Friday, August 29, 2008

Sam's Francisco

So, what was it like to read The Maltese Falcon in San Francisco, you ask? Well, I did a little sleuthing of my own and discovered Dashiell Hammett Way near where I'm staying. It's also near to the spot where Miles Archer gets murdered in chapter 2 of the novel...though that little alley has still retained its Hammett-era name of Burritt St. I wonder why they didn't rename that street after Hammett, instead of this one.

Otherwise, I haven't really felt the true presence of Sam Spade, Joel Cairo, and all those other colorful characters of old San Francisco. Haven't taken the Hammett walking tour or gone to John's Grill to order the "Sam Spade Lamb Chops." Of course, I think this has something to do with the season and the weather we're having. I don't think The Maltese Falcon ever tells you what time of year it takes place but I doubt that it's August or September. This is not the time for noir, for hats and overcoats and murders committed in the evening fog. Instead, and I quote my mother, "There's always a few nights each year when the fog doesn't roll in and cool down the city, and if a couple of those nights come in a row, people just get wild. You can feel it. Everyone gets tense and edgy."

Well, that might be happening now...exacerbated by the fact that last night there was a fire on Yerba Buena Island, so traffic downtown leading to the Bay Bridge got all snarled up. You could certainly feel the tension in the air right then.

I've continued getting to know San Francisco, so much so that when reading The Maltese Falcon I discovered, if not an outright geographical mistake, at least something that comes off as misleading. A cabbie reports that he took Brigid O'Shaughnessy "out on Sacramento [a major street that runs east-west] and when we got to Polk she rapped on the glass and said she wanted to get a newspaper, so I stopped at the corner and whistled for a kid, and she got her paper... Then I went out on Sacramento some more, and just after we'd crossed Van Ness she knocked on the glass again and said take her to the Ferry Building."

Polk and Van Ness are both streets that run north-south, intersecting Sacramento Street. And the cabbie's report makes it sound like he had to drive a fair distance to get from one to the other. But in reality, Polk and Van Ness are just one block apart! Brigid would've had to be pretty damn quick finding the information she wanted in the newspaper, in order for the cabbie's story to check out. I've taken the #1 bus (which runs along Sacramento) enough times in the last week that this struck me as an implausibility.

This bus also runs by a little alley called Perine Place, and I feel sure that Dashiell Hammett must've taken inspiration from this when he named Spade's secretary "Effie Perine."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Overheard: The "Usually I'd Agree With This, But Not in San Francisco" Edition

Market Street, about an hour ago. Two cops stroll past me, chatting. One says to his buddy:

"If you cain't tell the difference between a man and a woman, then you've got some serious problems."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Real Mystery of "The Maltese Falcon"

(Note: this post contains spoilers about the novel The Maltese Falcon as well as oversimplification of its complex plot.)

Last night I finished rereading The Maltese Falcon, my "welcome to San Francisco" book. I first read it in high school, for a course about detective fiction through the ages. I remember coming into class where everyone was buzzing about the twist ending: "The falcon was a fake all along!"

"Yeah," I said, "but didn't you notice the other twist?"


"Rhea and Wilmer are the same person!"

But no one else had picked up on what I thought was the most subtle and fascinating element of The Maltese Falcon. I wrote an essay about it, and ended up submitting it with a few college applications that wanted to see one of my academic papers. (My teacher explained that everyone thinks they know The Maltese Falcon from seeing the movie, so they'll be blown away by a paper that tells them they have it all wrong. Also, a student who writes about a pulp detective novel will stand out from the multitudes who write about Of Mice and Men or The Great Gatsby.) Sometimes, I credit this paper with getting me into Vassar.

Let me explain my theory. OK, the basic plot of The Maltese Falcon has detective Sam Spade agreeing to help some shady characters get their hands on a valuable statuette, in exchange for a cut of the profits. The criminals are:
  • Gutman, a jovial fat man, ringleader of the gang
  • Joel Cairo, an effeminate homosexual Greek man
  • Brigid O'Shaughnessy, beautiful femme fatale
  • Wilmer Cook, surly boy (18-20 years old?), handy with a gun
At one point, these characters send Spade on a wild-goose-chase: they tell him that Brigid is in Gutman's hotel room, but when Spade gets there, all he finds is Gutman's daughter Rhea, who has been drugged with knock-out drops, and has been poking herself in the stomach with a pin to keep herself awake so she can tell Spade where the others have gone. This is a really bizarre scene: Rhea never appears elsewhere in the novel, so it's hard to know what to think of her. Why is she living with her criminal father? What does she do while he chases treasure around the world? Why does Gutman never mention her? Even more bizarre, after Spade puts Rhea to bed, he phones a hospital and lets them know that there's a drugged girl in Gutman's suite. Later, he learns that when the doctors arrived, "there was nobody there." Weird!

Indeed, the character of Rhea raises so many problematic questions that the movie version tinkered with the plot and eliminated her entirely.

When Spade catches up with the criminals, he tells Gutman "That daughter of yours has a nice belly...too nice to be scratched up with pins." Gutman says nothing. But Wilmer steps forward and raises his gun: "Everyone in the room looked at him. In the dissimilar eyes with which Brigid O'Shaughnessy and Joel Cairo looked at him there was, oddly, something identically reproving. The boy blushed, drew back his advanced foot, straightened his legs, lowered the pistol and stood as he had stood before, looking under lashes that hid his eyes at Spade's chest. The blush was pale enough, and lasted for only an instant, but it was startling on his face that habitually was so cold and composed."

As soon as I read that passage, I felt certain that Wilmer was Rhea in disguise. Why else would he/she react so violently? Why else would there be such an odd look of reproach from Brigid and Joel? Why else would Wilmer blush? I started looking for other clues that supported my theory.

The physical appearance of the two characters is similar. Wilmer is "an undersized youth," Rhea is "a small girl." There are many references to Wilmer's cold white complexion, and Rhea has a "face that was white and dim." Wilmer has hazel eyes, Rhea has golden-brown eyes. Also, though Wilmer talks tough and packs heat, his "long curling eyelashes" are feminine. And he is always described as having a "composed," "low," "flat" voice--the voice that a girl would need to adopt if she was disguising herself as a man. (This is why I assume it's Rhea in disguise as Wilmer and not the other way around. It's easier for a girl to look like a young man in coat and cap, than for a boy to look convincingly like a beautiful young woman in satin pajamas.)

Then there is the odd doubling where Spade easily lifts and carries both Rhea and Wilmer at different moments. When Rhea falls asleep after being drugged, "Spade caught her up in his arms—scooped her up as she sank—and [held] her easily against his chest." Later, after Spade knocks Wilmer out in a fight, "He put his right arm under the boy’s arm and around his back, lifted him without apparent effort, and carried him to the sofa."

Furthermore, when Spade tries to carry Rhea to her bedroom, he first opens the door of a room where "the clothing...and the things on the chiffonier said it was a man’s room”--so he turns around and finds a "room that was feminine in its accessories." Now, this does sound like Rhea and Wilmer are two different people with two separate bedrooms. But the very fact that Dashiell Hammett included this detail--if Spade had found Rhea's bedroom on the first try, the plot would not be affected--makes me think that something else is going on. Maybe Gutman planned ahead and put the two sets of clothing/toiletries in two different rooms on purpose. If a detective broke in and searched the hotel suite, for instance, he would be very confused to see one bedroom with both female and male clothing in it--but not if there were two separate bedrooms. Also, because Spade first carries Rhea into the male room, it seems to symbolize that she truly belongs there.

Now, the traditional interpretation of the character of Wilmer is that he is gay and possibly involved with Gutman. Spade contemptuously calls Wilmer a "gunsel," which sounds like it means "guy with a gun," but is actually an old term for the passive partner in a homosexual relationship. There's a long scene where Spade tries to persuade the criminals that they need "a fall-guy" and Wilmer is just the person for the job. Gutman protests--maybe it's because Wilmer is his young lover, but wouldn't it be even more powerful if Spade is threatening to send Gutman's own daughter, Rhea, to jail?

Gutman eventually gives in, but twice says he loves Wilmer like a son: "I'm sorry indeed to lose you, and I want you to know that I couldn't be any fonder of you if you were my own son; but--well, by Gad!--if you lose a son it's possible to get another--and there's only one Maltese falcon." Mightn't this be an attempt to say some final paternal words to Rhea, without revealing the true situation to Spade? The final chapters of The Maltese Falcon are tense and twisty without thinking that Rhea and Wilmer are the same person--but if you go back and reread them from this angle, they become even more interesting.

However, Spade's plan falls through, and we learn at the end that Wilmer has shot Gutman to death (presumably for trying to sell him out). So if you think that this is a disguised girl shooting her own father--why, it's positively Oedipal! (And as my teacher would be quick to remind me, Oedipus Rex is one of the first detective stories of Western literature.)

I enjoy thinking that Rhea, Gutman's pretty blonde daughter, dresses up like a tough boy and goes around cursing at people and threatening to shoot them. It gives the novel an ironic twist and adds to the theme of gender confusion (cf. Cairo's homosexuality, Spade's "boyish" but attractive secretary, etc.) Still, after rereading the novel, I'm not sure if this is "really" what Hammett intended--not sure if the time frames all work out correctly. For instance, in order to wake Rhea up in time to disguise herself as Wilmer, Gutman would need an antidote to the knock-out drops, and does that even exist?

So maybe there's no elaborate subterfuge of Rhea disguising herself as Wilmer. But you can't deny that Hammett sets up a doubling between the two characters--the daughter that Gutman ignores and the young man that he "loves like a son." Still, when Gutman says those words to Wilmer, there's an ominous chill to them. He may love the boy like a son, but we know that he has no compunctions about slipping his own daughter a Mickey Finn...

Image: Humphrey Bogart as Spade and Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer from the 1941 movie. Photo from

Monday, August 25, 2008

What I'm Up To

Great. Just as I arrive in San Francisco, the SF Weekly has to publish an article about how hard it is to find housing in the city and why August is the worst time to look for it.

I may not be as strenuously hip as the people described in the article, and certainly don't want to live somewhere that throws No-Pants Parties on a regular basis, but oy! even if you're not trying to move in with the coolest kids on the block, it's still not a fun process. And because I'm both new to this city and to the experience of finding shared housing, I feel like a total naïf...unsure of what questions I should be asking that weren't already covered, unsure of how to promote myself and "seal the deal"...

At least I'm getting a grasp on San Francisco geography, I'm running around so much.

Friday, August 22, 2008

My thoughts exactly

"We Are Itching to Get Away From Portland, Oregon," painted across the front of the famous Vesuvio Café, North Beach, SF. Click photo (my attempt at a panorama-shot) to enlarge.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Heaven on earth

View from Nob Hill, midday 8/21/08.

"The French police declare that Basil never arrived in Paris at all. I suppose in about a fortnight we shall be told that he has been seen in San Francisco. It is an odd thing, but every one who disappears is said to be seen at San Francisco. It must be a delightful city, and possess all the attractions of the next world."
--Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

"Heaven is a city Much Like San Francisco.
House upon house depended from Hillside,
From Crest down to Dockside,
The green Mirroring Bay:
Oh Joyful in the Buckled Garden:
Undulant Landscape Over which
The Threat of Seismic Catastrophe hangs:
More beautiful because imperiled."
--Tony Kushner, Angels in America: Perestroika

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ne andrò lontana

"Ebben, ne andrò lontana" from La Wally by Catalani. Sung by Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez in the film Diva.

Well then, I shall go far away
Like the echo of the holy church-bell.
There, amid the white snow
There, among the clouds of gold
There where hope, where hope
Is regret and sorrow!

O my mother's cheerful house,
La Wally shall go away from you,
Quite far away, and perhaps
She will never return to you,
Nor will you see her again.
Never again, never again!

I shall go far away, alone,
Like the echo of the holy church-bell.
There, amid the white snow,
I shall go far away, alone--
Among the clouds of gold!


This aria has been stuck in my head for the last two days because I am about to go (far?) away, alone, for a long time. Tomorrow I fly to San Francisco and begin to set up a life for myself there.

I can make no promises about how often I'll update marissabidilla during my first few weeks in San Francisco. Rest assured that if I don't post, I am probably encountering many wonderful things that I would love to share with you--it's just that I lack the time or the Internet connection to do so!

I've got to finish packing now. Already in my suitcase are two classic San Francisco books that I absolutely must reread now--The Maltese Falcon and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. As you can see, I'm a big believer in suiting the book and the music to the occasion.

À bientôt!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A non-standard model

Since I am secretly fascinated by Carla Bruni-Sarkozy I read with interest the cover story in the new Vanity Fair magazine. Online, Vanity Fair also has a slide show of Bruni in her fashion-model days. This is intended for the titillation of seeing a First Lady in various states of undress... but looking at it and comparing it to today's models made me a little sad, because it just shows how much more unrealistic body-image standards have gotten over the last 15 years.

Sure, Bruni is very slender, but from these photos, you can see that she still has hips and a butt and firm-looking shoulders. You can't count her ribs or cut yourself on her clavicle. She has a healthy Mediterranean complexion and glossy brown hair. Most importantly, she looks like she's having fun--even when strutting down the runway wearing only pasties on top. Here is an ad that Bruni did in 1992 for Prada: again you can see that she has leg muscles, a curve to her hips, a suntan. She was 24 years old at the time.

What's ironic is that these days, Miuccia Prada is known for favoring a very different style of model: much more pale, Nordic/Slavic, and skinny. She's been credited with starting the unstoppable trend of young Eastern European fashion models, who all look alike to me: empty hazel-colored eyes, lank hazel-colored hair, deathly pale complexions, arms that you could snap in two and kneecaps so pointy they're almost faceted. Here is one of Prada's new favorite models, Siri Tollerød (19 years old at time of photo, Norwegian); to her right is another model, 16-year-old Laura Blokhina of Russia.

These girls (especially Tollerød) have no breasts, bony torsos, disproportionately big heads, colorless skin and hair. And their faces are, weirdly, too young-looking and too old-looking at once.

So, what lessons can we take from this? One big difference between today's models and Carla Bruni is that Bruni started modeling at the age of 19 and was a success through her mid-twenties. But nowadays, models have gotten younger. For instance, the Russian-Kazakh model, Ruslana, who killed herself earlier this summer had been modeling since the age of 15. (Hearing of her suicide freaked me out a bit because she, like me, was just a few days from turning 21.)

Furthermore, modeling was a personal choice for Bruni. She comes from a wealthy Italian-industrialist family, grew up in Paris, and thus, I assume, knew something about the world of fashion before she decided to enter it. Because she obviously didn't need the money she was earning, that makes it a lot less likely that she felt exploited by the fashion industry. She could have quit at any time, after all. Bruni has acknowledged this herself: in Vanity Fair she says "If you expose yourself [to the press], it means there is something about you that wants to be there. It is not obligatory. I was not obliged to be a model. I was not obliged to be a singer. I could have been a doctor."

But, by contrast, it's easy to worry that today's underage fashion models, many from small towns in Eastern Europe, are getting exploited. They're whisked into a whirlwind life of walking the runways of the world's major cities and posing for photos in exotic locations before their personalities have had a chance to develop.

Bruni was old enough when she started modeling that she had personality and poise. Throughout the Vanity Fair article and elsewhere, people always comment on how intelligent, polite, and genuinely "well-bred" Bruni is. These qualities didn't just benefit her mental health and her reputation--I think they also improved her appearance in photographs. I mean, who would you prefer to be: a willowy 25-year-old heiress, or a skin-and-bones 16-year-old plucked from obscurity by a modeling scout?

I know I sound like I'm advocating that only independently wealthy young women--those who don't need the money--should become fashion models, and I feel uncomfortable saying that, because it goes against my ideals of egalitarianism. I wouldn't want to promote the notion that "rich people are always better and prettier," after all. But in a profession where it's so easy to get exploited, something needs to be done. Minimum age requirements? Minimum weight standards? Psychological tests ensuring that only girls with a strong sense of self-esteem can go into the profession?

I don't know. But let's just say, I doubt that any of the current crop of models will be marrying a head of state in fifteen years' time.

Photos from

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Disagreement With "The Four Agreements"

A new era of my life is beginning: I've graduated college, I'm moving to a new city, and my former roadmaps are obsolete. So I’m thinking a lot about what kind of person I want to be, what code ought to direct my actions now that I’ve left my old framework. I've become curious about religion and other forms of guidance and wisdom. Several months ago, my uncle, who was on a self-actualization kick and saw me falling into self-sabotaging patterns, gave me The Four Agreements, and yesterday I finally picked up this slim volume and read it through.

And well, I think much of it is hooey – but that's not all bad, because sometimes you need to read things you disagree with in order to discover what you really believe. I’ll grant that the basic premise of the book makes good sense. Here’s the gist of the Agreements:
  1. Be impeccable with your word (don't gossip, don't lie, don't use words to hurt other people, don't denigrate yourself)
  2. Don't take anything personally (realize you're valuable no matter what other people say or do, don't let others' rash judgments affect your self-perception)
  3. Don't make assumptions (just as you can’t presume to read others, don’t assume that other people can read you; ask questions, seek the truth)
  4. Always do your best (don’t wear yourself down with effort, but always do work that satisfies you and makes you proud)
Decent practical guidelines, even if I don’t buy that they derive from Ancient Toltec Shamanic Wisdom. I also agree with the idea that we're often our own worst enemies: we set up barriers to our own success and dwell on past failings, instead of simply saying "I resolve to do better next time."

But honestly, I liked the Agreements more when my uncle described them to me than when I read don Miguel Ruiz’s book. Ruiz has an awfully simplistic and repetitive writing style, and worse, he deals in absolute statements that come across as ridiculous, even dangerous. The book shifts from commonsense ethics to hyperbole and hucksterism. Ruiz advocates being “impeccable with your word,” but from the evidence of his book, I think he’s reckless with his own word.

For instance, the Second Agreement—not to let other people’s negative judgments affect our self-worth—is good up to a point, but Ruiz takes it too far. He says that if we follow this advice, we won’t ever be hurt by rejection nor need anyone to accept us—but is that possible, or even desirable? Isn’t it human to want acceptance?

Part of the Second Agreement involves believing that when other people criticize you, it’s only because they have some fear or hang-up that prevents them from accepting you. It’s never your fault, Ruiz says. But sometimes you have done something wrong, it is your fault, and you need to own up to that. Furthermore, if the only reason people criticize each other is because of their own hang-ups, that means that if you want to criticize someone, it’s because you’ve got a mental block of your own. A fully enlightened person, says Ruiz, will accept everybody and everything as it is, thereby entering into a state of bliss.

But this line of reasoning comes dangerously close to moral relativism. Ruiz defines sin as “anything you do that goes against yourself… when you judge or blame yourself for anything” (31). This makes it sound like the pangs of conscience you feel after doing something wrong are more sinful than the offense itself. Or take the claim that it is best to “have your own truth and live your own truth” (100); if everyone in the world lived according to their own personal truth, wouldn’t that create pandemonium?

Ruiz professes a message of Love, but he has some mistaken notions about it. “Actions will produce a like reaction. If I love you, then you will love me,” (32) he writes—a delusional fallacy that has caused suffering and heartbreak for hundreds of years. Also, he writes, “Real love is accepting people the way they are without trying to change them. If we try to change them, this means we don’t really like them” (70). I disagree: if you really love somebody you will encourage him to reach his fullest human potential. Yet over and over, Ruiz says that if we follow the Four Agreements, we’ll accept everybody as they are, ridding ourselves of the need to prove that we’re right and they’re wrong (125). He even suggests that having a strongly developed sense of justice and injustice only makes us suffer (113). Thus he glosses over the fact that there is injustice and wrongdoing in the world, and consequently there is a place for righteous anger.

This book puts forth a simplistic philosophy: if we only open our eyes, we’ll perceive that everything in the world is made of love (124). OK, most of us can probably try harder to appreciate the good things we have and our potential for growth. But is everything made of love, and can we feel it flow from everything in nature—that is, not only from the trees and the sky, but from mosquitoes and dung and the herpes virus? As Milan Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit.” By this standard, The Four Agreements is pure kitsch.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Russian Rhyme & Reason

You wouldn't expect an essay on the finer points of translating Russian poetry to give you your biggest laugh of the day. But, when it's written by Vladimir Nabokov...
The English rhyme [is] Echo's poor relation, a genteel pauper whose attempts to shine result merely in doggerel garishness. For if in Russian and French, the feminine rhyme is a glamorous lady friend, her English counterpart is either an old maid or a drunken hussy from Limerick.

(from Nabokov, "Problems of Translation: Onegin in English").

Friday, August 8, 2008

Crazy Eights

Everyone must be aware that today is 8/8/08, and that the Beijing Olympics began at 8:08:08 PM to further reinforce the pattern. To celebrate this numerical quirk, I thought I'd make a list of Eight Nifty Things that Come in Eights.

1. The History Boys: The titular boys are eight in number--all bright lads applying to Oxford and Cambridge. I saw the play on Broadway and really appreciated it, then saw the movie version last week and think it might be even better: it's more streamlined, and I am SO glad that all of the original cast members participated! It's also what prompted this post, as I got to thinking about other works of fiction that feature groups of eight characters...

2. 8 Women, a crazy, campy, French musical-comedy-mystery-melodrama film. One of my ultimate guilty pleasure movies. But with actresses like Deneuve, Huppert and Ardant among the eight women, how can you possibly go wrong?

3. The Group: In this Mary McCarthy novel, eight women are the main characters; again, it's a bit of a guilty pleasure, but a fun read. I wrote about it last year here on my blog.

4. "Octet" from The Light in the Piazza: This song contains some of the most beautiful, soaring melodic themes in the musical, and very poetic lyrics. One of my favorite moments in the Lincoln Center production came at the end of this number, when the characters paired off in couples--Clara & Fabrizio, Franca & Giuseppe, Mr. & Mrs. Nacarelli--leaving only the Priest and Margaret. The Priest was on the sidelines, but Margaret stepped downstage center, and you suddenly realized how profoundly alone she was, even in the midst of the beautiful harmonies surrounding her.

5. The Wheel of the Year: In "Octet," the characters sing "The shock of winter / The coming on of spring / Suspended summer nights / The eager flights / That only fall can bring." So, four seasons. And if you have two holidays per season--one at its commencement, one in the middle--that gives you eight holidays, as well as the Wheel of the Year used by Wiccans. I read a lot of fantasy novels when I was younger, many written by Wiccans, so I learned a lot about the eight festivals: Samhain, Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Midsummer, Lughnasa and Harvest Home. Or, if you prefer a medieval Christian cycle of holidays: Halloween, Christmas, Candlemas, Lady Day, May Day, St. John's Eve, Lammas and Michaelmas. Though neither a pagan nor Christian, I am still attracted to the idea of having a festival to reconnect with the cycle of nature every month and a half.

6. Ottava rima: A stanza of eight lines that rhyme A-B-A-B-A-B-C-C. It's more often used in Italian than English, as the name suggests, but it's also the rhyme scheme that Byron chose for his long comic poem "Don Juan." The first six lines of each stanza are just long enough for Byron to set up a joke, then the final couplet serves as a zingy punchline, often with a hilarious trick rhyme involved. Here is some Byronic wit, which also happens to continue our theme of "seasons" (Canto I stanza 102):
It was upon a day, a summer's day--
Summer's indeed a very dangerous season,
And so is spring about the end of May;
The sun, no doubt, is the prevailing reason;
But whatsoe'er the cause is, one may say,
And stand convicted of more truth than treason,
That there are months which nature grows more merry in:
March has its hares, and May must have its heroine.
7. The Noble Eightfold Path: Another religion which incorporates the number eight is Buddhism. I have always thought that the Buddhists had some good things to say about the causes of suffering and the ways of alleviating it, such as the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment. It consists of: right perspective, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. That is, first you get in the right frame of mind, then you strive to live ethically, and only then can you gain insight into Existence by meditating upon it. (Note that the Eightfold Path is different from the Eight Precepts of Buddhism, which I do not like so much. They suggest that to become more holy, one should refrain from singing, dancing, and going to the theater!)

8. The solar system: Yeah, we all learned that it had nine planets, but now that Pluto has been kicked out, it's back to eight. When I was two years old I said that I wanted to become an astronaut and visit all the planets. This reduction in size of the solar system at least would make my task a little easier...

Photo of the History Boys from Photo of "8 Women" from Photo of the planets from

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Are these judgments too Wicked?

This past week, I finally got around to reading Wicked, by Gregory Maguire. Now, this might sound strange, but I've never seen Wicked, the musical, or even listened to every song on its cast album. Chalk it up to misplaced teenage elitism: the musical came out when I was a senior in high school and while other Broadway-loving girls thrilled to the story of Glinda and Elphaba, I was put off by their teenybopper enthusiasm. I spent the year memorizing everything Sondheim ever wrote, looking down my nose at people who wrote on message boards about "Elphie," and wishing high school was over. (Yeah, I was kind of insufferable.)

Now, after having read Maguire's novel, it turns out that my stubbornly anti-trend, iconoclastic attitude actually made me a kindred spirit of Elphaba's (aka Elphie aka the Wicked Witch of the West). Maguire's character is, of course, more sympathetic than L. Frank Baum's out-and-out villainness, but she's still prickly, difficult to truly like. She has plenty of courage and integrity, but also a lot of bitterness and an aversion to being seen as weak or vulnerable in any way.

This is why I'm so surprised that Stephen Schwartz read Wicked and said "Boy! This needs to be a Broadway musical!", because that requires some major re-jiggering of Elphaba's personality to make her someone the audience can identify with. In the musical, Elphaba despairs that Fiyero will never fall in love with her because she's not a pretty blonde like Glinda, but the book-Elphaba would sneer at such sentimentality. In the book, a major turning point comes when Elphaba decides to go underground and ally herself with a revolutionary/terrorist cell. In the musical? She soars into the sky singing the triumphant "Defying Gravity"!

I do think that the musical improves on some of the problems of the novel. (Disclaimer: I still haven't seen Wicked or heard all of its songs, but I read all the lyrics and a thorough plot summary.) The opening number "No One Mourns the Wicked" compresses the entire first section of the novel--the circumstances surrounding Elphaba's birth--into just a few minutes of stage time. Because I didn't think that Elphaba's parents were particularly engaging characters, I'm glad that the musical greatly reduces their role.

Another problem with the novel is that it introduces characters and themes, but doesn't really make them pay off. One of Elphaba's schoolmates, who seems like he will be a major character, is Boq, a Munchkin boy. But after the school sequence, Boq disappears from the novel and only comes back for one more brief scene. The musical integrates Boq more fully into the story, adding a twist that reinforces the motif of dramatic irony/connection to the original Wizard of Oz story. And (even though I know it probably happened in order to boost Kristin Chenoweth's role), it makes sense to structure the show around the Elphaba/Glinda friendship, to give it an emotional thread. The complexities of female friendship are not often enough portrayed in musical theater.

Wicked-the-book now has a sequel, Son of a Witch. When it came out, some of my Wicked-loving friends (book and musical) cried "Sacrilege!" or "Sellout!" But honestly, there are so many loose ends in the novel that a sequel doesn't strike me as a bad thing in this case. For example, the Oz system of religious belief seems needlessly complicated for the story that Wicked tells; maybe the sequel takes better advantage of it.

Then again, I'm not really clamoring to read the sequel, especially because I hear it lacks the clever connections to the original Oz books that were some of my favorite parts of Wicked. I liked that Maguire considered how a woman who is deathly allergic to water could live to adulthood, and informed us that the Wicked Witch of the East (Elphaba's sister, Nessarose) was born without arms--after all, the only part of her we ever see in Baum's novel are her feet, crushed by Dorothy's house! Otherwise, I'm beginning to suspect that Maguire has trouble creating vivid, multilayered characters. Elphaba, Glinda, and a few others seem multilayered, but that's because while we read Maguire's book, we are always aware of the way that L. Frank Baum originally described them them, and the discrepancy between the two novels creates a sort of depth. But Maguire's original creations (e.g. Elphaba's parents, Fiyero) won't pass into popular mythology the way that Baum's Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman have.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Understandable madness

I don't watch much TV (in fact I think this is the first time I'm discussing it on my blog) but on Sunday nights I make an exception for Mad Men. People wearing clothes more fabulous than I will ever wear, dealing with more guilt, secrets, and prejudice than I hope I shall ever have to bear! Oh how I love it.

When I watch Mad Men with my mom, that means I'm sitting next to someone who lived in the NY metro area at the time the show takes place. In fact, my mom grew up in Montclair, NJ, so we were excited when last night's episode began with a party at Paul's new house in Montclair. Paul, one of the younger admen, is affecting a "hip" lifestyle--he's moved to Montclair because Greenwich Village is already too passé for him. He has also started dating Sheila, an African-American woman who works at a supermarket. I'll be interested to see if their relationship gains more of a presence on the show as the Civil Rights movement heats up...

Sheila says that she is from South Orange and works at Food Fair--two details that my mom considered spot-on, because South Orange was a predominantly black town and Food Fair a major NJ supermarket chain. And the show also referenced the fact that Montclair is famous for a collection of George Innes paintings--though why did Paul say "Montclair Art Gallery" instead of the correct "Montclair Art Museum"? Perhaps this is just supposed to be one more (very subtle) hint that he is a poser, I said to Mom.

My parents were children at the time Mad Men takes place, and they were a few socioeconomic rungs below Don Draper's family--yet the show helps me to understand the world they came from. Last night's episode ended with a Mass in Latin. This is what my parents grew up hearing, but even though I was raised Catholic, I had never heard a Latin Mass. Strange and wonderful all at once.

Mad Men
also appeals to my sense of historical imagination. I often ask myself what I would have done had I lived in a time or place that is less accepting of women's rights--and wonder if my gay and lesbian friends ask themselves what they would have done if they, too, lived in a less tolerant culture. We, we good 21st-century feminists and gay-rights activists, all like to think that we would have spoken out against injustice and prejudice at every turn. We would have had the common sense and the belief in human dignity that people in the olden days lacked! We would have been different! And there is a trend in middlebrow historical novels and such to portray heroines as "feisty" or "liberated" or "modern" beyond all reasonable probability.

But in reality, you know, most of us would have accepted the norms and values of our culture, not fought against them--just as most of us don't fight wholesale against the culture we live in today, even if we recognize its flaws. Instead, we pick our battles, we avoid causing a ruckus, we use more subtle tactics, and we realize that compromise is often necessary.

And so, had we lived in 1962, many of us wouldn't even have been discontented (I read an essay last semester about how bourgeois women in 1800s France weren't a bunch of frustrated Emma Bovarys--they were perfectly happy raising their children, going to church, upholding strict moral standards). And if we were discontented, we might've had Betty's very Feminine Mystique-y malaise: a secret despair whose root cause we could not identify. We wouldn't have been able to see the forces that hemmed us in. Or maybe, if we were more ambitious, we would have worked within the established system to get ahead--becoming manipulative and foxy like Joan. Very, very few of us would have been like Peggy--breaking into traditionally male professions and wanting respect on our own terms.

And Peggy could so easily have become one of those irritatingly modern-seeming female characters--the "secretly brilliant woman whom everyone else underestimates." Well, yes, that's a part of who she is, but Mad Men never hesitates to show that a woman in her position is still defined by her compromises and sacrifices. Last night's episode showed her kissing a cute guy at Paul's party then turning him down--because she has learned the hard way that she cannot afford love (or even, it seems, friendship). The show pays similar attention to the sacrifices made by Salvatore, the closeted gay art director who has a new wife. When I watch Mad Men, I think about what I would have done if I were in Peggy's or Salvatore's position--and though it is easy for us modern viewers to disagree with the choices they make, can any of us really say that we would have been able to do better?

Photo 1: Paul, Sheila and Joan. Photo 2: Salvatore and Peggy. Images from

Saturday, August 2, 2008

12 Ophelias, 1 Degree of Separation

Hey! Did you all take a gander at the audio slide show that's heading the New York Times theater page right now?

It's about a play called Twelve Ophelias, written by Caridad Svich and premiering at the McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn. The images look beautiful--the perfect way to spend a New York summer twilight. And I like the kind of rag-tag, do-it-yourself aesthetic of the production--an antidote to the false idea that New York theater must be flashy and expensive.

But, OK, this really caught my attention because the director/slide-show narrator is Teddy Bergman, who was a senior at Vassar when I was a freshman. He played either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern (you can't expect me to remember which one, can you?) in Stoppard's play, so it's interesting that now he's directing another take-off on Hamlet. He also made a memorable Alan Strang when his student-theater group, Woodshed, produced Equus--and now Twelve Ophelias is being produced by the Woodshed Collective. It makes me happy to see ideas formed at college being taken out into "the real world."

I have also met Pepper Binkley, the actress who plays Ophelia--not that she'd remember me or anything, but she was at PCS two summers ago playing the lead role in the JAW workshop of A Feminine Ending.

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