Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Drum-roll Please, Here They Are ... The Best Books of the Year!

Well, it's that time of year again! Everyone is making their "best of" year-end review lists, and I am no exception. As I've done for the past few years, I'm rounding up here the best books of 2014.

The list is once again broken up into two categories - children's books and books for adults. Although it seems like ages ago already, I was working in a day care for the first half of this year so the list is rather heavy on board books and picture books this year. These are all great reads to share with your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, etc.

On this list, graphic novels are indicated by this symbol ^ after the title, and nonfiction titles are noted with a ** after the name. Any books that were re-reads for me have a (2) after the title. As these books are all great, I did not further rank them; the list order is not be taken as such a representation. Rather, it is organized alphabetically for ease of use. All the books are linked to my LibraryThing reviews of them so you can find out more information about that book and why I've chosen to place it on this list.

Please note, as always, this list does not necessarily represent books published in 2014 but rather books that I read throughout the year. These are the books I enjoyed the most and/or lingered in my mind the longest after finishing them. Hopefully this list will prompt you to pick up some books gathering dust on your shelf or give you some new recommendations for great reads - for you or for the children in your life!

Miss JJ's Best Books of 2014


Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan^ by J. Michael Straczynski
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
The Biting Solution: The Expert's No-Biting Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Early Childhood Educators** by Lisa Poelle
The Bridge by Iain Banks
Dr. Seuss from Then to Now** by the San Diego Museum of Art
The Guy Not Taken: Stories by Jennifer Weiner
Let's Pretend This Never Happened** by Jenny Lawson
The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith
The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits** by Les Standiford
The Oscar Wilde Collection by Oscar Wilde
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
These Few Precious Days: The Final Year of Jack with Jackie** by Christopher Andersen
The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Twelve Years a Slave** by Solomon Northup
Unbroken** by Lauren Hillenbrand
Watchmen as Literature** by Sara J. Van Ness
The Wordy Shipmates** by Sarah Vowell
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood


10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle
The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins by Dr. Seuss
Are You My Mother? (2) by P.D. Eastman
Big Dog, Little Dog by P.D. Eastman
The Birthday Box/Mi Caja de Cumpleanos by Leslie Patricelli
Bringing in the New Year by Grace Lin
Bugs Galore by Peter Stein
The Cat in the Hat (2) by Dr. Seuss
Circle, Square, Moose by Kelly L. Bingham
Colors versus Shapes by Mike Boldt
Dear Zoo (2) by Rod Campbell
D Is for Dragon Dance by Ying Chang Compestine
Do You Know Pippi Longstocking? (2) by Astrid Lindgren
A Drop of Rain by Wong Herbert Lee
The Dark by Lemony Snicket
Fancy Nancy: Bonjour, Butterfly by Jane O'Connor
Fancy Nancy's Marvelous Mother's Day Brunch by Jane O'Connor
A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer
Five Green and Speckled Frogs by Priscilla Burris
Five Little Ducks by Raffi
Frog and Toad Are Friends (2) by Arnold Lobel
Geoffrey Groundhog Predicts the Weather by Bruce Koscielniak
Gerald McBoing Boing by Dr. Seuss
Go to Sleep, Groundhog by Judy Cox
Happy St. Patrick's Day, Curious George! by H.A. Rey
Help! We Need a Title! by Herve Tullet
Honk! Honk! by Mick Manning
Honk, Honk, Goose! by April Pulley Sayre
Huggy Kissy by Leslie Patricelli
I Can Lick Thirty Tigers Today! by Dr. Seuss
I Love My Daddy Because ... (2) by Laurel Porter-Gaylord
I Took the Moon for a Walk (2) by Carolyn Curtis
I Was Kissed by a Seal at the Zoo by Helen Palmer
The Journey by Sarah Stewart
Just Say Boo! by Susan Hood
Katie and the Spanish Princess by James Mayhew
Katie and the Starry Night (2) by James Mayhew
Katie and the Sunflowers by James Mayhew
Katie Meets the Impressionists by James Mayhew
Katy Duck Is a Caterpillar by Alyssa Satin Capucilli
The Legend of Ninja Cowboy Bear by David Bruins
The Library by Sarah Stewart
L'il Rabbit's Kwanzaa by Donna L. Washington
Look, Listen, Taste, Touch, and Smell: Learning about Your Five Senses** by Pamela Hill Nettleton
Mix It Up! by Herve Tullet
Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? (2) by Dr. Seuss
My Many Colored Days (2) by Dr. Seuss
No Biting! by Karen Katz
No More Biting for Billy Goat! by Bernadette Ford
No More Hitting for Little Hamster! by Bernadette Ford
No No Yes Yes by Leslie Patricelli
The Number 2 (Numbers in My World) by Ella Hawley
The Number 3 (Numbers in My World) by Ella Hawley
The Number 4 (Numbers in My World) by Ella Hawley
Oh, The Places He Went: A Story about Dr. Seuss** by Maryann N. Weidt
One Moose, Twenty Mice by Clare Beaton
One Smart Goose by Caroline Jayne Church
Papa, Please Get the Moon For Me by Eric Carle
Press Here (2) by Herve Tullet
Purple Sock, Pink Sock by Jonathan Allen
Quiet Loud by Leslie Patricelli
Scratch and Sniff Shopping by DK Publishing
A Stick Is an Excellent Thing: Poems Celebrating Outdoor Play by Marilyn Singer
Teeth Are Not for Biting by Elizabeth Verdick
Ten Black Dots by Donald Crews
Ten Grouchy Groundhogs by Kathryn Heling
Touch the Art: Brush Mona Lisa's Hair by Julie Appel
Touch the Art: Feed Matisse's Fish by Julie Appel
Touch the Art: Make Van Gogh's Bed by Julie Appel
Up the Steps, Down the Slide by Jonathan Allen
Visit to the Dentist by Eve Marleau
Whatever After: Fairest of All by Sarah Mlynowski
Yummy Yucky by Leslie Patricelli
Zero the Hero by Joan Holub
Z Is for Moose by Kelly L. Bingham

Happy reading my friends and best wishes for a wonderful New Year!!

^ = Graphic novel
** = Nonfiction title
(2) = A book I re-read

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dear Old Daddy Longlegs

It may not be super obvious based on my past posts here, but I have a penchant for old movies made in the 1950s or roughly around then. Sadly, it's an age fraught with a variety of problems around representations of women and racial minorities, but I still look on it as a golden age of film in many respects (and I'm not alone). This time period saw the heyday of iconic actors including but not limited to Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, and so many others that I love. It's also a time filled with spectacular directors such as the great Billy Wilder, whose movies are all worth watching for one reason or another. And it's also the era of the big studio musicals, movies designed to show off the various singing and dancing talents of the main stars and churned out with some regularity. Think of such classics as White Christmas, Easter Parade, and Singin' in the Rain multiplied several times a year per studio, and you've got the idea. Nowadays, musicals seem mostly relegated to the realm of children, specifically for Disney movies. There are still some musical movies for adults hitting it big today (Les Miserables being a recent example), but these tend to be few and far between, nothing like the days of old when you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting into another musical.

All that long introduction is to say that when Netflix recommended I watch Daddy Long Legs, a musical starring Fred Astaire that I hadn't seen yet, I jumped on the opportunity. Fred Astaire isn't a name I feel like I have to explain, but I will note that he starred in some of my favorite old movies to watch over and over again - 1957's Funny Face in which he co-starred with Audrey Hepburn (and the movie that first got me into watching older movies) and 1951's Royal Wedding where he shared the spotlight with Jane Powell, Sarah Churchill (daughter of Winston), and Peter Lawford (brother-in-law to JFK). As an interesting aside, it's worth noting the latter movie contains the famous scene of Astaire "dancing on the ceiling" because he is so in love with Churchill's character. Daddy Long Legs co-stars a young Leslie Caron, better known for her title role in 1958's Gigi as well as her breakout role in the 1951 musical An American in Paris.

Original movie poster for Daddy Long Legs
Like many of Astaire's films (and indeed 1950s musicals in general), the movie Daddy Long Legs seems to be built up around the musical numbers with the plot following as secondary, almost becoming a vehicle in place merely to hold together the singing and dancing in one handy location. This method is successful at times ... and other times, you end up with something like Daddy Long Legs. There are so many long song and dance numbers that they seem to crowd out the development of the characters into fully actualized beings who change over time in a way that at least slightly resembles realism. Meanwhile, literally years pass by in the movie without being explored in terms of characters or plot. If the movie were something scrapped together by hack screenwriters looking to expand upon some musical numbers by a big composer like Irving Berlin or George Gershwin, this would be more understandable. But there is actually a source material that the screenwriters could have used for a more fully fleshed out story. (Incidentally, the screenwriters in question were the husband-and-wife team Henry and Phoebe Ephron who wrote such classics as Desk Set and There's No Business Like Show Business. The pair also produced four daughters who turned to writing careers, including screenwriters Delia and Nora Ephron, who in turn wrote more modern romantic comedy standards such as Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail.)

Daddy Long Legs is evidently based on a book published in 1912 by Jean Webster (great-niece of Mark Twain), written in the epistolary style, and designed for an audience of young women in high school and college. Hence the protagonist - Jerusha "Judy" Abbott in the novel and re-branded as Julie Andre in the movie - is a teen-aged girl entering into college at the beginning of the story. While I've never read the book, from what I can gather the novel Daddy-Long-Legs (note the hyphens in the book's title) and the movie Daddy Long Legs (sans hyphens) share a very similar plot but vary greatly in presentation and exploration of themes. As Astaire is the bigger star here, the perspective of the story of Daddy Long Legs shifts dramatically from that of Daddy-Long-Legs. Here the focus is largely on Astaire's character of Jervis Pendleton and we actually see very little from Julie, as opposed to the book being almost entirely from Judy's point of view and voice as she writes letters. Therefore, Webster's exploration of a young woman coming to age and learning about herself is nearly entirely obliterated. Apparently Webster was greatly interested in women's suffrage and chose to explore themes related to women's issues in her books - something that becomes completely irrelevant and untouched upon when the movie switches the narrative perspective to that of the middle-aged male Pendleton.

Before I get too much further ahead of myself, I'd like to take a step back and give you a brief overview of the plot of Daddy Long Legs before analyzing it in the terms of an entirely different movie's title, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Daddy Long Legs opens with an irresponsible Jervis Pendleton III being far more interested in playing on his drums all day (literally) than in working for his family's company, which rakes in millions of dollars for him. Later on a trip to France, a mishap with the car leads Pendleton to an orphanage where he espies a pretty young girl working with the younger children. The matron of the orphanage explains that the 18-year-old woman, Miss Julie Andre, was herself raised in the orphanage and now has no where else to go. Although he doesn't meet her, Pendleton is struck by the grace of Julie and decides he wants to "adopt" her. When he approaches officials by this, they are shocked at the suggestion and presume that Pendleton is looking for a young mistress or some other nefarious purpose. When Pendleton says he merely wants to give her a chance at a college education in the United States (apparently there are no colleges for women in France?) and declares that he will be an anonymous donor who will not contact Miss Andre, a deal is struck. Miss Andre is packed off to a small all-girls college in Massachusetts and writes updates to her anonymous donor who she has dubbed "Daddy Long Legs" based on the orphanage children telling her that he was very tall when they caught a glimpse of his shadow retreating from the orphanage. Meanwhile, Pendleton is happy to go on living his carefree life until his business manager Griggs and his secretary Miss Prichard insist he read the letters written by Miss Andre that have been piling up in a filing cabinet. He does so and is touched by the young woman's desire to meet him, but he still remains aloof. As his niece attends the same college as Julie (and Griggs has arranged for them to be roommates), Pendleton decides to visit the school just in time for a dance, at which he woos Julie before almost immediately afterwards ditching her because of his continued concerns about appearances. Julie spends the rest of her college days ruing over her lost love of "Uncle Jervis." But eventually all's well that ends well ... Hey, I have to leave a little bit of mystery for anyone who actually wants to watch this movie after my not-so-glowing review of it. Now onwards to my interpretation of the movie's merits and demerits.

The Good

Publicity still from Daddy Long Legs
The movie succeeds best at delivering on its star quality. Astaire and Caron make for an interesting duo, with his talent lying more in tap and hers in ballet. There are a few notable sequences in Daddy Long Legs, particularly of interest for their exploration of dream-like states, which makes for a rather logical break from relative realism into a song/dance routine. (It is frequently a criticism of musicals that no one breaks out into song and dance during real-life day-to-day activities. Clearly these people never have any fun and don't "whistle while they work," so to speak. Also, I'm not sure if these people then only watch super-gritty and realistic movies and avoid all romantic comedies, superhero, science fiction, fantasy, and action movies altogether. If so, well, bully for them, but I think the rest of us prefer a little bit of entertaining escapism now and then. And some of us like that escapism to occasionally be expressed with song and dance.) These dream-like routines are a rather fascinating departure from many studio musicals and are rather avant-garde in that respect. They remind me of a musical version of Dali's dream sequence, which also seemed like an unusual - but fitting - inclusion in a classic Hollywood film. But back to the musical numbers of Daddy Long Legs. Namely, these sequences stand out amongst the pack:

- A long daydream sequence based on the fantasy musings of Andre regarding the personality of her anonymous patron. This is composed of three shorter sequences - "Texas Millionaire," a feisty tap dance sequence with a solo Astaire all fluid motion and making it look easy; "International Playboy," a brief sequence based more in the world of ballroom dance, in which Astaire dances about and with numerous amorous female partners (this is, however, the weakest part of this sequence as Astaire does very little dancing in here); and "Guardian Angel," a lengthier sequence with ballet influences featuring both Astaire and Caron together. This last one is especially interesting for introducing the stage-like scenery of storefronts, an art direction that will emerge again later in the movie as a secondary dream-like dance sequence also makes uses of stage scenery. These sets are beautifully done throughout the movie, showcasing various artistic styles with panache. Also, Caron's en pointe dancing here does the unthinkable in stealing the limelight away from Astaire for a change. As she twirls about, it is impossible not to watch her and Astaire seems to fade into the background with just a few swooshes of his own for good measure.

- The trendy new dance at Julie's college known as "Sluefoot." It starts off as a just so-so choreographed piece that turns into a thing of beauty when Astaire steps in and he and Caron end up as the only two left on the floor. Granted, it's packaged in a whole lot of cheesiness (not least of all the ending with everyone carrying the two dancers atop their shoulders), but this one also gets some bonus points for trying to make a logical insertion of a dance routine - into a college dance, of course! The Sluefoot never took off as a real dance craze and that's probably for the best, but Astaire and Caron do show off some seriously sweet steps here.

- Andre and Pendleton's somewhat accidental New York City trip leads to the introduction of the song "Something's Gotta Give," written by Johnny Mercer expressly for Fred Astaire to sing in this movie, although is now a love song standard covered by so many iconic artists. The initial blocking of the scene as Astaire sings is perhaps not the greatest, as it's always difficult in cinema to have a few minutes dedicated to just watching someone sing, but at least they try here to make it interesting. But the dance routine that follows is delightful and deceptively simple. Astaire and Caron are both so light on their feet that they appear weightless as they twirl and swirl about the hotel's balcony and out into the streets of New York. Apparently this final montage dance was never actually rehearsed, but it came out just fine nonetheless.

- The second lengthy dream sequence when Andre falls asleep to thoughts of how unhappy she is that Pendleton is traveling all over the world without her. In the first, known as "Nightmare Ballet," Caron is given a solo opportunity to show off her dancing skills in a fairly traditional ballet number, which is beautifully rendered and like a mini-trip to the ballet, giving just enough of a taste to whet the appetite for more. The second number is the "Hong Kong Cafe," a sultry and risque dance routine that is fully engaging to the eyes and ears, even if a little out of place with the rest of the movie. The final part, "Rio," is the weakest link in terms of the dance number itself, although it does illuminate Andre's state of mind and feelings regarding Pendleton even more so than the previous two segments. Part of that includes Julie dressed in the role of the sad clown Pierrot, a common trope I discussed in detail in a previous post. Apparently this three-part sequence, totaling to 12 minutes of purely dance routines, was not widely regarded as useful to the film's plotting or pace. I have to disagree as I think this part gives us more insight into Julie's mind than most of the rest of the movie! That may be a bit of hyperbole, but it certainly does lend itself to character development, which I enjoy. The surreal feel of this section of the movie is a bold move (although fitting with the other dream-like parts of the movie) that I personally loved as Surrealism is one of my favorite artistic styles. For the critics to this sequence, I'd also like to note that if watching 12 minutes of music and dance is too much for you, then maybe musicals aren't the genre for you.

- The brief sequence to the reprisal of the song "Dream" (also by Johnny Mercer) that closes out the movie. While it's a short piece with a relatively simple dance, it's again the graceful weightlessness of Astaire and Caron that steals the show.

Beyond the musical and dancing abilities of the two leads, this movie also brilliantly cast the roles of Pendleton's associates, Griggs and Miss Prichard. Played by character actors Fred Clark and Thelma Ritter respectively, these two characters breathe a little more life into the movie and serve as foils to Astaire's character. While they may seem stuffier at the movie's opening, they remind Pendleton of what it means to care for another human being. As Miss Prichard puts it (and later Griggs repeats), "a person is NOT a corporation! A person is flesh and blood ... and feelings!" It's a surprisingly modern quote as we are currently stuck in a political debate in which the idea of personhood is constantly being negotiated and corporations seemingly have it, even if they don't have flesh and blood and feelings.

The Bad

Despite actually owning copies of Gigi and An American in Paris, this is the first movie that I've seen starring Leslie Caron. I found that I'm rather surprised her name is often included in the same breath with some of Hollywood's elite classic actors, as I was disappointed with her performance. Her dancing was incredible in the finished product, as I've noted above, although rumor is that Astaire noted he had difficulty dancing with her. Her acting was only so-so at best, with her mostly wearing this placid "dumb" face (for lack of better terminology) throughout the movie. Think Kristen Stewart throughout the majority of the Twilight movies and you have the general idea. She also goes from playing the naive ingenue to throwing out saucy hints of innuendo far too quickly and then back again rapidly to innocence, although this may be a fault more of the script then of Caron's acting. At this stage in the game, it's hard to know. But what bothered me most about her was the awful accent. Perhaps the director asked her to ham up her accent, but Caron - a native Frenchwoman, mind you - has one of the worse overly dramatic nasally French accents I've ever heard. It was painful to listen to at times.

Caron's French girl is pretty much the only "other" character we see in the movie, which is jam packed solely with Caucasian characters. The movie is a product of the 1950s, so it's pretty much unsurprising that we don't see a single person of African, Latino, or Asian backgrounds, even when we enter a dream state taking place in Hong Kong. Given how badly 1950s movies could mess up depictions of racial minorities, it may end up being a good thing that Daddy Long Legs didn't even attempt to add in a character of color. The movie already struggles with troubling depictions of women, so why give it any more fodder for things we have to dismiss with a shrug and say, well, it's a product of its time? If you want to watch something with actual diversity in it, don't expect to find it here.

While most of the movie's song and dance numbers are the highlights of the film, there are some sequences that just seemed to drag to me. The first number is "History of the Beat," and it occurs early on in the film. Pendleton is right away introduced as a character who doesn't seem to have a lot of discipline and isn't particularly interested in making business decisions; he's much more fascinated with listening to music and playing the drums. Only thing is, we never again see this hobby again - sure, he dances a bunch later and sings a little because it's a musical, but it's no longer a key component of his personality that he plays the drums instead of working or that he has a large record collection. The dance routine here is in itself perfectly fine and Astaire once again shows off his amazing skills, but the song isn't that compelling. Moreover, the placement of this number early on in the movie when so little has been explained yet (and Julie hasn't even been on screen once at this point) leads to the feeling of this just being a fluff piece that does little to add to the movie. It did, however, add to my feeling of this being a dragging number. If a movie, even a musical, is going to lead early on with a song and dance number, it has to be a really compelling one that pushes the plot forward or does a lot to explain the characterization of a particular person or persons that isn't already explained through the dialogue or action. It can't just be a song that someone liked and couldn't seem to fit in elsewhere. There are a couple of other songs sung by Caron and others when her character is still in the orphanage and when she first enters college that also seem to be there for little purpose and seem to slow down the pacing of the movie.

The Ugly

While these complaints above are not exactly gold stars for the film, they are not enough to sink it either. But there is a much bigger problem with this film that is very difficult to overcome. And that's the fact that the movie's basic premise is just kind of creepy. Pendleton's age is never openly stated but Astaire was in his mid-fifties at the time this movie was filmed, and we can gather that his character is meant to be roughly his own age. Likewise, Caron was in her early 20s while making this film and is meant to play a character of college age, beginning the film at age 18 (specifically stated in the movie's dialogue) and ending roughly around age 22 (doing simple math gets us here). So we're talking about a 30-year age gap here. This kind of age gap in a romantic film can be done, and indeed has been done, without being as disquieting. In Funny Face, the movie I mentioned earlier as one of my favorite old movies, the age gap between Astaire and Hepburn is nearly 30 years as well; another of my favorite movies, Sabrina, pairs Hepburn with Humphrey Bogart, then several decades her senior. Those films manage to negotiate the age difference without giving the feeling that there are paedophiles just hanging all about old Hollywood. Many other films of this era also feature large age gaps between the male and female protagonists; indeed, this continues to be true today.

But there's something about this film that just adds such an ick factor to the romance. Pendleton being the guardian to Julie - even with it being done anonymously - definitely makes for an eerie incestuous vibe, especially when she addresses her letters to "Dear Daddy Long Legs." Her misconceptions of who her guardian is (since she has nothing to base her ideas of him on but her own imagination) add to this feeling as well. She describes an old, frail, bald man who she is going to care for when she gets out of college. Maybe this is meant to highlight that Pendleton is not as decrepit as all that and therefore it's okay for him and Julie to end up together, but for me it just lead to an ugly picture of a decade down the road when Julie is in her prime and Pendleton is ready for retirement. Given that Pendleton acts like a child most of the time and needs to have his feet held to the fire (metaphorically of course) by Griggs and Miss Prichard in order to accomplish anything, I can certainly picture an image of domestic life in which Julie is running about attending to all of Pendleton's needs and helping him to function like a normal person while she gets very little in return but his money. In essence, she is the definition of a trophy wife - young, pretty, and in this case, willing to do anything for her sponsor.

Another original movie poster

I feel like the movie does try to address the age differential in a meaningful way but in doing so, it just makes the situation worse. As one reviewer puts it, "Confronting the age problem head on, well, that's honest, but confronting the problem isn't quite the same as solving it. Fred's still old, and Leslie's still young." There just seems to be no fixing that. In fact, that Pendleton's initial attempt to "adopt" Julie is treated with disgust and disdain, with the idea that he could only want to do so for some sick purpose, ends up planting the idea in the viewer's head that Pendleton's intentions are perhaps less than honorable. After all, he has no interest in doing anything for any other child at the orphanage, though no doubt they are also in need just like Julie - or will be in the same boat as her a few years down the line. Pendleton may go on to forget completely about her for several years but once he reads her letters (again, remember these are written to a person she regards as a father figure), he finds himself fascinated by her. He has no qualms about visiting her at school under the guise of visiting his niece. Another creep factor is that Pendleton seems to have no problem - or even need to acknowledge - that his niece and his would-be lover are the same age and friends with each other. Indeed, no one else seems to be bothered by this either. It'd be one thing if there wasn't a large age gap between uncle and niece, but we've already established there's a roughly three decade difference between them.

One could argue that the disturbing factor is lessened by Julie falling in love with Pendleton unawares that he is her guardian, making the decision more hers than his, but I think that would be a weak argument. Pendleton is pretty relentless is pursuing her at the school dance, making overtures toward her under the nominal auspice of just wanting to learn more about his protegee. He even goes so far as to hire a rival boy from a local men's college so that he may employ him in another country and thus keep him far away from Julie. It's pretty hard to make an argument that Julie had much of choice but being interested in Pendleton when he put in extra effort to make sure any competition for the art of wooing was out of sight.

Eventually, Pendleton goes away after he realizes that his wooing of Julie is perhaps inappropriate. Of course, rather than address her like a fellow adult and explain the situation, he simply drops out of sight for months on end and has no contact with her as he globe trots instead, once again showing that despite his age, he really has zero maturity. Meanwhile, Julie becomes this rather annoying character who begins to sit around moping all day and collecting newspaper clippings of Pendleton's gallivants. She seems to have no plans for her future life once she graduates college (which is now an impending deadline), whether it be a job or even a place to live. Yes, the movie was made in the 1950s, based on novel written in the earliest decades of the 20th century, but one still desires a slightly more interesting female lead than this. And again, it doesn't help with the yuck factor that Pendleton returns into Julie's life just when she's at a point in which she has no where else to go and no one else to turn to as she looks to the future. One reviewer (who actually read the original source material, unlike me) notes that the creep factor can be somewhat lessened by the Judy character (here known as Julie) because of her ability to be "awesome" and purportedly hold her own against Pendleton. We see none of that here as Julie does virtually nothing to propel her own life forward, but just sits around waiting for things to happen to her. So there's absolutely nothing to offset the feeling of perverseness surrounding a love affair between a middle-aged man and his young guardian.

All of the actions taken by Pendleton, and the relative inaction from Julie, definitely leads to the overall feeling that this romance is anything but romantic. The fact that there is basically zero chemistry between Astaire and Caron doesn't help to sell it. At the time of this movie's making, Astaire had very recently lost his wife to lung cancer and had tried to back out of making this film, so that could certainly be an element at play here. Astaire reportedly went into his trailer between takes to cry, so this is obviously not him at his happiest or most cheerful, to say the least. (He was apparently also considering a retirement from musical pictures at this point in this life, but fortunately for us decided to move on from this film to co-starring with Hepburn in Funny Face just a year after this one.) It's really hard to have a successful romantic musical in which the romance is a hard sell.

While my modern sensibilities (and especially my strong feminist streak) may be influencing me here, it's worth noting that while this movie was not necessarily a flop, it was not a huge success at the time of its release either. Whether that was due to the lack of a romance that didn't leave viewers feeling kind of grossed out or another factor all together is now probably difficult to tell. The film did manage to garner three Academy Award nominations, proving once again that the Academy doesn't always know what it's doing. However, those nominations were for art direction, score, and original song, which are pretty much the highlights of this film. Nevertheless, this is one old movie that doesn't lend itself to the title "classic" at all and one that I think you're better off missing. Check out the dance sequences linked to above in "the good" section to get the highlights and save yourself from spending a full two hours on a movie not worth it.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Don't Trust Your Safety in the Hands of The Lifeguard

Memorial Day weekend is the traditional unofficial start of summer, replete with barbeques and other outdoor soirees. Having been rushing from place to place all weekend, when I woke up early this morning, I just wanted to relax and sit back to watch something unexpected. I chose The Lifeguard, a 2013 film starring Kristen Bell. When this movie initially came out, I was excited to see Bell in a feature film that wasn't a B-level comedy and thus something very different for her that might show off the fabulous dramatic acting chops all we Veronica Mars fans know she has in her. But when I heard more about the film's premise, I wasn't sure if I'd want to watch if after all. In the end, when the movie showed up on Netflix, I decided to add it to my queue and today it seemed like the best candidate for my mood.

The Lifeguard is a slow moving but engrossing film about Leigh London, an almost 30-year-old ("29 and 10 months" as her mother points out early on) Associated Press journalist living in New York City and having an affair with her supervisor. When the latter gets engaged to someone else and seems to be dismissing what Leigh considers an important story by relegating it to a lesser section, she has a bit of crisis and decides to take a leave of absence. Leigh grabs up a duffle bag and her cat Moose before returning to her parents' house in Connecticut, where she picks up right where she left off. She gets a job as a summer lifeguard at the community pool and starts socializing with her former high school chums Mel and Todd. The trio end up spending a lot of their free time hanging out with a trio of current high school students, wannabe drop-outs who join the older crew in drinking and smoking weed out in the woods. And that's when things start to heat up between Leigh and 16-year-old "Little Jason," in a situation that every viewer knows will never end well.

It's hard to know where to even begin with discussing The Lifeguard. As I mentioned above, it definitely held my attention despite being a movie without any big special effects or honestly even a huge amount of backstory (the short time frame of an hour and an half meant that a lot of the past lives of these characters was mentioned in passing only or not fully explained). There is, however, a decent amount of time invested in exploring these characters right now and trying to elucidate their complicated feelings. The Lifeguard is one of those rare pieces of art in which you can enjoy the product without actually liking a single character. For instance, Leigh is the film's main focus and she's hardly someone you can root for, especially as her actions take her down more and more twisted paths. As the movie unfolds, you learn more about Leigh's past as the perpetual "good girl" - the school valedictorian who made all the right choices and never once before questioned where she was going. You can feel a little bit of sympathy for her as she starts to unravel and wonders what's next for her life; for instance, you can really see her conflicted feelings as she tries to council Jason about staying in high school and getting a college degree as she herself is back in her high school job making barely above minimum wage after years of pushing herself to do her best in school. At the same time, however, the rushed introduction to the movie leaves you wondering what exactly caused Leigh to have this un-epiphany that left her feeling so unfocused. The story that she wrote was certainly something to bother and unnerve her, but it was hardly something to make her abandon everything on seemingly a whim. As for her relationship with her supervisor, it should hardly have come to a shock to anyone that a person who is cheating is going to eventually disappoint. Meanwhile, Leigh seemingly doesn't use any of her time in Connecticut to reflect or mature. Instead, she reverts to becoming a rebellious teen, spending her time being completely inconsiderate to her parents, working in a dead-end job, drinking and smoking in the woods, and literally hanging out with teenagers. As someone roughly the same age as Leigh and her friends, I honestly can't see the appeal of many of their actions even if I can understand some of their philosophical concerns. Things finally hit bottom in terms of the viewer's ability to empathize with Leigh when she becomes involved statutory rape. She may be lost and confused, but that doesn't make it even remotely right for her to take up a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy. The fact that nearly ever other character is unfazed by this turn of events may tamp down the outrage factor a bit, but no viewer is giving Leigh the person of the year award by the end of the movie.

The other characters are similarly unlikeable, if not quite at the same level. Leigh's father is the only exception to the rule in the movie; he seems like a genuinely jovial guy that anyone would like to spend time with for a friendly brunch or something. However, he's so little seen in the movie that his presence is negligible. Leigh's mother is so wrapped up in her own affairs that she can provide absolutely no anchor or guidance for Leigh as she flounders about pathetically. Again, there's a little bit of sympathy as her mother tries to explain how for years she felt like her existence was tied up with Leigh's and now is the time in her life to do something for herself, but she is so cold and harsh throughout that it's not hard to see how Leigh could turn out the way she did. Mel is a hot mess - she was apparently the one who was the antithesis of the "good girl" in high school but now she's turned her life around and seems to have all the markers of success - she's married and holds a good, steady job as the high school vice principal. But with Leigh back in her life and her own fears about not getting pregnant - or about getting pregnant and not being a good mother - rearing their ugly head, Mel backslides and becomes involved in these stupid delinquent behaviors. Her relationship with her husband seems anything but happy for the majority of the movie, and Mel just seems to be floundering as well. Todd is unhappy with his small-town life but doesn't want to take the initiative to change anything about his life, hiding behind thin excuses and choosing to forget his troubles by drowning them in alcohol and drugs. Jason and his friends are typical conflicted teenagers but are arguably more on the "bad kid" side than most; they all appear to have a lot of baggage in their lives but most of that is explored only peripherally. For example, "Big Jason," the father of the teen, refers obliquely to some rough things that happened in his son's life but doesn't expand on this at all. Big Jason, although playing but a small part in the movie, is also a character you can't get behind. He seems to pay little to no attention to his son, despite professing that the child has had major challenges to get through, and doesn't have the slightest concern about a woman nearly twice Jason's age striking up a relationship with him.

One thing I could definitely say was of interest about the movie is that it certainly makes you think. You could argue after watching this movie that the film isn't just about a generation (specifically, my generation) of unfocused and confused people - those who are adults in name and age but haven't quite figured out what that really means yet. It's also about exposing this myth that small towns are full of wholesome goodness while big cities are where the filth lives. Leigh finds something horrific in her story at the beginning of the movie (and let's not even go in the symbolism of that story, as the movie does expound on this pretty well on its own) and leaves the city, but she doesn't find solace in her hometown. There is tragedy awaiting her in the small town, and no one there seems to be completely free of baggage or fears of some sort. Everyone seems to be in some sort of crisis, whether it's the agony of being a teenager and hating everything in your life, the confusion of being a young adult who is trying to figure out where life goes next, or the disappointment of being a middle-aged person having to re-invent yourself after a big chunk of your life has changed. It's like someone was illustrating Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development by showing only the negative crises.

The movie can also be seen as a commentary of gender roles and inequality in so many different aspects. While a small part of the movie, the crisis that Leigh's mother seems to be having after her daughter grows up and arguably doesn't need her any more is contrasted by her father being perfectly okay with her coming or going. Motherhood is an all-encompassing identity in a way that fatherhood isn't. This is reflected in the younger generation with Mel reacting extremely - and poorly - to the theoretical idea of becoming a parent while her husband seems completely unfazed by it. There's also the relationship between Leigh and Little Jason to consider. Early on, it's hinted that Todd is gay and Mel suggests that he may be interested in one of the boys. This seems to be condoned far more than her initial suspicions of Leigh and Little Jason's attraction to one another. Combine this with Big Jason's reaction upon hearing the news, and it's really not a pretty picture. It reflects real-life courts of opinion where older men having sex with teen-aged girls are consider perverts at best and rapists at worst while older women having sex with teen-aged boys is sadly brushed off by many as a sort of great achievement for the boys. It's a scary example of cognitive dissonance in which an age differential between sexual partners is both damaging and enviable, depending on the gender reversal. It was interesting to learn that this movie was written and directed by a woman; as I've noted before and many more articulate people than I have stated, when women get a voice in the arena everyone benefits from hearing their stories. In Hollywood, this means we get more than the standard fare of "chick flicks" that are simply romantic fantasies just as much about the leading man as the woman nominally at the heart of it. We get thought-provoking stories about all kinds of things beyond just romantic relationships and true female leads - sometimes strong and independent ones who we'd love to emulate, sometimes messy and confused ones who we vow never to become like.

Some final bits and pieces about the movie include a compelling soundtrack that meshed nicely with the cinematography and the overt themes. The cinematography was overall done very well, although there were a few scenes here and there with shaky camera work. I know this is a darling technique of filmmaker to symbolize any number of things including the characters' confused and hence shaken states of mind, but it's a pet peeve that I find distracting. When it's used too much, I feel like reprimanding the cameraperson with a stern "Just focus already!" With the pool and water being used as background - and symbols - a great deal, there's also a few times where we get the water on the camera lens issue also; this is another pet peeve of mine as I feel it serves to remind you of the fourth wall and thus takes you out of the experience of the movie's actions and into the experience of being a viewer. As I mentioned earlier, the beginning with Leigh's life in New York City was a little rushed with short clips of different situations all being sliced together in rapid succession. Perhaps the argument could be made that this was to give the viewer a sense of Leigh's confusion during this time period but I think it ended up providing a very incomplete view of what was going on at this point.

With all that mind, I'd recommend The Lifeguard for people who enjoy movies that make them think and provide slice-of-life portrayals of characters who resemble real people more than stock stereotypes. If you want action and characters you can love, don't even think about checking out this movie. But if you don't mind a messy set of characters struggling with life choices, you might just get pulled in to the pool alongside The Lifeguard.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

It Came in the Night, Night, Night: Rabbit's Moon

All of the talk this past month about the Chinese lunar rover Jade Rabbit has been making me think about Rabbit's Moon, a brief avant-garde film from boundary-pushing filmmaker Kenneth Anger. I first came across this short several years ago at an "Art After Hours" event at the Zimmerli Art Museum, which featured a screening of several of Anger's films as part of the evening's showcase. The other two films (Fireworks and Scorpio Rising) were so full of sadomasochism that it's difficult for me to say I "enjoyed" them, and I also think they took these dark elements a bit too far to be truly good films. But Rabbit's Moon has stuck with me over the years, with its punchy yet haunting soundtrack and cheesy but effective visuals. Filmed under a blue filter, the other worldly quality of the images also leave a lasting impression.

From the outset of this post, I should note that Kenneth Anger played around with Rabbit's Moon several times over a nearly 30-year period, editing it for length and changing the background music. The version which I prefer over all others is the final cut from 1979, and that is the one I will focus on here. It happens to be the shortest of all the versions (boiled down from 16 minutes with the original 1950 version to just under seven minutes); I think the reduction of the source material to its core elements makes it more emotionally resonating. Sometimes less really is more. The 1950 and 1972 versions boast a soundtrack consisting mostly of 1950s popular love ballads such as "I Only Have Eyes for You" and "Oh, What a Night." In contrast, the 1979 version features the more obscure 1976 glam rock song "It Came in the Night" by A Raincoat, which plays twice in a row in order to accompany the entirety of the film. This song is addictively catchy, and I also thinks it mirrors the film's content in a supplementary way rather than some of the too obvious choices in the original version (i.e., "There's a Moon Out Tonight"). Also, it appears that Anger sped up some of the character's actions to fit the faster paced music; I'm thinking particularly of the final dance sequence on the makeshift stage but it's apparent in other scenes as well.

With Rabbit's Moon, Kenneth Anger plays around with common myths that continue to permeate over the years as well as elements of various cultures, choosing a mix of Western and Eastern influences to populate his film. For starters, he uses a combination of Italian commedia dell'arte, French mime, and Japanese kabuki theater techniques in the staging and choreography of his short. The title itself refers to a legend about a rabbit that lives in the moon - a mythical creature that appears in both East Asian folklore and tribal North American storytelling. In Rabbit's Moon, we see images of both a beautiful white rabbit and a glowing white full moon, with Anger perhaps over handedly ensuring that we make the connection between the two. The main character's repeatedly reaching for and missing the moon symbolizes the illusory nature of chasing after such myths and fairy tales.

Speaking of the characters, Anger draws his characters from the classic rotation of archetypes found in commedia dell'arte. In Rabbit's Moon, Anger features Pierrot as the main character with strong supporting roles from Harlequin and Columbine. In traditional commedia dell'arte, Pierrot is a pitiable, foolish character who loves Columbine, who in turn will almost always leave him eventually for Harlequin. Anger gives us the traditional Pierrot with a twist - he never seems to have Columbine from the outset, although of course he remains in his role of pining for her once he sets eyes on her. Nevertheless, Pierrot is still the "sad clown" stereotype here that he usually is, with his yearning and grasping for a moon that is never in his reach anymore than Columbine is. Harlequin is typically known as the prankster who is willing to go to any lengths to dupe Pierrot and win Columbine's affections, and that's basically the role he plays here as well. And Columbine ... well, she's pretty much just the eye candy in this case. Unlike her traditional role of cheating on Pierrot with Harlequin, she doesn't work here to actively deceive Pierrot being as she isn't committed to him at any point. It is perhaps worth noting that the famous characters from commedia dell'arte, especially Pierrot, have been elevated to the level of myth themselves. (One of my favorite Pierrot-based tidbits is that Charlie Chaplin's own famous character of the Little Tramp is modeled on the Pierrot and was declared by fellow actor Harry Baur to be "the brother of Pierrot.") The characters being legendary ones themselves serves this film by further solidifying its place in playing with the role of myths in our lives.

When discussing the history of the commedia dell'arte, Wikipedia declares that "Audiences came to see the performers, with plot lines becoming secondary to the performance." The same can arguably be said of Rabbit's Moon, which is light in terms of plotting. The first half of the short shows a particularly down and out Pierrot, who is literally mooning over the moon as he tries to jump up and reach it but repeatedly misses. Nothing seems to make him happy and on repeated occasions, he simply lays himself down on the ground in the fetal position, signifying his unhappiness and seeming despair. As the soundtrack circles back to "It Came in the Night" for the second time with its ghoulish opening laugh, Harlequin appears on the scene attempting to entertain Pierrot with various antics, showing off his traditional attributes of agility and energy. Harlequin's finale includes showing the beautiful and ethereal Columbine to Pierrot, but then he steps in the way of Pierrot contacting Columbine. Harlequin and Columbine disappear, a lunar eclipse occurs, and Pierrot is once again left reaching for the moon unsuccessfully, eventually collapsing prostrate once more as the entire sequence ends.

But what happens - or doesn't happen as the case may be - in Rabbit's Moon is less important than the film's ability to broadcast universal emotions and touch upon important themes. Who amongst us cannot see ourselves in Pierrot's melancholic state at some point in our lives? Our fears and concerns may seem as foolish to an outsider as Pierrot reaching for the moon only to be disappointed over and over again. Pierrot may be pitiable but he is also identifiable in his grief. In the first half of the short, the main character's penchant for hanging his head despondently while holding his arms straight out horizontally creates a visual image reminiscent of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Here again Kenneth Anger shows that he's willing to play with iconic cultural references and is once more touching on the inability of myths to create fulfillment for certain people. This imagery has a historical root as well; the Wikipedia entry for Pierrot notes that in the late 19th century, "the Symbolists saw him as a lonely fellow-sufferer, crucified upon the rood of soulful sensitivity, his only friend the distant moon" and that this interpretation of the character led to a portrayal of a "Christ-like victim of the martyrdom that is Art." Indeed, the Symbolist movement seem to adopt Pierrot as their mascot, "[seeing] him as an emblem of suffering, with only the moon for a friend. Naturally, as Pierrot’s association with the moon (and thus, the night) deepened, it was easy to emphasize his darker qualities; eventually artists gave him a literally bleeding heart ... Since his sadness often caused his words to fail him, Pierrot is seen as the father of mime." These aspects of Pierrot's nature and legendary status are all - with the exception of the bloody heart - ones that Anger touches upon and tweaks as he presents the Pierrot of Rabbit's Moon.

In the second half of Rabbit's Moon it seems that with myths being unable to cause joy, Pierrot (and the viewer with him) turns to entertainment as a source of temporary happiness. Pierrot is indeed at least momentarily distracted by the show put on by Harlequin. But this is also seen to be illusory and unfulfilling. Harlequin has only two physical props - a lamp projector and a slapstick. (According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, Harlequin's slapstick is a kind of magic wand that allows him to change the scenery so that the characters appear in a new locale as well as providing a way for him to make objects into different ones.) His other entertainments are pantomimed, with Harlequin hypnotizing and delighting Pierrot using an imaginary balance beam, juggling with nothing, and other parlor tricks reenacted out of thin air. The pantomime can be seen literally, for the vast majority of Rabbit's Moon action is done in exaggerated choreography, but I think it can also be viewed metaphorically. Harlequin's antics are empty actions, simple illusions used to pull the wool over Pierrot's eyes yet again, as these two characters are destined to fulfill their roles of prankster/cheat and fool/cuckold respectively over and over throughout time.

The lamp projector also serves to metaphorically bring these characters forward into the modern day (or at least the modern day of the 1950s-70s). Harlequin uses the projector to shine a light onto Columbine as she dances on a makeshift stage, performing a simple ballet for Pierrot's enjoyment. In a way, the lamp projector can be seen as a stand-in for the movie projector and thus becomes a way to use the film to comment on films themselves. Pierrot approaches the stage and stands just at its brink, dancing as he watches Columbine dance, but his movements do not exactly mimic hers nor do the two ever physically interact. They literally dance around each other rather than with one another. Pierrot also tries once more to get the moon and to show off its wonders to Columbine, but she does not seem to quite grasp the significance of his interest in the full moon. Pierrot seemingly worships Columbine, literally falling to his knees before her, while she views him with disdain, waving a nonchalant hand at him and putting her nose up in the air. To me, this scene seems to comment on how no matter how much we as viewers may get amazed by and invested in our favorite characters on the stage/screen (and in some cases, the actors who portray them), we will always be just outside the realm of their world - perhaps thinking that we are interacting with them as we shadow their movements but never actually engaging with them. Once again, the theme of illusions - and their subsequent disappointments - emerges through the imagery of Rabbit's Moon.

The lamp projector spotlighting Columbine, with Pierrot gasping in delighted wonder as he views her for the first time. I love his expression in this scene and the fact that he literally gets bowled over with amazement seconds after this.
As I mentioned earlier, in this film it doesn't seem that Pierrot and Columbine are the ones to have the prior relationship with Harlequin coming in to steal her away, as is typical in the traditional story of these three characters. Pierrot seems to be viewing Columbine for the first time ever and his joy and wonder at that first glimpse are uncontainable. But as Pierrot becomes more and more fascinated with Columbine and her dance, Harlequin becomes like a strip club owner protective of his employees - you can look but you can't touch being the refrain. A popular theme for the commedia dell'arte stories is jealousy and it seems that Harlequin is the one to catch the green-eyed monster here, rather than Pierrot for a change. He goes from laughing at Pierrot's sad attempts to catch Columbine's affections to jumping in between the two of them to stake his claim on Columbine once again, guarding her from Pierrot's influence, and then whisking her away just before the lunar eclipse begins. The lunar eclipse can be seen as symbolic of Pierrot's further despair as the one bright spot in his life so far (Columbine) is taken away from him. Entertainment and distractions such as physical attraction are but brief flashes of momentary joys that end far too soon. They are bound to disappoint and depending on them for lasting happiness is as fruitless as trying to pull the moon down from the sky.

An interesting thought to consider is how several versions of the traditional legend of the moon rabbit note that the creature's immortalization upon the lunar surface is due to its self sacrifice. Love is a concept rooted in sacrificing one's self to another, of sublimating one's desires in order to promote the well-being of the loved one, of indeed subsuming one's very identity to become one with another human being. Thus, the moon that Pierrot is so desperately trying to reach can symbolize how this lonely person in the forest is seeking an all-fulfilling connection, an all-consuming loving relationship with another human being. The presence of Columbine further reinforces this, as she is the one meant to be Pierrot's partner in the traditional commedia dell'arte lore. Of course, as I've already mentioned several times, she is the one who will ultimately betray Pierrot's affections by leaving him for another man. Again, disappointment abounds in the landscape of Rabbit's Moon, and love is just one more thing that appears to disillusion Pierrot. To pull from Wikipedia's fountain of information on the Pierrot character again, that entry notes that in late 19th century pantomimes, Pierrot incarnations "would appear [as] sensitive moon-mad souls duped into criminality—usually by love of a fickle Columbine—and so inevitably marked for destruction." The self-sacrificing character aligned with the rabbit moon legend is Pierrot, but this sacrifice is not reciprocated nor does it gain him any reward as it does for the mythic rabbit. For a character who is seen almost always as a naïve fool, Pierrot is perhaps a warning to all of us when we view how myth, religion, entertainment, and love ultimately leave him abandoned to a wooded glen, once again alone in the world.

One thing I haven't touched upon yet is the appearance of the wood's children. Two small children emerge from the forest and onto the clearing twice during the film. I'm not quite sure what to make of the children or their place in the film. They appear from behind and underneath Pierrot's outstretched arms, suggesting that he somehow "births" them, but they are not recognizable characters to me. The first time they appear is during the first half of the film when Pierrot is flopping about sadly and all alone. One child holds a mirror to Pierrot and he turns away in disgust. The other child holds a shiny stringed instrument, which neither he nor Pierrot makes any attempt to play. Later when Columbine dances on the stage, the two children make a second appearance with the same props. They kneel where the footlights of the stage would be if it had any, and Columbine briefly admires herself in the mirror; the instrument again remains unused by anyone. The next cut back to the stage finds the children gone. Like I said earlier, I'm unsure of the significance of the children's appearance beyond that they indicate further in the first half how Pierrot won't be made happy by just anything and that in the second half they bolster Columbine's self-preening and vanity. It's also worth noting that in the longer original version, they appear a third time to entice Pierrot into a mystical place that becomes his ultimate undoing.

A final thing that I've neglected to mention up until this point is the introduction to the film. It opens with Pierrot lying on the ground in the forest's clearing as though sleeping. Indeed, it appears at first as though he is waking up and is unsure as to where he is and/or what is going on around him. As he arises and steps about gingerly, he seems to notice the moon for the first time and hence his fascination begins. Again, I'm not quite sure what to make of Pierrot seemingly dumped off in the woods by unknown forces and awakening to confusion followed by longing for the unattainable. It almost seems more explainable that Pierrot would go out seeking a way to get closer to the moon, but it could be argued that he is brought here by forces outside his control, symbolizing how life often brings us to unexpected places. Then again, it could also be argued that Pierrot picking himself up off the ground (where he lays at the end of the film after exhausting himself with his attempts to grasp illusions) is simply a cycle beginning all over again. We may think we are seeing Pierrot set his gaze upon the moon for the first time, but he may have simply been through this whole pantomime (literally and metaphorically) once or even many times before. Again, I think this is also symbolic of film itself. Anyone viewing a movie (well, a well-done movie) for the first time has fresh insights and feels like they are stumbling upon something raw and real; however, all they are seeing is something that was rehashed over and over again as the cast/crew made the finish product and as other audiences watched it in the past.

At any rate, those are my interpretations of the film's characters and scenes. Of course, as with all works of art, there can be many different schools of thought on the meaning. Indeed, one of the things I love about Rabbit's Moon is that despite its short length, I always catch something new in it upon re-viewing. To borrow from Wikipedia again in regards to the myriad interpretations of the Pierrot character over the years, one incarnation is "the narcissistic dreamer clutching at the moon, which could symbolize many things, from spiritual perfection to death." Perhaps my interpretation is completely off base and instead the moral takeaway of Rabbit's Moon is not a solemn dirge to make note of all life's disappointments but a celebratory melody of a character awakening to spiritual perfection by casting away previous distractions. Take a gander at Rabbit's Moon. Mull it over. What do you think Kenneth Anger is trying to say? Is your interpretation as bleak as mine?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Marty Quietly Steals Hearts ... and Lots of Awards

At a recent civic meeting, someone brought up the movie Marty (I forget the context) with the comment, "Everybody knows Marty," and everyone there did nod their heads in agreement. That is, everyone there except me. Not only had I never seen Marty, I had never even heard of it prior to this local meeting. Normally I would brush that off as a different generations type thing, but I actually happen to be a fan of old movies so it's surprising that I wouldn't have at least heard something about this movie in the past. Naturally then, I had to go look up this movie and when  I heard that it had won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Picture, I was even more intrigued (and additionally stunned that this movie hadn't been on my radar previously). I was delighted to find that a copy of the movie was in my library and immediately checked it out.

Marty is the story of a 34-year-old Italian-American butcher living a quiet life with his mother in the Bronx. He goes to work and then meets up a with a handful of other bachelors at their favorite watering hole. Simple enough. But everyone - from his family to his random customers at the butcher shop - is hounding him about why he isn't married yet. Even his younger brothers and sisters are already married, so what's wrong with him? Pestered with all these questions daily, Marty decides to take his married cousin's advice and go to the Stardust Ballroom to look for women. While there, he comes across Clara, a chemistry teacher whose has just been stood up by her blind date when he saw another woman he found more attractive. Marty and Clara find in each other kindred lonely spirits and have a delightful evening together.

As (mis)fortune would have it though, on that very same evening, Marty's mother Theresa visits her sister Caterina who is going through a rough patch. Caterina's daughter-in-law is beyond frustrated with her meddling and has asked Marty and his mother to take in Caterina. Theresa must break the news to her sister that she is no longer wanted as a live-in companion to her son and his family. Caterina moans about how it's so difficult to be a mother after all of your children have flown the coop and no longer need you. She plants a seed in Theresa's mind about how terrible her life will be if Marty gets married and leaves her, and thus for the first time in her life, Theresa is completely against the idea of Marty finding someone. Meanwhile, Marty's friends look down their noses at Clara because she is a "dog" - aka an unattractive woman (it doesn't seem to matter that Marty isn't particularly leading man handsome himself) - and try to convince Marty to stay away from her.

After watching Marty, I am rather surprised that it won for best picture - especially considering that it came out at the same time as several movies that have become a larger part of the popular culture and/or tackled tougher topics, such as East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, The Seven Year Itch, Lady and the Tramp, Picnic, The Man with the Golden Arm, and even Blackboard Jungle. Still, Marty is atypical Hollywood - especially 1950s Hollywood - so I could see how the Academy might have wanted to give a nod to something out of the ordinary. Neither of the leads are Hollywood glamorous nor are they particularly suave or charming. The story is albeit a love one, but it's a nontraditional one with a slow buildup. Indeed, this movie is far more focused on constructing characters than it is on an action-filled plot. The majority of the movie is made up of various conversations held between the characters. In fact, the whole movie takes place over only one weekend, meaning that there isn't a whole lot of time for much of anything to happen. And yet the movie shows how just a couple of days can do a lot to change one's perspective and life.

One of the things that I appreciate about the movie is that while it is ultimately about setting up a conventional marriage, it raises important questions. Marty notes in the beginning that if you're going to be spending 40 or 50 years in a marriage with someone (this being before today's staggeringly high divorce rates), that person had better be more than just a pretty face. It's certainly a smart idea, but not one that his girl-chasing friends - or those who just want to push him into marriage already - seem to be interested in considering. As I noted earlier, Marty is 34 years old at the movie's open and Clara is ::shock:: 29 years old already! While his age is perhaps less damning, she's heading dangerously close to spinsterhood. But the movie doesn't condemn either of them too much for waiting to get married beyond the expected age. What I can't stand is the final scene of the movie when Marty gets on his best friend's case, telling him he should be ashamed of himself for not being married yet when all his younger siblings have already found someone to wed. Doesn't Marty recall the hurt and rejection he felt when people said the same thing to him literally the day before?

Whether the movie intended to do this or not, for all it's talk of getting married and settling down, it doesn't paint a rosy picture of wedded bliss. Marty's cousin Tommy and his wife Virginia start out the movie miserable because of Caterina's presence in their tiny apartment and her constant nagging of how Virginia runs the household and cares for the baby. But when they drop off Caterina to live with Marty and his mother, Tommy and Virginia instantly turn on one another, fighting about everything from being a mama's boy to not preparing a decent dinner. Meanwhile, Caterina's laments about old age exceed just aches and pains - she says it's a terrible time of life because with grown children out of the house, there's no longer anyone to cook for or clean up after. With a woman's whole life expected to be wrapped up in caring for her husband and children, she has nothing left to do with herself when she's widowed and her children are married. When Clara suggests a hobby might help, her advice is pooh-poohed as though it's crazy talk; there simply is no hobby for a woman beyond cooking and cleaning. The movie may try to paint a warm and fuzzy picture with Marty and Clara meeting after years of loneliness but around the corner it promises nagging arguments and eventual despair when this so carefully crafted life no longer has meaning. It's not exactly uplifting. But that may all be me simply reading too much into this short black-and-white film about an aging bachelor. And given that Marty and Clara are going about things in slightly less traditional way (and knowing that Clara is college educated with a career of her own), perhaps they will have a much happier fate.

One thing I can definitely say is that this movie is finely acted with characters that felt realistic. Tommy turning on a dime from relieved that his mother is moving out of his home to guilt that manifests itself as anger toward his wife feels very true to life. Even though he's a side character, Tommy comes across as having complex emotions and motivations. His wife Virginia likewise shows a multitude of emotions in the few scenes in which she appears. Marty is the nominal hero and you're mostly rooting for him, even he is so socially awkward at times that he comes across saying rather rude things to Clara when he means to be complimenting. For instance, more than once he basically says she isn't pretty but that's not the most important thing for a relationship. This is not exactly the line to woo most women over. Clara is similarly nervous and shy but has her own moments of honesty and surprising spunk (i.e., when she refutes Theresa's lament that Caterina is placed in an unfair position because of Virginia). Marty's single male friends are kind of lame and borderline misogynistic, but they are sadly all too recognizable.

My absolute favorite characters in the movie had to be Theresa and Caterina. With their old world sensibilities, their complaints about old age, their personal triumphs as seen through their children's lives, their talk of who's passed away now, and their desire to feed people no matter their protest, I felt like I was eavesdropping in on conversations between my late grandmother and her sister. Indeed, the whole movie with its close-knit Italian-American multi-generational extended family living together in tiny New York apartments felt like I was given a glimpse into the early married life that my grandparents had together and always talked about when they reminisced. It made me feel happy, sad, and nostalgic all at once.

The efforts of all these fine actors did not go unnoticed by the Academy. In addition to the nomination and win for best picture, this movie was nominated for best actor (Ernest Borgnine as Marty), best supporting actor (Joe Mantell as Marty's best friend), and best supporting actress (Betsy Blair as Clara, though it's a mystery to me why she's considered supporting when she's one of the movie's leads). However, only Ernest Borgnine took home the golden statuette for his acting in this movie. The movie was also up for best cinematography, art direction/set decoration, director, and screenplay, winning the last two. Marty was also the first movie to win both the Best Picture award and the Cannes Film Festival's highest award. So this was definitely a movie that made a big splash at the time of its arrival, although I'm not sure that it continues to stand the test of time with its portrayal of old world values and gender stereotypes. However, that's just my opinion - 20 years ago it was still considered significant enough to warrant a place in the National Film Registry.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Feast Continues with the Characters of TV's Hannibal

With my last entry, I began to discuss the television show Hannibal created by Bryan Fuller, addressing the mood of the show as well as the basic plot with as few spoilers as I could. (Beware, however, that I am not promising this post will be spoiler free. In fact, expect spoilers if you do read this post.) Therefore, in this post it's time to move on to discussing the characters that populate Hannibal, starting with the titular character.

Dr. Hannibal Lecter

Hannibal Lecter is the eponymous character and therefore the nominal center of the show, although I personally find Will Graham the far more compelling character, at least during this first season. That being said, Dr. Lecter is certainly an interesting person and, as usual for this character, is an intriguing study in opposites. Dr. Lecter has a calm, arguably cold, exterior regardless of circumstances - probably something which serves him well in his day job as a psychiatrist. He is part of the Baltimore elite, a debonair bachelor living in a pristine house with a professional-grade kitchen (of course) and working out of a beautifully furnished office that looks more like a palatial study (think of the Beast's library in the Disney version of The Beauty and the Beast) than a workplace. Dr. Lecter is knowledgeable on many subjects, uses his words sparingly and precisely, is always impeccably dressed (down to the matching handkerchief in his suit pocket), has acquaintances amongst the upper crust, listens to classical music, and attends the opera. In fact, one of the most fascinating scenes with insight into Hannibal's mind is the one in which he weeps during the opera - this from a man who is completely stoic at the sight of a gruesome murder. Which brings us to the opposite side of this man - for all his carefully maintained exterior, he is at heart a cold and calculating murderer. When it suits his needs, he changes the style of his murders, but it is nearly always brutal and almost always for the purposes of cannibalism. And this Hannibal isn't satisfied with just feeding himself from human flesh; he loves to share his culinary masterpieces with unsuspecting guests. Whenever Hannibal makes a meal on the show, I am both impressed by the presentation of his five-star-restaurant-grade dishes and repulsed by the idea of ever eating meat again because god knows what people have been serving me under the pretense of pork loin and lamb's tongue. In all seriousness, this show has been making me consider vegetarianism more so than any other argument for it ever has.

One of the things I appreciate the most about the actor Mads Mikkelsen and his expert portrayal of Hannibal Lecter is that he isn't trying to imitate anyone else's previous version of the character. In fact, Fuller noted in an interview the exact source of Mikkelsen's Lecter: "He talked about the character ... as Satan - this fallen angel who's enamoured with mankind and had an affinity for who we are as people, but was definitely not among us - he was other. I thought that was a really cool, interesting approach, because ... not that we'd ever do anything deliberately to suggest this - but having it subtextually play as him being Lucifer felt like a really interesting kink to the series. It was slightly different than anything that's been done before and it also gives it a slightly more epic quality if you watch the show through the prism of, 'This is Satan at work, tempting someone with the apple of their psyche.'" Once I read this interview, I couldn't help seeing Mikkelsen's interpretation of Hannibal Lecter through this lens. His cold exterior doesn't just protect his secret identity as serial killer; it is who he is. He simply does not care about human life because it is something so detached from himself. Lecter is the puppet master who loves to pull the strings and watch where the marionettes go; it doesn't matter if they fall or break for he will simply change the story of the puppet theater and/or incorporate new dolls into his cast. But this interpretation of Hannibal Lecter also makes that weeping at the opera scene even more poignant - is that a moment when Lecter stops being "other" and actually feels a connection with human emotion? Or is he simply putting on his own performance for the watching Franklin and Tobias?

Dr. Lecter also seems to be finally making a human connection of some sort when he begins to admit that he is feeling a friendship for Will Graham. But, of course, because this is Dr. Lecter's twisted psyche we are talking about, his being a friend to Graham is anything but helpful. Lecter is happy to hide a serious brain condition from Will just to see what will happen if he lets it run its course and wreak havoc on Graham's mental health and life. And, of course, as we know by the end of the season, Dr. Lecter has absolutely no problem with pinning his crimes on Will Graham rather than allowing Graham to come too close to solving the mystery on his own - or perhaps he does it with the exact purpose of guiding Graham toward his secret identity. Lecter-as-Satan is interested in seeing where the chips will fall when he throws a monkey wrench in to any given situation (sorry for the mixed metaphor but it says it best), even if it means that he could be compromising his own secrets. Then again, this latter supposition may be entirely off, as we've seen Lecter throughout the first season doing whatever it takes to cover up anything that might even remotely point in his direction where crimes are involved.

Lecter-as-Satan also seems to have an unworldly quality in which he is able to discern other serial killers from thin air. Tobias follows Lecter one night and sees him murder, but Dr. Lecter seems to simply intuit from a very brief encounter with the man that Tobias is a fellow serial killer. We still don't know how Hannibal and the Minnesota Shrike relate, but something tells me that Lecter may have spotted the latter's evil tendencies in a way similar to how he determined Tobias's proclivities: He simply knew by looking at the man. I could be wrong, but it just seems like the sort of thing Dr. Lecter would do.

At any rate, I definitely appreciate Mikkelsen's approach and think it adds so much depth and personality to the character. When I first saw The Silence of the Lambs more than a decade ago, I found it psychologically terrifying. In retrospect though, Anthony Hopkins's portrayal of the cannibalistic serial killer as a creepy, bone-chilling person was perhaps over the top. It's hard to imagine Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter eluding detection from a brilliant FBI profiler when he's right in front of him. But the way Mikkelsen plays Lecter, with all his cards held close to his vest as he displays an elegant and stoic exterior, it's easy to see how even Will Graham doesn't realize one of his closest confidantes is the serial killer he's seeking. Of course, since the two actors are playing the character at very different stages in his life, perhaps it's fitting that Hopkins's Hannibal uses his crimes as taunts while Mikkelsen's Lecter instead subtly plants hints to drive people away from suspecting his role in any wrongdoing.

Will Graham

As I mentioned earlier, Will Graham is the real focal point of the show for me, especially in the earliest episodes when we were still seeing so little insight into Hannibal's actions, let alone learning any of his motivations. Hugh Dancy hasn't let me down in past roles, and he doesn't disappoint here. He completely embodies the role of a character who has so much empathy that he sometimes has difficulty distinguishing himself from the killers he profiles. The flip side of that coin is he also has a well-spring of sympathy for the victims of these crimes and therefore wants very much to help them by bringing their killers to justice. Graham also feels an inordinate amount of guilt, protectiveness, and blind idealistic faith where Abigail Hobbs is concerned. Meanwhile, he can't shake the feeling of being connected to her cannibalistic murdering father, who continues to haunt him throughout the season despite being killed by Graham in the first episode. Graham also feels a deep and sympathetic connection with murderer Georgia Madchen, which is somewhat understandable given her sad fate.

As season one progressed, the nightmares Graham had after visiting particularly blood-curdling crime scenes began to turn into waking hallucinations. Other symptoms appeared that made Graham question his own mental sanity, and Dr. Lecter's not-so-subtle hints did nothing to ease his concerns. Graham's fear of becoming mental unstable is stoked by the constant stress of a new vicious murder that he must dissect in order to find the killer, and he spirals further downward. Dancy plays all of this believably, and the viewer feels increasingly concerned for him. When the viewer begins to know more than Graham does (i.e., the brain encephalitis that Dr. Lecter hides from him), the feeling is less of concern than simply great sadness. The viewer is constantly rooting for Graham because he's the good guy of the show. It's not simply that he's the hero (albeit, a somewhat unconventional one) of the show; he's just genuinely a good guy. Graham has shown his compassion and humanity over and over again as he works the various cases of cold-blooded killing. It's heartbreaking to see him feeling so alone and repeatedly turning for help to Dr. Lecter, the one person least likely to actually provide it (although he certainly maintains a good pretense of pretending to care for Will's wellbeing).

Despite all this (or perhaps because of this), Graham's background is the one I'd most like to have fleshed out in the upcoming season. Through little hints dropped here and there, we know that Graham used to be a cop before becoming an FBI lecturer. But it had been some time since Graham had been in the field before Jack Crawford came knocking at his door. Other than that, we don't know many details of Graham's past professional life and his personal life is pretty slim on details as well. We know that he's currently single, has a plethora of stray dogs he's adopted, likes to fish, used to fix boat engines back in Louisiana as a teen, and is arguably on the autistic spectrum toward the Asperger's side. Whether he has any living family is debatable - certainly no one ever appears for him and his support system seems virtually nonexistent, which is all the more lamentable when he feels himself beginning to crack.

In addition to getting more backstory, which is my hope, I feel certain that season two will bring more forward character development for Will Graham. And he sits imprisoned for crimes he now knows were committed by Dr. Lecter, Will is going to have to prove himself as being able to convince others of his sanity and by finding the evidence to condemn Hannibal, thereby exonerating himself. Of course, I want to see Will cleared of all false charges, but I'm also a bit concerned as to where the story will go if we already see Dr. Lecter in prison this early in the game. Fuller apparently has an ambitious seven season arc planned in his mind, which will eventually - by season four, in fact - get to the source material we've already seen on the silver screen, so I trust that he knows what he's doing. In the meantime, I'm definitely curious to see where this roller coaster is going to take us next. Within a teaser video, Fuller notes that while the first season was a game of cat (Hannibal) and mouse (Will), the second season will be a game of cat and cat. I for one am interested to see how that will play out.

Jack Crawford (and to a lesser extent, Phyllis "Bella" Crawford)

Jack is the linchpin of the series in many respects for making Will Graham and Dr. Lecter come together as well as for taking Graham out of the classroom and exposing him to horrific crimes firsthand. Some time is given to developing Crawford as a character, but I think still more could be done. Crawford is clearly a sympathetic man who tells Will from the outset that he will be there for him. But when push comes to shove, he's nowhere around when Will needs him. His locker room style speech, in which he provokes Will to be a quitter but says it will haunt him, is arguably the opposite of supporting Will. In fact, by the end of season one Crawford seems to be actively working against Graham (of course, fueled with false information given by Hannibal). Given his own potential guilt in the situation as well as his position as head honcho in his department (and therefore first to be blamed by the even higher ups), it's not absurd for him to have this reaction. Nonetheless, it's disappointing to see someone who claimed to be there for Will to turn around so quickly to be against him. However, Crawford keeps his emotions far from his sleeve, so what he's feeling at this time still remains to be seen. I have hope that we'll see more of him - both physically obviously but also a deeper look into his character - in season two.

That all being said, there were two situations in season one where we really got insight into Crawford's mentality. The first came when we learned that there was some marital trouble between Jack and his wife, whom he calls Bella for her beauty. Bella reveals in a secret session with Dr. Lecter that she has terminal lung cancer but hasn't been able to tell Jack yet. Jack knows something is wrong but doesn't suspect anything close to the truth. As Crawford and Will question a serial killer's wife and she describes how his cancer caused him to drift away from the family, we see the light bulb go off for Jack. It's such a wonderful moment of acting from Laurence Fishburne - we see Crawford come to a stunning and horrifying realization, thinking through its ramifications, and then having to put on a professional face to finish up his job but not before he starts to tear up a little. This moment also highlights an important aspect of Crawford - he's a profiler himself and one who has done remarkably well for himself. This fact is often eclipsed when Will Graham arrives on a crime scene and imagines much more about the killer than anyone else there has reasoned out yet. Unfortunately, the cancer subplot is one that gets left along the wayside as the rest of the season speeds along toward its tragic conclusion. We really don't hear of Bella's cancer again let alone see her on screen. However, knowing that Crawford has this personal crises lurking in the background makes it more understandable that he is not as available to support Will as he thought he would be back when he promised Graham to be by his side should the going get tough.

The second situation that shows off Crawford's personality is when the Chesapeake Ripper case resurfaces. We learn that this was one of Crawford's cases that went cold and the killer eluded him; worse still, a young cadet who Crawford pulled out of training to work on this case was murdered by the Ripper as a result. Thus, we see Crawford struggling with his own guilt and becoming obsessed with finding the Chesapeake Ripper once and for all. The Ripper - who we know is Dr. Lecter, a man even closer to Crawford than ever - plays on the harp strings of Crawford's conscience, sending him messages of the trainee's dying words to get under his skin. It certainly does and in moments of weakness, we see Crawford having nightmares that rival Will's nighttime fears.

One last side note on Jack Crawford: as the show progressed into the winter months, Crawford began walking around more often in a trench coat and fedora-style hat. He looked the very picture of a film noir detective and also reminded me of Pushing Daisies's private eye Emerson Cod, which just made me happy. With that silly note aside, let's move on to the "lesser extent" of this part. Crawford's wife Bella is an interesting character of whom the viewer unfortunately sees little. She's a NATO worker who has been married to Jack for some time, presumably happily all that time. When she gets her cancer diagnoses, she shuts down and refuses to talk to her husband, deciding instead to confide in Dr. Lecter - albeit a psychiatrist but also one who works with her husband. But perhaps telling such a burdensome secret to a person she's only met once is less emotionally upsetting to her than talking to someone who cares for her and for whom she loves very much. I think it would be telling to see what Bella was like before her cancer diagnosis for the present Bella is very cold and is actively trying to emotionally stonewall those who love her. And here's one more Pushing Daisies connection before moving on to the next character: Bella Crawford is played by Gina Torres, who also played the role of Emerson's former love interest Lila Robinson.

Dr. Alana Bloom

Dr. Bloom is another character I'd like to see more fully developed in the coming season. Although she is member of the regular cast and shows up in most episodes, she often seems more like a vehicle to move the show in one direction or another than a character in her own right. Dr. Bloom is an FBI psychiatrist who works on cases and in the classroom, thus having a history with Will Graham previous to the pilot episode. She is the one who first recommends Dr. Lecter to Jack Crawford as someone to act as the unofficial psychiatrist to Will Graham; she also serves as a potential love interest. These two facts seem to be her biggest functions in the show, but Dr. Bloom has other important roles to play. Despite obviously respecting Dr. Lecter so much, she is not afraid to disagree with him when Jack asks for their help on a particular case. Dr. Bloom worked on the original Dr. Gideon case (more on this later), which heightens her role (and threatens her safety) in the episodes where he appears.

She is also the closest thing Will has to a friend, although he clearly feels more for her than just friendship, which is perhaps why the Dr. Alan Bloom of the books became the Dr. Alana Bloom of the TV show. As the season progresses, it's clear that she also feels more for him although she's not ready for a relationship with him (or anyone else for that matter). Although I'm not usually much of one for romances, the scene in which they kiss for the first time made me feel all gushy and "aww" for them, even if nothing came out of it. Nonetheless, I was rooting for them to get together then and I'm still hoping it's something that can come to pass later on in their lives. For a show with so much darkness and depravity, it would be nice to have some relief for that. Likewise, for characters who have such sadness around them always, the viewer wants them to have a happy ending in there somewhere, somehow.

Incidentally, there's also an earlier scene in which Dr. Lecter makes some wry comment toward Dr. Bloom and she responds that he's being just like Will by trying to "flirtatiously change the subject." As this occurs before the episode with the on-screen kiss between Dr. Bloom and Graham, it's a moment that allows you to realize that Dr. Bloom is intuitive enough to read Will's feelings for her even if she hasn't otherwise let on to this fact at this point in the series. It's also a very telling moment for Dr. Lecter and his personality. Whenever Will would make flirty comments towards Dr. Bloom, you could tell that underneath the grin he puts on as a front, he really means this stuff - perhaps he's even secretly hoping that Dr. Bloom will call his bluff and agree with him wholeheartedly. But when Dr. Lecter makes his supposedly flirtatious remark, he comes across then as more asexual than in any other moment in the show. It's as though he's simply reading a line that he thinks he should say at this moment, as though he's been studying humans from a distance and now tries - and fails - to recreate their speech patterns.

Like with Will Graham and Jack Crawford, we don't get a ton of backstory on Dr. Bloom. There's little information given on her personal life or what she does outside of the FBI. This is something I'd like to see more of in the next season, especially if she and Graham do eventually get together as a couple. Despite not a lot of depth in the source material, I give lots of props to Caroline Dhavernas for filling this role with so much passion. The scene in the series finale in which she sits in her car alone and mutely screams over and over again was one of the most poignant moments in a very emotional episode. In fact, I'm embarrassed to say that she so fully entered this character that I didn't even realize I was watching the same actor who portrayed the main character in Wonderfalls.

Abigail Hobbs

Abigail Hobbs is an incredibly complicated character who adds so much depth to the show. The daughter of a serial killer who was nearly killed by that same man, she is emotionally damaged as well as physically injured by the evil acts her father committed. It is perhaps because of this that she is so lost and willing to cling on to anyone, even Hannibal Lecter. Despite realizing that her father's last phone call came from Lecter, Abigail trusts Hannibal completely - far more than she trusts Will, who is actually the one interested in her wellbeing rather than protecting his own interests. Abigail also latches on to Dr. Bloom, but it's only to Dr. Lecter that she will confess her darkest secrets. Abigail's troubled soul really amped up the emotional impact of Hannibal, and it's sad that her character will most likely not be appearing again in the second season.

Freddie Lounds

Another complicated character, Freddie Lounds is a crime reporter working for the blog TattleCrime. In the beginning of the series, she is especially antagonistic toward Will Graham, calling him insane and writing that he can catch psychopaths because he is one himself. As the first season proceeds forward, Lounds becomes closer to Abigail and intends to help her write a book about being the daughter of an infamous serial killer. Freddie's dubious information-collecting methods and tabloid writing mean that sometimes she is hampering police investigations while other times she is actually helping out the FBI. Meanwhile, her motivations are never entirely clear: Is she doing this just for money and infamy? Or does she also believe that her actions will help to take down criminals and thus bring justice? Usually, it seems like the former but at times the latter seems to prevail. For instance, she seems more sincerely concerned with Abigail's finding closure than Dr. Lecter does. Actor Lara Jean Chorostecki does a great job with this character; the scene that she really nails on the head is when Dr. Gideon kidnaps Lounds and forces her to be his assistant as he dissects the still living Dr. Chilton. She appears cool, calm, and collected yet you can still read the fear and concern underneath the facade she puts on to make it through the situation.

An interesting thing about this character is how Hannibal creators decided once again to play with the cannon. In the original novels and movies, Freddy Lounds is a male reporter who is described as unattractive and slovenly. Here Freddie is a beautiful woman with good taste and perfect grooming. As the world of Hannibal is already very male-centric with Will and Hannibal taking up most of the screen time, it feels right to inject another woman into the story. In fact, Fuller says as much in an interview: "I wanted to have more of a [gender] balance. In the last six episodes, I was so happy with the richness of the female characters and how they were representing many different points of view of the world’s stories." It's not the 1970s anymore; women are crime reporters as often as men are and are just as determined to get to the story no matter what cost, so this was a brilliant move on Fuller's part. In an interview, Chorostecki notes how Fuller told her the newly imagined Freddie Lounds was based on Rebekah Brooks, the real-life tabloid news editor who scandalized a nation when accusations emerged that she hacked victims' voicemails to get the scoop. Chorosteck goes on to explain: "I went home after this meeting and read a great Vanity Fair article about Rebekah Brooks ... and it was a great kind of insight into who Freddie might be. She’s a younger version and I call her spirited. She’s unflappable and she ignores the rules at every point possible, if she needs to. And she’s really good at her job, so I think that’s something. She sometimes fails, but she always manages to find her way around things." Freddie Lounds is such a rich character, with a whole depth of motivations and history to explore yet, that I'm sure we'll be seeing more of her in season two as well.

Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier

Dr. Du Maurier is a new addition to the characters of the novels and thus a way to play with the cannon, keeping viewers on their toes. She is yet another complex character whose motivations are murky at best. Dr. Du Maurier serves as Dr. Lecter's own personal psychiatrist, and indeed is his very own all alone, for after being attacked by a patient, Dr. Du Maurier went into retirement. Dr. Lecter refused to take a referral for another psychiatrist and now goes to Dr. Du Maurier's house to continue his sessions as her one remaining patient. This is a mystery that continues to simmer; there is clearly a lot more going on with this backstory of the attacking patient who knew both Drs. Du Maurier and Lecter. What role Hannibal played in either orchestrating or stopping the attack (or in all likelihood, given Hannibal's nature, both) remains to be seen. The relationship here is tense: Dr. Du Maurier is clearly comfortable enough to continue seeing Lecter as a patient even in her own home but in the very first episode in which she appears, she says in no uncertain terms that they are not friends - despite Lecter noting that they are friendly. Dr. Du Maurier seems to know or at least sense that Hannibal is dangerous, but she does not seem to be concerned that he is a threat to herself. Of course, we know that Hannibal has no concern when it comes to hurting or killing someone close to him if it will suit his purposes, so Dr. Du Maurier might want to take notice.

Again, I thought it was a good move to add some more female members to the cast to help round it out. Dr. Du Maurier is a compelling character because she appears equally fragile and tough all at once, as though this attack on her both rattled and strengthened her at the same time. This seems like a very true-to-life response, although we'll have to know more of the attack details to see if this supposition of mine is correct. Dr. Du Maurier has only shown up in a handful of episodes so far, though I suspect we will see more of her as we delve into this secret shared by her and Hannibal. (Indeed, a very brief teaser for the second season has Dr. Du Maurier popping up several times.) She is expertly portrayed by Gillian Anderson, who plays Du Maurier as almost emotionless so placid is her face and calmly evenly her voice, thus hiding anything that might betray this secret history. It was actually a headline about Gillian Anderson taking on this role that first alerted me to the existence of this show and made me a bit curious to find out what it was all about, although it was discovering that Fuller was at the creative helm that made me decide to start watching it.

Beverly Katz

Perhaps the influence of CSI has been so great that no crime procedural show in the modern era can exist without someone somewhere analyzing to death every scrap of anything left behind at a crime scene. Hannibal seems to be no exception to this trend. This is all well and good, but there are already enough shows out there that do this and the introduction of the next three characters I'm about to discuss do little to add to the complexity of Hannibal's world. Beverly Katz is one of three FBI crime scene investigators who interact with Will Graham when he's on a case. She's the one who is the most interested in Graham's ability to get into the minds of serial killers, provides helpful advice to him when she can, and seems occasionally to get through his emotional barriers to act as a friend. But for the most part, she's a pretty blasé character with no real depth of her own. Nevertheless, she is a series regular, and I struggle with determining why she was considered as an essential character on the show. The times when she acts as a sounding board for Graham could just have easily been times he turned to Dr. Bloom if Beverly were not a character on the show. At times, I think she was meant to serve as the "comic relief" of the show as she frequently has a snarky comment to make at a crime scene. But generally the dark humor she spouts comes across more as a sad testimony to how hardened the crime scene investigators are to the horror they see than as something actually humorous. By the final episodes of season one when Will is spiraling further down his personal descent, this character finally felt useful for me because her former almost permanent smirk is replaced by deep-seated worry about Graham becoming mentally unstable. Portrayed by Asian-American actor Hettienne Park, Beverly also brings some much-needed racial diversity to a show that is largely populated by Caucasians.

Z and Jimmy

Tweedledum and Tweedledee here round out the trio of crime scene investigators who interact with Will regularly on cases. For some reason, despite appearing in nearly every single episode of the show thus far, these two actors are listed as "guest stars" every week rather than series regulars like Hettienne Park. Portrayed by Aaron Abrams and Scott Thompson respectively, Z and Jimmy also seem like they are there to serve as the comic relief (especially given that Scott Thompson is known more as a comedian than an actor). However, just like with Beverly Katz, I don't necessarily find them that entertaining. Take a snippet of conversation between the trio and Will as they discuss the bodies left behind by the Angel Maker serial killer:

Beverly Katz: "Death makes angels of us all and gives us wings where we had shoulders smooth as raven's claws."
Brian Zeller: Robert Frost.
Will Graham: Jim Morrison.
Beverly Katz: Even a drunk with a flair for the dramatic can convince himself he's God. Or the Lizard King.
Jimmy Price: God makes angels. Jesus was fond of fishermen. Are we talking hardcore Judeo Christian upsetting, or just upsetting in general?
Will Graham: This is a very specific upsetting.
Brian Zeller: Increased serotonin in the wounds is much higher than the free histamines, so, uh... she lived for about fifteen minutes after she was skinned.
Jimmy Price: Powder residue on the neck of the soda bottle shows Vecuronium - scotch and soda and a paralytic agent.
Brian Zeller: Kneeling in supplication at the feet of G-dash-D.
Jimmy Price: Supplication is the most common form of prayer. "Gimme, gimme, gimme."

This quick exchange is no doubt meant to be funny but it mostly came across as callous, with only Will's doubly meaningful line of "This is a very specific upsetting" reminding us that these are people who have been horribly treated both in the manner of their murder and the desecration of their bodies after death. Like I said earlier, Will is always the one to provide the context and the human compassion in every case.

But I do have to admit that the two of them finally being stunned into silence by the revelation that Will might be a serial killer within their midst made that moment even more hard hitting. If they hadn't been goofing around at previous crime scenes, their reactions wouldn't have been so priceless. Nonetheless, their roles are so limited that I didn't know Z's full name was Brian Zeller or even have any idea with Jimmy's name was at all until I looked up the show's cast. In an early episode, Z remarked something to Freddie Lounds about her using him for information, which gave the impression that we might learn more about him outside the crime scene/crime lab, but so far that has not been true. Maybe these characters will get larger roles with deeper characterizations in the future; if not, I don't see much of a point of them being around and would be fine with them slowly fading away into the background.

Dr. Abel Gideon

Portrayed by the always wonderful Eddie Izzard, Dr. Abel Gideon is a patient at a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, where he ended up after murdering his wife and her entire family. While there, Dr. Gideon becomes convinced that he is the Chesapeake Ripper, opening up a Pandora's box of mayhem after he kills a hospital nurse using the modus operandi of the Ripper. The real Chesapeake Ripper (aka Hannibal Lecter) can't stand by idly and let an imposter tarnish his good name so he is compelled after years of (seemingly) inactivity to kill again. Dr. Gideon is a horribly wicked character who it's just so hard to hate despite his evil acts. His genuine confusion as to whether he is the Chesapeake Ripper or not makes it abundantly clear just how mentally ill he really is. His hatred of the psychiatrists who did little to help him is perhaps understandable; his desire to brutally kill them as a result is not. His witty repartee belies his true intelligence hidden under the haze of mental illness. Izzard did wonders with this character, making him at turns laughable, pitiable, and horrifying. Although he's mostly served his purpose on this show, I wouldn't mind if Dr. Gideon popped up again on Hannibal in the future.

Dr. Frederick Chilton

Dr. Chilton is an important character in the Hannibal Lecter cannon, but here he has only shown up in a couple of episodes so far. Nonetheless, he played an instrumental role in Lecter's life by being the psychiatrist to convince Dr. Gideon that he was really the Chesapeake Ripper and thus resulting in Lecter's subsequent rampage to show the world that the real Ripper was still at large. Dr. Chilton is a very unlikeable character not only for driving a patient to believe himself to be an even worse murderer than he is, but also for antagonistically taunting Will about his ability to see through the eyes of a serial killer. Nevertheless, he doesn't deserve the fate he got of being nearly eviscerated to death at the hands of Dr. Gideon. And despite being a character so easy to dislike, I did enjoy the interactions between him, Dr. Lecter, and Dr. Bloom in which they discussed various aspects of psychotherapy and criminal psychology. I doubt that we've seen the last of Dr. Chilton in this series, so I hope than when we see him again, we'll get more of the psychological talks and less of the cruelty. After nearly being murdered, perhaps Dr. Chilton will have toned down his haughty attitude. Pushing Daisies fans will be recognize Raul Esparza, the actor who plays Dr. Chilton, as Alfredo from season one of that show. Kudos to him for displaying his acting chops with a character so very different from the sweet door-to-door salesman of homeopathic mood-enhancers with a secret hankering for Olive Snook.

Georgia Madchen

Georgia Madchen was both one of the creepiest and most pathetic of the killers to appear on the show so far. Unlike the others, she is not a serial killer but a mentally ill woman who murdered one person so viciously that Will was called in on that case. Still, she's the one who is the most spine-chilling and haunting, perhaps because of her disheveled appearance and inability to see clearly, even if in a warped way. Although she only showed up in a couple of episodes and won't appear in future ones, Georgia Madchen was such an engaging character that I feel it wouldn't be right to walk away from this post without mentioning her briefly. Georgia has a very rare psychological disorder that affects her perception. For starters, she doesn't even realize that she's still alive. Georgia also can't see the faces of others, which is what caused her to rip apart the face of her friend when she murdered her. She has been/feels abandoned by her mother and the professionals who can't find a cure for the mental illness she's had since childhood. When Will is able to see into her mind clearly and figure out her motives for killing a childhood friend, she becomes obsessed with Will and stalks him, not with the intention of hurting him but so that she can find out if she really is still alive. This ends up being her undoing as she stumbles across Dr. Lecter in the process of murdering someone in order to frame Graham. He doesn't realize - or at least not right away - that she couldn't see his face so he kills her as well, pinning that murder on Will also. Besides her rare mental illness, one of the other interesting things about Georgia Madchen is that she is played by Ellen Muth, star of Bryan Fuller's show Dead Like Me, in which she played a character also named Georgia who was actually dead.

In addition to Ellen Muth and those I've mentioned above, three other actors who made appearances in Hannibal also had roles in Fuller's past TV shows: Ellen Greene (Aunt Vivian in Pushing Daisies) made a brief appearance as one of Hannibal's socialite acquaintances, Molly Shannon (a guest star on Pushing Daisies) guest starred in an episode where she coached young children to kill their biological families (one of those episodes where the killer's motivations were never fully explained to my satisfaction), and Chelan Simmons reprised her Wonderfalls role of Gretchen Speck in episode two of the first season of Hannibal. My personal favorite crossover tidbit is that there's talk of an upcoming guest star who will play the role of an acupuncturist named "Katherine Pimms" - the pseudonym used by Chuck's character in Pushing Daisies whenever she went undercover.

All of these appearances suggest that we'll see other fan favorites from the "Fullerverse" in Hannibal's season two. Personally, I think I'd love to see Lee Pace make a guest appearance on a future episode; with his acting prowess, he'd be sure to do great in any role given to him. But then again, given that his likely choice of roles would either be serial killer or victim, I'm not sure I want to see "Ned" tainted in that way. In all likelihood though, we'll be seeing him as Fuller has already noted that he originally intended to find a place for Lee Pace in season one.

How about you, dear reader? Is this anyone you'd like to see guest star on Hannibal in the upcoming season(s)? What characters would you like to see further developed? Where do you want the plotlines to go? Pray, do tell!