Archive for July 7th, 2014

July 7, 2014

Bulletpoints: Maleficent

I loved many things about Maleficent and rolled my eyes at many others. Some rambly bulletpoints because I can.

  • Sleeping Beauty is one of the best of the classic Disney fairytales to adapt because it is presented to us in the form of a book. We come to Maleficent (those of us who have seen and remember the original) with a sense already of the story as something told.
  • Maleficent gives us two countries, side by side. One of them is populated by “people like you and me”, says the voiceover, making me wonder as it always does if I’m a person “like you and me”. The other country is populated by communists.
  • I don’t know why Maleficent is so much bigger than the other fairies, or why she flies around graciously telling the other residents of the moors what a good job they’re doing, if there’s no hierarchy in this country.
  • Meanwhile, the King of the other country claims to have promised his people he’d conquer the Moors. Perhaps it’s because I have no honour but I don’t get why this is such a problem. Is he worried that he won’t be king anymore if he doesn’t fulfil his electoral promises? I don’t understand the political systems of these countries, is what I guess I’m saying.
  • It’s with patchy films like this one that I’m most grateful that the bulletpoint format doesn’t require me to come to conclusions. This film does some things so well, and others so very badly.
  • Maleficent befriends and falls in love with Stefan, an ambitious young man who gives her “true love’s kiss” before drugging her and cutting off her wings in order to be appointed the king’s heir. Hurt and angry, she seals off the Moors and settles down to wait and plan her revenge. When Stefan and his new wife (who has more screentime in this than in the original and is still barely present) have a child, she curses the baby, throwing “true love’s kiss” in Stefan’s face as the only thing that can save the child. This is the point at which the scene diverges from the 1959 film, to which it is otherwise faithful—and I have to wonder if the role of making the curse breakable is given to Maleficent as part of her redemption.
  • Instead of spending years looking for the child, Maleficent instead spends years watching her, occasionally saving her from the effects of the “good” fairies’ (i.e. collaborators with the people who tried to invade their country) incompetence at parenting. Eventually the two women meet, and grow to care for one another.
  • One of the things the original does better than the new one is Aurora herself. A thing that I find annoying about even new!feminist! Disney is the wide-eyedness of its heroines—and I mean this literally. When Frozen (a movie I mostly really liked) came out, it was pointed out that Disney’s recent animation style demanded that female characters all be tiny with tinier hands, huge heads and even huger eyes. Aurora has rMaleficent Aurora 1elatively normal sized eyes, and it’s not even obvious what colour they are—they appear dark for most of the film, though in the scene where she awakes from her enchanted sleep we find that they’re blue. She’s allowed to look knowing, to be amused by her fairy godmothers in ways that don’t involve tinkling laughs, to have, when singing, quite a deep voice. And in the film’s final scene, you get the sense that she and Philip are thoroughly enjoying the fact that they know what has happened and their bewildered elders do not.
  • I think this is important. Because of all the classic fairytales Sleeping Beauty is among the worst in terms of the lack of agency it gives its heroine. She’s a baby, then sixteen, then unconscious; then a man she doesn’t know kisses her and somehow this is enough to wake her and have her live happily ever after. In some versions, as Sady Doyle notes here, she is raped and only awakens after she’s already had children. The 1959 movie doesn’t entirely fix any of this, but it does have Aurora and Philip meet and actively choose one another (though Aurora hasn’t exactly had much opportunity to meet other young men). Even in the trance-state in which Aurora succumbs to the curse (and I’m amazed this didn’t give me nightmares as a child) she isn’t entirely robbed of agency—just before she reaches out to prick her finger on the spindle you can see her come to herself. One of the things that makes the 1959 Philip work (and I do genuinely enjoy new!Philip’s gormlessness) is the sense that he, like Aurora, has the measure of the powerful adults around him. When this couple are both present and conscious, you can imagine them as allies.
  • Maleficent uses this sense of children who know things also, though it does so mostly by making every adult who isn’t the title character comically incompetent or entirely absent. The three fairies who raise Aurora should clearly not be trusted with a child (does Juno Temple always play characters who could conceivably be called “Thistlewit”?); Stefan goes from power-hungry and obsessive to power-hungry, obsessive, and completely falling apart; his wife is absent. Aurora is aware of Maleficent’s presence when her guardians are not; she also knows instinctively that she is safe with her. She figures out that the woman she’s been visiting every night (which is such a good use of the “Once Upon A Dream” thread) is the evil fairy of whom she’s been told.
  • Aurora is also intolerably twee—as Maleficent recognises, and is played for humour more than once. From Smiley Baby and Cute Toddler she grows into the sort of person who calls people her fairy godmother (Jolie’s “ … What.” is one of the high points of the film) and who adorably has mud fights with trolls. She’s nauseating, but you can see why someone who has literally raised a wall of thorns around herself might also see her as new and bright and grow to love her. Which is all very well except
  • In the early scenes of the movie when everything is still good and the moors are still a place of fullcommunism and rainbows, when Maleficent flies around spreading sweetness and light and telling the other crcommunism rainbowseatures what a good job they’re doing, like a royal visit from Madeline Bassett, she’s nauseating as well. This is the perfect state of affairs that Stefan’s violation brings to an end, and taken in conjunction with Aurora’s character later, the film seems to position these traits as necessary to lovability. Meanwhile the adult audience and Aurora herself, at least, are learning that the opposite is true; that the decidedly un-sweetness-and-light adult woman is the one thing about this movie to love.
  • This will be a problem throughout. Jolie is at her best when she’s playing the villainess, whether caustic and funny or hurt and enraged; she’s particularly enchanting when she’s tormenting people. The moors are far more interesting when they’re dark and fertile and swamplike. Her redemption—protective, possibly maternal (though possibly not!) love, the institution of monarchy in the moors (wait, why?) is boring.
  • As far as I can tell, her evil!headdress is to wrap her horns in leather. Her battledress is leather trousers. Look, leather’s just really evil, okay?
  • In my headcanon Maleficent knows about the care and feeding of children because of the communal, it-takes-a-village-ness of the moors. Instead, we get the sense that even this scarred, hurt, angry woman cannot but love babies because babies. Which feels of a piece with the film’s discomfort with its title character’s anger, as well as with her evil. No, but she’s nice really! She likes babies! And rainbows! Even though we’re acknowledging that babies and rainbows are annoying! And so on. And yet there’s that wonderful moment when she tries to lift the curse and can’t, that seems to hint at rage and grief as the powerful, irreversible things that they are.
  • I think Jolie’s great in all her evil!scenes, but the best scene in the movie is one lifted almost entirely from the 1959 film; the christening sequence. Still so good.
  • I’d been warned in advance that the film had chosen to portray the theft of the wings as rape, and was consciously arming myself against that moment (one of things that recent debates around trigger warnings have done is to make me mindful of how I do this, and sometimes notice other people doing this). It still hurt a bit to watch.
  • Some of the strongest moments in this film take emotional beats, rather than plot points or lines, from the original. The thorns that come out of the ground to create a wall – around the Moors this time. The iron-spike-maze that Maleficent must walk through to get to the castle.
  • Maleficent is the latest in a series of Disney movies that very carefully signal their discomfort with the idea that hetero-monogamous love is the cure for all things. Brave has Merida escape the need to make a political marriage; Frozen has Anna happily paired off but has the act of true love that saves the day be between sisters; in Maleficent Philip’s kiss doesn’t work, and comes after he protests because he’s only met Aurora once and she’s unconscious.
  • That it’s Maleficent’s kiss that does wake her leaves the whole thing open to an obvious queer reading; particularly since soon after we learn that “the kingdoms were united”. Alas, this doesn’t mean what I want it to mean; merely that Maleficent has made the Moors boring again and handed them over to Aurora to rule, with her useless but very pretty prince.
  • It is still not as pretty as the original.

800px-SleepingBeauty_(2)Disney

July 7, 2014

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jean of Storms

So, Jean of Storms (the subject of last weekend’s column) is really weird.

I’ve been skim-reading a couple of the Chalet School books this last few days, as you do when you have deadlines to meet, and before I’d always laughed a bit at how many near-death experiences the characters seem to have. But after Chalet School Reunion in particular, I’m now completely sold on the idea of these books as a form of horror narrative in which the landscape itself is hostile to the characters. As they’re being shown the local sights, one of the guests at the reunion laughingly asks why all the stories associated with these spots are near death experiences. Shortly afterwards, they all nearly die when the bit of land they’re standing on falls into a glacier moments after they have left it. In a couple of chapters, a cliff will crumble while a character is on it. Naturally there’s a nature-related near-death experience in Jean of Storms as well, but more important is the way in which this revelation makes the insertion of stock horror characters into the lives of healthy-minded schoolgirls make perfect sense. Nature herself is trying to kill these people; it’s only sensible to read their stories as horror.

 

**********************************************

As a child I was expected to prepare for family holidays by doing research into the history (and culture, and art, and literature) of every new destination. As I grew older that research morphed into reading fiction around a place. I’m less diligent about it than I was at the age of eight, but it still gives me a thrill.

If I think of reading fiction about a place as the same sort of thing as reading fact, it’s because it’s not so much that a sense of the territory makes a book more real as it is the other way around. Fiction can be a lens through which to read a place, and when there’s a vast body of work set in a particular place those stories can layer themselves one atop the other. But we all know those places—the Londons and New Yorks of the world are so deeply embedded in literature, and literature is so deeply embedded in them, that switching between the ‘real’ and fictional city is easy and natural.

It’s the less used settings that interest me more, particularly when there are only a few competing narratives to clash with one another. One of my favourite examples of weird, almost diametrically opposite books coming out of the same place is Arundel Castle in England; it inspired the home of the sunny, folk-dancing-obsessed Earl and Countess of Kentisbury in Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey books for girls, and the heavy, gothic, over the top setting of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.

Recently I discovered that I now live near the home of another major author of books for girls; Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, best known as the author of the Chalet School series, a staple of my childhood. Brent-Dyer spent most of her life in the North of England but never wrote about it—or so it was thought until 1995, when a fan discovered Jean of Storms, a serialised novel for adults set outside Newcastle and published in the Shields Gazette in 1930.

A romance for adults, Jean of Storms contains within it a weird clash of genres that is particularly fascinating to a reader familiar with her larger body of work. The title character is a young woman of twenty-three who becomes the guardian of her niece from India when her sister-in-law dies. This is all very Secret Garden-ish; the child spoilt but goodhearted, the Indian ayah who cannot stop fussing about her “Missy-baba”. There are elements, also, of the school stories for which Brent-Dyer was already gaining a reputation when this serial was published—the dramatic sequence in a cave on the cliffs, the relationships with doctors and curates for which Jean and her friend Mollie are thoroughly unprepared (“as fresh-minded on such subjects as they had been as school girls of fourteen”, Brent-Dyer informs us, as if emotional immaturity were a desirable thing), the strong community of women.

But underneath all of this is something more sinister, that belongs to a different genre altogether, and that manifests itself in the form of Morag, Jean’s terrifying Calvinist cook-housekeeper, and in Mollie’s obsessive, malevolent housekeeper. These characters seem to have wandered in from a gothic novel; as has the landscape, all treacherous rocks and dramatic waves crashing against cliffs. The book’s cover, in its Bettany Press edition, reflects this weird mix of genres—it bears a photograph of country-dancers, but of the old, black-and-white sort, where everyone looks wary of the camera.

Above, I spoke of having multiple, conflicting literary lenses through which to view a place. Jean of Storms contains those conflicting lenses within it; school story, imperial children’s tale, gothic romance. It makes for an uncomfortable and genuinely weird read, but perhaps more importantly, it has made the nice seaside town I’m familiar with into something more akin to Wuthering Heights.

**********************************************