December 2005 Vogue: Oz, Narnia and Geisha

This month’s Vogue has a few interesting articles. There was a look at the upcoming movie “Memoirs of a Geisha”, an article about Tilda Swinton, who plays the White Witch in the upcoming movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”, and an photo shoot based on “The Wizard of Oz”.

Michael, skip this paragraph. You are going to say I’m nit-picking, but I’m no more nit-picking than you do with any media portrayal of someone playing a video game. Two years ago Vogue did a fantastic photo shoot based on Lewis Carroll’s book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with a model playing Alice dressed in a different designer’s take on Alice in each photo. It was artistic and interesting and obviously really inspired by Alice and Carroll’s work. A year ago, they did the same thing with “Beauty and the Beast”, but this time with Drew Barrymore playing Beauty. It wasn’t quite as inspired as the Alice shoot, but it was beautiful and really did seem rather inspired by the story. This year’s offering in the same vein was a take on “The Wizard of Oz”. Now, previously it has been pretty clear that the designers were giving their own view of the book characters and not basing their designs on any movie versions. This year, they explicitly based the shoot on the 1939 MGM movie “The Wizard of Oz”. Now, I don’t for a minute intend to dispute that the movie has made a huge impact on our culture, but I do take some issue with the almost dismissal given to the book in this article. The photo spread is prefaced with a very short, only mostly accurate and very slanted piece about the history of the story. It basically dismisses any achievement the story had before the movie (including saying that “The Wiz” was a more successful musical than the 1902 musical version of the story, which is totally untrue). It handwaves L. Frank Baum’s importance with a mention of his post-Wizard tiff with W. W. Denslow (the original illustrator of the story) and says that the movie is a more important cultural achievement that “inhabits our dream life”. Thus, the entire shoot is inspired by the movie. And lack of the original story is evident in nearly every picture. Every shoe (except that in the first black and white photo) is bright red, Dorothy is waking up from her “dream”, it is Glinda who sends Dorothy off on her journey rather than the Witch of the North, and there isn’t even a hint of blue in any of Dorothy’s dresses. The outfits could be based on just about any girl in any classic children’s book. They are white little-girl inspired confections floating above towering high shiny leather or velvet pumps. In fact, they somewhat struck me as something an anime character who is supposed to be about 10 but is, for no very clear reason, incredibly oversexualized. My other main gripe is that Keira Knightley is the actress portraying Dorothy. Now, I like Miss Knightley just fine. She is a good actress and has made some wonderful movies and seems like a pretty nice person in real life too, but she isn’t Dorothy. First off, Dorothy is the quintissential American heroine from the quintissential American story. Miss Knightley is undeniably British in both appearance and character, not to mention voice. Of the millions of Americans to pick was not one really acceptable for this shoot? Secondly, Miss Knightley seems somewhat oblivious to what is happening to Dorothy in each picture. One of the best parts of the Alice and Beauty shoots were the actresses facial expressions – each seemed to really have thought about what the character was thinking. Alice looked curious and confused while Beauty looked a little sad, a little lonely and a little curious. Dorothy looks totally posed and scared. That isn’t Dorothy. The Kansas farm girl’s character is one of practicality and a very roll-with-the-punches demenor. Even Judy Garland (who played a pretty clueless Dorothy) got those two fundamental things. Miss Knightley (or more likely whoever was directing her) seems to have totally missed the point. So basically, I was pretty disappointed in this shoot. I was hoping for a strong Dorothy dressed in fabulous costumes of blue and white striding proudly down the Yellow Brick Road on her way home, and instead I got a british anime girl in limp white dresses creeping like a frightened puppy with no evident direction or goal. I was very disappointed.

A few days ago Viv had a post discussing her concerns about the portrayal of Asian women in the upcoming movie “Memoirs of a Geisha”. I was also hoping that this movie would have more realistic portrayals of Asian women characters (more depth than just “delicate lotus blossom” and “dragon-lady”), but after reading the Vogue article, I have more doubts than before. The article discusses the two main characters and the actresses who play them. It sounds very much like Zang is playing the typical delicate flower character while Gong plays the older dragon-lady character, with Yeoh as a motherly character thrown in for good measure. The director wanted to hearken back to old-fashioned “women’s epics” (because obviously epic stories about women are totally different from epic stories about men). The costumes are beautiful, but this whole thing makes me nervious. I also found it odd that the director had serious problems because most of his actresses spoke Chinese (being Chinese women), while the actors spoke Japanese (being Japanese men) and multiple translators were always necessary. I would have cast Japanese women as Japanese characters, but I’m old-fashioned that way.

The most interesting article of the bunch was the short, and somewhat glossed-over article about Tilda Swinton, who plays the White Witch in the upcoming “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”. It barely discussed the new movie, focusing more on Swinton’s background, but what it did say was very interesting. It has been repeatedly pointed out by critics that the White Witch has always been portrayed in the past with midnight-dark flowing hair and this movie is showing her with peroxide-blonde, iceicled-stiff tresses. Swinton gives some very interesting reasons for that chioce that make a great deal of sense and show that she has not only read the book (brownie points for her), but also thought about it (extra sprinkles too). She states that she didn’t see the book as so much of a religious parable, but rather with more of a political slant. The book was written by C. S. Lewis in the early 1950s and was set during the London Blitz of World War II. In that light, Swinton wanted the White Witch “to be an Aryan” because she thinks that “she’s the ultimate white supremacist”. Thus, the blond hair. That is a very different take on the book and the character than we usually hear, but it is definately one that makes sense. I am very interested to see the new movie, more than ever after reading this article, and hope that some of those ideas were used as inspiration for the portrayal of the story (I also hope they aren’t explicit or even mentioned). I suppose we’ll see when it comes out later this month!

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