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Archive for the ‘satire’ Category

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.

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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.

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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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Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) during trial of Eichmann

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

VISION. A film by Margarethe von Trotta.

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

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

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

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and secretary, Lotte (Julia Jentsch),

Julia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NewYorker

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

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Margarethe von Trotta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The real Hannah Arendt

Ellen

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My beautiful laundrette: 3 of the principals: Johnny (Daniel Day Lewis), Omar (Gordon Warnecke), Tania (Rita Wolf)

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Sammie and Rosie Get Laid: street-fighting, riot, encampment removal, killing people, the backdro: Rani (Meera Syal)

Dear friends and readers,

Over the last few nights I’ve been watching these strangely unforgotten films: if you cite the titles, My Beautiful Laundrette (1986) or Sammie and Rosie Get Laid (1987), they seem to ring a bell in your hearer’s ears, or your correspondent’s email. Even if both were directed by the now famous Stephen Frears, as both were filmed more than 25 years ago, there no VHS cassette nor DVD available for Sammie and Rosie, and Laundrette was made for TV on a very low budget, before it was released to movie-houses, some unusual long-remembered chord was struck.

You can buy the screenplays as well as essays and diaries about them, plus Hanif Kureishi’s third screenplay, in a volume called London Kills Me: 3 screenplays & four essays by Hanif Kureishi: I was first drawn to them as I began reading and realized here are yet another set of movies which have drawn riveted audiences which don’t at all abide by the Syd Field screenplay paradigm (true, archetypally, Laundrette can be made to fit). I seem to be intent on watching as many of these as I can: Le Weekend (again Hanif Kureishi, the scriptwriter) two weeks ago, and Only Lovers Left Alive (scripted directed by Jim Jarmusch) this week, 40 minutes into which you are still wondering what is happening here, and what is compelling me to sit here and carry on anyway. Gothic freak that I am

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Tilda Swindon as Eve, in this vampire as all anxiety

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Tom Hiddleston as Adam, the vampire determined to fend everyone off

Surely not anything I am identifying with (as I did Johnny in Laundrette) or anything making any kind of coherent political statement (as does Sammie and Rosie). No, it was the images themselves (which is why I can’t resist circulating them from other places on the Net). And images from Laundrette and Sammie and Rosie are equally arresting.

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Daniel Day Lewis won New York Critics Award for Best Supporting Actor

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An image of contemporary male Britain

Just watch the whole of Sammie and Rosie and you’ll see the point:

Maybe they are remembered because they did not give rise to copycat films; they remain sort of sui generis.

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My Beautiful Laundrette‘s plot shows you it’s about contemporary Britain’s ethnically mixed population coping while exacerbated by class injuries and lack of cash; it’s also about love two between two gay young men (Johnny and Omar); it’s about older male Pakistani’s emotional desperation, especially the depressed impoverished alcoholic Pape played by Roshan Seth (in an truly unforgettable performance); his beloved Pakistani wife threw herself under one of the trains that whizz by their flat, and he longs for his son to succeed somehow or other:

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It’s also about a younger female Pakistani’s alienation (Tania) from her traditional culture with no welcome into white modern culture. All the characters are complex presences and time is given to characters who don’t fit the general pattern: Rachel (Sally Ann Field) the slightly aging white “mistress” of one of Omar’s rich uncles, Nasser (Saeed Jeffrey) dissatisfied with an ignorant vengeful wife who has been made to be that way.

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Kureishi writes of how his childhood growing up in the UK, visits to Pakistan, schooling and reading (he loved Baldwin all the more because Baldwin was attacked as hating blacks and himself), career, racial experience all came together in his films. This is its beautiful lesson about life according to him:

The evil of racism is that it is a violation not only of another’s dignity, but also of one’s own person or soul; the failure of connection to others is a failure to understand or feel what it is one’s own humanity consists in, what it is to be alive, and what it is to seeing both oneself and others as ends not means … a society that is racist cannot accept itself … hates part of itself so deeply it cannot see …

It’s an impersonal truth that resonates today in the racist US. The trick of the film though is it’s odd fun: Johnny’s grin, his mischief-making as most of the time he escapes being beat the hell out of; those who savagely attack one another (feet are a target) are also intensely jealous of male fancy clothes, resentful of their own thuggishness and poverty. And memorable scenes of people having their stuff thrown out a window when they are ejected from the premises. No one has a heart but for his or her lover and not always then. Nassar weeps when Rachel says she is tired of being a sex mate and is breaking up with him. Omar berates Johnny as beneath him. Tania is last seen escaping into a train, bags in hand, no where to go where as a modern Pakistani woman she belongs. The language lacks quips (or the kind of ironic jokes Jarmusch’s film and Le Weekend specialize in); simple statements:

Tania: [Excited] I’m going. Johnny: Where? Tania: London. Away … I’m going, to live my life. You can come. Johnny: No good jobs like this [running the laundromat] in London. Tania: Omar just runs you around everywhere like a servant. Johnny: Well I’ll stay here with my friend and fight it out.

It’s easier to like My Beautiful Laundrette than Sammie and Rosie Get Laid. it has more touching moments:

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It’s about a laundromat too. One man (often mentioned in reviews) is continually on the phone explaining himself to Angela; there are other regular inhabitants too:

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Its real and enduring strength is in the suggested complexity of the characters and the believability of their difficult situations.

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My guess is the Sammie and Rosie is not commercially for sale because the judgement was few would buy it. It is not naturalistic; many scenes are symbolic and the characters kept at a distance from us. Kureishi says “it concerns a number of relationships unfolding against a background of uprising and social deterioration.” It opens with the Brixton riots, police flood a slum area and wantonly murder a black woman making spaghetti (they are after her son); the first words are Mrs Thatcher’s urging the morality of her encampment and people removal; the last words are hers overheard on a speaker.

It made me uncomfortable. Sammie (Ayub Khan Din) and Rosie (Frances Barber) don’t get laid by one another: he has a girlfriend he is sleeping with, Anna (Wendy Gazelle); Rosie refuses to sleep with Sammie because she doesn’t want to get pregnant; maybe she feels she’d have to carry it to term to satisfy her Pakistani father-in-law, Rafi (Shashi Kapoor). She goes to bed with Rani ((Meera Syal), a black British man whom Rafi picks up as a body-guard for a while, a street person with wife and son. She’s liberated as she sees it: dresses overtly sexually,

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doesn’t care who Sammie sleeps with and will not hide her affairs. What bothered me was the sex was done so realistically it was cloying — not parodic and crude as in Girls, and not the chaste romance of say Jewel in the Crown or Downton Abbey (one of several films Kureishi and Frears meant to counter with theirs, viz., Chariots of Fire, Ghandi, Room with a View (the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala version). I didn’t like her outfits either; I wanted to turn away. we have a lesbian couple: one of the pair appears to be Sammie’s cousin. They find heterosexual sex disgusting. We do have a genteel couple: Claire Bloom as Alice (a quintessentially English girl’s name) is brought in as a sweetheart of Rafi’s from long-ago, now living in a green and pleasant suburb; she defends law, police, order; we are to believe she was loyal to Rafi for a long time after and his promiscuity and traditional marriage hurt her. Their scenes are of tender nostalgia love:

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The movie has no story; basically it passes through a few nights of riot and private misery, of parties and ordinary citizen life — watching TV, eating in restaurants; parallel love-making on the screen the three couples. Dialogue concerns Rafi’s political life which he has now given up: he was high in the gov’t of Pakistan and responsible for torture and many ruined lives and places and finds himself berated by his son.

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Being interviewed

He wants to retire to a peaceful suburb (like Alice’s), share his ill-gotten gains with his son and daughter-in-law, watch his grandchildren (he urges this on Sammie and Rosie as their duty) grow up. A bit improbably by the end of the movie he feels guilty about what he has seen in the streets, blames himself for his son’s (to him) hopeless relationship with his wife, but also in a state of confusion about his own life (like Nassar in My Beautiful Laundrette when he loses Rachel), he hangs himself.

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Soul Searching

The trouble with the film is the characters are not as deeply seen, they are more types.

Both movies end on a slightly upbeat note on the principle you can pull down the curtain on life on a good moment as they do occur. The laundry has been half-destroyed by Johnny’s thug friends and he beat up trying to defend one of Omar’s vicious corrupt male relatives, but after some intense strain, Johnny and Omar begin to make up, and are last seen on either side of a sink, washing Johnny’s body together genially.

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Sammie begins to cry for his father and suddenly Rosie shows tenderness to him, embracing him, and implying she may even consider going to live in a suburban house with the money Rafi has left them and at least have sex with Sammie too.

As with Ingmar Bergman’s films (I recently watched another “alternative” paradigm magnificent film, Bergman’s Smiles on a Summer’s Night), Rohmer’s and any number of serial film adaptation, costume dramas (by among others Andrew Davies, Sandy Welch), My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammie and Rosie Get Laid ought to put paid to the idea that written texts must be superior, more complex and complicated, than movies. I find myself unable to write a blog about Bergman films. They are like a super-complicated novel. To the end of his life Jim never gave up on going to see the latest Bergman; we saw them all. A favorite of his was Begrman’s The Magic Flute (it can make you cry with joy).

What I’ve been doing, what has guided my choices beyond my own taste among films in local movie-houses available this or last or the other week, is, is the screenplay available? Is a scenario (in whatever form, companion book is one)? I’m reading these and trying to work out how one moves from these texts to realization, what in the these texts are guiding indicators, how do they work as instruments for creative structure as importantly as the sequences of images and juxtapositions that are laid out in DVD analyses of films called episodes.

Who we are determines what we notice and what we regard as worthy of notice, what we find significant … I came away having bonded with Rachel (Sally Anne Field, the aging white mistress in Laundrette) and Alice (Claire Bloom, ditto, in Sammie and Rosie).

Ellen

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Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) by the grave of her son

Dear friends and readers,

To help myself get through Thanksgiving Day yesterday, I went out to a movie that had gotten rave reviews: Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears, written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and based on The Lost Child of Philomena, a book by the real journalist, named Martin Sixsmith, who did help an elderly Irish woman locate the adult her baby born 50 years earlier and taken from her had become:

50 years ago Philomena became pregnant outside marriage (in the film after one night’s love-making at a fair); she was thrown out by her parents, and taken in by a Catholic Charity who proceeded to treat her in the harshest way: she had a breech-birth with no painkillers; she was made to work long hard hours in a laundry for 4 years for little pay in the meagerest circumstances and, along with the other unwed mothers, permitted to see her child one hour a day. Her male child and another female were sold to an American couple for $1000 and she coerced into signing her rights away. Years later the nuns lied to her when she came back to locate him: they said the records were all burnt but one, the paper where she signed her rights to her child away. In the film the journalist is immediately suspicious: how could this one document survive and all others be destroyed? We discover they lied to the boy become an older man when he returned to find her; when he died of AIDS, he wanted to be buried at the charity and his grave is now there and in the film untended (like those who died at the time of the mean inhumane treatment)

The film resembles Rabbit-Proof Fence, which I saw some years ago (2001) where the aborigine children of three women are snatched by middle class white Australians to be brought up in a European middle class culture (but in a harsh orphanage-like environment); in that film the girls make their way back to their mothers through terrible deserts. In both films, the behavior is justified by those who did it: in Philomena, the nuns say she was a gross sinner who deserved the worst punishment; in Rabbit-Proof Fence, Australian authorities say the white culture will provide a much better life for the children when (and if) they grow up. Philomena acknowledges that the boy, Michael in the film, grew up in a middle class home in circumstances which enabled him to become a successful lawyer and work for top Republican people; he was gay and lived with a male friend in reasonable comfort until he contracted AIDS which killed him well before he and others could get the Republicans in charge to fund any program to help find a cure or help for this fatal disease condition.

So the premise is not sentimental. The story exposes a profound injustice done to a powerless woman.

This review (by Jay Stone, Post-Media News) praising the film tells the basic opening premise: a fired or failed and humiliated politician becomes a journalist who does human interest stories and finds himself hired to help an elderly woman locate her son. Also its moral purport: “an odd-couple drama with a dark heart and a post-modern sensibility, an expose of the shockingly sadistic treatment of unwed mothers in the 1950s, and a worldly dismissal of everything that brought it about.” Martin and Philomena are an odd couple: utterly disparate in cultural understanding and age (she reads and understands improbable sentimental romances literally), his sceptical ironic perspective and her naive defenses of those who damaged her profoundly make for oddly dark humor.

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Researching today is looking into the computer

I had not expected this political paradigm: unlike Rabbit-Proof Fence the way the film is advertised, does not bring out its critique of the anti-sex and anti-women attitude in Catholicism, its hypocritical practices: not only do the nuns in charge lie, they make it impossible for Philomena to talk to the aging still ferociously hateful nuns who did the deed. I also didn’t expect the plot-design: such stories usually end in the victim finding her child all grown up and happy and successful at the close; or dead, having died terribly and had a terrible life at the close. That’s what the head newswoman keeps saying on the phone she expects Martin to find after his journey to the US with Philomena and she wants him to write it up that way in order to sell newspapers and is paying the funds needed for travel and research in the expectation of such a story. He is to find such a story write it this way.

Instead about 1/3rd into the film, maybe less, through the computer’s access to information and Martin’s experience telling him where to look when they get to the US, we and then Philomena discover what happened to her son and that he died some 20 years ago. Armed with his name, the names of the people who bought him and became his parents, and the names of those he worked with in the Republican administrations (and photos too), they slowly discover what was her son’s nature and how he lived (middle class life growing up, good school but the parents were hard on him and the girl who became his sister), his homosexuality (which funnily but believably Philomena suspects quickly upon seeing his photos). They and we visit his sister; then an ex-colleague now at the Folger Library; and after much struggle, they force their way into the house of his partner (who was in effect his spouse) and he shows them one of these montages of photos and films that funeral homes nowadays make up and put on DVDs as wellas websites for customers.

It was when the film became to play this montage I broke down. I began to sob uncontrollably. It was so like the montage the Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home made of my husband Jim; opening with the same sentence telling the day the person was born; closing with a similar sentence recording the day he died, and more or less taking the viewer through the stages of the person’s life as he looked and changed. The relatives of this fictionalized montage and I and my daughter naturally chose the best pictures and the expertise of the funeral director puts them into coherent order. Soft music and interwoven photos of natural phenomenon (grass, birds, sky, flowers) do the rest. So the montage I paid for is common I learned.

After that the emotional moments in the rest of the film drew tears from my eyes. Judi Dench rightly receives high praise for her performance. I’ve seen her several times before perform this high-wire act (Cranford Chronicles, with Maggie Smith, Ladies in Lavender) where she conveys a depth of tender emotion just held in check so that a sentimental story is told prosaically; a underlying sternness of aspect in Dench’s face (Helen Mirren pulls off this kind of thing too) is part of what’s responsible for the effectiveness of Dench’s presence; as Philomena she conveys some self-irony (like Maggie Smith does in her enactments of this kind of role, say Bed Among Lentils) — even in a woman given to retelling with utter earnestness the silliest romance stories.

Dench is helped by being partnered with an acerbic comic actor: Steve Coogan played in a burlesque adaptation of Tristam Shandy (A Cock and Bull Story); as Ann Hornaday says he utters “mordant asides” “often having nothing to do with theology, or religion.” Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls them a divine couple.

One must not forget the contribution of Stephen Frears who while not seen has made many film masterpieces as disparate as My Beautiful Laundrette, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Grifters, Mary Reilly, recently Cheri, Tamara Drewe. And scriptwriters Coogan and Jeff Pope.

It was Thanksgiving Day which is still kept by many Americans so few people were in the theater. Most were presumably at home with families or friends eating a turkey or other roast-bird meal. Or quietly allowing others to think they are. Some put photos on the Net to show they are participating, a propensity made fun of this week in the New Yorker (see The Ordeal of Holidays).

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A known secret is that Christmas Day is now passed by many by going to a movie — you do see people in groups — and the meal is sometimes eaten out in a restaurant (Asian ones have been open on Christmas Day for a long time, permitting the joke I passed the day in the Jewish way, movie and Chinese food out). Although Thanksgiving itself has not been commercialized beyond the buying of a bird and trimmings, those who don’t get to do this are made to feel bad so public media shows include statements by announcers expressing compassion for the presumed unhappiness of those who don’t get to experience such get-togethers for whatever reason. On Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifills’ PBS Reports, I saw the story of a poor black woman who since food stamp allowances were cut gets $63 worth of groceries per month for herself and her grandchild. This is not enough to buy a Thanksgiving feast. Well some charitable organization in Virginia was giving away grocery bags full of roast birds, vegetables, treats (cakes? pies?) and drinks; as a viewer I listened to her description of her life (she is the type who works at Wall-Mart’s) and how grateful (!) she was to the charity. Right.

The demanded behavior on Thanksgiving or Turkey day is an expression of thanks (read W. S. Merwin’s poem) — in origin it’s a religious ritual feast.

I’m not immune to this. Today was my birthday and I was relieved and rejoiced when my young friend, Thao, and her partner, Jeff, were able to make it to DC all the way from Toronto, Canada, where they live. It is common for people in the US to travel long distances to get back to some relative or friend for dinner. Thao and Jeff were here also to shop for an an engagement ring and see other friends (she attended GMU for her undergraduate degree). I am no cook, but together for the day after Turkey Day, Izzy and I managed to roast a chicken, heat up frozen pre-prepared zuchini (awful), cook spaghetti and a yummy pasta and cheese sauce I bought from Whole Foods; fresh bread, ginger ale for all but me (who drank cheap Riesling) and Port Salud cheese rounded out our feast. We talked, took photos.

If you should see the remarkably candid, intelligent and moving bio-pic Joan Rivers made about her life (A Piece of Work), you will find that on Thanksgiving day she makes a feast in her apartment and to fill the table’s chairs and do a good deed, she invites street-people known to her up to apartment each year to eat with her. A friend of mine whose grown children are divorced, live far away, know unemployment and other obstacles preventing all from getting-together, this friend invites three woman who have no families to dine with her and her husband and those of her children and grandchildren who do make it.

I have a double excuse for this weakness this year: my beloved husband died of cancer this year; the rightly dreaded disease allowed to continue to spread (President Obama just signed some bill easing the way for those who want to frack for huge profits), this disease killed him horribly inside 6 months.

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But I digress. I’ve forgotten Philomena. Don’t miss it. It’s funny. The background is modern day USA as experienced by the middle class in DC and modern day Ireland. We are able to remain calm and not get too indignant because the Catholic nunnery as presented in the film is an anomaly, a broken-down place no one in their right mind goes near. None of the sternness of the ending of Rabbit-Proof Fence: in Rabbit-Proof Fence, the perpetrator played by Kenneth Branagh remains as unreformed as the nuns in Philomena do, but the aborigine children who escaped back to the aborigine people are presented in their present poverty-stricken existences — probably dependent on charities the way the black grandmother seen on the Woodruff-Ifill show was yesterday. The modern-day Philomena lives with a kind patient professional daughter wisely underplayed by Anna Maxwell Martin (another wonderful actress who I hope decades from now is working on in the way Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith all have). Mother and Daughter live in a decent house, do lunch in pubs.

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Ellen

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Vivien Leigh as Anna (1948 film, scripted Jean Anouilh)

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Ralph Richardson’s Karenin, reasoning with Leigh as Anna

Oblonsky to Levin: It’s Kitty I’m sorry for — not you! — Stoppard’s Anna

Anna to Vronsky: I would never see my son again. The laws are made by husbands and fathers … Unhappiness? I’m like a starving beggar who has been given food — Stoppard’s Anna

Dear friends and readers,

After seeing Wright and Stoppard’s recent film of Anna Karenina, featuring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfayden, Jude Law, I determined to read the book. I had tried when I was in my teens but been defeated because I found the Levin matter intolerable; this time I thought I’d manage by listening to it read aloud while driving my car. It took time so I lingered over it (sometimes at night reading this or that passage on my own) as Davina Porter’s reading was brilliant.

I found I much prefer the meaning of the story & characterizations in Wright and Stoppard’s from Tolstoy’s; that Tolstoy’s story is meant to be and is harshly punitive on Anna even if he feels for her loneliness married to a repressed easily resentful man much older than she. He presents her adulterous love as an evil impulse in her which moves from impelling her boldly to leave her husband and live an amoral life, and then twists her to destroy her relationship with her lover because she cannot accept her despised position. She cannot find something within herself to give her life meaning because she has moved away from religion. Greater sympathy is allotted Karenin. Tolstoy’s unique greatness seems to me that he conveys a sense of every day life slowly passing for all. He dramatizes people’s working lives, how they pass time in the evening; he reveals the tedium of existence. He is said to be respected for his rounded apparently believable characters, but when I listened to it with my husband in the car with me, they emerged as types, stereotypes from other novels in part. He does not offend against conventional standards of good taste — as forged by male oriented readers.

Tolstoy is not interested in Anna’s lack of happiness or fulfillment as a woman; the system needs to change, and that’s the point of the Levin part of the novel. Levin is said to marry wholly for love (which is basically an animal passion as we see once they marry they do not understand one another’s minds at all); he is not performative. Tolstoy writes against personal ambition, performativeness. Levin is also contrasted to the drone Oblonsky (Anna’s brother) who is unfaithful to his wife, Dolly, does no useful work, conceives of positions in gov’t and elsewhere as sheer plums of money for him to collect to support his habits. Not only does Levin work the fields and keep his house, Levin would change the political complexion of the nation to be more equal, to provide more education and opportunities for the lower orders.

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Domnhall Gleeson as Levin (Stoppard and Wright’s version — it’s hard to find images of earlier Levins as non-entities often played the part and were forgotten by the public)

Here he is stopped because what is valued in political gatherings is the ability to network, to flatter others, to be congenial in an amoral kind of way, to look handsome. All these Vronsky does, and if Vronsky had not been destroyed by his relationship with Anna, the way he fits into his regiment and is liked and the way he immediately is a social success the one time he goes to a political gathering, shows he would have risen to power.

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Sean Bean as a decent intelligent well-meaning Vronsky in 1997 (BBC)

He has a conscience and some decent ideals (unlike Oblonsky); when in the novel with Anna and she is still behaving, he opens and supervises a hospital, schools, but he would not begin to go further than reforming his own area and property and people within it without giving up one iota of power.

In short, Tolstoy writes a 19th century novel which (like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) has been over-rated because he does at least deal with adultery directly. The way to value it is the way we value Gaskell’s Ruth where the heroine is similarly punished – this time for having a child out of wedlock where at least an attempt is made to present a woman’s sexual life. We can also liken Anna Karenina to Trollope’s novels (Tolstoy admired Trollope enormously, said Trollope’s books “killed him”): they are debates about the political and economic and to some extent social arrangements of the era where a kind of moderate reform is proposed, and how political life is really carried on exposed.

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Structure — I assume the reader knows the story, if not you may find it in the wikipedia article.

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Gretta Garbo as Anna (1935 film, director Clarence Brown)

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Frederick March as Vronsky to Garbo’s Anna

The novel made be said to be made up of two novellas which could’ve been very short but are here blown up into a large book by modern psychological and realistic techniques. At the opening of Is He Popenjoy? Trollope says he wishes he could write his story in the brief strong way of railway novels, but must make it middle class through subtilizing it, then it becomes acceptable to Mudie’s lending library.

If I were to see the novel as an outgrowth of the 18th century novel (it’s set in the early part of the 18th century), I’d say Anna-Vronksy comes from Lafayette’s Princess de Cleves (same central types in the couple) by way of 18th century depth psychology: the president de Tourvel in Les Liasions Dangereuses, and this is a deep vein of fiction important in functioning for liberty. In Anna Karenina, paradoxically the story that functions for liberty is Dolly’s — how badly Oblonsky treats her shows how a woman needs more liberty and independence.

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Matthew MacFayden as the conscienceless, self-satisfied bureaucrat, Oblonsky (given star billing in Wright and Stoppard’s play, considerably softened, he grieves for Anna at the movie’s close)

The Levin material is by comparison Sir Charles Grandison matter. I’m sure Kitty breast-fed, no need for Tolstoy to tell us.

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A wholesome Alicia Vikander as Kitty (Wright and Stoppard’s version)

It’s exemplary, optimistic, leisurely, leaving time for disquisitions on art (though there are some of these in the Vronksy-Anna story when Vronsky takes up painting for a while), politics, farming, social life. In mood it’s closer to section in Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise when the heroine goes to live in Switzerland with her husband. I do like the debates over politics whose nuances remind me of arguments between Plantagenet and Phineas: Levin wants moderation; he does not wan to exploit so ruthless and yet wants his property and place. The others take the modern position of Republicans like Romney which are recreations of this older indifference to anything but the one narrow classes utter comforts. Where the story becomes fascinating again is realism (not in Grandison as character). Levin’s jealousy of Kitty before worldly men, the hunt and his resentment. No kindness in Tolstoy towards the poor animals slaughtered so effectively by Oblonsky who has the admiration of all, very chic in rags and the best guns. I imagine like Trollope over hunting foxes, Tolstoy hunted grouse, and farmed the way Levin does.

D’Epinday’s Montbrillant (mid-18th century long memoir as novel) has the same two types of fiction squashed together only the Grandison part is about salons, and Vronsky-Anna stories of adultery and sexuality are really seen from the woman’s point of view forced to acquiesce in her husband’s adulteries, and attempts to sell her to pay his debts.

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From my reading experience as I went through the book and remembered the movie I had just seen and what I’ve read about the other movies and Tolstoy and other 19th century novelists:

At first: Tolstoy’s book feels so rich. It seems to contain in it other novels: well when Anna first meets Vronsky, he is just about engaged to Kitty, Anna’s brother’s sister-in-law. It’s deep attraction at first sight for Anna and Vronsky — which we are warned is bad news for Anna by Anna’s brother’s father-in-law’s attitude towards Vronsky.

It reminds me very much of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. Anna is regarded as this icon of mysterious beauty in just the way Irene Heron is. The possessive successful male sweeps her up, but he cannot understand or satisfy her. The dark continent.

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Eric Porter played both Soames in 1967 and Karenin in 1977 for the BBC

Unlike Irene, Anna resists this attraction at first, but then she’s nowhere as unhappy as Irene with her husband. She has had a child, she is satisfied with her friendship with Dolly, her sister-in-law. In Tolstoy’s novel by this point we see that Levin is actually the central hero or presence of the novel, however ironized, for by beginning with Anna’s brother Oblonsky, Levin his friend is brought on novel’s stage and (unlike the 2012 play and movie) becomes central for chapters and chapters.

Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s movie is literally true to the book as it opens (they deviate later) — but then cut off at all the Levin material.

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Wright and Stoppard’s debauched, half-crazed Vronsky

I’m into part 2 of 5 and remarkably very early on Tolstoy makes it clear that Vronsky lives the life of a shallow drone, someone Anna should have walked away from. In the play he is neurotic, over-emotional in the extreme whatever he does; in the novel is he an average aristocrat, perhaps a little better than many, capable of shame and good feeling. Others see this — Dolly’s father, for example. We see the low-life demi-monde Vronsky favors. The text feels for Anna very much, but Tolstoy sees love and coupling as sheerly drivingly sexual and has no inward understanding for real.

Myself I find Tolstoy’s a male view — it’s found in Trollope. Tolstoy does sufficient justice to Anna’s tight bond to her son and how much she is as yet comfortable with, respects Karenin at first, but she has tired of the way he is cold, stays away from her, is controlling from the outside. The words Anna used to express her love for Vronsky to Vronsky upon trying to explain why she is not degraded by their affair (all the while made to feel terribly shamed) could be a translation of the words Laura Kennedy uses in Trollope’s Phineas Redux when they walk in Konisberg at the castle over the parapets. The words in Trollope to describe her passion are close to those in Garnett’s translation. It’s uncanny.

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Comparison of an incident: Bronte’s Villette and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

I can’t resist making a note of this. I had earlier been listening to Bronte’s Villette where there is a striking parallel and contrast to Tolstoy’s book.

In Bronte’s a powerful sequence shows Lucy all alone coming to Brussels and with her tiny amount of money seeking a hotel to stay. She is given an address by a kind stranger. Lucy Snow sets out. It’s nighttime. She finds herself followed by two young men who are laughing at her, to her they seem semi-thugs, they call out. In euphemisms it’s suggested they are after her sexually. Terrified she gets confused where she is and goes the wrong way altogether. This results in her landing into the school which takes her in. It determines the course of her life. It’s a harrowing sequence. Izzy was in the car with me and both of us gripped. Told of course from the woman’s point of view.

In Tolstoy’s AK, Vronsky tells this “amusing” story to the demi-monde woman he finds in his flat which he is sharing with a drone low-life officer, she this man’s mistress. It seems that two young men in his regiment saw a young woman coming home and they thought her living alone. What fun. For a lark they follow her upstairs. The next day an irate husband challenges them. Vronsky (good man they all think) has been negotiating to avoid a duel. The woman was his pregnant wife returning home early from the theater. Vronsky is much amused at how often the husband so easily become irate: his honor is involved. To do Tolstoy justice he gives us a glimpse of this young woman coming home and in distress.

But the accent is not there quite. The sequence is not harrowing. The incident reveals Vronsky whose concern is with his regiment. Yet it is told. It is part of Vronsky’s view of women: he tells it to the demi-monde as a joke. I have not got up to her response.

Only in the novel I’m typing slowly, Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (English Jacobin & sentimental novel), do we have an harassment incident where the point is at least made that an attitude of mind by men towards women causes this at least by implication. Emily is staying with a cousin who does not care to protect her from the men in the house; they know she’s a poor, a nobody, no father and they chase after her through the landscape. The result is not a plot-hinge but it is significant in Ethelinde’s determination to quit this house. We are made to feel this sort of thing is what Ethelinde would have to contend with in this house when she arrives.

As a woman who has had such experiences I know they can drive a girl who has partly succumbed to the pestering and aggression (which is presented as just fine) to avoid going out. The Steubenville rape is a crude ugly bullying version of what I’m pointing to here. How far it can go.

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Tolstoy as a young man, 1848 — he could be Levin

Tolstoy skips over the long year of deepening involvement — unlike another neglected novel which explores adultery seriously as an alternative to a miserable marriage where one can find companonship (Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde).
What Tolstoy is interested in, “does justice” to Anna’s horrific guilt once she and Vronsky have sex. There’s more of this self-horror than anything else. This is utterly different from Stoppard and Wright’s movie too -there we have the woman who wants to escape imprisonment and exploitation. I prefer the movie though I grant the depth of writing and intensity in Tolstoy is powerful

Levin is a sort of surrogate for Tolstoy, and again in the movie this is not so. He is more than half-caricatured by Wright and Stoppard. Oblonsky is sensible in comparison. It’s interesting to see this 21st century amoral modern take as opposed to Tolstoy’s Victorianism which makes Oblonsky into a semi-Skimpole type.

I find myself remembering what I read about Tolstoy about the time Jay Parini’s book, The Last Station, focusing on Tolstoy’s wife was made into an interesting film. The film made Sophia self-centered, materialistic, seeking sex for herself and not for procreation, but it was my understanding Parini’s book in fact was a real critique of Tolstoy as self-deluded, a powerful aristocrat who took advantage of his status all the time, with real sympathy for Sophie — which Helen Mirren picked up on.

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Mirren counters the distrustful anti-sexuality thrust of Tolstoy’s conception of his wife and women

Tolstoy’s last text was one where he presented sexuality as such as loathsome even when inside marriage, Kreutzer’s Sonata.

Frances Trollope’s novel of an unwed mother, Jessie Phillips: A Tale of the Present Day is another 19th century novel which shows far more understanding of women’s vulernability and inner life. But she too (like Gaskell) makes her heroine suffer without showing what was the pleasure. Yet I had to drive 90 minutes in my car once again yesterday and found myself listening to a very long loving description of every detail Levin and Kitty’s wedding ceremony. The equivalent of a bridal magazine today. It so irritated me. Why so much time on this? Tolstoy is clever and he makes ironic jokes about how a couple of years from now for just about everyone this long ceremony seems idiotic, false, but that’s not what the lengthy text does. It insists that each detail the wedding counts; that’s why Levin is late in dressing, why Kitty spends months and months in planning with her mother. Bridezilla.

It could be a woman’s magazine today. It explains why fools complained that in Downton Abbey Fellowes had the brains to present Lady Mary and Matthew’s wedding only in terms of the fuss and trouble leading up to it.

Just before the ceremony Levin is not the ideal exemplary man having won the love of the sweet chaste Kitty, almost alienates her by letting her see his diaries with his disgusting affairs. This great novel of adultery is deeply against sex. When in Downton Abbey Dan Stevens had to play some of this kind of nonsense, he looked excruciated.

Not Wright at all and not Stoppard; they skip the wedding.

Meanwhile in the book Vronsky rushes to Anna in bed who has given birth to their little girl, confessed to Karenin and been forgiven. But Anna cannot stand her husband’s presence or embraces; she is beyond reason or humanity towards Karenin who (in the novel) turns emotionally noble and is willing to be shamed and take her back. Vronsky throws himself onto Anna, she cannot resist and three sentences later they disappear from the narrative only to turn up chapters later several months later so we can see them despised. We only saw their affair a year later.

I hadn’t realize how much Wright departed from Tolstoy until I’d gotten well past the mid-point of the book. In Wright and Stoppard’s version Anna leaves Karenin half-way through the narrative, and takes up life with Vronsky; has her baby daughter by Vronsky while living with him. In Tolstoy’s book she has not left Karenin as yet; Karenin has begun proceedings for a divorce and custody of his (now apparently detested) son. But Anna nearly dies in puperal fever, she hysterically calls for her husband, declares him great, noble-souled, and herself so much crap; she and Karenin manage to humiliate Vronsky and in the throes of this scene Karenin forgives Anna. Vronsky goes home, shamed, and realizing suicide can be brought on by humiliation and the world’s scorn tries to shoot himself through the chest and nearly dies. Both though do not die — Tolstoy implies perhaps Anna would have been better off if she had and so too Vronsky. She lives to regret, and in Tolstoy Vronksy lives on to want to get her back, only much later to be destroyed by her suicide.

It’s theatrically effective in the book and films which use it, and the discourse about forgiveness and how Karenin wants to keep to that, how it brings out the good soul in him is probably (I do believe) the conscious message. But I find the scenes at the bedside absurd and improbable — but perhaps a 19th century reader would not have.

Much of Tolstoy’s text is taken up with how badly Kareinin feels. He naturally becomes the prey of religious fanatics like the old countess, Lydia. It’s the only way he can hold up his head; she is responsible for Karenin’s keeping Anna’s son from her too. So the man is absolved and sympathized with again and again.

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Not so in Wright and Stoppard’s film where the narrow, sexless and vindictive seething of the man is emphasized — here Jude Law has a tight mind and body

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Horse race as done in the theater of Wright and Stoppard’s conception

This is not to say there are not many remarkable and interesting passages in Tolstoy’s book — sort of interwoven in as part of the story but reflecting both Tolstoy’s high sense of himself and his fiction and its purpose.

From the penultimate sections of the book, before the final crash of Anna and departure of Vronsky to a useless war where he and his regiment of desperate men will be killed for nothing — and the qualified contentment ending of Levin’s choice to marry Kitty and live the life of an aristocratic landlord-farmer.

The depiction of Vronsky’s attempt at a career as an artist and patron of the arts in Italy in the earliest phase of his time with Anna, when she is still in control of herself and enjoying life well away from Russian society. This sequence allows Tolstoy to present thoughts on art and the 19th century scene.

The death of Levin’s brother is another sequence — we see the poverty of most hotels in this rigid ancien regime world. We see how badly the supposedly idealistic leftist brother treats the prostitute he has taken in as his wife. On this level, Tolstoy feels for a woman; she ought to have stayed with a peasant husband somewhere. I’m sure Levin would have found her one had she come to him first.

I’m also “enjoyed” the realism of the relationship of Vronsky and Anna as it slowly hurts so badly from being outside the rest of the world, the ostracizing, and even Levin and Kitty with their lack of real understanding of one another and explosive fights in early marriage.

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Keira Knightley as the grieving mother

Extraordinarily strong because so believable Anna’s stolen visit to her son and the responses of the servants, her meeting Karenina and his half-mad behavior. You can prove anything if you get to make up the evidence, but far more than Trollope successfully I think Tolstoy does persuade us a woman of this milieu, religion, would feel the intense guilt of Anna, digs deep into it, how it functions to twist her and give her little chance to finally live a life that is fulfilling for both with Vronsky. The scene at the theater where she goes out of some kind of inner-directed spite at herself and Vronsky equally strong. Vronsky needs to be accepted in the world and live in it; she needs just the respect.

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Anna supported by the corrupt Princess Betsy (Ruth Wilson)

She is mortified and humiliated. I wish I could believe Tolstoy critiquing this double standard but he’s not.

The linchpin connection between the Vronksy-Anna matter and the Kitty-Levin is Anna’s brother Oblonsky and his wife Dolly with whom the book and Stoppard and Wright’s movie opens. Dolly feels for Anna; her husand, Oblonsky a careless rake and roue who is ruining them by his continual spending of money (leaving nothing for the household, saving nothing for the children’s education).

So, Oblonsky’s harried put-upon wife, Dolly, goes to visit Anna. Anna had persuaded Dolly to stay with Oblonsky after one of Oblonsky’s many affairs (the man has casual encounters and sex like some people have meals) was exposed — because it was with the governess. He spends all their money, he impregnates her carelessly; she is worn, her children will have no decent schools unless her father pays for it — reminds me of Montague Dartie in Forsyte Saga. She knows he does not love her. She is miserable. She thinks Anna is no different from her, just braver. When she arrives, Anna is ecstatic to see her and Vronsky so glad. She notices the people around them are third-rate hangers on as the world judges these things. We are made to notice how rich Anna is through her eyes — the riding out, the hat, the horse, the house they stay in.

So, were this an English novel, this moneyed state of Anna would be accounted for — it’s not in AR. It is probably not from her husband. Would she have her own estate? I don’t know. It seems to come from Vronsky who we are told in an early part of the book has to borrow to keep up his lavish life style.

The moral nature of what’s happening is central. Probably because I’m reading Galsworthy at the same time I am so aware of how Tolstoy too makes of Anna this beautiful mysterious icon. In her case being torn apart. Slowly after Vronsky and Anna return to Russia, whether St Petersburg or Moscow, their relationship sours badly. No one respectable will be friends with them; they get only hangers-on. People they once would have passed over, come to them and Vronksy and Anna cling to these fringe types.

Yet he can live with it, he can suffer the loss of his army regiment (very much a Rawdon type — from Vanity Fair); it’s more her fault than his because she cannot live the unconventional part of a mistress and woman of the world. Why she should want the friends we saw at the opening were all so hollow I can’t say. She has Dolly and her brother who seemed to be the only people she enjoyed herself with before. And men do visit. She is pathetically grateful to have Dolly’s loyalty, but we see Dolly becomes sickened at what she sees as their false friends, false lives and stays only one day on a visit meant to go on for a long time.

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Mary Kerridge as Dolly (1948 version, sentimentalized Oblonsky, glimpsed weeping with remorse)

We then get the encounter of Anna with Levin who is drawn to her as mysterious alluring icon but then reverses himself when he sees his wife. Anna here has become evil as she is presented as consciously trying to seduce Levin sexually.

I also very much enjoy some of the political drama and discussions about art in the Levin sections; I don’t have space to detail this sort of thing. The political meeting with Vronksy emerging as successful had the sceptical understanding of Trollope and the principles and parties were of interest similarly. Tolstoy defends realism in pictures.

At the same time I was so grated upon by the long drawn out childbirth, especially the turning from ravaged screaming on Kitty’s part to bliss. No thanks Mr Tolstoy for your moral lesson here. I writhe to have to listen to this nonsense — Trollope wouldn’t have minded and might thought it was just the pap (like the wedding) women might want.

Very interesting are the less cliched stories: Oblonsky, Stiva, near bankrupt trying to get a lucrative post where he does nothing and thinking he deserves it! Some amusement there – this is how Felix Carbury behaves in Trollope and Davies’s TWWLN and Matthew MacFayden played both parts.

The story of Anna’s son being slowly turned against her and made to be cold from his life’s experiences with the angry embittered father and morally stupid tutor.

Why is Anna not afraid she will be broke and end in the streets? she is so sure of her aristoratic words & norms to reach for.

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A 19th century illustration of the end of the novel
The novel concludes:

Again I am deeply engaged by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the final phase of Vronsky and Anna’s story. It is more than grippingly believable. Tolstoy lays bare how someone (Anna) can act destructively against herself and her interests, because there is not enough on offer for an erasure of those parts of herself necessary to play the part in her world Vronsky as her open lover allows her. She is in too much pain over her own loss of self-esteem. I can see myself acting like that and have in life acted that way.

I continue mostly bored and irritated by the Levin matter.

At the close of book 7 is the powerful sequence where Anna finally loses all perspective, and throws herself under a train. I’ve just ambivalent responses to the depiction. I think the way to get round the worst is to lower expectations – that’s why when I first started reading I suggested Tolstoy is over-rated. If we think of him as just another Victorian-19th century writer, we don’t expect as much, give him more slack, and as with reading say Gaskell’s Ruth, we look at what is gained by an attempt at a frank depiction of a transgressive woman (Anna) or a woman who has transgressed (Ruth) sexually. Trollope will depict no such figure; Dickens would not touch this with a 50 foot pole.Most women didn’t dare lest they be accused of sexual transgression.

I know were I to have read the book in my 20s even I would just have utterly bonded with Anna and felt for her and not noticed as I felt continually Tolstoy’s continual corrective: Anna says everyone is hateful to her, and immediately Tolstoy brings home to us how most people are not hateful; everything she feels or says is quickly shown to be an exaggeration and coming out of her. The worst is how he talks of an “evil’ spirit inheriting her soul — surely this is God punishing her.

He also does not spare us. We are shown that Anna did not die immediately but felt pain and knew what was happening. When we are told that Vronsky saw the body he never got over seeing what was in her eyes. Or her mangled body.

One can read the sequence sympathetically from her point of view too. It is true Vronsky is tired of her. We can see she is trying to reach him as best she can. It’s his choice to stay in Moscow, visit his mother. What he wants is for her to make the best of it or go herself into the country where he would visit her or stay with her and come back to his social life from time to time. She seems unable to manage with this. Myself I know how she feels from the exquisite details about egoisms conflicting that Tolstoy does manage. I’ve experienced this in family life, feeling oneself disdained some, really not respected, and how painful this is, especially when something is done which points to it and the person denies it. Trollope knew our egos mattered: many of his scenes show characters reacting internally emotionally violently over this.

Months have passed when the last book (8) begins again. When we next see Vronsky, now worn, having again nearly gone mad with his remorse and leaving for the war front with a group of less than admirable types because he can’t get anything better together and listen to his mother’s vicious tongue about Anna this is a reinforcement of empathy for her — and him.

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1899 Twilight Moon by Isaak Ilyich Levitan

One then has to wade through at least a hundred pages of Levin material where we learn God is good, well-meaning, dwell in the Russian landscape, and if Levin is also dissatisfied, this are the terms on which we have life. At the close of the book Levin has a vision which shows him the value of his existence and makes him think he will act more loving to everyone no matter how much they irritate, but soon discovers he cannot change himself. I thought of the long shooting bird (grouse) sequences and how vividly (very like Trollope) Tolstoy entered into these and told them in detail; unlike Galsworthy though he did not at all feel for the animals endlessly murdered (by Oblonsky and finally done in by Levin too) — to show his manhood, nor even so much as register them as presences (which Trollope at least concedes).

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Ideally I would after listening to this reading, watch the recent Wright movie and read carefully Stoppard’s screenplay to see how the Anna character has been altered — and it has much — to make it speak to us today. I know Vronsky is blackened in the movie: in the book he was willing to give up much if only she would be at peace with the freedoms he sought and he was not seeking to have any other women (as he is in the movie).

The movie marginalizes Levin into sheer Lawrentian material (how often Wright turns a book into Lawrentian material, even Austen) and plays up the ironies of the Oblonsky story as relevant to us today. Wright also emphasizes the role Vronsky’s mother plays as Anna’s fundamental rival and enemy.

He also makes Oblonsky our everyone; at the close of the movie Macfayden is the only one in the room as the family gathers (including Levin and his wife) for some ritual who remembers Anna

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He is though as corrupt and useless to anyone but in his kind moments like these as he is in the novel

The Levin group must be put into the movie, but in the movie they function as the vast majority of human beings who buy into conventions and are made safe enough by by them.

The first sentence of AK now strikes me as potentially if unintentionally ironic about happy families, happy people. Tolstoy may be read against the grain.

Ellen

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I hate such shallow pretenses. I’d let the world say what it pleased and show no grief [for a dead husband] if I felt none – perhaps not show it if I did,” and (when Bertie & Charlotte do not reply) “you both know in what way husbands and wives generally live together. You know what freedom a man claims for himself and what slavery he would exact from a wife and you know how wives generally obey. Marriage means tyranny on one side, and deceit on the other, and a man is a fool to sacrifice his interests to such a bargain. The tragedy is a woman generally has no other way of living — Plater out of Trollope, Barchester Towers, uttered by Madeline

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Our first shot of Mrs Proudie, surveying the battlefield as she emerges from her coach — no one will tyrannize over her

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday I watched all 7 hours of Plater’s Barchester Chronicles in a row. A shoverdose. I was newly impressed by this mini-series based on the first 2 of Trollope’s Barsetshire cycle (6 altogether). Maybe this was the first time I ever watched it during the day. I was using it to try to absorb my mind. And it did, mostly. Only towards the very end when the happy ending became too insistent and maybe the pudding was egged by a slightly overdone final toast to Mr Harding (Donald Pleasance).

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First close up of Mr Harding, POV Mr Bold — Pleasance understands this Trollope type and plays Malachi of Malachi’s Cove as brilliantly

What’s so good is how it combines serious feeling with a kind of light comedy. Because I was watching it on a laptop, I could stop the Application (I guess it’d be called) and contemplate stills. Geraldine McEwan was magnificient as Mrs Proudie: a seething passion to dominate fueled her very body, and she was matched by Alan Rickman, who was not a comic figure but burned with a kind of matching maddened ambition.

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Slope at far left assessing Madeline; at far right Arabin, who does not try to conflict with her

Near its final moments he wishes Mrs Proudie and the Bishop to go on being alive the way they are forever. One theme of this film adaptation was ambition: so many of its scenes are characters discussing who is beating out who for what?

Against them is Donald Pleasance inimitable as Mr Harding whose lines are so delightful because they refuse to play this game — and he gets away with it. He would rather be destroyed quietly. He will resign the Wardenship because he’s in the moral wrong to hold such a large salary and the men he cares for have such a pittance. He will not take the deanship because he’s not fit for its duties, to which Nigel Hawthorne as Archbishop Grantly bursts out with a quivering anxiety of desire: what duties? there are none.

HowtocopewithNewspaperArticle
Discussing how to cope with a newspaper article (a serious matter): don’t answer it says Grantley and as a tactic it’s the one which can win if you have the safe position

Elaine Showalter says Barchester Towers is the first academic faculty satire and certainly that’s part of the mix. Walking away, resisting what will destroy you because the price for whatever it is is too (in terms of ego needs) is the tragic pattern of The Warden, whose references are jobs we can do without because we have some other minimum of support, in the warden’s case his small sinecure in the city. He is willing to take a step down, lose of pride and shallow admiration by others to save his sleep as he’s not got the rhineroceros skin getting on in this upper middle class world of privileges demands.

Erotic. How erotic it was too.

Suggestingthewalkblog
It’s not clear who suggests the walk, but it’s probably Bertie as Madeline cannot go — she has but one leg (marital abuse)

The central presence here Susan Hampshire as Signora Neroni, supposed to be the cynical perspective on what motivates everyone. She has had some real hard experience of marriage — and it’s not been pleasant. She is in the end very nasty to Rickman-Slope, humiliating him, exposing him spitefully. She’s a match for Mrs Proudie in this. She and her brother, Peter Blythe (well named) as Bertie Stanhope and Susan Edmonstone as Charlotte are without the usual ambition to rise and to make money but they are not without a desire for pleasure all the livelong day and they do it by living off their father who has one of these unjustifiably large incomes — and by using others. The close of one part ends in a moonlight walk with Janet Maw as Mrs Eleanor Bold, whose lines and feel are taken directly from Trollope’s Barchester Towers.

But they are not quite harmless. One should not marry Bertie Stanhope who no matter how innocent he seems, is not. His lines reminded me of Dicken’s Skimpole (Bleak House) and when they echoed by Mr Harding who also says he’s a child when it comes to money, knows nothing of it, we are to realize the uttered stance has to be unreal, hypocritical at some level.

TheInterviewblog
The interview: Mr Slope hazing Mr Harding — pray tell reader have you been on many interviews (I’ve endured 16, got the job, such as it was 8 times)

Yes the piece is a produce of Alan Plater’s pen, David Giles’s direction (uses caricature at high points) and the uncompromising costumes and production design of Jonathan Powell (who did the 1979 P&P this way), with the art of Juanita Waterson (costumes) and Chris Pemsel (basic design). Very picturesque fairy tale use of closely accurate costumes of the genteel classes of England in the mid-19th century.

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Mrs Vesey Stanhope & Susan Grantley family matters (aka Phyllida Law, Emma & Sophie Thompson’s mother; Angela Pleasance, Donald Pleasance’s daughter who is seen in much of BC eating her morning cereal with a long gold spoon)

This could have been and today make for a non-modern feel that will lose the series watchers. But all this emanates from Trollope’s Barsetshire vision which is about (among other things) the inescapability of ambition, erotic take-overs and sexploitation (I did use that word), with just these characters. Its Christianity is equated with selflessness, really giving to the other person what he or she wants (hoping what he or she wants will not be destructive), respect for the other or others, caught up in music which is presented as asking nothing, only giving an experience of beauty (“if you like music” says one of the sceptical old men).

This continual undercutting is Trollope too.

roundingBendblog
Her husband, having given up his job, Mrs Quiverful rounds the bend in her quest to get it back

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Mrs Quiverful at Mrs Proudie’s door — Mrs Bold too goes forth to fight for a man (her father; her hysterical appeal is made to Mr Bold)

Watching it mostly at night, only one part at a time, I concentrated more on — remembered as true the moving scenes of Maggie Jones as Mrs Quiverful doing battle on behalf of her “soft yielding” Mr Quiverful (Jonathan Adams). How desperate they are for, in need of money (14 children is their cry). How eros has done for them. They are the farmost edge of the themes’ continuum. They are easy to notice and as imitations of life feel for. Obvious. Watching it straight through — say Part 4 — one could see suspended an interweave, a kind of dance of couples just after the Stanhopes are introduced into the mix, really engineered by Mr Slope’s maneuverings. It’s then holding the film still and watching gestures and movements and react to them as true cores of emotion, kept private, only given social expression indirectly or silently.

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Note the gravity of Janet Maw’s expression as she rightly rejects Bertie Stanhope (who does need her money)

A young lovely Barbara Flynn provides undercutting calmness — as there is a calm center in Trollope’s books. He remains calm in the face of what he observes as it is sort of droll. It’s not that she takes an Olympian perspective, she’s too realistically wry for that.

WhyMrHardingblog
“Why Mr Harding?” Mary asks her brother, and answer comes there none because reason is, Mr Harding’s vulnerable, in reach

What you don’t notice at first is how she (like Mr Harding) does not participate in personal ambition or a ruthless or needy quest for erotic love. And she too is taken care of as Barsetshire is this idyllic place where everyone is taken care of (as long as they can give up pride at judicious moments). Other pastoral figures in the wistful line are Miss Ullathorne and her brother who live together, keep away from life’s battles, be they erotic love (the sister) or social gamemanship (the brother says he can’t take too much socializing).

It’s not that there is no chance of ultimate loss. People die in Barsetshire. (Stories where no one dies or people can come back from depth cannot have life’s emotions since these depend on knowledge life must come to an end.) But when they do, we are to rejoice at their achieving peace — here we slip reality altogether — except for those who need people to die at a particular moment in order to gain some advantage or place from someone else just then in power. The other end of this (upending death) is the pastoral tournament where a local countryman, young Greenacre (unfortunately not listed on IMDB) takes the lists and falls off his horse immediately, nearly breaking his head – but not quite. Mr Plomacy needed Greenacre to do this to please his lady boss, Miss Ullathorne at that moment, to keep his job. A delightful moment is when Eleanor Bold comes upon him and Bertie with glasses of wine and beer in the grass. It’s matched by Mr Harding at the bedside of the dying, seeing them out as it were.

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Mr Harding seeing old Bishop Grantley (Cyril Luckham) out

Telegramblog
On the other side of the door of the now dead man, Archbishop Grantley ready with the telegram to send to the PM to see if he can get his father’s position: Mr Harding must take it to the post office as it would not be seemly for Grantley …

But I myself did not want to see anyone out. I wanted the man I care most for in life to live and he was being helped to fight for his life by a team of people not far off in an operating room, cutting out a cancer in the middle of his body, the lower esophagus, just above the stomach. This was not novel art. In reality Alan Plater, a great screenplay writer (he did Fortunes of War from Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy which I’ve just now started), died recently. His is the sort of art that I love and wish were more respected: the art of the TV playlet where the TV experience’s strengths are understood.

I had brought a book with me for the day I had to get through but found I could not read. Trollope’s books, especially once in Rome, The Last Chronicle of Barset had seen me through a strained holiday, but the stress of what I was trying to keep on the top of my mind under control would not permit me to lose my mind altogether to conceive thoughts and images. I could only let them in ready-made (as it is in film-taking in). Plater is dependent on Trollope for his concoction.

Movingnearendblog
Mr Quiverful having got the job, the family moves — near the close of the film; it’d been better if it had been the close

I stopped watching only for short trips for food — we went to Starbucks for coffee and croissants (and a hot breakfast sandwich) and Noodles and Company for bowls of spicy spaghetti (and for Laura a juicy-drink, and for me a glass of white wine).

Ellen

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