African-American Literature Wrap-Up #1.5: Giovanni’s Room + Moonlight

I’m calling this one #1.5 because a) the book features white characters but James Baldwin is addressing a different aspect of his identity, namely homosexuality, and b) Moonlight is a film. Nevertheless, considering they’re both written by black gay men, this seemed like the perfect pairing for a post (and it happened that I was finishing up Giovanni’s Room the same weekend that I saw Moonlight).

Giovanni’s Room

giovanniThis book. It’s a new favorite, because the writing was lovely and captured so many conflicting feelings.

I suppose it’s the brief story of David, an American in Paris (much like how Baldwin exiled himself to Europe), and his love affair with Italian expat Giovanni. Except it’s told from the point-of-view of a present-day David, post-relationship, guity over Giovanni’s impending guillotine fate and engaged to a woman named Hella. This book was published in 1956 and has a very intimate (albeit more emotionally than anything) gay sex scene on page 6. James Baldwin literally changed publishers because his old one was like “hey, we thought you were a Harlem Renaissance writer–this is going to alienate your African-American fanbase!” Which, yes, all the characters are white and are in Europe, but there were gay African-Americans, too. (Though unfortunately they’re not as represented–why was part of why Moonlight was so important.)

It doesn’t have the happy ending so rarely afforded to LGBT characters (though David doesn’t die, either), but it’s not a punishment–it’s a statement about society. David’s so caught up in the 1950s American world of suburban family conformity, homosexuality as mental illness and a crime (the Lavendar Scare) that he can’t commit himself to Giovanni or accept his sexuality. This perspective also means that he has internalized prejudices and occasionally makes homophobic comments–including some really awful transphobic ones, as a head’s-up if you’re particularly affected by that.

Sidenote: I also appreciated that Hella, though not as prominent as some of the other characters, was vivid in herself. There’s this part near the end where David’s hugging her but knows he isn’t in love with her (as much as he wishes he could be to make his life easier) and I got so darn emotional because I’ve been there, I’ve been on the receiving end of that hug.

If you’re looking for older LGBT literature, you can’t miss this. And if you like James Baldwin’s writing but haven’t read this yet, check it out. Now I’ve got to read some other Baldwin because I love his writing style.

Moonlight

moonlightCan we talk about this without talking about the Oscars? Maybe, but look, I’m still really upset that I was so tired and annoyed Moonlight didn’t win Best Director that I shut off the TV after they said “La La Land” for Best Picture. Then I was staying up much later than expected trying to understand what had happened through Twitter and upset that I missed it. I knew Warren Beatty looked confused when he looked in the envelope! And all the online clips seem to cut off after the Oscar was handed to Moonlight so I haven’t seen whatever speeches were given, unfortunately.

Okay, got that out of my system. As I mentioned above, I thought this should have won Best Director (though in retrospect, the decision looks more like a consolation prize for La La Land, I guess). That’s because this film is SO MUCH about the visual experience. It’s all about putting you in the head of the main character (Chiron, called Little, Chiron, and Black in the three acts of the film, respectively), whether that’s extreme shaky-cam as he runs away from bullies, stone silence during tense moments, or water bobbing over camera as he’s learning to swim. It’s really hard to watch in parts, while other segments are touching or fraught with sexual tension or pain. (I haven’t seen La La Land yet, but from what I know about it there’s at least one easy case to be made for this as Best Picture, and that’s because the former borrows a lot of techniques from old Hollywood films as an homage while this tries to do something unique at every turn.)

There were also so many little details that weren’t called attention to but, nevertheless, the camera lingered long enough for you to understand, like Black’s license plate in the final act, or the  crown on his dashboard that draws a parallel between him and another important character. (Best Supporting Actor winner) Mahershala Ali’s character is missing in the second act, and only a passing line will tell you why, though you can understand how that happened to him.

I know I’m not telling much of the plot here, but this isn’t about plot, necessarily–it’s the experience. See it. Feel all of the things.

Advertisements

So I watched Frozen for the first time

frozen

Yeah, I know, I’m late to the party. But I didn’t grow up with Disney (at least, not the princess variety–I loved Winnie-the-Pooh and Pixar movies) and when this came out, my brother was a bit too old and our family’s animated movie-watching had slowed. So when it aired on Freeform recently, we DVR’d it to watch.

A couple of disclaimers: 1) I had read the whole Wikipedia summary back when it was super popular and it was impossible to escape references to it, so I was in no way expecting to be surprised; 2) I had seen the first 20 minutes or so a couple of weeks ago when my roommate and a friend were trying to escape the impending dread of finals, but then I left to go study.

Also, In the last six months or so, I’ve actually become acquainted with the main cast members of Frozen without realizing it at first. Though I first knew of Idina Menzel from the popularity of this and “Let it Go,” I became familiar with her work from RENT when that movie/music/show changed my life in June, and more recently,  If/Then (which has some really catchy and beautiful music). Meanwhile, I’ve been enjoying the heck out of The Good Place, starring Kristin Bell (even though I was aware of Veronica Mars previously, I still haven’t seen it). And I’ve been watching Santino Fontana (Hans) as Greg on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (which I’ve just started getting into) and listening to Jonathan Groff (Kristoff) on the Hamilton and Spring Awakening albums. Oh, and Alan Tudyk aka Wash from Firefly plays the Duke.

I Storifyed my immediate, rather trivial responses to the movie here. What follows are more in-depth points that I tried to explain. Generally, I really liked it, though it just doesn’t happen to be a favorite (yet).

Elsa

Elsa was my favorite character and aspect of this movie. I love her so much. I think her story is wide enough for many interpretations, but for me, I could see many parallels between her journey and mental health. “Conceal, don’t feel” rang powerfully, because those of us who struggle with anxiety or depression or something else feel the pressure to conform, to not feel perpetually sad and dragging everyone down, to not panic at trivial things and make everyone worry. And yet, that only leaves it all bottled up in shame. Elsa is also very worried about hurting Anna and others around her, which is also relatable. Importantly, she’s sympathetic from the beginning, never really demonized as the villain.

I wish there was more of her, honestly. After the film ended, I realized there wasn’t a big climactic song at the end (the last song is “Fixer Upper”), and part of me wishes Elsa had sung something to frozen Anna, or just something. “Let It Go” is iconic, but that doesn’t reflect her evolution within the film. Okay, look, maybe I really just wanted more of Idina Menzel’s voice.

The Animation

The snow and ice are gorgeous, but I do have a couple of nits to pick with the animation. Yes, Elsa and Anna have the same face as their mother and Rapunzel from Tangled (and maybe Moana as well?), but also at Elsa’s coronation party, many of the guests look like the exact same people. One particular female figure stood out to me as the exact same in different dresses, over and over. I tend not to be one to care too much about this, but when Pixar’s over there putting so much thought into their creative process and animation, it kind of bugs me.

But my main pet peeve with the animation occurs during some of the songs: there are a few instances, especially with E and A vowels, where the mouths of the characters are too narrow and horizontal to produce the sound heard. This is because they often sing and smile at the same time which, yes, is possible but starts to seem increasingly absurd and I suppose I had the same experience as watching lip-syncing. Yes, I know it’s animated. Yes, unfortunately this is the extent of the video we can find of the original recording performances. Yes, the intense reaction I had to this might be rather silly. I admit it mostly comes from my background of trying to get everything “right” in choir with little confidence while being picked on in middle school, but look, you don’t always smile while you sing. You don’t always have to look “pretty.” In fact, smiling while singing long, open notes is not going to produce a good, mature sound. You have to open your mouth really wide for that, which might not meet conventional beauty standards or seem enunciated enough for animation. Sigh.

Disney formula

Frozen is often touted as breaking the “Disney formula,” because (spoilers) the “act of true love” is between the sisters rather than lovers, and the point that “you can’t marry a man you just met” is made (though I wish Elsa and Kristoff offered more of a reasoning behind why this was a good idea, rather than just repeating it). Anna and Kristoff get a sweet moment at the end, but not a definite “happily ever after.” So yes, in this regard, Frozen does subvert that aspect of the Disney formula and makes an important point in doing so, and I liked that.

But I do want to note that doesn’t mean Frozen entirely breaks the mold (not that everyone who made this observation meant that). There are songs, chase scenes that defy the laws of physics, cute anthropomorphic characters to expand Disney’s merchandising (mostly Olaf; Sven is basically a dog and doesn’t talk), the main characters are princess and queen. These aren’t bad things necessarily, it’s just very Disney (…says the girl who hasn’t seen most classic Disney princess films), and I admit part of me wanted to get away from Olaf to see what Elsa was up to. It also would be nice to see a deviation from the princess/royalty role at some point, because so many different stories could be told in animation. But, hey, this was loosely inspired by The Snow Queen, very much within the fairytale source material Disney usually pulls from. (This criticism is perhaps more suited to Moana, which has a character based upon mythology but then chose to focus on a girl who also happens to be the equivalent to a princess…)

Bonus: Idina Menzel Appreciation

(From If/Then, whose soundtrack has been perpetually stuck in my head recently because it’s so catchy, impactful, and has a ridiculously talented cast. This performance is a bit edited for TV for profanity and spoilers.)