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!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Engl. 339 - Film Noir

Gritty. Hardboiled. Hardbitten.
All great words to describe a great genre. Film noir is one of the most easily recognized of genres; when it is parodied, people know it immediately and are delighted by it. Well, I am, at least.
It's funny. I could recognize film noir before I had ever seen it, mostly because of this:
Yes, that's Calvin and Hobbes. It used to be my favorite part, when Calvin donned his imaginary trench coat and fedora and lipped his everpresent cigarette (nobody could force political correctness on Bill Watterson) and started calling girls dames and narrated everything with wry wit. The funny thing about it is that I never saw any film noir movies - not until this class.
The film noir style is so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that I could see a screenshot of a man in a fedora and trench coat and a woman in high heels, a tailored dress, and rolled hair, in harsh shadows, maybe the silhouette of some venetian blinds behind them, and instantly label it as film noir. Give me a quote with a lot of witty dialogue and 40's slang, and I would know in a second what kind of movie it came from. The men were ultra-masculine, stoic, rough around the edges and knuckles, usually ready to help the dame in distress but not averse to playing rough with her either. The women are, well, dames. Venomous and ultra-feminine, dangerous but beautiful - with perfect hair, perfect makeup, and a taste for slinky dresses. It's only to be expected, in a film genre based off of pulp fiction - which was written almost exclusively by men.
It is really parodied with affection, rather than satire. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with Eddie Valiant (private eye, of course) and Jessica Rabbit (modeled after Veronica Lake), is a direct parody that wears its noir like an old suit, not mocking it but allowing it to enhance the absurdity of the toons. A favorite movie of mine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, follows the noir plotline and it even hinges on the dame's obsession with pulp fiction novels.
Think of the style of Sin City and Pulp Fiction, the stories of Basic Instinct and Memento.
As a break from reading Serious Literature, I have a fondness for reading cheap novels - the kind you find in the Sci-fi and Fantasy section of the bookstore. At the moment I'm going through a series called the Dresden Files, which are modern pulp fiction books featuring Harry Dresden, wizard (slash private eye). They're better than they sound - you could take the style of the books straight out of the chapter on film noir in Belton. Convoluted mystery plots, dry wit, thugs with brass knuckles, femmes fatales - and if they happen to be vampires, all the better, right?
The point that I'm getting at is that film noir is more than just a type of movie that was popular in the 40's and 50's. It is something that is known and loved everywhere - any place that is familiar with film will understand the silhouettes and harsh shadows, the sleek women and rough men, the backstabbing and the quick dialogue. It is just plain cool. That's all.

Engl. 368 - Pudd'nhead Wilson Part the Second.

I know, I know. I did Mark Twain last week. I can't help it! He's too good to just do once.
For this post I want to address the character of Pudd'nhead himself. Although the book itself is named after him, he really isn't in it all that often. Certainly, he's pivotal to the storyline, but for the most part the book follows the story and thought processes of Tom aka Chambers. What struck me the most about Pudd'nhead is his similarity to Samuel L. Clemens himself.
It is hardly unheard of for an author to write an exportation of themselves into the book; Stephen King does it all the time, for example. In Pudd'nhead's case, he is the embodiment of Twain's love of parapsychology and science; in by a small town driven by gossip and 'good ol' boy' politics, he is the (mostly ignored) voice of reason. He is the Free Thinker in a town full of Methodists; the joke there should be obvious. He is the only one who defies tradition and dares to be different, and because of that he is branded a fool.
Twain was branded a fool, too, in a more medieval sense. He was a joker, a humorist. He had to work twice as hard to get a serious message through, and without being heavy handed, either. When he wanted people to take him seriously, he had to write under a psuedonym - a different one than the one he was already using, that is.
The biggest hint, though, that Pudd'nhead echoed Clemens were the Mark Twain-isms at the beginning of each chapter, from Pudd'nhead's calendar. Nobody ever said that Twain didn't like being funny; he just didn't like that it was the only thing people thought he was.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Engl. 368 - Pudd'nhead Wilson

I love Mark Twain. I devoured Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn when I was a kid (never once catching the racism, but understanding perfectly the unjustness) and the Prince and the Pauper, and later A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court and I attempted Innocents Abroad too soon; I should revisit it. Just last year I discovered Eve's Diary, which is hilarious and touching, and may be one of my favorites yet.
Pudd'nhead Wilson is funny, mostly because it is written be Mark Twain who must be funny, either because it is expected of him or because he can't help it. But it is not a comedy - it was the most disturbing story I've read in the class yet. I don't mean disturbing like Saw is disturbing; it doesn't make me want to puke or anything.
I mean that it is disturbing because it didn't allow me to settle down and read it. I couldn't just immerse myself in it and follow along with the tale; I was constantly being disturbed into thinking. Of course, mostly I was wondering, what does he mean by this? When Tom turns out to be so bad as a white man, is Twain saying that he doesn't fit in because of that 'one drop'? I choose to think that it is because he was atrociously spoiled, but I couldn't help wondering. Roxy's speech about Tom's being a coward because of that 'one drop' - illustrating how uneducated she is, or just making Twain's point that the 'one drop' counts? Don't worry, I don't think that Twain would be so straightforward as all that: despite what he says in James Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, Twain is not one to set something out so easily; if he has a point, he comes at it backwards, with sarcasm, and poking at it slyly. By making you wonder whether he means that Tom is bad because of his black blood, he is making you think about it.

Engl. 339 - Sullivan's Travels

It occured to me, about 3/4 of the way through the film, that I had seen Sullivan's Travels before. I had been young at the time - maybe 8 or 9 - and that I had almost forgotten the experience altogether. I remembered Veronica Lake as soon as I saw her, but she (and that hair) are iconic enough already - some might have noticed that she seems to be part of the inspiration for Jessica Rabbit - that she could have been in any of a number of films.
Back to my point: I had been sitting through most of the movie blissfully unaware that it had passed berfore my eyes before. It was funny, but not terribly. I chuckled a few times at the pratfalls, but the swimming pool gag has been used so many times since, I was really only laughing out of respect for the humor it represented, rather than the humor itself.
No, it was when Sullivan went to the chain gang that my brain gave me a little kick and said "hey! you've seen this before!" Suddenly, I remembered - oh! this is where he has to work in the swamp, and he gets put in the hot box for no reason, and then he goes and watches the cartoon in the church! 'Go Down Moses' never seemed so familiar.
What interests me is the fact that, in a movie about comedy, it was the tragic part that stuck with me. I still don't remember my childish thoughts on the comedy, but the hot box incident has been stuck in my brain since I was eight, without a movie title to tie it to. Probably it is because children seem to be so much more sensitive to the unjust - the only times I remember my parents punishing me are the times I had felt I didn't deserve it. As adults, we've been told "life ain't fair" so much that we see Sullivan being punished unfairly, and think "of course." My eight-year-old self was appalled by it.
The humor v. tragedy element might also relate to my age when I first saw it; sure, the humor part was funny, but I had seen funnier things before and I can bet I never got the witty dialogue at the beginning. But kids are morbid. When I first discovered the real version of Grimm's fairytales, I was delighted. It was so much more wonderfully gruesome than the watered-down fairytales I was used to. Likewise, I quickly forgot the humor of Sullivan's travels; I was already happy and carefree, and I didn't need humor to heal my pains. The chain gang, though, was fascinating. Like the pre-travel Sullivan, I was interested in pain and suffering because I had never known it before; I wanted to romanticize it and make it more exciting than it was, while now - although I've hardly suffered at all yet - that part of the movie simply seems miserable and sad.
But I'll still remember it better than the comedy.