Archive | Past Matters

The Jo March Effect

To know Little Women is to love Little Women. From its very first line – “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents” – Louisa May Alcott’s landmark 1868 novel about four cash-poor, rich-in-spirit sisters has captured generation after generation’s love and devotion. The book’ got it all: cozy escapades, romantic triangles, “operatic tragedies,” and delicious descriptions of puddings, velvet gloves, and those infernal pickled limes. There’s pretty, maternal Meg. Artistic, vain Amy. Shy, musical “Poor Beth.” And Jo, the strapping, temperamental tomboy who aspires to be a writer when she grows up.

Just like everyone is a Charlotte, Samantha, Carrie, or Miranda today, everyone was once a Meg, Amy, Beth, or Jo. I suspect everyone secretly loved the slapdash Jo most; there’s a reason Kate Hepburn played her in the film adaptation.

As an aspiring writer in elementary school, I adored all the sisters and clamored for the “Pilgrims Progress” morals that Alcott, a true daughter of the Transcendentalists, sewed into their scrapes and graces. But the book most came alive when Jo galloped to the forefront. Loyal to a fault, indifferent to the domestic arts, and giving no fig for her appearance, she wrote volumes while decked out in the “scribbling suit” that prompted her family to ask, “Does genius burn, Jo?” As her sisters married or passed away, Jo clung to her dream of becoming a lady author, submitting her work for prizes and publication and even moving to New York City from Massachusetts to make a real go of it.

But as many times as I pored over the book, I usually stopped reading before its very end. It wasn’t because spoiled Amy won Laurie’s love and baubles after Jo spurned his affections. It wasn’t because of Beth’s sorry decline. It was because Jo married Mr. Bhaer, the German scholar who dismissed her writing out of hand. Although the first half of Little Women (the good part, I always thought) comprises a book composed by Jo in the second half, she lays aside her writing to become his wife and the mother of two boys.

This killed me, and I don’t think I’m the only one who felt that way. I was hungry for bildungsromans about budding female writers, and the taming of Jo March dashed my dreams. It seemed so odd that her fate was portrayed as a happy ending. I viewed Beth’s death as less grim. Continue Reading →

I’m So Sorry, Dolores

When I woke this morning, all I wanted to hear was the sweet sadness of Dolores O’Riordan, whom I listened to every day during the sweetest saddest period of my young womanhood and who died yesterday, only days before my 47th birthday, which really is the death knoll for any young womanhood no matter how well your people age (and mine age pretty well, dammit). When I listened most to Dolores and her Cranberries I was living with a man who took care of me but did not love me and whom I did not love. We had been performing a twentysomething fascimile of an old married couple and, really, it had been draining both of our life forces. We were just scared of everything else, especially of who we really were. Him: gladly, glamorously superficial. Me: a witch, not meant for anything but what I could conjure from the ashes of purple violets and patriarchy. Continue Reading →

I Found It at the Movies (Holiday Swoons)

Every year I spend the holiday season watching old films on the biggest screens possible, and every year this delights me as few activities in cities ever do. Alone in the dark shoulder to shoulder with rapt strangers, I feel connected to the human condition in a way that is more pleasurably than painfully melancholy. Yesterday, in a green, absinthe-infused hangover I watched 1936’s My Man Godfrey–the Carole Lombard and William Powell vehicle that’s as much smoke as it is fire–long-lashed and heavy-lidded and soaked in a satiny, Depression-era fuck-you politique. I loved it. The day before, I poured vermouth and sherry and watched 2008’s A Christmas Tale, Arnaud Desplechin’s neurotic, erotic paean to love lost and barely found. Its deep skepticism of blood bonds enthralls me almost as much as Deneuve’s red-lipped what-the-fuckery. This is to say: quite a lot.

Today at Metrograph, I ogled The Apartment, one of my favorite Billy Wilder films of all time, which means it’s one of my favorite films, period. Featuring midcentury, midtown New York at is its most woebegone and most sharp-toothed (most rumpled and stylish, too), this 1960 love story lampoons corporate America’s immorality while not-so-secretly upholding underdogs of every walk of life. Not only is it the most Jewish Christmas movie Hollywood ever made, it’s the baseline for all NYC-based romcoms since–all romcoms worth their salt, really. As clever as it is melancholy, New York’s grabby, glamorous melting pot presides as a central character, and its lonelyhearts discover each other via a Manhattan scavenger hunt of great flourishes and rueful afterthoughts. Neither Jack Lemmon nor Shirley MacLaine were ever so sweethearted again, and that’s saying a mouthful. Movie love to you all tonight. Any light in the dark deserves to be honored in this holy terror of a year.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy