Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

MrsDarwin at the Movies: Star Wars and Little Women

We kept meaning to write a review of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, but the more reviews I read of it, the more I realized I'd completely forgotten about The Last Jedi. Total plot threads, simply deleted from my memory. I also realized: I just don't feel strongly enough about The Rise of Skywalker to have much interesting to contribute to the discussion. At this point I am so little invested in the world-building of Star Wars that whatever bizarro givens the Powers That Be want to toss out for why the Bad Guys Do What They Do just wash over me. Even the mega trade wars of the prequels made more sense than the strange rise of the First Order and collapse of the Revolution. (In no way do I mean to apply the word "sense" to the prequel scripts, though -- I remember blinking during the second prequel, what was it, Attack of the Clones?, and wondering what on earth was going on in the current scene and why I couldn't remember anything that had previously happened in the movie.)

Anyway, enough about the prequels, from anyone, ever again.

There were only two major plot threads in TROS I cared about, and I've blocked most else from my memory. One of them, the resolution of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo was exactly what I felt it ought to be, from a dramatic and tragic perspective. I was completely satisfied there. The second, the resolution of Rey and Finn, was not what it should have been, and was underwritten and underserved. I award no points to the screenwriters and director, and may God have mercy on their souls.

Just about everything else, you understand, I've already forgotten. Someone mentioned Chewie's medal, and I was like, "What?" Someone mentioned Lando, and I'd forgotten he was in it, for the very reason that his role was completely forgettable. Someone talked about Leia training Rey, and I thought, "Was THAT what was going on?", but I don't think you can blame me there, because the entire movie was so rushed and bits were crammed in piecemeal here and there.

Just kidding, there's one other thing I do remember: Poe's conversation with the girl in the mask, and then she lets him see her eyes, and he asks if he can kiss her when he's escaping, and even at the end when she smacks him down the viewer is satisfied because there is some chemistry going on.

...Which is largely what the movie lacked everywhere else, except between Kylo/Ben and Rey because Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are spectacular actors, and John Boyega should sue for having the character with the best set-up and the least payoff. 

And that's enough about Star Wars, from anyone, ever again.


Today we went to see Little Women, and while we were there some crazy driver did a hit and run and sideswiped our massive van, sitting innocently in the middle of a long line of cars parallel parked on the street. The van is huge and it is steel. We're dented, but we're indestructible, and taking a swipe at us is going to hurt you a lot more than it will hurt us.

Which is about how I felt about Greta Gerwig taking on Louisa May Alcott in Little Women. It was a visual treat (except for the damn flowing hair -- costumers, please, have your 19th century women pin up the tresses, please, for my sake) and shot on lush location. And it was well acted, by the women. Saoirse Ronan is a nice spicy Jo, Eliza Scanlen gives even gentle Beth a bit of character, and Florence Pugh is my current favorite actress and she went all out on Amy. (Emma Watson was the weak link in the non-American cast of sisters.) And I'm going to say right here that I cried through most of it because it's Little Women. But my tears dried up well before the ending. And I think that the way the movie jumps in time, framed by Jo's publishing ventures, is almost calculated to make sense only to people who are already quite familiar with the plot.

I say the plot, not the book, because this version of Little Women feels like it was made essentially for people who read or encountered Little Women at a pivotal point of development and intensely identified with Jo and who now consider her a proto-saint of the Smash the Patriarchy movement. The careful attention that the book pays to the development of character and to the sense of the passage of time is truncated here. Moments that are worth spending time on -- conversations about the impending death of Beth, moments when characters other than Laurie profess their love, moments when characters other than Jo get to show their mettle -- are here elided or done away with altogether, and the result is a strange melange of strong female characters and underbaked males with no character at all. 

Greta Gerwig is so bound and determined that Jo not be tied down to the horrible fate of marriage and romance that she has found it necessary to take Alcott's charming, idiosyncratic, honorable, unique Prof. Bhaer and genericize him into a cipher, a handsome fellow with an indeterminate European accent who is given few lines and less motivation. The actor does his best with the bits he's given, but what he's given is not enough. John Brooks is served worse, and along with Jo we're not quite sure what Meg sees in a fellow allowed only a few desperate lines of dialog, none of which ever flowed from Alcott's pen. Father March is a non-entity, not there even when he's there. Fortunately, Mr. Lawrence is allowed some character, and Chris Cooper is allowed the space to develop it, in a lovely performance. 

Indeed, I wonder if in the unhappy way that many movies allow only males to develop personality and interests and relegate women to the background, Little Women will stand as the beginning of a wave of women-centric movies that feature background men with no characters. And no one is richer for that.

Time is a real problem for this movie. With the exception of Florence Pugh's Amy, whose hair does the aging for her, the aging process is inexplicable. When Laurie proposes to Jo, they look no older than they did when they first met. There's no sense of how much time elapses before Meg gets married. The Civil War is an afterthought, featuring most significantly in a scene in which Marmee utters a Michelle Obama-esque sentiment about never having been proud of her country -- a sentiment that Greta Gerwig doubtless shares, which would have horrified Alcott. 

I would also like to see the historical research that goes into Jo spreading out the pages of her novel on the floor and moving them around exactly as if they were, say, screenplay scenes being arranged into the best structure.

Ah, Jo's novel. There's the rub. No Little Women production has been made stronger by having Jo write the proto-Little Women -- something that Alcott did herself in middle age, not in her early twenties. The reason for that is bound up in what's going on in the novel at that point, something that doesn't fit well into a two-hour screenplay. Jo has turned from writing after realizing (based on Prof. Bhaer's insight) that she has not been serving her talent well by churning out racy genre puff pieces. In her hiatus, she learns at the school of suffering, caring for Beth in her last days and her parents in their mourning. When she begins writing again (at her father's urging), it is small pieces, short stories, little poems -- small but honest. The very littleness of them is part of a new humility on Jo's part, a maturation that doesn't require talent to be expressed in huge bombastic displays. And it is, in fact, one of these little poems that bring Bhaer to her door -- the first piece of hers he's actually seen. The quiet longing expressed in a simple line or two gives him hope that she might want more than friendship from somebody.

And when he comes, the novel spends time to allow him to develop friendships with her family, to be of service both in practical ways and in companionship. And when Jo and Bhaer finally do profess their love, under a dripping umbrella in the pouring rain, it is in a completely unromantic, impractical, comic, honest way, absolutely in character for both of them.

A way which bears no resemblance at all to the storified, glammed-up, boring version in the movie, which is shown as being a bit of unbelievable romantic fluff that Jo has thrown into her novel for the sake of selling it to the public. The fictional Jo March is nowhere near as interesting and human a novelist as Louisa May Alcott is. And to my mind, that's detrimental to what Greta Gerwig is trying to say about women and their talents and their opportunities. The ending was a sad disappointment in my eyes -- so much lost potential wasted on message. The titles at the beginning might well have said, "Little Women, by Greta Gerwig", because it's much more her vision than Alcott's. And long after Gerwig's vision has been forgotten, people will still be reading Little Women, by Alcott.

Alcott will endure, long after being sideswiped by Gerwig.


Agnes said...

>>>I wonder if in the unhappy way that many movies allow only males to develop personality and interests and relegate women to the background, Little Women will stand as the beginning of a wave of women-centric movies that feature background men with no characters.<<<
My recent experience has been a trend of creating dominant female leads (capable of anything, playing both traditional male and female roles, especially beating males at their game) against (at best) cute but incapable, slightly ridiculous male characters. I can totally imagine Little Women being a part of this trend (It is not out yet in my country, so I haven't seen it yet)

Emily J said...

I haven't seen the new Star Wars yet, but I share some of your feelings about the new Little Women. On the one hand, the sidelining of the men didn't bother me so much, since the focus of the book is also on the sisters, and I liked Mr. Lawrence so much better. I also liked this Jo better than the Winona Ryder portrayal. The handsomeness of Mr. Bhaer didn't bother me, but I had mixed emotions about the ending where Jo seems to become Alcott rewriting Bhaer into the book. My biggest complaint was the choice of Timothee Chalamet as Laurie. Wrong guy, wrong guy. The only caveat is that he suited Amy much better.