The ATLANTIC on GAME OF THRONES, Season 6: What are we watching if not what the thoroughly demented Brothers’ Grimm might create on an HBO budget?

Well, actually more like Disney.  Think of the allegory of aging in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.  Remember how the Wicked Queen drinks her chemical cocktail and transforms before our eyes from a charismatic beauty into a hunchbacked hag?  “My hands!” she shrieks as they turn gnarly while her fingernails grow into claws.  “My voice!” she cries with a terrifying cackle.  “To whiten my hair, a scream of fright,” she had intoned, and even her underground ravens recoil in fear when they see the “disguise.”

Here’s Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic on the “red woman” in Game of Thrones:

Melisandre always seemed to harbor a secret, and now we know it’s that she, like someone in a Catfish episode or like many witches of centuries-old folklore, is secretly saggy. Only Thrones could pull off precisely this kind of fun, meta twist. After the show has spent so long jamming spears through handsome young prince heads in order to prove that it’s not reliant on fairy-tale tropes, it can occasionally shock simply by serving up some of the oldest magic tricks in the storybooks. What are we watching, after all, if not what the thoroughly demented Brothers’ Grimm might create on an HBO budget?

The female body turned grotesque with age: only something like that can compete with the blood and gore ritually served up by Game of Thrones.  

I’m reminded of an incident in another cultural zone–not the fairy-tale world but a dystopic novel.  In 1984, Winston writes in his diary about a memory that has been “tormenting” him.

It had got to be written down, it had got to be confessed. What he had suddenly seen in the lamplight was that the woman was OLD. The paint was plastered so thick on her face that it looked as though it might crack like a cardboard mask. There were streaks of white in her hair; but the truly dreadful detail was that her mouth had fallen a little open, revealing nothing except a cavernous blackness. She had no teeth at all.

He wrote hurriedly, in scrabbling handwriting:

When I saw her in the light she was quite an old woman, fifty years old at least. But I went ahead and did it just the same.

He pressed his fingers against his eyelids again. He had written it down at last, but it made no difference. The therapy had not worked. The urge to shout filthy words at the top of his voice was as strong as ever.

Cougar culture may have changed the number (70 is the new 50), but the crone continues to embody our anxieties about aging, and there is nothing more frightening that the sight of her withered breasts and sagging flesh.

Killing the Dames (a related piece I wrote about a year ago after watching Vee Parker run down in Orange is the New Black

SPOILER ALERT

These days, we are still following the advice of the French playwright Victorine Sardou to torture the woman, just as we have never stopped heeding the words of Edgar Allan Poe about the death of a beautiful woman as the most “poetical topic in the world.”   Sometimes these young women are victims of ritual murder, as in “True Detective.” Sometimes they appear as narcotized teens at the mercy of drug lords. Often we see them in a basement, bound and gagged, struggling against their kidnappers.

Now a new casualty seems to be joining up with these victims: the middle-aged, matronly types, whose messy, repulsive deaths challenge us to wonder what has changed in the moral calculus of cinematic productions. The second season of “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix ends with Vee Parker, sprawled on the road, her vacant eyes staring out at us. “Always so rude, that one,” intones Rosa, an inmate on the lam who is herself terminally ill. After slamming her van into Vee, Rosa leaves the corpse on the road, with barely a glance into the rear-view mirror. As “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays on the radio, Rosa morphs back into a stunningly beautiful young woman, embracing adventure on the wide-open highway. Rosa’s victim is a grotesquely exaggerated form of the “bad mother,” an archetype that haunts fairy tales as stepmother, ogre, or witch. A drug dealer who preys on orphans and recruits them to “connect” on inner-city streets, Vee is a woman whose nurturing gestures mask behavior that is deceptive, exploitative, and cruel.

While the body count in HBO’s “The Leftovers” is unusually high, we witness only a few disappearances in a series based on the premise that 2% of the world’s population mysteriously vanishes, with no messy corpses left behind. By contrast, the show turns up close and personal for the deaths of two members of the Guilty Remnant, a spooky cult group whose members wear white and ostentatiously smoke in pairs while stalking people they do not like (meaning almost everyone who tries to get on with their lives in the picturesque Mapleton).

Gladys, middle-aged, bespectacled, and overweight, is the first to die in a protracted stoning scene that begins episode five. The camera lingers on her bloodied features as one rock after another batters her face and smashes her skull while she pleads with her captors.

“Kevin, you can’t kill me,” Patti, the heavyset, matronly leader of the Guilty Remnant, tells Mapleton’s beleaguered police chief. Picking up a piece of broken glass, she calls out Kevin’s name and plunges the shard into her neck, cutting her throat in an act designed to demonstrate the senselessness of life. The massive blood-soaked body dressed in white at the end of episode eight builds an arc back to Gladys and her stoning, with both scenes offering up spectacles that point us to the womb as much as to the tomb.

The punishment of dames, domestic and demonic, is nothing new. For years, Disney Studios capitalized on the excesses of fairy-tale villains, staging the death of heartless dowagers (in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the wicked queen plunges headlong from a cliff) and monstrous monarchs (in The Little Mermaid, Ursula is impaled by the mast of a ship). But its resurgence on screen in adult entertainments is nothing short of astonishing at a time when the headlines report the beheadings of male journalists, news websites routinely offer slide shows displaying the corpses of men and boys in combat zones, and stories featuring wounded warriors dominate magazine culture.

Our on-screen entertainments rarely replay real-life anxieties. Instead they haunt us in ways that are often errant and unpredictable. In a culture that has renounced the ideal of beauty, the beautiful dead woman of Edgar Allan Poe’s fantasies may now have moved into middle age. Instead of languorous sleeping beauties, we are faced with the grotesquely mutilated corpses of aging women. Once upon a time, grandmother had to perish in older versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” for successive generations to survive and flourish—granny’s blood and flesh are consumed by the girl before she escapes from the wolf. Now our freshly imagined warrior women may need some blood sacrifices beyond the immediate targets of their revenge.

Looking forward to talking Fairy Tales

    • Three Rivers Community College to host Booker T. DeVaughn Lecture

  • Three Rivers Community College’s Booker T. DeVaughn Lecture Series will host “Wired For Weirdness: How Fairy Tales Work Their Magic,” a guest lecture by professor Maria Tatar, at noon April 20 in the college’s multipurpose room, 574 New London Turnpike, Norwic

    Posted Apr. 18, 2016 at 6:00 PM

    Three Rivers Community College’s Booker T. DeVaughn Lecture Series will host “Wired For Weirdness: How Fairy Tales Work Their Magic,” a guest lecture by professor Maria Tatar, at noon April 20 in the college’s multipurpose room, 574 New London Turnpike, Norwich.

    The free talk will focus on the origins of fairy tales in oral storytelling cultures. It will address cultural repetition compulsion when it comes to “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

    Tatar is the John L. Loeb professor of Germanic languages and literatures at Harvard University.

    The event is sponsored by the Three Rivers College Foundation and Dime Bank.

Finally Met Some Fairy Tales I Do Not Like

124a9e7fae8beda3d0710f35c2b90abfFor Classic Fairy Tales, the Norton Critical Edition that I compiled some years ago, I included James Thurber’s “The Little Girl and the Wolf” in the unit on “Little Red Riding Hood.”  Last year, I was invited to entertain the sons and daughters of an administrative unit at Harvard on “Take Your Kids to Work Day.”  The plan was to act out different versions of “Little Red Riding Hood.”  I considered Thurber’s version and then stopped short at the part where the girl whips out a gun, realizing that the parents present would not be amused.  Times change, and what drew big laughs from the students in my classes 20 years ago no longer seemed so funny:

ONE AFTERNOON a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. “Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?” asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother’s house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

Roald Dahl must have come across Thurber’s “The Little Girl and the Wolf” before he published Revolting Rhymes:

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.
A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, “Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat.”

The NRA has not appropriated Thurber or Dahl but their new fairy tales take a perverse turn, with parents and children “enjoying” gun-friendly adaptations.  Below the link to the NRA stories, with the preface, followed by a link to an NPR article about the stories.

“Make it new”–that’s my mantra when it comes to fairy tales.  But just because it’s new doesn’t mean that, presto!, we suddenly got the story right.  All we have is one more version that gives us something to talk about.

http://www.nrafamily.org/articles/2016/1/13/little-red-riding-hood-has-a-gun/

Have you ever wondered what those same fairy tales might sound like if the hapless Red Riding Hoods, Hansels and Gretels had been taught about gun safety and how to use firearms? The author of this piece, Amelia Hamilton hasand NRA Family is proud to announce that we’ve partnered with the author to present her twist on those classic tales. We hope you and your children enjoy this first installment!

 http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2…

Adding guns to the world of the Brothers Grimm drastically reduces death rates, according to a study — well, OK, according to a couple of stories published by the NRA.

So far, there are only two data points. And they’re imaginary. But the trendline is clear: In the NRA’s reimagined fairy tales, putting rifles in the hands of children creates a safer world.

The NRA Family site published its first reimagined fairy tale — “Little Red Riding Hood (Has A Gun)” in January, and followed up with “Hansel and Gretel (Have Guns)” last week.

On Twitter, inspired by the series, a few people have been inventing their own #NRAfairytales, imagining tales that begin with “once upon a time” and end with a bang.

“Prince traveling kingdom 2 find owner of glass slipper shot dead by gun wielding evil stepmother,” @SarahFMcD wrote.

“The porridge was too cold, the bed was too hard, but this AK47 is just right,”@Scott_Craven2 offered. “Who’s up for some bearskln rugs?”

But the NRA’s own stories — written by Amelia Hamilton — are noteworthy for their nearly complete lack of violence.

Fairy tales, of course, were notoriously gory and grim in their original incarnations. But the NRA’s versions take place in a utopia filled with empowered and unharmed children.

“This happened, and it didn’t happen”

I’m looking fo517dcLzyLnL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_rward to reading Helen Oyeyemi’s new collection of short storiesofficial publication date March 7.  And I love the fact that Oyeyemi uses my favorite opening line for a fairy tale: “This happened, and it didn’t happen.” Here’s one review, along with jacket copy.

So it is in Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, a collection of stories in which elements of fairy tales, myths and legends, from Punchinello to Cupid and Psyche to Little Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard and Rumpelstiltskin, surface in curious forms in service of mystifying plots. As we’re told in the opening of the story “Drownings”: “This happened and it didn’t happen.”

 http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/boo…

Playful, ambitious, and exquisitely imagined, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is cleverly built around the idea of keys, literal and metaphorical. The key to a house, the key to a heart, the key to a secret—Oyeyemi’s keys not only unlock elements of her characters’ lives, they promise further labyrinths on the other side. In “Books and Roses” one special key opens a library, a garden, and clues to at least two lovers’ fates. In “Is Your Blood as Red as This?” an unlikely key opens the heart of a student at a puppeteering school. “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea” involves a “house of locks,” where doors can be closed only with a key—with surprising, unobservable developments. And in “If a Book Is Locked There’s Probably a Good Reason for That Don’t You Think,” a key keeps a mystical diary locked (for good reason).
 

Silenced Princesses?

Here’s the Washington Post report on research conducted by linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer. I can’t help but feel that sidekicks play an important role and that the next step is to analyze the data.

In the classic three Disney princess films, women speak as much as, or more than the men. “Snow White” is about 50-50. “Cinderella” is 60-40. And in “Sleeping Beauty,” women deliver a whopping 71 percent of the dialogue. Though these were films created over 50 years ago, they give ample opportunity for women to have their voices heard.

By contrast, all of the princess movies from 1989-1999 — Disney’s “Renaissance” era — are startlingly male-dominated. Men speak 68 percent of the time in “The Little Mermaid”; 71 percent of the time in “Beauty and the Beast”; 90 percent of the time in “Aladdin”; 76 percent of the time in “Pocahontas”; and 77 percent of the time in “Mulan” (Mulan herself was counted as a woman, even when she was impersonating a man).

Part of the problem is that these newer films are mostly populated by men. Aside from the heroine, the films offer few examples of women being powerful, respected, useful or comedic.

 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk…

George Lucas, The Force Awakens, and Fairy Tales (and Bruno Bettelheim)

star-wars-new-trailerBelow some ideas that came up while preparing for a show hosted by the supersonic Christopher Lydon on The Force Awakens. Link to the show is at the end.

“The Force Awakens”: Once upon a Time

In directing the latest installment to the Star Wars films, J.J. Abrams has taken to heart Ezra Pound’s dictum to “make it new.” His requel (both a sequel and a reboot of the Star Wars films) hits the refresh button in ways that enable the franchise to live on and replicate itself for generations to come.

Like George Lucas, who sat under an oversized photo of the Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein while writing the first Star Wars film, Abrams is a master of montage. But more than that, he has taken a leaf from Lucas’s playbook and turned himself into what Claude Lévi-Strauss called a bricoleur, a mythopoeic director who takes bits and pieces of what is close at hand to create something new (it’s no coincidence that Rey is introduced as a scavenger).

“The Force Awakens” may be something new, but is it original, daring, and inventive? Did the first Star Wars film create a new mythology, as NYT film critic Roger Copeland declared in 1977, or is it just a postmodern pastiche signaling a sense of gloom and exhaustion when it comes to creativity?

Star Wars has always had a self-reflexive edge—what goes by the name of “meta” these days. It is a mash-up of space opera, samurai movie, western, and war film, also paying homage to films and television productions ranging from The Wizard of Oz and Flash Gordon to Casablanca and Metropolis. In its most recent iteration, it engages in a sly nudge, nudge, wink, wink game of self-referential jokes, as in the golden moment when Harrison Ford turns to his furry sidekick and says, “Chewie, we’re home.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone so immersed in film. I have an idea he goes to bed in it, wrapped up in it, you know, the actual material.” Alec Guinness was not joking when he described his friend George Lucas as a man devoted to his craft. Is it any surprise that Lucas would make a richly allusive series of films that recycle the tropes and give a tip of the hat to the films he loved? And the Star Wars films, unlike many other cinematic franchises including Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, the Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and the Twilight saga, has no real textual story base—even if Lucas claimed that his real inspiration came from reading comic books as a ten-year-old.

Still, there is also a dark side (as it were) to all the talk about postmodern playfulness and sophisticated hyper-referentiality in the Star Wars film. “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it,” Harrison Ford complained on set to the director. The film has also been seen as a mélange of dreadful dialogue, flat characters, and absurd sidekicks and gizmos with narrative circuits as banal as they are borrowed. Consider the opening crawl: “Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.”

Now a Disney franchise, The Force Awakens does what Disney does supremely well, turning itself into a platform for selling toys and costumes. Even before Disney, toys were a regular part of the Star Wars world and wookiees coexisted peacefully with storm troopers in the long lines on opening night for each new episode.

Blame it on Joseph Campbell if Star Wars fails to deliver fully on the promise of a new mythology. Or can we? The Golden Bough, a study of mythic beliefs by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, was evidently also on Lucas’s reading list, even while he was poring over Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and learning about the twelve-step program for the Hero’s Journey.

“Look around you, ideas are everywhere,” George Lucas once said, and it soon becomes clear that he was never just a cinephile. When he claimed to be building “something unusual” about “whatever was to hand,” he was thinking in the broadest possible terms. While working on the third draft of the Star Wars script, he read Campbell and decided to make his film fit more into “the classic mode.” But he was also reading Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment, which championed the therapeutic value of fairy tales (and read many of the stories as enactments of Oedipal dramas).   Channeling Bettelheim, he worried that there was “a whole generation growing up without any kind of fairy tales, and kids need fairy tales.”

“Young people today don’t have a fantasy life anymore, not the way we did,” Lucas once stated. “All they’ve got is ‘Kojak’ and ‘Dirty Harry.’ . . . All the films they see are movies of disasters and insecurity and realistic violence.” Young people, he added, no longer have fairy tales.

Children, like adults, need symbolic worlds in order to navigate the real, and fantasy can be the place where they are most at home. We may dismiss them as escapist fictions, forgetting that jailers are the only ones against escape. Quest narratives give us something primal: heroic figures suffering from nostalgia, uprooted from a world that has turned toxic and in search of a new place to call home.

It was the genius of George Lucas to create a “once upon a time” that is long ago and far away, not in the here and now, and not even on planet Earth. “I put this little thing on it: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . . .’ Basically it’s a fairy tale now. Star Wars is built on top of many things that came before. This film is a compilation of all those dreams, using them as a history to create a new dream.”

Watching the films today, you never quite know where you are, a fact that goes far toward explaining the film’s global appeal. Mix universal applicability in with a palliative narrative that is cozily familiar and filled with hi-tech wizardry and low-tech gags (where else can you fix a space ship with a screwdriver?), and you suddenly have a generational totem for the ages. In the decades to come, the conflicts between the Rebel Alliance/Resistance and the Empire/First Order will remain as robust as the domestic drama that pits father and son against each other.

 http://radioopensource.org/our-postmoder…

 

Andersen’s ‘The Most Incredible Thing’ Revived at the Ballet

 

04PECK-master675Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Most Incredible Thing” was the Danish writer’s favorite fairy tale, but it is rarely brought back to life. Alastair MacCaulay reviewed the NYC ballet production inspired by the story and found it wanting, but the photographs and video send a different message.

As I noted in my Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, the story was reprinted by a group of academics who became leaders of the Danish Resistance Movement and illustrated in a way that made it an allegory of Nazi defeat.

When the Destroyer arrives, he’s wonderfully arresting. Like the god Janus of Roman mythology, he has two faces, one on the back of his head. He, in everything he does, is the most real person in the piece.

 http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/04/arts/d…

 

 

 

 

Oxford and Wonderland

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Fantastic as it was, “Wonderland” was rooted in the place Dodgson lived and worked: the city and environs of Oxford with its ancient university, its “dreaming spires” and its surrounding countryside. Oxford is a city teeming with tourists and traffic, whose shop windows, in the sesquicentennial year of “Wonderland,” overflow with Alice merchandise; but if one listens closely, if one ducks through stone arches, opens creaky oaken doors, and descends to quiet riverside paths, one can still find the Oxford of Charles Dodgson and Alice.

 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/15/travel…