'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.