Cross-posting with elizabethhuhn.com. A blog about the recent Civil War-themed film The Beguiled:
Cross-posted at elizabethhuhn.com.
I’ve written in the past about the Lock-keeper’s House, one of the oldest buildings on the National Mall in DC, and a remnant of DC’s less glamorous past.
I have two things to add. First, the work has gotten underway, thusly:
It kind of looks like it’s been patched up with cardboard and duct tape, though I’m sure that not what it is. Also, though the picture is bad, it says that the Lock-keeper’s House is moving “only 50 feet.” Which is good, I guess? It will at least get it away from the (very) busy street.
Second, there’s this article about the remnants of the Washington City Canal. The “lock” part of “Lock-keeper’s House” refers to locks on the Washington City Canal, which ran under what is now Constitution Avenue. I had no idea, but apparently you can actually kayak right into part of the old canal, in a tunnel under the street:
I seriously want to do that someday.
Cross-posted with elizabethhuhn.com.
Ah, superhero movies. They’ve become as ubiquitous and constant as a the sound of a river flowing to the sea. The money, likewise, flows from the pockets of movie-goers into the pockets of movie executives. I like the occasional superhero movie. I mostly like the ones that don’t act like Superhero Movies with a capital S and M–you know, the ones that are just movies first.
Wonder Woman was one of those superhero movies that was a movie first. The “superhero” part did come back to bite it in the end (and by “the end” I mean the third act), but it succeeded spectacularly by really respecting the audience as well as the themes and making it work in a context that by all rights should be somewhat ridiculous (she’s a bloody goddess; her family are bloody Amazons, literal Amazons).
But what really got my interested going into this movie, much more than the fact that it was a female-led superhero movie or that it was Wonder Woman’s first big screen adaptation or whatever, was the World War I setting. I was a little disconcerted by the confusion the trailer caused. So many people seemed to think it was World War II. It’s a little upsetting that people can’t tell the difference in uniforms and weaponry. Also a little distressing was a video review in which the video reviewer quite sedulously avoided naming the time period the movie took place in, because he clearly had no idea when WW1 took place.
Which is one reason I was excited, because it would give a little more exposure of a wide audience to the Great War.
It didn’t disappoint. Overall, the depiction of the time period and the war was really good. Not only did they got the facts right–they mostly did–they also got the tone right and hit some of the most important themes and lessons that emerged from that war. Those themes inform and shape the entire movie, and they’re universal. The main theme: there isn’t necessarily a Big Bad you can kill to make the world Right again. We’re our own enemies.
The Great War was messy. It was messy in terms of politics and in terms of the deaths it caused. There was no good reason for the war, not really. it was simply a series of political dominoes that led to all-out war. In this way, it’s a perfect setting to explore the moral ambiguity of war and good versus evil. Unlike in the Second World War, there was no clear “Bad Guy”. Wonder Woman uses that to its advantage, for instance when Steve Trevor, Diana/Wonder Woman’s male counterpart, says that he’s done terrible things, too, in the service of what he things is ultimately right. This even filters down to a moment when Diana wants to go directly to the Front, but he pulls her back and says that first they have to deliver the notebook he stole. She still sees Good and Bad, and thinks that killing Ares will erase the bad. Steve sees a messy conflict where delivering information can be a thousand times more vital than storming No Man’s Land.
The political messiness was mirrored in literal messiness. The trenches were muddy and miserable places. The deaths were ugly and horrifying. Perhaps worst of all were the gas attacks, which were unleashed for the first time in April 1915. The gas would blind men and/or damage their lungs so that they drowned in their own fluids. It was, along with machine guns and tanks and airplanes, one of the new horrors of warfare unleashed in the Great War.
So I appreciated the fact that the MacGuffin (look it up) they chase is a new and improved version of poison gas to be unleashed just as the Armistice is about to be signed. I don’t know that it was handled particularly well, but I appreciated that that was the angle they took.
I liked that Steve had to keep emphasizing that this war was nothing like anything Diana had seen. I thought they did a good job depicting the ugliness and horror of the trenches and the war-torn towns, within the confines of a PG-13 superhero movie. As far as the time period–I thought they handled Diana’s interaction with a very unfamiliar world intelligently and without making Diana seem stupid or too naive. The scenes with her and the secretary were wonderful. And they give more than a passing nod to the fact that Diana is not dressed AT ALL appropriately for Edwardian London. In many movies like this, she would just walk around in God knows what and there would be a few gasps and then it would be okay. Nope. They had to make sure a few times that she wasn’t traipsing around in a breastplate and miniskirt.
Now I have to go into a few things I did not like, especially in regards to the time period. While the scene of her crossing No Man’s Land is awesome to see, I just . . . don’t quite believe it. I suppose she’s basically bulletproof, but I don’t think that even with super speed she could dodge that many guns firing on her at once.
The Germans appeared to be very Nazi-like. This isn’t really accurate. While they were militaristic and had, in some ways, precipitated the war, they were not evil like the Nazis. So it rubbed me the wrong way to make them mustache-twirling villains.
Speaking of mustaches, and this isn’t entirely related to my critique of the depiction of the time period, can we talk about David Thewlis’s mustache? It worked just fine while he was Sir Patrick. But later, when he revealed himself as Ares? Then it did not work at all. It looked silly. Anyway, more on that twist later.
I was also a little baffled that the bad guy–Not Ares–was named Ludendorff. Why? Ludendorff was a real man, a real general in WW1, and he did not die in the war. He died in the ’30’s! So why make him a real person but have him die twenty years too early and be an evil bastard? Why not give him a different name? Also, aside from the oddity of being named for a real person but not being that person at all, he was kind of a useless character, and what was with that crazy white stuff he kept sniffing? There seemed no point to it.
There were a few plot holes that even I noticed, especially in act 3. For instance, Dr. Poison (who was a weak villain) appears to create a HUGE amount of her newest poison in about 24 hours. How does she manage that? And what is the crazy aircraft that its put it, that Steven flies to its–and his–doom at the end? The one he crashes in at the beginning–little more than a few sticks and some canvas–is more typical of the period. The one that holds the poison gas is . . . not.
Speaking of the poison gas . . . Well, first of all it’s basically the third act of The Dark Knight, substituting the Bat Wing for Whatever the Hell Steve was Flying and atomic bomb for poison gas. The same goes for this as for the bomb in Dark Knight: fallout. Just because he flew it up into the air and exploded it doesn’t mean that the poison gas wouldn’t effect those in the area. It could fall out of the sky like nuclear fallout. Second, there must’ve been some better way to dispose of it, surely?
Still, that sequence is saved by the interactions between Steve and Diana before he leaves. We actually care about both characters and about them together (the actors have great chemistry) so I was willing to happily overlook the somewhat questionable assumptions we were asked to make.
My biggest issue was the descent into a sloshy CGI Big Fight Scene. It’s apparently required for every superhero movie, but they’re all the same and mostly they are just a lot of noise. In this case, it was rescued by the fact that at least no cities are being destroyed and, again, we care about the characters. But I didn’t care about Diana and Ares (with his silly mustache) frolicking around in CGI glory amoungst CGI flames and explosions.
This may be a crazy idea, but I would have had no Ares. I would have had Diana kill Ludendorff and realize that there is no Ares, and that’s the arc. She learns that she was placing her trust in a magic-bullet kind of theory that was a myth. Of course, it’s a superhero movie, and the idea that there is no Ares wouldn’t jive with what has been established on this world (Zeus and Amazons and whatnot). So I don’t think my idea would work for this movie. But in a slightly different context, I think that would serve the story best.
I think those are all my observations.
I’m cross-posting again with my other page, www.elizabethhuhn.com. Please see my newest blog entry, about Butler Island, Georgia, the place that inspired my (as yet unpublished) novel, Channing.
In case you’ve been in a coma, you’ve heard about Hamilton: An American Musical by now. It’s a Broadway show that’s become a cultural phenomenon. First, let me get one important thing off my chest: it’s bloody brilliant. It is a work of genius that approaches a historical subject with real wisdom and insight, with humor and pathos (I think it’s impossible to have the one without the other). And yes, I am as obsessed as the next person with Hamilton. In fact, I have a rather possessive feeling about it, because it’s a piece of historical fiction and, well, I’m a historical fiction writer. Getting people psyched and enthusiastic about American history? Jesus Christ, yes please!
I saw Hamilton yesterday, and I was blown away (see what I did there?). I wasn’t fortunate enough to see Lin-Manuel Miranda or much of the original cast, but the entire show was spectacular. The audience was alive with shared enjoyment. It felt like everyone was holding their breaths, awaiting every moment they knew was coming, almost disbelieving that they were really there. A special once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I thought I’d write up a blog because writing is what I do (albeit not with Hamiltonian prolificness).
As a writer and consumer of historical fiction in every medium, as soon as I decided that Hamilton was genius (for the record, that happened when I first heard King George informing his colonists that they’d be back), I started pondering why. Not why I was drawn to it, in spite of the fact that I’m not really a fan of musicals or hip-hop. That was pretty clear: it was about American history, and I do like music, and everyone was raving about how wonderful it was. No, what I was wondering was why it was so effective. What made it tick? What made it, as historical fiction, connect so profoundly with so many people?
A short answer was the language, which I mean to talk about later. But that wasn’t all of it, because the language and music are entirely anachronistic, with a few notable exceptions. Yet, in spite of the words being from the wrong era, they feel right. They seem to paint each historical person with an accurate light, according to what we know of their character. Why?
It took me a while to puzzle out the exact mechanism here, but I finally came up with this: subtext. Obviously, Jefferson didn’t run around chanting, “Never gonna be president now!”, but one imagines that that’s what he thought. And Washington almost certainly never said, “Can I be real a second, for just a milisecond?”, but one suspects that it was simmering in his mind. That’s the beauty of it: although the characters are singing to us aloud, what we’re hearing is the workings of their minds, the messages that were passed back and forth through body language, through shared history, through the subtle texture of diction and grammar that, at the remove of two hundred forty years, would elude most of us if it remained in its original form. Yet for the living, breathing people being represented, it was clear as day: there was much more going on than just spoken or written words.
That’s where music comes in. What’s being expressed is the subtle interplay that was never put into words. It functioned at a level below verbal language. So by bringing this to the surface, you can use whatever language can best express it to you audience, which is what music does best. For Lin-Manuel Miranda, this was the language of hip-hop and Broadway musicals.
Perhaps most telling as regards this particular theory: there are a few (mildly altered) direct quotations from the primary sources here. And if you pay attention, you notice that almost all these quotations are spoken, not sung. Think of the Reynolds Pamphlet, or Washington’s Farewell address, or when Washington says, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” These are spoken, or at most said in a singsong. We’re pulled out of the melody, setting these bits apart, which of course delineates what was said from what was thought (which in this case is sung).
Also, the most glaring “subtext” is the giddily bitchy King George, who struts in and reminds us that running through and above and below everything the Founding Fathers said and did was the real possibility of failure, and the reality that they were treading new ground.
Of course, Hamilton is genius for using the subtext to illuminate historical figures’ conflicts. But the actual use of language is genius as well. Miranda uses idiomatic English to perfection, brilliantly mixing touches of 18th century formality with the no-holds-barred language of a rap battle. It’s pretty extraordinary, to dip in and out of such disparate registers and dialects so freely and effectively.
As a historical novelist, I envy Miranda. Not only does he get to use music–which gives emotional cues and amplifies the meaning of the words–but he also is free to–or rather, freed himself to–use whatever words he wants, historical accuracy be damned. Because we’re being presented with subtext, and because frankly this is a musical, he can really let loose with all the linguistic skills at his fingertips (to great effect). The audience sees a stage and hears music and knows this is an interpretation.
Novel-writing is a different beast. You set down words on a page in a book, and people assume and expect it to be literally accurate. There’s no stage or music to draw attention to the fact that it is staged. There’s less leeway for novelists because, except for certain genres, your audience is expecting an accurate depiction of the world as it is–or was. Historical fiction in particular carries the expectation that the authors is presenting the real world, not a version of it. Take one look at the stage or cast for Hamilton, on the other hand, and you know that what we’re seeing is a version of the story.
So, yeah, I kind of wish I could get away with having an eighteenth-century character say “okay”, but then again . . . there are a million ways to say the same thing. A modern vernacular is effective, but it’s only one way to get that subtext across.
Pulls no punches.
One of the most striking things I noticed when watching the play last night was that the characters pull no punches. A disadvantage of having a great control of language is that you can lacerate other people with it. (I’m thinking of a story about Abraham Lincoln cutting down his political opponent so ruthlessly as a young man that he had to apologize for it later; not a naturally cruel man, he couldn’t really control his tongue at that point in his life.)
And here, Miranda is able to use language viciously. “Daddy’s calling.” “Call me son one more time!” “I’m not here for you.” These are cutting, cringe-inducing phrases. They work precisely because they’re so cutting. It feels like a lot of television and movies these days are afraid to use language as a tool, to really show how cruel people can be to one another with words. It takes a lot of wit to be that brutal, and a lot of wisdom to use it in the right places. One imagines that Miranda has to contain a lot of smart-ass remarks in real life.
There’s a hell of a lot of historical fiction out there, and a lot of it’s about the Revolutionary War. But the Federal period has been given short shrift. I’ve thought for a long time that it was a fascinating time, particularly the period around the creation of the Constitution. What these men were doing, and what they accomplished, is truly remarkable. From where we stand, it seems inevitable and immutable, but for them it must have felt like they were bumbling through a thicket in the dark.
It’s refreshing to have a piece of popular historical fiction address such a fraught time period with such thoughtfulness and devotion to historical accuracy. No, not everything is accurate, but within the framework of a Broadway musical, that would be impossible. What is shown is faithful to the historical record, and especially to the spirit of the record. No major events were changed or greatly rearranged. What was changed had particular narrative purposes. It’s clear Miranda respected the history and wanted to do his best to represent it onstage.
The most interesting and important part of Hamilton, though, isn’t even the history it gets right; it’s the approach it takes to history, the historiography. Anyone who studies history knows that how we understand the past alters with the present. Thomas Jefferson is a case in point. He’s undergone a lot of ups and downs in the eyes of the American public; currently, he seems to be on something of a downswing. It’s also important to recognize that there is a lot that we will simply never know, which Miranda clearly recognizes. Hell, there’s a whole song about how “no one else was in the room where it happened.” We’re reminded that, like Burr, we are on the outside looking in, that not even the people of the time necessarily knew all the details.
Then there’s the recurring theme of legacy: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story. Hamilton died relatively young, and his rivals ended up telling much of his story for him. Again, those familiar with history will know the importance of sources. Here on this blog, I’ve talked about Jeanne de La Motte’s memoirs. She’s not exactly a reliable source. She tended to make up stories from whole cloth. What’s interesting is that in her own time, she was listened to and believed, while the queen, who never directly addressed the suspicions that she stole the diamond necklace in question, was widely believed to be culpable. Yet, today, the reverse is believed.
What we leave to future generations will be interpreted and reinterpreted, and we have no control over any of it. That’s a caveat for consumers of history, as well as for those who believe they themselves are making history.
“Lafayette’s a smart man; he’ll be fine”; or Minor Miscues
While Miranda’s faithfulness to history is laudable, and his clear message about the nature of history itself is remarkably astute, there are a few historical inaccuracies that I would like to point out. There are others, but bear with me:
-Jefferson’s personality. Now, I enjoy the character of Jefferson, and I can see why he was written as he was. But, Thomas Jefferson considered himself a man of the people, and though he picked up some French habits while minister there, he didn’t dress flamboyantly, and he certainly wasn’t the type to strut around a cabinet meeting. He was a soft-spoken man who did not give public speeches and avoided conflict like the plague. He was unfailingly polite and charming. Rather a far cry from how he’s presented in the musical.
-Jefferson in France. This one really gets to me. In the musical, Hamilton calls out Jefferson for not fighting in the war because he was off in France. But Jefferson became minister to France after the war. During the war, it was John Adams and Ben Franklin who were in Paris. If you recall, Jefferson penned a little thing called the Declaration of Independence in 1776, so he was in the new United States during the thick of things. In fact, he narrowly escaped being taken prisoner when Redcoats arrived and drove him and his family from Monticello in the middle of the night. He was governor of Virginia during the war. So while he didn’t command troops in the field like Hamilton did, he was very much a part of the war. He wasn’t off getting high with the French (and if he were, so what? someone had to wine and dine them to keep their support).
-“Lafayette’s a smart man, he’ll be fine.” Sigh. No, not really, unless you count being imprisoned for many years to be “fine.” Lafayette was caught up in the madness of the France’s own Revolution after he returned home from the American one, and though he tried to roll with the ever-changing tide, it eventually caught up to him. He was frankly lucky to survive.
Those are the ones that really bug me. There are smaller ones (like the fact that Alexander and Eliza Hamilton had eight children), but often there are clear narrative reasons for them (what on earth would one do with all those children?).
Everything else about Hamilton is basically pure magic. The show was amazing, and if I had another pile of cash to throw down, you bet I’d go see it again. If you are the oddball who hasn’t listened to Hamilton yet, please do so. Now.
So, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is an exhibit going on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City highlighting the work of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. She was one of the most sought-after and talented portrait painters of her time, and as this previous post explains, one of her paintings played a part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Vigée Le Brun painted Queen Marie-Antoinette multiple times, and her paintings were prominent in the public mind: in addition to the portrait of theQueen “en chemise” that caused a minor scandal in 1783, there was the painting of the queen with her children which didn’t entirely succeed in softening the queen’s reputation.
But Vigée Le Brun painted many more people than just Marie-Antoinette. She began painting as a young woman, was sought after among the elite of French society, escaped the French Revolution just before it exploded, moved from capital to capital painting prominent people, and continued to paint late into her life (she died at 86).
The exhibit at The Met includes 80 paintings, some of them of familiar figures to those of us familiar with late-18th-century France: Madame du Barry, the Duchesse de Polginac, Calonne, and Mesdames Adelaide and Victoire. There are also less familiar figures, some of them important men’s mistresses, some of them princes and princesses from across Europe, some of them noted intellectuals. What they all have in common, at least in Vigée Le Brun’s portraits, is a vibrancy and movement that you don’t see in many portraits. There are expressions on their faces, and they all look like they’re about to do or say something. They portraits are engaging. The commentary I listened to during my walk-through of the exhibit (I spent
two hours there) suggested that this was because Vigée Le Brun herself was engaging and personable, and she drew out her subjects’ personality. It’s hard to say–one suspects that a large part of it was simply her skill as an artist.
The paintings are also visually stunning. I’ve seen images of the paintings, via the Internet, but they simply don’t do justice to the originals. There is an exquisite delicacy to the way Vigée Le Brun handled fabrics, especially sheer fabrics like muslin fichus or wraps in ladies’ hair. The white dress worn by the Comtesse de La Châtre in her portrait, for instance, has delicate matte-white dots spread across the white satin fabric below. It’s a subtle but beautiful detail.
In fact, I’d say that “beauty” more or less characterizes all of Vigée Le Brun’s work. Everything she painted has a heightened elegance to it–it’s very much like arranged flowers. This wasn’t an artist interested in capturing people “warts and all”; she was interested in aesthetically beautiful paintings.
And that is more than alright by me. I’m not fond of modern art because it feels so self-indulgent; instead of creating something pleasurable, art is supposed to make us “think” (usually about humanity’s failings). I admit to just wanting a pretty picture. And boy does Vigée Le Brun deliver those!
I should also make a note of the colors: Vigée Le Brun used the most remarkable colors. They’re bright and bold and perfectly chosen. There are blues paired with golds, dramatic reds with black and white, a punch of pastel-colored flowers amid more somber grays and blues, and forest greens paired with royals blue and vibrant whites.
Did I mention that I adored this exhibition?
It was definitely worth the five-hour drive in the pouring rain, worth braving the streets of New York City, worth the $35 for parking and the $40 in tolls (yeah . . . the I-95 corridor is expensive!). And it was definitely worth the two hours that I spent there, drooling over the beauty of it all.
I was definitely intensely pleased when I got to see Marie Antoinette en Chemise and Marie Antoinette avec une Rose side-by-side. As the audio guide explained, it’s the first time the two have been exhibited side-by-side.
Why was I so excited? Well, again, I refer you to this post, but to give a quick overview of the story behind these paintings: Vigée Le Brun painted the portrait of Marie-Antoinette “en chemise” and presented it in public at a salon in 1783. “En chemise” means that Marie was in a white muslin or “chemise” dress. Now, a chemise was an undergarment that went beneath everything else, stays (“corset”) included. It was scandalous to show the queen in a portrait in what looked like her underclothing. It was too informal, too suggestive. So Vigée Le Brun took down that painting and quickly dashed off another one, with the queen in the same pose but wearing a more appropriate/regal blue satin gown.
In both portraits, you’ll notice, the queen is holding the same thing in her left hand: a rose. Not long after this painting was displayed, in 1785, a young adventuress named Jeanne de La Motte-Valois convinced a credulous Cardinal that she was friends with the Queen (she did it to steal a very expensive necklace). To win him over, she hired a prostitute (Nicole d’Oliva) to play the part of the queen (oh dear!), dressed her in a white muslin dress and gave her a rose to hand to the Cardinal. Sound familiar? It seems pretty likely that Jeanne got the idea from the portrait of the Queen en chemise. In fact, one of Jeanne’s friends, Jacques Claude Beugnot, remembered that Jeanne had a candy box with a copy of Marie Antoinette en chemise painted on the inside of its lid!
And of course, the reason I started this blog way back when was to tell more of this story. I’d written an entire novel about it, but I wasn’t nearly done. Yes, this blog has shifted focus, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an abiding interest in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and everything related to it. I was even willing to make a harrowing trip into New York City to see this exhibition, just to get a glimpse of the originals of these two paintings. I was rewarded by more beauty than I’d even imagined. I went for the pair of paintings of Marie-Antoinette, but I stayed for the 78 other exquisite pieces of art.
(I would be lying if I said I didn’t sneak a few pictures while inside the exhibit, but I don’t want to share them on principle, and they aren’t very good anyway!)