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Posts Tagged ‘heroine’s text’

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The wedding of Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) and Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken)

Dear friends and readers,

While I was reading and writing about two books which significantly extend the two kinds of rape usually discussed under the umbrella terms of “simple” and “aggravated” (Georgiana’s The Sylph and Marta Hillers’ A Woman in Berlin), I found myself reading Preston Sturges’s shooting script for Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and then watched the 1944 movie directed & produced by the same man, which movie to my astonishment turned out to be a rape story of a particularly mean type: our heroine, Trudy, has been raped after she became unconscious from too much liquor (which the film laughingly refers to as odd or sour lemonade). We never find out which man did it; in the film the word rape is never used; there is acknowledgement the heroine has become pregnant, but for all the talk we hear about it, it might as well have been a virgin birth, with this “miracle” corresponding to the 1934 Miracle on 34th Street, and that to the asserted Christian belief their mother of God, Mary, had been a virgin.

This is the central event (also not dramatized) of Kleist’s once notorious The Marquise of O , adapted for a film by Eric Rohmer — during an assault on her country by invaders (as a virtuous woman she would of course never be drunk), the Marquise, a widow (so our sensibilities over her virginity are not aroused), is raped by a soldier unknown to her. When her pregnancy emerges, and her parents find out, they treat her cruelly and eject her from their home. She has one to return to so the question may turn on discovering who the man was.

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From Eric Rohmer’s film

We see how the solider comes forward, falls in love and is forgiven. The text 7 film, then, to some extent deal with the subject of rape, of assault on women during war. Like Clarissa, who is drugged (the rape is dramatized), the heroine is absolved automatically – this absolution by unconsciousness is typical of rapes in novels of the 18th century (more of them, alas, are of the commoner false accusation type).

But Trudy was not assaulted in war. She got drunk. Or did she? I was alerted to the existence of this 1940s hit (you can probably see it on Turner Classics) by Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, the Hays Code, and the Benefits of Censorship whose subject is the effect of the Hays Code on movies from the 1930s to the 1950s and (to her) analogous severe censorship of Victorian Novels by Mudie’s Circulating Library and other engines of repression in the 19th century. I did not realize it was about rape until I watched it as, except for quoting a parenthetical punning remark by a contemporary critic, James Agee that “the Hays office has either been hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep,” Gilbert does not tell the reader the film’s core event that generates all the action is a rape.

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Trudy puzzled on her way back to Norval after her one night out

In my research on rapes in fiction and non-fiction I discovered how rarely rape is treated seriously, and how common stories of false accusations for rape (despite the reality that rape is common, and accusation for it uncommon as the woman is usually shamed, disbelieved and ends up punished for telling). Thus how hard it is to find writing about rape until the mid-20th century when it began to emerge in feminist sociological and psychological studies. I had not considered another obstacle: the story about rape where the word is never mentioned, the thing never discussed when all the while the events of the story show us a particularly contemptible form of rape must have occurred. How would one find Miracle of Morgan’s Creek when it’s listed merely as a screwball comedy, frothy, light exquisitely funny romance. It’s a rare work on rape in mainstream art before the mid-20th century.

As the film opens, our heroine, Trudy Kockenlocker, is readying herself by putting on the most glamorous and sexiest (not admitted to of course) of outfits , in order to attend a dance put on for the soldiers about to go off to war to fight. Her father, Officer Kockenlocker (now notice the name which includes “cock”, a “cock” who locks something in), played by Wm Demarest as a comic dense bully, refuses her permission without quite saying why. It’s somehow risky, dangerous. Trudy objects that it’s her duty to dance the night away with soldiers going off to war. Stills show her winning scuffles with her father:

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The physical reflection of how she manages repeatedly to manipulate most situations to do what she wants in reaction to events and norms.

She gets her obedient (emasculated) boyfriend, Norval Jones to pretend he spent a long night watching movies with her while she goes off to said dance. We see her dancing with many different escorts and drinking oodles of lemonade. The joke is made more than once that this is some sour lemonade and strange, and she looks drunker and drunker and at one point she passes out. The Hays Code said one must never get drunk in a movie. We do at one point she someone dancing with her who has dark hair, and looks sort of determined, and she falls — partly a stupor, but perhaps partly hit.

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We have the impression her brain case has taken a blow

Who he was we never learn, nor his name, nor how this initiating event developed. She was supposed to be back at the theater at 1:30 am, but she turns up at 8 am — it’s dawn in the film. Norval has waited all night first looking out for her anxiously, and then asleep on a bench.

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But as Trudy and Norval drive home, she begins to remember where she’s been and half-recalls a marriage: on her finger is a curtain ring. 3 months later we see a doctor tell her she is pregnant without using that word.

The rest of the movie presents the coniption fits Trudy and Norval go through to provide her with a husband (him, using the ludicrous name Trudy thinks up — it has many syllables and x’s), and to hide her shame. Gilbert argues that the Hays censorship made for great art: certainly no one would tell the story of such a rape in the way it’s told if there had been no Hays code administered in the way it was. You could get a movie to pass by handing in the script for approval. It passes because in the words of the script she has not been raped; she was married and therefore cannot have been raped. Tease this out and we could imagine a scene of marital rape (yet this level of seriousness is not allowed by everything we can point to in the film).

Norval tries to shield Trudy by marrying her — after his first retreat from her is over. At no point doe she accuse her of anything, at no point object he does not want to be the legal father of another man’s baby (though he looks uncomfortable). Their marriage is found bigamous (in a ceremony in which two women moon over how many children the couple will eventually have) and crimes of all sorts are hurled on him and before you know it he’s in jail. The film indirectly satirizes patriotism, the venerable saintly-warrior hero, shows the punitive spirit of American life even then, but the rapist is never called to account, we never see the baby, nor is it discussed how Norval is going to take over as father.

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The Justice of the Peace is impounding the groom after the wedding ceremony for disobeying the law because he used Trudy’s previous husband’s name — or, a moment’s thought would tell the viewer it’s the bride who has committed bigamy

Under the Hays Code one was not allowed to show pregnant women, especially unmarried ones so during the time Trudy is huge we see her from the back sitting in a chair.

Gilbert can “get away” with citing the brilliance of Miracle because she doesn’t deal with the rape herself. Nothing is brought out into the discussably open either for those shocked silently and never bring it up and those who are aware of some serous themes here but cannot discuss them because the treatment in the films avoids the central thing it’s about — all that is brought out is Trudy’s desperate shame and how she must marry to avoid that. On one level it feels absurd to bring this screwfall comedy (rightly designated) with all its vacuities in characterization, slapstick, implicitly and explicitly misogynistic remarks (in passing as a matter of course about women) up as a story of the rape — comparing it to massacre rape, marital rape and selling, aggravated assault. But it does fall into the first traumatic category of simple rape between two people not strangers. Trudy’s desperate shame is made a joke of while it is laid before us. Frantic efforts to appear to conform do not question conformism. From what I’ve read critics have been generally divided into a group which admires the sleight-of-hand:

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek carved out its own unique niche in the annals of screen comedy by so cleverly couching its shocking material in broad slapstick and fast-paced character comedy. The film rarely allows itself the delirious abandon of so-many classic comedies, but Sturges is purposeful in this respect. We’re meant to be as anxiously involved as the characters are in their dilemmas.

Or, like me, they have been grated upon by the indifference to the core content and use of laughter: Siegfried Kracauer’s “Preston Sturges, or Laughter Betrayed,” Films in Review, 1:1 (1950):43-47

I admit to laughing and laughing at some of the sequences of wild highjinks all the characters go through, the satire on lawyers (very funny lines – reminding me Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad is a traditional caricature of a lawyer in comic movies), the press, solemn pious parents. Asked about the film, Sturges voiced as his one regret (and the ostensible moral) that he was not allowed to have a clergyman deliver a sermon on how giving soldiers all they want as a gift was overdoing it. Hypocrisy prevented him from including his moralistic message against too much alcohol and sex on the night the young men were going off to war, risking their lives — today we might say to kill and/or be killed. The one target of the movie we can take seriously is the Hays Code itself. The verbal jokes which skim round what would be stark sexual content, the drinking of lemonade, how the characters say “phooey!”. Along the way various sacred cows are burlesqued. The wedding of Trudy and Norval with the two witnesses swooning and photographed so that they are seen as central as the couple. Trudy has a younger sister, Emmy (Diana Lynn) given wry realistic remarks (reminding me a bit of Margaret Dashwood in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility). For the record the Code was a heavily Catholic-influenced set of rules the movie industry agreed to abide by in order to fend off worse censorship; it began in 1930, was at its strictest between 1933 or so and the 1950s; its power was over when TV emerged as such tough competition the cinema felt it had to offer something TV did not, and the great movie pointed to as the first to ignore the Code, and become a respected hit was Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (featuring Rod Steiger), where in lieu of an emasculated bumbling male we are given a painfully honest portrait of a seething disappointed man.

I much prefer Miracle of Morgan’s Creek to the coy prurient upper-class overrated The Lady Eve (also a Sturges product) which I’ve discovered is overrated ridiculously — both are odd masculinist movies with the male gaze on the femme fatale, one comic (Trudy), the other insinuating, orgiastic (Barbara Stanwyck is the heroine of The Lady Eve): a cartoon opening likens Eve to a smirking serpent who could easily fit in a Bugs Bunny carton.

I wonder how many other films from this era drill down to sexual aggression, topics like sexual distrust, promiscuity, sexual suspicion, male and female aggression, violence (?) are exposed in these 1940s films in such a way as to preclude discussions of the matters brought forward. All directed and produced by men, with some rare one having women screenwriters. Think of It Happened one Night, Bringing Up Baby, Rebecca (they need not be screwball comedy), His Girl Friday, the later comedies of remarriage (Adam’s Rib). Jeanine Basinger in her A woman’s View, How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-60 deals with some of this but her accent is on the social world, and she rightly never mentions Miracle of Morgan Creek nor Preston Sturges. He is paradoxically not really interested in women or what happens to them — as was Kleist and Rohmer, and the first text to deal with rape seriously, Richardson’s Clarissa, with its 1991 film adaptation by David Nokes. In Clarissa it’s the raped woman who goes to jail, not the man:

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Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a doll-like figure, breathing softly huskily at the at times poignant Norval (Eddie Bracken — could the name come from an 18th century tragedy?), Norval timidly swooning over her. Sturges apparently thinks women are all powerful, has characters say they cover up for and prefer men who hurt them (this is a sly reference to why we cannot find out anything about the man who impregnated Trudy). The blustering father takes endless pratfalls.

Typical
Mid-film

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Towards the end Officer Kockenlocker trussed up with ropes, asking his daughters to wham him over the head harder so it will look like Norval escaped from jail, not that he let Norval go

Trudy is never kicked out by her father; he and the younger sister go into hiding with Trudy during the time of her pregnancy and we see a tenderly loving scene between the father and Trudy on a Christmas eve. Can we discern a private world in Miracle of Morgan Creek? I think not. Kockenlocker’s words are so generalized. Norval makes an attempt to find the rapist (this word never used) but is clueless. Had they found him, would they have reacted like Mr Bates in Downton Abbey (an accidental death engineered for the guilty man)? A delayed shock for me was at how laughter can be betrayed by destroying its possible constructive power. Yet the intriguing nature of the film — the double meanings of words, gestures, how one thing is asserted and another true — has prophetic power. A happy ending is brought about because Trudy gives birth to sextets — 6 children at once. All are so astonished at this, and of course joyous (as after all aren’t children in the marriage the point), newspapers reporters, politicians and the like come for photo opportunities, and Norval is pardoned. The script begins with this scene and the movie is conceived as one long flashback though its present tense feel soon makes us forget that:

Godsofthisuniverse

Would anyone today dare to make fun of multiple children women inflict on themselves through “the miracles” of modern medicine? Why do women do these things to themselves? Why do men collude?

Ellen

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Maggie Smith between scenes

Dear friends and readers,

I somehow suspect my phrase of praise for Rebecca Eaton and Patricia Mulcahy’s Making Masterpiece that it fulfills the once famous goals of Lord Reith or the BBC to “educate, inform, entertain” might make her uncomfortable: its connotations have become stuffy, elite, even dull; but in fact her book covering a history of PBS’s most famous and long-running Sunday night prime quality (the term now used) serial dramas from the era of the powerful and fine film adaptations, original dramatizations, and multi-episode serial dramas from just before the 1967 The Forsyte Saga up to the 2010-14 Downton Abbey does just that. We learn a lot about the commercial, financial, filming, roles different people play, the TV channels who air the shows, Eaton is unashamedly working for quality in her purchases and commissions and is surprisingly candid.

Along the way she gives satisfyingly step-by-step believable accounts of some well-known to lost forever cult and individual favorites (some never got beyond the arduous planning and early deals) and she lets drops phrases that characterize swiftly how this or that aspect of this complicated art is viewed by its practitioners: such as the eponymous book or novelist-memoirist’s vision is “the underlying material” for the films. While Eaton’s explanations for why the program has held on for so long (they are “family stories, sagas, about love, betrayal, money, infatuation, illness, family deception &c&c) are wholly unsubtle and could be said of poor programming, and she shows that she reflects the commonalty of viewers; nonetheless, now and again for this or that specific series, she also shows she understood very well a political vision, how it fit into a contemporary sociological moment. She lets us know how some of the corporate funding after the mid-1980s when it seemed all but Mobil and the oil companies acted on a new realization that corporations did not need to appear civic-minded or anything but ruthless, and that when their agents discoveed that Eaton would not re-shape a program to fit an ideology (standing firm, sometimes almost alone — she tells instances and names names) she was in continual danger of being fired.

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Rebecca Eaton with Russell Baker, the host for the show after Alistair Cooke retired — they are on the set for the introductions in the 1990s — note the fire in the hearth, comfortable easy-chair …. library look)

It is also an autobiography, a seeming Horatio Alger paradigm, écriture-femme style. It’s cyclical. She opens with a photo of her mother, Katherine Emery Eaton, who she presents as a successful serious actress and “glamorous movie star” who gave up her career to stay at home as a mother and wife: its in an old (built in 1800) house, her home for many years in Kennebunkport (labryinthine, spooky), which she cherishes, whose image and memories were part of her core impulse to work for and support Masterpiece Theater, but which she tells us on the first page no longer contain her parents, daughter or husband. She closes on her present apartment in Cambridge, Mass, a divorced woman whose daughter she reminds us was named after her grandmother and is now in theater and close to her. This private story of a husband who adjusted his career to bring up, be more at home with the one daughter (someone had to), and her distant relationship with that daughter until the girl grew up is woven in for about 2/3s of the way.

I say seeming because the story is also a justification, an explanation for why nowadays there are so fewer multi-episode (3 is become common) expensively produced carefully meditated productions from literary masterpieces. She is telling us how she did the best she could, how the recent spread of violent thrillers, cynical reactionary adaptations of contemporary novels (something in the vein of Breaking Bad, British style), seems at times to take over the time slot; her lot is fighting a continually uphill struggle where she lurches from acquiring, purchasing BBC and British productions, to producing them with the BBC and from the 1980s alonside or in competition with increasingly tough competition, in the UK, the ITV (Granada) channels, London Weekend, and in the US, cable, A&E, HBO, new technologies which allow viewers to curate and watch programs according to their own schedule (using DVDs, streaming, Netflix). It’s told in a peculiar way. A single person (named and the boss who wanted to get rid of our heroine) theatens a wasteland. Each curve ball or crisis is averted by the sudden unexpectedly widely popular good quality, subtle, intelligent adaptation. So the book reads like a series of rescues. She is not so much the rescuer as the person on the spot when circumstances come together so that a product (most often only a mini-series can provide the amount of ballast needed) is on offer which rescues them.

According to Eaton, Masterpiece theater as “the home for classy drama” (Alistair Cookie’s phrase)

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began when the first The Forsyte Saga developed a visible passionate following (fanbases made themselves felt before the Internet too), and attracted a man from Mobil, Herbert Schmertz (who loved dramas set before the 20th century); at the time Mobil was competing with other oil corporations in the 1970s who thought that they need to be seen as civic-minded (no more). The result: a stream of progressive superb mini-series from the 70s,enough of which were as avidly watched (Poldark, The Pallisers) until well into the later 1980s (The Jewel in the Crown). Eaton does not say this explicitly, but the re-creation of Poldark in terms similar to the 1970s is a bid to create a new and bring along the old fanbase for the Winston Graham historical novels (due Spring 2015); so too the filmically innovative Death Comes to Pemberley just before it (fall 2014) is a carefully calibrated appeal to the changed expanded Jane Austen audience

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A new Demelza who looks like some of the 1960s illustrations from the Bodley Head Poldark edition — Eleanor Tomlinson is also the new Georgiana, sister of

A genuinely tried Darcy and Elizabeth:

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The film does interesting things with Darcy, makes his character more understandable, Elizabeth’s more mature, and as to film: voice-over entangling with shot-reverse shot, scene juxtaposition

The later 1980s, the Thatcher years were the first set back with destructive re-organizations and competitive contracts of packaged dramas at British TV; an occasional return to the old model using new film techniques taken from commercial theater (the 1991 Clarissa) did not seem to help, until the new “savior” appeared: Middlemarch and the art of Andrew Davies.

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I still find it painful to watch the failure of Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) unaware how another’s supposed weak view of the world, Rosamund’s (Treveyn McDowell) can wreck dreams no one else can appreciate

I am aware that there are sheaf of essays on the filmic Middlemarch, that it was admired and is still loved — its exquisite historical feel, a breathe of wide humanity, great acting, relevance (the failed career of Lydgate). Eaton recounts losses: how could she have been so stupid as to let go of Davies’s Pride and Prejudice to A&E. It was then she did bow to corporate pressure: a one-time quickie Poldark denuded of all politics will stand for one resulting flop.

But amid these “dark days” she did not forget her job — she attempted to bring into Masterpiece adaptations of good American books. Maybe that was what was needed. If American producers and funders could not begin to understand a British Cornish regional novel, this they might get. She had successes but there are more sad stories, of fine projects that never got off the ground amid a protracted process: The Glass Menagerie with Meryl Streep didn’t happen. She wanted to call her dream The American Collection. Those who helped included Paul Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, and they did Our Town for which Paul Newman earned an Emmy. About the size of what she could achieve was Mark and Livy, the story of Mark Twain and his wife. It seems that Anglophilia is the fuel of Masterpiece and Americans don’t value their own great books. At one point she was told “not to be ridiculous.”

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Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Henry Tilner (J.J.Feilds) approach Northanger Abbey

Then another fortuitious rescue occurred. Most people seem unaware that the evolving Jane Austen canon came to the rescue again. Since they were done on the cheap, each only 108 minutes at most (depending on where you watched them, it could be as little as 83 minutes) the 2007-8 Mansfield Park (not noticed for Wadey’s take in which the men are ritually humiliated instead of the women), Persuasion (daringly shown to be the trauma of loss it is), and Northanger Abbey (a delightful Davies product) have not been paid serious attention to by film studies people. But these one-shot Austen films were, according to Eaton, central in reviving film adaptations of classic books subtly and originally done again. The three were great draws. By that time she had gotten the rights to Davies’ 1995 P&P so they were accompanied by this P&P and Davies 1996 Emma. She is a great friend of Davies. The next year ahe was able to execute produce Davies’s Sense and Sensibility (with Anne Pivcevic, a long time associate of his), and Gwyneth Hughes’s Miss Austen Regrets. And she used her technique of purchase and cooperative funding to make a 4 part mini-series once again: the Australian Lost in Austen, better liked than people have been willing to admit.

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Michael Grambon, Judi Dench and Lisa Dillon as Mr Holbrook, Matty Jenkyns, and Mary Smith

I was surprised by her then singling out Cranford Chronicles, to which she also attributes the resurgence of whatever is left of the older Masterpiece theater film adaptation and serious domestic drama impulse. The chapter on Cranford Chronicles is the richest of the book. We go from first idea and objections: whoever heard of Elizabeth Gaskell, much less Lady Ludlow? (Cranford was dropped as a school text in the US at the beginning of the 20th century.) Constant trips, lunches, deals sealed with a famous actress on board (Judi Dench), then unsealed, then lost from view, then picked up again, the whole process of acquiring screenplay writer, of writing with her, the sets, how dissatisfied people are with the first rushes, and how they try again and finally have a winner.

When at the close of the book she talks of Downton Abbey trying to explain its draw she identifies what I’ll call a communitarian ideal (she’d never use that phrase) — it’s this sense of loving socially conscientious community where most of the characters in Downton are well-meaning or basically good, with the exception of over-the-top monsters (Vera Bates) or one violent rapist who we know would do it again, no one is ejected, everyone treated with dignity and concern. Well this is the great appeal of Cranford Chronicles too — and Heidi Thomas does one better by allying the stories with progressive ideals. Eaton though singles Cranford out because not just its wide audience (after all Davies had trumped with a new Little Dorrit, Bleak House, a deeply moving Dr Zhivago rivaling and rewriting Pasternak’s novel against David Lean’s reading) but because she does see how it speaks to our times, fairy tale fashion. It must be admitted in this book she spends little time worrying whether a given mini-series reflects its era or particular author — perhaps she leaves that to screenplay writer, producer and director. I note the same film-makers recur for movies made from the same author (e.g. Louis Marks for Dickens). For her warm-hearted Cranford led to warm-hearted Downton.

Her book is meant to function today, 2014 and that too is why two chapters on Downton Abbey are devoted heavily to Downton Abbey, its lead-in, production, aftermath. She talks about why she thinks the program became a sociological event, and now an adjective: it appeared at the right time that year (before the new Upstairs/Downstairs which she says was found to be too dark, too pessimimistic, to much a mirror of our era); the house matters (as did Castle Howard for Brideshead). I’ve just written a paper on Andrew Davies’s Trollope adaptations as part of an anthology on British serial drama and found it distorting to see its purview (it too begins with The Forstye Saga and ends on DA) skewed by too many references to this program. The book is typical; I’ve seen this over-emphasis repeatedly. After all filmically it’s utterly conventional; if it is liberal in its attitudes towards sexuality and the human topics it will broach, it keeps the old decorum up. Its political outlook is one which looks upon the French Revolution as unfortunate, providing only an amelioration; now if only the Granthams had lived in France during the famine. They’d have provided jobs and meals. Nowhere does Fellowes show us that such a house was a power-house, a linch-pin in repressive controlling economic and political arrangements from the which local magistrates and MPs emerged to conscript soldiers and sailors. Everyone who knows anything about country houses knows this.

She does explain why the fuss. The outrageous ratings — it easily beat out Breaking Bad and Madman the first year in the Emmy prize race. It’s a selling card when you want to pitch a new fine series. And to give credit where credit it is, it is high quality; the characters are (as Eaton would no doubt tell us) compelling, psychologically complex; no expense is spared, the actors superb. It is great soap opera and as a woman defending women’s art, I too cry it up (with all the reservations above) as using brilliantly what this individual form in structure can do. She describes the series as a community — that’s soap opera. Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) rescues Mr Carson’s Jim Carter) old time colleague form the music hall from the local workhouse is a single anecdote, but it gathers all its strength by how its embedded in four seasons of memories about these characters. She does not mention that one of its strengths is it is not limited by a nineteenth-century text censored by Mudie’s Library. We can see how a rape plays out.

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Did Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) have a baby out of wedlock and give it up before she married Painswick — soap opera communities license us to look beyond what we can see and hear, to a past to be unearthed

How does an executive producer spend her days. Ceaseless socializing, phone calls, pitches, deciding. She does tell much of this throughout the book and in the chapter on Cranford, but she characterizes her job in another chapter again. She’s in on the film editing, how long the film can be, how its final scene plays. Along the way we learn of how she finally found some stable funding. She garnered as a well-heeled contributor Viking Cruises because a survey she did showed a surprising percentage of people who take cruises to Europe also watch Masterpiece Theater loyally. So she pitched this customer favorite to the running the cruises. She created Masterpiece Trust where wealthy people contribute and get to be named and also introduce the program. Perhaps the unashamed commercials for Ralph Lauren clothes (all expensive artifice) might jar more than the old more discreet pitches for oil and gas companies (but we should remember when we shudder at the anorexic women that they are not encouraging others to drop bombs to ensure Lauren’s profit). One of my books on women’s films has a whole section on how even costume dramas — those set say in the 18th century at any rate and after influence women’s wear. In the 1970s many of the costumes were Laura Ashley like creations — somewhere half between the 18th century and elegant clothes in the 1970s. I note that a certain kind of shawl is now popular since it became omnipresent in the costume dramas of the 2000s Obviously the Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and other stars influenced people — remember Annie Hall, the Annie Hall style … This has long been known and at the close of films nowadays you will see little icons for fashion designers and makers of clothes who the costume designer worked with. So Eaton asked herself who has their product been an advertiser for …

A smaller strand of the book is her relationship with the people who do Mystery! and how and when decisions were made to bring Mystery! material over to Masterpiece. Sometimes it seems as if Masterpiece gets the best of Mystery! they took Prime Suspect (Helen Mirren), and now the new Sherlock (Bernard Cumberbatch). Sometimes a book that one might expect to be on Masterpiece turns up on Mystery!. We are not told why all the time.

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With Diana Rigg on the set of The Heat of the Day (Elizabeth Bowen’s masterpiece on a Mystery! set — but then she was hostess for Mystery! for a while)

The book ends on what she called “the Downton effect” and returns to her personal motivation, satisfactions, and present. It does sound a bit lonely in that apartment. She likes to think of this program she’s served for so many years as she does her life, intertwined memories. The book has flaws; it does not begin to tell all. A full history would be a couple of thick volumes. What has made her the success she is, her rough-and-ready way of seeing things broadly, as some common denominator of intelligent person might, her upbeatness still don’t get too much in the way of sufficient candor. She describes behavior on the sets as no love-fest, and in the various stories of programs that never made it it’s often someone’s ego or a demand for a higher salary that got in the way. She says spontaneous group scenes for photographs are rare. The book never drips; it moves on and has a hardness. It’s apparent she’s not retiring yet. She won me over at any rate. The originating impulse was to do all her mother had not been able to do — she sets up the black-and-white photo near her bed on its last page.

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She gives credit to where it’s due: Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins’s conception of having downstairs get more than equal time to upstairs after watching The Forsyte Saga.

Ellen

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Hannah Arendt (Barbara Sukowa) during trial of Eichmann

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

VISION. A film by Margarethe von Trotta.

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

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

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

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and secretary, Lotte (Julia Jentsch),

Julia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NewYorker

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

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Margarethe von Trotta

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

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

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

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

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

Eichmann

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

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

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

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The real Hannah Arendt

Ellen

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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The lobby

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In the hotel room

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

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

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

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Paris at night and they remember hurts

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

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Street walking

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

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

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Cover for first edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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She (Amanda Bonner, Katherine Hepburn) drives him (Adam Bonner, Spencer Tracy) to work (Adam’s Rib, directed by George Cukor, scripted Ruth Gordon)

Dear friends and readers,

This time I am half-a-century belated (Adam’s Rib was in moviehouses in 1949); or, if you date the time to have watched when an acknowledged understanding that there was something feminist about it to Jeanine Basinger’s A woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960 (published 1995), which on Women Writers through the Ages we read together (in 2008), I am a mere 10 or 5 years. It’s a flawed significant movie today because domestic violence, specially men beating women, is a prevailing problem in marriages. When a woman accuses a man of rape, she’s sullied, disbelieved, the man often being let off with impunity What’s more when a woman fights back, she is punished. We know today a woman in Florida is threatened with 60 years in prison for shooting at a wall to frighten a violently abusive man. She is black and the DA is getting back at her for refusing to plea bargain (go to jail for a mere 10 years): he is warning other people caught up in our increasingly utterly unjust criminal justice system: plea bargain or you’ll regret it.

If you read about Adam’s Rib in most places, you’ll read about the central or top couple, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy who are lawyers who make a great deal of money, Amanda and Adam Bonner. They are privileged upper class people in supposed conflict, and Jeanine Basinger dismisses the movie as after all just about a “feisty” upper class woman. The conflicts are transient and part of the couple’s subtext: they last as long as the case the two take on lasts: he takes the side of a husband and she a wife. So (child-like this) he is on the side of “men” and she of “women.” For a time what occurs in court and their on-screen always good-natured quarrels outside, result in separation and divorce proceedings, but these are halted as they are really too much in love, too alike, to much in harmony, to part. They do talk and listen to one another.

Adam's Rib (1949)

She wins the case and we are never told why; he is given a judgeship and again we are never told why. He closes the curtain stating he knows men and women are not the same (the supposed argument of the movie is whether men and women are the same, are “equal”): we can see they are about to have sex and the feel is on his terms whatever these are – though clearly loving and fully allowed.

We have an upper class couple whose relationship affirms the goodness of the institution of marriage which holds the two together by joint ownership, habits, apartments and memories, continually greased by money and upper class manners and wit. The value is a nuanced presentation rich with innuendo which could be watched numerous times without quite plumbing all that’s there.

It is also distanced. Filmically what is interesting about the film are all the intertitle cards and framing. As each phase of the movie passes we get an artificial framing again and a card moves away as if we are seeing a fairy story. so this happy story is filmically seen to be a fairy tale. At the close when the pair move to make love, he pulls the card over the screen. This distancing through also put us at a far away angle from the other couple.

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The opening of the movie — and this proscenium returns repeatedly

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A typical introduction to one of the Bonner sequences

What has been forgotten, what is equally, probably more important, is the lower-class couple, the “downstairs” pair who do not live downstairs, are not servants; rather the husband has a hard 9-to-5 job and she 3 children she is struggling to bring up. It’s the back- or sub-story (ignored in much of the writing about it) that is not trivial. They are not presented with intertitles or picturesque framings at the edge of the screen.

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Judy, overdressed, following the supercilious self-satisfied Tom reading the newspaper as the important person he is through a glass

When the movie opens, we do not begin with the Bonners but with Doris Attinger (July Holliday) nervously, anxiously, and oddly unaggressively, stalking her husband, Warren (Tom Ewell); she is clearly in distress, and follows him to and then breaks into an apartment where he is with an overdressed (absurdly glamorized) “mistress,” Jean Hagan as Beryl Caign (Beryl was a name given mistresses). Judy has a gun and tries to kill Tom (this is a movie where we never forget the actors inside the respected presences) and then Beryl. As the story unfolds we learn the man was physically abusive and continually sexually unfaithful, often allowing the wife no money to live on, continually insulting and jeering at her. She (fool) it seems meant to kill the mistress (she says) so she could have this lout back. Admittedly Holliday is dressed in the usual doll outfit I’ve seen her wear before (e.g., Born Yesterday) and her high voice used to make her absurd.

Doris-Judy has no job, no income, no resource beyond her dense lout of an unfeeling husband. The point is — to put it in the terms it would have been understood then, these are the real Ralph Kramdens (remember Jackie Gleason and Alice Meadows a few years later on TV). I do not mention the Kramdens coincidentally. Cukor and Gordon have quietly put before us a case of marital abuse but they have also caricatured them. Warren really is an egregious lout, shamelessly making fun of Doris as fat, useless, lazy, stupid; and she cries and weeps, seems not to understand simple statements, is more than slightly ridiculous if pathetic. He calls her fat, stupid, and silly — she is seen to be silly and stupid. She wants him back and we can’t understand why. She does get him back: when last seen they are being photographed as a lovey-dovey couple for the newspapers.

This matching or parallel — better contrasting couple’s relationship is meant to show that marriage as presently experienced by ordinary (not upper class people) often does not work because the norms offered the man and woman make for misery.

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Holliday telling Hepburn about her marriage

There are more flaws than those I’ve pointed to. The argument that is said to describe what the case is about generalizes its content out of reach and erases the abuse. Ruth Gordon’s script makes the case into one where Hepburn seeks to win by proving women are equal to men. Hepburn takes the situation to show that the wife counts, and literally to argue that Doris has as much right to have an affair as Warren, and partly because she didn’t, the right to get back when he hurts her — even shoot to kill. Adam is quite right when he says this is an argument that won’t do.

Hepburn’s “case” depends on her bringing into court three career women who are presented as successful but sexless and desperate: the third does somersaults in a circus and performs them in court. How this relates to a husband’s violence to his wife, her need to defend herself, her home, her income and retaliate is unclear. Nowhere in the case, in the courtroom, in the Bonners’ discussions about the case is the abuse highlighted. To say this case is about the principle of equality and how men and women are the same is to avoid the particulars of the case and what it’s about.

Then there’s considerable slapstick. At one point Amanda seems about to take as her lover a man who is a singer, performer and their best friend; Adam chases her with a gun, but when it comes to shooting her, it turns out to be licorice and he eats it as candy. It’s a parody of the central Attinger gunning scene: what he was gunning Amanda down for was a suspected affair. This is still not allowed today – women in movies today do not have affairs with other men than their husband and remain admired heroines.

They also massage one another. These scenes were used for promotional shots and the trailer:

Adam's Rib (1949)

Trailer

She slaps him and he her. Now that I’ve had a massage (once, in a Korean spa) I realize it’s a sybarite process of luxury, and it made me very uncomfortable on behalf of the woman paid to come so close to my body and “work it over.” Probably the movie-makers wanted me to envy them. While watching I did not notice the Tracy and Hepburn calling one another these “coy” names of Pinky and Pinkie. Good thing: it would have grated on me as upper class “fey” relaxation.

A friend suggested to me the movie is ultimately about how far a woman can go to challenge her husband, only so far. I know that’s what Basinger says most of the movies where Hollywood spoke to women end up doing or being about. I admit I don’t see that in this one. Mainly because Hepburn didn’t. The couple’s temporary estrangement is engendered by the two of them. She didn’t have an affair. She did not defy any rules — she worked within the system, took the silly idea of men and women being the same as the principle she’d argue for and remained in an adoring respectful posture to Tracy throughout — that’s why the word “feisty:” a feisty woman is one who merely makes a lot of noise but does not mean any serious rebellion.

On-line there are also absurd statements about the film being about civil rights (what?). Or, who wears the pants in the family? he does, and he gets to close the curtain at the end. So what? What matters in the film is class. What the movie is is a telling muddle. The Attingers are miserable as much and more from their daily lower middle lives as from gender provocation and sexual exploitation. We are deflected from seeing this by fantasy elaboration of the results in candylike wrapping. The licorice gun is apt.

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The movie makes the lower class man despicable, a clown and also at moments the wife. It shows but does not bring out into the discussably open that the upper classness of the privileged couple makes them happy: her high education, womanly (yet not oversexed) clothes, wit, job flatters his self-respect and his equal education, intelligence, manly bearing (and job) flatters her sense of her place in the world as his wife. Its best moments are fleeting glimpses of film noir (through Holliday’s presence).

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By contrast Hepburn is just so wholesome. I admit the movie could be worth re-watching for the intriguing vignettes, dialogues, moments between Hepburn and Tracy.

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A breakfast-morning image

They did make a number of movies together and it might be rewarding to watch these in a row (see comments). Ruth Gordon is someone whose name recurs as a script writer in the 1940s and it could be interesting to see some of her other scripts — her co-writer in this one was her husband, Garson Kanin. George Cukor is known for trying to bring women as interesting characters before the public in movies, for his originality — and nowadays gayness and it could be interesting to compare this one to his other movies.

Ellen

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KirstineOpolais
Kristine Opolais who sang and played Mimi

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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The newly angled attic

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

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Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolpho

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

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Susanna Phillips as Musetta

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

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

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

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

which I tried to address:

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

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

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

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

dying

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

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

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

Ellen

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We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art — Henry James

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An English Home, Albert Coburn (1907 illustration)

Dear friends and readers,

I began Gorra’s marvelous book as an alternative read to Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, a kind of companion-match antidote: I felt it was the same sort of book, one which took the reader through a deeply-felt reading experience of a book, in this case James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I discovered that Gorra’s does not pretend to be a semi-confessional autobiography as semi-literary criticism; indeed I learned very little about Gorra’s life, though I did learn how he reacted not only to James’s The Portrait of Lady but many of James’s other books — without any particular references to Gorra’s life, except that Gorra is also American and regards himself as having an American identity (whatever that is). Gorra’s book rather elaborated in how James’s other books and The Portrait fit into James’s private and writing life, into James’s career, and into how James’s readers and critics have seen him since he began publishing and up to the time of his death.

In other words, this is an unconventionally-written biography. Gorra’s can offer insights into James’s life not allowed by most methodologies: his method is to bring together how he feels (impersonally put) about James’s writing, what he Gorra sees, and how James wrote James felt about it with what we know of James’s life from all sorts of angles, some of them drawn from phases of writing The Portrait of a Lady. Gorra weaves a sort of biography where the writer does not have to follow the life history of the subject but can weave in what he or she wants and when, with the justification that well I’m going through associations from this novel. So we skip dull parts of the person’s life and also get new sorts of insight as the material is reconfigured.

We out James in a new way: this is a new sort of biography, one which moves out from one central great book, rather like someone deciding to write Trollope’s biography by intensely going through every detail of say The Way We Live Now or The Claverings — or both together. Mead’s book was not a biography of Eliot in disguise it was “her life” in Eliot

For example, Gorra can’t prove it yet he makes a persuasive case for seeing Isabel Archer and Ralph Touchett as a doppelganger out of the dying Minnie Temple, James’s cousin. Sometimes the method is inadequate: I was much entertained by his reaction to Henrietta Stackpole – only he seems not to know that Stackpole is also an unkind caricature of Kate Fields, beloved of Anthony Trollope, an entertaining travel writer, journalist in her own right.

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Martin Donovan as Ralph Touchett (Portrait)

Another example: Gorra re-sees Isabel’s early refusal to marry in terms of James’s — for James was under pressure to marry; her going to Europe, her choice of waiting to see (Ralph Touchett’s) of being a witness not a doer — all these three are brought together with James’s gayness and made sense of — he is masking himself in Isabel is the point and it’s an interesting one, for else we just do really have another story of the chaste heroine making a bad or good marriage.

He dwells on Madame Merle who emerges upon Isabel getting the money (women has a good nose) and how she stands for a social animal. She and Isabel have a debate with Isabel coming out on the side of that she is not expressed solely or nearly solely by her outward behavior, dress, occupation — as Madame Merle implies. I’ll add that From Daniel Deronda the mother shows one has a self apart which will break away, but Isabel’s tragedy will be she cannot

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Barbara Hershey as Madame Merle (Portrait)

In a section early in the book called the Envelope of Circumstances where Gorra talks almost of himself — at least of an American identity (which often makes me uncomfortable) — he elaborates on the idea that Portrait is unusual in its lack of religion and Gorra says this is true of all James’s work but the ghost stories. I know I like James and feel he is equally European/English (not British)

I much enjoyed the chapter in Gorra after the one detailing all James’s homosexual friends, contacts, strains (“An Unmarried Man”): in “A London Life” he tells of how James came to live in London, that it was no foregone conclusion: he tried Paris first; about an expensive apartment he lived in for quite a while that was well located for theater, plays, making a life of going out to dinners and socializing with the upper class, near enough to publishers and parks. I quite envy James — we also get a strong sense of him supporting himself through writing for magazines and the kinds of texts he was writing to do that. I knew all this but not in this way and Gorra quotes from James’s wonderful thick diary commonplace book so well. He intuitively holds onto and writing about the most astute utterances of James: after G.H. Lewes died, James visited her and described her as “shivering like a person who had had a wall of her house blown off.”

It may be these names of James’s possible lovers and his relationships with them are known, but I’ve never seen the series of men set out so clearly, the stories told so intelligently, and rightly the doubts sowed over the idea James was physically celibate without overdoing it. People are still today writing books which obscure this aspect of James’s life and when they do write about James’s complex feelings, they write turgidly, with embarrassment, hedging. Gorra tells of James’s important life long relationship with his woman amaneunsis-secretary, Theodora Bosanquet whose biography of the boss she spent 2 decades with and lived in close intimacy gives us a lot of the leads and details that help us see this aspect of James’s life. Her book: Henry James at Work and published by Hogarth Press (the Woolfs).

Thus I found finding Gorra’s book more satisfying than Mead’s because I was made to realize more about James and his writing. Most of what Mead wrote I knew about Eliot — and while she is applying our information about Eliot is more subtle autobiographical ways, it does not change what I have seen. Since James’s homosexuality has only recently been openly admitted to and discussed as central to his life — as it was the way what gender you are is — there are new insights to be gotten

He begins with the richness of the letters and how much we can learn about James from them (most have not yet been published, a many year project by many people). The question is how far can we be ourselves apart from social life and within ourselves how much there is a real separate I from construction. I agree with him (and James) it’s there but vulneragble and fragile — as we see in Isabel Archer. Touchett is in retreaet and sinks his life in Isabel’s – I believe that outside his job Jim sunk his life in mind and job in the last years was also endured to support the two of us. That it was not him is seen in how he didn’t mind retiring and only thought of going back in order to move to England.

Still the great source for all people wanting to know James is a book edited by Mattiessen, a continuous diary: it’s vignettes of going out, little bits of stories he later worked up into his great novels, thoughts on aesthetics, whatever popped into his head: The Notebooks of Henry James. I read it while doing my dissertation and trying to understand the creative mood of reverie underlying novels. Gorra emphatically uses this book.

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Rome, outdoor Market, Piazza Navona by Guiseppe Ninci (1870)

Gorra first shows us James’s situating himself in London and ambivalent; how he tried Paris, and we go on to his trips to Italy – where much of the later action of The Portrait of a Lady takes place and we get a chapter on Madame Merle and Osmond – not moralizing but how they represent some real aspects of the expatriots. It was not all high (or today unacceptable) art. Then Gorra moves into a portrait of the community in Florence and Rome at the time. Several interesting pages on his relationship with Constance Fennimore Woolson’s. As sympathetic to the people caught up there as Mead on Main – I’ve been at least to the Spanish Steps and some of the places Gorra describes – which he takes you through with him as your walking guide – and connects them to the atmosphere of the novel which is un-Victorian … bringing all this to bear on Isabel’s wrong choice gives it a whole new kind of aspect – and connects it to the modern reader too.

Gorra follows James from place to place as James writes The Portrait of a Lady. James was escaping his American identity as he traveled from place to place in Italy, and tried to find a quiet place to write a lot and yet have some company and enrichening landscape. From expatriats he moves onto strangers, and how James was surrounding himself with strangers, was himself an exile, a stranger, and saw that the American communities were themselves disconnected from Italian society, didn’t understand it, in search of what they couldn’t find at home. Then he says they were – -and James is – drawing on the heritage of different countries and cultures to make a new amalgam for themselves.

That aspect of American identity as self-invention I do see in myself, though the amalgam is mostly from English sources. I turned to read James’s Roman Rides as Gorra said it’s better than just about all James’s early fictions — and it struck me that’s right. The opening is a meditative piece on the landscape of the campagna. Jim and I went there and walked alone one morning — we did not take our children who were with us on that holiday because they would have been so bored. Often the places he and I wanted to go to were to them places with nothing there. James does a gorgeous rendition of the feelings one can have just outside Rome among these ruins in this desolated place — it was still that way in 1994. How important place and history are to some authors.

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John Malkovich as Osmond (Portrait)

Gorra then moves onto Isabel’s strange choice of the stifling Osmond and how Isabel came to make such a bad choice. Gorra suggests we don’t bring in the sexual angle enough and Isabel was attracted to the man who declined openly to chase her. I did not remember that time went by and Isabel traveled with her sister I Europe and then Madame Merle in the Middle East (that was dangerous). Ralph tells her she is going to be put in a cage but it’s no good. We are not shown the moment of submission, the marriage or its first experience. Why? It’s a sleight of hand that takes us to thwarted aspiration, imprisonment, narrowing but not how she got there. Are these James’s fears for himself?

The book moves onto Venice as James does – and an immersion occurs as James is drawn into this defeated place filled with poverty striken people, even then dying, dependent on tourism. James himself eat and drank expensively as Gorra finds this out by going to the same place (still there). A political fight over the vaporetto and the vaporettos won – James didn’t like the noise either. He makes two friends whose houses he can stay at, ordinary upper class American and English, not the resident famous homosexual population …. It’s the evocation of these places through quotation of James’s travel writing that makes this section so appealing …

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John Singer Sergeant, An Interior in Venice (1899)

Gorra is trying to relive the experiences James had while writing the book at the same time as he re-imagines what the characters feel as the story progresses: tracing James’s steps in Venice, looking at paintings Sergeant made of the expatriot people into whose houses James was welcomed. From James’s letters Gorra picks up that the landlady was offering her daughter as a sex partner by sending her to hang around the fourth floor. Byron took up such invitations, not James. He moves onto the this kind of atmosphere in Venice, and its treacheries, the grim whiff of the closed streets (seen in Sergeant”s pictures too I know) and says this seeped into Portrait of a Lady and what Isabel’s chose of Osmond brought her

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Constance Fennimore Woolson

Venice prompts by association the really poignant story of James’s long time and finally failed relationship with Constance Fenimore Woolston. Gorra characterizes her with great empathy and tells a lot I didn’t know or had forgotten. Again he brings together what is not usually brought together: how they quietly lived in one building she on the first and he the ground floor — in Florence. She apparently went to Venice to live on the assumption he would follow her but he never did. The letters to and from and her were burned. As everyone knows she killed herself by jumping out a window and he tortured himself by trying to drown her dresses — why he just didn’t throw them out or give them away as rags I can’t guess.

Woolston’s death though partly in reaction to James’s behavior is obviously not his fault. She suffered depression much of her life. When she’d finish a book she’d be in a state of nervous collapse. It’s said some people are exhilarated by it. I was neither. Eliot went into collapse mode.

As he tells the story, Gorra connects it James’s “Aspern Papers,” “he Beast in the Jungl”e (Sedgewick renamed that “closet”) and a couple of other uncanny stories (“The Romance of Old Clothes) which he retells very well — and The Wings of the Dove.

Quite what this has to do with The Portrait of a Lady? it illuminates James’s feelings towards relationships, the real life of expatriates … A central “sin” in James is when one person uses another, makes them an instrument for his or her needs. Imposing your will on them. He suggests Lyndall Gordon (who wrote a conventional biography) accuses James of doing this to Woolson. Now the second version a Portrait of a Lady occurs well after Woolson’s death and so we are left to make our own allegory here.

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Paris, La Rue de Rivoli, Anonymous, undated

I love the illustrations in this book, picturesque, in the mode of Alvin Coburn, the illustrator for James’s turn of the century complete revised edition.

Following upon the chapter on James and Constance Fenimore Woolston, we move into “sex, serials, the continent and critics.” A full chapter on how near impossible it was to get into print and distributed in the UK and US too a story which told what every one know to be the case with sexual life; you could only tell supposedly what life was supposed sexually to be like, to teach lessons. The French were much freer.

This part of the book includes a chapter on the magazines James wrote for and Gorra uses is also valuable beyond telling us how James dealt with the problem of instalment publication: demands for a certain length, for cliff-hangers, who and where his work appeared (with what provided the context of respectability for the reader); it’s an intelligent portrait of a world where people are still reading magazines. James was apparently a writer who had in mind his whole book so would start a new instalment not with a reader turning the pages of a magazine who might need (as we call them today) recap. Today’s American context is alluded to: the importance of Atlantic, Harper’s then – New Yorker today

Gorra is showing us how Isabel Archer could come to say she did not want to hear anything that Pansy could not hear — this is supreme foolishness on her part; far from being dangerous for her, it will be dangerous for her not to have more knowledge of what a man can do to his wife once he marries her — Cameron’s movie makes Osmond into a sadistic man in bed too — as does Andrew Davies make Grandcourt in his film of Daniel Deronda. This is chapter comparing French fiction of the period that was admired by the English with the English. A rare novelist to break through what was allowed was George Moore (Esther Waters) but his novels were not distributed by Mudie’s.

Gorra spends a long chapter on the whole long chapter in Portrait of a Lady after Edward Rosier comes to call – he is the young man who loves and could be loved by Pansy, but Osmond won’t allow it, and he lets Isabel know that she ought to use her sexual pull on Warburton to lure Warburton into marrying Pansy — for Osmond assumes that’s a front for a love affair Warburton means to have with Isabel.

Isabel is sickened, appalled, desolated — we come upon her well after the marriage has taken place, we even missed the birth and death of a young son. Gorra says this is deliberate on James’s part: he does not want to show us directly (remember our thread on showing and telling) such dramatic moments but their affect on consciousness.

I was not surprised to see Gorra attribute some of James’s sophistication to his reading of Daniel Deronda where Gorra finds the same kinds of techniques. The difference is that James goes on for much longer (he says) and makes the narrative stop still and ruminate a past we’ve not seen.

He also says the shrewdest most aware appraisal of Portrait was by Constance Fenimore Woolson. So James is in a women of ecriture-femme — with Oliphant ranging herself on the other side in defense of what she thought of as English fiction.

He finds this so original. I don’t think so — Trollope does it, Austen does it, Eliot does it a lot but the interior monologue is important and Gorra’s way of discussing it as becoming central to the art of fiction does show one important innovation. Hitherto story was said to count a lot and more; and it’s clear that for James the actual story matter — the events that manifest the inner life — does not matter. Gorra says this changes the novel’s emphasis and is part of a switch over that finds an extreme in Woolf.

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Romola Garai as Gwendoleth Harleth Grandcourt telling Daniel Deronda (Hugh Dancy) about what her life has been (2004 Daniel Deronda, scripted Andrew Davies)

No what makes the difference is the content. Trollope’s Julia (The Claverings) does not think one really unconventional thought. She never thinks to herself these people are shits, why should I want to sit with the housekeeper, look at their terrible values. Nor any of them until Daniel Deronda with the magnificent portrait of his mother (the same actress who played the role in Davies’s film played Madame Merle in Campion’s film) Isabel does not break away but she has utterly subversive thoughts about the values of those around her. Eliot invents another set of ethics using Gwendoleth Harleth’s experience (which Davies’s film brings out), implicitly anticipating Flaubert but much more sympathetic to the woman, as is James. Again and again Gorra links James to Eliot. So when Gorra exaggerated because he so goes on about it, one can learn and see …

He is tracing an important direct new line — into it was fed the travel writings that he has been going over too. Roman Rides, Venice. Also William James’s books on cognitive psychology show up the new interest. The new line was objected to intelligently by RLStevenson in his Gossip on Romance and James’s prefaces, his Art of Fiction was intended to intervene in this debate. Gorra’s discussion of James’s use of stream of consciousness in Portrait of a Lady is so rousing that I become eager for Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust to come — I just hope I’ve read enough of Proust’s volumes to be able to appreciate it. I’ve only read one and almost to the end of the second volume.

Gorra then uses his analysis of Isabel Archer’s long meditation to launch into more than James’s Art of Fiction; he makes large claims for James as an innovator of a new kind of novel: one based wholly on inner life, nuances. Of course these were written before — in epistolary narratives of high quality in the 18th century but not self-consciously. Gorra argues that Woolson was one of the first to understand, and Howells to defend James and his Art of Fiction should be understood as part of a debate which includes RLS’s Gossip on Romance.

I like how Gorra fits this into the growth of serious literary criticism of the novel, taking it seriously. James could not get himself to write in the other “new” school of naturalism (Princess Cassamassima is the one that may be linked): too pessimistic, too bleak he felt, though Howells did it in his Modern Instance. The novel’s stature is going up

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HenryJames1905KatherineMcClellan
Henry James by Katherine McClellan (1905)

The last part: putting out the lights. This one takes us through James’s response to the deaths of his father and mother; he came for the funerals, just missed the dying. I think he’s right to argue against Edel’s insistence it was the mother who screwed the family up: common sense and all evidence suggests it was the father (if people can be screwed up who produced what Wm and Henry James and even Alice did and lives the lives the first two did) with the mother complicit. It seems to have been a contest which of the parents self-destructed first and in reaction to the other’s coming demise. They did cling together.

As with Mead at the close of her book, but without personal references, Gorra then makes leaps into the fiction to find analogies about death. Gorra shows how often James wrote about death after this period, and how a metaphor for loss. In this chapter he says it was at this time James began to keep his journal of all anecdotes, an important source for this book (and many others).

And he suggests it was after this or around this time several of the great Victorians died and I’m glad to say — serendipitiously — for James this includes Trollope. Trollope for James a major voice like Eliot, Flaubert and Turgenev. James’s essay on Trollope has been very influential — perhaps too much so but I didn’t know about the line calling Trollope a “difficult mind.” That’s good. What a different list from the modern canon, no?

James’s “The Altar of the Dead” is about the ghosts we live with, the ghosts in our memories of who died and Gorra speaks eloquently of it. Alice was another great loss by then and Constance Fenimore Woolson. No wonder I liked this chapter and it leads a powerful chapter centering on the last image Isabel has at the end of her mediation: Madame Merle and Osmond talking together. Gorra takes us through to Isabel’s realization that when Madame Merle said to her “let us have him” (italics added) Madame Merle has given away 1) that she and Osmond think that Isabel wants Warburton for herself, not that she is appalled by the proposition that she should use his attraction to her to win him to marry Pansy as payoff for a liaison; and 2) they assume what bothers Isabel is not the amorality of all this but that she wants Warburton for herself, and finally 3) Madame Merle is Pansy’s mother.

When Osmond’s sister comes to tell Isabel of this truth however indirectly it’s after the realization and this is followed hard on by the most quiet and devastating of needlings I’ve ever read. Madame Merle comes in to tell Isabel as Isabel is contemplating visiting Ralph as he lies dying (after Osmond has forbidden it) that it was Ralph who gave her the enormous sum of money that made her “a brilliant match,” spoken in bland feigned innocence she is nonethleless triumphing over telling Isabel that Isabel owes this hellish marriage to Ralph. And pointing our to her yes “she was perfectly free” so she did it to herself.

One problem for the modern reader who wants to read hard truths about life is these earlier novels (and many since) end ambiguously in ways that allow us to think the characters will be all right, make do by following conventional norms and thus uphold the very structures that the whole novel has been designed to expose.

the-portrait-of-a-lady-screenshot
Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer Osmond (Portrait, scripted Laura Jones, directed Jane Campion)

It is a startlingly even terrifying moment when Madame Merle so quietly and blandly lets Isabel know it was after Isabel who chose to marry Osmond and she was given all the clues she needed to what he was if she had only looked.

Austen has scenes of withering corrosion where the speaker does not realize what he is saying and the listener is mortified and hurt, but nothing quite so horrible in feel or mean and malicious in intent. Madame Merle’s purpose is to make Isabel angry at Ralph and prevent her going — as Lucy Ferrars in telling Elinor of the long engagement was to make Elinor give up on Edward, be very angry with him. The increase in subtlety and what has been done is a hundredfold.

For the book’s last chapters, see the comments.

Ellen

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