Archive for the ‘20th century culture’ Category

Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) explaining to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery why the prospect of Isobel Crawley’s (Penelope Wilton) marriage to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) hurts so

Mary: Granny, I know why you’re finding this difficult.
Dowager: Do you?
Mary: Yes, but you mustn’t give in to it.
Dowager: What? Give in to what?
Mary: Isobel has always been your protege. She looks up to you and you have kept her from harm in return.
Dowager: Have I?
Mary: Yes. So of course it’s difficult that she is to take her place ~ among the leaders of the county.
… you simply have to be bigger than that.
Dowager: Is that what you think of me? That I care about her change of rank?
Mary: Well, you’re not exactly pleased, are you?
Dowager: No. But that is not the reason … If you must know … I have got used to having a companion.
A friend. You know, someone to talk things over with … You have your own lives … Isobel and I had a lot in common. I shall miss her.
Mary: Granny, you’re quite dewy-eyed ….
Dowager: You’ve made me regret my confidence… And for your information I don’t think Isobel has EVER looked up to me.

Dear friends and readers,

Soap operas when they do their work right root their suggestive believable characters into the daily memories and feelings of their viewers. That Fellowes has achieved this may be seen in his continuing audience for a group of stories that he lacks any new material for; one never needed new material for As the World Turns. This week I found my face was wet, the tears had overflowed beyond my eyes over fleeting scenes of decently felt emotion most of us struggle against or want to feel. Some were less tenuously set-up than others. The finest and slowest-fully built up to is above: the Dowager explains to the obtuse Lady Mary that she will miss her friend.

Robert Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) close relationship with his dog, Isis, has been before us from the opening credits (much mocked) where we see the dog from the back, presumably walking alongside Robert back to Downton, to the incident where Thomas (Rob James-Collier) ruthlessly locked the dog out in the wet cold wild so he could gain Lord Grantham’s trust by rescuing her, to her just being there, with him. Even that quiet boss-lady, Cora, Lady Grantham, oblivious as she was to the twisting of Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), her second daughter’s character and pregnancy, and much else seemed to notice the dog’s decline, and opened her bed so the suffering creature need not be alone and feel unloved in her last hours:

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Daisy continues to gain in skills and self-respect from the time we first saw her when the series began and she was making the fires in the house, filthying herself in the cold. She’s now reading Vanity Fair under the tutelage of that thwarted teacher, Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle). While I wish we didn’t each time have to re-assert the justification for learning for Daisy, and this time it was to enable Fellowes to take potshots at the labor gov’t, I enjoyed the visit to Mr Mason (Paul Copley) engineered by Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) so as to keep Daisy’s spirits up. At his dinner table no one insults anyone. He wouldn’t allow it — all is generosity and decent social thought:

Miss Baxter: Are we all finished? How lovely, Daisy, to have such a beautiful place to come to.
Mr Mason: She’s always welcome is Daisy.
Daisy: I’ve not been here enough lately.
Mr Mason: You’ve been busy I know. With your books. That takes up time.
Daisy: I think I’ll stop it now. So I’ll be able to visit more.
Mr Moseley: Do you think she’s right to give up her studies, Mr Mason?
Mr Mason: I do NOT.
Daisy: Don’t you want to see more of me?
Mr Mason: You know I do. But education is power.

Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) had been startled to find herself invited, and once there, perked up, looked like she had some self-respect, enjoyed herself guiltlessly, and held Mr Moseley’s hand as they comfortably came home after a comfortable meal.

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HomewardBound (1)

Things were quite otherwise in the dinner scene closely juxtaposed next. I felt for Isobel as those wretched sons of Merton made themselves obnoxious again (to Edith too).


I loved Tom Branson for getting up and calling one of them a “bastard.” They did throw a stink bomb at any coming happiness in marriage with them in the Merton house. I don’t know why anyone eats dinner at that place: it is a landmine.


Of course dinner tables have ever been places where you dramatize social agons, it’s inherently theatrical.

The ball of agon has not left the Bates’s residence either. I did love the scene of Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Mr Bates drinking tea so comfortably at home together.


Here I just wish Fellowes didn’t think it necessary for me to suspect one of the pair is a murderer. I have realized (from reading one of the Downton Abbey facebook fan pages where they regularly take the most small-minded positions, siding with the worst people) that we are supposed suddenly to suspect Anna. This is surely out of character. What would she feel in a prison? horrified. so humiliated and mortified and filled with inculcated self-hatred she’d wither up with shame.

Alas I’ve covered the fine moments and have now to turn to the absurdities and offensive omissions. I omit the condescension enacted towards the Duchess’s adult servants, Spratt (Jeremy Swift) and Miss Denker (Sue Johnston) as children squabbling. To this is Fellowes driven for material you see. Mrs Drewe gets to have her say to Cora, Lady Grantham, but we are not allowed to see or hear her, and doubt we’ll ever be permitted to develop some sympathetic imaginings for the Drewes at home now.

Implications: When told by Robert that Isis has “cancer,” and Cora replied: “Poor old thing … Oh, how I hate that word,” she for a moment redeemed herself, but like Anibundel whose recap is again worth reading, I cannot grasp how Fellowes expects us to take seriously her indignation at her mother- and sister-in-law, Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) at having not told her what she should not have needed telling to know. She will never forgive them, never trust them for not having informed her her daughter had a baby while away on a suddenly “mysterious” 10 month trip to Switzerland:


Yet worse there was Edith, since Episode 6 closed, set up at last, running a business she owns (left her by Mr Grigson), a job to do, writing she does well, a place to live, a nanny on the spot, with money to pay her:


And what does she do? return to the Abbey where she hides from Mary and her maid at the station giving up her baby once again to the conveniently there Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough)


in the library again overridden by Mary (coolly despising Edith’s generous impulses to take “an orphan child”), look like some rabbit or deer staring at headlights lest daddy say no to adopting this strange child until mummy declares it is right. The family obtuseness passes to Edith’s father. There’s more than a hint that Tom (Allen Leech) suspects (he asks her more than once to be open with him about her troubles over many episodes). Mary of course couldn’t be bothered to figure anything out about anyone, least of all Edith. Psychologically for Edith it does fit: she is the bullied, over-sheltered, super-ego driven ugly daughter. I hope she never marries, because surely she’ll end up abused — and we saw in the fourth season that Grigson saw this and refrained.

Is there any more to add? I fear Fellowes enjoys inflicting pain on Edith because he likes Mary’s meanness, identifies, triumphs with it. So more obnoxiousness from Lady Mary supported by the complacent Charles Blake (what ever happened Julian Overdeen as the man who worried about the average person’s housing in Britain): if it was so little trouble for Mary to get rid of Gillingham (Tom Cullen) by a kiss in public of Overdeen, why did we have that scene in the park? Fellowes gives away how he manipulates shallowly to milk scenes.

Lady Rose’s (Lily James) continuing charitable impulses and her hurt and fear she will lose her suitor, the good-natured bright Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber), are a decent note and rightly rewarded by Lady Sinderby’s (Penny Downe) generous liking of her despite her being a non-Jew; Lady Sinderby and her husband showed real awareness of the prejudice against them, he that he needs to fight to maintain respected space to thrive in, and thus is not eager for a daughter-in-law who will not be Jewish (conversion never mentioned), but their son’s total lack of any consciousness of what it was to be a Jew in England in the 1920s brings us back to the incredible. Someone on a Jewish news on-line page suggested he is modeled on Prince William (Charles’s son); so when he kneels to this princess, far from an intermarriage, we have a simulacrum of revered English royalty:


(Jim was one of those who wanted to see their huge fortunes taken from them, lamented when again the Queen was no longer to pay taxes.)

I suggest Fellowes is moving time so slowly because he does not want to reach the 1930s. He frequently gives Violet quips which are designed to obscure hard truths, this time it was “My dear, men have no rights.” In the real world of 1924 or so the men were in charge, servants were beginning to flee these places for work for money and freedom. There was a general strike in 1926.

But allow me to end on another of the good moments: Tom leaning over a bridge in the green landscape of the Abbey (one of its attractions for him, one he is at work on as steward in his fine office daily), with his daughter, trying to get her used to the idea they will perhaps leave for another country where he will fit in, be able to maintain his identity (and hers) better:


Now if we could just get a message to Miss Bunting (the show is a continual fantasizing so why not?) to meet him at the New York docks.


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Anna Netrebko as Iolanta and Piotr Beczala as Count Vaudemont (Tchaikovsky); Nadja Michael as Judith and Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard (Bartok)

Dear friends and readers,

If you needed confirmation, in the filmed interview conducted by Peter Gelb between the two one-act operas of the singer/actors for Bluebeard’s Castle with the production designer of both, Mariusz Trelinski (a iconoclastic courageous film director, like Netrebkvo, a Russian separatist), Trelinski made the brilliancy of the coupling of the two operas plain: these are two phases in the life of one woman, not a particular psychological person, but an archetype.



Trelinksi tries to transform the Tchaikovksy’s opera: Tchaikovsky meant us to see the utterly submissive Iolanthe, as a blind (disabled) mythic figure, whose loving father, King Rene (Ilya Bannik) mistakenly shields her from understanding she is blind, to prevent her rich suitor, the Duke of Burgundy (Aleksei Markov) from knowing about this by imprisoning her, allowing her to come into contact only with a nurse, her husband, a huntsman, and two (sneering) maids. Trelinski juxtaposes this material with Bartok’s legend of Bluebeard, the story of Judith inexplicably (she is given no past, except she has escaped her bethrothed) continually pleading with this cruel, sardonic, and murderous male to allow her deeper into his castle from door to door until she reaches a wood where she finds herself surrounded by haunted, wounded, and dead women and must remain forever herself.


We are supposed to see Iolanta has changed one supposed benign tyrant for another as Judith has exchanged one openly fearful one for another.
Trelinski’s production reveals Tchaikovky’s supposed sentimental romantic piece is a transparently cruel story of a young woman kept helpless and obedient to a tyrannical obsessive father, King Rene (Ilya Bannik).

That Trelinkski meant the pair to be read as feminist mirrors of women’s oppression was obvious: though he was not willing explicitly to say anything concrete, even Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph saw this. As Iolanthe began the stage was turned into a movie-screen as a black universe, with stars, flowers and figures that suggested fragility, at the bottom of which was a lovely faun, which reappeared on the screen until Iolanthe’s father murdered it and it seemed a real fleshy body bleeding to death hunt up upon a nail. There is a long tradition of equating fauns with women (e.g., Marvell’s “Nymph complaining of the death of her faun”).

As Bluebeard opened a similar film screen took over the stage, similarly blackened with fragile petals, stars, small woodland creatures, only instead of a pastoral wood with a what looked like a square shoe box as dwelling, it kept turning into fearful images of elevators, tunnels, prisons, tables where hospital like operations could be performed (Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein used the same medical imagery):


At one point the same shoe box like square appeared but this time tiled like a bathroom (or the NYC subway), with Judith crawling on the ground, kneeling, clutching at the wall, a strong version of Iolanthe’s stumbling about. Netrebko’s outfits, a white slip, and a garish blue day dress were counterparts of Michael’s white slip and acqua blue gown.



Both women had the same white round flowers handed to them by men. Both operas had walls covered with stuffed deer heads. So this is what all those 19th century fairy tales were covering up. At the close of Bluebeard’s Castle, Bluebeard is having sex with a mannequin half-buried in a grave in a landscape that seemed something left over from bombing in a war


I would have liked to conclude the pairing was feminist but alas both operas resisted this imposition strongly. Had the Met opera had the nerve to end Iolanthe before the hero count persuades Iolanthe’s father to yield her up to the doctor, it might have worked for the first opera. But the second half of this play was dedicated to the still popular idea that if you believe yourself into health, have the will say not to be blind, you will be cured. This because a wonderful God has done this to you to show you just how good he is. In return, you of course must worship him abjectly.


As staged, the opera ends in this ludicrous Busby Berkeley spectacle of rays of green light like the spokes of a crown as everyone thanks God profusely — before of an unexpected and added on entry of the Trelinski’s father tyrant in a silent dumb show (so not part of the original script or singing): King Rene comes out and instead of smiling rejoicingly because his daughter’s eyesight has been restored after the hero persuaded her she wanted to see him and has been united to him, and throws out grim looks of anger and resentment.

This shot is from earlier in the opera but it shows how the King is presented — against the grain

Bartok’s opera makes more sense if you see it as misogynistic. Judith is endlessly masochistic; she just cannot get enough intense pain; she begs for more keys to open more doors apparently so she can submit and suffer and writhe some more. Bluebeard is her God, teaching her how to experience things physically:


Never mind that study after study has shown that the mashochistic woman who just loves abuse is a myth. The women at the close are just as hauntedly submissive as Judith; Bluebeard who is dressed (appropriate to his music) as an pleasure-loving (he smokes cigarettes, drinks wine) sardonic Citizen Kane type, more insouciantly rakish than murderous.


During the regulation hyped interview (by Joyce DiDonato) Netrebko said she felt for her character, stumbling about helpless and indeed she was poignant; Beczala is less of a phony than many of the singers and he refused to pretend to have psychoanalyzed his part and said what was hard about it was all the high Cs. In the filmed interview with Gelb, Michael seemed aware of the contradiction of claiming a perpetually longing- punishment type as an icon for feminism as she volunteered the interpretation that Judith wanted to see within herself, and what the “the world” is for real behind doors. Gelb (like the Telegraph) seemed a bit nervous at this open explicitness of what the opera might be about, for he immediately cautioned her “not to give away the story.” It was a rare good instance of how spoiler warnings function to stop bringing meanings of story into the openly discussable.

Very unusually for the movie-house audience I have now observed for four years there was little applause at the end of either opera or after some remarkably sung arias, especially those (in my view) of the unfortunate Michael whose acting was stunning; she had to have been exhausted.


I applauded for her but no one else did. The people around me were silent altogether. Were they embarrassed? The audience at the Met applauded now and again for some spectacular singing (it seemed to me) but did not stand up as has become the custom (the audience nowadays seems to do this to congratulate themselves for coming).

I decided to go out of curiosity. When the New York City Metropolitan opera chooses to do this kind of pairing, how they do it is significant. Izzy and I had been complaining all season of how conventional what we saw was, well, here was another instance after The Death of Klinghoffer (however in reality tame the opera is) of courage. It would be easy to make fun. Iolanta just needed to be mainstreamed and all would have been well. Bluebeard needed to stop imitating gangsters from movies and Judith their faux-glamorous beat-up molls. I prefer to take seriously what took itself seriously: these are two productions saturated with unexamined assumptions about disease and women, the first exposing teleological absurdities, the second genuinely mirroring a deep sickness in the images we are surrounded by in popular and high art. Torture came to mind; they were torturous, so appropriate to our political landscape today? I was relieved to escape when they were over.

I wonder what Jim would have thought of it. Had he and Izzy come with me (she didn’t come either) they’d have discussed the music and perhaps the singing. I found nothing thrilling about the 19th century opera and do not wonder it has rarely been performed since it was first paired (and then dropped from) the Nutcracker Suite. As for Bartok’s music, it seemed to me harsh and dissonant. I can’t say I enjoyed anything, perhaps the images of fawns at the opening of the first opera were touching; I was genuinely horrified when what made to seem an apparently real faun was knifed to death and hung and when Bluebeard was having sex with the mannequin.


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Derek Jacobi as Alan Turning being interviewed (1996 Breaking the Code, directed by Herbert Wise, script by Hugh Whitmore)

Victor McLaglen as Gypo Nolan (1935 The Informer, directed by John Ford, script by Dudley Nichols)

Dear friends and readers,

While I bought in New Year’s Eve quietly, alone with my cats, I watched two films: both unexpectedly great: Breaking the Code, a 1996 90 minute British TV film, based on Andrew Hodges’s 1983 biography of Alan Turning, and John Ford’s The Informer which was so powerful, a piece of German expressionist art turned to popular movie account I was astonished.

You can watch all of Breaking the Code on line instead of (wasting your time) seeing The Imitation Game:

I hope you took the hour and one half out. If not, here are a few notes which perhaps might tempt you. Instead of presenting Alan Turing as a kind of (freakish) autistic person never getting long with anyone after a brief youthful friendship in school with a young man who died of TB, Derek Jacobi plays a complex man who has a number of relationships, but is unable to fulfill himself as centrally part of his life because of the cruelties of the anti-homosexuality of English culture, the lack of understanding of a sensitive unconventional mind.

Breaking the Code is set mostly in the 1950s. There are flashbacks to the 1930s in school (a young Blake Ritson plays the friend who died from TB) and then to 1940s when Turing is hired (no atmosphere of paranoia or heroism; no justifications of murdering people to protect the “enigma code,” no silly team of a few men saving the world who also happen to be spies); in the 1996 film we see a slow building of relationship with his immediate boss (who is not crazily hostile, but half-sympathetic, played by Richard Johnson), and the woman he engaged himself to who did love him and he loved (played by Amanda Root), but he did not want a sexless or false-front marriage. I found very touching the depiction of Jacobi as a homosexual man trying to find companionship and the lack of dignity and threat, the sordidness and contempt of what he had to endure in the one person he could find to spend time with him.

breaking the code

I could understand deeply how someone brought up in the 1950s looking at homosexuality might say I don’t want to be that, I don’t want to know that and hide away. He is seen having an affair on Corfu (where he could have some safety). Equally gripping was the way he was treated in 1951. Pinter plays the M16 person who begins to have Turing monitored and put pressure on him after the trial: yes for national security it’s said. As we look at the desk where he slowly he gathered the drugs he used to kill himself we have a sense of how this came from a process across his life. Prunella Scales is brilliant as his genteel mother who has no understanding of her son and repeats the world’s cant to him but loves him; Alun Armstrong as the relentless narrow police officer (he reprised a verision of this as Inspector Bucket in Andrew Davies’s mini-series Bleak House).

Here is an account of the staged play and the awards it won. Herbert Wise’s work includes I, Claudius; High Whitemore many different stints writing one-time plays for British TV, and 1970s to today’s mini-series (including Stevie [Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith], A Dance to the Music Of Time, recently The Gathering Storm.


Then I turned my attention to a novel, by Liam O’Flaherty, DVD, a redigitalized The Informer with a feature describing the filming (means, cost, people involved, goals, first reception), George Bluestone’s famous essay comparing the book and film (Novels into Films). Unfortunately this film is not on the Net, but a thorough defense and explication of in lucid terms (it has been attacked) is:

A Ford Crucible by Blake Lucas. It’s long interested me as an exploration of a role once regarded as abhorrent to all people fighting oppressive gov’ts, tyrannies, wars (when E. M. Forster said he hoped he’d betray “his country” before his friend”), informing for monetary or other rewards on friends, colleagues, family to powerful people. The opposite of the today reviled and hounded-down and punished “whistleblower.”


I was deeply moved by McLaghlen’s performance of a non-thinking hulk of a man driven by poverty, a desire to stop his girlfriend from selling herself on the streets as a prostitute, a momentary blindness to all the consequences of his act (not just the immediate murder of the man he informs on, but the results on the organization of which they are part, the man’s family) and unawareness of his own feelings. Yes the movie is a lot more sentimental: in the novel the characters are far harder, selfish, his girlfriend is treacherous, the man he informs on a treacherous murderer himself; to make the movie more widely appealing Ford turns ordinary people into exemplary heroes and heroines, but this does not detract from the central fable of the awakening of this man’s remorse and the relentlessness of others around him to his act. The use of fog, of mist, the black-and-white interfused medium of the few streets, and rooms and archetypal direction is daring — Gypo Nolan is a sort of Frankenstein monster rejected by all a seething and bewildered humanity. He cumulatively gains dignity and forgets what he has done because it is too unendurable.

Since this past summer when I began once again to watch American-made movies from the 1930s to 40s, I have been so startled at how many were superb, not because of the Hays Code but in spite of it. These were pre-1950s, pre- the successful attempt of reactionary and rightist groups in the US to remove all pro-social feeling, all history from a working class point of view honestly represented. This is tale of Irish people as they seek, violently, crudely, to achieve political independence. O’Flaherty’s Famine, a novel set in the the 1840s is part of this history, and John Ford and Dudley Nichols committed to making films of integrity and intelligent art.

On one of my listservs, a member argued how important it is to pay more attention to how history is rewritten. What is erased and subsituted. Look at the difference between The Imitation Game and Breaking the Code, at The Informer versus Zero Dark Thirty.


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Dear friends,

It’s said they recorded this in 1971 when the war in Vietnam was not over: the US gov’t was bombing hospitals in Vietnam; they thought, What could they do about it? they decided to sing and record a song in which they pretended “the war is over:”

A hundred and ten years ago, this short French film, “The Christmas Angel” was made, and thanks to a friend on one of my listservs I watched it last night and can share it here:

An early film adaptation.


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Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois (1951 Kazan/Williams Streetcar Named Desire)

Dear friends and readers,

Another announcement of a publication. (Rest assured very soon this will stop and I will return to our regularly scheduled programming mostly about films and books.) I’m happy to say my review of Nora Gilbert’s Better Left Unsaid: Victorian Novels, Hays Code Films and the Benefits of Censorship is now published on-line in Cercles: Revue pluridisciplinaire du monde anglophone

Better Left Unsaid, reviewed by Ellen Moody

Those who read this blog more than occasionally may recognize a few of the films I’ve written blog reviews of: Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Street, Cukor’s Philadelphia Story and Gaslight, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve been enjoying myself mightily watching (and re-watching) a selection of the films covered by this book and also reading for the first time (Thackeray’s Catherine: A Story) and rereading (Bronte’s Villette) a selection of its Victorian novels, not to omit material on actresses and other people centrally involved in film-making.

The book is significant because aspects of its thesis, its assumptions may be found in many recent and older publications. Perhaps among the more interesting of the secondary books I read was the collection by Kucich and Sadoff called Victorian Afterlife (about historical fiction too), and some of the individual screenplays and books on these films; also James Chandler’s The Archeaology of Sympathy comparing 18th century sentimental novels with (among other film-makers) Capra.

I would not have thought comparable Austen’s Mansfield Park with Cukor’s Gaslight:

Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist readying herself virtuously for bed (1944 Cukor/John Van Druten Gaslight).

I also liked following trails away from the main movies and books under consideration; one of these I’ve seen before included a commentary on the famous scene between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront where in the make-believe cab seat we and Charlie Malloy (Steiger) are made to feel Charlie’s terrible betrayal of Terry Malloy (Brando)

(Kazan/Schulberg, 1954 On the Waterfront)

I wish I had made more time to develop separate blogs on these books and films but do urge my readers to read and to watch or re-watch these books & films.

See some Christmas commentary coming out of It’s a Wonderful Life this year – Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey pleading with the inexorable banker to give him more time (it’s the banker who has been able to steal the money George had been saving to pay his debt).


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Michael Volle as Hans Sachs (with a different soprano in the role of Eva than the production we saw today)

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d record that Yvette and I spent 6 long hours watching Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (to give Wagner’s opera its full title) today at our local HD movie-theater. Neither of us hardly ever drowsed off — I observed a number of people half-dozing at times. Two people in our row left after the second act. It was an utterly unimaginative production not quite rescued by the intelligent acting and realism and singing of Michael Volle.

OperaMichael Volle

Speaking for myself I found the second act charmed me by the touching and human psychological interactions of the principle characters, especially the Volle as the older intelligent witty passionate complex character of a cobbler Hans Sachs genuinely in love with Eva (Anne Dasch in the production we saw), the daughter of his friend) who herself seems torn between Sachs and the lifeless stiltedly acted and (it mattered) unattractive Johan Botha as a supposed dazzling Knight-poet Walther von Stolzino.


The scene is a street in a picturesque fairy tale German-like town, Hans is making shoes for the coming wedding of Eva and whoever wins her as a prize in a coming singing contest, and along comes a master-singer, Johannes Martin Kranzle as an emasculated over-sensitive and therefore mocked suitor-contestant Sixtus Beckmasser intending to serenade Eva at a window. Some of the wall of music in this and the third act swooningly as well as some of the comic singing and hammering away by Volle appealed to me, was amusing. Also the overt theme of how valuable original poetry which does not follow rules or conventions is (Wagner thinking of himself) appealed to me as well as some of the romantic lyrics (a leider-like song attributed to and sung by the Knight-Poet Walther).

Renee Fleming’s interview of Volle showed him to be a deep feeling singer who had given a lot of thought to his role as a man in love with a much younger woman who gives her up (as he foresees he will be a Mark to her Isolde). The interview of the production design person who talked of this 1990s pre-computer set, watching it put up, and then a rehearsal of the dancing (Kelli O’Hara as lead, Deborah Voight interviewer):


and an interview with a costume designer for the coming new production of The Merry Widow starring Fleming were entertaining.

Had Jim been alive he’d have certainly been there; I remember half-sleeping through a Meistersinger next to him where he stayed up for all of it I’m not sure where. He would have understood and listened to the music as Yvette seemed to.

Jim joined the Wagner Society of Washington DC here in DC shortly after he retired and envisaged us going to its lectures and concerts and yearly full weekend get-aways; and was bitterly hurt when after a second year of going to all its events, supporting it with money, we were clearly at the last moment excluded from their weekend (they held onto his check for it, some $500 until a week before when he said they must have at last had enough people for this event so they need not include us). He had thought here was a semi-popular cultural group we could attend, pretend to belong to. What was wrong with us I’ll never know — I did talk a lot on the one weekend we attended to a hired photographer-historian who shared my political outlook; maybe this was frowned upon. Maybe we weren’t important enough in any way. The snobbery of this society and the way the leaders behaved sycophantically to the supposed civic or political or cultural leaders of this or that place was without awareness. I was aware of how the fascism of Wagner, his anti-feminism (by the women there) was just ignored in all the talks about Wagner operas. I bring this experience up to expose this Wagner Society of Washington DC for doing that to him, and also show how much he was willing to endure to participate in the music of Wagner with the occasional person who knew something about it.

I’d like to think he might have agreed this production was hopelessly dull; the first act of the masters arguing over the coming contest was without drama — even Renee Fleming, the hostess could find nothing beyond vague hype about how “special” and “wonderful” this Wagnerian production was as she talked to the dull Kranzle and at least honest Dasch (she admitted the part was small, the psychology simple). In his filmed interview Levine kept going using the same contentless words. The third act went on for an interminable 2 hours: each of the major characters visits Sachs before the contest begins and while the interaction leads to the climax, each phase not only went on repetitively, but predicted the over-long heavy-handed climax with its gestures of gaiety, priggish self-righteousness at someone not wanting to join something, scorn of weakness and then insistence of how important it was to respect even conventional guilds and Germanness.

For me the HD film close-ups and surtitles made this another first time to see and understand an opera I’ve watched before and really gotten little out of. I was surprised to discover that Yvette didn’t like the second act: she thought it could have been a lot funnier. Very “uninventive.” She too felt it could have been half as long.

Not that anyone who matters in making new productions of this opera will pay attention to this blog, but I’ll still make the suggestion it needs not only to be wholly re-designed using modern symbolic staging but someone needs to take seriously its riveting interest is the erotic relationship between Eva and Hans. Wagner’s words do not call for Hans to act avuncular; and she asks him to marry her more than once and seems to prefer him to this suitor of hers in the third. Almost the whole of the first act could be eliminated, whole sections of the third, and if it cannot be cut, at least the mockery of Beckmesser could be cut down, made less snarky (he’s a kind of Mr Moseley character for anyone who watched Downton Abbey). There was no undercutting of the intense patriarchy of the male roles, but Karen Cargill, an Irish soprano as Magdalene, sister to Eva, showed some comic gifts:


Yvette and I caught sight of the dress circle we sat in when we were at the Met in mid-November, and she said she liked that she could now imagine where the various places filmed were in relation to what we had walked through.

I wonder when these opera companies who broadcast through HD will admit that filming for audiences makes them change how these operas are directed. The one person never interviewed in any of these productions is the person called “the live HD director,” this time Matthew Diamond. It is egregiously obvious that blocking and entrances and exits and choreography is done with movie needs as well as in-house stage limitations and sets in mind.


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Laura Poitras, photo by James Day

Jon Stewart with the male star of Rosewater, Gael Garcia Bernal

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past few weeks I’ve watched a series of documentaries about what might be called the state of the political world and military actions conducted by the Bush and succeeding US administration (Obama) in reaction to 9/11; this includes the present omnipresent use of surveillance over (I suppose) everyone by various US and UK (and other states’) agencies, imprisonment often w/o trial of literally countless individuals, the use of solitary confinement and other forms of torture. Quite an agenda.

I began with CitizenFour, led to go to a local movie-house at 2 in the afternoon to catch the movie by the crucial interest of the subject (while in the event the auditorium was remarkably crowded for that time of day, nonetheless the movie disappeared in less than 3 weekends), but then drawn by Poitras as a film-maker. I wanted a comparison so went for what was available, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater (also disappeared quickly); understanding that CitizenFour is the third of a trilogy, I used Netflix to watch the second movie, The Oath, and then (unaccountably I suppose going backwards), the first, My Country, My Country. I wanted to see Kill the Messenger, but it played in but one movie-house in all the DC area that I could find, a theater not easy for me to get and by the time my schedule permitted it, Kill the Messenger had been killed (never got to DC where the powerful politicians, their committees and aides, the media, and reporters it exposed work from). Kill the Messenger did last longer than CitizenFour and Rosewater, but then it was at just this one theater — in Ballston, Arlington, by the way, for those who know this area, a place of apartments houses, where in the mall Jim and I have seen startlingly original plays now and again, one of Rameau’s Nephew I still remember).

I’m here to tell you that Poitras is a great documentary film-maker, and her subject being what it is, you should make the effort to see her trilogy, which has been reviewed fairly by David Bromwich in NYRB, with an emphasis on CitizenFour (“The Question of Snowden”), and much less neutrally (hostilely, with snide remarks aimed at Poitras and sudden turn-abouts, such as out of nowhere “Snowden is of course a traitor”) by George Packer (the New Yorker, Holder of Secrets). I’ve already written about CitizenFour (almost upon getting home from the movie), as “A Win” (scroll down to the last third of blog).


I wish there were a recognized tradition of documentaries in the US as there are in the UK (where they regularly play on TV); the best comparison I can come up with is My Country, My Country is as good as any of Frederick Wiseman’s best.


Several things make it as good as it is: first her art, in a quiet way she juxtaposes the right scenes against one another; like Wiseman, she tries to erase herself so you are listening to others and watching them (there are little vignettes of people passing the time of day in the way of Wiseman, bits of weather); she photographs landscapes aptly and gets the feel of the place (from driving a cab in Somalia, to the dreadful quiet of Guantanamo, to the destruction of the cities of Iraq as well as life lived inside a house without electricity, or communication lines outside). She wins the trust of those she interviews insofar as they are willing to open up in all three films: the central figure of The Oath, Abu Jandal (complex, sensitive man who has led a brutal existence) seems to be doing this and in a way he does show himself; Edward Snowden is a man being interviewed until near the end in a dangerous situation (in the Hong Kong hotel), and the central figure of My Country, My Country, Dr Riyahd al-Adhadh, an Iraqi doctor, upper class male who runs for office during an election in 2005, acts out his daily routine (he works as a doctor) and seems to say what he intended to say or do wherever he is regardless of Poitras’s camera. She’s not as aggressive as Wiseman or as pointed in what she shows, and she gets an intimate feel as she films people making their tea, unexpected gestures that are revealing.

A campaign manager telling the people what Bush wants

People listening

The central story of the My Country, My Country is this election of 2005: all the people we see, soldiers, mercenaries (buying as cheap as they can get them, deadly weapons in order to “monitor” the sites and make sure they go the way wanted), the campaign managers (often from Australia) are there to make this election look right. Riyadh cooperates because he is hoping to help his Sunni brethren in his area of Baghdad and around the country (Falluja) to have some sort of say (however hopeless the attempt) At one point to some prisoners he visits in a supposed opening up who have been held for months without trial, put into solitary confinement, sometimes tortured in other ways, underfed, miserable in heated tents), he bursts forth, so frustrated is he in his inability to do anything to help any of them: “We are an occupied country with a puppet government.”


Soldier insisting a 9 year old is dangerous, that the people are decently treated, will be fairly tried …

One sequences of images shows an Iraqi man appealing to a committee to stop spending money this way, asking them what is the use of this (phony) election amid this slaughter; this destruction of needed services like electricity and water, these prisons? Well, Bush wanted it. As with the putting the challenger into space in 1987 done at the worst possible time weather-wise was done (as Feynman shows) because Reagon wanted it, so everyone is following the Big man and His men. Bush is the equivalent of the absent Henry VIII in Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. (Obama cannot escape this kind of numinous power from patronage that people still organize themselves around.)

The speakers and their plights make this a poignant movie.

Poitras basically follows Dr Riyahd around; she is in his house at all hours of day and night and we watch conversations of the women inside the house, sometimes with Riiyadh answering. We see a wedding held. We get to recognize the wife, the mother, older female relatives, his daughters one of whom cries out “we have no life and can have no life, have had no life for ever so long.”


The film’s hold and the respect it commands comes from this man who is reasonable, holding out, though at the close when the election gives Sunni hardly any seats, he is suddenly embittered and talks of how they must move (Where?); it’s touching how much care he will take over this or that specific individual as if each person matters. That speaks the values of this film against which we see the bombing and killing now and again.

fatcatsareseenat mikes
High fat cat at mike, urging them on their “mission”

You have to use your brains and recognize what are obvious lies; the film exposes the absurdity and cruelty of what was being done — we don’t see the actors who are making money of course — the Haliburtons, but in a way you can’t film that; as Alexander Pope said in the 18th century how do you dramatize the corruption of money and how it’s used and works silently so that’s it’s seen only in the people hired to work jobs, the boardrooms and dinners where things are decided. The conversations we might like to hear, money changing hands, moving digitally cannot be filmed.

A street scene (there are also scenes of Falluja and other towns and houses gutted out from bombs)


My Country, My Country, was nominated for an Academy Award as best documentary of the year. You’d think Poitras would have gone on to make even better films. But this has not happened. The Oath and CitizenFour are made on much cheaper budgets; she does not get to films interviews of or talks to the same kinds of important people after My Country, My Country. It was after this film, she began to be so harassed at every border crossing she passed, searched and stopped 40+ times at airports, her precious things taken from her more than once (returned most of them, but not always); after this film she moved to Berlin. Packer calls her paranoid — in one of his unfair dismissive descriptions of her. Yes she’s a privileged person, comes from people with wealth, went to fine schools (including New School of social research), lived in Manhattan, frequents nice bars. Does he want her to stay in sordid ones? she’s a woman.
(Packer also indulges in snide cracks at Julian Assange . The man is not cooperative,says Packer as if this were surprising or a sin. Well, duh. Not clubbable like Packer is, eh?)

In the case of The Oath, she wanted to make a film about the taxi-driver of Bin Laden who was captured, put in a black hole, tortured, taken to Guantanomo and (astonishingly to many), with the help of two military lawyers (we watch in the film giving public interviews) won a supreme court case where they declared that one could not call a man a terrorist for supplying daily aid (like a car, like services included in being a chauffeau in effect), so congress passed a law saying to give material aid to a terrorist was enough to make someone a terrorist. The case again was adjudicated and this time he was guilty as charged (according to the new law), but the sentence was time served plus four months so a slap at congress was administered. The Hamdan cases are now used in arguments about terrorism. Promising material, no?

But after giving one interview to a BBC reporter in London, after returning home, Hamdan will give no interviews. So Poitras uses a man close to him, who “recruited” him (got him a needed job as a driver), Abu Jandal, Hamdan’s brother-in-law.

Abu Jandal the focus of her second film, The Oath

She discovered that Jandal is a revealing and intelligent person in his own right. So Poirtras’s film centers on Abu Jandal, Hamdan’s brother-in-law, what footage she has found of one of Hamdan’s “interrogation” (under a hood, and his body all cringed and terrified in some hideous prison),


then the trial (just outside with sketches and drawings of what is happening inside the courtroom), the trial lawyers and congressional hearings; she has also footage of Guantanamo, and she films places in Afghanistan and where Abu Jandal now works as a cab driver.

Jandal is a fascinating person: he is someone who was recruited as a devoted follower for Bin Laden’s army and he is very smart — you must listen to him carefully. He now abjures violence, but he knew all the 9/11 Bin Laden people on the plane who died. Also of great interest is Swift, the lawyers working for Hamdan:

Charles Swift, one of Hamdan’s lawyers

there is also a military officer who says he does this to keep the constitution alive and well.

Neal Catyal, another defending lawyer

It has depths of a different kind from My County My Country. Jandal is someone who was recruited as a devoted follower for Bin Laden’s army and he is very smart — you must listen to him carefully. He now abjures violence, but he knew all the 9/11 Bin Laden people on the plane who died. He was someone who administered oaths of loyalty. Abu Jandal is an intense believer — in his religion, we see him bringing up his boy continually — and among other things he believes in is the Arab way of life he saw personified in Bin Laden; he presents his wife and sister-in-law (in burkas). We see him teaching his son:


Father and son

He followed Bin Laden out of a personal identification. People who get followers do sometimes do that.

The film merits comparison with CitizenFour — done on a similar budget, similarly centrally focused without much story line (Snowden escapes to the Russian airport near the end of the film and at the close he is interviewed briefly from an unknown place in Russia by Greenwald with Poitras as film-maker). See my A Win (blog — scroll down to last 3rd).


She keeps her distance says Packer from Abu Jandal as she does not in Citizen Four. He seems to feel she identified so closely with Snowden that accounts for her taking what he said at face value. I wonder — Packer says we are watching a man being interviewed, not the inner man; well the same happened with Jandal (who is not revealing “all”). She also couldn’t get past the mask (as sophisticated people we want to know the pyschological and personal sociological reasons for his giving up a good life to risk life in solitary confinement and worse, or in Russia meagrely tolerated) becUse he was in danger at those moments as Jandal no longer is.

What we do see in Snowden is revulsion. He felt intense revulsion at what he was seeing going on around, him, at the secret life he was living, at its privileges. I think he’s an austere guy — e has not yet been apprehended because he has files of just this nature that will drop the minute he disappears–and people in power know it. He has not released much of what he has. Why Assange remains safely (tenuous safety) inside the Equadoran embass. The for how Snowden’s girlfriend got from their apartment in wherever it was to now live with Snowden in his Russia and cook spaghetti together. People may also think some of these files are known to Greenwald and Poitras. The repugnance (revulsion I called it) was not just for the way of life he saw in the high tech firms and their employees’ home life but personally, a feeling of how at risk they all were from one another.

Snowden no sentimentalist but he does seem to have acted out of a deep feeling of what is decent and indecent. What he saw happening where he worked, he felt was indecent — Imagine him watching people looking into files of just anyone or someone they wanted to hurt or were paid to find things out about. In comparison Abu Jandal has beliefs that are deeply optimistic (from his religion which is real), though he fears snatching and killing. At the end of The Oath he has lost his job and is worried about having lost his cab but doesn’t say why these events have occurred.

It’s no coincidence that decency also actuates Poirtras’s chosen Iraqi doctor. This sort of emotion outraged, and an idealism as well as intense curiosity about the people who involve themselves fuels Poitras’s films. Her film on Snowden is more careful — it seems apolitical and that’s to enable her to make another.
Films can be a source of real information and insight — like so much in our culture, because their power and abilities are often so wasted and thrown away and wrongly exploited that does not mean the medium is not one of the most powerful we have today.

David Denby of the New Yorker tells about the incident on Stewart’s comedy program which Denby thinks helped lead to Rosewater.

Maziar Bahari interviewed comically by Stewart

At the time of this real life incident on TV, Stewart’s interview of a reporter named Bahari that led (circuitously) to Bahari being snatched, kidnapped, imprisoned, held in solitary confinement for months and emotionally tortured, terrified and also beat up hard a couple of times, I was not watching TV at all so can say nothing (I still don’t watch TV much.) The important element was this gave Stewart a justificaion, a raison d’etre beyond the actuating purposes of the film (similar to Poitras) — to expose what the war on terror, surveillance, and torture in imprisonment, specifically solitary confinement inflicts on individuals.

Bernal as the British reporter captured by Egyptian nationalists, being harassed by one of his interrogators

Bernal is a powerful actor and this is not the first political film he’s been in; he was superb in After the Rain, about the attempt in a South American country by a corporation to take over the water supply and start charging money for it (see my blog, Even the Rain).

It’s a good not a great film, and part of the flaw is its fiction and sentimentalized (we don’t get deep pain at all). He’s also careful to be mainstream and he does this by suggesting all political movements and leaders are shits. Bahari’s father was high in politics and gov’t in 1953-54 when the only attempt thus far was made to set up a secular democracy, socialist in thrust: the US and UK with their CIA and M15 moved in and overthrew them, imprisoned, tortured (probably) and destroyed it. In the movie Bahari’s father is implicitly criticized as a deluded communist with the implication all communists are tyrants, deluded people follow them. As if they are more evil than fascists, totalitarians, religious fanatics. In fact they were trying to set up a neutral secular state with the socialists; a real election had put a democracy in place. The US staged a coup. The happy ending of the film also seems to justify the American state as a sane one: but the real topic of the movie, solitary confinement (to which much of the movie is given over and is an stunning feat), is more widespread in US prisons than European ones, and political imprisonment has grown to visible public dimensions. The film did not stay long in theaters anyway.

Rosewater (cont’d in comments).

Some tentative conclusions:

That Poitras comes from wealthy people tells us more than how she affords her traveling, her living in Berlin, and see her earlier privileged life (New School in NYC); more importantly (from my studies of liberty and reading Mill and Berlin and others), her sense of her self, her background, upbringing makes her feel she can exercise her liberty. It is as important to feel you have the right to exercise your liberty, which comes from background (upbringing, class, gender, education, habitas) as to have it. Like Penelope Fitzgerald (an article by James Wood in the same New Yorker as Packer on Poitras), her quiet sense she need not explain, her concision and other aspects of her film making come from this background. Their nerve, they have the nerve.

The non-fiction trilogy is by a woman — there’s a cyclical feel; we end where we began in The Oath, poor Jandal now has lost his cab and job. We are not told why — nor exactly who provided the money for the cab in the first place. We go back to white letters on black in CitizenFour. There’s little superfluous violence, hardly any at all, it’s just menacing us at the corners of the screen – all the people we see interview Jandal (she includes film clips) and the film clips of the defense atttorneys for Hamdan and of course the narrative line telling us accurately what happened to him (sold to the Americans, put into black hole, &c&c) and we feel it in her overvoice of Citizen Four. We see it in the silent pictures of the cities and landscapes (Guantanomo, Afghanistan, places not identified where people are meeting in tents and being interviewed or talked at by reporters and high officials.) Now she’s not an official. She’s just a woman.

As to the issues, there is passing discussion of liberty which one lawyer says is now unfortunately defined as privacy: that’s a real loss as what’s at stake is more than privacy. A friend writes: “The issue of free speech was also addressed. What this surveillance means is that the notion of free speech is essentially meaningless. In invading your privacy, your civil liberties have been suspended. For example, should you try to organize a protest, the government will know what you are up to. If they consider the action a treat, they can stop it. I guess this is when the swat team arrives at your door.” The 8th amendment is also gutted as your money can be stopped from getting to you. The US government and others too (the UK perhaps in its decades old GCHQ), has records of all our business transactions, such as our public transit card, and our credit cards, and our banking info, as well as everything we do on the computer and every phone call we make. They can access these files at any time and go through them retroactively.

Stewart is a deeply compassionate man but without the “license” of non-fiction curtailed what he could have dramatized.


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