Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Last year, I was engaged in a search for books featuring unmarried women who nonetheless lead lives (or, at any rate, experience some events) worth the reading.  Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie made it to my list; I checked it out of the library; annnd it was promptly ignored for months and months, as I hemmed over my bookshelf and let myself be waylaid by other considerations.

Miss Jean BrodieHaving actually cracked it a week or so ago, I found it to be a fairly quick read.  Miss Jean Brodie teaches at a girls’ school in Edinburgh, and selects for herself a set of girls to be her crème de la crème: the girls who accompany her to museums, the theater, various rough neighborhoods, and tea at various houses.  Each one becomes famous for a certain trait or ability (from mathematics to sex, apparently), and the set as a whole are more devoted to this teacher and what she teaches them than they are to the school or their respective houses.  As the official summary puts it:  Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises her girls, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

She doesn’t follow the usual curriculum nor the usual pedagogical methods, and is therefore something of a target for the criticisms of the headmistress and other staff – except for the men, who are rather taken with her.  As she never marries any of them, the story technically still fits my criteria…but I really wasn’t looking for someone who jumps in and out of unhealthy or adulterous relationships.

I also wasn’t looking for someone who declared “I am in my prime!” every page or two.  Miss Brodie’s prime is mentioned 57 times, without further digging into what one’s prime is or why it matters that she is in hers.

Whilst reading, I became convinced that both the book and I were missing something in turns.  I missed some shades of significance where British schooling, Edinburgh accents, and Scottish religious experience is concerned, while the book’s depiction of Jean Brodie misses the point by painting in generalities.

Or, at least, it seemed to miss the point.  Maybe it meant to outline a particular sort of person, leaving readers to fill in any gaps with their own experiences.  Or perhaps it was all an effort to portray a person of just such shallowness, the sort of shallowness that attempts (and sometimes manages) to appear profound.  If so, the effort is successful: I find myself quite agreeing with the character who eventually “betrayed” Miss Brodie (such that she lost her teaching post) that Jean Brodie is a bit of a fool – but folly being some distance from a fireable offense, she is sacked for being a fascist.

(This left me wondering how sensible or attractive fascism might have seemed to a woman in the 1930s. The fact that Jean Brodie admires Mussolini and Hitler is utterly foreign to me, having grown up in a post-world-war time when most everyone discusses Hitler as a means to talk about the worst person they can think of on short notice.)

On the bright side, the book does have a quite intriguing narrative setup.  It describes the girls in sixth form, jumping ahead to when this one dies, that one gets married, jumping back to when they were younger yet, returning to sixth form and the time thereafter. This arrangement makes for a good deal of dramatic irony, and illustrates something of how detached our understanding (of a character, a person, an event) can be: sometimes you learn how things turn out without having any idea how they got that way.

There are also some delightful turns of phrase, some particularly suggestive bits of description; it couldn’t very well be otherwise, given the sort of person Miss Brodie is.  One passage notes that “above all, Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together; she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides.”  Another notes her “excessive lack of guilt” and how one girl recognizes that as problematic.

“An excessive lack of guilt” might well characterize the whole book.  Both Miss Brodie and her set are unapologetically interested in Certain Things and disregard the rest. There’s a particular instance of religious conversion which must have involved a good deal of reading, thought, prayer, and various turnings of soul. It is given all of three sentences, and presented as a psychological change more than anything.

Bottom line: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a pretty good story, with somewhat lively characterization of a compelling personality.  But I’m not sure that it compels anyone in healthy ways, and as such it isn’t the story I was looking for.

Review: The Imitation Game

On Saturday, Cecilia dragged me out to see The Imitation Game: the story of Britain’s Enigma-code-cracking team in Hut 8, and, more broadly, of Alan Turing’s life. It was fairly good, as movies go, but days later, I’m left conflicted about it._TFJ0226.NEF

The good:

It’s effective, cinematically speaking. The storyline trips back and forth between Turing’s application to Bletchley Park, his schoolboy days at Sherborne School, and how a robbery at his house after the war led to him being arrested and tried for gross indecency, that is, for homosexual behavior. This braiding of events maintains the tension: will Alan get the job? Will he and his childhood friend Christopher carry on happily at Sherborne or will some disaster befall them? What will the interrogating policeman learn? Will the team indeed crack the Enigma…and, having done so, what will they do with it?

So that’s all very good, in its way. Benedict Cumberbatch, as always, presents us with a lonely eccentric academic who, despite being a bit of an arsehole, wins our sympathies. Turing’s represented as an extremely literal man who has difficulty parsing people and may be a touch autistic. This difficulty is neatly encapsulated in young Alan asking his friend Christopher at school: “How’s code-breaking different from people? No one says what they really mean.” Alex Alex LawtherLawther, who plays the young Turing, is very good at letting his eyes shine with quiet, earnest admiration of this friend. He also rather resembles the real Turing more than BTCC does – though Benedict can turn his body to admirable use, going from the fresh-faced Bletchley Park applicant to the older, more drawn fellow undergoing interrogation, to the oestrogen-injected man, stumbling feebly while still trying to work on his machine.

The rest of the cast was also fairly good, from those overseeing Bletchley to those on Turing’s mathematical code-cracking team to the policeman who, having dug into Turing’s past and interrogated him, regrets having done so. It is satisfying to see Turing triumph over Commander Denniston with Winston Churchill as his advocate; Awkwardgut-twisting to see the team keep German naval plans secret, though the brother of one of them will die within hours on account of it; intriguing to have a Soviet spy found out; and awkward as all get-out to see Turing propose to his friend Joan Clarke lest she leave Bletchley, then break off the engagement on account of his homosexuality (and, one presumes, to keep her safe).

Finally, the set was carefully constructed, both to give visual cues to Turing’s later work and to display a bit more of how his Bombe machine (not actually named “Christopher”) worked. Newsreel clips are spliced in to show footage of both the Blitz and the victory celebrations when the war is over. The film ends with Hut 8 burning their classified work, and on-screen text regarding the end of Turing’s life, British treatment of homosexuals, and the calculation that breaking Enigma shortened the war by more than 2 years, saving over 14 million lives.


The bad:

Translating a person’s life to not-quite-two-hours of screen time means a lot of oversimplification. This is understandable, and perhaps I’m simply picky, but I found it disappointing that Turing’s work was so cinemafied. All his mathematical discoveries, the philosophical implications of the question “Can machines think?,” his research in biology, is glazed over. Maybe those involved decided such things would require time they couldn’t spare, but it seems a shame to present Turing’s life without digging into what he did and what he accomplished outside the context of war.

That, and I can’t roll my eyes hard enough at the repeated line “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” Ugh.  Sometimes it’s the people who are really good at math who do the things no one can imagine, Hollywood, though I know that’s a less encouraging thesis to so many of us.
The ugly:

I’m leery about history because my own grasp of it is comparatively weak, and I’m leery about movies depicting historical events because of the cinematic tendency (necessity?) to manipulate characters and happenings in certain ways. In addition, I’m leery of unmitigated condemnation of people’s (or government’s) decisions in the past, using today’s mores.

The onscreen text over the bonfire at the end states outright that Alan killed himself in 1954, after a year of government-mandated hormonal therapy. This is actually a matter of considerable debate: he was given injections, and fourteen months later died of cyanide poisoning, but it is unclear whether he accidentally inhaled fumes from an experiment or purposely ingested it. Either way it is a tragic event and a great loss, but there is a difference between death by misadventure and death by one’s own hand.  The ever-burgeoning machine for LGBT interests may, I suppose, claim him as martyr where the estrogen injections were concerned (quite appalling enough for some); it therefore strikes me as suspicious that they couldn’t leave it at “Alan died of cyanide poisoning in suspicious circumstances which may have been suicide.”

From what I’ve read, Turing was not left broken by the treatments; even his experience of gynaecomastia spurred his biological research.  So presenting him as an enfeebled creature who couldn’t solve his crosswords anymore leaves me with a bit of a bad taste, as it seems more fit to say “Look at what he accomplished in spite of it all!”
All in all, I recommend The Imitation Game, though more for its virtues as a movie than for its historical accuracy.  Expect to leave the theater thinking a little bit about Turing’s accomplishments, but mostly pondering the role of government, the nature of homosexuality, and the law.

Poets on Poetry

My friend The Grackle, of The Grub Street Grackle fame and previous adventures, has recently begun a video series entitled, Poets on Poetry. The exercise of this is to see how poets respond to, appreciate, or analyze each other’s poetry. Which is supposed to help the rest of us respond to poetry.

The Grackle has hitherto worked with words and ideas captured solidly through paper and ink, or pixels approximating paper and ink.

The foray into film to explore the sounds, sights, and nuances of spoken poetry is a bold stroke.

And as such, I, your brooding muse of tragedy, am honored that he chose one of my poems to initiate this series. Our friend Ian (his nom de plume is in the works, I shall let you know when it coalesces,) gives a wonderful and insightful introduction to the piece, one which made me gasp in sudden and new-found wonder over my own work. It is a powerful quality in art that it can hold more depth and meaning that the author purposely intended. Truly, poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonian, as Milosz says.

It is my favorite of my poems, and I have many thoughts and opinions about it. But we want to know your thoughts. Please watch, listen, and read, and then comment either here or over at the GrackleRag!

Res Mundi

I dreamed of you last night.
Knobby, creased ground pressed
Up under our feet,
And you were facing west
With your back to me, firm,
As dark as almost shadow,
Fixed and calm;
The moment almost hallowed.
But then you leaned back on my shoulder.
(Shoulders closer than a kiss.)
Weight bouldered
Me awake, and now I press

 A fist against my breast: I ache – how I had forgot –
For the weight of another being upon my heart.

 

To quote the original post,

The written, printed word is our bread and butter at the Grackle. But we don’t mind admitting—we will insist on it, in fact—that what makes poetry necessary is something that turns up first of all in a common breathing and beating of hearts. So what we’d really like is to get together with you somewhere, read some poems, and talk.

We hope the video series in which the above is the first entry gives you a hankering for the same.

If you’ve read a poem in Grub Street Grackle that you’d like to see featured in a future installment of “Poets on Poetry,” please leave a comment below to let us know!


Some questions about the poem, for your consideration:

  1. “Closer than a kiss” seems to draw attention to the fact that the two in the poem are not kissing. What do we infer from this about the speaker and the one being addressed?
  2. Res mundi. Things “of the world,” as opposed to what? Things of other worlds? Eternal things? Dream things? Memories?  There’s a turn in the poem at “But then.” Does that turn tell us anything about the nature of the opposition?
  3. The poem is framed as the recollection of a dream after waking, and the dream itself seems to be of something remembered. At what point does this dream memory end? Take the line, “Weight bouldered.” Is this something that happened in the dream? Then where was the weight? Is it “of the world,” or not?
  4. We are used to distinguishing a literal meaning of “heart” from a metaphorical. Does this distinction make sense applied to the last line of this poem?

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Pontypool

On Sunday, I saw an atypical vampire movie. The weekend prior, I saw an atypical zombie movie.*  Next up: atypical werewolf movie! I’ve no idea which one, though, so please comment with your suggestions, and in the meantime, let me tell you about Pontypool.

Were you to say “Hmm, you don’t strike me as a zombie movie watcher,” you would be quite correct. But Pontypool is a zombie movie the way Signs is an alien movie, which is to say that the plague-monsters themselves don’t get a lot of screen time. In an hour and a half of film, there are perhaps twelve minutes of shuffling revenants, and fewer of gore. There is neither a shotgun nor a cricket bat to be seen, and only a few splashes of red against a subdued background of bluish grays.

That said, there’s a lot to hear. The film is set in a radio broadcast studio built in the basement of an abandoned church, and most of the suspense and horror comes from what information can be gleaned from people calling in to the station, sometimes mid-attack, reporting a mob of people converging on the doctor’s office or a car being buried under a “herd” of people. Since none of it is shown, the mind is free to imagine just how awful those attacks might be. The responses and actions of announcer Grant Mazzy, his manager Sydney Briar, and assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond underscore the terror of ignorance and the slowly-dawning horror of understanding.

Even the former shock-jock is creeped out.

Even the former shock-jock is weirded out.

That creeping comprehension makes the movie. From the first two minutes, shown below, each little word is significant. The missing cat and its name; the people speaking French; the BBC broadcaster; the Valentine’s Day cards: all of it matters, and it takes watching and re-watching to understand why.

The pacing, the music (curse you, creepy violins!), the language, and silence all put the viewer in thrall. I had to talk to bring myself out of it a bit, had to eat my popcorn with determination, had to hug the friend sitting next to me whilst watching it. I’m no nail-biter, but it’s full of nail-biting tension anyway. There are those moments when one is left hollering at the screen, Don’t call him! No, hang up your phone! Such is the way of suspenseful movies: they mess with you as they draw you further in.

More thoughts and some spoilers under the cut.

Continue reading

Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

My housemate Cecilia and I went to see this film the other night.  We did so in flagrant disregard of the Benedict Cumberbatch rule, namely “Do not watch a movie, TV episode, or miniseries for no other reason other than one actor you like is in it.”  The one actor in question is, unsurprisingly, Tom Hiddleston; we’re fans of his, nor are we opposed to Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, or the rest.  Sadly, none of them could save Only Lovers Left Alive from a deadly (undeadly?) slow pace.

Only Lovers Left Alive

First, the good:  as a whole, the movie certainly catches a quality, a flavor.  It’s dark, coppery, and not very pleasant, but it’s certainly there in Eve’s brisk walk through Tangier (the most feminine I’ve ever seen Swinton), in the grungy melancholy of Adam’s house, in the streets of Detroit.  Cecilia found this depiction of Detroit rather refreshing: instead of focusing on the city as the capital of crime and corruption, the movie focuses on its musical contributions, the grittiness of its urban blight, and its hope for better things.  Eve notes the importance of the lakes all around, saying “This city will rise again.”  Why she doesn’t go for the original Latin, Jim Jarmusch only knows.  But then, Adam is the one in residence there.  Caught in the 1970s as he is, his affinity for the city indicates that both hope for better, but neither really changes.

The benefit of unending existence is the opportunity to read ALL the books.

The benefit of unending existence is the opportunity to read ALL the books.

That stagnant quality of endless days might account for the sluggish plot.  This is the most charitable explanation that comes to mind: that vampires, having spent centuries of darkness watching all that the “zombies” (ie, humanity) have to show – all the art, the music, the scientific advances – are doomed to ennui, to anomie, to acedia, and (should no sunlight, contaminated blood, or immortal beloved interfere) to suicide.  The story arc, such as it is, might just be one more postmodern conceit for human lives with no overarching narrative, no implicit meaning.  The lack of chemistry between Adam and Eve might have been intentional, depicting the natural consequence of being married for some 200 years.  Sparks, fire, fizzle, distance, regroup.  They try to patch it over with allusions to quantum entanglement, Adam describing them as particles which affect each other though they be a universe apart.  Perhaps Donne could make that metaphor work; this script can’t.

The less charitable and possibly more realistic explanation for the film’s torpidity is poor writing and an undeveloped plot.  At some points it was like watching Catcher in the Rye but with vampires in.  There are amusing moments – Adam burying his head under the pillow to avoid Eva, Eve’s iPhone calling Adam’s curious corded setup, the wrinkle of disgust that crosses Eve’s face on watching a body dissolve – but for the most part, neither Adam nor Eve compel me to care much about their undead existence or their butter-scraped-thin romance.  By far the most interesting character was Eva, Eve’s younger sister.  She is obnoxious, she is careless, she drinks them out of their fugue-inducing O-negative – and she somehow remains lively, as Adam and Eve do not.  We left the theater wondering how she spent her time in LA, how she’d offended Adam in 1925 in Paris, what bloodletting would attend her trip back west.

Possibly devotees of artistic films would appreciate details that I missed.  There are a number of overhead shots, a heavy-handed motif which attempts to connect the spinning of the stars, of records, and the eponymous lovers.  Adam takes a look at all manner of classic guitars, so perhaps Gibson fanboys would be into that.  Those with a dog in the fight over the author of Shakespeare’s plays might be amused when Christopher Marlowe turns up.  But for my own part?  Speraveram meliora.  I’d hoped for better.  They’re hardly lovers, and barely alive.

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

My housemates and I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier yesternight. Having set some kind of precedent by reviewing Frozen two months after it came out, I’ve decided not to feel too weird about reviewing The Winter Soldier a month and three days in.

Spoilers aheadBE YE WARY.

Considering that it’s called The Winter Soldier, I felt that the Winter Soldier himself was not tremendously important. A good deal more time was spent on the question of whom to trust, how different it looks for someone like Steve Rogers to fight for the side of good nowadays, and what to do when everyone you know is trying to kill you.  Admittedly, it’s not like they could call it “Captain America: Second Head of Hydra” or something, since that would iron out a fair few plot twists.

Captain America and Black Widow: Bromance of Our Time

I’m rooting for Captain America and Black Widow: Bromance of Our Time

Whilst watching the STRIKE team’s mission to rescue hostages from pirates aboard the Lemurian Star, I was struck by the swiftness of it all. It isn’t shocking for me to think of SHIELD taking decisive action against threats, but the thought of Steve Rogers killing a couple dozen men as “janitor for Fury” gives me pause. Is this cognitive dissonance mostly borne out of semantics? Possibly. It was something of a relief to be distracted by the choreography of the fight scene between Rogers and Georges Betroc, which evidently involves savate or French kickboxing; it was so graceful.

Also graceful: the game of ultimate frisbee they've got going on

Also graceful: the game of ultimate frisbee they’ve got going on

That was a welcome reprieve before everything went to heck and all the shots were fired.  I was touched by the post-surgery bit. Don’t do this to me, don’t do this to me.  And then they went and did it anyway.  I guess I have not yet watched enough Marvel movies, because I believed them.  But no – that’s not how comic book stories work.  No one actually dies and stays dead, except for redshirts on both sides. This means you have to take a good bit of care when dispatching your enemies, because they might creep off and then infiltrate your ranks and take over everything.

“Taking over everything,” in this case, is partly about firepower, but mostly about information. Hydra’s algorithm, which sifts data about individuals in order to predict which will eventually prove an obstacle to Hydra’s goals reminded me, unsurprisingly, of Minority Report. Though the firepower of Project Insight’s helicarriers was removed, presumably the information still remains out there somewhere.  Eeeep.

Also out there somewhere: Bucky Barnes on a voyage of self-discovery and metal arm maintenance; thousands of tons of destroyed helicarrier (on one hand, a profound relief; on the other, such a lamentable waste of taxpayer money); and everyone’s favorite, alien technology in the hands of power-hungry scientists.  Age of Ultron‘s gonna be chock-full!

Other things I wondered about, because of course I did
– How long ago is Iron Man 3 in all of this?  How much time has passed since Thor 2: The Dark World?  Obviously they can’t just summon all the actors for every Marvel film, but you’d at least think they could allude to it, e.g. “These Insight helicarriers are great against insurgents and attacking Chitauri!”
– Who gets the royalties for putting the SHIELD eagle on everything, including their jump drives?
– How safe is it to drive with an eye patch? How safe is it when there aren’t a couple dozen people trying to shoot you?
– Wait, how did they acquire the Falcon wingpack, or Pierce’s phone to call Sitwell, or a magical Council disguise? Any one of those could have been its own subplot.
– Likewise: what exactly has Hydra done to Bucky? How many other people could they control in like manner? Maybe instead of killing all their threats, they should reprogram them.  Maybe they already are.
– What do the three replacement chips for the helicarriers do, exactly? Like, gosh-darned convenient for lovers of freedom and haters of Hydra, but why do they even HAVE that lever?

Overall, I’d say The Winter Soldier was a fun and interesting addition to the Marvelverse, and a good setup for films to come.  Have you seen Marvel’s latest?  What did you think?

Review: Coriolanus

On Sunday, my roommates and I headed down to the Michigan Theater to see the National Theatre Live broadcast of Coriolanus.

I was a muddle of expectations: on one hand, I expected good things because it had Tom Hiddleston and Mark Gatiss at the very least.  On the other hand, the bits of the play I’d read (or read about) suggested that it involved a lot of politics (bleah) and Coriolanus being a jerk (which…could be interesting, but might just be annoying).  On the other other hand, I’d heard good things from Em about it.

So I went, braced for a bit of gore, some speeches I couldn’t hear very well, the possibility of boredom.

And?

I was blown away.

Why?  The reasons include, but are not limited to, the following:

Set.  We watched it on-screen, of course, but it still had the without-a-net feeling live theater gives – no editing, nothing between you and the players.  The set was spare: a red wall with graffiti projected on it, a ladder, some chairs.  Some explanation was given beforehand about the effects they sought to achieve with the red wall and graffiti; it’s a way of lampshading both ancient Rome and modern political discontent.  The space was dedicated to the players, to movement, dynamic and compelling.  The set changes were strangely electric.  The costumes were a great mix of old and new – modern shirts and trousers, accented with leather cuffs and breastplates and carefully chosen jewelry.

Suspense.  Despite knowing more or less how the play would end, I was on the edge of my seat.  Virgilia’s anxiety over her husband somehow renders the possibility of grave injury to him as more probable and pressing.  The discussions amongst Menenius, Brutus, Sicinius, and Cominius keep the question of consulship open, not a foregone conclusion.  It even seemed possible that Coriolanus might kill Aufidius early on, or be killed in Aufidius’s household.

Clearly the servant is ready to stab him at a word from Aufidius.

Clearly the servant is ready to stab him at a word from Aufidius.

Sympathy.  Throughout the whole play, each character made understandable choices and acted in consistent ways.  Though it turned out badly, it’s hard to castigate Cominius and Volumnia for encouraging Coriolanus to become consul.  It’s impossible to assign all the culpability to Coriolanus either.  One could blame the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius, but at least some portion of their double-tongued talk rings true.

Tom Hiddleston as Caius Marcius Coriolanus.  As noted, this is hardly a sympathetic role.  Caius is a successful general who takes over a city, thereby winning the name Coriolanus, but he’s rather less successful at public office.  His campaign for consul – encouraged by his commander Cominius and his glory-hungry mother Volumnia – ends in a lot of yelling, since Coriolanus doesn’t think much of the citizens and doesn’t ever try to hide it.  People lambaste him for his pride, for rudeness, for harsh speech, etc., and yet it’s easy to see why Coriolanus is proud of his military service, guarded with his scars, impatient with the easily led rabble, and angry when accused of treason.  He goes from hollering in the streets to covering himself in blood in battle to clean-cut mama’s boy to smirking voice-stealer, and that’s just in the first couple acts.

Coriolanus hips

Mark Gatiss as Menenius.  For the bulk of the play, he alternates between encouraging everyone to behave reasonably (you can almost hear “Sherlock Holmes, put your trousers on,” except it’s more a “Coriolanus, take your shirt off so everyone can see your battle scars”) and being a master of sass:

Men.  Our very priests must become mockers if they shall encounter such ridiculous subjects as you are. When you speak best unto the purpose it is not worth the wagging of your beards; and your beards deserve not so honourable a grave as to stuff a botcher’s cushion, or to be entombed in an ass’s pack-saddle. Yet you must be saying Marcius is proud; who, in a cheap estimation, is worth all your predecessors since Deucalion, though peradventure some of the best of ’em were hereditary hangmen. Good den to your worships: more of your conversation would infect my brain, being the herdsmen of the beastly plebeians: I will be bold to take my leave of you.

So that was quite entertaining enough on its own.  But then I watched him bid Coriolanus farewell in Act IV, and approach his camp to beg Coriolanus to spare his erstwhile home from destruction in Act V.  Terribly moving, even more in my estimation than the tears of Virgilia or the clamorous exhortation of Volumnia.

All in all, I went away flooded with thoughts and reeling with emotion.  Somehow I didn’t expect that.  It’s been a while since a Shakespearian play has been such a surprise for me.  This, I kept thinking, this is why Shakespeare is still a big deal.

This is what theater should be.

This is what art ought to do.

Catch an encore performance if you possibly can, and prepare thy brow to crease in laughter, to frown, to furrow in sadness.

Review: August, Osage County

Wednesday was $5 day at my local theater, so after watching Frozen, I set out to give myself emotional whiplash by heading straight into August: Osage County.

Okay, that’s a lie.  I set out to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in one of his five movie projects released in 2013, and perhaps to see what Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan MacGregor, et al. brought to it.  The emotional whiplash was just a side effect.

August is the time of year, Osage county in northern Oklahoma the place.  Plot summary: author Beverly Weston disappears from his home (and, incidentally, puzzles me, because who names their son Beverly?  I bet he had a brother named Sue Not-Appearing-In-This-Film).  His family – 3 daughters, a sister-in-law, and their respective spouses/children – come home to empathize with his wife Violet while waiting for him to turn up, and are thus ideally placed for the funeral when he turns up drowned.  And then, the players having congregated on the board, family dynamics drive each person hither and yon again.

At first, I thought “This is one of the realest stories I have seen in a while.” The rural Oklahoma setting, for one, reminds me of my familial home down in southern Illinois in so many ways. It has the flat land, the oil wells, the unforgiving heat and the shimmer of the air, the small town nearby, even the left turn from the highway onto the dirt road heading home. The cars they drive, the style and decoration of the house, the casserole dishes: it all felt familiar, more familiar than I’ve seen in a film before.

You may be focusing on the knock-down brawl going on, but I am looking at those wooden pillars at the sides of the room. My grandparents’ house has pillars just like that!

Then there’s Meryl Streep as Violet Weston.  She’s phenomenal.  She stumbles in as Beverly interviews a young woman, Johnna, to be housekeeper.  “You an injun?” Violet asks, with the casual racism of the woman too old to care about political correctness (or too apathetic until she can attack someone else for alluding to childhood games of “cowboys and Indians”).  The way her voice alternately sweetens and sharpens as she asks Johnna about herself, addresses her husband, and gives some details about herself and her mouth cancer – I have seen that before, mostly in my grandmother as her own dementia began to progress.

Bev disappears.  The girls come home from Colorado and Miami, everyone bemoans the heat, the sheriff arrives with news and a body that needs to be identified, the funeral is followed by the most painful funeral lunch you ever saw.  Violet’s speech, her swift changes of mood, her not-always-appropriate anecdotes, her occasional lapses into bitterness over her children and what she sacrificed for them – these all prompt the other characters to react accordingly, also true-to-life.

Then it all goes a bit…screwy.  No, more than a bit.  The Weston family is far more dysfunctional than mine: there’s more divorce, the lone teenager is angstier (shame she doesn’t have siblings or cousins), there’s such distance between everyone…not to mention suicide, a touch of drug use (prescription and otherwise), and a soupçon of accidental incest.  Possibly more than a soupcon, actually.  There’s also far less religious observance – you can tell by the awkwardness of the mealtime prayer – which helps explain why no one ever seems to have heard of forgiving, forgetting, or wishing for another’s good more than one’s own.  Toss that all in a room together, and it becomes one big powder keg.

Here’s where the post-Frozen whiplash gets bad: whereas Anna trusts her sister Elsa unstintingly despite years of isolation (and that one time with the ice spikes), and Elsa protects Anna the best she can after conquering her fears, the Weston ladies are, as Ivy puts it, “Just people accidentally connected by genetics.”  You can’t pick your family, it says, though Charles Aiken (Bev and Violet’s brother-in-law) reminds everyone in word and deed that you can choose how to regard your family.

That’s more or less the upshot of it.  Violet and her oldest daughter, Barbara, might provide grim amusement with their increasingly vicious, obscene, and histrionic hollering, but I reckon they’re more important as an all-too-realistic cautionary tale.  I’ve read that Tracy Letts, the playwright and screenplay writer, is preoccupied with the question of “whether it’s ever possible to overcome the dysfunction passed down through generations.”  Of course, yes, it’s possible – but not alone. You need grace for that.  And grace, like Sue, is not appearing in this film.

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