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The-Lunch-Box
Saajan Fernandes (Irran Khan) and Lla (Nimrat Kaur) in The Lunchbox (2013)

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Marion (Dame Janet Suzmann) and Solomon (Khayalethu Anthony) in Solomon and Marion (2014)

Dear friends and readers,

This weekend I managed to see and want to recommend two poignant (and at moments comic) dramatized stories from abroad about an unexpected or unlikely couple finding meaning and solace in one another. This seems to be almost a theme of this year: it’s the core of Philomena too. They are both parables about contemporary lonely and politically shattered lives in large cities and small country towns.

The first is easier to reach as it is a film, directed and written by Ritesh Batra, and still in theaters and where Izzy and I went had a reasonably large audience in the auditorium. As she wrote, it is probably wise to read about dabbawalas at wikipedia first — though it is not necessary as the opening sequence takes you on a journey of the lunchbox in question from the house of LLa, the housewife who put the hot delicious food in its containers, through the streets, trains, carts, and to the office and desk of Saajan, the managerial clerk who is lucky enough wrongly to receive it. The film is as much a study of the lives of modern Indians living in over-crowded Mumbai (Bombay), individually isolated, lonely, and with little chance of doing anything personally fulfilling.

Since I’ve been reading about the supposed universal paradigm underlying most screenplays in cinema, it felt beautifully ironic to find myself watching a film which does not fit into this, mostly because it’s not western in origin, and its patterning is a much modified descendent of the popular 2 and 1/2 hour extravaganza of music, dance, and story Bollywood is famous for. I’ve no doubt that Syd Field and others would still say that in the first ten minutes of the film we are introduced to the main characters (the two principals), and the dramatic premise and situation of the film: they are lonely, without any friend.

Saajan is an office worker, a widower, spending long days in a impersonal overcrowded place, traveling amid crowds to and fro, and then sitting with his books; Lla is a housewife whose husband is unfaithful and she is stuck at home with only an aged woman (auntie) who is taking care of a dying husband above stair to talk to. The carefully prepared lunch Lla is making is intended to appeal to her husband but arrives at the wrong place, she realizes this, and she and Saajan begin to correspond, so private writing selves emerge. The central phase does show the two characters’ needs and obstacles put in the way: how are they to find out one another’s names, and meet and become fully realized friends — perhaps lovers? There are plot points which take the movie in other directions: an orphaned young man, Shaikh (Nawwasudden Siddiqui) is to replace Saajan who is retiring, and slowly wins over the older man to the point Saajan begins to share this lunch with Shaikh and Shaikh offers Saajan another outlet and distraction (as they slowly become friends during their temporary relationship). Finally Saajan and Lla arrange to meet face-to-face, a meeting to which LLa comes and where she waits fruitlessly for hours and hours; Saajan does finally get himself to come (late), but he does not have the courage to show himself as he feels he is so much older than she and will not be attractive to her. The acting by Khan is as usual superb — the man is pitch perfect in gesture, face, body language – and Kaur and Siddiqui more mutely implicitly appealing.

Nonetheless, the review in the New Yorker was harsh and declared the film meandered and went nowhere, was a muddle,”a slight undeveloped anecdote.” Another reviewer sounded surprised that the movie is attracting audiences. These are signs that indeed this film has a counter-prevailing structure, one that is partly cyclical for the arrival and departure of the lunchbox occurs over and over as do these notes, the housewife’s day, the worker’s evenings before the TV, the young man’s training. There are moments that music breaks out showing the origins of the this other structure; on the other hand, it felt like an epistolary novel dramatized; the notes could have been emails were this set in New York City. It used the still reprehended over-voice repeatedly:

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I will say that the lack of the paradigm working forcefully and a forward thrust of action in the film extends to a lack of resolution and puzzle and disappointment at the end for both Izzy and I. It was not that we were insistent on the couple getting together and retiring elsewhere — in the film a longed-for idealized place for retirement, Bhutan, but we couldn’t understand what what is literally happening at the film’s very end. Near the film’s close she sends Saajan the lunchbox with empty containers in it, so hurt is she that he did not come to the rendez-vous; he answers explaining that he was there but unable to show himself to her, but it seems to take her time to decide to come to his office to see him and in the interim he retires and when she shows Shaikh informs her wrongly Saajan has gone to Bhutan. She hurries home and within a day or so, prepares a suitcase and her one daughter’s things, and takes the immense step of leaving the husband and traveling to Bhutan. In fact Saajan has gone to a cheaper place he had originally intended to go, Nashik, found it worse than where he was living, more desolating and returned to his apartment. He seems to look for her but does not go to her house (as he does not know where it is) and is last seen on a train but not one going outside of India but rather within the city.

The wikipedia article informed me that he was going in search of Lla, implying that he would discover she had left for Bhutan and follow her. If the feel of the film was that we were seeing how tragically easy it is for chance and human irresolution to get in the way of happiness, then I would not complain. Instead it simply lacked clarity and I was left sad and (as Izzy said) longing for them to become a couple. Perhaps though its inconsequent ending made it yet truer to our lives today.

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You will have to find the play by Lara Foot (she was also the director of this production) done in another theater. It was the last of many places performed at the Kennedy Center over the last 21 days: a “World Stages” festival where plays and acting companies from around the world were brought together, as many as three or four done a day, some as dramatic readings and some with panels to discuss the performance afterward. There were exhibits from London, Paris, and South Africa, of life-size puppets and human figures in what looked like carousels: these were recognizable figures from plays, operas, the arts. Drawings of costumes from costume designers.

It made me sad to go there today as this was just the sort of event Jim would have loved to go to: he would have bought tickets for at least several of the plays, we would have attended readings and perhaps even panels (though he was not as keen on this kind of thing, finding the talk all too often silly, or coming from a conventionally moralistic point of view. I had bought myself two tickets, the other for a play from Iceland, a romance taking place during the financial crisis of 2008 (the couple in the banner above were in that play), now overcome by decent social governmental measures, and I had forgotten to go. A Freudian oversight? I had underlined a dramatic reading of a story from the horrifying seige on Fallujah inflicted on its people by barbaric US military acts: I did remember that but it was so cold that day and without the car it is a trek for me to get to the Kennedy Center because of waiting for a bus that comes once an hour. I had bought my two tickets during the time when my license was still un-suspended and had fully expected to be able to drive to the Metro and then take the train.

Today and yesterday Izzy and I did have this positive thing occur: we learned that we can order a much cheaper Uber cab, a small taxi like vehicle and it cost me just $6 to be taken to the station, and for the two of us just $8 each way to and from Shirlington. When we would go with Jim, he’d take the car all the way to the Center and pay $20 to park, go early and eat at the Terrace theater (a much overpriced meal); parking at Shirlington is hellish to find and it costs at least $15 so I now feel I am free to call for the Uber cab — when I can get the app on the iphone to work.

But to Foot’s play. Janet Suzman plays Miss Marion, an aging white African woman, a widow living on an isolated farm to whom comes Khayalethu Anthony, or Solomon a young black African man sent by his grandmother, once a housekeeper for Miss Marion and now worried she is in need of help and company. Their interactions are interwoven with her soliloquies given the excuse that she is writing letters to her married daughter, Annie, living in Australia. It was 90 minutes of intensities with no intermission. It opens with a fearful nightmare sequence.

Solomon and Marion

What emerges is she had a son who was brutally murdered by a gang of bullying thugs when he was in his teens; after that she and her husband separated. Solomon was there at the murder as a witness and he has come because he wants to tell her a message her son sent to her, and confess that he was a coward, fearful of coming forward as a witness lest he be murdered and his sisters and mother and aunt raped and murdered. Her daughter is angry because her mother will not come to Australia to live with her, but Marion cannot leave the only home she has known and all the things in it that stand for her memories.

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The play had some weaknesses: the language was sometimes clichéd and the actual story played out before us didn’t altogether make sense. The ending where the two principals are reconciled as they sit in front of a TV together and plan to get an extension cord so they can plug it is was touching but too added on. It was strongest in its images — almost like a film. Suzman in the dark leaning over her stove, sitting in a chair, a blanket over her legs. The two eating together; he doing things for her, like painting the wall. He wears the son’s shirt by mistake — or not mistake as the shirt fits so well.

Janet Suzman

Jim and I had seen Suzman twice: once in London and here at the Kennedy Center in a production of Coriolanus where she played another mother, Volumnia. Her strong performance stirred within me a shared heartache and loss and yes courage. In the program notes I read that not only ago during a rehearsal in South Africa of Hamlet, with Janet Suzman as director, an actor, Brett Goldin was murdered too. She has been brave enough to speak out against some actors who pander to the theory that someone other than Shakespeare (usual candidate a dissolute nobleman, the Earl of Oxford) wrote Shakespeare’s plays.For I have tried to enact some courage — how else could I still be here? I found myself looking about and wondering (as I sometimes do) where Jim has gone, where he can be, as he was here only it seems a few short months ago, so strong, a healthy 64 year old man. He was literally devoured by a malevolent disease which has reached epidemic proportions and not only is no one doing anything preventive or fundamental to stop this killing and death in howling pain, while he died he was heartlessly fleeced and coldly barely tolerated as a treatment opportunity to make money on. Marion’s boy was killed by an over gang of thugs, my beautiful man by a silent stealthy one. How many people in the audience around me sitting there most of them with a companion had lost friends and lovers and children to cancer. It’s kept invisible.

As I got out of the bus about a block away from my house (I was lucky and as I came out of the train, I just caught the bus on time), it began to snow, sleet, ice and rain on me. I wished so intensely he were walking beside me and alive to feel the blessing of these freezing waters.

Ellen

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Doctor

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Breaking Bad: Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Skylar (Anna Gunn) and their “dream” Dr Delcavoli (David House)

Dear friends and readers,

I finished the first season (Episode 7, “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal”) and then watched the features where Vince Gilligan talks seriously about what he thinks this first season is about, and a good deal of what he said seemed to me accurate. Gillgan suggested the one character who is emerging as having a grasp on reality is Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul): he does not lose sight for a moment that Walt early on turned two men into “raspberry sauce,” that he and Walt are dealing with monstrous “scumbags”, that it takes huge sums of money and time and effort to get equipment to make meths, and if he had some alternative remunerative occupation he’d be better off: “count me out; I’m leaving town; I’m going to Oregon.” To this and other sudden abrasively funny retorts Walt either says nothing, or it’s not an obstacle, or (supposedly a key moment in the episode) that if Jesse agrees to go into a full-scale business, “this [will be] the first day” of Jesse’s life, exhorting him “Will it be a life of fear, of no no, of never believing in yourself?”

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Walt pouring while Jesse cries out “Chemistry yah Mr White yes science …” but is dubious about the moral benefit to himself

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Walt is of course (according to Gilligan) going bad; we watch him turn from a sympathetic into an “antagonistic” character. Just look at how sinister he begins to appear — with his bald head, his thinning body, the sunglasses, the increasingly rough man’s clothes. I noticed (Gilligan doesn’t say this) that a motif idea is attributed to Walt more often than his brother-in-law: that things feel good, are deeply pleasurable because they are illegal. Thrilling. Now while Walt listens to the principle talk of how the janitor will be fired and never get another job because looking for who stole the lab equipment exposed the janitor’s marijuana habit, Walt has surreptitious sex with Syklay under the school table by using his hands.

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He gets a real high from taking her out to the car and having sex on the backseat. Hank Schrader, the macho-cop brother-in-law (Dean Norris) repeats this idea when Hank shares illegal Cuban cigars (“Sometimes forbidden fruit tastes sweetest”), but he demurs when Walt wants him to say that there is a thin line between the illegal and legal: at one time meths Walt reminds Hank that meths were part of what was ordinarily prescribed to people. Hank immediately swings round to say some things are foul; “they came to their senses on that one” (when meths was declared illegal).

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We are to see the hypocrisy here as we were in the earlier episodes to see the parallel between the brutal violence of the drug dealers and Hank’s to those he arrests. Hank does not murder people or beat them to insensibility, but he enjoys roughing them up bad and frightening and yes putting them in jail for a long time to come. What he does not know (not mentioned by Gilligan) is his own wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt) is a shop-lifter and gets great thrills herself by stealing super-expensive tiaras for not-as-yet born babies. Marie gives one to Skylar during a baby shower for Skylar’s coming child where Skylar is surrounded by as many extravagant and silly gifts as Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz (the super-successful couple who had access to health insurance which would have paid for Dr Delacavoli and his chemo treatments (($95,000 on the open market) had tossed at them at their house-warming party; all of which is filmed by an expensive video camera with an eye to ten years from now when said baby (called Esmeralda by Marie, but corrected to Holly by Skylar) will be an adolescent watching these people cavorting about.

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Skylar discovers it’s a theft because she goes to the jewelry store to return the object (she can think of many more practical things she might need for the sum she’ll get) and is herself accused of shoplifting and escapes only by pretending to go into labor — the great sancrosanct act of childbirth.

The critique of American bourgeois life is of course unmistakable; and lest we think the series is soft on the illegal drugs the actors are trotted out to confirm it’s not. And the scenes are as redolent of middle American life as any in the previous six episodes. We see the bright cheerful real estate agent bringing the (naive) couples to see Jesse’s house and coo over the “possibilities” of his basement; the kitchen needs only to be extended. Aaron Paul again gets the funny lines as he tells Walt he sees people “only by appointment” (as his realtor does) and mocks her pretensions.

Also well done — and comical — are the scenes of Walt and Jesse stealing needed barrels of compounds from a plant with barbed wire about it and armed guards. They wear knitted clown hats and like some verison of Laurel and Hardy stumble across the screen with their ill-gotten chemical materials:

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Scary and powerful are the scenes where Walt and Jesse meet the psychopathic drug-distributor in the most appropriate of places: a junkyard, filled with junked cars. Jesse mocks this as a child’s idea of where to negotiate crimes. Why not a mall? But of course we are there for the symbolism.

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Does Gilligan not know his mini-series is about a man developing an inoperable cancer? does he not know the real villain of the piece is the super-expensive doctor who stands in for a medical establishment which can do nothing and has the nerve (because the whole society conspires to allow them to) to sit before clients complacently and correct them if they so much as suggest his “treatments” will for sure help or cure Walt; or deliver horrible treatments that as just likely can make them worse, and collect huge checks which the victim has politely to say must not be cashed “before next Monday please.” Among the extraordinary moments of this last episode occurs when Walt and Skylar visit the doctor (see stills at the opening of this blog) and the (idiot) wife (I have to say it) kittenishly tells the doctor how Walt is ever so “frisky” since getting “chemo.” I cringed. She wants this man’s approval. I wondered if the scene was unconsciously meant to rouse racism: the doctor is black, American black and that is not common because the viewer is put in the position of the helpless patients having to obey, not to question. Skylar tells of Walt’s supposed use of alternative medicine (it’s an alibi for him to go off and cook meths with Jesse) and the doctor says, well as long as it doesn’t interfere with the scientific treatments.

Does he not know he is sending up science? not just how it’s misused in the society (for prescribed drugs too) but useless for creating anything humanely good. All Jesse’s comical remarks about science are part of this thread.

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Watching desperate extractions from unlikely objects:

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As I watched the scenes with the doctors, technicians, receptionists taking the checks, trips to the bank, rolls of money clutched to the chest, I knew why the show doesn’t attack who it should. The AMA would get after them. The thorough anthology Quality TV, ed McCabe and Akass, includes essays explaining how most film makers for TV don’t even think of attacking anyone who is a big funder of the programming — those who do don’t get their films made or distributed. The film exists to present the commercial (ironically often pedaling psychological drugs which make huge sums). The whole corrupt system is normalized, as if the “way it is” is natural, not evil.

Why do I carry on watching it and blogging about it. While it displaces Walt’s real nightmare of cancer, useless scientific medicine, killing costs, with masculine clown antics of violence and shows the wife to be complicit (thus far helpless because without a real grasp of what her life has depended on — the luck of her birth position, and of his health and job), nevertheless its origin is the cancer epidemic about which nothing is being done (nothing fundamental, nothing preventative) — the hook of the show is when Walt is told he has inoperable cancer; each plot point is some happening that is screwed back into the cancer, whether his bald head, his thinness, his explosions of violence, as he grows more and more supposedly amoral. He is not accurate on the thin line between legality and illegality: what he is missing and the series never says is what is legal, self-righteous, complacently collecting checks, money from credit cards, extorted from drugged misery, is what’s seriously causatively criminal.

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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A familiar scene and experience in the US today

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve gone on watching Breaking Bad, why? because it’s about cancer, about the cancer epidemic among us. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has lung cancer when he never smoked a day in his life. Half way through this set, he and Jessie (Aaron Paul) are outside the camper they cook in and it takes one look at Walt’s chest for Jessie to recognize the telltale signs of radiation since Jessie’s aunt had a similar treatment and died within 7 months not long ago. Seconds more and Jessie knows why his ex-teacher is cooking meths: he needs money to pay for treatments and he wants to leave his family with some money to live on.

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This is not just generally relevant to me; it’s personally relevant, and my guess is this personal connection is common — even when not acknowledged.

I was struck how all three episodes (4-6) may be watched as a genuinely single slow-moving continuous story. Downton Abbey and many serial dramas do not work that way: each week you really have a separate episode worked out and finished by the end of the hour, sometimes with a character or set of characters who appear in it and are never seen again — or only brought back many episodes or seasons later. In this mini-series you are screwed in by the cancer and money center and its violence in reaction continuously, with the underlying thrill is the action and words show the amorality — the unacknowledged amorality of American life, and not just for the ceaselessly competitive or self-guardedly self-preening males, but the women around them who have not managed to achieve sexual respectability and are treated cruelly in a casual way, e.g., the cop’s scornful derision and threatening of a prostitute who offers herself to Jessie for buggering (a favorite motif I’m beginning to see) in one of the first three parts. It provides an uncanny exhilaration for what happens is Mr White gets back as when he blows up a super-fancy expensive car of a man who he has watched from afar all episode long enact all the “winning” traits of the US male life — demanding higher money on a cell phone, breaking in a line, parking his car in a place Walt was about to drive into, showing off ceaselessly. I just wish there was a real portrait of a real complex woman alongside him getting back, perhaps less obviously, less violently (as women do get back much less obviously and violently — there are studies to show this) too.

I’ve been told the moral of the series – the great recognition at its close is Walt, the central character sees that he has not been behaving the way he has for his family but because he enjoys power and violence. Well there needs no ghost come from hell to tell us that surely this was nonsense. Does anyone believe it? Men want to be promoted to get to the top and buy himself fancy expensive houses, have libraries, pools — like Walt’s friend who made good in business based on Walt’s knowledge of chemistry to start with. He turns down a (slightly fantastic, unreal) offer of a job by a friend, Elliot Schwartz (Adam Godley) with fabulous health insurance to pay egregious sums out of pride or (another moral is claimed here) so he can take control of his life by paying for his treatments himself even if through law-breaking selling of addictive drugs. Was there no other story the writers could think of to demonstrate this supposed moral breakthrough into strength? I did feel it was improbable and perhaps the offer was made part of the plot so that Walt could keep both Skylar and his brother-in-law off the scent: had they not assumed he was getting the money from Schwartz they’d begin to wonder where it was coming from? Anyway he didn’t want the treatments and is coerced into these by Skylar’s (Anna Duke) refusing to stay in bed with him and be affectionate and compliant sexually until he agrees?

Underlying these episodes is the same idea I find in Andrew Davies’s adaptations of classic and recent novels and that of many another successful male film-maker: they present men torn to bits by the demands for masculinity defined as super-paid job and ruling people which they just can’t meet except through excruciating effort. It’s also demanded they have a sexually compelling compliant woman — that hasn’t quite surfaced as yet, though we are made to guess that Gretchen (Jessica Hecht), the good businessman’s wife with long luxurious dark hair, and a soft look and a rounded belly (her dress and the way she was directed to hold her hands accents this) was once Walt’s mistress:

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Gretchen trying to persuade Walt to take the treatment and not think about their relationship

but it’s early days in the series. Or maybe it will taken another common American ploy to keep women in the discardable margins. As yet Walt wouldn’t dream of discarding Skylar.

So I found the second 3 episodes of the first season gripping: they focused on Walt White as a man who has to deal with how his family responds to the news he has lung cancer, especially his wife, Skylar; on how much a supposedly “dream” expert doctor and his treatments that Marie Shrader (Betsy Brandt) his sister-in-law has access to cost ($5,000 in advance for consultation, $90,000 for the series of chemotherapy when there is no insurance company to pay a pre-set fee) and how he is pressured to take these horrible treatments and accept the offer by Elliot Schwartz of health insurance; and on how in a parallel thread Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul), Walt’s sidekick ex-student seller of drugs in a parallel thread attempts to break out of his sordid occupation, obtain a respectable job as a salesman in a suit and is (in effect) insulted with an offer of dressing up as a street clown to lure people into an office, and ends up making and selling meths for lack of any other occupation he can live with.

In our case it was me who (like Skylar) tried to get Jim to try for one of these super-expensive people I was told about by an investment-banker friend. We would have had to pay out of pocket, paid to go stay in Boston to get the consultation, but I don’t know if I would have gone through with it if it meant bankruptcy — which clearly Skylar is willing to do. Unlike Walt who succumbs to her moral bullying, Jim wouldn’t hear of going to such a person — it was so inconvenient. And so he died. I can’t stand Skylar with her self-righteous talking pillow but I know I also resent her because she could pull off what I couldn’t.

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Now I know we should have gone on a vacation trip to England but I didn’t realize how hopeless it all was and when Skylar turns round several times from some pamphlet or book she’s reading to say to Walt, see “how hopeful this is,” I want to shake her and wish I could feel for her, but I cannot identify or bond with her self-satisfaction, lack of understanding that she has what she does out of luck and genes (born white, into the middle class). I was appalled by her intrusive insistence demanding behavior to Walt, her trying to manipulate by threats, by her talking pillow and demand her sister and brother-in-law pressure Walt to take treatments (when they agree if he doesn’t want to use his last two years taking chemo it’s understandable). She’s such a fool to fall for the “dream doctor.” $5000 for consultation and $90,000 for treatment is an exaggeration yet I wanted Jim to try and was fleeced (for much much less but still in the hundreds) when I went outside the HMO once for a second opinion.

What violence there is is spectacular but is only resorted to by these men when driven by frantic need, intense grating soreness at not being appreciated and/or having to watch a total shit of a person going about living what is seen by others as an admirable life — at the close of episode 4 Walt sets a well-suited bully’s fancy car to blow up (as I explained above); during episodes 5 & 6 after failing to get the decent job, Jessie returns home to watch his baby brother exemplify a pious academically-inclined male student’s life, be blamed for smoking pot (which is this brother’s) and when driven by Walt to go to another powerful murderous distributor be beaten up so badly he ends up in an intensive care unit in a hospital (for which Jessie has no insurance); at the close of 6, White returns to this same lair with a bag of crystals that look like meths but are explosives and manages to blow up said lair and obtain a promise of high sums of money in return for his excellent product. Tellingly it ends on Walt cuddling wads of money his face grim and exhilarated as he wins what his society will not admit to having driven him to.

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Breaking Bad, Part 6: closing shots

The ironies are visual as well as narrative and psychological. In other mini-series the far shot of enchanting landscape does not have at their center a camper for cooking drugs in which violence, murder, and people dressed in suits that make them look like astronauts do their dangerous pungent thing:

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Chemistry is at the heart of every aspect of the story; that’s why it begins with the periodic table and uses its lettering as paratexts. Its suspenseful: Walt’s brother-in-law, the wrestler-looking cop, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) engineers an investigation which quickly discovers the equipment used for the “new drug-maker” in town comes from Walt’s lab in the high school, and while Hank arrests the hispanic cleaning man (Walt does show some guilt at this), Hank looks at Walt quizzically. It’s not easy to hide an operation which takes time (Walt is suddenly gone from the home for long afternoons), lots of human connections and produces money to spend. Walt’s profits are hidden by the doctor who is fleecing him — another sort of robber, only allowed, legal.

No one in this story has the slightest political opinion or sense of larger perspective to their lives. Not one character has opened or read a book; they flip through magazines in doctor’s offices. Not one book in their house: the elegant library of what looked like 19th century books in Schwartz’s house looks like a stage set. No one is ever in there to read; it’s there to be seen. Vacant minds who never discuss anything beyond narrow gossip. I was watching a Whit Stillman film yesterday where the characters discuss topics beyond themselves, cultural worlds, wonder about their aspirations and it seems natural. It does happen even in the US; I’ve seen and heard people do it at dinner. That this is left out altogether, so completely should be noticed.

So these episodes seemed to me consciously critical, but as is so common in popular entertainment, there are odd lacunae which in my case keep the film alien. There is as yet no woman for me to bond or identify with. It’s not that feminism has made no inroads (though it hasn’t) but that the types of women named as are only those men think of as what they have to cope with for real in life — entrapping, demanding. This is a central way in which it differs from Downton Abbey where there are several women for me to identify with and they have far more subtle characteristics of all sorts. It makes DA as a film for women even if not scripted by a woman. The one character I like so far is Jessie — how he tries to make contact with his parents, his brother and even Walt (“yeah, man, touch base”) and have hopes he could yet chose a girlfriend I could identify with. He shows some feeling for others, reminds me of Tom Bransom a bit in his awareness that this is a hard world to cope with people in and how their hierarchies work.

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Ellen

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Friends and readers,

Since I write so often about films here, it would be curmudgeonly not to admit I kept track of what was happening at the Oscars — as I did the Golden Globes, and other awards this year. The one popular movie award where my taste coincided with that of the voting majority of the academy is for Cate Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine:

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Here’s a shot of her in the press room at the 19th annual Critics’ Choice Awards — a better moment on film than any of those of her conventionally fashionable garb at the splash events:

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I regret that from among those nominated (I would have made very different choices), Sally Hawkins was not similarly recognized nor the screenplay writer and director, Bob Nelson and Alexander Payne, for Nebraska, nor Jeremy Scahill for his important book and film Dirty Wars.

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As the worrying wife

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

End of half of season 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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

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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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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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Mother and daughter (characters become Mrs Ford and Nannetta)

Dear friends and readers,

For the first time since we have been going to the HD-opera season broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera house from NYC, we did not go to its earlier operas, but began with the third or fourth. Earlier this fall, Jim was ill and dying; then I was involved with his funeral and so much I had to do and endure for the first weeks of his absence. A little over two months later, I had the heart and time to go. Another factor is Izzy is not as keen on operas as such as her father was, so she did not care to go to the first two. But we agreed that Verdi’s Falstaff was worth seeing. She has now written a blog on the opera, and I’m going to add to her remarks and those of reviewers (a excellent one) I’ve read since Saturday.

So, in general, this new production is a visual delight and as far as I could tell was sung exquisitely well: especially lovely were the tones of Angela Meade as Mistress Alice Ford. But the perspective, and acting of the play itself (based on Shakespeare) was so bland, the overall effect was dull. It lacked even the genuine hardness of Roman comedy from which Shakespeare’s text descends or sheer zest of some Italianate art buffoonery, since we were to assume everyone but Falstaff sentimentally cared about everyone else and so much attention had been paid to details to make the piece into domestic semi-realism.

Visually, someone had had the insight to see that dressing everyone up as if they were in a 1950s movie or situation comedy, was the right analogy for the domestic toy realism of Shakespeare’s play. Some of the costumes were inspired: as Master Ford, Franco Vassallo was dressed in a cowboy outfit hilariously, parodically like Gene Audrey. It was as unreal (super clean, super starched), yet macho male in its accessories, and as Master Ford Franco Vassello in this outfit swaggered about.

Stephanie Blythe as Miss Quickly just stole the show. She told us in her interview it was a pleasure to have more than one outfit (her usual allotment as a mezzo, and a heavy-set older woman type as well); indeed she said, “I have 4!” and 4 she had. She was a parody, an escapee fugitive from Far from Heaven. Her gestures, winks, body language had just the right amount of mockery and tongue-in-cheek and yet seem to be involved in the action as something she actually felt real emotion about: she had some sardonic irony in her face as she gave the arrogant male Falstaff his comeuppance.

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In a witch-like ensemble in the last act

One of the interviews was with the prop man: he said there were at least 1000 items in the show they had made or planned for if not individually at least as part of a group (say china, a kitchen set); he cited some huge number of cabinets for the Ford kitchen, which was a cross between ideal 1950s kitchen and something you might see on the Home improvement channel on TV today.

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The women read the assignation letters Falstaff has sent Mistress Ford and Meg Page (Jennifer Johnson Cano, perfectly coiffeured in her curled blonde pageboy)

There’s a certain irony in the producer and designer (Robert Carson and Paul Steinberg) producing the 1950s in an utterly uncritical spirit, since it was the rare film or popular show at the time that broke through unexamined modes of the time (exceptions were Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows as the Kramdens).

Ambroglio Maestri was dressed exquisitely well for each of his appearances: from self-indulgent layabout in the morning, where it was implicitly (hintingly, delicately) suggested he sexually used the two valets he was bullying; to a man about town, gentleman-cad in his club; to a man who hunted like an English lord; to the filthy outfits he ended up when dredged out of the Thames after having been in a linen basket filled with soiled garments; to the ending in a Herne the Hunter outfit with antlers. We were told he is The Falstaff for our era, having played and sung the part over 200 times by now; that’s why he was a must for this production I suppose.

However, gentle reader, the great singer has no idea the play has any meaning. In Italian during the interview with Renee Fleming he said “secondo me” Falstaff does not deserve his punishment. He seemed as oblivious of the real nastiness of the character as he was of the cruelty of scapegoating a person so incessantly which in the production takes over the whole action of the play-within-a-play or masque in the wood at the end. There was no sense at all in anyone that this kind of ritual humiliation is awful. As there was no anger or disgust at the man, so there was no sense these people were engaged in callous mortification — including physical biting by insects. Nor did it feel magical; it was too grounded in magazine-y images.

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I put it this way because some years ago now I went to a production of Verdi’s Falstaff in the opera house in Cleveland, Ohio. I was visting a friend who lives nearby. The characters began in a room behind a stage in “real” clothes and then changed before us into Elizabethan costume; they ended in reverse by taking off the costumes and returning to street clothes. This gave the characters a dual reality: Falstaff was mean and salacious, insulting to Mistress Ford and Page, a lout, a snob, took advantage of his valets. But the comeuppance was seen as overdone, and we felt sorry for him. At the same time the ritual was made to feel atavistic, dangerous folk primal. So along with the singing, I was very much emotionally engaged and the laughter at the slapstick action became complicated, a self-reflexive critique of this sort of “let’s play a trick on someone”, make them “it,” comedy. It’s a good opera based on a fine play: years ago now I saw a production at Sweet Briar college when Izzy attended and still remember it as absorbing (the story of Ford’s jealousy especially) and comically delightful (the masque at end).

It should be said that Shakespeare’s Falstaff in Merry Wives is the same man as the character in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2: Michael Gambon rightly played him as selfish, ruthless, all appetite, highly intelligent but low and amoral in his behavior. Henry IV is at the same time a play with a serious political vision; Merry Wives is an autobiographical witty take on Plautine comedy. None of this came out in the Met production. They often do conventional work: their Don Giovanni last year was similarly utterly unadventurous but saved by the literal obvious meaning of its play, and the acting (especially the two singers playing the Don and Leporello).

As everyone in the interviews say good singing is not enough; one must act, and here they were going through a set of stylized emotions no one took at all seriously. For Shakespeare’s play the passionate character is Ford but his angry aria of jealousy which closes the first act was not murderous; Vassello was eager to smile at each turn of the action after all, belying how he was told this play is about having fun.

A slightly effective note was struck by an emphasis on how this Ford intends his daughter to marry Dr Caius (sung by Carlo Bossi); the possible mismarriage and miserable life ahead for Lisette Oropesa as Nannetta Ford was given some bite and then the fun of her assuaging her comic anguish by eating big spoonfuls of ice cream from a huge tub in the fridge was effective. However, her suitor, Paolo Fanale as Fenton gave no sense of passion or even presence; he could be brushed away by Meade and Blythe as if he were a kitten. Asked what was her favorite moment in the opera, Oropresa said (half-hesitating) her aria during the forest ritual. It was a sincere moment in the interview and it could be said in that bridal outfit, the misty sparkling veil, with all around her solemnly complacent, this moment summed up the production’s pretty unmeaningness.

She was not the only one to have a genuinely felt kind of moment on stage. This was James Levine’s return to active conducting. He may be well enough, just, to do this well (after years of practice and skill), but sat in a hugely engineered special wheelchair one could see he is not well. In the taped interview he could not stop the movement of his hands. I felt for him and thought the most moving parts of the production were when he was applauded. His was a deeply felt performance.

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The reiterated assertion in the interviews that this is his favorite opera, I take to be the usual Met hype.

Of course I thought about Jim and wondered how it was Levine had survived: doubtless he spent hundreds of thousands, and had crews of caretakers, and so many people to make sure he was never abused or mistreated (as my Jim was occasionally), but I know he had a plethora of often fatal painful conditions one after the other and then all at the same time. What an iron will he must have.

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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