Saturday, July 28, 2012

Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story (long)

Finally I treated myself to the complete Anne of Green Gables DVD set — the 25-year-old VHS tapes just don't display the Prince Edward Island scenery to its best advantage on a flat-screen TV.

Besides reading most of Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne series, I've seen the Sullivan Entertainment Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea more times than I can remember. Anne is the ideal for an INFP like me; I like to think that once upon a time I had her potential, minus the ambition.

I've seen that regular Anne devotees don't like The Continuing Story installment and read that due to a copyright dispute Sullivan couldn't use material from Montgomery's later books as he had for Anne of Avonlea. Many fan, perhaps unaware of this issue, hate this series because it deviates so widely from the established story and has some nasty continuity errors (e.g., Anne and Gilbert would have been well into middle age by World War I).

I don't hate The Continuing Story because it deviates from the Anne story and its timeline. I hate it because it's a weak story that has nothing to do with Anne of Green Gables. Even if you can imagine that it's not about Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe of Avonlea and that is just another movie set during World War I, the plot is such a convoluted, implausible mishmosh and the visuals so flat that it's a bad showing all around. It doesn't help that, while Anne and Gilbert are supposed to be in their early 20s, Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie were in their early 30s when the series was filmed — well past the freshness of college and first jobs.

If all else shone, the continuity issues would be the kind of details I could overlook as poetic license. But nothing in this series works — nothing. All the elements that coalesced to make the previous installments conquer and capture millions of hearts across the globe are missing from this unrelentingly grim, joyless mess.

Plot: Conflict is at the heart of any plot, and as a girl and later as a young woman Anne's tendency to daydream, act on impulse, and lash out in temper led her into any number of scrapes, some more serious than others. Her romantic fixation on Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" sets off her trouble at the very beginning and later leads to a fateful accident and rescue. When she isn't daydreaming, writing, or sharing her hopes with Marilla or bosom friend Diana, she's sparring with Avonlea's busybody and gossip in chief, Rachel Lynde. Part of the reason Anne is beloved is because we like to see ourselves in her and because we recognize the dramas of girlhood which become more significant when she begins her teaching career in Anne of Avonlea. Despite the Rachel Lyndes, the Pringles, and the Katherine Brookes of the world, Anne, her imagination, and her vision prevail. That's what we love — the idealism and the conviction that imagination doesn't have to be suppressed or obliterated by conventional society, that it can thrive despite the human and social obstacles.

Anne and Gilbert are past the broken-slate stage of life, and The Continuing Story needed a more mature plot and conflict. Sullivan takes us from the small-town squabbles of Avonlea (first series) and the politics of private-school teaching (second series) to the conflict to end all conflicts — World War I. Our heroine, whose most nerve-wracking moments to date have been reciting poetry to sophisticates and islanders at the White Sands Hotel, awaiting test scores to see if she beat Gilbert Blythe academically, facing down the Pringle clan, and more of the same, now finds herself dodging bullets, shells, and spies in a torturous plot that plays on none of her beloved qualities.

Near the beginning Anne meets a publisher who wants adventure books written for women (although not by women). That's what The Continuing Story tries to be — a woman's adventure story, with a wife braving the front in France during WWI to find her MIA husband, a sort of Ernest Hemingway SuperLite. Despite the shelling, the bullets, the amputations, and the sense that there's supposed to be ever-present danger, there's no dramatic tension in sight, and the story drags on and on and on. I watched the second chapter for what seemed like a long, dreary time, then decided I needed a break. When I checked the time marker on the DVD for the remaining time, I saw that I had watched 10 minutes. Ten minutes! It felt like at least 30 or more. This is not exactly the desired denouement for a good war or adventure film.

There's a plethora of implausible coincidences (for example, Anne manages to run into Fred Wright and Jack almost the moment she reaches the French front), but every attempt at dramatic tension falls flatter than a crepe — so flat that even if you had been told every spoiler ahead of viewing The Continuing Story, it wouldn't ruin the series for you. It's that dull and lifeless.

Setting: As you'd guess from the plot, you're not going to be spending much time on Prince Edward Island or even in eastern Canada — most of the film is set in New York, London, France, and Germany. The indoor scenes could be anywhere — indeed, they were filmed in Canada — so there's no sense of New York, London, or any other location. These vintage buildings, and the tight outdoor shots designed to hide geography and sets, made me yearn for the strong sense of place and community both the books and previous series were known for.

As for embattled France, it too consists of tight shots that make Gil's field hospital and the various camps look just like what they are — sets. The uniformly low, gray skies add to the effect, and so do the scenes of soldiers, nuns, Red Cross workers, doctors,and nurses running willy nilly back and forth — it's as though they're there to add senseless movement and energy and to keep the already small spaces filled. Instead of looking like people caught in the chaos and terror of war, they look like extras whose director hasn't given them direction, leaving them to flit about randomly.

New York, France, London, and Germany are sandwiched between establishing and concluding scenes set closer to the places Anne's admirers have come to love. In an interesting, ill-conceived twist, Sullivan seems determined to obliterate the one place that is dear to everyone — Green Gables. In five short years, an absentee Anne has allowed what "people in Avonlea say [is] the prettiest acreage on the north shore" (Marilla) to become the kind of rundown shanty you might see in Pennsylvania when the farm's been abandoned for decades. IF you're thinking, "Anne would never have let this happen to the home Matthew and Marilla kept up so meticulously, you're right. How could such a desirable house and farm have become so decrepit in a mere five years? How could Anne let it? The shutters are loose and askew, the fences are broken, and — best of all — there's not an inch of paint left on the weathered boards of the house. Renters! Then, when Gil and Anne try to save Green Gables, they accidentally set fire to the once-airy, now mysteriously dark, forbidding house. It's as if Sullivan wanted to obliterate the very heart of the work that made his name and fortune. This brings us to . . .

Characters: Anne Shirley, bright, imaginative, inventive, dreamy, inspired by Tennyson and devoted to Gilbert once she realizes she loves him, is recognizable only because she's played by Megan Follows. First, Sullivan has her being cozy with Fred Wright (yes, bosom friend Diana's dull but good husband) as well as an unlikeable adventure writer named Jack whom she meets in New York and, improbably, in several other places. He may be an adventurer and spy, but Jack manages not to be any more interesting than Fred — which should be irrelevant, because Anne is just now starting life with Gilbert after years of separation. The Anne we know isn't that light or feckless.

The Anne who once yearned for puffed sleeves and pearls now sports tailored suits and dresses with gaudy geometric patterns — stylish, yes, but not reflective of her tastes. No matter where she is or what her circumstances, Anne always looks like she just stepped out of a popular fashion catalog. She doesn't look like someone scraping by. Beyond the clothes, hats, and trim hairdo reminiscent of Katherine Brooke's, Anne retains nothing of her old self. When she isn't being distracted by Fred or Jack, she's so single minded in her search for Gilbert that all sense of personality is lost. Imagination, the literature of romance, the attachment to community, even her smile, are lost to the grimly unrelenting bore she becomes. War changes people, but from the beginning Anne isn't Anne.

Once Anne declared her feelings for Gilbert, fans wanted to see them together as two strong-willed, bright people in love with all the joys and conflicts that come with it. To avoid that possibility, Sullivan makes Gilbert disappear for more than half the movie. Indeed, Jack the uninspiring adventure writer seems to get as much screen time as our Gilbert. For huge swathes of footage, Fred Wright is more front and center than the male lead. Even when Gilbert does reappear, Anne leaves him to talk to Jack. Gilbert has been transformed into a earnest young doctor, a two-dimensional shadow of his adolescent self, when he had not only a mind and a heart, but a personality.

In the meantime, bosom friend Diana has become such a tiresome snob that her own high-and-mighty mother, Mrs. Barry, has to rebuke her. Mrs. Lynde, Moody Spurgeon, and Jose Pye (now Mrs. Spurgeon) make token appearances, with Josie magically become a shrill, self-righteous patriot.

Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story is ironically named; there's nothing about this story that is recognizable, let alone familiar. When I watch Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea again, I won't envision a future state where Green Gables is a wreck, Gilbert has the charm of a post office, Diana is a fashionably dressed fishwife, and Anne foregoes Tennyson for a nun's habit and a spy's mission. I have an imagination, and I can imagine this abomination away. Like a certain Dallasstoryline, it was all a bad dream — a nightmare that never happened.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Cooling off at the movies: Moonrise Kingdom

With a day off from work, temperatures in triple digits, and no air conditioning in my apartment (I’m a holdout), I decided Independence Day would be a great opportunity to go to the movies.

Choosing a movie is always hard. I don’t like urban, gritty, violent, inane, Disney, or Disneyesque movies, which doesn’t leave much these days except the occasional period drama or book adaptation, and even some of these (like the 2011 Jane Eyre) disappoint me.

J. mentioned Prometheus, but after reading the description I had an unpleasant vision—right or wrong—of Solaris with George Clooney. When I looked on Flixter, a movie called Moonrise Kingdom had scored more than 90 percent positive with both critics and moviegoers, and the plot seemed innocuous. So that’s what we set out to see.

Normally, going to a movie on July 4 is the last thing I’d think of, so I was surprised to find a good-sized crowd at the ShowPlace ICON Theatre on Roosevelt Road. I thought most people would be watching TV or entertaining in their air-conditioned homes or, if feeling especially heat resistant, cooking out in their yards or favorite parks. But many like us apparently decided to escape the relentless sun and heat in the dark coolness of a movie theater.

When the ticketing system asked us to choose our seats, we were surprised to find that the only seats left were a few in the front, those for the disabled, and a few scattered singles. Our only choice was to be on top of the screen. We wondered what was up because we’re used to these theaters being at most one quarter to one half full, even for a big movie like the first Sherlock Holmes directed by Guy Ritchie. When the lights came on at the end, we saw that there really had been a nearly full house.

First, I should admit that I’d never seen a film directed by Wes Anderson. I mention this because so much of the commentary online is focused on how Moonrise Kingdom is (or isn’t) a typical Wes Anderson film. I can’t agree or disagree with either position. Even if Moonrise Kingdom were just like every movie that Anderson’s made, at least it’s not a sequel or a period piece written, acted, and filmed according to today’s sensibilities. That alone gave it a leg up in my world.

If the title Moonrise Kingdom weren’t enough of a hint, the maps showing the location throughout and the stylishly clad narrator (Bob Balaban) who describes future events are strong clues that this is a fable that requires us to lay aside our expectations of realism or at least reality and to fire up what imagination remains to our adult selves.

Set in 1965, the story is centered on two misfit pre-teens, Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman). We’re taken on a tour of Suzy’s house and family as though it were a dollhouse and they the inhabitants whose lives are exposed from almost any angle — a sly acknowledgment of their unwitting role as subjects and our omniscient one as viewers. This is no ordinary house in an ordinary location. It’s part of a series of isolated and insular New England coastal islands, a world unto itself.

It’s raining to beat the band, and each family member finds a way to fill his or her time. The boys don’t watch TV or play Battleship; they listen to an educational recording by Benjamin Britton. At first Suzy turns her vision inward, reading one of her fantastically titled library books, then she picks up her binoculars to look outward toward the normally expansive world of water, now confined by rain and mist.

From this restricted and restrictive world of Suzy and her trapped family, we’re transported to the great outdoors and the equally restrictive, even hostile world of Suzy’s counterpart Sam — the Khaki Scouts. When the officious Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) discovers Sam has gone AWOL, his Scouts consider the unpopular missing boy a “fugitive” and arm themselves accordingly.

For the rest of the movie, it’s Sam and Suzy vs. the dysfunctional adults around them. No matter how troubled the parents, scout leaders, police, and other authority figures may be, Sam and Suzy emulate their furrowed brows, he while smoking his short-stemmed pipe, she while sporting an eye makeup combination last seen on one of James T. Kirk’s alien conquests. The misadventures, some epic, that follow are never bust-a-gut, slapstick hilarious, but with a few gratuitously sad exceptions they are delightfully amusing. The audience soon finds itself guiltily on the side of a friendship so unfamiliar to the 12-year-old couple that they want it to be love and for it to last forever.

Too many directors fail to use the visual, kinetic possibilities of film, but Anderson isn’t one of them. His color palette evokes the popular Hipstamatic and Instagram apps, which in turn mimic the grainy, off-hue, decaying prints taken by cheap cameras decades ago. The characters and the camera are kept moving—away from one destiny and toward another. Many of the visuals, even the maps on which the fugitives’ progress is tracked, are memorable.

Each time you see Moonrise Kingdom, you’ll probably spot some new visual, verbal, or aural nuance. The performances are spot on, although I confess I didn’t recognize Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp. Newcomers Hayward and Gilman are the showstoppers, while Norton as painfully earnest and ineffectual Scout Master Ward never misses a beat.

For such a quirky film, the ending is predictable and conventional, yet still satisfying, while leaving the possibilities open. As Samuel Clemens knew, that’s the way childhood fables should end.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Book review: Hungry for the World: A Memoir

Hungry for the World: A Memoir by Kim Barnes. New York: Anchor Books. 2001. 256 pages.

It takes a certain amount of ego to write a memoir, especially if your life hasn’t been influential or extraordinary. Kim Barnes may have been counting on her life appearing to be the latter when she wrote Hungry for the World, which focuses on her serial relationships with men—from the father of childhood to the lovers of youth to the husband of maturity, circling back to her father, now a grandfather. Throughout, she obsesses over the girl she was and the woman she must be. Her journey is set in Idaho and the Pacific Northwest, in a wilderness penetrated by wanton hunters, felled by loggers, and drowned and despoiled by industry, and in cities and towns filled with more drugs and vice than jobs.

Barnes is a woman in man’s world, even more so after her parents convert to the Pentecostal faith. As he turns further inward, her father seeks self-denial and self-punishment by moving his family from the forest they love into town, where, when he isn’t driving his truck route, he’s sitting around in front of the TV, smoking and apparently contemplating his relationship with God. The more Barnes struggles to understand her father, the more distant he seems. He’s less parent than mythical figure. He’s wise in the woods, taciturn, unrevealing, and unforgiving in town. Barnes is torn between her natural desire to live like a man—free, unencumbered, and in control—and her duty to follow in the path of women like her mother—subservient to God and man. But she is “hungry for the world,” although “world” here goes no father than the localized experiences of school, work, lovers, alcohol, drugs, and the demands of David, the older man who craves her “trust” while demonstrating with every action his unworthiness of it.

Barnes seems to think her youth was exceptionally tawdry, but there’s nothing here that would surprise or shock anyone who came of age in the 1960s or 70s, not even her relationship with David, the controlling, damaged Vietnam veteran whose thrills depend on his ability to subdue and obliterate Barnes’s personality, preferences, and will—not unlike her father and his church with its patriarchal beliefs.

Many women may find the author’s story and its resolution in spiriting, or, as a cover blurb gushes, “refreshing . . . a moving story of human regeneration.” For me, the telling of her story is so self-consciously literary that there’s nothing moving about it. For all the flowery msuings and metaphors, Barnes conveys few emotions, only a stated sense of shame about the past and a sense of wonder, albeit detached, about the present.

Kim Barnes is a talented writer, and Hungry for the World abounds with passages whose wording transcends the ugliness of the not-so-extraordinary subject matter and limited, self-aware, and self-important perspective. The problem is that Hungry for the World is more a self-conscious literary exercise than a genuine, heartfelt attempt at memoir. All the pretty phrasings and all the reflective section endings don’t lend this memoir the emotional power and substance it might have had if Barnes had been able to let go of the one thing she, like the men in her life, seems hungry for—control.

8 July 2012
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Relics: Hung out to dry

While staying at the Ann Arbor Bed and Breakfast, I spotted a relic that I remember fondly and that may be making a comeback in some progressive communities—the clothesline.

At our home, Saturday was wash day. As our only licensed driver, Dad was the designated launderer. Our Saturday mornings began with the emptying of the clothes hamper under the counter in the bathroom into plastic clothes baskets and the collection of bed and bath linens. Sometimes alone, more rarely with me for company when I was very young, he drove to a laundromat in town, where the women cooed over the little girl they assumed was his granddaughter, thanks to his middle age and shock of white hair. As I grew up, I went less often if at all—too cool to hang around with Dad at a boring place like the laundromat, I’m sure.

Behind the shed in our backyard, underneath the cherry trees, we had five or more clotheslines strung across—enough for most of our clothes and sheets. Knowing my dad, I suspect hanging clothes out to dry in fine weather was a matter of economy—conservation of money as much as of energy, although he did consider the environment, too.

When I was little and somewhat willing to help with the chores, I couldn’t reach the lines (conveniently). By the time I was tall enough, I had better things to do than to help my parents with what seemed like a chore, but would today be a pleasure to me.

When I was in 8th or 9th grade, I started to wear blue jeans to school. They weren’t the pre-washed, distressed designer duds of today, but were dyed a dark blue that penetrated every fiber. I spent countless hours at the kitchen sink trying to rinse the stiffness and the blue out of them. They, too, ended up on the clothesline after leaving a messy trail of water through the trailer. I even hung them out in freezing weather, when they froze and I risked cracking them.

Clothes hung out take longer to dry, especially when the clothesline is in the shade. It’s not as convenient as tossing a load in the dryer and hitting a button, and there are other downsides to line drying under trees besides the amount of time it takes. Occasionally a bird or two would ruin our laundering efforts with well-placed defecation. In our case late spring/early summer meant picking tent caterpillars off nearly every item. I loathe everything about tent caterpillars, especially stepping on them.

If left unscathed by birds and bugs, clothes dried outdoors pick up an indefinable scent of sun and fresh air that no fabric softener, dryer sheet, or other chemical treatment can replicate. It truly is like absorbing sunshine into your clothes.

Even as we tear our hair out over energy sources, climate change, and problematic technologies like wind farms, we’re missing out an obvious way to save money and our clothes—clothesline drying. It costs nothing but the price of clothesline and a few moments of standing outdoors. Our mothers may have loved the affordability and convenience of dryers, and homeowners’ associations hate the sight of something so downscale as clotheslines. But sometimes convenience takes away the satisfaction that performing a simple task as simply as possible offers. And you can’t chat with your neighbor if you’re both isolated in your basements, feeding your machines.

Perhaps a few more clotheslines combined with fewer homeowners’ association rules might improve the neighborliness that seems to have been lost in the last half century—the neighborliness that brought my parents and their peers many a lifetime friendship, no matter where the neighbors moved or where they hung their clothes.

More about clotheslines here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Lark and Pear, Sawyer, Michigan

I can't imagine anything more delightful than a tiny, colorfully painted and named coffee shop bordered by woods. Alas, the Lark and Pear in Sawyer, Michigan is closed and for sale, and I never made it into it.