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AtaBar
Paulina Garcia as Gloria: typical moment in the film

Dear friends and readers,

This extraordinary film, which won no Oscars, screened only in three movie-houses in my area, and is now in only one, playing but twice a day. I saw it at one in the afternoon in an auditorium which had about 10 other middle-aged women, perhaps one man with a woman — and yet it is not just about the life of Gloria, a 58 year old woman working woman, divorced; but

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that of Pedro, her 30 year old son, living with a baby son (ill during the film) whose wife has left them; of Ana, her nearly 30 year old daughter, pregnant by a Swedish man who about 3/4s the way through the film she leaves her life in Chile to join, as what she’s got to do as his job and life are there so if she wants him … Of Gabriel, Gloria’s ex-husband and Flavia, his wife, whom we see but briefly but enough to know the husband had some kind of breakdown more than 10 years ago when Gloria and he broke up, but for which she now forgives him:

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but for which he seems unable to forgive himself, a breakdown which prevented him from being there for either of his children when they needed him; and most frequently of Rodolfo (Sergio Hernandez), the older man she picks up (or who picks her up) at one of these nightclubs she seems to go to nightly: they become friends

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and then lovers:

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but the relationship flounders on his ties to a dependent wife and daughters (whom he supports financially and whose emotional demands he seems unable to resist) and his inability to enter into her family group and watch her relationships which exclude him. He disappears on her twice, the second time leaving her alone in a grand hotel, with hardly the wherewithal to get home, much less pay for the room and stay there. That night she becomes so drunk, she has sex with a stranger and wakes on a beach, without handbag or shoes. And yet she comes back to the hotel and asks questions about Rodolfo, phones her housekeeper-cleaning woman who comes with money to get her. Rodolfo lacks what Gloria displays greatly during the film: resilience.

Of course a woman is at the center of this film; it is from her angle we see all these people and I suppose that is what is thought unacceptable. I mentioned in praising Cate Blanchett’s role in Blue Jasmine how rare it is to see older women roles in films where the woman is still sexualized, still wants sex and a good time, a boyfriend; here how others react to her is presented unflinchingly. I enjoyed the hard truth of her earned moments — she is given gravitas. As opposed to the half-frenetic and half-delusioned women Sally Hawkins plays, and the weeping, lying one Cate Blanchett inhabits in Blue Jasmine, Paulina Garcia respects herself, lives on and within herself.

I’ve read the word “joyful” applied to Gloria, and some of the trailers and promotional shots want to suggest this is the keynote of this film. It’s to get the nuance all wrong. Contemplate this shot near the end of the film: after driving to Rodolfo’s house, throwing his bag at him, and shooting his house with a paint gun (an over-the-top rare improbable moment in the film), Gloria returns to the hair-dresser, then home to put on new make-up, again another cocktail-style dress and back to one of the many noisy nightclubs we see her in throughout the film, get into the center of the dance floor and do it again:

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I see a sort of Christ-like thrusting out of arms in this final image. She is sacrificing herself to the altar of life. Gloria tries to have a good time and sometimes does, is seen laughing, eating, talking, but more often she sits wherever she is enduring life, and sometimes bleakly, drinking and smoking on. She wears glasses throughout the film, a sign of her acceptance of herself as she is:

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The ending of the film tells us life is going to go on and she not give up on it but no more. It reminded me of the films of Pedro Almodóvar (e.g., Volver), only his are perhaps better than this one by Sebastian Lelio.

I’d like to call it the portrait of an older woman’s life, for, as I say, it has enough in it to show that: she and her son, and her grandchild, her ex-husband and his wife, with her daughter – quietly moving scenes, many of them. She is there ar night with her son’s baby. Her daughter will not let her mother grieve openly at the airport when they are to part for perhaps years, so Gloria parks her car separately, comes back hiddenly and alone watches her daughter’s plane leave. We see her sleeping, at work, dealing with a landlord. Only it’s not quite since so much of the film time shows her in a noisy nightclub, drinking and smoking — and going after or being sought for sex. I take this to be the result of two men making the film (the writer Gonzalo Mazzo) is male too. Gloria is not a woman who seeks time alone ever (no solitude for her), who ever reads anything, has any political opinions. Men never wanted to give women the right to vote and they don’t like bluestockings. This is (sorry to say) a man’s take on a woman’s life, however full and sympathetic.

Some reviews have castigated, Rodolpho, but we are to feel for him too; he’s an older man with ties he cannot get himself to escape: as Gloria comes from an upper class Chilean culture clearly so he comes from his narrower lower middle military one. She has no great triumph in getting rid of him as she’s back to square one – the nightclub scene. What impressed me was no matter how many men she meets and dances with and has sex with (one long night) no one stays. No one wants her for real. She’s too old — she’s trying, we see her try to make herself over at the end, but to see that as somehow leading somewhere is to miss the point.

One way to understand what a film means is to look for what repeats itself. This film includes is a tiny starved cat who keeps invading Gloria’s apartment. Every time she comes home, there it is and it’s crying, wailing. She keeps throwing it out. It cries outside her door. On the last time Rodolpho deserts, she allows the poor thing to stay in, and begins to feed it and cuddle and have it in her bed. I felt the cat stood for her and everyone else we see. Unfortunately, the poor cat is owned by a young man who lives upstairs. He is a man who is abusing his girlfriend or partner who lives upstairs from him; Gloria often hears him cursing and hitting a woman. She does not call the police but his mother because she can’t sleep. He tries to get into her apartment one night and leaves behind by mistake a packet of marijuana. She has hitherto refused pot but now we see her smoking alone — I take these to be nadir moments in the film.

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Alas, he’s the owner of the poor kitty and takes it back. I assume in the following week Gloria will find it starving in her apartment again. Back to square one.

Life is more to be endured than enjoyed said Sam Johnson. The film is not glum, though Gloria is hurt

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sometimes afraid (she worries about the man upstairs and complains to the landlord too — to no avail), she smiles again, somewhat steadily if narrowly, warily, is not unhinged, but open to yet more experience:

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She sings in her car. How I envied her the liberty of that car. In its occasional inconsequence the film called to mind Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said (also about an older woman getting involved with men). She passes by political demonstrations, but appears to look askance at the demonstrators and reporters:

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Garcia should have won more than the Silver Bear for Best Actress.

Ellen

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

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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At the gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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Rosamund appealing emotionally to her niece:

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

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

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

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

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

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her words are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A mother-daughter pair will return for another season …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The princess leaves the set

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Meryl Streep (Violet Western), Julia Roberts (Barbara Fordham), Bernard Cumberbatch (Little Charles Aiken)

Dear friends and readers,

Since I’ve now come across several reviews of the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’s powerful play, August: Osage County, including misogynistic diatribe by David Denby (he resents the way Streep looks, the way Roberts behaves so stonily) in the New Yorker, I thought I’d briefly defend the film and urge people to go see it.

First it is another in a long line of depictions of US family pathologies as peculiarly hellish: the first I know of are by Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey into Night); the tradition carries on in Tennessee Williams’ work (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Miller (Death of a Salesman), Albee (Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf); it’s found by women (Hellman’s Little Foxes). We see it in the TV serial drama, Breaking Bad: in US life violence lies near to the surface, and family life instead of being a halcyon retreat (as is claimed) mirrors the terrific demands for competition, success, pressure on people to make big sums of money, the desperation over worldly failure, and if in real life most people don’t jump on one another to physically punish one another, they do the next best thing: corrosive excoriating needling, sexual too.

The terrain is that of Nebraska: the flat failed rural world; the escapes the same, pills, alcohol; the miseries the spreading cancer epidemic: Violet (Streep), the wife has mouth cancer; Ivy Western, her middle daughter had ovarian cancer caught early and a hysterectomy. It’s fine in US life to practice serial monogamy so we have three daughters with no permanent husband: Barbara (Roberts) is now aging and her husband (Ewan McGregor) has turned to a younger woman who does not pressure him to succeed so much; Karen Western (Juliet Lewis), the youngest sister settles for a conscienceless rake (Dermot Mulrooney); another, Ivy Western (Julianne Nicholson) more sympathetic) falls in love with Little Charles (Bernard Cumberbatch), her cousin who is raked over by his mother for not growing rich: they are to discover they are half-siblings. His legal father (Chris Cooper) is the only person besides Ivy to show him love and respect. Betrayal, deceit, secrecy, ignorance of all political and larger realities. There is some love or at least loyalty to this fragile ideal of family as the grown children all show up after Beverly Western (Sam Shepard) their father kills himself by drowning: a failed poet-professor who had no world to belong to.

As in other of these types of plays, there is the problem of what the characters scream at each other about: in all of them it’s sexual humiliation, lack of monetary success, scorn for men who are “weak” (not ferociously competitive, not macho males); who takes pills, who is an alcoholic, who betrayed whom. It’s a dark mirror of us, a concave house of tricks. The special emphasis here is on the loneliness and despair of the women.

It did not falter on the screen. The opening up to landscape gave it greater pictorial resonance with a play’s typical reliance on subtleties of debate within the language. It was not so claustrophic as it probably was on stage: I thought the film of Who’s afraid with Burton and Taylor similarly improved by having the characters go to a tavern and wander around a parking lot half-drunk. Comedy was brought in as here. Tellingly cars (people still imprisoned together — who likes a traffic jam?) figure in this opening up in both and in Nebraska:

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Also arrivals by bus (little Charles); long shots of the house as people drive up to it. Some scenes shot within a screened porch at a distance. Julia Roberts last seen heading out on the highway in a truck.

A theme not brought up much is that of the aging single woman. Violet was very moving to me as the widow now left alone with no meaning for her life; Barbara as the tough exterior woman now going to live lovelessly (her daughter is deserting her); all of the women but Ivy lack any kind or trusting relationship. This is the product of a kind of rootless life where sympathy is not the central value, and sexual looks far too valued. I didn’t cry at the end because I felt the losses that were shown were irreparable and that there had never been anything to cherish; these traumas and cruelties went too deep for tears. I stretched my arms out wide and pulled them together to try to release the tension communicated.

Another is that of mothers and daughters. It’s said — and truly — that as who your father socially was, and who his father, determines your destiny (whether you are male or female); so for a woman the relationship you have with your mother can destroy or make you, or how she treats you is central. And from that point of view, Violet is kinder than allowed: she did not much help, but she did not destroy her daughters. One of them, Barbara, resents deeply how her mother failed to help her, how her mother is weak, and would like to get back, but is restrained by pity as well as remembered love. We see them clash again and again. I suspect the dislike the film received came from the popular audience irritated by this central mother-daughter paradigm. Who cares? would say most men. Many women might turn away from what they see, not want to see themselves in any of the three mother-daughter paradigms the movie provides at all.

The play or movie is another important play mirroring another phase of US culture’s destructive soul-destroying history: curiously the relatives all sit down to dinner together, keep a surface veneer: the result of our cruel economic policies, exclusive social lives, segregated spacial layouts. Everyone holding on, nightmare upon nightmare and finally they physically attack. Only the Spanish maid seems to have any patience for compassion.

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Poster

The performances are terrific, not overdone at all, especially those of Streep and Roberts as mother and daughter. Miller gives us sons and fathers; Williams shows us spouses and siblings; Albee fathers and daughters. Now we have mother and daughters.

Ellen

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Lillian Hellman, 1943

“Speech,” she said, “is but broken light upon the depth/Of the unspoken . .. —George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy

“There is nothing really lasting, nothing that will endure, except the sincere expression of the actual conditions of life” — Penelope Fitzgerald

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been meaning to write about a set of profound underrated slender books by Lillian Hellman: her autobiography in 4 parts: An Unfinished Woman, Pentemento, Scoundrel Time, and Maybe. The characteristic of life-writing, that it is often partly imagined, dramatized even when there are long stretches of literal truth has been used to trash her as a “liar,” because the political vision of the four, unqualifiedly socialist was anathema to much of the US intelligensia of the 50s through 90s (and today still); what’s worse she continually criticizes those who, far more than merely complicit with the persecution of anyone left of center in the 1950s, volunteered lies, fingered others to improve their position, and until today in effect support the US gov’t effort to silence and destroy any opposition from the left (of whatever stripe). The continual trashing of her writing (most famously by Mary McCarthy) has badly damaged the dissemination of these texts: the continuing purpose is to make everyone dismiss her important account of the McCarthy era, simply not bother read it.

I loved all four and gathered a sense of deep strength from a communicated sense that there was no hype in the style (if she does make herself heroine, it’s what most life-writers do). The central presence of all four — gradual the emergence — is that of Dashiell Hammet. I admit I fell in love with him because he reminded me so of my beloved Jim. Thus I write about these four memoirs tonight.

Some central perspectives: evasiveness; Hellman’s identifies with outcasts, people who are different from most others, who don’t fit in; people more deeply and actively humane than others (who need not be politicians or powerful people; they can be an African-American servant): the main characters in each book are partly versions of herself. Hammett is the still center of her world providing what happiness and stability of outlook she can hold to. The books are l’ecriture-femme: they show all the characteristics of women’s life-writing (different from men’s): circular, inward, not seeking to find a single triumph, not linear; deeply concerned with others close to her; like much life-writing, the books are compensatory, seeking to assuage life’s disappointments, to find out she came to be what she was. And as the 20th century was one which saw the take-over of many peoples by ruthless fascists and dictators, by scoundrels (as she would have it), a central thread in them all is the attempt of the various characters (versions of Hellman mind) to come to terms actively with what public useful roles in the world they are allowed.

Her greatness and importance as a writer goes beyond her plays: she wrote many important screen-plays and now these memoirs. There is an important accurate absorbing biography: Alice Kessler-Harris: A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Times and Life of Lillian Hellman: it’s a sensible and eloquent defense and explanation of Hellman’s work in the context of its era. K-H places the memoirs in the years the events take place — bigotry in the south of the 1930s and 40s, the savage attack on not just socialisms, but liberalism of any kind in the 50s, extending into the 60s (and 70s too). It is a book as much about 20th century politics everywhere in life as it is about Hellman (and Hammett). K-H includes her personal outward life: one originally of privilege, Hellman’s aggressive nature moving into success by moving to NYC and getting into publishing and then finding herself with like-minded people. She had one marriage which broke up but she carried on being close to the man (Kohler) and the famed long-time relationship with Dashiell Hammett who was always sexually unfaithful. Hellman as a writer emerges as one of the great and powerful women writers dealing with issues of our times. I don’t deal with the more private of these (sexual) as those are in her plays which I don’t include as she herself in her memoirs does not discuss the content of these plays nor her screen-plays except insofar as they came up against political opposition.

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An older Dashiell Hammett (after the McCarthy persecution)

An Unfinished Woman

Hellman has in mind what she is today, and she is telling her early life in terms of what she has become. And she does not idealize herself. So she accounts for her anger; how she came to want to follow her own will; her experiences of stark poverty — and just as important the pompous bourgeois lifestyle of her New York (mother’s family) relatives. It’s written in a simple style.

Hammett again and again emerges as this all wise sharp deep friend. He is stubborn and will not act for his self-interest as she sees it at one point. He tells her she must leave him be or walk in another direction and they will part. He walked on ahead, after a couple of minutes she runs after.  She appears to have been his support: their happiest years on the farm. Hints of his infidelities. What an outsider reader might remember is that Hammett’s books while fine as mysteries are not masterpieces — I put it down to his deep scepticism; when you are made that way it does get in the way of making masterpieces (you can’t believe they’ll be appreciated or understood for a start).

Between the childhood which is presented to explain how her temperament and culture were intermixed and some roots for her real sympathy for the dispossessed, outsiders, and those who are bohemian in the older 1940 use of the word, she begins to have intense arguments with her father. She will not yield and one day runs away.

 A stalwart time of her actually managing to live on the streets for a time, using the tiny sum she had to rent a room in a lodging house. Such cheap places no longer exist. The whole incident anticipates how she will deal with what she perceives as injustice later. Finally when she grows so ill, her landlady finds out who her father is. At least that’s what she supposed when she waked to find her father at the top of her bed. In this section we see how central whether a person is black or white is in the culture of the era.


Hellman’s description of what publishing was like in the early to mid-20th century is just mouth-watering. There is nothing like this today: nurturing of talent, editing to help the writer bring him or herself out, the kind of connections that worked, the camaraderie is the central thing. How real political views came in frankly.

What also emerges is how being a woman makes a central difference. She defines two kinds of literary parties given by these publishing firms as differing from one another on the basis of whether the woman there are on offer to sleep with the men or “bluestocking” writing types. When she gets pregnant, she wants to have an abortion and not tell anyone who the father is. The men in her office find out about this and note this: they demand she tell who the father is. They find it unacceptable that she should do what she wants about it. This threatens her job and position and were she less forceful would make real trouble for her — could cost her her position. For writing and literary people as well as women (I think) for just this part of her book a must-read — as a truthful depiction of the milieues literary people came from too.

As the memoir moves on, Hellman skips about and does not tell you how she met so-and-so, but strides forward to places she’s at that matters, things she did that mattered. It gives the book a feel of strength.  Hammet seems to enter at a back door, and from the start is quoted in a way that makes all his utterances intelligent, significant.

She does let you know she knew everyone who counted in the literary world. She says she was incapable of holding an ordinary job down; we see she’s capable of inventing positions for herself as she gets this or that place. I found her account of her time in Hollywood illuminating — again what’s important according to a group of humane values — of creativity. She much admires Fitzgerald, especially Great Gatsby; she’s not sure about Hemingway.

I can alas find no account of women writers — they do not seem important to her as such. Women are there as wives and people working in offices.

She begins to make big money when she goes into the stage – she says she was no theater person, and could not cooperate, could not collaborate, the centre of what’s wanted, but she loved to write the scripts. Another kind of writing by which she made a lot of money were film screenplays.



She travels to Europe and freely says that when she went to the Soviet Union she never saw the slave labor camps or heard of the wreckage of lives not obedient to Stalin’s party in power.  So she does not hide this, nor does she talk up communism. She was much involved in the Spanish war — as were many concerned earnest people are the time. This is the middle section of her book. She goes to Spain first – then comes Moscow I see. It’s not set up chronologically but thematically.

The comments she makes about those she meets, their different levels of sophistication and naivete (for example they want her there on the hilarious expectation she can speak to Roosevelt to get him to help the Republicans) are convincing. I  get a kick of out her witty utterances and she (like Orwell’s Road to Catalonia) suddenly says resonant truths:
“The filthy indignity of destruction is the real immorality.”  

I agree. Orwell remarks as soon as a place is declared a war zone suddenly people will throw anything anywhere and use things for wholly different purposes. My view is many of the people who fix fine homes do it for prestige, for social networking, for show, the last thing they care about really is order or peace.

She presents herself as the brave heroine: it’s intended to function to bring out the heroism of others, the scrambling nature of the life — and especially how many of the idealistic people who came to fight for the Republic of Spain died — many horribly later on killed by fascist regimes. She shows people hungry, desperate, and brings out that Roosevelt and his gov’t really did nothing, sent no money.  Bombing started there and she brings out the terror of living under bombs — houses, streets become holes, people haven’t a chance. (Think about the drones.) Finally she makes the point that had the western powers wanted to stop HItler early, they could have but he was a “bulwark” against socialism; had they fought for real in Spain, they could have limited the damage of WW2, but at each step there were plenty of people high in gov’t who would not step in.

She was made an offer to do a movie in Moscow as propaganda for the war: by Harry Roosevelt’s right man, William Wyler the director, and Goldwyn to make it. They got permission and funds from the Russians, but wrenches were thrown – it was to be really empathetic with the Russians (then dying by hundreds of thousands) so Goldwyn hated it (as he hated anyone not for oodles of profit), Wyler dropped out and she made a crummy film of it in Hollywood.

Her time in Spain during and after the Spanish civil war is followed by her time in Russia. I know I’m writing this as a defense, a corrective, but since the book is framed so hostilely, it seems right to correct. She does notice the pogroms and terrors of the 1930s; she sees them as nightmares but she does put them in perspective — against a world of nazism, in terms of the White army counter-revolution. There is no idealization of the Soviet Union – nor is there demonization.

 Since she was writing in the later 1960s and this came out in 1970 she had to have known how brave it is simply to ignore the relentless anti-socialist propaganda. She persists in pointing out how those who knuckle under and name names enable the likes of McCarthy and his modern variants.

Her time in Moscow is during the war, but it’s told from a present tense point of view. She is badly frightened more than once when she comes near a battle or fighting. She again shows the terror of bombing. She is invited to go places she doesn’t want to go and ends up going lest she insult people. She never does see Stalin — someone not far from him in power. I find it interesting that when she quotes an apt phrase of Stalin’s, she will follow it by a oh we’re not supposed to quote him now.

It’s fascinating how Hammett is used. She invites an unworthy person (we are let to see this) to dinner and after a first bout of the person, Hammett goes upstairs and will not come down until the person has left the farm … There is a continual interweaving of different time periods and places but one can see where one is more or less.

She moves back and forth too and there are deep memories of Hammett and the farm – as part of talking about the perspective people put on these years as a result of fierce anti-socialism of the US. It seems to me clear that Hammett is not the partner she would have liked – she would have liked to be with a permanent partner but she accepted him. I’m not a reader of mysteries and have never read a novel by Hammett – though I have in my house The Maltese Falcon one of a series of 10 “great” mystery novels. Maybe I’ll try it.

She does admit flatly that the McCarthy hearings might be said to have destroyed her life and much of her happiness ever after. So the intense desire of the US gov’t to get after leftists did work in her case too. Hammett went to jail; she was forced to give up the farm. Kessler-Harris says ever after she was regarded with suspicion and as soon as her enemies which now included those she blamed for colluding could they attacked her.

As for Hammett, the time in jail and behavior towards himself destroyed his spirit and then his body. He died of lung cancer – the smoking the instrumental cause. From wikipedia:

During the 1950s he was investigated by Congress. He testified on March 26, 1953 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about his own activities, but refused to cooperate with the committee and was blacklisted.

A lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking worsened Hammett’s tuberculosis contracted in World War I, and then according to Hellman “jail had made a thin man thinner, a sick man sicker . . . I knew he would now always be sick.” He may have meant to start a new literary life with the novel Tulip, but left it unfinished perhaps because he was “just too ill to care, too worn out to listen to plans or read contracts. The fact of breathing, just breathing, took up all the days and nights.”

As the years of the 1950s wore on, Hellman says Hammett became “a hermit”, his decline evident in the clutter of his rented “ugly little country cottage” where “[t]he signs of sickness were all around: now the phonograph was unplayed, the typewriter untouched, the beloved foolish gadgets unopened in their packages.” Hammett no longer could live alone and they both knew it, so the last four years of his life he spent with Hellman. “Not all of that time was easy, and some of it very bad”, she wrote but, “guessing death was not too far away, I would try for something to have afterwards.” January 10, 1961, Hammett died in New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital, of lung cancer, diagnosed just two months before. As a veteran of two World Wars, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The last phase of the book is subtitled: Dorothy Parker. The book continues moves thematically: I don’t see the circular structure of man women’s memoirs but it’s not structured as most men’s: following a trajectory to the great success – or failure and then denouement (the rest of his life).

In this last phase she say show remarkable that she and Dottie got along. She is against the modern mode she says of relationships based on pleasantness; you must be who you are to some extent first. Parker presented herself as gushing over Hammett and Lilian learned eventually such a gushing scene was usually followed by Dottie saying to whoever was her confidante some caustic mockery. Hellman said Hammett therefore couldn’t stand her: saw this as sheer sycophancy while it showed someone frightened of others (this tells us more about Hellman).

A substory happens in this book: her love for, their happy years and then the loss of Hammett. She mentions at one moment she preferred him to be let out of prison and then retreat and die in peace than any vindication – would not realistically happen nor would it much matter to him as its social manipulative behavior of people in public. The Parker story includes a vignette where he again threatens to leave or hit (hard) Hellman if Hellman ever invites Dottie over again. She presents this kind of thing without comment. She assures the reader Parker admired Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. She also seems to excuse him by saying how she couldn’t stand Alan Campbell, Parker’s husband (twice – the Parrtisan crowd had a habit it seems of divorcing and the re-marrying the same person).

In the close of this section we see how close Hellman got to Parker. Hellman was Parker’s executive. This is a moving account of a checquered and difficult friendship since Parker had no interest in the political arrangements which controlled her life – not unusual in the US. They told each other women’s stories – stories of how women survived as a way of communicating their views of how the world worked and their place in it. Tough stories. We see that Hammett got in the way Big Time. She had to keep Dottie in another house at one point. She does not hold this against him – by this time he was a broken ill man. The McCarthy debacle destroyed him – Hellman telling held up (pun intended). But we can see a common conflict for women: the husband/partner who can’t stand the close girlfriend.

The book comes to a strong end: two more sections, one on Helen, a black woman who came to live with Lilian Hellman later in life and had ties back to Sophronia, the black woman who took care of Hellman as a girl. We are returning full circle so the memoir does have the circular repetitive structure of women’s memoirs. Women grow up to do for their daughters what their mothers did for them; life has repetitive patterns if you are considering the family and your life cycle, while male memoirs are about success in the objective marketplace and military worlds

Since Helene was black, this gives Hellman a chance to present her participation in the civil rights movement of the 60s, what she felt at that famous March on Washington when King gave his I have a Dream speech. As with her depiction of Dorothy Parker and her way of skirting and bringing in feminism by telling real stories of real people’s behavior, mostly dismaying desperate attempts by women to secure safety, a good partner (with money), revealing how the underbelly works, so in this memoir we get depictions of what the US does to black people, the kinds of characters that emerged in the 1940s through 60s by telling us of specific individuals related to Helen. She might be accused of being racist in some of this but this is to misunderstand.

And of course the last chapter is Hammett. If you didn’t expect that by this time you have not gotten the depths of this book, its understory. How they met, she 24 he 36 in a Hollywood restaurant, she says he didn’t want a biography from her (for it would be about her he said) and she doesn’t want to be a “bookkeeper of her life” (so we see why she resolutely avoids a chronological approach), so she quickly celebrates their 6 happy unhappy years when he helped her write Children’s Hour she says (what this help consisted of I don’t know) and his joining the army for WW2, his attack ending in hosptial to be told if he keeps his drinking up he’ll be dead in a few months, how he ceased drinking, the tragedy of his later years – again triggered by the McCarthy hearings and his jail sentence. What he said is not that often repeated since it was not memorable but: he simply refused to reveal the names of people who contributed to a fund called communist; he had never been part of it. He preferred Jail to supporting the farcical democracy the US showed itself to have. But it did not prefer him.

It ends with a moving account of Hammett’s death, his last days and her anger (again the candor is impeccable) she is angry at him still for his not trying to survive — that’s what’s she’s saying at the end. He would not like her writing about him this way; how do they rate as a couple, did they love more or less than others when it comes to their relationship, and we see how she still misses him.

Why does Hellman call this memoir “an unfinished woman”? because she feels she has wasted so much time. So do I I often feel. Lots of people who want to live seriously, use their talents to the full will feel that (Samuel Johnson comes to mind). Because you can’t live that way but in the high moments — and often when alone …

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Jane Fonda as Julia

Pentimento: Bethe

She opens the second book with material that comes from her childhood so like other women’s memoirs, the structure is circular, not that of seizing an opportunity, advancing and triumphing — or not — as is so common among men’s memoirs. She will progress forward, sort of. Only this time it’s going to be a set of portraits which she’s delve the palimpsest’s beneath to show us more about the world and herself.

The opening one is a stunner Bethe who seems a terribly dull ordinary woman married off to Styrie Bowman because he had money as a family arrangements, but slowly it flowers out to show her living an extraordinarily difficult life, with lovers and apparently a victim of a Mafia group, who lived with Lilian’s aunts, Jenny and Hannah, they too slowly revealed, the supposed intelligent one who did well in school, Hannah, becoming the dependent, while Jenny took over, whose death left Hannah lost. Hannah like so many people in Hellman’s books (rightly) avoid hospitals at all costs, but there one can be saved from dread diseases,. The whole account moves in and out of what’s seen, what not seen: it is an expose of women trying to survive. At one point Hellman as a child tells Bethe she lies because a man tells her to. To do justice to these would take long thought and rereading — it’s also concise and to the point while suggestive, these half-weird details of people’s speech and obsessions which ring so true of humanity.

The story of Bethe ends in a way that begins (to me) to shed light on a number of Hellman’s deeper attitudes. She is in effect betrayed by Hannah and Jenny: when her apparently brutal Mafia lover is found murdered, his hand cut off and Bethe disappears, the aunts will not look for her. They ask why Lillian is concerning herself: her answer is “Love, I think, but I’m not sure.” 11 years later she marries the husband her family approves of and is good to her, but declines to wear the pretty dress set out for her when she hears talk of Arneggio (the mafia man who was murdered and Bethe). Later again after she had left this man and was sleeping with Hammett, a valise of Hellman’s father’s letters turns up and she asks if an explanatory letter from Bethe is still in there. They want all that happened to be dismissed as not important and meaningless. She accuses them of not approving of Bethe – or herself now. Jenny the supposed strong one asks Lillian how she can know the difference between fear and approval.

Do they fear for her? Fear for Bethe? Or were afraid. A huge fight ensues between Jenny and Hannah that night and it seems that Hannah the supposed weak one wins. The two aunts take Lilian to a bad neighborhood and in a very mean cottage living there with a plumber she finds Bethe. Bethe really wants nothing to do with Lillian as she is making dinner for her partner (or husband). Hellman must go, Two years later she is told Bethe died of pneumonia; the aunts found out from a note by T.R. Carter who we are left to surmise was that plumber. Lillian vows to tell the news to relatives the next time she is in Germany but she never returned. But that night she had a quarrel with Hammett because he did not understand what she kept repeating that Bethe’s story has a lot to do with her relationship with Hammett (why she went into it, why she stayed).

She identifies utterly with this outcast — though Hammett was not that she sees a parallel. The story is also about how women who don’t make it into conventional respected roles are treated and react in our society from the old maid aunts to this pariah.

Willy

She’s an astonishing writer: this is a little “Heart of Darkness.” Willy the central but elusive male is running an organization as violent, amoral, ruthless and money making as anyone in Conrad’s tale. It’s told from the point of view of a child watching the man’s wife with her fancy absurd jewels as she tries to compensate by these silly accoutrements of wealth for what she doesn’t have: a decent inner life. What’s particularly striking is how this underlying scenario is left to us to get; it’s not emphasized; we are told as a child Lilian admired her aunt intensely; then she had the turn round when she found everything about her repugnant, but that was as wrong as the first impulse. But what was the accurate understanding to have is not made explicit — as it certainly is in Conrad. Moreoever by having the ordinary oppressed people about with all their troubles, the blacks too, we see that this parable is not something occurring just thousands of miles off but it an open version of what we experience in the US and supports the US way of life.

I wondered if she chose “Willy” because the man in Colette’s books is a Willy and he’s a total shit — predatory in a different way, on women directly, on such a woman as this aunt if she had any talent he could exploit (which she does not).

Julia

This is powerful from the get-go. She’s going to use fake names because, then she lists all the people involved still living, obviously omitting Julia. The method of moving back and forth in time swiftly creates suspense and intriguing glamor: Julia lives like she is very poor but came from super-rich home and we switch to their intense friendship as girls and how Lilian reacted to the upper class mannered luxurious home. This interwoven with the frightening attempt of Julia from Berlin to through mediaries get mysterious boxes to Lilian. Filled with thousands of dollars, bribes to get people out of prison and camps. Dottie”s (Dorothy Parker) husband plays heavy getting in the way and almost spoiling everything by asinine questions: she did dislike him.

And assertions that her memory often faulty in this case utterly true. Because it does read like a romance.


So from outcast, Bethe, to thug-criminal type providing the money for everyone, Willy, to super idealist, Julia, also though on the outside of conventional life, at risk from its defenders.

The memoir becomes particularly intense and powerful as Julia virtually disappears from the stage. Hellman is living with Hammet and both having successed, but as the war progresses he tells her to go to Europe. Early on Julia writes Lilian telling her how criminal the countries are who are letting Hitler and Franco grow into power (she calls Mussolini a peacock) and Hellman adds that by the early 1940s it was understood horrifying pogroms were going on and nothing done. We then hear of Julia beat the hell out of at a hospital. In the form of notes, letters, people coming to tell Hellman: Julia says her phone is tapped and Lilian is for the first time aware of a network of gov’t and military spies. She says she had not thought of this.We worry for her because the tone of the people at the hospital (which Hellman visits) are hostile and she is removed from there. She is a fugitive from the Nazis in effect.

It seems to me all these characters are dream versions of Hellman’s self – except her self is such an independent and integrated one, fighting her way continually. This is a hidden self which cannot – and shows her intense empathy for those unlike herself. Maybe this is why I find I am intensely drawn into her book. If these people are not versions of me, I have either been luckier or not as brave.

Perhaps the power of this tale (it’s a tale) resides in its evasiveness. As our heroine, Lilian travels with this hat and candy box she gradually realizes around her are helpers of Julia and not far from them great danger. Achieving her mission, she goes into a café and there is Julia and we are told it was the last time they saw one another. Julia is much the worse for wear, and then fast forward to her in learning Julia now dead and where her body is. WE get the usual throw away line about Hammett (“Dash who never wanted me to go anywhere because he never wanted to go anywhere …” who agrees ot her going to London to see the body.
Nothing is left of her. The funeral home was bombed to pieces; lawyer jargon of fancy law firm (fancy Nam) doubting there was a child (“in this strange case,” “a child only I believed existed?), only we know from this text and others by Hellman what happened to Julia was multiplied a thousand thousand fold in WW2 at the hands of the fascists. Relatives deny and we end on a “third cousin” (again the turns of remoteness) who never heard of one.

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Pentimento: Theatre

A bitten off piece far more about the circumstances surrounding her play-writing, the social ones especially (like censorship) ratherthan the content of the plays themselves, much less the writing or process of production. How she soared with Children’s Hour (her parents shocked) and then kicked herself and made her second play, a failure, a far worse experience than it needed to be. Pen portraits of Goldwyn: how he made himself powerful through ways of talking. Again at crucial points there is the apt utterance by Hammett …

As she goes on, this becomes as powerful as the others – and as the others we are led to see the events from a point of view to the side of the events, rather than the events themselves – meaning say the content of the play, its relevance to the era: the surrounding circumstances become more powerful as her career proceeds and becomes more complicated, again she is often an outsider. We get these succinct persuasive portraits of then well-known people.

A long interesting section on Candide whose subtexts I probably missed because she does not tell about say Bernstein’s politics and her own and those of the people involved. How it was a flop is not therefore made clear or why.

Of particular interest are her comparisons of the ways theater works and film: few dramas can “stand up to an assertive talent, even if original creator distinguished;” “movies solve this problem” by the director and the writer collaborating with the actors; in film the producer takes a central role. She reminds me of Doris Lessing when she says in effect how what she writes is misunderstood continually: what she means to be seen as ironic is seen as straight; there is a continual misreading of her plays as sentimental and melodramatic – partly they are played that way.

Axioms thrown out: “fear infects and corrupts what it touches.” Yes. “It is best in theater to act with confidence no matter how little right you have to it.”

I was chuffed to discover how highly she and Hammett both regarded Autumn Garden. Mailer much admired Autumn Garden but said Lilian had “lost her nerve,” to which Hammett said “Almost everybody loses their nerve. You almost didn’t and that’s what counts, and what he should have said.

Jim thought it the best play we saw all summer in a summer where we saw a large number; it was written during the “best” period of her life, when she had “found the right place to live for the rest of my life,” where she and Hammett had been together for 20 years and made a “lot of money” and didn’t care how they spent it; they had stopped drinking so heavily and “early excited years together had settled into a passionate affection so unexpected to both of us we were as shy and careful with each other as if we were courting children. Without words we knew hat we had survived for the best of all reasons, the pleasure of each other” (p. 163-64). I am charmed how they never had plans for the future. Hammett never believed in any kind of permanence (p. 171). Jim said he didn’t said he didn’t plan but now I realized he did, and expected a future for which he was holding out the money we had – so he was not the deep sceptic that Hammett was until he became terminally ill and then this hopelessness did him a disservice however I understand it.

She has strong praise for the meaning of the character of Joan of Arc as she sees it, and has trouble translating and adapting Anouilh’s play and here makes an important admission:
“I can write about men, but I can’t write a play that centers on a man. I’ve got to tear it up, make it about the women around him, his sisters, his bride, her mother said ..
Again briefly how she and Hammett were destroyed by the McCarthy era, his emphysema became too strong and the poignancy of his not being able to climb up to a favorite place. She did have a hot, Toys in the Attic and its money provided for his last months during which she didn’t sleep.

A. W. Cowan

Cowan was another — besides Hammett — of Hellman’s long-time lovers. She met him at a poetry reading (by among others Lowell) and he did not act in the smooth socially acceptable way most others did. Abrasive, disjointed in his responses, a disjunctive life, she was attracted to hiim. When she showed him the farm she and Hammett had had together, and expressed the idea she had had to sell it due to the McCarthy years, he denied and it made her cry. His bitterness matched hers. She suggests that those who kowtowed to McCarthy were worse than open McCarthy and his acolytes, and for her this was that her belief in tribal safety was forever destroyed. The one satisfactory explanation for what happened was given by Richard Crossman, whose diaries Jim read. He was highly placed in successive labor gov’ts.

A jagged portrait. The point she made about the McCarthy period that made it so searing is that she cared about those who allowed the persecution, those who joined in, those who sprinted to demean themselves and invented lies is this is the core of evil’s start: the only reason these people objected to McCarthy was he was not “a gentleman.”
She likes Cowan because he helps those he theoretically despises and sees through most people as posturing and phony: but this is asking too little of someone. Surely Hammett would have told her that.
Ellen

Trying to explain to Cowan why she is broke, or feels broke and was forced to sell her farm, she mentions that the Internal Revenue Dept of the USA so calculated Hammett’s taxes that he was not able to keep any of his royalties. In other words, McCarthy was the showman, the people who were eager to cave in the bellwethers, but what was most important was the gov’t apparatus going after her and Hammett at full throttle force. I’ve spent lots of time reading about my eligibility for a widow’s benefit, the insurance and other policies Jim paid into for years to make sure I was would all right if he should pre-decease me: everyone of them has a clause which say the US gov’t has the right to withhold all these funds from the person if they are deemed — I don’t remember the cagey word, it was not subversive as that is too open or concrete but it’s what was meant. Small details like this are scattered everywhere in this portrait of Cowan, an arch conservative politically who apparently became Hellman’s lover and helped her financially.

By the end of the tale Cowan becomes a curiously pathetic creature in a moving portrait, 3/4s lies, 1/4 great decency, perhaps a reactionary spy for the US gov’t set to watch Hellman, perhaps not. He keeps tying to win people over by telling them he’s leaving all his money to them, but when he dies, there’s no will and no money. He’s a much a wild outsider as Julia and dies obscurely with nothing known about him for sure. Here’s a site that tries to capture some of this period and has various replies. Telling to me is how Hammett will simply not stay in the same room with him: Hammett does not trust Cowan to breath honestly.

This relatively short penultimate piece reveals more than any other thus far how much this book has been about Lilian Hellman, that central to it no matter how marginal he appears is Hammett, and its great disaster only approached indirectly the McCarthy era persecution.

Turtle

She begins by telling how she nearly drowns when she went out alone to fish one day. It is astonishing to me how alone she lives in her way: yes she is often with others socializing and yet she is fundamentally living within herself and doesn’t mind living alone, traveling alone for long stretches. Here she remembers yet another fragment of conversation between her and Hammett where she asked him about a turtle and if the turtle and Hammett were survivors, and now is she? He said “I don’t know .. maybe you are, maybe not. What good is my opinion” (p. 220). She realizes holding onto piling she is conversing with a man dead 5 years and a turtle dead for 26.That brings home to me that I do converse with Jim, and have ever conversed with him on my blog. By remembering what he would say or a scene.



The rest is a savage account of a primitive kind of snapping turtle that cripples Hammett’s favorite dog by biting his leg, and how Hammett in response studies many books, and decides how to murder a snapping turtle in reaction and does it. It’s not easy. It does seem fictional, mythic and half-crazy for after all the turtle that hurt the dog is not the turtle first tries to kill with an axe, then burn to death. It somehow survives by using it shell as protection, but finally they destroy it.

This phase of this portrait is embedded in an account of her buying the farmland it was on: how she made enough money from Little Foxes to buy this vast undeveloped land and how she farmed it, in Westchester County. No one but her interested in it. She really didn’t have the money, it was an estate and she did without food for a week (she says).

So again we are telling of her idyllic time with Hammett in a raw way. The happy time ended 1952 she says again and it’s just after this statement she tells of the snapping turtle.

And the piece ends on Hammet’s words to her, She had insisted on burying this savage turtle out of respect for its ferocious fight back, and Hammett then dubbed it a version of herself and felt the moral emotion she’d had showed a religious sensibility and there was (at the time of writing? When she nearly drowned) a wooden sign over this turtle’s grave: “My first turtle is buried here. Miss Religious L.H.” Hammett’s words.

I thought this last unnamed piece would be about Hammett’s death since a reference to it opens the piece. But no it’s a return to Helen, and a young black man she seems to be nurturing (in her hard bitten way) who shows enormous promise, wins scholarships, goes to highfaultin places, and yet in the end somehow drops out of it all, or doesn’t get anywhere people think he will, and marries and lives an obscure life in Oregon. Helen dies and he returns for her funeral. Intermittently we hear about the student riots and how the universities handle them badly. He rejected the world which probably didn’t want him after all.

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For Scoundrel Time and Maybe see comments.

Ellen

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Dear friends,

In the computer disaster I had two days ago it appears that the course proposals I had made for a summer teaching course at an Oscher Institute of Learning may have been permanently lost; as I want these documents and today (as yet) have no writing program I can put them on — the new computer with Windows 8 is hellishly cutsey, tricksey. I cannot figure out how to write on Word on this Macbook Pro without the whole screen being transformed, so that I appear unable to reach my gmail with hitting F3 which minimalizes everything and let’s me see, and get back to gmail and the row of programs I have at the bottom of Macbook Pro. So I am saving two sets of documents or writing here — I used to use this blog to work out my thoughts on books, films, teaching; well read these as 5 sketches towards a summer course for retired people.

The Gothic

This course will explore the gothic mode in fiction and film. The gothic as a mode is a vast terrain with many differnt subgenres, yet images, plot-, and character types repeat like a formula. Take one huge labyrinthine ancient or partly ruined dwelling, place inside a murderous incestuous father or mother (preferably chained), heroes and heroines (various kinds), get a tempest going at night, be sure to have plenty of blood on hand, owls, and stir in a great deal of supernatural phenomena, have the action occur in the deep past or be connected to a deep past … We’ll use short stories on-line, beginning with ghosts and terror, moving onto vampire, werewolf, and wanderer paradigms and horror, and last socially critical mystery and possession. The course culminates in two recent novellas, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, and the justly famed film, Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963, featuring Julie Harris).

Texts on-line will be chosen from among these: Wharton’s “Afterward” and/or “Kerfol,” M. R. James’s “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral;” Sheridan LeFanu’s “Green Tea” and/or “Carmilla,” Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life,” R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Suzy Charnas’s “Unicorn Tapestry; Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Abbey Grange.” This spares students buying an expensive anthology.

Memory, Desire, and Self-fashioning: Life Writing

This course will enable students to better to understand and recognize the nature of life-writing: diaries, books of letters, journals, memoirs, travel narratives, autobiogaphies, biographies. Our three texts will be Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orca: An Italian War Diary, 1943-1944 (or George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia) and Margaret Drabble’s The Figure in the Carpet: A Personal History, with Jigsaws. We will ask what is the nature of the truth autobiography produces and look at the relationship of a biographer to his subject. We’ll look at writing done to the moment when the writer does not know what the future holds (diaries, letters); how far is a biography the product of a biographer’s memories interacting with text by his (or her) subject. We’ll talk about the importance of childhood and play in this form, how aging, imagination and disappointment work are part of the mental materials that make up life-writing. If time permits and the DVD is available, the class will conclude with the 2013 film, The Invisible Woman, based on Claire Tomalin’s biography of a long love-relationship between Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan (an actress), where most of the evidence for the events was destroyed, and thus be able to discuss events that happen, and are important in people’s lives and yet have left no discernible clear record.

The Political Novel

The course aims to enable the students to recognize what is political novel and how such novels can function in our society. We’ll read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Walter Von Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and Valerie Martin’s Property and see William Wellman’s film, The Ox-Bow Incident (1963, featuring Henry Fonda and Anthony Quinn). We’ll look at the nature of political allegory: how ideas about society penetrate the consciousness of the characters and can be observed in their behavior. Why some events enter what’s called history and why political novels often lend themselves to historical treatment; why other events are not discussed as serious history, which can limit what we perceive as political behavior. Finally, how films contribute to understanding a novel or its political meanings.

The Historical and Post-Colonial Turn in modern novels

This course will examine historical and post-colonial (or global) turn that English fiction has taken in the last quarter century. We’ll read and discuss three novels: Paul Scott’s Staying On, Graham Swift’s Waterland, and Andrea Levy’s Small Island. The first poignant novel is also about two aging people now retired, who have seen the word they were part of disappear and must cope with new arrangements hostile to them. The second will enable us to discuss how some events enter political history and others don’t, and thus our past is past is something we invent through imposing choice and order based on hierarchies in our present culture. Historical romance can therefore be liberating acts of resistance, a way of redressing injustice, and creating a more humane usable past. The third novel shows the centrality of nationalistic identities in enforcing exclusions or forming imagined communities. The course will conclude by watching an excerpt from a mini-series adaptation of Small Island (2009, BBC, featuring David Oyelowo and Ruth Wilson). I hope the class will see the connection of these novels to young adult fiction, counter-factual fictions, and romantic history as well as TV costume drama.

Jane Austen: the early phase

This course focus on Austen’s first published novels: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Love and Freindship (a short hilarious burlesque which we will read first), Austen’s Steventon years, and letter fiction provide prologue and context for reading S&S and P&P. An alternative perspective provides the last phase of the course: Austen’s Bath years, a brief mid-career epistolary novel written there, Lady Susan (with an utterly amoral heroine), and discussion of how Austen revised the novels when she settled at Chawton. Last, we’ll see Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s S&S (a 1995 Miramax product), and discuss what this film makes visible about the way film-makers think readers read these novels and how these interpretations differ from this course’s historical, autobiographical and aesthetic readings.

Ellen

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From Andrew Davies’s mini-series Mr Selfridge (based on Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction, and Mr Selfridge

I do not believe in recovery. The past, with its pleasures, its rewards, its foolishness, its punishments, is there for each of us forever, and it should be — Lillian Hellman

It is not true that in time you get used to it — Simone de Beauvoir

“The secondary impulse is to go out of the self, to correct its provincialism and heal its loneliness — C. S. Lewis

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not blogged in over a week because I’ve been busy with various projects, most of which I am not ready to write on as yet, or I have to wait to write on because something else will be due earlier. My good past gone, I move to a new framing.

I finished reading Musiol’s important book on Vittoria Colonna but feel I must work on it carefully and during the day, that it will take much thought to review usefully (or why bother?): the description on line leads one to think it’s mainly on Michelangelo’s drawings possibly of Vittoria Colonna, when it is rather a detailed biography in the context of the religious and military politics and other literary works of her age.

Other projects nearing conclusion (coming out of list-serv life): LeFanu’s short stories and Wyvern Mystery (plot-designs and characters emerging from interior pathways through melancholy); Lillian Hellman’s 4 memoirs (Unfinished Woman, Pentemento, Scoundrel Time, Maybe).

But before doing that I have to make one or two syllabi for a possible position teaching in the Humanities part of a BA program. Since I’ve never taught courses which match the requirements of their core curriculum, this will take some doing. And a not so small obstacle here is I just ordered the books, so even with expedited shipping for a couple of them, have to wait. Paradoxically though I’m closer to being able to teach a course in the Enlightenment (one of the two offered), as 1) the 18th century is my primary area; 2) I used to teach a survey on the first half of British literature, one third of which I devoted to the long 18th century, I actually have more recent anthologies for the Victorian Age (my other choice).

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Pre-Raphaelite image, Millais (on the cover of the Longman Victorian Age)

Right now I’m thinking I should have for each syllabus a single readable (entertaining too) volume of general history (G. H. Young’s Portrait of an Age [Victorian]), an anthology which will give selections from many topics and a variety of texts and authors, and perhaps one or two whole single texts. Some of these anthologies I see have extended texts on-line which may form the equivalent of single texts. I don’t want to make the students pay extravagant amounts of money. For the Victorian Age one, I’m hoping the Broadview anthology comes quickly because it has a lot of Anthony Trollope in it, but I very much like the Longman (rich in traditional texts) and am drawn to the documents in Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain, ed. Antoinette Burden (with pieces by slaves and all sorts of extraordinary exposures of the condition of people at the time all over the globe which would (I hope) set students thinking.

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Reynolds’s portrait of Abingdon as Miss Prue (on the cover of the Longman 18th century anthology)

For the eighteenth century, Enlightenment one, I find I can think of a set of individual books, one of which might be a poetry anthology, but the outline of the course suggested asks that the instructor to have a core corpus of philosophical texts, some of which must debate attitudes towards religion (certainly central to the Enlightenment is the spread of secularism) so I’ve ordered Kramnick’s anthology of continental and English Enlightenment philosophical texts, and am thinking about single volume anthologies called Enlightenment (Roy Porter, or Dorinda Outram), to which I could add a good novel or travel memoir; or the Longman or Norton anthologies.

I hope all the ordered stuff arrives as I’m supposed to have these syllabi by New Year’s Day (January 1st). Meanwhile along with my etext edition of Ethelinde (slowly typing it still) and my return to Emma, Austen’s novel, for calendar study, and the Emma movies, which I suppose I must put aside for now, or go slower, late into the night I’m enjoying myself watching Andrew Davies’s Mr Selfridge and endlessly re-watching the 3 seasons of Downton Abbey, which I never seem to tire of: partly it’s that so much money and care and the intense art that results from that, & the many characters gone into with all their parallels and ironic contrasts inside evolving stories — makes slow re-watching rich in ever new insights. Partly the depth of feeling the characters show towards one another satisfies an endless need in me:

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Mr (Brendan Coyle) and Mrs (Joanne Froggart): on the beach (4th season)

If Jim were still alive, I’d not be returning to teaching; I’d probably stay with Emma, the Austen movies and Ethelinde, and maybe for fun turn to Winston Graham and historical fiction. Be going out to plays, operas, concerts, walking with him, talking. Travel, say to the Lake District, Venice — but I do know he was beginning to not want to do these things — himself aging, weakening (perhaps that horrible disease cancer that ate him up showing itself). I would have done that paper on Anne Finch and retirement. Lillian Hellman says in her memoirs (which I’m almost ready to write about, just have to finish the fourth and a couple of essays on it) that when you are driven to give up an old way of life, when it’s destroyed, you are spared stagnation, staying in one frame or sameness of place, growing even older than your years.

Can I tell myself (like Hellman) that what was then, is there still now, and the years between, and the then and now are one? No it’s not one, now and the long (now feeling all too short) time with Jim. And what happened to make this raw rip was unspeakable. Here we were, innocent in a landmark house, Amos Brown’s, Vermont, what turned out to be our last summer:

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Before I read with him, now in order not to read all alone, and be utterly desolate in my heart and inner being, I have to turn the reading into socially useful, acceptable patterns and paths.

“Aussi triste qe soit un livre, it n’est jamais aussi triste que la vie” — Chantal Thomas [as sad as a book is, it's never as sad as life], Souffrir

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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Renee Fleming

Dear friends and readers,

As part of a friend’s long weekend visit, I planned for us to go to 3 places, and see one concert, one play, one movie. We’d have plenty of time inbetween (I hoped) to walk, talk, watch TV (even, shoverdosing on say Downton Abbey), eat. Maybe we didn’t have quite enough time to do all that. What also got in the way was the cold weather and occasional struggles to find my car.

Renee Fleming put together a remarkable three days of American voices at the Kennedy Center; we experienced a powerful expressionistic Romeo & Juliet at the Folger, and happened on beautiful and interesting objects in the National Gallery.

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The first place was Kennedy Center, and when we got there, we realized what I thought might be a concert was master-training session and three chosen students after which there was a panel discussion with Fleming herself, and people high in the particular music world the training sessions were in.

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It turned out that what was happening was for 3 days and nights an exploration of “American voices” (as it was billed) was going on in different parts of the building. Opera, musicals, country, rock, gospel, pop. It was made to happen by Renee Fleming whose position, respect, prestige, knowledge of people (they are her friends) could create something like this. We had stumbled onto something remarkable, and I really think we might have seen the most interesting musically.

The first session with Eric Owens correcting, urging teaching three superb young opera singers. He was witty and wise. The panel then came out on stage and discussed education, starting a career, what kind of training do opera singers get today, what kind of voices do audiences prefer today as opposed to the early 20th century, how HD was problematic for older women singers, and for a trade where what had counted was the voice, and now what was counting was an image. What about non-traditional casting in these works, African-American casting. I loved some of Owens’s replies. How does he cope with rejection — implied on the basis that he’s African-American: traditional casting is the rigorous norm it seems in Europe. He said if a place or organization didn’t want him, he didn’t want to be there. I could see that Fleming was going to ask questions that were appropriate for each kind of music and that the training session by the “master” was going to bring out different aspects of the different arts. Susan, a woman we met later wrote a fine account of the Jazz session.

The whole thing reminded me of one summer Jim and I attended 5 Sondheim musicals; over the course of that summer Sondheim was explored in all sorts of ways, music made all over the building. I asked my friend if she’d like to go the musical session. I love musicals and it was on at 11 on Sunday, a free time for us still, and I could bring us by car. Alas, it was sold out. According to one review, the concert was a disappointment as the singers did not seem to have taken their learning into their art, but as most know, someone’s art develops slowly.

But we were not done: there was the 6 o’clock free Millennium stage. So first we ate out in the upstairs cafeteria. It was too cold to go out on the terrace, and we got involved in a conversation with Susan, an on-line theater critic of music. A lot of the people at these sessions were singers, teachers, people involved in music. I learned there is a long line to get a seat for the 6:00 o’clock show by 5:30 but we got seats. Two sets of singers: one more operatic set of songs (I began to cry at one it was so movingly sung), and the other Jazz singers from Howard University (Afro-Blue songs).

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The second place was the Folger Shakespeare theater. My friend had not been in it before and her fresh eyes enabled me to realize what a small theater it is, never mind the columns and woodwork everywhere getting in the way. It is quaint, but this season the company inhabiting it is “all Shakespeare, all the time,” and the exhibit showed us actors from Shakespeare’s era to our doing parts of the plays the company is doing this year. The Folger Shakespeare library has just about everything one wants from the 16th through later 17th century as part of Shakespeare’s life, and then it has a remarkably rich theater collection moving on to our own time as part of the world of the theater. Naturally they could form such an exhibit.

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Romeo (Michael Goldsmith) and Juliet (Erin Weaver)

I thought the play itself wonderfully well done, the best Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen. Someone had had the idea of really making our star-crossed lovers into young teenagers so the play was no longer about love, but fierce idealism, childish or irresponsible crazed and innocent behavior, and murderous impulses in the human spirit. Dumb shows were able to bring out male abusiveness, macho-ness, especially as inflicted on cowed women. It was expressive, symbolic, a play meant to speak to us today. They kept the comedy, the poetry, Mercutio was more of a careless amoral bully, which made his death more endurable to all. The acting was superb.

I was moved to near tears remembering what a dead body is like, soared in the light of Shakespeare’s lines done so aspirationally, so sardonically …. Sophie Gilbert found the production uneven; he intense Juliet and pitch prefectly naive Romeo is done justice to by Peter Marks.

I had forgotten how much I love Shakespeare and began to remember the first time I ever saw a Shakespeare play: I was 17 and had gone to the Delacorte theater, run by Joe Papp at the time in Central park. (The plays are still being done today — though half the audience has pre-paid. When I went many of the people waited on line and got seats on a first come first serve basis.) My favorite research spot — the Folger library rich in everything that could possibly connect to Shakespeare — not far off, nor the bookshop, I felt for a moment that I had broken the spell of the vise of misery seemingly clutching to my throat like some halter around my neck since this past August when Jim’s cancer metatasized into his liver.

On Eric Posner:

We ate nearby — in one of the restaurants in the row facing the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. A Chinese place, it was pretty, but my dinner was awful and I couldn’t eat it. We should have followed the advice of a woman who told us she runs tours and gone to Union Station on the Metro, then my friend and I could have seen that place and maybe gotten a better restaurant. Can’t win ‘em all. I had wanted to show my friend the Capital Hill area, with its Botanical Garden, and we saw just a bit of it, especially the Library of Congress’s three buildings (John Adams with its Canterbury pilgrims frieze on the top floor) and the elegant older houses in rows all around it.

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The third place was the National Gallery. We did choose to go where there would be fine art and paintings — maybe next time we’ll try the Newseum or Smithsonians for cultural artefacts and lectures. To go there was to include the Quad, 14th street, but the wind defeated us and we rushed into the Gallery. Kathy was dismayed by the exhibit she had especially wanted to see: volumes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses . She thought we’d see Latin texts, hear of who read them, how influential they were (on the arts). Instead we were into post-modernism: how was the average person responding to this text, and it was clear the curators thought the average person could not read Latin and was into these translatoins. It is true that in England there were a number and some of great poetic power. This is the first time I saw the French ones (mostly in prose) and the Italian. There were some modern translations and there we saw how the book illustrations changed: Pablo Picasso was among those who illustrated books with Latin texts in translation in the 1930s.

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I love happening on exhibits or favorite objects in the collection. We happened on a 5 room journey through Paris as photographed by Charles Marville who caught the old Paris being destroyed, people displaced, and filmed demolition and despair. We saw the price the new Paris (so familiar to us) with its great boulevards, and beautiful buildings. Marville created picturesque scenes too:

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On the way from there to the Ovid exhibit, we happened on a set of sculptures on the theme of Diana, of women who retreated with a special animal — in bronze beautiful strong women’s bodies austere looks on their faces.

Upstairs I visited old friends in the collection. Corots, impressionists, Pissarro, a Turner. The rotunda filled with flowers.

Down by elevator, we bought snacks in the cafeteria and sat near the waterfall. The huge bookstore tempted us and we were sorely tempted by a book called Dressed as in a Painting; it looked so perceptive and its angle so pleasing but the price was $40.

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We went through the glittering diamond-starred moving walk to the other part of the museum, East Building and modern art. There we were to have seen Piero Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore but it was late, we were tired and wanted to get home before dark.

So we retraced our way back in the museum to where we had come in — rather like Hansel without his breadcrumbs — but eventually we were in the right vestibule with our coats and hastening across the squares and streets into the Metro to get out of the bitingly cold wind.

A piled-in time — my legs were aching by the end, my back, my friend was exhausted she said. Jim and I would do this kind of thing regularly, but not so much all at once, over say a few weeks or over a period of months we’d have subscriptions to a theater or opera company. My friend and I did not have the luxury of much time. Still amazing she made it from Iowa, stayed in a comfortable near-by not expensive hotel, met and talked with Izzy, saw my house, all my books, and the pussycats too.

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Ian on my desk, near my Vittoria Colonna book

I’ve vowed to myself I shall return to going to the Folger regularly, keep an eye on what films are on, and try to discern the presence of a music festival.

Ellen

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TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup re-named Plat when a slave (Twelve Years a Slave, directed Steven McQueen, screenplay John Ridley)

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Jay Morris Hunter as Ahab (Moby Dick, San Francisco opera production, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer)

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday and in the wee hours of the night I watched two movies I’d like to recommend not missing if you can help it. Both much worth immersing yourself in — thinking about in the case of Twelve Years a Slave and allowing the alluring beauty of the mood and music to bring you in with Moby Dick.

From what I hear other people say to one another, Twelve Years a Slave is misrepresented in ordinary talk somewhat. Since “word-of-mouth” retains its importance in making for a popular movie hit, I’m hurrying a little to write about Twelve Years. If seen by enough people, it could function (mildly) as Uncle Tom’s Cabin once did — this time to help against racial discrimination and racist thinking so prevalent in the US still. People have told me in some areas the film has not opened so maybe I’m precipitantly worrying the film will not be a commercial success. In my area it did open in our local art cinema; the owner rejoiced at getting two prints but it’s already in Theater 4 (smaller and not for continuing hits) and not many people were in the audience yesterday after only a week; and among these were a number of black people, so not many whites in the audience. This theater is not one black people go to much; it’s in an area that’s mostly white, upper middle and attracts art-film audiences. For The Butler I did have to go to Theater 4 but it had been playing for weeks and weeks, all summer in fact, and still the theater (4) was filled and it had a preponderance of white people. The Butler crossed the racial divide. In a nearby theater to me which has large black audiences The Butler was sold out on and off for weeks, long lines of black people waiting to go, early on and then the whites joined them.

Scuttlebutt (or what I’m told or read by friends) is how violent and hard to watch it is. It’s not non-violent and not easy to watch but not because you are shown excruciating torture or close-up shocking violence, nor is this perpetual or at all gratuitous. The violence wreaked on slaves that we see is precisely what will subdue and cow them (not nothing because it’s harsh and includes implicit threats of death), the beatings shown at a distance as (horrifyingly to decent emotions) par for the course, the ordinary routine of treatment for slaves. The coerced sex scenes (on the slaves Patsy played so effectively by Lupita Nyong’o) by the master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinder who does steal the movie) are not all that much different from what I’ve seen of half-rape type scenes in (soft-corn implicitly hard sex) movies which don’t name it that. The woman just lies there and lets him.

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Patsy asking Plat to help her kill herself

What’s memorable about the scene so many reviewers have mentioned of our hero, Solomon Northrup renamed Plat (Chiwetel Ejiofor) where he’s hung and will die if he does not manage to keep his toes on the ground is how everyday it is, how slaves walk by him unable to help him, how the whites watch and do nothing, and how the supposed “good” master (Bernard Cumberbatch as Master Ford) only comes to cut him down late at night lest he irritate his central over-seer. Ford gives him a violin but will not behave towards him as if he were a human being whose life matters.

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Plat rented out to a man who allows him to keep the money he’s paid for his violin playing

Twelve Years a Slave (based remember on a 19th slave narrative, a type or sub-genre) increased my respect for Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (essentially several slave narratives interwoven into a middle class type white novel) and watching it helped increase my respect for that nowadays somewhat under-rated book. It has the same attributed flaws — in the sense that there is a reductive quality, a melodramatic exaggeration going on continually so really the charge hurled at Simon Legree that he’s a monster and no one could be that bad and if he were he’d be an exception can be hurled at Epps.

James Baldwin would not like the way Plat is presented as sheerly noble and insofar as he can be good (see “Everybody’s Protest Novel”); he is not an Uncle Tom; he does not justify a(the character who does this who is popular now is Mr Carson in Downton Abbey) or suck up in his case in the face of horrible mistreatment, but he is an innocent as the film opens. When Solomon is lured to the south, it’s obvious that the two men luring him are crooks; they are over-praising him; he is a simpleton in the scenes. Master Ford as a character is better with his well-meaningness, and his inability to keep Plat, whose opinion Ford consults, thus whose abilities arouse the resentment-hatred of his over-seers slave-servant safe is believable, but numbers of the scenes are too obvious, he won’t help Plat for real, regards Plat as property he must sell to keep his debts down so our moral lesson is clear.

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Cumberbatch as the religious ethical man Ford nonetheless showing intense cowardice and lack of real understanding as he briefly explains to Plat why he sells him to Epps

But would such a man sell this man to Epps whom he knows is cruel, sadistic. Epps played as nearly psychotic and seemingly driven by guilt to be even crueller. The central parallel of the two works (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the film Twelve Years) is this half-crazed white master. Epps is a Simon Legree and his wife a female version. But you do (Stowe and now McQueen) want to make sure the audience gets it.

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Sarah Paulson as Mrs Epps riping off Patsy’s ear and taking a chunk out of her cheek with a knife (in Dickens’s Travels in America he easily exposes slavery quoting the ads for finding escaped or “lost” slaves by the scars they are said to have)

Gets what? the key to the film’s power and importance is we see what happens to people who lose all status all caste worth – and in the case of chattel slavery this is reinforced by law which defines them as property. If they should be owned by a mad-man he is allowed to do as he wishes. The point is what law and custom allows. Sure in the Islamic world most men are not ogres, but the Koran and custom allow horrific treatment and power corrupts. People will use power if they are given it even when not as obvious as Legree or Epps.

The film is relevant to us today because today people lose a great deal of status and caste worth depending on how much money they make, the schools they go to, where they live, if they are broke — and worse, if they are immigrants or of a different racial color than the powerful. I was reminded of a book I recently reviewed on global emigration in the 18th century, enforced diasporas, and mass murder, Hodson’s Acadian Diaspora, where the point was made that safety for the average non-powerful non-connected person depends on staying where you are, among relatives or friends and people whose truth or falsehood you can gauge so not be cheated utterly to your destruction with no recourse in courts not made for you. See also David Denby on Twelve Years (from the New Yorker) as best movie on slavery made in the US thus far.

It seems to reflect a book too: there are intriguing sequences which are not part of the plot-driven movement: a group of Native Americans come to dance before the black slaves as if their culture is what slaves will understood. Other curious moments.

The one real flaw in the film is the ending as has been suggested in reviews and conversations I’ve heard. Not so much that Brad Pitt as Bass (a major contributor of money as a first-named producer) gives himself the role of our one abolitionist talker, and the only man to keep his faith with Plat.

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Brad Pitt as Bass actually listening to Plat (with exaggerated courtesy)

Plat before this trusts a white overseer who seems to be his friend with money in return for taking a letter to the post office to send to the north to reach friends to help him in court; the man tells Epps so immediately that the man does not have the letter as evidence and Plat manages to persuade Epps (not too bright) that he man is lying:

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Half-mad man

The story is improbable Plat persuades Epps, and then we watch Plat burn the hard won paper and writing he did so laboriously with home-made ink and quill.

Bass is a hired architect, an outsider and he does get in touch with authorities up north and friends of Northup — at considerable risk to himself if he’s found out he says.

The flaw begins with how easy it is for the friends to show up & take Northup away. Why did they never look for Northup before? Well, it is true that people were terrified and a reign of terror worked down south (Harriet Martineau’s travels in America books record this) but then it should not have been as easy as we see it for the men to take Northup away Epps should have shot him, would have. We are then not shown the court scenes that would have been another 2 hours but that would have been original and interesting — so let’s hope for a sequel? I doubt it.

The least real moment is the return of Northup to his family. He looks just as innocent and sweet as when he set out. Not haggard, not worn, not much changed at all. His black family is improbably prosperous throughout yet seem to have no connections to anyone black or white outside themselves. All subside into joy in a circle. Plat-Northup keeps apologizing and that makes psychological sense.

I compared the final scene to some photos I’ve seen of Primo Levi when he first returned from concentration camp,haggard, exhausted, not the same ever again. I wondered if a man dragged from freedom to slavery wouldn’t have the same hostage symptoms, the same urges to self-murder and sense of deep humiliation not to be gotten over. We get intertitles to tell us how Northup wrote and published his book in 1853 (Twelve Years in Slavery, and how he worked hard for the underground railway. So he stayed in the US I thought.

But then this quietly ominous final intertitle: no one knows how or when he died or where he is buried. Maybe murdered?

The central performances of male roles as everyone has said are stunningly good. I’ve already named the principles.

As a woman watching I had though to endure the annoyance of women being presented one-dimensionally throughout — except for Patsy the girl who becomes Epps’ concubine; who he beats, who picks heroic amounts of cotton each day — so she is never whipped for under-picking as others are. The two white mistresses are basically either phlegmatic and do nothing (that’s their role) or spiteful: Sarah Paulson Mrs Epps loathes Epps and tries not to have him in her bed, to leave him but he threatens her too – she is a form of his property too (this reminded me of Valerie Martin’s book that won the Orange Prize, Property); Mrs Epps is as sadistic, as sick as her husband, hates Patsy and hurls hard objects at her, knocking her down, cuts her face and ear cruelly, will not let her wash herself so she flees for soap and is gone for a few hours which leads to a horrific scene of Epps beating her and then forcing Plat to do it.

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The scene’s reality for the era (keeping clean was difficult) makes one feel it comes from the book — as one of Indians humiliating themselves by dancing as white people expect

We see one black woman who has become a white man’s open mistress: she is fatuous, self-centered, looks down at other blacks. I don’t say these are not human impulses but that’s all we get of these women. A black woman weeps incessantly because parted from her children; another forces herself sexually one night on Plat.

So it’s masculinist movie — Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-39 depicts the terrifying work load and sexual exploitation and cruelty wreaked on women — and their complicated humanity too. And Kemble as mistress identifies with them and within 4 years leaves her husband — she must leave behind her children to do it, only regaining the friendship of one of them in much later years. Such a thinking upright brave type woman is not in the film.

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Which brings me to the opera of Moby Dick where (like Master and Commander out of the Patrick O’Brien books) where no women are in the film — just remembered as embodying civilization itself.

The one women in the cast was playing the boy, Pip, who is almost drowned. Suffice to say it outlined the major hinge-points of the novel (as seen in a play originally with Orson Welles from the 1940s I once saw), and it brought out the meaningful themes: does life have any meaning? who is this haunted creature-fish and Ahab or Ishmael? they are lonely? Is there a God; if so, is he evil incarnate? The music was alluring, the lines resonant to larger meanings we can identify with through generalizations. Like all films it was made for today, with today in mind. The artwork beautifully picturesque:

The production did not emphasize the primal animal-fish (as did Winston Graham in his last Poldark novel, Bella) but human displacement, alienation. The production did seem to suggest that all would have been well but that the captain was mad. (That’s not the note of the Graham novels.) As I recall the book the thrust is all is not going to be well, never has. We see a dream life or men cut off from where they could know happiness as they are driven to make money in this dangerous occupation.

So I loved the deep melancholy of the men, their desperation to bring home some whale oil for money I see as part of human life. I bonded with the man who survives and calls himself Ishmael. He had wanted to go to an island with Queegqueg and live out our lives as best we can; I felt for Mr Starbuck who is nearly shot point-blank by Ahab, and almost shoots Epps on the way. There are the comic undercutting characters too.

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And he wouldn’t know, he was tempted

This novel centrally attacks tenets of Christian belief, from justice as always or often done, to stories of an afterlife. These are deliberately not love or dynastic stories. He wanted to be spared.

I bring them together because I watched them within 12 hours of one another, and was struck by the shared masculinity identification. For myself the plangent nature of the music, Ishmael as a person alone in this world resonated enough. I think Jim would have enjoyed the great range of the masculine voices they hired. The lines on the screen and wild waters as the ships turning out from lines, the wild waters — all pulled me paradoxically soothed me. The ending of the tale is tragic as is a good deal of life.

Friday nights on TV contain a revival of the old Great Performances which I remember from my childhood, watching with my father on the old Channel 13: Judith Anderson in Medea, a Chekhov play with a male character who lived in an attic with birds, a sad poet, a bitter absolutely perfect Twelth Night (so that’s what is meant), Peggy Ashcroft, Duchess of Malfi. Now a few weeks ago the four Henry plays, from Richard II to Henry V (and the actors and actresses were great from the extraordinary Ben Wishlaw as Richard (this was Shakespeare I thought — ever autobiographical in my reading), Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York, David Morrisey as Northumberland, Tom Hiddleston as Henry, Roy Kinnear as Bolingbroke become Jeremy Irons as king, Michelle Dockery (Yay!) as Kate, Hotspur’s wife, Simon Beale as Falstaff, (I saw David Bradley too), magnificently done.

I did not realize the new version allows you to watch a re-run (as it were) as a podcast.

Learning to watch TV, a little
Ellen

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Coverillustrationblog

Dear friends and readers,

Ten days ago Maria Musiol contacted me to tell me she has now published her study of Vittoria Colonna through the lens of Colonna’s loving friendship with Michelangelo: she says it’s a “series of essays dealing with the recorded aspects of Vittoria’s external and internal life.” She has mailed me a copy, asking me to review it and I am planning on picking up said book tomorrow. I will start reading some time tomorrow.

She has published a German version of her text in Germany — which is historically consonant with the traditions of Colonna scholarship. The only other complete translation of the poems is in German. (Besides mine — Maria Roscoe missed out some, and attributed at least one poem by Veronica Gambara to Colonna.) The standard biography by Alfred Reumont is in German; those who read it in Italian (as I do, since I cannot read German) are reading a translation. I can see Ms Musiol has a new theory about Michelangelo’s drawings as pictures of Colonna and will deal at length with their relationship (as others have done before her).

She also tells me (I hope I am not trespassing to tell this here as it is significant) that she began her project twenty years ago: “After the premature death of my husband I came to Ischia and, looking for role models as a young widow, came across Vittoria Colonna and began my research about her, because there was no adequate biography.” She’s right: Reumont is outdated and without an inner life; Jerrold omits the complicated politics central to Colonna’s life. I have been rereading Colonna’s poems with new insight and feeling over these past two weeks — since the death of my beloved husband.

Coincidentally in middle September I had a query from another woman scholar now working on Francesco Ferrante D’Avalos, the Marquis of Pescara. Rita Lamb is working on his family background, researching specifically into legends and genetic history, which connect Pescara biologically (as a natural son) to the royal Aragonese family in Naples. I went up to my attic, and took down one of my boxes of 3X5 index cards and was able to tell her the names of his mother, father, their parents, and their parents’s parents as reported at the time. None of these members of the royal family, but all close as allies, fellow aristocrats, strongly Spanish in culture, and some even friends. See my brief sketch. If she publishes, beyond offering more about Pescara, she will probably shed light on the history and culture of Ischia.

In the meantime I updated my review of Brundin’s partial edition of some of Colonna’s religious poetry, and I linked Maria’s book into two places on my site: the table of contents page and the bibliography.

11/2/13: see Widow-parlando.

Ellen

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