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Only in semblance are the outward and inward seasons of a life identical; in verity, wealth of experience is the sole measure of living, and the spirit is timed by another clock than that of the calendar. Under the intoxication of destiny, the mind may traverse lengthy periods in a few days; whereas long years may count for nothing when life is void of momentous spiritual happenings …

for the biographer, who is concerned with the inmost story of a life, only the pulses of passion count. A human being is not fully alive except when his best energies are at work; and when feeling is active, time moves swiftly though the clock-hands circle at the customary pace …

as in dreams, one under stress of powerful affects lives through measureless epochs between two ticks of the pendulum; and with each of us it is as with the enchanted man in the folk-tale who fancied that he had spent a thousand years in the interval between two heart-beats. — Stefan Zweig, as translated by Eden and Cedar Paul, in Mary Queen of Scots (1935)

Hotel
This image is in the movie

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Welcoming the guests

Dear friends and readers,

I’m at a loss as to why or how Wes Anderson claims the connection of this and his group of film-makers’ The Grand Budapest Hotel, with Zweig the movie is so unlike what I’ve read by Zweig (and not only in his Mary Queen of Scots). Anderson has been responsible for the publication of a group of selected works by Zweig titled The Society of the Crossed Keys, and a fair reading shows the same unironic, deeply immersed reverie-voice of Mary Queen of Scots, this time lightened so as to tell the tale of his parents, childhood, and two stories, from one of which, the art-house film, woman-centered, epistolary, all over-voice, Max Ophuls’s The Letter from an Unknown Woman was made (see my Significant Women’s Films).

The Grand Budapest Hotel, featuring Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, concierge of said hotel, is a surreal tongue-in-cheek controlled caricature of other films of the upstairs/downstairs type from Downton Abbey (clearly in mind by its focus on a butler and ostentatious Edwardian feel inside the hotel) to the Grand Hotel (by Vicki Baum, adapted in 1929), to horror films, with an assassin who is a Frankenstein (Boris Karloff has not been forgotten) as brutal murderer. We rush through (as part of a long comic chase) scenes an archetypal museum — shown as basically a boring mausoleum that crowds are found in, why hard to say. We see armed groups at checkpoints at borders of countries with machine guns waiting for others in trains.

Checkpoint
A checkpoint

Have you got your papers? No! off the train with you — and death awaits. It reminded me of the film adaptation of Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (scripted by Pinter) in its simulation of scenes from everyday life characterized by impersonality, absurd demands from people at desks, convenience stores, uniforms.

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On the elevator

It is filled with bizarre images of our own society, from over militarized terrifyingly armed, masked police, to miserable prisons and prisoners, to half-crazed people starving, to rich people over-catered to at dinners, in lobbies, trains, suddenly on a carousel,

Carousel

and especially spectacularly a funeral for a grotesquely dried-up old super-rich lady, Madame D. (Tilda Swindon) that M Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) catered to, and was a lover of, as he is of everyone who wants him he says (generous man cannot keep anything to himself); a funeral, I say, where greedy relatives are led by a half-crazed would-be heir (Adrian Brody) who wants to murder M Gustave because the old woman left everything, and especially a picture, to M. Gustave. The picture is a caricature of admired art today (cartoon-like figures, mindless, with an apple — think Francis Bacon).

Images, stylized shots, sudden frozen or slow-moving stills whatever you want to call them are what the film has to offer at its best.

Görlitz
An inside shot

The way these are offered is this: We begin in a graveyard — young girl comes to Zweig’s gravestone (is it? — not sure) and finds many keys attached to the stone, and attaches one herself. She sits to read and we hear talking an over-voice of the bell boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), now grown old and owner of Grand Budapest. He takes us back to time to him as a middle-aged man by a young boy in a train station (I’m not sure which he is) and then back we go in time further to the height of the Grand Budapest Hotel’s life as a place for rich people to come on holiday to. But if you were expecting a sort of Gosford Park with an Agatha Christie flavor (I was), that’s not it at all: instead we get a browned kind of coloring film narrative so we feel we are in a past, and narrative over-voice (still Zero is talking) that presents to us all the types in the hotel, very tongue-in-cheek and slowly, stylized gestures, everyone moving in time with parallel gestures. Finally we meet, M Gustave, concierge, and watch him take up Zero. Then switch to Zero grown older as our narrator and he is sitting down with another guest — most guests sit alone – and proceeds to tell the story — and all drops away to reveal …

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People at work, scurrying about

The movie has problems — like most reviewers have said. First it has little story — once it’s established the Zero inherited the hotel and its in desuetude there’s nothing much to present. It does make fun of how people are often socially dysfunctional when they kid themselves they are socializing. Everyone eats alone. Zero does fall in love with a girl on the staff (there is a staff who we glimpse every so often eating downstairs in a corridor at a long table): such as it is, it’s a chase, with the old lady’s heir seeking to murder Gustave and his sidekick, Zero, and snatch back the picture. Agatha is Zero’s beloved’s name (honoring Christie), played by Saorise Ronan who trots about with the priceless (awful) picture; she is a stereotype of good cautious girl (good girl messages everywhere), bringing with her the baggage of awfulness (difficult, she’s difficult) from Hampton, Wright and McEwan’s Atonement where she played an adolescent girl who falsely claimed rape and of course ruined the lives of a beloved hero and heroine (Keira Knightley and James McAvoy).

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Cooking downstairs to serve the people who count

Yes there is much anti-feminism if you call it anti-feminism to present mocking depictions of lecherous old women straight — not much tongue-in-cheek at all. The jealousy among the males for both the old woman and the young is not one of the areas the movie sends up. So male novels deriving from sexual anxiety are sympathized with.

The film is enlivened by appearances of famous stars — the friends of Fiennes? or Anderson? Bill Murray, Jude Law, William Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Tom Wilkinson (as “the author”). Each delivers a virtuoso moment. As will be seen it’s your usual movie: mostly males with the token two women.

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Personnages

What keeps it going is a long chase. Essentially it’s a stunt-movie. Fiennes and Revolori (and their stunt-men) performs feats of comic derring-do and miraculous escapes from prisons, down manholes, across snow-covered Alpine landscapes. Intertitles giving us chapter headings help things along.

Flight
Flight

It’s funny — I laughed at witty jokes now and again. We learn the world is a vast place made safe for the rich because they can make the right phone call to the right person who can send a luxury cab to pick you up anywhere you want — in the nick of time. Bob Balakan as M. Martin (head of everything) is hilarious at this. But it’s a game without meaning, put there for the Poloniuses of the audience, who need a jig or they sleep (the uttered jokes are not of the self-reflexive type I remember Ronald Colman uttering in Prisoner of Zenda) .

Prison

You could leave the movie not aware it is through the images a silent satire of our political world where 1% own everything worth while and bully and brutalize and terrorize everyone else — though surely you’d have to be dull to miss it. The alienation is conveyed mostly through Fiennes’s inimitable sudden moments of inquiring gentle candor or (conversely) wild savage cursing where suddenly he is human. I am not sure it does not reinforce favorite myths as the story-line may be said to be about how M. Gustave teaches Zero to take control by self-control amid mad antics (reminding me of Breaking Bad) and then we watch him hand this world over to Zero who however did not live happily ever after since Gustave died young as did Agatha.

It was playing in a huge theater near me which has 22 auditoriums, most of them playing utter trash films, junk, popular action-adventure, Disney whatevers the sort of thing I cannot get my mind to listen to to process. Grand Budapest Hotel was in theater 22 — way up on top, a small auditorium. I’ve no doubt it was there because Fiennes is a box office draw. There were quite a number of people in the auditorium given the size of the space — and we were subjected to 15 previews and loud obnoxious endless feeds of commercials. I did walk out to sit in the corridor until the movie started as the pre-movie stuff had the effect of making me so jarred and nervous I would not have time to calm down before the movie started. Somehow this real framing of the movie was fitting.

That I had to walk to get there (I’m policed by invisible computers which could flash light through my suspended license tags) through sidewalks not meant for pedestrians, fell twice, was fitting too. I wish the mood had been bitterer — Zweig’s stories are sometimes desperately suicidal.

Ellen

NPG P214; Anthony Trollope by Julia Margaret Cameron
Anthony Trollope, traveler — photo by Julia Cameron

Dear friends and readers,

This blog contains some enjoyable ironies for the Trollopian who knows that three years ago Simon Heffer wrote a sweepingly dismissive assessment of Anthony Trollope’s novels for the Telegraph. I’m delighted to announce I’m going at long last to teach a course in Anthony Trollope’s writing; it’ll occur this coming fall at the OLLI (Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute) at American University; and at the same time chuffed to be able to see a review I wrote of Heffer’s doorstop of a book on the Victorian Age,

SimonHefer

appear on the Victorian Web, beautifully composited with effective appropriate illustrations. You see there are no novels Heffer better elucidates than Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire and Palliser novels.

Not that the course I’m planning is going to contextualize Trollope as The Chronicler of Barsetshire (the title of a biography by R.H. Super), and, say, begin with The Warden or Dr Thorne (the first novel by Trollope I ever read, one assigned in an undergraduate course at Queens College, CUNY), with due transitions from The Small House at Allingham to the Pallisers who also dwell in Barset (the train station is there).

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One of John Everett Millais’s vignette for The Small House.

Nothing wrong in that except it’s a distortion. Trollope began as an Anglo-Irish novelist, and far from an aberation, his travel stories and novellas, e.g., Nina Balatka (the story of fierce conflicts between Jews and Christians in Prague)

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Modern photo of Charles River, Prague — plays an important role in Nina Balatka

were written before his seminal political novel, Phineas Finn. He was a contemporary political novelist, travel-writer and editor as much as a dreamer-escapist, romancer, brillant psychologist and careful artist. Anyway that’s how I’m going to present him.

Here’s the proposal I wrote:

Anthony Trollope is one of the greatest nineteenth-century novelists whom many readers still come into contact for the first time on their own — that is, without having been assigned to read first in school. His books have survived almost on their own, but their variety is not widely known and consequently the familiar ones “imperfectly understood” (one of his phrases). He is central in the history of the political novel; he wrote novellas in the Henry James mode, passionate romances, & medium-length radical realism set in many places outside as well as in England. He edited central Victorian journals. The goal of this course will be to enjoy and see Trollope from the lens of a more adequate perspective than the man from Barsetshire. This will be a two semester course.

As those who teach Victorian novels know, the great obstacle to success is the typical length of the powerful good books (we are talking 700-900 pages) so I did a sleight of hand. I did not begin with The Macdermots of Ballycloran because powerful political tragic romance that it is, it is also long: I chose for a starter instead Trollope’s startling landscape Irish novella, An Eye for an Eye. I allowed but one l-o-n-g book: Phineas Finn.

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From The Pallisers: 3:6 (Phineas [Donal McCann] as Madame Max [Barbara Murray] first sees him, and Madame Max as he first sees her)

All others are novellas and short stories (James Thompson’s Complete Trollope is available in many copies for $4) with one medium-length realistic radical book, Lady Anna.

The syllabus is not written in cement (I’ll eliminate texts if students feel we need to), but here’s the plan:

Week 1: An Eye for an Eye (201 pages)

Week 2: “La Mere Bauche” (21 pages), “A Ride Across Palestine” (26), Returning Home” (16), and “Aaron Trowe.” (20)

Week 3 : Nina Balatka (195)

Week 4: “Parsons Daughter at Oxney Colne” (22), discussion of Barsetshire mythic place, and begin Phineas Finn (altogether 714 pages over 4 weeks or 178 pages a week)

Week 5: Phineas Finn

Week 6: Phineas Finn

Week 7: Phineas Finn and excerpt from those parts of Pallisers films drawn from Phineas I

Week 6: “Spotted Dog” (34), “Why Frau Frohman Raised her Prices” (50)

Week 7: Lady Anna (513 pages over 4 weeks, so 128 a week)

Week 9: Lady Anna

Week 10: Lady Anna

Week 11: Lady Anna and “Malachi’s Cove,” (16 pages) (with 30 minutes of TV film).

For afficionados, I do have a VHS copy of the fine 75 minute film adaptation of Trollope’s “Malachi’s Cove” which we’ll also read (about people in Cornwall who make a precarious living gathering seaweed off of cliffs).

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Donald Pleasance as Malachi and Veronica Quilligan as his granddaughter

Some rationales: “La Mere Bauche” and “A Ride Across Palestine” puts paid to the idea Trollope is not openly erotic; “Returning Home” and “Aaron Trowe” are about colonialism from the point of view of desperate settlers; “Parsons Daughter” besides its poignant psychological ironies can stand in for Barsetshire impulses (its landscape in Devon). I have two editors’ tales which Trollope said were the best fictions he ever wrote (“Spotted Dog” and “Frau Frohman”). Trollope once said he meant Lady Anna to begin an Australian series (our hero and heroine set out for Australia since society they feel will be more open to their union than in England). I regret not having a Christmas story at the last (the course ends in December) but then Trollope disliked having to write them for the market even if he wrote a a genuinely traumatic comedy out of his reluctance (“Christmas at Thompson Hall”).

What will the second semester be like? one long book again, either a political Palliser or one of the novels which have become “signatures” for him (Last Chronicle of Barset, or He Knew He Was Right, or The Way We Live Now), with a different choice of novellas, short fiction and realism, to bring out other aspects of his career or themes, his artistry. I’d love a travel book but they are huge, and the one abridgement, of North America, is long out of print. Hardly any copies anywhere. If I should live so long.

The great fun of teaching at OLLI is not only are the students enthusiastic, intelligent older people, you don’t have to choose a traditional topic or author — Trollope is that. Someone suggested to me that a semester of Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, planned to coincide with the airing of the new coming mini-series would be very well received so Trollope II would have to wait. I’m not going anywhere.

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Aidan Turner to be the new Ross Poldark — do not hold The Hobbit against him (he also played Dante Gabriel Rossetti)

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Eleanor Tomlinson the new Demelza (she was Georgiana Darcy in Death Comes to Pemberley) — this photo as illustration recalls one of the frontispieces of the Poldark novels (1960s)

Ellen

KirstineOpolais
Kristine Opolais who sang and played Mimi

Dear friends and readers,

As what will be remembered about the HD-opera production of Massenet’s Werther this season is the satellite transmission went silent for the crucial last 7 minutes of the play, so what will be remembered about the HD-opera production of Puccini’s La Bohème is the scheduled young star, Anita Hartig was so ill with the flu that she could not show (and HD-productions are not missed by star if they can possibly help it). Hartig phoned to say so at 7:30 am the morning of the performance so that Leonard Gelb and company, frantic to substitute a powerful singer, phoned Kristine Opolais, the effective beautiful soprano who had sung Madame Butterfly in the house (so was close-by) the preceding night to see if she might agree. As Opolais said during the interview, although after a performance she does not fall asleep for a long time and had been sleeping only since 5 am, she felt it was an offer she could not refuse. 2 and 1/2 hours of sleep.

So up she got, was driven to the Met opera-house, rehearsed a part she had not been practicing, got herself into the outfits the Hartig was to wear, these were re-sewn, and the company and she worked together and at 1 o’clock the show went on. The excitement of going to these HD-transmissions is while they are films, while the production is shaped to be a brilliantly projected and understandable movie, they are live. As I sat (alone in the sense that I had no one I knew on either side of me), and Joyce DiDonato came out as hostess in an absurdly over-tight bright royal dress (not her fault, the hosts and hostesses are dressed by the Met staff) and announced apologetically that Anita Hartig could not make it, I felt and heard the disappointment around me. Then before the opera commenced, she said there was a special announcement and out came Gelb with his story. He asked the audience to be flexible, patient, understanding at the same time as trying to assert this would be as powerful and wonderful a performance as Hartig’s had been — he hoped and trusted.

In the event it was. I have no idea what Hartig is like, but Opolais to my ears sang beautifully poignantly and her exhausted appearance, strained face, and all that went with enacting a young woman in the early and then last stages of TB were as good as one can hope for in a singer whose body was strongly healthy in order to undertake such a part and who was wearing exquisitely cut, lavishly swathed, evocatively-colored Victorian dress and shawl. I have seen La Bohème many times, sometimes unconventionally done (as several years ago now at Wolf Trap with Jim and two friends it was set in Brooklyn circa 2000), and knew this was a traditionally-designed performance, heightened into the romantic picturesque by Zeffirelli, the sets going back to 1981. Yet I wanted to go, even though when we three (for Jim was alive when we talked about going to this year’s season), both Jim and Izzy were unenthusiastic. Izzy walked with me to the movie-house but went into another auditorium to see Captain America, The Winter Soldier.

Why? because I find the music exhilarating and wanted to understand it better. Among the various lies the hostess tells the audience, the one of those most irritating is the insistence that the experience of the opera in the house, live, is superior. Nonsense, or it’s only so for those in the first few rows, and I doubt that’s so even then. The large images, the direction which has the movie-audience in mind and shows considerably sophistication over shots, angles, juxtaposition, sets, are intended to reach audiences and do as nothing on the stage in a large house with most of the audience far away can do. The sound I will maintain is as good. Another is the insistence that the people making the opera do not have the film audience in mind, or (Gelb concedes this lest he be absurd) only as an afterthought to a stage production, an enhancement. Again nonsense. For years I’ve seen movie and TV versions of operas before these HD-screenings of the last 6 years and most of the time I fell asleep on the movie just as frequently as the stage production and the movie was never more understandable than the stage even when there were sur- or subtitles. Now I never fall asleep, I don’t even nod off, and I understand what’s happening, including nuances. This would not happen were the film not being done in a new movie-audience directed way.

Attic
The newly angled attic

I know why they insist. They fear the wrath of patrons paying anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars a seat to a mere few hundred to say $100. The HD-seats here in the 2 Northern Virginia and the 2 DC movie-houses we have gone to seats are $25. They fear diminishing the mystic of the voice without microphone, of “presence” and I admit presence probably thrills many people. But there is nothing to compare really having the performance reach you powerfully, directly, with a feeling of no mediation. For the first time I realized with clarity that the story of these lovers is of them getting together because he pretends he cannot find her key, and then breaking up, because of his jealousy; her resort to a viscount because she is so ill and in need of comforts, and with this context their final scene in the attic room where she dies and he at first does not know it, was more riveting. It’s acted and sung in a far more modern way than Traviata where the dying is lengthened out improbably in order to let her sing more and permit a duet. The intellectually intriguing aspect of La Bohème is it combines a Victorian story (with the frankness of a French source) with a modern assumption of death as extinction and relationships as serial without taking this as awesomely sinful at all.

Rodolpho
Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolpho

I was disappointed nonetheless and for what seems a strange reason. I found myself remembering Pavarotti singing Rodolpho. And thus while handsome enough and acting finely and even singing his heart out to the best of his ability (I assume), Vittorio Grigolo just didn’t come up to the thrill of Pavarotti. His voice felt reedy in comparison, it had not the timbre, the suavity, was not as stirring as memory told me. During the intermission he was asked about following in the path of Pavarotti, and said Pavarotti had been his mentor, and he knew this role was especially connected to Pavarotti, a signature role in which Pavarotti made his reputation outside Italy, but he (Grigolo) could do only what he could do. He obviously thought he was equally adequate but to me he lacked that plangency Pavarotti had. In contrast, probably because I don’t remember Mirella Freni in the same way, Kristine Opolais seems to have the requisite timbre and resonance he lacked, projected a voice of painful feeling inside beauty.

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Susanna Phillips as Musetta

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. The famous crowd scene (150 people on stage) at the end of the second act was as effective as ever, Susanna Phillips singing Musetta and Massimo Cavaletti Marcello memorable passionate excitement and thrilling voices. Their two voices and antics against those of our central lovers in the second act snow scenes made the contrasts of vexation and petty squabbling against real hurt of a sick woman and bored and foolish man.

Snowtwo

In the closing scene Patrick Carfizzi sang the melancholy adieu to his coat as the philosopher Schaunard with the right tone of despair, and when they got to the dying, I lost it altogether. I cried half-hysterically, responding at a personal level to some of the lines, crying over Jim’s extinction, the meaningless waste, the pain, the silence, the helplessness, an agon, perhaps disquieting those around me though they seemed a singularly phlegmatic bunch. They had not clapped when any arias came to an end; two over-dressed women on one side whose conversation consisted in talking of how much money they were spending on daughters socializing at expensive private colleges performed sighs to one another over the scenery and picturesque romance. That’s all it was to them — much of the audience seems to have bought their tickets at the last moment, came precisely because this was seen as unreal silly romance. I would agree the poverty of the principals was not very persuasive — nor was the experience presented as an escape to real gaiety.

On one of my list-servs someone had gone to La Bohème for the first time the week before (a Pittsburgh opera company) and she had asked fresh questions of it:

I found the Pittsburgh interpretation a bit flat, but have no context to know if that is “normal,” whether or not I am being too critical or what. The opera is very Victorian, with the consumptive seamstress Mimi openly described as an “angel.” I had a bit of problem with the singer portraying her being quite overweight and much as I tried to suspend disbelief, it was hard for me to accept this large woman in her death throes as consumptive. The set was very somber, done in grays and browns, and while the opera depicts both the joys of being a bohemian artist living in a garret–one’s art make one a millionaire, etc — and though the poor artists are shown rejoicing happily in Dickensian fashion over bread and wine, the opera also underscores that poverty contributes to Mimi’s death. However, I thought a brighter set might have helped counter the sadness of the opera–might literally have highlighted — some of the joys amid the poverty. This is important, I think, as I am seeing a tendency (Mad men comes to mind) to depict the bohemian, the hippie, the alternative lifestyle, as unrelentingly miserable — rats, poverty, drugs, etc., and yet we have ample testimony that, at least in the early days, the hippie movement was often also a joyful experience. I also was a bit bemused that in La Boheme we go from Mimi and Rodolfo falling love to Rodolfo wanting to end the relationship because he is too poor to care for the dying Mimi — he can’t keep her warm, etc.–leaving us to rely on narrated backstory about the entire middle, ie substance, of the relationship.

which I tried to address:

For my part I like the productions which are far less fancy … It is true that the way the story is presented is anti-hedonism and in effect a condemnation of living in poverty — see how miserable they all are. No sense that departing from the mainstream for art gives one some strong compensation. If it is presented with gaiety, the gaiety is not attached to any ideas beyond the stirring music and voices.

Most the opera is deflected over to dwelling on tuberculosis and there we have this beautiful woman dying of TB — itself a subject worth our attenion — for again it’s a fragile woman we are encouraged to dwell on as a poignant ideal. A woman I met at the ASECS conference told me her paper was on how this ideal of fragility and sickness (which Austen mocks way before she got ill) combined with TB was really presented as somehow wanted, admired — as long as it was respectable. It was respectable as long as so many people got sick and died — but apparently once it became attached to myths of prostitution and also once the medicine began to be better understood, it was no longer an ideal for readers or viewers to emulate. So Mimi would be rejected as someone not to identify with.

We don’t see the middling parts of their story (presumably going on for months) except as back story; there is no emphasis on joyful experience (escape from grinding jobs), but only how poverty contributes to Mimi’s death. This was the perspective of the Wolf Trap production set in Brooklyn. In this HD-one Rodolpho and Marcello don’t even take their writing and painting seriously: he burns his play and Marcello paints walls in taverns. True.

What emphasis I have seen done seriously is the story of the TB; TB in the era was a taboo subject, not treated at all realistically (except by daring people who then were condemned and castigated): presented fatuously in art (perversely) as an enhancer of a “fallen” woman’s beauty; when respectable women became ill it was to be hidden. Mimi is a milliner, seamstress and is assumed in Victorian myth to be susceptible to seduction so it’s fine to present her as dying of TB.

dying

I’ve never read Henry Murger’s stories. I have never seen Leoncavallo’s so don’t know what verismo brings to the story. If one were to do the opera more seriously, one might switch the illness to cancer, now an epidemic killing and maiming thousands of people, breaking their finances. Perhaps then one would not have a full house unless one did the setting somberly – a sort of Breaking Bad in operatic masque terms.

Given the philistine atmosphere I felt myself in, I escaped (fled from my seat) while the applause at the end was (in the production) still going on and hurried out of the awful theater lobby for the last time this season. I had a cold windy walk home — not being able to use my car. I did show myself that I can be deeply engaged by opera myself — it’s not just a matter of going with Jim. In his interview with Joyce DiDonato Gelb said some truths: one, that each year the Met tries to broadcast a representative set of operas: and next year there will be brand-new productions, unusual pieces (John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer; Iolanta, (alas with Anna Netrebko, a guarded cold woman, stilted and stiff in my estimation), and Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), traditional pieces with great singers (Verdi’s Macbeth); in new productions, Lehar’s The Merry Widow with Renee Fleming, Leoncavallo’s Cavallero Rusticana and Puccini’s Pagliacci (with a great tenor singing both).

I’d like to see some of them, so too would Izzy and were it not that Netrebko is in two I’d like see, Izzy and I might manage far more of the season than we did this sad year.

Ellen

We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art — Henry James

EnglishHomeCoburn1907
An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

I began Gorra’s marvelous book as an alternative read to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a kind of companion-match antidote: I felt it was the same sort of book, one which took the reader through a deeply-felt reading experience of a book, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I discovered that Gorra’s does not pretend to be a semi-confessional autobiography as semi-literary criticism; indeed I learned very little about Gorra’s life, though I did learn how he reacted not only to James’s The Portrait of Lady but many of James’s other books — without any particular references to Gorra’s life, except that Gorra is also American and regards himself as having an American identity (whatever that is). Gorra’s book rather elaborated in how James’s other books and The Portrait fit into James’s private and writing life, into James’s career, and into how James’s readers and critics have seen him since he began publishing and up to the time of his death.

In other words, this is an unconventionally-written biography. Gorra’s can offer insights into James’s life not allowed by most methodologies: his method is to bring together how he feels (impersonally put) about James’s writing, what he Gorra sees, and how James wrote James felt about it with what we know of James’s life from all sorts of angles, some of them drawn from phases of writing The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra weaves a sort of biography where the writer does not have to follow the life history of the subject but can weave in what he or she wants and when, with the justification that well I’m going through associations from this novel. So we skip dull parts of the person’s life and also get new sorts of insight as the material is reconfigured.

We out James in a new way: this is a new sort of biography, one which moves out from one central great book, rather like someone deciding to write Trollope’s biography by intensely going through every detail of say The Way We Live Now or The Claverings — or both together. Mead’s book was not a biography of Eliot in disguise it was “her life” in Eliot

For example, Gorra can’t prove it yet he makes a persuasive case for seeing Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchett as a doppelganger out of the dying Minnie Temple, James’s cousin. Sometimes the method is inadequate: I was much entertained by his reaction to Henrietta Stackpole – only he seems not to know that Stackpole is also an unkind caricature of Kate Fields, beloved of Anthony Trollope, an entertaining travel writer, journalist in her own right.

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Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

Another example: Gorra re-sees Isabel’s early refusal to marry in terms of James’s — for James was under pressure to marry; her going to Europe, her choice of waiting to see (Ralph Touchett’s) of being a witness not a doer — all these three are brought together with James’s gayness and made sense of — he is masking himself in Isabel is the point and it’s an interesting one, for else we just do really have another story of the chaste heroine making a bad or good marriage.

He dwells on Madame Merle who emerges upon Isabel getting the money (women has a good nose) and how she stands for a social animal. She and Isabel have a debate with Isabel coming out on the side of that she is not expressed solely or nearly solely by her outward behavior, dress, occupation — as Madame Merle implies. I’ll add that From Daniel Deronda the mother shows one has a self apart which will break away, but Isabel’s tragedy will be she cannot

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Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

In a section early in the book called the Envelope of Circumstances where Gorra talks almost of himself — at least of an American identity (which often makes me uncomfortable) — he elaborates on the idea that Portrait is unusual in its lack of religion and Gorra says this is true of all James’s work but the ghost stories. I know I like James and feel he is equally European/English (not British)

I much enjoyed the chapter in Gorra after the one detailing all James’s homosexual friends, contacts, strains (“An Unmarried Man”): in “A London Life” he tells of how James came to live in London, that it was no foregone conclusion: he tried Paris first; about an expensive apartment he lived in for quite a while that was well located for theater, plays, making a life of going out to dinners and socializing with the upper class, near enough to publishers and parks. I quite envy James — we also get a strong sense of him supporting himself through writing for magazines and the kinds of texts he was writing to do that. I knew all this but not in this way and Gorra quotes from James’s wonderful thick diary commonplace book so well. He intuitively holds onto and writing about the most astute utterances of James: after G.H. Lewes died, James visited her and described her as “shivering like a person who had had a wall of her house blown off.”

It may be these names of James’s possible lovers and his relationships with them are known, but I’ve never seen the series of men set out so clearly, the stories told so intelligently, and rightly the doubts sowed over the idea James was physically celibate without overdoing it. People are still today writing books which obscure this aspect of James’s life and when they do write about James’s complex feelings, they write turgidly, with embarrassment, hedging. Gorra tells of James’s important life long relationship with his woman amaneunsis-secretary, Theodora Bosanquet whose biography of the boss she spent 2 decades with and lived in close intimacy gives us a lot of the leads and details that help us see this aspect of James’s life. Her book: Henry James at Work and published by Hogarth Press (the Woolfs).

Thus I found finding Gorra’s book more satisfying than Mead’s because I was made to realize more about James and his writing. Most of what Mead wrote I knew about Eliot — and while she is applying our information about Eliot is more subtle autobiographical ways, it does not change what I have seen. Since James’s homosexuality has only recently been openly admitted to and discussed as central to his life — as it was the way what gender you are is — there are new insights to be gotten

He begins with the richness of the letters and how much we can learn about James from them (most have not yet been published, a many year project by many people). The question is how far can we be ourselves apart from social life and within ourselves how much there is a real separate I from construction. I agree with him (and James) it’s there but vulneragble and fragile — as we see in Isabel Archer. Touchett is in retreaet and sinks his life in Isabel’s – I believe that outside his job Jim sunk his life in mind and job in the last years was also endured to support the two of us. That it was not him is seen in how he didn’t mind retiring and only thought of going back in order to move to England.

Still the great source for all people wanting to know James is a book edited by Mattiessen, a continuous diary: it’s vignettes of going out, little bits of stories he later worked up into his great novels, thoughts on aesthetics, whatever popped into his head: The Notebooks of Henry James. I read it while doing my dissertation and trying to understand the creative mood of reverie underlying novels. Gorra emphatically uses this book.

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Rome, outdoor Market, Piazza Navona by Guiseppe Ninci (1870)

Gorra first shows us James’s situating himself in London and ambivalent; how he tried Paris, and we go on to his trips to Italy – where much of the later action of The Portrait of a Lady takes place and we get a chapter on Madame Merle and Osmond – not moralizing but how they represent some real aspects of the expatriots. It was not all high (or today unacceptable) art. Then Gorra moves into a portrait of the community in Florence and Rome at the time. Several interesting pages on his relationship with Constance Fennimore Woolson’s. As sympathetic to the people caught up there as Mead on Main – I’ve been at least to the Spanish Steps and some of the places Gorra describes – which he takes you through with him as your walking guide – and connects them to the atmosphere of the novel which is un-Victorian … bringing all this to bear on Isabel’s wrong choice gives it a whole new kind of aspect – and connects it to the modern reader too.

Gorra follows James from place to place as James writes The Portrait of a Lady. James was escaping his American identity as he traveled from place to place in Italy, and tried to find a quiet place to write a lot and yet have some company and enrichening landscape. From expatriats he moves onto strangers, and how James was surrounding himself with strangers, was himself an exile, a stranger, and saw that the American communities were themselves disconnected from Italian society, didn’t understand it, in search of what they couldn’t find at home. Then he says they were – -and James is – drawing on the heritage of different countries and cultures to make a new amalgam for themselves.

That aspect of American identity as self-invention I do see in myself, though the amalgam is mostly from English sources. I turned to read James’s Roman Rides as Gorra said it’s better than just about all James’s early fictions — and it struck me that’s right. The opening is a meditative piece on the landscape of the campagna. Jim and I went there and walked alone one morning — we did not take our children who were with us on that holiday because they would have been so bored. Often the places he and I wanted to go to were to them places with nothing there. James does a gorgeous rendition of the feelings one can have just outside Rome among these ruins in this desolated place — it was still that way in 1994. How important place and history are to some authors.

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John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

Gorra then moves onto Isabel’s strange choice of the stifling Osmond and how Isabel came to make such a bad choice. Gorra suggests we don’t bring in the sexual angle enough and Isabel was attracted to the man who declined openly to chase her. I did not remember that time went by and Isabel traveled with her sister I Europe and then Madame Merle in the Middle East (that was dangerous). Ralph tells her she is going to be put in a cage but it’s no good. We are not shown the moment of submission, the marriage or its first experience. Why? It’s a sleight of hand that takes us to thwarted aspiration, imprisonment, narrowing but not how she got there. Are these James’s fears for himself?

The book moves onto Venice as James does – and an immersion occurs as James is drawn into this defeated place filled with poverty striken people, even then dying, dependent on tourism. James himself eat and drank expensively as Gorra finds this out by going to the same place (still there). A political fight over the vaporetto and the vaporettos won – James didn’t like the noise either. He makes two friends whose houses he can stay at, ordinary upper class American and English, not the resident famous homosexual population …. It’s the evocation of these places through quotation of James’s travel writing that makes this section so appealing …

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John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

Gorra is trying to relive the experiences James had while writing the book at the same time as he re-imagines what the characters feel as the story progresses: tracing James’s steps in Venice, looking at paintings Sergeant made of the expatriot people into whose houses James was welcomed. From James’s letters Gorra picks up that the landlady was offering her daughter as a sex partner by sending her to hang around the fourth floor. Byron took up such invitations, not James. He moves onto the this kind of atmosphere in Venice, and its treacheries, the grim whiff of the closed streets (seen in Sergeant”s pictures too I know) and says this seeped into Portrait of a Lady and what Isabel’s chose of Osmond brought her

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Constance Fennimore Woolson

Venice prompts by association the really poignant story of James’s long time and finally failed relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolston. Gorra characterizes her with great empathy and tells a lot I didn’t know or had forgotten. Again he brings together what is not usually brought together: how they quietly lived in one building she on the first and he the ground floor — in Florence. She apparently went to Venice to live on the assumption he would follow her but he never did. The letters to and from and her were burned. As everyone knows she killed herself by jumping out a window and he tortured himself by trying to drown her dresses — why he just didn’t throw them out or give them away as rags I can’t guess.

Woolston’s death though partly in reaction to James’s behavior is obviously not his fault. She suffered depression much of her life. When she’d finish a book she’d be in a state of nervous collapse. It’s said some people are exhilarated by it. I was neither. Eliot went into collapse mode.

As he tells the story, Gorra connects it James’s “Aspern Papers,” “he Beast in the Jungl”e (Sedgewick renamed that “closet”) and a couple of other uncanny stories (“The Romance of Old Clothes) which he retells very well — and The Wings of the Dove.

Quite what this has to do with The Portrait of a Lady? it illuminates James’s feelings towards relationships, the real life of expatriates … A central “sin” in James is when one person uses another, makes them an instrument for his or her needs. Imposing your will on them. He suggests Lyndall Gordon (who wrote a conventional biography) accuses James of doing this to Woolson. Now the second version a Portrait of a Lady occurs well after Woolson’s death and so we are left to make our own allegory here.

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Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

I love the illustrations in this book, picturesque, in the mode of Alvin Coburn, the illustrator for James’s turn of the century complete revised edition.

Following upon the chapter on James and Constance Fenimore Woolston, we move into “sex, serials, the continent and critics.” A full chapter on how near impossible it was to get into print and distributed in the UK and US too a story which told what every one know to be the case with sexual life; you could only tell supposedly what life was supposed sexually to be like, to teach lessons. The French were much freer.

This part of the book includes a chapter on the magazines James wrote for and Gorra uses is also valuable beyond telling us how James dealt with the problem of instalment publication: demands for a certain length, for cliff-hangers, who and where his work appeared (with what provided the context of respectability for the reader); it’s an intelligent portrait of a world where people are still reading magazines. James was apparently a writer who had in mind his whole book so would start a new instalment not with a reader turning the pages of a magazine who might need (as we call them today) recap. Today’s American context is alluded to: the importance of Atlantic, Harper’s then – New Yorker today

Gorra is showing us how Isabel Archer could come to say she did not want to hear anything that Pansy could not hear — this is supreme foolishness on her part; far from being dangerous for her, it will be dangerous for her not to have more knowledge of what a man can do to his wife once he marries her — Cameron’s movie makes Osmond into a sadistic man in bed too — as does Andrew Davies make Grandcourt in his film of Daniel Deronda. This is chapter comparing French fiction of the period that was admired by the English with the English. A rare novelist to break through what was allowed was George Moore (Esther Waters) but his novels were not distributed by Mudie’s.

Gorra spends a long chapter on the whole long chapter in Portrait of a Lady after Edward Rosier comes to call – he is the young man who loves and could be loved by Pansy, but Osmond won’t allow it, and he lets Isabel know that she ought to use her sexual pull on Warburton to lure Warburton into marrying Pansy — for Osmond assumes that’s a front for a love affair Warburton means to have with Isabel.

Isabel is sickened, appalled, desolated — we come upon her well after the marriage has taken place, we even missed the birth and death of a young son. Gorra says this is deliberate on James’s part: he does not want to show us directly (remember our thread on showing and telling) such dramatic moments but their affect on consciousness.

I was not surprised to see Gorra attribute some of James’s sophistication to his reading of Daniel Deronda where Gorra finds the same kinds of techniques. The difference is that James goes on for much longer (he says) and makes the narrative stop still and ruminate a past we’ve not seen.

He also says the shrewdest most aware appraisal of Portrait was by Constance Fenimore Woolson. So James is in a women of ecriture-femme — with Oliphant ranging herself on the other side in defense of what she thought of as English fiction.

He finds this so original. I don’t think so — Trollope does it, Austen does it, Eliot does it a lot but the interior monologue is important and Gorra’s way of discussing it as becoming central to the art of fiction does show one important innovation. Hitherto story was said to count a lot and more; and it’s clear that for James the actual story matter — the events that manifest the inner life — does not matter. Gorra says this changes the novel’s emphasis and is part of a switch over that finds an extreme in Woolf.

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Romola Garai as Gwendoleth Harleth Grandcourt telling Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy) about what her life has been (2004 Daniel Deronda, scripted Andrew Davies)

No what makes the difference is the content. Trollope’s Julia (The Claverings) does not think one really unconventional thought. She never thinks to herself these people are shits, why should I want to sit with the housekeeper, look at their terrible values. Nor any of them until Daniel Deronda with the magnificent portrait of his mother (the same actress who played the role in Davies’s film played Madame Merle in Campion’s film) Isabel does not break away but she has utterly subversive thoughts about the values of those around her. Eliot invents another set of ethics using Gwendoleth Harleth’s experience (which Davies’s film brings out), implicitly anticipating Flaubert but much more sympathetic to the woman, as is James. Again and again Gorra links James to Eliot. So when Gorra exaggerated because he so goes on about it, one can learn and see …

He is tracing an important direct new line — into it was fed the travel writings that he has been going over too. Roman Rides, Venice. Also William James’s books on cognitive psychology show up the new interest. The new line was objected to intelligently by RLStevenson in his Gossip on Romance and James’s prefaces, his Art of Fiction was intended to intervene in this debate. Gorra’s discussion of James’s use of stream of consciousness in Portrait of a Lady is so rousing that I become eager for Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust to come — I just hope I’ve read enough of Proust’s volumes to be able to appreciate it. I’ve only read one and almost to the end of the second volume.

Gorra then uses his analysis of Isabel Archer’s long meditation to launch into more than James’s Art of Fiction; he makes large claims for James as an innovator of a new kind of novel: one based wholly on inner life, nuances. Of course these were written before — in epistolary narratives of high quality in the 18th century but not self-consciously. Gorra argues that Woolson was one of the first to understand, and Howells to defend James and his Art of Fiction should be understood as part of a debate which includes RLS’s Gossip on Romance.

I like how Gorra fits this into the growth of serious literary criticism of the novel, taking it seriously. James could not get himself to write in the other “new” school of naturalism (Princess Cassamassima is the one that may be linked): too pessimistic, too bleak he felt, though Howells did it in his Modern Instance. The novel’s stature is going up

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Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

The last part: putting out the lights. This one takes us through James’s response to the deaths of his father and mother; he came for the funerals, just missed the dying. I think he’s right to argue against Edel’s insistence it was the mother who screwed the family up: common sense and all evidence suggests it was the father (if people can be screwed up who produced what Wm and Henry James and even Alice did and lives the lives the first two did) with the mother complicit. It seems to have been a contest which of the parents self-destructed first and in reaction to the other’s coming demise. They did cling together.

As with Mead at the close of her book, but without personal references, Gorra then makes leaps into the fiction to find analogies about death. Gorra shows how often James wrote about death after this period, and how a metaphor for loss. In this chapter he says it was at this time James began to keep his journal of all anecdotes, an important source for this book (and many others).

And he suggests it was after this or around this time several of the great Victorians died and I’m glad to say — serendipitiously — for James this includes Trollope. Trollope for James a major voice like Eliot, Flaubert and Turgenev. James’s essay on Trollope has been very influential — perhaps too much so but I didn’t know about the line calling Trollope a “difficult mind.” That’s good. What a different list from the modern canon, no?

James’s “The Altar of the Dead” is about the ghosts we live with, the ghosts in our memories of who died and Gorra speaks eloquently of it. Alice was another great loss by then and Constance Fenimore Woolson. No wonder I liked this chapter and it leads a powerful chapter centering on the last image Isabel has at the end of her mediation: Madame Merle and Osmond talking together. Gorra takes us through to Isabel’s realization that when Madame Merle said to her “let us have him” (italics added) Madame Merle has given away 1) that she and Osmond think that Isabel wants Warburton for herself, not that she is appalled by the proposition that she should use his attraction to her to win him to marry Pansy as payoff for a liaison; and 2) they assume what bothers Isabel is not the amorality of all this but that she wants Warburton for herself, and finally 3) Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

When Osmond’s sister comes to tell Isabel of this truth however indirectly it’s after the realization and this is followed hard on by the most quiet and devastating of needlings I’ve ever read. Madame Merle comes in to tell Isabel as Isabel is contemplating visiting Ralph as he lies dying (after Osmond has forbidden it) that it was Ralph who gave her the enormous sum of money that made her “a brilliant match,” spoken in bland feigned innocence she is nonethleless triumphing over telling Isabel that Isabel owes this hellish marriage to Ralph. And pointing our to her yes “she was perfectly free” so she did it to herself.

One problem for the modern reader who wants to read hard truths about life is these earlier novels (and many since) end ambiguously in ways that allow us to think the characters will be all right, make do by following conventional norms and thus uphold the very structures that the whole novel has been designed to expose.

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Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer Osmond (Portrait, scripted Laura Jones, directed Jane Campion)

It is a startlingly even terrifying moment when Madame Merle so quietly and blandly lets Isabel know it was after Isabel who chose to marry Osmond and she was given all the clues she needed to what he was if she had only looked.

Austen has scenes of withering corrosion where the speaker does not realize what he is saying and the listener is mortified and hurt, but nothing quite so horrible in feel or mean and malicious in intent. Madame Merle’s purpose is to make Isabel angry at Ralph and prevent her going — as Lucy Ferrars in telling Elinor of the long engagement was to make Elinor give up on Edward, be very angry with him. The increase in subtlety and what has been done is a hundredfold.

For the book’s last chapters, see the comments.

Ellen

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Saajan Fernandes (Irran Khan) and Lla (Nimrat Kaur) in The Lunchbox (2013)

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Marion (Dame Janet Suzmann) and Solomon (Khayalethu Anthony) in Solomon and Marion (2014)

Dear friends and readers,

This weekend I managed to see and want to recommend two poignant (and at moments comic) dramatized stories from abroad about an unexpected or unlikely couple finding meaning and solace in one another. This seems to be almost a theme of this year: it’s the core of Philomena too. They are both parables about contemporary lonely and politically shattered lives in large cities and small country towns.

The first is easier to reach as it is a film, directed and written by Ritesh Batra, and still in theaters and where Izzy and I went had a reasonably large audience in the auditorium. As she wrote, it is probably wise to read about dabbawalas at wikipedia first — though it is not necessary as the opening sequence takes you on a journey of the lunchbox in question from the house of LLa, the housewife who put the hot delicious food in its containers, through the streets, trains, carts, and to the office and desk of Saajan, the managerial clerk who is lucky enough wrongly to receive it. The film is as much a study of the lives of modern Indians living in over-crowded Mumbai (Bombay), individually isolated, lonely, and with little chance of doing anything personally fulfilling.

Since I’ve been reading about the supposed universal paradigm underlying most screenplays in cinema, it felt beautifully ironic to find myself watching a film which does not fit into this, mostly because it’s not western in origin, and its patterning is a much modified descendent of the popular 2 and 1/2 hour extravaganza of music, dance, and story Bollywood is famous for. I’ve no doubt that Syd Field and others would still say that in the first ten minutes of the film we are introduced to the main characters (the two principals), and the dramatic premise and situation of the film: they are lonely, without any friend.

Saajan is an office worker, a widower, spending long days in a impersonal overcrowded place, traveling amid crowds to and fro, and then sitting with his books; Lla is a housewife whose husband is unfaithful and she is stuck at home with only an aged woman (auntie) who is taking care of a dying husband above stair to talk to. The carefully prepared lunch Lla is making is intended to appeal to her husband but arrives at the wrong place, she realizes this, and she and Saajan begin to correspond, so private writing selves emerge. The central phase does show the two characters’ needs and obstacles put in the way: how are they to find out one another’s names, and meet and become fully realized friends — perhaps lovers? There are plot points which take the movie in other directions: an orphaned young man, Shaikh (Nawwasudden Siddiqui) is to replace Saajan who is retiring, and slowly wins over the older man to the point Saajan begins to share this lunch with Shaikh and Shaikh offers Saajan another outlet and distraction (as they slowly become friends during their temporary relationship). Finally Saajan and Lla arrange to meet face-to-face, a meeting to which LLa comes and where she waits fruitlessly for hours and hours; Saajan does finally get himself to come (late), but he does not have the courage to show himself as he feels he is so much older than she and will not be attractive to her. The acting by Khan is as usual superb — the man is pitch perfect in gesture, face, body language – and Kaur and Siddiqui more mutely implicitly appealing.

Nonetheless, the review in the New Yorker was harsh and declared the film meandered and went nowhere, was a muddle,”a slight undeveloped anecdote.” Another reviewer sounded surprised that the movie is attracting audiences. These are signs that indeed this film has a counter-prevailing structure, one that is partly cyclical for the arrival and departure of the lunchbox occurs over and over as do these notes, the housewife’s day, the worker’s evenings before the TV, the young man’s training. There are moments that music breaks out showing the origins of the this other structure; on the other hand, it felt like an epistolary novel dramatized; the notes could have been emails were this set in New York City. It used the still reprehended over-voice repeatedly:

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I will say that the lack of the paradigm working forcefully and a forward thrust of action in the film extends to a lack of resolution and puzzle and disappointment at the end for both Izzy and I. It was not that we were insistent on the couple getting together and retiring elsewhere — in the film a longed-for idealized place for retirement, Bhutan, but we couldn’t understand what what is literally happening at the film’s very end. Near the film’s close she sends Saajan the lunchbox with empty containers in it, so hurt is she that he did not come to the rendez-vous; he answers explaining that he was there but unable to show himself to her, but it seems to take her time to decide to come to his office to see him and in the interim he retires and when she shows Shaikh informs her wrongly Saajan has gone to Bhutan. She hurries home and within a day or so, prepares a suitcase and her one daughter’s things, and takes the immense step of leaving the husband and traveling to Bhutan. In fact Saajan has gone to a cheaper place he had originally intended to go, Nashik, found it worse than where he was living, more desolating and returned to his apartment. He seems to look for her but does not go to her house (as he does not know where it is) and is last seen on a train but not one going outside of India but rather within the city.

The wikipedia article informed me that he was going in search of Lla, implying that he would discover she had left for Bhutan and follow her. If the feel of the film was that we were seeing how tragically easy it is for chance and human irresolution to get in the way of happiness, then I would not complain. Instead it simply lacked clarity and I was left sad and (as Izzy said) longing for them to become a couple. Perhaps though its inconsequent ending made it yet truer to our lives today.

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You will have to find the play by Lara Foot (she was also the director of this production) done in another theater. It was the last of many places performed at the Kennedy Center over the last 21 days: a “World Stages” festival where plays and acting companies from around the world were brought together, as many as three or four done a day, some as dramatic readings and some with panels to discuss the performance afterward. There were exhibits from London, Paris, and South Africa, of life-size puppets and human figures in what looked like carousels: these were recognizable figures from plays, operas, the arts. Drawings of costumes from costume designers.

It made me sad to go there today as this was just the sort of event Jim would have loved to go to: he would have bought tickets for at least several of the plays, we would have attended readings and perhaps even panels (though he was not as keen on this kind of thing, finding the talk all too often silly, or coming from a conventionally moralistic point of view. I had bought myself two tickets, the other for a play from Iceland, a romance taking place during the financial crisis of 2008 (the couple in the banner above were in that play), now overcome by decent social governmental measures, and I had forgotten to go. A Freudian oversight? I had underlined a dramatic reading of a story from the horrifying seige on Fallujah inflicted on its people by barbaric US military acts: I did remember that but it was so cold that day and without the car it is a trek for me to get to the Kennedy Center because of waiting for a bus that comes once an hour. I had bought my two tickets during the time when my license was still un-suspended and had fully expected to be able to drive to the Metro and then take the train.

Today and yesterday Izzy and I did have this positive thing occur: we learned that we can order a much cheaper Uber cab, a small taxi like vehicle and it cost me just $6 to be taken to the station, and for the two of us just $8 each way to and from Shirlington. When we would go with Jim, he’d take the car all the way to the Center and pay $20 to park, go early and eat at the Terrace theater (a much overpriced meal); parking at Shirlington is hellish to find and it costs at least $15 so I now feel I am free to call for the Uber cab — when I can get the app on the iphone to work.

But to Foot’s play. Janet Suzman plays Miss Marion, an aging white African woman, a widow living on an isolated farm to whom comes Khayalethu Anthony, or Solomon a young black African man sent by his grandmother, once a housekeeper for Miss Marion and now worried she is in need of help and company. Their interactions are interwoven with her soliloquies given the excuse that she is writing letters to her married daughter, Annie, living in Australia. It was 90 minutes of intensities with no intermission. It opens with a fearful nightmare sequence.

Solomon and Marion

What emerges is she had a son who was brutally murdered by a gang of bullying thugs when he was in his teens; after that she and her husband separated. Solomon was there at the murder as a witness and he has come because he wants to tell her a message her son sent to her, and confess that he was a coward, fearful of coming forward as a witness lest he be murdered and his sisters and mother and aunt raped and murdered. Her daughter is angry because her mother will not come to Australia to live with her, but Marion cannot leave the only home she has known and all the things in it that stand for her memories.

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The play had some weaknesses: the language was sometimes clichéd and the actual story played out before us didn’t altogether make sense. The ending where the two principals are reconciled as they sit in front of a TV together and plan to get an extension cord so they can plug it is was touching but too added on. It was strongest in its images — almost like a film. Suzman in the dark leaning over her stove, sitting in a chair, a blanket over her legs. The two eating together; he doing things for her, like painting the wall. He wears the son’s shirt by mistake — or not mistake as the shirt fits so well.

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Jim and I had seen Suzman twice: once in London and here at the Kennedy Center in a production of Coriolanus where she played another mother, Volumnia. Her strong performance stirred within me a shared heartache and loss and yes courage. In the program notes I read that not only ago during a rehearsal in South Africa of Hamlet, with Janet Suzman as director, an actor, Brett Goldin was murdered too. She has been brave enough to speak out against some actors who pander to the theory that someone other than Shakespeare (usual candidate a dissolute nobleman, the Earl of Oxford) wrote Shakespeare’s plays.For I have tried to enact some courage — how else could I still be here? I found myself looking about and wondering (as I sometimes do) where Jim has gone, where he can be, as he was here only it seems a few short months ago, so strong, a healthy 64 year old man. He was literally devoured by a malevolent disease which has reached epidemic proportions and not only is no one doing anything preventive or fundamental to stop this killing and death in howling pain, while he died he was heartlessly fleeced and coldly barely tolerated as a treatment opportunity to make money on. Marion’s boy was killed by an over gang of thugs, my beautiful man by a silent stealthy one. How many people in the audience around me sitting there most of them with a companion had lost friends and lovers and children to cancer. It’s kept invisible.

As I got out of the bus about a block away from my house (I was lucky and as I came out of the train, I just caught the bus on time), it began to snow, sleet, ice and rain on me. I wished so intensely he were walking beside me and alive to feel the blessing of these freezing waters.

Ellen

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A screenplay is a story told with pictures … a screenplay is about a person, or persons, in a place, or places, doing his, or her thing … it is a story told in dialogue and description, and placed in the context of a dramatic structure … each shot [what the camera sees] represents an individual mosaic within the tapestry of the sequence … Syd Field

Scripts … indicate how material could be transferred from the source fiction into an eventual film … [they] plan shooting of the film … John Ellis

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not written on this blog in a while: I’ve been reading several books at once (and hope to blog on them soon); I also returned to my book on the Jane Austen film canon, and decided to write the opening section on the how screenplays function in film-making and how they may be read as serious literature in a new subgenre, so I’ve been reading well-known practical books on how to write a screenplay plus a number of screenplays, some adapting a book, some wholly literally original. These scripts may be backed up, filled out by companion books which show how to create the illusion of the world of the adapted source; these scenarios can include building up of the context (background stories) for major and minor characters. I’ve also been reading studies of companion books and published screenplays with scenarios when they are published as single or multiple books accompanying a movie or movies.

study
A good study

There is indeed an underlying paradigm in the case of all sorts of screenplays whose literal content might seem very different, and above is Syd Field’s well-known way of diagramming it.

The first ten pages or ten minutes shows the viewer the main character and central dramatic premise, the contours of the place and dramatic situation; the next twenty pages or minutes (thirty altogether) takes the viewer to the key crux or happening that must be coped with. In a mini-series one finds that the first 30 minutes or 30 pages functions as both introduction and set up. The middle central section, in a 90 to 120 minute movie shows the character in context confronting obstacle after obstacle: the main character wants or needs something (it can be quite complicated or subtle — or not) and he or she is kept from achieving this. The character has a point of view or attitude and to thicken his or her presence a context (family background, history). We watch the character behave visually and act and speak too. The last part — however long — is resolution. Often at the end of the first act there is a “plot point:” plot points move the action forward; when it comes at the end of the first block or act and the second it’s an incident that spins the action and characters into the next act, often in another direction. This is repeated as we move into resolution. (Field says it always spins the action around in a new direction when it comes at the end of the first act and the second.) A pinch-point half-way through each act is an incident which ratchets up the main or minor characters’ difficulties. Say the theft of Louise’s $6000 which she is depending upon to enable herself and Thelma to live and escape to Mexico (someone attempted to rape Thelma and Louise shot and killed him so they must flee as no court will believe Thelma that it was an assault).

This sounds formulaic and childish but if you begin to read screenplays and watch movies you will find this paradigm repeatedly even in the most apparently sophisticated movie designs. Field and others mention the sequence: I know I have been studying films by identifying sequences of scenes that are informed by an idea; they are often identifiable as they are given an emblem and numbered on the DVD as places to begin watching other than the opening of the film. A scene by the way occur when the camera focuses on a specific place at a specific time of day; there is a scene change when we move to another place or time (and the camera moves or changes its lighting). The scene moves the characters from A to B (or the story forward) in the masculinist paradigm.

There are variations on this paradigm, depending on what the mythic story is or if you have a “character-driven” or ensemble script. But alas, or tellingly (showing something centrally signficant about movies which are so influential), not only are most of the time these plot-outlines expressed in the most masculinistic ways; that is, from the point of view of how a man sees his life as linear and with opportunities, climaxes,

how-and-why-vogler-journey

not (as women do in their autobiographies) as a cyclical and repetitive experience; alas, I have not found a single diagrammed paradigm that is woman-centered. I asked myself if this masulinist paradigm underlies woman’s movies, that they use this as what sells. I found it underlay Koulli’s Thelma and Louise. I must try some more films where the screenplay is by woman, from a woman’s book, and preferably directed by a woman. If the masculinist paradigm is what the viewer is used to, that can explain why a woman’s movie might be called “boring” if it departs from this paradigm. I admit I have only begun to look at them through the lens of these paradigms so I may be wrong; there may be more woman-centered (cyclical repetitive — going “nowhere” as someone might say) than I think. I must check this out further by watching many more movies with attention paid to the screenplay paradigms.

How to recognize a plot point? from this masculinist activity point of view the plot point is a function of the main character: it’s the spins and turns and twists occurring to the main character. Field and others also have a peculiar way of discussing the main character’s action: he asks what is this character’s need and what are the obstacles in his way? conflict is obstacles getting in the way. Well, who is the main character in Gosford Park? Is it Mary? or Helen Mirren? what is her need? to kill or to protect her son who is coming there to kill Sir William McCordle? No because we are supposed to be watching the needy character confronting obstacles. This is a peculiar way to insistently phrase what turns out to be different permutations of stories.

For my study what I hope to examine literally is how the script relates (gives rise) to the verbal materials transferred from a book to become the auditory-visual elements of a film, which are gone over lovingly with many claims to historical accuracy or verisimilitude in the scenario companion books. Since my subject is the Jane Austen film canon I want then to see how these transferred materials and very different screenplays and intermediary source books (say Death Comes to Pemberley out of Pride and Prejudice) relate to one another (say with Lost in Austen or Bridget Jones’s Diary, to stay with Pride and Prejudice sequels and appropriations).

For me what is great fun and enlightening is to place this material alongside screenplays and scenarios from other costume dramas in the form of romantic comedies or dramatic romances in mini-series or singleton form. Musicals too. Downton Abbey (with no eponymous source outside the screenplay) and Gosford Park are not my only candidates; I’ve been studying Callie Khouri’s Thelma and Louise, Marilyn Hoder-Salmon’s The Awakening, and hope to add not just more women’s screenplays (Laura Jones’s Portrait of a Lady), but men’s too, the scripts directed into a film by Ang Lee (e.g., Eat Drink Man Woman), William Goldman’s Princess Bride, Christopher Hampton’s Atonement, Simon Gray’s A Month in the Country &c&c.

Thus far I have found only one literary-critical study which rises to general principles about published screenplays (a published screenplay is a sub-genre: Julian Fellowes has been doing them for each of his scripts): Miguel Mota’s Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio: The Screenplay as Book, Criticism, 47:2 (2005)215-231; and I have found one on the elements of the scenario (see Downton Abbey: bonding with the heroine): Umberto Eco, ”Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage,” Travels in Hyperreality, trans. William Weaver (NY: HBJ, 1983):197-213.

There are plenty of excellent individual studies on the making of this or that film (a remarkably good one on the development of the different screenplays directed by Hitchcock to make a film Marnie out of Winston Graham’s powerful book). Jaoob Lothe’s Narrative in Fiction and Film; Maire Messenger Davies, “Quality and Creativity in TV: The Work of the Television Storytellers,” Quality TV: contemporary american television and beyond (NY: Tauris, 2011):171-84. And there are really excellently-produced screenplays and companion books for successful and art and some popular films. The intelligent ones reveal the thinking behind the mise-en-scene, the choice of “historical accuracies” and the emphases in the detailed expositions of the screenplays (in boxes you can find citations of analogous films and books).

If my reader can make any suggestions for further studies or where to find screenplays (especially for Juliette Towhidi’s Death Comes to Pemberley, Robin Swicord’s The Jane Austen Book Club, Fielding and Davies’s Bridget Jones’s Diary; Guy Andrews’s Lost in Austen), I’d be very grateful. I have already taken down the script for Lost in Austen (using stenography on sten pads, but as of a year ago I cannot hold my hands and guide my fingers with the requisite exquisite control and quickness to make the symbols legible while taking them down as the actors speak). If no one can help me to one of these scripts, I have to sit and watch the three I’ve not down slowly and type the script as I watch.

SusanHerber
Susan Herbert: My Fair Lady (out of Shaw’s Pygmalion)

Ellen

Doctor

Patients
Breaking Bad: Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Skylar (Anna Gunn) and their “dream” Dr Delcavoli (David House)

Dear friends and readers,

I finished the first season (Episode 7, “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal”) and then watched the features where Vince Gilligan talks seriously about what he thinks this first season is about, and a good deal of what he said seemed to me accurate. Gillgan suggested the one character who is emerging as having a grasp on reality is Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul): he does not lose sight for a moment that Walt early on turned two men into “raspberry sauce,” that he and Walt are dealing with monstrous “scumbags”, that it takes huge sums of money and time and effort to get equipment to make meths, and if he had some alternative remunerative occupation he’d be better off: “count me out; I’m leaving town; I’m going to Oregon.” To this and other sudden abrasively funny retorts Walt either says nothing, or it’s not an obstacle, or (supposedly a key moment in the episode) that if Jesse agrees to go into a full-scale business, “this [will be] the first day” of Jesse’s life, exhorting him “Will it be a life of fear, of no no, of never believing in yourself?”

Pouringaway
Walt pouring while Jesse cries out “Chemistry yah Mr White yes science …” but is dubious about the moral benefit to himself

Dubious

Walt is of course (according to Gilligan) going bad; we watch him turn from a sympathetic into an “antagonistic” character. Just look at how sinister he begins to appear — with his bald head, his thinning body, the sunglasses, the increasingly rough man’s clothes. I noticed (Gilligan doesn’t say this) that a motif idea is attributed to Walt more often than his brother-in-law: that things feel good, are deeply pleasurable because they are illegal. Thrilling. Now while Walt listens to the principle talk of how the janitor will be fired and never get another job because looking for who stole the lab equipment exposed the janitor’s marijuana habit, Walt has surreptitious sex with Syklay under the school table by using his hands.

Illicitsex

He gets a real high from taking her out to the car and having sex on the backseat. Hank Schrader, the macho-cop brother-in-law (Dean Norris) repeats this idea when Hank shares illegal Cuban cigars (“Sometimes forbidden fruit tastes sweetest”), but he demurs when Walt wants him to say that there is a thin line between the illegal and legal: at one time meths Walt reminds Hank that meths were part of what was ordinarily prescribed to people. Hank immediately swings round to say some things are foul; “they came to their senses on that one” (when meths was declared illegal).

Overcigars

We are to see the hypocrisy here as we were in the earlier episodes to see the parallel between the brutal violence of the drug dealers and Hank’s to those he arrests. Hank does not murder people or beat them to insensibility, but he enjoys roughing them up bad and frightening and yes putting them in jail for a long time to come. What he does not know (not mentioned by Gilligan) is his own wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt) is a shop-lifter and gets great thrills herself by stealing super-expensive tiaras for not-as-yet born babies. Marie gives one to Skylar during a baby shower for Skylar’s coming child where Skylar is surrounded by as many extravagant and silly gifts as Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz (the super-successful couple who had access to health insurance which would have paid for Dr Delacavoli and his chemo treatments (($95,000 on the open market) had tossed at them at their house-warming party; all of which is filmed by an expensive video camera with an eye to ten years from now when said baby (called Esmeralda by Marie, but corrected to Holly by Skylar) will be an adolescent watching these people cavorting about.

Tiara

Skylar discovers it’s a theft because she goes to the jewelry store to return the object (she can think of many more practical things she might need for the sum she’ll get) and is herself accused of shoplifting and escapes only by pretending to go into labor — the great sancrosanct act of childbirth.

The critique of American bourgeois life is of course unmistakable; and lest we think the series is soft on the illegal drugs the actors are trotted out to confirm it’s not. And the scenes are as redolent of middle American life as any in the previous six episodes. We see the bright cheerful real estate agent bringing the (naive) couples to see Jesse’s house and coo over the “possibilities” of his basement; the kitchen needs only to be extended. Aaron Paul again gets the funny lines as he tells Walt he sees people “only by appointment” (as his realtor does) and mocks her pretensions.

Also well done — and comical — are the scenes of Walt and Jesse stealing needed barrels of compounds from a plant with barbed wire about it and armed guards. They wear knitted clown hats and like some verison of Laurel and Hardy stumble across the screen with their ill-gotten chemical materials:

Clowns

Scary and powerful are the scenes where Walt and Jesse meet the psychopathic drug-distributor in the most appropriate of places: a junkyard, filled with junked cars. Jesse mocks this as a child’s idea of where to negotiate crimes. Why not a mall? But of course we are there for the symbolism.

CarJunkyard

Does Gilligan not know his mini-series is about a man developing an inoperable cancer? does he not know the real villain of the piece is the super-expensive doctor who stands in for a medical establishment which can do nothing and has the nerve (because the whole society conspires to allow them to) to sit before clients complacently and correct them if they so much as suggest his “treatments” will for sure help or cure Walt; or deliver horrible treatments that as just likely can make them worse, and collect huge checks which the victim has politely to say must not be cashed “before next Monday please.” Among the extraordinary moments of this last episode occurs when Walt and Skylar visit the doctor (see stills at the opening of this blog) and the (idiot) wife (I have to say it) kittenishly tells the doctor how Walt is ever so “frisky” since getting “chemo.” I cringed. She wants this man’s approval. I wondered if the scene was unconsciously meant to rouse racism: the doctor is black, American black and that is not common because the viewer is put in the position of the helpless patients having to obey, not to question. Skylar tells of Walt’s supposed use of alternative medicine (it’s an alibi for him to go off and cook meths with Jesse) and the doctor says, well as long as it doesn’t interfere with the scientific treatments.

Does he not know he is sending up science? not just how it’s misused in the society (for prescribed drugs too) but useless for creating anything humanely good. All Jesse’s comical remarks about science are part of this thread.

Jesse
Watching desperate extractions from unlikely objects:

Desperateextraction

As I watched the scenes with the doctors, technicians, receptionists taking the checks, trips to the bank, rolls of money clutched to the chest, I knew why the show doesn’t attack who it should. The AMA would get after them. The thorough anthology Quality TV, ed McCabe and Akass, includes essays explaining how most film makers for TV don’t even think of attacking anyone who is a big funder of the programming — those who do don’t get their films made or distributed. The film exists to present the commercial (ironically often pedaling psychological drugs which make huge sums). The whole corrupt system is normalized, as if the “way it is” is natural, not evil.

Why do I carry on watching it and blogging about it. While it displaces Walt’s real nightmare of cancer, useless scientific medicine, killing costs, with masculine clown antics of violence and shows the wife to be complicit (thus far helpless because without a real grasp of what her life has depended on — the luck of her birth position, and of his health and job), nevertheless its origin is the cancer epidemic about which nothing is being done (nothing fundamental, nothing preventative) — the hook of the show is when Walt is told he has inoperable cancer; each plot point is some happening that is screwed back into the cancer, whether his bald head, his thinness, his explosions of violence, as he grows more and more supposedly amoral. He is not accurate on the thin line between legality and illegality: what he is missing and the series never says is what is legal, self-righteous, complacently collecting checks, money from credit cards, extorted from drugged misery, is what’s seriously causatively criminal.

Ellen

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