A Lesson in Satire

You may have heard by now about Matt Forney’s “humour” piece entitled “How to Rape Women and Get Away With It.” Trigger warning: this piece ‘jokingly’ condones rape and describes it in vivid terms. EDIT: A mere 2 hours after I wrote this piece, the original article is down, but I think you can get an idea of its content based on the title alone. He did however post this hilariously insincere apology, which is almost as good. In response to backlash this caused, Forney has informed we “pansies” who were offended that his piece is satire.

But is it?

I am increasingly seeing satire being held up as a shield for comedians to hide behind when offensive aspects their work are challenged. They claim that readers are taking their works too seriously, as they are meant to be light-hearted. Many writers seem to believe that satire is an excuse to say whatever one wants, no matter how offensive or crude, but that isn’t quite right. Let’s look at some technical definitions of satire:

A poem, or in modern use sometimes a prose composition, in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule. Sometimes, less correctly, applied to a composition in verse or prose intended to ridicule a particular person or class of persons, a lampoon.  – The Oxford English Dictionary

That’s good, but a little general. Let’s get a bit more specific:

A literary genre or mode that uses irony, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to expose humanity’s vices and foibles. Through clever criticism, satirists debunk and deflate their targets, whether persons, groups, ideas, or institutions.  Unlike comedy, which is primarily geared toward amusement and entertainment, satire generally has a moral purpose: to provoke a response to correctable human failings, ideally some kind of reform. – The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms

I especially like the second definition, which notes that satire often isn’t funny at all, but is intended to bring about a new way of thinking in its readers, if not actual social change. Satire originated in ancient Greece and Rome, but one of the most famous pieces of Western satire (and one of my favourites) is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, wherein he explains that the solution to 18th century Ireland’s struggles with the British would be solved if the poor Irish sold their babies to be eaten by the rich. As he says, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” Swift goes on to describe the various ways babies can be prepared and served, and what can be done with various parts of the body. It’s kind of funny; a reader might laugh from shock or at his creativity concerning some of the baby-dishes (the only aspect of satire that some modern comedians seem to understand). However, it is clear from the beginning that his piece is intended to be a condemnation of the aristocracy’s exploitation of the working classes. Swift’s horrible comments have a clear purpose: to bring about a new way of looking at the rampant poverty in Ireland, hopefully leading to real social change.

Stephen Colbert is an excellent modern satirist. He can push the envelope himself, but it is always clear that he is meaning to display how dangerous the ideals his character holds can be, and is not advocating them. The Daily Show often does similar things with its correspondent sequences. The reporters will take on a stance of agreeing with the people they interview, but with the eventual intention of revealing their views as being ridiculous and even harmful.

Although it doesn’t have to be, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report demonstrate, as did many from Horace to Alexander Pope to The Simpsons before them, that satire can be very funny. Humour can be an accessible and entertaining way to deflate a subject, whether individuals, institutions, or society in general. But this is the most important point – the aim of satire is always to reveal hypocrisy, vice, and other wrongdoing or wrong thinking. Tackling taboo subjects is not foreign to satire, as Swift’s piece demonstrates, but simply saying something offensive is not, in itself, satire. One must have the intention of changing the way that the reader sees the subject at hand, or forcing them to recognize the ridiculousness of the target subject.

Technical definitions aside, I’m not even sure I understand the joke of pieces like Forney’s. He is just saying horrible things for the sake of controversy, hoping to shock readers into laughing. That isn’t comedy – that’s laziness. Anyone can imagine horrible things to do to dead babies, but it takes a creative mind to turn that into biting social commentary. Satire is meant to change the target’s (and often the audience’s) way of thinking, and humour should make the reader laugh because of some kind of unexpected or appreciated connection or punch line. You don’t necessarily need humour to make satire, nor do you absolutely need to make controversial comments along the way. It is possible to use humour and take a satirically-straight tactic on controversial issues if you successfully open a door to conversation about the issue and if you make clear that you don’t condone the views you are pretending to hold, but that is difficult and is rarely accomplished well.

A good general tip: if you can’t identify a target or way of thinking that you’re trying to change or bring down, your piece isn’t satire. If your focus is on a group or person who is already hurt by society the way it is – such as, say, rape victims – rather than the person or group who is doing the attacking, you’re doing satire wrong. If you’re not trying to change anything and are trying to offend people for a cheap laugh, you’re probably just an asshole.

The Importance of Storytelling

As a pop culture junkie, I tend to get very invested in the books I read, the TV shows I follow, and the movies I watch. When I find a story that I really like, I spend more of my time than I probably should thinking about it, talking about it, and analyzing it. With that much thought tends to come an emotional attachment, so when I finish particularly long series, I tend to spend the rest of the day in a… let’s call it Reader’s Melancholy. I’m sad to have to leave characters once I’ve been through so much with them. Sure, I can re-read or re-watch, but I’m sure everyone can agree that nothing is the same the second time through.

It’s not only the length of the story that brings this on though; stakes are equally, if not more important. You need to go through serious ups and downs with the characters, have gained and lost with them. So it’s not by virtue of being long that. Even finishing Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities I felt something similar. Maybe it’s just being at the close of the characters’ journey. Finishing Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comic series prompted my writing this post, because I was genuinely sad to leave those characters and that world, even if I wasn’t completely enthralled for every single moment of the series. I’ve read and loved other longer series, but this one was, well, ‘epic,’ in all senses of the term. There were incredible stakes for both the characters and the rest of the world. Another series to which it is often compared, Fables, is also amazing, but I sort of created my own ending for that one. The main story wrapped up after 100+ issues, and the characters had lost very little, all things considered. I love the series, but I don’t know if I want to read more of it, since it seems like it should be over, and that not much was lost, despite a huge war. Many super hero comics and fantasy/sci fi shows have similar problems; death loses some potency when characters can come back to life. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example,featured some permanent deaths, but they were the exceptions to the general rule. I like to pretend that the comics don’t exist (and, to some degree, neither does season 5 of Angel) to make the ending of Buffy seem more permanent and powerful. Finishing that series the first time, I cried in the final scene simply because it was done. There was no more, and my overwhelming thought was “what now?” It was hard to leave Buffy and her friends behind, but I also felt like I had to. Their story in Sunnydale was done, and even if they are still having adventures in comics, I feel like I’m not a part of them anymore. I was a silent but heavily empathetic spectator of seven years of their lives, and somehow, it feels to me like my journey with them is complete. The story they were telling, the story I was a part of, is done. I stopped watching Being Human after series 3 for similar reasons.

Think about the ending of The Lord of the Rings. Would anyone really be interested in a sequel about Frodo’s and Bilbo’s adventures over the sea? Or Sam’s quiet family life, for that matter? We were with them when they saved Middle Earth, but that tale is done, and so is our part in it. We know that they’ll go on to live their lives (and via appendices can get quite a bit of information about those lives), but to keep reading would seem… wrong. Like selling out, almost. I can imagine that Harry Potter fans would feel the same way. A good ending closes the story, but lets you know that the world will keep turning whether you’re there or not (unless you’re reading Cat’s Cradle or similarly apocalyptic fiction).

So what is the point of this? Do I just get too invested in fiction? Am I just a crazy fangirl for crying everywhere for the simple reason that Les Misérables or King’s Dark Tower series ended? Well, I think that this Reader’s Melancholy (or Watcher’s Melancholy, as the case may be) is a testament to the importance of storytelling. We like to feel connected to other people, even if those people are fictional. You can get inside the mind of a fictional character in a way you never can with another person. You can see these characters at the best and at their most vulnerable. And we connect with real people through mutual love of stories; when meeting someone for the first time, once you get past the requisite questions about work and family, movies and TV, sometimes books ultimately come into the conversation. We bond with our friends and family over the shared experience of watching fiction together. Once you’ve seen Darth Vader announce that he is Luke’s father, waited for Hamlet to just make up his damn mind, or watched Jack sink into the ocean and wondered why Rose couldn’t just shift over a little bit, you now share that experience with Luke, or Hamlet, or Rose, and with every other person who has shared that experience too. Not to mention stories that transcend time and culture, or at least borrow from earlier stories. The legends we have today about King Arthur were being changed and molded and re-appropriated all over Europe for hundreds of years before they got to the versions we know today and we’re still changing them! There’s something king of magical about the thought that the stories and characters in shows we’re watching today – like BBC’s Merlin or historical dramas like The Borgias, Spartacus, and HBO’s Rome – were exciting audiences hundreds or thousands of years ago. Sometimes, even more than that, where ancient stories and mythologies are involved; who isn’t somewhat intrigued by the stories from the Odyssey or the Aeneid ­even if we aren’t reading them in verse? Stories become ingrained in our cultural minds; you’d be hard-pressed to find someone in the Western world (and probably beyond) who has never heard “to be or not to be,” or who wouldn’t understand that something is unnatural if it features the “Franken” prefix. Characters from literature and myth live longer and burn brighter than do most historical figures.

Besides, it must be boring to live in the real world all the time. Or, as Shirley Jackson states, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.” Daydreaming, making up our own stories and engaging with others’, keep us sane. Stories let us bond with other people, but also let us escape inside ourselves from the stresses and monotony of every day life. You can learn about yourself and about other people, feel less alone, even pretend to be someone else through stories. And there are so many different kinds of stories out there in different mediums, there’s something for everyone.

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told me that I need to get out more and spend less time reading or watching movies. I’m not denying that I probably do spend too much time immersed in the fictional, but I can’t really say I regret it. I’ve read stories that were written hundreds or even thousands of years ago, and I can connect them to stories and real life today. Through them, I feel connected not only to the characters about which I’m reading, but to the other people reading the stories – living or dead. I like to escape from everyday tedium, even if just to read about someone else’s. My life is enriched by all of the stories I’ve heard or read or seen, and through them, I’ve learned much about myself and about humanity in general. Stories help us interpret ourselves, each other, and the world around us, and I think that life would be less interesting and less rich without them.

Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.
– Neil Gaiman,
The Sandman: A Midsummer Night’s Dream


Theorizin’ Jersey Shore and Oscar Wilde

I’m going to be talking about these videos for a while, so you should probably watch them. The two leads from the current Broadway production of The Importance of Being Earnest read transcripts from Jersey Shore in their Wildeian characters. Hilarity ensues.

This was originally a Facebook note, but I thought I’d post a cleaner version here, for posterity. It was prompted by comments on the video observing that it was odd that the two went so well together, being at “opposit ends of the cultural specturm.” I am here to argue that they are not so different after all.

Jersey Shore features the same sort of characters who frequented Wilde’s plays – people who are obsessed with triviality. In both cases, we laugh because we realize how ridiculous these characters are being. Now granted, the objects of their affections have changed – in Wilde’s Victorian upper class society, it was velvet and china, but now it seems to be more spray tans and huge hair. There’s obviously something dandyesque about a man willing to put that much effort into his hair – and the same observation could be made of hipsters and their obsessive cultivation of ennui.

We love to watch Jersey Shore (I’ll admit here that I’ve only seen one full episode, but I hear enough about it from friends who do watch it to confidently talk about it this way) for their bizarre behaviour. They are anything but common personalities, and those were the sorts of people Wilde was satirizing. Many of the Shoreians’ actions are condemnable, and yet we love it and continue to support them. Some say that they watch the show “ironically,” so there’s something about their exaggerated personalities which intrigues us. Snooki never approaches “normal” – at least not in what we’re allowed to see. Their craziest moments are hand picked and edited in, and they’re probably overdoing it somewhat. These are fabricated personalities, not to the same degree as someone like Lady Gaga, but I assume that Pauly D is at least slightly less abrasive in his personal life.
Wilde exploited his dandy image in the same way, wearing velvet suits while travelling North America, lecturing on interior design. Most of his public persona was already there, but he exaggerated it – the Shoreians are the same way. However, in both cases, the actors need to “play it straight” – they are certainly over the top, but there’s still a small degree of believability or recognition in the characters. If the characters are constantly winking at the audience then the performance becomes a parody. If the characters take themselves seriously, then the audience can take a step back and laugh at how ridiculous they are – and probably at how they are different from (or even similar to) what they see on stage or screen. Imagine a parody of Jersey Shore from those “_____ Movie” idiots – it wouldn’t be as funny as watching the actual show. They’re caricatures, but they’re still real people. With just a little more hair gel, spray tan, and muscles, we’d see that we were watching a parody. If a character believes that they are normal or serious and the audience knows differently, it is far funnier than if everyone is in on the joke.
So where am I going with this? Well, my interest lies in this concept of a huge separation between “high” and “low” art. I don’t think I’m saying anything controversial if I assert that we would consider Wilde to be the former and Jersey Shore the latter. I hope I’ve illustrated that these two examples are not as different as they might appear on the surface. Some of the lines, like “lobster is alive when you kill it,” “she’s just furniture,” “being called Angelina is one of the worst things a person can be called,” and the comment about “chicken cutlet night” could easily have been penned by Wilde. Granted, his characters would never have said “squirrel-monkey” or “drop it like it’s hot,” but if he were writing today – who knows? Thinking about this way – in a way that’s relatable to our current lives – may provide a point of interest in work, like Wilde’s, which may be seen as stiff, old, and boring to some people these days.
So called “high art” of old does not have to be the sort of thing enjoyed only by grandparents, teachers, and pretentious Arts students. “Classics” become so because something about them is enduring. I just finished re-reading A Tale of Two Cities, a classic if ever there was one. We can’t necessarily identify with the plight of oppressed 18th Century citizens on the brink of revolution (although we’ve seen some not wholly dissimilar images come out of Egypt and Libya recently), but its themes – redemption, sacrifice, freedom, oppression, family, and a number of other things – are perpetually important and interesting. Literature doesn’t have to change or become less relevant with time, although it does sometimes. We should keep these old things around, because they can still teach us things, which is why we all had to read Shakespeare in high school. In the case of Wilde’s work, people will always be ridiculous, and we will always laugh at them. And isn’t that sort of comforting?

Frankenblog Part Two: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO

Hi again. I meant to post this last night, but there were obviously more important things going on. I’m hoping to have a more regular posting schedule in the coming weeks, rather than week long breaks between posts. Stupid school. Anyway, before we begin, look at this picture my friend Naomi made for me!
BFFs ❤
I love this picture, because it looks like it would be taken in one of those photo booths at the mall. The inspiration for it was my “Frankenfest” a few weeks ago, when I watched 4 films with “Frankenstein” in the title in 24 hours. This marathon also inspired today’s post, about those movies.
Now, countless movies, books, comics, plays, and songs have been based on or inspired by Mary Shelley’s classic tale, but the dominant image of Frankenstein’s Monster will always be Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 film.
I have now (proudly?) seen all 6 of the movies Universal Studios made prominently featuring the Monster, and the sequels are hilarious and fun, but today I’ll mainly be looking at Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). This post will be taking a different approach than the last, and will be more of a comparison. Many, maybe even most film critics and connoisseurs believe that Bride surpasses its predecessor. Now, I know a little bit about film – I took an “Intro to” course in first year, and I’ve read a bit about the subject, but I don’t pretend to be an expert. Perhaps Bride is the superior film, but I prefer the original, and that’s what I plan to talk about today. Unfortunately, by nature a comparison like this could sound like I have something against the sequel, but let me assure you that I don’t. I could explain why I’ll generally choose pie over cake, but I still love cake. Cake rocks, I just enjoy pie a little more.
I dressed as the Bride for Halloween because I love her. I think it turned out well.
Frankenstein (1931)
For those of you who haven’t seen this (and are seriously missing out, my friend), the basics are probably pretty clear: mad scientist makes a man from dead tissue, Monster goes on rampage, villagers give chase with torches and pitchforks, it all ends in the windmill. I’m going to assume that even if you haven’t seen the film, you know enough about the plot that I probably can’t spoil anything, so I’ll proceed with that assumption.
The mood for the whole film is fantastic, and is set right away with the creepy graveyard with the statue of death – into whose face Frankenstein lobs dirt. This is the perfect example of why black and white filming just works better sometimes, especially in horror. Hitchcock chose to make Psycho in B&W because it makes everything seem shadowy, and real shadows seem more tangible. Add to that the graininess you’ll get just from age and the whole world of the film seems to be under some kind of menacing cloud. The lack of score is also effective for mood, I think, although some prefer Bride because it has a score, but I’ll talk more about that later. The famous “It’s alive!” scene is orchestrated only by thunder, and to tremendous effect. The audience’s proper introduction to the Monster is also eerily silent – I can only imagine it with a big, kitschy, ‘30s orchestrated score when he turns around, going DUUH-DUUUUUUHNNNNNN! That would be hilarious. But what we do get is Karloff’s creepy shuffle followed by a great reveal of Jack Pierce’s superb make up. With dull, lifeless eyes, he seems terrifying initially, but the following scene makes it more than clear that he should be pitied rather than feared. The scene where he tries to capture the rays of light is just tragic. He gets scarier once he starts killing people, but they’re all either self defence or accidental. His make-up, sounds, and general physique are frightening, which is why he is such an iconic monster even today, but there’s a reason that his name is frequently associated with the term “misunderstood.” 

While Karloff is undoubtedly fantastic, he is not the only one in the movie. Colin Clive, as Frankenstein is most impressive when he is playing crazy. He seems wooden and apprehensive when he is playing the romantic scenes with Elizabeth, but in his earlier scenes, there’s something of a Norman Bates about him. I am quite enthusiastic about his performance in the scene where he finally gives his creature life, as evidenced by several quotes typed out in all caps, the most famous of which is the controversial “By God, now I know what it feels like to God!” In the ‘30s, this line unsurprisingly caused a stir, and Clive delivers it perfectly. His “IT’S ALIVE!” passed into cliché, but seeing it now, it is just as convincing and chilling as it was when it first played. Bride has no moments of crazed intensity, he just mopes and whines a lot, which is far less fun.
As Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz, Dwight Frye puts his famous stage whisper to good use in a small but memorable role. Frye was in a number of other Universal films, including Bride of Frankenstein, but his best role was indisputably that of Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula. He had played the role on Broadway along with Lugosi, and I would argue that his unnerving performance is as large a reason as Lugosi’s for the film’s success. In Frankenstein he plays the hunchback, not called Igor, who provides most of the film’s comic relief. He gets spooked by thunder and classroom skeletons and rambles as much as he speaks. The rest of the comedy in the film comes from Henry’s father, the Baron Frankenstein, played by Frederick Kerr. He’s basically just a stuffy old man, but when isn’t that funny? Edward Van Sloan, as Dr Waldman, essentially reprises his role as Dr Van Helsing, but he does a good job as the “voice of reason” for Frankenstein – until he is killed, of course. Mae Clarke’s Elizabeth is unimpressive by today’s standards, but she is serviceable when compared to Valerie Hobson in the sequel.
One of the more general things I love about this movie is the sense of the characters having off-screen lives. The first time we see Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth, she is talking to his best friend, bafflingly named Victor (in the book, Frankenstein’s first name is Victor, his best friend is Henry Clerval, and his family’s servant is called Justine Moritz. In the movie we get Henry Frankenstein and Victor Moritz. I don’t know why). Victor proclaims that he would “go to the end of the Earth” for Elizabeth, when she says “I wish you wouldn’t.” Intimations of a past (or hell, present) affair are further enforced when we see Frankenstein’s reactions to both of them when they go to see him. As he is preparing to do his final experiment, he commands Victor to sit down several times, then gently asks Elizabeth to do the same. Watching it for my 5th or so time, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching some kind of dick measuring contest. It seemed to me that Frankenstein is aware that there is something between his friend and his lover and wants to remind Victor that he won’t put up with it. In addition to this slice of life, we get glimpses of the villagers and the servants. There is even a sampling of their class structure, when Baron Frankenstein won’t let his servants drink his nicest wine. All of this combined makes a world which feels much more real and vibrant.
Now, many prefer Bride because it had a bigger budget, more lavish sets, better filmic quality, great special effects, and a score, not to mention Dr Pretorius, Minnie the maid, and the Bride herself. It’s also got more funny scenes and the plot is a little… more than the first. More happens, is what I’m saying. These are all good things, and perhaps it is the better film, but I just enjoy the original more. Let’s start with the positives, shall we? For starters, I just love Dr Pretorius. He is flamboyant and hilarious, and very creepy when he’s lit from below. His gaunt features make him an odd looking guy to begin with, add his pomposity and dandy-esque mannerisms, you get a wonderfully fun villain, a precursor to Jeremy Irons’ Scar in The Lion King. He steals nearly every scene he’s in, although even he can’t compete with his tiny creatures. The effects are absolutely phenomenal, and the personalities given to each of the people in the jars make the whole scene just delightful.

On the subject of effects, the “it’s alive” scene in this film is even bigger and louder than the first time around, a tendency with sequels that continues to this day. It looks like they amped up the electrical/sciencey looking machines, and the sound of a beating heart provides the background noise, underneath the machines. However, add to those a love theme score, and you get something rather… inappropriate. Another Monster is about to be created, and the melody that plays in the same one used at the end when Henry and Elizabeth escape. The music for the Bride should be much more ominous, I feel – even if we had seen the Monster waiting expectantly for his mate, the love theme would have made sense, but I found it so distracting. However, the score in other places (particularly when the villagers chase the Monster through the forest, and the use of the “Ave Maria” in the hermit scenes) is very effective. The Monster’s make-up though, while still impressive is less frightening in the sequel. His eyes are more aware, and his cheeks less gaunt. He is still unmistakably the Monster we know and love, but he is not nearly as unnerving.

So hopefully I have made it clear that I do love this film and have huge respect for it – I dressed as the Bride for Halloween, after all – but I do have some issues. One of the biggest is the decision to give the Monster speaking abilities. Obviously, everyone realized that was a problem, since he loses that ability after Bride and never regains it. It does make him seem pathetic and childlike, since he can only speak in simplistic sentences, and I admit that his cries of “Friend?” and “She hate me!” do get sympathetic noises out of me, but I realize how much more I am being manipulated this time around. In the original, it’s up to Karloff to make the Monster sympathetic through gesture and expression, but now he sounds like a five year old, and it’s practically being shoved down our throats that we’re supposed to sympathize with him. I find it harder to sympathize though, since the death toll in this movie is higher and more senseless than in Frankenstein. The Monster kills Fritz and Waldman in self defence, and a little girl by accident, thinking she will float. He scares Elizabeth, but does her no real harm. He starts Bride by killing the dead girl’s parents for no reason, and later throws Karl off the roof. The audience knows that Karl killed someone, but the Monster, presumably doesn’t, and he just chucks him off the roof for – what? Getting in his way? He ends the movie by killing himself, Pretorius (okay, bad guy), the Bride, and presumably the other criminal working for Pretorius who was still on the roof. So why did the Bride need to die? She has been harmless, she got scared and looked to Frankenstein for help, showing no signs of aggression. She has a non-criminal brain, and looks human for the most part – she probably could have gotten away with faking humanity. You could argue that she is an abomination, I guess, but she didn’t really need to die.
Now, I would be remiss not to mention the other Universal sequels at this point. They become increasingly silly and reliant on having the Monster fight one of the other monsters, usually the Wolf Man. They’re ridiculous movies, but fun nonetheless, and prove that making endless sequels for money is no new thing in Hollywood. Henry Frankenstein does not return after Bride and the rest usually involve someone searching for his journal or records, which make me hope that the Monster in the book burned the diary along with himself. One of the highlights of the sequels is the addition of a character called Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but he’s actually not the “Igor” in the public consciousness. Lugosi’s Ygor is a murdering blacksmith who befriends the creature and uses him to get revenge on the men who condemned him to hang. Ygor survived a hanging, so his neck is broken, but he is not a hunchback. His first appearance is in the third film, Son of Frankenstein, and he is the highlight of the film, as he is both menacing and funny, while the Monster (the final time Karloff played the role) is sort of periphery and less threatening.
I’ve actually tried to figure out where the Igor stereotype originated, but the earliest example of a hunchbacked lab assistant by that name that I can find is in Mel Brooks’ brilliant Young Frankenstein. The first hunchback in a lab seems to be a brief glimpse in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Fritz, in the first Frankenstein fits the bill, but the name is wrong. It seems like Young Frankenstein would have been spoofing an existing stereotype though, so who knows where it started. Either way, that film is absolutely brilliant, whether or not you’ve seen the source material. It is obviously funnier when you get the joke, but there is enough absurdist humour to make it funny on its own. If I haven’t convinced you to see the Whale films, check out the parody, it’s just as good.
So I hope you’ve enjoyed my ramblings about Frankenstein, I bet many of you are surprised that anyone could think about it this much. But I am good at overanalyzing stuff like this. Here’s one more picture of my costume so you can see my hair better (also I just love this picture), this time I am joined by Lieutenant Uhura and Party Cat.

Frankenblog, Or, My Blog Post on Frankenstein Part ONE

THIS POST WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS: If you haven’t yet read Frankenstein and you’d like to remain spoiler-free, you should stop reading here.
As you’ve noticed if you’ve read much of this blog, I’m a bit of a nerd. I’m a fanboy for a few conventionally “nerdy” things, like Lord of the Rings and the works of Joss Whedon, but I am also a fangirl for all things Frankenstein. (Side bar: I just got back my third essay on the novel, and I got 85% on it. BAM). I have 3 pages of barely comprehensible notes on the subject in Microsoft Word. For your sakes, gentle readers, I will abridge my notes, but know that I could have written FAR more, but restrained for you. Yes, this is restraint when it comes to an AllisonRant(tm) – to give you an idea of what my rants sound like, here are some of my notes, unedited:
Upon being shunned by the De Laceys, rather than like sulk or something, he BURNS DOWN THEIR HOUSE. One botched attempt to join society, and I WILL KILL EVERYVUN IN ZE VORLD. Then he kills a kid. I can understand why he’s upset, and he deserves some vengeance, but jeez dude. He also learns blackmail remarkably quickly […] So really, who is good and who sucks!?!? I DON’T EVEN KNOW.

Bride has some good score moments (the forest where he is Jesus is really good) but the love theme when the bride comes down is just inappropes. It should be much more ominous, they’re making a monster and it’s SCIENCE.

Pity my housemates, they have to deal with me on a regular basis. Anyway, now for our feature presentation:
Oh wait, another interlude: I was planning on writing about all things Frankenstein but I had too much to say, so this is just about the book. Check back in a few days for another rant post about the Universal movies.

Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel, but it was initially equal parts Gothic novel and social commentary. Its author, Mary Shelley, who was 18 years old when she published the novel, was the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, two important philosophers. As a result, it should not come as a surprise that this novel is about more than a dude testing the limits of science. I love it for all of the questions it raises, both obviously and in subtext.

Morality in regards to scientific experimentation is the most obvious theme, I think. The subtitle mentions Prometheus, immediately bringing to mind the dangers of scientific overreaching. The name “Frankenstein” frequently applied to any sketchy scientific endeavours, so it is obviously part of the public consciousness. The most interesting themes in the novel are the less talked-about, though. One of the major themes is that “monstrosity” is something created, not something innate or that can be the result of an “Abby Normal” brain. Unfortunately, this idea was more or less abandoned in the films, his aggression being the result of receiving a criminal brain. The book’s Monster becomes more humanized as the novel progresses, while his creator becomes less so. Granted, the Monster continues murdering people, but his motivations, gaining a friend or a mate, are distinctly human.
Fears related to parenthood, another theme of the novel, were very real to Mary Shelley, as both of her children born before the writing of Frankenstein died very young. Motherhood is incredibly important to the characters in the novel, since Victor and his Monster are lacking mothers, which seems to lead partially to their going astray. Victor is both parents to his Creation, and abandons him, essentially creating an orphan. The Monster is then effectively raised by the (admittedly unknowing) De Lacey family, who too are lacking a mother. The death of Victor’s mother seems one of the inciting actions of the novel, and he was apparently closer to his mother than he admits. The night of the Creature’s birth, Victor has a quasi-incestuous dream involving his mother, revealing that he may have had some serious mommy-issues.
One of my favourite questions in the book, and not one that is ever conclusively answered, is the status or “species” of the Monster. Victor initially claims to create “a human being” and “a new race,” so his opinion on the matter is unclear before he’s even begun. This Creature is clearly larger, stronger, and faster than humans are, so he should logically be superhuman. However, all of the characters in the novel, including the Monster himself, view him as something below humanity which can be killed with impunity. But it’s hard to see him as something whose death would be murder, as he is basically death incarnate. He is not created new; he is made of dead body parts, a life from death. Before his animation, this collection of limbs could be considered beautiful, but those illusions are dispelled when he looks at Victor with dead, watery, yellow eyes – eyes which have possibly seen beyond the grave. This Monster is a blending of birth and death, and his death seems necessary at certain points – but would that be murder? Obviously this isn’t the sort of situation I would encounter, but I love pondering the question, because I genuinely don’t know what’s right here. It’s stuff like this that makes me love supernatural fiction – what makes a monster or a man?
I find new things to think about and be interested in each time I read it (and I’ve read it three times now), so I could really write pages and pages about this, but I’ll spare you and stop here.
It saddens me, however, that many of my fellow students don’t share my love. While it’s fair for you to have a different opinion than I have, I feel obligated to defend the novel against some of the common criticism I have encountered.
Some really hate the language, and I can’t really help you there. It is Romantic, that is how novels were written – at least it isn’t long, and is pretty straightforward. You don’t get pages and pages of description or digression. I should also mention that Mary Shelley was 18 when she wrote this, so it’s pretty damn impressive.
It’s also possible that you read the 1831 version. The novel was initially published in 1818, but was revised to be much less radical for its re-release. It also puts more of the blame on fate than on the characters, which is partially why it’s interesting. So if you’re going to read it, MAKE SURE that you get the 1818 edition.
Okay so some people think that the Monster is a tad verbose, which I also can’t really deny. However, the story is told from his perspective, and his elevated diction gives him his own unique voice. It explains that he has read Paradise Lost and other novels from which he could learn his “thee/thou/thine” style of speaking. Since he never gets a name, his identity is forever hinged on his creator’s, and giving him distinct speech patterns is one of the ways he is able to distinguish himself as a separate entity. I suppose it is unbelievable that someone who has just learned to read would be able to read something as complex as Milton, but hey, this is science fiction – a certain degree of suspension of disbelief is required. That said, I can’t help but wonder how a giant cloak just happened to be in the forest when the Monster left Victor’s laboratory, and why Victor’s diary was inside, especially since he apparently wrote in it after he fainted…  And no one has ever satisfactorily explained what happens to Victor’s brother Ernest (in the 1818 version, at least).
This is the version I have…
It’s hard to find images for the book
Now, the biggest problem anyone seems to have is with Victor himself. Now, I agree with everyone – he is a ponce. However, I think he deserves some slack. The image most people have of Frankenstein is the Colin Clive model from the ‘30s films, a 30-something (or older) mad doctor, with the experience to know that what he is doing is very wrong – but he is 19 years old when he started, and no more than 20/21 when he finishes. He gets carried away by passion, and encouraged to test limits by his professor. He should know better, this is true, but he isn’t a wizened old scientist, he’s a student. It’s amazing, actually, how many professional literary theorists refer to him as “Doctor Frankenstein” when studying the work – he wasn’t even studying medicine! Personality-wise, he is wildly inconsistent, this is true, but the book could not happen any other way. He creates the Monster in a fit of wild passion, and the other major events of the book occur in the same way. He then grows up somewhat, but still stuck in this rut, and it slowly drives him mad.
His fits of passion frequently end when he faints and becomes sick – after the Monster’s birth, and after Clerval’s death, for example – much like the female victims of the Gothic novels that the Shelleys, Lord Byron, and co had been reading the summer the book was written. The largest female part in the book is Elizabeth, the love interest, but Victor essentially takes the role of the woman, according to the gender stereotypes of the time, especially since he is technically the “mother” of his progeny. Shelley is following in her feminist mother’s footsteps, subverting gender norms by conflating the distressed damsel and victim in her story.
In terms of the rest of the characters, okay, they aren’t terribly interesting or developed either – which is odd for me, since that’s normally an issue. I guess I’ll weaken my argument here and admit that I’m not sure why  it doesn’t bother me. Maybe the story is enough? Or the questions raised? I guess the relationships between the characters – at least between the Monster, Victor, and Walton, the sea captain – are interesting, since they all reflect each other in interesting ways. I have a whole spiel here on that topic, but I’ll skip it, since I’m getting quite verbose.  
Finally, people have called the story too didactic and black-and-white. Really? Some people (who I’d call boring) will say that Victor is clearly the bad guy in the story, but that’s too simple, I think. I mean, he does bad things, and he’s not a “good guy,” but I don’t think that the Monster gets that title either, based on his death toll. He is shunned by the De Laceys, and he gets upset, so he burns down their house. His one attempt to join society goes poorly, so he swears vengeance on the entire human race. He then proceeds to murder several more people, including a child, after which he frames another for the murder. He is a tragic character, but I can’t exactly call him the victim of the story. Victor’s family and friends are killed because he is an idiot – he is certainly partially responsible for their deaths (especially Justine’s), but it isn’t as though he created a robot or machine which killed people. The monster has options and agency, and he chooses murder, so he must take responsibility too. So the story doesn’t have a good or a bad guy, and no happy ending – no one, not even Walton, comes out of it satisfied. But I love that about it, there are so many gray areas. If you like your stories wrapped up in a neat package though, this isn’t for you.

See you in a few days when we’ll be discussing the film versions, particularly James Whale’s classics, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).


First of all: 30 points if you caught the 30 Rock reference in the title.
Now onto business: Feminism can mean a lot of different things, and I’m not talking about theories or anything here. For my purposes, feminism basically means that I feel that women deserve the same rights and privileges as men. I think it is fair that I be allowed to vote, and be paid the same for the same work, that sort of thing.
Virginia Woolf, for those who haven’t read her work, was an early supporter of feminist writing. Her essay, A Room of One’s Own, was initially a series of lectures about women’s fiction given to the ladies’ college at Cambridge in 1928. To boil a complex argument down to its simplest possible form, Woolf argues that women’s literary history was not as rich as men’s because women were prevented from writing by a variety of patriarchal social factors. She argues, essentially, that in order to write and express themselves, that women – all writers – require a room of their own where they can be away from distractions and pen out their thoughts. She meant a room physically, yes, but also metaphorically: women should be allowed to have time to themselves when they could reflect on their own feelings, needs, and wants, and not those of their husbands and children. If they have those at all. Obviously it’s all much more complicated than this, and more interesting, and I encourage everyone to look into it more, if this is something that would interest you.
I am currently taking a course on Literary Theory and Criticism, and all of our material comes from the second edition of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Before each selection, they have a short biography on the author if the piece, most of which end by praising the author and/or their contribution to theory. The introduction to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, however, is less than flattering:
“A Room of One’s Own is one of the most imitated titles ever devised. Written during the trial of Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel and published during the same month as the stock market crash of 1929, A Room of One’s Own marks an upheaval more subtle, yet in some ways as profound, as these. The time was right for it: the book was so successful that the proceeds enabled Virginia Woolf to add a room of her own onto her house in Sussex.”
My fabulous professor, Mr Michael Snediker, wrote a letter to the editors of the Anthology and has encouraged his students to do the same. He will send them all to the editors, and hopefully the next edition will feature a more respectful account of her influence on literature. This is my letter…
Dear Editors;
I am taking a second year course in Literary Theory and Criticism at Queen`s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada. The sole text for this class is your Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. The text is a wonderful support for the class, and the selections are well chosen, and the annotations helpful and informative. For the most part, the author biographies are likewise instructive, but I must take issue with the Anthology’s biography of Virginia Woolf. I found the tone of the final paragraph to be less serious than was appropriate given Woolf’s many contributions to literature.
Accounts of other authors in the Anthology end with praise of the author or their contribution to literary theory and history, and I can find no other examples where an author is treated with such levity. Samuel Johnson’s biography ends with a quote praising “the power of his mind, the width of his interests, the largeness of his knowledge, the freshness, the fearlessness, and the strength of his judgements.” Readers are informed that “French critics and theorists have been not only attentive to, but also influenced by, the writings of Mallarmé,” placing him in a long line of French theorists. William Wordsworth’s biography ends with a list of important literary figures upon whom he had a significant influence, including Raymond Williams, Shelley (I assume the reference here is to Percy Shelley, although that isn’t specified), D. H. Lawrence, Matthew Arnold, and I. A. Richards.
Virginia Woolf’s summary begins on a positive note, observing that her “groundbreaking feminist work” has been immensely influential, and that it “opened up the entire territory of modern feminist criticism.” This high and not undeserved praise contrasts with the levity with which Woolf is treated later in the piece, making it even more jarring. The final paragraph deals specifically with her work A Room of One’s Own, observing that its title “is one of the most imitated titles ever devised.” While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, this statement does nothing to state the influence of the work itself. “Written during the trial of Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel and published during the same month as the stock market crash of 1929, A Room of One’s Own marks an upheaval more subtle, yet in some ways as profound, as these.” While interesting, these external events had no effect on the work, and have little relevance to the essay or its author. The mention of a subtle upheaval is more appropriate, but more detail of the effects of such an upheaval would be more salient. The main issue, however, is the final sentence of both the paragraph, and the entire section, which should leave a reader with a good impression of the importance of both the author and the work being discussed: “The time was right for it: the book was so successful that the proceeds enabled Virginia Woolf to add a room of her own onto her house in Sussex.” This statement is troubling for a number of reasons, the first of which is the reduction of a piece of writing to its alleged monetary value. The work is relevant today not because it was a financial success at the time, and money was not Woolf’s motivation for writing it. Home renovation is likewise irrelevant, as Woolf’s argument is in support of a metaphorical room as much as a physical one. This light-hearted statement further reduces her argument, treating it as less important than the other works in the Anthology.
I believe that every author included in a scholarly work like this one deserves to be treated with the same respect, regardless of gender. I would take issue with this level of condescension toward any important literary figure, but it seems especially inappropriate when dealing with such a significant feminist text, and when contrasted with the reverence given to earlier male theorists. The piece belittles Woolf’s influence on literature, as well as the feminist rights and theory which she was propagating in the essay.
I hope that given these concerns, you will consider adjusting Virginia Woolf’s introduction in future editions to one more appropriate for such an important work and author.
Allison O
EDIT: We kept bugging the editors, so they’ve replied saying they’ll change it, as long as we stop bothering them. They initially sent us a letter back defending their position, but we kept replying, so they’ll change Woolf’s bio in the next edition of the Anthology.

A Defence of Horror

Horror is an often dismissed genre of storytelling. Most scholars see all horror as schlocky and below the respectable dramatic genre. While I admit, there are some bad horror films out there, there are lots of bad dramas too. Have you seen Seven Pounds?

Despite its status as “low” art, horror is perpetually one of the most popular genres. In America, popularity of horror films has tended to spike in time of financial recession – just look at the Universal Horror films of the ‘30s, and the slashers in the ‘80s. We’ve seen it recently too, with the success of films like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield. While it seems like people would want happy, escapist films in times of uncertainty, evidently audiences would rather see their fears reflected in film. If the lovers can escape from the Frankenstein monster, then we can make it through financial hardship. For the same reason, horror films represent the times in which they are made better than any other genre. The eerie moods of ‘30s monster movies reflected the uncertainty many were experiencing, and their monsters were easier to identify and defeat than the stock market. In the ‘50s, horror films often overlapped with science fiction, reflecting the Cold War and fears concerning nuclear warfare. Horror’s popularity is maintained because the stories so strongly reflect their times.

Another reason for horror’s enduring popularity is its appeal to our baser emotions – the ones we don’t like to talk about. Dramas manipulate our emotions just as much, but they tend to play to our more “appropriate” feelings, like sympathy or hope. There is nothing wrong with this of course, I love a feel good as much as the next gal, but I would argue that feeling fear in empathy with fictional characters is just as important, healthy, and fun as feeling happiness. At the heart of most horror films is a basic human fear, such as fear of the unknown (are ghosts/zombies/etc real? Where is the killer hiding now?), isolation (in space/the middle of nowhere no one can hear you scream, you’re being chased and you can’t call anyone for help), or repression (now that I’m a vampire/werewolf/Mr Hyde I can’t control my carnal desires, this murderer seems obsessed with people having sex). Many horror films also manipulate more specific fears, like ghosts or sharks, and the best create them, like showers or chainsaw-wielding madmen in hockey masks.

So why would we want our fears manipulated? Don’t we try daily to mask or overcome our fears? Well, that’s like asking why we watch sad movies: it’s cathartic. For those of you who don’t remember high school English class, catharsis in this case is essentially a purging of feelings, which leaves you feeling lighter. After having a good cry over a favourite character’s death, we may feel some lingering sadness, but we can come back to the real world and feel somewhat lighter emotionally. Horror works on the same principle, only with fear. Being frightened gets your adrenaline rushing, your heart pumping, and puts the hairs on the back of your neck on end. This is called “horripilation,” and it is just as cathartic as that cry. A good “poppy-outty scare,” as my housemates call it (or startle scares, as we called them when I worked at a horror themed amusement park attraction, which I will get to later) will cause a burst of adrenaline, which is often very effective. I however prefer an “atmosphere” scare, which builds tension through events or mood. My favourite example, and one that never ceases to terrify me, is in The Silence of the Lambs. I’ll try not to spoil too much, but you may want to skip ahead if you’ve never seen the movie. The infamous night-vision goggle scene makes me poo my pants in fear every time I see it. This is a good example of fear of the unknown: the dark is the ultimate symbol of the unknown, and you can see the pure terror on Clarice’s face while she tries to navigate the pitch black and unfamiliar basement. The audience is unsure at this point who is about to die, but you know it has to be one of them – and the tension elicits an intensely visceral response from me.

This visceral reaction is one of the reasons that so many horror films involve sexual repression or perversion. Fear and lust are probably the most carnal and physical responses a person can experience – being overcome with happiness isn’t quite the same as being overcome with terror. This is also why horror is one of the most heavily censored genres – it loves social taboos. Now, I am not criticizing this in all cases, only in films which seem to believe that shock is the same thing as horror. Stephen King, a favourite author of mine, said in Danse Macabre that he aims to terrorize readers, and that terror is the “finest emotion.” That all-encompassing, overwhelming fear is the goal of horror writer, and he has succeeded a few times, most notably in Pet Sematary – for me anyway. If he can’t do that, he’ll try to horrify us, which is closer to shock, but we’re still afraid for the character, or at the atrocity that something like that could happen. There is an element of a trainwreck here, where we can’t look away, because we’re getting a glimpse of chaos, which is exciting amidst our otherwise ordered lives. Finally, if neither horror nor terror can be achieved, King will “go for the gross-out,” for which he “is not proud.” I’m a big fan of older horror films, because they don’t show you everything, and try to scare you by building a mood and the graphic stuff often happens offscreen. These days, too many films think we’ll be scared because a character is sawing his own feet off or something. Gore, when used properly, can be very effective (see An American Werewolf in London for some marvellously handled gore), but on its own is not scary. Come on, I can see people’s insides on CSI or a medical drama; if you want to scare me, you’ll have to be more creative than that.

The best horror films are the ones that stick with you, and leave you mistrusting the darkness when you try to sleep. Some do it by making you wonder what sort of monsters could be lurking in the shadows; others, by exploring what my favourite high school teacher referred to as social taboos. Most of the most controversial horror films are so because of sexual content, although vivid torture is up there these days, and offense to religion/God was popular in days of yore. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (one of my absolute favourites) was one of the first American horror films to deal explicitly with sexual repression, and while Frederic March won an Oscar for the dual lead role, Miriam Hopkins’ role (as a woman of questionable morals) was so cut down that she didn’t have enough screen time to qualify for a Supporting Actress nod. Hitchcock’s Psycho is a great example of sexual perversion in horror cinema, but an even better (and more controversial) example is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which came out a month before Psycho and caused a much bigger stir. The main character is fascinated with fear, and films himself murdering women. He takes it a step further, placing a mirror on the top of his camera, so he can capture his victims’ terrified expressions as they watch themselves die. He watches the films later, clearly deriving some kind of sexual pleasure from it. The subject matter is disturbing on its own, made even worse by the voyeurism it turns on the viewer. Like following Norman Bates peeking through the hole in his office wall, watching a character watch himself commit murder puts the audience on the spot, as our act of watching is not too far removed from these “psychos.” We love to follow lurid and sensationalized murder stories on television; shows like CSI thrive on that, but don’t provide the opportunity for intelligent discussion the way that horror films do. We can analyze what scares us and how our fears reflect our values – and sometimes expose some “ordinary” behaviours which are maybe somewhat disturbing.

At this point, some of you may be backing away slowly, and making mental notes to avoid me from now on. Why, you are wondering, am I so excited by fear and perversion? Well, if everything thus far hasn’t been enough to convince you that enjoying horror is valid, I guess I can say that I also enjoy it because my love for horror developed in a time where a lot changed in my life, and I gained a lot of self-confidence. Until I was around 13 or 14, I was ridiculously over sensitive. I had different tastes than most people in my school, and as such, was teased. Nothing too harsh I’m sure, but I always felt that I needed to defend my love of musicals and dislike of soccer and other popular things. One of these popular things was watching horror movies at slumber parties. Do you remember attending these events, where there’d always be that one kid who always got terrified? Well, I was that kid. Once, my friends were watching Thirteen Ghosts (which in retrospect was a really stupid movie) and kept trying to force me to watch the really scary parts for laughs. I had to sleep with my parents for like two weeks. Anyway, a year later, I was hanging out with a different group of girls, and I requested that we not watch any too scary movies (I believe that The Ring was on the table), and we ended up watching a movie I was really into at the time, The Mothman Prophecies. Despite how easily frightened I was, I had this fascination for anything supernatural, and that one was reportedly based on true stories, so I watched it over and over through my fingers. But since I had already seen it, I ended up being the one who lightens the mood, making jokes and keeping the lights on. I ended up keeping that role for every (now forgotten) horror movie I watched with those girls. The next year, I watched The Shining at Halloween with a new group of friends, and I absolutely loved it. This time, we were all too engrossed in the movie for anyone to be joking, but no one seemed unreasonably afraid or upset either. It took me until I was 14, but I realized something – being scared can be fun. There’s a certain thrill that comes along with the fear and adrenaline, and I liked it. I read the novel of The Shining, fell in love with Stephen King, and a horror buff was born.

I now watch horror movies whenever I can; I’ve read books on them, and while I probably know more than your average cinema-goer, I don’t pretend to be a huge expert. There are still so many I haven’t seen – my list of must-sees never seems to shrink. When I was 16, I worked at a Halloween attraction at a theme park, where I basically put on a silly rubber mask and tried to scare people all night. That experience further enforced my earlier realization that fear is fun. There were consistently people trying to show their friends how unafraid they were, usually by making fun of the employees, and I always wondered why they would bother paying to come. The same goes for the horror movies – unless you’re a kid at a sleepover trying to help your friend sleep, why bother sitting through a movie refusing to let it affect you? People like being scared, that’s the biggest reason that horror is so popular – if you don’t want to be scared, avoid the genre. If you want that thrill where your heart leaps into your throat, shivers creep up your spine, and you find yourself wondering if that really was your reflection in the window, then relish it, and surrender to your fear for a while.

But maybe you should make sure that your night-light works first.

Long, Academic Post: The Effect of Context on Our Interpretations of Literature and Film

I read this article yesterday over at IFC, and it got me thinking. The article is about context when we’re watching a film, and how it affects – and whether it should affect – our viewing of the film. I’ve had many similar discussions, but with me it’s usually about books rather than movies, and movies are pretty solidly covered in the article, so my main focus will be on books.
Context of a work’s production can mean many things, but I think the most prominent way context is noticed by most people is knowledge of a director’s or actor’s or author’s personal life when we see a film or read a book. The first movie that comes to mind for me is Mr and Mrs Smith, that action movie on the set of which Brangelina was born. Now, that movie probably would have been a nice little summer blockbuster on its own, but there was buzz about it for months afterward because of the blossoming relationship between its stars. Would it have lasted for as long without the break-up/hook-up drama?
My favourite literary example is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It’s a story about a young man whose portrait is painted just before he descends into a life of debauchery. He finds that as time goes on, this portrait becomes older and uglier, while he remains unchanged. If you’ve never read it, take a look at this passage (one of many in a similar vein).  This is Basil, an artist, talking about the title character’s effect on his art:
“…The merely visible presence of this lad–for he seems to me little more than a lad, though he is really over twenty–his merely visible presence–ah!  I wonder can you realize all that that means?  Unconsciously he defines for me the lines of a fresh school, a school that is to have in it all the passion of the romantic spirit, all the perfection of the spirit that is Greek. The harmony of soul and body–how much that is!  We in our madness have separated the two, and have invented a realism that is vulgar, an ideality that is void. Harry! if you only knew what Dorian Gray is to me!  You remember that landscape of mine, for which Agnew offered me such a huge price but which I would not part with?  It is one of the best things I have ever done.  And why is it so?  Because, while I was painting it, Dorian Gray sat beside me. Some subtle influence passed from him to me, and for the first time in my life I saw in the plain woodland the wonder I had always looked for and always missed.”
As you may know, Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for homosexuality. Knowing that, you can admit that the passage seems really gay, doesn’t it? Now you can argue that I took this bit out of context, but let me assure you that Basil and the Harry he addresses in his speech spend most of their time together discussing Dorian’s exquisite beauty and personality. So what can be read as an effective gothic horror story about the effects of guilt on the soul is seen as too this gay love letter, once we know about Wilde’s personal life – and it seems that Wilde may have put even more of himself into the characters than he admits in the preface. I have read quite a bit of Wilde’s work (mostly his plays), and I thoroughly enjoy it, but it was very difficult for me to read the novel and imagine speeches like that being given by a straight man to a straight man about a straight man. I wouldn’t say that it detracted from my enjoyment of it, but I don’t think I enjoyed the entire novel in the way that the author intended.
Authorial intent and authority is another question in terms of context. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is celebrated as a landmark novel condemning censorship. However, Bradbury has said that he meant it to condemn technology, and society’s growing reliance on it. I’ve read some Bradbury in my time, and looking at all of his work, I would believe his interpretation of his own novel. Many of his stories are set in dystopian futures where technology has somehow come back to bite us in the ass. 451 could definitely be taken as a novel set in a future where our reliance on technology has made us stupid (which is what Bradbury seems to believe is happening), and we thus condemn the knowledge we no longer want/have that is found in books – so we burn them. Makes sense. However, should Bradbury’s original intentions prevent us from reading it in a new way? If we can take from it new messages about oppressive censorship, should we stop and say “well, no, that’s not what he meant”?
The era in which a work was published also affects its style and content, so should we consider this when we critique it? I was having an argument the other day about James Joyce, who was prominent in the modernist era of literature. I have not studied modernism much, but I would like to read Joyce once I have, since I feel like the style would be very difficult if I don’t understand how it works, its conventions and rules, and its motivations. A friend argued that a work should stand on its own, and that one shouldn’t have to know about the period or the style to enjoy and understand a work like Finnegan’s Wake, and he hated it. Similarly, I am in the middle of reading King Solomon’s Mines, and I can’t help but laugh at how racist and sexist it can be. It is an enjoyable story, but scarcely a page goes by without a comment about the uncivilized natives, or how hunting is such a man’s job and things like that. So I wonder: should I apologize for these things because of the time in which the story was written? Is it okay for me to justify racist remarks with “oh, it was like that then, but it isn’t anymore” when racism is still very present – look at many of Obama’s critics, calling him Muslim (as though that were derogatory) for starters. It can be difficult to interact with characters with a different value system than one’s own, especially when their values are not laid out for you. I ran into similar problems with HBO’s Rome while I was watching it with my mom. I’ve studied a bit of Roman history, and I enjoyed seeing little historically accurate touches dropped in, but I found myself having sometimes to explain characters’ actions and motivations to my mother, who hasn’t studied Classics, and was trying to interpret the characters using her own value system.
In the end, I come to the same conclusion as Matt Singer, the author of the above article: Context can be a sticky thing. Important in some cases, a nuisance in others. Its implications can be crucial. Or they can be monstrous.” I think that a good work should usually be able to stand on its own; that is, one can enjoy it without any former knowledge of its history or author. However, having that knowledge can often enrich our appreciation for the work. Being aware of Wilde’s personal life, Bradbury’s stated intentions, or Joyce’s school of writing broadens our view of their works, and may make them more interesting when we can interpret them in more than one way. North American culture is obsessed with celebrity, so it is nearly impossible to see a movie featuring prominent figures without having some prior knowledge of their personal lives – even classic novels often start with a short biography of the author, so we regard that as important information for a reader to have. Thus, we will have this information when we approach a piece, and we can let it affect our understanding of the work – but still realize that such an interpretation is only one way of looking at it. When a literary work is a product of its time – based on its style or its content – I think it is important to discuss and acknowledge the ramifications when interacting with the work.  In the case of the literary period, I think it is good to have some foreknowledge, since having that as background will, if nothing else, give you a vocabulary with which to describe and understand the text. It will also make something that seems difficult to read (like stream of consciousness) easier to take in and interpret. In the case of a work promoting viewpoints which are different than those of the society of the reader, it is important to have the discussion, and not to allow views which are accepted as wrong to be the elephant in the room. King Solomon’s Mines has much to offer – it is a fun adventure story, and I believe that we should acknowledge that some of the comments made are not acceptable, but that the story overall is a good one. We can still enjoy it, but we should have discussions about such problems.
In closing, our unique experiences and interests result in infinite different sets of knowledge, so to speak. Each person approaches a work with different education, as well as different views and opinions on the people involved in its creation, the subject matter of the piece, the timing given world events/whatever else is playing at the time (when The Illusionist and The Prestige were released close together, everyone compared the two magician movies) and a multitude of other factors. Even your personal life – what was going on in your life when you read a book, how you were feeling when you saw a movie, how old you were when you did either – has a huge effect on how you interact with a film or a book.  This is why literary and film analysis and discussion are so important – every single person who interacts with a given work will see it a little bit differently, and what’s the point of reading or watching at all if you’ll only see it from one narrow point of view?