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Archive for November, 2015

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Opening scenario to Berg’s Lulu (designed by William Kendrick, directors Luc De Wit & Matthew Diamond

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing about this opera for a few days in order to hear what others who saw or heard it might say, to read reviews and find out about its sources because I had such a mixed reaction to it. First the story, which should be told (because it’s meant to be) crude/ly:

Lulu is a highly paid prostitute, actress, dancer, model kept by Dr Schon a physician who also supports a painter painting her continually. In comes Schigolch, her once abusive beggar father and she gives him money. She is aggressively “in love” with Dr Schon who says he wants to marry a rich socialite.

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Lulu (Marlis Petersen) and Dr Schon (Johan Reuter who also plays Jack the Ripper)

Alwa, the physician’s son enters, enthralled by Lulu, who in the next scene has married the painter who kills himself when told of her past.

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Lulu and painter (Paul Groves)

In the next act, in a ballet Lulu has danced in off-stage, she has exposed her relationship to Dr Schon to his fiancée; and faute de mieux he marries her. A boy scout or schoolboy (who I feared for) comes in admiring them all. An older countess-patroness Geschwitz, a lesbian, also loves Lulu who exploits her. Quarrels ensue, Dr Schon wants Lulu to kill herself so he will be rid of her, and in a fight, she shoots him several times. Son, countess, beggar father, boy scout try to cover up, but she goes to prison. She emerges shattered, thin, in a catatonic state. Son loses all his money in a scene with a crooked banker and investors. She ends up a ragged street prostitute in her efforts to support them all:

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Again, Lulu and Alwa (Daniel Brenna)

She brings men in and out, haggling with them for money; one attacks and kills the son, Alwa, but another turns out to be Jack the Ripper who (after she argues with him for more money) offstage murders her. Ripper returns to knife to death the despairing countess who cries out for Lulu.

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The countess Gerschwitz near the end (Susan Graham)

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As it began, I disliked it because of the grotesqueries, and repellent imagery of a woman’s private parts garishly drawn on allegorical costumes and in flashing shows of light across the stage:

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Lulu as we first see her costumed

But as the whole experience sunk in, or by the third act, while I continued to be distressed by the images of women’s private parts and breasts, I was shaken by the what was happening to the characters especially after the murder of the doctor as a farcical tragedy about the restless misery of personality-less individuals caught up in some maddened nightmare. I could find little to like in the music, hardly any melody, continual noise like hip-hop spoken rock, only the voices were singing and deeply resonant, plangent.

In this desperate crass bleak environment now and again a few yearn for happiness, peace, seem even to have an inkling of what this is: the painter who kills himself; Schigolch, the beggar dependent on Lulu for money sung here by Franz Grundheber; Alwa, Schon’s son; a naive schoolboy; the lesbian Countess. Most spend their hours vaunting themselves, behaving arrogantly or guardedly, coolly, seeking to marry or have sex with the richest most powerful person in the room, mocking other people, lying, cheating: Lulu; Dr Schon also tellingly the serial killer, Jack the Ripper; also an Animal Tamer, an Acrobat, an African Prince, a crooked banker, nameless investors and party-goers, not to omit two allegorical characters, a creepy man and sullen woman dressed in elegant evening clothes:

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By the world’s chances (the play was begun just before and during the early Nazi period when the mark had lost most of its value) and their own venal stupidity in following a Banker who is a stock market crook, they become destitute, whereupon they grimly hang on to anyone who will prostitute herself, in this case, Lulu. The norm throughout is sadomasochistic sex.

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Lulu with a male who is after her — the norm is sadomasochistic sex

Sometimes one person was the bully and the other abject, and then they’d change places. No one ever looked content; cheerfulness is out of the question: dark, intent, intense.

It may be the designers did not have the courage to flash up male private parts (as more shocking and less acceptable than female?), but if this omission was cowardice, the effect was sexist and eerily women-body-hating. But by the time the opera was over I was persuaded the wild use of lights, computer pictures in black and white of anguished, naked, violent, raging figures, sexism, and screens all over the stage, over-the-top theatrical imagery was justified effective expressionist projection of passions kept hidden, coming out only subtly but what drive the world’s overriding social structures.

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The stage

My friend, Fran, supplies the sources, background, artistic milieu: “It is based on, Frank Wedekind’s Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. Wedekind later conflated both works to the five act tragedy Lulu, which I have seen performed and which once seen is not easily forgotten. Apparently it was his original intention to write a single play all along, but his publisher initially got cold feet.

Wedekind was a German who grew up in what was the equivalent of Victorian England, and he would satirize and attack bourgeois capitalism, pseudo-morality, artistic philistinism, prudery and double standards etc. Stylistically he was influenced by Georg Büchner and was, like him, very much ahead of his time, being a precursor of the Expressionism you mention, but also the Theatre of the Absurd and Brecht’s epic theatre, for example. The latter cited both Büchner and Wedekind as direct inspirations and wrote the latter a laudatory obituary when he died in 1918. (Berg’s other famous opera happens to be Wozzeck, originally a Büchner play itself.)

Berg himself first became acquainted with Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box when he saw a private performance of it in Vienna in 1905. Wedekind himself played Jack the Ripper and his later wife Tilly Newes was Lulu. Only closed, private performances were allowed by the censors Wedekind’s work was always falling foul of. There is an available picture of Wedekind playing Dr Schön to Tilly’s Lulu in performances of the Earth Spirit. Berg has a singer doubling the roles in his opera, too.

Berg started writing his own piece in 1927. It was originally to have been performed under Erich Kleiber at the Berlin opera, but shortly after an orchestral piece culled from the existing parts of the opera had been performed there in 1934, the Nazis forced Kleiber to resign and Berg postponed finishing the opera in favour of a violin concerto. His death in 1935 meant the opera remained unfinished until Berg’s music publisher commissioned the Austrian composer, Friedrich Cerha to use Berg’s surviving notes to complete the third act in the 1960s. This version wasn’t presented to the public until 1977 and thus 2 yearsafter Berg’s widow’s death, since she had always opposed the procedure. This three act version had its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1979, directed by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez.”

Izzy, my daughter who came with me, said there are few atonal operas; atonal music was written in the middle 20th century, admired by academics, but never gained a wide audience.

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Lulu with her beggar father, Schigolch (Franz Grundheber)

Fran sent along URLs to two excellent essays: “danger and desire” in the Huffington Post; “modernism in Lulu” from Yale.

I found a couple of favorable and sympathetic reviews of this production: “desperadoes” in the New Yorker; and “the question that stops the opera” in the New York Times.

The talk in the intermissions was not as stupid or hyped as usual which was interesting in itself; Grundheber was intelligent about the opera; others spoke of the difficulty singing it; others were uncomfortable about their characters (Susan Graham). But the question Deborah Voigt (following a script) posed and the New York Times repeats was misleading though it’s what the audience is thought to be left asking: is Lulu victim or victimized? Suggesting some of the actor-singers did not see any larger picture, but instinctively wanted to defend themselves against the idea the opera is unfair to women: Reuter (Dr Schon and then Jack the Ripper) pointed out in reply how Dr Schon was a bad man, guilty and was punished (!).

This makes us look at the female to find punishment or rewards, so erases one of the opera’s strengths: here is no Traviata, no Wagnerian self-sacrificing utterly devoted woman who dies for her men, or seethingly evil femme fatale or witch. Our heroine who began as mechanically aggressive and cold becomes mechanically withdrawn.

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Rather all the characters are remnants of a terrible world outside the claustrophobic spaces we see them in, thrown out of some whirlpool of imbecility just outside the door. They come in staggering. Were it not for the screens, the acted areas would be small dark bare places. The one scene where we see the crowd, at the close of Act 2 in this production, is when the investors follow the banker about; just like the investors of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, they are greedy, indifferent to what their money was put in, ignorant of the workings of money and deluded. The opera is important: produced on such a scale for prestigious place says something: the content that is here pointed to is the extraordinary frankness with which sexuality is dramatized, how this prefigures other relationships. If you have not had anything like these experiences as a viewer you might be put off. What was implied about sex was the most troubling aspect of this production.

Finally, it’s remarkable to realize how modern we think this opera is and yet it’s 80 years old. That suggests modernity hasn’t penetrated the mainstream arts very much. Among the women in the class at American University I teach, two women said they had gone to the opera: one (like Izzy) left after the first act, and (like Izzy) thought the production misogynistic: the woman pointed out that we saw Lulu jump on the doctor, Lulu wrap herself around him, Lulu as animal and not the doctor. The second woman in my class left after the second act, and complained (like me) of the drawings of woman’s private parts thrown up on the screens as “repellent,” and said she did ask herself, why there were no men’s private parts? When Izzy left, I got up to sit elsewhere as a couple behind me had been quarreling with someone else over their seats. Three women behind me asked if I was leaving like my daughter. I said no, just moving away from the quarreling people. They looked relieved and asked me what I thought of it. I said, well I want to stay to the end to see how Lulu is treated when a prostitute. One of these women then said she found it compelling; the second said it was relief not to have these self-sacrificing virtuous heroine; another (echoing my silent thought) that she was tired of Traviatas. On face-book when I briefly described the opera, one woman said it “sounds pretty dreadful.” Another that she was glad she would have no chance whatsoever to see it.

The one male I did talk to about it commented: “A shame nobody does Jeffers’ version of Medea anymore. He turns Medea into a hero.” He was referring to the great American poet, Robinson Jeffers. A woman poet friend just said she liked the opera.

So, did I enjoy it? no. Would I go again? no. But I’ll remember it. When I’ve read Euripides’ Medea, I’m with her until she insanely kills her children.

Ellen

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Angela Down at center as Sylvia Pankhurst (Episode 6 of 1974 BBC Shoulder to Shoulder)

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Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter as Violet Miller, Maud Watts, Edith Ellyn (2015 BFI Suffragette)

Dear friends and readers,

You have two tremendous treats to avail yourself of this November where we are enjoying a spate of significant politic films. It’s another one of these re-creations of an excellent, original and effective mini-series of the 1970s 40 plus years on (e.g., Upstairs and Downstairs, Poldark). It’s also another riveting new woman’s film, the kind scripted, directed on some woman’s issue (e.g., Bletchley Circle to The Crimson Field, scripted Sarah Phelps).

On-line at YouTube you can watch six 75 minute episodes of Shoulder to Shoulder, (without commercials), and hear the theme song Ethel Smyth’s grand March of the Women:

Episode 1: Emmeline Pankhurst (Sian Phillips); Episode 2: Annie Kenney (Georgia Brown); Episode 3: Lady Constance Lytton (Judy Parfitt); Episode 4: Christabel Pankhurst (Patricia Quinn); Episode 5: Outrage! (it ends on Emily Davison’s suicide by throwing herself under a group of race-horses, Sheila Ballantine as Davison and Bob Hoskins as Jack Dunn); Episode 6: Sylvia Pankhurst (Angela Down).

And in cinemas, there’s Suffragette, screenplay Abi Morgan (who wrote Truth), directed by Sarah Gavron with a cameo peformance as Mrs Pankhurst by Meryl Streep. It also has the theme song, but it only comes in towards the film’s close (as uplift).

I have no reviews of Shoulder to Shoulder to offer; I knew of it by word-of-mouth from other women, especially anyone who has written or read about the suffragettes. I suspect it’s not available as a DVD for the same reason as the Bletchley Circle was cancelled after a second successful year.

Suffragette has been reviewed, not altogether favorably (see Variety). Perhaps since it is a woman’s film, and also about the woman’s movement, the critics have been very hard on it (see the New Yorker especially). A. O. Scott of The New York Times Suffragette justice.

This one has an argument to make, or rather a series of arguments about the workings of patriarchal power, the complexities of political resistance and the economic implications of the right to vote. You might come for the feminism, stay for the class consciousness and arrive at the conclusion that they’re not so distinct after all.

Probably the re-booting (as in the case of the others this year) of Shoulder to Shoulder into Suffragette will please modern audiences more than Shoulder to Shoulder, with its 1970s staged dramaturgy, slower movement, longer scenes and speeches, less closely graphic violence (though Shoulder to Shoulder is as unbearable in its force-feedings and it has several not just one), and I hope people will be drawn to Suffragette. Both movies show how vulnerable and frail are individual revolutionaries and movements against the power of a gov’t with military and legal powers to control, punish, silence, and kill people. Still over-praising something (I believe) in the end is seen through by people and distrusted so upfront I’d like to say that good as Suffragette is, Shoulder to Shoulder is finally superior art.

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Police breaking up the women’s demonstration and starting to beat them up

Suffragette‘s central problem is it’s too short and it has been influenced by the use of gimmick and juiced-up plots in mystery-spy thrillers common in mainstream films. So the focus in Suffragette comes from a little climax-ridden plot-design where we are supposed to care intensely if a police officer, Steed (Brendan Gleeson) turns our heroine into a mole on behalf of a gov’t bent on surveillance headed by the heartless monster, a fictionalized side-kick of Asquith (Samuel West) and his henchmen. Scenario familiar? Here is Steed trying to secude, frighten, & bribe our heroine:

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We then enter into thriller-like story arcs where our heroines outwit the police in planting bombs, breaking windows, and finally managing to reach the newspapers when unexpectedly Emily Davison (Natalie Press, the daughter in Bletchley Circle) throws herself under the horses in a race course watched by the king.

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Emily Davison contemplating what to do to reach the king, or attract attention (Maud is unaware of the lengths Emily is prepared to go to)

This is not to say that Suffragette doesn’t do ample justice deeply even (partly due to superb performances) to the human feelings among the women and in delineating the break-up of the marriage of Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) — though it chickened out in showing us the scenes of harsh domestic violence clearly visited on Violet Miller (Anne-Marie Duff) off-stage. Since a punch-shock element was what the film partly relied on, this was a loss.

In fact though Suffragette also delivers a kind of history lesson. It may be said to be equally organized as moral paradigm. Maud is a factory worker doing hard labor ironing in a laundry for years, during much of it in her earliest molested by her employer continually as a condition of remaining employed.

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Given an extra job to deliver a package at the end if the day, Maud rushes for a bus

Maud is therefore naturally attracted to a hope of some better life she intuits the women’s movement offers; when she agrees to go along to listen to Mrs Miller’s speech, she finds herself persuaded by one of the MP’s wives (Romola Garai) to read a prepared speech. Instead she ends up answering questions put to her by the prime minister, Asquith (Adrian Schiller). He asks her what does she think the vote can do for her. She can come up with nothing; she does not know how it could improve her life. The film’s story then proceeds to teach Maud and us why the vote influences women’s lives. Why votes matter.

Maud is slowly radicalized for the same reasons the women in Shoulder to Shoulder are (see just below), and becomes a suffragette. She demonstrates and is beaten and punished. At this her husband, Sonny (Ben Whislaw) becomes humiliated, shamed, and his manhood so threatened, that he throws her out of their apartment. He has the undoubted right by custom. He clearly also despised her when he married her because he knew she had been molested for years and so he regarded himself as “saving her,” putting her on the “right path.” His attitudes are all screwed up by his society’s norms. They lead him to destroy her and the marriage. Worse, he has the legal right to refuse her any access to her child and the right to give the boy up for adoption, which he proceeds to do when he finds he cannot care for the child himself.

Had women had the vote, laws would not give him such a complete right over her and his child. Could she get the vote now, she could vote against such laws and customs. At the film’s close a series of intertitles tell us that five years after a portion of women were given the vote, the custody laws were changed and women had a right to keep their children. Sonny could no longer punish her, himself and their child like this.

Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter) works as a doctor, and apothecary in her husband’s druggist shop: we learn she was not allowed to go on to professional school as women were not allowed; the story at the close implies that with the vote, such schools would have to open their doors to women.

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Mrs Miller has nowhere to turn from an abusive husband; she will if she can change parliament. There is no help against the employer-molester; there are not enough jobs and those available to women are mostly dreadful hard work. We see a motif in other women’s films, like Water where an older woman saves a young widow who is being coerced into prostitution: Maud rescues a girl from sex harassment and degradation: she knows Mrs Miller’s daughter is submitting to sexual aggression by the boss, so daring arrest, she shows up at the laundry, takes the girl to the house of the MP wife (Garai) and the wife hires her. She is now protected insofar as the system allows: based on a decent kind individual. The movie-viewer can think to her or himself the equivalent of what legislation can provide today: women’s shelters from domestic violence and abuse.

These stories of the fictionalized characters are said to be partly based on real women, but they are enunciated in such a way as to show the viewer why the vote matters.

The only historical women we see are (briefly) Emily Davison and Meryl Streep as Mrs Pankhurst, posed to recall Sian Phillips in the same role:

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There are no explicit paradigms or lessons taught in Shoulder to Shoulder, the cast for Shoulder to Shoulder are not working class women (the “foot soldiers” of the movement, as the policeman tells Maud who her “masters” will dump when they don’t need them, after their lives have been ruined), but the elite types who ran the movement. Except — and it’s a big except — the lesson in the grinding nature of the experience of proselytizing, punishment, political in-fighting and finally prison which we are given a full brunt of, and our heroines (except Mrs Pankhurst the highest ranking) are force-feed repeatedly, humiliated by the clothing they must wear, put into solitary confinement.

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Christabel starting out (her first speech)

In comparison to Suffragette our heroines’ sufferings are intangible. Respectability, loss of society (but they don’t want that), companionships, acceptance of a much harder life where they do strain to support themselves by teaching, working in shops (or owning them). As in the other 1970s mini-series, our central characters are drawn from the elite, while in 2015 they are drawn from working people. So it takes a little imagination to enter into what is presented.

OTOH, just about all the characters in Shoulder to Shoulder represent real historical people, much of what is presented is accurate (if much must be left out).

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The real Annie Kenney

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Georgia Brown exuberant as Annie

There is less reliance on melodrama, and because of its length, we get a long arc of the whole movement from the later 1890s to when Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel supported WW1, and the aftermath of that war.

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The most moving episode in Shoulder to Shoulder focuses on the real Constance Lytton (described in my previous blog this week, Victorian into Edwardian, scroll down) who takes on a working class persona and the treatment meted out to working women in prison is inflicted on Lytton.

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A photo of Lytton dressed as Jane Warton: remarkably Judy Parfitt comes close to looking just like this

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This is the only still I could find on the Net of Parfitt — she is to the left, feeling utterly wretched after having been beaten and force-fed and is now forced to wait for a judicial hearing

The focus in Shoulder to Shoulder is on the human relationships among the characters, and the drama comes out of ideological, political, psychological clashes, its power on how the characters are transformed, variously destroyed, shattered, turned into ruthless political machines who show no gratitude towards those who helped them, especially in the case of Christabel Pankhurst

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Christabel fiercely waving her flag

towards the Pethick-Lawrences, a couple who gave up their fortune, respectability, good and moderately useful lives to the movement only to be thrown away, and towards her sister, Sylvia who persisted in wanting equally to fight for social justice for all people, including working class men, immigrants, issues like civil liberty.

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Sylvia setting up a shop in a working class neighborhood

Both movies make the point strongly that the prison experience is the second reality the women’s movement contended with that radicalized them, and I now realize this is a central theme of Lytton’s book. Lytton’s book is as much about prisons as it is about the suffragette movement. She makes the point that one way you can gauge your success as a political movement is if the establishment puts its leaders in jail.

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The police have kept an eye on and take Maud away

Lytton’s book appears in both Shoulder to Shoulder and Suffragette as Dreams; the title today is Prisons and Prisoners (Broadview Press, edited by Jason Haslam). (I am now in the middle of Constance Lytton’s memoir of her life from the angle of her conversion to the womens’ movement and radicalization through her experience dressed as a working class woman, Jane Warton, in prisons.)

Lytton opens with showing the reader that the votes-for-women movement emerged as a possibly effective force when 1) the upper middle and middle class women enacting leading, and making connections for it realized after 3 decades they would never get the vote unless they severely disrupted the workings of everyday society; and 2)the women were radicalized into real empathy with working and lower class women by their experience of the harsh indifference, cruelty, even torture of the prison system with its principle mechanisms of violent punishment (including force-feeding which led to further pain in vomiting), humiliation, brutalization, and destruction of personalities through alienation. This is what Lytton shows the reader; as a person with a bad heart, she died not long after after her release from the treatment she had received.

Lytton may not appear as one of the characters in Suffragette but her words provide a voice-over as Maud Watts reads her book; and she is the central character of the crucially effective episode of the mini-series.

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The group early on in Suffragette

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The group towards the end of Shoulder to Shoulder

The sense of life as on-going, a cycle, so characteristic of women’s art ends both films, in this case politically appropriate. Lytton really emerges only in one episode (3), and Davison in another (5), and of the on-going characters my favorite was finally Sylvia, partly because I’ve loved other characters Angela Down played at the time (she was Jo March in a 1970 Little Women) A long talk with the inimitable Bob Hoskins (very young) precedes Sylvia’s final walk off onto the street with her latest ally, Flora Drummond (Sally Miles). When I get the book (I’ve bought it from a used bookstore site, I’ll blog again). We are made to feel we have gone through so much (6 times 75 minutes is a lot of experience time), and the photography of the two inside the crowd makes the point they are just two women inside a larger group.

In Suffragette after Emily has thrown herself under the horses, we see Maud, shaken, but walking off. She must live on; she has shown she will find her son and communicate with him; Edith’s husband locked her in the bathroom to prevent her from joining lest she be arrested again (she has a bad heart we are told); we see the police officer, Steed, his employers; Maud, Violet Miller and Edith get together again in the WSPC office.

The writers for the 1970s series are among the best of the era: Ken Taylor, Hugh Whittemore, Alan Plater, Douglas Livingstone (originally they wanted women scriptwriters but the era just didn’t have enough of these); its creators were Georgia Brown, Verity Lambert, Midge Mackenzie, directors Waris Hussein and Moira Armstrong. If their characters are too harmonious and well-bred to begin with, by the end they are strongly pressured, conflicted, angry. Suffragette has a woman script writer, Abi Morgan, woman director, Sarah Phelps, three women producers Alison Owen, Faye Ward.

The title Margaret Mitchell wanted to give her famous historical novel, Gone with the Wind, was Tomorrow is another day. It’s a saying that captures the underlying structural idea of many a woman’s art work

Ellen

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Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlon) obeying Dickens and bringing to Ellen Ternan her jewelry (Invisible Woman, script Abi Morgan, directed, produced Ralph Fiennes)

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Again, from The Invisible Woman (adapted from Claire Tomalin’s book on Ellen Ternan) — we see (among others, Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), her sister

Dear friends and readers,

This blog is a product of a few books on or from the Victorian into Edwardian age I’ve just read (Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, James’s The Other House), or am reading (Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction, Constance Lytton’s suffragette memoir, Prisons and Prisoners, Trollope’s unabridged The Duke’s Children, and Gaskell’s Wives & Daughters); a movie I watched three times (Fiennes’s Invisible Woman) and one I’m in the midst of re-watching (the 1970s mini-series about the suffragettes, Shoulder to Shoulder). I’m thinking about these because of what’s to come: I’ll be teaching Gaskell’s North and South at the OLLI at Mason and Trollope’s first three Barsetshire novels at the OLLI at AU this coming spring. A Victorian Winter into Spring. What stands out or interests me, what unites these texts and films for me is the depiction of characters disabled in some fundamental way, and in three of them the registering of intense hostility to sexuality and/or social non-conformity and rebellion (the James novel, the real life the movie projects, and the literal destruction of Lytton’s life). What I’ve done here is edited my postings to lists and offer them as subessays on the theme of the blog: disabilities.

To begin with the most disappointing and the most stirring:

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Jenny Wren (Katy Murphy) presented with real humanity in Sandy Welch’s film of Our Mutual Friend

I’ve been disappointed in Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction, not because of anything lacking in her treatment, but to discover how little sympathy, understanding, or genuine depiction of disability there is in 19th century texts. In Fictions of Affliction I’ve discovered that what’s cared about in 19th to early 20th century stories is not disabled people as such, but whether and how they can work if they are men, and if they will marry and pass on their disability to others if they are women. People who have disabilities that are not visible, borderline, not recognizable right away are most disturbing to people; where it’s visible, there is deep suspicion they are twisted and angry or over-sexed because frustrated; or faking and exploiting weak or vulnerable people. From examples, it appears the male novelists are worst (Bulwer-Lytton, Collins), with a few women showing disabled people to be simply people (Dinah Craik, Charlotte Yonge). Dickens has pity but only for those readily labelled as crippled, and he uses them to project abjection and distress. From my own knowledge I know that Gaskell has a continuum where we see disability as part of the norm; unexpectedly (or perhaps demoralizingly) Trollope’s Signora Neroni emerges as one of the less insidious portraits. I had hoped for some general increase of enlightened subtlety.

The most moving and sympathetic over these issues is Fiennes’s cinema film, the Shoulder to Shoulder mini-series, and Lytton’s memoir. In the case of the commercial film, Morgan adapted or wrote the script out of Tomalin’s book, Fiennes directed and starred as Dickens with Felicity Jones as Ellen Ternan, Kristin Scott Thomas as her mother, and Joanna Scanlon as Catherine. What was the problem is the film-makers were unwilling to show Dickens to have been the shit he was in this situation — they cannot get themselves to. On the other hand, they show how the characters achieved a sort of fulfillment they cannot erase.

Over-solemn, over worshipful of Dickens: he was presented as this tenderly affectionate kind man, ever so reluctant to put Catherine aside but of course turned off by her fat, her sullenness, and her lack of understanding of his work.  And he is this great genius who mustn’t be disturbed at his desk. The scene of him at the desk reminded me of the Dickens’ house I saw in Bloomsbury a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps they filmed there? or modeled the room on that?
    Felicity Jones (as Ellen) asserts several times she knows joy with Dickens but there is not much evidence of this mostly: she is suffering and strained. It’s a framed story so we see her in widow’s weeds years later, now married to Wharton Robinson. Their actual life together is not dramatized; we see it from afar, in soft focus in lovely meadows and forests, all blurry, with appropriate music. Someone told me there is some evidence that Ellen Ternan came to “loathe” her relationship with CD, having told someone that, near the end of her life. Her motives for saying so aren’t exactly clear, but it is true that her son is said to have killed himself later in life and her relationship with Dickens was a factor.
    You have to know the story and about Dickens is another problem: it’s left fuzzy that she is pretending to be much younger than she is so has just erased that part of her life while (confusingly) is going about in these sombre clothes in worship of Dickens still.  They put on a play twice: in the past history and present The Frozen Deep. I’ve never read it, but have heard two papers on it and it seems to be an highly autobiographical play at heart filled with anguish. But the ordinary audience member and even people who think they’ve read a lot of Dickens, might not get these allusions to “the buried life” that we are to feel Dickens was suffering under married to Catherine. 
    How easy Dickens gets off. The film eliminates all he did to Catherine to get rid of her; we only see the parts where he rents houses for Ellen, the last away in the country where she must live alone, out of sight.  We do see him bullying Porn while playing ball (so the film-makers are aware of what Dickens inflicted on his sons in Australia). But everyone acts in ways that are very chary of the central couple’s feelings, especially Dickens. I was hard put to figure out how he communicated he wanted her to come live with him; it was Kristin Scott Thomas who announces this to her daughter. Her one bad moment from other people is when we see her on stage where it’s implied she was a miserable actress.
    The plot climaxes in the train wreck which is realized quite well — especially the photographed moments of the two on a train, she reading and he writing. It reminded me of Victorian paintings.  We do see he pregnancy and aftermath of the childbirth which brings still born baby, but these are just incidents in a chain of what comes next. The film ends with Felicity-Ellen all mainstreamed mother, caring for her children, honored and treated with remarkable tenderness by her husband. Are we to feel she is now getting over it and need no longer wander about the beach dressed in black?
    The movie questions nothing, breaks no new ground except perhaps to tell this story however obscurely to a public who might not know it and yet how tenderly all is done; we are made to feel for all the characters. there is much use of soft focus, we see characters repeatedly trying to be kind to one another. Tomalin in her biographies is often careful not to offend but she did strongly bring out how the conventions and mores of the era must’ve stifled and twisted the relationship of Dickens and Ternan. Nayder’s deep compassion for Catherine is caught in Scanlon’s performance.

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Lady Constance Lytton (F. Hollyer, 1899, note the crutch)

Shoulder to Shoulder and Constance Lytton who one can argue was (like Dickens) marching to a different drummer than those of her society: What a wonderful thing it would be to “do” this suffragette memoir with a new woman novel at one of the OLLIs. No male would register. It’d be fine.

Written by Ken Taylor (who brought us Jewel in the Crown, the 1983 Mansfield Park and other BBC masterpieces), and created a team of three women, this 1970s 6 part (75 minutes each) mini-series came into its own by the third episode. As perceptive, accurate and thoughtful as the first two episodes are (Emmeline Pankhurst), I have to admit I found it tame at first and far too upbeat for Annie Kennedy (Georgia Brown): we would not today present people so much in harmony and the servants as so deferent. All the sentiments were true and the arguments that matter are there: we are shown that unless you disrupt — and in this case as women it had to be violently — you are ignored. The fourth episode about how the two Pankhursts (Christabel with her mother) forced the Pethick-Lawrences out of the WPSU. The P-Ls gave all, their fortune, their respectability, and they were ejected. We are not told in the series what were the issues, only that a seemingly seething ruthless Chistabel insisted on it. It did leave room for thinking about issues of what should be publicized and I fear the pace and insistence on high action in the film now in theaters (Suffragette) will preclude.

It was in the third episode it came into its own. I did not know that Constance Lytton in effect died of the forced feeding she endured in prison. I had read that she dressed herself and took on a common name in order to be treated like a regular woman:without that ironically she was getting no where. But when she did her real heart condition made the treatment fatal. We are in this episode shown the force feeding to some extent: it’s horrible and terrifying and painful and clearly done with spite by the people acting. Judy Parfitt when young was much chubbier! I didn’t recognize her for a moment. She is another good, warm-hearted character (so are they all in this suffragette group) so that’s not the type she eventually did either. But she came into her own – a great actress. I can see that by losing weight off her face the strong lines and nose came out firmly but the hitherhto protected sheltered Lytton she made her role, and the whole trajectory of increasing understanding, radicalism and finally redressing herself. She is often presented a kind of crank. Not here. I know force feeding is inflicted on anorexics: it just makes them worse; the language used by the people forcing, imposing is the same condemnatory talk on women alcoholics, just as castigating in effect. Not eating is the symptom that kills, but it’s the surface symptom. I’ve begun the memoir which is also about prisons, who goes to prison and why what is done to people in prison is done.

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Michelle Dockery as the governess in Sandy Welch’s film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw

Then there’s James’s stunning novel of hatred, The Other House — I felt he hated his heroine, Rose, he was intensely hostile to his hero, Tony: her for her persistence in pressuring Tony in effect to be with her, marry her; Tony for how everyone admires and likes Tony’s brand of complacent easy heterosexuality:

I’ve read for years how James has this underlying sinister tone and how people have these dreadful insidious motives and impulses towards one another. I agreed easily or readily — as part of the underlying meaning of a book which on the surface can present pretty people (The Golden Bowl) or plausibly decent people who are monsters (Dr Slope in Washington Square, Osborne in Portrait of a Lady) or desperate bitter predators (in Wings of the Dover) or apparently virtuous people who devour and destroy others in order to maintain their own non-conformist gratifications (Maggie and her father in The Golden Bowl).

But in a way I didn’t take it seriously as it was not on the surface. David Case is the first person I’ve listened to who brings out the sinister feel of the fiction for real, and The Other House is a dreadful tale that fascinates because of the horror of a foreseen murder of a young child, Effie Bream. As I think about it strangely most of the characters are in fact over-decent, very nice: Tony the central husband male and father of Effie; Paul, a super-kindly stupid heir, probably the closet homosexual of the piece and Jean Martle knows he is relieved when she refuses to marry him. Paul’s mother, Mrs Beever who means very well wanted Jean Martle to marry her son Paul because Jean is (in the fiction truly — like a Gaskell Molly Gibson) sweetness and gentleness and all loving kindness. But Julia, Tony’s wife, Rose Armiger’s best friend, who we never meet, but dies upstairs from illness after the birth of Effie demands her husband never marry again as long as her baby is alive lest she have as dreadfully awful a stepmother as she this woman endured.

Her best friend, Rose Amiger is the book’s monster. On the surface utterly plausible well meaning guest, she wants to marry Tony herself, is apparently intensely enamoured of him. She acts hatefully Dennis Vidal, her suitor who keeps coming back to ask her to marry him after years in India growing rich (presumably on exploiting the natives ruthlessly). She loathes Jean Martle and Jean Martle knows this and is afraid of her. It’s obvious to this read Amriger is about to murder the baby so that Tony can marry Martle. She’s like some snake. She refused Vidal when Julia, her friend died because she hoped Tony would marry her — was she planning to kill the child then but that she saw Tony did not want to remarry or love her?

I don’t know that I’ve begun to convey the feel of ugly seething emotions that the surface talk which is the usual so-and-so is just beautiful or magnificent as well as the story of manipulation. My sense of revulsion reminds me of how I have felt listening to Austen’s Lady Susan read aloud. It’s as if for once a raw hatred is allowed to show. James himself somewhere in him hates these people. He hates their manipulating marriage arrangements. He hates the way the doctor behaves to order others about. He shows them all as dependent upon keeping up surface lies and repressing themselves and one another. Each time he describes the little girl about to be murdered it somehow turns her into this repugnant over-dressed little human animal.

I can see why some readers might dislike James very much — beyond the difficulties of the language in the later books. Well those who see how he indites humanity at its core.

I finished this novel where dreadful things openly occur sometime on Saturday night driving back from Pennsylvania. I had bought myself a reading copy, having discovered that the New York Review of Books published it, with an introduction by Louis Begley. He defends it, and to be sure, what is openly put before us, is one interpretation of what we suspect goes on in other of the novels. Having seen this single woman dependent on others, in love with this Top Male from afar, murder a child and be permitted to get away with it, I began to think to myself, well maybe the governess in Turn of the Screw did murder the boy, or meant to, out of desire for the employer or frustrated sexual desire. I’d always seen the possibility the governess is to blame as misogynistic as James said the ghosts were really there and they persecute everyone. They too driven by sexual desire, frustations. In other of James’s novels, children are destroyed and no one notices. The saving thing is we don’t know for sure — if you want to keep up your respect for humanity’s morality. The child’s name is Effie and I wondered if this is an allusion to the famous French novel.

What leaves me shuddering is the intensity of the monstrous emotions driving Rose – they are presented as all really distorted — did she love her friend, Julia, after all? did she hang around to marry Julia’s husband if Julia should die? She agreed to marry Dennis Vidal who went away to make a fortune as one of these (presumably) ruthless colonialists in India — as a front. Her punishment is to have to go back with him; on condition she does, she is let off by the doctor and everyone else. Begley likens Rose to Charlotte Stant who I’m inclined to see as a victim, a sacrifice to cover up a father-daughter incest love. Also Kate Croy who reminds me of Lady Mabel Grex. I feel sympathetic.

Begley suggests that the fact the novel was written just after Woolson’s suicide is important. It’s about twisted sexual desire. Is Rose in some sense a stand-in for the devouring (as James might have seen this) Constance? That’s the implication of Begley’s introduction. This was also originally a play. I’d thought the reason James’s plays failed was they were too romantic, not stage-worthy, or too melodramatic; maybe they were just too unpleasant, too horrifying in their open content as you do have to let most audiences have concrete senses of what happened. The novel has thrown a whole new light on James’s work for me. Since on Trollope19thcstudies we are planning to read one of Woolson’s novels this coming spring and did talk a lot of Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel using The Portrait of a Lady to explore James’s traveling abroad.

I’ll be carrying on this Victorian trajectory. As yet I’ve found nothing to un-dismay me about the depiction of disabled people in the 19th century. I will read on in Holmes’s book for a while and dip into a vast Disability Studies, ed. Lennard Davis volume I bought at the last MLA Jim and I went to (which will now be the last I’ll ever go to) to see if I can find better individuals and when attitudes towards disabled people improved in the 20th. This sure makes Winston Graham’s depiction of disabled and autistic characters in his fiction look good. It is disappointing though and when I’ve written the review I’ve promised I’ll be relieved.

When I finish Shoulder to Shoulder and see the new film Suffragette and have gone on with Lytton, I’ll report back on that. So there’s something to be going on with.

And of course more teaching, which I have to begin to prepare for. Making Barsetshire at the OLLI at AU this coming spring will be a repeat of what I did at Mason last spring, but I’ve a new subject and central figure in Gaskell’s North and South. This is the outgrowth of a year and one half of reading Gaskell on WWTTA.

Gaskell wrote introspective domestic fiction, strange melodramatic gothics, political historical fiction,an influential passionate and great biography of Charlotte Bronte, and novels of social protest, including disability, emigration and prostitution, set across the landscape of Victorian industrial cities. Born to Unitarians, she became a clergyman’s wife, wrote fiction from her earliest years, published in magazines, and lived for many years in Manchester. Her tale of his city, North and South, centers on a strike that occurred (also written about by Dickens in Hard Times and Marx in the newspapers), on religious controversies, military injustice, the psychic pain of displacement, regional and class conflicts in romance. We will read her book against this wide context and see how it also fits into other contemporary Victorian women’s writing (e.g., Bronte’s Shirley, George Eliot and Harriet Martineau’s writing). She is an intriguing exciting novelist; and this novel will give us a chance also to discuss Sandy Welch’s 2004 film adaptation for the BBC, North and South.

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Margaret Hale (Daniel Denby-Ashe) and Mr Thornton (Richard Armitage) meeting in Manchester in Sandy Welch’s film adaptation of North and South

I look forward to immersing myself in Gaskell once more. I hope my retired students will love it too. I see that three of the texts I’ve been riveted by were filmed by Sandy Welch (!). An affinity.

I am glad to be undeceived yet more about Dickens — though wonder why he continually has disabled characters in his books since he has such little patience with weak or vulnerable people (like his sons, how he bullied his wife); Holmes fails to explain this.

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Barnaby and his one friend, Grip, the Raven

Dickens is also very cruel to Barnaby’s mother who is endlessly punished and has to endure absurd advice and suspicion from the “hero” of the novel, Gabriel: forsooth, he is willing to turn on her lest she have had some kind of man outside marriage.

I am now not eager to read any more of James’s novellas — I feel about the The Other House the way I have about Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I never went near Wharton’s bitter raw book again, though I am glad to glimpse what might be the hidden reason Henry James instinctively kept from his readers behind a wall of opaque sentences.

Ellen

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Truth
The team (Elizabeth Moss, Topher Grace to the left) intensely anxious as they watch their TV journalism play out (2015 Truth, scripted, directed James Vanderbilt, out of Mapes’s memoir)

Dear friends and readers,

The climax of James Vanderbilt’s Truth (directed and scripted by him) is a conversation Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) have on a terrace in New York City. Very glamorous setting. Rather has decided to retire to protect himself; he is telling Mary she must knock under to pressure because she’s too young to give up the investigative journalist career ahead of her. Mapes had just delivered a documented story of the horrors at the Abu Graib prison tortures by Americans — and seemed to have such potential.

But Rather does not argue that. Instead he goes off on a tangent which relates to his own career. He tells Mary stories of early news shows, of how he was among the first to start up Sixty Minutes, and how Sixty Minutes showed a TV channel could make money on the news. The irony here is rich. The reason for the existence of new shows had been to satisfy the FCC demands that all “sides” have equal time. But now they could turn a profit. Redford as Rather looks intensely wry. His next words imply what happened was the profit motive took over other news-shows, so they all now are the product of their advertiser’s advertisements galore and exist in a universe where other news-shows have become forms of entertainment and no serious investigative reporting is done. It’s not wanted.

This movie is not getting the attention it should get nor the positive reviews for its content. It has flaws, but they are of the artistic kind (too much melodrama, too much hype), but it’s retelling of the story puts the emphasis on the right place: the rot in news shows themselves. At its center is a courageous woman.

Truth is about the rot within that we see the full results of in 2015 on not only Fox and CNN but new shows that are still respectable. We see how one reason Mary Mapes rushed her story was it was necessary to keep the ratings of Sixty Minutes high. We see how her high-powered pressuring methods were a product of this system and worked successfully within it as long as she didn’t expose the wrong group of people. It indicts the news-papers that repeated the ploy and method of the Bush administration at the time to attack the story that would have exposed Bush’s lack of any military experience just as Kerry was smeared by distorted stories of his experience of the realities of actual military life.

Thus the strongly qualified praise meted out to exploration of what investigative journalism via a TV medium has become, which is what Vanderbilt’s film, Truth, tries to dramatize unbiasedly, is disquieting. The New York Times appears to want to uphold the establishment’s judgement that these reporters at a minimum exercised bad judgement (she is “not exonerated” — from what, pray tell?), and suggests the movie is a detective story as propaganda out of political bias. In the film Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) avers that for her she was bringing out the truth, but it undermines her too: for ambition; as family bread-winner. Read also Roger Ebert’s Brian Tallerico half-dismissal; Tim Robery in the Telegraph (the actors focused on); Peter Travers strange short Rolling Stone review. David Edelstein for the Vulture at lease explains the situation, what is said to have happened, and the result : not Bush exposed, but Rather’s departure from CBS and Mary Mapes unable to work in journalism for a long time afterward — recalling Nina Tottenberg who was fired after in the 1980s she bravely exposed lies about marijuana.

I recommend seeing it though I have mixed feelings about the film. The continual hectic pace and hyped-up melodrama is at times over the top (not that TV producers don’t need to make a deadline), the message speech (true enough) shouted by Mike Smith, about to be dismissed to homelessness once again (Topher Grace as Mary’s aide), that Viacom profits are protected here is intended as deep background. But it does come across as hysteria, and the dialectic gives the man firing Mike the opportunity to call him a fool for thinking all the people in the office are evil. Mike was not saying that.

The film was also marred by its closing scenes, which included an insistent upbeat presentation of Redford as Dan Rather walking away surrounded by admiring loving compassionate faces. Those who fired Mary and were working to push Dan out, were represented as remorseful (!), and as having acted only because they had to, as nearly (the film makers did draw back) overcome with guilt because they feel for their ex-friends and associates. Right. As with a protest novel, a protest film needs at a minimum to reach the wider audience and such sentimentality is one crowd-pleaser.

I was moved at its penultimate scenes. The performances were very good: Stacey Keach as the opaque whistleblower Bill Burkett and Noni Hazlehurst as his wife.

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Hazlehurst lights into Mapes for pretending to care about her husband’s health with the implication they have used and are now discarding him for no good reason. Some watching the film may come away believing her perspective, holding to it.

In the film’s scenes nuances get nowhere. Still I can be manipulated. I was touched as the film-maker intended me to be when Mary leaned on her husband (Conor Burke), and agreed to go out for walk with him now: she’ll have plenty of time to recuperate. Vanderbilt and Mapes (as it’s her book) are presenting material much less socially acceptable than the coming film (I want to see badly) Suffragette. Who is against the rights of women to fight wars? A general political witch-hunt has been dramatized too in the story of Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston, no less) “coming soon.”

Perhaps Mapes’s caustic memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power does suggest that she became an aggressive reporter after facts and documents because her father had physically abused her, and she was standing up to him. That she worshipped Rather as a father substitute in the form of a mentor.
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Real Mary Mapes — as I looked at the photo I remembered this moment of distress, harassment, shock, sheer tiredness registered on her face

The film needed to provide a usable past for understanding the new shows’ behavior towards their journalists, and the scapegoating (witch-hunt) of these journalists as their framework. It did come close. It’s not a propaganda but a political film and the reason it may not fully convince is its melodramatic mode, not its content.

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Redford, Vanderbilt and Keach on set — Redford has done strong political films in his life

The full context of 2004 was the Iraq war, its falseness, and we do see in the film Tony Blair saying how much he wants peace (two weeks ago we read his memorandum to Bush a year before the war that Blair would support attacking Iraq), early footage from the Iraq war. The film could have emphasized this context more as when I watched it this afternoon in November 2015 I couldn’t forget the refugee crisis in Europe, the massacres in Syria, the raw violence of Afghanistan, ISIS; the Bush presidency as another step in the direction of chaos in the colonized lands, and the impoverishment blight engineered across Europe and the western hemisphere. Its topic was spot on: the origin and develpoment of “news” shows like Fox (liars), CNN & MSNBC (compromised), which are influential.

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This image is seen in the movie — it was shown by Mapes as the photo of one of the people tortured at Abu Graib, a human being suffering horribly standing as he is humiliated, de-humanized and then laughed at by that outfit

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For me the worst thing about the film had nothing to do with its news and war politics or art: it is Cate Blanchett’s new rubbery mask-face, which her inner experience of intense drama managed to project through:

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Also Mary at worship of Dan

Poor woman (I mean Blanchett), she’s had some kind of cosmetic surgery or face-lift or used some kind of wax on her face: her face can’t do subtlety any more the way it could. In this film’s scenes nuances get nowhere anyway, but she might want to do great stage plays again. I also felt her American accent as disconcerting because together with the new false flesh mask fitted around what used to be the old facial structure, the actress I’m familiar with him seemed hidden away. Surely she did not have to do this to keep getting good roles.

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Cate Blanchett when she still had her real face: 2013, Blue Jasmine

Ellen

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