Thursday, January 28, 2010

Engl. 368 - Spiritualism - some more points from my speech

Today, I gave a report on Spiritualism - first, thanks for being a good audience. I (like most people) hate speaking in front of people.

I mostly spoke about the concepts of Spiritualism, and the idea that we are surrounded by ghosts at all times. Many of the people attracted to this movement were Transcendentalist, but one of the leaders of the movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson, actually hated the Spiritual movement, and thought it was full of tricks and chicanery.
Nevertheless, spiritualism attracted many prominent men and women, including James Fenimore Cooper, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

As I said, Swedenborg and Mesmer were both credited with inspiring some of the beliefs of spiritualism. However, Mesmer really had little to do with what we now call hypnotism, even though his name is where we get the word mesmerize. The honor of creating hypnotism goes to James Braid, who named it after the Greek God of sleep, Hypnos. Interestingly, he later discovered that hypnosis could be induced without sleep, and attempted to rename his procedure 'monoideism', which is not nearly as cool sounding and never stuck.

While some of the antics of the later mediums may resemble those of a street magician (levitation, knowing what was written in a closed envelope, causing furniture to move), one of their greatest detractors was Harry Houdini, who had a sort of open challenge out to claim he could debunk any one that he saw.

In the case of the Fox sisters, Maggie was the only one who confessed to fraud, in 1887. Katy, the youngest, was a very successful (though alcoholic and troubled) medium in Europe at the time, and though she never responded publicly to Maggie's outing, she sent a number of letters expressing shock that Maggie would say such things. Evidence seems to suggest that the sisters themselves were never entirely sure if what they were doing was real or a fake. Maggie retracted the confession one year later, and all of the sisters then died within five years - Leah in 1890, Katy in 1892, and Maggie in 1893.

There is still some controversy as to whether Maggie's confession was true or if she just did it for the $1500 offered her by a young newspaper editor.

So, real, or not? Decide yourselves.

Engl. 339 - White Fawn's Devotion vs. Ramona vs. Redskin

Okay, today I am comparing the three films we saw about native Americans on Tuesday and Thursday:
  • White Fawn's Devotion (heeeey! One of those words is my name!) (1910), 11 min. long, dir. by James Young Deer.
  • Ramona (1910), 17 min long, dir. by the illustrious D.W. Griffith
  • Redskin (1929), 90 min long, dir. by Victor Schertzinger
Now, all three of these films portray the native American as more than just target practice for the heroic cowboy, but their treatment of them differs wildly through the three films. Naturally, I am aware that it is hardly fair to compare a pair of 1910 films with one made in 1929, bit it is worth paying attention to the amount of maturity gained in those twenty years, not just in terms of the directing but in the plot, the acting, and the technological breakthroughs.

All three of the films are silent, but in those twenty years we see a leap and a bound in the quality of the acting. Where in White Fawn, the title character had to gesticulate and flap her jaw silently for what seemed like five minutes in order to convey this: I will die before I let him leave me. Where where Ramona's way of showing uncertainty was to hold her arms straight out and zoom around her little desert garden like she's playing airplane, Redskin is able to communicate exactly what a character feels for another in a single look. This is less because of revolutionary acting changes and more because of the growing voyeurism of the crowd. Unnaccustomed to scrutinizing a stranger's personal life, the early audience had to be led by the hand in understanding the nuances of expression. Before long, gone were the wild, sweeping guestures, the clasped hands pressed to bosoms, and in came subtlety of face and movement, allowed by viewers who had learned to eavesdrop properly on the characters.

The films also show a marked difference in portrayals of Indians. In White Fawn, the protagonist is lovely and devoted, but the rest of her tribe fit squarely into the concept of 'Indians as Villains,' many of them wearing the stereotypical many-feathered war bonnet while they are shot down by the white hero. In Ramona, the hero is slightly more fleshed out, but still somewhat bland. His main point is that he is an Indian, and that and his love for Ramona and anger at being driven out is the sum of his character. While both of these films are sympathetic to the cause of the Native American, they do little to make the viewer desire any sort of change. However, Redskin changes this by making the characters well-fleshed out and multi-faceted. Their race is no longer the only thing that defines them; they have wants and desires aside from it, and indeed it is a point of contention, as they are not even certain what race they are, a point which is interesting when you consider that both Wing Foot and Corn Blossom were played by white actors.

Ultimately, the juxtaposition of the two 1910 films agains the 1929 one is a greater sense of maturity, as during those years audiences began to want deeper meaning and better characters, and expect more from the cinema. It is a great illustration of the evolution of early film.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Engl. 368: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I must admit, I was prejudiced against Hawthorne when I first got the list of books for Eng. 368. I read The Scarlet Letter in high school and hated it, so I feared the worst. "Oh well," I told myself, "at least it's not Moby Dick." So imagine my surprise when The Blithedale Romance turned out to have... a romance in it! (I find that you often can't trust the titles of these older books - for instance, Dante's Divine Comedy wasn't even a little bit funny.)

It actually had quite the love pentagon going on, with Coverdale loving first Zenobia (who loved Hollingsworth) and then Priscilla (who also loved Hollingsworth) and Hollingsworth who probably loved Zenobia best but picked Priscilla anyway, and there was voyeurism and a mysterious seer named the Veiled Lady and a suicide and was overall much better than I had been expecting.

It is interesting in this book that nearly all of the main characters are not only flawed but vastly selfish, with the exceptions being Priscilla (who embodied the ideal of the perfect woman at the time: quiet, pretty, and submissive) Silas Foster & Family: Rustic Farmers, and Moodie, who had already used up his selfishness in the past and is now just an alcoholic. Wait, no, I take that back. I just remembered that he buys his booze by selling the silk purses that Priscilla makes, and (I'm assuming) none of the money makes it back to her - not that she would take it, because she's so selfless.

Coverdale is, is of course, the first that springs to mind; this is mostly because he is the narrator and so we get to hear all of his superficiality straight from the horse's mouth. Hollingsworth is also obvious because he is at the apex of our little love pentagon, and ultimately he chooses the girl who is richer. Not to mention his constant sense of imperious self-righteousness throughout the book.

Zenobia, though, is an interesting case. She is described as being this exotic and unusual woman, a writer and campaigner for women's rights, free of thought and idea, and overall exactly the wrong sort of woman for her century. Personally, I disliked her from the start. She starts out appearing to be this lovely, magnanimous woman (Coverdale is falling all over himself for her at this point) but even through the strongly biased narration we begin to see a hard, bitter side of her. Throughout the book, even though Coverdale tries his best to portray her as a goddess among women, she shows this sharp side, mostly directed toward poor submissive Priscilla, who is obsessed with her. It all culminates with Zenobia, out of jealousy (i.e. selfishness), selling Priscilla out to the former life that she came to Blithedale to escape. Because of this Zenobia falls out of favor with the rest of the main characters - especially Hollingsworth - and SPOILER! she kills herself. Before she does the deed, though, she laments to Coverdale that there is no place in the world for a woman like her.

I don't buy it. As far as I am concerned, her suicide is her final act of selfishness. She is an independent woman, sure. She lives her life off the beaten path, okay. But should a man reject her, well then she just has to kill herself and make him live the rest of his life haunted by the fact that he caused her death. Sure, Hollingsworth is a jerk, too, but by the end of the book he is so broken by her final act against him that I feel sympathy for him and none for poor, tormented, selfish Zenobia.

I guess my question is this: was Zenobia bitter and selfish because she had no place in society, or did she have no place in society because her bitterness and selfishness drove everyone away?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Engl. 339: Within Our Gates by Oscar Micheaux

Within Our Gates was originally filmed as a form of protest against D.W. Griffith's infamous Birth Of A Nation. Released in 1919, four years after Birth Of A Nation, the film presents a complex storyline, combatting the blatant stereotypes of Birth Of A Nation by portraying its characters as complicated, three-dimensional, intricate characters working through serious problems.
A quick synopsis: The film follows the story of a young black woman, Sylvia Landry, who is searching for a way to help her people, despite being plagued by misfortune. Pursued against her will by her step-cousin, a criminal and general bastard named Larry, she remains faithful to her fiancee, Conrad, until he is driven away by the machinations of her cousin Alma. In search of meaning, she moves south to teach at a small school for black children, but soon learns that the school is on the verge of bankruptcy, so she returns to the north to try to find funds for the failing school. While there, she meets the kindly Dr. Vivian and a rich old lady who is willing to donate money for the school. Back in the south, she is proposed to by both the owner of the school and by Larry, who has found her again. She refuses them both, as she has fallen in love with Dr. Vivian, but Larry threatens to "tell them who she really is" if she doesn't comply, so she leaves the school in the night and disappears. Later, searching for Sylvia, Dr. Vivian runs into Alma and learns her tragic backstory:
Sylvia was adopted by a poor black family called the Landrys, and was able to go to school. However, while she was back from school, her adopted father is accidentally present when their cruel landlord is murdered, and is accused of the crime. The family attempts to flee, but are caught and lynched. Sylvia was not with them when they are caught, but is soon found by the landlord's brother, who attempts to rape her. After a long fight scene, she faints, but is saved when he sees a scar on her breast and realizes that she is his daughter by a his black wife.
Dr. Vivian soon finds Sylvia and talks her out of her depression, and they are married.

One of the most interesting characters to me, yet a very minor part of the film, was (Raymond? Ramon? Rafar? I forget) Gridlestone, the brother of the murdered landlord and Sylvia's father. I don't know if there was intended to be more of a story for him or if he was merely there to move the plot along, but he is a man of contradictions. We watch as he hunts the family in the swamp, rifle in hand, and as he tries to rape Sylvia in a remarkably violent scene which takes several minutes, and is intercut with scenes of the lynching of the Landys. Then we learn (along with him) that Sylvia is actually his daughter, with a black woman who he had married, no less! And that he had paid for her schooling. This is where my confusion was. If he loved a black woman enough that he was willing to defy the social mores of the day by marrying her, why was he participating in a lynching? Why was his daughter adopted by the Landys? I would assume that his wife died, and though he was not willing to raise a half-black daughter by himself, he clearly cared enough about her to make sure she was educated. And, if he paid for her school, didn't he know the Landys? Wouldn't he realize beforehand that it was his daughter and her adopted family that they were lynching? Landy's name was all over the papers.
This character is remarkably enigmatic, but because so much is lost, I can only wish I knew his backstory. I should construct one myself.
He fell in love with a lovely black woman in his tempestuous youth and married her, defying his father's wishes and was subsequently disinherited, resulting in his wicked brother inheriting the family land. However, shortly after their first child is born, he discovers that his wife is cheating on him and kills her in a fit of rage. In the attack, he accidentally cuts his infant daughter's chest, and fraught with remorse, brings her to the local black minister. He asks that the minister find her a family and promises to pay for her education, but never wants to see her again for fear of seeing his unfaithful wife in her. For years, he dwells and seethes on the betrayal of his wife until news reaches him that his brother has been murdered by a crazed negro. And there in the doomed man's cabin, he finds a lovely young black woman and the passions of his youth are relit, but now tempered with the years of resentment, and he attacks her. But then he pulls at the front of her dress, and there on her chest is a scar...
Horrified and eaten by guilt at what he nearly did to his own daughter, he flees and hides in alcohol, now dwelling on something else while he is deep in his cups. Finally he decides that he must reconcile. He must see his child again, and tell her that he was all wrong, that everything he has thought has been a lie. So he finds her again at her cousin's house, and musters the courage to knock at the door...

Not bad, eh?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Welcome to English 339 and 368, me!

This is for the weblog portion of Engl. 339, "Hollywood's America" and Engl. 368, "The American Novel to 1900", to be updated Thursdays. Expect scintillating posts on The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Representations of Race in Early Film in just a few short days!