Notes on The Witches (film, 1990)

p12200_p_v8_aa

I don’t remember ever reading this particular Dahl, though I have a curious and contrasting strong memory of the cover (yellow, the Quintin Blake witch in black), and of looking at it in the closet where we kept my books—so did I? Could I have owned it and not read it? Or entirely forgotten it? That seems so unlikely. Perhaps I’m back-imagining this.

I loved James and the Giant Peach and was particularly and predictably way into Matilda when I was young. Both titles were probably quite formative for me. I don’t think my elementary school library had that many of Dahl’s books. I suspect I must have looked hard, but my book choices were always limited as a child by things like that. The libraries I had access to were, looking back, often fairly scrappy. I’m not sure anyone in my family would have known there were other Dahl titles to buy me if I’d wanted them, given Dahl’s lesser American reputation (it’s notable thatthe American trailer for The Witches doesn’t even mention Dahl) and my family’s general lack of interest in books (bar, of course, my grandmother). I couldn’t yet use the internet to determine how to find out whether more books by a given person existed, because the internet didn’t work like that at the time.

Aishwarya Subramanian makes a good point that the alchemy of forgetting that has made Dahl a national treasure and a Writer of Children’s Classics has done much to obscure his personal unpleasantness, and the value judgments and cruelty she draws attention to as persistent elements of his work aren’t absent in this adaptation. (Is there much work on the different directions people went out of Dickens? Because Dahl is as much an inheritor of one aspect of his work as Pratchett, Peake, DWJ, and Rowling are other, contrasting aspects. Except Dickens’ violence was slapstick and Dahl’s… isn’t. Dahl is the baby!Webster to Dickens’ Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love. ‘I LIKE IT WHEN THE MICE SCREAM!’ ‘Oooookay, kiddo.’ *)  I had been told before I watched it that this would be traumatising, that it was a classic and that Angelica Huston was epic herein. Yes. All the actresses playing the witches seem to have the time of their lives writhing about being gloriously, viscerally unpleasant, and it is a fucking treat to watch. Great physical acting. One particularly raptorish specimen just goes to town. I’d just watched the first Addams Family film for the first time two days or so before, and am quite impressed with her. Obviously. It’s Angelica fucking Huston.

The start of the film has a certain sedateness, and the pacing lags a bit in the middle, but I’m not too bothered. The protagonist’s sort-of-friend Bruno’s a little Brexit voter, but I’m glad his parents learn to accept and love their gaymouse son. The bittersweet ending (which I know to not be the book’s) is the biggest issue. In the book our protagonist is turned into a mouse, and will live out the rest of his short life (mouse lifespans are a bitch) in this form, cared for by his loving grandmother. In the film the head witch’s assistant, the sole survivor of the massacre of witches the protagonist orchestrated, completely improbably goes to the good. She shows up to change the child back into a human, and even to do the same for wee UKIPer Bruno. This new ending isn’t in and of itself a problem (it is in fact what filmic traditions would lead us to anticipate), but it feels structurally weak and deflated, like the film itself doesn’t believe in this. The lamp shading is too late and too winkingly obvious. It does feel very ‘made for Americans’, changed to suit expectations, to flatter American filmmaking’s distaste for ambivalent endings (especially in children’s productions).

Odd that Dahl adapts rather well. (Dickens doesn’t, or at least people often do a terrible job with adapting him—though there are some good examples.) Matilda is a fairish film and the play is strong. James and the Giant Peachwas well-made. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is perhaps more famous as a film than as a book. The Witches is a recognized cult children’s classic. We’ll see how the recent BFG fares. Quintin Blake’s illustrations are definitely part of the reason why this is so. Even where the filmic visuals don’t directly draw from his, there’s something about his evocative, brisk linework that both creates striking images and suggests figures in motion.

* The relevant bit of Shakespeare in Love:

(Will is pacing restlessly up and down in front of the theatre, looking for Thomas Kent. The streetboy who wanted to play Ethel is sitting on a corner, mice are clambering about him.)

Will (affably): Better fortune, boy.

Streetboy (shrugging): I was in a play. They cut my head off in “Titus Andronicus”. When I write plays, they will be like “Titus”.

Will (flattered): You admire it?

Streetboy: I liked it when they cut heads off. And the daughter mutilated with knives.

Will: What is your name?

Streetboy: John Webster. (holding up a mouse on her tail) Here, kitty, kitty! (A cat comes nearer.) Plenty of blood, that’s the only writing!

Will (disgusted): I have to get back. (The mouse screams.)

(Will gives up waiting and returns to the theatre where the rehearsal is in full swing.)

Stopping for a Spell, Diana Wynne Jones

stopping_us_pb.jpg

Here’s a confession: as a rule, I don’t like short stories much. (And I’m in SFF! I knoooow.) Cynthia Ozick has said some interesting things about short stories that feel like they’re extracts from a larger world versus short stories that feel complete in and of themselves, and I tend to like the former better, but with some notable exceptions this is not my preferred mode to read or to write in (I’m with Bakhtin on the dialogic novel all the way). This is a little disingenuous to say given that I do read and write a metric ton of fanfic and that fanfic mostly falls into this category, but fanfic is sort of the ultimate case of ‘extracts from a larger world’, even if the narrative shape of a given piece of fanfiction is very ‘short story’ in its form. Thus I think the rules bend around it.

Stopping for a Spell contains three short stories pitched at a younger audience than Diana Wynne Jones normally writes for. I feel more inclined to bullet points than paragraphs today, so that’s what we’re getting. These are stories I feel you could say a lot about, but which I didn’t really love. Is that my mood, the medium, or the stories themselves? Let’s go with ‘all’.

 

Chair Person (originally published 1989)

* Once again DWJ’s flair for immediate, Dickensian characterization is on show. Here we have intense physical awkwardness and Heepish humility that really, deeply isn’t.

* I wonder if DWJ is trying to say something specific about this family’s class or lifestyle, or if it’s merely a time-jump between their era and mine, but: the food this family eats is weird. Spaghetti from a can, cake mixes for a slightly socially-anxious charity-do (cake mixes aren’t even popular in the UK like they are in the US! Did they used to have a better range of these?), lemon squash, (frozen?) pizzas and (frozen?) chips. I’ve had Spaghetti-Os a couple times in my life, but they’re not really in fashion and I wouldn’t call them ‘spaghetti’ per se. The mom doesn’t work, either, so it’s not a ‘pressed career mother’ sort of thing. I know I’m in a post Great British Bake Off cultural moment, but while in the US ten years ago I might have made a cake mix for a school function for children, I can’t really imagine relying on one for this kind of adult gathering in the UK now? At a children’s party, there are “jellies, cakes, crisps and big bottles of coke”. Jellies (aka Jello)? :/ Whatever floats your boat.

Aisha assures me that this basically represents the children’s party spreads of her youth though, JELLIES AND ALL, so it’s confirmed for India/UK normal.

Yet I remain unsure why there would be Jello at a party. Not as a single, unimportant element of a family bbq or pot luck spread, just like–in and of itself. In a bowl. Like potato chips would be. Not even Jello JIGGLERS. Just Jello!

* DWJ might be trying to say something about television and knowledge, in passing, with Chair Person’s absorptive faux-information and his way of broadcasting it back at people. If she’s making a passing ‘books are better’/’fuck the nascent information age’ swipe, or even just drawing on those feelings in a more subterranean way, she could possibly have developed that idea more.

* Even in this short story we still get a ‘wtf’ DWJ non-ending. Classic. Here the plot derails around some business with the wand and the disappearing box, and the characters themselves admit the resolution was unclear. The siblings’ mum is spared the further intervention of their telescopic philanthropist of a neighborhood busy-body, which I guess is the true resolution, because that and the Chair’s inconvenient personhood were the real narrative conflicts.

* Really nonchalant magic this time, little to no ‘what does this mean’ing or sense of a break from the mundane.

* I’m a little uncomfortable with this story, which is about inconvenience: inconvenient commitments, objects and people. There’s some bleed-through between the neighborhood busy-body’s obnoxious way of going about securing help with her various charitable projects and what she wants to do in and of itself. Are her projects for helping people equally officious and meddling, or is this a kind of complacent, conservative story about the bother of being asked to care? It’s difficult to say: we don’t exactly hear that her help isn’t useful or necessary. Such ‘leave well enough alone’ impulses aren’t very DWJ, really, but then the core problem of the plot is ‘we tried to get rid of an inconvenient old thing that’s been in our house ages, it gained sentience and was a bother, how do we unperson it?’

And no matter how annoying, repulsive and destructive Chair Person is (The story does some good work making you feel the cringing awkwardness of the family’s responses to this ‘new’ guest–the nasty tenor of the way they feel sorry for it. This is a Paddington narrative, but the newcomer is awkward and gross rather than cute.), it’s still hard to hear things like “it’s the only language they understand” from the shopkeeper when he screams at Chair Person and orders it about. That feels, in the context of the characters’ discussions about how maybe Chair Person will learn to be a proper person in time, and how it feels new, and their diminishing sympathy for it, raced? Or perhaps it sits on another axis of Othering–someone suggests their mother’s ‘eccentric old Uncle’ would be happier in a home.

This isn’t to say that DWJ ‘can’t’ or shouldn’t handle such content, or that I don’t think there’s value in being asked to think and feel difficult things about difficult subjects. But these undercurrents just sit in the story, hanging out and making the whole seem kind of cruel rather than opening the story onto deeper considerations. If your response to that is ‘but it’s just a short comedy story for quite young kids!’, well, I’m not sure that matters? It doesn’t make the underlying mechanics creep me out less.

* Another thing about these ‘short stories’ is that they’re structured like little novels, with content pulled out.

* This story also wants to say something about officiousness, but it doesn’t quite coalesce.

 

The Four Grannies (originally published 1980)

*   This is less uncomfortable than chair person, and has a few very fun lines. However that makes me realize that, compared to Jones’ usual high standards here, these protagonists aren’t very characterized (fair enough, in such a short space) and these stories aren’t that funny (which I think is more a function of the age range she’s trying to hit than their length).

* The magic is really scattershot in this one. Granny 3’s transformation into the sort of person who’d visit and bring things is never really explained, I don’t think. Nor is Emily’s ‘conversion’?

* These children’s ages are super vague.

* Do people really eat sardines so often or copiously that they need a special sardine tin opener? Is that different from just a can opener?

* There’s a lot of Incident Business in this one.

* Again, super mundane magic. Clearly a rupture from the ordinary, but not Wondrous.

 

Who Got Rid of Angus Flint? (originally published 1975)

* Kind of interesting epistolary style. Only one of the three stories in this volume in first person. Female narrator, where the previous two had brother and sister teams. Narrator strangely distant from the piece though–you’d be forgiven for missing her gender. This is curious as I sort of thought it took Jones a while to work into writing female narrators. I’d have to go back to the bibliography and see what gave me that idea, but if it’s at all true, then this is a very early example.

* This, I wouldn’t remarket for children. The titular annoying house guest foists himself upon this family because he’s getting a divorce. He’s getting a divorce because he seems to have beat the shit out of his wife. This is Bad, in the narrative, but not in a monumental way, and the parents (who aren’t portrayed as total shits) still leave this guy alone with their kids, even after he (very early on in his stay!) seems to feel free to painfully physically discipline them.

* This is the earliest of the three stories, but it’s also the best, probably because Jones is operating in something like her usual register rather than laboriously positioning herself for younger children. Again, though it’s the best it’s not something I’d have repackaged in 1996 (that’s when this copy was issued, or re-issued) with no comment.

* Interesting that she had three thematically-similar short stories to bundle. DWJ does have a core body of themes that I could have expected to provide such through-lines, but these aren’t quite them—we don’t get a textually admitted example of Bad Mother Figures or anything classically Jones. I don’t really think of DWJ as a short story writer, but then perhaps I’m wrong and she’s got mountains of them around back. I’d almost think an SFF writer of her era would have had more, due to the shape of the SFF market then. Perhaps it was a little different for her, given her typical focus on non-adult characters and readers?

* Fun ending. Honestly works for me. A DWJ ending! I know! Triumphant (insurrection of magical furniture, brought on by narrator’s enjoining them to respond to unfair insults against them) and then sweet.

* Same treatment of magic as last time, really, but with no Inciting Magical Object. All three of these feel different from DWJ’s varied other treatments of magic. Here magic is more just–plot matter, quotidian.

The Sleeper and the Spindle, Neil Gaiman

TheSleeperandtheSpindle_Hardback_1418011159.jpg

This book’s breathless Goodreads summary does it few favours:

“A thrillingly reimagined fairy tale from the truly magical combination of author Neil Gaiman and illustrator Chris Riddell – weaving together a sort-of Snow White and an almost Sleeping Beauty with a thread of dark magic, which will hold readers spellbound from start to finish.

On the eve of her wedding, a young queen sets out to rescue a princess from an enchantment. She casts aside her fine wedding clothes, takes her chain mail and her sword and follows her brave dwarf retainers into the tunnels under the mountain towards the sleeping kingdom. This queen will decide her own future – and the princess who needs rescuing is not quite what she seems. Twisting together the familiar and the new, this perfectly delicious, captivating and darkly funny tale shows its creators at the peak of their talents.”

For a start, big promises there. This is, as the summary suggests, a sort-of-remix and fusion of two fairy tales. Fairy tale retellings are big right now, and so people who don’t have a specific yen to work with a specific story are getting suggestions from their publishers along ‘why not crank out–‘ lines. I think we might be at the tail end of that boom, but I don’t see it producing great work, as I’ve said* in an SH review of Over the Garden Wall (which I liked). You’re Angela Carter and you want to return to those texts, or you’re any of the five people Catherine Butler flags up as reworking Tam Lin , or you ain’t. Some writers find a prompt qua prompt generative and productive, but that’s due to a certain responsive turn of mind on the writers’ part. Prompts really aren’t for everyone, and there is something to be said for the simple motivation of wanting to work on a topic: it indicates that you have something to say about it, or at least that you’re interested in the subject. And how can readers hope to be if you aren’t?

What do such retellings do? There’s a facile quality to the ‘watered-down Carter’ impulse that wants to make these remixes Dark and Sexy, an impulse which (again, as I’ve said before) demonstrates a total ignorance of the source material, which has never needed help there. The same is true of the similarly Carter-lite impulse to make these stories Correct, in modern soft-left terms. Not to reimagine them as radical or progressive, but to make them 90s girl-power feminist, with perhaps a titillating hint of homo. Note that these are largely treatments coming from straight authors (or semi-competent, rather complacent gays–we do make them, alas).

This telling is not the most egregious example of this breed I’ve seen (that honour belongs to something I once asked for a review copy of and then said nothing about, out of politeness), but man it sure is on trend.

Back at the start of uni, I really liked Neil Gaiman. And then someone did to me what the tenth Doctor did to Harriet Jones, Prime Minister’s reputation by whispering into my ear, ‘isn’t he safe? All that influence, all the capital and leverage in the world—why isn’t Gaiman more progressive, more experimental, or more interested in pushing himself than your average polite solicitor at a garden party?’

There is something to be said for enjoying art without feeling your reception is dominated by the weight of others’ opinions, but that said, my god she was right. Gaiman’s not bad, he’s never BAD, but he could be good–he could write a GREAT book, and he’ll never fucking care to, because he’s swathed in Being Neil Gaiman and what would be the point, even? Who’d want it? People just want him to Be Neil Gaiman. And if that doesn’t endure, if he dies and after a good long while he’s the Trollope who doesn’t get read much these days or what have you, well, it was fun while it lasted, wasn’t it? There’s an almost conservative drag to his work, which is never better than Sandman was and never even interested in being better, really. It’s never building on any of that, Gaiman’s never pushing himself or answering the changed questions of changed times. He just continues, like a reliable chain restaurant of the better class, a Pizza Express possibly, to offer up aimless, floating, serviceable prose. We all like Neil Gaiman, of course. He is competent and inoffensive and says nothing deeply felt. What is not to like? Quick, get a tattoo of something from “The Doctor’s Wife”. (I have no spoon, yet I must gag.)

I’m not just dragging him, really. I got accused the other day of taking unnecessary side-swipes and–sometimes, well, yes. Sometimes I’ve made cheap jokes, and sometimes I’m even retrospectively sorry about that, in a “badly done, Emma” sort of way. But honestly, this is me making the difficult effort to articulate a critical point, and this (contextualization via snark) is one tool I have to employ. I don’t even think it’s necessarily a bad one. There will be casualties, or at least I will feel and say that in some capacities something people like, often even something I love, didn’t work, structurally or politically or what have you. If you want a celebration that makes you feel great just for occupying the economic or social categories of Geekdom–I’m sorry, I don’t even believe in that? And I’m not happy about where we are, or even where we’ve been or where we’re going, or at least I’m not exclusively so. I don’t know that I ever feel anything unambivalently, does anyone? I’m not going to pretend that I am: I wouldn’t be good at it, for one.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”, then, is wellish written, but not amazing. Information gets doled out quite subtly, but this feels like a bit of a gimmick to me. The world seems bigger than it is because we’re given pieces of it out of order, which suggests a rich back-story. Fine. The technique works, just not–seamlessly, and I do feel a little shown around the Potemkin village.

The Queen is very much figured as a Queen rather than a princess–in charge, doing the work of governing, a bit martial–but her motivation never really crystallises through these back-story hints. All right, so at the end she’s questing, in search of nothing–again, fine? A bit bleak. Like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, but with dwarves. I never FEEL The Queen’s desires, either for freedom or for people. The homoeroticism is as static as the picture book illustrations, and lacks the visceral sensuality of the most restrained Aubrey Beardsley print. Given that this is written in a more novelistic than folkloric style, perhaps I should enter more into this character and her desires, psychologically?

The role of women in this world is weird (again with the light overlay of an unchallenging feminism). The Queen is a Cool Girl because she’s martial and don’t let no man tell her what to do. People keep adding ‘and some women too!!’ after saying something about what knights or merchants get up to, et al. In other words female participation is still exceptional, but there’s a Girls Can Do It vibe. This is the faux Middle Ages a la Murphy Brown. I don’t think there’s a problem with discarding bits of the kyriarchy that aren’t doing work in your narrative, but the nervous positioning of women in the text and the way female valorisation is tied up in assumptions of masculinity have me like ‘k’.

There’s a suggestion that the Queen is sexually drawn to the evil fairy at the heart of this story, even as she was (it’s hinted) drawn to her wicked stepmother. Putting in subtext knowingly is always odd. I’m not sure that subtext has to arise accidentally to function (I’ve heard that in stagings of “Peter Pan” the author knew exactly what he was doing and what he wanted the play to evoke, for example), but it does have to be nurtured in a particular way. I’d have to think more about how one generates subtext, or serves as a good custodian to it. Suffice it to say that incestuous mothers (and fathers) are old hat in fairy tales, as is this sort of veiled eroticism, and that I can think of less blatant and yet more dangerous and enticing examples fairly easily. I guess that’s a trade-off I’m looking for? If you’re writing now, consciously employing these tools and looking to generate these effects, then shouldn’t your effects be equally resonant, or differently so, or do anything other than sort of weakly gesturing at what’s already been better-said with fewer words? (As the Dowager Duchess said about Mary’s shit boyfriend’s communism.)

A1vDbflXiqL._SL1500_.jpgThe book is very beautiful, though I don’t feel as capable of talking critically about art as I do about fairy tales. (There are a few stupid touches: that goff skull bedspread is probably available at Hot Topic even now.) There’s a Tolkenian quality to the map images on the endpapers. Overall it’s the sort of picture book that I kept fretting I was going to besmirch with fingerly snail-trails.

So what do we gain from “The Sleeper and the Spindle”? I theoretically love remixes: why do they always disappoint me, of late? This whole great glut of them just feels unmeant and unnecessary. This example isn’t different. Not bad, not superlative, not much.

***

* The relevant bit of the earlier piece: “The New York Times claims OtGW “has the look of a dark fable but the mood of a fairy tale, more Wes Anderson than Tod Browning.”

Look, guys, how long ago did Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber come out? Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers? I know you know that Freud had some words to say on fairy tales, and that Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment had some follow-up thoughts. There is zero excuse to be working as a critic, and talking about fairy tales, and not to know about their adaptability, their sensuality and terror, the way they convey and contain cultural and personal fears, their potency, their scratchy humour. A mature and nuanced perception of fairy tales is a cliché at this point: it’s been academically accepted for damn decades. You’re seriously contrasting fairy tales with “dark fables”? You want to talk about how fairy tales’ “wistfulness” (which I find a rich and interesting mode, by the by: nostalgic and sad, and not something we should rush to temper and excuse) needs to be shaken up by sassy modernity? Are you an immortal who’s lived for centuries? Did you go to uni in the 1860s and thus miss this 101 material? Have you not read much since? Do you straight up know nothing about fairy tales and give zero fucks? If so, why are you writing about them?

(To be fair to these people, I also ask this whenever someone who doesn’t like or get the mode gets pushed into doing a “sexy grimdark fairy tale revamp” by their publisher. No one involved remembers that this material is always-already fairly sexy and dark. Just stop.)”

Steven Universe Review

You may well have heard about Steven Universe (and if you’re aware of the show, you might also be interested in some criticism about it—fingers crossed!). In certain circles (people active on Tumblr and other major media fandom platforms, USians with young children, etc.), this American Cartoon Network show, technically on the cusp of its third season, has been talked up ad nauseum. But outside of the aforementioned circles, the program is far less Universally known (that’s a truly awful pun, and I’m not particularly sorry). Whether or not you’re saturated with Steven, it still merits discussion by virtue of being simultaneously one of the best children’s programs and one of the best science fiction programs of its generation.

Full review here.

Yonderland

showposter

Some reviews are straight-up celebrations: uncynical advertisements, attempts to say “Here’s something lovely, how’d it get so good?” This is one of them. Offerings like Over the Garden Wall, Steven Universe, and Yonderland suggest that we’ve rediscovered how to make excellent television that can honestly be defined as family programming, after a long, dark dearth of same: we have a good thing going here.

Full review here.