Charles Boyer, gaslighting and elements of the Gothic

Today is Charles Boyer’s birthday. Or would be, had he lived to be 113. And who, you ask, is Charles Boyer? Movie buffs, go get a snack. You already know.

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Charles Boyer was born on August 28, 1899, in Figeac, France, and died on August 26, 1978.  He met his wife, English actress Pat Patterson, at a Hollywood party, they were engaged two weeks later and went on to have a forty-year marriage. He died two days after her death from an overdose of Seconal. His son also died of suicide, some fourteen years earlier.

During his long career as an actor, he worked opposite some of the most glamorous of screen goddesses: Ingrid Bergman, Hedy Lamarr, Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine, and Katherine Hepburn. Early in his career he was typecast as the “mysterious French romancer” and in most of his films he is playing some version of that character.

In the 1938 film Algiers, for instance, he plays notorious thief Pepe le Moko who has retreated Algiers (on the northern coast of Africa) after a spectacular jewel heist. He is holed up in the Casbah, living like a king and protected by the locals, when he meets and falls for Gaby, a French tourist.

The movie Algiers went on to inspire two other pinnacles of Western civilization: Pepe le Pew and the movie Casablanca.

In 1945, Looney Tunes cartoonist Chuck Jones based his new character on Boyer’s mannerisms and accents as Pepe le Moko  in Algiers. And Pepe le Pew was born. The amorous skunk frequently employs the pickup line “Come with me to the Cazbah,” and, although that line never appears in the movie (much like “Play it again, Sam,” frequently attributed though never appearing in Casablanca) the phrase was used on movie posters and is known to refer to that film.

Algiers was the first introduction to the romanticized version of Algeria for most English-speaking audiences. The movie was so popular that it served as the inspiration for the much more well-known 1942 cinematic venture to the area: Casablanca. Interesting tidbit: the character Ilsa Lund, that would eventually be played—quite perfectly, in my humble opinion—by Ingrid Bergman, was actually written for Hedy Lamarr. She also, coincidentally, turned down the role of Paula Alquist in the 1944 film Gaslight.

In Love Affair (1939) he played Michel, another French playboy. Cary Grant would later take that role  An Affair to Remember (1957). So in 1994, when that film was (regrettably) remade with Warren Beatty and Annette Benning, the name choice didn’t so much distance the remake from the previous version as return to the original.

In both of these films (and countless others, seriously, dude was prolific) he plays a basically moral guy, regrettable choices like burglary aside. But in Gaslight he upended the conventional “mysterious foreign romancer” that he so frequently played and it becomes ever so much more interesting.

My very favorite of Charles Boyer’s films is Gaslight (1944). I wrote (rather comprehensively) about the movie plot last October in my Favorite Halloween Movies series of blog posts, so rather than repeating myself (read the long version here) I’m going to quickly summarize and move on.

Beware! These be spoiler-infested waters…

Paula Alquist is being driven mad by her husband, who married her for her real estate. Many years ago, he murdered her aunt, Alice Alquist, for her jewels, but was unable to find the stash before the police arrived. So every night, Gregory retreats to the attic, unbeknownst to Paula, to search for the loot. And when he turns on the attic lights, the lights in the rest of the house get more dim. (Gas lights: a set amount of gas comes through the pipes, when one is turned on, it will be at one level of brightness, another turned on will divide that set amount of gas and make each light somewhat more dim than one alone would be.) She notices this phenomenon every night, but can never find outside validation for her perceptions. And since Gregory has systematically been convincing her that her perceptions of reality are invalid (he moves things, accuses her of losing things, recounts conversations they never had, makes up a tale about her mother in an asylum), she begins to believe that she is mad.

The term gaslighting is used in pop culture (and a bit in pop psychology) for when person A (usually male) convinces person B (usually female) that their perceptions are incorrect so that the actions of person A remain hidden. And since I began studying women and madness, the psychological abuse is main thing I’ve seen in the movie.  But in thinking again about the film, I realized that it’s pretty much a perfect example of the Gothic genre.

  1. imgresBig, creepy house? Check. After marrying in France, Gregory convinces Paula to return to the London townhouse in which Alice was murdered. And while a London townhouse doesn’t seem quite in the same realm as, say, The Castle of Otranto, in boarding up the attic (where Alice’s stuff was kept, effectively repressing all memory of the trauma and just asking for later trouble) Gregory obfuscates the basically straightforward floor plan. Also, one could argue, if one were arguing, that the boarding up of the attic is somehow symbolically linked to his attempt to make Paula believe that she is mad—the space of the attic is literally at the top of the house, as the mind is located at the top of the human body. Gregory categorizes both as in/valid space.
  2. Ancestral drama? Check. Gregory strangles Alice. And every time Gregory kisses Paula,  he circles her throat with his hands, reminding the viewer of that earlier moment of violence enacted upon her aunt.
  3. Inexplicable events, often later proven natural phenomenon. Check. Paula sees the lights go down, Paula knows she didn’t move that damn painting, but somehow, the lights are going down and the painting has been moved. Paula doesn’t spend very long wondering about these events, as Gregory has done such a good job of making her doubt herself.
  4. gaslight-photo2_625pxA damsel in distress? Check and double check. First, Paula is basically without protector. (The assumption is that she needs a protector. Blargh.) As she is alone in the world, doubly orphaned by the deaths of her parents and then her aunt, the suave accompanist she meets abroad has no trouble sweeping her off of her feet. A protector, presumably, would have checked his references, found out who his people were and, you know, maybe found out about that wife living in Prague. Gregory specifically hires the staff (a deaf cook and an insolent maid with a crush on him) to further distance her from any support system. He gives orders that neighbors are not to be admitted. He finds a way of preventing Paula from keeping appointments. He sends regrets for all invitations they receive. And all this time, he’s work work working on her mind, telling her she’s mad, convincing her of things that are not true. Bastard.
  5. gaslight-photo1_625pxPsychological tension. Mother of god, check. I think this is one of Ingrid Bergman’s best movies, merely because she shows the tension, the self-doubt, so freaking well. Everything is threatening, the servants are colluding, she thinks she trusts her husband, but sometimes there’s this look in his eye….   Also, Gregory is quite, quite mad. Maybe. It’s suggested that he has some sort of jewel mania, and he gets all buggy-eye entranced when they visit a collection of royal jewels, but mostly he’s just a manipulative sadist. (This movie evokes an emotional response. Can you tell?)
  6. MV5BMTI5NzA2OTE1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDgxOTM1Mw%40%40._V1._SX382_SY500_Focus on boundaries? Check. After their marriage, they move back to London. In traditional Gothic literature, this move from the unknown (they honeymoon at an undefined remote location) to the known would have signaled a retreat from horror. But in traditional Gothic, horror is externalized—danger comes from outside, from something Other. The move to London actually signals a move to female Gothic, in which horror is internalized. This touches on the first point I mentioned, that of the threatening location, but is more specific to the house itself. The inside and outside of the townhouse are drastically different locations: the act of crossing (transgressing) that boundary is first accepted then, as Gregory’s power over Paula becomes more entrenched, becomes a more and more rare—and difficult—occurrence. In one particularly telling scene, Paula has decided to go for a walk. Gregory is gone, but the maid he hired (a woman working for the patriarchy—there’s a term for that…) stands in as the guardian at the gate and asks questions about her purposes until the already-fragile Paula gives up and goes back in. In another scene, Paula has successfully insisted on attending an event held by a friend of her aunt. Paula has a very noisy breakdown after a whispered accusation from Gregory. Once they get home, Gregory berates her for the occurrence:   Gregory: I’ve tried so hard to keep it within these walls – in my own house. Now, because you would go out tonight, the whole of London knows it. If I could only get inside that brain of yours and understand what makes you do these crazy, twisted things. Gregory emphasizes the boundary between inner and outer space and suggests that the interior is shameful, hidden; outside, we must keep up appearances.

Anyway (sorry, I got caught up) Gregory is played in all of his malicious glory, by Charles Boyer, whose birthday it is today.

So happy birthday, Charles!

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Movie Night: Jamaica Inn (1939)

Daphne du Maurier’s fourth novel, Jamaica Inn, was published in 1936. It was hugely successful; just three years later, Alfred Hitchcock directed an adaptation of the novel, starring Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara and Robert Newton.

The movie bears little resemblance to the book. (Du Maurier reportedly hated it so much that she almost didn’t let Hitch direct Rebecca. Glad she relented!)

The setting is the same: a lonely inn set in Cornwall; Mary Yellan still travels to live there with Patience and Joss Merlyn; Joss’s band of men are still engaged in the criminal activities of the novel; Joss is still working for an unidentified local man.

And that’s where the similarity ends. In the book, either Jem Merlyn or Friar Francis Davey could be directing Joss’s activities. Mary’s inability to tell who is good and who is bad (and indeed, the fact that no one is wholly good or wholly bad) provides the novel’s suspense. The movie eliminates both of those characters (Jem and Friar Davey) and instead turns Jem Merlyn into Jem Trehearne, and Friar Davey into Sir Humphrey Pengallon.

Jem Trehearne, played by Robert Newton, is an officer of the crown who has been sent to infiltrate Joss’s group and find out who Joss is working for. Mary meets him while posing as a criminal, but he’s obviously thoroughly honorable—as his familial connection to Joss Merlyn has been dissolved so has any mention of previous criminal activity.

Friar Davey is gone too, replaced by Sir Humphrey Pengallon, played by Charles Laughton. Pengallon is a local squire, the most respected man in the area. He is also quite mad.

So, since it eliminated nearly all of the good stuff in the book, why am I talking about this movie?

Oh. my. god. Instead of indiscriminate menace of the book, the danger is localized. If you are female, you are in danger—and a specifically sexual danger.

Aunt Patience’s screwed up relationship with Joss is actually in the book, it’s just heightened a bit.

Mary, though, is way more vulnerable than she is in the book. She’s overtly objectified from her entrance: Squire Pengallon is discussing the owning of beautiful objects. She enters, he tells her to take off her cloak, to turn so he can see her figure, and starts quoting Byron (“walks in beauty like the night”), and then starts directing her life from behind the scenes. 

There’s a specifically sexual threat from Joss—she arrives at the inn, and he demands a kiss before she is allowed inside; the other men comment admiringly on her and he tells them to stay away from her because he “is looking that way himself.”

The primary threat, though, is from Squire Pengallon. When Mary rejects his advances, she is gagged and tied and taken anyway.

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It’s not just the control issue—but she’s controlled in such an eroticized way. She’s screaming, then she has the handkerchief in her mouth, the light shining off her tears, hands tied behind her back, cape hiding it all.

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Mary in the book has to decide who to trust—while her choices are not abundant, she decides, she chooses the next step in her life. Mary in the movie isn’t an actor, she is repeatedly acted upon. She’s tied up and shuffled from one place to another. She’s essentially a prop, an object that is stolen and then lucky enough to be recovered.

This is perhaps not the most well-known Hitchcock/du Maurier connection (stay tuned for Rebecca and The Birds) but, in my humble opinion, it is so very interesting because of the drastic differences between the source and the adaptation.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams

When I brought 84 Charing Cross Road to the librarian’s desk, she picked it up, kind of stroked the cover and exclaimed that she absolutely loved the movie. She then looked me dead in the eye and said “if you like books, you must like this movie.” (I was a little intimidated. I mean, I know I like books… but what if–dear god– I don’t like the movie. My entire self-identity was called into question!) Luckily, the movie is rather wonderful … so all is well. 
Anne Bancroft is Helene Hanff, a writer in search of obscure books that are unavailable in her price range in New York City. Anthony Hopkins is Frank Doel, an antiquitarian bookseller (whose shop is located at the titular address in London) to whom she applies for the books she requires. A decades-long friendship develops between Hanff and Doel… conversations about books and poetry and history and politics ensue, all through the lovely medium of letters and parcels through the post. Anne Bancroft/Helene Hanff says she was told that tourists always find what they are looking for when they go to England: she wants to find the England of English literature–to sit where Elizabeth sat when she refused to enter the tower, to see where John Donne preached….  When I finally get to go to England, I want to wander around musty old bookshops like the one found at 84 Charing Cross Road. 

Helene drinks and smokes constantly and elegantly, is passionate about John Donne and rants about incomplete editions and shoddy translations. Had Jennifer Cavilleri lived longer (and a few decades earlier), she would have been Helene. My kind of woman.
Although it’s not the sob-fest that Love Story is, 84 Charing Cross Road is quite the melancholy story–Helene keeps planning to visit London and her friends at the bookstore, but things keep happening to keep her from traveling. Jennifer Cavilleri taught me E.B. Browning 22: When our two souls stand up erect and strong…, and Helene introduced me to Yeats’s “He wishes for the cloths of heaven”

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Just as the Browning seems such an apt inclusion in Love Story (the perfection of earthly love, the love of soul for soul), the Yeats selection seems a precise capstone to 84 Charing Cross Road. Both Hanff and Doel live in their minds, in worlds of literature, in their dreams… both of long-dead authors and of each other.

But I, being poor, have only my dreams.

How beautiful is that?

Wouldn’t it be lovely: Ireland

P.S. I Love You

Earlier today, I watched The Bounty Hunter. As I was considering whether or not I actually liked the movie, I looked up Gerard Butler’s IMBD listing, and, of course, wanted to re-watch every one of his movies. Mostly, I was dying to watch P.S. I Love You, which I haven’t watched in more than six months. (I so love that movie.)

Instead, I dutifully edited a paper that I have to turn in tomorrow, and kinda-sorta prepped for tomorrow’s exam (Modern Brit Lit).  I think I’ll be alright, the test is comprised of essay questions, and I’m a fairly good BS-er.

So I watched P.S. I Love You while writing notecards. Which brings us to tonight’s armchair-travel destination: Ireland.

Allihies, County Cork
Baltimore, Ireland (who knew there was a Baltimore in Ireland? Well, the Irish. Obviously.)
Just north of Dublin, Ireland
Bingley, Ireland
Clifden Castle, County Galway

Wouldn’t it be lovely? I know it isn’t feasible at the moment, but someday I’ll certainly go.

On a completely different note: the author of P. S. I Love You, Cecelia Ahern, finished the novel when she was 21. Do facts like that make you want to curl up and die, or is it just me?  I can’t even imagine… and maybe that’s my problem.

(Rotten Tomatoes hates this one too: 23% fresh from the critics, 82% fresh from the audience.)

P.S. I Love You: breakin’ it down

  • Gender stuff:
    It’s hard for me to judge on this, because the movie is about working through couple relationships, so it foregrounds the ins-and-outs and day-to-day. If that makes sense. Not to sound all gushy, but the relationship foundation seems to be affection, not control. So maybe it’s a fairy tale (maybe I’m a little cynical) but I’m not sure if there is anything to criticize here. (There is always something to criticize. I know. But nothing seems all that horrid.)
  • LGBTQ stuff:
    Well, “alternative lifestyles” are at least  in the movie, which is an improvement over The Bounty Hunter. Holly and her friends go to a gay bar on her first excursion after Gerry’s death, where a bunch of middle-aged men commiserate with Holly on her loss; AIDS isn’t mentioned, but it’s easy to figure out why these New Yorkers had all lost loved ones within the last 15 years. (I always get Rent songs in my head when watching this. And that shows you just how dated my cultural references are.) On the other hand, all of the major characters are hetero, and the gay bar is kind of an excursion into an alternative “party world,” a space diametrically opposed to the “real world.” Which is possibly problematic, depending on how you opine queer assimilation.
  • Race stuff:
    Wow, this movie is monochromatic. Gerry is Irish, Holly is Irish-American, her friends are all a whiter shade of pale. I can’t think of a character in the movie that isn’t as pale as skim milk.

Such a great movie. And I’ve seen (and love) all of the b&w movies that she watches while mourning, which makes me feel super cool (Angel Face, and Jezebel, and A Star is Born… and some others, I’m sure. The “I’ll make him survive!” is Jezebel; the great shoes are from Now, Voyager, the birthday solo is from A Star is Born.) And she wears such great hats. Like, constantly. And coats. And boots. And shoes. And lordy lordy, I want that apartment. I love the painted dressers and the distressed brick and the candles. So gorgeous. The ghost doesn’t hurt any, either.

Long story short: (A) I wish I could go to Ireland, if for no other reason than to avoid my quickly approaching final. (B) I love love LOVE this movie. Just in case you didn’t pick up on that before. (C) I’m exhausted, and so, my friends, good night.

In the Absence of Finals-Panic, The Bounty Hunter

Today is the beginning of finals week. I should be frantically guzzling coffee at my kitchen table with piles of books open, classical music playing softly in the background, in full scale panic-focus mode. But I’m not.

Coffee? check. And that’s about all. I’m currently curled up in my living-room armchair, knitting and watching my latest Netflix arrival, The Bounty Hunter. Truth be told, I’m having a bit of trouble accessing the utter horror at my to-do list that is needed for motivation. In fact, I can’t seem to get it together enough to give a crap. Doesn’t bode well.

Anyway, impending doom notwithstanding–about The Bounty Hunter .

The Bounty Hunter

The critics on Rotten Tomatoes hated it; they gave it an 8% fresh rating. Most of the other critics either ignored it or panned it, and I understand their view. It’s not brilliant or deep or insightful or anything of those things that make “important movies.” Of course, I’ve been bored stiff by more “important movies” than I can count, so I try not to place too much credence in the “official word” on a movie. (42% of the audience on Rotten Tomatoes liked the movie… which is still less than half, but not such an abysmal rating. I wonder if the purpose of a movie critic is to reflect the audience, or to guide the audience. This suddenly is sounding rather political. To presume to guide an audience seems rather elitist, to merely reflect seems rather unimaginative. I dunno.)

Anyone have an opinion? What is the purpose of a movie critic?

Anyway, I liked the movie.

Of course, I’m partial to both of the main actors:  Gerard Butler (P.S. I Love You! 300! The Phantom! Did you know he was in Dracula 2000? Did anybody besides my sister and me even see that movie? multiple times? Even the truly insulting The Ugly Truth didn’t completely ruin him for me. Might have pushed Katherine Heigl over the edge, though. God, that was an awful movie- can we throw one more stereotype at the screen and make it stick? Ugh. Pissed me way the hell off.  But, as is well documented, I digress.) and Jennifer Aniston (mainly because of Friends; I re-watch the entire series at least once a year. Is that sad? I don’t care. Love it. It is total comfort food, and even though I can see the flaws, I still laugh at every joke. I’m rooting for her and her career, even if it’s totally ridiculous that I care.)

The premise of the movie is a little “meet-cute,” but no worse than any other rom-com. He’s a down-on-his-luck, barely-making-ends-meet ex-cop, working as a bounty hunter. She is a fast-walking, high-stress journalist, at the top of her game and good at it. She gets preoccupied with an investigation and misses a minor court hearing, a bench warrant is served, he gets the gig.

Ok, it’s pretty predictable, even if I’ve never seen this done before. Some critics likened it to a subpar Midnight Run, which I’ve not yet seen. (I thought Midnight Run was about a train in Turkey– some sort of smuggled-persons escape flick. No idea what I was thinking of.)

I liked the movie, as I said, for the actors and the cutesy story.

What I thought was interesting about the movie–what I’d write about if I needed an academic paper on a commercial movie– was the outsider-consciousness spaces that it featured– racetracks, casinos, strip clubs, tattoo parlors, bail offices, nightclubs, a jail cell– the gritty underbelly, as it were, of life.

Breakdown:

  • Gender stuff: I think it passes.
    All of the women in the movie are pretty powerful in their own right.
    Aniston’s character is unapologetically successful, and likely makes more than Butler’s character does. (That doesn’t seem terribly important to me, but it’s been a focus of many recent articles –“the END of MASCULINITY! brought about by these durn high-earning women! who have to hide their intelligence/earnings to find LOVE! or what passes for love!” God. This NY Times article deals with that “phenomenon.” Frankly, it made me a little nauseous, though I’m not precisely sure why. I think the author was making an effort to be equitable, to show both sides of the story, but the end result seemed to be ‘remake yourself, or at least the impression you give, to find a husband.’ I’m a bit confused why women are always supposed to be malleable. No, I’m not confused. I’m just pissed. )
    Aniston’s character’s mother, played by Christine Baranski, is a singer in a night club and quite unabashed about speaking of sexual matters. Never gets very bawdy, but one imagines that with a few more cocktails (which she sips continually) she might just get there.
    Even one of the two head honchos in the criminal arena is a woman. 

    Women are in power all over the place. There are no tired conversations about what someone has been able to accomplish in spite of being a woman. Which is good, being a woman (as the ad said) is not a disability.
    The conversation that I’m counting to make the Bechdel test classification: Aniston talks to her mother about a suicide that she’s investigating. (“Which side of a building would you jump off of, the one with trees or the one without?”) It turns to relationships pretty quickly, but there is adequate foundation for Aniston’s character having a life outside of a relationship. In fact, the problem is fitting the relationship into her life. Maybe the Bechdel test is a little outdated.

  • LGBTQ stuff: godawful
    Nothing non-heteronormative. And there is a moment of horror at trans-stuff when a snitch’s mother asks the investigating Aniston if her son is in “sex-change trouble.”
  • Race stuff: unsure
    Butler’s previous police partner, Dorian Missick, is temporarily the front runner for bad-cop. Obviously, it isn’t because of race, race isn’t foregrounded in any way in the movie, but he’s the only black guy (also problematic) in the movie, and he’s thought to be a bad guy… makes ya wonder. I can argue this one either way– is it progressive, at this point in our nation’s history of race relations, when the black guy is the bad guy? Like we are beyond the reaction to typecasting? Maybe? Or is it still problematic? 

    I have trouble wrapping my head around that–given my demographic, I have to rely on other’s info on race-stuff. It helps me to put it in context of gender stuff, which I understand a bit more. If there was a movie with only one female, and she was a ball-busting bitch, or a man-hungry whore, or any of the other stereotypes that serve to diminish a woman, would it be good for women?

    Er, no way.

God. I think this movie might just fail on multiple levels. But I still like the outsider-consciousness stuff. Soundtrack’s not bad either.

No Future: Lucy Maud Montgomery and Jack Halberstam (with a little Queen Latifah in there too)

downloadFull disclosure: I spent the evening crocheting and watching The Last Holiday. I know, you didn’t think I was such a party animal. Truthfully, although the movie is somewhat horrible, I heartily enjoy the sentiment—the “why am I waiting and what am I waiting for” sentiment, when the things you are putting off in life (travel, family, free time)  seem ever so much more important than the reasons you are postponing them (education, career).

Last weekend, I seriously considered selling my somewhat meager belongings and moving to Italy. (I was reading Frances Mayes. I’m susceptible.) I still wish I could move, and the fact that I backed down seems less a triumph of common sense over recklessness than a cowardly taking of the safe track. I need a safety net and a five year plan- I hate it, but that is, apparently, who I am.

All of that goes to establishing mindset. This is why I was watching Last Holiday, a movie I’ve seen before and judged really crappy somewhat substandard then, LL Cool J notwithstanding. In case you don’t remember (and why would you?) Queen Latifah is a hardworking employee/drone, trying to protect her future by postponing all joy: terrible job? not important, it pays. cute boy? not right now, must work. And so on and so forth. Then she gets a terminal diagnosis and moves to a fancy hotel in Europe to blow through her savings and live it up while there’s time. I feel like there are a few other movies out there with a similar plot, but can’t think of them right now.

Ok, the movie is kind of terrible. I don’t remember the rest– I think LL Cool J (the aforementioned love interest) shows up in Europe to sweep her off her feet, the diagnosis was wrong, and I guess she doesn’t regret her wasted savings. Whatever. As I said, not a great cinematic masterpiece.

And honestly, I’m not interested in it because of some abstract (whatever that is) value. but I’m fascinated by the burn down the world, grab it all freedom– the impulsivity that is officially allowed (by whom? I’m not sure…society at large? community? common sense? the last, of course, is just the internalization of the former’s judgments… they- the ever-threatening “they”-catch us coming and going) when the longevity question- the planning for tomorrow bit- is taken off the table. (I’m reminded, as I so frequently am, of Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: who would I be, what would my life look like, if I weren’t so pre-occupied with my own futurity? )

In the elimination of the idea of the future in Last Holiday– and in The Blue Castle, which is what I actually want to talk about– the protagonists are given the freedom to travel, to speak their minds, to quit crap jobs, to be—truly be—in the moment.

God, that sounds hokey, but it seems to resonate, at least with me. I live so much of my life in anticipation: when my education is done, when I get a job I like, when I… whatever, that the present seems to escape me. My mother is right (gasp!)–I’m wishing my life away.

Those are problems for another time. What I am reading, however, is a reflection of those fat bubbles of unrest that are rolling to the top of my psyche. The Blue Castle has long been my favorite of L. M. Montgomery’s books; it’s just so absolutely flat-out romantic. Its premise is actually quite a bit like Last Holiday, which is why I began with the confession of my late-night TV watching: incredibly repressed woman gets a negative heath report, and decides (poster-type quote ahead) “to live before she dies.” Queen Latifah goes to some skiing resort;Valancy Stirling meets a mountain man and asks him to marry her.

Wonderful stuff…  (plot spoilers ahead)

Valancy Stirling is a skinny, sallow spinster who lives the most depressing life imaginable with her overbearing mother, sniffling aunt, and interfering, patronizing extended family. (Think Bette Davis in Now, Voyager.) After suffering a worse-than-usual chest pain, Valancy secretly goes to a specialist, who tells her that she has a serious heart condition and will die within the year. Valancy rebels at the idea of “dying before she’s lived,” and starts speaking her mind at family gatherings, leading the elderly patriarchs of the family to murmur, aghast, while her mother has hysterics.

She eventually tells her story to the town ruffian, a “sparkly-eyed backwoods man” (direct quote) who smokes a foul smelling pipe and drives the oldest car imaginable. She then proposes to, marries, and moves in with this backwoods man, the euphoniously named Barney Snaith. After several months of the most perfect health and glorious happiness, she begins to wonder about the doctor’s diagnosis–and what that might mean to her marriage.

This has been my favorite L. M. Montgomery since I was about 16–I think I identified much too strongly with that crazy family! But I’ve always thought of this as kind of a fairytale; an uncomplicated trajectory from misery to happy ending. (I realize that all those who have studied fairy tales in any depth just gasped. Shush.) I still think the story is a little simplistic, but this time I noticed (was looking for) something else kind of nonfairytaley: Valancy saves herself. She doesn’t wait for a prince to rescue her–she leaves home, she throws off convention, she proposes to Barney, she essentially creates her own Eden–or at least her own entry into Eden. She isn’t an all round strong female character–she begins quite weak and then nobly returns home “with the grey face…of a creature that has been struck a mortal blow” when she fears that Barney will feel tricked when it looks like he will get a life of marriage instead of the originally planned year. In that, I suppose, Lucy Maud has Barney play the ever-loving hero, as of course, he comes to retrieve her. (And in such a frustrating way! These books that have the male lead tenderly swearing at the blockhead who won’t believe herself loved… the “Dear little fool!” exchanges…make me a bit tired.) But still, I do appreciate that Valancy didn’t gaze out the parlor window until Prince Charming rode up. In fact, she becomes weak again when she imagines herself to have a future. Wouldn’t it be interesting to examine someone as, dare I say it, staid as Lucy Maud in light of ideas of queer temporality? Lucy Maud, meet Jack.