Pure Imagination

R.I.P. Gene Wilder. Your expressions, words, and films have been a part of my personal lexicon since I was a kid. You’ve brought me joy.

Here’s a piece of that joy, from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.


Pure Imagination

1001 Movies: Doctor Zhivago


Doctor Zhivago is my third David Lean film, after Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai, and my second favorite. It’s a characteristically visually stunning epic with a grand story and score. There are many beautiful shots, of the actors and landscape, and looking through windows. I’d love to read scholarship on the film’s cinematography.


The film won five Academy Awards in 1966, including Best Picture, and it’s easy to see why. The script is subtle and, at nearly three and a half hours, still never plodding. Here’s the best summary from imdb:

A Russian epic, the movie traces the life of surgeon-poet Yury Zhivago before and during the Russian Revolution. Married to an upper-class girl who is devoted to him, yet in love with an unfortunate woman who becomes his muse, Zhivago is torn between fidelity and passion. Sympathetic with the revolution but shaken by the wars and purges, he struggles to retain his individualism as a humanist amid the spirit of collectivism.

I like Russian literature and what I’ve seen of Russian cinema, and the period this western film covers is no doubt one of the country’s most fascinating and tumultuous. Doctor Zhivago offers a view of that history refracted through the characters’ personal experiences. There are characters on each side of the conflicts and multiple ideologies represented, but neither the doctor nor Lara are particularly political (we’re told Lara supports the anti-Bolsheviks but never see it). The movie is not a polemic.

The acting is fine (I’m always excited for some Alec Guinness), but my one major criticism of the film is that I don’t buy the love story between Yuri and Lara. It’s clear Yuri is interested in Lara from first sight, but we don’t know why. They fall in love while serving as a doctor and nurse, respectively, during World War I, but we’re only told they have through their parting dialogue after a gap in time. I also always find it difficult to continue to sympathize with characters who are cheating on spouses who themselves are sympathetic (though Lara’s husband is a non-issue for reasons I won’t spoil). We see Yuri struggle with this, but I couldn’t care. However, the story doesn’t dwell on his angst, and it’s not long before Yuri is swept up in the Revolution, against his will.

I’ll end with an image from Varykino, the estate in the country boarded up by the Reds where Yuri, Lara, and Lara’s daughter find temporary sanctuary (and conceive a child together). It’s mostly frozen over, a gorgeous but haunting image. It’s also frozen in time, and it’s here that Yuri writes his book of poems inspired by and dedicated to Lara.



1001 Movies: Doctor Zhivago

Salman Rushdie, The Moor’s Last Sigh


The Moor's Last Sigh - Salman Rushdie

Somehow, sometime, I became allergic to the term “family saga” and avoided books labeled as such. I don’t know why. The term brings to mind farmhouses and domesticity, kids and family secrets, struggles that are often first world problems I couldn’t care less about. But, like stories about Manhattanites and the French Revolution, it’s simply a strange prejudice I’ve come to embrace because SO MANY BOOKS. A girl has to find a way to not feel the need to read All the Things, right? Especially a slow reader like this girl. Yet inevitably such black-balling will make me miss out on some great stuff.


The Moor’s Last Sigh is explicitly described in its synopsis as a family saga, and boy does it earn the saga aspect. Instead of summarizing the plot myself (a daunting task), here’s an excerpt from the back of the book itself:


Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie combines a ferociously witty family saga with a surreally imagined and sometimes blasphemous chronicle of modern India and flavors the mixture with peppery soliloquies on art, ethnicity, religious fanaticism, and the terrifying power of love. Moraes “Moor” Zogoiby, the last surviving scion of a dynasty of Cochinese spice merchants and crime lords, is also a compulsive storyteller and an exile. As he travels a route that takes him from India to Spain, he leaves behind a tale of mad passions and volcanic family hatreds, of titanic matriarchs and their mesmerized offspring, of premature deaths and curses that strike beyond the grave.


The “titanic matriarchs” were my favorite part of the story: Moor’s mother, Aurora, her mother, Belle, and her mother, Epifania are all forces to be reckoned with. In addition to these often outsize examples, there are musings on motherhood itself in the context of India, its prominence in popular culture and national pride. There are many musings in this book on everything you might think of: family, class, race, religion, art, storytelling, history, and more. This sounds like it could be boring, but Rushdie avoids that handily via the entertaining voice of Moor, the narrator, and the sheer power and acrobatics of his prose.


When I first began reading the book, I was reminded of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, an early novel where the narrator begins with his forebears…and never even reaches his birth. Both books are also suffused with comedy, though Shandy is more of a farce. Moor begins narrating his story in the present, in exile, and shifts to his great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and his own early life, occasionally returning to the present to remind us of his circumstances before we get there near the end of the story. There are moments when Moor doubts what he’s been told of his family, but he never closes the book on an interpretation. Through Moor’s telling of his family story and origins, a story of India also emerges. As an American, most of it was new to me.


All the characters in the book are fascinating and distinct, and the storytelling and language engages as well. And that’s without the magical realism that makes the story feel even more epic and a bit whimsical. It’s another element of the narrative that brings to attention the act of storytelling. Though you can feel the magical realism throughout, when it’s revealed that Moor ages physically twice as fast as a normal person, it kicks into high gear. It leads to all sorts of complications for Moor, some uncomfortable to read, but most of all, along with a withered hand, makes him desperate for love. It doesn’t take long for that desperation to lead to his (almost) ruin.


The Moor’s Last Sigh is an amazing journey and my first Rushdie. I’ll happily read more.

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Salman Rushdie, The Moor’s Last Sigh

By the Numbers: Women in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Are you getting a good enough look at my ass?

This is a new type of post I’m trying, tracking women characters within a film I’ve recently watched. Just for shits and giggles. Make of it what you will. The inaugural film:

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

Number of women with speaking roles: 5

Number of women with prominent roles: 1

Is this woman a love interest? Yes

Is this woman objectified? Yes

Number of returning female characters/actresses (this is the fifth film in the series): 0

Number of returning male characters/actors: 4

Average age of actors in prominent roles: 50.5

Age of actress (Rebecca Ferguson): 32

Bechdel Test Pass? Lol, no.


By the Numbers: Women in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

The Girls, Emma Cline


The Girls: A Novel - Emma Cline

Guy had been less interesting to the media, just a man doing what men had always done, but the girls were made mythic.

Why have the Manson murders made such a cultural impact, from 1969 to the present? Why do they fascinate us in a country with so many murders (or so much interest in them) there are now entire TV channels dedicated to true crime? One possible explanation is that, along with other events, like Altamont, the murders signaled the ending of an extended summer of love and of the counterculture, or showed us their dark underbelly, what happens when love is too devoted and social justice motivations are twisted. Another possibility is the unforgettable, crazed face of Manson himself.

But really, it’s the girls.

How could so many girls be held in such thrall as to murder on command? How could they kill a beautiful, young, pregnant starlet? Young women make familiar victims. When they become victimizers, it puzzles, shocks, and disturbs, as if rabbits suddenly turned into predators instead of prey. As the quote above mentions, a man killing is nothing new. A woman killing…unnatural, we think.

A strength of Emma Cline’s The Girls is that, though the girls flock around the Manson-like figure of Russell, it’s really the protagonist’s relationship with one of them, Suzanne, that takes center stage. As she notes of her meetings with Russell, I was eager for our encounters, eager to cement my place among them, as if doing what Suzanne did was a way of being with her. 

First, what this book isn’t. It isn’t an omniscient picture of a Manson Family-like group or of the fictionalized murders, though certainly you get an idea of the former through the lens of the first-person narrator, Evie, who is a temporary fixture at their farm. Evie learns the details of the murders through the media, like everyone else, but we’re only given snapshots, disturbing but not too graphic. If you want a play-by-play of the real thing with gory details, google it or read Helter Skelter. That’s not this novel’s focus or raison d’etre.

It’s also not a sweeping portrait of America in the ’60s. I’ve seen some readers complaining that there isn’t enough of this or that, mostly the sorts of things we’ve come to associate with that period whether we lived at that time or not: counterculture, protests, hippies, Vietnam. Those things are mentioned, and Russell preaches love and the ills of money while getting it where he can via the girls, but the book’s not a history lesson (also, many forget that the majority of Americans did not participate in the counterculture or oppose the war in Vietnam). Evie is a fourteen-year-old girl; she’s not oblivious to larger goings-on, but they’re not as important as her feelings and desires and her immediate situation and environment.

If anything, The Girls is a coming of age story. It’s split between Evie as a grown, older woman in the present and as a teenager in 1969, with a focus on the latter. She’s become a caregiver but seems isolated. A run-in with an old friend’s son and his girlfriend dredges up the past and reminds her what it feels like to be paid attention to. Evie comes to realize little has changed when it comes to the dynamics of young men and women, and it’s a lens through which she sees herself in the past (and vice versa, her experiences in the past shedding light on her present observations). Her friend’s son knows she was a part of “that cult,” and his and his girlfriend’s questions prompt her to consider how and why she didn’t become a murderer herself.

As a fourteen year-old, Evie’s life is familiar: she has a best friend, divorced parents, longs for the attentions of her friend’s older brother. A fight with her friend and a disintegrating relationship with her mother (whom Evie blames for the divorce, as so many girls blame their mothers and pardon their fathers) leads her to help one of the girls she’d seen from the farm when they encounter each other at a pharmacy. Evie is immediately drawn to Suzanne; it’s the book’s opening scene. Evie begins spending time at the farm with Suzanne and the others, mostly girls, and eventually is introduced to their charismatic leader, Russell.

What follows mirrors what most know of the Manson Family: drugs, sex, communal living, a man who knows how to play to girls’ insecurities to get what he wants. Russell knows a man from a popular rock band and wants a record deal; Evie becomes a sort of gift or bribe in those efforts, which ultimately fall through and culminate in violence.

Evie knows only so much about the other girls and their backgrounds, including Suzanne. She herself is conscious of her cleanliness and nice neighborhood, where she spends less and less time (her mother thinks she’s with her friend), and of the boarding school she’s being sent to at summer’s end. But she finds some measure of acceptance at the farm, and the feeling of belonging (and Suzanne’s attention) is intoxicating.

I highlighted more passages in this book than in any other e-book I’ve read. Cline has so many smart and revealing observations about girlhood (or girl into womanhood), and her prose is sharp and unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if she wrote poetry as well. In terms of her writing style, YMMV (your mileage may vary); I’ve seen some put off by it. I ate it up (in contrast, I couldn’t even finish the sample for Fates and Furies the language was so cloying to me). It’s isn’t overwhelming or flowery, just consistently startling. If you read the opening, you’ll immediately have an idea of the book’s prose and tone and whether or not it appeals to you.

There’s a reason the book’s description references The Virgin Suicides. Like that novel, there appears to be a mystery in need of solving, but there are no pat answers. Instead of the boys’ perspective, as in Suicides, we have that of a young girl who was there. The Girls is clear about how and why Evie became who she is instead of someone else, and it’s a line as fine as a thread, which is the most disturbing of all. The question isn’t “Why those girls?” It’s “Why not me?”

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The Girls, Emma Cline

My Man Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse


My Man Jeeves - P.G. Wodehouse

When I was a freshman in college, a professor assigned Right Ho, Jeeves as our last book of the semester for a class on 20th Century Fiction. I’d never heard of the series, though clearly it’s had a big influence on depictions of butlers/valets and hapless masters (among other things) in popular culture. Reading the novel, I quickly understood why my prof had assigned it when he had; it was an easy, impossibly fun and funny book, a relief at the stressful end of the semester. My friend and roommate shot me a lot of looks as I chuckled or cracked up while reading it on my loft bed.


I’d always figured I’d read more Jeeves someday, and a free kindle book of My Man Jeeves proved a perfect opportunity. However, I didn’t realize at first that it’s a collection of short stories rather than a novel, and not all the stories feature Jeeves and his “master,” Bertie Wooster. All the stories are set in America, or begin there, since Bertie is spending time abroad.


The Jeeves stories are, as usual, full of Bertie–or, I should say, Bertie’s friends–getting into fixes that Jeeves inevitably gets him out of. Bertie is completely conscious of the fact that Jeeves is The Man at these things, though Bertie himself is a good chap who wants to help his friends. Bertie’s voice, the language generally, is at least half the pleasure. As an example, here are a few ways he describes Jeeves’s physicality:


Jeeves trickled in with the tray, like some silent stream meandering over its mossy bed


He moves from point to point with as little uproar as a jelly fish.


Encountering these characters again, I was reminded of Sebastian from the manga and anime, Black Butler/Kuroshitsuji, clearly Jeeves’s descendant in terms of skill and smoothness, if not devilry (though Ciel is more Sebastian’s equal than Bertie is Jeeves’s; one would never describe Ciel as “hapless.”).


If one wanted, the Jeeves stories can be read as a portrait and satire of upperclass, male, British layabouts and their silly pursuits and problems, often involving allowances being cut off by stiff, older relations. It’s a pleasant, pre-WWII world, and though the young men getting into scrapes are the butt of jokes, you still like everyone rather than sneer at them.


I do find that reading story after story rather than one bigger narrative made the stories feel same-y, and after the first non-Jeeves story, I skipped the others. But reading the book was still a damn fun time.

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My Man Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse