Monthly Archives: February 2011

Poetry Beyond Text

I’ve been collaborating with artist Mary Modeen on ‘Uncertain Territories’, a series of poems and images as part of the Poetry Beyond Text project at the University of Dundee. This work will be exhibited, along with other artists’ collaborations with poets – including John Burnside and Robin Robertson – at Dundee Contemporary Arts this March, before it goes on to the Scottish Poetry Library and the Royal Scottish Academy later in the year. More details on this to follow, for any Scotland-based poetry/image enthusiasts.

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On Loving Moonlighting (1985-1989)

When ABC commissioned Glenn Gordon Caron to write a boy/girl detective pilot back in 1984, Caron was reluctant. Besides, he was despondent. This was to be the third pilot he had written for the network – neither of the previous two being picked up and turned into a series, despite his hopes for them and belief in their quality. Caron had had form with the ‘tec series, however. He had written for early episodes of the hit Remington Steele. But he felt, nonetheless, that he had neither a feel for or an especial interest in the genre. Friendly persuasion was applied, and he ran with ABC’s suggestion. The result was a wonderful pilot that mashed comedy, drama and sexual tension – the first episode of what was to become one of the most inspired, creative and, as it turns out, influential series ever to come out of a network: Moonlighting.

The show would feature a boy/girl detective dyad, sure enough. But this was to be no Hart to Hart. And it wouldn’t be some simple derivative of Remington Steele, either. It would pair an odd couple, whose differing opinions on just about everything complicated their business. They would bicker incessantly and would be secretly first hot for, then in love with, each other. The show would fashion a unique product from the melding of the best Hollywood traditions: 30s screwball comedy, noir, slapstick, rapid-fire wisecracking in the Hecht/MacArthur mode – and would honour and make fun of them all, with a liberal helping of knowing postmodernity.

Cybill Shepherd was cast in the role of Maddie Hayes, a now broke, former high-fashion model who ends up being forced to turn her life around financially – after she is cheated by her accountant – by running her only asset: a detective agency she had used as a tax write-off, Blue Moon Investigations. The role cleverly played on Shepherd’s own circumstances. She was a former model, who had gone into film with roles in The Heartbreak Kid and, most iconically, The Last Picture Show. It was on the set of this latter film that she fell in love with the director, a married Peter Bogdanovich. The relationship did not make things easy for Shepherd in Hollywood when he left his wife, producer and screenwriter Polly Platt, for her, and took charge of her career with disastrous results. Further roles in film and a TV series followed but each vehicle tanked. By the time she was cast in Moonlighting, Shepherd was just thirty-five years old – and in the agonising position of being a very recognisable has-been. She badly needed the break, but never imagined that the series would be a defining point in her career and, in fact, offer her a role of such status that it would even eclipse that of Jacy in Picture.

Caron needed to find a smartass, cool fool to spar and spark with her. The character would neatly subvert the noir laconic – he would be a man of very many words, and one who could deliver them like a machine gun. Bruce Willis was an unknown thirty-year-old, out-of-work actor when he read for the part of detective and ‘manager’ incumbent of the agency, David Addison. Willis’s career looked like it was going nowhere, fast. But when he and Shepherd read together, their interplay lit up the room and the sexual chemistry was apparent to everyone – most especially Shepherd, who felt that he was not only playing David, but that he was David. Willis couldn’t believe his luck and, at least initially, his gratitude for his big break was felt by all who worked with him.

Alongside the often ludicrous but brilliantly crafted plots the two unravelled, the principal architecture of the show was the pair’s dialogue and eternal tango. They would interrupt each other, often delivering their monologues in overlap, becoming so wound-up in the process that it looked like it would end in violence (which it did, on a few occasions). They would slam the doors of their respective offices. Maddie would stomp off, her clutch bag at oxter, her immaculately groomed hair bouncing in the LA sunshine – David would chase after her like a schoolboy: mocking, absolutely desperate for her attentions. Much of the warmth we felt towards the characters was that they were essentially two lost souls and, emotionally-speaking, teenagers. And, then, they were not what they appeared to be. Maddie seemed to be the quintessential ice maiden, a Hitchcockian fantasy in her Halston dresses, with her baby blonde locks. A sort of modern-imagined Grace Kelly. But as we know about ice maidens, they do tend to melt. Much humour comes from David’s constant ridicule of Maddie’s uptight, WASP principles and insistence on control – and her absolutely volcanic eruptions in response. David appears to be a laid-back guy who sees fun as the sole mode, but, during the course of the series, is revealed to be intense, complex and vulnerable under all his play-it-lite. It is something the viewer recognises but Maddie does not, until much later. It makes her hectoring of him seem all the more comical and poignant. Be serious, she always seems to be saying. But we know he already is – and, more to the point, he’s already serious about her.

At the agency, the pair are joined by a rhyming receptionist in the form of Agnes DiPesto, whose surreality was made completely believable on account of her kind-hearted, wide-eyed personality. Later, she develops a crush on and then goes on to enjoy a romance with new recruit Bert Viola. That pair offer relationship advice to the warring would-be lovers, Maddie and David, and pastiche the buddy/buddy trope from TV and film. The firm also has an inordinate amount of seemingly eternally underemployed caseworkers, despite the always parlous financial fortunes of Blue Moon. They enjoy limbo contests, sing soul classics, play wastepaperbasketball; the fun only stops when they fret that they are going to be fired on account of their inefficiency, which they occasionally are – before being rehired by the essentially good, socially paranoid, eager-to-please Maddie, who fired them in the first place. They function as a sort of low-rent Greek chorus, offering commentary on and dissent to the leads. They are also an incredibly smart joke. For it is with these figures that Caron is almost certainly poking fun at the paralysis of the TV writers’ room behind the making of so many hit shows. It is a kind of happy purgatory.

The on-screen attraction between Maddie and David became so involving and plausible that viewers wondered whether it was matched with an off-screen love affair. But, behind the scenes, Shepherd and Willis became enemies as the series progressed. He realised that he was growing into a true star in his own right, and beyond the show. He had ambitions to break into film. She struggled with perfectionist Caron’s last-minute rewrites and the punishing hours of filming. Some believed that Willis was provoking her prior to key scenes, in order to make her reactive and to improve their engagement. If that is true, it appears to have worked.

As the tension in their relationship on- and off-set cranked up, the production team were faced with a dilemma: to give the audience what they seemed to want or to hold it back. They went with the former, and Maddie and David slept with each other towards the end of the third season. The next morning, Maddie has both doubts and post-coital tristesse. And so do we. In consummating their relationship, the producers delivered what is known as the Shipping Bed Death. Our interest waned and, as the show continued to be dogged by off-set tension between the stars and their respective circumstances, it limped on for a further two seasons and bled audience – and critical – ratings, before the light that had already gone out went out officially.

Bruce Willis, as we all know, went on to become a major star, although, with the exception of John McClane in the Die Hard film franchise, he has never occupied a greater role. Cybill Shepherd enjoyed some success with a sitcom, Cybill, loosely based on her own life, before that ended and she took to guest and cameo roles in other hit TV series, such as The L Word. Despite a less than glorious end to such a hitherto glorious series, Moonlighting spawned countless inheritors – of its self-consciousness, its hyper-cultural awareness, its breaking of the fourth wall, its dream sequences, fantasies and parodies. Much imitated, yes, but never bettered.

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Filed under caron, moonlighting, shepherd, some fly by day, willis

On Loving St Elmo’s Fire (1985)

When it was released back in 1985, St Elmo’s Fire was a film the critics absolutely loved to hate. The story traces the fortunes of a group of freshly graduated, tight-knit friends who, on entering the real world of work, grown-up relationships and responsibilities, are presented with crisis, conflict and changes that they are ill-prepared for by a failed society that has, essentially, groomed them for failure. The film was criticised for presenting the very worst of eighties values – or, rather, lack thereof – and the characters were seen as self-absorbed, spoilt and essentially unsympathetic: products of their time and, besides which, their age.

When we meet the gang, they do intially appear thoroughly in love with themselves – and each other. Alec (Judd Nelson) is a preening, right-on young Democrat, with a smart apartment and the affections of the lovely architect, Leslie (Ally Sheedy), who he has dated since freshman year in college. Jules (Demi Moore), a materially spoilt but emotionally abandoned beautiful little rich girl with a taste for men and coke, is Leslie’s best friend and has landed a prime job in banking. Kirby (Emilio Estevez) waits in the bar the group have frequented since their happiest days in college, St Elmo’s, and is saving his tips for law school. He lives with Kevin (Andrew McCarthy), who sees himself as a great American writer in waiting, but is currently occupied writing obits for a newspaper, and who is Alec’s best friend. Billy (Rob Lowe) is the former frat-wildster and musician, a Peter Pan who, despite his immaturity, has found himself with child and with wife – neither of which he can afford financially or emotionally. He is mothered by Wendy (Mare Winningham), a rich girl who lives at home with her parents who are in the greeting card business, and who longs to break free from their conventionality – she has taken a job in social services and is thoroughly infatuated with the unsuitable Billy.

The film’s first scene is a shot of the group in their graduation gowns, and then we are in the present – the sound of a car crash. An unsubtle but entirely apt metaphor for the group’s journey during the course of the film. Billy has been driving Wendy’s car and, under the influence, totalled it. The gang rush to the hospital to help the pair; both are uninjured. While at the hospital, Kirby spots a girl he idolised at college, Dale (Andie MacDowell) – he took her out for a date once several years back but nothing came of it. Later, we discover that they saw a Woody Allen movie, but she will misremember that it was a Mel Brooks movie. Kirby is intent on winning her – and much of the film’s most embarrassing and heartfelt humour stems from his obsession with the sheer unreality he has created of her. The group go to the bar after Billy is bailed. We come to learn that the feckless Billy has lost another job that Alec has set up from him. Alec is furious and, indicating the lack of maturity he has, for all his patriarchy of the group, flushes Billy’s head in the toilet. Later, we see Alec and Leslie at their yuppie love nest. Alec is pressurising Leslie to get married and attempts to encourage her not to use protection when he begins getting amorous. They will be married soon enough, he declares – though she has yet to say she will marry him. She is reluctant as regards both marriage and baby. She’s a career girl and is one of the few in the group who appears to recognise her own immaturity and need for self-identity. Jules turns up with a bottle of vodka, berating her dying stepmother (‘stepmonster’), and interrupts the moment, delaying the tensions between the couple.

We see Jules again, this time in her apartment. Kevin, who she has invited over for a drink after a group outing, wonders out loud how she has afforded to redecorate her place so lavishly. Jules changes the subject and, in a very amusing scene, accuses Kevin of being gay and in love with Alec. She recognises Kevin’s burning love under his cynical and sombre exterior – but applies it to the wrong person. He leaves, but not without feeling unsettled that something so wide of the mark is, in fact, so very close to it. Kirby has not forgotten his encounter with Dale and has embarrassed her – we feel, but do not see – into a date. He has selected a fancy restaurant and he rings Jules for advice on the wine menu. During their conversation, it is revealed that Jules is advanced on her pay by months – her flamboyance has come at a price and she has money troubles. Dale turns up, but the hospital rings and she leaves, frustrating Kirby’s seduction. We learn more of the dynamic between Billy and Wendy when he meets her after work and she takes him to her grand family home, and, afterward, the two attempt to get physical – an encounter ruined by Billy’s insensitivity to the virginal, body-conscious Wendy. She gives him a wad of notes to pay his rent – we now understand that she has been bankrolling him. The scene hints at near-prostitution, people as commodities. He leaves the money and the house, ashamed of his behaviour and of his life.

When we next see the group all together, it is Halloween. Wendy has become temporarily estranged from Billy, who is playing in his band at the bar. She has a new car, bought for her by her father – he’s hopeful she will become engaged to nerdy Howie, who he selected for her as a prospective match and who she has brought as a date. The car is a bribe and she has, for now, accepted it. Jules is having an affair with the boss of her banking firm, who she approached to beg for a further advance – and ended up sleeping with. Alec discusses his struggle with his libido with Kevin – his random infidelities revealed earlier in the film to his best friend. For all Alec’s conventionality and wisdom, he is still a boy, much like Billy, who he despises as much as he loves – and, as his moonlighting for a Republican senator has already demonstrated to the others, he’s a hypocrite, too. Billy is tormented when his wife arrives at the bar with another man, fawning over him. A fight ensues. Wendy is aghast when, outside the bar, with passion, Billy and his wife kiss. They cannot live with each other but they cannot seem to live without each other, she recognises.

As the film moves towards its climax, the characters are forced into decisions and unhappy truths. Alec declares that Leslie and he are engaged – without consulting her – before a crowd, at a party Kirby is hosting in the hope of impressing Dale (he has taken up work for the mysterious Mr Kim as a house-sitter in his mansion and believes – wrongly – that this show of apparent wealth will influence Dale’s affections). Leslie is furious – and her anger, rejection of his proposal and accusations make Alec convinced Kevin has revealed his infidelity, but she had simply guessed. He attacks Kevin, tells Leslie to move out of their place, and Kevin and Leslie end up at Kevin and Kirby’s apartment, where Kevin’s love for her is exposed, and where, in confusion and hurt, Leslie ends up having sex with him. Kevin assumes his fantasy has at last become a reality – but Leslie will later reject coupledom with him, too. Dale does not turn up at the party and Kirby pursues her, discovering her with her boyfriend at a weekend hideaway. He is humiliated and spends the night at their place. Next morning, he asserts himself and passionately kisses her, leaving her bewildered, somewhat smitten – and his ego triumphant. Meanwhile, Wendy asserts herself with her father, rejecting her car, Howie and, finally, his conventional dreams for her. Jules – jilted by her boss, jobless, and in financial ruin – cracks up in her now empty apartment, and the group, divided because of the Alec-Leslie-Kevin triangle, go to save her. The moment is a turning point for them all. Her breakdown reflects the breakdown in their relationships and also in their hopes for the start of their adult lives, but it is also an ending that offers better, more realistically grounded beginnings, epitomised in the ultimate growth and assumption of responsibility of the least seemingly rounded and mature of their group, Billy – who goes on to consummate, tenderly, his love for Wendy in her newly-acquired apartment, pay her back the money he owes her, allow his wife the divorce she wants and fresh start she needs, and move to New York to seriously pursue his musical talent. He leaves his friends, and his younger self, behind him.

The film is far from perfect. Joel Schumacher’s direction is often heavy-handed (such as Jules’s princess in tower scene, complete with wind machine and chiffon curtains) and some running gags (Jules’s stepmonster’s burial and the group’s booga booga cheer among them) outstay their welcome. Self-satisfaction in the leads does not always appear to be acting. And the characters, who have been mostly driven to their positions by the illusions of the society they have been brought up in, do not appear to adequately explore or fully reject its values and conventions by the end – apart from Wendy and Billy.

But what this film does so very well is reveal the fissures that abide in all group dynamics of this quality and which threaten their continuation, as well as provide them with impetus – hidden desires, envy, jealousy, pecking orders, role-playing, resentment and latent angers. And the film brilliantly captures themes that go beyond its time and place, and which travel well and which we all recognise: the agony of propulsion into the serious world of adulthood; the obvious yet so often postponed realisation that so much in life must be compromised to make money; the mythology of conventional success; the lack of certainty over career and relationship choices often made too soon, too young; the terrible shock of learning one’s lack of specialness, after all. Schumacher would return, years later, with a film that would radically address many of these problems from the middle-age perspective with Falling Down.

The film’s poignancy also rests in what would turn out to be the fate of many of its young stars. The group became confused with their roles and were christened by journalist David Blum as ‘The Brat Pack’ – a name that stuck and came to be applied to other stars of films in the youth genre. However, the group never appeared all together on screen again. Sheedy, Nelson and McCarthy soon evaporated, for all their magnetic screen presence. Lowe, whose inspired and witty turn as a complex Billy was delivered at just twenty-one years old, would soon crumble under the pressure of fame and fall into disgrace for years – before he was rehabilitated by Aaron Sorkin’s hugely popular The West Wing. Estevez, who here exhibits brilliant comedic talent, ended up making endlessly forgettable films throughout the 80s, and even more forgettable ones after that. The most enduringly successful pair were perhaps the least likely: Demi Moore and Mare Winningham. Moore’s turn in St Elmo’s is, though amusing, one note throughout and her options seemed limited, despite her beauty – but, for many years, she was rivalled by only Julia Roberts for her pick of the cream roles from Hollywood and was eventually to strike box office platinum with the saccharine Ghost. Winningham, who offers the most understated and sensitive performance, carved out an award-laden career as a TV movie actress.

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On Loving The Way We Were (1973)

The Way We Were is the classic ‘oil and water’ love story. Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand) first encounters Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford) in the 1930s when they are both at college. Katie is a Jew and a student activist, with a considerable amount of Marxist views. When she isn’t studying or handing out leaflets, she’s working at the local hamburger joint. She’s awkward, all prickles, unfashionable and something of a plain Jane. Hubbell is an affluent WASP. He’s gifted, likeable, athletic, handsome – a blue-eyed boy with blonde hair and an incredible smile. He sets her pulse racing – despite her apparent contempt for the lifestyle and ideology he represents, and the people he surrounds himself with – when he is also revealed to be, during their writing class, a formidable talent.

Despite the fact that he is dating the beautiful Carol Ann, a series of episodes demonstrates that Hubbell also finds himself, on account of her wit, passion and commitment, drawn to Katie. He is mesmerised when she speaks powerfully at a peace rally, only to be first disappointed by, then irritated at her lack of humour when a prank is played. Later, on the night that Edward marries Wallis Simpson, Hubbell is sat outside a bar, drinking a beer on his own. He is celebrating his first publication – he has sold a short story. His friends are nowhere. Hubbell is clearly uneasy with his talent and achievement – he feels he can’t share this serious side with his flippant group. But Katie sees the significance of the occasion. She is both envious and admiring. They share a kindred moment. He criticises her for her lack of humour. She rebuffs the critique. He persuades a reluctant, uptight Katie to take a sip of his beer. He tenderly does up her loose shoelace. She leaves. In the final moments of their time at college, they share a brief dance at Commencement, before he walks off through the crowd: leaving Katie suspended in time and place, idealising him.

Years later, New York, and Katie is working at a radio station. She is still an ardent activist. Hubbell is in the navy, on shore leave. They meet, by coincidence, at a bar – he’s very drunk, so she takes him back to her apartment. He staggers into bed, where she discovers him – naked. She gets into bed and they begin making love. But Katie is aware that he doesn’t know it’s her he’s making love to – she doesn’t care. He has lived in her memory until now. The next morning they share an awkward moment, as Hubbell, hungover and seemingly in denial, is keen to get away. She implores him to contact her if he can’t find accommodation in the city when next on leave. Eventually, he does get in contact. It’s clear to her that the decision to call was purely pragmatic when he makes plans to go out that evening. But she won’t leave it at that – she’s too committed – and faces down all resistance with a promise of good home cooking. They end up talking after dinner about his first novel, which he had recently published to little notice. He is initially touched that the brittle Katie who he knew from college has engaged with his writing, but then he becomes enraptured by her intelligent and penetrating critique of it and his gift – and her insistence on his great potential as a major writer. The two become lovers that night, but Hubbell warns her not to be too serious. It is a remark that not only relates to their relationship at this point, but also to her intensity – which scares as much as it attracts him. He is aware from the outset, as she is not, that the differences that threaten their connection are not merely social or political, but temperamental.

They become a steady couple and Katie is reintroduced to his friends who she met at college and despised. Carol Ann, his college sweetheart, is now married to his best friend, JJ. They are, as Katie supposed they would be, seemingly much unchanged. They make tasteless jokes, are self-satisfied and view much of life in trivial terms. They seem, to her, to be untouchable and – though it is never directly addressed – anti-semitic. But, when Carol Ann comes on the receiving end of Katie’s barbs, she hints that Katie might be projecting her sense of difference onto their feelings about her. As much as she is an outsider, Katie reinforces her marginalisation with her fixed attitudes and, just as she does when talking about her political stance, denies others the possibility of their complexity and voice. Although a wit and strong thinker, Katie’s self-defence mechanisms detract from these natural talents. Po-faced, she is all hectoring and sulks. Hubbell breaks the relationship off after Katie has a tantrum at a party, lecturing the room on Yalta. He loves her, but realises that she cannot change – and he really doesn’t want to change himself. But Katie will not give up: she has invested too much in her dreams. She persuades him to come to her apartment and he is drawn back in. Her ardent belief in who he is, her need to believe in who he might be, one day, and his desire for her belief, amounts to co-dependency.

When JJ gets Hubbell a gig writing scripts in Hollywood, Katie does not want to be part of the machine. Katie wants him to stay with her in New York, be true to his gift and produce substantial novels, writing that will last. But she must not lose Hubbell, and so, when he insists, she goes with him. They live in Malibu and enjoy wealth. Hubbell leads an empty day-to-day on the studio lot. Then McCarthyism hits them and their fragile romance cracks up. Katie is pregnant and protests the blacklist. Hubbell sees that Katie’s beliefs will not be cowed by anything, even the risk to their unborn child – and, even more so, his reputation and place of safety. Nostalgic for his golden days at college, he has an affair with Carol Ann, now the ex-wife of JJ. Katie discovers the affair and the two agree to apart, Hubbell promising to stay with her until the baby – a girl – is born.

When they do eventually meet again, Katie is out on the streets of New York, where the two spent their happiest time together, handing out Ban the Bomb leaflets. Hubbell is in town, making a sitcom for TV. He spots her and the two engage in small talk. They farewell. In a mirror of their on-again, off-again love and attraction, he cannot leave it at that, and comes back to her moments later. They speak of their child, who he has not seen since her birth. Hubbell wants to know whether her new husband is a good father. And he is. She informs Hubbell that she is a ‘very good loser’. To which Hubbell replies: ‘better than I am’. And we believe him.

The film has been criticised for its sense of incompleteness, its lack of integritas. The McCarthy era is reduced in the film to mere minutes (much of this due to the fact that a great deal of footage landed on the cutting-room floor). The film, which was originally conceived with a much more overtly political message by writer Arthur Laurents, became focussed almost completely on romance, one which used politics as a device to highlight difference between two complex, extreme characters. There was tension between Laurents, director Sydney Pollack and lead Robert Redford on set. The end product can sometimes feel as if the audience is intermittently being introduced to another film altogether. And we are. The Way We Were was, and is regarded as such by many involved in the making of it, a failure.

But the story of Katie and Hubbell remains urgent and resonates with its audience, nonetheless. Why? The audience shares something important with its leads, something less common than one might expect from a Hollywood studio. One-time lovers only realise much later how much was illusory and how much narcissism. Although the title song hints differently, and although tragic romance is often depicted differently, this is not a film about consecrated, perfect, lost love (the film might more aptly be titled The Way We Weren’t) – this is a film about two people who come to know that they got it wrong from the very beginning. And, despite their passion, that so much was folly. Beautiful – but folly, nonetheless. In Katie, Hubbell sees someone who recognises his potential – and the difference between himself and his friends who, despite his allegiance to and defence of them, he nonetheless feels, because of his latent talent, superior to. And, then, she offers him the one thing life hasn’t bestowed and which he cannot generate within himself: drive. His life has been pure good fortune; like the character in the story that made Katie fall in love with him, things come too easy to him. Katie offers resistance, difficulty. She challenges. But she also strokes his ego. In Hubbell, Katie sees a way to possibly realise her own dreams by proxy. Insufficiently gifted to be the writer she wanted to be once and to say things which could make a difference to the world, her fixation on his writerly efforts are not without considerable self-interest: it is anticipated gilt by association. And although Katie is strident in her political views and seemingly comfortable in her identity as a Jewish woman, her vitriol towards the WASP lifestyle – with its attendant surface mainstream simplicities – very often comes off as an ego injury, rather than politics. She rejects the world that she has been rejected by already. Her winning of him seems to, provisionally, ease her pain – although it ultimately brings her greater suffering.

Their match is tragic because both parties entirely lack moderation – he has no conviction, she is all passionate intensity. But, on a more straightforward level, their basic story is one which we can all relate to, and this only compounds the sense of tragedy – its inherent ordinariness. They are simply incompatible with one another, despite (and because of) the attraction. While they may feed each other’s egos in direct and indirect ways, neither will ever be able to give way in order to develop a lasting union – and yet they meet and fall, nonetheless. So goes romance – and how many of us know that at personal cost.

In her insistence on the need for an uncompromised life, Katie shuts out others and their voices, too. Her radical tendency to idealise in all matters makes Hubbell a better and more capable man than we – almost immediately – know he is. In Hubbell’s insistence on an easy, comfortable life and narcissistic supply, he fails his own gift, runs away from responsibility and loses his daughter – and the one person who saw in him, however misguided she may have been in so many things, what was, what we do know, real possibility.

Love endures, but all romances end. And this film is, if nothing else, a great romance.


Filed under film, Laurents, love, Pollack, The Way We Were

On Loving Anne of Green Gables (1908)

Anne of Green Gables is Canadian author L . M. Montgomery’s well-known tale of a rara avis, who enters the staid, conservative, rural community of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island and, along the way, transforms people’s lives – including her own.

Anne Shirley is a red-haired eleven-year-old who has lived her life in and out of orphanages, punctuated only by stints as slave labour in unhappy homes: cooking, cleaning and looking after infants. When ageing brother bachelor and sister spinster Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert decide to take on an orphan boy to help Matthew work their farm, Green Gables, Anne is sent to them by mistake. What begins as an unfortunate error turns out to be positively providential. Despite Marilla’s initial insistence that Anne be returned to the asylum, she eventually reconsiders this – frightened that Anne will end up in another household, working for the unpleasant Mrs Blewett – and reveals that beneath her stern exterior lies a compassionate heart. She decides that she will allow Anne a trial period at Green Gables. Despite a series of entertaining episodes that threaten this uneasy arrangement, including Anne’s insulting of the town matriarch, Rachel Lynde, and an ill-advised hair dyeing experiment that leaves her titian locks a shade of green, she is allowed to stay. What follows next is Anne’s chaotic journey from dreamy, accident-prone young girl to blossoming young woman with a mighty heart – and a mighty intellect to match.

Despite the tragic circumstances of her early life, Anne is a fighter and a true survivor. Her challenges have not diminished her appetite for life or her indefatigable quest for happiness and a true home. She possesses a sparky personality and a tendency for the dramatic – she is all vim and vibrancy, and she knows no middle ground. Anne refuses to submit to her misfortunes or her allotted role in life as stigmatised outsider. Most of all, she is no conformist. It slowly dawns on the reader, as we see her landed among her peers in Avonlea, that the first eleven years of her life, for all their troubles, have gifted her something very precious. Placed on the margins of society, she has escaped many of the strictures the society imposed on its children, particularly females. No one has ever expected Anne to amount to anything or to make a good match in adulthood, so they have never trained her to satisfy society, beyond the ability to complete household chores. As a consequence, she is sassy, has developed a rich interior life – the by-product of a youth spent turning to books to assuage her perennial loneliness – and talks too much, often dishing up truths that, while others may find them unpalatable, are still truths all the same. She finds authority difficult to deal with and often, rightly, identifies illogic and unfairness in it. Montgomery cleverly places Anne at eleven. Anne is young enough therefore to be realistically finessed – as she is, through the novel’s charming progression – but too old to have all her wonderful uniqueness and splendid non-conformity completely ironed out of her. She is her own person as a young girl and, for all the perceived improvement others identify in her, she remains her own person as a young woman. Her tough start in the world leaves her ambitious to make her own way, and she soon understands that her great intellect is a tool she can turn to her advantage. Montgomery is telling us that our darkest hours may eventually contribute to the making of our finest ones – it’s all in the attitude.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story is that Anne’s rise in the community from prejudiced-against misfit to much-loved and respected young local also has as much to do with the changing attitude of those around her as it has to do with her own gradual refinement. Anne changes much less than we might first be tempted to assume; indeed, as subsequent books in the series demonstrate, Anne never completely conquers her flaws. Rather, she stimulates the romantic and big-hearted approach to life that she possesses in others – one of the many reasons this book is such a tender and engaging work. Her placement at the Cuthberts turns out to serve them as much as it does her. They have been living lives of quiet desperation since their own childhood. Anne revitalises their existences and offers them a renewed sense of purpose. She is also the cause of event in their life, from the highly amusing to the downright annoying. Matthew recognises the worth in her instantly. Her talkative nature and comical affectations win his heart, as does her candour, particularly among the hypocrisies of rural life – something he respects. Marilla resists but, confronted with a wilful girl who turns out to mirror her own lack of conventionality, she eventually submits. She recognises kinship when she sees it. For Gilbert Blythe, the most handsome – and cleverest – boy in school, Anne is a revelation. Everyone adores him – but Anne refuses to moon over him. He is enchanted by her otherness. It is no coincidence that, longing for just a scrap of attention, any scrap, he chooses to tease her about her red hair – earning a smashed slate over his head in the process. As time moves on, Anne proves that her unusual appearance is equalled by further qualities – which the other girls in Avonlea so clearly lack: her manifest intelligence, quick wit, boldness, independence and romantic spirit. Gilbert loves her for her the very reasons polite society would deem her unlovable. Her negative chemistry with Gilbert is both the cause of much humour and incredible reader-frustration. Like Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, his mistake in slighting her eclipses her understanding that, perhaps above everyone in Avonlea, including Matthew and Marilla, he is the one who most fully appreciates her: mind, body and soul. She breathes life into the proper and somewhat less bright girl she selects to be her ‘bosom friend’, Diana Barry, and introduces both Diana and the other girls in her class to something they’ve not paid much attention to – their imaginations – with the aid of some Tennyson. Along the way, she saves others from crushing normalcy – and quite literally saves a life when she nurses Minnie May, Diana’s sister, from the croup.

This would make the novel one long ‘tastes like diabetes’ trope, were it not for the fact that the harsh realities of life – random injustice, death and bereavement, breaks in friendship, cruelty, loneliness and bigotry – are directly referenced, and Anne experiences all of these. Life is never easy and this novel, despite its optimism, never pretends it is or holds the view that it should be. Even the novel’s conclusion refuses a wholly happy ending, despite reconciliation between Anne and Gilbert, who selflessly steps in to help her when she needs him the most. Anne must compromise her own dreams in order to save Green Gables – and Marilla. Ties of love and society involve personal sacrifice. In Anne of Green Gables, difficulties are never far away, even amid the picturesque surroundings of Avonlea. Where much emphasis in Alcott’s Little Women seems to be on taking steps to avoid future difficulty by becoming good, with Anne Montgomery is telling us that we can never hide from difficulty and nor should we, but what we must do is insist on being true to ourselves.

As well as the novel’s underscoring of the trials involved in an engaged life, it offers us a heroine that couldn’t be more different from Pollyanna, despite the joys she engenders in others. She is far from perfect. And far from modestly reconciled to her imperfections. Despite her disappointment in her red hair, freckles and gawky physique, she is incredibly vain. She holds a grudge, with genuine spite – Gilbert is shut out of her life for almost all the novel as a result of his childish teasing. She can be haughty, snobbish and pretentious – her armoury against a world that has sought to rob her of her dignity and has good form in keeping her down. She possesses a furious temper and finds it difficult to accept critique. She is sensitive and deep, but has a tendency toward the superficial, as noted by her deference to Diana – who Anne seems to rate largely for her good looks. In her focus on her imaginative life she often misses the very obvious things right under her nose – whether mistaking currant wine for raspberry cordial and getting Diana stinking drunk in the process or her failure to recognise Gilbert as the great friend and, in subsequent books, lover he will come to be. Anne is a heroine indeed, but, above all, she is entirely human. And her mistakes make her.

For many years, Anne of Green Gables was viewed in simplistic terms. But it is increasingly gaining interest for its feminist themes – anyone who has ever read it might wonder why it has taken so long to be appreciated in this context. The novel praises and prizes the development of the intellect through reading and study, advocates careers, cheers on resourcefulness, admires individuality, postpones romance in favour of self-discovery, and encourages the potential to break out of the roles assigned to us by life – and by gender. It is a marvellous book, with some major – utterly contemporary –  statements.

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On Loving My So-Called Life (1994-1995)

Back in 1994, way before Dawson’s Creek, before The OC and One Tree Hill, there was a little gem of a series called My So-Called Life. It was the beginning of the teen-series explosion. It remains the original and best.

My So-Called Life traces the trials and tribulations of the awkward, wide-eyed, soulful, fifteen-year-old Angela Chase – completely unaware of her loveliness – as she grapples with who she may or may not be. Romantic about her newly-acquired rebellious friends, Rayanne (who will ultimately betray her in an act of self-sabotage) and Rickie (a tender-hearted, openly gay latino), obsessive over dim-witted dreamboat Jordan Catalano, scornful towards her parents, cruel to her desolate childhood friend Sharon who has lost Angela’s affections, and mocking to her neighbour Brian Krakow.

From the outset of this 19-episode series, you could tell this was something out of the ordinary. It had all the best values of a John Hughes picture, but without the occasional misfires and over-simplification that so often punctuated his otherwise exemplary work. The most interesting touch was the authority it conferred on its protagonist, while also demonstrating her limitations and misapprehensions: Angela narrates us through all but two of the episodes. Her voice carries us through her experiences – stopping and starting, lurching from the comically banal to the sublime and poetic. Just like a true teenager. In episode one, we see students walking the halls of her high school, each wearing their respective uniforms of self-identification – grunge, jock, cheerleader, prep – Angela observes that ‘School is a battleground for your heart’. And so it is. Later, she notes: ‘My parents keep asking how school was. It’s like saying, “How was that drive-by shooting?” You don’t care how it was, you’re lucky to get out alive.’ Amid such genius, her eloquence when talking to others is frequently interrupted with her sheer inarticulacy, as she bites her lip and stumbles over what she thinks she wants to say: ‘I…no…I…I…listen’

Her friendship with Rayanne and Rickie is the source of much tension in her life – but is also a release from another sort of tension. Rayanne and Rickie do not see Angela as a fixed point, as her parents, her friend Sharon and her neighbour Brian do. For them, she is a work in progress, she is growing and developing. At Rayanne’s encouragement, she dyes her light brown hair ‘crimson glow’. It is a powerful statement of distance and rebirth, and for several of the opening episodes, is a fixation of her parents, the preppy and conformist Sharon and the geeky Brian. They understand its significance and it terrifies them. But, despite her hair dye and her fashion restyle, she is never completely assimilated to Rayanne and Rickie. She may wear her grungy over-sized check shirts, but she retains her very conventional red hooded jacket. She remains divided, despite herself, between the old world of childhood and the new world of self-discovery.

This theme of division also extends to her parents and Sharon, in particular. She devalues their conformism, but, at the same time, she can never completely reject it. Sharon, though for much of the series condemned to the periphery of Angela’s life, remains nonetheless a strong presence and one who, as time progresses, demonstrates that she is changing, too. Introspective Angela comes to slowly understand a truth: that she has acknowledged the changes in herself – but denied others their right to evolution and its recognition. Angela’s discovery that the prim Sharon is enjoying frequent passionate sex with her popular jock boyfriend, Kyle, leaves her reeling. Angela and Sharon gravitate towards one another again as their understanding of each other’s hidden depths transmutes into something more authentic: a grown-up relationship, with both pleasant and unpleasant truths. In one of the most poignant scenes I have ever seen in a TV series, Angela speaks to Sharon following Sharon’s father’s near-fatal heart attack. Sharon denounces Angela for not comforting her, observing that everyone else was there for her – even her rival, Rayanne. But Angela explains that she felt, given the break in their intimacy, that she didn’t have the right to own her compassion for her oldest – and, in reality, dearest – friend. In a reference to a childhood memory shared between the two, Angela asks Sharon to squeeze her hand ‘as hard as it hurts’. The two gaze into each other’s eyes like star-crossed lovers, surrounded by the girly, childlike paraphernalia of Sharon’s room – a neat contrast to Angela’s own indie den. The scene is a reconciliation. But it is also a reminder that knowledge involves pain and great losses along the way.

While Angela struggles with her angst and developments – or lack of – in her social, psychic and physical life, she remains largely unaware of the similar conditions assailing her own parents. Her father, Graham, is a romantic dreamer, with nostalgia for his younger days at Grateful Dead gigs. He longs to become a professional cook but, for the first half of the series, he is condemned to a humdrum life at the family printing and copying business managed by his wife, Patty. During the series, he contemplates adultery twice, despite his love for, and attraction to, his wife Patty. It is a tribute to writer Winnie Holzman that he remains a good man, despite this. People are complex and can be many things, all at the same time – a point traditionally missed by US series. While Graham feels his life is passing him by, Patty is dominated by the dyad of her own parents, from whom she has inherited the business. As she is ever more controlled by them, the more effort she puts in to controlling Angela. She is a former high school beauty who has hit forty and is starting to notice the lines on her face. She feels the changes in her relationship with Graham but does not know what to do about them or how to express them to him. Mirroring her daughter, she has her hair cut short in an effort to revitalise her image and reignite surprise in Graham. He does not like her new look. Behind her façade, Patty has much in common with Angela, which she largely holds back from revealing to her daughter – frightened that disclosure will damage her authority, that familiarity will breed contempt (something she keenly perceives after noting the lack of boundaries in wild Rayanne and Rayanne’s mother’s relationship). While she disapproves of Rayanne, when Rayanne overdoses on alcohol and ecstasy at a party, and Patty and Angela rescue her, Patty reveals to Angela that she once had a friend like Rayanne who she adored – and who died in similar circumstances. She tells Angela to go into the house when they arrive home. Despite this revelation, she is unable to fully reveal the crack it has left in her and sobs, alone in her car, for her dead friend.

The series is peppered with misunderstandings that Austen would approve of. Despite Angela’s intelligence, she is swept up in her passion for Jordan Catalano. Much hilarity stems from Angela’s projection of her own beauty and wisdom onto his vacancies. A common enough practice of young girls with their first infatuations. One memorable episode has Jordan playing Angela a song he recently composed: ‘Red’. Angela assumes this paean is intended for her, a reference to her dyed red hair. The episode sees her ponder this breakthrough in their relationship with great excitement and apprehension. In fact, it emerges that the love song is a tribute to his red car.

While Angela obsesses over Jordan, Brian Krakow obsesses over her. His geeky exterior belies the passionate heart that beats beneath his science projects and A grades. The two bicker like Maddy and David in Moonlighting. At one point, they become so heated that Brian moves in and almost kisses her – but not quite. His love for her has authenticity and maturity, because it involves true sacrifice. His need to make her happy sees him eventually playing Cyrano to Jordan’s Christian – the only upside being that it offers him the release of expression. The final minutes of the series, when it hits Angela, finally – what everyone, including her parents, has always known – that it is Brian who loves her, needs her and is the one who matches her soul, are crushing. Angela leaves him standing on the pavement and gets into the car with Jordan. She stares out at Brian, who stares back at her. The audience is left with our own surprise. Angela has not got into the car because Jordan is the one she loves. She is running away from Brian because she knows that he is real and the situation has depth and reality. After all, she is just a kid.

My So-Called Life enjoyed a sizeable audience during this series – but not large enough to persuade the network to carry on into series two. Claire Danes, who played Angela with pitch-perfect skill and luminosity, also wanted to break into films. She has never been better than she was in this series. Youth is wasted on the young, they say. So is this series – that can be enjoyed as a grown-up, with both a sense of relief and a nostalgia for the time before you knew who you were and when every moment was a matter of life and death.

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On Loving Local Hero (1983)

The story of someone who goes to a place and a people so different from his/her own, usually in self-interest, and, in the process, discovers something surprising: themselves. Serendipity. A very familiar cinematic trope that we’ve seen over and over, from the ridiculous (Pretty Woman) to the sublime (Local Hero). It’s called ‘the fish out of water’ trope.

Local Hero ranks for many – critics, cineastes – as one of the finest films ever made in Britain – or indeed anywhere. Its heart and complexity, its clever crafting of stereotypes and personalities that are so brilliantly subverted, make it a far harder film to pin down than a fish…Well, out of water. Like many of my favourite films (The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz, The Philadelphia Story, It Happened One Night, The Graduate and Roman Holiday, to name a few), despite its humour, Local Hero‘s central theme is the serious, dangerous and moral challenge that we all face from our first awareness of socialisation: whether to conform or to embrace non-conformity. And, when we’ve settled, as most of us do, on conformity, will anything come along to condemn our choice and destabilise our place of safety? We spend most of our lives part wishing for it, part dreading it.

Those films above have happy endings and unhappy endings. Some have the halfway house of compromise with some degree of salvation (The Philadelphia Story, The Graduate). But most films of this type have, unsurprisingly, unhappy endings. (For this is not just reel life, you understand, this is also real life.) Perhaps none more so than The Wizard of Oz (and you thought I might say Roman Holiday or The Godfather). Salman Rushdie has written superbly on Wizard for the BFI Film Classics series – it’s a modern mini-classic of a text. He points out that, ultimately, Dorothy not only rejects the life of Oz (understandable, to some extent – we all have to come down eventually), but that she also rejects the zany but, finally, crucial life lessons that Oz had to offer. She settles for the black and white life of Kansas, on the farm, infantilised and condemned to a place where nothing will ever happen to her, declaring that if she ever needs ‘to go looking for my heart’s desire again, I’ll not look further than my own back yard’. The technicolour journey of independence, self-reliance, courage and ingenuity has all been for nought. Just what kind of mentor was Glinda, anyhow?

But I digress.

Without any serious spoilers: Local Hero is the story of Mac, a Houston yuppie, working for Knox Oil and Gas. By night, through the windows of Mac’s fancy apartment, we see the lights of Houston twinkle. He’s work-mad. He has failed relationships with women and colleagues, such that they either never appear on screen or are barely aware of his existence in the flesh. He’s an alienated man in a synthetic landscape. He’s a plastic man, with a contrived Scottish name to disguise his Hungarian roots. It is from his very plasticity that his journey begins. The boss of his corporation, Happer, assigns to him the role of purchasing the picturesque Scottish village of Ferness. The company wants to situate an oil refinery there. Happer is convinced that Mac’s heritage will enable him in the art of friendly persuasion when brokering a deal with the inhabitants. Astronomy-crazed Happer also wants Mac to monitor the night skies above Ferness, telling him that he must pay particular attention to the constellation Virgo (virgin).

Mac doesn’t want to go, of course. But, being a man of work, go he does. He is met at the airport by the local Knox Oil and Gas rep Danny. En route, they run over a rabbit in the fog. Mac takes the injured rabbit into the car (it is our first indication of an authentic humanity) and together the three continue on to Ferness. There they meet Gordon. Gordon is a man of many trades. He runs the pub, the hotel and is the village’s accountant. Unlike Mac, however, his roles do not amount to any masquerade but, rather, pragmatism. And, in his roles, he becomes something of a symbolic character of liberation, non-conformity. He will not be pinned down. And, again unlike Mac, he enjoys a rich emotional and sensual life, enjoying regularly, as he does, the affections of his beautiful and sexy wife Stella – and loudly.

Mac is, by turns, initially appalled, frustrated and confused by those he encounters. Most tellingly, the villagers do not conform to expectations (Bill Forsyth, director, playing with us as much as he is with Mac). These are not the sentimental, one-dimensional characters prejudice and cinema would usually dish up. No. They are resolutely unsentimental. Gordon cooks the rabbit that Mac not only feels pity for, but also a peculiar and yet plausible kinship with, and he serves it to Mac and Danny. The inhabitants of Ferness, far from being reluctant to sell, are only too keen to cook up a scheme, hoodwink Mac and Danny, and get the very best deal that they can for the village. They are aided and abetted by Gordon – and the local priest.

But something shifts in Mac. Against himself, he finds himself becoming infatuated with the people, the place and the pace of life. While looking up into the heavens at Happer’s request, he witnesses the aurora borealis, a stark contrast to the man-made light of Houston. The beautiful beach and sea that surround him amount to the direct other of the arid, urban jungle of Houston. These are not subtle contrasts, granted, but as a lack of subtlety goes, I do wonder whether it has ever been managed to such wonderful effect. Meanwhile, Danny changes, too, from a nerdy ‘yes man’ in a suit to a man who embraces his sensual and sexual side, when he meets a real-life mermaid in the shape of web-footed marine biologist Marina, who is hell-bent on protecting the beach and its ecosystem.

What happens next? Well, you’ll have to watch the film. But one clue: Happer turns out to be a much better mentor than Glinda ever was.

Who, exactly, is the hero of Local Hero? Is it Gordon, who seems to have managed a life of practicality, but also freedom and love (one that Mac, smitten with both Gordon’s lifestyle and his wife, recognises when, drunkenly, he puts it to Gordon that they might trade existences: ‘I’ll make a good Gordon, Gordon’). Or is it Happer? Who has somehow, impossibly, married a life of conformity with the life of a dreamer? Or is it Ben Knox, the old man who lives on the beach in a shack, who, it turns out, holds all the cards and may just save everyone from themselves? All are, in their own way, heroes of life. But none more than Mac, who is, after all, an everyman. Mac is most of us. Dorothy returns to the farm in Kansas and rejects her life lessons. Mac arrives back in his apartment in Houston and is haunted by his. He is proof that people can and do change. But will the world accommodate them? Perhaps, like me, you’re asking yourself the same. Somewhere in Ferness, a phone is ringing, unanswered.


Filed under Bill Forsyth, film, heroes

Women, Wales, Publishing

Next month, I’ll leave my role as editor of New Welsh Review. I’ll be succeeded by a woman. ‘Another woman in the role! Things are beginning to come on fantastically for women in Wales, aren’t they!’ a colleague recently exclaimed to me.
I pondered it afterwards. After all, the three major English-language literary/cultural journals have been in the hands of women for quite a while now. Poetry Wales since 2008, edited by Zoe Skoulding; Planet from 2006 – 2010 edited by Helle Michelsen (herself an Assistant Editor prior to that), recently succeeded by Jasmine Donahaye; New Welsh Review, edited by Francesca Rhydderch from 2002-2008, myself (a former Poetry Editor of New Welsh Review) from 2008-2011. New Welsh Review’s founding editor back in 1988 was a woman: Belinda Humfrey. Planet has enjoyed the skills of women who have gone on to become central figures in the literary-cultural life of Wales over the years, including Francesca and Gwen, and retains the talents of Emily Trahair as an Associate Editor. Cambria Magazine, which straddled politics, lifestyle, literature and more, was edited by Frances Jones-Davies. And let’s not forget that Gillian Clarke was a co-editor of the mighty, erstwhile Anglo-Welsh Review. If we take a look at the Welsh-language magazine scene, we see young talents Angharad Blythe and Sian Melangell Dafydd – editors of Taliesin – who succeeded two women – Manon Rhys and Christine James – when they took the helm in 2010.
Meanwhile, at the English-language publishing houses, Penny Thomas at Seren has been picking up some of the finest and most various new fiction from Wales, deserving a special mention for blending the old school with the quirky with sensitivity and style. Also at Seren, Amy Wack has edited a list of award-winning poets for many years with panache and considerable nous, and was also once an excellent Reviews Editor of Poetry Wales. At Richard Lewis Davies’s Parthian, Lucy Llewellyn has led the fiction list onwards with vibrant and unusual titles, and developed the Bright Young Things series from young, urgent, first-time authors Susie Wild, Wil Gritten, J.P. Smythe and Tyler Keevil. Jan Fortune-Wood is the founding editor and publisher of Cinnamon. Hazel Cushion is the founder of the successful Wales-based indie, Accent. And, last but not least, there are the industrious women at Honno, who have reprinted a back catalogue of once-forgotten women’s writing we all might otherwise have missed, and who are discovering new, exciting contemporary female writers even as I write.
So it’s less a case of sisters doin’ it for themselves, but rather the case that sisters have been doin’ it for themselves – for quite a while now. And they’ve been doing a pretty good job of scooping up talent, and shaping a robust and original output, as it happens.
A sense of novelty can, of course, afford a sense of excitement. Now, I’d never want to deny excitement in publishing at a time when people should feel excited about the scene in Wales (yes, Wales, in particular) – now more than ever, recession or not. And I’d never suggest that those who have noted with interest the rise in women in publishing in Wales have been anything less than supportive, welcoming and complimentary. So why am I troubled by the novelty attached to our dominance? I think novelty can be reductive. It can lead to the key becoming the mere curiosity. It can encourage a notion of chance rather than circumstance – and deny explorations of why and how women have entered into the culture in this way. Novelty is misleading. Encouraging a view of exceptions. It denies our momentum, forgetting a tradition of women as capable, very often inspired, editors in Wales along the way – front of house, behind the scenes. A tradition that I want young, literary- and culturally-minded women growing up in Wales now to see as something they can aspire to being a part of themselves, one day – in total seriousness and to be taken totally seriously. So, I just want to assure: we’re not new. We’re just news that stays news. Not quite the same thing.

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