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Archive for the ‘20th century culture’ Category

GreatHallofPenshurts
The great hall at Penshurst

Dear Friends and Readers,

The other night I embarked on listening to another of these sets of videos sent out by English universities and designated MOOCs: Mass Online Courses. My second is from Warwick University, thus far the lectures are by the somewhat mesmerizing Jonathan Bate. He begins with Shakespeare’s life (week 1) and how his play, The Merry Wives of Windsor (week 2) closely reflects aspects of Shakespeare’s community, parentage, boyhood: “Shakespeare and His World.” Bate speaks of Shakespeare’s apparent bisexuality, gives a real sense of his life’ story and career that makes sense, and dismisses the snobbish nonsense that won’t attribute the plays to this player, writer, ordinary man. He speaks eloquently himself, quotes beautifully and expatiates on his texts, and (for week 3) his discourse about the world of plays and dreams, the birth of the professional theater fills the silence of my lonely room with a vibrant mind.

The series also functions as an advertisement for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust at Stratford: we are invited to contemplate artifacts from the Trust as relics.

Well my first try was the Literature of the English Country House, from Sheffield presented by a husband and wife professor team, the Fitzmaurices, and as, on the whole it was a disappointment, I thought I would not write a useless screed of complaints; but now I’m seeing another, which is much better to begin with (the professor is much franker and really knows something about his particular topic), yet shares some of the traits, I thought I would suggest what was valuable, and why people argue MOOCs are not true forms of learning, e.g., most glaringly little was told about the specific houses filmed in: many were supported by corrupt violence, slavery, vicious practices in factories, and the reality of how the wealth came to be gotten which put these houses up and paid for their is said to be a sore topic in the tourist and heritage industries. I include what little was said about enclosures, provincial playing of plays, politeness literature, Rousseau and education (nonsense poetry for adults), gothics (Radcliffe, Dickens) and Oscar Wilde’s “Canterville ghost,” the soul of man under socialism. Not much to do with country houses …

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Penshurst-PlaceGardens
A corner shot of the Penshurst gardens

They began at Penshurst, doubtless because of Ben Jonson’s poem:

Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,
Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.
Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.
Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;
Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort …
Here no man tells my cups; nor, standing by,
A waiter doth my gluttony envy,
But gives me what I call, and lets me eat;
He knows below he shall find plenty of meat.
The tables hoard not up for the next day;
Nor, when I take my lodging, need I pray
For fire, or lights, or livery; all is there,
As if thou then wert mine, or I reigned here:
There’s nothing I can wish, for which I stay.
That found King James when, hunting late this way
With his brave son, the prince, they saw thy fires
Shine bright on every hearth, as the desires
Of thy Penates had been set on flame
To entertain them; or the country came
With all their zeal to warm their welcome here.
What (great I will not say, but) sudden cheer
Didst thou then make ’em! and what praise was heaped
On thy good lady then, who therein reaped
The just reward of her high housewifery;
To have her linen, plate, and all things nigh,
When she was far; and not a room but dressed
As if it had expected such a guest!
These, Penshurst, are thy praise, and yet not all …
Now, Penshurst, they that will proportion thee
With other edifices, when they see
Those proud, ambitious heaps, and nothing else,
May say their lords have built, but thy lord dwells

For the first week on Penshurst, the texts included excerpts from Jonson’s “To Penshurst,” a paean to Robert and Barbara Sidney, who were among his patrons and decent humane values; excerpts from Margaret Cavendish’s Sociable Letters, and snatches of Shakespeare’s Twelth Night. The visuals included the gardens, which I have been to. Jonson’s poem is a beautiful set of images whose values are deeply appealing. Robert Sidney is all generosity (liberal, free). This is a table where guests all eat from the same set of foods — that implies there are places where some are sat at other tables with lesser food. No one is watching him, counting, either to see him show off or to make him feel he is taking too much. Everything you could want in your room is provided — and that’s where no one would see if you were deprived. It was like this when King James and his son came — so you are treated like a king & heir. Barbara Sidney does not disdain to do the work herself — or at least supervise and get involved. She has had many children — the value of fecundity, implying that some women of this era did know how to control their reproduction. Records suggest thought that most women of this milieu endured endless pregnancies. Virtue is taught here – -and all the country arts. Others show off, but you really live in this place.

At the same time I liked how Professor Cathy Shrank exposed the delusion that masters and servants were all lovey-dovey and insisted on the continual tensions between tenants and owners — the enclosure movement was part of what gave rise to More’s Utopia (a communist tract in effect though More didn’t know the term): it’s Utopian, presents an ideal ironically; More does not expect anyone will follow it, but uses it heuristically. How central More’s profound treatise, Utopia, and Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons seem to me more than ever today in trying to understand underlying motivations and types we see in our political world today. Together with Machievalli’s The Prince (it’s said Hussein would shoot his enemies dead at a table) and Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (on madnesses).

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FHardwick-Tapestries
The central hall of Hardwick (familiar on the Net) was filmed in, but nothing said about the tapestries

Week 2 we were taken to Hardwick Hall where very little was permitted to be photographed; the presenters seemed to delight in presenting the Duchess as formidable, but she left no diary — she was not introspective enough to keep one, and too ambitiously busy in the world. I learned something new — or that an attitude and belief had changed. When I was studying the Renaissance it was thought that these companies only went into the provinces when there was plague, or a specific invitation or someone in the company lived near the great house or some specific event was happening there — like a queen’s visit. Now they assert that the companies traveled frequently and provided much entertainment. But one reason for the thinness of the lectures for Week 2 is they seem to know hardly anything about these performances. Is there no paper trail? They were not sure where they were played, which plays chosen.

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Nostell_Priory_Stables
Nostell Priory Stables

The third week was filmed in one spot at Nostell Priory and the third and fourth week in several at Chatsworth (a tourist place nowadays) and the topic was politeness — well-taken if not fully explained. A long history of the 18th century by Paul Langford uses politeness in its title to capture a new central quality or value of the era. As England comes a thoroughly commercialized society where people did business with strangers as a matter of course and had to interact learn to trust one another, shared manners was essential. The two professors don’t bring out this economic basis. It was a value in itself, performative sociability, giving you presence and status so an entertainment house, Nostell Priory would be a place where you showed your politeness for all sorts of reasons. They cited Addison’s Spectators, a good choice: when I was young, they charmed me for their tone but now I know how snobbish this one we read it. Like Emma Mr Spectator expects people to modulate their tones.

Taking us to Chatsworth enabled them to talk about the “corruption” of this ideal later in the century: where politeness is used to manipulate and screw people. Instead of allowing for socialabilty it is a disguise behind which real social dysfunctions lurk. They don’t say that: a problem with these videos is the two people are so aware they don’t know who is listening and fear offending, so their language is so banal, neutral, it’s empty of any kind of judgement. So they say next to nothing about Chesterfield’s letters, at the time a scandal, called the letters of whore master because there is no pretense at fake morality to his son.

The choice of a central text was brave; Georgiana Spencer’s Sylph. but of course they did not discuss how the text relates to her life. She was an inordinate high player and was hounded for debts as was her husband. In the novel she is pressured to go to bed with someone in lieu of paying debts. They omit that these great houses were places where high play and gambling went on until the wee hours and people lost great sums.

They naturally brought in Austen as Chatsworth was used for the 1995 P&P film’s Pemberley: Austen’s books participate in the literature of the country house — from Pemberley; Norland, Barton Delaford, to Donwell Abbey, Mansfield Park & Sotherton; Donwell and Northanger Abbeys; Kellynch-Hall are all such places. There was not a single comment on what was Austen’s stance towards these places.

They also omitted how these houses were power linch-pins of aristocratic, elite life, central to Mark Girouard’s Life in the English Country House. These houses were places from which wealthy and influential people controlled the landscape and local economic and political life of “their area.” Their size, their networking capacity, their large staffs, how the family actually lived in London most of the time — all show us how unreal Downton Abbey is. Girouard also says it’s wrong to think of them as farms with tenant farmers) as DA encounages; Yes, but the purpose was to wrest rent from everyone; it was the rent rolls that mattered. So it mattered that the farms do well but that also depended on trade and connections across the county and outside too — tied to colonies as well. Girouard describes specific houses and like so many his emphasis is on the Renaissance and 17th century when these house first went up. They were extended in the 18th century and renovated in the 19th.

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SatisHouse
Satis House where a room is kept in imitation of Miss Haversham’s room in Great Expectations

The fifth week was called “Gothic” and included Haddon Hall which Ann Radcliffe knew. Two new presences energized the experience. Angela Wright’s two talks, one 9 and the other nearly 8 minutes on the gothic, Anne Radcliffe and Haddon Hall I thought excellent. What she showed was the suggestiveness of the prose and intertwining of narrator and main character. She talked rightly of how much study Radcliffe did of the countries she described and never went to – she also extrapolated from where she had been, Germany, and England all over the place, Scotland into the Highlands.

The opening epigraph poem written by Radcliffe herself: Her” voice seems to refer to Fate but it could also be the person who suffered the “nameless deed.” By not naming it, the suggestion is it breaks deep taboos — so how about incestuous rape? In Romance of the Forest an uncle attempts incestuous (it turns out) rape on the heroine (who is his niece we later learn). On the famous movement into Udolpho: she gazed … The adjectives connect the building to levels of darkness and light, mostly darkness; the uncertainty of what we see in this gloom reflects Emily’s deep feeling of insecurity. Words like “melancholy awe” and “gaze” are overtly connected to Emily but they spill over to “silent, lonely, sublime: Emily feels the silence, her loneliness, that she is nontheless in this special — sublime — environment. Uncertainty pictured in: “its features became more awful in obscurity,’ ” till its clustering towers were alone seen,” the carriage moves under “thick shade.”

One question we could ask since we do have very quiet free indirect discourse making for high subjectivity in the narrative all along, where is Radcliffe? how does she relate to acts like incestuous rape? by being so reticent and withdrawn (anticipating say Flaubert) she deflects such questions, but we do ask of other authors where are they in their lives and imagination in the fiction.

It made me yearn to go to the Ann Radcliffe Sheffield conference — Three days, maybe the first conference wholly on her — a 250 anniversary of the publication of Udolpho.

Again filming of the house was extremely limited, and Fitzmaurice could make anything boring (he is often interlocutor), so bland and careful are any of his comments. He did try to talk scarily – he was elephantine. They filmed themselves in the dark in one of Haddon House’s rooms. They also filmed Haddon House from the outside at an angle which suggests how it could be this building Radcliffe was thinking of when she imagined Udolpho.

Then Amber Regis spoke and she was good on Satis House: she had less time so there was much less about dickens (maybe they assumed we know something). It was amusing to see that the National Trust keeps one room of Satis House in a mess — paper coming away … What was especially good was Amber Regis’s exposition of Great Expectations and the remarks on autobiography and its relationship to Great Expectations. Of her questions about the text she chose I wrote: How does Pip know this though? Has he brooded analogously? What is this order of her Maker? Did God make her suitor desert her at the altar and implicitly demand that Miss Havisham “get over it?” Why should she be punished? what has she done? Was she at fault for the suitor not showing up? These are bad vanities: the “vanity of penitence, the vanity of remorse, the vanity of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities ” But there are worse evils. the novel faults Miss Havisham for bringing Estella up to hate and hate men. It’s an odd pivotal figure to hang upon a load of the world’s grief and misery.

I am drawn to the idea that Miss Havisham is approaching annihilation — she is herself dying before our very eyes. Since I have read the novel, I’d ask how this relates to our first sight of Magwitch in a grave yard, a convict fleeing the daylight world of law and police, someone who was treated as abominably as anyone (far worse than being stood up at an altar I should think) — since Pip grows to be a gentlemen out of these two people’s influence, is being a gentleman presented symbolically dependent on the deaths of others?

The two women had such cut glass chiseled accents — I thought that had gone out. So I wondered what Sheffield is like as a place to work … It was once a textile city and beautiful shawls came from there, sheep all around – -there was also much enclosure, much misery from industrialization — and radical and reform movement arose there in the 18th century and chartism in the 19th. I’ve wondered why does no one make a film adaptation of The Mysteries of Udolpho — you could incorporate some of the best of the Romance of the Forest as well as The Italian? The country house ruined is the center of the gothic, its underbelly, its cruelties — it’s on behalf of keeping it up that primogeniture was partly set up.

Elaine Pigeon who participated too wrote: “I was surprised by the gothic aspects of Great Expectations, the creepiness of Miss Havisham. The emphasis on decay reminded me of the ruin of the Lestrange family in Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up as a Flower. The idea of corruption and moral decay fits quite well as new money is taking over while the nobility of the past simply evaporates. It also made me think of William Faulkner’s famous short story, ‘A Rose for Emily,’ which as you probably know is considered a good example of Southern Gothic. There is a reversal in that tale, as Emily keeps the corpse of the groom in her bedroom, laid out on the bed as a fully dressed skeleton. If I recall correctly, he had tried to jilt her, but she put a stop to that.”

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brodsworth-at-war
Brodsworth Hall: a modern play area outside the house for children

The 6th week is worth discussing for what was not discussed and what was deeply wrong about this MOOC. Perhaps others will disagree – I would like to hear if anyone liked or disliked this week – but I found this week’s series irritating – it had all the faults of the previous weeks and then some. Brodsworth Hall was presented as unusual for its children’s nurseries and an excuse to launch into educational treatises. I had not noticed in previous weeks but this time it was glaring. We were never told who owned Brodsworth nor why It has this vast wing for children.

I looked it up and found on Wikipedia a pdf dissertation which explained the family were fabulously rich and much of their money derived from slavery – -especially the worst kind where one worked people to death in the western hemisphere to make huge sums on sugar and other products. Even cursory reading of “Slavery connections of Brodsworth Hall (Final report for English heritage – you can find the pdf on Wikipedia if you type in Brodsworth) showed that Peter Thelluson could be used an antidote to Lord Grantham: we are told at one point this poor man was squeezed and forced to take a position at court in the Ottoman empire (reminding me of the pity we are to feel for the Scottish lord In Downton Abbey just “forced” to go to India and live there as a courtier). Reading about this family reminded me of all the evils of primogeniture and how it was used for the patronage system – I read yesterday of how Thomas Paine attacked primogeniture in Part 2 of his famous Rights of man.

The first inference to take is such a nursery cannot be common. Our presenters never told us 1) What was the average childhood of Victorian times, nor how common is such a wing for other country houses. But answer came there none because no one asked the question. Which generation of the family built this wing? Which woman? Who were the servants? How many governesses and nursemaids did they have? Was there a tutor? You learn far more from Tillyard’s book about the Lennoxes in this regard than anything cited here.

Then they went over two poems (Lear and Carroll), two men who never married, and not children’s literature from country houses. What were the real books given these children and what the books written about them in the era and after. I am startled by how well behaved the questioners are but maybe there are many people like me who refrain from asking obvious questions that might be uncomfortable – MOOCs are dependent on the inhibitions of people in large public cyberspace where they know very few people – but I did notice that none of the offered subjects were at all about the house, the family who owned it and came to build such a wing. We are not encouraged to learn about how children really fitted into this environment.

Cynically I’d say this angle was chosen because there was someone on the Sheffield staff whose speciality was nonsense verse and fantasy pictures and the last thing she wanted to discuss was what it was all about (the fantasy pictures are highly erotic). We got the silliest exposition of ideas about childhood in the 18th century: Rousseau was cited but not Locke’s Thoughts Concerning Education. All they could say was the bland idea that children were not longer little adults and seen as the product of sin or wild savage animals. In fact they were not seen this way from the Renaissance on. There is a history of educational literature which starts in the 16th century — how to teach children in school and this history is taught (or used to be) in better graduate school programs – like Columbia’s Teacher’s college. Much of the earliest enlightened thought was against beating — to no avail in many places but it was against it. Healthy environments, keeping children from “corruption” (sexual knowledge).

The true importance of Rousseau’s treatise is he argued you must take the child’s nature and keep his gifts in mind. Lock was willing to impose goals a family might want – insofar as one is able. Rouseau wants to find out the particular child and develop programs which address this. He also tried to break with latin learning and make it far more practically oriented. The Lennox sisters actually followed Rousseau’s regimen – they were famous for it. One of them married the tutor she hired — an enlightenment type. This is revolutionary — maybe you’d like your son to be a naval officer but if he has no inclination or ability in that direction, all the beating in the world will not make him a successful officer. They may have mentioned that this did not go for girls: Rousseau assumes the nature of all girls is to be come sexual objects and mothers and wives. It needs Mary Wollstonecraft, Madame de Genlis and others to object against this and argue for a real education for a girl too — which developed into finishing schools for the rich.

Diane Reynolds participated and here is some of what she wrote about week 6: ” … Samuel Johnson, among others, defended corporal punishment in schools as, while unpleasant, the only way to compel children to learn. He and
others defended it as long as it caused no lasting damage to the body — no maiming, no blinding, no visible scars. It was seen as transitory suffering far outweighed by the enduring quality of an education. Pain went away, but the knowledge wrought by pain — reading, writing, etc — lasted a lifetime. Though many people were highly uncomfortable with this logic, having endured horrors themselves, it took more than a century of case building to establish the enduring psychological harm caused by corporal punishment, and, also important, the fact that the mass of children could learn effectively without being beaten … This is the period of locking children into dark closets (which we should understand more as small rooms than our current closets — our clothes closet function was supplied by wardrobes) and dark basements for minor infractions. The lecturer tells us that the wing is no longer decorated as a child’s wing, but does not tell us what it would have looked like — it would have been interesting to have been shown contemporary photographs or read contemporary accounts or memories of the children as adults. But no. The house might well have simply arisen from the ether. The nonsense verses were hardly nonsense but all about power and oppression, though we are prompted to see them as “nonsense.” At the end, the lecturer mentions they are about power (well, duh) but never goes on to provide anymore context or explanation or even her own theory about them.

I am sure it would have offended some people to highlight the house being built on the profits of slave labor, but for me that raises a larger question of academic integrity and truth-telling. If it is indeed the truth that this is where the money came from, it seems to me we need to face that. I have never understood why people get so offended at truth telling. I would think sweeping unpleasant facts under the rug would be more offensive. This becomes history functioning as fantasy or fiction: dangerous.”

I replied: I now seriously doubt any of those who talked had read Rousseau. They were mouthing the safest truisms they knew of – or else they just didn’t want to discuss his text at all nor its place in education. The Renaissance began the drumbeat to stop physical beating — it occurs very early in the literature and when (for example), Sarah Fielding in her Governess reaffirms its use, it is more than horrifying because she has added another aspect Johnson meant to decry: moral blackmail. Not only do you beat the child, but you instill in it deep attachment to you, in both Rousseau and Madame de Genlis, you cut the child off from other children (that is part of the drive to educate privately) so poor Emile and Adele have no one to turn to. Rousseau is quite explicit about this; Madame de Genlis is ruthless in the way she manipulates the daughter. I say Madame de Genlis because Adele et Theodore is transparently autobiographical: she is describing how she brought up Pamela and Henriette. She didn’t dare do quite that level of bullying to the man who became the citizen king (who was devoted to her in later life) and was one of her pupils later on.

One of the major changes in the 18th century is a growth in psychological awareness and seeing things from a psychological standpoint. Richardson anticipates Freud says Diderot (in effect).

And there is something to this — at least this kind of twisting of children to make them envy this or that, long for this or that can have very bad effects on them morally — maybe you teach some ambition and those who are that way to start with (competitive) thick-skinned and maybe more shallow in feeling do okay but it can instill deep inward injury (class based then and now, race based now).

When I read Rousseau I thought his idea of following the child’s nature a form of true liberation in the earliest years and this kind of thing can create great love between tutor and student — it does link to what Austen makes fun of through Marianne Dashwood. Marianne says if she was doing wrong she would know it because she’d feel it. That’s out of Rousseau finally and the idea is its innate — this understanding of what’s right and wrong or good and bad. Rousseau said famously man is born free but everywhere in chains. He’s not all wrong: one practice of enslavers suggests they knew at some level they were committing horrific crimes — they get rid of every document they can about their slaves but those which relate to buying and selling. One part of that I think is shame — they want to erase what they have perpetrated. Not enough not to not do it. And they did advertise to get back slaves then shamelessly identifying slaves by scars showing terrible brutality. Dickens used that in his American Note

In letters Madame de Genlis’s daughter, Pamela, wrote late in life (after she married Lord Fitzgerald and he died) she said she hated her mother. She described Madame de Genlis as a hypocrite: she tells of how the woman coerced another daughter into marriage in order to get money and how when the girl tried for and got a divorce Madame de Genlis was among those who countered that Enlightenment statute (alas abrogated in 1803 or so) by refusing to acknowledge the divorce. The man was brutal and a crook — one of these embezzling types. OTOH, Pamela never did become estranged: she couldn’t imagine life without this woman who was to her toxic (so she says). Her letters are an early version of Mommie Dearest ….

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Bowood_from_Morris's_County_Seats_1880
Bowood from Morris’s County Seats, 1880

In the 7th week all pretense at discussing country houses was given up and an Oscar Wilde expert (Dr Andy Smith) trotted out — the texts included The Happy Prince, “The Canterville Ghost” (a short story), The Importance of Being Earnest, and “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (a short treatise). There was some general talk of the decline of the country house, the agricultural depression of the 1890s — in terms you can get straight from Downton Abbey. In DA we learn of (oh how sad) how rich people lost their estates — that’s about what they said; you could find it in a magazine article

Not once was there a hint that Wilde was a homosexual man. The escape from a trap using a hidden identity (Bunbury) is what a gay man has to do. The move into anarchism as freedom under socialism is an escape from commercial pressures which also force people to live hidden lives. James was mentioned and The Turn of the Screw is about how the twisted heterosexuality of the normative conventions destroys people and has twisted the mind of the governess. Other of James’s stories invite similar interpretations. “The Canterville Ghost” mocks the form of the ghost story at the same time as it uses it to tell of dire events obliquely.

I was prompted to write more than before:

I have a real connection with the Oscar Wilde material. Again it’s Jim: I have two shelves full of books by Wilde — a big fat seat of everything he ever wrote, multi- old volumes where you have to own a special cutter instrument to open the pages as you go. I’ve Wilde’s letters, a couple of books of criticism, and some selections of his plays, a biography. I’ve a similar library of George Bernard Shaw. Together Jim and I saw a number of Wilde’s and Shaw’s plays. Jim liked Shaw’s criticism and politics. Of Wilde it was all sorts of things, even Wilde’s poetry. I have read in some of the material and some of the texts quite through but especially for Shaw he read a lot of it. I once ended up in a cartoon movie watching Wilde’s “Happy Prince” with Laura as a child; it’s a deeply melancholy story and she watched with great absorption but did not like it at all

So since I’ve never read “The Canterville Ghost” or “The Soul of Man under Socialism” I found them and this morning read “The Canterville Ghost.” It was still uncut so Jim never got this far. “The Soul of Man under Socialism” is in the volume which contains “De Profundis,” the whole book cut so Jim read that one. I am interested in ghost stories.

It’s a send up of the ghost story convention. It appears to follow the outline of Wharton’s powerful “Afterward.” American family buys a property said to have a ghost and find it titillating. In Wharton’s story it ends in cataclysmic tragedy — the women is widowed at the end, devastatingly. Wilde though asks what’s to be afraid of. So you see a ghost. So what?

He makes his Americans thoroughly pragmatic and into inventions to improve the ghost’s existence and their own. They torment the poor ghost by continually washing up a blood stain. They unnerve him. They set traps and tricks. At the same time Wilde shows he can do ghost stories too. The ghost manages to kidnap the daughter at one point and the family then does become terrified. She vanished — that’s what ghosts do. In this part of the story he shows how he can whip up landscape and also labrythine corridors. It does end in death but then turns round to provide a cheer-y mocking ending.

Yes it takes place in a country house — and is part of a subgenre of mystery stories occurring in country houses. But Wilde is not interested in that – -it reminds me of a poor play Izzy and I saw a couple of weeks ago: the humor is really gay humor — you are upending heterosexual norms and showing them to be absurd. Wilde would understand _the Turjn of the Screw_ in the way it was meant but at the same time find the horrified sensibility hilarious — or write a story where he appeared to. He was highly performative.

The story did make me think about this: when my father died I had my first insight into ghost stories: they were about what couldn’t be retrieved; you could not bring the person back; at the same time it’s likely bad things occur much you are remorseful for and there is much guilt so the ghost story rehearses this endless circular re-enactment of guilt, justice, revenge.

Now I see the story itself, the frame is part of what it’s about – how this in itself clasps you round and you need it, live in it, cannot lose its meaning, at the same time like the ghost who removes the heroine for a while it devours you.

Wilde is pointing out how under socialism there can be little individual liberty. When I did my paper on “liberty in the Poldark novels” I read a lot about different kinds of liberty, and the one that only recently has concerned philosophers (since Mill) is civil liberty. It has to do with individual belief systems and how we are allowed to go about our daily lives; it’s a liberty of the private man. Recently privacy has come under attack as a concept, but while much of our privacy is now invaded (see the two Ted lectures), I believe the concept is valid.

Wilde was remarkably brave and continued to be — or he had an urge to be “found out.” There’s a complicated (thoughtful) essay by Colm Toibin on Wilde’s self-exposure which i could try to find and share if people are interested.

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To sum up: in this MOOC about country houses and their literature, the speakers never discussed the general structure of these houses, who made them, the architects, any non-fiction texts actually about them, not even one book which is about a country house culture. Penshurst was as close as they came. They assert things about what went on in the house if they have someone on their staff who knows about that thing but do not demonstrate the thesis. Their offerings of close reading were hilariously inadequate: it’s not wanted, not understood by most readers. Most of the comments in the comments in the comment section were contentless and as bland as the professors’ frequent mush.

What was valuable was when the passages chosen were themselves remarkable even if ripped out of context or when a few of us turned actually to read together and discuss some of the works broached: Georgiana Spencer’s The Sylph for example; from there a few of us went on to read A Woman in Berlin; and then two of us two more 18th century novels, one also attributed to Georgiana (Emma, or the Unfortunate Attachment) and one connected to her (Sophia Briscoe’s epistolary, Miss Melmoth, both 1770s). For myself I then read an excellent essays by Isobel Grundy on the increase of misattribution and minor Richardsonian novels.

CantervilleGhost

The crux of what’s wrong with MOOCs: the superficiaility of the relationships among the people unless they go off site and begin to form a subgroup for real. Yahoo is just now trying to destroy the self-containment of the Yahoo groups as much as it can. A recent phenomena is the appearance on some listservs of ads for others where someone is said to have joined it. As if there is no different between what group you are in … The crucial thing that has made Janeites and other listservs (3 long running ones I moderate)is a self-contained group where the people get to know one another — and are willing to contribute real genuine content. There are people trained to avoid content, but long term relationships bring us out. Blog rings may be made up of genuine groups of people who know one another. On facebook the problem with open groups is so many strangers: people are embarrassed to post content because they do not trust one another.

Ellen

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Nearclosure
With Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman standing aside, Bryan Cranston as Mr White advising Aaron Paul as Jesse to find a new identity — near closure

Dear friends and readers,

When I began watching and then writing about Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad I did not intend to write seriously about it, but gradually I came to see the it comprises an unusual set of quality TV films worth study and evaluative commentary. They mirror central deeply disquieting and central aspects of US life, the whole plot-design actuated by the cancer epidemic (from our ubiquitous “chemistry, yo Mr White!”) and the horrendous price of a pretense at effective chemical medicine:

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Anna Gunn as Skyer desperate and believing Walt could be saved, pressuring him into going for the out-of-range expensive chemotherapy and operation.

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At film’s end: she sits, chain-smokes, drinks coffee, listens to others in a corner of a trailer-home

As film art they are brilliant. The genre finally American gothic: the mini-series has the recipe except for the supernatural: the double self, death, labyrinthine haunted places, the past never goes away, even sexuality in the form of homo-eroticism unacknowledged, and at the end a house in ruin. Less known but common characteristics: exploration of science, doctors (as in Frankenstein). Kafkaesque, majorly says Jesse of his experiences.

So now, as I’ve done for the Palliser, Poldark and Downton Abbey mini-series, as well as many Jane Austen and Andrew Davies’ films, I offer a handy list in one place for people who are interested easily to reach my summaries and commentary. I’ll keep it to this blog (and not attempt to put it on a new website when I finally make it) as after all I discover I did not write as many here as for these previous series:

1) Cancer and Anatomies of Violence: Season 1:1-3

2) Cancer and Money: Season 1:4-6

3) Parallels distract common sense from seeing who is the villain here: Season 1:17

4) It’s the reverse of what’s claimed: Season 2:1-4

5) A Crime Adventure Story: Season 2:5-7 to Finale

6) A Crime Adventure Story (Cont’d): Season 2:8-10

7) American Gothic: Season 2:11-13

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Their first lab

8) Sensational Screenplay into a film: Season 3:1-4

9) Rather poorer stuff: Season 3:5-7

10) Stasis (includes Fly and Kafkaesque): Season 3:8-10

11) A Killing Way of Life: Season 3:11-13; 4:1-4

12) I change my mind about Skyler: Season 4:5-13 & Reprise 1:1-7

13) Walt and the Emmys: Season 5:1-8 & Reprise Season 2:5-13

14) The Dark Tragic End: Season 6:1-8

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From The Fly

I’ve two books to recommend, and transcripts of what was said in each episode. As I discover new essays or materials (reviews welcome) on-line that are good, I’ll add them here:

David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp’s collection of essays by themselves and others, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry

Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad by Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz

The Breaking Bad episodes scripts — simply the dialogue taken down (not the screenplay, not shooting scipts as they have no stage directions, no description of production design, no designation for shots)

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One of the many landscapes and bags of chemicals from the series

Ellen

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Anna Gunn about to fall to her knees on the ground as Skyler crying after her baby is taken from her by Walt

if you cut them [man's laws] down … d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then … Yes I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake — Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons

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But see this pinned up photo of Andrea (Emily Rios), among the world’s targets: who cares what happens to her: anyone may and does shoot her in the head

Dear friends and readers,

I finished what I’m calling a first viewing of the extraordinary 42 hour Breaking Bad to the bitter end last night. Even to try to take it in would require several viewings. Each of the last shots of the principles epitomizes some final statement about what each has become and how they related to the story’s themes and action. In the last feature as well as a parody, “Alternate Ending,” Vince Gilligan offered his view of the two men’s last moments.

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The series’ last shot of Bryan Cranston as Walter White

White, he suggests, is “spiritually broken, his hopes for revenge pipe dreams; he’s too sick,” the last episode “an elegy, a bit of a goodbye — he goes out on his own terms, the cancer does not kill him, he is killed saving Jesse, there’s almost a perverse feeling of victory to it for me, at least.” Walt’s life up to the time he began to cook meths was a long mortification, failure as most in his society saw it, mocked by the bully brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) in a video replayed briefly made during Holly’s baby shower. He tells Skyler he did it “for me. I liked it. And I was good at it. I was alive.” Look at that look of bliss on the man’s face as Walt enters the darkness from which we all come, for him the release of oblivion. His life as Walter White ended when he was told he had terminal inoperable cancer; now the love he depended upon is gone from his family, he has done for them what he could monetarily, and he now dies on his own terms, blithe to go.

I’m not as persuaded by Gilligan’s view of Jesse. He’d “like to think Jesse escapes,” that there is “some hope of a life ahead.” Look at that face whose every nerve is suffused with moral pain and despair:

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Last shot of Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman

Jesse crashes in a junk car at full throttle through an iron fence from the last lair of murderous crooks with which he and Mr White have had to deal and Walt destroyed. Realistically, he’s nowhere to hide: Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) has vanished (“it’s over”) and with him his mechanisms for creating new identities for his clients. Jesse will end up seeking out his two feeble friends, Skinny Pete and Badger, and die on the streets if not jailed: he has been called “the moral compass” of the series;” it’s more true to say he has bneen its bleak victim, the one beat up continually, targeted again and again for killing, enslaved with chains, at the close yes knowing he made a killing choice to join Walter White and Jesse is no killer. Each time he shot or killed someone it was after an intense effort to force himself: only the strangulation of Todd (well deserved after Todd coolly shoots Andrea in the head) came naturally.

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The alternate ending has Cranston as Hal, a comic emasculated character with Lois, his formidable wife (Jane Kaczmarek, from a once TV popular series, the two of them starred in, 2006 Malcolm in the Middle) waking in the night, trembling from the “scariest” dream you can imagine: told he had cancer (!), he took to cooking meths, making bombs, killing people (!), alongside a “lost waif, a man child who looked like he was always wearing his older brother’s clothes and he would always say things like “b…” [he stops embarrassed and worried his wife won't approve], the b word he would use the b word a lot he would say (shouting) “yo B word” and “yah science b word …” In “Felina” we see Jesse when young lovingly carpentering a wooden box, his drawings of himself as a boy hero were recognized by Jane (Krysten Ritter), one of his two loves, as the work of a comically self-deprecating artist. Despised and rejected, with no Mr White to save him, Jesse zooms into the darkness too.

In this dream Hal tells Lois, as his actual wife (much TV self-reflexivity here) that he, Hal, was married to this “tall beautiful blonde woman” — Lois the wife semi-jeers, incredulous of course. When Skyler is last seen she is continually smoking, chain-smoking. She sits and smokes. She is terrorized twice in this season, both through her baby. After a terrific scene after Walt has produced another set of lies to account for his absence and where Hank could be, she sees a fancy knife in a knife set on the table we have seen many times. She grabs it and lunges at him, screaming, “leave us alone, just leave us alone.” Walt defends himself and they fall to the fall, rolling, tussling; he manages to wrench the knife back but not before she has slashed his hand. Horrified, Walt junior becomes hysterical as he watches this.

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To this they have descended. Well he gets back; before she can rise and adjust herself, he has taken the baby in its carrier, run to his car and is driving off. She rushes out after them frantic, asking for her baby back, and falls on her knees to the ground as he drives away. A stunning moment. She begins at long last to cry. Walt does care for Holly and leaves her with the firemen, where we presume Skyler can pick her up safe and sound.

Again another moment in this last season, late at night, she hears a sound from the baby’s room and finds herself by the crib with three men who surround it. They are masked and the dangerous Todd is one of them. They say she has been talking to the police and if she tells about who Lydia is or anything she knows they will return — implication and kill this baby. She mouths obedience.

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Last shot of Anna Gunn as the show’s princess Skyler White seeing how bad Walt looks

Anna Gunn interprets her character inadequately throughout. She says Skyler is a shell, nothing in her. But for her life is not pointless as yet: she has her children, but like Jesse, they make her intensely vulnerable to those who want to get at Walt or any of his associates. Unlike Jesse, once her court case is done, if she does not go to prison (and a plea bargain seems probable), she must (like Saul) move, and if not get a new identity, keep out of harm’s way. Her beauty is of no help for what she cares about — though perhaps it attracted Walter White in the first place, made him dump Gretchen Schwartz. The characters in the series invite these kinds of speculations: we learn enough about them suggestively over the slow-moving 6 year series. I imagine she will eventually stop the heavy smoking — though she will never be the complacent woman she once was. She will remember a world of terror that she joined in on (to the extent of telling Walt to have Jesse killed when Walt balks at this), that still exists but which she now wants no part of.

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The very last shot of the series: the men with big guns in the scientific lab (as Fortinbras has the last word in Hamlet)

There is a bleak inference to be garnered at this end: at each and every turn of their career, the two men came up against people who had become inured to murder by dint of murdering other people lest they be murdered or found out, bullied into confessions, and then tortured by penal servitude for decades to come. Each set of murderers were worse than the ones before: from Krazy-8 (seemingly sane) to Tuco Salamanca (who commits acts of wild crazed violence), replaced by the frighteningly homocidal Gus Esposito and his ruthless hitman, Mike Ermantraut, replaced in this last season by the vicious Nazi crew run by Jack Welker (Michael Bowen), with perhaps the scariest pair of them all, Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) and Lydia Rodart-Quayle (Laura Fraser). Hank tells Walt he is a dead man ten minutes ago when Walt is still so foolish as to try to bargain with Jack for Hank’s life based on reasoning:

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Near last shot of Dean Norris as Hank: to Walt “you were the smartest guy I ever knew, but you are too stupid to know it was over ten minutes ago.”

The mini-series presents law as providing a modicum of safety for those who do not break it: those administering (inflicting?) and obeying it do not fear one another and however personally awful, mean, demeaning of others, have a vested interest in not breaking it. So some control is exerted over people, some order set up (however morally cruel or wrong) whose rules most of the time can be depended upon — at least by white middle class people.

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Marie (Betsy Brandt) left alone, widowed in her impeccable kitchen — having learned nothing, her lips tight as she spews out unfocused anger

At least you know where you are with the DEA, the medical establishment, the schools, family rituals. There are levels of barbarity such people most of the time do not stoop to. Not everyone is inside this net — those on drugs, alcoholics, non-whites, the poor, women who are driven to prostitution, for whom there is no pity, no understanding. The show does not include GLBT people who presumably are not inside the Net if they reveal themselves.

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Walt’s last view of Walter Junior (RJMitte) who he has tried to provide money for funneled through the Schwartzes

I would not want to be a disabled person, a child, someone who does not conform in the surface way the well-rewarded Schwartzes have.

A bad dream? Says Mr White to Hank (who soon after ends up buried in sand), if you do not know what this has been about (“who I am”), tread lightly:

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The remark is not to limited to Heisenberg as Hyde but the whole complex of life we’ve experienced.

Have I mentioned how effective are the inconsequential shots of the series: as Walter White is taken away to hide in the granite state, a stray dog crosses the road

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Final shot of Oxymandias (13:6)

Ellen

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On their way to Pompeii (2014)

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Somewhere in the West Riding (2010)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been wanting to see Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy, featuring Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon a second time before writing about it as what is referred to as “a summer movie,” but summer is just about over and I’ve not made it back to Cinema Art this week when it opened there (and a few other movie theaters). I have, though, now watched The Trip twice (a DVD from Netflix), the previous travel-film, near two-hour feature made by the same director, with the same pair of males, and even female friends and lovers (Rebecca Johnson as Rob’s wife) and associates (Claire Keelan as Emma) in 2010. They went to Yorkshire or the West Riding, so that reinforcement and slow re-watching (pleasurable) will have to do.

The Trip to Italy is not a great film in the way of Richard Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise, with Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, as the loving and then vexed friends, with each reprise (Before Sunset [2004], and Before Midnight [2013]), not quite as fine; but it’s in the same mode, and unlike most sequels, an improvement on The Trip: all five seem to move us deeply into an intimate relationship (not sexual in the case of Coogan and Brydon as they keep reminding us and themselves) which we are glimpsing continual outward signs and conversation about. One of the joys of all five is you are made to feel you are listening to real spontaneous conversation and have to remind yourself that, to stay just with Coogan and Brydon, this is a fiction and this is not Brydon’s wife to whom he is sexually unfaithful while away, nor is this Coogan’s somewhat estranged son (in the fiction of the second movie, having been separated from her mother, his ex-wife). And the conversation is almost perpetually stimulating, often intelligent, fun, touching. Coogan and Brydon have some advantages over Delpy and Hawke as both are superb mimics and their patter in the second movie is a matter of their competing with transforming themselves into familiar male actors, and they visit superbly beautiful places.

It speaks well of Linklater’s three movies that he does not rely on offering us a deeply pleasurable travelogue, but this summer I could not resist it. Jim and I and our two daughters in 1994 spent five weeks in Italy, mostly in and around Rome, but we were in Pompeii, to Naples, and three days in Ischia and I had to admit we were immersed in nothing so beautiful, a salutary admission as films eliminate the hard realities of travel, the real world one is surrounded by.

As a dream fantasy of photography the earlier film was as spectacular. Brydon says they are in a Turner painting, but to me (like Alan Bennet) it’s John Atkinson Grimshaw (a famous 19th century painter of Leeds) who captured the area best and this time, having lived in Leeds and traveled across the West Riding for 2 years I did experience some of the scenes captured.

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I’ve walked and driven through landscapes like this

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Stone pubs look like that on a sunny day

They do omit Leeds itself with its hard older parts of the cityscape (some impoverished), and towns that are barely surviving today,and the bourgeois heavy mansions in the outskirts of cities but not in the countryside:

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John Atkinson Grimshaw’s forte: An Autumn Idyll

But then to me parts of Naples looked like the Bronx circa 1950s.

Both films have been reviewed favorably, Maohla Dargis in the New York Times (June 2011), and David Denby in the New Yorker (September 2014). Both reviews underline the vexed abrasions the men have now and again, and the undercurrents of melancholy, especially in the second film where the men are older, and Brydon no longer presented as happily married. The films are self-reflecting and in the second film Brydon remarks he was thought to be too “affable” in the first film: it’s been fixed, as Brydon betrays his lovers more than Coogan, and is every bit as wounded over his career losses as Coogan (who after all was in last year’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” Philomena with Judi Dench). I also found the increased level of sexual talk (bodily jokes) at times distasteful and (to be expected I suppose) masculinist: the hurts are those of males, women seen as objects, comfort dolls, or irritating bosses. At the Cinema Art Film Club where I saw The Trip to Italy, Gary Arnold (the Washington Post film critic who chooses the films and leads the discussion afterward) said if you didn’t like the actors’ characters you would hate the film; that’s one way of putting it without referring to gender. Some might be bored by Delpy and Hawke.

Perhaps The Trip to Italy had realer fuller (because darker) emotions than The Trip: the moving sequence at Pompeii is the film at its best — the talk over the stone corpses and how we relate to them. In The Trip Coogan and Brydon rely on reciting poetry by Coleridge and Wordsworth to make ironic some of their passing through tourist places; in The Trip to Italy the awareness of mortality, almost a fixation (it comes out in the 2010 film when the two are standing in a grave side and Brydon gets Coogan to anticipate what Coogan will say over Brydon’s tomb), comes out as one man wanting to open himself to his loss and vulnerability (Brydon) and the other bitterly walking away (Coogan), suggesting this sensitivity is phony.

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Winterbottom made a great film out of Jude the Obscure where he similarly meditated loss, death, and in The Trip to Italy Winterbottom’s use of Strauss’s Four Last Songs was pitched just right. For me who nowadays see in Before Sunrise a re-enactment of Jim and my first week together,

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Before Sunrise: the young Delpy and Hawke

there was here a personal connection to our first ceremony ending (I intend to scatter his ashes in England), as Jim loved these songs and I made them part of the soundtrack for the video that played at Jim’s funeral.

Denby tells us the two films are derived from six part mini-series made for British TV. He felt nothing was missing and you could hardly tell this origin; I can’t agree. Now and again references seem to be made to something in the film we had not experienced (not just a between chapter) and especially the second film where there was much more sexual interaction with women along the way perhaps I would have not reacted to the talk negatively had the full time of the relationships been presented. At the very least the films profited enormously from their cyclical structure. In the second especially we are made to feel this is not closure: Coogan has to go home to cope with the son he has in part failed, and Brydon wishes he could avoid returning home and suggests a hope, however improbable, of coming back. Improbable is part of the movie’s wit: they are supposed on a hard assignment to eat these exquisitely cooked meals it’s almost an embarrassment to watch being made, so detailed is the luxury appointment of the plates, and so hushed the waiter’s descriptions.

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Yorkshire being photographed

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Yet another wine-savored feast

A testament to the world of the 1%? That’s my one serious objection to the second film. The first seemed to avoid that: maybe it had less fancy meals, less luxurious surroundings, there was a sense of roughing it. If you define a summer movie as escapism, metaphysically and psychologically at least they are not that, with the second funnier and yet sadder than the first.

Both sets of films have prompted caricature:

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Eating your way through

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Waking up: “I keep thinking about something you said.” “Something I said?”

Ellen

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As Hank (Dean Norris) looks over Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and sees Gale Boetticler’s signature, suddenly he conjures up a half-forgotten memory-image of

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Walt (Bryan Cranston) looking insinuatingly, fiercely at him, teasing “You’ve got me” (with his hands comically up)

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose —Sung by Janis Joplin

Dear readers and friends,

I’d like to emphasize that I realized the one character I had not done an extended sketch of in my blogs on this remarkable mini-series was Walter White and had decided I would focus on my remarks on the fifth season by surveying the development of White’s character — before I knew that Bryan Cranston had won Emmys for portraying Walter White as the best actor in a TV drama series a remarkable number of 4 times (2008, 2009, 2010, and 2014). Oscars and Emmys are not just awarded to an actor for a great performance, but because the voting audience feels deeply compelled by the character, and by the story he is caught up in. Walter White, the shat-upon invisibly caged man, a few paychecks or gov’t action away from bankruptcy is today’s American male. When we survey the ordinariness of violent men of our society at home and abroad, we should remember Walter White — and his Javier, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). If Walt seems an unlikely Jean Valjean (too upper middle, he gives no free bread away, not an underdog socially), let me allow Jesse to have that role as inflected by a modern take on that ultimate lost boy, Peter Pan. Skylar as Wendy? well, she did scold Peter frequently.

As I watched the first half of the fifth season of Breaking Bad in tandem with Season 2:1-13 (last week I watched the fourth season in tandem with the first to give myself perspective), I realized how cruel, harmful psychologically as well as practically, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had become. How different he was from the Walter White of the second season, where with Jesse he stood without weapons in a junk yard and shuddered, revulsed before the psychopathic bully-distributor Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) proceeding to beat to death his own body guard. In the first 8 episodes of the fifth season, now a mass murderer Walt hires a team to men to murder Mike’s team in prison after and commits a series of sickening manipulations of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to hide that he, Walt, engineered the near death by poisoning of Jesse’s near-adopted son, Brock (with Andrea, Emily Rios, Brock forms Jesse’s “instant family”). With Jesse, Walt stages a search for and finds (!) ricinn poison in a rhomba vaccuum cleaner. Walt then allows Jesse to weep with guilt over his near-murder of Walt (his “one friend”) when he thought it was Walt who poisoned Brock (it was).

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Jesse’s grief over all the deaths they’ve caused, with Walt’s comforting arms and hands on Jesse’s shoulders …” Walt will later need Jesse to believe that he, Walt, didn’t kill Mike, that Mike is still not dead ….

Worst of all by insinuating the danger of Jesse’s companionship with Andrea (to Andrea and Brock), Walt persuades Jesse to break off his relationship with Andrea. I was most struck by how when later Jesse mentions to Walt that he is no longer living with Andrea and Brock, Walt seems not to hear, and registers this new arrangement as unimportant. Walt deprived Jesse of a girl he was genuinely compatible with, who understood him (Jane) as perhaps Andrea cannot. He wants Jesse for himself (like a devil taking over someone) and become enraged when Jesse wants out of the business because he, Jesse, is now revulsed.

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Andrea (Emily Rios) coming in with her boy, Brock, bringing food for supper

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Andrea smiling an invitation at Walt in which Jesse joins in — they don’t have too many guests

What does Walt care for Jesse’s now profoundly lonely purposeless existence? He risks Jesse’s life by refusing to stop siphoning in meth from their great train robbery when Mike says to stop and Jesse miraculously (perils of Pauline here) escapes horrific death from a racing train by laying within the two tracks. In Season 2 he was led by Jesse who organized distribution. He deprives Jesse of the 5 million Jesse is owed to attempt to force Jesse to continue in this murdering-drug creation-selling business. With friends like these, who needs enemies as they say). He ceaselessly lies. Jesse realizes Mike must be dead since no one is coming after Walt’s team for murdering them, and Walt says Mike is not dead and he “needs Jesse to believe that.” Jesse says nothing but maybe he needs himself to believe that or not contradict it.

Walt’s come a long way. Tellingly as Walt genuinely becomes an evil man, Vince Gilligan in his commentary in the DVD features at long last concedes a nuanced development, a slow-moving justification over a period of intense pressure and need, and says more than once that Walt was “a badly damaged man” when we first saw Walt in the first season. That what he has slowly become is the result of shedding that bullied deeply frustrated existence once in the first season he was told he had inoperable cancer and statistically had probably no more than 2 years at most to live. That his manhood had been undermined badly and the twisted self coming out was intent on revenge and proving himself. Gilligan did not go so far as openly in his words to connect this to our society’s norms, inequalities, obsession with money, but we are invited to. The series in second season had also shown us how little choice of a self-respecting career Jesse has had, and how dismissed Walt is as a high school chemistry teacher. The fifth season shows the viewer how gutted is the 1st, 4th and 8th amendment: the gov’t agencies need not even get a grand jury indictment: they freeze all the assets of suspected people, thus bankrupting them and their families, break in for evidence without a warrant (unless the person asserts him or herself with a hired lawyer). The DEA and others agencies have easy access to surveillance. The medical treatment which is so expensive is also available as records for any agency to explore.

Re-watching the second season alongside the 5th, I noted how what might be called Walt’s second self, Heisenberg as Walt’s Mr Hyde, comes forth at moments where his pride as a male is especially seared. At the party Skylar throws for what seems to me Walt’s first improvement from the crushingly expensive chemotherapy treatments, when Hank basks in the admiration of over Walt’s son, Junior (RJMitte), drinking beer with him in this ever-so-masculine way, Walt suddenly tops this by insisting Junior really keep up with them, ending by making the boy puke in sickness. Spite without sufficient target continues to peer out of his eyes as he continues subject to the will of others. Another character he is reminiscent of in season 5 is Macbeth with his growing will to power and linking himself up with (he thinks as an equal) Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). No lie is beyond him now — and he’s good at using truth for his own purposes as when he tells the disquieted Marie (Betsy Brandt) that Skylar tried to kill herself out of guilt over Skylar’s affair with Ted Benecke (Christopher Cousins)

The comparison of 2nd and 5th brought out aspects of Jesse, Walt’s real son by now: when Jesse so swiftly sheds Andrea, we see he had learned early on not to take seriously enough emotional bonds. It’s significant how often Jesse is seen alone. In the feature to the 5th season Gilligan also begins to speak more openly of his conception of Jesse: he is the lost boy, and young man we do not know what to do with. When in the 2nd season Jesse’s parents throw him out of his aunt’s house, his motorbike is stolen from him, and he ends up covered in urine, he rescues himself through turning to the the skills Mr White alone is willing to teach him. We see inherent in him too a will to ruthless power, an enjoyment of building an empire over others, of bullying others. We see eventually that he draws a line at murder, especially identifying with young boys, and gentle people, that he suffers enormously from the hidden injuries of class, allowing White to take advantage of him. Syklar despises Jesse upon laying eyes upon him: he’s clearly not college material, not “suit” destined; he’s not someone she’d invite to her house. Marie would be more shocked at seeing Jesse at Skylar’s dinner table than any other thing she’s seen thus far. He learns to care for Mike, the mass killer, because Mike treats him with respect and does not manipulate him emotionally. Tells him the truth about “Walter” and advises him to get out of the business. “Take care of yourself, kid.” Aaron Paul has been nominated several times, and was touchingly openly ecstatic by his win — his character recognized.

Skylar: In season 2 he tried and failed to bugger Skylar after he succeeds in turning Hank off his and Jesse’s tracks. She is telling Walt that he is not to take out his anger and hurt on her:

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Anna Gunn as Skylar indignant with green cream on her face:

Now he smoothly takes over Skylar’s body from behind without (pun intended) a hitch.

Skylar’s obdurate obnoxiousness is now newly contextualized as fear for her children. Another aspect of her character that emerges is her stupidity. She really does not seem to understand she and her children are safe from Walt, if not from his enemies. He has invested his ego and identity in himself as her protector-husband and cannot bear to lose her as an object. At one point in Season 2 Walt says “I am not Vito Corleone;” in Season 5 his behavior reminds me of Al Pacino’s towards Diane Keaton as Corleone’s wife in Godfather II. When he grows angry at her for succeeding in removing “my” children from my house to Hank and Marie’s, he loses a central part of this masculine myth he is now successfully enacting. Skylar now recognizes what she held to as family certainties as so much cant and Marie’s nattering drives her into frantic “shut up, shut up, shut up Maries.”

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Having won an Emmy for best supporting actress, Gunn may feel vindicated now.

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Hank is as hard and suspicious in interrogating someone (here Mike) as ever, but more controlled, more thoughtful

Last but never least (if Hank has anything to say about this), the development of Hank by the fifth season is a study in the American macho male very sympathetically seen. by the 5th season He no longer is simply the dense insulting bully of the 2nd season, who enjoys grilling and cowing those street people he can drag into his office (as he did Jesse in the second season): he enacted a parallel to Tuco when he beat Jesse senseless, landing Jesse in hospital; his rage not much different from Gus’s only he uses fists, not a knife. In Season 2 we see him enact his first physical revulsion to his own shooting down of the psychopathic killer Tuco; upon discovering the inscription in Gale Boetticher’s present of Leaves of Grass to Walt, seeing the same handwriting, recognizing “the other W.W.” a phrase he saw in the papers found in Gale’s apartment when he also saw Gus’s fingerprints, he realizes that Walt is the powerful drug manufacturer, agent, and murderer, he has been seeking these past months. He sways, the ground beneath him seems to move. He has been humanized over the several seasons by having him come near to death: we’ve seen his courage in bringing back his leg power. He is too much forgiven, and the immediate murderous rage he projects in the first episode of the sixth or finale season (I’ve watched) it shows the shallowness of his emotional attachments; how quickly they may be changed. His sudden use of the word “monster” and definition of Walt as a “monster” also serves the programs’ refusal explicitly to recognize in Walter everyman and how much he has been driven to do what he does. Hank’s is a black and white world, and he enacts the ferocity of our egregiously inhumane punitive justice system.

If we are not going to be shown the two men readjusting their understanding of one another in terms of their years together, an intriguing question we can ask of Walt and Hank’s long relationship is, Did Walt want to be found out? So careful as he has been all along: in season 2 when he pretends to amnesia, he remembers a cardboard box of money with a gun he had left in a bedroom, and manages to escape the hospital, race home in a car, hide it behind the kitchen sink, and take himself back. He devises elaborate schemes to destroy evidence. At some level is this the final confrontation he wanted, with the man who so casually mocked him for years?

It has been said again and again that what makes readers love novels is when the characters in them are beloved, respected, taken into our imagined selves as we go through life and perform compensatory functions. The slow development of the single parallel story line (Walter and Jesse no matter if sometimes they are circling one another at a distance) and the brilliance of the many intimate scenes are central to the series also winning for the best TV drama series twice. In this fifth season I found myself intensely shaken by action-adventure episodes well done, e.g., the train episode; the remarkable prologues continued to make their effect. To their credit the film-makers defy the nonsense about spoilers in this and the next season. The opening of this season shows us Walt as drawn, pale, thin, looking ill, with a full head of hair again, and beard; he seems to be living alone in New Hampshire (far from Albuquerque) and buys himself a machine gun and rounds and rounds of ammunition. A worn fugitive getting a meal at Denny’s is at least one aspect or phase of his coming future.

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Ellen

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Happiness is the state of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves — Jonathan Swift, The Tale of a Tub, 1704, alluded to in Magic in the Moonlight, 2014

Clarence: Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he? — screenplay for It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946

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Colin Firth as Stanley Crawford and Emma Stone as Sophie Baker, soaked from rain, gaze out at the sky in an observatory (Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen film)

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Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey looking up at the sky from a town degraded by misery, with people debased from lack of economic opportunity his Building Company had given him, as the angel Clarence has changed the past so that he never existed (It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra film)

Dear friends and readers,

Surely sheer coincidence that I, for whom these topics have a direct personal anguish, should have watched in tandem two films which either assert (It’s a Wonderful Life) or debate (Magic in the Moonlight) if there is a God, if prayers are answered, if there is some meaning in existence, a pattern beautiful imposed by a supernatural realm beyond the natural. I knew a belief that this is so (however comically enacted by Henry Travers as the prosaic Angel looking for a promotion, Clarence) was the central assertion of Capra’s famous Christmas movie, but I had long ago forgotten how this was demonstrated and how George Bailey came to know such anguish as is seen on the mobile face of the great actor, Jimmy Stewart, and I neglected to read the reviews of Allen’s latest summer movie project so didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.

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George dreaming over travel literature

As Joseph (an angel who appears as a twinkling star in the firmament) tells it to Clarence, George Bailey’s life is one where one enemy of promise after another takes away each of George’s ambitious dreams. He dreamed of leaving the dull small town, Bedford Falls, of taking a trip around the world. He couldn’t because his father’s business, a Building Association which loaned money to people, needed his expertise. Four years pass and he is now hoping to go to college. He can’t because his father dies, and that business will go to pieces if he doesn’t sustain it. Instead his brother uses the money he earned to become an engineer, meet a rich young woman and take a well-paying job in her father’s firm far away from Bedford Falls. At each turn in his life some promise, some ambition, some average expectation is thwarted. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Mary (Donna Reed) and hopes to take a luxurious cruise honeymoon, and there is a rush on the association so all their money must go to satisfy their customers’ demand for their money. He and his wife take over the ruin of a house and fix it.

Unlike real life though these enemies of promise turn out to be good things: each time George is led to do good — he fights Mr Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) the mean capitalist banker, the film’s villain, who seeks to make everyone else live poorly, work for little, have no decent place to live so they will be vulnerable, weak, serve him abjectly as he grows richer and richer. George Bailey on the surface looks the selfless man who has provided a beautiful village of small houses for the people of this town, seen his brother become a WW2 hero, but we are to see he feels his lack of a fancy car, beautiful home; he never goes to Europe (a dream of upper middle class fulfillment found in the last season of Breaking Bad too: Marie tells Hanjk Walt and Skylar are planning to go to Europe but this is thwarted when Walt is found out by Hank and his cancer returns).

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Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy abject before his loss of the important money

Then on Christmas eve during some excitement either he or his faithful kind honest uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) puts a desperately needed $800 in an envelope which gets wrapped up in a newspaper and into the hands of the evil Mr Potter, who keeps it. George has been financing all he does on tenuous grounds and when the bank examiners come that night, there is no money in the till. He is bankrupt; Mr Potter as chief banker, is able to call in loans and demand a warrant for his arrest. George will be exposed as a failure, crook, shamed, and there wells up in him the years of personal sacrifice. He screams at his loving family (4 children who cost), his endlessly hard-working selfless wife (decorating the tree, making food for all), and for once tells those around them what underneath his kind exterior what he thinks of them. Fools, incompetent, irritating. He has given up his time to support others not as smart as he. He then sees how useless it is to them them these truths, apologizes, and rushes out into the street.

We next see him in a bar run by an Italian man who owes the happy physically comfortable existence of his family to George’s generous trust in him. George is getting very drunk. Heaven, though, is alerted to his suicidal thoughts because so many people in the town pray to God (we hear these prayers) and Clarence is sent down to help. Just as George is about to jump off a bridge, into teeming cold water, Clarence jumps. Naturally George jumps in also to save Clarence, and both are taken to a local station house to dry off. After some initial comic dressing by the angel (changing a heavenly gown for a suit), the two go walking, Clarence carrying a favorite book, Tom Sawyer.

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Henry Travers as Clarence listening to George

As Clarence listens to George’s immiseration, he comes up with a radical way to prove to George his life has not been wasted, worth nothing, achieved nothing: he puts a spell on the world so that George will see what would have happened to many in Bedford Falls had George not existed: George is deaf in one ear because he saved his brother from drowning in ice one winter; his brother would have died at age 8. The Building Association would have failed and the whole town resemble the impoverished huge population in the US today: dives for drunkenness, wretched food, oblivion sought, hopelessness, everyone biting at everyone else.

It’s a movie which denies Mrs Thatcher’s famous contention (today often repeated as a canny truth) that there is no such thing as society only individuals and families, each a unit apart from the other units. It demonstrates that people matter to each other. That we are all “in it” together. George’s Building Association is the New Deal, a genuinely pro-people gov’t as we’ve not seen in the US since FDR, only in fits and starts since then up to the 1970s, when an anti-people group of powerful associations began to turn the US back to the pre-WW1 era socially as far as is possible. And it does show the underside of poverty and despair: depression era places and dress abound when George’s existence is subtracted.

Stewart becomes hysterical as he sees what the town became. It’s a deeply sexist film so Mary is envisioned as a uptight virgin librarian who never married and is horrified when Stewart attempts to approach her.

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What Donna Reed must’ve been had George not married her

A secondary sexually unchaste young woman Violet (Gloria Graham) who he helped escape the punished existence she had been living

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Gloria Graham as all glistening gratitude to the kindly man who rescues her ..

is seen as just about a prostitute being beaten up and taken off to jail by cops. George is now seen as a danger to all, a crazy man, and (really sad this), the one place where what is happening in this 1946 film corresponds to US society today is when a cop pulls out a gun and starts to shoot to kill Stewart who flees back to the bridge where he had originally intended to jump. George stands there praying hard that Clarence will make it that he did exist, and the magic happens and suddenly the cop recognizes him. Meanwhile Mary has visited all the people George ever helped and they have all contributed what they could and the debt will be paid. What a contrast to Breaking Bad: no one in Breaking Bad gives anything to anyone without expecting something monetarily valuable back (it can be prestige, respectability). If Walter White wants to make enough money to afford effective chemotherapy for his cancer, he must turn to selling something that commands a big price: meths.

No American value is questioned. Mr Potter is a twisted evil man, not presented as representative of usual humanity. War is a good thing in It’s a Wonderful Life: George’s brother Henry’s heroism saving people by his airforce work is not seen to kill people at the same time. We see George help one seriously presented black man, but otherwise black people are represented as comical and contented — especially in the “colored” maid the Bailey family seems to be able to afford to keep. It is a fable controlled by the Hays Code.

Famously people cry over this film. I became hysterical as I watched — it seemed to give me a license to wild crying.

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There is something indescribably touching in Stewart’s face as he is made to feel he had a valuable life

Yes if I had never existed this house which we bought would probably not be here (have been bought and pulled down by someone far richer), Jim would not have moved to the US, and would have died years earlier from the very unhealthy life he was living. No Laura, no Izzy. I suppose on some level the argument is silly, but its radically root-and-branch evacuation of an existence make a radical point. Maybe others when they watch Stewart travel the huge trajectory of extravagant emotions their losses or yearnings come out too. For me I thought about how I just don’t have the strength I once did any more, as all happiness is gone from life for me. I see myself as trying hard and then as repeatedly finding it’s no use, stomach ache, so exhausting this being alive without him, nothing I do gives me any surcease. I will never now have the dreams I hoped to fulfill: I can’t travel, am all anxiety, am excluded from real companionship as much as ever. He alone assuaged that, he was my friend, so now for me it’s deep loneliness and frustration, true silence. I surmise others who cry do not cry with delirious joy, but because they know the film’s fulfillment for George Bailey is a fairy tale they wish were true

Izzy has told me the fable is told in many forms in various places since 1946, and when in some films one is going to get a version, of here’s what the world would have been without you, the film turns black-and-white. I know there are other classic popular films and musicals where suddenly the audience is presented with characters in heaven looking down at and affecting the people “below.” Carousel for one. The egoistic outlook which imagines that a single person (“I”) inside the vast universe can control or interfere with complicated events across a big earth suddenly so they change to satisfy that person’s needs through wishing which reaches some super-power is apparently one many people still fantasize with. When I taught ghost stories to my students each term there would be a couple of students who’d during their talks assert a belief in ghosts. They did not go on to witches, werewolves or vampires, but ghosts are enough.

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Simon McBurney is the jealous magician who with Sophie deludes Firth as Stanley into believing in her medium powers; there they are, all complacent with Eileen Atkins as rich pampered loving and loved aunt

First, let me not be misunderstood. It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film fable; Magic in the Moonlight is often tiresome, exasperating (to me especially when I had to watch the half-embarrassed actor, Colin Firth fold his hands, look up piously and pray for his aunt’s life), and self-indulgent. Lazy. At the end of the movie after lengthy discussion, finally Sophie is found to be hiding in Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins)’s house, ready to kiss and marry Stanley. The young woman-older man couple is too close to Allen’s own marriage to his young step-daughter for comfort. Firth is not the first male matinee idol type actor to stand in for Allen too closely in these last years as Allen faced the reality he is even too old looking to be the heroine’s father; he needs to play the grandfather at least. As with other of Allen’s last films (not last year’s Blue Jasmine), this film occurs in a never-land of luxury, idleness and gorgeous landscapes and ceaseless effortless vacations:

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no one has any hard work to do: jobs are all of the art-y type (including being a magician); clothes are lavish (especially Atkins’s wardrobe which seems tactlessly over-designed to hide her aging body and face). The laziness is in having the actors tell one another at the opening of the film what they have been doing these last years, what they are now planning to do (go off to a rich estate and expose a fake medium), fill us in repeatedly (like Prospero in the first act of The Tempest). And everyone praises Firth’s art and Aunt Vanessa’s existence to the extent I thought of the characters in Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison’s excruciating open praise of him and later Harriet. And Emma Stone is lifeless; she looks like a Woody Allen heroine, but she can’t act.

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Sophie and Stanley discuss nature of existence

Yet if you are intrigued by an ironic debate on the issues presented in It’s a Wonderful Life, interested in Allen’s films (as the New York Times critic immediately noted) which present and debate the problem of the existence of the paranormal, superstition (as in fortune-tellers — often found in Allen films), doubt and faith, whether life is worth living given how cruel are the fates of so many people, how unfeeling people are to one another, rampant injustice everywhere (not seen in this film), desperate poverty (which we are told Sophie and her mother experienced until they took up their fake trade) — the film has the suspense of whether we will end up in preferring the fatuous contentment of the deluded (go to the fortuneteller and hold to what she says) or the desperate bleakness of recognizing death as meaningless annihilation after a life of mostly failure and distress with performative lies as one way to get through knowingly. Some of the talk is absorbing with Firth playing the disillusioned misanthrope.

Conor Langton liked it, thought that Firth’s performance carried it.

The haughty reserve, the perfectly phrased disdain, the deeply romantic nature hidden beneath the chill: Firth does this sort of thing better than anyone. But this time the character’s name is Stanley Crawford … At times, the movie sounds like an overwritten drawing-room comedy from eighty years ago, or like Shaw without the irony … The renowned cinematographer Darius Khondji, shooting on 35-mm. film, with old CinemaScope lenses, achieves a soft, lemon-tinted light .. the swank is held in place by Allen’s instinctive classicism: the camera that gently recedes as the actors walk toward it; the long-lasting immovable shots as people talk and talk. It’s an accomplished, stately movie—unimpassioned but pleasing.

The movie stands up to intellectual scrutiny and aesthetically is intelligent. When Firth finally figures out how the delusion is achieved, he’s not keen to return to his arid hopelessness. The film connects to It’s Wonderful Life because Allen and Firth both want to long to believe in faery and understand it is not so, but in understanding it’s not so realize something else has to be substituted: love, kindness, toleration of those who need illusions, recognizing you do have illusions of your own in other areas, need some reassurance there is some enjoyment and at least some comradeship to be hoped for.

The final problem with Allen’s new film is it lacks of sense of humor, Allen is taking himself so seriously. Now Capra in It’s a Wonderful Life does the same thing: takes the issues and American icons of family life seriously. For myself I bothered to write this because I wanted to recognize people’s serious involvement. Yet our public visions of can’t accept more than fleeting moments

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To please today’s public, Allen needed more of the spirit of his 1972 New Yorker piece called “Examining Psychic Phenomena, “There is no question that there is an unseen world … The problem is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open?”  And Capra needed to let the dark side of his movie — what we are shown is the reality with no George Baileys about — come out more dominantly had he not had the Hays Code to contend with.

I neglected to mention the elderly very rich widow in Allen’s film who is paying huge sums to be made to believe she is getting in touch with her dead husband’s spirit. She is not quite made merciless fun of.

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Jacki Weaver as Brice’s (Hamish Linklater) mother (he is the super-rich young man about to marry Sophie)

Other widows: George Bailey’s mother who with George having lived is presented as mostly worrying about money; without George she would have ended childless, a bleak lonely woman who takes in boarders; Sophie Baker’s career is dependent on the efforts of her widowed mother to secure clients and keep the sceptical at bay. We never learn whether Aunt Vanessa ever married.

Ellen

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Macauley (Mike) Connor (Jimmy Stewart) carrying the drunken Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) back from mid-night time at pool, encountering her nearly divorced husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and soon-to-be-husband, George Kittredge (John Howard) (Philadelphia Story, 1940)

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Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) bullying into bewildered madness the anxiety-ridden Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) (Gaslight, 1944)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been watching, reading about, and contextualizing George Cukor films with other films by him, other films in the same genre over the past week and a half. I’ve read Gavin Lambert’s On Cukor: filled with remarkable stills, photos and interviews of Cukor. He was a brilliant film-maker, really an elegant controller of a camera, a man who could form an archetypal image or picture on film and build a story from this. I especially much enjoyed and laughed at, was moved by his screwball comedy-romance, Philadelphia Story,

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Tracy looking at Dexter’s handmade replica of the boat they had their first loving honeymoon on

and found his psychological gothic, Gaslight, which conforms to the Bluebeard female gothic type, as subtle and grippingly worrying until near its end as Robert Wise’s later heart-terrifying Haunting (1960). No technological gadgetry or overproduction, nothing wildly theatrical, no bodily taboos broken, yet Gaslight similarly gets to the attentive viewer where he or she lives — until its last 20 minutes or so.

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Scenes in quiet greys of gaslight pull the viewer in, symbolic of this haze the husband surrounds the wife with.

I assume the storylines of both are familiar to my readers (if not, see Philadelphia Story; Gaslight). So let me cut to the chase, as with Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, far from agreeing with the book I’m reviewing that the greatness of these films partly stems from the coping with the repressive Hays code, I felt the Hays Code only codified and strengthened some of the troubling aspects of the screwball comedy, and hopelessly enfeebled the conclusion of the gothic.

Philadelphia Story resembles Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (as well as the very early screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, also with Cary Grant, but this time the errant wife is Irene Dunne). Its crucial turning point is a scene of possible sexual intercourse off screen which (as in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) our heroine cannot remember because she was too drunk; sometimes it’s insinuated she and Connor (your brash but literate newspaper man) had full sexual intercourse by poolside, but sometimes not and at the close Connor says there are rules and limits to what a man can do with reference to her drunken state (which is supposed to imply to have had full sexual intercourse would have been a rape, as it was in case of Betty Hutton as Trudy Kockenlocker).

In Miracle of Morgan’s Creek we never learn who the man was — the erasure of a specific identity robs the function of an imagined presence so we end up feeling most decent men would never rape a drunken woman (the indecency here is felt in the cowardly man not coming forward at all; he took advantage and fled). But even if we go with Stewart’s sincerely-uttered explanation, Tracy proceeds to apologize: she apologizes to both ex-husband and husband-about-to-be, to Connor, and to her father for giving him a hard time when he was merely having a long-time affair with a Broadway dancer-star. When the father comes home for the wedding (to which Tracy did not invite him), her mother does not seem to have minded either his continued adultery or absence enough to separate herself from him. All all Tracy’s fault: she is told off by Dexter especially for her coldness, for imagining herself a goddess (and thus above all others, she should do like them), for being a spinster (this is a low blow in the film). (Trudy also apologizes to Norval, her father, and whoever else is around.)

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Tracy telling her mother Margaret (Mary Nash) and sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) they will not have her father at the wedding

It didn’t help Philadelphia Story to obscure the central incident; it would have been more effective if we could have known for sure that sexual intercourse happened with the third man or not. I don’t see that making the woman character drunk both times added to my pleasure or promoted anything meaningful for women except that the films accepted women being drunk or not just they accepted men – there was no special angry prejudice against women such as I’ve observed too often. I have discovered that not all screwball or romantic comedies of the 1940s have a heroine apologize or go through a humiliation ritual. Arguably Barbara Stanwyk in The Lady Eve (Sturges) does not; at the close of The Awful Truth Irene Dunne does not apologize, but then Cary Grant is not asked to account for his week away which we know he lied about while Irene Dunne is.

The acting of the principals in The Philadelphia Story overcomes the worst thing about all these screwball comedies done under the Hays Code: a superficiality in the relationship between men and women. By having the characters people who were once married, that endows them with an automatic depth knowledge of one another but nothing we see in most of these gives them any depth of feeling. The lack of honest sexual feeling is central to this. Grant and Hepburn give the pair real emotion by having him insult her for not having enough feeling; Grant and Stewart use the class issues between them (he is supposed lower class, though it turns out of course he really is middle) and he is made an author she reads. But the others I’ve watched, and especially the more recent of the type, Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper never give any sense of feeling over his having a liaison and her love for him remains girlish, sentimental.

The ending of a film matters (no matter how much David Lean famously downplays that). People who want to trivialize, scoff at and use Thelma and Louise as yet another warning lesson for women, use the ending in suicide — for that’s what it is practically speaking. See what happens to women like that. (Thelma and Louise is another movie where one heroine’s experience of rape and the attempted rape of the other is hardly mentioned.) At any rate by the end of Philadelphia Story, Katherine Hepburn as Tracy is parroting all that Cary Grant as Dexter says and is now his obedient grateful wife (Taming of the Shew anyone?). Dexter monitors Tracy’s activities throughout. The relationship between the two is not much different than that between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Cukor’s 1950s Adam’s Rib.

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There are some continuities between Philadelphia Story and very recent films worth noticing: the lawyer type in all three movies (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, The Awful Truth, and The Philadelphia Story) resembles Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad; an unscrupulous shyster who we don’t fear because when push comes to shove he’s a coward (not favorable at all). This is probably the way most Americans accept the way lawyers are shown in mass media. It’s utterly inadequate, if it was not tragic (as lawyers are so important) it’s pathetic. Tracy’s uncle ( we are supposed to laugh and find this funny) enjoys pinching Hepburn’s behind – the way the uncle did in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Philadelphia Story have a wry younger sister who speaks a few home truths; again her role reminds me of the vestigial Margaret in Austen’s S&S

It’s said that Cukor made women’s films, he was a woman director in disguise. He once made a film which had no men actors in it, The Women, and I remember it as excellent — feminist and yet with a fashion show because for women looks matter in our world. He himself disliked this label and said it was not true. I’d like to agree with him, and say while he had a number of strong-women actresses play ove and over again in his films, the strongest effectively subversive and comic presence across all the screwball comedies is Cary Grant. He could deliver a line that undercut whatever piety was going, lightly, suggestively, effectively.

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Anthony John, the aging actor (Ronald Colman) and his mistress, Pat Kroll whom he kills (Shelley Winters) (A Double Life, 1947): also a film where the central character seems half-insane

Gaslight is much less a studio product. It’s is based on a play; its script is literate and fine the way Philadelphia story is. But unlike Philadelphia Story until near the end when the Hays code kicks in, it does not fit into preconceived genres in the way most of Cukor films finally do — from Little Women to Lost Horizon, the ending must be uplifting, optimistic, providential. The Double Life, a film noir re-make in modern terms of Othello featuring Ronald Colman which comes closest to Gaslight in its unnerving feel suffers very badly by its redemptive ending. (All these I’ve watched before and rewatched these past couple of weeks.) Cukor could not be the auteur in his films for most of his life: later films, especially when aspects of the story reflected Cukor’s own internal story of himself, say A Star is Born, escaped this stifling.

For Gaslight is not a horror (monster) movie, it’s not a thriller either. Cukor was evolving the modern film gothic (seen best in ghost stories turned into films): psychologically disquieting and suspenseful. Cukor manages to make you fear for the wife who is being closed in, driven, quietly slowly bullied into continual isolation and humiliation, and persuaded she is mad. The sets, the lighting, the quiet dialogues, the use of servants to thwart Paula are all discreetly done, repetitive, crowded. She is crowded out.

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A young Angela Lansbury as a sexy hostile London cockney maid sides with the master and frustrates the old-world courtesy of Paula. The film does capture what a man in charge of a woman can do to her — cultures where the woman is under the control of someone.

The film’s power is then choked off. In no time at all, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton) who knew the Paula’s aunt and somehow works for Scotland yard (though he has an American accent) is able to track Anton in Anton’s nightly treks up to his own attic to terrify his wife, to reach the wife while Anton is in said attic, convince her, and then easily capture, tie up and take Anton away. Ingrid Bergman as Paula gets to torment Boyer as Anton for a few moments, and holds a knife to his head, but her jeering is lame and her act tame.

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And as the film closes the neighborly like lady (Dame May Whitty) who comforted Ingrid on the train and while she enjoys reading about bloodthirsty people, believes all is fine with the world and police can and so solve everything, is seen coming to visit Ingrid again. Cukor’s little joke?

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In talking of Gaslight, Cukor said that its style came out of its story, a near murder “in a Victorian house.” He meant to make it “claustrophobic” and stir up emotion. He again says he followed the Van Druten script and tried to erase himself. If he had been allowed to take the logic of the story of a woman made a hostage to its conclusion, how great the film would have been.

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I honestly would prefer to like, to revel in these early much-praised films, but I find they grate. I watched as much as I could stand of My Man Godfrey (1936 version). I can see why William Powell stood out: he is a genuinely sardonic presence as a hobo turned into a butler for the amusement of a super-rich family who are presented (naively) as simply frivolous and naive, idle, doing nothing (including not much harm if you don’t ask how the expensive parties with their luxuriously dressed guests got there). I find I can’t take watching the supposedly elegantly mannered somewhat effete matinee idol type men and fat-cat salacious but somehow bullied older men by their fat stupid wives, with the heroines looking adoringly at the hero: I hadn’t realized how much Jean Arthur does just that, much to my surprise — from my favorite 1942 Talk of the Town to Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr Smith Goes to Washington which fits the type except for Jimmy Stewart’s agonized face now and again).

Cukor claimed that what irreparably weakened The Double Life was Colman lacked a sense of the demonic. I find the older films only reach this when they are made in Europe and left to be expressionistic of trauma and cynicism. The Hays Code clamped down on these but nowadays American films often flounder still when it comes to the gothic and are crassly melodramatic, over-produced with much bodily horror (e.g., Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Ironically (or perhaps in character) the US films which have been able to project the darker prevailing ironies and metaphysics of American culture are the gangster to modern melodramatic crime films, from James Cagney’s psychopathic killer in White Heat (unforgettable, his bullying of Virginia Mayo, and his blowing himself upk, “Top of the World, ma”) to last year’s Breaking Bad. Cukor does not seem to have made this kind of film at all. From On Cukor he seems to have been too sensitive (and oddly) too self-effacing a man.

He is said not to be identified or remembered enough because he did not develop a single style you could trace throughout his films. He couldn’t — he had too many constraints. He also wanted to contain a lot, so I chose this photo as capturing that ideal.

cukor (in 1945)

Ellen

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