First Response: ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ 2/2

Part Two: Tarantino’s representation of women

To continue my exploration of expectation in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, (my critique of the ranch scene can be found here) I would like to discuss an aspect of the film that received a lot of traction in the run-up to its release and occupied commentators afterwards.

During the film’s promotional tour at Cannes Film Festival, a clip from Once Upon a Time’s press conference went semi-viral. It featured a journalist asking Quentin Tarantino about Margot Robbie, having been in films such as The Wolf of Wall Street and I, Tonya being given few lines as Sharon Tate in this film. The clip can be seen here. Tarantino unequivocally ‘rejects [the] hypothesis’ and Robbie answered that she ‘appreciated the exercise’ of using alone-time on screen to construct a character as opposed to being presented always in relation to or through interaction with others. This did little to convince some commentators upon the film’s release, including Clémence Michallon at the Independent, who concluded that Tarantino’s lack of dialogue for Robbie was indicative of Tarantino’s male gaze subsuming everything, which was both ‘insulting’ and ‘boring’.[1]

This has been a sticky issue in my thinking about the film. I am, as many of you aware, a big advocate for women being given nuanced, interesting characters in film. Having said that, I am not a strict disciple of the Bechdel Test, whilst I appreciate its importance as a basic bar for storytelling and representation on-screen.[2] (For the record: this film does pass the test). I really enjoyed Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, but it’s true that Robbie does not say much and this is slightly uncomfortable: Sharon Tate does little more than put music on, drive around in a delightful Porsche and dance about. I can absolutely appreciate the criticism; however, I think this is, ultimately, a simplistic argument, given the self-reflection at work in the film and because of the way in which Tarantino uses the film and its setting to play with history and expectation.

Similarly, I think it is important to highlight that having dialogue in a film does not necessarily save women from poor representation (see my footnote on the Bechdel test). The journalist at Cannes suggested The Wolf of Wall Street as a film where Robbie was given plenty of dialogue to work with, and yet Martin Scorsese’s representation of her was sexualised beyond belief. Robbie was front and centre of Suicide Squad as Harley Quinn, and yet here too she was hyper-sexualised and Zac Snyder gave her little to work with beyond that. Michallon at the Independent makes the case that in Once Upon a Time, Tarantino uses Robbie as Sharon Tate to convey a deified form of femininity: ‘a luminous, kind, generous angel of a woman whose heart seems wide open to the world. It’s a flattering depiction, for sure, but it’s also terribly reductive […] a lifeless, perpetually cheerful doll’. I would argue, in the first instance, that the fact that we see these former attributes as reductions is a damning indictment both of the nastiness we tolerate in society and the way in which we accept being open-hearted and kind as completely unrealistic. Sharon Tate was described with reverence by the likes of Mia Farrow and was famed for her generosity and kindness, there is no reason why this should not be significant in Tarantino’s representation of her here. Secondly, I would like to argue that through the film’s use of history as a fluid play-thing, Margot Robbie and Sharon Tate were not reduced within the narrative of the film, and that in more ways than focusing on one female character, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood waves in an empowered cohort of women and womanhood.

One of the most important parts of Michallon’s argument is that Tate does not experience any kind of personal growth and that ‘watching people just live is boring’. Of course, this is an extremely personal assessment: I happen to be an enormous fan of films where not a lot happens and what we are offered is an in-depth character study. What is so ironic about this claim, however, is that in real life, we cannot watch Sharon Tate live and we haven’t been able to since 1969. This is singularly important in the film. We might complain that not a lot happens because she spends a day on her own and she doesn’t talk to anyone, but there is some joy in watching a woman on a solo trip to the cinema (an exercise I would recommend all women indulge in/challenge themselves to at one point or another), enjoying time with her friends, dancing and having fun and preparing for motherhood when we know in real life that Tate was robbed of the chance of being able to do this. Furthermore, we are offered nuance in the dialogue-less-ness: in her interaction with a female hitchhiker, Tate drops off the woman, wishes her all the best on her ‘adventure’, thus suggesting that she spent the majority of the journey listening to someone else’s story; we are offered actual footage of Sharon Tate in the cinema that Robbie’s Tate watches, forming homage, an opportunity for self-reflection and, for us, a melancholy funhouse mirror of reality. It is an echo of the fact that this film plays with history, something that will be completely apparent by the end of the film.  Alternatively, although Tate is depicted as loving and loveable, the interpretation can be made that she displays smugness, vanity and happy-go-lucky privilege in her life as a white, blonde, beautiful woman; a kind of flip-side to the open-heartedness and generosity that some find so problematic. One way in which I think the film could have been improved is if Tate had had some kind of hand in killing the hippies in a badass, heavily pregnant way. And yet, just maybe, the best thing to do for a character who in life was a victim to such appalling violence, was to keep her removed from it.

pregnant

This is where bittersweetness seeps into the film: we know that in real life, she does not survive that night in 1969, and neither do her friends. When she offers Rick Dalton the opportunity to come into her house after the pool party of hippy carnage and the end titles begin to materialise on-screen, we know that we have reached the fairytale territory that only Hollywood can give us.[3] Primarily, it is Tate in the position of power: she is the one who could be a useful contact for Dalton, who spends most of the film choked up and flailing about, and not the other way round. She is the valuable, influential and powerful contact to have in the industry, not the male television star.  Additionally,  and similarly to seminal Tarantino revenge film Inglourious Basterds, which re-writes the history of the Second World War with Hitler and his cronies getting an epically fiery bloody death at the hands of escaped Jew Shosanna, in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood we are offered an alternative reality where Charles Manson’s blood-thirsty hippies don’t butcher Sharon Tate,  but get their comeuppance at the hands of Brad Pitt and a cute dog, and Sharon Tate herself is in a position to offer help and support to Rick Dalton in the loving and kind way that we have come to expect from her. Tarantino offers us a moment where history was very different: where bad guys are punished, the good survive and everything should have been OK.

And yet, despite the satisfying end that is put to the hippies, the heroics of Cliff Booth and his dog and the hilarity of the flame-thrower in the garden shed, the ending here is poignant and sad, as opposed to the jubilation and bad-assery of Inglourious Basterds . The camera lingers on Tate, Dalton and Tate’s friends from afar, as they introduce themselves and discuss the attack. Their conversation is barely audible, and the camera stays put, almost from a high CCTV angle, as they slowly follow one another into Tate’s house. A lot of space is created between the actors and the camera and, ergo, the audience watching. It enables us to sit within this strange liminal space where we can enjoy and revel in what we have just witnessed; but the distance cultivates a sense of knowing; a knowing that this did not happen. Tarantino wrote that Sharon Tate stayed alive and continued to live her beautiful life, but we know that she didn’t, murdered as she was in the most horrifying and violent way. Pertinently, the camera then stays on Tate’s Porsche and the other cars they have in the driveway, using the visual metaphors to reflect the power of the Hollywood machine to re-write and re-create things as we want them to be. Hollywood is itself a vehicle for change, for creativity and for embracing life over destruction; or, at the very least, offering the façade of that. It has a twofold power to reflect change and to exact change; to re-write history but also to ensure that the future is safeguarded. Ultimately, in this case, Sharon Tate can only stay alive in the movies.

Hollywood’s role in the film is developed and explored in numerous parts of the film, in particular with regard to the representation and role of women. Importantly, and as mentioned in my critique of the ranch scene, Cliff Booth does not have sex with Pussycat, the underage hitchhiking hippy with impressive underarm hair, in his car. This is not what she expects or, perhaps, what the audience may expect, particularly as this is a dynamic that has pervaded the film industry for as long as Hollywood has been functioning. Harvey Weinstein was a producer and collaborator with Tarantino for every single film he has written and directed, so the significance of this scene cannot be overstated.

Trudi

Similarly, one of the shining stars of the film comes in the form of Trudi, played by the delightful Julia Butters. At only 8 years old, Trudi almost steals the film and her character is one of the standouts amongst a cast of standout performances. Her endearing and academic approach to the craft of acting is refreshing, powerful and leaves Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton’s a gibbering, insecure wreck. Indeed, his entire self-worth on the set of the Western they are shooting together boils down to what Trudi thinks of his performance and his ability to achieve the performance, in particular through knowing his lines. In the scene where he gives himself a rollicking in his trailer, he mentions Trudi, berating himself to not show himself up in front of her. She, because of her commitment to her work, her ability to interpret and understand story, her thorough approach to research and her interest in the wider industry, is made out to be a force to be reckoned with. As with the subversive ranch scene, where Tarantino constructs the difference between psycho-killer hippies and the misunderstood, kooky youth, and thereby critiquing snowflakism, in Trudi we see the highest hope for future generations in film and beyond: doing their research, speaking their minds and not limiting themselves to who they think they should be. At the end of a long scene they shoot together, Trudi, who we know at this point Dalton completely respects and admires, tells him that he just put in the best acting performance she has ever seen, and Dalton immediately chokes up. His belief in himself completely stems from the way in which he is perceived by this precocious, wise and talented young girl and he can barely contain his emotion at having shone in her eyes.

As such, I believe that the argument that women are reduced in this film is not a very convincing one. Sharon Tate does not speak much in the film, it is true; but her role in the film, sensitively portrayed with the respect of Tate’s family in mind as much as for Tate herself, is to celebrate life and the power we have to construct our own narratives. If she had been killed at the end, then she would truly have served as a lifeless doll; but she lives, and she is glorious. She is not part of the overall plot because the plot is about two menopausal men trying to stay relevant. Robbie’s Tate does not have that concern and has ample time to while away the time, with added luxury of being on her own, both during the film and, thanks to the film’s revision of history, we can assume after the credits have rolled. To compound this, we have Trudi, a bright spark for the future who has plenty to teach the struggling Rick Dalton; and a man in Cliff Booth who respects the boundaries of power, age and experience by not taking advantage of a young girl. Tarantino has never shied away from giving audiences strong female characters, but in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood he provides a much more subtle offering, playing with our expectations and using a variety of characters and dynamics to do a great justice to the women of the film and the actors who play them.

 

[1] ‘Quentin Tarantino’s male gaze in ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ isn’t just insulting – it’s profoundly boring’, The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-quentin-tarantino-sharon-tate-margot-robbie-lines-a9061446.html [accessed 12:05, 19th August 2019].

[2] The Bechdel Test, created by Alison Bechdel, suggests that to pass a basic representational threshold, films must have more than one female character, the female characters must speak to one another and the female characters must speak to each other about something that does not involve a man. Of course, many culturally celebrated films do not pass this test, but then neither do films like Gravity, A Star is Born and Arrival, in spite of the lengthy screen-time afforded to women and where the quality of the female characters is exceptional. Equally, there are many female-centric films where women have plenty of dialogue and on-screen time, but their lives and conversations revolve around men.

[3] I want to add here that the irony of Dalton proclaiming earlier on in the film that he is ‘one pool party’ away from Roman Polanski and then fighting a hippy with a flame thrower in his pool becoming his ticket to friendship with Tate, is just hilarious.

First response: ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’ 1/2

Part One: The Spahn Ranch scene

I went to see ‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’, Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, on the 14th August 2019. As soon as the credits began to roll, opinions began to surface from cinema-goers around us:

‘It wasn’t very ‘Tarantino’ until the end’.

‘I wanted more of Margot and Leo together’.

‘Nothing happened’.

In many ways, this confirmed what I thought the whole film was reaching towards: expectation. Or rather, the dismantling and reflection upon what we want and what baggage we bring with us to a cinematic experience. The film focused on a number of things: the film itself, Tarantino as writer and director and Hollywood as a mechanism for hopes, dreams and ideology. In many ways, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was a perfect fit within Tarantino’s oeuvre, offering many moments of self-reflection, humour and a fluid sense of history. In two parts, I would like to discuss some important aspects of the film that stood out upon my first watch of the film: in the first, I offer a close reading of the ranch scene half way through the film and in the second, I challenge some of the commentary regarding the representation of women in the film, in particular Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate.

Primarily, I think it is important to acknowledge what I thought was problematic about the film and made for uncomfortable viewing. I was not a fan of the exchange between Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth and Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee. I found Pitt having to take his fake hair off before their fight absolutely hilarious, but I did not think the representation of Lee’s karate fighting, including all of his sound effects, were the homage that Tarantino claimed they were.[1] It fell into the realm of mockery, in the same way that Kill Bill Volume Two descends into a kung-fu farce for a while. Any subtlety around these moments in both films is lost, and Lee is reduced to a laughable caricature. Similarly, I found the storyline of Booth killing his wife and getting away with it in slightly poor taste. Arguably, there is almost a Gatsby-esque ambiguity to this story: even with the flashback of Booth and his annoying wife on a boat, it could be argued that this is an event fabricated through rumour and speculation of extras and film crew, neither confirmed nor denied. Yet, with the number of women who are killed every week by a partner or former partner still not being treated as seriously as the social issue that it is, including the fact that funding for domestic abuse charities in the UK comes from the luxury tampon tax that menstruating women are subject to, I am not sure that ambiguity on such a subject should be pissed around with.[2]

There are many aspects of the film where Tarantino is playful with expectation, in a script that is often light-hearted, funny and self-deprecating in a way that we have not seen Tarantino play with before. Primarily, there are the references to feet all over the place: Pussycat’s feet squished against Booth’s windscreen; Sharon Tate’s bare feet in the cinema; Squeakie Froome using her foot to point Booth to George Spahn’s room etc. Tarantino’s foot fetish is something of Hollywood legend and the fact that there were so many shots of feet in this film suggests that he wanted to take the piss out of himself and the rumours for as long as he is able to. Similarly, there was the mention of Spaghetti Westerns not being worth Rick Dalton’s time: Django Unchained is famously an homage to the Spaghetti Western genre also starring Leonardo DiCaprio, who was nominated for an Oscar in that role, who here plays Rick Dalton. Additionally, the long, weighty scenes spent filming Dalton’s Westerns, and Dalton’s typecasting in Westerns in general, perhaps pokes fun at the fact that Tarantino’s last film, and the film that succeeded Django Unchained, was The Hateful Eight, another Western that had a Roadshow running time of over three hours and was described as sluggish, slow and boring by many critics.[3] Tarantino doesn’t let himself off the hook in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and the film feels, in many ways, humorous and self-aware as a result. It doesn’t perhaps command the edginess of Pulp Fiction or the epic odyssey-feel of Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs or Django Unchained, but the humour is still on-point and the effect is a lightness that has rarely shown up in Tarantino’s films before, where crime and violence is purposefully more prolific and commonplace.

The part of the film that most demonstrates Tarantino’s toying with expectation comes when Cliff Booth is taken to the Spahn hippy ranch on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The scene is already set for expectations and stereotypes being toyed with as Booth rejects the sexual advances of the hitch hiking hippy Pussycat on account of her age. She reveals that she has performed all sorts of sexual favours for men who have picked her up in the past. The couple have chemistry and Booth has signalled his interest in the number of times he spots Pussycat around Hollywood prior to their actual meeting; however, this white middle aged man decides to go no further with her when the sexual opportunity is presented to him on a plate. For a cinematic white alpha male to turn down a spontaneous encounter feels pretty progressive: James Bond certainly wouldn’t have done. It seems here that Tarantino is playing with what we expect from white leading men in Hollywood and, in turn, the representation of women, which I explore more deeply in my next essay. In a film that has ‘Treat Her Right’ by Roy Head and the Traits as its first soundtrack listing (with lyrics like ‘If you want a little lovin’ / You gotta start real slow / She’s gonna love you tonight now / If you just treat her right now’) Tarantino is offering something more progressive in the realm of relationships between men and women. It is appropriate that the stereotype of the older man involved with a younger girl is subverted, especially in light of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, and Hollywood itself becoming the epicentre of the worldwide #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

margaret-qualley-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-700x321

Once at the ranch, Tarnatino sets a ghoulish and eerie scene, with waifish young women and long-haired men looming about evidently having drunk the Manson Kool-Aid. Tension builds as Booth pushes to see his old colleague George Spahn, whom he suspects has been overruled and overrun by the hippy family. We are told, however, that he is ‘napping’.  A woman called ‘Gypsy’, played by the infamously controversial Lena Dunham, seems to be in charge of the place; George’s house is a dirty hovel; and Dakota Fanning, playing Squeakie Froome, is formidable with her piercing eyes, her commands and her commitment to watching television. Booth doesn’t take no for an answer and enters George’s room where… George is napping. George wakes up, becomes pissed off that he has been woken up, seems to be absolutely fine and wants to go back to sleep so he can watch television later. Tarantino builds up a big expectation that there is something rotten at the ranch, that George is probably out of his mind and that a big bust-up or reckoning is on the cards. However, everything is fine. Weird but fine. Squeakie is freaky, but she’s fine. She doesn’t lie to Booth about George being asleep and she is as ruthless about what she wants as Booth is himself. With Lena Dunham hanging about, in her first major on-screen role after the divisive and complicated Girls, we assume that there must be something questionable going on. Her casting in this part of the film feels almost deliberate precisely because she irks people and makes people uncomfortable. And yet, she is relatively harmless.

Similarly, and moments later, we begin to expect a big bust-up between Booth and Tex, a male hippy on a horse who is summoned back to the ranch after Booth beats up a guy who burst his tyre. Tex epically races back to the ranch, Tarantino giving him lengthy screen time as he rides through the canyon, providing beautiful wide panning shots of him galloping in the sunshine, as per the Westerns parodied at the beginning of the film. Unfortunately, he arrives too late because Booth has already driven off, happily listening to the radio. Over the course of his writing career, Tarantino has never shied away from surprising us with violence or building up action to a violent crescendo; yet, in the instance of Tex in particular, the time for violence to erupt is slightly out of joint. This is an opportunity for violence to bubble up into a lengthy fist-fight or shoot-out but he arrives too late. As such, I would argue, the opportunity for violence to be delivered to us on a plate is purposefully missed. Tarantino attempts to frustrate what we come to expect from a Tarantino film by holding our lust for quintessential Tarantino violence at bay. Booth beats up a hippy for puncturing his tyre and he kind of deserves it. Beyond that, there is nothing superfluous.

Furthermore, I would argue that casting the likes of Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning to lead an anonymous cast of slightly weird but, in the moment, harmless characters, is a nod to cultural anxiety held around youth. Lena Dunham is interesting casting because she is held simultaneously in high regard and disdain by the viewing public; Fanning, on the other hand, has successfully navigated child stardom, has a brilliant reputation in the industry and has many impressive performances to recommend her.  In a time where Millennials and Gen-Zers are treated with disdain for their focus on the climate crisis, identity politics and everything a conservative older generation decries as snowflakism, Tarantino delivers a bunch of layabout hippies who, in this moment, are weird but ultimately fine. The familiarity and renown of these actors in particular helps to convey and play with this. Of course, there is the spectre of Charles Manson looming over the hippies, but Tarantino makes the point to distinguish between a misunderstood misfit youth and actual psycho killers. To cement this, he uses another surprisingly familiar face: Maya Hawke, daughter of famous Tarantino regular Uma Thurman. [4] Hawke plays Flower Child, a member of the hippy group who abandons the three murderous ‘pig-killing’ hippies (whose exchange reminded me of Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in Pulp Fiction), steals their car and leaves them in the lurch. Using such a recognisable face to play a weirdo but who wants no part in violence and carnage helps Tarantino to establish this spectrum of youth and to play with our assumptions and expectations. There are always going to be weirdos and arseholes, but not all of them are going to go on a killing spree; we may expect certain behaviours and outcomes from a group of people, or violence in a Tarantino film, but that is because we bring our own baggage of what we want and what we think with us wherever we go.

Tarantino is at an interesting point in his career where he can toy with being self-referential and also with the expectation of what we think we are going to get with a Tarantino film. He has a backlog of material with which people are extremely familiar and, as such, he can and does frustrate and toy with what he has constructed for us to want over the thirty years he has been writing. The ranch scene isn’t explosive and I can see how people might interpret that it all falls slightly flat and underwhelming, because nothing actually happens. However, with beautiful irony and in a way that builds up to the later chaos, this scene is rich with posturing, preconceptions and imagery, and I think that is perfect story-telling within the world of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. In some ways, this is a sunny, light and hopeful film and Tarantino leaves out violence until it is truly necessary at the end of the film (and he really goes to town with it in the best possible way). But that does not mean that the rest of the film is passive and blank: it seethes with tension, with frustration, weirdness and curiosities. As I will explore in my next essay, it is also tinged with undeniable melancholy and bittersweetness. Whatever expectations we have of a Tarantino film are healthily disrupted by the ranch scene in particular and I think it is a brilliant move on Tarantino’s part.

[1] ‘Quentin Tarantino Defends ‘Arrogant’ Portrayal of Bruce Lee in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’’, https://variety.com/2019/film/news/quentin-tarantino-bruce-lee-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-1203299921/ [accessed 17:07 19th August 2019].

[2] ‘The women killed on one day around the world’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-46292919 [accessed 21:24, 20th August 2019].

[3] https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_hateful_eight/reviews?type=top_critics [accessed 21:22, 20th August 2019].

[4] I want to show an awareness here that Maya Hawke’s presence in the film is an interesting one, considering her mother’s estranged relationship with Tarantino, who forced her to drive an unsafe car during the filming of Kill Bill. Click here for Thurman’s interview with the New York Times detailing the incident as well as the harassment and violence she was subjected to at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, Tarantino’s financier and creative partner: ‘This is why Uma Thurman is angry’, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/03/opinion/sunday/this-is-why-uma-thurman-is-angry.html [accessed 21:46, 20th August 2019].    

Love Note – Paris report

We’ll always have Paris.

I have just returned from seven days in Paris and, predictably and gratefully, had a wonderful time. Prior to the trip, I concocted a three page day-by-day itinerary filled with activities, but also consciously carved out some time for some more spontaneous and impulsive things too (anxious traveller, moi? Absolutement).

Sacre Coeur

August is a famously quiet time in the city because many of the locals go away on holiday. However, we found the first week in August to be a pretty excellent time to visit: our Eurostar tickets (booked in November) were £52 each for a return (less expensive than it is to get from Nottingham to London on the train…); certain museums in the city are free to enter on the first Sunday of the month and, because it was quieter, the queues were short (we managed the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay for free, but also available were The Louvre, the Musée National d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou and many others); and going later in the summer meant that even with temperature highs of 29°C, we avoided the sweltering and sticky heats of June and July.

The benefit of spending a whole week in Paris is that we left barely any of the city unexplored. From our AirBnB base near the Place de Clichy in the 18th arrondissement, a delightful intersection of four arrondissements and in close proximity to my all-time favourites Montmartre and Pigalle, the whole city was at our fingertips. I would like to share some of my favourite places and moments from the trip. These may be food for thought if you are or intend to go to Paris at any point in the future, or if you just want to while away an afternoon thinking about those cobbled streets, beautiful buildings and all the amazing food. Like I will be.

Vegan food

Virginia Woolf’s old adage ‘One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well’ is one that I take very personally, seriously and ecstatically live my life by. Therefore, first thing’s first: the food we ate. We did a lot of our own cooking to cut down costs, but we did have some fantastic vegan meals out:

Abattoir végétal

Abattoir Vegetal.jpg

This is a lovely restaurant in the 18th arrondissement with a neon sign outside, fresh-feeling interiors and lots of hanging plants. They specialise in seasonal dishes, organically sourced food and organic wines by the glass and bottle. We went a couple of times to this restaurant and sampled the Green Augustine Buddha bowl of legumes, raw and cooked vegetables, smoky tofu and fresh leaves in a smoky balsamic glaze; the Funky Burger made with beetroot, vegan cheddar, pickles and sweet potato fries on the side; and the Hot without Dog made with falafel, grated carrot, red cabbage, ketchup, mustard and sweet potato fries. For dessert we had chocolate cake, and drank our way through both meals with a bottle of organic red. I couldn’t deal with it then, I can’t deal with it now. So much yumminess.

SO NAT – Notre Dame de Lorette

SO NAT

If I went into this trip sceptical about the tastiness of Buddha bowls and their capacity to actually fill you up, I stand completely surprised and corrected. The large Buddha bowls at this cute little café in the 9th arrondissement, down from Pigalle and just before Opéra, were delicious, hearty and required no emergency snack afterwards. My Buddha bowl contained breaded aubergine, pomegranate seeds, lentil dahl, all sorts of colourful veggies and leaves, vegan sour cream and red quinoa. It was ridiculous. MW’s had ginger, rice, BBQ tofu and, again, veggies on veggies on veggies. It was all fresh, came in big portions, was so healthy and tasted rich and delicious.

Maoz

One of the many amazing things we encountered on our trip to New Zealand last year was the healthy fast food franchise Pita Pit: a Subway of sorts that features meat but also specialises in falafel. Add to that some humus, pitta bread and multiple veggie accompaniments (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, carrot, sweetcorn, jalapenos, olives etc.) and you have the beginnings of an addiction. We visited roughly 15 over the course of six weeks and have no regrets. We have found nothing to compare in Nottingham, so when we found Maoz, a falafel and pitta shop, in the Latin Quarter, we were stupidly excited. The novel difference here? The assortment of Middle Eastern fillings (pickles, fatoush, salads, onions etc.) was presented as self-service. We had a joyful time stuffing our own pita pockets full to bursting with fresh, perfectly seasoned toppings. Maoz is unmistakeably a delicious, quick vegan lunch option, right next to Notre Dame Cathedral and Shakespeare and Company.

Bike Rental

Holland Bikes

In a city like Paris, tours of all shapes and sizes are prolific. We would have loved to have done a tour: I had high ambitions for some form of a champagne booze cruise. Alas, this did not happen but we were very much content to explore on our own. Holland Bikes are a well-reviewed tour and rental service in the city and around France, so we decided to use the Pick and Go service to rent two Dutch bikes from the Arc de Triomphe depot. Renting a bike is so much fun and you can cover so much ground in a short space of time. Plus, Paris has excellent infrastructure for cyclists and e-scooter riders, so despite the heavy traffic in parts (we categorically avoided the wacky races of Place de la Concorde and Étoile de Charles de Gaulle) it felt very safe getting around. We cycled from the Arc de Triomphe down to and around the Bois de Boulogne, then back up and around to Trocadéro, the Champs de Mars, Invalides and along the Seine. We had so much fun.

Parc Monceau

Park Monceau.jpg

There are so many beautiful and shaded places to relax in Paris, which I am sure were absolutely essential during the 40°C+ heats the residents experienced this summer. The Place de Vosges in Le Marais came highly recommended, and we enjoyed the classic Tuileries gardens and Luxembourg gardens on the Left Bank. Whilst walking home on our last afternoon, we headed for the Parc Monceau which is in the 8th arrondissement, just off the Boulevard de Courcelles. Although the park has stylised elements like a little Venetian bridge, a Classical colonnade to emulate ruins and the most charming old carousel, there was something about more primeval about this park, compared to the more clipped and manicured lawns of the big jardins. We sat on a little green bench people-watching for a good long time in this prettyish wilderness.

Musée Yves Saint Laurent Paris

YSL Museum.jpg

Oh boy. Pour moi, a trip to Paris was never going to be complete without a slice and dice of fashion history. I plan to write a longer post about the YSL Museum, but it’ll summarise it briefly here for now. Yves Saint Laurent never used to be one of my favourite designers; perhaps controversially, I have been more of a fan of the edgier Saint Laurent incarnation of the brand under Hedi Slimane and Anthony Vaccarello. I was, however, aware that he is an inescapable part of fashion history, after being made head of Dior at the age of 26 and for the successful couture house he built in his own right. What became clear to me from the exhibits in the museum was that, like Christian Dior (you can read my analysis here), Saint Laurent’s prime aim in design was to make a woman feel her most confident and beautiful. I find this to be such a validating and comforting thing. Even though fashion is so much to do with comparison, beauty standards, perfectionism, ageism, white and able-washing, what I have noticed is that oftentimes at the centre of a brand is a sensitive, empathic and deeply creative person who just wants to make women feel good. I really appreciate that in Yves Saint Laurent and his contributions to fashion. Furthermore, he was famously one of the first designers to champion the use of non-white models, pioneered the trouser suit and established his Rive Gauche collection to make fashions accessible and affordable to ordinary people.[1]

Mondrian dresses.jpg

The building on the Avenue Marceau is home to his formidable archive, including the epoch-defining Mondrian dresses, the extensive jewellery collection and this absolutely perfect ensemble:

YSL dress

 

I was able to walk through a reconstruction of his study, watch films about his work and his partner Pierre Bergé and soak up the beautifully presented collection pieces. I must also add that the museum is wonderfully air conditioned, was relatively quiet and, all-in-all, a genius way of preserving Saint Laurent’s creative legacy.

Montmartre cemetery

Montmartre Cemetery.jpg

This was a go-to last time we came to Paris and, being so close to our apartment, was definitively on our itinerary again. Cemetery-visiting may seem like quite a morbid activity, but I believe that visiting cemeteries helps to really contextualise a place and the people in it. To really know and understand a city and its different people, to get an insight into what they value, treasure and, ultimately, to understand their approach to living life, a clue can be found in exploring how they treat their dead and the way they design and use their communal and private spaces of remembrance and reflection. Even if we have not visited Paris, many people are aware that it is a city associated most commonly with love, art and revolution. This, I would argue, is reflected in their cemeteries, which are uniquely Gothic and gorgeous. There is a joie de vivre and gravitas evident in the Parisian cemetery, and Montmartre in particular, which makes it a space in which life, family and creativity are celebrated and revered. Of course, I couldn’t help thinking that it is only the wealthy and respectable who could have afforded such exuberant graves. Additionally, in no other cemetery have I felt that the burial of the dead is used to so confirm and validate the people left behind. It is in this capacity that I think gloom seeps into the cemetery: both in the potentiality that the wealthy dead were desperate to be remembered and that the living left behind were so desperate to build something in place of their lost loved ones.

Many famous people are buried in this city, and their resting places are free to visit and open for visitors to pay respects. Whilst Père Lachaise is one of the biggest and most famous- we saw the graves of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and the Mauthausen Holocaust memorial- Montmartre cemetery is smaller and nestled into the Western corner of the village. Stretching underneath the Rue Caulincourt bridge, it is easily visible from the road and its fantastical rows of grand crypts and family sepulchres look like something from The Phantom of the Opera. We visited specifically to lay a rose at the grave of Vaslav Nijinksy, the lead dancer of the Ballets Russes, choreographer of The Rite of Spring and, I recently found out, a passionate vegetarian. I have mentioned here before that The Rite of Spring has been a very important piece of music and dance to me, and I wanted to show my gratitude to this extraordinary sensitive and surreally gifted man who helped collaborate on and create such an awe-inspiring piece of cultural history.

Nijinsky

 

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/obituaries/archives/yves-saint-laurent-models-couture [accessed 14:41, 13th August 2019].

Love Note – Chia Breakfast Pots

Whilst I am a huge advocate for Marmite and nutritional yeast on wholegrain toast as a weekday breakfast, multiple barbecues over the past few days and weeks, whilst fun, have left me slightly bloated and ick. I can normally eat bread until kingdom come, but with the current state of things, tummy says no. Coupled with the tropical heat that has descended, I find myself in need of foodstuffs that are and feel as fresh and light as possible. I want to feel full, but I don’t want to be weighed down from the very beginning of my day.

Enter: chia breakfast pots. This easy, yummy breakfast idea was spawned after a conversation with a dear friend who is currently doing a diploma in nutritional therapy, and because I have about a million GU ramekins that need to be put to use.

When I get asked about my health and nutrition by kindly concerned non-vegetarians, a lack of omega-3 and protein are the most common worries. Omega-3 is, of course, most commonly known to be found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel. However, chia seeds contain omega-3 in plant form (alpha linolenic acid, or ALA), providing the same kind of anti-inflammatory benefits and nutrients to facilitate a healthy brain and heart as the traditionally meat-derived omega-3.[1] Similarly, chia seeds are full of fibre and protein, and can be used in a number of absorbent ways (including sugar-free jam making, which is another excellent story). Jumbled up with oats, yoghurt, fresh fruit and a hint of almond and vanilla if you’re feeling cheeky, chia seeds are a great food to have in your light, fresh and healthy arsenal, particularly if you are vegetarian, vegan, or want to cut-down on meat.

Important – this is an overnight recipe, so make sure you prepare the night before you plan to eat

Ingredients (enough for six GU ramekins)

70g chia seeds

200g plain porridge oats

500 ml non-dairy milk (I used soy, but you can use oat, almond, rice milk, or cashew milk if you want it really creamy)

A healthy tablespoon-sized blob of yoghurt (I used Alpro almond yoghurt, but you can also use plain, vanilla or coconut)

A punnet of raspberries

Optional sweeteners: almonds, golden syrup or vanilla extract

 

Method

  1. Take a bowl out of your cupboard
  2. Combine chia seeds, oats and milk
  3. Leave to soak for about 5 minutes
  4. Put some raspberries into the bowl and stir
  5. Split mixture between ramekins
  6. Add a blob of yoghurt on top
  7. Add one last raspberry to garnish
  8. Cover up and pop into fridge
  9. Leave over night
  10. Retrieve in the morning
  11. Add a pinch of your optional sweetener
  12. Eat

 

Chia pot 2

 

 

[1] ‘The health benefits of chia seeds’ https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/health-benefits-chia-seeds [accessed 11:45, 24th July 2019].

Abyssal Cuteness

This essay was first written and published on Everyday Analysis in 2014.

One of the latest videos to go viral in recent weeks (note: this video was also published in 2014 and now has 42,195,765 views) centres around a young girl howling with despair at the thought of her baby sibling growing up, and her own fear of dying ‘at one hundred’. You can watch it here and by clicking on the image below:

Abyssal Cuteness

The general cyber consensus of this video is that this is a moment of undeniable ‘cuteness’, a claim that is perpetuated by saccharine blogging sites who share the video, for example ‘Hello Giggles’. ‘Cuteness’ may, perhaps, warrant its own analysis for its pervasive presence on the internet, with the innumerable animal/baby/animal and baby/ baby and animal and baby animal videos that continue to appear on social media. Here, however, I would make the case that the video captures an abyssal moment in this girl’s life where, like King Midas capturing Silenus the companion of Dionysus, we learn that ‘the very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing’.[1] She does not want her brother to grow up and stop being ‘little’, and she simultaneously bemoans her own inevitable aging that will ultimately lead to her death.

The terror and horror of her and her brother’s existence is conveyed not through her language but in a choking cry half way through and at the end of the video, which the subtitles describe as ‘inaudible’. She is audible, because we can hear that she makes noise, however the noise she makes in her terror is seemingly outside of language and also beyond our ability to articulate in language. The girl, therefore, embodies the Dionysian impulse where, as described by Nietzsche, ‘the whole excess of nature in pleasure, pain and knowledge resounded to the point of a piercing scream’.[2] Her panicked coughing moan is the expression of her pleasure at the baby’s ‘cute smiles’, her affection for him, which is repeatedly conveyed in her kissing his forehead, and her pained fright at her recently acquired knowledge that both she and him are aging and finite.

This expression of the Dionysian that sees the girl intoxicated by the truth of her existence and thrown into self-oblivion is, however, still engaged in a dialectical tension with its alter drive, the Apollonian, without which it could not emerge. Nietzsche describes the condition of the Apollonian as ‘an existence in which everything is deified, regardless of whether it is good or evil’.[3] Although in western culture we no longer exist with a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods, I argue that an economic system of consumer capitalism sees every literal ‘thing’ similarly deified, spawning an exuberant culture of commodities which construct and offer identity. This is prefigured in the video in the princess dress that the girl wears, an item that enforces societal norms of gender and hierarchy which, therefore, enables a moderated self for the girl to be constructed. The Dionysian impulse that envelopes her destabilises this appearance of heteronormativity which appears to have structured her life.

With reference to Raphael’s painting Transfiguration, Nietzsche suggests that the Apollonian and Dionysian are reciprocal and depend upon each other. This is achieved because the Apollonian gives way to the Dionysian, which is redeemed with the reinstatement of the sublime Apollonian image. In this video, the re-establishment of the Apollonian, which has already been prefigured in the girl’s princess dress, comes in the way this video has been elevated to a position of ‘cuteness’, from the comments on YouTube to the chat shows that have had ‘exclusive’ interviews with the girl post-abyss. Whatever ‘cuteness’ may mean, the perpetuation of this word perhaps allows people, or more specifically adults, to semi-patronisingly reflect on this girl’s struggle with the chaotic state of her existence in this abyssal moment. However, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that ‘cute’ has also become a barrier for those whose lives are too structured by the Apollonian culture of ‘things’, and who resist the tormenting Dionysian impulse that, we have come to understand, is never too far away.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy trans. Douglas Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.27.

[2]Ibid, p.32.

[3] Ibid, p.27.

Love Note – Beach Books Reviews

Whilst on holiday, I managed to get through three books out of the stack of four that I took with me and, as you can probably imagine, I took great pleasure in spending the majority of my day reading. I was helped along by the books themselves, and what started off as me playing catch up with the most popular contemporary literature from the past few years became an interesting immersion in literary bingeing. Thanks to a combination of formal and linguistic trickery, the novels I read signalled to me that binge-culture has made one giant leap from television to literature. Of course, there have been many page-turners that people have read at record speeds, with many others being described as un-put-downable, I’m thinking Gone Girl, The Da Vinci Code, every murder mystery or thriller ever published. But, there is something to be said for the novels currently trending that have a swept-away-in-one-sitting quality to them that is immensely enjoyable, but also indicates that we are, perhaps, as bad as ever at taking our time to enjoy our media and entertainment, allowing the experience of enjoying them to mature and mellow over the course of days or weeks. This is not a criticism per se, but something I became quite aware of.

Here are my reviews of the novels I managed to read, and I would love to hear your thoughts!

Normal People – Sally Rooney

Normal People

I enjoyed reading this novel more than I actually enjoyed the novel itself. The lack of speech marks is one of the most discussed and obviously experimental aspects of the novel and there are a number of reasons why I think Rooney opted for removing formal punctuation. Primarily, its absence helped to propel the pace along as quickly as possible. Speech, internal dialogue and description in the novel melt into one another seamlessly, and before I knew it I was flying through the novel at electric speed. The subtle mingling among and between Connell and Marianne’s internal and external worlds is compelling, and perhaps goes some way to perform the confusion and fluidity of their romantic entanglements. These were powerful, to an extent: Connell’s struggles with social status, class and privilege combined with Marianne’s abusive family trauma form a murky, disorientating bedrock to their sexual and emotional relationship. Yet, whilst they were immersive, these entanglements began to wear thin for me. Of course, culturally and artistically we are rarely given an insight into healthy, responsible relationships to aspire to, but Connell and Marianne’s story really did begin to feel like a rather prolonged game of kiss chase that could have been resolved with some honesty and proper communication. Whilst I enjoyed the fast pace, the story became increasingly frustrating.

The novel has been revered as a refreshing insight into modern relationships, yet all I saw was prolonged adolescence. The question that arose during my reading of it was: why don’t people talk to one another honestly about what they want, need and expect from a relationship? Of course, many people do not have the answers to these questions themselves, which is why the romantic landscape has always been a mass of tension, confusion and a channel for our own neuroses, precisely because the terrain is so horrifyingly vulnerable. I think I would like to see stories where people grapple more with the deeper core fears that relationships can elicit than indulge in surface-level dabbling. This is because for Connell and Marianne, like with everyone else, there is ample emotional material to explore. For example, it is heavily suggested that Marianne has an eating disorder, but there seemed to be no exploration of this, and I think with such a big, important and truly devastating area of mental health, vague allusions are irresponsible. Normal People is absolutely compelling formally, but the story and characters lacked the maturity and deep excavations of relationship politics that I may have come to the novel expecting.

Daisy Jones and The Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones

Just as Sally Rooney fiddled with formal punctuation to create a sweeping, pacey narrative for Normal People, Taylor Jenkins Reid did away with conventional prose altogether to construct the mock-oral history that is Daisy Jones and The Six. The language is presented like a play or a screenplay, rapidly interchanging between characters, their opinions and their contrasting perceptions of how past events unfolded.  This, as with Normal People, makes for an extremely fast-paced and romping read, and I scoured my way through the drug-filled emotional and musical rollercoaster that is the rise and collapse of fictional rock band ‘Daisy Jones and the Six’. It does not surprise me at all that Reese Witherspoon picked this up for production so quickly: the screenplay layout of the novel lends itself to a visual medium so well, and the construction of authenticity and, almost, reality of this fictional band is begging for actors and musicians to literally flesh the whole thing out. Additionally, the novel harks back to the seventies and the loves, losses, betrayals and creative headiness of the Fleetwood Mac era; a band history integral to the fictional machinations and dalliances that we see unfold in the novel. It manages to effectively combine warm nostalgia, with, and rightly so, a thorough dissection of emotional pain, addictions and toxic relationships, and I think it is on the whole successful.

The novel follows Daisy Jones, the child of rich, famous and self-absorbed parents who do not seem to care about their only daughter. She seeks refuge in narcotics, drinking and a rock and roll groupie lifestyle on the Sunset Strip at the age of fourteen. Billy Dunne and his brother Graham hail from small town Pennsylvania; their father leaves them early on in their childhoods, and as teenagers, they found a band that goes on to be called ‘The Six’. Billy develops addictions to alcohol, drugs and sex with groupies, whilst his loyal, passionate and amazing wife Camila waits at home for him. In fact, Camila, for me, was the best character in the novel. Whilst Daisy is super beautiful, glamorous and an emotionally tortured Bambi, Karen Karen is a veritable badass, Graham is a sweetheart and Billy is an endearing and somewhat extremely self-righteous mess, Camila is an unwavering beacon of solidity and support whilst the people around her flail and crash about, high on concoctions of drugs, fame, creativity and self-hatred.

Whilst there are many excellent pearls of wisdom and sassy quips in the novel, exploding bullshit around sexism, music, friendship and love, one of her quotes stands out to me the most: ‘I think you have to have faith in people before they earn it. Otherwise it’s not faith, right?’ She supports and believes wholeheartedly in the best versions of her loved ones when they’re at their absolute worst, even when that has meant she has suffered as a consequence of their actions. There are so many times when she could have chucked in the towel with her relationship with Billy, and some would argue that perhaps she should have. Camila, however, doesn’t tolerate terrible behaviour and she definitely does not stay in a relationship where red flags abound: she sets boundaries, expectations and trusts in her husband’s best self and ultimately propels him on his road to recovery. Sure, her story isn’t a romanticised and drug-addled one, which I think, despite a lot of its efforts, the novel still constructs for the enigma that is Daisy Jones, Camila is strong, knows herself and is the responsible adult we should strive to be. It is for this reason that the ending of the novel is incredibly bittersweet and I would love to discuss it here and with people at some point. Send me your thoughts please!

Circe – Madeline Miller

Circe extract

This was hands-down my favourite out of the three books I read (and the only one I thought to take a holiday snap of!). It was heart-wrenching, magical, modern and yet felt beautifully and brilliantly in-keeping with the ancient framework from which it hailed. The story, whilst a reimagining, felt bedded in Homer’s mythology: all the key ancient rituals and practices were present, for example xenia, or guest-friendship, which is illustrated so beautifully in the novel as a dance of wits, manners, generosity and covert motive-seeking between host and visitor. It enlivened what the original treats as a societal staple, illuminating it with nuance and tension. We also got a crash course in the wars of the Titans, various mythological characters like Daedalus, Medea, Jason and Ariadne, alongside the predictable and anticipated arrival of Odysseus, and the very unpredictable arrival of Penelope and Telemachus (I loved this!). The novel was able to powerfully break apart some of the simplistic tropes that the character of Circe has carried with her for thousands of years. No longer does she carry the motiveless malignity of the original: the scheming nasty witch woman who seduces Odysseus and turns all of his men into pigs. She is sensitive, attuned to the natural world, desperate for approval she never gets, uses violent magic in self-defence, but isn’t immune to the fear and anger-based trappings of ego. Ultimately she becomes the source of her own very particular, self-cultivated power, and it is immensely joyful to read.

I did disagree, however, that Miller presented Circe as some two dimensional empowered ‘superwoman’, as reviewed by The Times.[1] This is a novel where the central protagonist constantly aches: she aches for belonging, she aches from the sweetness and loss of love, whether that’s with a partner, siblings or children, and she aches from the bullying and torture at the hands of her horrible family and the all-powerful, oftentimes selfish, meddling gods. This does not mean to say she is weak, but she is certainly not presented as some all-powerful, sassy superwoman. What strength Circe has is developed from her ability to endure, and what a whole host of trials she is forced to deal with. Whether it’s being confined to an island, acting as a midwife at the birthing of the Minotaur, living under the wrath of Athena, being manipulated by Hermes or being raped by sailors, this woman is put through the absolute wringer. She emerges all the more patient and trusting in herself and her capability of putting up with bullshit, but, again, not a superwoman, whatever that even means.

What I loved about this novel was that Miller actively redistributes the motiveless malignity accusation with which Circe has been cast around the hosts of horrors that is the supporting cast of gods, demigods and men, who act with violence, without fear of repercussion, because they can. She is repeatedly trapped and confined by the whims and desires of others and, of course, fate itself. Over the course of the novel, she learns that in spite of having magic, she is powerless to resist the power of the gods, the desires of the human heart, and the unrelenting changeability that characterises life, whether it’s defined by mortality or immortality. 300 years pass over the course of Circe’s story, making it perhaps one of the most comprehensive coming-of-age stories I have ever read, because it spans enough to time to develop that most important hallmarks of maturity: perspective. Maybe that’s why so many of us never get there.

I really could not have enjoyed this novel more and I am racing to get a copy of Miller’s early novel ‘The Song of Achilles’, which tracks the relationship between Achilles and his lover, Patroclus.

Song of Achilles

 

[1] ‘Circe by Madeline Miller – back as superwoman’, Siobhan Murphy https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/review-circe-by-madeline-miller-back-as-superwoman-37kctxgss [accessed 10th July 2019].

Love Note series – Bonus Disney Women

This little Disney series has been so much fun that I felt that I needed a bonus post. Today, I’ve decided to give some honourable mentions to Disney women who have enriched the stories they are in, have given fantastic comic relief and whose characters have become even more indispensable with every new viewing.

Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, Sleeping Beauty, 1959

It pained me that in Maleficent, one of Disney’s best re-makes/re-tellings out of the thousands they’ve done, these women are reduced to squabbling, dim, clueless fairies. Of course, in the 1959 version, they also squabble and are crap at not using magic, see exhibits one and two:

Flora and Merryweather.gif

Fauna eggs

Yet, the three of them also end up holding the entire world together. They offset Maleficent’s curse on Aurora by ensuring she falls into sleep instead of death, they put everyone else to sleep, they fly to Maleficent’s castle to release Prince Philip even though it terrifies them and then help him to bring about Maleficent’s downfall. They are constantly busy saving the world and everyone in it and are integral to the film’s action. As such, Fauna, Flora and Merryweather ensure that in spite of some of the other problematic tropes in Sleeping Beauty, this animated film actually has the highest amount of female dialogue in the whole of the Disney oeuvre.[1] That is something pretty special.

 

Magnificent Marvellous Mad Madam Mim, The Sword in the Stone, 1963

This small dumpy woman, with her bright pink dress and purple hair, may not look like trouble but she is as feisty and frightening powerful as they come. I think of her as a pre-cursor to Winifred Sanderson from Hocus Pocus in many ways.

Mim sick

Winnie

Mim is ridiculous, darkly hilarious and appeals to all that is gnarly in ourselves. Obviously I don’t make it a habit to ‘destroy’ cute little sparrows for fun; but I find it funny just how funny she finds herself. She takes absolute delight in being grisly and her cackle cracks me up every single time. She is magic’s counter-balance to Merlin’s honourable, good-natured and learning-outcome wizardry, displaying considerable power and resolve. She doesn’t win the wizard’s duel, and rightly so, but she sticks two fingers up to Merlin’s borderline self-righteousness and I find her very enjoyable viewing.

Mim sunshine

 

Lady Kluck, Robin Hood, 1973

Klucky

Lady Kluck, or Klucky, is the real star of this film. She is Maid Marian’s lady-in-waiting and her contributions to the friendship and film include terrible badminton technique, Prince John impersonations, dancing and of course, her willingness to get stuck into a barney. She is loud, rambunctious, has a fantastic Scottish accent and her fearlessness in a punch-up is inspirational. Her best line comes during the carnage of the archery competition where she tells Maid Marian to ‘Run lassie, this is no place for a lady’, before rolling up her sleeves and slamming the Sheriff of Nottingham and a bunch of rhinos. This chicken is no wet hen and has excellent gif game.

Klucky funny

 

Kala, Tarzan, 1999

Kala

Disney as a creative institution is famous for severely lacking in representations of secure, loving mother figures. When Tarzan was released in 1999, Kala was brought to us by the divine Glenn Close, and became the overdue motherly role model that we had all been waiting for. At the beginning of the film, Kala goes through the unspeakable trauma of her baby being killed by a ferocious leopard called Sabor. When she hears Tarzan’s cries across the jungle, she discovers him alone, his parents also having been killed by the leopard. She rescues him and resolves to protect him from the dangerous world around him, whether that’s from leopards and other predators, but also the hatred of Kerchak, Kala’s partner who refuses to acknowledge Tarzan as his son. Kala’s love is boundless; she brings Tarzan into the safety of the gorilla family, teaches him that he isn’t as different to her as other gorillas make him out to be, and also embraces the grief-stricken realisation that she will have to let her son go. For me, this scene is up there emotionally with ‘Baby of Mine’ in Dumbo. Kala is warm, kind, brave and nurturing and definitely deserves some recognition.

Kala and Tarzan

 

Mama Odie, The Princess and the Frog, 2010

Gumbo

Mama Odie is a blind witch lady living in the bayou outside New Orleans, who Tiana and Prince Naveen visit to solve their frog problems. Mama Odie is friends with Ray and his firefly family and relies on the help of a snake called Juju to get around the place. The two form an excellent double act as Juju doubles up as a walking stick, plank and sous chef as Mama Odie makes her magical, clairvoyant gumbo. I think she’s brilliant because she introduces us all to the idea that what we want and what we need are very different things. I believe that what we think we want lies firmly in the realm of ego; it is often short-sighted, ruled by fear, lack and longing. What we need is something more deeply personal and actually evades us a lot of the time: the need for connection, boundaries, and the key self-awareness to know what makes us feel safe, comforted and loved. Mama Odie, with wit, an excellent gospel song and tons of energy makes that abundantly clear, paving the way for Tiana to reject Dr Facilier’s soul-selling proposition at the end of the film.

Mama Odie and Juju

 

[1] Female Dialogue

Love Note series – Meg

Meg, Hercules, 1997

Hercules Meg

Hercules really is the unsung hero of the Disney oeuvre (if you excuse the pun). This film is a fun anachronistic re-telling of the Greek myth, which introduces Ancient Greece and its mythology to gospel music, American consumerism (Thebes is the Big Olive and Hercules fronts an Air-Herc mosaic advertising campaign) and Danny DeVito as Philoctetes. It also introduces us to Megara, whose friends call her Meg, or at least they would do if she had any friends.

Have nice day

Now, if you are familiar with the original Greek myth, you will be aware that Hercules actually kills Megara and all of their children when he is driven mad by Hera, thus initiating himself into completing the twelve arduous labours to redeem himself. Disney devolved significantly from the ancient myth, for obvious reasons, and instead of killing Meg off, the animators created a super sassy, fabulous woman who also has her fair share of emotional wounds to negotiate and free herself from. Meg combines witticism and fiery comebacks with deep-rooted pain and vulnerability. Prior to the main action of the film, we learn that she sold her soul to Hades, the god of Death no less, to save the man she loved, who then dumped her for someone else. Ouch. I mean, we’ve all had bad experiences in our love lives, but that is as about as shit as it gets.

Meg Wounded

Meg’s journey, in many ways, sees her learning to open up her heart and allow herself to be emotionally healed enough to accept the love being offered to her by a kind, emotionally available man who really bloody likes her. This may sound a bit patronising, melodramatic or wishy-washy, but is there any arena in human experience that feels as vulnerable and, sometimes, scary as being in a safe, loving relationship, especially when situations you have found yourself in previously left you hurt, distrustful and determined to close yourself off? I’m not sure. Meg is determined to keep up her walls up and her heart closed to Hercules, whose honesty and desire to help other people makes him one of Disney’s most endearing men. Ultimately, Meg proves that she is one of the most fearless Disney women when it comes to love. She throws herself under a column to protect Hercules when he is at his most vulnerable, putting her own life on the line for him; who then puts his life on the line to save her soul from the Underworld.

Now, I’m obviously not suggesting that we all start throwing ourselves under collapsing buildings or finding our way to Hell for the people we love, but if we look through a metaphoric lens here, I think there is very little difference. Healthy, loving relationships, no matter if they’re with a romantic partner, family or friendships, are absolutely worth protecting, require commitment to your own inner work and wellbeing, even if that means dragging yourself through the depth of your own personal hell to deal with issues like trust and intimacy, and embracing your loved ones with an open, accepting and trusting heart. If Meg taught me anything, it was about freeing yourself from the chains of low self-esteem; that the idea of a femme fatale can be a veneer for a huge amount of insecurity and emotional damage; and that allowing yourself to be loved fully by good, kind people around you, is the scariest but life-affirming thing in the world.

Love Note series – Mulan

Mulan, Mulan, 1998

Mulan with shan yu sword

Mulan holds a very special place in my heart. She begins the film as a slightly disorganised, hapless, disgrace (by ancient Chinese standards) and then channels her strength, determination and courage into saving the whole of China from the Huns, both as a soldier and, when she becomes a disgrace again for doing that, in a traditional hanfu dress. Even from a short synopsis, we can see that over the course of the film, Mulan effectively redefines what it means for a woman to bring honour to her family in China, and shows that placing women in arbitrary boxes based on gender and capability is not in the interests of individual women or society as a whole.

Mulan and Little Brother

One of the things I love most about Mulan is that she is resourceful, a creative thinker and easily comes up with ideas and solutions to benefit herself and others. Over the course of the film, we see her attach a bone on a stick for her dog Little Brother to chase whilst simultaneously spreading chicken feed; out of her whole army unit, she is the first to understand how to use two weights to climb to the top of a pole and retrieve an arrow; she uses a cannon to trigger an avalanche that destroys the vast majority of the Hun army whilst saving the lives of all of her comrades; and she devises a plan to rescue the Emperor by having her mates drag up. Her ingenuity coupled with the strength and combat skills she acquires (in particular during the song ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ where the main refrain is ‘we are men’, the irony of which is amazing), make Mulan an incredible force to be reckoned with. No wonder she seems so threatening and at odds with the confining moral and social standards that prevail.

Mulan Climbing

Like Pocahontas and Esmeralda, Mulan also conveys incredible emotional sensitivity. She communicates with her dragon guardian Mushu, has a precious relationship with her horse Khan and is a deeply reflective individual. Her greatest desire, apart from saving the life of her father who is too old to fight in a war, is to become comfortable with her own identity. Her journey over the course of the film is to work out how she can be in the world and be comfortable within herself, whilst also serving the needs of her family and making them proud of her. Whilst, as is archetypal, she is met with set-backs and obstructions, where she takes the opportunity to assess what she has done and who she is. Ultimately though, her self-perception and her own sense of failure all fades in the wake of her needing to make a choice to do the brave and right thing, which she almost always does.

When shit hits the fan with Shan Yu and his allies surviving the avalanche and moving to attack the Imperial City, Mulan doesn’t think twice about gathering herself together and going to raise the alarm and fight back. In doing so, she carves out a place for herself and ultimately earns the respect and gratitude of an entire country. As such, Mulan shows us that in spite of the negative voices around us and within us that tell us that we are not good enough, that we don’t belong and that we have nothing to contribute to the world, we should stir up enough courage to carry on anyway. Ultimately we are defined not by who we or others think we are, but by the actions we take and the way we conduct ourselves in the world. If we live by this principle, of trying to be good and doing the best we can no matter whether it’s fighting in a war or feeding some chickens, that is enough. The rest of the world will fall into place around you.

Crowd bwing to Mulan

Love Note series – Pocahontas

Pocahontas, Pocahontas, 1995

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Pocahontas is vastly underrated and one of my all-time favourite Disney films. I was transported from the very opening shots: America, covered in woodland and accompanied by indigenous drumming, makes me think of how truly astounding the continent must have looked and been before the environment and its native people were decimated and destroyed by white European colonial invaders. Pocahontas is not only an incredibly bittersweet interracial love story, but is a strong rebuke to colonialism and a love letter to Native American culture. Indeed, Russell Means, who voiced Pocahontas’s father Chief Powhatan, remarked that this film is the greatest representation of Native American culture and life ever seen in a Hollywood motion picture.[1] The screenwriters’ and animators’ attention to detail is second-to-none: from casting Native American actors, using indigenous language in the script, the inclusion of intricate jewellery and body art down to the positioning of the teepees at the beginning of the film, which all face in the same Eastern direction as they would have done in the seventeenth century, this film gives a sensitive and conscious platform to a beautiful culture. And at the figurehead of it all we have Pocahontas, described by the animators as Disney’s first depiction of a woman, not a teenager, in the animated title role.[2]

Pocahontas and John SMith

It does seem that Pocahontas operates on a different maturity level to most of the Disney princesses that precede her. I think this may have been because she was an actual historical figure, so extra sensitivity was required in the representation of her and her story, despite the heavy poetic license taken in the film. She risks a lot for the sake of a man she has fallen in love with, but the price for that isn’t losing her voice or developing Stockholm Syndrome (I’m so sorry Beauty and the Beast fans, I still cannot deal with that relationship dynamic!). She is presented as spiritual, closely connected to the animals, plants and people around her, demanding respect for her community whilst showing fascination for John Smith’s. She prevents a war and helps guide both sides to a place of tentative love and acceptance over hatred. And yet, she still manages to keep things light-hearted and sassy, as the situation requires.

Pocahontas lol

I love Pocahontas because she is playful, free-spirited and boundlessly curious. I love her relationship with best friend Nikomma who will happily tell her when she’s being a show off, which reminds me very much of my own relationship with my sister (I’m the show off). Indeed, my sister and I used to pretend to be Pocahontas and Nikomma when we were playing outside in the garden or on the beach (I was Pocahontas and Nicole was Nikomma, naturally). Pocahontas is deeply in tune with nature and her inner world, looking to the plants and animals around her, as well as her dreams for guidance and comfort. Her relationship with Grandmother Willow reminds me of mine and my sister’s relationships with our own beloved Grandma, and I love that she is willing to sit crossed-legged in front of her Elder to ask questions, heed advice and dialogue with her so that she might cultivate her own inner wise Self. Indeed, in many ways Grandmother Willow is Pocahontas’ inner wise Self, it depends on if you believe if she is actually real or just a figment of her imagination.

Pocahontas

Nowhere is this exploration of wisdom and connection with the natural world better explored in the film than during the song ‘Colours of the Wind’, written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. The song is accompanied by some of the most stunning animation that Disney has ever produced, and sees Pocahontas effectively deconstruct racist colonial narratives of who is considered civilized and who is considered savage. It is beautiful because the pithiness of the white colonial small-minded and deeply destructive dualistic ideology is visually dwarfed by the outstanding and overwhelming beauty of the natural world and the deep connection that Pocahontas sings of. My favourite line is ‘Come run through the hidden pine trails of the forest / Come taste the sun-sweet berries of the earth / Come roll in all the riches all around you / And for once, never wonder what they’re worth’. In other words, get over your racist capitalist bullshit John Smith and connect to something more powerful, more beautiful and more unifying.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHTikVNvbU [09:19, accessed 2nd July 2019].

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHTikVNvbU [12:53, accessed 2nd July 2019].