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The Bling Ring and The American Dream

January 28, 2014 in Fauxscars, Literary Movies, Non-Fiction, Pop Culture, Women Writers

It’s amazing how close The Bling Ring is to its source material. The article, originally published in Vanity Fair and entitled “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” does not judge the story’s subjects, a group of fame-obsessed teens who broke into celebrity homes and stole millions of dollars worth of goods. As any successful piece of hard journalism does, it leaves the readers to make their own decisions.

Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring takes on a similarly journalistic approach, mimicking exact lines and moments from the article down to outfits from the article’s pictures. In between these moments of accuracy are long montages of drug use, loud music, and thievery. You wouldn’t think that watching gorgeous teens break the law would get boring, but it does.

It is hard to know what to think throughout the entirety of The Bling Ring. Are we not supposed to get excited about seeing Paris Hilton’s real closet? At the end, as Marc faces his time in prison, I thought I understood that the film was showing us the price of celebrity obsession. But this was not the end. The Bling Ring ends with Emma Watson’s Nicki on a talk show, having just faced a short span in prison, cool as a cucumber and promoting her website.

Clearly, Coppola and Nancy Jo Sales, the author of the Vanity Fair article, have opinions about the real ‘Bling Ring.’ Sales said in a Q&A about her article that, “I think, like all stories that capture this much attention, there’s something very evocative of American culture. A friend of mine said, ‘This case implicates us all.’” As an investigative journalist, Sales doesn’t express these views in her article, but leaves the reader to come to their own conclusions. Films are typically more editorial, but Coppola has chosen to present only the facts. The result is voyeuristic and stunning, but it’s hard to feel any investment in these characters or their story. We don’t find out enough about the individual people to understand what would push them to make such poor decisions, nor enough to really feel sympathy for them. Though The Bling Ring is admirably close to its source material, its lack of emotion or editorializing created a film that is beautiful, but also boring and a bit empty. Perhaps this might have been Coppola’s point all along — to show an exclusive world that many aspire to join and how insubstantial and dull it all really is.

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If you hated to love The Bling Ring, let us know. It is nominated for in The 2014 Literary Fauxscars for “Best ‘Guilty Pleasure’ Adaptation.”  If you think it should take home the award, share your opinions in the comments section or on Facebook and Twitter. #Fauxscars

Mercy Brown: American Vampire

October 24, 2012 in American Authors, American History, American literature, children's literature, Dark New England, European Writers, Gothic Literature, Halloween, Horror Writers, Literary Movies, New England Travel, Vampires in Literature, Women Writers

Halloween is big in the Northeast – a liberating blast of Pagan thrills before the bleak snows and Puritan thrift of winter. As the festival approaches, New England’s colors turn from fresh blues and greens to the long black shadows and pantomime reds of autumn. Many associate this creepy side of New England with Salem and its persecution of ‘witches’. Vampires, it is widely believed, were a European legend that was successfully exported to America, and from there they entered myth, legend and popular culture.

For anyone looking for clues about the origins of the modern American vampire, the papers of a London playwright seem to offer a tantalizing possibility. It is true that Bram Stoker kept a newspaper clipping about the 1892 case of the exhumation of a Rhode Island ‘vampire’ called Mercy Brown, but the date of the source seems to have been too late to have influenced Dracula. These ‘hick’ vampires from a depressed Rhode Island farming community are not like the aristocratic vampire of Stoker’s fiction: for one thing they really existed, and for another they tragically reveal attempts to come to terms with an urgent problem – TB.

Like the vampire, tuberculosis visited ordinary communities seemingly at random – preying upon family members, slowly robbing them of their life and turning them into fevered ghostly individuals with a persistent bloody cough. The disease could manifest soon after it was contracted, dragging on for years – or, as in the case of Mercy Brown – it could lay dormant for a decade before it quickly progressed.

Mercy Brown was the second last member of her family to die from the disease. Several years after her mother and sister were buried, Mercy and her older brother Edwin took ill. When Mercy died, the community immediately began looking for answers. After a doctor reported that Mercy’s heart contained tuberculosis germs, the locals insisted on extreme measures.  They burned Mercy’s heart and fed the ashes to her brother, who died soon thereafter. It seems that Mercy’s father allowed the exhumation because he was under great pressure from his frightened neighbors in Exeter, Rhode Island.

Mercy’s grave is now a destination for tourists, goths, and ‘legend trippers’ – those who visit graves to seek evidence of the occult at supposedly haunted spots in Rhode Island. In Mercy’s time, these myths seemed disturbing eruptions of superstition. New fiction was even blamed by some observers for encouraging this superstitious behavior in a century that considered itself progressive and rational.

One thing that makes supernatural literary tourism so accessible in New England is the way real places and events often influence fiction. The great American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft referred to Mercy Brown’s case in his story, “The Shunned House.” Just as Mercy’s sad quiet grave can be found in a small cemetery in Rhode Island, the real Shunned House still stands – a private residence in Providence Rhode Island.  H.P. Lovecraft based his story on the history of the family who lived there, imagining the dead family members preying on the living, like the Exeter vampires. Even those who did not write about the vampire TB cases were aware of them. Thoreau for example wrote about a TB exhumation in his diary.

62 years’ after Mercy Brown’s exhumation, Richard Matheson published I Am Legend, a story about vampires that had a medical explanation. The story’s protagonist Robert Neville holes up in a house after a vampire apocalypse and studies the vampires that were his former neighbors until he finds the cause of their condition: a bacteria that fades with sunlight. Though the source of Matheson’s imaginings has not been revealed, it’s possible that he heard stories of vampire TB scares growing up in New Jersey.

For Young Adult author Sarah Thomson, history proved juicy enough to build her novel Mercy on. After many years of vampire fiction based on legend and folklore, Thomson’s is a historical vampire novel that tells the story of a real person, Mercy Brown, or the ‘last New England vampire’. As Thomson said in an interview, real life can often be scarier than fiction.

These days, thanks to its history of vampire panics, Rhode Island is the destination for ‘vampire hunters’, just as Salem is the home of witches. This time of year you’ll find a wealth of flamboyant tours, including the Ghosts of Newport and Providence Ghost Tour, of the area’s most haunted spots – but be prepared to find the real history a lot more frightening and tragic than your guides’ costumes.

 

‘Girls’: HBO’s new comedy about ‘sex and the city’

August 14, 2012 in Comedy, New York Travel, Television, Women Writers

HBO’s new comedy, Girls,  has everything I look for in a television show.  It is smartly written, raucously witty and excruciatingly relatable.  It is a startlingly refreshing comedy in both its dry humor and acerbic social commentary. Yet, because its premise involves four single gals living in New York City, it has quickly drawn comparisons to HBO’s other female-centric comedy, Sex and the City.  While Girls  is clearly its own animal, the similarities are there. Take away the money, the clothes and the careers and it could be a prequel of sorts, had the SATC girls been twentysomethings in 2012.  Girls  is a self-deprecating un-photoshopped Sex and the City,  where pink cosmopolitans with perfectly curled lemon peel garnish are replaced with Solo cups of warm craft beer.

26-year-old Lena Dunham writes, directs and stars in the HBO comedy, produced by Judd Apatow of Bridesmaids  fame, which just finished its first season and is slated to return this winter.  Dunham graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in creative writing and first made waves with the independent film Tiny Furniture.

Discussing Girls  in a New York Times interview, Dunham said, “I get to look at so many aspects of what it means to be a woman, of what it means to live in an urban environment.”   While the shows are quite different and air over a decade apart, the same statement could have been made by the writers of Sex in the City  in 1998.

Girls  is very aware of the comparison and pokes fun at the association while simultaneously paying homage to their television predecessor.  Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) has a SATC  poster prominently displayed on the wall of her apartment, and refers to her cousin Jessa (Jemima Kirke) as “definitely a Carrie, with some Samantha aspects, and Miranda hair.”  It is clear to anyone watching, who had also been a fan of SATC,  that naïve and virginal Shoshanna is a Charlotte, and Jessa, who misses an appointment at the women’s health clinic to have sex in a bar bathroom, is most obviously a Samantha.  This makes the responsible and sometimes uptight Marnie (Allison Williams) the Miranda of the group and aptly leaves the main character Hannah to clumsily fill Carrie’s Manolo Blahniks.

At the same time that they accentuate it, the apparent similarities are paradoxically what expose the core differences of the two shows. Hannah is Carrie…in real life.  Hannah is all of us in real life.  Those of us who watched Sex and the City  related to the women’s relationship struggles, but most us didn’t have the closets or six pack abs to match.  Hannah is us, only funnier.  While Sex and the City  projects itself as older, wiser, and wearing better shoes, Girls  is its awkward, uncoordinated and downright hilarious younger sister.

One of the major tropes of SATC  was the rift between women in their twenties and women in their thirties.  In a season 2 episode, Samantha exclaims, “These girls in their twenties, they’re so spoiled and ungrateful, they think they’re it,” to which Miranda replies, “because the world validates their delusion.”  Girls  does not validate this delusion.  In fact, it exposes it. No one would choose to be in Hannah’s unemployed, financially insecure and emotionally unfulfilled shoes.  Yet many of us are, or were at one time.

While both shows expose embarrassing and relatable relationship issues, Girls  does not sugarcoat, or airbrush.  Miranda’s postpartum sex scenes (before she had dropped the baby weight)  look like a Cinemax late night feature when compared to Hannah and Adam’s self-conscious and uncomfortable to watch romp in the first episode of Girls.  Samantha’s slight ‘weight gain’ in the SATC movie, represented by the svelte actress wearing a pair of pants one size too small, is treated as something that needs to be addressed immediately.  Meanwhile on Girls, Adam grips Hannah’s stomach awkwardly in bed, causing average weighted women everywhere to cringe.

At the heart of both shows is a female writer using her own experiences as social commentary.  Both women grapple with insecurities and complicated relationships, all the while navigating life in the city.  Adam, Hannah’s pseudo-boyfriend, may not be Mr. Big, but he is equally emotionally distant and cryptically confusing, in need of immense examination and ripe for the analytic writer’s eye.  In one particularly hilarious turn of events, Marnie’s boyfriend gets his hands on Hannah’s notebook, in which she comments on the questionable state of their relationship. This causes problems for the couple and, after Hannah is forced to read aloud to them from her writing, she asks, “If you had read the essay and it wasn’t about you, do you think you would have liked it? Just as, like, a piece of writing?”

Hannah asks of Marnie and her boyfriend what Girls  asks of the viewer.  Its reflexive nature is constantly turning the gaze back on itself.  While we relate to the scenarios experienced by the characters, we are constantly bombarded with purposefully uncomfortable images, such as the aforementioned sex scenes between Hannah and Adam.  By doing so, Girls  exposes the reality that Sex and the City  glossed over with high fashion and well-placed puns.

In the first episode, Hannah tells her skeptical parents, “I don’t want to freak you out, but I think I may be the voice of my generation.”  If the first season of Girls  is any indication, she just might be.

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Girls returns to HBO in January 2013.  In the meantime, if you are a fan of the show, experience NYC by taking a walk in the ladies’ shoes.  The Guardian has created a map, with pins marking the real locations used in filming.  Create your own New York Girls tour and see the city through the eyes of Hannah, Jessa, Shoshanna and Marnie. 

Margaret Atwood: A Literary Journey to “Other Worlds”

January 12, 2012 in Canadian Literature, Key West Travel, Science Fiction, Women Writers

My first exposure to the writing of acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood came with a reading of her highly praised 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in an undergraduate English class on twentieth century women writers.  Her novel remains one of my favorites, in part because of the gorgeous prose, but also because of the haunting material which stays with you long after you finish the book.

Atwood is a formidable force in the writing world, publishing since the early 1960s across genres of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  Her latest publication is In Other Worlds: Science Fiction and the Human Imagination, a 2011 non-fiction work which broaches a popular topic for debate surrounding Atwood’s fiction.  Many of her novels pose possibilities for the future that for some provide a cautionary tale, while for others teeter in the realm of science fiction.  In a 2009 interview with Wired Magazine, Atwood addresses the distinction between science fiction and her novels.  She states: “I like exact labeling. Speculative fiction encompasses that which we could actually do. Sci-fi is that which we’re probably not going to see.”  This idea makes the premises of her dystopian novels all the more alarming. The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a totalitarian society where women’s rights are non-existent and the title character, stripped of her name and freedom, is enslaved as a forced surrogate for a government official.  Her 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, imagines a post-apocalyptic world obliterated by a bioengineering experiment gone wrong.  She revisits the events of Oryx and Crake in her 2009 novel, The Year of the Flood, where the implications of the events of the previous novel threaten the freedom of two surviving female protagonists, who must contend with a genetically mutated landscape and an uncertain future.

After a remarkable writing career that has spanned more than fifty years, Atwood remains humble and grateful for her fans.  Her website welcomes readers with a personal message and access to a blog and twitter page.  After interest spurned by comments made at a speaking engagement that “authors cannot make a living from rock concerts and tee-shirts” Atwood gave the fans what they wanted:  a tongue-in-cheek tee-shirt line available through CafePress.com.  My favorite of the designs asks, “Would the Modernist Blog?” and features cartoon depictions of famous modernist writers jokingly deriding the blogosphere, of which Atwood herself is a part.  Similarly showcasing her sense of humor, in 2007 Canadian comedian Rick Mercer had Atwood participate in his Monday Report on CBC Television, where she suited up as a hockey goalie for a segment spoofing sports tips.

Her accessibility to, and appreciation for, her fans, along with her wit and good natured attitude, combined with her incredible literary gift, make her a force to be reckoned with, and a woman that is now on my short list of literary icons I would love to have a cup of coffee with.  Those lucky enough to be in Key West this week will have the opportunity to hear Atwood read from The Handmaid’s Tale.  After Key West she is off to a book signing in Utah on January 21st followed by a reading engagement in Houston, Texas on January 23rd.  When asked by The Guardian in 2011 what she does to relax, Atwood wittily replied: “What is this ‘relax’ of which you speak, Earthling?”

 

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