December 9, 2019 § Leave a comment
As I was choosing which topic to write my bonus blog on, I thought it would be interesting to watch a movie I’d never seen of a book I’d never read – an unusual combo for someone who can be quite neurotic about the ‘book before movie adaptation’ rule. But the combination of Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, and a 75% rating on Rotten Tomatoes convinced me to give it a try. War of the Worlds follows a father (Cruise) and his children as they attempt to survive a violent and unexpected alien invasion.
While this is not a review, I will preface with the fact that I really didn’t like this movie. It had some of the most overused tropes known to mankind: a brooding teenage boy, a screaming and helpless younger sister, and a deadbeat dad who was also dumb as a rock. That doesn’t even get into the bizarre choices by the characters who, for example, seemed convinced that sprinting towards the aliens blowing up the planet was the safest and most logical course of action. On the bright side, the aliens were very scary and the suspense was wonderful. But, like I said, this is not a movie review, so I’ll leave it at that.
As I watched, I looked for things that I could write about that would relate to the class, and within the first 15 minutes I was presented with the perfect opening – a frame narrative!
In another classic movie trope, the impending disaster is introduced not by the character’s firsthand experience, but by a strange report on the news of mass blackouts and mysterious lightning strikes. As I only learned the term ‘frame narrative’ this semester, I was delighted to realize how the technique lived on outside of 19th century books and into modern cinema. The newscaster, while not a true narrator, performed the basic task of a frame narrative by introducing the watcher to the main plot from a distance.
After this first realization, I watched the rest of the movie looking for other types of frame narratives and how they translated into film. A common theme I found was the use of technology or mirrors as framing devices, rather than human narrators. Outside from newscasters acting as temporary storytellers to contribute to worldbuilding, most of the framing was done through the use of creative cinematography.
For example, in the screenshot below the aliens are seen destroying the city through a handheld camcorder lying on the ground. Like a frame narrator might, this shot gives us more information than just seen the aliens head on. The watcher feels guilt over the presumed death or destruction of the camcorder’s owner, while also a strange detachment from the scene created by the removal of the first person perspective. They also learn that this movie is set in 2005, where camcorders are common, but cell phones aren’t, which could explain to a current viewer the state of technology at the time and why the aliens seemed so darn difficult to kill or track.
The other most obvious and common framing device was the use of mirrors. On multiple occasions the camera would show a rearview or sideview mirror in the car the family drove in. This again had the removal effect, where the watcher was seeing events through a layer of distortion. It also added to the suspense of the scenes by showing us only parts of what was happening, rather than a complete picture. Again, while this is not a traditional frame narrative, it reminded me strongly of the secondary perspective many of the novels we read contained.
I double-checked to make sure that the novel itself has a frame narrative and from my skimming was surprised by the differences between the tone of the movie and book. While H. G. Wells wrote a rather dry and factual novel recounting a traumatic event, Steven Spielberg went the action/adventure/horror route to create a much more thrilling tale. It made sense to me that any frame narration would have to adapt in a similar manner as the style of the story changed. So while these examples may not be perfect, orthodox frame narration like something out of The Princess Bride, the use of technology and filming techniques to add to the tone or information in the movie was very interesting to pick out and find, and something I will certainly do with films in the future.
December 1, 2019 § 2 Comments
One would think that a short story with a name as intriguing and powerful as “A Descent into the Maelstrom” would be more than just a literal tale of a sailor who got caught in a hurricane. Disappointingly, the plot of this short story is exactly that, and not much else. For 9 out of the 13 pages, the sailor who tells the story of his survival rambles on in his description of how powerful this storm is. The tale itself is actually quite extraordinary, yet Poe loses his reader when he launches into these wordy descriptions of the maelstrom. He might have been trying to really establish the scene, but I thought his motivation for the descriptions was that he was being paid-per-word. Later, I discovered that he was being paid by the page so interpret that as you will (Ostrom, 37). Having read the other brilliant short stories from Poe, such as “The Murders at the Rue Morgue,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and more, I was disappointed by this rather boring story. “Descent” is described as a “terror” story, but quite frankly, the main emotion I felt while reading it was boredom.
While you may think my criticism is harsh and perhaps coming from a place of unsophistication, literary critics of Poe’s time shared my sentiment. Shortly after the story was published in April 1841 in Graham’s Magazine, the April 28, 1841 issue of the Daily Chronicle called it “unworthy of the pen of one whose talents allow him a wider and more ample range.”(A Descent into the Maelström”, n.d.). The critic’s argument echoes my exact sentiments–that Poe had the capability to write a much more complex and interesting story than “Descent”.
Despite these critiques of “Descent”, there are many merits to this short story. It is regarded as one of the first forms of science fiction and of “ratiocination,” which is the act of using logic to rationalize problems. The sailor discusses how hopeless he felt as he was swirling around in the whirlpool, but he is struck by an idea when he makes crucial observations into the characteristics of the objects that sink the fastest. He noticed that the barrels that were swirling above him sank the slowest, and concluded that his best chance at survival lay in him attaching himself to a barrel and waiting the storm out. In this survival scene, Poe brings up the conflict of science/man vs. nature. He clearly admires the beautiful violence of the storm, as evidenced by his long descriptions of scenery, yet this conclusion where reason overcomes this powerful force of nature seems to be Poe’s way of arguing that man’s ingenuity can overcome even the strongest storms. This argument is enforced when one considers the fate of the sailor’s brothers. Originally, there were three sailors (the survivor and his two brothers) who were caught in the storm. The first one has really bad luck, and the mast that he tied himself to for safety was the first thing that got blown off the ship. The second brother lasted longer, but went wild with fear. He tried to take the narrator’s spot, even attempting to pry his own brother’s hands off of the thing he was clinging to for safety. The narrator describes his brother in this instant as “a raving maniac through sheer fright”(Poe 10). This brother lost his sensibility to his terror, and wasn’t able to rescue himself. The survivor’s ability to use logic to survive juxtaposed against his brother’s mindless fear reveals Poe’s belief that man is the victor in this conflict.
“A Descent Into the Maelstrom” may not have been Poe’s most shining achievement, but I still recommend reading it for its literary merits such as its symbolism, themes, and characters. If you are a Poe fan though, I would just recommend reading this with lowered expectations.
November 19, 2019 § 4 Comments
“Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, vivid and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet what a subtle magic was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of a viol or a lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?” (Wilde, 75).
Reading The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde was like being thrust under a constant waterfall of media. Wilde takes the reader through vivid descriptions of everything from Basil Hallward’s exquisite paintings, to Sybil Vane’s mesmerizing theater, to Lord Henry’s captivating speech which Dorian reacts to in the quote above. Art has a special power to captivate and enthrall in Picture, regardless of what shape or form it takes. Music, painting, speech, theater, and even physical beauty all are represented as vital components of the artistic world. While The Picture of Dorian Gray usually brings to mind Basil’s painting and the portrait as the central artistic movement, I wanted to explore these other formats of art and how they relate to modern media. Specifically, as an avid consumer of media (a common trait in our generation), the age of the internet has changed the ways that we interact with art, and the forms it takes.
I chose the above quote because it made me first consider this idea of changing forms of modern media specifically related to the spoken word. Audiobooks first came into the public conscious as early as 1932 on vinyl mostly to assist the blind, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the term “audiobook” was firmly established in the public mind (1). Today with the ubiquitous nature of cell phones, millions of people have access to massive libraries at the touch of a button. In 2016, more audiobooks were sold than hardcover books. In a similar rise to fame, the podcast went from a relatively niche pastime to a global rise to fame in the past two decades (I mean, who hasn’t listened to Serial at this point?). An article from BBC points again to rising cell phone use and their more informal style to explain the podcast’s modern popularity (2).
Audio formats have made consuming media easier than ever before, and in them I understand the sentiment that Dorian becomes so excited about: “Was there anything so real as words?” When I see critiques from older generations over cell phone usage – the classic, ‘why don’t you just read a book?’ comes to mind – I feel an urge to mention how much our consumption of words has changed in recent history. Just as a single speech changes Dorian’s entire worldview, the media we consume today has the power to do the same, regardless of format. Audio storytelling has existed since the beginning of human history from oral traditions to radio dramas, thus the electronic transformation of the format is a well-needed step in a natural direction.
The first time I read The Picture of Dorian Gray, I was entirely focused on the power of visual art. It was all about the painting – was it truly supernatural? Can a portrait capture the essence of an individual? But the second time around, I truly became aware of how much persuasive speech played a role in both the plot and development of characters in the novel. Speech is truly “clear, vivid, and cruel,” even more direct than words on a page, interwoven with another layer of personality that comes with the speaker’s tone and inflections. I feel this idea recaptured in modern forms when a crime thriller has me on the edge of my seat, unable to focus on anything else than the voice inside my headphones, or when a candid interview reminds me that there are actual people behind the stories that I’m hearing. So to anyone who has ever thought that podcasts or audiobooks are inferior to the ‘real thing’ on hard paper, I can assure you that the “subtle magic” of speech has not disappeared with the advent of technology, only changed and grown as we explore and grow continually more comfortable with audio formats.
November 17, 2019 § 3 Comments
Despite claiming to be intellectually superior to Dracula, calling his brain a “man-brain” while labelling the Vampire’s brain as a “child-brain,” there are many instances where Van Helsing’s actions lead to harm that could have been easily prevented. Reading Dracula, Van Helsing’s idiocy frustrates me the most, and unnecessarily complicates many conflicts.
The first instance of Van Helsing’s imbecility is right after he performs the blood transfusion from Holmwood to Lucy. At that point, Van Helsing already has a hypothesis for what is wrong with Lucy because he tests John Seward on what Seward thinks about Lucy’s bite marks on her throat (116). Without answering any questions, Van Helsing leaves Seward with the ominous warning that “if you[Seward] leave her[Lucy], and harm befall, you [Seward] shall not sleep easy thereafter!” (117). Seward vigilantly watchs Lucy the first night, and after seeing her improvement, sleeps the second night. However, the reader knows that the problem occurs when Lucy sleepwalks to the window where Dracula sucks out her blood in his bat form. Van Helsing clearly has an idea that this is happening, yet didn’t give any hints to the people who would be Lucy’s protectors. As a result, Seward unknowingly lets Lucy sleep. The next morning, she is in worse condition than before (120). This could have been prevented had Van Helsing given Seward some initial clue, even an initial lie like “Lucy sleep-walks at night and this causes her cold to worsen and it makes her weaker.” Obviously, bringing up the concept of a vampire would be too insane at that moment, but some insight into why Lucy was so ill would have helped her immensely.
The second, and most frustrating, mistake Van Helsing makes is continuing to keep Lucy’s loved ones in the dark about the causes to her condition. When her mom removes the garlic during the night, unintentionally allowing the vampire in, Lucy loses a lot more blood. Every time she loses blood, it resets the previously-made progress, making her body physically weaker and her soul more susceptible to the vampire. I cannot understand why Van Helsing didn’t tell the entire Westenra household how important the garlic was. Even if he didn’t explain the root cause, he could have emphasized the importance of the medicine and it would have been enough to prevent anyone from moving the garlic. This final exposure to the bat made Lucy so weak that she was never able to recover, and was a factor in her untimely death. Van Helsing’s needless secrecy was just as harmful to Lucy as Dracula.
The final example of Van Helsing’s flawed thinking is when he fails to join in the final battle. The only two people in combat are Johnathan and Quincey, even though everyone else in the band has weapons. Not only does Van Helsing have a gun, he has a Winchester, which was a revolutionary rifle at the time that allowed for “repeat firing without re-loading after each shot” (389). Perhaps if Van Helsing had used his weapon instead of brandishing it like a prop, he could have helped fight off some of the gypsies, maybe even the one that landed the fatal blow to Quincey. Some may argue that Seward and Holmwood could have also joined in the fight with their guns, but Van Helsing has always been the de facto leader of the group, with his knowledge of Dracula and his worldly experience. It is his responsibility to lead the others into action. Instead, he stands and watches the other two men fight off nearly ten gypsies. The odds are quite high that one or both of the men would get injured.
The most infuriating aspect of Van Helsing’s character is his arrogance. I was dumbfounded to read his confident statements of how their combined intellectual power will be able to vanquish the vampire, a powerful immortal being who has conquered nations and has the knowledge of hundreds of years. Some may argue that through Van Helsing’s character, Stoker is arguing that high academic intelligence does not correlate to high social intelligence. I would counter that Van Helsing is clearly portrayed as the most intelligent character, and since all the other characters never defy or challenge him, we the readers are meant to accept Van Helsing’s authority as fact. This novel has only reinforced my belief to always question “authority” because sometimes they are just plain dumb.
November 16, 2019 § 6 Comments
I was excited when I read ‘feminist utopia’ in the description of “Sultana’s Dream” (1905) by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. Ultimately, though, in that regard I was left wanting. Hossain’s short story is many things, but a feminist utopia is not one of them.
“Sultana’s Dream” follows an Indian woman who finds herself in a world- Ladyland- that is the gendered inverse of everything she has known. Another woman, whom she calls Sister Sara, leads her around and tells her about Ladyland. A few decades ago, the Queen (who was largely a figurehead) decided that women should be educated and should not marry until they are at least twenty-one. From that point on, women began to make strides out of the house and to break purdah or the seclusion of women. However, the men continued to discount their scientific achievements, deeming them “a sentimental nightmare”. Everything changed when the nation found itself in a seemingly unwinnable war. The men had exhausted all options of physical strength, but nothing had worked. Then the women, using the solar power they developed, defeated the enemy and took control of the country. They banished the men to the house, where they themselves had previously been hidden, and the men were to stay there until they were needed again. Ever since, Ladyland has thrived. Its streets are paved with flowers. They don’t need police because there are not any crimes. Their religion is “based on Love and Truth”. Essentially, it is depicted as a beautiful and peaceful society.
The harmonious nature of Ladyland is what has led to its categorization as a feminist utopia. However, I don’t believe that’s what it is, nor do I believe that Hossain meant it to be read as such. At multiple points throughout the story, there are dark undercurrents that peek through, especially regarding the men’s fate. For instance, Sister Sara says that “now the proud men are dreaming sentimental dreams themselves”. Hossain shows that the women did not create a more free or equal world; they just inverted the power dynamic. This becomes especially evident when Sister Sara says, “the seclusion is the same”. Ladyland is not a utopia because an entire half of the population is being oppressed. Through her portrayal of Ladyland, an inherently unequal society, Hossain is commenting on the ridiculousness and cruelty of the inherently unequal society in which she lives.
Furthermore, Ladyland is not a feminist society. The meaning of feminism- “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes”- hinges upon the equality of men and women. Ladyland, as much as its real-life counterpart in India, is not feminist. Both Ladyland and India had power structures with one sex dominating the other.
Mis-labeling “Sultana’s Dream” as a ‘feminist utopia’ can have dangerous consequences. It minimizes Hossain’s story by categorizing it into a fanciful, wishful genre, instead of the biting social critique that it is. As Hossain’s husband noted when he first read it, “Sultana’s Dream” is a “terrible revenge” and not a utopia. Ladyland is not an idealistic, harmonious society; it is a reversal of power where the women oppress their oppressors. Furthermore, by labeling “Sultana’s Dream” as a feminist utopia, the idea of feminism is misrepresented. It perpetuates the misconception that feminism is hinged upon the superiority of women to men, rather than their equality. The categorization of “Sultana’s Dream” as a ‘feminist utopia’ is harmful both to the seriousness of the short story and feminism in general. Even though labels are fabrications, they can still have very real consequences.
“Sultana’s Dream” by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain
“‘Sultana’s Dream’: Purdah Reversed” by Roushan Jahan