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Archive for November, 2013

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Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) by the grave of her son

Dear friends and readers,

To help myself get through Thanksgiving Day yesterday, I went out to a movie that had gotten rave reviews: Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears, written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and based on The Lost Child of Philomena, a book by the real journalist, named Martin Sixsmith, who did help an elderly Irish woman locate the adult her baby born 50 years earlier and taken from her had become:

50 years ago Philomena became pregnant outside marriage (in the film after one night’s love-making at a fair); she was thrown out by her parents, and taken in by a Catholic Charity who proceeded to treat her in the harshest way: she had a breech-birth with no painkillers; she was made to work long hard hours in a laundry for 4 years for little pay in the meagerest circumstances and, along with the other unwed mothers, permitted to see her child one hour a day. Her male child and another female were sold to an American couple for $1000 and she coerced into signing her rights away. Years later the nuns lied to her when she came back to locate him: they said the records were all burnt but one, the paper where she signed her rights to her child away. In the film the journalist is immediately suspicious: how could this one document survive and all others be destroyed? We discover they lied to the boy become an older man when he returned to find her; when he died of AIDS, he wanted to be buried at the charity and his grave is now there and in the film untended (like those who died at the time of the mean inhumane treatment)

The film resembles Rabbit-Proof Fence, which I saw some years ago (2001) where the aborigine children of three women are snatched by middle class white Australians to be brought up in a European middle class culture (but in a harsh orphanage-like environment); in that film the girls make their way back to their mothers through terrible deserts. In both films, the behavior is justified by those who did it: in Philomena, the nuns say she was a gross sinner who deserved the worst punishment; in Rabbit-Proof Fence, Australian authorities say the white culture will provide a much better life for the children when (and if) they grow up. Philomena acknowledges that the boy, Michael in the film, grew up in a middle class home in circumstances which enabled him to become a successful lawyer and work for top Republican people; he was gay and lived with a male friend in reasonable comfort until he contracted AIDS which killed him well before he and others could get the Republicans in charge to fund any program to help find a cure or help for this fatal disease condition.

So the premise is not sentimental. The story exposes a profound injustice done to a powerless woman.

This review (by Jay Stone, Post-Media News) praising the film tells the basic opening premise: a fired or failed and humiliated politician becomes a journalist who does human interest stories and finds himself hired to help an elderly woman locate her son. Also its moral purport: “an odd-couple drama with a dark heart and a post-modern sensibility, an expose of the shockingly sadistic treatment of unwed mothers in the 1950s, and a worldly dismissal of everything that brought it about.” Martin and Philomena are an odd couple: utterly disparate in cultural understanding and age (she reads and understands improbable sentimental romances literally), his sceptical ironic perspective and her naive defenses of those who damaged her profoundly make for oddly dark humor.

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Researching today is looking into the computer

I had not expected this political paradigm: unlike Rabbit-Proof Fence the way the film is advertised, does not bring out its critique of the anti-sex and anti-women attitude in Catholicism, its hypocritical practices: not only do the nuns in charge lie, they make it impossible for Philomena to talk to the aging still ferociously hateful nuns who did the deed. I also didn’t expect the plot-design: such stories usually end in the victim finding her child all grown up and happy and successful at the close; or dead, having died terribly and had a terrible life at the close. That’s what the head newswoman keeps saying on the phone she expects Martin to find after his journey to the US with Philomena and she wants him to write it up that way in order to sell newspapers and is paying the funds needed for travel and research in the expectation of such a story. He is to find such a story write it this way.

Instead about 1/3rd into the film, maybe less, through the computer’s access to information and Martin’s experience telling him where to look when they get to the US, we and then Philomena discover what happened to her son and that he died some 20 years ago. Armed with his name, the names of the people who bought him and became his parents, and the names of those he worked with in the Republican administrations (and photos too), they slowly discover what was her son’s nature and how he lived (middle class life growing up, good school but the parents were hard on him and the girl who became his sister), his homosexuality (which funnily but believably Philomena suspects quickly upon seeing his photos). They and we visit his sister; then an ex-colleague now at the Folger Library; and after much struggle, they force their way into the house of his partner (who was in effect his spouse) and he shows them one of these montages of photos and films that funeral homes nowadays make up and put on DVDs as wellas websites for customers.

It was when the film became to play this montage I broke down. I began to sob uncontrollably. It was so like the montage the Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home made of my husband Jim; opening with the same sentence telling the day the person was born; closing with a similar sentence recording the day he died, and more or less taking the viewer through the stages of the person’s life as he looked and changed. The relatives of this fictionalized montage and I and my daughter naturally chose the best pictures and the expertise of the funeral director puts them into coherent order. Soft music and interwoven photos of natural phenomenon (grass, birds, sky, flowers) do the rest. So the montage I paid for is common I learned.

After that the emotional moments in the rest of the film drew tears from my eyes. Judi Dench rightly receives high praise for her performance. I’ve seen her several times before perform this high-wire act (Cranford Chronicles, with Maggie Smith, Ladies in Lavender) where she conveys a depth of tender emotion just held in check so that a sentimental story is told prosaically; a underlying sternness of aspect in Dench’s face (Helen Mirren pulls off this kind of thing too) is part of what’s responsible for the effectiveness of Dench’s presence; as Philomena she conveys some self-irony (like Maggie Smith does in her enactments of this kind of role, say Bed Among Lentils) — even in a woman given to retelling with utter earnestness the silliest romance stories.

Dench is helped by being partnered with an acerbic comic actor: Steve Coogan played in a burlesque adaptation of Tristam Shandy (A Cock and Bull Story); as Ann Hornaday says he utters “mordant asides” “often having nothing to do with theology, or religion.” Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls them a divine couple.

One must not forget the contribution of Stephen Frears who while not seen has made many film masterpieces as disparate as My Beautiful Laundrette, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Grifters, Mary Reilly, recently Cheri, Tamara Drewe. And scriptwriters Coogan and Jeff Pope.

It was Thanksgiving Day which is still kept by many Americans so few people were in the theater. Most were presumably at home with families or friends eating a turkey or other roast-bird meal. Or quietly allowing others to think they are. Some put photos on the Net to show they are participating, a propensity made fun of this week in the New Yorker (see The Ordeal of Holidays).

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A known secret is that Christmas Day is now passed by many by going to a movie — you do see people in groups — and the meal is sometimes eaten out in a restaurant (Asian ones have been open on Christmas Day for a long time, permitting the joke I passed the day in the Jewish way, movie and Chinese food out). Although Thanksgiving itself has not been commercialized beyond the buying of a bird and trimmings, those who don’t get to do this are made to feel bad so public media shows include statements by announcers expressing compassion for the presumed unhappiness of those who don’t get to experience such get-togethers for whatever reason. On Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifills’ PBS Reports, I saw the story of a poor black woman who since food stamp allowances were cut gets $63 worth of groceries per month for herself and her grandchild. This is not enough to buy a Thanksgiving feast. Well some charitable organization in Virginia was giving away grocery bags full of roast birds, vegetables, treats (cakes? pies?) and drinks; as a viewer I listened to her description of her life (she is the type who works at Wall-Mart’s) and how grateful (!) she was to the charity. Right.

The demanded behavior on Thanksgiving or Turkey day is an expression of thanks (read W. S. Merwin’s poem) — in origin it’s a religious ritual feast.

I’m not immune to this. Today was my birthday and I was relieved and rejoiced when my young friend, Thao, and her partner, Jeff, were able to make it to DC all the way from Toronto, Canada, where they live. It is common for people in the US to travel long distances to get back to some relative or friend for dinner. Thao and Jeff were here also to shop for an an engagement ring and see other friends (she attended GMU for her undergraduate degree). I am no cook, but together for the day after Turkey Day, Izzy and I managed to roast a chicken, heat up frozen pre-prepared zuchini (awful), cook spaghetti and a yummy pasta and cheese sauce I bought from Whole Foods; fresh bread, ginger ale for all but me (who drank cheap Riesling) and Port Salud cheese rounded out our feast. We talked, took photos.

If you should see the remarkably candid, intelligent and moving bio-pic Joan Rivers made about her life (A Piece of Work), you will find that on Thanksgiving day she makes a feast in her apartment and to fill the table’s chairs and do a good deed, she invites street-people known to her up to apartment each year to eat with her. A friend of mine whose grown children are divorced, live far away, know unemployment and other obstacles preventing all from getting-together, this friend invites three woman who have no families to dine with her and her husband and those of her children and grandchildren who do make it.

I have a double excuse for this weakness this year: my beloved husband died of cancer this year; the rightly dreaded disease allowed to continue to spread (President Obama just signed some bill easing the way for those who want to frack for huge profits), this disease killed him horribly inside 6 months.

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But I digress. I’ve forgotten Philomena. Don’t miss it. It’s funny. The background is modern day USA as experienced by the middle class in DC and modern day Ireland. We are able to remain calm and not get too indignant because the Catholic nunnery as presented in the film is an anomaly, a broken-down place no one in their right mind goes near. None of the sternness of the ending of Rabbit-Proof Fence: in Rabbit-Proof Fence, the perpetrator played by Kenneth Branagh remains as unreformed as the nuns in Philomena do, but the aborigine children who escaped back to the aborigine people are presented in their present poverty-stricken existences — probably dependent on charities the way the black grandmother seen on the Woodruff-Ifill show was yesterday. The modern-day Philomena lives with a kind patient professional daughter wisely underplayed by Anna Maxwell Martin (another wonderful actress who I hope decades from now is working on in the way Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith all have). Mother and Daughter live in a decent house, do lunch in pubs.

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Ellen

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Renee Fleming

Dear friends and readers,

As part of a friend’s long weekend visit, I planned for us to go to 3 places, and see one concert, one play, one movie. We’d have plenty of time inbetween (I hoped) to walk, talk, watch TV (even, shoverdosing on say Downton Abbey), eat. Maybe we didn’t have quite enough time to do all that. What also got in the way was the cold weather and occasional struggles to find my car.

Renee Fleming put together a remarkable three days of American voices at the Kennedy Center; we experienced a powerful expressionistic Romeo & Juliet at the Folger, and happened on beautiful and interesting objects in the National Gallery.

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The first place was Kennedy Center, and when we got there, we realized what I thought might be a concert was master-training session and three chosen students after which there was a panel discussion with Fleming herself, and people high in the particular music world the training sessions were in.

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It turned out that what was happening was for 3 days and nights an exploration of “American voices” (as it was billed) was going on in different parts of the building. Opera, musicals, country, rock, gospel, pop. It was made to happen by Renee Fleming whose position, respect, prestige, knowledge of people (they are her friends) could create something like this. We had stumbled onto something remarkable, and I really think we might have seen the most interesting musically.

The first session with Eric Owens correcting, urging teaching three superb young opera singers. He was witty and wise. The panel then came out on stage and discussed education, starting a career, what kind of training do opera singers get today, what kind of voices do audiences prefer today as opposed to the early 20th century, how HD was problematic for older women singers, and for a trade where what had counted was the voice, and now what was counting was an image. What about non-traditional casting in these works, African-American casting. I loved some of Owens’s replies. How does he cope with rejection — implied on the basis that he’s African-American: traditional casting is the rigorous norm it seems in Europe. He said if a place or organization didn’t want him, he didn’t want to be there. I could see that Fleming was going to ask questions that were appropriate for each kind of music and that the training session by the “master” was going to bring out different aspects of the different arts. Susan, a woman we met later wrote a fine account of the Jazz session.

The whole thing reminded me of one summer Jim and I attended 5 Sondheim musicals; over the course of that summer Sondheim was explored in all sorts of ways, music made all over the building. I asked my friend if she’d like to go the musical session. I love musicals and it was on at 11 on Sunday, a free time for us still, and I could bring us by car. Alas, it was sold out. According to one review, the concert was a disappointment as the singers did not seem to have taken their learning into their art, but as most know, someone’s art develops slowly.

But we were not done: there was the 6 o’clock free Millennium stage. So first we ate out in the upstairs cafeteria. It was too cold to go out on the terrace, and we got involved in a conversation with Susan, an on-line theater critic of music. A lot of the people at these sessions were singers, teachers, people involved in music. I learned there is a long line to get a seat for the 6:00 o’clock show by 5:30 but we got seats. Two sets of singers: one more operatic set of songs (I began to cry at one it was so movingly sung), and the other Jazz singers from Howard University (Afro-Blue songs).

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The second place was the Folger Shakespeare theater. My friend had not been in it before and her fresh eyes enabled me to realize what a small theater it is, never mind the columns and woodwork everywhere getting in the way. It is quaint, but this season the company inhabiting it is “all Shakespeare, all the time,” and the exhibit showed us actors from Shakespeare’s era to our doing parts of the plays the company is doing this year. The Folger Shakespeare library has just about everything one wants from the 16th through later 17th century as part of Shakespeare’s life, and then it has a remarkably rich theater collection moving on to our own time as part of the world of the theater. Naturally they could form such an exhibit.

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Romeo (Michael Goldsmith) and Juliet (Erin Weaver)

I thought the play itself wonderfully well done, the best Romeo and Juliet I’ve ever seen. Someone had had the idea of really making our star-crossed lovers into young teenagers so the play was no longer about love, but fierce idealism, childish or irresponsible crazed and innocent behavior, and murderous impulses in the human spirit. Dumb shows were able to bring out male abusiveness, macho-ness, especially as inflicted on cowed women. It was expressive, symbolic, a play meant to speak to us today. They kept the comedy, the poetry, Mercutio was more of a careless amoral bully, which made his death more endurable to all. The acting was superb.

I was moved to near tears remembering what a dead body is like, soared in the light of Shakespeare’s lines done so aspirationally, so sardonically …. Sophie Gilbert found the production uneven; he intense Juliet and pitch prefectly naive Romeo is done justice to by Peter Marks.

I had forgotten how much I love Shakespeare and began to remember the first time I ever saw a Shakespeare play: I was 17 and had gone to the Delacorte theater, run by Joe Papp at the time in Central park. (The plays are still being done today — though half the audience has pre-paid. When I went many of the people waited on line and got seats on a first come first serve basis.) My favorite research spot — the Folger library rich in everything that could possibly connect to Shakespeare — not far off, nor the bookshop, I felt for a moment that I had broken the spell of the vise of misery seemingly clutching to my throat like some halter around my neck since this past August when Jim’s cancer metatasized into his liver.

On Eric Posner:

We ate nearby — in one of the restaurants in the row facing the Jefferson building of the Library of Congress. A Chinese place, it was pretty, but my dinner was awful and I couldn’t eat it. We should have followed the advice of a woman who told us she runs tours and gone to Union Station on the Metro, then my friend and I could have seen that place and maybe gotten a better restaurant. Can’t win ’em all. I had wanted to show my friend the Capital Hill area, with its Botanical Garden, and we saw just a bit of it, especially the Library of Congress’s three buildings (John Adams with its Canterbury pilgrims frieze on the top floor) and the elegant older houses in rows all around it.

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The third place was the National Gallery. We did choose to go where there would be fine art and paintings — maybe next time we’ll try the Newseum or Smithsonians for cultural artefacts and lectures. To go there was to include the Quad, 14th street, but the wind defeated us and we rushed into the Gallery. Kathy was dismayed by the exhibit she had especially wanted to see: volumes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses . She thought we’d see Latin texts, hear of who read them, how influential they were (on the arts). Instead we were into post-modernism: how was the average person responding to this text, and it was clear the curators thought the average person could not read Latin and was into these translatoins. It is true that in England there were a number and some of great poetic power. This is the first time I saw the French ones (mostly in prose) and the Italian. There were some modern translations and there we saw how the book illustrations changed: Pablo Picasso was among those who illustrated books with Latin texts in translation in the 1930s.

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I love happening on exhibits or favorite objects in the collection. We happened on a 5 room journey through Paris as photographed by Charles Marville who caught the old Paris being destroyed, people displaced, and filmed demolition and despair. We saw the price the new Paris (so familiar to us) with its great boulevards, and beautiful buildings. Marville created picturesque scenes too:

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On the way from there to the Ovid exhibit, we happened on a set of sculptures on the theme of Diana, of women who retreated with a special animal — in bronze beautiful strong women’s bodies austere looks on their faces.

Upstairs I visited old friends in the collection. Corots, impressionists, Pissarro, a Turner. The rotunda filled with flowers.

Down by elevator, we bought snacks in the cafeteria and sat near the waterfall. The huge bookstore tempted us and we were sorely tempted by a book called Dressed as in a Painting; it looked so perceptive and its angle so pleasing but the price was $40.

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We went through the glittering diamond-starred moving walk to the other part of the museum, East Building and modern art. There we were to have seen Piero Paolo Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore but it was late, we were tired and wanted to get home before dark.

So we retraced our way back in the museum to where we had come in — rather like Hansel without his breadcrumbs — but eventually we were in the right vestibule with our coats and hastening across the squares and streets into the Metro to get out of the bitingly cold wind.

A piled-in time — my legs were aching by the end, my back, my friend was exhausted she said. Jim and I would do this kind of thing regularly, but not so much all at once, over say a few weeks or over a period of months we’d have subscriptions to a theater or opera company. My friend and I did not have the luxury of much time. Still amazing she made it from Iowa, stayed in a comfortable near-by not expensive hotel, met and talked with Izzy, saw my house, all my books, and the pussycats too.

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Ian on my desk, near my Vittoria Colonna book

I’ve vowed to myself I shall return to going to the Folger regularly, keep an eye on what films are on, and try to discern the presence of a music festival.

Ellen

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inthecarblog

Dear friends and readers,

As everyone it seems across the world knows on November 22, 1963 John F. Kennedy was shot dead while passing in an open car by the Texas Book Depository Building in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, and every bit of evidence we have shows that the probability is at least 1 or 2 of the shots came from the super-marksman, Lee Harvey Oswald.

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The usual way this is discussed in the US — which I participated in with a friend at the Kennedy Center yesterday — is an exchange of “where were you?” and “what were you doing” when you heard. It testifies to how electrifying the news was, how it sped throughout the US by media and word of mouth, and how memorable the moment and then the entire weekend to follow was. Last night a woman sitting at the next table told us where she was while in Indonesia: an ambassador’s daughter. The news came by phone. The man next to her, an older man, joked “I was not born then.”

Well I was: I was 17 and a legal secretary in the FAA, working in an office in the Federal Aviation Airport at what was then Idlewild Airport (now JFK) and realized suddenly that the office I was in had emptied out. Usually a hum and buzz of people surrounded me as I typed letters. I got up and walked to the door, and asked, “what happening” (or words to this effect), and was told “President Kennedy’s been shot!” Or some such words. And then quickly afterward: “he’s dead, he was dead on arrival at the hospital.”

Yes a great shock, and gradually details unfolded about where he was, and something of how it happened. Soon afterward the gov’t seemed to shut down — or no work was done — and I know I went home in the afternoon. I remember that I saw Jack Ruby kill Oswald on the Sunday: I caught the live coverage on NBC. People appeared glued to their TVs watching news and as the technology at the time was less censurable quickly, there was a lot of spontaneity among reporters and involved people. This continued through the war in Vietnam and occasionally one would see real (unrehearsed, unperformative, revealing) events — startling because much we see on TV is pre-planned, canned, and serves the establishment point of view. I remember I cried watching the funeral on Monday — as it seemed most citizens in the US did.

Today we have the Internet to try to get past the censorship and a lot more information comes out steadily. Wikileaks and other Whistleblowers since 9/11/2001, another of these global village events where people ask and can tell each other where they were and what they heard and experienced when they were told the World Trade Center crashed down and the Pentagon was seriously damaged, and thousands and thousands killed or maimed.

What can be said about this event? my blog is partly a response to what I’ve seen on the media these past few days: We see photos of the young healthy looking Kennedy looking inspirational in the sun; his then young and (we are told) beautiful wife in her pink suit with the deep red roses and we are told things that “the world changed after this or was somehow deeply different than it would have been,” with the implication we as a people lost out on something. Or individuals intone on how ever after they know how fragile any order is. We see photos of Oswald where he looks dark in face, beat up, sullen, but willing to shout out replies at reporters. We are told he was nuts, abused his wife, went to Russia, he is heard saying he’s a Marxist.

The documentaries (Frontline and others) show the viewer that the stories told and the way they are told have not changed one iota. The question still being asked was, Did Oswald act alone? And still the answer comes back, the evidence is inconclusive, or at best, there was another gun shooting (from the famous grassy knoll). FWIW, this seems to me if not a side issue, a misleading way to talk about the incident.

What we saw for a couple of days on major media — and this is key — was the squalid backdrops of the way people gain and manipulate power. We saw the this elegant god-like well-educated, super-well connected rich young man was connected to a thug who had led a deprived and disconnected life, self-educated, often broke, wandering about the world, married to a Russian woman who probably needed a husband emotionally and financially but chose badly. We see the lack of a line between crooks (Mafia) and supposedly legitimate people who do what they please without flouting laws (because they made laws which make it legal to keep their activities secret); between people who run state wars and semi-thugs who manage coups with the aid of military groups funded by groups of power who are at the head of what’s called states. larger issues, the connection between local monopolies on violence (even if private as between individuals and followers) and guerilla wars. How certain groups are allowed to function by the US gov’t (anti-Castro Cubans, Walker’s fanatical abusive bands) and others not (Oswald was harassed when he returned from the US but when it was seen he was not part of any powerful group, not prepossessing, a powerless thug, let alone).

Both men were people interacting with squalor: both were interacting with the anti-Castro cubans, and these people seethed against Kennedy as not keeping his promises to overthrow Castro, and murder as many people as it took to turn Cuba back into a capitalist run colony of an imperial power. They were equally angry at Oswald as a recorded scene on the street tells us when Oswald after having visited them and told them he would work for them was discovered to have connections to communists. Remember the asinine Bay of Pigs which indirectly led Kennedy to take the US to the brink of nuclear war?

Both were connected to the Mafia. It seems that Oswald did know local petty criminals, among these Jack Ruby, who murdered Oswald and whose motives have been obscured and are not reported on. John Kennedy’s brother, Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General of the US, had deported or tried to deport permanently an important leader of the Mafia. This man vowed to kill John Kennedy or have him killed. Kennedy had had an affair with Marilyn Monroe who was connected to other sectors (let’s say) of this amorphous group of people.

Both were military people, trained by the military. Kennedy’s behavior over the torpedo boat sometimes presented as heroism (sometimes as daredevil and not centrally helpful) is matched by Oswald who became the sharp-shooter he was because of the US military. Oswald had no trouble (as he would not today) buying the superb rifle he used. The term for Oswald would be a dangerous man. It was known that he stalked a deep reactionary type, another war-hero, A Major General Edwin Walker who was a fanatic right-wing activist, and it’s now openly stated that Oswald shot him – in the arm, in the hands.

Nothing was changed because Kennedy died. He had had very little effect on social policy, was a military imperialist; he had ratcheted up Vietnam; he had acted on the Cuban missile crisis in such a way as to bring us the bring of nuclear war. His rhetoric was made little sense: ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country is a flowery phrase whose implications are anti-social contract; the peace corps has become an elitist group run by coteries. Johnson made changes that mattered: Medicare, the Voting Rights act. The second has now been undermined by the supreme court and the Republicans in congress have done everything they can to limit, de-fund, throw wrenches in medicare. Johnson’s war on poverty was effective for as long as it lasted. I know it helped my daughter to go to a program for learning disabled children here in Alexandria (cut and destroyed in the later 1980s).

It’s true some of these were supposedly on Kennedy’s agenda, but today we hear of good things on Obama’s agenda which never come to pass. Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act is shown to be a sham because no fundamental change has been made; the insurance companies are still in charge and cheating and extorting and the average citizen still a “patsy” (to use one of Oswald’s charming words).

The third day the curtain had gone down and we were back to theater. Gore Vidal has written brilliantly in an essay called “The Empress of the West” about the uses his cousin, Jacqueline, made of the assassination. No one cared if a forensic autopsy was done on the Friday and Saturday; but the preparations for that spectacle were begun by Sunday. She showed her power and influence that Monday.

Remember at the time most people had at most 3-4 TV stations. There was no Internet. I could not write this blog and allow it to reach anyone who has a computer and world wide web browser. It’s not that the curtain was not lifted a lot before and since. But you had to go to trouble to find non-mainstream commentary. People no longer do. Since the curtain has been lifted repeatedly and as far as the Kennedy-Oswald incident is concerned the most important the kind of information secured by wikileaks.

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The rifle Oswald used: 6.5 Carcano Carbine

What questions ought we to ask? Why was Oswald not investigated and arrested at the time he attempted to kill Walker? He was found and arrested so swiftly on 11/22. What goes on in US culture that then and now makes these violent reactionary groups important for people in power and people seeking power?

Useless, unanswerable (and therefore wrong) questions continue to be asked. Contexts then and their equivalents now that we should be looking at are avoided. As far as the mainstream media is concerned, the lessons wikileaks has delivered and continues to deliver are not ackknowledged much less applied. Were we to have had a version of wikileaks in 1963 far more about the groups Kennedy and Oswald were involved with would be known, the right questions asked, with perhaps useful answers.

Ellen

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Robert Redford as nameless man whose boat has just been ruined, hit by a people-less metal container

I think you would all agree that I tried,” he writes [a voice-over] “I will miss you. I’m sorry”

“Fuck! [he shouts in despair]

Dear friends,

It’s hard to know what quite to say about this magnificent feat of a film (directed by J. C. Chandor) as it has few words and the story is so simple (see Denby of the New Yorker). I went with my friend, Vivian, and she suggested it’s too abstract, we are given so little to go on. There is nothing but the words I’ve cited above: was he writing to a family he couldn’t get himself to stay with? So, to parse the parable takes effort and people will inevitably allegorise differently. At one level it obviously dramatizes one person’s will to survive.

So what do we watch? A man alone at sea somewhere in the Indian ocean struggles heroically, tenaciously, miraculously (some of it is improbable) to stay alive and reach people or land before he is drowned by storms, starves to death, or is eaten by fish. Critics have cited Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and certainly Redford is photographed to make us think of Hemingway’s famous story:

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Nonetheless, I suggest this is a Robinson Crusoe story where the man never reaches the island, much less finds a helpful servant (of naturally a “lower” and deferent race of people). Just the opposite: after his boat has become irreparably destroyed and he manages to open a small rubber raft exquisitely set up for human comfort out of a rubber bag — which he manages to salvage from his boat — he passes by two gigantic ships at sea: but he can reach and never sees any people; one ship appears to be nothing but packages, people-less analogously like the metal container that first wrecks his boat; the other might have people as it has lights on top but no one ever responds to his flame-lights (part of the rubber boat’s equipment).

No one can make it alone? Our existences today are perilously separated off from one another? Hard to say as at the close of the film our hero (he is a hero) spies what seems a light from far away. He tries to reach it; having no flame-lights, he actually sets part of a box on fire and it turns his raft into a circle of rubber with fire all about it. So he is now in the ocean with nothing but his skin and soaked clothes. As the thing or light draws near, he wakes from what seems to be a final drowning and swims upward, his eyes all alight. We are to feel that he has seen someone and might now be saved. But we do not know. The movie goes black. Perhaps this is a final pathetic delusion. (This reminded me of the ending of Villette where it’s not clear if M. Paul drowned or reached shore and returned to our heroine.)

As other reviewers have said, Redford delivers a powerful performance. My friend did say she found herself remembering Redford when he was young and much more conventionally handsome; I remembered Out of Africa where he was so beautiful as Denis Hatton-Finch with Meryl Strep his Isak Dinesen and a meal where they drank wine and talked.

In the film at age 77 now to keep our attention he is continuously struggling, even when he sleeps we feel him tenaciously holding on. Every once in a while there is a calm, and there he is with his glasses reading a map, plotting his way to a land he knows, eating, drinking, drying himself off and becoming more comfortable. He has a hat which is improbably dry near the end of the film. Keep the sun out of his eyes. My friend and I felt the technilogical feats were such that we felt we were at sea, hearing the sounds of sea, and then in a storm, watcher sloshing all over, echoing in your eyes, the feel of wind that becomes so loud that it was as if you are there with the hero.

Listen:

It’s not a film for everyone, though it is a sort of bare minimum stunt film (there are stunt substitutes) and action-adventure male film. I did not find it boring, though I drowsed off at first for about 5-10 minutes but when it became intensely a problem of survival and something in Redford gripped me I was with him all the way (a review finding it suspenseful). It’s fair to call it experimental.

Don’t miss it and see what you think it has to say to you about our world today.

Ellen

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One of several marvelous dance sequences

Dear friends and readers,

Friday nights on PBS I’ve become a faithful watcher of Great Performances, and this past one for 3 hours I reveled in the marvelous British National Royal Theater production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahhoma as directed by Trevor Nunn: this the same group that brought us the unforgettable Yorkshire plays (medieval cycle, words by Tony Harrison), and part of the exhilaration arises from doing it in the round with an audience close in. It’s famous in the US for making a singing star out of Hugh Jackson.

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Jackson played Curly as self-deprecating, no threat to anyone, courteous even to old maid aunts

I recommend watching it because it turns the musical into its bare-bones (sort of an outline effect), tones it down and so brings out subtleties in characterization. I don’t know if I’ve said enough on this blog how much I love musicals. I know often the content is deplorable; so too are some of the plots of older and more recent operas too.

So I want, at the same time, to point out that the distinction often made between this musical and its near-companion in time, place, and composers, Carousel, often (rightly) condemned as celebrating an abusive relationship, reinforcing the worst of sexist portrayals of sex outside marriage, absurd in its heavenly ending, is false. As Carousel can be done with equal intense pleasure from the music, dance and when done (as I once saw it in London) with the same bareness and toned down, becomes a downright subversive thrust by Billy, the working class male, and his Julie, neither ever given a chance for a fulfilled life, so Oklahoma is a predatory pastoral.

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A not atypical moment

The US early on developed a particularly predatory culture — sometime in the later part of the 18th century, reinforced by the lack of identification across immigrant groups, slavery and a lawless west where US guns reigned supreme and lynching became a commonplace way of “administering justice.” The cruelty of Southern culture in the early 19th century was matched (according to Harriet Martineau) by overt Northern killing of anyone opposed to slavery by those profiting from it. The modern Tea Party, some of the most powerful of southern writers (Faulkner, O’Connor) participate in this. An article in a recent issue of Women’s Review of Books where the US GI in France as opposed to all others, was the most violent, the male the most macho in his expectations of women and angry when he did not get what he thought he was entitled to (shades of our massacres), and then court-martialled black GIs as scapegoats — brought this out. It explains so much, from the centrality of slavery to US continual attacking other countries near it (almost immediately we invaded Canada), and the behavior of this state around the world today.

What do we have in Oklahoma: Jud, a male bully (the George Zimmerman of the piece, snarling, treacherous, a “skunk”) eager to violate Julie and kill Curly, and stopped only by murder by Curly (declared okay in a rigged swift hearing). The secondary couple presents sexism and stereotypes pastoralized so it is not as obvious as Carousel.

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A long dance sequence with Jud at center and saloon girls around him

Quintessentially American musicals which the British unerringly (as a result of their culture) sufficiently distance so instead of the series of visceral skits strung together punctuated by high eruptions or intensely repudiative optimism (“When you walk through a storm …”), from raucous and poignant lyrical (Carousel) and to mindless joviality (Oklahoma), we are invited to enjoy them as nostalgic set pieces, e.g., all imagination as in this surrey with the fringe on top:

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anti-garotte collar and advertisement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A dramatized scene from Phineas Finn

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

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Chiltern heading for the duel

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Phineas waiting

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The duel

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

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Brooding Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup re-named Plat when a slave (Twelve Years a Slave, directed Steven McQueen, screenplay John Ridley)

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Jay Morris Hunter as Ahab (Moby Dick, San Francisco opera production, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer)

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday and in the wee hours of the night I watched two movies I’d like to recommend not missing if you can help it. Both much worth immersing yourself in — thinking about in the case of Twelve Years a Slave and allowing the alluring beauty of the mood and music to bring you in with Moby Dick.

From what I hear other people say to one another, Twelve Years a Slave is misrepresented in ordinary talk somewhat. Since “word-of-mouth” retains its importance in making for a popular movie hit, I’m hurrying a little to write about Twelve Years. If seen by enough people, it could function (mildly) as Uncle Tom’s Cabin once did — this time to help against racial discrimination and racist thinking so prevalent in the US still. People have told me in some areas the film has not opened so maybe I’m precipitantly worrying the film will not be a commercial success. In my area it did open in our local art cinema; the owner rejoiced at getting two prints but it’s already in Theater 4 (smaller and not for continuing hits) and not many people were in the audience yesterday after only a week; and among these were a number of black people, so not many whites in the audience. This theater is not one black people go to much; it’s in an area that’s mostly white, upper middle and attracts art-film audiences. For The Butler I did have to go to Theater 4 but it had been playing for weeks and weeks, all summer in fact, and still the theater (4) was filled and it had a preponderance of white people. The Butler crossed the racial divide. In a nearby theater to me which has large black audiences The Butler was sold out on and off for weeks, long lines of black people waiting to go, early on and then the whites joined them.

Scuttlebutt (or what I’m told or read by friends) is how violent and hard to watch it is. It’s not non-violent and not easy to watch but not because you are shown excruciating torture or close-up shocking violence, nor is this perpetual or at all gratuitous. The violence wreaked on slaves that we see is precisely what will subdue and cow them (not nothing because it’s harsh and includes implicit threats of death), the beatings shown at a distance as (horrifyingly to decent emotions) par for the course, the ordinary routine of treatment for slaves. The coerced sex scenes (on the slaves Patsy played so effectively by Lupita Nyong’o) by the master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinder who does steal the movie) are not all that much different from what I’ve seen of half-rape type scenes in (soft-corn implicitly hard sex) movies which don’t name it that. The woman just lies there and lets him.

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Patsy asking Plat to help her kill herself

What’s memorable about the scene so many reviewers have mentioned of our hero, Solomon Northrup renamed Plat (Chiwetel Ejiofor) where he’s hung and will die if he does not manage to keep his toes on the ground is how everyday it is, how slaves walk by him unable to help him, how the whites watch and do nothing, and how the supposed “good” master (Bernard Cumberbatch as Master Ford) only comes to cut him down late at night lest he irritate his central over-seer. Ford gives him a violin but will not behave towards him as if he were a human being whose life matters.

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Plat rented out to a man who allows him to keep the money he’s paid for his violin playing

Twelve Years a Slave (based remember on a 19th slave narrative, a type or sub-genre) increased my respect for Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (essentially several slave narratives interwoven into a middle class type white novel) and watching it helped increase my respect for that nowadays somewhat under-rated book. It has the same attributed flaws — in the sense that there is a reductive quality, a melodramatic exaggeration going on continually so really the charge hurled at Simon Legree that he’s a monster and no one could be that bad and if he were he’d be an exception can be hurled at Epps.

James Baldwin would not like the way Plat is presented as sheerly noble and insofar as he can be good (see “Everybody’s Protest Novel”); he is not an Uncle Tom; he does not justify a(the character who does this who is popular now is Mr Carson in Downton Abbey) or suck up in his case in the face of horrible mistreatment, but he is an innocent as the film opens. When Solomon is lured to the south, it’s obvious that the two men luring him are crooks; they are over-praising him; he is a simpleton in the scenes. Master Ford as a character is better with his well-meaningness, and his inability to keep Plat, whose opinion Ford consults, thus whose abilities arouse the resentment-hatred of his over-seers slave-servant safe is believable, but numbers of the scenes are too obvious, he won’t help Plat for real, regards Plat as property he must sell to keep his debts down so our moral lesson is clear.

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Cumberbatch as the religious ethical man Ford nonetheless showing intense cowardice and lack of real understanding as he briefly explains to Plat why he sells him to Epps

But would such a man sell this man to Epps whom he knows is cruel, sadistic. Epps played as nearly psychotic and seemingly driven by guilt to be even crueller. The central parallel of the two works (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the film Twelve Years) is this half-crazed white master. Epps is a Simon Legree and his wife a female version. But you do (Stowe and now McQueen) want to make sure the audience gets it.

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Sarah Paulson as Mrs Epps riping off Patsy’s ear and taking a chunk out of her cheek with a knife (in Dickens’s Travels in America he easily exposes slavery quoting the ads for finding escaped or “lost” slaves by the scars they are said to have)

Gets what? the key to the film’s power and importance is we see what happens to people who lose all status all caste worth – and in the case of chattel slavery this is reinforced by law which defines them as property. If they should be owned by a mad-man he is allowed to do as he wishes. The point is what law and custom allows. Sure in the Islamic world most men are not ogres, but the Koran and custom allow horrific treatment and power corrupts. People will use power if they are given it even when not as obvious as Legree or Epps.

The film is relevant to us today because today people lose a great deal of status and caste worth depending on how much money they make, the schools they go to, where they live, if they are broke — and worse, if they are immigrants or of a different racial color than the powerful. I was reminded of a book I recently reviewed on global emigration in the 18th century, enforced diasporas, and mass murder, Hodson’s Acadian Diaspora, where the point was made that safety for the average non-powerful non-connected person depends on staying where you are, among relatives or friends and people whose truth or falsehood you can gauge so not be cheated utterly to your destruction with no recourse in courts not made for you. See also David Denby on Twelve Years (from the New Yorker) as best movie on slavery made in the US thus far.

It seems to reflect a book too: there are intriguing sequences which are not part of the plot-driven movement: a group of Native Americans come to dance before the black slaves as if their culture is what slaves will understood. Other curious moments.

The one real flaw in the film is the ending as has been suggested in reviews and conversations I’ve heard. Not so much that Brad Pitt as Bass (a major contributor of money as a first-named producer) gives himself the role of our one abolitionist talker, and the only man to keep his faith with Plat.

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Brad Pitt as Bass actually listening to Plat (with exaggerated courtesy)

Plat before this trusts a white overseer who seems to be his friend with money in return for taking a letter to the post office to send to the north to reach friends to help him in court; the man tells Epps so immediately that the man does not have the letter as evidence and Plat manages to persuade Epps (not too bright) that he man is lying:

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Half-mad man

The story is improbable Plat persuades Epps, and then we watch Plat burn the hard won paper and writing he did so laboriously with home-made ink and quill.

Bass is a hired architect, an outsider and he does get in touch with authorities up north and friends of Northup — at considerable risk to himself if he’s found out he says.

The flaw begins with how easy it is for the friends to show up & take Northup away. Why did they never look for Northup before? Well, it is true that people were terrified and a reign of terror worked down south (Harriet Martineau’s travels in America books record this) but then it should not have been as easy as we see it for the men to take Northup away Epps should have shot him, would have. We are then not shown the court scenes that would have been another 2 hours but that would have been original and interesting — so let’s hope for a sequel? I doubt it.

The least real moment is the return of Northup to his family. He looks just as innocent and sweet as when he set out. Not haggard, not worn, not much changed at all. His black family is improbably prosperous throughout yet seem to have no connections to anyone black or white outside themselves. All subside into joy in a circle. Plat-Northup keeps apologizing and that makes psychological sense.

I compared the final scene to some photos I’ve seen of Primo Levi when he first returned from concentration camp,haggard, exhausted, not the same ever again. I wondered if a man dragged from freedom to slavery wouldn’t have the same hostage symptoms, the same urges to self-murder and sense of deep humiliation not to be gotten over. We get intertitles to tell us how Northup wrote and published his book in 1853 (Twelve Years in Slavery, and how he worked hard for the underground railway. So he stayed in the US I thought.

But then this quietly ominous final intertitle: no one knows how or when he died or where he is buried. Maybe murdered?

The central performances of male roles as everyone has said are stunningly good. I’ve already named the principles.

As a woman watching I had though to endure the annoyance of women being presented one-dimensionally throughout — except for Patsy the girl who becomes Epps’ concubine; who he beats, who picks heroic amounts of cotton each day — so she is never whipped for under-picking as others are. The two white mistresses are basically either phlegmatic and do nothing (that’s their role) or spiteful: Sarah Paulson Mrs Epps loathes Epps and tries not to have him in her bed, to leave him but he threatens her too – she is a form of his property too (this reminded me of Valerie Martin’s book that won the Orange Prize, Property); Mrs Epps is as sadistic, as sick as her husband, hates Patsy and hurls hard objects at her, knocking her down, cuts her face and ear cruelly, will not let her wash herself so she flees for soap and is gone for a few hours which leads to a horrific scene of Epps beating her and then forcing Plat to do it.

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The scene’s reality for the era (keeping clean was difficult) makes one feel it comes from the book — as one of Indians humiliating themselves by dancing as white people expect

We see one black woman who has become a white man’s open mistress: she is fatuous, self-centered, looks down at other blacks. I don’t say these are not human impulses but that’s all we get of these women. A black woman weeps incessantly because parted from her children; another forces herself sexually one night on Plat.

So it’s masculinist movie — Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-39 depicts the terrifying work load and sexual exploitation and cruelty wreaked on women — and their complicated humanity too. And Kemble as mistress identifies with them and within 4 years leaves her husband — she must leave behind her children to do it, only regaining the friendship of one of them in much later years. Such a thinking upright brave type woman is not in the film.

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

Which brings me to the opera of Moby Dick where (like Master and Commander out of the Patrick O’Brien books) where no women are in the film — just remembered as embodying civilization itself.

The one women in the cast was playing the boy, Pip, who is almost drowned. Suffice to say it outlined the major hinge-points of the novel (as seen in a play originally with Orson Welles from the 1940s I once saw), and it brought out the meaningful themes: does life have any meaning? who is this haunted creature-fish and Ahab or Ishmael? they are lonely? Is there a God; if so, is he evil incarnate? The music was alluring, the lines resonant to larger meanings we can identify with through generalizations. Like all films it was made for today, with today in mind. The artwork beautifully picturesque:

The production did not emphasize the primal animal-fish (as did Winston Graham in his last Poldark novel, Bella) but human displacement, alienation. The production did seem to suggest that all would have been well but that the captain was mad. (That’s not the note of the Graham novels.) As I recall the book the thrust is all is not going to be well, never has. We see a dream life or men cut off from where they could know happiness as they are driven to make money in this dangerous occupation.

So I loved the deep melancholy of the men, their desperation to bring home some whale oil for money I see as part of human life. I bonded with the man who survives and calls himself Ishmael. He had wanted to go to an island with Queegqueg and live out our lives as best we can; I felt for Mr Starbuck who is nearly shot point-blank by Ahab, and almost shoots Epps on the way. There are the comic undercutting characters too.

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And he wouldn’t know, he was tempted

This novel centrally attacks tenets of Christian belief, from justice as always or often done, to stories of an afterlife. These are deliberately not love or dynastic stories. He wanted to be spared.

I bring them together because I watched them within 12 hours of one another, and was struck by the shared masculinity identification. For myself the plangent nature of the music, Ishmael as a person alone in this world resonated enough. I think Jim would have enjoyed the great range of the masculine voices they hired. The lines on the screen and wild waters as the ships turning out from lines, the wild waters — all pulled me paradoxically soothed me. The ending of the tale is tragic as is a good deal of life.

Friday nights on TV contain a revival of the old Great Performances which I remember from my childhood, watching with my father on the old Channel 13: Judith Anderson in Medea, a Chekhov play with a male character who lived in an attic with birds, a sad poet, a bitter absolutely perfect Twelth Night (so that’s what is meant), Peggy Ashcroft, Duchess of Malfi. Now a few weeks ago the four Henry plays, from Richard II to Henry V (and the actors and actresses were great from the extraordinary Ben Wishlaw as Richard (this was Shakespeare I thought — ever autobiographical in my reading), Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York, David Morrisey as Northumberland, Tom Hiddleston as Henry, Roy Kinnear as Bolingbroke become Jeremy Irons as king, Michelle Dockery (Yay!) as Kate, Hotspur’s wife, Simon Beale as Falstaff, (I saw David Bradley too), magnificently done.

I did not realize the new version allows you to watch a re-run (as it were) as a podcast.

Learning to watch TV, a little
Ellen

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SolitaryCyclist
Original illustration for Conan Doyle’s “The Solitary Cyclist” by Sidney Paget

Dear friends and readers,

As reading and reviewing a book on the subject of violence, middle class masculinity and more specifically (among other things) garrotting and paranoia in the street life of London in the 19th century: Masculinity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature, I read, was delighted by and so put onto my website another article by Anthony Trollope from the political magazine he was first editor for, St Paul’s – on my website:

“The Uncontrolled Ruffianism of London — as measured by the Rule of Thumb”

As you will see when you read it, it’s a tongue-in-cheek satire in response to one of the 19th century waves of paranoia where people and newspapers were over-reacting to instances of garrotting by arming themselves and Trollope’s point is partly that by carrying a dangerous weapon you may endanger far more than help yourself. The full context is xenophobia (fear of poor people emigrating into London, sometimes not white); unexamined prejudice against those who had committed crimes and become prisoners and been transported (recently there had been an enlightened compassionate movement to free them of their past with “ticket of leaves” for good behavior; and a general feeling of insecurity among middle class males who identified as gentlemen that they were losing their ability to defend themselves against physical violence.

What is relevant here is we can see Trollope would see the absurdity of the argument that carrying guns (the right to) protects people walking in the streets. I suspect he would not be surprised that nowadays we read regularly how the police murdered this and that suspect and claim the suspect frightened them with a weapon — because police come armed like military people in a war zone. He would see the “Stand your Ground” laws for what they are: an incitement to in effect lawless murder.

A secondary topic is violence in political gatherings and there Trollope assumes a conservative stance casually when he suggests that attributing political motivation to public assembly scenes which turn violent is a transparent mask for mob scenes stirred up (inexplicably it seems) by trouble-makers. As an upper class gentleman who has no problem voting and participating in political life, Trollope values order more than he does any reform.

The piece is funny. The rule of thumb is Trollope’s own long experience as a gentleman walker in London and that of all the similar people he’s known. He includes his wife who (it seems) has a penchant for losing handkerchiefs and blaming someone else.

Its fictional context includes Trollope’s own Palliser (or Parliamentary) novels at mid-century –the two Phineas ones and The Prime Minister where we have instances of attempted garrotting with our heroes (including Ferdinand Lopez) to the rescue and political gatherings which in the case of Phineas Finn turn somewhat violent and led to Phineas’s labor-voting landlord, Bunce (a minor character Trollope sympathizes with) being put in jail when he was out on a march for genuinely political reasons. So Trollope takes the opposite tactic of his non-fiction piece: he empathizes with a person who gets caught up in a demonstration to extend the suffrage (though Trollope is against the demonstration and blames the politicians who stir it up as irresponsible). Trollope also genuinely imagines assaults.

Nonetheless, if you think about the whole novels (and other of his later books where he reverses his early pro-duelling position), the thrust is for caution and self-control as part of those reactions which are most “manly” and effective. In Trollope’s Phineas Finn Phineas does not succeed in freeing Bunce easily (in Raven’s film he manages to bribe the jailer to let Bunce go the next morning). Phineas does duel with a “man of blood” (to be explained in my next blog), Lord Chiltern, and this does not hurt his career, but partly this is due to his having shot in the air and refused to wound Chiltern, in other words exercised high courage, patience in the face of possible death.

In Phineas Redux, on the other hand, Phineas loses control: he seethes at the way his attempt to renewing his career is being easily wrecked by Bonteen (a rival for advancement) and Quintus Slide’s slandering him for his continuing relationship with Lady Laura Kennedy. He does wear a life-preserver, one of the many death-wielding weapons beyond guns of the era, and it’s when he brandishes this at the door of his club and threatens Bonteen that he provides one of the pieces of circumstantial evidence against him as murderer of Bonteen that almost costs Phineas his life.

In The Prime Minister Everett Wharton, Ferdinand Lopez’s silly but privileged friend, shows himself a drunken ass when he perversely and proudly (to show himself more courageous and thus a better man than Lopez) by insisting on walking in a very dark spot of a park very late at night. He is inviting trouble, and garrotters oblige him.

Godfrey discusses Trollope and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes where we see the same kind of resolutions. In earlier Sherlock Holmes’s stories there is a quicker resort to guns and violence than in the later; there is a fascination in all of them with over-wrought cruel weapons (using projectiles like soft bullets which do much inward damage to the human body); and finally in the later stories, “The Solitary Cyclist,” for example, a move to non-violent self-defense. In the story the good and bad guys resort to deadly guns, where Holmes prefers to use martial arts (e.g., boxing) which may wound but rarely kill.

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Declaring “everyone bear witness to my doing this in self-defense” Holmes prepares to box the violent cad Mr Woodley in “The Solitary Cyclist”

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Alan Plater, the script writer had the original illustrations in mind (in other of the 1980s series, the DVD includes sets of the illustrations, e.g. The Sign of Four)

Ellen

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