Thursday, April 8, 2010

Engl. 339: Goodfellas

One of the things that struck me the most about Martin Scorsese, both in Goodfellas and in the clips we saw on Tuesday, was the prevalence of food as part of the storytelling. In The Gangs Of New York, we saw a rich family sitting down to a lavish breakfast. When the mob broke in and the breakfast table was overturned, I admit I felt a pang for all that lovely food gone uneaten. In The Age Of Innocence, there is that marvelous long pan along the dinner table, over all sorts of dishes that I couldn't name but looked delicious. In Goodfellas, the fellas are constantly sitting down to hearty Italian meals; whether they're about to go bury a body in their trunk or they're doing a stint in prison, they have pasta and wine and fresh bread and cheese. The movie devotes quite a bit of time to eating and cooking - who can forget the bit about slicing the garlic with a razor blade to get it thin enough, or Henry having Karen smuggle him cheese in prison? There was also an overabundance of sausage, but I figured that was saying more about the masculine nature of the film.
Generally, people eating together is a sign of unity. In these instances, though, Scorsese uses the idea of a family dinner to emphasize strife and discord: in The Gangs Of New York, the breakfast table with its sumptuous food, blue china, and vases of flowers directly contrasts the growing rioting and the poverty in the outside streets; it is the first thing to be destroyed. In The Age Of Innocence, the dinner table is laden with amazing food and flowers, but the company around it, friendly though they may seem, are all backbiting and treacherous society people. Likewise, in Goodfellas the dinner scenes begin by emphasizing the familial nature of the mob, where they all share food together and even the Made Men cook for everyone, but it gains a darker tone as we realize that the family attitude is only a veneer, and that the two men eating next to each other can turn on the other in a moments' notice.
Scorsese uses food as a dramatic technique in the same way that another director might use lighting or sound. It can trick the viewer into feeling sympathy for the characters, or alert them to the dissonance in a scene.
Also, I think he really likes food.

Engl. 368: The House of Mirth

One of the primary conflicts that I noticed in The House Of Mirth was the concept of self vs. status.
It is Selden's self that Lily is attracted to; she likes his ideas and his personality, and it is only with him that she acts like herself, but his status is not exactly desirable; although he is accepted into New York society, he is not rich.
On the other hand, Rosedale's status is certainly appealing to her - his monetary status, that is, not his social status - but she cannot accept him as himself; he is small and plump and shiny, and she is disgusted by his attempts to infiltrate their exclusive "set". For her, as well, his religion and race were detractors - anti-Semetism was not unusual at the time.
Throughout the book so far, Lily's trouble with finding herself a husband - and that is her greatest concern, for the most part - lies with her inability to reconcile self with status. She tells herself that she wants - no, needs a rich husband; an effect of her upbringing and peers: gold digging is not only applauded, it is expected of her. However, although she manages to position herself to get a rich husband more than once, she finds the man himself unsuitable and sabotages it. Yet she is unwilling to consider marrying a man she loves, but who is not rich.
The lost conquests we see in the book are (1) the Italian prince, who is rich and well-placed in society but who, we can assume, is old and not particularly handsome as Lily finds his young, handsome stepson better company; (2) Herbert Melson, who had "blue eyes and hair with a wave in it" and little else to commend him (beside being rich), and Lily congratulates herself in having dodged a bullet with him as he had grown fat and boring after marriage; (3) Percy Gryce, who is very rich and very, very dull; (4) Simon Rosedale, who is very rich, very disdained by society, and (gasp!) a Jew; and finally (5) Lawrence Seldon, who is handsome, kind, a bit idealistic, and not rich.
One of the biggest selling points of romance is the idea of an "unsuitable" or generally unremarkable young woman who finds herself a charming and rich young man to fall in love with and live happily ever after with. As we know, that rarely happens, but it is what Lily is hoping for. Sadly, I doubt that this book is going to be that kind of romance, and I doubt that Seldon will suddenly come into a fortune and marry Lily. This isn't Jane Austen.
It'd be nice, though.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Eng 339: Bonnie and Clyde

The separation of cultures in Bonnie and Clyde was interesting, to say the least. You've got a story set in the 30's, told by people in the 60's, and watched by people in the 0ughts. At this point in the class, I feel as though I understand the 30's part better than the 60's, but the influence of both are here.
I sometimes think of history as a great big game of telephone. We have a certain perception of the 30's - gangsters, bank robbers, corrupt cops, destitute families and hoboes. This is the same perception that they had in the 60's, so that was in their movies. We see their movies, and that is the perception that we get of the past, and that is what goes into our movies.
After all, before this class, how many of us had seen an actual movie from the 30's, and how many of us had ideas about the 30's based on movies set in them, but made in the 60's, 70's, 80's 90's - and tinted with their own time period?
We all noticed the prevalence of 60's style in Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie's hair bump and her makeup, the cut of her dress, even the type of face she had was indicative of the 60's ideal of beauty. C.W. Moss even looked a bit like a 60's grease monkey, with his jacket and slightly too-tight jeans.
This is slightly biased for me though, because I had seen the actor before in a great movie called The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! (which is hilarious and everyone should see it) where he played almost the exact same character except his nose was perpetually running and he had a bit part.
Anyway, my point, which I have taken some time getting to, is that Bonnie and Clyde is almost immediately recognizable as a 60's film - not just because of the style but because the tone of the film was completely different than in films from the 30's. In the 30's, they were in the midst of a crisis, and the movies were an escape from the desolation of the decade. In the 60's, they were in the midst of an identity crisis and the movies were an attempt to define themselves.
There was a movie made last year, Public Enemies, that was about gangsters too. Of course, I'm too close to this one to make flippant declarations about the subconscious context of the film, but I can tell you that it's not the same as 1931's Public Enemy, nor is it the same as 1967's Bonnie and Clyde. It may be about the 30's, but it tells a story about our generation. We just can't see it yet.

Eng 368: Greed

The film version of McTeague was interesting, partially in the culture gap between our class in 2010 and its intended audience in 1925. To our eyes, Trina was scary looking (both with and without makeup), the acting was overdone, and the special effects were hardly special. Of course, at the time, the effects would have been well done, and Trina looked no weirder than any other actress - the strange makeup was to help accentuate their expressions, as was the overacting. These were hardly HD video cameras they were using; they were grainy, and sometimes those actors had to ACT to get the message onto the screen.
But more remarkable was the director's attempt to follow the book as closely as possible. Even with seven hours cut out of the original footage, the film follows the story far closer than any movie made these days would.
Of course, as one of nature's book-readers, I am usually the one who likes to stickle about how the movie was "nothing like the book! They completely ruined it!" The new Beowulf? Horrifying! That they would take a bit character like Grendel's mother (she doesn't even have a name, for ctying out loud! Everyone had a name in that book!) and make her one of the driving characters simply so she can be played by a naked Angelina Jolie? Abominable! Although the dragon fight was pretty cool. And The Count of Monte Cristo? All wrong! The Last of the Mohicans? Butchered (no pun intended)!
So I can appreciate a director wanting to follow the film exactly. It's one of Hollywood's jokes that a book that is adapted to film tends to end up nothing like the author's creation - there is a reason some authors will refuse to sell their book rights to Hollywood.
I can also appreciate not having to sit through 9 hours of dialogue-less film. It's a shame that the extra footage was destroyed, of course, but thank God for editors, right? Too bad they didn't have mini-series back then. Greed would have been perfect for that.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Engl 339: A Place In The Sun

Okay, so I'm just going to go ahead and continue the debate that got started just before the end of class, regarding whether or not George should have gotten away with is.
My reaction is a clear and resounding "Hell no!" pardon my unprofessionalism.
The argument that stuck out to me the most was someone saying that "it takes two to make a baby" and that Alice was as much responsible for her "trouble" as he was, and this somehow justified him being able to leave/murder Alice.
I don't buy it.
It takes two, right? So Alice getting pregnant wasn't totally his fault, but it was at least half his fault. Those who are arguing that he should have been able to leave her to move on to Angela aren't recognizing his responsibility here. Already in the culture at the time, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy laid all of the risk and retribution on the unfortunate mother, and none on the father. A man who fathered a child with an unmarried girl could just move on and no-one would be the wiser; it could have almost no impact on him. The single mother, on the other hand, would have been fired immediately, and probably would have been unable to find work in her small town. She would have been ostracized from society until her only recourse would be to move - if she could afford it with no job and a newborn baby. Even if she moved to a place where nobody knew of her shame, her child would be there to show everything, like a scarlet A.
Most likely she would have had to lie and say she was a widow, or return to her family. Even these days we hear of girls being thrown out of the house for getting pregnant; do you think it would have gone over well in the 50's? She probably would have never been able to get married - single mothers were not desirable in those days.

George basically decided that his own desires were more important than not ruining a girl's life. Sure, she had her part in it, but she had so much more to risk. Her insistance that George marry her is frustrating, of course, but it is understandable. If George doesn't marry her, her entire future goes down the toilet. If George does marry her, well, he doesn't get the super gorgeous rich girl, but will probably live a perfectly tolerable life. Boo hoo.
What he wanted to do, even if he didn't mean to kill her at the end, was unforgivable. He doesn't get to be a karma houdini and get away scot free.

That said, I don't think he murdered her. What he did do was arrange the situation that ultimately lead to her death, unintended though it might have ultimately been. In my understanding, that's manslaughter. It shouldn't have sent him to the electric chair, but it shouldn't have sent him off to enjoy his ill-gotten pretty new wife, either.

English 368: McTeague

While I was reading this book (which was engrossing, by the way. I almost missed a class because I was reading it and lost track of the time) I started to notice something odd. When Trina and McTeague began their spiral into avarice and violence, I found I was sympathizing more with McTeague than with Trina. This baffled me, at first. True, Trina had her faults - she was greedy to the point of a mental disorder, and she continuously lost her charm as she grew more and more obsessed with money. But McTeague during that point in the book was abusive - sadistic, even, with his biting of her fingers. The part where Maria and Trina compare their respective abuses is horrifying, and yet somehow I felt almost no animosity toward McTeague.
The best explanation I can think of for this is simply the bias of Frank Norris. This influence in the book is light, almost unnoticeable, but when I realized that something in the book was making me read the situation exactly opposite of how I would normally do it, I had to look deeper.
My best guess ties back to naturalism. Perhaps, in Norris's mind, avarice is unnatural and is therefore the greater crime. In the book, there is something intensely abominable about the way Trina saves her money for the love of it, despite living in squalor, and Norris continuously reminds us of this by telling us again and again of how she was obsessed, how she lied to her husband, how very deviant her love of money is. He illustrates this with Zerkow, who is stark raving mad over gold. Although Trina identifies herself with Maria, it is really Zerkow that she resembles.
McTeague, however, seems to be driven to his sadism by his wife. Norris insinuates that it is really Trina's fault that he is like that; he shows absolutely no remorse for torturing his wife - nor does Norris indicate that he should. According to the book, it is Trina's fault that he starts drinking whiskey and it is her fault that he abuses her, because he is abusing her for withholding money.
This is, of course, as nasty a subtext as the stereotypical, moneygrubbing, murderous Shylock that Zerkow represents, but it is much more cleverly slipped into the book.
Not that I didn't like the book, though. I really enjoyed it. But I was surprised at how easily Norris's writing was able to insinuate his own bias into my perception before I could notice it.

She Died In Terrebonne

Here's a treat for those of you that like pulp fiction/noir - a nice pulpy webcomic called She Died In Terrebonne about a Japanese-American private detective named Sam Kimimura who is hired to find the missing daughter of a wealthy businessman. Here's a spoiler: she died. In Terrebonne.
It's got awesome artwork, awesome writing, and the only drawback is that it only updates once a week. Check it out, folks!