The Moth Chase

Elevating the Art of Procrastanalysis – Academics wasting time on pop culture

Not Just Bread, All the Cake in the World

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Moth Chase friends – we’ll be blogging part 1 of MP today, and following up with Part 2 on Wednesday…

Dear Kathryn,

Well, after watching part 1, I’m not entirely hooked on this miniseries – although anything that promises that Guy Pearce is on his way will keep me tuned in. I chose this picture and this title for this post because I think their juxtaposition reveals a sad prescience for our particular moment in time. Mildred, a women who up to that horrible moment of her husband leaving was of decent means – seemingly not at all touched by the 2 year old Depression destroying other parts of the country – still only has this one dress and pair of shoes to go out and do her pavement pounding in! It’s unimaginable to today’s middle class, let alone upper middle class (which apparently Vida thinks they are). So even someone who lives comfortably within such normal restrictions insists she wants cake, not bread, for her children – all the cake in the world. There’s something about her new scarcity that makes her seek abundance now…and it left me wondering how that is writ large on our national psyche now, 80some years after The Great Depression…how much does our culture of excessive excess grow out of a period of need? In a sense, I’m watching for a clue to that desire. Well, for that and the crazy sexual politics…my goodness!

So a grass widow is fast, eh? Where I grew up, divorce was uncommon. We only had one divorced woman in my mum’s circle of ladies picking up their kids from school, and the other mothers avoided her like the plague…because most certainly she was going to try to sleep with their husbands. A divorced woman couldn’t be trusted! Even at age 8, I had learned this deeply from a circle of women’s mistrustful stares at a woman who ended up becoming like family to us. So looking back on those days, it’s hard to imagine a time when women actually coached each other into how to use their “fastness” in the right way. If he buys the dinner and you have sex, you’re a plaything. If you cook the dinner and then do it, he owes you. The resignation on Mildred’s face as she went to “change into something warmer” was priceless – I think we knew right then she was going to mess up this coy game with her honesty.

What intrigues me about Mildred, though, is that that sort of honest, tell-it-like-it-is attitude is, in tv and film, is most often associated with a salt-of-the-earth type woman who is willing to do what needs to be done…but Mildred’s path from patron to waitress is a painful one. It requires a loss of pride and a loss of self. It’s funny to think that the socially acceptable version of what really boils down to prostitution (being a kept woman) doesn’t sting her nearly so much as serving people food. Although the joke implied here is an old one – that any prostitute will tell you (at least in a Woody Allen film), that it sure beats the hell out of waitressing.

With all these compelling moments, it’s tough to know why I didn’t get all that hooked.  I think in one way, I’m a little bored of watching Kate Winslet play the desperate housewife. I *love* Revolutionary Road (book and film) – and I thought she was near perfect in that. And there’s something similar between April Wheeler and Mildred Pierce (much that is different too, of course – much!)…but their similarity stopped me short because so far April is much more interesting to me. Maybe I should have tried to watch Iris or even Titanic between these two. It’s just a bad twist of fate that RR is the last thing I saw Winslet in. Perhaps it’s also just an odd twist of luck that Melissa Leo’s crazed, fake, creepy Oscar acceptance speech is too fresh in my mind too. But those things shouldn’t be that great of distraction – still, neither actress really managed to pull me out of their lingering presence. And finally, I’m sure she’s supposed to be detestable, but Vida really is – if she’s the symbol of what Mildred is trying to hang on to, then I want to say – let it go! And perhaps that’s what the final shot of the child in the window was all about. I’m intrigued to see part 2 – to see if the stilting drone of part 1 gives way to something else.

As one who has read the book, though – I am eager to hear what you thought! I spent much of the episode feeling like I was missing something…can you tell me what it was?

xoxo,
Natalie

Dear Natalie,

Yes, having just read the book really changes the experience I think! For one, the miniseries is almost painfully faithful to the text – more about that in a minute. But it does mean it is easier to see how they are setting up the major relationship that will drive things forward – the relationship between Veda and Mildred. You were absolutely right to put your finger on that relationship, even though we haven’t seen anything yet, except the final shot of Part I, to key us in to its importance. The back of the book has a fantastic line, something like “Mildred Pierce climbs her way from the middle class to prosperity but has a weakness for shiftless men and an unnatural attachment to an overbearing daughter” – cue Veda and another shiftless man in Guy Pearce. But not knowing that, I would agree, the first part left it hard to know what to follow and what to let go.

Perhaps  part of what frustrated me, even knowing what to pay attention to, is the almost unbearable faithfulness to the book. So far, most of the book’s dialogue has appeared in the miniseries and I can see why it is going to take five parts to get through it. Except that the style of Cain’s book is so brutally sparse, so noir in its inclination, it is hard to capture in super honest cinema verite. I love James Cain – Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are such brilliant examples of hardboiled noir ficiton I cannot praise them enough. Part of what I love about his writing is his unflinching examination of the foibles and motives that make human being so interesting. So corrupt and easily corruptible, and so interesting. So too with Mildred Pierce, even though there is no murder mystery or hard boiled detective. It is still an unflinching look at one woman’s passions and weaknesses and completely gripping because of it. But the miniseries so far has tried too hard to make Mildred a real woman we can relate to and understand. Part of the pleasure of the book is that we can’t really get our heads around why Mildred has the weaknesses she has. Because like most human weaknesses they can be explained but not really understood.

Maybe this will change as the series goes on. The frame of little Veda’s bob cut in the window frame bodes well for getting us to the real heart of the matter. I think what I worry about is that a slim little novel will seem like an interminable movie if stretched out too long. Let’s get to the action and the incomprehensibility of human motivation.

I can’t wait to catch up on Part II and see where they go.

K

Written by themothchase

March 28, 2011 at 10:10 am

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