Fall is here, which means we are exactly a month away from Love Actually season and all its miseries.
It’s not so much that I mind the movie itself–the way it flaunts its manipulative triviality is almost endearingly goofy–its the inexplicable canonization as quintessential chick flick and tearjerker.
Because really, if we’re going to designate a special genre for sentimental dramas about women and their relationships (I would love to hear what the corresponding term for Braveheart and Field of Dreams is, by the way) I think we can do better than a film that largely consists of Alan Rickman cheating on Emma Thompson and Colin Firth mooning over the beautiful maid he’s never had a conversation with.
Behold, the real chick flicks, or at least a small sampling thereof.
Anne of Green Gables
When I was five and my sister was three, our best friend moved in next door to our grandparents. We did not know she was our best friend when she moved in, but it soon became obvious. We spent almost every moment of every subsequent summer together, on roofs and up trees, playing the kind of demented games that three very close, over-energetic, under-supervised children will invent. The highlight of every July was a sleepover spent watching Anne of Green Gables.
I had read the books, and loved them, but my sister and friend never did. It didn’t matter. The movie captures and distills a great part of the book’s dusty red, tree-lined heart, somehow making it its own. It’s the shots of Anne and Diana walking across a field, lit by the fall sunset, or through the tall dune grass (Anne walks by the sea with no one else), always accompanied by the fluting soundtrack. The total impression is of an idyllic Prince Edward Island whose visual and affective contours mirror the workings of memory–the way certain friendships, and certain moments in those friendships, exist always vivid, always enclosed and perfect, dipped in summery and autumnal golds.
I may or may not have teared up at this:
Anne’s sick and desperate face upon hearing that Diana is marrying the meek and worthless Fred (I love Bruce, but you must admit he was not fit to untie Anne’s shoelaces) says everything. Diana goes through with the wedding, but she kisses Anne first. Anne was always first.
The whole post, like the movie, is for anyone who’s fallen in love with a friend at at first sight, head over heels in total heartsick longing.
Sense and Sensibility
Out of innumerable Austen adaptations there are only two true greats: the six hour BBC Pride and Prejudice and the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility. The BBC Pride and Prejudice is a delicious, impeccable romp; its source material is less steeped in grief than Sense’s, and it is too busy being a perfect Austen adaptation to be anything else.
Sense and Sensibility, though, is that rarest of birds–an adaptation whose liberal tweaking is defensible and coherent, a marriage of minds in which the text shines through, but suffused with the particular vision of the adapter.
And what a lonely vision it is: the muted palette of steel grays and blues, the rainy skies, the expanses of Devonshire moor. It’s a lonely place, and a lonely movie; full of the pain of isolation and of being misapprehended, of worry and doubt and no one to share it with, of the ever present threat of loss. For Marianne, who cannot comprehend losing what she loves, and for Elinor, who always fears that she will.
Watch her beg Marianne not to leave her alone, then go call your sister, tell her you love her, and maybe weep to pianoforte music for an hour or so.
I am realizing now that almost every movie in this sampling is about sisters. I realize, and acknowledge, but I do not apologize. On to Little Women.
Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel charms and torments by turns. The March sisters, and their rich intra-familial life, and their fervent Trascendentalist context, are irresistible. Alcott’s relentless didactic incursions into the text, on the other hand, nearly drove me to to distraction. I am a tolerant lady, tranquil as the flowing stream, but there are only so many speeches–often about feminine modesty and the sweet, tender power a maiden wields over young men who reverence her as the principle of womanly purity and the sacred domestic hearth–that a body can take.
And there’s then there’s jarring difference between the two mini-novels that comprise the whole.The first, Little Women, is a love letter to the March clan. The second, Good Wives, picks up after the marriage of the eldest daughter, and is a plodding, meandering account of a now less vibrant clan’s drift into marriages and death.The whole thing seems a vindication of Jo’s complaint “Why must we marry at all? Why can’t things just stay as they are?”
None of this even touches the book’s cardinal sin, the ghastly crime of Jo and Laurie (I cannot bring myself to speak that interfering German fathead’s name).
Rest assured, I am not implying that the plot is a crime against Laurie, that he “deserves her” just because he falls in love and knows how to wear a cravat. I am firmly opposed to women, fictional or otherwise, being handed off to men as prizes, no matter how prepossessing the waistcoat or necktie involved. The resolution of Jo’s love affairs is a crime against Jo and against the universe.
That two people who light each other up, who confide in and challenge each other, who have known and loved each other through the vagaries of youth, in whom the same slight piratical streak runs, should sunder on pretexts flimsier than the social safety net; that Jo must pretend that she would not be magnificent traipsing around Europe with husband Laurie–a rascally, growly belle laide–it is all unconscionable.
I do not know if Alcott felt compelled to punish Jo, or punish herself in Jo, or if she simply could not imagine a practicable sexual relationship without a large age gap and strong paternal subtext. Whatever the dreadful reason, there is little to be done now.
The film adaptation, oyster-like, does its best to soften all these irritants in a layers of nacre-gleaming excellence, and largely succeeds.
The fascinating, maddening, WASPy New England triad of patrician battiness, moral rigorism, and social conscience remains. It’s made more accessible, though, by the excision of Alcott’s direct address, and by making the feminist thread that runs through the book more explicit.
The casting doesn’t hurt either; Susan Sarandon’s jawline alone could play a credible Marmee, while Winona Ryder and Christian Bale simply are Jo and Laurie. Ryder in particular seems born for this role, and her eager, angular, beauty, almost poignantly evocative of a specific moment in time, perfectly captures Jo’s muddle of towering ambition and resistance to life’s onward march.
Much of the novel, necessarily, winds up jettisonned, but it’s hard to imagine how the final cut could be more perfect. The demands of on-screen concision go a long way towards mending the faults of the novel’s second half, chronicling Jo’s development and the unraveling of the March’s domestic knot without the episodic weariness of the book.
Perfection would perhaps entail grownup Amy married off to some polite and human-looking English lord, and Professor Bhaer darning socks alone in his boarding-house forever. But, since that is not to be, it is some comfort that the film really does the best it can.
Jo actually gets a love interest, not a grandfather, courtesy of the beautiful, beautiful Gabriel Byrne. She gets a a courtship, a real courtship that does not consist solely of Bhaer shuffling around and offering unsolicited opinions about what she should be writing. Laurie grows capitally offensive facial hair, which takes some of the salt out of the wound.
It’s not much, but against the backdrop of the telescoped years with Jo and her family, it’s more than enough.
Here is the soundtrack, in lieu of the Concord Farmhouse you really wanted.
A League of Their Own
When we did not feel like going out on weekends, my college roommate and I would build a nest of pillows and blankets on the floor of our room and curl up together to watch this movie (or, occasionally, Stardust; never anything else.)
There is little else to say about it, except that Geena Davis is resplendent and full of the warm female authority Jane Eyre spends most of a novel searching for.
Whether you are by nature a mule or a nag, if it’s on, you watch it, and if you watch it, you will cry.
Disney movies are all very well in their way, but none of them even come within a hundred miles of twanging the old heartstrings like Anastasia.
I don’t know whether it’s the hungry search for her family, or the confirmation of secretly harbored beliefs that one is probably a disinherited empress, or the delights of a fairy tale set in jazz age Paris, or just the thoroughness with which Anya crushes Rasputin under her immaculately shod heel.
I suspect though, that it’s largely something to do with the movie’s gleaming, wistful, ghostiness.
I mean, an amnesiac beggar-princess dancing with the ghosts of her executed sisters. What more do you want?
There are other movies, I am sure, that many will contend deserve top billing on this list–Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, Thelma and Louise, The Color Purple, et cetera–but since I have not seen these films, I will let others make the case for them.