Reviews with snark and Salem Witch Trials

At the end of October 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit. At the time, I was living in New Jersey, and though my apartment, car, and other possessions mostly escaped damage, I was among those who were left without electricity for days afterward. The day immediately afterward, especially before we were sure what was safe and how far we could venture without tempting danger, I had only books to keep me company. So I grabbed a pile of books I had been meaning to read and then huddled up, wrapped in a blanket, near the living room window with the best light.

That day I read two full books. One was a Dave Eggers book that I should probably re-read because I liked it and remember nothing. The other book was called The Beginners, and it purported to be a contemporary coming of age story with historical parallels to the Salem Witch Trials. I had seen a recommendation for it in one of the online literary magazines I used to peruse frequently. In other words: exactly the kind of book I would, more often than not, relish.

the beginners - rebecca wolff.jpg

But I hated it. After that day of reading, while guessing that classes would be cancelled for awhile and seeing that electricity probably wouldn't be restored soon, I got in my car and drove to my parents' house in Ohio. And I proceeded to log on to GoodReads and torch the book.

My review reads:

"I want to go back and find the person who recommended this book to me before I bought it a year ago and shake them. SHAAAAAAAAKE.

Reasons I bought the book (on deep discount, in a going bye-bye Borders): promise of ghosts, promise of New England coming of age for a bookish ginger girl, promise of history re: Salem Witch trials (my fav!).

Now... the ghosts and the Witch Trials are in peripheral bits that are not followed through on at all throughout the book, and the "coming of age" part is steeped in tremendously weird and, I felt, gratuitous sex, that also happens to be somewhat amoral, confusing, and (possibly) criminal. So... the book basically doesn't make any sense at all.

It's also one of those books that clearly is trying to seem literary- it sounds poetic. And sometimes this works for it. Sometimes the prose is beautiful. Other times, it's clunky and awkward because it's *so* obvious and deliberate. 

I could go on and on about the inconsistencies in the plot- if I had written this before I went to bed last night, I might have given it two stars, but now I've had time to sort it out and realize that nothing connects."

Somehow, that snarky, terrible, horrible, no-good review is the GoodReads review that keeps on living. Nearly five years later, I still get notifications that someone has "liked" it. I don't think I had ever really reviewed a book in print before, and I cringe when I read that review now. However, it's funny to me that other people keep reading it and finding it apt.

I can't remember much of anything about the plot of The Beginners now. Especially with things like mystery stories and magic/occult/mystical stories, so many of the details swirl together in my head. I am a person who can confuse an episode of Charmed with an Agatha Christie novel before my brain sorts it all out. What I vaguely remember is that the author did a bait-and-switch on her reader - the super sexy couple that entranced the teenage girl, teasing her with new experiences and also hints of witchcraft, just turned out to be crooked. Nothing mystical about them.

There's a part of me that wants to be the person who writes the truly great modern Salem Witch Trials novel, and the rest of me sympathizes with those who try, but fail, to get it right. The Beginners isn't the only attempt to bring the Salem Witch Trials into contemporary literature that I have read... and also hated. Yet The Beginners attempted to be more direct than the abstract, hysteria formulations in some of those other novels. 

In sum: it's not so much that I regret writing that review as that I might do it differently today.** I might talk about how disappointed I was that the author punted on the history she intended to evoke. Or why the Witch Trials resonate with women today - perhaps a comparison! A meditation on why I cannot spare the emotional labor necessary to watch The Handmaid's Tale. Or, I could write a memoir-ish post about why people like me remain fascinated by the Puritans and the culture that led to those events. I could talk about my visit to Salem, the peculiar bookstore there and the magnificent candy store, and the palpable feeling of place that transcended all the commercialization of that history.  But sometimes... sometimes there just needs to be some snark.


**unless there has recently been a terrifying hurricane, and I am super anxious and annoyed.

Review: Inferno

The world has lately seemed a sad and contentious place, one where risks and consequences have grown larger and more negative in response to a new world order.  Immersed in that feeling, I went to see Inferno, the latest film adaptation of one of Dan Brown’s less-than-literary art historical novels.  Yet because Inferno’s use of its historical material differs so substantially from the other book-to-movie entries in the series, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, this new movie holds up better and seems more grounded in contemporary social issues in a productive way.

First of all: yes, I did pay actual money to see Inferno, and yes, I did enjoy it.  I also saw The Da Vinci Code (a little dull) in the theater in 2006 and Angels and Demons (generally more engrossing) in 2009—if nothing else, I am a Tom Hanks completist, and all three of these movies star Hanks as Robert Langdon, a Harvard professor and renowned symbologist.  People with ties to academia often scoff at these movies and the books from which they’ve been adapted because, among other reasons, symbology is not an actual academic discipline.  Using a fake word over its closest real analogs, like semiotics or iconography, seems like a lazy cop-out.  Even reading The Da Vinci Code as a 17-year-old, at the height of its popularity, I found the prose unskilled, at best, and was annoyed by Brown’s willingness to fabricate history to serve his cause.  So… why did I enjoy Inferno?

Inferno draws its inspiration partially from the fourteenth-century masterwork the Divine Comedy, in which the Italian poet Dante describes a vision of Hell, or the Inferno, with nine circles.  Langdon, though he does not speak fluent or even passable Italian, is a renowned expert on Italian art and literature and their symbols, and so outside forces summon him to Italy to investigate a trail of clues based on elements of Dante’s description of the Inferno and the actual known facts of Dante’s life.  The piece of art that holds those clues, left deliberately for Langdon and his assistant to interpret, is a ca. 1480-95 map of Hell created by Sandro Botticelli, better known for his Primavera and The Birth of Venus.  And beyond that, the clues are left in a reproduction of the original image, not in the image by Botticelli himself.  This starkly contrasts The Da Vinci Code, where Langdon and his assistant discover symbols that have supposedly been hidden for thousands of years by secret societies with dubious motives.  The elements of Dante and his writings that Langdon and his helpers discuss in Inferno might not hold up to expert scrutiny, but these bits of “factual” knowledge form the basis of a code rendered by a person in the present-day in order to pass a time-sensitive message.  Unlike in Brown’s previous efforts, Langdon's work does not depend on a centuries-old conspiracy coming to fruition.

Furthermore, the plot of Inferno does not dwell solely in the realm of academic consequences.  Sure, if Jesus had had a wife, as The Da Vinci Code posits, many factors that make up the Judeo-Christian worldview would be deeply altered.  Yet parsing the consequences of that shift would mean understanding its rippling, incremental effects.  Inferno operates as a more traditional thriller with real world consequences—someone is seeking to unleash a version of the Inferno, of Judgment Day, upon the earth.  Consequently, there is, first, the moral question of whether or not that person’s plan has merit and, second, how to stop him once the determination is made that it does not.  Both of these questions operate only tangentially in relation to the histories of Dante and his work; parallels and affinities appear, but they are not tasked with the heavy lifting of the story.  For this reason, Inferno is more compelling and, ultimately, more successful than the other entries in his series.

I recently saw another Inferno review that snarked: “But if Langdon is distinguished from the other globe-trotting saviors by his PhD, why aren’t his movies smarter?”  Those other globe-trotting saviors include, of course, James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Indiana Jones, all charismatic adventurers crafted from more urbane source material.  If Brown’s writing leaves something to be desired where sophistication is concerned, his main detective certainly does not benefit from how Hanks plays Robert Langdon.  His Langdon is something of a modest fuddy-duddy, an anti-adventurer.  Indeed, the moments of Inferno that provoke the most emotion are not ones where he demonstrates his mastery of the subject or his adaptability in a fight.  Struggling with amnesia for much of the movie, Langdon cannot manage to sort out his personal memories from his academic knowledge in a manner befitting a celebrated scholar.  Though intellectual power has drawn him into his globe-trotting mysteries, it is no more reliable than anything else.  He is fallible, but he follows the clues when the potential discoveries are too juicy for him to ignore.  Robert Langdon has the heart of an academic, and Tom Hanks has the humanity to play him in action.

Review: A Little Chaos

The movie A Little Chaos initially sets out to do the impossible: sex up a story about André Le Nôtre, the seventeenth-century garden designer responsible for the meticulously curated landscape of the Palace of Versailles.  It does this by imagining a scenario in which it was not Le Nôtre who designed a small, cleverly cascading Salle de bal at Versailles in the early 1680s, but a female landscape architect named Sabine de Barra, played intelligently by Kate Winslet.  The movie itself embraces the visual precision of the best British period dramas, with each detail of manner, setting, and costume carefully calibrated on a level to match the expansive historical setting.  The tone, however, is peculiar—it’s much more fanciful (the lush emotional whimsy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream kept coming to mind) than its designation as a period drama would suggest.

The plot of A Little Chaos attempts the kind of historical fiction that I find most intriguing—it inserts a plausible fictional character into a universe of famous historical figures whose philosophies and behaviors may be illuminated by presence of this new actor.  The creation of Sabine de Barra further serves another master by seeming to expose previously hidden narratives that embrace modern sensibilities.  A woman of middling social class, who, when pressed, answers honestly that she has “no blood” to speak of, skillfully executing projects in a male profession during an era where only the wealthiest women truly possessed a measure of freedom in their social dealings—what could go wrong?  How could she not attract the appreciation and, eventually, romantic love of the stoic master Le Nôtre?  The one true factual accuracy in the movie is that romance was in the air when Louis XIV held court at Versailles.

A confrontation between Sabine de Barra and Le Nôtre early in the film both exposes the trends in design philosophy that governed the creation of the gardens and presents a subtle realization of gender politics that I wish it didn’t.  When Le Nôtre inspects the plans that Sabine de Barra submitted as a job application, he asks her, “Are you a believer in order?”  She evades the question by answering, “Well, I admire it.”  Pressed further, she continues: “Order seems to demand we look back to Rome or to the Renaissance.  What I’m saying… surely there is something uniquely French as yet not celebrated by us which needs the rules of order to attain it.”  Le Nôtre interprets her statements as an insult to his life’s work and gruffly dismisses her from their meeting.  On the face of it, she does challenge Le Nôtre’s claim to fame, his celebrated ability to impose rigorous order on living landscapes prone to disorder.  Mme de Barra’s designs, in contrast, consistently incorporate a modicum of chaos—one planter out of place in a complex concentric layout, creative structures that allow living plants room to alter the landscape as they grow.  As Le Nôtre and Mme de Barra grow closer together, he ably tames her emotional troubles, which I shall not spoil here, in the same way he tames the wild foliage in his gardens.  She serves his slightly wild inspiration, and he is her stabilizing benefactor. 

The kernel of truth in the plot developments outlined above is that order was, indeed, Le Nôtre’s guiding principle.  I cannot speak for the history of gardening, except to note that English gardens, even those designed by men, prized the disorder preferred by Mme de Barra.  However, in the long history of landscape painting, assigning gender roles followed crisper lines.  The landscape painter—characterized as virile, focused, inherently male—tames the landscape—unruly, unprincipled, feminine—through fixing its image on canvas.  Doctrines suggesting that landscape painters adhere to celibacy and travel alone in the name of expanding their abilities to exert power over the wilderness held sway until far into the nineteenth century.   Le Nôtre lets the “little chaos” that Mme de Barra represents into his life as a man would agree to marriage—a philosophical union that will forward his greater goals.  Recognizing these fault lines of masculine/feminine and order/chaos in their discussions of gardens probably remains reserved for art historians familiar with landscape theory, but the film exposes these divisions further when Mme de Barra arrives at court in Fontainebleau and is spirited away by the wives and mistresses to a room where the women sit alone and talk.  As the other women question Mme de Barra about her past, they begin to commiserate about the losses they’ve experienced—and which the king forbids them from discussing at court.  Grief and sadness are clearly viewed as unruly emotions that should be confined to women’s spaces, while order reigns in court.  It’s more upsetting that A Little Chaos cloaks this dichotomous position in a narrative that seems, on the surface, to celebrate a woman’s skill and intelligence.

It’s not like A Little Chaos is a movie that revels in facts.  For example, re-envisioning Le Nôtre as a strapping, long-haired, dreamy-eyed man in his prime ignores the fact that he would have been sixty-nine years old in the year the narrative begins.  Though it’s not entirely impossible that enough stars could have aligned for a woman, through unorthodox means, to attain a position in Le Nôtre’s orbit, this movie seems to deliberately evade suggestions of prejudice regarding gender or social class that someone like Mme de Barra probably would have faced.  The courtiers treat her as a curiosity they can collect for her merits, and even that potential condescension is soft-edged here.  The only malicious intent comes in the form of Le Nôtre’s wife, who functions as almost a cartoon villain—confronting and sabotaging, but never surpassing the level of “women’s” squabbles.  The fact remains that, though Mme de Barra is pure fiction, there are movies like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo that operate similarly between fact and fiction and maintain the historical truths of the setting in furthering the story through newly created characters.  A Little Chaos needed to choose between adhering to facts or proposing a truly fantastical history anchored in a familiar universe, instead of presenting a harmfully gendered, yet ultimately toothless drama that disappoints in its lost potential.

Documenting Kurt Cobain, Part 3: The Review

When I started writing this series of four posts on the new Kurt Cobain documentary Montage of Heck, I made a mental note that beginning such an effort without yet having seen the film itself could be risky.  I had always intended to include a standard review as one of the four posts, and then to conclude with another more “scholarly” commentary after having seen what the director, Brett Morgen, had actually produced.  Though the two-week delay in resuming these final posts is simply a matter of logistics—I didn’t have time to sit down and watch the entire film—it turns out that my fear of the riskiness in not waiting to comment were well-founded.  I have some reservations about how the movie actually produced measures up to the movie described in the press coverage and, more than that, concerns that it actually perpetuates the hyperbolic biography it was meant to debunk.

First, the high points:

  • Much of the movie is composed of animations—of Cobain himself engaged in activities, of the words in his notebooks writing themselves and building visually and rhetorically in intensity, of his drawings coming to life.  In many cases, these are genuinely lovely and novel; they’re a clever way to bring to life material that is not precisely calibrated for film as a medium.
  • Morgen matches recordings of Cobain speaking to animations that match the sentiment of those words, and this goes even further toward building the illusion that this film is the “true” portrait of Cobain.

In an earlier post, I characterized Morgen’s role as one of a tactician necessary for identifying symbolism within the cache of evidence the film purports to explore—for creating a credible biographical narrative.  It seems to me, with a subject like Cobain, there is something to be said for cultivating a meaningful tension between ambiguity and closure in creating a narrative that mirrors the rawness of the music and art produced.  However, Morgen’s film deliberately acts to remove ambiguity by the extent to which he emphasizes thematic statements within the interviews, especially humiliation as a recurring motivation for Cobain’s depressive and destructive acts.  Morgen’s narrative strategy resembles a Law and Order defense attorney’s—by giving us example after example of specific humiliations leading to negative responses and therefore posing a credible alternative “theory of the crime,” if you will, it’s as if he poses a cure-all cause for Cobain’s various ailments.

Where my first post considered biography, my second considered intimacy and what it means to strive for that as a defining characteristic of a portrait.  From the initial press coverage of Montage of Heck, it became clear that intimacy meant removing the veneer of legend/genius/rock star that has always been attached to Cobain and replacing it with a “humanized” interpretation of his presence as a man.  The film seems to act on this purpose primarily through showing what are, frankly, upsetting home videos of Cobain while he is clearly affected by drugs and by allowing Courtney Love, his widow, to speak freely and perhaps exasperatedly about her perspective on their marriage.  This highlights how negativity can seem to streamline the process of exposure; if someone conspiratorially whispers damaging opinions, they seem truer as the result of the care taken to cover them up. 

But can negativity actually heighten intimacy?  I would argue that it does not, at least not in this case.  Morgen’s film seeks to counter the extreme romanticism of myth with an extreme abjectness of suffering, and perhaps this successfully undercuts the angsty dreams of casual fans.  However, there are probably Nirvana super fans somewhere in between those two extremes (I prefer to count myself here) that understand Cobain’s evolution as a performer in more meaningful shades of grey that don’t come through in the dazzle of the animations and sound montages and the wry regret of the interview fragments included.  The move toward intimacy and unorthodox methods of constructing biography in Montage of Heck may have been undertaken in an effort to avoid overlaying another’s words on Cobain’s materials, but there’s little context to firmly position these materials outside the realm of psychobiography. 

In assessing what Morgan has or has not included, many have noticed the absence of Dave Grohl, Nirvana’s drummer, who has become a documentary filmmaker in his own right with Sound City and Sonic Highways providing careful portraits of, respectively, a recording studio and eight urban music scenes.  I don’t mean to allude to his absence as a failing, though it may be.  Instead, I want to point to Grohl’s forays into documentary, which deal with material just as legendary and narratives just as tragic (see the Sonic Highways episode that spotlights Austin and discusses the struggles of the 13th Floor Elevators’ frontman, Roky Erickson).  Where Grohl often skillfully skirts the line between sweet nostalgia and difficult truth, his role as compassionate interviewer abets the humanization of his subjects—it seems like they’re telling him things they’ve long kept secret.  This is where Montage of Heck faltered for me—in adopting the visual and symbolic language of the legend to illuminate the extremes of his actions, it misses the comfortable middle ground where nostalgia, pain, and truth can mingle to illuminate how myth and man can exist in one iconic cultural figure.

Review: Woman in Gold

Gustav Klimt,  Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I , 1907 (Neue Galerie, New York City)

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 (Neue Galerie, New York City)

This past Saturday, I went to see Woman in Gold, the film that portrays the story of how Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) became the center of an art restitution battle that would challenge crucial tenets of modern Austria’s national identity.  Most reviewers have noted the movie’s flaws—that it forgoes a thorough account of the legal battles and a complex portrait of the motivations of the different sides, that some of the performances and complementary elements (the score) are heavy-handed.  Even if the omission of some intricate details is perhaps understandable in the name of a flowing narrative, I have no argument with these reviews, and Helen Mirren’s performance certainly proves to be the highlight of the movie.  However, the oversentimentality of the movie—the deliberate pulling of heartstrings—is what interests me here.  What is it about works of art, like Adele, that motivates this sentimentality on film?

I ask this question in this way because I am thinking, too, of The Monuments Men, which framed much of the relatively true story of a group of art historians and conservators aiding World War II efforts to recover art stolen by Nazi forces in relation to an emotional quest to recover the Bruges Madonna (1501-1504), reputed for its magnificent beauty.  Like Adele and the distinctive gold leaf that lends the painting its texture and splendor, the Bruges Madonna boasts the distinction of being the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime.  In The Monuments Men, it serves as a “Holy Grail” object—after one of the men (the Earl of Grantham himself, Hugh Bonneville) dies trying to stop the Germans from removing the statue from Bruges, the prospect of delivering the statue from harm drives Frank Stokes (George Clooney) through his search and eventual discovery of it in the most unlikely place.  Despite its exceptional cast, creative pedigree, and sharply political focus, The Monuments Men suffers from similar problems as Woman in Gold—casting a complex narrative about art history as one of sentimental and uplifting recovery dilutes the political power of these truly fascinating real-life occurrences.

Adele is identified in Woman in Gold, presumably as easy shorthand for her cultural significance, as the “Mona Lisa of Austria.”  The Mona Lisa itself, also the subject of fantastical stories of theft and restitution, and the Bruges Madonna, in addition to Adele, demonstrate that a worthy subject of another post may indeed be the willingness to endow artistic bodies of women with allegorical significance. With regard to Nazi thefts during World War II, restitution has once again become a hot topic, especially with the discovery a year ago of 1,500 works of art in the dwellings of Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of a Nazi art dealer.  Conferences on the subject are held on a regular basis, and dissertations and books are written by scholars claiming expertise in restitution and issues of cultural heritage.  So why the sentimentality?  Is sentimentality a means of “dumbing down” these issues for the masses?

Because of high profile discoveries like the Gurlitt case, these are hot button issues that crop up in mainstream media on a fairly regular basis or that echo regrettably through contemporary reports of groups like ISIS purposefully destroying cultural heritage sites in the Middle East.  I would argue that dumbing down is not at issue in the adoption of sentimentality, and that perhaps it is instead a question of how our society envisions the purpose of art.  Like music, art is supposed to save—many people who make their living making or studying art will tell you exactly this.  Making movies that hype the potential romanticism of art-related justice aligning with the “right” side of a war—in The Monuments Men, the Allies; in Woman in Gold, the Jews of Vienna—can seem incredulous to those who totally believe in the power of art because it distorts their quiet and dignified lived purpose into a loudly epic narrative.  Even if screenwriters and artists believe in art and art history’s ability to move, they don’t do any service to their cause in simplifying the tools of its modus operandi.  Even if these movies enable delights like George Clooney giving an eminently quotable speech about what saving art is worth to an honorable way of life, the rest of the story needs to be constructed well enough to bear that message out.  Some audiences must still be convinced to believe it.