Posts Tagged ‘mystery-murder book’

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

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.

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.

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.

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.


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


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:

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


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


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.


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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.

“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.

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.

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

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.

“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

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.

Chiltern heading for the duel

Phineas waiting

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.

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.)

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.


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.


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Winston Graham — from his middle years

Robin Ellistodayblog
Robin Ellis, recently — very important in shaping and keeping memory of Poldark alive (Making Poldark appeared in a 3rd expanded edition this year)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m delighted (and honored) to be able to report that James Dring has made a significant contribution to Winston Graham studies: on his website you can find a long, thorough listing of all Graham’s fiction accompanied by remarks culled from reviews at the time of the particular book’s publication, comments by Graham on the book (in green letters), and accurate contextualization of both sets of remarks by Dring (in brown). The file includes the films, screenplays, books on these, and letters by Graham and a letter from Graham to Dring. And finally a listing of all Graham’s minor publications (essays and introductions) and the few essays that have been published on him (mostly on his mystery-crime books). One could use this information as the beginning basis of a literary biography or longer study of all Graham’s writing.

An annotated bibliography

The films make visible the kinds of reactions readers have to the novels, the way they have been read:

Still from the fine 19560s semi-art film, The Walking Stick

Richard Armitage and Demelza Carne Poldark falling in love over their shared reading (Poldark 1977-78, Part 9)

1996 Stranger from the Sea: an attempt to de-politicize the Poldark novels, turn them into ethnic (wild Cornwall) domestic romance (defeated by the brevity of the film and vociferous protests of fan club for 1970s mini-series & its stars)

Mr Dring has also provided two files of the dust jackets of the books: dust jackets; more dust jackets

Here are a few telling ones I’ve gathered (from the Net):

First 1945 edition of Ross Poldark

Art work on back of all Bodley Head Poldark novels (1960s)

Cover for the 5th Poldark novel reflecting the 1970s film adaptation

Recent British set (21st century)

Dust jackets are an important form of packaging information about a book: they suggest who the book is aimed at; the imagery, if true to the book, something of its genre and nature; how much respect a particular press lends to the book. These provide the basis for a study of Graham’s readership, the initial reception of his novels and later evaluations by publishers, readers, and himself (he rewrote or at least revised his early books).

1st edition of Little Walls

Edition of Forgotten Story, story set in Cornwall, 1898 (perhaps 1960s? or around the time of the 1984 film adaptation, featuring Angharad Rees)

Recent edition of novel set in India, Corfu, Wales, something of a historical novel (sexy cover fixated on woman from the back in slip influenced by memories of Hitchcock’s Marnie)

Mr Dring contacted me to suggest I link his website to mine as providing on-line information about Graham, the Poldark and his other books. I’ve now done so, linking all three files into my central section and bibliography page


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Society is no comfort/To one not sociable — Shakespeare, Imogen, Cymbeline, IV:2, 12-13

The Walking Stick: Deborah (Samantha Eggar) badly lamed leaning on Leigh (David Hemmings) (1970, Eric Till, Winston Graham, George Bluestone)

Dear friends and readers,

Disabled characters have increased in numbers in popular fiction & film in the last quarter century. Has there been a genuine increase in sympathetic empathy and understanding, any real help offered such people or acceptance as a result. It would seem not. I link these two phenomena to the growth of fandoms in cyberspace and elsewhere and how they effect the development of programs and series of fictions. Why there are there. I exemplify briefly with the way disabled characters from Sondheim’s Passion to Winston Graham’s mystery and Poldark novels are treated, and more at length in Downton Abbey, from Fellowes’s himself to the indifferent to hostile commentary on him & Anna, the head housemaid who loves him.


A spin-off from both the APA/ACA and ASECS conferences: in both there were roundtable panels on “disability studies: I feared not enough would be said in the more casual talks these roundtables offer to take up enough time and the audience would be called upon to talk, and then feared I’d reveal myself too much or get too involved. I have seen academic people present themselves as interested in isabilities and found that they were not, except as an abstract topic; worse, if I probed I discovered the people were just as strong for enforcing “normalcy” (on behalf of “success”), just as prejudiced (not taking a whole personality into account, not being willing to critique their definitions of success), fearful and/or nervous in their reactions. I worried I’d feel angry or know intense dismay.

So I didn’t go, and now regret this because what I did do was take down names of journals, books and periodicals with disability studies for today. First off I learned that in the last quarter century there’s been a huge increase in the number of disabled characters in popular fiction. It might be the disabled characters were always there in mystery-crime fiction, though not acknowledged, as villains or victims, but not being acknowledged, presented as freaks, or evil, or reprehensible in some way. But this is a big change to presenting people with disabilities in a sympathetic or seeming sympathetic way. Nowadays disability is also popular in historical fiction and romance. So that I noticed so many disabled characters in Winston Graham does not show originality on his part, but rather a following of a zeitgeist.

I won’t cite the names of the articles or journals separately unless someone asks for these (in the comments) which is most unlikely, just describe generally. Most were studies of texts or art in the close reading humanities way today (looking sociologically, how they function in society). Basically there were two schools of thought: one argues that the new wave of appearances of disabled characters is not increasing any real understanding or sympathy for people with disabilities because 1) at the end the disabled person is forcibly or seemingly willingly co-opted into the “normal” world, made to seem “normal” and the point is to defuse the person as a threat, on the way the emphasis in portrayal is the disability itself with full utterly varied richness of people ignored; it’s voyeurism; and 2) we see very little progress in the outer world for funding, real acceptance, or even understanding in wider circles of people. The other argues that the spread of such depictions does help; little by little the stories make people no longer ignore the disabled, no longer erase them altogether, and does gradually work up sympathy and we may hope for change.

When Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) wants to visit the crippled Mrs Smith (Helen Schlesinger), her father rages at her with open disgust for her “queer” tastes (from the 1995 BBC Persuasion, Roger Michell, Nick Dear)

Then there are essays on particular works or authors or sub-genres: how disabled people are presented in romance; how presented in mystery-crime stories (where they’ve long been an unacknowledged central type, either as villain or victim); in later Victorian gothic. The way they are discussed in non-fiction case histories, which sometimes turn out to be obtuse fictions which promulgate single-minded freakish stereotyped views, e.g., Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night which invites voyeurism. Once in a while a particular writer or work is found which increases understanding and sympathy. The value of these is if you want to do such studies they show you how to do and what’s said, and give you insights.

Two good books are worth noting: Women with Disabilities, ed. Michelle Fine (and others). Fine’s the one who’s done intelligent candid studies of how women who have been raped are treated, women’s studies. The kind of character includes is Fosca in Tarchetti’s book (now called Passion from Sondheim): I’ve noticed again and again women who are presented as disabled are eroticized, made beautiful but for the disability which then adds to their alluringness (and the kick of having sex with them in the imagination apparently). Another is more historical and crosses gender, class, ethnicity: Rosemarie Garland Thomson: Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring disability in American literature. The truth is many people still believe in disabilities only if they are physical.

Fosca from Passion, made plain not crippled (yet this came from a website mocking the addictive love affair)

From what I’ve read thus far I think the those who say this increase in visibility has not led to a gain in empathy or understanding are right. Even when the novel does not enforce normalcy, readerships insist on misreading the fiction to emphasize a happy ending at the close — happy being equivalent to assimilation and erasure. From what I’ve seen in real life — the cutting off of funding, the cutting out of Aspergers from the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Physicians Manuel), and the increase in coercive techniques & drugs among psychologists again those who say more visibility has not helped are right. No one really has a mechanism for helping such people gain self-sustaining employment for or proposes helping older adults socially for real at all.

Misreading in terms of the readers’ own identity needs, to throw off a threat of anything unknown or new leads me to the other related topic I heard discussed at the conference and want to consider again. Next time (if there is one for me at either conference), and if I have a chance to go on panels about fandoms, fanzines, I will. The book here is Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins.


Fandoms are one aspect of different ways of life in the Net that are reactions the increasing anonymity and loss of community in US life, the impoverishment of individuals and high unemployment rate so that people come onto the Net to find community, meaning when there is nothing where they live. These groups replace religious communities too, can be a religious community, and they are real. It’s another instance where the idea that what happens on the Net is not real is false. In the 1950s Richard Hoggart wrote a book called The Uses of Literacy where he argued that TV was being used to create “imagined communities” which through propaganda and loyalty to shows inculcated in people Tory reactionary values; again people at a loss, people left out, communities devastated by global capitalism; the book was re-issued during the 1980s Thatcher years.

But it’s not true that these are imagined and unreal communities. These groups of people active and aggressive; authors ignore them at their peril. They meet outside the Net when they can and influence where they can. They will punish, ostracize, exclude the person who takes a different view and attack that. I have found it very painful to deal with such people; actually I can’t, don’t know how to. They can be group bloggers. They can be seen whirling to some extent around mini-series programs, Games of Thrones say or Downton Abbey.

How do you recognize a fandom. It’ll be a message board where anonymity is enforced, and thus no one held accountable. No personal relationships can develop easily. In the case of films or TV, the re-doing of bits of films in YouTube videos to change the original meanings of scenes to fit what the fans want and posting of these. They can be embarrassing. Fierce conversations which a given aggressive individual will not give up. I’d say worse than some of what happens on Austen-l only it’s moderated so the two or three people moderating immediately shut up whoever has said what they don’t agree with (they were particularly fierce over sex), “community” activities centered on the actors and stars of the films and a whole range of sociological or psychological phenomena having to do with inventing a fictional identity. They do meet outside the Net when they can. A pre-screening of the new Sherlock in a New York movie-house brought fans from around the country to meet in the movie-house, see their movie, eat and talk together afterward.

A deeply sexual shot: Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees about to go to bed together as Ross and Demelza Poldark (1975 Part 7)

Examples include Harry Potter, Batman, Dr Who, Star Wars, long-running TV programs. My experience has been with the Winston Graham Society webpage, really a message board dedicated to discussing two of the famous stars from the first mini-series: Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees (although she’s dead now). I had read in Graham’s autobiography this group succeeded in damning a 1996 film and making it impossible to go on; a paper I heard at ACA showed that the group influenced the second season of the films. I was told by one woman my discussion of disability, violence and sex in Graham’s fiction “deeply upset” her so how dare I? No one should write about this series what could upset her, no details allowed. I had notice how many disabled (often autistic) characters Graham has in his Poldark and mystery novels; how he studies alienation (Marni) and individual loss sympathetically and wanted to discuss this. The shattering of one of the heroines from continual marital rape; the reality the hero rapes one of the chief heroines and the son they have, neglected and over-indulged (anything but taken care of) after her death grows up disturbed and lonely enough to reach out for an orangutan as a companion. Forget it.

Facebook pages dedicated to famous stars or authors identified as conservative and classic, or with some ethnicity or doctrine. The audience for Austen’s books is leavened because it includes different types of people, academics and heritage industry and there’s a lot of money to be made on sequels and conferences and tourism so the fandom cannot invent this world of its own and control the material. Austen has prestige, her texts are not considered trivial and worthless in the way of say Star Trek and other texts around which fandoms whirl. These groups dislike any criticism of their author; they will justify or excuse or explain away the smallest unfavorable remark. Their identities have become involved, their egos, their self-image. They build whole worlds around their texts & shows.

Tellingly, for people interested to see if popular fiction that has a wide enthusiastic audience can function to increase the sympathetic imagination, the fiercest hostile responses come from any assertion that the fetishized material explores sexuality or gender in unconventional ways, has an ambiguous or sad ending, shows the hero to be less than admirable (violent for example, politically radical).



I’ll end on the treatment of disability in Downton Abbey, the first season. Since I think I do not misread, I cannot tell what the misreading would be precisely, probably in the direction of scorn or dismissal or somehow turning the disability into what’s normal if “unwanted,” as Sir Anthony Strallon was treated in the third season, or silence, as the man with the heinously disfigured face was in the second — both given over to the program-scapegoat, Edith.

In the first part of Downton Abbey, the lamed Mr Bates is almost fired because few will accept his disability: most take it as a blemish on community, insist he will not be able to do his job, a few ridicule him, a couple (that’s enough) tell false tales; Lord Grantham almost fires him but his decency and better self seeing the cruelty and injustice of the act, keeps him on at the close of the hour.

In the third part, Mr Bates still driven by fear he’ll be fired, tormented by cruel jeering or physical gestures (as when Miss Obrien trips and humiliates him) buys an instrument of torture to make himself walk more straight. As the hour wears on we see Bates in pain, leaning over in agony, having a sour expression, indeed not be able to do his job. (In the context of the hour’s juxtaposition, the parallel is the ejection of Pamuk’s corpse from Lady Mary’s room after he half-rapes her; both are trash which ruin the body and probably spirit of the character.) Finally Mrs Hughes, the housekeeper insists on seeing what is wrong with Mr Bates, and he shows her his leg, now covered with blood and sores from the contraption on it.

As ever Fellowes is on the side of the mainstream: we next see the pair by the side of a river on the property. Mr Bates has agreed to throw the thing away. The lesson Mrs Hughes instructs Mr Bates to remember is: “I promise I will never again try to cure myself, I will spend my life happily as the butt of others’ jokes and I will never mind them.” Mrs Hughes: “We all carry scars Mr Bates, inside or out, you’re no different than the rest of us, remember that.” Mr Bates: “I will try to that I do promise.” And then he hurls it off, and she cries “good riddance.’

The part about not trying to cure oneself is good — autism month should be called autism acceptance month. The group of articles I have include two arguing the higher ends of autism include people who are in many ways more gifted than the average and would not have to consider themselves disabled if others didn’t ostracize and punish them. And Mr Bates is doing his job fine. But the second part half-blaming Mr Bates and saying it was he who considered himself different is the narrow cold-shouldering mind of the establishment speaking, demanding in effect (were he autistic) that he be neurotypical and leads to people purchasing such contraptions or having painful useful dangerous operations. Stiff upper lip. Never admit to anything.

Mr Bates and Anna (Joanna Froggart) end of Part 5: he getting into cart

As far as I could tell from reading the fan’s responses to the hour, they were sympathetic to the obtuse and mean Lady Mary; in his notes to the script Fellowes exclaimed against letters to him decrying a supposed buggery — the people couldn’t endure that Lady Mary should lose her virginity (hymen) so they jumped to the conclusion buggery had occurred and this was why the man had a heart-attack (!). (How revealing of silent suppositions this is.) And on-line people quickly tired of Mr Bates — by the second season as homely and a “sob-story” (“passive-aggressive” was a favorite phrase)and felt excruciated when (they felt) asked to identify with Anna, for they would not have fallen in love with Mr Bates as she slowly does for his intelligence, integrity, good nature, refusal to kowtow or forsake his dignity, good heart (of which we see instances).

A friend wrote:

Mrs. Hughes’s comment that ‘we all carry scars’ nags me, however. Who is the “we?” On the first glance, I’d take it to be a universal statement–the series shows that everyone, upstairs or downstairs, has their problems, but I’m not convinced it is a universal “we.” (I’m sure Fellowes meant it to be.) Is the “we” the servants? However, whether or not Mrs. Hughes “we” is universal, this leads me to think that disability plays out differently between servants and masters — Matthew’s Hemingwayesque war wound, leaving him “crippled” and impotent, is a parallel to Mr. Bates’ disability — both
are physical and both call into the question each man’s ability to do his primary “job” — in Matthew’s case of course, to “make the heir,” but one has a miraculous cure and the other not …

Yes. Who is the we? In the case of the servants, they have no buffer or support to help them if they are rejected, so they must conform and if they cannot, must not complain.

I was told again and again how my blogs on Downton Abbey took “a different view,” and at times (especially around the character of Edith whose scapegoating I exposed) attacked. Twenty years from now attitudes will have frozen and it will be hard to talk freely to those still remembering (many will no longer but move on). I never did discuss disability in Downton Abbey. I should have. So have made up for that now.


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Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce has just tried to kill herself: near the opening of the 1945 MGM Mildred Pierce; director Michael Curtiz, first screenplay by Ranald MacDougall (his script constantly superseded by 7 different writers’ revisions), produced by Jack Warner

From closing shots: Mildred and her ex-husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), now apparently reconciled leave behind police office and their daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), stands (rightly) accused of murder

Dear friends and readers,

To me there is just no comparison between this muddle of a film and the 2011 mini-series I wrote about the other night: Mildred Piece 2011: starring Kate Winslett, a woman’s life and a bad seed. The recent film is a genuine exploration in adult fashion of a well-meaning woman’s life and conflicts then and now, with a real attempt to explore her ambivalent relationship to her amoral daughter. That exploration is done in what seems an unconscious way by John Cain in his novel who as narrator is not just absent from his novel, but functions like an unaware mirror of unerringly sore scenes from 20th century American life (recalling John O’Hara, James Jones). In the 1945 commercial film, the book’s story and characters are continually undercut, rendered absurd or simply marginalized in favor of visual film noir images brought in by means of wholesale changes in the original story and characters.

These changes, together with the original story may just be why when we watch this film or discuss it we are become part of a sociological event, a key cultural object for its time. I found no less than 6 essays on it in JStor; it’s dealt with by Jeanine Basinger and other film studies, feminist and not, and because of its history Todd Haynes re-made it. The 2011 film garnered 3 good magazine reviews and within a year two serious film scholars have published analyses. So the film interests me and I watched it because others have and I here to to present what this film is made up of.

So, first the original film departs radically from the book, and in plot-design and ambiance resembles two others films based on Cain novels: Double Indemnity in which Barbara Stanwyck as femme fatale heroine enlists Fred MacMurray to kill his wife for the insurance) and The Postman Always Rings Twice where tough-guy hero, John Garfield and femme fatale Lana Turner kill her husband. These other films, like the 1945 Mildred Pierce, present stories that are made lurid in feel and action, with the actors dressed up glamorously. It also resembles the later (franker) film adaptations of James Jones’s Some Came Running (Frank Sinatra and Shirley Maclaine in profound versions of American-loser roles), and John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 (Elizabeth Taylor, an American icon who changes her typology with the decades), and A Rage to Live. Cain’s books are male versions of the female domestic romance turned (of which I had patience to read only Some Came Running) into a mirror of US life in the modern city as it is really felt to be lived.

There is a male masterpiece in this subgenre, a great book I’ve never forgotten since I read it in my teens: Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy: where the core story is that young working class man engages himself to young working class woman, gets her pregnant when he finds at the same time he has attracted young upper class girl and crowd so he murders girl to get her out of the way. Much of the novel is this male trying to escape detection rather like Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The difference is in Dostoyevsky we have a story of a man we are to admire who fancies himself a Neitzchean hero; Dreiser’s hero is mean, petty, an utter conformist whose main lesson by the end of the book is that one cannot cross class boundaries. That is not the lesson the reader is presumed to take away, but it is part of the lesson of the films.

Cain’s book Mildred Pierce and this 1945 film both differs significantly in that it attempts to be sympathetic to the woman, and turn a femme fatale into a type found in what was called (derisively) female weepies, a sentimental version of good American woman torn by her conflicts over her love of a philandering unsuccessful husband and desire to be a career woman murdering the female. I can’t know what the original screenplay was like, but apparently the bad-seed daughter in this unexamined scenario of American values still with us, becomes a focal point for a depiction of jealousy: this Veda is jealous of her mother and wants her lover, Monty, to be yet more glamorous, yet more sexy-looking, have more money. What was (in Cain’s book) a depiction of American family life where over-solemn worship of a child is made a twisted center for pieties, an excuse for whatever the adults want to do is here a parallel plot with little psychological motivation except that it provides scenes of two women fighting with one another, where the one sneers (the daughter) and the other looks distressed (the mother).

In this film Crawford departs from her usual hard-bitten roles and often all softness and emotionalisms. Here she is discussing as earnestly as Bennett does as Bert:

what to do about Veda’s career; here’s Ann Blythe as an over-dressed kewpie doll singer in tawdry nightclubs:

I am also interested in women’s films and have watched (for example) and liked Now Voyager, A Letter from an Unknown Woman, and Stella Dallas. In two of these (as in this Mildred Pierce) the woman’s relationship with her daughter is central: in Stella Dallas, the women ends up giving up all to the daughter and in Now Voyager, she retreats into idyllic motherhood for a whole community of girls.

There is a group of people seem to love the 1945 Mildred Pierce (and will declare themselves fans of Joan Crawford). I don’t hate it; it has some merits, especially when compared (it seems) to other women’s films around that era (and before), which usually end on the woman crying, in a fit of utter self-abjection, sometimes in self-sacrifice before her daughter (Stella Dallas), or simply self-loathing because she was deluded by her romantic love for some man. I don’t think it’s a misogynistic movie as a number of 1970s feminist critics (and implicitly Jeanine Basinger in A Woman’s View: How Hollywood spoke to women, 1930-1950) argue, but neither is it feminist, ambivalently or otherwise (as more recent critics want to find out).

It is, in fact, a muddle. No surprise here when you read the history of the film-making and how continually the “studio” (in the person of Jack Warner) demanded sudden changes in plot in the direction of a murder-mystery, subduing of depiction of female sexuality as dreamt of by men and the film noir propensities of Curtiz.

A toned-down shot of Crawford’s legs: as originally shot all we saw was her legs.

The way this heroine’s first success as a restaurant-owner is pictured shows only her legs and torso as her sexed-up boyfriend and eventually second husband (this follows the book) sees them from an angle near an imagined ceiling.

The movie’s real problem concretely is this continual turning away from Cain’s text to make excuses for toned-down sexy shots (Crawford is never naked, ever fully dressed), and effective film noir moments which do just about make sense if you can get yourself to take seriously the turns in the story imposed on the original material. Such moments are at the opening and close (see the two shots which provide my pictorial frame for this blog.) The original book and 2011 film show deep compassion and respect for Mildred; this film blames her for whatever is happening at every turn without explaining what are her motives or precisely what happened and at the end exonerates her on the simple basis she didn’t do the murder-crime, her daughter did. The new plots set Mildred up as a probable calculating murderess until we discover her daughter did it; the business of the film is to tell this story and expose the mother’s true loving character and motives in covering up for her unworthy (shallow?) daughter.


This is a companion blog to my previous. There I summarized the book and compared the book and 2011 movie; here I’m comparing this movie to other movies and the 2011 film.

As the film opens, we see a man shot dead, he is in a fancy suit and the house we are in is well-appointed, with lots of mirrors about. We then see Mildred walking along a bridge in a mink coat,contemplating jumping in. “Cops” (they are called cops, not police) are not nice in this film: one walks over to her, and smart-alecky asks her if she’s thinking of taking a swim; if so, he would rather not, so would she “move on.” Nasty tones.

What a way to talk to someone supposedly suicidal. I suggest the original viewers didn’t take this suicide attempt seriously. They thought Mildred didn’t mean it. Score one against her.

We watch her then drive in a fancy car to a night club where she meets an old associate, a slimy-womanizer type, Jack Carson as Wally Fay (into this cheap stereotype is Mildred’s friend and her and her husband’s pragmatic business associate degraded).

Jack Carson as Wally; here Crawford is dressed in her innocent jumper (pinafore dress) outfits

She invites him back to her house, goes into another room, and then flees, leaving him in a locked house. Next thing the police are at the door, and he’s set up.

This kind of reverse perspective is found again and again and repeatedly
the framing makes Mildred suspect, photographs her as sexy from a male
point of view, coy, slightly prurient. It cuts a viewer like me off from identification, unless as a woman you can identify as macho male bait and get a kick out of seeing yourself in that light.

If you do, there is a countervailing satiric voice, the dry wit of Eve
Arden as Ida, perhaps the finest and most seeming sane voice in the film. She was nominated for an academy award for her role in this film.

Eve Arden’s outfits are mannish yet appealing throughout; she never dresses down nor is she over-fancy

Here Arden as Ida discusses Mildred’s situation with Monty and Veda; unlike the Ida of Cain’s book and the 2001 film, this Ida never shows any interest in the successful working of the business in which she is a partner. Wise cracks exposing the supposed stupidity of the male and unfortunate hypocrisies of some females are her theme. She is in the story now the primary friend Mildred makes in her first job as waitress. Lucy, Mildred’s next-door neighbor has vanished. Ida again becomes Mildred’s employee, then partner, and here side-kick friend. They don’t have the serious friendship supportive talk of the book or the 2011 movie but rather do satiric set-tos where Eve as Ida can undercut and make barbed fun of whatever is happening.

In Lucy’s stead there is a woman we see in the film continually sort of supporting Mildred — without any explanation at all. Butterfly McQueen as Mildred’s servant-maid simply turns up as there as soon as Mildred begins to make money. How she got there I can’t say — except she was contracted by the studio to play black maids for rich ladies in films. The same high voice, the same condescension towards her one sees in Gone with the Wind is found is this film, only much quieter. It’s McQueen who
Veda forces into wearing one of Mildred’s uniforms as a waitress to show
her mother up, in order humiliate her mother into admitting she’s waitressing. And McQueen is also given moments where she is reasoning with Crawford; her role is usually one where she counsels common sense prudence towards says the daughter (don’t over-love her):

Butterfly Queen as Lottie reasons with Joan Crawford

There is the oddity to 2011 eyes that McQueen is the only black person in the film. There are apparently no other black people in the experience of anyone in the film, no other connection. And there is no overt awareness in the film that McQueen is black. McQueen was uncredited in the film’s original listing of cast too.


To return to our opening scenario where the police knock at the door of Mildred’s house with the corpse in it and picking Wally up. They are very slick and efficient and they pick Mildred up too from her walk along the bridge, and there in the cop shop she finds her now ex-husband, Bert. They rudely tell her to shut up, will not let her talk to anyone, and then take her into another room and ask for her story. The movie is a flashback story and we now begin where the book and 2011 movie start.

Mildred and Bert

Mildred is making cake, and Bert taking care of the lawn, and we have the ensuing quarrel where she throws him out for having a mistress. As in teh book, book the camera pays attention to what Bert is doing until the quarrel. Toddy Haynes’s movie dwells lovingly on Kate Winslet as Mildred making fantastical toppings for pieces.

Perhaps because the year is 1945 (and not 2011) unlike the later movie and book, this the movie is very uncomfortable about Mildred throwing Bert
out. So Crawford is all kinds of apologetic before Bert and then her daughters. Crawford as Mildred also does not go to bed with Wally as Cain’s heroine does in the book and Kate Winslet as Mildred in the 2011 movie. But who would go to bed with such a slimy-womanizer as Jack Carson plays; you’d have to be desperate. And there are no condoms in this film; in the 2011 film a condom is pointedly used.

Curtiz and crew won’t let Mildred descend into prosaic reality (probably seen as low) anywhere in the film. There are no mortifying interviews for jobs; Crawford as Mildred quickly gets the restaurant job and quickly rises. When she meets Monty and they go off to the beach house and do make love, the sex is definitely supposed to happen, but we get no undressing of either person and the feel is oddly chaste. I had to remind myself that the divorce and such scenes were for the time probably very transgressive. It does not seem so today. Not all older films are obsolete this way.

Mother/daughter, house-dress style

Mother and daughter, fancy dress style

It’s notable that of the many shots of the two in most they never look at one another though they are both all tender concern

Some of the reviews of the ’45 film that I read said the film made the mother the bitch and the daughter pressured; this is inaccurate. Both the 1945 and 2011 Mildreds cater to Veda; both the 1945 and 2011 Vedas grow into nasty, calculating treacherous cold daughters who used the mother’s need for them. If you blame Mildred in either it must come out of the idea that mothers are to blame when children grow up bad, but the book itself specifically rejects that. At the book’s end, Bert says “the hell with her, Mildred, let’s go stinko” (a yuk phrase meaning drunk. At the close of the 2011 movie Bert again says this and Mildred raises her glass, only in her eyes are tears for a loss she can’t explain but feels. Winslet’s performance is again the shaping force to make the moment humanly ambivalent and meaningful. The 1945 film can’t do this because the story begins with a murdered Monty and no one could get away with murder in mainstream detective stories at the time.

Zachary Scott as Monty — he’s rather boyish looking, clearly not a responsible type

Why have Monty murdered? While sex, work, and motherhood are presented in conventionally shaped ways, the 1945 movie reaches for the jugular over both Monty and Wally. They are despicable sleazes, even if Monty’s alluring. The 2011 film (imitating Cain’s book) presents Monty as a resentful drone, so much scum, but simply accepts that many men are that way, lazy (will not work you see) and it’s “in the cards” for him to replace Mildred with Veda as his meal- and house-provider when Mildred “sees through him.” At the close of book and 2011 film Monty is last heard of as waiting for Veda to come to NY to support him.

The 1945 film changes not only the end of the film but the meaning of the story altogether. David Lean said to ignore the ending of films, but this ending begins the film. The reason for the flashback, for Mildred’s explanation is this murder. Bert is immediately exonerated as a force in the movie when the police tell her Bert said he murdered Monty. Mildred says, oh no he’s too gentle and it’s his usual goodness coming out taking the rap.

So the film is ultimately on the side of a woman staying with her all-good if weak husband. It’s a version of Brief Encounter (a woman’s film where a woman falls in love with a man and resists temptation to leave her dull safe husband) and countless films where a woman is taught to stay with the loyal safe man who behaves well or means to, even if he may occasionally have a girlfriend on the side.

Since Monty is dead, and Veda the murderess, at the close of the film, Mildred need no longer worry herself. Veda is the police’s problem. This Veda murdered Monty because she seethes with the same kind of destructive
resentment Monty does. Having been taken away, there is no need for Bert to encourage Mildred to drop her. Instead we see them as a pair leaving the police shop and walking off into the street.

This close (see above) is one of the movie’s best moments. We are into film noir again and again in the film’s shorts (that’s why the mirrors all over Mildred’s house) and the darkness of the streets, a sense of nothing much ahead, of hopelessness, of an anonymous industrial city glimpsed in the bridges and arcades (which we occasionally see in the film but not often enough — mostly it’s domestic sets) conveys the idea of something gone wrong. Certainly what we’ve seen of mostly upper class family life is awful, everyone (as soon as Mildred begins to make oodles of money) there to show off, compete, have luxury objects.

Basically, the noirish take and elements in the film get in the way of the story and the characters. They make nonsense or hay of or leads us to dismiss the central story and characters on their own grounds. Mildred in Cain’s book and in Todd Haynes’s movie is someone women can (I think) identify with. When she gives Veda a Christmas present and the girl brushes it off as not good enough and Mildred feels terrible, in 2011 it’s not a moment in a flashback whose purpose is to explain not only a murder, one of a trail of scenes where the poor (misguided) mother is trying to protect her daughter.

It’s not that there are not crass stupidities in the 2011 film. The 2011
Veda goes on to be an opera singer and gets a gig at Carnegie Hall. It’s
absurd to make it so easy (reminding me of George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways where getting this great successful career as a novelist seems so easy one wonders why we don’t all do it). Todd Haynes’s costume designers makes Veda absurd. The 1945 Veda succeeds as a night-club singer where it’s implied she also sells sex on the side (if you are inclined to believe that). It’s no wonder the 1945 Joan Crawford-Mildred can bribe this Veda back with a fancy house & huge allowance she, Mildred, can’t afford.

The most common and thus probably the most popular shot of Ann Blyth on the Net: it turns Veda into a yearning girl with luscious lips

Sometimes the 1945 film did make more common sense, but rarely. The little girl, Ray, really dies of pneumonia. We are never told in the book or 2011 film what Ray died of.

I don’t understand the appeal of the 1945 film today (or even then) except in its film noir appearance. What silly male could like this? Maybe he went because his wife or girlfriend insisted he go with her. Why did women go? I can see why feminists attacked it, but unlike most other women’s films of the era, Joan Crawford does not die at the end; she is not weeping from afar as she’s sacrificed all for her daughter. She was the success.

Mildred as grim-faced businesswoman — in a business style suit

She has kept everyone afloat. She is still standing and walks away free (if companioned with Bert once again). To take it aboard as a feminist film which some have done is a desperate ploy and shows the state of film feminism.

I realize there’s a cult for Joan Crawford. I grant sometimes she was
photographed to look beautiful and sad; often her hatchet-jawed look makes
her look hard, grim, on edge. She really didn’t convince when she had an
apron on. But she leaves me cold. She tries for aspirational looks in this film:

With Zachary Scott as Wally looking up at her

I liked Eve Arden best; she was a kind of center point of alienation from everything going on, amused, but alas accepting it:

Here Arden does look slightly appalled

I am someone who has loved almost every film with Kate Winslet in it that I’ve seen. I know the central star presences count, the psychological baggage and typology they project.

Here she is in Enigma, an unusual WW2 spy story


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Two shots of Kate Winslet as a sensually relaxed and then alertly vibrant Mildred Pierce during the first night’s tryst with Guy Pearce as Monty Beragon (Todd Haynes HBO mini-series, Mildred Pierce, 2011

The alluring presence of the subversive male, Monty Beragon — the last thing he’d think of doing is supporting any family (Guy Pearce that first night) – he does have some of Clark Gable’s quality, only more deliberate

Dear friends and readers,

For a couple of weeks now a movie has gotten to me where I live. I’ve been more personally engaged by the HBO mini-series adaptation of John M. Cain’s 1941 Mildred Pierce (written/directed by Todd Haynes) than I have in a long while. I watch mesmerized, sometimes feeling so depressed about myself, sometimes unbearably moved when Kate-Mildred has done some emotionally painful act I would never allow myself to do but have thought of, citing her and using stills from the movie when I wanted an example women’s married and love life, and motherhood and career troubles. See “A small typical history” and my response to the (silly) Anne-Marie Slaughter essay, “Why women still can’t have it all.”

I read John M. Cain’s novel and discovered that the movie follows the literal surface of the book closely, and faithfully conveys some of its themes, but goes far beyond it in presenting a coherent examined account of the heroine’s experience, and then I watched the famous 1945 murder-mystery film noirish version with Joan Crawford as Mildred (screenplay by a team that included Wm Faulkner, Ranald MacDougal, Catherine Turner, directed by Michael Curtiz)

Parallel scene of Joan Crawford as Mildred on her first night with Zachary Scott as Monty: note how reluctant, coy, clearly pained to go through with this is Crawford)

The 2011 is a compassionate but unsentimental dramatization not (as Jeanine Basinger says in her wonderfully perceptive A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960) of a central conflict a woman who driven to a career experiences between the demands of that career and wife- and motherhood, but rather her difficulty in creating for herself an authentically fulfilling existence sexually and as a mother, given the rotten values or norms those around her either enact instinctively and which she unwittingly passes onto her daughter.

This blog will be an account of watching the 2011 mini-series as it unfolded; a second will deal comparatively and concisely with the 1945 film and Cain’s other novels turned into 1940s film noir and women’s films; a third blog will review Jeanine Basinger’s book.

Part I:

Mildred during her job search: it’s not yielding any job, much less income to support herself and girls and house

Bert (Brían F. O’Byrne) about to be kicked out: he’s done all he can with the lawn, and means to visit his mistress

I watched the first of this six hour adaptation of McCain’s novel late last night. McCain may not be a genius of the Joyce type, he doesn’t soar even occasionally in the way of Mantel, but he is a striking mirror of US life in the early and mid-20th century. He’s rather like James Jones who wrote Some Came Running, John O’Hara (Butterfield 8); Gore Vidal remarks that these books mirror the loneliness, anonymity, and inculculation of excruciating class and money inferiority used as a knife edge to drive oneself to workaholism and social-networking in US life; the success and glamor are false; boredom, self-regard, a kind of glumness and fear of death characterize these novels. Mildred Pierce differs from all the others in that the woman at the center is not a femme fatale, the story is centered in her experience (and thus proto-feminist), and when at the end it’s clear something has gone very wrong in this family, it’s not her fault. It’s just the way things are. I’d say the most striking thing about the book is its lack of reflective thought.

For the story of the 2011 film, see the story of Cain’s novel, Mildred Pierce. Except for some 1) white-washing (in the book Mildred embezzles money from her publicly-sold restaurant company’s stock and in the 2011 film she does not) and 2) more importantly the way the mother-daughter becomes central and supersedes the story of Mildred’s infatuation with Monty and Bert’s quiet or implicit rivalry with Monty — the film’s events and plot-design are those of the novel.

It’s Kate Winslet’s movie. She is in every scene. In this segment, she is instead simply trying to hold onto her integrity and not go down in the world and how hard it is.

We open with her cooking cakes and husband out in the garden. He comes in, honey I’ll be late for supper. It emerges he’s seeing a woman and she is very angry, they fight and he leaves, suitcase in hand, taking the car with him. What now? We watch her try to cope and seem very quiescent, not hysterical at all. She has no training for money-making jobs. WE see these abrasive encounters with employment agency people who tell her she’s got to be realistic, no one wants her, these are hard times, no opening for receptionists, and as for salesladies they are paid on commission. She is humiliated by the way she’s treated — rightly — by one encounter with this rich woman who wants her as a submissive housekeeper, who tries to control her every movement and is gratingly nasty. Slowly we watch her lean to accept a position as a waitress.


Wally Burgan (James LeGros), her husband’s “friend” realizes the husband has left. Mildred’s friend and neighbor, Lucy Gessler (Melissa Leo), the confidant (with confidants like this who needs enemies?) gives her advice on how to manipulate this man to want to marry her. Don’t let him take you out, then you owe him; cook for him.


She obeys and ends up in bed anyway. He’s no beauty and the realism of the sex makes Girls look glamorous. They are awkward, the encounter doesn’t go on for long, afterwards they bicker about how he tried to cut her husband out, but he is supportive.

She has two daughters, Ray, a sweet young child (Quinn McColgan) and Veda (Morgan Turner), who has been taught by Mildred to think the world of herself, and (alas) now disdains her mother: this is a place the film does not depart from conventions. She is the ultimate sweet mother trying to protect her children,and probably caters to them too submissively, presents a false picture of their world.

Mildred explaining to the older daughter, Veda (here Morgan Turner) where Dad has gone, and that he’s not coming back

It’s important to see that in this and the next part there is a real love shown between Veda and Mildred. They do more or less cooperate. Veda does want her mother’s approval; she also wants to look up to her mother.

Arriving for a humiliating interview at a great house (Part I); this experience drives her to take a position as a waitress in a lunch-restaurant

One flaw throughout is that Mildred’s her mother and father are kept at a distance from her as if they exist to take the kids for weekends. Realistically they would be a strong presence and influence outcomes. Similarly Bert’s parents exist to complain and insinuate that Mildred is not a good mother (where was she the night Ray got sick) and take Bert in.
But perhaps the film is mirroring today in the US, 2012, the disjunctions in extended families.

Part II

Thinking about what’s to come

The first job offer; Ida as we first see her and she first sees Mildred

Unexpectedly, as I came to the climax of Part 2 I felt depressed. While there were some sequences I’d love to watch again and again (such as Mildred’s first encounter and weekend escape with Monty to his beach-house), almost obsessively, the total effect was to make me feel bad about myself and at the same time feel that what I’ve experienced is common.

Cain’s is a mainstream book and this self-consciously a mainstream film. It’s as if it’s a self-reflexive imitation; one can see this in the perfection of the costumes; the actors have been instructed to seem to imitate 1940s types in movies. (Upon watching the 1945 movie I realized they did not; they are 2011 types dressed up in 1940s clothes and talking 1940s slang and sentiments, but what they do and their expectations and taboos are those of 2011.

Now we watch Mildred’s slow climb to success. After she refuses to kowtow to the rich lady, she takes that job as a waitress and begins to do well. She’s still making and selling pies to neighborhood people, and she notices how bad the pies at are the restaurant. Enlisting the help and friendship of Ida (Mare Winningham), the woman who hired her, Ida and she maneuvers the restaurant owner to buying her pies. When this success brings in more money, she hires Lettie (Marin Ireland), a woman like herself in class and type, to help and comes home to find that woman in her uniform. Her darling older daughter, Veda (a New Yorker reviewer feels that in Cain’s book this older daughter, Veda is presented as a bitch) has insisted Lettie wear one of the uniforms Veda found hidden in a pile of clothes. This recalls the woman who was trying to boss, humiliate and hire Mildred as her housekeeper.

Veda is really trying to humiliate and bully her mother (exposure is not going to stop the mother from working as her money is going to support Veda’s singing and piano lessons), intimidating her. It takes Mildred considerable time to break through the taboos and accuse the girl of needling her and then the girl is insolent and she spanks her.

Bert, Mildred’s husband has begun to visit and looks yearningly at Mildred, and in one visit Veda plays the same trick of bringing out the liquor bottle she knows her mother is drinking to show the mother up to the mother. By the end of the scene, though, Mildred is lying to Veda, and saying she has a plan to open a restaurant and is doing this job temporarily as a way of studying them. This sickened me because it means Mildred buys into her daughter’s values of despising people in uniforms. Yet I’d hate to wear a unifor, and this is the first movie I’ve seen that I can recall where the reality that such things are status-losses is brought out openly.

Then we get some fairy tale: by a flick of the hand, Wally the husband’s ex-friend who is Mildred’s on and off not very passionate lover seems to have a free property going for nothing (fairy tale here) and gives it to Mildred to fix into a restaurant. Mildred must get a divorce in order not to be liable for Bert’s debts and lo and behold, the divorce is gotten. She takes Bert’s car from him, and seems to wrest the house too. But much of this is Mildred’s own enterpreneurship; we see her work out what her restaurant should look like; her buy things, her calculating costs as she goes to vendors for foodstuffs:

The businesswoman

Montage, time passing, and Mildred’s on her last day of work before throwing herself into running her own restaurant, when a very attractive male shows up, Monty Beragon, and it’s lust at first sight for both. The scenes I said I’d watch over and over come in here. She meets him after she leaves (apparently forever) and we see them in a convertible, then at the beach, then swimming, then making love. To me an alluring sequence also done utterly believably with him as vagabond-smart-aleck. I loved the release.

Alas she comes home to discover younger daughter in hospital. Of course she’s blamed with a “where were you?” Husband, in-laws there. Slow melodrama where child comes near death, seems saved, but then dies. Yes her daughter dies, and she was not there for the first night. But for the next two she is, and the child dies because they have not the medicine to save her. The child gets pneumonia from having been taken to the beach by her grandparents. Mildred stays all night and the third part closes on her going home to older daughter, crawling into bed, hugging and clinging to her.

Nonetheless, and it’s central to see this: Mildred is winning as the world understands it and is supposed admirable: loving mother, responsible at her job, entrepreneurial. Jeanine Basinger says women’s films are centered on a supposed inexorable conflict of love, marriage, and motherhood on the one side, and career on the other. Not this film: were it not for her career, her family would have gone under.

This is where I felt bad: I thought to myself how little money I’ve ever made. And when I went to bed, I said as much to Jim who replied: “making money is not important in life” or maybe it was “it’s not important to make money in life.” There’s much more important things (words to this effect). That helped. The movie got to me in other words.

Veda, the older daughter in the film is not a bitch, but rather what Mildred wishes she could be, and Kate Winslet as Mildred is proud of her. And I understood that.

Part III:

Christmas presents once she is making some money, but not enough to buy the piano Veda would prefer

A friend suggested to me that the movie falls off about mid-way. Not for me. We now watch Mildred at long last succeed after very hard work; she is helped by Ida, her waitress friend from the restaurant she was at who becomes a sort of junior partner; also by Lucy, her best friend who urges her to take on liquor in her restaurant once prohibition is over. The best friend becomes her bartender.

She is vitriolically anti-Roosevelt. That’s interesting and in character. Those who fail deserve to, they are losers. Look at her.

Emotionally she is more and more under the thumb of Veda, her older daughter, somehow subject to that girls’ sneers and utterly selfish demands and there’s a powerful mother-daughter scene where she has failed to give the girl a fancy piano for Xmas and the girl disdains her.

Monty, the sexy boyfriend is turning out not to be such a wonderful thing. He has a name, a famous family, part of a Hollywood crowd and initially helps her restaurant as a numinous person there, but as time goes on he becomes a drone, making no money, living off her and he makes no pretenses of love and after a while it does get on her nerves. Worse, he talks about her condescendingly and sexily with Veda behind her back.

At one point Monty accuses Mildred of having no friends; certainly she has no wide circle. I think that’s common for working to lower middle Americans. What time do they have? What do they have to offer others that they want? In the US there is no sense of community outside family and church is a ritual. The best friend is possible if the woman does not change, does not move and her friend stays in the same socio-economic circumstances That’s increasingly uncommon.

The part ends with him attempting to soothe her into acceptance of him by rape (so he calls his brand of sex) and her breaking free and driving home in a storm, almost getting herself killed and entering the house to tell her daughter she can have that piano.

Part IV

Mildred again contemplative (a favorite scene for me), from towards the end of Part 4

Then walking and talking with Lucy, her friend

One of the themes brought out in Part Four is women’s friendship. Lucy, Mildred’s neighbor, remains a stalwart support. Ida (Mare Winningtom) the waitress who helped her to her first job and now start her restaurant, has become her partner. Mildred now has 4 outlets! One very fancy one near a beach. We see Mildred and her now best & longtime friend walking on the beach together, arms around one another for a moment. Monty the sexy man (guy Pearce) seems long gone as Part 4 opens. But Mildred’s husband remains in touch; we are not old how he supports himself

Evan Rachel Wood is clearly cold, hard, a luscious femme fatale

The flaw in the book transferred to the film is the daughter becomes a version of The Bad Seed, a film and book of the 1960s where the US false worship of children is put into reverse and parents get back at all they have done for children who were ungrateful, or grew up to be small, mean, cold by reading a book and seeing a film on a purely vicious child. Willam March’s book as movie and play operated as a form of release. Here the girl is too bad, and the efforts of Wood and Haynes to now and then show the girl feeling some remorse are not enough to keep a needed realism.

This segment’s focus and climax is Mildred’s estrangement from Veda, the daughter. The decision was made to have an older actress (Evan Rachel Wood) suddenly play Veda older and I’m not sure it works. Veda is the scheming ruthless amoral woman. She has gotten involved with a group of young people who can give her access to movie part, one is a rich young man, it happens the son of the woman who so humiliated Mildred years ago when Mildred applied for a job as a housekeeper with her. The woman visits Mildred and she is astonished at the accusations the woman is throwing at her, and knows nothing. We can see how her face freezes, her teeth are are guards of her rigidly held jaw:

Turns out Veda has been having an affair with the young man and it emerges is faking a pregnancy, so with the help of old Wally (who helped Mildred to own the building she made her restaurant success in) suing this woman. Mildred is horrified, they fight, the girl insults her egregiously and shows she despises her mother. She is not capable of much love. Mildred means to throw her out and demands she leave, and then thinks the better of it (as she did her husband), but (like the husband) by this time the girl has left.

Estrangement. I was very moved. Mildred “can’t stand it” and actually tracks the girl down and drives to the apartment house Veda lives in and watches her come in. I would not have allowed myself to do that.

Mildred watching from her car, trying to hide her presence

Veda is also becoming a success. She had the grand piano, training lessons in playing and singing and as the episode ends she is on the radio singing opera. Mildred did all she could to foster this girl’s pride and talent and her hard work has won out, only she is not allowed to join in. Mildred’s husband is in contact with Veda, and he takes Veda to her own beach restaurant to listen to Veda sing on the radio.

At the close of Part 4 Bert and Mildred have not changed so very much; she is startled to see her daughter’s name and picture in the paper

The Part ends with Mildred walking off to a bannister in her fanciest restaurant to look out at the ocean. She looks intense but we are not given any access to her thoughts: pride (she would), depression, what? Haynes seems to be the kind of film-maker who regards voice-over as effeminate. A loss to his film.

Part 5

In the expensive bedroom, in expensive clothes Mildred has provided, she looks down at her arrogant daughter

Much of Part 5 was unexpectedly weaker than what came before — except the very ending. This was partly because it followed the book and the book does degenerate into this fierce conflict between the daughter and mother. Mildred tries to reach Veda by going to the prestigious teacher-orchestra leader Mildred had hired in the first place, but he laughs at her, and then, seemingly by chance, she meets up with Monty again.

They renew the love-making (in appealing scenes) and she allows him to persuade her to buy his old family mansion. Mildred and Monty marry. They give a party for “swells” and this brings Veda back: she sings there, moves in with her mother and allows her mother to pay for everything. We see Mildred between Bert, the husband, still faithfully there (and now living with his parents, his mistress having returned to her husband, now doing much better), and Monty at the Carnegie Hall watching her daughter solo perform before a huge audience seemingly entranced. Mildred is ecstatic, but we see she is neglecting her business and spending money on the house, daughter, Monty that should be spent on the business. Ida tries to reach her to do something about her business, but Mildred evades Ida.

The shit hits the fan: the men (all men) controlling the shares tell Mildred she must sell her house, stop milking the business, and her lawyer-friend, Wally, tells her she must demand Veda contribute substantially to expenses. She fears asking. She knows in her gut her daughter does not love her, but she must ask. She begins with Monty and quickly the situation blows up when she discovers (as we are to suspect) Monty has become Veda’s lover and they are knowingly fleecing her. Veda scorns her, needles her, openly jeers.

Veda: the scene is melodramatic, theatrical, rather like an opera

Monty opens up to characterize Mildred as using him, as herself disgustingly ambitious, ruthless, horrible it seems. He was her slave it seems. She is so enraged she tries to strangle her daughter, but does not manage even permanent damage on her throat.

Cut to the ending where we see Mildred has had to give up the largest parts of her business to Ida and Wally. She is still doing well, but no longer pretending to be a member of the super-rich. She has divorced Monty, remarried Bert, and they are moving back to their original Glendale house. They are given a party on their return the day of their marriage. Old friends there, including Ida, apologetic for having taken over parts of the business. Mildred understands. Mildred looks disappointed that Veda hasn’t come. Why she expects this is beyond me.

But Veda does come, stands outside in an expensive outfit on her way to NY to resume her career and does seem to look at her mother, herself waiting for some last renewal or memory of their relationship.

As Mildred last sees Veda

The attempt at goodbye, a reconciliation, ends in another scene of insults from Veda, and now bitter recriminations from Mildred who at long last says good riddance. Monty is waiting for her in NY.

Bert pulls Mildred away and says to Mildred: “to hell with Veda,” at long last validating this long-needed idea, and the the last words of the novel and film are “stinko” they will drink until they are so drunk they know oblivion. What makes this moving is the pair look very like what they did when the movie opened: they are wearing the same sort of clothes. And Winslet’s eyes fill with tears. She cannot forget some profound sense of loss. In Cain’s novel this sense of desolation is presented as just the way things are and the mood is flat. With Winslet’s yearning face, the thwarted aspiration and dreams remain

So the last part has its moments and especially in the opening scenes, the first renewal with Monty and thisclose. The depth of feeling that Winslet has endowed her character with, the sense of Mildred’s kindness, goodness, love for her daughter, the honesty of her ambition — it was not her idea to have the mansion — all carry it. As she takes up her drink, we hear over the screen a creamy rendition of Judy Garland singing: I’m always chasing rainbows …”

At the end of the rainbow there’s happiness,
And to find it how often I’ve tried,
But my life is a race, just a wild goose chase,
And my dreams have all been denied.
Why have I always been a failure?
What can the reason be?
I wonder if the world’s to blame,
I wonder if it could be me.
I’m always chasing rainbows,
Watching clouds drifting by,
My dreams are just like all my schemes,
Ending in the sky.
Some fellows look and find the sunshine,
I always look and find the rain.
Some fellows make a winning sometime,
I never even make a gain, believe me,
I’m always chasing rainbows,
I’m watching for a little bluebird in vain.

So I was again caught up.


Kate Winslet as Mildred cooking — something she is seen doing periodically for the first four parts

The finest parts of the film were Mildred’s slow build up of a career after throwing her husband out, her friendships with other women, her intensities of love and ambition for her children. The prosaic rhythms of slow-unfolding is central to its strength.

Winslet is aware she is enacting scenes from women’s lives. As Jim and I cleaned our house this past Friday, and I put on my house-cleaning clothes I thought of Mildred. When we sat together in our living room over the week, I remembered Mildred. The Christmas scenes from the movie brought back painful disillusionments and fraught disappointments.

It’s more up- than downbeat. Mildred has a real (corny I know) heart. That she’s a good cook is symbolic in the film. She’s good at love-making. She utterly gives of herself to everything she does over and over. Kate Winslet does play varied roles, but in many underlying her presentation of whatever character (from Marianne in S&S to April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road), however twisted, however shaped by a genre or director (as in mysteries or a Polanski film she did), she projects a fine generous soul


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Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

Uttered in the original story, in the 1988 version and now again in 2012

Holmes (Jeremy Brett) comforting the rescued Miss Stapleton (found on stairwell beneath great house, 1988 The Hound of Baskerville by Hawkesworth)

Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) questioning animal experimenter Dr Stapleton (top secret laboratory, military compound, 2012 Hounds of Baskerville by Gatiss)

Dear friends and readers,

How the new Sherlock is ensemble camp art. The 2012 Hounds of the Baskervilles is also different content: the rape gone; we are in a world of top secret military compounds, laboratory experiments (on animals) and ruined landscapes.

I must retract what I said in my previous blog on The Latest Sherlock: while it’s true that in A Study in Pink (the 1st episode of last season), Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat wrote a script which really did follow the plot-design of at least the opening and middle phases of Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlett, so that the two and Jeremy Brett’s films in general move along in tandem and may be paralleled, when we come to the new, this year’s Hounds of the Baskerville and compare it with Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and Jeremy Brett’s 1988 The Hound of the Baskerville, the new Sherlock departs so radically from the central buried or back story that the whole whole plot-design is changed and we have new content.

The film is not even an analogous adaptation. It appropriates (to use the fashionable term) the iconic character of Sherlock and his partner Watson, our memory of the general terrifying encounter of a ferocious huge glowing (phosphorescent) dog with a nervous fleeing victim in a vast wooded landscape round an ancient rich house and makes a new story for our time, and a few of the most memorable phrases to new purpose. In the comments to The Latest Sherlock , someone linked in a blog where a writer was (justifiably enough) angry at the erasure of strong women in the new series, and went on to talk about the ambiguous or fluid sexuality of the characters in a number of new mystery series, including this one.

The story of the abuse of woman is replaced. Conan Doyle’s original Hound had at its core, the mysterious tale of a cruel ruthless abuse of a young woman imprisoned in a room to be raped, who then flees the aristocratic rakish males who would abuse her again, only to find herself torn to bits by a supernatural hound. This core is paralleled by the front present day story of the amoral Baskervilles, and in the 1988 Brett version by John Hawkesworth the deceptions practiced on a modern day Miss Stapleton (Fiona Gillies). I wouldn’t call the Brett version feminist, but rather sympathetic to both its female and male vulnerable servant characters.

Rather than this, at the center of the Cumerbatch Sherlock is a military compound inside which is a vast laboratory in which top secret experiments are going on. When Sherlock and Watson penetrate their way in, they discover a very different Dr Stapleton (Amelia Bullmore). She experiments on rabbits, and we see all around her other frail and helpless animals (mostly small monkeys) in barred cages, attached to wires. The substitute is as relevant to our time as rape (especially since if we are telling the truth, the rape is kept marginal in both previous versions I’ve mentioned here): I felt distressed to see these animals and remembered Frederick Wiseman’s Primates and all that he and Jane Goodall and Sy Montgomery have taught me about the frighteningly impersonal cold cruelties wrecked on helpless animals in labs today. What is a more important threat to all of us today? Henry Knight (Russell Toyvey), the young man who is the victim of the hound in the back or buried story in the past may be paralleled to these small creatures. In this version we eventually learn that there was no hound, it was a psychological projection, helped along by what seems to be a fog machine, foisted on everyone, including Holmes and Watson.

I won’t go into the twists and turns of any of the three stories, nor compare the 1988 Sherlock with this. Why not? well, the Jeremy Brett series as produced by June Wyndham-Davies is gothic realism, heavily dependent on virtuoso acting performances at length, especially Brett’s. This is not. It’s ensemble playing: it reminded me of the relationship of Rachel Weisz in Whistleblower to Helen Mirren’s Prime Suspect. Whistleblower is also ensemble art, Mirren’s detective shows focus on her, she carries them. In addition, in this new Sherlock what happens happens centrally to Sherlock and John. They are not watchers on the side, coming in; they see the hound, they suffer madness; the core or back story moves alongside them.

So to turn to this new concoction, suffice to say that we are taken through a rigmarole which in the new version tests the friendship of Sherlock (while Brett was called Holmes by Watson in this series Cumberbatch is addressed as Sherlock by John Watson) and John (not called Watson by Sherlock but address as John). Everyone on a first name basis just about immediately in 2012. At one point Sherlock fools John by luring him to go into the laboratory and watching John’s distress and confusion and misery as he stumbles about confusedly and in increasing fear.

John lost and wandering (still partly lame), POV Sherlock from another side of a glass

An interesting side effect of this is we are (I think) supposed to feel alienated from Sherlock; he is behaving like Dr Stapleton (who may well have petted her rabbit and like the people in Wiseman’s film actually talk soothingly to the animals they are torturing). They really do quarrel over this.

Sherlock: John I don’t have friends. I have one.
[This softens John who is at heart as needy.]

I’m not making up or inserting into the story this animal rights matter. Among the deceits at the cosy inn is an attempt to cover up the high amounts of animal meat by ostentatiously offering vegetarian dishes. The poor rabbit is given the name bluebell, and Henry Knight often looks like some frantic animal caught in the headlights of an on-coming car.

The blogger who complained angrily about a lack of strong women should really not have much of a quarrel here. To me the superficiality of these demands for strength, no matter how used, is exposed in this episode. We have a second woman, Dr Mortimer (Sasha Behar), Henry’s psychologist who John Watson flirts with to get information out of her:

A Study in Pink opened with a hard-nosed woman psychologist (black) who similarly was there to make the man in front of her fit in, cope without disturbing others, and would have been more than willing to manipulate him, withhold information.

In a sense this ought to be a disturbing story. That it’s not is the result of another quality to this new Sherlock I want to bring up this time: it’s camp in Susan Sontag’s formulation: there’s a constant parodic element, strong artifice and stylization which makes what we see a game. One might say this is part of its gay sensibility — for there is one. The film-makers allude to all sorts of Sherlock paraphernalia: Sherlock is asked where is his hat? he is not recognizable without it. (The deerstalker hat is not in Conan Doyle but was a feature in some of the early illustrations and of picked up for Basil Rathbone’s costume along with the Inverness cape.)

The fun is in the exaggeration: this Mrs Hudson has liaisons, but alas the men she goes with have other women; as Sherlock gets into a cab he tells John that Mrs Hudson has been unlucky with another male again. After the opening terror of the boy attacked by a terrifying dog, we move to the cosy flat in 221B Baker and find Sherlock half-hysterical because he wants his usual stimulus — the word opium is coyly avoided and instead cigarettes are instances, but we all know what “the seven per cent solution” he’s talking of is. John scolds Sherlock from his desk that Sherlock must control himself. The performance of Cumberbatch is high theatrical body gestures and facial expression, as he swirls in his chair. The film-makers imitate a modern trope of romance drama and gothic since the 1939 Wuthering Heights and become de rigeur in Pride and Prejudice: like Catherine and Heathcliff, like Elizabeth Bennett, Sherlock stands high on a neolithic looking rock mountain:

This camp element is toned down during the moments of cheer and camaraderie between John and Sherlock — as when John is drinking his coffee at the close of the story and Sherlock walks over to a nearby set of tourists in cars near the inn where they stayed. It may disappear when neurotic upset characters are on stage (Henry Knight) or Sherlock goes into one of his long rapid-paced monologues regaling us with the banal misery of the lives about them , as when he and John are in a restaurant and nearby sits an unemployed man and his over-dressed costumed, bejewelled mother. Here is a pair like us, the 99%. Martin Freeman is very good at conveying a comical surprise whenever he finds himself in luxurious rich places so typical of these costume dramas (in this series highly modern looking — lots of glass walls). Henry has to admit, yes, he’s rich and that’s why these rooms are so large and empty.

It’s provocative to camp the Sherlock matter up. When Sherlock and John question the lab people about possible near-by monsters, they are told the last ones they saw were Abbott and Costello out after some monster.

Is there some safety in nihilism? This is post-modern nostalgia and the reassurance such as it is — with a calm ending so we seem to come back to Square one where we began (221 B Baker, the cosy inn, the car park, the cup of coffee) — comes from the spectacle, the enactments we’ve seen before. It’s the joke of timeless survival and repetition. Also oddly this two hours had some beautiful visuals against the ruined landscape around the half-buried military looking temporary buildings.

It’s not the dog that is scary; it’s the people who create false visions with their scientific equipment. This is not the first time I’ve noticed modern movies to be anti-science, even ones which seem as pro-high tech use as this one.

Never without a gadget


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Woman reading, artist or photographer unknown

Dear friends and readers,

The title may be off-putting, but Corrigan’s book is an inspiriting book to read in the dark near-dawn hours of a spring into summer morning, one intended to keep the reader company in her journeys with others through books. Corrigan writes of reading as intense adventure, as that which can interweave itself into the deepest fibres of our memories of things we do as we do them, what influences, directs, teaches, and comforts the reader who has that within her to be transformed. Corrigan’s tone is at moment luminous with remembered moments of strengthening and hope.

Sometimes the book feels too Pollyanna (people returning from war are presented as all good feeling about their memories), and sometimes Corrigan may grate on your nerves by apologizing to those who wouldn’t read her book in the first place (a sort of bending over backwards to her readers who do worry about what the non-readers of the world would say). These are minor blemishes, though (they do not go on for very long) and are not the core of a book where reading has meant everything to the writer. It’s a book also about Corrigan’s career writing and teaching about her reading to an imagined community of sympathetic readers and her students.

Marilyn Monroe reading Joyce (Eve Arnold photo)

Corrigan vindicates, reads in front of her reader in the way of Bobbie Ann Mason in her The Girl Sleuth, “extreme female-adventure books” and detective stories. “Extreme female-adventure” books are classic women’s books and l’ecriture-femme by another name. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Villette, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and (for a modern example) Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing and Black and Blue make visible what the hard adventure of life is for women:

“terrible contests with solitude,” “endurance” of the marriage market and successful socializing. fortitude, “keeping one’s nerves steady, the emotional power of confidence and a thoughtful strong mind, the long nightmare of being linked to a man for life who doesn’t “get you,” who doesn’t begin to understand what means most to you (Kate Simon’s Bronx Primitive).

These are indeed the terrors, the miseries, the small mean hardships of many existences, what withers joy, the enemies of promise.

Such books “got her through” her life, taught Corrigan much — just as Woolf said such books can.

By the time Corrigan gets to the end of her third long section and has told about adopting a Chinese baby girl, her time as a working class young woman at the prestigious and snobbish University of Pennsylvania (so she didn’t have it so bad, did she?), her career as a writer of reviews for the Village Voice and now on NPR, and her long-delayed marriage all the while validating and showing how reading and books have been important in each of her transitions, I felt I was communing with a non-philistine, decently humane presence validating the life of the mind (even if clearly she had been one of the privileged of this world).

The piece de resistance of the book is a long wonderfully refreshing, fascinating and carefully qualified section on Sayers’s Gaudy Night in the context of what women’s communities can be for women, and in vindication of educated women. Corrigan worked at Byrn Mawr. (My goodness.) She dwells on Harriet’s freely entered into relationship with Peter, how he is a knight who rescues her (from death, for she is accused of poisoning her lover-partner in Strong Poison).

Harriet Walter who played Harriet Vane (my gravatar for my Under the Sign of Sylvia blog).

Then onto other women’s books of the 1920s and 30s, more detective fiction by women, memoirs (Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood).

The book’s title is somewhat misleading, for Corrigan also writes it to show the reader that detective fiction by men and women is not simply riveting or terrifying and sad entertainment (when it’s good as in Hound of the Baskervilles, or Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, Chandler’s The Big Sleep or Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men), but also an indirect means for discussing how it feels to lead a working life where the reader is liberated since the hero or heroine has autonomy, savvy, intelligence, wit. She sees detective fiction as an replacement for the Robinson Crusoe myth (work as seen also in Gaskell’s Mary Barton). The best of them invent communities of people who mirror real milieus of our world and are either therapeutic or worlds split open with all their banal harshnesses and horrors. She convinced me. But then it was 3 in the morning.

Throughout Corrigan brings up analogies with the same ones I so treasured when a girl: Nancy Drew, Little Women, nurse stories (for her it was Sue Barton) and autobiographies (by Agatha Christie including wry comments about how much is made of ten days Christie she fled wife- and motherhood). I wanted to tell her about Bobbie Ann Mason’s Clear Springs and Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats.

Dorothy Lange photo: Girls at Lincoln Bench School, Malheur County Oregon, October 12, 1939

I’ve written before about how important girls books are to them: Girls’ books and women’s lives. The picture by Vanessa Bell (I love the rich reds and yellows) makes visible how good dolls are part of a young girl’s health-giving imaginative terrain. On WWTTA we noticed that although men will often use depictions of women reading to make “come hither fuck-me” pictures of these women for themselves (turning the women’s reading experience into forms of substitute masturbation), women often depict themselves reading in ways that call attention to their class status or inward emotional state, depict themselves as older women reading to children or paint young girls reading.

I’ve not gotten to the last part of Corrigan’s fiction: on what she learned from Catholic martyr stories (Mary Gordon’s Final Payments).

She does talk about the importance of parodies and funny books by women too: her candidate is Austen’s Northanger Abbey; this past Christmas on WWTTA we read Stella Gibbons’ often misrepresented Cold Comfort Farm (she made me want to read Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn), and her favorite poet seems to be Stevie Smith (me too), but enough, it’s nearly 2. It’s pouring, and I had better to bed.

A toute a l’heure, courage mes amies:

The Ballet of the Twelve Dancing Princesses

— by Stevie Smith


The schoolgirls dance on the cold grass
The ballet of the twelve dancing princesses
And the shadows pass

Over their cold feet

Above in the cold summer sky the clouds mass
The icy wind blows across the laurel bushes
The sky is hard blue and gray where a cloud rushes
The sky is icy blue it is like the night blue where a star pushes.

But it is not night
It is daytime on an English lawn.
The scholars dance. The weather is as fresh as dawn.
Dawn and night are the webs of this summer’s day
Dawn and night the tempo of the children’s play.

Who taught the scholars? Who informed the dance?
Who taught them so innocent to advance
So far in a peculiar study? They seem to be in a trance.
It is a trance in which the cold innocent feet pass
To and fro in a hinted meaning over the grass
The meaning is not more ominous and frivolous than the clouds
that mass.

There is nothing to my thought more beautiful at this moment
Than a vision of innocence that is bound to do something
I sense something equivocal beneath the veneer of an innocent
Tale and in the trumpet sound of the icy storm overhead there is
The advance of innocence against a mutation that is irrevocable
Only in the imagination of that issue joined for a split second is
the idea beautiful.


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Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) finding one of the girls fleeing in a wood

I watched this film for the first time last night. It’s an important film which I hope more people saw than I fear did (I suspect it was not a mass entertainment even if it played in mainstream cinemas). It’s a kind of Helen Mirren Prime Suspect film made more realistic and done with ensemble type acting. I’m only a year late (it’s a 2011 film) for a review, and trafficking is as pervasive as ever, plus collusion and downright activity by those who are supposed to stop it themselves doing it.

In her usual gear

Rachel Weisz plays the part of a American (mid-western) police woman who simply will not not do her job; she has real integrity and will not go through the motions pretending in order to collect a salary and remain prestigously within the group. She goes to Bosnia fora career advancement (yes) and also to do good work in an environment where she might be really needed. One night she encounters a group of beaten prostitutes who look terrible and understands that these are trafficked women; one is very sick. She attempts to send the
one to the hospital and the others to safety. She is just one person; while she is taking the group herself to a safe hospice, she cannot be in the hospital; she goes there to discover that the girl cannot be sent home because she lacks papers. Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac is never for a moment put off by such patent lies. She replies, so what? we’ll get her papers. No we can’t do this, the rules say … She finds herself up against a wall. She returns to the hospice to
discover the girls have been returned to the bar.

Unlike Jane Tennison who then would have to go through a long plot to discover that there are paid kick-backs everywhere (which come to think of it shows her were we thinking realistically to be very dim), Kathryn immediately sees that they were returned by the UN peacekeeping authorities because at least one person, probably more was taking a kick-back. What she has to learn (and without much trouble) is that many are taking bribes, and many of the men who are peacekeepers are the very men buying these women and abusing them under the guns and whips and other hard mean weapons of the women’s keepers.

Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave)

The plot-design of the story is then three-fold, and is a realistic mirror (reminding me of Five Days where the mirror was a domestic life situation of lower middle class people in the UK). It was not to discover that (in the words of Madeleine Rees, or Vanessa Redgrave, who again has chosen to be in this kind of exposing movie — Coriolanus‘s this), that “those hired “to protect the vulnerable are raping them themselves”, buying and selling them themselves. This is put before us again and again in the evidence, as vignettes, incidents we see as simply obvious.

It’s rather to show us as watchers how formidable is the opposition to putting a stop to the traffic. We see this in each of the groups Kathryn tries to contact.

It is also to show us the realities of Kathryn’s life and how this is part of why she does what she does and how this private life of hers can get in the way or the police life change her private life. And to show us the girls being ruthlessly beaten, humiliated, tortured, and to put before us photos of these girls.

Raya when first seen (Roxana Condurache)

The movie opens with how one specific girl, Raya, was brought into these groups: one night she was out late with a friend, got involved sexually with someone, her friend pressured her to come out after the time she was due home. She went home and got into a quarrel with her mother, and then ran out into the night. That was the end of her life; the next time we see her she’s in a bar and is one of the girls that Kathryn encounters. To make the story effective the movie focuses on one girl’s story.

We see her mother is contacted by Kathryn or representations, how she begs money from her other daughter to go to the hospital. How the other daughter is beaten by her husband and is afraid to give her mother money (it’s not hers). But she does it. How the mother is too late. Then in a later scene we see the mother home again reviling the daughter as a cruel sister for this second daughter’s husband was the man who enabled the boyfriend that night to kidnap Raya.

As in Story 6 of Prime Suspect (“the Last Suspect”), like Helen Mirren, Kathryn has promised to keep the vulnerable girl, here Raya, safe. After Raya is snatched back, we see her dragged before the girls, thrown on a table, & knifed in the back (not killed but just scarred for life) before the other girls to show them what will happen if they try to talk to police or are willing to testify. So like Tennison, who loses first one sister to a brutal killing (and then the other alas), Kathyn is driven to make good on her promise somehow. In a scene near the end of the movie, at last Kathryn reaches one man who will raid the bar &promises not to return the girls. Once there though another group of men rush in, override this man and his crew, and Kathryn seeing Raya begs her in front of everyone to come away with her. Raya is too frightened and refuses. Later that night the same man who led the group in knifing her, takes her before the other girls and simply shoots her through the head.

She has become the lover of one man early in the film and he remains a confidant. We are told in a series of intertitles at the end of the film how all we have seen is real (just souped up for drama), how the real Kathryn now lives with Jan in the Netherlands. Apparently it was not safe to return to the US or Jan, this man’s name, was Dutch and wanted to stay in the Netherlands. A small part of the ammunition against Kathryn (this suggests this kind of loss of reputation does not count as much as women might fear) is her private life. She lives freely and has lovers. Goes to bars herself. But as an upper class (it’s understood in context) white American woman. In one interview a superior tries to needle her about a second story the movie opens with: her ex-husband has custody of her daughter. She was deemed less fit than he; he made more money; he could provide a conventional home with a stay-at-home wife/mother.

Kathryn lives in another state from him and one motive for going to Bosnia was the larger salary which could enable her to move back near her daughter. We see her job get in the way of keeping promises to her daughter to go to this or that occasion. So her story includes separation from her daughter and loss and one motive for her wanting to help Raya is she identifies with Raya’s mother (she says “I keep seeing Raya’s mother”). She also is enacting the mother she did not in US circumstances. This is parallel with Mirren who has had abortions and tries to be a mother where her job and wider usefulness and the life she wanted to lead would not permit her to have a baby, especially without a husband, a kind of relationship Jane did not really want.

The opposition. Those trafficking. Those using the women sexually, brutally. This provides the real action of the film, the hinge-points, the stages of excitement and danger. We see how gradually Kathryn is cut down. She is demoted, She goes to this or that chief officer and realizes very quickly they are protecting their men (and themselves too perhaps). Madeleine Rees (Redgrave) and Peter, another of these very few males who help women stop the trafficking, in effect Rees’s side-kick helper, are frustrated by what happens to Kathryn.

Peter (David Strathairn)

After Kathryn realizes one cannot working within the system (well, duh), and writes an email outside to a high official in a UK embassy, her ID and keys are taken away from her. She is now not just fired, but cannot go into the building to get her files. She must sneak in. She tries to get a woman friend to help her but the woman friend says I’m not you, I won’t risk my job. All do keep telling her it’s not safe, but like Mirren as Tennison, Weisz as Bolkovac seems to lead a charmed life. We might say fairy tale, but in fact Kathryn Bolkavac survived. (Part of the power of this film is it’s a real story transposed into action drama.) Well we see Peter help her.

A crucial turning point occurs as she is walking out of the building with her papers. We see Fred Murray (David Hewlett), aone of the lead man who fired her with Peter and Peter appears to have double-crossed her. She must turn over the bag. But they talk and Murray sneers at her. A few seconds later (scenes are short), Peter comes from behind to give her the bag. He was enabling her to get a tape of this man’s voice as part of her evidence when she returns to the UK.

There we see the interviews on TV with Bill Hynes head UN man (Liam Cunningham) who denies all complicity (as he said he would in another scene). He justifies this in a separate scene as enabling the UN to carry on. But what is it carrying on for? We also are told by him how much money is at stake, how the companies behind much that goes on in Bosnia of a money-making nature are Bosnian, and we know it’s his job.

We then see Kathryn on TV accusing Hynes of lying. The judge does side with Bolkovac (as happened in real life) and we are told (intertitles) all the specific individuals found guilty where deported back to their original countries. But no one was imprisoned, no one punished. And then we are given the huge numbers of people involved in trafficking and enslaved that continues on.

The acting does not bring Rachel Weisz so very centrally to the camera; we do not dwell on her nor on her life interwoven in the same way as Prime Suspect. There are a number of scenes (of Raya’s life, of Raya’s mother’s actions, of the girls’ lives either beaten, or in the bars, or Weisz’s eyes going over the photographs (reminding me of a film by Bergman where Liv Ullmann’s eyes go over photos and a narrative emerges) where Kathryn is not the central point of view.
Most of the time in Prime Suspect, Mirren is. That’s how they keep the plot-design a mystery. But the effect is very good as we feel a real sense of a large world on the screen. Weisz is herself a fierce presence, she has subtlety when needed, is tender, is of a wiry build (so has the requisite thinnness wanted of younger actresses). I feared for
her again and again. So that held me. I cared about her.

A portrait shot of her concerned and talking to another woman

I do like Weisz because of the films she’s in. My students learn a lot from The Constant Gardener; I learned a lot from Agora, neither of whom survived. Agora did exist for real and she survived a bit longer than Tessa, but then she was upper class, attached to upper class men.

I also cared intensely about Raya who is last seen dead, with wounds all over her body, in rags in the wood. Prime Suspect often opened on a scene like this. The wounded murdered corpse of a woman badly dressed.

And about the other girls whose voices, faces, bits of presence emerged now and again.

It’s no coincidence this is a film directed by a woman (Larysa Kondracki), written by a woman (Eilis Kirwan), centrally produced by three women (Amy Kaufman, Christina Piovesan, Celina Ratray). The men in the film every once in a while dismiss the trafficked women as whores. That word is enough. They are now without status.

Thinking about it brought home to me why I found a book like
Nussbaum’s Rival Queens (which I reviewed, and which review I will put online after it’s published) in such bad taste; & what’s wrong with books like Pullen’s Actresses and Whores (which unlike, Nussbaum’s seeks to upgrade the status of whores I will concede (Nussbaum just wants to separate her star actresses from prostitutes). Also those many online sites where feminists who want to stop prostitution are scorned and told they are imposing their prurient values on a profession that makes money and these girls chose and even do well at. Nussbaum, Pullen, and many others who insist on distinguishing courtesans from prostitutes. This so that they can write with admiration and pride about their favorite courtesans (be they actresses, or Renaissance poets, e.g., Veronica Franco, Gaspara Stampa, or today’s high-paid and high-class call girls) are imposing on a huge population, most of whom either are right away or become desperate victims (unless they escape very quickly) the luck of a few in just the way we are told to admire unqualified capitalism because a few succeed spectacularly and the rest clearly didn’t “have” their gifts, energies, strength of character, are inferior in some way, when the reality is the difference between the very few and the rest is where you are born, your class (circumstances, connections). The girls in Bosnia and the third world are like the proletariat in the third world, not fringe hangers-on on the tables of the powerful (the edges) but treated with open raw exploitation, and in the case of prostitution the job is to answer with your body whatever the average man wants of you.

So it’s the difference class makes this film teaches us, how terrible is the violence accepted across the world aimed at women, that it is simply felt by many men women are dispensable and to be used where possible (where class and location allows) like animals and then discarded when inconvenient.

And of course like many of Mirren’s films, the politics of the fable shows us those who are pretending to help the vulnerable (of whatever type) are either in collusion with the murderers & rapists & imperalists or themselves actively central.

The DVD includes a feature where we see Kathryn Bolkovac today, we see a woman involved in trying to stop trafficking, the director, screenplay writer, Weisz and Redgrave talking. Trafficking of women continues to be featured and discussed in many womens’ venues: see Women’s enews. This film has helped allegations against the UN to stop, but has it ended trafficking.

See also cross-cultural collaboration.

I cannot recommend seeing this one too highly and telling everyone you know to see it. Like Mirren’s films, it is entertaining because of the melodrama, excitement and the use of a powerful strong female hero or heroine at its center. I never thought I’d begin to love police-procedural type stories, but I have. I did not like many of the older mystery type novels with heroines at the center when they seemed frivolous and shallow and about retreat and upholding establishment values (Agatha Christie). A new breed of women’s film is among us and it is a re-write of male type films which we may hope males go to see, enjoy, and learn from too.


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“Hill House” — a genuine house just outside London, chosen as embodying just what Jackson imagined, and then photographed as where all the outdoor scenes around it using infrared light (1963 The Haunting)

John Atkinson Grimsaw (1836-93), The Haunted House (1882)

Dear Readers, Students, Friends,

Tonight one of the great American gothic novels and psychological terror films of the 20th century: Shirley Jackson’s highly original 1959 Haunting of Hill House, and Robert Wise’s even more unusual rendition of the literary genre not as a horror film (what was mistakenly tried in 1999), but as a psychological film contextualized by

1) the domestic realism of Eleanor Lance’s character and circumstances;

2) the Citizen Kane representation of the Hugh Crain family (as back-story);

3) the quiet lesbianism of Theo (Claire Bloom);

4) and the undercutting sceptical mockery of Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn) whose contingent of characters brings into the film the ordinary American upper class who’d love to make money on the house.

The blog will also delve the gothic as such and its history. See my review (evaluation and summary) of Richard Davenport-Hines’s The Gothic: 400 (!) Years of Excess, Evil, Horror and Ruin Both Jackson and Wise’s works are in the Radcliffian mode, sometimes called the female gothic.


Eleanor (Julie Harris) turned down by her relatives when she asks for the car (half hers) for a vacation

Eleanor resolute, with all her worldly goods (come to take the car anyway)

When I first read the book I was struck by how it begins in a very secular modern feel atmosphere. Dr Montague (the name of the doctor in Jackson’s book) wants to investigate the supposed presence of ghosts and terrors at Hill House scientifically and he goes about to find people willing to participate in the experiment of living there together for the summer. He gets up a list of names of people from psychic societies, sensational newspaper stories — people who have sighted or been willing to believe they saw or are interested in “paranormal” (the “in” word today) experiences. He doesn’t want any crackpot and there’s a distrust of unknown uncredentialled people which remind me of the distrust of experience on the Net.

He turned up two single women, Eleanor Lance (it’s an “L” in the book), one who cared for her mother all the mother’s life until she died and now lives with a selfish sister and her husband; and Theo, the other who had fought intensely with her woman lover. He also finds the present owner insists he take in a relative. So there are four of them. Then two surly servants (as I said). Now his wife and her chauffeur, Arthur have been invited.

What emerges is something I’ve seen in astute writers of the gothic before. Hell is other people; the group has begun to gang up on Eleanor because she’s susceptible to bullying. It’s a it’s a gothic that analyses the psychic source of terrorizing and why it happens. But beyond that we are beginning to experience terrifying unexplained phenomena. Theodora’s dresses are torn to bits and covered with blood so now she sleeps with Eleanor. One night Eleanor listens to moaning and groaning of a baby elsewhere. Scary things happen in the landscape; all done very slowly you see. Eleanor is suddenly being called Nell and writing appears on the walls which demands she come home.

And we begin to get threats: Mrs Montague talks of being buried alive. She brings a planchette and we have a seance like experience where again Eleanor is picked on, picked out as the one words are hurled at. Slowly I’ve noticed the others are irritated and turn away from her need of them. In the book Dr Montague doesn’t want her around lest she ruins his experiment. (The movie is softer and makes Dr Montague and Theo genuinely concerned for her, and Luke put off by her suicidal impulses on the twirling metal staircase.)

to a sudden powerful close. I was stunned by the ending and yet it was coming at me all the time. The very last words might be said to put a close to a future of endless pain: “and whatever walked there [in Hill House] walked alone.” But …

Warning I’m telling the ending:

There is a constant repeat of lines from Shakespeare’s Twelth Night, the song of the fool: “present mirth hath present laughter” and especially the line; “journey’s end in lovers’ meeting.” This line runs through what I now realize is our heroine’s head: Eleanor. The question is whether when she killed herself by smashing herself and car against the tree, she does know peace or is returned to hill house to walk with whatever walked there.” Journey’s end in lovers’s meeting; the hideous writing on the wall and cruel comments written down are invites to Eleanor (Nell) from whoever or whatever riddles and warps the house — which under assault becomes a wild tempest (making me think of the emotions at the close of Ethan Frome by Wharton, a book I hope never to read again, especially its ending).

Eleanor’s story suddenly is seen so clear as one of a miserable wretched woman: sleeps in sister’s baby’s room and only shares that car, has no right to it, for no husband, no salary. When she loses it after Mrs Montague’s (meant to be obtuse funny — think Mrs Jennings from S&S) antics over a planchette, and nearly kills herself and others by trying to jump off a crumbling bit of gothic convention masonry, they want her out. They kick her out. She’d have to go back to that sister. Theodora has already refused to take her in at summer’s end.

So what were her options? Backstory of clan has two sisters in deadly frightening rivalry.

But what really is chilling is the sudden experience. No one does gothic like Jackson. The cold, the sounds, the wild weird evocation of what can’t be and can’t be explicitly but only allusively described.

The Gothic:

Eleanor and Theo (Claire Bloom) talking of their lives

Luke (Russ Tamblyn) thinking about the cold spot

First we need to understand the gothic. It’s been a major US popular subgenre since the 1790s — around the time of the French revolution, which can be regarded as a watershed in western culture (another is World War One).

The gothic is easily identified by some repeating central characteristics: the haunted place, usually a labyrithine house with a past where much misery had occurred. Haunted: it is a genre which uses all the realistic conventions so as to make you believe in and enter the fictional world, and then there is this disruption, this intrusion from the world of the supernatural, at first mild, but then insistent and finally overwhelming.

It evokes in us atavistic beliefs we thought we had almost discarded; the fear of something under the bed, the dark, sudden ounds. We can say almost because many people believe in God or gods, and in supernatural realms, but our beliefs usually don’t unnerve us because they come in the form of controlled doctrines from churches. The church works hard to exclude this kind of belief and include that. The gothic undermines this.

Most deeply it’s a pessimistic questioning of what’s beyond the natural; it’s serious even if popularly treated frivolously. Robert Johnson (the actor who plays Dr Markway — Montague in the novel — the anthropologist-physician) and the director Wise in their voice over commentary in the DVD feature brought up the issue of belief centrally. From one of Johnson’s commentaries: the film prompts or comes out of questions about “what happened to the dead, to one’s relations who died … does it all just end like that; it’s all those things connected to religion as well ..I wonder about these things just like everybody else … where am I going … why am I here … ”

Dr Montague (Richard Johnson) introducing himself to Nell and Theo

The gothic is also metaphysical and asks question about the nature of the universe, about God, about justice and life’s value; Kafkaesque, paranoic and death’s effects are central to the gothic too:

Some sub-genres specialize in horror (violence, the vampire story which attacks people bodily; the werewolf story — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is ultimately a werewolf story); others in terror (spiritual undermining, psychologically traumatized) and that is the ghost story. Haunting of Hill House is a ghost story.

So first we need to define ghost and carefully. A ghost is a the spirit or soul of a living person who died and comes back to haunt those living, usually in malevolent retribution for irretrievable hurt. Very very rare is the benign ghost and it’s no coincidence since people like reassurance and optimistic stories the most famous ghost story is precisely this rare type: Charles Dickens’s The Christmas Carol, where the ghosts come back to redeem Scrooge. Most of the time the ghost are not into redemption.

They form a kind of social protest: social protest books have victims in the center who expose the injustices and cruelties of a system or social/economic/sexual arrangement. I wouldn’t lean too heavily because sometimes the person victimized at the center is actually not to blame for anything at all and makes the mistake of coming to live in this house. Most of the time if you look you find the person has been treated unfairly, is sensitive, and in need of love and comfort and help — so the ghost uses them.

Jackson’s novel as gothic

Eleanor climbing the twisted metal staircase

Montague and others (we too) watching her climb

Eleanor Vance/Lance is the quintessential gothic heroine (it can be a hero): The gothic is about the patriarchal family, at its center is an exploration of its interior life, and the film is brilliantly inward. The house itself is alive: its past includes a number of exploited victimized women. Hugh Crain is like Citizen Kane — back story told up front in movie, brought out slowly in book.

Obviously Eleanor has been taken bad advantage of and is still being taken bad advantage of. spent the last 11 years of life caring for her mother; she is broke, has no car, no place of her own to live, no way to get an independent life; the two women in the story have lesbian orientations so they are just the kind of women our society marginalizes, will not even recognize the existence of

When it’s a woman at the center, she is imprisoned, buried alive, chased down, when it’s a man he’s made an exiles, outcasts; both experience pursuit, being hunted down, labyrinths. So the gothic critiques our society.

The fantasy element is an enabler because it sets up a false screen of frivolity.

Sex is often central — some sexual experience has been very bad — this is seen clearly in Vampire ones. But since we are not doing a vampire one let’s just stick with what we’ve got.

Films have genres and most scary films are horror films: they connect to vampire stories and are physical attacks with computer enhanced imagery today; often sadistic. Wise’s film is not a horror film. The 1999 film is a horror one and the second hour becomes ridiculous. Wise’s film is a psychological study in terror where a woman is slowly driven to lose her mind — other such films as good are The Woman in Black from Susan Hill’s novel; I’ve shown a number of hour long ones from short stories from the BBC archives (Afterward is one)

Shirley Jackson

A young Shirley Jackson

Her life in brief:

Shirley Jackson: in his book, Shirley Jackson’s American Gothic, Darrly Hattenhauer tells her life well and concisely. The problem with most lives and the biographies is they have been slanted by her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, a leading critic, publisher-editor, adept in the kind of critical readings that convince people.

The reality is her writing supported them in their life-style and she did write a lot of junk, meaning short crude gothic fictions, to keep the income flowing in. She did all the housework, had several children; he had affairs openly. She didn’t leave. This was the 1950s and very hard to get a divorce; if you may think the discourse against women today is bad, this was pre-feminism. She became very heavy and that’s a no-no in American society.

Mostly what has happened to her books is they are interpreted
apolitically; as if she has no social protest in them but is merely reflecting her own or other people’s neurotic condition (often women’s). Paradoxically that’s partly because her husband and she were once part of the Young Communist league in the 1940s so to distance them from any politics, it’s all erased. The one good book beyond Hattenhauer is Joan Wylie Hall, Shirley Jackson: A Study of the Short Fiction.

She is also forgotten and all but her “Lottery” (a startle) and Haunting of Hill House out of print. Like many women her work regarded 20 years later as biodegradable.

She was the daughter of a middle class Republican businessman who sent her to Bennington College where she met and married Hyman in 1937; he did publish her works. Driven as she was and treated the way she was, with the conventional life in the suburbs (this is before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique exposed that), she became alcoholic; later
she used tranquillizers. She did find real comfort in her children. here’s often a sub-theme of protection of children in her books.

How does it reflect the 50s: the story of the woman is central; it’s proto-feminist before feminism became fashionable. Deep upsets in cultural rifts over religion. Like other popular sub-genres the features and characteristics of the kind often make its assertions feel more universal and about the genre.

She did what she could to avoid publicity. Like J. L. Carr (A Month in the Country) she was no networker.

Then on her work in general: What she is is a satirist within gothic, showing up human nature as the source or our unjust social arrangements. The society we live in is not some result of imposed conditions; people collude in it. What
we see at the close of The Haunting of Hill House is Eleanor is thrown out, really heartlessly. If the ghosts are after her, the others want nothing to do with her. She tries to suggest to Theo she could come and live with her, but Theo makes quick work of that. Go back to her sister?

I perfectly understand why Eleanor yields to the spirits of the house and crashes into a tree. We should regard her ending the way we do gods in Homer: the gods in Homer are projections of the inner lives of the characters and so when Venus prompts Aeneas to do something erotic, it’s because Virgil’s Aeneas wants to; but they are also there.

One of the most disturbing things I’ve discovered in the criticism of this book is the idea that it’s all in Eleanor’s mind. That is to blame her, see this neurotic woman and encourage others to despise her. The book is parallel then to The Turn of the Screw; Henry James insisted that the ghosts were malign and there but because he presented them subtlety, many readers insist he is wrong and she is this repressed angry spinster who hurts everyone around her. Can’t
take a joke you see.

It can’t be all in Eleanor’s mind. Crain’s young wife crashed into the tree. Crain’s family was blighted. Theo hears all that
Elinor does; by the end of the novel even Luke is persuaded, and in the movie he gets the last (invented line): “[this house] ought to be burned down and the ground sown with salt.”

The modern 1999 (Jan de Bont) film wants to blame the doctor: in 1999 Liam Nelson as the physician has this secret exploitative agenda to further his career; in the book, Dr Montague is a genuine researcher into psychic phenomena who is making no money on his investigations. He may be wrong to play with the spirits as many a person in gothic is, but he is not personally to blame except insofar as he doesn’t take responsibility for others he has brought here. We are our brother’s keepers. Jackson does not incline to Cain’s heresy (I refer to the Biblical Cain).

There is a semi-comic parallel plot in Jackson’s novel with the Dr wife’s Mrs Montague and her silly planchette board, but she is doing explicitly what lies behind the gothic: trying to get in touch with gods. Arthur is her absurd sidekick: there is a parody of the form, a self-reflexive feel to it.

Very refreshing is the lack of a love story. I am sorry to say the 1963 film does project an implicit thwarted love story between Eleanor and the doctor: Eleanor yearns for him. There is no sense of that in the book. If anyone, Eleanor years for the companionship of Theo is made into a closet lesbian – Wise was aware of this and tried to hint at all. Theo is briefly chased by Luke but she quickly debunks and pushes him away.

Outline of novel, followed by how the 1963 film adaptation differs

Eleanor’s Thelma and Louise moment

The novel:

Chapter 1, p 3:

The opening paragraph with phrases that end the books: “whatever walked there, walked alone.” Introduces the characters, Dr Montague, Eleanor Vance, Theo, Luke.

Eleanor’s escape from her unkind exploitative relatives with her car (half hers) and we see the working class world of the US; its malls, family types; past the bullying gatekeeper, Mr Dudley

Chapter 2, p 34

Eleanor gets in, Mrs Dudley, her blue room, meeting Theo, the walk in the landscape — a difference from the film is in the film all takes place inside the house once Eleanor gets past her car ride; the idea was to be claustrophobic. In the novel the characters wander about the landscape — with hope; they hope to have a picnic even. Eleanor buoyed by her new relationship: she hopes Theo and she will be like sisters; Theo does at least say they shall be cousins.

Chapter 3, p 56

Luke, Dr Montague, the explanation. The first night’s dinner. They are to take notes (making fun — like Ashima (Namesake) shelves books as opposed to reading them). What are the good of notes if you don’t have any brains. Bits of the back story begin to emerge: p. 67: the first woman crashed against a tree even before she got to the house. Pp. 71-82: the rest of the history; the growing up of two daughters, their fierce rivalry over money (very common in US life), how the younger was married (Theo persists with invented story she cut out the older – a common happening) and envied the older for her dishes. Older loved the house, grew old, companion came to live with her: parallel with Eleanor and perhaps neglected her. The companion inherited the house and the Saundersons are the heirs and relatives of the unnamed companion. Often women are unnamed in gothics. Like Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca where we never learn the name of the narrator. We learn Theo is lesbian in orientation; Dr Montague reads Pamela; also likes Sterne, Fielding, Smollett

Chapter 4, p 93

First breakfast; investigating house; more talk introducing characters, interrelationships; first terrifying night: the knocking begins.

Chapter 5, p 136

Dr Montague’s first statement he will turn Eleanor out of the house. Histories of ghosts (o. 139ff); the writing on the wall; the cold spot in the hall (p. 150); Theo’s clothes covered in blood, she removes into Eleanor’s side of their shared space; evil spirit puts ugly thoughts in Eleanor’s mind (p. 159); where she slips backwards on the terrace and could have fallen. Eleanor talk to Dr Montague with great sincerity about how she hates to see herself slipping away; they smell in her a potential victim and they begin to circle her (p. 160). About a third of the way in central sequence; Luke finds handwriting: Help Eleanor Come Home; the night of terror where Eleanor thinks she is holding Theo’s hand and it turns out not so

Chapter 6, p 164

Eleanor learning “the pathways of the heart.” Book for daughter Sophia Craine by Demond Lester Crain found, p 168. Fearful illustrations. Theo curses Crain (p. 171) They wander in the landscape with Luke (pp. 173-80).

Chapter 7, p 179

Mrs Montague coming; again Eleanor is outside. The comic inadequacy of her insensitivity; Mrs Montague goes to live in hursery; the planchette with Arthur again produces a message about Eleanor and home. The four caught in the parlor, and terrible pounding, and cannot reach the nursery (pp. 196-205)

Chapter 8, p 206

The landscape, jokes about rabbits, Eleanor begs Theo to take her back with her, Theo harsh and unkind, Eleanor followed in landscape while Luke and Theo joining forces

Chapter 9, p 227

By this time Eleanor has lost her sanity in effect; the sequence in the hall, the statues, her climbing the stairway, but no one is sympathetic, and they seek to rid themselves of her and she smashes into tree.

The 1963 film: it is not a horror film, but film noir: see comment: The Haunting as film noir

The last seconds of the film: all look at the wreck

All happens inside — significant change. Mrs Montague comes only in the equivalent of Chapter 9, her face at the top of the stairway used to terrify Eleanor down and again to drive her into driving the car into the tree.

The back story is simplified in the film: Hugh Grain now has only two wives, not three, and just one daughter, not two. Also, Wise gives us our history lesson immediately after the opening title sequence: An unidentified speaker (who we soon discover is Dr. John “Markway” [Richard Johnson]) provides voice-over narration to accompany what we can only assume is an objective/omniscient montage of Crain’s first wife dying in a carriage crash, of his daughter Abigail spending most of her life inside Hill House’s nursery (an extraordinary temporal ellipsis is achieved here via special effects as Abigail’s face transforms from child to adult to elderly woman without any apparent cuts), and of old Miss Crain’s female companion committing suicide in the tower. By way of contrast, Jackson’s Dr. Montague does not share his knowledge of Hill House’s dark past until much later.

Dr. Montague a slim, clean-shaven, and decidedly romantic figure in the film; Dr. Markway to take the object of Eleanor’s (Julie Harris) affection, with the result that their scenes together operate on multiple discursive levels: They converse not only as scientist-subject, teacher-pupil, and doctor-patient, but as potential lovers.

There are three additional differences: 1) Dr. Markway’s wife plays a much smaller role in Wise’s film than does Dr. Montague’s wife in the book, and the latter spouse’s hyper-masculine (though quite possibly asexual or lover-friend) Arthur does not appear in the film at all.

Theo’s relationship with Eleanor: in the book extremely ambivalent, is in the film here rendered in somewhat (though not entirely) more straightforward lesbian (if implicit) terms. On the one hand, Jackson’s Theo, although probably gay, expresses only a mild attraction toward Eleanor, and by the end of the novel seems to be hitting it off quite well with Luke. Wise’s Theo (Claire Bloom), in contrast, makes a number of fairly obvious passes at Eleanor and evinces a strong negative reaction toward Luke. Going in the other direction, Theo’s insensitivity, if not outright cruelty, toward Eleanor becomes manifest as The Haunting of Hill House proceeds (“I don’t understand. . . . Do you always go where you’re not wanted?” [2091]); in the 1963 film, Theo only becomes angry in response to Eleanor’s own expressions of jealousy and animosity.

Finally, Eleanor’s last moments alive are handled quite differently by Jackson and Wise. In The Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor’s death drive is, at least until the “unending, crashing second before the car hurled into the tree,” a) indisputably self-willed–perhaps even suicidal–act: “I am really doing it, she thought, turning the wheel. . . . I am really doing it, I am doing this all by myself, now, at last; this is me, I am really really really doing it by myself” (245). Gidding and Wise, almost certainly under pressure to rule out suicide as a possible motive for their protagonist’s demise, make it cle ar that Eleanor is not trying to kill herself, that the wheel of her car is being controlled by an outside force that she cannot resist, despite her strongest efforts.

Movie is less sympathetic to Eleanor’s dread of going home; makes more of the Crain presence in the house; the house becomes a chief character, a malign alive presence. In book Eleanor seems to alienate them all from her; they seem to feel she has in her the spirits of the house; in the movie they are protecting her from these spirits and thus themselves.


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