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Archive for June, 2010


Joan Rivers standing before her index boxes, a joke on each card; she has a wall of these she turns to

Dear friends and readers,

Again I write hurriedly to recommend seeing a film lest it vanish before you get there. Yesterday Izzy braved the intense (and it was burning, burning hot in that car), to see Joan Rivers: A piece of work. The directors and producers are the same man and woman: Ricky Stern, Anne Sundberg, perhaps her friends?, for it’s self-evidently all Joan’s and projects her unqualifiedly as far as she dares. In the theater I was in (an art cinema which does have a Jewish customer base) there were few there, while bunches of people were at Winter’s bone, Please Give. Not Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s City of your Final Destination which has alas disappeared.

The issues she brings up resonate so directly and personally with American middle class life — and being a woman, and I found myself connecting personally. Why? Partly because I’m so different from her but am aware her norms are intense versions of US ideals I can’t eradicate from my soul either — though unlike her I try.

More: how she ended the film by talking of her intense emotional pain over the loss of her long-time friend, associated, employee, Billie. She has been forced to estrange herself from him. And he and she go way back: there is no one else who remembers with her what she remembers. He was there when her husband killed himself. He was there when this or that funny or mad or miserable thing happened. She could talk with him and they’d laugh and love and cry for much of her adult life: he seems to have been her Man Friday. We see him in the film a lot. She needed him to be there for her when she was in trouble; he did all sorts of stuff for her. The problem was he’d disappear now and again, sometimes just when she needed him most. This began to happen all the time. Empty chair. So the relationship is now severed. I was so moved because I am now estranged from someone where the emotional pain of it just gets worse. I can do nothing about it because this person doesn’t want me; she needles, berates, insults, and has contempt for me. So I must stay away. And yes there are these rooted memories. I came close to crying as Rivers talked about this perhaps common experience.

So what is so good about this movie? Its feel of burning honesty. She keeps her soul alive by getting on that stage and doing her thing, by activating her anger, sublimating it and reaching others where they live. And the way she confronts our cultural hypocrisies and defies them and in her act mocks our false norms.

The subtitle refers to the them that she’s a perpetual piece of work in progress. Performing from the time she gets up. Celebrity, what is it, how do you make, keep it up, what is its price. Part of the discourse of this documentary. There’s a commencement speech by Meryl Streep worth listening to this about just this. Towards the end of Streep’s speech she says:

“Being celebrity has taught her to hide but being an actor has opened her soul.”

We see this in this Joan Rivers film.

We open on sharp close ups of her face. Old. She’s putting on make-up. Dressing slowly. She does this early each and every day. She getting old you see, 75, and no one wants an old woman. Her history of plastic surgery, her use of make-up and her advocating these are brought up front and central. She’s a woman of burning ambition at 75 keeping her soul alive — she tells honestly about her life through reminiscences: I didn’t know Carson blackballed her utterly from NBC when she tried to lead a night show of her own (first woman to try and none since). He hung up when she called to tell him about this opportunity and never spoke to her again. For years she couldn’t get on NBC:


When young a guest on Carson

I didn’t know her husband killed himself shortly after that:

and how ugly and cruel are these shows like Celebrity something-or-other (there is no rationale for watching such a show, or supporting it because however you describe your emotions you will be feeding off of its basis in viscerally public mortification). The “roasts” on comedy central were brutal to her.

Her daughter, Melissa, is in “the business” too and we see the tensions between them. Her daughter was one of those cruelly humiliated on this Celebrity show:

Joan Rivers lives high and luxuriously and this takes money. She calls her home (very fancy) a kind of Marie Antoinette place, evoking her understanding of how envy and resentment towards a woman who flaunts her riches easily rises. At the same time she has never managed to achieve the status of any of the men nor the kind of teams they have. We see how she goes anywhere — including a devastating gig in Wisconsin to a fundamentalist (Republican) type audience.

Her raw comedy is still daring for a woman and she is admonished on HBO for her use of “fuck” — which I loved her for ignoring. The men utter it all the time.

She manages to get 17 people on thanksgiving and gets in a big table. She has her few close relatives, close staff and brings in people in her building who she knows have nowhere to go and some street people she passes regularly. Before that she goes round giving out meals on wheels. She supports the children of her staff members by sending them to the best private schools.

Although the discourse is not explicitly as this is a woman’s life in the comedy business and outlook on life itself, that’s what is at its core. She’s aware of this and how as a woman she’s been in the paradoxical position of suffering from the very things she advocates.

It’s very hard to write and deliver comedy. She says she’s an actress, a serious one acting out a comic. Years ago in NYC she tried to make it in a play she wrote and produced. She was fiercely made fun of. Merciless. She actually moved out of NY for a time. We see her try again; she is so much older than everyone else in the crew. They do well in front of audience at Edinburgh and take it to London. The audience gives a standing ovation, but the critics are lukewarm and the words are all about their being put off by her being a woman, old, her self-centeredness, and yes her looks. How dare she think her personal life of such interest. So she does not take it to NY. Once being so mocked and castigated there was enough.

I collapsed in helpless laughter at a couple of the routines, especially the one about anal intercourse. She advises it in her routine. No pregnancy and you can do lots of other things at the same time. Read, do the bills …


The joke was during a routine she did in a small nightclub, going down hill — dressed this way. She leaned over and acted it out.

Alas no one (or only a couple and in different places) in the theater laughed the way I did at these routines.

Another of the five women’s films women’s enews recomended at the opening of summer this year. Thus far I’ve managed 4 superlative ones (if you add in Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala): Winter’s Bone, Please Give, City of Your Final Destination, and now this Joan Rivers documentary.

Ellen

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Poldark 1, Part 1, Episode 1 (1975-76): carriage glimpsed on horizon


First shot of Robin Ellis as not-so-young Ross come home


Poldark 2 (1977-79) Ross Poldark as revenant — Season 2: both open with him emerging from the landscape or sea, expected not to return any time soon or thought dead

Dear friends and readers,

Nearly two weeks ago now I wrote a blog-review expressing my delight in the first season of the later 1970s mini-series, Poldark, and said that I had begun to read the books on which it was based, partly to compare and enjoy the series more (one usually gets so much more out of one of these film adaptations when one has read the book) and because I discovered I really enjoyed them and could read them at night.

Last week I finished the first volume in the series, Ross Poldark, and I thought I’d share a few thoughts about this novel tonight. Ross Poldark is a good example of historical fiction where the information is carried very lightly too — deft, like for example, Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin I read a few years ago now or Rose Tremain’s Restoration. I find even Patrick O’Brian is sometimes “feeding TM information.” ) I’m looking to try to see how it’s done.

I like the book for its tone and characters and outlook. Central is the character of Ross Poldark, not idealized, and Robin Ellis captures some of the character’s hardness, stubborness, and real sense of despair and loss when he returns home from the wars to find no one wants him, and his home systematically despoiled, the young woman he loved, marrying someone else. The level of people in the community and individuals who are interesting and believable emerge quickly.

There is a dark level to this that appeals deeply to me — as well as the kinds of ethical statements that naturally arise in the character’s thinking for he is a sound ethical man in his way — smiling. The description is carried off very well and I can see why the films were done on location — without this Cornwall it’s nothing. This book reminds me of the fiction of Alexander Baron if anyone knows his novels — British, socialist, originally Jewish, became an important writer of screenplays for film adaptations on the BBC from the 1970s through 1980s. I’ll add this historical fiction mediates between the UK of the 1930s to later 40s and that of Cornwall’s history vis-a-vis England. Another reason to make this adaptation in the 1980s.

The cover illustration is a photo of a place in Cornwall, gorgeous and I see it’s the opening establishment shot of the series, a cliff apparently partly built to look like this vision. The actors chosen correspond well to the characters in the book the way they do in other series of this period.


Another shot of the cliffs (opening still for Season 2)


A mine close up

For an outline of the book see the comments.

For a second reading, what my students’ thought and contextualization as a historical romance, see a later blog.

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A second phase bring Demelza Carne into the story — as a 13 year old adolescent girl. To tell of how Ross met and brought her into his household is to show how this historical fiction is not wooden but rather that the kind of information which can often make historical novels wooden or tendentious is brought in imaginatively.


A fair (from Season 2)

Ross needs to buy animals to work his farm and goes to a monthly large fair in Truro. Such fairs were held and we get a remarkably lively description of such a place. But there is no sense of feeding information or the kind of sentence which so often introduces this sort of thing. Instead we are wholly in his mind with his troubles and his reactions and see only those parts of the fair that are of interest to him, where he goes. Graham writes these details in a suggestive way which gives us suggestions of the larger place: there are three areas to the fair, a heavy-duty expensive one for animal purchase, feed, implements; another for smaller goods, pots and pans, household stuff, scattered everywhere stuff for fishing, mining, crafts and so on. He does his business and is tired and goes on to a third area where drink, food and entertainment is to be found. More sordid stuff goes on here, and among other things he sees cock-fighting (which we witness at his cousin Poldark’s wedding to his ex-beloved Elizabeth) and then two animals, a dog and cat tied to together with something to hurt them and tease them and all the people around enjoying this.

Well of course yuk. We are told Ross likes children and so when a young girl hurls herself against these animals to free the dog, becuase it’s her dog, and for her pains is the victim of stones and kicks and curses and mockery, he rescues her. What a mess she is — not unrealistic, half starved, filthy and has been beaten by her father and/or brothers recently. He gives her a good meal and is going to dismiss her but remembers he needs a maid of all and hard work. As yet he has but three servants to help him bring his house back to order. So he offers to take her. He likes her and she him — but they half-quarrel over her dog who she wants to bring. He almost gets rid of her at one point because he knows this will bring him trouble, but then she will come cheap and clearly wants and needs to escape an awful home. Bringing her home, he puts her in a big bed of the kind she never usually gets. It’s here the abilty of the novelist comes out. No sense of us being taught what a box bed was but rather we enter Demelza’s mind as she goes to sleep in this half-built house.

He tries to contact a lawyer over what to do about her, but is thwarted and her father and brother show up two mornings later. A fight ensues — yes swash bucklnig for our hero beats three men with the help of his servant, but it’s realistic too. Reminded me of scenes of Billy Booth duelling in Amelia. The same male stupidities are presented (Graham thought knows they are and does not enter into them quite the way Fielding does). Really the old man is willing to sell the girl for 50 guineas. They bargain in the end and Ross offers to give the old man her salary and he will himself provide food and clothes and whatever education she might want.

This is but one thread in this second section of the novel; having watched the films I know in the film Demelza stays, grows up, and 6 years later Ross and she do have sex one night together; he, good man that he is, sends her away for another place rather than repeatedly use her, but she improbably this, gets pregnant (the kind of thing novels even today do for so-called “good” and chaste heroines, they must get pregnant one go) and after claiming other lovers, that it’s others and he trying to find these and get one to marry her, it emerges it’s his. In the film she flees for an abortion or whatever, he chases and stops and wrestles her down (we are into the romance) and says he will marry her, and give her his name — this is a beautiful moment in the film. She at first does not want this compromise, but accedes for abortions are death and children out of wedlock would destroy her life as it destroys reputation (which is shown an absurdity when one considers the realities). The film is close to 1950s attitudes and far more melodramatic.

At any rate in both film and book Ross then marries his servant-housekeeper, a woman beneath him as he is a gentleman, and this is part of the story’s class lines appeal — for Demelza is real enough.

I left off last night in the book though when her father has left and he finds her hiding high up in a cupboard with her dog. This scene is dramatized in the series.

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I read up to Book 2 of the novel where we jump two year to 1787. It should be said that the series (16 episodes) takes matter from the first four novels of Graham: that enables the series to include the 1790s for its chaos, riots, and rebellion against the masters as part of the larger French/Irish and counter-revolutionary scenes.

The motif which binds these segments in the film visually and archetypally is that of the revenant. Again and again Ross leaves to go to a war, to rescue someone, he is driven away, missing, believed dead, and then returns — from the time of the marriage welcomed joyfully by his (often pregnant) wife. There are a cornucopia of shots in this vein. In the books I discover he is a wanderer again and again, restless, dissatisfied. Not the same as a revenant at all.

This last part of Book one tells of Demelza growing up, slowly educating herself in Ross’s library, becoming part of the working household; how he does begin to buy her pretty girl things (like a cape and pelisse) but as yet sees her as a child. At the same time ugly rumors fly about how he’s keeping her. That he ignores this shows his character — a real arrogance some would call it; he just won’t listen to cant or let it control his existence. He will pay for this. Demelza will of course probably remain a pariah until he marries her and for a long time afterwards too I can see. Class and sex and gender prejudice.


Verity (Norma Streader) — online promotional shot

We see Verity, the sister of Francis, Ross’s beloved cousin and friend (she visits him regularly) deprived of the man she loves: Captain Blarny (Blamey in the film and Blamey as of Demelza). Again we have this disturbing part justification of terrible behavior to women. Blamey is feared by Verity’s father and brother because he was responsible for his wife’s death; he did beat or kick her once when she was pregnant and she went into a miscarriage and died, and for this he went to prison for two years. He has paid for the crime, sworn off drink (and keeps off it), and she loves him and we see he is decent and congenial. If it were that Graham is urging us not to keep punishing people, I’d sympathize but in each case where this is the moral it is always of a man raping, beating, somehow badly abusing a woman. And it’s always justified by her bad behavior which never seems to emerge in violence on her side. We are told Mrs Blamey did not keep a good home for the Captain, nagged him &c

But spinster life is unexpectedly justified. She’s going to be a spinster now and it’s not that bad after all. Respected, needed, not endless children, self-possessed and we are to feel after all Blamey is not exactly a hopeful case for her.

IN the film the father Charles of Verity nearly dies when he has a heart attack after (in both film and book) his eldest son, Francis, Elizabeth’s brother challenges Blamey and not being allowed to bow out, Blamey hits Francis in the neck and almost (but doesn’t) kill him.


The intense Francis (Clive Francis) — online promotional shot

IN the book and film Ross helped Jim Carter marry Jinny, but alas he has begun to poach to provide more for himself and his wife. This is a story which shows how poverty deforms bodies never mind the intangible life. Carter was a bright boy forced to work in the mines when young as his father died. His health is now very bad and weak; and Ross wants him to work in the farm. But he doesn’t make enough even to get food — Ross is giving them the cottage rent free. So he goes back to the mine and then poaches to make ends meet. (He will end in prison and then die of disease there.)

A good deal of plot: Elizabeth gives birth to her son by Francis, but again also feel and tone and themes. IN the book, she no longer wants to sleep with Francis and lets him know it, and he acquiesces, but turns to drink, resentment, more gambling (as she loses any hold she had on him through sex — not much — the male novel believes women can control men through having sex with them — right — not much I’d say). Francis is incensed with Ross also for he knows of Francis’s early love for Ross, and how (in the film but not the book, in the 18th century this would have been unthinkable and the book is not anachronistic in this way) Ross allowed Verity to meet Blamey in his house. This meeting is a motif in real Victorian novels. “good” women characters refuse to allow other women to meet lovers in their houses. One way women and men were controlled was there was no comfortable safe private space outside houses at the time to meet. The automobile and build-up of a public world in the later 19th century changed all that in the west — not in traditional family based societies I’ll bet.

Despite the signs of misogyny (by which I refer to Graham’s acceptance of Blamey’s murder of his wife), I like the sentiments that are expressed again and again by Ross Poldark and Demelza — who is alert, active, bright, loves to read and is active to make things orderly. In the book, Ross spends his evening in quiet drink with a book before the fire and her dog, Garrick, most of the time. I can see how the death of the dog must be meaningful — more than the series showed — at the end of the first series of novels (which comprise I’m gathering 1-4). In this part of the novel it’s the build-up of the world, of all its parts, and evolution of character and an attempt to suggest a community over a brief span of time (but suggesting the larger through say visiting and seeing pictures in Trenwith house) that holds this reader.

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Ross’s farm house (as seen in opening of Season 2)

I’m into Book 3 and the last hundred pages of Ross Poldark, and have bought myself a copy of Demelza (another earlier edition, cheaper) which I await eagerly so I feel competent to compare this first book with the film now. Ellis mentions that the way Ross came to marry Demelza was changed, and he wanted more of the original; there were “heated discussions” of this (and other changes), and unlike his hero, Ross, Ellis compromised.

I can vouch that the story of Jim Carter’s poaching, capture, cruel trial and imprisonment, and thus coming death reflects the fiction. Here we see how the dissertation written on Graham’s fiction that it uses history progressively accurately. In the deft non-teaching fiction way he had, Graham brings home how desperate is Carter’s life: he and Jinnny now have 3 children, he can’t make enough and so returns to the mines, still can’t make enough to eat without hunger and keep warm and provide clothes so he resorts to poaching to add to the dinner table. Rich men who hunt (we see a hunt from this perspective) aren’t having that. We also see that Poldark is a poor politician. He gets up on the stand and preaches to the jury; he appeals to principles, to the terrible conditions of the prison, but is easily overruled because poaching is a crime, end of argument. He should have had a quiet word, should have said he needs this man as a servant, and should have kowtowed and manipulated on the stand. In the film all this and his regrets and insight into where he failed are presented as a dramatic speech the night he gets drunk and makes love to Demelza.

But the film otherwise differs profoundly in the way the sex, marriage and developing romance are presented from the book. In the book Demelza is growing up and rumors abound Ross and she are going to bed. A young woman her mother wanted Ross to marry is envious or spiteful and increases these during her daughter’s wedding to someone else. Demelza’s father hears of this and has himself found religion, married a narrow evangelical type, and comes to fetch her. Her heart stops at this. Her life now is pleasant to her, she is learning to read and write slowly, and she knows to go back is to be made a servant-slave, that whatever the surface changes in her father he is still an exploitative, mean, brutal man. She also knows that Ross is not deeply engaged by her and would “do the right thing,” send her back.

So she does plot to involve him with her. This is the male idea of the woman who entraps the man. Indeed the whole mythos is one high culture novelists make fun of: the idea an older man can train or tutor and bring up an intelligent young girl to be his wife. It is apparently an alluring notion (Trollope mocks it and shows so many fallacies in a subplot of Orley Farm). How? well, sex. She finds Ross’s mother’s dress and dresses herself as a woman for the first time. She fears that sex with Ross will end in him feeling contempt for her but is willing to chance it.

She is scared of sex too but far worse dreads her father and his new wife and that so-called home and its religion. In both book and film he has started buying her adult women’s clothes and she has begun to be aware of herself as a woman — 17 to 18 now.


Poldark 1, Part 3, Episode 6: Ross moved by Demelza’s love

iN both film and book the scene between the two of them is done at length and masterly. He is wretched, drunk, but at first angry to see her in his mother’s dress. He does not want to abuse her this way. IN the book the dog plays a role as the dog is there and they are playing and petting it. In the book he does send her away, but then thinks what a fool he is to be so moral. Why not go to bed as everyone thinks he is. He goes to her bed and she responds.

Unlike the film (which has a short version of this where Demelza did not plot anything), in the book he does not send her away the next day. He goes off to do work and is gone all day; when they first see one another they are embarrassed and uncomfortable — but he enjoyed that night with her and she didn’t mind. Elizabeth comes for a visit — too late. She fears her father will come for her. We go into both their minds, and well they do it again.

As would happen in nature. Two days later rather than carry on this way he determines to marry her. He knows this is the “kiss of death” for him gaining prestige and power socially; it’s okay to fuck your servant regularly (snide comments and sneers is what he’d get and she the streets if he threw her out, or a terrible reform home if she got pregnant and the neighborhood took umbrage), but he marches to his own drummer. She has become a real important servant: a good cook, companion, conversation is witty, he likes her, is fond of her and is willing to give her his name.

In film and book much is made of this. IN the film (see above) when he chases her across the meadow, pregnant with his child (as he now knows it), ready to abort it or flee somewhere anywhere, he wresttles her down and in proposing marriage, says he will give her child and she his name. That means a place in society.

In the book after the marriage, there are two moving chapters, one from her point of view and one from his on their developing euphoric (for its a kind of honeymoon) relationship. She immediately gains status in his eyes: now she sees her suggestion about the library is listened to. He half-dreams of the nights they are now spending together — and it’s alluringly suggestive — and the days they are having.

In both book and film Elizabeth comes to visit just after the first night of sex, and constitutes a sort of temptation against marrying Demelza.


The young Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) — online promotional shot

In the film again it is dramatic; Demelza has been sent away after one night of sex, lived with her father and step-mother, fled them, gone to live with Jinny Carter and lied about her pregnancy being someone elsew’s; Elizabeth wants to leave Francis and offers to go and live with him elsewhere, and he agrees; they have a long afternoon by the shore, but the next day he does finds out that he fathered Demelza’s pregnancy and takes her into his house in the film. Elizabeth shows up and we have Elizabeth’s shock and horror at this decision. One does not marry a lower class woman this way. Part 4 of the film ends not on a happy wedding but Elizabeth leaving the house, passing by Demelza who has heard it all and goes upstairs. Ross left in the room. It’s not false romance in the film but it is a high melodrama which the book is not.

In the book there is no such scene, no time for it, no such offer to leave Francis, but we know Elizabeth would be appalled. She has come to mend fences with Ross but no more; it’s too late because Ross and Demelza have now spent a night in bed together. Elizabeth’ presence is enough to make him pause, but not enough to stop him marrying Demelza. The book is much realer & quieter than the film. It is highly improbable that any Demelza would claim several lovers and not know who is the father of her baby. So the film is improbable, but it is dramatic and that chase across the meadow with him on a horse, the gentleman, and she the outcast fleeing deeply memorable.

I prefer the book very much as more truthful to nature, and the two chapters and real depiction of a romance developing after the marriage act.

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The core of these Poldark novels is Graham has imagined himself this Captain Poldark, attractive, decent, highly intelligent, identifying with the people beneath him (all obedient to him) and while a thorn to his peers, not somebody they can easily scotch (because the wealthy then knew they needed to hang together, to support their order). And in these chapters I’m taking such a delight in he’s imagined himself marrying a girl well beneath him, so by custom as his wife, and by habit and class, she is obedient, more than compliant at night (in love with him for all he has given her, and not at all inhibited or proud), and fitting right in with his needs during the day.

The novel is now leaving the larger outer society as we do watch a realistic adjustment too. Ross wants Demelza to be accepted and to try to fit in within limits. Luckily, his good cousin, Verity, is like him: accepts the lower orders, and now that she is lonely, a spinster who has made herself a alien in her family by her affair with Blarney (in the first book his name), he invites her to his house. The myth operative here is a woman deprived of love and sex — and companionship and usefulness for herself — sickens. Verity is in ill health. She accepts Demelza, but Demelza is deeply ashamed — she knows how she has been talked about — and it’s Demelza who is off-standish, who doesn’t talk and doesn’t make Verity feel at home. But an effective scene of Verity wisely knowing how to disarm Demelza and a few weeks experience and Demelza begins to trust and then open up.

IN the book we see Verity take Demelza shopping. A trip which again proves Graham’s deftness for we completely forget we are learning about shopping in Truro in the later 18th century as Demelza is taught how to shop for better goods, what kinds of patterns to get, the appropriate places to buy class-appropriate stuff for her house.

And then in the book Ross insists (as a male he does use his authority) that Demelza go to his cousin’s for Xmas when she’s invited. Again we have these scenes of social and class adjustment.

I admit though what I like best are the romance get-away “Paul et Virginie” scenes, to allude to the equivalent of Daphnis-Chloe and Tristan-Isolde in later 18th century Frency fiction. Ross and Demelza going out late at night with a picnic, and watching the town on the nights the pilchards come use huge netting to capture hundreds and hundreds of fish, then returning by coves to their house to make love at night. Ross and Demelza having breakfast, around the house, and the inner subjective characters he gives both as they learn about one another. She is by the page I have gotten to pregnant but unwilling to tell him as yet for fear he will be irritated or not happy about it as it’s another burden. I daresay this is anachronistic but much in her reflects how Graham saw women of the 1940s/50s in their inner lives and domestic situations — idealized and from a masculinist stance, but also sympathetic.

I should say my experience of relationships coheres with the center of this one: after the relationship begins in earnest (meaning sexual) then the learning about one another first begins, and then either romance or adjustment or breakup. Well surely romance is the thing some of us yearn for. Someone to listen to you, to sympathize, to validate — and Ross and Demelza do that for one another in spades. Ellis says he and Rees were “beloved partners” in their enterprise during filming and keeping up the memory of the series by touring for love afterwards.

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This novel ends on a touching ambivalent romance close. It dwindles down to concentrate on Ross and Demelza’s relationship evolving under the pressure of their visit to the Poldark family, interactions with the other family members, and return home. Ross is beginning to see that Demelza has forms of insight that he doesn’t. While she was probably wrong not to want to visit at all, he has discovered he still longs to go to bed with Elizabeth, his attraction to her has not diminished. There’s an effective scene where first Elizabeth plays the piano with high cultured music and then Demelza is pushed to sing a folksong. Demelza is preferred for the same reasons that in Austen’s Emma Harriet Smith prefers Emma’s mediocre playing of easy songs to Jane Fairfax’s accomplished performance; it’s more available. It turns into a sour comedy of manner with each of the characters responding, especially the girl who Ross was pressured to marry uttering needling put-down comments to Demelza who holds her own. The good Verity puts a stop to this.

We then accompany our hero and heroine home: they are glad to be back and alone. He tells her she misbehaved with her effective sarcasms, and she ignores this to try to get him to agree to arrange to bring Blarney to the house again for Verity. A conversation about love ensues whose terms are disturbing: literally Demelza maintains if you love someone, you do so understanding their faults, but since the faults are physical abuse, this is part of this disquieting vein in the novel where men are repeatedly excused for beating/killing women.

Here it’s Ross who doesn’t agree as the case in point is Blarney who killed his wife and who therefore the Poldark family do not want Verity to marry no matter that now he has given up alcohol and the same situation will not occur. He will only “consider it,” “consider” going to Falmouth to bring back Blarney for Verity. A sort of stiffness and sense of himself as a male and in charge comes strongly out here. Robin Ellis does this aspect of the character very well :)

There beyond this though a sense of distance between the two. He has visited his homestead and remembered the history of his upper class family, very far from hers, and she has been made to feel that he married her loving still another woman (Elizabeth), or at least wanting her and the text reads “for a time something stepped between the man and the girl sitting at the fire.”

But the night wears on and “the old peculiar silence” that enveloped them now ceases “to be a barrier, and became a medium.” Their different pasts and personalities “could not just then break their companionship for long.” “They had been overawed by time. Then time again became their friend.

“Are you asleep?”‘ Ross said.
‘No,’ said Demelza.
Then she moved and put her finger on his arm.”

And we leave them going to sleep with one another and the curtain falls.

Ellen

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Jennifer Lawrence, our dauntless heroine, Ree Dolly (Winter’s Bones)

Dear readers and friends,

I braved the intense heat yesterday to see Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bones, fearful that it would leave the theaters quickly. In the event I was astonished to find myself in a 3/4s full theater — but then it was superhot yesterday, this particular moviehouse is an 2 block area of local entertainment (restaurants, library, stage for plays, a bookstore [!]), so maybe it will last more than the movie last spring of a girl who tries to find employment and never does and her dog dies. The name escapes me, but it got strong praise, only to vanish so quickly I can’t recall the title. Can someone help me? Because then I would look on Netflix (which however often does not have movies which are not in DVD).

It might not stay because I noticed people got up rapidly, the minute the film came to its sudden close. Often when people enjoy a movie, they sit afterwards and watch the credits. Not here, and I heard comments like, “boy this was pessimistic” (phrases like this, some more vulgar). So I’m hurrying to do this blog to call attention to the movie, and publishing it quickly.

When I began to watch, about half-way through, I too said to myself if movies are a register of contemporary (which I think they are), the US is in deep trouble. Over the last couple of years I’ve seen films about people running desperate cleaning businesses (for suicides and ruined houses), doing all sorts of sordid menial tasks, one Thanksgiving movie (indie) showed the family buying a Thanksgiving dinner in a local Wal-mart type store. I also began to think about recent women’s films which are tough and have strong women in them — but these women are by no means winners. Such was Gwyneth Hughes’s Five Days. A strong woman is not enough to make a proto-feminist or feminist film, though both these films were not masculinist;they took on board the woman’s point of view throughout. On top of that Winter’s Bones is not a male genre film: it’s based on a realistic subjective novel with a female at the center.

I did not rise at the end shaken the way I was from Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon several months ago. Our heroine scores a win at the end; indeed one might say we leave her in charge and with solace, but the way there and the low standard of a “win” in this film is striking.

It’s filmed in the Ozarks, known to be desperately poor, but some of the footage is from outside and shows people clawing for a living, and what is photographed is not fake. This is a small budget film. Basically the center resonates. It all begins when our heroine, 17 years old, Ree Dolly, opens her door to the sheriff who tells her she and her two siblings and (not well) mother will lose their house next week because he has been told her father is not showing up for his bail next week. To get out of prison, the father had signed away the house.


The house

Great. The problem is she must find him and when she goes hunting, she finds herself beat up, cursed and coming up agains vicious indiffferent, cruel and difficult behavior. These scenes are believable. One irony is that much of this is family and in the end the family comes through. The woman who seems to be Dee’s grandmother (or lives with her grandfather) does this horrifying deed (she is so mean and tough she took my breath away) to help Ree hold onto that house. It’s disgusting and sickening what they do, but they need to do what they need to do.


On the way to the swamp: the mise-en-scene or palette is wintry

Foreclosures in the US are at a very great height. One congressman tried to change the rules to help people, but lobbyists for banks stopped it. Many of these need not happen; it suits the convenience of the bank. People’s lives and all their wealth (often in an house) lost. So the central desperate struggle is ours.

The family lives on foodstamps — well it’s a version of this that has become common. Also handouts. So apparently do many of these people. Our heroine’s mother just can’t cope. She needs medical help for her mental troubles but forget it. I know that from my middle class experience. And who would blame her seeing her life and surmising what that husband was. Apparently one thing he did for money was “cook” sudafed to turn it into Meths and sell that. Risky I’m told. And illegal.

What happens is she refuses to accept being thrown out of the house. She keeps searching for her father, and then when 2/3s the way through the film, she is at long convinced by someone that he is dead, she wants to find the body. She needs to prove he is dead so that the house will not be taken from them. She is beat up by her family and father’s friends to make her stop looking because some one or group of them (we work out) murdered her father for snitching on them to the sheriff. He did this out of desperate need, for the money.

Why Antigone? Jim has now suggested to me that another blog argues for these classical roots; here I agree. Ree is continually stubbornly defiant. She will not yield and central to the film’s suspense is one’s fear she is going to be killed or beat up again. I go into details of the ending to demonstrate the case. So if you are planning on going and don’t want to know them skip the next four paragraphs.

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I said her family comes through. The terrible grandmother shows up with the awful two ancient aunts (fates) and they take her in a car to a swamp. She has to wear a bag over her head. I could not understand how she could trust them after it was her grandmother who threw hot water in her face and beat her with iron. She should have stayed by the door with her gun and chased them away.

But she won’t give up. So she is an Antigone in a sense: refusing to conform to what is convenient to everyone else. In the swamp is her father’s body. Her grandmother wants her to saw off his hands as evidence to bring to the police. She cannot do that. Finally something is beyond her. So grandma does it. Then grandma has a plastic bag (the sort you get from a cheap supermarket). We next see Ree in the police station with the bag of hands. She gives them to the same sheriff who came to her door in the first place, probably the man whom her father snitched to. He will not give her the satisfaction and reassurance they will accept these hands as her fathers. He says they’ll check. She goes out sneering that the sheriff knows they are her dad’s.

End of story: she is sitting on the porch with her brother and sister and the house is safe. Why? Her uncle comes with two little chicks to give the children — a sign of hope. Her aunt has suggested she could give up her younger brother, but she reassures the children she cannot do without them as a burden.


Walking with the children

Then her father’s ex-partner brings her a few hundred dollars, the father’s cut from the last illegal sale.

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The screen goes dark on Ree sitting there with her brother, sister, the dog not far off, and the chicks. Her mother is inside the house with her aunt. Her uncle walks off but he’ll be back.


John Hawkes as Teardrop in an unusually soft moment

Animals abound. Ree’s poor dog is tied with a chain outside the house. I have seen this again and again in my life. Reed does feed it each night and once in a while lets the poor thing in the house.

Some quiet comedy. For example, at one point she goes to enlist in the army. She’s read the misleading posters that one gets $44,00 for enlisting. In a sense she fails the interview. She’s not wanted. The real problem is she’s 17 and there’s no parent to sign. But he really sees she’s there because she has been deluded and knows that this is not what she wants. It’s a typical scene. The person writing it expects you to see that she is signing her rights away and should never do or be asked to do that (in fact perhaps it’s her uncle, father’s brother, who spits this one out when he hears of her attempt). It has all the different kinds of vibes of other scenes. I call the scene more quiet because while you watch you are not afraid for her, for this military interviewer is nothing if not controlled.

Also genre scenes. We see how this subculture entertains itself. Its hovels include buildings which serve a clubs, bars, places people make music with local instruments home-made (her father owns a banjo) and even dance and eat and drink congenially enough. Though I don’t think I saw an outright smile. That would lay you open as unguarded.

For a feminist or simply any woman viewer, this girl is remarkable — I have a hard time imagining surviving.

The kinds of everyday violence make for intense suspense because it’s so believable. Men are very mean to women again and again. We are shown this through the womens’ fear of their “menfolk.” We see a man cuff a woman; the implication is they are kind only if the woman obeys them, doesn’t bother them, certainly never contradicts them.

The women do help one another, finally her mother’s sister-in-law (the aunt I referred to above) is there with Ree and helping, and then her father’s brother (the uncle), Teardrop, who is last seen intending something worrying (he seems to be thinking of killing the sheriff).

I’d say go see it, don’t miss it. I thought to myself the next time Mr Obama talks about the US robust economy, he ought to be sat down and made to watch this three times. Maybe it might, just, penetrate — though alas I doubt it.

The novelist is Daniel Woodrell who also wrote the novel which was the basis for Ang Lee’s great Ride with the Devil.

Ellen

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Isabel Archer (Nicole Kidman)

Dear friends and readers,

I carried on with my study and comparison of films based on 18th and films based on 19th century matter, and earlier this week watched Jane Campion’s brilliant effective film adaptation of Henry James’s novel, The Portrait of a Lady, screenplay Laura Jones, produced by Steve Golin and Ann Wingate.

As with the other Jamesian films I’ve seen, two The Turn of the Screws (1999, 2009) and two Golden Bowls (1972, 2001), while the accent is still a larger portrait of social and/or economic and familial arrangements, the story and characters also present sexual derangements that don’t show up in the daylight world, seem not there at all, but below the surface and in one-on-one moments operate in a frighteningly sinister manner. One should not forget that Daisy Miller dies.

John Malkovich as Gilbert Osmond,

with his typology including Valmont (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) and Mr Hyde (Mary Reilly) while at first superficially alluring, is scintillatingly horrible, and Barbara Hersey as Madame Merle, with her typology of amoral ruthless intelligence (she played Daniel Deronda’s mother in the recent film),

also at first seemingly a friend, turns out a grim, determined outraged mother/mistress (of Pansy by Gilbert and of Gilbert). Their presences, how they act, what they say and do are central to the film’s emotional effect.

They are contrasted to the sensitive, well-meaning and intendedly generous kind Ralph Touchett:


played by Martin Donovan,

and the utterly upright Viggo Mortenson as Caspar Goodwood:

Campion’s original cinematography, direction, shots, production-design, and full dramatization of the scenes are equally chief elements making this film the memorable Jamesian experience it is.

On one level, her film is a transposition and more or less faithful to the hinge-points, characters, and themes of James’s novel; but on another, it re-reads the novel from a woman’s point of view. Campion also uses imagery quite different from most of the James’ movies I’ve seen; while I’ve not seen them all, I have seen a couple of the earlier, pre-1960s pop type, where they even change the name of the story and/or characters and are of course free with other elements (like The Heiress), and the 1997 Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square, screenplay (Carol Doyle). James just lends himself to women’s visions (the 2009 Turn of the Screw mentioned above has Sandy Welch as director).

As a transposition, it really brings out the sinister level of James’s fiction. That’s not easy because to get the full meaning of James’s feeling that our human experience of life is sinister (dreadful, frightening, full of ugly things done to us and by us), you have also to capture the banality, the reality that day-to-day experience feels benign. We do not always have knives at the ready and sharpened. And Campion does that. It’s the acting by Malkovich as Osmond and Barbara Hersey as Madame Merle, that nothing overt or too melodramatic is allowed to happen. When Osmond beats Isabel (now I’m not sure that literal detail is in the novel) it’s through a sharp light whip to her face; he trips her to humiliate her.

Campion also transfers the truly fraught utterances by James: Madame Merle to Isabel over Lord Warburton: “let us [me and Osmond] have him [for Pansy and ourselves). That “us” is terrifying in context. Nicole Kidman has calibrated just the right fear and anxiety and deep embarrassment and helplessness because she won’t admit to others what is the truth of her life this man has more control over her than ever.

The mood and tones “les choses” (as in “les choses sont contre nous”) contribute: the imagery is different, not only the breaks in realism, but the dark outfits, the tight hairstyles, the framing of Isabel in doors, prison-like rooms. The music — quiet but dreadful at the right moments. Chopin I thought was there.


One of Isabel’s semi-Renaissance hieratic outfits, which have the effect of imprisoning her

The woman’s point of view: superb. I have all my life read these novels where the heroine has these several men chasing her for marriage and I’m supposed to think this is just great is the myth. Well, Campion brings out how they all, Ralph too, want to control her. They are after her body and space, crowding her out. No one gives her any space:


In this film to be under an umbrella with a suitor is not joyous, but constraining

Not one man goes away but another comes. Warburton wants to marry Pansy to get at Isabel. How horrible that is, and it’s made creepy. The scene of Isabel’s dream interpreted by some as masochism, is to me a nightmare of their crawling all over her, smothering her. This is not James’s point of view directly, but the underlying mood is.

We are to feel for Madame Merle — who had her child Pansy out of wedlock and is herself controlled and made miserable by Osmond who controls the child. She feels for her and cannot show her who she is. Merle is made a lonely woman.


Shelley Winters as Mrs Touchett (Ralph’s mother too)

The silly aunt’s advice which in other films (pop ones and commercially widespread) is made the warning lesson. Here we see its total inadequacy to the case and the needs of the girl and the environment.

Two further stills:

Osmonds wins out precisely because she obeys the codes of a lady. James shows us the codes taught women (and men too — Ralph Touchett) as a way of protecting oneself, being safe, are precisely those that enable ruthless people to take over us, especially when they are adept at pretending to be adhering to (or are actually) adhering to those norms. This insight is first developed in French 18th century novels by Riccoboni and then picked up by Fanny Burney.

Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett – the poignant, intensely kindly way the
character is played makes me feel he is a surrogate for James in Campion’s mind.

I liked the breaks in realism which pointed out the parallels in modern life to this story, and also in other films — like the inserts of 1920s films of the Shiek kind of thing (Rudoph Valentino) and the introduction and conclusion of the actresses dressed in modern costume obsessively trying to define what is love, what a worth-while kiss. It pointed out parallels to our world today and Isabel’s then.

I’d say all the luxurious objects were ambivalent. While we want to live in these places and walk amid this art, we see the price Isabel pays for it.


She really does hide behind that fan

They don’t make up for the vile mercenary life, the control the guardedness of manners.

And the urge against ambition I see in all these film adaptations is here too – Ralph is used ironically. What did he think life had on offer so much? What she would do? What nonsense. I should say I’ve always like Ralph as a character and think in James he does carry this theme unironically. In this world nobility is see in perfectly equipped failures. Osmond is the success after all.

My only caveat is the portrait of Kate Field as Henrietta Stackpole goes beyond a totally unfair slander; it exploits the stereotype that an intelligent career woman must be ugly, flat-chested, wear glasses:


Mary Louise Parker as Henrietta made up to look home-ly and grating.

In fact, Kate Field was magnificent and dressed herself glamorously, sexily:


Kate Field by Frank Miller (1881)

I can’t set this adequately in other Campion films because I’ve seen only The Piano. I have taught The Piano, and own the screenplay because of that, and also some critical essays on Campion’s work The connection between The Piano (which I’ve taught but never made a blog on), its sources a later wonderfully good 19th century colonialist novel by a woman (Jane Mander, The Story of a New Zealand River, and modern Bronte costume dramas) and recently Bright Star, and this costume drama ought to be fully explored. For myself, I’ve not seen Campion’s Janet Frame films –though I’ve read Fame’s eloquent and moving depiction of her early adult life.

As to more James films, I do have a copy of 1997 Washington Square and remember liking it, and will try to re-see it and I’d like to see The Bostonians with Vanessa Redgrave next.

I have only a VHS Cassette so have no stills to share as the only reproduction in Laurence Raw’s book is of Christian Bale as the elegant young man chasing Pansy (Valentina Cervi). I also read Laurence Raw’s’s article or chapter on Campion’s Portrait of a Lady in his Adapting Henry James; and, as with his chapters on the 1972 BBC and 2001 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala Golden Bowl[s], more or less concur and recommend to others.

Ellen

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Lizzard Light, Cornwall


Robin Ellis as Poldark

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been several weeks now since I fell in love with a new (to me) season-long mini-series (previously it was the 1974 BBC Pallisers): I found just irresistible the first season (1975) of Poldark adapted from 4 novels by Winston Graham. I began it because I was exploring the differences between films based on 18th century and 19th century matter (novels, history, legends). I finished it, have begun to read Graham’s novels and will go on to watch the second season (1977) of the series because even with its older cinematography, occasionally too restrained or decorous acting style, and uninventive cinematography filmstyle, it’s story, characters, themes are riveting, and its on location shooting, individual performances, dramatic scripts and scenes brilliant and effective and its whole mise-en-scene poetic.

Yesterday I read Robin Ellis’s slender unpretentious volume, Making Poldark. in which Ellis offers insight into the filming of these series, the troubles and pressures and tensions they had (over script — the series changed the books somewhat and there were debates over what kinds of changes to make), Cornwall in the 18th century and 1970s, the characters and his own career (which the series made). He remarks of the Ross character that he’s a cross between Stewart Grainger (an actor who did a swash-buckler role repeatedly in the Gainsborough studio costume dramas of the 1940s) and an 18th century Cornish Che Guevara.


Ross and Demelza Carne Poldark (Angharad Rees)

Ellis sees Poldark as starting life “as an impoverished member of the gentry class with an instinctive contempt for their values, the way they conducted their lives, and their dealings with working people. To his social peers he was a rebel, an uncomfortably disruptive force agains the status qo that they would do their damndest to be rid of.”

This goes a long way to explaining to me why the character charms me, and how the story manages to present a critically intelligent perspective on Cornish history.

It is romantic: Ross is in love with two women: Elizabeth (Jill Townsend), who he returns home from the American wars to marry and who jilts him for his richer apparently more secure, safer-to-wed, cousin, Francis (played just marvelously by Clive Francis)


Elizabeth with the baby she has by


Francis who the actor of the same name endows with vulnerability, self-dismay, high self-awareness and articulateness and candour

and Demelza who he first meets as a waif he kindly rescues from a brutal father, impoverishment and ignorance and grows in his generous household to become an attractive, self-possessed, intelligent and effective woman


When first seen at a local fair


Grown up, and shortly after she and Ross marry

Morning, noon and night, drama is taken from the books. The Warleggen family, the relatives trying to ruin him, the head of which is George, an arch-enemy:


Ralph Bates did the part with great intensity

Demelza and he fighting as frequenty as loving, rivalry with his cousin, Francis and others — Ross is no compromiser. Great houses burnt down — and they really did burn a house down — or part of it; riots, smuggling, great dashes across the wild bleak landscapes of Cornwall against the wild waters:


Making a landing after a night’s attempt to evade the tax collectors

What more can one want?

I wrote a few postings to Eighteenth Century Worlds, each after watching a few more hours of the first 16, and share a few here.

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Cover of a 1980s edition: based on and enhancing a real cliff with mines in Cornwall

The 1970s dramaturgy includes the use of location symbolically — as waves crashing on rocks (anticipating the 2008 S&S?, not really, both are archetypal), and lovers embracing, fleeing, and struggling with one another against a sublimely it (and musically accompanied) seascape.


Bottallack Mine

A hero more different from Tom Jones cannot be imagined — somber, serious, a man whose troubles are those that might appeal to people today: home from the war after having been declared dead, he finds his relatives and friends may welcome him, but the woman he was engaged to marries his cousin (for her family wants his family’s money), his uncle calls in a debt from money he has worked hard to loan, he is driven by a man (monopolizer in the making) who wants his mine. He is presented as a strong courageous type but with depth of feeling and intelligence. His central feature is not his gay sexuality or innate integrity (though he has both); its rather a seriousness of stance towards life, generosity of spirit, and decent ethics.

The series has several groups of intertwining stories where you care about central characters, and then as the stories move on, they create anxiety for the character’s fate. You are made to feel that by no means will all end in a conventional happy ending because already you’ve seen a few fates where this was not so. For the women this is mostly about marriage and who she will end up with: she gets pregnant outside marriage; she is bored with a husband whose job is awful and keeps him away for long hours plus he’s dull; her family has made it impossible for her to marry someone she loves and now she is defying them (about to run off). For me this is about the public world: one man almost dies in a terrible prison where a wound is uncared for; our hero, Poldark defies the law in taking him out (but he is a landowing gentleman so may get away with it); another is getting deep into debt.

A third set of anxieties shows the second strength: it really engages with serious issues in Cornwall, later 17th century. It may be said superficially but no more so (perhaps less so) than say, The duchess. Who will control the mines? Will it be a monopoly? The money to work them comes from English investors and will it be put back into the community. Concluding a barbain in which our revenant (for that’s what he is) puts himself into debt:

Our hero, Poldark is trying to use laws to hide his manipulation to try to keep and work his own mine and make money by the new process of smelting. Colonialism, the conditions of prisons, the class system — each takes a turn within a story line.

I notice less anxiety about masculinity because the woman really do implicitly obey the males when it comes to public decisions. Sex is kept offstage and that made marginal makes this partriarchy easier to take for women (especially as the males do the right thing and are — the good ones — non-violent). At the same time there is no harridan female, though there are alluring ones. he types are older: the protective strong good male (good husband material in at least three heroes). A masculinistic (swash buckling ultimately) point of view shapes its soap opera and feminine aesthetic structure.

Finally the acting. The dramaturgy and cinematography is of the older stage scene kind; no montages, little voice-over, no mesmerizing computers and music. But the acting is often superb. I recognize a number of actors from other mini-series at the time, and find myself hard put not to love Robin Ellis.

It doesn’t hurt to have a real fondness for costume drama and it be piqued by interest in the long 18th century — from the 17th century wars to the Napoleonic ones to enjoy this or the O’Brian novels (the same sort of thing as I’ve said). And a love of rural unspoiled scenery, suc as St Ives Harbour (in 1970s an artists colony – cheap to live), Prussia cove and shots of Angharad Rees dressed in the feminized masculine style Vigee-Lebrun put Marie Antoinette, and more.


St Ives, 1970s photo

Among other things that compel me on are the moviing images. A good deal is shot on location — on cliff, near the edge of waters, on meadows. One noticeable difference from modern scenes of this type is the activity of women. They run free on these meadows; often they are running away from someone.

In one sequence when Demelza decides that after all she will have an abortion or else simply do away with herself, and flees the house of one of Ross Poldark’s servants, we see her crossing a wasteland; naturally around this moment he discovers he has caused this pregnancy and being the good man he is (and also having affection for her), he chases after her by horse. He easily catches up, and stops her, brings her down to the ground and insists on bringing her back and marrying her. Their conversation is both touching and realistic. He is going the right thing and after all she doesn’t want to die.

I cannot recall a similar sequence in more recent film adaptations. Either the woman is made unreal in her over-the-top challenges or aggression, or the man is made much less decent and to some extent feminized and sentimentalized.

In another Sue Karen Thomas (Sheila White), having an affair with the local Dr Ennys (Richard Morant)


Ennys and Sue

She leaves his home at dawn and wanders through the meadows. She comes to a bad end; also met by a man, this time her husband, Mark Daniels; he, Othello like, knowing of a real affair murders her. I’m afraid the series is too sympathetic over this murder and in a later sequence we see Poldark helping this man to escape by boat to France (chased by militia) but again this sequence is well done, not overdone is the key.

When Francis Poldark, the “bad” cousin goes wild with drink and rage and resentment at his failures in life the acting by Clive Francis is perfect, again just right, with persuasive words (in this hour Jack Pullman who wrote the 1972 Golden Bowl)

I have bought an old battered copy of Volume I of Winston Graham’s
series to see how much of the admirable characters come from the book.
In the 1970s too we have real sympathy with the poor and vulnerable. The way monopolies and the privileged are treated is from a mildly left-of-center standpoint. I know I’m liking the series for what is made admirable and so sympathetic in the chief character I like and feel sympathy for. There is for example nothing hypocritical about either Ross or Demelza. They are really decent people; one sees such characters still, but they are presented as total aliens having to refuge themselves from the larger environment. Here they fight and occasionally have wins, though at this point in the series Ross does contemplate suicide at one point. He has lost his investment, is hounded by creditors, has helped criminals against the police (see above), one man he tried to help went to prison for longer becuase of his efforts, his baby by Demelza has died (sickened). But we know in the end all will be well enough …

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Ross and Demelza, from an early moment in their relationship, she anxious, he determined

I’ve reached mid-point in the first season, the first episode of the Fourth of my sxi VHS Cassettes. In this one Poldark is acquitted of the crime he was accused of; we see him stubbornly refuse to manipulate and kowtow and almost ruin his own case. We also see that the loyalty he did engender in the servant the bribers depended upon won out — as well as the servant’s dislike and distrust of so much bullying. He speaks out in favor of helping the poor even if it means deprecating or taking off rich man’s property. Of customs that are communitarian. Where would we hear this today?


A fair

The courtroom scene is powerful in itself — they usually are.


Stubborn, uncompromising

The other story lines continue with Poldark and his cousin, Francis, now brought together — through Demelza who also by her quiet politicking helped her husband’s case along. She had met the judge (an honest man we are told) at the ball she went to and did all she could to make friends for Poldark and remind others of him.

At the close of the episode things are not going much better: he does not know Demelza is again pregnant; she hides it for it’s a burden he says he does not want (though apparently doing nothing to stop this); she has been badly hurt by overhearing a conversation between him and Elizabeth where it seems he still feels love for Elizabeth and a sense of having compromised in his marriage; it’s not clear — as in life things are not.

There are old-fashioned steretypes no longer seen in these film adaptations: simply good people who act out of kindly motives, affectionate and well meaning talk. There is also a kind of hold-over from 18th century fiction itself: the challenge and duel. One of my favorite women characters,Verity Poldark, in the novel chooses a man her relatives will not accept, and Ross, whom she befriends, befriends her by letting her meet this man in his house. For his pains, he is threatened by her relatives, and the man he tried to help almost kills her brother, his cousin, Francis.


Norman Streader as Verity Poldark

I like her for her kind good nature, strong ethical values (like Ross she disdains judging people by rank) and her time as a spinster in the series — not for who she chooses to marry (a man the series forgives for killing his wife too) nor her later complacencies. Hats tell a lot about characters in series; hers is not the fancy Gainsborough one, high, with feathers, but a plain pancake with a ribbon.

These flaws (or stereotypes) do not detract from the really strikingly good acting and complexity of a number of the major characters. The old dramaturgy which leaves time for acting is a joy. They make an effective use of landscape dynamics.


The unmarried life-loving sweet Demelza

I see this continuity: generic tropes in scenery and scenes. The recent 2008 S&S has crashing sea on the rocks and waves; so does this one only there are now computer technologies to enhance. Tropes of love romance (the physician is slowly forming a relationship with a woman from an aristocratic family) and others are found in the praised later films said to be subversive in this way and that; but these punctuating archetypes are there.

Beyond the character of Poldark I’d like to single out how what is emphasized and what is omitted is unusual. For example the verdict of not guilty is not dramatized. You’d think it would be, but in a way it’s a waste of time, for the characters would rejoice or sulk. Instead we see a quiet conversation between the father and son who were bribing everyone to destroy Poldark; now they’ll call in loans, and can try to eliminate his oppostion to them in other ways. Pullman did write teh 1972 Golden Bowl, and I note it’s Alexander Baron who wrote a number of the episodes in the second season (also a fine writer of these film adaptation in the 1980s).


Hero against cliff

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Smugglers Cove

At the conclusion of the Fifth of my VHS Cassettes Poldark is resorting to allow smugglers on his property to make ends meet, pay his creditors. Hanging is the punishment for this tax evasion (as some of the characters call it — this is a subversive mini-series). At last Demelza tells him she is pregnant for a third time (she has had the one miscarriage of the pregnancy that caused the marriage, and one baby dead from a disease caught ultimately from Francis Poldark whom she nursed). Since we are given warning signs she is endangering this one by going out fishing to get the family food, we stand warned for anxiety over this. Poldark takes it well – and we see them become affectionate again — though he says he would have been angry a few weeks ago; and did not want any more after the dead child; there is a truthfulness to this series which is seen in the fight sequences. Unable to control himself, he attacks his arch-enemy, George Warlegen — he’s the man who engineered the trumped up trial in the last episode, whose result could also have been hanging; Warlegon’s father is the man who wants a monology on copper and mining in the area and to destroy Poldark’s mines or take them over. This fight is unusually realistic. Probably stunt men did it, but no great feats of darnig-do or swordsmanship or anything graceful. They slam one another clumsily and there’s time for close-ups of hatred and intense resentment.


Jud Painter (Paul Curran), one of Ross’s two main servants

Comic interludes are provided Jud Painter, by the poor man who didn’t give evidence against Poldark when paid to do it. He is taken up by Warlegen’s men and beaten. He’s thought dead and put in a coffin; turns out he’s just so drunk and beaten. The funeral fun is interrupted when he gets up. Unrealistic since it would not have taken a couple of days for a man in a coma to awaken or he would not have, but this leaves room for an imitation Cornish wake and ghost sequence.


A promotional group photo

The scenes on location continue to be strong – as well (I hope anyone reading this will see) the genuinely left-of-center point of view in the series.

We have the militia represented again seeking out these people. But it turns on Demelza managing to put them off and flirting with the captain. So too the financing issue and debts are shown but not with much depth — enough to make us see the struggling pair but not the larger context which is colonialist — English power and wealth came from exploiting these people.

The spread of scurvy, and the desperate need for fresh fruit is brought in to by the story of our doctor (Ennys played by the man who did Bunter) and his growing romance with a rebellious aristocratic woman who I surmize is the one who has funded Ross’s mine. This is a male wet dream but she wears very pretty hats and would fit in well in 1940s Gainsborough (UK company) film costume movies. Pleasing archetype for women here too.

The riveting part of this episode is the death of Francis Poldark: he drowns himself, half an accident but one is led to surmize half-unconscious death wish. He imagines that he finds copper in the mine he now shares with his cousin, Ross. He wants so badly to find it. It would solve all their problems; it would make up for his betrayal of Ross to the capitalist monopolizer, old man Warlegan; he would gain self-respect and respect from others. He seems suddenly to forget he can’t swim — we see him almost drown early on in the series. We also have scenes where he articulates his knowledge of Elizabeth, his wife’s lack of love for him — or Ross Poldark — remember she married him for his money and rank over Ross to whom she was engaged, and she would have run off with Ross a few years later but that Demelza got pregnant and Ross did the right thing in marrying Demelza. He expresses the loneliness of life. Clive Francis is a high point in the series for me (his performance).

While the historical part of the novels do not come across sufficiently in the story line (though we do see a lot that’s suggestive):


Port Quinn, Cornwall;

What is probably the core issue of the novels autobiographically does: again when Francis dies, we see Ross willing to express to Elizabeth that his married life represents a compromise and maybe he’d have rather married her after all; he even for a moment seems to suggest that if he might just chuck the whole life he has, rejoin his regiment and pension Demelza off (in effect). But there are words he suddenly spouts — poetry where he speaks of what is his real commitment to Demelza for her character, his love for her has grown, and by the end of the episode, having been given money mysteriously, far from chucking it all, we see him rush home to Demelza with a gift and the good news and they go up to bed together.

A fun scene in the series is him changing their baby’s diapers. I mentioned yesterday that anxiety had been created over Demelza’s new pregnancy. She keeps it from Ross; he didn’t want it; she goes out fishing endangering herself. As the episode opens even though she has now told him, she goes fishing again and we are made to worry — as the camera watches her struggle in her boat, maybe it will capsize, maybe she will drown, maybe she will have another miscarriage or a stillborn (as she did the first pregnancy).


A seascape

We hear her breathing hard and struggling on land and we think she’s about to drop it, but cut to another scene and it’s been delivered safely, a boy. Jeremy Poldark — I see a later novel is named after him so he lives to grow up.

Now the diaper scene is wholly anachronistic as are the scenes of women refusing to obey absolute orders from the men — but it is fun for a 20th century woman to watch this.


Prude (Mary Wimbush), in the novel she helps the child Demelza orient herself into the household; in the novel, she is an ally, this part worried for Demelza over her pregnancy

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Zennor, Cornwall

Poldark, 1st Season ends in stunning defeat

I finished watching what IMDB tells me is the 16th episode (one hour) of the 1st season of the series. Each of the six parts my VHS cassettes ended with a “to be continued;” this is the first part to end with a “The End” full cast list and fade out shot with Ross and Demelza embracing, kissing against a bleak shore with quiet waves and spirited yet melancholy music.

The ending is remarkable: the series ends in utter defeat. Ross arrived from the US to try to build a life for himself out of his inheritance, specially his farm land and mines and fails. He is going to return to his regiment for a 6 (or ten) year bout, leaving Demelza behind. Her beloved dog, Garrick, is murdered, shot dead by Warleggen’s armed flunkies when she on her way to leave Ross for good takes him with and her makes the mistake of crossing a fence. Another of our chief heroes, albeit a murderer of his wife, Mark Daniels, is shot dead as he with a gang of angry marauders enters the Warleggen house (taken over from the Poldarks upon Francis, Ross’s cousin’s death and Francis’s widow, Elizabeth’s bad decision to marry George) Warleggen has been systemically throwing all tenants off the land to enclose it, firing most miners to replace them, imprisoning and/or killing and transporting all protesters because he has the judges in his hand. A riot has ensued and the house is burnt to the ground. We last see Warleggen saved by Ross (remember he’s our hero) from some tortured death by being put in his horse and Elizabeth on the other, and the two chased out of the area. This should please Elizabeth for in this last episode she has been at George to take her away from “here” to London as part of his promises when they wed, and he has refused, as the first of other promises he had no intention of keeping.

The great house destroyed — a major symbol of all these series: one is imported into the recent (2001) Dr Zhivago as where Zhivago and Lara run a hospital from; it’s standing as they part for Moscow and Yuritan, the symbol of lastingness in these series. Not at the close of Poldark 1.

Ross has not behaved well to Demelza to say the least of it. When he heard that Elizabeth is about to marry or has married George, he jumped on his horse and rode off to her house, climbed into her window (very hero like all this) and raped her. Not so hero like. This is 1980 and the scene is only implied — less is shown than the 1979 Tess by Polanski but the event is clear. No explanation given, nor is it discussed in terms of why do this to Elizabeth — who Warleggen nonethless married so if it was to stop him, it didn’t; if to humiliate him, he waived that (so to speak). No sense in the series of Elizabeth’s distress is given time for — this is like the murder of the wife who was adulterous with the doctor.

She is not photographed to show any real distress either. Her hair is overdone in the way of the early 1970s mini-series, and probably this shot is intended to evoke resentment as much as identification:


Jill Townsend as Elizabeth

Not just rape, but he has all long let Demelza know her status, and while he was gone that night she went off to a ball (naturally one is happening), a striking scene where the two men who had been after her almost get to go to bed with her. Since she is of course our chaste heroine, in the case of the more serious one, the military man who let Ross off, she changes her mind and simply throws him out. (Not likely or improbable, but a strong enough scene). The other is treated comically. But Ross believes she went to bed with at least one of them and is very angry. He wants her to confess and apologize — clearly though he’s not intending to end the marriage over this or even get brutal. She refuses and demands a separation. As with her pregnancy where she led thim to believe she had other lovers and the baby coming was someone else’s, so here she does not disabuse him at first. Only as time goes on and the quarrel grows worse and she sees him get up separation papers, an allowance for her and determine where to send the son to school, does she tell.

Still they fight because he won’t regret his actions to Elizabeth. Slowly though he melts to the extent of apologizing — because (now romance gets in) he is influenced by what he sees among the families of his miners, and even more the good Dr Ennys and his upper class Caroline compromising and engaging themselves at last. Ennys too is going off to wars — we are in the 1790s now and I imagine the wars of the French revolution are spilling over into the riots and chaos in Cornwall (as they did in Ireland). So the last scene by the beach is another chase one where he has come home to find her not gone but grieving over the dead dog and not wanting to give up the child. She flees him out of the house and he runs after her and they bound through the cliffs, past the destroyed mine and near to the shore. They reconcile sufficiently so that we know they will be making love soon and spend the next 10 days together.


Ross’s farmhouse, which he leaves to Demelza to care for while he’s gone

But this does not change his having failed, his leaving her to cope as he says he can’t.

The mood is (oddly) upbeat in its way with odd comic moments (Dr Ennys’s getting together with Caroline). The music is part of this; scenes of the ball; and the sheer energy of the riot scenes. Ross does also finally strike tin and there is a powerful scene of a miner dying — Ross blaming himself. Oh yes, his mine blows up too. I forgot that.

Recent movies — since the later 1990s are far more frank about emotions, show the full vulnerability of people they way these older ones didn’t and the full darkness of what happened would not be undermined, but in that the series stayed true to the failure ending has impressed, the determined grim depiction of compromises in love and sex, the depiction of class differences,the attempt to expose the upper class maneuvers through Warleggen are all strongly commendable.

In fact this series as a political romance is worthy of the 1980s British TV to come. I end on my favorite still, Ross as he appears in the beginning of the next season.


Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark, back from a 2nd set of wars, civil, revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, this time in Europe

When the first series opened, Ross was back from the American wars, “French and Indian” we call them, and I fancy were someone to adapt Charlotte Smith’s Old Manor House (and it would make a great adaptation), when the hero, Orlando comes back from the middle section of the book where he fought in the French and Indian wars, was captured by Indians and lived for a time as an Indian, the actor doing it could do no better than dress in such an outfit and take such a stance towards the world. Or the Fitzgerald who fought and lost in the Irish revolutionary wars (a Lennox grandson), from Tillyard’s Aristocrats (in fact the 1999 mini-series had a polished, cleaned up luxurious image rather than this).

Surely, the reader who has got this far will have seen I’ve fallen in love with Robin Ellis as Poldark (who I was drawn to as Edward Ferrars in the 1971 S&S) and identify, or recognize aspects of an ideal self I find deeply appealing in Angharad Rees as Demelza.

Ellen

P. S. Journalizing: 6/15/10. As someone has commented on Judy Geeson, I thought I’d add a still of her. Geeson’s character, the London-born rich orphan, Caroline Penvenen, seems to me the most unreconstructed of the transfers from 1940s Gainsborough costume drama romance (renamed using Graham’s fiction), as evidenced by her absurd hats, super-extravagant costumes for every day life, and providential interest in curing scurvy and giving of money to Ross (secretly yet). Perhaps she is part of what keeps the film popular; alas, she replaces the unfortunate murdered Sue (who I did put on the blog above) in Dr Ennys’s life — to his credit Dr Ennys remains guilty and grief-stricken for Sue, at first unwilling to accept this replacement.


Caroline Penvenen

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Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) and Denys Finch-Hatton (Robert Redford) dining elegantly in an African plain (1985 Out of Africa

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been a couple of months now since a group of us on WWTTA read and discussed Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, along with selected stories from Anecdotes of Destiny (“The Immortal Story” and “Babette’s Feast”) and The Winter’s Tales (“Sorrow Acre” and “The Heroine”). We dipped into her letters and read some literary criticism and biographies. At the end a few of us saw some films too, for me they were Babette’s Feast, from which this still of Stephane Audran as Babette is taken:

,

and Out of Africa. All this occurred over three months.

I just loved both movies, was fascinated (if at times repelled) by Dinesen’s art and visions, and as far as I got was again (as I was in the early 1980s) really absorbed by the woman’s life and writing in her letters. To remember and share this experience, I thought tonight I’d put on this blog my two posting on these wonderful movies and some of the exchanges we had on the stories from Seven Gothic Tales: “The Deluge at Norderney,” “The Old Chevalier,” “The Monkey” and a little on Blixen’s life-writing.

By beginning with Out of Africa, a marvelously pleasurable movie (adult in understanding), I can tell (and link in) something of her life, by going onto Babette’s Feast (a quiet gem), and we can see what distinguishes her art, and in these two tales the qualities of her poetic masterpieces.


A mood study from Out of Africa

The two stills thus far: this is such an artful film that it took 7 editors to make the final cut. A high point in the film is the elegant dinner when on safari between our lovers — with Mozart in the background, a distillation of Dinesen’s own impulse to imagine elegant dinners of high culture and stories told around a fire. The “mere” 14 years Dinesen spent in Africa reminds me of what biographers like Stefan Zweig say of a lives: what is lived richly and intensely counts more than the number of years.

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 ..” (from his Mary Queen of Scots)

Out of Africa is a heroine’s story — from the time Streep as Dinesen confronts her ex-lover’s brother and negotiates a marriage (bargain), her money for his estate and a Mrs and a place in a world she can try to live in (Denmark is too narrow it seems), to her coming to her wedding, how she copes with this man who betrayed his promise by 1) not making a diary farm and spending her money as he pleased; and 2) not helping her with the farm at all, but leaving the next morning for months on end; to her own daring journey across Africa, her becoming the chatelaine who runs the place and developing bonds and working relationships with her African servants, opening a school; to her accepting the husband gave her syphilis (she does seem not to be permanently angry), and finally throwing him out because he persisted in humiliating her with his affairs (not so much the affairs bothered her as public humiliations — how others regarded her is part of Dinesen’s The Heroine), to the vein in the movie I loved and suppose many others did, the love affair with Denys Finch-Hatton.

Finch-Hatton, our hero is a free spirit, but also a philanderer. but the personality of the man, his values are so alluring that this fault would not seem big except that he too won’t stay with her, won’t make a home with her. He is also irresistibly handsome:

She is to accept his coming and going and it seems for months, nay years she does, only finally does the loneliness become too much. It’s a sad story on one level; she returns to Denmark, leaves these beloved African servants. I noticed all her deep relationships are with men, including the Africans, what African woman do we see but one, the mistress of her friend, Bartley (perhaps an ex-lover of hers too). She is writing away — and the popular myth of a woman inspired to write by her love affair with a man is bowed to (Finch-Hatton encourages her to tell her stories and then to write them down) — but she is also alone.

I certainly can like characters with flaws. It depends on what the flaw is and how it’s presented. Finch-Hatton is presented as humane in some ways, not behaving as a result of egoism, delusions, spite or power mongering (far from it) and to Dinesen in the film his good qualities outweigh his pecadilloes — but are not Blixen’s the kind that destroy other lives. He marries both times to get his hands on a woman’s money. Rationally speaking from a ratioanl standpoint he’s a horror, very bad husband material and Finch-Hatton not much better.

She is the voice-over narrator which is unusual for films, seen in Austen and some women’s films, but rarely in men’s — I think this is a man’s film presented as if a woman’s. The males are excused — or so I thought because we are invited to take pleasure in her sex with them and the trysts. We see the trysts centrally — though also the long years of hardship, not her final deterioration.

Yet it’s a film for pleasure. I found it enormously pleasurable. The photography of Africa, the long retreats into pastoral landscapes.

The romance of the dinners. We see hardly any physical sex, the love is presented as romance, as conversation, as alluring music.

I’d like to see it has a core value system which is against our modern world — it’s embodied in the figure of Finch-Hatton. How handsome is Redford in this one. Sigh. That’s part of it. He is a free spirit; against materialism against ambition, against unkindness too, but also not for education for the black young people. It seems only this one woman is — all the men are dubious. I have read the biography (the film is partly based on Thurman’s biography of Dinesen) and know this is a much softened picture of Finch-Hatton. The woman I worked for years on, Anne Finch, is an earlier woman who married into this old wealthy and powerful clique. He ran away from them in real life, but he also could not have lived as he did had he not been a white aristocrat with an allowance.

It’s also playful — the telling of the stories is part of this, but more Meryl Streep’s performance is terrific. I read the admiration for her accented voice throughout; I thought she conveyed a reciprocal set of sceptical insights in her character that matched Finch-Hatton’s even if she wanted to have a bond with him and him permanently with her at the same time. I thought she made me like Dinesen more than Thurman did — and Thurman’s biography I remember made me like this woman very much. So I’d say this heroine in this out of Africa relates to the heroine of Fran’s story: she is originally impelled to leave Denmark because of the way others would treat her as a woman alone, but we see she learns to be her own woman, though it’s coercive learning. Streep’s Dinesen’s very brave and admirable (to me) throughout.

Fast forward to her as Julia Child. She is a remarkable actress, for she personated both so different types persuasively and with depth.

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Philippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel), out two other heroines of (Babette’s Feast

The film not as striking as it was the first time I saw it on Bravo in the 1980s. Since then, we have seen art-films cross over into commercial ones (cross-overs) and the unusualness of the story, perspective, treatment in comparison to genre films is not so well, nearly unique. But I found I had remembered a lot.

It does show some of the aspects of Dinesen’s art we have not emphasizes. Its parablelike nature, the use of archetypes, landscape, the simplicity of the patterning of each story individually. Also the religiosity inherent in the apprehensions – here gotten in the Danish landscape and story.

The film had to keep the characters at a distance from us to pull it off — for a great fear in making films is lest they be laughed at. A different self shows up in a theater and certainly a different audience from readerships.

I liked it very much once again — this time I was moved by the compassion the movie projected for these simple petty people who the feast is made for. Instead of despising them, or dismissing them, or (just as bad) idealizing them, we are made to see these ignorant poverty-striken people turn harmonious and show up their best qualities under the influence of what all their lives they have been told doesn’t count: the body. They emerge not having consciously learned anything (they are still resolute the body and appetites don’t matter) but we see how much they do.

There is deep pity for the two daughters who stay with the father — and implicit is his benign tyranny — how much they lost out on life even if it has been peaceful and given them tranquillity. For the two men who don’t marry, both the general who preferred a rich ambitious life (and still does) who makes the feast the decent happening it is — for without him the repression might have not emerged in praise for the food. Because of his rank and prestige they follow what he says.

We see the ancien regime glimpsed and again celebrated in Babette’s cookery — the sweetness of life and by implication another revolution criticized as useless — this one 1871, when in fact huge numbers of peopel were slaughtered in the streets by the French government sources.

A telling reality about the shots of the film: It’s nearly impossible to get a still of all three women in the frame together where we see their faces. Most of the time they are kept apart once the initial meeting at the table where the two older sisters hire Babette and even there you can’t get all the faces at once. For most of the film Babette eats and lives in another space — as befits a servant. The two sisters are often together, and when pictured interacting with Babette, it’s one at a time: for example, the comedy of them showing her how to cook: they buy impoverished terrible stuff and proceed to ruin it dreadfully. Not one of all three together. The closest to this is the end when Babette explains she has no one waiting for her and has spent all her money.


A picturesque Denmark from Out of Africa; in the film Denmark is harsh, unyielding, barren to live in stark, austere

To the tale in relationship to the movie and by itself. The movie is a transposition type: it’s apparently faithful: characters, hinge-points, story line and a good deal of the feel and themes reappears. The story is unusual among those in Seven Gothic Tales: but like those in Anecdotes of Destiny: very straight forward, no tales within tales, simple and plain, unadorned. As is the movie, in its quiet grand gesture long shot way.

There are some revealing differences though: the language of Dinesen’s text encourages us to see something magical in the tale. For example, she calls the red-haired young man who helps Babette her “familiar” and uses words from fairy tale language to evoke Babette’s presence. Babette is a strong good fairy come to live with these pathetically good self-erasing (and therefore sad and deprived) ladies. It seemed to me the text suggested that the money for the lottery came by more than chance, but somehow from some magical force in the universe. I don’t use religious language because I felt it was avoided in the tale: nothing providential was here, rather good magic. That she keeps apart from the sisters is more than the result of the hierarchy in the household. She is a creature apart, not learning the language of the place, but keeping her French language – and self and identity in tact. A kind of Robinson Crusoe fable going on here.

For me the story was marred by the same idea as in Sorrow-Acre — found at the end of the story, Babette mourns the loss of the reactionary powerful people who murdered her husband and son. She is presented as someone who was a revolutionary and stood on the barricades in 1871. As has been written, the massacres at the time were horrific — this time by those running the government and in power and wealthy against the powerless and poor. So we don’t hear so much about this as we do the 1790s bloodbath. The sisters ask her how can she mourn for such people? She says it’s they who pay for and keep the artist up to a high pitch. This is only partly true. While it’s the very rich you can patronize and pay for luxurious art, many of them don’t, they don’t appreciate it at all, prefer to put their money in military might and philistine activities of their families. And it’s true that some governments with public money support the arts soundly: Sweden does, and the UK used to and still does in part. So if this is Dinesen’s reasoning for elevating the ancien regime and its prototypes today, it won’t wash.

We not mentioned how food is so central to women’s existences; Babette is the edible woman par excellence. At the end of the story she is genuinely depleted in all ways; she has given her all. Martine and Philippa have become her children to whom she gave a treat.

Linda’s take:

Yes, the story is striking and memorable. It is also straightforward and unadorned–uncharacteristic for Dinesen–as Ellen says.

Babette is a woman apart. I hadn’t really thought about that detail until now. The only insight we have into her personality is the conversation at the end. We get the impression that she keeps to herself and rarely speaks or interacts with the community. We do get the feeling that Babette found peace among the people of this colony and was now somewhat satisfied with her life.

Her mourning for the people she fought against is a jarring note. I didn’t understand it at first but then persuaded myself it made sense. I didn’t think she upheld these people as patrons of the arts but only of her art–food. Now that they’re gone, there is no one to appreciate the quality of cooking done at the Cafe Anglais–and therefore no one left to pay for it.

Podles’ article mentions the monster turtle, and I was glad someone did. That image is really outstanding. Podles thought it might represent the demonic fury the sisters feared they had unleashed. It also harkens to the magical quality of the film.

Podles also mentions that the bretheren all got drunk. Again I was glad someone else saw that. The transformative power of this wonderful love feast turned, I think, on that simple fact–they were drunk. Without the wine, I don’t know how many fences would have been mended and good feelings aroused.

Aiken or someone called them greedy peasants–but I don’t see that. They were all too old and feeble to be called “greedy.”

A very religious friend of mine–Protestant–told me she loved the movie and thought it beautiful and deeply spiritual. I thought I would mention her take on it. I’m not sure I agree it was spiritual, although it was a portrait of spiritual people.

One article (maybe the one Ellen sent) commented that Dinesen wrote about this sumptuous feast at a time when the author’s illness was causing her to slowly starve to death. Would it be unusual or possibly natural for Dinesen to be proccupied by food and feasts at that time?

That’s all for now.

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A catoptric theatre or chest, a box with
several sides lined with mirrors (from La Nuit de Varennes), an object that recurs in Dinesen’s tales

From Seven Gothic Tales: “The Deluge at Norderney” contains stories within stories. One is about a young man who finds that the world overpraises his singing because of who he is (his status, title, relatives); they really hardly pay attention to his singing, and very few like it for real. When he sings where he is no longer known the baron’s son, he can’t get hired.

He says this was poison into his system; an old lady (Miss Malin) counsels him that he must not be embittered and instead of admiring Anderson’s story about the Emperor who is naked he should want a story which shows the Emperor in full splendor with all the people around admiring. She, we have learned from her story just told, has lived a desperate whore’s life shored up by false fantasies of lurid sex which was never so much fun as others suppose — oh boy not.

From Fran:

A strange story or, as you say, whole group of stories within a story framework, and many intertextual references to stories without, such as Shakespeare and his Timon of Athens in particular – here a misanthropic Timon of Assens, the latter both a real place and probably a joking play on the Germanic lisped ‘th’. There’s a lot of play on names in general.

You’ve already mentioned the Scheherazade reference, a woman literally telling stories to stave off death, but another intertextual reference might well be to Marguerite de Navarre’s ‘Heptameron’. Here there are only 7, not 72, stories, but Dinesen’s first starts off in a very similar way with a group of
aristocratic spa visitors dangerously cut off by flooding and distracting themselves from their situation by exchanging stories. The Heptameron also makes a similar association with Noah and the flood.

Given the frequent references to France and its fall from its former aristocratic gloire, the story’s title also seems in echo of Louis XV’s (or maybe Mme de Pompadour’s) phrase, ‘Après moi le déluge’.

What I’ve been wondering is if it’s been obvious to anybody from the text that
the real Norderney is an island, one indeed much beset by flooding and in fact the remnant of a larger island that sank into the sea – perhaps a fitting location for characters bewailing the loss of a supposedly greater whole.

Another thing that has struck me is how strongly the story revolves about shifting sexuality, unstable identity and self- image. You have Miss Malin the eternal virgin convinced she’s been a wanton; the Cardinal who is in fact ‘Kasparson’, yet another assumed name, based on another mysterious pretender Kasper Hauser, in a kind of Chinese box system; the bourgeois Jonathan/’Timon’ whose sense of self is radically challenged by the news that he may be the illegitimate son of an aristocrat and thus fêted by society not for himself and
his talent as he’d assumed and finally Calypso (her name also part of a whole
network of mythological imagery) who very nearly mutilated her feminity because the males around her had convinced her she should have been a man. Interestingly it was the representation of feminine sexuality in art that prevented her.

I wonder if this last also ties in with the pressures on the woman writer which prompt her to write under a male name – yet another mask in a fiction of masquerades.


Carl Van Loo, The Sultaness at Her Tapestry (18th century Scheherazade)

From Seven Gothic Tales: “The Old Chevalier”: just the zigzags. What a complicated set of stories within stories. Talk about indirection.

Our narrator’s father (not the narrator) had a friend Baron old Brackel who comes to tell our narrator a story.

He begins with a drunken young girl who comes up to him on the streets of Paris; he had just parted from a lady who had tried to poison him.

This association diverts him and we go to the woman who tried to poison him (the baron mind you, not the narrator who has now fallen silent or vanished from the present time narrative). We are told how he fell in love with this lady and its heartlessness (I’m skipping many themes, just going over the story), we move into her family and before you know it are told he (Baron again, not narrator) cared more about the husband than the lady, and we are into another angled story of the lady and old baron when young’s struggle over the lady’s husband. (Can’t resist one theme; the lady as described puts me in mind of Barbey D’Aurevilly’s Une Vieille Maistresse, especially as played by Vellini in Catherine Breillat’s film.)

Many pages but suddenly we swerve back to the night the lady tried to poison him; the scene ensues, he escapes.

Downstairs meets streetgirl and takes her upstairs with him (to have sex with her, give her food and drink). The Baron stops to contemplate the meaning of all these and the text is deeply anti-feminist; woman as work of art is celebrated; catoptric images are mentioned; woman as sex object but perhaps we could call this third phase or post-feminism since the woman is presented as a kind of winner while so decorated — if you can forget the poor drunken girl of the streets. End of contemplation, back to story.

Baron when young and girl of streets talk, monkey comes up (very scary and this anticipates our next story (man as beast-monkey); her name Nathalie, was she innocent as a virgin; it’s suggested she is the first girl who had been his. How are we to take this? He has of course to pay; she says Marie downstairs says she should get twenty francs. After love-making which is not presented but rather more luxurious images, themes, because he gave her the 20 she leaves and he loses here. He now wishes he hadn’t.

All a long time ago, but he did see her again, in the form of her skull which someone in Venice showed him. What use to ask the man with the skull? He would not have known anything about it.

A savage story about savagery of people under the rituals of supposed civilization. Wild, whirling again and bitter. Androgyny here: was Marie a murderous woman pimp? a madam. Nothing here is a joke; no tongue-in-cheek here.

In this story there is much anti-feminist rhetoric, Dinesen is materialistic, for prestige and rank (this is Ayn Rand stuff at some level). It is redeemed for me by the story of Nathalie, the street girl who is destroyed. We never know how she feels about the encounter and the tiny amount of money is pathetic. She has to give it to her female pimp it seems (or madam on the streets). She ends a skull.

So much for the underdog and vulnerable of our society. At the close it turn into a chilling female gothic.

And our narrator becomes a kind of Prevost-narrator (of the big stories) telling at a distance of this frightening bejewelled terror filled (out of natural forces too) world. You can’t quite win out by performances and stance the way the valet claimed in Story 1.

The comments to this blog bring together this story and the next. “The Monkey.”

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Karen Blixen, her servant Juma and his family (1930 photograph)

I can’t resist just a little about her wonderful life-writing — for it’s what made me fall in love with her in the first place. Out of Africa is her masterpiece, an elusive memoir which does not need me to do justice to it (and I no longer remember it that well). It’s like Edith Wharton’s Backward Glance, much is omitted that Thurman gives us of the private life and that is in the movie. My old copy is much written over, showing how much I was absorbed.

Here just the voluminous detailed Letters from Africa. A writer is someone who loves to write remember. I own a bunch of her books, including some lesser known stories and character sketches of her friends and servants, and good biographies and literary criticism. It’s all at Library Thing. Just as I’m writing this, it’s temporarily “down,” so I’ll come back again tomorrow to link it in.

I like her letters from Africa particularly: they give more of a feel of this woman than any of the fictions: she really was upper class aristocratic in all her associations and how she sees herself; she was also living a highly physical life (went on safaris, shooting, camping, hunting) in Africa and she endured hardships when she defied mores to travel with bands of men so the film reflects realities and real events in Blixen’s life. She thinks she is not prejudiced against blacks and her behavior is far more open and decent and friendly to her servants, but it doesn’t take much to see she regards them as onotologically different — “boys” she calls men; she has a few whipped (as she puts it).

For me this book’s richness shows what a true writer Dinesen was. A writer doesn’t need to be published; she writes to write and keeps writing. These are so rich with detail . The introduction by the editor is revealing about the state of Blixen’s letters and the trajectory of her career, her close relationship with her mother and aunt, and her sufficient closeness to one brother, Thomas. These represent what _survived_. No one destroyed, but some private things would not be written down or saved, and the editor says there are cuts to protect the feelings of the living.

Ellen

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Tom Jones (Max Beesley), Sophia (Samantha Morton) and Mr Western (Brian Blessed) making music together

Dear Friends and readers,

About 8 months ago, I wrote a blog review comparing Tony Richardson’s 1963 Tom Jones and Stanley Kubrick’s 1977 Barry Lyndon, vowing to myself that I would follow this up with a blog review on the 1997 Tom Jones by Simon Burke, Metin Huseyin, and Suzanne Harrison.

Many things got in the way, including rereading all Richardson’s Clarissa for a second year in a row and adding to writing about the 1991 BBC Clarissa, a paper on rape in the novel. It was when in the course of this I read a paper on rape in Fielding’s Tom Jones that I remember my original impulse.

Well, I watched the movie and just loved it. It was a intelligent entertaining thoughtful film rightly declared (at its close) “affectionately dedicated to Mr Fielding:”


When we first see him in the meadow


Our last sight, a tracking shot

Actually I didn’t just watch it once. I watched it three times — the third taking down some of the screenplay and capturing lots of shots as I went along, like this one of Patridge (Ron Cook) joining up with Tom. The good feeling behind the kiss is characteristic of this film in its fleeting joyful moments:


This is the fourth or fifth in a series of shots where the two stand in profile, Tom so much taller than Partridge, their faces though seeming to make up two halves of one face

But before I wrote, I wanted to reread all of Fielding’s Tom Jones. Not having the time, I found for $16 a set of audiotapes of the complete novel read aloud inimitably by David Case. Alas, alas, my tape deck broke half-way through.

And then I conceived a desire to write a few blogs about film adaptations from 18th versus 19th century sources to see the differences. This I thought would help me make sense of Huyesin, Burke and Harrison’s Tom Jones. But then I became wrapped up in these, Thomas Hardy films; the 2008 The Duchess (from Amanda Foreman’s book); the wondrous 1975-77 mini-series Poldark (I’ve fallen in love with Robin Ellis); not to omit reviews of Turn of the Screws; and Golden Bowls; 48 years of Jane Eyre, and S&S and Miss Austen Regrets and Young Victoria .

I began to feel awful silly — all this preparation or prologue for what after all would be a (I hoped) a fun blog, not too long or overwritten. Well, here it is, another night in many many where I can’t read and am too tired even to watch a film attentively, and so let me at last turn to this delightful tribute.

My theme is while this new Tom Jones is much indebted to Tony Richardson’s, it is also much superior. I’m led to be so upfront and strong on this point because I’ve learned there is almost nothing serious written about it, and the one article I came across (Martin Battestin) sneers at it because (forsooth) it’s a Telly one, is a mini-series, and is at once less “robust” (a telling word) and more faithful (this is a bad thing in some reverse snobbery circles of late). To the contrary, this film offers a reading and insight into Fielding’s book that to some extent undercuts the complacency theses and shows how his art carries different kinds of depths.

The new film certainly imitates the earlier one. Max Beesley as Tom acts out the part in much the way Finney did, for example, and the new film similarly insists on the artifice of the story and the medium. We have an imitation of the famous hunt sequence too. Samantha Morton is dressed to recall Susannah York. Perhaps I should say alludes to the earlier film, for the idea is intertextuality, with continual comparisons invited.


Mr Allworthy (Benjamin Whitlow’s hands are entwined in the baby’s and the opening sequences show him again and again fondling, attached to, bringing up the child, for all the world mothering it (this regendered dimension is nowhere in Richardson’s film)

As with Andrew Davies’s redo of the famous David Lean Dr Zhivago (with an non-English relatively unknown director who did art films like this one), it’s better than Richardson’s in a number of ways (and not just from length). Richardson’s is discussed as ever so jolly, and we get a reinforcement of the benevolism attributed to Fielding; in fact his book is dark, a satire on humanity is going on that is at moments Swiftian. The frenetic madness of the depictions get this across — and this is true to the book’s frenetic caricatures. The people are genuinely violent, proud, irritable, resentful in a careening way. I’ve never seen this pulled out of the art of Tom Jones before.

Daringly, we have a continual narrator coming in, reinforcing the brilliance of the plot-pattern and how it’s all put together. John Sessions is Fielding and we get drawings interspersed with scenes. This is not just frames, intertitles, with a voice-over unattahed to anyone.

John Sessions as Fielding is made to appear each time one set of characters (set A say) enters the scene and a set (set B) leaves. We watch one set go one way (A) and another the way (B); or they go in the same direction (C); or they pass one another by just missing one another (D). The characters are conceived of as groups in parallel (all on horses) or contrast (this one staying put in London here, say E, or there, F, and G, another place). And then we get interludes, as when in the inn two men put on a puppet show, and Patridge (Ron Cook) makes remarks, and during this scene more than one group collides (so to speak) with one another. Sessions as Fielding then appears, or is standing there, makes a remark, as if directing traffic, and then gets off stage and we are with the new set of characters. The effect is a visualization of the multiplot Fielding created which has been so admired and written about several times astutely.

He keeps count of where we are and who is going where:

He begins to function as a sign not only for new characters and changes in direction, but changes in mood and tone from scene to scene. When he turns up, we know we are going into a new phase:


Harriet, Mrs Fitzpatrick and her Irish lord lover arrive

Another is the more in-depth characterization of the characters surrounding Tom. Sophie is made to have a real character; for example, and at the close of the film, she does not just melt into Tom’s arms; they have a conversation where she tells him time must go by before she can forgive him. Time goes pretty swift, for the next scene seems to be about 8 years later since Tom and she have a little Tom (looks around 6) and Sophie (say 3). The actors are also has more superior than those in the surrounding roles. I find this true of BBC and other English mini-series. There seems to be so many more secondary great actors supported by the system than the US cut-throat profit one.

Another element which goes along with this is the real new feminism of the film. Something Fielding leaves room for but does not develop himself. We are shown how vulnerable these women are, particularly Samantha Morton, who Clarissa-like, is seriously threatened with a coerced marriage, with rape, and genuinely terrified by her father who rages against her mother in such a way that we see this man made the mother’s life a misery, nay probably raped her as part of his right:


Crying for her mother’s kindness just after her father curses the mother and boasted how he ignored her false sensitivities over sex

The production follows Fielding in not allowing sex to be a vexed difficult area personally for Tom at least — and later his friend with Nancy Miller. This is a way of trivializing what is central to women’s issues but the production does not follow Tom in marginalizing women in their reactions to their lives, and boy are they pro-active.


Tom’s kindness to Mrs and Nancy Miller (who he works to make sure Nightingale marries her) is repaid by their activity on his behalf

They are “put back” into narratives Fielding has elided over with all their force and this is part of what makes this film so superior to the 1966 production (which reminds me at times of the 1960s Moll Flanders with Kim Novak).

It’s really touching when Western throws Mrs Honour out and we see her desperate, homeless, terrified:


Honor (Kathy Burke) stranded with no one to turn to who can take her in

Very touching. When we see Sophie dragged away and Honor comes out and looks so desolate and turns around and the door is shut, how we feel for her. It’s the way she holds her hands, her hair done up in ties. When Squire Western turns her out, she has no where to go. We see her knock on closed doors; she has her hands hanging down in a thin dress, and her hair in those tight curlers. This kind of sympathy is not in Fielding. So one can see how the film is a recreation from a modern standpoint of the original book.

The actress playing Jenny Jones (Camille Corduri) contributes to the strong real women of the film in her scenes with Mr Allworthy.


In the opening scene Mr Allworthy (wrongly) lectures (and shames) Jenny; mid-stream, she goes to bed with Tom; end-game, she produces the truth at last and Mr Allworthy is ashamed

Burke, Huseyin and Harrizon make Mrs Bridget Allworthy genuinely affectionate towards Tom; we see her grieve over having to leave him, and on her death bed advise him gently (worriedly) to be prudent. She is presented as fooled by a cruel Blifil who ignores, humiliates and tries to exploit her. Happily he falls off a cliff while reading a book on how to siphon off her money. Late in the movie we get a flashback showing her when young and in love with the curate who was Tom’s father (played by Beesley again):

There is feminism in the book — of a sort. It does not require reading against the grain as much as I expected — though Lord Fellaston’s idea he is raping Sophia for her own good appears to be understood, and rape is treated as something of a joke or usually something women fake happened. No understanding or empathy which will help women much, rather simply an appreciation of their lack of power and what this means for good women — first and foremost Fielding is a satirist and so takes a harsh view of humanity altogether — and it’s not that far from Swift.

The film-makers built on this and woven memories of, in effect allusions to the perspectives in Clarissa on women and brutality. They added the social satire of women’s antagonism. The scene where Tom saves Molly from the other women though is not accented against women or about Molly looking particularly naked, but Tom’s fondness for her:

There (by contrast, and making us like Tom) is also much brutality between men, and thus the non-violence kindliness of Ron Cook as Partridge is deeply appealing. The film speaks to our world today in the corruption, hypocrisy, and snobbery of people Tom meets: the film has him meet so many, which is part of the point, life’s journey you know. And Sessions as narrator by a little less than mid-way begins to be traffic director, explainer (in lieu of voice-voice, a bold use of the narrator coming in), ironist.

The film also makes an astute use of letters and documents. The producer is someone who was involved in the 1991 Clarissa which used film epistolary scenes too. Characters are seen writing them, sending them, juxtaposed scenes of characters using them to try to reach one another bring the characters and events together. Tom’s false letter asking Lady Bellaston to marry him is made much of visually. We get voice-over cleverly done as the characters work to reunite at the close of the film, especially Samantha Morton as Sophia — this actress is effective in whatever part she plays and here does remind me of Clarissa reaching out.


A not atypical sequence from the film; the character is reading (through voice-voice) a letter and about to write one

The movie communicates a lot through silences and sheer faces. The long early sequences of Sophia and Tom falling in love are done through gesture and action.


A comic conspiring moment — also from the generic archetype falling in love

James D’Arcy is powerful as the mean Blifil again and again; early in the film it’s his triumph at Sophie after she agrees to see him and she looks and we see in her eyes awareness of how nasty he is. She had decided to give him a chance but looking into his face she knows better. We know how miserable he’d make her.

They didn’t want to add too many words to Fielding and Fielding did not go down to this level. His one comment shows he will be as his father was to Bridget: I shall soon have quite enough of your company madame echoes his father’s phrase after marriage.

Blifil pretends Mr Allworthy is throwing Tom out over love for Sophie; he hides the lies he told Mr Allworthy — all the while we see the savagery of Western and Sophie’s real misery. Done very well and we feel it. No narrator intervening here. Bell of church rings at crucial moments of drama. Then thunder as Blifil says banish you from his sight forever.


Yet Blifil, appropriately is seen with a grim expression on his face, through barred windows.

Dark colors, bleak landscape, poverty with Black George in his wagon completes this desolating moment.


Close up of Tom at the moment of ejection, looking up at the house and Blifil

And then archetypal rain — on Mr Allworthy grieving at altar for his loss of Tom, Sophie grieving at window, on Tom leaving

Once again Lindsay Duncan is the sex-crazed unscrupulous vengeful villainous — perhaps I should not say once again, perhaps this was the first time she did this. She makes her character luxurious, worldly and tough and more sensual than sexual:


Our first sight of her, fed luscious fruit by her paid young male lover

This is not part of the feminist thread of the film, though certainly it shows a strong woman.

When young I would pass quickly over the Lady Bellaston parts of the novel. They disquieted me. Tom allows himself to be a male concubine; the woman induces Lord Fellamar to rape another women. Well this film reinforces these uses of sex with no trouble by the powerful acting of Lindsay Duncan. This is one of many roles I’ve seen her forceful in in these costume dramas (another was recently in Lost in Austen as Lady Catherine de Bourgh).

The film does stay true to 18th century films in that what is delved is sexuality and gender much more than family life — we are not interested in inward family life and its pathologies, but family members as representatives of sordid ruthless aggrandizement and inhumanity at large.


Sophia’s Aunt (Frances de La Tour) as representative of the perversions of social arrangements

I’ve left out some performances. Brian Blessed gets the right tone of madness and half-crazed bullying.


Blessed as Squire Western, genuinely distraught (bellowing) for his Sophie who has run away

Thwackum, Square (especially) and Supple are more sheer comic figures than memories of Fielding’s serious concern with hypocritical and pernicious uses of religion, fanaticism, false learning, sycophancy. But they are there.

As a scholar I’ve done reception studies.and know how hard it is to counter an original reception. I mentioned Andrew Davies’s films and have been writing about these. He is a bold person who several times now has deliberately chosen a film that was super-praised originally, that he thinks is not that good, and done a successful new one, on a couple of occasions really batted the older one off the court. In the case of the 1979 P&P I think unfairly (this to Peter); not only is Judy Parfitt’s performance exquisitely good (as a straight interpretation of Austen’s character the subtlest and most persuasive), but so too Elizabeth Garvey. The script is superb, the outlook feminist — the movie includes a sympathetic rereading and presentation of Mary Bennet and Anne de Bourgh. In the case of Dr Zhivago and Room with a View, Davies has done as well if not erased the previous at all; he gave an interesting interview on his and Campiotti (the Italian director) and Anne Pivcevic (the producer): they couldn’t get an English director to take it on; they couldn’t get one to say over lunch what were the faults and flaws of the earlier film. Criticize David Lean? He has friends too. Films can be of their times. I’d say Lean’s Zhivago is one, turning the book into an anti-communist event (in the film too). Richardson’s Tom Jones is I think another.

I wrote (I know) provocatively on my blog comparing Richardson’s TJ and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, and my argument was BL is still thoroughly persuasive on its own terms, this told TJ not.

I have a copy of and have read Battestin’s essay praising Richardson’s film; it was that one I was referring to when I said the way the film was regarded was from the benevolist standpoint; I didn’t say that Battestin was also an original proponent of this view. As I wrote I don’t see Tom Jones this way; in a nutshell, I place the book against the scrim of all Fielding’s work (which includes dark satire indeed, and his non-fiction essays).

One of the liberating aspects of the Net is that one can say on a blog what might not get through to a print publication. Richardson told the same joke over and over: see how sweet, good, innocent, chivalrous, generous is Tom even though he is in bed with this and that and the other women. It’s that all these women want him so; they are the aggressor again and again. Then he is extricated by highjinks and we are to laugh again as he escapes — until near the end he is almost hung. I tired of it, over and over. Endless exposure of women’s breasts was part of the treat. Not much for Susannah York to do but look loving and accepting, and the sexy women to slither and slide and look CHFM.

This doesn’t deny the sterling qualities it took from Richardson’s work either. It comes down to naturalistic (highly) camera work, the scenes not being puffed up and made pompous, but left to be there quietly. For lack of a better term I’d say it’s anti-hierarchical, anti-artifice. Much more is on location than the 97 film, many more extras hired. The close-ups to the faces pick up depths of feeling close and the famous eating scene must’ve startled. And there is an eating scene leading to sex (between Tom and Jenny Jones) in this film too.

The movie can develop at length ideas from the 66 film too: we again have a magnificent hunt, no long tracking shots in quite the same angle (so they are not imitated), but much more intimacy with animals and Tom’s hurt (and a scene with Sophia) again thorough — few words and much gesture, eye contact, pantomime.


Sophia concerned over Tom’s fall (she has not yet seen he has broken his arm or why)

I was happy when the film ended happily for not only Tom, Sophia, Mr Allworthy and the two children (a little Tom and Sophia) but the comic coupling of Partridge and Honor too — it reminded me of Tamino and Tamina and Pamino and Pamina in The Magic Flute

I just had so many favorite moments in the film I can’t put all of them in.


Sophia tells Honor that she, Sophia, will protect Honor. Never fear.

I think the enjoyment, pleasure and real instruction the film gives is the proof the film-makers lived up to their desire to recreate Mr Fielding’s work in a new medium.

Ellen

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