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GreatHallofPenshurts
The great hall at Penshurst

Dear Friends and Readers,

The other night I embarked on listening to another of these sets of videos sent out by English universities and designated MOOCs: Mass Online Courses. My second is from Warwick University, thus far the lectures are by the somewhat mesmerizing Jonathan Bate. He begins with Shakespeare’s life (week 1) and how his play, The Merry Wives of Windsor (week 2) closely reflects aspects of Shakespeare’s community, parentage, boyhood: “Shakespeare and His World.” Bate speaks of Shakespeare’s apparent bisexuality, gives a real sense of his life’ story and career that makes sense, and dismisses the snobbish nonsense that won’t attribute the plays to this player, writer, ordinary man. He speaks eloquently himself, quotes beautifully and expatiates on his texts, and (for week 3) his discourse about the world of plays and dreams, the birth of the professional theater fills the silence of my lonely room with a vibrant mind.

The series also functions as an advertisement for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust at Stratford: we are invited to contemplate artifacts from the Trust as relics.

Well my first try was the Literature of the English Country House, from Sheffield presented by a husband and wife professor team, the Fitzmaurices, and as, on the whole it was a disappointment, I thought I would not write a useless screed of complaints; but now I’m seeing another, which is much better to begin with (the professor is much franker and really knows something about his particular topic), yet shares some of the traits, I thought I would suggest what was valuable, and why people argue MOOCs are not true forms of learning, e.g., most glaringly little was told about the specific houses filmed in: many were supported by corrupt violence, slavery, vicious practices in factories, and the reality of how the wealth came to be gotten which put these houses up and paid for their is said to be a sore topic in the tourist and heritage industries. I include what little was said about enclosures, provincial playing of plays, politeness literature, Rousseau and education (nonsense poetry for adults), gothics (Radcliffe, Dickens) and Oscar Wilde’s “Canterville ghost,” the soul of man under socialism. Not much to do with country houses …

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Penshurst-PlaceGardens
A corner shot of the Penshurst gardens

They began at Penshurst, doubtless because of Ben Jonson’s poem:

Thou art not, Penshurst, built to envious show,
Of touch or marble; nor canst boast a row
Of polished pillars, or a roof of gold;
Thou hast no lantern, whereof tales are told,
Or stair, or courts; but stand’st an ancient pile,
And, these grudged at, art reverenced the while.
Thou joy’st in better marks, of soil, of air,
Of wood, of water; therein thou art fair.
Thou hast thy walks for health, as well as sport;
Thy mount, to which the dryads do resort …
Here no man tells my cups; nor, standing by,
A waiter doth my gluttony envy,
But gives me what I call, and lets me eat;
He knows below he shall find plenty of meat.
The tables hoard not up for the next day;
Nor, when I take my lodging, need I pray
For fire, or lights, or livery; all is there,
As if thou then wert mine, or I reigned here:
There’s nothing I can wish, for which I stay.
That found King James when, hunting late this way
With his brave son, the prince, they saw thy fires
Shine bright on every hearth, as the desires
Of thy Penates had been set on flame
To entertain them; or the country came
With all their zeal to warm their welcome here.
What (great I will not say, but) sudden cheer
Didst thou then make ’em! and what praise was heaped
On thy good lady then, who therein reaped
The just reward of her high housewifery;
To have her linen, plate, and all things nigh,
When she was far; and not a room but dressed
As if it had expected such a guest!
These, Penshurst, are thy praise, and yet not all …
Now, Penshurst, they that will proportion thee
With other edifices, when they see
Those proud, ambitious heaps, and nothing else,
May say their lords have built, but thy lord dwells

For the first week on Penshurst, the texts included excerpts from Jonson’s “To Penshurst,” a paean to Robert and Barbara Sidney, who were among his patrons and decent humane values; excerpts from Margaret Cavendish’s Sociable Letters, and snatches of Shakespeare’s Twelth Night. The visuals included the gardens, which I have been to. Jonson’s poem is a beautiful set of images whose values are deeply appealing. Robert Sidney is all generosity (liberal, free). This is a table where guests all eat from the same set of foods — that implies there are places where some are sat at other tables with lesser food. No one is watching him, counting, either to see him show off or to make him feel he is taking too much. Everything you could want in your room is provided — and that’s where no one would see if you were deprived. It was like this when King James and his son came — so you are treated like a king & heir. Barbara Sidney does not disdain to do the work herself — or at least supervise and get involved. She has had many children — the value of fecundity, implying that some women of this era did know how to control their reproduction. Records suggest thought that most women of this milieu endured endless pregnancies. Virtue is taught here – -and all the country arts. Others show off, but you really live in this place.

At the same time I liked how Professor Cathy Shrank exposed the delusion that masters and servants were all lovey-dovey and insisted on the continual tensions between tenants and owners — the enclosure movement was part of what gave rise to More’s Utopia (a communist tract in effect though More didn’t know the term): it’s Utopian, presents an ideal ironically; More does not expect anyone will follow it, but uses it heuristically. How central More’s profound treatise, Utopia, and Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons seem to me more than ever today in trying to understand underlying motivations and types we see in our political world today. Together with Machievalli’s The Prince (it’s said Hussein would shoot his enemies dead at a table) and Erasmus’s Praise of Folly (on madnesses).

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FHardwick-Tapestries
The central hall of Hardwick (familiar on the Net) was filmed in, but nothing said about the tapestries

Week 2 we were taken to Hardwick Hall where very little was permitted to be photographed; the presenters seemed to delight in presenting the Duchess as formidable, but she left no diary — she was not introspective enough to keep one, and too ambitiously busy in the world. I learned something new — or that an attitude and belief had changed. When I was studying the Renaissance it was thought that these companies only went into the provinces when there was plague, or a specific invitation or someone in the company lived near the great house or some specific event was happening there — like a queen’s visit. Now they assert that the companies traveled frequently and provided much entertainment. But one reason for the thinness of the lectures for Week 2 is they seem to know hardly anything about these performances. Is there no paper trail? They were not sure where they were played, which plays chosen.

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Nostell_Priory_Stables
Nostell Priory Stables

The third week was filmed in one spot at Nostell Priory and the third and fourth week in several at Chatsworth (a tourist place nowadays) and the topic was politeness — well-taken if not fully explained. A long history of the 18th century by Paul Langford uses politeness in its title to capture a new central quality or value of the era. As England comes a thoroughly commercialized society where people did business with strangers as a matter of course and had to interact learn to trust one another, shared manners was essential. The two professors don’t bring out this economic basis. It was a value in itself, performative sociability, giving you presence and status so an entertainment house, Nostell Priory would be a place where you showed your politeness for all sorts of reasons. They cited Addison’s Spectators, a good choice: when I was young, they charmed me for their tone but now I know how snobbish this one we read it. Like Emma Mr Spectator expects people to modulate their tones.

Taking us to Chatsworth enabled them to talk about the “corruption” of this ideal later in the century: where politeness is used to manipulate and screw people. Instead of allowing for socialabilty it is a disguise behind which real social dysfunctions lurk. They don’t say that: a problem with these videos is the two people are so aware they don’t know who is listening and fear offending, so their language is so banal, neutral, it’s empty of any kind of judgement. So they say next to nothing about Chesterfield’s letters, at the time a scandal, called the letters of whore master because there is no pretense at fake morality to his son.

The choice of a central text was brave; Georgiana Spencer’s Sylph. but of course they did not discuss how the text relates to her life. She was an inordinate high player and was hounded for debts as was her husband. In the novel she is pressured to go to bed with someone in lieu of paying debts. They omit that these great houses were places where high play and gambling went on until the wee hours and people lost great sums.

They naturally brought in Austen as Chatsworth was used for the 1995 P&P film’s Pemberley: Austen’s books participate in the literature of the country house — from Pemberley; Norland, Barton Delaford, to Donwell Abbey, Mansfield Park & Sotherton; Donwell and Northanger Abbeys; Kellynch-Hall are all such places. There was not a single comment on what was Austen’s stance towards these places.

They also omitted how these houses were power linch-pins of aristocratic, elite life, central to Mark Girouard’s Life in the English Country House. These houses were places from which wealthy and influential people controlled the landscape and local economic and political life of “their area.” Their size, their networking capacity, their large staffs, how the family actually lived in London most of the time — all show us how unreal Downton Abbey is. Girouard also says it’s wrong to think of them as farms with tenant farmers) as DA encounages; Yes, but the purpose was to wrest rent from everyone; it was the rent rolls that mattered. So it mattered that the farms do well but that also depended on trade and connections across the county and outside too — tied to colonies as well. Girouard describes specific houses and like so many his emphasis is on the Renaissance and 17th century when these house first went up. They were extended in the 18th century and renovated in the 19th.

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SatisHouse
Satis House where a room is kept in imitation of Miss Haversham’s room in Great Expectations

The fifth week was called “Gothic” and included Haddon Hall which Ann Radcliffe knew. Two new presences energized the experience. Angela Wright’s two talks, one 9 and the other nearly 8 minutes on the gothic, Anne Radcliffe and Haddon Hall I thought excellent. What she showed was the suggestiveness of the prose and intertwining of narrator and main character. She talked rightly of how much study Radcliffe did of the countries she described and never went to – she also extrapolated from where she had been, Germany, and England all over the place, Scotland into the Highlands.

The opening epigraph poem written by Radcliffe herself: Her” voice seems to refer to Fate but it could also be the person who suffered the “nameless deed.” By not naming it, the suggestion is it breaks deep taboos — so how about incestuous rape? In Romance of the Forest an uncle attempts incestuous (it turns out) rape on the heroine (who is his niece we later learn). On the famous movement into Udolpho: she gazed … The adjectives connect the building to levels of darkness and light, mostly darkness; the uncertainty of what we see in this gloom reflects Emily’s deep feeling of insecurity. Words like “melancholy awe” and “gaze” are overtly connected to Emily but they spill over to “silent, lonely, sublime: Emily feels the silence, her loneliness, that she is nontheless in this special — sublime — environment. Uncertainty pictured in: “its features became more awful in obscurity,’ ” till its clustering towers were alone seen,” the carriage moves under “thick shade.”

One question we could ask since we do have very quiet free indirect discourse making for high subjectivity in the narrative all along, where is Radcliffe? how does she relate to acts like incestuous rape? by being so reticent and withdrawn (anticipating say Flaubert) she deflects such questions, but we do ask of other authors where are they in their lives and imagination in the fiction.

It made me yearn to go to the Ann Radcliffe Sheffield conference — Three days, maybe the first conference wholly on her — a 250 anniversary of the publication of Udolpho.

Again filming of the house was extremely limited, and Fitzmaurice could make anything boring (he is often interlocutor), so bland and careful are any of his comments. He did try to talk scarily – he was elephantine. They filmed themselves in the dark in one of Haddon House’s rooms. They also filmed Haddon House from the outside at an angle which suggests how it could be this building Radcliffe was thinking of when she imagined Udolpho.

Then Amber Regis spoke and she was good on Satis House: she had less time so there was much less about dickens (maybe they assumed we know something). It was amusing to see that the National Trust keeps one room of Satis House in a mess — paper coming away … What was especially good was Amber Regis’s exposition of Great Expectations and the remarks on autobiography and its relationship to Great Expectations. Of her questions about the text she chose I wrote: How does Pip know this though? Has he brooded analogously? What is this order of her Maker? Did God make her suitor desert her at the altar and implicitly demand that Miss Havisham “get over it?” Why should she be punished? what has she done? Was she at fault for the suitor not showing up? These are bad vanities: the “vanity of penitence, the vanity of remorse, the vanity of unworthiness, and other monstrous vanities ” But there are worse evils. the novel faults Miss Havisham for bringing Estella up to hate and hate men. It’s an odd pivotal figure to hang upon a load of the world’s grief and misery.

I am drawn to the idea that Miss Havisham is approaching annihilation — she is herself dying before our very eyes. Since I have read the novel, I’d ask how this relates to our first sight of Magwitch in a grave yard, a convict fleeing the daylight world of law and police, someone who was treated as abominably as anyone (far worse than being stood up at an altar I should think) — since Pip grows to be a gentlemen out of these two people’s influence, is being a gentleman presented symbolically dependent on the deaths of others?

The two women had such cut glass chiseled accents — I thought that had gone out. So I wondered what Sheffield is like as a place to work … It was once a textile city and beautiful shawls came from there, sheep all around – -there was also much enclosure, much misery from industrialization — and radical and reform movement arose there in the 18th century and chartism in the 19th. I’ve wondered why does no one make a film adaptation of The Mysteries of Udolpho — you could incorporate some of the best of the Romance of the Forest as well as The Italian? The country house ruined is the center of the gothic, its underbelly, its cruelties — it’s on behalf of keeping it up that primogeniture was partly set up.

Elaine Pigeon who participated too wrote: “I was surprised by the gothic aspects of Great Expectations, the creepiness of Miss Havisham. The emphasis on decay reminded me of the ruin of the Lestrange family in Rhoda Broughton’s Cometh Up as a Flower. The idea of corruption and moral decay fits quite well as new money is taking over while the nobility of the past simply evaporates. It also made me think of William Faulkner’s famous short story, ‘A Rose for Emily,’ which as you probably know is considered a good example of Southern Gothic. There is a reversal in that tale, as Emily keeps the corpse of the groom in her bedroom, laid out on the bed as a fully dressed skeleton. If I recall correctly, he had tried to jilt her, but she put a stop to that.”

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brodsworth-at-war
Brodsworth Hall: a modern play area outside the house for children

The 6th week is worth discussing for what was not discussed and what was deeply wrong about this MOOC. Perhaps others will disagree – I would like to hear if anyone liked or disliked this week – but I found this week’s series irritating – it had all the faults of the previous weeks and then some. Brodsworth Hall was presented as unusual for its children’s nurseries and an excuse to launch into educational treatises. I had not noticed in previous weeks but this time it was glaring. We were never told who owned Brodsworth nor why It has this vast wing for children.

I looked it up and found on Wikipedia a pdf dissertation which explained the family were fabulously rich and much of their money derived from slavery – -especially the worst kind where one worked people to death in the western hemisphere to make huge sums on sugar and other products. Even cursory reading of “Slavery connections of Brodsworth Hall (Final report for English heritage – you can find the pdf on Wikipedia if you type in Brodsworth) showed that Peter Thelluson could be used an antidote to Lord Grantham: we are told at one point this poor man was squeezed and forced to take a position at court in the Ottoman empire (reminding me of the pity we are to feel for the Scottish lord In Downton Abbey just “forced” to go to India and live there as a courtier). Reading about this family reminded me of all the evils of primogeniture and how it was used for the patronage system – I read yesterday of how Thomas Paine attacked primogeniture in Part 2 of his famous Rights of man.

The first inference to take is such a nursery cannot be common. Our presenters never told us 1) What was the average childhood of Victorian times, nor how common is such a wing for other country houses. But answer came there none because no one asked the question. Which generation of the family built this wing? Which woman? Who were the servants? How many governesses and nursemaids did they have? Was there a tutor? You learn far more from Tillyard’s book about the Lennoxes in this regard than anything cited here.

Then they went over two poems (Lear and Carroll), two men who never married, and not children’s literature from country houses. What were the real books given these children and what the books written about them in the era and after. I am startled by how well behaved the questioners are but maybe there are many people like me who refrain from asking obvious questions that might be uncomfortable – MOOCs are dependent on the inhibitions of people in large public cyberspace where they know very few people – but I did notice that none of the offered subjects were at all about the house, the family who owned it and came to build such a wing. We are not encouraged to learn about how children really fitted into this environment.

Cynically I’d say this angle was chosen because there was someone on the Sheffield staff whose speciality was nonsense verse and fantasy pictures and the last thing she wanted to discuss was what it was all about (the fantasy pictures are highly erotic). We got the silliest exposition of ideas about childhood in the 18th century: Rousseau was cited but not Locke’s Thoughts Concerning Education. All they could say was the bland idea that children were not longer little adults and seen as the product of sin or wild savage animals. In fact they were not seen this way from the Renaissance on. There is a history of educational literature which starts in the 16th century — how to teach children in school and this history is taught (or used to be) in better graduate school programs – like Columbia’s Teacher’s college. Much of the earliest enlightened thought was against beating — to no avail in many places but it was against it. Healthy environments, keeping children from “corruption” (sexual knowledge).

The true importance of Rousseau’s treatise is he argued you must take the child’s nature and keep his gifts in mind. Lock was willing to impose goals a family might want – insofar as one is able. Rouseau wants to find out the particular child and develop programs which address this. He also tried to break with latin learning and make it far more practically oriented. The Lennox sisters actually followed Rousseau’s regimen – they were famous for it. One of them married the tutor she hired — an enlightenment type. This is revolutionary — maybe you’d like your son to be a naval officer but if he has no inclination or ability in that direction, all the beating in the world will not make him a successful officer. They may have mentioned that this did not go for girls: Rousseau assumes the nature of all girls is to be come sexual objects and mothers and wives. It needs Mary Wollstonecraft, Madame de Genlis and others to object against this and argue for a real education for a girl too — which developed into finishing schools for the rich.

Diane Reynolds participated and here is some of what she wrote about week 6: ” … Samuel Johnson, among others, defended corporal punishment in schools as, while unpleasant, the only way to compel children to learn. He and
others defended it as long as it caused no lasting damage to the body — no maiming, no blinding, no visible scars. It was seen as transitory suffering far outweighed by the enduring quality of an education. Pain went away, but the knowledge wrought by pain — reading, writing, etc — lasted a lifetime. Though many people were highly uncomfortable with this logic, having endured horrors themselves, it took more than a century of case building to establish the enduring psychological harm caused by corporal punishment, and, also important, the fact that the mass of children could learn effectively without being beaten … This is the period of locking children into dark closets (which we should understand more as small rooms than our current closets — our clothes closet function was supplied by wardrobes) and dark basements for minor infractions. The lecturer tells us that the wing is no longer decorated as a child’s wing, but does not tell us what it would have looked like — it would have been interesting to have been shown contemporary photographs or read contemporary accounts or memories of the children as adults. But no. The house might well have simply arisen from the ether. The nonsense verses were hardly nonsense but all about power and oppression, though we are prompted to see them as “nonsense.” At the end, the lecturer mentions they are about power (well, duh) but never goes on to provide anymore context or explanation or even her own theory about them.

I am sure it would have offended some people to highlight the house being built on the profits of slave labor, but for me that raises a larger question of academic integrity and truth-telling. If it is indeed the truth that this is where the money came from, it seems to me we need to face that. I have never understood why people get so offended at truth telling. I would think sweeping unpleasant facts under the rug would be more offensive. This becomes history functioning as fantasy or fiction: dangerous.”

I replied: I now seriously doubt any of those who talked had read Rousseau. They were mouthing the safest truisms they knew of – or else they just didn’t want to discuss his text at all nor its place in education. The Renaissance began the drumbeat to stop physical beating — it occurs very early in the literature and when (for example), Sarah Fielding in her Governess reaffirms its use, it is more than horrifying because she has added another aspect Johnson meant to decry: moral blackmail. Not only do you beat the child, but you instill in it deep attachment to you, in both Rousseau and Madame de Genlis, you cut the child off from other children (that is part of the drive to educate privately) so poor Emile and Adele have no one to turn to. Rousseau is quite explicit about this; Madame de Genlis is ruthless in the way she manipulates the daughter. I say Madame de Genlis because Adele et Theodore is transparently autobiographical: she is describing how she brought up Pamela and Henriette. She didn’t dare do quite that level of bullying to the man who became the citizen king (who was devoted to her in later life) and was one of her pupils later on.

One of the major changes in the 18th century is a growth in psychological awareness and seeing things from a psychological standpoint. Richardson anticipates Freud says Diderot (in effect).

And there is something to this — at least this kind of twisting of children to make them envy this or that, long for this or that can have very bad effects on them morally — maybe you teach some ambition and those who are that way to start with (competitive) thick-skinned and maybe more shallow in feeling do okay but it can instill deep inward injury (class based then and now, race based now).

When I read Rousseau I thought his idea of following the child’s nature a form of true liberation in the earliest years and this kind of thing can create great love between tutor and student — it does link to what Austen makes fun of through Marianne Dashwood. Marianne says if she was doing wrong she would know it because she’d feel it. That’s out of Rousseau finally and the idea is its innate — this understanding of what’s right and wrong or good and bad. Rousseau said famously man is born free but everywhere in chains. He’s not all wrong: one practice of enslavers suggests they knew at some level they were committing horrific crimes — they get rid of every document they can about their slaves but those which relate to buying and selling. One part of that I think is shame — they want to erase what they have perpetrated. Not enough not to not do it. And they did advertise to get back slaves then shamelessly identifying slaves by scars showing terrible brutality. Dickens used that in his American Note

In letters Madame de Genlis’s daughter, Pamela, wrote late in life (after she married Lord Fitzgerald and he died) she said she hated her mother. She described Madame de Genlis as a hypocrite: she tells of how the woman coerced another daughter into marriage in order to get money and how when the girl tried for and got a divorce Madame de Genlis was among those who countered that Enlightenment statute (alas abrogated in 1803 or so) by refusing to acknowledge the divorce. The man was brutal and a crook — one of these embezzling types. OTOH, Pamela never did become estranged: she couldn’t imagine life without this woman who was to her toxic (so she says). Her letters are an early version of Mommie Dearest ….

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Bowood_from_Morris's_County_Seats_1880
Bowood from Morris’s County Seats, 1880

In the 7th week all pretense at discussing country houses was given up and an Oscar Wilde expert (Dr Andy Smith) trotted out — the texts included The Happy Prince, “The Canterville Ghost” (a short story), The Importance of Being Earnest, and “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (a short treatise). There was some general talk of the decline of the country house, the agricultural depression of the 1890s — in terms you can get straight from Downton Abbey. In DA we learn of (oh how sad) how rich people lost their estates — that’s about what they said; you could find it in a magazine article

Not once was there a hint that Wilde was a homosexual man. The escape from a trap using a hidden identity (Bunbury) is what a gay man has to do. The move into anarchism as freedom under socialism is an escape from commercial pressures which also force people to live hidden lives. James was mentioned and The Turn of the Screw is about how the twisted heterosexuality of the normative conventions destroys people and has twisted the mind of the governess. Other of James’s stories invite similar interpretations. “The Canterville Ghost” mocks the form of the ghost story at the same time as it uses it to tell of dire events obliquely.

I was prompted to write more than before:

I have a real connection with the Oscar Wilde material. Again it’s Jim: I have two shelves full of books by Wilde — a big fat seat of everything he ever wrote, multi- old volumes where you have to own a special cutter instrument to open the pages as you go. I’ve Wilde’s letters, a couple of books of criticism, and some selections of his plays, a biography. I’ve a similar library of George Bernard Shaw. Together Jim and I saw a number of Wilde’s and Shaw’s plays. Jim liked Shaw’s criticism and politics. Of Wilde it was all sorts of things, even Wilde’s poetry. I have read in some of the material and some of the texts quite through but especially for Shaw he read a lot of it. I once ended up in a cartoon movie watching Wilde’s “Happy Prince” with Laura as a child; it’s a deeply melancholy story and she watched with great absorption but did not like it at all

So since I’ve never read “The Canterville Ghost” or “The Soul of Man under Socialism” I found them and this morning read “The Canterville Ghost.” It was still uncut so Jim never got this far. “The Soul of Man under Socialism” is in the volume which contains “De Profundis,” the whole book cut so Jim read that one. I am interested in ghost stories.

It’s a send up of the ghost story convention. It appears to follow the outline of Wharton’s powerful “Afterward.” American family buys a property said to have a ghost and find it titillating. In Wharton’s story it ends in cataclysmic tragedy — the women is widowed at the end, devastatingly. Wilde though asks what’s to be afraid of. So you see a ghost. So what?

He makes his Americans thoroughly pragmatic and into inventions to improve the ghost’s existence and their own. They torment the poor ghost by continually washing up a blood stain. They unnerve him. They set traps and tricks. At the same time Wilde shows he can do ghost stories too. The ghost manages to kidnap the daughter at one point and the family then does become terrified. She vanished — that’s what ghosts do. In this part of the story he shows how he can whip up landscape and also labrythine corridors. It does end in death but then turns round to provide a cheer-y mocking ending.

Yes it takes place in a country house — and is part of a subgenre of mystery stories occurring in country houses. But Wilde is not interested in that – -it reminds me of a poor play Izzy and I saw a couple of weeks ago: the humor is really gay humor — you are upending heterosexual norms and showing them to be absurd. Wilde would understand _the Turjn of the Screw_ in the way it was meant but at the same time find the horrified sensibility hilarious — or write a story where he appeared to. He was highly performative.

The story did make me think about this: when my father died I had my first insight into ghost stories: they were about what couldn’t be retrieved; you could not bring the person back; at the same time it’s likely bad things occur much you are remorseful for and there is much guilt so the ghost story rehearses this endless circular re-enactment of guilt, justice, revenge.

Now I see the story itself, the frame is part of what it’s about – how this in itself clasps you round and you need it, live in it, cannot lose its meaning, at the same time like the ghost who removes the heroine for a while it devours you.

Wilde is pointing out how under socialism there can be little individual liberty. When I did my paper on “liberty in the Poldark novels” I read a lot about different kinds of liberty, and the one that only recently has concerned philosophers (since Mill) is civil liberty. It has to do with individual belief systems and how we are allowed to go about our daily lives; it’s a liberty of the private man. Recently privacy has come under attack as a concept, but while much of our privacy is now invaded (see the two Ted lectures), I believe the concept is valid.

Wilde was remarkably brave and continued to be — or he had an urge to be “found out.” There’s a complicated (thoughtful) essay by Colm Toibin on Wilde’s self-exposure which i could try to find and share if people are interested.

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To sum up: in this MOOC about country houses and their literature, the speakers never discussed the general structure of these houses, who made them, the architects, any non-fiction texts actually about them, not even one book which is about a country house culture. Penshurst was as close as they came. They assert things about what went on in the house if they have someone on their staff who knows about that thing but do not demonstrate the thesis. Their offerings of close reading were hilariously inadequate: it’s not wanted, not understood by most readers. Most of the comments in the comments in the comment section were contentless and as bland as the professors’ frequent mush.

What was valuable was when the passages chosen were themselves remarkable even if ripped out of context or when a few of us turned actually to read together and discuss some of the works broached: Georgiana Spencer’s The Sylph for example; from there a few of us went on to read A Woman in Berlin; and then two of us two more 18th century novels, one also attributed to Georgiana (Emma, or the Unfortunate Attachment) and one connected to her (Sophia Briscoe’s epistolary, Miss Melmoth, both 1770s). For myself I then read an excellent essays by Isobel Grundy on the increase of misattribution and minor Richardsonian novels.

CantervilleGhost

The crux of what’s wrong with MOOCs: the superficiaility of the relationships among the people unless they go off site and begin to form a subgroup for real. Yahoo is just now trying to destroy the self-containment of the Yahoo groups as much as it can. A recent phenomena is the appearance on some listservs of ads for others where someone is said to have joined it. As if there is no different between what group you are in … The crucial thing that has made Janeites and other listservs (3 long running ones I moderate)is a self-contained group where the people get to know one another — and are willing to contribute real genuine content. There are people trained to avoid content, but long term relationships bring us out. Blog rings may be made up of genuine groups of people who know one another. On facebook the problem with open groups is so many strangers: people are embarrassed to post content because they do not trust one another.

Ellen

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msmith
Maggie Smith between scenes

Dear friends and readers,

I somehow suspect my phrase of praise for Rebecca Eaton and Patricia Mulcahy’s Making Masterpiece that it fulfills the once famous goals of Lord Reith or the BBC to “educate, inform, entertain” might make her uncomfortable: its connotations have become stuffy, elite, even dull; but in fact her book covering a history of PBS’s most famous and long-running Sunday night prime quality (the term now used) serial dramas from the era of the powerful and fine film adaptations, original dramatizations, and multi-episode serial dramas from just before the 1967 The Forsyte Saga up to the 2010-14 Downton Abbey does just that. We learn a lot about the commercial, financial, filming, roles different people play, the TV channels who air the shows, Eaton is unashamedly working for quality in her purchases and commissions and is surprisingly candid.

Along the way she gives satisfyingly step-by-step believable accounts of some well-known to lost forever cult and individual favorites (some never got beyond the arduous planning and early deals) and she lets drops phrases that characterize swiftly how this or that aspect of this complicated art is viewed by its practitioners: such as the eponymous book or novelist-memoirist’s vision is “the underlying material” for the films. While Eaton’s explanations for why the program has held on for so long (they are “family stories, sagas, about love, betrayal, money, infatuation, illness, family deception &c&c) are wholly unsubtle and could be said of poor programming, and she shows that she reflects the commonalty of viewers; nonetheless, now and again for this or that specific series, she also shows she understood very well a political vision, how it fit into a contemporary sociological moment. She lets us know how some of the corporate funding after the mid-1980s when it seemed all but Mobil and the oil companies acted on a new realization that corporations did not need to appear civic-minded or anything but ruthless, and that when their agents discoveed that Eaton would not re-shape a program to fit an ideology (standing firm, sometimes almost alone — she tells instances and names names) she was in continual danger of being fired.

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Rebecca Eaton with Russell Baker, the host for the show after Alistair Cooke retired — they are on the set for the introductions in the 1990s — note the fire in the hearth, comfortable easy-chair …. library look)

It is also an autobiography, a seeming Horatio Alger paradigm, écriture-femme style. It’s cyclical. She opens with a photo of her mother, Katherine Emery Eaton, who she presents as a successful serious actress and “glamorous movie star” who gave up her career to stay at home as a mother and wife: its in an old (built in 1800) house, her home for many years in Kennebunkport (labryinthine, spooky), which she cherishes, whose image and memories were part of her core impulse to work for and support Masterpiece Theater, but which she tells us on the first page no longer contain her parents, daughter or husband. She closes on her present apartment in Cambridge, Mass, a divorced woman whose daughter she reminds us was named after her grandmother and is now in theater and close to her. This private story of a husband who adjusted his career to bring up, be more at home with the one daughter (someone had to), and her distant relationship with that daughter until the girl grew up is woven in for about 2/3s of the way.

I say seeming because the story is also a justification, an explanation for why nowadays there are so fewer multi-episode (3 is become common) expensively produced carefully meditated productions from literary masterpieces. She is telling us how she did the best she could, how the recent spread of violent thrillers, cynical reactionary adaptations of contemporary novels (something in the vein of Breaking Bad, British style), seems at times to take over the time slot; her lot is fighting a continually uphill struggle where she lurches from acquiring, purchasing BBC and British productions, to producing them with the BBC and from the 1980s alonside or in competition with increasingly tough competition, in the UK, the ITV (Granada) channels, London Weekend, and in the US, cable, A&E, HBO, new technologies which allow viewers to curate and watch programs according to their own schedule (using DVDs, streaming, Netflix). It’s told in a peculiar way. A single person (named and the boss who wanted to get rid of our heroine) theatens a wasteland. Each curve ball or crisis is averted by the sudden unexpectedly widely popular good quality, subtle, intelligent adaptation. So the book reads like a series of rescues. She is not so much the rescuer as the person on the spot when circumstances come together so that a product (most often only a mini-series can provide the amount of ballast needed) is on offer which rescues them.

According to Eaton, Masterpiece theater as “the home for classy drama” (Alistair Cookie’s phrase)

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began when the first The Forsyte Saga developed a visible passionate following (fanbases made themselves felt before the Internet too), and attracted a man from Mobil, Herbert Schmertz (who loved dramas set before the 20th century); at the time Mobil was competing with other oil corporations in the 1970s who thought that they need to be seen as civic-minded (no more). The result: a stream of progressive superb mini-series from the 70s,enough of which were as avidly watched (Poldark, The Pallisers) until well into the later 1980s (The Jewel in the Crown). Eaton does not say this explicitly, but the re-creation of Poldark in terms similar to the 1970s is a bid to create a new and bring along the old fanbase for the Winston Graham historical novels (due Spring 2015); so too the filmically innovative Death Comes to Pemberley just before it (fall 2014) is a carefully calibrated appeal to the changed expanded Jane Austen audience

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A new Demelza who looks like some of the 1960s illustrations from the Bodley Head Poldark edition — Eleanor Tomlinson is also the new Georgiana, sister of

A genuinely tried Darcy and Elizabeth:

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The film does interesting things with Darcy, makes his character more understandable, Elizabeth’s more mature, and as to film: voice-over entangling with shot-reverse shot, scene juxtaposition

The later 1980s, the Thatcher years were the first set back with destructive re-organizations and competitive contracts of packaged dramas at British TV; an occasional return to the old model using new film techniques taken from commercial theater (the 1991 Clarissa) did not seem to help, until the new “savior” appeared: Middlemarch and the art of Andrew Davies.

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I still find it painful to watch the failure of Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) unaware how another’s supposed weak view of the world, Rosamund’s (Treveyn McDowell) can wreck dreams no one else can appreciate

I am aware that there are sheaf of essays on the filmic Middlemarch, that it was admired and is still loved — its exquisite historical feel, a breathe of wide humanity, great acting, relevance (the failed career of Lydgate). Eaton recounts losses: how could she have been so stupid as to let go of Davies’s Pride and Prejudice to A&E. It was then she did bow to corporate pressure: a one-time quickie Poldark denuded of all politics will stand for one resulting flop.

But amid these “dark days” she did not forget her job — she attempted to bring into Masterpiece adaptations of good American books. Maybe that was what was needed. If American producers and funders could not begin to understand a British Cornish regional novel, this they might get. She had successes but there are more sad stories, of fine projects that never got off the ground amid a protracted process: The Glass Menagerie with Meryl Streep didn’t happen. She wanted to call her dream The American Collection. Those who helped included Paul Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, and they did Our Town for which Paul Newman earned an Emmy. About the size of what she could achieve was Mark and Livy, the story of Mark Twain and his wife. It seems that Anglophilia is the fuel of Masterpiece and Americans don’t value their own great books. At one point she was told “not to be ridiculous.”

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Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Henry Tilner (J.J.Feilds) approach Northanger Abbey

Then another fortuitious rescue occurred. Most people seem unaware that the evolving Jane Austen canon came to the rescue again. Since they were done on the cheap, each only 108 minutes at most (depending on where you watched them, it could be as little as 83 minutes) the 2007-8 Mansfield Park (not noticed for Wadey’s take in which the men are ritually humiliated instead of the women), Persuasion (daringly shown to be the trauma of loss it is), and Northanger Abbey (a delightful Davies product) have not been paid serious attention to by film studies people. But these one-shot Austen films were, according to Eaton, central in reviving film adaptations of classic books subtly and originally done again. The three were great draws. By that time she had gotten the rights to Davies’ 1995 P&P so they were accompanied by this P&P and Davies 1996 Emma. She is a great friend of Davies. The next year ahe was able to execute produce Davies’s Sense and Sensibility (with Anne Pivcevic, a long time associate of his), and Gwyneth Hughes’s Miss Austen Regrets. And she used her technique of purchase and cooperative funding to make a 4 part mini-series once again: the Australian Lost in Austen, better liked than people have been willing to admit.

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Michael Grambon, Judi Dench and Lisa Dillon as Mr Holbrook, Matty Jenkyns, and Mary Smith

I was surprised by her then singling out Cranford Chronicles, to which she also attributes the resurgence of whatever is left of the older Masterpiece theater film adaptation and serious domestic drama impulse. The chapter on Cranford Chronicles is the richest of the book. We go from first idea and objections: whoever heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, much less Lady Ludlow? (Cranford was dropped as a school text in the US at the beginning of the 20th century.) Constant trips, lunches, deals sealed with a famous actress on board (Judi Dench), then unsealed, then lost from view, then picked up again, the whole process of acquiring screenplay writer, of writing with her, the sets, how dissatisfied people are with the first rushes, and how they try again and finally have a winner.

When at the close of the book she talks of Downton Abbey trying to explain its draw she identifies what I’ll call a communitarian ideal (she’d never use that phrase) — it’s this sense of loving socially conscientious community where most of the characters in Downton are well-meaning or basically good, with the exception of over-the-top monsters (Vera Bates) or one violent rapist who we know would do it again, no one is ejected, everyone treated with dignity and concern. Well this is the great appeal of Cranford Chronicles too — and Heidi Thomas does one better by allying the stories with progressive ideals. Eaton though singles Cranford out because not just its wide audience (after all Davies had trumped with a new Little Dorrit, Bleak House, a deeply moving Dr Zhivago rivaling and rewriting Pasternak’s novel against David Lean’s reading) but because she does see how it speaks to our times, fairy tale fashion. It must be admitted in this book she spends little time worrying whether a given mini-series reflects its era or particular author — perhaps she leaves that to screenplay writer, producer and director. I note the same film-makers recur for movies made from the same author (e.g. Louis Marks for Dickens). For her warm-hearted Cranford led to warm-hearted Downton.

Her book is meant to function today, 2014 and that too is why two chapters on Downton Abbey are devoted heavily to Downton Abbey, its lead-in, production, aftermath. She talks about why she thinks the program became a sociological event, and now an adjective: it appeared at the right time that year (before the new Upstairs/Downstairs which she says was found to be too dark, too pessimimistic, to much a mirror of our era); the house matters (as did Castle Howard for Brideshead). I’ve just written a paper on Andrew Davies’s Trollope adaptations as part of an anthology on British serial drama and found it distorting to see its purview (it too begins with The Forstye Saga and ends on DA) skewed by too many references to this program. The book is typical; I’ve seen this over-emphasis repeatedly. After all filmically it’s utterly conventional; if it is liberal in its attitudes towards sexuality and the human topics it will broach, it keeps the old decorum up. Its political outlook is one which looks upon the French Revolution as unfortunate, providing only an amelioration; now if only the Granthams had lived in France during the famine. They’d have provided jobs and meals. Nowhere does Fellowes show us that such a house was a power-house, a linch-pin in repressive controlling economic and political arrangements from the which local magistrates and MPs emerged to conscript soldiers and sailors. Everyone who knows anything about country houses knows this.

She does explain why the fuss. The outrageous ratings — it easily beat out Breaking Bad and Madman the first year in the Emmy prize race. It’s a selling card when you want to pitch a new fine series. And to give credit where credit it is, it is high quality; the characters are (as Eaton would no doubt tell us) compelling, psychologically complex; no expense is spared, the actors superb. It is great soap opera and as a woman defending women’s art, I too cry it up (with all the reservations above) as using brilliantly what this individual form in structure can do. She describes the series as a community — that’s soap opera. Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) rescues Mr Carson’s Jim Carter) old time colleague form the music hall from the local workhouse is a single anecdote, but it gathers all its strength by how its embedded in four seasons of memories about these characters. She does not mention that one of its strengths is it is not limited by a nineteenth-century text censored by Mudie’s Library. We can see how a rape plays out.

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Did Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) have a baby out of wedlock and give it up before she married Painswick — soap opera communities license us to look beyond what we can see and hear, to a past to be unearthed

How does an executive producer spend her days. Ceaseless socializing, phone calls, pitches, deciding. She does tell much of this throughout the book and in the chapter on Cranford, but she characterizes her job in another chapter again. She’s in on the film editing, how long the film can be, how its final scene plays. Along the way we learn of how she finally found some stable funding. She garnered as a well-heeled contributor Viking Cruises because a survey she did showed a surprising percentage of people who take cruises to Europe also watch Masterpiece Theater loyally. So she pitched this customer favorite to the running the cruises. She created Masterpiece Trust where wealthy people contribute and get to be named and also introduce the program. Perhaps the unashamed commercials for Ralph Lauren clothes (all expensive artifice) might jar more than the old more discreet pitches for oil and gas companies (but we should remember when we shudder at the anorexic women that they are not encouraging others to drop bombs to ensure Lauren’s profit). One of my books on women’s films has a whole section on how even costume dramas — those set say in the 18th century at any rate and after influence women’s wear. In the 1970s many of the costumes were Laura Ashley like creations — somewhere half between the 18th century and elegant clothes in the 1970s. I note that a certain kind of shawl is now popular since it became omnipresent in the costume dramas of the 2000s Obviously the Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and other stars influenced people — remember Annie Hall, the Annie Hall style … This has long been known and at the close of films nowadays you will see little icons for fashion designers and makers of clothes who the costume designer worked with. So Eaton asked herself who has their product been an advertiser for …

A smaller strand of the book is her relationship with the people who do Mystery! and how and when decisions were made to bring Mystery! material over to Masterpiece. Sometimes it seems as if Masterpiece gets the best of Mystery! they took Prime Suspect (Helen Mirren), and now the new Sherlock (Bernard Cumberbatch). Sometimes a book that one might expect to be on Masterpiece turns up on Mystery!. We are not told why all the time.

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With Diana Rigg on the set of The Heat of the Day (Elizabeth Bowen’s masterpiece on a Mystery! set — but then she was hostess for Mystery! for a while)

The book ends on what she called “the Downton effect” and returns to her personal motivation, satisfactions, and present. It does sound a bit lonely in that apartment. She likes to think of this program she’s served for so many years as she does her life, intertwined memories. The book has flaws; it does not begin to tell all. A full history would be a couple of thick volumes. What has made her the success she is, her rough-and-ready way of seeing things broadly, as some common denominator of intelligent person might, her upbeatness still don’t get too much in the way of sufficient candor. She describes behavior on the sets as no love-fest, and in the various stories of programs that never made it it’s often someone’s ego or a demand for a higher salary that got in the way. She says spontaneous group scenes for photographs are rare. The book never drips; it moves on and has a hardness. It’s apparent she’s not retiring yet. She won me over at any rate. The originating impulse was to do all her mother had not been able to do — she sets up the black-and-white photo near her bed on its last page.

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She gives credit to where it’s due: Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins’s conception of having downstairs get more than equal time to upstairs after watching The Forsyte Saga.

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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

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Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) during trial of Eichmann

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

VISION. A film by Margarethe von Trotta.

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

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

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

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and secretary, Lotte (Julia Jentsch),

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Margarethe von Trotta

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

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

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

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

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

Eichmann

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

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

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

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The real Hannah Arendt

Ellen

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bates looking at Anna

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Anna taking it in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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The writer and cast of Breaking Bad (HBO, 2008-13)

Dear friends and readers,

As I’m six years late for this Breaking Bad (a regional southern Virginia phrase meaning “raising hell” — male macho reveling?), having just watched the first three episodes of the first season a year after the fifth and final season of 16 episodes in 2014 brought this mini-series to an end; I see nothing wrong in photos of writer, cast, director, whoever is connected to the film as a frame for an opening blog on the first 3 of 7 episodes of the first season. Belated as this will be, as I proceed through the series my remarks may perhaps some interest as I am not going to go for awed wild screams of praise (such as I find everywhere on various sites).

I was absorbed by the opening three episodes; I recognize, appreciate, respond to quality TV when I see it: high production values, intelligently naturalistic script, verisimilitude and local accuracy in the small things (just like in costume drama), subtle intelligent acting, cinema like camera work, the latest things in film are there. As important, this series has become a sociological event: enormous numbers of people have watched and talked of it and praised it too. So it’s worth it to watch and try to think about the first and second season, and at least begin the third, which I may stop at, as (from the descriptions) the episodes become wildly physically as well as deeply emotionally violent. No need for recaps (see thorough retelling on wikipedia).

The motivating cause is quietly intensely significant as the cancer epidemic (and all the horrors in pain and humiliation that cancer brings) is known everywhere even if the news media stalwartly will not bring it out in the discussably open. Equally misery-producing are the extravagantly exploitative charges people are pressured to pay for medicine; and while in the last year it seems there will be a respite through the Affordable Care Act, the medical establishment, drug industry, corporate industrialism (protecting its right to pollute the environment if their huge profits call for it) are going to keep costs as high as they can. So Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in his forties is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and has not sufficient insurance to pay for treatments, much less leave his family, which includes Walter Jr (R.J. Mitte)a son with cerebral palsy, Walter Jr, and Scyler (Anna Gunn) a pregnant wife with any assets to getting on in a hard world with.

A many year under-appreciated chemistry high school teacher, White decides to make money by making and selling drugs (meth is the going abbreviation).

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As can be seen in this early shot of him after an initial disaster has landed him in the desert, he is a Casper Milquetoast type who quickly finds himself in over his head in trying to cope with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), an ignorant, coarse, ruthless self-destructive, stupid ex-student of his become drug addict and seller himself and the drug dealers to whom they mean to sell their product. Jesse fails to understand that chemistry knowledge tells truths about products and a plastic container of the type White wanted Jesse to buy could have been used to dissolve a corpse while his home bathtub dissolves along with said corpse, its flesh, blood, waters.

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Scyler has refused to (paraphrasing Walter) “get off his ass,” and her talk has led her nosy sister, Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) to think Scyler’s son is smoking marijuana; when Scyler sees her hitherto mild-mannered husband whose idea of a joy happiness seems to be a surprise birthday party given him by his family, has not come home for several nights in a row, she jumps to the conclusion he is smoking marijuana. She enlists her brutal brother-in-law, cop, DEA, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). She immediately (no shriving time allowed) threatens to leave Walter.

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As the worrying wife

Meanwhile out of fear and casting aside his better impulses to save an articulate sympathetic sensible sounding drug-seller, White strangles a second drug dealer. After he disposes of the body far more efficiently than Jesse did, he returns home to tell his now suspicious wife that he has lung cancer and what he is going to do about it.

End of half of season 1.

Why is the reader not asking, is this not perverse? The last thing the action swings around is Walt’s cancer; the only person he tells is the man he strangles whose calm sensible mind immediately sees the connection between this dread disease, money and meths. We have but the briefest scene of diagnosis — an in ambulance which takes Walt form his part-time second job in a garage where he fell suddenly to the hospital, from which Walt goes home as quickly (spending as little) as he possibly can.

This film is enacting (as its title suggests) the inward and outward violence of US life as continually acted out by aggressive and desperate males. It’s not (as yet) Quentin Tarintino stuff, but the violence of real life. The violence is of the implicit bullying sort, and also close to the surface, it’s easy to bring it to the fore and make people act on it; a kind of continual abrasive atmosphere exists. Just that menace from men of a certain kind all the time and not far from the surface. Women in the US too. Yes it is obviously an implicit inditement of US society: we see how little teachers are valued, how little they are paid. Mr White is devoting his life to a subject he loves and knows a lot about, and the irony is for the first time he is turning it to account — cooking meths ever so expertly.

The violence is sexual — our Casper Milquetoast is not just a virile male from the get-go (pregnant wife) the first episode ended with him buggering his pregnant wife and her enjoying it. Take it from me, it hurts backwards, a lot. Her birthday present to him is to lay beside him in bed, he at rest, doing nothing, while she jerks him off under the covers (while browsing the internet). The voice-over commentary on the DVD of the first season is mostly frivolous, but here and there are some revealing features: the men all laugh at the actresses’s acquiescence in the sexy enacted on the screen. As I remarked, the wife’s snitching and pressure tactics makes the point that wives are a pain in the butt; her wrong guesses show her naive ideas about what drugs people take.

The series is racist — perhaps consciously so. Walter White is Mr White, the white man. Jesse Pinkman, he’s pink, the flesh-colored crayon in a child’s crayon box in the 1950s. The drug dealers are of course dark-skinned, eyed, Spanish speaking. The racism never goes away. The series takes place in New Mexico; across the border are these Mexicans who are animal-like. All are struggling for power and the whites have the big advantage.

It’s continually funny at times too. House of Cards has humor too, but it’s witty, sardonic lines, ironical speeches. Breaking Bad is more in the mode of the action coming near to be clown like — a weird black optimistic even sort of humor — as the two men work hard to haul a dissolving body through a broken ceiling, or they stumble and fall over the filth they create. Aaron Paul is especially hilarious – the character is so unself-consciously ludicrous with his gestures of pride, his self-esteem, his complacency as he smokes pipes of meth. The humor built up and Episode 3, the most murderous, was the funniest.

It’s important to see how Breaking Bad relates to British quality TV products too. It’s politics are as reactionary in that it has no acknowledgement there is such a thing as political thought or ideas in life. House of Cards and Downton Abbey both realize the stories are taking place in a larger political context. The difference is Breaking Bad simply has no outer political world, no perspective. The Brits give us reactionary Toryism (Fellowes) or desperation and pessimism from a humane standpoint but just as paralyzing (Andrew Davies in this case); the Americans give us nothing, a vaccuum. In Downton Abbey we are in a fantasy land of benign aristocracy (how they never were), in House of Cards we sidle along the corridors of high power.

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Dean Norris as Hank Schrader, White’s brother-in-law, cop (from a later season)

Breaking Bad — there are only the brutal police, more violent and with more impunity than anyone else. We are with the lower middle class and desperate working people who are policed. No NAFTA, no congress, no political or civic or human rights. We have to remember that the reason for the show is the advertisement; the program is filler in whose ideology is not allowed to be different from the ideology of the advertisement. No one is allowed any ideals to help them out of their mess at all; yes the family should hang together — literally as well a figuratively.

I am told the mini-series pulls you in as it goes, you become involved in the characters and the story takes telling, intriguing turns. Does it do more than the crude exposure of the monetary and sexual terms of the suffering (for they do suffer) male hegemony. Well I will try the next disk from Netflix, another 4 episodes to see.

Ellen

P.S. Among the good books to read on quality TV: Quality TV, edd. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, subtitled: contemporary american television and beyond. It has an excellent essay by Sarah Cardwell in it.

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Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt)

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John Bates (Brendan Coyle)

She: ‘I wish I knew what you were up to yesterday [in York]. You’d never do anything foolish. You’d never risk everything we’ve built together [voices rises ...]
He: ‘Certainly not. You know me. When I I do a thing I like to have a very good reason for doing[voice falls off ...] ‘
She looks at him, he turns, begins to walk down the darkened hall, she stands there strained, then follows …

Foreverfriends
Daisy (Sophia McShea), Alfred (Matt Milne)

Alfred: ‘Forever friends.’
Daisy: ‘Forever friends.’

Dear friends and readers,

Let’s cut to the chase. Do we now have reason to suspect that Mr Bates did indeed murder the 1st Mrs Bates? This fascinating character who begins as a humiliated disabled man, loyal comrade and servant to his lordship, kindly, generous, sterling husband material, has many less than exemplary skills. It was his threat against a fellow-prisoner that helped him escape treachery in prison. He’s also a past master at forging signatures.

So, off-stage (how many recall that Violet, Lady Grantham aka Maggie Smith said she’s not keen on Greek drama convention?) the man who brutally assaulted and raped Anna Bates, Mr Green (Nigel Harman) died, it’s said by slipping or falling into the road, hit by a bus, a crowd all round, people saw it, Piccadilly it was. This is uncomfortably close to the way the 1st Mrs Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) bit the dust. Off-stage too, it’s [now] said she took an overdose deliberately, but did she? no witnesses at all, Mr Bates was framed (so we were led to suppose), but there was that split-second shot of her sprawled out on the floor, an odd position for someone not pushed down by someone else.

Did Mr Bates go to London on the day he told Mr Carson he was going to York, after having ascertained in a conversation with the hubristic Green that Green lived with his Lordship, Gillingham (Tom Cullen) just off Piccadilly? Or was it he overheard (as he seems to lurk in corners) Anna conveying somehow or other to the suddenly shocked Lady Mary that it was Green because Lady Mary has told her Gillingham will be back for visit with his man:

REalizing

Latercollectinghim

And what did he there?

He told Mr Carson (Jim Carter) who noticed something about him in the dark room cleaning shoes, that it had been “a long day.”

MrCarterBates

The duelling code immediately recurred to obliquely by Anna upon being raped (Part 3) as her reason why she must not report the rapist, not hostilely but rather in fear Bates will have to pay for it by a life sentence or hanging “this time”, has reached fruition.

So too we see the workings of an aristocratic code of loyalty to one’s crew. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) will have evidence of Bates’s having been in London not York in the so-called Christmas coda to come; but in this episode she is already morally sure and so asked Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden) whose judgement Mary now trusts if he knew someone he liked and that person did something troubling (word to this effect), what would you do, to which Blake: “But you don’t believe he was wrong,” Mary: “No,” Blake: “Well I’m guessing but I suspect I would say nothing.”

LadymaryBlake

I cannot condone it and know I ought to declaim against it — it’s a measure of how much this mini-series soap opera has won me over that I am content not to overlook it and deplore its source: revenge killing belong to the same world-view as honor-killing, is as lawless (& therefore dangerous to us all) as rape, or (for that matter) stand your ground laws. It’s unexpected even in the reactionary universe of Fellowes; doubtless he’d justify it by saying in the 1920s there was no recourse for preventing an occurrence of acquaintance rape from the law or courts (there is barely one now), and how were Anna and Bates to know that Gillingham had sacked Green. Green must’ve been having a bad week — not that he didn’t deserve to be sacked.

Far from boring characters as they seemed to be, as Season 4 began, the happily married pair, Mr and Mrs Bates lived through a differing but shared agon: she, raped, cannot bear any man near her at first, shamed, blaming herself, as some lines of Bates’s referring to how she seemed to favor Green at first (he: “You liked him so much … thought he was funny …” She: .. “Did I? I can’t remember”), reinforce her unhealed anguish; and their story turns on issues of hot moment today.

And like other of the threads of this season’s finale, only semi-resolved.

greensward (1)

People have been asking on a list-serv I’m in if this was the finale? well, within the aesthetics of soap opera there is no finale.

At the close of a phase of a min-series, there is usually not just an ending of one story, but the beginning of another and quite different one -— though the two may be linked thematically. Further the first doesn’t really end, but carries on, from a different angle, and the actual central tensions of the part of the story we were intensely engaged in (the coerced match of two fundamentally unlike and in their characters incompatible people) are not resolved or got over, but only deferred into a kind of stasis. Substories are set adrift … time moves inside the series and the characters age, some disappearing altogether … and then returning …

So what we had in this week’s hour was a series of semi-resolutions, persistence of other stories, new developments, continuations. Other bloggers have also noticed that at the end of each season, we’ve had the festivity where all are brought together, often on the great lawn around the Abbey: season 1, the garden party climaxing in WW1; season 2, the first and truest of the Christmas episodes, just one gathering after another, season 3, the cricket game reinforced by the dance and Christmas festivities in the Highlands; and now, season 4, the church bazaar. Such scenes dramatize all the characters’ relationships to one another; they function to reiterate, reinforce, reassure. The fictive system goes on. Perhaps it was a little obvious this time but the satisfaction of seeing favorite put-upon characters suddenly winning, worms turning, characters taught lessons or teaching them is too strong to be denied.

TomMissBuning
Tom (Allen Leech) and Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis), at the bazaar as a local school teacher

New couples emerging: Tom and Miss Bunting first met at a political meeting, then he came across her in a field with her car stalled and reverting to his chauffeur past, fixed it and told her of himself and Sybil, of her death. I wish he were not so determined to separate himself from his socialism, to justify the lifestyle of the rich family who have taken him in as all about the work ethic, beasts of burden (like Cora, Countess of Grantham carrying a heavy bouquet of flowers in a heavy pottery). It feels like a betrayal of his character when he abjures his socialism; when he rejects the idea of types he is unsound, forgetting all his vaunted reading. He is swaying back and forth as he tries to find a new identity — no longer Irish revolutionary, now gentleman-steward for the Granthams and their son-in-law. We have to turn to Mrs Crawley to defend Tom as a political thinker (alas on muddled anti-socialist grounds that he shows how smart he is by doubting his former creed).

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On the other hand, I just love how Molsely and Miss Baxter are slowly coming together, each helping the other towards a stronger self-esteem, cheer, success (Molseley hits the jackpot when urged by Miss Baxter), culminating in Molseley getting between Thomas Barrow’s (Rob James-Collier) mean bullying and threats for information from her. Meanwhile her sewing machine on the servants’ hall table has become a fixture, an icon referred to, out of her past which we surmize we will learn more of next year.

Sewingmachine

Even Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) is coming in for a new friendship: Lord Merton (Douglas Reith), a Crawley connection, come to visit Violet, turns out to be a widower with unhappy memories of a failed marriage attracted to the widow with good memories.

Comicallylookingon
Dowager comically (she had not expected this) looking on

Sadness is not left altogether behind in these new pairs.

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As will happen Lord Merton has forgotten and asks Isobel what her son does?

It’s seriously part of Alfred (Matt Milne) and Daisy’s (Sophia McShea) moving goodbye scene.

At last the kitchen quartet generated real feeling — because they were given enough time and scenes. And because Mr Mason (remember him, William, Daisy’s dead young husband’s father) is brought back and his presence lends gravitas. Alfred is coming for a last goodbye now that Ivy (in this episode) has answered his letter containing a marriage proposal with a decided no, and, wanting to spare Daisy and not altogether in sympathy with Ivy’s (Cara Theobold) optimism that life has more in store for her than Alfred can offer, Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) has given her the day off.

MrMasonDaisy

When she asks him, doesn’t he want her to stay past six, he says he’d like her to stay forever but “there won’t be too many people you love in your life and he’s one,” so she must say goodbye, with “nothing jagged, nothing harsh.” And in the event as Alfred begins to hint he’ll have her now, she says she loved him once, but “it’s too late,” and they agree to part “forever friends.” This is not smaltz and it’s given steel as when we last see Daisy even though Mrs Patmore says how proud she is of Daisy, the noble gesture has not made Daisy any the less hurt, raw (especially to Ivy still) and bleak from the experience:

Daisy

Others may disagree but I don’t feel there is the same complex of feeling in the story which sets another character adrift: the love affair of Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) and the very black Jack Ross (Cary Carr): I found myself cringe at his deference and complete lack of resentment or anger: he breaks off the engagement because he loves her so and would not want to “spoil” her life? Lady Mary’s argument against this marriage is one used by racists in the US for decades. It runs like this “I’ve nothing against it of course, but think how others would treat you.” Rose’s behavior is dismissed as daughter-spite and we get some unexamined mother-bad-mouthing all round (when in the Scots Christmas episode Lady Fincher played beautifully by Phoebe Nicholls as a woman unhappily married, frustratingly situated) as excuse. Well acted and wisely acted in an evasive understated way,

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It still won’t do. Fellowes revealed his own inability to endow this black character with full humanity or understand how a young white woman might like a kindly jazz artist.

The weakest because so clichéd matter was that of Lady Mary and her three suitors. It is another measure of the richness of this year’s episodes that by this one we have mostly forgotten the effective grief-striken opening and Dockery’s expressionistic performance. She does well here too, for the scenes of polite male suitors at table, by a car, walking alongside, are often saved by a witty remark by Lady Mary herself (“hasn’t I disappointed enough men?”). The thread was not distasteful, there were some dream-like palatial cathedral restaurant moments

Palacerestaurant

and the two prominent male actors maintained their dignity, their deference to this princess’s coolness and supposed hard-working strength — though she has but one tenant, Drew (Andrew Scarborough) who agrees to take on the pigs too, be steward if Tom should suddenly decamp (though that seems less and less likely) and act out another cynosure of deference and gratitude.

Drew

The quick-witted old hand at soap opera techniques will notice that Lady Edith, now pregnant (Laura Carmichael) is looking on, and observes how loyal is this family man. A solution to her difficulties? her desire to keep her baby if not in the castle with her, nearby. Edith’s story became more subdued as she was re-marginalized into second sister, took less space in the tapestry, and seen within a triangle of her own and the perspectives of her aunt, Lady Rosemary Painswick (Samantha Bond) and grandmother (it doesn’t take Violet too long to gather the trip to Switzerland to learn French where the hospitals are so good is for Edith to have her baby in secret).

Some of the hour’s best lines come in this thread, wry, sarcastic, irritated, pressingly persuasive (both aunt and grandmother are against the baby coming back with Edith as then the secret will visibly out itself). “Don’t bully me, granny.” “Are you afraid I’ll lose the baby?” And they have the best hats:

Edith (2)
Facing her mother who says her way of coping with French is to speak English much louder

Edith (1)

This thread has one withheld character, Michael Gregson whose return we await — expect. The other of Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) himself, taken to New York to defend Cora’s brother’s part in the teapot dome scandal, has been accounted for from outside the series. Bonneville went to London to act on stage. His return and congratulations to his wife, on her success as mistress of the bazaar carried off persuasively and sweetly:

coraRobert

The success and whole management of the bazaar which provides the fun background of the hour’s last 20 minutes is however due to Trollope, and especially Barchester Towers from whom some of the games and the whole sense of a community of different orders of people engaged in ritual play were drawn.

I’ve tried to emphasize the art of this hour, the tapestry formations, the four-year felt fictive system (so to speak) because this is the source of its satisfying unfolding. For myself I’ve told on my Sylvia blog what pulls me into this world: “the characters are presented all together in such real feelingful ways”

For official recaps across the four seasons

Next week the coda.

Ellen

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