Walk of Shame
Only two works make the Walk of Shame this year, both, sadly, for the same--and perennial--reason.
Hamilton was the greater shocker to me after all the hype about how groundbreaking and magnificent it was. No and no, no-no-no, unless the gimmick of casting Blacks as founding fathers is "groundbreaking." (I will note I saw a play about Mozart 25 years ago in which Mozart was played by a Black, so ...maybe not so groundbreaking). In fact, Hamilton is another play about the Great Man, complete with his struggle from being the son of a "whore" (HT: Rachel) to his being surrounded by a bevy of women (or two anyway) who can think of no higher honor in life than to service and extoll his greatness. They turn on him for a time when they find out he has been sleeping with a "whore"--depicted as the seductress who broke down the defenses of the Great Man--but, naturally, his "women" forgive him and resume their handmaiden roles. After all, where would we be without himpathy, a term coined by Kate Manne to describe all the extra sympathy our society pours out on the male? How could he not be forgiven? After all, men can't help themselves can they?
As I said to myself while watching it: I should have known. Of course, this is why people are falling all over themselves to praise this play: it exalts the Great Man and shows him serviced by his willing women. It depicts the women in their two traditional roles: whores and handmaidens--and that is it. What more could we want? Could there be, possibly, a straight line between plays like this and electing a Donald Trump?
I will give the following a slight break as it was written in the 1940s: Robert Heinlein's "By his Bootstraps." This is a reiterative time travel story, about a young man who repeatedly goes back in time on a loop. Not only does it's publication date many decades ago give it a break, Heinlein clearly means his protagonist to be seen as a jerk, both of which put it ahead of Hamilton. However, it is yet another incredibly tiresome iteration of male fantasy: when he crosses time, the male enters a society where he is the only male and beautiful female handmaids are waiting to service his every need. I don't think we need to rehearse how persistent this fantasy is, how much it is a fantasy, and how bad it is: as long as men subconsciously feel this is the role women should be fulfilling, they are going to be angry at women for failing to meet expectations. Literature clearly keeps replicating this meme because it is so deeply embedded in the male psyche. (It is even imbedded in Genesis.) The problem is, it is not real. This is not what women want, though they have conformed to the model to survive.
How do we start getting beyond this? A first place is to stop heaping praise on "art" that expresses this theme, from Hamilton to Phantom Thread to ... the list goes on. We have to start calling this stuff out for the false narrative that it is, as false as any "happy plantation" story. I have to say I feel for Blacks who have to fight the same racist battles over and over again.
Moving on to happier topics, while I didn't watch any memorable movies this year--I can hardly remember the new Emma or Little Women-- I did see some powerful mini-series.
|Lila and Lenu: female friendship in My Brilliant Friend, season 2.|
My Brilliant Friend, season two: Based on Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet novels, the first two seasons of this mini-series have been superb. If season two failed to catch all of the nuance of the novel--and sometimes flattened it to borderline chick lit--it still hewed extraordinarily close to the novel and was filmed with intelligence, empathy, and high production values. I greatly look forward to season three, which I am told releases in the U.S. at the end of April.
|A French Village: Everyone is complicit|
A French Village: This series about a French town occupied by the Nazis in World War II is extraordinary in the way it makes everyone complicit. A marked contrast to many earlier good and evil narratives in which pure and heroic resistance fighters take on Satanic Nazis, A French Village illustrates the painful decisions and compromises everyone--and that is everyone--makes to survive and the way a war can do permanent damage to a psyche. The series shows the impossibility in real life of placing people into black and white categories of good and evil. It is gripping, heart-breaking, and astonishing in following many of the central figures into old age, where they are faced with the myths and misconceptions of what people think the war was like. It underscores deeply Dorothy Day's repeated contention that it is vital to create societies in which it is "easier for people to be good."
|The Vow: Thoughtful people get caught in a cult|
The Vow: This documentary about the cult NXVIM and its founder Keith Raniere was especially timely in a year that the political con of Trumpism was beginning to show its weakness. The documentary makers had an extraordinary wealth of resources in that NXVIM seems to have videotaped just about everything they ever did. Further, it deliberately played on successful people, often actors, so the key figures are attractive and compelling personalities. This series challenges stereotypes that cult members are troubled teenaged runaways to show how slick con artists can manipulate the best intentions of highly functioning people.
|The Undoing: The fabulously rich are not just like you and me.|
The Undoing: What I love best about this series, without providing a spoiler, is the feminist twist. Beyond that, this mini-series is sleek, well produced, shows some of the pathology of the very wealthy, and features excellent actors and a suspenseful story with surprises along the way.
The Crown: This highly flawed season is nevertheless notable for some hitting some high points as it introduces the dramatic and doomed marriage of Charles and Diana.
Hannah Gadsby's Nanette: This stand-up comedy show is extraordinary in its honesty, humanity, and boundary breaking--and is a beautiful send-up of Picasso's misogyny. It was one of the best shows I have ever seen. I can't recommend it too strongly--and urge people to give it time to unfold.
As an aside, two seemingly inane comedy series show a trend from cruel to humane and thoughtful humor: Schitt's Creek and The Good Place.
A prize reread was the book Rockwell Kent edited in 1939 called World Famous Paintings. This is a book of 100 art plates that my brother and I spent a good deal of time poring over as children in the boring days before the internet. I was delighted to find it, buy a copy, and revisit beloved old art. Needless to say, this book does not reflect modern multicultural inclusivity about art, but it does have Kent's humane and progressive voice to animate it. He is quick to point out that he did not choose the paintings he was tapped to write about, but he writes about even those he doesn't like with intelligence and wit. It was such a treat to reconnect with this book. As chance would have it, my friend Jane lives in Maine near Kent's former home on Monhegan island--his museum/house is closed during the pandemic, but I look forward to visiting it when it reopens and look forward next year to finding a bio of him.
As always, I reread Jane Austen this past year. I was "in" all the novels multiple times, but most particularly focused on Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion. I reread a few old Agatha Christies too, largely because I keep circling around a connection between Austen and Christie. I bought a copy of Katherine by Anya Seton, a historical novel I read at 12, and which helped start my fascination with English history. However, I just haven't been able to bring myself to reread it, despite its reputation for historical accuracy. I also have wanted to revisit Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night, a book that reads more as a rough draft than a finished novel, but worth a second read. In addition, I'd like to delve back into Tokarczuk's Flights, but haven't yet done it. Rereads, I find, are difficult, as life sweeps along so rapidly.
For whatever reason, I read more genre literature--science fiction, mystery, even a horror novle--than I usually do, possibly because of the pandemic. I read two Elizabeth George mysteries for the first time, and reread several Agatha Christies, as well as E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case, beloved of both Dorothy Sayers and Virgina Woolf. I read two science fiction novels, both nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award and was very disappointed--surely there is better speculative fiction out there that isn't making it up the ladder? A young man who grew up in Barnesville, John Wood, whose father I know, published the excellent Lady Chevy, a horror novel. This pushed me out of my normal boundaries into a genre that meets the dysfunction of our times face to face.
The most notable genre reading I did was Agatha Christie's Curtains, about the death of detective Hercule Poirot, a humane mystery based on Othello. What fascinates me about Christie is her concern with the people who do terrible things but in ways the legal system isn't designed to capture.
I was also delighted to read Pierre Bayard's Who Killed Roger Ackroyd and Sherlock Holmes was Wrong, recommended by Constance. Bayard, a French literary theorist, proposes a different killer for the Christie classic, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in the first book, and a different killer for Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles. If the Holmes book is more convincing, both are fascinating alternative interpretations that show how writers may hide truths from themselves (though I wouldn't put it past Christie to set up an alternative ending and leave it for the reader to figure out.)
As I reread several Christies this past year, including And then there were None, I was fascinated to pick up every more hints that Jane Austen was a central influence on her, reminding me of a quote from Elizabeth Sandifer's Basilisk book:
The defeated operate from shadows and hidden places, and the legacies they leave are cryptic and secret.
Christie hardly ended her life defeated as she was one of the most successful mystery writers of all times, but the early death of her father (along with his financial carelessness) and subsequent struggles formed her-- as they did Austen, who came from the same marginal edge of the upper middle class.