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AtaBar
Paulina Garcia as Gloria: typical moment in the film

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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and then lovers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Bates emerging from the cottage where he now lives alone: second shot

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Bates walking the walk, last shot, having just said ‘Nothing is over and done with, Mrs Hughes … Be aware nothing is over. Nothing is done with.”

Mrs Hughes: ‘Why must you be so hard on Mr Bates? … Don’t you want to be honest?’
Anna: But I know him. I know what he’d do. I can’t risk his future … ‘

Hamlet: ‘What would he do/Had he the motive and the cue for passion/That I have? …’

Dear friends and readers,

In Part 5 of this season, there is a remarkable departure from just about all the parts we’ve had in four seasons: the multi-plot structure where at least 3 stories and 3 sets of characters (sometimes more) seen throughout Downton Abbey gives way to an almost Hamlet-like structure: the story of the Bates’s (Brendon Coyle and Joanne Froggart) dominates in way we’ve not seen before: I counted 11 separate scenes where he is either on-screen, or the center of a strained discussion, several of them long, cut up (segmented or interwoven with others), with Bates himself opening and closing the hour.

We have the usual parallel themes, here of of suspicion: Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) convinced young Pegg (not credited on IMBD) is a thief and acting on it:

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Lady Grantham asserts it does matter that something was stolen;

pride: Molesley (Bernard Gallagher) painfully holding firm to his sense of himself no matter how self-destructive this is

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Molesley cannot forget this sense of himself, of what’s due him from him;

the farmer’s son, Tim Drew (Andrew Scarborough) holding on to his place in the order of things

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Does not the past mean something?;

stories which spins further away: the new lady’s maid, Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) with her sewing machine has a past she must hide and can be blackmailed on

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No problem sewing Mrs Patmore’s (Lesley Nichol) apron;

or belong to another order of feeling: Alfred’s (Matt Milne’s) competing to become a chef at world-city French restaurant; part of attenuated conventional love stories: Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) again half-courted by someone from her past, Evelyn, Lord Napier(Brendon Patricks) and Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) emerging pregnancy; with Michael Gregson (Charles Edward), the father vanished, she bravely prosaically takes a cab to a gynecologist

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(Again for a recap see I should have been a blogger.)

But what grips and holds the attention is Mr Bates’s increasing seething wrath and his perception (Bates is no fool) that the man who violently raped Anna was Lord Gillingham’s valet, Mr Green (Nigel Harman), and Anna’s way of silencing, countering, repressing him. They have five extraordinary scenes, from which I pick just this still of Anna:

Anna

She refuses to be touched by him, to allow him to have sex with her. As played by Froggart, she feels more than shamed, dirtied, to blamed, the very act of sex has become distasteful to her, bringing back memories; and we do get this sense that she has become aware that marriage is a kind of forced sex too.

The slightest gesture electrified with wild feeling:

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he covers her hand with his when he begins to compel her to admit to the assault

I say he is no Hamlet because do not think for a moment he doubts who did it: to Mrs Hughes: ‘Was it the last night of the house party? … Then I know who it really was … I don’t believe you, I do not believe you, I think it was Lord Gillingham’s valet … The way his teeth are seen reminded me of a fox’s teeth, pointed, jagged:

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Talking to Mrs Hughes

Yes implicitly we are let into Anna’s changed understanding of her husband since he was let out of jail: she now knows what he’d do. Mrs Hughes tells him no use pulling his knife on her; she will not tell. More interestingly is A moment later though, Bates is seen crying, and then seeks Anna out. While he knows the way to win Anna back is to assert she is not ‘found out’ or ‘spoiled’ or less loved by him: “I have never been prouder nor loved you more than I love you at this moment now. She: ‘Truly?’ He: ‘Truly’

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Like Molseley, he knows ‘it’s too late’ to turn away, pretend to ignore or forget the crashing awakening trauma that has changed things. The man must not get away with it; some retaliation is from him a burning need: ‘if it was the valet, he is a dead man.’

Beyond the importance of structure, this part reveals how central is the script of a film. It provides not just what is uttered (and words matter, movies have words in them) but the tool of how everything is put together, what elides, what blends, what shifts from one angle and shot (a movie’s unit of meaning) to another.

Formulas and manuals of screenplay writing insist they must propel forward somehow or other at all times, stay within a tight pattern ever on the move; Fellowes’s scripts are not like this: they meander, they spend time filling in from memory, the past, filling characters out; this one is makes for a poetry of gouged feeling all round — even Jimmy cannot resist the spiteful suggestion that Alfred did not just miss winning a place. The characters are not given the variety nor verbal subtlety or density they’d have in a novel, but as ensemble art, this one’s sudden compression of all the others stories into slots interrupting Anna and John Bates’s agon is worth observing for anyone seeking to understand and defend soap opera and costume drama aesthetics and ways of commenting on its viewers’ worlds.

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The first shot of Anna shows her in her room, a book on her table, nearing a window and mirror; this is the second

It strikes me I should have asked why is Bates made the center of the agon and not Anna, after all he was not raped. This is strong evidence of the masculinist discourse and emphasis everywhere we go; there is justice done Anna, and the actress, Froggart manages to convey an enormous amount of what she endures, suffers, is silent over. Since she has refused to tell, refused to act, will not confide in anyone, however, probable this may seem, she cannot be the center of a popularly appealing drama — we see here why it’s necessary to leave realism to put the woman’s point of view across.

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Mrs Hughes as conduit

Ellen

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AllingtomGerouldsblog
The Allington Estate, big & small house & grounds (The Small House at Allington)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m delighted to be able to announce a third essay by me on Anthony Trollope is now on the Victorian Web.

The latest is my Mapping Trollope; or Geographies of Power (see Geographies of the Book). What differentiates this text from the one on my website is the maps are much larger and clearer and you can click on them to further enlarge them. For example, here’s Trollope’s drawing of Barsetshire enlarged. The Victorian Web also has software which allows the scene I transcribed from the BBC 1974-75 Pallisers, Part 9, Episode 8, Madame Max (Barbara Murray) conferring with Mrs Meager (Sheila Fay) as a separate clear document. As in the other two essays, the footnotes are far more accessible: you can click on the raised number and go rapidly from text to footnote, and in this new set-up the notes and bibliography are to the side.

In 2006 I wrote my second conference paper, this time in accordance with the conference’s theme (Trollope and Gender), about how male sexuality and norms of manliness and/or masculinity are presented in Trollope, Trollope’s Comfort Romances for Men: Heterosexual Male Heroism in Trollope. I am finding that this aspect of his work is central to the film adaptations still available: Raven, then Plater and now Andrew Davies explore the problems of having to abide by norms of masculinity and manliness in Victorian society, presented as not all that much different from analogous problems today.

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Upon finding Paul Montague [Cillian Murphy] at Lowestoffe (2001, TWWLN, Part 2, Ep 12) with Mrs Hurtle (a woman whom Paul was formerly engaged to and will be led to have sex with that night in their shared room), Roger Carbury [Douglas Hodge] (an older cousin-uncle) berates Paul scornfully for sexual faithlessness and for abusing Hetta Carbury to whom Paul has now engaged himself and Paul replies:

‘You think so little of me (near tears). Are you so proud of your own dealings with Hetta? … you think of her and speak of her as a child, Roger, all your intercourse with her has been as a grown man with a child and now you offer yourself to herself as a lover? How could you regard your advances to her as anything but an embarrassment and with disgust (anger in his voice rising) that is what I mean …

I’ve learned to understand how Mark Turner’s book, Trollope in the Magazines shows the importance of male audiences to Trollope’s narrator’s sexual stance. What I now realize is Trollope’s novels are not as comforting to men as I had thought. And modern film adapters see the contradictions, cruelties and human tragedies in the conceptions of masculinity enacted in Trollope (say the Pallisers where a young Lady Glen is married off, sold to the much older Plantagenet) and bring these out.

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G. H. Thomas, “She read the beginning — Dearest Grace”, Breakfast Scene, The Last Chronicle of Barset

My first paper on the Web is of course still there: are “Partly Told in Letters: Trollope’s Story-telling Art, which I wrote some 13 years ago now. As the years progress I become more and more convinced that epistolary narrative in a genuinely conceived epistolary situation is central to Trollope’s creation of insightful interiority: the readers, reader and character, cannot know what will happen next, the letter readers’ response is as important as the letter itself, and the letter is presented with an awareness of all the surrounding conditions and internal lying (posing) it brings, how it is also potentially an incriminating document.

Both my first and most recent paper, letters and maps in Trollope, became part of Trollope’s art partly because was himself a postal employee, himself literally mapping Ireland and southwestern England, and cared intensely about everything having to do with letters. From his Autobiography:

Early in 1851 I was sent upon a job of special official work, which for two years so completely absorbed my time that I was able to write nothing. A plan was formed for extending the rural delivery of letters, and for adjusting the work, which up to that time had been done in a very irregular manner. A country letter-carrier would be sent in one direction in which there were but few letters to be delivered, the arrangement having originated probably at the request of some influential person, while in another direction there was no letter-carrier because no influential person had exerted himself…

It was intended to set this right throughout England, Ireland, and
Scotland; and I quickly did the work in the Irish district to which I was attached. I was then invited to do the same in a portion of England … the object was to create a postal network which should catch all recipients of letters. In France it was, and I suppose still is, the practice to deliver every letter. Wherever the man may live to whom a letter is addressed, it is the duty of some letter-carrier to take that letter to his house, sooner or later. But this, of course, must be done slowly. With us a delivery much delayed was thought to be worse than none at all. In some places we did establish posts three times a week, and perhaps occasionally twice a week …

It is amusing to watch how a passion will grow upon a man. During
those two years it was the ambition of my life to cover the country
with rural letter-carriers. I do not remember that in any case a rural post proposed by me was negatived by the authorities; but I fear that some of them broke down afterwards as being too poor, or because, in my anxiety to include this house and that, I had sent the men too far afield. … I would ride up to farmhouses or parsonages, or other lone residences about the country, and ask the people how they got their letters, at what hour, and especially whether they were delivered free or at a certain charge. For a damnable habit had crept into use, which came to be, in my eyes, at that time, the one sin for which there was no pardon, in accordance with which these rural letter-carriers used to charge a penny a letter, alleging that the house was out of their beat, and that they must be paid for their work. I think that I did stamp out that evil … (Chapter 5, pp 87-90)

I love book illustrations, and to immerse myself in the worlds of books, and have been fascinated by the intersection of these with Trollope’s texts since I began reading him. when the Sharp people announced their topic would be maps, I knew I had to write about these in Trollope. And my long interest in epistolary narrative (I wrote my dissertation on Richardson’s Clarissa and Grandison), just love of reading novels told in letters and 1st person subjective narrative novels and studies in the 18th century also led me to take this perspective. I’m now interested in filmic epistolarity, how historical films imitate earlier illustrations and acquire interiority through the use of letters, voice-over, flashbacks, montage, all attached to letter writing, receiving, reading.

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Soft focus: Emily (Laura Fraser) writing Colonel Osborne and saying she would like to see him again, he can come any time, after we have heard his voice-over in a letter to her (2004 HKHWR, Part 1, Ep 5)

And I’ve also shorter piece on the Victorian Web: The Art of Biography, Modern Style: Thackeray, with a response by Peter Shillingsburg. I do love life-writing.

All gratifying. I am very grateful to the people on the Victorian Web who made this possible.

Ellen

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Very first shot of Madame Max Goesler (Barbara Murray) (Pallisers 3:6)

Dear friends and readers,

On the list-serv, Victoria an interesting query: could people cite widows in Victorian novels and what were some attitudes towards them and/or their remarrying? Someone right away mentioned Madame Max Goesler, cited a study in the recent collection Trollope and Gender, with the idea that Trollope’s widows are strong and sympathized-with figures.

That seemed to me (even for a posting) inadequate. Trollope’s fiction (and non-fiction too) abounds in widows using the type with many permutations. the fault-line, what separates the woman off from other women is her assumed sexual experience (knowingness); beyond that she is usually older than women who have never been married and may control property. Towards the type Trollope is ambivalent as he is ambivalent towards aggressive women, which in his fiction except for aging harridans (who usually dislike sex) means sexually pro-active, and women who function as individuals with power and movement outside a husband or family’s control.

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The Widow Greenow (a pastoral name) alluring men at seashore picnic (Phiz illustration, Can You Forgive Her?
The Widow Greenow (an early comic example of a woman who knows how to make her “weeds” alluring

A brief suggestive survey (by no means complete). To begin with the most famous: When we first meet Madame Max in Trollope’s books (Can You Forgive Her?) it’s not clear she is a widow; it’s insinuated that she’s paying someone who she married to stay away (a remittance man). Later Trollope drops that when he wants to make her respectable and chaste so Phineas can marry her.

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Mrs Hurtle (Miranda Otto) and Paul Montague (Cillian Murphy) at Lowestoffe (they probably go to bed together in the novel, they certainly do in the film, from The Way We Live Now; on the illustration this is based on, see proposal)

Trollope uses this motif for other women whose reputation he wants to cast a slur or hint they are unchaste: Mrs Hurtle’s husband is probably still living (The Way We Live Now). In Miss Mackenzie the women in boarding houses who present themselves as widows are not to be trusted, especially (it seems) in Bath (the hint is they are for sale). Mrs Smith in John Caldigate a very suspicious figure (Trollope’s presentation makes her this way) whom the hero may have married: we are never quite sure, and thus it may actually be that Caldigate’s marriage to the heroine, Hester, may actually be bigamous, whence the title Trollope wanted for his novel, Mrs John Caldigate (to call attention to the reality that we don’t know which of the two is really entitled to be Mrs C).

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When John Caldigate first comes upon Mrs Smith: a ship journey remance (Folio Society illustration)

It is true that if a woman is menopausal and remains physically attractive, she is usually presented as sympathetic as well as powerful (Lady Ludlow the best-known from Framley Parsonage), but if she actually exercises that power to thwart a young man of his sexual desires, she is stigmatized (Rachael Ray’s mother) or made a sort of monster (Lady Ball in Miss Mackenzie). If she openly breaks sexual taboos (married for money even though this is allowed men), like Lady Ongar (The Claverings), she is punished harshly.

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Mary Ellen Edwards drew Lady Ongar as large — here she’s trying to re-engage the hero’s sympathies (Claverings illustrations)

If she remains attractive, she has ever to be on the watch for the suspicious and distrustful: Lady Mason (Orley Farm) is under her son’s thumb and is seen as a target (and she knows it) before her son’s inheritance is questioned (partly due to his tactlessness). There’s great sympathy for Lady Mason and we are to admire her for winning a case where she was is accused of forgery — when she actually did it. Millais’s illustrations curiously make her out to be even younger than Trollope’s text suggests.

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Millais’s Lady Mason shrinks from her needed lawyer Mr Furnivall’s suspicious (jealous) wife (Orley Farm illustrations)

To me though the most interesting uses of this ambivalent type of women in Trollope is where the woman has used the title to cover up a period between one relationship (marriage) and another (a second man where she has not waited until the first one was dead to “protect” herself) and Trollope sympathizes with her: Mrs Mary Askerton (The Belton Estate) now respectably married again had a period where she wasn’t a widow; she became one when her alcoholic (and presumably abusive husband) at long last died; she seems to be a parish still, shunned; it’s not clear that she couldn’t break out in to society, but at any rate only the heroine. Clara Amedroz defies the worst minds and befriends Mrs Askerton. There’s much sympathy in Dr Wortle’s School for Mr and Mrs Peacock; he married her but it’s not clear the previous husband died, and again (as in the case of Lady Mason) personal animosity leads someone to attack them to get at Dr Wortle (in whose school they teach). Madame Max can be related to these until Trollope conveniently forgets about her remittance man.

Showing either that Trollope’s particular configuration of sympathy for the transgressive woman is not share today, or his more devoted readers do not think about this aspect of his fiction enough, there were no original illustrations for these widows, nor have the novels they appear in been filmed or even adapted for radio. The Widow Greenow was cut from the filmed Pallisers. And by Phineas Finn Madame Max has been turned into a chaste type widow who refuses the Duke of Omnium’s proposition that she become his mistress.

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After a violent scene where Lopez needles Emily (Sheila Ruskin) over how she enjoys sex with him, and flings her to the door, she shudders (Pallisers 11:23, from The Prime Minister)

Erasures or forgetting aspects of Trollope’s presentations of widows today sometimes work to reinforce his views. When in The Prime Minister Emily Lopez believes herself “polluted” from having married an amoral and (it’s more than hinted) sexually lascivious (and Jewish) man, Ferdinand Lopez, in the novels she at length refuses to remarry the Gallahad-figure Arthur Fletcher (who she loved first and we see again loved during her marriage, causing sexual rage in Lopez). Trollope seems to assume all women should be married. That is the be-all of their existence. The TV programs cut all this. Raven does not make her collapse into the other hero’s arms quickly either. Anticipating the end of Andrew Davies’s The Way We Live Now, Raven’s Emily (like Trollope’s Lily Dale) has been seriously disillusioned, abused, and we are given to understand will marry no more.

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Emily prefers her father, Mr Wharton (Pallisers 11:23)

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Marie Melmotte (Shirley Henderson) closes the door on everyone (TWWLN 4:12)

While at the Exeter conference (6 years ago now) and today again the question came up why Victorians seem to have a prejudice against widows remarrying. At the conference I remember participants saying widows were a threat to the chances of unmarried women. That’s certainly in Trollope. But he also likens the black widows wear (which he disapproves of when it is too heavy or goes on for too long as hypocritical) to Indian women undergoing suttee where he makes an explicit analogy between how the family of a widow’s husband do not want her children from a second marriage interfering with the inheritance of the first husband’s children. The impulse is to erase her future, not allow her any lest it get in others’ way. And he shares the strong prejudice against women having a pro-active sexual life too (an impulse not gone from our world today), though (as I have discovered) there is still among older men without women this flattering idea that widows are sex-hungry and knowing sexually and will make themselves sexually available for companionships (that’s the real trade-off offered on the older websites for matching people). These stereotypes of widows are hostile to her realities or ignore them at every turn.

At the Exeter conference too some of the men showed they were allured by Trollope’s widows, especially Madame Max. I’ve noticed on list-servs that male viewers often have a crush on Barbara Murray who played the part splendidly. This even though in the novels she is given masculine roles and the words used to describe her by Trollope make her into more of a gentlemen than lady, and in the films she adds to the erotic sophisticated veneer Trollope gives her much comedy (she is given funny scenes rejecting Derek Jacobi as Lord Fawn) and much poignancy and dignity at the series’ close. Early in her career the actress was a powerful Anna Karenina; and in a Wednesday night play the mistress of a broken man played by Donal Mcann.

But rather than repeat what everyone notices, I’ll end on the Widow Bold who was acted equally well (the role quite different) by Janet Maw from Alan Pater’s wonderfully scripted mini-series, Barchester Chronicles:

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Another Emily faithful to her father, Mrs Bold looks out anxiously at Mr Harding and the Rev Arabin (English, clergyman, upper class, an ethical ideal for Trollope), and is never taken in by either Mr Slope (the intensely ambitious outsider, Alan Rickman just behind her) or

Bertie Stanhope, the idle ne’er-do-well who wanted her money for his family and himself:

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She has just let Bertie (Peter Blythe) know he hasn’t got a chance

She is strongly sympathized with; she is pro-active on her own behalf, sexually passionate; she is liked because she breaks no taboos, loves her little boy and is loyal to her idealistic father

Women in black … The illustrations and stills tell us that for Trollope these are highly sexualized women. They don’t tell us what his narrator and book descriptions do: that Trollope’s taste was for thin women; he was allured by olive-skinned women, women had narrow wrists and small breasts (“narrow shoulders”). (The Victorian ideal is the fecund big blonde, the Juno type Trollope’s narrator calls her, does not attract him personally.)

Ellen

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From the summer 2012 American Century Theater production

Dear friends and readers,

Insofar as we can by this time, we returned to our usual lives, and last night saw a remarkable play which was a kind of re-enactment. A large group of actors from the American Century Theater participated in enacting one of these (hideous eventually) dancing marathons adrumbrated in the 1920s, in supposedly “innocent” college stunts weher young people jumped out windows. (I wonder about that — was it a form of sorority or fraternity hazing?) When the depression really began to destroy lives, create widespread abysmal povetry in the early 1930s, these jumping parties were turned (I don’t quite get the connection) into organized dance marathons lasting literally days on end. Couples were first tempted and then pressured and finally humiliated into enduring long hours of “dancing” to win a prize of money.

I’d liken this to a cruel form of performing circus; the audiences are characterized as vulgar and awful, enjoying the spectacle of suffering and desperation for money, and (unlike TV or movies), they were literally there, but the pleasures of this experience reminds me of what is said to be gained from watching today’s TV reality shows. For those actively dancing, if any couple won a prize, the cost of good, laundry, medical care, lodging was deducted. A widely-known secret was that acting professional did this and that’s what we see in this enactment too.

It was an unusually long play — the experience took about 3 hours (with one 15 minute intermission during which some of the actors sung before a mike). The company were trying to make the time passed as realistic as they could with a slow opening (including fights, insults and bickering among the actors, managers, food people, physicians, band players). Everyone dressed in 1930s outfits in the cast, and the audience sat the way they would have been. Actors also played audience members. A concession stand we could buy from was set up too (alas, 2012 prices). A band.

It took time for the dancing to degenerate into suffering, and intermixed with the dark drabness, they would put on strobe lights that sparkled and threw a gay light over the proceedings. The 1930s songs during intermission, and pretended 10 minute rest periods emerged as creepy, or gothic, or perversely hypocritical. Little cruelties got to me: a man called the coach who blew on a whistle and had a hard wooden switch would hit the contestant’s feet and legs to stay dancing (like a football coach, no?). The sarky talk from the introducer and announcers, the way they sneered and shamed people was unpleasant and my first response was “let’s go home.” But Jim said, no, stay, it’s not real remember, but an enactment. The Washington Post reviwer loved it, called it a “slow burner.”

They managed a story line by having three couples emerge more individually; one actress played June Havoc herself and she made explicit her anger at how she was exploited and yet had to endure this to find a company to be in continually and eat. She and her partner (played by Bruce Alan Rauscher, an excellent actor I’ve seen in other companies) enacted a wedding in front of the audience — quite like a reality “match game” show. A kind of phony Marlene Dietrich stops by — and actors famous becuase they are famous were there too (again anticipating TV). Each couple were at first dressed to the nines, but gradually re-dressed and grew filthy, exhausted, with their clothes sweaty-ruined, torn. They began to quarrel bitterly as they collapsed, blaming one another for losing, jealous between couples.


The nagging MC boss

June Havoc who wrote the piece was Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister and she did participate in these. She wrote two autobiographies also, Early Havoc and More Havoc.

The group doing this called themselves the American Century Theater and they make a specialty out of American plays – do nothing else so you can sometimes see remarkable and rarely done stuff. So, it’s a fair question to ask: given our present depression, the present use of reality and football shows, what in American culture breeds this? Is it connected to the popularity (apparently) of figures like Romney, Ryan and their ilk — is this somehow connected to the paranoid element of the TeaPartyBaggers (or whatever they are called). The sobering thought that there were no marathons in places outside the US occurred in the company’s notes (fake wrestling does not occur outside the US either). Having gone to an exhibit of the war of 1812 early this summer reminded me how early on the American way became aggressive, violent. After all enough people enable the distribution of guns across the US, go to super-violent movies at midnight where the crazed person is dressed like the people in the movie), sexualized horrible talk continues in campaigns and over the media which finds acceptable violence against women’s sexuality and pretends to idolize figures like brides and Dietrichs.

Apparently the movei, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is an account of a dance marathon. An early Jane Fonda film it shows her at her acting best in the central June role:

I shall try to rent it from Netflix. I recommend this play to all; what happens in it, its norms and what’s allowed as acceptable behavior may make you think about the cool competition (which can turn into psychological warfare), tricky rules which can become sabotage and big cash prizes, together with scorn for “losers” that make up the worst aspects of US culture and yet dominate our elections and much of pop public media, to omit the money marketplace competitive job worlds, increasingly what’s taught implicitly in schools, and for some courtship and sex and marriage too.

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

This is to urge everyone who reads this blog to rent, buy, or go to see in theaters or watch on TV Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee. A friend on WWTTA told me about it last week:

I just saw it and recommend it to everyone. It’s a remarkable look at corporate power and the attempt (more successful than you likely realize) to deprive American citizens access to our civic justice system.

The director, Susan Saladoff, does a superb job of presenting the reality behind the infamous McDonald’s coffee lawsuit–it was really shocking to learn the truth not only about that case but about the right-wing/corporate effort to limit constitutionally guaranteed rights.

Netflix has it for rental. My local library has it–check yours, too.

I rented it from Netflix within the next couple of days, and when we returned from Vermont, watched it and was just thunderstruck. It’s a startling eye-opener. Saladoff explains how wealthy corporations, powerful institutions and organizations in our society are successfully cutting off from the average person the US civil criminal justice system in the US intended to help individuals get redress or help when they have been hurt or harmed by these bodies of people.

Saladoff shows us first of all that the judiciary across the US is nowadays filled with mostly reactionary judges put there through well-funded campaigns for Republicans and conservative Democrats. When they lose a campaign against a fair judge as in Oliver Diaz’s case, they then pursue the judge as they hounded Diaz) by indicting him for accepting bribes, corruption, whatever will stick. From a detailed review of Hot Coffee by Kenneth R. Morefield:

The third story is that Oliver Diaz and it frames the issue of judicial elections. The film illustrates how judicial elections on the state level are particularly susceptible to vast spending discrepancies, and political action committees (PACs) funded by the Chamber of Commerce spend huge amounts of money to blanket electorates with negative attack ads. (In Diaz’s case the ads were even repudiated by his opponent yet continued to run by the Chamber of Commerce.)

I did not begin to know the extent of the reach of these corporations, their lobbyists and the political people they have bought.

The film shows that many cases of individuals seeking redress are consequently today just obliterated by a judge reversing a jury’s findings (so that no settlement or a very limited one of money can come to aid the person), how relentless and successful the corporations have been in convincing the US public most lawsuits brought by individuals are frivolous and cost the taxpayer money. Ironically, it’s the failure of these individual to find redress and help from those with deep pockets who caused the harm that leads them to come to the public for what help they can.

When the number of winning cases goes down, and when the amount of money award goes down, the insurance companies do not lower their rates. And you cannot get people to change their behavior unless you force them through fear of monetary damages.

Three stories are told Stella Leibeck who was the lady who spilt searingly hot coffee on her lap spent literally years trying to cope with severe burns. The price was outrageously high (our medical non-system is another story). Here is a photo of her legs some time after she had had some treatment:

Macdonalds keeps the temperature of their coffee so high because it saves them money. They waste less coffee that way.

We are told the story of a Colin Courley’s parents where the wife was unaware that one of a pair of twins was being radically damaged in her uterus. Her boy is severely crippled. The couple do not begin to have the money to offer him adequate treatment and schooling. They are worried sick what will happen to him after they die. They were originally awarded a large enough amount to enable them to cope. The judge put on the case lowered it to an amount that is wholly inadequate. Consequently they have to come to the taxpayer and public agencies (underfunded) for help:

The case of Colin Gourley, a Nebraska boy who requires a lifetime of care and physical therapy after suffering brain damage due to medical malpractice but was unfortunate enough to be conceived in a state (Nebraska) with a hard cap on damages, illustrates the dangers of liability caps. Two especially strong points made in this segment are that states that enact liability caps do not experience reductions in the cost of malpractice insurance nor medical costs and that costs incurred by victims of malpractice and not covered by damage awards are most often absorbed by Medicaid, meaning any “savings” created by lower judgments are essentially in the form of liability subsidies paid by tax payers. The second point is particularly ironic because a linchpin of tort reform arguments is the claim that frivolous lawsuits (supposedly eliminated by hard caps) are what are driving costs up and making things more expensive for everyone.

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Colin, his family — his twin brother stands next to Saladoff

Far from people going to court lightly, it takes money and courage to go to court, time, energy and the willingness to undergo personal attacks. Jamie Leigh Jones was promised a good job by Halliburton with reasonable living quarters. She found herself in a set of rooms filled with males where she was the only female. That first night she was brutally raped, beaten, sodomized; when she tried to complain, she found herself imprisoned in a crate. Only by reaching her father and his instant action in going to his senator was she released and sent home. She has spent years trying to expose this company. Her problem is she signed a mandatory arbitration contract which removes her right to go to court; she is by law required to appeal to an abritrator hired by Halliburton. How much redress do you think she would get?

The story of Jamie Leigh Jones, a woman who was brutally raped after KBR/Halliburton ignored her pleas that she was being sexually harassed on the job (and forced to live in coed trailers rather than, as she was promised, with other women) frames the film’s final issue, that of mandatory binding arbitration clauses in contracts. In these contracts employees and, increasingly, consumers are required to waive their right to pursue civil relief for any problems that might result in the future and accept instead binding arbitration from an arbiter selected by the company.


Jamie Leigh Jones

Everything has been done that can be to smear her: the story is one that exposes our pro-rape culture. She lost her case ultimately because at each round the conservative judge voted against her.

What was chilling here was how many lawyers and academics line up in support of these mandatory arbitration contracts. They shamelessly justify these in court as for the public interest. People will say anything.

Tort reform is not a boring subject. We have Orwellian language here: what’s happening is not reform, but destruction of rights that ought to be inalienable from our constitution and bill of rights.

It’s so well done too, the explanations so clear. It made me remember all the contracts and fine print I’ve signed and of the cases of individual judges and others destroyed by the ruthlessness, relentless and bottomless pocketbook corporations and their lawyers (Karl Rove). I am aware from my personal experience of how high and powerfully placed and ordinary academics too support these people. The idea the university is a bastion of leftism is a bleak joke.

We need to know that mandatory arbitration clauses in contracts are ways of depriving us and most people of their right to sue when hurt or cheated. How many contracts I’ve signed where I can barely read the small print.

We need to know that the US chamber of commerce is a front for corporations.

The pro-choice forces in the US have found themselves crippled, outdistanced and now repressed and increasingly without anywhere for a woman to get an abortion. Why? They have let the Catholics and those who would make women submit to repression, exploitation, take over the dialogue. Pro-choice people are put on the defensive because of the ceaseless presentation of women as turned neurotic if they don’t have a child or have an abortion. Nonsense. Some are upset; some are relieved, some are empowered.

I did puzzle over why the rhetoric of family scenes of happiness trumps even these scenes. I did wonder why the liberal democrats have so much trouble winning cases and elections.

My friend offered this explanation: The wish to not have to face responsibility for causing the suffering of others is at the root of the “tort reform” movement, on which the film focuses.

Tort reform not a dull bore. “Reform” here means depriving you and me of access to the courts for redress and help when we’ve been hurt, taken advantage of, need monetary help and want to prevent the same cruel acts from being perpetrated on someone else. See Hot Coffee by Saladoff and then tell others to see it.

Ellen

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John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (Patrick Earl as Giovanni, the lover-brother, and Denice Mahler as his sister-lover, Annabella), from the ASC’s production 2012

Dear friends and readers,

This is a “must-see” production. So wrote the “Mid-Atlantic Travel Blogger” who while anonymous had enough clout to see a “private” performance of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore by the group who used to call themselves “The Shenandoah Shakespeare”. He or she couldn’t or doesn’t explain why; indeed seemed puzzled how such a “twisted” play could please, and put it down to “shock.”

Within a few seconds of the start of the second act, I realized this was the production Ford’s daring play calls for: its note throughout is a gleeful exposure of the angry cynicism, amorality or sheer stupidity (imbecility) of all the authority figures of the play: some are amoral such as the cardinal (Rick Blunt), who is disinclined to prosecute the murder of one citizen because the murderer has some connections, and who gathers up all the gold left by dead strewn across the stage at the play’s close; some are justifiably cynical like Hippolita (Stephanie Holladay Earl), rejected wife of a nobleman; or Vasques (Eugene Douglas) a kind of Iago who pronounces moral lessons. There are simpletons who enforce unexamined norms: Florio (Daniel Abraham Stevens), Annabella’s father who forces her to marry the vicious treacherous Soranzo (Jake Mahler). There are the complicit for their own appetites and interest’s sake, Putana, Annabella’s “nurse” (Bridget Rue as brothel madam); Grimaldi, willing to murder at the drop of a sword (typical type of this era, played by Michael Amendola). Dark farce is the way much of these interactions are performed, with over-the-top garishly sexual costuming for the women. The story is complicated but it’s told simply at wikipedia).

Really though there’s nothing new here for us in 2012. Old hat since Marat/Sade. What is startling and commendable is from the second part of the play on, the players did Giovanni and Annabella’s love for one another as totally passionate, a beautiful thing, two souls made for one another with the most idealistic soaring of the spirit. Here’s Annabella telling Soranza what Giovanni is:

This noble creature was in every part
So angel-like, so glorious, that a woman
Who had not been but human, as was I,
Would have kneeled to him, and have begged for love.
You! why you are not worthy once to name
His name without true worship, or indeed,
Unless you kneeled, to hear another name him. (Act 3, sc 3)

The look of aspiration in Earl’s eyes is pitch perfect:

The twisting of this young man from within until he goes mad by the end of the act and himself cruelly murders Annabella (Othello-like, and Ford alludes to Othello, he cannot bear to have his woman taken by Soranzo nightly) and stalks about covered with the blood of Soranzo crazed and vehemently assailing the world from the top of his lungs on the top of a high table — these final moments are where the plot-design of the whole play had been heading.

As ever, our players “did it with the lights on,” and so they had no technology to rivet or distract us with. Earl as Giovanni was up to absorbing an audience into awed silence watching him. At the play’s close he has not the problem of what to do next since Vasques comes up to stab him from behind and then has his hired assassins (several in black who turn up whenever needed) to finish the job off:


The woman imitates a police offer, the men without the religious symbols FBI and spy-detective types, and then there’s a priest

The second half of this production was thus much braver than the Capital Fringe Festival group two summers ago who drew out of an abridged version of the play a socially acceptable feminist moral: at one point Annabella tells us (in this production from a high window) we are seeing “A wretched, woeful woman’s tragedy (Act 5, sc 1). But the dignity with which she is endowed, and the way the previous production managed to suggest this play was about men oppressing women was not followed here. This Annabella grovels on the floor:

The lines emphasized are those which present the two people as gripped by love, unable to do without one another surrounded by these “vile” types. The production used “mash-up” techniques for the intermission and during the play we were treated to 1950s rock-n-roll ballads that were very familiar to me, strains of them which I could not quite place: about love a blind passion, about loneliness. Soranzo’s bullying becomes a raping of Annabella nightly instead of justifiable rage at finding himself stuck with a pregnant woman who will not tell her lover’s name; he orders her to bed (the lines are there) where he will again do what he wants. Coerced marriage is rape.

The play put me in mind of Simon Raven’s unfortunately little known masterpiece novel, Fielding Gray: the life of the homosexual male is twisted and perverted by having to hide it, being subject to blackmail and abuse. Heterosexuals can be as nasty and horrible as they please in their sex life, it remains okay as it’s heterosexual; homosexual sex is not prima facie no good in itself; it’s what the society does to it that makes it base and wild (see my blog on Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty). So too incest here. Ford’s play differs from the many Jacobean plays enacting incest or incestuous desires and vicarious sex (Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, Middleton’s Women Beware Women): Ford empathizes with the lovers. As Eric Minton puts it, Giovanni and Annabella are just these “true-hearted individuals who just happen to have fallen in love with someone sprung from the same womb. Theirs may be the squirmiest sin, but many other characters prove more loathsome in their violent natures, their greed, their infatuation with revenge, and their self-serving self-righteous.” Minton then goes over the downright silly in the play but omits one young woman, Philotis (Bridget Rue), who is sent to a nunnery in a sort of daze: she had on a shiny satiny skirt with a petticoat which reminded me of outfits made for little girls who are given tap-dancing lessons by middle class US parents for the once-a-year stage performance.

Alas though, reading the Mid-Atlantic Traveler, and finding hardly any reviews of this play, and remembering how the previous production I have seen (so to speak) normalizes the action in terms of 20th century values, perhaps the players and their director were rightly cautious in the introduction and first half. They had an added on introduction which both trivialized the coming play and warned us against it, going so far as to tell us Giovanni was a bad villain. It was all a joke we were going to see, but if we couldn’t take some (whisper the word) “incest,” perhaps we shouldn’t stay. Then the first act had the actors at first turning to the audience as if to ask for boos. What they discovered was there were several fools in the first row who took this seriously and began to call out heckling comments which was then half-clapped by further idiots further back. The play-acting in this first act was oddly artificial and over-the-top strident, rather like a clown show. The way of playing the love of Giovanni and Annabella and the betrayals of the other characters seemed to suggest it was a mystery what could possibly have fuelled Ford to write such a ridiculous piece. Maybe the heckling did some good, for I could see the actors begin to stop appealing to the audience, back off, speed up, though not until the second act did the front row people begin to realize they were not supposed to boo Giovanni or call him out as a “bad guy.” Perhaps the gouging out of Putana’s eyes after Vasques manipulates and deludes her into revealing that Annabella’s lover is Giovanni did the trick to silence them. I admit they interfered with my enjoyment in the first act and was relieved when they fell silent.

During the intermission for the first time in all the many times I have seen ASC productions (a lot of them by now), I began to think well, at long last they have goofed. Or maybe it was that in such a conservative era, and in this mid-Virginia Shenandoah valley (not so far off is Evangelical Jerry Falwell country) they were scared off of doing justice to the very material they had chosen. I might have suggested to Jim we go home, only it had been a 3 hour drive to get there. But I remembered the choice of ’50s music during the intermission and hoped it was deliberate and stayed.

In the event, the actors switched gears totally and the last hour and a half was magnificent in energy, bravura, acting, poignancy.


From a Brooklyn Academy of Music production

It may be that the day we went there just happened to be a number of naive audience members in the first row. I have seen actors on stage make the mistake of inviting an audience slightly to cut up, and have to actually not just back up but even half-scold said audience to get them to be courteous in their interactions again. One must not forget that the actors on a stage are in a state of abjection to the audience: they may seem to be individually triumphing, releasing themselves, showing off, but they are performing for us, nailed down to their scripts, often showing themselves, costumed in dangerously vulnerable ways. Actors have sometimes had overtly to separate themselves from evil characters to protect themselves from the audience’s identification of them with their roles. I have read insightful accounts of theater which make this point about the reality of the actor’s rightly unacknowleged position of supplication (See Kristina Straub’s Sexual Suspects: 18th Century Players and Ideology on the long-hard slog actors of the 18th century performed to gain respect stop heckling and abuse, and protect the actresses.) I had not actually experienced what this means before this.

Jim had a different take — while just as surely recommending going to see it if you are at all within driving distance. Over dinner Jim argued that Ford is playing with ideas, at a distance from them (in the way I think of the Fletcher plays, Middleton and Massinger in his comedies). The play, Jim says, is misogynistic. Ford judges Annabella to be a whore, using the term in a general vilifying way to mean any woman who has sex outside marriage even if with just one man. (Izzy protested that Annabella cannot be a whole because she is paid nothing, has no money; she used the 20th century definition of whore means prostitute which is the way I use the term.) Jim maintains the text of the play blames Annabella. Her looseness starts the evil spreading. PUtano had it coming to her. Vasques is the Vindice (revenger on behalf of God and providence) character and that’s why he is left standing. Jim suggested that since a modern audience would dislike this very much, and want to empathize with a tragic character and feel for the victims, the people who do Ford must alter the play into black farce. Then we don’t worry who is to blame. Or they can, like the Capital Fringe people, impose a modern anti-misogynistic message by abridging.


Tragic heroine from The Broken Heart

I’m not sure. I find it hard not to read Ford’s The Broken Heart as feminist. If we are to blame Annabella, why not Giovanni who is cursed by several authority figures in the play. Surely Soranzo. Vasques recalls Shakespeare’s Iago.

So don’t miss the play. This is a play where the behavior spectacle of the audience may become part of the play and the play itself of real interest.

Ellen

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Toibin’s Ireland

Dear friends and readers,

It’s about time I wrote in praise of Colm Toibin, of his biographical and critical essays, of his novels, his biographical fiction, his travel books. I can’t think of any writer as originally thoughtful, perceptive, humane, quietly iconoclastic, informative, absorbing, who reads authors as interesting or simply writes as well so consistently. When I see his name on a list of contributors to any periodical I subscribe to, I go to him first and he doesn’t disappoint. This morning I was lifted out of bleak loneliness (Coping) into a consoled companionableness by his review of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (for New York Review of Books LIX, 8 (May 10, 2012)9-11 where he quoted Larkin in ways that resonated with my feelings, validated them.

Toibin an Irish journalist who comes from precisely the area he has set his story in; he is himself gay or homosexual and he has written out of this perspective more directly at times. While he does write about overt politics, there is much travel writing and three of the novels at least center on this business of the compromises and concessions you must make if you want to stay in a family circle at all, or the difficulties of being in a family setting. He is interested in colonialists and hybrid-identities and literature: Anglo-Irish, Anglo-Indian, French-African, Irish-American. Catholic by faith, liberal-leftist in outlook, sympathetic to revolutionary movements, he’s a gifted writer: delicately powerful stories. He now lives in Dublin.

I can’t list all the essays by him I’ve read, over the years especially on Henry James, Oscar Wilde; his arguments stay with me and I use them in my essays and postings and they become part of my thinking. I’ve not read his short stories, but I have read The Master (a fictional biography of Henry James, see my blog on Kaplan’s biography), The South, Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn. I wish I had read more, and now that my reading time at night is limited I shall have to turn to him during the day.

The South

I remember parts of the book vividly still. Reading The South made me choose to read his The Master and teach Blackwater Lightship and most recently (as my Christmas treat) Brooklyn.

The heroine in The South leaves cold husband and unsympathetic son to make a new life for herself in the south with a wholly unconventional painter who had fought on the left side against Franco; he had been tortured, is now under surveillance and the way he leaves is to retreat to the mountains to live very meagrely (since he has little money and no way of getting any kind of middle class income-producing job). She loves the escape, release, life with him, and herself begins painting. Much on Spanish landscape and customs of a leisured pattern of days. Eventually she gets pregnant by him and years pass and they do improve their (what some would say) squalid living arrangements. Alas, the authorities decide to come after the man again, he is again trying to do some good in the political world. He is again imprisoned, perhaps tortured (I’m not sure on this latter detail), at any rate deeply distraught once more. He has retired from society as a reaction to what he saw in the thirties. (The texts to read here is Orwell’s Reflections of the Spanish Civil War and the Homage to Catalonia). Alas, a horrible accident kills both this man and the new son — we are to see this accident is also wanted; the man wants out and he takes his son with him.

The devastation to our heroine is for a time crushing — though her behavior manifests the same pragmaticism of approach. Some wandering, and meandering and eventually she does return to Ireland, partly lured there by her son by the first husband. Not forgiven (for what should she be forgiven? is the sense of the text) nor forgiving (they are not sorry for what they are), nonetheless, her older family finds a place for her to live in Ireland.

Meanwhile (I’ve left this part out) her career as an artist has gone on quietly flourishing with paintings recording her sense of Spain and experience. She has lived an authentic life and continues to do so until the book quietly closes and at whatever price she had to pay in others’ refusal to countenance this since they did not.

The reverse is true of the heroine of Brooklyn. Indeed the slightly shocking close shows the heroine returning to Ireland and her originally intended husband because 1) she had promised to, and under the stress of circumstances been pressured into literally marrying the first lover, he having surmised she might just not come back when she sees improved living standards and freedom — he had been her only choice; no jobs anywhere that are fulfilling or money-making for such as someone from her family); and 2) the authority figures in Brooklyn discover she has married elsewhere and threatened to expose her; she knows she will become a pariah because this is the way such people as a group work, so home she goes, leaving then the man who had come to love her in his compromised way (he needs her, she fits in &c&c).

I remember the devastatingly accurate assessment of her relationship with the mother, used and she knows using her. We had been thinking the heroine was better than all these, but she is exposed as just like everyone else. And we are to feel for her, deeply feel for us all in her case.

The heroine in The South escaped all this; hers is the reverse story. But she did for much of her life live hard, in poverty, alone, her beloved man tortured, hounded and escaped through killing herself and she ends in this cottage provided for her, silent again (as the kind of talk in her Irish family is once more irrelevant to anything that matters to her for real).

But the meaning inherent in The South and Brooklyn is the same, the perspective out of which they come and the ultimate message about the obstacles to living an authentic life.

I love candour and hard-truth telling in a book; the unexpected ending exhilarated me. So many falsely easy and happy pseudo-optimistic stories are told; rather than give hope, they irritate and depress me as having the effect of throwing the blame on people who don’t do well. On the the other hand, wanting to think very well of the heroine, Eilis Lacey, when she was in the very final pages of the book obviously willing to overthrow her Brooklyn husband, Tony, and marry the new Irish man, Jim, who owned a pub and was admired by all, in a situation where she saw that instead of being ignored as the useless superfluous second sister, she would get a better job than in NYC (the competition in NYC was too keen for her to rate an office job), I liked her less. I was anxious for her because I thought it would matter to her so much to lose the beloved Tony, but when I was shown how she would give this up, I acceded it was truthful but cared less.

I loved the portrait of the mother who knew or had enough to suspect all along
her daughter had formed new ties in Brooklyn but ignored it, pretended not to
know in order to pressure the girl into lying and staying. But when the girl was
to go because her marriage in Brooklyn was found out, instead of showing affection, the mother shut the door on her. Here we see how people really value one another and what for. Now she can’t get from the girl what she wanted: not just a companion but someone who this pub owner would marry so she the mother would be admired in public.

On the immigrant patterns: I grew up in the south east Bronx mostly, in a slum which at first was heavily Irish but by the time my parents moved out was heavily black. The patterns of Irish life were to me no different than the working class Italian life I saw in Richmond Hill, a neighborhood near the one we moved to. I didn’t dislike them; they seemed to me American catholic working class by the time I was in my teens, only on the surface different from middle to upper middle class Jewish life in Kew Gardens where we did move. The Kew Gardens neighborhood I did hate and had a hard time getting used to: much snobbery, ostentation, and we lived in a 3 bedroom apartment on the ‘low end’ of life there. My name, Ellen, is partly the result of my mother imitating the names she heard around her in the Bronx. (It’s also the name of the mother in Gone with the Wind, which however she denied knowing and said it was just the people around her. I doubt she would have called me Colleen though as my mother was Jewish and that would have been gonig too far.)

Toibin sets the two other novels I’ve read by him partly or wholly in Ennisworthy. It’s where he comes from. And he has a poignant statement about missing it (boyhood memories) in Blackwater Lightship.

The Brooklyn New York parts were truth to life. My mother’s people lived in Brooklyn and for about 2 years (one year when I was small) I lived in Brooklyn and did on occasion visit these relatives growing up. The climate would seem extreme after the British Isles.

I read with an intense anxiety on behalf of Eilis, worried for her as succumbing to pressure. I had to peek ahead to assure myslf she broke away and returned. But when I experienced why and how my feelings for her changed dramatically. But this is a truthful probable portrait. It showed me patterns in my family’s reactions to me I’ve seen repeatedly.

Blackwater Lightship throws yet another permutation and light on this central experience — as does The Master, only then the partial escapee is James. This novel is about a homosexual young man who returns to his family for a weekend just before he died. They had nothing to do with him until then because they didn’t want to know or allow anyone else to know he lived a gay life. We see all their estrangements from one another too.

It’s been criticized for not centering more emphatically on the issue of homosexuality, even marginalizing it. To my mind that Toibin presents Decclan’s sexual orientation, and condition as another important element in the life of the family, not more devastating or central than say the father’s death (Mr Breen) or Lily’s long time adjusting to being alone and her giving her two children to her mother, Dora Devereux while she coped is one of its strengths.

It’s realistic: no false sentiment about family life, but that biological ties are there and for reasons that are hard to explain pragmatically except that people turn to families and families take them in as a matter of survival; there is no alternative to rely on so people come through for one another most of the time. Not all. Homeless people not uncommon. People living away from families and managing to support themselves and find company and worlds with friends happens a good deal.

Still the family pattern is the dominant one whether in a modern country and culture like the US or traditional one like Zimbabwe and India (there we have an arranged marriage and couple who come to live in the US.

Key theme of this and two other of his books, The South and The Heather Blazing (I’ve read about it), and his fictional biography of Henry James called The Master are The key themes, “are the compromises and concessions involved in belonging to a family and in calling somewhere “home”.


The DVD cover of the TV movie adaptation

Three complex female characters: Helen (now married to Hugh O’Doherty), her mother, Lily Breen, and the grandmother, Dora Devereux. All three have similar characters: proud, standoffish, determined with the ability and knowhow of domineering, running a situation, self-contained, self-possessed, but like most people wanting affection, support, and Helen shown as having sensitivities like her older son, Cathal; Manus has mean bullying personality from the get-go, huge ego. You might say it’s about the problem of mothering; by no means does this come more naturally to women than men though the task is forced on them by social arrangements and expectations.

There is no easy reconciliation. The family’s fumbling attempts at change are set against the natural process of erosion that is eating away the coastline close to the family home in Cush. The liminal space of the beach as a setting for the beginning of Helen and Lily’s reconciliation, and the novel ends with the muted triumph of Lily spending the night at Helen’s home after returning the now severely ill Declan to the hospital in Dublin.

It’s a delicately powerful story of a family’s failure to face difficult feelings and their stubborn refusal to admit need (especially the grandmother). He through them delve into memories with a visceral, unsparing depiction: main character through whom we see action is Helen: snapshots of the family’s fraught past are filtered through her memory.

When Helen was 11, she had had to deal with her father’s illness and death virtually alone – she was left with her 8-year-old brother at her grandmother’s house for six months while her mother nursed her father, or tried to. Gradually Helen withdrew from everyone except Declan into a watchful guardedness. She “trained herself to be equal to things, whatever they would be.” But her defenses against the pain of the past are a barrier against present life. She mothered Decclan, came into his room at night the way she does for Cathal and Manus. Helen’s memory of the day before her father’s funeral when she arranged on her parents’ bed a suit of his clothes complete with underwear, tie, socks, hat, and shoes, then lay down beside the father figure she had made.

There is no father figure here; Hugh kept from us; Helen and Decclan’s father died young, we see almost nothing of the grandfather. We have instead Decclan and his two friends, three male characters match three female ones: the strong Paul (a counterpart to Helen) who tells us of his marriage with Francois, and Larry, who has had bitter experiences with his family about his homosexuality and shows us the hypocrisy of the world, but is bright and cheerful in temperament and gets along very well with the grandmother, planning architectural changes to the house we know she’ll never do, and she and he know it, but he does teach her to drive a little a stick-shift car.

The theme is not coming out but coming to terms with oneself. And humour — evolving from camp Larry’s unlikely affinity with the grandmother and from her own sardonic wit–leavens a sombre load. Each has a story:

Larry tells how he came out to his family on the six o’clock news. Paul tells how he and his mate were married by a priest in a traditional Catholic ceremony.

Granny Dora tells how she got the switchblade knife that’s in her apron pocket. Helen’s mother, Lily, who fled into a fast-lane business career and a huge designer house she occupies alone, tells Helen about her father’s last days.

Then we get Declan’s graphic deterioration. The family members and friends do not avoid him

It is about homosexual man regarded as other and I understand the frustration of some gay critics because Decclan is kept at a distance from us: he seems dependent, unable to make a permanent relationship like Paul, acting out as a child to Paul. But there’s revisiting the same theme over and over: Toibin has written novels focusing on a gay man, the one I’ve read is The Master, and Henry James lived away from his family, estranged. Looking at otherness is kept away to some extent

The sense of place, here, is germane and its adjoining strand–close to a disintegrating cliff, caught in the reiterative sweep of the lighthouse–permeate the book with an elemental atmosphere.

Beautiful spare graceful prose: measured and restrained as a Victorian memoir yet poetic in precision-“extraordinary skill for rendering time and place. This quiet novel achieves its effects gradually and with subtlety

The presence of Decclan’s homosexual friends influence the behavior of his family to one another and him as he lays dying in Blackwater Lightship, and we discussed pretty fully of the six main characters, three women, daughter who is now a mother, Helen, mother, Lily, and grandmother, Dora; and we went briefly the three men: Decclan, Paul and Larry.

Decclan is dependent, not strong, looks for help from friends. He has no permanent relationship with a significant other unlike Paul and perhaps Larry. We don’t learn much about his private life for the past years. He is the person in the book dying about whom we learn least. He is kept away from us, except to give us these graphic descriptions of his suffering as perceived by the other characters. Who does he seem to depend upon? Paul.

Paul knows what to do; he finds the emergency room to bring Decclan back to at the end. He is in charge. And he and Helen, as a similarly strong character exchanges stories. Thing is they are not that strong: they need someone depending on them. We see that it’s Helen’s husband Hugh who has the friends, who is the open more giving person, really there, and she needs that. Paul’s partner. What is his story? Francoise who was an only child and needed to be married to have security. Waiting for Paul to return.

Larry, you might call him the comedian, but he’s getting through life that way. Let’s look a little more carefully at the passage where he tells his parents and family he is gay: he gets involved with public politics and finds he appears on the six o’clock news as a gay person, which his family was watching. What is the hard thing? Not the actual event or even the retelling, but the reaction in the room to when he tells of his present love relationships with a nearby family where the men lead overtly heterosexual lives.

The book is named after a lighthouse that no longer exists. Helen and Lily are talking. We don’t learn much about Decclan’s private life nor about him directly; when we learn about Larry’s life it’s indirect and the powerful stuff is about here and now and yet what is not there matters; so too Paul’s relationship with Francoise. About how important memories are and the intangible invisible lives we don’t show publicly shape the public. At the close of the edition I ordered into the bookstore, we have Toibin’s statement about his book: he gains meaning and solace through reliving his memories, and bringing them alive again.

There are eight chapters with some of the stories (memories plus present time) achieving a kind of quiet climax in the 7th, with 1st as prologue, Helen at home, and 8th as the denouement as they prepare to and bring Decclan back to the hospital and Helen brings Lily back to her house. her mother has never been there before. For those working on Blackwater Lightship for this coming journal entry: a series of inset stories or memories embedded into the narrative. People talking with Helen present, Helen and Paul confiding. Then Helen and Decclan’s story from when their father dies We see grandmother and grandfather watching TV and arguing over what they see. Then Larry’s story, Lily’s story, Paul’s story (Toibin a Catholic and has written about Catholicism in travel book on Barcelona central here); Helen’s story (Decclan the spoilt favored child as the boy). Back to Lily’s story; how Blackwater Lightship as a long gone lighthouse is central; Helen’s story again; Helen’s portrait of Lily.


Our cat (Ian) facing forward

The cats — They run away and to the Grandmother this is a bad loss. Cats are affectionate clinging creatures; Lily’s story again; told to Helen, talking of grandmother and past, signals some understanding

Book about the rhythms of the night, and how people cope with death: the Grandmother turns to these mediums who feed people’s desire to reach the dead. A dark theme of redemptive power of death runs through all his books.

The comfort in The Master is James got to live his own life to some extent. He lives as the heroine in The South, only because he has money, property and connections he manages far better than our heroine and ends up with his measure of independence, until of course he’s done in at the end by terrible sickness and death and again finds himself taken over. We see how he lives a life apart, the price of it and the achievement he managed by remaining apart.

I find I don’t have separate notes on The Master, but I do on an essay he wrote for the LRB: The Importance of Aunts. in his usual cagey or elusive way Toibin manages to say what he pretends would be “too crude” to say: especially with respect to James. The problem with Austen’s getting rid of the useless mother (which Toibin does connect to her relationship with her own) is the caricatures she creates are in danger of being taken non-seriously; you can laugh at Lady Betram, which would be to misunderstand or ignore her effect on Fanny Price.

I particularly like how Toibin deals with James’s family: he says how James loved his mother, but in the same breathe, how he kept away from her as it was all too painful to contemplate or let touch (and destroy) him. In Washington Square despite the understatement and careful avoidance of offering the readers ways of not reading what’s in front of them, her heroine has to cope with a loathsome father, a morally idiotic scheming aunt and her own pent-up sexuality. Her nobility comes from her enduring steadfastly being alone in the world. She escapes the fate of Isobel Archer because she knows how to feel and is not to be dissuaded by those around from to violate herself.

She is then a cynosure for James himself.

On Austen’s use of aunts: Austen feels free, on the other hand, to make Lady Catherine de Bourgh both imperious and comic, her wealth and power serving to make her ridiculous and unworthy rather than impressive; but she is not meant merely to amuse us, or to show us an aspect of English society that Austen thought was foolish. She is an aunt who does not prevail; her presence in the book succeeds in making Darcy more individual, less part of any system. Her function is to allow her nephew, who refuses to obey her, a sort of freedom, a way of standing alone that will make him worthy of Elizabeth ….


From the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park: Mrs Norris (Anna Massey) berating Fanny (Sylvestre le Tousel) in front of the whole family

The reader is invited, then, to dislike Mrs Norris for her cruelty and to admire Fanny for her forbearance. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin sees Mrs Norris as `one of the great villains of literature'; Tony Tanner thought she was `one of Jane Austen’s most impressive creations and indeed one of the most plausibly odious characters in fiction’. All this is clear, at times rather too clear. What isn’t clear is what the reader should feel about the other aunt, Lady Bertram, mistress of Mansfield Park. Tomalin dislikes her. `Fanny’s experience at Mansfield Park is bitter as no other childhood is in Austen’s work. Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is virtually an imbecile; she may be a comic character, and not ill-tempered, but the effects of her extreme placidity are not comic …

Just one from James: This sexualisation of an aunt figure is what gives the book its power. James radically destabilises the category, moves Madame Merle from being Isabel’s protector, who stands in for her mother without having a mother’s control, to being someone who seeks to damage and defeat her

More generally: The idea of the family as anathema to the novel in the 19th century, or the novel being an enactment of the destruction of the family and the rise of the stylish conscience, or the individual spirit, has more consequences than the replacement of mothers by aunts. As the century went on, novelists had to contemplate the afterlives of Elizabeth and Darcy, Fanny and Edmund, had to deal with the fact that these novels made families out of the very act of breaking them. It was clear that, since something fundamental had already been done to the idea of parents, something would also have to be done to the idea of marriage itself, since marriage was a dilution of the autonomy of the individual protagonist. There is a line that can be drawn between Trollope and George Eliot and Henry James: all three dramatise the same scene, each of them alert to its explosive implications. What they are alert to is the power of the lone, unattached male figure in the novel, someone with considerable sympathy, who moves unpredictably, who keeps his secrets and ego intact …


Photo of Henry James as the master, late in life

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

Toibin’s greatness also lies in his quiet unassuming style. He gets so much in
and yet does not seem to stretch or have to overwrite at all. It’s part of what makes the novels seem so truthful.

He teaches we must find and live out our own identities at the same time as he compassionates those who do not as the cost can be so high.


From the movie adaptation of Blackwater Lightship

I need to read his Homage to Barcelona next. See the LRB archive for treasures.

Ellen

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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.

Ellen

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Caliban (Luca Pisaroni) in the midst of a nightmare

Dear friends and readers,

From the Baroque period we have had opera seria and opera buffa. Now we have opera mash-up. The Met is attempting to dignify their daring creation with a pedigree by using the word “pasticcio.” Not only in opera, but on the legitimate and not-so-legitimate stage long 18th century stage (1660-1815), adaptations, free-wheeling and close, re-combinations of old plays abridged with non-dramatic genres like pastorals, clever mocking farces, and parodies were part of the on-going repertoire. And The Enchanted Island consists of a number of da capo exit arias: as my husband, Jim (knowledgeable in the area of opera) told me:

Opera seria is this rigid opera genre which consists mostly of da capo exit arias; that is, the aria ends as it began and then the character leaves the stage. There is some variation, not much. So in Rodelinda, we had that marvelous duet (Renee Fleming and Andreas Scholler as Rodelinda and Bertarido), but there is just the one. All else da capa. Enchanted Island had a number of da capo exit arias, but they mixed in a whole bunch of stuff that was not from opera and from musical compositions there was music from oratorios, contatae, even a coronation anthem (Neptune’s song was Zadoc a coronation anthem by Handel, written for George II and used ever since). So we do not get this sense of rigidity …

And the Met has a website which tells you where the original music from many of the parts come from so you can (if you wish) discover the original context and see how it’s been transposed.


Ariel is also Puck directing traffic among the confused lovers in the wood

However, as Jim suggests this is just one aspect of this entertainment. The Met has people in it who want to do the Baroque repertoire and they were permitted to do it if all was done that could be done to defy the basics of its strict music forms.

So, the story or plot-design was lifted from two different plays by Shakespeare, not so much as originally conceived by him, but as seen through Restoration and 18th century adaptations: this was a Tempest as seen through the salacious and titillating perspective of Dryden and Davenant and his Midsummer Night’s Dream), into which was imported the four lovers and their forest scenes from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jeremy Sams, librettist, and Julian Crouch, director and set designer, were not content to stay with 18th century re-writes: Sycorax (sung by Joyce DiDonato) who does appear in the 18th century renditions, has become the true heroine of the story: Prospero (sung by countertenor, David Daniels) is not Shakespeare’s more or less exemplary alter ego, victim of his own goodness at the hands of an amoral cynical brother, but someone who took over Sycorax’s island and has oppressed and controlled her (somehow — don’t press this too far) ever since. She herself is a loving mother.


Sycorax listening to Caliban’s angry grief

Prospero and Sycorax are made into faintly into an Oberon v Titania pair with the right being on Sycorax’s side as the less powerful figure.


Prospero (David Daniels) and Sycorax (Joyce Didonato)

Joyce Diddonato had the last bow at the end, even though the concluding da capo aria of Act I was Prospero’s (who tells us how he has done wrong) and the epilogue was spoken by Prospero: Shakespeare’s famous good bye speech: “Now our revels are ended.”

Thus this early 21st century creation brought home how adult and frank and playful sexually was Baroque & early to mid-18thc theatre. Cross-dressing, transvestites, continual breaching gender stereotypes: Dryden and all the 18th century writers who followed him re-did Shakespeare they did “sex” him up, make things titillating and salacious that in Shakespeare’s version remain restrained (or austere, grave, serious). There was a kind of mockery of enthrallment in heterosexual stories, especially in the thankless part of Miranda (automatically falls in love with whatever young man is put in front of her, inanely idealistic), which made me wonder had I been missing this in Shakespeare’s plays (after all from his sonnets we know he was bisexual). People interested in the early modern to 18th century from any aspect would learn by seeing this.


Helena’s outfit and its part origin

There were archetypes from novels well after the later 17th century: Luca Pisaroni played Caliban was as a wrenchingly moving re-creation of Quasimodo (he has a crooked back, is disabled mentally, mocked as ugly to his considerable emotional pain), not so much from Hugo but the famous poignant Charles Laughton’s embodiment from the 1930s film. I literally cried at Sycorax’s aria over Caliban’s grief when Helena rejects him. Tears coming down my face. The Met site tells us the music sung was a plaintive song by the Virgin Mary over Christ. The lyrics and situation transpose to a modern situation where the mother would do whatever she could do spare her child, but can do nothing. The whole sequence of Caliban’s nightmare (expressed through nightmare figures dancing) was to me the high point of Enchanted Island (and people who’ve written to me said this was true for them too). I was aware he was not singing; his acting out of anguish was enough.

Costume design came from the later 17th through 18th century: Danielle de Niese at the close had a costumed modeled on Louis XIV as Apollo, somewhat modified by memories of the high plums of headdresses by aristocratic women of the later 18th century (as seen in the recent movie based on Georgiana Spenser’s life, The Duchess, and the 1999 BBC mini-series, Lennox sisters in Aristocrats).


Danielle de Niese as Ariel taking her bow (how a person can be seen as achieving her liberty in that outfit is beyond me — to me such a costume is ironic; she is encased in hierarchies)

Allusions to the US as seen in the 18th century (a Tiepolo ceiling) abounded, but also as seen today: De Niese said she thought of Tinkerbell, the Mermaids hanging from the sky each time Neptune (Placido Domingo) made an entrance, were straight from Disney.

Dialogue — the funny remarks referred to in the interviews Deborah Voigt conducted between acts — came right out of today’s pop US & UK culture. Where one of the imported young men from MND, Demetrius (Paul Appleny), didn’t want to take “no” for “no” from Miranda, Lysander (Eliot Madore), the other, said something like “he said that last time” or ‘he always says that.” Going down to the bottom of the sea, Ariel wore a scuba-diving outfit that looked like something out of Flash Gordon (or Star Wars).

Along with Sams and Julian Crouch, a central creator was Phelim McDermott, all 3 all gay Brits; they had more than little help from a man expert in Baroque, William Christie, who chose rarely done music by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau, Purcella and lesser known composers, Campra, Rebel. The sensibility was gay, toned down. The extravagance was camp. This was “in your face” opera. The three men said they decided not to do anything moderate. They would concede no apologies. Opera is meant to be over-the-top and that’s what they were.

The Met as a group or team also simply want to sell their work and help operas reach a wider and younger audience. The hype of the interviews, the filming of staging backstage is all part of this. They must also outside the standard repertoire: you cannot keep doing the same 40 operas over and over in movie screens around the world, and new operas are not written very often. They were after a younger audience too. The singer chosen for the six young lovers were young handsome and/or beautiful and intended to please those who would not identify with aging divas and tenors close up. Helena was especially physically lovely; Hermia singer very moving (every time Shakespeare words used the production became much better and she was given mostly Shakespeare’s words), Lysander drop-dead beautiful in the Rufus Sewell mode. I could see Izzy was very taken by hijinks of the five in the forest.

I did find the girlish Ferdinand (very high counter-tenor, Anthony Roth Costanzo) downright embarrassing: his voice was very high and he was dressed like Ronald Colman as Rupert Hentzau when we first see him in Prisoner of Zenda (Ruritania, Knighthood was in Flower stuff). He was the only one of the six lovers altogether to wear an 18th century white wig; all the others had their own “natural” well, cascading and rich hair. Why he was so stigmatized, set apart I could not tell. (In film adaptations of older works, the older men and characters meant to be disliked regularly have wigs or heavy make-up; all the males meant to be entrancing wear their own hair. Ditto for the actresses.) The young woman doing Miranda was daffy. Maybe that had something to do with it, but as I say it’s foolish to try to find reasons for much that one saw literally. Often the makers were simply adding on whatever they could think of to amuse or dazzle.


One of several storms from the first act

I confess that by the end of Act 1 I was ambivalent: I felt I had not been moved; I recognized the Baroque proscenium stage, that the front of the stage was lined with shells (18th century stage used such forms to keep the candles in), but all the artifice, including the cardboard like ship going down in a computerized tempest just reminded me of how unreal what I was watching was. Ariel’s “duhs” and funny mock magic were amusing, but I didn’t like what I took to be making fun of Caliban in act 1; I am often turned off by over-luxurious, over-produced operas and prefer people sitting on chairs singing their hearts out so I can see how the music pieces relate to one another and really engage with the music and characters as somehow real enough.

But I was won over. I was turned round even to being deeply moved, admiration, enjoyment, respect by the end of Act 2. I’ve found this true of other later 20th-21stc staged productions: they start slow; Act 1 develops the situation to the point where in Act 2 we may engage deeply with what happens to this set-up situation, place, characters. That partly happened here. Mostly my engagement came from the Sycorax and Caliban matter. And the second half had far more lines from Shakespeare.


The four lovers waking from their dream spell

I cannot say I liked the long-drawn out triumphant happiness of all the characters at the ending: it’s tedious, repetitive, negates for me what went before. I’m told that is what you find in Baroque operas. But a couple of months ago, Jim and I went to the West End Cinema in DC to see Don Giovanni (Peter Mattrei the singer) from the Teatro alla Scala. Marvelously cynical and it ended almost immediately after Giovanni is pulled undergrown by the man who would have been his father-in-law had he married Donna Anna (Ann Netrebko). All we see is Leporello (Bryn Terfel) seeking a new place. Since this is patently a 21st century work, there is no need for this Busby-Berkeley let’s get everyone on stage beaming at the audience close. But then I did say this was kind of gay game.

I realize I’ve not talked much about the actual singing or music. The movie-theater I was in had the sound too high at times, but FWIW, I thought the singing of Daniels as Prospero effective, Didonato as Sycorax moving. It was ensemble and mostly no one but else but De Niese (marvelous) as Ariel emerged. It was more I was aware of the humor or sadness as I listened. The four lovers when first seen are singing a song about the pleasures they anticipate (over and over) and the innocent words become salacious; often the words seem ironically juxtaposed to the music provided or scene itself. We are not really scared ever or awed.


Claire (Helena) is someone often seen in secondary roles at the Met

I do hope there were not so many castrati as these Baroque productions suggest. Izzy says yes though especially in the Catholic Church. How cruel economic desperation and the search for prestige makes people.

See the Classical Review, the New York Times review and Clever Concoction from Yahoo.

Don’t miss it.


Ariel failing to blow on her shell

Ellen

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