Friday, August 31, 2007

Rosemary's Baby

Sometimes when the moon is full and I'm in a certain mood, namely a monthly/cyclical mood if you know what I mean (oh, you do, you unloved, fruitless spinsters!) I crave rare steaks, and Rosemary's Baby.

This is one of my all-time favorite horror movies (the other is The Shining) for so many reasons: I love the look of it -- 1960s New York, The Dakota, the decor, the costumes -- I love Mia Farrow (I absolutely adore her hair) I love the subject matter -- a spinster is one step away from a witch, you know, plus I've aspired to be a witch ever since my dad took me to the Salem Witch Museum when I was six -- and I love the fact that I notice something new every time I watch it.

Inevitably, I have to give the film a feminist reading, because, well, it just deals with so much vis-a-vis the archetypes of the female that it's really hard to disentangle it all (and because for me being a female = being a feminist). I mean, besides the unpleasantness of birth, you've got the evil male medical establishment, class issues, religious grappling, male condescension (toward the female capacity for rational thought), "hysteria" and emotionally abusive husbands. So you've got the most stylish witchcraft/urban isolation/theological disillusionment movie in the world, the best haircut ever, and a whole grab-bag of feminist complaints! In other words, the most fun I've had all summer.

But seriously, there are few movies as metaphorically rich and genuinely horrifying as Rosemary's Baby, and I take fresh pleasure with every viewing.

It's also a great adaptation. I read the book when I was ten, but I remember it vividly (since it was riveting and traumatic, leaving me virtually scarred for life). I was far too young to be reading it, but no-one was around to witness me devour the borrowed copy of the red trade paperback with the green-edged pages that Nadia M. had stolen from her mother's basement. I read it in Puerto Vallarta, while my mother was out with a man-friend, and sister was, shall I say discreetly, sick with the shits. It was dark, it was hot, I was alone, I was frightened. It was delicious. I'm surprised no one took it away from me, tender young Catholic that I was, because I must have read it for the better part of a week. That's all I remember about that trip to Mexico, that and bumping my head so hard against the concrete of the pool that I was momentarily blind. The book forever left me with strange ideas, but when I look back I realize how much of it centers on Catholic intermarriages (I think -- remember, the pool). Rosemary had all the weight of guilt and iconography upon her, and she had defied her family by marrying a Protestant man, which is why none of her three sisters, two brothers, or sixteen nieces and nephews help her out at all -- this is more clear in the book than in the film. Anyway, it's wonderfully adapted for the screen, including Rosemary's dreams/nightmares/fantasies/visions.

One reviewer notes that Polanski keeps the film ambiguous enough to make the viewer wonder whether these things are actually happening or if they're in Rosemary's mind.
I thought it was pretty clear what was in her mind and what wasn't. (Guy shows that he hears the chanting, too, at first.) Part of the rage that I feel when I watch it comes from the way Guy tries to gaslight her, which makes it a much better, far creepier tale than if she really *were* hallucinating some or all of it.

Rosemary's whole thing is being talked down to and underestimated by everyone. She's deliberately kept in ignorance and fear, compounding her childlike dependence, and Guy constantly tells her what she does and does not think. When her friends give her some womanly advice, he calls them a bunch of not-very-bright bitches.

Here's a classic mental manipulation scene:

R: "I don't like it, it has an undertaste."
G; "There is no undertaste, you're crazy."
R; "I don't like it and I'm not going to eat it."
G: "Fine, don't eat it. There's always something wrong, isn't there."
Sigh. Rosemary eats it.

Oooohhhh!!!! If that kind of talk doesn't burn me up, nothing does!

So, for me, one of the pleasures of the film is watching Rosemary learn to think for and stand up for herself. I love how observant she is, and I love her smart and pert retorts when she finally does fight back. (My favorite: "Shut up! I don't hear you, you're in Dubrovnik.") The film ends on an ambiguous note, but I like to think she fixes their wagon good. I hope she runs away from all of them, and I hope she drops the baby on its head.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Just Your Standard Monkey Funeral Shot*

So I re-watched Sunset Blvd. the other day, and about fifteen minutes into it I felt the same frustration I'd felt the first time around. My first viewing took place during my Buster Keaton phase, and I watched the film because he was in it for like three seconds. I'd been watching a lot of silent films at the time and maybe that was the thing, because soon enough, Sunset Blvd.'s voice over started to really, really bother me. I just wanted William Holden to shut up. When he said, "Max wheeled in caviar and champagne" and there was a shot of him wheeling in caviar and champagne I was like, UGH!!! STOP!!! Stop reading a novel over this movie, dammit!

I mean, aside from that, it's great. Great story, awful, incredible, ghoulish, creepy story! Terrific cast, dear god (I love Gloria Swanson! Male and Female was awesome, and Sadie Thompson was bizarre -- and I want to see Manhandled!). Obviously, great inside-view Hollywood satire (one of the first, I am told, I wonder if that's true). The dialogue between Holden and Swanson is terrific (between Holden and that oatmeal girl Nancy Olsen, not so much, but intentionally so, I imagine). And yes, very innovative: the voice-over is a dead man. Neat. But they could have sliced a lot of the damn voice over and it wouldn't have been missed. No one needs to narrate the butler bringing in caviar. (Ah, Eric von Stroheim, you magnificent bastard ... )

Richard Corliss called Sunset Boulevard "the definitive Hollywood horror movie," noting that, "the story is narrated by a dead man who Norma Desmond first mistakes for an undertaker, while most of the film takes place "in an old, dark house that only opens its doors to the living dead." He compared Von Stroheim to The Phantom of the Opera, and Swanson to Dracula, drawing comparisons between Wilder's handling of the camera during her seduction of Holden to "the traditional directorial attitude taken towards Dracula's jugular seductions."

One funny thing I read online, which may or may not be true, is that apparently, during a preview screening of the film, actress Mae Murray, a contemporary of Swanson's, was taken aback by the actress's over-the-top performance, and commented "None of us floozies was that nuts." And apparently Mary Pickford got real quiet. I wonder my what my favorite floozy, Mabel Normand, would have said about it.

* This is apparently what Billy Wilder said he wanted from his cameraman during the monkey funeral scene.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Vintage re-releases out of print Ross MacDonald books

Good news for Lew Archer fans -- About half-a-dozen old titles will be made available on Vintage's Black Lizard label, including "The Ivory Grin," "Black Money," "The Way Some People Die," "The Instant Enemy" and "The Blue Hammer."

Scott Timberg's article in the LA Times gives a nice overview of the author and his work:

Macdonald's following ranged well beyond noir's usual suspects: Eudora Welty gave 1971's "The Underground Man" a rave on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, then quite rare for a genre book. During his lifetime, he was friends with poet Henri Coulette and rocker Warren Zevon, and more recently authors Haruki Marukami, Jonathan Lethem and Chabon have hailed his influence.

"Ross Macdonald is the paradigm, to me, of a writer who never wrote outside the so-called 'confines' of his genre yet who expanded those boundaries so far in terms of language, characterization and literary patterning that it makes no sense to talk of confines at all," Chabon wrote in an e-mail. "He just wrote great novels about a private eye."

According to the article there's also a great anthology called "The Archer Files" by Tom Nolan, which features short unfinished sketches in which Archer appears. It might take a while for me to get around to that though -- I've had a copy of The Blue Hammer on my desk for five months, and I just bought a (used) copy of The Ivory Grin.

Here's hoping the new imprints keep the trashy vintage covers. Nope. I've just looked on Amazon and they've rather unfortunately classed them up too much for my liking:
Pity. I do so enjoy a horrible looking cover:

Thursday, August 09, 2007

"Behind the Veil"

"Do women kill for different reasons than men?"

This was one of the topics discussed at a panel I attended recently, "Women Mystery Writers: Behind the Veil," at the New York Public Library. The panelists were Mary Jane Clark, Liz Zelvin, Mary Ann Kelly and Robin Hathaway. Truthfully, I haven't read any of them, but Kelly and Clark piqued my interest because they set their stories in Queens (yay!) and among the newsworld of a fictionalized CBS (and I'm such a media maven).

The panel was meant to discuss the intricacies of writing female characters, on both sides of the law, but it was a strangely stifled debate. Jane Cleland moderated, and she was lively and affable, but mis-stepped dreadfully right off the bat when she opened with the following question: "Are you a feminist?" There was a moment of awkward silence before two panelists answered yes and two answered no (a pretty representative proportion of feminists to non-feminists among women). I won't say who answered which way, to protect identities, but even those who said they weren't qualified their stance by adding that they just weren't fond of labels or "-isms" although they believed in the principles of feminism itself. For some, it was a non-issue ("women just assume they're equal"), for others remnants of old-school anti-feminism seemed to cling steadfastly in their psyches ("I don't like women who stomp around with 'metal things on their shoes' and [are] very aggressive and hate men," said one, laughably). Most of the panelists acknowledged the "subtle objectification of women in pre-feminist novels and mysteries," noting the long legs and good looks of the traditional femmes fatales, and all acknowledged the greatness of the new crop of female PIs like Kinsey Milhone and VI Warshawksi (to which I'll add Arly Hanks and Claire Malloy!). Clark summed the issue up nicely: "I certainly don't think that the purpose of women is to serve and support men."

End of discussion. And unfortunately, end of panel discussion.

The rest of the session was extremely muted, and nobody seemed willing to offer any opinions on crafting female characters, villain or detective, or holding forth on the differences between male and female murder/crime-solving styles. When asked, "Do women kill for different reasons than men," lame, non-committal responses ensued: "I don't know if motive is gender-specific" and "This business of gender is overdone a great deal." Now that everyone was enmeshed in a fine net of political correctness and fear, no one was willing to go out on a limb. No one wanted to talk about sex or power or revenge or lust or hatred or frustration or stereotypes or strong women characters or things they loved or hated -- no one seemed to want to say anything at all.

I was a little surprised that, on a panel about female characterization, nobody talked about -- or asked -- who their female characters were, or got into any specific writing techniques. I blame it all on the awkwardness ensured by the divisive opening question. Had I moderated, I might have asked that question last.

In any case, another surprise was that these authors didn't seem to be very avid readers. With the exception of Kelly, they didn't seem to read many novels at all. Kelly cited Jean Rhys (yes!), Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble, making her head and shoulders the most literary of the bunch. Hathaway went in for the classic British and golden age mysteries (Sayers, Tey), as well as Highsmith. And Clark confessed to reading very little at all as an adult, but professed to love Nancy Drew as a child (which put her in my good books, as did her statement that she "wrote visually" with little description, and was inspired by Hitchcock). Almost none read contemporary crime fiction!

(Which lead me to an interesting stream-of-consciousness debate in my own mind about the relationship between reading and writing. Of course, I didn't ask any questions at the Q&A, because I'm far too shy.)

I'll probably give Clark and Kelly a whirl sometime ... I'll let you know what I think!

Monday, August 06, 2007

Inoffensive Wimsey

This may be a testament to the staggering lengths of time it takes for me to get around to stuff: I just recently finished the DL Sayers novel my sister gave me for Christmas. It had been sitting on my shelf for lo these many months, and I finally cracked it open this summer.

Shame, because it would have been a really good and Christmasy read, and it suffered, I think, for having been read in July.

However ... we must be brave and carry on.

The idea of reading The Nine Tailors was exciting to me because Sayers is one of these canonical authors I've wanted to read for ages, so I was really looking forward to this Golden Age mystery (even though I've been disappointed by this branch of the genre in the past ... but this was Sayers after all, I reasoned, not The Crime at Black Dudley).

The novel itself was less than exciting, initially, and I was prepared to write off all English Golden Age mysteries indefinitely. The first fifty pages were just interminable description of village life quaintness, bell-ringing vicars, and English countryfolk. Then as a mystery began (slowly) to unfold, I started to feel a little better. Granted, it was the tamest mystery of all time (a stolen emerald necklace, yawn) but then finally, FINALLY, they FOUND a CORPSE! Thank god.

Things really picked up after the inquest. Villagers began to gossip and accuse, and act downright suspicious, mysterious papers found on the corpse take Lord Peter Wimsey (our gentleman detective) to France, and the corpse's true identity emerges, but they still can't figure out how he died. The answer can only be found by listening to the mysterious bells!

All in all it was a decent story, with some hilarious asides (like a two-page rant about how the French have terrible handwriting) and Wimsey was an amusing character with a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor but I can see how this novel would be neither universally loved nor universally reviled. I get the feeling that those who like this type of writing like it a lot, those who don't will simply feel bored and restless. I can appreciate certain qualities in her story but not in her method of story-telling (awfully long and dry and descriptive and sprawling -- I'd have found this story marvelous if she'd lopped off about 100 ages of description) or in her language (stiff!) or in her themes (rather mild for my taste). I won't rush out to read more Sayers the way I did with Tey after the Franchise Affair, or Rendell after No Night Is Too Long. I feel coolly toward Sayers, rather like I do with PD James.

I'll leave you with Edmund Wilson's criticism: "I set out to read The Nine Tailors in the hope of tasting some novel excitement, and I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field. The first part is all about bell-ringing as it is practised in English churches and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology. I skipped a good deal of this, and found myself skipping, also, a large section of the conversations between conventional English village characters.... I had often heard people say that Dorothy Sayers wrote well... but, really, she does not write very well: it is simply that she is more consciously literary than most of the other detective-story writers and that she thus attracts attention in a field which is mostly on a sub-literary level."

So there. Ladies, you can feel comfortable giving this book to your Nana; she won't be offended by any of it, and she'll learn a lot about bells.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Black Orchid Bookshop is Closing

I found out that Black Orchid bookshop is closing in September.

Of course I'm terribly sad because I loved that store (it was such a sublime shambles), and I bought my first Maggody book there (yay!), and Bonnie and Joe, well, they're just exactly the way you want bookstore-owners to be.

When I Googled the news for more info, I found this delightful blog, which eases the pain somewhat because it's so marvelous. (I also found out, while perusing said delightful blog, that Murder Ink had closed, which is also sad because I always said I'd go there and then I never did. That's what you get for putting things off.) I'll absolutely be visiting her blog again soon.

Though good blogs ease the pain, it's still sad to know that Black Orchid is gone forever (though apparently they'll live on in the ether of the interweb) .... but what I really, really want to know is who's going to get their Lizzie Borden cross-stitch?