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Archive for June, 2012


Two shots of Kate Winslet as a sensually relaxed and then alertly vibrant Mildred Pierce during the first night’s tryst with Guy Pearce as Monty Beragon (Todd Haynes HBO mini-series, Mildred Pierce, 2011


The alluring presence of the subversive male, Monty Beragon — the last thing he’d think of doing is supporting any family (Guy Pearce that first night) – he does have some of Clark Gable’s quality, only more deliberate

Dear friends and readers,

For a couple of weeks now a movie has gotten to me where I live. I’ve been more personally engaged by the HBO mini-series adaptation of John M. Cain’s 1941 Mildred Pierce (written/directed by Todd Haynes) than I have in a long while. I watch mesmerized, sometimes feeling so depressed about myself, sometimes unbearably moved when Kate-Mildred has done some emotionally painful act I would never allow myself to do but have thought of, citing her and using stills from the movie when I wanted an example women’s married and love life, and motherhood and career troubles. See “A small typical history” and my response to the (silly) Anne-Marie Slaughter essay, “Why women still can’t have it all.”

I read John M. Cain’s novel and discovered that the movie follows the literal surface of the book closely, and faithfully conveys some of its themes, but goes far beyond it in presenting a coherent examined account of the heroine’s experience, and then I watched the famous 1945 murder-mystery film noirish version with Joan Crawford as Mildred (screenplay by a team that included Wm Faulkner, Ranald MacDougal, Catherine Turner, directed by Michael Curtiz)


Parallel scene of Joan Crawford as Mildred on her first night with Zachary Scott as Monty: note how reluctant, coy, clearly pained to go through with this is Crawford)

The 2011 is a compassionate but unsentimental dramatization not (as Jeanine Basinger says in her wonderfully perceptive A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960) of a central conflict a woman who driven to a career experiences between the demands of that career and wife- and motherhood, but rather her difficulty in creating for herself an authentically fulfilling existence sexually and as a mother, given the rotten values or norms those around her either enact instinctively and which she unwittingly passes onto her daughter.

This blog will be an account of watching the 2011 mini-series as it unfolded; a second will deal comparatively and concisely with the 1945 film and Cain’s other novels turned into 1940s film noir and women’s films; a third blog will review Jeanine Basinger’s book.

*********************
Part I:

Mildred during her job search: it’s not yielding any job, much less income to support herself and girls and house


Bert (Brían F. O’Byrne) about to be kicked out: he’s done all he can with the lawn, and means to visit his mistress

I watched the first of this six hour adaptation of McCain’s novel late last night. McCain may not be a genius of the Joyce type, he doesn’t soar even occasionally in the way of Mantel, but he is a striking mirror of US life in the early and mid-20th century. He’s rather like James Jones who wrote Some Came Running, John O’Hara (Butterfield 8); Gore Vidal remarks that these books mirror the loneliness, anonymity, and inculculation of excruciating class and money inferiority used as a knife edge to drive oneself to workaholism and social-networking in US life; the success and glamor are false; boredom, self-regard, a kind of glumness and fear of death characterize these novels. Mildred Pierce differs from all the others in that the woman at the center is not a femme fatale, the story is centered in her experience (and thus proto-feminist), and when at the end it’s clear something has gone very wrong in this family, it’s not her fault. It’s just the way things are. I’d say the most striking thing about the book is its lack of reflective thought.

For the story of the 2011 film, see the story of Cain’s novel, Mildred Pierce. Except for some 1) white-washing (in the book Mildred embezzles money from her publicly-sold restaurant company’s stock and in the 2011 film she does not) and 2) more importantly the way the mother-daughter becomes central and supersedes the story of Mildred’s infatuation with Monty and Bert’s quiet or implicit rivalry with Monty — the film’s events and plot-design are those of the novel.

It’s Kate Winslet’s movie. She is in every scene. In this segment, she is instead simply trying to hold onto her integrity and not go down in the world and how hard it is.

We open with her cooking cakes and husband out in the garden. He comes in, honey I’ll be late for supper. It emerges he’s seeing a woman and she is very angry, they fight and he leaves, suitcase in hand, taking the car with him. What now? We watch her try to cope and seem very quiescent, not hysterical at all. She has no training for money-making jobs. WE see these abrasive encounters with employment agency people who tell her she’s got to be realistic, no one wants her, these are hard times, no opening for receptionists, and as for salesladies they are paid on commission. She is humiliated by the way she’s treated — rightly — by one encounter with this rich woman who wants her as a submissive housekeeper, who tries to control her every movement and is gratingly nasty. Slowly we watch her lean to accept a position as a waitress.


Wally

Wally Burgan (James LeGros), her husband’s “friend” realizes the husband has left. Mildred’s friend and neighbor, Lucy Gessler (Melissa Leo), the confidant (with confidants like this who needs enemies?) gives her advice on how to manipulate this man to want to marry her. Don’t let him take you out, then you owe him; cook for him.


Lucy

She obeys and ends up in bed anyway. He’s no beauty and the realism of the sex makes Girls look glamorous. They are awkward, the encounter doesn’t go on for long, afterwards they bicker about how he tried to cut her husband out, but he is supportive.

She has two daughters, Ray, a sweet young child (Quinn McColgan) and Veda (Morgan Turner), who has been taught by Mildred to think the world of herself, and (alas) now disdains her mother: this is a place the film does not depart from conventions. She is the ultimate sweet mother trying to protect her children,and probably caters to them too submissively, presents a false picture of their world.


Mildred explaining to the older daughter, Veda (here Morgan Turner) where Dad has gone, and that he’s not coming back

It’s important to see that in this and the next part there is a real love shown between Veda and Mildred. They do more or less cooperate. Veda does want her mother’s approval; she also wants to look up to her mother.


Arriving for a humiliating interview at a great house (Part I); this experience drives her to take a position as a waitress in a lunch-restaurant

One flaw throughout is that Mildred’s her mother and father are kept at a distance from her as if they exist to take the kids for weekends. Realistically they would be a strong presence and influence outcomes. Similarly Bert’s parents exist to complain and insinuate that Mildred is not a good mother (where was she the night Ray got sick) and take Bert in.
But perhaps the film is mirroring today in the US, 2012, the disjunctions in extended families.

***************
Part II


Thinking about what’s to come


The first job offer; Ida as we first see her and she first sees Mildred

Unexpectedly, as I came to the climax of Part 2 I felt depressed. While there were some sequences I’d love to watch again and again (such as Mildred’s first encounter and weekend escape with Monty to his beach-house), almost obsessively, the total effect was to make me feel bad about myself and at the same time feel that what I’ve experienced is common.

Cain’s is a mainstream book and this self-consciously a mainstream film. It’s as if it’s a self-reflexive imitation; one can see this in the perfection of the costumes; the actors have been instructed to seem to imitate 1940s types in movies. (Upon watching the 1945 movie I realized they did not; they are 2011 types dressed up in 1940s clothes and talking 1940s slang and sentiments, but what they do and their expectations and taboos are those of 2011.

Now we watch Mildred’s slow climb to success. After she refuses to kowtow to the rich lady, she takes that job as a waitress and begins to do well. She’s still making and selling pies to neighborhood people, and she notices how bad the pies at are the restaurant. Enlisting the help and friendship of Ida (Mare Winningham), the woman who hired her, Ida and she maneuvers the restaurant owner to buying her pies. When this success brings in more money, she hires Lettie (Marin Ireland), a woman like herself in class and type, to help and comes home to find that woman in her uniform. Her darling older daughter, Veda (a New Yorker reviewer feels that in Cain’s book this older daughter, Veda is presented as a bitch) has insisted Lettie wear one of the uniforms Veda found hidden in a pile of clothes. This recalls the woman who was trying to boss, humiliate and hire Mildred as her housekeeper.

Veda is really trying to humiliate and bully her mother (exposure is not going to stop the mother from working as her money is going to support Veda’s singing and piano lessons), intimidating her. It takes Mildred considerable time to break through the taboos and accuse the girl of needling her and then the girl is insolent and she spanks her.

Bert, Mildred’s husband has begun to visit and looks yearningly at Mildred, and in one visit Veda plays the same trick of bringing out the liquor bottle she knows her mother is drinking to show the mother up to the mother. By the end of the scene, though, Mildred is lying to Veda, and saying she has a plan to open a restaurant and is doing this job temporarily as a way of studying them. This sickened me because it means Mildred buys into her daughter’s values of despising people in uniforms. Yet I’d hate to wear a unifor, and this is the first movie I’ve seen that I can recall where the reality that such things are status-losses is brought out openly.

Then we get some fairy tale: by a flick of the hand, Wally the husband’s ex-friend who is Mildred’s on and off not very passionate lover seems to have a free property going for nothing (fairy tale here) and gives it to Mildred to fix into a restaurant. Mildred must get a divorce in order not to be liable for Bert’s debts and lo and behold, the divorce is gotten. She takes Bert’s car from him, and seems to wrest the house too. But much of this is Mildred’s own enterpreneurship; we see her work out what her restaurant should look like; her buy things, her calculating costs as she goes to vendors for foodstuffs:


The businesswoman

Montage, time passing, and Mildred’s on her last day of work before throwing herself into running her own restaurant, when a very attractive male shows up, Monty Beragon, and it’s lust at first sight for both. The scenes I said I’d watch over and over come in here. She meets him after she leaves (apparently forever) and we see them in a convertible, then at the beach, then swimming, then making love. To me an alluring sequence also done utterly believably with him as vagabond-smart-aleck. I loved the release.

Alas she comes home to discover younger daughter in hospital. Of course she’s blamed with a “where were you?” Husband, in-laws there. Slow melodrama where child comes near death, seems saved, but then dies. Yes her daughter dies, and she was not there for the first night. But for the next two she is, and the child dies because they have not the medicine to save her. The child gets pneumonia from having been taken to the beach by her grandparents. Mildred stays all night and the third part closes on her going home to older daughter, crawling into bed, hugging and clinging to her.

Nonetheless, and it’s central to see this: Mildred is winning as the world understands it and is supposed admirable: loving mother, responsible at her job, entrepreneurial. Jeanine Basinger says women’s films are centered on a supposed inexorable conflict of love, marriage, and motherhood on the one side, and career on the other. Not this film: were it not for her career, her family would have gone under.

This is where I felt bad: I thought to myself how little money I’ve ever made. And when I went to bed, I said as much to Jim who replied: “making money is not important in life” or maybe it was “it’s not important to make money in life.” There’s much more important things (words to this effect). That helped. The movie got to me in other words.

Veda, the older daughter in the film is not a bitch, but rather what Mildred wishes she could be, and Kate Winslet as Mildred is proud of her. And I understood that.

**********************
Part III:


Christmas presents once she is making some money, but not enough to buy the piano Veda would prefer

A friend suggested to me that the movie falls off about mid-way. Not for me. We now watch Mildred at long last succeed after very hard work; she is helped by Ida, her waitress friend from the restaurant she was at who becomes a sort of junior partner; also by Lucy, her best friend who urges her to take on liquor in her restaurant once prohibition is over. The best friend becomes her bartender.

She is vitriolically anti-Roosevelt. That’s interesting and in character. Those who fail deserve to, they are losers. Look at her.

Emotionally she is more and more under the thumb of Veda, her older daughter, somehow subject to that girls’ sneers and utterly selfish demands and there’s a powerful mother-daughter scene where she has failed to give the girl a fancy piano for Xmas and the girl disdains her.

Monty, the sexy boyfriend is turning out not to be such a wonderful thing. He has a name, a famous family, part of a Hollywood crowd and initially helps her restaurant as a numinous person there, but as time goes on he becomes a drone, making no money, living off her and he makes no pretenses of love and after a while it does get on her nerves. Worse, he talks about her condescendingly and sexily with Veda behind her back.

At one point Monty accuses Mildred of having no friends; certainly she has no wide circle. I think that’s common for working to lower middle Americans. What time do they have? What do they have to offer others that they want? In the US there is no sense of community outside family and church is a ritual. The best friend is possible if the woman does not change, does not move and her friend stays in the same socio-economic circumstances That’s increasingly uncommon.

The part ends with him attempting to soothe her into acceptance of him by rape (so he calls his brand of sex) and her breaking free and driving home in a storm, almost getting herself killed and entering the house to tell her daughter she can have that piano.

********************
Part IV


Mildred again contemplative (a favorite scene for me), from towards the end of Part 4


Then walking and talking with Lucy, her friend

One of the themes brought out in Part Four is women’s friendship. Lucy, Mildred’s neighbor, remains a stalwart support. Ida (Mare Winningtom) the waitress who helped her to her first job and now start her restaurant, has become her partner. Mildred now has 4 outlets! One very fancy one near a beach. We see Mildred and her now best & longtime friend walking on the beach together, arms around one another for a moment. Monty the sexy man (guy Pearce) seems long gone as Part 4 opens. But Mildred’s husband remains in touch; we are not old how he supports himself


Evan Rachel Wood is clearly cold, hard, a luscious femme fatale

The flaw in the book transferred to the film is the daughter becomes a version of The Bad Seed, a film and book of the 1960s where the US false worship of children is put into reverse and parents get back at all they have done for children who were ungrateful, or grew up to be small, mean, cold by reading a book and seeing a film on a purely vicious child. Willam March’s book as movie and play operated as a form of release. Here the girl is too bad, and the efforts of Wood and Haynes to now and then show the girl feeling some remorse are not enough to keep a needed realism.

This segment’s focus and climax is Mildred’s estrangement from Veda, the daughter. The decision was made to have an older actress (Evan Rachel Wood) suddenly play Veda older and I’m not sure it works. Veda is the scheming ruthless amoral woman. She has gotten involved with a group of young people who can give her access to movie part, one is a rich young man, it happens the son of the woman who so humiliated Mildred years ago when Mildred applied for a job as a housekeeper with her. The woman visits Mildred and she is astonished at the accusations the woman is throwing at her, and knows nothing. We can see how her face freezes, her teeth are are guards of her rigidly held jaw:

Turns out Veda has been having an affair with the young man and it emerges is faking a pregnancy, so with the help of old Wally (who helped Mildred to own the building she made her restaurant success in) suing this woman. Mildred is horrified, they fight, the girl insults her egregiously and shows she despises her mother. She is not capable of much love. Mildred means to throw her out and demands she leave, and then thinks the better of it (as she did her husband), but (like the husband) by this time the girl has left.

Estrangement. I was very moved. Mildred “can’t stand it” and actually tracks the girl down and drives to the apartment house Veda lives in and watches her come in. I would not have allowed myself to do that.


Mildred watching from her car, trying to hide her presence

Veda is also becoming a success. She had the grand piano, training lessons in playing and singing and as the episode ends she is on the radio singing opera. Mildred did all she could to foster this girl’s pride and talent and her hard work has won out, only she is not allowed to join in. Mildred’s husband is in contact with Veda, and he takes Veda to her own beach restaurant to listen to Veda sing on the radio.


At the close of Part 4 Bert and Mildred have not changed so very much; she is startled to see her daughter’s name and picture in the paper

The Part ends with Mildred walking off to a bannister in her fanciest restaurant to look out at the ocean. She looks intense but we are not given any access to her thoughts: pride (she would), depression, what? Haynes seems to be the kind of film-maker who regards voice-over as effeminate. A loss to his film.

***********************
Part 5

In the expensive bedroom, in expensive clothes Mildred has provided, she looks down at her arrogant daughter

Much of Part 5 was unexpectedly weaker than what came before — except the very ending. This was partly because it followed the book and the book does degenerate into this fierce conflict between the daughter and mother. Mildred tries to reach Veda by going to the prestigious teacher-orchestra leader Mildred had hired in the first place, but he laughs at her, and then, seemingly by chance, she meets up with Monty again.

They renew the love-making (in appealing scenes) and she allows him to persuade her to buy his old family mansion. Mildred and Monty marry. They give a party for “swells” and this brings Veda back: she sings there, moves in with her mother and allows her mother to pay for everything. We see Mildred between Bert, the husband, still faithfully there (and now living with his parents, his mistress having returned to her husband, now doing much better), and Monty at the Carnegie Hall watching her daughter solo perform before a huge audience seemingly entranced. Mildred is ecstatic, but we see she is neglecting her business and spending money on the house, daughter, Monty that should be spent on the business. Ida tries to reach her to do something about her business, but Mildred evades Ida.

The shit hits the fan: the men (all men) controlling the shares tell Mildred she must sell her house, stop milking the business, and her lawyer-friend, Wally, tells her she must demand Veda contribute substantially to expenses. She fears asking. She knows in her gut her daughter does not love her, but she must ask. She begins with Monty and quickly the situation blows up when she discovers (as we are to suspect) Monty has become Veda’s lover and they are knowingly fleecing her. Veda scorns her, needles her, openly jeers.


Veda: the scene is melodramatic, theatrical, rather like an opera

Monty opens up to characterize Mildred as using him, as herself disgustingly ambitious, ruthless, horrible it seems. He was her slave it seems. She is so enraged she tries to strangle her daughter, but does not manage even permanent damage on her throat.

Cut to the ending where we see Mildred has had to give up the largest parts of her business to Ida and Wally. She is still doing well, but no longer pretending to be a member of the super-rich. She has divorced Monty, remarried Bert, and they are moving back to their original Glendale house. They are given a party on their return the day of their marriage. Old friends there, including Ida, apologetic for having taken over parts of the business. Mildred understands. Mildred looks disappointed that Veda hasn’t come. Why she expects this is beyond me.

But Veda does come, stands outside in an expensive outfit on her way to NY to resume her career and does seem to look at her mother, herself waiting for some last renewal or memory of their relationship.


As Mildred last sees Veda

The attempt at goodbye, a reconciliation, ends in another scene of insults from Veda, and now bitter recriminations from Mildred who at long last says good riddance. Monty is waiting for her in NY.

Bert pulls Mildred away and says to Mildred: “to hell with Veda,” at long last validating this long-needed idea, and the the last words of the novel and film are “stinko” they will drink until they are so drunk they know oblivion. What makes this moving is the pair look very like what they did when the movie opened: they are wearing the same sort of clothes. And Winslet’s eyes fill with tears. She cannot forget some profound sense of loss. In Cain’s novel this sense of desolation is presented as just the way things are and the mood is flat. With Winslet’s yearning face, the thwarted aspiration and dreams remain

So the last part has its moments and especially in the opening scenes, the first renewal with Monty and thisclose. The depth of feeling that Winslet has endowed her character with, the sense of Mildred’s kindness, goodness, love for her daughter, the honesty of her ambition — it was not her idea to have the mansion — all carry it. As she takes up her drink, we hear over the screen a creamy rendition of Judy Garland singing: I’m always chasing rainbows …”

At the end of the rainbow there’s happiness,
And to find it how often I’ve tried,
But my life is a race, just a wild goose chase,
And my dreams have all been denied.
Why have I always been a failure?
What can the reason be?
I wonder if the world’s to blame,
I wonder if it could be me.
Chorus:
I’m always chasing rainbows,
Watching clouds drifting by,
My dreams are just like all my schemes,
Ending in the sky.
Some fellows look and find the sunshine,
I always look and find the rain.
Some fellows make a winning sometime,
I never even make a gain, believe me,
I’m always chasing rainbows,
I’m watching for a little bluebird in vain.

So I was again caught up.

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

Kate Winslet as Mildred cooking — something she is seen doing periodically for the first four parts

The finest parts of the film were Mildred’s slow build up of a career after throwing her husband out, her friendships with other women, her intensities of love and ambition for her children. The prosaic rhythms of slow-unfolding is central to its strength.

Winslet is aware she is enacting scenes from women’s lives. As Jim and I cleaned our house this past Friday, and I put on my house-cleaning clothes I thought of Mildred. When we sat together in our living room over the week, I remembered Mildred. The Christmas scenes from the movie brought back painful disillusionments and fraught disappointments.

It’s more up- than downbeat. Mildred has a real (corny I know) heart. That she’s a good cook is symbolic in the film. She’s good at love-making. She utterly gives of herself to everything she does over and over. Kate Winslet does play varied roles, but in many underlying her presentation of whatever character (from Marianne in S&S to April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road), however twisted, however shaped by a genre or director (as in mysteries or a Polanski film she did), she projects a fine generous soul

Ellen

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[Translation: It's called a book. One can read it without a screen-device. The pages are all accessible and don't vanish if you make a mistake or you have exceeded the limits of your allowed time. It's perfectly portable while you are reading it; you can re-find pages and chapters with ease. Yes you can! Just use your fingers and hand to thumb through. The text is paginated and labelled. This "codex" will not be obsolete next month. And you don't have to endure pressure from someone else that you explain how to use it or ask someone to explain it to you.]

Dear friends and readers,

For once a brief blog. Spare yourself Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister. I went and it’s revolting. I cannot say it will do you any harm or help make the world a bad place, or reinforce what makes it often bad. Rather it’s merely exploitative of the falsest kinds of sentiments. It shows three people violating one another’s private feelings, a form of aggressive internal bullying which is presented as friendship’s duty. For me it had the effect of making me find all art sick for about half-an-hour because much that we call art manipulates our emotions and longings. The trailer and descriptions misrepresent it: it’s not about solitude or solitariness, or finding yourself; to the contrary, it includes moments like one woman tricking a man into sex, so she can get pregnant, the assumption that once did it, and then the other women going into gush-y sentimental beratings of her followed by reassurances. All in English so demotic and inarticulate as to be the equivalent of phonemes as noise.

Spare yourself. It’s hot (on my resolution to limit the use of super-hot), you will have to get to the theater showing it, and back, and you will also probably have to overpay.

Surely there’s somewhere you can find to walk.


Mary Nimmo Moran (American 1842-1899, Willows (black-and-white ink on paper sketch-illustration)

Or read a real book (see above). Or get onto the Net and choose your conversation. Or watch a DVD of a good movie. Or go bike-riding. If you have a beach or pool nearby you have access to, swim.

I have been blogging on Under the sign of Sylvia, mostly personal (how Jim and I spent Bloomsday), political (Rodney King’s death), or painful life-writing (my life as an adjunct draws to a close). This one includes a section on Trollope’s Lady Anna and Winston Graham’s Poldark novels, which could be of interest to you if you like these authors (Reactive Defiance or Fulfilled Life).

Ellen

P.S. The translation from Italian is free and creative.

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Parents waving goodbye to their son for the last time (1997 The Sweet Hereafter)

Dear friends and readers,

Fifteen years ago Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter was strongly praised, analyzed galore, its showing in local cinemas accompanied by long lines of people waiting outside to get in. Supported by the novelist, Russell Banks, and another script writer, Egoyan defied studio control and censorship, and made a movie dramatizing primal fears, anxieties, illusions in family life in the context of hardship and sudden inexplicable death. Here is a much belated recommendation.

In a nutshell, this film just captures the hardness of our choices, of life’s very stream of painful consciousness. The brilliance of the Pied Piper analogy is the temptation of oblivion. As Roger Ebert says the film is about the grief of survivors, those who’ve done what they had to do and remained somewhat true to their emotional life and needs, a lament for the human condition.
It is a gripping film.

How so? Well, from the very opening you sit there clutched by a sense of defused dread as, knowing what is to come, you watch a group or sets of parents put their children onto a school bus, where they are welcomed up by a kind woman bus-driver (our pied piper figure). The children wave goodbye, the bus drives off, and all but one set of parents never see the children alive again, and the daughter who survives, Nicole Burden (Sarah Polley) seems to be severely crippled. She is in a wheelchair, has to be carried around for life.

Not until mid-way in the film do we get actually to witness the terrible slide of the bus on the ice, its falling across a landscape, and then sinking lower and lower down a cliff into freezing ice, but we are told what’s in store first thing because the film begins with the lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm) attempting to convince one set of angry grieving parents they must hire him to sue the bus company or whoever is responsible for the bus malfunctioning over this mass death to preclude it happening again.


The bus beginning its slide

The chronological straight-forward story-telling line of the movie is made up of Mitchell’s visits to each set of parents to persuade them to sue, his investigation of the bus (camera in hand), and finally him watching over the deposition of Nicole and others in front of a magistrate, preparatory to a trial.

This storyline is interspersed with slowly accumulating flashbacks: 1) of children coming out to take the bus, mostly with one or both parents, these leading to the crash; 2) of the parents’ unknown private lives, e.g. Risa Walker (Alberta Watson) escaping to playful sex trysts with Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood); 3) of Mitchell’s life, his coming on a plane and confiding to a young woman his wretched relationship with his daughter, Zoe (Caerthan Banks), itself visualized in interspersed dramatic scenes of him receiving angry cell phones calls from this disturbed daughter who hates him, jeers at him, is ever prostituting herself, drinking, taking drugs, ever lying and demanding money.

Threaded in also are scenes from the present of the parents’ lives apart from their children: each interview by Mitchell captures a trauma apart from the loss of the child: Risa (Alberta Watson) is married to a brute of a man, Wendell (Maury Chaykin) and their son is disabled; Billy Ansell (Bruce Greenwood) is a widower with twins who follows the bus with his car and is thus the sole parent witness to the crash; Delores Driscoll (Gabrielle Rose), the bus-driver is married to a helpless paraplegic. And we witness scenes of parenting, sometimes bad: Sam Burden (Tom McCamus) appears to be using Nicholle sexually and anticipating taking her earnings as a rock-singer. Sometimes good: terrified self-sacrificing (before sickness) behavior of Mitchell when Nicolle was 2.


Ian Holm as Mitchell Stevens on the plane

This is another film and book I chose to read and to see as a result of the publication of my essay on the film adaptations of Anthony Trollope in Bloom and Pollock’s Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation. (See Patrice Chereau & Anne-Louise Trividic’s Gabrielle.) Mary Sanders Pollock has a perceptive essay on the film as mediated to us and shaped by the presence in it of Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin: “The Power of Money: Browning’s ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’ and Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. Banks’s film about American today in the midwest and Egoyan’s transformation of it into a Canadian landscape make it into this volume because in flashbacks we watch and hear Nicole read aloud Browning’s poem to two of the children who were killed while she is baby-sitting with them before the crash. In Banks’s book the girl reads aloud Babar the Elephant, an apparently innocent story (but see my Disney’s Dumbo & Brunhoff’s Babar) whose hard sting is the deah of the elephant’s mother. Polloy makes considerable play with Browning’s particular take on the folk tale (which she’s published an article about elsewhere), emphasizing the poem’s ironies and a critique of the parents for seeing in their children commodities.

There were numerous reviews and at least 3 serious film studies of this adaptation around the time it came out; all at least noticed Browning’s “Pied Piper” is read aloud (you can’t miss it) and suggested, like Pollock does, the archetypal folk tale provides a parallel mythic story of children stolen away by an archetypal figure of death (the Pied Piper can be so likened), of greed (as the Hamelin townsmen will not pay the Piper for ridding the town of rats and he gets back by removing the children forever from them so these so these Canadian parents are seduced by a desire for money from a court suit), and desolation.

Money is a central concern of Banks’s book, which is based on an actual historical crash and ensuing series of suits. Banks interweaves the intense desire for riches, for payment, for living a luxurious life so rare now in the desperate conditions of much American working and lower middle class life. In the actual case the suit could not go forward because one girl claimed that the bus driver was speeding and Banks turns this girl into a fictional character who gets back at her father who has inflicted incestuous sex on her, has wanted to exploit her to make money and know glamor. Banks shows there is no such thing as community in US life when it comes to money; it’s a war of all on all.


Mitchell Stevens’s baby daughter who gives him such trouble as a baby and when grown


Nicole who lies and ruins the court case

I suggest though that Egoyan’s film’s thrust is quite different. A couple of studies have pointed out how many differences there are between the film and book. Egoyan is deeply sympathetic to these parents: they are not shown greedy for money at all. They are all deeply grieving, and they are poor, eeking out livings in motels, as subsidence artists, driving buses, manning gas stations. We see them devotedly taking their children to the bus. In fact the point is made these parents’ lives are dominated by the children’s needs. What pleasure they know is stolen in fleeting moments. Sam’s infliction of incest on his daughter is kept to one brief enigmatic surreal dream scene and what’s emphasized is how lovingly he takes her to her gigs, how guilty and concerned he feels over her crippled state. We watch him slowly carry her from place to place. The look on her face is continually hard, enigmatic, mean. She looks ungrateful, sly, sneaky and as she tells this story to the younger children getting kick perhaps out of puzzling, perhaps half-frightening them. She seems to want (understandably though) some kind of revenge.

Parenthood is traumatic in the film, especially fatherhood. This film’s core experience is Mitchell Stevens’s harassment and misery because of his daughter’s behavior to him. A parallel is set up between Nicole Burden who lied and Zoe. IN the film there is a sense the parents will not only benefit monetarily; but emotionally. A suit will provide closure and if untrue make them think the accident was not an accident, could have been avoided. They can somehow “get back” and two of the mothers want that.

Mitchell himself is a driven man who cannot understand what went wrong in his parenting. His wife breast-fed the child way past age 2; they gave her all, and the wife is now dead. The girl is a half-crazed drug-addict. He seems to want to get back at someone and says someone is always at fault and therefore it must be the bus company which didn’t take proper care of their bus; if not them, he’ll find out who is to blame. Not the bus-driver he says, and indeed it seems the children were the fantasy family of this woman who is otherwise childless and it is made clear she was not speeding but drove as carefully and cheerfully on this day as she had on any other. But snow (a weather element that can signal death in gothic) is everywhere and patches of ice abound. The landscape is filled with cliffs and turning roads and mountains as in illustrations to many Pied Piper stories, for the Pied Piper takes the children into a mountain from which they never return.

The film’s meaning is conveyed through these juxtapositions of stories and visual pictures, through the close-ups of people’s faces where through the social guise of clothes we see the inner vulnerable spontaneous self. I did like how so much of these couples seemed to be in a kind of retreat. If going it on your own is the way of today’s America, most people are at least in pairs and making their nests as comfortable as they can.

Underlying the film (perhaps this is not conscious on Egoyan’s part) is the mythic book and film, The Bad Seed. Nicole is the ironic modern version of the crippled child of the original Pied Piper story who escapes because he can’t walk as fast. The obverse of the American worship of family life, motherhood, making children the end of one’s existence is the story of the murderous child who sows discord, destroys parents, houses. Only here the children are as burdened as their parents, by these parents’ needs (we see Risa unable to cope with her disabled son) and lack of resources or knowledge of what to do beyond send them to school and hope for a good outcome. We have weeping mothers and fathers who wring their hands or (as in Billy Ansell) go into a rage because they don’t want to have to face whatever feelings they have, but just move on somehow. This is the case with Risa’s husband who does not want to go forward with the suit either.


Bruce Greenwood as Billy Ansell has happy moments too: here he is welcoming Risa into their shared roo for the evening; he enjoys driving behind the bus waving at his twins and honking his horn

But they are not alone. The film seems to be showing us how we don’t know how to cope with life either, or the system we find ourselves in. What kind of solution or resolution of grief is to be found in our court system, an adversarial one set up as a race for money or verdicts of guilty.

So I don’t agree either with a popularly-written attack (Film Fix by Lee) on this film as one which toys on how hard it is to cope with death. It’s true so many films nowadays mirror the miseries and hardships and troubles of American life. They are bringing out into the discussable open the hidden traumas of our lives, for some they are cathartic, for some they validate someone’s experience he or she does not feel as alone. They are meant to mirror the hardships of life on the American continent from wintry Canada to the west to big cities and towns.

The sweet hereafter as a phrase is ironic. These people will know peace when they too follow a pied piper into death – across a mountain. The bus rides through mountains of snow. When last seen Delores Driscoll has become a jolly and gay bus driver again; this time she’s driving people to an airport. Oh dear oh dear.

Ellen

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George Bellows (1882-1925), Paddy Flannigan (1909) — the insolence with which he guards himself is not going to help him much in life


Bellows, Madeline Davis, the post-master’s orphaned grand-daughter (1914) — the pathos and loneliness of her expressive face has a wounded feel


Moonlight Skating — Central park, the Terrace and the Lake, 1878 (by John O’Brien Inman) — the kind of picture Bellows sought to replace

Dear Friends and readers,

Another must-see! Splendeurs et misères (as in Balzac’s novel). This one is just chock-a-block with these magnificent brilliant stunning pictures, intelligently set up so you can journey through a career and age:

Knowing that I cannot do justice to the initial impact, social vision, painterly splendor, and wide range of the pictures (they seem to come from so many museums, private collections, and books) by George Bellows at the National Gallery, I thought I might suggest why people should be sure and go to this exhibit either in DC, or New York (it’s coming to the Met next) or London (the Royal Academy) by at least displaying unusual images reprinted in the generous catalogue book edited by Charles Brock, but I find that lots of people have beat me to it. The Net has a slew of images of Bellows work readily available, and armed with a few titles and a little effort the viewer can find many lesser known lithographs:


Bellows. A lynching (the caption says the law takes too long it’s meant ironically);

illustrations:


Bellows, Hungry Dogs;

(a favorite subject for Bellows), Hudson River landscapes:


Bellows, Rain on the River (1908);

paintings of widespread banal poverty and mutually-inflicted human misery:


Bellows, Cliff Dwellers (1914) — as a child I watched my mother string out wet clothes across a street in the Bronx (circa 1950);

hugely crowded (not a space, not a place of rest in the canvas) and exhilarating or nearly people-less and desolate nightmare city- and industrial landscape:


Bellows, Building Grand Central (a series);

and of course savagely violent boxing:


Bellows, Both Members of the Club (the way elites watched illegal boxing was to allow the instruments of their appetite to become members for a night).

The Net even has caches of Bellows’s lesser known exquisite John Singer Sergeant (or Cecilia Beaux) type portraiture:


George Bellows, Geraldine Lee (1914) — I just love the tone of that pink outfit, and don’t miss the dark pink hat

So what could I say that would suggest maybe there is something there you’ve not seen before? or remind you of what there is to see in huge and vivid size? or suggest what this particular exhibit might offer them?

Well, first, I lead with two portraits I found especially arresting, and a third picture card landscape (Inman’s populist Central Park). Then show by choices from the wide selection on the Net and my new book that while partly denying this (nervously), the exhibit nonetheless cannot help but insistently demonstrate the moving socialist and pro-people point of view that Bellows spent much of his art making electrifyingly visible.

I hope this choice suggests something of the variety and themes Bellows favored for most of his career. He worked for a magazine called The Masses, and was close with John Reed (Ten Days that Shook the World) whose name pops up repeatedly in the little explanations on the walls of the exhibit. The electrocution is one of these:


Bellows, The Electrocution.

A note of critical evaluation: Wonderfully attractive & sharply incisive, some with satirical commentary (as in his huge pictures of Billy Sunday with huge crowds labelled by his as evil for art, spiritual life and decency) as most of the paintings and drawings are, they did fall off after or around the time of World War I. The exhibit reveals how quickly Bellows was tremendously successful despite his apparent iconoclasm and radicalism. If he did make visible what the elite and powerful did not like to look at in real life, they didn’t mind when it came to his art. And as he grew successful, he seems to have stepped away from painting scenes of modern half-crazy slightly nightmare-like city life and landscape, from exposures of human cruelty.

In the exhibit World War I was a kind of turning point for Bellows’s art. While his WW1 pictures were certainly shocking and determined to show the viewer Writ Large the hideous violence and indifference to human suffering that war causes (hands cut off, a woman with her breast cut off by a man who sits next to her smoking a cigarette) and how people have no problem inflicting inhumane gov’t policies:


Bellows, Return of the Useless [from POW and slave labor camps] (1918),

they are also overt propaganda which falsifies, makes theatrical and turns war into crass displays of sentiment. As Bellows grew richer, went to live in Grammercy Park, took his holidays in Maine,and built a home in Woodstock, he began to idealize and make enigmatic landscapes, which if lovely felt child-like or cartoon-y.

One example: until this turning point, I was so aware of the hard life of horses in Bellows pictures. Big dray ones, tired, men standing nearby with whips; they were ubiquitous, used carelessly and ignored (in the picture at any rate). Then suddenly there was this vision of a horse at last without a harness, making its way towards a heavenly sky:


Bellows, The White Horse (1922)

Now the dog is happy, tail wagging, getting plenty to eat.

His later work is made up of more landscapes (now undistinguished from postcard type), pictures of himself, Emma, his wife, and daughter as, fore example, an exemplary fisherman and family, of the daughter dressed like an upper class lady of long ago, jumping rope in the privacy of Grammercy Park. These show the same splendors of paint and strong theatricality of all the paintings, maybe show it up.

Maybe one of the reasons Bellows did so well was finally his paintings do not disquiet, even the most savage of them. They celebrate being alive; nature is a dynamic glorious force and if many people have to live anonymous hard lives, they are not doing it alone and they do it vigorously.

Throughout the exhibit one read of how “masculine” was his vision and it is true that except as John Singer Sergeant type ladies or young working girls painted with unusual compassion and dignity in the same mode, the pictures are crowded with men, show male activities, present young working boys (rather than girls) bathing in the city rivers. Women appear: scolding children, as prostitutes, as fancy paid mistresses of fat cat males with top hats, but they are more in the mode of side affairs, decorations, there like the horses with male as the main dominating sufferers and power. When his style changed, and grew more stylized, flatter, I liked his pictures less. I found too that I sometimes got more out of his drawings, the lines bringing out clearly what he was showing than the colouristic treatment of the paintings.

Perhaps had Bellows lived into the depression, he would have found a new angle and returned to his original subject matter and perspective, moved into another new style. He did die young: aged 42, of peritonitis after his appendix burst. Cut off but not forgotten.

I do not mean to detract from the value of the paintings at all, but rather suggest that a viewer sees enough to begin to think for herself beyond the incessant praise of the explanations. The exhibit was accompanied by tables in the center of the rooms with hand-written notes by Bellows or his wife of prices, exhibits, their plans of what to do next. You felt them as people, two lives and a career unfolding before you.

As I particularly love meditative landscapes, I was entranced by the vivid variety and intense colors of these, the appropriate objects and things in them, like a particular kind of tree, a lone house, sparkles in just the right corner of something. Winter and (the real effects of) snow were favorite themes for Bellows — and so too for me. And I spent many years of my life walking up and down drives along the Hudson river so was drawn in repeatedly:


Bellows, Winter Afternoon (1908)


Bellows, Easter Snow (something we may not see any more) — I do like that boy and girl (I have a photo of me aged 2, in spring, standing on a mountain of snow)

It seems that Bellows’s wife, Emma (who was a fellow art student) managed to live quite well after her husband died. She had been a central person in his life; one sees that immediately after his death, a wide exhibit was set up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that she carried on selling his pictures for higher and higher prices. His loving picture of her which suggests a fulfilled domestic life is one of the lead pictures for the exhibit:


Bellows, Emma at the Piano (1914)

The National Gallery has quite a summer schedule of exhibits. There’s a fine small display of photography called “I Spy” (“the theater of the street”); pictures by the Renaissance writer, Castiglione; and coming in another couple of weeks
another blockbuster show, this one featuring alluring pictures which remind me of E. M. Forster scenes

Jim and I are lucky to live within a hop, skip and jump of Washington D. C.
We get to the National Gallery by driving at around 2 pm to a street about 5 minutes away from our house which allows three-hour parking. The three hours is over at 5 pm. So we are safe from a ticket. The Metro train is a block away, the trip about 20 to 30 minutes depending on vagaries of fixing, time, crowds. Then we walk a block in the Penn Quarter which is just the sort of place that Bellows would have painted.

Ellen

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John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Patrick Earl as Giovanni, the lover-brother, and Denice Mahler as his sister-lover, Annabella), from the ASC’s production 2012

Dear friends and readers,

This is a “must-see” production. So wrote the “Mid-Atlantic Travel Blogger” who while anonymous had enough clout to see a “private” performance of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by the group who used to call themselves “The Shenandoah Shakespeare”. He or she couldn’t or doesn’t explain why; indeed seemed puzzled how such a “twisted” play could please, and put it down to “shock.”

Within a few seconds of the start of the second act, I realized this was the production Ford’s daring play calls for: its note throughout is a gleeful exposure of the angry cynicism, amorality or sheer stupidity (imbecility) of all the authority figures of the play: some are amoral such as the cardinal (Rick Blunt), who is disinclined to prosecute the murder of one citizen because the murderer has some connections, and who gathers up all the gold left by dead strewn across the stage at the play’s close; some are justifiably cynical like Hippolita (Stephanie Holladay Earl), rejected wife of a nobleman; or Vasques (Eugene Douglas) a kind of Iago who pronounces moral lessons. There are simpletons who enforce unexamined norms: Florio (Daniel Abraham Stevens), Annabella’s father who forces her to marry the vicious treacherous Soranzo (Jake Mahler). There are the complicit for their own appetites and interest’s sake, Putana, Annabella’s “nurse” (Bridget Rue as brothel madam); Grimaldi, willing to murder at the drop of a sword (typical type of this era, played by Michael Amendola). Dark farce is the way much of these interactions are performed, with over-the-top garishly sexual costuming for the women. The story is complicated but it’s told simply at wikipedia).

Really though there’s nothing new here for us in 2012. Old hat since Marat/Sade. What is startling and commendable is from the second part of the play on, the players did Giovanni and Annabella’s love for one another as totally passionate, a beautiful thing, two souls made for one another with the most idealistic soaring of the spirit. Here’s Annabella telling Soranza what Giovanni is:

This noble creature was in every part
So angel-like, so glorious, that a woman
Who had not been but human, as was I,
Would have kneeled to him, and have begged for love.
You! why you are not worthy once to name
His name without true worship, or indeed,
Unless you kneeled, to hear another name him. (Act 3, sc 3)

The look of aspiration in Earl’s eyes is pitch perfect:

The twisting of this young man from within until he goes mad by the end of the act and himself cruelly murders Annabella (Othello-like, and Ford alludes to Othello, he cannot bear to have his woman taken by Soranzo nightly) and stalks about covered with the blood of Soranzo crazed and vehemently assailing the world from the top of his lungs on the top of a high table — these final moments are where the plot-design of the whole play had been heading.

As ever, our players “did it with the lights on,” and so they had no technology to rivet or distract us with. Earl as Giovanni was up to absorbing an audience into awed silence watching him. At the play’s close he has not the problem of what to do next since Vasques comes up to stab him from behind and then has his hired assassins (several in black who turn up whenever needed) to finish the job off:


The woman imitates a police offer, the men without the religious symbols FBI and spy-detective types, and then there’s a priest

The second half of this production was thus much braver than the Capital Fringe Festival group two summers ago who drew out of an abridged version of the play a socially acceptable feminist moral: at one point Annabella tells us (in this production from a high window) we are seeing “A wretched, woeful woman’s tragedy (Act 5, sc 1). But the dignity with which she is endowed, and the way the previous production managed to suggest this play was about men oppressing women was not followed here. This Annabella grovels on the floor:

The lines emphasized are those which present the two people as gripped by love, unable to do without one another surrounded by these “vile” types. The production used “mash-up” techniques for the intermission and during the play we were treated to 1950s rock-n-roll ballads that were very familiar to me, strains of them which I could not quite place: about love a blind passion, about loneliness. Soranzo’s bullying becomes a raping of Annabella nightly instead of justifiable rage at finding himself stuck with a pregnant woman who will not tell her lover’s name; he orders her to bed (the lines are there) where he will again do what he wants. Coerced marriage is rape.

The play put me in mind of Simon Raven’s unfortunately little known masterpiece novel, Fielding Gray: the life of the homosexual male is twisted and perverted by having to hide it, being subject to blackmail and abuse. Heterosexuals can be as nasty and horrible as they please in their sex life, it remains okay as it’s heterosexual; homosexual sex is not prima facie no good in itself; it’s what the society does to it that makes it base and wild (see my blog on Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty). So too incest here. Ford’s play differs from the many Jacobean plays enacting incest or incestuous desires and vicarious sex (Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, Middleton’s Women Beware Women): Ford empathizes with the lovers. As Eric Minton puts it, Giovanni and Annabella are just these “true-hearted individuals who just happen to have fallen in love with someone sprung from the same womb. Theirs may be the squirmiest sin, but many other characters prove more loathsome in their violent natures, their greed, their infatuation with revenge, and their self-serving self-righteous.” Minton then goes over the downright silly in the play but omits one young woman, Philotis (Bridget Rue), who is sent to a nunnery in a sort of daze: she had on a shiny satiny skirt with a petticoat which reminded me of outfits made for little girls who are given tap-dancing lessons by middle class US parents for the once-a-year stage performance.

Alas though, reading the Mid-Atlantic Traveler, and finding hardly any reviews of this play, and remembering how the previous production I have seen (so to speak) normalizes the action in terms of 20th century values, perhaps the players and their director were rightly cautious in the introduction and first half. They had an added on introduction which both trivialized the coming play and warned us against it, going so far as to tell us Giovanni was a bad villain. It was all a joke we were going to see, but if we couldn’t take some (whisper the word) “incest,” perhaps we shouldn’t stay. Then the first act had the actors at first turning to the audience as if to ask for boos. What they discovered was there were several fools in the first row who took this seriously and began to call out heckling comments which was then half-clapped by further idiots further back. The play-acting in this first act was oddly artificial and over-the-top strident, rather like a clown show. The way of playing the love of Giovanni and Annabella and the betrayals of the other characters seemed to suggest it was a mystery what could possibly have fuelled Ford to write such a ridiculous piece. Maybe the heckling did some good, for I could see the actors begin to stop appealing to the audience, back off, speed up, though not until the second act did the front row people begin to realize they were not supposed to boo Giovanni or call him out as a “bad guy.” Perhaps the gouging out of Putana’s eyes after Vasques manipulates and deludes her into revealing that Annabella’s lover is Giovanni did the trick to silence them. I admit they interfered with my enjoyment in the first act and was relieved when they fell silent.

During the intermission for the first time in all the many times I have seen ASC productions (a lot of them by now), I began to think well, at long last they have goofed. Or maybe it was that in such a conservative era, and in this mid-Virginia Shenandoah valley (not so far off is Evangelical Jerry Falwell country) they were scared off of doing justice to the very material they had chosen. I might have suggested to Jim we go home, only it had been a 3 hour drive to get there. But I remembered the choice of ’50s music during the intermission and hoped it was deliberate and stayed.

In the event, the actors switched gears totally and the last hour and a half was magnificent in energy, bravura, acting, poignancy.


From a Brooklyn Academy of Music production

It may be that the day we went there just happened to be a number of naive audience members in the first row. I have seen actors on stage make the mistake of inviting an audience slightly to cut up, and have to actually not just back up but even half-scold said audience to get them to be courteous in their interactions again. One must not forget that the actors on a stage are in a state of abjection to the audience: they may seem to be individually triumphing, releasing themselves, showing off, but they are performing for us, nailed down to their scripts, often showing themselves, costumed in dangerously vulnerable ways. Actors have sometimes had overtly to separate themselves from evil characters to protect themselves from the audience’s identification of them with their roles. I have read insightful accounts of theater which make this point about the reality of the actor’s rightly unacknowleged position of supplication (See Kristina Straub’s Sexual Suspects: 18th Century Players and Ideology on the long-hard slog actors of the 18th century performed to gain respect stop heckling and abuse, and protect the actresses.) I had not actually experienced what this means before this.

Jim had a different take — while just as surely recommending going to see it if you are at all within driving distance. Over dinner Jim argued that Ford is playing with ideas, at a distance from them (in the way I think of the Fletcher plays, Middleton and Massinger in his comedies). The play, Jim says, is misogynistic. Ford judges Annabella to be a whore, using the term in a general vilifying way to mean any woman who has sex outside marriage even if with just one man. (Izzy protested that Annabella cannot be a whole because she is paid nothing, has no money; she used the 20th century definition of whore means prostitute which is the way I use the term.) Jim maintains the text of the play blames Annabella. Her looseness starts the evil spreading. PUtano had it coming to her. Vasques is the Vindice (revenger on behalf of God and providence) character and that’s why he is left standing. Jim suggested that since a modern audience would dislike this very much, and want to empathize with a tragic character and feel for the victims, the people who do Ford must alter the play into black farce. Then we don’t worry who is to blame. Or they can, like the Capital Fringe people, impose a modern anti-misogynistic message by abridging.


Tragic heroine from The Broken Heart

I’m not sure. I find it hard not to read Ford’s The Broken Heart as feminist. If we are to blame Annabella, why not Giovanni who is cursed by several authority figures in the play. Surely Soranzo. Vasques recalls Shakespeare’s Iago.

So don’t miss the play. This is a play where the behavior spectacle of the audience may become part of the play and the play itself of real interest.

Ellen

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Ross (Robin Ellis) and Demelza, the night before his trial for inciting a scavenger riot


Thomas (Rob James-C0llier, now his Lordship’s valet, dances with Violet, Lady Crawley (Maggie Smith)

Dear friends and readers,

This is a metablog and my hopes for what’s to come for this blog.

Starting sometime this past winter, I’ve been taking slow journeys through (to me) deeply gratifying mini-series, my favorite kind those based on good books set in the past (sometimes written then) which are made up of multiple hour-long parts. The two I’ve stayed with longest provided the basis for a blog I wrote about the art of story-telling in this subgenre on TV, the 2 year Poldark (1975-76 and again 1978) and Downton Abbey (2010-11, 2011-12). I long to share some of this with my readers and friends in blogs that are readable and coherent (and not too long)

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Thomas and Miss Sarah Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) with Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) and Daisy (Sophia McShera) looking on: Mrs Hughes the sceptic: “I just don’t think the spirits play boardgames.”

In the case of Downton Abbey I want to explore the nature of the art of these mini-series as seen in this one late flowering examples. (Such lingerly graceful mini-series are under attack on all fronts, including making costume drama today using paradigms that come out of popular cinema (stunt man films, action-adventure). That’s my real interest in Downton Abbey, as a brilliant soap opera, rich from its uses of all the conventions of costume drama, historical style. I took about 12 to 13 weeks watching Downton Abbey the second season, capturing lots of stills and taking careful notes on the content of the stories and characters, and how they are juxtaposed, and relate to one another within an hour and across the hours. The state of my notes is inward, not directed towards someone who does not the film as well as I’ve begun to do nor about film as such.

And I feel I should take the time to read Jessica Fellowes’s The World of Downton Abbey, nor couple of other books I want to on the actual history of the family in this place (e.g., Life and Secrets of Almina Carnarvon by Wm Cross), and two relevant memoirs, Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs (the book which gave rise to the 5 season-long original Upstairs Downstaira in the 1970s and Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt, a biography of women of two of the upper class super-rich women of this era (in the US).

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Demelza (Angharad Rees, “What makes you think I have nowhere to go?” — because of her rank, gender, and position as his servant, she has no where to go is the answer) — a favorite moment for me

In the case of the Poldark films, I’ve been rereading the novels again, Ross Poldark with my students, and since April Demelza, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan. Yet I need more historical and cultural material: I want to add to the books on Cornwall and Graham’s life, books on the Peninsula War, the Napoleonic campaigns, local Cornish and English politics of 1800-1818. I also have to proceed from the assumption the books and films will not be familiar to many of my readers (though in general economically the mini-series and novel flourish as yet.) And my interest here is the 18th century and Cornish content, the author’s progressive humane feminist vision. My notes are much better here, maybe too detailed.

And I’ve been going through the films slowly, also capturing many many stills and taking new notes. I’ve not gone so far as to take down dialogue the way I have for Downton Abbey, but give me time

I will though try not to put days into making blogs the way I did for the Pallisers as they became far too long and detailed. I mean rather to immerse myself and anyone else in the 18th century worlds of historical fiction and film and then write creatively. Yes Elizabeth’s story or some historical fiction or creative non-fiction or essay once again of my own. Maybe another film-v-book study.

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I’ll close this entry with the rich thoughts my students wrote after we had a genuinely thorough comparative treatment of Poldark books and films, and a few remarks on the moving (much maligned) episode in Downton which included people very sick and dying from the Spanish flu.

Several students compared the treatment of the sexual encounter and marriage of Ross to Demelza in the book and film and one nice thing was they didn’t simply say the book is necessarily (or even) superior but treated one as a realistic book and the other as a high romantic film. The way to get students to do this is set papers directly on films and specify explicitly a narrow assignment. For example, discuss the scenes in the novel which are not in the film; discuss scenes in the film not in the novel; for a start they have to compare for real.


Passionate dream material (He: “You won’t be alone. I’ll give you my name. We’ll be married. Now we’ll have no more arguing … ” Season 1, Part 4)

One student wrote as follows (more or less, I’ve corrected and condensed): In the mini-series Ross Poldark the love scene between Ross and Demelza is framed with vulnerability of emotions that overshadows the importance of class distinctions to the characters. In contrast, the novel provides more of an awareness of the social context in which the illicit affair takes place.

The film and book differ in several places. First the events leading up to the night in question. In the film it happens after Ross forces a kiss on Elizabeth and fails with the trial of Jim Carter. In the book Ross is frustrated with the trial but the confrontation with Elizabeth happened differently and much earlier. The two part on bitter terms with no passionate declaration from Ross.

There is also a difference in Demelza’s motivations and how they are presented. In the film she is shown to be completely love-struck (absolutely understandably smitten) with Ross while in the book her affections are overshadowed by her need to stay with the entire household and her job; her father wants her back because of the rumors about sex between her and Ross. In the novel her flirtation is impelled by her extreme reluctance to return to the father, her fear of him. This is about her social and physical life too, her education, into a being a lady. Her future

Two last important differences are Ross’s initial refusal of the encounter in the book and the absence of a detailed wedding proposal or scene in the book.

Ross’s vulnerable emotional state is stronger in the film. In the film it is more apparent that he is frustrated in love due to Elizabeth’s refusal to elope. In the book his frustrations are more directly the result of social norms as he has just just failed in his attempt to rescue Jim from harsh punishment in the trial; and the book’s emphasizes the rumors about his relationship with Demelza. Given Ross’s reactionary defiance when faced with social prejudice, there is less of passionate love story and more social commentary in the novel.

The initial strong refusal of Ross and the matter-of-fact handling of the marriage in the book show there is more thought from the characters as to the social implications of what they are doing at each turn — on the night of the encounter too. It’s his mother’s dress she has dared put on. She is pro-active and can be despised for offering herself sexually. Instead the film treats the ordeal as a matter of romantic passion and empathetic impulse and the second phase when he learns she is pregnant and does the right thing (chases her down), bring her back to safety is dream material.

There is emotional vulnerability present in the novel and social commentary in the film but the difference in emphasis highlights the love relationships differently so we get two unique experiences of a sexual encounter leading to marriage even if the outcome is the same.

Another kind of dream material, love and death from Downton Abbey, the flu epidemic. This was a strong episode: it’s the one where the sequences about people sickening and dying from the Spanish flu are interwoven with sequences of people in love (some marrying, some defying others, one the unwed mother who insists on holding on to her child, one OBrien whose behavior is the most moving thing we’ve had since Mrs Patmore had to have an eye operation). Even Thomas gets into the act because if he doesn’t mend his conduct he’ll end up homeless and starving. Scenes in bed and kissing and dancing alternate with scenes in graveyards and wretched helplessness in sick rooms. Woody Allen said love and death were unbeatable and this was.


Miss Obrien devotedly nursing Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern)

It’s hard to snap precisely that shot which captures the full depth with which Finneran played this role. She is unbearably moving; it was the first time the series gave her a chance. It was not just her face, but her whole body. And the still does capture how a bleached-out coloring was used for the shots in the sick rooms instead of the usual rich dark draperies colors of upstairs and the natural-seeming bright shades of the out-of-doors.

Ellen

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Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert)


Jean (Pascal Greggory) (2005 Azor Gabrielle)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve a film to recommend for those who want to understand what it is to be in a relationship (as it’s called nowadays) with someone else: to be intimately involved daily, emotionally, physically, socially, with economic and psychological dependence with someone else in all the ways we call being in a love attachment where you have promised exclusive loyalty. How people cope with the fears, demands, dangers, boredom, intriguing puzzle and inevitable mystery, and need for support is the subject of Gabrielle, Patrice Chereau and Anne-Louise Tividic’s film adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s short story, “The Return.”

It’s mesmerizing. It holds you in a kind of still fascination because of its intensity and this feeling you don’t know quite what is to happen next as both people are suddenly breaking with conventional controls or taboos (or at least we are made to feel they are) so they may break out at any moment and do something startlingly revealing, violent, scary, humiliating, touching, funny, whatever human beings can do, perhaps short of eating or killing one another. We are not scared and can watch on, do not feel we will be violated in our emotions because we don’t feel at any point they are horrifyingly violent or hate one another. They never do leave a minimum of courteous respect. And the breaking out is limited. When the two really go at one another with an intensity of traumatic feeling, what happens is they shout and physically struggle with one another to the point of messing one another’s clothes all up and crying in staccato bursts. That’s about as far as it gets. But it is enough. It is real.

Its effect depends on the norm of the film, the distanced self-control:

Stylized framed shots:

The film’s narrative: a man (he is meant to be any man in his position) has been married for 10 years. He and his wife seem to be living a comfortable contented bourgeois life. First prologue: as Jean (his name) walks home (slightly earlier than usual, finding himself in a working class crowd tightly packed in the train, on the street) we watch a mental flashback. We see his continuous successful social life with his wife, their “Thursdays,” where Gabrielle (her name) reigns as cool queen at the head of the table and the conversation with all around her and among the guests themselves is Proustian wit, soliloquys against vulgarity in the the arts (by the man who turns out to be her lover), chitchat.


He watches her


She socializes

Jean arrives and the house is quiet. He sees a note which he appears to approach with intense trepidation (shots of him coming at it from this and that angle). The note says Gabrielle is leaving him for good, has a lover. Jean loses it almost immediately and without her there begins to crack up; he then remembers himself, becomes conscious that he is making a sort of spectacle of himself (there are servants in the house) and closes the door to his room. He then he hears someone coming in. We see a veiled woman in a coat slowly climbing the stairs, and making her way into his room. His wife has returned. The text upon which Patrice Chereau (director) and Anne-Louise Trividic (writer) have based their movie is by Conrad and is called “The Return.”

The ensuing 90 minutes is mostly an intense battle of emotions, talk that goes on and on becoming more real and direct about how the two have felt about one another from the time they chose one another (and why they say they did) until their lives together now. Then the last 10 minutes or so shows them the following Thursday night at first holding up (repressing before others the truth about their relationship), but then going mad and wild in front of these supposedly civilized friends to show their profound anger and distress and accusations until one-by-one and then more hurriedly, a group leave. We discover who is the lover (the husband’s editor on the journal he works at).


Exposed

Then that night right afterwards he attempts rape, does not go through with it, then she turns and says she is willing to make love, and has her maid take off her corset, put her in a slip and robe and lays down before him on the bed. Then after a slow burn and finally getting on top of her (with all his clothes), he can’t manage it. She says something like we’ll talk again in the morning. an inter-title suggests it’s morning now and the room are lit with morning light. We see now him in the street walking quickly away. The inter-title says he leaves never to return.

Throughout voice-over and inter-titles are used.

I watched this film because of the volume my essay on Trollope was published in, Victorian Literature and Film Adaptation, ed Burnham and Pollock. The other essay which was strongly praised (besides mine) by Kamilla Elliot was by Gene Moore, “Making Private Scenes Public: Conrad’s ‘The Return’ and Chereau’s Gabrielle.” Moore says Conrad’s tale focuses on a uncomprehending husband who is mocked; in Conrad’s story the wife is nameless. Moore also says the film focuses on the wife, and has been ignored by Conrad critics (mostly male I’ll guess). In a 35 minute feature made up of interviews with Chereau, Huppert and Greggory, Chereau says his film is about the husband’s falling to pieces, shattered carapace and then what we see; his vulnerability. He is no fool in the film; he surmised she was gone (we feel) upon seeing the note; sex (we learn from their dialogue) has not been good for years, never been good. Chereau insists this is a timeless situation — within the context of nuclear middle class families so say European arrangements since medieval Europe and until today, I’d agree and I’d agree he does transcend this particularity as the two people dig deeper at another and slowly go wild from within.

But the film is also clearly about the wife. She is named. She is continually under the camera’s scrutiny. The camera is him staring at her.

The writer is a woman: Anne-Louise Trividic. Chereau kept referring to Anne. The feature had Isabelle Huppert talking about her role just as much as Pascal Greggory about his and Chereau about the film. I’d say this is one of those rare films where we get a woman’s take on a man’s work, and the woman, Gabrielle, explains what Conrad was getting at: the husband in the film keeps asking the wife why why why did she return and she has a hard time explaining this point. Over and over. She does say that the lover she got (the editor) was someone that she feared she would sink into and give all he wanted and never hold back ever, nothing. I find that beautiful and true of sexual loving: when the couple really love tenderly it can make the books or film flower (Winston Graham’s Demelza and Ross Poldark are this way); when one of the pair is cruel, this kind of loving is profoundly destructive for the other (what would happen to Richardson’s Clarissa if she married Lovelace). But Gabrielle fears it, she fears what the man would do with it — in the salon conversation she says in the prologue you don’t need to know anything about other people to enjoy their company, in fact it’s best to keep a distance. The lover is a man who complained about vulgar art but is clearly very vulgar himself, animalistic somehow: we see he loves to eat, drink, smoke cigars, is intensely sensual as the trussed-up husband is not.

But she also says they need to face what they are, what they have been. That’s the real answer: she returned in order to face with him what they have become. She left the note in order to stage the scene. She wanted to break out. She did not want this lover but to change her life with the husband.

Gene Moore says that the film makes private scenes public and is about the violation of social rules – in particular the house has a bunch of female servants who march in and out during all this trauma, serve dinners, cook, undress and dress the wife. Moore’s thesis is very odd. He really seems to think this film is about the psychological abuse of the servants. This is skewed. It is true we are in a house of servants, and watch them hearing the master and mistress fight. We see them in the kitchen as the quarrel is going on. We see them serve the pair dinner, put the food on their plates. We see the maids help Gabrielle take off her clothes and put on her slip and robe. At one point she talks to one of them who is identifying with her and this maid for a moment seems to try to interpose herself between the master and mistress.

But surely this is missing what is the point about this more marginalized material. First there are no male servants about. No valet. No butler. The servant world of this film doesn’t make sense. Why should they be all women and perpetually cooking? Why does it take three women to undress Gabrielle? Tividic is showing us a woman’s world and this male flailing himself in it.

Further, the women servants do not seem embarrassed. There was a limit to how far the couple did reveal themselves, especially in front of servants. The most intimate talk and sudden frantic gestures and actions occur when the servants are gone. Jean stayed mostly dressed and when Gabrielle offered herself up to him she still had on her lovely silk slip and was laying in the rich red robe, as a sort of blanket wrapped about her

In his most distresed moments he remains well-bred, the courteous gentleman who tries not to insult other people, not to interfere with them:


A rare shot in the light

The husband and wife are not abusing their servants. This is not a film about servant abuse, though it is private life made public for us. Jean and Gabrielle have abused themselves, alienated themselves from themselves and one another for such a long time, that they are almost not alive for real.

She leaves and then returns to break this spell. But he cannot face what she is come home to face and he flees. It’s too threatening to his delicate poise, too emasculating. He cannot face his vulnerability to her.

This is a rare subtle film about a power struggle in a marriage where both are intensely oppressed by the routine of life demanded of them. That’s why we open with him coming home from work in that crowd. Why the action is sandwiched between the stifling performative social life. He is trying to understand this within the context of speechless rage and despair, the wounded cuckold. She is mute with a sort of helpless longing, but not for the vulgar editor.

I was so stunned by the dialogue. I wished I had the screenplay so as to read it carefully — as one does a novel. Chereau and Moore say the words of the screenplay are far different from the story. Conrad’s story is short and mostly narration. This film is long and the dialogue twists and turns and keeps up.

When I snapped the shots you see here, I discovered most came out very dark; that the film was shot in shadows. It does begin in black-and-white; when the first revelation occurs (she returns), it moves into color. It goes back and forth between black-and-white and color. It ends in black-and-white as he flees. This gives us a feel of the past frozen before us. I was thrilled by many shots showing Huppert’s beauty, and how carefully Chereau caught the husband’s cracking up with taste. The shots are like pictures, framed, very stylized, artificial. Chereau talked about his cinematographer, Eric Gautier; like Francesco Mereilles, Chereau has had one person he relies on consistently and he knows how central this man is to his films.

I’d love to read an insightful study of this film. Jim tells me Chereau is famous for a Wagner ring he did in the 1970s where he took Shaw’s analysis of the opera as about capitalism seriously. Chereau (like Francesca Zambello’s direction of Das Rheingold) dressed the actor-singers in 1920s evening clothes. That works very well.

Huppert’s career has been just a brilliant one. Chereau says he chose her for the role after he watched her in the film adaptation of Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. I am just so drawn to her performances and the types she plays in all her films. I have written about The Piano Teacher and Claire Denis’s White Material

I don’t remember seeing Pascal Greggory before. He seems to me to be able to break away from the usual demand most other actors are unable to rid themselves of: that they keep up a hard invulnerability masculinity which only cracks occasionally so that their understand of vulnerability is never explored. An actor I’ve seen recently who can break this taboo at length is Martin Freeman as Watson in the new Sherlock.

I will go on to explore a another of the films that the finer film studies in Victorian Literature and Film thoroughly examined. I know that Louise McDonald’s take on Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is spot on, but I would like to try Atom Egoyan’s 1997 film The Sweet Hereafter.

Ellen

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