Thursday, February 18, 2010

English 368: The MASC

How did I not know this place existed? I keep discovering all sorts of exciting new things about our Library. For instance, the old wing would be perfect for filming a Kubrickian horror film (it's just so quiet and echoey and desolate!) and the Dewey would give the most welladjusted person claustrophobia.
The MASC was fascinating. I never realized we had an archive of old manuscripts, much less that we have thousands of them squirreled away beneath the library! The possibilities are endless. When it comes to providing context for a paper, how could you beat newspapers from the year the book was written? Or exploring books by contemporaries, or even looking at ads and getting into the mindset of the time period.
And papers, shmapers! Just being there made me want to write a period novel. With all that research material, I could have fun making it sound like it's straight out of the 19th century, like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is an amazing book all should read.
Also, I didn't catch the name of the guy who did the presentation, but it sounded like Trevor James Bond, which I hope it is because that would be amazing.

Engl. 339 - The musical

Musicals have, as long as I've been conscious of it, considered light fare as far as movies are concerned. If a drama is a hearty steak dinner, and a comedy is an appetizer, the musical is a dessert. Something fluffy and pink.
I've been taught that in creating a story, character matters most, then plot, language, song, and spectacle, in that order. I think the challenge of musicals, and part of the reason they are occasionally disdained, is because they are, by genre, things of song and spectacle. So if they are defined by this, they must work extra hard to develop character, plot, and language lest the spectacle outweighs the story.
In my opinion, the Busby Berkeley musicals sort of fail at doing this. They are lavish with spectacle, and I'm willing to bet with The Gold Diggers of 1933 that more money went into the production of the four musical numbers than into the rest of the movie. You know, the part with the story?
It doesn't make them bad movies, necessarily, but if it were dessert, it would be cotton candy. Light and fluffy and almost no substance. The story of Gold Diggers was funny enough, but the movie concentrated more on the spectacle than on character development or motivation, and though it purported to tell a story about the ravages of the depression, it soon abandoned that for the silly farcical love story. To me, the most compelling part of the movie was the "Forgotten Man" musical number at the end, which seemed to finally recall the point of the movie, and drew us away from the giggling and $1500 dollar hats to remind us of the real issue.
Not that I dislike musicals; far from it! I love them. But of all the movies we've seen this semester, this was the weakest.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Eng 339: Baby Face

Not to be confused with Babyface Nelson. Last week was gangster week.

I think one of the most interesting elements of the film was the use of Lily's wardrobe to reflect her methods. Aside from the fact that everyone wore really cute shoes back then, I noted a lot about her style that showed her state of mind as well as how she used everything she had as tools of her trade.
When she was a working girl (working for wages, that is; not a streetwalker), one of her first acts was to get a perm that was young looking and fluffy. She always wore dark dresses with white around the neck and wrists, like a Puritan, if considerably more sultry. This was to present to her male coworkers (i.e. targets) a subconscious image of chastity and innocence. She knew that image was everything, and what redblooded man would suspect such a pure young woman of ulterior motives?
Later, when she was legitimately a kept woman, she abandoned the pretense of innocence and concentrated on looking sultry and luxurious. She wore longer dresses, usually light colored to preserve the image of youth, and her hair got sleeker and her skirts longer as she got richer. Well, you've got to keep the mystery somehow.
This care with her wardrobe served to illustrate how she used every tool at her disposal to net herself her prizes; when she seduces a man from Georgia, she lets a slight twang creep into her voice. A slight touch of the hand; standing a little closer than strictly necessary; giving the target her full and direct attention; all of these work her toward her goal. Her eyes alone could be classified as weapons of mass destruction the way she used them on those men.
All she had was herself to exploit, and some really nice clothes.

Eng. 368 - Daisy Miller

Daisy Miller is, unquestionably, a story critiquing and contrasting the American and European senses of propriety in the late 19th century. My question is: which was he lambasting? Was it the Americans, who were either ineffectual or too bold and forward, unaware or uncaring of the social mores of the countries they were visiting? Or was is the musty and outdated traditions of the Europeans, who stiffly upheld traditions despite the changing age?
A daisy can symbolise youth and innocence, the freshness of a new year, as well as young romance (you know the game "he loves me, he loves me not"); but it is also a weed, a flower that can be found anywhere - common, as Winterbourne's aunt liked to put it. Likewise, Daisy is entrancing to Winterbourne; he finds her mannerisms refreshingly open and unfettered compared to the European women he is used to. He enjoys being able to speak to her openly without worrying about embarrassing her or himself. The other Americans, however, find her common and rude. Her youthful indescretion is embarrassing to them, even if she doesn't have the social grace to notice it herself.
While we can recognize that it is Daisy's stubbornness and determination to stick to her own manner of entertainment that ultimately leads to her death, Henry James does not treat her as though she is the butt of the story. Rather, it is the Americans who, in their desire to be European, snub the impetuous young girl and drive her away from their society, leading her to prefer the company of Giovanelli. Daisy is, more than anything, a foil to illustrate the folly of placing too much import on social tradition. While she is uncultured and distressingly flirtatious, she is ultimately a kind and innocent young woman. She treats her servants well - shocking in the classist European society - and thinks of her mother and brother before herself. While the direct cause of her untimely death is her foolishness in ignoring the danger of staying out late (alone with a man), indirectly it is the rich wannabe European Americans who, in rejecting her from their circle, essentially leave her to be ruined in one way or another.
As Henry James keeps stating, Daisy is innocent. This refers not only to her purity, but her sensibility. She is not knowledgeable about the world, and her mother is weak and ineffectual. Normally it should have fallen to her peers to help her navigate society, but they are so worried about trying to imitate stiff European culture that they turn on her and force her away. I think that in James, while gently mocking the youthfulness and foolishness of the Millers, is lambasting not the Europeans, neccessarily, but the Americans trying to emulate them.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Engl. 368 Duplicity as a mask

Louisa May Alcott's Behind a Mask is hardly what we expect from the author of Little Women. Gone are the sweet, faithful sisters, and in their place is callous, malicious, selfish Jean Muire. Louisa May Alcott admits that her heart is in the lurid stories, and we can understand why. Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth were all wonderful characters, Miss Muire is nevertheless remarkably engaging. We know that she's up to no good from day 1, but we are so fascinated by her techniques and tricks that we cannot help wanting to read further. But are her moments of reveal meant to truly give us a view into the insight of the character? Or is Jean wearing another mask, intending to hide from us, her audience, her true form? Were the letters her own true sentiments, or was she putting on a mask of indifference and bravado to impress her friend?
Not only this, but masks are by nature fragile and temporary. At what point after fateful marriage to Sir John is she forced to reveal her true self from behind the mask of the fresh 19-year-old girl? I couldn't help but think that this was the flaw in her plan to seek marriage through false identity.
Finally, I wonder if the family recieved the comeuppance that they did because of their lack of masks. Not that they should be a chamelone like Jean, but their thoughts and expressions are clear as day, good and bad.
Does this make them less sympathetic to you?

Engl. 339: Scarface (1932)

All right, let me just start by saying that Scarface was awesome, I can see why it's a classic, and Guino was my favorite character.
Now that that's out of the way, let's examine some of the thematic elements of the movie.
The use of the X in death scenes is a given, of course, but since it's already been mentioned I'll skip it.

Another thematic element that was particularly prevalent was the use of the staircase. The story is, of course, about Tony's rise to the top of the Chicago mob, and in the beginning of the film we see a lot of him standing at the bottom of staircases: the one in his house when he sends his sister up to her room with a wad of cash, and his mother follows. Not only does it portray Tony at the bottom of the stairs, before his rise through the ranks, it also has the effect of giving the mother the figurative and literal high ground as she tries to convince Cesca not to take dirty money. Later, we see him at the bottom of the stairs, flirting with Poppy. She is still higher than him and unattainable as he stands below her, looking up.
Immediately after this, Tony takes the initiative and sends Guino to kill the rival mob boss against his own boss's orders, and is visited by Poppy who must now climb the stairs to see him. Later, when he strikes his sister and she flees to her room, he is once again relegated to the low ground at the foot of the steps, as his mother tells Cesca that he hurts everybody.
After this, after he has his boss Lovo killed, he climbs the stairs once more, into Lovo's apartment, to claim what is now his. After he shoots Guino, he staggers down the stairs from Cesca's apartment.
And the final scene, of course, features him slowly descending, stair by stair, as he begs for his life, losing his pride, arrogance, and status with each step.