Film

Quarantine Binge: Netflix’s “Into the Night”

Tom, get your plane right on time….

So last night I binge watched the entire six episode Belgian science fiction mini series “Into the Night” on Netflix.

It’s hard to know if the thriller lands a different way in a pandemic than it would otherwise. I don’t fully remember life before the pandemic. I vague recall I was less likely binge a full series.

If the idea of watching a dystopian scenario in which nearly the entire human population is wiped out by a phenomenon that makes the sun toxic is not too off-putting to you just now, I recommend it. It does a great job of sucking you into its world as you watch a small band of airline passengers in a race against time to survive the night.

The story begins in the Brussels airport as a late night flight to Moscow is just preparing to board. Odd things are going on in the background. An internet celebrity is talking to a friend in another part of the world and she collapses. On the screen over the bar is a news story showing people lying face down. (If the sun kills everyone on contact, who was supposed to have recorded and broadcast these images? We’ll put that aside for the moment, and chalk it up to what I like to refer to as “exposition hell.”) As the flight begins pre-boarding, with just a handful of passengers inside, a man pushes down an armed guard, grabs his weapon and storms the plane shouting about the sun. Thus the action begins. Unless the plane keeps flying west and staying in darkness everyone on board will die.

You know those quarantine house lists that people have been sharing on social media? Where they list groups of famous people and ask which house you’d want to be stuck in? Well, this plane is almost entirely populated with people you would not want in your quarantine house.

[Mild spoilers in this graph] The characters have their moments, but what a bleak view of human nature this tale has. In spite of the fact that this airplane contains the last living human beings on the planet, as far as anyone knows, a fair amount of the drama centers around various characters scheming to get other characters kicked off their airborne life raft. This isn’t just banishing them from the village– it’s choosing to murder them. (Even characters possessed of skills that might help them survive.) I would like to think that if there were a great die-off the survivors would band together a bit more.

[Ok, you can come back now.] This show will take you for a fast-paced ride and you might just find that before you know it you’ve unintentionally watched the full series in one night.

 

Desperate Romantics

DesromsI have just finished watching the 2009 BBC 2 series Desperate Romantics, which is streaming for free on Pluto these days.  Ten years down the line, I imagine the statute of limitations on spoilers is probably passed, but if you haven’t watched this yet, I’m letting you know that I’m going to talk about plot points from the end of the series.

Desperate Romantics is a fun (it is customary to say “racy”) modern-paced, boy band version of art history. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is the swaggering front man of the band. He gets all the attention and the women. John Everett Millais is “the cute one.” He’s the guy who can play six instruments well, can learn any instrument he picks up, he writes the tunes that bring the band to the attention of the hot critic of the moment. (Also he wears a fantastic purple coat.) William Holman Hunt is the drummer. They call him “Maniac.” Finally there is Fred. He’s the guy who loves music and musicians, and decides to be the manager.

As in any good VH-1 Behind the Music, we follow the band from its beginning as a brotherhood of struggling artists. Then life experiences and varying levels of success pulls them apart. At the end Millais is trying to get the band back together again but it seems the reunion tour is just not going to come together.

All three of the artists have amorous adventures with women that came into their lives as model/muses. Poor, loyal, Fred–the only one who is not paired up in the series– is the first to spot the aesthetically perfect milliner Lizzie Siddal. All of the artists fight for the chance to paint her, and Millais has the first success. But she is drawn to the bad boy Rossetti, who promises to bring her into the world of artists by teaching her to paint.

The drama centers more on love making than the art making. The only painting that is really dwelt upon is Millais’ Ophelia. It is used as a foreshadowing device, and Lizzie Siddal by the end of the tale, becomes Ophelia, driven mad by love of an inconstant man. This Ophelia drowns herself in laudanum.

ophelia-john-everett-millais

Each episode begins with a disclaimer that historical liberties have been taken. Not knowing a great deal about the historical figures, my commentary will focus on how they were interpreted as television characters.

Millais is the marrying kind. He is serious and stable and blissful in his family life. Hunt is driven by an internal conflict between a religious desire to renounce the flesh and his lust for a woman of low birth. Rossetti is a selfish womanizer whose brief marriage to his co-muse is depicted as disastrous. The a-historical Fred is mostly there to narrate it all.

The passionate relationship between Rossetti and Siddal gets the most screen time and attention. Siddal is drawn to Rossetti because of his talent and because he can usher her into a new world. She has artistic ambitions of her own, and he helps her to realize them, in spite of his own occasional jealousy at her success as he struggles.

She worries that he will never marry her and give her security. His inability to commit is chalked up to his enjoying the chase and only wanting what he can’t have. Yet, after Siddal almost dies from an overdose, Rossetti reluctantly marries his great love. Rather than being happy ever after, it is the beginning of the end. For Siddal’s artistic mentor John Ruskin stops giving her financial support and tutoring after she is a married woman, and Rossetti is already flirting with his next model at the wedding.  The distraught Siddal takes her own life.

Rossetti is crushed and vows to change his ways. He throws a book of poems that he wrote into her grave. In the last scene, however, he digs the grave up in order to retrieve them.

Thus the problem is cast as Rossetti, and by extension, Hunt, valuing art over relationships. The drama seems to come down firmly on the side of relationships over art. These men could not really love, and that is a tragedy.

In our culture, we tend to attribute characters’ actions to innate personality and character and we give much less weight to societal and external factors.  Was Rossetti broken emotionally and Millais healthy or could there be another explanation for the successes and failures of their relationships?

All of the members of the brotherhood prioritized creating art. Rossetti had less commercial success. To prioritize art, for him, meant financial struggle and irregular income. (He is squatting in someone’s atrium for most of the story.) Millais had early, and continuing, commercial success. This allowed him to prioritize art while making the kind of comfortable living that would allow him to raise 13 children with the help of various servants.  If Millais were squatting and only getting the occasional commission he might be as reluctant to marry as Rossetti. If Rossetti were rich he might have bought a palace for his muse, and even if he did have affairs, it might not have threatened her entire sense of safety.

It strikes me that while we do tend to chalk male character’s actions up to “character” we make more allowance for the effect of social forces on female characters. We’re quite ready to see female characters as being acted upon, in spite of their best efforts. Although Lizzie Siddal is a strong character, with talent and ambition in her own right, she is thwarted time and again by social forces. When she marries she becomes, in society’s eyes, a wife, and loses her external financial support for her art. Yet, she is not married to a man who can give her the traditional role of wife. He is reluctant to have children. He is powerless to support her career. He is not even able to stay focused on her when he finds a new muse model.

After her death the brotherhood sits with Rossetti and discusses the tragedy of his character, his inability to love what he can have. We’re not invited to question Siddal’s love for Rossetti. Does she also prioritize art over love? Is she attracted to Rossetti because she believes the only way to realize her art is to attach herself to this man?

Whether Siddal actually took her own life, or whether it was a tragic accident, has been much debated.  The official report was accident, but Siddal as Ophelia is a much better story.

Watching this series got me to musing on what artistic period we’re living in today, and that will be the subject of a future post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Happy End Male vs. Female II

I have frequently written here about what is considered to be an appropriate ending for a story. Five years ago I first wrote about my observation that what counted as a happy ending varied depending on whether the character was male or female.

The male character faces daunting obstacles and overcomes them and the story ends with his victory. The female character faces obstacles and has a victory by deciding “I don’t need this. I am fine jut as I am.” Like Dorothy waking up in Kansas, “there is no place like home.” Whatever journey the female character takes in the world, it is really an inner journey to find self-esteem and emotional support.

The writer Catherine Nichols summed up the state of things by saying “…I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition.”

We have learned from our stories to be like the betas Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”

“I’m awfully glad I am a beta.”

Today I was thinking about a film that came out my freshman year of college. “Punchline” starring Sally Field and Tom Hanks. It did not receive good reviews, but I remember enjoying it at the time.

Punchline

As I am talking about endings, what follows will contain spoilers.

When I saw the movie back then I gave the ending very little thought.  What stuck with me more was how Taylor Negron said “area rug.” (This joke has not aged well.)

 

Looking back though I realized that “Punchline” does something fairly unusual. It tries to wrap things up with both the male and the female happy end in a single story. All it needs is a little self-sacrifice on the part of the female character.

Tom Hanks plays Steve, a gifted but struggling comic who works in a mid-level comedy club. He tells an agent that if she is going to bring in someone to discover him, she’d better do it soon because “funny Steve is going under.”

Sally Fields is Lilah a New Jersey housewife who has long harbored a secret dream of being a comedian. It is an ambition her husband does not understand. Her desire to be on stage, and her time away from the family, puts a strain on her marriage. Lilah asks funny Steve to teach her the ropes. He helps her to develop her comic voice and to gain confidence and self-esteem. (So she’s already won!) She helps him to be more stable emotionally.

The dream of being a comic causes strain between both protagonists and their families. In Steve’s case, his choice has disappointed his father, who has been paying for him to attend medical school. In Lilah’s case, it puts strain on her marriage because she is not home as often as she was before. So two people with variations on the same problem.

The rule for how a conflict between relationships and dream/duty is resolved differs according to the gender of the character. The male character, when faced with disapproval from his parents or spouse is supposed to rebel against those constraints, follow his true path, and by succeeding gain the respect of his family. The female character is supposed to chose happy relationships over the goal. And this is how we get to the “double happy ending” of Punch Line.

The story leads up to a big comedy competition between the regulars at the club. The prize is discovery and a chance for a slot on a big time talk show. Even though all the comedians think Steve had the best set, the judges split three to two in favor of Lilah. Lilah, on learning this, decides to walk away and not accept the prize allowing the person who needs comedy more (Steve) to live his dream. Lilah decides that her dream is really to focus on her family and to maintain a hobby working at a mid-level comedy club from time to time. Steve’s happy end is having his genius and hard work finally rewarded. Lilah’s is discovering that she is good, and that she doesn’t need worldly success to confirm it. Her choice is presented as wise and noble.

“Alpha children… work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta…”

There is nothing essentially wrong with either narrative. In life, there are times when it is wise to go against the world in order to fulfill a duty or follow a dream. There are other times when it is wise to surrender those goals and prioritize things like relationships or emotional well-being.  The problem is that each gender has limited choices and responses in our stories.

 

 

 

 

Review of the Film “The Happy Prince”

IMG_0683 Finally, “The Happy Prince” has come to Michigan.

First, I must congratulate Rupert Everett for taking this project on in the first place. Oscar Wilde has inspired an entire industry of books, journals, scholarly works, and films. That means there are a lot of people out there who are experts on the subject and who have a sense of ownership in one way or another in the story and how it is told. When you tackle such a well-known figure you open yourself up to criticism in a way you don’t when you are telling a fictional tale.

If the film has a motif is is the line that appears in the trailer: “Why does one run towards ruin?” Everett’s Wilde is a man who seems to revel in his own self-destruction to the dismay of the loyal friends who are at a loss of how to help him and who all seem to be pulled down into his wake.

I was especially impressed by the amount of nuance was brought to the characters of Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas played by Colin Morgan and Robert “Robbie” Ross played by Edwin Thomas even though neither relationship had a huge amount of screen time. It was refreshing to see Wilde and Douglas depicted as a real couple, not just figures in an operatic drama. They clearly have a history, love for each other, and a level of comfort with one another. They enjoy one another’s company.

It was refreshing as well to see a Robert Ross who was loyal and helpful to his friend, but who also got fed up with him at times. In the 1997 film “Wilde” Robbie Ross is entirely selfless. He doesn’t seem to have a jealous bone in his body. He is depicted comforting the poet John Gray after he’s been pushed aside in Oscar’s affections by Bosie. (In life, Ross disliked Gray.) Edwin Thomas’s Ross is a caregiver, but he does not possess infinite patience. There is a subtle moment in the film where Robbie has been in Paris, where the exiled Oscar lives, and it is clear that he has been avoiding him. Who could blame him?

That leads to one of the greatest strengths of the film. Oscar is the central focus of the drama, but he is by no means a hero. He is often unfair to his friends and careless of their feelings, and yet it is also clear that there is something in him that made so many people love him.

In many ways, Stephen Fry, from the 1997 biopic is a more ideal Wilde. He has a physical resemblance and his background as a comedian makes him a natural as a wit. It is hard to imagine better casting. I enjoyed that performance very much,but Rupert Everett’s late period Wilde gives a haunting performance. He is a complex, suffering, frustrating character. It is like comparing apples and oranges.

If there is one flaw in the 1997 film’s version of Oscar it is that Oscar has no flaws, except, perhaps a weakness for beautiful, spoiled Bosie. He is dragged to a brothel to please Bosie, but he is uncomfortable and passive. Bosie screams and rails at him, and he is patient and calls him “darling boy.”

I always prefer stories where there are no clear-cut heroes and villains, where there are messes and people are trying to deal with them as best they can; where people’s own personalities and shortcomings are part of the challenge.

In “The Happy Prince,” Oscar’s flaws are front and center. He is hurt, but he also wounds. He revels in the underworld and he finds humanity there. Both films use Wilde’s children’s story “The Happy Prince” as a narrative device. In the 1997 film it is used to show the tragedy of Wilde’s estrangement from his sons. In Everett’s film it takes on additional poignancy showing what a human place “the gutter” is.

The film is dizzying– quite literally at times– it uses a spinning camera effect a bit too much, but it does give the disoriented feel of a man in failing health, drinking too much, and looking back on his life, which is what Everett was going for. That choice means that some of the subtle moments of the supporting cast go by in a blur.

There was a lovely scene between Emily Watson, as Oscar’s wife Constance, and Edwin Thomas as Robbie Ross. Robbie has scolded Oscar for how he is treating his wife, expecting her to support him financially while he lives with the lover who brought ruin on his family. He says something like “you write her one beautiful letter and you think everything will be ok.” It is clear that he is talking as much about his relationship with Oscar, who treated him badly and then tried to win him back with beautifully-written letters. This is followed by a scene with Constance and Robbie in which Constance asks why Robbie is trying to help her. In that moment Constance realizes Robbie, too, understands what it means to love Oscar and what a terrible price comes with it. It would have been interesting to see the relationship between those characters play out more, but it would have been a different film. “The Happy Prince” is a story about Oscar, and Oscar’s isolation.

The film works well for someone like me, who knows a lot about the Wilde story already.  I was not thrown by the constant moving backwards and forwards in time. The same could not be said for the person who came to the film with me. She knew a bit more than some audience members would, because she read my book, but was still disoriented by some of the brief flashbacks that for her lacked context. There are quick references to Wilde’s prison manuscript “De Profundis,” but if you didn’t already know, the significance of this would be lost. Does it matter? I’m far too seeped in the story to be able to view it that way at this point.

It is also, given the constraints of the medium, quite good history. There are people out there who can say exactly what happened here or there and what color socks Oscar was wearing at the moment. I, myself, could tell you Oscar’s standing breakfast order at the Paris hotel where he died, but I won’t. That would just be annoying. There was little that I bumped on factually.

There were places where Everett filled things in and made choices where the truth can’t be known. For example, Oscar and Bosie lived together for a time in Naples, Italy. They parted because people on both sides cut off their allowances. In order to get the tap back on, they had to agree not to live together any more. They probably had an argument about this. No one else was in the room, so we can only guess what was said. I found Everett’s idea of how this went to be compelling, although I fill it in differently in my own imagination.

There is another scene that I would probably not bring up at all, except that I have been asked about it. I am not sure what counts as a spoiler in a film where the history is known and it jumps about in time, but this is towards the end of the film so: spoiler alert: Oscar Wilde dies.

At Oscar’s funeral, Bosie and Robbie get into an argument. This didn’t happen. In fact, Bosie and Robbie were at something like a high point in their friendship at this time. Even though they had clashed a bit when Robbie was negotiating between Oscar and his wife over the allowance, that argument had blown over quickly. (Both Robbie and Bosie often argued with friends.) Between that time and Oscar’s death, Bosie had stayed in London where he “practically lived” at Robbie’s house. At the time Bosie was grateful for Robbie’s help with logistics and Robbie said nothing negative about Bosie regarding the funeral. The friends wrote each other intimate letters about boys before and after. There were little fault lines in their friendship that would eventually crack into chasms, but that had not yet happened. Even so, I was not bothered by this in the movie. Given the dreamlike nature of the film, I think it can be interpreted as addressing the subtext of the relationship, and some of that, like the break up at Naples, falls into the category of what can’t really be entirely known.

 

 

How the Story Ends: Thoughts on the Move Christine (2016)

The 2016 film Christine is based on the true story of a Sarasota local news personality Christine Chubbuck. I did not know her story when I selected the film under the category “critically acclaimed dramas” on my streaming service. The blurb described the movie this way: “In a film based on true events, an awkward but ambitious TV reporter struggles to adapt when she’s ordered to focus on violent and salacious stories.” Journalism movies are a genre I often like, so I selected it. It was not at all what I had been expecting based on the description.

In retrospect, I believe I had read about Chubbuck when I was studying broadcasting in college, but I didn’t connect it to the film I was watching. The filmmakers undoubtedly assumed that the people who bought tickets would know how the story ends. It is not a spoiler to say that what is best known about Chubbuck is how her life ended. One morning on live TV before her regular segment she read the following “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first: an attempted suicide.” And then she shot herself on live television.

 

Had I watched the trailer before selecting the film, I would have had more of a sense of its tone. This is one case where I feel knowing the ending in advance would have made the experience of watching the film better. It would have added a tension and urgency to what was unfolding on screen. Instead, I spent most of the film wondering why I was watching this woman struggle with mental illness. What was the purpose, the point of view, of this story?

It is, however, a film that has stayed with me and in retrospect, what seemed to be its weaknesses while I was watching, are its strengths. It is a film in which easy answers and clear villains are absent. She has co-workers and family who are patient with her mood swings and who want to help. Chubbuck’s frustration with the shift towards sensationalism for ratings is present, but it is not a bogey man, just one of many problems that Chubbuck is ill-equipped to deal with. She is not seen as worthy of promotion by the powers that be, and the sexism of the time is present, but even if there had been a level playing field, it is not clear that Chubbuck had what it took to succeed in her field. Her erratic behavior, and outspoken insubordination would have gotten her fired in most places of work. She was stiff on camera. The obstacles she faced were real, but her internal struggle was bigger than anything external.

It is rare to have a film in which a woman who is difficult to understand and to like is the viewpoint character. That alone makes the film interesting. Rebecca Hall who played Chubbuck in the film said she was drawn to the film for just this reason. “There are a lot of films about the coolness of being a misfit,” she said, “I don’t know how many films there are, certainly about women, where it shows how painful it is to feel that you don’t fit in and that you are different…”

In this era, where we are sensitive to the idea of appropriation, something that comes up quite a bit in articles about the film is the fact that the writer and director are both men. Should a man have been the one to tell this woman’s story? Is this just exploiting Chubbuck again?

Each of us has many facets to our identity. Yet we consider some identity categories to be more fundamental than others. I am firmly of the opinion that the best person to tell as story is the one who is taken with a story and can’t let it go. Craig Shilowich, the writer of Christine, was drawn to the story because he had experienced depression himself. In the lead up to her dramatic last act, he saw a vehicle to explore mental illness. I would argue that the most important aspect of Chubbuck in this story is not her femininity but her mental illness.

Shilowich refuses to turn Chubbuck into a symbol of a greater cultural message. It might have served the drama better if he had, but he was right to resist the easy sensationalism that Chubbuck’s final statement seems to critique. In the end, I was left with a visceral sense of the frustrations of trying to reach someone who is depressed and who makes herself unreachable. Most of us have experienced–if not clinical depression–at least periods of feeling like an outcast, feeling misunderstood or unable to connect to others.

I was not left with an answer to the perhaps more compelling question of why Chubbuck chose to act in such a public manner.  Why did she chose to make her final act a violent rebuke? It was a death that was engineered not only to end her own pain, but to inflict trauma on others who were forced to witness it.  We can understand and empathize with the person who finds it too difficult to go on living, but the person who wants to force other people– strangers, society at large– to suffer with her?

I find a line from the Boomtown Rats song repeating in my head: “They could see no reasons ‘cos there are no reasons.” It is fortunate that most of us find this incomprehensible and can’t truly empathize.

The film succeeds, then, in what it attempts to do. It is a think piece. A story about a sensational, tabloid-esque story that is consciously anti-sensational and humanizing. It is at the same time disturbing and, for a film that is framed around an ending, strangely unresolved.

There was a line in a Rolling Stone review of the film that struck me. It was, wrote Sam Adams, “a time when things could happen without being recorded.” This led me to a whole series of reflections on how the dictates of what constitutes a good story, and a proper ending, effects our day to day lives and how we see ourselves. This article is already too long, so I will leave those thoughts for another day.

Rupert Everett’s Depiction of Wilde’s Last Years in “The Happy Prince”

I am looking forward to Rupert Everett’s new film “The Happy Prince,” which tells the story of Oscar Wilde’s last years. It has a distributor and is “coming soon” but so far I’ve only had the opportunity to see trailers and clips.

Having spent quite a few years researching that period, and the years that followed, I was especially interested to see this clip of a famous episode in the lives of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. After Douglas inherited his portion of the family fortune upon his father’s death, Wilde had dinner with him and asked him to set him up with a regular endowment. The conversation went badly and both Wilde and Douglas gave an earful about the other to the journalist Frank Harris. Wilde also wrote about the episode in a letter to Robert Ross who was not present. Harris wrote about the fight in his biography of Wilde. It was the one thing in Harris’s book that Douglas hated the most and he spent years trying to suppress it.  The chapter bolstered Robbie Ross’s view that Douglas was only interested in Wilde for his money. That view has been enduring, as you will recall from my review of The Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Happy Prince.” 

Obviously, as I have not seen the film, I don’t know how this scene appears in context. What I like about it, however, is how it depicts Bosie not as hopelessly selfish and callous but rather as disgusted with how Wilde is squandering his talent. This is also how I saw the episode, and so I thought I would share an excerpt on the subject from Oscar’s Ghost.

Many years later, Frank Harris would publish a biography of Wilde, with Ross’s help. It has been widely criticised for its literary style, which bolsters his own importance and invents direct quotes as a narrative device. Douglas hated Harris’s biography. He fought to keep it from being published in England, and he worked with Harris and later George Bernard Shaw as the writers tried to come up with a version Douglas would find satisfactory.

There was one incident in the Harris book that offended Bosie the most. After Queensberry’s death, Oscar invited Bosie to the Café de la Paix. Robbie had suggested to Oscar that now that Bosie had his inheritance, he should ask him to set up an annuity of £2,000 from his estate. (About £22,000 today) This would give Oscar a regular income and would make him no longer dependent on his wife’s estate if he did anything to upset the administrators of the fund.

Something went wrong, however, in the way Oscar presented the idea to Bosie. It sparked one of Bosie’s rages. What struck a nerve seems to have been a suggestion that Bosie owed him for the ruin his family had brought on him. This was probably not the first time he had heard this complaint. As Oscar recounted the argument to Robbie, Bosie ‘went into paroxysms of rage, followed by satirical laughter’ and said Oscar had no claim of any kind on him.

Harris happened to be staying in Paris along with Bosie and Oscar and he saw each of them shortly after the blow up. Harris quotes Bosie, two days latter saying to him, ‘I do not see that there is any claim at all,’ and spitting the word ‘claim’ ‘as if the very word maddened him.’ The word ‘claim’ might have come from Wilde and was at the heart of his anger.

Although Harris does not record Oscar saying anything negative about Bosie in the conversation he reportedly had with him, two pages later Harris tells Bosie that Oscar seems to blame him for egging him on in the libel trial. (Given how the Harris book was written, Wilde may have said something like this to Harris or Harris may have gotten the idea that Oscar felt that way from a conversation with Robbie or one of Oscar’s letters to Robbie…)

‘How did I know how the case would go?’ Bosie snaps. ‘Why did he take my advice, if he didn’t want to? He was surely old enough to know his own interest… he is simply disgusting now…’

In his letter to Robbie, Oscar describes Bosie as ‘revolting’ and ‘mean, and narrow, and greedy.’ He says he is ‘disgusted’ and considers Bosie’s refusal to be an ‘ugly thing’ that ‘taints life.’ He also threw in a few negative comments Bosie had reportedly said about Robbie’s attitude towards money for good measure, contrasting Robbie’s goodness with Bosie’s badness. Bosie’s memory of the argument differed from Wilde’s. He said he had just given Oscar £40 (in another source it was £80) and that he ‘whined and wheedled and wept’ to get more.

In the letter to Robbie, Oscar quotes Harris as saying ‘One should never ask for anything: it is always a mistake.’ He suggested that Oscar should have had Robbie make the suggestion. This is quite different in tone to the conversation as it appears in Harris’s biography. There is no way Harris could have appreciated all of the subtext in that quarrel between lovers. (Harris admits as much himself.) Bosie clearly was enraged by the personal associations in something Oscar said.

‘He could earn all the money he wants if he would only write; but he won’t do anything,’ Harris quotes Bosie as saying. ‘He is lazy, and getting lazier and lazier every day; and he drinks far too much. He is intolerable.’ Bosie admitted in his ‘setting the record straight’ preface to the 1930 edition of the Harris biography that he might well have called Oscar ‘an old prostitute.’

As usual, however, the mood soon passed and had no lasting effect on his relations with Oscar. If Harris had not been around to witness it, the whole thing would probably have been forgotten. The sad fact is that at this time, Oscar was sinking deeper and deeper into addiction. He drank to excess and spent every penny that fell into his hands on liquor and rent boys. His friends were at a loss on how best to help him.

…[Oscar’s] brother Willie died at age forty-six from the effects of chronic alcoholism. After Willie’s death in 1899, Robbie got Oscar to sober up for a few months. ‘Had circumstances permitted me to be with him more than I was,’ Robbie said, ‘I might have done something with him as he liked being ordered about by people whom he knew were fond of him.’

This goes a long way to explaining Bosie’s furious pronouncements that Oscar could support himself if he were not so lazy. He and Robbie had different styles, but it seems that Robbie in his gentle, thoughtful way, and Bosie in his direct and brutal way, were both ordering Oscar around out of love.

Robbie, Bosie and Harris each tried to support Wilde without giving him the means to drink himself into a stupor. Wilde griped to each of his friends about the stinginess of the others.

Yet Bosie believed Robbie did the right thing in doling out funds to Oscar. Years later, when he had little love left for Robbie, he wrote, ‘…I do not blame Ross at all for his cautiousness about the money and for his, unfortunately fruitless, efforts to make it last a little longer than it did. In this respect he certainly acted entirely in Oscar’s interests and with the best motives.’

T.H. Bell who knew Wilde in his last year found him to be someone who had ‘nothing left in him of responsibility, truthfulness or common honesty.’ Robbie complained to him of Wilde’s ingratitude. Bell was impressed by Robbie’s loyalty to him, given how he had been treated. ‘It is evident that there must have been something at one time, if there was not much of it left in his last period, that drew to the man those good friends who stood by him.’

 

The Three Plots of Romantic Comedies

The home page of You Tube suggested this video to me, and who am I to argue with an algorithm?  I watched it. I’m sharing it here basically for the first few seconds in which Bill Maher describes the three plots of romantic comedies, “she marries her boss, stalking is romantic, and I hate you then I love you.” He forgot one: deceiving someone is a great way to get to know them. (Maid in Manhattan, Never Been Kissed, Roxanne) More on this category later.

Every writer has her particular obsessions, themes and questions she keeps coming back to. One of mine is the effect of story telling on our every day lives. It is what drew me to the story of the feud between two of Oscar Wilde’s lovers over his legacy.

Oscar’s Ghost begins:

This is a story about stories. On its most basic level, Oscar’s Ghost is about Oscar Wilde’s life and how its telling affected the lives of two people whom fate had cast as characters in it. But it is also about other stories: the stories told in courtrooms masquerading as the `whole truth’; the stories we tell ourselves to create an identity; stories we tell others to carve out a place in the community; stories that marginalized groups tell themselves to make sense of their difference; and the stories society relies upon to explain a moment in history. Oscar’s Ghost explores how all these stories interact and what happens when contradictory narratives collide.

My novel Identity Theft focuses on love stories. In Identity Theft, a rock star, Ollie, who had his greatest period of fame in the 1980s, is going through a divorce and hands social network duties over to the new kid in the office, a directionless stoner named Ethan. Ethan uses his access to flirt with a fan using his boss’s identity. The woman, Candi, has an uninspiring job in a company that is going through restructuring and threatening layoffs. When her favorite rock star starts flirting with her, she believes all of her dreams have come true. Each of the characters at various points in the story try to understand their confusing relationships by comparing their lives to popular culture. Ollie ponders whether he helped advance a false narrative about love with his own pop songs. Candi watches a romantic comedy and imagines she is about to feature in such a story. Ethan, meanwhile, binge watches romantic comedies on the theme of imposters and deceit. He uses this to persuade himself that if he just comes up with a good enough speech explaining that he did it for love Candi will fall in love with him by the end of the movie.

Romantic comedies do not get a lot of love. They’re mocked and maligned as lightweight. But the romantic comedy tropes, like our other popular story telling conventions, are our modern mythology. They are archetypes. They promise that love is transformative. Each person has only one true love. A true love takes a person out of her comfort zone. It is not made it is discovered. It overcomes all obstacles. Once it is found, the happy end has been reached. It is the end of the story.

I am not really sure what this all means for our ordinary lives, but I keep writing about it to find out.