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Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been in the habit of treating the presentations I’ve heard over the last months at the Washington Area Print Group (a subdivision of the Sharp society) in rooms in the Library of Congress on my Sylvia blog (e.g., a talk on Writing with Scissors) as part of a diary, but thought the topic of this talk sufficiently germane to the terrain of this blog as it’s developed (see The Way We Watch TV Now) to warrant summary and commentary here.

Prof Metcalf developed an aspect of his book, the relationship of technology and economics with the kind of narrative that appears on TV. so the burden of his song was: Changes in technology and economics within TV have changed the way TV is made and how we experience it. He delivered his talk entertainingly — accompanied by many many stills.

He began with what TV was and had shots of older TVs in their wooden furniture. In the 1950s TV represented a central threat to the film industry, whose first ploys were teen films, big spectacles and 3-D movies. TV sold its product as one safe for a family in its private living room; the language was that the program was invited into this sanctuary. TV was radio with pictures and sought to reinforce culutral values of the family. In the US its purpose was to provide eyes and ears to watch and to see commercials.

A central writer for US TV at the time was Paul S. Newman who understand the particular format of TV programs meant characters couldn’t undergo transformation over a season as this would be disruptive and defeat the repeated expectation of sameness. He was superb at writing a structure not easy to do: you must produce a segment which moves to a peak at its end, yet at the same time be self-enclosed; you must avoid lulls because at any time the person can switch using the remote. Admittedly this structure does not necessarily make for great art (an understatement).

The BBC developed differently. It was paid for by millions of individuals who had licenses to watch TV, so it was commercial free. Its aims were education, elevation and entertainment. Traditional theater could appear on British TV much more easily; its purse was to question. There developed a tradition of challenging the audience. Programs were not meant to be re-used, re-run. In the US each program was developed with the idea of endless re-use.

The first long-form TV came from PBS and Masterpiece theater which Metcalf thought unfortunate. He called British costume drama boring for most people, staid. He never mentioned any specifically after that. It was a commercial channel which offered a model others could follow: Hill Street Blues. Male soap operas.

Hill_Street_Blues_Cast
The cast of Hill Street Blues, all men but two and these women dressed to look like men

People (he should have said “men”) were invited to watch the suffering of men. A typical episode would have the on-going A story (over the arc of the season), within the episode a story which concludes, and 3 other shorter on-going stories (B, C, and D, generally taking 3 episodes). He named a series of male-centered programs — like so many film critics I’ve encountered (many of them men), most of what he then cited was masculinist, not to say (not admitted) misogynist stuff. He also cited Wise Guy, The Fugitive. You need the mythos (the ongoing myth) and free standing episodes within that. Like others he then credited Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective (Michael Gambon) as quietly influential ever after. It used the situation comedy of the hospital ward as developed in British TV. He mentioned The Sopranos. These are versions of instalment publication (began in Victorian era). I suggested that Breaking Bad had departed from this in having one long story with two parallel heroes for 42 episodes. That’s part of what made it powerful and great art.

He also talked of the influence of the “concept album,” where all the music centered on coherent themes. At the same time itunes and downloading enable viewers to select a segment or episode or single song to listen to. We’ve moved back from the album concept to the single. What happened in the CD world (especially MTV) influenced what happened in the mini-series TV and DVD worlds.

What changed this situation? First, the cable companies who offered good and recent movies (“premium”), and in the 1980s in both Hollywood and the UK films were transformed by new ideals, technologies, independence. Prof Metcalf thought the advent of remote control devices next pushed writers into writing segmented TV: the point is to allow switching back and forth. (Which I dislike; once I sit down to watch a program I mean to watch that program until it’s done.) Then the VCR player ($1389) which allowed people to tape say the HBO movie. But this cannot compete with the DVD — which allows the film-makers to market their product divided up into serving sizes. You can curate your own TV. Many people now have a movie screen on their wall for their TV watching so they are imitating a movie experience.

The talk became more original when he began to talk of what the DVD has done to movies. For example, what is the authoritative version of a movie? You can buy Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad in a huge box with the hour-long episodes with commentary on, with deleted scenes, with features showing how an episode was made, what were the aims of the film-makers, and an alternative ending. I mentioned that I had bought Michael Winterbottom’s 6 part Trip to Italy to discover that the film-maker had gathered all the deleted scenes and then arranged them thematically to provide another half-hour of programming. A DVD in effect can be seen as providing manuscripts of the programs as well as later polished versions. They are packaged to look like books, to sit on shelves in a bookcase. Prof Metcalf suggested that the DVD which provides the largest amount of programming is what is seen as authoritative. We are paying more attention to screenplays as these are published and we can gather the precise lay out and emotional structure, study dialogue and description, montage. Very gradually both US and UK TV began the practice of hiring stars to shore up long-form stories.

The way we watch TV changed the TV we watch. The mini-series are now manufactured with DVDs and DVD watching in mind.

To some extent the talk degenerated at this point because he and the audience began to talk of favorite mini-series, which (again) were mostly masculinist, most of them produced for commercial TV. This reminded me of how in other places I’ve been women are unwilling to criticize the violence and misogyny of computer games, will let the men take over discussing football — for there were as many women in the audience as men. Implicitly the BBC and PBS took a beating, which brought home to me how many of these sorts of programs are aimed at women or at least have the female audience at least as much in mind. Many of the series were clearly highly violent. Three aggressive looking males on the covers of the DVDs.

But as he talked the BBC and British programming emerged as centrally providing quality to imitate and modify to an American model. He differentiated between mini-series that had a single person controlling the vision, and that still happens in British TV where a single author or at most 3 authors will write the scripts and the script writer become the organizing linchpin of what is done) and one that was the result of a fluid team of people. He also talked of how now that the soap operas has become a province for male suffering, comedy is a place for women to vent and expose issues of concern to them (Sex and the City, Nurse Betty).

Sarah_Jessica_Parker_in_Sex_and_the_City-_The_Movie_Wallpaper_11_800
This promotional shot justifies Laura Mulvey’s famous paper about how film caters to the male gaze

American TV stopped in the 1950s but British TV continues to present live performances from the theater. The acerbic British TV sitcom may be regarded as dropped into melodrama to produce modern versions of say Sherlock Holmes. Someone mentioned how the rape story in the Downton Abbey fourth season outraged people; Metcalf was interested in how such an incident often covers but 3 episodes.

Some series especially praised and discussed: The Wire, for women and men, The Gilmore Girls (this appears to be a blend of screwball comedy and melodramatic romance, reminding me of Austen films). Clive Owens in Knick, a Steve Sodenberg product: Sodenberg did everything but write the screenplay and act in the series. Metcalf noted that again and again if you watch an individual episode it may seem funny, light, but when you watch the arc of the season, the series comes out as more serious, at times implicitly tragic (or explicitly as Breaking Bad). The good do win or if they go down to defeat we feel for them and there is sensitivity to beauty. These citations did bring out how often a Network or producer will cancel a mini-series that seems to be doing so well, getting so much praise. Why? the audience demographics are too old: they will not buy the products. The show is there for the commercials. The corporations making these are not content with modest or high profits; they want huge ones. (This is the sort of thinking that did in the rentals of books-on-tape and the choices of middle-brow excellent books not best-sellers nor high prestige old classics.) Lost leaders are programs which are made to attract people knowing they will make less money, but gather an audience who will remain loyal to the station for a while.

I enjoyed the talk though recognized the skewed nature of the presentation (of the examples). Afterward when a group of us went over to a restaurant to have dinner together the talk really did stay on the topic, on the TV people watch and how they watch. In this group many watched TV on their computers, as part of Netflix or streaming deals. When it did get down to what people really watched among this group, it was late night viewing (after all work was done and the person could do no more) of less avante garde popular shows. Metcalf said he watches all his viewing on his computer on some special channel where he can reach programs and movies made in a variety of countries across the decades.

What am I watching late at night just now? Ken Taylor’s Jewel in the Crown out of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, directed and produced by Christopher Morahan.

Therapedheroine
Susan Woolridge as Daphne Manners the raped heroine

theherotreatedunjustly
Art Malik as Hari Kumar, the deeply betrayed unjustly treated hero – it made his career

CharlesDanceGeraldineJames
Charles Dance and Geraldine James as our traditional white couple

These brilliant 1970s series didn’t make it into Prof Metcalf’s narrative …. This would include the 74 Pallisers (a Simon Raven product) and Poldark (written by several people and it departs a lot in sexual detail and the ending from the books, but directed and produced by the same men) — both ran on US TV in the same year. The book of essays coming out on BBC costume historical drama which includes mine on Andrew Davies’s two adaptations of Trollope novels credits the 1967 Forsyte Saga and its popularity with starting the long decades of making such films, recently fallen off here in the US because of lack of money — so one gets thrillers instead. Downton Abbey has not been enough to re-start the engine for making mini-series from classic books. It is itself not an adaptation after all. The Singing Detective actually belongs to this narrative too.

But it was nonetheless instructive to listen to (Prof Metcalf knows a lot about TV) and I wish I could afford the book.

Ellen

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Nearclosure
With Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman standing aside, Bryan Cranston as Mr White advising Aaron Paul as Jesse to find a new identity — near closure

Dear friends and readers,

When I began watching and then writing about Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad I did not intend to write seriously about it, but gradually I came to see the it comprises an unusual set of quality TV films worth study and evaluative commentary. They mirror central deeply disquieting and central aspects of US life, the whole plot-design actuated by the cancer epidemic (from our ubiquitous “chemistry, yo Mr White!”) and the horrendous price of a pretense at effective chemical medicine:

Skylerpressuring
Anna Gunn as Skyer desperate and believing Walt could be saved, pressuring him into going for the out-of-range expensive chemotherapy and operation.

Skyler
At film’s end: she sits, chain-smokes, drinks coffee, listens to others in a corner of a trailer-home

As film art they are brilliant. The genre finally American gothic: the mini-series has the recipe except for the supernatural: the double self, death, labyrinthine haunted places, the past never goes away, even sexuality in the form of homo-eroticism unacknowledged, and at the end a house in ruin. Less known but common characteristics: exploration of science, doctors (as in Frankenstein). Kafkaesque, majorly says Jesse of his experiences.

So now, as I’ve done for the Palliser, Poldark and Downton Abbey mini-series, as well as many Jane Austen and Andrew Davies’ films, I offer a handy list in one place for people who are interested easily to reach my summaries and commentary. I’ll keep it to this blog (and not attempt to put it on a new website when I finally make it) as after all I discover I did not write as many here as for these previous series:

1) Cancer and Anatomies of Violence: Season 1:1-3

2) Cancer and Money: Season 1:4-6

3) Parallels distract common sense from seeing who is the villain here: Season 1:17

4) It’s the reverse of what’s claimed: Season 2:1-4

5) A Crime Adventure Story: Season 2:5-7 to Finale

6) A Crime Adventure Story (Cont’d): Season 2:8-10

7) American Gothic: Season 2:11-13

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Their first lab

8) Sensational Screenplay into a film: Season 3:1-4

9) Rather poorer stuff: Season 3:5-7

10) Stasis (includes Fly and Kafkaesque): Season 3:8-10

11) A Killing Way of Life: Season 3:11-13; 4:1-4

12) I change my mind about Skyler: Season 4:5-13 & Reprise 1:1-7

13) Walt and the Emmys: Season 5:1-8 & Reprise Season 2:5-13

14) The Dark Tragic End: Season 6:1-8

FromTheFly
From The Fly

I’ve two books to recommend, and transcripts of what was said in each episode. As I discover new essays or materials (reviews welcome) on-line that are good, I’ll add them here:

David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp’s collection of essays by themselves and others, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry

Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad by Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz

The Breaking Bad episodes scripts — simply the dialogue taken down (not the screenplay, not shooting scipts as they have no stage directions, no description of production design, no designation for shots)

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Bagofchemicals
One of the many landscapes and bags of chemicals from the series

Ellen

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Crying
Anna Gunn about to fall to her knees on the ground as Skyler crying after her baby is taken from her by Walt

if you cut them [man's laws] down … d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then … Yes I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake — Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons

AndreaBrockwhocares
But see this pinned up photo of Andrea (Emily Rios), among the world’s targets: who cares what happens to her: anyone may and does shoot her in the head

Dear friends and readers,

I finished what I’m calling a first viewing of the extraordinary 42 hour Breaking Bad to the bitter end last night. Even to try to take it in would require several viewings. Each of the last shots of the principles epitomizes some final statement about what each has become and how they related to the story’s themes and action. In the last feature as well as a parody, “Alternate Ending,” Vince Gilligan offered his view of the two men’s last moments.

WalterWhitelastshot
The series’ last shot of Bryan Cranston as Walter White

White, he suggests, is “spiritually broken, his hopes for revenge pipe dreams; he’s too sick,” the last episode “an elegy, a bit of a goodbye — he goes out on his own terms, the cancer does not kill him, he is killed saving Jesse, there’s almost a perverse feeling of victory to it for me, at least.” Walt’s life up to the time he began to cook meths was a long mortification, failure as most in his society saw it, mocked by the bully brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) in a video replayed briefly made during Holly’s baby shower. He tells Skyler he did it “for me. I liked it. And I was good at it. I was alive.” Look at that look of bliss on the man’s face as Walt enters the darkness from which we all come, for him the release of oblivion. His life as Walter White ended when he was told he had terminal inoperable cancer; now the love he depended upon is gone from his family, he has done for them what he could monetarily, and he now dies on his own terms, blithe to go.

I’m not as persuaded by Gilligan’s view of Jesse. He’d “like to think Jesse escapes,” that there is “some hope of a life ahead.” Look at that face whose every nerve is suffused with moral pain and despair:

JessePinkmanlastshot
Last shot of Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman

Jesse crashes in a junk car at full throttle through an iron fence from the last lair of murderous crooks with which he and Mr White have had to deal and Walt destroyed. Realistically, he’s nowhere to hide: Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) has vanished (“it’s over”) and with him his mechanisms for creating new identities for his clients. Jesse will end up seeking out his two feeble friends, Skinny Pete and Badger, and die on the streets if not jailed: he has been called “the moral compass” of the series;” it’s more true to say he has bneen its bleak victim, the one beat up continually, targeted again and again for killing, enslaved with chains, at the close yes knowing he made a killing choice to join Walter White and Jesse is no killer. Each time he shot or killed someone it was after an intense effort to force himself: only the strangulation of Todd (well deserved after Todd coolly shoots Andrea in the head) came naturally.

baddreams

The alternate ending has Cranston as Hal, a comic emasculated character with Lois, his formidable wife (Jane Kaczmarek, from a once TV popular series, the two of them starred in, 2006 Malcolm in the Middle) waking in the night, trembling from the “scariest” dream you can imagine: told he had cancer (!), he took to cooking meths, making bombs, killing people (!), alongside a “lost waif, a man child who looked like he was always wearing his older brother’s clothes and he would always say things like “b…” [he stops embarrassed and worried his wife won't approve], the b word he would use the b word a lot he would say (shouting) “yo B word” and “yah science b word …” In “Felina” we see Jesse when young lovingly carpentering a wooden box, his drawings of himself as a boy hero were recognized by Jane (Krysten Ritter), one of his two loves, as the work of a comically self-deprecating artist. Despised and rejected, with no Mr White to save him, Jesse zooms into the darkness too.

In this dream Hal tells Lois, as his actual wife (much TV self-reflexivity here) that he, Hal, was married to this “tall beautiful blonde woman” — Lois the wife semi-jeers, incredulous of course. When Skyler is last seen she is continually smoking, chain-smoking. She sits and smokes. She is terrorized twice in this season, both through her baby. After a terrific scene after Walt has produced another set of lies to account for his absence and where Hank could be, she sees a fancy knife in a knife set on the table we have seen many times. She grabs it and lunges at him, screaming, “leave us alone, just leave us alone.” Walt defends himself and they fall to the fall, rolling, tussling; he manages to wrench the knife back but not before she has slashed his hand. Horrified, Walt junior becomes hysterical as he watches this.

Flynnhorrified (2)

Flynnhorrified (1)

To this they have descended. Well he gets back; before she can rise and adjust herself, he has taken the baby in its carrier, run to his car and is driving off. She rushes out after them frantic, asking for her baby back, and falls on her knees to the ground as he drives away. A stunning moment. She begins at long last to cry. Walt does care for Holly and leaves her with the firemen, where we presume Skyler can pick her up safe and sound.

Again another moment in this last season, late at night, she hears a sound from the baby’s room and finds herself by the crib with three men who surround it. They are masked and the dangerous Todd is one of them. They say she has been talking to the police and if she tells about who Lydia is or anything she knows they will return — implication and kill this baby. She mouths obedience.

SkylerWhite
Last shot of Anna Gunn as the show’s princess Skyler White seeing how bad Walt looks

Anna Gunn interprets her character inadequately throughout. She says Skyler is a shell, nothing in her. But for her life is not pointless as yet: she has her children, but like Jesse, they make her intensely vulnerable to those who want to get at Walt or any of his associates. Unlike Jesse, once her court case is done, if she does not go to prison (and a plea bargain seems probable), she must (like Saul) move, and if not get a new identity, keep out of harm’s way. Her beauty is of no help for what she cares about — though perhaps it attracted Walter White in the first place, made him dump Gretchen Schwartz. The characters in the series invite these kinds of speculations: we learn enough about them suggestively over the slow-moving 6 year series. I imagine she will eventually stop the heavy smoking — though she will never be the complacent woman she once was. She will remember a world of terror that she joined in on (to the extent of telling Walt to have Jesse killed when Walt balks at this), that still exists but which she now wants no part of.

Lastshotofseries
The very last shot of the series: the men with big guns in the scientific lab (as Fortinbras has the last word in Hamlet)

There is a bleak inference to be garnered at this end: at each and every turn of their career, the two men came up against people who had become inured to murder by dint of murdering other people lest they be murdered or found out, bullied into confessions, and then tortured by penal servitude for decades to come. Each set of murderers were worse than the ones before: from Krazy-8 (seemingly sane) to Tuco Salamanca (who commits acts of wild crazed violence), replaced by the frighteningly homocidal Gus Esposito and his ruthless hitman, Mike Ermantraut, replaced in this last season by the vicious Nazi crew run by Jack Welker (Michael Bowen), with perhaps the scariest pair of them all, Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) and Lydia Rodart-Quayle (Laura Fraser). Hank tells Walt he is a dead man ten minutes ago when Walt is still so foolish as to try to bargain with Jack for Hank’s life based on reasoning:

Hankslastmoent
Near last shot of Dean Norris as Hank: to Walt “you were the smartest guy I ever knew, but you are too stupid to know it was over ten minutes ago.”

The mini-series presents law as providing a modicum of safety for those who do not break it: those administering (inflicting?) and obeying it do not fear one another and however personally awful, mean, demeaning of others, have a vested interest in not breaking it. So some control is exerted over people, some order set up (however morally cruel or wrong) whose rules most of the time can be depended upon — at least by white middle class people.

Marieleftalone
Marie (Betsy Brandt) left alone, widowed in her impeccable kitchen — having learned nothing, her lips tight as she spews out unfocused anger

At least you know where you are with the DEA, the medical establishment, the schools, family rituals. There are levels of barbarity such people most of the time do not stoop to. Not everyone is inside this net — those on drugs, alcoholics, non-whites, the poor, women who are driven to prostitution, for whom there is no pity, no understanding. The show does not include GLBT people who presumably are not inside the Net if they reveal themselves.

Disabled
Walt’s last view of Walter Junior (RJMitte) who he has tried to provide money for funneled through the Schwartzes

I would not want to be a disabled person, a child, someone who does not conform in the surface way the well-rewarded Schwartzes have.

A bad dream? Says Mr White to Hank (who soon after ends up buried in sand), if you do not know what this has been about (“who I am”), tread lightly:

Treadlightly (2)

Treadlightly (1)

The remark is not to limited to Heisenberg as Hyde but the whole complex of life we’ve experienced.

Have I mentioned how effective are the inconsequential shots of the series: as Walter White is taken away to hide in the granite state, a stray dog crosses the road

Straydog
Final shot of Oxymandias (13:6)

Ellen

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A Syllabus for a Class at the Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University

Exploring the Gothic

Day: 8 Tuesday afternoons, 2:15-3:40 pm, Sept 24th to Nov 11th
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road. Fairfax
Instructor: Ellen Moody

Description of Course:

This course explore varieties of gothic and its terrain which conform to recipe format. Take one labyrinthine or partly ruined dwelling, place inside murderous incestuous father or chained mother (preferably in a dungeon), heroes and heroines (as wanderers, nuns), stir in a tempest; have on hand blood, night-birds, and supernatural phenomena, with fore-, and back-stories set in the past. We’ll read short stories, three novellas and sample films. We’ll begin with ghosts and witches, move to vampires, werewolves, and end on socially critical mysteries and stories of the paranormal (e.g., possession). We cover terror, horror, male and female gothic. We’ll also view clips from two films considered the most powerful film gothics ever made and an Oscar winning short.

Schedule:

September 23:   Origin, definition, history of genre, characteristics. I’ll show parts of DVD for The Haunting and The Woman in Black (if possible, otherwise substitute clip from “Afterward” from Shades of Darkness).
September 30:   Stevenson, “Markheim, ” Wharton’s “Afterward” and Mary Reilly
October 7:  Mary Reilly (possible clip) and F. Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life”
October 14:   Stoker, “The Judge’s House,” Conan Doyle, “Adventure of Abbey Grange;” Wharton’s “Kerfol”
October 21:   Vampire Tapestry (first 3 tales), LeFanu’s “Carmilla” and Oliphant’s “The Open Door”
October 28:   Vampire Tapestry (last 2 tales), Stevenson, “The Body Snatchers,” Wharton, “Mr Jones”
November 4 :  Dickens, “Signalman”'; M. R. James, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale”; Bierce, “Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge”; A. M. Burrage’s “Smee.”
November 11:  The Haunting of Hill House

Texts:

Martin, Valerie. Mary Reilly. New York: Vintage, 1990. ISBN 978-0-375-72599-9. It’s available as a kindle, and there have been many editions: Doubleday 1990, Washington Square Press, 1994.
Charnas, Suzy McKee. The Vampire Tapestry. Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1980. It’s available as a Kindle and two newer edition: Orb Books, 2008; The Women’s Press, 1992.
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. NY: Penguin 2006. ISBN978-0-14-303998-3

Online short stories:

R.L. Stevenson, “Markheim”  

http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Mark.shtml

Edith Wharton, “Afterward”

http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/ewharton/bl-ewhar-afterward.htm

F. Marion Crawford, “For the Blood is the Life” (scroll down)

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0605421.txt

Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House”

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10150/10150-h/10150-h.htm

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Abbey Grange”

http://sherlock-holmes.classic-literature.co.uk/the-adventure-of-the-abbey-grange/

Edith Wharton, “Kerfol”

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24350/24350-h/24350-h.htm

R.L. Stevenson, “The Body Snatchers”

http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/body.htm

Edith Wharton, “Mr Jones”

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200121.txt

Sheridan LeFanu, “Carmilla”

http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/carmilla.htm

Margaret Oliphant, “The Open Door”

http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10052/pg10052.html

Charles Dickens, “The Signalman”

http://anilbalan.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/the-signalman.pdf

M. R. James, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale”

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/mr/more/chapter5.html

A.M. Burrage, “Smee”

http://anilbalan.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/smee-by-am-burrage-_-scary-for-kids.pdf

Ambrose Bierce, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/

YouTube for Oscar Winning Short: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuP5kUQro40

For further materials on the gothic, see my website under Ghosts and gothics, vampires and witches and l’ecriture-femme; under Austen Reveries, the category “Gothic.”

Ellen

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The.Trip.to.Italy
On their way to Pompeii (2014)

somewhereinWestRiding
Somewhere in the West Riding (2010)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been wanting to see Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy, featuring Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon a second time before writing about it as what is referred to as “a summer movie,” but summer is just about over and I’ve not made it back to Cinema Art this week when it opened there (and a few other movie theaters). I have, though, now watched The Trip twice (a DVD from Netflix), the previous travel-film, near two-hour feature made by the same director, with the same pair of males, and even female friends and lovers (Rebecca Johnson as Rob’s wife) and associates (Claire Keelan as Emma) in 2010. They went to Yorkshire or the West Riding, so that reinforcement and slow re-watching (pleasurable) will have to do.

The Trip to Italy is not a great film in the way of Richard Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise, with Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, as the loving and then vexed friends, with each reprise (Before Sunset [2004], and Before Midnight [2013]), not quite as fine; but it’s in the same mode, and unlike most sequels, an improvement on The Trip: all five seem to move us deeply into an intimate relationship (not sexual in the case of Coogan and Brydon as they keep reminding us and themselves) which we are glimpsing continual outward signs and conversation about. One of the joys of all five is you are made to feel you are listening to real spontaneous conversation and have to remind yourself that, to stay just with Coogan and Brydon, this is a fiction and this is not Brydon’s wife to whom he is sexually unfaithful while away, nor is this Coogan’s somewhat estranged son (in the fiction of the second movie, having been separated from her mother, his ex-wife). And the conversation is almost perpetually stimulating, often intelligent, fun, touching. Coogan and Brydon have some advantages over Delpy and Hawke as both are superb mimics and their patter in the second movie is a matter of their competing with transforming themselves into familiar male actors, and they visit superbly beautiful places.

It speaks well of Linklater’s three movies that he does not rely on offering us a deeply pleasurable travelogue, but this summer I could not resist it. Jim and I and our two daughters in 1994 spent five weeks in Italy, mostly in and around Rome, but we were in Pompeii, to Naples, and three days in Ischia and I had to admit we were immersed in nothing so beautiful, a salutary admission as films eliminate the hard realities of travel, the real world one is surrounded by.

As a dream fantasy of photography the earlier film was as spectacular. Brydon says they are in a Turner painting, but to me (like Alan Bennet) it’s John Atkinson Grimshaw (a famous 19th century painter of Leeds) who captured the area best and this time, having lived in Leeds and traveled across the West Riding for 2 years I did experience some of the scenes captured.

Landscape (1)
I’ve walked and driven through landscapes like this

Landscape (2)
Stone pubs look like that on a sunny day

They do omit Leeds itself with its hard older parts of the cityscape (some impoverished), and towns that are barely surviving today,and the bourgeois heavy mansions in the outskirts of cities but not in the countryside:

John Atkinson Grimshaw - An Autumn Idyll
John Atkinson Grimshaw’s forte: An Autumn Idyll

But then to me parts of Naples looked like the Bronx circa 1950s.

Both films have been reviewed favorably, Maohla Dargis in the New York Times (June 2011), and David Denby in the New Yorker (September 2014). Both reviews underline the vexed abrasions the men have now and again, and the undercurrents of melancholy, especially in the second film where the men are older, and Brydon no longer presented as happily married. The films are self-reflecting and in the second film Brydon remarks he was thought to be too “affable” in the first film: it’s been fixed, as Brydon betrays his lovers more than Coogan, and is every bit as wounded over his career losses as Coogan (who after all was in last year’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” Philomena with Judi Dench). I also found the increased level of sexual talk (bodily jokes) at times distasteful and (to be expected I suppose) masculinist: the hurts are those of males, women seen as objects, comfort dolls, or irritating bosses. At the Cinema Art Film Club where I saw The Trip to Italy, Gary Arnold (the Washington Post film critic who chooses the films and leads the discussion afterward) said if you didn’t like the actors’ characters you would hate the film; that’s one way of putting it without referring to gender. Some might be bored by Delpy and Hawke.

Perhaps The Trip to Italy had realer fuller (because darker) emotions than The Trip: the moving sequence at Pompeii is the film at its best — the talk over the stone corpses and how we relate to them. In The Trip Coogan and Brydon rely on reciting poetry by Coleridge and Wordsworth to make ironic some of their passing through tourist places; in The Trip to Italy the awareness of mortality, almost a fixation (it comes out in the 2010 film when the two are standing in a grave side and Brydon gets Coogan to anticipate what Coogan will say over Brydon’s tomb), comes out as one man wanting to open himself to his loss and vulnerability (Brydon) and the other bitterly walking away (Coogan), suggesting this sensitivity is phony.

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Winterbottom made a great film out of Jude the Obscure where he similarly meditated loss, death, and in The Trip to Italy Winterbottom’s use of Strauss’s Four Last Songs was pitched just right. For me who nowadays see in Before Sunrise a re-enactment of Jim and my first week together,

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Before Sunrise: the young Delpy and Hawke

there was here a personal connection to our first ceremony ending (I intend to scatter his ashes in England), as Jim loved these songs and I made them part of the soundtrack for the video that played at Jim’s funeral.

Denby tells us the two films are derived from six part mini-series made for British TV. He felt nothing was missing and you could hardly tell this origin; I can’t agree. Now and again references seem to be made to something in the film we had not experienced (not just a between chapter) and especially the second film where there was much more sexual interaction with women along the way perhaps I would have not reacted to the talk negatively had the full time of the relationships been presented. At the very least the films profited enormously from their cyclical structure. In the second especially we are made to feel this is not closure: Coogan has to go home to cope with the son he has in part failed, and Brydon wishes he could avoid returning home and suggests a hope, however improbable, of coming back. Improbable is part of the movie’s wit: they are supposed on a hard assignment to eat these exquisitely cooked meals it’s almost an embarrassment to watch being made, so detailed is the luxury appointment of the plates, and so hushed the waiter’s descriptions.

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Yorkshire being photographed

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Yet another wine-savored feast

A testament to the world of the 1%? That’s my one serious objection to the second film. The first seemed to avoid that: maybe it had less fancy meals, less luxurious surroundings, there was a sense of roughing it. If you define a summer movie as escapism, metaphysically and psychologically at least they are not that, with the second funnier and yet sadder than the first.

Both sets of films have prompted caricature:

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Eating your way through

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Waking up: “I keep thinking about something you said.” “Something I said?”

Ellen

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

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

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

Dear readers and friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ellen

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

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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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George dreaming over travel literature

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

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

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

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

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

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Henry Travers as Clarence listening to George

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sophie and Stanley discuss nature of existence

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

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

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

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

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

Whatyouprefer

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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