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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cukor (in 1945)

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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Anton abusing Charles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Driving up that first day — Sebastian driving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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

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

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Chris (Helen Mirren) as January

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marie leading the meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The group

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Chris at the center

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Ruth on the side

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Annie

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The group again

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

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

Ellen

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Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) during trial of Eichmann

Every Day: War is no longer declared,/only continued — Ingeborg Bachmann

Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor, is the true test of civilization — Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

In the feature Von Trotta says she had wanted to make film about Arendt for a long time, but was stopped because this was the story of a thinking woman, a woman who spent her life thinking passionately and then writing about it. She did succeed in making an absorbing thoughtful movie on just this theme, though the way it’s done is to thread into much of the story (I tell below) with scenes of Arendt lying on her bed smoking and (presumably) thinking, walking in woods smoking (and presumably …) or at her typewriter. We get little about her earlier background, and only so much of her autobiography as sheds light on her experience of Nazism: she was fortunate enough to escape.

Although I know I’m not qualified to write about Margarthe von Trotta’s thought-drenched portrait of Hannah Arendt in a film named after her because I’ve read only excerpts from her essays or brief essays about her (often semi-hostile or not quite comfortable) and have just begun Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s Hannah Arendt: for love of the world (biography), still since I may never get to a level of reading in her or hear or see her talk, I think I can make do on what I do know, as what this blog will be about it is von Trotta’s film.

Allow me to cut to what is important about the film. While von Trotta is known for representing forgotten or marginalized women, or “foremothers” in history:

VISION. A film by Margarethe von Trotta.

her film about Arendt is about a centrally important & remembered philosopher whose works include Eichmann on Trial and The Origins of Totalitarianism. And though some love stories provide “beats” in the movies’ plot-design, the central of the movie is Arendt’s thought. In a DVD feature, von Trotta talked about the difficulty of portraying a woman most of whose hours were spent reading, writing and thinking. She also wanted to convey the content of the thinking.

The solution was to move quickly in the film from a depiction of Hannah’s home life and friends, a long time correspondent, Mary McCarthy (Janet von Teer),

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Hannah’s long-time happy marriage with a kindred German spirit, Heinrich Blucher (Axel Milberg)

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and secretary, Lotte (Julia Jentsch),

Julia

a general ambience of her life living in a co-op in Manhattan, teaching at NYC, to the New Yorker invitation to her to write several essays as a reporter. It was the ferocious angry rejection of what Arendt wrote and her response that gave von Trotta her opportunity. In life Arendt carried on writing (as she does in this film) and stood up for her beliefs and her work. In this film she gets into debates with the central figures in her life, e.g., Hans Jones (Ulrich Noenthen) and Kurt Blumenfield (Michael Degan. She explains and defends her choices.

One seemed to me relevant to us here today, whether you live in the US (evolving in the most inhumane and unjust ways as a fascistic oligarchy backed by militarism) or Europe (see, e.g. Perry Anderson’s Italian Disaster, LRB): what is causing the evils we see growing everywhere (from privatizing of all things, hospitals, prisons, schools, the post office): she argues one center of evil comes from the refusal of people to behave as individual human beings with any kind of conscience and obligation to others as human beings. Not recognizing any sense of social reciprocity beyond their obedience to an organization to maintain and rise in their place in it. It’s not fiendish monsters. This idea of Arendt’s that Eichmann was not extraordinary monster provoked outrage. The key to where evil comes from is the idea individuals have no obligation to others. Here’s an economic example:

A story example: Bruno Bettelheim has a story about how real evil occurs between two men sitting in a restaurant where one offers the other a contract for a supposedly strong bridge built cheaply and gets a kick-back knowing the bridge will collapse in a few years (or need heavy repairs).

An economic example: from The Arrogance of Architects in the NYRB, June 5, 2014:

In Dubai, the much-ballyhooed botanical symbol of a sheltering oasis gives way to a more mundane reality. As Moore writes:

The Palm, so impressive when seen on Google Earth, is more ordinary at ground level, where what you see are high walls and close-packed developments that block views of the water. Owners of homes on the fronds found that they faced not so much the sea, as a suburban cul-de-sac penetrated by a tongue of brine.
Moore describes even more unappetizing realities of this dysfunctional fantasyland:

What couldn’t be seen from the helicopter was the crisis in the drains. Dubai’s buildings emptied their sewage into septic tanks, whence they were taken to the Al-Aweer sewage works, on the road out towards the desert and Oman. The sewage works had not kept pace with the city’s growth, and a long line of tankers, some painted with flowers by their Indian drivers, stood for hours in the heavy heat as they waited their turn to offload….
Some drivers, tired of waiting, had taken to pouring their cargo at night into the rainwater drainage system, which discharged straight into the sea. The owner of a yacht club, finding that his business was affected by the sight and smell of brown stuff on the bright white boats, took photographs of the nocturnal dumpings and gave them to the press. The authorities responded, tackling the symptoms but not the cause, by introducing severe penalties for miscreant drivers.

Yet such treatment of migrant workers would scarcely surprise the vast foreign labor force recruited worldwide to construct and maintain the new architecture and infrastructure of Dubai and the other United Arab Emirates, under sometimes appalling and widely documented conditions tantamount to indentured servitude, if not de facto slavery. The preponderance of celebrated architects hired to work in the Gulf States for the “value-added” commercial cachet of their well-publicized names and Pritzker Prizes—including Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Jean Nouvel—has led to calls that these respected figures boycott commissions there until laborers’ working conditions, pay, and freedom of movement are markedly improved.

However, despite the numerous horror stories about this coercive exploitation, some big-name practitioners don’t seem moved by the plight of the Emirates’ imported serfs. Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and a member of Gulf Labor, an advocacy group that is seeking to redress this region-wide injustice, earlier this year wrote a chilling New York Times Op-Ed piece.1 In it he quotes the Iraqi-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid, who designed the Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar, now being built for the 2022 World Cup. She has unashamedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern, for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished while constructing her project thus far. “I have nothing to do with the workers,” Hadid has claimed. “It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.”

She also devoted a number of pages to the leading well-connected and better-off Jewish leaders who colluded with the Nazis, making it easy for the Nazis to round up poor Jews and send them off to their deaths. Like Eichmann, they claimed innocence, but on other grounds: they denied knowing a massacre and enslavement were what awaited deported Jewish people. Others less well-placed did not flee because they could not or kept hoping that they would not have to (and leave a life-time’s work behind). She was accused of blaming all Jews, of blaming the victims — she was explaining the social psychology of what happened.

These are but two of the debates the film manages to convey without becoming at all a didactic costume drama where characters talk in unreal abstract preach-y ways. Also dramatized briefly is Hannah’s affair with Heidegger (Klaus Pol), a Nazi, anti-semite some said, her mentor in college, and his idea that what we flatter ourselves is thought logical thought is not; it’s ideas going through our heads as we remain alive. We see her talk with her husband, Heinrich about people politics; with William Shawn (Nicholas Woodson) about editing the New Yorker articles and Shawn talk with his staff about what the average New Yorker reader understands and wants to read.

NewYorker

Three men at the New School who hired her become implacable enemies (fearful for their school reputation).

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Margarethe von Trotta

All this is embedded in a woman’s life. The director a woman, the scriptwriter, Pam Katz, the producer, Bettina Brokemper. I enjoyed the story-line which represents another alternative script-type from Syd Field — this one personal and cylical as we watch Hannah’s relationships with her women friends and then each male, sometimes in a flashback, sometimes re-met today as older people who go back together. Her husband has an aneuryism and she’s terrified of losing him. He does seem to recover. It’s said Sukowa is one of von Trotta’s favorite actresses for her films: in this one became Arendt — chain-smoking away, going through phases of existence and writing. A friend Diane R had alerted me to the existence of the movie on Women Writers Across the Ages (at Yahoo) when she wrote:

It wasn’t a great movie, too episodic, too polemic in spots, too wooden in other spots, hampered by its clunky attempts to be faithful to history, but I very much appreciated its depiction of Arendt as a middle aged woman who is relentlessly presented as no longer beautiful but who is nevertheless a full human being with a full life. While not sexualized in a Hollywood way, she is yet clearly sexual to her husband (or partner), and while she is attacked over her Eichmann in Jerusalem book, she is never humiliated. No woman in the movie is humiliated. Although Arendt has a young, pretty assistant, and at the beginning of the movie Arendt’s friend implies that Arendt’s husband/partner must be having an affair with a student, the set up of older woman betrayed by younger woman never comes to pass.

So many movies make older women into figures of ridicule (Grand Budapest Hotel the most recent.)

A great deal of money was spent. It was a long-time germinating and took a long time to do. It was filmed in New York City, in Jerusalem, in parts of Germany. The costumes and hair-does of the sixties, the furniture, the student ambience. The way TVs worked. There was real care to imitate the look and arrangement of the rooms (their uses) and furniture in the last Riverside Drive apartments (all taken precisely from Young-Buehl’s book). Each room had several functions, all had books and places to write and places to sit and talk with friends. And it’s all there.

Perhaps the strongest stroke of inspired genius was to work in the real footage of Eichman himself in Jerusalem. He was creepy: his face twisted with humiliation and anger as he faced people he had treated as “vermin.”

Eichmann

I felt his arrogance and disdain. It was chilling, like someone out of Dr Strangelove. As Hannah and Heinlein say in the movie, the trouble with hanging him is it doesn’t get near to what might be an adequate punishment without becoming barbarians ourselves.

Other characters in the film have stories like that of Hannah: Fran on our WWTTA list also wrote the “Zionest Kurt von Blumenfeld the fatherly figure also turns from her on his deathbed, and was a writer, a survivor of the Holocaust himself, who wrote the memoir, Not all of them were murderers. A childhood in Berlin describing the way he and his mother escaped deportation and the gas chambers by assuming false identities and living with non-Jewish friends for the duration. His father wasn’t so fortunate: he died as a result of the torture he experienced in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Degen’s memoir has also been turned into a film.”

I mean to read (if I had spirit enough and time) Eichmann in Jerusalem, the book that was published from the six New Yorker articles. Origins of Totalitariansm: (from Publishers’ Weekly): “she discusses the evolution of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the nontotalitarian world, the use of terror, and the nature of isolation and loneliness as preconditions for total domination. (e.g., Republicans in Tennessee outlawed any further money for public transportation; US cities are rebuilt to put middle and lower middle class people out of the center and with little public transportation.) The film has provided a basis for seminars in studies of Arendt.

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The real Hannah Arendt

Ellen

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My beautiful laundrette: 3 of the principals: Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis), Omar (Gordon Warnecke), Tania (Rita Wolf)

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Sammie and Rosie Get Laid: street-fighting, riot, encampment removal, killing people, the backdro: Rani (Meera Syal)

Dear friends and readers,

Over the last few nights I’ve been watching these strangely unforgotten films: if you cite the titles, My Beautiful Laundrette (1986) or Sammie and Rosie Get Laid (1987), they seem to ring a bell in your hearer’s ears, or your correspondent’s email. Even if both were directed by the now famous Stephen Frears, as both were filmed more than 25 years ago, there no VHS cassette nor DVD available for Sammie and Rosie, and Laundrette was made for TV on a very low budget, before it was released to movie-houses, some unusual long-remembered chord was struck.

You can buy the screenplays as well as essays and diaries about them, plus Hanif Kureishi’s third screenplay, in a volume called London Kills Me: 3 screenplays & four essays by Hanif Kureishi: I was first drawn to them as I began reading and realized here are yet another set of movies which have drawn riveted audiences which don’t at all abide by the Syd Field screenplay paradigm (true, archetypally, Laundrette can be made to fit). I seem to be intent on watching as many of these as I can: Le Weekend (again Hanif Kureishi, the scriptwriter) two weeks ago, and Only Lovers Left Alive (scripted directed by Jim Jarmusch) this week, 40 minutes into which you are still wondering what is happening here, and what is compelling me to sit here and carry on anyway. Gothic freak that I am

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Tilda Swindon as Eve, in this vampire as all anxiety

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Tom Hiddleston as Adam, the vampire determined to fend everyone off

Surely not anything I am identifying with (as I did Johnny in Laundrette) or anything making any kind of coherent political statement (as does Sammie and Rosie). No, it was the images themselves (which is why I can’t resist circulating them from other places on the Net). And images from Laundrette and Sammie and Rosie are equally arresting.

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Daniel Day Lewis won New York Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor

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An image of contemporary male Britain

Just watch the whole of Sammie and Rosie and you’ll see the point:

Maybe they are remembered because they did not give rise to copycat films; they remain sort of sui generis.

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My Beautiful Laundrette‘s plot shows you it’s about contemporary Britain’s ethnically mixed population coping while exacerbated by class injuries and lack of cash; it’s also about love two between two gay young men (Johnny and Omar); it’s about older male Pakistani’s emotional desperation, especially the depressed impoverished alcoholic Pape played by Roshan Seth (in an truly unforgettable performance); his beloved Pakistani wife threw herself under one of the trains that whizz by their flat, and he longs for his son to succeed somehow or other:

papaJohnny

It’s also about a younger female Pakistani’s alienation (Tania) from her traditional culture with no welcome into white modern culture. All the characters are complex presences and time is given to characters who don’t fit the general pattern: Rachel (Sally Ann Field) the slightly aging white “mistress” of one of Omar’s rich uncles, Nasser (Saeed Jeffrey) dissatisfied with an ignorant vengeful wife who has been made to be that way.

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Kureishi writes of how his childhood growing up in the UK, visits to Pakistan, schooling and reading (he loved Baldwin all the more because Baldwin was attacked as hating blacks and himself), career, racial experience all came together in his films. This is its beautiful lesson about life according to him:

The evil of racism is that it is a violation not only of another’s dignity, but also of one’s own person or soul; the failure of connection to others is a failure to understand or feel what it is one’s own humanity consists in, what it is to be alive, and what it is to seeing both oneself and others as ends not means … a society that is racist cannot accept itself … hates part of itself so deeply it cannot see …

It’s an impersonal truth that resonates today in the racist US. The trick of the film though is it’s odd fun: Johnny’s grin, his mischief-making as most of the time he escapes being beat the hell out of; those who savagely attack one another (feet are a target) are also intensely jealous of male fancy clothes, resentful of their own thuggishness and poverty. And memorable scenes of people having their stuff thrown out a window when they are ejected from the premises. No one has a heart but for his or her lover and not always then. Nassar weeps when Rachel says she is tired of being a sex mate and is breaking up with him. Omar berates Johnny as beneath him. Tania is last seen escaping into a train, bags in hand, no where to go where as a modern Pakistani woman she belongs. The language lacks quips (or the kind of ironic jokes Jarmusch’s film and Le Weekend specialize in); simple statements:

Tania: [Excited] I’m going. Johnny: Where? Tania: London. Away … I’m going, to live my life. You can come. Johnny: No good jobs like this [running the laundromat] in London. Tania: Omar just runs you around everywhere like a servant. Johnny: Well I’ll stay here with my friend and fight it out.

It’s easier to like My Beautiful Laundrette than Sammie and Rosie Get Laid. it has more touching moments:

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It’s about a laundromat too. One man (often mentioned in reviews) is continually on the phone explaining himself to Angela; there are other regular inhabitants too:

laundromat

Its real and enduring strength is in the suggested complexity of the characters and the believability of their difficult situations.

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My guess is the Sammie and Rosie is not commercially for sale because the judgement was few would buy it. It is not naturalistic; many scenes are symbolic and the characters kept at a distance from us. Kureishi says “it concerns a number of relationships unfolding against a background of uprising and social deterioration.” It opens with the Brixton riots, police flood a slum area and wantonly murder a black woman making spaghetti (they are after her son); the first words are Mrs Thatcher’s urging the morality of her encampment and people removal; the last words are hers overheard on a speaker.

It made me uncomfortable. Sammie (Ayub Khan Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) don’t get laid by one another: he has a girlfriend he is sleeping with, Anna (Wendy Gazelle); Rosie refuses to sleep with Sammie because she doesn’t want to get pregnant; maybe she feels she’d have to carry it to term to satisfy her Pakistani father-in-law, Rafi (Shashi Kapoor). She goes to bed with Rani ((Meera Syal), a black British man whom Rafi picks up as a body-guard for a while, a street person with wife and son. She’s liberated as she sees it: dresses overtly sexually,

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doesn’t care who Sammie sleeps with and will not hide her affairs. What bothered me was the sex was done so realistically it was cloying — not parodic and crude as in Girls, and not the chaste romance of say Jewel in the Crown or Downton Abbey (one of several films Kureishi and Frears meant to counter with theirs, viz., Chariots of Fire, Ghandi, Room with a View (the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala version). I didn’t like her outfits either; I wanted to turn away. we have a lesbian couple: one of the pair appears to be Sammie’s cousin. They find heterosexual sex disgusting. We do have a genteel couple: Claire Bloom as Alice (a quintessentially English girl’s name) is brought in as a sweetheart of Rafi’s from long-ago, now living in a green and pleasant suburb; she defends law, police, order; we are to believe she was loyal to Rafi for a long time after and his promiscuity and traditional marriage hurt her. Their scenes are of tender nostalgia love:

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The movie has no story; basically it passes through a few nights of riot and private misery, of parties and ordinary citizen life — watching TV, eating in restaurants; parallel love-making on the screen the three couples. Dialogue concerns Rafi’s political life which he has now given up: he was high in the gov’t of Pakistan and responsible for torture and many ruined lives and places and finds himself berated by his son.

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Being interviewed

He wants to retire to a peaceful suburb (like Alice’s), share his ill-gotten gains with his son and daughter-in-law, watch his grandchildren (he urges this on Sammie and Rosie as their duty) grow up. A bit improbably by the end of the movie he feels guilty about what he has seen in the streets, blames himself for his son’s (to him) hopeless relationship with his wife, but also in a state of confusion about his own life (like Nassar in My Beautiful Laundrette when he loses Rachel), he hangs himself.

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Soul Searching

The trouble with the film is the characters are not as deeply seen, they are more types.

Both movies end on a slightly upbeat note on the principle you can pull down the curtain on life on a good moment as they do occur. The laundry has been half-destroyed by Johnny’s thug friends and he beat up trying to defend one of Omar’s vicious corrupt male relatives, but after some intense strain, Johnny and Omar begin to make up, and are last seen on either side of a sink, washing Johnny’s body together genially.

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Sammie begins to cry for his father and suddenly Rosie shows tenderness to him, embracing him, and implying she may even consider going to live in a suburban house with the money Rafi has left them and at least have sex with Sammie too.

As with Ingmar Bergman’s films (I recently watched another “alternative” paradigm magnificent film, Bergman’s Smiles on a Summer’s Night), Rohmer’s and any number of serial film adaptation, costume dramas (by among others Andrew Davies, Sandy Welch), My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammie and Rosie Get Laid ought to put paid to the idea that written texts must be superior, more complex and complicated, than movies. I find myself unable to write a blog about Bergman films. They are like a super-complicated novel. To the end of his life Jim never gave up on going to see the latest Bergman; we saw them all. A favorite of his was Begrman’s The Magic Flute (it can make you cry with joy).

What I’ve been doing, what has guided my choices beyond my own taste among films in local movie-houses available this or last or the other week, is, is the screenplay available? Is a scenario (in whatever form, companion book is one)? I’m reading these and trying to work out how one moves from these texts to realization, what in the these texts are guiding indicators, how do they work as instruments for creative structure as importantly as the sequences of images and juxtapositions that are laid out in DVD analyses of films called episodes.

Who we are determines what we notice and what we regard as worthy of notice, what we find significant … I came away having bonded with Rachel (Sally Anne Field, the aging white mistress in Laundrette) and Alice (Claire Bloom, ditto, in Sammie and Rosie).

Ellen

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Breakfast in a cafe: Meg (Lindsay Duncan) and Nick (Jim Broadbent)

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Moment of release (also from Le Weekend, scripted Hanif Kureishi, directed Roger Michell)

Dear friends and readers,

I hurried out today around 4:30 in the afternoon, to catch my Uber cab to take me to the one theater in my 3 state area (10 minutes away) still playing Le Weekend because I thought I’d like it and I had read reviews whose condemnation was (I could now see) based on the 3 act goal-, and plot-oriented screenplay structure, said to be the only one worth doing (with its obstacles, pinch points, and resolution). I wanted to confirm to myself this movie was being wrongly damned because it used what Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush in their book, Alternative Scriptwriting call “alternative” modes.

Well I did like it very much, it certainly does avail itself of “alternative modes” (as did two more of the four films I’ve seen recently: The Lunchbox, Gloria), and I recommend not missing it as an intelligent and absorbing depiction of a long-married English couple’s attempt to experience some enjoyment and perhaps patch up their relationship by a weekend in Paris they can ill afford. Each feels he and she has failed in life: Nick has just been fired from, and Meg is on the edge of retiring, from teaching. During the time of the movie we see their painful (and sometimes satisfying) sexual acting out: she does refuse him sex, will not submit and at one point he gets down like a dog in front of her (perhaps this is why it’s dissed); at the same time he’s the (ex-)university professor (albeit Birmingham) and she only a schoolteacher and clings to him; Morgan is his friend, not hers. We hear their sudden passionate self-revealing subtext outbursts, witness moments of release and fun too and listen to them talk and talk, not always coherently.

They encounter Moran (Jeff Goldblum), a successful American colleague of Nick’s, go a party where they meet his prestigious Parisian connections in publishing and beautiful young pregnant French wife (he’s on his second family), and empathetic (to Nick) seemingly isolated teenage NYC son from another marriage.

It is part of the movie’s meaning that Lindsay Duncan does carry off the role of an aging still beautiful woman (who may long for an affair but has not had one) and Jim Broadbent an aging still virile (if frequently frustrated and jealous) man. Its intended niche is probably the 50 to 70 set although some of what happens surely speaks home to any adult experiencing increasingly frustratingly counterproductive roles in worlds where inequalities are made more egregious by the insistent luxurious environments.

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The lobby

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In the hotel room

There is a sort of resolution: by the end they have confessed to one another how much they need and mean to one another, have told an exploitative son (who is in need of a place without rats for himself, wife and baby) no, he cannot come live with them again (upon which the son hangs up), gotten themselves so badly in debt for a gorgeous suite in a top Parisian hotel that their passports and luggage is being held. The friend comes to take them back to his flat, with the film dissolving into a three way dance to a juke box in yet another cafe.

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Morgan at a dinner party he invited them to, just before he makes his speech on behalf of Nick’s life — and Nick makes a counter-one showing himself to be a financial and career failure

They do not (as most reviews online have suggested) end up burnt out completely — far from it. The friend, an ex-student pal of Nick’s speaks a speech which shows how meaningful much of Nick’s life as a teacher and scholar have been. Meg has at least held her own as a woman in daily control of herself, her body, her space. The aesthetic closure of the film (the final dancing) is much less important than the texture of the experiences (hotel rooms, clothes, food, their bodies) and thematic parallels and contrasts, the spoken words and gestures in the film’s story-line and character displays, the colors and lights, now garish, now washed out.

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Paris at night and they remember hurts

Shots are oddly cut and juxtaposed, a hand-held camera is common; there are no crises until the very end (when their credit card is canceled), no ratcheting up at the end of “acts,” no pinch points or melodramatic reversals from which there is no return or even surprises.

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Street walking

I decided to write about this movie because it defies the Syd Field prescription — as do many of my favorite films and I don’t just go to art films. I go to mainstream ones (like Woody Allen’s which often do not fit). I don’t think this movie’s premise, appercus, rich if bleak offering could be conveyed by the 3 act structure so insisted on as the only thing possible (except for the rare “art” film) in not only the widely-read work of Field but most books on screenplays which are knock-offs and variations on his schemata. And I regularly see many films which do not adhere to the three act structure trumpeted everywhere, whether character- or plot-driven.

How do these screenplay books get away with this falsification. I’m reading a more intelligent version of these just now: Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush’s Alternative Scriptwriting.

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Cover for first edition

It’s simple: they do not discuss any films by women, any films made with the women in an audience in mind. All the movies they analyze at length are better versions of strong male-oriented hits Field analyzes (e.g., The Verdict where guess what the hero gets control over his life); in the rare instances they do have a film meant for women, it’s one which follows the masculine model (Thelma and Louise does). Another aspect of these choices: — no homosexual central roles in any of the chosen films for analysis. I know US films have a narrow view of heterosexual male sexuality and rarely make a homosexual person central — hardly have a GBLT person as a minor character — and it is reinforced in these formula books.

Dancyger and Rush made be said to try to offer an alternative to what is an intelligent version of Syd Field but not quite succeed. Several times now when they say here is an alternative structure, they go about to discover the Field model (action, goal oriented, finally upbeat) or when it’s not there they talk about what is substituted. I don’t think Ingmar Bergman in his (1955) marvelous magnificent Smiles of a Summer Night (which I watched the other night) was substituting features for a Fieldian model in an archetypcal mould.

I wish I could say I was amused by Dancyger and Rush’s single paragraph acknowledging both the conventional models they begin with are not the way “women know”. They cite a famous classic, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, agree it’s cyclical and goes against conventional goal-oriented conventions, but after briefly recommending a book on Women’s Ways of Knowing, they move on. They also have a brief chapter on the “multiple threaded long form TV serial scripts.” They do analyze how it differs: for example a “narrative voice” or tone and mood emerges by organizing the segments around unifying themes. They appear to find this form rich with more possibilities of intertextuality and intelligence than the three part Field structure. At the same time though they avoid all the really popular costume dramas and soap operas and instead found some popular male serial on commercial TV or looked briefly at Breaking Bad. There really appears to be no book on women’s screenplays and scripts where they differ radically from men’s. No book on the kind of screenplay used for Le Weekend.

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I have about 4 books on technical filmic art matters by feminist film critics who are women; one of them Women and Film (ed Pam Cook) is quoted everywhere. My little library appears to comprise some of the central ones written! books by women which are in effect analyzing to expose the falseness of typical shibboleths and taboos (no voice over, no flashback as feminine or too intellectual): Kozloff’s Invisible Storytellers, and Turim on flashbacks and time in film, but neither identifies herself openly as feminist or about films by women (as do the books on content and women’s films like Jeanine Basinger’s How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-70). I now see they do go over films I watch and go well outside these action-adventure male films, but none of them go into screenplays, the very backbone of the film. I have a number of studies of costume drama and soap opera but again often not of the scripts or screenplays.

A lacuna. A perspective for the first part of my book (as my reader will instantly recalled its working title is A Place of Refuge: the Jane Austen film canon could be how Austen films go against these male conventions in many of their screenplasy – even though many of the Austen films are by men and several of those by women for popular cinema obey the male conventions, e.g., Juliette Towhidi’s Death comes to Pemberley out of P.D.James’s book has the restorative three act structure used for character development: the premise of the film is Elizabeth needs to prove herself mistress of Pemberley, gain everyone’s respect the way her housekeeper, Mrs Reynolds has, to somehow show Darcy that he did not make a mistake when he married her, and prove that to herself; only within this upbeat goal-oriented convention does a gothic cyclical structure emerge for the Wickham-Young-Bidwell back-story repeating the hanging of a boy in the previous generation; and a flowering out soap opera romance one for Georgiana Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Henry Alveston triangular conflicts.

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Each of the characters in the book and film of The Jane Austen Book Club corresponds to characters and themes in Austen’s book

Still of the 5 films I’ve chosen for this opening part, 4 are based on books by woman, 4 have women as script writers, 1 a woman director and producer, and I know three of them, Robin Swicord’s The Jane Austen Book Club, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, and Guy Andrews’s Lost in Austen rely on the alternative feminine (if one wants to give it a gender label), narrative voice and dialogue within a multiple thread plot-design. The middle part is a study of the 7 Sense and Sensibility films as a group and the third (a triptych!) what are the assumptions film-makers make about the reading experience audiences have had with an Austen novel and expect to have analogously in watching an Austen film. What makes many readers uncomfortable when they read Austen and what have the film-makers done to compensate, erase, replace. The perspective here at the last will be biographical, out of her letters and the one biopic film based on these, Miss Austen Regrets.

I have gathered a number of screenplays and DVDs to watch and study: a number by women, e.g., Laura Jones’s The Portrait of Lady, some by intelligent sensitive males, Pinter’s A Proust Screenplay, Graham Greene’s a Third Man, four of Ingmar Bergmann’s and four of Woodie Allen’s. But I find that nothing is a complete and useful as the annotated and footnoted scripts accompanied by richly-illustrated and photographed scenario books for Julian Fellowes’s Downton Abbey (and a combined book for Vanity Fair, directed by Mira Nair) and rejoice at the coming third book of scripts for the third season, due out next year just in time for the airing of the fifth season: shooting has already
begun
.

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Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis) in the rain under an umbrella — making me remember Jo March and Prof Bauer’s kiss under his umbrella (Little Women)

Ellen

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