Sunday, July 23, 2017

Exotic and Irrational's 10th anniversary: 10 favorite posts

The internet technology in use when this blog began.

This week I'm celebrating the 10th anniversary of Exotic and Irrational Entertainment: my first post was published on July 22, 2007. Since that time I've published another 363 posts (including this one) which together have been viewed, to my astonishment, over 405,000 times. My profound thanks to everyone who has visited E & I over the past decade to read my thoughts and sometimes share their own.

Ten favorite posts

To mark the anniversary I've made a selection of 10 of my favorite posts. I've cheated by linking to post series and not just individual posts, but since I'm both making and enforcing the rules, I get to bend them at will. (Of course, my judgment about my favorite posts/series is rather unreliable, and is also subject to immediate and continual revision.) But here are 10 posts that struck me as perhaps worth revisiting. And if you are a new reader, these posts will certainly give you a sampling of my obsessions:

The first post: The Disappointment Artist (July 22, 2007)
"Sometimes the movies (and books and music and art) that are most immediately appealing don't end up sustaining our admiration, while those that are difficult, that we have to work a bit to understand (or that we find ourselves deliberately resisting), wind up being the ones we return to again and again."
It seemed appropriate for someone whose pseudonym means "the most pessimistic" to inaugurate this blog with a post about a book entitled The Disappointment Artist. The post focusses on the first essay in Jonathan Lethem's book, which is about John Ford's The Searchers. But I quickly followed a train of thought (not for the first or last time) and discussed instead my response to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which I disliked intensely at first.

Alfred Hitchock: Obsession, perversity and recapitulation: Hitchcock's Vertigo and its sources (September 13, 2015)

Of course, such is the gravitational pull of Vertigo that I had to return—some might say obsessively—to Hitchcock's masterpiece. I did so after seeing a little-known Cary Grant movie from 1932, Hot Saturday. There is a scene in that film in which, after being knocked unconscious during a drenching rainstorm, the heroine awakes to discover that she is in a strange bed and that all of her wet clothes have been removed and are hanging up to dry. The almost shot-by-shot parallels between that scene and a similar one in Vertigo are striking, and to my knowledge had never been noted before.

I would later notice similar parallels between a knife-murder that takes place in a Cuban bar in the 1946 film noir The Chase and the UN assassination scene in Hitchcock's great North by Northwest. You can read that post, and my post on Hitchcock's Rebecca, by following the movies: Hitchcock tag.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: Fred & Ginger Parts 1 - 4 (December 19, 2009 - January 23, 2010)
"You may think you remember what a typical Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie is like. There's initial antagonism—they meet cute, but while he's instantly smitten, she is unimpressed. He pursues her; she rebuffs him, but eventually acquiesces to a dance. As they move in a sweeping, fluid duet to a gorgeously romantic song, now a standard, that was written for them—Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance," say, or "Cheek to Cheek"—she finds herself falling in love with this odd-looking but beautifully graceful man. . .So it was a bit of a shock to discover, as we began to re-watch the eight 1930s Astaire-Rogers comedies for RKO Pictures (excluding the musical biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)), that only two of their first five movies together actually conform to this model."
Yes, Vertigo is my favorite film and Hitchcock my favorite director, but I don't just watch dark, perverse suspense films. For evidence you can see my posts on the films of Jean Arthur, Busby Berkeley, Ernst Lubitsch, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck and Pre-Code Hollywood. For a complete list of non-Indian movies discussed on E & I, please see the film index.

The Fred & Ginger series was in part sparked by my curiosity about how I would perceive the Astaire-Rogers movies several decades after seeing them for the first time. It was also in part a response to Arlene Croce's The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (Outerbridge and Lazard, 1972), a copy of which I'd come across in a used bookstore. As you'll see if you read the posts, I often disagree with Croce's judgments about the films. But no one would disagree that seeing Astaire and Rogers dance together is one of the most purely enjoyable experiences in the history of cinema.

Rekha in Umrao Jaan (Beloved Umrao, 1981); image from Philip Lutgendorf's Notes on Indian popular cinema

The first post on Indian cinema: Why I Love Bollywood (July 27, 2007)
"I'm a Bollywood-loving white guy. I want to make it clear that I'm not some hipster whose ironic or camp 'appreciation' is really a form of mockery—I truly enjoy Bollywood movies, and what's more I find myself unexpectedly moved by them."
A major inspiration for starting this blog was the articulate, thoughtful, and highly enjoyable writing by a group of Bollywood fans including Beth, Filmi Girl, Filmiholic, Memsaab, theBollywoodFan, Philip Lutgendorf, and many others who longer post, alas. Still, despite these excellent examples I felt the need to explain, or at least examine, my newfound love of Indian movies.

The opening sentences of this post would later cause some cross-cultural misunderstanding; for details, see the comments of Non-Indian fans of Bollywood Part II. To see all of my reviews of Indian films, take a look at my Indian film index.

Seeing things overlooked the first time: Vivah and India's missing daughters (July 10, 2011)
"On my first viewing of Vivah I called it 'porn for parents.' I wrote,
'Almost every character is unrelentingly good, and except for the last few minutes the story is almost entirely lacking in drama. Instead, we're treated to the beautifully photographed three-hour long spectacle of the 'journey from engagement to marriage' of two really nice young people from really nice families.

I loved it.'"
But by the second time I watched Sooraj Barjatya's Vivah (Marriage, 2006) I had become more aware of a real-world issue that Vivah addresses, obliquely but almost certainly intentionally. In 1990 the Indian economist Amartya Sen (later to win the Nobel Prize) wrote a now-famous article for the New York Review of Books entitled "More Than 100 Million Women Are Missing." He found, after studying demographic statistics for South Asia, China, Africa, and other areas, that there were more than 100 million fewer women than would be expected. One reason women in India are missing, as researchers Prabhat Jha, Shirish Seth and others have shown, is that girls are selectively aborted, particularly after one daughter has already been born.

Celebrating, honoring and valuing daughters is one of the main themes of Vivah. The second time I watched it I realized that Barjatya was addressing the issue of India's missing daughters, and detailed that realization in this post.

About ten months after I wrote this post, the first episode of Aamir Khan's journalistic television show Satyamev Jayate was devoted to the issue of gender selection in India. I sometimes have wondered whether the information cited in this post was part of the background for that episode. That speculation is not completely far-fetched, since a significant proportion of E & I pageviews are from India, and this post is among the most-viewed on this blog. Whether or not there is any connection, I would be deeply honored if this post had even a small impact on such a vital issue.

I later returned (briefly) to Vivah to touch on its connections to the Ram-Sita story—only, with the trial by fire becoming a test of the hero's worthiness of the heroine, and not the other way around—in Bollywood heroes: Ram vs. Krishna part 1.

Beyond Bollywood: Films by Satyajit Ray featuring Madhabi Mukherjee (December 15, 2015 - January 2, 2016)

When I would mention my enjoyment of Bollywood movies, friends and acquaintances would often look at me with incomprehension, disdain or pity. Although I thought those feelings were misplaced, I had long been wanting to see some of the major films of the renowned Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. But the terrible prints of the Apu Trilogy and other films that were in circulation were a barrier to my appreciation of his work. I actually walked out of a theatrical screening of Pather Panchali because the umpteenth-generation print was so badly scratched and the print had such high contrast that the images were barely visible and the subtitles unreadable. It was like watching a poor photocopy of a movie.

But then the Criterion Collection undertook the restoration of many of Ray's early films, and I could finally see their gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (often by Subrata Mitra) in something approximating its original glory. So I did finally get to see the Apu Trilogy, and particularly enjoyed The World of Apu (featuring Soumitra Chatterjee and a young Sharmila Tagore).

But I think my favorite of Ray's Criterion Collection films are the three he made in the early sixties with the luminous Bengali actress Madhabi Mukherjee. In Mahanagar (The Big City, 1963, cinematography by Mitra) she plays a young wife seeking work outside her home in opposition to her husband and father-in-law; in Charulata (1964, cinematography by Mitra) she is a stifled and lonely wife whose husband's attention is consumed by his political interests; and in Kapurush (The Coward, 1965, cinematography by Soumendu Roy) she is the wife of a boorish plantation owner in a remote village who has an unexpected encounter with a former lover. As I wrote in the post Favorites of 2016: Movies and television, "All are brilliantly realized."

18th-century literature: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (July 26 - August 29, 2016)
". . .she was the medical heroine who introduced smallpox inoculation to Britain, saving thousands of lives. She was also an acclaimed poet, a woman noted for her learning and wit, and the first Western woman to give an account of Ottoman culture."
Lady Mary lived a life of extraordinary adventure, eloping with her best friend's brother to avoid a forced marriage to a man she hated, forming erotic attachments to both men and women, travelling to Turkey overland in winter (and quickly adopting Turkish dress and health practices, such as immersion bathing, antiseptic birth rituals, and having her infant son inoculated for smallpox), and in middle age abandoning her husband and adult children to pursue a much younger man to Europe. Much of her writing was destroyed by herself or her relatives; we only have her letters about her experiences in the Ottoman lands because the manuscript was pirated.

Lady Mary was only one of many extraordinary women in this period; I wrote about some other literary women of the 18th century, such as Eliza Haywood, Charlotte Lennox, Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald, and Charlotte Smith, in the series Jane Austen's predecessors.

Victorian Literature: The Victorians and opera: Trollope meets Verdi (September 4, 2011)
"I have looked for evidence that Trollope might have seen performances of La Traviata, and have found it."
It was a great surprise to me when I started reading the novels of Anthony Trollope—and discovered that I enjoyed them immensely. This was my first post devoted to one of Trollope's novels (I had previously written about some of the Palliser novels in the context of abandoning the 1970s BBC series The Pallisers a few minutes into the first episode). In The Last Chronicle of Barset there is a scene that is strongly reminiscent of a key moment in Verdi's opera La Traviata (The Fallen Woman, 1853); I was able to determine that it was highly likely that Trollope had seen a production of the opera before writing that scene.

A few weeks later I would go on to write a three-part series on Trollope's Chronicles of Barsetshire, the Palliser novels, and some other works. To see this series and my other posts on Trollope, please follow the Anthony Trollope tag.

I've also written about other 19th- and early-20th-century writers including Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, the Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, Susan Ferrier, Gustave Flaubert and his translator Eleanor Marx, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Gissing, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Thomas Moore, Alexander Pushkin, William Thackeray, and Edith Wharton. For a complete list of the books discussed on E & I, please see the book index.

Opera: Opera guides 1 - 6 (January 4, 2008 - August 25, 2009)

I came to love opera through a highly unconventional path. Most people, I suspect, first encounter the form through one of its mainstay 19th-century works. Of the ten most-performed operas of the past five years, seven were written in the century between the end of the Napoleonic wars and the beginning of World War I, and five of those seven were composed by Verdi or Puccini. For us, though, the conversion experience was Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, a 17th-century opera in English that's about an hour long. And we saw it in a performance by the Mark Morris Dance Company, in which Morris himself danced both Dido, Queen of Carthage, and her enemy, an evil sorceress. A less typical opera experience would be difficult to find.

I started the Opera Guide series, not in the expectation that anyone else would necessarily follow the same path to appreciation of the form, but just to introduce some of my favorite operas. In chronological order by date of first performance, they include:
Claudio Monteverdi and Giovanni Busenello's L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), which features some of the most corrupt, ruthless, and cynical characters in opera (Opera guide 5).

Henry Purcell and Nahum Tate's Dido & Aeneas (1689), our opera conversion experience (Opera guide 1).

George Frideric Handel's Alcina (1735), where loss of magical power becomes a metaphor for the loss of erotic power (Opera guide 6).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte's Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), in my estimation the greatest (and most warmly humane) opera ever written (Opera guide 2).

Giacomo Puccini, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa's La bohème (The Bohemians, 1896), which deserves its place as the most popular opera of all time (Opera guide 4).

Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose-Bearer, 1911), which contains some of the most sublime music in all opera (Opera guide 3). For the fascinating story of the sources of many of this opera's characters and scenes in the contributions of Count Harry Kessler to the libretto, please read The Rosenkavalier trio.
When I began the Opera Guide series I said that it would be open-ended. Although I haven't added to it since 2009, I have continued to write about opera regularly on this blog (to the dismay, no doubt, of some of my readers). For a list of operas discussed on E & I, please see the opera index.

Attunement: Conversion experiences (May 18, 2015)

How a typically insightful essay by Zadie Smith, a brilliant work by choreographer Mark Morris, the generosity of Dwayne to a regular customer of his San Francisco shoe-shine stand, and a few moments in an otherwise forgettable film each made me realize "the importance of re-evaluating my judgments, revisiting my conclusions, and trying always to remain open to changing my mind."

The future (?) of Exotic and Irrational Entertainment

Of course, ten posts aren't enough to cover the range of the subjects I've considered over the past decade: I didn't have room to include any posts on punk and post-punk music, BBC television series, contemporary fiction, behavioral economics and decision theory, chamber music and lieder. . .the list goes on.

I sometimes feel like E & I is one of the last blogs standing; everyone else seems to have decamped for Instagram, Twitter or Tumblr. As regular readers know all too well, though, I don't think I'm cut out for microblogging.

But despite having too little time to write, too many things that interest me, and finding the whole process of putting my thoughts into semi-permanent form to be pretty agonizing, I have no plans to stop anytime soon. I hope that in another decade you'll be reading my 20th anniversary post; until then, thank you again for spending time with E & I.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Jane Austen, 1775-1817

Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, ca. 1810 (detail)

As it is now probably impossible not to know, Jane Austen died 200 years ago on July 18, 1817. I thought I would mark the sad occasion by inviting you to visit (or perhaps re-visit) my posts on Austen, her novels, film and television adaptations of her books, and the some of the writers who influenced her.

Six months with Jane Austen: Last year I spent six months re-reading the six novels she prepared or intended for publication, and wrote about some of their implicit and explicit themes.

Six months with Jane Austen: The plan

"Hasn't enough been written already about Jane Austen?" I wrote, just before adding more words to the millions devoted to Austen and her novels. "Perhaps it's just my impression, but I seem to be detecting a bit of Austen fatigue. . .For some readers her novels may have come to seem too genteel: what relevance can love stories set among the 19th-century British gentry have for our time of seemingly endless war, rising inequality, and human trafficking?

"But war, inequality, and human trafficking were inescapable features of Austen's world as well, and the novels actually say quite a bit about these issues." I outlined my plan to do a post every month on Austen's novels in the order of their publication. In the end there were 11 posts in all, written in the hope "that they may inspire your own reading or re-reading."

Sense and Sensibility: Inheritance and money

"Questions of inheritance are central to all of Austen's novels, but are particularly fundamental to Sense and Sensibility," I wrote. When the Dashwood estate is bequeathed to a male relative, the Dashwood sisters and their mother discover that they are unwelcome guests in what was formerly their home. And over the course of the novel, Edward Ferrars (the undeclared beau of Elinor Dashwood) and Willoughby (the undeclared beau of her younger sister Marianne) are both disinherited. The loss of expected wealth results in romantic crises that bring joy to one sister, and tears to the other.

Pride and Prejudice: The marriage market

"At a time when few women had sufficient means to live independently and divorces were difficult to obtain, the choice of a marriage partner was a fateful one. It was also a difficult one, thanks to a combination of interrelated demographic, geographic, and economic factors," I wrote. "At the beginning of the 19th century only about a third of the population of England lived in towns of 2500 inhabitants or more, and London was the only city with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Most women faced a pool of potential suitors that was indeed 'confined and unvarying.'" As do the Bennet sisters—until, that is, dashing strangers come to the neighborhood of Longbourn. . .

Mansfield Park:

Mansfield Park, an estate built on "the ruin and labour of others"

"In Mansfield Park we learn that Sir Thomas Bertram is the owner of an 'Antigua estate.' Antigua was one of the 'sugar islands' of the West Indies, where virtually all the cultivable land had been converted to the production of sugar," I wrote. "Sugar was the main driver of the slave trade: about two-thirds of all the slaves brought from Africa to the New World were sent to areas of intensive sugar cultivation. . .Mansfield Park has been built with the wealth produced by slaves."

Lord Mansfield and the antislavery movement

That Austen intended the connection with the horrors of slavery to be made by her readers is evident from the name of Sir Thomas' estate. Lord Mansfield was the Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench, the highest court in Britain, and had ruled against slave-owners in two important legal cases that were key to the antislavery movement.

Fanny Price and Dido Elizabeth Belle

Lord Mansfield was also the adoptive father of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of his nephew and a freed slave, Maria Belle. Dido held the role in his household of a "'loved but poor relation,'" and may have been a model for Mansfield Park's heroine, Fanny Price. Fanny has grown to young womanhood at Mansfield Park, and has long secretly loved her cousin Edmund, the younger son of Sir Thomas. But dazzled by the worldly Mary Crawford, will Edmund (and the rest of the Bertrams) ever recognize Fanny's true worth?

Emma: The fate of unmarried women

Emma Woodhouse is "handsome, clever and rich"; as an heiress she has no need (as most women do) to marry to assure her future financial security. But what of the "'immovable plight of the single woman without money'"? Emma, although it is Austen's sunniest novel, offers bleak portraits of three possible fates awaiting women from the genteel classes who lack means: parlour-border (Harriet Smith), impoverished old maid (Miss Bates), or governess (Jane Fairfax).

Northanger Abbey: Women writers and readers 
One way for a woman to gain an independent income was to become a writer. But such a choice was perilous: "it lay on the fringes of respectability, involved a substantial degree of financial risk, and offered only a modest promise of return." Nonetheless, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries women increasingly entered the literary marketplace as writers and readers. New modes of distribution such as circulating libraries made both publishing and reading more economically feasible, and Jane Austen tried to take full advantage of these new opportunities.

In the character of Northanger Abbey's heroine Catherine Morland, Austen gently satirizes her own teenaged taste for Gothic novels. There is a mystery at Northanger Abbey, to which Catherine is invited as a visitor, but "that mystery. . .has its roots not in some lurid crime, as originally imagined by Catherine, but in ordinary human failings: greed, self-deception, anger." Catherine will learn that her love of the sensational colors her imagination perhaps too strongly, but this does not call the value or pleasure of reading into question. As one of Austen's most appealing heroes, Henry Tilney, tells her, "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid."


The British Navy at war
Jane Austen's sailor brothers
Of Austen's novels, Persuasion is the one "most profoundly affected by war." Several of its characters have been directly touched by it. Admiral Croft is a hero of Trafalgar; and his brother-in-law Captain Wentworth is home on leave after the Battle of Santo Domingo in 1806 when he proposes to Anne Elliot. Elements of the characters and careers of Captain Wentworth and his friend Captain Harville seem drawn from the wartime experiences of Jane Austen's sailor brothers, Francis and Charles: Francis, for example, was home on leave after the Battle of Santo Domingo in the summer of 1806 when he got married.

The naval prize-money he has won through his almost suicidal bravery enables Captain Wentworth to seek a wife once peace is apparently at hand in the summer of 1814. But eight years after Anne was reluctantly persuaded to withdraw her consent, it is doubtful that Wentworth will be interested in renewing his addresses to the "gentle, wise, and steadfast" woman who still loves him.

Favorite (and least favorite) adaptations

A survey of 18 film and television versions of Austen's novels, including favorites such as the 1995 Persuasion, musts-to-avoid such as the 2007 Mansfield Park, and unexpected delights such as Kandukondain Kandukondain, a Tamil-language updating of Sense and Sensibility. This post also includes my final thoughts about the richly rewarding six months spent in the company of Austen, and a list of works by passionate scholars that were consulted in the writing of the series.

Jane Austen's predecessors: A continuing series on the authors who influenced Austen. A selection from this series of the writers whose works are significantly echoed in hers:

Fanny Burney:
Jane Austen's favorite novelist

In Northanger Abbey the narrator extolls three novels by title; two of them were written by Burney. And plot developments in Northanger Abbey echo aspects of Burney's Evelina, Cecilia and Camilla.
Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?
In Cecilia the heroine is mortifyingly rejected by the family of the man she loves, Mortimer Delvile. Austen herself may have experienced something similar when she and a potential suitor, Tom Lefroy, were abruptly separated by his family.

Cecilia later accepts Delvile's proposal, but almost immediately regrets her consent. "Yet to disappoint Delvile so late, by forfeiting a promise so positively accorded; to trifle with a man who to her had been uniformly candid, to waver when her word was engaged, and retract when he thought himself secure,—honour, justice and shame told her the time was now past." Jane Austen faced a similar crisis when she accepted the proposal of a close friend's brother. Like Burney's heroine, though, Austen summoned the courage to withdraw her consent. Perhaps these parallels to her own experience were one reason she felt that Burney's novels expressed "the most thorough knowledge of human nature."

Sensibility and sense: Camilla and Jane Austen
"Camilla, like Pride and Prejudice, follows the fortunes of five young women entering the marriage market in a small village in rural England." In Camilla there are also pre-echoes of Emma and Persuasion. But Austen also "recognized that the time of the novel of sensibility was past," and satirized it in her "Plan of a Novel according to Hints from Various Quarters."

Elizabeth Inchbald: "Do not read on—or be forever scarred": A Simple Story

Rehearsals for a performance of Elizabeth Inchbald's play A Lover's Vows, a translation and adaptation of German playwright August von Kotzebue's Das Kind der Liebe (Love Child), play a key role in Mansfield Park. So we know that Austen was familiar with Inchbald's work. It's not known whether Austen read Inchbald's novels, but in Inchbald's A Simple Story, "a beautiful and headstrong young heroine. . .disregards the admonishments of an older male mentor figure." I wrote that this "may sound familiar to readers of Emma."

Charlotte Lennox: The Female Quixote

Jane Austen read and enjoyed The Female Quixote, writing to her sister Cassandra that "it now makes our evening amusement; to me a very high one, as I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it." Arabella, the heroine, takes the French romances she reads to be literal, to the confusion and puzzlement of those around her. "Austen seems to have modelled Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, in part on Arabella; both characters have perhaps immersed themselves a bit too deeply in the worlds of their fictional reading." However, while on the surface The Female Quixote would seem to join in the condemnation of novel-reading by susceptible women, there is a subversive subtext: Lennox "suggests that women, in order to be fit for marriage and domesticity, must be 'cured' of their imaginations."

Samuel Richardson: Clarissa on a smartphone

The dashing and charismatic rake Lovelace woos, abducts, and ultimately rapes the heroine Clarissa, who then wastes away until she dies. This monument of 18th-century literature "clearly influenced Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778), in which the naïve heroine is subject to the aggressive pursuit of Sir Clement Willoughby, and Jane Austen's Elinor and Marianne (ca. 1795, later to be reworked in narrative form as Sense and Sensibility) in which the youthful Marianne is courted by the duplicitous Willoughby."

Charlotte Smith: "What have I to do now but learn to suffer?"

In Celestina, the orphaned heroine is raised (like Mansfield Park's Fanny Price) in the home of a wealthy relative. And, as in Mansfield Park, a son of this family falls in love with her. "His name, perhaps familiar to readers of Sense and Sensibility, is Willoughby." This is only one of multiple parallels between Celestina and several of Austen's novels. And is it a coincidence that a character in Smith's The Old Manor House asks of another, "'Why has she invincible pride, and obstinate prejudice?'"

Tracing Austen's influences does not diminish her accomplishments, but magnifies them. Although it's clear that she borrowed elements from other writers, she transformed them, creating characters that are more subtle, complex, and recognizable than their models. To paraphrase Ben Jonson on Shakespeare, Austen's novels are "not of an age, but for all time."

Watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, ca. 1804