Welcome to Smugglivus 2014! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2014, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2015, and more.
Who: Author and critic, Genevieve Valentine is currently the writer of DC’s CATWOMAN and the author of one of Ana’s top reads of the year, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Please give it up for Genevieve!
It’s tough to pick a theme for your “best” of the year when you’re well aware your relationship between the quality of a thing and your personal enjoyment of that thing is a lot less like a respectable upward slope than it is a dot graph where eventually the data points start looking at one another like, “….seriously?” (I’m not saying John Wick is going to make my Top Ten list of movies this year, I’m just saying see John Wick).
So, rather than trying to combine things I enjoyed under the insupportable umbrella that my enjoyment of them made them best, I wanted to approach this year via the theme that stuck with me most—the struggle of women against existing systems of power. It can be an intense topic; it’s hard to do well without making it simply crushing, a problem this year’s Fargo miniseries ran into when Molly Solverson became the series’ token woman and spent most of her scenes trying to convince men to listen to her. It can be too little too late, like with Elementary, whose third season has tried to position Watson as a worthy foil to Sherlock, but is building on sand left over by a shaky second season. And honestly, sometimes it’s not a fight you need to see or read any more about because it’s been your whole damn day as it is, and you just want to watch two episodes of Bletchley Circle, two episodes of Brooklyn 99 to decompress from Bletchley Circle, and call it a night.
Still, it’s nice to have a year in which so many stories (often involving women creators) made this struggle part of the ensemble’s character development and not just a gauntlet of sadness: it’s both great and terrible. And if they ran the quality gamut from scholarly nonfiction to the show where Catherine d’Medici has sex with a ghost—great and terrible in a very different sense—well, so much the better. In no particular order, here are some of my favorites this year.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. [film] 2014 was a weirdly strong year for vampire movies—and Only Lovers Left Alive, with its hipster vampires lounging around moaning elegantly about how they knew about pretty much everything before it was cool, might be the better movie in terms of vampire lore. But this Iranian vampire Western, sparely and languidly written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, might as well be subtitled “Misandry: the Motion Picture,” and turns out that’s kind of great.
Shot in black-and-white with style to spare, every frame of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is breathtaking. And the script makes beautiful use of its characters’ silence, so every scene, whether a pair of young lovers longing for connection, the town prostitute taking the vampire home for some honest talk, or a hunting of prey, events tend to take on the heavy, helpless dread of a nightmare. The prey, however, is always men. (Lest you think it’s by accident, the Girl stops a young boy in the street to warn him she’ll be watching him the rest of his life, and he’d better be good.) And given how toxic Bad City is, with men abusing their power any chance they get, it’s no surprise why the Girl grabs her skateboard and hunts the streets at night.
Belle. [film] Old-fashioned movie star Gugu Mbatha-Raw was actually in two movies this year about fighting back against a misogynist system: the other is the worthy Beyond the Lights, in which a pop star who has an awful lot in common with Rihanna tries to deal with fame, family, and the right to sing the music of her heart, because of course. But Belle (written by Misan Sagay and directed by Amma Asante), besides being a gorgeous period piece, is a movie that includes both discussions about intersectional feminism and a garden party where Belle and the man who loves her have to hide by standing really close together until they both practically suffocate from manners, which is always gold.
It’s a movie unafraid of its own sincerity (this movie is liberally peppered with heartfelt speeches), but it’s also a movie where only one person is truly awful (Tom Felton, at Peak Creep). Everyone else is hurtful while trying to be polite, or even trying to be kind, and it works beautifully to create a space of pain and of growth. So much of the movie is about how the personal by necessity becomes political, and the central relationship is between Dido Belle and her cousin, rather than Dido’s love interest. Give it a look; then watch the garden party scene like five times.
The Penguin Book of Witches. [book] Author Katherine Howe assembles a damning collection of primary sources in this book, which provides chilling historical context to the Salem Witch trials—part of an overarching structure that was officially, if not actively, in place from 1542 to 1736. Howe painstakingly traces the rise of witch fever in America, from their European roots to Salem’s devastating fallout. Some of the assembled documentation has the head-shaking quaintness of many another history; witch-hunting manuals and contemporary superstitions feel comfortably far away—amusing in their wrongness.
But Howe carefully arranges it so that every dismissed case of witchcraft over obvious lies stands alongside a conviction under very similar circumstances: old women, unfriendly women, too-friendly women were all suspect, and once accused, was abandoned by the tight-knit communities in which they lived. And while many of the traditional explanations are discussed—mushrooms, moldy bread, whatever could cause the mass hallucinations that would send women to the gallows for raising Hell—there are wrenching examples otherwise every time we see a testimony recanted, or a pamphlet decrying what’s happening. (An apology from a jury sorry for the conviction they issued is one of the most haunting documents.) Howe also draws quiet, undeniable lines to the atmosphere of distrust and government manipulation to make clear that we haven’t come nearly as far as we’d like to think.
Reign: [TV] The “terrible” part of “great and terrible.” And not for costume reasons: though I’m generally a costume stickler, I’ve come around to how deeply they don’t give one shit about historical accuracy; if you can’t do the costumes justice, it’s better just not to try. Designer evening gowns on Mary Queen of Scots? Absolutely. Hippie caftans on the three highest-profile women in the castle? For sure. Queen Catherine in a stretch velvet sheath with a chiffon cape attached? Definitely. Do whatever you want. This show doesn’t care. It also, in the first season, didn’t seem to care much about politics (so many historical precepts have changed they’re essentially fantasy elements), being more concerned about its love triangle, and whether or not the supernatural evil it was setting up was actually supernatural. (Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeh.)
What it does care about, however hamfistedly and hilariously, is cycles of power, and how they affect the women in the palace: Mary trying to secure her engagement for the sake of Scotland, and her handmaidens trying to make marriages for themselves with various roadblocks in the way. Even Catherine goes from a monster in the pilot to a woman who poisons people because that’s what you have to do to hold down the throne sometimes. And in the second season, Catherine even has a protégé of sorts in handmaiden Lola, who replaced a dismal teen-pregnancy subplot with some roundabout statecraft, for values of “statecraft” that include hiding things behind picture frames and hoping your suspicious host doesn’t find them. (This show is not good. Amazing! But not good.) Still, amid all the shenanigans, there’s an increasingly dark theme that the insidious nature of systemic problems tends to shape you, rather than you shaping them. It gets explored a lot more than I thought it would for a show that routinely uses ghosts for exposition.
Penny Dreadful. [TV] There’s plenty in this series that did not hang together—lesbian text got cut short, Frankenstein’s monster became less a terrifying specter of hubris and more that creep in your drama class, Dorian Gray’s potential turned into halfheartedly-louche staring, and Sembene was stuck without backstory. But when Penny Dreadful met its potential, it was amazing: Josh Hartnett as a guilt-ridden werewolf, Timothy Dalton as a funhouse-mirror mockery of the Great British Explorer, the macho cowboy taking Dorian Gray to bed, that lesbian text before it got cut short, and shameless Gothic camp at every turn (spiders will pour out of ANYTHING on this show).
But its ace? Eva Green, in a role she was born to play—vampy, longing, human but otherworldly, fiercely intelligent but as terrified as you would be if the Devil kept trying to seduce you. Surrounded by men in an oddball found family, she’s quite literally exceptional, and much of the season has to do with all of them trying to negotiate her role in the play. It’s a tension that can be either intriguing (she leads the way into nearly every dangerous standoff) or infuriating (you see clear moral demarcations based on the degree to which her input is valued.) And of course, there’s Green herself: she has a séance scene that’s Emmy-worthy, and while she gives in to every campy moment the series has to offer, she does subtler work whenever the goth schedule allows. Season two should be quite something.
Kumiko the Treasure Hunter: I suspect I will enjoy this oddball flick, in which a reclusive Rinko Kikuchi becomes obsessed with Fargo and goes in search of its payload, more than I enjoyed the miniseries.
The Light of Truth: Penguin Classics is on a roll in terms of nonfiction with a feminist bent, and this collection of the writing of Ida B. Wells was a holiday present I’ve already unwrapped and stuck on the nightstand.
Jane Campion’s 2013 miniseries Top of the Lake was both great and terrible, in the best sense, and Campion has confirmed a second season. If that comes out in 2015, it will be TiVoed so fast I will sprain my thumb.
A lot of short fiction. I have so many bookmarks of short fiction I’m embarrassed to say, but I look forward to making a dent in it.
Jupiter Ascending: Mila Kunis is a dead ringer for the queen of the universe, Channing Tatum is a space elf…and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. That’s all I needed to know.