virginia poe, illuminated

February 9, 2010 at 1:00 pm (reviews, this and that, writing) (, , , )

My dear friend S.J. Chambers, independent Poe scholar and all-around-neat-person, whose name you should recognize from her flash fiction “How a Blog was Born,” the Honorable Mention in my Bloggiversary Contest, and, more importantly, from various sundry locations around the internet (check S.J.’s website for a full listing of her fiction, poetry, and non-fiction), has a work of fiction over at MungBeing Magazine!

Stories like S.J.’s “Of Parallel and Parcel” are always of interest to me as both a reader and a writer of historical fiction. My personal take on the genre is this: there are holes in history, gaps where the curious mind wonders why? Those, for me, are some the best places to begin a story, especially if said historical fiction veers into the realms of science fiction/fantasy. S.J.’s story plays it mostly straight, with subtle hints of the fantastic affecting the internal motivations of the main character, in a narrative that treats a figure often overlooked beyond the rather cursory dude, Poe totes married his cousin! one often gets in high school.

S.J.’s love for Poe and Poe-related matters comes through passionately in her writing, in both the framing of the piece and the actual content. It’s worth your time. Go check it out!

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doctor jekyll and sister hyde

February 5, 2010 at 6:31 pm (reviews) (, , )

. . . is a movie. That I watched. It’s an old Hammer Horror film from 1971, and it was awesome. Really. I mean it.

In this version of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll is a passionate young man who wants to cure every disease (okay), but when some older friend/professor/doctor person reminds him that such a task would take far longer than a normal man’s lifespan, Dr. Jekyll becomes obsessed with cheating death. In his search for the Elixir of Life, he begins investigating female hormones for their youth-giving properties. I believe in order to explain the “huh?” moment surely every single reasonable person must have when hearing the phrase “investigating female hormones for their youth-giving properties,” Dr. Jekyll poses a question along the lines of “what is it that gives a woman’s face that extraordinary bloom, the softness of her hair?” which, you know, is probably a good theory, and explains his scientific reasoning thoroughly.

But the problem for the good doctor is, of course, how to get those pesky hormones. At first he cuts glands and stuff out of bodies from the morgue, which is pretty cool because the guy with giant sideburns and a top hat who works at the morgue (coroner? gravedigger? WHO KNOWS?) gets to make some classy necrophilia jokes.

Alas, there just aren’t enough dead ladies for Dr. Jekyll, so he’s forced into doing business with the body-procurers Burke and Hare, who apparently travelled from Edinburgh to London, and through time as well, to supply him with the goods. When they’re caught (Burke is hung, Hare is thrown in to a lime pit, which dissolves his eyeballs) Dr. Jekyll has only one recourse, which is to become Jack the Ripper and start murdering prostitutes to get their hormones, which is a medical process involving a big shiny knife, just so you know.

But that, ah, plot is not the only fine thing about this film, oh no. Instead of creating the Elixir of Life, it turns out that the Ecto Cooler-hued substance  Dr. Jekyll has distilled from cut up ladyparts is actually a means of changing a man into a woman, with titties, and yes, you get to see them. It also extends the life of a fly (after turning it from a male into a female) but the movie never really goes back to that particular plot point, instead choosing to focus on Dr. Jekyll turning into a woman– an evil woman, natch— and committing the murders as her, since everyone who’s out looking for the Whitechapel murderer is looking for a man.

Meanwhile, the nice family living upstairs is starting to worry about the workaholic Dr. Jekyll. The family consists of a matronly widow and her two adult children, a comely young lady of quality and her coxcomb brother. The girl falls hard for Dr. Jekyll for no reason other than he seems to be the only man she sees around apart from her horrifying brother, and she gets all plucky and stuff, bringing Dr. Jekyll dinner and looking mad when he won’t pay attention to her. Then the horrifying brother mentioned above sees Mrs. Hyde (Dr. Jekyll’s sister, as Jekyll hastens to explain) and is captivated by her, possibly because the first time he sees her she’s doing the maneuver illustrated on the left, though her hand isn’t in front of the goods, and the second time he sees her, I swear to god, after realizing she lacks proper woman’s clothes, she wraps a scarlet curtain around her body like a Greek goddess and sort of slinks about evilly while making bedroom eyes at everyone she sees, including herself, in the mirror.

Gender-bending high jinks ensue, especially when Mrs. Hyde starts taking over Dr. Jekyll’s body even when he’s a man, including a hilarious scene (outside a corsetry shop, again, natch) where Dr. Jekyll reaches for the brother’s face and whispers his name passionately. YEAH! Then it all culminates in a supremely lackluster chase sequence and a simply awful final effect. But up until the last 10 minutes, it’s a really weird cool little movie. I recommend it heartily, if you can find it, and I’m sure it implies a lot about topics that I’m not going to talk about right now because after 7 months in Boulder, I finally bought some homeopathic medicine (Dr. Bach’s Rescue Remedy) for my stress issues, and it’s actually working. So basically I’m feeling too relaxed to really engage with the fact that of course the split personality is a lady and she is evil and she is sexual and it emasculates Dr. Jekyll to have a stronger woman be a part of him and this probably says something about gender attitudes. Usually I’m all over that stuff, but not now.

So, adieu. I’m going to make some Dark ‘n’ Stormies tonight and watch my husband John play Final Fantasy 4, which, yes, is a spectator sport in my household.

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fanny hill

February 3, 2010 at 3:05 pm (reading, reviews) (, , , , )

The other day I was feeling like watching a costume drama set during the era I’m currently writing about in the novel, so I rented the 2007 version of Fanny Hill. I knew a little bit about it but never got around to reading it during my Master’s (moft likely becaufe I was focufing on Moral Novels written earneftly by Moral Women, about fuch ferious topics as Slavery, and not common fmut).

The movie was good, though despite the absolutely gorgeous, lavish costumes (see the image left, one of the prettiest dresses I’ve seen in a costume drama, ever) and good acting it had a rather, ah, Skinemax feel to it. I enjoyed it. Even better, oh joy of joys, certain things about the film intrigued me in terms of my ongoing 18th century research, so I immediately purchased  the Oxford World’s Classics unexpurgated edition and read it with extreme quickness on my trip down to Tampa. Rarely have plane trips been so enjoyable.

First, a few issues regarding the actual text itself. For a while now, OWC has been updating their look: matte covers rather than glossy, sometimes cropping cover images to look more modern, adding a white bar with the title at the bottom rather than the old school red banner at the top, etc. Unfortunately, they have not upgraded their absurdly-easy-to-smear print, which I feel would be a nice thing to do for customers who care more about the durability than the appearance of their books. This issue of quality, and the fact that I find OWC’s system of endnotes to be distracting while trying to enjoy a text, has made me more likely to purchase from Broadview if I want a critical edition of an older novel, but unfortunately, Broadview has yet to release a Fanny Hill. On an infinitely more superficial level, I am freaking tired of seeing Boucher’s “Resting Girl” every time I pick up pornography from days of yore. There are plenty of other risque images from the 18th century if one looks a little– and if OWC wasn’t going to use something from Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress, which would seem a natural choice, I can’t imagine why they didn’t pick something from, oh, one of the countless illustrated editions of Fanny Hill which aren’t exactly difficult to find (a quick Google search immediately yielded one NSFW site full of dirty pictures, another half-second’s worth of looking on wikipedia gives up a lone image from a collection by Edouard-Henri Avril). Many of those could be cropped down to something acceptable for a book cover– maybe not that particular Avril image, but there are others. So, just sayin’. On to more substantial matters!

The book is a good read. More and less filthy than I expected, Fanny Hill is not exactly one-handed reading, it’s instead one of those cultural oddities like Lost Girls, e.g. erotica for people who like to think in general and who also enjoy thinking specifically about the nature of arousal, what is and is not considered erotic throughout time, who like to occasionally be confronted with the discomfort that can arise from fantasy stemming from things that would be unacceptable in reality. So, yeah, I just wrote that ridiculously highbrow explanation for consuming vintage smut.

Certainly there are passages that read as pure pornography, including Fanny’s lesbian experiences, her voyeuristic observation of a prostitute servicing her lover, her later affair with the well-endowed manservant of her gentleman keeper Mr. H–, the bacchanal where Fanny yet again sells her virginity, the interlude where Fanny and a lusty sailor fuck in an inn. But there are doses of reality that interfere with pure enjoyment, especially for a modern individual, but that would likely have given most readers some degree of pause when it was published in 1748-1749 and then surreptitiously re-published and circulated before the Lady Chatterly’s Lover obscenity trial that made it widely available in the 20th century. For example, Fanny’s defloration is pretty grisly (like all other deflorations in the book, the pain the women experience is not glossed over, nor does it disappear after their first time), and then Fanny is raped by a gentleman while she is very depressed over miscarrying due to the shock of her true love being sent to the South Seas. In Volume Two, a fellow whore in a “cluck” of prostitutes Fanny becomes a part of tells of losing her virginity to a rapist, and another whore seduces a mentally handicapped young man, to name just a few things that made me say “huh.”

I haven’t read a lot of the academic criticism of Fanny Hill, though there have been many treatments of the book, including one by my personal academic heroine, Janet Todd. For myself, on both a critical and an uncritical level, I enjoyed it. I was personally unsettled by the casual way rape is discussed, and how women who are raped generally come to admire, if not love, their assailants, but given that Fanny Hill makes several references to Pamela, that sort of nonsense was not entirely surprising. I was also unhappy about the section toward the end of Volume Two that heaps vitriol upon male homosexuals, but it seems that John Cleland’s stint in debtors’ prison, where he wrote Fanny Hill, was due to a debt to Thomas Canon, who wrote a book called Ancient and Modern Pederasty Investigated and Exemplified, so there might have been an ulterior motivation to discrediting practitioners of the art of buttfucking.

That said, lesbianism is at least given some page-time, as is female masturbation, and some sexual fetishes are also explored without excessive jokes at those men with “peculiar humours,” such as the gentleman with a love of hair-brushing. There is also a simply delightful encounter with a birching enthusiast named Mr. Barvile. Also, throughout it all Cleland loves nothing more than describing with notable enthusiasm the male “machine,” resulting in several descriptions such as the following:

. . . behold it now! crest-fall’n, reclining its half-capt vermillion head over one of his thighs, quiet, pliant, and to all appearance incapable of the mischiefs and cruelty it had committed. Then the beautiful growth of the hair, in short and soft curls around the root, its whiteness, branch’d veins, the supple softness of the shaft, as it lay forshorten’d, roll’d and shrunk up into a squob thickness, languid, and born up from between the thighs, by its globular appendage, that wondrous treasure-bag of nature’s sweets, which rivell’d round, and purs’d up in the only wrinkles that are known to please, perfected the prospect; and all together form’d the most interesting moving picture in nature. . .

or

I saw with wonder and surprize, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a may-pole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ’d, it must have belong’d to a young giant: its prodigious size made me shrink again: yet! I could not without pleasure behold, and even venture’d to feel, such a length! such a breadth of animated ivory, perfectly well turn’d and fashion’d, the proud stiffness of which distended its skin, whose smooth polish, and velvet-softness, might vye with that of the most delicate of our sex, and whose exquisite whiteness was not a little set off by a sprout of black curling hair round the root, through the jetty sprigs of which, the fair skin shew’d as, in a fine evening, you may have remark’d the clear light aether, through the branch-work of distant trees, over the topping the summit of a hill: then the broad and bluish-casted incarnate of the head, and blue serpentines of its veins, altogether compos’d the most striking assemblage of figure and colours in nature; in short, it stood an object of terror and delight.

Jesus Christ. Yes, the whole book is like that.

Overall, I am pleased that I took the time to read Fanny Hill. I think it is remarkable that, though obviously written by a man (and wholly man of his era in a number of ways), this work is presented first-person from the point of view of a woman, and treats frankly her delight in sex and sexuality, as well as her ability to separate sexual enjoyment from feelings of love. This is problematic at times, especially given the uncomfortable moments with rape and sexual abuse, but overall Fanny Hill really does present a stirring and somewhat innocently bawdy picture of 18th century sexuality. The text also does much to contradict notions that sexual enthusiasm outside of reproduction is something people discovered in the 20th century, and that women’s sexual enjoyment was neglected previous to the sexual revolution. Though Fanny’s (and the other women’s) carnal appetites are presented for the titillation of a male audience, it is interesting to note that the notion of old-timey British sexuality being somewhat repressed (“close your eyes and think of England”) is really a misinterpretation of Victorian propaganda. 18th century notions of female sexuality recognized that women masturbate, that women can be active participants in the sexual act, and can (and should) orgasm during sexual encounters. Those same notions often presented problems for women– for example, though the female orgasm was considered important, it was considered such because doctors thought women must orgasm to conceive, which in turn was used to discount women’s complaints of rape if they conceived, since if they conceived, they must have orgasmed, etc.– but they also created a world in which female sexuality was at least talked about, if often inaccurately.

So, all in all, time well spent.

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the imaginarium of doctor parnassus

January 22, 2010 at 3:49 pm (reviews) (, , , , , , , , , )

I agree mostly with Nick Mamatas’ review of Doctor Parnassus but I’d like to do some of my own raking-over-the-coals because I just wasted a buy one, get one free pass to see it. Actually, scratch that– I didn’t waste a buy one, get one free pass, because this way, Terry Gilliam, who I was already loath to fund out-of-pocket because he signed the Free Roman Polanski petition of ’09, got less of my money.

Well, whatevs. The whole thing is essentially a carnival redux of Lady in the Water, in that Lady in the Water was a pointless, onanistic allegory about how misunderstood– nay, how veritably Christ-like– M. Night Shyamalan is for making movies as brilliant as Signs and, uh, The Village. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is basically the same movie even down to its hilarious racist stereotypes, except that it was vastly more boring, and also it casts Christopher Plummer as Terry Gilliam instead of Gilliam playing himself, which I suppose is a level of allegory-hiding I should appreciate since such, ah, nuance wasn’t deemed acceptable by Shyamalan.

The movie as a whole was bloated beyond excusability, coming in at 122 minutes according to the IMDB, and saying the film had 90 minutes of adequate material would be a stretch. There was not a single scene that couldn’t stand trimming, most notably anything involving CGI, because damn, even such films as Dragon Wars: D-War and Van Helsing looked better, if memory serves. There is a scene featuring a CGI Tom Waits as a sort of naga-ish thing that looked barely passable enough to be a villain in Charmed, and there is a scene featuring a CGI Christopher Plummer that would’ve been better-looking if they had gotten the animators from Monty Python to just draw the damn thing and just stuck it in there without rendering it. Jesus.

Moving from general problems to more specific ones: well, since I already mentioned the fact that Gilliam signed the Roman Polanski petition, let’s just say I was reminded unhappily of last summer’s traumatizing news cycle when shortly into the film the young-looking heroine proclaims loudly that she’s “16: THE AGE OF CONSENT” (direct quote). Awesome! Actually, best part is that as far as I could tell she was actually turning 16: THE AGE OF CONSENT, which would make her only 15, slightly under THE AGE OF CONSENT for most of the film, but that doesn’t stop Heath Ledger and Andrew Garfield leering over her.

So, that. And also: midget jokes, jokes about “politically correct” terminology for midgets, racist stereotypes of Russians, a midget in blackface, sexist stereotypes of women (what do women want? SHOES; also, to be home-makers), midgets cracking wise, a white dude playing an “Eastern” (?) sage, midgets making midget jokes, the age-old hilarity that is a man in a woman’s dress (a fat woman, no less!) and some incredibly subtle political commentary when a bunch of police officers roll up in miniskirts, fishnets, and high heels singing and dancing about how the racist Russian stereotypes should “join the police, [they] love violence.” Good fucking times.

On top of that, there’s an even weirder moment when the just-deflowered-by-Colin-Farrell-on-her-16th-birthday heroine proclaims angstily that “it’s a child, not a choice!” when looking at some sort of orphan. WTF? Was that a joke, or is Terry Gilliam sincerely a member of the pro-life movement? Neither option is particularly appealing, frankly.

What this all boils down to is that the film falls epically flat for a number of reasons. One, Gilliam spectacularly failed to make me care about any of the characters, thus why would I be invested in the deal-with-the-devil, the sacrifice of the shrill daughter, the romantic outcome? Two, the entire allegory of “a lovely man with such wonderful visions is tragically ignored by the masses because they just don’t appreciate what he has to offer” made my teeth hurt because Gilliam deserves pretty much every single piece of negative criticism he’s received regarding this film and much of everything else he’s done (my intelligence is still kind of hurt after the insults Gilliam hurled at it during The Brothers Grimm). And, given his uneven track record, he also kind of deserves to have studio executives be wary of giving him millions of dollars to make movies like, oh, say, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS because he has shown himself to be completely willing to blow fat wads of cash doing things like hiring Robin Williams to ruin The Adventures of Baron Munchasusen which was otherwise a perfectly lovely little confection of a film as far as I recall.

I really think Gilliam needs to wake up to the fact that racist stereotypes aren’t as amusing as I imagine they were felt to be during the Monty Python years, along with but not exclusively: shrill portrayals of women, cross dressing, slapstick, Robin Williams, people with lisps, people with limps.

I also think Gilliam needs to wake up to the fact that he is completely brilliant when it comes to set design, to spectacular visuals, baroque costumes and sight gags and lavish whimsical concoctions of sparkling, ethereal beauty. Doctor Parnassus had these, but it also had no plot, wooden characters, and a host of other problems. It hurt, because I was rooting for him. I wanted to like it, and I want Gilliam to do better than this because I know he can.

Maybe.

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