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Archive for the ‘visual art’ Category

The.Trip.to.Italy
On their way to Pompeii (2014)

somewhereinWestRiding
Somewhere in the West Riding (2010)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been wanting to see Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy, featuring Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon a second time before writing about it as what is referred to as “a summer movie,” but summer is just about over and I’ve not made it back to Cinema Art this week when it opened there (and a few other movie theaters). I have, though, now watched The Trip twice (a DVD from Netflix), the previous travel-film, near two-hour feature made by the same director, with the same pair of males, and even female friends and lovers (Rebecca Johnson as Rob’s wife) and associates (Claire Keelan as Emma) in 2010. They went to Yorkshire or the West Riding, so that reinforcement and slow re-watching (pleasurable) will have to do.

The Trip to Italy is not a great film in the way of Richard Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise, with Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, as the loving and then vexed friends, with each reprise (Before Sunset [2004], and Before Midnight [2013]), not quite as fine; but it’s in the same mode, and unlike most sequels, an improvement on The Trip: all five seem to move us deeply into an intimate relationship (not sexual in the case of Coogan and Brydon as they keep reminding us and themselves) which we are glimpsing continual outward signs and conversation about. One of the joys of all five is you are made to feel you are listening to real spontaneous conversation and have to remind yourself that, to stay just with Coogan and Brydon, this is a fiction and this is not Brydon’s wife to whom he is sexually unfaithful while away, nor is this Coogan’s somewhat estranged son (in the fiction of the second movie, having been separated from her mother, his ex-wife). And the conversation is almost perpetually stimulating, often intelligent, fun, touching. Coogan and Brydon have some advantages over Delpy and Hawke as both are superb mimics and their patter in the second movie is a matter of their competing with transforming themselves into familiar male actors, and they visit superbly beautiful places.

It speaks well of Linklater’s three movies that he does not rely on offering us a deeply pleasurable travelogue, but this summer I could not resist it. Jim and I and our two daughters in 1994 spent five weeks in Italy, mostly in and around Rome, but we were in Pompeii, to Naples, and three days in Ischia and I had to admit we were immersed in nothing so beautiful, a salutary admission as films eliminate the hard realities of travel, the real world one is surrounded by.

As a dream fantasy of photography the earlier film was as spectacular. Brydon says they are in a Turner painting, but to me (like Alan Bennet) it’s John Atkinson Grimshaw (a famous 19th century painter of Leeds) who captured the area best and this time, having lived in Leeds and traveled across the West Riding for 2 years I did experience some of the scenes captured.

Landscape (1)
I’ve walked and driven through landscapes like this

Landscape (2)
Stone pubs look like that on a sunny day

They do omit Leeds itself with its hard older parts of the cityscape (some impoverished), and towns that are barely surviving today,and the bourgeois heavy mansions in the outskirts of cities but not in the countryside:

John Atkinson Grimshaw - An Autumn Idyll
John Atkinson Grimshaw’s forte: An Autumn Idyll

But then to me parts of Naples looked like the Bronx circa 1950s.

Both films have been reviewed favorably, Maohla Dargis in the New York Times (June 2011), and David Denby in the New Yorker (September 2014). Both reviews underline the vexed abrasions the men have now and again, and the undercurrents of melancholy, especially in the second film where the men are older, and Brydon no longer presented as happily married. The films are self-reflecting and in the second film Brydon remarks he was thought to be too “affable” in the first film: it’s been fixed, as Brydon betrays his lovers more than Coogan, and is every bit as wounded over his career losses as Coogan (who after all was in last year’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” Philomena with Judi Dench). I also found the increased level of sexual talk (bodily jokes) at times distasteful and (to be expected I suppose) masculinist: the hurts are those of males, women seen as objects, comfort dolls, or irritating bosses. At the Cinema Art Film Club where I saw The Trip to Italy, Gary Arnold (the Washington Post film critic who chooses the films and leads the discussion afterward) said if you didn’t like the actors’ characters you would hate the film; that’s one way of putting it without referring to gender. Some might be bored by Delpy and Hawke.

Perhaps The Trip to Italy had realer fuller (because darker) emotions than The Trip: the moving sequence at Pompeii is the film at its best — the talk over the stone corpses and how we relate to them. In The Trip Coogan and Brydon rely on reciting poetry by Coleridge and Wordsworth to make ironic some of their passing through tourist places; in The Trip to Italy the awareness of mortality, almost a fixation (it comes out in the 2010 film when the two are standing in a grave side and Brydon gets Coogan to anticipate what Coogan will say over Brydon’s tomb), comes out as one man wanting to open himself to his loss and vulnerability (Brydon) and the other bitterly walking away (Coogan), suggesting this sensitivity is phony.

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Winterbottom made a great film out of Jude the Obscure where he similarly meditated loss, death, and in The Trip to Italy Winterbottom’s use of Strauss’s Four Last Songs was pitched just right. For me who nowadays see in Before Sunrise a re-enactment of Jim and my first week together,

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Before Sunrise: the young Delpy and Hawke

there was here a personal connection to our first ceremony ending (I intend to scatter his ashes in England), as Jim loved these songs and I made them part of the soundtrack for the video that played at Jim’s funeral.

Denby tells us the two films are derived from six part mini-series made for British TV. He felt nothing was missing and you could hardly tell this origin; I can’t agree. Now and again references seem to be made to something in the film we had not experienced (not just a between chapter) and especially the second film where there was much more sexual interaction with women along the way perhaps I would have not reacted to the talk negatively had the full time of the relationships been presented. At the very least the films profited enormously from their cyclical structure. In the second especially we are made to feel this is not closure: Coogan has to go home to cope with the son he has in part failed, and Brydon wishes he could avoid returning home and suggests a hope, however improbable, of coming back. Improbable is part of the movie’s wit: they are supposed on a hard assignment to eat these exquisitely cooked meals it’s almost an embarrassment to watch being made, so detailed is the luxury appointment of the plates, and so hushed the waiter’s descriptions.

Yorkshire
Yorkshire being photographed

The-Trip-To-Italy
Yet another wine-savored feast

A testament to the world of the 1%? That’s my one serious objection to the second film. The first seemed to avoid that: maybe it had less fancy meals, less luxurious surroundings, there was a sense of roughing it. If you define a summer movie as escapism, metaphysically and psychologically at least they are not that, with the second funnier and yet sadder than the first.

Both sets of films have prompted caricature:

Cartoon
Eating your way through

WakingLife
Waking up: “I keep thinking about something you said.” “Something I said?”

Ellen

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Sebastian (Anthony Andrews in his greatest role, how I loved and bonded with him) and Charles (Jeremy Irons) at the hospital in Morocco Their first early love like mine and Jim’s

Dear friends and readers,

Although I’ve written about this stunningly daring and powerful mini-series before (Mesmerized, still on Brideshead), I feel I should say something of it here as this blog as turned into one mostly about movies and the books these derive from. How can I not write of one of the greatest of film adaptations here too.

Late last week and most of this I fell once more under the spell of Jeremy Irons’s haunting voice-over and the yearning swelling-out music of Brideshead Revisited. It transcends the twisted self-destructiveness of its Catholic agenda (embodied in Claire Bloom’s Lady Marchmain’s rigorous cruelties) or (better put) the film-makers use the Catholic theme as part of a projection of feelings, thoughts, experiences, beauty in the world against contemporary meaningless, one of the escapes because the way the house once was when it was taken care it no longer is — although it carries on used in in new ways. In our contemporary technologically efficient militarized world it’s a barracks (or as in Downton a hospital for those physically maimed and dying). It is about death, many deaths, what is terribly destructive, how joy, hope, resolve, belief dies.

The center Jim said was “contra mundum.” Against the worldishness of world captured wildly parodically in Rex Mottram (Charles Keating playing as inimitably as everyone else). Rex is the only person we see turn the house into what it was meant to be earlier: a power house, not a place for selfless employment of others (as Downton Abbey has it), but a place to control, repress, shape, get what the owners want out of life. Meanwhile the ubiquitous hard-working Wilcox (Roger Milner) keeps the place running (a curious thing I noticed there are hardly any woman servants). Celia (Jane Ascher) is awful because she is the perfect wife for a Rex; that’s how she lives, performances which others respond to — Charles’s father pretends to think how happy his son is with Celia; John Gielgud plays the part brilliantly; he uses pretense to keep others away. (Jim read Gielgud’s letters.) Sebastian cannot enter into what’s called life: he loathes all the choices put before him; Julia, Rex discovers, is no good at it (“Rex doesn’t see the point of me”); Bridey (Simon Jones) is so rich and self-involved he never recognizes it; Cordelia (Phoebe Nicholls) is a plain version of Julia. Nanny Hawkins (Mona Washbourne) is all child-like retreat, but then that’s no life either. Charles opts for painting pictures that are utterly un-modern; he loathes modern schools of painting as so much bosh. He is hired because his pictures flatter and he does not need that much money anyway, having clearly been born to unearned income. He can play the game, just enough. Anton (Nikolas Grace) is no better at the manipulations and performances of life that achieve admiration and place (he ends up in bars taken advantage of) and his denigration of Charles’s paintings is jealousy, as Charles puts it, so much abuse. Boy Mulcaster (Jeremy Sinden) is a simply a boor, crashes through ignorantly.

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Anton abusing Charles

The greatness and power of the film is not verbal though or even its explicit themes: it resides in its wholistic ability through words, pictures, music, the actors face and gestures and way of being to convey the emotional pain of existence like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since. And the reasons for this emotional pain. The loneliness and puzzle of someone with a depth of feeling and not knowing what to do with it, finding it twisted, not understanding how these performances can be life — not realizing that what he or she desires or seeks reciprocation for — sheer joy and play in existence together — is not at all what the average person wants. At moments in Vanya on 2nd Street Wallace Shawm as Uncle Vanya comes up to this kind of deep ache of despair, but one character does not an overwhelming experience make.

And the truth is this is one of the central or informing characteristics of the best mini-series costume dramas — to convey this pain — those weak in it remain weak; those without the necessary words cannot soar. (Downton Abbye falls down here — the characters’ anguish is just not held long and allowed to evolve. Except when it’s from a death, we don’t begin to see where the grief comes from. We do in Gosford Park, because Altman was there.) The heights of Brideshead Revisited are its electrifying nadirs as well as visions — the great virtuoso pieces, Andrews as Sebastian catastrophically drunk, Diana Quick as Julia devouring herself, eating herself up over her exploitation (of her, by her) and betrayal, Phoebe Nicholls as Cordelia about Sebastian, Lawrence Olivier as Lord Marchmain dying of a long word, his great soliloquy about the land and the building — and Irons looking on all the while. An electric current seems to run through the movie and into my body and through my veins until I stretch out and twist as the music plays on.

Corridor
The house is photographed mostly quietly — this corridor moment is typical — though there are the sudden zoom shots and angles

How Jim and I loved it that first year it played, trumpets heralding 1981 — Monday nights, we’d sit with our suppers in the living room to see it together. It was not a Masterpiece Theatre production, but something from Granada TV playing on PBS. He liked Waugh, and said BR was an unusual book for Waugh — openly autobiographical in the sense that Waugh became a convert to Catholicism and had trouble re-marrying because of this. Waugh was probably bisexual and here showed it openly. Most of his books were guarded and saturninely satiric at their best, bitter. And during that year Jim bought Waugh’s novels, Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, The Loved One, Scoop, novels from The Sword of Honor, Men at Arms, all of which he read, then a very fat diary, which he read quite through too. I read Vile Bodies, of which I remember nothing but that I read it, A Handful of Dust, whose famous excruciating close of a hero forever condemned to read Dickens aloud to a mad hermit stays in the mind; The Loved One, a hilarious send-up of absurdly overdone American funerals, all California pious hypocrisy: I was naive enough to think when I read it no one could ever use the term “loved ones” again. Jim thought Scoop bitterly satirical on journalists, brilliant.

Rydercramming
Ryder cramming because unlike the Flytes he feels he must have some sort of degree

My DVD set does not have a feature (none was done at the time) but a recent pamphlet. You learn the original screenplay by John Mortimer was for a 6 hour mini-series. There were delays and a young director named Charles Sturridge was taken on, and over course of a long-time filming the shooting script grew. What Sturridge did was defy the tabooes against voice-over and he went thorough Brideshead Revisited itself and with unerring rightness chose just those plangent melancholy words from Rider’s narration that captured the book’s core melancholy, omitting all that was “dead” in comparison and knitted it together the over-voice narration of Irons. Twenty weeks for filming. The result was an 11 episode mini-series with the first episode 2 hours and the last an hour and a half. I skim-read the book this week once again and thinking about the description of Mortimer’s original script I realize why the movie is credited to Sturridge

They filmed in Castle Howard (a central presence, chief character in the film), in Venice, and some islands in the Mediterranean.

DivingUp
Driving up that first day — Sebastian driving

InnocentGolly
Charles as Innocent: his first word in response: “Golly”

My darling (Jim) never made it to Venice: he loved Antony Hecht’s Venetian Vespers: we read it aloud to one another at another time, the 1980s in Alexandria gotten from a used bookshop, of which there were once many.

The music is by Geoffrey Burgon. Jim would have said the following YouTube is kitsch, but it has the evocative music in minor key and has as drawings centrally beloved (Sebastian especially) and savagely ironic (like the poor turtle with jewels sewn into its back) moments:

The film editor was Anthony Ham. Costume design Jane Robinson. I did notice that Diana Quick and a few of her more conservative yet spectacular outfits, her body type, the clothes’ style resemble Michelle Dockery and hers.

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With Julia while Rex reigns in Brideshead, it is contra mundum still

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If I bonded with Sebastian then (and Stephane Audran as Cara when she shook her head saying no she didn’t want this place), I do with Ryder now:

Bridesheadfinalshot
A final shot of Ryder as he looks up at the house one last time

What I too have left are memories, and I must grow strong by possessing the past within me and staying true to it … never will I come alive as I was during the decades with him, though I do believe he didn’t change me much. Deeper and deeper. Perhaps it’s not healthy for me to watch this mini-series, but rising from it I am aware that wherever I go I take Jim with me. If I were to go to New York City everywhere I went would be memories of even blissful times; if I go to England, his ghost will be in my mind wherever I go: if it’s where we were I’ll remember, if it’s where we didn’t get to as a couple, I’ll mourn his having missed it. He is with me, in me, all around me in my mind. One need not self-destruct because he no longer exists — all he left exists around me, and I remember him and us, what we were.

First

AsRyderdrivesaway
The very first and last shots of the house in the film ….

Ellen

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Breakfast in a cafe: Meg (Lindsay Duncan) and Nick (Jim Broadbent)

le_week-enddancing
Moment of release (also from Le Weekend, scripted Hanif Kureishi, directed Roger Michell)

Dear friends and readers,

I hurried out today around 4:30 in the afternoon, to catch my Uber cab to take me to the one theater in my 3 state area (10 minutes away) still playing Le Weekend because I thought I’d like it and I had read reviews whose condemnation was (I could now see) based on the 3 act goal-, and plot-oriented screenplay structure, said to be the only one worth doing (with its obstacles, pinch points, and resolution). I wanted to confirm to myself this movie was being wrongly damned because it used what Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush in their book, Alternative Scriptwriting call “alternative” modes.

Well I did like it very much, it certainly does avail itself of “alternative modes” (as did two more of the four films I’ve seen recently: The Lunchbox, Gloria), and I recommend not missing it as an intelligent and absorbing depiction of a long-married English couple’s attempt to experience some enjoyment and perhaps patch up their relationship by a weekend in Paris they can ill afford. Each feels he and she has failed in life: Nick has just been fired from, and Meg is on the edge of retiring, from teaching. During the time of the movie we see their painful (and sometimes satisfying) sexual acting out: she does refuse him sex, will not submit and at one point he gets down like a dog in front of her (perhaps this is why it’s dissed); at the same time he’s the (ex-)university professor (albeit Birmingham) and she only a schoolteacher and clings to him; Morgan is his friend, not hers. We hear their sudden passionate self-revealing subtext outbursts, witness moments of release and fun too and listen to them talk and talk, not always coherently.

They encounter Moran (Jeff Goldblum), a successful American colleague of Nick’s, go a party where they meet his prestigious Parisian connections in publishing and beautiful young pregnant French wife (he’s on his second family), and empathetic (to Nick) seemingly isolated teenage NYC son from another marriage.

It is part of the movie’s meaning that Lindsay Duncan does carry off the role of an aging still beautiful woman (who may long for an affair but has not had one) and Jim Broadbent an aging still virile (if frequently frustrated and jealous) man. Its intended niche is probably the 50 to 70 set although some of what happens surely speaks home to any adult experiencing increasingly frustratingly counterproductive roles in worlds where inequalities are made more egregious by the insistent luxurious environments.

expensivehotel
The lobby

Inthehotelroom
In the hotel room

There is a sort of resolution: by the end they have confessed to one another how much they need and mean to one another, have told an exploitative son (who is in need of a place without rats for himself, wife and baby) no, he cannot come live with them again (upon which the son hangs up), gotten themselves so badly in debt for a gorgeous suite in a top Parisian hotel that their passports and luggage is being held. The friend comes to take them back to his flat, with the film dissolving into a three way dance to a juke box in yet another cafe.

le-weekendthefriend
Morgan at a dinner party he invited them to, just before he makes his speech on behalf of Nick’s life — and Nick makes a counter-one showing himself to be a financial and career failure

They do not (as most reviews online have suggested) end up burnt out completely — far from it. The friend, an ex-student pal of Nick’s speaks a speech which shows how meaningful much of Nick’s life as a teacher and scholar have been. Meg has at least held her own as a woman in daily control of herself, her body, her space. The aesthetic closure of the film (the final dancing) is much less important than the texture of the experiences (hotel rooms, clothes, food, their bodies) and thematic parallels and contrasts, the spoken words and gestures in the film’s story-line and character displays, the colors and lights, now garish, now washed out.

ParisatNight
Paris at night and they remember hurts

Shots are oddly cut and juxtaposed, a hand-held camera is common; there are no crises until the very end (when their credit card is canceled), no ratcheting up at the end of “acts,” no pinch points or melodramatic reversals from which there is no return or even surprises.

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Street walking

I decided to write about this movie because it defies the Syd Field prescription — as do many of my favorite films and I don’t just go to art films. I go to mainstream ones (like Woody Allen’s which often do not fit). I don’t think this movie’s premise, appercus, rich if bleak offering could be conveyed by the 3 act structure so insisted on as the only thing possible (except for the rare “art” film) in not only the widely-read work of Field but most books on screenplays which are knock-offs and variations on his schemata. And I regularly see many films which do not adhere to the three act structure trumpeted everywhere, whether character- or plot-driven.

How do these screenplay books get away with this falsification. I’m reading a more intelligent version of these just now: Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush’s Alternative Scriptwriting.

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Cover for first edition

It’s simple: they do not discuss any films by women, any films made with the women in an audience in mind. All the movies they analyze at length are better versions of strong male-oriented hits Field analyzes (e.g., The Verdict where guess what the hero gets control over his life); in the rare instances they do have a film meant for women, it’s one which follows the masculine model (Thelma and Louise does). Another aspect of these choices: — no homosexual central roles in any of the chosen films for analysis. I know US films have a narrow view of heterosexual male sexuality and rarely make a homosexual person central — hardly have a GBLT person as a minor character — and it is reinforced in these formula books.

Dancyger and Rush made be said to try to offer an alternative to what is an intelligent version of Syd Field but not quite succeed. Several times now when they say here is an alternative structure, they go about to discover the Field model (action, goal oriented, finally upbeat) or when it’s not there they talk about what is substituted. I don’t think Ingmar Bergman in his (1955) marvelous magnificent Smiles of a Summer Night (which I watched the other night) was substituting features for a Fieldian model in an archetypcal mould.

I wish I could say I was amused by Dancyger and Rush’s single paragraph acknowledging both the conventional models they begin with are not the way “women know”. They cite a famous classic, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, agree it’s cyclical and goes against conventional goal-oriented conventions, but after briefly recommending a book on Women’s Ways of Knowing, they move on. They also have a brief chapter on the “multiple threaded long form TV serial scripts.” They do analyze how it differs: for example a “narrative voice” or tone and mood emerges by organizing the segments around unifying themes. They appear to find this form rich with more possibilities of intertextuality and intelligence than the three part Field structure. At the same time though they avoid all the really popular costume dramas and soap operas and instead found some popular male serial on commercial TV or looked briefly at Breaking Bad. There really appears to be no book on women’s screenplays and scripts where they differ radically from men’s. No book on the kind of screenplay used for Le Weekend.

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I have about 4 books on technical filmic art matters by feminist film critics who are women; one of them Women and Film (ed Pam Cook) is quoted everywhere. My little library appears to comprise some of the central ones written! books by women which are in effect analyzing to expose the falseness of typical shibboleths and taboos (no voice over, no flashback as feminine or too intellectual): Kozloff’s Invisible Storytellers, and Turim on flashbacks and time in film, but neither identifies herself openly as feminist or about films by women (as do the books on content and women’s films like Jeanine Basinger’s How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-70). I now see they do go over films I watch and go well outside these action-adventure male films, but none of them go into screenplays, the very backbone of the film. I have a number of studies of costume drama and soap opera but again often not of the scripts or screenplays.

A lacuna. A perspective for the first part of my book (as my reader will instantly recalled its working title is A Place of Refuge: the Jane Austen film canon could be how Austen films go against these male conventions in many of their screenplasy – even though many of the Austen films are by men and several of those by women for popular cinema obey the male conventions, e.g., Juliette Towhidi’s Death comes to Pemberley out of P.D.James’s book has the restorative three act structure used for character development: the premise of the film is Elizabeth needs to prove herself mistress of Pemberley, gain everyone’s respect the way her housekeeper, Mrs Reynolds has, to somehow show Darcy that he did not make a mistake when he married her, and prove that to herself; only within this upbeat goal-oriented convention does a gothic cyclical structure emerge for the Wickham-Young-Bidwell back-story repeating the hanging of a boy in the previous generation; and a flowering out soap opera romance one for Georgiana Darcy, Colonel Fitzwilliam, and Henry Alveston triangular conflicts.

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Each of the characters in the book and film of The Jane Austen Book Club corresponds to characters and themes in Austen’s book

Still of the 5 films I’ve chosen for this opening part, 4 are based on books by woman, 4 have women as script writers, 1 a woman director and producer, and I know three of them, Robin Swicord’s The Jane Austen Book Club, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, and Guy Andrews’s Lost in Austen rely on the alternative feminine (if one wants to give it a gender label), narrative voice and dialogue within a multiple thread plot-design. The middle part is a study of the 7 Sense and Sensibility films as a group and the third (a triptych!) what are the assumptions film-makers make about the reading experience audiences have had with an Austen novel and expect to have analogously in watching an Austen film. What makes many readers uncomfortable when they read Austen and what have the film-makers done to compensate, erase, replace. The perspective here at the last will be biographical, out of her letters and the one biopic film based on these, Miss Austen Regrets.

I have gathered a number of screenplays and DVDs to watch and study: a number by women, e.g., Laura Jones’s The Portrait of Lady, some by intelligent sensitive males, Pinter’s A Proust Screenplay, Graham Greene’s a Third Man, four of Ingmar Bergmann’s and four of Woodie Allen’s. But I find that nothing is a complete and useful as the annotated and footnoted scripts accompanied by richly-illustrated and photographed scenario books for Julian Fellowes’s Downton Abbey (and a combined book for Vanity Fair, directed by Mira Nair) and rejoice at the coming third book of scripts for the third season, due out next year just in time for the airing of the fifth season: shooting has already
begun
.

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Tom Branson (Allen Leech) and Sarah Bunting (Daisy Lewis) in the rain under an umbrella — making me remember Jo March and Prof Bauer’s kiss under his umbrella (Little Women)

Ellen

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KirstineOpolais
Kristine Opolais who sang and played Mimi

Dear friends and readers,

As what will be remembered about the HD-opera production of Massenet’s Werther this season is the satellite transmission went silent for the crucial last 7 minutes of the play, so what will be remembered about the HD-opera production of Puccini’s La Bohème is the scheduled young star, Anita Hartig was so ill with the flu that she could not show (and HD-productions are not missed by star if they can possibly help it). Hartig phoned to say so at 7:30 am the morning of the performance so that Leonard Gelb and company, frantic to substitute a powerful singer, phoned Kristine Opolais, the effective beautiful soprano who had sung Madame Butterfly in the house (so was close-by) the preceding night to see if she might agree. As Opolais said during the interview, although after a performance she does not fall asleep for a long time and had been sleeping only since 5 am, she felt it was an offer she could not refuse. 2 and 1/2 hours of sleep.

So up she got, was driven to the Met opera-house, rehearsed a part she had not been practicing, got herself into the outfits the Hartig was to wear, these were re-sewn, and the company and she worked together and at 1 o’clock the show went on. The excitement of going to these HD-transmissions is while they are films, while the production is shaped to be a brilliantly projected and understandable movie, they are live. As I sat (alone in the sense that I had no one I knew on either side of me), and Joyce DiDonato came out as hostess in an absurdly over-tight bright royal dress (not her fault, the hosts and hostesses are dressed by the Met staff) and announced apologetically that Anita Hartig could not make it, I felt and heard the disappointment around me. Then before the opera commenced, she said there was a special announcement and out came Gelb with his story. He asked the audience to be flexible, patient, understanding at the same time as trying to assert this would be as powerful and wonderful a performance as Hartig’s had been — he hoped and trusted.

In the event it was. I have no idea what Hartig is like, but Opolais to my ears sang beautifully poignantly and her exhausted appearance, strained face, and all that went with enacting a young woman in the early and then last stages of TB were as good as one can hope for in a singer whose body was strongly healthy in order to undertake such a part and who was wearing exquisitely cut, lavishly swathed, evocatively-colored Victorian dress and shawl. I have seen La Bohème many times, sometimes unconventionally done (as several years ago now at Wolf Trap with Jim and two friends it was set in Brooklyn circa 2000), and knew this was a traditionally-designed performance, heightened into the romantic picturesque by Zeffirelli, the sets going back to 1981. Yet I wanted to go, even though when we three (for Jim was alive when we talked about going to this year’s season), both Jim and Izzy were unenthusiastic. Izzy walked with me to the movie-house but went into another auditorium to see Captain America, The Winter Soldier.

Why? because I find the music exhilarating and wanted to understand it better. Among the various lies the hostess tells the audience, the one of those most irritating is the insistence that the experience of the opera in the house, live, is superior. Nonsense, or it’s only so for those in the first few rows, and I doubt that’s so even then. The large images, the direction which has the movie-audience in mind and shows considerably sophistication over shots, angles, juxtaposition, sets, are intended to reach audiences and do as nothing on the stage in a large house with most of the audience far away can do. The sound I will maintain is as good. Another is the insistence that the people making the opera do not have the film audience in mind, or (Gelb concedes this lest he be absurd) only as an afterthought to a stage production, an enhancement. Again nonsense. For years I’ve seen movie and TV versions of operas before these HD-screenings of the last 6 years and most of the time I fell asleep on the movie just as frequently as the stage production and the movie was never more understandable than the stage even when there were sur- or subtitles. Now I never fall asleep, I don’t even nod off, and I understand what’s happening, including nuances. This would not happen were the film not being done in a new movie-audience directed way.

Attic
The newly angled attic

I know why they insist. They fear the wrath of patrons paying anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars a seat to a mere few hundred to say $100. The HD-seats here in the 2 Northern Virginia and the 2 DC movie-houses we have gone to seats are $25. They fear diminishing the mystic of the voice without microphone, of “presence” and I admit presence probably thrills many people. But there is nothing to compare really having the performance reach you powerfully, directly, with a feeling of no mediation. For the first time I realized with clarity that the story of these lovers is of them getting together because he pretends he cannot find her key, and then breaking up, because of his jealousy; her resort to a viscount because she is so ill and in need of comforts, and with this context their final scene in the attic room where she dies and he at first does not know it, was more riveting. It’s acted and sung in a far more modern way than Traviata where the dying is lengthened out improbably in order to let her sing more and permit a duet. The intellectually intriguing aspect of La Bohème is it combines a Victorian story (with the frankness of a French source) with a modern assumption of death as extinction and relationships as serial without taking this as awesomely sinful at all.

Rodolpho
Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolpho

I was disappointed nonetheless and for what seems a strange reason. I found myself remembering Pavarotti singing Rodolpho. And thus while handsome enough and acting finely and even singing his heart out to the best of his ability (I assume), Vittorio Grigolo just didn’t come up to the thrill of Pavarotti. His voice felt reedy in comparison, it had not the timbre, the suavity, was not as stirring as memory told me. During the intermission he was asked about following in the path of Pavarotti, and said Pavarotti had been his mentor, and he knew this role was especially connected to Pavarotti, a signature role in which Pavarotti made his reputation outside Italy, but he (Grigolo) could do only what he could do. He obviously thought he was equally adequate but to me he lacked that plangency Pavarotti had. In contrast, probably because I don’t remember Mirella Freni in the same way, Kristine Opolais seems to have the requisite timbre and resonance he lacked, projected a voice of painful feeling inside beauty.

SusannaPhillips
Susanna Phillips as Musetta

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. The famous crowd scene (150 people on stage) at the end of the second act was as effective as ever, Susanna Phillips singing Musetta and Massimo Cavaletti Marcello memorable passionate excitement and thrilling voices. Their two voices and antics against those of our central lovers in the second act snow scenes made the contrasts of vexation and petty squabbling against real hurt of a sick woman and bored and foolish man.

Snowtwo

In the closing scene Patrick Carfizzi sang the melancholy adieu to his coat as the philosopher Schaunard with the right tone of despair, and when they got to the dying, I lost it altogether. I cried half-hysterically, responding at a personal level to some of the lines, crying over Jim’s extinction, the meaningless waste, the pain, the silence, the helplessness, an agon, perhaps disquieting those around me though they seemed a singularly phlegmatic bunch. They had not clapped when any arias came to an end; two over-dressed women on one side whose conversation consisted in talking of how much money they were spending on daughters socializing at expensive private colleges performed sighs to one another over the scenery and picturesque romance. That’s all it was to them — much of the audience seems to have bought their tickets at the last moment, came precisely because this was seen as unreal silly romance. I would agree the poverty of the principals was not very persuasive — nor was the experience presented as an escape to real gaiety.

On one of my list-servs someone had gone to La Bohème for the first time the week before (a Pittsburgh opera company) and she had asked fresh questions of it:

I found the Pittsburgh interpretation a bit flat, but have no context to know if that is “normal,” whether or not I am being too critical or what. The opera is very Victorian, with the consumptive seamstress Mimi openly described as an “angel.” I had a bit of problem with the singer portraying her being quite overweight and much as I tried to suspend disbelief, it was hard for me to accept this large woman in her death throes as consumptive. The set was very somber, done in grays and browns, and while the opera depicts both the joys of being a bohemian artist living in a garret–one’s art make one a millionaire, etc — and though the poor artists are shown rejoicing happily in Dickensian fashion over bread and wine, the opera also underscores that poverty contributes to Mimi’s death. However, I thought a brighter set might have helped counter the sadness of the opera–might literally have highlighted — some of the joys amid the poverty. This is important, I think, as I am seeing a tendency (Mad men comes to mind) to depict the bohemian, the hippie, the alternative lifestyle, as unrelentingly miserable — rats, poverty, drugs, etc., and yet we have ample testimony that, at least in the early days, the hippie movement was often also a joyful experience. I also was a bit bemused that in La Boheme we go from Mimi and Rodolfo falling love to Rodolfo wanting to end the relationship because he is too poor to care for the dying Mimi — he can’t keep her warm, etc.–leaving us to rely on narrated backstory about the entire middle, ie substance, of the relationship.

which I tried to address:

For my part I like the productions which are far less fancy … It is true that the way the story is presented is anti-hedonism and in effect a condemnation of living in poverty — see how miserable they all are. No sense that departing from the mainstream for art gives one some strong compensation. If it is presented with gaiety, the gaiety is not attached to any ideas beyond the stirring music and voices.

Most the opera is deflected over to dwelling on tuberculosis and there we have this beautiful woman dying of TB — itself a subject worth our attenion — for again it’s a fragile woman we are encouraged to dwell on as a poignant ideal. A woman I met at the ASECS conference told me her paper was on how this ideal of fragility and sickness (which Austen mocks way before she got ill) combined with TB was really presented as somehow wanted, admired — as long as it was respectable. It was respectable as long as so many people got sick and died — but apparently once it became attached to myths of prostitution and also once the medicine began to be better understood, it was no longer an ideal for readers or viewers to emulate. So Mimi would be rejected as someone not to identify with.

We don’t see the middling parts of their story (presumably going on for months) except as back story; there is no emphasis on joyful experience (escape from grinding jobs), but only how poverty contributes to Mimi’s death. This was the perspective of the Wolf Trap production set in Brooklyn. In this HD-one Rodolpho and Marcello don’t even take their writing and painting seriously: he burns his play and Marcello paints walls in taverns. True.

What emphasis I have seen done seriously is the story of the TB; TB in the era was a taboo subject, not treated at all realistically (except by daring people who then were condemned and castigated): presented fatuously in art (perversely) as an enhancer of a “fallen” woman’s beauty; when respectable women became ill it was to be hidden. Mimi is a milliner, seamstress and is assumed in Victorian myth to be susceptible to seduction so it’s fine to present her as dying of TB.

dying

I’ve never read Henry Murger’s stories. I have never seen Leoncavallo’s so don’t know what verismo brings to the story. If one were to do the opera more seriously, one might switch the illness to cancer, now an epidemic killing and maiming thousands of people, breaking their finances. Perhaps then one would not have a full house unless one did the setting somberly – a sort of Breaking Bad in operatic masque terms.

Given the philistine atmosphere I felt myself in, I escaped (fled from my seat) while the applause at the end was (in the production) still going on and hurried out of the awful theater lobby for the last time this season. I had a cold windy walk home — not being able to use my car. I did show myself that I can be deeply engaged by opera myself — it’s not just a matter of going with Jim. In his interview with Joyce DiDonato Gelb said some truths: one, that each year the Met tries to broadcast a representative set of operas: and next year there will be brand-new productions, unusual pieces (John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer; Iolanta, (alas with Anna Netrebko, a guarded cold woman, stilted and stiff in my estimation), and Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle), traditional pieces with great singers (Verdi’s Macbeth); in new productions, Lehar’s The Merry Widow with Renee Fleming, Leoncavallo’s Cavallero Rusticana and Puccini’s Pagliacci (with a great tenor singing both).

I’d like to see some of them, so too would Izzy and were it not that Netrebko is in two I’d like see, Izzy and I might manage far more of the season than we did this sad year.

Ellen

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syd-field

A screenplay is a story told with pictures … a screenplay is about a person, or persons, in a place, or places, doing his, or her thing … it is a story told in dialogue and description, and placed in the context of a dramatic structure … each shot [what the camera sees] represents an individual mosaic within the tapestry of the sequence … Syd Field

Scripts … indicate how material could be transferred from the source fiction into an eventual film … [they] plan shooting of the film … John Ellis

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not written on this blog in a while: I’ve been reading several books at once (and hope to blog on them soon); I also returned to my book on the Jane Austen film canon, and decided to write the opening section on the how screenplays function in film-making and how they may be read as serious literature in a new subgenre, so I’ve been reading well-known practical books on how to write a screenplay plus a number of screenplays, some adapting a book, some wholly literally original. These scripts may be backed up, filled out by companion books which show how to create the illusion of the world of the adapted source; these scenarios can include building up of the context (background stories) for major and minor characters. I’ve also been reading studies of companion books and published screenplays with scenarios when they are published as single or multiple books accompanying a movie or movies.

study
A good study

There is indeed an underlying paradigm in the case of all sorts of screenplays whose literal content might seem very different, and above is Syd Field’s well-known way of diagramming it.

The first ten pages or ten minutes shows the viewer the main character and central dramatic premise, the contours of the place and dramatic situation; the next twenty pages or minutes (thirty altogether) takes the viewer to the key crux or happening that must be coped with. In a mini-series one finds that the first 30 minutes or 30 pages functions as both introduction and set up. The middle central section, in a 90 to 120 minute movie shows the character in context confronting obstacle after obstacle: the main character wants or needs something (it can be quite complicated or subtle — or not) and he or she is kept from achieving this. The character has a point of view or attitude and to thicken his or her presence a context (family background, history). We watch the character behave visually and act and speak too. The last part — however long — is resolution. Often at the end of the first act there is a “plot point:” plot points move the action forward; when it comes at the end of the first block or act and the second it’s an incident that spins the action and characters into the next act, often in another direction. This is repeated as we move into resolution. (Field says it always spins the action around in a new direction when it comes at the end of the first act and the second.) A pinch-point half-way through each act is an incident which ratchets up the main or minor characters’ difficulties. Say the theft of Louise’s $6000 which she is depending upon to enable herself and Thelma to live and escape to Mexico (someone attempted to rape Thelma and Louise shot and killed him so they must flee as no court will believe Thelma that it was an assault).

This sounds formulaic and childish but if you begin to read screenplays and watch movies you will find this paradigm repeatedly even in the most apparently sophisticated movie designs. Field and others mention the sequence: I know I have been studying films by identifying sequences of scenes that are informed by an idea; they are often identifiable as they are given an emblem and numbered on the DVD as places to begin watching other than the opening of the film. A scene by the way occur when the camera focuses on a specific place at a specific time of day; there is a scene change when we move to another place or time (and the camera moves or changes its lighting). The scene moves the characters from A to B (or the story forward) in the masculinist paradigm.

There are variations on this paradigm, depending on what the mythic story is or if you have a “character-driven” or ensemble script. But alas, or tellingly (showing something centrally signficant about movies which are so influential), not only are most of the time these plot-outlines expressed in the most masculinistic ways; that is, from the point of view of how a man sees his life as linear and with opportunities, climaxes,

how-and-why-vogler-journey

not (as women do in their autobiographies) as a cyclical and repetitive experience; alas, I have not found a single diagrammed paradigm that is woman-centered. I asked myself if this masulinist paradigm underlies woman’s movies, that they use this as what sells. I found it underlay Koulli’s Thelma and Louise. I must try some more films where the screenplay is by woman, from a woman’s book, and preferably directed by a woman. If the masculinist paradigm is what the viewer is used to, that can explain why a woman’s movie might be called “boring” if it departs from this paradigm. I admit I have only begun to look at them through the lens of these paradigms so I may be wrong; there may be more woman-centered (cyclical repetitive — going “nowhere” as someone might say) than I think. I must check this out further by watching many more movies with attention paid to the screenplay paradigms.

How to recognize a plot point? from this masculinist activity point of view the plot point is a function of the main character: it’s the spins and turns and twists occurring to the main character. Field and others also have a peculiar way of discussing the main character’s action: he asks what is this character’s need and what are the obstacles in his way? conflict is obstacles getting in the way. Well, who is the main character in Gosford Park? Is it Mary? or Helen Mirren? what is her need? to kill or to protect her son who is coming there to kill Sir William McCordle? No because we are supposed to be watching the needy character confronting obstacles. This is a peculiar way to insistently phrase what turns out to be different permutations of stories.

For my study what I hope to examine literally is how the script relates (gives rise) to the verbal materials transferred from a book to become the auditory-visual elements of a film, which are gone over lovingly with many claims to historical accuracy or verisimilitude in the scenario companion books. Since my subject is the Jane Austen film canon I want then to see how these transferred materials and very different screenplays and intermediary source books (say Death Comes to Pemberley out of Pride and Prejudice) relate to one another (say with Lost in Austen or Bridget Jones’s Diary, to stay with Pride and Prejudice sequels and appropriations).

For me what is great fun and enlightening is to place this material alongside screenplays and scenarios from other costume dramas in the form of romantic comedies or dramatic romances in mini-series or singleton form. Musicals too. Downton Abbey (with no eponymous source outside the screenplay) and Gosford Park are not my only candidates; I’ve been studying Callie Khouri’s Thelma and Louise, Marilyn Hoder-Salmon’s The Awakening, and hope to add not just more women’s screenplays (Laura Jones’s Portrait of a Lady), but men’s too, the scripts directed into a film by Ang Lee (e.g., Eat Drink Man Woman), William Goldman’s Princess Bride, Christopher Hampton’s Atonement, Simon Gray’s A Month in the Country &c&c.

Thus far I have found only one literary-critical study which rises to general principles about published screenplays (a published screenplay is a sub-genre: Julian Fellowes has been doing them for each of his scripts): Miguel Mota’s Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio: The Screenplay as Book, Criticism, 47:2 (2005)215-231; and I have found one on the elements of the scenario (see Downton Abbey: bonding with the heroine): Umberto Eco, ”Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage,” Travels in Hyperreality, trans. William Weaver (NY: HBJ, 1983):197-213.

There are plenty of excellent individual studies on the making of this or that film (a remarkably good one on the development of the different screenplays directed by Hitchcock to make a film Marnie out of Winston Graham’s powerful book). Jaoob Lothe’s Narrative in Fiction and Film; Maire Messenger Davies, “Quality and Creativity in TV: The Work of the Television Storytellers,” Quality TV: contemporary american television and beyond (NY: Tauris, 2011):171-84. And there are really excellently-produced screenplays and companion books for successful and art and some popular films. The intelligent ones reveal the thinking behind the mise-en-scene, the choice of “historical accuracies” and the emphases in the detailed expositions of the screenplays (in boxes you can find citations of analogous films and books).

If my reader can make any suggestions for further studies or where to find screenplays (especially for Juliette Towhidi’s Death Comes to Pemberley, Robin Swicord’s The Jane Austen Book Club, Fielding and Davies’s Bridget Jones’s Diary; Guy Andrews’s Lost in Austen), I’d be very grateful. I have already taken down the script for Lost in Austen (using stenography on sten pads, but as of a year ago I cannot hold my hands and guide my fingers with the requisite exquisite control and quickness to make the symbols legible while taking them down as the actors speak). If no one can help me to one of these scripts, I have to sit and watch the three I’ve not down slowly and type the script as I watch.

SusanHerber
Susan Herbert: My Fair Lady (out of Shaw’s Pygmalion)

Ellen

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Trio
Vladimir Ogorevich (Sergey Semishkur), son of Prince Igor (Ildar Abradzakov), Yaroslavna (Oksana Dyke), mother of one, wife of the other, at center

Dear friends and readers,

Geoffrey O’Brien writes inspiringly accurately of this year’s (rehearsals began in June 2013) new HD-opera production of Alexander Borodin’s large fragments towards an opera, now titled Prince Igor, and arranged coherently in a new way to provide a contemporary as well as essentialist Russian meaning:

At the dramatic center of one [realm, or first act] is the captive Igor; in the other the bereft Yaroslavna. The music they sing, each in solitude, is insistently about loneliness and separation. The music they sing together after they are reunited in the last act cannot compare to the mournful power of what they sing alone.
    Yaroslavna is as strong a character as Igor, but like his it is a strength measured by the frankeness with which each confesses to being at a loss, overwhelmed, grief-striken. Yaroslavna’s long lament performed at the beginning of the 2nd act — ‘Terrifying nightmares torment my sleep, I often dream my beloved is beside me … Yet he fades away further and further’ — makes audible the strong, sustained sorrow that seems to lie at the root of the opera (NYRB, March 10, 2014, “A great Prince Igor“.

prince igorYaroslavna

I was deeply moved by Oksana Dyke’s singing and enactment of the role of Igor’s wife. Abandoned as her husband goes off to glorious war (ironies are strong here), she is to take care of the life of everyone at court and in the countryside. In her interview with Eric Owens, Dyke bubbled over delightfully with talk in Russian, and within the opera she was Sarah Siddons come back, somewhat subdued. Her face was serene with beauty, and she sang what I feel daily. I bonded with her, and felt that for other people she (and other characters) might evoke the experience of other of life’s traumas and dream joys. She was terrific, her voice lovely, surely she will someday be a diva.

Polovtisiandancers

I was also irresistibly impressed (as was everyone around me) by the stage filled with 12000 individually made poppies (allusions to the carnage of WW1 through staging and set and words of the free translation), through which danced and writhed a full complement of Rites of Spring-like wild yet controlled young men and women. (See plot-summary, wikipedia.) The battle Igor proposed at the opening of the opera is over and huge movie black-and-white images of men’s faces suffering terrible takes over the stage after Igor is announced captive. One of the faces is Igor himself and he dreams of friends and family members taken captive and made into slaves. He hears the “hit tunes” of the opera (as Owens phrased) allure all the more for their familiarity, e.g., (“Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise”). There was a familiar refrain I can’t describe but that kept coming back throughout the opera and when it started up, like a rabbit my ears perked up attention was held.

Izzy (Russian Roulette) made the important point that the re-arrangement did have the effect of making the wife central, keeping the hero off-stage and leaving a lot unexplained. Dyke was the central presence of the opera. Its mid-section becomes her fending off Prince Galitsky (Mikhail Petrenko) a rake and rapist and trying to save women from trafficking (see below for photo). The opera becomes woman-centered. Not that that’s a bad thing …

Slightly disappointingly (but causing me no surprise) as I stood on-line during the first intermission to get a coffee to drink with my hard-boiled eggs (my lunch), I found myself among three young woman who seemed educated. Not one connected the poppies on stage with the symbol of the poppy of WW1. They had no idea there’d been one (so they said). When I spoke of millions dead in WW1 they looked blanker.

Less excusably they also looked surprised to hear that the production had turned a medieval epic, probably glorifying war, into an anti-war parable. Eric Owens had just described the source as a medieval heroic epic and said more than once that the fragments were newly cobbled together: these had been made into a pageant, but now they were a strongly dramatic story with lots of confrontations. Do some opera-goers not listen to what is said by the host or hostess? As the opera opens, Igor rushes a plethora of young men off to war after 1815 and they begin to straggle back in 1821, filled with war horror stories.

OPening
Nazi or WW2 like uniforms

I did wonder what planet they lived on when lastly I asked how they liked hearing “Stranger in Paradise.” The chorus master (a man in his 70s) at the Met on stage this time knew the 1950s movie and reference, but not these women. Maybe they had never heard of this movie, were too young, and didn’t recognize the music? more likely they just didn’t want to give away anything of their thoughts (people are like this) or were partly having me on. So I fell silent but then they began to talk to me. About what I no longer remember.

IgorEnding

At any rate Tcheniakov and Noseda’s re-interpretation of the epic poem was lost on them. If so, I sincerely hope it was not lost on the many other people in the auditorium: this opera production is intended to speak to our political situation today, e.g., to the endless colonialist wars. Igor’s captor, Khan Konchak (Stefan Kocan) berates him, as Igor sings of all the losses Igor’s war has caused, and the limited role Konchar will give Igor.

Captor

The ending is a depiction of a people utterly debased and shattered, trying to put their lives back together. The song was heroic but when it ended Abdrazakov as Igor broke away from everyone worshipping him to begin to rebuild a house with some doors, and others taking his cue took bricks and began to re-build too. The implicit idea is the war was wrong, the defeat a lesson, and now it’s time to rebuild destroyed places and lives.

Set
This far shot show us Igor’s son, Vladimir and Konchakovna, at times a sheer dream and at others a woman the young man had loved

This newly conceived opera is also meant to be and is complexly psychologically acute. Tcherniakov used big screen movie images of say a face out of which a hallucination (like the dancers in the field of poppies) can emerge, the garb of the Nazis and suggestive costumes, intertitles, the chorus dressed to look like illustrations in 19th century novels of impoverished looking desperate people dressed in Russian style of the later 19th century. Abdrazakov sang movingly among the poppies especially — again it was a familiar tune, but now in context I saw how sad it was, about how people feel about life’s losses. I enjoyed this opera enormously because it reinforced the way I feel often and made such feelings valid.

Tcheniakov told Gelb during the filmed interview that he transformed the source into (he hoped) a sort of 19th century novel in the spirit of Tolstoy. In one archetypal scene, the soul of Prince Igor is fought over, by a male pacificist, who oddly is sternly dressed as a soldier (Duke of Wellington) but have no fear, he hardly ever stirs before noon. Prince Galitsky (Mikhail Petrenko, a base baritone), rival to his brother, is a Lovelace-like rake who seeks to enslave the female population of the village while Igor is gone:

Igorbrotherhusbandsrival

In the poppy fields we first see the female dream erotic figure of the piece, Konshakovna (Anita Rachvelishvili) in white slip with a huge wig of curly black hair down to her waist. Jungian.

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

This is the first of the four operas we chose to go to this year that came up to the standard of great effective opera Jim loved to go see and hear. The text had been transformed into modern art: the staging was interdependent with movie techniques continually and vice-versa. Both a product of 19th century psychological novelistic art; at the same time the source is a nationalist memory of history — in fact it seems Igor won most battles, only the one that was written about was a defeat.

Principles
The principals in the poppy field, Igor singing a famous beautiful piece of music I’ve heard many times before

I imagined Jim with us enjoying it, coming home to read more about the text and careers of the artists, and talking away about it, making the odd ironic joke as we ate our spaghetti together. How busy were those poppy fields. How they broke up into 16 separate pieces to be hauled off stage at night. Had Jim been there we would not have been walking home in the cold up the hill, but seated comfortably in his Jaguar with him. I felt so sad as next season was announced and images from those planned as HD-versions shown on the screen. He would have loved to have seen the new Cav and Pag. Although he saw and heard none of this season, he did read about it, and at moments in the summer he and I even had hope he might live to go to a few.

He can know nothing of these, he’s missing out.

Ellen

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MaryAnna
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart) as series begins

Dear friends and readers,

Most of the time when I watch a TV drama especially I never imagine it was made with me in mind. Due to the proliferation of sites on-line with the whole of the fourth season of Downton Abbey wholly available for watching, yesterday I found shoverdosing on Downton Abbey irresistible. In rhythm it’s more like the first: relatively quiet episodes insofar as action is concerned, but unlike the first there are several developed overarching stories and one (once poor Anna is horribly, violently raped) considerable suspense (will Mr Bates find out who did it and murder the man?). I quickly came across overviews which were critical and dismissive — the series is meandering, getting nowhere — certainly no one is jumping a shark. No humiliating desertions at the altar built up to for our delectation. And there is much introduction of new characters.

But it’s very good in a new way: realistic about life’s tragedies, disappointments, real losses (Albert works hard to become a cook, takes a test and at first seems to have failed against others in a competition). Downton Abbey this time is especially about being widowed — not just our central three, Lady Mary, Tom Bransome and Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton brilliant as a woman who has lost both a beloved husband and only son), but others passing by: Joanne David as a kindly Duchess who tries (but the class barrier too strong) to connect to Tom. You need not marry to be deeply affected by the death of someone: Mr Carter’s erstwhile buddy Mr Grigg (Nicky Henson), ends up in a workhouse, and is rescued by Mrs Hughes (many characters are in this series) to meet with Carson again and tell Carson of one Alice who chose Grig, died young.

The rape of Anna is in uterly keeping with the mood of devastating loss you are seemingly helpless to counteract. For a while she cannot bear to have Mr Bates touch her and comes near to breaking the man by moving back into the house. She acts in character and what many women would still do today: she will not go to the police tells only Mrs Hughes because she must have help, and the man who rapes her is a member of the household and there able to do it again. She becomes a devastated version of the strained Lady Mary the series opens with: ghosts. A repeating image now part of the opening credits is a long shot of Lady Mary at first in black and then in non-mourning clothes walking alone up to the house.

It is not all gravity: Edith falls in love fully with Michael Gregson (Charles Edward) who plans a divorce and turns out to have skills in playing cards with cheating thief (another of these louch lords) and wins back money Lord Grantham can ill spare. I remember other films which show the good person exposing the cheat, dowsing him in a barrel, accusing him, but this was much realer. The cheat left in a hurry knowing he could be exposed — but is not. Elegant entertainment in the form of Kiri Te Kanawa as a visiting opera singer, and Gary Carr as an African-Britsh jazz singer who Rose (Lily James) is attracted to, as well as a kindly working class young man she meets at a dance she gets Anna to take her too.

I found myself utterly connecting again and again.

The dowager (need I cite Maggie’s name?) continues with her wry comments, but they are (as before for those paying attention) as much on behalf of individuals in need as against any structural changes — contests ensue between her and Isobel as Mrs Crawley slowly comes back into activity on behalf of the living. There is still the use of the character motivated by malevolent or asocial and disruptive or class resentment impulses: Rob James-Collier carries on his thankless role (without benefit of Miss O’Brien) this time planting a lady’s maid who seems to be under his control and from whom he forces secrets.

But its reactionary stance is considerably softened as Lord Grantham’s paternal Toryism coincides with Tom’s socialist approach in dealing with tenants. Once Lady Mary emerges from her grief she returns to the old somewhat relentless harder self who would turn tenants out after decades of non-payment. When you get to make up the evidence you can argue anything, and this series is an argument against death duties breaking up the estates of these good well-meaning rich people even if one gov’t employee is quite right when he says of Lady Mary she thinks she’s entitled to this life of a princess. Or maybe in our increasingly fascist environment the program’s continual person-to-person humanity is a relief.

Scan 9
Guess who will provide the third baby for Downton Abbey?

We are no longer in an Edwardian world, but the world of the early 1920s where sex does occur outside marriage more easily. (See Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs). The depression may be what the fifth season will bring.

I say give each episode time; lend yourself to rather like one of the older later 1970s and eary 1980s mini-series with a Chekhovian feel now and again. There has been a change in producer which might help account for the new direction, but it may be Julian Fellowes made a new choice in keeping with a new direction.

I am going away for a week of watching ice-skating in Boston and living in a hotel not too far off and among the books I’m taking is one filled the 8 scripts for the second season and much commentary (and good stills) which I hope to read slowly.

Ellen

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