway. Since I only saw the movie one day ago, I suppose there must be a lot I’ve missed and failed to consider in the brief minutes spent writing this. Perhaps I’ll return with better, more correct ideas one day. Until then.
Before I go on, let me be clear about this: I like Frozen a lot. It’s a good movie. The songs are catchy, the dialogue is well written, and from what I can tell, widespread audiences are taking serious interest in the wide appeal of animated films.
But here’s the thing about some of those audience members, critical and popular alike—for some reason, they act like they’ve never seen a movie before.
More than one critic has called Frozen a revolution, a feminist manifesto, and even the best Disney film since The Lion King. I don’t doubt that plenty of people like Frozen better than The Lion King, and I don’t intend to subvert anyone’s personal taste just because I don’t side with it, but I want to know: how can Frozen be the best Disney film in twenty years when, technically, Frozen has already happened before?
In my opinion, the vast majority of critics praise Frozen for distinct features that have been accomplished by at least one other animated Disney film in the past. In fact, I know exactly when it happened, because I witnessed it at least three times in the movie theatre, and then dozens of more times on promptly purchased VHS.
In my own personal history, I don’t believe that any other Disney heroine (except maybe Pocahontas) impacted the way I appreciate art and story with as much power as Mulan. After seeing the film for the nth time as a child, I even hacked off a chunk of my own hair with a pair of scissors in solidarity with my favorite movie hero. Perhaps, then, my selection of Mulan as the Frozen of 1998 stems from my childhood gravitation, but I still don’t think I’m wrong in saying that Mulan simply did Frozen as a concept…better.
First, on the theme of personal sacrifice in the name of family. In Frozen’s climactic scene on the fjord, Anna uses her own body as a shield to protect her sister Elsa from Hans’ sword, turning to ice at the exact moment the blade falls. This selfless act inspires Elsa to overcome her curse, and cinema-goers rejoiced at this novel take on “true love.”
But it just isn’t new. Even against a film starring two sisters (so new, apparently, even with Lilo and Stitch‘s release over a decade ago), Mulan’s story still comes out on top as a film about the bonds of family and risking everything to preserve them. Unlike Anna and Elsa, Mulan cultivated relationships that can be practiced and witnessed. Her triumphant return to her ailing father resonates in a much stronger chord than Anna’s sacrifice for Elsa, a sister who has denied Anna a playmate and companion for years on end. Mulan, like Anna, is the savior of her homeland, and this time brings home the gifts of the Emperor to prove to her father how much she honors him. But when she presents the gifts, her father casts them aside without a glance their way, embraces Mulan, and says in a soft voice, “The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter.” To me, this can definitely be approached as the equivalent of Frozen’s absent “true love’s first kiss.” Despite war and incomparable tributes earned by personal accomplishments, the most powerful force between characters is ultimately the presence of family. Not just acceptance–but the natural act of simply being there for one another. In Mulan, the hero’s greatest achievement is not on the field of battle or against the blade of an evil prince. Despite being the most heralded soldier in China, she finds redemption and resolution not by the sword or by Shang’s approval, or even by the Emperor’s invitation to fame and prestige (which she refuses)—instead, she finds it on the metaphorical hearth, in the grace of a loving family. Not new. (Plus, Mulan still ends the day with both parents and a grandmother alive. That’s miraculous by Disney standards)!
Another thing about that climactic scene. Anna saves the day by throwing herself into harm’s way, then nearly dying as a result. So does Mulan, only I think she risks much, much more. During the battle in the snow with the Hun army, Mulan receives direct orders to fire the last remaining cannon at the Hun leader, Shan Yu. But seeing another opportunity apart from what superiors tell her is the only option, she takes it, dashing past the front lines to fire the last shot into a towering mountain, causing an avalanche that destroys a significant amount of enemy troops. In the meantime, she receives what could have been a mortal wound at the hands of Shan Yu—an enemy she faced head-on, unlike Elsa ever does—that not only risks her life, but also the revelation of her secret identity, which… risks her life all over again. The fascinating part is that she does fall prey to that risk. Upon the ranking officers finding out that Mulan is a woman, Shang nearly slays her as punishment. Shang! The person she most admires! Eventually the law forces her male comrades to abandon her, denying Mulan every brave and selfless act she had since performed in their service. These people she loved and risked her life for leave her with nothing—in a much more stirring way than Elsa leaving Anna with no bonding-time—and yet she continues to use her own head and skills to do what she thinks is right. If that’s not a powerful message to send to girls (or anybody) dealing with discrimination in this day and age, then I don’t know what is.
And now for the song. The song. The song that catapulted Frozen beyond the English-speaking world and into the warbling throats of millions of people worldwide. Again, another opinion from my side of the field: Mulan’s “Reflection” serves the same purpose, but with more maturity and sensitivity, as Elsa’s “Let It Go.” Both women struggle with behavioral nuances (or… random ice powers) that the world around them deems unacceptable. Elsa’s failure to control herself almost ends the future for her sister; Mulan’s failure to control herself almost ends her own future in the Han Dynasty, failing to be matched with a husband and dishonoring her family forever. In the wake of disappointment, both just want to be accepted for who they are. Then they sing about it.
Like I said, “Reflection” departs from the tonalities of “Let It Go” beyond the sound of the notes. “Let It Go” is a fantastic song—probably one of the best in all of Disney’s musicals—but I feel that the context in which the song appears is often completely ignored by critics. Elsa sings her ballad after an astounding burst of fear. She runs away from her home, her kingdom, and her own sister, and believes to have finally found freedom in her newfound ability to make snow castles and beautiful dresses with nobody watching. Many reviewers consider it to be a song about release and empowerment, and it does seem to be. I mean, I sing it all the time and can’t say I feel worse afterward. But viewing the song from a distance, in the presence of the scene and character it accompanies… it’s a strange pairing. Elsa has just abandoned every responsibility in her life, and now sings about all the possibilities that await, building ice rooms and blue dresses in the wasted wilderness where no one will see her. She’s only recreated the existence she already led in Arendelle, and what’s so great about that?
“Reflection,” while also a song about seeking acceptance, goes where “Let It Go,” wasn’t prepared to go. Mulan sings her song while returning home ashamed, not escaping it in crazed bliss. She, like Elsa, sees in the mirror of life a person she does not recognize as herself, and she mourns not being able to be “a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter,” while still wanting to hold on to the things that make her unique. It’s a tragedy everyone deals with, I think. Instead of running away like Elsa, Mulan asks herself when she might ever look in the mirror and see a person she is proud to be. But what I think is most stunning about Mulan’s approach is her song’s final line in the temple of her ancestors—inside the physical record of her family history, the watchful deceased of the noble Fa family surrounding her and literally reflecting the image of her own face. And what I find fascinating is that, instead of procuring a new, elaborate image like Elsa does in the dress-creation scene, Mulan removes her makeup, seeing—although not realizing—her true reflection among generations of family who love her. It’s who she is inside, figuratively and literally. The sequence illuminates with great subtlety what “Let It Go” completely overlooks to make room for a power ballad. I guess Mulan’s sensibility wasn’t exactly what Frozen’s songwriters were going for, and I realzie that Mulan and Elsa are two completely different characters, but I just think “Reflection” captured Elsa’s sentiment with the vulnerability Elsa’s creators couldn’t make real on the screen.
Having thwarted, perhaps not on purpose, a lot of deeper potential captured in other films like Mulan, Frozen ends up as one of the least subtle films in the Disney canon. Not that being bold and forward is always a bad thing, but in Frozen’s case, or in the way Frozen approached me in the theatre, it didn’t lend any favors.
Actually, Frozen began its metamorphic life almost 70 years ago, looking noticeably different from its current presentation, this time under the original name of the Hans Christen Andersen story it meant to recreate—The Snow Queen. Through the years, it continued to transform.
Somewhere around the time of Tangled‘s end stages, though, The Snow Queen’s production team seemed to kind of give up. Or at least run out of time to make the production(s) they seemed to have been heading toward for past decades. The project eventually became what we know now as Frozen, and at this point, it started to look a lot like Tangled’s recycling bin. They even reused the magic hair thing, which, all else aside, somehow bothered me most of all.
This little bit from the film comes directly from a piece of Tangled concept art, when designers were originally inspired by The Swing, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. I’m sure designers knew that fans would catch this and be amused, but it does also kind of qualify as jacked material from other Disney productions.
Frozen’s team may even have recycled hints of a memorable tune from another popular Disney film, even if they didn’t mean to. After playing both songs on the piano several times over, the Finding Nemo theme starts to sound a lot like (though not, I admit, excatly like) the main tune in “Do You Want to Build a Snowman.”
I don’t mean to say that Frozen is without any aesthetic of its own. The “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” sequence, mentioned above, is a particular storehouse of gorgeous frames and powerful images toward the end, as are some of the film’s climactic moments.
What I mean to say is that Frozen can certainly be considered a quality addition to the Disney family. I don’t personally think that it’s the best by a long shot, but I like it just fine. I just want to know who it was that first convinced every media outlet in the world that Frozen was a momentous occasion for people everywhere. I just want to know who decided to ignore all of the other equally great, “empowering” messages already spun by other Disney films. Not that I would have necessarily wanted it this way, but why wasn’t Mulan heralded as the great Disney salvation of womankind kind like Frozen seems to have been? I guess Brave was a little, but not this much. Why not Pocahontas? Because she risked her life for a good man? What misogynistic fiends!
I don’t doubt that Disney knew this would happen. Honestly, had I not heard the film hyped so much as some sort of neo-feminist fairyland of perfect perfection before I saw it myself, I probably wouldn’t have even anticipated the film’s big twist as Anna freezes beside the fire. But I think too many people savvy to the marketing caught the drift early on, and Hans’ transformation, instead of being the shock it meant to be, was only a matter of time.
My wish is that more members of the critical audience take into account that a good message can appear in several different ways. A man can star in a “feminist” movie. So can a woman. So can two women. So can a queen who turned into a bear. I wish we could all say that feminism isn’t just about the ladies anymore, that it’s about treating everyone–every kind of person there is–with respect. That’s called “being a decent human being,” and it shouldn’t have to be special or rare.
So yeah, I have seen the future of the critics’ Frozen. I’m just saying that I’m pretty sure it’s been here since the Han Dynasty, that’s all.