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Walt

Jesse (1)
Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) listening to one another

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

Resusciating
A failed resuscitation

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

Fierce

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Hank newly on his guard

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

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

Confessing

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

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Group Leader: Sounds kind of kafaesque

Jesse: Yeah totally kafaesque majorly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hank and Marie’s clasped hands

Ellen

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Actors Serge (Fabrice Luchini) and Gauthier (Lambert Wilson) trade lines and shout scenes from “The Misanthrope”

Dear friends and readers,

My freed-up license continues to enable me to pass the time less desperately. I missed the Cinemart theater film club’s first two films, but as the theater-owner has the custom of moving some of the films to the regular theater if enough people vote favorably for it, I was able to see one of them: its French title is more appropriate: “Alceste à bicyclette,” directed by Philippe Le Guay and written by him and Fabrice Lucini (one of the two central actors). Both our heroes are actors playing aging actors, and turn out to contain as much of Alceste in them as Philinth (the reconcilier, the temporiser, the compromiser). Both travel about the island on bicycles but not while reciting Moliere.

Oncycles

It’s another unusual film worth seeing: a re-do of Moliere’s play in modern terms. I will let other reviewers retell the story (see Stephen Holden, New York Times, this past April). It’s not great. At the end the film does (as Moliere) condemn the misanthrope and assert how one must make the most of whatever cheer this moment offers, whatever pleasure, be an optimist as an act of strength, so it’s not particularly original, even cantish. The story does not relate to this debate directly nor dramatize it adequately. It has some lapses too: slapstick over falling into the water in bicycles whose brakes don’t work; it includes two women clearly because the film-maker thought one must and one of them looks like some throw-back to Brigitte Bardot (all voluptuousness, blonde, wide blue eyes, all sweetness — she recites her lines in a rote way so the rhymes ring out), and the great joke here is she wants to be a porn star. Yes it’s utterly masculinist. The women (there are others, a publicist, a director) remain marginal, not people men confide in, but those who put pressure on the men they have to cope with.

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What is absorbing about it is how the two men rehearse the play and repeat its speeches over and over using different tones and at different points in the story or revelations of their characters, so (as Stephanie Merry of the Washington Post says), we see deeper into the meaning of the words and this meaning changes over the course of the film. Serge almost has a vasectomy in the movie, and pulls back because he (rightly) does not trust the doctors. They are both involved with upper middle class renovations of ancient houses and cottages; confronted with a perfectly good place to live, the first thing they are expected to do is spend oodles renovating it. Sums are mentioned by contractors which reminded me of what contractors tell me. Gaultier almost drowns trying to use a fountain jacuzzi. Francesca’s (Maya Sansa) husband left her for a woman to have children with after he had agreed they did not want children and it was somewhat too late for her. He felt no obligation to stay. The characters remark on how unfair the inequalities we see around us are. It is a film made with a middle class US as well as French audience in mind. Unlike Moliere’s play, this piece is frivolous.

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The themes include acting, what is real and what performance, where does a theater begin and end: Gauthier makes huge sums of money and has a fan-following because he is in this ludicrous medical fiction mini-series on TV, where he plays your usual heroical-moral doctor (reminding me of this parodic role in the superb exploration of these in brilliant comedy Nurse Betty featuring a young Renee Zellweger and Morgan Freeman); at one point the characters sit down to watch one of the episodes, and Gauthier is mortified as he knows the others are laughing at the show even as they seem to praise it. The film closes with Gaulthier playing Alceste on stage with another actor and we watch the play in traditional costume traditionally done, and this does not come off either. Houses are sets; meals are there to socialize with. The characters are allowed to reveal themselves slowly — it’s a long film (Yvette began to worry when more than 2 and 1/2 hours had gone by and I was not yet back) that they feel like real people and we get involved over the disappointments of their lives. Maybe best of all after the brilliant re-rehearsing is the photography and colors of Île de Ré the characters are in. Soft blues, ivory colors, the waters.

CyclingWithMoliere

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One ad calls the place “the Martha’s Vineyard of France” (I’ve never been to or am likely to go to Martha’s Vineyard so maybe this is as close as I’ll get …)

So another one not to miss this summer. By this second week it was playing but once a day in the movie-house’s smallest auditorium and there was only one person there besides me and my friend, Vivian. I know 4th of July is not a big one for movies. Still it may not last as its action is verbal, intellectual, intangible emotions, thoughts that are not easily articulated.

As opposed to last year when it was fiercely hot, today was cool in the morning: we were at the edge of an umbrella of clouds from a nearby hurricane; when the sun came out in the afternoon the cool air persisted. So the trip and walk from car to theater and back again were pleasant too.

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

Torgny_Segerstedt
The real Torgny Segerstedt

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

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

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

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

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Anita Levisson (Lia Boysen)

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

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

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Again Torgny and Maja dancing at a ball — showing off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A review in the New York Times

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

Jewish boy eating in unsanitary conditions of the Lodz ghetto
A photo from many in the book (some taken by hidden cameras)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A boy early in the anthology —

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

Ellen

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RobertAudley

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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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Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) appealing to Walter White (Bryan Cranston) to get into the car to talk

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Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) listening to Hank (Dean Norris) making excuses for why he must go to El Paso

Dear friends and readers,

I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn I’m carrying on with this. First I might as well ‘fess up. I’ve a personal investment: Aaron Paul playing Jesse Pinkman at some of his most hard-core guarded moments reminds me of Jim when I first met him — at the time kicked out of university, sleeping on a chair at a club he had belonged to the first year he was in university, coming to my door, waiting for me to come out of a bookstore, always there on time, helping me cook, shop, or occasionally even more recently, nearly 50 years later, talking to someone come to our door now who had irritated him, showing that person the door. And my heart has quite warmed to Betsy Brandt playing Marie: she shows real concern for Hank, real need for him, loyalty to him — and people she’s known all her life. She is loyal to Skylar (Anna Gunn) though Sylar tried to cut Marie off utterly when she discovered Marie’s sickness. Marie is genuinely upset to see Hank endanger himself because he must look like he wants a promotion (in fact he does). So there are two characters for me to like, to worry for.

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Not that I don’t feel for Walt — I do as he attempts at first to divest himself of his business making meths now that the bills are paid, the cancer seems in remission, and he has enough to leave his family if he should predecease them after all, and even more so when he discovers that everyone around him is pressuring him either to exercise his gifts again (to make them huge sums of money) or rejecting him savagely mostly on grounds that he cannot pull off the hypocrisy they enact (from the principle of his school to of course the moral horror, his wife, Skylar [Anna Gunn], who was allowed or asked to gain weight so she looks squarer, narrower-eyed, more tasteless than she had in previous episodes.

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But what really held me through the four hours this time was the artistry of this mini-series. My reward for having gone this far was at long last there was voice-over commentary over an episode where the people weren’t yuking it up and saying nothing (as had the previous voice-overs) but intelligently discussing the mise-en-scene, shots, coloration, music, acting decisions. This was for Las Mas, the first episode of the season where Cranston had been the director (as well as acting star). The cinematographer used a yellow filter over his camera for all the scenes in Mexico, a palette of brown-orange. Cranston acknowledged the series’s unusual commitment to nuanced acting between two actors over a scene that can take well over 10 minutes. No music in the background. They seriously discussed why they juxtaposed a scene with another, the characters’ personalities, an attempt at visual pictures — so the two psychopathic killers as they walk away from a truck they blew up (with people in it) have behind them gorgeous orange-yellow-red colors and flames and the whole screen yellowish. Other moments are similarly worked at for color, disposition, symbolisms.

I find the secret to the way the series holds me is are these long-drawn out conversations, altercations, or discussions, where it seems nothing important is happening and then suddenly two or three sharp biting scenes and we are involved with someone justified angry. As to the larger story-line, the near foreground horrifies and absorbs us. As opposed to most mini-series there is no sub-plot, no patterned parallel and ironic other stories, just one story. And in a given episode not much happens. I mentioned this is an action-adventure story if you consider the piece from the movie genre point of view; it’s crime or sensational fiction if you consider it as a filmed novel. Instead of a detective, the criminal is at the center and he is a victim, so we have reverses within reverses. We are asked to identify with the man driven to act criminally through society’s mechanisms (huge prices for staving off death from an environment produced cancer), who when he attempts to stop, finds himself unable to reintegrate, irritated by the hypocrisies all around him. After the crash in the gym he alone will not repeat the obvious false pieties that everyone will never forget, never be the same again and the microphone is taken from him. The detective figure or DEA agent (Hank) is (again unusual) imperceptive except when he gets an obvious clue and then is unable to put two and two together so he has forgotten Jesse Pinkman’s trailer as he stares at the camera shot of this trailer in black-and-white.

The combination of a strong mythic use of color and a reverse crime story made me think of Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, which we are reading on Trollope19thCStudies (@ Yahoo) together. The primitive violence there also addresses timely issues — and some universal, still with us, like people vanishing, people gone missing either through death or themselves seeking some escape. The moral center of the tale is ambiguous with vulnerable characters finding themselves up against utter intransigence in other people’s cruelty, greed, egoism, and the structure of the society which excludes them almost (it seems) at the drop of a hat. A kind of epitomizing moment occurs in the four episodes when Walt is pulled over by a cop on the road, and growing angry at the cop’s refusal to bend and listen to why his windshield is partly, he acts out rage, and in response the cop carelessly pepper-sprays his face close-up. That’s law and order. And Walt is expected to apologize for the officer in order not to be charged and put in jail.

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The police state we live in glimpsed — as senseless

As to any ethical new inference: again Jesse is treated with cold indifference by his parents, consciences long ago buried. He is sent to a rehabilitation center where he meets other suffering people and hears stories of their guilt and remorse; when he returns and tries to reach out to Walter White, he finds one, White will not agree to accept that they are “bad” people, somehow different from others in this badness (and White is right there) nor will he show any lasting kindness.

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The teacher-guide at rehabilitation’s great lesson is how bad he is — he ran over his daughter with his car when he was drugged one night

Just as White is leaving the high school (having been given a leave, i.e., fired for non-conformist behavior which culminates in his self-destructive approaching the principal sexually), Jesse drives up with a proposition to start up their manufacturing again. At first White tries to be a friend (he calls Jesse “son”), but when he realizes that Jesse has manufactured the meths on his own, White becomes livid with fury as he did when his friend made huge sums running a business based on knowledge the friend gained from White’s chemistry successes. He is soon calling Jesse names and behaving towards him like Jesse’s parents. Jesse had really been looking for something to do; he is given no useful function in this society, and after grieving over the death of Jane, listening to her voice on one of these taped phone rejections (“call back if …”), and being cut off (as a machine disconnected the phone upon non-payment of a bill) he returns to the meth lab, faute de mieux. This is the one place he felt some belonging, a rare success, though one he despises himself for doing.

And Skylar turns out to be a person who lives by lies too: she will not allow her lawyer to expose Walt as a drug manufacturer lest it upset the son. In a sudden contradictory exaggeration she worries lest Walt Junior (RJMitte) have a bad view of his father — hilarious this as she is throwing the man out, treating him like she would a dog. So she’s a pious hypocritical contradictory liar too. In these four episodes her strongest trait is spite: she uses her boss, Ted, in effect takes him to bed with her so that she can humiliate Walt by telling him “I fucked Ted.” Not once in about 24 episodes has she ever used the word “love” towards or to Walt; never has she recognized that she drove him to take the super-expensive treatments which she had no right to do. Now she jeers and leers over him. What mythic type does she embody? I can think only of one of the female moral monsters in Dickens self-presented as super-virtuous.

The title I think now refers to us all. Breaking Bad — we all break out from time to time. We see the tough punishment meted out for overt kinds of breaking bad and grow to recognize those breaking bad moments hidden by hypocrisy (false use of language) or silence (golden).

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Marie hearing Hank’s jokes about how indestructible he is, is no longer amused — the attentive reader-viewer will realize by this point that Hank (our lame detective) will eventually be “eliminated”

Ellen

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First season, 2nd episode: Bates (Brendan Coyle) accosts Thomas (Rob James-Collier)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m now well into Season 4 on this fifth journey of mine through Downton Abbey and have begun to notice a parallel: repeatedly both John Bates and Thomas Barrow are photographed as looking on at others. One or the other of them, sometimes both (separately) are seen on a threshold, from a space across the way, leaning against a wall. Bates’s face looking at Anna with such benign appreciation comes most strongly when he is watching her from afar, doing some act of fairness, dancing, or just sewing.

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Bates watching Anna doing the Scottish reel at Christmas

Thomas’s face is endlessly guarded as he watches others flirt, moves to snitch on someone (once in a great while rightly, like the bigoted Nanny West [Di Botcher] in Season 4), and especially when we see him yearning for a moment and twice he crosses an invisible barrier to reach out to another man, and then (in both cases, the Duke of Crowborough [Charlie Cox] and Jimmy Kent [Ed Speleers]), rejected. After he has been openly found out in the second case, and is about to be fired, we have striking scenes, e.g., of him watching Mr Bates looking at the bare cottage he and Anna are fixing up for themselves, of him downright crying in a corner:

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Unlike Bates, there is no mainstream other whom Thomas can latch on to, who suits Thomas, and who is an insider. His alliance with Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran) is with a pretend insider, which is therefore easily broken (as she has nothing to gain from him). People may not remember that it is Bates who goes out of his way to rescue Thomas from the spiteful and cruel revenge taken on him by Miss Obrien who, when Thomas (foolishly from a prudential standpoint, but as ever jealous of anyone’s gaining some foothold in the family that could possibly threaten him), far from helping Alfred Nugent (Matt Milner) her nephew, brought in to be a footman, lays traps for him.

Let’s look at that incident once more: helped along by the affection Thomas cannot resist showing Jimmy as he helps Jimmy learn to wind clocks and do other Downton chores, Miss Obrien has slowly aroused Jimmy Kent’s suspicions of Thomas’s sexuality, and planted hope in Thomas that Jimmy does like him, and one night, lonely, Thomas braves Jimmy’s room to be thrown out by Jimmy, horrified, filled with repugnance, just as alas, Alfred is entering to ask something. (The men seem to have their own rooms while the maids share rooms.) Thomas is exposed and called “foul” by Mr Carson (Jim Carter), an epithet he does openly repudiate — job or no job. Then when Mr Carson, unexpectedly offers at least to give Thomas a good character, Miss Obrien has no trouble rousing the fears of both footman, that their reputation and livelihood will be threatened if they don’t make sure that they are not suspected of homosexual leaning: they must act revolted, Jimmy must demand that Thomas leave without a character (or he’ll tell the police); Alfred must be made to enact disgust. In the earlier incident where the Duke to have had a liaison with a maid and she had his letters, there would be no case for blackmail. Sin or not, crossing class lines or not, heterosexuals are allowed, homosexuals not.

The larger interest which makes me write about it is that Fellowes is putting before us the same argument that E.M. Forster makes in his Maurice and Henry James through Kate’s father in Wings of the Dove and Simon Raven explictly, powerfully, angrily in his masterpiece first novel, Fielding Grey, that the misery of a life of a gay man is that what is natural ordinary looked upon with kindness, help, admiration on the part of heterosexuals — love, companionship — is a source of blackmail, petty sometimes, harsh often, for homosexuals. A heterosexual can betray a girl, even rape her (this is in Raven) and get away with it (and were it not for Bates, Mr Green would have in the case of Anna [Joanne Froggart]); the ugliest of conduct is not attacked as such, is overlooked; a homosexual man in love is at risk every moment. They live as outsiders.

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And this is the center of a key scene which wins Bates to help Thomas though Bates knows full well and lets Thomas know that Thomas has been Bates’s enemy, been spiteful and tried to get Bates fired (by planted clues suggesting Bates a thief when it was Thomas who had been pilfering wine so steadily 2 sets of boxes were missing at an inventory). Bates and Anna have been painting and making their old run-down cottage (in bad shape, not much of a gift if you compare it to the DA) and Bates is standing outside in satisfaction. Out of the dark Thomas comes up and starts to talk of how much he envies Mr Bates despite all that has happened to Bates in his (long prison sentences now twice, the Boer War, crippling) and (implicitly) what might yet occur (over the death of Bates’s first wife). This because everyone is happy for Bates, admires him and Anna for their nest together, do things to help them while (as we know) Carson uses cruel words like “foul” for Thomas’s feelings. It’s in the next juxtaposed scene that Thomas is seen crying by a corner by Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) in her frequent usual role as reconciler, who takes Thomas into her room, and discovers what is happening.

Thomas lives behind a wall is the feel he conveys to Bates, an invisible prison where he is continually at risk if he steps forth.

It’s this that makes Bates identify sufficiently with Thomas — as an outsider, forever at risk, in a society that can just thrown them out. In a remarkable series of moves (that he has to do several shows the generosity of it), Bates talks to Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) who expressed sympathy for Thomas and a desire to see him on the yearly cricket team so bad that it seems Grantham is willing to keep Thomas on in a made-up job if only for that talent), then to Mrs Hughes who tells Bates the instigator was Miss Obrien, and finally to Thomas himself, telling Thomas it was Miss Obrien. Is there nothing Thomas knows that could be used here?

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Bates’s POV as he asks Thomas to think if he knows anything as a handle for Bates to help him

And of course Thomas knows it was Miss Obrien’s putting a bar of soap near Lady Grantham’s (Elizabeth McGovern) tub that brought on her early miscarriage, thus forever cutting off the hope of a direct male heir.

Mr Bates invites Miss Obrien to the cottage and whispers the word (soap …) in her ear, we see Miss Obrien now desperately convincing Jimmy he’s done enough. Jimmy has been subject to the reprobation of the whole staff including Ivy (Cara Theobold), with whom he flirts:

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the worst sin is to try to take someone’s references and character. They will not find another job. So Jimmy (something of a mannequin dummy here) acts.

Thomas’s danger is not yet over. Alfred is also not the smartest brain in the house and he has been made to feel how “sinful” is Thomas (Miss Obrien’s grating reinforcements reinforced this) and has himself called the police. They arrive but luckily Lord Grantham is the first approached, just as he is telling Jimmy how generous it will be of Jimmy to accept Thomas’s continuing presence on the staff and that Jimmy will now be “first” footman (not much gain there for real) — Thomas is all this while playing cricket superlatively – Lord Grantham is told of the police presence and hurries over. The police tell him Alfred Nugent has revealed he was approached by a Mr Barrow. The power of the chief or bright hero of the series is shown: decisively pressured by Grantham, in a few minutes (screen time less than a minute) Alfred is there before the police, saying it was a misunderstanding, and Grantham is (in effect) punishing Alfred by offering the helpful explanation that Alfred was a bit squiffy. Drunk. Alfred takes the rap.

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The chief police officer looks at Grantham and says he gets it. They know all this is concocted but there is nothing to be done and they walk off.

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Thomas playing well, clapping enthusiastically — unobtrusively

As I have argued, we are given sufficient evidence to convict Bates of the murder of his wife and then to see that there is a strong probability he pushed Mr Green (Nigel Harman) into a bus (as the pattern of his going to London for the day and when he returns, the person has lost his or her life) and yet like Bates enormously, grant him a hero’s place in our hearts, because continually throughout the series not only is Bates himself a victim (crippled, tripped, trapped, as a disabled person at first stigmatized) but he is generous to other outsiders, e.g. Ethel. He stands aside when the others are interrogating Gwen (Rose Leslie) over her typewriter. In this blog I am concerned to bring out that there is a strong positive argument on behalf of homosexuals in the series despite its being presented in such a way that allows for the prejudices of a still bigoted audience. That Thomas is no angel would be approved of by James Baldwin: there was nothing that grated more on Baldwin than protest novels which made society’s victims into saints. They are not because they must in order to survive be collusive.

I noticed that the ends of the first and this third year conclude with some magnanimous deed of Grantham, his opening up in new ways, with Bates just behind him, engineering it (using his abilities to forge, sniff out how a criminal-cardsharp will operate, and pickpocket) — and that is what happens at the close of the fourth season too. In the third season, with a little help from Lord Grantham’s status, it’s his fellow outsider whom Mr Bates saves.

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Brendan Coyle discussing his role in the feature to the third season: it’s not over-speaking to say that in this hour-long summary of 2 seasons amid fluff, Coyle contributes the more serious reflections on the dilemmas of the character he plays (See Bates as dark hero, alter ego for Fellowes)

Ellen

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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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Skylar (Anna Gunn) to Walt (Bryan Cranston): get the fuck out

Dear friends and readers,

I know I said I was done with Breaking Bad, but when 3 episodes of season 2 unexpected arrived (I had called for something else which was “delayed” and had forgotten to erase these), and watched, I found myself right back again. My fascination is the same I have for Downton Abbey: both melodramas capture the issues of the day, one reflecting the lies the British establishment concocts to erase these, deny they are there; the other, the American insistence on callousness as the way for individuals to continue to survive and as admirable and moral too.

So in 2:8-10, the series returned to the central cancer story and focused on the characters’ evolving, and these three final episodes show us what now happens to Jesse (Aaron Paul) with his new lover, Jane (Krysten Ritter), and to Walt, told he had one more dangerous bizarre operation to endure and must come up with $170,000 with the doctors talking as if they were helpless against lowering such a sum (instead of being as they are, its central source). While Downton Abbey is traditional sentimental and psychological familial-romance multi-thread soap opera, this mini-series is informed by its central paired horror of continual deaths in order to procure huge sums of money to stave off death: it is a form of seeming realistic American gothic. Gothics are after all action-adventure stories, both the male kind (origin: Lewis’s Monk) and female (Radcliffe’s Udolpho). The pile-up of bodies and the grief over these, whether mourning for the person destroyed or guilt by the destructive person (even Dean Norris as Hank suffers a version of post-traumatic disorder) are part of the morbidity of the series. We have even one of the features of traditional gothic modernized in a number of settings & objects: the labyrinthine and/or frightening hellhole.

To the story-line: 2:11-13 are stark moving episodes: Jane dies of a heroine seizure, and Jesse goes to pieces at the loss of this deeply congenial young woman. She was his “apology girl” in a touching cartoon of herself matching his book of himself as a cartoon good guy Star-trek hero.

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Jesse trying to resussitate a corpse

Walt finally admits to himself how much Jesse means to him, a son in effect, and is glad to rescue Jesse (as Walt sees it); in the triangular rivalry of Walt and Jane for Jesse’s soul and body, Walt won because he is not so sickened by the culture he’s lived in. This sub-story with Jane’s father’s grief and sense of deep loss at her death, was the central empathetic moment for me.

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Walt attempting to comfort Jesse

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Jane’s father (John de Lancie) desolated

Another of Jesse’s friends is murdered as part of the turf battle; and Saul Goodman, the shyster lawyer (Bob Odenkirk), introduces Walt to a man who distributes meths over several state borders (an utter hypocrite who we see in charity organizations).

Themes: the series continues to mirror the worst aspects of US life (frivolous materialism, militarism as a norm for men and the police, racism, sexism), while the film-makers offer as moral lessons the opposite of what is ethical. In this close of the second season the behavior of the film-makers towards Jane (Kirsten Ritter), the apparently hard-faced but within pitiful girl seeking comfort from Jesse when she recognizes him as a male version of herself and the wife’s behavior in abruptly turning on a husband of many years disclosed the hard selfishness at the center of this US society. They talk of Jane’s father, John Margolis (John de Lancie) as someone who endured a troubling nuisance (how dare she is the feeling); Skylar (Anna Gunn) never once thinks that she might have an obligation to see to her husband’s need and not violate his individual character after all the work and effort he has made for her over the years. I write to voice a deep alienation from this respectable female icon presented as long-suffering and exemplary.

What really prompted me to write a blog is I was electrified with dislike by Sklary’s sudden abrupt throwing of Walt out of the house, or (to put it in value words), her lack of loyalty or any love for Walt. Like her, I loathe lying, and give her credit for being the only character in the whole show for 2 seasons who never lies (Jesse does not lie either, but it’s by avoiding explanations), and Walt is continually presenting her with webs of lies, but this is due to his knowledge she will not empathize with his case at all, but immediately judge and distance herself from him, offering no help at all. He would tell her if he thought she was with him.

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She listens to Ted, the boss (Christopher Cousins), plays up to him with imitations of Marilyn Monroe

By contrast, when she discovers her handsome ex-boss has been embezzling and doctoring his financial record, while at first she threatens to quit, soon she is promising “not to turn him in,” and coming to work daily to help him out. In the last five minutes of the season, she comes home to tell Walt suddenly and with no warning, and at first no explanation, get the fuck out by the end of the weekend, which she’ll spend with her sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt), and brother-in-law, Hank. She phones the wealthy Gertrude whose husband originally offered to pay for Walt’s treatments (his company exists and he is rich out of Walt’s know-how) and accuses Gertrude of being her husband’s mistress. This intrusive going-behind his back to ferret out information (improbable) to hold against him as “cheating” her is utterly in character. She learns he came up with all the money by himself, but when he offers to tell the truth if she’ll stay, she refuses to listen. She says she does not want to know; what she is afraid of is reality.

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Enjoying imitating Marilyn Monroe (who died at age 37 of an overdose — shades of this series’ Jane) as she enacted sexual aggression in front of John Kennedy for the delectation of public cameras

The actress playing her, Anna Gunn, the screenplay writer, Vince Gilligan, and producer thought her behavior just fine. We catch her answering someone that “it was about time.” She obeys a code, legal & normative authority figures. The actress previously described the wife as having strong boundaries; in this episode she seems to have nothing else and does not recognize a clown show when she’s participating in it: she is proud of her biological son for building an on-line site begging for money, and when Walt manages to marginalize this project by his lawyer’s suggestion to send them part of his gains through the intermediary of a paid information technologist (on the other side of the globe), and the fools see this money dribbling in, they celebrate. I expected them to run marathons for supposed corporate money next.

She is the central on-going female presence in the series. All the actors just about said “good riddance” to Jane, “bad for Jesse,” “will bring him down.” Down is shameful in the US. True, Jane seemed unable to kick her addiction to a destructive drug, especially once she fell in with Jesse. But I don’t know that she needed to be killed off. Lots of jokes as usual, visual and verbal. I’m with Marie when she says “Please don’t tell me to relax, you know I hate that”:

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All but Bryan Cranston agreed the evil person (described by Gilligan as enacting “depraved indifference” when he does not try to save Jane) is Walt. Cranston talked of the character’s coming (“more”) agonies. By the film-makers, the character’s given no slack or sympathy — he’s simply a “criminal” — what he is, is a victim and either it’s not seen or not cared about, or close-up (by Skylar) prompts hostility.

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Walt looking down at the dying Jane

The person who has driven Walt to this is the wife: the cancer came from the society, but not the demand he accede to super-expensive treatments which led to his relationship with Jesse whom he forms bonds of trust, kindness and identification he never does with his wife. I suggest she is acceptable because she enacts competitive demands ruthlessly and amuses those around her by gaming her sexuality and then spouts pious (allowed) speeches about gratitude.

This quality TV series (brilliant acting, sets, props) functions as a bleak bizarre fun-house mirror for American culture (explicating by inference how people think nothing of dropping drones on others thousands of miles away).

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A debased version of a Sesame Street puppet with which Season 2 opens & closes

The puppet has lost one of his eyes, is half-blind. They have concocted a misleading acquiescent protest.

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),

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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.

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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.”

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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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First named character seen as Downton Abbey began: Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) heading north for the job of valet to Lord Grantham (DA, 1:1)

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Penultimate named characters seen as Downton Abbey, the 4th season ends: Mr and Mrs Anna (Joanne Froggart) Bates by the sea (“By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea/You and I, you and I, oh how happy we’ll be ….”)

Dear friends and readers,

In this fallow time between last year’s fourth season and the coming fifth season, I’ve been re-watching Seasons 1-3, and reading the first two sets of screenplays, with their long candid notes by Julian Fellowes, as well as the scenario (companion) books by him, his daughter, with contributions by other involved people, and have realized that John Bates is the alter ego, the subversive male self (id anyone?) for Julian Fellowes across the series. Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is the upright self (super-ego, ego). While Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) was being dramatized as in conflict with because his methods and presence were replacing Grantham, since the star refused a fourth season and was abruptly killed off, the new duo did not emerge, and instead in the fourth season the paralleling of Bates with Grantham matched with their over-arching matched stories in the first season.

I’ve discovered that from the second season on when Mrs Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) is found dead, Fellowes provided plenty of evidence to suggest that it was not accidental nor a suicide, but a murder by Bates, driven by hatred and a need to rid himself of this woman who had taken everything from him (money, liberty, respect as he had gone to prison for her crime) and was still determined to revenge herself on the Grantham family who had taken him in and Anna Smith (the woman Bates now loved passionately).

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From last shots of Season 2, Episode 6: Vera Bates lies dead on the floor

There are four shots and they show evidence of a fierce struggle, things flung on the floor, she still has her boots on.

It’s only in hindsight one goes back to look for the evidence: in retrospect we see the same pattern: what appears to be an accidental or self-induced death, a “happy” and convenient occurrence for both Anna and John Bates, was helped along considerably by Bates. Why is this important? Before we pronounced Downton Abbey woman-centered (in say comparison to Breaking Bad, which it is), even proto-feminist, a gentle and (except for WW1 of course) a non-violent world, we should recognize it also conforms to a pattern I’ve seen in many male texts of the 20th century, males who murder their wives and get away with it, males who pride and ego are thwarted and threatened by a wife’s betrayal and promiscuity (remember the first thing Bates learned when he returned to London with Vera was that she had “betrayed” him) — from George Smiley to say the male characters in Poldark. I mention the Poldark series for a real troubling aspect of them despite their boasted woman-centered and feminist themes, is the males murder their promiscuous wives or the men who cuckold them and get away with it — in the second novel the man who is exiled for the murder is also very much lower class. And as in Poldark and LeCarre’s fiction, in Downton Abbey we have real sympathy for raped women (Anna most notably), including in some mini-series, maritally raped women (coerced marriage is a form of rape, repeated rape) and abused women (that includes Ethel whose baby is taken from her).

It also casts a questioning light on the upright Tory conventional conservatism of Fellowes. In the first two companion books (The World of, Chronicles of), more than once he tells of a newspaper story that stayed with him and he modeled the Bates’s story upon – the trial of Harold Greenwood.

Greenwood, a solicitor from Kidwelly in Wales, was accused of murdering his wife, Mabel, with arsenic, so he could marry a much younger woman. Mabel … had diedin June 1919 … of heart failure, and it was only after a persistent local whispering campaign … that the police … exhumed her body … The found traces of arsenic … and returned a verdict of guilty … it was alleged that he had poisoned her during Sunday lunch, by means of a bottle of Burgundy … Sir Edward Marshall Hunt, [his] lawyer … undermined the forensic evidence, discredited the testimony of a parlour maid … showed that Greenwood and Mabel’s grown-up daughter had also drunk from the same bottle .. the jury, rather reluctantly, returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’ (237-38)

The evidence: reading over the notes to the second season’s scripts I find Fellowes discussing the third and fourth season — not yet filmed, the fourth not yet contracted for. He discusses central themes and brings up his idea that he jumps time as he pleases and would not dwell on a funeral — here it can be William’s death in the 2nd, but it is clearly Season 4 and Mary mourning Matthew’s death he has in mind. Ture, the first five episodes of the first season seem to stand alone as a quiet delight. Viewed without Episode 6 they show that there was no idea that for sure the mini-series would go on for more than one season. The idea was to suggest here this good (ahem) world disintegrating in several ways, but the show’s popularity changed all that and in Episode 6 you see several turn rounds allowing for next season. At the same time it was easy to make Episodes 6 and 7: WW1 was obviously going to be season 2; and the time after for Season 3. So even though they did not plan on a second season for sure, he had ideas for continuation, and from the very first he made stories and characters with some ideas of how things might work out over the years.

He plants clues even profusely, starting in Episode 6 of the second season. We saw the scene at the close of Episode 6 — signs of fierce altercation and on Bates when he came back to Downton early the next afternoon a wound near his eye. Black-and-blue Perhaps she attacked his eye with a knife or fork or whatever came to hand.

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Grantham asking and Bates saying there was no suicide note so they’ll never know

Then the 7th episode. First there is no suicide note. Lord Grantham tells Bates that Lady Cora has been asking if there is any information about Mrs Bates’s death. Women do identify with other women. Bates says he doesn’t think so; “they’d like to know why she did it, but I don’t suppose we ever shall.” (This reminds me of how NASA tried to stall ojn the challenger; they at first asserted they and we would never know what causes the accident.) Lord Grantham; “You’d think she’d leave a note.” Bates: “Perhaps it was a spur-of-the-moment decision.” Grantham says it can’t have been since she’s have had to get hold of the stuff. Bates looks uncomfortable and so his sympathetic employer drops the subject.

Then not filmed but in the screenplay Anna comes upon Bates trying to clean a waistcoat with chalk. He looks very worried, and does not pay attention to her. She signals her presence by suggesting fruit or milk. He is preoccupied and appears not to hear; she asks if he is all right and he says, now that she asks, and is about to speak, but they are interrupted by Mrs Hughes as needed by their employers.

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Anna made to understand by Bates that he had motive and opportunity

The way to deflect attention from how information incriminates yourself is to bring it forward. In the next scene about the suicide (I had almost said murder, so let’s say death) of Mrs Bates, Mr Bates tells Anna his lawyer told him there is a letter from Vera to a friend saying she knows Mr Bates is coming to London after she has told the judge that she and Bates colluded in the adultery evidence so the first decree is thrown out of court and she is now for the first time “afraid for my life.” Bates says, Well he intended to have it out with her; living she had taken all his money and thwarted the divorce. As widower he had everything to again. Anna: “So what are you saying?” that “you had a motive … ” He: “Of course I had a motive. And I had the opportunity.” Now Mrs Hughes interrupts again; Bates is wanted and she says to him he looks as if he has the cares of the world on his shoulder. Not the whole world but quite enough of it he replies.

Episodes 8 and the Christmas episode — which latter weaves as much about the Bates, and a parallel story of Hepworth and Miss Shaw trying to get a handle on Lady Rosamond’s money. In Episode 8 it is carefully dropped in that Bates himself bought the arsenic himself; again he tells Anna this as a sort of afterthought, an unfortunate circumstance which adds to the circumstantial evidence. He brings this up in the one moment we really see a couple naked in bed together thus far — very happy is Anna and she responds by asking him “not to talk about it just now” (p. 477).

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They go back under the covers — she does not want to hear this now

Fellowes’s notes to the Christmas episode of the second season in the screenplays are meant to be revealing too: Fellowes writes that he wanted to leave the death “slighty ambiguous,” implying by this that Bates is not guilty yet looks so (p. 508): “I have always quite deliberately left a very slight doubt as to whether or not Batess account is the whole truth,” but this introduces evidence which helps convict the man in the next notes.

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Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) realizing what she’s saying

These concern the improbable way Mrs Hughes, Miss O’Brien and even Lord Grantham tell on the stand the hostile and angry and threatening remarks Bates made. Fellowes knows that people lie on the stand, especially where no one can check up, and in his notes tells us an attorney friend objected to the scenes and characters’ behavior as too idealistic (they would have lied) (pp. 533-536). Fellowes says he did this because he’s seen so much lying that he loves an exhibition of the truth. Rather this is the only way he can highlight more suggestive realities about Bates’s anger that matters for the guilty verdict.

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Bates looking at Anna

Anna
Anna taking it in

When towards the end of the Christmas episode when Anna visits Bates in prison, she thinks he may be hanged, we are told by Fellowes that Bates is “much less unhappy than she” (this is in the stage directions). Bates tells Anna to forgive the others for not lying, says in response to her saying she regrets nothing, he regrets nothing too: “no man can regret loving as I have loved you.” This time Fellowes’s note tells us that “Saint Bates” is not the way to take this: “There is darkness underneath. This is the strength of Brendan Coyle’s wonderful performance.” Brendan Coyle’s resume as an actor includes many ambiguous seethingly angry working class males (Lark Rise to Candleford, North and South, Mary Barton), and we see this seething from the opening episodes on: when Lord Crowborough comes up to the attic to search for incriminating letters between himself and Thomas, Bates is there by his room, and sardonically opens his door, mortifying Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Three times he comes close to throttling someone: Thomas after he watched Thomas needle William, his wife Vera after she tells him she will snitch about Lady Mary to the papers unless he gives up the precious position, and most effectively of all in season 3 the fellow prisoner plotting with a warden against him is terrified into wanting to get rid of Bates.

One can only ferret out this information by watching and re-watching, using the screenplays, reading the notes and comparing what is found in in the scenario book for the sources for the character of Bates and Fellowes’s intense involvement and absorption in this character. Anna, Fellowes repeatedly says, is the one fully “good” woman of the series — we may see this as acknowledging how much a Tory, pro-establishment non-subversive, and kindly character she is, but we should notice that in season 4 when she explains why they must keep from Mr Bates the knowledge that it was Mr Green who raped her, she says “I know him and know what he is capable of.”

At the same time if in the second and third seasons we were given enough ambiguous evidence to suggest a covered up murder, it’s only in the fourth when we see a parallel of an supposed accident to Mr Green (he fell under a bus at Piccadilly Circus), which Bates was on the spot to facilitate, that this first death is solved. Again there are the clues, e.g., the day ticket to London hidden in his coat pocket which he is anxious to destroy; his facility with forgery, his guessing where the sleaze card-sharp would have kept an incriminating letter (in his jacket pocket next to his own shirt).

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Season 4: Bates filching the letter from the blackmailer-gambler while Bates pretends to be merely helping him on with his coat

Fellowes is cagey and I am persuaded a self-conscious writer who is aware of the political implications of what he writes. You can see this in his voice-over commentary for both Downton Abbey and Gosford Park. Unfortunately there are no long notes to his screenplay of Gosford Park — which he probably had to persuade Altman to publish in the first place. But in that film-story there is also a valet, Robert Parks (Clive Owen) who murders (or seeks to murder the male equivalent of Lord Grantham in function, a ruthless conscienceless mean liar, Sir Wm McCordle (Michael Gambon) who has been seducing and impregnating his female staff members for years.

Among these victims, is the present housekeeper, Mrs Wilson (Helen Mirren) whose child Parks was; Parks’s placement in an orphanage McCordle lied about. So too did McCordle impregnate (like some gothic villain), Mrs Wilson’s sister, the present cook, Mrs Crofts (Eileen Atkins) whose baby died because Mrs Crofts tried to keep it and didn’t have access to medicine, warmth, food, care enough while she worked. In Downton Abbey the impoverished Ethel and her illegitimate baby are dependent on Mrs Hughes’s care packages. Parks easily gets away with it as most of the characters loathe McCordle (and the inspector, brilliantly played by Stephen Frye does not want to fish in these dark waters), but no one is sardonically quietly seething as Parks. Fellowes wrote that script too and we there rejoice Parks got away with it — with a good deal of help from his mother, Helen Mirren, the housekeeper, Mrs Wilson — the perfect servant anticipating everyone’s every move. Of course in this story Park is the biological son of McCordel by Mrs Wilson whom McCordle lied to about where he placed the boy.

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Gosford Park: Mrs Wilson apparently visiting Mr Parks to see that he’s got everything
Theyseeoneanother
Parks telling her she misses very little

As films begin to gain more prestige as art forms and we get these written materials we can understand what is in front of us more — see it in the first place as movies move so swiftly we miss a lot.

I’ve been asked this useful question by a friend:

about Bates expressing Fellow’s id — there is something especially unsettling about the servile valet, bowing and scraping to the masters, while inside boiling with a literally murderous rage–which is directed at people of his own class. I find him an interesting counterpart to–and now I am forgetting names–the chauffeur who married Lady Sybil, who seems such a lap dog in contrast. What are we to take from this–that the servants like Bates who are seemingly upstanding and pious really do want to murder their masters in their beds, while the alleged Marxists are simply waiting for a seat at the table? This doesn’t bode well for Anna.

I can’t say no. Maybe Fellowes is dramatizing upper class aristocratic nightmares from the English civil war on — I begin there for in the 17th century we begin to get diaries and private papers showing how servants turned on the masters in civil wars and revolutions. But from the notes and scenario books I feel Fellowes more identifies — and far more humanely than he does with Lord Grantham who is made too much a Sir Charles Grandison figure, a dupe, who cannot take care of the estate and his wife’s money in investments.

I’ve been reading Rush and Dancyger’s Alternative Scriptwriting this morning, where they show how film strongly tends to personalize and find the actuating motive of whatever happens in a particular character, even in documentaries; and how the “other” can become the point of view of a film quietly. That’s what I think happens here sexually and politically. In films there is a strong tendency to see what occurs as a result of personal histories not larger social and economic and political forces. One of the interests of Downton Abbey for me (Gosford Park even more because of Altman’s genuinely liberal presence) is how Fellowes, however you may not like his politics, wants to get theese larger forces into the scenes as actuating them and does manage it. Through Bates and also Tom Branson (Allen Leech) he brings out an opposing outlook on Downton Abbey — one example, when Thomas first shows Bates in Lord Grantham’s room with all his elegant clothes and expensive snuff boxes, Bates remarks on what a load of treasure is before them, how they get to handle, but own none of it. Thomas agrees (though he prefers to filch wine). Then Bates goes up to his room and we see how bare it is, and yet now he is so gratified to have this quiet private space to himself if only for sleeping time. At the same time the other main parallel story of this episode is about how Grantham inherited and held on tothis property by marrying Cora for her money and immediately sluicing her money off to support it.

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Branson and Lady Ethel (Laura Carmichael) expressing to one another at close of Season 4 they have lost their way, he is still not one of the elite, and she a hidden unwed mother who has not given up her baby

Branson by contrast is supposed the idealist socialist — he loses his way because emotionally befuddled. That Bates is not. Bates knows who is the victim, and who we should compassionate. He and Anna (also after she finds out that Ethel is pregnant) alone compassionate Ethel and he alone continues to treat Ethel with respect and his own gravitas, e.g., he remarks to Mrs Hughes, she’sbadly shaken, to Mr Carson she’s lost everything (p. 401, episode 8). In Episode 8 Bates shows up Hepworth for the weak shit he is. That’s what he’s there for. His story is central to many of the hours, especially prominent in the first and fourth season.

I suggest we empathize with Bates, or at least grant him much sympathy. He is not only strong and compassionate towards others, he is himself disabled. In the first three episodes of the series, everyone in the house but Lord Grantham, Anna, and William want to see him fired. He is heroic in his quiet attempts to do all that others do. We see him humiliated and deliberately sabotaged by Miss O’Brien, Thomas, given no human understanding by Lady Cora. The cold Lady Mary cannot understand why someone would hire a man “who can’t do his job.” Anna reminds her that Mr Bates was Lord Grantham’s batman in the Boer War and fought hard. Lady Mary concedes this is so, but will not give the man any slack. His attempt to straighten his leg with a torture instrument in the third episode is painful to watch and we feel painful to experience. He is one of the outsiders, and through him Fellowes does widen his purview to get us to identify with the 99% — all the more in that he is not presented as a Saint, an Uncle Tom. James Baldwin could not attack Downton Abbey as a protest novel (where sentimentalism replaces real anger in a victim).

Beyond this we concede his wife was a horror, and Anna in danger of repeated rapes from Mr Green (until he was fired at Lady Mary’s knowing request) because she felt she could not tell the police. I agree that the story is one which revives lawless duelling as a way of solving problems, and the thinking behind Bates’s killing of Mr Green is in line with honor-killing. The mini-series has an underlay of troubling violence.

Fellowes (again in the notes to the screenplays) offers as a moral lesson he sees as central to the whole of his mini-series, here as connected to Anna and Bates. When Lady Mary gives Anna time off to marry (and we later learn) arranges a room for them to honeymoon in for the first night, Fellowes comments: this show is about “whether or not people are being allowed to exist within their own universe, and here, nothing is disrupting that (p 465). The conservative thinks active socialist gov’ts do not allow “people” to exist within their own universe (people here being the rich, with the rest of us controlled by bureaucracies): I’d put it that active socialist gov’ts who genuinely have humane ideals and decent people and values actuating the way goods and services are seen and delivered facilitate this kind of living within one’s own universe without the disruption of poverty, exclusion, stigmatizing, war.

Ellen

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