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SmithKline
Kevin Kline as Matthias Gold and Maggie Smith, Matilde Girard (no she is not his mother after all) in My Old Lady 2014)

Have you ever listened
to the steps of your mother
walking around the whole house
during the night

    without putting the lights on,
    knowing her way in the dark by heart,
    quite quietly,
    step by step,
    as drop by drop
    from a leaking roof?

How she runs her fingers on the walls,
to make out the features
of her past life,
turned into a house.
Blaga Dimitrova, trans. Ludmilla Popova-Wightman, from poems to her mother, Scars

Dear friends and readers,

I went to see this film because after having been told by one of the three students left in my gothic class “don’t miss it, Ellen, I loved it,” and noticing it was play in only one theater in all my area, and that the theater which specializes in good unusual films because there is no parking around it, except maybe weekday mornings (Shirlington); after noticing all this, I say, I saw the author, director, and part producer is Israel Horovitz. Well Jim and I used to know him: Israel was enrolled in the Ph.D. program in English at the Graduate Center while I was there. I remember Jim talking to him, then telling me “we must see The Line” (we never did, nor Indian Joe wants the Bronx). I knew Israel was a gifted dramatist. As the film came to its close, I thought to myself, Jim would have said, “it’s okay, a win.” He’d have liked the movie as a whole.

It’s the story of Matthias, a sad man just over 57 who has nothing, no money, no friends, no career, but whose father has left him a large old beautiful house and garden in one of the more exquisitely preserved neighborhoods of Paris — part of the pleasure of the film is these streets, the bridges, the waters, the houses, furniture, all we see. Twice Jim rented an apartment for us and Izzy in just such a courtyard in Paris.

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Matthias arrives from NYC to find his father’s aging mistress, Mathilde Girard, living there with the right to stay until she dies and to be paid 2400 Euros a month by the house’s owner (by French law). She has living with her, a daughter, Chloe, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, an English teacher, who we gradually come to see is as lost as to any joy in her life, or hope for something she finds sustaining to do, as he is. She is more than irritated by Matthias’s presence and the threat he represents (he wants to sell the place to a developer); she is angry

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It was originally a stage play, and the characters emerge through their talk, with the sets (albeit real places) used symbolically,

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A cultured boathouse (filled with books) on the Seine

The gradually compelling interest is the unfolding of these three characters’ pasts, especially that of aging old woman, Matilde, who puts on quite a performance as a woman of the world, all savoir faire, adjusted to all the hard truths of life, as she spends her last years in a civilized pattern of dining, drinking, reading, teaching too (young French adults to read English. specifically James Joyce), all equability. Maggie does not break down quite as far as both Kline and Thomas (I feel impelled to use their real names somehow) as they all slowly make out the features of their painful shared pasts to one another — Matthias’s mother killed herself after years of living marginalized while her husband was the faithful lover and companion of Matilde; Chloe could be the daughter of Matthias’s father and not her mother’s husband who lived not far from the house most discreetly (and mostly broke). Matilde insists her long life with Mattias’s father was a deeply happy and fulfilled one, that he was a kind, generous, tactful, loving man. Well not to me, declares Matthias. Matilde would prefer him to believe his miserable state at this point is all his fault (for being an egoistic depressive you see). Confronted with Chloe’s suddenly open feelings of how her legitimate father hated her (discreetly of course), and how Chloe has given up her life to her mother by living with her (I never asked you to, replies Matilde), Matilde has nothing to offer as compensation — except life itself. That she says is enough.

As I watched I felt that Horovitz was examining and releasing his own self-doubt, rage, hurt, and using the desperate attempts of Matthias to re-establish himself (he visits antique shops with furniture taken from the house to sell it) as part of a quiet reflection of the middle years of his life — Matthias it emerges is a failed American playright, has endured divorces too many. Chloe is reactive (during the course of the film she breaks off a long standing affair she had been having with a married man with two children and a grandchild to boot). Each of them finds old photos and brings them out to show the others. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, taking down his bundle to open and going over the things in it. There is something “old Woody-Allenish” about this film; Horovitz in this first film (he’s 75) is much influenced by Woody Allen.

Kline has the most lines, Thomas the strong sudden movements, but Smith has more presence than either. At one point she forces herself up the stairs (the first time in years it seems) to find and comfort her daughter, to take back something she has said, the walk itself bringing to mind her journey. She ends up dominating the film. We feel for her as she holds on to her cherished memories, with more effort we begin to see than she’s showing (a quiet moment shows her reading in bed, tiring, and as she falls asleep to the side, Thomas coming in and taking off her glasses, covering her). Yes, she says, she lies (a lot). Her dignity is a daily act that keeps her going.

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It does fall off at the close, a “pat denouement” Glenn Kenny calls it. Of course Mattias and Chloe turn to one another, become lovers and we are in a romance; when it seems possibly they are half-brother-sister, Matilde is still unperturbed: what’s the harm (both past breeding), if you find happiness …, the film punts, and we are shown Kline collecting some DNA results from Matilde’s doctor to show Chloe is after all not his half-sister: her legitimate was her biological father. Happily this part of the film is short. The point is everyone’s better instincts are brought forth, and Mattias decides not to sell, and to stay, Chloe to cooperate, and all may build a life here among the flower beds near the Seine — where people sing songs from Mozart’s Don Giovanni as they walk.

The good and genuinely moral message of the film is give of yourself, forgive others, keep with them if they will have you and are themselves good people (not destroyers) and stay alive. The real problem may be seen by contrasting it with Allen’s better films. My Old Lady needed to be funnier. There is not enough self-irony, not enough distance nor reaching out to the audience. Delpy did that in her imitation of Allen set in Paris: reached out. Horovitz is too guarded.

The reviews have not been generous. Not enough insight into themselves is brought out; this is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (with Burton, Taylor, Sondra Dee tearing themselves and one another truly apart). It’s gentle, like the effective background music. (One person near me stayed through all the credits, not to see the surprise comic last scenes interpersed, but learn who sung which songs.)

As a light comic play taking a deep plunge below the surface of what has been now and again turned into a grave movie, My Old Lady will yield some analogies and parallels, like the one I find in the poetry of Dimitrova characterizing her mother. This room here had some splendid parties, that there we ate and read in, over there we played the piano … such are some of the lines Matilde murmurs and speaks aloud now and again

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Ellen

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

Exploring the Gothic

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

Description of Course:

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

Schedule:

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

Texts:

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

Online short stories:

R.L. Stevenson, “Markheim”  

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

Edith Wharton, “Afterward”

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

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

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

Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House”

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

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Abbey Grange”

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

Edith Wharton, “Kerfol”

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

R.L. Stevenson, “The Body Snatchers”

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

Edith Wharton, “Mr Jones”

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

Sheridan LeFanu, “Carmilla”

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

Margaret Oliphant, “The Open Door”

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

Charles Dickens, “The Signalman”

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

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

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

A.M. Burrage, “Smee”

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

Ambrose Bierce, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

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

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

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

Ellen

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

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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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George dreaming over travel literature

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

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

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

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

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

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Henry Travers as Clarence listening to George

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sophie and Stanley discuss nature of existence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Macauley (Mike) Connor (Jimmy Stewart) carrying the drunken Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) back from mid-night time at pool, encountering her nearly divorced husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and soon-to-be-husband, George Kittredge (John Howard) (Philadelphia Story, 1940)

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Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) bullying into bewildered madness the anxiety-ridden Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) (Gaslight, 1944)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been watching, reading about, and contextualizing George Cukor films with other films by him, other films in the same genre over the past week and a half. I’ve read Gavin Lambert’s On Cukor: filled with remarkable stills, photos and interviews of Cukor. He was a brilliant film-maker, really an elegant controller of a camera, a man who could form an archetypal image or picture on film and build a story from this. I especially much enjoyed and laughed at, was moved by his screwball comedy-romance, Philadelphia Story,

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Tracy looking at Dexter’s handmade replica of the boat they had their first loving honeymoon on

and found his psychological gothic, Gaslight, which conforms to the Bluebeard female gothic type, as subtle and grippingly worrying until near its end as Robert Wise’s later heart-terrifying Haunting (1960). No technological gadgetry or overproduction, nothing wildly theatrical, no bodily taboos broken, yet Gaslight similarly gets to the attentive viewer where he or she lives — until its last 20 minutes or so.

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Scenes in quiet greys of gaslight pull the viewer in, symbolic of this haze the husband surrounds the wife with.

I assume the storylines of both are familiar to my readers (if not, see Philadelphia Story; Gaslight). So let me cut to the chase, as with Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, far from agreeing with the book I’m reviewing that the greatness of these films partly stems from the coping with the repressive Hays code, I felt the Hays Code only codified and strengthened some of the troubling aspects of the screwball comedy, and hopelessly enfeebled the conclusion of the gothic.

Philadelphia Story resembles Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (as well as the very early screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, also with Cary Grant, but this time the errant wife is Irene Dunne). Its crucial turning point is a scene of possible sexual intercourse off screen which (as in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) our heroine cannot remember because she was too drunk; sometimes it’s insinuated she and Connor (your brash but literate newspaper man) had full sexual intercourse by poolside, but sometimes not and at the close Connor says there are rules and limits to what a man can do with reference to her drunken state (which is supposed to imply to have had full sexual intercourse would have been a rape, as it was in case of Betty Hutton as Trudy Kockenlocker).

In Miracle of Morgan’s Creek we never learn who the man was — the erasure of a specific identity robs the function of an imagined presence so we end up feeling most decent men would never rape a drunken woman (the indecency here is felt in the cowardly man not coming forward at all; he took advantage and fled). But even if we go with Stewart’s sincerely-uttered explanation, Tracy proceeds to apologize: she apologizes to both ex-husband and husband-about-to-be, to Connor, and to her father for giving him a hard time when he was merely having a long-time affair with a Broadway dancer-star. When the father comes home for the wedding (to which Tracy did not invite him), her mother does not seem to have minded either his continued adultery or absence enough to separate herself from him. All all Tracy’s fault: she is told off by Dexter especially for her coldness, for imagining herself a goddess (and thus above all others, she should do like them), for being a spinster (this is a low blow in the film). (Trudy also apologizes to Norval, her father, and whoever else is around.)

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Tracy telling her mother Margaret (Mary Nash) and sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) they will not have her father at the wedding

It didn’t help Philadelphia Story to obscure the central incident; it would have been more effective if we could have known for sure that sexual intercourse happened with the third man or not. I don’t see that making the woman character drunk both times added to my pleasure or promoted anything meaningful for women except that the films accepted women being drunk or not just they accepted men – there was no special angry prejudice against women such as I’ve observed too often. I have discovered that not all screwball or romantic comedies of the 1940s have a heroine apologize or go through a humiliation ritual. Arguably Barbara Stanwyk in The Lady Eve (Sturges) does not; at the close of The Awful Truth Irene Dunne does not apologize, but then Cary Grant is not asked to account for his week away which we know he lied about while Irene Dunne is.

The acting of the principals in The Philadelphia Story overcomes the worst thing about all these screwball comedies done under the Hays Code: a superficiality in the relationship between men and women. By having the characters people who were once married, that endows them with an automatic depth knowledge of one another but nothing we see in most of these gives them any depth of feeling. The lack of honest sexual feeling is central to this. Grant and Hepburn give the pair real emotion by having him insult her for not having enough feeling; Grant and Stewart use the class issues between them (he is supposed lower class, though it turns out of course he really is middle) and he is made an author she reads. But the others I’ve watched, and especially the more recent of the type, Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper never give any sense of feeling over his having a liaison and her love for him remains girlish, sentimental.

The ending of a film matters (no matter how much David Lean famously downplays that). People who want to trivialize, scoff at and use Thelma and Louise as yet another warning lesson for women, use the ending in suicide — for that’s what it is practically speaking. See what happens to women like that. (Thelma and Louise is another movie where one heroine’s experience of rape and the attempted rape of the other is hardly mentioned.) At any rate by the end of Philadelphia Story, Katherine Hepburn as Tracy is parroting all that Cary Grant as Dexter says and is now his obedient grateful wife (Taming of the Shew anyone?). Dexter monitors Tracy’s activities throughout. The relationship between the two is not much different than that between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Cukor’s 1950s Adam’s Rib.

monitoring

There are some continuities between Philadelphia Story and very recent films worth noticing: the lawyer type in all three movies (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, The Awful Truth, and The Philadelphia Story) resembles Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad; an unscrupulous shyster who we don’t fear because when push comes to shove he’s a coward (not favorable at all). This is probably the way most Americans accept the way lawyers are shown in mass media. It’s utterly inadequate, if it was not tragic (as lawyers are so important) it’s pathetic. Tracy’s uncle ( we are supposed to laugh and find this funny) enjoys pinching Hepburn’s behind – the way the uncle did in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Philadelphia Story have a wry younger sister who speaks a few home truths; again her role reminds me of the vestigial Margaret in Austen’s S&S

It’s said that Cukor made women’s films, he was a woman director in disguise. He once made a film which had no men actors in it, The Women, and I remember it as excellent — feminist and yet with a fashion show because for women looks matter in our world. He himself disliked this label and said it was not true. I’d like to agree with him, and say while he had a number of strong-women actresses play ove and over again in his films, the strongest effectively subversive and comic presence across all the screwball comedies is Cary Grant. He could deliver a line that undercut whatever piety was going, lightly, suggestively, effectively.

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Anthony John, the aging actor (Ronald Colman) and his mistress, Pat Kroll whom he kills (Shelley Winters) (A Double Life, 1947): also a film where the central character seems half-insane

Gaslight is much less a studio product. It’s is based on a play; its script is literate and fine the way Philadelphia story is. But unlike Philadelphia Story until near the end when the Hays code kicks in, it does not fit into preconceived genres in the way most of Cukor films finally do — from Little Women to Lost Horizon, the ending must be uplifting, optimistic, providential. The Double Life, a film noir re-make in modern terms of Othello featuring Ronald Colman which comes closest to Gaslight in its unnerving feel suffers very badly by its redemptive ending. (All these I’ve watched before and rewatched these past couple of weeks.) Cukor could not be the auteur in his films for most of his life: later films, especially when aspects of the story reflected Cukor’s own internal story of himself, say A Star is Born, escaped this stifling.

For Gaslight is not a horror (monster) movie, it’s not a thriller either. Cukor was evolving the modern film gothic (seen best in ghost stories turned into films): psychologically disquieting and suspenseful. Cukor manages to make you fear for the wife who is being closed in, driven, quietly slowly bullied into continual isolation and humiliation, and persuaded she is mad. The sets, the lighting, the quiet dialogues, the use of servants to thwart Paula are all discreetly done, repetitive, crowded. She is crowded out.

Gaslightsetting

A young Angela Lansbury as a sexy hostile London cockney maid sides with the master and frustrates the old-world courtesy of Paula. The film does capture what a man in charge of a woman can do to her — cultures where the woman is under the control of someone.

The film’s power is then choked off. In no time at all, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton) who knew the Paula’s aunt and somehow works for Scotland yard (though he has an American accent) is able to track Anton in Anton’s nightly treks up to his own attic to terrify his wife, to reach the wife while Anton is in said attic, convince her, and then easily capture, tie up and take Anton away. Ingrid Bergman as Paula gets to torment Boyer as Anton for a few moments, and holds a knife to his head, but her jeering is lame and her act tame.

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And as the film closes the neighborly like lady (Dame May Whitty) who comforted Ingrid on the train and while she enjoys reading about bloodthirsty people, believes all is fine with the world and police can and so solve everything, is seen coming to visit Ingrid again. Cukor’s little joke?

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In talking of Gaslight, Cukor said that its style came out of its story, a near murder “in a Victorian house.” He meant to make it “claustrophobic” and stir up emotion. He again says he followed the Van Druten script and tried to erase himself. If he had been allowed to take the logic of the story of a woman made a hostage to its conclusion, how great the film would have been.

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I honestly would prefer to like, to revel in these early much-praised films, but I find they grate. I watched as much as I could stand of My Man Godfrey (1936 version). I can see why William Powell stood out: he is a genuinely sardonic presence as a hobo turned into a butler for the amusement of a super-rich family who are presented (naively) as simply frivolous and naive, idle, doing nothing (including not much harm if you don’t ask how the expensive parties with their luxuriously dressed guests got there). I find I can’t take watching the supposedly elegantly mannered somewhat effete matinee idol type men and fat-cat salacious but somehow bullied older men by their fat stupid wives, with the heroines looking adoringly at the hero: I hadn’t realized how much Jean Arthur does just that, much to my surprise — from my favorite 1942 Talk of the Town to Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr Smith Goes to Washington which fits the type except for Jimmy Stewart’s agonized face now and again).

Cukor claimed that what irreparably weakened The Double Life was Colman lacked a sense of the demonic. I find the older films only reach this when they are made in Europe and left to be expressionistic of trauma and cynicism. The Hays Code clamped down on these but nowadays American films often flounder still when it comes to the gothic and are crassly melodramatic, over-produced with much bodily horror (e.g., Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Ironically (or perhaps in character) the US films which have been able to project the darker prevailing ironies and metaphysics of American culture are the gangster to modern melodramatic crime films, from James Cagney’s psychopathic killer in White Heat (unforgettable, his bullying of Virginia Mayo, and his blowing himself upk, “Top of the World, ma”) to last year’s Breaking Bad. Cukor does not seem to have made this kind of film at all. From On Cukor he seems to have been too sensitive (and oddly) too self-effacing a man.

He is said not to be identified or remembered enough because he did not develop a single style you could trace throughout his films. He couldn’t — he had too many constraints. He also wanted to contain a lot, so I chose this photo as capturing that ideal.

cukor (in 1945)

Ellen

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Mr Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) in final shots of the season

Shot of older man’s bare feet in water
Mrs Hughes: ‘Come on, I dare ya.’
Mr Carson: ‘If I get my trousers wet … ‘
She: ‘If you get them wet, we’ll dry them …’
He: ‘Suppose I get them wet …’
She: “Suppose a bomb goes off, suppose you get hit by a falling star — you can hold my hand then we’ll go in together …’
He: ‘I think I will hold your hand, it’ll make me feel a bit steady … ‘
She: ‘You can always hold my hand if you need to feel steady …’
He: ‘I don’t know how but you manage to make that sound a little risqué …’
Hands held out, and grasping. She laughs good-naturedly …
She: ‘And if it did, we’re getting on Mr Carson, you and I, we can afford to live a little …
Medium-length shots of them going wading in together from the back …

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Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) let know by Tim Drew [Andrew Scarborough] he knews who’s this little girl is and will take full responsibility for the needed lies:

Drew: ‘I tell you what I think? It should be our secret, milady, our secret ours and no one else’s. I’ll … uh… send a letter to myself and tell Margie [his wife] it’s from an old friend of mine that’s died who asked for me to take the child. She won’t question it; then nobody but you and I will know … ‘
Edith: Mr Drew, would you do that for me …’
He: ‘For you and the little girl milady yes …
She: ‘How comforting it is that there are a few good people left in the world’ –

Dear friends and readers,

Of the four codas thus far this was the weakest yet had the most beautiful moments and witty dialogues. I too thought of the marvelous song, “By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea, you and I, you and I oh how happy we’ll be …” and felt the Granthams really ought to get themselves more than one tenant as they have done so well in choosing this nobly hard-working one.

The weaknesses are serious. The central idea of the episode was to make us rejoice in Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James’s) debut in society, her presentation to the king, queen, prince, whose Edmund Burke-like meaning enunciated by none other than our most faithful liberal, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton):

‘It came to me that these balls and presentations and comings out are not aristocratic folderol, but the traditions by which members of this family mark their progress through life … ‘

Thus that Rose carries on being unbelievable in her child-like behavior, depicted shallowly when she is told something real about life — as when her friend, Madeleine Allsop (Poppy Drayton) hints to Rose that Madeleine’s father, Lord Aysgarth (James Fox) is a debauched roué on the scent for money — and she giggles, astonished someone could be this way, just doesn’t cut it for the needed gravitas.

Except when for a short time Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) showed depth of feeling as a mother, grieved bitterly over her daughter’s death (and rightly) implicated her husband as at major fault, this second key character reveals a Fellowes’s lack of engagement with her. She really shows an astonishing lack of curiosity or insight into Edith’s long disappearance. It’s not believable — Fellowes can’t be bothered because making her understood would involved a deeply conflicted story. Cora has also shown no anger when her self-proclaimed “monarchist” husband lost all her money; this way Fellowes could have her do nothing herself about it: had it not been for that money, the Abbey would have been lost decades ago; mis-invested since by this same husband in railways, it was Matthew’s unexpected inheritance from Lavinia’s father (which we are reminded of in this finale) which has kept the building as shelter for a luxurious leisured way of life for the Crawleys. None of which Cora appears to register.

Fellowes wants us to believe her effective; her realm is making parties (luncheons, charity picnics, balls) so structurally necessary for the mini-series; no wonder everyone over-congratulates her upon these — But without the really able Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) Cora would not succeed at all — and in this episode we are shown that the real strength Cora depends upon is the unacknowledged Daisy (Sophie McShea), the power and great cook enabling Mrs Patmore, who, as she tells her fleeting suitor, Mr Levinson’s valet, Ethan Slade (Michael Benz) is “never excited.”

Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) is not much better. He really believes Bates (Brendon Coyle) when Bates says he has (implied) another man ready to forge what’s needed. He somewhat hysterically blames the Crawley family for a near scandal involving the Prince of Wales, and stage-manages an ill-thought out attempt to steal back a love letter from Sampson by gaining access to Sampson’s room and ransacking it. As Bates tells ‘milord,’ if he were to have a precious document, he would not leave it about, but keep it close to him on his person, say his overcoat. We know Bates did just that with his train ticket to London, though why he kept it in the overcoat one minute longer than he needed to is a mystery of the same type as why Lady Grantham does not see immediately that Edith is going to Switzerland where ‘there are good hospitals’ to have a baby. Grantham also never suspects Edith, no matter how guiltily she talks in front of him (“Just remember I would never do anything to hurt you”).

As benignity is the tune that Lady Grantham’s effectiveness plays, so it is Lord Grantham’s tune, but that need not preclude giving them some cunning. Fellowes is again not engaging deeply enough with his character. The initial mistake was not to show that a lord of such a minor would be necessarily be a local politician to some extent, his house kept up as a linchpin of county networking — as are all Trollope’s comparable figures no matter how asocial they might be by nature (a number are) and Fellowes knows his Trollope novels very well. The ironic telling reason for their hollowness is Fellowes wants to justify such people: the “toffs” are not, as Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) tells Blake (Julian Overden), the villains of the world.

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At the gallery

Fellowes’s way of convincing us of this is to make them seem powerless.

And pace Edith’s words to Drew, this coda of a fourth season has a preponderance of good people left in the world: I counted three bad: Mr Green (Nigel Harman), rapist willing to strike again (not to worry, done away with); Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) whose spite, bitter resentment, bad-mouth snitching hardly has an objective correlative in his supposed insecurity; Terence Sampson (Patrick Alexander) who in this episode adds theft and intended blackmail to his card-cheating abilities.

Also number of weak or ill-advised, most notably in this episode, Lord Aysgarth (James Fox) trying to marry Mrs Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) as an exchange of money and title; Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) a kind of minor devil version of Barrow (“Thank you, Wat Tyler” says Mr Carson to him at one point); the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) played by Oliver Dimsdale as far feebler than he was

Dimsdale
Grinning when he thinks of Rose’s father, “Shrimpy” (stuck in the heat of India, another helpless aristocrat)

Then there’s that bad-advice giver, Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) who pressures Edith to give up her baby but clearly loves her (has spent months with her on the continent, watching her give birth, breast-feed her baby, wean it) and thinks she has done what’s best for all:

RosamundEdith
Rosamund appealing emotionally to her niece:

‘This is for the best if you’ll only keep silent; there’ll be other loves other children. Don’t cheat yourself of that I beg you … [you think] I don’t know then, trust me because I do …’

What saves the coda — and the series too — is the actual writing, the concision and suggestiveness of all the dialogues (which I quote from liberally here to demonstrate) and that all the rest of the characters are seen in depth, are well-meaning, reach out to one another, are not self-reliantly effective (win out) while in pain themselves.

To be “kind,” Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) informs Barrow Mr Molseley (Kevin Doyle) is to have “the advantage.” The series of scenes where the sensitive and intelligent Molseley protects Miss Baxter from Thomas includes this from Molslely:

I don’t know what Mr Barrow’s got over you and I don’t want to know; but you must’t let him do things that aren’t right, and you can’t let him bully you. That’s easy to say I know but if he draws you into his scehemes, that’s not going to be easy for you either. Sometimes it’s better to take a risk than go down the wrong path, that’s all

He’s already told her to trust to the views others are gaining of her: though viewer knows that Mrs Hughes is onto Miss Baxter’s over alert presence, Miss Baxter has betrayed no one. In their final moments as Molseley replaces Barrow by her side:

MissBaxterMolseley,

her words are:

Miss B: ‘I have to thank you, Mr Molseley.
Mr M: ‘Oh why’s that?”
She: ‘There are things in my past that made me afraid, but I’m not afraid any more. I’m not sure what will happen, but whatever it is, it’s better than being afraid. You’ve made m strong. Mr Molsley. Your strength has made me strong
He: ‘My what?’
She smiles

The parallel is to Edith who now has things in her past but by the end of the season is learning not to be afraid. Allen Leech as Tom Bransom almost retrieves his character. He is one of several characters who declare they are not ball-going, dancing types and declare at first they will not go to Lady Grantham’s ball after Rose’s presentation.

Tom is still exhibiting awkwardness and lack of confidence and self-esteem he has shown throughout this season, not least when he shows it’s the affection these people have shown to him that he has lapped up (of the museum-like library he says: ‘No it’s nice when everyone’s here and the fire’s going …’), especially with the schoolteacher, Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis) whom he likes, partly because she is as wry and disillusioned as he once professed himself (He to Lord Grantham: ‘We all live in a harsh world, but at least I know I do’): high on the balcony looking at the engraved designs for the family, she asks where Cora’s is and if it’s a dollar sign.

But like Molseley, he gives in and comes to London, even goes to the ball, and at the right moment he turns to a woman near him who he knows is herself in need of support and encourages Edith (the episode began with them walking and talking together). Edith has watched him dance with Lady Violet, the Dowager (Maggie Smith) after the Dowager had finally told him ‘These are your people; this is your family now,’ and he had said, ‘This may be my family, but not quite my people, and asked her to dance.

EdithandTom

Edith to Tom: ‘So did you enjoy it after all …
Tom: I enjoyed it fine, but we need to stand up to them, you and I. We may love them, but if we don’t fight our corner, they’ll roll us out flat
Edith: ‘You’re right, thank you for that …’

Edith then marches off to tell her obtuse mother she needs to take a trip to the continent, and her Aunt Rosamund that Rosamund cannot go for her. She brings her baby home. (One wonders if Tom knows …)

So in this coda the patriarchy is alive and sufficiently well that even less than respected strong males give important support and delight to strong but dependentconventional females. The scenes between Isobel Crawley and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) who is continually after Isobel to come to the ball, and when last seen is dancing with her are touching. He is bringing her out of her widowhood as surely as Rhett Butler once did Scarlett O’Hara:

IsobelMerton

Daisy refuses the indirect marriage proposal of Mr Levinson’s valet (he disguises it through persuading his boss to hire the English cook whose food has shattered Mr Levinson’s assumptions that all English cooking is inedible, but as she tells Mrs Patmore, ‘I’m that chuffed it’ll take me through to next summer,’ and for once is not jealous of Ivy but glad to see Ivy have her chance by asking if she might replace Daisy and go to America.

MotherDaughterpair

A mother-daughter pair will return for another season …

The most interesting of these alert complex males are Mr Bates and Mr Levinson — Paul Giamatti is magnificent as the uneasy uncomfortable Mr Levinson attracted to Aysgarth’s daughter. Their several gradually less awkward dialogues where she takes as an insult his open frank (meant to be American) cynicism about her and his motives are worth some study showing Fellowes’s subtlety when engaged with his characters and issues their clash of personalities bring out. This is a pair I hope is brought back next season as she has told him she will demand a commitment the kind of girl he has hitherto taken aboard his yacht did not:

LevinsonMadeleine

In an interview after the airing of this London season, Fellowes offered some insight into why Bates rivets us to the end:

So many women have had to conceal things that have happened to them, because if they reveal them, they went down, too. It was very important that it should be completely clear that it is not the victim’s fault at all. This was a chance to make the argument for the innocent rape victim who has done nothing to deserve it. And Anna, as either the most sympathetic character or certainly one of them, the audience could immediately grasp, she had done nothing to deserve to this. There is no sharing of guilt, no blurring of the edges of responsibility. Also, it created this mammoth thing that she and Bates had to get through, and Bates’s response is that he doesn’t love her less. He says himself, if anything he loves her more. What it has of course awakened is the kraken of rage in his belly.

Yes that’s it – and we’ve seen that deep rage against the order of the world, its injustices peep out here and there all along with evidence of sudden outbreaks over the “years” the show covers, from the time he invited Lord Crowborough (Charlie Fox) to search his drawers and room (Season 1, Episode 1), threatened Thomas at the throat (Episode 2) onto the clever doing away of Vera (Maria Doyle Kennedy), manipulating her reputation for spite into an apparent act of suicide, and his survival in prison. It’s he whose skill in forgery and pickpocketing saves the Prince of Wales (who of course thanks the wrong set of people as they run the ball). Bates knows part of his survival and thriving depends on his not being thanked — on his taking no credit. When his rage is stilled, he lives with what the world has allowed him:

BatesAnna

And in Downton Abbey terms, it’s not a little. Anna has been our real heroine for four years now, from the time she took a hot meal up to Mr Bates when he was about to be fired because too many of the other servants and the Crawleys could not flex for a disabled man, to when she married and bedded him in one quiet day and night to now when she is determined to protect him more than herself from all that Mr Green could do or cause to happen.

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is a cold performer in comparison. ‘Let the battle commence’ is the way once she learns that he is an aristocrat like she, she invites one of her men, Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden)] to woo her and win her over another, Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), a childhood sweetheart. Her ‘destiny’ is to save Downton Abbey for little George. Oh spare me.

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The princess leaves the set

I admit to being unable to see any act of hers as magnanimous (as I gather we are supposed to see her burning Bates’s London ticket that Mrs Hughes gives up to her); Blake’s first view of her is the more accurate: too privileged to understand her vulnerable humanity. Matthew never taught her that lesson either.

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The real question of that scene for me is why did Mrs Hughes give Lady Mary a chance to turn Bates in, as she, Mrs Hughes, has said all along he did the right thing. Fellowes leaves ambiguous whether Bates did murder Green; after all, as Mrs Hughes says to Lady Mary, we have no idea where Bates went when he was in London. I suggest Mrs Hughes’s ambivalent behavior was Fellowes’s way of making his program look law-abiding, respectful of civilized methods. In both Anna and Mr Bates’s story we have one of Downton Abbey’s serious forays — as is Sybil’s death in childbirth — into sexual experiences in life for real.

I have not done justice to the sets or photography of places — which as in the codas of the other seasons had some interest.

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The picnic by the Victoria and Albert Monument cost them a pretty penny

Nor some of the wry dialogues between Mrs Levinson (Shirley Maclaine) and the Dowager (who can put the other down more), the Dowager’s self-reflexive comments on the hour (she has “spent the evening in a who-dun-it”) or between Mrs Levinson and Lords Aysgarth as she dismisses his hunt for money through her — he seems never to realize that when she dies, it will go to her son. One of the best was that between Violet and Isobel setting off for London:

DuchessandMrsCrawley

Duchess: ‘I know I’m late, but it couldn’t be helped. Cora insisted I come without a maid. I can’t believe she understood the implications
Mrs Crawley: ‘Well and they are? …’
Duchess: ‘How do we get a guard to take my luggage and when we get to London? What happens then?’
Mrs C: ‘Fear not. I’ve never traveled with a maid you can share my knowledge of the jungle.’
Duchess: ‘Can’t you even offer help without sounding like a trumpeter on the peak of the moral high ground?
Mrs C: ‘And must you always sound like the sister of Marie Antoinette?’
Duchess: ‘The queen of Naples was a stalwart figure. I take it as a compliment.’
Mrs C: ‘You take everything as a compliment.’
Duchess: ‘I advise you to do the same it saves many an awkward moment’

What I enjoyed most were the home-scape scenes (so to speak), the characters who were given depth and in numbers of their scenes, the beauty of integrity, which brings me back to the close and Mrs Hughes who for another season played the role of the insightful woman quietly working to achieve a sensible compromise.

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Mrs Hughes pinning up a postcard picture of the beach alongside Mr Carson’s other materials on the servants’ bulletin board

I have not really explained why I forgive this mini-series so much — next time, when I write of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.

Ellen

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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:

BatesMary (1)

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.

BatesMary (2)

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.

schoolteacher (1)

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):

schoolteacher (2)

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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Trio
Our trio of widow/ers: Tom Bransom (Allen Leech), Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery)

pregnancy
Diagnosis for Edith (Laura Carmichael): pregnancy

Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt): ‘I want to make some new memories, good memories so it’s not as if all our happiness was before’ John Bates (Brendon Coyle): ‘I’m happy when ever I look at you.’ Anna: ‘But you’re not are you? everything is shadowed every moment is shadowed ….

Dear friends and readers,

This part made an attempt to return the viewer and characters to the mixed moods of the first season where ordinary life continually presented the non-trivial as trivial (such as a telegram to Matthew Crawley which requests that he change his life) and the trivial as very non-trivial (a flower show). We had more cheerfulness than we’ve had since the MacClare (lord of Flintshire) and Crawley households danced in Scotland in December. Too much real grief, loss, ravigin has been experienced to return to the quietude of the first season, but except where the experience has had irretrievable results (Edith’s pregnancy) or cannot be forgot (the rape of Anna), we are invited to dwell on what has been gained.

And as in the first season, the high moments that matter do not at all forward the story (a recap) or provide a framing plot-design. Example: the time in the nursery before the children are brought to them, Lady Mary, Tom and Mrs Isobel Crawley spend remembering: Upon being told by Lady Mary that Lord Gillingham’s (Tom Cullen) engagement has occurred, Mrs Crawley hopes that Lady Mary is not unhappy:

Lady Mary: ‘I’m not unhappy, I’m just not quite ready to be happy …’
Isobel: ‘When I got engaged, I was so in love with Reginald, I felt sick, I was sick with love, literally … [chuckle] it seems so odd to think about it now, it really does … ‘
Tom: ‘It was the same with me — as if I’d gone mad or been hypnotized — for days, weeks all I could think about was her … ‘
Lady M: ‘and me I was standing outside in the snow, and I didn’t have a coat, but I wasn’t cold because all I kept thinking was he’s going to propose … he’s going to propose [the music that was played in the last episode of the first season reprised and they all smile]
Isobel: ‘Well, aren’t we the lucky ones?’

Brooding darker moments are supplied by the threading in of Edith’s waiting for news, getting none, producing an explanation that Michael Gregson (Charles Edward) got into a violent encounter with Nazi thugs in Munich, crying after her pregnancy is confirmed and when her father comes into and says, “What is the matter,” how he “loves his children equally,” when, as Edith says, “this is never true.”

Edith

Anna, coming out of the servants’ hall, says to Bates standing under the stairwell: “A penny for your thoughts,” says his are so dark [double the worth] she’d have ‘to pay twice.’

BatesBrooding

We witness Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy)’s fear that Thomas will reveal her past as she feels an increasing real friendship for Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), a congeniality and we witness the first signs that from Molseley (Kevin Doyle), of all people (not surprising if you think about his experiences), she begins to gather strength from her very ethical distaste for what Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is forcing her to betray.

ThomasMissBaxter

This is not just tell him all secrets, lest there be something afoot to downsize the staff. And seeing as in this and other parts of this season even though he balks at being asked to do anything which threatens his great (I meant that ironically) status as under butler, Thomas does have nothing to do, one can see why he worries. There is light comedy when he cannot pump Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan central again) who concedes she is a “regular woman of mystery.” But he also wants to know things like what has happened to Anna Bates: he will use whatever information he gets against others as he uses his knowledge of Miss Baxter’s past against her (but the worm will turn as we are beginning to see her dislike and discomfort with this man).

Still a comic and upbeat note begins to predominate, quietly brought on through the continuing thread of Lady Mary’s recovery. As she recovers, she becomes aware that all is not well with Anna and Mr Bates (and tactfully avoids intervention),

Anna

is active on behalf of the estate with Tom, surveying the land, the houses, offering to give him references if he determined to go to the US,

withTom

keeping records and is pro-active to get Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks), yet another childhood or previous sweetheart (they keep turning up — she is pretty, rich still, intelligent) and his fellow colleague studying estates in desuetude, Charles Blake (Julian Overdon) to stay in the house with the Crawleys (not at some inn). And before we can turn around to watch the whole house dancing to a the music of a jazz band, which Lady Rose MacClare hired as a surprise for Robert, Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) birthday, she haa become the traditional heroine once again, beseiged by too many suitors.

The too overt tiredness of such a plot-design is given a certain sting and originality by keeping Lady Mary cold, distant, and (very much against the grain of today’s supposed egalitarian tendencies) feeling herself very much entitled to consideration as an aristocrat dutifully working hard to keep up her estate (and the livelihoods of everyone on it and in the house). Her witty set-tos with Charles Blake provide a needed astringency as he says he is not there to save the upper classes, but find out whether estates have any usefulness (food supply?) first.

Foursome

On the other hand, what might seem the real social light comedy of the hour, when Lady Rose’s invites an African-English man, Jack Ross (Gary Carr), to hide downstairs, with the staff before playing for the whole house over the evening, is made just that queasy by Mr Carson (Jim Carter)’s discomfort – and that of the other lily-white types unaccustomed to anyone not English, let alone of a different racial gene pool.

Lady Rose’s gay cries of “surprise! surprise!” as if that kind of thing is what all trusting people long for, please Robert and everyone is glad to join in on what the occasion lends itself to: dancing. Nonetheless, Fellowes’s script feels and the visuals are racialist here:

JackRoss
Jack Ross explaining to Carson that he knows nor more of Africa than Carson and that his ancestors came over in the 1790s (a topic they agree not to discuss)

MrsHughes

even if by part’s end Lady Mary comes upon Jack and Ross kissing and courting – much as she once did Tom when a chauffeur and her sister, Sybil.

We are back to the uneasy comedy of the first season. Bates and Anna decide try to put the past behind them by going out to dinner in a restaurant as they have not done since before they were married. They find themselves ostentatiously snubbed by a maitre-d’hote who is about to insist they had no reservation and therefore can have no table, until Lady Grantham (who is doing time as a Lady Bountiful in a luncheon for charity organizing) comes over and asks the waiter, what is his problem? They are seated as graciously as the man can muster,

apressnubbing,

but left alone to enjoy themselves in a lovely quiet place over a good dinner, they find they cannot forget or get on. She feels he is blaming her, seeing her as a victim (as we know as the public media wants to insist today there are no victims); he says no, he blames himself for not protecting her. They cannot enjoy themselves, hedged in by searing memory (on her part) and a desire (he says) to murder on his (to protect her? to revenge himself? to punish the man who has done this to their relationship and Anna)

This dwelling on class and sex injuries is (as it has been all season) paralleled by kitchen happenings: after it seems to lovelorn Daisy (Sophia McShera) that Afred (Matt Milne) will stay at Downton where she really is fast becoming the superb cook, a letter arrives to say someone has dropped out of the program, and Alfred is on his way to London to become a famous chef (they all piously hope). He is profuse in his thanks to all in the drawing room for all that has been done for him, embarrassing Lord Grantham, a contrast to Molseley whose proper pride is rewarded by having to crawl to Mr Carson and then Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore before he can lower himself to a job as a footman.

Ivy

Behaving aggressively, indeed aggrieved, because he has a sense that he is entitled to sex (paralleling what Blake thinks of Lady Mary), Jimmy Kent (Ed Speleers) tries to coerce Ivy (Cara Theobald) into petting as a return he feels due to him for taking her out. She’s having none of this game, but when Ivy gets home instead of unqualified sympathy from the other women servants, Ivy is told she got her just deserts for having led Alfred on, who left because his heart was broken. This according to Daisy who has the hurt heart.

Mixed moods, ordinary feeling explored, we would be back in season 1 but that so much has occurred of real depth of feeling, with life experiences that matter. Fellowes does not really know what to do with Mr Barrow now that his homosexuality has no outlet and he’s lost his sidekick in sneers and disillusion (Miss Obrien). There is much too much deference for my taste in the way the young farmer Pegg (unlisted) accepts and really seems naively grateful, when Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) admits she was wrong in thinking he was stealing her valuable ornaments. At the hour’s eend, Jack Ross is also too grateful to Lady Mary and Rose. I could wish Tom were learning to open his heart to English workers instead of the English aristocracy — who in reality would not have wanted or paid any attention to him or Mrs Crawley or Pegg or Jack Ross.

Dancing

but I like the fairy tale of Downton Abbey because it’s not American, not violent, class is not denied, the makers and actors behave in thoughtful ways with the effect of enlarging our “sympathies.” We are to move away from shallowness, flippancy, rigid reactions. I loved how Mr Carson congratulated Alfred on his intelligence and said of Jimmy who scoffed at Alfred’s anxiety as to how to cope with his coming future in the grand hotel, “intelligent people” are afraid, do worry, it’s only those “wadded with stupidity” who feel no trepidation before what life can and does throw at them.

And on the general mise-en-scene art across the mini-series this year: costume drama is supposed to and when it’s rightly done does tell a lot through costume. You should be able to study aspects of dress and learn about the era and characters as anibundel does once again on “the Hats of Downton Abbey

Cora
Headbands, small cloches and the occasional tiara (even when dancing to a jazz band) for most of the women

Exceptions are made for the older aristocratic women, as Lady Shackleton (her mind in shackles from her status so she cannot respond to Molseley in the way the Dowager wants), giving us a chance to feel (as anibunel remarks) that Harriet Vane (oops! Walter) has come to visit some more (understandably) distant friends of Lord Wimsey:

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If only there was not this prejudice against costume drama as such: we could have overt self-reflexivity as characters move from house to house.

Ellen

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