Feeds:
Posts
Comments


From Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957)

In terms of sexual politics, however, to borrow Lee’s own phrasing, women are also getting kind of funny about other people telling their stories — Thomas Chatterton Williams, a NYTimes Magazine semi-fluff piece on Spike Lee

Dear friends and readers,

My last was about this past year’s life in reading; this is about this year’s life in and through films and stage-plays, except I doubt I can remember all the films I saw this year. I watch late at night and into the morning hours (that’s how I saw the first season of Grantchester — fascinating for what it mirrors of our culture just now). I probably can’t distinguish those I saw this past year (2017) from last (2016). While books are surely also dream matter, for myself I have to admit no matter how absorbed and intensely engaged I can get, the experience of a movie (especially large screen, in color, up close, with strong appropriate music) is just ontologically visceral. Two of the first books I read when I began to study and write about film were Parker Tyler’s The Hollywood Hallucination, and Magic and Myth of the Movies.


Nicholas and Smike on the road of life (Nicholas Nickleby 2002)

At the same time one must keep hold of the understanding these are unreal ratcheted up works of art which are not imitations of life, but emotion-creating, emotional sharing technological concoctions. I try during daylight waking hours; I don’t vouch for what I let my mind do when I’m in bed falling asleep, nor here tell my movie dreams. Sometimes waking I am coming out of a dream world made up of one of the TV serial dramas I’ve watched; they can make a bigger impact because I live with them over weeks of watching. I wrote about only a few of these: Poldark, The Handmaid’s Tale, Outlander (1st season; 2nd & 3rd seasons). I’ve yet to write about the Anna Karenina films (I’m just finishing the book) and The Crown. I was glad when I saw that Elisabeth Moss, Caitriona Balfe and Claire Foy were all nominated for Golden Globes for the best actress in a TV drama series. A 2002 BBC adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Hunnam; Juliet Stevenson, Jim Broadbent, Romola Garai, Anna Hathaway, Christopher Plummer, Timothy Squall, Tim Courtney — oh it had everyone). How important these star presences are. I do (fingers crossed) mean to write on The Crown and Anna Karenina.


Pamola Baeza as Bathseeba (we read Hardy’s Far from the madding Crowd this summer — no it was not one of my favorites)

Favorite individual films this year (excluding HD opera screenings) seen for the first time, in no particular order:

Baldwin: I am not your Negro
Ashgar Farhadi’s Salesman and A Separation
Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (older movies seen on DVDs)
Wadja’s Afterimage
Two Far from the Madding Crowd movies: the 1998 BBC with Nathaniel Parker, Paloma Baeza and Jonathan firth, Natasha Little; 2013 with Carey Mulligan, Michael Sheen (the famed 1967 with Julie Christie and Alan Bate is over-rated)
Kedi — the street cats of Istanbul
Lucky
Neruda (post-modern political film, superb)

Favorite Re-seen movies: Last Orders, Barchester Chronicles (perfection), North and South.

This excludes this year’s about eight HD operas, which included a few which were I admit superb precisely because they were films, permitting subtitles, close-ups, great acting. The finest and moving Eugene Onegin; astonishingly intelligent Exterminating Angel

I also took my first course in film, “The History and Aesthetics of” (at the OLLI at AU) a deeply grating experience since every single film we saw (10) and every single one the teacher (retired from teaching in a private high school) mentioned were by a man and about men. There was not one which even focused on a woman. I did tell the professor about this, but it took 2 emails, one of which was a comments on the course type, and weeks before he brought this up. Five men and over ten women in the class and only then did a few women clap and say “hurrah, Ellen.” These women were all aware of this then but none would have spoke up for me; nonetheless, all his lists of famous films carried on being by and about men even after that, no matter what type (French new wave, African-American). Talk about erasure and marginalization, for of course these films had women in them — as sex objects, mothers, nurses, nuisances, victims, not one all term long had any ambition but to be wife or mother. The teacher’s talk about these was very educational, context, close reading of techniques, biographies, remarkably intelligent conversation in the class. My guess is he never watches films by women — though he’s seen some made by men about women and knew of Jeanine Basinger’s great book, A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-60 (he was able to cite her high position at a university, which I could not have done, would not have thought of), which I read with a group of women on Women Writer through the Ages @ Yahoo several years ago.


Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman (1942, Talk of the Town, never got near being mentioned, one of my favorite films of all times; as the wordpress search engine does not go back before 2012 I see I shall have to rewrite that blog)

The teacher’s choices were Modern Times (Chaplin and Paulette Goddard towards the end), Fritz Lang’s M (Peter Lorre, a troubling film made during the Nazi era because its content readily confirms the pathological paranoia towards anyone but white “upright” males), Welles’s Citizen Kane (fascinating but in the experience too jocular, and thus pandering too often), the Hitchcock Rear Window (artistically remarkable but the usual mean voyeurism, also paranoia from the point of view of white males), The Graduate (moronic), Casablanca (at times hilarious and yet at times the intensity of Boghart’s performance carries it), Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Stawberries, and Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows (all phases of men’s lives). It was a course in male classic films; the male canon of films.

It was a sort of shocking experience. To be amidst a group of people where the existence, outlook, experiences of some 2/3s of them were ignored, distorted, marginalized. It was like being in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Not that I have not had this experience. I taught for 23 years at George Mason University: in no catalogue was my name ever cited, when I left there was nothing recorded about it. But that was long range, done ever so cleverly, indirectly. However it’s such experiences that make African-American films and their political outlook undersandable to me; often there I can guess how they will vote. The highest ratings I ever had as a teacher occurred when my classes were predominantly African-American. One summer, the summer Barack Obama was running to be nominated for president for the Democratic party for the first time I had a class of 11 students for Advanced Composition in the Natural Sciences. I had two European-American (white) students in it. I got a 5.10 out of 6, and my only letter of commendation in all the years I was there signed by Rick Davis, then dean of humanities (or some such title).


Tracy Camilla Jones in She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

So a little, however inadequate, and here too women were secondary, basically chorus or scolds, on Do the Right Thing. First the full context I’d give it is bell hooks’s take on She’s Gotta Have It: “Whose Pussy Is This: A Feminist Comment, Hooks described Lee’s protagonist as “ ‘pure pussy,’ that is to say that her ability to perform sexually is the central, defining aspect of her identity.” The film, in Hooks’s view, was contaminated by “the pervasive sense that we have witnessed a woman being disempowered and not a woman coming to power.” See Chatterton’s paragraphs describing this film which is about a promiscuous female who finds herself by finding the right male partner. His great film, said the teacher, is Malcolm X, who in Haley’s rerwrite in acceptable English (readable) of Malcolm’s autobiographical diary notes frequently uses bitch as a synonym for women, though it is reserved especially for white women. It was the English freshman community text for adjuncts to use one term I was teaching at American University (as an adjunct); need I say, I didn’t assign it? You could find a substitute: mine was James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket; now I’d use Ta Nehesi-Coates Between Me and the World.


Closing moments of Do the Right Thing (1989)

Of the group the most contemporary alive films still seemed to me Lee and Bergman’s. Lee’s Do the Right Thing is a depiction of the lives of black people seen angrily and harshly (the women berate all the men continually), also allegorical (with Ossie Davies and Ruby Dee as allegorical figures of compassion. Like the others, it’s been written about so much, I can hardy add to the great criticism and studies, my take is Mookie (played by Spike) destroys Sal (Danyl Aiello) the decent white owner’s pizzeria because it’s the only way he can get himself to stop working there. All film long his girlfriend berates him castigatingly for having such a demeaning job (that’s her one function beyond being the mother of his son), but as far as we can see it is all he has been able to persuade anyone to offer him. And the title is ironic as in this situation these people have been coerced into and kept no one can do any right thing at all. So fundamental and sweeping and decades long must be the changes done across the whole country-society to educate everyone together, to allow African-Americans to build self-esteem, make good incomes as a group, be free from incarceration and/death as daily risk.

Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, also analyzed and described in so many places, gives me a chance to talk about the second of two good plays I saw this year, one by a woman: Private Confessions, Liv Ullmann’s directed play out of Bergman’s script from his movie. The film, Wild Strawberries, is about a tough old physician’s inward journey (depressed, angry, isolated, unaccepting) to face up to the central mistakes he’s made all his life through a series of dreams he has on the way to get a life-time achievement award with his daughter-in-law driving him. It put me in mind of the (by contrast) child-like A Christmas Carol where the old man faced with death and visited by three spirits who show him his past suddenly reforms and retrieves what has gone before. Borg feels his life has been a failure no matter what others see or think. What we see is the almost near impossibility of retrieval. So many he hurt or who hurt him centrally have died or turned away so finally and unforgivingly. We see his son has become a hard mean detached man to protect himself (ironically mirroring his father). Like Do the Right Thing and so many great films (and books) Wild Stawberries is highly autobiographical. Bergman had a harsh cruel hypocritical pastor for a father; he himself had affairs (as did Borg in the film — one of his mistresses functions like the benign ghosts in Dickens’s tale). Bergman is searching to make a meaning in life now that we know there is no god, and the ethical values you once thought could hold sway you now find are a veneer for giving a pretended order to the chaos of reality. My father took me to see this movie when I was about 11; he had identified with the man.


Private Confessions (from the production I saw last week, 2017)

The play, Private Confessions, is not listed in the wikipedia entry for Liv Ullmann, probably because she didn’t write it. I saw the play Friday night week last at the Kennedy Center: it was as if Ullmann had plucked out the deep core center of Bergman’s films and we watched in an almost bare stage the sheer internal memories and life, this time, of a woman who found she had married a man she didn’t love; she has an affair with a much younger man, almost leaves the husband (a pastor who is cold in nature), but decides not to. The cast includes her mother and her friend. It was acted with subtlety at the same time conveying hard intense passions. It was superb if filled with much suffering — I can see why Bergman is made fun of. This one without the film apparatus did not come across as allegorical in the way other of his films do. The film’s cast list is the same, though the description on IMDB emphasizes the roles of the priest, husband and lover. As the play the character on stage all the time whose point of view we are is the woman, Anna. The actress was Marte Engebrigtsen. Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents Like other of Bergman’s films it is a transposition of his own autobiography: this time (or again) about his parents.

The other great play I saw this year took three nights, it came in three parts (like the Norman Conquests), The Gabriels, which I began the year with, last January. (I did see a few stage plays done by N.Va repertoire companies when the friend who has now dropped me drove us to the Fairfax and Arlington community centers they played in.)

So all these are this year’s memories. They help me though my days — dream matter given structures (designs of visions) to experience and and significance contemplate by how they are made and put together in their media. The very best steady me through a kind of perspectival moral compass. Like The Roofmen of this Patricia Fargnoli’s poem:

Over my head, the roofmen are banging shingles into place
and over them the sky shines with a light that is
almost past autumn, and bright as copper foil.

In the end, I will have something to show for their hard labor –
unflappable shingles, dry ceilings, one more measure of things
held safely in a world where safety is impossible.

In another state, a friend tries to keep on living
though his arteries are clogged,
though the operation left a ten-inch scar

and, near his intestines, an aneurysm blossoms
like a deformed flower. His knees and feet
burn with constant pain.

We go on. I don’t know how sometimes.
For a living, I listen eight hours a day to the voices
of the anxious and the sad. I watch their beautiful faces

for some sign that life is more than disaster –
it is always there, the spirit behind the suffering,
the small light that gathers the soul and holds it

beyond the sacrifices of the body. Necessary light.
I bend toward it and blow gently.
And those hammerers above me bend into the dailiness

of their labor, beneath concentric circles: a roof of sky,
beneath the roof of the universe,
beneath what vaults over it.

And don’t those journeymen
hold a piece of the answer – the way they go on
laying one gray speckled square after another,

nailing each down, firmly, securely.

As I say I know this is illusion and underneath these structures, all around them, shut out sufficiently so as to maintain control in my journey’s spaces are abysses …

Ellen

Net Neutrality fight

Friends,

Do you enjoy communicating with me; I do with you. We only have 10 days to fight the FCC & the repeal of #NetNeutrality! Thanks to John Oliver there’s a SUPER easy way to do this

If net neutrality goes away, our Internet bills go up and we give power to companies like Comcast and Spectrum o cut us off from whom they please.
Here’s what you can do – takes less than a minute.

1. Go to gofccyourself.com
(the shortcut John Oliver made to the hard-to-find FCC comment page)
2. Click on the 17-108 link (Restoring Internet Freedom)
2. Click on “+ express”
3. Be sure to hit “ENTER” (or tab) after you put in your name & info so it registers. (I used my SPAM email)
4. In the comment section write, “I strongly support net neutrality backed by Title 2 oversight of ISPs.”
5. Click “Continue to Review”
6. Review and then Click submit
– Make sure you hit submit at the end!
**share this** (COPY AND PASTE)

Ellen


John Prebble, Culloden

Friends,

I sometimes think that nothing I write anymore comes from an singular me, but it’s all somehow coming out of shared experiences, sometimes with one or two people, sometimes a larger group, maybe as much as 20, itself a group part of a larger group, sometimes here in cyberspace and sometimes in real physical space. That’s probably a pardonable exaggeration as even now or still the initial experience of the text or movie by me whether chosen as a result of relationship, or project, or lingering effects of an experience is the motivation or inspiration to carry on sincerely. And I don’t carry on without real engagement.

So a friend told a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies@yahoogroups.com, aka Trollope and his Contemporaries at Yahoo of a book of brief essays she read, Light into Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration and the Artistic Process, ed. Joe Fassler, one of which by Mary Gaitskill is a meditation on the two selves of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (“I don’t know you any more”). Reading this made me realize that yes Tolstoy (and after him also) Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright (in their 2012 move) help make sense of Anna’s experience by attending to her idea she is now following a deeper truer self than the one who married Karenin and obeyed her society conventions. I bought the book (easy thing to do since the Internet), and discovered that what Fassler asked his contributors to do initially was write about a text that inspired him or her to write about something passionately, or to work on some project of writing for years.


St. Peter’s in Rome from a bridge across the Tiber River, copyright Vittorio F. DiMeglio

Well that was easy for me to answer. When I read a group of French translations by a mid-20th century scholar, Suzanne Therault of Vittoria Colonna’s mostly sonnets to her husband (mostly after his death, some 600 poems), I was so moved and agitated I couldn’t sit in my seat and had to get up and walk about to calm down; I determined to teach myself to read Italian so I could study and translate these sonnets. I spent at least 15 years of my life on this, and while a few have been published individually, and they have been used by graduate students doing theses on Colonna and read aloud at festivals, the way to read them is on my website. This led to my discovery of her contemporary Veronica Gambara, who I related personally to much better, whose letters I enjoyed, and whose 90 odd poems (she wrote far more than is usually attributed to her) I also translated and then wrote a short life of Gambara, Under the Sign of Dido, and a first chapter of a biography of Colonna, The Dark Voyage.

But my friend took the assignment (so to speak) differently, as asking the writers what passage or work meant a great deal to them as readers and people (and so writers, though more indirectly), or what kinds of texts he or she was deeply drawn to. As I read on into Light the Dark, I found many of the writers there took the task this way. for myself I agree with her that passages of compelling deeply-felt talk between two characters thoroughly realized pull me in, domestic interiors, indeed long chapters on ways of home life between daily intimately connected characters, I cannot do without realism, without being led to believe in what I am reading as occurring really in front of me or what I immersed in order to care; long reverie-like description that’s philosophical and aesthetic and personal, and to come down to more concrete, literary biographies, books by women which fall into the type called l’ecriture-femme, ghost stories (about loss and grief and attempts at restoration, presences in our lives).

All this to say I know that last year’s list of books and movies (read for the first time and re-read) conformed to this set of criteria and so did many of this (watched for the first time, or re-watched and re-watched). It was strongly biography, women’s memoirs and fictions, travel books. I didn’t do what my friend, Diane Reynolds, did this year and divide by genre or her experience of them (best letter and essay collections; best fiction and biography; and best rereads), but only set out a list. My excuse for mostly doing this again is it’s hard enough to remember what was most meaningful inside the year; but I will talk more of a few because this year I found my most meaningful books, which of course I must want to recommend, are histories, books often by men, literary criticism (and then after that) my usual diet of brilliant literary biography, memoirs, letters, novels by women. My movies also differed and I expect that was the result of joining Netflix streaming, Amazon prime streaming and taking a course in “classic films” (it turned out all by men, and about men centrally all the time). They are books that led to other books, and books that are ultimately political, post-colonial, anti-war. Some I am still moving through.

These are in the order I think of them

Chiefly, to my astonishment:

History and Science

John Prebble, Culloden; The Highland Clearances.
Alongside these John Lister-Kaye’s spiritual nature writing, Song of the Rolling Earth: A Highland Odyssey
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: this one alone as it’s such crucial reading for today I’ll send along a summary:

Zinn is simply telling all the history left out of most history books, and what’s vital about it is it explains and is analogous to what happens today. As I read the chapter on how slavery was instituted and how a whole people were subdued (worked to death, exploited to the nth degree, cowed utterly) I felt I was reading a series of events parallel to those we see today. What’s striking is that Arpaio’s behavior is not some subtler version of what was done to keep slavery central to the system, but is closely that of what was done in a daily way to black people.

It’s far more explanatory of daily experience than the ideals we are taught motivated any of the founders. In “persons of a mean and vile condition” we see the wealthy of the era take over vast amounts of land and wealth; their fear of middling whites combining with poor whites, blacks, Indians not through his thesis, but through the actual deeds, acts, and rhetoric — which uncannily echoes that of today’s renewed attempt to make a small group of whites superwealthy with what might be called fringe people supporting them. I was struck by the way power was quickly monopolized; Zinn quotes a lot of people and describes many acts and wars and rebellion; he has a lot of statistics. Poor houses are forms of prison; mechanisms of control the way outright prisons are today. The stories of how middling whites rose to be prosperous turn out to be rare. Colonial society was not democratic at all, not egalitarian and in the next chapter when he goes on to discuss the formation of this new gov’t under a constitution the oligarchy that was set up makes sense.

I don’t know if I’m depressed so much as appalled — it seems there was a period in the 20th century where real progress was made for the 80% and now this is fiercely being destroyed. The election of Obama terrified these white rulers — they must stop the country going further into progressivism and becoming multiracial, cultural and tolerant. Probably, Tyler, I never believed the US gov’t had any different aims from any other. Especially as a woman I have thought (hoped) that we were “modern” contemporary with socially enlightened ideas because of our meritocracy but I see that if a huge number of people are on the side of genuine progress for all, liberty for women, it’s a weak reed and they can be turned readily to losing out as each family is so individual and each person thinks in utterly immediate terms when it comes to living their lives. I didn’t think we could go backwards inside the US and we are and have for a few decades now — oddly the Trump triumph makes this all so much more public.

Tyranny is tyranny

I carry on however slowly. This chapter gives the full — or real — background of the US revolution. Zinn tells us what I’ve read only in a few places, though he has a group of books to cite: that the actual numbers of people who fought against the British in the US army were small, that it was a time of rebellion, not against the British per se, but by the average person (often indentured servant) and lower people and artisans against unfair conditions of all sorts. Zinn describes and names the people who led the revolution: all upper middle, all seeking to free themselves of control from the British and to (successfully) set up power structures for themselves. Land hungry farmers, in Philadelphia a full-scale attack by artisans, tradesmen and laborers found themselves stymied by laws set up and rebelled, mechanics demanding real democracy, people angry at the destruction of individual lives from impressment, in North Caroline (once again, showing southerners not naturally reactionary), white farmers organized against wealthy and corrupt officials. The conflict was bitter with insurrections, “small” massacres; people organized to prevent the collection of taxes. The point of these founding fathers was to try to organize all this against a perceived enemy: blacks weren’t it then, but the British, and to invent a rhetoric appropriate for the discourse of the time. Indians were a perpetual easy target as they were fighting back themselves. Not as bad as our own time, tax rolls in one study show that 5% of Boston’s taxpayers owned 49% of the wealth. Paine’s pamphlet appealed to the a cross section of people; he himself came from the lower orders but as time went on he was not for action from these lower orders and himself became patronized by wealthy colonists — for a time. Locke one of the bases of the constitution spoke for property.

how it explains how it is and has been so easily possible for a small group of wealthy people to take the reins of US gov’t and military might and direct it to profit themselves ruthlessly and punish and oppress 90% of others so that they submit to small wages, debt no educational opportunity. I had thought, assumed, he would not be a feminist but no chapter 6 is one of the best feminist accounts of how women are still coopted today. His description of how women are manipulated into accepting the position of cherished object to be used as he wills is closely reminiscent to the idealized relationship of Claire and Jamie in Outlander. Uncannily like.

When I’ve finished the chapters on the 19th century (many), I’ll report back again.

Nicholas Dodman (Dr) Attitudes, Emotions, and the Psychology of Cats (the pathos and cruelty of how human beings misunderstand and abuse cats when they have them as pets!).
Saunaura Taylor, Beasts of Burden: Animal and Disability Liberation


Taylor’s Beasts of Burden (part of animal liberation course)

All five have altered my thinking and behavior and even eating habits.

More in my usual line:

Biography and Art

Claire Harman, Charlotte Bronte (magnificent)
Nick Holland, In Search of Anne Bronte (touching and persuasive)
Francis Spalding, Roger Fry, Art and Life (uplifting)
Virginia Woolf, Roger Fry, A Biography (deep psychological portrait supporting philosophical aesthetics)
Whitney Chadwick, Women artists and the 20th century Surreal Movement (importantly dismaying)
Josephine Ross, The Winter Queen (on Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia)
Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald and Essays on Biography


Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights — you do not read it for the cover

Literary criticism and book history:

Martha Bowden, The Descendants of Waverley
Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship and Love: The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Welsh Carlyle
Richard Todd, Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today

Bowden altered my thinking on historical fiction and romance. Clarke made me understand and read more empathetically women writers of the 19th century; Todd taught me about the fiction industry in the last part of the 20th century. I realize why women artists went into a deep counter-productive era and produced so little of worth in the years from the 1930s from Chadwick


Susan Sontag (Photograph 199 Lynn Gilbert) — I took it as an occasion to read other of her essays

Novels and poetry for the first time:

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Patricia Fargnoli, Hallowed
Caryl Philips, Cambridge
Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kittredge
Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop
Daphne DuMaurier, The King’s General
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber


Caitriona Balfe, opening over-voice for series (“people disappear all the time”) in the autumnal Inverness, gazing into a glass

I cannot speak too highly of Tolstoy, Fargnoli and Sontag. The Volcano Lover is the outstanding novel I read this year. I admired Cambridge for its deep insights into racism, slavery, empire. Diane’s citation of “spectral texts” help explain (not wholly) how irresistible I’m finding these Outlander texts thus far, despite their pernicious valuing of violence, essential frivolity (superficial on war): it’s the bringing back of the ghostly deeply loved presence, the past come to life, and 1950s style feminocentric dream over-voice over and over that rivets me.

Rereading non-fiction and fiction:

Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage
Paul Scott, Staying On
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

I seemed to be reading them for the first time. Holmes has yet to fail me.

As to movies, five of the Anna Karenina films (of which more and Tolstoy anon), The Handmaid’s Tale (very hard to watch and alas truer than people will admit) and (as a result of Culloden, going to Scottish highlands) the spectacularly well-made Outlander (into its third season); The Crown (I admit it), several films I saw as a result of my summer film club; Kedi (documentary on the cats of Istanbul); and now a few extraordinary films from a course in the history and aesthetics of film, so see I had better post separately on movies.


The second season started today and I look forward to what Emily Nussbaum has to say: Claire Foy has become another favorite actress for me

Ellen


Roger Fry — typical painting

Dear friends and readers,

Some notes on behalf of two qualities I find draws me into books — and movies too, though this inward source is less obvious. A still center of quiet, of thoughtfulness out of which the fiction or biography (I’ve been reading a number of these lately) grows. In a book say good for other reasons (vision, form, richness of knowledge) such moments in a dialogue here or description there, and when I find myself immersed in reading, I know I’m in a thing of value. Accurate rendering of what is, acutely faithfully attended to provides a foundation for such moments.

I’ve experienced both lately in books I find myself liking so much. Virginia Woolf’s meditative biography, Roger Fry, and Frances Spalding’s companion (as it were) art historian biography of Fry, due I think to the criticism and pictures by this remarkable man.

I think we are all agreed that we mean by significant form something other than agreeable arrangements of form, harmonious patterns, and the like. We feel that a work which possesses it is the outcome of an endeavour to express an idea rather than to create a pleasing object … the effort on the part of the artist to bend to our emotional understanding by means of his passionate conviction some intractable material which is alien to our spirit (Fry, 232).

Claire Harman’s strongly written, mesmerizing biography of Charlotte Bronte (the best one on Charlotte alone thus far since Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life), and Richard Holmes’s perceptive biography of Samuel Johnson’s biography of Richard Savage, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage. Holmes and Harman are great biographers, she for the books she’s written, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney, Jane’s Fame (somewhat lighter), he for understanding of the the form that informs his writing (Footsteps: The Confessions of a Biographer) and his Shelley. I was reading Harman all this summer past, in the early morning Charlotte, her and me, how I love her work.

I read a very long article in the New York Review of Books by Alice Spawls (39:2, 16 November 2017), deeply sceptical about of truths about another person that a biographer can offer, and her particular instance, Harman’s CharlotteBronte; I find Spawls unfair: you can pick anything apart if you’ve a mind to. My sense is the great core of such moments in art is the letter written by someone in the throes of a genuine reaching out reverie. Harman ends her biography with a letter from Heger (the man Charlotte loved in Belgium) to Charlotte (which she never saw):

In thinking it over you will have no difficulty in admitting that you yourself have experienced a hundred times that which I tell you about communication between two distant hearts, instantaneous, without paper, without pen, or words, or messenger, etc., a hundred times without noticing it, without its having attracted your attention, without anything extraordinary.

One novel too: Winston Graham’s The Stranger from the Sea (yes, the 8th Poldark book) — he describes a midsummer eve’s picnic in Cornwall by a beach, the exact Celtic customs, the sky. The talk between Ross and his son about an engine, a relationship the son has experienced afterward.

I sensed this contemplative order left over from the characterization in Graham’s books in this still of Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza picking apples with a small girl child:

confirmed by finding the paradigm in Mary Cassatt’s Modern Women

The movie, Agnes Varda’s Visages Villages (Englished Faces Places): truly respectful of people and their lives, their ordinary surroundings, sordid, ruined, anonymous manufacturing places, she put photographs of the people she met and their faces all over these buildings. We looked into their faces as they talked to her. Bachelard for our broken ugly 2017 worlds of docks, yards of plastic boxs, steel pipes, cement walls, and the blessed park space. I’s worth saying here too that Varda felt she needed a young male with her to hold an audience. Her subjects though are as often women as men.

This pair of qualities – quiet, order, realism — is what I value also in poems. The thing to remember is these harmonizing qualities far from precluding active, frenetic life, even agons, suprised joy, can encompass such, and this sense of deep order and truth provide stability for healing, as in Patricia Fargnoli’s Hallowed:

Winter Day in New York City, 1973

Just divorced, a crazy year, everyone sleeping with everyone,
friends becoming lovers and back again, all of us filled with need.

“That’s the way it was when Marty and I, in my Karmann Ghia,
drove down to New York City from Hartford.

Washington Square strangely hushed that January afternoon,
stunned quiet by the harsh cold, the weight of gray sky.

Marty played chess with a local on a stone table as I shivered
beside him for what seemed like hours.

Snow started to fall, millions of pieces of glitter
through which we drove uptown until he found the bar

from the movie he’d seen. There he wandered away from me
into the crowd to try his luck with the city women.

Later on a side street, I changed into disco clothes in the car
while a doorman walked in circles in front of an apartment building.

Under purple strobes ~ a club named Wednesdays
we danced together and apart until we were steamy and breathless.

When the place closed, Marty swiped one of their black balloons.
It floated us to Second Avenue where he tried to tell a homeless lady

how to find the Second Avenue bus, though at 2:00 a.m. there were no buses.
Back then, it seemed like magic, snowflakes lit by building lights,

Marty in his beard and Russian greatcoat, his arm sheltering my shoulder,
as we rushed downtown, uptown, the buzz and sparkle in the zero city air.

I drove us home as dawn was rising over skyscrapers and along the highways.
Marty slept. The radio played something I’ve long forgotten.

Jim and I lived in New York City in 1973; we were there that winter. We experienced this feeling world, which is no more.

I may here over-emphasize this quiet the calm at the sacrifice of realism, but this giving body to what is concretely there, experienced is crucial, to have life spring out at us. So a second movie, a New York Times reviewer almost rightly called perfection, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird: it’s pungent

Admittedly a male coming of age in reverse, the story mirrored in the Sondheim musical they were acting out, “Merrily We Roll Along, bleak and bitter because it begins at story’s end when the hero has top success but dropped all his friends or betrayed them, his wife, ignored his children, hard and alone. Lady Bird (aka Christina, Saoirse Ronan) aggressive, driving, wants to be rich, with a super-prestigious house, the best fanciest dresses, not just a local college, but Ivy League on the East Coast, and she judges falsely — rejects the kind talented well-meaning young man who is gay, the girlfriend who is fat and lives in an apartment! But she has better impulses and doesn’t betray any one, helps her friend go to the prom, does not allow phony snobbery (like not going to the prom itself) to ruin a good time. She is in fact her mother (Laurie Metcalf’s) girl, for the mother wanted success and is bitter without it, taking her lack out on the daughter. she works two jobs; she will have to take out a second mortgage. Her idea of fun is on Sunday to go from super-rich house to house as if she and Lady Bird were in the market for buyning one.

I cannot overemphasize how wrong the actual crucial structure here is. This is how boys are told to see themselves, as the orde of their lives: the aggression, ambition, the seeking of the big opportunity, after which if you don’t have, you won’t live the same life. What is a girl’s actual trajectory as she grows up? far more embedded in friendships, not seizing opportunity and moving from one group to another. Sex would have been much more fraught, when all LadyBird endures is the brutal words of a boy she has (as if she were a boy) gone after. No one ever sexually harasses her; she never gets her feelings hurt over her body; if anything she is the aggressor. What a lie about women’s lives. The importance of mother-daughter was kept, but to do this Gerwig seemed to think she had to demote the father into a worldly failure and depressive. Chantal Thomas has a book on girlhood I unfortunately lost before I could finish it where she told of girlhood, much less outward, indirect (like Lady Bird’s true friend), about being in groups of girls. (Not that I was.) Vie Reelle Des Petites.

Most of the 1970s feminist studies follow Simone de Beauvoir with her admiration for the “transcendant” point of view, and dismissal of the “immanent.” Books by Lyn Mikel Brown, Michelle Fine, and Carole Gilligan are honorable exceptions, but these too are dismissed by the “constructionists:” there is no innate female psychology. There is definitely a typical girlhood; that is barely captured in individual books, e.g., Mary McCarthy’s Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood because sex, weight (your body maturing) are passed over in silence. Or the book presents the experience as illness, trauma, instead of natural reactions to intransigent conditions. Nicole Holofcener has tried to give us movies about women’s real trajectories — but none have been about girlhood. All about young women — like Walking and Talking. So this is genuinely original in what Gerwig aims at: the depiction of a girl growing up and her refusal to sentimentalize.


Mother and Daughter shopping

Leaving the movie together on Thanksgiving Day, Izzy and I understood Lady Bird and her mother spoke to us, about a version of our relationship. As I walked out I said, “I can’t even get you to join a choir” (she sings so beautifully, composes semi-originally and makes YouTubes of herself singing), and for once I got no glare.


More Bloomsbury, Omega Shop type object, Duncan Grant painting

I used to feel I met this central strong calm, quietude and adherence to realism in Trollope’s Dr Thorne, and it was Dr Thorne which sent me on my path of reading Trollope. This is in my introduction about how I came to Trollope:

My second introduction to Trollope occurred when I was around twenty-one and in my third year of college. I took a course in the nineteenth-century British novel, and one of ten novels assigned was Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne. I didn’t forget this one. The memory of some amused calm in Trollope’s voice remained vivid to me. It would make me smile to remember how he kept making all these excuses for himself because he was forced to take two long chapters to tell us the previous history of all the characters in Doctor Thorne before his book could officially begin. I reread the green-and-white 1959 Houghton Mifflin edition I bought for the course, and Elizabeth Bowen’s introduction to it, more than once.

Ellen


Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma (Vincenzo Bellini, 1831)


Ensemble scene from Exterminating Angel (Thomas Ades, Tom Cairns, 2016, from Bunuel’s 1962 film)

Friends and readers,

Along with blogging less, I’ve been going to the opera less this year. Thus far I’ve gone twice for wildly different experiences. In the first case, Bellini’s Norma in October, I loved some of the music, but thought the drama potentially so meaningful, thrown away, and just so dull in the second half. In the second case, Ades’s Exterminating Angel this past Saturday, I couldn’t stand the music, to me it was so much noise, sounds that made no sense (though I could hear the singers had themselves resonant voices capable of making beautiful melodies), felt the first half excruciatingly boring, contentless; while in the second half I found myself watching an rare opera commenting directly and cogently, bitterly on the political powerlessness of much of the world today.

I want to write about these to mourn for Norma how the Met simply out of cowardice (I suppose) worry the audience will be offended, refuses to modernize operas when the themes break taboos for real — this one having women’s subjectivity and love for one another as the driving force of a story. And for Exterminating Angel, express astonished exasperation that no one on the stage in the intervals where they are supposed to have explanatory talk (but of course they rarely do, just have silly hype or ridiculous questions about how the singer enacts the characters as if operas were novels), no one offered the least explanation. From the introducer, to Thomas Ades, to Gelb, they all professed themselves unable to comprehend the mystery.

I’ll begin by offering an explanation, one easily derived from reading Bunuel’s and various critics’ comments about his film.

The dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain. Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find it never ends. They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac. Increasingly resentful at being shut off from the world outside, they grow mean and restless; their worst tendencies are revealed (Roger Ebert).

My task is made easy because Anthony Tommassini (The New York Times) also understood it

The opera has discomforting timeliness at a time when many Americans feel trapped in partisan battles over elites, economic justice and borders; yet the will to change things is somehow lacking. The willpower of the ruling classes, or lack thereof, has become an especially pressing topic in Washington, as elected officials debate how forcefully to stand up to President Trump on policy and governing.

In a way, this production dares to confront audience members in the moment. Are we somehow complicit when we encounter art in a safe, gilded house? Or, in fact, can grappling with the arts, including this powerful opera, be a way to take action and exert will?

The principles are of course us. They and we are the sheep. We are being and have been for the last 50 years, with some breaks, Obama the most obvious but kept weak by virtue partly of his race, being slowly devoured, destroyed and we do nothing. It need not be Trump particularly, but the intuitive con-artist, ruthless moral moron, managed it and is kept in power. Ades is British and they have had Thatcher, then Cameron and now Teresa May. Brexit (well-meant by those who wanted to overthrow the pro-bank neo-liberal austerity stance of the EU) is counterproductive because the upper class and those in charge of Parliament will not break with neo-liberal oligarchic reactionary policies Bunuel and Ades blame us.

That’s unfair in part because the average person is trying to make a living while the powerful hire lawyers, teams of people to elect patsies, invent legislation for them to enact, do all they can to defund all social programs and stop any new ones from being enacted or effected. No wholly as the democratic party refuses to go left, liberal humane, return to the New Deal of FDR and Keynesian economics. And now we have invisible walls, doors, and if you say demonstrate, protest, with unions destroyed and the leaders of those left also centrists, long prison sentences.

I have wondered before this what Bunuel’s Petit Charm of the Bourgeoisie was about. Now I know: it’s the superficial surface the rearranging of the chair on the Titanic; The Exterminating Angel is the Titanic itself sinking.


You can see the sister (the singer with the blonde hair) with her brother just behind her

Only one of the individual stories were moving. The brother, Francesco, who has ulcers, his dependency on and love for his sister, Silvia, his mother-and-lover figure, her love for her child. I could make out a decent doctor with a deep base voice, the well-meaning host and his wife but could figure out nothing about them. I was even unsure who was the host. For the most part, the characters were not particularized, so the piece remained impersonal. This lack of characterization is responsible for the harshly critical reviews of the opera as “dead on arrival.” There is nowhere for us to know anything about these people and it’s only the peculiarity of the brother and sister (he with ulcers), she caring for him like a lover that made them stand out. All of the characters we get to see a bit of but the butler were the “upstairs” set, the 1%, the staff having fled. I had no Anna (as in Downton Abbey) to feel for.

The opera can be seen as a black comedy trying to be gothic. Wilbur Hampton took it as about trauma. My caveat on those reviews which understood the piece is they objected to its pessimism; they wanted uplift. There is none. The directors seem to want to make it scary, a gothic, a ghost story, but I suggest only film can project the uncanny hallucinatory feel necessary. On the screen and dressed up in a costume, one man enacted a huge fierce bear looming over all. Perhaps they were thinking of Goya.


A huge backdrop scene was used to project film images; there real sheep on stage at first

You might say of course the audience understood. As I walking out of the theater I heard three different groups of people puzzling about it, genuinely puzzled. When I offered my explanation, one couple, possibly Trumpites looked offended but then saw one could generalize out, and then “get it.” A review by Walls and Kenny astonishingly regards the whole thing as so much fun. The fell back on talking of technique and marveling over the transfer from film to stage.

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


Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa, a temple virgin, loving friend of Norma

As to Norma, at the core of the opera is deep good true human feeling and in a contemporary opera would be permitted to come out directly.

Again if you listened to the talk during the interviews, you see the opera was framed as if it’s pro-macho male, with the two women betraying one another for this hunk of a male:

They went on as if this was a romance opera. Seriously. Jokes about how thrilling — Joseph Calleja as Pollione is heavy, unattractive. They talked of Norma’s threat to kill her children by Pollione — there is a Medea subplot which doesn’t come off. Mild misogyny here. A production might have emphasized how perverse this is; tried to understand Medea. As Alex Ross says, they could have changed the era and costumes, and made the anti-colonialist faultline clear. They didn’t. I was waiting for talk of druids but they didn’t go that far. I can imagine someone today making costumes emphasizing the women as a pair in a country taken over by a militaristic tyrannical state — the opera could have been in dialogue with The Exterminating Angel. None of this.

In our time it’s so important for women’s depths and needs and outlooks to come out and this opera was doing that; it is equally good to see an attempt to make motherhood, children and decent emotions surrounding children — not made saintly not twisted by repressive institutions or macho maleness. The Oedipus-Jocasta story is often seen solely from the male point of view when it is a woman driven to madness, a woman who in earlier cultures had to give up culture to kill them for sects. I grant the scenery and atmosphere of beautiful peace fit that first famous aria, Casta Diva, but what the opera also projects is a deep wish for oblivion (a death wish Freud called it). This essay on the opera’s complexity is worth reading. It’s “between two women.” The Met also provided program notes about Bellini and the opera.

With no understanding, again one finds complaints of boredom and flatness. The Observer critic thought the lead two women just had no support. The production was “lazy and senseless.” That’s not fair; they just stayed with the Druids originally chosen to obscure any political meaning. And the set was a lovely dark fairy tale natural withered landscape:

On the other hand, with a new production of Puccini’s Tosca to come, the Met might have seemed almost too much on point. All three choices are linked, and brought together seem to be a response to today’s dark violent world. Police are outside the open door in the Exterminating Angel, and a violent presence in Tosca too.

Ellen


Claire at Culloden (Caitriona Balfe), third season –a 1950s costume seen through demure 2017 eyes

Dear friends and readers,

I am just now listening to Davina Porter read aloud dramatically (with nuance and appropriate tones) an unabridged text of Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber and engaged in rewatching Season 1 of the mini-series (every couple of nights another episode) and Season 3 (on Starz, through Comcast, which while it does not give me access to streaming, plays the weekly episode at least twice daily for some 6 days after a new one airs) and would like to report or record some significant changes from the books to the films, which I cannot find cited anywhere on the Internet or in Gabaldon’s first Outlandish Companion (there have now been two volumes, the first on Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, Voyager).

The opening episode (prologue in effect) to Season 2 comes from the third novel, Voyager: scenes in a hospital or recuperation place as Claire makes her transition from a bedraggled, filthy, semi-starved reluctant participant in the 18th century Scottish-Jacobite rebellion against the Hanoverian regime in England to a 20th century pregnant wife of a history professor. The opening (not a prologue but part of the matter proper) five episodes of the third season comes from the second book, Dragonfly in Amber: Claire and Brianna’s (Sophie Skelton) trip to Inverness twenty years after Claire left with Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) for Boston where he became a tenured published respected professor at Harvard and she a physician; they encounter Roger Wakefield, now also (like Frank Randall once was) a history professor at Oxford; there is no interruption of material from what Jamie is doing concurrently in Scotland in the 18th century (as there is in the mini-series which places this material from the later parts of Voyager into an interweave in the first half of the third season).


Claire, Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin), Brianna Randall reading through records, third season

Dragonfly in Amber then proceeds as the second season did — to France. There is a much longer extended dramatization of Claire’s time as a healer working with Mother Hildegarde (Frances de la Tour) in L’Hopital des Anges, a convent hospital in Paris preceding the catastrophe of the march into England by the Jacobite army under Prince Charles (Andrew Gower) and the Earl of Murray (Julian Wadham), and then its subsequent forced retreat (not enough people joined) to momentary victory at Prestonpans and then disaster at Culloden. And then the second season moves abruptly to American in 1967/68 or so, with Claire’s education as surgeon-physician, and Frank’s death in a car accident just as he is about to leave Claire for Oxford, taking Brianna with him; and the plunge into in medias res Claire and Brianna’s visit to Inverness and discovery that Jamie survived Culloden.

The point is to shift the emphasis: in the second book it’s strongly on Claire, her development of herself as a physician and mother, her return to deeply engaged imagined roots to equal or more time to Jamie. Scots clan politics, and the battlefields. In the third book, Voyager, we are reading a woman’s novel for five long superb chapters – and they are long — as Claire gets up the courage to tell her daughter the truth of her parentage and about Claire’s time in 18th century Scotland both at first in Boston, and then as they travel to deeply felt sites de memoires. The episode in the third season (five, “Freedom and Whiskey”) preceding Claire’s journey back reminded me of older classic women’s films like Now Voyager (starring Bette Davis, based on a Olive Prouty novel) and Stella Dallas (starring Barbara Stanwyck, a King Vidor film about a selfless mother devoting herself to a spoilt daughter who is not at fault as she hasn’t been told) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (starring Joan Fontaine, a Max Ophuls film).


Claire pregnant serving Frank (Tobias Menzies), 3rd season

In the concluding features to the DVD for the second season, Ronald Moore, the real creator of this mini-series in the script, in the direction, in the filming, discusses what is changed from book to film. He keeps his discussion on a high level of generality: they cannot film the book because one sentence saying X was riding to Y can take hundreds of dollars and 20 minutes film time. He does tell of how each episode is a unit in itself with its own self-enclosed themes and structure. He conceded a great deal more dramatization of what Jamie was doing in Paris and the battlefields merely told or remembered in the novel occurs in the mini-series. Nonetheless or at the same time the driving inner force of the books is about Claire and through her women’s worlds and that provides framing (however switched), continuity (in say the voice-over) and many sequences in the book within the male action-adventure episodes, for example, to take from all three seasons thus far: the domestic world of Lallybroch, Claire’s quest to find and rescue Jamie working as a dancing gypsy with Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix) (Season 1), the French saloniere’s libetine culture, Claire helping Jenny (Laura Donnelly) through childbirth, the coercion of Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day) to marry a much older distasteful man, a rape of her in the streets, and her murderous revenge, her pregnancy by Alexander Randall (younger gentle brother to Jonathan Wolverton), most of all the medical science worlds, Claire’s stillborn child. There is a female gaze, mother-and-daughter and women’s friendship-sisterhood caring narrative at work. The proportion is changed significantly in the mini-series so the woman’s novel is obscured.

All this is suppressed, not only the changes, but any discussion at all of differences between films and books on the Outlander sites on face-book and twitter — this is strange as such discussions occur regularly on the Poldark sites (and many others, Austen sites for example). It’s common on fan sites for people watching the films to talk of the differences in the books and some of the inferences they make. Much worse, I notice ads imposed on these Outlander sites (including the one not controlled by the makers of the films) which model female swoons at the male actors. It repeats over and over. This effectively silences any other approach to the candid sexuality of the women (and here the parallels are the swooning posters over Aidan Turner, only they are not so slickly done, though they use popular promotional material made for just this purpose). This is no surprise as every face-book or other site on the Net I have found (with one significant exception) seems to have been set up and is controlled by the film-makers or Gabaldon herself. But it makes for a great loss of understanding.

I do not deny the presence of a counter-force of the patriarchal macho-male culture across the culture in the books: for example, though Claire is having two lovers, two husbands, she is coerced into this, has not two selves but one (for Jamie as the “love of her life”); when serious politics or grim difficulties are to be endured she is told she must go back through the stones (in a scene between Jamie and Claire by the stones oddly reminiscent of the famous Casablanca where Rick teaches Ilsa she must retreat while he stays to endure the risk and serious business, with his deeper companion, the French officer played by Claude Rains – the equivalent figure is Murtagh). No doppelganger here. This is not a stealth woman’s film much like Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel the source) or The Boleyn Girl (Philippa Gregory) where a not-so-muted protest is made against the treatment of women in the terms of gorgeous costume drama.


Claire mannishly dressed in the 3rd season

As to what commentary my blogs have elicited and I have read in “official recaps” (there is one in the New York Times on-line), I have been startled to discover that the depiction of Claire’s relationship to her daughter, Brianna is seen by all of them as “dysfunctional” and “Claire’s fault.” It seems they “side” with Brianna that the mother lived in “a world of her own” (that is a charge the daughter made) and was somehow inattentive (?) and certainly gave Frank, her husband, a “bad deal.” I can see how her living with Frank can be seen that way: it must be he who paid for her physician’s education; all one can say is he choose this, she did all she could to be a good lover with him but she couldn’t forget the other man. To her daughter too she is all self-sacrifice: with Frank she lives except for the job an utterly 1950s housewife life — no one objects to her job as that’s not socially acceptable any more. To her daughter she is utterly abject; she gives every hour she could — Frank accuses her of “never being there,” reminding me of the implied accusations in The Divine Order: by going to vote, by getting a job our heroine must neglect her function as a mother, and (obedient) wife and sexual lover. And she apologizes to her daughter profusely again and again. To me the portrait was dripping with sentiment. I felt Claire would learn to dislike such a daughter, or just never behave that way. So it was false. In Dragonfly in Amber we see Frank being nasty, resentful, marital bickering; this is removed in the film so he looks put upon and not himself equally supporting against this as is marriage.

Claire had apologized to no one up to the time her daughter grew up and complained. “Self-absorption” is another no-no women face. I suspect I’d be seen as living in a world of my own. How dare you? who do you think you are?

Now I discover that the interpretation of all five of the first episodes of the third season have Claire as villain. I can’t quite see why she is a villain, but so they all assert. Only now in the sixth that she has crossed the stones and become Jamie’s wife in 18th century terms is she heroine again. Her villainy with her daughter and coming son-in-law is strange to me. What is it they resent? Frank has a mistress by this time — who reviles Claire for not “letting Frank go,” and making him have a miserable life when she could have given him great happiness.

The moralizing justification for watching this show meanwhile is its feminism, and the one academic paper I’ve heard emphasized its use of female narrator and over-voice. The speaker also claimed the mini-series satisfies the female gaze — though the NYTimes woman reminds us Claire is continually threatened by rape and there is much male violence, and Jamie takes Claire’s place as victim — I’d add from a sadistic homosexual (however this is denied) perspective thus damning homosexual men. Claire’s POV was dominant in the first season but (once again) Ronald Moore has admitted he has added (the way Davies did for Colin Firth as Darcy) much matching material to make Jamie’s point of view equal and one of the episodes this season was purely him in a fantasy of acceptance in a great country house where he provides the heir and the central woman-mother of this boy conveniently dies. But among these ordinary or common women readers, there are protests against this over-voice — a film studies book I have argues that over-voice is so rarely used because it’s seen as feminine.

As to the first Episodes six through eight of season three (her return, her defense of herself, her resuming her “career” as a physician), we could subtitle the sequence Claire Has Grown Up. A different kind of conflict emerges between Jamie and Claire: she is 20 years older, she is a physician, she is used to controlling her time, place and having a job. After she is (per usual) nearly raped and murdered at the close of episode 6 and opening of 7, she insists on trying to save the man’s life. She is told by Jamie were the body to be discovered no one would believe her story; living in brothel, she’d be at fault; she’d be put in prison or hung. So misogyny made plain. But against his advice she persists. To get the compounds she wants, she has to agree to see another patient — someone buying compounds who she frames as a patient. Going there she discovers they are crooks; the woman mentally deranged and used by her brother to make money — put on laudanum day and night. She can do nothing for her. Come back and she has ideas of moving out of the brothel, get a place of their own you see, from which she could set up her own business as a healer. Or from the printer’s shop. He looks bemused. Then Ian’s son is there and she meets (a moving scene) Ian (Steven Cree), her crippled brother-in-law for the first time in 20 years. She has to account for her absence and lies that she thought Jamie dead and lived in Boston, but lately finding out he was living (Promptly?) returned. Ian does not quite swallow this. Then she sees Jamie lie about Ian’s son and say he doesn’t know where the boy is; in fact he’s at the printing bedding a a very willing girl servant (yes — male wet dreams satisfied here). Claire is appalled: Ian is worried sick, and as a parent Ian should be told. She forgets that Jamie has a son and he begins to speak back about his lack of connection to Brianna and his jealousy of how he felt imagining her relationship with Frank.

She is wanting her own identity, has her own ideas. The new sidekick, Mr Willoughby (Gary Young, an Asian actor) has become her assistant; he refers to her as “honorable wife.” In fact her outfit, which is complained about as so “nurse-like” is right; the film-makers are trying to assert her as a separate identity — probably from the books. Then the thunderbolt in the last minutes of Episode 8 (“First Wife”). The young Ian and a servant girl from a tavern are having sex in the printing shop and come across a spy intent oon exposing Jamie’s seditious activities or smuggling and in the melee the print office is burnt down, with Jamie losing his business — after heroically saving the boy (reminding me of a scene in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton). (What happened to the girl? she doesn’t count?), years of effort and a legitimate profession gone. Now what?; what turn of history have they now? turning to pirates is admitting a lack of suitable organic material, a poverty of invention …


A promotional shot

That films are a key force in our cultural worlds is onereason I study and write about them.

Ellen


Nora (Marie Leuenberger)

Dear friends and readers,

I saw this delightful serious film about two weeks ago in my local film club at the Cinema Art (Fairfax, a sort of art movie-house), and have been waiting for it to appear either in this theater (which if they are played for the general public usually begin by this time) or in local theaters as it has been nominated for a couple of prestigious awards. I’ve just about given up hope — after the trivializing condescending (“cartoonish” and “clever navigation”) or ho hum reviews (“not exactly breaking new ground,” “a lark”) that I’ve read, and the resolute erasing of its content on wikipedia. Photos of Nora deliberately make sure we see the actress as not conventionally smiling, all pretty; she has a narrow face and is earnest. How off-putting.

A couple of reviews do it justice: Film Journal International; Criterion (but it’s promotional). RogerEbert.com ignores it.

What’s remarkable about the film is how it shows how difficult it is for women embedded in their daily culture to rebel. As the story opens, Nora is spending her life hanging up wet socks in her basement, waiting on her father-in-law hand-and-foot; a comic rendition of a stultifying life. She apparently loves her husband Hans (Maximilian Simonischek); he has just gotten a raise in his factory in a scene where we see another male made fun of for not fitting in, for being ineffectual (effeminate). But although they don’t need the money, she would like to have a more interesting life of genuine achievement. She has sufficient education to apply for a job in an office, but he does not want her to go. And he can forbid her; in Swiss law she has to have his permission (he tells her flat-out) to sign this contract. Meanwhile in her brother- and sister-in-law’s house, her niece (Ella Rumpf) is sent (not to reform school as one review has it), but to a punitive detention center (a prison) because she is refusing to obey her parents’ daily orders and going out with a young man.


Theresa

She watches her sister-in-law, Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig) rage at the girl after she runs away, only she won’t tell Nora where the bruises on the side of her face come from: her sullen angry husband whose masculinity is as threatened as Hans’s and takes his frustration out on her. The daughter has no recourse, but true to life, her rhetoric is anything but sensible. At each point Nora tries to do something for herself, it seems to be pointed out to her how this person is suffering (the father-in-law who keep porn magazines under his pillow), or that (her two sons whose luxurious breakfasts and daily routine are disrupted). Her desire causes them to lose out somewhere because she is serving them but her hurt and her needs don’t matter and they won’t compromise.

Meanwhile the woman’s suffrage movement is reaching a height once again in the towns where there is going to be a vote on whether women should vote (of course they are dependent on the men to decide) and Nora is caught up in the excitement, call for fairness and justice, and makes friends with an older woman, Vroni (Sybille Brunner) who has lived a frustrated life and now is supposed to reside meekly with her daughter-in-law (caring for grandchildren).


Vroni

The fourth central women is an Italian restaurant owner, Graziella (Marta Zoffoli).

Daringly the three, eventually with the sister-in-law set up a house for meetings, and when ridiculed and thwarted by the men, go on strike. Shades of Lysistrata. They go live apart in this house until the day of the vote and gradually many women join them. The most powerful scenes are where Nora defies a majority of people who heckle her or don’t support her even if they (the women especially) want to agree but don’t dare to speak up. She tries to give a speech and is mocked by the men; one woman who is fiercely against the vote (and is the boss at the husband’s factory) gloats in triumph when Nora loses control of the microphone (reminding me of how clever Reagan was decades ago when Bush senior tried to prevent third party candidates from using the mike, and Reagan grabbed it and said he had paid for this and decreed all would talk). There are numerous failures. At one point a group of more thuggish men break into the house and drag their wives away. Discouraged, Nora takes the signs down — her husband is intensely mortified by her picture everywhere and begins to say he would have voted for her to have the vote but not now.

Towards the end and before the vote can take place, Vroni in a moment of intensity, has a heart attack and dies. At her funeral the priest gives an account of her life and personality that make her into a pious contented woman, and Nora again gets up and protests and tells a little of what Vroni was and what was her life. How many times in life I’ve had to sit and listen to half- and full lies. Group pressure this time does not win out as decorum makes everyone sit quietly as she speaks.

The film has nuanced quieter and sad moments. The Italian woman’s husband follows her to Switzerland and she takes him in. Nora finds her embracing him on the night she is driven to leave Hans and takes up residence in the attic as she goes about to write away and seek that job. Graziella says she does not want to be alone when she is old: he needs her. But at another point she says as she stands in a shadow one can be married and feel very alone. Realism: the story is set in one of the two most conservative areas of Switzerland. Hans and the sons give in and start to make their own food, care for themselves. Theresa works to have her daughter released; permitted to have her own life, the first thing the girl does is jump on the motorcycle of her insouciant lover. Theresa’s husband leaves her, and we see even if he at first falls apart (he drinks heavily), he may eventually be happier because he hated the life on the farm and was bad at it — the father-in-law would needle him. Vroni did not live to see the women get the vote nor the gains they had afterwards.

It has faults too. It is conceived broadly and offers few details. It offers no backstory to explain why in 1974 the men this time (they did not in 1959 but claimed women didn’t want it) gave the women the vote. We only see the women openly standing there as a group the men have to walk through. There is a 1970s style feminism “raising consciousness” scene where the women are urged to love their vaginas, encouraged to look at their clitoris. There is some serious talk and it emerges that Nora has never had an orgasm — nor have several of the women. But it is over-the-top, a caricature, complete with a copy of Betty Friedan in Swiss. I found the ending grating. Of course Hans and Nora get together again, but did we have to end on a scene of him sucking her between her legs (her nightgown over them) with her all in ecstasy. In the theater I was in, we had a discussion afterwards and (wouldn’t you know?) the first things said to be “good” about the film is how there is sympathy for the husband. This last scene was laying on the reassurance thickly. Not to worry guys, she’ll still be this great sex partner.


Supposed to be month later, with him walking behind as she votes too

Petra wants to reach people today, to make an upbeat film, to energize us too — for, as she knows, feminism has had some bad losses in these decades since 1974 — and has a long way to go. I loved the soundtrack that used “You don’t own me” and remembered the ad for voting for Obama: all that the ad says — the Republicans will do all they can to kill Roe v Wade, shut down Planned Parenthood, repeal the ACA is now coming to pass:

Aretha Franklin’s demand for Respect is also heard.

So if you should see this film advertised, don’t be put off by the enigmatic title, which makes it sound like a religious film re-affirming changelessness, patriarchal tyranny. I wondered who gave it that title. Go see it. And while you’re at it, refuse to go see films which beat women up, show them as sheerly prettified sex objects (no matter how much the gloss is see this empowered woman) or nurse-mothers.

Ellen