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walter-white-and-jesse-pinkman-breaking-bad-movie (Small)
A glamorized photo image of a drawing of our two heroes — becoming a father-and-son pair in the second season

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve now begun the second season of Breaking Bad and will carry on as the series grips and fascinates me. I was able to view only the first four of the second season because I rent the DVDs from Netflix one disk at a time. Aesthetically it remarkably is still one continuous story with no sub-plot: this is not a multi-plot mini-series. We move back and forth between Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) but their story is one and intertwines.

The story line: Walter thinks he realizes he will need to make a great deal of money before he dies to provide for his wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn) and Walt Junior (RJMitte), the son disabled from cerebral palsy for the rest of their lives. Something like $737,000. He and Jesse must therefore carry on dealing with the homicidal sociopathic Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz). They witness Tudo brutally beat to death a man who works for him on a whim, and scare and offend one of his sidekicks.

Waltjessecornered (Custom)

Tuco murders the sidekick and then kidnaps Walter and Jesse and takes them out to a desert where he threatens to murder them — not before Jesse realizes their danger, tries to persuade Walter to arm themselves, but Walter with his usual over-cleverness says they will make up a poison which will kill Tuco. In the desert place they cannot use this poison, and only by luck and momentary insult, manage to unnerve Tuco, grab a gun out of Tuco’s hand and shoot him sufficiently that he falls and they run off. Threaded in we see Hank (Dean Norris) has been pressuring his wife Marie (Betsy Brandt), Skylar’s sister to see a psychologist for her kleptomania which she will not acknowledge and we watch Skylar refuse to pick up the phone or see her sister. She has though snitched on Marie to Hank. She is utterly self-righteous in her moral stance.

Meanwhile Hank (Dean Norris), Walter’s brother-in-law, investigating Tuco manages to find Tuco’s lair in the desert, and comes upon Tuco just as Walter and Jesse are fleeing (it does not seem improbable as one watches as time moves slowly); Hank shoots to kill Tuco and succeeds.

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Here he is shooting; afterward telling of the incident he appears shaken: he is intensely sympathized with

To account for his absence, Walter strips himself naked and appears in a supermarket and is taken to a hospital where he pretends to have had many hours of amnesia. Jesse is to claim he spent the whole time with a local addict and building manager, Jane Margolis (Kristin Ritter): Hank somehow discovers the relationship between Jesse and Tuco and has both Jesse and Jane in for questioning. He grills them mercilessly; he is especially insulting to Jane who he treats as a despicable prostitute. She holds out against him. But Hank has contacted Jesse’s parents who go into Jesse’s house and find his meth laboratory and resolve to throw him out of the house; they will have nothing more to do with him. They present frozen faces to this son, telling him to put his life together; he is now homeless. He had given his huge van and much of his equipment to someone to sell, and his bike is stolen; he manages after filthying himself with vile fluids from an outside John, to wrest the van back and drive to Walter’s house as the only refuge he knows.

Walter has been having troubles of his own. He discovers that the doctors in the hospital have the authority to keep him there — like a prisoner — because they deem him “unsafe” (to whom it’s not clear). He thus has to tell in confidentiality a doctor something of the truth to get the man to release him. Perhaps this will be part of what makes Hank start to suspect him. The suspense is that Hank is coming closer to Walt as involved in the new meth people in the area all the time.

Winning an abilty to come home Walt finds Skylar will have nothing to do with him; will not talk to him unless he reveals to her what he has been doing during the many absences from home. She was set off by being told that he has a second cell phone she does not know about. He cannot tell her about how he has been making money as he suspects (knows very well) she will be shocked and may well turn him in. We have seen how judgmental and treacherous to Marie she is over Marie’s shoplifting. She behaves utterly obnoxiously to Walt now — a cold hard mean face, out for hours; he begs her to be humane to him, she will not. The son has changed his name to Flynn (a gesture), but she has throughout behaved in a semi-alienated askew way.

During the time Skylar is out, Walter becomes aware of Jesse’s presence and after insulting and berating Jesse, demanding Jesse leave with no more money, Walter relents, gives Jesse his share of the money, and then offers him breakfast. Unlike Skylar and Walt Junior, Jesse gratefully accepts the meal.

***************************

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Jane Margolis, browbeaten and exhausted by Hank — who is ultra-respectful of Skylar

What I think is of genuine interest here is the story’s meaning is the reverse of what the “creator” (Vince Gilligan) and some of the other film-makers (directors, actors themselves, cinematographers) claim it is. In the feature they stick to the idea this is a story about a man becoming a criminal, an antagonist, a bad guy.

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Anna Gunn as the self-satisfied rigid wife (harridan is the feel of this still)

Especially startling is the way they and Anna Gunn talk about the wife: they all talk of how she has “boundaries” and begin by saying she doesn’t “leave him” because she’s pregnant and has a disabled son. why should she leave him and so quickly at all? No one in this series has read E.M. Forster’s “Two Cheers to Democracy” where he declared if his loyalties were torn he hoped he would have the courage to chose his real friend over what he is told is his country’s interest or norms. I was appalled at how when early in the second season, he was suffering, her first reaction was he had no right to take his illness out on her. No one in this show seems to have heard the word “love” or understand what it might mean. She has no loyalty to Walter whatsoever; her intrusions would be bearable were they done in his interest but they are not; they are done because she asserts she has the right to direct his destiny and choices — as in the first season she pretended to take his wishes into account but really successfully demanded he do the chemotherapy for huge sums. Without a care who would pay or how. As if it didn’t matter. She refuses to admit she expects him to come up with the money. How angry she’d get if she were thrown out of her house for non-payment.

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Jesse homeless, broke, his bike is stolen from him

Jesse’s parents are a parallel. Not once throughout 11 episodes have they tried to see what their son is, backed him when he tried to get a real job (at a desk, wearing a suit, with respect), did not a thing to help him; and now they throw him out because they found a lab and walk away. They think only of their fear of the law and what others may think of them. Throughout the first and second season Jesse is the only person to undercut the values of the system his life story thus far shows us he is marginalized out of, forced to be a person doing absurd things for money if he remains legal. He is witty and actually talks to Walter, occasionally giving him good advice or comments which thus far Walter fails to take.

We have seen Walter charged outrageous sums for what he is told to his face are probably useless treatments for a fatal disease; these same doctors have the power to imprison him in a hospital if they decide his illness is a threat in some way to the way they want people to behave. He is driven to tell one person a truth to avoid immurement. In the US ordinary people are deprived of liberty for crimeless behavior.

It is troubling the way the disabled son is continually treated as semi-alienated, sarcastic, suddenly asserting power when he can. It’s a combination of stigmatizing and making him behave as badly by intuition as anyone around him.

Hank is the only person thus far to show any compassion for someone close to him: to Marie. She calls him indestructible. Is he (we are therefore to ask)? At the same time he is a ferocious bully who behaves to those he perceives as low in status as despicable animals, especially Jane (she is to bought off with a root beer).

I’ve been told and read that Breaking Bad is worth watching for its indictment of US values and life and it’s been asserted that the film-makers know this. If they do, they don’t understand what it is they are indicting.

Ellen

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Pete Seeger on stage 1960

Dear Friends and readers,

I just watched a 90 minute American Masters program about the life and singing of Pete Seeger, an extraordinary hero. If only more people were as brave and good as he was, what a better world this would be. I put this link here in the hope others will watch it too:

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/pete-seeger/full-film-pete-seeger-the-power-of-song/2864/

One of Seeger’s choices to pay attention to: he refused to do a commercial selling cigarettes with the Weavers. The other three were willing in order to be paid the big sum. He saw correctly this was agreeing to sell cancer, and would change the meaning of their folk group ever after. A small but important gesture. However, not powerful beyond himself since so many would sell themselves. The program is well worth watching for understanding the success of the political hounding of this man and how what could have been a progresive politically galvanizing change in the US through folk music was thwarted: Seeger was centrally responsible for the folk revival in the 1960s, but it could in the 50s (when he was part of the Weavers) and more recently been a force for political change but has not. We see the role the FBI has played in the US since the 1940s.

For more songs, testimony, and life history of Seeger see my blog Pete Seeger has died.

Ellen

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800px-PaleyFest_2010_-_Breaking_Badcast
The writer and cast of Breaking Bad (HBO, 2008-13)

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

breaking-badCranston

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

Breaking-BadJesse

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

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As the worrying wife

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

End of half of season 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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

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MrsB
Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt)

MrBates
John Bates (Brendan Coyle)

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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

REalizing

Latercollectinghim

And what did he there?

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

MrCarterBates

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

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

LadymaryBlake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shepraying

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

Sewingmachine

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

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Dowager comically (she had not expected this) looking on

Sadness is not left altogether behind in these new pairs.

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

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

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

MrMasonDaisy

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

Daisy

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

wellacted

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

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

Palacerestaurant

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

Drew

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

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

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

Edith (1)

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

coraRobert

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

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

For official recaps across the four seasons

Next week the coda.

Ellen

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Batesemerging
Bates emerging from the cottage where he now lives alone: second shot

Bateswalkingoff
Bates walking the walk, last shot, having just said ‘Nothing is over and done with, Mrs Hughes … Be aware nothing is over. Nothing is done with.”

Mrs Hughes: ‘Why must you be so hard on Mr Bates? … Don’t you want to be honest?’
Anna: But I know him. I know what he’d do. I can’t risk his future … ‘

Hamlet: ‘What would he do/Had he the motive and the cue for passion/That I have? …’

Dear friends and readers,

In Part 5 of this season, there is a remarkable departure from just about all the parts we’ve had in four seasons: the multi-plot structure where at least 3 stories and 3 sets of characters (sometimes more) seen throughout Downton Abbey gives way to an almost Hamlet-like structure: the story of the Bates’s (Brendon Coyle and Joanne Froggart) dominates in way we’ve not seen before: I counted 11 separate scenes where he is either on-screen, or the center of a strained discussion, several of them long, cut up (segmented or interwoven with others), with Bates himself opening and closing the hour.

We have the usual parallel themes, here of of suspicion: Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) convinced young Pegg (not credited on IMBD) is a thief and acting on it:

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Lady Grantham asserts it does matter that something was stolen;

pride: Molesley (Bernard Gallagher) painfully holding firm to his sense of himself no matter how self-destructive this is

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Molesley cannot forget this sense of himself, of what’s due him from him;

the farmer’s son, Tim Drew (Andrew Scarborough) holding on to his place in the order of things

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Does not the past mean something?;

stories which spins further away: the new lady’s maid, Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) with her sewing machine has a past she must hide and can be blackmailed on

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No problem sewing Mrs Patmore’s (Lesley Nichol) apron;

or belong to another order of feeling: Alfred’s (Matt Milne’s) competing to become a chef at world-city French restaurant; part of attenuated conventional love stories: Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) again half-courted by someone from her past, Evelyn, Lord Napier(Brendon Patricks) and Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) emerging pregnancy; with Michael Gregson (Charles Edward), the father vanished, she bravely prosaically takes a cab to a gynecologist

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(Again for a recap see I should have been a blogger.)

But what grips and holds the attention is Mr Bates’s increasing seething wrath and his perception (Bates is no fool) that the man who violently raped Anna was Lord Gillingham’s valet, Mr Green (Nigel Harman), and Anna’s way of silencing, countering, repressing him. They have five extraordinary scenes, from which I pick just this still of Anna:

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She refuses to be touched by him, to allow him to have sex with her. As played by Froggart, she feels more than shamed, dirtied, to blamed, the very act of sex has become distasteful to her, bringing back memories; and we do get this sense that she has become aware that marriage is a kind of forced sex too.

The slightest gesture electrified with wild feeling:

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he covers her hand with his when he begins to compel her to admit to the assault

I say he is no Hamlet because do not think for a moment he doubts who did it: to Mrs Hughes: ‘Was it the last night of the house party? … Then I know who it really was … I don’t believe you, I do not believe you, I think it was Lord Gillingham’s valet … The way his teeth are seen reminded me of a fox’s teeth, pointed, jagged:

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Talking to Mrs Hughes

Yes implicitly we are let into Anna’s changed understanding of her husband since he was let out of jail: she now knows what he’d do. Mrs Hughes tells him no use pulling his knife on her; she will not tell. More interestingly is A moment later though, Bates is seen crying, and then seeks Anna out. While he knows the way to win Anna back is to assert she is not ‘found out’ or ‘spoiled’ or less loved by him: “I have never been prouder nor loved you more than I love you at this moment now. She: ‘Truly?’ He: ‘Truly’

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Like Molseley, he knows ‘it’s too late’ to turn away, pretend to ignore or forget the crashing awakening trauma that has changed things. The man must not get away with it; some retaliation is from him a burning need: ‘if it was the valet, he is a dead man.’

Beyond the importance of structure, this part reveals how central is the script of a film. It provides not just what is uttered (and words matter, movies have words in them) but the tool of how everything is put together, what elides, what blends, what shifts from one angle and shot (a movie’s unit of meaning) to another.

Formulas and manuals of screenplay writing insist they must propel forward somehow or other at all times, stay within a tight pattern ever on the move; Fellowes’s scripts are not like this: they meander, they spend time filling in from memory, the past, filling characters out; this one is makes for a poetry of gouged feeling all round — even Jimmy cannot resist the spiteful suggestion that Alfred did not just miss winning a place. The characters are not given the variety nor verbal subtlety or density they’d have in a novel, but as ensemble art, this one’s sudden compression of all the others stories into slots interrupting Anna and John Bates’s agon is worth observing for anyone seeking to understand and defend soap opera and costume drama aesthetics and ways of commenting on its viewers’ worlds.

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The first shot of Anna shows her in her room, a book on her table, nearing a window and mirror; this is the second

It strikes me I should have asked why is Bates made the center of the agon and not Anna, after all he was not raped. This is strong evidence of the masculinist discourse and emphasis everywhere we go; there is justice done Anna, and the actress, Froggart manages to convey an enormous amount of what she endures, suffers, is silent over. Since she has refused to tell, refused to act, will not confide in anyone, however, probable this may seem, she cannot be the center of a popularly appealing drama — we see here why it’s necessary to leave realism to put the woman’s point of view across.

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Mrs Hughes as conduit

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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David Denby of the New Yorker has it right:

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

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

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

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

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

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Ed Pegram (Stacey Keach)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Hoffamily

Dear friends and readers,

When Izzy and I arrived at our local better cinema and saw to get into one of the movies we had to join onto a long line thick with people, I was startled to find this was for Saving Mr Banks! which in the trailers had been represented as about a crabby old maid schoolteacher type giving the warm and wonderful Walt Disney a hard time, rejecting his of course charming Disneyland. We had assumed it was for The Hobbit.

I figured and still think that the 4 full Mary Poppins books are not widely read, but liked by a sub-group of reading girls, Anglophilic, with an unusual penchant for implicit meanings and respect for the old-fashioned values of decorum, titillated by strictness. I liked the 1964 Mary Poppins musical, but know it is wildly disparate from Travers’s books. (See my blog on Pamela Lyndon Travers, woman writer of children’s books.)

As we stood there and saw the line grow past us and out the door into the cold, I reminded myself the new film, Saving Mr Banks, did have big-name stars with strong talent (Emma Thompson as PL, Tom Hanks as Walt); was a Disney film and thus guaranteed-to-be-wholesome film, and of course would be connected to the 1964 Mary Poppins film, which perhaps had made a very distorted view of the original character into a household icon.

I’m writing this blog because I’ve since discovered that in more popularly oriented movie-houses parents had brought children (not what the crowd at this art house does) and overtly removed these kiddies from the unexpectedly unsuitable material. That means the hum and buzz is giving a wrong impression of what this film is about and is largely responsible for the big audiences; the few thoughtful reviews concentrate on how the film misrepresents the final outcome of the strong conflicts between Travers and Disney over the nature, mood, characteristics and specifics of the 1964 Mary Poppins film: in the film she relents mostly and is deeply moved by the film insofar as it reflects the autobiograpical sources of her books; in reality; she hated the film.. But see Caitlin Flannagan’s Becoming Mary Poppins.

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Promotional shot at the premier to which Travers had not been invited lest she convey her sharp disapproval: the photo shows she disguised her feelings that night

What’s been left out from accounts is more than 50% of Saving Mr Banks‘s matter: P.L. Travers’s childhood in Australia; few stills of Ruth Wilson as Mrs Hof, Colin Farrell as Mr Hof (the original we are told of Mr Banks in the books), and hardly any retelling of how Mr Hof is first responsible for moving his family from the comparative respectability and comfort of an upper middle class home in a citified area of Australia (New South Wales? Queensland?) into the hinterlands (called Allora in the film, perhaps central or western Australia) where he proceeded to become a thorough alcoholic and failure as a bank manager (someone who could not cope with the stress, repression, hard commercialism of any money-making occupation). We see him humiliate himself and family in a scene on a public stage, fall to the ground and slowly die of TB and delirium tremens. At one point Mrs Hof tries to kill herself by drowning. The child, Helen, called Ginty (Annie Rose Buckley) by her father, who since renamed herself Pamela and then PL (Lyndon a middle name) is totally involved, worshipping and feeling for her father,

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trying to save her mother. A sister turns up to help them, dressed in the film like Mary Poppins in the book with a little of her outward sternness.

This does explain to me for the first time the strange turn the 1964 Mary Poppins takes: Mr Banks risks losing his job by refusing to give all his time to his work when he is made to realize he is neglecting his family; he refuses to yield to pressure and insists on going to fly a kite at the film’s end, when of course he is forgiven and hired back by the bank’s aged boss: Dick Van Dyke played this role as well as Bert, the match man, made in the film a lover-suitor for Mary Poppins, while in the books this is only hinted at, slightly and sometimes denied. There is no such story in any of the four MP books written by 1964 (MP, MP Comes Back, MP in the Park, MP opens the door). It is a much bowdlerized version of Travers’s father’s behavior. In life he did not die of TB either, but influenza; the real Mrs Hof had connections with powerful whites in Australia (and her sister had money).

Saving Mr Banks then may be said to inject back into the books the self-reflexive deeper material compelling the writer’s creation of Mary Poppins as a kind of strange savior of the family: the strangeness is in the way she does this: in adventure after adventure the children find themselves suddenly in another realm of reality, often connected to the zodiac or stars in the sky, the sun, sometimes natural worlds in a green park. Sometimes the figures met there are bullies, mean, or downtrodden and wanting and in need of affection. Mary is called upon to fix a situation, she does and she is worshipped there as a good kind all powerful woman (not the stern cold governess-figure she seems to be to outsiders), and each time the children return to Cherry Tree Lane somehow rejuvenated.

None of the above gets into the 1964 Mary Poppins except the passage to another idyllic place (pastoral and filled with penguins and animated figures) through Bert’s chalk sidewalk pictures (something that does happen in one of the four books’ adventures). Some does get into this 2013 Saving Mr Banks: the outward stern, cold, fussy, dominatrix feel of Ms Travers or Pamela as played superbly well by Emma Thompson is modeled partly on the book’s Mary Poppins. Thompson also conveys non-caricatured hurt, quiet moments of self-doubt, disquiet, with gestures that at moments reminded me of her most magnificent performance in Wit.

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The advertisements for the film emphasize the relationship of Travers and Disney (much idealized, and played more subtly than at first appears by Tom Hanks):

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Some of the Saving Mr Banks‘s worst moments come out in this strand: Walt’s long preachy speech to Pamela (he insists on a first-name basis right away) about how everyone can have or do what they want if only they try or work hard enough (a popular rightist American myth — Disney was an arch-reactionary it is true). (See Slate article on this meeting where she agreed to go along with the film.) Thompson’s imitation of a wry whose guardedness isolates her and accounts for how unhappy she makes herself (message: socializing is the most important thing to do well in life).

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The strand in Saving Mr Banks which tells the story of Travers’s strong reluctance to give over the rights to Disney, her fights with the creative song-writers, Richard and Robert Sherman (David Schwartzman and D. J. Novak) and script writer, Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) are part of the finer threads in the film: we see them inventing and singing some of the better and still well-known numbers from the 1964 film — which as a song-and-dance musical is marvelous (especially where Van Dyke dances with a chorus of men and with Julie Andrews up a stairway into the sky).

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I felt nostalgia for the film as these were sketched out by the creators, and Thompson-as-Travers’s disapproval added a piquant sauce to the mix. I remember how Izzy loved the film as a child. She has read at least a couple of the books.

The best companionable feeling in the Saving Mr Banks derives from Thompson as P.L. Travers’ relationship with Paul Giamatti as Ralph, her driver. He is the on-going person we see her with; at the first she bullies him and mocks his efforts at ingratiation and talk about the sunny weather, but eventually she comes to depend on him, especially when she has no invitation to the premier and he drives her there and provides her with support.

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Driving Ms Travers

The most natural moment of friendship occurs when she is leaving L.A. after having rejected the script when she discovers it will have animated figures (she had been promised it would not) doing inanely silly gestures with clothes. She is seen sitting in the grass deeply distressed to think of what is happening to her story, and the driver comes over and they talk. Here she learns of his disabled daughter at home; I have read that disabled figures are figuring more in mainstream films, and Thompson as Travers is several times rebuked for her demands for formality by stories of the hardships others experienced in life as if precise manners must be an indication of obtuse snobbishness.

As she and her driver bid adieu, she addresses him as Ralph (his first name) and he addresses her as Pamela. Throughout the film her formal or more old-fashioned approach to life is seen in her discomfort in being required to start relationships on a first name basis immediately. I understand that as that is the way it was when I was a child. It’s not snobbishness; it’s a way of making some relationships more special and acknowledging intimacy that’s real. She is followed by Disney to England and he preaches his preachy-speech of his hardships in life, his father, and voila she is convinced — having liked “Let’s go fly a kite” and the depiction of Mr Banks in the film (by David Tomlinson).

Often the best parts of films don’t make it anywhere near the trailer, but this time they are also failing to get into the reviews — perhaps deliberately? Makers and critics of films like to see what is not discussably in the open brought out visually and through story but themselves in the case of expected popular audiences not risk going into tabooed matter.

Saving Mr Banks‘s script is by two women: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith. I wondered if they had loved the Mary Poppins books, and wrote this movie in tribute to P.L. with a view of doing some justice to her and revealing some of the deeper explicable sources of the books.

I am interested in Australian literature, which I now see the Mary Poppins books belong to, and am tempted to buy one of the biographies of P.L. Travers. Patricia Deemers’s Twayne book may be the sensible one, but Valerie Lawson’s look like the writing of someone deeply engaged by the author and her books. Out of the Sky She Came: The Life of P.L. Travers, Creator of Mary Poppins. The sky provides the highest moments in the books and the 1964 film; this more sceptical disillusioned film (when it’s at its best) makes the sky the place planes fly across, but from time to time a sky is filmed, blue, with lovely clouds, as symbols of the books’ visions.

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Bert and Mary looking up into the sky (1964 Mary Poppins)

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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Dear friends and readers,

Some nine days ago I put Anthony Trollope’s satiric newspaper article, “The Uncontrolled Ruffianism of London” on my website and described its immediate context on my blog as preface to a review of Emelyne Godfrey’s Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence … . It’s one of the many many intriguing documents Godfrey discusses in this, her companion volume to her earlier equally original Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and Society (see Caroline Reitz’s review in Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, 59-60 [2011]).

Both books, taken together, depict the era in which modern crime fiction (mysteries, police procedurals) developed as one of the responses to the growth of large cities where crowds of people unknown to one another live in close proximity; others are new permutations in norms for middle-class masculinity (as these are men who had to walk or today at least drive and take public transportation in said cities) and defensive tactics for women who feel themselves at risk or want to participate aggressively too. The root is the very paranoia that Trollope unerringly describes and partly mocks in his timely article.

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“I struck him again and again” (from Femininity, Crime & Self-Defence)

In a nugget, Godfrey is looking at crime from the point of view of the city-goer, using popular writing and images and activities (clubs, educational groups), works of popular playwrights and texts by two literary geniuss: Anthony Trollope and Arthur Conan Doyle. Richard Sennett is an important source for her fundamental bases: Sennett (whom she quotes at key points) says modern cities are structured so as to have public spaces where the threat of social contact between upper, middle and lower classes is minimalized — they are planned to keep middling citizens from the “underclass” (the under- and unemployed, the poverty-striken, those driven into criminal and violent activites), but these breaches are easy to cross (p. 3). There are just so many pedestrians, commuters all higgedly-piggedly hurrying along. A fear of exposure emerges, a horror of injury.

Godfrey studies a popular movement then (and there is an equivalent one now), partly paranoic, of self-defense seen in the way male violence is depicted in the era. There is the question of what is a socially acceptable masculine behavior: self control and self-restraint were and still are part of the upper class gentleman ethos; the problem arises that men therefore may see themselves as potential victims as well as perpetrators of crime. When she looks at the interiority of male heroes you find a restrained flamboyancy; sartorial restraint is a index of modesty, reserve, manliness, professionalism. Godfrey has studied a slew of books on the history of respectable fear and where this comes from, on media panic, on figures she calls “men of blood” (violent men who yet stay within legal bounds, e.g., Trollope’s Lord Chiltern in his Palliser books. She looks at male anxieties and some of the weirder deadly instruments that were developed — like the truncheon Phineas Finn ill-advisedly carries with him (“the life-preserver”) in Phineas Redux.

Middle class respectable men were also supposed to protect women from men imagined on the attack. Novels in the era dramatize the maltreatment of women, e.g., Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall; Trollope repeatedly uses trope of animal cruelty to depict a ruthless male; the most typical opening of a Conan Doyle Holmes story is a gentlewoman comes to Holmes for protection.

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Everyone remembers John Thaw’s magnificent performance in the film adaptation of Sign of Four, but the story opens with the elegantly dressed Jenny Seagrove, all anxiety, come to Mr Holmes for help.

The later 19th century is a period of wide-spread investigations into methods of self-defense. She divides her book. Part 1 covers hitherto neglected plays popular among middle class audiences. Part 2 is a study of Trollope’s exploration of masculinity in the large political novels which take place in cities and show the importance of a measured response to aggression. Part 3 reveals the Sherlock Holmes narratives as a collection of lessons expressive of Doyle’s views on reasonable force in response to violent crime; they too promote the cause of measured self-defense for gentlemen. One new element emerged for me: I had not realized how frequently the Holmes stories focus on uses of weapons, many of them cruelly wounding.

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Henry Ball’s belt-buckle pistol of 1858, Royal Armories, Leeds

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Anti-garotte collar and advertisement

Part I (Chapters 1 & 2) tell of the xenophobia (“foreign crimes” hit British shores) and class fears that led to the build-up of myths around a phenomenon that did occur but not with the frequency claimed: the garrotting people. Godfrey begins her book with singularly cruel execution in Cuba in 1852: a man was strangled to death in a wooden chair while an iron collar passed around his neck screwed ever tighter; his windpipe is crushed (p 19). Garrotta was the name for this kind of capital punishment and in a twist became used by robbers; you threatened to strangle your victim to death. There were such incidents on London streets where people began increasingly relying on police protection: a 1st incident is recorded 12 Feb 1851.

Godfrey looks at the panic from a literary angle, and debates in texts about nature of middle class heroism. She discusses the 1857 play by C.J. Collins’s Anti-Garrotte, a farce which reveals how reports build an awareness of such crimes; in a later unlicensed play, The Garrotters by William Whiffles, a man feels dread reading about all these strangulation robberies (p 21). The 1853 Penal Servitude Act that allowed more convicts to be given tickets of leave helped justify paranoia; these were conditional pardons for good behavior, with the person released in the UK instead of Australia — such convicts became associated with garrotters. Descriptions appeared in magazines: a 3 people act; Henry Wilkinson Holland interviewed thieves; here were articles on house-breaking equipment which anticipate Holmes uses to break into residences (panel cutter, crobars, skeleton key, lanterns). Later American readers had Wm D Howells’ play The Garrotters (1890s). Anti-immigration and racial fears (terms like “thuggees”) feelings were stirred so for religiously-dressed motivated Indians who carried a scarf (a rumal) were called “noose-operators.” Mid-Victorian novel, Confessions of a Thug (189), our evil Arab, Ameer Ali robs and kills for gain, but he also takes life for sport and exploits and murders anyone showing him kindness. Murder by strangulation is part of the imagined point; in an interview a female thuggee takes pride in having killed 21 people. Fear that exhibit in British Museum teaches these criminal types how to perform such evil crimes

Misogyny plays into this too: a recent book by Neil Story concludes most garrotters were female (ex-prostitutes). A modern film, The world is Not Enough presents Pierre Brosnan as a James Bond tortured by a garrotting woman. (11 years earlier Nicholas Meye’s The Deceivers presented Brosnan as Wm Savage, a British thuggee hunter learning art of manipulating the rumal.) It should be said there were no statistics on female victims.

Tellingly Richard Sennett is quoted suggesting that the fear of exposure leads to a militarized conception of everyday experience as attack and defense. In Phineas Redux Trollope suggests there was a run on life-preservers The Times described a weapon called an anti-garrotte glove; this was a gauntlet fortified with claws, hooks, blades. Some of these show people felt immediate killing or maiming someone else in self-defense as personal protection just fine (p 46). Another recent book, by Rob Sindall (Street Violence in the 19th Century) argues the panic was self-induced and over-wrought. Tom Browns’ Schooldays presented the middle class male ideal and shows concerns over middle class young man’s ability to defend himself. Clerks felt in danger, and acted on norms of self help, independence, masculine self-control — victims becomes feminized (as in the rape in Kleist’s famous novel). Delirium tremens seen as shaming the victim. She notes that Emily Bronte’s novel has many weapons; Gaskell showed that the Rev Bronte kept arms.

[This is utterly germane to our world in the US today where it seems to be open season on young black men since Zimmerman got away with murder: or maybe it's that those of us who were unaware of how black men are regarded as dispensable, attacked with impunity on the grounds the person was made anxious (really) are no longer ignorant. Trollope's article remains sceptical, ironic: he does not say there are no ruffians in the streets, but the man who lives in terror of this as an epidemic, acquires a weapon, is perhaps more in danger from the weapon being taken from him (how modern this argument is, just substitute the word gun for truncheon).]

In Chapter 3 is ostensibly on the Ticket of Leave man, Godfrey studies Victorian
obsessions over middle-class (white) masculine fitness as an index to “the health of nation” and how such ideas stoked fascination with street violence. Images formed in melodrama were deployed to create a garrotter-villain on stage: he’d have a black face, wrinkles, would be degenerate. All in contrast to new middle class ideals of civilized behavior; the magazine All the Year Round insisted there was a link between crime and disease. In this context ticket-of-leave men are seen as belonging to an abject group, who also are involved in a “tide of sewage, disease, and cholera” outbreaks.

Trollope’s is not the only sane voice: Henry Mayhew interviews convicts to show their difficulties in finding work, how they suffer false re-arrests (Stop and frisk anyone?); and Mayhew gives an account of a garrotting supposedly from the point of view of the criminal; the problem here is his story implies garrotters and convicts are the same people (p 31.). Two 19th century plays, the well-known Tom Taylor’s Ticket of Leave Man reveals society’s prejudice to develop sympathy for the rehabilitation of Robert Brierly, duped into a forgery scheme; this play was broadcast in 1937, and revived in Victoria theater, 1966 — the archetypal heart of the story is a good character thrown into bad situation.

Another play, Ticket of Leave has good and bad ticket-of-leave men. One Bottles, disguised as butler plans to garrot and rob his master, Mr Aspen Quiver. A wrongly accused convict saves Mr Quiver; again the play does not address false misconceptions. One famous attack in 1862 on Hugh Pilkington (MP for Blackburn) helped lead to a call for the old system to be put back in place. A Director of Prisons, Joshua Jebb, tried to express his support for ticket-of-leaved men. but draconian security measures against violence were passed in an act of 1863 that stipulated flogging.

Part 1 ends with a chapter about the weapons people carried, how several publications, most notably Punch made fun of these and (like Trollope) suggested the person in more danger than the garrotter by carrying such a weapon. There are plays where farcically we see characters over-estimate the danger and react hysterically to information received in the papers. There really were spiked collars, with self-injury the most likely result. Godfrey suggests articles in magazines register a perceived reader’s reluctance to depend on a perceived incompetent police force. Urban heroes those who supported and aided the police; you were supposed to remain calm; you fight back with similar weapons. Gradually what emerged was a civilizing offensive, an adoption of violence adverse perspective; over-arming seen as form of hysteria, but onus on individual to protect himself.

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“Life-preservers” (so-called), like the one Phineas carries and imagines himself threatening Bonteen with at their club door (see Ruffianism)

Part II: Anthony Trollope : aggression rewarded and punished, 1867-87

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A dramatized scene from Phineas Finn

Chapter One is called threats from above and below, fighting for franchise and concentrates on Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux. Some notes: Phineas’s response to violence affects social standing and political career; the question of what is a gentleman important in the novels; Trollope puts forward Phineas as an ideal of gentlemanliness: social grace, innate goodness. Political action in Phineas Finn is complicated by the question of what is appropriate aggression and what shows one’s fitness to vote (Trollope not a democrat). While we see politically motivated violence, Trollpoe distrusts political violence because he suggests it uses political ideal as a cloak. This is placing the cart before the horse (p 65), but the Times agreed: the legitimate citizen was not a man of the crowd (p 66). While Trollope is looks at the problem of bellicosity in all its aspects (a duke can be as violent as a collier, e.g, Chiltern and Kennedy) and suggests women do not forgive blows (p. 67); it is the pedestrian’s encounter with crime that is the focus of the Palliser series as a whole.

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Chiltern heading for the duel

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Phineas waiting

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The duel

Trollope in his earlier phases seems pro-duel (p. 68): Godfrey goes over the history of attitudes towards duelling swiftly: it was always at odds with rule of law, but the first successful murder prosecution of a duellist was in 1838 (p 71): the voiced Victorian objection was a man left his family destitute. Trollope‘s depiction does, however, throughout betray a nostalgia for outmoded code of honor. His Chiltern resists the new cultural changes, and we are asked to see that when he can channel his violence into hunting, it is a splendid gift for providing healthy and even egalitarian (so Trollope argues though he knew how expensive it was) sports for men. Phineas reluctance is carefully not motivated by cowardice; Trollope means to show us that a man’s bravery need not depend on weapons; Phineas shows bravery and coolness in the face of death; he shoots up into the air, no murderer. The duel in Trollope is also a male secret, a male rite of passage (p 75); but we see how Phineas leaves himself open to Quintus Slide, to blackmail and finally an accusation of murder as a man of blood.

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Brooding Kennedy

Chapter 5: Lord Chiltern and Mr Kennedy are two violent poles. Chiltern is the unrestrained man of blood, he should exercise more self-control, there’s a lack of manliness in not being self-controlled; but violence in Chiltern stems from lack of purpose and frustration (p 78); fox hunting allows him to use and master his finer senses – there are fears here too of the over-sexed male; Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wilfell Hall is anti-hunting. Godfrey points out that Children’s fiery temper does not harm him and men need physical confidence to survive.

Phineas too saves Kennedy, and the scene in Phineas Finn is based on a real life incident in 1862 sparking garrotting panic (pp.83-86). Trollope here seems for citizens arrest, and Phineas’s protection of Kennedy exemplary (by inference though Kennedy seen as impotent male who does not sexually satisfy his wife either). The norm here seems to be that the ideal (male) citizen does not actively seek confrontation, but exercises judgement (the right to bear arms is not the point). In Phineas Redux, he learns that you do not openly threaten, that weapons themselves are endanger people — he becomes too wrathful in his own disillusion and disappointment. His encounters with with Bonteen parallel encounters in earlier book; hunting scenes are parallel; this time Phineas hurts his horse, but this time frustration, his exclusion and feelings of inadequacy erupt. As ever Trollope is intrigued by what precipitates violent turn in human nature (p 108): what really unites all these stories is the male characters are driven into violence by a combination of what is expected of them as men (success) and what is thrown at them (scorn). Godfrey finds a parallel in the treatment of the cloak in Trollope’s Phineas Redux and one of Conan Doyle’s stories; more important is that Conan Doyle restricts his dramatization of males in psychological pain to the men Sherlock Holmes investigates and indites so that the latter series implicitly criminalizes what Trollope presents as part of his heroes’ behavior. (See my Heterosexual heroism in Trollope.)

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Stuart Wilson endows Ferdinand Lopez with a pained humiliated expression on his face before breaking out into threatened violence against his wife

There is in Phineas Redux and The Prime Minister a fascination with the murderous life–preserver (as we shall see fascination in Sherlock Holmes with exotic weapons) and other more usual weapons (whips). Interestingly, Godfrey likens Phineas wounded by lack of status, rank, respect with Dickens’s Bradley Headstone’s hatred of Eugene Wrayburn (in Our Mutual Friend) — but not Ferdinand Lopez’s; of course both books are virulent with antisemitism in the portraits of the whip-threatening Lopez and Emilius who does cravenly murder Bonteen from behind. So finally, as opposed to his newspaper article (“Ruffianism”), Trollope takes a stern, not comic approach, to the wielding of deadly weapons.

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The Adventure of Abbey Grange — beautifully brings all motifs together, woman needing protection, sadistic cruelty, flamboyant defenses

Part III: Physical Flamboyance in Holmes Canon (1887-1914): on Holmes and martial arts continued in comments section 3.

The conclusion and assessment of a change of norms in the era in comments section 4.

Ellen

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

I do like to be beside the seaside

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inside the car

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On the bus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Camper at races, Ray and Amy making love inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coming into present time Margate

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

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Walking up to the cathedral

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

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In cathedral others tour and Ray remembers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lenny held back from trying to fight with Vince

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

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

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

*********************

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

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Young Amy looking on and wishing Jack wouldn’t

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

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

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The last still of the movie

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

Ellen

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