Writers in movies: “Little Women”

I haven’t done one of these in a while. I assume you’ve all seen Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, so I don’t have to include spoiler alerts.

The difficulty with portraying writers in movies is that they’re mostly boring people, and what they do is mostly boring. Scribble scribble. In Little Women, Jo March is scribbling in her attic room by lantern light. When she finally gets the idea that she should be writing the story of her family rather than fantastical adventure stories, she starts scribbling really fast. This is fine, because I would watch Saoirse Ronan scribbling names from the telephone book. But anyway, Greta Gerwig has Ronan’s right hand cramp up, so she switches the pen to her left hand and keeps scribbling. This is a lovely touch!

And then we see the accumulating pages laid out on the attic floor. Five pages, then quick cut to ten pages, then to twenty, and so on. She’s making progress! This is fine, but I was bothered by the lanterns on the floor illuminating the pages. That’s because I had PTSD from the scene earlier in the movie when sister Amy burned Jo’s novel page by page after Jo wouldn’t let Amy join her and Laurie at the theater. Don’t put the pages of your novel near a source of fire, Jo!

In the movie we get a big, sisterly fight when Jo discovers what Amy has done, then some parental words about forgiveness from Marmy, and a couple of scenes later Jo and Laurie save Amy from drowning after she falls through some pond ice. Don’t do it, Jo and Laurie! Drowning in icy water is a fitting punishment for burning someone’s novel!

I digress. The scenes of grown-up Jo negotiating with the hard-nosed New York editor are lovely. I was afraid the whole flashback approach Gerwig came up with would be irritating, but it wasn’t at all. (The Irishman uses a double-flashback structure that also worked OK, although the complexity of the device seemed unnecessary.) Anyway, Gerwig took a big risk, I thought, when she goes all meta on us and has Jo and the editor discussing the climax to her book, and he convinces her to have a scene where the heroine gets together with her hot boyfriend Friedrich — a scene that didn’t take place in real life or in the real book. But that’s the scene we see in the movie. And it was nicely done! (The excellent 1994 version of the book just includes a comparable get-together scene with the boyfriend — Gabriel Byrne in that case — without the narrative hijinks.)

Anyway, the movie was really good. Bring your hot writer boyfriend or girlfriend to see it.

Keira Knightley is only five years older than the drumming kid in “Love, Actually”

I don’t have anything to add to this apparently well-known fact, but I found it surprising, to say the least. Also, I am required to post about Love, Actually at this time of the year.

Here they are:

Writers in movies: “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Another in an occasional series.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the true story of Lee Israel, a moderately successful biographer whose best days are behind her. Broke, alcoholic, and desperate, she stumbles onto a scam that brings in some money — at least for a while: she forges letters from literary figures like Dorothy Parker and sells them to credulous and acquisitive rare-book and memorabilia dealers. It all falls apart before long, but for a brief, glorious period she is once again creative and successful, in a strange sort of way.

It’s a nice little movie, and Melissa McCarthy is great in it. (Richard E. Grant, as her gay alcoholic sidekick, is even greater.) McCarthy’s character is a depressing loser who can’t hold down a job and cares only for her cat, but she has a spark. She comes alive when sitting in front of her typewriter, and I found myself wishing she were normal enough to find a way to create a real career for herself with that spark. But it wasn’t going to happen.

Even more busts of Roman emperors (and others)

For some reason one of my most popular posts was about busts of Roman emperors at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Turns out the place that has even more busts of Roman emperors is Italy — specifically, the Uffizi in Florence. Here are a few.

Here’s Claudius, not looking very happy:

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Here’s Domitian, who was awful:

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Here’s Marcus Aurelius, who wasn’t awful:

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Here’s Caligula. Does he look like he’s insane?

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Here’s Tiberius, who was a perv:

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Here’s Julius Caesar, who wasn’t an emperor, but c’mon, this is a pretty interesting bust. I wouldn’t want to mess with this guy:

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And Cicero, who also wasn’t an emperor:

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I don’t know how lifelike these busts are, of course, but they sure seem lifelike. These are real people, staring out at us across 2000 years of history.

Vermeer life list

I got to see the the Vermeer exhibit at the National Gallery of Art  in Washington D.C. last week. It wasn’t bad, although it was too crowded and there was a certain sameness to the paintings — on purpose. Here we see a bunch of paintings of women looking into mirrors; here we see a bunch of women writing letters… everyone is influencing everyone else. I preferred the more diverse Dutch exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts a couple of years ago.

But in any event I got to introduce myself to a few more Vermeers. There are only 34 paintings firmly attributed to Vermeer, and I’ve now seen over half of them (including the one stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum that is currently buried in some aging mobster’s shed or something). Good for me! To see the rest of them I’ll have to go to the Netherlands, Germany, and Scotland, or hope for another blockbuster touring exhibit or two.

My family isn’t as enamored of Vermeer as I am. But to me there’s something different about Vermeer compared to the other Dutch artists in the exhibit — the light! The enigmatic scenes! I could stare at them forever.

For example, what does this young lady have on her mind?

And why is that dark curtain there on the left side of this painting, as if we’re seeing a scene from a play?

And look at the deep perspective of this painting — why does Vermeer distance us from this scene?

And finally, what is this woman doing with this balance?

Wikipedia tells us:

According to Robert Huerta in Vermeer and Plato: Painting the Ideal (2005), the image has been variously “interpreted as a vanitas painting, as a representation of divine truth or justice, as a religious meditative aid, and as an incitement to lead a balanced, thoughtful life.” Some viewers have imagined the woman is weighing her valuables, while others compare her actions to Christ’s, reading parable into the pearls. Some art critics, including John Michael Montias who describes her as “symbolically weighing unborn souls”, have seen the woman as a figure of Mary.[To some critics who perceive her as measuring her valuables, the juxtaposition with the final judgment suggests that the woman should be focusing on the treasures of Heaven rather than those of Earth. In this perspective, the mirror on the wall may reinforce the vanity of her pursuits.

Well, that certainly clears things up.

Lady Gaga at Fenway Park

Yup, I was there. Here’s what things looked like as we awaited the start of the show:

Note the Prudential Center lit up in orange.

Here Lady Gaga is singing a song that involved setting the stage on fire:

Here are all the cell phones lit up in a communal ritual of adoration as she sings “Million Reasons”:

And here she is at the end wearing her oversize cowboy getup:

It turns out that we are the best fans in the world, and she couldn’t do it without us.

Some more observations:

  • I’m getting a bit old to stand up for two solid hours, even for Lady Gaga. On the other hand, 48 years ago I was pretty annoyed at having to sleep in the mud at Woodstock. So maybe it’s just me and not my age.
  • The crowd was, by my estimation, 104% white.
  • I have never seen fishnet stockings on men before. Maybe I need to get out more.
  • Having said that, I also saw lots of folks who looked like me, including the gray hair. The crowd was basically PG and the show was PG-13.
  • Lady Gaga is a good musician — she’s got a big voice, she dances well, she plays the piano and guitar. Her songs are high-grade pop. She also seems like a warm, pleasant person, in a show-biz sort of way. She had nice things to say about everyone in her family, including an aunt who died before she was born. She dedicated a song to a friend who died of cancer. I’d be disappointed if I found out she was a jerk backstage.
  • I had no emotional connection to anything that happened onstage. Everyone around me knew all the lyrics to all the songs — and, what was more important, the songs seemed to matter to them. They hugged each other; they sang along as they swayed in time to the music… Me, I found myself checking the score of the Red Sox game in the Bronx (Final: Boston 4, New York 1).

What I didn’t like about “Manchester by the Sea”

While I’m being a film critic I’d like to say something belatedly about Manchester by the Sea.  I can’t quarrel with the acting or the direction.  I have my usual nits to pick about Boston accents and local goofs–what’s a convenience store doing selling beer at two in the morning?  But I left the movie feeling annoyed and frustrated, and it took me a while to figure out why.

The point of the movie, it seems to me, is that the Casey Affleck character doesn’t change, because he cannot change; he’s too deeply damaged.  So he ends the movie back where he started, more or less–living by himself, working at a menial job.  He doesn’t get back together with his wife; he basically gives away his nephew.  Fair enough, I suppose.  But that means that nothing happens in the movie.  Well, stuff happens, but it’s like real life–one damn thing after another, without form or meaning.  No one really changes; we all just end up in a different spot because time has passed.

I have pondered this a bit, because I do appreciate that the movie didn’t go in for a soft-edged Hollywood ending.  In that sort of ending, the responsibility of parenting his nephew would change Affleck, help him come to terms with his grief.  Meh.  But there could be perhaps a glimmer of hope for redemption.  Or, if not, it could be a tragedy.  Just not utter stasis.

Also, that scene in the convenience store really annoyed me.