What’s Making Me Happy: February 2017

With various forms of madness on the rise in our country and our world, it’s none too easy at times to focus on the positive. Yet it’s worth a try. There’s still joy to be found in good stories. A few that have given me pleasure of late:

Victoria. All who know me know my weakness for sumptuous British costume dramas, and this one had me from its haunting opening theme. If the excellent film Mrs. Brown (1997) stands as the definitive word on the bereaved middle-aged Queen Victoria, this one may just be the definitive word on the young, inexperienced, newly-crowned Queen awkwardly navigating the treacherous waters of her new position, determined to be her own woman yet at the same time desperate for support and advice. Jenna Coleman’s performance brings her to life as someone you want to strangle at times but root for anyway, and she’s surrounded by such stalwarts as Rufus Sewell (as Lord Melbourne, the much older but still charismatic mentor on whom she develops an early crush) and Peter Bowles (as the stodgy and bigoted Duke of Wellington, his military-hero days behind him). Plus there’s an adorable tricolor Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Victoria’s beloved lapdog Dash, who brings a smile to my face every time he appears. Never underestimate the Power of Cute.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Can you love a central protagonist when you disagree with nearly everything she does? I would have said “No,” before my husband and I started catching episodes of this TV musical comedy on Netflix. But now I have to admit I love Rebecca Bunch, the smart but completely mixed-up lawyer played by Rachel Bloom, who moves from New York to California to be near a childhood flame who, at the end of the day, isn’t worth driving across town for. I’m not quite sure whether I love her in spite of her disastrous choices or because of them — maybe a bit of both, because Bloom, the show’s creator as well as its star, always lets us see why she behaves as she does. She and the other characters may burst frequently into song (and a fine, eclectic bunch of songs they are; for a sample, take a listen to a plea from Rebecca’s alternative love interest and Rebecca’s mother’s disapproving rant when she comes for a Christmas visit), yet they feel more real than many a TV character on shows praised for their “grit”; Rhiannon Thomas’s review aptly praises this show’s realistic portrayal of mental illness.

Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (the anime series). Since Matt and I are both fans of Japan’s Studio Ghibli, which released such gorgeous films as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke, we had to check out this Ghibli offering that’s streaming now on Amazon Prime. The show is clearly aimed at a target audience several generations younger than I, but it goes straight to the heart of my inner ten-year-old. The series has everything my ten-year-old self would have relished: a lush and exquisitely animated forest and a young female protagonist who is allowed to roam through it freely, unsupervised, because her parents deem it fitting that she learn the forest’s ways for herself. The story moves slowly, as do many anime series outside the action-adventure genre. But the clever, curious heroine, who has taught herself not to be afraid, holds my interest. My inner ten-year-old wants to be just like Ronja.

Crooked Kingdom. My happiness in this YA fantasy novel by Leigh Barduro is bittersweet; it’s the second volume in a duology, and I’m sad there isn’t any more. This book has all the virtues I’ve noted earlier about the first volume, Six of Crows: intriguing world-building, plenty of action, emphasis on friendships, flawed and complex characters. Yet I should point out that among those strengths, this book succeeds in the very area where entirely too many YA fantasies fail — the romances. As the six protagonists enact a plan to fleece and expose both a sociopathic merchant and a brutal crime boss, we follow the romantic intrigues of three couples, one of them a pair of young men. In all three cases, Barduro lets us see why the couples are drawn to each other, why they work well together, and how they learn from each other and do each other good.

Memories of Ash. Going all the way back to the days of legend, fantasy fiction has a history of depicting female magic and magicians as evil. (Remember Morgan le Fay?) Because of this, I take special pleasure in novels in which the protagonist is a heroic female mage. In Intisar Khanani’s novel, a follow-up to her novella Sunbolt (which absolutely must be read first), we follow a very gifted young apprentice-mage as she works to save her mentor from unjust imprisonment. (The mentor is also a woman, and these two aren’t even the only impressive female mages we meet.) How the heroine works and experiences magic is described in a vivid detail that rival’s Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and while she does have a love interest, romance is clearly only part of her story and not the whole of it, always a welcome thing to see with a female lead. Unlike Crooked Kingdom, this novel will get a sequel. I’ll be ready to snatch it up for my Kindle.



Things I Love about… Singin’ in the Rain

Musicals in general don’t get much respect, and Hollywood musicals get the least respect of all. Dislike of musicals is a common opinion among the “smart set,” who claim that musicals are childish fantasies because after all, in real life people don’t suddenly burst into song and dance when they hit emotional highs. But at least Broadway musicals have been known to tell serious, complex stories and use songs to develop character and/or advance the plot. Hollywood musicals, by contrast, have a reputation for being pure frivolity. So runs the general opinion of the wised-up modern cinema audience. Why, then, does some Hollywood creative type try every few years to jump-start the long dormant heart of the musical?

Perhaps because “frivolity” does not automatically equal “waste of time”? Because the occasional bit of frivolity might meet a vital need? I am the naive creature who loves musicals, but even I know that most of Hollywood’s original product in that genre (as opposed to movie adaptations of stage musicals) tends to have shallow, silly plots and paper-thin characterizations. The success of a typical Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicle owes more to the elegance and likability of its stars than to anything else (unless you’re a fan of the music of Gershwin and Berlin, which I am). Yet I’d never turn down a chance to spend time with Fred and Ginger. There’s a certain joy I can find in their company that the harder-edged, more incisive cinema genres can’t quite give me.

The latest attempt to revive the Hollywood musical for modern audiences — an effort of which I’m skeptical, since the “musical stars” on which the genre once thrived, people like Astaire and Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, might be in abundance on Broadway these days but are nowhere to be found in Hollywood — is La La Land, which begins, as old-fashioned Hollywood musicals often did, with a splashy opening number featuring a crowd of southern Californians dancing on top of their cars in the midst of a traffic jam. This review by Rhiannon Thomas sums up with astonishing accuracy how my husband and I felt about the film. (Warning: Review contains Spoilers.) I can see why cynics claim that its huge tally of Oscar nominations springs from Hollywood’s reflexive fondness for movies about itself. But such talk only makes me think of what may be the best film Hollywood ever made about itself, which was also a musical but got almost no love from Oscar. My disappointment in La La Land only serves to remind me of how much I love this film, which possesses in spades the wit and the fun to which the recent film never really bothers to aspire.

I speak of 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. What is it about this movie that makes it such a favorite?

It tells an interesting story. The creators of the film had the clever idea to string together a series of songs written by Arthur Freed (who became a successful producer of musicals) and Nacio Herb Brown in the late ’20s and early ’30s, and weave them into a plot centering on old silent film-era Hollywood’s often traumatic transition to sound. Back in 1952, plenty of people on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot had very vivid memories of this transition, and they shared stories that make their way into the film — for example, the frustration with the stationary microphone, into which early sound film actors had to find a way to deliver all their dialogue. In one hilarious sequence, squeaky-voiced silent screen siren Lina Lamont, wonderfully played by Jean Hagen (who did earn an Oscar nomination), struggles to remember the microphone’s location, and no matter how many times the location is changed, nothing works. “I can’t make love to a bush!” Lina shouts. She’s the movie’s villain, but at this point we can’t help feeling sorry for her, as she’s having to re-learn everything she thought she knew about acting. With this and other problems, we’re left thinking it’s a miracle that cinema survived the transition, and admiring those who actually made it work.

The humor is wide-ranging. The movie opens not with a splashy number but with a deliciously ironic sequence in which Lina’s co-star and fellow silent matinee idol Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly, who radiates twinkling arrogance at this stage of the film) tells the screaming fans who have gathered for the premiere of his latest movie the story of his journey to success. As he talks, reiterating his motto of “Dignity, always dignity,” we watch his real story play out, which proves to be anything but dignified. The contrast between what he’s saying and what really happened — for instance, his descriptions of his early roles as “urbane, sophisticated, suave,” when they’re really a series of wildly dangerous stuntman chores — inspires a slow-building chuckle. In contrast we have the big number of Don’s best pal Cosmo (Donald O’Connor, pure frenetic energy), “Make ‘Em Laugh,” which is pure joyous slapstick. And of course we have the laughter inspired by the hapless Lina, as the transition to sound reveals just how much talent she doesn’t have, and as she tries, and fails every time, to speak in the “round tones” recommended by her diction coach. Whatever flavor of humor a viewer is hungry for, chances are Singin’ in the Rain includes it somewhere. (Except lacings of profanity and non-subtexted lewdness; the movie was made in the early ’50s, after all. But I think that kind of thing can usually be done without, anyway.)

The characters are engaging. I tend to throw the word “engaging ” around a lot. What does it truly mean? From a literal standpoint it speaks to the ability of certain characters and plots to engage the interests and sympathies of an audience. In the context of this film the meaning is simpler: they’re just plain fun to watch. Yet they have more to them than most Hollywood-musical characters. Kathy Selden, the talented aspiring performer played by Debbie Reynolds, who stands to benefit from the advent of sound as much as Lina would be hampered by it, enters the scene expressing disdain for screen acting and thus putting Don in his place as he’s trying to hit on her. We later learn she loves the movies and is particularly a fan of Don’s work, but that only makes her refusal to be a pushover all the more admirable. She may love Don the actor, but Don the person has to win her over by showing her respect and support. They make me smile as they move toward each other (a feat Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone never manage in La La Land), and their happy ending feels earned. They’re fun together, and they’re funny together.

O’Connor’s Cosmo rounds out our trio of good guys, and I love how quick he is to befriend Kathy. Many male characters in his position would resent the intrusion of a woman into his “bromance” with his best friend, but Cosmo knows what we know — that Kathy is good for Don — and welcomes her into their lives with open arms. On the other side of the spectrum, Lina Lamont might just deserve a place among the top ten most entertaining screen villains. Villain she is, as much as we may pity her when she can’t manage “round tones” or remember the location of the mic; her ice-cold treatment of Don when he’s a mere stuntman, her contempt for Cosmo, and her efforts to sabotage Kathy’s chance at stardom reveal her true character. Yet her moment of comeuppance is also one of her funniest, as she addresses the audience at her final premiere and they’re shocked by her cringingly squeaky voice: “If we bring a little joy into your hum-drum lives, it makes us feel as though all our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothing.”

In sum, Singin’ in the Rain has charm, a quality that is notably lacking in most contemporary films (with the exceptions of outstanding animated features). Classic cinema fans will keep going back to it long after most recent efforts to resurrect the live-action musical have faded from our collective memory.

Figures Should Not Stay Hidden

“Maybe, if someone bothered to show [girls] that they could have dreams, they might be able to dream them. Mightn’t they?” — Mercedes Lackey, Phoenix and Ashes (272)

A friend of mine, reacting to the recent spate of Facebook posts related to politics, asked us to post the issues that counted as most important to us. Reproductive rights? Affordable health care? Climate change and the need for greater knowledge and understanding about the environment? Our justice system? All vital issues, but after I gave the matter thought, I realized I had only one honest answer, one that should rest well outside the government’s purview and that plenty of people might dismiss as frivolous compared with the issues above: “Gender representation in stories, be they wholly fictional or based on real people/events.” It’s the issue to which I return again and again on my blog, and will keep returning, as this post bears witness. And of course I must confront the inevitable follow-up question: why does it matter?

Why does it matter that so many epic fantasy sagas continue to follow the Smurfette Principle (one female character surrounded by a multitude of males), or else leave female characters out of the picture altogether?

Why does it matter that some works of speculative fiction, particularly movies and television, continue to divide their female characters into two camps: victim and villain? Why does it matter that a fair number of spec fic creators apparently love, love, love writing about female villains but can’t seem to wrap their minds around the notion of a female hero?

Why does it matter that representations of friendships between women continue to be comparatively rare, while bromances abound? Why does it matter that we almost never see male and female characters interacting as friends — allies united in a common purpose, with a bond sealed by mutual respect?

Why does it matter that while badass women may occasionally be shown saving the male hero, we still hardly ever see them saving the day/world (a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “Trinity Syndrome”)?

Why does it matter?

It’s been said before, but it’s always worth repeating and remembering: because stories are the birthplaces of daydreams. Stories shape how we perceive ourselves and others, and influence our sense of possibility. As old as I am, I feel a greater sense of faith in myself and my capabilities when I see women in heroic roles on page and screen (and in a variety of such roles, not solely the Action Girl); I do believe my thrill at seeing and reading about female heroes doing their thing has only grown stronger over time. But do only female readers/viewers benefit? Surely it helps us all, men and women, to see that the power and resourcefulness to be saviors and problem-solvers is not confined to one gender or the other.

All this should be obvious by now, right? Yet we still see disheartening evidence that some folks just don’t get it. For those who bluster about the supporting nature of Max’s role in Mad Max: Fury Road, those who claim that an all-female Ghostbusters remake is an all-out assault upon their childhoods, and those for whom two female protagonists in the Star Wars franchise are two too many, my desire to see more heroic women on page and screen makes me an SJW (that’s “Social Justice Warrior,” for those not up on Internet insults) who wants to suck all the fun out of speculative fiction and emasculate men in the process. Yet is saying I want more and better roles for women automatically the same as saying that men should no longer get to be heroes, or that male heroes have lost all value? Surely not. I don’t regret a minute of the time I spent with the male heroes that dominated my childhood reading, from Hazel and Bigwig to Gandalf and Bilbo. I can still look up to Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, the Doctor, Captains Kirk and Picard and Sisko, and such big-screen heroes from classic cinema as Jefferson Smith, George Bailey, and Atticus Finch. Does the inclusion of more female heroes in this mix really threaten to dim their luster? Isn’t there room in the vast pool of Story for heroic men and women?

Representation becomes even more vital when race as well as gender is a factor. A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I had the pleasure of seeing the Oscar-nominated, SAG Award-winning drama Hidden Figures, featuring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae as gifted African-American women working as “calculators” for NASA in its early days. If we can point to an all-around triumph in terms of representation in current cinema, here it is. It hits almost all my buttons. Female friendship? Respect and friendship developing between men and women? Women being no-holds-barred awesome at their jobs? Check, check, and check. That these are black women being awesome — Henson winning over skeptics with sheer persistence and the power of her remarkable mind; Monae forging a path as an engineer (“I have no choice but to be the first”); Spencer training herself and her fellow calculators to program the new IBM machines when the “experts” can’t figure them out — only makes the triumph more heady, particularly since these three actresses are so immensely likable in their roles that only the most irredeemably bigoted audiences could fail to root for them to succeed.

This story needed to be told. The question that lingers in my mind is why it took Hollywood so long to tell it.

Who decides which stories, and whose stories, are worth telling? Author Jason Porath raises the question in his book Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics. Porath tells the stories or some of history’s overlooked women in storybook style, with illustrations in the Disney mode, but don’t be fooled. There’s a lot to be learned here, about multitudes of women of all races who, if Hollywood could get over its “girl cooties,” would have their stories told on film. (Hidden Figures is a box-office success, so it’s well past time to retire that worn-out “movies about women don’t make money unless they’re romantic comedies” excuse.)

Where’s the movie about Mary Seacole, a Jamaican nurse who worked alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War and wrote a successful autobiography detailing her experiences? Where’s the movie about “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, who went through a succession of jobs before finding her calling as a postal carrier in the Old West, an “utterly terrifying job” (36)?

Moving from history to fiction, we will soon see a third screen adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, with its male messiah and its coterie of untrustworthy shadow-dwelling women. Yet so far, no one has thought to make even one screen version of Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Wild Seed or Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, shocking, often disturbing novels with brilliantly complex black female heroes who confront the nature of violence and evil, both within and without, and take their stands for good. I don’t say that Dune shouldn’t be remade; maybe they’ll get it right this time. But why not make some room for these other, no less remarkable stories, in which female power is presented in a more sympathetic light?

Why does it matter?

Because too many people think it doesn’t.

This is my issue.

Things I love about… Hamilton

“You got chocolate in my peanut butter!” So goes the cry of dismay in a commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups that was popular when I was growing up. Two great tastes that taste great together, the tag line runs; the skeptics just have to try it and see. All well and good, as long as you like both peanut butter and chocolate. But what it you adore chocolate but don’t care for peanut butter?

I have loved Broadway musicals nearly all my life, but I’ve never had much fondness for hip-hop, so the idea of their fusion didn’t exactly thrill me. My issues with hip-hop aren’t that the lyrics are spoken rather than sung, since that’s not unknown even in “classic” Broadway musicals (e.g. The opening “Rock Island” number and Harold Hill’s patter songs from The Music Man and all of Henry Higgins’ songs from My Fair Lady). Rather, I dislike the practice of “sampling” melodic licks from previously existing songs rather than composing original tunes to undergird the rap, and the misogyny in the lyrics of some of hip-hop’s most popular stars, Eminem being one of the worst offenders. When Dr. Dre declares that “bitches be nothin’ but tricks and hoes,” it’s pretty clear I’m not the target audience he has in mind. (A friend of mine recently pointed out to me that rap’s reputation for misogyny is unfair because similar anti-woman messages turn up just as frequently in other musical genres, particularly country. I agree with her to a certain extent, but I can’t accept “hey, those other guys are doing it too” as a reason why I should be okay with lyrics like the previous quote. Misogyny should not be given a pass in any genre of music.)

With these blocks against hip-hop, the last thing I expected when curiosity drove me to listen to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton on YouTube was that I would end up liking it. I’d get through two numbers at most, I figured. Yet to my surprise, I kept listening, and I found that with sampling kept to a bare minimum and misogyny altogether absent, hip-hop and the Broadway musical, joined to tell the story of the United States’ first Secretary of the Treasury, could indeed be two great tastes that taste great together. So, just what won me over about Hamilton? (Spoilers will follow, but then again, the opening number pretty much lets us know the fate that awaits our protagonist, just in case we’ve forgotten hearing about it in history class.)

First, Hamilton continues the tradition established by Oklahoma in 1943, of using songs to establish character and further the plot. It gets off to a strong start with the second song, “Aaron Burr, Sir,” in which the story’s central figures meet for the first time and begin a tenuous friendship. The seed of the conflict that will lead to the climactic duel is planted here, as we hear the contrast between the intense, impetuous Hamilton and the laid-back, charming Burr, who advises the brash Alexander to “talk less, smile more.” (Hamilton’s reaction to this advice is also telling: “You can’t be serious.”) This early number engages our interest in the two men. We want to see how their relationship will progress, even though we already know how it ends. Darn good character development.

Second, history interests me. It was my second favorite school subject behind English, as well it might have been when my father taught history at a junior college for many years. Accordingly, historical subject matter catches my attention. Miranda has his Hamilton engage in raucous rap battles with Thomas Jefferson, with George Washington, one of the musical’s sanest characters, doing his best to referee, but while the real life Hamilton and Jefferson almost certainly never talked like this, the substance of their disputes — strong central government vs. states’ rights — rings true to what I remember from history class. One of the show’s best known numbers and a favorite of mine, “The Room Where It Happens,” tells the story of how the nation’s capital came to be on Virginia’s northern border, a story I recall distinctly from my dad’s American History class. Such things make me smile.

Third, Alexander Hamilton himself makes an interesting, charismatic Broadway musical protagonist. He’s too complicated for us to feel one way about. On the one hand, we can’t help but root for him, a rootless young man with no money but boundless potential, determined not to throw away “his shot” even though he has internalized the idea that he will die young. Yet when he behaves badly, the musical does not excuse him. We’re made, for instance, to feel the wrongness of his betrayal of Eliza, his “best of wives, best of women” (more on her in a moment). Adultery is not “just something men do,” it is not “okay,” and in the end Alexander pays dearly for it. An equally complex figure is his antagonist (or is he a co-protagonist?) Aaron Burr. If “My Shot” and the rousing first-act closer “Non-Stop” help define Hamilton, Burr’s dilemma, the tension between his desire to succeed and his instinct for self-preservation, is laid out in the catchy “Wait for It.” (I may never have been a hip-hop fan, but I have a taste for classic 1980s R&B, and Leslie Odom Jr., who originated the role of Burr, reminds me at times of Luther Vandross, in a good way.) This is no simple “good vs. evil” conflict, but the story of two flawed men whom history put at odds. It’s interesting to note that in Hamilton‘s clean-up at last year’s Tony Awards, while Miranda was awarded as the show’s creator, he lost Best Actor in a Musical to Odom. Aaron Burr wins the duel again.

Finally, this story of the Revolutionary War and the evolution of America’s two-party system may seem like a very dudely musical, but it presents us with an admirable heroine in Elizabeth Schulyer Hamilton. On paper Eliza doesn’t seem a character I would like it all, since I’ve never had much patience with the trope of the little woman who begs her husband to pay attention to her when he has his hands full with history-shaping events. But I have to reckon with Philippa Soo, who brings grace and intelligence and a heartbreakingly beautiful singing voice to the role. She’s the story’s emotional core. The most heartfelt moments belong to her — “That Would Be Enough,” in which she tells Alexander she’s expecting their first child; “Burn,” in which she acts to preserve her dignity in the face of her husband’s public confession of infidelity; and the closing number, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” in which we learn of the life she led after her husband’s death and her ongoing efforts to preserve the legacy he was so desperate to protect. Even when she has one line in a song, she makes her powerful presence felt, as in “It’s Quiet Uptown,” which deals with the aftermath of the death of her and Alexander’s oldest son Philip. (The narrator here is Eliza’s sister Angelica, another impressive female figure. This song will make almost any listener teary-eyed.)

When it comes to describing a musical, the written word can only do so much, which is why I’ve included links to the songs I’ve mentioned here. Two great tastes that taste great together. Take a listen and see what you think.