Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for November, 2017


Roger Fry — typical painting

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Day in New York City, 1973

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mother and Daughter shopping

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


More Bloomsbury, Omega Shop type object, Duncan Grant painting

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma (Vincenzo Bellini, 1831)


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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Claire mannishly dressed in the 3rd season

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

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

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

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

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

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


A promotional shot

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Nora (Marie Leuenberger)

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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


Theresa

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

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


Vroni

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Aretha Franklin’s demand for Respect is also heard.

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »