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A Syllabus for a Class at the Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University

Exploring the Gothic

Day: 8 Tuesday afternoons, 2:25-3:40 pm, Sept 24th to Nov 11th
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road. Fairfax
Instructor: Ellen Moody

Description of Course:

This course explore varieties of gothic and its terrain which conform to recipe format. Take one labyrinthine or partly ruined dwelling, place inside murderous incestuous father or chained mother (preferably in a dungeon), heroes and heroines (as wanderers, nuns), stir in a tempest; have on hand blood, night-birds, and supernatural phenomena, with fore-, and back-stories set in the past. We’ll read short stories, three novellas and sample films. We’ll begin with ghosts and witches, move to vampires, werewolves, and end on socially critical mysteries and stories of the paranormal (e.g., possession). We cover terror, horror, male and female gothic. We’ll also view clips from two films considered the most powerful film gothics ever made and an Oscar winning short.

Schedule:

September 23:   Origin, definition, history of genre, characteristics. I’ll show parts of DVD for The Haunting and The Woman in Black (if possible, otherwise substitute clip from “Afterward” from Shades of Darkness).
September 30:   Stevenson, “Markheim, ” Wharton’s “Afterward” and Mary Reilly
October 7:  Mary Reilly (possible clip) and F. Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life”
October 14:   Stoker, “The Judge’s House,” Conan Doyle, “Adventure of Abbey Grange;” Wharton’s “Kerfol”
October 21:   Vampire Tapestry (first 3 tales), Stevenson, “The Body Snatchers,” Wharton, “Mr Jones”
October 28:   Vampire Tapestry (last 2 tales), LeFanu’s “Carmilla” and Oliphant’s “The Open Door”
November 4 :  Dickens, “Signalman”'; M. R. James, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale”; Bierce, “Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge”; A. M. Burrage’s “Smee.”
November 11:  The Haunting of Hill House

Texts:

Martin, Valerie. Mary Reilly. New York: Vintage, 1990. ISBN 978-0-375-72599-9. It’s available as a kindle, and there have been many editions: Doubleday 1990, Washington Square Press, 1994.
Charnas, Suzy McKee. The Vampire Tapestry. Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1980. It’s available as a Kindle and two newer edition: Orb Books, 2008; The Women’s Press, 1992.
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. NY: Penguin 2006. ISBN978-0-14-303998-3

Online short stories:

R.L. Stevenson, “Markheim”  

http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Mark.shtml

Edith Wharton, “Afterward”

http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/ewharton/bl-ewhar-afterward.htm

F. Marion Crawford, “For the Blood is the Life” (scroll down)

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0605421.txt

Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House”

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10150/10150-h/10150-h.htm

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Abbey Grange”

http://sherlock-holmes.classic-literature.co.uk/the-adventure-of-the-abbey-grange/

Edith Wharton, “Kerfol”

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24350/24350-h/24350-h.htm

R.L. Stevenson, “The Body Snatchers”

http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/body.htm

Edith Wharton, “Mr Jones”

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200121.txt

Sheridan LeFanu, “Carmilla”

http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/carmilla.htm

Margaret Oliphant, “The Open Door”

http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10052/pg10052.html

Charles Dickens, “The Signalman”

http://anilbalan.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/the-signalman.pdf

M. R. James, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale”

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/mr/more/chapter5.html

A.M. Burrage, “Smee”

http://anilbalan.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/smee-by-am-burrage-_-scary-for-kids.pdf

Ambrose Bierce, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/

YouTube for Oscar Winning Short: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuP5kUQro40

For further materials on the gothic, see my website under Ghosts and gothics, vampires and witches and l’ecriture-femme; under Austen Reveries, the category “Gothic.”

Ellen

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As Hank (Dean Norris) looks over Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and sees Gale Boetticler’s signature, suddenly he conjures up a half-forgotten memory-image of

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Walt (Bryan Cranston) looking insinuatingly, fiercely at him, teasing “You’ve got me” (with his hands comically up)

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose —Sung by Janis Joplin

Dear readers and friends,

I’d like to emphasize that I realized the one character I had not done an extended sketch of in my blogs on this remarkable mini-series was Walter White and had decided I would focus on my remarks on the fifth season by surveying the development of White’s character — before I knew that Bryan Cranston had won Emmys for portraying Walter White as the best actor in a TV drama series a remarkable number of 4 times (2008, 2009, 2010, and 2014). Oscars and Emmys are not just awarded to an actor for a great performance, but because the voting audience feels deeply compelled by the character, and by the story he is caught up in. Walter White, the shat-upon invisibly caged man, a few paychecks or gov’t action away from bankruptcy is today’s American male. When we survey the ordinariness of violent men of our society at home and abroad, we should remember Walter White — and his Javier, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). If Walt seems an unlikely Jean Valjean (too upper middle, he gives no free bread away, not an underdog socially), let me allow Jesse to have that role as inflected by a modern take on that ultimate lost boy, Peter Pan. Skylar as Wendy? well, she did scold Peter frequently.

As I watched the first half of the fifth season of Breaking Bad in tandem with Season 2:1-13 (last week I watched the fourth season in tandem with the first to give myself perspective), I realized how cruel, harmful psychologically as well as practically, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had become. How different he was from the Walter White of the second season, where with Jesse he stood without weapons in a junk yard and shuddered, revulsed before the psychopathic bully-distributor Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) proceeding to beat to death his own body guard. In the first 8 episodes of the fifth season, now a mass murderer Walt hires a team to men to murder Mike’s team in prison after and commits a series of sickening manipulations of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to hide that he, Walt, engineered the near death by poisoning of Jesse’s near-adopted son, Brock (with Andrea, Emily Rios, Brock forms Jesse’s “instant family”). With Jesse, Walt stages a search for and finds (!) ricinn poison in a rhomba vaccuum cleaner. Walt then allows Jesse to weep with guilt over his near-murder of Walt (his “one friend”) when he thought it was Walt who poisoned Brock (it was).

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Jesse’s grief over all the deaths they’ve caused, with Walt’s comforting arms and hands on Jesse’s shoulders …” Walt will later need Jesse to believe that he, Walt, didn’t kill Mike, that Mike is still not dead ….

Worst of all by insinuating the danger of Jesse’s companionship with Andrea (to Andrea and Brock), Walt persuades Jesse to break off his relationship with Andrea. I was most struck by how when later Jesse mentions to Walt that he is no longer living with Andrea and Brock, Walt seems not to hear, and registers this new arrangement as unimportant. Walt deprived Jesse of a girl he was genuinely compatible with, who understood him (Jane) as perhaps Andrea cannot. He wants Jesse for himself (like a devil taking over someone) and become enraged when Jesse wants out of the business because he, Jesse, is now revulsed.

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Andrea (Emily Rios) coming in with her boy, Brock, bringing food for supper

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Andrea smiling an invitation at Walt in which Jesse joins in — they don’t have too many guests

What does Walt care for Jesse’s now profoundly lonely purposeless existence? He risks Jesse’s life by refusing to stop siphoning in meth from their great train robbery when Mike says to stop and Jesse miraculously (perils of Pauline here) escapes horrific death from a racing train by laying within the two tracks. In Season 2 he was led by Jesse who organized distribution. He deprives Jesse of the 5 million Jesse is owed to attempt to force Jesse to continue in this murdering-drug creation-selling business. With friends like these, who needs enemies as they say). He ceaselessly lies. Jesse realizes Mike must be dead since no one is coming after Walt’s team for murdering them, and Walt says Mike is not dead and he “needs Jesse to believe that.” Jesse says nothing but maybe he needs himself to believe that or not contradict it.

Walt’s come a long way. Tellingly as Walt genuinely becomes an evil man, Vince Gilligan in his commentary in the DVD features at long last concedes a nuanced development, a slow-moving justification over a period of intense pressure and need, and says more than once that Walt was “a badly damaged man” when we first saw Walt in the first season. That what he has slowly become is the result of shedding that bullied deeply frustrated existence once in the first season he was told he had inoperable cancer and statistically had probably no more than 2 years at most to live. That his manhood had been undermined badly and the twisted self coming out was intent on revenge and proving himself. Gilligan did not go so far as openly in his words to connect this to our society’s norms, inequalities, obsession with money, but we are invited to. The series in second season had also shown us how little choice of a self-respecting career Jesse has had, and how dismissed Walt is as a high school chemistry teacher. The fifth season shows the viewer how gutted is the 1st, 4th and 8th amendment: the gov’t agencies need not even get a grand jury indictment: they freeze all the assets of suspected people, thus bankrupting them and their families, break in for evidence without a warrant (unless the person asserts him or herself with a hired lawyer). The DEA and others agencies have easy access to surveillance. The medical treatment which is so expensive is also available as records for any agency to explore.

Re-watching the second season alongside the 5th, I noted how what might be called Walt’s second self, Heisenberg as Walt’s Mr Hyde, comes forth at moments where his pride as a male is especially seared. At the party Skylar throws for what seems to me Walt’s first improvement from the crushingly expensive chemotherapy treatments, when Hank basks in the admiration of over Walt’s son, Junior (RJMitte), drinking beer with him in this ever-so-masculine way, Walt suddenly tops this by insisting Junior really keep up with them, ending by making the boy puke in sickness. Spite without sufficient target continues to peer out of his eyes as he continues subject to the will of others. Another character he is reminiscent of in season 5 is Macbeth with his growing will to power and linking himself up with (he thinks as an equal) Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). No lie is beyond him now — and he’s good at using truth for his own purposes as when he tells the disquieted Marie (Betsy Brandt) that Skylar tried to kill herself out of guilt over Skylar’s affair with Ted Benecke (Christopher Cousins)

The comparison of 2nd and 5th brought out aspects of Jesse, Walt’s real son by now: when Jesse so swiftly sheds Andrea, we see he had learned early on not to take seriously enough emotional bonds. It’s significant how often Jesse is seen alone. In the feature to the 5th season Gilligan also begins to speak more openly of his conception of Jesse: he is the lost boy, and young man we do not know what to do with. When in the 2nd season Jesse’s parents throw him out of his aunt’s house, his motorbike is stolen from him, and he ends up covered in urine, he rescues himself through turning to the the skills Mr White alone is willing to teach him. We see inherent in him too a will to ruthless power, an enjoyment of building an empire over others, of bullying others. We see eventually that he draws a line at murder, especially identifying with young boys, and gentle people, that he suffers enormously from the hidden injuries of class, allowing White to take advantage of him. Syklar despises Jesse upon laying eyes upon him: he’s clearly not college material, not “suit” destined; he’s not someone she’d invite to her house. Marie would be more shocked at seeing Jesse at Skylar’s dinner table than any other thing she’s seen thus far. He learns to care for Mike, the mass killer, because Mike treats him with respect and does not manipulate him emotionally. Tells him the truth about “Walter” and advises him to get out of the business. “Take care of yourself, kid.” Aaron Paul has been nominated several times, and was touchingly openly ecstatic by his win — his character recognized.

Skylar: In season 2 he tried and failed to bugger Skylar after he succeeds in turning Hank off his and Jesse’s tracks. She is telling Walt that he is not to take out his anger and hurt on her:

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Anna Gunn as Skylar indignant with green cream on her face:

Now he smoothly takes over Skylar’s body from behind without (pun intended) a hitch.

Skylar’s obdurate obnoxiousness is now newly contextualized as fear for her children. Another aspect of her character that emerges is her stupidity. She really does not seem to understand she and her children are safe from Walt, if not from his enemies. He has invested his ego and identity in himself as her protector-husband and cannot bear to lose her as an object. At one point in Season 2 Walt says “I am not Vito Corleone;” in Season 5 his behavior reminds me of Al Pacino’s towards Diane Keaton as Corleone’s wife in Godfather II. When he grows angry at her for succeeding in removing “my” children from my house to Hank and Marie’s, he loses a central part of this masculine myth he is now successfully enacting. Skylar now recognizes what she held to as family certainties as so much cant and Marie’s nattering drives her into frantic “shut up, shut up, shut up Maries.”

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Having won an Emmy for best supporting actress, Gunn may feel vindicated now.

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Hank is as hard and suspicious in interrogating someone (here Mike) as ever, but more controlled, more thoughtful

Last but never least (if Hank has anything to say about this), the development of Hank by the fifth season is a study in the American macho male very sympathetically seen. by the 5th season He no longer is simply the dense insulting bully of the 2nd season, who enjoys grilling and cowing those street people he can drag into his office (as he did Jesse in the second season): he enacted a parallel to Tuco when he beat Jesse senseless, landing Jesse in hospital; his rage not much different from Gus’s only he uses fists, not a knife. In Season 2 we see him enact his first physical revulsion to his own shooting down of the psychopathic killer Tuco; upon discovering the inscription in Gale Boetticher’s present of Leaves of Grass to Walt, seeing the same handwriting, recognizing “the other W.W.” a phrase he saw in the papers found in Gale’s apartment when he also saw Gus’s fingerprints, he realizes that Walt is the powerful drug manufacturer, agent, and murderer, he has been seeking these past months. He sways, the ground beneath him seems to move. He has been humanized over the several seasons by having him come near to death: we’ve seen his courage in bringing back his leg power. He is too much forgiven, and the immediate murderous rage he projects in the first episode of the sixth or finale season (I’ve watched) it shows the shallowness of his emotional attachments; how quickly they may be changed. His sudden use of the word “monster” and definition of Walt as a “monster” also serves the programs’ refusal explicitly to recognize in Walter everyman and how much he has been driven to do what he does. Hank’s is a black and white world, and he enacts the ferocity of our egregiously inhumane punitive justice system.

If we are not going to be shown the two men readjusting their understanding of one another in terms of their years together, an intriguing question we can ask of Walt and Hank’s long relationship is, Did Walt want to be found out? So careful as he has been all along: in season 2 when he pretends to amnesia, he remembers a cardboard box of money with a gun he had left in a bedroom, and manages to escape the hospital, race home in a car, hide it behind the kitchen sink, and take himself back. He devises elaborate schemes to destroy evidence. At some level is this the final confrontation he wanted, with the man who so casually mocked him for years?

It has been said again and again that what makes readers love novels is when the characters in them are beloved, respected, taken into our imagined selves as we go through life and perform compensatory functions. The slow development of the single parallel story line (Walter and Jesse no matter if sometimes they are circling one another at a distance) and the brilliance of the many intimate scenes are central to the series also winning for the best TV drama series twice. In this fifth season I found myself intensely shaken by action-adventure episodes well done, e.g., the train episode; the remarkable prologues continued to make their effect. To their credit the film-makers defy the nonsense about spoilers in this and the next season. The opening of this season shows us Walt as drawn, pale, thin, looking ill, with a full head of hair again, and beard; he seems to be living alone in New Hampshire (far from Albuquerque) and buys himself a machine gun and rounds and rounds of ammunition. A worn fugitive getting a meal at Denny’s is at least one aspect or phase of his coming future.

NewHampshireFugitive

Ellen

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comingbackfromPool
Macauley (Mike) Connor (Jimmy Stewart) carrying the drunken Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) back from mid-night time at pool, encountering her nearly divorced husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and soon-to-be-husband, George Kittredge (John Howard) (Philadelphia Story, 1940)

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Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) bullying into bewildered madness the anxiety-ridden Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) (Gaslight, 1944)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been watching, reading about, and contextualizing George Cukor films with other films by him, other films in the same genre over the past week and a half. I’ve read Gavin Lambert’s On Cukor: filled with remarkable stills, photos and interviews of Cukor. He was a brilliant film-maker, really an elegant controller of a camera, a man who could form an archetypal image or picture on film and build a story from this. I especially much enjoyed and laughed at, was moved by his screwball comedy-romance, Philadelphia Story,

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Tracy looking at Dexter’s handmade replica of the boat they had their first loving honeymoon on

and found his psychological gothic, Gaslight, which conforms to the Bluebeard female gothic type, as subtle and grippingly worrying until near its end as Robert Wise’s later heart-terrifying Haunting (1960). No technological gadgetry or overproduction, nothing wildly theatrical, no bodily taboos broken, yet Gaslight similarly gets to the attentive viewer where he or she lives — until its last 20 minutes or so.

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Scenes in quiet greys of gaslight pull the viewer in, symbolic of this haze the husband surrounds the wife with.

I assume the storylines of both are familiar to my readers (if not, see Philadelphia Story; Gaslight). So let me cut to the chase, as with Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, far from agreeing with the book I’m reviewing that the greatness of these films partly stems from the coping with the repressive Hays code, I felt the Hays Code only codified and strengthened some of the troubling aspects of the screwball comedy, and hopelessly enfeebled the conclusion of the gothic.

Philadelphia Story resembles Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (as well as the very early screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, also with Cary Grant, but this time the errant wife is Irene Dunne). Its crucial turning point is a scene of possible sexual intercourse off screen which (as in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) our heroine cannot remember because she was too drunk; sometimes it’s insinuated she and Connor (your brash but literate newspaper man) had full sexual intercourse by poolside, but sometimes not and at the close Connor says there are rules and limits to what a man can do with reference to her drunken state (which is supposed to imply to have had full sexual intercourse would have been a rape, as it was in case of Betty Hutton as Trudy Kockenlocker).

In Miracle of Morgan’s Creek we never learn who the man was — the erasure of a specific identity robs the function of an imagined presence so we end up feeling most decent men would never rape a drunken woman (the indecency here is felt in the cowardly man not coming forward at all; he took advantage and fled). But even if we go with Stewart’s sincerely-uttered explanation, Tracy proceeds to apologize: she apologizes to both ex-husband and husband-about-to-be, to Connor, and to her father for giving him a hard time when he was merely having a long-time affair with a Broadway dancer-star. When the father comes home for the wedding (to which Tracy did not invite him), her mother does not seem to have minded either his continued adultery or absence enough to separate herself from him. All all Tracy’s fault: she is told off by Dexter especially for her coldness, for imagining herself a goddess (and thus above all others, she should do like them), for being a spinster (this is a low blow in the film). (Trudy also apologizes to Norval, her father, and whoever else is around.)

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Tracy telling her mother Margaret (Mary Nash) and sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) they will not have her father at the wedding

It didn’t help Philadelphia Story to obscure the central incident; it would have been more effective if we could have known for sure that sexual intercourse happened with the third man or not. I don’t see that making the woman character drunk both times added to my pleasure or promoted anything meaningful for women except that the films accepted women being drunk or not just they accepted men – there was no special angry prejudice against women such as I’ve observed too often. I have discovered that not all screwball or romantic comedies of the 1940s have a heroine apologize or go through a humiliation ritual. Arguably Barbara Stanwyk in The Lady Eve (Sturges) does not; at the close of The Awful Truth Irene Dunne does not apologize, but then Cary Grant is not asked to account for his week away which we know he lied about while Irene Dunne is.

The acting of the principals in The Philadelphia Story overcomes the worst thing about all these screwball comedies done under the Hays Code: a superficiality in the relationship between men and women. By having the characters people who were once married, that endows them with an automatic depth knowledge of one another but nothing we see in most of these gives them any depth of feeling. The lack of honest sexual feeling is central to this. Grant and Hepburn give the pair real emotion by having him insult her for not having enough feeling; Grant and Stewart use the class issues between them (he is supposed lower class, though it turns out of course he really is middle) and he is made an author she reads. But the others I’ve watched, and especially the more recent of the type, Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper never give any sense of feeling over his having a liaison and her love for him remains girlish, sentimental.

The ending of a film matters (no matter how much David Lean famously downplays that). People who want to trivialize, scoff at and use Thelma and Louise as yet another warning lesson for women, use the ending in suicide — for that’s what it is practically speaking. See what happens to women like that. (Thelma and Louise is another movie where one heroine’s experience of rape and the attempted rape of the other is hardly mentioned.) At any rate by the end of Philadelphia Story, Katherine Hepburn as Tracy is parroting all that Cary Grant as Dexter says and is now his obedient grateful wife (Taming of the Shew anyone?). Dexter monitors Tracy’s activities throughout. The relationship between the two is not much different than that between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Cukor’s 1950s Adam’s Rib.

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There are some continuities between Philadelphia Story and very recent films worth noticing: the lawyer type in all three movies (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, The Awful Truth, and The Philadelphia Story) resembles Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad; an unscrupulous shyster who we don’t fear because when push comes to shove he’s a coward (not favorable at all). This is probably the way most Americans accept the way lawyers are shown in mass media. It’s utterly inadequate, if it was not tragic (as lawyers are so important) it’s pathetic. Tracy’s uncle ( we are supposed to laugh and find this funny) enjoys pinching Hepburn’s behind – the way the uncle did in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Philadelphia Story have a wry younger sister who speaks a few home truths; again her role reminds me of the vestigial Margaret in Austen’s S&S

It’s said that Cukor made women’s films, he was a woman director in disguise. He once made a film which had no men actors in it, The Women, and I remember it as excellent — feminist and yet with a fashion show because for women looks matter in our world. He himself disliked this label and said it was not true. I’d like to agree with him, and say while he had a number of strong-women actresses play ove and over again in his films, the strongest effectively subversive and comic presence across all the screwball comedies is Cary Grant. He could deliver a line that undercut whatever piety was going, lightly, suggestively, effectively.

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Anthony John, the aging actor (Ronald Colman) and his mistress, Pat Kroll whom he kills (Shelley Winters) (A Double Life, 1947): also a film where the central character seems half-insane

Gaslight is much less a studio product. It’s is based on a play; its script is literate and fine the way Philadelphia story is. But unlike Philadelphia Story until near the end when the Hays code kicks in, it does not fit into preconceived genres in the way most of Cukor films finally do — from Little Women to Lost Horizon, the ending must be uplifting, optimistic, providential. The Double Life, a film noir re-make in modern terms of Othello featuring Ronald Colman which comes closest to Gaslight in its unnerving feel suffers very badly by its redemptive ending. (All these I’ve watched before and rewatched these past couple of weeks.) Cukor could not be the auteur in his films for most of his life: later films, especially when aspects of the story reflected Cukor’s own internal story of himself, say A Star is Born, escaped this stifling.

For Gaslight is not a horror (monster) movie, it’s not a thriller either. Cukor was evolving the modern film gothic (seen best in ghost stories turned into films): psychologically disquieting and suspenseful. Cukor manages to make you fear for the wife who is being closed in, driven, quietly slowly bullied into continual isolation and humiliation, and persuaded she is mad. The sets, the lighting, the quiet dialogues, the use of servants to thwart Paula are all discreetly done, repetitive, crowded. She is crowded out.

Gaslightsetting

A young Angela Lansbury as a sexy hostile London cockney maid sides with the master and frustrates the old-world courtesy of Paula. The film does capture what a man in charge of a woman can do to her — cultures where the woman is under the control of someone.

The film’s power is then choked off. In no time at all, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton) who knew the Paula’s aunt and somehow works for Scotland yard (though he has an American accent) is able to track Anton in Anton’s nightly treks up to his own attic to terrify his wife, to reach the wife while Anton is in said attic, convince her, and then easily capture, tie up and take Anton away. Ingrid Bergman as Paula gets to torment Boyer as Anton for a few moments, and holds a knife to his head, but her jeering is lame and her act tame.

gaslightknife

And as the film closes the neighborly like lady (Dame May Whitty) who comforted Ingrid on the train and while she enjoys reading about bloodthirsty people, believes all is fine with the world and police can and so solve everything, is seen coming to visit Ingrid again. Cukor’s little joke?

bloodthirsty-bessieheerful

In talking of Gaslight, Cukor said that its style came out of its story, a near murder “in a Victorian house.” He meant to make it “claustrophobic” and stir up emotion. He again says he followed the Van Druten script and tried to erase himself. If he had been allowed to take the logic of the story of a woman made a hostage to its conclusion, how great the film would have been.

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I honestly would prefer to like, to revel in these early much-praised films, but I find they grate. I watched as much as I could stand of My Man Godfrey (1936 version). I can see why William Powell stood out: he is a genuinely sardonic presence as a hobo turned into a butler for the amusement of a super-rich family who are presented (naively) as simply frivolous and naive, idle, doing nothing (including not much harm if you don’t ask how the expensive parties with their luxuriously dressed guests got there). I find I can’t take watching the supposedly elegantly mannered somewhat effete matinee idol type men and fat-cat salacious but somehow bullied older men by their fat stupid wives, with the heroines looking adoringly at the hero: I hadn’t realized how much Jean Arthur does just that, much to my surprise — from my favorite 1942 Talk of the Town to Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr Smith Goes to Washington which fits the type except for Jimmy Stewart’s agonized face now and again).

Cukor claimed that what irreparably weakened The Double Life was Colman lacked a sense of the demonic. I find the older films only reach this when they are made in Europe and left to be expressionistic of trauma and cynicism. The Hays Code clamped down on these but nowadays American films often flounder still when it comes to the gothic and are crassly melodramatic, over-produced with much bodily horror (e.g., Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Ironically (or perhaps in character) the US films which have been able to project the darker prevailing ironies and metaphysics of American culture are the gangster to modern melodramatic crime films, from James Cagney’s psychopathic killer in White Heat (unforgettable, his bullying of Virginia Mayo, and his blowing himself upk, “Top of the World, ma”) to last year’s Breaking Bad. Cukor does not seem to have made this kind of film at all. From On Cukor he seems to have been too sensitive (and oddly) too self-effacing a man.

He is said not to be identified or remembered enough because he did not develop a single style you could trace throughout his films. He couldn’t — he had too many constraints. He also wanted to contain a lot, so I chose this photo as capturing that ideal.

cukor (in 1945)

Ellen

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“Bag’s in the River” (1:3): Walt (Bryan Cranston) returns home to Skylar (Anna Gunn) after being out all night disposing of what’s left of two bodies put in a bag, thrown in a river

Dear friends and readers,

Having gotten for myself two books filled with detailed analyses, commentaries, summaries, lists of bullet points of and from Breaking Bad: David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp’s collection of essays by themselves and others, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry (it takes the mini-series through Seasons 1-4), and Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad by Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz (Seasons 1-5, complete series), I was prompted to re-watch the episodes of the first season (all 7) alternatively with what I had left of Season 4 (5-13, or 8 episodes). The new perspectives provided by the books and the early phase of the series (with its ironic foreshadowings only seen on a re-watch from the perspective of at least 3 seasons later) has made me change my mind about Skylar as well as come to a better understanding of this famed HBO macho soap opera.

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“Face Off” (5:13): Skylar asks, “Was this you?” and by way of reply, Walt replies: “I won”

I had thought of Skylar as a woman who was basically indifferent to her husband as an individual apart from her, non-loving or without real respect for him, an unethical bully (she withholds sex from him to pressure him into buying super-expensive chemotherapy treatments) who deserts to save herself when cornered (in Season 1 she rejects her sister, Marie [Betsy Brandt], is jeeringly spiteful (her boasted-of affair with Ted Benecke [Christopher Cousins]), but even if it is possible to extend this list of qualities I find alienating, I was wrong to sum her up as hateful, enacting, as the actress who plays Jesse Pinkman’s mother seems to, so much relational wrong to those around her. Rather she is a figure of pathos, pathetic in the older meaning of the world.

In the long view of four years, we can see that nothing she ever did made the slightest change in the ultimate fate of herself and the characters she holds dear. From about half-way through Season 4 the naivete we see in Season 1 (as when she threatens to expose Pinkman [Aaron Paul] for smoking pot to her “brother-in-law, a DEA man!” [Dean Norris]), her belief in some controlling morality in people, some rules somewhere which she can trust to as long as she seems to be moral herself and obey the law, and most of all her essential powerlessness leads to a set of behaviors and stances parallel to those we see in the first and second season. She thinks she can give Benecke money to pay his taxes and he will pay them (thus protecting her as his bookkeeper from scrutiny by the IRS); she believes buying and operating a car wash will control the money situation she finds herself in (she and Walt have far more than they can account for). Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the shyster lawyer is not simply laughing at her; he realizes her instincts as formed by her society make for decisions against her interests (such as, back to Season 1, her childlike worship of the oncologist). 

Most of all, she has not all along begun to understand what other human beings (Giancarlo Esposito as Gus is not alone in his monstrousness) are capable of, including Walt — who in the fourth season wins over Gus by poisoning Jesse’s beloved semi-adopted son, Brock and persuading Jesse it was Gus who did this, thus winning Jesse back to work with him (not hard as Jesse does know how much frightening evil Gus and his henchmen can do) and tell him where is Gus’s weak point as Jesse has come close to Gus several times, and then lived in close proximity to Gus and Mike (Jonathan Banks, Gus’s hired thug-killer): Jesse finally thinks of Hector Salamanca, the nearly paralyzed dying Hispanic man who early in Gus’s career humiliated Gus and murdered a close associate and who all these years later Gus enjoys tormenting by telling of how he kills now this male relative and now that.

Skylar erects what Anna Gunn kept calling “all her boundaries” to shut this world and Hank’s and Marie’s out. In Season 1 when amid the teachers she hears the janitor blamed for stolen equipment to make meths, she nods in agreement and allows herself to be diverted by Walt. Walt might worry whether she’ll realize it’s his lab. He need not have. She does not put that kind of two-and-two together. (Nor does Hank. They trust their friends to be what they seem.)  In Season 3, she learned she might need to protect her family against its protector: Walt, who has told her, he is the danger. In Season 4, Benecke turns out to be a petty cheat; baby in carrier, she goes to a central point in a four state area to see where she can flee and finds there is no where she belongs, can exist but where she has found herself at 40. All she has are Walt, Walt Jr, Holly, Marie and Hank.  She returns home. Skylar does not seeth, but she writhes to no avail. I pity and feel for her.

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An early still of Jesse as he walks into his parents’ dining room to set the table

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Jesse’s parents want to know from the valued son whether he is getting out of his teacher what success requires

A second watch showed me how angry Jesse is — else how does he get involved? A rage and a fury. Why else does he continually spit out his words in slightly broken half fury? Rejected by parents, who prefer the hypocritical cold son, ambitious, a liar. He is offered this shit-ass job disguised as a bird selling junk on the street.  We see immediately how clever he is, how quickly perceptive his judgments, but he is utterly uneducated: all school is for is to get a job wearing a suit. As he hardens, he keeps his heart partly because he has been so hurt. He has artistic ability Jane appreciates, and she reads his yearning to be a hero through the cartoons he draws.  But hero in the US is defined by Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Gus — and Hank (Dean Norris). Jane (Krysten Ritter) did begin to offer him another vision (the trip to Georgia O’Keefe paintings is part of this), but she was sickened by her culture too, desperate to escape its pressures and demands that she be guarded, cool. A kind of Hansel and Gretel with heroin as the witch. You see this kind of thing only by re-watching. Many people learn to lie low: I suspect that will be the final lesson of Jesse’s career with Walt.

Hank emerges more interestingly too — once you know how he emerges later as the half-lamed man, a sleuth. To this Sam Spade has come down. He begins as a coarse, crude, loud-mouth condescending macho type, so sure of himself, mocking his brother-in-law as not manly, but his pity for his shoplifting wife and feeling for the disabled nephew, Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) shows he has camaradarie impulses. Fatherly, kindly to those he does not “other.”  Maybe only he or his type of person could love and support the dense yet intuitively alert Marie.  Murdering people point-blank even when they are trying to kill him (in the Second Season) leaves him emotionally shattered (as it will Jesse in the third Season).

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In the pillow interrogation where Skylar wants all of them to help her force Walt to go for treatment, after Marie breaks ranks to say chemotherapy is miserable and maybe Walt should spend his last months differently, Hank says Walt should do what he wants …

At the baby shower, though, once he spots the expensive diamond and ivory baby tiara Marie has supposedly bought for the coming baby, he needs a stronger drink to endure staying there and pretending all is fine in his house. And in the first season there are many ironies surrounding his talk, showing how little he gets about the meth trade when he thinks he understands so much.

I missed the mood or kind of gothic this story is: horror is one word for it, as all sorts of body taboos are sliced off: from the opening blood, the color red, from raspberry to bright scarlet, to blue and venal streams across the TV screen’s firmament. Ghastly comedy in season 1, ghastly terror in season 4: in one of the features for Episodes 4:11-13, Vince Gilligan explains how the crew spent months talking about how they could make Gus’s death adequate to the evil of his life and then planning and executing the bomb scene and destruction of half Gus’s face (face off) and part of his body. The moment is all the more electric as at first we startled to see him escape apparently unscathed, and fix his tie: a key to his character is he is a black man determined to enact an upper class, super-polite ceremonial lifestyle, the benevolent philanthropist the powerful in his society turn to. But the nurses running over shudder, cover their faces, and we get a barely watchable (I kept averting my eyes) series of close-ups, which I reproduce only one of:

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The series does not rely on these horrible shocking moments; they are part of sequences of agonized high anxiety (to allude to Mel Brooks, appropriately parodic) which punctuate story arcs and character development. Intriguing suggestive life-histories are given most of the tertiary characters whose names we learn; we can fill out their pasts. The strength of the series is character exploration in scenes of virtuoso acting, but I hadn’t noticed how much change the characters seem to undergo at the same time as in their beginning (Season 1) is their end (Season 4 foreshadows what is to be). So while the mood of Season 1 replicates at moments that of the Three Stooges (which Jesse watches on TV), or clowns; the two chief males form the love-hate, teacher-pupil, chemist-assistant team they keep up throughout several permutations, with Jesse sometimes taking the lead, doing what Walt can’t, seeing what Walt doesn’t, by its end Walt does show an insidious delight in enacting all that is forbidden, anticipating his later manipulative ruthlessness while Jesse remains on just this side of decency. Walt contemplates suicide in Season 4, diverted by suddenly seeing seeds on he side of the pool he can use to poison Brock

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but Jesse feels emotional hurt from betrayed ties (in Season 1, his family, later Jane, and now Andrea [Emily Rios] and Brock) that he will not cast aside. In season 4 Walt refuses to work unless Jesse is with him, Jesse refuses to cooperate in the business of meth at all if Gus has Walt killed.

The last two thirds of season 4 (for episodes 1-4 see A Killing Way of Life) are highly theatrical stagings of suspense. I couldn’t stop watching them — got caught up in the intensity of it all and began to long to see Gus as a figure of ultimate evil done away with. By the end I was shaking from the whole experience, with its final twists and turns moving from engineering the near death of a child to persuading an old man to blow himself up suicidally in order to take Gus out too. There is a weird parodic feel here — because in a soap opera you have just these twists and turns. I haven’t got so caught up in anything since watching Lagaan a few years ago where I so rooted for the Indians against the Brits — only here more so. I had wanted to watch some earlier episodes but could not get myself to stop until I saw Gus die. And it was horrific — the make up of him as this ghastly skeleton. When Walt returns to the Meth lab and manages to kill the murderous bullying bodyguard who has handcuffed Jesse to a pipe (Jesse is often in the role of the vulnerable Pauline heroine), and they set fire to, destoying the lab, it is like destroying the vampire’s lair. It was where they were enslaved and watched by a surveillance camera. Here action adventure high violence was meaningful.

Here and there images evoked the real world of America inside its border and out. At one point in a desert Mike throws Walt on the ground to kneel before Gus with a black bag over his head; he has been badly beaten up: it is the image of torture we see done to Arab prisoners by US interrogators. 

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Gus is saying if Walt interferes with Gus’s killing Hank, “I will kill your wife, I will kill your son, I will kill your infant daughter” — this is precisely what Frankenstein’s monster does to Frankenstein’s family after Frankenstein destroys the bride the monster had asked for

There are memorable slow quiet moments. After Walt miscalculates and allows his hot-blooded temper to get the better of him because he finds Jesse is lying to him, and has seen Gus up close but not tried to administer a powerful poison (ricin) and rushes to Jesse’s house to accuse him, and they have this brutal fierce fight where Jesse gets the better of the older man, Walt collapses in his flat. It has been Walter Jr’s birthday and Walt missed it. Skylar had insisted on returning the super-expensive glamorous speed car Walt had bought for his son, what Walt Jr really wanted, and gotten him the sensible relatively inexpensive compact hybrid, and little as Walt Jr is thrilled, he drives it to his father’s flat to be congratulated. Walt is in a shattered confused state, and breaks down in front of Walt Jr, weeping: “I made a mistake.”

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The son physically helps the father to bed, much moved by his father’s reality with him. He hears his father address him as “Jesse” and say “I’m sorry.” He sleeps on the couch not far from his father. That morning, Walt awakes and tries to erase the image he had left; he attempts dignity, tells his son that his grandfather died of Huntington’s disease; we see him coughing — a foreshadowing of death to come.  

Mike and Jesse also manage their unarticulated moments of mutual shared danger, mutual help and respect — and Jesse is distraught when he must leave the internally bleeding and shot-up Mike behind in Mexico: he will die unless someone gives him blood, staunches the bleeding, tends to his wound; the minimal sophisticatedly-equipped hospital staff paid by Gus are just ignoring Mike to save Gus. They tell Jesse it’s Gus who pays them.

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There is peculiar comedy mixed with anguish: Jesse hugging Andrea and bothering the hospital staff with his attempts to wait with Andrea and her mother inside the operation when as not-family the insurance company decrees he should not be there (so they say). Each time Jesse has to say that Brock was poisoned to someone, he breaks down: here he’s telling Walt in the hospital waiting room.

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Hank pressures Walt to take him to Hermanos to see the fried chicken operation Gus runs as Hank’s study of evidence from the murdered Gale Boetticher’s (Dale Costabile) flat leads Hank to suspect Gus is the linchpin leader of a meth gang. Walt is terrified at the coming consequences. As they drive up and Hank instructs Walt to set up a bug on Gus’s car, Walt sees Mike drive up and sit alongside them. Mike winks.

What I enjoyed most was to see parallels in Season 1, similar scenes. I had not noticed the Prologues were already used in atemporally symbolic ways. We see a very young Walt explaining a chemical formula to his then girlfriend, a very young Gretchen, later Schwartz (Jessica Hecht) who married the man who made a fortune from Walt’s discovery. The punning titles for the episodes, many ironic, begin immediately. Also to see Marie and Skylar in characteristic alike sister formations: sometimes talking in the kitchen, sometimes hugging, and then again Marie refusing to admit she shoplifts:

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A No Rough-Stuff Type Deal (Season 1:7): Skylar tries to stare the truth out of Marie

I wonder what they will think up for a fifth season. They have killed off a number of major characters. Will they have more of the same yet worse: yet more diabolical people in the Meth trade; I read that Jesse will become enslaved to Todd, a new Meth associate. I hope the next season brings genuine new content and insight as Downton Abbey manages to each year. I suspect this must be done by working further on the fates and personalities of the closely-knit central characters. I know that Hank will die — something foreshadowed in the second season when Marie declared him indestructible.

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End Times: (Season 4:12): Hank suggesting his need to have Walt drive him to the laundry (where the Meth lab is a dungeon below)

 I hope Jesse will end up with Andrea but somehow doubt it.

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Saul Goodman delivering weekly money to Andrea until Goodman persuades Jesse to go in himself

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

The two books:

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Marie towards bitter end: facing death

Breaking Bad and Philosophy reminds me of an undergraduate text I had for a Philosophy course. Heidegger is applied; superman theory (the will to power — an insightful one about the psychological trajectory Walt follows); authenticity is explained.  One essay on the decision to have the expensive chemotherapy is knowing about the very bad chances aggressive treatment has and comes near to saying, don’t fall for it. Fun ones too: finding happiness in a black hat, the last man left standing; hurtling towards death picks up how dark this mini-series really is. There’s a long essay in the Unofficial Companion about the uses of houses, what kinds and space in the series which in its limits really explains what symbolism is intended. Even if an official connection is denied, the Companion could not have been done without the cooperation and input from the film-makers. Just the right quotations are cited as central to each episodes; tidbits of information and connections set up; photographs of the actors, some of shooting during rehearsal; background information on content in the show or about the production design.

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Walt’s hat when first put on — it looks dark blue, not quite black as yet

The Companion, however, is not critical in any larger reflective sense; Breaking Bad and Philosophy only gingerly and then in the most general terms mentions how the series reflects American values and norms and conflicts (still the essays do bring up materialism, violence, mindless ambition). Neither book talks of racism:  Gus and the doctor who fleeces the Whites over his stupendous chemotherapy are black and this is never mentioned in the mini-series; that most of the lesser crooks we meet are hispanic is never mentioned. These things probably work to deny racism in the US. The only overt political essays I’ve found thus far is are attacks on those on the Net who are said to talk of Skylar with intense hatred — which enables the writers in both volumes to say see how women hate women to have or seek power, so the essays function as misogyny sine why women blame other women is not gone into beyond implying women want other women to submit. The Companion especially uses Foucault’s logic of scandal and badness the way the film-makers do in the feature: simply parrot without further context how evil it is to sell meths, how destructive the drug. Stories and characters in both volumes are authorized by assumed feelings of moralized indignation; scandal fosters what it is supposed to suppress (and this series could foster violence and apparently reinforces misogyny among some viewers), and its existence is never (or barely) explained.

The Companion talks about Walt in a condemning moralistic way from the first chapter on — the writers never once take into account, what was the man to do: just die or go into terrific debt?  Was he to let Emilio and Crazy 8 kill him and Jesse? They say in passing how we root for Walt, describe the acts or episodes ably, but not a word of larger justifying explanation. In that sense the Philosophical book, jejeune as it sometimes is, is better; one cannot have socialism, but existential is the acceptable justifier — or Foucault. Still however unexplained or wrongly framed, BB does reflect US life more than any TV program I’ve seen. 

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Lady Smallwood (original story Lady Blackwell, player Lindsay Duncan — one of my favorite actresses), politician

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Nameless person calling herself Mary Morstan (original story, Watson’s wife, player Amanda Abbington), double

Dear friends and readers,

This was the best of this season’s films: the players returned to the guarded within anguish stride of the first season, only with a multiplication of women — in the original story blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton knows the sexual past of only one woman, Lady Blackwell, whom he will shame as well as the honor of the man, and the family she is planning to marry into; here she has metamorphosed into a sort of subMargaret Thatcher, woman politician with reeking perfume (Thatcher liked to be sexy with men). In this 2013 story where Milverton has metamorphosed into the amoral ruthless social media magnate who is supposed to make us think of Rupert Murdock but is dressed like Dr Strangelove (all but the gloves, thus evoking Kissinger) and could as easily be Roger Ailes of Fox TV, considering the immediate influence he thinks he has, this villain also is pursuing a second woman: our sweet Mary Morstan turns out to be one of these nameless heroines (so familiar to readers of women’s romance (Rebecca anyone?), only her past appears to be one of violent assassination and such shameful ugly behavior she fears John Watson will be alienated forever if he is already not blindsighted by discovering all she has told him or implied has been lies.

Far more usual of the previous seasons are the twists and turns of extra plot-design with matter from other Sherlock Holmes stories woven in: so we first meet Sherlock apparently under the influence of drugs (opium become heroin? cocaine?) in a filthy temporary open air ruin-space of addicts where Watson has gone to find the son of a grieving black woman who comes to him as a doctor who cares for addicts.

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Black and white version of Sherlock (Cumberbatch) as we first see him (from Tumblr)

Now that Sherlock is blessed (to be pious about this) with a family, he and Mycroft and Watson and Mary too do some turns in the parental home at Christmas.

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The brothers (Matiss as Mycroft) – “Aw shucks, mum!”

Modern motifs combined with older ones include the Sherlock in hospital and Sherlock as out-patient, hovering murderous helicopters over our heads (we are under the bombs), stun guns; lots of overlay of computer print-outs as someone’s inner thoughts. In her study of Holmes stories Emelyne Godfrey showed that weapons, weird, pizzazz ones, or merely cruelly wounding were central to many of the Holmes’s tales; Godfrey also showed that the core meaning of respected masculinity in the tales was not spontaneous wild violence as a means of expressing say disapproval: as when Louise Brealey as the indignant Molly is reduced to half-hysterically slapping Cumberbatch with all her might for “throwing away his gifts”; but rather carefully channeled effective violence aimed at the mindlessness (sorry to say this but it’s true) of the lower class vulgar and/or somehow inferior male. The recent spate of Sherlocks (in the cinema too) move against the grain of Doyle’s work where smart calculated “restraint is a index of modesty, reserve, manliness, professionalism.” But so anxious are these new shows to make women the equal of men, even the silliest behavior if men are thought to do it is enough to give us a woman doing it so she will be deemed admirable.

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Molly worrying over Sherlock in a way that recalls Kitty (Amanda Blake) endlessly fretting over Matt (James Arness) in the 1995 Gunsmoke (‘Oh Matt! be careful.’ ‘I will, hon.’)

A recap.

I shall have to admit that Jim Rovira, one of the commenters of my last blog can make a good case for the thinness and feebleness of the original material in this case. “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” is deservedly usually ignored in studies of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock canon; it is just so cliched, down to the titillation and class snobbery of Sherlock disguising himself as a lower class man courting Milverton’s housemaid (unnamed in the original) to find out where Milverton is hiding the documents he uses to blackmail people and both he and Watson breaking the law (gasp!) in order to steal into Milverton’s lair (called Appleton Towers in both film and original story). Where in those Holmes stories that go deeper, family honor becomes a stalking horse for far more interesting social and psychological conflicts, not so here.

Perhaps they were attracted to the story for the same reason my husband Jim used to say the Sherlock canon has become cult stuff: it is so hollow you can pour anything you want into it. I think that’s unfair as I argued with Jim Rovira: there are some superb stories and lots of people (Emelyne Godfrey among them) have agreed with me the stories dramatize serious and important conflicts and themes then and since (through many film adaptations too). This one did allow for feminization (if I may be permitted the term) of the Sherlock material. Matiss and Moffatt took an opportunity to have yet another supposedly “tough” female about: the unnamed housemaid becomes a secretary/personal assistant who despite her Arab looks (the actress is Yasmine Akram) and name redolent of what Said called “orientalism” (Jasmine) sports a melodious Irish drawl and evening dress even in broad daylight.

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If we count Mrs Hudson — Una Stubbs doing her best to be memorable –

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and Mother Holmes (Cumberbatch’s mother also now employed), trying not to attact attention, the domestication (if I may coin another term) of the series I noted in Parts 1 and 2 is now seen in women women everywhere. One joke is to call Sherlock “Sherl” — feminizing the name to a diminutive of Shirley. The joke is made by Jasmine with the effect of bringing Sherlock “down” to her level; that is a woman — implicit is the idea that whatever are feminine qualities, they are not worthy.

I’ve no doubt Matiss and Moffatt did seize the doubling opportunity they hit upon to transform the apparently conventional female Mary Morstan character into a female action-hero who could also sustain a love interest: she emotes wonderfully well her love for “John,” and how she cannot stand to sit in the chair (per usual with the Sherlock material) and tell her tale as victim since her tale will make her beloved Watson reject her. And anyway we are against victims, are we not? there are no such things in the world any more, are there? they must be complicit, passive aggressive becoming a term of praise almost in this new anti-sympathy reactionary ethic preached up in popular media. She is very pregnant by the end and so happy to be so (photographed so as to emphasize this), but by the end of the tale there is real feeling between them:

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John and Mary’s faces as they talk to one another in their final scene

even if John shows his love for her by throwing away her story without reading it: instead of a packet of letters he hurls a thumbdrive into the fire.

Why did I like it – or think it an improvement on the previous two parts. Not for the multiplication of women as only intermittently did Lindsay Duncan or Amanda Abbingdon have moments of genuine feeling. Nor their or anyone’s violence. Nor for the any post-modern working out of typical Conan Doyle themes as in the previous season where camp art and a strong sceptical disillusionment and depressive mentality made for intelligent entertainment. Rather because despite the overlay of superfluous sudden outbursts of violence, modern gadgetry and neon underlinings, the program managed to recreate a companionable rhythm of story-telling, to re-establish the central effective team friendship of Sherlock and Watson

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ending in a rescue of vulnerable people from a genuinely horrible man in a way relevant to our era.

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The omnipresent spy gathering all our documents, the murderous cold-hearted ambitious capitalist politician with his militarist thugs in tow is a creature we can’t have too many attacks on. What could be worse than a man spying on us all? eager to tell unless we pay him huge sums of money.

That is, I thought the program did what good relatively faithful or commentary (heritage) film adaptations usually do, even if it was an appropriation or modern analogy type. It did take a long time getting there.

Ellen

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it’s the adults who give the film its heart. Watson is winning as the family’s overbearing matriarch, her strict facade slipping to reveal a trembling core of vulnerability. It’s Rush, though, who steals the show, playing his part with irresistible grandfatherly charm … Barbara Brandenburgh, Des Moines review

My friend, Vivian, and I went to see The Book Thief this afternoon. It’s based on a best selling novel set in Germany in WW2; the film adaptation has received mixed reviews. On the whole the film succeeds in providing the viewers a story of fraught people who live in a repressive society which values discipline, despises and/or distrusts books, and is carrying on a brutal war whose cruelties extend to the civilian population. We see a number of scenes where military police mercilessly beat up Jewish people — and lash out at anyone who protests or irritates them. the population are terrified, cowed, submissive. They fear being taken away and killed.

Like most films, historical or otherwise, it is about today: we see mirrored in it the treatment of civilian populations by heavily armed police all around the world — in the US daily too police kill with impunity. These people under the bombs are us, are which ever body of people in the mideast is now being bombed, are anyone who is droned to death.

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In the air-raid shelter

At first the film’s story moves slowly and does not seem to have any inner life or hold together. It’s not clear the little girl has been taken in by the characters Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush play as their adopted daughter. The dialogue is wooden (Petroni’s script leaves a lot to be desired) especially at first, and between the children throughout: the actors playing the children remain stilted, staccato. The actors just don’t seem to make contact with one another.

Then as the story’s events unfold and twist the characters this way and that, a compelling and shaping center does emerge in the triangle of the father (Geoffrey Rush), mother (Emily Watson) and (temporarily?) adopted daughter (Sophie Nelisse). The directing (Brian Perceval) is effective; the settings are so good, they call attention to themselves — the quaint rooms, the basement where a young Jewish boy is hidden; the coloration has a bronze-brown hue over it.

I began to cry strongly when the conscripted father taken away, and the mother, hitherto seeming mostly severely contained and cold, turns into a grieving widow, holding to her his accordion where he makes the few notes of cheer through playing it. Especially effective is the narrative over-voice of death; I thought it was God and found its voiced sentiments (how he loves killing, how peaceful people find it to be dead) electrifyingly perverse. I thought maybe they were miscalculated attempts to give an upbeat ending, but having read about the novel I conclude they are sardonic. It is long but our time with the characters showing them doing and feeling different things, acting, reacting, dying, gives the piece its depth.

The movie conveys the idea that underlying it is a young women’s diary, perhaps written towards the end and slightly after she endured the ordeal of the war, and its ending shows the heroine to be a multi-novel author. The allusion is to Anne Frank, only this heroine survives to have a good life later on (we see her beautiful front room with a piano, photos of her family, daughters); she even reunites with Max, a Jewish young man who was kept in the basement, became sick from its cold and damp and escaped a search just in time.

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At the center of the film’s story, the girl becomes “a book thief”because once she learnt to read (taught by the adopted father), she loves books. She comes to the notice of the mayor’s wife who invites her to come to the mayor’s house and library and read books in the library or “taken them out.” The mayor himself one day surprises them and kicks the girl out (as a low person, suspect with a father who is not a Nazi), so after that she sneaks in through a window to “steal” books. She is borrowing them, and returns and takes out books regularly. She reads them to anyone who will listen. She particularly likes a Kipling story whose title include the word “invisible.”

The thrust of the movie as a whole is melodramatic and pious too (the director and script writer are on the right side, have conventional values) but it is not Hollywoodized nor does it exploit the camps. The film shows death everywhere; the picturesque town our characters live in is bombed to smithereens. Its unspoken question: why do people allow others to enforce a desolate life upon them.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anti-garotte collar and advertisement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A dramatized scene from Phineas Finn

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

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Chiltern heading for the duel

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Phineas waiting

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The duel

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

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Brooding Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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