Tuesday, March 31, 2009

“The Hours”

“The Hours” focuses on three women who are secretly unhappy in their lives: Virginia Woolf the author, Clarissa a lesbian throwing a party for an ex-lover with AID’s , and Laura, a lonely housewife. All of these roles are played by great actresses including Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep. One of the underlying focuses of “The Hours” is suicide. We all know that Woolf committed suicide and that is depicted in the film. But all of the women experience or encounter suicide in some way throughout the film. The characters are also related to Woolf by the novel Mrs.Dalloway:
1923 was the year that Woolf wrote the book, Laura reads it so she won’t succumb to boredom and Richard (Clarissa’s ex-lover) jokingly calls her Mrs. Dalloway which is also ironic because Clarissa was Mrs. Dalloway’s first name. “The Hours” is a great movie that shows how important it is to be true to ourselves, that mental illness can be passed down and that love is blind.

  Nicole Kidman is made to look like Woolf with a prosthetic nose, mousy-brown hair and plain clothes. Kidman’s version of Woolf is a great and albeit true one. Woolf is intelligent yet somewhat cold and snobbish. Woolf seems to want to be left alone but when she her sister and her sister’s children come to visit she seems to enjoy the company. But it does get a little weird when Woolf kisses her sister. Woolf was a lesbian but maybe she was just trying to seek comfort and solace with someone. It was clear she wasn’t happy: she repeatedly told Richard she hated Richmond and was lonely. When Woolf commits suicide by filling her pockets with rocks and drowning herself it is a sad and short scene.
Laura, played by Julianne Moore is a secretly sad and lonely housewife who reads “Mrs. Dalloway” so she wont succumb to boredom. Laura looks like any other housewife but she doesn’t feel like one. She’s pregnant with her second child and is always with her clingy son Richie. When her friend Kitty comes over to tell her that she is sick Laura kisses her. Here we see one of the reasons why Laura is unhappy. She is secretly gay and has to hide her feelings. Coming-out in the 1950’s was simply unexceptable back then. The ideal woman was supposed to stay home, cook and clean for her husband and raise her children. Richie also seems to view everything about his mother, so it seems to effect him. After the kiss Laura goes to a hotel to commit suicide by taking pills. But she later returns home and throws the birthday party for her son. It’s a good thing that she didn’t commit suicide but it’s sad that she has to go on living a lie. This is similar to what Woolf says in the film: “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”
 Clarissa is a lesbian living in the modern day. She has a daughter that is of college-age played by Claire Danes who joins her when she is preparing Richard’s party.  Richard appears ravaged by AID’s: he is shockingly thin and depressed. Although both are gay, both Richard and Clarissa dated in college. Clarissa seems to still love Richard, and it is evident by her affection and kindness toward him. Also when Clarissa says, “That is what we do. That is what people do. They stay alive for each other,” we can see that she is thinking of what life would be like without Richard. But Richard later succumbs to his depression and kills himself. We later find out that he is Laura’s son. He believes that his illness was passed on to him. But what illness he is talking about? It could be that he thinks that he inherited being gay from his mother. Or his mental illness, as he is suicidal and his mother was too. Although she came back from the hotel Laura later left her family after giving birth to her second child. When she hears of her son’s death she thinks that maybe that was a horrible mistake.
I think that if she had seen it Woolf would’ve been proud of “The Hours”. It did not paint a false version of her and it discusses the message she wanted to live her life by. Which is being true to oneself. -- Baha Awadallah

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Transience of Things

I once heard a term: mono no aware. It means recognizing the transience of things and the bittersweet sadness at their passing.

It’s the sort of theme inspires rainbows, the last days of summer, and that farcical “bag scene” in American Beauty. Since I discovered this little phrase, it has been my favorite theme, and I look for it everywhere- in books, films and even in the people I meet.

In all my reading, though, no where do I find this theme of transience more prevalent than in the works of Virginia Woolf. It is why, considering all her works as a whole, she is my favorite writer. And the work that I believe is most exemplary of this theme is in Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse.

Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. –Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)

It’s one of my favorite last lines I’ve ever read and, if you don’t take my word for it, the American Book Review lists it as the tenth best last lines in all of literature: http://americanbookreview.org/PDF/100_Best_Last_Lines_from_Novels.pdf.

In a conversation I had with Julie Crosby, professor of English at Columbia University and director of the Women’s Project (the very woman who produced Freshwater), she summed up one reason to her what the ending was so meaningful to her: “One of my favorite moments is near the end of To the Lighthouse. I take such comfort in Woolf’s idea that the artistic visions of women can be realized with such deep satisfaction.”

The reason, though, why it is my favorite line is that, up until this point, Lily has suffered the “extreme fatigue” of life; she has seen the aging of children, the deaths of people she cares about, and withstood innumerable failures. The beauty of that one singular moment in Lily’s life is at the cost of all the hours, days and months that came before it. And even though her painting will one day be “junk in someone’s attic,” Lily acknowledges the value of what she has accomplished and literally sees her “vision” through her painting. She achieves something that even her male counterparts, Mr. Tansley and Mr. Ramsay, who are plagued with Thoreau’s quiet desperation, have not done. It is what all of us strive for- a moment of being, in which we experience our personhood and our art (whatever it might be) in relation to the world. What’s more is that Lily is able to express that in her painting and, like Woolf, in her words.

I know in my life, I live, if for nothing else, in anticipation of these moments. And while probability is against me, and I may never achieve “my vision,” I am still grateful for the worthwhile occasion when I am able to experience a version of that vision through remarkable characters like Lily and in learning about great writers like Virginia Woolf.


Woolf and West

Rebecca West—could that possibly have been her real name? It is far too awesome. No, she would’ve had to ride a horse and carry a holstered gun to be Rebecca West. Or she would’ve had to float down 5th Ave in monochromatic, impeccably crafted clothing from wool coat down to unmentionables. Nope, she was neither of these people. She was Cicely Isabel Fairfield, writer, critic, person. Now who is Evadne? Show me that woman.

 Don’t get me wrong, I loved reading West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony.” It made my blood boil over with hatred for the imperial mamma’s boy, George. I loved the slippery and strong Evadne. Those characters flawlessly represent the struggle between husband and wife, colonizer and colonized—a tasty comparison. But the key word here is “flawlessly.” These characters are not realistic. Evadne is quasi-immortal, seemingly drowned by her husband but still beating him home. Furthermore, she is unphased by all this violence. She caresses him as he climbs in bed. A little much, no? Even Sally in Mrs. Dalloway is not that irrepressible.

 Ah, but we never meet Evadne. No, we meet George’s idea of her. Here is the horse I’ve beaten before: men’s mystical perception of women.  Septimus and Peter think Clarissa and Rezia can save them; George thinks Evadne has corrupted his soul, that he needs an absolution from the church. He confesses that he wants “a child’s God, an immense arm coming down from the hills and lifting him to a kindly bossom” (a.k.a. his mama). West and Woolf grapple with this same issue: men’s oppressive expectations of women. But in Mrs. Dalloway, we see beyond these expectations.  When Clarissa and Peter meet after years of estrangement, we see inside Peter’s head, where Clarissa can make him suffer like no other human being.  Then we see inside Clarissa’s, where her need for Peter’s approval renders her somewhat pathetic. Woolf does not leave us with the inflated perception of Clarissa. West, though, gives us only the male gaze. We can only see Evadne as a mysterious, cat-like porpoise thing.

 Though Woolf and West were contemporaries, “Indissoluble Matrimony” came before Mrs. Dalloway. It was not influenced by the groundbreaking Mrs. D. West’s characters would be much more relatable if the narration had woven through different psyches the way Woolf’s narration does--perhaps West kicked herself in the pants when Mrs. D was published. Or maybe she didn’t. Side-by-side these texts are wonderful. We have West saying “Yeah, just try and repress us. We can swim better than you.” Then we have Woolf saying, “Ouch, boys, that hurts.” Both are true.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Martha, the big bad Woolf

Watching, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” I incessantly looked for reasons for its alluding title. All the while, stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fought ferociously, insulting each other cunningly as husband and wife, George and Martha. They are a captivating couple, whom, disregard manners or politeness and expose their destructive marriage to their unsuspecting guests and film viewers.
One review claims both characters are, from the start, equally malicious towards each other, while I found myself sympathizing with the brooding Burton, who, though desperately trying to ignore his wife’s awful stabs, eventually gives into and becomes quite engaged in her harmful games and mockery. He is an associate professor of history, a title that shames poor Martha, for she is the daughter of the president of the university he works at; she and her father were both expecting much more from George, but just look at the lazy slouch he’s become!
Walking into their cramped, cluttered home, inebriated Martha complains immediately. “What a dump!” she says, forcing George to tell her which movie that line is from. “I don’t know, Martha”, he says, but she yells and demands, as they make their way upstairs. They’ll be having company soon, she says, and suddenly a young, well-built professor and his “mousy,” waiflike wife arrive—they begin drinking. “Mousy,” which she is soon deemed by George, orders Bourbons; she becomes more giddy as the night wears on—Martha becomes more flirtatious towards her blonde guest, naming George’s shortcomings with a raspy snarl. As I watched, I grew tired, as did the first reviewer-- for, where was this all going? I felt like “Mousy”, in a way, dizzied and exhausted-- spun around by Burton’s unpredictable character. I chose to pause the movie fifty minutes before the ending and to finish it the next day. I slept on it, if I may, anticipating greatly the ending of this very strange, but fiery film.

Taylor and Burton are an incredible pair, and this is not surprising; apparently, they’d married in 1964, two years before the release of the film. Yet, as, in reality, they were falling in love with each other—were, I assume, happy newlyweds, their portrayal of a failed marriage is shockingly poignant. I returned to the film the next night, and as their night continued before me, each character, with the encouragement of liquor, exposed their deepest, most shamed secrets. We learn that “Mousy” had a terminated pregnancy; soon after, as Martha talks of her own son with such engulfing love, “Mousy” screams and cries, “I want a baby!” And finally, Martha is broken down by George, who tells her their own son never was—shakes her from her comfortable denial, or insanity, which he sometimes shares. Was Martha’s pregnancy terminated as well? Nothing in this film is explicit, which, I believe, is the reason one can’t seem to free themselves from it afterwards. The jingle “Whose afraid of the big bad woolf?” was mistaken for “Whose afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—This is not only a funny coincidence. Martha, who sings this eerie tune at moments throughout the night, is dealing with her own insanity—which she acknowledges at times, saying, how could George love me? Virginia Woolf, as we know, had spouts of insanity-- at times heard voices, and was put in rest homes by worried friends and family. Woolf also grieved over her inability to have children; Martha grieves over her loss of a child, or the child that never really was. Perhaps, Martha really is afraid of Virginia Woolf, of becoming suicidal Woolf. While this is all unclear, there is, undoubtedly, a reason for the daunting mention of Woolf.

Party Games, Upgraded

The 1966 film adaptation of Edward Albee's play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, begins with a long, pan-out camera shot during the initial credits. The scene is quiet and serene as a middle-aged couple walks home in the dark. The credits fade and the film blends genres to resemble a play as the couple flicks the light switch of their living room to represent the beginning of a scene. However, this aspect of a play is present within a movie, so the lens takes the viewer right into the scene. Martha's throaty voice yells, "What a dump!" and the viewer is thrust into a two hour long emotional tug-of-war.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play Martha and George, a married couple who host a small get together that pushes everyone involved to the brink of a break down when paired with psychological games and endless rounds of drinks. Kathleen's blog provides an excellent and thorough synopsis of the film so I'll try to stay away from summary to present a commentary.

Filmed in black- and-white, director Mike Nichols uses a camera technique that gives the sense of an amateur home video or a mock documentary (think of the extreme close ups of Michael's face as he makes a desperate announcement in The Office). This blurring between Hollywood film and a home video mirrors the the blurring between truth and lies, as well as objective and subjective reality within the movie. Martha and George declare something only to contradict themselves a moment later. While I don't want to give away any spoilers, I must admit that I enjoyed realizing that nothing is what it seems in this film and discovering that the viewer is yet another player in Martha and George's game.

The movie left me with numerous questions since I found it surprisingly complex. Is Martha a miserable person while George simply enjoys being miserable, or are they both rotten, miserable people? Does this movie document the moment that Martha and George "snap" or is this just a typical night with its typical scenes that occur regardless of who is present? Can Martha or George triumph over one another when they view reality as a malleable thing, or as a game with an endless supply of "Make Your Own Rule" cards?

The film showcases excellent performances by its leading couple. Taylor thoroughly dedicated herself to the role; the wikipedia gods informed me that she gained 30 pounds to become Martha, who is described as "frumpy" and "thick-hipped" throughout the movie. Though Taylor would be more successful at looking frumpy if she took up the role now, her transformation is drastic when compared to how she looked in Cleopatra or even The Sandpiper, which Taylor and Burton starred in only a year prior to the release of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Both actors adapted gestures and mannerisms that enhance their characters; Taylor's yelling and wild eyes make Martha seem vulgar while Burton's slumped shoulders and side glances reflect George's sense of personal failure.

I can't imagine many actors pulling off the complex and intimate relationship of Martha and George besides a pair that has worked together in previous roles. The dynamic between Taylor and Burton's Martha and George is impressively realistic. For instance, Martha accusingly asks George why he didn't put any ice into her drink when the couple is laying on their bed during the first scene. After he mumbles that she always eats her ice, Martha rolls over George, reaches into his drink, and drops the retrieved ice cubes into her own glass with a hand now dripping with alcohol. This moment is executed so flawlessly that, paired with the intimate camera technique, the viewer feels that Martha and George have been together for years and, though their marriage is dysfunctional, they share a deep emotional bond. Of course, it might help that Taylor and Burton were actually married off-screen. Twice.

As for the reference to Virginia Woolf, I have to admit that I don't get it. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is an alteration of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Woolf." I see that the this movie makes a jab at academics who view themselves as intellectually superior though they might be more ruthless and primitive than the average person, but I doubt whether this joke actually contributes anything to the film. I found more connection between the characters' inability to name and know anything with T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," rather than finding a connection between the film and any of Woolf's works. Perhaps Woolf was regarded in a negative light during the '60s due to her association with stigmatized feminism. Perhaps this "joke" is simply in the same vein as describing something as "kafka-esque." Regardless, I found that the three times that this joke was forcibly brought up were the only moments of the film that I disliked.

Overall, I recommend this film with much enthusiasm but advise viewers not to distract themselves by attempting to find a connection between the movie and Virginia Woolf.

Woolf vs. Milton; Round 1

“The hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread:
Besides what the grim Woolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing sed,
But that two-handed engine at the door,
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more.”
-Milton, Lycidas 125-131

Isn’t it amusing that Milton’s poem that Virginia Woolf calls out by name in her critical essay A Room of One’s Own contains her last named in it? Of course, it is not referring to her on any level, be it that the poem was written nearly 150 years before Woolf was born. It is interesting though, that ‘grim Woolf’ here is reference to the Catholic Church.

Woolf, obviously opposed to the Church by her sexual views as well as her pronounced agnosticism. Yet, despite Milton’s speaking out against the corrupt bishops and other Church figures, Woolf takes it upon herself to poke fun at Milton in her essay. She does not go into too much terrible detail about why she wonders what word Milton had dare think of changing, but in the end, she does not classify him within her group of ‘androgynous’ writers.

Yet, Milton was an extremely politically active figure who commonly was a thorn in the side for many a bishop or king. Perhaps, his involvement deemed him too Christian, since he never thought of breaking away from the Church, only sticking to strong, Protestant beliefs. Yet, for someone who has been linked to Virgil and Homer, should not he be included within Woolf’s list of writers? Milton seems to just be getting the short end of the stick. Perhaps it is that he merely lived in a time when women’s rights were not in the collective, public consciousness. Then why does Shakespeare, who lived only a generation or two before Milton, get elevated to the highest in the pantheon? Perhaps it is that his true identity has remained shrouded in mystery or that his body of work is greater than Milton’s?

It’s all very debatable. Certainly, there is a case for both Milton and Shakespeare in that heavyweight match. Yet, just as Woolf strives to change the tempo of the novel and pursue a different lifestyle than was the norm, Milton, too, ruffles some feathers of his contemporaries. Maybe, just maybe, if they had met, Woolf would have warmed to Milton. Or at the very least, they’d have gotten into a great argument.

The Inheritance of Woolf (Good and Bad) in The Hours.

When I finished watching Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, I was plagued by a feeling of ambivalence. Bookended by the image of Virginia Woolf’s slow and resolute tread into the River Ouse, the plot weaves in-and-out of the lives of three women: Woolf (Nicole Kidman) in 1923, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) in 1951 and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) in 2001. Switching off the television after the final scene and staring at the dark screen, I sat on the couch quietly deciding how I felt about the film. This was two weeks ago. I’m still trying to make that decision.

In the tradition of Mrs. Dalloway, the plot traces one day in the lives of Virginia (writing her masterpiece), Laura (reading Woolf’s masterpiece), and Clarissa (living Woolf’s masterpiece). Although the women live in different places and times, they struggle with similar issues and choices: art or obscurity, happiness or dissatisfaction, life or death. While I felt like I understood the creative quandaries of Virginia and Clarissa, perhaps because of my enrollment in the class and having read Mrs. Dalloway, I (like Pat) was frustrated with Laura Brown. Sure, she was unhappy. Sure, she felt trapped. Haven’t we all experienced the panicked pangs of displeasure? Do we all give up? No. Are we supposed to, according to Laura? While I do not agree with her decision and her later pseudo-redemption with her "I chose life" speech, I do understand her vital role in the plot. At least, for my own purposes. She is the example of the choice to live selfishly. While she chooses to live, she ruins those closest to her. I suppose the unanswered questions and the ambiguous functions which attach themselves to these characters is the very essence of the film.

Despite my frustration with Laura Brown, I was deeply interested in the broken relationship she had with her son, Richard, especially in light of current events. When I read that Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, had committed suicide last week, I instantly had an image of Richard Brown letting himself fall from his apartment window. The ensuing media-based scientific debates about a hereditary inclination to suicide made me think about the legacy that parents left their children: Laura’s to Richard and Leslie Stephen’s to his daughter Virginia. Laura’s abandonment, her figurative suicide, not only influences Richard’s life, but also his writing. He writes about her as if she killed herself – to him, she is dead. However, he does write about her, just as Woolf wrote about her father in To the Lighthouse. While we are never told whether or not Richard’s writing helped him come to terms with his mother’s desertion, his act of writing about his mother in an attempt to better understand her strikes a chord of resonance with Woolf’s writing that is both subtle and sincere.

Finally, I had huge issues with Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Woolf. According to The Academy, as Pat already mentioned, she must have done something right. However, I am discontented by her performance. While Kidman plays a manic writer very well, I can’t help but wonder if her depiction of Woolf is fair. Is that Virginia Woolf’s entire legacy? Having studied Woolf’s writing this past semester, I have come to know an immensely talented writer, who is as witty as she is staid. Kidman’s Woolf is a curmudgeon who saunters about the house seemingly thinking only of Mrs. Dalloway and her next opportunity to end it all. I was sorely disappointed. Where was the Woolf who wrote Freshwater? Where was the Woolf who dressed as an Abyssinian diplomat during the Dreadnought Hoax? The prosthetic nose and the highborn scowl donned by Kidman illustrate the common perception of the iconic Woolf – the feminist Brit writer who drowned herself. Kidman’s performance, while it shows glimmers of brilliance, such as in the scene with Leonard at the train station, is eclipsed by its homogeny of depression.

The One Where I Harp on Nicole Kidman's Accent in The Hours---for HOURS

I was around thirteen years old when The Hours came out in theaters. It was conveniently rated PG-13, so there was nothing my mom could say when I begged her to take me to see it. I made a point of reading the book before I saw the movie and The Hours was one of the few films that I didn't have to say was better than the book. I loved them equally. I bought The Hours pretty soon after the DVD was released and when I lost my copy somewhere between Florida and New York, I promptly bought a digital version off of iTunes. The movie provided the background each time I opened Mrs. Dalloway and again when I wrote the paper. I feel like I know The Hours like the back of my hand, but every time I watch it, I notice something different. That doesn't mean that I don't have some major issues with the characters or the actors who played them.

Normally, I think that Nicole Kidman is an excellent actress. She somehow manages to make breathiness into a plausible character trait for every role she plays: Satine in Moulin Rouge--breathy because of consumption; Grace in The Others--breathy because she was dead; Ada in Cold Mountain--breathy because she's...Southern? But this doesn't really work when playing a real person. As a thirteen-year-old, I'm not sure I even knew who Virginia Woolf was and after seeing The Hours, I didn't know much more (She wrote. She killed herself. The end, right?). Once I actually started to study Woolf, however, and began to research her life, I discovered this, the last audio recording of Woolf in existence, on the BBC website. I was a more than a little surprised and disappointed to find that Kidman sounded nothing like Woolf. Sure, every actor doesn't have to sound like the person they're playing and, okay, maybe Kidman didn't have access to this recording (the site was last update in October of 2008), it is all about how believable they are as the character and we can't really use Woolf herself as a measuring-stick for Kidman's portrayal of Woolf and on and on. But this breathiness, that Kidman has brought to every role I've seen her in, distorts our perception of Woolf.

Go on and give that recording a listen. Woolf's voice alone is a pretty striking thing. To me, it sounds almost like every exagerrated, stereotypical impression of British snobbery that I've ever heard. That voice is the way we were encouraged to speak in my high school acting class, when first learning the British dialect. Woolf's voice isn't breathy at all, it's strong and clear and, in not giving the audience that impression, Kidman offers us a very one-sided portrayal of Woolf. By changing her voice, Kidman transforms Woolf from a strong woman (albeit one afflicted by mental illness) to one that is weak and vulnerable, like the dead bird Angelica wants to give a funeral for. For some people, The Hours may be the only glimpse of Woolf they ever get, and Kidman should've made it a good one--not turning Woolf into someone so melancholy and frail that one was almost glad to see her go.

There's also been a discussion about the character of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore). I don't find Laura admirable (like Justine), but I also don't find her irresponsible (like Pat). Or maybe I think that she's both of those things. Honestly, I didn't ever think much at all of Laura Brown until she became the subject of such heated discussion on this blog. I thought she was a little boring, only meant to serve as a somewhat-clever bridge between the writing of Mrs. Dalloway (1923) and the being of Mrs. Dalloway (the present-day, Meryl Streep segments). Upon closer inspection, though, it seems like Laura is a what-might-have-been for the character of Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa "was a Radical" (Woolf, 150) in her youth, reading Shakespeare and Plato and having thoughtful discussions with Sally and Peter "about how they were to reform the world" (Woolf, 33). One gets a sense of who Clarissa might've been had she stuck with Sally or Peter rather than marrying Richard and settling into a life of domesticity, where choosing flowers to a party is more important than reading Shakespeare. Laura is reckless, sure, no good mother would leave two young boys and their father because that was "death"--but she certainly illustrates one of the larger themes of both The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway: how "dangerous" it is "to live even one day" (Woolf, 8). If Laura hadn't experienced the kiss with her neighbor, or left her son to go spend a few hours reading and possibly contemplating suicide, maybe she would've stayed with her family and just maybe, Richard wouldn't have killed himself years later. Similarly, if Virginia Woolf hadn't buried the dead bird, or had been able to have the meal she wanted, or any number of things, perhaps she wouldn't have drowned herself. Who knows? One day can be very, very dangerous and the women in The Hours experience the effects of that danger.

I really wish I had more to say about Meryl Streep in this film but, really, she can do no wrong. I agree with Pat that Clarissa was "the only character...who acts in someone else's interest." Clarissa also seems to be the most well-adjusted. Maybe, though, if The Hours were to have a sequel, she might be experiencing the after-effects of this day and would be a little more selfish because of it.

I think Philip Glass did a great job with the score, the repetitive nature of the music echoed the connectedness of the women's lives. But, listening to Glass's other recordings, I realized that he basically uses the same few notes over and over again...so he loses points for creativity.

Back to Nicole Kidman's voice: perhaps it was the nose.

The Current of Indoctrination

Woolf intends her titular metaphor to have significances as countless as the shifting identities of her characters. We may at first be tempted to translate the symbol by seeing the waves of life's experiences wash away, again and again, the sands of her characters' identities. However, as the novel progresses, Woolf hints that this current is much more malevolent, enveloping, and unnatural than her potentially calming image suggests. Woolf views the waves as an antagonistic force-- as the imposing social obligations that conscript her characters into an existence which, deep within themselves, they regret and even reject.

Woolf expresses this foremost by drowning her prose in compassion and admiration for her characters, though they are flawed and often despise one another. At the beginning of the novel, the young characters distinguish themselves by "speaking" (that is, ruminating) in unique poetic tones. Jinny is "fiery," Rhoda "pale," and most everyone seems to loathe Bernard's intellectual arrogance (21, 16). However, none of the characters can escape the onslaught of the clergy, whom they disbelieve even as children, school, from which they yearn to escape, and urban street mobs, which Louis later pauses to avoid as if they were, perhaps literally, the waves. As he grows older, Bernard laments that the best art is always produced in "solitude" (58). Indeed, he seems nostalgic for the earlier sections of the novel, a time when the characters were freer and more distinguishable. Though the young Rhoda echoes the disenfranchised, contrarian sentiment of A Room of One's Own, and the young Susan pines for unrequited love, all of the characters become in some way disenchanted as they grow older.

Woolf here reveals another application of the metaphor-- the waves draw the countless crystalline grains of sand from the shore, into the sea of conformity. Ironically, Woolf is not echoing the affirming and unifying Hindu image of the soul, in which human drops of water in the sea are in a state of oneness with the universe. Instead, the waves alienate her characters further from the world around them, and from one another. They become, as Bernard describes it, an "encircled population, shuffling past each other in endless competition along the street" (114). Rhoda echoes precisely the metaphor Walter Benjamin applies to the hopeless working class in Paris, "I will fling myself fearlessly into trams" (163). Though the waves may draw the characters together physically over the years, the water soon flings itself upon the shore in a violent splash, alienating them emotionally and spiritually.

[I have chosen to skip ahead to the fourth, "topic of choice" option, as I have not yet had a chance to see one of the films.]

The Hours: Deal With It

When I finally got around to watching Frost/Nixon a few weeks ago, I thought it was a well-paced, suspenseful film with solid performances by Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, and (even) Kevin Bacon.  I was, however, constantly distracted by Frank Langella's Nixon impersonation; I didn't see much of a resemblance, and his voice was overdone, with each word spoken from the jowls.  It bothered me the entire movie.  

Last night, I watched Stephen Daldry's film The Hours, and a similar problem arose for me.  Every time Nicole Kidman was on screen as Woolf, I couldn't help but wonder who was in charge of that prosthetic strapped to her nose.  Nearly all the dramatic wind was sucked out of Woolf's sails by that silly makeup job; I couldn't take anything she was saying completely seriously, and it didn't even make her look more like the writer.  That's just one man's opinion though.  She did manage to take home the Oscar for best actress.

The other technical issue I had with the film was the music, particularly during the Laura Brown story line.  I would find myself in a seemingly innocuous moment of a scene, when suddenly my heart would start to race, and I would have no idea why:
Laura: I'm going to make a cake.  That's what I'm going to do.  I'm going to make a cake for daddy's birthday. [music: a swelling, swirling crescendo of strings and piano].  

I was on edge the entire time she was on screen.  Now, I know what you're thinking: wellduh. that's the point; it's part of the suspense.  I maintain, however, that there was no suspense at all.  Nothing actually happens with the Laura character, except the metastasizing of her vague, selfish unhappiness.  When I watch a movie or read a piece of fiction, I appreciate actual drama, not melodrama.  In fact, nothing irks me more than melodrama; I find it disingenuous, and it undermines the value of a work for me.

This brings me to my main contention with this film (or perhaps even Michael Cunningham's book, which I have not read).  I disagree entirely with Justine's assessment of Laura.  Justine wrote, "I really admired her acknowledgment of her unhappiness and the urgency of having to do something about it; of having to think of herself before others."  I believe the opposite to be true.  Laura had an obligation to Richard and his sister, from which she fled.  What is this film saying about personal responsibility?  About the abuse of the American dream? -- start over whenever you feel like it?  What about the responsibility to accept the consequences of your choices?  (I never believed, for a moment, that she "had no choice.") 

Claire Danes, despite what many say about her acting abilities, actually plays a pivotal role in this film.  When Laura arrives at Clarissa's apartment in New York, Julia says, "So that's the monster."  Yet after Laura's vague, quasi apology for her disappearance, it is Julia who embraces Laura, as if to accept her apology, as if to reach an understanding of why she needed to escape dreaded unhappiness.  But I remained unconvinced; what on earth does "It was death.  I chose life." mean?  It seems to me that she had a comfortable life in LA to which she chose to be oblivious.  (I was upset that I couldn't stand Julianne Moore's character, when I love that actress.  Maude Lebowski, anyone?) 

I remember something Denis Leary said in one of his stand-up specials several years ago: "Nobody's happy.  Ok? Happiness comes in small doses, folks.  It's a cigarette, or a chocolate chip cookie, or a five-second orgasm. That's it.  Ok?"  Every time I watch a film with the central theme of "well-off person searches for happiness because they don't recognize their fortune at having food, a warm house, and comfort," I get angry and end up ranting like this.  

The saving grace I found in this film was Meryl Streep's Clarissa.  Because she devotes herself to Richard and to throwing his party, she is the only character in the film who acts in someone else's interest.  Though she breaks down for a moment in front of Louis, her reason is plausible; she is witnessing the physical and mental decay of her dear friend.  She is the only character who realizes that showing love for others is the road to any kind of happiness.  Streep saved me from hating this film, with her small glimmer of hope.
Today, I scrambled through my folder looking for secondary readings to blog about--but to my dismay, nothing was really sparking any ideas. Eventually, I came across Mr. Cowper's poem "The Castaway," mercilessly shoved in the back of my folder with a dog-eared corner, a crease along the side, and the doodle of a forlorn-looking bunny in the margins.
"This looks promising!" I thought to myself, and then proceeded to read over the poem a few times to help generate some blogging ideas. I remember reading over the poem in class, I remember taking notes about it, and I remember an extensive conversation regarding domesticated rabbit poetry--but I had forgotten how much I love this poem. And finally, I decided that I want to retrace our class discussion about Mr. Ramsay, specifically how Woolf takes Coooper's poem (written well before her time, in 1799) and applies it to Mr. Ramsay's grief about his own life.
While I agree that Mr. Ramsay is a pretty ridiculous character for the most part, I think Woolf's incorporation of Cowper's poem does more than highlight Mr. Ramsay's melodramatic flair for eighteenth century poetry recitations around his beachouse. I think Woolf is also showing how Mr. Ramsay is a "castaway" within his own family.
It's funny to think of Mr. Ramsay marching around on a sunny beach occasionally barking out lines from tragic poems. How can he possibly relate his comfortable, beach-house-owning life to that of the Light Brigade from Tennyson's poem or the castaway from Cowper's? The idea seemed silly then--but now I'm not as sure. In the third section of To The Lighthouse (aptly entitled, "the Lighthouse") Mr. Ramsay is sitting with Cam and James on the boat, feeling like, "...a desolate man, old, bereft..." (169) murmuring the last two lines of Cowper's poem loud enough for his two children to hear:
But I beneath a rougher sea
Was whelmed in deeper gulfs than he
Of course Mr. Ramsay's situation isn't like that of the perilous castaway from Cowper's poem; but, are his feelings all that different than the one's expressed by Cowper? At this point in the novel, Ramsay has lost his wife and he cannot emotionally connect with his children (in fact, his children kind of hate him). Essentially, he is alone on that boat, in the middle of the water, much like a castaway. He isn't under any mortal peril, but another kind of threat is present. There is the threat of him losing a slow battle against his own life; a life of unfulfilled intellectual aspirations, and a life where he is sinking under the waves of emotional incompetence towards his family. I don't think it's all that ridiculous for him to connect with this poem, because while he is a rather self-absorbed man (taking into account only his own grief throughout most of the novel, and demanding sympathy from everyone else), I think his self-woe is what makes him one the most realistic characters in Woolf's novel. Woolf uses Cowper's poem so that Mr. Ramsay has something to hold steadfastly onto; he doesn't have his wife, his children, or the kind of emotional consolation he needs. He has his knowledge, he has eighteenth century poetry, and he has the memorized lines of Cowper to express his innermost grief.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Secondary Reading,The Man Who Saw Himself Drown, Mrs. Dalloway

"The Man Who Saw Himself Drown" by Anita Desai was published in 2000, decades and decades after Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. In the story, a man who is out of in town on business witnesses his own drowning and the ramifications of his death as he walks dazedly through them. The protagonist battles with the consequences of his death, the loss of his wife and children, while also examining what oppurtunities comes with getting a fresh start, ridded of responsibility and identity. As he comes to terms with the realization of his situation, the main character is faced with a choice, "to drown this self that had remained, to drown the double of the self that had already died" (Desai 98) or "to go on with another life, a new life?" (Desai 98)  The story ends with a young boy discovering the body of our narrator, drowned by the timid trickle of a small stream. This story, like Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, uses a character to weigh and explore the meaning of life and death. Similar to the man in Desai's story, Woolf uses Septimus, an emotional ex-soldier struggling with life after battle. Both Desai's character and Woolf's struggle with the challenge of returning to life after it has, essentially, been taken away from them. For Desai, this robbery of life is literal, but Woolf creates a similar dilemma for Septimus and the hollowing out effect that the war has on him, stealing his idealistic youth, his naive mind. Though Desai doesn't refer to Woolf or Septimus in her story, her character's deliberate choice, his thoughtful acceptance of death in order to escape a life he can no longer fully live is reminiscent of Septimus, listening to the futile and imprisoning cures of Dr. Holmes downstairs, before he urgently "flung himself vigorously" (Woolf 164) from the window sill. Both writers use their characters to ask and observe the same question- when life is no longer full, when our grasp of it's beauties and realities, it's quiet pleasantries and joys has been broken, can relief only be found in death?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

...even crazy people like to be asked.

I’m sure it was more than the multitude of groans elicited from my father and my grandmother that began my fascination with The Hours from the first time I caught in on television. We tuned in, on shaky ground, right after Virginia kissed Vanessa, and somehow barreled through the movie for a bit, watched something else, and then tuned in just in time to catch Clarissa kissing Sally. No lie. This may seem silly, but this was my first experience with this movie. I had no idea what was really going on, but it was a (relatively) mainstream film and I was caught up in the Philip Glass and the delicious scandalous rush of it all, highlighted by my father and my grandmother’s fierce reactions of disgust and channel-changing. I was hooked and there were so many things I wanted to know. And I couldn’t show it.

This must have been 2005 (and I must have had my license) because the next day, I drove over to FYE and managed to find a used copy of the DVD for six dollars. I watched it that afternoon while dad was at work; no interruptions and no disapproval.

You cannot find peace by avoiding life, Leonard.

On the contrary, this film was one that threw you into the lives of these three women and the people that mattered to them. It was so delicate and yet so ceaselessly courageous, and I have never identified so much with one film, before or since.

From Laura Brown’s story we have the sense of a woman out of sync with her time and place in more ways than one. I really admired her acknowledgement of her unhappiness and the urgency of having to do something about it; of having to think of herself before others. I love her explanation to Clarissa Vaughn:

It would be wonderful to say you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It's what you can bear. There it is. No one's going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life.

She teaches Richard that we cannot live for others, try as we may; Richard sees a similar pattern in Clarissa [“Just wait till I die. Then you'll have to think of yourself. How are you going to like that?”].

At the same time, Clarissa expresses emotions that I have certainly felt. [“When I'm with him I feel... Yes, I am living. And when I'm not with him... Yes, everything does seem sort of silly”]. The three impulsive kisses in this film speak to this urgency, this relevancy of the person’s presence in their lives. With Philip Glass’s incredible score to top it off, this movie is intoxicating and inspiring.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Movie Reviews, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

When I was in sixth grade and my sister was in high school, I happened upon her copy of the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf screenplay in a family car ride to D.C. While she slept against the window with her headphones blaring, I diligently read the entire screenplay, for lack of anything better to do. When I had finished it, my middle school mind teemed with questions and confusion. Why was everyone so angry? How could all of these characters mistreat each other with such violent, hateful games ? What was the point? And, most importantly, why was that the play's title? Several years, a high school diploma, and a soon to be bachelor's degree later, I have the same questions.
I thought it would be interesting to watch the movie now, with an older and hopefully more mature mindset, to see what my then 11-year old mind was missing. Though I was still confused and tired after watching Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who play the main married couple in the movie) tirelessly berate and deride each other, taking with them their youthful and idealistic guests, I was able to pull a little more meaning from the story as well as the characters in it.
The story begins on a university campus, after an apparent party among the university's teaching staff. George and Martha, a middle-aged married couple stumble drunkenly home. Once home, it is clear that their relationship is less than perfect. George is sarcastic and demeaning, while Martha is taunting and vulgar. Neither gives each other a break and therefore, never receives one in return. While they fix themselves yet another drink (a pattern throughout the movie), Martha informs George that the young, new professor in the Math department will be coming by with his equally young wife for a late drink. It is gradually exposed that Martha's father is the president of the university and that George, a once promising history professor, has proved to be an academic and therefore familial failure in both Martha and her father's eyes. The story moves on from here in a haze of cocktails and crude, emotional games between Martha and George. Their repulsion for what the other has become is so tangible, the young professor and his wife are rapidly and unknowingly wrapped up in it. Throughout the movie, we witness the revelation of dark secrets and harsh betrayals, inflicting pain upon themselves and their guests. 
However, the movie ends, surprisingly, quite calmly. The long night is over. The sun begins to rise. The frenzy of the evening cools and, like in the beginning, George and Martha remain, holding each other's hand. 
The movie is both tiring to watch and intriguing. While I found many of the disagreements and behaviors of the characters disturbing, there is a sort of intrigue to the relationships in the movie, and a feeling that you are watching something too personal to see. The movie, as a whole, is not a feel-good flick. It's subject matter is dark and the characters are painful, pitiful creatures who emotionally and physically unravel throughout the film. However, it's unabashed desire to catch and display human beings at their most primal is something I have rarely seen in a movie before. The complexity and depth of human relationships is what this movie relentlessly explores, placing it's characters in abhorrent positions and testing the difference between passionate love and passionate hate. While I still don't know why the movie is called Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" I can surmise that it serves to make a mockery of the people that this particular movie centers around. The title is a song that Martha repeats numerous times in the movie, alluding to a joke at the party the couples had attended earlier that evening. It is here where the mockery may begin. Clearly, this is an intellectual joke, these people are supposedly academics, the movie is literally set on a college campus. However, despite their supposed intellectual facade, they behave like animals, selfishly and recklessly destroying each other with very little sign of remorse. 
Therefore, though I didn't care for the movie much more than I cared for the screenplay after I read it, I can now recognize the boldness of the script as well as the hypocrisy of institutions such as academia, and marriage that is so definitively parodied.