America in Progress

America in Progress
America in Progress

Friday, November 30, 2018

November 30, 2018: In Love and War: Pearl Harbor


[On November 26, 1942 the great Casablanca premiered in New York. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that film and four other wartime romances!]
On the uses and abuses of history in Michael Bay’s most serious blockbuster.
First, let’s stop for a moment and acknowledge the basic impressiveness of the fact that the director of Bad Boys (and sequels), Transformers (and sequels), The Rock, Armageddon, and the like made a historical epic about the Pearl Harbor bombing and its World War II aftermaths. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan came out in July 1998 (three years prior to Bay’s film) and so I suppose would qualify as a summer blockbuster, but it was Spielberg, and the post-Schindler’s List and Amistad Spielberg at that—nothing surprising about a historical epic from that guy. But from the man who’s probably currently in production with both Transformers 4 and Bad Boys 3? Again, worth noting and, at a baseline level, admiring.
Moreover, it’d be pretty silly to critique Bay’s film for making a friendship and a love triangle central to its plotlines. After all, that’s the nature of the genre I’ve elsewhere dubbed period fiction—works of art that set universal human stories against a backdrop of (often) impressively realized historical moments. While those of us who care deeply about the histories themselves might be frustrated that such works relegate them to the background, it would be just as possible to argue the opposite: that works of period fiction help modern audiences connect to their historical subjects through engaging and accessible human characters, stories, and themes. After all, none other than the godfather of historical fiction, Sir Walter Scott, could be said to have done precisely that in the creation of characters like Waverly and Ivanhoe. Yes, I just compared Michael Bay to Sir Walter Scott, and I stand by it.
On the other hand, I would argue that if a piece of period fiction is set in wartime, it owes its audience at the very least an equally compelling and affecting portrayal of war: Saving Private Ryan, whatever its flaws, certainly offers that, especially in the opening sequence linked above; Gone with the Wind, more flawed still, is nonetheless at its best in depicting the Civil War and particularly the destruction of Atlanta. Thanks to its sizeable budget and state-of-the-art special effects, Pearl Harbor is able to include an extended depiction of that bombing, among other battle sequences—yet to my mind (and you can judge for yourself at that link and the follow-up part 2) it fails utterly at capturing any of the brutalities or terrors, or any other aspects, of war. The problem isn’t that the director of Transformers is making a wartime historical epic—it’s that the wartime historical epic doesn’t feel noticeably different from any other action film in his oeuvre.
November Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other wartime romances you’d highlight?

Thursday, November 29, 2018

November 29, 2018: In Love and War: A Farewell to Arms


[On November 26, 1942 the great Casablanca premiered in New York. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that film and four other wartime romances!]
On two important elements beyond the autobiographical in Hemingway’s war romance.
Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), the tale of an American serving with the Italian ambulance corps during World War I who is injured and falls in love with his English nurse, has frequently been read as an autobiographical novel of Hemingway’s own experiences as an American serving with the Italian ambulance corps during World War I, getting injured, and falling in love with his American nurse. The parallels are so clear that In Love and War (1996), the film adaptation of the novel which gives this week’s series its name, stars Chris O’Donnell as none other than Ernest Hemingway and Sandra Bullock as the American nurse with whom he falls in—you get the idea. While there are of course differences between Hemingway’s story and that of the novel’s narrator and male protagonist Frederic Henry—most notably in the outcome of their respective war romances—I’m not going to argue that the book wasn’t clearly and centrally inspired by the author’s personal life and identity.
Even the most autobiographical novels are works of fiction with other layers and elements beyond the life experiences, though, and A Farewell to Arms has a couple of particularly significant ones. For one thing, I think Hemingway creates a pretty nuanced portrayal of his female protagonist, Catherine Barkley. I know Hemingway’s general reputation when it comes to depictions of women, and I may have even contributed a bit to that narrative (while also trying to challenge it) in parts of this prior post. But while Farewell is certainly Frederic’s story (he is the narrator, after all), his narration and the novel still do justice to some central aspects of Catherine’s identity: her wartime work as a nurse, her status as (like Frederic) an expatriate working in Italy, and especially her experiences of the possibilities and dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. Those last subjects are most overtly outside of the autobiographical experiences of a male author, and while Hemingway again filters them through Frederic’s perspective he still depicts them in complex and thoughtful ways.
More directly part of Frederic’s perspective, but also importantly separate from and bigger than him (or any one character), is the novel’s portrayal of war. Again this element at least somewhat belies Hemingway’s reputation as a man’s man obsessed with machismo, an image bolstered by his inclusion of numerous violent activities and sports in many of his works, from boxing to bullfighting to big-game hunting. Yet as that hyperlinked post suggests, Hemingway could critique such activities at the same time that he certainly could and did celebrate them, and the portrayal of war in Farewell is far more critical than celebratory. The title alone suggests Frederic’s eventual desertion from his duties and comrades, an action often portrayed in war literature as the height of cowardice but treated far more sympathetically in Hemingway’s novel. Indeed, the nonsense and atrocities Frederic faces from those supposedly on the same “side” as him feel at times much more along the lines of a wartime satire like Catch-22 than any idealization, heroic depiction of war. One more element that makes Hemingway’s most autobiographical novel also one of his very best.
Last romance tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other wartime romances you’d highlight?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

November 28, 2018: In Love and War: Gone with the Wind


[On November 26, 1942 the great Casablanca premiered in New York. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that film and four other wartime romances!]
On why I’d still critique Mitchell’s romantic hero, and a more interesting side I’ve come to better appreciate.
Occasionally in this space I’ve referenced my first published article, which appeared in the Southern Literary Journal 15 years ago: “‘What Else Could a Southern Gentleman Do?’: Quentin Compson, Rhett Butler, and Miscegenation.” The quoted question in that title comes from the pivotal scene, early in Mitchell’s second half, when Scarlett finds Rhett in jail; he’s shot and killed an African American man for “being uppity to a [white] lady” (614), and asks the question of Scarlett. But as I noted in this post, for the whole first half of the novel Rhett has resisted and challenged the stereotypical “Southern gentleman” worldview on issues like slavery and the Civil War, such as in the key scene where he argues that the “Southern way of living is as antiquated as the feudal system of the Middle Ages. … It had to go and it’s going now” (238). This moment and statement in prison thus represents a striking change in his perspective and character—one that will continue throughout the remainder of the novel, culminating in his final decision to leave Scarlett in search of somewhere in the South “where some of the old times must still linger” (1022).
In my article I called Rhett’s transformation into a conservative white supremacist the greatest failing of Mitchell’s novel, and I would still say the same. After all, she creates Rhett as a really compelling and attractive romantic male lead (including for the reason I’ll get to in the next paragraph), and thus draws readers into feeling the same continued interest in him that Scarlett does (despite Scarlett’s repeated attempts to focus instead on the far more conventional Ashley Wilkes). As a result, we’re willing to go along with Rhett into those white supremacist perspectives far more easily than we otherwise might have been (at least if we’re more progressive readers), and even to see our own move, like his, as simply a begrudging recognition of the realities of Reconstruction’s “horrors,” of racial equality and the threat of miscegenation, and a bunch of other mythic nonsense that Mitchell’s second half fully and frustratingly perpetuates. (Rhett’s and Scarlett’s realizations of what “Reconstruction in all its implications” means [635] indeed comprise a key arc of Mitchell’s second half.) For all those reasons, with Clark Cable’s uber-charismatic film performance layered on top of them, I would call Rhett one of the most destructive characters in American literature.
No literary work can or should be defined through the lens of a single social or political issue, though, and Mitchell’s novel isn’t simply or solely about race and the South (important as it is to keep those themes in mind). And if we turn instead to the question of gender roles and expectations, Rhett, like Scarlett, becomes a more consistently complex and genuinely attractive character. As I argue in my article’s opening, Scarlett appears to be a Southern belle stereotype (with her “magnolia-white skin” and “seventeen-inch waist” [5]) but throughout the novel challenges and undermines those images, becoming instead an increasingly independent and strong woman. Similarly, while Rhett could be superficially described as a classic gentlemanly suitor, I would argue that his continued interest in Scarlett is due instead to his recognition of how different she is from the stereotype—particularly if we contrast their relationship with that of the far more conventional/stereotypical Southern characters Ashley and Melanie Wilkes. If readers are going to continue falling in love with Rhett—and again, it’s very hard to read Mitchell’s novel and not find him attractive—at least he offers (especially for the time periods of the novel’s 19th century setting and its early 20th century publication) a relatively nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of gender and identity.
Next romance tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other wartime romances you’d highlight?