Monthly Archives: February 2013

some reasons why Dirty Dancing is the best

Seriously, if I was doing this post in gifs, I’d have to include pretty much the whole movie. The watermelons! The bridge montage! The awkward “woooaaaaaaah” noise they both make on the log when Patrick Swayze almost loses his balance! (Okay, that last one wouldn’t make a great gif, but it’s one of the moments particular to this movie.)

Let’s start with the watermelons. When Baby wanders out of bounds, into the staff only area, she encounters Johnny’s cousin (does anyone remember his name?) carrying three huge watermelons. He calls her names, she makes to leave, he offers her a watermelon to carry as a peace offering.

Why watermelons? Who knows. But that one random detail gives one of the best shots of the movie – Johnny’s cousin shouldering open the doors to the staff dance hall, then juggling two watermelons – and one of the best lines of the movie. When Johnny finally condescends to stop grinding every woman in the place and come talk to Baby, the only line she can come up with is, “I carried a watermelon.”

The whole sequence could have happened without the watermelons, but wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.

Baby’s relationship to her sister Lisa is a – hmm, I was going to say subtle, but I’m not sure anything in this film is subtle – wonderful small piece of feminism. Baby looks down on her older sister, who’s a superficial girly girl. Baby’s smart and serious – she’s going to enter the Peace Corps. So when Lisa first hooks up with Robbie, one of the waiters, Baby just rolls her eyes, because it has nothing to do with her. It’s just Lisa being easily distracted, as always.

Even when she sees Lisa storming out of the woods with Robbie, straightening herself up and demanding an apology, she doesn’t think it has anything to do with her. She even uses going to see if Lisa’s okay as an excuse to escape her awkward date, but never actually goes to see her.

But after baby falls in love, and starts having sex – after she comes to realise how important romantic experience can be – she sees Lisa in a new light. She also knows what a scumbag Robbie is, first hand. So for the first time she tries to talk to her about what sex means, and asks Lisa to think about it and be careful. Lisa doesn’t listen, of course, because why on earth should she?

After Lisa also realises, first hand, what a dick Robbie is, and sees Baby ostracised over Johnny, they start to see each other more clearly. Lisa can see that her sister isn’t all high-and-mighty anymore – she has walked into that murky, uncomfortable, human space where she lets other people affect her. They’ve both had their hearts broken.

For the final concert, Lisa offers to do Baby’s hair. Baby understands this gesture is how Lisa can show her love, show she’s sorry. And Lisa, pushing Baby’s hair back into a style, lets it go, realising Baby doesn’t need to be anything other than what she is. They will never be the same kind of person, but they’ve found a way to understand and stand up for each other.

Also, Lisa singing Hula Hana is hands down one of the best bits of the movie. Especially because it’s just background to a transformative emotional moment. (Another of those perfect details, like the watermelons.)

And then there’s the romance.

It starts out with a conventional romance vibe – a naive good girl falls for the bad boy from the streets. But gradually the dynamics start to shift. Baby lives an undeniably privileged life. She can go to university and join the Peace Corps. Not because she’s smarter or more moral than anyone else, but because she’s in a financial position to do it – and more importantly, because she’s been raised to believe she can do anything.

Her privilege isn’t sneered at, or turned into a negative trait. Johnny sees that it gives her power. It puts her in a position he’s never been in in his life. It makes her something that’s difficult for him to understand, but so seductive and inspiring. It makes him look up to her. It makes him want more.

And Johnny, the bad boy with the incredible body and dance moves, isn’t as powerful as he first appears. In that conventional romance set-up, he has all the power. He can desire her or not, choose to dance with her or choose to sneer at her. But then we realise how rich women take advantage of him. He’s a fantasy to them, not a person. He’s a weekend getting back at their husbands. He’s a break from real life.

He’s talented and passionate, but if he wants to keep his job he has to keep the guests happy. And if he steps out of line, well his dad has a place in the House Painters Union lined up for him. His world is a tenuous place.

What’s even better about the romance, though, is that Baby’s privilege does make her naive, and Johnny’s background does keep him in his place more effectively than any outside influence. These big, obvious themes are complicated.

The moment when Baby comes to Johnny’s hut and asks him to dance (have sex) with her, his face is amazing. (I don’t care what anyone says – Patrick Swayze brings it in this movie.) He’s so completely terrified. He wants so badly, he’s burning up with hope, but he doesn’t know how to trust it.

Baby, much as we love her and believe in her, is just one more privileged woman enjoying the fantasy of Johnny.

The romance doesn’t actually happen until the moment Baby tells her father she’s been sleeping with Johnny. Until that moment she could leave, leave Johnny’s heart in tatters, and no one would be any the wiser. Until that moment she’s playing at being in love. It’s also the moment she proves she’s not just going to ride out on her white horse and save the world from on high – she’s actually going to act on her convictions, and get her hands dirty. The world, when you really engage with it, is a messy place.

And how great is it that when they say goodbye they don’t pretend they’re going to be together forever, or even see each other again? It’s just this beautiful thing, that neither of them will ever regret.

And lastly, there’s that incredible call from the heart, when Johnny’s walking away, and Baby calls out his name.

So if you’ve made it through this love-fest: What are your favourite bits of the movie? Or do you, travesty of travesties, not like it?

narrative, backwards

My favourite literary device is the Rosetta Stone moment: the piece of information that illuminates the story, backwards. You realise there has been a second narrative running under the first the whole time, and while you haven’t consciously been reading it, part of your brain has been picking up the cues, so that when that last piece of information clicks into place you don’t have to laboriously piece the whole thing together – all it needs is illumination.

I recently watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and while the tone of the film wasn’t so much my thing, it had a perfect, spine-tingling Rosetta Stone moment. I’m going to go through how it was done, complete with spoilers. It was by far the best part of the film, so if you intend to watch it, don’t read on!

The sub-narrative is all about Charlie’s relationship with his Aunt Helen. These are all the cues we’re given throughout the film:

Charlie is a troubled kid who has been in hospital. He’s going to high school for the first time, and he wishes he could talk to his Aunt Helen. She would understand.

Later, he remembers his Aunt Helen coming home to their house, with a Welcome Home banner and everything. She looks up at him, on the stairs, and they share a smile. They are special to each other.

When he sees his older sister’s boyfriend hitting her, he tries to intervene. She tells him not to get involved. “How could you,” he says, “after Aunt Helen?”

He goes to sit in the park, and remembers being there at Christmas with Aunt Helen. The pathway was lit up with lanterns, and she bent down and told him it was Santa’s runway. She told him to stay just where he was, while she went and got his birthday present.

Charlie loves a girl called Sam. She throws a Christmas party just for their close friends. Charlie gives her an old record of the Beatles song ‘Something’ and afterwards they sit on her bed together. She asks if he’s ever kissed anyone, and he shakes his head, bashful. “What about your first kiss?” he asks. “I was eleven,” she says. “His name was Robert. He used to come over to the house all the time.” “Was he your first boyfriend?” “He way my – he was my dad’s boss.” Charlie, who is so innocent and naïve, listens without judgement, but we see it hit him. Sam doesn’t know if she can become more than she is – get into a good school, make something of herself. Charlie tells her she can. “My aunt,” he says, “had that same thing done to her. And she turned her life around.” “She must have been great.” “She was my favourite person in the world,” Charlie says, “until now.” Then Sam tells Charlie she wants his first kiss to be with someone who loves him, and she kisses him.

While they’re kissing, Charlie strokes Sam’s back, down to her bottom. He stops. She asks if everything’s okay, and he says it is, and they keep kissing.

Later, Charlie remembers more of that Christmas scene from his childhood: Aunt Helen tells him to stay where he is while she goes to get his birthday present. She whispers in his ear, “It’ll be our little secret.” We see her driving, a record of the Beatles song ‘Something’ on the passenger seat. A truck hits her car, straight into the drivers side.

Charlie starts going out with the wrong girl, and he does the wrong thing. His friends – the first real friends he’s ever belonged to – disown him. His mental state deteriorates. He has no-one to talk to. He’s seeing things again. He’s at home alone, and he can’t stop seeing things.

He’s back kissing Sam on her bed, and his hand slides down her back, to her bottom. He’s remembering a hand touching his leg that way, and he’s a small boy, and the hand belongs to his Aunt Helen. She’s giving him that special you-and-me smile. He remembers finding her at the kitchen table, crying, and touching the long scars on her wrist. Then he’s back where she’s touching him, and whispering that they shouldn’t wake his sister, who’s asleep on the rug. He can’t stop thinking: What if it’s his fault she died, because he wanted her to die?

Charlie ends up in hospital again, and we never see it onscreen, but he finally tells someone what his aunt did to him.

Every memory leading up to the revelation is recast. Everything she said to him, every way she looked at him. His wilful innocence in that conversation with Sam. The way he can’t own his own experience.

Casting their relationship as special and important gives this sub-narrative so much more power than if it had just been couched in mystery. There’s a deep emotional truth in Charlie processing it that way. It’s also impressive from a storytelling stand-point, because there were enough cues that something wasn’t right, that it made complete, stunning sense when the truth came out. The way Charlie deals with Sam’s story of abuse, and the way he reacts to physical intimacy create an emotional resonance for his own experience, once it comes out. We’ve actually been reading that story the whole time, just without realising it.

It’s clear to us that Charlie loves and misses Aunt Helen, and that she was incredibly important to him. But we instinctively feel some piece of information missing from the core of their relationship: What binds them so tightly together? There’s an element of obsession about how he always thinks of her that is low-level creepy, but easy to dismiss because the narrative is telling you this was a good, special relationship.

There are more obvious cues, such as her saying, “This will be our little secret.” That phrase is so coded as abusive that I even thought of abuse outright at that moment, and then uneasily dismissed it.

Charlie’s denial recasts their relationship into something impossible. As his vision of things sits more and more uneasily alongside reality we begin to see how it is impossible.

There’s a powerful narrative lesson here. He doesn’t express blank denial, or bottled up rage. He feels something that’s emotionally true, the way dream logic is true, and it’s heartbreaking.

and she had plucked him

In her essay “Let Us Now Praise Scribbling Women“, Jenny Crusie describes how she found romance fiction. Part of the journey has to do with fairy tales. She writes:

As I studied romance and its roots further, I realized that the academic canon wasn’t the first form of narrative that had let me down. As a child, I’d been looking for myself in fairy tales and finding only disappointments. If I’d been a boy, I could have found great role models in stories like “Jack & the Beanstalk,” with a protagonist who climbed to the top to get what he wanted, grabbed the prize, killed the giant, and came back home a hero. Jack’s story remains a great model for little boys, telling them to be active and quest for what they want in life and they will be rewarded. But what did I have as a girl?

Well, I had Sleeping Beauty, who got everything she’d ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Snow White, who got everything she’d ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Cinderella, who should be given some credit for staying awake through her whole story, but who got everything she’d ever wanted because she had really small feet. The fairy tales I read as a child told me that boys’ stories were about doing and winning but that girls’ stories were about waiting and being won. Far from setting out on their own quests, women were the prizes in their own stories, and the less active they were–do NOT be a pushy, knife-wielding stepsister–the better their chances were of getting the castle and the crown.

Hehe. Jenny Crusie is the best.

There was one fairy tale I was told as a child that doesn’t quite fit into this critique. It has forever remained my favourite fairy tale, and as an adult I’ve begun to understand why. It is an old Scottish tale about Janet and Tom Lin (more commonly Tam Lin, but he was always Tom Lin to me). There are countless versions, but I asked Mum to send me the book she used to read us as kids so that I could pick out my favourite lines.

She said, “Now, are you sure you won’t lose it, if I send it to you?” Being 30 years old, I answered that no, of course I wouldn’t. A photocopy of the story arrived in the mail. Thanks Mum!

Janet is a girl who lives in a village, or in the castle of a village. Growing up, she is told, “Do not go near Oakwood.” It’s a dark forest a mile or so distant, where no young woman dare go for fear of meeting Tom Lin. He will take something from you. He might take your maidenhead from you.

When Janet is old enough to find fear more enticing than off-putting, she rides into Oakwood, which now belongs to her. In her head is a song she heard the night sing, Pin all your broaches in your hair, wear all your finest clothes, but if you break into my lair, I’ll pluck you like a rose. She comes to a clearing where there is a well, and a white horse. She is surrounded by roses. There is no sign of Tom Lin.

She pats the horse, who shies away, and drops a rock down the well. Then she plucks a two-headed rose, and Tom Lin appears out of thin air.

“You sing my song,” he said.

“You are Tom Lin?”

“I am. You sing my song,” he said.

“I do?”

“But you do not heed its warning.”

“I do not.”

“You must not come here.”

“But here I am.”

“You must return. You have no business here.”

“And why not, may I ask?” said Janet, smiling.

“Leave now. You must not stay.” He took her by the hand, not roughly, but gently, and led her away, back the way she had come.

“How does he know the way I came…?” she wondered. Then:

“He is kind to me,” she thought, as he held back the brambles for her to pass.

They said not a word to each other until Janet was stepping out of the wood.

“Now, go,” he said, and his voice was kind. “And do not come again.”

She can’t stop thinking about him, of course. Who is he? Why do people say he’s dangerous? Was he just a silly dream?

In the original, this is where her parents discover she’s pregnant. In the version I grew up on, this is where she realises she loves him. The story reads:

Tom Lin had plucked her like a rose. And she had plucked him. It was as simple as that.

So she returns to the wood and demands to know who he is. He reluctantly tells her that he’s the son of a local lord. When he was out hunting as a boy he became lost, and the Queen of the Fairies found him. She trained him in magic and he became her favourite knight.

Every year on Halloween she pays tribute to the Prince of Darkness, and offers one of her knights up to him. This year, Tom Lin fears, he is to be the tribute.

Janet demands to know what she can do. Tom Lin tells her, though probably he shouldn’t.

She must stand in the middle of the cross-roads at midnight, as the Queen and her whole retinue ride past. First the black horses, then the brown, then the white. Tom Lin will wear no glove on his left hand, so that she will know him. She must pull him from his horse, and hold onto him, and not let go.

The Queen will change his shape. She will do everything in her power to make Janet let go, but Janet must hold on until he is himself again. Then if she throws her cloak over him, he will be free.

She does as he asks:

Just before midnight, Janet stood at the crossroads. She was wrapped in her great green cloak. The night was darker than she had ever known it. Only rarely was there a faint glimmer of the moon, through the heavy clouds. And a wild wind howled about her and snatched at her cloak as if to tear it from her.

She clenched her fists and bit her lips in her anxiety. But nothing on earth would drive her from that place. So she stood, trembling, and waited for the trial of strength.

When the first troop of riders came galloping out of the dark, on their black horses, she hardly found time to see them come, sweep past, and disappear again. Fast and furious they swept past her, their black cloaks like storm clouds, their silent horses like strange dreams.

Then the second company came sweeping past treading the air, as if they were carried by the wind. They came, rushed by, and disappeared.

So Janet knew the time had come for her to risk all. To pour all her strength and courage and love into her struggle with the Queen. If she failed, Tom Lin would be dragged down in chains to the dungeons of the Prince of Darkness.

Suddenly the white horses were almost on her. She gasped, her heart raced and thundered, and she looked so hard at the darkness that her eyes ached with the effort. The horsemen swept by. On and on, they passed. There seemed no end to them. “But Tom Lin! Where is he? Oh, where is Tom Lin?” she cried.

And then she saw him, his left hand bared. He was the last of the company, the very last. His horse flashed by, she closed her eyes, and threw herself at Tom Lin.

It was like drowning. It was like being kicked by a thousand feet. It was like falling. It was like a tornado. It was almost a death.

But Janet holds onto him. She holds onto a slippery newt, a snake, a bear, a lion. At the very last a swan, that beats her with its powerful wings and pecks at her. In the original, she holds a burning coal in her hands. Then she is holding Tom Lin, and the furious Queen can do nothing.

In the version we heard as kids, she sings, He was the best of all my knights, but woman’s courage proved too strong. Tom Lin is now your man, by rights. So here’s the burden of my song: I failed to reckon with your will, your courage, and your heart so true, Fair Janet. So for good or ill your life together now pursue. (I love that: for good or ill.)

In the original, she says she should have poked his eyes out and replaced them with wood. Or, in another version, she should have removed his human heart and put clay in its place.

Briefly, the things I love most about this story:

1) Though it’s not in the original, the line, “And she had plucked him.” is so, so perfect. She isn’t an unconscious heroine being done to.

2) Tom Lin asks an awful thing of Janet. The selfless, heroic version of love says he should never have asked such a thing of her. I much prefer this version of love. He trusts in her strength. He is a thousand times more interesting, because he asks her instead of martyring himself. It takes incredible personal power to ask something so awful and difficult.

3) He is trapped, enthralled to a woman. He is passive. Janet is a land-owner of high standing, and she fights with all her strength for what she wants.

The version I’ve quoted from is from the book Tales Three, ed. Geoffrey Summerfield.

princes in love

I’m in the middle of writing a post about my favourite fairy tale, because it’s not all that well known and I need to talk to you guys about it. But today I had to post about another kind of fairy tale with two princes and way more vicious dialogue and the kind of romance you would give your teeth for. (Those of us who’ve seen Les Mis the movie now have a much better idea of what giving your teeth can lead to.)

I talk about Cat all the time, and she wrote an incredible post on tension in my guest series. That post is probably the best insight you’ll get into why you can’t put her books down once you start reading them – and why it’s a bit like being twisted up tight, then tighter, then tighter again.

On Monday, volumes I and II of Captive Prince will be live on Amazon. I’ve already pre-ordered my paper copies, and I can’t wait to get them in the mail. They are so pretty!


But I should really tell you what they’re about. Damen is the crown prince of Akielos – but the day his father dies he’s betrayed by his bastard brother and sent to serve their enemy’s prince as a slave. Laurent, crown prince of Vere, is beautiful, petty, spoilt and frigid. (Why do I love that string of adjectives so much?) He is the antithesis of Damen, but for the first time in his life Damen can’t act. If his identity is revealed it will mean Death By Beautiful, Petty, Spoilt and Frigid Prince.

So because he can’t just act, he has to start thinking, and he starts (slowly – oh, Damen) to realise Vere is a complex, intricate place and that its prince makes it look simple in comparison.

Then in volume II there are battles and hijinks and so much repressed desire you’ll practically choke on it.

Cat’s writing is sparse and stylised, dry, hilarious and punch-you-in-the-guts emotive. From an exchange between princes, about the battle where Damen’s people fought Laurent’s people and Laurent’s golden brother died:

* * *

In fact the baths were empty, except for one person.

As yet untouched by the steam, clothed from toe-tip to neck, and standing in the place where slaves were washed before they entered the soaking bath. When Damen saw who it was, he instinctively lifted a hand to his gold collar, unable to quite believe that he was unrestrained, and that they were alone together.

Laurent reclined against the tiled wall, settling his shoulders flat against it. He regarded Damen with a familiar expression of golden-lashed dislike.

‘So my slave is bashful in the arena. Don’t you fuck boys in Akielos?’

‘I’m quite cultured. Before I rape anyone I first check to see if their voice has broken,’ said Damen.

Laurent smiled.

‘Did you fight at Marlas?’

Damen did not react to the smile, which was not authentic. The conversation was now on a knife edge. He said: ‘Yes.’

‘How many did you kill?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Lost count?’

Pleasantly, as one might inquire about the weather. Laurent said, ‘The barbarian won’t fuck boys, he prefers to wait a few years and then use a sword in place of his cock.’

Damen flushed. ‘It was battle. There was death on both sides.’

‘Oh, yes. We killed a few of you too. I would like to have killed more, but my uncle is unaccountably clement with vermin. You’ve met him.’

Laurent resembled one of the etched figures of the intaglio, except that he was done in white and gold, not silver. Damen looked at him and thought: This is the place where you had me drugged.

‘Have you waited six days to talk to me about your uncle?’ Damen said.

Laurent rearranged himself against the wall into a position that looked even more indolently comfortable than the one before.

‘My uncle has ridden to Chastillon. He hunts boar. He likes the chase. He likes the kill, too. It’s a day’s ride, after which he and his party will stay five nights at the old keep. His subjects know better than to bother him with missives from the palace. I have waited six days so that you and I could be alone.’

Those sweet blue eyes gazed at him. It was, when you shook off the sugared tone, a threat.

* * *

The paperbacks are up for pre-order on Amazon, but you’ll have to wait till Monday to buy the e-books. They’ll also be available on iTunes from Monday.