Category: Reels, Records, & Reads

Rain, Passion, and Sex in Kate Chopin’s “The Storm”

Weather and Biology as Natural Phenomenon

Why does rain make an already romantic scene better (fanboys need only think about the kiss scene from the 2002 Spider-Man to know what I’m talking about)? Maybe that’s a bit too big of a topic for the space I have here, but rain and romantic moments do often go together in literature. One of the best examples of this combination can be found in Kate Chopin’s short story “The Storm.” Chopin doesn’t merely use a rain storm as setting or backdrop in her story. Chopin demonstrates how passion, sex, and rain storms can be viewed as natural phenomenon.

A rain storm is one of the central events of Chopin’s story. This storm comes on quick taking the principle characters by surprise. Alcee Laballiere barely escapes the storm by seeking shelter at Calixta’s house. Calixta is so engrossed with sewing she does not notice the approaching storm. Both characters decide to wait out the storm after they shutter the windows and doors. Alcee and Calixta are both married, he to Clarisse she to Bobinot, but they have a shared history from their younger days in Assumption Parrish (I could write a few paragraphs on the possible symbolism there). It is during this storm that their passions from those younger days lead to a sexual encounter. With the passing of the storm and their afternoon of passionate sex it appears as if all is right in the world. It is this natural equilibrium at the end of the story that establishes the connection between biology (sex) and weather (rain).

Chopin is subtle when connecting biology (sex) and weather (rain) as natural phenomenon, but there are a couple of examples to support this. The first is Chopin’s omission of moralizing. Chopin’s imagery of both storm and sexual moment are vivid but moral judgements concerning the events are missing. These events are neither good or bad in Chopin’s view. They are simply presented as natural phenomenon that occur. The second example can be found at the end of the story. Alcee leaves Calixta after the storm and writes a loving letter to his wife, Clarisse. Calixta, Bobinot, and their son Bibi spend the evening sharing a family dinner. After these events are established Chopin ends the story with the line, “So the storm passed and everyone was happy.” The storm has passed without causing any permanent damage. Likewise, Alcee and Calixta’s passionate encounter has also passed without apparently causing any permanent damage. Chopin is implying that human passion and sex (biology) and rain storms (weather) can be viewed in a similar way, as natural phenomenon.

Rain can dress up a romantic scene, but Kate Chopin demonstrates that rain can be used as much more than setting. If moralizing is removed from the ideas of passion and sex then they can be viewed as biological forces that drive humans in much the same way rain storms can be viewed as a natural phenomenon of weather.

-K-

“The Storm” by Kate Chopin

When Rain is More than Rain

Let’s Talk About Joe Cocker and Metaphors

One of my favorite scenes from Saturday Night Live is John Belushi’s impression of Joe Cocker. My Pops had a bunch of Joe Cocker albums, but I didn’t start listening to them until I saw Cocker and Belushi sing “Feelin’ Alright” on SNL (check it out on the YouTube if you want to see a couple great artists at work).  I Can Stand a Little Rain is my favorite Joe Cocker album and the song of the same name is makes for an interesting study of metaphor.

“I Can Stand a Little Rain” isn’t unique in its use of metaphor; more songs incorporate metaphor than don’t. What I find interesting about this song is the turn half way through. Rain serves as a metaphor for the many hardships life forces upon us, but there is a shift in the third verse of the song. It is here that the song moves away from the pains of life and toward the possibility of a happy ending. Joe Cocker’s sorrowful voice takes us from pain to hope in four verses that span of three and half minutes.

The first verse establishes the metaphor. We get Cocker’s sorrowful repetition of, “I can stand a little rain,” three times followed by a line about pain.  The imagery of water coming up through the floorboards, the rising water, portrays impending doom. The verse ends with a desire for some rest from all this rain, which serves as a metaphor for pain and hardship. The second verse continues the metaphor. It is a testament to how much pain we can stand and for how long we can stand it. This verse reinforces the idea that this is all just part of life. It is here, at this low point, that the song takes a turn.

The third verse moves away from a focus on the rain as a metaphor for the pains and hardships of life and toward a desire for love. At first listen it sounds as if it is a plea for love, anything to get away from the pain. But as the verse progresses we realize that the singer is willing to take any “test” that life may present regarding love. This willingness to take any “test” is carried into the fourth, and final, verse of the song. The singer has weathered the rain and the hardships of life and knows that any test of love will be easy in comparison. This is shown not only in the lyrics but also in the change in Cocker’s voice and chorus. We see that the singer will “make it” in the end.

When I first saw Joe Cocker perform with John Belushi all those years ago I knew these were two artists I would follow. Joe Cocker’s voice and his passion make any song he sings uniquely his. “I Can Stand a Little Rain” is more than an example of Joe Cocker at his best. It is a song that shows us that if we dig deep down we can endure the pains and hardships of life, and in so doing we are better prepared when the rain breaks and the sun comes out.

-K-

I Can Stand a Little Rain (1974) by Joe Cocker. Produced by Jim Price.

When the Journey is the Best Part of the Story

The Visual Appeal of Journey to the End of the Night

I just got back from a week on the road, and I’m thinking about the cliché that says the journey is as important as the destination. I’m wondering if the person who said that ever drove a compact car for fourteen hours straight? I’m also thinking how that old cliché can be applied to movies? There are many movies that have rather predictable plots but we still watch. More often than not we enjoy the movie not so much for the reveal (the destination) but for the development (the journey). Eric Eason’s Journey to the End of the Night is one such movie. You won’t find anything groundbreaking in the movie’s plot, but you will discover a movie that is beautiful in its film noir imagery.

I’m not going to go into great detail about the plot of Journey to the End of the Night. Let’s just say that it has some of the standard plot features of traditional film noir: betrayal, jealousy, and double cross. The topics of plot and character development could easily be an essay on its own, but I want to focus a couple of visual elements of this movie that are great examples of film noir. First, film noir often incorporates elements of bleak urban settings into the story and Journey to the End of the Night is no exception. The best example of this is with the movie’s opening and ending credits. The opening credits give the viewer and aerial view of the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil as night is falling. There is a certain distance, both physically and emotionally in the scene. We can feel the loneliness of the city’s inhabitants and the bleak lives this movie’s characters lead. The ending credits show a similar aerial view of the city as the sun is rising in the distance. Although it may be a new day the same feelings of loneliness and a bleak future linger. Another element common to film noir that can be found in Journey to the End of the Night is the use of grain and contrast. The entire movie is shot with a subtle use of grain and contrast that adds a layer of visual subtext that reinforces feelings of fatalism common to film noir. The characters may try their best to escape the lives they lead but are often victims of fate.  This use of grain and contrast also enhances the morally ambiguous lives these characters lead.  These people leave gritty lives and the film grain shows this.

I spent fourteen hours one way on my recent road trip. Even though I knew what the destination held for me I made certain to take the time to enjoy the trip there. The same can be said for many movies. Even though the plot may be predictable that doesn’t mean you still can’t enjoy the visual experience of watching it.  Journey to the End of the Night utilizes a few visual elements of film noir that make it worth the trip.

-K-

Journey to the End of the Night with Brendan Fraser, Yaslin Bey, and Scott Glenn. Directed by Eric Eason.

Who Defends Us During the Night?

A Black Cat, Evil Doings, and Neil Gaiman

I’ve always been fascinated with feral cats. I spent a good portion of my childhood on a cattle farm watching a varied collection of Tom and Molly cats prowling about. To be clear these were not indoor cats we put out at night, and they didn’t have proper names (some did acquire nicknames if they hung around long enough). These felines were wild animals. They may not have been lions on the African planes, but they were feral hunters and that is what fascinated me. I used to wonder what kind of lives these wild and free animals led. That question brings us to Neil Gaiman’s “The Price,” eight pages of well crafted, evenly paced fantasy.

The first person narrator of “The Price” is an author who relays a series of events that occur over a period of a few weeks after his family takes in and cares for feral cat known simply as Black Cat. During the brief time Black Cat stays with the narrator’s family it receives several wounds from fighting with some unknown animal. The narrator is determined to capture this animal in an attempt to protect Black Cat from any further harm. It is during the climactic moment of the story that we learn what the unknown animal is and the importance of this Black Cat to the narrator and his family. Gaiman’s resolution is a punch in the gut, which is what makes it great short story.  But a closer look at a couple of points of this story shows Gaiman inverting some common conventions of fantasy literature and folklore.

The first convention Gaiman inverts is that of the black cat as a familiar of witches and others disposed to evil at night. Black Cat is described as, “patch of night.” This a common description of the witch’s familiar, but in this story Black Cat is portrayed as protector, willing to stand against a stronger foe to defend others it doesn’t know. The other convention is that of the black cat as an omen of bad luck and ill tidings. Quite the opposite plays out in this story. Black Cat not only defends this family but it appears to somehow carry the burdens of the family which may explain why it is, “surprisingly heavy.” Black Cat’s presence is a stroke of luck for this family.  Gaiman’s inversions of these common conventions help establish depth for both the story as a whole and the Black Cat in particular.

Gaiman’s story “The Price” took me back to a time when I would wonder what the feral Tom and Molly cats were doing when I wasn’t watching. Of course there was no Black Cat on the farm, and I never did see anything like what the narrator of this story sees. But maybe that’s what makes the story all the better.  Just because I didn’t see doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

-K-

“The Price” by Neil Gaiman from Smoke and Mirrors (1998).

One Murder After Dark and Four Stories

Cowboy Junkies, Money, and Murder in a Trailer Park

Songs make for interesting story telling devices. The best songs tell great stories, and great stories always deserve a closer look. These closer looks (criticisms if you want to sound literary) can serve to inform, to entertain, and to persuade. “Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park” by the Cowboy Junkies is one such great story. There are multiple approaches and interpretations of this song, but I want to focus on how money plays a role in the lives of the characters in this song.

The central plot of “Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park” is the murder of Mrs. Annabelle Evans. She is murdered some time after sunset. Annabelle’s body is identified by a neighbor, Peg. Nearby an unidentified character is prompting someone by the name of Ann Marie to pack her bags and leave with him. Meanwhile, across town, George Evans is at a bar getting drunk, buying rounds for the regulars, and bragging about how he won big at a game of craps. Later this same night, we see a “faceless man” in a hotel room counting out crumpled bills and waiting for the sports results on TV to see if his wagers have come in. These four scenes occur on the same night, and it is money that connects them.

The apparent motive for Mrs. Annabelle Evans’ murder is robbery. She is killed for what amounts to not much more than pocket-money. The central action of this scene revolves around money, and money plays an important role in each subsequent scene. We aren’t made fully aware of the motive for the unidentified character’s desire to move and to what extent Annabelle Evans’ death may have in that decision, but this character has “been saving pennies” in preparation for the move. He tells Ann Marie that they will head west and make a new start (and money is always needed for new starts). George Evans, who we can presume is Annabelle’s husband, is getting drunk at a local bar and is oblivious to the fact that his wife has been murdered. One can’t help but wonder how things may be different if George had gone home instead of spending his winnings at a local bar. Finally, there is the “faceless man” in a hotel room. Annabelle Evans’ murder has made the late night news. This “faceless man” turns down the sound on the TV and waits for the sports. He isn’t as concerned with the murder of Annabelle Evans as he is with whether or not he has won his wagers. These scenes show that money is more valuable to these characters than the life of Annabelle Evans.

Songs are just one of many ways to tell a great story, and great stories are worth criticizing.  “Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park” by the Cowboy Junkies tells the story of a murder after dark, and how money is more important than a human life.

-K-

“Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park” from Black Eyed Man by Cowboy Junkies

The Prescience of Peeping Tom

How a Sixty Year Old Movie Foresaw Our Fascination With Watching. 

If a movie predicts the future should it be billed as sci-fi? Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom debuted in 1960 to negative critical reviews. It wasn’t until years later that critics began to see Powell’s production for the well-crafted movie that it is (positive reviews from the likes of Martin Scorsese help). Peeping Tom is billed as a crime drama and a strong argument can be made that it is one of the first modern slasher/horror movies. This movie is great when viewed on all these levels, but there are some interesting points in the movie that can be viewed as eerie predictions of life in 2019. Powell’s movie is obviously not science fiction, but his depiction of scoptophilia provides some interesting connections to our current fascination with watching and being watched.

Although the movie debuted in 1960, there are a few scenes that would be perfect in a contemporary movie focused a compulsion to watch. Mark Lewis, played by Karlheinz Bohm, is the central character of Peeping Tom. Mark suffers from scoptophilia, what is explained in the movie as, “The morbid urge to gaze.” That very explanation sadly can be applied to many people who are drawn to live feeds and up to the minute posts. The first scene of the movie involves Mark secretly filming an event as it happens. Immediately after this first scene we see it replayed as Mark watches his film of the event. The scene may be shocking on first view but it loses some of this shock on a second viewing. One is left to wonder if Mark’s urge to gaze wears off a little with each viewing.This same question can be asked of viewers of the aforementioned live feeds and posts. When does shock give way to apathy? When does the desensitization begin? Although the movie centers on Mark’s morbid urge to gaze there are also scenes that imply an urge to be gazed upon.

We find out rather early in the movie that Mark’s childhood was closely monitored and filmed by his father, a renowned biologist. Mark refers to the key events of his childhood as a series of “sequences” that were all filmed. This scene is prescient of people who currently live their lives on social media. The event (sequence) is less important than the number of likes and shares that it gets. The urge to be gazed upon is not just shown through the character of Mark. Vivian, played by Moira Shearer, is an aspiring actress who agrees to be part of a film Mark is shooting. She makes two statements that speak to an urge to be gazed upon. First, Vivian says, “Make us famous,” while Mark is preparing a set. This quote sounds like a mantra for those who, in 2019, aspire to be ‘instafamous’. Secondly, Vivian playfully gets behind a studio camera and says, “I’m photographing you photographing me.” In her desire to be watched she is oblivious to the danger she is in. How many people living online worry about (or even acknowledge) the possible dangers? Powell’s presentation of both the morbid urge to gaze and to be gazed upon made for an excellent movie in 1960 and gives contemporary audiences a few scenes to contemplate.

Peeping Tom was not well received in 1960 because of its subject matter and Powell’s approach to presenting that subject matter.  That subject matter, the urge to gaze and be gazed upon, is a common topic today. Peeping Tom has several prescient scenes that are worth a closer look for those interested in our obsession with watching and being watched.

-K-

Peeping Tom with Karlheinz Bohm and Anna Massey.  Directed by Michael Powell.

 

The Lust for Tragic Spectacle

Sylvia Plath’s “Aftermath” and the Tragedy Lookie-Loos

With St. Patrick’s Day fast approaching I’ve been celebrating in various ways. One of those ways is with Bushmills Irish Whiskey, and whiskey and poetry just seem to fit together. I was thinking of reading some Seamus Heaney but that would have been a bit on the nose. I had just enough Bushmills to start feeling introspective so I went with Sylvia Plath’s The Colossus and Other Poems. I’ve read this collection of poems numerous times over the past twenty years and each rereading is a new experience (I change, the times change, the world changes, and Plath remains a genius).

There is one poem in this collection that caught my attention with this recent reading. Plath’s “Aftermath” is fourteen lines of raw talent packed into two stanzas.  I’ve already used more words writing about the poem than there probably are in the poem. To be honest, you may want to stop reading my ramblings here and just go read the poem (whiskey optional but highly recommended). Seriously, I’ll wait if you want to go read it. I won’t be offended. When you get back jump down to the third paragraph and we can pick it up from there.

I don’t want to waste time with any type of in-depth analysis if you have already read the poem. I just want to throw a couple of observations out there and see what you think. The first stanza presents us with a tragedy and the lookie-loos who are drawn to its aftermath. These lookie-loos love to act as if the tragedy happened to them. They get some sort of perverse enjoyment through this play acting. The second stanza expands on the first. The lookie-loos, not satisfied with pretending that the tragic event happened to them, attempt to identify with survivors. They don’t care to know much about the victim because it would detract from their vicarious experience. Instead, like some sort of emotional vampires, they attempt to feed off the suffering of the victims. Once the lookie-loos have had their fill they move along to the next tragedy and the next victim.
Reading Plath is always an enlightening and somewhat humbling experience (each and every time). “Aftermath” is a succinct indictment of those individuals who troll tragedies looking for some sort of perverse thrill, and she does it all in fourteen lines.

-K-

The Colossus and Other Poems (1998) by Sylvia Plath