Saturday, August 6, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Amazing Spider-Man: The Death of Gwen Stacy'

The Book: The Amazing Spider-Man: The Death of Gwen Stacy

The Author: Gerry Conway (and a whole team of writers and artists)

How I Found It: I'd heard for years about this immortal story arc--the death of Spider-Man's first true love--and finally decided to go for broke and read it once it became apparent that Gwen will be Peter's love interest in the impending franchise reboot. As ever, big ups to my local library.

The Review: I was perhaps not the ideal reader for this volume. I have little experience with the Spider-Man comics, if any; my only knowledge has been gleaned from the films, Wikipedia article-skimming, and a novelization of, I'm given to understand, the Peter/Mary Jane plotline in the Ultimate comics. (Mary Jane by Judith O'Brien, for anyone wondering--it actually remains a favorite novel of mine to this day, because it so accurately reflected high school life, and because it made me an eternal lover of Peter/Mary Jane.) Since I've been a devout Peter/Mary Jane shipper since childhood--they're one of the first fictional couples I remember really loving, before even Roswell's Max and Liz or The X-Files' Mulder and Scully--I just wasn't expecting to get so wrapped up in the death of Peter's first love. After all, he moved on and found happiness eventually with Mary Jane, so I knew it would be okay. That would negate the emotional impact, I thought.

Except that it really didn't. Even knowing next to nothing about Peter and Gwen's history together, next to nothing about the storyline in the comics up until then, I was still emotionally devastated by the story and surprised by how effective it was even years later. I can see now why this is such a landmark story, not only for Spider-Man but for comics in general. It's truly a feat.

At first, I admit, I got a good laugh at the artwork. One of my favorite Doctor Who episodes has a moment where the Doctor's former companion reveals K9, the old robot dog that used to assist her and the Doctor in the classic series, now worn out and broken. Rose, the current companion, looks at the very out-of-date robot and says, "Why does he look so... disco?" That was pretty much my reaction. When Peter's walking around wearing gold chains and painfully Technicolor suits, and Harry looks closer to thirty than college age... yeah. Stack that on top of Peter's habit of exclaiming that old-school expression of annoyance, "Nuts!", and calling Gwen "Gwendy" and I was... well, there was a lot of cheese apparent in some parts of the story. As a modern reader, it was a little hard to get past some of the more dated aspects.

That said, though, the plot itself still felt relevant. From what I understand, from context and Wikipedia readings, Peter begins the story broken up from Gwen, who has fled to Europe after the death of her police captain father. He was killed trying to save a child from a falling building cornice, and Gwen blamed Spider-Man. Her grief pushed her and Peter apart and led to her going overseas, and now Peter is left alone in New York with his best friend and roommate, Harry Osborn.

Peter's day is about to get pretty eventful. His Aunt May, at least, seems to be recovering well from the death of his Uncle Ben, going out on the town with Anna Watson. On his walk through the City, Peter, as Spider-Man, follows speeding cop cars to the site of a building where a man, stoned on LSD, is about to jump off. Spider-Man saves the jumper, but drugs are about to hit much closer to home. Harry, seething with jealousy over the way Mary Jane's been flirting with Peter (ostensibly to make Harry jealous), decides that LSD and pill-popping would be a great solution to his problems, a way to forget about Mary Jane.

Though Peter worries about his friend's seeming pill addiction, he's got bigger problems. Harry's father, Norman, is the Green Goblin--unknowingly. When he's Norman, his memories of being the Goblin are safely buried, but could be triggered at any time of undue stress... which would lead to him remembering that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, something Peter can't risk. Unfortunately, over the course of the next few months, Norman is about to remember, and when he does, the Goblin will rob Peter of the love of his life... and maybe even Peter's own principles.

To start with, I'd read a bit about the anti-drugs angle in this story, but I was surprised at just how strongly it was present. I will give the writers credit for knowing that they were in a position to reach many, many kids, and that they probably did so admirably. In 1973, drugs were still as big an issue as they are today, apparently. Yes, it gets a bit soapbox-y, but Spider-Man saving the jumper was admirable, and seeing Harry's spiral into schizophrenia as the result of his taking LSD was heartbreaking.

Reading this, never having had much experience with "old school" comics, I was surprised at how knowing the creators were, occasionally throwing in little metafictional notes (reminders to the reader about certain things from issues past, for one thing). I got a giggle out of the third issue, where Peter and Gwen separately philosophize about missing the other, and when we finally get back to the action, the panel notes, "And now that the longest soliloquies since Hamlet have come to an end..." It was fun to see the writers really knowing their audience, probably thinking that the young (predominantly male, I'd assume) audience reading the comics just wouldn't care about Peter Parker's romantic life. I haven't read many comics at all today, so I don't know if those little nods still exist. Somehow I get the feeling they don't, that these are charming remnants of a bygone era. For one thing, the cutesy, knowing tone is at an end by the time Peter arrives in his apartment to find Gwen's purse and a weapon of the Green Goblin's.

What a confrontation it is. What a death scene. What aftermath. I knew the outcome, of course I did, but I was holding my breath as soon as Peter swung up to the bridge to see the Goblin with an unconscious Gwen. There's so much at play here that it stunned me, and the pages immediately following Gwen's death left me sobbing.

"I saved you, honey. Don't you see?... I saved you." These are Peter's denial-ridden words when he realizes his beloved has died... and sadly, that it might have been his fault. No one will ever confirm or deny, it seems, as it's been debated in the decades since the storyline wrapped, but it might have been Peter's heroic actions that caused Gwen's death. He caught her by the ankle with his webbing, and the telltale SNAP! effect by her head seems to indicate that whiplash killed her, although the Goblin says a fall from that height would have killed anyone.

Was Peter at fault, for more reasons than one: because the Goblin knowing his real identity put Gwen in danger for associating with him, because his catching her might have killed her after all? Was he at as much fault as the Goblin? That's the question that seems to drive his downward spiral. The fifth issue chronicles Spider-Man's vengeful pursuit of the Goblin, and it's just breathtaking. That's the only way I can describe it. Even not knowing much of Spider-Man outside of these few issues, I could see just how much he'd been driven off the deep end by Gwen's death.

"'No?' Do I hear you begging, Goblin? Don't make me sick, friend--why should I show you any mercy? What mercy did you show Gwen? Answer me that, Green Goblin--ANSWER ME THAT!"

Those are Peter's words as he attacks the Goblin, tormented with grief. It's the same standard thing you see in nearly any TV show or movie that features this sort of a confrontation after the hero's loved one has died at the hands of the villain, but what astonished me is that all of the emotion is conveyed through words, not even so much the artwork. We don't see much of Peter with his mask off after the death happens. He's in the suit nearly all the time, leaving us blind to his facial expressions. A medium which can use art to show emotion chose not to, instead leaving nearly all the weight on Peter's anguished words--that was incredibly brave, and perhaps made it even more moving to me, someone who's touched by words more than anything.

After the confrontation is finished and Peter's still standing, the groundwork is seemingly laid for the future. Mary Jane is profoundly affected by the death of her good friend, and stays to comfort Peter. I think it was a wise choice to include a small snippet, after the close of the final issue, of a recently-penned Peter/Gwen story. A glimpse into one of the last nights Peter and Gwen would ever share, it's a moving meditation on regret and remembrance after loss.

"How many moments in our lives go by like that? 'We'll do it tomorrow,' we say. 'No, I don't feel like it... you go without me.' 'Maybe some other time.' But those tomorrows we take for granted... don't always come."

I don't think that many comics can claim to have made their readers think so much, to feel so deeply, as this one did. With a still-timely anti-drug message, a moral struggle for the ages, and a landmark death in the history of comics, this volume, scarcely over 100 pages, still packs a powerful punch over thirty years later. I've emerged from this reading experience with a better appreciation of the Spider-Man mythos as well as the history of comics, and for that I'm grateful. For any Spider-Man lovers or even doubters, for anyone who wants a glimpse into comic book history, see if you can find this one--if you can, it's well worth a read. Peter loves and misses you, Gwen. I think I will, too.

In Which Trai Reviews 'The House of Mirth'

The Book: The House of Mirth

The Author: Edith Wharton

How I Found It: Some time ago, I was flipping channels when I noticed the film adaptation of the novel starred Gillian Anderson and Eric Stoltz, who I loved in The X-Files and Little Women, respectively. I picked up a copy of the book the next time I was in a bookstore, and finally decided to take the jump and read it this summer.

The Review: Oh, this book. It made me think. It made me wonder. It made me feel.

As ever, I was reading as my mother and I were driving one day, and my mom, having never read the book, asked me how it was, what I thought. I had just finished the first chapter and hadn't had much time to formulate my thoughts, but I told her it made me feel lucky. It made me feel glad. We no longer live in a society where reputation is quite so important. Gossip might taint a person's reputation, but it's not quite so damaging as it was back in Wharton's time. A woman has the ability to work and choose a husband for herself, rather than going by social convention.

Lily Bart, our heroine, does not possess these freedoms. Published in 1905, it is the first of Wharton's novels to feature Old New York, and the portrait of New York society was enough to evoke the feelings I mentioned above. Lily is nearly 30, beautiful but unmarried. Each time she has gotten close to an engagement, she has either shied away or done something that necessitates the breaking off of the relationship, and this is leading to complications. Lily is part of a social circle where women and men wear fine clothes, gamble, and flirt outrageously, even if they're married. Living with her stern Aunt Julia, Lily is in desperate need of money to support these habits, and marriage is looking like her only way out of debt.

It's a shame that her marriage prospects are so confused. There's Percy Gryce, a stuffy bore who collects Americana. There's the vulgar Rosedale, a Jewish man looking for entry into high society (more on Wharton's portrayal of him later). And above everyone is Lawrence Selden, an old acquaintance of Lily's. A chance meeting at a train station renews their friendship, and throughout the novel, Lily and Selden are repeatedly drawn together only to be pulled apart, whether by their own feelings or by the scandals that surround them.

For no matter where she goes, scandal seems to follow Lily. She is getting a bit too old to be on the marriage market still, for one thing. For another, she is beautiful. For a third, she's naive enough to not realize the danger in inadvertently ending up alone with other women's husbands. Circumstances, both personal and financial, continue to worsen, and no matter how hard Lily fights, she might end up being her own downfall.

I love Edith Wharton. I think I came to this conclusion after the third chapter. The things I love about writing, whether it's a novel or film/television, are characterization and dialogue. The plot and descriptions can be nonexistent for me as long as there's introspection, as long as there's believable interactions between the characters. This book fortunately had a plot and descriptions as well as dialogue and characterization, and it was just a truly affecting experience for me.

Lily, for one thing, was so easy to relate to that it stunned me. As a college student with little money (although, unlike her, I have the means to earn it), I felt for her. This passage is the one that struck me, the one that converted me to a Wharton lover:
But of course she had lost—she who needed every penny, while Bertha Dorset, whose husband showered money on her, must have pocketed at least five hundred, and Judy Trenor, who could have afforded to lose a thousand a night, had left the table clutching such a heap of bills that she had been unable to shake hands with her guests when they bade her good night.

A world in which such things could be seemed a miserable place to Lily Bart; but then she had never been able to understand the laws of a universe which was so ready to leave her out of its calculations.

She began to undress without ringing for her maid, whom she had sent to bed. She had been long enough in bondage to other people's pleasure to be considerate of those who depended on hers, and in her bitter moods it sometimes struck her that she and her maid were in the same position, except that the latter received her wages more regularly.
Who among us hasn't felt that sense of bad luck, of the universe being utterly against us (especially, I should say, in today's job market)? That last line, about she and her maid, of two different social classes entirely, being in the exact same financial position, had me thinking for days. It was how absorbed I became in Lily's struggles, how much I felt for her, that really made me love the book at first.

Then--oh, and then. Lily and Selden are now one of my favorite relationships in all of literature. I practically held my breath during every encounter of theirs, waiting to see what would happen next, who would speak, what they would say to each other. Their relationship was beautifully drawn. Selden might criticize Lily and her set, but he does it to try and better her, to make her realize the painful truths of her society. Lily, for her part, does the same. When he criticizes the people she chooses to associate with, she rightly points out that he moves in the same circles himself, spends a lot of time in the element he so loves to criticize. Every encounter they have is emotionally charged and, surprisingly, romantic, such as this one:

But suddenly she turned on him with a kind of vehemence. "Why do you do this to me?" she cried. "Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me, if you have nothing to give me instead?"

The words roused Selden from the musing fit into which he had fallen. He himself did not know why he had led their talk along such lines; it was the last use he would have imagined himself making of an afternoon's solitude with Miss Bart. But it was one of those moments when neither seemed to speak deliberately, when an indwelling voice in each called to the other across unsounded depths of feeling.

"No, I have nothing to give you instead," he said, sitting up and turning so that he faced her. "If I had, it should be yours, you know." (63)

Lily's complicated relationships with the men in her life, and how those relationships influence her interactions in society, were built up slowly, satisfyingly. Admittedly, the portrayal of Rosedale is problematic these days (as with many classics, the anti-Semitism is a product of the times, but no less cringeworthy because of that). But even if he is painted slightly as the villain, Rosedale does genuinely care for Lily. So does Selden. So do, arguably, the married men Lily inadvertently finds herself with.

The thing I loved the most about the characters was that they all seemed believable. All of them were people I could imagine still existing today. Lily's financial struggles were all too easy to relate to. Rosedale, the social climber, surely has modern day compatriots. And most easy to imagine of all is Bertha Dorset, the master manipulator, both of her husband and of the society gossip mill. Bertha was villainous in the worst way: she made herself, even with all her indiscretions, look innocent while she crucified others around her. Actually, as I read the book, it struck me how easily the story could have been modernized and placed in, say, a high school. There were certain things that reminded me of, say, Josh Schwartz's series The OC and Gossip Girl. Given the glamorous settings and rich teens in both series (and the nods to The Age of Innocence in an episode of Gossip Girl), I had to wonder if Schwartz is a Wharton fan. It wouldn't surprise me.

The plot, I'd say, isn't so much a plot as it is an examination of Lily's society and its social obligations, all of which involve her in some way. I agree with the assessment that the New York Times gave on the novel's original publication: "... the discriminating reader who has completed the whole story in a protracted sitting or two must rise from it with the conviction that there are no parts of it which do not properly and essentially belong to the whole." Thinking back on the plot myself, I can't think of a single episode which could have been spared, and I enjoyed every part of it.

Having seen the film adaptation, I was left with the same feelings that I had as I came out of the recent Jane Eyre--it was a good enough adaptation, but certain things I loved about both novels will just never come across on screen. For Jane Eyre, it's the sheer joy of reading "Reader, I married him." for the first time. For The House of Mirth, it's those vivid, detailed descriptions of Wharton's--of the places, sure, but more important, of her characters' thoughts and actions. Selden's nigh-scientific observations of Lily as he tries to master his feelings, Lily's constant musings on her place in society... it's just not something suited for film. And that said, that very point the New York Times made about how integral each portion of the plot is? That's a drawback, when you have to fit an entire book into two hours.

The cast did an admirable job, for the most part. I had a bit of difficulty believing Anderson (Lily) and Stoltz (Selden) together at first--Anderson was a mite too loud and Stoltz a bit too quiet--but by "Ah, love me, love me--but don't tell me so!", I started to see it. My favorite scene between them was undoubtedly the confrontation at the Emporium Hotel, when Selden begs her to leave and save herself from scandal. It was well-played to the point of being electrifying; the anger as well as the depth of their feelings for each other was just palpable.

Laura Linney (Bertha Dorset) and Anthony LaPaglia (Rosedale) really shined. I've been a fan of Laura Linney for some time but had never seen her in a real villainous role, and she played it off well here. LaPaglia made Rosedale more sympathetic and less conniving, I felt; it was very believable and tender towards the end when you see his genuine concern for Lily. The only one who hit some false notes, in my eyes, was Dan Akroyd; I think he was too much of a comedic actor for the role. I cringed my way through most of the scene where he corners Lily; it was one of the only things I felt was poorly done.

There were some things that were utterly baffling--the very obvious "this is symbolism!" decision to have Lily in a red dress, as opposed to the muted shades of the other women, when she attends the opera with Trenor and Rosedale; the really odd decision to make Gerty Farish and Grace Stepney into a composite character--but it did a decent job at squeezing the entire plot in, and its only fault was, well, that it wasn't the book. Still, it's worth checking out.

The House of Mirth has become one of my favorite reads of the past few years, and I'd recommend it in a heartbeat. Even 106 years later, it still manages to be relevant, relateable, and moving. I can't wait to read more of Edith Wharton, although I'm sure I'll return to this one over the years, as well!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'I Have Found It (Kandukondain Kandukondain)'

Early this year, I announced my intention to take part in the Austenprose Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge. Published in 1811, Sense and Sensibility is my favorite Austen, but it's also one that polarizes fans due to the resolution of the romantic subplots. I happen to love the ending, and I was so pleased that Laurel Ann decided to put together a challenge that would allow me to explore sequels, modernizations, and adaptations of my favorite Austen. This is my first completed item (yay!).

To start with, I picked the film I Have Found It (aka Kandukondain Kandukondain), which was available through my local library. I'd been meaning to see it for years, but never had a real impetus until now. My research (and the back of the DVD case) tells me that this isn't, as I was led to believe, a Bollywood film, but rather a "Kollywood" film, as it's in the Tamil language rather than Hindi. I don't know much about the distinctions, but I'm given to understand that both the language and the style of music are different. Whatever the case, I greatly enjoyed this bright, colorful musical modernization of Sense and Sensibility.

Sowmya (Tabu) and Meenakshi (Aishwarya Rai) are two wealthy sisters, living in luxury and only wanting for men they can marry. Sowmya's previous suitor committed suicide on a trip to the United States, which has led to potential suitors believing she's jinxed. Meenakshi, meanwhile, doesn't understand how Sowmya can stand for a marriage their mother would arrange; she longs for a man who will come for her like a storm, passionate and poetic. Their grandfather's health is failing and they don't have much time to lose--fortunately, three men soon enter their lives as potential suitors.

For Sowmya, there is Manohar (Ajith), a young filmmaker recently returned from studying in the United States. He is attracted to Sowmya after a memorable misunderstanding, and eventually swears that he will return and marry her after he has completed his first film. Meenakshi, meanwhile, attracts two men: Commando Major Bala (Mammootty), an embittered, drunken ex-soldier who lost part of one leg in a war, and Srikanth (Abbas), a young businessman who can quote the poetry Meenakshi loves so much. Even as both girls try to navigate these romances, a reversal of fortune leaves them nearly bankrupt, leaving them with no choice but to seek employment--and perhaps to leave any chance of romance behind.

To start with, let me say that I'd never seen a Bollywood or Kollywood film before. I've seen Slumdog Millionaire, but that was a fairly Americanized film and the only dancing and singing that I can remember came at the end, as a sort of homage. I was expecting singing and dancing here, but not so much of it as there was, and nothing so elaborate--at first, I was much like Patrick Dempsey's character in Enchanted ("He's singing? He knows the song, too? But I've never heard this song before!"). When I got over that, I ended up really enjoying the musical numbers. The two best, I felt, were the title song (a duet between Meenakshi and Srikanth) and, surprisingly, a song sung by Manohar to express his feelings to Sowmya. I was really pleased with the slight changes to the modern "Edward" character--Manohar isn't shy and reserved, just young and inexperienced when it comes to his filmmaking, and perhaps not quite sure how he can romance Sowmya.

I actually really enjoyed the characters and the setting/time period update in general. I was surprised at how well certain elements of the story still worked, and how easy it was to translate the setting to India. It was nice to see, in a modern adaptation of the story, the girls getting gainful employment (Sowmya is a skilled computer programmer; Meenakshi is, like Marianne before her, a singer). Instead of a threat of disinheritance from his aunt, the struggle that takes Srikanth away is the threat of his company's financial collapse. Even the scene where the older brother and his wife (John Dashwood and Fanny, in the original) argue over what they should pay the girls is there. I was truly surprised at how well the story still worked; it was such fun to see all the recognizable scenes, just with little tweaks.

Perhaps my favorite of the characters was Bala. It might be because I'm a Brandon fan to begin with, but he made the movie for me. His and Meenakshi's relationship grows into something tender and caring, but even before then, it's a pleasure to watch how much he cares for her. He comes up with a clever ploy to find out Srikanth's address just so she can see him; he even holds the equivalent of the Delaford picnic on his orchid farm. The scenes where he interacted with his uncle were alternately funny and touching. Mammootty's performance was funny and sweet, and I'd rank him with Alan Rickman as a charming, lovable "Brandon." (Watch for the scene near the end in the record store and tell me that does not make you go "awww!")

The other performances were spot-on, I felt. Aishwarya Rai gets the bulk of the movie, and I believed her "Marianne"-ness right off--that opening scene in the pool when she talks about the type of man she wants, that's it, right there. Tabu gave a great performance as the reserved Sowmya; a lot of her emotion was conveyed in her eyes or her face, not an easy task. I already mentioned how much I liked the Manohar character; Ajith made him the right mix of inexperience and assurance, especially during the scenes where he struggles to get his movie made. Lastly, Abbas' performance as the "Willoughby" of the story was well-played, and he was more sympathetic here than in the original story. I actually felt for him somewhat during the equivalent of the "Good God, Willoughby!" scene.

Though I started the film with reservations, I ended up really loving it: the opportunity to see the cultural differences between India and the United States, to see how well the story would work in another setting, and most of all, to see how the characters would translate from the 1800s to 2000. I'm pleased to say that the film was well-done, funny, and even touching at times, and I wouldn't hesitate to watch it again. At two and a half-hours, with many of the musical numbers lasting at least four or five minutes, I'd say, it does feel slightly overlong, but I understand that this is the norm for Indian films. With this film in mind, I'm eager to check out its successor, Bride and Prejudice, which I've heard about for so long. For anyone who's a Sense and Sensibility fan or even just curious about Kollywood films, check this one out! It was such an interesting experience and I loved it.