Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Los tres amigos

#98 The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

His vice-like grip on the affairs of Europe was staggering.

Swashbuckling, roof-top jumping and sexy mustaches are about all I knew going into The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. It turns out I was wrong on almost all three accounts. I unfairly lumped musketeers in with pirates; Dumas’ men were more gallant than swashbuckling. Also, most of their adventures were personal – not grand political coups – so it involved duel-fighting instead of the jumping. However, the ‘staches did run supreme.

All-in-all most assumptions going into the book were false. Possibly because of my many erroneous assumptions The Three Musketeers went above my expectations (and yes, I expected more than chocolate covered nougat).

The tale is an adventure set in Richelieu-dominated France. When the book opens Louis XIII is the king of France who is estranged from his wife (Anne of Austria) and allows himself to be manipulated by Cardinal Richelieu. People are divided into factions – the royalists and the cardinalists and Catholics and Huguenots (Protestants). Basically the Protestants are non-existent except for a small group in La Rochelle which the Cardinal decides to isolate to punish the queen (who is in love with the duke of Buckingham, England’s chief diplomat). Sounds like a modern day soap opera a little, doesn't it?

Lots of royal intrigue throughout the novel, which the musketeers sometimes knowingly and other times ignorantly play a big part in. The brief biography of Dumas in my edition says “his work ignored historical accuracy, psychology, and analysis, but its thrilling adventures and exuberant inventiveness” delighted readers. OK, so the three musketeers might not have been involved with almost all the major events of Louis XIII’s reign, but it's nice to pretend (and a hell of a lot more interesting that way). They were real, though, so that’s all that really matters (Athos, Porthos and Aramis were the known pseudonyms for three down-on-their-luck French nobles).

Another fallacy I had going into this novel, which I feel is very important, is the idea that the three musketeers themselves are the protagonists. FALSE. A younger, smarter, handsomer and better fighting country boy named d’Artagnan is the focus of everything. Not only is he the main character, he also skillfully manipulates the cardinal, the evil Lady de Winter and even the three musketeers.

D’Artagnan drives the plot, but the three friends serve as representations of the human personality - so they are the symbolic mumbo-jumbo (You didn’t think I had the hypothesis of an English major inside of me, did ya?). Athos is the wizened, thoughtful being, Porthos the vein, attention-starved, comedy type, with Aramis serving the spiritual side of things. The phrase “All for one and one for all,” (coined by d’Artagnan, not by one of the three) not only shows their unity in battle, but also exhibits their unity of spirit and mind. Separate they may be stock characters but if viewed as a whole the three musketeers are a complete personality. How ‘bout that for theoretical bull shit?

Respect and honor are concepts Dumas touches upon numerous occasions. In the 17th Century, self-respect and image were more important than life. Death over a frivolous misunderstanding was considered noble. When men walk down the street and a passerby sneezes in the wrong direction, a duel is fought. If a lady is playing Connect Four and her opponent cheats, a duel is fought. Moreover, if a person confuses the definition between “fortnight” and “forthright,” you better believe a duel will be fought.

In addition to views on honor, the author has a unique opinion on women. Dumas depicts a woman as the main villain. Milady aka Lady de Winter aka Countess de La Fere aka Charlotte Backson serves as the devil personified. Crushing men’s hearts – along with other anatomical entities – to her was as mundane as brushing her teeth. The author makes the point that women were not necessarily silly and inferior (a novel concept back then) but instead duplicitous and cunning. Their sway over men – in the book – caused wars to be fought, people to loose their lives and reputations as well as grudges to be held unnecessarily. It seems Dumas thought that if women were not causing the destruction of Western society, it was a dull day for them.

I've yet to be disappointed by a book on this list (crossing fingers). So far I like Gone With the Wind the best, though. Maybe I'm just a sap for Southern charm. School's starting up soon, so we'll see if I am able to continue my readings. The next book - who knows when I'll get it done - will be Bram Stoker's Dracula (# 97). I hope I can finish it by Halloween.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Kiss Me Kate

#97 Bringing Up Baby directed by Howard Hawks

Old ladies aren't the only dinosaurs in this movie

Often times I go into a movie without doing background research because I feel it will hinder my viewing experience or give me an unwanted preconceived notion from someone else's negative or positive opinion. Usually, I even try to avoid reading the On-Demand description or the blurb written on the back of the box.

So when I sat down to view yet another Katherine Hepburn movie, Bringing Up Baby, co-staring Cary Grant, I expected some light romantic comedy where the two of them would be like a married (or divorced) couple who would be thrust into having a baby. Hepburn would be headstrong, cold and distant; Grant a hunk who got whatever he want. Pretty much I thought it would be a prequel to The Philadelphia Story.

First off, the movie itself is not a simple romantic comedy. Although a love story drives the story, this film is - as many agree - is one of the first and best screwball comedies of all time. The plot revolves around trying to lasso a leopard ("Baby") while at the same time keeping up a rouse that Grant is a big game hunter (he really is a paleontologist - even though the movie says zoologist) who just experienced a nervous brake down. Ridiculous situation follows ridiculous situation. The audience - even though they root for the couple - never really has a chance to catch their breath and realize they are being tricked into watching a romantic movie.

That fact may be help by the unromantic-ness of the characters. Grant, the consummate Hollywood heartthrob, is a big nerdy scientist. Stammering, awkward and socially inept, Dr. John Huxley is totally under the thumb of rich socialite Susan (Hepburn) and doesn't even know it. That's because Hepburn - although controlling - is just as clumsy and awkward as he. She is a silly, rich girl who sees a toy that she wants (the good doctor) and won't let his impending marriage to his prudish manager stand in her way.

This movie did initially did terrible at the box office and was the last film done at RKO Studios by Hepburn before she bought her contract out - a ballsy move to say the least. Helped by the advent of VCRs, DVDs and even a re-release in a newly colored version (there's Gilligan's Island old episodes like this, too) the film slowly gained recognition as a truly visionary comedy. Initial response, box office figures and critics' remarks are not a true way to measure the importance of a movie. Imagine if Hepburn and Grant's careers nose-dived after this? What would we do? Maybe Gigli should get another look then.

Another comment is the good deal stereotypes older movies have in them. This one depicts an alcoholic Irish gardener, a black driver, a brainy German psychiatrist and, worst of all, a frigid, decrepit, rich, old Protestant lady who screams "Well, I never!" a lot. Stock characters, sure, are important, but let's develop people at least a little bit.

My review of the candy-bar book will be out soon. The next movie will be #96 The Searchers.