Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mermaid Fantasies

A rather banal argument serves as a catalyst for the narrative trajectory and conflict throughout the entire film: the husband, a physician, specialty not disclosed, wishes to spend his holiday in a remote shore town, fishing, communing with the tide, and the wife wishes to be left alone, amid her comfortable urban life. That a mermaid film opens with such a marital dispute is not at all surprising; where Miranda delivers some nuance and twist is in the adaptation of the classic mythological creature and her pivotal role in enhancing balance and equity to the relationship, as well as strengthening the foundational love and respect requisite for matrimony. While still-entrenched patronizing patriarchal standards of sexual seduction and power dialectics within sexual relationships, whether or not they are emotionally intimate, prevail, for a mid-twentieth century film, there is a female empowerment lean. In an age predating institutional feminist theory, and cultural awareness of the social, political, and economic implications of challenging male dominance, finding a film like this refreshing seems at odds with its generally quaint and exasperating messages. As a fan of old Hollywood, and a cynic who is willing to state to all who will listen that, even more frustrating, are contemporary films wherein sexual politics have not budged, at all, I found Miranda delightfully agreeable.

During his rural holiday, while coasting along the waves, fishing rod in hand, the husband, Dr. Paul Martin, is caught by Miranda the mermaid, plucked from his dry boat under the water's surface and into her balmy cave home. An overt reversal in the role of fisher-fished, this scene is also a paradigm shift for the mermaid myth: rather than traditional intoxicating but malevolent lure, she is proactive, seizing an opportunity, by literally seizing a man she finds attractive and then subsequently bartering with him. It is a fair deal, his freedom, for a few days of her own liberation from the sea, exploring the realm of humans in London. While Dr. Martin is a bit distressed when sequestered underwater, worried about the baser of Maslov needs, breathable oxygen, adequate nutrition, he does warm to her advances. Once they agree, however, to the London excursion, Miranda guised as some serious patient, his wife, Clare, is nearly forgotten and he is firmly entranced by her blissful ignorance and coquettish looks. 

Throughout her escapades in London, Miranda succeeds in ensnaring all the men she encounters, much to the obvious chagrin of their partners. Clare, immediately skeptical of the patient ruse upon meeting the mermaid and realizing she is young and beautiful, is rather flexible, all things considered. Welcoming the patient into her home, accommodating her obviously bizarre needs, Clare acknowledges that her husband's attentions are divided but adopts a listen-and-learn response, rather than aggressively attacking him. The couple's chauffeur and general manservant, a quaint artifact of bygone times for the upper middle class, also succumbs to the allure of the mermaid. Conveniently in a relationship with the maid, he fumbles to spend time with Miranda, while his partner fumes and bemoans his fickle love. Clare's friend Isobel, the Martin's neighbor, also finds herself in a relationship predicament, as her fiance and budding artist also falls prey to Miranda. 

Much of the film's comedic conflict lays in the ignorance of the male characters; so enthralled are they with Miranda's beauty and her exoticism, they are blind to the fact that she flirts with them and any other man she encounters equally. She admits to admiring them each for various individual reasons, but the notion of monogamy and fidelity to any single one of them is a laughable to her. When her trysts with all three men are exposed and her true identity finally revealed to Clare and the other women, and she is threatened with broad public exposure, rather than lay in wait to become a victim, a scientific novelty and general cultural oddity, Miranda flees. Her resilience and her agency is commendable; she had her cake, ate of it, and left without paying the bill. While most widely disseminated, popular contemporary romantic comedies seem to continually enforce that a woman's sexual satisfaction must exist within the confines of a traditional heteronormative construct, Miranda, in spite of being backward in other overt senses, offers a progressive view of sexual satisfaction, male and female. Without wholly disregarding the value of intimate relationships, the film emphasizes that flirtation, seduction, sex can just be fun, while also reinforcing that still no choice is without ramifications. 

Perhaps a bit insensitive to the women who were hurt by her antics, Miranda does nonetheless seem to understand that what she seeks, a playful romantic romp, differs from the relationships already established that she is disrupting. Despite the dishonesty and the lapses in loyalty, each couple ends the film with a stronger relationship, more firmly rooted in trust, more open. That such breaches in general heteronormative relationship code, trust and fidelity, are treated with an open-mind on the part of the female partner in a film decades old is liberating. Mythology and fantasy aside, perhaps the plot is rather unbelievable; in reality, such understanding and forgiveness may be more rare. The optimist in me, sometimes small and cowardly compared to my inner realist, wants to believe in a happily ever after for each of the characters, despite their obvious flaws. Fulfillment for Miranda, despite her selfishness and capricious nature. Fulfillment for Clare, despite her lapse into the vindictive. Fulfillment for Dr. Martin, despite his lies, his scheming.

(image taken from Flippin Your Fins)   

Monday, May 12, 2014

Stumbling Upon

Over four million people ride the New York City subway system every day. Train doors heaving open, sighing shut, hustling bodies either spewing forth onto platforms or jamming intimately into sweating train cars, it always seems a simultaneous impossibility and inevitability that you will run into someone you know. With such masses, all faces seem anonymous, a sea of strangers. With such masses, statistically, it is very plausible that you will bump into an old friend, a former colleague, that girl from your chemistry lab sophomore year. Riding the same lines each day to and fro, your body attuning to the rhythmic sways and jumps of those particular train cars, yawning and straining and lumbering like some primordial earthen beasts, fellow passengers stay distant, but grow familiar. Become soothing characters. About once a week, as I enter the platform at Penn Station, heading back to my neighborhood after a long day in the office, I nearly collide with an older black man, hair awry and tinted with streaks of silver, listening to a Walkman, quaint, and gesticulating wildly. He claps his hands, stomps his sneakers hard, slap, slap, slap against rock pavement. His presence, for now, a soft remainder of the power of our relationship with our interior selves, our relevance of a firm grasp on reality, and of those mostly reliable, until they are not, circadian rhythms of life.

One evening, pressed between a man in a classic charcoal suit and some youth, cap backwards, music loud, I thought I recognized a woman in the middle of the car. Her hair had a memorable wild curl, soft yet assuredly frustratingly unruly, and her eyes were equally memorable round dark moons. I was nearly certain she was my geometry teacher from freshman year of high school. When I was fourteen years old, dreadfully uncomfortable in my new ecosystem, an all-girls private school predominantly populated with the daughters of local wealthy alphas, she was in her early twenties, and seemed to glide effortlessly along to the off-beat of her proverbial drum. While not the most provocatively progressive environment, the school was religiously-independent and liberal, renowned for a robust history of academic rigor; she had staunch Christian principles, which, among a frenzy of pulsing adolescent girls, are not the most popular of beliefs. Fostering a real intimate sense of community, our teachers were very open with us, the traditional pedagogical power structure more nebulous. All together again was a permeating mantraShe spoke freely about waiting until marriage, about not drinking, two tenets that seemed alien for throngs of girls anxious for someone to touch them, who stole liquor regularly and cavalierly from their parents. She was fiercely passionate about mathematics, athletics, volunteering as our junior varsity basketball coach that year. Lean and lanky, alabaster skin with that crop of curls, those dark eyes, she always struck me as fresh; she wore no make up, dressed simply, unlike us students, in a sort of uniform of her own choosing. That type of wiry that quivers with potential energy, like a string, pulled taut. Refreshingly, her disclosure about her own personal views, while leaning towards soft encouragement, were far from preaching or pedantic. Reassuring us; she would listen, her door was open.

Every other day of the week in the rotation schedule, geometry was my first period class. I was one of three freshman students, having already taken the requisite algebra courses at my public middle school. During my year-long tenure at the school, before abandoning the endeavor and returning to my equally academically strong, public high school, I made a few allies, but no true friends. Unlike many of my peers, I often choose to arrive to homeroom early, rather than congregate and giggle in the hallways. I was certainly diligent and studious, but not so fastidious that I craved those precious moments for catching up on schoolwork, rather, I took solace in those brief moments of, generally, welcome silence. One morning, a few days following September 11, eyes down, mind muddled, I pushed open the door to the classroom, without looking. She was leading a small prayer vigil, holding hands with a few students and another teacher, heads bowed in respect. Disrupted, as I hesitated after barging in, muscling the door, she looked up, quiet, eyes dark and looming and immeasurably sad.

I may have mumbled some excuse or apology, before ducking quickly out, heading either to one of the numerous outdoor patio spaces, or perhaps the sterile and beautiful cafeteria. Mortified, and confused, unsure of my own thoughts and feelings of the events of recent weeks, I never formally apologized for interrupting, something I continue to regret to this day. Superficially, such a minor event. Opening a door, finding a room not empty but occupied. I am sure it was the gravity of the times, those tenuous weeks of uneasiness, of fear, of suspicion, of mistrust. The interior world of adolescence was already one of great tumult; the exterior sociopolitical climate seemed to only heighten these feelings of complete unease. After my freshman year, I left the private school, returned to the larger, grittier halls of the more familiar public school. While still in high school, that brief stint in another stratum seemed like a blotch, some odd and unreal experience, not quite so dark as a nightmare, but tinted with a similar anxiety. With some more years and more wisdom, I recognize the experience for what it was: a challenge, but a brilliant opportunity, and one that afforded me an education with some of the greatest and most impassioned teachers I have ever known.

On that subway train, I stared, barely bordering on polite, trying to confirm, to be certain. I spent most of that ride home wondering; what was she reading? Why had she moved to this city? Does she still teach? Does she still pray? Is she still waiting, for love, for lust, for that primal urge so many of us lunge after, that affirmation of our biology, of our physicality? Quite possibly, the woman was simply a stranger, in a sea of strangers, her wild curls of hair a catalyst for reflection.

(image taken from The Gothamist)