'Wig in a Box: Songs From and Inspired by Hedwig and the Angry Inch' (2003)

Stephen Trask and John Cameron Mitchell's gender-bending Hedwig and the Angry Inch has gathered a cult following among film- and theater-goers. As evidenced by this collection, the music has quickly become greatly beloved by musicians as diverse as Yoko Ono, Imperial Teen, and Fred Schneider. The passion for these songs espoused by the artists is readily apparent in all of the tracks, but unfortunately their love of the material does not always produce the greatest results.

The album's highlights:
  • Sleater-Kinney & Fred Schneider's "Angry Inch" — Sleater-Kinney's intense guitar and drum work, Corin Tucker's half-singing/half-bellowing vocals, and Fred Schneider's snide delivery perfectly capture Hedwig's angry yet tongue-in-cheek narrative of his botched sex-change operation.
  • Frank Black's "Sugar Daddy" — One of the albums most energetic moments, Frank Black truly embraces Hedwig's spirit of challenging notions of both sex and gender with his gravelly-almost-snarling delivery of lines like, "I'll be more woman than a man like you can stand."
  • The Breeders' "Wicked Little Town" — The subtle guitar work and Kim Deal's quiet, raspy vocals make this song a very beautiful, intimate encounter with The Breeders.
  • The Polyphonic Spree's "Wig in a Box" — This track is probably the best match of material to artist. The theatrics and ostentation of the lyrics perfectly complement The Spree's grandiose musical arrangements.
Honorable mentions include Rufus Wainwright's "The Origin of Love," Spoon's "Tear Me Down," Yoko Ono & Yo La Tengo's "Hedwig's Lament/Exquisite Corpse," Ben Kweller & Ben Folds' "Wicked Little Town (Tommy Gnosis version)," and Cyndi Lauper & The Minus 5's "Midnight Radio."

The new material by Robyn Hitchcock and John Cameron Mitchell is probably the biggest disappointment. And while Bob Mould's clubby, dance take on "Nailed" is a fun enough cover, it completely strips the song of its eroticism.

More of this album works than doesn't, and it's a must-buy for Hedwig fans and indie-music lovers alike.

Clint Eastwood’s ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ (1997)

Despite this film’s somewhat bloated running length, I did rather enjoy this movie. Though Clint Eastwood was rather trying my patience by perpetrating one of my greatest cinematic pet peeves: the underdeveloped and unnecessary romance. Had Eastwood been wise enough to hack off the uninteresting relationship between John and Mandy, the film would have been a more reasonable length and had better pacing. Not only did John Cusack and Alison Eastwood lack chemistry (Cusack had more of a spark with The Lady Chablis), but Alison Eastwood did not present herself as a very good actor.

When I finished watching the film, I began mentally preparing my attack on Eastwood for his stereotype-fueled portrayal of southerners. But as I began to really think about it, I realized that the characters in the film are only slightly over-the-top. And they are embellished only for cinematic and entertainment purposes. The film does not attempt to be a gritty, realistic documentary, therefore the embellishment is not inappropriate. Nice touches of southern culture were Joe Odum handing out refreshments to spectators of Jim’s arrest, the fey hairdresser wondering if John attends his church, and Chablis’ dismay at John coming to her “house of mourning” without flowers and condolences.

The acting in this film is quite good, aside from Ms. Eastwood. John Cusack is solid as usual and gives his great Cusackian delivery of lines like, “This place is fantastic; it’s like Gone With The Wind on mescaline. They walk imaginary pets here, Garland, on a fucking leash. And they’re all heavily armed and drunk. New York is boring!” Kevin Spacey’s rather inscrutable facial expressions serve him well in this role and Jude Law makes the most of a small part. Of particular note is Irma P. Hall, a very underrated character actor (in my opinion).

One part of the story that I felt was underexplored was Savannahian society’s rejection of Jim once his sexuality came to light in such a dastardly context. His friends’ desertion of him is suggested in one scene, but not played out to its fullest extent. Eastwood did fail to include the legion of Southern Baptists that would have protested en masse outside of the courthouse, had Jim’s sexuality been made public in the newspapers.

Woody Allen's 'Melinda and Melinda' (2004)

As any film enthusiast will tell you, Woody Allen’s track record as a writer/director has been steadily flagging since the 1990s. Most Allen fans and film snobs point to 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors as the last great Allen film. I enjoyed several of his ’90s efforts, such as Manhattan Murder Mystery, Bullets Over Broadway and Deconstructing Harry, and Mighty Aphrodite and Everyone Says I Love You have also been touted by critics. But his twenty-first-century efforts have been decidedly lacking in both the quality and humor that one expects from Woody Allen. While Melinda and Melinda is not Allen’s spectacular return to form, the movie is substantially better than many of his most recent efforts, including Anything Else, Hollywood Ending, Small Time Crooks and Celebrity.

Unfortunately, I think that only half of the movie works really well. Basic plot overview: someone tells a story at a dinner party and two playwrights spin their respective versions of the tale, one in the genre of tragedy and the other of comedy. The only character who overlaps both stories is Melinda, ably played by Radha Mitchell. The comedy storyline succeeds very well, mainly thanks to Will Ferrell, but the tragedy drags. The viewer begins to long for those scenes to pass quickly so that the plot returns to Ferrell and Mitchell’s comedic counterpart.

I think that Allen’s big mistake was not making clear to the audience from the beginning that the tragedy half of the script is also supposed to be funny. I watched the film with a friend and finally, three-fourths of the way through, we both realized that it was OK for us to laugh at tragic Melinda. The tragedy is, in fact, a melodrama with all of the preposterous language and lines present in abundance for comedic effect.

The talent of Allen’s actors seemingly was his undoing. Chloë Sevigny and Chiwetel Ejiofor are both very talented dramatic actors who make the schmaltzy, melodramatic script down-to-earth and truly tragic. While Mitchell doesn’t ham it up, she strikes a balance between tragic and comic that reveals Allen’s intended tongue-in-cheek portrayal of this pathetic woman. Had Sevigny and Ejiofor offered similar performances, the audience would have realized that Allen purposefully wrote a “bad” script for that section of the film.

But I must include my recommendation of Melinda and Melinda. As I said, this film is Allen’s best in years and it is an enjoyable experience, especially if one remembers to laugh.

Keith Gordon's 'Waking the Dead' (2000)

I kind of liked the premise of this film — a young man’s idealism of the ’70s comes back to haunt him during the ’80s in the form of hallucinations of a dead lover — but I found Keith Gordon’s execution lacking.

The film’s offenses:

  1. Underdeveloped romance. The connection between Fielding and Sarah is central to the plot. Without a strong connection, Fielding’s questioning of his actions and his sanity would seem contrived, which unfortunately is the case. I never buy a love at first fuck — Er, I mean sight kind of romance and the script did not give much evidence of what drew these very different people together besides, perhaps, a mutual appreciation of the other’s physical appearance. (Though I have to say that Jennifer Connelly was not looking her best in this movie. I usually find her attractive, but she looked downright plain at times.) The attraction was even more difficult to believe because of....
  2. Lack of chemistry. Billy Crudup and Connelly generated about as much heat as a block of ice. Seemingly to compensate for the lack of sexual tension, director Keith Gordon included a lot of sex and a lot of nudity in the film. Well, “nudity.” Though, of course, Jennifer Connelly’s breasts made an appearance. (They really should get an agent so that they can have their own deserved credit.) Anyway, the sex and the nudity — they ain’t workin’. That montage with Sarah saying in a totally not Louisvillian accent, “And then you were inside me” while she masturbates wearing Fielding’s t-shirt — it ain’t workin’ either.
  3. Book-y dialogue. A novel by Scott Spencer is the source material for the screenplay, and sometimes the awkwardness of the dialogue betrays that fact. These bits probably read fine but falter coming from actors’ mouths. My favorite example: “I am in this fucking room alone. And I’m choking on the collective sense of superiority.”

The film’s assets:

  1. Billy Crudup. I think that he makes the most of a badly drawn character. Even though the screenplay seemed to try to alienate me at times, he kept me involved, interested, and questioning Fielding’s sanity.

While I cannot give this film a strong recommendation, I did enjoy a majority of the running length. I found the scene between Sarah and Fielding in his office touching and I was satisfied with the ending. Though I would have chopped off that last scene — too sappy for my taste.

"Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid (1978)

How is this a short story?

I do not ask this question out of criticism but rather curiosity. The story consists of only one sentence — a sentence rivaled only by the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities — which is a series of instructions given to a girl by her mother. The reader knows only of the girl from the two interjections, set off in italics, that the girl makes.

So where is the narrative? With this story, Kincaid seems to trump even the simplest of plots of novels such as Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, which basically involve the main characters walking around a city for a day. But somehow with one fabulous run-on sentence Kincaid does manage to create a narrative of sorts, one somewhat dependent upon the reader’s interpretation.

The mother’s speech begins with descriptions of what chores to do on Mondays and Tuesdays before the lecture becomes a tangential slew of instruction and scolding. The mention of Monday then Tuesday teases the reader with the suggestion of a sequence to the story, which Kincaid then quickly discards. A more traditional concept of narrative — as in, this event happened followed by this event and the characters reacted — does not exist within this story. The story consists entirely of dialogue with no descriptive sentences to service furthering the plot — there isn’t one — or describing the characters. Because Kincaid chooses to neither name nor describe the girl and mother, I am inclined to believe that the story intends to provide a picture of a particular culture or subculture, most likely Antiguan culture, rather than two specific people. The lack of descriptive sentences also suspends the story outside of a specific time period. These bits of “advice” could have been delivered at one time, over the span of several hours or even years. Thus, the lack of sentences outside of the dialogue gives the story more universality. The lack of usual punctuation also distinguishes this story from the average piece of fiction, and, again, suggests timelessness and an otherness of the culture in which this conversation occurs.

Though this story provides only a brief insight into the culture of Antigua, the insight manages to be rather complete in its illustration of women’s place within society. The mother’s instructions, in fact, provide an outline of female gender roles. The list describes the more public actions of being a woman — such as what to clean on Monday, what to wash on Tuesday, and how to act properly and not like a “slut” — and the more subversive knowledge, such as how to abort an unwanted fetus. The relationship between the mother and daughter is also revealed as somewhat complicated. While the mother does not seem to display much affection to her child, she does aim to arm her daughter with the knowledge that the girl needs to survive.

"King of the Bingo Game" by Ralph Ellison (1944)

Ralph Ellison’s “King of the Bingo Game” is, as is most of his work, an interesting study of Black identity. I found this story particularly interesting because of my current contact with immigrants. The director of the center where I work constantly reminds me and the other VISTA that our clients lives are based entirely on chance.

In “King of the Bingo Game” the main character’s life also seems to depend solely on luck — he plays bingo every night hoping to win a little money to pay for his sick wife’s medical bills. When he does have a bingo and is able to spin the wheel to win the cash prize, he finally feels in control of his fate, his wife’s fate, and his reality. He controls the wheel that, until that moment, has been uncontrollable, a fickle creature that decides whether his wife’s health will or will not improve. He keeps the wheel spinning as a way to suspend her fate — he cannot know the outcome of the spin, whether he will or, more importantly, will not win the money to pay for her treatment. By controlling the wheel, he removes the element of chance from his life and finally takes control.

I guess that’s all that I have to say about this story since I do not have a copy of it with me at the moment. I enjoyed it. Ellison very adeptly builds tension in this story and I liked the surrealism.

"Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemingway (1927)

Oh my god. A story by Ernest Hemingway that I actually like and admire as skillfully crafted? Who’d ever’ve thought?

Frederick Busch, the man who wrote a little critique of this story that the anthology included after the piece, lauds Hemingway’s dialogue in this story. Eh. The content is excellent, I will agree, but I always take issue with his dialogue for being not quite believable. For example, “‘And we could have all this,’ she said. ‘And we could have everything and every day we make it more impossible.’” People don’t talk like that — people on Aaron Spelling shows talk like that. My arguments with my S.O. usually go something like this: “Why are you being such an ass?” “Why are you being such a bi–” Glare. “I didn’t say it.” “But you almost did.” “I’m sorry. It’s difficult to unlearn the first 23 years of my life.” “It isn’t easy for me either.” “I didn’t say that it was!” “And I wasn’t saying that you were saying that!” And so on. And I will always critique Hemingway’s use of “it.” I know, blah blah blah, prominent authors can write as they like and break the rules set for the common person, but antecedent-less pronouns are annoying and sometimes confusing.

From the first few sentences of the story, Hemingway sets the emotional landscape of the story.

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun.

That description of the landscape introduces the important image of “sides” that Hemingway uses throughout the story to emphasize “the man” and “the girl” being at odds about something. (Though never stated explicitly, the reader eventually realizes that the couple is arguing about the woman having an abortion.) The image of the station having “no shade and no trees” and being “between two lines of rails in the sun” presents the venue of the lovers’ confrontation as very vulnerable, unprotected, because of its exposure to the sun, and yet almost like a prison, considering the station being trapping between the two rails. Both ideas suggest an alienation of sorts, relating the setting to the couple, who are alienated from each other, and to the woman, who is also alienated culturally by not speaking the native language.

Busch writes in his critique that the woman’s “lover or husband wants the fetus aborted, and she wants to keep him.” Re-reading that sentence I am unclear whether Busch is referring to the lover or the fetus with that “him.” Though I do agree with Busch that the man seems to have an unequal amount of power over the woman. Even in the appositives that Hemingway uses to refer to the characters: the male is “the man” but the female is “the girl.” The man also has a power through language — he speaks Spanish — that the woman does not. And his judgement seems to control the woman’s imagination. The woman makes the observation that the hills “look like white elephants” early in the story. When the man seemingly dismisses her observation as frivolous, she tempers her opinion to, “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.”

Throughout the story, the woman continues to contemplate the hills, the trees, the river, and other aspects of the landscape across from the station. The image of the hills resembles the shape of a pregnant woman’s body, and the earth is usually a symbol of fertility and reproduction. Her comment comparing the hills to white elephants – rare and somewhat mystical animals – suggests that the woman’s feelings toward her pregnancy are positive. Hemingway does not give many indicators of the woman’s — or the man’s, for that matter — tone of voice. But I don’t read their conversation as the woman wanting to please the man in order to keep him, rather debating her options should she do something that would not please him, such as keeping the baby. As I said before, the woman seems very alienated in this environment. She is dependent upon the man for both communication and sustenance (of a sort) during this interlude at the station. She may not feel as though she can do as she wants with her body, and have the baby, if it risks separating her from the man, who seems crucial to her survival.

The girl did not say anything.
“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”
“Then what will we do afterward?”
“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”
“What makes you think so?”
“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”
The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.
“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”
“I know we will.”
“And if I do it you’ll be happy and things will be like they were and you’ll love me?”
“I love you now. You know I love you.”
“I know. But if I do it, then it will be nice again and if I say things are like white elephants, and you’ll like it?”

When the man mentions the abortion, the woman does not seem to react to the idea favorably. Her attitude changes suddenly after she “look[s] at the bead curtain, put[s] her hand out and [takes] hold of two of the strings of beads.” That bead curtain is featured earlier in the story when she asks the man what the writing on the curtain — “Anis del Toro” — means. The curtain seems to be a reminder of her dependence upon him and, thus, causes her reconsideration.

Hemingway does not present the man in a very favorable light. He acts selfishly, pleading with the woman to have an abortion because he doesn’t “want anyone but [her].” He also seems dense. He makes an observation about the travelers in the train station “waiting reasonably for their trains.” This thought suggests that he thinks the woman is not acting “reasonably.” He continues to urge her to have an abortion, telling her that the operation is “simple,” seemingly unaware and unconcerned about the emotional complexity of an abortion for a woman.

I cannot decide the significance of the ending. The last of the conversation that precedes the man going into the station suggests an increased distance between the two, especially on the part of the woman as she “looked across at the hills on the dry side of the valley.” So I cannot decide if her final comment of “There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine,” is in defiance or compliance with the man’s wishes. By saying that “There’s nothing wrong with [her]” she might be defending her desire to keep the pregnancy; or, she might be agreeing to continue on her journey with the man. Does the reader really know for certain what her ultimate decision is? The story takes place while the couple is waiting for a train, which suggests that this woman has the forty minutes until the train comes to decide if she will stay with the hills and the river and all of those symbols of life and fertility and keep the pregnancy or board the train and have the abortion to keep the man.

Charles Crichton’s ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ (1988)

A Fish Called Wanda is probably one of my favorite films of all time. And I think that this movie offers an interesting reading.

The title of the film reveals nothing about the plot and instead focuses the viewer’s attention on an angelfish, a creature that is very beautiful and very fragile. This title causes the viewer to suspect that the fish will play an important part in the plot; however, the fish has a relatively minor role. I spent a good five minutes trying to reason the connection between Wanda and the fish called Wanda. But I think that the fish is merely an aquatic representation of Wanda.

Wanda’s sexuality is probably her greatest asset. Though Wanda is smart, she uses her body to control the men around her. The first scene illustrates a trend in her relationships with Otto and George. When Wanda tries to shush Otto from belittling Ken’s fish, Otto grabs her breast in an act of control. When George arrives at the apartment, she dutifully kisses him hello and George grabs her ass to show his control or ownership of her to Ken and Otto. Wanda’s allowing them access to her body has made them blind to the fact that she is manipulating both of them. Her relationship with Ken is slightly different. While Crichton included a scene in which Wanda uses her sexuality to control Ken and get information from him, her actions also have something of a maternal element. Wanda kisses Ken to help him, to stop him from stuttering, and the scene concludes with Wanda kissing Ken on the forehead and resting his head against her breast.

Language and mastery of language seem to be key factors in Wanda’s relationships. As several scenes reveal, Wanda finds language, particularly Italian and later Russian, arousing. Ken has a terrible stutter and cannot master one language let alone multiple languages, so he never had a chance at a romantic relationship with Wanda, which might explain her more maternal relationship with him. George, while not unintelligent, shows no evidence of knowledge of another language. He tries to impress Wanda by quoting Oscar Wilde, though I cannot find evidence that the quotation is actually an Oscar Wilde quotation. In the scene in which Wanda reveals her treachery, George disintegrates into screaming profanity; obviously, he could not be the man whom Wanda stays with. Otto is an idiot and Wanda recognizes his mistakes. He also speaks very crudely and is, as Archie notes, a “true vulgarian.” But Otto can pretend to speak Italian, which holds Wanda’s interest. However, Otto doesn’t actually speak Italian, only regurgitates menu selections and names of Italian dictators. He might entertain Wanda temporarily but not ultimately keep her interest.

Archie, however, has a superior grasp of language. He commiserates that Englishmen fear saying the wrong thing — he understands the delicacies of speech. Archie also can actually speak Italian, unlike Otto, as well as Russian. But despite his mastery of language, Archie does not use it to control Wanda as Otto does. When Otto feels jealous at Wanda’s comment that Archie is “kind of cute in a pompous sort of way,” he says that “Otto does not approve” and then begins “speaking Italian” to remind her of his sexual power over her. When Archie and Wanda attempt to have an affair, she asks him if he can speak Italian, which he does, but instead of continuing to use the Italian to control her, Archie begins to speak Russian instead, which Wanda finds more arousing. Later in the film, Wanda asks Archie to speak Russian and he refuses. He does not speak the language until they have come to an understanding and to equal footing, after he becomes involved in stealing the diamonds and fleeing the country.

Back to the fish. The angelfish symbolizes Wanda’s false image as a fragile thing, useful only for her beauty. Otto destroying the fish represents Wanda shedding her pretenses and finding a relationship in which she may be herself.

'In Country' by Bobbie Ann Mason (1985)

In Country was a bit of a disappointment for me. I read and really enjoyed Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories so my hopes were high. And while I enjoyed the novel, I had difficulty connecting with the characters and the setting of the story, which might have been purposeful on Mason’s part. She seems to suggest the impossibility of recapturing a historical event through narrative. All of her references to temporal and regional aspects of culture, such as the song titles and K-Marts and McDonald’s-es, prohibit both Sam and the reader from delving into the experience of another time.

Mason’s message of the novel is fairly obvious: wars may end but their effects never dwindle. Several recurring images in the novel underscore this theme: the “new” song by The Beatles, a group that disbanded in 1970, appearing on the airwaves in 1984; information about Sam’s father being revealed, such as the fact that he chose her name; references to the veteran whose daughter was affected by Agent Orange even though she was never in the war. Even Sam’s observations such as this one, “Down the hall, Emmett belched. It was the tomato ketchup in the lasagna,” are also similar images.

All the veterans in the novel seem to be haunted by the war in some way, even those who deny that they think about the war. These men reminded me of a study, which found that men who fought in Vietnam had difficulties reintegrating in U.S. society when they returned. In Vietnam, they had been acting out a “warrior” version of masculinity and lost that status upon returning. They did not know how to reconnect with normal masculine roles. Pete seems to be the best example of this observation, with his inability to keep a job and his supposed keeping of ears of the North Vietnamese. Pete even admits to Sam that he almost misses Vietnam in a way. Jim, though he doesn’t seem to valorize his experience in Vietnam, remains deeply involved with the War. He works with veterans affected by Agent Orange to demand reparation from the government and urges people to be tested. For the dance that he arranges, Jim tries to recreate objects and weapons from the war, though everyone notes that they are not the same — the guns are only toys — or they seem out of place — Emmett says that a rations can looks like an antique. Tom is also haunted by the war, the memories of which seem to render him impotent.

Emmett’s experience in Vietnam seems to have affected his gender identity, as he exhibits more feminine qualities: he has a deep connection to the home and tries to make it sound by fixing the crack in the foundation and flea bombing the house; similarly, he has something of a caretaker role toward Sam as he is the one who cooks for them; and finally, most obviously, Emmett cross-dresses. He associates the War with the masculine, evidenced in his comment that a cardboard tank at the dance looks like “an elephant’s peter.” According to Mark Graybill’s essay “Reconstructing/deconstructing genre and gender: postmodern identity in Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country and Josephine Humphreys’s Rich in Love,” his search to find the masculine is represented by his search for the egret as well as other bird imagery. I’m not sure I agree with Graybill, but I’ll return to that later.

Samantha is also on a quest similar to Emmett’s, though she is trying to connect to the feminine, according to Graybill. Even though Sam prefers the more masculine shortening of her first name and her father expected her to be a boy, I never thought that Sam exhibited particularly masculine qualities. Her quest throughout the novel, characterized by cat imagery, is for her father — the missing masculine influence in her life. Her mother did not remarry until Sam was older and, though she grew up with Emmett, he did not provide a fatherly influence nor a masculine one because, as stated earlier, he is dominated by the anima. Her father dying in the War has made Sam insatiably curious about the Vietnam War, but perhaps her endeavor to understand the experience is also her attempt to understand the masculine, or at least the “warrior” masculine that perhaps Sam has valorized due to her father’s death. Hearing the experience of the veterans — from their spouses, from journals, and from the veterans themselves — ultimately seems to disgust Sam. Learning of the soldiers collecting ears from the Vietnamese, her father poking a dead Vietnamese man with a stick and calling him a “gook” pushes Sam to revile those involved in the War. Only when Emmett reveals his experience does Sam come to something of an acceptance of what her father and her uncle had done.

So back to Graybill’s assertions that Emmett seeks the masculine and Sam the feminine. I think that actually it’s the opposite. Emmett’s quest is represented by his search for an egret, a bird he first saw in Vietnam. Like the other vets, Vietnam haunts Emmett and he, despite his dislike of the experience, does try to recapture it in some way. But unlike Pete and Jim who supposedly still own or try to recreate symbols of violence, Emmett is looking for a bird, something beautiful and alive rather than a force of violence and destruction. Samantha’s journey to understand the experience and the violence of the War is characterized by cat imagery: the haunting and fleeting Beatles’ song is entitled “Leave My Kitten Alone” and when she and Tom have their unsuccessful sexual encounter she feels for his erection and feels “a pile of kittens” instead. The two journeys are obviously related, and the relationship between the two representative animals is that of predator (cat) and prey (bird). Sam’s animal is associated with more masculine qualities, not Emmett’s. The climax of the novel happens during Sam’s night at the pond and her and Emmett’s confrontation the following morning. From her night at Cawood Pond, Sam feels as though she has finally connected with the experience of surviving in Vietnam — her search for the masculine has been successful. Emmett’s journey also comes to an end when he has a tearful, emotional outpouring, fully connecting to the feminine.

I do agree with Graybill that Sam’s experiences ultimately lead to her having a “healthfully androgynous ego.” The instigator of Sam’s journey seems to be her mother embracing the feminine roles of wife and mother, which disgust Sam. But through her quest, Sam seems to become more comfortable with her body. After her encounter with Tom, she has a different understanding of her body: “She imagined him driving up now. ‘I came over to play with your breasts,’ he might say.” Dawn’s pregnancy, which precludes Dawn’s desire “to play daddy” because she’s “sick of playing mommy,” and Sam’s mother’s home life, with her dull spouse and baby, repulse Sam at first, but by the end of the novel she seems more comfortable with her half-sister. She reconnects with her mother by giving her the cat statue. Her quest for the extreme masculine exhibited in war leads to her achieving a balance between the masculine and feminine. Emmett too finds that balance as he is able to smile, staring at the names of his friends at the Vietnam Memorial.

Walter Salles’ ‘Dark Water’ (2005)

U.S.-ian advertising for movies is terrible, and the trailers for Dark Water demonstrate this assertion. In the United States, a horror movie is conceived as a brainless hour and a half of “entertainment” that includes lots of screaming, lots of gore, lots of scares, and lots of female nudity usually. In Asia, a horror movie can fit that description, but it also has another incarnation. Many Asian “horror” movies are given the title only because they contain elements of the supernatural. There’s a haunting or a ghost or some bit of supernatural creepiness that might attract the attention of Vincent Price. But oftentimes the film is actually a character study and the supernatural creepiness is only an other-worldly manifestation of worldly problems. Such is the case with Dark Water. At the screening of Dark Water that I attended, some idiot on the back row heckled the last few minutes of the movie. That guy was thinking, “Where’re the tits? Where’s the blood at?”

The film’s assets:

  1. Acting. This film features some top notch actors who understand the depth of the material and do not treat it like your typical horror movie. Jennifer Connelly’s performance is excellent and she is ably assisted by Ariel Gade, who has way too much talent for a girl her age. John C. Reilly is also hysterical as the apartment manager.
  2. Direction. Walter Salles creates a moody atmosphere that serves his material well. He manages to strike a balance between the “horror” and the “drama” so that both aspects of the material work. He creates some genuinely creepy, tension-filled moments and really manages to sell Dahlia’s questioning of her sanity.

The film’s offenses:

  1. Saccharinity. Yes, Dahlia and Cecilia are cute, but at times they were just too cute.
  2. The ending. The ending….the ending seemed a little weak to me. I don’t have a suggestion of how one might alter it, but I didn’t feel satisfied by the ending.

I do recommend this film, even to big chickens like myself. Endure the spooky moments and one is treated to an interesting study of the bond between a mother and daughter.

“The Blow” by J.M. Coetzee (2005)

A man in his later years, riding his bicycle, gets slammed by a car. He is rushed to the hospital, where doctors decide he must have his right leg amputated. We learn how he enters upon the long process of dealing with this loss as, after a while, he prepares to return to his apartment.

Thus begins one of the more poorly written articles that I’ve read in a serious news source. It reads more like a freshman’s first college essay than an entertainment feature in a newspaper. Geez.

So is this a castration metaphor? Because I’m having a hard time thinking that it isn’t.

The main character finds himself in a particularly vulnerable position from the beginning of his ordeal. The doctor tells him while he’s under the haze of shock and anaesthesia that he must have his leg amputated. When Paul becomes fully conscious again, he feels as though the doctor stole something from him, even if the purpose of the procedure was to help him.

Paul’s relationships with his nurses seem to relate directly to his penis. ….Er, that sounds odd. Anyway, Paul mentions that his first nurse is “competant” but Coetzee’s tone indicates that her competancy is a negative rather than positive thing. She humiliates Paul by using baby talk, calling his penis a “willy” and jokingly telling him to ask permission for her to clean “his willy” when she bathes him. Marijana, however, is respectful of Paul’s privacy when she bathes him, adverting her eyes from his so that “he doesn’t see her seeing him.”

His amputation seems to emasculate Paul and yet he refuses to try prothesis so that he might be able to walk again. And without his leg, he is first belittled by Sheena, his first nurse, and then by an old lover who he feels would no longer be willing to sleep with him because of his stump. Paul seems to like Marijana because of her submissive tendencies around him — her presence does not threaten his masculinity as the competancy of Sheena and his lover.

When he meets Marijana’s children, he reflects that he will not be able to have children now. Paul is not very old so I suspect his amputation causes him to feel as such. Feeling unable to produce a family of his own, Paul adopts Marijana and her family. Lonely in his new confinement, he forms a bond with Marijana’s family. Marijana becomes his wife in a way and her children his grandchildren. He appreciate Marijana’s nursing, her care of him and he seems to want to reciprocate that care to her family. He loves Marijana, but it is not a love of passion or lust. He merely seems to like loving her because it makes him feel good.

‘The Virgin Suicides’ by Jeffrey Eugenides (1993)

Usually I do try to read books before I watch their movie counterparts, but I was unaware of Eugenides’ novel when I saw Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation. Now that I’ve read the novel I can attest to Coppola’s excellent interpretation. As an appreciator of literature, I can recognize the superior quality of the novel, but as a feminist I like the film more. I understand the allegorical aspect of the material, but the story — the novel in particular — paints these girls as victims of the male gaze.

This gaze ultimately seems to destroy the girls. To protect her children from the ugly things in life, Mrs. Lisbon adopts the male gaze, criticizing her daughters’ dress and sheltering them from interacting too much with young men. When Lux comes home late from the prom and Mrs. Lisbon realizes that Lux had allowed herself to become a victim of Trip’s gaze, she keeps them in their house, away from the corruptive influence of males. In their one night at prom, the Lisbon sisters finally had the opportunity to stop being idols and just be young women and they were rejected (Trip left Lux on the football field and Bonnie’s date never called her). As much as the boys pretend to want to know the truth, I think that they prefer their romantic visions of the Lisbons and would not have wanted further contact to ruin their fanciful images. Anyway, as well as being rejected as real people, Mrs. Lisbon prevents them from reaching out to new people, which they might have done after their prom date, by taking them out of school. Perhaps knowing that they could never live up to anyone’s expectations caused them to kill themselves. That bit at the end about “[it] only [mattered] we had loved them” is a little disturbing considering that their “love” might have killed the girls.

Eugenides makes an interesting statement about memory, the importance of memory, and how people rationalize the differences in memory. He also draws an interesting connection between the decay of a suburb and the dwindling life forces of these five young women.

Ron Howard’s ‘The Missing’ (2003)

I just watched this film for the second time recently and I was reminded of how much I liked it. The film is beautiful, the acting is excellent and the story is very interesting. I do admit that the storytelling is very formulaic in a sense — estranged father and daughter grow closer, the less confident and bratty daughter learns strength and humility, the bad guy is defeated — but these characters are sympathetic and interesting, thanks to the actors, and the formulaic storytelling is accomplished rather subtly. Maggie and Jones don’t embrace fondly at the end of the movie and it isn’t dwelt on any longer than necessary that one of Maggie’s daughters was the product of a rape.

Regardless of being a little formulaic, the plot does offer an interesting feminist reading. In retaliation of having their identity stolen by white folks, these Indians are interested by stealing and molding the identity of these young women. The women are taken from their families, stripped of their clothes and given baggy men’s clothing to wear. They are being taught to forget all semblance they have of themselves: their lineage, everyday habits, position in society (as indicated by the brujo stuffing dirt in Lilly’s mouth), and even their conception of their gender. The Indians want to see them as things to be sold and want them to think of themselves as things. When they are preparing the women for sale, the captors choose their clothing (or rather underwear) and paint their faces, putting the final touches on the women’s new identity as probably whores to whomever buys them. After the women escape, they immediately wash the make-up from their faces as an initial step in reclaiming their identity.

My only criticism of the film is the length. Even though it is an entertaining 2+-hour film, it does feel a little long. Though I don’t have much of suggestion of how one might shorten it.

Mary Harron’s ‘American Psycho’ (2000)

American Psycho is an incredibly strange, violent film. I’m not surprised, but I learned that the National Organization of Women spoke out against the book on which the film is based because of the extreme violence to women depicted in the novel. The Los Angeles chapter of NOW denounced it as “a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women.” I’ve not read the novel, but based on the film Bret Easton Ellis’ excess in violence matches the excess of the culture he is critiquing, that of American yuppie culture of the 1980s.

I don’t think that Ellis intends to glorify the violence that his main character inflicts on both men and women, but rather the violence, that could only be perpetrated by a man completely void of conscience and humanity, is the most extreme symptom of the disease of yuppie culture, the egotism, greed and superficiality being milder — in some cases only slightly milder — indications. In fact, it kind of reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm in a way. Like Atwood’s Rennie, Patrick Bateman has become so consumed by his outer shell that he has forgotten about what lies inside of him. His dismembering and consuming his victims seems like some disturbing, misguided way to reconnect with himself.

But I can understand NOW’s reaction. American Psycho is not a Schindler’s List — the violence is not meant specifically to evoke sympathy for these women but rather it is part of the make-up of a character. I suppose the question becomes where does one draw the line?

With the film version, I believe that director Mary Harron really tried to make the material more palatable to women. While the viewer is allowed into Patrick’s mind, he is not expected to find Patrick sympathetic. Rather, the sympathetic characters of the film are the women: Courtney, Christie, even Evelyn. In watching the deleted scenes, I think that Harron decided not to include one of them because it would have made Evelyn less sympathic when the break-up scene occurred. The women of the film are seen as disposable, but Harron emphasizes that the men are disposable too. Patrick is mistaken not once, but twice for another of his colleagues who probably wears the exact brand of suits, shirts, and shoes as he does.

So what is the significance of the ending? Did Patrick really kill those people or is he just crazy? I think that an argument can be made for both options.

Joon-ho Bong’s ‘Salinui chueok (Memories of Murder)’ (2003)

Memories of Murder is based on actual events of the 1980s when one of Korea’s first serial killers, who raped and murdered women, was never caught. The audience is aware from the beginning that the murder mystery part of the story will not have a satisfying resolution; however, Joon-ho Bong manages to deliver a tense two hours of storytelling.

The film’s assets:

  1. Direction and cinematography. This film was beautifully filmed and the beauty of the shots does not jeopardize or overshadow the content. Despite the pacing problems of the first 30-or-so minutes of the film, the direction is really excellent. The film employs an interesting mix of comedy, suspense and drama. With such serious subject matter, the comedy could have been a detraction but Bong makes it work.
  2. The characters. While the acting is good, it is not phenomenal, but the characters are very compelling. The character arcs are strong, but predictable; the greatest appeal is the mix of characters and their interaction.

The film’s offenses:

  1. Contrivance. So the Seoul detective guy went to his office and left a note on his desk that said, “Hey, I’m going to go beat up this suspect on the railroad tracks. If anything comes for me, you can find me there” so that the not-as-stupid detective could bring him the DNA results there? And come on! When the mentally handicapped boy was describing the crime I knew that he had witnessed the crime rather than orchestrated it because of the language that he used.
  2. Anvils. Yes, we get it: the main character is an incompetent idiot. Did we really need the sex scene in which he tells his partner, “I think it fell out”? (So not only is he incompetent, but he’s….never mind.) The script also telegraphs the Seoul detective’s turn to violence.

Despite its weaknesses Memories of Murder manages to deliver an entertaining two hours. The characters are strong and the story is compelling. Despite the slow start to the film, Bong keeps the viewer interested and watching.

'Blue Angel' by Francine Prose (2001)

Despite Swenson’s claims that his and Angela’s relationship was about “love,” I have to agree with Sherrie that his attraction to Angela had very much to do with his daughter and their estranged relationship. I’ve seen and read stories of pubescent teens developing attractions to older people when one of their parents is absent or distant, trying to replace parental attention with romantic attention. However, this story is the first I’ve read in which the roles have been reversed.

Usually an older character with an absent child forms an unromantic relationship with a surrogate child, but during their unfortunate and unsuccessful sexual encounter Swenson makes an observation that again reverses the usual roles:

Her nipples brush against his face. He takes one in his mouth, from which she gently extricates it with a gesture so instinctive, so sure, that Swenson thinks—God help him—of how Sherrie used to reclaim her breast after Ruby fell asleep nursing.

While Swenson really does seem to care about his wife and child, he seems frustrated with the monotony and little irritations of daily life with the same people. He likes the familiarity that he shares with his wife but interactions have become too complicated for him to handle. His relationship with Angela seems much less difficult — his trip with her to Computer City goes smoothly while his trip with Ruby involves many hassles. In fact, in their trip to Computer City Swenson notes that Ruby dresses and acts as if she is trying to be invisible. Indeed, Swenson notices this tendency in Angela when he first starts becoming aware of her.

Even though I found this novel enjoyable, it did not seem very woman-friendly while I was reading it. The two feminist characters in this novel do not come off very well, and Prose characterizes women who are concerned with sexual harassment as some kind of brainless cult. Really I think that Prose intends to criticize overly fervent women who want to interpret every person with a penis and a Y-chromosome as a misogynist and possible rapist. However, she presents the hyper-feminist “villains” very clearly and does not provide positive portrayals of feminists with more moderated viewpoints. After evidence of Swenson’s affair with Angela is revealed, Sherrie and Magda, the likable female characters, join the side of the feminist antagonists.

I also am toying with the idea that casting the women in this light was intended to create the greatest role reversal of the novel. Most rape cases are structured around proving that the woman “asked” for what happened to her — because women are expected to control their sexuality as well as men’s, they must be proven innocent rather than their attackers be proven guilty. In this sexual harassment “trial,” Swenson’s character is attacked while Angela’s is never examined. With her mercurial swings in behaviour toward Swenson, the reader suspects that Angela did intend to seduce him. And while the reader may not forgive Swenson for cheating on his wife and violating the college’s rule prohibiting sexual relationships between faculty and students, the reader does recognize that the presentation of Swenson’s character at the trial is unfair. Swenson does feel misrepresented at the trial, but he repeats several times that he prefers their inaccurate portrayal of him as an inappropriate pursuer of this young woman rather than the reality of his being a spineless simp who fell for her machinations. Something that most victimized women would find degrading — being portrayed as promiscuous or sexually assertive — is an empowering experience for Swenson.

Jonathan Demme's 'The Silence of the Lambs' (1991)

With the Hopkins-as-Lecter triumvirate of films, I did not make my usual efforts to see the films in their correct order. I saw Hannibal and Red Dragon on TNT before I watched The Silence of the Lambs. I’m not certain why I watched the sequels — I never thought that I would have the gumption to watch one of the crime thrillers based on Thomas Harris’ novels, let alone three of them. The original film of the series is lauded by the critics as the greatest and I agree. While I found the sequels hypnotic and engaging, the 1991 film is even more so.

The film’s assets:

  1. Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins delivers his most effective and most chilling portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in this film. In Clarice’s tension-filled walk down the cell block, she passes several creepy convicts, which culminate in the very obviously insane Miggs who handles the bars of his cell in an almost simian manner and hisses at Clarice that he “can smell [her] cunt.” (I hear “guts” when I watch the film, but I’ll trust Jodie Foster.) But none of them manage to be as terrifying as Lecter, who is merely standing in his cell. By his posture and carriage, Hopkins manages to convey Lecter’s refinement, insanity, confidence, and a million other intricacies of Lecter’s character. Speaking of refinement, I was disappointed that a man supposedly as refined as Lecter pronounced “Chianti” as “key-ann-tee” instead of “key-awn-tee.” I think the latter sounds more educated.
  2. Jonathan Demme. Of the three directors, Demme seems most adept at handling the tone of the film, given the subject matter. Demme demonstrates his obvious trust in his actors by using long, uninterrupted close-ups. Given the psychological nature of this film, these sustained shots allow the audience increased contact with the characters so that the audience may enter their psyches. And the direction of the night vision goggles scene is absolutely brilliant.

Jodie Foster’s performance was highly lauded by critics and she won an Academy Award. While I wouldn’t call her performance embarrassing, I did not find it as impressive as I expected. I’ve seen her deliver better performances in films like Nell and even A Very Long Engagement. Even though she was dealing with a less meaty script, I found Julianne Moore’s performance as Clarice Starling in Hannibal more compelling.

As with the other Lecter films, the villain of the film seemed underdeveloped. I realize that Lecter should be the most compelling criminal in the film, but I wish that Buffalo Bill had received a little more attention.

I’m so happy that I finally saw this film. Not only was it a cinematic treat, but now I understand some cultural references that I previously did not, like the Buffalo Bill section of Pamie.com and Stewie’s comment of “It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again” before he is lowered into a well in an episode of Family Guy.

Chistopher Nolan's 'Batman Begins' (2005)

After the horrible embarrassment that was Batman & Robin, I was dismayed when I heard about a new ‘Batman’ film set to hit theaters this year. Thankfully, Warner Bros. wrenched the reins from Joel Schumacher’s gaudy little hands and handed them to Christopher Nolan, best known for directing the indie thriller Memento. Nolan redirects the tone of the film from the over-the-top flamboyance of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin toward the darker, noir feeling of the first two films. But Nolan does not mimic Tim Burton’s style — he creates his own.

The film’s assets:

  1. The acting. Christian Bale, the fourth actor to don the mask and cape in the films, does not try to imitate the actors who came before him. Bale is indeed the first actor who actually develops Bruce Wayne/Batman into a real person — he makes Batman more than just the suit. Coming to Bale’s assistance is a cast of fine actors who deliver solid performances. Michael Caine’s portrayal of Alfred Pennyworth and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox are especially noteworthy. Cillian Murphy, who uncannily resembles Mike Erwin in this movie, is also terribly creepy as Dr. Crane/Scarecrow. Liam Neeson delivers a satisfactory but ultimately forgettable performance as Ducard.
  2. The action sequences. Nolan knows how to direct action sequences — he keeps them fast-paced and interesting. But if you enter the film with high hopes of seeing a lot of fists smashing into faces, you will probably be disappointed. The blood in this movie is very minimal. The way Nolan directs the action mimics Batman’s fighting style. Just like the bad guys, the audience sees his movements but not necessarily the effects.
  3. The nocturnal rodents. Bats are used the most effectively and to the greatest cinematic impact in this Batman installment.

The film’s offenses:

  1. Repeated dialogue. I will never understand the rule of Hollywood that says, “If a line is emotionally resonant the first time a character says it, it will be even better when it is repeated.” Even talented actors, like the ones in this movie, have trouble selling such instances.
  2. The underdeveloped romance. Katie Holmes and Bale show some definite chemistry in their first scene together in the kitchen, but the script fails to build their relationship to the point at which the audience feels a sense of loss when she “rejects” him. Despite the movie’s more numerous flaws, Spider-man succeeds at nurturing the chemistry between the romantic leads where this film fails.
  3. Continuity. There are a few continuity mistakes between this film and the preceding movies of the series: Jack Napier is not shown as the murderer of Bruce’s parents; Bruce first encounters bats before his parents die and they terrify rather than comfort him; Alfred has a coarser, Cockney accent. And I’m certain that greater Batman fans than I can name other inconsistencies. As I am not a reader of the comics, I do not know if the details this film presents are closer to the comics.

Batman Begins is arguably the greatest installment in the ‘Batman’ series. My mother raises the first film as a worthy contender, but I cannot compare the two. The Tim Burton installments should have been called ‘Joker’ and ‘Catwoman’ respectively — the villains of the films are more memorable than the Bat. Begins has Bruce Wayne/Batman at the heart of the film and the difference is readily apparent. And Nolan’s dark, gritty approach serves the material well.

Ken Kwapis' 'The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' (2005)

Why, oh why couldn’t it have been The Sisterhood of the Traveling Jeans? But my auditory discomfort aside, Ken Kwapis’ (Hey, I just looked him up and realized that he directed two episodes of Freaks & Geeks. You go, man.) film based on the novel by Ann Brashares is a solid motion picture with limited missteps that delivers two hours of entertainment.

The film’s assets:

  1. The acting. The performances delivered in this film by the female leads are all solid, with Amber Tamblyn and America Ferrara’s as the stand-outs. Of the four leads, Blake Lively has the shortest filmography and her lack of experience is evident in her performance. While she does not embarrass herself, she does not make Bridget as distinctive as the other three young women. Tamblyn and Ferrara’s stories are the most interesting, but Alexis Bledel manages to make her romance-by-rote engaging thanks to her acting skills and a charismatic co-star. Mike Vogel — Lively’s love interest — plays Eric as a bland pretty boy, which combined with Lively’s less-engaging performance serves to make Bridget’s story the least interesting. But the four leads are incredibly engaging when together. The scenes with Ferrara and Tamblyn are some of the film’s best moments. As a supporting character, Jenna Boyd also delivers a fine performance.

The film doesn’t really have any offenses, which is why it is perfect for its target audience of 12- to 16-year-old girls. But that does not mean that the movie is without flaws — the script is hardly perfect. Some weaknesses:

  1. Lena’s story is very formulaic.
  2. Carmen and Bridget’s stories end too succinctly.
  3. The screenplay drifts into the sappy and melodramatic a few times, but at other times the dialogue sparkles. Kwapis chose to allow the leads to overlap their dialogue in their scenes together, which gives the scenes a very natural feeling but causes the audience to miss some dialogue. I intend to rent the film when it comes out on DVD so that I can decipher more of the throwaway lines because the ones that I did catch were pretty funny.
  4. Even though Boyd is playing a 12-year-old dying of leukemia, some of her dialogue sounds a little mature for a girl of her age. And even with her old-soul-in-a-young-body persona Boyd doesn’t quite manage to sell some of the lines.
  5. Bridget’s story was also disappointing because it seemed as though the writers did not follow through completely. With the film’s target audience consisting mainly of young girls, I thought that screenwriters Delia Ephron and Elizabeth Chandler could have better handled Bridget’s reaction to losing her virginity. And even though they hinted at it, they did not come back to Bridget’s need for attention from an older man stemming from the lack of attention she was receiving from her father.

But the film’s missteps do not impinge on its overall effect. There is an honesty to these stories and their portrayals that makes them emotionally impactful, despite some manipulation involved in the telling.

'The Cutting Room' by Louise Welsh (2002)

Critics seem to be debating about how to classify Louise Welsh’s first novel: crime novel or something more? Personally, I have to call it something more than a crime novel. While there are elements of a detective/crime novel in The Cutting Room — Rilke is, after all, interviewing people to uncover information about a potential murder — Welsh’s primary concern seems to be her characters.

Unlike the usual likable, hopefully memorable detective/main character, creepy-enough-to-intrigue-readers-but-not-overshadow-future-adversaries villain and cast of vaguely drawn characters who service the plot of most crime novels, each of Welsh’s characters seem to pop from the page, from main character Rilke to tertiary characters like Inspector Anderson and Chris. Each has his/her very specific voice and weltanschauung. Welsh seems more interested in presenting a study of characters and of humanity than presenting a tension-filled mystery plot. In fact, the climax of the book, which aside from Rilke’s gumshoe legwork is the most crime-novel-like part of the book, feels artificially imposed on the text. The novel does not build to that realization but rather Rilke’s disheartened mourning of the woman he failed to help in the very last chapter. In fact, the climax further proves that The Cutting Room is not a crime novel: Rilke only seems to imagine Anne Marie’s cries for help as he runs to rescue her — perhaps he imagines them as the cries of the woman from the photograph — only to find that she has protected herself from the villain. Obviously with a main character named Rilke, Welsh has culled material from more literary sources and her use of the Gothic is particularly effective.

Rilke also distinguishes The Cutting Room from other crime novels. Rather than being motivated by money, revenge or even insatiable curiosity as most detectives are, Rilke seems motivated by his conscience alone. Even though he accepts his identity as an auctioneer — he tries to back out of the game with the other auctioneers at the bar but ultimately knows that he will play — he is deeply cynical about his profession. He tells the reader with a mixture of frankness and melancholy how an auctioneer sifts through a person’s possessions, determining what pieces of a person’s life have real value and will sell and what pieces will ultimately populate the graveyard at Bowery House. Rilke feels a connection with the woman in the photograph and feels compelled to ensure that she does become another “body” in the cemetery of the auction house. But Rilke is not cynical to the point of being bitter and unlikable. He is street-wise but the gruesome things that people do to each other still horrify him. Rilke is essentially a very ethical man and yet at the same time somewhat morally ambiguous. He participates in a few activities that some readers might not find too appealing, like his drinking, smoking and drug habits as well as his tendency to engage in various sex acts with strange men. How is the reader suppose to interpret his want to dominate the young man with whom he has sex and his picturing during his orgasm the dead woman who he feels compelled to help?

Welsh’s handling of Rilke’s sexuality is a difficult subject. At one point in the book, Rilke dismisses measuring his homosexuality by counting the number of Judy Garland records that he owns and Welsh does not try in the least to make Rilke seem effeminate. And yet he engages in the cruising scene, having anonymous sex with strangers and balking at the potential of a more long-term relationship with Prof. Sweetman at the end of the novel. So Welsh dismisses one stereotype only to use another. Les exhibits more of the “screaming queen” tendencies and while he is meant to provide comic relief at times Welsh never goes too far so that the reader cannot find Les a dangerous figure when she needs him to seem menacing. And Rilke feels genuine empathy for the other transvestites and transgenders whom he meets, going as far as attacking two men to keep a transgender from being exploited for mockery. Rilke’s identity as a gay man allows Welsh to make interesting observations about social interactions between the sexes and between sexualities.

While Welsh created some interesting female characters, I was a little disappointed that all of the females in the text seemed to need saving. And many of them used/sold their bodies to succeed in the world. I suppose that Anne Marie’s turning the victimizer into the victim suggests that woman has asserted her power and reclaimed her body, but the reader is not witness to that event but rather its aftermath.

'Wild Seed' by Octavia Butler (1980)

Anwanyu seems very much a product of the feminism of the 1970s, which, given the novel’s publication date of 1980, she probably is. As this novel’s depiction of the ultimate female or the ultimate feminine, Anwanyu has absolute control over her body — most importantly, probably, control over when she becomes pregnant.

Obviously one of the main concerns of this novel is the relationship between the sexes, explored through the relationship between Anwanyu and Doro. However, neither are defined by just one sex: Doro can possess the body of a woman and bear children and Anwanyu can become a man and conceive children with a woman. Therefore, I think that as well as representing man and woman, Doro and Anwanyu represent masculinity and femininity.

Doro is a rather amoral figure, living for centuries by preying on others, using bodies how, when, and for whatever he chooses. He has gained power by instilling fear in others, killing them if they do not cooperate. Anwanyu, many centuries younger than Doro, has lived relatively peaceably, obtaining her independence by gaining her village’s respect and trust, killing only when she is attacked. While Doro is interested in breeding and even the idea of making a family, he is not the great earth mother that Anwanyu is. From her body she can produce not only children, but medicines to heal and relieve and within her body she can communicate with animals and plants at a cellular level. Anwanyu nurtures where Doro destroys. Through the course of the novel, the masculine and feminine seem to fight each other until the end of the novel when both seem to realize that they exist better when they cooperate and complement each other rather than clash.

George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith’ (2005)

The Star Wars franchise began in 1977 and now, 28 years later, the saga is complete. And, wow, do I have pity for those people who have waited almost thirty years to discover the end, er, beginning of the story.

The film’s offenses:

  1. The script. The trick to prequels is maintaining dramatic tension despite the audience’s awareness of the events’ effects. Even I, a casual Star Wars observer, knew that Obi-Wan and Yoda would survive the attack on the Jedi, Anakin would become an unattractive, bald asthmatic and strap on his plastic suit, Padmé would produce two offspring, the babies would be split up, etc. Hindered by his ability to write dialogue that only barely resembles human speech, Lucas succeeds in creating that dramatic tension about 30% of the time. Here’s an impressive example of Lucas’ writing craft—and by “impressive” I mean “produces that vomit taste at the back of your mouth”:

    Anakin: You’re so beautiful.
    Padmé: That’s because I’m so in love.
    Anakin: No, it’s because I’m in love with you.
    Padmé: Are you saying that you’re blinded by love?
    Anakin: That isn’t quite what I meant.

    And here, I believe, lies the series’ greatest problem: the relationship between Anakin and Padmé. Lucas wants the audience to see Anakin/Darth Vader as a tragic figure because he embraces the Dark Side to save his wife. The first two movies should have, and indeed tried, to develop the relationship between the two so that the audience would understand Anakin’s feeling as though he had no other choice than to embrace the Dark Side to save Padmé. But see the above dialogue for an example of Lucas’ skill at writing love scenes. And he made the grave mistake of casting Hayden Christensen against Natalie Portman with whom Christensen has absolutely no screen chemistry. The actors try, especially in this film, and they even succeed in creating some sexual tension for the span of about five seconds, but even their great efforts cannot invest the relationship with romance and significance. Besides dialogue, Lucas’ other great script offense lies in the number of scenes he feels the story needs. Going back to dramatic tension, tension is built through sustained contact between characters and the audience. Having five lines of dialogue and then an annoying scene wipe to a few hours later does not build tension so much as destroy it. Perhaps Lucas intends the jumps to increase the film’s momentum, but they tend to have the opposite effect for me because the wait to discover pertinent information feels artificially imposed rather than an organic part of the storytelling.
  2. The acting. Lucas is not an actor’s director. I know that Natalie Portman can act—her recent performance in Closer is wonderful—but the three Star Wars films in which she participated have no evidence of her great acting ability. Even her brief appearance in Cold Mountain showcases more of her ability than her three Star Wars performances combined. Hayden Christensen has also displayed real acting talent in two of his films, Shattered Glass and Life as a House, but his performance in Episode II portrayed Anakin as a one-dimensional, petulant teenager. His acting is markedly improved in this prequel but does not reach the complexity he displayed as Sam, for example, in Life as a House, a young man not unlike Anakin. Ian McDiarmid offers the most offensive performance of the film as Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious. The film’s limited sets must have his teeth marks on every prop. Granted, McDiarmid manages to be genuinely creepy at times but his melodramatic performance ruins many of the dramatic moments of the film.
  3. Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side. That was it? That was it? Man, that sucked. I can think of at least five other ways to play out that moment that would have been more realistic and more dramatic. In Lucas’ version, Anakin is lecturing Mace Windu about the “Jedi way” two minutes before he says, “Sure, wrinkly master, sir, I’ll be a sith. Do I get a nifty cape too?”

And speaking of a cape, way to telegraph Anakin’s turning by dressing him in black, giving him a scar and bad hair. All he needed was a British accent, which he inexplicably slipped into every now and then anyway. (Lucas couldn’t have used another take or looped those lines?)

The film’s assets:

  1. The visual effects. As usual, Lucas presents a visually impressive film. Though I hesitate at whether to put the visual effects as an asset or an offense. I suppose the effects are truly an asset because people will want to watch this film again to experience the detail of the visual landscape. However, I think that Lucas’ obsession with visuals hinders him as a filmmaker. He becomes so concerned with effects that everything else becomes secondary: the story, the characters, the pacing, etc. To repeat one of my critiques, Lucas has many more scenes than necessary, probably to service his desire to impress the audience with visionary effects. And this film suffers the same fate as The Matrix Reloaded: some of the effects do not look real enough so that the viewer feels as though she is watching a video game instead of a film. At this point, Lucas should have lost the live action actors and made Episode III a digital animation film. The original trilogy’s effects were not nearly as sophisticated, but the films felt more real because the sets were real and not a green screen and the robots and monsters were practical rather than digitally inserted. Even though Lucas’ saga is supposed to take place in another world, I want to feel as though it could occur in a real world and not a land of digital animation.
  2. The intercuts. Lucas manages some effective intercutting between the fight with Yoda and Darth Sidious and the fight with Obi-Wan and Anakin and between Anakin’s death/rebirth as Darth Vader and Padmé’s death and the birth of Luke and Leia.

I can honestly call this film the best of the prequels, but that statement does not mean much. Episode III is entertaining enough and, of course, visually impressive, but Lucas has finished his epic series with a decent film rather than a great one.

'Embroideries' by Marjane Satrapi (2005)

Marjane Satrapi’s Embroideries culls similar source material as her autobiographical graphic narrative Persepolis, which depicts the conservative political climate in Iran after the revolution of the late 1970s. While Persepolis is personal in the sense that it is Satrapi’s story of growing up in pre- and post-revolution Iran, it has a larger scope as it also describes the effects of the revolution on Iran at a national scale. Embroideries is a more personal novel, occurring during the span of an afternoon and depicting the conversation of nine women having tea.

In Persepolis, Satrapi used a traditional panel form in telling her story, but in Embroideries she abandoned the panels.


In an interview with Fire on the Prairie, Satrapi comments that she did not use panels to facilitate and mimic the fluidity of conversation. Indeed, the lack of panels allows Satrapi to move from past to present – from the conversation to a memory – and allow her characters to interrupt each other, returning abruptly to the present again. But without boxes, this conversation seems less defined by time or by space. Satrapi’s drawing style is very minimalist: she draws her characters and whatever furniture they are sitting on or objects they might be touching but rarely provides details of the background. There are definite indications of Iranian culture in this novel, but often they come as a surprise. When Satrapi recounts a story in which two women are seen outside in the street, it was jarring for me as the reader to see them suddenly wearing hijab – I was very abruptly reminded of the cultural context of the story. Persepolis can only occur in a specific time and place, but Embroideries is a more universal story.

However, the very candid conversations about sex in which the women engage are not found in every culture. Most people view Iranian women as sexually repressed and oppressed, therefore the explicitness of the stories these women tell might be shocking to some readers. Indeed, I think that Satrapi intends to stretch people’s comprehension of the sex lives of Iranian women. One of the women, a mother of five, has never seen a penis and the women discuss hymen restoration surgery – the title is actually a reference to a slang term for such surgeries – but most of the women speak freely of enjoying sex.


Satrapi’s drawing style fascinates me because the white space seems to define the black areas instead of the opposite.

Embroideries strikes me as a story or example of survival. The title, like the women in this novel, is subversive. The idea of “embroideries” calls to mind afternoons of women sewing together, rather than the more disturbing connotation of hymen reconstruction to prevent women from being harmed for not being virgins when they marry. I do not think that Satrapi intends to criticize these women who have embroideries – as her grandmother says, “If people want to be sewn up, let them be sewn up” – but rather she is presenting the situation in Iran as it is. As disturbing as hymen reconstruction might seem to a woman like myself, Iranian women might see it as a logical solution for wanting to have premarital sex without taking the risk of not being a “virgin” on their wedding night. They are adapting to their cultural climate, seemingly conforming to the establishment while actually subverting it.

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948)

I was not overwhelmed by this story but I do not feel as though reading it wasted my time. I think that Jackson had an interesting premise, but the ending did not offer enough of a punch. In the beginning of the story, Jackson tried to make the lottery seem so benign that within a few paragraphs I guessed that someone was going to die at the end. Granted, I did not suspect that the townspeople would use the pile of rocks that the children gathered gleefully at the beginning of the story.

When does this story take place? The town is called a “village” and the relationships between men and women do not seem to be particularly modern. But Mr. Summers is wearing “blue jeans.” Shirley Jackson lived from 1919-1965, but elements of the story seem to pre-date this time period. So is Jackson suggesting that this story is taking place in the future perhaps? When society has regressed?

I wish that the reader had more context about the origin of the lottery. Is the lottery meant to prevent murders by allowing everyone to purge violent tendencies? Is a socially acceptable murder meant to discourage others? Or is the lottery a way to curb population growth? Or is the society in the same state as the world of Delicatessen and the only available meat comes from people? I wish the reader had more information. Even a brief description of what the village folk do with the corpse would have been helpful.

Jackson very obviously is exploring the darker aspects of tradition in this story. Traditions can be nice—I enjoy my Christmas Eve cup of milk tea with my mother even though I don’t celebrate anymore—but traditions also act as a shield against progress. I cannot think of the name of the golf course off hand, but I remember a couple of years ago the club’s major argument against letting women join their prestigious organization was that the club had been traditionally composed of men. Considering her era, I can understand why this subject might be of interest to Jackson. This story also suggests that all humans have innate tendencies toward extreme violence. Jackson insinuates that people need someone to victimize and that violence becomes easier when many people attack one.

“Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle” by Ellen Gilchrist

From Lin Tan’s simplified speech to the more formulaic “man meets woman, man and woman fall in love, man and woman live happily ever after” plot, “Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle” exists in that romantic realm of fairy tales.

Both of the main characters live in a romantic surreality. Lin Tan is a geneticist who works with fetuses, a time of a person’s life that everyone experiences yet no one remembers. Humans can observe the fetus’ experience in the womb but cannot recreate the experience or remember their experience. Therefore, the fetus’ time in the womb is magical, and Lin Tan describes his work with fetuses as magical or in rather magical terms. His practice of Zen meditation also elevates him beyond reality in a way.

At the place where her car had been, several pigeons flew down from a roof and began to peck at the sidewalk. Lin took that for a sign and went back into the hotel and sat in meditation for an hour, remembering the shape of the universe and the breathtaking order of the species. He imagined the spirit of Margaret and the forms of her ancestors back a hundred generations. Then he imagined Margaret in the womb and spoke to her in a dream on the day she was conceived.

From his position to which meditation lifts him, he feels as though he can communicate with Margaret in a meaningful way. Lin Tan is also captivated by poetry. He envies and respects Margaret for her father being a poet. Margaret also seems consumed by her father’s poetic world. She continually compares Lin Tan to her father and seems enchanted by him because of the connection.

Formation and development seems to be important in this story. Part of the attraction between Margaret and Lin Tan seems to stem from their interest in how things become. Lin Tan, as mentioned, studies fetuses and Margaret studies the development of language. She teaches first-graders because she is interested by their discovering how to form language on paper as words and then stringing the words into sentences. The fact that these similarities attract them to one another interests me because they meet over destruction. Margaret wanders to the bridge where she encounters Lin Tan because an acquaintance had committed suicide there recently.

I have not read any more of Gilchrist’s work, but from what I have read about her in critical texts, she likes romantically pairing characters from opposite backgrounds. Roy Hoffman notes in his review of Light Can Be Both Wave and Particle,

In previous works the white Southern woman, Protestant or Roman Catholic, who becomes involved with men of markedly different backgrounds usually writes her own prescription for failure.

However, in this story Margaret and Lin Tan’s relationship does not fail. As the title implies, “light can be both wave and particle”—people from two very different cultures still have something in common. Some unnamed element of human nature connects them. The ending of this story, with Margaret’s father challenging Lin Tan to a game of chess, suggests a number of possibilities for the future of these young lovers, as many as there are moves in a chess game.

Miguel Arteta’s ‘The Good Girl’ (2002)

For most people routine is comforting. We rely on our lives being predictable and change is something that usually causes anxiety and turmoil. But Miguel Arteta’s film The Good Girl offers an interesting portrayal of the life of a woman for whom routine has become smothering.

The film’s assets:

  1. The script. Mike White’s script is probably the film’s strongest asset. It is perceptive and funny; the dialogue is witty and the characters are quirky, without being too over-the-top, and multi-dimensional.

    Cheryl: You’re going to want to take a whole bottle of this home with you. It’s got quite a lot of ingredients in it, so you’re getting a good deal. It’s got ginkgo extract in it. Do you know what that is?
    Big Haired Woman: No.
    Cheryl: It’s extract of the ginkgo, and it makes your skin real slick so that any liquid will roll right off you, be it water, or lemon juice, or urine. I’ll put it in a bag for you.

    All of these characters are trying to escape in some way: Corny through religion, Gwen through her diet, Cheryl through her random bursts of profanity and insults, Bubba through marijuana and Justine, Phil through pot as well. Justine is trying to escape through having a child, but Phil’s sterility has prevented her. Holden and Justine try to escape the banality of their lives through their affair; however, Justine finds her relationship with Holden another trap. That relationship does give her the baby that finally allows her some semblance of an escape.

  2. Jennifer Aniston’s performance. Aniston’s portrayal of Justine breaks her from her Friends image. Her low-key performance effectively conveys Justine’s feelings of loneliness and entrapment. John C. Reilly and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performances also deserve a mention.

The film’s offenses:

  1. Pacing. I love the script, but the film does tend to lag at times. The bit with Bubba and Justine could have been cut from the film without damaging the overall story. But it does have the interesting effect of making Justine more sympathetic to the audience rather than less likable. The narration….eh. I think that perhaps it detracts rather than adds to the films at times. I like bits of the narration very much, but I think that it could have been used more sparingly.

Okay, I have to address this bit from Roger Ebert’s review of this film:

Certainly the last big scene between Aniston and Reilly is an unexpected payoff, delivering an emotional punch while at the same time we can only admire Aniston’s strategy involving the father of her child. She says it’s Phil’s, and that claim cannot be disproved on the basis of Phil’s information; having confessed to cheating, she allows him to suspect someone who could not have a black-haired child; therefore, the father is the dark-haired Phil.

First of all, it should be “Justine’s strategy” not “Aniston’s”. And, more importantly, his genetic theory is pretty wrong. Justine has dark hair so even though she points the finger at Corny, who has blond hair, as the person with whom she had been unfaithful they could have still produced a dark-haired child together because blond hair is a recessive trait.

“Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep” by Amy Hempel

I was pleased to find a piece of Amy Hempel’s work in a short story collection because I have seen her work lauded by many sources. Based upon my impressions of this story, her praise is well-deserved. And I want to learn how to knit. Well, I wanted to learn how to knit, but after reading this story knitting seems a little pathetic.

This story deals with abortion in an unexpected, in my opinion, way. While I liked Alice Walker’s “The Abortion”, I didn’t find the content too surprising. But Hempel’s using knitting as a surrogate for reproduction was truly unique.

Learning to knit was the obvious thing. The separation of tangled threads, the working-together of raveled ends into something tangible and whole—this mending was as confounding as the groom who drives into a stop sign on the way to his wedding. Because symptoms mean just what they are. What about the woman whose empty hand won’t close because she cannot grasp that her child is gone?

I’m still trying to puzzle out this paragraph. It quite clearly introduces the idea that the main character has become consumed by knitting as a “symptom” of some emotional experience—an abortion as the reader learns later. The phrase that most puzzles me is “this mending was as confounding as the groom who drives into a stop sign on the way to his wedding.” “Confounding.” Why does she use “confounding” there? Perhaps Hempel is trying to emphasize the apparently contradictory actions: a man on his way to a supposedly joyous occasion causes tragedy by driving into a pole; a woman who has just destroyed a “child” spends all of her time creating things. But where is the paradox in a mother unable to close her hand?

I also found this passage intriguing:

I remembered when another doctor made the news. A young retarded boy had found his father’s gun, and while the family slept, he shot them all in bed. The police asked the boy what he had done. But the boy went mute. He told them nothing. Then they called in the doctor.
“We know you didn’t do it,” the doctor said to the boy, “but tell me, did the gun do it?”
And yes, the boy was eager to tell him just what the gun had done.
I wanted the same out, and Dr. Diamond wouldn’t let me have it.

What does she want the out from? Conceiving the child or aborting the child? Or maybe both? Perhaps this suggestion sounds a little silly, but I would imagine that an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy might make a woman feel as though her body had betrayed her. The gun (her reproductive system) had done it and not her. Her boyfriend(?) has a similar reaction to her being pregnant, saying that “he had never made a girl pregnant before. He said that he had never even made a girl late.”

Translation of the title: “Begin, Slip Together, Increase, Continue, Repeat.” I’m trying to figure out the significance of the title. Obviously, it is significant to the main character’s obsession with knitting. But does the title suggest something besides knitting? Like sex, maybe? Eh, probably not. I considered the possibility given that the story pertains to reproduction, but Hempel only discusses pregnancy really and not the sex that causes it. And “begin, slip together, increase, continue, repeat” doesn’t have the same resonance with reproduction as it does with sex.

Besides serving as some kind of penance, knitting also seems to provide the main character with an elite group to join. When the main character finally sees Dale Anne’s baby, she instantly wishes that she had what she does not. However, while she cannot understand Dale Anne’s position, she can understand the language of knitting:

I scan the instructions abbreviated like musical notation: K 10, sl 1, K2 tog, psso, sl 1, K2 to end. I feel I could sing these instructions. It is compression of language into code; your ability to decipher it makes you privy to the secrets shared by Ingrid and the women at the round oak table.

She also mentions at the end of the story the few women of Fair Isles who know how to knit, who knit with undyed wool because there is no lichen to color the wool. Denied the possibility to reproduce, this woman has submerged herself in an activity associated mostly with women, an activity that few women still pursue.

Niels Mueller’s ‘The Assassination of Richard Nixon’ (2004)

This film is like a modern-day Taxi Driver….only not because the story takes place during 1974. Anyway, the plot of the film is similar to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver: a man’s extreme social and physical isolation drive him to madness and violence.

I found this film quite compelling, probably because Sam Bicke’s thoughts about modern life are not so very different from my own. The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a rather brilliant character study of an idealist crushed by his perceived imperfections of society.

The film’s assets:

  1. Sean Penn’s performance. I keep reading in various reviews that Sean Penn has proved himself to be one of the greatest actors of his generation. And while I thought that his performance in Mystic River was overly lauded by critics, he is quite good in this movie. In his carriage, his gestures, his facial expressions, Penn conveys this man’s social awkwardness and pathetic eagerness. But he does take it over-the-top at times.

Because of her admittedly impressive turn in 21 Grams, Naomi Watts has been receiving a lot of praise from critics. Besides the aforementioned performance, Watts has yet to really impress me with her acting talent. Her performances in this film and I [Heart] Huckabees are good but not great. Don Cheadle provides solid support as Bonny, but the real standout supporting performance is Jack Thompson as Jack Jones. He really manages to sell the sleazy salesman type.

The film’s offenses:

  1. The narration. Maybe I’m being too hard about this aspect of the film. The screenplay was based on a real events so perhaps the real Sam Byck sent such tapes to Leonard Bernstein. However, in a film format the narration becomes superfluous. The viewer can understand Sam’s state of mind and his reasons for doing what he does without the aid of the voice over. If Mueller wanted to include the tapes for historical accuracy, then perhaps including a brief narration over the final shot of Sam racing a toy airplane around his apartment would have been appropriate. The film-length narration, however, becomes annoying. And hearing Sean Penn say “maestro” really took me out of the film.
  2. The “zebra” scene. The credibility of this film rests heavily on Sean Penn and the screenplay’s ability to sell Sam as a pitiable human being. The scene in which Sam suggests that the Black Panthers change their name to the Zebras in order to expand their membership to white people is laugh-out-loud funny. It provides a light moment amongst many heavy ones, but it paints Sam’s idealism as laughable, which affects his credibility.

I cannot classify the screenplay as either an asset or an offense. Obviously, I had a few problems with the script—the narration and the inclusion of the “zebra” scene—and Mueller and his co-writer Kevin Kennedy seemed to be trying a little too hard to make Sam pathetic. But I cannot dismiss the screenplay. Without Sean Penn’s performance the screenplay might have resulted in a mediocre film, but it isn’t terrible enough for me to consider it an offense.

Speaking of 21 Grams, which features another fine performance by Sean Penn, Sam reminds me of Benicio del Toro’s character. When Jack Jordan kills Cristina’s husband and children with a truck he thought God had put into his hands, he has a crisis of faith and of self, wondering why God wanted him to kill people, and ultimately becomes self-destructive. Was he such a terrible person? Jack Jordan is a warning against brands of Christianity that emphasize God’s will over human will. While Sam Bicke does not seem to practice Christianity, he does stringently subscribe to another religion: the American religion. Bicke so completely believes in the American Dream that when he is unable to attain it, rather than blaming himself as Jack Jordan does, he blames the easiest target, Richard Nixon, but also becomes self-destructive.

“Love, Forever” by Joyce Carol Oates

Yeesh, what a disturbing story. I read the first bit last night before falling asleep, so after I read the second part today I re-read the beginning and shivered. If someone had given me this story without an author name attached, I could have made an educated guess that Joyce Carol Oates was the author because of the characterization of the main character and the descriptions of violence.

In her essay “Women and Madness in the Fiction of Joyce Carol Oates,” Charlotte Goodman notes, “Oates’s female characters often experience acute psychological malaise because of their powerlessness, and many ultimately become suicidal or psychotic.” Or, in this case, homicidal. Goodman’s essay concentrates mainly on Oates’ female characters in her novels, which, understandably, receive more character development and background story than the main character of this very brief short story. Thus, one cannot conclude whether the main character’s mother influenced her actions, as Goodman notes, but some of Goodman’s other observations are pertinent: the main character does expect the attentions of a man to validate her existence and, ultimately, her “search…to better [her] status or find happiness and fulfillment through relationships with men, marriage, and motherhood…ends in failure.”

In a story about a mother killing her children in order to keep the affections of a man, probably one of the creepiest sentences to use as the final sentence must be, “Sherri was the one Mommy always loved best.”

Oates uses an interesting style of writing for the second part of the story. Her sentences seem hurried or child-like and lacking proper punctuation. For example:

The entire day, the sun was hidden behind clouds, one of those gauzy gray days you feel like screaming but she was calm, she was in control. Six-year-old Tommy ran inside when the school bus let him off all excited saying the bus driver had almost hit a buck in the fog and she smiled and kissed him and walked past as if she hadn’t heard. She’s been smiling all day. It wasn’t practice, it was her natural self: as, in high school, she’d smiled all the time. She was waiting for a phone call, she’d left a message on the answering service of one of the girls she used to work with, when she was working, and when the call came she had something planned to say she’d memorized, a strange man prowling the woods behind the trailer, a man with a beard, or maybe without a beard, probably a hunter, she hadn’t wanted to stare out at him wasn’t worried really but she’d mention it, then talk of something else. Not too much detail—that gave you away. From TV you learned that.

The sentence structure seems to be somewhere between stream-of-consciousness and….uh, not stream-of-consciousness. (How would you describe it?) Oates’ writing style seems indicative of the main character’s machination and excitement and, perhaps, her psychosis as well. The style also offers the reader access to the character’s mindset, but doesn’t quite submerge the reader in her thoughts as a complete stream-of-consciousness style would have.

Nicole Kassell’s ‘The Woodsman’ (2004)

I must recognize both director Nicole Kassell and screenwriter Steven Fechter for the courage involved in attempting to portray a sympathetic pedophile. And the result of their attempts is an unsettling, disturbing and yet poignant and very human film.


  1. Kevin Bacon’s performance. While all of the performances in this film are solid, Kevin Bacon is outstanding as Walter. He was a good choice to play this role because, come on, he’s Kevin Bacon. He’s sexy in an I-can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-why kind of a way; he has a boyish, likable smile and those big blue eyes that can look so, so sad. But he’s also an incredible actor who prefers understated to overly dramatic. In every moment of this film, Bacon conveys that demons lurk beneath Walter’s surface without any gnashing of teeth or twirling of a dark moustache. He easily switches from conflicted and tormented to creepy and revolting as Walter decides to follow a girl in a mall or talk to Robin.
  2. The screenplay. The script was adapted from a play, but it doesn’t feel like a play. Even good play-to-screen adaptations like Closer tend to betray the format of their source material. But Fechter’s adaptation of his play manages to avoid the telling signs, such as excess dialogue, long scenes in one space, and limited locations. The screenplay also succeeds because it trusts the actors to convey emotions and the audience to draw conclusions. Also, the image of the title is used effectively and not too obviously. Walter is a “woods man” in that he works with wood for a living, but also his dream of a molestation and his near-molestation of Robin both occur in woodsy areas. The more obvious woodsman image that Fechter includes—the woodsman in “Little Red Riding Hood” who cuts open the wolf’s stomach and frees an unharmed Little Red Riding Hood—also applies as Walter stuggles to be a woodsman and not a wolf with Vickie, Cherub, and Robin.
  3. Sound. Kassell uses sound very effectively and very subtly in this film. She unobtrusively takes away sound as Walter gives into his desires and then suddenly brings back the sound as he is jarred into reality.


  1. All the incidences of molestation. The contrivance fairy seemed to wave her wand quite a bit in this film. Walter happens to pursue a relationship with a woman who was molested by her brothers as a girl and does not hate them. He happens to live across the street from an elementary school where another pedophile is trolling. He happens to try to seduce a girl whose father is molesting her. This film makes it seem like every male likes molesting little girls. Granted, there is a high percentage of women who are molested at some point in their lives, but I don’t think that suggestion was on the film’s agenda.
  2. Inequitable nudity. I don’t mind nudity in films, but I am a proponent of equal opportunity nudity. Kyra Sedgwick’s breasts made an appearance, but there was no reciprocal shot of Kevin Bacon. And why not? The guy loves being naked. I bet he would have allowed a butt shot. Well, I guess I can try to rationalize the instance of inquitable nudity in this film because the sex scenes actually serve a purpose. In the first scene, Vickie has opened up more than Walter has, thus the breasts and less of Walter’s body. But in the second scene, I believe that he has revealed his secret by that point, so seeing more of Walter’s body would not be inappropriate. In the third scene both are covered because Walter is distancing himself from Vickie and is retreating further into his old practices with girls. So, yeah, still irked about the nudity.

Kassell does not ask the audience to like or even to sympathize with Walter, merely to try to understand him. And even though I was still repulsed by Walter on some level at the end of the film, I wanted him to succeed. I rallied for Walter to resist temptation.