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“Bag’s in the River” (1:3): Walt (Bryan Cranston) returns home to Skylar (Anna Gunn) after being out all night disposing of what’s left of two bodies put in a bag, thrown in a river

Dear friends and readers,

Having gotten for myself two books filled with detailed analyses, commentaries, summaries, lists of bullet points of and from Breaking Bad: David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp’s collection of essays by themselves and others, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry (it takes the mini-series through Seasons 1-4), and Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad by Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz (Seasons 1-5, complete series), I was prompted to re-watch the episodes of the first season (all 7) alternatively with what I had left of Season 4 (5-13, or 8 episodes). The new perspectives provided by the books and the early phase of the series (with its ironic foreshadowings only seen on a re-watch from the perspective of at least 3 seasons later) has made me change my mind about Skylar as well as come to a better understanding of this famed HBO macho soap opera.

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“Face Off” (5:13): Skylar asks, “Was this you?” and by way of reply, Walt replies: “I won”

I had thought of Skylar as a woman who was basically indifferent to her husband as an individual apart from her, non-loving or without real respect for him, an unethical bully (she withholds sex from him to pressure him into buying super-expensive chemotherapy treatments) who deserts to save herself when cornered (in Season 1 she rejects her sister, Marie [Betsy Brandt], is jeeringly spiteful (her boasted-of affair with Ted Benecke [Christopher Cousins]), but even if it is possible to extend this list of qualities I find alienating, I was wrong to sum her up as hateful, enacting, as the actress who plays Jesse Pinkman’s mother seems to, so much relational wrong to those around her. Rather she is a figure of pathos, pathetic in the older meaning of the world.

In the long view of four years, we can see that nothing she ever did made the slightest change in the ultimate fate of herself and the characters she holds dear. From about half-way through Season 4 the naivete we see in Season 1 (as when she threatens to expose Pinkman [Aaron Paul] for smoking pot to her “brother-in-law, a DEA man!” [Dean Norris]), her belief in some controlling morality in people, some rules somewhere which she can trust to as long as she seems to be moral herself and obey the law, and most of all her essential powerlessness leads to a set of behaviors and stances parallel to those we see in the first and second season. She thinks she can give Benecke money to pay his taxes and he will pay them (thus protecting her as his bookkeeper from scrutiny by the IRS); she believes buying and operating a car wash will control the money situation she finds herself in (she and Walt have far more than they can account for). Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the shyster lawyer is not simply laughing at her; he realizes her instincts as formed by her society make for decisions against her interests (such as, back to Season 1, her childlike worship of the oncologist). 

Most of all, she has not all along begun to understand what other human beings (Giancarlo Esposito as Gus is not alone in his monstrousness) are capable of, including Walt — who in the fourth season wins over Gus by poisoning Jesse’s beloved semi-adopted son, Brock and persuading Jesse it was Gus who did this, thus winning Jesse back to work with him (not hard as Jesse does know how much frightening evil Gus and his henchmen can do) and tell him where is Gus’s weak point as Jesse has come close to Gus several times, and then lived in close proximity to Gus and Mike (Jonathan Banks, Gus’s hired thug-killer): Jesse finally thinks of Hector Salamanca, the nearly paralyzed dying Hispanic man who early in Gus’s career humiliated Gus and murdered a close associate and who all these years later Gus enjoys tormenting by telling of how he kills now this male relative and now that.

Skylar erects what Anna Gunn kept calling “all her boundaries” to shut this world and Hank’s and Marie’s out. In Season 1 when amid the teachers she hears the janitor blamed for stolen equipment to make meths, she nods in agreement and allows herself to be diverted by Walt. Walt might worry whether she’ll realize it’s his lab. He need not have. She does not put that kind of two-and-two together. (Nor does Hank. They trust their friends to be what they seem.)  In Season 3, she learned she might need to protect her family against its protector: Walt, who has told her, he is the danger. In Season 4, Benecke turns out to be a petty cheat; baby in carrier, she goes to a central point in a four state area to see where she can flee and finds there is no where she belongs, can exist but where she has found herself at 40. All she has are Walt, Walt Jr, Holly, Marie and Hank.  She returns home. Skylar does not seeth, but she writhes to no avail. I pity and feel for her.

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An early still of Jesse as he walks into his parents’ dining room to set the table

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Jesse’s parents want to know from the valued son whether he is getting out of his teacher what success requires

A second watch showed me how angry Jesse is — else how does he get involved? A rage and a fury. Why else does he continually spit out his words in slightly broken half fury? Rejected by parents, who prefer the hypocritical cold son, ambitious, a liar. He is offered this shit-ass job disguised as a bird selling junk on the street.  We see immediately how clever he is, how quickly perceptive his judgments, but he is utterly uneducated: all school is for is to get a job wearing a suit. As he hardens, he keeps his heart partly because he has been so hurt. He has artistic ability Jane appreciates, and she reads his yearning to be a hero through the cartoons he draws.  But hero in the US is defined by Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Gus — and Hank (Dean Norris). Jane (Krysten Ritter) did begin to offer him another vision (the trip to Georgia O’Keefe paintings is part of this), but she was sickened by her culture too, desperate to escape its pressures and demands that she be guarded, cool. A kind of Hansel and Gretel with heroin as the witch. You see this kind of thing only by re-watching. Many people learn to lie low: I suspect that will be the final lesson of Jesse’s career with Walt.

Hank emerges more interestingly too — once you know how he emerges later as the half-lamed man, a sleuth. To this Sam Spade has come down. He begins as a coarse, crude, loud-mouth condescending macho type, so sure of himself, mocking his brother-in-law as not manly, but his pity for his shoplifting wife and feeling for the disabled nephew, Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) shows he has camaradarie impulses. Fatherly, kindly to those he does not “other.”  Maybe only he or his type of person could love and support the dense yet intuitively alert Marie.  Murdering people point-blank even when they are trying to kill him (in the Second Season) leaves him emotionally shattered (as it will Jesse in the third Season).

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In the pillow interrogation where Skylar wants all of them to help her force Walt to go for treatment, after Marie breaks ranks to say chemotherapy is miserable and maybe Walt should spend his last months differently, Hank says Walt should do what he wants …

At the baby shower, though, once he spots the expensive diamond and ivory baby tiara Marie has supposedly bought for the coming baby, he needs a stronger drink to endure staying there and pretending all is fine in his house. And in the first season there are many ironies surrounding his talk, showing how little he gets about the meth trade when he thinks he understands so much.

I missed the mood or kind of gothic this story is: horror is one word for it, as all sorts of body taboos are sliced off: from the opening blood, the color red, from raspberry to bright scarlet, to blue and venal streams across the TV screen’s firmament. Ghastly comedy in season 1, ghastly terror in season 4: in one of the features for Episodes 4:11-13, Vince Gilligan explains how the crew spent months talking about how they could make Gus’s death adequate to the evil of his life and then planning and executing the bomb scene and destruction of half Gus’s face (face off) and part of his body. The moment is all the more electric as at first we startled to see him escape apparently unscathed, and fix his tie: a key to his character is he is a black man determined to enact an upper class, super-polite ceremonial lifestyle, the benevolent philanthropist the powerful in his society turn to. But the nurses running over shudder, cover their faces, and we get a barely watchable (I kept averting my eyes) series of close-ups, which I reproduce only one of:

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The series does not rely on these horrible shocking moments; they are part of sequences of agonized high anxiety (to allude to Mel Brooks, appropriately parodic) which punctuate story arcs and character development. Intriguing suggestive life-histories are given most of the tertiary characters whose names we learn; we can fill out their pasts. The strength of the series is character exploration in scenes of virtuoso acting, but I hadn’t noticed how much change the characters seem to undergo at the same time as in their beginning (Season 1) is their end (Season 4 foreshadows what is to be). So while the mood of Season 1 replicates at moments that of the Three Stooges (which Jesse watches on TV), or clowns; the two chief males form the love-hate, teacher-pupil, chemist-assistant team they keep up throughout several permutations, with Jesse sometimes taking the lead, doing what Walt can’t, seeing what Walt doesn’t, by its end Walt does show an insidious delight in enacting all that is forbidden, anticipating his later manipulative ruthlessness while Jesse remains on just this side of decency. Walt contemplates suicide in Season 4, diverted by suddenly seeing seeds on he side of the pool he can use to poison Brock

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but Jesse feels emotional hurt from betrayed ties (in Season 1, his family, later Jane, and now Andrea [Emily Rios] and Brock) that he will not cast aside. In season 4 Walt refuses to work unless Jesse is with him, Jesse refuses to cooperate in the business of meth at all if Gus has Walt killed.

The last two thirds of season 4 (for episodes 1-4 see A Killing Way of Life) are highly theatrical stagings of suspense. I couldn’t stop watching them — got caught up in the intensity of it all and began to long to see Gus as a figure of ultimate evil done away with. By the end I was shaking from the whole experience, with its final twists and turns moving from engineering the near death of a child to persuading an old man to blow himself up suicidally in order to take Gus out too. There is a weird parodic feel here — because in a soap opera you have just these twists and turns. I haven’t got so caught up in anything since watching Lagaan a few years ago where I so rooted for the Indians against the Brits — only here more so. I had wanted to watch some earlier episodes but could not get myself to stop until I saw Gus die. And it was horrific — the make up of him as this ghastly skeleton. When Walt returns to the Meth lab and manages to kill the murderous bullying bodyguard who has handcuffed Jesse to a pipe (Jesse is often in the role of the vulnerable Pauline heroine), and they set fire to, destoying the lab, it is like destroying the vampire’s lair. It was where they were enslaved and watched by a surveillance camera. Here action adventure high violence was meaningful.

Here and there images evoked the real world of America inside its border and out. At one point in a desert Mike throws Walt on the ground to kneel before Gus with a black bag over his head; he has been badly beaten up: it is the image of torture we see done to Arab prisoners by US interrogators. 

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Gus is saying if Walt interferes with Gus’s killing Hank, “I will kill your wife, I will kill your son, I will kill your infant daughter” — this is precisely what Frankenstein’s monster does to Frankenstein’s family after Frankenstein destroys the bride the monster had asked for

There are memorable slow quiet moments. After Walt miscalculates and allows his hot-blooded temper to get the better of him because he finds Jesse is lying to him, and has seen Gus up close but not tried to administer a powerful poison (ricin) and rushes to Jesse’s house to accuse him, and they have this brutal fierce fight where Jesse gets the better of the older man, Walt collapses in his flat. It has been Walter Jr’s birthday and Walt missed it. Skylar had insisted on returning the super-expensive glamorous speed car Walt had bought for his son, what Walt Jr really wanted, and gotten him the sensible relatively inexpensive compact hybrid, and little as Walt Jr is thrilled, he drives it to his father’s flat to be congratulated. Walt is in a shattered confused state, and breaks down in front of Walt Jr, weeping: “I made a mistake.”

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The son physically helps the father to bed, much moved by his father’s reality with him. He hears his father address him as “Jesse” and say “I’m sorry.” He sleeps on the couch not far from his father. That morning, Walt awakes and tries to erase the image he had left; he attempts dignity, tells his son that his grandfather died of Huntington’s disease; we see him coughing — a foreshadowing of death to come.  

Mike and Jesse also manage their unarticulated moments of mutual shared danger, mutual help and respect — and Jesse is distraught when he must leave the internally bleeding and shot-up Mike behind in Mexico: he will die unless someone gives him blood, staunches the bleeding, tends to his wound; the minimal sophisticatedly-equipped hospital staff paid by Gus are just ignoring Mike to save Gus. They tell Jesse it’s Gus who pays them.

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There is peculiar comedy mixed with anguish: Jesse hugging Andrea and bothering the hospital staff with his attempts to wait with Andrea and her mother inside the operation when as not-family the insurance company decrees he should not be there (so they say). Each time Jesse has to say that Brock was poisoned to someone, he breaks down: here he’s telling Walt in the hospital waiting room.

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Hank pressures Walt to take him to Hermanos to see the fried chicken operation Gus runs as Hank’s study of evidence from the murdered Gale Boetticher’s (Dale Costabile) flat leads Hank to suspect Gus is the linchpin leader of a meth gang. Walt is terrified at the coming consequences. As they drive up and Hank instructs Walt to set up a bug on Gus’s car, Walt sees Mike drive up and sit alongside them. Mike winks.

What I enjoyed most was to see parallels in Season 1, similar scenes. I had not noticed the Prologues were already used in atemporally symbolic ways. We see a very young Walt explaining a chemical formula to his then girlfriend, a very young Gretchen, later Schwartz (Jessica Hecht) who married the man who made a fortune from Walt’s discovery. The punning titles for the episodes, many ironic, begin immediately. Also to see Marie and Skylar in characteristic alike sister formations: sometimes talking in the kitchen, sometimes hugging, and then again Marie refusing to admit she shoplifts:

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A No Rough-Stuff Type Deal (Season 1:7): Skylar tries to stare the truth out of Marie

I wonder what they will think up for a fifth season. They have killed off a number of major characters. Will they have more of the same yet worse: yet more diabolical people in the Meth trade; I read that Jesse will become enslaved to Todd, a new Meth associate. I hope the next season brings genuine new content and insight as Downton Abbey manages to each year. I suspect this must be done by working further on the fates and personalities of the closely-knit central characters. I know that Hank will die — something foreshadowed in the second season when Marie declared him indestructible.

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End Times: (Season 4:12): Hank suggesting his need to have Walt drive him to the laundry (where the Meth lab is a dungeon below)

 I hope Jesse will end up with Andrea but somehow doubt it.

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Saul Goodman delivering weekly money to Andrea until Goodman persuades Jesse to go in himself

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

The two books:

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Marie towards bitter end: facing death

Breaking Bad and Philosophy reminds me of an undergraduate text I had for a Philosophy course. Heidegger is applied; superman theory (the will to power); authenticity explained.  One essay on the decision to have the expensive chemotherapy is knowing about  the very bad chances aggressive treatment will work. Fun ones too: finding happiness in a black hat, the last man left standing, hurtling towards death. There’s a long essay in the Unofficial Companion about the uses of houses, what kinds and space in the series which in its limits really explains what symbolism is intended. Even if an official connection is denied, the Companion could not have been done without the cooperation and input from the film-makers. Just the right quotations are cited as central to each episodes; tidbits of information and connections set up; photographs of the actors, some of shooting during rehearsal; background information on content in the show or about the production design.

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Walt’s hat when first put on — it looks dark blue, not quite black as yet

But they are not critical in any larger reflective sense. Neither ever mentions how the series reflects American values and norms and conflicts; not a whiff about racism:  Gus and he doctor who fleeces the Whites over his stupendous chemotherapy are black and this is never mentioned; that most of the lesser crooks we meet are hispanic is never mentioned. These things probably work to deny racism in the US. The only political essay I’ve found thus far is an attack on those on the Net who are said to talk of Skylar with intense hatred — which enables the writers to say see how women hate women to have or seek power. They use Foucault’s logic of scandal and badness the way the film-makers do in the feature: simply parrot without further context how evil it is to sell meths, how destructive the drug. Their stories and characters are authorized by assumed feelings of moralized indignation; scandal fosters what it is supposed to suppress (and this series could foster violence and apparently reinforces misogyny among some viewers), and its existence is never explained.

The Companion talks about Walt in a condeming moralistic way from the first chapter on — the writers never once take into account, what was the man to do: just die or go into terrific debt?  Was he to let Emilio and Crazy 8 kill him and Jesse? They say in passing how we root for Walt, describe the acts or episodes ably, but not a word of larger justifying explanation. In that sense the Philosophical book, jejeune as it sometimes is, is better; one cannot have socialism, but existential is the acceptable justifier — or Foucault. Still however unexplained or wrongly framed, BB does reflect US life more than any TV program I’ve seen. 

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The wedding of Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) and Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken)

Dear friends and readers,

While I was reading and writing about two books which significantly extend the two kinds of rape usually discussed under the umbrella terms of “simple” and “aggravated” (Georgiana’s The Sylph and Marta Hillers’ A Woman in Berlin), I found myself reading Preston Sturges’s shooting script for Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and then watched the 1944 movie directed & produced by the same man, which movie to my astonishment turned out to be a rape story of a particularly mean type: our heroine, Trudy, has been raped after she became unconscious from too much liquor (which the film laughingly refers to as odd or sour lemonade). We never find out which man did it; in the film the word rape is never used; there is acknowledgement the heroine has become pregnant, but for all the talk we hear about it, it might as well have been a virgin birth, with this “miracle” corresponding to the 1934 Miracle on 34th Street, and that to the asserted Christian belief their mother of God, Mary, had been a virgin.

This is the central event (also not dramatized) of Kleist’s once notorious The Marquise of O , adapted for a film by Eric Rohmer — during an assault on her country by invaders (as a virtuous woman she would of course never be drunk), the Marquise, a widow (so our sensibilities over her virginity are not aroused), is raped by a soldier unknown to her. When her pregnancy emerges, and her parents find out, they treat her cruelly and eject her from their home. She has one to return to so the question may turn on discovering who the man was.

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From Eric Rohmer’s film

We see how the solider comes forward, falls in love and is forgiven. The text 7 film, then, to some extent deal with the subject of rape, of assault on women during war. Like Clarissa, who is drugged (the rape is dramatized), the heroine is absolved automatically – this absolution by unconsciousness is typical of rapes in novels of the 18th century (more of them, alas, are of the commoner false accusation type).

But Trudy was not assaulted in war. She got drunk. Or did she? I was alerted to the existence of this 1940s hit (you can probably see it on Turner Classics) by Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, the Hays Code, and the Benefits of Censorship whose subject is the effect of the Hays Code on movies from the 1930s to the 1950s and (to her) analogous severe censorship of Victorian Novels by Mudie’s Circulating Library and other engines of repression in the 19th century. I did not realize it was about rape until I watched it as, except for quoting a parenthetical punning remark by a contemporary critic, James Agee that “the Hays office has either been hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep,” Gilbert does not tell the reader the film’s core event that generates all the action is a rape.

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Trudy puzzled on her way back to Norval after her one night out

In my research on rapes in fiction and non-fiction I discovered how rarely rape is treated seriously, and how common stories of false accusations for rape (despite the reality that rape is common, and accusation for it uncommon as the woman is usually shamed, disbelieved and ends up punished for telling). Thus how hard it is to find writing about rape until the mid-20th century when it began to emerge in feminist sociological and psychological studies. I had not considered another obstacle: the story about rape where the word is never mentioned, the thing never discussed when all the while the events of the story show us a particularly contemptible form of rape must have occurred. How would one find Miracle of Morgan’s Creek when it’s listed merely as a screwball comedy, frothy, light exquisitely funny romance. It’s a rare work on rape in mainstream art before the mid-20th century.

As the film opens, our heroine, Trudy Kockenlocker, is readying herself by putting on the most glamorous and sexiest (not admitted to of course) of outfits , in order to attend a dance put on for the soldiers about to go off to war to fight. Her father, Officer Kockenlocker (now notice the name which includes “cock”, a “cock” who locks something in), played by Wm Demarest as a comic dense bully, refuses her permission without quite saying why. It’s somehow risky, dangerous. Trudy objects that it’s her duty to dance the night away with soldiers going off to war. Stills show her winning scuffles with her father:

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The physical reflection of how she manages repeatedly to manipulate most situations to do what she wants in reaction to events and norms.

She gets her obedient (emasculated) boyfriend, Norval Jones to pretend he spent a long night watching movies with her while she goes off to said dance. We see her dancing with many different escorts and drinking oodles of lemonade. The joke is made more than once that this is some sour lemonade and strange, and she looks drunker and drunker and at one point she passes out. The Hays Code said one must never get drunk in a movie. We do at one point she someone dancing with her who has dark hair, and looks sort of determined, and she falls — partly a stupor, but perhaps partly hit.

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We have the impression her brain case has taken a blow

Who he was we never learn, nor his name, nor how this initiating event developed. She was supposed to be back at the theater at 1:30 am, but she turns up at 8 am — it’s dawn in the film. Norval has waited all night first looking out for her anxiously, and then asleep on a bench.

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But as Trudy and Norval drive home, she begins to remember where she’s been and half-recalls a marriage: on her finger is a curtain ring. 3 months later we see a doctor tell her she is pregnant without using that word.

The rest of the movie presents the coniption fits Trudy and Norval go through to provide her with a husband (him, using the ludicrous name Trudy thinks up — it has many syllables and x’s), and to hide her shame. Gilbert argues that the Hays censorship made for great art: certainly no one would tell the story of such a rape in the way it’s told if there had been no Hays code administered in the way it was. You could get a movie to pass by handing in the script for approval. It passes because in the words of the script she has not been raped; she was married and therefore cannot have been raped. Tease this out and we could imagine a scene of marital rape (yet this level of seriousness is not allowed by everything we can point to in the film).

Norval tries to shield Trudy by marrying her — after his first retreat from her is over. At no point doe she accuse her of anything, at no point object he does not want to be the legal father of another man’s baby (though he looks uncomfortable). Their marriage is found bigamous (in a ceremony in which two women moon over how many children the couple will eventually have) and crimes of all sorts are hurled on him and before you know it he’s in jail. The film indirectly satirizes patriotism, the venerable saintly-warrior hero, shows the punitive spirit of American life even then, but the rapist is never called to account, we never see the baby, nor is it discussed how Norval is going to take over as father.

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The Justice of the Peace is impounding the groom after the wedding ceremony for disobeying the law because he used Trudy’s previous husband’s name — or, a moment’s thought would tell the viewer it’s the bride who has committed bigamy

Under the Hays Code one was not allowed to show pregnant women, especially unmarried ones so during the time Trudy is huge we see her from the back sitting in a chair.

Gilbert can “get away” with citing the brilliance of Miracle because she doesn’t deal with the rape herself. Nothing is brought out into the discussably open either for those shocked silently and never bring it up and those who are aware of some serous themes here but cannot discuss them because the treatment in the films avoids the central thing it’s about — all that is brought out is Trudy’s desperate shame and how she must marry to avoid that. On one level it feels absurd to bring this screwfall comedy (rightly designated) with all its vacuities in characterization, slapstick, implicitly and explicitly misogynistic remarks (in passing as a matter of course about women) up as a story of the rape — comparing it to massacre rape, marital rape and selling, aggravated assault. But it does fall into the first traumatic category of simple rape between two people not strangers. Trudy’s desperate shame is made a joke of while it is laid before us. Frantic efforts to appear to conform do not question conformism. From what I’ve read critics have been generally divided into a group which admires the sleight-of-hand:

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek carved out its own unique niche in the annals of screen comedy by so cleverly couching its shocking material in broad slapstick and fast-paced character comedy. The film rarely allows itself the delirious abandon of so-many classic comedies, but Sturges is purposeful in this respect. We’re meant to be as anxiously involved as the characters are in their dilemmas.

Or, like me, they have been grated upon by the indifference to the core content and use of laughter: Siegfried Kracauer’s “Preston Sturges, or Laughter Betrayed,” Films in Review, 1:1 (1950):43-47

I admit to laughing and laughing at some of the sequences of wild highjinks all the characters go through, the satire on lawyers (very funny lines – reminding me Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad is a traditional caricature of a lawyer in comic movies), the press, solemn pious parents. Asked about the film, Sturges voiced as his one regret (and the ostensible moral) that he was not allowed to have a clergyman deliver a sermon on how giving soldiers all they want as a gift was overdoing it. Hypocrisy prevented him from including his moralistic message against too much alcohol and sex on the night the young men were going off to war, risking their lives — today we might say to kill and/or be killed. The one target of the movie we can take seriously is the Hays Code itself. The verbal jokes which skim round what would be stark sexual content, the drinking of lemonade, how the characters say “phooey!”. Along the way various sacred cows are burlesqued. The wedding of Trudy and Norval with the two witnesses swooning and photographed so that they are seen as central as the couple. Trudy has a younger sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn) given wry realistic remarks (reminding me a bit of Margaret Dashwood in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility). For the record the Code was a heavily Catholic-influenced set of rules the movie industry agreed to abide by in order to fend off worse censorship; it began in 1930, was at its strictest between 1933 or so and the 1950s; its power was over when TV emerged as such tough competition the cinema felt it had to offer something TV did not, and the great movie pointed to as the first to ignore the Code, and become a respected hit was Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (featuring Rod Steiger), where in lieu of an emasculated bumbling male we are given a painfully honest portrait of a seething disappointed man.

I much prefer Miracle of Morgan’s Creek to the coy prurient upper-class overrated The Lady Eve (also a Sturges product) which I’ve discovered is overrated ridiculously — both are odd masculinist movies with the male gaze on the femme fatale, one comic (Trudy), the other insinuating, orgiastic (Barbara Stanwyck is the heroine of The Lady Eve): a cartoon opening likens Eve to a smirking serpent who could easily fit in a Bugs Bunny carton.

I wonder how many other films from this era drill down to sexual aggression, topics like sexual distrust, promiscuity, sexual suspicion, male and female aggression, violence (?) are exposed in these 1940s films in such a way as to preclude discussions of the matters brought forward. All directed and produced by men, with some rare one having women screenwriters. Think of It Happened one Night, Bringing Up Baby, Rebecca (they need not be screwball comedy), His Girl Friday, the later comedies of remarriage (Adam’s Rib). Jeanine Basinger in her A woman’s View, How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-60 deals with some of this but her accent is on the social world, and she rightly never mentions Miracle of Morgan Creek nor Preston Sturges. He is paradoxically not really interested in women or what happens to them — as was Kleist and Rohmer, and the first text to deal with rape seriously, Richardson’s Clarissa, with its 1991 film adaptation by David Nokes. In Clarissa it’s the raped woman who goes to jail, not the man:

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Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a doll-like figure, breathing softly huskily at the at times poignant Norval (Eddie Bracken — could the name come from an 18th century tragedy?), Norval timidly swooning over her. Sturges apparently thinks women are all powerful, has characters say they cover up for and prefer men who hurt them (this is a sly reference to why we cannot find out anything about the man who impregnated Trudy). The blustering father takes endless pratfalls.

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Towards the end Officer Kockenlocker trussed up with ropes, asking his daughters to wham him over the head harder so it will look like Norval escaped from jail, not that he let Norval go

Trudy is never kicked out by her father; he and the younger sister go into hiding with Trudy during the time of her pregnancy and we see a tenderly loving scene between the father and Trudy on a Christmas eve. Can we discern a private world in Miracle of Morgan Creek? I think not. Kockenlocker’s words are so generalized. Norval makes an attempt to find the rapist (this word never used) but is clueless. Had they found him, would they have reacted like Mr Bates in Downton Abbey (an accidental death engineered for the guilty man)? A delayed shock for me was at how laughter can be betrayed by destroying its possible constructive power. Yet the intriguing nature of the film — the double meanings of words, gestures, how one thing is asserted and another true — has prophetic power. A happy ending is brought about because Trudy gives birth to sextets — 6 children at once. All are so astonished at this, and of course joyous (as after all aren’t children in the marriage the point), newspapers reporters, politicians and the like come for photo opportunities, and Norval is pardoned. The script begins with this scene and the movie is conceived as one long flashback though its present tense feel soon makes us forget that:

Godsofthisuniverse

Would anyone today dare to make fun of multiple children women inflict on themselves through “the miracles” of modern medicine? Why do women do these things to themselves? Why do men collude?

Ellen

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A rare comfortable happy moment: Andrea, Brock, Jesse at a diner

‘Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who’ — Monty Python and the Holy Grail

The question is what we really want out of life, for ourselves, what we think is real… [has] to do with our social panic, with our fear of losing status. One cannot afford to lose status on this peculiar ladder, for the prevailing notion of American life seems to involve a kind of rung-by-rung ascension to some hideously desirable state — James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

Dear friends and readers,

I finally bought the whole of the series on DVD so I could move back and forth between episodes while watching (as one turns pages back and forth when reading a book) and can cover more than 3-4 episodes or a disk at a time. After Jesse and Walter’s long night in their lab (Fly), two emotional explosions lead to horrifying killing sprees, sadistic and remorseful murders.

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Hospital – emergency entrance

3:11-13: An outline of just the mad violence with cross-fire guns and cars: Jesse (Aaron Paul) carries on going to his rehabilitation group and still showing a moral nature capable of love, becomes lover-companion to Andrea Cantillo (Emily Rios), a young Spanish recovering addict whom he meets there, an important element of which is Jesse’s love for yet another potentially lost little boy, Brock. Through also involving himself with her ten-year old brother who Jesse sees on a bike on the corner where Jesse’s friend, Combo (Rodney Rush), was murdered Jesse works out that Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) ordered that killing done by the boy hired by two thugs; driven by guilt and remorse Jesse enlists his (frightened) prostitute lover-friend to help him poison the two thugs who hired the boy, is thwarted, coerced into promising Gus he will forgive and forget. Then double-crossed and driven half-mad when the ten-year old boy is murdered, Jesse attempts simply to shoot the two men face-to-face even if it means they kill him (he is asking for this); Walter White (Bryan Cranston) intercepts Jesse, kills the men himself and tells Jesse “run.”

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Gus ordering death like so much pizza

4:1-4: An outline of just the slow grind of distressed and sadistic murder and justified paranoia: White realizes that Gus regards both him and Jesse as grating liabilities and means to replace White after he finishes training Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) who colludes with this plan, and then murder White and Jesse. When Mike (Jonathan Banks) shows up to murder White, White succeeds in persuading Mike to believe he, White, will turn Jesse over to him, in return for life; instead on the phone, White shouts Gale’s address to Jesse, which is understood as an order to kill Gale. Under duress and half-hysterical with reluctance, Jesse does just that — shoots the terrified, suddenly fawning Gale in the face. Mike is too powerful a man for Jesse and White and manages to catch them in the lab, to which Gus arrives, now seething and to show his power and punish a bodyguard for getting above his station (starting to cook meths), Gus slits the bodyguard’s throat, allowing the blood to spurt out all over himself, and slowly run down this man’s body. As Gus knows, no one cares for this nobody (perhaps an illegal immigrant, so no papers), and his corpse is the second to be put into a vat and corroded into non-existence. The terror and senselessness of this is reinforced by a camera set up in their lab to watch and tape them 24/7 (or when they are in the lab).

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Walter White (Bryan Cranston) writhing from 24/7 surveillance

Bob Dixon argues that the continual killing seen in boys’ action-adventure stories in the US and UK seriously teaches children to accept killing as a way of sustaining an imperialist, capitalist, militaristic order. There it is glorified, made Christian, wrapped in a flag. In Breaking Bad it’s a nervous distraught horror. The power of the DEA. The killing way of life seen in cancer cancer everywhere.

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Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) mourning from despair

Jesse is breaking down; after giving Andrea a packet of money, he closes himself off from her and Brock (won’t see them) lest he bring death upon them and because he cannot stand to give himself any warmth, any reward, and turns his apartment into a night-and-day drug-infested high decibel noise party. A nadir of despair. Even his two friend, Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) shy away from him at least to go home and feed a cat, water a flower. Jesse is careless, throwing his money at people (one man attempts to steal it), and as it would take very little to discover his connection to a drug trade in meths, he is last seen driven away by Mike. He puts up no fight. All of his conduct since the triple death of his beloved Jane (who would have destroyed him and herself with heroin), Andrea’s son (whom he identified with as a brother-father figure too), and the seeming innocent Gale is suicidal.

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Skylar surveying her accounts and books which she uses to decide how much to offer for a car wash

Walter’s parallel story is not told in the same melancholic vein. Skylar’s (Anna Gunn)’s persistent and finally fraudulent take-over of a car wash (which she seems to hate because her husband was once an insulted underling there) is an ironic comedy framed by both Walter’s indifference to the money-laundering procedures and Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk) exasperated anti-feminism: Yoko Ono over here, why can’t we do a nail salon, why must it be this car-wash.

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Goodman not letting the phone too near

She is the laundress controller (laundering money through a car wash) and Goodman squirms as she exposes his feebleness and transparent hypocrisies. She is so efficient she writes out the lies (a script to memorize whose words embarrass Walter) that Walter is to tell Hank about his gambling; they go to gambling anonymous; she teaches him to play cards. Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) is persuaded to come home through a bet Marie (Betsy Brandt) forces on him: if she can masturbate him into an orgasm and coming under the hospital covers, he is ready to leave. Hank hates leaving because he hates his crippled state, and once home he is insulting, callous and overtly scornful of Marie in turns. Marie resorts to a kind of comedy of house-hunt, pretending to be different upper class women with their story-book ideal husbands and families looking to buy and of course renovate already magazine-like obscenely appointed houses — all the while she steals small items and (alas) is caught, to be released through Hank’s influence with a police man on the scene.

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Marie looking the role of the middle class youth-fully dressed woman

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Marie Caught

Jesse’s world seems more lower middle to working class, having links to street people, Hispanics, addicts, the permanently under- and despicably employed. The White and Schrader worlds are a quietly grimacing exposure of American getting and spending for its own sake. Hank watches junk TV, eats junk food while Marie sleeps with a soft mask over her eyes for beauty and rest.

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Hank at rest — he is given Gale’s Lab Notes by the policeman who rescued Marie from jail

Here it’s a question of money — huge dollops of money for cancer, for Hank’s physical therapy (which we see him painfully painfully enduring). The games over house-fixing, house-buying, the occasional parties (given up just now), the business deals (which Skylar now comically does her proud book-keeping and hard-nosed negotations for), police bullies who can do you a favor — and yes status. Skylar and Walter are not bored.

I have come to realize that the series’ realistic up-close violence, nihilism in the streets, twisted family lives (the Pinkman family; Jane and her father; Mike’s daughter and granddaughter from whom he keeps away except to provide money; the unmarried Andrea), rehabilitation centers where people learn to blame themselves by rote; impoverished culture in the malls, streets; living on the edge middle-class protagonists — are us, serious funhouse and grave mirrors.

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In one dream-like prologue we see Mike murdering people inside a truck; he has lost a piece of his outer ear

It is daring and exhilarating in its use of film techniques, tropes, colors, juxtapositions; scripts are not neglected (witty and epitomizing). Through the third and fourth season I noticed the prologues especially. They are not summaries of what happened earlier; nor are they forecasts; nor reinforcements of character traits. Sometimes we are thrown back in time to see Jesse and Jane when they spent a day at a museum looking at Georgia O’Keefe paintings; or Walt and Skylar when young and looking at the house they now own (or pay mortgage payments on); they can be bizarrely expressive: a fly is studied, the two brutal cousins are seen crawling in the sand to some burning destiny, Mike’s face is electrically outlined (he is a brutal yet seeming sane man); the products produced to cover up the meths are played games with; a clowning moment or a poignant one that is fitted into what we saw previously as if we had skipped a chapter and are invited now to come back and read it after all. Inventive, clever.

I’ve bought myself cheap studies of the series: an unofficial companion (where it is written emphatically on the cover that the film-makers do not endorse anything said about the series, suggesting to me they know that the simplistic moralising they do in their features misleads) and close-reading about its philosophical (no less) implications. If anyone doubts the US order is a killing way of life, read about the slaughters in Gaza (where we supply the money and weapons) and in any state you want the latest mall massacre (where we have forbidden gun control).

I admit I don’t love the Breaking Bad characters the way I love the Downton Abbey ones (or the Poldark ones or some of Jane Austen’s). Jesse and Marie have become my favorites: the best continuing element in the series is the characterization of Jesse: his story, a young man rejected by his parents, seeking some meaning in a better job, his ability to love, to form relationships with others who value him, his conscience, his slow descent into despair, all wonderfully acted by Paul. Little details: like after Jane’s death and his first bout of rehabilitation, he sits all he livelong day listening to her voice message, only after the death of the 10 year old does he start drugs up again and these filthy orgies in his house. Marie’s human feeling and vulnerability would be a match if she were given more screen time, more background history; we need to know more about her, but the series is relentlessly masculinist in its focus. But there is a hardness about the stance towards them that ought to be alienating if the viewer who watches had a heart. It’s comic and appropriate how Syklar’s character is consistent when she operates outside the law as when she operates within it; her coldness may stand for the attitude of mind of the culture she likes to think she is a success in (she’s been lucky), with Hank as the series’s unexamined “good” guy (thus with all his cleverness a dupe). Gus might stand in for world and US leadership if we were to allegorize this show, with Mike as Hank’s opposing parallel (Gus placates and Mike thus far does not kill cops).

When tonight I began watching the first season of DA again and tears came to my eyes as the characters appeared once again and I noticed yet more details I hadn’t before, I know Vince Gilligan and his crew are wanting what I require: a continuing humanity. Compare this program with another coming out of the cancer epidemic with Calendar Girls; and you can see what is is to have a heart and not have one.

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Skylar teaching Walter a gambling game

Ellen

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Lyndsey N Snyder as the Duchess (We Happy Few)

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Naeem Hayat as Hamlet (Globe players)

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Emily Relva as Anouilh’s Antigone (Wandering Theater)

Dear friends and readers,

This past week I was privileged to see three absorbingly well-acted productions of profound plays, Monday evening as organized by Capital Fringe Festival: inside a black box theater in an art gallery, a 90 minute version of John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, done more or less in modern dress by “We Happy Few” in a small theater where all the seats were sold:

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Duchess of Malfi’s cast and commentary;

Friday evening at the Folger Theater (the whole place much loved by me, now a member of the theater side as well as a reader on the scholar side of the building), a 3 hour Hamlet performed by the London Globe players as part of their tour of welcoming places in 2014 (the 27th stop they said):

Britain Global Hamlet

and late this Saturday afternoon, as organized by Capital Fringe Festival, at the old and once again re-vamped Atlas theater, H Street, NE, a nearly 2 hour version of Jean Anouilh’s 1944 Antigone performed by the Wandering Theater Company who expect to take the production to off-Broadway this coming fall.

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Clemmie Evans and Jenna Krasowski as two woman chorus for Antigone

I probably enjoyed The Duchess of Malfi the most. It was acted naturalistically with intense forcefulness and the powerful soliloquies contrasting the natural joy of the Duchess marrying her steward, Antonio, against the fierce opposition of her corrupt, rank-obsessed and incestuous brothers’ ferocious what seems crazed perverse opposition struck strong chords. The focus of the production was the lower class male character, Bosola, endlessly murdering and torturing others in the hopeless hope of promotion and big cash, only to be sneered at when he’s done. (Bob Hoskins did this role decades ago.) So it was accessible. I last saw a production on TV when I was 13 when Channel 13 in NYC was first aired. This production de-emphasized Webster’s exploration of meaningless (“look you the stars shine still” says Bosola to the Duchess at one point) for a mirroring of today’s sexually sick religious hypocrisies, glamorized gangsterism, and antagonistic heterosexuality. I went alone and when I returned home (later at night) sat with a plate of tuna and glass of Shiraz wine watching the latest dire news.

A few years ago now Jim and I saw another Globe production of Hamlet at the Folger, and we did not care for it. The actors were acting Elizabeth players performing Hamlet, and the double turn was too distancing. I believe it was the same actress who performed Gertrude (Miranda Foster) and the difference will epitomize why this production succeeded at least with me. She really played Gertrude directly and with modern virtuoso hysteria and subtlety once we were within the play while at its edges, the singing and dancing and movements as we moved from scene to scene she reverted to an actress-player with her lute interacting with other actors and the audience. I just love the dancing of all the performers together at the end — as magically they all rise from imagined death to brilliant life again. This time the group had a lot more effective stage business during the play, some of which was self-reflexive — the trunks they carried about. At deeply felt tragic moments I felt I was near tears (Keith Barlett as Claudius suddenly confessing that indeed he killed the king and it is killing his soul) and cried at Hamlet’s death, but suddenly we swung round for genuinely comic moments: the world is filled with silly and ignorant and dense (in Shakespeare, Polonius, Laertes) unknowing profound (the gravedigger) presences while others understand the tragic ironies of existence. The mix of comedy and tragedy must indeed have seemed barbaric to the French. The audience did not appreciate the this more modified version of the Globe style, but I gathered more what Shakespeare’s text was meant to convey than I’d done since some of the productions of Papp in Central park years ago. Izzy was not sure how much she liked it. You again had to pay attention to the words which went swiftly. Very strong beyond Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude were Rawiri Paratene as Polonius and gravedigger, Tom Lawrence as Horatio, Laertes, Fortinras, Osric.

The players did get a standing ovation. Not only were all seats taken, but I saw chairs brought in for some known TV (WETA) critic types (Robert Aubrey Davis who seemed to be having a good time). Some of this type of clapping is the result of the place, the price paid, a sort of self-validation. For myself I felt the bitter ironies of the exhibit in the great hall on heraldry: Shakespeare had a hard time gaining the coat of arms for his father. Lord how petty and absurd these competitive mortals be. With my membership I did get a complimentary coffee without having to wait on line.

I mentioned the standing ovation because the Wandering Players were not similarly whooped up, and yet their efforts were as strong and perhaps for the audience more successful. The reviewers have been very hard on this production. It is true that their program notes where they say their play is an allegory of American power and abrogation of civil and other individual rights won’t wash. Creon’s self-justification is that of the Nazi collaborators (Vichy leaders in particular): if they didn’t compromise and collaborate it would have been so much more worse, there was nothing (was there?) to be preferred from the different “sides” and the whole controlled dramaturgy very French despite American costuming. Anouilh in fact like Sophocles keeps to non-specific references and that’s why the play applied at times to events happening in the perversely barbaric acts of this week. When Antigone from her place behind an immured wall talks to the callous jailer (who might himself have been murdered had events gone another way) the suggestiveness evoked the torture of solitary confinement in US prisons today. None of the performers were weak.

I write this blog because all three of these productions will recur elsewhere so my reader can perhaps keep an eye out for them. I feel a bit guilty for not having praised strongly one of earliest of the Capital Fringe Festival productions, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys, done by the “Rude Mechanicals” at the Goethe Institute. Marcus Salley as Sam was the noble soul. I was deeply moved and stirred, at the same time as I so badly missed Jim I had an episode of what’s called STUG. How I would have enjoyed discussing the stage business and props with him:

Prop

I came home in time to go to Noodles and Company and for the first time in my life bring home a hot meal of pasta for myself — spicey tomato and chicken pieces with some kind of scattered cheese, which I washed down with paisano wine.

I did justice to the witty comedy of Miss Emma’s Match-Making Agency for Literary Characters on my Austen reveries blog.

But I never mentioned anywhere a remarkable concoction written by Chris Braak an directed by Cara Blouin: entitled The Empress of the Moon: The Lives of Aphra Behn, the writer and director took numerous passages from Behn’s plays as well as short fiction of Oroonoko and her letters to her lover, Scott, and her begging pleas to Thomas Killigrew as a debtor in prison to present scenes from Behn’s life interpersed with some of her most intelligent moving commentary on her experience of life. It was that complicated an amalgram it should be published so people (me and others) could read the text before showing up. The players were movement artists more than actors and much was covered through mime. Sarah Robinson was Behn. I’d single out Alexandra Blouin as the bully Lord Willoughby and Jennifer Huttenberg as the sword-wielding Mr Scott. They all had studied later 17th century gestures. The production ought to be redone at conferences where people who can appreciate how the underlying material has been brought to life. Alas I cannot find one photo of the production anywhere on line so fall back on a photo of a young Jeremy Irons as a tough Rover from decades ago:

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as a way of remembering how badly Behn was treated by Scott, Killigrew and most of the men she ever knew, died young, but left 37 plays, many playable, much vivid iconoclastic poetry, translations from subversive French prose and verse, personal letters, and marvelously eloquent epilogues. Germaine Greer’s essay on her life is probably closest to the truth that she survived through sheer nerve, being kept as well as incessant writing.

Thus I managed to join in on some of the Capital Fringe Festival this summer. Jim would buy across the 3 and 1/2 weeks for us probably at least twice as many tickets and we would have gone to rock and concert shows. We would have gone to the final dancing under the tent near Gallery Place where prizes are given out.

Jim would have bought at least a couple of tickets for concerts and operas at Castleton. It’s a 3 hour trip to mid-Virginia by car. Out of the question for me alone. I would have gone to the Castleton Festival through the Jewish Community Center which organized a bus tour package to go to see Madame Butterfly complete with a lunch and lecture, but it was full up by the time I registered. I wonder now what the atmosphere of the place with Loren Mazaal’s death in the middle of the month-long teach-in for students and budding great opera singers and musicians.

This coming Friday evening will be my one effort at Wolf Trap. My friend, Vivian, who comes to the movies with me, will go with Izzy and I to a Mary Chapin Carpenter concert at the big theater, the Filene next week. With both Vivian there, Izzy, google maps and going when it is still light, I hope to learn how to get there and back without an ordeal of suffered anxiety over getting lost.

I am not writing as much about what play and concert going I do because a central inspiration for my blog is gone. My readers probably do not realize how much this was Jim’s as well as my blog. While I did 99% of the writing, many of my blogs were the result of seeing or hearing something with Jim, talking with him before and afterwards and then writing up the ideas and feelings conjured up. He would then read the blog and we’d talk again.

His life was cut off early; like many cancer victims he was destroyed horrifyingly by a disease with cruel indifference by the choice of the society he lived in. I was helpless to do anything for him, and today find myself sometimes asked to pretend it’s okay, that I too am getting over his absence. I am not nor are others similarly devastated and those who agree to collude to pretend do a disservice to those gone and the countless being thrown away or about to be as I write these words. Izzy and I remembered his quiet fun today as we went into DC. She talked of how she sometimes imagines herself talking to him as she leaves her job at the Pentagon, and I how I wish I could get myself to.

I did enjoy, learn, somehow profit from what I experienced and write to advise others to go see these productions if they should turn up in some form near you. And now I retire to read in bed with my two cats nearby.

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Vanessa Bell’s Girl Reading

Ellen

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Walt

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Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) listening to one another

Dear friends and readers,

I did not write a separate blog on Season 3:5-7 as I thought the first two were poor, with Episode 7 returning to the strength of the series: in-depth psychology, slow movement in which not much happens outwardly until a final deadly encounter. These next three combine familial melodrama, medical film fiction, black comedy, and seething danger. The story line is detailed at wikipedia were all of the latter type.

What interests me is its use of stasis, where the viewer is invited to pay close attention so that the slightest story detail adds to the psychological pressures resulting from what’s going on. “I see you” (8) carries on the dramaturgy of what we’ve seen before, but its content, an hour long dramatization of a a family group waiting for news of the survival or death of a much-valued person in a hospital environment, is riveting as all the episodes dwelling on fatal sickness and modern medicine have been.

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A failed resuscitation

Betsy Brandt as Marie angry and terrified that Hank (Dean Norris), the central rock of her existence will die, and then that he’ll be crippled for life has particularly half-mad scenes — a fork in the cafeteria is filthy, constituting the ever-present iatropic dangers of the place. Why was his gun taken from him?If he had had his gun, all would have been well …

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Hank newly on his guard

Mike, the lawyer’s killer-helper (Jonathan Banks whose role has expanded greatly in the last few episodes) easily kills off one of the bizarre-cousin murderers with an injection. Skylar (Anna Gunn) now is willing to admit she knows all about Walt’s activities, who his phone calls are to (Jesse) and willing to use the oodles of money Walt has made to hire a super-expensive therapist outside the Medical Network to which Hank and Marie belong. It is assumed that the only way to get adequate care when you are seriously hit, any cure is to spend gross amounts on doctors who won’t take insurance and of course get away with this because they can and do cure you by really taking care of you instead of pretending to: this Network would provide physical therapy thrice a week in a month and for a short while.

“Kafkaesque” (9) was weaker as it again simply shows the deterioration or weakening of all the characters in conventionally moral ways, but it did have a memorable indeed inspired witty interchange. Jesse is telling the facilitator (Jere Burns) of his anti-drug-addiction group about what his work in a laundromat is like: Jesse elaborates from the “boss is a douchbag,” he never sees his “superboss,” “nobody knows what’s going on:”

Confessing

Jesse: It’s like rigid one day bleeds into the next, been working a lot … totally corporate … all kinds of red tape my boss is a dick, the owner superdick [I'm] not worthy whatever to meet him. I guess everybody’s scared of the dude. Place is filled with dead eyes …

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Group Leader: Sounds kind of kafaesque

Jesse: Yeah totally kafaesque majorly

Jesse has no idea what the word refers to, only that it’s famous, literary; perhaps it means making no sense. We do learn that Jesse is siphoning off Meths and with his friends selling it separately. They begin to use the word indiscriminately for what they are doing. Well, in a way the story has become Kafkaesque — minus Kafka’s political totalitarian context.

Again the third of the trio soars: “Fly” (10): It is in effect an inset 2 character play. Aaron Paul has before shown himself capable of the virtuoso outpouring of intense emotion and cogitation and does it several times in all three episodes; Cranston’s soliloquy in “Fly” is quieter but goes on as long and is as effective.

We watch two actors, Aaron Paul as Jesse and Byran Cranston as Walt in a basement room filled with technological equipment interact in terms of their now long relationship, memories and pressures right now. They have become the underpaid employees of the terrifyingly ruthless killer Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), all the more scary because of his mild exterior and how everyone outside the drug dealers turns to him as a benign philanthropist, ceaselessly polite.

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He is making hugely more than they and is a dangerous man; they work long hours cleaning and cooking, and the strain of all that has happened becomes too much.

As Marie focuses on a fork, so Walt takes umbrage at a fly as a contaminant and much of the action the hour is taken up as the two men try to kill the fly. Walt makes a home-made fly swatter; Jesse to please Walt buys a whole load of fly papers and sprays. What keeps us watching through is their relationship. Jesse begins to show concern for Walt as half-mad from lack of sleep, losing all perspective, and makes him sleep by loading a cup of coffee with sleeping pills. In turn, Walt shows real affection for Jesse: “come down from there, Jesse, you’ll hurt yourself”; tells of how he wish he had died when Skylar gave birth to her baby daughter, before his drug-dealing emerged; and half-drugged, holds on to a ladder while Jesse swats away, telling Jesse half-cryingly he is sorry that Jane died, very sorry.

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The lab is shot in sharp dark blue light at night, contrasting to the bright reds and oranges of the day outfits

We fear he will confess; while Jesse thinks it was nobody’s fault he accepts it, just, if with intense grief. All the while they are intermittently like clowns (as they were in earlier episodes).

It ends in the dawn when they have killed the fly finally, cooked the meths and Walt tells Jesse he is aware Jesse is embezzling (so to speak) meths and if Jesse is caught, he, Walt, cannot protect Jesse. Jesse says he needs no protection. Walt drives off, Jesse standing there. The inset piece is self-contained too.

Small moments: although Skylar shows herself more willing to cooperate with Walt, be a wife to him, her bullying instincts come to the fore in episode 8 when her boss-lover, Ted Benecke (Christopher Cousins) shows up at the door of her house, ostensibly looking to help her but actually asking for emotional support and comfort. He should have known better.

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The mini-series suggests men expect “good” women to be hard as nails (that’s what they respect)

When he persists in asking why her behavior is suddenly distant and hard, she bursts out, Will you force me to do this now? Not stupid, he retreats. So the characters are consistent within their narrative development.

Watching the “inside breaking bad” features and listening to the costume and light design people, I was aware of how much money was spent (Eaton says in her book she hasn’t got the budget of a Breaking Bad or Madman). There were shorts of Cranston and Paul and others taking questions. I was touched by Paul turning round to thank the audience for watching. He was himself not supposed to last beyond the first season and he is not a handsome male lead type so this role could mean much for his career.

And it continues to be a bleak mirror of American life. I write about these episodes also because they trouble me in a directly personal way I want to be open about. In the series of scenes where Marie is told about the apparently minimal physical therapy her medical network offers Hank, there is a direct parallel to what Walt would have been offered to cure or slow down or palliate this cancer from an HMO. Marie and Hank are given choices within their network, but the essential treatment is the same. As a nurse she asserts Hank must have immediate therapy and several days a week for hours. To get real help she needs to “go outside,” and we again have this super-expensive doctor proposed and now Skylar offers Walt’s money.

My question is this: is this what many Americans believe? That if they pay huge sums to famous supposedly tremendously great doctors and care, they can recover or get over some crippling. It makes me think of how Jim would not come to the phone when an investment banker I knew (Trollope society man) proposed a name to us of a probably very expensive well-known doctor in Boston — outside our HMO. I wanted to go, to try at least the initial visit, but Jim would not hear of it. This Boston doctor was said to consider the operation Jim accepted from a doctor trained in the Mayo clinic (removing the esophagus) criminal. The Boston man might instead pour fantastic amounts of chemo and radiation at Jim. I have heard of people having adverse killing reactions to this sort of thing (raging leukemia, having to have limbs cut off), but also living. I am ever remorseful we did not do this at least try. It would have been costly to start with – I’ve no idea what chemo and radiation would cost out of pocket.

Do people in general believe this myth? Is it a myth? Another friend I have clearly does – and paid huge sums, subjected her beloved to a12 hour operation that almost killed but is said to have removed a super-early stage cancer. The “ordinary” doctors talked of watchful waiting because of his bad health and because it was dangerous and they could cut it out in a few months.

Is this sort of belief why it is so difficult to get people to join into communities of care in a socialized set up? But surely those who don’t want to belong to these are not better off belonging to nothing – which is the alternative to the Affordable Care Act and networked insurance, HMOs and the rest.

So I think would Jim be still here? Would his life have been prolonged? In the mini-series we are still told statistically Walt has two years to live — his cancer is now in remission but might come back.

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Hank and Marie’s clasped hands

Ellen

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Maggie Smith between scenes

Dear friends and readers,

I somehow suspect my phrase of praise for Rebecca Eaton and Patricia Mulcahy’s Making Masterpiece that it fulfills the once famous goals of Lord Reith or the BBC to “educate, inform, entertain” might make her uncomfortable: its connotations have become stuffy, elite, even dull; but in fact her book covering a history of PBS’s most famous and long-running Sunday night prime quality (the term now used) serial dramas from the era of the powerful and fine film adaptations, original dramatizations, and multi-episode serial dramas from just before the 1967 The Forsyte Saga up to the 2010-14 Downton Abbey does just that. We learn a lot about the commercial, financial, filming, roles different people play, the TV channels who air the shows, Eaton is unashamedly working for quality in her purchases and commissions and is surprisingly candid.

Along the way she gives satisfyingly step-by-step believable accounts of some well-known to lost forever cult and individual favorites (some never got beyond the arduous planning and early deals) and she lets drops phrases that characterize swiftly how this or that aspect of this complicated art is viewed by its practitioners: such as the eponymous book or novelist-memoirist’s vision is “the underlying material” for the films. While Eaton’s explanations for why the program has held on for so long (they are “family stories, sagas, about love, betrayal, money, infatuation, illness, family deception &c&c) are wholly unsubtle and could be said of poor programming, and she shows that she reflects the commonalty of viewers; nonetheless, now and again for this or that specific series, she also shows she understood very well a political vision, how it fit into a contemporary sociological moment. She lets us know how some of the corporate funding after the mid-1980s when it seemed all but Mobil and the oil companies acted on a new realization that corporations did not need to appear civic-minded or anything but ruthless, and that when their agents discoveed that Eaton would not re-shape a program to fit an ideology (standing firm, sometimes almost alone — she tells instances and names names) she was in continual danger of being fired.

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Rebecca Eaton with Russell Baker, the host for the show after Alistair Cooke retired — they are on the set for the introductions in the 1990s — note the fire in the hearth, comfortable easy-chair …. library look)

It is also an autobiography, a seeming Horatio Alger paradigm, écriture-femme style. It’s cyclical. She opens with a photo of her mother, Katherine Emery Eaton, who she presents as a successful serious actress and “glamorous movie star” who gave up her career to stay at home as a mother and wife: its in an old (built in 1800) house, her home for many years in Kennebunkport (labryinthine, spooky), which she cherishes, whose image and memories were part of her core impulse to work for and support Masterpiece Theater, but which she tells us on the first page no longer contain her parents, daughter or husband. She closes on her present apartment in Cambridge, Mass, a divorced woman whose daughter she reminds us was named after her grandmother and is now in theater and close to her. This private story of a husband who adjusted his career to bring up, be more at home with the one daughter (someone had to), and her distant relationship with that daughter until the girl grew up is woven in for about 2/3s of the way.

I say seeming because the story is also a justification, an explanation for why nowadays there are so fewer multi-episode (3 is become common) expensively produced carefully meditated productions from literary masterpieces. She is telling us how she did the best she could, how the recent spread of violent thrillers, cynical reactionary adaptations of contemporary novels (something in the vein of Breaking Bad, British style), seems at times to take over the time slot; her lot is fighting a continually uphill struggle where she lurches from acquiring, purchasing BBC and British productions, to producing them with the BBC and from the 1980s alonside or in competition with increasingly tough competition, in the UK, the ITV (Granada) channels, London Weekend, and in the US, cable, A&E, HBO, new technologies which allow viewers to curate and watch programs according to their own schedule (using DVDs, streaming, Netflix). It’s told in a peculiar way. A single person (named and the boss who wanted to get rid of our heroine) theatens a wasteland. Each curve ball or crisis is averted by the sudden unexpectedly widely popular good quality, subtle, intelligent adaptation. So the book reads like a series of rescues. She is not so much the rescuer as the person on the spot when circumstances come together so that a product (most often only a mini-series can provide the amount of ballast needed) is on offer which rescues them.

According to Eaton, Masterpiece theater as “the home for classy drama” (Alistair Cookie’s phrase)

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began when the first The Forsyte Saga developed a visible passionate following (fanbases made themselves felt before the Internet too), and attracted a man from Mobil, Herbert Schmertz (who loved dramas set before the 20th century); at the time Mobil was competing with other oil corporations in the 1970s who thought that they need to be seen as civic-minded (no more). The result: a stream of progressive superb mini-series from the 70s,enough of which were as avidly watched (Poldark, The Pallisers) until well into the later 1980s (The Jewel in the Crown). Eaton does not say this explicitly, but the re-creation of Poldark in terms similar to the 1970s is a bid to create a new and bring along the old fanbase for the Winston Graham historical novels (due Spring 2015); so too the filmically innovative Death Comes to Pemberley just before it (fall 2014) is a carefully calibrated appeal to the changed expanded Jane Austen audience

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A new Demelza who looks like some of the 1960s illustrations from the Bodley Head Poldark edition — Eleanor Tomlinson is also the new Georgiana, sister of

A genuinely tried Darcy and Elizabeth:

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The film does interesting things with Darcy, makes his character more understandable, Elizabeth’s more mature, and as to film: voice-over entangling with shot-reverse shot, scene juxtaposition

The later 1980s, the Thatcher years were the first set back with destructive re-organizations and competitive contracts of packaged dramas at British TV; an occasional return to the old model using new film techniques taken from commercial theater (the 1991 Clarissa) did not seem to help, until the new “savior” appeared: Middlemarch and the art of Andrew Davies.

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I still find it painful to watch the failure of Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) unaware how another’s supposed weak view of the world, Rosamund’s (Treveyn McDowell) can wreck dreams no one else can appreciate

I am aware that there are sheaf of essays on the filmic Middlemarch, that it was admired and is still loved — its exquisite historical feel, a breathe of wide humanity, great acting, relevance (the failed career of Lydgate). Eaton recounts losses: how could she have been so stupid as to let go of Davies’s Pride and Prejudice to A&E. It was then she did bow to corporate pressure: a one-time quickie Poldark denuded of all politics will stand for one resulting flop.

But amid these “dark days” she did not forget her job — she attempted to bring into Masterpiece adaptations of good American books. Maybe that was what was needed. If American producers and funders could not begin to understand a British Cornish regional novel, this they might get. She had successes but there are more sad stories, of fine projects that never got off the ground amid a protracted process: The Glass Menagerie with Meryl Streep didn’t happen. She wanted to call her dream The American Collection. Those who helped included Paul Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, and they did Our Town for which Paul Newman earned an Emmy. About the size of what she could achieve was Mark and Livy, the story of Mark Twain and his wife. It seems that Anglophilia is the fuel of Masterpiece and Americans don’t value their own great books. At one point she was told “not to be ridiculous.”

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Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Henry Tilner (J.J.Feilds) approach Northanger Abbey

Then another fortuitious rescue occurred. Most people seem unaware that the evolving Jane Austen canon came to the rescue again. Since they were done on the cheap, each only 108 minutes at most (depending on where you watched them, it could be as little as 83 minutes) the 2007-8 Mansfield Park (not noticed for Wadey’s take in which the men are ritually humiliated instead of the women), Persuasion (daringly shown to be the trauma of loss it is), and Northanger Abbey (a delightful Davies product) have not been paid serious attention to by film studies people. But these one-shot Austen films were, according to Eaton, central in reviving film adaptations of classic books subtly and originally done again. The three were great draws. By that time she had gotten the rights to Davies’ 1995 P&P so they were accompanied by this P&P and Davies 1996 Emma. She is a great friend of Davies. The next year ahe was able to execute produce Davies’s Sense and Sensibility (with Anne Pivcevic, a long time associate of his), and Gwyneth Hughes’s Miss Austen Regrets. And she used her technique of purchase and cooperative funding to make a 4 part mini-series once again: the Australian Lost in Austen, better liked than people have been willing to admit.

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Michael Grambon, Judi Dench and Lisa Dillon as Mr Holbrook, Matty Jenkyns, and Mary Smith

I was surprised by her then singling out Cranford Chronicles, to which she also attributes the resurgence of whatever is left of the older Masterpiece theater film adaptation and serious domestic drama impulse. The chapter on Cranford Chronicles is the richest of the book. We go from first idea and objections: whoever heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, much less Lady Ludlow? (Cranford was dropped as a school text in the US at the beginning of the 20th century.) Constant trips, lunches, deals sealed with a famous actress on board (Judi Dench), then unsealed, then lost from view, then picked up again, the whole process of acquiring screenplay writer, of writing with her, the sets, how dissatisfied people are with the first rushes, and how they try again and finally have a winner.

When at the close of the book she talks of Downton Abbey trying to explain its draw she identifies what I’ll call a communitarian ideal (she’d never use that phrase) — it’s this sense of loving socially conscientious community where most of the characters in Downton are well-meaning or basically good, with the exception of over-the-top monsters (Vera Bates) or one violent rapist who we know would do it again, no one is ejected, everyone treated with dignity and concern. Well this is the great appeal of Cranford Chronicles too — and Heidi Thomas does one better by allying the stories with progressive ideals. Eaton though singles Cranford out because not just its wide audience (after all Davies had trumped with a new Little Dorrit, Bleak House, a deeply moving Dr Zhivago rivaling and rewriting Pasternak’s novel against David Lean’s reading) but because she does see how it speaks to our times, fairy tale fashion. It must be admitted in this book she spends little time worrying whether a given mini-series reflects its era or particular author — perhaps she leaves that to screenplay writer, producer and director. I note the same film-makers recur for movies made from the same author (e.g. Louis Marks for Dickens). For her warm-hearted Cranford led to warm-hearted Downton.

Her book is meant to function today, 2014 and that too is why two chapters on Downton Abbey are devoted heavily to Downton Abbey, its lead-in, production, aftermath. She talks about why she thinks the program became a sociological event, and now an adjective: it appeared at the right time that year (before the new Upstairs/Downstairs which she says was found to be too dark, too pessimimistic, to much a mirror of our era); the house matters (as did Castle Howard for Brideshead). I’ve just written a paper on Andrew Davies’s Trollope adaptations as part of an anthology on British serial drama and found it distorting to see its purview (it too begins with The Forstye Saga and ends on DA) skewed by too many references to this program. The book is typical; I’ve seen this over-emphasis repeatedly. After all filmically it’s utterly conventional; if it is liberal in its attitudes towards sexuality and the human topics it will broach, it keeps the old decorum up. Its political outlook is one which looks upon the French Revolution as unfortunate, providing only an amelioration; now if only the Granthams had lived in France during the famine. They’d have provided jobs and meals. Nowhere does Fellowes show us that such a house was a power-house, a linch-pin in repressive controlling economic and political arrangements from the which local magistrates and MPs emerged to conscript soldiers and sailors. Everyone who knows anything about country houses knows this.

She does explain why the fuss. The outrageous ratings — it easily beat out Breaking Bad and Madman the first year in the Emmy prize race. It’s a selling card when you want to pitch a new fine series. And to give credit where credit it is, it is high quality; the characters are (as Eaton would no doubt tell us) compelling, psychologically complex; no expense is spared, the actors superb. It is great soap opera and as a woman defending women’s art, I too cry it up (with all the reservations above) as using brilliantly what this individual form in structure can do. She describes the series as a community — that’s soap opera. Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) rescues Mr Carson’s Jim Carter) old time colleague form the music hall from the local workhouse is a single anecdote, but it gathers all its strength by how its embedded in four seasons of memories about these characters. She does not mention that one of its strengths is it is not limited by a nineteenth-century text censored by Mudie’s Library. We can see how a rape plays out.

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Did Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) have a baby out of wedlock and give it up before she married Painswick — soap opera communities license us to look beyond what we can see and hear, to a past to be unearthed

How does an executive producer spend her days. Ceaseless socializing, phone calls, pitches, deciding. She does tell much of this throughout the book and in the chapter on Cranford, but she characterizes her job in another chapter again. She’s in on the film editing, how long the film can be, how its final scene plays. Along the way we learn of how she finally found some stable funding. She garnered as a well-heeled contributor Viking Cruises because a survey she did showed a surprising percentage of people who take cruises to Europe also watch Masterpiece Theater loyally. So she pitched this customer favorite to the running the cruises. She created Masterpiece Trust where wealthy people contribute and get to be named and also introduce the program. Perhaps the unashamed commercials for Ralph Lauren clothes (all expensive artifice) might jar more than the old more discreet pitches for oil and gas companies (but we should remember when we shudder at the anorexic women that they are not encouraging others to drop bombs to ensure Lauren’s profit). One of my books on women’s films has a whole section on how even costume dramas — those set say in the 18th century at any rate and after influence women’s wear. In the 1970s many of the costumes were Laura Ashley like creations — somewhere half between the 18th century and elegant clothes in the 1970s. I note that a certain kind of shawl is now popular since it became omnipresent in the costume dramas of the 2000s Obviously the Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and other stars influenced people — remember Annie Hall, the Annie Hall style … This has long been known and at the close of films nowadays you will see little icons for fashion designers and makers of clothes who the costume designer worked with. So Eaton asked herself who has their product been an advertiser for …

A smaller strand of the book is her relationship with the people who do Mystery! and how and when decisions were made to bring Mystery! material over to Masterpiece. Sometimes it seems as if Masterpiece gets the best of Mystery! they took Prime Suspect (Helen Mirren), and now the new Sherlock (Bernard Cumberbatch). Sometimes a book that one might expect to be on Masterpiece turns up on Mystery!. We are not told why all the time.

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With Diana Rigg on the set of The Heat of the Day (Elizabeth Bowen’s masterpiece on a Mystery! set — but then she was hostess for Mystery! for a while)

The book ends on what she called “the Downton effect” and returns to her personal motivation, satisfactions, and present. It does sound a bit lonely in that apartment. She likes to think of this program she’s served for so many years as she does her life, intertwined memories. The book has flaws; it does not begin to tell all. A full history would be a couple of thick volumes. What has made her the success she is, her rough-and-ready way of seeing things broadly, as some common denominator of intelligent person might, her upbeatness still don’t get too much in the way of sufficient candor. She describes behavior on the sets as no love-fest, and in the various stories of programs that never made it it’s often someone’s ego or a demand for a higher salary that got in the way. She says spontaneous group scenes for photographs are rare. The book never drips; it moves on and has a hardness. It’s apparent she’s not retiring yet. She won me over at any rate. The originating impulse was to do all her mother had not been able to do — she sets up the black-and-white photo near her bed on its last page.

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She gives credit to where it’s due: Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins’s conception of having downstairs get more than equal time to upstairs after watching The Forsyte Saga.

Ellen

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Torgny Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen) and Maja Forssman (Pernilla August) late at night in bed reading …

Dear friends and readers,

In recommending this film (now playing in New York City and Los Angeles) as profound and significant, one has to talk of Nazism and the almost unspeakable acts done to the vast majority of powerless Jewish people that are rarely brought home to people anymore in all their terror, horror, realities. I would say that some knowledge of what happened, some sense, however child-like and superficial, was known to me from the age I came to consciousness – as a half-Jew I suppose.

I said to Yvette the other night in talking of an anthology I’m about 2/3s the way through now: Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Beseiged Community, edd. R. Lapides and A. Adeleson, that this sort of thing was formative to my outlook. At age 3 I spent 8 months with my Jewish relatives (my parents moved into a no-children allowed apartment), and from my time there I gathered from half-understood stories that people running a state (which many years later Jim defined to me as an area of land over which a group of people have an effective monopoly of violence) could just come to a person’s or family’s door, take whom they pleased away, put you in prison, a slave labor camp, do unspeakable things to (humiliate, torture) as well as slaughter. My uncle had a joke for when people came into my grandparents’ apartment: have you got your papers? Also the a Jew may be identified as someone with a suitcase packed behind the couch, at the ready.

Also what I saw in the Southeast Bronx growing up until age 10 — police who jailed those for doing what they were getting kickbacks to allow. People with bats, gangs of boys with razor blades, some half-crazed with something they couldn’t explain. People talk of their astonishment at this or that done by the US or some other state, at how in 1964 enough people in Mississippi were willing to or condone murder and destroy anyone who came into the state to register African-Americans to vote so as to get away with it. What is to be surprised at? What did the people who went down there suppose was going on there? how did the whites keep the blacks so subdued? (For what matter what still goes on there today — the actual murders of three young men have never been accused or tried.)

I want to contextualize The Last Sentence with these memories and Lodz Ghetto because many people don’t have a grasp of what quite Sederstedt was fighting to prevent the spread of, of what this means to daily life outside such places (without the excruciating detail unfolding before you you might not believe all that happened — not understand how unsafe you are too – ask not for whom the bell tolls …). The realities behind the 2 and 1/2 hour film make it great as well as important. It’s against the backdrop what such regimes as the Nazis create and what they were beginning to impose on Sweden (the 1940s version of a national security state, of endless control and spying, of silencing, of informers) that the courageous behavior of Torgny Segerstedt, journalist, with the backing of a brave editor and the money of his Jewish and strong wife, Axel and Maja Forssman, must be understood. Segerstedt withstood years of increasing pressure, threats, terrifying intimidation to writ in such an uncompromising way to expose the pernicious destructive (evil) behavior of the Nazi regime and to stand in the way of the the Swedish gov’t compromising with Hitler (much less collaborating).

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The real Torgny Segerstedt

I know I need to see the film at least twice just to understand fully each of the segments — based partly on history. Segerstedt’s daughter, who grew up to be an influential journalist herself has written a memoir that the film-makers used. I’ve not seen any other of Troell’s films, e.g., Everlasting Moments is one I hope to get from Netflix soon. Troell’s previous film, Hamsun, was about the exploitation of an aging Norwegian actor by the Nazis.

It’s a great film artistically too – and tells a gripping story about a group of characters as fully realized as in any Ingmar Bergmann film. An intertitle prefaces the film: the words say that no human being can bear much scrutiny close up. The film’s core emotional trajectory is Segerstedt’s private life: he is a cold austere man who left his position in university as a theologian to become a journalist because of his wife’s encouragement, but by the time we see them together, he is openly tired of her and enjoying a liaison with Maja Forssman. She is deeply hurt:

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Puste Segerstedt (Ulla Scoog) is holding a photo of herself when young and pretty

She cannot keep up with her formidable rival, Maja, a woman seeming as hard in her way as Segerstedt. We hear of how Segerstedt’s mother killed herself when he was a boy; meet an array of complicated people both in the news office, at parties (this is a world of upper class people and we see the servants serving them at elegant dinner parties and balls), sharp politicians. In passing characters make an impression: here is Maja’s sister-in-law whose interest in life is a function of her in-laws since she became a widow; the actress conveys the desperate glamor of this lonely woman:

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Anita Levisson (Lia Boysen)

We see all sorts of aspects of his personality which people will not see as particularly admirable that led him to keep up his fight: his egoism, his love of battle, his despising all sorts of powerful people, but also his kindness to servants and his three dogs. He has his dogs with him all the time but during sleep in his bedroom — Maja makes a joke of sharing him with them. I won’t be surprising anyone if I reveal one of the ways the Nazis went after him slowly was to first attack one of his dogs:

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Some might protest against showing the clay feet of an idol. Not me. The film is satisfying because of the attempt at full truth. Women have the real full bodies of women; no one is made super-beautiful — indeed some of the actresses were dressed to look plainer than they are (the actress playing Segerstedt’s daughter, Ingrid Troell)

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Again Torgny and Maja dancing at a ball — showing off

As usual I was not able to find online any stills of the far shots, settings, landscapes of the movie — these are among the most important parts of the experience. So I just have to say it’s shot in expressive black-and-white to give us the feel of the 1930s. I found delightful the exquisite recreation of older technology: we are in a newspaper office and watch type set up and pages printed off. We see close-up people snapping keys on large heavy 1930s typewriters. Phones of the era. All the paraphernalia it took to make a machine work and do its job — physical push, pull, hit. There’s a delight in seeing this. Quiet fun in the recreation.

It’s important to remember the film is not a documentary, but a fictionalized version of a life — so that much is shaped to make a point. At one point Torgny is got up as in costume as a Don Quixote tilting with windmills — and we get entertaining interactions between people in the way of much dramatized life-writing

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This was an amusing altercation between the journalist and the prime minister — speaking truth to power it’s called today

The scenery is marvelous: the film opens with a sparkling steam of a river as we see leaves float by and it comes back to the leaves at the close. Interwoven are frightening clips of films of Hitler’s Germany at the time: the mass meetings at night, the huge groups of soldiers bearing down on people, the rituals, terrorized Jews and others herded into train cars, Hitler glimpsed with his dogs, Goering. The ominous huge gov’t palace in which the arrogant Swedish king lives; the upper class streets where the ministers meet. All carefully done, slowly so that you feel you are in life.

Slowly too unfolded are something of the history of how Norway and Finland fell to the Nazis. How Sweden managed to hold out. This is a story not many Americans know today any more. At the same time it’s a film that is meant to speak to us today: it’s also a defense of journalism, of free speech (what Segerstedt keeps saying he is enacting), and it shows how people inside gov’ts behave to one another.

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How did I come to see it? Now that I have my license to drive back I joined a film club at a local art theater (Cinema Art) that once a month starting in May and carrying on to October meets on Sunday morning (at 10) to see unusual (and good) films — picked, introduced and afterwards discussed by Gary Arnold, a film critic for the Washington Post and other newspapers. The club has been going on for 7 years now. I was reluctant to leave Jim on Sunday mornings as until last year I was often gone from the house to teach part-time, went to libraries to do research, and sometimes a conference held in DC. But now there is nothing here to keep me at home. A reasonable price ($60 for what’s left — I missed two films); when you arrive there is a table for breakfast rolls and cakes and coffee ($1 an item). The atmosphere is pleasant, most of the audience seems older and what little talk there was was intelligent. Arnold said the film has not been booked anywhere outside these two cities as yet — so I write this blog well before I ought to (I ought to see more of the man’s films, see this film again first, know more about Scandanavia) in order to spread the word.

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A review in the New York Times

Of course tells the kinds of truths people turn away from as excruciating, the anguish of the book is at times unbearable. As I say I’m at the same time reading Lodz Ghetto, which is hard not to turn your eyes from — the photos, what it tells happened toseveral thousands of Jews; I wanted to read this book after I watched Margareta von Trotta’s film on Hannah Arendt and began reading her Eichmann in Jerusalem. I wanted to have some sense of what Arendt was writing about. I now feel she is utterly justified in every sardonic and every sentence of loathing she wrote when she attended the trial and had to stare at and listen to Eichmann. The reviews themselves are so cold and cool, they shock me

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A photo from many in the book (some taken by hidden cameras)

It consists of actual documents, diaries, journals, scraps of paper recording what happened to these people herded into a filthy impoverished place with nothing around them, cut off from others (no radios, no cars — they had to be animals dragging carts), forced to live like subhumans, tortured, humiliated, terrified, starved into submission (and a few of the more desperate rebelling and if not immediately shot — most were -fighting on through strikes or “criminal” behavior for themselves). Partly it’s that the translations are so quiet and appropriate; nothing over-done, the voices let to speak. Now and again humor: one brief sketch of everyone holding on to their bowls (in order to be sure and have any soup going). The man at the head, Rumkowski is a plausible monster — his terrific negotiating skills and cold cruel lying heart kept the place going; it’s his sort that Arendt (righly in my view) abhors. One of his shibboleths to get the Jews to perform slave labor is the dignity of work. He did perish in 1943:

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Some are of high literary quality: poets, writers, highly educated people reduced to absurd and difficult work (sometimes making armaments and garments for the Nazis), living in one room — they kept records and some survived. (A fairly recent poem in The Guardian by someone else who read this book or about this history — Carol Rumens.)

As I read I wonder why I should have been so naive about 15 years ago to talk of progress with respect to chattel slavery. The book has great moral power — the strongest holocaust book I’ve ever read since Primo Levi, whose If this is man and The Truce are after all but by one man and one memoir about his experience. There is something peculiarly different that happened here — different from the slaughters and massacres of Africa, even worse and different than the slave labor camps and Siberian places in Russia. A superfluous sadistic malevolence against an ethnic identity. It may not be unique the Nazies went beyond enslaving and treating others as subhuman animals. They did all they could to humiliate and torture a people en masse.

It’s important to say that as the situation evolves into the worse and worse — from mere hunger to starvation, from long hours of hard work to being deported to be slaughtered, through each indignity, each loss, seeing how even in this situation people attempt to cheat one another, extort more money than is due them — at the same time one witnesses in the sheer survival of so many, how much punishment they take, how they manage to keep order, make goods from trash, continue to show feeling for one another within families and friends terrific spirit and courage — sheerly to carry on the way they did, and some people did survive – and held on to some dignity and dreams.

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I’m touched by the gesture of the woman who puts her hand to the other woman’s back — they are walking into the car where they will be gassed to death

Not many. This book — among others provides the needed understanding of what say Torgny Seregstedt was fighting — why you cannot ever dismiss his struggle whatever may be the various motives that drove him.

I don’t know if the film also has in mind showing us how evil feelings and behaviors can be constructed as acceptable everyday behavior in a fascist military oligarchy — and thus warn us about what could happen here — about groups of people called Tea Partyers. We are seeing in the US a strong push among those with power to do this to stop as many people from voting as possible. We are subject to an increasingly harsh unjust penal criminal prison system. Torture and drones have been and continue to be used. A young boy, son of someone accused of being a terrorist (and an American citizen) is murdered in a cafe in the middle east; the uncle tried to sue and recently gave it up.

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A boy early in the anthology —

The last sentence is the last sentence Segerstedt types on his typewriter before going out to walk with his dogs up a flight of stone stairs where he has a stroke.

Ellen

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Sebastian (Anthony Andrews in his greatest role, how I loved and bonded with him) and Charles (Jeremy Irons) at the hospital in Morocco Their first early love like mine and Jim’s

Dear friends and readers,

Although I’ve written about this stunningly daring and powerful mini-series before (Mesmerized, still on Brideshead), I feel I should say something of it here as this blog as turned into one mostly about movies and the books these derive from. How can I not write of one of the greatest of film adaptations here too.

Late last week and most of this I fell once more under the spell of Jeremy Irons’s haunting voice-over and the yearning swelling-out music of Brideshead Revisited. It transcends the twisted self-destructiveness of its Catholic agenda (embodied in Claire Bloom’s Lady Marchmain’s rigorous cruelties) or (better put) the film-makers use the Catholic theme as part of a projection of feelings, thoughts, experiences, beauty in the world against contemporary meaningless, one of the escapes because the way the house once was when it was taken care it no longer is — although it carries on used in in new ways. In our contemporary technologically efficient militarized world it’s a barracks (or as in Downton a hospital for those physically maimed and dying). It is about death, many deaths, what is terribly destructive, how joy, hope, resolve, belief dies.

The center Jim said was “contra mundum.” Against the worldishness of world captured wildly parodically in Rex Mottram (Charles Keating playing as inimitably as everyone else). Rex is the only person we see turn the house into what it was meant to be earlier: a power house, not a place for selfless employment of others (as Downton Abbey has it), but a place to control, repress, shape, get what the owners want out of life. Meanwhile the ubiquitous hard-working Wilcox (Roger Milner) keeps the place running (a curious thing I noticed there are hardly any woman servants). Celia (Jane Ascher) is awful because she is the perfect wife for a Rex; that’s how she lives, performances which others respond to — Charles’s father pretends to think how happy his son is with Celia; John Gielgud plays the part brilliantly; he uses pretense to keep others away. (Jim read Gielgud’s letters.) Sebastian cannot enter into what’s called life: he loathes all the choices put before him; Julia, Rex discovers, is no good at it (“Rex doesn’t see the point of me”); Bridey (Simon Jones) is so rich and self-involved he never recognizes it; Cordelia (Phoebe Nicholls) is a plain version of Julia. Nanny Hawkins (Mona Washbourne) is all child-like retreat, but then that’s no life either. Charles opts for painting pictures that are utterly un-modern; he loathes modern schools of painting as so much bosh. He is hired because his pictures flatter and he does not need that much money anyway, having clearly been born to unearned income. He can play the game, just enough. Anton (Nikolas Grace) is no better at the manipulations and performances of life that achieve admiration and place (he ends up in bars taken advantage of) and his denigration of Charles’s paintings is jealousy, as Charles puts it, so much abuse. Boy Mulcaster (Jeremy Sinden) is a simply a boor, crashes through ignorantly.

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Anton abusing Charles

The greatness and power of the film is not verbal though or even its explicit themes: it resides in its wholistic ability through words, pictures, music, the actors face and gestures and way of being to convey the emotional pain of existence like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since. And the reasons for this emotional pain. The loneliness and puzzle of someone with a depth of feeling and not knowing what to do with it, finding it twisted, not understanding how these performances can be life — not realizing that what he or she desires or seeks reciprocation for — sheer joy and play in existence together — is not at all what the average person wants. At moments in Vanya on 2nd Street Wallace Shawm as Uncle Vanya comes up to this kind of deep ache of despair, but one character does not an overwhelming experience make.

And the truth is this is one of the central or informing characteristics of the best mini-series costume dramas — to convey this pain — those weak in it remain weak; those without the necessary words cannot soar. (Downton Abbye falls down here — the characters’ anguish is just not held long and allowed to evolve. Except when it’s from a death, we don’t begin to see where the grief comes from. We do in Gosford Park, because Altman was there.) The heights of Brideshead Revisited are its electrifying nadirs as well as visions — the great virtuoso pieces, Andrews as Sebastian catastrophically drunk, Diana Quick as Julia devouring herself, eating herself up over her exploitation (of her, by her) and betrayal, Phoebe Nicholls as Cordelia about Sebastian, Lawrence Olivier as Lord Marchmain dying of a long word, his great soliloquy about the land and the building — and Irons looking on all the while. An electric current seems to run through the movie and into my body and through my veins until I stretch out and twist as the music plays on.

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The house is photographed mostly quietly — this corridor moment is typical — though there are the sudden zoom shots and angles

How Jim and I loved it that first year it played, trumpets heralding 1981 — Monday nights, we’d sit with our suppers in the living room to see it together. It was not a Masterpiece Theatre production, but something from Granada TV playing on PBS. He liked Waugh, and said BR was an unusual book for Waugh — openly autobiographical in the sense that Waugh became a convert to Catholicism and had trouble re-marrying because of this. Waugh was probably bisexual and here showed it openly. Most of his books were guarded and saturninely satiric at their best, bitter. And during that year Jim bought Waugh’s novels, Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, The Loved One, Scoop, novels from The Sword of Honor, Men at Arms, all of which he read, then a very fat diary, which he read quite through too. I read Vile Bodies, of which I remember nothing but that I read it, A Handful of Dust, whose famous excruciating close of a hero forever condemned to read Dickens aloud to a mad hermit stays in the mind; The Loved One, a hilarious send-up of absurdly overdone American funerals, all California pious hypocrisy: I was naive enough to think when I read it no one could ever use the term “loved ones” again. Jim thought Scoop bitterly satirical on journalists, brilliant.

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Ryder cramming because unlike the Flytes he feels he must have some sort of degree

My DVD set does not have a feature (none was done at the time) but a recent pamphlet. You learn the original screenplay by John Mortimer was for a 6 hour mini-series. There were delays and a young director named Charles Sturridge was taken on, and over course of a long-time filming the shooting script grew. What Sturridge did was defy the tabooes against voice-over and he went thorough Brideshead Revisited itself and with unerring rightness chose just those plangent melancholy words from Rider’s narration that captured the book’s core melancholy, omitting all that was “dead” in comparison and knitted it together the over-voice narration of Irons. Twenty weeks for filming. The result was an 11 episode mini-series with the first episode 2 hours and the last an hour and a half. I skim-read the book this week once again and thinking about the description of Mortimer’s original script I realize why the movie is credited to Sturridge

They filmed in Castle Howard (a central presence, chief character in the film), in Venice, and some islands in the Mediterranean.

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Driving up that first day — Sebastian driving

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Charles as Innocent: his first word in response: “Golly”

My darling (Jim) never made it to Venice: he loved Antony Hecht’s Venetian Vespers: we read it aloud to one another at another time, the 1980s in Alexandria gotten from a used bookshop, of which there were once many.

The music is by Geoffrey Burgon. Jim would have said the following YouTube is kitsch, but it has the evocative music in minor key and has as drawings centrally beloved (Sebastian especially) and savagely ironic (like the poor turtle with jewels sewn into its back) moments:

The film editor was Anthony Ham. Costume design Jane Robinson. I did notice that Diana Quick and a few of her more conservative yet spectacular outfits, her body type, the clothes’ style resemble Michelle Dockery and hers.

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With Julia while Rex reigns in Brideshead, it is contra mundum still

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If I bonded with Sebastian then (and Stephane Audran as Cara when she shook her head saying no she didn’t want this place), I do with Ryder now:

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A final shot of Ryder as he looks up at the house one last time

What I too have left are memories, and I must grow strong by possessing the past within me and staying true to it … never will I come alive as I was during the decades with him, though I do believe he didn’t change me much. Deeper and deeper. Perhaps it’s not healthy for me to watch this mini-series, but rising from it I am aware that wherever I go I take Jim with me. If I were to go to New York City everywhere I went would be memories of even blissful times; if I go to England, his ghost will be in my mind wherever I go: if it’s where we were I’ll remember, if it’s where we didn’t get to as a couple, I’ll mourn his having missed it. He is with me, in me, all around me in my mind. One need not self-destruct because he no longer exists — all he left exists around me, and I remember him and us, what we were.

First

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The very first and last shots of the house in the film ….

Ellen

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Steven Mackintosh as Robert Audley plays a kind of Valmont to Neve McIntosh as a kind of Madame de Merteuil-Lady Audley (remember John Malkovitch and Glenn Close in Les Liaisons Dangereuses)

Dear friends and readers,

Not a pellucid or particularly pleasant header but it does capture what I’d like to make a brief note of. For the last few weeks on Trollope19thCStudies we’ve been reading Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s riveting Lady Audley’s Secret and two nights ago I watched the superlative film adaptation with the same title, theatrically directed by Bestan Morris Evans, with an intelligent subtle script by Douglas Hounam, featuring Steven Mackintosh and Neve McIntosh and a host of excellent actors; a couple of months ago we read Sheridan LeFanu’s Victorian gothic, The Wyvern Mystery, and I watched a film of the same type, enrichening, adapted by Alex Pillai (ditector) and David Pirie (writer) with same title, one which changed the original in order to comment on it, make it more consistent, hide some tabooed material, this time featuring Iain Glenn, Naomi Watts, Derek Jacobi and a host of ….

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Naomi Watts as Alice rescuing her son with the help of a crippled servant — the obligatory fired field/house nearby (the hero really is killed half-way through Wyvern Mystery, film and book)

and inbetween The Making of a Lady, a gothicization of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Making of the Marchioness (no stills sorry; I watched as a preview on-line; we will be reading it next month on this listserv together). Films all high in atmosphere, all scarred characters behaving amorally and getting away with it. None of these gothic films or books are numinous though (Wyvern Mystery recalls mad woman in attic as mad woman in asylum, chained, from Jane Eyre overtly), none makes much use of the supernatural except as psychological projection; they are the gothic turned semi-realistic and sheerly psychological. Much is therefore lost.

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Escape Artist: David Tennant as the now widowed grieving Will Burton with his semi-orphaned targeted son, Jamie (Gus Barry)

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Something Frankenstein-like or vampiric about the monster killer, Liam Foyle (Toby Kebbell) — the wife is even in the tub before she becomes a corpse

And tonight I just watched the first of the two-episode, The Escape Artist, featuring David Tennant, and it dwelt on gruesome details of the bloodied corpses a sadistic monster killer inflicted on the person we are to suppose while yet alive. We wach Tennant as a defense attorney get this murderer off on a technicality, indifferent to whether he did the crime; when Tennant does not shake the murderer’s hand, said murderer goes after Tennant’s wife. makes a bloody murder of her corpse and then silently, hulkingly threatens his son. Tennant as Burton learns saying this is my job, seeking promotion, competition, is not a criteria for deciding whether to do something. A few motifs reminded me of Breaking Bad— he listens to a phone tape of his dead wife’s voice as Jesse Pinkman listened to a phone tape of his dead girlfriend’s voice.

It seems to me these gothics and the contemporary mystery-crime thrillers fit into Julian Symons’s thesis about crime or mystery or detective fiction, in his history of the genre, Bloody Murder, viz., the detective novel which first emerged in the mid-19th century (with Edgar Allen Poe one of its earliest practitioners), and which upholds the establishment, with Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins as among its earliest practitioners; has morphed into the crime novel, radical, rebellious, meant to undermine and expose some aspect of the establishment, whose earliest instance is William Godwin’s Caleb Williams; Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret would be another. The effect of detective fiction is finally to reassure, the effect of the crime novel unsettling, and when done seriously & well (e.g., Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect), unnerving, disquieting.

Some books slide from one type into another: P. D. James’s non-fiction, The Maul and the Pear-tree. I first noticed how genuinely anxiety-producing this new form of the genre had become when I read Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men. That what was to happen in The Escape Artist for all its high-quality filmic techniques, acting, coloration, was predicted by Caroline before it happened, suggests the run-of-the-mill titillation this one was offering. I’ve not watched the new House of Cards as yet, but know the 1990s one was a cynical political thriller in the same style, with serious political commentary (by Andrew Davies of course).

Symons calls all these sensation fiction — gothic fits into this rubric too. What draws me to this kind of shorn gothic and/or sensational book are the subtle asides about people’s psychological make-up, the truthful hard & pessimistic perceptions about life, the objections to basic assumptions and norms we find in daily life, and the allegorizing comments the narrator makes about the characters and natural world giving the book depths the dialogue doesn’t manage. Also the descriptions of the place and intensity of inward conflict and neurotic emotionalisms. I suppose they are our form of Jacobean theater. What they lack is a political perspective; they consistently deny ther is any kind of social motive in people’s conduct — or show people refusing to act in accordance with a social conscience.

At the same time, there is in the last quarter century apparently little interest (or it’s not funded for dissemination) in discovering how a given historical novel — or political one, has woven into it accurate depictions of say liberal or progressive or hopeful movements, and the people who led them. I’ve just discovered that in the 7th through 12th novel of Winston Graham’s Poldark series, one of the threaded stories, about Bowood house which Clowance Poldark is invited to come stay at, and eventually marries into, governed by the Marquis of Lansdowne, was a place in the very late 18th into very early 19th century where genuine reforms not enacted until much later in the 19th century were worked out, plotted for, written and talked about, and at least brought into Parliament for consideration until the 1790s deeply repressive era drove it underground. Another powerful great book of this better type is Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French set in Ireland in 1798, the time of the uprising when France invaded (Wolfe Tone anyone?)

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Engraving of Bowood House from later 19th century (central block demolished, only the short tower & wing on the left remain)

I’m slowly following a MOOC course put online by the University of Sheffield this summer, The Literature of the Country House, which traces uses of, the real lives led in, evolutions in civility, entertainment, as well as achievements in architecture and literature, amid admitted to fierce struggles by tenants and servants alike against exploitation and enclosure, and the privileged lives of super-wealthy powerfully connected aristocrats — these realities (treated to some extent in the older Poldark novels) are no longer the stuff of movies or novels. Downton Abbey justifies the 1% and its favored servants. A reality of the country house as a power-place and repressive instrument is ignored — with a few honorable exceptions (Saul Dibbs’ and Amanda Foreman’s The Duchess featuring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes, the recent and Amma Asante and Misay Sagan’s Belle featuring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tom Wilkinson), when the historically progressive material is there, it’s distorted out of recognition or cut from the film adaptation.

I note also that there is much much less adaptation of great 18th and 19th century fiction on good TV, much less serious probing into, depiction of social political and metaphysical issues. You must pick up what you can, glean from the exaggerations what frightens and troubles viewers and readers.

Ellen

P.S. See later this week’s Brideshead Revisited: contra mundum.

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John (John Alderton) and Annie (Julie Walters) — looking out over Yorkshire

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Chris (Helen Mirren) as January

Dear friends and readers,

I decided to re-watch the 2003 film, Calendar Girls because I discovered Juliette Towhidi, scriptwriter of Death Comes to Pemberley (out of P.D. James’s mystery-novel-sequel of the same name, to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) had adapted the stage-play, Calendar Girls, by Tim Firth, and remembered I had liked the movie so much I had been prompted to buy the DVD well before the time when I became intensely interested in movies as an art. It was only much later that I began to buy many DVDs of films adapted from favorite authors of great and older books for British TV stations. I’d just been studying several Jane Austen movies, and have been very impressed by the film adaptation by Towhidi and her whole team (director, producers, actors, cinematographers), and convinced of the centrality of the screenplay to its gothic romance success. So I wanted to watch a movie where she had written the screenplay.

Try to imagine my surprise and emotions when I realized the emotional center, and instigating cause oF Calendar Girls is another cancer story. I was ashamed to think I had been, as the movie intended me to be, led to marginalize, even forget the story’s origin and powerful source, for all it stared at me in the face. Chris (Helen Mirren) justifies her plan to raise a large sum of money by posing naked with 10 other middle-aged women friends to provide 12 photos for a Womens’ Institute Calendar thus:

FRANKLY if it meant we’d get — (she gestures a ‘tiny amount’) — THAT-T much closer to killing off this shitty, cheating, sly, conniving, silent bloody disease that cancer is then God, I tell y’, I would run round Skipton market smeared in plum jam with a knitted tea cosy on my head singing Jerusalem (Firth’s stageplay, Act 2, sc 1, p 46)

Their aim is to purchase a new and large and genuinely comfortable sofa for “the relatives’ room” in Knapeley General Hospital, the room where she and her best friend, Annie (Julie Walters) had spent (in Julie’s sudden concise words) “some of the most terrible moments of her life” while Julie’s beloved husband, John (John Alderton, a character based on a real man who died of leukemia, John Baker) was enduring the misery and pain of the shows of force the medical establishment inflicts on cancer victims. Julie’s husband of 28 years in the film story is a man who loves and makes gardens flourish; his favorite is the sunflower, and as he and Julie sat in their car overlooking Yorkshire shortly before his agony and death, he explained why:

I don’t think there’s anything on this planet that more trumpets life than the sunflower. For me, that’s because of the reason behind its name. Not because — Not because it ‘looks like’ the sun. Because it follows the sun. During the course of the day, the head tracks the journey of the sun across the sky [Helen Mirren's arm and hand curve an arc across the space she is standing in as she retells this]. A satellite dish for sunshine. Sow these seeds on the hill and you’ll see … that wherever light is, no matter how weak, these flowers will find it. Which is such an admirable thing (Beat) And such a lesson in life (firth, Act 1, sc 4, pp 24-25)

Chris takes this as directive to make the calendar from John’s spoken analogy of his sense of Julie’s beauty with that of this flower:

Flowers of Yorkshire are like the women of Yorkshire. Every stage of their growth has its own beauty. (PAUSE FOR BREATH) but the last phase is always the most glorious … [then gently undercutting the emotion] Then very quickly they all go to seed (Howtidi’s script, Act 1, 29A)

Ruth Wilson (Penelope Wilton as ever the comedienne), one of the women who consents to be so photographed quips

With respect, I didn’t hear him say the phrase, ‘whip y’r bras off’ (Howtidi, Act 1, 47)

In fairness to myself, I was able to ignore the death of John, his pain and his and his wife’s quiet despair, Annie’s loss and continuing grief– which is expressed more directly and plagently near the end of the film than anywhere else — she would rather have one more hour of life for John than all the money and publicity they have gathered for this “cause” — because this film like most stories of cancer persist in keeping the actual cancer experience to the margins. John’s cancer gets very little play in the movie, on screen now and again briefly, it’s presented as part of another ennobling, enrichening experience which has resulted from this cancer (Breaking Bad breaks from this pattern by making Walter White’s heroic actions criminal and murderous): the making of the calendar and the money it accrues and interest it stirs. The structure of this film, is life-affirming, with the calendar also as meaningful publicity stunt: it appeals to the lower impulses of people yet produces money for a center for studying leukemia as well as the needed sopha. Its mood idealizes Yorkshire by presenting it as green meadows in the sun, which was puzzling even in 2003 as I’ve lived in the West Riding and know it has many impoverished cities and its characteristics landscape is brown, dark moors. The presentation of the characters when it comes to the experience of cancer itself is all silent strength and tact — a ploy which has the effect of assigning responsibility to the patient and the “relatives”.

In short the movie conforms to what studies claim most people who have not had cancer want to be told. Do they want to be told this? Judy C. Segal in her “Cancer Experience and Its Narration: An Accidental Study,” Literature and Medicine, 30:2 (2012):292-318) throws some doubt on this formula; at least in her study, people who have had cancer, their friends and relatives and those who participated in the study seemed to prefer some modicum of truth, though most accepted constraints on the speakable. I found in doing a bit of research on it in Project Muse that two real-cancer epidemic news-stories were cited as possibly motivating Firth – who wrote the first play, a success which moved from a local Chichester Festival (2008) to London, the Noel Coward Theater, with a starry cast (including Patricia Hodge as Annie, Sian Phillips as Jessie, Lynda Bellingham as Chris): two sudden spike-ups in the number of cancers in an area of Scotland where some corporations had been polluting the environment and in an area of northern England (whence the use of Yorkshire). Unfortunately if this is so, neither of these important realities are cited anywhere in the stageplay, screenplay by Howtidi adapting it or any of the literature on the public Internet surrounding it.

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To take the movie on the grounds it presents itself, I still enjoyed it — at least the first half to two-thirds, because — I admit this — it was done as a fable about a group of women friends who keep each other company through life, supporting one another in crises with real warmth, kindness, tact and humor. It’s feminocentric as we used to say in the 1990s (when feminism was still part of university literary talk). Women-centered. The emphasis is on festive release: these older women usually trussed up in respectable (not sexy at all) clothes revel in their bodies’s beauty

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Ruth (during the course of the story she abjures her abject acceptance of her husband’s bullying indifference and sexual infidelity)

as they are photographed doing the usual respectable middle-aged ladies things, as sewing, baking, gardening, playing piano, and sketching, painting

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Cora (Linda Bassett who in the course of the stage play reveals she was pressured successfully by her parents to break up her marriage with her African husband and became a single mother supporting herself and her daughter by running a shop)

and as Lawrence (John Glenister when young), the hospital aid who is discovered to be yearning to be a photographer (he couldn’t manage art school, it’s implied, because it’s too phony), elicits from each smiles of of pleasure and a sense of power:

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Jessie (Annette Crosbie, who we discover taught for decades and had Lawrence as her pupil, is now married to an aging feeble husband, played comically salaciously by Graham Crowden)

The acting was done with comic bravura and panache. Each woman takes a month and the roll call corresponds to the intertitles we see punctuating the film as the seasons go by (January, February) and the photographing of the same landscape it seems in winter, spring, summer, fall, and winter again … It also had refrains and repeating scenes of the women’s togetherness so filled with good feeling, strength.

My first impulse was to think the British way of dealing with and if we must erase the realities of a cancer tragedy while trying to tell of it so much more civilized: only one person we know dies in the film, John; hundreds of letters are written to Annie, some of which read aloud appear to be by people who have lost a beloved person to cancer, so there are some more deaths. But no one is turned into raspberry sauce, no one beaten horrifically, violated, no open crime (I think of Breaking Bad) — unless you consider it a crime not to do anything for real about cancer and pretend you know what you are doing when you don’t (this film does not want to arouse any sense of irony so we never do see any doctors). Obviously the response is communal, the people work as a group (again as opposed to Breaking Bad where it seems to be a war of individuals filled with distrust most of whom get through life by lying). It does suggest the audience for this film are part of a far sounder society.

But before I went on to rest easy with Johnson’s “The measure of a society is found in how they treat their weakest and most helpless citizens” (and who more eligible for that than the cancer sufferer), I remembered the real Leeds and Yorkshire I had lived in — not a pastoral village set in sparkling meadows with churches grand halls, and bought myself both the stage-play and shooting script. You can buy the latter because specially typed copies were prepared for the Golden Globe ceremonies (mine is signed by Towhidi and Firth; others are said to be signed by some of the stars).

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A comparison showed me why the movie once the calendar is achieved and the women become ephemeral celebrities (the movie anticipated the present cult of celebrity), becomes weak and feels liked it’s lost more than its cancer story-line; seems slightly aimless. Why go to Hollywood and show us them on the Jay Leno show? in the movie’s it’s so we can see them in an extravagantly luxurious hotel? so he can make tasteless jokes? that’s all that happens before a sudden return to seriousness at the film’s close.

The second half of Tim Firth’s play remains women-centered, presents a real dramatization of what ambition among such women leads to, and the uncomfortableness of celebrity. First the text of the screenplay reveals some of the central women have had a hard time in life and came to live in Yorkshire because they were pushed into it and have made the best of what is sometimes a hard bargain. This comes out as under the pressure of celebrity, of each of the woman having to change her life for a time (travel, leave those dependent on them in crucial ways), and the women themselves arguing as they become jealous of one another or ashamed and irritated by the way they are treated by those exploiting them. I’ve mentioned how Cora’s parents broke up her relationship with her husband. This is not so much as whispered in the film: all we see is the single older mother, Cora, 55 now, with her light-skinned African-English daughter. She does say she fears her daughter will run away but does not elaborate why.

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Cora and her daughter in the film — looking out an inner window in their shop

Celia (Celia Imrie) whom we see trailing around a golf-course behind her husband and has only one explicit association: she has the biggest breasts of the women and so, comically, when she rearranges the cakes with cherries on the tops in front of her to hide her breasts, ends up making her nipples all the more emphatic. In the play we learn she has no children, and is neglected by her financially successful husband who is bored by her, and she can get his company only by trailing around after him. There are worse fates, but she’d have rather lived in London and gone to plays. Ruth’s husband is downright abusive; if she has children, we don’t see any in either film or play;she appears to live for the husband. So when she breaks away and asserts herself it is gratifying. It in both film and play done by her confronting the other woman and Eddie (George Costigan has the thankless role in the film) cast aside as a nothing.

The strongest clash in the stage-play is fierce and makes the tension in the film between Marie (Geraldine James) who is the head of the WI Institute of Knapeley and said to be ambitious (in the shooting script directions) and Chris, look like child’s play. Marie is presented in the movie as an unacknowledged snob, a sucker-up to upper class women higher in the organization altogether too full of themselves, a priggish hypocrite, who visits Annie with a false expression of grief — one of the best lines in both film and play occurs when Marie says she knows what Annie is going through, and Annie echoes the cliched falsifying words — anyone who has been a widow will feel the knife Annie’s words would like to act as.

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Annie answering Marie as Marie tries to shame her out of going on with the calendar

In the movie, Chris is not seriously ambitious; she cries a lot because her schemes (presented as games) end up disasters supposedly.

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It’s a funny send-up of a contest when Chris buys a Victoria sponge from Marks & Spencers instead of making it herself

In the movie the clash is soon over; Marie gives in because she knows what she presents as fun is boring. But in the stageplay Marie and Christ are both presented as drivingly ambitious, and have bitter arguments where they strip one another’s motives and bare open frustrated feelings. The center remains the women and we see under the guise of togetherness, the women undermine one another and do what they can to gain whatever power is on offer.

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Marie leading the meeting

It’s not “breaking bad” (they are not wildly fantastically destructive) but this WI is not a simple picnic and gay fair.

The movie develops a sub-story in the second half which is a distraction. It makes Chris’s son the obstacle in the way of her going to Hollywood to bask in her achievement. Her son is embarrrassed by the calendar which is also partly inspired by her finding a soft-core porn magazine of her son’s under his bed — this is not seriously critiqued at all; it’s the son’s friend who is obsessed by girls’ breasts and this is made a joke out of. Chris’s boy grows upset by teasing in school, is picked up by the police smoking cannabis, and not doing his homework. More seriously, her long-time husband, Rod (Ciarhan Hinds)’s business is suffering: “flower power,” apparently left-over from the sixties; she neglects him and it, but we are never to take this seriously, and he is there as the faithful boyfriend sitting by the hedge when she comes home. While he did give a newsman a story about how Chris doesn’t have the time to have sex with him any more this is shuffled off, forgotten, as he asserts nothing hurt, all is well. Scenes omitted from the film and in the screenplay are were of them having satisfying sex — that might have supported the first part of the film (on sex) but they were cut.

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A touching scene of the couple where the man is dying of cancer and the couple where he’s not eating the cake bought from Marks and Spencer after the fair is done

The critique of ambition and cost of celebrity theme of the play is muted in the film, turned into tepid tea except at the very end when Annie (Julie Walters) runs out of a humiliating studio scene where the directors is expecting these women to strip for a laundry and wash-on-the-line with them behind it (har har) commercial because “that’s what you do, isn’t it?” The women leave Hollywood the next morning, and the film ends with warmth on their return to the WI in the great hall. Movie has several repeating motifs or refrains — as if it were itself a song — one if the women’s singing to Cora’s piano playing each time they meet, Blake’s partly radical and angry and uplifting lines from his “Preface to Milton” beginning “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s pleasant pastures seen?” The film celebrates the survival of the group, but it is a survival won more effectively in the play where more of the forces against this are done justice to.

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Neither of these popular award-winning films (Breaking Bad or Calendar Girls) usefully dramatizes the situation of the cancer patient. A cornucopia of applied technologies and huge money are played with in both. The prism of illness now and again sheds light on the human condition, but the only film which has dared to focus on the cancer, the patient, that I’ve seen is Wit. Death in this movie Calendar Girls provides an excuse for moving speeches, communal self-help and a festive seasonal calendar; in the clearer fuller play there is an attempt at showing us painful aspects of women’s lives, of which Annie’s loss of John, his death, her widowhood is one.

At the close of the play we have three single older women: Annie, now widowed, Cora and Ruth, divorced, separated; one frustrated lonely woman in Celia, a frustrated ambitious women in Marie, with Chris carrying on as a kind of pied piper: she leads them in another of the film’s repeating motifs of hope and energy: we see them as a group high on sunny hill doing Chris’s made-up t’ai chi exercises as a kind of communal dance. They move slowly to some moving ordered music and the message is acceptance of what is by being together in rhythm, life’s rhythms.

1
The group

2
Chris at the center

4 (1)
Ruth on the side

4 (2)
Annie

5
The group again

How common it is for women-centered films to present a group of women who are close friends, supporting one another. Alas, another myth. In societies around the world the family comes first and women’s relationships must bend to fit these groups’ demands first. Moments on hills together do not come with regularity. What can I say about Towhidi from this movie and Death Comes to Pemberley: she prefers women-centered materials, and has a strong tendency to make the women strong and idealize their relationships as ultimately supportive (even between Elizabeth and Lydia Bennet).

Since I met Jim in Yorkshire, lived with him there over two years, and we visited, even once planned to return, of course the movie has a personal resonance for me too. I’ve been to Skipton.

Ellen

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