They’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock

The other night the classic 1953 film version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was on; I’ve seen it many times, as it’s one of my mom’s favorite musicals.  When the movie came out in Spain, she and her friends obtained a recording of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the soundtrack, and would loudly sing along to it in their schoolgirl English.  This apparently horrified my grandmother, who had a better grasp of the subtleties of English, and therefore of what the gold-digging Lorelei Lee – played by Marilyn Monroe in the film – was singing about.

I mentioned to an elderly neighbor that I had caught the movie on TV, and he recalled being a graduate student in Paris in the 1950′s, and seeing it premiere at a cinema on the Champs-Elysees.  As he recalled, back then Europe was still in poverty and recovering from World War II, even though over here in America, we were filling our homes with the products of the first wave of middle-class consumerism.  So people flocked to see upbeat, colorful American movie musicals like this one, because their own lives were often so harsh, unhappy, and colorless.

It’s funny that back then, people like my grandmother looked at this film and found it scandalous.  True, it’s about two women performing a musical more suited to a so-called “gentleman’s club” than the Broadway stage.  Yet when you watch the movie now, in light of what we see not only on the big screen but the small screen on a regular basis these days, you realize how far we’ve fallen as a culture since that time.

The racy jokes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” are definitely still racy, but they’re not insulting.  The women are clearly objectified by the men, from their suitors, to the policemen in the courtroom, to the entire U.S. Olympic Team, but at the same time, the women are in complete control of the situation.  They insist on being treated with respect.  They like to look beautiful, go dancing, drink cocktails, and have beautiful things.  They work hard at what they do, and they’re pretty happy with who they are.

For the generation that enjoys soul-sickening programs like “Girls” and other such societal take-downs of women disguised as entertainment, I imagine it’s difficult to”get” movies like this.  Not to mention the fact that I’m sure Lena Dunham would recoil in horror at learning that the film’s other star, Jane Russell, became an outspoken pro-life activist, one of the few in Hollywood.  Yet if you strip away all the cheap basement rumpus room plywood veneer that’s been foisted on us over the past 40 years about what men and women are supposed to be like, you can just enjoy being in the presence of two beautiful women who enjoy having a good time, coming close to the line but never crossing over it.  They’re just two little girls from Little Rock, after all.

Marilyn Monroe ad Jane Russell in a scene from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in a scene from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)







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Picking at the Scabs of Self-Hatred

Probably many of my readers have seen the classic 1943 film, “The Song of Bernadette”, but if you have not, I would like to recommend it to you – even if you are not Catholic.  The older I get, the more I “get” the film, and the more its meaning changes for me.  Oftentimes viewers are so caught up in the miraculous visions, or the pressures put on Bernadette to recant what she reported to have seen, that they forget Bernadette had a different life once the visions ended, and she left Lourdes forever.  And it is there, I think, that what might otherwise have been just a pious, respectable film takes on a bit of greatness, when it comes to examining the human condition.

The character of Sister Vauzous – played by the great English actress Gladys Cooper, who received a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars for her performance  - is something of a parallel to the older brother of the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable.  Like him, Sister Vauzous does not go out to seek fame and fortune, nor does she want to live in depravity, sexual hedonism, and dissipation.  In fact she does everything she is told to do and more, with copious amounts of fasting, prayer, lack of sleep, and so on.

However she has done none of this for the right reasons. One gets the distinct impression that she has spent all these years living in a form of perpetual penance not out of love for God, but rather out of self-hate.  And self-hatred is a very dangerous road to travel.

As the character tells us in the scene where she finally confronts Bernadette, informing her about how much she has suffered compared to the peasant girl, she expresses what is obviously a deep-seated sense of jealousy, yes, but also of self-hatred.  This little nobody from Lourdes, whom she knew years before, gets the opportunity to see the Mother of Jesus, while she herself is denied any such gift.  That seems to Sister Vauzous fundamentally unfair.

Of course the real person Sister Vauzous is upset with is not Bernadette, but God. Why, she asks herself, do you bless that one and not me, with such consolations?  The root of that anger is self-hatred: we are unhappy because X has something we wish we had, which seems better than what we have.  Sister Vauzous is so unhappy with her own life, that she has rather childishly deluded herself into believing that she is ascetic penitent, when in truth she is a self-righteous Pharisee.

So often reviewers of this film focus on the character’s doubt and skepticism of Bernadette’s story as the wellspring of her harshness, but truthfully it is Sister Vauzous’ hatred of herself that is the real issue.  She has run away to the convent not to serve God, but to add to her own sorrows, and pick at them like scabs until they bleed, over and over again.  She is a figure of morbid self-pity, who cannot see beyond her own unhappiness to do anything out of love for anyone else.

In the Gospel parable, the father tells the older brother of the Prodigal Son that he must come rejoice that his brother has come alive again and returned to them, but Jesus does not tell us what happened next; He leaves it to our imagination to decide whether the older brother did change in his heart or not.  In “The Song of Bernadette” however, we actually see the complete redemption of Sister Vauzous.  Not only does she seek forgiveness after Bernadette reveals how horribly she has been quietly suffering for years, but she herself changes: she becomes Bernadette’s greatest friend in the convent.  So much so, that she literally carries Bernadette around when the girl becomes so ill that she can no longer walk.

I suspect that many of my Christian readers would like to think that they are more like Bernadette than Sister Vauzous.  The truth is that we can very easily fall into the same traps as the latter.  We can be so rigid with our formulae on how we are supposed to live our Christian lives, that we forget the whole point is to act in imitation of Christ.  And one of the common complaints about Jesus from His contemporaries was that He went about chatting and dining with people whom the supposedly religiously upright of his day categorically saw as sinners, instead of basking in the glow of the religious authorities’ high opinions of themselves.  What they did not understand, and I suspect oftentimes we all forget this as well, myself included, is that it is not only possible, but necessary, to try one’s best to follow and witness to God’s law, without simultaneously causing others to completely lose heart in the process.

Today being the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when Catholics recall the first apparition to St. Bernadette at Lourdes on February 11, 1858, if you have seen “The Song of Bernadette” before, go back and watch it again, in light of this reflection.  If you have not, then find it online and take a look at it.  And have the honesty to ask yourself, which of these two nuns am I more like, right now?  The answer may surprise you, but the real benefit will be what you do with that realization.

Sister Vazou (Gladys Cooper) reacts in "The Song of Bernadette" (1943)

Sister Vazou (Gladys Cooper) reacts in “The Song of Bernadette” (1943)

Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

When you’re right, you’re right.

Regular readers of these pages will know that a few weeks ago, I posted a piece titled, “In Defense of Peter Jackson”, in which I shared some common-sense perspective on the director’s films based on the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien.  That piece was subsequently selected by WordPress for their “Freshly Pressed” feature, and received many favorable comments, for which I am grateful.  Last night I finally managed to see “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey”, and I was not disappointed in the slightest. For “An Unexpected Journey” is wonderful: full of life, fun, adventure, and something very important which not a single review I read mentioned, and that is love.

There are a number of threads woven together into why I found this not only an enjoyable film, but a successful one that actually improves the more that you think about it.  First of all, let it be said that no, this is not “The Lord of the Rings” re-booted.  It is a different story altogether.  The company of travelers in “The Hobbit” are going on an adventure, for different reasons – treasure, revenge, the thrill of it, etc. – even if there are some larger themes that are explored.  They are not out to save the world, as are the Fellowship in “The Lord of the Rings”, and because of that we need to adjust our expectations accordingly.

Jackson takes us right back to Middle Earth, and it looks just as lovely as it did the last time we were there, if not more so.  For technology has continued to advance since the first “Lord of the Rings” film came out ten years ago – hard to believe! – and a number of things are even better now, from a technical perspective.  Jackson creates a whole word, but whereas in the first trilogy some of the string-pulling, as my filmmaker brother put it last night, was more obvious, in this film it is virtually seamless.  The mountains  open up into gigantic vistas in one scene for example, rather than being dependent solely upon what can be seen from a helicopter camera.  The light of the moon mixed with fire in a fight sequence feels real, rather than the product of special effects.  And the things which were beautiful to look at in the first trilogy – Bilbo’s comfy house, the Gaudi-style pavilions at Rivendell, etc. – are all there to be enjoyed in even more detail.

Those not looking for gee-whiz technology or action, will find the acting here uniformly excellent.  Martin Freeman is a far more likeable Bilbo than I was anticipating, and you warm to him very quickly; he is someone whom you actually look forward to going on this adventure with, and he carries the heart of the film absolutely beautifully.  The wise and the great are back and in proper form, from the engaging Ian McKellan and Ian Holm, to the radiant Cate Blanchett,  the cerebral Hugo Weaving, and the majestically malevolent Christopher Lee.  And Andy Serkis outdoes himself in interpreting Gollum, if one can even imagine that, reminding us that Gollum was a frightening, cannibalistic, and murderous thing, especially when he had the twisted self-confidence of his Precious to support him.

For me, the revelation here is Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the company of travelers heading to the Lonely Mountain.  I must confess, I have been a huge fan of Armitage since his days on “Spooks” (called “MI-5″ in the U.S.), and he was probably the only good thing about the insipid, juvenile, and Occupy-esque “Robin Hood” series, which I have written about previously.  However as I have only seen him on television, when I learnt that he would have this major part I was slightly doubtful as to whether he would be able to carry off such an important and prominent role in the story.

I need not have worried, for Armitage is superb.  He embodies leadership and physical prowess, certainly, but also carries a sense of personal dignity mixed with a willingness to engage in self-sacrifice for his people, even if it means his own personal humiliation.  There is also a kind of sorrow fired by a desire for revenge, against those who destroyed his family and his world, which is going to be interesting to see develop over the next two films.  At one point in a fight sequence, faced with impossible odds and no chance of escape, he decides to turn round and go attack his enemy head-on, to buy the others time even if it means his own death.  One of the dwarves comments [forgive my paraphrasing], “Here is the one whom we can follow to the end,” but by that point in the film the viewer has already made that decision as well.

As to complaints about the schoolboy humor of the dwarves, or the length of the film, or the references to the other films and other books, or the like, I will leave that to those with small hearts and large opinions of themselves to squabble over.  For what I came away with after seeing this film was first and foremost that I had an absolutely terrific time: I was ENTERTAINED.

Remember when movies used to entertain us, rather than serve as nothing more than expensive pornography or soulless, giant-screen versions of video games as they do now?  Those days are practically gone   Yet here, we have an exception.

Like his previous films, Jackson’s “An Unexpected Journey” has something very special about it, which clearly represents the love that he has for the material itself, the people he is working with, and those of us who will see it.  To walk out of the theatre these days being thoroughly entertained, having had the chance to laugh, be scared, think about things like decency and goodness, and even shed a tear or two, is no small thing for a director to be able to achieve.  The ability to play all of these different notes in a harmonious composition is something that is sorely lacking in the bulk of modern mainstream cinema.

And that sense that I had a really good time watching this adventure unfold, which is still with me even as I type this, naturally leads me to a sense of gratitude for its director.  For Jackson did what I said he was going to do, in my earlier blog post.  He took the talent and resources given to him at this particular point in time, and used it to make something for us to enjoy. And I am very grateful that he did.


Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman in a scene from “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey”