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Archive for the ‘gothic’ Category

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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The lobby

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In the hotel room

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

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

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

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Paris at night and they remember hurts

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

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Street walking

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

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

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Cover for first edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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The evocative set

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Richard and Stanley right behind him

Dear friends and readers,

This is to add to a chorus of praise for the production of Richard III playing this month through early March of Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Folger. Izzy and I saw it tonight and by the time we were into the second half, enjoyed it enormously, were thoroughly absorbed.

As might be seen by my comparative qualification, I don’t quite agree with the estatic insights some reviewers have been attributing to the play. I’ve seen it so many times, and Izzy almost as many, and we agreed we’ve seen many a superior one: to name just a few, Ian McKellen as Richard III as a Hitler type in the film (and Jim and I also saw it on stage); Laurence Oliver’s film (where Ralph Richardson as Buckingham managed to steal the show); the Washington Shakespeare’s great version (a parable about politicians) a few years ago now at the Arlington theater; one I saw years ago with Stacey Keach as Richard III. The play is popular — it is just deliciously over-the-top for an ensemble cast and rich for a great actor) and frequently done in part or as a whole. This production was disappointing during the first half. The declaiming style used throughout could not accommodate the black and nervy humor of the first half: many jokes just thrown away and lost. Richard’s “We are not safe” to Clarence as Clarence is taken off to be murdered at Richard’s instigation fell flat.

There is something effeminate (a fine thing to be by the way) in Richard III (as there is Richard II) and this was erased utterly — can’t have that in this macho male world of long leather coats, and heavy armor and weapons. In fact the costumes recalled the way we see police dressed in the US when they attack crowds (say Occupy groups) or shut down and swarm all over a city (say Boston). Cortese was superb

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Drew Cortese as Richard III,

but he also seemed unwilling to unbend and the worst scene of the play (though it was effective as Shakespeare’s scene is striking) was the one where Richard wooes Lady Anne (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) in front of her husband’s bleeding corpse.

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Cortese kept his distance and his dignity; what he should have done is sidled up to her, and engaged physically with her, alluring and luring. They didn’t even obey the stage directions which include a comment about how she had thrown the sword he gave her to push through his heart on the ground: they kept the line, but she didn’t throw the sword until well after he uttered the line.

The nervousness of the usual scenes in the first half often leads to cutting the second half where the mood become direct and hard-hitting and this is where this production came into its own. What it had to add to the all the productions I’ve seen before was it was utterly traditional — as we might imagine it. In fact they risked slight parody (a la Beyond the Fringe) as they marched on and off the stage, declaiming at one another at the top of their voices with their bodies just writhing and just standing in place. No lines were left out, no scenes cut.

Cast

The reviews I’ve read have strangely left out two important themes of the production: the way characters were killed was in imitation of Sweeney Todd, that modern neurotic nightmare of slaughter. There were squares and triangles in the floor which would open up and the assassin would come along and slit the person’s throat, or pull them down and we’d hear some sort of thump, clang; the repetition of this was effective. These holes in the ground allowed for continual allusions to the finding of the much decayed corpse of Richard III in 2012 in a parking lot in Leicester, England. The program notes were all about this, and this corpse & parking lot were continually evoked on stage. The lights underground were parking lot lights. The corpse of Anne’s husband was wrapped like a mummy one finds in a excavation of a site where savage rituals were performed.

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A contemporary gothic all right.

This evocation may have been meant (the program notes suggest this) to remind the audience that although this version of Richard III as malign and deformed may be a Tudor myth, based on More’s biography intended to please Henry VIII; nonetheless, a terrible reality gave rise to this fascinating dramatization of the criminal and desperate behavior of the aristocrats of the UK in the 15th century. The women were the desperate mourners (Nanna Ingvarsson came through as a great actress once again as the Duchess of York in her set-tos with her vile son, Richard) or worked upon to give in in order to salvage something or appear too. Richard’s seducing of Queen Elizabeth (Jula Motyka) paralleled his seducing of Anne:

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He is offering her a replacement of a possible future and safety if she will allow him to marry her daughter, Princess Elizabeth (Jenna Berk). I liked especially that the production conveyed by costumes and gestures that when Henry VII took over and the Princess is brought by her mother to stand by his side, that we not having any improvement. This man is such another perhaps as Richard was — whose death has a certain desperate pathos – throat slit just as he goes down the hole and cries “a horse, my horse … my kingdom for a horse … “. A parable for our time, and depiction of how the real corpse that was found got there.

I could see the audience was not gone on the production until the second half either. The actors brought the audience in as if they were London citizens and the audience at one point obliged by clapping. People like to be amused and there was laughter at the some obvious stage business like jokes during Richard’s hypocritical refusal of the crown. Some of the best secondary male performances came out here. Richard Sheridan Willis as Stanley in dark-colored glasses with his sheaf of papers and fear for his son but determined betrayal of Richard III evoked a modern day powerful minister backing up whoever is in power by whatever means necessary.

Stanley

So don’t miss it; it’s another winner for this new Shakespeare all the time group at the Folger. As to our personal experience, see Under the Sign of Sylvia.

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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David Denby of the New Yorker has it right:

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

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

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

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

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

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Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup re-named Plat when a slave (Twelve Years a Slave, directed Steven McQueen, screenplay John Ridley)

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Jay Morris Hunter as Ahab (Moby Dick, San Francisco opera production, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer)

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday and in the wee hours of the night I watched two movies I’d like to recommend not missing if you can help it. Both much worth immersing yourself in — thinking about in the case of Twelve Years a Slave and allowing the alluring beauty of the mood and music to bring you in with Moby Dick.

From what I hear other people say to one another, Twelve Years a Slave is misrepresented in ordinary talk somewhat. Since “word-of-mouth” retains its importance in making for a popular movie hit, I’m hurrying a little to write about Twelve Years. If seen by enough people, it could function (mildly) as Uncle Tom’s Cabin once did — this time to help against racial discrimination and racist thinking so prevalent in the US still. People have told me in some areas the film has not opened so maybe I’m precipitantly worrying the film will not be a commercial success. In my area it did open in our local art cinema; the owner rejoiced at getting two prints but it’s already in Theater 4 (smaller and not for continuing hits) and not many people were in the audience yesterday after only a week; and among these were a number of black people, so not many whites in the audience. This theater is not one black people go to much; it’s in an area that’s mostly white, upper middle and attracts art-film audiences. For The Butler I did have to go to Theater 4 but it had been playing for weeks and weeks, all summer in fact, and still the theater (4) was filled and it had a preponderance of white people. The Butler crossed the racial divide. In a nearby theater to me which has large black audiences The Butler was sold out on and off for weeks, long lines of black people waiting to go, early on and then the whites joined them.

Scuttlebutt (or what I’m told or read by friends) is how violent and hard to watch it is. It’s not non-violent and not easy to watch but not because you are shown excruciating torture or close-up shocking violence, nor is this perpetual or at all gratuitous. The violence wreaked on slaves that we see is precisely what will subdue and cow them (not nothing because it’s harsh and includes implicit threats of death), the beatings shown at a distance as (horrifyingly to decent emotions) par for the course, the ordinary routine of treatment for slaves. The coerced sex scenes (on the slaves Patsy played so effectively by Lupita Nyong’o) by the master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinder who does steal the movie) are not all that much different from what I’ve seen of half-rape type scenes in (soft-corn implicitly hard sex) movies which don’t name it that. The woman just lies there and lets him.

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Patsy asking Plat to help her kill herself

What’s memorable about the scene so many reviewers have mentioned of our hero, Solomon Northrup renamed Plat (Chiwetel Ejiofor) where he’s hung and will die if he does not manage to keep his toes on the ground is how everyday it is, how slaves walk by him unable to help him, how the whites watch and do nothing, and how the supposed “good” master (Bernard Cumberbatch as Master Ford) only comes to cut him down late at night lest he irritate his central over-seer. Ford gives him a violin but will not behave towards him as if he were a human being whose life matters.

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Plat rented out to a man who allows him to keep the money he’s paid for his violin playing

Twelve Years a Slave (based remember on a 19th slave narrative, a type or sub-genre) increased my respect for Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (essentially several slave narratives interwoven into a middle class type white novel) and watching it helped increase my respect for that nowadays somewhat under-rated book. It has the same attributed flaws — in the sense that there is a reductive quality, a melodramatic exaggeration going on continually so really the charge hurled at Simon Legree that he’s a monster and no one could be that bad and if he were he’d be an exception can be hurled at Epps.

James Baldwin would not like the way Plat is presented as sheerly noble and insofar as he can be good (see “Everybody’s Protest Novel”); he is not an Uncle Tom; he does not justify a(the character who does this who is popular now is Mr Carson in Downton Abbey) or suck up in his case in the face of horrible mistreatment, but he is an innocent as the film opens. When Solomon is lured to the south, it’s obvious that the two men luring him are crooks; they are over-praising him; he is a simpleton in the scenes. Master Ford as a character is better with his well-meaningness, and his inability to keep Plat, whose opinion Ford consults, thus whose abilities arouse the resentment-hatred of his over-seers slave-servant safe is believable, but numbers of the scenes are too obvious, he won’t help Plat for real, regards Plat as property he must sell to keep his debts down so our moral lesson is clear.

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Cumberbatch as the religious ethical man Ford nonetheless showing intense cowardice and lack of real understanding as he briefly explains to Plat why he sells him to Epps

But would such a man sell this man to Epps whom he knows is cruel, sadistic. Epps played as nearly psychotic and seemingly driven by guilt to be even crueller. The central parallel of the two works (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the film Twelve Years) is this half-crazed white master. Epps is a Simon Legree and his wife a female version. But you do (Stowe and now McQueen) want to make sure the audience gets it.

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Sarah Paulson as Mrs Epps riping off Patsy’s ear and taking a chunk out of her cheek with a knife (in Dickens’s Travels in America he easily exposes slavery quoting the ads for finding escaped or “lost” slaves by the scars they are said to have)

Gets what? the key to the film’s power and importance is we see what happens to people who lose all status all caste worth – and in the case of chattel slavery this is reinforced by law which defines them as property. If they should be owned by a mad-man he is allowed to do as he wishes. The point is what law and custom allows. Sure in the Islamic world most men are not ogres, but the Koran and custom allow horrific treatment and power corrupts. People will use power if they are given it even when not as obvious as Legree or Epps.

The film is relevant to us today because today people lose a great deal of status and caste worth depending on how much money they make, the schools they go to, where they live, if they are broke — and worse, if they are immigrants or of a different racial color than the powerful. I was reminded of a book I recently reviewed on global emigration in the 18th century, enforced diasporas, and mass murder, Hodson’s Acadian Diaspora, where the point was made that safety for the average non-powerful non-connected person depends on staying where you are, among relatives or friends and people whose truth or falsehood you can gauge so not be cheated utterly to your destruction with no recourse in courts not made for you. See also David Denby on Twelve Years (from the New Yorker) as best movie on slavery made in the US thus far.

It seems to reflect a book too: there are intriguing sequences which are not part of the plot-driven movement: a group of Native Americans come to dance before the black slaves as if their culture is what slaves will understood. Other curious moments.

The one real flaw in the film is the ending as has been suggested in reviews and conversations I’ve heard. Not so much that Brad Pitt as Bass (a major contributor of money as a first-named producer) gives himself the role of our one abolitionist talker, and the only man to keep his faith with Plat.

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Brad Pitt as Bass actually listening to Plat (with exaggerated courtesy)

Plat before this trusts a white overseer who seems to be his friend with money in return for taking a letter to the post office to send to the north to reach friends to help him in court; the man tells Epps so immediately that the man does not have the letter as evidence and Plat manages to persuade Epps (not too bright) that he man is lying:

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Half-mad man

The story is improbable Plat persuades Epps, and then we watch Plat burn the hard won paper and writing he did so laboriously with home-made ink and quill.

Bass is a hired architect, an outsider and he does get in touch with authorities up north and friends of Northup — at considerable risk to himself if he’s found out he says.

The flaw begins with how easy it is for the friends to show up & take Northup away. Why did they never look for Northup before? Well, it is true that people were terrified and a reign of terror worked down south (Harriet Martineau’s travels in America books record this) but then it should not have been as easy as we see it for the men to take Northup away Epps should have shot him, would have. We are then not shown the court scenes that would have been another 2 hours but that would have been original and interesting — so let’s hope for a sequel? I doubt it.

The least real moment is the return of Northup to his family. He looks just as innocent and sweet as when he set out. Not haggard, not worn, not much changed at all. His black family is improbably prosperous throughout yet seem to have no connections to anyone black or white outside themselves. All subside into joy in a circle. Plat-Northup keeps apologizing and that makes psychological sense.

I compared the final scene to some photos I’ve seen of Primo Levi when he first returned from concentration camp,haggard, exhausted, not the same ever again. I wondered if a man dragged from freedom to slavery wouldn’t have the same hostage symptoms, the same urges to self-murder and sense of deep humiliation not to be gotten over. We get intertitles to tell us how Northup wrote and published his book in 1853 (Twelve Years in Slavery, and how he worked hard for the underground railway. So he stayed in the US I thought.

But then this quietly ominous final intertitle: no one knows how or when he died or where he is buried. Maybe murdered?

The central performances of male roles as everyone has said are stunningly good. I’ve already named the principles.

As a woman watching I had though to endure the annoyance of women being presented one-dimensionally throughout — except for Patsy the girl who becomes Epps’ concubine; who he beats, who picks heroic amounts of cotton each day — so she is never whipped for under-picking as others are. The two white mistresses are basically either phlegmatic and do nothing (that’s their role) or spiteful: Sarah Paulson Mrs Epps loathes Epps and tries not to have him in her bed, to leave him but he threatens her too – she is a form of his property too (this reminded me of Valerie Martin’s book that won the Orange Prize, Property); Mrs Epps is as sadistic, as sick as her husband, hates Patsy and hurls hard objects at her, knocking her down, cuts her face and ear cruelly, will not let her wash herself so she flees for soap and is gone for a few hours which leads to a horrific scene of Epps beating her and then forcing Plat to do it.

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The scene’s reality for the era (keeping clean was difficult) makes one feel it comes from the book — as one of Indians humiliating themselves by dancing as white people expect

We see one black woman who has become a white man’s open mistress: she is fatuous, self-centered, looks down at other blacks. I don’t say these are not human impulses but that’s all we get of these women. A black woman weeps incessantly because parted from her children; another forces herself sexually one night on Plat.

So it’s masculinist movie — Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-39 depicts the terrifying work load and sexual exploitation and cruelty wreaked on women — and their complicated humanity too. And Kemble as mistress identifies with them and within 4 years leaves her husband — she must leave behind her children to do it, only regaining the friendship of one of them in much later years. Such a thinking upright brave type woman is not in the film.

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Which brings me to the opera of Moby Dick where (like Master and Commander out of the Patrick O’Brien books) where no women are in the film — just remembered as embodying civilization itself.

The one women in the cast was playing the boy, Pip, who is almost drowned. Suffice to say it outlined the major hinge-points of the novel (as seen in a play originally with Orson Welles from the 1940s I once saw), and it brought out the meaningful themes: does life have any meaning? who is this haunted creature-fish and Ahab or Ishmael? they are lonely? Is there a God; if so, is he evil incarnate? The music was alluring, the lines resonant to larger meanings we can identify with through generalizations. Like all films it was made for today, with today in mind. The artwork beautifully picturesque:

The production did not emphasize the primal animal-fish (as did Winston Graham in his last Poldark novel, Bella) but human displacement, alienation. The production did seem to suggest that all would have been well but that the captain was mad. (That’s not the note of the Graham novels.) As I recall the book the thrust is all is not going to be well, never has. We see a dream life or men cut off from where they could know happiness as they are driven to make money in this dangerous occupation.

So I loved the deep melancholy of the men, their desperation to bring home some whale oil for money I see as part of human life. I bonded with the man who survives and calls himself Ishmael. He had wanted to go to an island with Queegqueg and live out our lives as best we can; I felt for Mr Starbuck who is nearly shot point-blank by Ahab, and almost shoots Epps on the way. There are the comic undercutting characters too.

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And he wouldn’t know, he was tempted

This novel centrally attacks tenets of Christian belief, from justice as always or often done, to stories of an afterlife. These are deliberately not love or dynastic stories. He wanted to be spared.

I bring them together because I watched them within 12 hours of one another, and was struck by the shared masculinity identification. For myself the plangent nature of the music, Ishmael as a person alone in this world resonated enough. I think Jim would have enjoyed the great range of the masculine voices they hired. The lines on the screen and wild waters as the ships turning out from lines, the wild waters — all pulled me paradoxically soothed me. The ending of the tale is tragic as is a good deal of life.

Friday nights on TV contain a revival of the old Great Performances which I remember from my childhood, watching with my father on the old Channel 13: Judith Anderson in Medea, a Chekhov play with a male character who lived in an attic with birds, a sad poet, a bitter absolutely perfect Twelth Night (so that’s what is meant), Peggy Ashcroft, Duchess of Malfi. Now a few weeks ago the four Henry plays, from Richard II to Henry V (and the actors and actresses were great from the extraordinary Ben Wishlaw as Richard (this was Shakespeare I thought — ever autobiographical in my reading), Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York, David Morrisey as Northumberland, Tom Hiddleston as Henry, Roy Kinnear as Bolingbroke become Jeremy Irons as king, Michelle Dockery (Yay!) as Kate, Hotspur’s wife, Simon Beale as Falstaff, (I saw David Bradley too), magnificently done.

I did not realize the new version allows you to watch a re-run (as it were) as a podcast.

Learning to watch TV, a little
Ellen

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Kate O’Hara of An Eye for an Eye by Elisa Trimby

Dear friends and readers,

More than a week ago now a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies finished reading Trollope’s powerful Anglo-Irish novella, An Eye for an Eye. We’ve been having a sort of Anglo-Irish year and a half, having now read (in this order) just before (but not directly after one another), The Kellys and O’Kellys, Castle Richmond, The Macdermots of Ballycloran. The links I provide will taken the reader to group reads of these books a different group of us read on the same list-serv some ten years ago.

The Macdermots of Ballycloran was the first novel the first list-serv group for Trollope I ever was on read together (we chose it because it was Trollope’s first novel), and the reading and book is the subject of the first chapter of my book, where, with its second chapter on all the other Anglo-Irish books of Trollope (excluding the Phineas books) I argue this set of books is a powerful sub-genre, a series whose books share a group of characteristics and repeating motifs; Trollope maps its landscape (and thus Ireland). I wrote in my book it’s:

a place apart, filled with characters who have little hope, who encounter cruelty, hardship and indifference with a combination of pragmatic acceptance, stern heroism, mythic gestures and extravagant fantasies. It is a place ‘especially unhappy’, rural, archaic, primal in customs. When it is realistic, we explore paralysis. When it is romantic, we find ourselves in providential, picaresque or gothic worlds, in the latter of which uncanny happenings are at home. Sutherland remarks that when an English novelist turned to Ireland he evoked ‘a vein of Celtic romance and pathos’ unavailable in English novels.

Well it won over a new set of people (plus me, and any other old-timer). I’ve assigned it twice to my students, have read good student papers on it, and I again wrote about their reaction, how they identified with the young hero and heroine whose lives are destroyed by ethnic, religious, class prejudice.

The best of Trollope’s critics, Richard Holt Hutton, who identified Trollope when he tried to publish anonymously, saw the novella as one where: that two decent people are destroyed by the inhumane twisted mores of our society. Hutton writes: “Of all the strange perversions of which the moral nature of men is capable probably none is stranger than the tendency of certain socalled “social obligations” to override the simpler personal obligations in certain men’s breasts, an dyet to work there with all the force of high duty, and all the absoluteness of an admitted destiny.” Hutton goes over all the characters and how [the hero] Fred is led by them and the place in England to do what he is ashamed of [not marry Kate after he has impregnated her], to tell himself he owes more to “society” than his conscience or God; a “sacred promise” become a thing of “contempt” when what is contemptible is not making Kate is true wife. Hutton does not blame Fred but he shows how he is hardened.

This time I will quote from my book:

An Eye for Eye is a small masterpiece. Nearly all those who have read and written about it have pronounced it a stark, passionate, and poetic romance of surpassing merit. Richard Holt Hutton, Trollope’s contemporary, and still one of his best critics, thought An Eye for an Eye would ‘take a high place among Mr Trollope’s works’. He said ‘there is something in the atmosphere of Ireland which appears to rouse his imagination, and give force and simplicity to his pictures of life’. Holt analysed the novella as a ‘tragic story of mastering passion and over-mastering prejudice, — of a great sin, and a great wrong, and great revenge’ and ‘family pride’, one with a full array of subtly observed real characters’. An Eye for an Eye is a ‘story which no man without a very powerful imagination could have written’.

Lady Scroope, Fred’s adopted stepmother has prided herself on her austere Christian life, but ‘the strange perversion of which the moral nature of man is capable’ leads her for the sake of her family’s prestige first to hound Fred to break off with Kate, then to forbid him to marry her. When Kate becomes pregnant, Lady Scroope hints to him if he cannot desert Kate, he can live with her without marrying her (Eye for An Eye, pp. 156-64). The novel teaches us — most unusually says Holt — that moral justice demands that its hero, who feels contempt for the girl he has seduced, shall still not desert her.

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John William North, “Requiescat in Pace,” for Jean Ingelow, Poems, 1867 — it could be Fred wandering on the Moher cliffs

What gives An Eye for an Eye the power to astonish and keeps the reader compulsively turning pages is the dilemma the book turns on — the struggle between Fred’s pragmatic and proud ambition which prevents him, a young man upon whom rank and money have been unexpectedly thrust, from offering to marry Kate, and his equally intense desire to escape reponsibility and social ties in order to lose himself in a wild landscape of dreams. There is something deeply appealing to him in the tender love of a wholly undemanding girl (pp. 62-64, 66-67, 71, 81). This is also one of Trollope’s many novels whose meaning cannot be understood apart from, and whose events could not have happened anywhere but in its particular landscape (pp. 189-94).

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A suggestive photograph by Carleton Watkins (1865-66)

Trollope’s uncanny insight into Kate’s mother’s character is absorbing. Mrs O’Hara married against her family’s advice and found herself isolated and married to a betrayer, a low-life drone. When her husband deserted her, she came to live in a cottage on the Moher cliffs; her only friend is a Catholic priest, Father Marty, who encourages Fred because Father Marty thinks Fred a great prize, especially for Kate (pp. 52-60). Mrs O’Hara allows the courtship to continue because she is moved by her daughter’s silent plea that before Fred her life in isolation was no life (pp. 42-43).

Trollope presents Mrs O’Hara as a woman who has been driven to the edge of desperation by a hard cold society; Fred’s refusal to marry Kate awakens in her a latent ferocity created by her past, one of which Fred was only half-aware and which frightened him (p. 65). Fred cannot foresee this last blow to her pride will be one blow too many for Mrs O’Hara to sustain without resorting to some form of crazed behaviour.

An Eye for an Eye is structured as an explanation of how Mrs O’Hara’s mind came to disintegrate suddenly — it opens with her madness. After I read it for the first time I compared it to Elsa Morante’s 1974 La storia, a fictionalised history of Italy in the first half of the twentieth century as experienced by Ida [Iduzza] Ramundo:

An Eye for An Eye is written as a flashback. It opens with a one and one-half page ‘Foreword’ in which we met a woman in a private asylum ‘somewhere in the west of England’ [in the manuscript Trollope wrote 'Ireland']. She sits quietly all day, occasionally uttering the same phrases over and over, ‘An eye for an eye . . . and a tooth for a tooth. Is it not the law?’ And her attendant agrees ‘An eye for an eye, madam. Oh, certainly. That is the law. An eye for an eye, no doubt’. The book isan unraveling of this opening image, an explanation of who the woman is and how she came to be there, of the meaning of her formula repeated ‘a dozen dozen times’ a day. Morante takes 656 pages to get us to a remarkably similar page and one-half where Iduzza similarly goes mad when one day she comes home from work to find all she had left to value gone. Her beloved disabled young son lies dead on the floor. We are told she spends the rest of her life repeating and muttering a strange series of syllables no-one understands. They are the words of the child who was an epileptic and thrown out of school because he was thought an idiot. When nine years Iduzza finally dies (the last paragraph of this book), we are told she had really died the day her son died. Iduzza has been shattered and destroyed by four years of terrible war, isolation and despair.

In a book of one-quarter the length Trollope presents us with a similarly desperate woman who has severed herself from all other people because she has been scorned as well as betrayed, and when her treasure, Kate, is betrayed by Fred, we watch her gradually strained beyond endurance lose all control until on the cliff, when she is once again asked to listen to Fred refuse to marry Kate, she pushes him to his death.

In Trollope’s and Morante’s novels we are made to feel what the hierarchies of society cost the vulnerable. The epigraph of Morante’s novel is a comment by a Hiroshima survivor: ‘there is no word in any human language capable of consoling the guinea-pig who doesn’t understand why she died’. This epigraph applies to Thady in the Macdermots and the lovers in An Eye for an Eye.

The novella ends tragically; it is intense as are Trollope’s other novellas. The one closest to it for poignant ironic romance is Sir Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite whose stories show strong resemblances, and which itself is a closely analogous story to Henry James’s Washington Square, with the daughter dying unfairly turns against her own father and her maid. Since James was so hard on Trollope, it’s not that often noticed how James reads Trollope assiduously as each Trollope novel is published and how much James owes to Trollope as a source.

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A scene found in Agnieska Holland’s Washington Square which has an equivalent in James’ and Trollope’s novellas alike

I can’t recommend it too highly.

Ellen

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Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass … Wordsworth, Immortality Ode

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A little over mid-way in Robin and Marion (dir. Robert Lester, script James Goldman, producer Denis O’Dell, original music John Barry, photographed by David Watkin)

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I re-watched Robin and Marion whose date at imdb, 1976, tells me it was 37 years ago Jim and I first saw it. It was a personal journey for me. I probably meant to have a nostalgia melancholy memory journey with Jim but he was not up to watching, and the film was also not as fine as I remembered it. The work’s fable (story, plot-design) matter is both sexist and pro-violence in a mindless way. Robin (Sean Connery) shows up and before you know it Marion (Audrey Hepburn) has given up her veil and is back to cooking and sewing for him while he forages out man-like to put together a band of aging and too young men …

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The central ending is engineered by the Sheriff (Robert Shaw) who again wants to root out Robin and his egalitarian band — this time a one-on-one combat. They manage to destroy one another — so this is presented as something gained? The still shows the scene is done with the basic theme of aging in mind (what saves it is this):

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However the usual clichéd presentations of Richard and John are unqualified.

At the time what was remarked upon was how the actors and scenery no longer looked like Errol Flynn & Olivia de Havilland in fancy stage gear. This is so, the clothes were much less pretty, more cloth, and the surroundings and village and weapons (genuinely primitive) far more persuasive. Alas, we have gone beyond this to a grittier realism. The film is a sort of idyll — the cinematographer loved his work and sought to depict a land relatively empty of people, pastoral and the music carried laden emotions along lightly

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Robin and Little John (Nicol Williamson) arriving

But for the watcher of 2013 it’s also not as un-costumy in today’s terms — the costumes are so clean, so whole, the furniture like some card Arthurian board-game. Audry Hepburn does not have a single wrinkle and is so youthful in body and face this jars as camera work is more realistic nowadays and Sean Connery plays himself — something he’s done for a long time, he’s too easy in the part. The lines outside those given Robin and Marion in their exchanges lose the theme, are wooden, at their best spare, though the cast was excellent: Denholm Elliot as Will Scarlett:

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Robert Shaw, the Sheriff; Richard Harris, king Richard; Ian Holm, king John.

So what does it have 37 years later? Well as we look back to it from yet older age, it’s theme of middle age springs out at you with a single complex of living emotion done singularly evocatively, a conception of aging people who can’t return to their youth even in this glorious landscape, and especially the conception of an aging couple trying to re-capture the past, or re-live it for a moment here or there.

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Thus the quiet loveliness of beautiful spots in the country with the muted music (not many trumpets in this film, no crashing surging chords at all) become a form of aching like that found in Wordsworth’s famous “Immortality Ode.” When the two ex-lovers have re-spent time, moved to one spot, joined as a pair a company, they find they are still breathless with passion and when they get together we see them dive into the grass and love-making is understood to resume, thus the Wordsworth lines (see above): but with this addition (I’m quoting a friend). Remember, nothing can bring back the hour/Of splendour in the grass. The emphasis is all are older (some comically clumsy) and there has been much hurt and loss.

It’s not quite Before Midnight of course as the reasons for the failures are kept fairy tale and boyish: Robin of course had to go to the Crusades, couldn’t resist. If the film-makers could have gotten some other reason for the final scenes of the movie than the ending that would have improved the film a lot. What we get is wrestling–with–swords to the death (I doubt many action-adventure movie types would get this far).

I doubt its other themes could be carried off today: egalitarianism, rebellion against obvious evil, a really felt melancholy over a set of idealized pastoral characters inside a past not retrieved — this reflects something pre-1980, pre-Thatcher, pre-Reagan. It’s presented too naively too, with the assumption we are offended by careerism, ruthless ambition, selfishness (with the bad male characters standing in for these).

I was still touched by the close. After the battle, won by Robin’s having killed the Sheriff, Robin returns to Marion’s cell like room (which I thought Marion had abandoned) perhaps himself to die, or to survive maimed:

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I think she does have some line about how she doesn’t want this sort of thing anymore, no more of this forced or volunteer fighting. So they cannot escape but one way. After the scene of their hands stretched out recalls Michelangelo’s God and Adam — they reach out like Adam and God, without explaining why — Marion pours poison into a cup which she drinks from too.

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The characters are presented simply: so Sean-Robin remains puzzled at the use of a poisoned chalice, he seems to soon accept their coming fate, and if you abandon your mind to this finale, it can work a kind of realization of something precious now destroyed. They are a kind of Tristan and Isolde without an appropriate story to move through to reach this point.

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They will both die, one will not be left without the other. Little John comes in

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in the end then I had another kind of experience than I had thought: Jim is now too ill for us go wandering in the grass and know what we once did, but we can hold fast to something else. Another quotation came to mind for this scene and the whole of the film: and I became an English major because of Wordsworth’s Michael, the lines

There is a comfort in the strength of love
Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would break the heart ..

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Ellen

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Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedict (Alexis Denisof)

Dear friends and readers,

This is heartily to recommend seeing Josh Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. It makes sense of Shakespeare’s play. All the disparate groups of characters are filmed using the same mood of intense eroticism and sinister insinuation, so that the evil guys (Don John and his entourage of violent crooks, seducers and sluts); good but dumb clown-policemen who act as spies (Dogberry and Verges) for a larger power (a silent but effective policewoman); witty antagonistic lovers (Beatrice and Benedict) and sensual yet earnestly chaste ones (Hero and Claudio); not to omit servants, friends, hangers-on, all belong to one world. ‘

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Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and Verges (Tom Lenk)

Just about every other MAAN I’ve ever seen did not know what to do about the villains; here they are central because if their insinuation, spying, seethingness, menace pervades all the couples. For the villains it’s on behalf of hurting others (of ruthless sex, solopistic drug-taking) as opposed to everyone else who are there on behalf of love, pleasure, friendship, just wandering about the large multi-level beautiful landscaped grounds of Mr Whedon, eating, dancing, drinking, protecting as police-watchers. But this distrustful feel, combativeness, sense of inexplicable alienation is everywhere. It’s aided by the black-and-white or grey colors.

An air of mystery is worked up — and fits. It is inexplicable why all the characters approach each other in these indirect spying ways. Why do Beatrice and Benedict have to be deceived into recognizing they love one another and admitting it? It’s inexplicable really why Hero’s father forgives Claudio for publicly humiliating his daughter at the wedding ceremony.

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Trustful father Leonato (Clark Gregg), Claudio (Fran Krantz), and Hero (Jillian Morgese)

It makes no sense that Claudio should be forgiven, or that he should have believed Hero sexually promiscuous on such slight evidence he didn’t bother to investigate. Dogberry and Verger make no sense at all — they stumble into revealing the villains. Shakespeare’s play has many problems. The way to get past them is to present them to us in our faces: everyone is wandering about in rooms that sometimes just feel wrong (like a bedroom with stuffed dolls in it). Everybody is drinking away (champagne, tall goblet glasses of wines).

Most productions of MAAN, don’t blend together all the seemingly disparate groups of characters and their moods, into one. The same holds true of Twelfth Night. Whedon’s production of MAAN reminded me of a production of Twelfth Night, I saw as A Play of the Week when I was 13 or 14 on the older NYC Channel 13 (predecessor to PBS): it too blended all the character types and moods of the play into one – how so? by refusing to make simple merriment anywhere, by making the comedy feel saturnine, bleak, more than melancholy, it was downright bitter. And it was not false for all the words came from Twelfth Night and were not belied. The perspective was that of Jacques, and everything fell into place. So here for MAAN, the perspective is eventually that of Benedict (wary), Beatrice (anti-marriage) and after them, the disillusioned Don Pedro, Claudio’s friend (Reed Diamond) whose line when Pedro learns how Hero has been shamed and killed remains in the memory once you’ve read it or heard it say resonatingly aloud:

Runs not this speech like iron through your blood?

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Reed Diamond as Don Pedro, as not a very good adviser, advising someone else

In the production of MAAN with Sam Waterson in the later 1970s in Central Park, the previous good version of MAAN I’ve seen, the above line seemed not to fit: there the play was set in the 1920s (rah, rah, rah, a college atmosphere), all innocents, a sort of escapees from Booth Tarkington’s Penrod. The famous 1990s movie MAAN (in color be it said) with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson I’ve thought one of their rare poor efforts: they make the mistake of trying to be swashbuckling, downplaying the Hero story and end up with something shallow.

It is better for the viewer to have read the play as the lines are pronounced in quick-style naturalism, just like talk and yet there are throw-away profound at moments — oddly bitter, and then again whacky, desperate, prideful. If not read the play, at least read about it. If you do, you are in for an aesthetic treat. It’s allusive, self-reflexive of Whedon’s other films, and makes fun of iconic scenes.

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Whedon’s version of the “wet T-shirt” scene (begins with Colin Firth, 1995 P&P)

All the actors are very good, they seem up to the lines — understand what the lines mean and the situation. They are dressed in a old-fashioned way: the men are all in suits, long-sleeved shirts for the most part, ties. Shiny shoes. It’s something out of the 1950s. Or maybe we were to think of Clark Gable and his era or Cary Grant and his.

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Hero and Claudio during one of the garden dances with glittering masks

Or it’s they have holsters with guns as in 1930s “gangster” films:

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Dogberry and Verges trying (dimly) to figure out what to do next

The women are in dresses that when I was young most women wore to work in the US, and plain high heels, pumps not too high: a slightly dressed up style, the kind you could once buy in Lerner Shops, or if you were disposed to spend more money in a good department store (Macy’s, Orbach’s). This evokes another time and place, a sense of pastness without specifying which past. The feel though is one of elegance. Departures include a very sexy outfit for the actress playing Conrade (Riki Lindhomme) who is in modern style tights, very brief skin-tight skirt, boots, low cut top, hair in extreme page-boy (very blonde): she goes to bed with anyone and everyone of the Don John group; she is side-kick to Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark) who differs from the others by having (it seems) taken his suit jacket off and left it somewhere.

There are servants everywhere, the women, e.g., Margaret (Ashley Johnson) in maid’s outfits (think The Philadelphia Story), and the men in waiters’ duds — rather like the servants of the 1930s US movie. I can’t find any stills of them, but here is a typical scene where we can see the costumes in the kitchen.

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Here is Beatrice listening to Hero and Margaret telling lies about how Benedick loves Beatrice

The play has good slapstick scenes, hiding scenes, emotional violence and (in this version) strongly erotic moments too. Nathan Fillion did stand out as a very funny Dogberry and yet the snobbery of the original was done away with. There is a problem with the demand for virginity from Hero (and use of a veiled bride as punishment for Claudio) but that’s a central given in the play and not to be done away with.

And in case you were wondering, Whedon’s has a very large and beautiful house, with lots of staircases, and grounds. Exquisite furniture. Gorgeous trees and bushes, all picturesquely arranged. And curiously shot sometimes in a highly stylized manner:

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Presented as the very edge of the property

Whedon is a very rich man, with many servants and (natch) many friends …

One might think about how a movie said to be “no budget” just reeks of money and why.

Ellen

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John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-93) A lady in a garden by moonlight (1882)

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From BBC film adaptation of M. R. James’s The Ash Tree, 1975

Dear friends and readers,

This Christmas I revived on all three of my list-servs reading and discussion of Christmas ghost stories — or, failing ghosts (the case of Anthony Trollope, too strong a sceptic for this kind of thing), just stories meant for Christmas (we read “Christmas at Thompson Hall”). It is a long custom-sanction’d habit to tell ghost stories at the Winter Solstice, and I’d read some with others a few years ago for a couple of years in a row, and made a gothic section on my website for some of our conversations (see. e.g., Mary Wilkins Freeman’s “Lost Ghost”). On two lists people read with me, and on a third a couple of people watched the YouTube presentations I had found.

So, on the evening of this (fulfilling as it happened) Christmas Day I thought I’d re-tell one, offer a brief synopsis and YouTube of another, some links to powerful ones and an explanation from whence this urge to tell ghost stories Winter Solstice derives.

I found myself reading a-new, finding new qualities in Margaret Oliphant’s “Old Lady Mary.” Oliphant’s most powerful fiction is a ghost novella, The Beleaguered City, where, as in “Old Lady Mary,” part of the power of the story comes from the desire of the dead beloved and loving person to reach one another, in response to a shared loss and loneliness.

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19th century illustration of Beleaguered City

The story as I first understood it (here’s the online text):

In brief: a very old lady, ‘Old Lady Mary’, who is very rich and alone, takes the daughter of a distant cousin, nearly a child, without anyone else to turn to, into her house. She is all that can be loving and tender and good to the child as she brings her up. She is told that she must make a will out which will leave her money to young Mary, but cannot get herself to do it. She cannot face the reality she will die, has always herself been because of her wealth sheltered. Lady Mary resents advice, and avoids the lawyers by playfulness. She does however write a codicil, leaving everything to the girl, but she hides it away.

She dies, and the young girl is left desolate.

This begins the story which then takes us through the young girl’s fear, loss, humiliations at the hands of the family who takes over Lady Mary, her guardian’s house — they don’t mean to hurt her, but they put her in her place. She is now their servant. At the very end of the story we are told it was finally found, but that is in a coda and is not important.

The story is told from the point of view of Old Lady Mary after she has died — when she is a ghost, trying to make contact and reparation, retrieval is too late. Her presence is felt but the living act towards her frivolously, foolishly. Ghosts make them uncomfortable. The story is aimed at Dickens’s Christmas Carol, by then an iconic story where all can be undone, retrieved, redeemed. Not so, says Oliphant. Less seriously, she has some fun gently mocking the way ghosts are treated in stories.

The curious effect is to make us believe in Lady Mary as a ghost; to take her seriously. This is no silly story for people who want titillation or reassurance.

These are certainly besides the point to Lady Mary who is desperate to make contact with the young Mary. But, she supposes that she wants more than emotional catharsis, forgiveness, and release. She wants to help her. (Think Tiny Tim.) She wants more than to compensate; she wants to retrieve, to make up for past mistakes, and finds she cannot make genuine contact. She
has convinced herself her attempts her unselfish because there’s the codicil to be found and then the young Mary will own the house where she is now a servant. But ghosts are laughed at or make people nervous. Their paraphernalia is absurd.

The climax of the story is in a obscure but precisely described vision of the young girl. From all her troubles and the disquiet and upset brought on by Lady Mary’s efforts, the young Mary grows ill, and, as in a dream, for a split second sees Lady Mary who feels she is seen. In that moment the girl holds out her hand and Lady Mary feels she has been forgiven. After all she discovers she needs no nothing more. That’s it. We get a sense the young Mary and the old Lady Mary were face to face. But we are not sure. It might just be in the ghost’s mind. Young Mary never fully explains what she feels because people would laugh, and she’s not sure what she saw though she did from the beginning forgive & never hated her ex-guardian. She was taught by the old lady not to expect much.

The last enigmatic line of the story: ‘Everything is included in pardon and love’.

Re-reading: I was more than ever persuaded Oliphant had Dickens’s one benign and perhaps other Christmas season texts in mind where all is made up for in a gush of end-of-story forgive and forgetfulness (modern term “Healing”). But I felt this time that Old Lady Mary however stumblingly and ambiguously did retrieve the situation and felt she reached the young girl she now realized she had loved so.

She does not get to reach out to young Mary directly, cannot have the satisfaction for sure which she is reaching out for soon after the tale opens. In life she could have made sure young Mary understood she was sorry for how she had behaved in life, what she had done in death, but still we are told the old woman managed to reach someone and point to where the will was and the will is found. The understanding and forgiveness are left ambiguous. We do not know for sure that the girl got the money she so desperately needed, but enough is put before us to assume so. How life-like.

I realized how much it’s a heroine’s text. Much of the story is spent in Lady Mary as a ghost’s mind and that is very unusual. I want to stress that. I dare say almost all ghost stories, we are not permitted to get close to the ghost. They are kept at a distance. Again, they are mostly scary, malevolent, Kafka-esque figures. The intensely benign aim of ghost Lady Mary’s efforts is as rare as Dickens, but with Dickens we do not enter the ghost’s consciousness. And show the ghost failing to reach.

Her story in this way shows belief in an afterlife and ghosts around us. The ambiguous wispy signals of seances you see are ghosts trying to reach us and unable to as God has made it too late. I think we may take it that this is how Oliphant understood the absurdity of what happens at seances. My outstanding favorite line from Downton Abbey is the Scots housekeeper’s retort to the lady’s maid’s conventional appeal,

“Don’t you believe in spirits?”
“I do not believe they play boardgames.”

By contrast, Oliphant has it, it’s that God will not let the dead reach us. She was a firm believer in the afterlife. I should stress that. These are not the kinds of ghost stories where the story is strictly speaking a metaphor. In Oliphant’s case her husband, both sons, nephew and a niece all pre-deceased her. To believe they carried on elsewhere was apparently one way she could endure her raw grief and continual sense of desperate loss.

I found it a much more moving story than I did the first time round.

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Michelle Dockery could play the part of young Mary very well. Now known for her part as Lady Mary Grantham in Downton Abbey, she was much better as the unnamed governess in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Turn of the Screw)

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BBC film adaptation of “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale” by M.R. James

It should be said most ghost stories are instances of female gothic, many have been written by women, and they are often ways of presenting the real vampirage over women by men and societies in general. This was a speciality of Edith Wharton whose “Kerfol” I reread last week. The writer need not be a woman, and the vulnerable figure can be a man (as they just about all are in M.R. James’s stories (“The Stalls”). But the one I read from 3 I chose by M.R. James all set in the 18th century was such a story, and gentle reader here it is online and as a YouTube

The film features a very young Edward Petherbridge, and with his and other actors’ help, the BBC group has brought out the terror and power and high violence of an MRJames story usually there, but in muted subjective form. The film version brings out the terror and horror. It’s the story of an 18th century squire-aristocrat who has returned to his estate and country house is haunted by the ghosts of women beaten, tortured and then hung as witches and that this is who the ghosts are that destroy him by their hideous tales only emerges slowly.

What I like particularly about the whole of this early series from the BBC is instead of the usual prettied up 18thcentury (say of faithful Austen films) we see the raw realities of rural life. It’s not a story for the weak stomached if you can get it up to full screen.

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From the cover of an anthology of ghost stories by women written at the turn of the 19th into 20th century: Restless Spirits

Gentle reader, it’s not hard to find potted explanations of the origin of ghost stories as matter for Christmas. But it’s often-half-hearted. How did this habit emerge?

I’ve a different explanation than most I’ve seen. This festival comes at the end of each year. Says John Donne: “‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s …” It’s natural to look back, to remember, indeed that’s one of the functions of this ritual time. And in many years of our lives, we lose people. Before the 20th century death was ubiquitous for young and old. This year my mother died. I was first drawn to ghost stories after my fathere died, irretrievably gone, and I could not make up wrongs that had happened. Psychologically I would feel his presence in my mind lurking.

This year I found myself remembering more cheerfully a good friend I met here on the Internet, who joined in various reads, who discussed, and who I was lucky enough on one fine night to spend an evening in Brooklyn with at a party with two of her close friends, Linda Ribas. She died in summer, too young to have left us. She read some of these stories with us on WWTTA, Henry James on Trollope19thCStudies, an 18th century novel by a woman on EighteenthCenturyWorlds. She especially loved pictures, John Atkinson Grimshaw a favorite, and landscapes, and I’ve included one by Grimshaw, and another favorite of hers by Nell Blaine. We miss her on WWTTA

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Nell Blaine (1926-96), Winter Trees from Studio

So ghost stories come from this kind of remembering, not that in my case at any rate I think we are going to reach anyone after death. Death is annihilation. But we can remember them. And then the ghost is picked up and becomes a vehicle for entertainment, instruction, artful absorption, a suspension of disbelief.

I often assigned ghost stories when I taught the gothic and found students were fascinated by this sub-genre (mode) of a subgenre (short fiction for magazines) — for ghost stories are very artful configurations.

Ellen

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