Feeds:
Posts
Comments


David Nicholls’ Us — Douglas (Tom Hollander) and Connie (Saskia Reeves) in the present time summer of the novel as shown in the spectacular travel scenes of the movie (2015)

Gentle reader, Us, the book, works like Austen’s Emma; near the end a sudden unexpected revelation (if I’m reading aright, which I might not be as the information is delivered ambiguously) makes what we have been assuming all along sufficiently a blunder so a second reading uncovers clues we had not recognized. In order to explicate the book, and suggest why it is superior to the movie, Us, I tell this revelation in my 4th paragraph. For those not planning to read the book, this transformative information is left out of Us, the movie, so it won’t matter to you, except as you learn upfront you have been fobbed off with a far more superficial or at its end shallow experience (that hardly makes sense) or, aka, you are missing out …

Dear friends and readers,

Mid-summer is here and I’ve yet to record even one summer movie or book! The last time I wrote a blog on “summer movies” seems to be in 2018 (includes a summer adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream) and before that, 2015 (Mr Holmes — if this be not a summer movie ….). The specific criteria might be that the summer film gives sensual pleasure (be partly a travelogue), that the catastrophic calamities of what’s called (somewhat absurdly) “the third world” not be visited on our characters, and immediate deaths and long-range historical dire events be for the duration of the film excluded. I called last summer’s movies, “Uplift” because as a group they were so earnest.

But, it will be said by those who’ve seen the movie or read the book, a death occurs in Us, Douglas and Connie’s first-born child, a daughter they name Jane, born prematurely, dies not long afterwards of sepsis; and there’s no denying that our hero, Douglas Petersen (Tom Hollander and Iain de Castecker in the film) undergoes strong trauma caused by his wife, Connie (Saskia Reeves and Gina Bamhill).


Us — Douglas (Iain de Caestecker) and Connie (Gina Bramhill) some 25 or so years ago in the movie

The story is initiated when Connie tells Douglas one night (after some 25 years of apparently contented enough marriage) she “thinks our marriage has run its course … ” and thinks (again the hesitating word) she “wants to leave” him. She just can’t explain herself further. She wants to be free; she’s tired of her life with him. Albie is leaving for college/university in the fall. It’s a good time to do this is implied. The rest of the book and film is an extended set of Douglas’s memories leading up to how this 25th summer he and Connie are so unadmittedly (is there such a word?) estranged and strangers that the statement, her desire is wholly unexpected. These memories are interwoven with one last summer tour together with their son, Albie (Tom Taylor) in which Douglas attempts to win his wife over again to get her to stay with him for the rest of their lives. This then (the action of the story) becomes a tour in which he finds he must mend a broken relationship with his son, because it’s clearly the dysfunctional elephant in the room of the marriage that has been helping tear himself and Connie apart.


The trio in a museum (the Louvre?), Albie (Tom Taylor) closest to us (and clearly bored)

What then makes it qualify as a summer book and movie? The deeply sensuous enjoyment of visiting with film-makers in charge, the actors, camera crew, and all those active together to make a film, experiencing many glorious and famous places across six different countries, and several major European cities. 162 sets worth, not excluding filming on trains and in train stations. The continual laughter – yes laughter, for the book is irresistibly funny as Douglas and (no omitting this) Nicholls continually deliciously sends up, brings out the absurdities of our daily life’s arrangements, and shows a extraordinary facility with sheer language – he emits cornucopias of wit — as some of the jokes are out of sheer language, or marvelous intuitive reductive send-ups of what we actually see in pictures, hear in music, how we dress, talk eat, drink, sleep is not left out. I’m a very jaded reader and it is so hard or rare for me to laugh, but I find myself not only laughing and beginning to giggle and stay laughing aloud for extended passages, but on my re-reading the book (I like it so much and feel it has riches not revealed the first time round, or probably only after several times and then repeatable) I laugh all over again.

Yes, the ending of the book has a dark unexpected revelation (omitted from the film) that it’s possible that what motivated Connie that first night the film begins was her lover previous to Douglas, one Angelo, whom on a second reading one realizes is mentioned far more than we had realized throughout the book, her “ex” from whom she said was on the rebound, deigned to show up and offer to renew the relationship. This suggests to Douglas (and us), she had indeed taken Douglas as some kind of super-superior husband material — kind, money-earning, responsible, loyal, hard working, very intelligent, well educated — whom she could spend a comfortable life with (just taking a part time job in a non-profit art museum) and bring up a son to enter the upper middle class through very good schooling. A fun tame-able convenience she could lead, having so much better social skills and daring ways. Not because she loved him deeply the way he had her. He knows the only way he can hold onto his son’s regard is to let him go live a life with no room for his father in it. Abie is Connie’s son. It’s only then and only briefly – but sincerely – in the book Douglas considers killing himself. Connie in the film 20 years later is not character I was much in sympathy with; she seemed shallow rather than “with it,” after all, what was she doing all these 25 years when she stopped painting. Douglas would have had her carry on. In the book there are hidden aspects of her discontentment and lack of inspiration that at least imply a thinking mind and heart, not just a pillow mother who enters into conventional life with child-like zest.

But Douglas pulls back; he tells us of the routine he builds up after Connie is gone, and then or nonetheless, in the book he types Freya’s name into his computer’s search engine. In the movie he turns up in a museum (the museums and a use of relevant old master paintings are a repeated motif of the film) and there she is, sitting, gazing at the picture waiting for him. Both book and movie offer the possibility of a partner for Douglas who actually sympathizes with and understands his socially awkward ways and high serious values. A woman newly divorced (flat left herself suddenly for a younger woman), Freya (Sofie Grabol), whom he met in Florence and spent the most pleasant congenial compatible day he’d spent in a long time — without fooling himself or being asked to be other than he is.


Freya and Douglas exchanging notes on this strange breakfast — cake and/or cheese slices with coffee

It should be obvious that as with the other summer movies I’ve urged readers here not to miss, my deepest pleasure in reading came from a depth of emotion that is carried so lightly and spoke home to me about myself and others. Nicholls’s crisp lucid analyses bring us recognition (not everyone is humble enough to enjoy this), and the kind of quiet or undirected ethical teaching and insight that have lost status of late (so Booker Prize books have turned into fashionable games too). But they are on offer especially in the book. I’ve discovered reviewers (Mark Lawson of The Guardian on the book in 2014) regularly condescend to Nicholls (there must be something suspect in a novelist and screenplay writers whose works sell so widely). Alex Robins of the New York Times is especially above this movie (Nicholls “wrings a certain amount of comedy out of Douglas’s hopeless squareness”). Rebecca Nicolson (again The Guardian) is similarly disdainful. I say especially in the book because (alas) Nicholls himself rewrites the book into a film where he endorses laughing at and rejecting Douglas for at least half the movie because he knows in social life the person who is all heart openly, is despised.

For myself I bond with, identify or maybe just am especially drawn to the personality type other laugh at, the kind of person so serious and earnest about life and his feelings for others and what they are doing together (as a worthy task to be done to the best of our abilities), and it’s that terrain Douglas inhabits. In book and film What his wife and son continually, sometimes unconsciously but often consciously do is exclude Douglas. Connie colludes in this; she precipitates the deepest crisis of the movie when she sides wholly with her son in an incident in a restaurant where Albie, rightly incensed at the obnoxious treatment by men full of themselves (fancy suits) of a waitress, carries this too far by going over to the table and provoking a physical encounter; Douglas seeking to calm things and appalled at Albie’s aggression, apologizes for this. Connie treats this as betrayal like that of Brutus to Caesar. The boy, awash with money he’s ever provided with, flees leaving behind a letter saying he will not get into contact with them for a long time to come.

Both then, but especially Douglas, become hysterically worried about the boy – he might be in danger — and Douglas’s psychological state becomes so revved up he begins an impossible quest to find the boy, apologize and bring him back home — to Connie (who, pragmatic woman, has returned home). The quest has its own traumas (losing all his stuff and being w/o money and a working cell phone at one point); it’s killing on his feet, but also exhilarating experiences. His son’s behavior when he finally catches up to him turns from utter rejection to comradeship when he sees all he means to his father and his father has a serious heart attack.


Douglas in Florence, soaking his blistered feet

It’s important to insist this sequence is not just a (ho hum) clichéd rehash of the character on the edge. Douglas has been hurt repeatedly — the person whose generous hearted gifts are not just turned back, but accepted on sufferance. To say he is underappreciated does not get to it. One typical incident: they blame him for not being adventurous in eating, and he goes with them to a restaurant where Albie knowingly orders him very hot spicy soup, and then hands him a very hot overcooked meat on a stick — and Douglas is driven wild with burning sensation in his mouth. He sees wife and son laughing at the table, ignoring whatever he has gone through in a bathroom to cope. If he shows an inability to understand mindless fun (with legos, at a quiz over celebrity items that pass as knowledge) he has given his all, to put it in philistine terms, pre-paid for all this with hard-earned large sums of money.

Given a chance, Douglas is liberal; his looking askance at an art major comes from his worry his son won’t be able to make a living out of strange photographs. I note that while the film ends with an exhibition of Albie’s art, implying Douglas was over-cautious, not trusting to his son’s special abilities, the book has no such scene. When Douglas discovered Albie is homosexual, there is not a second’s pause in his acceptance of his son’s sexual orientation. Matt Cain (The Independent) who wrote the film and book are heart-breaking and joyous has it right. Candace Carty-Williams of The Guardian in a short notice about the film said by film’s end she could not control her tears

At the book’s end for three pages, our usual narrator, Douglas, vanishes, and Nicholls as narrator or author retells Albie’s story from a very different point of view, and instead of the over-indulged upper class white male, naively self-confident (if he is only let be!) becomes an unconventional young man who had an unusual relationship with an artistic mother, who finally frees himself of an over-bearing well-meaning father (he sees this). Connie’s story is retold too as that of the frustrated artist who somehow (as a woman?) held back for 24 years now wants to fulfill herself before it’s too late, and resisting her husband’s pleas, separates herself from him, goes to London, and lo and behold begins to paint and not only that reconnects with this lover (now afterward for sure); she loves this man’s bohemian nature (all the pictures in the room Douglas saw in the first days of their relationship were of Angelo) and finds happiness with him “just in time.” (So as with Austen’s Emma, which contains very different stories of the characters besides Emma that Emma can never see, so here.) Nicholls says these might have made better stories than his own, that is, Douglas is a surrogate for him. We then trace Douglas’s anguish (as I outlined above), leading to near suicide, but holding out, to type in Freya’s name, with the words of the next unwritten chapter “dentist Copenhagen” (her profession and where she lives). For my part I disagree with Nicholls’ sudden startling turnabout and reversal, for it is Douglas’s story of ordinariness, of everyday failures, of the enemies of his promise (he has not been able to become that great scientist he dreamt of over his fruit flies either), of trying so hard and meaning so well, earnest seriousness, of ethical giving that can provide us with strength to carry on.

Several summers ago I saw a 2015 Far from the Madding Crowd (Hardy’s book adapted) with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba and just loved it (though I never wrote a blog) and tonight have discovered Nicholls wrote the screenplay for that too. It’s the one time I have been able to appreciate Hardy.


Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene

Ellen


Caryl Phillips (born 1958)

There are those who are willing to pay the highest price imaginable to resist people who would police their identities. And there are those who will pay the highest price imaginable to secure an identity — Phillips, “Color Me English”

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve another author, Caryl Phillips, specific quietly stunning novel by him, Crossing the River (short-listed for the Booker the year it was published, 1993) to urge you to read. Until you do, you are missing out! and thus far (what I’ve read) the novels, Cambridge (1991, powerful double journal of white European woman and young enslaved well educated Black man, brought to a violent brutal Carribean plantation), The Lost Child (2015, a sequel to Wuthering Heights, aka Heathcliff’s story), and original biographical fiction of Jean Rhys’ life, A view of the Empire at Sunset 92018); two books of essays, The European Tribe (a sort of travel book), and Color Me English (more autobiographical, about memory), and all the occasional essays I’ve come across (e.g.”One Grim Winter Evening,” TLS 2012, on the Windrush generation, now being harassed or threatened with deportation!, upon he occasion of the Olympics in London, TLS). I am thus explicit because it’s been my experience than when I mention this man’s name, I get a blank look! Nowadays you need to have a movie made of your book to achieve more instant recognition. But he is well-known enough; here he is speaking to a group of people at a Canadian institution in Vancouver on The City and the Newcomer:

Phillips says he presents “migrant experience in its broadest context; he is draw to the intense frustration and destructive laws, customs and hurt the non-white child knows, the insuperable difficulty of truly participating. What are in a culture true signs of inclusivity and change. Why do immigrants refugees when so punished by the place they come to persist in wanting to stay –- it’s question that could be asked of the Kendalls in the movie Shakespeare Wallah. Why do they want to be loyal (and then of course appreciated, understood as belonging) when they go out and fight for this place and culture and be willing to lose their very lives because it is their country too …

For myself I think what caught my eye or attention was the information he was brought up in Leeds (so I first bought Color Me English), where I spent over 2 and one half transformative years of my life with Jim: where I went to university, married him, and stayed on to work at John Waddington (at the time a card and game company), to wander around the West Riding on buses, see York Minister one day, and just become part of the Northern Yorkshire culture for a brief fulfilling (sometimes hard) moment of my life. The above video will show you how formative Phillips’s experience of Leeds was in his life.


Jim sitting on the gate in front of Leeds Church, 1968

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

Crossing the River, is, like a number of Phillips’s novels, a historical fiction, one not made up of one long stories, but several intertwined, with a framing that makes his book, though clearly out of the African diaspora, one which is deeply invested in the vulnerable powerless subaltern person of any race, all genders, from a linked group of imagined interinvolved communities. Three of the four stories are about enslavement, enslaved people, two 19th century, one mid-18th. The fourth is about a young working class woman in England during World War Two, given little opportunity to develop her gifts, find herself, thwarted by her class, then ignorant husband; she meets a young Black man in the American military and they fall in love.

“The Pagan Coast,” centers on the relationship between Nash Williams, a freed enslaved man who is sent by the American Colonization Society to Liberia, and his beloved and loving patron and former master, a father, and once lover, Edward Williams. Nash is repatriated there in the 1830s to establish a Christian mission and colony. And much to his deep sense of loss and grief, he fails. As he story opens, it is seven years since Nash was freed by his master, Edward Williams and sent to Liberia. Now a letter arrives, which Edward reads and teaches him that all the letters Nash had sent had been destroyed before he could see them by his recently deceased wife, Amelia (who just drowned herself); in these letters Nash had at first asked for help of all sorts (money, equipment, advice, support) and then increasingly desperate cried out in despair and loneliness, missing his home and all the people he knew so badly; we read them eventually and learn of the impossibility of the task set before him – the unreality given the circumstances of this country and culture of the people. The novella is about these two men, their characters, their relationship, the painful nature of what each does to try to come up to the ideals the other has of him, and in the case of Edward to himself go to Africa, and rescue Nash — too late.

They are deeply appealing characters whom we see embedded in, unable to extricate themselves from the evils and failures of several different groups of people they encounter on their journey in time and space.

“West” is the tale of the life of an enslaved Black woman, birth to death: like the first, it is told through a flashback – we begin in present time when Martha is old, sick, dying, exhausted, and has been left to freeze or starve to death but in a central street in a town where it’s hoped (supposedly by those fellow “colored pioneers” who had to abandon her they felt as too much of a burden) she will be rescued. She is taken to a bare cold room with a thin bed (the stove cannot be got to work) by a kindly woman who appears to be part of some group who rescue the homeless, and as she lays there that night she dreams of her life. I am telling the story in more straight chronological order than it is told — it weaves beautifully from experience to experience. She was snatched from her mother with her two brothers, put onto a slave ship, brought to the US and sold to a plantation owner who names her Martha — she becomes Randolph as that is his family name (we wonder if we are near the Jeffersons). Sold and the second set of scenes is of her married to a loving man, Lucas, who we first met in exhausted silent despair (suicidal, drunk) because the present owner has died, and he, Martha, and their young child, Eliza Mae are to be sold with the other property. He must tell her: “he took me in the circle of his arms and laid me down” — She also remembers the fear and bewilderment of her daughter, and her inability as mother to provide any protection for her child: “I did not suckle this child at the breast nor did I cradle her in my arms and shower her with what love I have, to see her taken away from me …. My Eliza-Mae holds on to me, but it will be of no avail. She will be a prime purchase. And on her own she stands a better chance of a fine family. I want to tell her this, to encourage her to let go, but I have not the heart. . . . ‘Moma’ Eliza-Mae whispers the word over and over again, as though this were the only word she possessed. This word. This word only.”
This is the moment her mind returns to throughout the story; what she longs for most of all is to be reunited with a dream of this daughter grown up, strong, beautiful, living in a fine house, on a broad avenue — towards the end in California.

What happens is she is sold to a couple, the Hoffmans, who themselves seem to own only a very few people, up close to her they see how traumatized she is, and try to help her by taking her to some evangelical events; these do not take her out of her abject state of mind; then they do poorly and must they plan sell her and with the money they hope to make return to the east. At the last minute, they relent and allow her to escape (with nothing but her clothes a bundle of things she gathers together before fleeing). She knows some happiness once again: next scene shows her working with a beloved Black woman friend, Lucy, both cooks in a shop and laundresses, somewhere in the west, protected by Chester, a man who is kindly, generous, the lover of Martha. The story is dated by her saying during this time she is told she is now free because of the emancipation proclamation, but says it has little influence on her life as far as she can tell. Alas, Chester gets into a card game with some white men, they cheat him, he complains and they return and shoot him to death. She and Lucy are no longer safe; Lucy has a man willing to take her with him to California, but not willing to bring Martha along. That’s how she ends up with a group of pioneers making their way west, and for quite a while worked very hard for them (washing, cooking, ordering things) but finally grew ill, and they feel they cannot keep her, whence she is sitting where we come upon her when the story opens.

The story is deep tragedy – she dies, with dreams of Eliza Mae ahead of her, and unknown to her is given a yet another name by the woman who does not know her name. She has more than once voiced how she dislikes being renamed — it is a form of not having an identity when she has one. Or had. All of Martha’s geographical journeys are also journeys in search of family, and journeys that create and perform kinship ties. She finds other daughters (Lucy) and other husbands (Chester) and they all echo her original family. She mothers the pioneers in their trail westwards, “rallying them to their feet” in order that they may realize their dreams of freedom in California. What emerges from Martha’s story is diaspora of connectedness via the pain of original loss.


Dorothy Lange photo of a elderly Black woman in the 1930s

Two more. I can be brief about the third: it is based on captain’s journal, John Newton, whom we might see or argue is the lowest of low human beings – doing just horrific things to all the people he seeks to control, from his officers, to the impressed men, to the enslaved people in chains (or instruments of torture around their necks), a man who resorts to the lash continually, a slave trader, named by Phillips James Hamilton. For some who have not imagined this or read deeply detailed historical accounts (I recommend Clifford D. Conner’s biography of Colonel Despard, who briefly turns up in Winston Graham’s Poldark novels as Anglo-Irish rebel turned revolutionary who is guillotined for his pains, as a scapegoat but also spent years as the leader of British men in the Carribean trying to steal the Native’s lands from the ferocious Spanish and build communities in the fiercely hot diseased ridden islands using enslaved people.) How hard a business his was – he has difficulties picking and buying enslaved people, they run away, they rebel, they also get sick and die; his men get drunk, humiliate the enslaved, insurrections, disease, diarrhea (he feeds everyone rice) aboard ship as well his life (letters home to a beloved woman whom he treats with dainty kindness, discretion, courtesy) is strewn with difficulties.

How can you leave out the colonialist slaver? the nightmares might not have happened had such people not been possible, not existed …. not somehow been allowed to ply their vileness almost globally. I could have gone over the injustice and cruelties step-by-step. Like reading a day in the life of a guard in a concentration camp in Europe during WW2 – maybe not as – a day in the life of police force in the famous ghetto Lodz. But I spare myself and my possible readers.


Scene from a World War Two movie focusing on a heroine ….

Then the last. I unravel a story told in the Faulkner-Graham Swift mode by voice and diary entries arranged not chronologically but thematically so we must slowly work out the outer story as we confront the inner hidden life of Joyce Kitson — whose name also only gradually is told.

The novella-length piece is presented in a journal or diary form in the voice of Joyce, a young woman during the years leading up to and through World War II. Consistent with the title, the small town and smaller village from which Joyce observes wartime England remains unnamed. Joyce has had a hard childhood continually pressured by her hostile mother who has never gotten over the death of her military husband in the First World War and has taken refuge in religious zealotry. Her mother makes her leave school when she is very bright and loves to read – her mother resent this one pleasure of hers. She goes to work in a factory, and does not fit in. One night she goes to a theater to see the Christmas pantomime and meets an actor named Herbert playing in Mother Goose. Suffice to say she gets pregnant, and when she gets no answers for her letters, has an abortion out of fear of ostracizing and pressure from others, but goes to London to find Herbert. When she does, what a disillusion! He flees her within ten minutes (July 1936 to February 1938 but her relationship with her mother is interwoven throughout the letters from the very opening to her mother’s death). When the story opens Joyce has married a working class (it turned out thuggish, violent) young man, shopkeeper named Len from a small village near the town where she lives with her mother. We eventually discover Len beats her, and Joyce knew almost immediately that the marriage is a mistake Len eventually goes to prison for dealing in the black market during the war, leaving Joyce to run the village shop. She feels for him over this as an injustice.

There is a parallel story: a friend, Sandra has a similar experience of marriage (maybe not as bad) but her husband is also gone to war and either she had married him because she was pregnant by him (or another) and has had a child, Tommy, whom she cannot breast-fed (partly anxiety partly lack of nourishing food) and whom she seems anxious to hide from her husband. She says that she has never been able to deal well with people (she thinks Joyce does) and becomes pregnant again (with a friend of Len’s). Joyce advises her to write and tell her husband. Among other things, she cannot put the baby up for adoption without the husband’s permission. Alas he returns and kills her, shoots her dead instantly. As Joyce’s one friend, Joyce never forgets her or that Tommy, the child, was taken away.

Not long after Joyce’s job has enabled her to meet a young Black (colored) man from the US. The U.S. Army stationed a detachment of black soldiers near the village where Joyce lives, and she falls in love with one of the officers named Travis. He is kind, courteous, fun to be with; they lead off a dance one night. He is beaten once by some white officers for returning late (or perhaps for going out with a white woman). She becomes pregnant by Travis just before he is shipped off to Italy. He is able to return on leave to marry Joyce – whose divorce from Len is finally settled (after scenes of his rage beating of her, demanding she give him the shop — Travis intervenes in one beating) – just days before the birth of their baby, Greer. Travis is killed in Italy, and Joyce is forced to give Greer up to the county as a war orphan. (A parallel to Martha and Eliza Mae.) The only time she sees him again is in 1963, when he comes as a young man to visit her in a new life. Joyce secretly continues to love Travis, even in her new better life, still a working class woman, now with 2 children, and she is portrayed as a good person, caught up in bigotry and circumstances beyond her control.

I have probably not conveyed how this story told another way could take 500 pages and how it wrung my heart. The story includes the bombing and destruction of part of her village – which she registers fully the horrors and ordinariness of — which bombing her mother dies in as she will not flee to a shelter.

The book has a prologue and coda spoken by a symbolic father who has foolishly sold his children into slavery, driven to it he says by starvation. He turns into a universal figure standing for those who give into society, who simply provides as children and then grown-ups the characters whose suffering we live through across the centuries. The coda connects Edward and Nash, Martha, Joyce, Travis, to specific cases and types of the hurt and victimized in the 20th and 21st century. All his children. Phillips brings back some of the most painful poetry in each of the sections.

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


Poster Art on the Banks of the Gaza Strip

Orwell said “who controls the past (the way it is described, discussed, taught), controls the future.” There has been and continues to be a real drive to erase the injustices of the past and create self-glorifying – or justifying tales for the winners and powerful to tell of their power, well-meaning good acts. Phillips realizes common ground among the subalterns of the world. – subaltern is a person of low or lower status – those excluded from the hierarchy of power. They may get to row a boat but no say in how or why it’s rowed or for what or whom. I love how he often has women at the center of his books – not that common for male writers and I give him the great compliment that he does not see them from a masculinist POV at all. Why do we read colonialist, post-colonialist writing? So we may understand what we are seeing happening in our world all around us today — and we hope be able to do something to improve matters however small.

Ellen


The Householder (1963): husband, Prem (Shashi Kapoor) and wife, Indu (Leela Naidu) not getting along


Shakespeare Wallah (1965): daughter Lizzie (Felicity Kendall) and mother Carla Buckingham (Laura Liddell, Felicity’s real mother) playing Shakespeare


Roseland (1977): a few of the chief presences sitting around one of many tables just outside the dance floor


Heat and Dust (1983): chief characters: Nawab (Shashi Kapoor) and his kept man, Harry (Nickolas Grace) and the English Official’s Wife, Olivia (Gretta Scacchi) out for a picnic

Friends and readers,

Over the course of my life, I’ve seen at least 16 of some 40 films (and some several times) made by the whole M-I-J team or two of the three over half a century. A few are bound up with memories that matter: going out to the cinema one summer’s day with Thao, a young woman I am motherly towards, and Izzy and seeing the Chekhovian The City of Your Final Destination (2009, so very late, after Merchant’s death); one night very late, Jim asleep, I burst into hysterical tears at the sense of a life thrown away, in The Remains of the Day (1993) and rushed into a room in the front of the house so as not to awaken Jim; during our trip into Quebec one summer, about (I thought at the time) retreat, Heat and Dust (1983), and now I’ll remember Shakespeare Wallah (1965), studying, trying to understand the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for a course I’m about to teach, and feelings about England deeply awakened by the poignancy of the characters having to leave India to go home …

While they are quite varied, I’d say at the core what makes them so often so compelling, so memorable is the true feeling caught or theatricalized in their actually usually quietly understated films; themes like memory, inexplicable longings, an undercurrent of melancholy. Film stories carefully developed, so the hidden life of social scenes is revealed before us. I didn’t chose the most striking shots from the many many brilliant actors who have performed for them, some of them almost unrecognizable by the time they were swept up into the film world (especially once Maggie Smith transformed) though the shots released to the public bring out the actor from the part to sell the picture:


A young Shashi Kapoor as Prem, the intensely frustrated, repressed (before his mother) and occasionally distraught husband in The Householder


Julie Christie as Anne supposed independent young woman come to India to research the life and places her great-aunt Olivia ended up in India in Heat and Dust

Ismail Merchant in one of the many short films he made with Ivory abut their work, and now to be found (if you are lucky), as features in re-digitalized DVDs, said what differentiated their work was they all worked with “heart, intelligence, art.” They were earnest as well as playful about their trade (Wallah can be translates into a trade). I find in their best moments, they approach the work of Ingmar Bergmann; there are also many fallings away, as they stumble, try for non-cinematic almost non-dramatic material (Roseland), attempt to please an audience with simply lush photography (The Bostonians). There is a love affair with the English southern countryside, though three continents, three cultures are their groundwork: India first (Southasia), then England (and Anglo places wherever found), then NYC (very late South America) and Italy (Europe). They could take a photograph: in their very first movies, The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah, they had the direct help of Satyajit Ray and his cinematographer from whom they learned much about cutting, editing. I feel they were drawn to the misty and intangible currents emanating from characters to one another


Felicity Kendall, the wandering half-broke troupe’s daughter, and Shashi Kapoor, the young Indian aristocrat in Shakespeare Wallah


Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse and Helen Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch in Room with a View (1985)

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

I have vowed to make these blogs shorter and so readable; my aim here is to encourage the reader (and watcher) to watch the earlier films (1962-83), perhaps in the black-and-white versions off-putting at first (little is compromised, they are not bland)go to Amazon prime or YouTube (where many are to be found), rent one of the older DVDs from Netflix (or better yet, splurge and buy a newly re-digitalized version with features as long as the movie), so perhaps the best thing, swiftest is to make a picture worth a thousand words by linking in the whole of Householder from YouTube

with a precise, carefully observed detailed study of the film’s art and the human story’s appeal. What I can add as to the story:

The Householder is a close adaptation of Jhabvala’s apparently fourth novel (in books on her The Householder is said to be her first). Now I realize it has in embryo central motifs and types of characters she has throughout her fiction, from beginning (all India) to middle (English women drawn into India and their original personality destroyed by the experience) to end (cool stories of corrupt individuals exploiting vulnerable ones across the Indian/American divide), — you can see a parallel plot in way (putting aside too literal alignments) in Heat and Dust (which I chose as the end of the early films as it was their first true hit, and ever after they were too often tempted into cream and enigmatic evasion).

The Householder is also a utterly believable story of two young Indian people put into an arranged marriage, and then left to make it on their own with the husband, Prem, having a low level job as teacher on a small salary. One of the aspects of all Jhabvala’s novels is that as we begin (and in many of her novels this does not change) in pairs of characters supposed to spend their lives together at least one, sometimes both have no concern or love for one another, are not congenial and what’s more don’t expect to be (particularly true here). Prem is having a very hard time adjusting to teaching in a crude place with no help from colleagues, no education in education, students absolutely w/o any real motivation to learn what he’s teaching (a dialect of Sanskrit); Indu (Leela Naidu, also an actress in France) is given nothing to do, no one to be with, her only function to serve him and he’s gone all day. One of his big mistakes is to bring his mother to live with them — a greedy, self-centered woman, rather stupid. The wife flees back to her parents and what she remembers as a happy household of sisters when she discovers she is pregnant. It’s this period away that awakens our hero to his need of her and desire to be a successful husband (householder). Amanda Vickery did a three part series on men in the 18th century and one of hours was how men wanted and needed to marry to belong, to have status, to be seen as successful males. So often 18th century England resembles 20th century India.

There are remarkable scenes of fights between teachers, of his attempt to get a rise in salary and get his rent put down, a friendship with a young man very like himself, but having an easier time adjusting to what the society has given him as his fate. We are shown that marriage is no picnic at all — The Namesake of Jumpha Lahiri (a writer whose franker work teaches you much about Jhabvala’s) is an idealized depiction — in Jhabvala these males are just so rude and commanding to the imprisoned females whose feeble weapon is to strike back by being awful in conversation. Prem gets involved with very ego centered Americans who have come to India to escape to some sublime nirvana (as does Anne in Heat and Dust) and we meet both sincere gurus and crooks. This is a sketch of the kinds of people and social interactions which matter which she repeatedly, almost obsessively develops at length in her later stories. I hope women today in India in some classes are offered far more in life for real individual fulfillment.

A Daphnis and Chloe archetype underlies this story, for at its end we are asked to believe they are making a happy adjustment at last


Returning home together on the train

I’ve not got a video of the whole Shakespeare Wallah for free online, but I can supply some remarkable reviews, from the New York Times archive; in The Guardian, the professional Chris Weigand approaches with concision some adequacy on the film’s complicated arts: Bollywood and the Bard

In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during the production with the veteran actor (Geoffrey Kendal): “He let me know how he despised the cinema – that the cinema was his enemy, causing theatres to be empty and tours to be cancelled.” But Kendal – who has an ease in front of the camera despite his lack of film experience – came to recognize that thanks to Ivory “it was the despised cinema that told the world of my existence and to a certain extent of my fight”.


Geoffrey Kendal doubting the value of what he has spent his life so beautifully on

And the despised cinema is here undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a stately pace, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and comes with music by the esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy travels of theatre troupes often make for bittersweet comic escapades

And now my words:

A wandering troupe of actors have made a living traveling around parts of India doing Shakespeare and other classics (as the film opens we see a Sheridan play in progress before a mass group of boys in suits — white, Indian and one Black).


In 18th century costume performing on a bike

But they find they are no longer wanted in the same numbers or way. Gigs dwindle: the local places would rather Sanskrit poetry; the British schools are closing; they are paid much less. We see their truck break down on the road. They are aging, one man dies. The Gleneagles Hotel (pitch perfect that Scots name) that used to accommodate them – very British – is closing. Felicity Kendall is not comic in this and she is not thin — no need to be near anorexic in the 1960s. She and Sanju, an Indian man who rescues them on the road fall in love ad who has as his mistress, Manjula, a Bollywood star who performs one of their sexualized songs, Madhur Jaffrey (she is the Begum in Heat and Dust).


Manjula performing a Bollywood song and dance for Sanju

The poignant question is, Can They Stay On?


Exhausted, on the road, rainy, hot ….

So this is a version of Paul Scott’s famous masterpiece, Staying On, a story retold by Olivia Manning in The Rain Forest (franker and nowhere as well know, and yet more visionary, acerbic, yet in Manning our hero and heroine after some scarifying ordeals escape back; in Scott’s the man dies and we leave our heroine in a desperate situation, just holding on in a beauty shop and hostile hotel. They and this are all autobiographical: the Kendalls did live this way and in one of the features, a mature Felicity tells us at first her father was disappointed with the film as it did not show their triumphs, the fantastical fun they had living the way they did, it too emphasized the ending and sense of loss

We see several famous scenes from Shakespeare done very well in what seems an old-fashioned 19th century way (disrupted now).
Saying goodbye; her parents know it’s best for Lizzie to return to an aunt in the UK; they will follow when they find they must — now they will go round just doing “gems from Shakespeare”. The way it is discussed off-hand by ordinary people suggests a rollicking comedy (!), but while it does not end tragically and there are very comic moments, it is a melancholy and oddly realistic film.

It’s very realistic in the sense that we get feel for India. Jhabvala is the author of the script which while not as subtle as her later ones is very good — no book behind it. I am slowly beginning to appreciate her stories for the very first time ever –understanding her better and being older less emotionally involved, more distant myself.

These two films are a pair.

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


Roseland, the place and marquee


The dancefloor

I would call Roseland one of the team’s noble failures. They actually filmed in the real Roseland theater, and with some professional actors, used the aging and ordinary people dancing of an evening: the idea seems to have been to concentrate on the dancing itself, with the stories barely sketched and the repetitive obsessions of those who come to such places regularly emphasized. It has its moments (Geraldine Chaplin of the professionals manages best); there are some professional dancers who catch our attention now and again, but it is fatally unrealized because it is trying to show us that the shell of these places is quite other than what is unexaminedly celebrated briefly in commercial films and histories.

This evening’s task is nearly done. I am passing over the effective The Europeans (1979): sorry to do this as it features a young Robin Ellis (also Lee Remnick — see just below) is a Henry James story, about clashing cultures, which is picked up later on, as just the sort of thing that M-I-J were particularly good at. Its themes differ from those of the other early films and the film anticipate other Henry James stories as well as several of the later, E.M. Forster stories — all set in England — or the US as The Europeans seems to be. It is not one of their best; they grew better at this type as they went on.

Heat and Dust has been if anything over-reviewed. Jhabvala’s novel had won the Booker Prize (so it sold fantastically well). Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian

After 37 years, Heat and Dust stands up as an intelligent, ambitious, substantial picture – with flaws but also intriguing aspects that were perhaps not sufficiently understood at the time. Is the movie’s love story a diversionary heterosexualisation of something else?


Anne after reading her aunt’s letters seems (mysteriously) taken by their content, next to her Chidananda allowed back in (he lives off her)

Yes, the Nawab is homosexual (the team also had real empathy for homosexual men), and the ending is not happiness; Olivia and now Anne turn out not to be free spirits but frustrated women who allow themselves to become the sexual partners, Anne, for example, as deluded as the successfully for a bit stubborn shaved American with his faux-Indian name, Chidananda (Charles McCaughan), and her landlord Inder Lal (Zaki Hussain, another less scrupulous Prem). She does not know who the father of her child is, and her retirement for help in the transformed building that Olivia ended her isolated life in as far from self-actualization as Olivia. The Nawab we have learned is a corrupt thug.

Bradshaw concentrates on the wonderful performances, and hidden meanings that leap out today, as well as the facile nature of the Anne parallel (just compare a real depiction of such a household, with the wife subject to epileptic fits, the mother-in-law supplying counterproductive punishing remedies). I want to add that what helped make people keep coming to the film after they satisfied an early Booker Prize enthusiasm, is the simplicity with which the stories is filmed — almost the hollowed out nature. Like The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah (and the quietly complex The Europeans), nothing is over-produced or over-emphatic at all, even if feel of the film’s images and music is so sensual — which gave our film-makers their nuggets for turning to a commercially successful second half (later M-I-J).

What people remember best — who saw it — is the parallel plot, exquisitely dove-tailed into the same places — Anne (Julie Christie) comes back to India to see the place her great-Aunt Olivia’s (Gretta Scacchi) life played out, to understand it better by inhabiting the living context – and we go back and forth between the 1920s elegant Raj (once again Shashi Kapoor) with its desperate people and high violence (not seen by us but heard about off-stage) and the 1970s in exactly same places in India. The parallels including both women getting pregnant by the India man closest by, only Olivia has an abortion and the disgrace leads her to desert her (boring) English husband, Douglas (Christopher Cazenove doing a serious job a la Leonard Woolf) for the alluring (to Olivia glamorous because strange) Raj — a retreat which deepens when he is said to visit her only 3 times a year — in deference to his mother, the Begum (Madhur Jaffrey from Householder now grown 20 years older), and then stop altogether. Like so many of the women in Jhabvala’s stories, Olivia is utterly alienated from all the women she meets, and some have good advice, try to support her. Anne is your liberated young woman, but supposed sensible, with her affair with her landlord (Inder Lal) emerging slowly. But unlike Olivia, she stops short of an abortion


Anne stops the woman in mid-performance

and is seen joyously retreating to a building now a hospice institution, hospital, where we last watched Olivia live her life playing the piano, until the very end when (it is hinted) Olivia ended in desperate poverty. It seems the Begum has won at long last


Jhabvala presents these Indian mothers-in-law as vengeful when given any power

We have the saturninely bitter-witty gay companion, kept and bullied the Raj — Harry (Nickolas Grace, young in the 1920s, and made up to be very ancient in the 1960s; Grace played this type too many times — Brideshead Revisited, Dance to Music of Time. He can convey no wisdom to Anne now grown old, back in England so safer and more comfortable, but storyless — we learn nothing of the inbetween time — it is story which thickens out characters in films.


The two take tea many years later, miraculously Anne has aged little

Maybe what was liked were the scenes of playful social activity, rituals done so quietly (not much gossip) and dinners at length, Anglophilic with the important qualification none of the white men or women show any understanding or sympathy for the people they are supposed to be governing, except maybe Douglas at his table in the heat trying to dispense justice.


Maybe it’s his stiff white shirt and tie that make Douglas (Christopher Casenove) so unappealing to Olivia (Gretta Scacchi)

But unlike the stories of her later career, Jhabvala is willing to grant her heroines a refuge with the implication they have accepted being women alone or subject to others.

I recognize the types and themes (people performing, a foolish American following gurus, who at the film’s end, somewhat unusually escapes relatively unscathed — like Lizzie, he is headed home to his aunt, in his case it seems almost a Kansas of Dorothy-like security and safety. This is the paradigm for Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love who gives the story post-colonial politics, with dollops of feminism, strong heroines in the past and present and the central heroine at book’s end her own person, bringing up a daughter, companion to her deceased husband’s elderly (kind and gentle) father in middle class Kensington.

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

Early in the partnership

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s most central theme in her books (as also Jhumpa Lahiri) comes from her thoroughly post-colonial roots; born in Germany of a Polish father whose nuclear family were killed in German concentration camps (he later killed himself), brought up in England (she writes in English), studying literature, she married to an Indian Bengali man, spending 25 years in India (read “Myself in India”), and the last phase of her existence in New York City. She was a perfect fit for the Englishman James Ivory who had come to India, and Ismail Merchant A major theme of her fiction — searching for, building an identity, which even people who stay put at first sometimes must do as the one the nuclear family and community they live among seeks to impose one that violates their innermost nature which seeks actualization. This is the central theme of The Namesake (Lahiri also has a multiple identity now: Indian, English, US, and now Italian. It fits the Merchant-Ivory perspective as seen in the writing and interviews by and about them. She died in 2013.

Merchant appears to have personally been a secular man, but as an Indian born he grew up in a religiously-laden society, with opposing groups (Muslim, Hindi). In the online biography at wikipedia His father, a textile manufacturer, was the head of the Muslim League, and he refused to move to Pakistan at the time of independence and partition. “Family networks” enabled him at a young age to become friends with people influential and in the film industry. He studied at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and received BA degree of University of Bombay, moved to New York City where he worked as a messenger for the UN, and showed his talent for attracting funds from Indian delegates for film projects. He was the producer, the man who made the money come, and when he died, Ivory did not have the same talent. He and Ivory had met in 1961 when he was in the US on a scholarship in a New York coffee shop; at the time Ivory was an Ivy Leaguer with aims to work in artful cinema. He died in 2005.

Ivory’s biography in wikipedia tells us he came from middling people in Oregon, where he first went to University, he moved to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, where he directed the short film Four in the Morning (1953). He wrote, photographed, and produced Venice: Theme and Variations, a half-hour documentary submitted as his thesis film for his master’s degree in cinema. The film was named by The New York Times in 1957 as one of the ten best non-theatrical films of the year. He graduated from USC in 1957. Here we are told Ivory met producer Ismail Merchant at a screening of Ivory’s documentary The Sword and the Flute in New York City in 1959; but we meet up with the other biography for we learn they formed their company in 1961. He wrote and or collaborated with all four books on them as a team.

Neither man seems ever to have married or had a public partner.


The three continual creative spirits grown older …

In Robert Emmet Long’s wonderful (full of wonders) and useful book, The Films of Merchant-Ivory: there are good biographies, much better than the ones I’ve provided, insightfl details about stages in their careers, the gifts they showed, where learned their crafts, then descriptions and accounts of many of the films, many beautiful and thought-provoking photographs and stills. Long calls these three “unique uncommon individuals” who make “unique uncommon films.”

Ellen


The Last of England (1855) — Ford Madox Brown

Dear friends and readers,

This too is an unusual blog or has become unusual. I’ve not for a long time advertised (in effect) one of the many group reads I participate in: I used to do this for those I lead on my listservs. We’ve been reading non-Trollope books on Trollope and His Contemporaries @ groups.io lately, books relatively unknown by women, colonialist and post-colonialist novels (Mary Taylor, Miss Miles, Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration from the North) and have come to read one of these by Trollope, and I’m hoping this relatively unknown but strong book will provoke interesting conversation. We read it once before on the list, but twenty years is a long time and the world has changed so that I feel we would come away concentrating on very different things than we did the first time round. Then we talked a lot about the sexual promiscuity and bigamy stories:


From modern illustrations by Francis Moseley in the Folio Society edition: John Caldigate glimpses Mrs Euphemia Smith for the first time aboard the ship going to Australia

Now I surmise we’d be a lot more interested in the cultural and social conflicts undergone and conflicts arising from these.

On Trollope-l (at the time the name) we read after JC after Is He Popenjoy? and The American Senator as three relatively unknown novels by Trollope. N John Hall says it is nonetheless among his best (!) — I’m not sure about that. In said Folio Society edition, R. C. Terry gives the novel high praise: he connects its matter to The Way We Live Now with its “evolving world of money, greed, and materialism in which ethical issues are becoming more urgent and difficult; it has a romantic myth of a young man who disappoints his father but wins out through high adventure, court-room scenes and stints in jail. There is much autobiographical resonance in the depiction of the estrangement and then coming together of the father and son.

From N. John Hall — in my own words: It has a number of chapters set either on board a ship bound for Australia or in Australia itself. Trollope had twice (1871 and 1875) journeyed to Australia to see his son, Fred, and had completed a long travel book about his time there, Australia and New Zealand (published 1873). It is one of several fictions set in Australia or on the way “out” & back to a colony (Harry Heathcote, “The Journey to Panama”, “Catherine Carmichael”, “Returning Home”). The toughness of the life presented, the frankness which which life is lived connects John Caldigate to Trollope’s Irish books as well as to other novels with romantic and adventuresome locales. The intransigent (and anti-sex) mother of the heroine, Mrs Bolton, recalls a similar female in Linda Tressel; the intolerance of everyone Nina Balatka. Although many of the novels’ chapters are set in England and explores English provincial life, particularly the narrowness of a provincial community, its lack of choices, what happens on board and in Australia initiates everything else, and we return to Australia in order insofar as this may be done vindicate the eponymous hero in the end.

It did help Trollope’s reputation. After several novels which were strongly criticized or didn’t sell very well (including The Prime Minister), this one was liked and sold, and reviewed favorably. Trollope hadn’t placed it quickly but when he had he got £1,200 from Chapman and Hall for exclusive book rights, and £600 from Blackwood’s for serial rights. It was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine from April 1878 to June 1879.

It connects back to Is He Popenjoy? (written October 1874 to May 1875) because it too is said to have been inspired by the Tichborne case: just about everyone who has written about it tells how Trollope wanted to call it Mrs John Caldigate or John Caldigate’s Wife because it focuses on bigamy, and has people turning up thousands of miles from where the hero thought he had left them forever in order to lay claim to an estate. The question is again legitimacy. It is also linked to Trollope’s Dr Wortle’s School (a novella written 8-9 April 1879) and to “sensation” novels like Ellen Wood’s East Lynne and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret. There’s a dramatic trial, a disreputable past (clandestine sex is what happens), and some harsh emotional violence between a mother and daughter over her sexual and emotional allegiance to the man she calls her husband.

To join click on the link; here is our schedule:

June 12, Chapters 1-8
June 19, Chapters 9-16
June 26, Chapters 17-24
July 3, Chapters 25-32
July 10, Chapters 33-40
July 17, Chapters 41-48
July 24, Chapters 49-54
July 31, Chapters 55-64

While there has been no film adaptation, there has been a graphic novel by Simon Grennan. It was announced, described, made available at the Leuven Trollope conference in 2015, and on one of my blog reports from the conference I reprinted one page of the pictures and one side of the endpapers — a beautiful depiction of a very gothic looking house, which I transfer here:


This could be either Caldigate’s father’s house or the Bolton’s — probably the Bolton’s, an imprisoning fearful emotionally violent place.

tt is a kind of unusual graphic novel because 1) the pictures are not close-ups; we are kept at a distance from the characters. And 2) there are few words — or far fewer than some of these graphic novels use when it comes to a serious “classic” 19th century novel. I don’t see a summary of the plot but I did read it and beyond omitting the comical post-office part of the novel at its ending), Grennan makes a couple of other modernizing changes. There are aborigines in the story

This is from my blog:

The team chose this novel as a less familiar one, one never adapted before. They cut the post office sections of the novel as they felt a graphic novel could not make these appealing Grennan decided he would try for pictures that projected what he thought were the aesthetic emphases of the novel. He wanted to visual equivocation, to keep readers and viewers at a distance from the characters in the way Trollope does: there would be no close-ups and even few middle distance shots and the point of view would be of a camera low-down. He was seeking a rhythmic roundtable of points of view; all the costumes reflect the way 19th century people of that decade dressed, the kinds of rooms they lived in. He did not want to use styles associated with classic comic; he wanted to capture this previous time as something strange. He developed a story of aborigines, practiced historical verisimilitude.

Grennan later told me he dressed Mrs Smith so she would have been recognizable in the era as a “Dolly Varden:” she is a character in Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge whose coy highly-sexualized self-presentation (Dickens just salivates over her) was taken up by music hall performers — after all Mrs Smith has been and returns to the stage (though the reader never see her do this). (I admit I prefer to imagine Mrs Smith in her more somber outfits as a mature woman who confronts life and men frankly as their equal.) Simon chose dark deep rich colors (purples and browns) where-ever appropriate, and reserved yellows and golden browns and greens for suggesting seasons and landscapes. There is an French edition if anyone is interested, but be warned there are very few words.

So, come one, come all, you are not likely to find this book read by a group of people anywhere else this summer.


Telegraph Depot, Ninety Miles up the Roper River, Northern Territory,” Illustrated Sydney News, 31 August 1872

To Trollope-l

Ellen


Frances McDormand as our thoughtful Fern – she recites a Shakespeare sonnet by heart, and at other moments shows herself to be well-read (Nomadland)


The owner, boss, chief of the glass-making factory who permitted American Factory to be made

Dear friends and readers,

This might be labelled now for something somewhat different. Most of the contemporary movies and plays I review on this blog take a liberal, sometimes radical, left-wing, anti-racist, social humanist stance: these are the kinds of stories I enjoy. Theatre I look for something profoundly (if possible) exploratory of the human spirit, especially in distress, on the edge of not coping (Uncle Vanya: scroll down). For tonight I’ve a film to recommend as mesmerizing, whose not-so-hidden agenda is libertarian enabled by sleights-of-hand. Nomadland, scripted & directed by Chloe Zhao, featuring Frances McDormand, based on a book of the same title by Jessica Bruder, resembles Mudbound, in being a movie made by, coming from material by women, and much be-prized. I had been sleepy and the experience projected woke me up.

But then I recommend that the next night as contrast you watch on Netflix, American Factory (made partly because of the Obamas’ presence, also an independent film, directed by Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert). You will discover what is the true context for Nomadland and how what is presented are desperate self-induced romantic delusions, which people tell themselves as in: they have made a good choice in their apparent willingness to flee inside their van-homes from a ruthless asocial society to wander about deserts, snow belt, and forests. (There are those who refuse to consider they will end up with this kind of job as a life choice.)

At the center of the Nomadland is a widow, or should I say wife whose husband has died a hard death of cancer: asked her status, Fern says she is married, only her husband is dead. His death has not parted her from him. Her memories, the decades she spent living with him in the way he wanted (in factory jobs), in a house he preferred (tract house), situated in a place he liked (at the edge of a desert), surround her mind, keep her company. To be fair, this emphatic inward shaping is not brought forth at first: what we are immediately confronted with is a factory sign which tells us the factory is shut down, and intertitles inform us that upon that factory closing the community vanished. No jobs, no way for the people to stay and to survive. She appears to be living a subsistence life, near destitute, in an old “ratty” van; caging the lowest sorts of jobs (a packer at an Amazon warehouse, a cleaner in a campsite, a cook and washer-up in a huge fast food place (turns out to be a sort of Disneyland store-as-mall called Drug Wall), at which she works for as long as they need her, and then is either fired or she quits. She has made enough money to live for say weeks on end in her van traveling about the west in the midst of spectacular scenery (beautifully photographed of course — never dingy, never just grey, when it rains it rains impressively). We see her looking at her pictures remembering happy moments – I’ve seen this in many films centering on older women.


The life of Fern and Dave presented as if they were on a perpetual sunny picnic (see the review it appears in)

Only gradually do we see the hardships of such a life, but they do not seem to bother our heroine. What if she urinates or defecates in a bucket – she can empty it the next day. What if her van lacks heat: she has plenty of blankets. She has a TV, radio. Once a tire goes, and she is almost stranded: but a woman she has the nerve to ask help from relents and they become close friends for a while — until it’s time for the friend to move on, probably to a hospital for she is dying of untreated cancer. Once when she is told to move on, this is not a place to park overnight, her car stalls. Turns out to fix the car she needs $2300 and she is told the car is worth $5000 — but it is she says her home. (She has told someone she is not homeless, only houseless.) She doesn’t have it, and on the phone, her sister refuses her, so we see her somehow take a long journey by bus and foot to that sister living in a beautifully appointed middle class home. The sister would clearly keep her, and the sister’s friends sort of accept her, but Fern will not stay; she gets the money in an envelope and promises to pay it back, and return to her truck. We see her disappoint herself and a small dog by refusing to take the poor creature into her truck with her. She stiffens herself and walks away.

There are some “feel-good” compensations. She travels to real life gurus about whom people like herself gather and learn how to survive from, as well as in groups celebrate together their existence

She attends several such events during the movie. Enjoys dances. Becomes friends with a man she is clearly compatible with, one Dave (David Straitharn) who she travels with for a while: they take hard jobs together; then his 30+ year old son shows up, and asks his father to return home with him and see a grandchild. Dave confides to Fern he’s been a lousy father and seems unwilling to go with his son, asks Fern to come with him, or later on; the son (miraculously) seems to hold nothing against the father and when she does take Dave up on the invitation, we find ourselves in another beautiful middle class home, the food just gorgeous and originally cooked; she is told she is welcome to stay. But she foregoes this. As with her sister, she says she cannot. It’s not her? When the movie is over, we are told the charismatic leader whom she returns to more than once (and he has his tale of hard grief) and many of the people she meets are real “nomads” like herself.

The movie was just showered with awards. Rotten tomatoes gave it a rating of 98%. Most reviews give high praise with little qualification: Ebert’s reviewer just “loved it”:. Ditto as “the critic’s pick” for the NY Times. I began to wonder what was wrong with this film? My mind was very tired by the time I came to it at 11 pm (nowadays you can watch films into the wee hours w/o worrying about how you are to get home, or the movie theater’s hours). But then I found what I was troubled by expressed by Richard Brody of the New Yorker: A nostalgic portrait of itinerate America, he calls the film. He noticed all the characters were presented in a simplified way and kept at a distance from us through Fern’s mind. Read what he has to say. Here’s how I’d put it

The way the subsistence existence of these people is presented is that this is their choice — as Fern chose to live with that husband and not stay with her sister (who complains she could have and she left a hole in their family). They seem to want to live this way, and indeed the real people say this – but real people in social life do not like to present themselves as impoverished and near destitute, especially at the end of their lives. Ask about the company they work for and they will often excuse its hard behavior to them, identify with the company that is gouging them. Fern clearly chooses this because in front of us she has a new right now (romantic) offer from Dave who could go live with his son, who (as I say) seems to have forgiven his father for a boy- and young manhood of total neglect and be living in very nice middle class circumstances — as do Frances’s sister and relatives. Amazon looks a horrible place to work, so too the kitchens of a restaurant stop on some big highway, or as someone who is the cleaner of a campsite for RVs — but our Fern needs only work there for as long as she needs to get together enough money to go out on the road again.

Who needs Biden’s infrastructure or plan to make good jobs, bring industry back when we can spend weeks in the mountain moon light? There are a couple of lines now and again by someone very old who implies he or she was given no chance for anything else once the job was up. Could save nothing. I remembered Willie Loman of The Death of a Salesman; Arthur Miller has him say in anguish, am I to be thrown away after a lifetime of hard work? We are confronted with a refrigerator engineered to last as long as it takes to pay for it. I remembered Grapes of Wrath where the people go on strike; where they are relieved when for a short time they can go inside a gov’t run camp and live better (if there are rules to abide by).

I don’t say there isn’t enough here to show you what the economic reality is. But all but one or two people who if they offer no help, look very sorry over Fern’s plight and tell Fern of a bed in a near by church — of course she is not bothered, remember she is houseless, not homeless. A friend recognized in this movie “an American spirit, a sort of go it on our own mentality in opposition to going along with a government plan for everyone, though it also avoids being very political. These people have a sense of pride that doesn’t want to take charity.” He did remark he had never seen Wall Drug from the harsh point of view we were shown it in this film (a hot kitchen, a place where garbage mounts up).

Brody notices all the things the film leaves out: practicalities: how do they pay their taxes? He says the film omits in the case of Dave’s brief stay in a hospital how before a hospital will perform a procedure on you you must sign a document accepting any and all related charges. I wondered also where they kept any money they might have? do they vote, ever? In the large scheme what is left out is the salary structure and price of goods in a society that disabled them from ending up with savings or pension. Of course the people are on a spiritual quest now. Right.

When I was identifying with the heroine as a woman who choses to be alone rather than re-marry or get a new partner, there is a huge difference between me and this woman. I own a house, have widow’s annuity (2/3s of my late husband’s federal gov’t pension), my social security, and both my parents’ savings — I can afford to say no to someone like Dave — who himself is apparently going to live of the charity of a son he was a lousy father too. Maybe it’s foolish and useless to complain about this kind of (in effect) libertarian propaganda, but maybe not. It is not my mentality to live liminally continually, oh no, and not (I submit) most people’s.


Miss Pettigrew before putting on attractive clothes …

I am wondering if Frances McDormand makes a specialty of portraying white working class type women. The last movie I saw her in, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, she was a very violent woman and very angry and working class essentially — what I remember best about the film is the continual profanity and anger and abysmal poverty — cars loaded down with guns in the back. Mississippi Burning was a whitewash (pun intended). It was years ago I saw her in witty comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, again a person with low expectations, so very appealing in a very non-feminist film.


Workers

Earlier this spring I saw a documentary, American Factory, recently about a Chinese company — huge corporation — who came to the US and took over an empty US factory that had failed the capitalist demands of high profits — very like the what the factory in Nomadland. did When it closes, almost everyone in the town is unemployed. I recommend it because it exposes the workings of capitalism from the inside of the work day, from the point of view of American and Chinese workers, the long hard hours (Chinese will endure hardly any time off and long periods away from their children), the required worship of a boss, high efficiency demands, no vacation for long periods, demands of utter loyalty and pretend obedience rituals. What people in the class said was they were amazed the company allowed the camera in — the answer was it was supposedly fair — showed “both sides.” Well it did show how the boss regarded his profit, but it made clear how his company (very like Amazon) thwarted an attempt to unionize (forced meetings, constant propaganda against it, threats made good to fire people). The real thrust was to expose the ruthless stealing of people’s very lives so one man or several can make huge sums. What enabled the making of it was the Obamas backed it. Here is an excellent review by Peter Bradshaw (from The Guardian), e.g.,

the workforce realised that to show their gratitude they were expected to conform to the Chinese culture of regimentation and submission, uncomplainingly working six or seven-day weeks, pushing up productivity at all costs and declining to make a fuss about decadent and lazy American indulgences such as lunch breaks and safety precautions …

He found this “solution” for a stable life “discomforting and desperately sad.”

Sheelah Kolhatkar places the film against the backdrop of our political polarization as US society is confronted, as the New Yorker puts it, with challenges of a global economy, i.e, mass unemployment, menial jobs, or the harsh regimen of non-unionized corporate work.

So here is your alternative. Get yourself a van, try to live in the most minimum way possible, take jobs as you need them (the way the boss hires you) and call it liberty. Only a romantic movie like this can persuade anyone you will not soon get into hard trouble. How many popular and be-prized books quietly urge the same alternatives dressed up as this Nomadland. How rare to get a real look at the factory or capitalist life increasingly inflicted on US people?

Ellen


Haylet Atwell as Margaret Schlegel in HBO Howards End (scripted Kenneth Lonergan)


Anthony Hopkins as Mr Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton in 1993 Remains of the Day (scripted by Harold Pinter, then revised Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala, 1993)

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Days: Monday mornings, 11:45 am to 1:15 pm,
June 7 to 28,
4 sessions online, zoom meeting style (location of building: 4801 Massachusetts Ave, NW) 20016
Dr Ellen Moody


Peppard Cottage used for Howards End in M-I-J 1993 (here it is not photographed in prettying up light) – the house in the novel is Rooksnest which Forster and his mother lived in for many years


Dyrham Park (South Gloucester) used for Darlington Hall in 1993 Remains of the Day

Description of Course: SG 1620 Summer 2021 Two novels of longing at two ends of an Imperialist century

The class will read as a diptych E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989). Both examine class, race, war, fascism and colonialism; family, sex, and property relationships from the “empire’s center,” England, from a post-colonial POV. The core center of both novels is the human needs of their characters against capitalist, gender- and class-based backgrounds. I urge people see on their own either or both the 1992 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film Howards End (w/Thompson & Hopkins) and 2015 HBO serial, Howards End (Kenneth Lonergan w/Atwell & Macfayden); and the 1993 Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film The Remains of the Day (also w/Thompson & Hopkins). We can ask how ironic romances can teach us fundamental lessons about how to survive and thrive in today’s worlds.

Required Texts:

E. M. Forster, Howards End, ed Abinger Edition, introd, notes David Lodge. London: Penguin, 2000. ISBN 978-0-14-118231-1
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day. NY: Knopf, 1989; or Vintage International, 1990. ISBN 978-06-7973172-1
There are readily available relatively inexpensive MP3CD sets of the Howards End read by Nadia May (Blackstone) and Remains of the Day by Simon Prebble (Tantor). Both are superb. A more expensive CD audio of Howards End by Colleen Prendergast. All unabridged.
All three movies (films? streaming videos?) are available on Amazon prime (small price for viewing or none at all).

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

June 7: Introduction: Forster, his life & other writing, Bloomsbury (kept short), Forster’s Howards End

June 14: Howards End and the 2 film adaptations

June 21: Transition from Howards End to The Remains of the Day

June 28: The Remains of the Day, the one film adaptation, and if time permits Ishiguro’s other novels (esp. A Pale View of the Hills, Never Let Me Go, When We Were Orphans) & 2 films made from Ishiguro’s books beyond what’s cited above, viz., The White Countess (Ishiguro wrote the screenplay) and Never Let Me Go.


Emma Thompson seen from afar as Miss Kenton, walking as much in the corridors of Mr Stevens’ mind as those of Darlington Hall (she also plays Margaret Schlegel in the 1993 Howards End)


Helena Bonham Carter as Helen Schlegel (the younger sister, a Marianne Dashwood type) (1993 Howards End)

Outside reading or watching:

There is an enormous literature on Forster and he himself left a large body of writing. The best biography because it’s the one candid one about Forster’s sexual orientation and his life is Wendy Moffatt’s A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life by E.M. Forster NY: Farrar, Strauss, an Giroux, 2010. Then I recommend for the text and the rich backgrounds and criticism section, The Norton edition of Howards End, ed. Paul B. Armstrong, who brings together remarkable material both on and by Forster, and includes Forster’s “What I Believe” (central to understanding him and his relevance to us today). I’ll also sent as attachments or URLs: Barbara C. Morden, “Howards End and the condition of England,” May 2016, Literature 1900–1950, British Library, Oliver Tearle, “Revisiting Howards End: Notes towards an Analysis of Forster’s Novel, Interesting Literature, n.d; on the 4 part HBO film scripted by Lonergan, Roslyn Sulcras, “A Howards End: True to Then and Now, the New York Times, online: https://tinyurl.com/37s564xf. See also my blog on Howards End, book & movies.

There are many essays on Ishiguro, his novels, and especially The Remains of the Day (and not a few on the various films too), but many seem not to understand him or this and his other earlier seemingly realistic book (s) or to be beside the point — perhaps because the post-modern post-colonial perspective and Ishiguro’s mix of realism, symbolic allegory and surrealism, different genres and anti-realism (symbolism) gets in the way of understanding this particular story as told by the butler. I will send along Wroe, Nicholas, “Living Memories: Kazuo Ishiguro,” The Guardian (biography entries), 18 February 2005, online at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/feb/19/fiction.kazuoishiguro …; Lee, Hermione, “Books & the Arts: Quiet Desolation,” The New Republic, 202 (January 1990):36-39; Deborah Guth, “Submerged Narratives in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day,” Modern Language Studies, 35:2 (1999):126-37; Meera Tamaya, Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day”: The Empire Strikes Back,” Modern Language Studies, 22:2 (Spring 1992):45-56. See also my blog on Remains of the Day, the book and movie. We’ll also use the fascinating online interview of Ishiguro at YouTube (TIFF Bell Lightbox for a post-screening discussion of the film adaptation of The Remains of the Day): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g1P6c3yomp0

Recommended for both books:   Jacqueline Banerjee’s Literary SurreyHampshire:  John Owen Smith, 2005; and Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Big House,” in her Collected Impressions. NY: Knopf, 1950.

Volumes of wonderful close readings of wonderful novels and discussions of issue include: Claude J Summers, E.M. Forster. NY: Ungar,1983; Barry Lewis and Sebastian Groes, Kazuo Ishiguro: New Critical Issues of the Novels. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. On Forster from the standpoint of all his writings: John Colmer, E.M. Forster: The Personal Voice. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.


Hugh Grant as Lord Darlington’s nephew, young Mr Cardinal confronting Mr Stevens (1993 Remains of the Day)

Samuel West as Leonard Bast, wandering in a vision he has of a park he walks in (1993 Howards End)


Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam), Mr Carter (Dudley Sutton), and Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn) — in the school cafeteria (see Beiderbecke Affair for cast)

Jill: How many records do you have in your collection?
Trevor: No idea. Never counted. Maybe a thousand. Or two thousand. Plus a few tapes. [Takes some out to show her]
Jill: Thank you, I know what a tape looks like.
Trevor: Well, there’s a few tapes.
Jill: How many?
Trevor: No idea. Never counted. Maybe —

Best of all the pleasures on offer is the music, jazz themes that stay in your head long after you’ve watched, lingering like some Sondheim theme, and within the programs cheering, providing the beats, the pace, the meaning, part of the content of each episode (sometimes quite explicitly)

Friends and readers,

I was going to begin this fervent recommendation to stop all you are doing and obtain the three seasons of what we may call The Beiderbecke Trilogy, closely associated (for once) with the name of its wonderful script-writer, Alan Plater, with a paradoxical apology, admitting that the films are almost impossible to get and the books difficult too. Except tonight I have discovered they aren’t — as long as you have a working DVD player — or access to one. The books too are available at reasonable prices (showing just the Trilogy), if you don’t mind used paperbacks from Bookfinder.com


Little Norm (Danny Schiller), Jill and Big Al (Terence Rigby) — waiting to be interrogated by the police

I’ve been for the last month or more watching these seasons on and off, sometimes two episodes a night, sometimes one, together with a couple of hour-long documentary features about Plater: on The Beiderbecke Tapes DVD is Images of Yorkshire, all about Plater’s career writing for Yorkshire TV, with the man himself interviewed — and very interesting he was; on Fortunes of War, the 3 DVD set (Region 2), TimeShifts, a posthumous moving life-and-works beginning with his first play and carrying on to his last programs and books, emphasizing what he brought originally to TV: the real language of everyday England from all classes used by characters, and music integrated and used so that we remember the tunes and they stand for themes, ideas, characters distinctly. I wrote about Plater earlier this season (Hearing the Music) so will not repeat his biography nor signal accomplishments nor filmography (as it’s called). This is “just” to recommend Beiderbecke.

And it’s not easy to do unless you’ve seen the series or at least read the books. William Gallagher, a TV historian, journalist, critic, and dramatist in his own right captures the tones and tells the story of how the programs first emerged, the several process through which they were made, synopses of episodes, complete with representative witty dialogue, and assessments. Retelling the stories (see also Tapes and Connection), and saying they are gentle parodies of mystery/spy/thrillers. Gallagher says they combine prosaic quiet realisms with “the absurd,” but the better word is wacky — what literally happens is slightly and more wacky, versions of daily life turned askew so the underlying silly sudden contingent desperation of some of our behaviors lies open to view. This though sounds too stark (even if here and there the action skirts real danger, risk, threat) for the controlling mode is droll and the pace utterly leisured. This may be seen visually in the way repeated we see the two people get into the yellow van (old, battered, with signs from Jill’s campaigns) and go back and forth to their jobs or wherever they are going. No show today would waste such time with what’s “not needed.”


But we are perpetually in our cars too, with the sun in our eyes, we talk there to one another


It becomes a motif, a sort of symbol for the series

People also say (rightly) that for quite a while after the program is over you hear the strong jazz music (played by a band, with Frank Riccotti the composer). Remembering it you have in your head a kind of rhythm (this is what Sondheim achieves too in his best songs and musicals), the lingering effect.

No one ever hurries, there is no pile up of action, and no ratcheting up of tension, a kind of cumulative effect is felt but not so we really become anxious or stressed about anything. Part of this is the benignity, sanity, low expectations, & ironic distanced temperature of our central lovers (the term feels overdone), Trevor and Jill. When the building Trevor is living in to make way for a road (gov’t is not looked upon as having any common sense) is knocked down, Jill invites him to come live with her in a much less phony-looking house where she is first found (her aspiring ex-husband’s taste) as “probationary cohab.” They do love companionably, sentimentally, in friendship and duress, but they don’t romance. They approach love-making by first defining what are erogenous zones, then discussing further, and then the covers are pulled up or the light goes out. Two of the series (Tapes and Connection) end with our two high on a Yorkshire hill overlooking the dales, with the second by their side a cot for First-Born (their baby to whom they have not as yet given a name by the time the the third season ended


Feel the fresh breezes


With their first baby (first-born implies there may be more), to whom we hear Trevor tells tender stories to

Much is happening all the time, but it does not always lead to high melodramatic action (in fact there is little melodrama in the serials and when it does occur, say in Beiderbecke Tapes, you realize the series is straining); characters are thinking, deciding, doing things they need to do, becoming, helping one another or following some direction that is part of the story and itself issues in denouements that teach us or them something or other; we are learning a lot. Especially important are the many throw-away lines; typically the brilliant sudden intrusions of this or that ironical comment is spoken in a quick understated way. Why did the police arrest you? Trevor asks Jill. “I was intercepted with sealed envelopes from the Kremlin” is her quick quiet response. What else did you expect? Answers that go nowhere and are themselves filled with questions are what Jill and Trevor typically tell Mr Carter, their sceptical colleague, or the earnest imbecilic headmaster, Mr Wheeler (Keith Smith).

In one interview Plater says when he conceives a character, he or the character asks three questions which the action pursues: “who am I? How did I get here? What am I going to do tomorrow?”

They are supported by an inimitable cast, some of actors semi-famous, and others (to me) unknown (and perhaps never became BBC regulars). These are mostly variants in comedy, but when pushed move into semi-neurotic memories of unjust treatment. Terence Rigby as Al was told he was redundant so he set up a warehouse of goods in the basement of a church and sells them by having his “sister,” Janey (archetypical beautiful platinum blonde) go round neighborhoods with a thick catalogue. He was a major character actor at the time; not so Janey (Sue Jenkins) or Yvonne, the baby-sitter (Judy Brooke) who confesses a nagging deprivation leads her to steal:


Judy Brooke as Yvonne Fairweather.

I was delighted to re-find Maggie Jones as the pub-owner’s wife, Bella Atkinson (she was in the 1971 Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Quiverful in the 1982 Barchester Chronicles), Beryl Reid as Sylvia Jill’s old friend, companion in radical women’s circles (doubtless named for Sylvia Pankhurst, who was “consistent” we are told), now living in what seemed to be assisted living for disabled people and Jill’s confident and occasional advisor.


Jill with Sylvia who says she cannot understand why people think the old want to sit near ducks in ponds …

I recognized Eamon Boland as Jill’s errant and now petty criminal of an ex-husband when he appeared

Editorial use only
Eamon Boland as Peter Swinburne

The attentive reader will have realize the POV of this series is pro-labor, egalitarian, compassionate – – one of its pleasures for me — as all Plater’s original work and some of his choices (J. B. Priestley’s Good Companions) reveals. This goes along with having central low status characters (whose actors are not name people) make wry comments and play major roles: in the Beiderbecke Affair, it is “the [nameless] man with a dog called Jason” (Keith Marsh) who remarks there are no neighborhoods, no neighbors any more, who snitches to the police for money; the Chief Superintendent Forrest (a star elsewhere, Colin Blakely) an ultimate crook; and a very funny over-enthusiastic (half-mad) Sgt Hobson (Dominic Jepcott) trying so hard (he gets a Ph.D, but cannot think outside his script


Dominic Jephcott as DS Hudson and Terence Rigby as Big Al — the Sergeant scrambling about over rocks is described by “the man with the dog called Jason” as “having a bit of a crawl” as he watches him

I also so enjoyed all the shots of Yorkshire: not just the countryside, but typical and real streets, compounds of houses — I lived there for over 2 years, and was very happy with Jim — euphoric in the first months of our marriage.


In one of the semi-wacky sequences Jill and Trevor deliver a man who seems to be a Polish refugee to the Lancashire border because they cannot get him to the Mexican one — you can see here the casual continual photographing of Northern England

I did assume the books must be inferior; they were written after the series aired but are not simply novelizations. The stories differ somewhat; there is a real attempt to use the narrator, to have appealing effective description, pace, subjectivity, but what really makes them an equivalent reminder, substitute let’s say on a train, or bus, is Plater has recreated the tone of the series — the same wry undercutting wit, ironies, crisp dialogue whose words surprise you — there is poetry in Plater’s language. My copy is a many times read book.

So far from having to apologize for recommending something the reader will not be able to access, I’ve discovered the cult that arose at the time (over five years, for there were breaks in the seasons — not all the people high in the BBC believed in this program’s ability to attract viewers), is not gone altogether. The show is remembered and people are still buying and watching it. Barbara Flynn is not the only one of the actors and other professionals involved who remembers the experience with real fondness and pride. She supplied most of the photos in Gallagher’s book


This seem to be an ad for Britbox (a subscription site on the Internet where you might be able to see the serial): they have chosen to show hero and heroine in Amsterdam (Beiderbecke Tapes goes to Amsterdam and Edinburgh)

Ellen


Mudbound: Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) handing the letter from Resl (German woman) meant for Ronsel t(Jason Mitchell) to his family; Laura (Carey Mulligan) alone on the Jackson porch

Friends,

My theme tonight is adequate movies or films. Over the last couple of months I’ve been watching a number of films adapted from books — I’m not sure what to call them any more as I reach them by different technologies, or software, all of which are accommodated by my computer or my TV (which is after all a computer too). They stream in, I use DVDs, I watch via YouTube. There’s vimeo. I am exploring what makes for excellent film adaptation, without which you have poor hollow movies — or travesties.


The two friends, Jamie and Ronsel

The most recent and one dwelling on my mind is Mudbound, streaming in from Netflix who produced it, a film by Dee Rees, adapted from a book by Hillary Jordan. It is a gripping tale, very hard to watch for me because I was in a perpetual state of anxiety, worried that the members of the Black family would be killed or maimed from the constant threat or menace from the cruel violent whites they (and other Black families) are living among, or that the whites themselves would turn on one another, as in the opening scene where two brothers are burying their father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks playing evil man), and it’s not clear that the older brother will rescue the younger one who appears to be drowning, sucked in by the mud the grave turns into as it starts to rain hard. The movie and book show you how racism under Jim Crow worked a constant demand from whites on blacks that they kowtow, humiliate themselves, with an ever menacing threat, every once in a while made good — as at the end of the film and book. The story has been reviewed as a movie far more often than as a book (New York Times; Odie Henderson of Roger Ebert’s site, with the story told and retold. The cinematography by Rachel Morrison is breath-taking in its artful suggestiveness.

The book itself reminds me of Faulkner or Graham Swift crossed by Toni Morrison: it’s told in turn by narrators in deeply subjective ways, all of which add up to an eloquent rendering of the misery and deprivation, impoverishment of the best of the human spirit in a racist, deeply inhumane capitalist racist order — Mississippi in the 1940s. The women are utterly subject creatures — in a secondary white family the father beats his wife and rapes his daughter and they have no recourse. We see whites cheat whites; and the way the whites makes money is to exploit the Blacks. We see Laura, the white wife (whose husband takes the car keys from her as a punishment), and Florence (Mary J. Blige), the Black one (whose husband relies on her) create meaning and beauty for themselves through piano playing or doing for their families; they form a supportive friendship; Hap (Rob Morgan), the Black father is a preacher and kind to his family; two sons, Jamie, white, and Ronsel, Black, learn that life can be far more decent and rewarding even during the terrors of war in Europe, and through friendship almost bring upon themselves annihilation but also escape at the film’s end.

But my theme tonight is not the message about how racism and patriarchy work in the US even now (subtler except when it comes to the police), nor even the relationship of the book and film, nor even the splendid art of the film (patterned scenes at the core), but rather that element so hard to gauge, to measure, to explain: why a given film is adequate to the content it seeks to visualize, give sound to, human presences, life, realization.


Stuart Wilson as a viscerally deeply felt Vronsky

I’ve watched several of these over this winter into spring time which are as it were forgotten (not even an adequate wikipedia entry; a 1977-78 BBC Anne Karenina by Donald Wilson (who also wrote the Forsyte Saga), with Eric Porter, Nicola Paget, Stuart Wilson, Robert Swann; the 1979 Rebecca, directed by Simon Langton (the best of them all), with Joanna David as Rebecca, Jeremy Brett as Mr de Winter, Anna Massey. The 1987 BBC Fortunes of War, written by Alan Plater (from Olivia Manning’s masterpiece epics, Balkan and Levant Trilogies), with Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Ronald Pickup, Rupert Graves (among others.


Joanna David (her daughter, Emilia Fox, played the part in 1997) showing that the quiet second Mrs de Winter of the book, is the strong woman

We dwell on these actors but it’s the embedded film world that is made for them as much as the enactment of their characters in that matters. What is it that makes for this depth of apprehension and detailed lived realization? Faithfulness (as it’s called) to the literal surface of a book or psychologies of actors and mood are the means. Each of the characters on a separate journey within groups of characters in a situation. There is the jelling together of the actors as they make the story realized. But more central I find is the inner drive to maintain an integrity of thematic vision, truth to a complex moral on the part of the central film-makers (writer, director, cinematographer, producer).

I stay with my paper written so long ago, the importance of the screenplay — that’s why we should study. In all these cases, that’s what I’ve been paying attention to — as well as watching how the director elicited from the actors the emotions wanted moment by moment. Look upon this as an interim attempt to suggest what I might write more at length once again.

Re-watching Mudbound, reading the book and studying Martin Scorcese notes for his masterpiece Age of Innocence over the past few days too: I’ve been studying Martin Scorcese’s for his 1997 adaptation of Wharton Age of Innocence, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel-Day Lewis, and there the give-away are the lengthy descriptions of setting, gestures — and the use of a narrator. And re-watching the magnificent 2004 BBC The Way We Live Now, scripted Andrew Davies, featuring David Suchet — I mention Davies in the same breathe as Plater — in both cases shooting scripts are often available. A signal of the same core resolution and good strong book which can be so parsed.


There is a beautiful still of the Black church open to the sky with stained glass window covering half the space and Hap preaching so movingly in front of it but I cannot find a still among those online

And watching Rachel Morrison discuss the cinematography of Mudbound tonight brought me to bring together these nightly experiences over these weeks and what unites them even if the only stills commercially available on the Net are the far shots of landscapes, medium shots of people and close-ups of actors.

Short tonight, but I hope adequate … Do see the six films I’ve cited and read the six books alluded to in this blog. I want to say stick especially with the BBC later 1970s and early 1980s serials but again and again since then, as in Mudbound, one finds the crew and film-makers doing it again. A sign of seriousness is the published shooting script and in it real essays and thoughts in the appendix about what inspired the people — in Age of Innocence it appears to have been other brilliant costume dramas. Read what Mary J Blige has to say where she discusses why the most horrifying scene in the film is her favorite.


How they all stay in character too: Jamie is to me super-handsome but he is not the actor; and Mary J Blige is Florence throughout

Ellen

For a US person I infer an analogy to these South African trials is the present trial in Minneapolis of the murderer of George Floyd (who thinks he will get off).  I’ve learned (I watched only the briefest clips but have read what is said) that police protocols in Minnesota and in much of the United States are intended to intimidate and murder Blacks — to hold them in terror so as to bully them at will. Not as searingly cruel as So. African militaries, but very much the same behavior in principle. And it’s upheld: in the court no one questions the police protocol; the only question is did Chauvan “overdo” it.

An article in Guardian by Oliver Laughland describes how the trial of Chauvin is being conducted as a way of assuaging a traumatized community

Dear Friends and readers,

Over the last three or four nights I embarked on a journey through four films telling the story of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After Apartheid finally ended, and Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa, in 1996 a commission of concerned and able citizens was set up to hold public trials where people could come and tell of the horrific wrongs they and their friends and relatives suffered during the long decades apartheid was imposed on South Africa.

It was mostly Black people who testified about such experiences. I notice in each case a second person sits next to the victim witness there to soothe — and control — them. The people telling what had happened grieve, and occasionally become hysterical. The people who had perpetrated the wrongs the specific Black people were describing were invited to come to the same trial and if they admitted the whole truth of what had happened (which before this had been egregiously lied about, not told at all, distorted and falsifying details presented) and could demonstrate convincingly they were actuated by a political motive, a jury might grant them amnesty. This is not the same as forgiveness: it means a court has pardoned someone for an offense, which he or she can then not in law be blamed for again.


Four young South African men who were brutally murdered (Long Night’s Journey into Day, produced, directed by Deborah Hoffman, Frances Reid)

It was expected that the perpetrator should show remorse and apologize, and most did; a few became genuinely grieved and talked of how they had not since the time they did these deeds been able to sleep or live with themselves easily, but at least four men justified what they were doing by saying that is what they understood to be effective and necessary deeds at the time to achieve “stable gov’t” — and two of these were clearly in their hearts fiercely angry at being forced (if they wanted pardon) to own up. One white woman who came to complain about the death of her white son at the hands of a Black man was livid with hatred, indignation, and not for a moment accepted his explanation that he was driven by the deprived life and ferocious punishments that had been visited upon him. Yet of the three men all received amnesty. The people who did not receive amnesty were the ones where the torture they inflicted on the people they were murdering was hideously in excess in pain and suffering of what was needed to say “extract information” subdue or kill them.

When I first read about these commissions and what they were doing (in the 1990s), and have come across articles since, I was dismissive of what they could achieve. I thought that in reality by telling these terrible acts to those who have been mortally wounded basically for the rest of their lives, those listening would and could never forgive but would generally be made more angry. I now realize I was wrong; I had not read deeply enough, not read any descriptions of these trials at length and especially not seen any enactment. After watching the fictionalized retelling, Boorman and his team’s In My Country (1994); the shaped documentary Hoffman and Reid’s Long Night’s Journey into Day; and a two part report-like documentary made in 1997 by the South African Truth Commission, I’ve changed my mind.


Langston Whitfield (Samuel Jackson), Anna (Juliette Binoche) and Dumi (Menzi Ngubane) in John Boorman’s In My Country (1994, scripted Ann Peacock, Antji Krog)

On my own behalf, as an excuse I suppose for my obtuseness, one problem was the aim of the commission and the results were not being told clearly: the point isn’t forgiveness. Most of the anguished people I’ve now watched over some six hours of film could not forgive the people who did what they did; there was hardly a human relationship between them. The aim was something far more practical and less personal. In In My Country, it was called ubuntu (if I’ve the word correctly), a word which refers to a recognition that all must live together in one community and are bound together as one people, and must live in peace side-by-side. The aim was to achieve understanding of what had happened by uncovering all the details no matter how painful. Catharsis.  I now see tha good was done.  The person who had been so hurt at least had his (or her) day in court even if by proxy.  Also a hand was held out by the Black people who had so suffered for decades to the whites to be reconciled.

Of the three movies I’ve watched thus far, only the SA Commission Documentary admitted that few whites were in the audiences of these trials, that many whites refused to believe that the trials were telling the truth. Alas, for the most part the only whites who showed were the police and other militarized men seeking amnesty, telling of their deeds, and the relative of a rare white murdered either by gov’t death squads (let’s call them all) or a sudden uprising of mob rage by Black people (uncommon because of the terrible reprisal policies).


From Long Night’s Journey into Day: a rare young white woman, Canadian, who came to South Africa to help work against apartheid was mistakenly murdered
in a hysterical mob action simply on the grounds she was white — we see her anguished parents come to the commission, describe what happened, listen to the Black men who did that deed admit it and say they were grossly wrong and apologize profusely.

There is a fourth film I mean to see, but find The Power of Forgiveness by Martin Doblmeier, yet another documentary, is available as a DVD to be bought. I must wait for it to arrive by regular mail from the post office or Amazon.  The film is said to explore the nature and examples of forgiveness, including personal stories about Northern Ireland, the Amish, 9/11 and the Garden of Forgiveness, Thich Nhat Hanh, Elie Weisel; to use scientific studies, and of course humanistic discourse. I’m glad I watched the others first, for the implied demand here (you must forgive) skews the nature of what these trials meant to achieve: the aim is not forgiveness of the people who committed such horrific acts by the people wronged; rather it is an attempt by a people to live to live with their past and with those who have inflicted hideous damage on them by asking them to tell the truth and ask for legal pardon.

What I concluded is that the tiny number of white people in South Africa determined to set up a white supremacist state with whites wholly in charge, with all the wealth at their disposal, took horrendous and just cruel weapons of all kinds and hired and kept active armies who treated all Black South Africans as if they lived in a concentration camp where gov’t thugs were free to arrest, beat up mercilessly, torture, desecrate Black people’s bodies at will – and did. They did this because they were such a tiny minority — they used Blacks too as part of their police and surveillance: these were collaborators.

Similarly in Minneapolis, the prosecutors are allowing all the Black people who were forced to stand around and watch a fellow Black person murdered before their very eyes are testifying to the world what they experienced. If this protocol of intimidation and terror forced on Black people and communities all over the is not being openly admitted to, we are seeing it. That this is the way it is being understood can be seen in a British reporter for a far away newspaper picking the reality up and explaining it. The people being reconciled are themselves also potential victims and victims’ families — not all of them are up to it — they are of course hoping that at long last some justice may be done, and if this protocol not be done away with, the man who used it excessively, exultingly, will be judged rightly guilty of gross murder. Many weep as they tell what happened and then have to listen to the excuses and insulting of them and the victim the perpetrator’s lawyer. Apparently the ranks are breaking and some police officers are coming forward to say Chauvan used excessive force.

**************************************
I’d like to offer a few details of the three films I’ve seen thus, and when I’ve seen the fourth, add my commentary on it to this blog in the comments.


Anna and Langston at a trial as a South African TV reporter and American reporter for the Washington Post

In My Country is a fictional film, or a historical film fictionalized by the story of an Afrikaner white poet-reporter, Anna (Juliette Binoche) who has come with Dumi (Menzi Ngubane), a Black African man to cover the trials for a TV station and Langstan Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson) an Black American reporter who strikes up a relationship them. What conventional suspense we experience is worry for their safety and watching their relationships develop. Anna belongs to an Afrikaner family most of whom disapprove of the trials and her empathy with Black people; her husband supports her and she leaves him with their children to follow the trials as they occur around Africa.


Anna and Dumi

Gradually she becomes friends with the young Black South African man assigned to her as technician, and lovers with the Black American reporter: it is a witty and tender relationship, beginning in antagonism and ending in understanding. She does return to her family and there is tension and loss. Dumi in the one false note in the film at its end is made to confront his past in a brutal scene with other Black Africans.

Juliette Binoche is another actress who appears in films and plays with a social conscience which are beautifully well done; she was a moving Antigone at the Kennedy Center years ago. Samuel Jackson is a well-known multi-faceted star.

But we are also — I was — riveted by the stories told in the hearings and seeing the white men as portrayed by white and black actors.  What happened is I realized that the commissions did succeed in what they set out to do for many. In fact the point was to allow hundreds of Black people to confront their hideous oppressors and tell them to their faces in front of a crowd what they had done — the point was a kind of tranquil shaming. If a particular officer or person showed he was politically motivated (had to do it) and did not go about the job with disproportionate cruelty (which many did), he could achieve amnesty — and the Black person learned what had happened to their beloved relative, friend or heard it said aloud and believed. Brendan Gleeson played the white Afrikan officer whose crimes were so disproportionate and whose remorse so ambivalent he is not granted amnesty but must stand trial for 63 murders.

I have found the whole of In My Country and been able to link it in here, and hope the people who put it on YouTube do not remove it.

Long Night’s Journey into Day was much tougher because the four cases (out of 22,000) detailed were real and there was no sweetening romance.  You learn more seriously the horrors of what Black people were subjected to for decades in South Africa. What I came away remembering best was that there are still many white who are not only unremorseful but angry that either one of their relatives/friends were killed and see themselves as having no responsibility to other people. One white man who did horrific things clearly was as cruel and brutal as ever and he was granted amnesty – for telling the truth. I also saw so many Black people and especially the mothers of those murdered years later still living maimed lives. I saw their continuing poverty. And I saw one white Canadian mother, father and brother, attempting to live up to what their white daughter in her idealism had tried to achieve. I thought this emphasis on women was perhaps a result of having two female director/producers.


One of the mothers of the four murdered young men featured in the posters (see above)

It’s a vimeo:


A young Deborah Hoffman — I can find no image of Frances Reid

Last, the straight two hour documentary made by the SA Commission. It is here we most often meet and listen to Archbishop Desmond Tutu — he speaks of the white people who refuse to participate as missing an important chance to admit knowing what happened, to become better by doing so, to function more effectively in the true worlds of South Africa. It is a powerful film; I’d see it over two nights.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_QZO_onxlo (50 MIN)

I regret I have read so few books by South Africans about South Africa. I keep trying to persuade my WomenWriters@groups.io to read Nadime Gorimer with me. As of tonight I’ve only read a couple of marvelous short stories by Gorimer. I have read much Doris Lessing, but most of it not set in South Africa. One exception is The Grass is Singing

Ellen


A Bridge Party by Barbara Loftus (1995?)


From A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma), Nina Hoss, Evgeniy Sidikhin, Irm Hermann (German, Max Färberböck 2008)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Thursdays, 11:50 to 1:15 pm,
April 1 to May 20
4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va 22032 but conducted online via zoom

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course: 20th Century Women’s Political Novels

We’ll travel across 20th century wars, politics, and social life in fiction and memoir: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), about an Anglo-Irish household during the 1920s civil wars; Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune (1960) and The Spoilt City (1962), on the fascist take-over of Romania in 1939; Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time (1975), her experience as a target of the paranoic McCarthy era, 1950s USA; and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), African-American experiences of life in early to mid-century America. We’ll learn of the authors; the woman’s perspective on earlier and today’s era and how women’s political and war novels differ from men’s. There are numerous excellent films which connect directly to these books; I cite a number (below) that people may profit from by watching on their own: of these, two are direct film adaptations of our books:  1999 Deborah Warner’s adaptation, The Last September; 1987 Alan Plater & Cellan Jones BBC serial film adaptation of Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogy titled The Fortunes of War.

Required books (in the order we’ll read them):

Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September. Anchor, 2000 978-0-386-72014-4.

Olivia Manning, The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City (the 1st and 2nd of 3 novels called The Balkan Trilogy set in Romania, one continuous story) are available separately, but I have them in the more much more frequently printed The Balkan Trilogy. Penguin 1974. You get three for what you pay and the novels become more brilliant as they go on. The URL for this older print is 0-14-010996-X. The trilogy has been recently reprinted with the dual Title, The Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy, introd. by Rachel Cusk. Penguin, 2010. 978-1-59017331-1. Both printings have the same pagination for the text.

Lillian Hellman. Scoundrel Time, introd Garry Wills. Little, Brown 1976. This same edition is available reprinted in 2000. The old URL is 0-316-35294.

Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. Vintage, 1970. 978-0-307-27844-9.


Bowen’s Court, now pulled down

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. For the first week read as much of Bowen’s novel as you can.

April 1 Introduction:  A kind of novel, historical as well as political & about war; when written by women; 4 era. Using film. Contrasting memoirs & fantasy dystopias: Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin (gang-rape); Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (nursing); Virginia Woolf, Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison (polemicists, home front stories). Bowen’s books: Irish War of Independence & Irish Civil War; WW2 bombing

April 8 Bowen’s life & POV. Bowen’s The Last September (with comments on The Heat of the Day and The Demon Lover).

April 15 The two film adaptations of Bowen. Fascism; the fascist take-over of Romania. British colonialism.

April 22 Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Manning’s The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City.

April 29 The 1987 BBC Serial, The Fortunes of War. Eras of “great fear:” the later 1940s, the Smith Act, into McCarthy era; Watergate.

May 6 Lillian Hellman, especially her plays & movies, with something of Dashiell Hammett. Scoundrel Time

May 13 Black history in the US. Toni Morrison’s life & career & novels.

May 20; The Bluest Eye. If time permits, tentative thoughts on political-history novels, esp as written by women. The four eras we covered.


Guy and Harriet Pringle (Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) with Prince Yakimov (Ronald Pickup) in the Pringle Flat (Fortunes of War, 2nd episode)


From Julia, Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) and Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) going over Autumn Garden (1977)

Suggested Films:

The Heat of the Day. Dir Christopher Morahan. Script: Harold Pinter. Perf. Michael Gambon, Patricia Hodge, Michael York &c. 1989. Available as DVD to rent, buy from Amazon, and as a whole on YouTube.
The Last September. Dir. Deborah Warren. Script: John Banville. Perf. Fiona Shaw, Keeley Hawes, David Tennant, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, &c. 1999. Available as DVD from Netflix or to buy on Amazon. Also found on YouTube in 10 minute segments.
The Little Foxes. Dr William Wyler. Script: Lillian Helmann. Perf. Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright &c MGM, 1941. Amazon prime.
The Fortunes of War. Dir. John Cellan Jones. Script: Alan Plater. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Ronald Pickup, Alan Bennet, Rupert Graves &c. 1987. Right now available as 7 YouTubes and DVD Region 2 to buy.
Michael Collins. Dir. Script. Neil Jordan. Perf. Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Julia Roberts. 1996. Available on Amazon Prime, as a DVD on Netflix to rent and on Amazon as a DVD to buy. As a DVD it comes with a documentary by Melvyn Bragg, very much worth the watching.
Watch on the Rhine. Dir. Herman Shulmin. Script: Hellman and Hammett. Perf. Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Lucile Watson, Donald Woods &c 1943 Warner Bros. Amazon prime.
Julia. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Script: Hellman and Alvin Sergeant. Perf. Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robarts, Maximillian Schell, Meryl Strep &c 1977 20thC Fox. DVD to buy and to rent from Netflix.
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Dir. Jonathan Miller. Perf Benjamin Whitlow, Charles Gray, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Burden &c. BBC, 1981. DVD to rent from Netflix.
The Pieces that I am. Dir. Timothy Greenfield-Saunders. Perf. Toni Morrison, Hilton Als, Ophrah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Walter Moseley &c 2019 Perfect Day Films. Amazon Prime, DVD to rent  from Netflix.


Lillian Hellman, 1947, Photograph by Irving Penn

Suggested Outside Reading:

Austenfeld, Thomas Carl. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics & Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford and Hellman. University of Va, 2001.
Bowen, Elizabeth. Collected Impressions. NY: Knopft, 1950.
Caute, David. The Great Fear: The Anti-communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower. NY: Simon and Shuster, 1978.
David, Deirdre. Olivia Manning: A Woman at War. Oxford UP, 2012.
Foster, R.F. Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History. London, Penguin, 1993.
Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: A Biography. NY: Knopft, 1977.
Johnson, Diane. Dashiell Hammett: A Life. NY: Random House, 1983.
Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vintage, 1999.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. Lillian Hellman: A Difficult Woman. NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2012
Lassner, Phyllis; British Women Writers of World War II. London: Palgrave, 1998; Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of Empire. NJ: Rutgers, 2004.
O’Reilly, Andrea. Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart. State University of NY, 2004
Martinson, Deborah. Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels. NY: Counterpoint, Perseus Books Group, 2005.
Patten, Eve. Imperial Refugee: Olivia Manning’s Fictions of War. Cork UP, 2011.
Roymon, Tessa. The Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison. Cambridge UP, 2012.
Staley, Thomas. Twentieth Century Women Novelists. Barnes & Noble, 1982.
Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies, trans from German by Stephen Conway. 2 volumes. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987. A study of fascism.


A recent photo, from The Pieces That I am