Friday, May 24, 2019

"Cinderella" by The Brothers Grimm

While the Grimms weren't averse to modifying old folk tales to suit the tastes of their contemporary audience, they also weren't intentionally using those stories to train children, unlike Charles Perrault. So where Perrault's Cinderella is a gracious and inspirationally kind character, the Grimms' version has a more combative relationship with her persecutors.

Perrault's stepsisters are vain and selfish, but they aren't particularly vicious toward Cinderella. They're uncaring without going out of their way to be mean. That's not the case in the Grimm version, where the stepmother especially lives to make Cinderella's life harder. She purposely dumps beans in the fireplace ashes, for instance, and makes Cinderella pick them out. When Cinderella begs to go to the ball, the stepmother sets impossible tasks as conditions for her permission, then reneges when Cinderella completes them. Because of this, we're allowed to feel okay about the violent end that the stepsisters come to in Grimm. They chop off parts of their feet to try to fit into the decisive slipper and then at Cinderella's wedding, birds peck out their eyes. These are the same birds that have aided Cinderella through the whole story, so at worst, she's complicit in the maiming. At best, she doesn't exhibit the forgiveness that Perrault's heroine does.

The birds are important to the Grimms' story and they're something that Cinderella herself seems to control on some level. There's no fairy godmother in Grimm; that's all Perrault who wanted to reward Cinderella's kindness by giving her a kind parent to replace her deceased mother. The Grimms sort of do that too, but in a darker way, as you'd imagine. In Grimm, Cinderella's mother is more directly active through her own grave site.

The Grimms' version borrows an element from Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve's 1740 fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. (I don't know that Barbot de Villeneuve was their direct inspiration, but the similarity is clear.) In Beauty and the Beast, Belle's father takes a trip and asks his daughters what he can bring back for them. Belle's vain sisters demand clothing and jewels, but Belle humbly requests a single rose (and only when her dad insists that she ask for something). Of course, it's how he gets that rose that creates all the trouble for the family.

Cinderella's dad does the same thing and the stepsisters ask for the same clothes and jewelry. Cinderella copies Belle by asking for a plant, but it's a weird one. She wants a branch from the first tree to brush against her father's hat on the trip. He complies and Cinderella takes the branch to the backyard and plants it in her mother's grave where it grows into a tree. White birds nest in the tree and grant Cinderella wishes. They help with the impossible tasks created by the stepmother and they also provide Cinderella with the three, increasingly elaborate dresses she wears on consecutive nights to the prince's ball.

None of this is ever explained, but there's clearly magic at work. The difference between Perrault and Grimm is that the Grimms' Cinderella doesn't wait for another character, the fairy godmother, to come and help her out. This Cinderella is active. And possibly a witch.

Again, there's no explanation given for any of this in the story, but Cinderella is so specific about what she wants and how she goes about getting it. The only thing that makes sense to me is that she's planning it. She asks for the branch, plants it in her mother's grave, and then uses the tree - possibly with the aid of her dead mother's spirit - to rescue herself and take revenge on her stepsisters. Super cool and spooky. I'm betting there's not a film version that takes that approach.

Thanks to the Disney film, which took most of its inspiration from Perrault (even giving him a credit in the opening titles), Cinderella is often accused of being a lame, reactionary character. But that's not at all true in the Grimm version. The point of their tale isn't a moral lesson about gracious perseverance. It's a dark story of revenge inspired by the journey that children take as they grow and are ultimately separated from their parents. Cinderella's childhood was defined by doting, praising parents, but that died with her birth mother. She holds onto the spirit of those times though to help her through the more critical, demanding mother that she has to deal with as a teenager or young adult.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper" by Charles Perrault

Illustration by Marie "Rie" Cramer (1887–1977)

Charles Perrault was a 17th Century French author who, like the Grimm Brothers a hundred years later, documented oral fairy tales for a reading audience. Perrault's primary audience was children though and he included morals at the end of each tale so that young people would know exactly the lesson he intended them to learn from the stories.

With "Cinderella," Perrault wanted kids to understand the value of what he called, "grace." He mentions it a couple of time in the moral. He says that physical beauty is cool and all, but "grace is priceless and wins any race." And then later, "Grace is a gift that the fairies confer: Ask anyone at all; it's what we prefer."

What he's talking about is character. Yes, Cinderella is a beautiful woman and when she's dressed in the right clothes she gets all the attention at the ball. But Perrault argues that it's her kindness and humility that actually win the day for her. Her father is still alive in Perrault's version, but he's "completely under the thumb of his wife" and apparently oblivious to the way his daughter is being treated. Cinderella doesn't complain though and she's gracious in the way she treats her mean step-sisters, helping them get ready for the ball. Once she marries the prince, she forgives them and even procures noble husbands for them as well. This version of the story is all about patiently persevering through suffering. It's a valuable moral, though I question the assurance that everything will turn out okay in the end. Real-life circumstances don't always work out the way they do for Cinderella. But I do believe that patience and perseverance are their own rewards.

My fairy tale project is focused on the Brothers Grimm, but I wanted to compare Perrault's Cinderella to theirs, because they pull a whole different message from the tale. In fact, their Cinderella isn't patient or gracious at all.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Hellbent for Letterbox | Five Bold Women (1960)

Pax and I welcome our wives, Stephanie and Diane to weigh in on the women-focused Western, Five Bold Women starring Irish McCalla and Jeff Morrow. Pax also shares a couple of Western comics he's been reading: the first volume of Stern from Europe comics and the first couple of issues in Dynamite's Man With No Name series. Meanwhile, I've been watching the contemporary Western, The Rider (2017) by director Chloe Zhao.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Who's in it?: A bunch of cartoons

What's it about?: An animated, musical adaptation of the fairy tale, "Snow White."

How is it?: Reading the Grimm version before watching Disney's affected my enjoyment of the latter. Disney's is still a great, successful adaptation, but I wasn't as over the moon about it as I usually am. On any other day, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a classic. It's amazing that it's 82-years-old. The animation is still top notch, Snow White is still utterly charming, the dwarfs are still hilarious, and the Queen is still completely terrifying.

As I wrote when talking about the Grimm version, the main character of the fairy tale is the Queen and I understand why she feels threatened. Her story isn't really appropriate as text for a children's film, though. Although it would have been possible to highlight as subtext. But Disney wasn't interested in that and I don't fault the filmmakers. It's just something I was thinking about as I watched this time and it dampened my enjoyment a little.

In other ways, it's a great adaptation. The prince comes out of nowhere in the Grimm version, so Disney makes a good call by introducing him earlier in the story and at least paying song-service to his love for Snow. The dwarfs of course are given names and personalities that are missing in Grimm. And the Queen's attacks on Snow are reduced to one, successful one instead of including the Grimm Queen's two, unsuccessful attempts that Snow stupidly refuses to learn from.

I don't know how I feel about sticking the Sleeping Beauty kiss in as the way to revive Snow White. She's revived by accident in Grimm, so I appreciate the attempt to make the prince more involved, but the Love's First Kiss antidote doesn't make a lot of sense. (Frankly, I'm not sure that it even makes sense in "Sleeping Beauty," but I'll wait until I've read the Grimm version of that before I decide.)

The Queen's death is far less horrifying in Disney than in Grimm, but it's still very powerful due to the sheer talent in the animation, score, and sound design. In all other ways, this is a faithful retelling of the Grimm Brothers' version with some extra singing and dancing thrown in.

Rating: Four out of five secret dungeons.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Filthy Horrors | Aaaand Poe

Darla, Jess, and I begin this episode in a haunted cemetery, an appropriate place to talk about one of our favorite writers, Edgar Allan Poe. After some talk about other horror we've been into the last month and a discussion of our own funerals, we dig specifically into "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Masque of the Red Death," and "The Raven." With side-trips to other Poe stories as well as our favorite adaptations of his work.

Please Note: It was windy at the cemetery and the sound overwhelms the discussion a few times during that section of the episode. We cleaned it up as best we could, but if it's bothersome, you might want to skip ahead to about 20 minutes into the show. At that point we've moved inside and the audio is clear for the remainder of the episode.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

"Snow White" by The Brothers Grimm

My watch-through of various Grimm adaptations isn't at all going to be exhaustive. Even though it's more than I'll be able to talk about on Filthy Horrors, I've only got about a month to watch and read everything I want to. So I'm hitting the high points. I decided to start with "Snow White" because it's so well known and also because the Disney adaptation is the first of the films I'll be watching.

I'm going to get myself a copy of the Grimms' complete works, but right now I'm reading Maria Tatar's Annotated Brothers Grimm. It doesn't have every single thing, but there are a bunch of stories in it and I love Tatar's notes. The character of Snow White has a justifiably bad reputation as a helpless, reactionary character, but Tatar helped me see that Snow isn't actually the main character of her story at all. That would be the Queen. And while she's never sympathetic, her plight is. In every way that women were valued at the time of the story, the Queen is being undermined by Snow. Even motherhood, as I'll get to in a minute.

In the earliest, oral versions of the story, the Queen isn't Snow's step-mother, but her actual, biological mother. And in at least one version, it's Snow's father who specifically wishes for a daughter with snow white skin, ebony black hair, and blood red lips. Because of this, the king feels a special relationship with Snow and the Queen feels threatened about being replaced by the younger, prettier girl. Motherhood is valued by the culture, but the Queen has already fulfilled that role while Snow is just starting to get ready for it. The best is ahead for her, as it were. Tatar points out that when Snow keeps house for the dwarfs, she's taking her first step towards becoming a wife and mother (though not specifically for the dwarfs who are deliberately asexual and non-threatening; Snow is just practicing in their house).

The Grimms weren't satisfied with only documenting the oral stories they collected. They modified them to suit the tastes and values of their own, then-modern culture. And since motherhood was highly valued, evil mothers in the stories usually became less problematic step-mothers. Which is what happened to the Queen. The story is more horrifying if the Queen is Snow's biological mother, but it also makes a lot more sense because it keeps the overall theme of the story intact.

Snow is innocent in all of this. That's part of her allure and a lot of what the Queen hates about her. But society isn't pure. It assigns disproportionate value to youth and beauty, both of which are fading for the Queen while Snow increasingly becomes the center of attention. I understand why the Queen feels threatened, even while I judge her harshly for what she does about it. And it's telling that she instructs her huntsman to bring back Snow's organs once he's murdered the girl, so that the Queen can eat them, ritually consuming Snow's essence so that the Queen can possess her youth and beauty.

With the Queen as the tragic main character, Snow becomes the antagonist and mostly a symbolic one. That's why she doesn't have a lot of agency. I'm curious to see which adaptations, if any, try to fix that. I'm also curious to see which adaptations keep the focus on the Queen. I know some pay more attention to her than others.

The dwarfs and the prince are just obstacles to the Queen's plans, so they're not super fleshed out either. The dwarfs only give Snow temporary shelter and don't have names or even personalities in the Grimms' version. The prince unintentionally rescues Snow at the end by falling in love with her beauty through the glass coffin. He doesn't appear in the story until the very end, so there's no previous relationship. She is literally just a piece of art that he wants in his home. But as he's transporting her from the forest to his palace, the carriage hits a bump, jostles Snow's coffin, and loosens the chunk of poison apple that's caught in her throat and is keeping her comatose. She's released by happenstance as if the universe is conspiring against the Queen. The value of youth and beauty is a powerful force and the story relentlessly rewards it.

Another example of this is how the Queen dies. Once Snow is revived, the Queen's mirror again proclaims that the Queen is no longer the fairest in the land. It doesn't mention Snow by name though, but only that the prince is now married and his bride now holds the title. The Queen has to go check this out and is horrified to learn that Snow is still alive. The couple seem to have anticipated the Queen's visit though, because there are a pair of white-hot iron shoes that the Queen is forced to wear and dance herself to death. It's violently sadistic, but the Queen is no hero and has more or less earned her fate. Rather than withdraw gracefully into old age, she's tried to murder Snow multiple times. Her comeuppance is fascinatingly brutal.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Brothers Grimm (2005)

Who's in it?: Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Ocean's Eleven, Jimmy Kimmel Live!), Heath Ledger (10 Things I Hate About You, The Patriot, The Dark Knight), Lena Headey (300, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Game of Thrones), Monica Bellucci (Bram Stoker's Dracula, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Spectre), and Jonathan Pryce (Something Wicked This Way Comes, Tomorrow Never Dies, Pirates of the Caribbean).

What's it about?: Witch-hunting charlatans Wilhelm (Damon) and Jacob Grimm (Ledger) question the truth behind their lies when they investigate a series of child abductions in a remote village near a dark forest.

How is it?: We're going to be talking about Grimm fairy tales for an upcoming episode of Filthy Horrors. I know that there won't be enough time to talk about everything I'll want to, so as I'm reading and watching things to get ready for it, I'll use this site as a journal to capture thoughts.

Before I even read one of the Grimms' fairy tales, Terry Gilliams' movie about them seemed like a good place to start. Although I'd completely forgotten that Gilliam directed it. It's got his trademark imagination and whimsy, but not many of the practical effects that I always associate with him thanks to his '80s movies like Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I miss the inventiveness that went into bringing those fantasies to life. The 2005 CG of The Brother's Grimm doesn't hold up well.

The buildings and other settings all look wondrously fantastical though and the actors are delightful. Ledger is acting against type as the nerdier brother, Jake, who believes the stories he's telling, to the annoyance of the more practical Will. And it's great to see Lena Headey in a role where I can root for her as I always want to do. She plays the village hunter, daughter of a previous hunter who went missing when she was little.

The story is typical Shakespeare in Love shenanigans where we get to see the "inspirations" for so much of the writers' work. The villain (Bellucci) with her long hair, impenetrable tower, and magic mirror is responsible for legends of Snow White's evil queen as well as Rapunzel. She's trying to resurrect herself and reclaim her beauty by kidnapping young girls and putting them to sleep until she's ready to use them for her magic ritual. And she's assisted in this by a werewolf who opens the film luring into the woods a girl wearing a red hood.

To be clear, I love this stuff and the script does a nice job weaving it together. It even sets the story during Napoleon's occupation of Germany so that French characters (like Pryce's ruthless Delatombe) can interact with and potentially inspire the Grimms with Charles Perrault's versions of some of these stories. Cinderella in particular comes up a couple of times.

Rating: Three out of five hunting Headeys.


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