Sunday, January 12, 2020

January's Sunday Corner With Lee Liberman Gerwig's LITTLE WOMEN: the Jewel Box Effect

What pleasure to see LITTLE WOMEN (LW) at Brooklyn’s famed Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), a multi- venue cultural center first founded in 1861, seven years before LW was published, with a multi-generational group of 15 including some men dragged by sisters and wives to the winter season’s chick flick. Ecstasy promptly broke out, amped by Q & A that followed with the writer/director herself.

Beyond the exposition below, the result in chief was a completely exuberant experience in front of any screen, large or small. And a unique and smart one: an emotionally and intellectually provocative version of the girls epic that Greta Gerwig (above) artfully, ingeniously kaleidoscoped with bits of Louisa May Alcott’s own life and with Jo March’s own novel. The writer/director plunges you into the golden youth of the March sisters who pile on one another like puppies snarled in a heap of play, rambunctious furies, set against their young adult selves who in cooler light and with mature restraint, bear poverty, suffer loss. Rich neighbor, Laurie, lacking parents and family warmth of his own, is the fifth sister — Timothée Chalamet as his nattily-dressed, tousled, whimsical self. It’s not traditional linear story-telling of LW but you’ve been there/done that. You just have to go and see what Gerwig has accomplished (HERE, the film trailer.)

As Gerwig explained in an interview for, for her, the novel is the golden snow globe of childhood and memory, and she wanted the film to feel heightened, as though you were opening a jewel box you’d want to live inside of because there was magic to it -- like the world was right in its coziness. Gerwig invests nostalgia with a modern edge in this lively 2h 15m of pure entertainment.

HERE for your comparison are the major earlier films of LW. The 1994 version with Winona Ryder, following the women’s movement, was the first to take Jo seriously as an ink-fingered scribbler underwriting her own independence writing fiction and prose, and Susan Sarandon’s Marmee as a woke woman. Gerwig unpacks empowerment even further — Saoirse Ronan’s Jo makes it plain that money is freedom; the film is threaded with her negotiations over the price and value of her writing. Amy, the family brat (brilliant Florence Pugh: “I got this most delicious naughty hungry little flirt”), declares later as a young adult her practical intention to take control of her life by marrying well — her femininity is her currency in a world where women and children are property.

Gerwig mixes up the time frames — the story flashes back and forth between the March sisters’ charmed if genteel poor childhood and their twenties with the sobering of maturity. Even lesser players are eye-candy here: handsome Brit James Norton as sister Meg’s (Emma Watson) suitor, John Brooks, and French heart throb, Louis Garrel, as Professor Bhaer — the husband Alcott reluctantly coughed up for Jo to marry in order to satisfy her readers (who clamored for Laurie as groom).

A particular Gerwig contribution was for us to see the March’s as part of their own civil war era but in slight offset to its social conventions — essentially a hippie family. (Credit to Amanda Hess, NYT, for her illuminating interview with Gerwig ) The director filmed sunny golden youth using for reference the art of 19th century painters. The young adult Amy, in the company of old Aunt March (a crusty Meryl Streep on par with Maggie Smith‘s Countess Grantham) falls in love with Laurie in the Paris of Leslie Caron’s Gigi (below).

My own homework was to re-read the best-selling original (1868), that as an adult, felt something like a dreary dinner of tiresome moralizings. The truest emotion in the novel was evoked by sister Beth’s decline, Alcott’s paean to the demise of her own sibling. This emotionally rich story line was skimmed rather lightly, surprisingly, as otherwise Gerwig pinged your memories of LW over and over.

Alcott herself was unhappy with the novel, she called it “moral pap for the young”, marrying off Jo at her editor’s insistence that women in stories must end up married or dead and writing ‘‘at record speed for money’’. Her preferred gothic romances (she called them her “blood and thunder tales”) temperamentally opposite her idealistic father, didn’t pay. She went for the money, writing stories for girls; at 40, ‘Little Women‘ made Louisa comparatively rich, family debts paid and money leftover for good carpets and a ‘modern’ kitchen now on view in the famed New England colonial in Concord, MA (below). Louisa became the sole support of the Alcott household. She had produced near 300 works by her death at 56 in 1888, 2 days following her father. In real life it was Louisa who went to war (as a civil war nurse) not Bronson; her death was likely brought forward by her having contracted typhoid pneumonia and treated with a formula containing mercury.

Bronson Alcott, a founder of the Transcendental movement, is a story of his own, so modern a school teacher he couldn’t keep a job; parents withdrew their children because he opposed corporal punishment, enrolled an African-American child, and fostered classroom dialogue and argument. The transcendentalists, at their height in the 1830’s, emphasized the inherent goodness of nature and humanity leading to Louisa’s inclusion of such churchy homilies in LW as “Be comforted,dear soul! There is always light behind the clouds;” or “hope and keep busy, that’s the motto for us”.

Bronson Alcott’s compatriots were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; their ideas of simple food/simple living have come forward to this day in their writings, radical in their support of abolition and women’s and labor rights. The Alcott’s and their associates were early day Woodstock generation types and the fictional March’s basked in their glow.

A provocative piece of Louisa May’s own story is whether she was gay. Gerwig talks about it in an interview HERE. Louisa herself wrote: “I believe I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body...because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with a man.”

In contrast to Gentleman Jack's Anne Lister, denoted as the first English Lesbian some decades earlier (1791-1840), Louisa (above) is adored by girls today foremost as an author who supported herself as a writer; available readings don’t hint she acted on her predisposition. She and alter-ego Jo March are gay icons today, but they are also iconic to every young person who dreamt of supporting her/himself with pen, typewriter, or computer.

On its release Christmas Day 2019 Little Women became an instant film classic because of the magic in Greta Gerwig’s jewel box. When you finally see it you will surely enjoy if you are a woman or have a woman in your life. (Below, Laura Dern’s Marmee with the four March daughters)

The above post was written by 
our monthly correspondent Lee Liberman

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