Review: Face Paint

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Face Paint
by Lisa Eldridge

★★★★☆

2015 • 240 pages • Harry N. Abrams

Makeup artist and current Lancôme Global Creative Director Lisa Eldridge came to my attention a few months ago when she posted a video to her popular YouTube channel wherein she opened up some of her precious vintage Biba cosmetics to demonstrate what they looked like on a human face. Eldridge talks with such obvious love for what Barbara Hulanicki did with Biba in the early seventies—really pioneering the first wave, in Western culture, of nontraditional colors (red, white, and black being those colors) for makeup—that it’s infectious.

Eldridge’s love of the history of makeup isn’t limited just to the early seventies; see her “Best and Worst Makeup Moments in History” video for a greatest hits of Western cosmetic history. So when her vast knowledge of makeup history acquired through years in the industry culminated in her new book Face Paint, I had to check it out. (I have a feeling I am one of the first people to read it in my library system; given that I put it on hold while it was still on order. Go, me!) I was really hoping for a book about the history of cosmetics with an eye on its political and cultural context—how it was made, why it was used, and the various things that it can mean. After all, there’s a world of difference between my desire to paint myself blue (…good heavens, I’m Irish) and the very gendered cultural pressure I feel to cover up my acne scars to look “professional”, and the way that desire has been exploited for various reasons through human history is a fascinating subject.

But it’s not the subject of this book. Continue reading

Page to Screen: Carol (2015)

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Carol
based on 
The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

★★★★☆

2015 • 118 minutes • The Weinstein Company

I’ve been thinking about Todd Haynes recently, largely because I recently watched a fanedit of the Star Wars prequels and that reminded me to watch Velvet Goldmine. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how amazing it is that Haynes directed both Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven. They’re both pitch-perfect period pastiches of very, very different times and places.

Which makes him a perfect choice for adapting The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s midcentury lesbian romance novel. It’s been an interesting journey into propriety for The Price of Salt—Highsmith originally published it under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan and didn’t claim it as her own work for decades, and now it’s been given the sort of classy, stylish, and polished treatment that will undoubtedly garner it attention and awards come awards season. (Which is not that far away!) This is not, to randomly grab a recent disappointing mainstream film about ladies in love, Jenny’s Wedding, offering remedial lessons on lesbian identity and apologetically tap-dancing around anything a very narrow segment of the audience might find uncomfortable (i.e, expressing romantic same-sex affection). This is a glossy retro drama in its fullest flush that rightfully assumes that anyone interested in seeing this picture is going to be more than fine with its content and wastes absolutely no time on coddling a close-minded audience.

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Review: The House of Shattered Wings

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The House of Shattered Wings
by Aliette de Bodard

★★★★☆

2015 • 402 pages • Gollancz

Urban fantasy is a hard sell for me. It’s not that I dislike the genre as a whole, but more that I was never exposed to sufficient amounts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a kiddo to develop a taste for it. (Instead, I was exposed to super sufficient amounts of Warcraft and The Legend of Zelda. This means that I bleed unicorns and also means that when it comes to the new Warcraft movie, I am a reverse Alien vs. Predator: no matter if it’s bad or good, I still win.)

So The House of Shattered Wings never even made it on my radar until Tor.com republished author Aliette de Bodard’s “On Colonialism, Evil Empires, and Oppressive Systems” back in September. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it; it is necessary and searing. It made me so excited for The House of Shattered Wings, despite my disinclination for urban fantasy, that I got nervous. (Although it’s not like that’s difficult.) Even after I started reading the thing, I’ve been Johnnie come lately to enough series that I was briefly terrified that I’d rented the second in the series. (This may seem unwarranted, but Memory’s review of An Apprentice to Elves excited me so much I accidentally rented The Tempering of Men instead of the book in question.)

Perhaps urbane fantasy is the best generic moniker to toss The House of Shattered Wings’ way—this is, after all, a novel set in the ruins of Belle Époque Paris, devastated not by World War I but by the war in heaven, brought forward several millennia. Continue reading

Page to Screen: The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

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The Phantom of the Opera
based on the musical based on the novel

★★★★☆

2004 • 143 minutes • Warner Bros. Pictures

Crimson Peak’s box office may not be what Universal wanted, but I have been having a ball seeing it hit home with its intended audience: gothically and/or Romantically inclined women of all ages. I’ve seen (and, of course, promptly misplaced) tumblr commentary indicating that this was exactly what they yearned for as preteens when their mainstream and more current peers were focused elsewhere. All of this delighted sighing over romance and stylized frights brought me back to my own adolescence.

In 2004, back when I was a young preteen full of unspeakable urges (queer ones, not Byronic hero urges—well, not those Byronic hero urges), it was The Phantom of the Opera that captured the bloody hearts of the preteen Romantic hordes.

I mean, let’s face it: The Phantom of the Opera boasts a lot of similar elements as Crimson Peak. Beautiful, crumbling architecture, death looming in the shadows, young love, beautiful young women rising above their stations, gorgeous costumes, and brooding. Of course, there’s a Phantom in the sewers of Paris rather than [SPOILER REDACTED] in the attic, but both looming threats are surprisingly seductive. Oh, and there’s songs.

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Review: Honor Girl

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Honor Girl
by Maggie Thrash

★★★★☆

2015 • 272 pages • Candlewick Press

I’m always fascinated by stories about the messy process of becoming a person, whether that’s by developing one’s own identity outside of one’s parent, developing a sense of morality, or developing a sense of one’s desires. Chalk it up to a sheltered childhood or a belated coming out, but that process is fresh enough in my own narrative that I’m always hungry to see someone else’s just to compare notes.

Maggie Thrash’s Honor Girl, a graphic memoir about Thrash’s experiences at Camp Bellflower and her first crush on a girl, falls perfectly into that category. Every summer, Maggie (as I’ll call the Thrash in the memoir to avoid confusion with the Maggie who wrote it) has attended the all girls camp as one of the few out-of-towners for years. She loves it, but, one summer, when she’s fifteen, she develops a crush on Erin, a nineteen year old counselor. Confused by both her first all encompassing crush and the fact that it’s on a girl, Maggie tries to make it through the summer like normal—but, of course, she can’t.

Maggie spends the bulk of Honor Girl puzzling out what’s happening to her, in a space that’s meant to be a safe haven for girls. But there are edges and limitations to even that, since it’s not a truly liberated context. Girls excitedly police each other’s gender presentation; Erin fights constantly with a girl named Libby over the ultimate safe space of the firing range; girls ritually tease and humiliate each other about crushes on the male members of staff. Once her crush on Erin becomes known to the main counselor, the counselor tells her that not only is being gay distasteful to talk about, but it’s an active threat to the innocence of the other girls around her. Because, I guess, queer kids aren’t entitled to innocence and safe spaces. Vomit.

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At The Movies: Crimson Peak (2015)

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Crimson Peak

★★★★☆

2015 • 119 minutes • Universal Pictures

Selling Crimson Peak to modern audiences has proved difficult for Universal Pictures this weekend. Difficult to the tune of $26.3 million in domestic and international box offices, which is quite low. Competing against the much more accessible Bridge of Spies and The Martian, both currently in theaters, definitely doesn’t help.

How do you even effectively promote a classic Gothic romance to a marketplace unfamiliar with the genre? Universal’s solution has been to market Crimson Peak as pure horror, playing up the (damnable!) jump scares and atmosphere. And I don’t know if there’s a better solution, although I wish there was so that Guillermo Del Toro could, I dunno, make Pacific Rim 2 and Hellboy 3 with as much money as he needs. I just hope enough people take the gamble as is, because Crimson Peak is well worth it.

My exposure to Gothic romance has been limited to Mary Shelley, two-thirds of the Brontë sisters, and Austen’s supremely delightful skewering of the genre in Northanger Abbey. It’s from the latter that I have any real sense of the tropes inherent to the genre. And even that sense is a little muddled: I spent a lot of Crimson Peak banking on vampires. (I am not spoiling or ruining the film to let you know that no, there are no vampires. Just good old-fashioned wickedness.)

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At The Movies: Masters of the Universe (1987)

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Masters of the Universe

★★★★☆

1987 • 106 minutes • Cannon Films

As a connoisseur of bad movies, I am also a connoisseur of bad movie podcasts. (I am, at some point, going to do a podcast roundup, now that I listen to even more of them. I just need to blast through one or two backlogs first.) The best and popular two are The Flop House and How Did This Get Made? I prefer The Flop House (sample episode: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Live!), due to its charming hosts, focus on studio movies, and some kind of East Coast allegiance. Or it could just be that blasting through their backlog got me through the first few months of my current day job. I look forward to every episode. But I do listen to its West Coast sibling/rival, How Did This Get Made? on occasion, if they cover a movie I’ve seen (sample episode: Xanadu, with a great riff on how it could possibly be as over budget as it was). I like it, but I haven’t ever been so excited for an episode that I went out and watched the film in question.

Until How Did This Get Made? covered Masters of the Universe with guest host Tatiana Maslany. Swoon. I’ve been meaning to watch Masters of the Universe since forever—because have you met me?—and this was just the swift kick in the rear I needed to finally sit down and watch it.

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Review: The Shadow Hero

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The Shadow Hero
by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Sonny Liew
★★★★☆
2014 • 176 pages • First Second

On Monday, The Mary Sue republished Lilian-Ann Bonaparte’s Black Girl Nerds essay on the importance of racebent fanart, “For Black Girls who considered Esmerelda Black when Cinderella wasn’t enuf: The Importance of Race-Bending Fan-Art.” It is well worth a read—Bonaparte specifically fixes on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the greatest of the Disney Renaissance films—but Bonaparte makes herself very, very clear at the end of it: “Race-bending is radical, progressive and imperative for the WOC who are starved for more positive representation in media.”

Gene Luen Yang, I think, would undoubtedly agree with Bonaparte. Given his measured but angry response to the atrociously whitewashed Avatar: The Last Airbender film (could have had it all, rolling in the deep, etc.), it’s very tempting and, I think, rewarding to think of The Shadow Hero as Yang’s opportunity to avenge the scores of Asian characters who have been whitewashed over the years for the sake of appealing to a “wider” (which is a very odd way to spell “whiter”) audience.

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Review: Georges

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Georges
by Alexandre Dumas
translated by Tina A. Kover

★★★★☆

2007 (originally 1843) • 336 pages • Modern Library

You may have recently seen that The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones recently wrote an article about how the late Terry Pratchett was not a genius—where he cops to never reading Pratchett in his entire life before calling his work trash and not real literature. I’m not linking you to it, dear reader, because I want your day to go well, and also because we’ve been here a thousand times at the screeching ghostly foothills of the false dichotomy of high and low culture. To reiterate: the line between high culture and pop culture is largely imaginary and constructed mostly of ideas of whose work really counts (which is why dead old white guys are vastly overrepresented in the Western canon, a thing also agreed upon by dead old white guys.)

Case in point: Alexandre Dumas, one of the greatest writers in history, wrote a scene where a man fights a shark. It’s all art, baby.

Georges is one of Dumas’ most little-known works—so little-known that even some of his most devout English-speaking fans didn’t know it existed. Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, who both found Dumas and the relative racial freedom of France inspirational as writers of color, never seem to have read or heard of it. And Frederick Douglass, who loved Dumas’ work enough to make sure to see Dumas-related sites around France while visiting, criticized Dumas for never writing about race. Sometimes, there’s an air of gatekeeping around works in translation—there’s certainly something suspicious in the fact that The Count of Monte Cristo is so accessible to English speakers that it’s in American public domain but Georges is not. Continue reading

Review: The Empathy Exams

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The Empathy Exams
by Leslie Jamison

★★★★☆

2014 • 256 pages • Graywolf Press

I do hope that all fans of Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar, and Tiny Beautiful Things have discovered the existence of Dear Sugar Radio. That’s right, dear readers, Sugar has taken to the airwaves—both of them, in fact, as original Sugar Steve Almond is along for the ride. Together, and usually with the help of a colleague over the phone, they tackle exactly the same kind of letters people sent to Sugar during her original run.

It’s a wonderful podcast and a regular part of my podcast rotation, but I find myself missing the conspiratorial, motherly, and challenging tone of the original (alright, semi-original) Sugar, who shared her hard-earned wisdom with us just as much as she shared the things that she was still struggling with.

In that light, Leslie Jamison, whom you may know from her searing “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” reads like a younger Sugar, one with harder, pricklier edges. (Which makes perfect sense, given that The Empathy Exams were recommended on a recent episode of Dear Sugar Radio.) Jamison’s theme, as you might be able to guess, is pain: the pain of understanding, not understanding, and not being understood, the pain of suffering an illness that doctors dismiss, the voluntary pain of extreme runners, the involuntary pain of the incarcerated and the wounded, and the pain we co-opt for our own purposes and pleasures. And, with the welcome inclusion of “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” in this volume, how to actively engage with female pain when it has been turned into flattening, dehumanizing metaphor for centuries in media.

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