Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Costumes In Atonement

I was prepared to hate the costumes in Atonement. That green gown was everywhere last fall -- in magazines, in the trailers for the movie. Around the time of the Academy Awards it was auctioned off on eBay. The phrase for it was "eye-catching," and the color was what made it so. The color has been ubiquitous this spring. I have two tops in that color and I could have at least three more from L.A.M.B., not to mention dresses by Phillip Lim, Geren Ford, Zac Posen, and Isaac Mizrahi. But when the trailers for the movie started appearing and when Kiera Knightly appeared in Vogue, the color made the gown so obvious it was kitchy. It seemed to have been constructed of a green so saturated it that the message it sent was vulgar: "If you didn't know that Kiera Knightly was supposed to be the object of your gaze in this film, this costume has been made to alert you." I was sure that the film was nominated for best costumes at the Oscars because of the green gown, while at the same time not having a chance to win the big award because of it. It was gimmicky, and the result of having put it in all the publicity shots was that the best costume in the whole picture was there on display for everyone to see -- it didn't require context. I got the feeling that we were seeing the equivalent of the dress that Scarlett wears to Ashley's birthday party. After that image, the deluge.

That was all before I had seen Atonement. I have to admit that I didn't rush out to see it because it got an unfavorable review from Anthony Lane, whose reviews I fell in love with many years ago but have not loved recently, though I have also refused to admit that the lustre has worn off the affair. I saw Atonement on DVD recently and now I know that the relationship is over. (I should have known it when he wrote a bad review of Marie Antoinette, but I really wanted to believe that he was the same writer whose words I met lo those many years ago). Atonement is a good movie. The use of point of view is fascinating, and we are left to wonder exactly what about the story is "real" and which parts belong to Briony's imagination. At one point Cecelia even calls her an "unreliable witness." Because of its unreliability, the narrative makes the kitsch in the film bearable. In fact, in the context of unreliability the kitsch even deepens the film.

Before I go on I should point out that the film relies on its kitsch for its market value. Movie goers fall for high-drama romance in which the lovers share a passion that can endure despite false accusations, prison, and the Blitz. I know that I am a sucker for such stories. If you didn't want to pay attention, you could just sit back and enjoy Knightly and James McAvoy suffering beautifully and feel entirely satisfied even as you put the movie back in Red Box. The romance is part of the hook, like the green gown. If we wanted to, we could look at the gown in the context of the romance -- a woman wanting to look her best for the man she has just admitted she is in love with. We can look at the gown that way or we can look at everything else going on in the movie. We can enjoy the certainty of the love story or the ambiguities of the plot. Or, if you wanted to, you could allow them both to entertain you at once.

As it is, we don't know what parts of the film happen in "real life" and which happen in Briony's imagination. There are parts of the story that seem to be "true," the false accusations sending Robbie to jail, the love between Robbie and Cecelia, the identity of the real "rapist." (I put that last word into quotes because the film leads us to believe that Lola may not have been raped at all). So what Cecelia wears is suspect, as well: if green is the color of jealousy, it follows that in Briony's imagination she would be in green, as (in Briony's head) she is Briony's rival for Robbie's attention.

The green gown aside, the costumes unify the film's various time periods. The young Briony's dresses foreshadow her nurse's uniform. Both her uniform and the dresses she wears as a young girl are cut half-way up the calf and in such a way that they bellow out behind her as she walks. She has the same silhouette as an 18 year old that she has a s a 13 year old. The way the costumes are filmed are equally as important as the cut. The sequences that introduce Briony as first a character and later as an 18 year old are highly choreographed, as if to stress that this is a girl who lives in her imagination, and through it is used to choreographing her reality. The actresses who play Briony move sharply as they turn left and right, as they navigate a country house or march in line with other nurses. This is not to say that other scenes in the film are not highly choreographed -- they are -- it is simply that Briony choreographs herself, while others are moved into place by her memory or fancy.

Marc by Marc Day

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Marc by Marc Jacobs is perfect for me. It is a line of pretty things that are wearable because they function and because they are fun. These little Cinderella shoes glow when I wear them out in the sun. The dress is fun because it's got so unusual a print.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Marc by Marc Shoes

K's First Prompt: T-Shirts -- Why?

K means to tease me with this prompt. He has noticed my reluctance to wear the t-shirts that our bosses have given us to wear on special school occasions, like assembly days, Fridays, and certain team-meeting days. Of course I do wear them, as for my bosses, one's sartorial choices on such days reflects one's willingness to be a "team player." Now, one thing that I am is a team player. However, I have serious concerns about the team uniform when it is so ugly, so unbecoming, and really, so unprofessional. I can tell that my boss understands this because in 29 years of working in the same school, there has been only one day that he has not worn a tie. I saw him on that day. He looked really uncomfortable.

Now, if you are a woman, the choice to wear a t-shirt at work is a difficult one. My male colleagues, who, with the exception of K, all dress as if they have come straight from the golf course -- such is the uniform of a male secondary-school teacher -- look natural and even somehow slightly more masculine in pressed khakis and a school-regulation shirts. However, a t-shirt with the slogan of the year does not become a woman. My colleague, L, is a woman of a certain age who brings a sense of class to all endeavors, including dressing. She has pointed out that a woman in a t-shirt is just this far from looking like a bag lady. She is so right.

I keep my school t-shirts in a drawer in my desk, so that they are easily accessible on days when I have forgotten that we are to wear them and so they do not get mixed up in my closet with the other school t-shirts that I have been given or inherited -- all seven years of them. These I work out in. On those days when we proclaim our team loyalty, I wear a blazer and premium denim. Until recently I have worn Converse with this uniform, but now I have some high-heeled tennis shoes to wear as an alternative. The last time we had to wear our t-shirts, a few weeks ago, K told me he was proud of me.

But really, why? Why has the t-shirt, so baggy, so unbecoming, so ubiquitous, become what it is? Why do people -- especially women -- want to wear something that makes them look drab? Living in Denver, a place wear young, vibrant, sexy, good-looking, well-dressed people seem to all want to leave their hard-partying, hard-skiing twenties and early thirties to live in the suburbs and gossip about their neighbors, t-shirts are a metaphor for this entropy. There are beautiful, alluring people who as soon as they sign a mortgage on a house outside of the city center change from wearing clothing that makes them look good into clothing that a self-respecting person would wear only to work in the garden or paint a room. It is shocking. I see these same people at the theater, wearing khaki pants and sweatshirts. Have they just come from watering the spinach, I wonder.

Perhaps the t-shirt is the perfect uniform. It is easily reproducible, cheap, and long-lasting. (Nothing last longer than the t-shirts I have been given, which I launder constantly, but some how remain indestructible). It hides the uniqueness of the wearer's body. In a typical crew-neck, big-sleeved t-shirt you can't tell whether the person has breasts or curves, good pecks or deltoid muscles. The slope of the cut away from the neck de-emphasizes the shoulders, which may be strong and pretty. It forces the wearer to blend in, to be known only by the number on its back. In that way it protects the wearer. It makes her blend in with the crowd so that she doesn't have to stand for anything -- to take any risk, least of all sartorial. It makes her anonymous. It makes her androgynous. It de-sexualizes her, which is an idea that could be at the core of L's observation. It protects her from attention that she may not want. It is the Western equivalent of a Burka.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

On Staving Off The Apocalypse for You

The Genius of Pestilence has appeared in my closet. I am sure it is he, as he has come in the form of small, brownish-white moths with dark brown heads. And isn't it written somewhere that when clothes moths infest a fashionista's closet this is surely a Sign of the End? Here we are on the last night of Passover -- we should remember how God sent ten plagues to Egypt -- blood, frogs, locusts, the death of the firstborn, the discovery of holes in cashmere sweaters....Isn't it supposed to be the End when I have found seven garments each with seven holes?

Dear Reader, please know that I am doing something about this. I am staving off the Apocalypse for you. I have with great diligence removed every piece of wool clothing from my closet, and took it to the cleaners. Then, I purchased plastic garment bags and cedar wood drenched with lavender oil. When I got my clothes back from the cleaner, I stored them in these bags, with the wood. Other sweaters I put in plastic sweater boxes, along with the wood.

Gentle Reader, I am a thorough and detail oriented woman. I also have quite a large wardrobe, so the logistics of this project have taken two weeks to plan and execute. I had to secure funding. I had to create a war plan. One cannot win the heart and mind of a moth, let alone a Horseman, so this had to be Total War. My boyfriend, to my dismay, is a man of little faith. He has watched me with glee, laughing, as I arrange and rearrange, as I go on alert when a moth flies by us, bobbing up and down a little and trying to avoid the light (that's how you know it is the Horseman, it doesn't like light). He makes light of my -- and your -- misfortune. He belittles my mission. He laughs in the face of the Horseman. Ah, but he will stop laughing, for, as I have secured my closet, it is time to move on to his.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Prompts My Colleague Gave Me

My beloved colleague, K, gave me a list of prompts to write on, as he is, in fact, an English teacher. English teachers love prompts, though, to be truthful, we have to write rather boring ones for our students. For example, on a test I might give my students this prompt: "In a well-crafted, five-paragraph essay, explain the symbolism of the rose bush by the prison door in The Scarlet Letter." Worse are prompts that they encounter on standardized tests. Yesterday, my department and I graded a standardized test that had been created by a testing company. The paragraph we graded was written in response to this prompt (please note, I am not kidding): "If the plant in the poem could think and speak, would it realate to the speaker?"

My students and I are now reading Cannery Row. Now, you'd think that a book as sexy, life-embracing, and party-promoting as Cannery Row could generate sexy and life-embracing topics to dwell upon, however, since as a public-school teacher it seems that we cannot by law point out to minors that people in literature have fun, or experience joy or pleasure, we have to ask them questions like, "How is Dora transformed symbolically by the party at the climax of the novel?" when I think it would be better for them to wonder, "When you grow up would you rather be one of the people in the novel who destroy themselves through averice and ambition, or would you rather find redemption in pleasure, like the inhabitants of Cannery Row?" Now that's something to think about. However, I would get parents calling my principal, saying that I'm promoting a lax and inefficient lifestyle. It might out me as a bohemian.

But K's prompts for me are different. Perhaps because he gets to teach creative writing, lucky, lucky man.