Tuesday, January 31, 2012

booknotes: inseparable

Recently, thanks to Danika the Lesbrarian, I became aware of novelist Emma Donoghue's Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). A perfect read for the winter holidays! While I've long been aware of Donoghue's nonfiction work as a literary historian, my previous encounters with her work have been her more widely-read fiction -- specifically the cross-cultural love story Landing (2007) and just this month Kissing the Witch (1997), a collection of re-visioned fairy tales "in new skins." I really enjoyed my foray into her nonfiction writing, and am looking forward to checking out her other works of literary-historical exploration.

Inseparable is a fairly quick -- yet still substantive -- read, charting the themes of "desire between women" in Western literature from 1100 to the present. I recently wrote a disappointed review of Phyllis Betz' The Lesbian Fantastic, a similar project of analysis which focused specifically on lesbian genre fiction. The biggest problem I identified in Fantastic had to do with the issue of defining "lesbian" authorship, a question which Donoghue jettisons immediately in her introduction by observing, "I do not much care who wrote [stories of desire between women], nor why. What interests me is the stories, and the ways they connect" (7). She also cautions against reading her work in search of historical examples of lesbians past: "I will be looking at relations between women, rather than the more historically recent issue of self-conscious sexual orientation ... The past is a wild party; check your preconceptions at the door" (5). The result is a delicious and illuminating romp through nearly one thousand years of literary tradition in which Donoghue identifies six distinct narrative clusters: (1) "travesties," narratives where cross-dressing by women and/or men which results in a same-sex pair, (2) "inseparables," passionate friendship between two women in the face of forces attempting to separate them, (3) "rivals" in which a man discovers the rival for his beloved's affections is another woman, (4) "monster" lesbians who seduce and destroy an innocent, (5) "detection" of the criminal sort results in the discovery of a same-sex relationship, and (6) coming "out" narratives in which a girl or woman discovers her capacity for same-sex desire and finds her life irrevocably changed as a result.

I was tickled (and somewhat abashed) to realize how many of these durable themes I'd unwittingly picked up and re-tooled for my f/f slash fiction involving Sybil and Gwen from Downton Abbey. A young upper-class woman seduced by her maid? Check. The awakening of same-sex desire as a pivotal moment of personal growth? Check. The haven of an urban environment/queer subculture? Check. The attention to creating a domestic "gone to housekeeping" environment for one's protagonists? Check. The devil-may-care lesbian, who understands her precarious social status, but embraces her desire anyway? Check. The incorporation of early sexological terms and frameworks in the characters own self-understanding? Check. I could go on. It's sort of comforting even as it is a little embarrassing, to realize how in debt we all are to literary tradition for our own vocabularies of passion and intimacy.

What I most appreciate, in the end, about Donoghue's expansive approach to reading "desire between women" in literature is that her reading as a critic mirrors the way so many of us read as, well, ordinary readers. I understand the social-historical forces that have led people to bemoan the invisibility of "lesbian" literature, or the dearth of queer characters in fiction, and the preponderance of unhappy endings to the fictions that do exist. At the same time, I think there is a place to recognize the way in which readers engage with -- and retool -- what literary narratives are available to them. The passion expressed before the final death scene may be more important to the reader than the tragic ending. The deux ex machina of a last-minute gender-swap (so that the lovers can marry/procreate) often matters little, in Donoghue's examples, to the lovers themselves whose passion for one another is unshaken by the reveal of the cross-dressing character's "real" sex. By setting aside identity categories as a selection tool, and instead focusing on the words and actions of actual characters, Donoghue shows us how persistently women's desire for other women has appeared in Western literature, even as the writers and readers of such literature denied knowing such passion could, in fact, exist.

What this suggests, intriguingly, is that on one hand we (at a cultural level) realize and acknowledge that same-sex desire and intimacy exists ... while on the other we fairly consistently write around it, insisting it is something unspeakable, invisible, and materially impossible. Sexual desire between women is, in other words, doing a bang-up job of hiding in plain sight. Obviously stories about same-sex desires and relationships between women per se do have more cultural legibility in the early twenty-first century than they have been in previous eras. Yet reading Inseparable I couldn't help but think of my own frustration in locating f/f fan fiction, whereas m/m pairings are so ubiquitous that the term "slash fiction" is often used interchangeably to mean the pairing of two male characters in a sexual relationship. While Inseparable makes the persuasive argument that women's passion for one another is there if only we look for it, the outstanding question in my mind is why it seems so perennially difficult for us to see.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

What Happens When I Think Too Much

Okay, so here's an unfinished thought I've been kicking around for awhile: what's with fandom?

And I don't mean this in the sense that "why are people fans of things" or "why are fans crazy," because I'm a fan of things and (sometimes) I'm sure I behave in totally certifiably crazy ways, particularly when my fandom(s) are invoked.

One night last week, I was having a hard time getting to sleep, so I was poking through Anna's backlog of Fandom Secrets posts. In case you don't know, FS is a totally charming LiveJournal blog along the lines of PostSecret except slightly less emotionally maiming. You write up your fandom secret -- whatever it may be -- in some graphic form, submit it, and see it posted. Tah-dah!

What gets me is how many of these secrets in any particular post have to do with these deep anxieties people apparently feel over joining or participating in or leaving any particular fandom. During my sleepless drift through FS posts, I lost track of how many individual secrets expressed that anxiety in some way or another: "I want to get into Doctor Who...Supernatural...Harry Potter...anime...Star Wars...D&D...Sherlock...Being Human...Downton Abbey," for Christ's sake! "...but I'm worried I won't fit in...older fans will judge me...people will be mean to my artwork...writing...fanvids...thoughts about characters...preferred pairing..." Fill in further blanks here as you desire.

Really? Seriously, people? Fandoms are meant to be fun! If they're causing you this much anxiety -- it's probably not fun! Go find something that is, for heaven's sake!

Not that my fandoms don't cause me a certain amount of anxiety but it's not usually due to the other people in it. Yeah, okay, I worry about the Supernatural fanfic I write because I'm a perfectionist and, as soon as any given story is posted, I can always think of about 15 ways I could have written it to make it better. Well, so what? I enjoyed it; the people who read it seem to enjoy it; and I'm never going to be Misachan or Lamardeuse or, god help me, Wordstrings. Eh. That's okay, too (most days, anyway.)

But I certainly don't express the kind of bone-deep anxiety that some of these cards seem to. Really, if you're worrying about it this much, it's not fun and it's meant to be fun.

And who says you have to "join" a fandom anyway? It's not like you have to ask it to the prom or worry if it's going to call you the next morning.

You watch the show, listen to the band, read the book, see the movie -- and that's it. You can still call yourself a fan as far as I'm concerned. You like it; you're a fan of it. You don't have to buy a membership or learn a secret handshake or cut your hair funny. Follow what you like, enjoy it, try not to kick other people in the knees too much. Congratulations: you're a fan. No pre-nup required.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

booknotes: britannia's glory

There are a lot of used bookstores around Boston that have $1 book carts, thus giving rise to that special category of "books one wouldn't have bothered to acquire except they were $1 so why not?" Emily Hamer's Britannia's Glory: A History of Twentieth-Century Lesbians (Cassell, 1996). Not that I lack an interest in the history of English lesbians. In fact, one of my first thoughts skimming the table of contents was, "Oh good! A whole chapter on World War I -- I'll be able to do research for my Downton Abbey fan fiction!" (KarraCrow: "You realize you're unwell, right?). But this isn't the book I'd pick up to do serious historical research. Still, for a dollar? I was totally willing to pick it up for reading on the T this week.

Hamer, whose scholarly background is in philosophy, politics, and economics (Oxford), has written a very readable survey of women's passionate relationships in twentieth-century Britain. I thoroughly enjoyed the chatty, anecdotal chapters that focused on specific women -- famous and not-so-famous alike -- in each period between the suffrage movement and the 1980s. Given that my own knowledge of lesbian activism is U.S.-centric, I appreciated seeing the same period through a slightly different lens, and learning about some new names and publications, particularly in the 1950s-70s, that I know I'll be looking into with more serious historical interest.

The most frustrating thing about the text -- although I wasn't even very irritated, just puzzled by it -- was Hamer's insistence on understanding women's relationships through her own present-day lens of what lesbian relationships looked like, and how lesbian identity is constituted. There has been a long-standing debate in the history of sexuality field about how we understand sexual identities in periods not-our-own. There's a school of thought that sets about "resurrecting" lesbian and gay individuals from the past, on the assumption that such identities (being innate) have always existed, and we can simply uncover what previous historians have overlooked or deliberately denied. I understand this impulse, but as an historian it makes me twitchy: I believe that sexual desires are of our bodies (and therefore to some extent 'ahistorical,' though even that breaks down on some level), but are also inevitably shaped by the historical context in which we live. Thus, to breezily describe women in same-sex relationships as leading "lesbian lives," or someone from the 1910s as being a "butch dyke" is to apply identities from our own repertoire on people who may have performed such roles with a very different self-conception.

Hamer acknowledges this debate, yet ultimately falls back on an ahistorical interpretation, writing, "It is argued that only those women who thought of themselves as lesbians were lesbians. However, this does just [sic] seem wrong: being a lesbian is a theoretically observable aspect of life ... One is a lesbian if the life one lives is a lesbian life" (10). On the one hand, I understand that Hamer is pushing back against people who are reluctant to accept -- without word-for-word proof -- that any same-sex relationships existed before the sexual revolution. Her argument that we hold same-sex relationships to a higher standard of proof than heterosexual relationships is a valid one. At the same time, "lesbian" as we understand the word today is bound by its historically-specific meanings and can't simply serve as a stand-in for "women who had sex with / sustained sexual relationships with other women." Which is how Hamer seems to wish to use it.

Further, her insistence on describing her (often extremely interesting!) historical subjects as "lesbians" leads her to erase or ignore the variability in their sexual desires and lived lives. For example, situating Vita Sackville-West as a "lesbian" leads her to minimize Sackville-West's marriage to Harold Nicolson as a sham, and suggest it was merely an attempt to maintain social respectability. The much more nuanced relationship Sackville-West describes in her own account becomes lost. Likewise, any possibility of women's sexual fluidity or bisexuality is elided. This is probably, in part, a problem of the period in which Britannia's Glory was conceived -- when sexual identities were still being policed at the boundaries to a greater extent than (it is my hope, anyway) we police them today.

I was, perhaps, spoiled by my recent reading of Emma Donoghue's Inseparable (review coming soon), in which Donoghue handles the identity problem quite simply: by focusing on the texture of passion in women's relationships, regardless of how they are named in a particular time and place. Such an approach steps away from our time-bound conceptions of what a woman who desires, and is sexually involved with, other women looks like or conceives of herself -- and focuses on the heart of the matter: the fact that she expressed her sexuality in some form or fashion with other women. For all or part of her life. To my mind, anyway, this is a much more expansive, enduring, and interesting way to study the people who came before us.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

movienotes: people will talk

All the feelings!
One of the perks (shall we say) of being able to afford only Netflix instant streaming is that the most random things pop up as possible viewing options when Hanna and I are looking around for something not-too-serious to watch on a weekend afternoon. Over the winter holiday we watched some doozies, a couple of which I'm going to write about here because, well, I can.

The subject of today's post is People Will Talk (1951), starring Cary Grant and Jeanne Crain. First, a brief synopsis of the plot; then a few observations. Cary Grant plays popular gynecologist Dr. Noah Praetorius who, as the film opens, is in private practice and lecturing at an un-named medical school. He is also under investigation by a colleague, Rodney Elwell (Hume Cronyn), although it's not clear what for. When a student, Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain), faints in anatomy class, Praetorius advises her to see a physician. She later turns up at his clinic and tests reveal she's six weeks pregnant. Distraught, Deborah reveals her lover was in the military and recently died in combat, leaving her unmarried. Dr. Praetorius encourages her to speak to her father, which she insists is impossible. Upon leaving the doctor's office, she attempts to commit suicide by shooting herself, but fails. Dr. Praetorius keeps her overnight for medical observation. In a late-night conversation he lies to her, telling her there was a mistake and she is not pregnant (seeking to forestall further suicide attempts), and Deborah reveals she has fallen in love with him. After Praetorius leaves, she escapes the clinic and disappears.

Dr. Praetorius and his mysterious sidekick, Shunderson, track Deborah down to the farm where she lives with her father and uncle. It transpires that Higgins, Sr., is a widower in financial ruin who was forced to apply to his brother for support. Mr. Higgins and Deborah live as dependents to Deborah's uncle who is revealed as a religious fundamentalist and penny-pincher whose sole occupation appears to be milking the government for agricultural subsidies under false pretenses. After Praetorius and Deborah inevitably decide to get married, Mr. Higgins, Deborah, and the farm's collie make an escape with Praetorius and Shunderson, leaving the farm behind forever.

Meanwhile, back at the university, Dr. Praetorius's suspicious colleague, Elwell, has hired private detectives to investigate Noah Praetorius's past and particularly his relationship with Shunderson who (we learn through newspaper clippings) was under suspicion for murder back in the 1910s. Two weeks later, we catch up with the Praetorius household as they are preparing to celebrate Noah's 41st birthday. Noah and Deborah are now married and when Elwell shows up on the doorstep to issue Dr. Praetorius a summons to a closed hearing in order to answer the charges against him, Deborah refuses to let Elwell see her husband, staunchly defending him against any past wrongdoing. Later, however, when she takes the sealed envelope to Noah she collapses in tears. She asks Praetorius whether it seems she's been crying more than usual lately, and in the course of the conversation it comes out that Deborah is pregnant and that Praetorius lied about the results of her pregnancy test. The two argue, with Deborah fearful that Noah will not accept the child and uncertain about her own feelings about motherhood. The argument is cut short by Deborah's father, Shunderson, and one of Praetorius's good friends who call them down to the birthday celebrations.

The final act takes place at the university, during the faculty hearing, where it transpires that Dr. Praetorius is being charged with a series of past actions which cast doubts upon his character. First, Elwell accuses him of practicing medicine in a rural village while also working as a butcher. Praetorius replies that he found the villagers were suspicious of his medical degree, and more receptive to his treatments if he positioned himself as a butcher who also happened to have medical knowledge, rather than a doctor with "book learning." After the villagers discover his medical diploma, they run him out of town. Second, Elwell raises the question of Shunderson, who appears to tell his own story. Shunderson tells a convoluted back story about a love triangle that resulted in his being hanged for murder. Praetorius, a medical student at the time, was given Shunderson's body by the hang man to practice dissection -- only to discover that Shunderson was not actually dead. The faculty committee dismiss all charges and Dr. and Mrs. Praetorius ride off into the (metaphorical) sunset with Shunderson at their side.

So, yeah. Obviously there are some issues here for a modern-day audience, beginning with Noah Praetorius's decision to lie to his patient about her pregnancy and then marry her. Even within the film this is recognized, briefly, as an unethical move by both Noah Praetorius's closest friend (also at the medical school) and by Deborah herself. Yet the story ultimately rolls this action into the larger story of Praetorius's benevolence and struggle to help people (in opposition to dehumanizing institutions). Contemporary audiences were obviously expected to sympathize with Praetorius's motives -- his impulse to protect Deborah from further attempts to take her own life -- and to see the end result of husband, wife, and future child as a positive outcome. Even Hanna and I agreed that Noah's insistence that the paternity of the child didn't matter to him, and his utter unconcern that Deborah is not a virgin, are points in his favor. Still, this doesn't mitigate the fact that the doctor/husband in this scenario essentially manipulates his patient/wife into motherhood when she all but asks him for a referral for abortion services. Obviously abortion isn't discussed in the film, but Deborah makes it clear she doesn't want to be/can't be pregnant, and fears speaking about the situation in her family. When Praetorius refuses to help her, she tries to kill herself.

The other thread in the film I found intriguing is the way Praetorius -- as a medical professional -- is positioned as a benevolent rogue whose humanizing approach to medicine is in contrast to the petty competition of the university, the faceless bureaucracy of the hospital, and even the greedy slothfulness of Deborah's uncle who thinks only of his own gain. Praetorius, on the other hand, is depicted as relentlessly thinking about the good (as he sees it) of others -- the suspicious people he treated out of his butcher shop, Deborah and her father, and the slightly brain-damaged Shunderson. The final closed faculty hearing -- with the use of private detection services, and investigation of past associations that have no bearing on Praetorius's medical practice per se -- foreshadows the loyalty hearings and persecution of non-conformity that would color the McCarthy era. While the film clearly condemns the actions of Elwell and those on the committee ready to believe him, it's unclear what motivates Elwell to investigate Praetorius's past, or what -- beyond unsuitable connections -- Praetorius is supposed to have done to jeopardize his standing in the medical community. The spurious charges the committee levels against Dr. Noah Praetorius results in a narrative that absolves the character of wrong-doing, leaving the far more morally questionable aspects of his behavior unaddressed -- the committee hasn't called him in to question his breach of ethics in lying to, or marrying, a patient after all.

Ah, adventures in vintage cinema. At least People Will Talk was less egregious -- and certainly less confused! -- then the musical Calamity Jane (1953) which I reviewed here a couple of weeks ago. Maybe. I think?

Thursday, January 12, 2012


There is a small park on my way home. The park comes complete with a children's playground: a couple of swingsets, slides, an inexplicable wooden structure, something futuristic in metal and plastic that no-one seems to know what to do with... you get the idea.

Every now and then -- say every two or three weeks -- when I walk home later in the afternoon, there's this little old lady on the swings.

I use the adjectives 'little' and 'old' advisedly: she is quite short and, from what I can see of her face, definitely elderly. She comes out all muffled up in an ankle-length padded coat with a furtrimmed hood and, regardless of the day, wears the hood up and pulled quite tight. She wears sunglasses and ankle boots and, sometimes, a scarf and gloves.

I've seen her on the swings and in the pre-swing period and she always seems to adopt the same strategy.

For awhile, she'll lurk on one of the benches either by the side of the large dog-friendly green space or near the play equipment. She won't go near the swings if there are kids or parents or, really, anyone else around. If the park is sufficiently deserted, she will get up after awhile -- how long exactly, I don't know -- and make her way in this slow and stately fashion across the intervening space to the swings.

She will seat herself with care and attention and then begin to swing. I have no idea how long she stays on the swings.

I don't know if she gets any particular pleasure out of swinging. She's never smiling or laughing and she seems to get uncomfortable when people look at her.

I think she should get a prize.

I always want to go over and tell her that her swinging is awesome and sometimes it's the best thing I see in a given day.

I won't do this because I get the feeling she wants to be invisible.

But she isn't and I think she's fucking awesome.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

booknotes: deviations

find table of contents here
For the past couple of months I've been making my way through Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader (Duke University Press, 2011), an anthology of writings by anthropologist and feminist theorist Gayle S. Rubin whom I'm ashamed to admit I didn't actually know anything about before I stumbled upon the advance review galleys of this book. Rubin  is a cultural anthropologist whose research delves into the history and culture of urban sexual subcultures, particularly BDSM communities. As a newly-out lesbian in the 1970s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she designed her own Women's Studies major at the University of Michigan and became active in the Women's Movement and also the Gay Liberation Movement. In the late 70s and early 80s -- in part because of her academic research into BDSM -- she drew the ire of anti-porn feminist activists for her insistence that (wait for it) not all pornographic materials are inherently degrading to women. Yeah, I know. The more I read about it, the more it seems like the early 80s must have been a really weird time to be a self-identified feminist. Not to mention one who was also a lesbian and open about her s/M desires and practices.

Deviations is arranged in chronological order, beginning with Rubin's first attempt to construct a theory of gender relations rooted in anthropological methodology -- "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex," written and revised between the late 60s and early 70s and first published in 1975. It is very much an artifact of its time and to be honest I bogged in this piece for the better part of a month after joyfully burning my way through the eminently readable introduction. Perhaps recognizing the opacity of "Traffic," Rubin includes a piece reflecting back on the writing and reception of the original piece and includes it in the anthology -- something she does several times throughout the book to great effect. After "Traffic" and its contextual essay comes a much more accessible piece on the English author Renee Vivien, originally written as an introduction and afterward to a new edition of Vivien's A Woman Appeared Before Me, which is a fictionalized account of her tumultuous relationship with fellow author and outspoken lesbian-feminist Natalie Barney.

By the late 70s, Rubin was deep into the ethnographic research for her dissertation on the gay male leather bars of San Francisco, for which she received her PhD in 1994 from the University of Michigan. The majority of pieces in Deviations, therefore, wrestle not with the politics of gender or specifically lesbian-feminist history, but the politics of sexual practices, sexual subcultures, and the relationship between feminist theory and practice and human sexuality. As someone who is, like Rubin, committed to understanding the world through both a feminist and queer lens, I really appreciate her determination to remain engaged in feminist thinking and activism even as she was reviled by certain segments of the feminist movement for her "deviations" in sexual practice, and her openness to thinking about sexual subcultures that -- for many in our culture, even many self-identified feminists -- elicit feelings of disgust and generate sex panics. While the "porn wars" of the 1980s are largely a thing of the past, feminists continue to find sexuality, sexual desires, sexual practices, and sexual fantasy (whether private or shared via erotica/porn of whatever medium) incredibly difficult to speak about. Rubin calls upon us to think with greater clarity about the politics of sex, and how we police other peoples' sexual activities, many of them consensual, simply because we find them distasteful.

Particularly controversial, I imagine, are Rubin's writings on cross-generational sexual activities and children's sexuality. Coming out of the BDSM framework, Rubin foregrounds the basic ethic of consent and argues that children have just as much right to consent to sexual activities as adults. Furthermore, within the framework of 1980s anti-pornography legislation, she emphasizes the difference between fantasy/desire and reality/action (that is: depiction of non-consensual sex in the context of a fantasy does not equal non-consensual sex and shouldn't be treated in the same fashion). This leads her to speak up in defense of adults who express sexual desire for young people (but don't act on that desire), and also to suggest that not all instances of underage/overage sexual intimacy should be treated as sexual abuse or assault. Read in tandem with Rubin's insistence that we take children seriously as human beings with the right to sexual knowledge, this advocacy is clearly not a call to minimize the trauma of sexual violence (at whatever age) or a glossing over of age-related power dynamics. "The notion that sex per se is harmful to the young has been chiseled into extensive social and legal structures," she writes, "designed to insulate minors from sexual knowledge and experience" (159). Like Judith Levine in Harmful to Minors (2002), Rubin argues that our cultural insistence on keeping young people separated from sexuality and sensuality -- with a vigilance that often spills over into panic and hysteria -- does little to protect them from sexual violence and exploitation while cutting them off from the means to conduct their own (safe, consensual) sexual explorations or name and resist the violence and exploitation that may come their way. Sexting panics anyone? The Purity Myth?

Overall, I highly recommend Deviations to anyone interested in the development of feminist and sexual political theory and practice over the last forty years -- if nothing else, Rubin's bibliography has already given me a handful of other thinkers whose books and articles I wish to pursue.

Cross-posted at the feminist librarian and The Pursuit of Harpyness.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

movienotes: Shadowy...at Best

So: Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows. Lets talk.

Fun factor: about 110%. If the homoerotic potential dripping off the walls doesn't get you, the sheer energy coming off the screen should catch your eye. It isn't even energy by all means -- there are weird scenes in the middle that lag badly -- but there's enough to carry you through.

As far as story goes (mild spoilers - RAYOR), well, there's not much. It's kind of a hash job of Scandal in Bohemia (so they can use Irene Adler) and mostly The Final Problem. Other than that, if you're looking for canon Holmes, look elsewhere -- possibly in the canon? There's Mycroft and Moriarty and they're both basically who they are in canon -- even in nouveau 2010 BBC canon, if you're a new fan -- but other than that, Ritchie is making it up as he goes.

Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. Conan Doyle wrote the original stories to make money. He wasn't aiming to create a deathless character and the stories are not high literature; some of them barely make sense: The Lion's Mane? Please. And lets not even talk about The Sussex Vampire. So, if you think about it, a confusing, backtracking, deus ex machina storyline is pretty much par for the course.

Apart from the bits that just flat out make no sense -- what's with that thing in the middle after the bomb at the Paris hotel where we get the same dialogue repeated between the same three or four characters at least three times? did someone hiccup while photocopying the script? -- I have one niggle niggling at me and that's sort of with the last half of the plot as a whole.

As far as I was able to tell from the back of his head, Thorston Manderlay did a fine job being shot in the temple (as Alfred Meinhard, the arms dealer being used as a cat's paw by Moriarty) but, since the character was so obviously based on the Krupp family, I'm a little confused as to why they didn't simply use an actual Krupp, since there was more than one extant at the time. Perhaps libel or slander laws? I don't know if there are any scions of the family still left alive -- I suspect so, even if the blood relation is pretty thin -- and I don't know who would be in charge of such a suit but I'm sure it would be possible.

My problem is not with Meinhard as such but -- there's something about that last half of the storyline that just makes me twitchy. Perhaps because I actually know something about it? perhaps because I don't think arms races which resulted in the deaths of millions of people are really ideal fodder for a flash-bang action movie?

Which is then odd because, if I was going to tell someone who didn't really want to watch World War I movies -- a position I could easily understand! -- but who wanted a feeling of what the war was (sort of) like, I can think of worse films to tell them to see than Shadows.

No, not the bit in the "racy" club at the beginning -- that's less sex and more about Guy Ritchie flexing his muscle as a filmer of fight scenes, something at which he excels, by the way. No, I'm thinking of the 'running through the woods escaping from the arms factory' bit. Again, a pretty direct reference to the Krupp arms factory since not only the geographic location but also the names of the guns are similar: one of Krupp's most famous productions was the gun "Big Bertha" -- anyone notice the name of the gun in the movie? Anyone? Yeah -- "Little Hansel." I'm thinkin'...

But I feel the race through the woods -- mostly quiet with explosions of noise around the shells, bits of debris flying everywhere, weird lighting, strangely hyper-real colors -- was weirdly effective as an evocation of a World War I battlefield. It made the whole thing feel oddly out of time, actually, since it was a story ostensibly taking place in 1891 or thereabouts and Holmes never got any closer to World War I than that weird-ass story about the German spy and Laurie King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice.

In any case, Shadows is excellent popcorny fun. See it for the fight scenes. See it for the slash. See it for the double -- and single! -- entendres and don't, for the love of heaven, take it at all seriously.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

movienotes: calamity jane

Calamity Jane (Day) and Wild Bill Hickok (Keel)*

When Hanna and I were visiting her folks back in December, we decided to watch the old VHS copy of Calamity Jane (1953) starring Doris Day and Howard Keel that we found in their video collection. In our defense, may I point out that a) we love making fun of crap movies, and b) Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was a childhood favorite of Hanna's, and c) when I was about eight the original Broadway cast recording of Annie Get Your Gun starring Ethel Merman was where it was at as far as I was concerned. I was the proud owner of a vinyl record (my very first!) and would make my best girl friend at the time play Frank Butler to my Annie Oakley as we sang, "The Girl That I Marry" and "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better." To this day, I feel our relationship fell apart at least partially because she wanted a girl who was "soft and pink as a nursery" while I was more of a "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly" kinda gal.

Anyway, so we decided to watch Calamity because of these things. And obviously we were anticipatory of the cringe-inducing depiction of Native Americans, the weak plot (this was no Deadwood), and to some extent the weak music and lyrics (Sammy Fain and Paul Webster are no Irving Berlin). What we didn't anticipate was the lesbian (sub)text and the total confusion in the heteroromance department.

See, here's the deal. As the film opens, Calamity Jane and Bill Hickok are pals living and working in Deadwood. They clearly see one another as besties, a situation which lasts through to the end of the film where their platonic friendship is required to morph into a romantic one in order to satisfy the demands of the marriage plot. Until the last-minute deus ex machina, however, Jane overtly professes desire for Lt. Danny Gilmarten (Philip Carey), stationed in Deadwood, and simultaneously acts out a courtship and marriage scenario with the other leading lady, Katie Brown (Allyn McLerie). Katie is a dance hall singer/stripper who Calamity Jane brings to Deadwood from Chicago to help the local saloon owner satisfy his customers. While Katie's role in the movie is very obviously scripted to teach Jane how to be feminine, their relationship plays out as a romance from the very start. When Jane goes to meet Katie backstage in Chicago, Katie first reads Jane's body language and dress as male, and reacts as if Jane is a male intruder. Even after Jane clears up the misconception, the two continue to act out a butch/femme dynamic as Jane shepherds Katie to Deadwood (protecting her from hostile Indians), defends her honor at the saloon, and invites Katie to move in with her. The two set up housekeeping and Katie invites Jane to learn how to behave like a "proper" woman. Interestingly enough, despite Jane's transformation from "one of the boys" into a feminine girl, she persists in wearing her buckskin outfit in all of the scenes not focused on her transformation -- her femininity doesn't require skirts.

The romantic cross-currents in the film are terribly confused -- in no small part because the Jane/Katie pairing follows the classic girl-civilizes-boy courtship arc, except that the two characters are both women. The two are initially at odds, but find aspects of the other to appreciate, and settle into a domestic arrangement. Obviously, however, the film-makers needed the marriage plot they'd initiated to end in heterosexual marriage. So: re-enter Hickock and Gilmarten, who come to the women's idyllic cabin in the woods to woo (you guessed it) Katie Brown. Katie, knowing Jane desires Danny, resists initial advances but accepts an invitation to a local ball on the condition that Jane be invited as Bill's date. At this point I count three romantic triangles: (1) Katie and Jane in rivalry for Danny, (2) Danny and Bill in rivalry for Katie, and (3) Bill/Danny and Jane in rivalry over Katie.

Obviously, the solution would be for them all to move to Planet O. But barring that, the scriptwriters obviously felt they needed to resolve the plot in a timely and heterosexual manner. So Katie, despite earlier protestations, takes up with Danny at the ball -- causing Jane to storm off in jealousy. Jane later confronts Katie in the midst of Katie's stage show, demanding that she leave town. Bill helps Katie make Jane look foolish (in order to teach her a lesson) and then at the eleventh hour professes his love for Jane. Jane, having resolved her jealousy by transferring her affection for Bill, rides off to collect Katie from the departing stagecoach and the two straight couples have a joint wedding just before the credits roll.

The essential confusion of the show's narrative, I feel, can be summed up in an an exchange between Bill and Jane in which Bill suggests to Jane that her rage at Katie is caused by "female thinking," which clouds her rational mind and stops her from thinking clearly. Since the ostensible thrust of the narrative to that point was to move Jane from an essentially masculine position to a feminine one (from which she can be paired with Bill), the last-minute accusation of too much femininity highlights the nonsensical nature of the plot. Only by reclaiming her active, masculine position in the narrative (riding off in her buckskin to retrieve Katie from the retreating coach), can Jane reclaim her honor and win her place by Bill's side ... even as all of the cues of the narrative put her and Katie together as a butch/femme couple.

In short, don't watch Calamity Jane for the music, the Wild West themes, or the heteroromance. Instead, watch it for the lesbian relationship hiding in plain sight. As Hanna put it, "This isn't subtext, this is just plain old text."

*image via