Once Were Little Women

It seems most appropriate to inaugurate this new blog about cinephilia–however misspelled–with a post about the first incidence of it in my life that I can recall. Now that I have cable, with premium movie channels that repeatedly air the film, I am constantly reminded of how big a role Little Women (Gillian Armstrong, 1994) played in my childhood and continues to inform me of who I am.

Before this adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott tale, which had been brought to screens of various sizes before, I was more or less a typical eight-year-old movie-watcher. Until the film came to home video after its December 1994 theatrical release, I didn’t pay attention to the conventions of opening and closing credit sequences or what the individual crew members’ contributions entailed. Perhaps it is because we rented the VHS almost on a weekly basis that I became familiar with the strange words “editor” and “director of photography,” and I began to seek out definitions. On a very basic level, I can recall how my relationship with Little Women educated me about the different practices that go into making a film.

We didn’t see Little Women in the theater. The reason is lost to history now. But how we responded to it in my house has taken on a sort of legendary status. Up until the night my sister and I watched the rented video separately and alone, we weren’t exactly the best of friends. We had shared a bedroom, but when we reached a certain age (she’s three and half years older), we decided to go our separate ways. Or maybe it was because she was entering middle school and more interested in playing with girlfriends than with her geeky, needy sister that we split up.

For whatever reason, we were on the outs the day we rented Little Women for the first time. Somehow, she was the first to see the new Winona Ryder movie. And I will never forget how she came into my room to watch my reaction–just as the romantic music swelled as Jo more or less proposed to the penniless German Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne). I had been moved to tears; apparently something similar had happened during my sister’s viewing. We bonded over our shared love of this movie about the relationships between sisters, each with their own distinct personality. We each identified with Jo, the free-spirited, “wild,” proto-feminist and aspiring writer. Rather than turn possessive or territorial over claiming Jo as both our kindred spirit and role model, I think we each let the other embrace the character. For there’s no denying that she, as embodied by Ryder, is the best sister: she is the most intellectually curious, politically minded, and, as she herself says, “hopelessly flawed.” It was only more than ten years later, on viewing it alone for the first time in a long while (even after having seen it more than one hundred times), that I came to realize I am probably a lot more like Beth, portrayed in the film by a heart-breaking Claire Danes, than I originally thought. While I would never be content to stay at home or to go without taking a lover, I think her selfless devotion to her family is something to which I have tried–and often failed–to aspire.

Little Women is also special for my sister and me because we shared a teenybopper adoration for the young actor Christian Bale, who played the March family’s next-door neighbor Theodore “Laurie”/”Teddy” Lawrence. He is, on record, our first and only teen idol, and we weren’t even teens when we started fawning over him. We joined his fanclub (I’m sure I have the membership card and autographed portrait in a box somewhere), swooned over his commitment to the environment (he was a vegetarian in those days and an advocate for wildlife, particularly gorilla, conservation), and sought out every new film of his, even going so far as to leave the suburbs and head downtown to the nearest theater playing Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine (1998). Our enthusiasm for Mr. Bale has faded tremendously; we both go through phases of finding him interesting (American Psycho [Mary Harron, 2000]) and ridiculous (Christopher Nolan’s rebooted Batman trilogy). The point is, we have moved on.

When I catch Little Women on cable these days, I can recite lines–nay, whole monologues–of dialogue along with the actors. Suddenly, my memory transports me to the time when my sister and I made a habit of studying scenes to act out for our own amusement. Our favorite cinematic moments to reconstruct were Jo’s refusal of Laurie’s marriage proposal and Laurie’s conversation with a grown-up Amy (Samantha Mathis) in Europe. In it, they discuss whether or not he can love her for her (and not her name and relations) and whether or not she can love anyone who isn’t rich (but he is, anyway). We must have switched roles from time to time, but I remember playing Laurie most of the time.

These scenes stood out for us not only because they’re dialogue-heavy but because they were the crux of what we thought was wrong with the story: that Jo and Laurie didn’t end up together. We regretted Jo’s decision to not marry Laurie, the sensitive and romantic boy who so clearly has been in love with his best friend for over four years. When she says to a man later on in New York that “I should have been a great many things,” we barked at the screen during every viewing the following bitter reminder: “Like Laurie’s wife!” As for the second scene, we just hated the idea that Laurie could be so desperate to be a member of the March family that he would pursue the vain and heartless Amy.

A couple years ago, I made a startling observation upon rewatching Little Women, one that completely changed my understanding of the film and my own outlook on life and love. Strangely, I accepted the story’s resolution: the couplings of Jo and Professor Bhaer and Laurie and Amy. I recognized that Bhaer was a better match for Jo. He has more common interests (as a philosophy professor), sees her as an equal, and, more importantly, he supports her writing career. Not only does he hand over her manuscripts to his editor and/or publisher friends, he challenges her to write from a more personal place. His lack of enthusiasm for her horror and fantasy stories may be one thing, but his prodding does unlock her stubbornness to write about what she knows (which eventually manifests in a set-to-be published novel based on her own life).

I also realized that it was necessary for Jo to turn Laurie down in the first place. The once romantic proposal scene reappeared to me years later as devoid of passion. And I know what explains this change in my perception: between these readings, I became an ardent feminist. Jo has never wanted to be married because she rightly sees it as undoing her independence as well as her desire to see and experience more of the world. (As a child in a Transcendentalist home, she has grown up with the worldview that one should strive to better herself.) Moreover, when Laurie argues that they should marry because he can financially take care of her and her family, that she won’t have to write unless she wants to, I can respond just as Jo does: appalled and defensive of her creative impulse for expression. How could she, after all, marry someone who doesn’t understand her and her desires, who wants her for selfish reasons? Of course, in the novel, Jo had already met and befriended Professor Bhaer by the time Laurie proposes, but since we’re talking about the filmic adaptation and my differing reactions to the central love stories, we must push that aside for now.

I think I even successfully convinced my sister that Jo’s ending up with Professor Bhaer is the better outcome because he would more likely be an equal partner, what with his taking on the position of teacher at the school Jo wishes to establish at the mansion that she inherits from her great aunt. Besides, as I said before, she essentially proposes to him in the rain, leaving him to come up with a response borne of incredulity: “But I have nothing to give you, my hands are empty.” To which she says, placing her hands in his, “Not empty now.” Laurie can have Amy, and Amy can have Laurie. He’s changed a lot since the reality check Jo provided him. Laurie and Amy, in their more superficial and materialistic posturing, deserve each other.

There’s a lot more to Little Women and me, but it’s not the only (long-running) episode of cinephilia I’ve ever had. Merely the first.

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