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Tobias (John Lithgow) with his sister-in-law and occasional lover, Claire (A Delicate Balance)

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Henry (Ewan McGregor) with Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), at first his mistress and then his wife (The Real Thing)

I am so much accustomed to be alone — Madame Max, in Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn

Dear friends and readers,

While in NYC I went to two great plays performed greatly. Well, maybe the actors playing The Real Thing needed to project depths of emotions much more, only the highly verbal intellectual continually witty script was in the way while in A Delicate Balance Glenn Close played Agnes with such balance, discretion, strength that one was almost as fooled as she pretended half to be so that I didn’t quite realize their topic was the same thing: deep betrayals and treacheries (only one aspect of which is adultery).

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Agnes (Glenn Close) with Tobias, apparently all serenity if you don’t listen to her words: she opens and closes the play with how she’s about to go mad

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A similar confidential moment between Henry and Annie (The Real Thing)

Happily the plot-summaries and character sketches for both plays are on-line so I need not retell the matter. Both are plays you should read before you go.

I had unexpected experiences in both theaters. I never expected to find Albee Jamesian (all I had seen before was the film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Burton, Taylor and Sandy ) but Glenn Close or her director brought this out and a strong unexpected unusual form of feminism: an ambivalent portrayal of the woman who keeps it all in, who will not openly admit to the pain, adultery, betrayal, so she becomes “luminous.” James often emits such solemn and vague or not explicit terms for something some character does we are to admire — at the cost of everything real in her; that darkness is stronger in James than it felt in this production-play. Until now just about all the plays by Stoppard I’ve seen, have had as their central focus, play-acting itself and the theater, or there is a great poet or literary person whose life he is exploring; I’ve also seen farces and he does like to avail himself of a previous work which he rewrites from another angle (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is no aberration).

The Real Thing is directly about the emotional life of a marriage, of two marriages or three depending on how you reconfigure the characters (Henry and Charlotte, Max and Charlotte, Max and Annie, Henry and Annie), and it was done through intellectual battles of wits — it’s hard to see how it becomes popular, but the theater was full and I expect some of that was the name of the playwright and the stellar cast (all young stars, and I heard people recite where they had seen the actor/actress before). People were listening and laughed at the right spots; perhaps it was a more intelligent audience than usual who could see themselves in these characters. I read half-way through the text last night and it is singularly bare of any indication of how the actor should play the part or stage setting. At any rate the characters were continually half-discussing their adulteries, acting them out, judging them, singing about them through 50s pop songs (said to be Henry-as-Stoppard’s favorite music)

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Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), Henry’s wife at the opening of the play (Real Thing)

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Max (Josh Hamilton), sometimes a “real” betrayed husband and sometimes a character in a play by Henry who is a betrayed husband (Real Thing)

The Real Thing had fine actors: you had to be to convey the complexities of language of the material. Ewan McGregor had the lead role, a surrogate for Stoppard. At first I was thinking as I watched and left the theater, the problem with this The Real Thing about the intense pain one can know in marriage or through the dependencies of love is what is shown is not common, at least among those few people whose marriages I have known something for real about while A Delicate Balance is the more universal.

But then I realized A Delicate Balance also had at its center adulteries casual and long-term and emotional disloyalties about other thing as important (one’s writing and politics in Stoppard’s play, one’s life career and friendships hard to sustain in A Delicate Balance). And I thought about how many couples I know and my own experience of sexual and other unfaithfulness. The real difference is Stoppard treats adultery and bitterness so frankly while Albee keeps them contained (that balance Close maintains — like a Henry James character). I dare say the commoner thing is to pretend in the way of Albee’s characters, not to look or act upon hurt.

At first I had a hard time in Stoppard’s play figuring out what was happening: sometimes the characters were characters in a Stoppard play, sometimes a bad play (of course not by Stoppard); sometimes characters in the reality of the play. But in a tiny first break in the first act I whipped out my trusty cell phone (a handheld computer) and read wikipedia’s summary just as I had in the first full intermission of A Delicate Balance: then for both I could get immersed. Many are the uses of our World Wide Web with its shared worlds. Oh how the loss of net neutrality threatens us in “small” and large ways.

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What was remarkable about A Delicate Balance and made it a comment on The Real Thing is how Glenn Close played the lead heroine deeply sympathetically — as in a Henry James story, we were to admire her as “beautiful” and “tremendous” without being explicitly told that she was holding the whole household together by her magnficient hypocrisy, her act. Agnes as Maggie Verver (I hope my reader has read The Golden Bowl) whose father, Adam, marries Maggie’s prince-husband’s lover, Charlotte (the same name as Stoppard’s heroine) in order to remove Charlotte from Maggie’s prince husband though he likes neither Charlotte nor that prince.

If you read the criticism of the play (and wikipedia) you get a diatribe on Agnes as all repression, and (surely a sign something is seriously wrong) the moralistic rigid Edna who with her husband, Harry has fled her apparent in fear and shows up in Close’s apartment and proceeds to blame and carp and blurt out corrosive rebarbative descriptions of the others (especially Julia, Tobias and Agnes’s many-times divorced daughter, come home once again and wanting her room in which Edna and Harry have taken up temporary residence). Close’s clothes were of peaceful colors (as the guy, majoring in theater who sat next to me and talked to me said), signalling how she was holding the best emotions to the fore in all the scenes luminously (as James might have said), with intense bravery and pain.

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Agnes (Glenn Close) in a rare moment showing how betrayed and bitter and hurt she is, her sister, Claire, having fallen down (she drinks heavily, but maintains she is not an alcoholic, or no more than the others)

Were it not for her fake act, her sister, Claire would be out on the streets, Tobias incapacitated by fear and his own need to support others he calls his friends in order to believe in some good emotion somewhere.

I had chosen to see A Delicate Balance because I so admire Lindsay Duncan in all the roles I’ve seen her in, and I gather she played Claire utterly differently from Elaine Stritch (who did it caustically, a hard caricature of a drunk) and Maggie Smith who was wry, insouciant, amoral. This Claire was warm, witty, appealing, the only one in the room who could comfort Julia.

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Julia (Martha Plimpton), on her fourth break-up (A Delicate Balance)

The “thing” is that it doesn’t help to tell the truth, it doesn’t help to verbalize or articulate in The Real Thing. Similarly there is (seemingly mysteriously) Tobias and Agnes don’t demand that Edna and Harry tell them what has so terrified Edna and Harry that they must retreat to one of Tobias’ and Agnes’s bedrooms, namely Julia’s:

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Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Clare Higgins) (A Delicate Balance)

The characters in The Real Thing achieve their best relief when they put records on of familiar 50s songs — creating a kind of nostalgia in the audience for a comfort that never was. I did find the performance too brittle and the transitions into song awkward. The play is of course about Stoppard (his marriages, his “low” tastes in music, his playwriting) and Henry had the funniest undercutting lines. The characters in A Delicate Balance do once in a while lose it, and we get this great emotional outpouring, but it does not seem to provide much release. The funniest moments were Clare’s (playing an accordion) and Harry’s (Bob Balaban is a remarkable actor, he was inimitable in Gosford Park)

It has been for me a deep treat to go to the theater and really have a deep or thoughtful or exhilarating or grief-striken or funny experience — it was with Jim I first went and he who taught me to go, and where. London has great theater too (and we went when we were there to the National Theater, Old Vic, and RSC especially) — both London and NYC attract the best as best paid and respected; in other cities English speaking you can have greatness too — here in DC sometimes, in London often. (There is a lot of junk in NYC too). Jim would have enjoyed both plays; had he been alive, both are the sort of play we’d have seen together and talked about over drinks afterward.

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Group scenes

I’m aware that readers coming to this blog have wondered why I write the way I do, why I often go on at length, why so many. It’s always been out of loneliness, even with Jim, but when he was here, my blog was prompted by our talk, and after I’d write it, we’d talk about what I’d written. Now I write out to try not to feel so alone in the silence. I trust I am talking to someone who comes here and reads these even if mine are imagined sounds and more than 99% of the time I’ve no idea what the reader is thinking or how responding.

Ellen

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Omar and Klinghoffer (from the National English Opera production)

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Protests at the Metropolitan Opera house on opening night

Dear friends and readers,

It’s hard to know how to treat this opera since as a result of intense pressure from Jewish, particularly those supporting the present and previous right-wing Israeli organizations put sufficient relentless financial and social pressure on the Met as to cause them to not air it on the HD network (thus depriving thousands of people around the globe to see the opera for themselves) and to bring an halt to productions at the Met itself. (It has played in many others, from England to Scotland to Prague, and doubtless will continue to do so all the more.) At any rate Yvette and I saw the last big production in the US for some time to come, this past Saturday afternoon, November 15th.

What I have to tell those who come to this blog is that far from being a provocative, anti-semite inciting viscerally dramatic opera, The Death of Klinghoffer bends over backwards not to be overtly empathetic towards any group of people or individuals aboard ship. It’s a choral piece, much in the tradition of Copeland’s The Tender Land and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, only there is even less dramatic action and creation of individual personalities. Only 4 characters are made individual: Klinghoffer, his wife, Marilyn (Micheala Martens), a woman now famous for having hidden out in her cabin the whole time (Theodora Hanslowe?); a British dancer (Kate Miller-Heidke) by happenstance one of Omar’s prisoners who is eager for “ciggies” from him.

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The Palestinians remain archetypes and are presented as teaching killing (while Jewish armies are forgotten). Death of Klinghoffer is a mild, indeed in some ways tame meditative and lyric opera: its center is the captain (Paul Szot) as neutral narrator (he has a podium he sings from) and the story and action, such as it is (beautiful filmed waters on three sides of the stage, graffiti filled walls, light and dawn and evening shows) is punctuated continually by the beautiful music and singing of the Palestinian chorus of exiled people, and the Jewish one of people come to Israel after horrific misery in Europe during WW2.

The actual history behind the incident is well-known, easy of access: 4 young Palestinian men in 1985 hijacked a ship and 400 passengers and threatened to kill everyone unless Israel exchanged these captives with his brother and other male relatives. In the event they killed but one man, but the elderly helplessly crippled one: all else emerged unharmed. The opera takes into account the English-sidekick to US role: the Palestinians threaten UK as well as US and Jewish people. Three of the Palestinian men were later arrested and tried and allowed to go to their homeland (relatively free). Adams presents so little about the Palestinian case (so we learn very little about what was at stake in the negotiating bargain) — for every Palestinian chorus there is a Jewish one.

I immediately asked myself, why this incident when there are so many others of thousands and thousands killed and murdered Palestinians and “other Arab people”: 250 at one blow (on Reagan’s “watch”) is more like it. Why nothing of Jewish conscription and the constrained lives of Jews in this “fortress” state? In lieu of a continuous storyline, the three walls of the stage had a light show taking us through announced years (sometimes just the year showed, as in 1967), graffiti on walls, the waters of the sea rising and falling, night and then dawn. There was a chorus of male dancers representing writhing Palestinian young men; the four hijackers were archetypal presences (Aubrey Allicock as Mahmoud sung of his bonding with migrating birds). The concentration though was on Klinghoffer and his wife, ever focused on by light and given the individuating startling and moving arias.

A scene from The Death Of Klinghoffer by English National Opera and Metropolitan Opera

Though the poignant figure etched in the visual memory is of the Jewish man who dies facing the sky in his chair (providing the advertisement poster) and in sound memory his wife’s two arias.

Yet I have not been so sincerely moved by an opera in years. It was a bold courageous move not to offer us a mythic metaphor of a story, but at least give us the outlines of a story that really happened. Thus the realities of rich middle class people, here a number of Jews and British who can afford to go on an expensive cruise (ship fuelled by oil, the natural resource the the elite powerful of the US and other NATO countries have been destroying all social and democratic movements to keep control of) is simply part of the givens. Each of the characters spoke as individuals; I was rendered riveted by Mrs Klinghofer’s final widow grieving aria, especially lines, “I live in him” and “I wanted to die,” and thought I heard the voice of Adams in her words about the medical establishment’s indifference to his suffering — all everyone cared for was their payment, their profit, with a sudden interjection about profit centered research (as such a woman would put it.)! I understood why the Palestinians picked on Klinghoffer: Klinghoffer’s scolding is that of the ignorant man: he inveighs against the hijackers as simply killers, thugs; he denies they have any justification, that their houses were worth anything. Adams had the courage to show the man to have been obnoxious against the Palestinians harassing and terrifying the hostages with threats of death, blindfolds, guns held to their heads and the like.

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The opening Palestinian chorus a stunner protesting the originating incidents in 1948 a stunner. No as powerful as the Jews fleeing Europe and the death camps with a few thing or none to the promise of the desert where they would irrigate and make a new world. The Palestinians were treated as equal human beings — there was a remarkably beautiful aria by two singers who represented Palestinian women, one whose house had been destroyed in 1948 and the other the mother of Omar, one of the highjackers (an angry one, urging him to kill if needed in order to get the demands taken seriously).

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From the opera: Omar Jesse Kovarsky), his mother (Maya Lahyani), and Klinghoffer (Alan Opie) seen in the picturesque distance

Omar has a sort of friendship with one of the British dancers who sings — there were 6 British dancers on board. The dancing of Omar was wrenching; the music beautiful and light and water and film effective, melancholy.

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A matching Jewish chorus: remembering the holocaust

We had come to NYC for Yvette to experience the real opera house, and since The Death of Klinghoffer was removed from HD operas broadcast (and the mediocrity of a Rossini concoction substituted) we chose this weekend. We were in dress circle seats an experience in itself: it was hard to get to them, and we were in an overhang on the third tier so we saw both stage and (if this were still done) the opera house itself beautifully. We were cut off from the left side of the stage (partial view). Yvette’s blog-review worth reading in this regard (her experience from her spot). There was a kind of strangeness and stiltedness as if Adams was continually pulling his punches lest he offend someone important somewhere. It was a kind of staged masque:

THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER

How to account for the tameness of this piece? fear of reprisal if too truthful and searing? I object to the lack of hard violence by both sides and the situating of the Jewish chorus too early so later realities and cruelties beyond shame (in Gaza and the West Bank) omitted. Such an opera if people would watch would be useful: yet I am told there are Americans who Foxnews and the like have taught to looks upon Palestinian people as “cockroaches.” Operas are supposed to reveal grief, teach compassion, sing out the vulnerability of its characters (and occasionally even composers), though they rarely set their action in the here and now and an actual incident.

It was stimulating to really be there; Yvette said the voices sounded better and she seemed to enjoy being there: I dislike the elitism one comes up against as part of each experience from eating (each cafe callibrated to a specific income group), to lingering on the balcony; you can’t just go into the central cafe but must reserve and have tickets for that day; the shop was a replica of the Kennedy Center in its commercialism. It did seem to have far more CDs and DVDs. More: the way this incident was hyped up in the program notes unreal. Phrases like “horrible barbaric” and others suggesting some catastrophe of immeasurable proportions when it was a case of 400 people all of whom but one survived unharmed. No talk whatsoever about atrocities for real. Instead the program notes had a story about Stalin’s repression of Verdi’s Don Carlos as if to deflect attention. None of this Adams’s doing. He came on stage that afternoon Yvette and I were there. I hope the opera was filmed and eventually can come out on DVD and thus be shown to a much wider segment of the US population.

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It is a disgrace that the Met did not broadcast this opera as an HD presentation, and has shut down further performances — the direct result of the relentless political powers and economic realities (no one dares to buck anyone connected into the 1% of US media and money today). I foolishly became a member of the Met this year. I thought to be sure and get tickets to HD operas this way, but there is no need and I won’t do so again. I understand the Met’s economic difficulties but they demanded their tech people take cuts in salaries and benefits while the stars were politely asked if they would …

I can’t deny it was something to be there literally though the misery of young Palestinian man forced to shoot (reminding me of Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad) and the cries of the cancerous woman (Mrs Klinghoffer is dying of cancer) whose crippled suffering husband could have been so easily taken out would have been more accessible (oddly) had we seen it in a plain movie-house, though then again we would have had to endure the hype in the form of interviews in the intermissions.

Confiteor

I heard something out by the gate
and went to look.
Dead of night; new snow, the larch woods
filling slowly, stars beneath the stars.

A single cry it was, or so it seemed,
though nothing I had recognised as native;
and when it came again, I knew for sure.
No badger there. No gathering of deer.

Forgive me, if! choose not to believe
the snow would fall like this, were I not here
to see it.
There might be snow, of course, but not like this,

no hush between the fence line and the trees,
no sense of something other close at hand,
my dwindling torch-beam flickering between
a passing indigo and lux aetema.

I stood a while to listen; nothing moved
- and then I turned and walked back to the house,
the porch light spilling gold for yards around,
snow at the open door and then, again,

that far cry in the dark
behind my back
and deep in the well of my throat
as I live and breathe.
– John Burnside

Read Alice Goodman Reflections on her libretto.

Ellen

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The actual day dress and hat worn by Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey — rich heavy cloth

Described, who funds it, how the Duponts grew so (obscenely may I use the word) rich — gunpowder. The gardens, the exhibits, dwelling of course on Downton Abbey, the fetish dresses. How it functions as a social facility faute de mieux.

Dear friends and readers,

As my header and picture tell immediately, I have been to Winterthur Museum: this past Thursday afternoon and evening. I have decidedly mixed feelings about such places: I asked more questions of our guide than anyone else (note: she was grateful and wanted questions she could answer to fill out the time allotted to each of several rooms in the central house she showed us), especially who owned this house originally (the Duponts — they owned everything worth having at one time in Delaware), who’s funding it now: there’s an endowment by the Duponts substantially added to by philanthropists, selling memberships to local people for activities like lectures, evening receptions, tours. Winterthur Museum is one secular local social and cultural center; the university is the other. At each stop of this tour I noticed how the particular Dupont she was often talking of (a male born in the early 20th century who became a collector, connoisseur, sportsman, lover of art, builder of museum rooms and garden) spent enormously on each whim however art-oriented he might have: move whole ceilings, change contours to accommodate every detail of an 18th century wallpaper handed scenes around a room from China, have opera music piped in from miles away to where he was golfing. The guide picked up on my perspective (drift?) and became just a trifle defensive, regaling us with the two schools of art and conservation supported at the Winterthur (by fellowships? she didn’t say? or students loans?), to one of which she had been and gotten a degree in fine arts and is paid now for working there.

The gardens are beautiful and extensive; there are treasures of pottery, sculpture, home furnishings of all sorts, musical instruments, specific objects owned by this famous person and that; an indoor garden all bewindows; we were invited to look at the rooms the family once used and those originally built to be shown to the public. There is a research library — for American artefacts and architecture. I regret I didn’t buy at the gift shop a pair of exquisitely filligreed earrings in the Downton Abbey style, and a light weight woven jackets, lovely dark blue threads woven into this light lacey cloth, again a Downton Abbey style. Had Jim been alive, I probably would have, but don’t have the urge to treat myself the way I once did (indeed it feels somehow downright wrong), and told myself he’d have said I couldn’t wear it, as it was too delicate so I was getting a bogus relic. But when I noticed a colleague and friend had gotten herself an exquisitely embroidered scarf, Downton Abbey mode, I wished I had (they sell for $30 and up).

I had the same response which Jim and I shared when we were taken through a castle-like house, now a full-fledged week-long-trip place at Asheville, North Carolina, where a similarly super-gargantuan rich family filled a huge building and made a garden, Biltmore (a bus takes you) that ordinary people are invited to visit. The unexamined adulation of such places supports the present oligarchy and its past — and forgets that but for a brief time (1930s to 60s) there was in the US an attempt to make life more decent and share the goods, fulfilling occupations, enjoyment, and security with the average person. We did not have to be grateful for the crumbs off the table of the 1%.

What I enjoyed most of the museum itself was the most foolish thing probably: the rooms given over to the actual costumes worn by the actors and actresses of Downton Abbey. I felt my heart-strings tug as I heard the familiar strains of the music coming from the corridor as I climbed the marble stairwell. The museum knows the draw of this place and it is advertised everywhere in the museum. The information about what we were seeing was accurate: the Grantham family dresses and some of the suits are a mix of style then with style today. The staff had rebuilt the bell system — that is the sort of thing that grates. Are we to celebrate this? Here and there perpetual films were going of this or that episode where a costume we were viewing could be seen. Of course this was a tiny percentage of the stock the program costumer and her assistants have made but it was sufficiently wide that you could see each of the main characters’ sort of dress (two each for each of the daughters for example, a couple each for each of the older upper class family women). Unfortunately, I was taking photos with my cell phone and even with a real camera I am not exactly competent so while I tried to get some of the hats, I seem only to have captured two (the above and this one below):

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Summer dress and hat worn by Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley — light cotton (muslin?)

I had predicted and indeed found the “creations” for the married Lady of the house (Cora) stood out for the work, material, expense, lavishness over all the other females.

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One of Cora’s evening dresses: my photo doesn’t capture the heavy and delicate working of the embroidery up and down the front of Cora’s dress — the varied textile dress is expensive

I have favorite characters so I am glad I managed to photograph Mr Bates’s working clothes as worn by Brendan Coyle and his bench, even if smudged:

Bates

I like Joanne Froggart as Anne Smith but must agree with her (as she’s hinted) that her outfits are so dull (and there is but one of Sophia McShera as Daisy’s and one of Leslie Nicol’s as Mrs Patmore), and in this exhibit none from the time of her being a lady’s maid — to tell the truth I have better photos to share from the books I’ve bought. Who makes a fetish of a servant’s outfit?

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Remember Rose Leslie as Gwen, the housemaid, whom the Winterthur people are aware was a popular favorite once —

I note that the choice of fetish items show a class perspective and emphasis at work — minimal for the servants and several for the family each time. There is the one typical housemaid outfit we first see her in, one for Siobhan Finneran as Miss O’Brien, the lady’s maid; here is but one the glitter and richness of Phyllis Logan’s layered dress as housekeeper: an expensive set of sewn varied textiles and chains:

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In the physical place, you can see the stiffness of Rob James-Collier’s outfit as a footman:

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The costumes did seem to be almost all from the first season. Winterthur did not go to this expense for more than one and the beginning of another (to get in Shirley MacLaine’s garments doubtless). All of them looked remarkably comfortable as styles (they simple hang on the body)

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Post World War One coat and hat – this kind of semi-sexy outfit was there, the fur expensive, rich velvet gold cloth

– as long as you didn’t remember the women wore corsets underneath to provide the form of body that the dress was to wrap round and cling to.

It was an exhibit of textiles the rich could use as imagined by the ITV costume workshop. it might have been interesting to see information about the dress designer, materials, who made the dresses (how much paid?). There were also objects the Grantleys used (beyond the re-built bell system):

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Gloves worn by the actresses — kid is the slang

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Crockery used — the same kind as Jim and I used to see at Landmark Trust houses

I did go into other parts of the museum — found an 18th century sack dress and noticed that a couple of the later 19th century ones did resemble aspects of the Downton Abbey costumes.

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Of course if this man and his family of Duponts had not wanted to spend their money this way, we the public could not have this functioning funded social facility and pretty space. But it testifies to the continued domination of private property and huge fortunes as the controlling factors in US society that we owe such places to private foundations: of course the discourses they will support will not be those that undermine their positions; we see everything from a limited perspective of the privileged. The guide mentioned in passing that the basis of the Dupont money was gunpowder. All that slaughter and destruction of the Civil War enriched the Duponts, modern uses of chemistry in industry (and one of its results the spread of cancer) are the bedrock of this dream place.

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Michelle Dockery’s silk layers Christmas ball dress from the first season; this is next to Dan Steevens’s tux (rather like a needed Ken doll) behind which is played over and over his proposal on bended knees to her in the snow

The museum several years ago allowed EC/ASECS to have its banquet in the museum (I’m not sure where); this year we were allowed to use a beautiful area for a reception for snacks, sweets and drinks and enjoyable talk, and then for another hour to wax exhilarated reading 18th century poetry and verse playlets aloud to one another. Peter Staffel, our master of ceremonies, chose to end these on Gray’s brilliant “Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” which for me nowadays especially evokes an ambivalent response too to conclude the festivities.

’Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
  The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
  Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
  The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
  She saw; and purred applause.

Still had she gazed; but ’midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
  The genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.

The hapless nymph with wonder saw;
A whisker first and then a claw,
  With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
  What cat’s averse to fish?

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
  Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
  She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
  Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
  A Favourite has no friend!

From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
  And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
  Nor all that glisters, gold.

Ellen

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Jonny Lee Miller as the creature desperately trying to bring an exhausted Bernard Cumberbatch as Frankenstein back to life on the ice

Dear friends and readers,

Yes, I’ve just returned from watching the version of Nick Dear and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein where Miller is the creature and Cumberbatch Frankenstein. The moviehouse had the version where Cumberbatch is the creature and Miller Frankenstein on Monday night. I didn’t know. Next year if my local HD theater repeats this duo, I’ll be sure and see Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as Dr Frankenstein.

Not that I was at all disappointed: I have known since watching Miller in an episode of Prime Suspect (and in the difficult roles of Edmund Bertram in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 MP and Mr Knightley in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma) what a versatile, effective, deeply feeling compelling actor he is. In this intelligent adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel (and the novel is kept in mind throughout), the creature is far more central to the action and consciousness of the play than his creator. We see his birth from his point of view,

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Jonny Lee Miller as the monster being born

how he moves bewilder through a landscape of powerful machines and cruel people, to happening on the French family escaped from injustice and the kindness of the blind old scholar, De Lacey (Karl Johnson gets some comedy out of this role) to him, in succouring him, teaching him,

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so (except for Frankenstein’s horrified rejection of his creature and abandonment of him) it is a long time before before Cumberbatch returns to the stage. And Frankenstein is the far less astonishing presence, even if central to the emotional action-reaction at play’s center

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein pushing away from him what he has done

I’d just like to see how different would be the feel and meaning in the reversal; according to Michael Billington of The Guardian, considerable.

What Dear and Boyle did was pare down the novel to its doppelganger, and in their characters, their talk, their relationship all the themes of Mary Shelley are drawn out. Some of the matter is lost: the depiction of larger social injustice is not there and so the instinctive fears and savagery of human beings to one another is not outweighed; much of Frankenstein’s life and relationships: the depiction of education (critiqued), how Frankenstein began to try to recreate life partly in reaction to his mother’s death; his arrogance and lack of responsible behavior to others, the intense distrust of science. Frankenstein is someone not social (of course a no no), going off on his own. The emphasis of this twist is so 21st century. The role of Elizabeth is made to enact socialableness (a new word), responsibility, an attempt at kindness towards the creature, and that natural ways trump egoistic artifice. Naomi Harris is effective in the hard role in both versions (a side note, she played the black heroine to Cumberbatch’s white anti-hero in Small Island). ElizabethCreature

I suppose what is so compelling is the dialogue between the two, what’s said, but one is exhilarated even in a movie version by the staging, the use of machinery, the pivotal stage, the symbolic way each phase of the story is presented — matching the fantasy aspects of the story (for it is fantasy). I’ve been to the National Theater in London (with Jim) and seen a number of these creative productions: Aeschylus trilogy comes to mind, Henry IV part 2 (Michael Gambon as Falstaff), and at home on Bravo, the Yorkshire Mystery Plays. The material from Shelley is gothic, but the conventions here eschew anything like film noir or horror/slash movies. it’s really an intimate one-on-one play (not so different in this from say the Fly episode of Breaking Bad where we get a similar intense interaction for an hour between Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as Mr White and Jesse respectively, with bodies entangled eventually too).

One of the best reviews is that of Paul Taylor of the Independent, only he is wrong to say the play ends so differently from the novel. Yes at the close of Shelley’s novel it seems the creature immolates himself on a pyre on a slab of ice, while Frankenstein expires in Walton’s ship but it seems to me this dying is not what is important: it is the the pursuit and the insight (emphasized by Shelley in her text) that the two creatures to live on are forever intertwined in their hatred and (due to Frankenstein) thwarted love.

He lives for my destruction. I live to lead him on

I haven’t any shots of Frankenstein pulling his sled after the creature (nor of Andrea Padurariu as the Female Creature Frankenstein is drawn to himself, but destroys), but I do of the creature’s desperation when he thinks Frankenstein may have died, and his loving attempt to bring Frankenstein back to life so they can up and move on again (see still at top). In this one the director had Michelangelo’s famous image of God and Adam in mind:

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Ice is central to the gothic and among the additions to Shelley’s vision, is that of body snatchers: the uses of corpses, poor people’s remains is brought out in comic pragmaticism when in Scotland Dr Frankenstein pays two Scots peasants to bring him materials. I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher.

Perhaps Dear congratulated himself too much on having given the creature back his voice, for Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 production of Frankenstein (screenplay Steph Lady, and Frank Darabout, producer Francis Ford Coppola) with Robert De Niro as the monster and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth and a bride-monster of Frankenstein, had an equally articulate poignant presence for the monster. Dear and Boyle learned from Branagh and De Niro.

It was a production and is now a film which shows how transcendent and variable the gothic can be. The New York Times critic made fun of it — a paradoxical measure of its transcendence (the monster is alive and peeved!) It’s very effective in this film production – - where they do intersperse some stills from the 1931 Whale Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff), but for once I will concede that I was aware how much more charged it must be to have been in the theater. I don’t often feel this in the HD operas which are directed for film; this is a play taking advantage of all the techniques and stagings possible nowadays of a theater in the round and live stage.

It’s worth while to listen to Dear’s description of a many year project and the book as providing a contemporary creation myth:

Ellen

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The San Francisco Opera production, with Eric Owens as Porgy and Lester Lynch as Crown

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Metropolitan Opera production of Le Nozze, with (most notable performance) Peter Mattei as the Count

Dear friends and readers,

The other night I was saying to Yvette as we sat down to our supper together and she channeled onto her ipad a station playing beautiful opera music (it happened to be Wagner’s Die Meistersinger for which we did buy HD-tickets), we have not heard or watched a full opera in ever so long — that is, if you exclude last week’s Great Performance on PBS of a splendid Sweeney Todd with (most notable performance) Emma Thompson. Well, we made up for this a little this weekend.

Friday night we watched a truly superb rendition of Gerswin’s 1930′s lyrical opera, Porgy and Bess. You have five more days to watch it here (start now if you can, or come back soon):

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365348853/

The meditative feel of the music reminded me of an Aaron Copeland opera Jim and I saw years ago, The Tender Land (1954), also an ensemble piece. The opera has flaws: stereotyping of black people in a condescending way, a couple seen writ much larger in the appalling Amos ‘n Andy TV show; Gershwin with the help of (mostly) Suzan Lori-Parks as librettist, assumes that women have no agency at all when it comes to choosing a sexual partner: Bess (Laquita Mitchell — not her fault) is depicted as helpless against her attraction to a mean Crown (Lester Lynch), only able to defy him because he is so violent and awful in comparison with the generous disabled Porgy (Eric Owens) who is driven to murder Crown:

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Porgy risks all (because the white men in this world as as viciously in charge of an unjust criminal system then as now); but while he is away she is unable to resist the temptation of drugs offered by Sporting Life (played wittily, vibrantly by Chauncey Paker — who has a resonant individual voice):

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Despite this it’s a serious opera, meaning to be genuinely reflective and respectful towards working class black people’s lives down south in the 1930s, genuinely critical of the white establishment. The music is often gorgeous, haunting. I was moved to discover there is a widow’s long lament for a husband unjust cut off:

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Especially strong (no surprise there) was Eric Owens who gave his disabled character a real living presence: he is not simply or not a saint. Much of his heroism is quiet. The story takes a while to become prominent and drama take over, but when it does, Owens endows his character with strength, manly dignity (for lack of a better term) and when at the close of the opera, he finally gets the people around him to tell him where Bessy has gone (New York City, envisaged as this dangerous large place) he sets off walking on his crutch to rescue Bessy from herself, I felt very moved.

This morning reading about tragedy in the opening two essays in the recent PMLA (actually readable and relevant, even provocative) brought home to me how the depiction of the working poor in Porgy and Bess reminded me of Daniel Auteil’s recent stunningly beautiful film adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s Marius (about fisherman in the Marseilles area): again the work depends on a group of peasant stereotypes, working class people all fundamentally finally good, and there is an idealization of the life of fisher people in the Marseilles area but this does not begin to give the feel of the story — wrenching manipulation and suspense is part of it too. It endows these characters with archetypal dignity and their conflicts and troubles capture our own memories and feelings. Maybe this descendent from Italian verismo books and operas was part of the 1930s socialist movements.

Auteil and Zambello’s direction is daring, the characters are allowed to feel fully, to have tender subtleties and witty nuances as in the characters of Jake (Eric Green) and Clara (Angel Blue) and their baby: he goes out fishing in bad weather and she seeing he is at risk, rushes out to stop and to save him, and both drown. “Summertime” is Clara’s song.

I wish I could say the same for this new production of Le Nozze di Figaro. It struck me that one response of the Metropolitan film people (including the man who directs the films for the cinema and is never interviewed, Gary Halverson) to having their operas beamed across the world is to play whatever is the material utterly safe. The bye-word: never offend anyone if you can possibly help it, and the way to do this is, especially when you have a “warhorse” opera which comes with a baggage of expectations, stick with a broadly traditional rendition, to the point of blandness. I love this opera, and have seen many performances with Jim — I have in the house a full thick yellow book of the script and musical score he would read to himself. One stands out in my memory aired on PBS around Christmas time at least 15 years ago, also a live staged opera performance filmed. it was very funny, but it was also warm, emotional, with the characters complex while corresponding to satiric and opera types.

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A typical stiff screen shot of the group

In this production, you could be forgiven if you took the first half to have been rewritten by Rossini. It was not quite all dense farce, because you cannot omit the Countess’s melancholy aria, but one wondered where that came from. The singer, Amanda Majeski as the Countess, had a frozen face throughout the opera with her mouth held just so to make the notes exquisitely right, but as to any expression of emotion on her face, forget it. I didn’t blame her as Isabel Leonard playing Cherubino had a similarly frozen expression on her face: salacious wit had she none. Jim used to say his favorite character in the opera was Cherubino: this performance allowed no ambiguities because it had no complexities: she was simply scared or “in love” with Barbarina (Ying Fang). There was not a single scene which suggested intimacy with the countess. I usually dislike saying an actress-singer is too old for the part, but the way Marlis Peterson as Susannah was directed, she really came across as a stiff vexed tired servant:

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Leonard referred to “my” countess, but there was little intimacy between Cherubino and the countess; rather the pair were Susannah and Cherubino somehow working at something

As Susannah she was glad of a rest once in a while (as if she were Anna Smith Bate in Downton Abbey) when with the countess or her protective Figaro, played as broadly as Majeski and Leonard did theirs by Ildar Abdrazakov. I saw him last year as the Ivor in Prince Borodin and know he can do better. The only performer to escape this Rossini farce vise was Mattei and I had to wonder was if the result was to vindicate the proud amoral count Beaumarchais’s play and Mozart’s opera were meant to expose and ridicule.

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Peter Mattei during his opera — most of the time he was directed to look like a 1930s kind of lout

The second act was much better. Both leading men had arias with depths of emotion as they expressed their versions of manliness under travail (Mattei especially good at indignation and anger), and with this music still lingering, Majeski’s aria alone and then writing the letter with Peterson as Susanna (exquisitely lovely music) had resonance. The pace ironically was slower as if the director worried if they moved too fast we, a presumed dim audience, would not understand who and what was being mixed up in the night. The roundabout stage was moved back and forth as a kind of underlining as the characters worked to make it clear who had the wrong costume and veil on.

The putting the characters in 1930s outfits changed nothing of the meaning of the opera — as the use of Frank Sinatra and his crew’s stereotypes similarly changed nothing of Rigoletto last year: even deliberately lost some of the bite as the disabled condition of the hunchback was underplayed. In the San Francisco production Porgy is a cripple and for better and worse treated as such.

The most genuine moments in this HD film came in the intermission. When Renee Fleming had hyped and flattered to the point of embarrassment, Abradazkov suddenly said the experience of playing together in practice had been boring. This was turned around to be an ironic joke — of course he didn’t mean that. But it did stop Fleming in her tracks of adulation. There was a film of James Levine interviewed by Gelb in a chair built to enable Levine to sit up: Levine’s shook slightly as he talked and he noticed, this so began to hold them firm to stop their wandering. He tried to discuss this group of performers and production in plain language, all the while looking like a man who been through death, and lives with it daily and nightly.

Audiences matter in a live performance. The Met audience was the usual New York City crowd. There were no outbursts of ravishment during the production and the applause at the end while strong (after all tickets cost), had nothing to suggest anything special had happened. It hadn’t. Inside our movie-house theater, people weren’t applauding all that much, many were getting up to leave.

In the San Franciso audience though I did see something to remark: it was troubling to me to see that I could not spot one African-American or black person in the theater. Yvette offered the explanation that we rarely see black people at the opera; and perhaps it was too expensive, maybe less black people live in San Francisco than we realize. But in my experience when a work has only a few black cast members who are central this will attract black people to become part of their audience. Owens said in his candid way in his interview on-line he has become so used to performing with all white casts, he begins to forget everyone around him is white and now to perform with an all-black cast brought home to him his forgetting. (I’d use the word unconscious self-alienation: when I lived in the UK for a couple of years, similarly American accents began to sound funny to me, yet I still had an American accent, if it was gradually being changed by Yorkshire rhythms and vowels. And would have more had I stayed.) I know young black people will have read Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin so white art can become part of their classics. Does Porgy and Bess not speak to black Americans? the way it was directed and performed every effort was made to transcend the stereotypes and produce something fresh.

Ellen

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

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

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

Dear readers and friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ellen

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

monitoring

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

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

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

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

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

Gaslightsetting

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

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

gaslightknife

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

bloodthirsty-bessieheerful

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

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

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

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

cukor (in 1945)

Ellen

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