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800px-PaleyFest_2010_-_Breaking_Badcast
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).

breaking-badCranston

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.

Breaking-BadJesse

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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MrsB
Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt)

MrBates
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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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:

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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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AWayForward
Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) and Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael): “I’m sure there’s a way forward … “

Anna (Joanne Froggatt): ‘How was dinner?’
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery): ‘Uphill … you don’t think I’m aloof …’
Anna: ‘Do you want me to answer truthfully or like a lady’s maid … [ -- Anna thanks Lady Mary for intervening to keep Bates with her and Lady Mary tries to probe and Anna says she just can't talk about it -- ].
Mary: ‘If you described him and ought you to see Dr Clarkson just to make sure?’
Anna: ‘I’m glad there’s honesty between us again but I can’t talk about it’
Mary: ‘Even to me … because you’ve helped me God knows …in the past and now I want to help you.’
Anna: ‘I can’t talk about it, milady. not even to you … ‘

Dear friends and readers,

I call Part 7 of this fourth season strangely moving because it is. I know its weaknesses, the worst being the refusal to focus on Anna’s inner life, to show us what she has felt when she would no more go to bed with Bates than any other man. The intimate relationship between these two women is not dramatized before us. As in Part 5, it’s Bates’s inner life — seething — Mary probes for a moment:

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I’ve watched it 3 times now though, each time feeling the building tension slowly increase as the four more openly-felt stories are woven into the design of the tapestry. I like the sense of deeply felt relationships between the pairs of characters and they so move me because it’s what I’ve not got now and so yearn for. The Downton characters keep faith with one another and are kind to one another. This emotional attitude may be epitomized briefly and sharply by fleeting scenes of Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and Molseley’s (Bernard Gallagher) growing sense of alliance and support; he notices Thomas’s (Rob James-Collier) trying to pump her and wants to know why, sits near her, acting as a short of shield.

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First of all the one we begin with, the story of the assault-rape of Anna (Joanne Froggatt) in this part needs to be told to now this person, and now to that, as the Bates’s lives have changed: they are unwilling to endure the relative lack of safety when their other is not nearby.

AnnaWeeping

Bates: ‘I won’t go’
Anna Bates: ‘I see so you’ll leave his lordship in the lurch and probably lose your job and all this to help me. Go home and pack.’ [Still shows her cracking up alone in the hall; she is afraid to be alone, be without him now]

This story threads in and out, and although disturbing because it’s all about how the family first want Bates near to Anna to protect her from another assault (so as beyond Mr Green only Anna and Mrs Hughes know who did it); and then how those who know work to deflect Bates’s desire to murder the rapist: Mrs Hughes in particular, wouldn’t mind if he did. The last shot of the episode is sharply on Bates’s face as he realizes it had to have been Mr Green (Nigel Harman) since Green has just been stupidly boastful at the kitchen’s dinner table, sneering at the memory of the opera singer, saying to avoid the screeching he “came downstairs” for a “bit of peace and quiet.”

Similarly Edith’s realization, confrontation with her pregnancy, her telling her London Aunt and their avowed mutual determination “to do away with” as a baby whatever is there. Their visit to and flight from an abortion clinic. For all its drawbacks, the depiction of Lady Edith’s choice not to have an abortion in the face of knowing how she will be driven to give up her child because unless she consents to be ostracized she and her child will be continually humiliated in public gets to the crux of life’s difficulties. Lady Rosamund’s veering back and forth between horror at the abortion and acceptance, and then intense dismay at the idea Edith will keep the baby and deep sympathy allows us to experience the real risks, costs, pains. The continual parallel shooting of them is emotionally arresting.

RosamundandEdithatAbortionClinic

These are interwoven with scenes in the library between Edith and Lord and Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) where we are expected to believe they never thought of what makes Edith nauseous and just plain ill, debilitated. I cannot believe her parents would not see the obvious, dumb though Lord and Lady Grantham often are:

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Alas, a weakness here is it’s improbable that Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) would not guess what’s the matter.

The third is the courtship of Mary: fairy tale-three suitors: two are childhood sweethearts, Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), and Evelyn Nadier (Brendon Parks); a third, Charles Blake (Julian Overden) a new-comer among them, empowered to study clever and money-making business practices in an effort to keep Downton viable as an over-grown farm business. If you watch the scene where Lord Gillingham returns to Downton unexpectedly and he and Mary walk down the stairs, you see their skin blench, how much their bodies move in akimbo rhythms. Their love come out of their open faces. Mary is beginning pig farmer, and the night she and Blake visit the pen after dinner finds the pigs almost dead from lack of water. They are a muddy fire brigade, bonding over the pails and then again after cleaning up a bit scrambled eggs and wine in the kitchen:

EatingScrambledEggs

If you watch the film with care, and slow down the scenes between Mary and Gillingham, you see they are in love — and quite naturally, far more than Mary and Matthew ever were in a gut way. (Dan Steevens was being groomed for an estrangement eventually — if you watch parts of Christmas Season 3 carefully you see this). The sparring of Blake and Mary is fun and also the pig incident (showing she can be earthy) but he is no egalitarian – his thoughts are all about aristocrats and his annoyance with them for losing their estates. It’s The Portrait of a Lady stuff before Jane Campion pointed out the fallacies of the heroine chased by endless super-acceptable heroes

To conclude, this thread, Blake is led to respect Mary and she to trust to his integrity. But this romance means more as it is part of the larger (across the whole series) question of what is to become of places and landscapes like Downton. The probably untenable idealism of this story is Downton ends up supported by supporting others. We are to believe the money works out, just.

The last of the four serious stories, however brief and continually cut and recombined, Tom’s embedding into the family to the point he is no socialist and drives with Lady Isobel Crawley as a pair, brings us back to class, ethnicity (Irish versus English):

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and then is invited to go to a political rally for a Lloyd-George type, which never takes places — since Mrs Crawley had to go to France for her son’s proud-wisdom, and her romantic walk about the balconies. He meets Daisy Lewis (Sarah Bunting) young woman schoolteacher while at the political meeting, and is just the type who would fit into Tom’s world and he needs company.

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We begin to see the solution to Tom’s difficulty: here is a wife he would feel right to marry and whom he could bring home to the family, just, and take his daughter to live with.

The serious themes directly engaged in here are lacking utterly in the way the other two stories are developed. Yes Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James) going out with an African-English man, Jack Ross (Gary Carr) would seem to be about the racial divide, but it’s done sheerly for picturesque romance, her hat and the frisson of seeing (racialist really) the interracial kiss is the point. The dialogue is cliched and worse, he doubts he is acceptable and asks where is this going (he does not need a duenna):

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And the four-way grave (Alfred [Matt Milne] and Daisy [Sophia McShea]) and gay (Jimmy [Ed Speleers] and Ivy [Cara Theobold]) couple, with their musical dance something out of Restoration comedy is truncated as if lest Fellowes would have to go into the characters’ having serious feelings, which he avoids. Fellowes just cannot get up enough absorption in his material to bring forth new varied erotic material in the kitchen: Daisy carries on berating Ivy (Cara Theobold) who knows Jimmy (Ed Speleers) couldn’t care tuppence for her. Alfred (Matt Milner) comes for a visit from his hotel in Manhattan, to see his parents and has time to spend a day at Downton.

The excuse is Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) cannot bear the dissension between the hurt Daisy and apparently easy-going comfortable Ivy. She is okay in her skin at the same time as she just pushes Jimmy and his advances off without a qualm: he: “I only asked what a million men would ask,” to which she: “I only answered what a million women would answer.” Alfred is not allowed to stay the night by putting him off with a lie that Mrs Hughes Phyllis Logan) and Mrs Patmore both have the flu, and Mr Carson (Jim Carter) must foot the bill for Alfred’s stay at an inn and dinner with him.

Violet Lady Grantham’s illness, bronchitis which could turn into a dead pneumonia seems almost out of place, not part of the whole, especially as after one brief scene where Mary and Cora Lady Grantham stop by to ask if there is anything they could do, the thread spins out without reference to anything occurring in the rest of the episode. Mrs Crawley’s complete self-sacrifice for the sake of her old “enemy” who, ill as she is, carries on insulting and dismissive of her is not attached to moving Mrs Crawley out of herself and her mourning. Maybe Fellowes felt Maggie Smith’s obvious sudden greater aging these past two seasons

LadyViolet

were there to be used as a “slice of life.”

I wouldn’t want to give it up as it humanizes the dowager and I so enjoyed their concluding moment: Violet wants Dr Clarkson (David Robb) to throw Isobel out forthwith once she is better, and when he gently reproaches her, telling her how Isobel saved her life, she does obey her better self and asks Isobel for some help and says yes she’d like company. Cut to a couple of other scenes and second from the last we see the two of them playing gin rummy late at night all warm chums. Violet: “I had forgotten how much fun this is.” They’d like it to go on. Isobel: “We can play again.” Violet: “Oh goodie …-”

This makes a sharp contrast to the previous scene of Mrs Hughes warning Green:

She: “I know who you are and I know what you did and while you’re here if you value your life you should stop offering jokes and keep to the shadow … “

He tries to say both drunk but she’s not having any of that, then he tries thanks for her not telling Bates, which implication she rebuts by saying she didn’t stay silent for him, and the final scene of Bates’s stare at Green’s face unaware that he has given himself away.

Ellen

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Dear friends,

In the computer disaster I had two days ago it appears that the course proposals I had made for a summer teaching course at an Oscher Institute of Learning may have been permanently lost; as I want these documents and today (as yet) have no writing program I can put them on — the new computer with Windows 8 is hellishly cutsey, tricksey. I cannot figure out how to write on Word on this Macbook Pro without the whole screen being transformed, so that I appear unable to reach my gmail with hitting F3 which minimalizes everything and let’s me see, and get back to gmail and the row of programs I have at the bottom of Macbook Pro. So I am saving two sets of documents or writing here — I used to use this blog to work out my thoughts on books, films, teaching; well read these as 5 sketches towards a summer course for retired people.

The Gothic

This course will explore the gothic mode in fiction and film. The gothic as a mode is a vast terrain with many differnt subgenres, yet images, plot-, and character types repeat like a formula. Take one huge labyrinthine ancient or partly ruined dwelling, place inside a murderous incestuous father or mother (preferably chained), heroes and heroines (various kinds), get a tempest going at night, be sure to have plenty of blood on hand, owls, and stir in a great deal of supernatural phenomena, have the action occur in the deep past or be connected to a deep past … We’ll use short stories on-line, beginning with ghosts and terror, moving onto vampire, werewolf, and wanderer paradigms and horror, and last socially critical mystery and possession. The course culminates in two recent novellas, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, and the justly famed film, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963, featuring Julie Harris).

Texts on-line will be chosen from among these: Wharton’s “Afterward” and/or “Kerfol,” M. R. James’s “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral;” Sheridan LeFanu’s “Green Tea” and/or “Carmilla,” Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life,” R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Suzy Charnas’s “Unicorn Tapestry; Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Abbey Grange.” This spares students buying an expensive anthology.

Memory, Desire, and Self-fashioning: Life Writing

This course will enable students to better to understand and recognize the nature of life-writing: diaries, books of letters, journals, memoirs, travel narratives, autobiogaphies, biographies. Our three texts will be Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orca: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 (or George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) and Margaret Drabble’s The Figure in the Carpet: A Personal History, with Jigsaws. We will ask what is the nature of the truth autobiography produces and look at the relationship of a biographer to his subject. We’ll look at writing done to the moment when the writer does not know what the future holds (diaries, letters); how far is a biography the product of a biographer’s memories interacting with text by his (or her) subject. We’ll talk about the importance of childhood and play in this form, how aging, imagination and disappointment work are part of the mental materials that make up life-writing. If time permits and the DVD is available, the class will conclude with the 2013 film, The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s biography of a long love-relationship between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan (an actress), where most of the evidence for the events was destroyed, and thus be able to discuss events that happen, and are important in people’s lives and yet have left no discernible clear record.

The Political Novel

The course aims to enable the students to recognize what is political novel and how such novels can function in our society. We’ll read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Walter Von Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and Valerie Martin’s Property and see William Wellman’s film, The Ox-Bow Incident (1963, featuring Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn). We’ll look at the nature of political allegory: how ideas about society penetrate the consciousness of the characters and can be observed in their behavior. Why some events enter what’s called history and why political novels often lend themselves to historical treatment; why other events are not discussed as serious history, which can limit what we perceive as political behavior. Finally, how films contribute to understanding a novel or its political meanings.

The Historical and Post-Colonial Turn in modern novels

This course will examine historical and post-colonial (or global) turn that English fiction has taken in the last quarter century. We’ll read and discuss three novels: Paul Scott’s Staying On, Graham Swift’s Waterland, and Andrea Levy’s Small Island. The first poignant novel is also about two aging people now retired, who have seen the word they were part of disappear and must cope with new arrangements hostile to them. The second will enable us to discuss how some events enter political history and others don’t, and thus our past is past is something we invent through imposing choice and order based on hierarchies in our present culture. Historical romance can therefore be liberating acts of resistance, a way of redressing injustice, and creating a more humane usable past. The third novel shows the centrality of nationalistic identities in enforcing exclusions or forming imagined communities. The course will conclude by watching an excerpt from a mini-series adaptation of Small Island (2009, BBC, featuring David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson). I hope the class will see the connection of these novels to young adult fiction, counter-factual fictions, and romantic history as well as TV costume drama.

Jane Austen: the early phase

This course focus on Austen’s first published novels: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Love and Freindship (a short hilarious burlesque which we will read first), Austen’s Steventon years, and letter fiction provide prologue and context for reading S&S and P&P. An alternative perspective provides the last phase of the course: Austen’s Bath years, a brief mid-career epistolary novel written there, Lady Susan (with an utterly amoral heroine), and discussion of how Austen revised the novels when she settled at Chawton. Last, we’ll see Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s S&S (a 1995 Miramax product), and discuss what this film makes visible about the way film-makers think readers read these novels and how these interpretations differ from this course’s historical, autobiographical and aesthetic readings.

Ellen

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winstongrahamblog
Winston Graham — from his middle years

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Robin Ellis, recently — very important in shaping and keeping memory of Poldark alive (Making Poldark appeared in a 3rd expanded edition this year)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m delighted (and honored) to be able to report that James Dring has made a significant contribution to Winston Graham studies: on his website you can find a long, thorough listing of all Graham’s fiction accompanied by remarks culled from reviews at the time of the particular book’s publication, comments by Graham on the book (in green letters), and accurate contextualization of both sets of remarks by Dring (in brown). The file includes the films, screenplays, books on these, and letters by Graham and a letter from Graham to Dring. And finally a listing of all Graham’s minor publications (essays and introductions) and the few essays that have been published on him (mostly on his mystery-crime books). One could use this information as the beginning basis of a literary biography or longer study of all Graham’s writing.

An annotated bibliography

The films make visible the kinds of reactions readers have to the novels, the way they have been read:

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Still from the fine 19560s semi-art film, The Walking Stick

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Richard Armitage and Demelza Carne Poldark falling in love over their shared reading (Poldark 1977-78, Part 9)

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1996 Stranger from the Sea: an attempt to de-politicize the Poldark novels, turn them into ethnic (wild Cornwall) domestic romance (defeated by the brevity of the film and vociferous protests of fan club for 1970s mini-series & its stars)

Mr Dring has also provided two files of the dust jackets of the books: dust jackets; more dust jackets

Here are a few telling ones I’ve gathered (from the Net):

RossPoldark1stedition
First 1945 edition of Ross Poldark

1960sPoldarkNovelsBodleyHeadArtworkblog
Art work on back of all Bodley Head Poldark novels (1960s)

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Cover for the 5th Poldark novel reflecting the 1970s film adaptation

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Recent British set (21st century)

Dust jackets are an important form of packaging information about a book: they suggest who the book is aimed at; the imagery, if true to the book, something of its genre and nature; how much respect a particular press lends to the book. These provide the basis for a study of Graham’s readership, the initial reception of his novels and later evaluations by publishers, readers, and himself (he rewrote or at least revised his early books).

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1st edition of Little Walls

ForgottenStoryblog
Edition of Forgotten Story, story set in Cornwall, 1898 (perhaps 1960s? or around the time of the 1984 film adaptation, featuring Angharad Rees)

RecentEditionblog
Recent edition of novel set in India, Corfu, Wales, something of a historical novel (sexy cover fixated on woman from the back in slip influenced by memories of Hitchcock’s Marnie)

Mr Dring contacted me to suggest I link his website to mine as providing on-line information about Graham, the Poldark and his other books. I’ve now done so, linking all three files into my central section and bibliography page

Ellen

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The important thing is not to take it [whatever happens] as a punishment

I do like to be beside the seaside

Malefriendssonblog
Vince (Ray Winston), Lenny (David Hemmings), Ray (Bob Hoskins), Vic (Tim Courtney) — Jack’s son & his friends about to throw Jack’s ashes into the sea

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Amy (Helen Mirren), Jack’s wife saying goodbye permanently to June (Laura Morelli), Jack’s daughter

Dear friends and readers,

Last Orders in Graham Swift’s magnificent and moving book, and in Fred Schepisi’s film of the same name refers to closing time in pubs: just before 11 when it used to be time to close, everyone drinking placed his or her last orders; it also refers to Jack Dodds’s last orders before he died: he asks that his ashes be scattered on Margate Pier where he and Amy, his wife, spent their delayed honeymoon, nearly 50 years ago.

Jim’s last orders were to cremate him, buy an urn which looked like the urn in the HD Met opera, Giulio Cesare, engraved with a witty turn on Rupert Brooke:

If I should die, think only this of me
   That there’s some corner of a foreign mantelpiece
That is for a while England.

Beyond that nothing indicated, only (implied) do as little as possible. I probably did not follow that last (implied) instruction, but then in Swift’s novel & Schepisi’s film, Amy does not herself go to Margate, but rather spends one more day visiting her and Jack’s severely retarded daughter, June, for nearly 50 years an inmate of a mental asylum (of a large type that doesn’t exist any more).

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As the day begins, three men waiting for Vince to arrive with fancy car, look at Jack’s ashes

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First startling flashback: Jack (Michael Caine) feels larger than life, drinking

I got through the last two nights and days and this morning by rereading Swift’s novel (which I’ve assigned to classes several times), watching the film twice (once with Schepisi’s voiced commentary) and reading in a favorite book of poems for Jim: John Betjemann’s Summoned by Bells. Both texts and movies evoke & picture worlds, milieus in England that Jim growing up participated in. And Last Orders is the story of a post-funeral rite: Jack’s four friends take a journey, drive across southern England, from London, into towns, to a war memorial, a farm (Wick’s) where Jack’s parents as young half-broke adults met and made love in, where June was conceived (so a couple of night’s love-making determined their lives as the two married), Canterbury (the cathedral), onto Margate by the sea. During the journey through (in the film) flashbacks and (in the book) intertwined subjective meditations, they each travel in memory to different stages in their shared pasts.

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Menincarblog
Inside the car

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On the bus

It’s a quest into the self for each of them. A return. In the book it is towards the end that we learn it was to Margate Jack and Amy went for their honeymoon, a honeymoon taken after they married (a forced marriage) and the birth of a severely mentally retarded daughter. In the book they fail to rejuvenate their marriage; the film wants us to believe that Jack’s love for Amy and hers for him made for a solid relationship; in the book we see that though they continued to live side-by-side for 50 years, both were dissatisfied; both felt trapped. Nonetheless, Jack wanted to go back; he dreamt of returning (though it’s probable he knows he didn’t have the money), but he wants to make up to Amy what he had not in him at the time to do: to be some substitute for all she ever wanted out of life. Not having gone back in life, he asks that he be brought there in death. She refuses to accompany the men. He has not compensated her for all she has given up to comfort his hurt male ego: one way a man is said to be manly, the effective man, is to have successful children. Jack wanted more: he wanted a son Amy adopts while he is away at war, Vince, to follow him in his butcher business as he did his father though he would’ve liked to try to become a doctor. Three of the men would have preferred a career other than the one they ended up with: Lenny wanted to be a star boxer, and Ray a jockey.

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Young Jack (J.J.Feilds) and Amy (Kelly Reilly) with very young Vince and Sally at the seaside

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Ray and Amy reading Jack’s last orders — the Thames a continual presence in their bench scenes

Thematically it’s a return to the sea. Margate is haunted by memories in the minds of the characters, though the sea is unchanging and seems not to notice the human beings or time that passes through it; human beings can’t leave a mark on it; life comes from it and Jack returns to it. People came from it
as life did; they return to it to enjoy themselves. I do like to be beside the seaside, by the beautiful sea. Is man a noble animal? He has aspirations and we see in these aging men their disappointed aspirations.

Amy also takes a trip: a long bus trip to the asylum where weekly she goes to see (never recognized) by their daughter, June. One summer 25 years ago Ray and she went there and then for the rest of the summer they traveled about in a camper: the most fulfilling heterosexual love she has known is with Ray. It’s her words about him being a lovely man that we remember at the book’s close: “Oh Ray, you’re a lovely man, you’re a lucky man, you’re a little ray of sunshine, you’re a little ray of hope.” He is the providential figure of the book, winning great sums at races when people need it, personally unambitious. Ray thinks Jack knew (p. 284). We see in Michael Caine’s eyes in the hospital whenever the camper mentioned that he did know and he expects (ambiguously it’s hinted) Ray and Amy will now become a pair. And his sole concern is to make sure the £20,000 he owes on the shop is paid so Amy will be free of harassment and solvent. But I noticed this time how scared Amy is now on the bus; you wouldn’t think Jack no longer being alive in the world would affect her safety and security, but she feels this blank as fear. (That’s how I feel w/o Jim; it is my strongest emotion, the source of anxiety attacks.)

In the film it seems certain Ray and Amy will now travel to Australia; she’s no longer land-locked, but in the book we never know for certain. The weekly trip is partly spite, partly to get back at Jack for not wanting her. She presents it as a love gesture, a gesture of deep longing as the mentally retarded individual can’t even recognize Amy as her mother (or refuses to). Over the course of the novel Amy adopts three other children in compensation: Vince, whose family is destroyed by a bomb from a plane, who becomes their son; Sally (Lenny and Joan’s daughter) who they have to exclude from Vince’s aggressive sexuality aimed at Sally; and then Mandy, who seeks to run away from abusive parents but ends up in a new home quickly, and whom Vince marries. But Amy never does give up that weekly bus-ride — until this day of Jack’s death. She will not return again; it’s time to make a new life for herself. I find that true to life.

I noticed that in the movie flashbacks move chronologically; in book they are placed so as to give us the most emotional impact at the right moment.

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OldJackRayblog
Old Jack and Ray where Jack is showing Ray his debts and Amy’s photo once again

YoungJackRayblog
Young Jack and Ray (Anatol Yousef), where Jack is ever slightly taunting Ray

It’s a book written from a strongly masculinist point of view, more interested for example in Ray’s betrayal of Jack (who half-teased Ray cruelly about Ray’s lack of height and physical prowess) than Amy’s in this deeply happy love affair. In book and film it’s left ambiguous whether Jack knew, but it seems he did and never tried to gain any revenge. Ray manages to have these trysts by the use of a small camper he takes Amy to June with. Their times together are described as “traveling about.” Amy thinks how the bus ride is the high point of her week. “It’s where she belongs,” what she enjoys most. We see her riding on the top of a double decker looking about her. High up. I know I love a train ride for similar reasons

Camperblog
Camper at races, Ray and Amy making love inside

As opposed to the men of the book, the women never get a chance to wander away from their community; they are enclosed in relationships dominated by men or reaching toward men. At the close of the book Ray tells Amy he has won the money necessary to pay off a mortgage to (presumably the usual brutal debt collectors), and asks her if she’d like to go with him “down under.” “Well Ray, Australia is very far away, but I always did like traveling about.”

YOungversionsblog
Most of the pub scenes do not include the women: here we see the younger actors

Women characters are important though they are seen through the perspective of men and their lives are controlled by men. A kind of archetypal femininity going on: seduction, wife, the one in the home who makes it; who is bound by it. Mandy tries to escape and ends up with a new father and mother; she doesn’t get very far — she is a good wife to Vince; both live close to parents and see each other daily. Vince may not become a butcher, but he remains close to his father, needing him and needed.

Women’s journey is landlocked; domesticity as tedious, as historyless. They are seen as inward. They lack a story of their own; but the men’s stories are pre-determined by their cultural norms of masculinity which tie them up in knots. Men cannot dismiss the unreal and illegitimate norms that they (Lenny as prize fighter and now peddler) has allowed to blight and control his real inner emotions. His earlier youthful sardonic realism is now bitter and angry as he lashes out at Lenny for having impregnanted Sally, Lenny’s daughter, and deserted her. She now makes money selling herself, her present husband a convict. But it was Lenny who insisted she have an abortion rather than shame him. Your gender determines your kind of freedom or lack of it and this book shows us unfree women. Thejourney and ceremony are a male enterprise in the film; the males go off to war. But they are bound by state and money and class they are born in.

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Old Jack, dying, asking Vince to find £1000 for him

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Younger Vince telling his father, Jack, you must go work for supermarket, and then giving Jack a few quid to tide him over

It’s also about parents and children: we have generational conflicts. Vince keeps his father at a distance, wants his self-interest to reign above all. We do see the emotional isolation of these people while they all yearn to connect. Mutual disloyalty binds them to one another. Like life.

They are entrapped in frailty and biology, in nature’s processes, in society where they are thrown. It’s also an excess of affection and intimacy which betrays people. You give too much; you burden the other person, and you want too much back. Fantasies of idealism lie behind slogans of family values.

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Margatebog
Coming into present time Margate

The book is also an elegy to an England that no longer exists, several Englands (like Summoned by Bells), the film a trip through history. Pub, restaurant, meadow, great cathedral which goes back in time, but most centrally a natural place again: working class holiday in Margate. Simple language
resonates out to deeper truths contained in simple statements. “It was the luck of a summer night (p 268) why you are saddled with one person and not another.” Comical wry as well as gallows humor: Jack is now “a Jack in the box;” he’s carried around in a plastic bag one can carry a jar of coffee in. England’s continual raining: “Atrocious weather” (says Amy, p 276) “Not far to go now Jack” Says Vince craddling the box with the ashes in it as they near Margate (in November).

Cathedraleblog
Walking up to the cathedral

Places: Canterbury Cathedral, an historically specific site and spiritual place, a threshold into old religion; Margate a seedy holiday resort and out of season too, yet place of oceanic timelessness, of dreams and departures. Along the way, the pub they met at all their lives, Bermondsey; the pub they eat at, the war memorial with all the names of who died; and they remember being torpedoed Wick’s farm (the wick of a candle) where the agricultural techniques go back centuries. Places become meaningful to us as they embody our memories and the history we share with others. The hospital and race-course. The phone where Amy hears of Jack’s death from heart strain. Lots of deaths are told over a phone today. The present is dwindled. I like the lack of condescension; I like his choice of working people. A vision of a modern industrialized country as average people.

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RayRememberingblog
In cathedral others tour and Ray remembers

JackRayAmyblog
the day he propositioned Amy by telling her he’d retired & can now come with her to visit June

The book reminds me of Faulkner in that chapters are named after characters, and in each character’s chapters we are in that character’s consciousness traveling through the past. Schepisi says one of the difficulties of the film was to make it appear a narrative. It jumps around in time zones. In life thogh when someone tells a story, they don’t tell it straightforwardly. You go back in time; then relate that to another past, going back and forth by association. Since the book is written in London working class dialect, this can make for hard reading. In a film you must let the period shown tell itself – not cut to furniture or prams or signs; must keep drive of emotional drama; absolute accurate detail will give the time away so the viewer does not get lost.

Jack Dodds — he’s dead when the story opens. Jack was a powerful intense presence in these people’s lives. In a sense he’s really not dead at all. In the film they alternate Michael Caine alive with scenes of the box of ashes. What is striking about the box of ashes as we look at it? We think that’s what we’ll be someday. Get used to it. In the book he remains a central figure in their minds.

Ray Johnson. It’s arguable he’s the chief character is Ray Johnson. He gets the most chapters. He is the most perceptive and articulate. His words are sheer poetry. He is tempted not to give Amy the £20,000 we watch Jack engineer for her: by asking Vince for £1000 and then asking Ray to bet on it extravagantly. Jack dies at a moment of intense happiness when on TV he watches the chosen horse win. at times. Ray does replace Jack by the end; Ray enabled Vince to open his car business; and it seems that Ray was a central supporting character in Jack’s life and Jack in Ray’s. Ray will take Jack’s place; Jack knows this. He is the single organizing consciousness; he gets the most profound lines. We are told he is intelligent; he has it “up here;” he does not come from people who would send him to university. However, he is no more of a worldly success than the others and he retires as soon as he can — reminding me of Jim. Vince wants to make big money, have fancy cars, go on fancy vacations. If you don’t, you’re nothing. Swift’s story critiques this idea as cruel and unreal demands. People can’t get much farther than they start out. Truth is we are thrown. Ray the odd fairy godfather of a book where the world is supposedly ruled by “blind chance.”

His daughter, Susie, leaves him; he gets the money for her to go to Australia with the young man she has fallen in love with. In that one moment he is a sterling human being in kindness, insight, offers her a life she wants. But as a result his wife leaves him too (!). She can’t bear to lose the daughter. We don’t own and can’t control our children to follow us in life is an important lesson of the novel. When young, he’s scared of sex, small, chubby, unprepossessing. Swift explodes false notions of males. He is in a way the strongest of the four males — emotionally. He carries weight of Vince when Jack can’t; Vince goes to live with Ray. Uncle Ray. He’s a brother to Jack too. Carol, Ray’s wife, leaves him too because the camper is the last straw — her idea of travel is far more elegant, glamorous; she would love to travel far (like Amy she wants something not in her husband),

Vincerememberingblog
Winston as Vince deeply moved remembering and scattering ashes of father into English farm

Vince Dodds (originally Pritchett). Given the most complicated personality. In conflict with the father yet loves him intensely. Hurt because adopted, hurt over June as his real sister. Wants to compete and come out high. He vomited in the meat van; did not like being poor or working class. He never for a moment considers that what hurts him most are values he need not believe in and in fact doesn’t really live by. He’s his parents’ son; he marries the girl they brought home to him; he lives near by. He shops for his wife. Indeed he’s got the tenderest of hearts. He has consciously taken on and believes in vicious values as in his exploitation of Lenny’s daughter’s vulnerability, he beat her too (Sally).

In the novel he’s not a nice person. A bully, a manipulator, not too honest. He desert Sally pregnant. He allows his daughter, Kath, to sell herself to a wealthy comer. He betrays his daughter, Kath just as Jack betrayed his, June — according to Amy. Lenny also betrayed Sally though in paying for her abortion (with money Ray again won at the races) though Lenny meant well. It is important to understand the terrible stigma of a child out of wedlock in the 1940s; her life would have been ruined. It was ruined anyway, but not really Lenny’s fault. Vince didn’t try to help Kath. Yet makes money for others, & must take care of them; & has a tender heart and strong passions and at moments means well. Ray Winston is wonderful in the part.

Vince is also very domestic. He is a house-husband to Mandy who in a sense was his sister. The ultimate rebel never left his father’s aegis; stayed close; is there all the time. That’s another reason he’s a success in a way. But maybe this value is a good one. Swift leaves you to think and decide. Why should men be ashamed of having feelings? This is awful to jeer at. Modern too: he moves way from the earth, from flesh, to machines. He wants to move fast in a powerful automobile.

Ironically Mandy seems luckiest in some ways. We don’t see much of her and don’t know how she feels about Vince or her daughter, Kath. Later in the book Amy thinking about the world as intense competition and failure, says to herself maybe June was better off where she was. She does not mean that fully.

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Emphasis in film on four men and their view of world — here in a pub having lunch

Victor Tucker, an undertaker who took over his father’s business too. Learnt to accept his role during WW2. He tucks people away. We are asked to see him as the most content. He’s the priest of the book. He’s come to terms with himself. I find his portrayal the least satisfying of the novel. He
ought to be more conflicted. However, a brilliant actor, Tom Courtney, got the part. Courtney decided to emphasize Vic as conciliator and one who says “you can’t judge other people.” We do like that value. He did the first funeral; he brings the jar. We are seeing a much better funeral than usual. No false ceremony; no huge amounts of money. Here we find real grief and an attempt to confront real conflicts among the men. Vic is Unobtrusive, the mediator; he knows to keep secrets. Victor also suggests Victory. His beautiful descriptions of Canterbury cathedrale bring out history and rootedness.

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Lenny held back from trying to fight with Vince

Lenny Tate. A disappointed man; in the book we see he will die next. Not in good health. Exboxer he now peddles fruit and vegetables. He doesn’t want to use the word death. Says the uncomfortable thing, the truth. He is bitter, resentful. He can’t help but punch out. And he points to things: Why is Amy not here? Amy ought to come. He calls Vince Big Boy to needle him. High point of drama in the movie is when Lenny attacks Vince at Wick Farm while Vince is scattering ashes where his parents first met and also told him he was adopted.

What’s Amy like? Her voice really first emerges in the second half of the novel. A beauty, a siren (Kelly Reilly is beautiful) when young attracts Jack, Lenny, Ray, but herself entrapped by her body and nature. Mandy is her replacement for Vince. Both Amy and Mandy make love in the camper (so too Sally). We see in the film and hear about in the book how Vince is comforting Amy now that Jack is dead. Some of the finest moments are hers fully remembering. She does like retreat. The world a hard harsh place, p 239. But retreat costs and were it not for the fairy tale winnings she’d have vicious thugs at her door demanding £20,000.

Narrators: Ray, Amy, Vince, Lenny, Vic, Mandy, Jack. We don’t hear from Joan, Pam, Carol, Sally or Kath. We hear Mandy only once (pp 153ff), and near the book’s close, Jack (p. 285). In the film Ray and Amy do the remembering outside the hospital a week before Jack dies, and the men in the car do the remembering as they move through the day.

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Young Jack telling very young Vince he’s adopted and about June

YoungMotherWatchingblog
Young Amy looking on and wishing Jack wouldn’t

I have read that much in the book reflects Swift’s own life. Fred Schepisi said that the actors he hired all connected back to this working lower middle class background in England as did he in Australia. Jack a version of his father and Amy of his mother.

I read the book and watched the movie to extend my enactment of a funeral and cremation. So as not to feel so alone. Graham’s point of view on life is one I agree with. And its Englishness brought me close to my husband no longer alive, more gone than Jack in the fiction since so few got to know him, and only I have tried to extend his consciousness into the world.

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The last still of the movie

Where has Jack gone? What is death? What do we mean by it? Swift explores the body and how people feel in their bodies. When the body dies, the person dies. But the person was not just his or her body. Jim is still here in my memory and in all the things in the house he helped acquire and enjoyed. He is not yet cremated and I don’t know how I shall really feel about having Jim-in-an-urn in this house on the mantelpiece. I want to scatter the ashes — preferably in England if I can get back — he need be “only for a while” on that mantelpiece: I shall interpret that line that way. I’m not a character in an ancient drama. I’m with Amy in Last Orders who was chary of accompanying her husband as ashes to Margate.

Ellen

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butler setuponblog
Louis Gaines (David Oyelowo set upon by dogs during demonstration (2013 The Butler)

Dear friends and readers,

Mr Carson likes being a butler (Downton Abbey); in the poignant Merchant-Ivory movie, The Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins is a tragic butler; Hudson (Gordon Jackson) of Upstairs Downstairs fame, loved it; so why shouldn’t Cecil thrive too, except that Cecil isn’t in charge but subject to a white staff manager and, as a black man, makes much less money than white people do in analogous staff roles. I write just in case you’re like me and have not yet gone to The Butler (the hit in our area of the summer) to say don’t miss Danny Strong’s historical bio-pic, The Butler, directed by Lee Daniels.

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Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) and Carter Wilson (Cuba Gooding Jr), his peer — kitchen talk

Yes it has flaws. It’s yet another of these pious semi-historical biopics (Lincoln, The Queen, even Hyde Park on the Hudson), where the concluding scene tells us if all is not yet well with respect to the particular injustice the movie is on about, it soon may be, due to the heroism, courage of an elect group and the underlying rightness of our social order no matter how skewed now and again by a few rotten individuals, or, as in this movie, a rotten group of thugs and bigots, half-crazy. (The sort of quiet truth Ang Lee told of the civil war in his genuinely interesting non-cliched, non-stereotyped melancholy Ride with the Devil is rare; what’s more the studios trashed the movie so it never got anywhere.) The Butler also features the usual virtuoso performances of an actor exquisitely impersonating some world historical figure, especially ironic is Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan and on point, Alan Rickman as Reagan. They seemed to be getting a kick out of their roles:

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Five presidents, several wives, some famous staff people, well-known (I had almost said stars) politicians and outsiders at the turns of history.

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Iconic Kennedys

I might as well tell the worst. The Black Panthers are misrepresented: they were not murderous but genuinely bent on defending blacks from being killed so armed themselves; they were ferociously targeted, smeared, and killed by the FBI; too much slack or leeway is given Reagan: while we are shown how adamantly he worked against civil rights for blacks, he is made very kindly, an easy employer (maybe he was), comically afraid of Nancy. And if for black people the election of Barack Obama signifies limitless possibility for individual blacks lucky enough to find themselves in places where they can try for advancement, in 2 terms the average black person has lost a lot of ground (more impoverished, just an under and unemployed, or harassed, more at risk, draconian prison sentences, abrogation of voting rights, subject to be killed on the streets for being black). I admit I never was an “in” person in any social group during the 60s or 70s so if this or that portrait of someone is awry I might not notice this unless I read about the person and recognize the impersonation.

This is also another upstairs/downstairs movie, and we are with the lowest paid and esteemed of the downstairs. The point is made how much staff there is in the white house.

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An over-voice narrator (Cecil) is used: here he tells us look behind those smiles:

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But within these paradigms supposed the way one gets a popular success, and what in the films is adhered to for propaganda by its money-producers and distributors, it’s an effective, centrally accurate (okay the story of Eugene Allen is fictionalized to make it more dramatic) film whose strong purpose seems to be to remind and teach audiences about the terrifying savagery of the whites and their complicit agents and armed forces of the 1960s towards black people seeking a much better life, liberation, not to be humiliated, to a good education, voting rights. The opening sequence about what life was like for black people in the US before WW2 — you had to accept whatever vicious murderous whites imposed on you, for if you didn’t, you found yourself lynched, simply shot (to death), raped (if a woman on a plantation), if you tried to free yourself of plantation life, you found no niches, no connections, no place awaiting you and police everywhere seeking to put you away or out of it. People watching TV today about the sit-ins, freedom rides on buses, marches, demonstrations, see a clip or two of vicious whites beating up, hosing blacks, and then we switch to the big man who brings an end to this. This movie shows that these few minutes of film are thin as melting icefloes; it shows us the long incidents of townspeople acting out cruelty, brutality, killing day in and day out. Black people watching this today will not be fooled that they have full permanent voting rights; this movie tells us at what cost what progress has been made was done. Until near the end the occasional intertwining of real footage (from TV) and voices and photographs (Carter, Jesse Jackson) worked very well.

And until near the end, the tone is (paradoxically) light; most of the time the characters are in domestic situations or quiet social events.

The plot-structure once Cecil gets his job at the white house, follows the drama of the conflicts between Cecil (marvelous delicate performance by Forest Whitaker), his wife, Gloria, a just perfect performance by Oprah Winfrey: I was taken by every facet of it, from her outfits (she does remove her wig at one point), to her anger, to her devotion,

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Sending a son to a traditional black college in Tennessee (Cecil would have preferred Howard University)

to her sense of humor, drinking, smoking, having an affair at one point.

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I’m now awaiting a star role for her in another movie and the obligatory Oscar. Then their oldest son, Louis: once again David Oyelowo delivers a deeply felt convincing in-depth presence (I’ve now seen him in Small Island, Five Full Days, Lincoln). Central to the film is Louis’s idealistic rebellion which his father cannot understand as he sees Louis’s behavior as risky and useless:

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The father and older son

A younger son, Charlies (Isaac White) identifies as American and volunteers to go to Vietnam and dies.

I felt passionately for Louis, exhilarated by Oprah-Gloria and really identified with Cecil during his endurance of invisibility, stigma, low pay (and insults saying to go away if you don’t like it or want decent pay), no promotion and whatever you do (until near the end of the movie) you can trust no one to respect you for your years of work, as a nobody nothing you do counts. What is this but the adjunct’s life I endured for decades. This is not the first time I’ve identified as a black person. Whitaker as Cecil is continually snubbed. He is told early on by Vanessa Redgrave (as the mother of the crazed man who rapes Cecil’s mother and murders his father) as “house nigger” behave as if the space you are in is empty. Every once in a while he breaks code: he attempts to say something consoling to Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of Kennedy: she cries on and then gets up and goes out as if Cecil were not there.

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Long hours

If you saw Lincoln, make this film its companion in your memory.

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Worthwhile reviews: David Denby in the New Yorker; A. O. Scott of the New York Times (yes it’s exuberant; marvelous dancing sequences in black American style); Ben Sachs on it as anti-Gump; Steve Boon for Roger Ebert.

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At a family celebration which ends in passionate quarreling

No women critics reviewed this film. So: I cried all the way home because I identified with Oprah as the butler’s wife and so envied her her kind protective hard-working long-lived (!) butler husband who she thanks near the end for taking care of her all these years. Oprah I can see appeals to a certain segment of black women and yet can make a direct appeal to lower middle whites too.

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The point of view on home life, its emergence as central to the story is a woman’s point of view. Not for nothing was Oprah one of the film’s producers.

Ellen

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Marquis of Steyne (Gerard Murphy) the one strong man in the film who sees through Becky (Natasha Little) as a liar, thief but wants her intensely (1998 BBC/A&E Vanity Fair, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Marc Munden)

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The Marquis of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) propositions Becky (Reese Witherspoon), played for comedy (2004 Focus Vanity Fair, directed Mira Nair, scripted Julian Fellowes)

the Dobbin figure, though apparently clumsy, yet dances in a very amusing and natural manner: the Little Boys’ Dance has been liked by some and please to remark the richly-dressed figure of the Wicked Nobleman, on which no expense has been spared — the Manager

Dear friends and readers,

I recently re-watched Andrew Davies’s magnificent film adaptation of Wm Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and felt I had walked into a terrain shared by Anthony Trollope & Thackeray too. In Davies’s depiction of the male characters in Vanity Fair he makes visible what drew Trollope to Thackeray and where Trollope’s texts resemble Thackeray’s. So much criticism and ordinary reader commentary concentrates on Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley This criticism marginalizes a large group of characters by Thackeray given equal importance: Dobbin, George Osborne and his father; Joseph Sedley and his and Amelia’s father; Rawdon and Rawdon’s son (made more important in all the movies), the Marquis of Steyne; the older and younger Pitt Crawleys, not to omit Becky’s memories of her drawing master alcoholic father (and how no one else forgets such a man was her father).

I began to realize how in his Thackeray, Trollope’s perspective on Thackeray derived from how Trollope was consciously looking at Thackeray from the point of view of his success as a novelist and more generally as a man: Trollope had in mind criteria of masculinity and what makes a man admired. Trollope measured Thackeray from the point of view of the man’s career and unlucky marriage. In the sections in Thackeray on Thackeray’s novels Trollope shows a fascination with Thackeray’s strong women (Rachel and Beatrice as well) and ethical men. Thackeray’s is a strongly gendered fiction as is Trollope’s and Davies strongly gendered films.

Strong women, weak men — a development of this kind of contrast is central to Davies’s films, Thackeray’s VF and Henry Esmond, and some of Trollope’s novels, but especially He Knew He Was Right, one of the two Trollope novels that Davies has chosen to do, and the choice is highly unusual because of the explicitness of the theme of the partly despised because anguished male. I’d been reading Trollope steadily once again for months now, criticism, writing papers & proposals, and watching Davies’s movies. A couple of months ago I returned to Thackeray through Trollope’s literary life of him, and feel that it was Trollope’s life of Thackeray enables me to see a shared territory between the three of them in a nervous exploration of real men’s lives and psyches against what is expected of them.

The blog is about how one can see the convergence of Thackeray and Trollope’s points of view in the way Davies adapts them. As I’ve gone over these themes in other blogs on Trollope, I’ll concentrate on Vanity Fair here, one where the exploration of masculinity’s ordeals and losses is insufficiently emphasized, especially given how prevalent it is in the book & films.

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First shots & male: POV child Becky looking at her sick, impoverished dying drawing master father (1998 BBC/A&E Vanity Fair, scripted Davies)

So, memory too a bitter desire for revenge may be part of Becky’s motives in Davies’s film, brought out as partial explanation for her coldness; but its source for Davies is her relationship with her father which Davies’s film begins with. This father is referred to many times in the film adaptation as that which in her background makes her unacceptable: Thackeray did make her a daughter of a drawing master and everyone refers to it at some poit. Who was her grandfather? In the film Becky’s memory is this picture. She’s getting back.

The young men are tied to and dependent on the women in this book and film:

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George Osborne (Tom Ward) about to collapse into Amelia (Emmy’s) arms the night before Waterloo (Davies’s VF)

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Lady Jane (Sylvestre le Touzel tells young Pitt she’ll leave him if he allows Rebecca to be part of their lives again (Davies’ VF)

Older men are part of the continuum. An unexpectedly powerful thread in the story-line of Davies’s film is a contrast between the anguished failure of Amelia’s father and the seething loneliness and self-hatred of George Osborne’s father in his scenes first with his son, then bullying his daughter, and then trying to reach his grandson (hopelessly) through drink:

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Grief striken Mr Osborne (Tim Woodward) with his grandson (Davies’ VF)

The depiction of Mr Osborne is extensive: his grief for his son George and his mis-bringing up his grandson — he is but a child and cannot drink with his grandfather the way the son did.

Thackeray gave Davies’s the trajectory of the abject Dobbin finally at the close realizing he’d wasted his life in worship of a small foolish woman too late:

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Philip Glenister brilliant in the part (Davies’ VF)

Where Thackeray neglected a potentially tragic male, Davies built the character up: Davies gives us Rawdon and Becky’s courtship, Rawdon’s becoming subject to Becky, sharing, giving his all, trusting her naively (while not naive in any other area of his life), then gradually awakening to her coldness (to his boy) and unconcern for him. Rawdon cries. His becomes the moving story of the movie:
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Rawdon (Nathaniel Parker) looking at her, saying I gave you all (Davies’ VF)

In a sense he dies of the loss (escape is his solution, but Coventry is a death sentence) giving the boy to Lady Jane who not having a child of her own, ironically the boy Rawdon becomes the owner of the estate

The accent is on heterosexual males except perhaps Joseph Sedley who modern critics tend to turn into the book’s closet (or unaware) homosexual, his debonair plumpness and lack of military prowess and woman companion inviting this.

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The awkward Joseph (Jeremy Swift), the films first shot (Davies’ VF)

Some critics go so far as to suggest it’s not Dobbin or George Osborne Thackeray has put part of himself in, but Joseph Sedley with his love of gourmet eating too. At any rate, the sexual angle in Davies’s Vanity Fair brings home the vulnerability of males to female sexuality; the males whatever their orientation are presented as enthralled and subject to women again and again, even where it’s not admitted or maybe especially.

Characters degraded, debased, become, however sordid and ugly, poignant in their vulnerability to loneliness: thus the aging Pitt (David Bradley) whose children by his 2nd wife Becky first becomes governess to and is a harsh semi-grotesque character is pitiable when we last see him and he’s lost Becky:

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Old man (David Bradley) lonely at desk (Davies’s VF)

Nair and Fellowes pick up the depiction of comic lechers in Thackeray as shattered pitiable. Davies gives Steyne insight into Becky’s lies, thievery, ridiculous veneration of ribbons and the highest-ranking people.

In my paper Trollope’s “Comfort Romances for Men” I argued Trollope was developing an unconventional portrait of manliness out of identification and concern; last week I came across similar approaches to a continuum of males in Trollope: from Gordon Ray and Peter Shillingsburg to Joseph Litvak (Strange Gourmets); I’ve been aware for a long time how Davies’s key identifications are with the non-macho transgressive males, the inept and inadequate, the Oedipal struggle, gay men. This is not the first time Davies has made me aware of an underlying stratem in work no one ever wrote about before.

I know that Davies changes the story. For his exploration of masculinity I’d call it (the term would be manliness in Victorian times), the story of Rawdon and Becky’s relationship is much extended and show more centrally — to the point that when Rawdon is rowed away to Coventry (and we know death), the series seemed to suddenly collapse for a moment or so; we had reached its natural ending. Davies though picks up strong with the reappearance of Dobbin and bringing Emmy centrally onto the stage, and again he has changed the story as it’s not until very late in the book that Emmy realizes the piano was from Dobbin. The way Davies at first shows them as clearly a pair after Dobbin returns from India, with Emmy appearing to fall in love with Dobbin is not in Thackeray

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Dobbin (Glenister) given more dignity by having Emmy (Frances Grey) in love with him and her boy look up to him in Pumpernickel (Davies’ VF)

so that in the film adaptation Dobbin gets two powerful scenes of her betrayal while (if I’m remembering right) there is but one in the book, and Dobbin’s disillusion is omitted except that the words used in his second betrayal are about how she is not worth his devotion much more emphatically. The men’s bullying their wives is given full play — the way men treated women in the 1820s. Admittedly this is not in Trollope except late in his career (it’s in The Way We Live Now but early books has women liable to bully men) — that’s a real part of Thackeray’s and Davies’s feminism.

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Steyne terrorizing his otherwise snobbish aristocratic wife by implicitly threatening to tear her ear with her earring (Davies’ VF)

Gambling and cheating (in all its aspects) are elements in the build up of perverted men, destroyed men (by the system they live in). Gentlemen must not work and when disinherited are simply without funds to carry on because they must inherit money as gentlemen or are businessmen, but they must not fail as Mr Sedley (David Ross) did:

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His mind shattered, he clings to rolls of paper

This would have been George Osborne’s case had he lived. The woman are oddly not destroyed and remain strong psychologically — that is very much Davies, I am not sure about Thackeray not having read him enough but do remember how strong Beatrice was in Henry Esmond and something I read by Sutherland suggests the strong woman who is amoral and yet a heroine is what struck Thackeray’s contemporaries.

Gambling is bisexual in the sense that Rawdon acts with Becky until she goes too far and betrays him — and that life’s a gamble in the book.

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First shot of Becky and Rawdon married — she’s counting up his winnings (Davies’ VF)

Davies shows how Rawdon allows himself to be corrupted and is cheating for Becky for years; but Becky has been stealing since she first left Miss Pinkerton’s and the stash of jewels found by Rawdon are many years in the making. This is re-emphasized in the coach when Lady Jane recognizes Becky’s super expensive shawl as a shawl that was in Queen’s Crawley years ago and has (she now realizes) gone missing. Becky does gamble to live by the end.

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I have meant this blog to be about a convergence of themes in Trollope, Thackeray and Davies, so some areas I’ve not looked into as yet: for example Thackeray’s distaste for snobbery that Davies shares but Trollope defends. Seen in the light of depiction of problems of masculinities, its false materialistic values, “snobbery” destroys people — ethically too. Thackeray shows us how sentimental folk turn away from financially ruined snobs especially.

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Davies’s Melmotte’s (David Suchet) downfall: he wanted to be an English gentleman: part 2 of film opens with dumb show of him having himself painted with a gun, dog, and backdrop of country house and curtain (2001 TWWLN, scripted Davies, directed Diarmuid Lawrence

Another is the characters’ urge to find a high status as a gentleman and the demands this elite image makes. Robin Gilmour’s 1981 book, *The Idea of the Gentleman in the Victorian Novel*, contains a long chapter on Thackeray’s gentlemen, focusing on the shift from dandyism and military glory to domesticity. It’s the kind of book summaries don’t help with as the insights are intricate to the argument and come fast and many over each page. The best review I could find was by Alexander Welsh, half of whose review is on Mark Girouard’s Idea of Chivalry.

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The nervous edgy violence of Jonathan Rhys Meyers captures this aspect of Osborne best (Nair’s VF)

Simon Raven’s book about the death of the ideal and type of gentlemen in the UK is relevant because Raven wrote the first The Way We Live Now script (1969), which I suspect Davies’s based his adaptation on — but I cannot get to see as I cannot travel to London this summer.

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Emily (Laura Fraser) and Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) fail to cope with the arch rake, Colonel Osborne (Bill Nighy) who knows just how to insinuate himself (2004 HKHWR, scripted Davies, directed Tom Vaughn)

I’ll close on parallel concerns with masculinity between Thackeray’s and Trollope’s books: He Knew He Was Right dwells on internal psychological intangible states as brought out in psycho-social dynamics, all shaped by sexuality, social norms and fears (especially male anxieties, ego needs), and money and power; The Way We Live Now an analysis of the larger forces of society as we see them enacted by individuals, not just prophetic of today, but enacting the same patterns we see today albeit different costumes.

Trollope’s attitudes emerge as closely similar through his paradigms and voice-presence. Davies of course saw this in his choice of the two and the ways he handled them, though his TWWLN reminds me of modern mini-series like the 1991-5 House of Cards, the modernity of his and Hooper’s Daniel Deronda and subversion of costume drama’s pieties in Davies’ Moll Flanders; HKHWR takes on some cheer and strong women from Plater’s Barchester Chronicles. Davies though specifically has his younger males, like Paul Montague, repudiates the model of the “mature” man marrying the girl (she forced into it) as tyrannical, egotistic, appetitive disgusting (so much for Plantagenet Palliser ….)

Davies in his one original novel, Getting Hurt, gives us a man as uncertain, anxious and shattered as Louis Trevelyan. And as lonely as Dobbin. Our aloneness another theme angled similarly in Trollope, Thackeray and Davies.

Ah! Vanitas Vanitatem! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied? — Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets for our play is played out — the Manager

Ellen

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George V (Samuel West) pushing Roosevelt’s (Bill Murray) wheelchair into the library where they can talk freely

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Same night, Daisy (Laura Linney) smoking freely by small cottage on the grounds of Hyde Park

Dear friends and readers,

Until I read the reviews which came out around the time this film was released, this past Christmas (yes I’m 7 months late, but then this is better than my usual 10-20 years), I was going to tell of how much I enjoyed the movie the first time I watched it around 1 in the morning so perhaps in the mood for a sort of odd “midsummer night’s dream” about real people escaping the world of day. Then how I grew to dislike it as I considered all it had left out about the importance, greatness, nobility of the finest, best president the US has ever had bar none, his decent associates, and listened to the tasteless and hypocritical voice-over commentary of the film-makers. And then how I reversed again upon third viewing, again at 1 in the morning (gentle reader it’s been so hot here), realizing its appeal lies is that it’s traditional costume drama of the BBC type done for film adaptations with a quirky difference. It is a genuine defense of unconventionality; of people with what’s called and in the case of Roosevelt certainly was after polio disabilities. Its center is a spinster with little ambition.

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Love-making in a flowered field — Daisy also begins to smoke in this scene

So, quirky, but not so much because of the female narrator whose marginalized kindly, apolitical, private point of view permeates the film: that’s par for the course in these sort of films. They often have such women only they are usually made beautiful and married by the end. The usual nostalgia there is (including the use of film taken from a historical picnic at the time which provides the film’s penultimate scene), alluring landscapes, wistful light music, the leisurely pace, the complex psychology of some of the characters, multi- and parallel stories. Rather it’s quirky because of its self-deprecating non-solemn or off-hand presentation of the unconventional, the disabled, women no one wants (but Roosevelt it seems), the usual slice of life angle from the upper class (Hyde Park house is a sort of Downton Abbey, with several extensive staffs, steward, butler, man to carry the president when needed), one presented so wryly and combined with an important political reconciliation (this was the first visit of an English king to an American president).

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Daisy and Missy (Elizabeth Marvel) as friends playing cards, fringe hangers-on — the happy ending

The quirkiness is also in presenting disabilities (a stutterer, cripple), spinsters (Missy LeLand is as much a spinster as Daisy Suckley), and an unconventional marriage (FDR and Eleanor’s) as not needing to be normalized. There is none of this heroic overcoming we had in King’s Speech, no great win as in Lincoln, the stuttering and bigotry (the butler is simply let go for not being willing to allow black men on his staff in the kitchen) and unromantic sexual habits go on.

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As in a novel the opening sentence is telling so in a movie the opening still: we begin and end with Daisy’s voice and here she is from the back answering a phone call to come help cheer the president

It was the second thought, the doubts I was going to emphasize. This is one of the cases where the over-voice commentary on the DVD is worse than a waste of time: Roger Michell and his buddies talked false hype: continual
self-regarding stories about “the stars,” silly stories about Roosevelt; if the film-makers understood anything of the film techniques they were using (which they surely did) it was the last thing they were going to discuss. What do they think people listen to commentaries for? To be given a commercial in disguise. And the feature was not a feature but a trailer, which like most trailers distorted and dumb-downed the movie to make it appeal to a larger audience many of whom would not like this movie. I was particularly offended with their salacious references to the “hand-job” Daisy is said to give FDR in the film, and thought they had handed the public a deliberately degrading and debased way of viewing the man responsible for the few social ameliorations US people enjoy today and whose laws until they were repealed controlled the rapacious banks.

I thought one typical remark in the commentary revealing. The film-maker apologized for cutting the scenes of Blake Ritson as Johnson (luxury casting here), the butler who refuses to work with black men whom Eleanor has hired.

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Scene filmed from odd angle, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), president’s mother (Elizabeth Wilson) faced by Johnson (Blake Ritson) and other staff, two black men from the back

He says it’s them or me. Eleanor says it’s you and Ritson as butler is fired. All cut — you can view it in the DVD’s deleted scenes. No explanation from Michell beyond how sorry he was to lose Ritson’s performance. This is a part of the lavish flattery of these features for all the people participating in the film and pretense of happy times for all doing the film seen together with no rivalry (it seems). I think they cut it because it lacked the semi-humor with which everything else was dramatized.

I know FDR was the greatest (best, most decent, unbeatable as to programs) president the US ever had (bar none), though I’ve never sat down and read a full-length book about FDR or Eleanor — only what essays have come my way in periodicals we get in the house. I’ve the highest respect for Eleanor — and feminist avante la lettre as to her expressed points of view — I’ve never even read her memoir which I’ve had in my house for donkey’s years. I don’t know which is the best and don’t know where to ask, and know what is written about him is so skewed — during his 4 terms (my father used to say) from the newspapers you’d think he was the most hated man in the US and each election it was presented as astounding that he’d won again and big. His one mistake (driven to it, partly by illness) was to give up Wallace as his vice-president in that last term. History might have been different. I’m telling myself I’ll find out the best book and get to that memoir. I’m no “Americanist” — just don’t read much American literature though most of the books as a child and young woman without trying were US authors and types. I do like American gothic.

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But then I read the reviews and realized the film was dissed as “imbecilic” and idiotic because it told the story from Daisy Suckley’s, an obscure woman’s point of view: Daisy has “a termite’s view of history” said one reviewer. Who could care about her? I love that it was as much a heroine’s movie as say Frances Ha or an Austen film.

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Daisy (Laura Linney) appealing to and FDR (Bill Murray) reciprocating affection

A film without great stirring events and resolutions offended reviewers: it wasn’t going anywhere, had no point (like Lincoln). (None of the adulterers is punished like Anna Karenina [another Xmas movie], except if you think being told that while FDR shared his estate with Missy he did not visit her in the hospital when she felt fatally ill.) Eleanor (who did keep a second house) looked dowdy! (but she did in life). Those who recognized the film’s genre complained about what was the point: its discomfort, the unease. I agree a sceptical harder view of who these individuals were and why they hooked up (more characters should have been individualized) would have improved it (see Peter Bradshaw) — there were more serpents in this garden than the disabilities never discussed.

There is something odd in this film, but no one asks what it is: why did Nelson choose the incident of the king and queen’s visits (he adds it onto Daisy’s diaries) to show Roosevelt’s astuteness and humanity? it’s not only singularly devoid of hard mean politicking, war enter only through the king’s pity for the children in Spain bombed out of existence, and it does focus on the most privileged pair in the UK, partly trivializing them too, though Elizabeth’s (Olivia Coleman) needling George (Samuel West) with pointed references to his more suave brother, Edward VIII (who vacated the throne) seemed not improbable. The film is explicitly, consciously a defense of keeping secret the private lives of these politicians – that can be used by conservatives to cover up the their personal uses of their offices, I see that, but ti also allowed a crippled man to be president greatly. Should people’s sex lives and vulnerabilities be exposed when its their economic and social ideologies that count? In this film the characters have freedom in private.

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Roosvelt catching himself with his hand

Its central scene is where the president comforts the king for his stuttering by showing himself lurching along a desk as a crippled man to reach his cigarettes. And its climax occurs when Daisy discovers the president is having an affair with Missy as well — in that cottage she thought he had set up for her. And how the two women then became close friends, buddies in a car together.

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So instead I will emphasize how the film does not enforce normalcy. How it shows people behave irrationally: that the British King should eat an American hot dog as a great symbolic act is silly, and yet that is what happens in life. How Daisy remained the spinster around the place, the president’s friend except to those in the know. Daisy’s point of view is good-natured, open, tolerant, caring about others (her aunt played by Eleanor Bron who also lurches) as she hopes to be cared for,

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and this wins me over.

As with The King’s Speech, I felt sorry for the king while his character played so adeptly and slightly comically by Samuel West is not paid enough attention to. He makes the film fun. I liked his jokes (lame as they were) when the poor servants dropped those trays heavy with dishes and food.

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And the performances were very good. My view of Laura Linney has changed: I’d hitherto only seen her enacting that godawful introduction to Masterpiece theater where she is dressed in a ludicrous trussed-up sexual way. Here she is a Fanny Price who gets to stay on, everyone’s confidante.

As one commenter said, it’s a fine summer romp that I recommend. A beautiful movie.

LauraLinneyasDaisySuckleyblog
The president asks Daisy how does she like the landscape; she says very well.

And then sit down and read a good book on FDR, Eleanor, Henry Wallace, the political, economic and social worlds of the later 1930s. Yes we would have learned more to have Frances Perkins in the film (and political associates of FDR), but that and Eleanor’s politics require a separate documentary or biopic. Due to some good talk on Trollope19thCStudies I’ve ordered Kirsten Downey’s book on Frances Perkins. Also Closest Companion: The Unknown Story of the Intimate Friendship Between Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Suckley, ed Geoffrey Ward — Daisy’s diaries and private papers (nowadays very cheap), and Hazel Rowley’s Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage (ditto).

Ellen

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CarryingherhomeSeason1Pt4blog
Ross Poldark (Robin Ellis) carries Demelza Carne (Angharad Rees) home to Nampara (1975-76 Poldark, Season 1)

Dear friends and readers,

This may be regarded as a postscript to my previous blog. I suddenly realized how ubiquitous and often part of an aftermath scene to a troubling crisis is the carrying motif. Loving, protective, strong and loyal male after male is seen emotionally moved and carrying a vulnerable hurt heroine, or child or animal, sometimes an older man, sometimes a close male friend. If the scene’s not in the original book (the above is not in Ross Poldark), then it is added on, invented — thus in the 2008 S&S Brandon carries Marianne home from Cleveland in the pouring rain (pouring rain another motif). “Young” Jollyon carries “Old” Jollyon’s dog, Balthazar who grieved and then died (presumably from old age as well as missing the old man) through the park both loved and walked together in.

This is a masculinity trope — it’s a test of a man’s masculinity whether he rises to the challenge and takes responsibility. It’s the subject of a study comparing the kind of sensitive strong man Gerard Depardieu once played (European ideal) and the abrasive strong man Robert DeNiro (American) once did.

I once did “the pouring rain” motif from such filmic art, but that blog is gone (attacked by a virus).

Another motif was pointed out to me this morning on my Historical Fiction & Film adaptations listserv: one woman dressing up in the clothes of another, preferably the first woman from a previous era.

Ellen

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