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Friday, January 26, 2018

Phantom Thread: Male Wet Dream

I saw Phantom Thread last weekend, Daniel Day-Lewis's supposed last film, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. The acting is good, the sets and gowns are beautiful (Daniel Day-Lewis plays a fashion designer in 1950s France), and the music is lovely. The movie has a lyrical, genteel, rarified atmosphere, a window into a gracious world. It has just been nominated for a raft of Oscars, including best picture, best actor, best director, and best supporting actress. 

In this film, Woodcock takes up with a young waitress named Alma (Vicki Krieps). He lives with his sister, Cyril (Leslie Manville). He also makes beautiful gowns for wealthy clients. 

Note the possessive hold on her neck-- and the age difference. 

Woodcock  is so sensitive and his life so rarified that when Alma butters her toast or pours water too loudly, our designer's fragile nerves and concentration are shattered. The movie has  a comic edge (or the audience invented one), because people kept laughing at how over-the-top it all was.

She's his doll. 

As usual (when will I learn?), I was aghast at the way women and their relationships with a male were portrayed. This was another Dr Zhivago, a male wet dream, only without the pesky bother of a communist revolution to disturb Woodcock's gracious lifestyle. Woodcock is adored by the two women in his life—the masculinely named and largely desexed (despite lipstick and pearls) practical mother figure Cyril, and Woodcock’s love interest, Alma. They both live to serve him. Their world revolves around his. As in Dr. Zhivago, these adoring women get along  together… because what could be more important than uniting so as to in every way serve and service the creative genius male? Lives of their own: nyet. Who would want that? Their devotion is utter and unstinting.

Alma's brain is conveniently missing from this photo but not her breasts or her buttocks--or the male gaze.

After watching it, I read one review—in the New York Times—glowing. No questioning of, say, a 60-something marrying a 20-something. It was all “love.” No mention of emotional abuse or Stockholm syndrome. No questioning of the state of mind of the young woman who would stay with this fussy, tantruming, emotionally abusive older man. All that misbehavior, I imagine, is supposed to be amusing and endearing--or the trials of the misunderstood artist. The review praises Alma for standing up to Woodhouse and forcing him toward change. Well, not really. She only stands up to him in minor ways against his whims within the context of a life that is utterly conformed to his own and utterly about servicing him. She goes to a party on New Year's Eve without him! Horrors! Her biggest, most audacious act of rebellion, which I won’t give away, is meant to purify him, to allow her to take care of him so he can be strong again. In other words, it is all about him. Him, him, him, him.

A.O. Scott, the male New York Times critic never questions this or even seems to notice. I wonder if other critics do? He goes far as to pose the question, non-ironically: "Is Alma a feminist heroine?" The short answer: No. And No. A base requirement for being a feminist heroine is having a life and identity separate from a male. Perhaps that bears repeating: A base requirement for being a feminist heroine is having a life and identity separate from a male.

Scott describes the movie as a "wrenching tale of woman's love for a man and a man's love for his work."  This is the definition of an anti-feminist film in a nutshell: Men work. Women adore the men who work. However, when Scott likens it to "refined Gothic nightmare in the manner of Henry James," he strikes closer to the truth, though I am sure he does not know of what he speaketh: James, to put it mildly, was no lover of women. As Jane Austen's  Emma would say, Good God!

One might argue that Anderson is merely reflecting the mores of the 1950s, but that would be false. Outside of the window dressing of clothing (not even fashion), this film has nothing to do with the historical reality of the 1950s. You wouldn't know, for example, that France was still reeling from the aftermath of World War II. This is an entirely mythic universe, divorced from real history. 

Since the movie has been highly praised (it has a 90% favorable rating from critics) and is now nominated for many important Oscars, it may be important to stand up and ask what exactly is being portrayed here and to announce as loudly as possible that, despite some feeble challenges from Alma, this is not a feminist film but one likely to carry forward damaging stereotypes about women. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

A New Year: 2018, A blog of books, creativity and cats

As we all know, we live in what are called "interesting times." My friend Ellen Moody has blogged aptly on them at and naturally, they frame our thoughts as well as what we might be able to accomplish as the year unfolds.

Nevertheless, I will blog on the light, bright, and sparkling as we enter a New Year: on books, creativity, and cats.

Nancy on the Trollope list recommended an out-of-print Christmas book I had never heard of, published in 1928, called "The Goldfish Under the Pond," by Christopher Morley, a prolific and once well-known author. Thanks to the internet, I was able to buy a copy easily and inexpensively. It duly arrived, and I most enjoyed this original and humane children's book.

The story is told from the point-of-view of a compassionate dog named Frisky who wants to warm up a goldfish he thinks is freezing under the ice of a pond on Christmas Eve

A page from the book showing illustrations and some social history--apparently, in 1928, children were already wearing bunny slippers, a perennial favorite. The book reads as very old-fashioned, even though written in the 1920s: two maids even come down from the attic to witness the mayhem Frisky has caused. 

I am also reading Virginia Woolf's only book-length biography, of her friend the artist (and Quaker born) Roger Fry, and Jonathan Franzen's Purity. 
A relaxed Roger Fry in a Bloomsbury home.

Roger Fry's "Barns and pond, Charleston." Charleston was the home of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister and Fry's lover.

Naturally, the year couldn't go by without a full immersion Jane Austen. Amid much scholarly reading for a paper published in Rhizomes--and, of course, the novels themselves--I was thoughtfully gifted with a Christmas volume, The Prayers of Jane Austen, and, earlier in the year, had a chance to read a book of delightful Maggie Lane essays called On the Sofa with Jane Austen.

The prayer book brings up questions, because I can't believe Austen wrote any of these three prayers, and, as I understand, scholars rightly question the attribution, something the book fails to address. These wooden prayers have not one micron of her wit--and Austen was at her wittiest when dealing with moral issues. Also, the lavish illustrations don't connect in a direct way with the novels--for example, the one below doesn't  depict any scene I can remember:

In contrast, I can highly recommend Lane's solid book of essays on the details of Regency life--any hardcore reader will instantly identify the scene pictured below in the book:

On the Sofa with Jane Austen: a book you can have faith in.

Perhaps channeling Austen, creativity was much on my mind as I entered the Christmas/holiday season, and after much thought, I asked for watercolors. Those, too, duly arrived, thanks to the ever wonderful Roger. I have enjoyed my one foray into getting to know my colors and brushes and am hoping I have time for this hobby. Books, naturally, drove me over the line as I wavered between desire and despair that I would ever have time to do this. I found myself wanted to paint scenes from my favorite books--and that tipped the scales. The question will become, as the busy-ness heats up, will I find time? And why are we Westerners so obsessed with this issue?

A full array of brushes and paints.

And even an easel. Perhaps I can set up by the lake when the weather is good.

As serendipity would have it, my 96 year old mother-in-law has also been painting in watercolors and one of hers won an award and earned a newspaper article. What encourages me to think she is happy in her assisted living home is that this painting and another she had framed, a whimsical, lopsided, smiling jack-o-lantern, both look happy.

My mother-in-law's award-winning landscape. Not bad for age 96!

On New Year's Eve, we decided to eschew the champagne and the ball dropping watched on a computer screen. We drank a glass of chardonnay and timed the New Year for ourselves after watching a quirky film called Colossal. These were small gestures against convention, but they felt like a creative start to what I hope will be a creative new year for all of us.

Like elsewhere, it has been very very cold, and snow covers our yard.  Seasonal, but ... brrr. We are glad to have Nick with us, glad Sophie is in the relatively warm Austin, and we hope Will is surviving in the arctic temperatures in Vermont with his girlfriend, Liv.

We can't start the New Year without mentioning Andre, our elderly cat, who has bounced back from a period of not feeling well at all.

He's old, but the baby in him never dies.

 Happy New Year to all. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

Dreams of Christmas

Ellen in a recent blog ( likened Christmas to a dream, and I believe that gets at the heart of what Christmas is: a dreamscape.

Christmas, as we know, has long become a domestic holiday. We spend it inside our homes. Whether it has snowed or if your area of the country never sees snow, a hush falls over the world as for one day most businesses close and commerce stills. We have, for a moment, the time to stop, reflect, and dream. 

In The Poetics of Space, Bachelard connects the dream to the house:
the house shelters day­ dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. Thought and experience are not the only things that sanction human values. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity in its depths.

Christmas dreams of a better world, at least in the wisps and fragments of reverie. 

The consumerism at the heart of the modern Christmas is distorted, but it is the distortion of a dream--the dream of what the world could be if people acted with the material generosity to each other all the time.

Christmas may accentuate social isolation and family dysfunction, but central to it is a dream of community and family in shalom order and the home as haven. I did appreciate this Christmas card from friend Sherri Morgan:

Yet Christmas speaks as well to something deeper.

I find myself drawn this year to stories that are not Christmas stories but seem like Christmas stories to me because they touch deeply on the Christmas dream. This year I have been revisiting Peter Pan, a story that opens with domestic whimsy and humor  about the intrusion of the dreams of childhood into the intensely  domestic space of the Edwardian London townhouse. Peter Pan is openly the symbol of  imagination, imagination unfettered by rational adult constraints. This seems at the heart of Christmas.

I reread too part of The Sign of the Twisted Candles, a Nancy Drew mystery, but intensely a domestic drama of  interiors and a dream of righting the wrong in a domestic space that has been invaded by evil. Protecting the innocent and vulnerable, the very elderly and the young, is at the heart of this children's mystery and the Christmas dream.

At Christmas, we decorate the prosaic pine tree. We make the ordinary beautiful.

I came across this in the New York Times, and it has helped guide my days recently and bring a touch of joy centrally to them:

Each morning I write the words “I Will Feel Great About Today If I …” on a notepad. This is NOT a “to do” list. It is purely about creating the “reward” you describe: feeling great.
George Eliot puts this a different way: “The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice.”

It helps me to think of Christmas as a dream and a choice. The dream imagines a world of peace and goodwill, of gift-giving, community, healing, harmony and generosity. This is both a secular and a Christian dream, the dream of all tears being wiped away. If it is not here, we can start to dream it into being. We also have the political choice: we could, if we wanted, make a better world much more of a reality than it is right now.