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Archive for the ‘American literature’ Category

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

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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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George dreaming over travel literature

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

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

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

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

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

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Henry Travers as Clarence listening to George

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sophie and Stanley discuss nature of existence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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She (Amanda Bonner, Katherine Hepburn) drives him (Adam Bonner, Spencer Tracy) to work (Adam’s Rib, directed by George Cukor, scripted Ruth Gordon)

Dear friends and readers,

This time I am half-a-century belated (Adam’s Rib was in moviehouses in 1949); or, if you date the time to have watched when an acknowledged understanding that there was something feminist about it to Jeanine Basinger’s A woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 (published 1995), which on Women Writers through the Ages we read together (in 2008), I am a mere 10 or 5 years. It’s a flawed significant movie today because domestic violence, specially men beating women, is a prevailing problem in marriages. When a woman accuses a man of rape, she’s sullied, disbelieved, the man often being let off with impunity What’s more when a woman fights back, she is punished. We know today a woman in Florida is threatened with 60 years in prison for shooting at a wall to frighten a violently abusive man. She is black and the DA is getting back at her for refusing to plea bargain (go to jail for a mere 10 years): he is warning other people caught up in our increasingly utterly unjust criminal justice system: plea bargain or you’ll regret it.

If you read about Adam’s Rib in most places, you’ll read about the central or top couple, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy who are lawyers who make a great deal of money, Amanda and Adam Bonner. They are privileged upper class people in supposed conflict, and Jeanine Basinger dismisses the movie as after all just about a “feisty” upper class woman. The conflicts are transient and part of the couple’s subtext: they last as long as the case the two take on lasts: he takes the side of a husband and she a wife. So (child-like this) he is on the side of “men” and she of “women.” For a time what occurs in court and their on-screen always good-natured quarrels outside, result in separation and divorce proceedings, but these are halted as they are really too much in love, too alike, to much in harmony, to part. They do talk and listen to one another.

Adam's Rib (1949)

She wins the case and we are never told why; he is given a judgeship and again we are never told why. He closes the curtain stating he knows men and women are not the same (the supposed argument of the movie is whether men and women are the same, are “equal”): we can see they are about to have sex and the feel is on his terms whatever these are – though clearly loving and fully allowed.

We have an upper class couple whose relationship affirms the goodness of the institution of marriage which holds the two together by joint ownership, habits, apartments and memories, continually greased by money and upper class manners and wit. The value is a nuanced presentation rich with innuendo which could be watched numerous times without quite plumbing all that’s there.

It is also distanced. Filmically what is interesting about the film are all the intertitle cards and framing. As each phase of the movie passes we get an artificial framing again and a card moves away as if we are seeing a fairy story. so this happy story is filmically seen to be a fairy tale. At the close when the pair move to make love, he pulls the card over the screen. This distancing through also put us at a far away angle from the other couple.

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The opening of the movie — and this proscenium returns repeatedly

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A typical introduction to one of the Bonner sequences

What has been forgotten, what is equally, probably more important, is the lower-class couple, the “downstairs” pair who do not live downstairs, are not servants; rather the husband has a hard 9-to-5 job and she 3 children she is struggling to bring up. It’s the back- or sub-story (ignored in much of the writing about it) that is not trivial. They are not presented with intertitles or picturesque framings at the edge of the screen.

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Judy, overdressed, following the supercilious self-satisfied Tom reading the newspaper as the important person he is through a glass

When the movie opens, we do not begin with the Bonners but with Doris Attinger (July Holliday) nervously, anxiously, and oddly unaggressively, stalking her husband, Warren (Tom Ewell); she is clearly in distress, and follows him to and then breaks into an apartment where he is with an overdressed (absurdly glamorized) “mistress,” Jean Hagan as Beryl Caign (Beryl was a name given mistresses). Judy has a gun and tries to kill Tom (this is a movie where we never forget the actors inside the respected presences) and then Beryl. As the story unfolds we learn the man was physically abusive and continually sexually unfaithful, often allowing the wife no money to live on, continually insulting and jeering at her. She (fool) it seems meant to kill the mistress (she says) so she could have this lout back. Admittedly Holliday is dressed in the usual doll outfit I’ve seen her wear before (e.g., Born Yesterday) and her high voice used to make her absurd.

Doris-Judy has no job, no income, no resource beyond her dense lout of an unfeeling husband. The point is — to put it in the terms it would have been understood then, these are the real Ralph Kramdens (remember Jackie Gleason and Alice Meadows a few years later on TV). I do not mention the Kramdens coincidentally. Cukor and Gordon have quietly put before us a case of marital abuse but they have also caricatured them. Warren really is an egregious lout, shamelessly making fun of Doris as fat, useless, lazy, stupid; and she cries and weeps, seems not to understand simple statements, is more than slightly ridiculous if pathetic. He calls her fat, stupid, and silly — she is seen to be silly and stupid. She wants him back and we can’t understand why. She does get him back: when last seen they are being photographed as a lovey-dovey couple for the newspapers.

This matching or parallel — better contrasting couple’s relationship is meant to show that marriage as presently experienced by ordinary (not upper class people) often does not work because the norms offered the man and woman make for misery.

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Holliday telling Hepburn about her marriage

There are more flaws than those I’ve pointed to. The argument that is said to describe what the case is about generalizes its content out of reach and erases the abuse. Ruth Gordon’s script makes the case into one where Hepburn seeks to win by proving women are equal to men. Hepburn takes the situation to show that the wife counts, and literally to argue that Doris has as much right to have an affair as Warren, and partly because she didn’t, the right to get back when he hurts her — even shoot to kill. Adam is quite right when he says this is an argument that won’t do.

Hepburn’s “case” depends on her bringing into court three career women who are presented as successful but sexless and desperate: the third does somersaults in a circus and performs them in court. How this relates to a husband’s violence to his wife, her need to defend herself, her home, her income and retaliate is unclear. Nowhere in the case, in the courtroom, in the Bonners’ discussions about the case is the abuse highlighted. To say this case is about the principle of equality and how men and women are the same is to avoid the particulars of the case and what it’s about.

Then there’s considerable slapstick. At one point Amanda seems about to take as her lover a man who is a singer, performer and their best friend; Adam chases her with a gun, but when it comes to shooting her, it turns out to be licorice and he eats it as candy. It’s a parody of the central Attinger gunning scene: what he was gunning Amanda down for was a suspected affair. This is still not allowed today – women in movies today do not have affairs with other men than their husband and remain admired heroines.

They also massage one another. These scenes were used for promotional shots and the trailer:

Adam's Rib (1949)

Trailer

She slaps him and he her. Now that I’ve had a massage (once, in a Korean spa) I realize it’s a sybarite process of luxury, and it made me very uncomfortable on behalf of the woman paid to come so close to my body and “work it over.” Probably the movie-makers wanted me to envy them. While watching I did not notice the Tracy and Hepburn calling one another these “coy” names of Pinky and Pinkie. Good thing: it would have grated on me as upper class “fey” relaxation.

A friend suggested to me the movie is ultimately about how far a woman can go to challenge her husband, only so far. I know that’s what Basinger says most of the movies where Hollywood spoke to women end up doing or being about. I admit I don’t see that in this one. Mainly because Hepburn didn’t. The couple’s temporary estrangement is engendered by the two of them. She didn’t have an affair. She did not defy any rules — she worked within the system, took the silly idea of men and women being the same as the principle she’d argue for and remained in an adoring respectful posture to Tracy throughout — that’s why the word “feisty:” a feisty woman is one who merely makes a lot of noise but does not mean any serious rebellion.

On-line there are also absurd statements about the film being about civil rights (what?). Or, who wears the pants in the family? he does, and he gets to close the curtain at the end. So what? What matters in the film is class. What the movie is is a telling muddle. The Attingers are miserable as much and more from their daily lower middle lives as from gender provocation and sexual exploitation. We are deflected from seeing this by fantasy elaboration of the results in candylike wrapping. The licorice gun is apt.

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The movie makes the lower class man despicable, a clown and also at moments the wife. It shows but does not bring out into the discussably open that the upper classness of the privileged couple makes them happy: her high education, womanly (yet not oversexed) clothes, wit, job flatters his self-respect and his equal education, intelligence, manly bearing (and job) flatters her sense of her place in the world as his wife. Its best moments are fleeting glimpses of film noir (through Holliday’s presence).

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By contrast Hepburn is just so wholesome. I admit the movie could be worth re-watching for the intriguing vignettes, dialogues, moments between Hepburn and Tracy.

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A breakfast-morning image

They did make a number of movies together and it might be rewarding to watch these in a row (see comments). Ruth Gordon is someone whose name recurs as a script writer in the 1940s and it could be interesting to see some of her other scripts — her co-writer in this one was her husband, Garson Kanin. George Cukor is known for trying to bring women as interesting characters before the public in movies, for his originality — and nowadays gayness and it could be interesting to compare this one to his other movies.

Ellen

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A glamorized photo image of a drawing of our two heroes — becoming a father-and-son pair in the second season

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve now begun the second season of Breaking Bad and will carry on as the series grips and fascinates me. I was able to view only the first four of the second season because I rent the DVDs from Netflix one disk at a time. Aesthetically it remarkably is still one continuous story with no sub-plot: this is not a multi-plot mini-series. We move back and forth between Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) but their story is one and intertwines.

The story line: Walter thinks he realizes he will need to make a great deal of money before he dies to provide for his wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn) and Walt Junior (RJMitte), the son disabled from cerebral palsy for the rest of their lives. Something like $737,000. He and Jesse must therefore carry on dealing with the homicidal sociopathic Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz). They witness Tudo brutally beat to death a man who works for him on a whim, and scare and offend one of his sidekicks.

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Tuco murders the sidekick and then kidnaps Walter and Jesse and takes them out to a desert where he threatens to murder them — not before Jesse realizes their danger, tries to persuade Walter to arm themselves, but Walter with his usual over-cleverness says they will make up a poison which will kill Tuco. In the desert place they cannot use this poison, and only by luck and momentary insult, manage to unnerve Tuco, grab a gun out of Tuco’s hand and shoot him sufficiently that he falls and they run off. Threaded in we see Hank (Dean Norris) has been pressuring his wife Marie (Betsy Brandt), Skylar’s sister to see a psychologist for her kleptomania which she will not acknowledge and we watch Skylar refuse to pick up the phone or see her sister. She has though snitched on Marie to Hank. She is utterly self-righteous in her moral stance.

Meanwhile Hank (Dean Norris), Walter’s brother-in-law, investigating Tuco manages to find Tuco’s lair in the desert, and comes upon Tuco just as Walter and Jesse are fleeing (it does not seem improbable as one watches as time moves slowly); Hank shoots to kill Tuco and succeeds.

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Here he is shooting; afterward telling of the incident he appears shaken: he is intensely sympathized with

To account for his absence, Walter strips himself naked and appears in a supermarket and is taken to a hospital where he pretends to have had many hours of amnesia. Jesse is to claim he spent the whole time with a local addict and building manager, Jane Margolis (Kristin Ritter): Hank somehow discovers the relationship between Jesse and Tuco and has both Jesse and Jane in for questioning. He grills them mercilessly; he is especially insulting to Jane who he treats as a despicable prostitute. She holds out against him. But Hank has contacted Jesse’s parents who go into Jesse’s house and find his meth laboratory and resolve to throw him out of the house; they will have nothing more to do with him. They present frozen faces to this son, telling him to put his life together; he is now homeless. He had given his huge van and much of his equipment to someone to sell, and his bike is stolen; he manages after filthying himself with vile fluids from an outside John, to wrest the van back and drive to Walter’s house as the only refuge he knows.

Walter has been having troubles of his own. He discovers that the doctors in the hospital have the authority to keep him there — like a prisoner — because they deem him “unsafe” (to whom it’s not clear). He thus has to tell in confidentiality a doctor something of the truth to get the man to release him. Perhaps this will be part of what makes Hank start to suspect him. The suspense is that Hank is coming closer to Walt as involved in the new meth people in the area all the time.

Winning an abilty to come home Walt finds Skylar will have nothing to do with him; will not talk to him unless he reveals to her what he has been doing during the many absences from home. She was set off by being told that he has a second cell phone she does not know about. He cannot tell her about how he has been making money as he suspects (knows very well) she will be shocked and may well turn him in. We have seen how judgmental and treacherous to Marie she is over Marie’s shoplifting. She behaves utterly obnoxiously to Walt now — a cold hard mean face, out for hours; he begs her to be humane to him, she will not. The son has changed his name to Flynn (a gesture), but she has throughout behaved in a semi-alienated askew way.

During the time Skylar is out, Walter becomes aware of Jesse’s presence and after insulting and berating Jesse, demanding Jesse leave with no more money, Walter relents, gives Jesse his share of the money, and then offers him breakfast. Unlike Skylar and Walt Junior, Jesse gratefully accepts the meal.

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Jane Margolis, browbeaten and exhausted by Hank — who is ultra-respectful of Skylar

What I think is of genuine interest here is the story’s meaning is the reverse of what the “creator” (Vince Gilligan) and some of the other film-makers (directors, actors themselves, cinematographers) claim it is. In the feature they stick to the idea this is a story about a man becoming a criminal, an antagonist, a bad guy.

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Anna Gunn as the self-satisfied rigid wife (harridan is the feel of this still)

Especially startling is the way they and Anna Gunn talk about the wife: they all talk of how she has “boundaries” and begin by saying she doesn’t “leave him” because she’s pregnant and has a disabled son. why should she leave him and so quickly at all? No one in this series has read E.M. Forster’s “Two Cheers to Democracy” where he declared if his loyalties were torn he hoped he would have the courage to chose his real friend over what he is told is his country’s interest or norms. I was appalled at how when early in the second season, he was suffering, her first reaction was he had no right to take his illness out on her. No one in this show seems to have heard the word “love” or understand what it might mean. She has no loyalty to Walter whatsoever; her intrusions would be bearable were they done in his interest but they are not; they are done because she asserts she has the right to direct his destiny and choices — as in the first season she pretended to take his wishes into account but really successfully demanded he do the chemotherapy for huge sums. Without a care who would pay or how. As if it didn’t matter. She refuses to admit she expects him to come up with the money. How angry she’d get if she were thrown out of her house for non-payment.

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Jesse homeless, broke, his bike is stolen from him

Jesse’s parents are a parallel. Not once throughout 11 episodes have they tried to see what their son is, backed him when he tried to get a real job (at a desk, wearing a suit, with respect), did not a thing to help him; and now they throw him out because they found a lab and walk away. They think only of their fear of the law and what others may think of them. Throughout the first and second season Jesse is the only person to undercut the values of the system his life story thus far shows us he is marginalized out of, forced to be a person doing absurd things for money if he remains legal. He is witty and actually talks to Walter, occasionally giving him good advice or comments which thus far Walter fails to take.

We have seen Walter charged outrageous sums for what he is told to his face are probably useless treatments for a fatal disease; these same doctors have the power to imprison him in a hospital if they decide his illness is a threat in some way to the way they want people to behave. He is driven to tell one person a truth to avoid immurement. In the US ordinary people are deprived of liberty for crimeless behavior.

It is troubling the way the disabled son is continually treated as semi-alienated, sarcastic, suddenly asserting power when he can. It’s a combination of stigmatizing and making him behave as badly by intuition as anyone around him.

Hank is the only person thus far to show any compassion for someone close to him: to Marie. She calls him indestructible. Is he (we are therefore to ask)? At the same time he is a ferocious bully who behaves to those he perceives as low in status as despicable animals, especially Jane (she is to bought off with a root beer).

I’ve been told and read that Breaking Bad is worth watching for its indictment of US values and life and it’s been asserted that the film-makers know this. If they do, they don’t understand what it is they are indicting.

Ellen

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We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art — Henry James

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An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

I began Gorra’s marvelous book as an alternative read to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a kind of companion-match antidote: I felt it was the same sort of book, one which took the reader through a deeply-felt reading experience of a book, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I discovered that Gorra’s does not pretend to be a semi-confessional autobiography as semi-literary criticism; indeed I learned very little about Gorra’s life, though I did learn how he reacted not only to James’s The Portrait of Lady but many of James’s other books — without any particular references to Gorra’s life, except that Gorra is also American and regards himself as having an American identity (whatever that is). Gorra’s book rather elaborated in how James’s other books and The Portrait fit into James’s private and writing life, into James’s career, and into how James’s readers and critics have seen him since he began publishing and up to the time of his death.

In other words, this is an unconventionally-written biography. Gorra’s can offer insights into James’s life not allowed by most methodologies: his method is to bring together how he feels (impersonally put) about James’s writing, what he Gorra sees, and how James wrote James felt about it with what we know of James’s life from all sorts of angles, some of them drawn from phases of writing The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra weaves a sort of biography where the writer does not have to follow the life history of the subject but can weave in what he or she wants and when, with the justification that well I’m going through associations from this novel. So we skip dull parts of the person’s life and also get new sorts of insight as the material is reconfigured.

We out James in a new way: this is a new sort of biography, one which moves out from one central great book, rather like someone deciding to write Trollope’s biography by intensely going through every detail of say The Way We Live Now or The Claverings — or both together. Mead’s book was not a biography of Eliot in disguise it was “her life” in Eliot

For example, Gorra can’t prove it yet he makes a persuasive case for seeing Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchett as a doppelganger out of the dying Minnie Temple, James’s cousin. Sometimes the method is inadequate: I was much entertained by his reaction to Henrietta Stackpole – only he seems not to know that Stackpole is also an unkind caricature of Kate Fields, beloved of Anthony Trollope, an entertaining travel writer, journalist in her own right.

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Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

Another example: Gorra re-sees Isabel’s early refusal to marry in terms of James’s — for James was under pressure to marry; her going to Europe, her choice of waiting to see (Ralph Touchett’s) of being a witness not a doer — all these three are brought together with James’s gayness and made sense of — he is masking himself in Isabel is the point and it’s an interesting one, for else we just do really have another story of the chaste heroine making a bad or good marriage.

He dwells on Madame Merle who emerges upon Isabel getting the money (women has a good nose) and how she stands for a social animal. She and Isabel have a debate with Isabel coming out on the side of that she is not expressed solely or nearly solely by her outward behavior, dress, occupation — as Madame Merle implies. I’ll add that From Daniel Deronda the mother shows one has a self apart which will break away, but Isabel’s tragedy will be she cannot

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Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

In a section early in the book called the Envelope of Circumstances where Gorra talks almost of himself — at least of an American identity (which often makes me uncomfortable) — he elaborates on the idea that Portrait is unusual in its lack of religion and Gorra says this is true of all James’s work but the ghost stories. I know I like James and feel he is equally European/English (not British)

I much enjoyed the chapter in Gorra after the one detailing all James’s homosexual friends, contacts, strains (“An Unmarried Man”): in “A London Life” he tells of how James came to live in London, that it was no foregone conclusion: he tried Paris first; about an expensive apartment he lived in for quite a while that was well located for theater, plays, making a life of going out to dinners and socializing with the upper class, near enough to publishers and parks. I quite envy James — we also get a strong sense of him supporting himself through writing for magazines and the kinds of texts he was writing to do that. I knew all this but not in this way and Gorra quotes from James’s wonderful thick diary commonplace book so well. He intuitively holds onto and writing about the most astute utterances of James: after G.H. Lewes died, James visited her and described her as “shivering like a person who had had a wall of her house blown off.”

It may be these names of James’s possible lovers and his relationships with them are known, but I’ve never seen the series of men set out so clearly, the stories told so intelligently, and rightly the doubts sowed over the idea James was physically celibate without overdoing it. People are still today writing books which obscure this aspect of James’s life and when they do write about James’s complex feelings, they write turgidly, with embarrassment, hedging. Gorra tells of James’s important life long relationship with his woman amaneunsis-secretary, Theodora Bosanquet whose biography of the boss she spent 2 decades with and lived in close intimacy gives us a lot of the leads and details that help us see this aspect of James’s life. Her book: Henry James at Work and published by Hogarth Press (the Woolfs).

Thus I found finding Gorra’s book more satisfying than Mead’s because I was made to realize more about James and his writing. Most of what Mead wrote I knew about Eliot — and while she is applying our information about Eliot is more subtle autobiographical ways, it does not change what I have seen. Since James’s homosexuality has only recently been openly admitted to and discussed as central to his life — as it was the way what gender you are is — there are new insights to be gotten

He begins with the richness of the letters and how much we can learn about James from them (most have not yet been published, a many year project by many people). The question is how far can we be ourselves apart from social life and within ourselves how much there is a real separate I from construction. I agree with him (and James) it’s there but vulneragble and fragile — as we see in Isabel Archer. Touchett is in retreaet and sinks his life in Isabel’s – I believe that outside his job Jim sunk his life in mind and job in the last years was also endured to support the two of us. That it was not him is seen in how he didn’t mind retiring and only thought of going back in order to move to England.

Still the great source for all people wanting to know James is a book edited by Mattiessen, a continuous diary: it’s vignettes of going out, little bits of stories he later worked up into his great novels, thoughts on aesthetics, whatever popped into his head: The Notebooks of Henry James. I read it while doing my dissertation and trying to understand the creative mood of reverie underlying novels. Gorra emphatically uses this book.

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Rome, outdoor Market, Piazza Navona by Guiseppe Ninci (1870)

Gorra first shows us James’s situating himself in London and ambivalent; how he tried Paris, and we go on to his trips to Italy – where much of the later action of The Portrait of a Lady takes place and we get a chapter on Madame Merle and Osmond – not moralizing but how they represent some real aspects of the expatriots. It was not all high (or today unacceptable) art. Then Gorra moves into a portrait of the community in Florence and Rome at the time. Several interesting pages on his relationship with Constance Fennimore Woolson’s. As sympathetic to the people caught up there as Mead on Main – I’ve been at least to the Spanish Steps and some of the places Gorra describes – which he takes you through with him as your walking guide – and connects them to the atmosphere of the novel which is un-Victorian … bringing all this to bear on Isabel’s wrong choice gives it a whole new kind of aspect – and connects it to the modern reader too.

Gorra follows James from place to place as James writes The Portrait of a Lady. James was escaping his American identity as he traveled from place to place in Italy, and tried to find a quiet place to write a lot and yet have some company and enrichening landscape. From expatriats he moves onto strangers, and how James was surrounding himself with strangers, was himself an exile, a stranger, and saw that the American communities were themselves disconnected from Italian society, didn’t understand it, in search of what they couldn’t find at home. Then he says they were – -and James is – drawing on the heritage of different countries and cultures to make a new amalgam for themselves.

That aspect of American identity as self-invention I do see in myself, though the amalgam is mostly from English sources. I turned to read James’s Roman Rides as Gorra said it’s better than just about all James’s early fictions — and it struck me that’s right. The opening is a meditative piece on the landscape of the campagna. Jim and I went there and walked alone one morning — we did not take our children who were with us on that holiday because they would have been so bored. Often the places he and I wanted to go to were to them places with nothing there. James does a gorgeous rendition of the feelings one can have just outside Rome among these ruins in this desolated place — it was still that way in 1994. How important place and history are to some authors.

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John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

Gorra then moves onto Isabel’s strange choice of the stifling Osmond and how Isabel came to make such a bad choice. Gorra suggests we don’t bring in the sexual angle enough and Isabel was attracted to the man who declined openly to chase her. I did not remember that time went by and Isabel traveled with her sister I Europe and then Madame Merle in the Middle East (that was dangerous). Ralph tells her she is going to be put in a cage but it’s no good. We are not shown the moment of submission, the marriage or its first experience. Why? It’s a sleight of hand that takes us to thwarted aspiration, imprisonment, narrowing but not how she got there. Are these James’s fears for himself?

The book moves onto Venice as James does – and an immersion occurs as James is drawn into this defeated place filled with poverty striken people, even then dying, dependent on tourism. James himself eat and drank expensively as Gorra finds this out by going to the same place (still there). A political fight over the vaporetto and the vaporettos won – James didn’t like the noise either. He makes two friends whose houses he can stay at, ordinary upper class American and English, not the resident famous homosexual population …. It’s the evocation of these places through quotation of James’s travel writing that makes this section so appealing …

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John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

Gorra is trying to relive the experiences James had while writing the book at the same time as he re-imagines what the characters feel as the story progresses: tracing James’s steps in Venice, looking at paintings Sergeant made of the expatriot people into whose houses James was welcomed. From James’s letters Gorra picks up that the landlady was offering her daughter as a sex partner by sending her to hang around the fourth floor. Byron took up such invitations, not James. He moves onto the this kind of atmosphere in Venice, and its treacheries, the grim whiff of the closed streets (seen in Sergeant”s pictures too I know) and says this seeped into Portrait of a Lady and what Isabel’s chose of Osmond brought her

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Constance Fennimore Woolson

Venice prompts by association the really poignant story of James’s long time and finally failed relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolston. Gorra characterizes her with great empathy and tells a lot I didn’t know or had forgotten. Again he brings together what is not usually brought together: how they quietly lived in one building she on the first and he the ground floor — in Florence. She apparently went to Venice to live on the assumption he would follow her but he never did. The letters to and from and her were burned. As everyone knows she killed herself by jumping out a window and he tortured himself by trying to drown her dresses — why he just didn’t throw them out or give them away as rags I can’t guess.

Woolston’s death though partly in reaction to James’s behavior is obviously not his fault. She suffered depression much of her life. When she’d finish a book she’d be in a state of nervous collapse. It’s said some people are exhilarated by it. I was neither. Eliot went into collapse mode.

As he tells the story, Gorra connects it James’s “Aspern Papers,” “he Beast in the Jungl”e (Sedgewick renamed that “closet”) and a couple of other uncanny stories (“The Romance of Old Clothes) which he retells very well — and The Wings of the Dove.

Quite what this has to do with The Portrait of a Lady? it illuminates James’s feelings towards relationships, the real life of expatriates … A central “sin” in James is when one person uses another, makes them an instrument for his or her needs. Imposing your will on them. He suggests Lyndall Gordon (who wrote a conventional biography) accuses James of doing this to Woolson. Now the second version a Portrait of a Lady occurs well after Woolson’s death and so we are left to make our own allegory here.

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Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

I love the illustrations in this book, picturesque, in the mode of Alvin Coburn, the illustrator for James’s turn of the century complete revised edition.

Following upon the chapter on James and Constance Fenimore Woolston, we move into “sex, serials, the continent and critics.” A full chapter on how near impossible it was to get into print and distributed in the UK and US too a story which told what every one know to be the case with sexual life; you could only tell supposedly what life was supposed sexually to be like, to teach lessons. The French were much freer.

This part of the book includes a chapter on the magazines James wrote for and Gorra uses is also valuable beyond telling us how James dealt with the problem of instalment publication: demands for a certain length, for cliff-hangers, who and where his work appeared (with what provided the context of respectability for the reader); it’s an intelligent portrait of a world where people are still reading magazines. James was apparently a writer who had in mind his whole book so would start a new instalment not with a reader turning the pages of a magazine who might need (as we call them today) recap. Today’s American context is alluded to: the importance of Atlantic, Harper’s then – New Yorker today

Gorra is showing us how Isabel Archer could come to say she did not want to hear anything that Pansy could not hear — this is supreme foolishness on her part; far from being dangerous for her, it will be dangerous for her not to have more knowledge of what a man can do to his wife once he marries her — Cameron’s movie makes Osmond into a sadistic man in bed too — as does Andrew Davies make Grandcourt in his film of Daniel Deronda. This is chapter comparing French fiction of the period that was admired by the English with the English. A rare novelist to break through what was allowed was George Moore (Esther Waters) but his novels were not distributed by Mudie’s.

Gorra spends a long chapter on the whole long chapter in Portrait of a Lady after Edward Rosier comes to call – he is the young man who loves and could be loved by Pansy, but Osmond won’t allow it, and he lets Isabel know that she ought to use her sexual pull on Warburton to lure Warburton into marrying Pansy — for Osmond assumes that’s a front for a love affair Warburton means to have with Isabel.

Isabel is sickened, appalled, desolated — we come upon her well after the marriage has taken place, we even missed the birth and death of a young son. Gorra says this is deliberate on James’s part: he does not want to show us directly (remember our thread on showing and telling) such dramatic moments but their affect on consciousness.

I was not surprised to see Gorra attribute some of James’s sophistication to his reading of Daniel Deronda where Gorra finds the same kinds of techniques. The difference is that James goes on for much longer (he says) and makes the narrative stop still and ruminate a past we’ve not seen.

He also says the shrewdest most aware appraisal of Portrait was by Constance Fenimore Woolson. So James is in a women of ecriture-femme — with Oliphant ranging herself on the other side in defense of what she thought of as English fiction.

He finds this so original. I don’t think so — Trollope does it, Austen does it, Eliot does it a lot but the interior monologue is important and Gorra’s way of discussing it as becoming central to the art of fiction does show one important innovation. Hitherto story was said to count a lot and more; and it’s clear that for James the actual story matter — the events that manifest the inner life — does not matter. Gorra says this changes the novel’s emphasis and is part of a switch over that finds an extreme in Woolf.

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Romola Garai as Gwendoleth Harleth Grandcourt telling Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy) about what her life has been (2004 Daniel Deronda, scripted Andrew Davies)

No what makes the difference is the content. Trollope’s Julia (The Claverings) does not think one really unconventional thought. She never thinks to herself these people are shits, why should I want to sit with the housekeeper, look at their terrible values. Nor any of them until Daniel Deronda with the magnificent portrait of his mother (the same actress who played the role in Davies’s film played Madame Merle in Campion’s film) Isabel does not break away but she has utterly subversive thoughts about the values of those around her. Eliot invents another set of ethics using Gwendoleth Harleth’s experience (which Davies’s film brings out), implicitly anticipating Flaubert but much more sympathetic to the woman, as is James. Again and again Gorra links James to Eliot. So when Gorra exaggerated because he so goes on about it, one can learn and see …

He is tracing an important direct new line — into it was fed the travel writings that he has been going over too. Roman Rides, Venice. Also William James’s books on cognitive psychology show up the new interest. The new line was objected to intelligently by RLStevenson in his Gossip on Romance and James’s prefaces, his Art of Fiction was intended to intervene in this debate. Gorra’s discussion of James’s use of stream of consciousness in Portrait of a Lady is so rousing that I become eager for Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust to come — I just hope I’ve read enough of Proust’s volumes to be able to appreciate it. I’ve only read one and almost to the end of the second volume.

Gorra then uses his analysis of Isabel Archer’s long meditation to launch into more than James’s Art of Fiction; he makes large claims for James as an innovator of a new kind of novel: one based wholly on inner life, nuances. Of course these were written before — in epistolary narratives of high quality in the 18th century but not self-consciously. Gorra argues that Woolson was one of the first to understand, and Howells to defend James and his Art of Fiction should be understood as part of a debate which includes RLS’s Gossip on Romance.

I like how Gorra fits this into the growth of serious literary criticism of the novel, taking it seriously. James could not get himself to write in the other “new” school of naturalism (Princess Cassamassima is the one that may be linked): too pessimistic, too bleak he felt, though Howells did it in his Modern Instance. The novel’s stature is going up

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Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

The last part: putting out the lights. This one takes us through James’s response to the deaths of his father and mother; he came for the funerals, just missed the dying. I think he’s right to argue against Edel’s insistence it was the mother who screwed the family up: common sense and all evidence suggests it was the father (if people can be screwed up who produced what Wm and Henry James and even Alice did and lives the lives the first two did) with the mother complicit. It seems to have been a contest which of the parents self-destructed first and in reaction to the other’s coming demise. They did cling together.

As with Mead at the close of her book, but without personal references, Gorra then makes leaps into the fiction to find analogies about death. Gorra shows how often James wrote about death after this period, and how a metaphor for loss. In this chapter he says it was at this time James began to keep his journal of all anecdotes, an important source for this book (and many others).

And he suggests it was after this or around this time several of the great Victorians died and I’m glad to say — serendipitiously — for James this includes Trollope. Trollope for James a major voice like Eliot, Flaubert and Turgenev. James’s essay on Trollope has been very influential — perhaps too much so but I didn’t know about the line calling Trollope a “difficult mind.” That’s good. What a different list from the modern canon, no?

James’s “The Altar of the Dead” is about the ghosts we live with, the ghosts in our memories of who died and Gorra speaks eloquently of it. Alice was another great loss by then and Constance Fenimore Woolson. No wonder I liked this chapter and it leads a powerful chapter centering on the last image Isabel has at the end of her mediation: Madame Merle and Osmond talking together. Gorra takes us through to Isabel’s realization that when Madame Merle said to her “let us have him” (italics added) Madame Merle has given away 1) that she and Osmond think that Isabel wants Warburton for herself, not that she is appalled by the proposition that she should use his attraction to her to win him to marry Pansy as payoff for a liaison; and 2) they assume what bothers Isabel is not the amorality of all this but that she wants Warburton for herself, and finally 3) Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

When Osmond’s sister comes to tell Isabel of this truth however indirectly it’s after the realization and this is followed hard on by the most quiet and devastating of needlings I’ve ever read. Madame Merle comes in to tell Isabel as Isabel is contemplating visiting Ralph as he lies dying (after Osmond has forbidden it) that it was Ralph who gave her the enormous sum of money that made her “a brilliant match,” spoken in bland feigned innocence she is nonethleless triumphing over telling Isabel that Isabel owes this hellish marriage to Ralph. And pointing our to her yes “she was perfectly free” so she did it to herself.

One problem for the modern reader who wants to read hard truths about life is these earlier novels (and many since) end ambiguously in ways that allow us to think the characters will be all right, make do by following conventional norms and thus uphold the very structures that the whole novel has been designed to expose.

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Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer Osmond (Portrait, scripted Laura Jones, directed Jane Campion)

It is a startlingly even terrifying moment when Madame Merle so quietly and blandly lets Isabel know it was after Isabel who chose to marry Osmond and she was given all the clues she needed to what he was if she had only looked.

Austen has scenes of withering corrosion where the speaker does not realize what he is saying and the listener is mortified and hurt, but nothing quite so horrible in feel or mean and malicious in intent. Madame Merle’s purpose is to make Isabel angry at Ralph and prevent her going — as Lucy Ferrars in telling Elinor of the long engagement was to make Elinor give up on Edward, be very angry with him. The increase in subtlety and what has been done is a hundredfold.

For the book’s last chapters, see the comments.

Ellen

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Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte), father and son

Dear friends and readers,

Like a couple of the reviews I’ve read, I’m in danger of over-praising this one (see, e.g., Ann Hornaday for the Washington Post).

So allow me to begin with what’s in bad taste about it: we are invited to laugh at these working class people whose place and circumstances deprives them of any chance for any beauty, comfort or good art; an interesting well-paid job, stimulating conversation, come to that decent information and in the audience I was in the guffaws were particularly loud during some of the condescending Diane Arbus like scenes with clown characters — as in see these mindless male jerks watch equally stupid TV:

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David Denby of the New Yorker has it right:

We seem to have entered dim-bulb territory …These people have no pretensions, no power. What is there to make fun of? … If this is his idea of affection I wouldn’t want to see him working on characters that he disdains …some of it has a heartless Diane Arbus feel—David’s identical rotund cousins spend their days sitting on a couch, obsessed with cars and nothing else …

What happens is despite the crass caricature, the film gradually gathers up a gravitas as serious as any Ibsen-Miller play: slowly and as it was inadvertently the life-story of this granite like old man, Bruce Dern as Woody Grant (the painting American Gothic alluded to) emerges, one of bad decisions, financial losses, wrong choices for a partner, all irretrievable, a childhood impoverished with sibling deaths around him, a cursing disappointed angry aging wife who despises him:

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Woody stands (or sits) firm before us (and his son) refusing to be questioned. The stern soul who will not be pitied, will not let down his guard.

Will Forte as David, his son seems a diminished version of him: as the movie opens a salesman in an electronics store with a miserable small apartment; his unkempt over-weight badly dressed girlfriend stops by and he is quietly pleading with her to stay, give the relationship another chance, but she says, What for? He has no answer, no marriage proposal, no plans. When his father persists in trying to walk to Lincoln Nebraska to redeem his million dollars from an obviously bogus chain mail letter, David decides a time away will do them both good.
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David looking at the past through pages of an old journal with Peg Naby (Angela McEwan) a woman journalist of some sensitivity who Woody had passed over for a wife

David’s is the compassionate heart of the trip, patiently kind to his father (finding the old man’s lost denture amid rubble), courteous, controlled, at the close of the movie buying his father a dream prize for some self-esteem over those who have scorned them after all. Forte’s best moment is when he turns around after some thought and punches in the face Stacey Keach as Ed Pegram, the needling bar-man who had attempted to bully wrench Woody down for thousands Ed said he was owed, and now jeers at the pair of poor sacks with their imbecile letter.

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Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach)

Surely the choice of bleak black-and-white and continual focus on the impoverished depression like streets with their couple of bars, super-cheap malls and stores, acres of bare land dotted with abandoned or aging house – is to bring home to us the impoverishment of most of the US, the 47% any one?

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Sometimes I thought Alexander Payne (director) and Will Nelson (script writer) rather overdid it — the way Kitchen Sink movies from the UK in the 1950s really pushed the broken-down remnants of furniture, unworking toilets, soiled kitchens at the viewer (as in Poor Cow — a movie was really named that), as for example when the family, now with the David’s brother who has managed to become an anchor man in a abysmal news show, explore the father’s childhood home. But each wreck recalls a tragedy to the old man’s mind as the bleak dialogue suggests: for example, the pieces of a crib the brother who died at age 2.

Perhaps there’s an allusion to Bogdanovich’s black-and-white Last Picture Show. This movie films the places that demonstrate the truth of Occupy Wall Street’s accusation of what more than 1% of the US is doing to the rest (more like 10%).

I could identify with some of the simple triumphs and pleasures here and there: as when the old man gets his truck and is allowed to drive down the street past those who had dismissed or jeered. Family scenes of eating when there’s a gathering of this clan probably touched chords in others. The one thing that pompts true (not hypocritical-pious) sentiments and scenes going among the characters is money: almost everyone at some point (but Woody’s two sons and wife) succumbs to believing in Woody’s million and attempt to wrest some of what the person suddenly says he owes him or her. It often emerges they owe him far more, that he was the easy target of demands.

His wife, Kate’s exasperation, is fully understandable:

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Life for Kate Grant (June Squibb) one long grating experience — her performance pitch perfect she sometimes stole the scene

Some of the laughter later in the film was justified too: like when the two sons try to steal back what they think was a compressor wrongly taken from Woody when he owned a garage and discover it belongs a two rare decent couple in a reasonable looking house on the plains. They return it and the family is caught by the couple coming home. So the sons hide in the barn while Kate takes over the wheel and drives away, leaving the two young men to run frantically after her after the couple turns away to walk back to their house.

A movie for our desperate time: so many semi-realistic comic movies I’ve seen over the past few years are about people making money by trying to become cleaners, or doing any menial work they can find as part of a comic world.

In the semi-art cinema I saw the film in — with a friend — it was screened in the small auditorium set aside for films which get small audiences, but as in a few cases I’ve seen where the film was wrongly thought to be not one with an audience (Alfred Nobbs, Ladies in Lavender [there all summer], Jane Austen Book Club [all women, chairs brought in to accommodate everyone]), this one was pulling in enough people to make the place crowded.

It is also a movie about aging, how it feels, the humiliations and indignities (there are sequences of Woody in hospital), boredom (Kate especially bored), how impatient with life one gets when one has seen it all (one feels) and is asked to pretend to believe in and respect yet another fakery. The audience knew something of what release had come for, many of the people watching were older people.

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Discussing what they are going to eat: they’ve learned to live side-by-side

Ellen

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Robert Redford as nameless man whose boat has just been ruined, hit by a people-less metal container

I think you would all agree that I tried,” he writes [a voice-over] “I will miss you. I’m sorry”

“Fuck! [he shouts in despair]

Dear friends,

It’s hard to know what quite to say about this magnificent feat of a film (directed by J. C. Chandor) as it has few words and the story is so simple (see Denby of the New Yorker). I went with my friend, Vivian, and she suggested it’s too abstract, we are given so little to go on. There is nothing but the words I’ve cited above: was he writing to a family he couldn’t get himself to stay with? So, to parse the parable takes effort and people will inevitably allegorise differently. At one level it obviously dramatizes one person’s will to survive.

So what do we watch? A man alone at sea somewhere in the Indian ocean struggles heroically, tenaciously, miraculously (some of it is improbable) to stay alive and reach people or land before he is drowned by storms, starves to death, or is eaten by fish. Critics have cited Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and certainly Redford is photographed to make us think of Hemingway’s famous story:

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Nonetheless, I suggest this is a Robinson Crusoe story where the man never reaches the island, much less finds a helpful servant (of naturally a “lower” and deferent race of people). Just the opposite: after his boat has become irreparably destroyed and he manages to open a small rubber raft exquisitely set up for human comfort out of a rubber bag — which he manages to salvage from his boat — he passes by two gigantic ships at sea: but he can reach and never sees any people; one ship appears to be nothing but packages, people-less analogously like the metal container that first wrecks his boat; the other might have people as it has lights on top but no one ever responds to his flame-lights (part of the rubber boat’s equipment).

No one can make it alone? Our existences today are perilously separated off from one another? Hard to say as at the close of the film our hero (he is a hero) spies what seems a light from far away. He tries to reach it; having no flame-lights, he actually sets part of a box on fire and it turns his raft into a circle of rubber with fire all about it. So he is now in the ocean with nothing but his skin and soaked clothes. As the thing or light draws near, he wakes from what seems to be a final drowning and swims upward, his eyes all alight. We are to feel that he has seen someone and might now be saved. But we do not know. The movie goes black. Perhaps this is a final pathetic delusion. (This reminded me of the ending of Villette where it’s not clear if M. Paul drowned or reached shore and returned to our heroine.)

As other reviewers have said, Redford delivers a powerful performance. My friend did say she found herself remembering Redford when he was young and much more conventionally handsome; I remembered Out of Africa where he was so beautiful as Denis Hatton-Finch with Meryl Strep his Isak Dinesen and a meal where they drank wine and talked.

In the film at age 77 now to keep our attention he is continuously struggling, even when he sleeps we feel him tenaciously holding on. Every once in a while there is a calm, and there he is with his glasses reading a map, plotting his way to a land he knows, eating, drinking, drying himself off and becoming more comfortable. He has a hat which is improbably dry near the end of the film. Keep the sun out of his eyes. My friend and I felt the technilogical feats were such that we felt we were at sea, hearing the sounds of sea, and then in a storm, watcher sloshing all over, echoing in your eyes, the feel of wind that becomes so loud that it was as if you are there with the hero.

Listen:

It’s not a film for everyone, though it is a sort of bare minimum stunt film (there are stunt substitutes) and action-adventure male film. I did not find it boring, though I drowsed off at first for about 5-10 minutes but when it became intensely a problem of survival and something in Redford gripped me I was with him all the way (a review finding it suspenseful). It’s fair to call it experimental.

Don’t miss it and see what you think it has to say to you about our world today.

Ellen

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One of several marvelous dance sequences

Dear friends and readers,

Friday nights on PBS I’ve become a faithful watcher of Great Performances, and this past one for 3 hours I reveled in the marvelous British National Royal Theater production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahhoma as directed by Trevor Nunn: this the same group that brought us the unforgettable Yorkshire plays (medieval cycle, words by Tony Harrison), and part of the exhilaration arises from doing it in the round with an audience close in. It’s famous in the US for making a singing star out of Hugh Jackson.

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Jackson played Curly as self-deprecating, no threat to anyone, courteous even to old maid aunts

I recommend watching it because it turns the musical into its bare-bones (sort of an outline effect), tones it down and so brings out subtleties in characterization. I don’t know if I’ve said enough on this blog how much I love musicals. I know often the content is deplorable; so too are some of the plots of older and more recent operas too.

So I want, at the same time, to point out that the distinction often made between this musical and its near-companion in time, place, and composers, Carousel, often (rightly) condemned as celebrating an abusive relationship, reinforcing the worst of sexist portrayals of sex outside marriage, absurd in its heavenly ending, is false. As Carousel can be done with equal intense pleasure from the music, dance and when done (as I once saw it in London) with the same bareness and toned down, becomes a downright subversive thrust by Billy, the working class male, and his Julie, neither ever given a chance for a fulfilled life, so Oklahoma is a predatory pastoral.

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A not atypical moment

The US early on developed a particularly predatory culture — sometime in the later part of the 18th century, reinforced by the lack of identification across immigrant groups, slavery and a lawless west where US guns reigned supreme and lynching became a commonplace way of “administering justice.” The cruelty of Southern culture in the early 19th century was matched (according to Harriet Martineau) by overt Northern killing of anyone opposed to slavery by those profiting from it. The modern Tea Party, some of the most powerful of southern writers (Faulkner, O’Connor) participate in this. An article in a recent issue of Women’s Review of Books where the US GI in France as opposed to all others, was the most violent, the male the most macho in his expectations of women and angry when he did not get what he thought he was entitled to (shades of our massacres), and then court-martialled black GIs as scapegoats — brought this out. It explains so much, from the centrality of slavery to US continual attacking other countries near it (almost immediately we invaded Canada), and the behavior of this state around the world today.

What do we have in Oklahoma: Jud, a male bully (the George Zimmerman of the piece, snarling, treacherous, a “skunk”) eager to violate Julie and kill Curly, and stopped only by murder by Curly (declared okay in a rigged swift hearing). The secondary couple presents sexism and stereotypes pastoralized so it is not as obvious as Carousel.

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A long dance sequence with Jud at center and saloon girls around him

Quintessentially American musicals which the British unerringly (as a result of their culture) sufficiently distance so instead of the series of visceral skits strung together punctuated by high eruptions or intensely repudiative optimism (“When you walk through a storm …”), from raucous and poignant lyrical (Carousel) and to mindless joviality (Oklahoma), we are invited to enjoy them as nostalgic set pieces, e.g., all imagination as in this surrey with the fringe on top:

Ellen

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