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Archive for December, 2011


Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison (Inner Circles)

Dear friends and readers,

My Christmas present from Jim and Izzy (bought by me on their behalf) was the complete set of Prime Suspect seasons, and while I was chuffed to get them, it was not until I opened the box three nights ago now and began to watch again that I realized what a wonderful present I had given myself. From two angles: first off, I had not been understanding or seeing the stories the way they were intended and second, they continue to rivet, move, and thematically fascinate me.

First that the box showed me that the set on Netflix misrepresent the series: stories are left out. Does it matter? yes.

I had suspected there was something wrong, something missing. One of the delights of this series is the mostly marginalized but on going story of Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison herself. At the close of “The Lost Child” we had Jane having had an abortion and sitting in the darkness and at the opening of “Scent of Darkness” she had embarked on a fulfilling liaison with Dr Patrick Schofield (played marvelously by Stuart Wilson), the psychologist from “The Lost Child.” How was this? Then what I thought was the next story, about a Bosnian woman who was tortured I was so disappointed to find no Stuart Wilson who I really liked, especially from his relationship with her. Jane Tennison was alone, haunted, often in a black cape and had on DI Haskons with her.


Characteristic still from Season 6

Well, when I opened the box of DVDs for the first time, I found 7 boxes with a couple of boxes having 2 disks; the 6th and 7th also have bonus features (!). In Box 4 I found between the two-hour each film, “The Lost Child” and “The Scent of Darkness,” another 2 hour film: “Inner Circles.” And that there was a mini-series film between “Scent of Darkness” and the 6th series about the torture of a Bosnian refugee where Jane Tennison relocates to Greater Manchester for a stint as a community relations police officer. “Inner Child” lacks the usual crew of people except for Richard Hawley (Di Haskons in all of them) and a cameo appearance of John Benfield (her supervisor, Mike).

One problem with doing this series over several years is the producers could not always get the people back so my guess is her (unlikely) stint as “community relations” person (just what she as an iconoclast and unconventional woman would not be acceptable at or even good at) was the inspired reaction to the producers not being able to get any of their usual people back.

They overcame this partly by the focus on Jane but they clearly also did this for itself. The series has a woman’s novel implicitly working itself out inside the conventions of a police procedural (as the genre is called in Britain). In many of the detective series the film-makers of TV (BBC, the better British channels and PBS) have filmed, the books may have the outlines of an ongoing story’ but most of the time in the TV programs this must be dropped because there are too many programs (when it’s a success). Lynda LaPlante’s (and her successors) creating a series out of their own minds and intended for TV (not based on novels) and not having that many programs or stories per season , there is an evolving story and it matters. Sometimes it presents an ironic or ambivalent contrast to the crime story, sometimes Jane’s emotion out of her own life reinforces the emotion of the crime story, motivates her quest to solve the crime strongly.

To outline: when we first meet Jane (Story 1, Season 1, a mini-series) she is having trouble breaking into the hierarchy of the police force. She cannot get a case to conduct. She is also in a warm relationship with a husbandly man played by Tim Wilkinson – he has broken with his wife who is now pregnant with another man’s child and Jane tries to make dinner for him, the child and herself. We see he can’t get enough jobs in the killing new capitalist structure where people are left to “free-lance” and it hurts their relationship as she sits up night after night — to a breaking point.


Tom Wilkinson plays Peter Rawlins, her partner-lover in the first season

Jane also is straining to spend any time with her biological family; when with them, she must watch TV to keep up with her job and partly ignore them, and this angers Peter.

In story 2 (Season 2, another mini-series) we see her have a casual encounter with a young black officer which is held against her and she must drop as he is going to use it to wrest power.

The 3rd story (Season 3, another mini-series) about transsexuals and child molestation is so powerful and is framed by her at the opening of the story meeting an old lover and having a week with him where she does wrenchingly break it off because he demands she give up her job and he will in turn leave a wife and 4 children. This is scenario we may often see: the aging man leaves a wife and 4 children for a mistress. To her credit, Jane refuses.

The 4th story (Season 4) is the first of three 2 hour films and given a title: “Lost Child.” In this one she has an abortion, the result of her love affair in Story 3. It’s also the story of a child murdered by its mother where almost automatically a man who had been known to sexually molest and abuse children (had spent time in jail for this) was blamed. Jane’s anger is fueled by her own loss, her own ambivalence. The story includes a psychologist, Patrick Schofield (played memorably by Stuart Wilson) who explains and defends the accused young man to Jane.

I now realize that “Scent of Darkness” is Story 6, the the third of the two hour films of Season 4) and did not follow “Lost Child.” It has the most development of Jane’s private or non-professional life of all of them: we see Jane and Patrick
meeting at a movie house, both too late for the show, and discovering neither wanted to see it and then we have these vignettes of them in bed, in the bath, drinking and talking, her working at her latest crime and he watching TV: in this one he seems to betray her by himself taking on as a customer in part the man who wrote the book saying her solution of the first crime was false. The crime part of the story is a re-do of Story 1 (Season 1) about violence against women, how Jane is not permitted a promotion easily, how the men conspire against her to protect their chief. At its end she triumphs over a humiliation, dances with the officer chief who tried to bring her down, and is last with her Patrick at the same dinner party.


Penultimate scene of Scent of Darkness

So how did she get there: to that affair. Well, “Inner Circles,” Story 5 of Season 4, a two-hour movie in which shows her very lonely, picking up the phone to call this psychologist who she had liked and getting his answering machine. Trying twice. She has no circle, she is someone who comes home from her job and watches TV or reads. I see the opening of “Scent of Darkness” was the opening of their affair.

In “Inner Circles,” Jane’s lonely or outcast state may seem deprived, but the inner circles she see are made up of people who as much prey on as they support one another. She has more strength and more distance to be able to feel and act upon more real or un-ambivalent affection for the youngsters of the story than their troubled parents can manage. We see her fellow officers discussing this more than once and she is needled by DCI Raymond (Ralph Arliss), the man who is running the cop shop she is momentarily relocated to: he is having an affair with a woman detective in the office, DS Cromwell (Sophie Stanton) who changes allegiances to Jane during the 2 hours. When she sees them as a pair at a town bar and asks him, where is his wife, he retaliates by saying “at home” and she “she’s fine, she’s still getting it regularly which you’re obviously not.”


At the bar

I immediately recognized Arliss as the hard apparently mean working class male gamekeeper type in the 1977 Love for Lydia. Inner Circles like Story 1 (Season 1) and also “Scent of Darkness” (Story 6, Season 4) reaches back to superb actors from the 1970s series who never made it to total stardom. From Stuart Wilson (Ferdinand Lopez in Pallisers) to Gareth Forwood (Everett Wharton in the same part of the Pallisers) as the murder victim, Dennis Carradine. Again Wilson played the strong alluring male lover while Forwood the man with homosexual inclinations who cannot succeed in the world, weakish, but well-meaning, emotional, a victim type.


Opening shots of Inner Circle: the country club surrounded by a large — green and pleasant — golf club meadow

In my previous three blogs I suggested that each film-story examines another aspect of real life. In “Inner Circle” we move to a contrast between the wealthy, comfortable upper middle milieu, a place of of clubs, of power in police shops and city councils, and the desperately despised poor in public housing like Larchmont Estate from which the people accused of murdering Dennis all come, and in fact the hired killer too. The politics of the piece is the rich people are in cohoots with Raymond and others to blame the poor, do what they can to stimgatize and make the idea of helping such people useless, ludicrous, dangerous in order to protect their own crimes, ruthless appetites, and of course money and power. I noticed Anthony Bate as James Greenlees is the head of the club; he often plays this type (he was Lacoon in the 1970s/80s Smiley films).


Like Paul Endicott, when Greenlees is last scene he is getting into a luxurious car and driving home: at the center of the storm, he gets away with his dealing scot-free because he knows how to stay on the right side of custom and law

This time the murderer Maria Henry (Jill Baker), an upper class woman lawyer who wants to hide her financial dealings and her long-time friend, Dennis’s incompetence is leaking it out. She and Greenlees and her lover, Paul Endicott (James Laurenson), also a member of the club have Arliss to cover up for them and present the crime as an act engendered by poor people living in council housing (ironically named Larchmont Estates) who hated a homosexual upper class male type and tortured him in some humiliating way before strangling him.


Bird’s eye shot of Larchmont Estate courtyard: no grass here

So the crime becomes ammunition against social programs too. Early on in the show everyone assumes that Mickey Thomas (Jonathan Copestake) murdered Dennis with the help of the young woman the police do take in, Sheila Bower (Julia Rice). Raymond’s police come to the housing project and he panics and flees, and runs into a car which smashes him to death. Even half-way through the show the country club types, and Raymond are still trying to pin the crime on Thomas and Sheila.


Mickey Thomas looking up at helicopter surveillance over Larchmont (perfect symbol of our time), cursing them but also panicking

Only this pair of young people didn’t torture or strangle him. They were just trying to burglarize the building in which Dennis lived.

Like “Lost Child” and “Scent of Darkness” too much was piled into 2
hours and I didn’t quite get the ins and outs so had to re-watch before I understood what had gone on.

Suffice to say this one made me identify with Maria Henry (Jill Baker) the woman lawyer — this astounded me. Again the series was functioning to extend the sympathetic imagination, this time mine. This upper class lawyer, successful networking made-up hard nosed woman. Well she melts at the behavior of her equally hard but stupid and naive daughter, Polly Henry (played brilliantly by a young Kelly Reilly — Story 1 had a young Ralph Fiennes equally brilliant — and cannot reach her. I burst into tears at one angry set-to between them. Polly does not understand how she is being used and it is through her that her mother Maria’s crime is exposed.


Maria Thomas, the lawyer-mother, tough as nails


Polly Henry, the thick, sullen hurt puzzled daughter, weak and clinging, easily manipulated

Maria now needs to kill the killer of Dennis, Geoff Brennam (Thomas Russell), a sadistic thug because Jane Tennison has realized that Geoff was the paid killer.


Geoff also an inhabitant of the Larchmont Estates, another another of its cement and iron terrace patios

So Maria Thomas tells the easily bullied stammerer, another vulnerable young man, Hamish Endicott (Nick Patrick), Maria’s lawyer-loverm Paul Endicott’s son that Jeff raped and beat and maimed Polly, needling the boy to hammer Jeff’s head to bits. Paul loves Polly from afar:


Polly and Hamish in the country club, children imitating their parents

Hamish has been tormented and mocked and fleeced by Jeff (as he has been similarly sneered at by his father) and a huge amount of raging hostile emotion has built up.


Paul Endicott seemingly the ultra-successful lawyer male (he’s a failure in reality, like Maria needs money desperately)

Maria taps into this easily, manipulating the young man into fancying himself a hero doing a brave deed. Someone a the Larchmont Estate where Jeff lived and did inflict rough cruel sex on Polly saw a red-haired woman in the car with tall young man; when Hamish turns himself in, it’s a matter of deciding whether the woman was Polly or her mother, Maria. Maria could leave her daughter to be blamed (and we see the girl is a narrow, silly person who will probably be destroyed by others later), put that that far she won’t go. She has tried to protect her daughter from her crimes, her life-style, her boyfriends to no avail. Polly wants to live the way she sees her mother does, does not know enough to see how hollow are Maria’s relationships. It is hard to tell whether Maria does love the daughter who instinctively feels her mother does not love her, but when she turns whining to her in the last moment of the show, the mother melts once again.

They are an inner circle inside an inner circle. Jane is in no such inner circles at all — nor is DS Cromwell whom we learn during the show came from an estate like the Larchmonts and understands some of the psychology of the young people burglarizig and behaving in self-destructive ways. It is Cromwell’s way of interrogating the suspects that helps Jane to understand and ferret from them the truths of what happened.


Cromwell makes faux pas that Jane would not: she does not first clear her right to investigate Dennis’s mail at the club

Perhaps Jane and Cromwell are better off with their impersonal relationships. But Jane at least is lonely as we see her making those phone calls to Patrick’s answering machine. And DS Cromwell has been giving herself to that shit Raymond and for all we know may return to him casually once again.

That it’s a mother-daughter relationship gone all wrong and women’s friendship story at its core may come from its film-makers mostly being women as were the first three stories (seasons 1-3). It’s based on a story by a woman, Meredith Oakes; it’s directed by Sarah Pia Anderson and two of the producers were Sally Head and Rebecca Eaton.


Closing moment, Jane and Cromwell (we never do learn her first name) smoking together, sharing cigarettes

Other miseries of human relationships that are explored, dramatized exposed beyond that of how the powerful and rich treat the desperate and poor is how cold and therefore cruel and bullying personalities can twist emotionally loving and warm and weak or uncertain people. How such people will get back either directly or through the very love relationship the strong or bullying person (in two cases here it’s a father and son and a mother and daughter or parents and children) takes advantage of or even promotes.

Some good lines:

On the police fear of the people in the Larchmont Estate and their terror (justified) of the police: Jane: “Whatever happened to community policing?”

Mike, Jane’s superior to Jane and her repeat reply late in the film: “”Politics this is what this is all about use your social skills if you’ve got any …”

Jane Tennison to Maria Thomas: “Tennison: you are refusing to tell us anything. Maria: “I honestly feel I’ve been as fank as I dare be.” In fact that’s so. We see how laws set up to protect people like her. She can claim client confidentiality to hide that she and Dennis were in deep trouble over their buying of a ruin, Burdette House when the city gov’t refused to let them build luxury housing there

I like my Christmas present very much. Prime Suspect was a series of brilliant films which evolved as they went, inventing and changing as the year and times and what was available for actors demanded. (By contrast, Poldark stayed with the books, for all three tries, even the 1996.) Perhaps the people making the 4th season of 3 two-hour films realized they had piled too much in and the series lost some viewer-ship or maybe because it kept gaining, for I can see that they returned to mini-series in the 5th season. I have much to enjoy. But before I watch these for the first time, I shall luxuriate in re-watching the touching affair of Stuart Wilson and Helen Mirren of “Scent of Darkness.” As I say these films demand and repay rewatching.

Ellen

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Neiman Marcus, 2nd floor by escalators at Xmas time

Dear Friends and readers,

This year we had two minor disappointments. I really thought we’d get to see the new Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. As in the last few years, surely a star studded movie based on a super-famous good book was made to get academy awards and when better to show it in many theaters than Christmas day. I forgot to reckon in the dysfunctional powers of private property and competition: our two local Landmark theaters bought exclusive rights to this movie; neither are in Virginia and the trains don’t run frequently on regular Sundays.

So we opted for A Dangerous Method. While the screenplay writer was Christopher Hampton, and it had a fine director, good actors and was based on real history of a bleak true ironic sort, it has all the flaws (like epitomizing wooden dialogue) as well as the strengths (beauty, quality themes) of Sunday night costume drama. We did enjoy our meal at Mark’s Duck House. And I watched Frederick Wiseman’s The Store when we got home.

Brief review: How we really “do” Xmas, some of it anyway. Frederick Wiseman’s The Store. It seems he filmed Neiman Marcus mostly during Xmas time, from later Nov to Dec. It adds to the exposure and study of how people really do spend their lives
and how they act “at work.” What they want to be, as in these Texans:

Watch a man across the course of the film make up his mind between a $46,000 or $38,000 fur jacket for a woman — made up of such exquisite fur pieces (from animals not mentioned) and good for everything including jeans!


Lady swathed in furs looks at more furs

rings for frightening prices. Make-up.

And then the workers in the store being led to do exercises in smiling. The long undecorated labyrinths. The actual work done down there for many many tiring hours. The pep talks: we are here to sell. The man thinks doctors are there to save lives and take care of people’s health. Perhaps he has not left The Store lately. The hatred: manufacturers for buyers especially. You might say you see Writ Large here what occurs in less expensive spaces.

Recommended, highly. See Wiseman’s Primates and films on the medical establishment.


A corridor in The Store

Other movies not about Xmas but where things are occurring at Xmas time — which are the best kinds of Xmas movies: so also Huston’s The Dead, Whitman’s Metropolitan (adaptation of Mansfield Park), Taylor’s The Maze

We had a similar obstacle for our Boxing Day outing. This year there didn’t seem to be a show on that I felt we’d surely like. Last year not only was there one of Venice, but there was one of these unexpected extra shows we had not noticed: beautiful studies of the natural world. But we had had some of these magical moments together over several years, so we thought we’d try despite the headlineer (pun intended) being Andy Warhol. I’ve never liked his stuff (so to speak) though I grant it’s memorable, but I had read a longish review in The Nation where the writer presented views of leading critics that Warhol was a great artist, that he was a salesman, self-promoting celebrity who made works to catch attention, that he was both.

I reported on Facebook that Jim thought it all charlatanism. I’m nor sure. Later Jim said this was an exaggeration of what he said. He thought rather that Warhol produced junk and the exhibit (not deliberately but to the knowing person) revealed how the art world is dependent on patrons so that if a slick “operator” careerist, networker can promote his work to a few rich patrons, he’s a made man; and if on top of this he can cultivate other rich, powerful people, he can be called a great artist as it becomes in the interest of everyone to uphold him. (This is different from music and books where you have to try to please a great number of people.)

Honest this is not much different from junk and charlatan (=showman-careerist), and the show did sour Jim’s outlook. It irritated him and seemed to put him out of the mood for looking at other things.

Well I wasn’t sure. It seemed to me that Warhol could be using his parodies of these godawful headlines to expose the stupidity, amorality, and absurdity of different worlds and their media. One struck me especially: on one side of a newspaper painted by Warhol (based on a real one) there was a story of a man murdered by police (a choke hold) where they denied it and got away with this as the death was called accident or suicide. It was a tiny item next to a huge page of advertisements for sales for Gimbel’s. In other words, some of the parodies, imitation, juxtapositions were capable of interpretation as serious social criticism.

OTOH, there was a kind of getting a kick out of doing this for some of them — simply mocking, showing up the stupidity of these newspapers meant for hoi polloi. No vision for humaneness, just accepting the ugly junk. Like Madonna not a bit ashamed as a headline. What kind of understanding does that show of her, from her, and also from Warhol. Jim said I was reading into the things something not there, and that is what others do. It’s like fans make a cult of books that are half-empty and easy (Sherlock Holmes) because they pour into it their own identity politics.

What makes me half-agree with Jim is what I see are Warhol’s followers: an exhibit at the Whitney a couple of years ago of student work: it was drek accompanied by explanations preaching at you. I liked the views expressed but this is not art. I’ve seen this in other exhibits and it ruins rooms and rooms.

At any rate nothing there was edifying and it left me mostly with a sense that I should not mourn the passing of popular newspapers. I had forgotten what they are like: crude, crash, harsh, jeering or absurdly sentimental.

We did go around the museum and saw a few favorite pictures, but as with two years running fully one-quarter of the second floor of the older art part of the building was blocked off. Most of the new building where the Warhol exhibit was is wasted space (like many other recent museums for recent art).

The Harry Callahan which was in the space where the exhibit with the nature studies was last year was not bad. Mostly really they were home-family pictured masquerading as something else (not much), but in the last corridor there was some later work: a row of colored photos of cities around Europe which seemed really to capture some essence of them not often admitted to by being so true to what the camera saw: on a bleak street in Ireland, on Turkey where public space is so empty and all private buildings like prisons with windows not seen, Hong Kong outpourings of vile commercialisms.


A real typical street in Ireland instead of the green fantasies photographers produce in magazines


The real Venice people live in (not Canaletto-like at all)

Perhaps we should have looked at another smaller exhibit of medieval tapestries. But somehow we were not in the mood but by the time we noticed it we had decided to leave. When we got home, I realize we had missed Mark Rothko too (not that I ever find anything to look at in his paintings).

We did have a lovely sunny walk on the mall. The day was quietly lovely and again at night a good meal together and good talk (about the Warhol). What is art? how does the art world work? what is promulgated as fine art? and so on. In truth I still think Warhol is partly doing what Callahan did and what Wiseman in The Store does. Give us a real experience instead of a pretend or phony flattering substitute. But not exactly comforting and except for Wiseman’s film I am not sure it’s art. My criteria is probably that I have to be impressed by some skill or talent, something done outside the ordinary capturing nature which I can’t do.

My real conclusion about this boxing day (what mattered about it) is about the advice I was given by a kind friend a few years about how to endure Christmas (get through the phoniness and fraught emotionalisms of over-expectation). He said to have a private set of rituals, traditions you do each year and keep to them. I know Izzy listens to lovely Christmas music while laying in bed on the 25th. I know I lay in bed late and relax and do little on the 25th, sometimes read a novel for two days that is utterly unrelated to anything I call work. We had a good time on the night before Christmas eve exchanging a few presents with Laura & Rob, and washing down French Christmas cake and a few hors-d’oeuvres with champagne. Perhaps we should have ritual/traditions as my friend advised, but we keep them small and make sure they are acts within our compass, not dependent on someone else and not be religious or too strict about them.

At any rate we are now all Christmas’d out.

Ellen

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A serene day to all


Camille Pissaro, Louvenciennes in Snow (1770s)

Dear year-long friends and readers,

From the 19th century: Tennyson’s In Memoriam:

Again at Christmas did we weave
          The holly round the Christmas hearth;
          The silent snow possessed the earth,
And calmly fell our Christmas-eve:

The yule-clog sparkled keen with frost,
          No wing of wind the region swept,
          But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.

As in the winters left behind,
          Again our ancient games had place,
          The mimic picture’s breathing grace,
And dance and song and hoodman-blind.

Who showed a token of distress?
          No single tear, no mark of pain:
          O sorrow, then can sorrow wane?
Of grief, can grief be changed to less?

O last regret, regret can die!
          No—mixed with all this mystic frame,
          Her deep relations are the same,
But with long years the tears are dry.


Stonehenge, a drawing by John Constable

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Last night:


Izzy, at her computer, 2011

R. Joyce Heon’s The Dream Again

The dream again. Near Christmas. It is time
To lower and unfold the attic stair
That will not hold a grown-up’s weight, to climb
Into the chill and naptha-scented air.
Here moth will not corrupt, and time must spare
The box of lights and mismatched ornaments
Packed in a carton filled with Angel Hair
And met, as if by sheer coincidence,
With lawn chairs, summer clothes, and two old Army tents.

Mother, an item here belongs to me.
It is a piece of plastic tubing, red
And cane-shaped, which I’ll hang upon our tree
In memory of an old man who is dead,
A neighbor on the block I visited
Daily when I was only three or four.
For months I took that thing with me to bed,
Then stopped and did not take it anymore
After he died. I’ve never known what it was for.

The dream again. We trim the slender tree
With strings of lights so antiquated they’ve
No colors left, hang icicles and see
These acts reflected, wave on frozen wave.
More rituals: the ribbon that we save
To bind leftover boughs to make a spray
Of cedar. Every year, on Christmas day,
These were the fragrant, handmade gifts you gave
Your mother and your father — one upon each grave.

To make room for the presents we arrange
The furniture and, for amusement, play
Old records that, in retrospect, seem strange:
Gene Autry, Guy Lombardo, Sammy Kaye.
I watch you setting out a metal tray –
Santa Drinks Coke — and sing along like one
Who knows what words each character will say,
A sort of deja vu, a knowledge won
From having played the part before, the role of son.

The dream again, the one that always ends
In a light which, while neither cruel nor hard,
Indifferent to my waking thoughts, ascends
In moments made to empty and discard
Like leaves the wind now scatters in the yard.
Yet it is such that I would not confine
It to the space inside a Christmas card
Or the stamped parcels bound with tape and twine,
Sent with regrets for invitations I decline.
So let the light grow dim, allow this dream
Its one still moment, where none may intrude
To hang the stockings which can only seem
Empty reminders of the magnitude
Of love we neither compass nor conclude.
Let the deep twilight gather to the chime
Of three brass angels circling in the nude,
Tinkling above their candles as they climb
The wall in shadows, marking nothing more than time.


Poor yet alert puzzled pussycat: Clary

Ellen

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Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) and Dr Patrick Schofield (Stuart Wilson), Scene of Darkness

Dear friends and readers,

A third blog on the unusually good police series, Prime Suspect: I’ve now watched The Lost Child, Scent of Darkness , which I want briefly to compare with Christopher Reid and Niall MacCormack’s Song of Lunch, a more typical heroine’s text (a 2 hour film from PBS Masterpiece theater this year), and the older fine mystery thrillers film adaptations of John LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. So you see how I’ve been riveting myself into wakefulness in the late nights these weeks. These two new Prime Suspects continue the exploration of sexuality, women’s issues (here motherhood) and male violence against women begun in the previous three stories. They also develop Jane Tennison’s story more centrally.

*************************

The last concluding shot of Lost Child

Lost Child

This is the fourth of the Prime Suspect Stories; they have changed format. Story 1 and 2 and 3 were mini-series, each with 4 episodes. Lost Child & Scent of Darkness are both two hours long, the Americanized format of mini-series that winston Graham complained destroyed the attempt to bring back Poldark in 1996. The briefer time frame does not seem to hurt these two Prime Suspect stories as they can do without the leisurely kind of realism the Poldark and other naturalistic books require, but we do get less development of the characters and events are sprung on us where the film-makers rely on the actor’s ability to persuade us this new inner self we didn’t see before was there all along.

Lost Child brings together pederasty and also motherhood — quite a combination. What happened is this: a child, little girl, seems to have been kidnapped from Susan Covington (Beaty Ednie) a mother who has continued to cherish the child just as much as she did before its father John Warwick (played by Adian Lukis wonderfully well – the Wickham archetype fits here) deserted them to have liaisons with more than one woman and moved North. A scene with Tennison shows him at first defiant and nonchalant, not denying he did it even if he lied and was nearby while the murder occurred: he spent the afternoon in bed with a woman who is engaged to marry someone else. Susan, the mother, is hysterical; she goes on TV begging for her child to be returned safely to her.

About half-way through for the first time I had begun to feel that in a way these series could pander to the bigoted paranoia of people, especially surrounding sexual experience vis-a-vis children. The suspect is someone she has also filmed in the park; her film and identification points to Chris Hughes (John Glenister) who served 14 years for molesting minors. I was troubled by the harshness of the response to Chris; I hasten to say I have no agenda for child molesters, only that Hughes was treated so brutally: one of the police officers, Jack Ellis (Tony Muddyman) beats Chris savagely upon trying to arrest him when Chris (understandably) tries to flee the ferocity of this bunch. Jane Tennison is as ferocious and will not listen to any alibis of Chris, especially since she finds he still indulges in saving photos of girls in albums. She is throughout dressed severely; in 3 she was homeliness and clutzyness itself; here she is repeatedly in tight cut black suits, her hair severe, knife-like puritanical elegance:

We are led to suspect Chris just as much by Chris’s relationship to his wife/partner Anne Sutherland (Lesley Sharpe). They seem not be be getting along. Ann seems to be hiding something; she falsified an alibi; Chris over-reacts to situations we see; he is sensitive man who has suffered a long time, was abused in prison because he was a pederast. He insists too strongly he’s fine now. Well, he’s not altogether; they have troubled sex. He saves pornographic magazines in a drawer.

The story seems to culminate in the police trying to wrest Chris/Glenister from his house where he is holed up and taking Anne and their two children, girls both, hostage. The police promise not to have snipers, but they lie and start to shoot; hysterical, he grabs a child and returns to the house.

Now here is where I saw I was wrong and the film was slowly leading us to see that even pederasts should not be pre-judged; they can change, reform; they deserve understanding, sympathy. Suddenly and without preparation to explain why we are led to think that after all Christ didn’t do it beyond that a psychiatrist, Dr Patrick Schofield (played by Stuart Wilson) says adamently in his view Chris/Glenister could not have done it. Somehow when Chris is chased down by the police Susan loses it. She goes hysterical in a new way when she sees Chris and his wife’s children. A long soliloquy brings out slowly how tired she had become of her daughter,, how relentless her life with her (from job to child care, to job again), how the girl irritated her by screaming, screaming, screaming, endless demands, never ceasing, never giving her a moment to herself.

The murderer was Susan. The mother suffocated the daughter. She was (we are to see) given no help and had herself to come up with the baby-sitting money. The roar of anger and distress that comes from her is stunning.

The show is about how insanely we react to child molester (who to be sure, those who are, can do awful things; that they are or can be suffering people too. But it’s also about how motherhood is experienced in our society and its phoninesss and pretenses (which Susan inveighs against in the long closing near soliloquy Tennison and her aide, Sgt [police officers) Chris Cromwell (played by Sophie Stanton) rejoins the show (she was in Episode 1 as Jane’s sidekick) and its hardships. What it asks of a woman.

The frame is important. It’s a “termination” — as it opens Jane has an abortion, a left-over from her love affair with an older lover, now married, was part of Prime Suspect 3. Jane is roaring mad at the death of this child because she has lost her own. The title refers to her abortion as well as the loss of Susan’s child.

I know audience members could be strengthened in their opposition to abortion and say, see how over-reacting made Jane blame Chris, and also liken Jane to Susan as two murderers. But that would be entirely false to the feeling of the series. Jane had a hard time getting time off enough for the “termination” — it’s called, and the child would get badly in the way of her career. This does not mean she does not feel bad too, at some level identify with Susan, not as a murderer but as someone in the grip of unfair choices There is too much sacrifice required of women as mothers.

It did need to be longer. We did not learn enough about Jack Warwick’s and Susan’s relationship nor Chris/Anne Sunderland’s. Susan’s confession was sprung too quickly. Still that Chris/Glenister’s innocence is sprung on us works very well. He is never idealized and on the surface could have been prosecuted, even found guilty. No sentimental ideals are pushed before us and a lot of cruel mindless over-reaction. The ambiguities made me think of James’s Turn of the Screw often read (wrongly) misogynistically.

Another effect of cutting the time for the story in the fourth season was indeed to focus on Mirren. She became a continual presence. The film-makers decided to marginalize the other police officers because they didn’t have time to cover them all. IN the next story she was made the focus deliberately.

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Jane (Mirren) and Patrick (Wilson) talking, she intently, he companionably (Scent of Darkness)

The Scent of Darkness

I did have trouble understanding it; that is to say, I couldn’t upon my first watching figure out how the murderer or quite why the murderer did what he did because so much was elliptical and just piled in. It was like watching a story meant to be 3 hours or 4 done in a couple of hours and 20 minutes.

Scent of Darkness had a different script writer, director, and producer: suddenly it all men; Lydna La Plante gone, Sally Head gone. But it was as strongly feminist as ever. By happenstance over on WMST-l the women were talking of how feminists are endlessly accused of being prigs and not have a sense of humor when the case is what’s said to be funny is really not funny to its victims (women in general) and helping to find books which showed this. Scent of Darkness opens with Tennison angry because a woman she wants promoted is not being promoted. The panel in front of her says that’s because this woman is not a team-player, doesn’t get along. Tennison asks for proof? “She has no sense of humor.”

Right.

But I also liked it and was eager to re-watch. I especially (I admit) liked the focus on Jane and giving her an on-going private life and relationship with the psychiatrist she had begun to like and trust in Lost Child: Stuart Wilson as Jane’s boyfriend and the relationship that was suggested. It appealed, and he as an older man (he was Ferdinand Lopez in Pallisers, and in Jewel in the Crown, the shit who impregnates Sarah and she knows better than to want to marry so by her mother and aunt is driven to have an abortion) who is amoral/immoral made empathetic by giving him kindness and acceptance and tolerance if not a will to commit.

Well, my second watching made the program not only make sense but showed the implicitly feminist scene that opened the program was the clue or twig developed for the rest. In addition, for the first time Jane Tennison was slightly more central than the murder story; hitherto her story has been parallel, going alongside sometimes, almost equal in the first program but not the center as it was here.

Basically it’s a reprise of Story or Season 1. Instead of Sergeant Otley trying to get rid of Jane, we have the chief detective in charge who makes the comment, “she had no sense of humor” to Tennison: David Thorndike (played by Stephen Boxer): Thorndike is intensely motivated to destroy Tennison’s career and not quite consciously decides that the two new murders of the first mini-series were not done by the man who Jane put in prison.
In other words, she was responsible for a tremendous miscarriage of justice then. He uses a book that has been published by someone whom George Marlowe fools.

So we have to return to the story matter and central theme of malicious brutal violence against women. What emerges is his time the real murderer is the jailor of Marlowe: there is a problem of probability here — perhaps why I didn’t get what was happening. The idea that jailor seems subject to Marlowe and is acting out Marlowe’s violence doesn’t quite wash, but this allows for Jane having to resolve an old case and return to its issues.

A problem this film had too was this time not all the actors returned. Richard Hawley has been in all the series and he was used centrally as someone loyal to her and that helped bind the films.


DI Richard Haskons (Richard Hawley)

Together they break a code, though since the case is hers, she is repeatedly hauled over the coals in public, reprimanded, taken off the case finally (when she insists she was right in the first place) and at last just about fired. So the humiliations of women a member of WWTTA said are so typical of women’s films are here in spades — but with a twist. We see the way she is made to kowtow, plead for herself, admit error are not only unfair, but shown to be wrong and partly the result of the misogynistic Thorndike. She she wins in the end because silently the intelligent and decent people (John Benfield as her superior, DCS Michael Kernan) are on her side. The very top man is just and lucid.

What I loved best was the slow development of her relationship with Stuart Wilson as Patrick Schofield — from missing a movie they neither of them wanted to see, to taking a bath together while they drink and smoke, to watching TV, to sleeping together, getting up in the morning. It really felt real this, though again we had to strain at the improbability that Patrick, a man who seems so ontologically on her side, would allow himself to interview and half countenance the author of the book who wrote the book saying Jane was wrong. This leads to Jane suspecting Patrick is betraying her and gives rise to powerful scenes of conflicting emotions (in this viewer too) as we watch them seem to break apart. They don’t.

This is one of the stories that has a happy-ish ending, not group exultation this time but Jane asking Thorndike to dance and then sneering at him before she returns to Patrick’s table. Very human.

Not that the violence against women is at all marginalized or the way Jane is almost fired and humiliated for good. I can’t say in real life she would have been fired, for in real life none of this would have happened in this way at all. It’s fairy tale this one, more so than the previous.


A kiss

Maybe it’s the men doing it made a love story and powerful or empowered woman (they would believe that) so central. Mirren was here more central than the previous 5 stories, only I do think without Stuart Wilson the depths of feeling at moments would not have been there. This too is part of a woman’s life and in this story Mirren could carry off having happiness in private as well as success in public.

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She (Emma Thompson) in Song of Lunch

I want to compare Mirren to Emma Thompson as archetypes. I watched the powerful Song of Lunch two nights ago and it has rightly been given favorable reviews: this one retells the story and slowly developing ironic poetic perspective. The film is an adaptation of a poem by Christopher Reid.

At first I loved it, then by the end I found myself angered by one of the two opposing themes or messages that were conveyed: the one where we are to despise the misery of “he” (Alan Rickman) as brought on by himself.


He (Alan Rickman)

I know you can take it the opposing way, but only by watching a good deal of the movie against the grain. In the movie Thompson plays an archetype she often does — not acknowledged. The headmistress, her teeth a kind of vagina dentata. she was that in spades in An Education. A part of this comes out in her as Elinor Dashwood, dry lone unmarried possible old maid. Here it grated strongly because she was not a victim (as in Wit) and was so sleek and well-adjusted, such a winner with her successful novelist husband, beautiful flat, life, daughters. Maybe Rickman was self-absorbed, narcissistic, felt sorry for himself, spoiled the lunch by his morbid behavior, but he was genuine and his faults preferable to her self-complacency, conventional success, coolness.

I suppose Reid maybe did hate “she” but the film makers made “she” our norm that is good not ambiguous, not cold, not the result of luck. In Mirren’s series we see the common fates of women.

So for me I much prefer the drunken, half-incompetent, often wretched (behind the scenes they fight and spoil things for one another) Wilson-Mirren archetype to this of Thompson, with what she demands of Rickman and he can’t come up to. I’m saying that at heart I find after all I’m preferring Mirren’s archetypal iconography fully than Thompson’s as developed by films with their pro-social, pro-conventional moral turns. Helen Mirren’s films have taught me something that I had not realized was part of Emma Thompson’s.

Lastly: the film adaptation of LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982)


Smiley (Alec Guiness) and Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston)

I have been struck with how LeCarre through Hopcraft (Tinker Tailor) or Hopkins (Smiley’s People) is an inverse presentation of Lynda Plante’s perspective, or perhaps I should say she has reversed LeCarre’s. LeCarre is a rare male writer not to be a misogynist finally or anti-feminist. He is often deeply sympathetic to his heroines, makes them strong, independent, complicated. Not marginalized. Yet not central. As adapted into films, they are victims in the sense of LaPlante: the world stacked against them, men murderous. In Tinker Tailor by episode 3 one young woman who gets involved with the circus (spies) has been abducted, probably raped, tortured, killed. We never see her but the experience Ricki Tarr (Hywell Bennett drop dead beautiful in the Anthony Andrews mould) has galvanizes himself into action to expose the “mole.” We see Smiley (Alec Guiness) visit an old girlfriend, now retired from the circus because she found out too much and her hands are twisted from torture; she is clearly as old as she is utterly available. She is left with an old dog for company, “safe” in Oxford – lovely street off a fine park. The eldely actress reminded me of Dorothy Tutin. In Smiley’s People we have an older woman (Eileen Atkins) who has lived a desolate life separated from her daughter as the underlying motivating story. The same holds true of Meirelles Constant Gardener

Both Smiley and Wilson are presented as protective tender man (reminding me of Robin Ellis as Poldark in some of his behaviors to towards his two beloved women). Plante took their women and made them center repeatedly, made us see the torture, the rape, their desperate lives. The mode, the action, the implications, and the larger political issues are then feminized.

Ellen

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Casper David Friedrich (1774-1840), Man and Woman [?] Gazing at the Moon (1819)

My friendly (and kind) readers,

Will I hope remember last week I told of how I had come to decide to fulfill a long-held desire, to write a paper where I would have to gaze at, study, write about the landscapes of Ann Radcliffe, visual sources and her verbal fantasias. Well I did so and am chuffed to be able to report that proposal has been accepted for presentation at the South Central Society for Eighteenth Century Studies coming conference at in the Grove Park Inn (Asheville, South Carolina) whose topic is (to me) the delightful Panoramas and Prospects (vistas and visions if you prefer).

I’ve put the proposal on my site. I used Elizabeth Bennet’s enthusiastic outburst upon conemplating her coming journey with her uncle and aunt Gardiner (at that point) to the Lake District: “‘What are men to rocks and mountains?': The Content of Ann Radcliffe’s Landscapes”.

I know the title there is “contentlessness,” but that is yukky made-up word and I’m not sure I wouldn’t do better simply saying content — if you read my brief two paragraphs, you will see I mean to show they are not contentless.


Alfonso Simonetti, Ancor Non Torna, illustration for 19th century Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest

Radcliffe’s texts have been long close to my heart. I’ve been writing on line about her for years, not just blogs, and foremother poet essays, but meditating at length her Sicilian Romance, and Romance of the Forest. I’ve taught her books, and now will try to write professionally about her.

My idea will come from my studies of Oliphant’s gothic, Beatrice Battaglia and Italian studies of romanticism and Austen, and my sense of how Radcliffe coped with her distress by projecting it onto visions and then gradually worked out stories which delved a liberal Whig, a Foxite (yes) or Girondist point of view.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

I have been given pause what we should call ourselves. Last night I watched the most horrifying film I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen some horror. It’s a 1974 Frederick Wiseman film called Primate where he filmed the people or scientists who “do” science at Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Atlanta. (I hate to call them that but that’s why they would call themselves and would probably be granted that definition because of their methods of documentation) The daily cruelty inflicted on a group of apes unluckily caught and enslaved in cages is terrifying as you watch them do the meanest, most absurd, brutal, exploitation, and useless experiments on these animals. Researching these animals’ sexuality under conditions of extreme imprisonment, drugging, imprisonment inside various kinds of harnesses, versions of chains, includes forcing a chimp to ejaculate while you feed him grape juice; you keep him in cage, starve him so he is hungry and will come to the front and you put your hand in and do this to him. This is minor. I saw one gibbon beheaded slowly. The people wear doctors’ outfits. They are doing science, continually writing down every thing these animals are coerced into doing in these cages

I then read an chapter printed in a 1989 book by Thomas Benson and Carolyn Anderson, Reality Fictions, where I learned as of that year the Yerkes institute was still performing these acts.

To my surprise I discovered it began with Anthony Trollope’s description of his realistic method IN CYFH? where he discussed self-reflexively how he put his “facts” on a page, what he meant to do in his novels: to make us see and face the real details of the world and see their relations and consequences quite apart from what the characters claim these are.

This is what Wiseman does. Benson and Anderson then quoted and discussed James Agee documentary book on sharecroppers in the depression where a similar point is made about political discourse and how to be effective.

Of course the Yerkes and its supporters have attacked Wiseman as unfair, gross, skewing the evidence. They say their talk was not included, their justifications. In fact they partly are. But these are irrelevant.

Look at what people do. I cannot better Benson and Anderson’s straight descriptions and evaluations:

Primate is 105 minutes long-feature length-and contains, according to an analysis by Liz Ellsworth, 569 shots.8 That works out to an average of eleven seconds per shot for Primate, approximately half of the average shot length of twenty-three seconds in Wiseman’s High School, and a third of the average shot length of thirty-two seconds in Titicut Follies. The unusually large number of shots in Primate is not simply a fact, but a clue, both to the rhythm of the film and to its method of building meanings.

The film opens with a long series of shots in which we may first notice the ambiguity of the film’s title, which applies equally well to men and apes. We see a large composite photograph, with portraits of eminent scientists, hanging, presumably, on a wall at the Yerkes Center. Wiseman cuts from the composite portrait to a series of eight individual portraits, in series, then to a sign identifying Yerkes Regional Primate Re­search Center, a bust of a man on a pedestal, an exterior shot of the center, and then a series of four shots of apes in their cages. The comparison is
obvious, though not particularly forceful, and it depends for its meaning both upon the structure Wiseman has chosen to use-at least he does not intercut the apes and the portraits-and upon our own predictable surprise at noticing how human the apes look.
Slightly later in the film, still very near the beginning, a pair of sequences occur that are crucial to how we will experience the rest of the film. Research­ers are watching and recording the birth of an orangutan. The descriptive language is objective, but not altogether free of anthropomorphism: for exam­ple, it is hard not to refer to the female giving birth as the “mother.”

Immediately following the birth sequence, we watch women in nursing gowns mothering infant apes: the apparatus of American babyhood is evi­dent-plastic toys, baby bottles, diapers, baby scales, and a rocking chair. To reinforce the comparison, we hear the women speaking to the infant apes. “Here. Here. Take it. Take it. Come on,” says the first woman, offering a toy to an infant ape. Then another woman enters the nursery, also dressed in gown and mask. “Good morning, darlings. Good morning. Mama’s babies? You gonna be good boys and girls for Mommy?” A moment later she contin­ues, “Mama take your temperature. Come on, we’ll take your temperature. It’s all right. It’s all right. It’s all right. It’s all right.” Then a man enters and hands cups to the infants. He says, “Come on. Come on. Here’s yours.”

The rhetorical effect of this scene is to reinforce our sentimental identifica­tion with the apes. And this scene, by comparison, makes even more frighten­ing a scene that follows close upon it, in which a small monkey is taken from its cage, screaming, as a man with protective gloves pins its arms behind its back and clamps his other hand around its neck.

After these scenes, every image in the film invites us to continue enacting comparisons, as part of the process by which we actively make meanings out of the images.

Wiseman establishes a dialectic between acts that we are likely to perceive as kindness to the apes and acts that we are likely to perceive as cruelty. Do the acts of kindness balance the acts of cruelty? Is there a journalistic attempt at fairness here? Not really. We understand that in this institution, the apes are subject to human domination, mutilation, and termination. In such a situation, the acts of kindness do not balance the acts of heartless research. Rather, kindness is reduced to hypocrisy, a lie told to ease the consciences of the scientists and to keep the apes under control. Far from balancing the harshness of the research scenes, the scenes of kindness turn the research into a cruelty and a betrayal.

Let us examine briefly another sequence in Primate. It is the climactic sequence of the film, a little over twenty minutes and over one hundred shots long. In it, researchers remove a gibbon from its cage, anesthetize it, drill a hole in its skull, insert a needle, then open its chest cavity, decapitate it, crack open its skull, and slice the brain for microscope slides. It is a harrowing sequence. From a structural standpoint, Wiseman uses the techniques we have noticed earlier. The images are often highly condensed, with close-ups of needles, drills, scalpels, the tiny beating heart, the gibbon’s terrified face, scissors, jars, vises, dials, and so on.

We are invited to engage in our continued work of making comparison and metaphors: the gibbon is easy to identify with, in its terror of these silent and terminal medical procedures. We are the gibbon, and we are the surgeons. At another level, we see the gibbons’ cages as a sort of death row and call upon our memories of prison movies when we see the helpless fellow gibbons crying out from their cages as the victim is placed back into its cage for a twenty-five-minute pause in the vivisection.

Wiseman has carefully controlled progression and continuity in this section of the film, first by placing the sequence near the end of the film, so that it becomes the climax of the preceding comedy, and then by controlling its internal structure for maximum effect. The sequence is governed by the rules of both fiction and documentary. We do not know until almost the very last second that the gibbon is certainly going to die. Earlier in the film we have seen monkeys with electrodes planted in their brains, so we are able to hope that the gibbon will survive. We keep hoping that it will live, but as the operation becomes more and more destructive of the animal, we must doubt our hopes. And then, with terrible suddenness, and with only a few seconds’ warning, the surgeon cuts off the gibbon’s head. We feel a terrible despair that it has come to this. But the sequence continues through the meticulous, mechanical process of preparing slides of the brain. Finally we see the researchers sitting at the microscope to examine the slides for which the gibbon’s life has been sacrificed. And for us, as viewers, the discovery ought to be important if it is to redeem this death. The two researchers talk:

FIRST SCIENTIST: Oh, here’s a whole cluster of them. Here, look at this. SECOND SCIENTIST: Yeah. My gosh, that is beautiful.
FIRST SCIENTIST: By golly, and see how localized. No fuzzing out. SECOND SCIENTIST: For sure it does not look like dirt, or-
FIRST SCIENTIST: No, no, it’s much too regular.
SECOND SCIENTIST: I think we are on our way.
FIRST SCIENTIST: Yeah. That’s sort of interesting.

The whole operation, which viewers are invited to experience as pitiable and frightening, seems to have been indulged in for the merest idle curiosity, and, if the scientists cannot distinguish brains from dirt, at the lowest possible level of competence. Our suspicions are confirmed a few minutes later when a group of researchers seated at a meeting reassure each other that pure research is always justified, even if it seems to be the pursuit of useless knowledge.

We have already mentioned the sound-image relationships in this se­quence in discussing the structural uses of comparison and continuity. But let us point to some special issues that relate to Wiseman’s use of sound. At many places in the film, people talk to apes, creating a dramatic fiction that the apes can understand and respond to human speech. But in the vivisection sequence, no word is spoken to the victim. This silence is almost as disturbing as the operation itself, because a bond of identification offered earlier is now denied.

The distortion of sexual behavior, in the name of understanding sexual behavior, sometimes reduces sexuality to mechanics, as in the many scenes where apes are stimulated to erection and ejaculation by means of electrodes implanted in their brains, or the scene in which a technician masturbates an ape with a plastic tube in one hand while distracting the ape with a bottle of grape juice in the other. At other times, the scientists seem gossipy, as they sit and whisper about sex outside a row of cages. The effect of the sex scenes is comic and undermines the dignity of the presumably scientific enterprise we are watching.

But along with the comedy, there is an undercurrent of horror, at times straightforward, at times almost surrealistic. Sometimes the horror occurs in small moments: a technician tries to remove a small monkey from its wire cage. He reaches inside the door of the cage and grasps the monkey, which tries to evade capture by clinging to the front of the cage next to the door, an angle that makes it difficult for the technician to maneuver it out of the door. The technician reaches up with his other hand and releases another catch, revealing that the whole front of the cage is hinged. The front of the cage swings open, and the technician grasps the clinging monkey from be­hind, as our momentary pleasure at the comedy of the impasse gives way to a small despair: there is no escape.

Benson and Anderson found the snipping of the gibbon’s head off the moment the film most made them shudder; for me the cruelty of these people was felt most when Wiseman photographed one of the apes operated on and we see him from the back with no clothes, no fur, just shuddering and not a thing is done to soothe, comfort, protect him. And again when the ape operated on so horrifyingly is brought back to his cell, and just dumped there, and the camera catches the creatures intensely distress confused eyes as he lays on the cement floor, and the keeper locks the door on him and walks away.

Oh the film is rightly called Primate. The creatures in charge in their white coats doing these deeds are primates just as surely as the creatures they torture.

This film more than any other shows the wisdom and decency of Sy Montgomery and the “Woman who walked with apes” (Goodall, Fossey, and Gildikas) whose methods are called “unscientific.” They watched the apes in their real habitat, did not attempt to control or change or manipulate them, took into account the apes’ subjective life and studied them from within as a culture. Theirs is the real way to discover truths about these animals.


Birute Gildikas and an orangutan she is genuinely getting to know and understand

Ellen

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Valentin (Russell Braun) is murdered in a duel he insisted on having with Faust; he curses his sister, Marguerite (Marina Poplavskaya) as he lays dying

Dear friends and readers.

Score yet another triumph for the Met this season: an enhanced humane Gounod’s Faust. I had read that the reviews of this new production were unfavorable, and while we were in the theater, we heard a few members of the Met audience fiercely boo the director, Des McAnuff, and came on the Internet tonight to write a blog fully prepared to begin by urging readers not to believe the nonsense that this production is a mess. Instead I found several strongly positive reviews, e.g., Berkshire on stage and an English review (from last year’s first production, a blog, The Eyes Have It.

So my task is easier: I need only agree and expatiate a little differently. Des McAnuff and his team have given an intelligent turn to, replaced and reversed the original punitive and mostly misogynistic Calvinist later 19th century Catholic framework of Gounod and Barbier and Carre’s Faust out of Carre’s play (based loosely on Goethe). The frame is Faust is a scientist who is in his laboratory despairing over the first use and what’s to come of his atomic bomb; he takes poison and the devil appears to stop him; the action that ensues is his nightmare, from which we return to the lab at the close to see him die. The warning lesson story of the innocent young seamstress seduced, impregnated and abandoned, left to depend on God who proceeds to make her murder her new-born infant, be cursed by her brother, and die in the arms of Christ, becomes an exposure of the cruelty of a culture which gives her little joy, and when she snatches happiness, perversely turns on her through its evil forces (not just Mephistopheles, but the village which rejects her, the brother who would have murdered her perhaps had he not exploded into a duel with Faust).I was so moved by Marguerite’s story and the performance of Marina Poplavskaya I came near tears, especially when she lays down in her jail cell and turns to its walls, and rises deluded and half-crazed now to think she has her baby back (for whom we saw her sewing baby things), and then to imagine she is still being romanced by Faust.

There are some strains with this conception. One review I read complained that McAnuff had not been daring enough and wished the atomic bomb frame had been stronger. He did eschew Catholic imagery except when the script demanded a huge cross: instead we had an Escher like setting with a enigmatic sky for background.


Far Shot.

I felt there was enough reinforcement without departing from the original text.The chorus of men were throughout men home from WW2, and in the third act pantomime stressed how many had been killed through the grieving women and families, the crippling of the men, and the senselessness of the killing. McAnuff chose not to change the script, only re-picture its context.

There was a problem with the psychology of the characters. Faust is presented as really loving Marguerite, as no rake; the duet in Act 2 was exquisitely lovingly acted and sung.


Jonas Kaufmann as Faust and Marina Poplavaskaya as Marguerite

It therefore doesn’t make sense that he should abandon her. He’s at first all love, all tenderness; then he is all longing to help her (rather like the character of Billy wanting to help the pregnant Julie Jordan in the 1956 musical Carousel). Faust looks so grief-striken for Marguerite, so remorseful we wonder why he needs Mephistopheles to give him permission to return to her, permission that’s not granted.


Rene Pape in the background as Mephistopheles, all sardonic grinning

I found Pape as Mephistopheles well sung, but the character’s comic interjections (meant as sarky relief that did get a few laughs in our movie-house) became either irrelevant or part of what didn’t matter; they were thankless. Perhaps Kauffman’s voice was too harsh; he is not a sweet tenor, but then he sang well and he is so handsome:

So the pious melodrama with a snarky devil was turned into a genuine personal tragedy that was inconsistently unmotivated, with voices chosen that further altered the feel or mood. Marguerite’s innocent early lover, Siebert (sung by a mezzo soprano, Michele Loser) becomes a friend to her, a contrast to the men of the opera:


Seibert (Michele Losier)

Marguerite emerges as the center of the piece, and Marina Poplavaskaya was brilliant as actress and singer. Tt’s not wild to see this story of a woman driven to infanticide as intervening on the abortion debate today and attitudes taken towards pregnant women across cultures, including societies which practice honor killing of women.

A facebook friend, Judy Shoaf agreed the updating worked and the production was excellent and Marguerite the touching center:

Totally agree about Poplavskaya. It was her story and she was really really touching. I loved the final bit, though, which kind of made sense of Faust’s experience. I also found strange parallels with the Powell and Pressburger film Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which follows two friends (an Englishman and a German) from about 1900 to 1945. It’s a film about soldiers who in their youth believe in honor, fight a duel, fight a war as a kind of sport, and then confront Hitler and WWII and have to change their model of the world. Deborah Kerr plays 3 women in the story, so that she appears as a governess both men love, a WWI nurse whom General Candy marries, and finally as his young driver in London as WWII gets under way (as Poplavskaya appears in the “modern” lab as well as in the WWI village). I felt there was an affinity between the old Faust in the first scene and the German character in 1945 — physically and spiritually, the tired old man. BESIDES all these thoughts, I really enjoyed the opera — wonderful music and acting, if a bit weak on spectacle.

Oops, in previous comment it should be 1941 or so where I wrote 1945 twice. Blimp begins just after the Boer War and ends early in the British involvement in WWII.

I don’t know the Blimp material. It’s often described and alluded to. I do know Deborah Kerr’s typology and Marina Poplavskaya fits that: the intensely well-meaning passionate young woman who wants to live. I felt other parallels in recent art, real life (as far as I can ascertain what that might be) & what I’ve read. Little touches like the man with the sunglasses, gloves and black outfit ushering Marguerite up the stairs to death (aka Christ). I reviewed a book about how women have been accused as a matter of course of murdering their babies (remember Scott’s Heart of Midlothian where Effie is nearly hung yet in the story line marginalized). I am so ignorant of German culture; also later 19th century French catholicism which the director McAnuff was fighting every step of the way. Marina Poplavaskaya is a religious woman (from the interview) but we see how she reached out as one can to the humanity of pity and empathy.

Izzy said the music was good: she kept mentioning Mephistopheles’ aria in the first act as superb (see her insightful review) and both she and Jim liked Pape’s performance as the amoral entrepreneur in his fancy pinstripe suit:

Jim thought Kauffman miscast: too strong as a presence too; we needed someone who could seem weaker. I thought Kauffman’s comment during his interview to the audience to see this opera as scenes from a very long play (ultimately Goethe’s enormous ten-act play) was helpful. Left out are the linking scenes; for example, what was the relationship between Faust & Mephistopheles was not really developed. Yet the acting was so strong and persuasive, it made up for these gaps.

I confess it was a new story to me. I’ve never gotten through Goethe’s Faust I (in translation), much less opened his Faust II. So I had all the suspense of an unknown story too. I now know why it’s popular. I did notice that the audience at the Met and our theater preferred to applaud Pape and Kauffman loudly and hardly “brava’d” for Marina P. I felt they were embarrassed and wondered if the popularity were ambiguous like that of Leo Janacek’s 1903 Jenufa which I saw a few years ago and was startled to discover was interpreted very hostilely to Jenufa and her stepmother (see travel blog and partial reprint in comments)

Ellen

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