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

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

Dear Friends and readers,

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Anna and Dumi

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

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

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

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

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


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

It’s a vimeo:


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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Alan Plater (1935-2010), screenplay writer extraordinaire, playwright, musician-composer

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight in my efforts to watch a Region 2 version of the 1987 Fortunes of War, a brilliant 7 episode serial adaptation of Olivia Manning’s brilliant trilogies, The Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy, I was driven to use my multiregional player attached to my flat TV. My vlc viewer just was not strong enough to get through the occasional damage on the disks (in this set there are 3), and I clicked by mistake on something called “Timeshift.” I just could not get out of this program, and was irritated until within a minute or so I realized it was BBC documentary, lovingly and intelligently done, appreciative, of the life’s work of Alan Plater: Hearing the Music (unfortunately not available from the site it’s now announced on).

In the 1960s (many one and two hour plays) and early 1970s he wrote over 50 screenplays for the BBC; he wrote fewer in the later 1970s and into the 1990s running up to 2000 (his last) but these include the memorable whole of the Barchester Chronicles, this Fortunes of War, and one of the best of the episodes of the important Danger UXB; his work includes Misterioso, The Good Companions (J. B. Priestley novel turned into a musical), A Very British Coupso many it’s hard to look them all up. With many stunning performances, from Judy Dench to my favorite, Barbara Flynn, playing Jill Swinburne, whom Plater said was a version of himself.

Although this Guardian obituary does justice to Plater by beginning by naming him as one of the screenplay writers for British TV who made an important difference in the quality of its drama, and changed what you could represent and how ever after, in the tone of respect and felt appreciation for his work, the writer does not emphasize sufficiently Plater’s love of music, jazz and modern rock, his use of it in his work — and his political point of view (socialist). According to Timeshift (and other pieces I’ve read), Plater was a highly original writer for TV in the 1960s strongly because of his Hull and musical background (he studied to be an architect and that probably helped his sense of structure). At the time most shows displayed upper class accents and working class people were given cockney accents, with the dialogue often stiff or naive, or utterly conventionalized so as not to be realistic. With his roots in Northern England, especially Hull, he was one of those who changed all that, writing dialogue for the real spoken voices, kinds of accents different idiolects across Britain. He slowed down the action, and often wrote scenes between two or three characters conceived of as the core of the drama. Most of all he integrated music into his plays, conveying meaning through music. Music told the identity, the culture, the past, the feel of his characters; in talking of how he wrote his plays he called his process like that of Jazz; he has 12 bars, and within that he provides variations.

Here is one 10 minute segment on him, together with a three part series made for Yorkshire TV, the much respected and popular Beiderbecke Trilogy:

You hear and see Barbara Flynn talking too.

He conveyed how people really talk by writing less dialogue too and leaving spaces for pause, for really felt enacting by the actors together. He loved to develop what the author of a novel might have left out — what was the sermon the Reverend Slope spoke from Barchester Chronicles — it’s not in Trollope but improvised as the script developed by Plater.

Plater is not alone unsung. I cannot express how often I have had the experience of identifying a wonderful TV drama show by its writer, and been greeted by a blank look. If I’ve tried to tell the person who was the writer, what his or her career, what other programs he or she wrote, they politely wait for me to finish. They don’t seem to realize their love of Dickens is a love of Alexander Baron (prolific screenplay writer of the 1980s with some of them peculiarly fine, and a good novelist too) or Andrew Davies or Arthur Hopcraft or Simon Raven (of the Pallisers). Nowadays many women write these screenplays, Sandy Welch (Our Mutual Friend 1999) is an older practitioner, so too Fay Weldon (1979 Pride and Prejudice) more recently, Fiona Seres (2018 Woman in White). In the BBC until recently the screenwriter was the linchpin or (as the position is now called) one of the showrunners of the series. In cinema they are now named early in credits and paid much better; so too in some more prestigious (or pushed) serial adaptations (Poldark, Deborah Horsfield; Downton Abbey, Jerome Fellowes), but not as much (how many people know the names of the remarkable team writing Outlander under the general direction of Ronald Moore). Misterioso is perhaps one of his finest later dramas (1991, based on his own novel.

Hours, days, months, years of fine entertainment are due to such people — of course the cinematographer, the directors, producers, costumers, but in the case of the writer you can find biographies and you can trace a personality and point of view that is interesting across the work. I wish more people would pay attention to these unsung heroes and heroines. I hear in my head for hours afterwards the music that plays across The Fortunes of War

As a coda treat, it is said of Plater he combined Coronation Street with the feel and outlook of Chekhov story or play, so here is one of those Play of the Month productions, which demonstrates this: Francesca Annis and Ian Holm, 1974 in The Wood Demon (I believe it’s the whole thing)

Ellen

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Hana (Andrea Riseborough) examining a temple (Luxor, 2020, directed scripted Zeina Durra, 2020)


Oliver Sacks His Own Life (biopic, 2019, Ric Burns directed, using Sacks’ book of the same title)


Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) and Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) in sunlit landscape contemplating excavation (Dig, 2021, directed Simon Stone, scripted Moira Buffini from John Preston’s book)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been very fortunate in the last week or two because (without doing this deliberately) I’ve seen three excellent recent movies (actually four, see Even the Rain, 2011, in comments), all of which are thoughtful, quietly passionate, with genuinely interesting content, landscapes, story — all providing a true uplift. I write this blog to tell those of my readers seeking some respite from anxiety (COVID morphing into more deadly or infectious variants, not enough vaccines, the economic future. people hurting economically, and trying to self-isolate) you need only go to your computer and it’s a couple of clicks and a nominal sum away.

I don’t want to overdo this as I think of what most popular movies are, but I begin to wonder if there has been an effort recently — given the continued misery (see above) — to produce films where characters persist in hoping amid nearby or coming carnage (middle eastern wars, WW1) or the neglect of the agonizingly mentally disabled) or their own inner demons and distress. It really is a coincidence that just now on PBS, an excellent re-make of the movingly comic All Creatures Great and Small, has been airing, coming over your cable from PBS for the last five weeks. But maybe not that the era the film-makers are drawn to is just before or after WW1


James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) treating Strawberry, the cow (ITV, 2020, now on PBS)

I watched Luxor and Oliver Sacks His Owe Life as assignments in a weekly movie-class, where we watch movies online at Cinema Art Theater (supporting our local art movie-house). We are in our second week of four, all current movies. Luxor and Sacks are $12 each for 3-4 days of potential watching.

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What a relief is Luxor.


Hana with the newly re-found Sultan (Karim Saleh) at the hotel bar

It’s such a quiet movie, people hardly speak. The sexual acts that occur — several times, Hana, once with a stranger she met at a bar, Hana more than once with Sultan) are off-screen! There is no overt violence in front of us. Hana has returned to Luxor where she spent a joyous time with Sultan (throes of first love) 20 years ago. She is suffering from PTSD after years of surgery, practicing medicine the worst war and refugee places you can imagine — the Syrian border is mentioned. Unexpectedly she finds Sultan is now living there; he too returned, to do archaeology for the Eygptian gov’t (to please nationalists, for tourism). The story is we watch her slowly seem to get better, to come out of herself. Towards the end after she dances at a bar and comes back to her room in the hotel with Sultan, she bursts into hysterical shattered crying. To find tranquillity you have to allow the passions some release.

Like Celine Siamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s oddly devoid of dialogue — some people in life do talk a lot … but not this pair of lovers. As you go through her experience with you, you (or I) find therapy yourself.  At one point Hana visits a fortune-teller with the hotel owner.  It is also at core a romance, with two people who once knew each other, coming together again (like Linklater’s Sunrise, Sunset trilogy) with beautiful photography of this city left off the beaten track of commercialism, power, and today not even getting heavy tourism. It’s an Indie , the director is a woman who has made other movies of a similar type it seems. Roxana Hadadi writes a fine favorable detailed review on Ebert. It gains its denser power by the significance of the temples, the history of lives lived in squalor and hardship, the profound irrationality of people caught in their statues

The small diurnal transient lives considered against this backdrop, which lives are nonetheless precious and everything to those living them — this perception embodied is replicated in The Dig of Sutton Hoo below.

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Self- or group-reflexive still – during the course of the movie we met the living people now making the film and friends to the dying Sacks, as well as those no longer living (through older photos and Sacks narrating

His Own Life is the title of Sacks’s last book.  At last, out as a gay man, he owns his life.  And now he tells it. I’m a reader and teacher of Sacks’s books and essays as was Jim (our library of Sacks’s books) and I’ve taught several them (Hearing Voices, A Leg to Stand on, Migraines) and xeroxes of chapters and essays from others and periodicals (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, the New York Review of Books), and I thought I knew a lot. This film taught me I knew very little about the man’s full life (Jewish boyhood with physicians for parents, 3 other brothers), his character, how he grew up in England, how his mother rejected his homosexuality with abhorrence and then silence about it.


Oliver Sacks as a child.

What a sexy young man he was — when he left England, after having gone to the best private schools and then Oxford, for San Francisco & then Greenwich Village, NYC


Oliver Sacks, 1961.

His colleagues at first sidelined his work or fired him (when he accused their punitive methods of cruelty), his going on drugs, a slow and agonizing flowering when he got a job in a Bronx clinic where he was able through insight, drugs, compassion to bring catatonic people back to life. His literary success and then social through giving talks in prestigious places, his success as a doctor finally brought the psychiatric world round enough to appear to accept him.

I did not know he was homosexual and had to hide this most of the time. I was startled to see how heavy he was at one time. To watch him risking his life in crazed motorcycle riding. He is presented as living a more or less chaste life until his last years when he fell in love and his last partner, Bill Hayes, is in the film. The film narrator attempts to explain his methods, and his clinical work is done justice to as well. Among the witnesses is Jonathan Miller who describes Sacks at Oxford. Owen Gleiberman has written an intelligent review of the film, conveying the deeply humane nature of the man that also shines out in the film.

The film omits a few things about his career itself:  he was a wonderful storyteller  — a writer.  And central to is professional success without the support of academia was to have had the abilities of a novelist (in effect). His chapter stories are little novels where he has himself through his writing understood his patient or alter ego better by talking/writing to the reader.  To be sure, all these are based on years of clinical work (which work is not respected by the highest academics who prefer the theories that arise from abstract thought and research).

Very important: his real thrust was low tech (see especially Migraines). He contextualized and understood phenomena in history, e.g., the deaf in Hearing Voices where they were idiots for centuries and suddenly were people like you and me after the 3 Enlightenment philosophers invented sign languages.   The last thing he resorted to was a operation (see Migraines especially), and drugs were only applied after long talks and getting to know and understand a patient.  This is not appreciated by the medical establishment, supported as they are by the pharmaceutical industry & astronomical prices for surgeries.

As Oliver Sacks’s homosexuality made him for a long time an outsider in society, so his deeply humane methods, and his choice of approaches which are not prestigious (or as well paid) .  Sacks’s storytelling,  abilities as a brilliant writer as much as a clinician, neurologist and psychologist made him the hero and explorer and man we should be grateful to.

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Dig is a pastoral movie with much sun over the peaceful green fields of southern England

The Dig. I loved almost every minute of it, and although I realize the novel from which it is adapted, departs from historical accuracy, invents personalities and characters, I’ve a hunch it’s the sort novel I will find comfort and strength from (I have bought a copy from bookfinder.com). I gather the movie is getting a big audience; the subject is one long known, one which does attract a popular audience when set up in a museum to be a spectacle of gold: the Sutton Hoo burial grounds, the ship, its treasures, the Anglo-Saxon history.


Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) in the sun — many of the characters in Dig and Luxor are photographed in the sun


With Peggy Piggot (Lily James) by a left-over wall — your conventional romance trope

As with Luxor, and (on TV) All Things Great and Small, the photography is beautiful. One does not wonder why so many Anglophilic novels are set in the southeast. The acting very good: Ralph Fiennes, as Basil Brown, the “amateur” archaeologist, superb excavator, hams it up a bit with his accent, but when he is gone from the screen is when the film begins to fade and lose strength of emotional will and understanding.  He, together with the owner of the property, Carey Mulligan, as Edith Pretty, who catches the note and behavior of the upper class woman with her sense of privilege, have found the buried ship and its treasure together. She defends him only slowly from the ambitious academics, but it’s she who saves his life when the excavation collapses over him; she tries to invite him to dinner but he evades what might have been a very painful experience for both; nonetheless, they form a strong bond in the film. At one point he leaves the site because he is treated so rudely, condescendingly by those with degrees, but he is persuaded back by his wife, May (Monica Dolan) on the grounds that has he been doing this all these years for these people’s praise? At its end, she says she will be sure he will be recognized. Intertitles in the final credits tell us the Sutton Hoo material first arrived in the British Museum 7 years after Edith’s death; and then it took a long time for Basil Brown to be properly credited, but he and Edith are both central names on the exhibit today.

Our two central actors are ably supported by Johnny Flynn, as Rory Lomax, who I first saw as Viola in the all male Twelfth Night, and does have this charisma-charm; & Lily James, as Mrs Margaret (Peggy) Piggott, who falls in love with him (James has been superb as Juliet in Shakespeare’s play, Cinderella, & Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice & Zombies). Rory Lomax is Edith Pretty’s brother who is going off to WW1 as a RAF and we and he and everyone knows the danger and death rate high.  Peggy Piggot is the wife of the one of educated by degree team who is also homosexual and has married her in a cover up ,and continually rejects her body and companionship. Like Brown, she is not professional, has no degree, but knows a great deal, and she comes upon a jewel first (fiction can do this).

One of the film’s pleasures is its staunch egalitarianism. Again, the seeming ordinary man is our hero, and he is almost pushed off his site; but his wife persuades him to accept the snobbery and sidelining by the official professionals who at first treat him like a servant whose services they must endure but control. But after all he is not ordinary; the caste system erases people not born with money and rank, irrespective of their deeper talents.

Fiennes was believable as the older man whose partly orphaned son is attracted to him — they look at the stars through Brown’s telescope together. When Mulligan presented the reality of a personality of a upper class woman of the era, now widowed, she shows a hard edge, and assumes of course that her servants should serve her hand and foot. The love story of Rory and Peggy is conventional, but I did not find it detracted — it done from the DH Lawrence point of view, which roots the attraction of the two people to their deep time alone at night in the natural world all around them (a tent, behind a garden wall).


It rains; the women with the famous archaeologist from the British Museum (Ken Stott)

It themes includes death — Mrs Pretty visits her husband in his grave; she is discovered to have rheumatic heart disease and physically deteriorates during the film. Her young son is desolated when he sees this, and cannot save her — as he tells Mr Brown. Then we get this wonderfully delivered speech by Fiennes-Brown about failure: how we fail all the time, have to accept it, and just try to fail better. He got near Robert Louis Stevenson’s axiom. The boy clings with admiration to Mr Brown.

Et in Arcadio Ego; death is in The Dig shaped by the film’s consciousness of long time, and that each individual is part of some long range cycle seen in the buried ship. We are in an ancient cemetery. Planes going over (RAF) soon to be replaced by the brutal Germans with their bombs. All this is in Luxor too: war and carnage, the irrational temples. Sacks is dying and has been deprived of deeper companionship of a lover most of his life. The dialogue is realistic, well done. For detailed full reviews see Sheila O’Malley on Ebert. Also The Guardian, Mark Kermode, better than usual because he’s reviewing a better film.


Fiennes’ presence helps make The Dig


Riseborough pitch perfect in silent grief


Playing piano, being filmed in His Own Life; his papers just below — there are no online photos of his patients (Jim used to feel that there was a voyeuristic element in his books)

Ellen

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Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman), Philip (Tobias Menzies) and Anne (Erin Doherty) — Seasons 3-4


Elizabeth (Claire Foy), Philip (Tobias Menzies) Seasons 1-2 (1947-1955)

Not only are seasons 1 & 2 one story, with a couple of overriding themes; seasons 3 & 4 are the same story morphing later in time: the cost of the crown to all who are connected to it in the warping of their characters, destruction of dearest hopes. Most of the characters who have any depth of integrity or individual gifts find they must give up fulfilling an individual identity or desire in order to act out a conventional role that pleases the public; for money and prestige, they trade inner liberty, and several of them happiness. There seems to be no retreat for anyone, and for those who stay, as they age, they grow harder or more silent in order to survive … Even with the absence of virtuoso displays of emotion — except Tobias Menzies once, Josh O’Connor once, and fleeting arresting moments by Helena Bonham Carter, Geraldine Chaplin (as Duchess of Windsor) and even the reigned-in, mostly iron self-controlled Olivia Coleman — there is real depth, as in a novel by Ishiguro or Austen, just beneath the calm surface.

Friends and readers,

It’s been a rather long time (2018) since I wrote a blog on the first two seasons of this well-done effective serial. At the time I suggested that one story shaped both seasons centrally; that of Elizabeth (then Claire Foy) and Philip (Matt Smith), with the side characters exemplifying parallel themes, so now I’m here to say that similarly Seasons 3 ad 4 are one story shaped by the same theme for a younger pair of characters, Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana Spenser (Emma Corrin), with the older Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) and Philip (Tobias Menzies) showing the results of their choices and insisting the next generation make the same sacrifices they did. But season four so complicated by nearness of events in the lives of Charles and Diana, it will take two separate blogs to do both seasons justice.


The young Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) on the phone with Peter Townsend


Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), many years later showing the human cost of her role

The films depict slowly, at length and consistently a development of inexorable embedded emotional burdens each of the major characters finds he or she has to bear as a result of being related to, and supported by (financially especially) the Crown. Most of the characters who have any depth of integrity or individual gifts find they must give up fulfilling an individual identity or desire in order to act out a conventional role that pleases the public. For money and prestige, they trade inner liberty, and several of them happiness. There seems to be no retreat for anyone, and as they age, they grow harder or more silent in order to survive. The individual situations of these privileged people are made to resonate with experiences the ordinary person can identify with, or watch Writ Large. Seasons 1 & 2 Elizabeth and Philip begin with an idealistic love, and after years where she is driven to not keep her promise to Philip to let him fulfill his desires and have a say in his choices equal to hers, and betray others like her sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), Elizabeth hardens into a partly self-alienated person. She wants to control others too, like the space and power and ever-so-respected functions she acts out. Seasons 3 & 4, Elizabeth has hardened, Philip has reconciled himself (with occasional strong regrets), and Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter, superb in the part) alternates between bitterness and an avid devouring of what is thrown to her by way of compensation. All are warped. At the third season’s end though we see the cost open up through Margaret’s near suicide and her and Elizabeth’s conversation of what this life has cost them. In the fourth, Margaret is the only one among the older generation to voice any doubt about the infliction of marriage on Charles to a girl he doesn’t know, understand and it seems cannot love

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The real Elizabeth I, The Crown‘s Elizabeth — at Aberfan (Season 3, Episode 3) where miners lost dozens of their children


Philip in mid-life crisis, both “Bubbikins” and “Moonstruck” (Episodes 4 and 7): he find he must acknowledge who his mother is; he jeers at the institution of a church where men meditate, only to find himself glamorizing the astronauts, dreaming of himself as one, in need of companionship and confession

The first four and seventh episodes swirl around the question of what Elizabeth has become as a person, how much she now thinks it’s her job to remain estranged from usual human emotion, and how far this has become natural to her. It’s a role that does not give Coleman much opportunity for virtuoso emoting. Her best moments are in “Aberfan” (4:3) where she slowly bends, and “The coup” where, the political matter, Mountbatten’s (Charles Dance) attempt to stage a coup is overshadowed for Elizabeth too as she sees what happier warmer person she’d have been if she had been allowed to make horses her life (caring for them, racing them) alongside someone with a similar empathic nature, Porchey (John Hollingwood a rare carryover from Season 2), how happier she would have been. Philip is a tamed man, it seems also sexually, but if you watch the character, he is the same man (or type) as in Seasons 1 & 2 with the difference he is repeatedly given the last word on an issue, his conservative pragmatism honored, his shame over his mother, then thwarted masculinity sympathized with, given room. Tor me the best episode in the season is “Moonstruck”, not so much for his naive glorifying of the astronauts, but the way he comes down from deriding the incoming Dean of Windsor Robin Woods (Tim McMullan) to asking for help, from distrust to deep friendship. As opposed to Season 2 where Elizabeth is presented as understanding the boy Charles better than his father, “”Tywysog Cymru” shows Elizabeth out of sympathy with Charles presented as sensitive, literary, seeking validation when confessing, wanting to assert his truth against hers as a lead in to why. The second finest is the last episode: Margaret’s story glimpsed in “Margaretology,” and again here and there, but brought out emphatically and movingly in “Cri de coeur” where suddenly she is presented as an overt parallel to a hidden Elizabeth, who wonders what she has done with her life as the UK seems to have gone down (she means in prestige and power).

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I move on to individual episodes and dwell more on those episodes most strong. One must remember a lot is fiction, and sometimes politically what is asserted to have happened didn’t, e.g., Margaret did not persuade Johnson to lend the British enormous amounts of money, did not revel in his vulgarities; Mountbatten did not propose a coup; he was approached by a reactionary cabal of Tories who loathed the success of socialism under Atlee, and the liberal-social consensus of Wilson (Jason Watkins), and he turned them down twice.

Episode 1, “Olding,” Elizabeth moves from instinctive distrust of the new labor PM, Wilson, an inheritance from Churchill; she worries he’s a mole from Moscow, when betrayer turns out to be her much respected art historian, Sir Anthony Blunt (Samuel West), here a vengeful oily cold calculating villain who trades threat for threat with a newly stern Philip at hour’s end (don’t you know all communists must be vile?). Random moments showing the Snowden marriage (Ben Daniels) is none, Margaret in distress, drinking slips into Episode 2, “Margaretology:” with Coleman and Menzies all quiet self-controlled, Carter steals the scenes, but Johnson (a thankless role for Clancy Brown) a caricature, simply a frivolous vulgarian, behaving from silly motives of vanity flattered, with the thwarted artist (Daniels) given hardly any screen time.

Episode 3: “Aberfan.”:


Actual footage from the mining disaster

Brilliant and daring use of voice-over and narration, attributing inner thoughts to the ravaged faces of parents we see. The film-makers (director, script) turned a disaster remembered ever after when the queen showed she could be or was heartless, indifferent, stone cold into an explanation of how she felt deeply but couldn’t get herself to show it — and so rendered the incident deeply moving — they hired well known actors for bit parts of the parents: I spotted Ruth Wilson; Richard Harrington had speaking lines. We saw how everyone else was grieving — or couldn’t help themselves spontaneously — from the PM, to Margaret, to Tony Armstrong-Jones, to Phillip (Menzies managed to steal the show each time he flinched).

This did sideline the real problem: the board had not kept up regulations so that the mine became dangerous — it was pointed out it was under the Tories the situation evolved but this was turned into Mrs Wilson berating Wilson for being “a wimp” and not going after someone else, i.e., the queen as scapegoat. It was therefor hard to film on location: many remember what happened less than 50 years ago, many still suffering and the lack of any true social relief or active compassion from these super-rich Tory types has not been forgotten. Olivia Coleman did show strength in her her fierce lighting into Wilson when he turned up for “going behind her back” (as if they both controlled the newspapers) is memorable but the episode is too much “See the Queen learn a lesson; poor lady can’t get herself to cry.” Let us recall that Hillary Clinton held herself firm, and it was held against her, while were she to have wept she’d have been mocked. Still you won’t forget this episode.  I noticed some holdovers from Season 2, in actors playing Elizabeth’s near entourage; this provides needed felt continuity.


It’s the way the disabled & abused Princess Alice (Jane Lapotaire) in her nun’s outfit smokes that makes her seem so vulnerable

Episodes 4-6. “Bubbikins:” Philip wants to make himself felt: goes on TV to say Royals are not overpaid, derided, so makes a documentary about how ordinary they are, and it tanks terribly. Jane Lapotaire is profoundly memorable in the way she seems to capture the phases of this unfortunately disabled woman’s life, and so at last Philip learns a lesson against pride and vanity when he accepts her, now living in the palace (against his will) way upstairs, near Princess Anne, but found by reporters what she had to say resonated with the public. “The Coup” went a step too far for me. Not Charles Dance’s magnificent performance as Mountbatten, and Mountbatten had a ancien regime heart, fiercely militaristic (would have recited Kipling with gusto), but the sympathy for the coup, democracy made a veneer that doesn’t matter (see Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall if you think that). All hinged on the queen saying no. This reminded me of On the Waterfront, which justified informers (these are not to be confused with whistleblowers), justified Elia Kazan for naming names at the HUAC hearing in 1950s. The queen’s lesson was lamenting to Porchey (John Hollingworth looking remarkably like Joseph Kloska) and then trying to live this other not permitted unlived life, when she is needed to stop coups. I was touched by her regret,  but disbelieved the coup story as improbable (and see above) — had just seen the powerless Alice. The episode ended with Philip coming in the room, talking of Dickie, and admiring her. She makes a sign she will go to bed with him tonight, and he is all quiet delight. After all the queen’s life is not so bad is what Coleman suddenly radiates …


Porchey and Elizabeth snacking inbetween places, races, horse riding …

“Tywysog Cymru” The investiture of Charles in Wales moving, the episode built very slowly to create genuine feeling of real relationship between the Welsh politician anti-monarchical tutor, Tedi Millward and Charles, so Elizabeth’s hard cold reproaches to Charles for adding his own ideas into the ceremony come as a shock, as cruelty. Psychologically she is herself deeply repressed, (we might see) resentful over that unlived life she grieved for in previous episode. Maybe we are to infer the aim of her her life is not to have a self, as she repeats, do nothing, repel the inner life, something she is determined to inflict on Charles. Olivia Coleman acts the deeply dislikable mother memorably but is such a hard icy-presence that this viewer found Josh O’Connor’s the multi-faceted performance — if his ability to be piteous without incurring disdain (on display here), were more to the fore in season 4, the evenness of the presentation of the pair until 4:8 when we see that Charles will not give Diana a chance — will not pick up that phone — we would not feel that Diana was the only victim sacrificed on the altar (say it) of riches and prestige for the Windsor (German name now lost) family.

Episode 7: “Moonstruck:” At last they gave Tobias Menzies something adequate to his talents: Philip feeling the frustrations of existing in a fish bowl and spending his “job” time as a symbol at occasions that seem silly, and also those worthy. It all begins with his irritation at having to go to church by 9 am and listen to a doddering old fool of a Dean. So the queen hired a new man she thought Philip might like: Robin Woods, but Philip is not going to church any more. This new man asks if he can have the use of one of the unused buildings on the property as a center for spiritual renewing; Philip finds himself asked to go and when he has to sit there listening to these depressed men, he bursts out in cruel excoriation of them, ridiculing them. He tells them they will feel valued and part of the world if they were active. “How about cleaning up this floor!” he nearly shouts and he rushes out. The camera on the face of McMullan as Wood intensely controlled.

Philip then gets so caught up with watching intensely the moon landing as whole Royal family gathers around the TV.   But they leave after a few hours maybe, while Philip sits there it seems for days. He is identifying, bonding and thinking himself an “airman” himself, their equivalent and to prove it endangers himself and a courtier with him by flying the machine way too high. Then he demands 15 minutes with heroes (he did meet them). We see him writing questions, and when finally (most reluctantly) they come in, he finds his questions cannot be asked — they are young, inarticulate, hardly gave deep thought to what they were doing –too busy. They have silly questions about life in the palace for him.

Then cut to Philip walking away and then close up he is sitting and talking very gravely at this misapprehension he had of them and as he goes on we realize he is facing Wood and his clergymen needing spiritual renewal — Menzies delivers an extraordinary speech baring his soul insofar as such a man could, apologizes to them. Then we see them walking out and Philip looking more cheerful. An intertitle tells us the real Duke formed a close friendship with Wood and in later years this organization became one Philip was very proud of. The queen seen in the distance walking her dogs, looking on. Her face lightens with relief and cheer.

Doesn’t sound like much. Watch it. Or read the speech:

There wasn’t a specific moment, uh, when it started. It’s been more of a gradual thing. A drip, drip, drip of of doubt disaffection, disease, dis discomfort. People around me have noticed my general uh, irritability. Um Now, of course, that’s that’s nothing new. I’m generally a cantankerous sort, but even I would have to admit that there has been more of it lately. Not to mention, uh, an almost jealous fascination with the achievements of these young astronauts. Compulsive over-exercising. An inability to find calm or satisfaction or fulfillment. And when you look at all these symptoms, of course it doesn’t take a genius to tell you that they all suggest I’m slap bang in the middle of a [CHUCKLES] I can’t even say what kind of crisis … [I skip some of the words] … Some of which I can admit to in this room, and some of which I probably shouldn’t. My mother died recently. [CLEARS THROAT.] She she saw that something was amiss … It’s a good word, that. A-Amiss … “How’s your faith?” she asked me. I’m here to admit to you that I’ve lost it. And without it, what is there? The The loneliness and emptiness and anticlimax of going all that way to the moon to find nothing, but haunting desolation ghostly silence gloom. … And so Dean Woods having ridiculed you for what you and these poor, blocked, lost souls [CHUCKLING.] were were trying to achieve here in St. George’s House I now find myself full of respect and admiration and not a small part of desperation as I come to say help. Help me. And to admit [CHUCKLES.] that while those three astronauts deserve all our praise and respect for their undoubted heroism, I was more scared coming here to see you today than I would have been going up in any bloody rocket! [CHUCKLING]

I do think that the conception of the queen this time just doesn’t give Olivia Coleman enough to work with — to show her hidden life they would need really to break with the conventions against over-voice and they would be ridiculed or criticized.


Charles and Camilla falling in love


Anne usually choral figure, presented as Philip’s favorite, here Doherty given love-making scenes, but as ever wry

Episodes 8-10: “Dangling Man:” There was a falling away, here and these with their concentration on Charles and Camilla, Anne and Andrew Parker-Bowles left me bored with its thinness. What depth the episode has is in the aging, frailty, death of Edward VIII, now Duke of Windsor (Derek Jacobi) and as strong an actress as ever, as Mrs Simpson, now Duchess, Geraldine Chaplin, grieving over her dead husband, she’s unforgettable. We believe in the relationship between the dying Duke and young Charles — only with Mountbatten in the second season (the gentle Gregg Wise) had Charles had a loving authority figure before him (with the Welsh tutor it’s respect – the real Charles did learn enough Welsh to read and to try to talk).


Duke and Duchess of Windsor stepping outside their lair: Jacobi and Chaplin captured the two presences swiftly perfectly


Josh O’Connor superb at earnestness (remember him as Larry Durrell in The Durrells with Keely Hawes his generous mother)

Heath now PM.

“Imbroglio:” the criss-crossing of the Parker-Bowles with the Windsors is broken up by queen who (in time-honored manner) sends Charles away and with some help from her parents, pushes Camilla into marriage with Andrew. Heath had been brought in briefly in the previous episode and presented as fatuous; now we turn to the miners’ strike (David Wilmot memorable as Scargill); registering lives with other kinds of hard behaviors..


Margaret and Roddy meet


With her lady-in-waiting, Anne Lady Gleconner watching beach at Mystique island


The circle indicates the press taking this photo … of Margaret and Roddy (Harry Treadaway), he obediently putting cream all over her

“Cri de coeur:” This is perhaps the second best episode of the season and a powerful end. It’s about Margaret’s clinging to Armstrong and how tired of her he is, but how he finds it necessary to possess her at the same time as he is discreetly unfaithful. She cannot bear this and drawn by her Lady-in-Waiting, she finds a replacement, a young man substitute. What so strong about the episode is Margaret is presented as unconsciously obnoxious. She cries out against having to obey the conventions to hold onto her position, without apparently realizing every minute of her existence is pampered privileged, and all her comforts created by an army of obedient people around her. We do feel for her because her aging is so clear and her emotional need. We do wonder as we watch her drunken songs on her island, and her saying her happiness is finally here as she sits next to this child of a man whom she treats condescendingly. We see Elizabeth sympathizes with both Tony and Margaret, and in this episode it’s the Queen mother who acts to demand Margaret come back from the island when the newspapers photographer publishes a splash: her and Roddy’s affair. In Tony’s interview with Elizabeth (she summons him to see what she can do) he produces photos of her when younger; we see fleetingly Claire Foy and Matt Smith in a relaxed moment. The theme of this final episode is probably more about how time has gone by, and how old they’ve become than how everyone all around them kowtows — though this is emphasized too.

Summoned herself, by the Queen Mother, Margaret returns to find Tony waiting for her. Both of them kick the used Roddy out — but he was letting himself be used. The next scene, the queen has bid adieu to the prime minister, and news of Margaret’s attempt to kill herself has broken. A secondary story seen briefly: Wilson replaces Heath, but he cannot stay for he has Alzheimer’s and we see him and Elizabeth bid adieu; they had become friends, he calling her a lefty and himself a royalist. Margaret had asked her how many PMS have there been since she was queen: seven, says Elizabeth. The background story of Labor win, Wilson’s return as PM but what Elizabeth suddenly makes explicit is she’s been there to record England’s decline. Margaret all in pieces in the penultimate scene. Margaret’s act implies she finds nothing in life to satisfy her; but it is Elizabeth who expresses doubt about what her life has been worth, what has she done for her kingdom. Margaret has been terrific at being a sister. And then Margaret tells Elizabeth they must carry on. And it ends on the day of the jubilee.

In a “recap,” Carolyn Hallemann suggests the best scenes of all four seasons are those given over to Margaret’s story. Roddy’s work as her gardener is the equivalent of her lady-in-waiting, there to serve her desires. This last episode has brilliantly suggestive moments conveying the different relationships so quickly; Margaret and her lady-in-waiting, Lady Alice Glenconner (Nancy Carroll), a seemingly casual moment caught by a camera. Margaret says that is their function, to paper over cracks and Elizabeth glad to see Wilson in their weekly meet-ups.(He is her favorite after Churchill.)  This is just an outline; the depth of feeling in this one is perhaps the greatest of all this season, for finally we see at its end that (whether true or not) Elizabeth says she needs Margaret to help her stand it. Not Philip, not her son. Margaret’s role as sister has been performed magnificently.
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Note how we end: private lives must give way, the eye of the monarch on seeming to be there stable as ever, as groundwork for political belief-system (to be cont’d).


Geraldine Chaplin as Duchess of Windsor aka Mrs Simpson embodied the theme of private life ravaged — what happens when you won’t give it up, proud lonely woman near breakdown.

It’s as if the serial had set out to justify the decision of Harry and Meghan to walk away.

Ellen

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The dream Claire (Caitriona Balfe) escapes into given precise focus; the reality of an aggravated assault by a gang of men blurred so Claire distanced from us into a ghost-like nightmare presence

You ask me if there’ll come a time
When I grow tired of you
Never my love
Never my love
You wonder if this heart of mine
Will lose its desire for you
Never my love
Never my love
What makes you think love will end
When you know that my whole life depends
On you (on you)
Never my love
Never my love
You say you fear I’ll change my mind
And I won’t require you
Never my love
Never my love
How can you think love will end
When I’ve asked you to spend your whole life
With me (with me, with me)
— Don and Dick Addrisi

Dear friends and readers,

This is the toughest episode in all five seasons but one, the rape and aggravated assault of Jamie (Sam Heughan) by Black Jack Randall, evil doppelganger for Frank Randall (both played by Tobias Menzies). The earlier profoundly distressing episode (S1;E15 and 16) differs from this last of Claire (S5:E12): Jamie is raped by one man who seeks to shatter his personality and make Jamie subject to him, be willing to be made love to and the writer and director shot the scene in graphic (revolting) detail; Claire raped but also beaten, brutalized, cut by a gang of men led by Lionel Browne (Ned Dennehy) who loathes and wants to take revenge on Claire for her ways of helping women socially (by advice) as well as medically (contraceptive means), and the detail of what is done to her is kept just out of sight; we see the effects on her body and face only. But I was, if possible, more grieved for Claire because she overtly suffers much so much more physically and emotionally while it is happening & seems to remain more consciously aware of things around her (she tries to persuade individuals to enable her to escape) — and she grieves afterwards for a time so much more despairingly.


Far shot of Brianna helping Claire to bathe turns to close-ups of Claire dealing with her sore wounded body in the denouement of the episode

In any case, in neither configuration is the rape treated lightly; in both the incident is found in the book. A regular criticism of any frequency of rape in a series (and this is true for Outlander as well as as well as Games of Thrones) is that it’s not taken seriously, there for titillation, suggests that women don’t suffer that much or want this; is not integrated into the film story; e.g., Jennifer Phillips, “Confrontational Content, Gendered Gazes and the Ethics of Adaptation,” from Adoring Outlander, ed. Valerie Frankel. None of these things are true of Outlander: in both cases and the other cases, e.g, Black Jack Randall’s attempt on Jenny Fraser Murray (Laura Donnelly); the hired assassin/thug of Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day), Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) of Brianna Randall Mackenzie (Sophie Skelton), the incidents have a profound effect on the victim or her friends, or the story. The assault on Jamie was part of the assault on Scotland by England, turning it into a savagely put-down exploited colony. The rape of Claire is part of the raging fury igniting the coming revolutionary war, which we see the first effects of in this season in the burnt house Jamie, Claire, Brianna and Roger (Richard Rankin) come across (Episode 11). What happens to Jamie in the first season and Claire in this fifth goes beyond such parallels to provide an ethical outlook that speaks to our own time. We are in political hostage territory, traumatized woman treated as hated thing; with a modern resonance of violation of the soul never quite brought back to what he or she was.


Jamie has wrapped Claire in the same tartan he did in the first season’s first episode

Paradoxically artistically the use of a dream setting and images conjured up by Claire’s mind as she lays on the ground being violated makes the episode into an anguished, agonized lyric. We know that Roger first and then Brianna have longed to return to the safety and modern occupations of the 20th century, and tried to return, but found their home is now with Claire and Jamie in 18th century North Carolina, Fraser’s Ridge; Claire’s dream reveals she too longs to return, but with Jamie, who appears in the scenes except unlike the other 18th century characters who appear in 20th century dress (e.g., Jocasta (Maria Doyle Kennedy) as a modern upper class lady; Ian (John Bell) as a marine, Marsali (Lauren Lyle), Jamie is dressed in an 18th century dress. It recurs as frequently as the supposed real scenes of the 18th century, is thoroughly intertwined, alternated so the rape/assault action becomes almost ritualized). This has the effect of distancing us from the horror (for Jamie takes an unforgiving revenge and orders everyone lined up and shot), except again in the dream we see Lionel at the table and then as a police officer come to tell Claire and Jamie that Roger, Brianna, and Jemmy won’t make this Thanksgiving dinner (Jamie speaks of a turkey) because they’ve been killed in an auto accident.

The denouement did not have the escape dream in it but traces Claire’s difficult beginning inner journey not to remain shattered by this, but as she has done in other dire situations before, put herself together again, calm, control, stoic endurance slowly the way – with Jamie hovering in the background, Brianna offering to listen.


The closing shots as Jamie and Claire accept the future will hold further harsh experience, which may bring the death they have read in the obituary for them Roger located in the 20th century Scottish library

The background music was not background but foreground in feel and played over and over, “Never my love,” one of the most popular songs of the 20th century, is a key epitaph for the entire series of films and books: Jamie and Claire have built their life together across centuries, and drawn to them, all the couples and people of Fraser’s Ridge, because of this unbreakable unending love. I feel it speaks for the way I feel about Jim and prefer to believe he felt about me. It’s haunting rhythms and instruments riveted me.


A woman’s hands in mid-20th century garb putting on a long-playing record is among the first stills of the episode

The episode could not have been more perfect nor had more appropriate closing vignettes: Jocasta’s song remembering Murtagh (Duncan Lacroix). Ian’s traditional heroic behavior; Marsali killing Lionel Brown through injection when instead of showing gratitude for having been kept alive, he treats her with utter contempt reminded me of Mary Hawkins killing her rapist (second season). The playfulness of the characters who turn up in Claire’s twentieth century home. Brianna and Roger settling down to live the life of an 18th century couple on this family estate.

As they came to the Ridge from the scene of high violence, Jamie speaks the beautiful over-voice meant to encapsulate his code of life, and as he is giving his life to these people so they are all willing to accede to, form themselves around his identity too:

I have lived through war and lost much.
I know what’s worth a fight and what’s not
Honor and courage are matters of the bone
And what a man will kill for
he’ll sometimes die for too.
A man’s life springs from his woman’s bones
And in her blood is his honor christened.
For the sake of love alone
will I walk through fire again.

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Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in Boston Catholic Church, circa summer 1968


One of the many voice-over shots combining Claire’s images from different times in the series, different episodes & places, with accent on a character just choosing a new destiny

How many times have I put my hopes, my fears, my secret longings into the hands of a Being I can’t see, can’t hear, can’t even feel. And how many times have my prayers been answered (followed by a shot of Claire in 1772 having created penicillin from molds …)

Friends and readers,

Episode 5, “Perpetual Adoration,” seemed to me to epitomize in its most extreme form the kinds of experiences this season at its best offers: thoughtful retrospective framing or talk/feelings and characters’ memories deeply part of each sequence of scenes. In this episode Claire became an over-voice in a series in interspersed scenes mostly in a church in Boston 1968 (which, interestingly, are not to be found in the script on Instagram) contrasting with what’s happening in 1772 North Carolina; this over-voice was hitherto used most often in Season 1, but only once when (daringly) it’s Jamie (Sam Heughan) who does the over-voice is the theme the same: him meditating from an indeterminate present on the choices he has just made in the past, or deep past, or imagined future, like to marry, then stay with Claire (S1, Episode 9, “The Reckoning”) viz., “I’ve always known I’ve lived a life different from other men./When I was a lad, I saw no path before me …”

These scenes are not in The Fiery Cross either. They point us to the fantastical interwoven (images of the spider and web are in some of these monologues) movements in time and space in the five seasons thus far, and by extension all five books and to its core center, the motivation actuating many of Jamie and Claire’s decisions: their devoted love for one another. They are religious, making time a function of living in a space and time which are God:

Time is a lot of things that people say God is. There is the pre-existing and having no end. There is the notion of being all powerful because nothing can stand against time, and everything is taken care of, all pain encompassed, all hardship erased, all loss subsumed. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember man, thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return. And if time is anything akin to God, I suppose that memory must be a devil …


Another montage, this time with Jamie …

The idea combining the juxtapositions of events in 1968 Boston and in 1772 North Carolina in Episode 5 is quietly self-reflexively witty: a man named Graham Menzies, a Scotsman, whom she was to enact surgery on, told her of his unceasingly love for his wife, such that he keeps up a perpetual (daily) prayer time in church with her in his imagination. Menzies dies unexpected of an adverse reaction to penicillin, and she so moved by the experience, that she takes a leave of absence and persuades Brianna (Sophie Skelton) to come with her to London to where her first husband, Frank, had wanted to bring his daughter. (The wit is that the actor playing Frank is called Tobias Menzies; the character and last name do occur in Voyager: he is a patient Claire helps die of cancer.) Frank is now dead too; when in London she learns of the death of Rev Wakefield (James Fleet) and goes to the funeral in Inverness Roger (Richard Rankin) has created. This starts a relationship between herself, Briana and Roger, which will inform her that Jamie did not die at Culloden, and lead her to dare to go back through the stones.


Over-voice, montage includes Claire jumping out of the coach in the third season, into Edinburgh and walking to where Jamie has become a printer …

There is an echo of Claire’s voice-over in a scene with Joe Abernathy in a cafeteria where he comes to comfort her, and admits it was he who left a torrid historical romance on a coffee table for her to read (which she now has with her, The Perpetual Pirate …); she says to him: it’s “as if everything is pointing you towards something but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is … ” The last actual voice-over of the hour occurs in 1872 when Jamie comes back to her, he hopes having put an end to the military action he was pressured into against the Regulators (led by Murtagh Fitzgibbons [Duncan Lacroix]). Jamie has brought home a kitten (Adso) he found just outside the house he set on fire after he strangled to death Lieutenant Knox. Knox had just found out he and Murtagh were close kin and was determined to expose Jamie and start the hunt for Murtagh again. This kind of cold-blooded sudden remorseless action is unlike Jamie, and recurs in the last episode of the season when Claire is gang-raped — both instances involve someone Jamie loves intensely, A bonded with intensely.

God is merciful, God is eternal. Someday I will stand before God and I will receive an answer to all my questions, and I do have many questions. But I won’t ask about the nature of time. I’ve lived it


Having the voice-over with Adso (looks just like Jamie’s mother’s kitten with same name) brings out the optimism of Gabaldon’s outlook: she had been driven to stay alive by eating earthworms, insects, what vermin she could find, and now she will have milk, fish, and Claire’s chair

What kinds of incidents are these? We continue the story of Claire re-inventing pencillin, with Marsali (Lauren Lyle) as her apprentice; they together remove the tonsils of the two twins she and Jamie have freed from a brutal master; and they do not sicken but become better. Roger has returned from Brownsville where he as captain was recruiting men for the armed conflict against the Regulators, and we see him and Brianna making love, adjusting to their unexpected circumstances but beginning to think of alternatives. Roger finds the jewel that Bonnet gave Brianna and discovers that she saw, talked to, told Bonnet that Jemmy is Bonnet’s son; a fierce quarrel ensues. After Roger spends a night out in the wood, and and talks with Claire where the theme of time is again emphasized (he must not be “careless with [the] time” he has with Brianna), he returns home to her (their log cabin) and the two are reconciled. The hunt for Murtagh comes to a close when the governor decides to pardon the Regulators (this did happen) and then the curiously sudden chilling murder of Knox by Jamie (as described above) occurs. I believe we are to notice that Jamie burns the list of prisoners at Ardsmuir which Knox had got hold of and remember how such papers so precious to 20th century researchers function very differently to those who exist[ed] in the past. As I said in my previous blog, these episodes are quiet, self-contained with all the emphasis on inner lives, relationships, that work as a social fables.

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A quick synopsis:


Far shot of wedding: we can see in the audience all our favorite regular characters (but Murtagh)

Again in the previous blog I told of Episode 1, Roger and Brianna’s wedding, with three sets of lovers, much joyful celebration, a ritual ceremony of the men of Fraser’s Ridge, now including Jamie, pledging loyalty, all framed by the necessity of Murtagh’s having to leave to remain safe from the Governor’s militia.


Claire at work with women around her

Episode 2: “Between Two Fires” refers to how Jamie is being driven to pretend to seek out Murtagh and destroy the regulators in a battle. This is interspersed with quiet scenes where Claire despairs of her ability to help people because they will give to their very sick relative a treatment which kills him or her. With Roger’s help, she snatches one corpse (they bury something else heavy in a coffin) in order to do an autopsy; then hides and study the corpse — what a no, no for this era. It’s nerve-wracking to watch. She observes Marsali good at sewing, cutting up a lamb, bright as a reader and enlists her as an apprentice physician. In the episode Roger having a hard time adjusting to the macho demands of him in this lifestyle. This is intended to contrast to the concluding scene in a tavern of crude wrestling between women, gambling, and finally fierce dueling in which Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) appears, cruelly and inhumanely taking advantage of a man who had given in, blinding and cutting his hamstrings.


Just after Roger has sung to the baby, Brianna listening, he carries off the wash …

Episode 3: “Free Will” An outstanding hour. Just before the middle of The Fiery Cross, Jamie and Claire come upon a scary house, dark, desolate, there to retrieve the indentured papers of two young men the master of this house had beat severely (whom Claire has cured of tonsillitis). Inside a wretched woman, Fanny, who says her husband is dead — the Beardsleys. He is not but near death; he used to beat and emotionally torture her; he has killed 4 wives before her. She now tortures him. Claire tries to care for him medically hasn’t the modern resources. Fanny gives birth to a child whose features and skin-color show her father was an enslaved African. The next morning the woman has fled, leaving the papers under the baby. Claire goes out to the clearing; Jamie ask the man if he wants treatment, to be left there, or to die. He is in horrific condition and chooses death. Camera switches outside to Claire waiting with the baby. A shot is heard. This delving into trauma has some sweet relief: we see Marsali doing well as an apprentice doctor. Brianna and Roger scenes where he urges on her returning to the 20th century. There are harder scenes too: of recruiting, a mother sends her sons off because the dangerous life offers opportunities and better food. The writer here, Luke Schelhas, brings out the obvious feminist perspective subtly (one not in the novel).


Marsali learning from and discussing procedures with Claire

Episode 4: “The Company We Keep.” I loved the moral of this one, spoken in voice-over by Claire.

Adultery. Betrayal. Dishonor. Excuses could be made, of course. I know I made my own when I was separated from Frank by a power I didn’t understand [slow motion called for so we see the young couple fleeing together on a horse where other horses, goats, and people chasing these get in the way of the fiercely angry male Browns stopping them] And yet whereve you are, you make choices — foolish ones, or ones that save yourself and someone else. All you can hope for is that the good will outweigh the harm that may come of it …

Jamie and Claire arrived at Brownsville where Roger and Fergus are supposed with a band of men recruiting. The Brownsville men savage, uneducated, hav shot at and demanded Roger turn over to them, Morton, a young men from Fraser’s Ridge; Morton has impregnated a Brownsville daughter intended for marriage to an older rich man. It emerges Morton is also already married but the marriage was made two years ago, didn’t work out. Jamie furious with Roger for having acceded to imprisoning Morton (as captain Roger is to protect his men first and now others have departed). Another young woman has given birth to a baby who has died. Back at Fraser’s Ridge Brianna has evidence that Bonnet has been sneaking around; she and Marsali converse, become friends, with Brianna realizing that Marsali has a fund of common sense courage and witty ways of expressing this. A convoluted set of scenes at Brownsville by the end of which Claire has given the baby to the young woman (though in a long walking-together scene Jamie has offered to keep the baby so he and Claire can bring up a child together — she wisely says this will not work the way he thinks), and Roger (remembering how he followed Bree to this century), and Claire and Jamie enable the young couple to go off to make their destiny together. As Claire’s over-voice is heard I thought of how 52 years ago now I returned to England, for a few weeks an illegal immigrant, married him with so little money, against the advice of all, and what a good life we had for nearly half a century. The writer here is Barbara Stephansky.


The young woman who has endured the death of a newborn, taking over the baby Fanny left behind ….

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Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) in the 2nd season bonding over the mine (scripted Debbie Horsfield, 2015)

I’ve now got three books on Outlander, two collections of academic essays, a masters thesis, and an academic style journal essay — on both the books and film series. All find much to interest, explore, and admire, especially in the areas of sexuality and romance as a genre. To date the only two essays I know of on the Poldark books have been written by me and presented at two conferences; otherwise all that exists are about five or six (excellent) essays on the film adaptations with the books of interest only as shedding light on the films, and except for me none of these credits the books or films with any originality or having brought anything unique to the TV channel/company they were made on behalf of or for. I don’t think that’s the fault of Winston Graham or either film series. While Graham’s Poldark books (especially the first seven) have never fallen out of print or become unavailable, and there are scholarly essays (two) on his contemporary fiction, the numbers of sales are nothing to Gabaldon. The series failed to stir enough interest or respect to demand a filming of all twelve books. The last season basically substituted a different story for Graham’s projected intertext between Books Seven and Eight.


Lord John Grey (David Berry) in love with Jamie, and Jamie reciprocates at least in chess games and conversation ….

Something in Gabalodon’s books and films are answering to needs and desires of today’s audience. The masters thesis, by Mary Heath, “Villains and Heroes: An Analysis of Outlander‘s Portrayal of Sexual Violence” begins by offering statistics to show that the program is credited with increasing the ratings of Starz substantially, and especially increasing the women watching the channel. This is not the place to lay out or even suggest what can be adduced. I hope if I can get myself to before I die (and once I stop teaching) to write a book on these two sets of historical fiction romances. For now, all four publications have chapters or essays analysing to her credit Gabaldon and now Roger Moore’s (he is what is today called the “showrunner” or has been until the 5th season the linchpin central presence of each season’s development, content, art) their presentation of the homoerotic and homosexuality in the Outlander matter. We have women’s friendships, and mother and daughter pairs, but no discernible lesbianism thus far.

I find in the fifth season something else to compel me: these stories in the books and films in the previous seasons no matter how masculinized (with males at the center of many episodes of the fourth through fifth season, transposition of what was domestic romance to action-adventure) represented another brilliant turn in the history of women’s historical romance speaking to women who are not embarrassed to listen, who have not been trained to despise this genre. I submit that the retreat of Roger Moore from active supervision and involvement with the show, Toni Graphia, Matthew Roberts, and a few other repeating names have gone further and even with a book as flawed as The Fiery Cross made beautifully artful episodes that are both feminine in feel, feminist in thrust, and counterhegemonic. I hope to show that in Episodes 6 through 11, we have anti-war sequences (to be fair, Episode 10, Prestonpans in Season 2 was strongly anti-war) and if not a repudiation of violence as a solution to life’s conflicts, a strong sense violence only makes matters worse, and (as with the Poldarks) what is wanted is community.


Claire and Jamie (Season 5, Episode 8, “Famous Last Words”) — in this season they are the older couple deeply in love still

I conclude with a summary of Eleanor Ty’s essay in Adoring Outlander, ed. Valerie Estelle Frankel, explaining “The appeal of Outlander: Melodrama, Gender, and Nostalgia.” A strong competent heroine, intelligent, passionate performing amazing feats of healing and nurturing, and a cadre of other similar heroines (I remember Mother Hildegarde [Frances de la Tour] in Season Two (Dragonfly in Amber). Melodrama: heart-wrenching scenes of emotional conflict and physical punishment: Jamie as Christ flogged by the Roman soldiers (Black Jack Randall in the first two seasons). We mourn for our couple’s losses of 20 years; what might have been (in 3rd season, siding with the powerless); our hero and heroine are both orphans. The Renaissance man as hero.

There is nothing Jamie cannot do when it’s sheerly a matter of his traits: reads and talks several languages, cultured, accomplished, loyal, skill with animals, born leader, released from prison he becomes a publisher. And she brings out how he is a virgin at first and yet complete warrior – remarking on surprisingly easily the book and film (episode: The wedding) carries this off. Then his devotion to, care of Claire, she is safe with him, knows how to comfort and make love (tasteful yet graphic enough)

Romance, Spirituality and Transgression: an elevation of earthy desires to a realm of sublime and spiritual. Here is where the fantasy element comes in. Sexuality is presented from a low perspective (earthly) and high poetry. You let the soul and body judge what is right — we move beyond reason, prudence, social conventions (in Season 5, the young couple they rescue from the Browns).


Claire revisiting Culloden in the third season (from Voyager, now 1968)

Nostalgia and elegy: Frank and Claire visit Culloden at the opening of the first season. Nowadays tourist put flowers by the Fraser stone. Starz pays enough to capture pastoral beauty of Scotland, highlights magic mystery (at its best not post-card like – though there are drops down – not enough spent in 4th season). A collective memory is put before us what, we are invited to assimilate a historical experience we did not live. The use of rituals among males bond them together — repetitive words, ceremonies (weddings) It’s said that the program did not air before the Scottish referendum lest it influence too many towards devolution …

Ellen

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Shots of different parts of the long cortege of a village near Arras, May 1940

A fine film very much worth watching just now. Christian Carion’s Come What May more or less uniformly condemned by reviewers is a beautiful intelligent anti-war film centering on an exodus across France, now forgotten, as villages fled the German invasion. The still below is one of the many black-and-white photographs that introduce, are scattered throughout the film, and conclude it. The film itself is in beautiful colors, accompanied by remarkable touching appropriate music by Ennio Morricone. Carion is telling a family story: he was born in this area; his mother had been part of this exodus; it is also crucial French history he feels. The film may be regarded as a coda to A French Village; there the people stayed put; here they went into flight. Our particular group turns round and heads back home. Interpersed is the story of three young men, Scottish (Matthew Rhys), German (August Diehl) and French (Laurent Gerra). A boy (Josioh Marion who stands for the thousands of children separated from parents), another Mayor, a cafe owner. Another bridge is blown up. And we have a goose who is really terrified of the sounds of the airplanes and passing tanks. A Review.

Friends and readers,

You owe this blog to my determination to tell whoever comes here that pace the reviewers of this film who disdained it, this is a very good film. They seem to have pushed it right out of the theaters with their obtuse disdain and distrust (I must call it) of any tender feeling, belief in some kind of responsibility in people, impatience at orchestra music. For all these characteristics, this is a fine film for our time. I urge my readers to watch it (streaming on Amazon prime, as a DVD from Netflix, as a good DVD with three feature to buy) and tell others. I find myself half-wondering if the reason it seems so hard to persuade people to act on their social instincts, to feel for others as themselves, is that a film like this is sneered at. As a result our entertainment is FX type fascist hard violence and Barbie doll strong genital sex; characters must be presented as mean, performative, competitive or we are supposed unable to believe in them.

I watched Come What May as a sort of short companion piece, a coda to A French Village (about which I have written three times, Scroll down and also click on the links).  In A French Village, mayor and people decided to stay put.  In Come What May, they tried to escape the power-hungry cruel Nazi and French collaborative regime. In type Carion liked the film to a western in genre: the landscape is a character with wanderers in its purview.

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For a third time, last night I was just immersed in Christian Carion’s Come What May (En Mai, Fais ce qu’il plait). The first night I watched I was touched by the story, involved with the actor-characters, just loved the music, the quiet lyricism of the whole treatment, and then was astonished to discover that the reviews hardly covered what happened (like wikipedia can barely be bothered), or outright condemned it! At RogerEbert.com Odie Henderson resented it as “feel good” schmaltz — how this can be when two of the major male characters are killed, with many other unnamed minor ones, when we see a village fleeing in terror of the German’s desire for revenge (for WW1) and then turn around to go back after they’ve been hit hard twice (airplane bombing, tanks) and realize they will only meet more of the same at the coast. Far from one dimensional, the characters are suggestive presences within a larger group.

Another more complained it was not violent enough; people not sufficiently ravaged, not really a war movie at all. This is probably true, as the extraordinary composer who wrote the original score (beautiful, evocative, and uneasy), Ennio Morriconne says (in one of three features on the DVD) he agreed to write the music because the film is not a “movie about war, it is a movie during the war,” not filled with violence, speed, terror, but about the people who are enduring war, their experience, about a journey, flight, hardship, people behaving under pressure.


The first encounter of two of our heroes, the Scottish captain, Percy (Matthew Rhys) and the German communist, Hans (August Diehl) — Percy on his way to Dunkirk


The teacher who adopts Hans’s son, Suzanne (Alice Isaaz) and the Mayor, Paul (Olivier Gourmet) emerge as leaders


Propaganda film-maker (Arriflex)

The second time was when I watched this feature about the music, the orchestra, then the feature The making of Come What May, where we learn how this is a family story for Carrion: he came from Arras, his mother experienced just this exodus when she was 8, and he was hurrying to make the film before she died. Carion said his parents wanted to reach Canada but they never left France at all. His father was a mayor of a village. One of the extras hired was an 80 year old woman who had been four in 1940 and been part of the exodus; he brought along a goose because his mother said his family had had a goose and the goose proved to be expressive, hiding with terror during the sequences of passing planes and tanks:


The goose’s eyes would just peep out

For him the film also realizes a moment of crucial French history, where the gov’t made the wrong choices (capitulation because the people were so exhausted still from the horrors of World War One). Far from “sentimental” (another review found it mawkish), what Carion is showing us incident by incident is bleak history of savage senseless destruction, with storekeepers on the way seeking to charge high prices for water and food, complete indifference in the Germans to whoever they come upon; with aimless throwing of high powered fire weapons, wreaking death. Yes our sensibilities are not allowed the close-up thrill, the super-shock of barbaric exultation. No over-excitement, incessant noise and distraction. One German dies quietly banging his head against his tank, asking the boy to help him die.

Carion’s conscious method is to epitomize history by anecdote (that’s true) so the opening tells through a single incident how at the opening of the war 300,000 Germans fled Germany (communists, Jews, homosexuals) and came to France as the land of liberty; they were rounded up, put in camps and after the “armistice” was signed, sent back to Germany, slaughtered on the way or at the camps when they got there. I then watched with the voice-over commentary where Carion talked of how difficult it was to film this in the northern countryside, to traipse about with a couple of hundred people, animals: horses (exhausted and frightened at the bombs and high startling noises now and again), pigs, cows, and young babies too.


Percy and Hans, with the third hero, the French peasant farmer, Albert (Laurent Gerra) who is simply carelessly shot to death by the film-makers in order to intimidate a group of African soldiers — it seems this kind of scene of camaraderie especially offended the reviewers

The third time, stubbornly (I felt) just the movie itself now that I had enough to appreciate what I was invited slowly to experience. Then I concentrated on the famous actors and was affected by the serendipity of what happened. The film and performances had much quiet humor, as life does. The story proper begins (like A French Village) in May 1940, where a village is more exercised by its wind-mill and water pump than the coming Nazis. We see the important townsman in the local central cafe; the teacher adopts the boy of the German man they have turned over to authorities (Hans).


Suzanne and Max (Joshio Marion)

After the imposition of rationing and terror tactics from the air, the town decides to leave and we see them packing up. In these transition momemts Morricone’s music is especially effective.

Morricone: “I will make the music for the people to decide to live and find another place to be safe. To fine liberty, to walk with self-possession.”

Prisons are opened up — and Hans escapes. Hans meets in the countryside Percy; they both stumble upon Albert. Carion says he wants to pay tribute to types of people in the way. The English held out. Core scenes are where the men learn to be friends, learn to lean on one another to succeed.


Deserted family home

Carion says he now saw himself as John Ford as he filmed the landscape as another character; the people are resisting sorrow, drinking and dancing companionably the second night, dancing to radios happening. The teacher encourages Max to leave notes on the blackboard in chalk for his father. Max cries, but he write them, cheerful notes to Papa. But as the walk goes on, the atmosphere darkens; we see bodies along the side of the road (some killed), colonies of people shot up. The mayor joins forces with the cafe owner as they become a lead couple. There are a series of scenes at a store, and in a deserted farmhouse. Soldiers frightened, shoot to kill. The pass a village, and the thee young men are now close behind.


The cafe owner, who also drives one of the trucks is Mado (Mathilde Seignier)

Now an attack by the airplanes (computer generated and tough to pull off as really there, making the right sounds too), and as the bombs fall, Max flees. The teacher is forced to leave him behind. Hans comes next and thinks his son among the young children buried. There are scenes of the group passing bridges, and in one case it is blown up behind them — bridges are ever being blown up in war films (wars too). They see from afar or pass by other groups of (it seems) pilgrims. On the road, Percy captured.

In a final set of scenes, the film-maker seems to persuade Percy to play his bagpipes freely for the film; in fact Percy had seen the film-maker murder Albert and when the camera is finished, Percy shoots the film-maker directly so irritated is he by this phonyness — a self-reflexive sequence. Alas Percy then shot to death in turn. In a fantasia sequence, Hans finds his son Max.

You can take it as a dream, but it is meant to be real, for eventually Suzanne catches up and joins Hans and Max. The village has decided to turn back, but she will forge ahead. They are on their way to the north shore, Calais, with an address given them by Percy.

The last image we see is that of the three people, a new family walking into the horizon.

At the opening, throughout and again with the credits there are photographs from the 1940s of this real history exodus or evacuation.


Burdened with children and the aged


Man smoking


Another monumental woman

Don’t miss this film. It enabled me to forget for a while the nightmare circus of an aspiring dictator (Trump) ruining an election, spouting fantastic lies and distortions, fomenting racial killings to justify sending into “democrat cities” brutal police — in an effort to turn all into criminality and lawlessness where he thinks he can thrive on fear and imprisonment. What the people in the film are fleeing is an earlier Hitlerian-Goebbels arrangement (only Trump has Barr, Wolf, Pompeo, McConnell …)

Ellen

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Andrew Marr on Winston Churchill: a superlative treatment of Churchill as a painter, showing, explaining, contextualizing many of the paintings:

What unites the best of popular documentaries is the persona of the narrator, of the person at center who is making the series or hour: we delight in the witticisms of Marr, the costumes of Worseley, the profoundity of thought of Simon Schama, Amanda Vickery’s feminist point of view, Mary Beard’s compassionate personality and her bike, her long hair, her refusal to dress to please men, Michael Moore shouting economic truth to power (he goes about nagging and exposing capitalist crooks).

The particular pleasure of these documentaries with favored character-personalities at the center is how much I like to watch and re-watch them. Far more than a fictional narrative movie.

During this profoundly worrying summer when it appears that a minority party, the Republicans, as headed by a criminal liar, is readying up to prevent the majority of US citizens from voting or having their votes counted lest they rightly throw out of office these people who are doing all they can to inflict harm, take away economic security, ruin the environment, make warring arms deals & money with the worst dictators around the world (consider 150,000+ Americans dead in 5 months, and a devastated economy), not to omit destroying even the ancient post office, it would seem understandable that no one notices in print the prevalence of documentaries in on-line movie theaters.

Or on YouTube — many a nowadays virtual conference places part of their presentations on YouTube. Comedians, people lecturing on areas of concern to subgroups of people (Tony Attwood and Temple Grandin on Aspergers and autism), universities sharing lectures, to which are nowadays added thousands of people coming online to cheer one another up: reading whole novels, reading poetry, playing instruments, doing dungeons and dragons. I’m there too with my “The Modernity of Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset.

Let’s admit among all this outpouring, some are inevitably very poor (if well-meant), many banal (there needs no ghostly presence come from an ipad to tell us this), more troublingly, some made by crazed fantasists (QAnon, people who hate others and encourage hatred and violence), and political groups, nowadays many fascistic (see above) determined to spread misinformation, to screw up democratic elections.

More commonly as on popular TV stations, some are superficial, gimmicky (this is true of too many of Lucy Worseley’s — exceptions are Jane Austen At Home and Suffragettes), disappointingly insidiously right-wing under a patina of liberal wit (alas too often Marr himself in for example his History of Modern Britain), too compromising (Spaceship Earth), too careful, guarded, worried lest they give offense (“Just one of those things:” on Ella Fitzgerald), which seems odd as the makers cannot really believe they will gain a large audience outside those sympathetic to their subject.

It is also true the professional or paid-for movies are probably there because the movie-theater operators are holding off on their movie “block-busters” for when all the millions of people are (it is imagined) to begin to return to going out to crowded movie-theaters once again. I would not hold my breath.  (Maybe 2022?  but not in the same way.)

Yet many of these are within the terms they set out to cover, on their own terms, remarkably good, excellent — as the above by the famous BBC interviewer, journalist, once strong man of the left, and now a centrist maker of documentaries, Andrew Marr about Winston Churchill’s incessant hobby and apparently real achievement as a painter of effective contemporary pictures. These (along with online university level courses when they are good, e.g., Future Learn) are the silver lining in a dark and frightening time.

What unites the best of documentaries is the persona of the narrator, of the person at center who is making the series or hour: we delight in the witticisms of Marr, the costumes of Worseley, the profoundity of thought of Simon Schama, Amanda Vickery’s feminist point of view, Mary Beard’s compassionate personality and her bike, her long hair, her refusal to dress to please men, Michael Moore shouting economic truth to power (he goes about nagging and exposing capitalist crooks)

Not all are this way: it’s the distinction of Frederick Wiseman to remain absent from his severely controlled documentaries. They are famous for nothing much happening at intervals except the rain or quiet daily life. In Central Park, a duck goes upside down in the water to capture a fish and eat it. Wiseman, let me say it, makes genius level films with serious insightful critiques of the way organizations are at the heart of reality. Cathy Come Home (Tony Garnett), Culloden (Peter Watkins), and other British radical political films are unforgettable. When the subject is a revered or political hero, the documentary maker may make him or herself secondary. So in the documentaries about John Lewis, Malcolm X. Ada DuVernay wants us to pay attention to what the realities of African-American life have been since the inadequacy of the 13th amendment, how it has been undermined almost from the very beginning. But I think the most popular type documentaries, the ones where the documentary maker keeps making them are those where the documentary maker is our chief character, whom we are made to delight in

I’ve written about a few of both types these over the years: Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians some years ago; more recently Mary Beard’s excursions into classical history across Europe on her bike. John Lewis: Good Trouble. But you can’t do better if you are looking to cheer yourself with a realistic (not fatuous) slice of life than Ceyda Torun’s Kedi: Cats of Istanbul. All three women. Women do documentaries: I don’t say they prevail in numbers, but their woman’s point of view is not the usual rare minority. Lucy Worseley is a case in point.

Beyond calling your attention to the numerous good documentaries available at a single click for not much money or for free (once you’ve paid your electricity and internet computer bill) I mean to alert the reader of this blog to a couple of Marr’s lesser known documentaries about literature because they are very good, and may serve to divert the viewer’s mind from the over-arching calamity (Trump winning again, or stealing the election and then turning the US into a deeply dangerous rotten brutal fascist dictatorship) while leaving us with some relevant knowledge-food for thought and perspectives.

In his wider ranging work (like telling us “the history of the world”!), he often slides by serious and unexamined art. He has a ready wit with quips that can dismiss Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in a memorable (if misleading phrase — for the sake of the joke) but in these two he is sincere, earnest even, taking us (and himself) back to the younger man who meant to make the world better and acted at times bravely, with some integrity. That’s why Noam Chomsky bothered to chide him.

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But in these on literary and art topics and with enough time given over, he is superb.  He is himself by birth a Scotsman (born in Glasgow).

I treat first (in time) his Great Scots, a 2014 three-part series where he explores some of the problematic aspects of Scottish identity and political and geographical history through meditations on four male Scottish writers and one English: Part One is on James Boswell, whose work cannot be separated from Samuel Johnson, and their famous tour to through Scotland to the Hebrides. Part Two is mostly on Walter Scott with Robert Burns brought in as a strong contrast. Burns, Marr rightly says, was a political radical who had to suppress himself, or communicate indirectly to protect what income he had (Burns nonetheless died at 37, partly from hard work and exhaustion, poverty) while Scott was politically high Tory and very much a unionist, though endlessly trying to do justice to specifically Scottish culture, sensibility and the old Jacobite cause (at least explain it).

The series was made in 2014, just before the referendum on devolution and it’s clear that Marr is on the side of “no” (stay, not leave England) in Part Three which he devotes to Hugh MacDiarmid (born Christopher Murray Grieve): while Marr presents the beauty, depth of thought and interest of MacDiarmid’s poetry fairly and with high praise, he treats MacDiarmid’s separatist point of view as a fantasy which for a long time was not taken seriously by those who read him. All three hours have beautiful photography, the sections of the books read aloud are done brilliantly by actors and readers, we are taken to the truly appropriate interesting places. I knew nothing of MacDiarmind before I watched this hour and now feel I do understand something of the man; I know a great deal about Boswell & Johnson, Burns & Scott (I have read far too much Scott over my life — especially in my teens and early 20s) and can vouch that they are presented with real insight.

I do wish he had included a couple of women, at least mentioned one (?), and was hoping (when I learned of the series) for a survey, but I admit his choices are well taken and by sticking to three primarily he treats the writings of these men in depth. I wish even more that these were online for American viewers. At best there are podcasts, commentaries, and if you are lucky, you may find them reprinted on DVDS in sets of Marr’s work on Amazon at UK.

More recently (2016) he has made a quietly brilliant three part analysis and feelingful projection of the popular subgenres of the novels he identifies as Sleuths, Sorcerers, and Spies. I rejoice that these are on YouTube. First Sleuths:

Second Sorcerers:

And thirdly, Spies:

Marr’s persona comes across more strongly in these three than his series on Scotland or his political series: he portrays himself as decidedly un-aristocratic, far from a member of any elite or academia, a “smart-aleck” who is, if not anti-intellectual (he cannot present himself that way as he is so patently perceptive and analytic), at least not a self-satisfied public one. The subtext of these is a kind of vehement anti-snobbery: he wants to counter anyone who looks down on these “paperback heroes” (and heroines) and their best-selling authors to show that their books mirror the eras and worlds they wrote in and bring home to the alert viewer their deeper problems and anxieties and needs. He presents himself as uncovering the “rules” each genre follows religiously.

Yes, they are formulaic. It may be said he hams his material up, but the result is fun, and his interviews with working novelists and quotation from those no longer literally living are of real interest. As this is more popular entertainment, I cannot find a serious review — so perhaps he failed at his seeming aim. Not so, when you can watch them over and over.

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How to close? Myself I’m a lover of Scots literature (as the reader to this blog and my Austen Reveries must know), went to Edinburgh for the equivalent of a honeymoon, and have visited Scotland now three times, once all the way to Inverness and up to the Hebrides (across the way, still the mainland on a bus). One of my favorite 19th century novelists is Margaret Oliphant. In my studies of historical novels and romance, I often find the authors whose books I so enjoy also wrote in this distinctively different genre (these thrillers are until very recently usually masculinist even when women write them) and try to understand the relationship between these genres in book and movie form.

My most recent reading for sheer pleasure and interest has been Nancy Brysson Morrison’s The Gowk Storm, to learn the truth of a still wrongly maligned destroyed woman, Margaret Macaulay’s The Prisoner of St Kilda (the true story of the indeed unfortunate Lady Grange, shocking even today), Elizabeth Taylor Russell’s Tomorrow (it takes place on an island off Denmark — in the same kind of edge-marginalized culture).

But from years ago and more recently, I am a strong admirer of Liz Lochhead, a brilliant poet, playwright, polemicist too. So (as my title promised), first two poems by Liz Lochhead:

Rapunzstiltskin

& just when our maiden had got
good & used to her isolation
stopped daily expecting to be rescued,
had come to almost love her tower,
along comes This Prince
with absolutely
all the wrong answers.
Of course she had not been brought up to look for
originality or gingerbread
so at first she was quite undaunted
by his tendency to talk in strung-together cliches.
Just hang on and we’ll get you out of there!
he hollered like a fireman in some soap opera
when she confided her plight (the old
hag inside etc. & and how trapped she was);
well, it was corny but
he did look sort of gorgeous
axe and all.
So there she was humming and pulling
all the pins out of her chignon,
throwing him all the usual lifelines
till, soon, he was shimmying in & out
every day as though
he owned the place, bringing her
the sex manuals & skeins of silk
from which she was meant, eventually,
to weave the means of her own escape.
All very well & good, she prompted,
but when exactly?
She gave him till
well past the bell on the timeclock.
She mouthed at him, hinted,
she was keener than a TV quizmaster
that he should get it right.
I’ll do everything in my power, he intoned, but
the impossible (she groaned) might
take a little longer. He grinned.
She pulled her glasses off.
All the better
to see you with my dear? he hazarded.
She screamed, cut off her hair.
Why, you’re beautiful? he guessed tentatively.
No, No, No! she
shrieked & stamped her foot so
hard it sank six cubits through the floorboards.
I love you? he came up with
as she finally tore herself in two.

from Part Three of Lochhead’s The Grimm Sisters collection: ‘Hags and Maidens’

Everybody’s Mother

Of course everybody’s mother always and so on…

Always never
loved you enough
or too smothering much.

Of course you were the Only One, your
mother
a machine
that shat out siblings, listen

everybody’s mother
was the original Frigid-
aire Icequeen clunking out
the hardstuff in nuggets, mirror-
slivers and ice-splinters that’d stick
in your heart.

Absolutely everybody’s mother
was artistic when she was young.

Everybody’s mother
was a perfumed presence with pearls, remote
white shoulders when she
bent over in her ball dress
to kiss you in your crib.

Everybody’s mother slept with the butcher
for sausages to stuff you with.

Everybody’s mother
mythologised herself. You got mixed up
between dragon’s teeth and blackmarket stockings.

Naturally
she failed to give you
Positive Feelings
about your own sorry
sprouting body (it was a bloody shame)

but she did
sit up all night sewing sequins
on your carnival costume

so you would have a good time

and she spat
on the corner of her hanky and scraped
at your mouth with sour lace until you squirmed

so you would look smart

And where
was your father all this time?
Away
at the war, or in his office, or any-
way conspicuous for his
Absence, so

what if your mother did
float around above you
big as a barrage balloon
blocking out the light?

Nobody’s mother can’t not never do nothing right.

And then she is online too — at the Edinburgh Festival:

Ellen

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John Lewis as Congressman not long ago

Good Trouble: its value is it shows the courage, bravery and real intelligence of John Lewis and brings together through flashback and forward what a horrific struggle and sacrifice it was to get the vote finally for African-Americans, with the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1965, and at the same time how this right, almost upon the gutting of the bill, was immediately challenged, threatened, eroded and the suppression of black and other poor people’s votes has led directly to the election of the Geogian governor and Trump. The footage shows Lewis as a young man, his hard life. It also centers on Lewis as a man enacting non-violence. I did not know how closely he aligned himself with non-violence as a technique for advancing reform – together of course with demonstrations and protests (just now the Trump administration is accusing another group of people of felonies with sentences of 40 years who were protesting something).


Ella Fitzgerald singing her heart out & below a famous rendition of Mack the Knife where she forgot the words half-way through but who cares?

Then Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton

I watched Hamilton for the first time as a film on the computer with Izzy (who bought the subscription for the year). It is not a flawless musical (see below) but it transcends its problems, and was a good show to watch on July 4th. Its intentional humanity and the cast of all but one people of color was salutary tonight: here they are, the descendants of the people the powerful named white men and their tamed white women enslaved, exploited, worked to death. After 3 years of Trump opening up before all of us the horrible entrenched racism, violence, and profoundly brutal cruel anti-social autocratic and bigoted religious currents in the people who live in the United States, the cast itself makes an important statement — about a figure hitherto sidelined, the part white, part black genius Alexander Hamilton. And musically and for its wit it’s very interesting

Friends and readers,

Tonight it is no safer (perhaps less safe) to socialize with others than it was two months ago when I wrote my first blog on WFH movie-watching, or 4 and 1/2 months ago when Izzy first started to work from home through her computer, or when we first understood that all were at risk from serious disease to death from COVID19 (Pandemic). Tonight again I have three online films, which differ from the first three because all of them directly relate to the ripping open before us, partly due to the calamities of this pandemic (unemployment, further immiseration and impoverishment), the virulent racism that is at the heart of the way US society has maintained and increased inequality over the last four decades. For the calculated origins watch Heist

For the uses of racism, I recommend listening to or reading the transcripts from interviews by Amy Goodman with Keenaga-Yamahtta Taylor, Cornel West & Bakari Sellers This blog is about the movies, and these issues as they emerge from the movies.

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The best of the three and the one I urge you to see if you’ve not already, Good Trouble.

The film makes central to his story John Lewis’s alignment with non-violence: to understand why he was not assassinated (he was also a secondary character at the time, did not attract the same attention because he was small, young, not a rhetorician), why he won out for one of the few black seats in Georgia at the time over Julian Bond (and thus appeals to white voters) you need to know this. To see and listen to Lewis talk about non-violence tells you about the courage and risks this man took to try to obtain the vote for African-American people. Violence in the US is now a way of expression; punishment is what US society resorts to first, and brutal police who act with impunity its instrument. In the cases of mental illness, drug addiction, all sorts of social problems, the police are called, imprisonment the option. Lewis stands for reasoning, and for improving the lives of all through negotiation, talk, understanding.

The film’s second crucial topic is the vote: we learn of the long hard struggle, of the final signing by Johnson, and then how it did need to be renewed (and was so by George W Bush) — but how it was immediately undermined and is now badly eroded since the Supreme Court gutted it. We see white politicians take office who illegimately win because the votes are suppressed (not enough polling booths, back to demanding documents, to intimidation, throwing votes out). If it has a flaw, it does not sufficiently show what was gained by the vote — or what those voted in by a majority of the people are for. For example, we do see the beginnings of school desegregation but not what having a congressman or woman representing African-American and poorer white people could try to do: instead of entrenched localism, funding of schools through small local areas so the schools in a wealthy area are very good, and the schools in a poor, inadequate, there could and would be attempts through the tax system to equalize funding across a state. Redlining policies which deprive black entrepreneurs of needed loans to start businesses are mentioned. But we don’t hear enough about discrimination in employment.

But it does convey Lewis’s character: his young years in Georgia as a sharecropper’s son, his early studious ways, his joining with Martin Luther King, the beatings he took, and then after the Civil Rights Bill, his first elections and how central he had become in his district. At the close there is a 15 minute recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. Don’t miss this one.

Where you can see it


President Obama presents 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., East Room, White House. Proud moment

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Ella Fitzgerald, 1940.

As with Good Trouble, Just One of Those Things covers Fitzgerald’s early life: born in Virginia, in her early years she was an outstanding student (like Lewis), with a talent for and love of dancing; her earliest experiences are shown to be harsh — when her mother died and she was left with a stepfather, she became disturbed in behavior (not mentioned in the film, perhaps her stepfather abused her), was moved to Harlem, and ended in an orphanage and (her nadir) a New York state reformatory. She managed to come out not that damaged, and supported herself by singing in the streets (reminding me of Piaf). The famous moment is when she went on stage at the Apollo theater and instead of dancing, she sang. She was not long after introduced to Chick Webb, bandleader and drummer and she became the singer for their troop. The film then traces her success from the years in Harlem (Harlem Renaissance clubs until 1935), through hard struggles to get on stage (helped by Sinatra and Monroe). Her body shape was held against her; she was not white looking


Photo by Carl Van Vechten

We see her with her son, the house she bought; that there was a estrangement. Norman Ganz was a benevolent mentor. She does seem a lonely woman, perhaps sad, but working hard and ceaselessly. Then her later years, a guest on TV variety shows; live performances in Europe. The film does skim over her relationship with other African-Americans during the Civil Rights era; we move quickly to her growing older, frailer as she develops diabetes. The narrator is Sophie Okonedo, and the people speaking are contemporary singers who see themselves as singing in her tradition. One wishes the film had been made 20 years ago so we would have more of her contemporaries (a review).

My real complaint or objection is we don’t experience her singing enough. So, here is another YouTube, a fifty minute show in Berlin, 1968:

Basically Ella Fitzgerald made her way most of the time on her own, and stayed among African-American people where African-American music was wanted and welcome — went to US cities where they had clubs and singers like Louie Armstrong (New Orleans, Detroit). The film (like the one on John Lewis) was too discreet — both films were unwilling to offend the very audience that used to exclude these people (and to tell the truth, let’s say in schools and neighborhoods still does). So you had to pay attention to pick up hints about how much greater was her acceptance abroad and again how brave she was in maintaining her independence.

Where you can see it

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Of Hamilton let me begin by saying I wanted to like it better and probably my reaction was the result of not seeing it live plus having too high expectations. That I was aware I was watching a movie shows in my regret there are no subtitles.

Miranda’s Hamilton is traditional great man history — though with the important salutary reality that instead of white men playing these roles, people of color today are playing them, the many great-grandchildren of the enslaved women and men owned by these people. British white friends have told me that this switch in races lacks some of the resonance that is felt in the US and so the play wasn’t quite as ecstatically received. It is in fact the usual patriotic history about the colonies, which attributes to the hero’s success, his individual ambition, intelligence, drive, luck, a phenomenal rise in rank. I didn’t like the militarism. Yes in effect duels are criticized, but not by anyone in the play. Hamilton had a son who died this way too. And we watch him grieve, but not learn a lesson. We are not shown that the reason men did this is if someone refused he was for the rest of his life scapegoated, ridiculed, was himself at risk from continual badgering if not more challenges.


Phillipa Soo as Eliza

It was certainly not feminist: the women are all adore the great man, want to bear his child. His wife is presented as spending the rest of her life making him into a saint. Maybe she did. I admit I thought the mockery of Jefferson overdone. Washington was treated with super-respect, and yet he enslaved people. I remember a letter by him where he is inviting another “gentleman” to his house, and tells him of a slave girl the man can have in his bed. Maybe I am overdoing it here, but where are the native Americans?

While I found parts inspired and compelling, giving a new angle, a new twist, I had been led to expect something quite above or different from the kind of show that makes for a Broadway musical hit. It is somewhat different: the hip-hop music, the brilliant rhyming verse, and the reverse of racial/ethnic groups. But stomping kinds of music? I found nothing particularly beautiful, tender; the poignancy came from the acting and at times story. What makes it inspired is the fervor of identification with Hamilton that Miranda conveys.

Miranda read Chernow’s book and took it seriously. He adapted into a musical arguments from treatises, material that is difficult to make a musical out of. Hamilton’s life was spent — a lot of it — was spent writing. There was an attempt at explaining some of the complicated issues. Miranda too offered a strongly pro-immigrant theme, that immigration is the way the US was made, but we should remember the characters on stage were were many of them the bourgeois and rich from the UK. Like many another top-down history, this one tells the tale from the perspective of those in power (men) and the rich (the Schuylers). In a sense its visceral impact lies in substituting the usual white stars for people in the story in power for people of color where refreshingly one could not tell quite who was what ethnicity — and that delights and fools us. It is a musical and as such I was impressed by how tragically it ended and how ironic and satiric it often was. Most musicals are utopian.

To be fair, here is what The Guardian reviewer, Sarah Churchwell, had to say:

Hamilton is the kind of transformative theatrical experience that has only happened a few times in the history of American musicals. It joins the likes of Show Boat, Oklahoma! and West Side Story as game changers, innovative productions that forever redefined what came after them. Unlike most of its predecessors, however, Hamilton was created by one man, Lin‑Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book about the musical (only Stephen Sondheim can claim as much, and none of his shows were such blockbusters). Hamilton fuses American history with current politics, using a soundtrack of American popular music and one of the most inventive librettos ever written. The result is that nearly every song in the show works as a complex historical concert, layering musical pasts with the musical present, just as the historical past mingles with the political present …

Miranda had already created a successful musical (In the Heights) when he impulsively decided to read Ron Chernow’s prize-winning biography Alexander Hamilton on holiday (Miranda’s whim has made Chernow, who reportedly gets 1% of Hamilton’s profit, a very wealthy man). Hamilton represents something of an anomaly in American history, a founding father who never transferred from official histories into popular mythology. There are many reasons for this, not least that Hamilton’s positions were incompatible with many of our myths – he was avowedly elitist, for example, and supported the idea of a president for life – while his expansion of the federal government prompted the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which he brutally suppressed. Neither of these facts makes it into Miranda’s musical, which is the story of a “young, scrappy and hungry” immigrant from the West Indies who became the quintessential American success story through a combination of brains, hard work and audacity. Miranda creates a myth for Hamilton by celebrating him as a symbol of immigrant inclusiveness, egalitarianism and meritocracy: historically it’s a stretch, but theatrically it’s genius.

Eventually Hamilton became a hero of the American revolution, George Washington’s right-hand man, the nation’s first secretary of the treasury, the co-author (with James Madison) of The Federalist Papers, and the primary proponent for federal government over state government. He argued for a national bank, created the national reserve as well as the national debt, and laid the foundations for the US’s economic success. His dramatic life came to a melodramatic end when he was killed in a duel by the sitting vice president, Aaron Burr. And yet, despite all these achievements and dramas, Hamilton has been marginalised by most popular accounts of American history. Washington, Jefferson, John Adams have been the subject of countless books, films, miniseries and even their own popular musical, 1776. But 1776, which tells the story of the battle over writing the Declaration of Independence, does not even mention Hamilton …

Yes he has been left out because he was mulatto, and Miranda identified. As Hilary Mantel has changed the way historians understand and write about Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall), so since this musical Hamilton is quoted, described, become part of US central revolutionary and constitutional history once again.

Again from The Guardian: Hamilton … explor[es] mainstream history through the music of subcultures. Lines about racism from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific (“you’ve got to be carefully taught”) rub shoulders with Busta Rhymes; Sondheim’s experiments in perspective from Pacific Overtures meet Snoop Dogg. There is a running gag about Adams, in which Miranda riffs on 1776; its opening number is the resounding “Sit Down, John!” in which the Continental Congress tells him to shut up. Miranda is doing the same, telling Adams and the Anglocentric American history he embodies to step aside. He sidelines Adams, waiting until the second act to mention him, and then has Hamilton sing, “Sit down, John, you fat motherfucker!” Less explicit (in every sense) is Miranda’s decision to give Hamilton a signature refrain – “I will never be satisfied” — that echoes Adams’s line from 1776, “I have always been dissatisfied, I know that.”

Miranda’s lyrics are dizzying: he rhymes Socrates with mediocrities, before linking manumission, abolition and ammunition. Gilbert and Sullivan are not only sampled, they are schooled; Miranda gleefully told a journalist he felt he’d improved the rhyme in Gilbert’s famous patter, which becomes George Washington’s rap: “Now I’m the model of a modern major general / The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all / Lining up, to put me up on a pedestal.” Puns abound with the exuberant energy of a word-drunk writer: “Local merchants deny us equipment, assistance / They only take British money, so sing a song of sixpence.”


Daveed Diggs — in one of many exhilarating moments

More reviews: the New York Times, fact-checking, and problems with the movie, e.g., we lose the POV of Burke, and it feels complacent: Alissa Wilkinson of Vox

I’m sure I’d like it better if I read books on Alexander Hamilton and then watched and re-watched to pick up the subtleties, nuances of the dialogue and genuine arguments on behalf of this or that measure, which are brought into the play script. I’m probably just now so exacerbated, irritated, jaundiced (from the present regime) that I want other ways of remembering history beyond great men and who did what violence to whom. What has made me so welcoming to the documentaries on Lewis and Fitzgerald has made me have a hard time accepting another male-centered musical with a central train of violence and heterosexual sex, Hamilton.

Alas, perhaps perversely I remembered Eileen Power’s Medieval People and Medieval Women.


The Magdalene Reading by Van der Weyden, 1445 (from the cover)

Ellen

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No these are not dogs practicing social distancing ….

I’ve written a companion piece to my blog on cat stories, cat pictures, and a literature about cats: I make the case that dogs have been used and depicted, especially in fiction and legend as examples making a strong case for animal rights, their animal’s consciousness as somehow equivalent to people … Stories about dogs are focuses in the development of feelings and arguments on behalf of abolishing cruelty, respecting animals as we would want to be respected …. The second half I go into wonderful later 19th century novels, stories for children, and then recently a new breed which is non-fiction meant for adults, not sentimental sometimes with the dog as POV — from Woolf’s “Gypsy, a mongrel,” to Auster’s Timbuktu (about a dog living with a homeless man who is dying, both of them poignantly worried about the near future), to Garnett’s Lady into Fox, and finally Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip and the wonderful animated film.


A photograph of Ackerley’s female German shepherd, Queenie, re-named Tulip in the memoir

What strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of humans, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestioningly to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend. Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or “put to sleep” without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of the creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid siege to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed — did they suffer headaches? — from Fierlinger’s animated masterpiece film My Dog Tulip

Dear friends and readers.

Here is a companion piece to my Cat stories, cat pictures, cat poetry: there is a literature of cats (no those cats are not practicing social distancing), though the two do not quite correspond. In cat stories I tried to single out what distinguishes the way people write about cats, especially when the cat is your pet, from the way they write about pets and animals in general, some quality and feeling evidenced in the stories (as admiration for them in situations where it’s a question of endurance, understanding, something that provokes resilience, resourcefulness, a stalwart demeanor, at the time time as having the tenderest fondness for them as adorably affectionate). I also cited scholarly studies of art and poetry about cats.

In this blog I am not going to single out a dog’s or dog traits because so far as I can tell stories about dogs, photos, art do not marvel at this animal nor have I to hand (because I have not read) a history of the depiction of dogs (I think it would be long). Instead I mean to make the case that they have been used and depicted, especially in fiction and legend as examples making a strong case for animal rights, their animal’s consciousness as somehow equivalent to people. I think of how Montaigne wrote of a dog coming to a crossroads, and having to decide which was to go next, “the dog discourseth to itself thus … “. Stories about dogs are focuses in the development of feelings and arguments on behalf of abolishing cruelty, respecting animals as we would want to be respected. Why? because they publicly, shamelessly love us, yearn for us, are faithful, hard-working, constant, single-hearted, incorruptible. They deserve rights …


An ancient Roman mosaic

I begin with the earliest part of human history: non-human animals often pictured on caves, usually ones people hunted, religious rituals where animals signal aspects of humanity people want to develop, admire, increase, and so ingest – where the earliest dogs are pictured as companions, fellow hunters, with men as the leader of the pack. Unlike early cat pictures, these are about human beings: people using animals to define themselves, caring about animals insofar as they relate to us, aid us, are our friends. The second early manifestation I’ll mention is an opposing kind: satire, the beast fable, Aesop’s fables which are satiric classical stories: you reduce people to animals to expose us. Chicken Little an American story, the ant and the grasshopper (I’m with the grasshopper and think the ant a self-righteous prig), fox and grapes – many many of these, all with morals, sometimes ironic. Are any of these about dogs? One 18th century anomalous novel is: Francis Coventry’s Pompey the Little, or the Life and adventures of a Lapdog. It is a bitter send-up of humanity, a variation on the “it-story” so favored by semi-pornographers of the era (stories where a sofa tells all, a necklace), except (significantly) the dog is given a consciousness, becomes narrator and will worry human-like questions, for example, is a dog property? is owning a dog wrong? Alas, Coventry never takes this far enough to be an abolitionist of slavery. The form of beast fable, Aesop tale (as in the brilliant poetry of La Fontaine) did have a resurgence in the 18th century, but its concern is not non-human animals but people.

It’s when you begin to find depictions of a dog saving people, of their attachment to us, and ours to them, we begin to see the turn taken towards the development of animal rights — Edward Landseer made a career out of this: if you click, you’ll find as many pictures of people with horses as dogs


Attachment (1892) – he was a foremost animal painter in the 19th century, specializing in dogs

There is more than a core truth about this focus: it is the center of Ackerley’s brilliant 1956 My Dog Ackerley — continually Tulip fixes our hero with her “anxious bright eyes.”

This is also the core of the 1970s poignant also somewhat comic tale by Paul Auster, Timbuktu about Mr Bones, who loves his master dearly, accompanies Willy G. Christmas, a homeless mentally disabled man everywhere, with his (the dog’s) heart-breaking because Willy is dying. Willy’s mission is to find an English teacher he last communicated with shortly after leaving college, who encouraged and respected him: they are seeking out a 20 year old address in Baltimore in the hope she will take Mr Bones in, for Willy fears for Mr Bones’s life and spends much time warning him to stay away from “shelter” people. Meanwhile Mr Bones has gathered there is an afterlife called Timbuktu and Mr Bones fears he will not be able to get in.  What Auster does is imitate the state of mind he imagines that a homeless person must know — loinliness, aimlessness, coming near death through accidents, alienation — and mate that to Mr Bones’s faithful loving state of mind. Half-way through Mr Bones dies (in a half-dream sequence) and Mr Bones is on his own: we are into a (to me) deeply engaging picaro narrative invested with extraordinary depth.  The dog tried to kill a pigeon in order not to starve but does not know how.  Eventually he feeds on thrown away ice–creams, garbage. Just before taken in by a boy (first adventure) he begins to howl. Piercing unforgettable moment.

I think of how I’ve watched a psychiatrist succeed in communicating with a withdraw child by taking out an animal puppet who is reminiscent of a dog. Not threatening. So early on in children’s literature (in Dickens, as in the disabled Barnaby Rudge and his raven), there is deep camaraderie in a child and his or her dog — and animals are made to talk.


Barnaby and his Raven by Fred Barnard

By the later 19th century when fine literature for children emerges beautiful tales: usually the animal is badly oppressed or abused and child loves her and the animal the child: so Anna Sewell about cruelty to a horse in Black Beauty (often a horse substitutes for a dog, or vice versa), or Wilson Rawls on two faithful loving dogs and a boy (Where the Red Fern Grows – socialist really, pro Indian). A Canadian early classic, Margaret Saunders’s Beautiful Joe about a real dog who endured terrible cruelty – as many non-human animals do.

Behind this a history of people in the Enlightenment first valuing non-human animals for themselves, keeping them as pets, companions, and legislation for animal rights – they are still owned by people and people have complete control. Earliest legislation on behalf of the dreadfully badly treated horse. People don’t want to hear what happens to make a horse race. Kathryn Shevelow’s book For the Love of Animals traces the rise of the animal proection movement memorably. We have not solved the problem of stopping human beings being cruel to animals for fun, torturing animals to madden and terrify them. No rooster was born with a steel spurs in its head (as Winston Graham’s Demelza tells Ross Poldark in Poldark) — Graham’s books manifest a real identification with and concern for all animals’ vulnerability.

For longer than the last half-century, a specialty in animals studies is the woman scientist who goes to live with a group of animals to study and observe them — from Jane Goodall’s wonderful books about her 30+ years with chimpanzees, to Diane Fossey with gorillas, Birute Gildikas with orangutans, and lesser known, Sy Mongomery’s several studies, e.g., Walking with Great Apes. Women are willing to give up their ego and identity to be with the animal. Sooner or later, they take on the role of protector.

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This was what I found myself developing when I sought to introduce the peculiar take of the Bloomsbury circles when they came to write memoirs of pets and about animals — as context for Ackerley’s peculiar memoir. As usual, they took angles that led to new insights — or so they tried to. They wrote wrote pro-animal imaginative literature for adults that is not sentimental. Or they try not to be. It is not instructional: Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes books about the nature of dogs and how you take of them, ditto for cats. You don’t read My Dog Tulip, or Francis Power Cobbe’s The Confessions of a Lost Dog, Woolf’s Flush, a biography; or David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox or the recent Paul Auster’s Timbuktu (see above) for advice on how to take care of your dog. All of them are about us too, about our nature, and how we are aligned to, closely related to animals, they are critiques of us, our society through the animal’s life and personality alongside of and observing us.


The earliest edition of Flush: A biography resembled the layout and picture of Cobbe’s dog and book

Earliest version of this comes before the Bloomsbury 1910 date:

by Francis Power Cobbe, an important suffragette, who was among the first to try to stop useless and cruel animal experiments, especially vivisection, the use of animals for experiments; her slender novella anticipates Woolf’s Flush, and I would be much surprised if Woolf had not read Hajjin’s story. The Confessions of a Lost Dog include being taken in by a very genteel controlled single lady, and both have as the central incident how the dog is kidnapped held up for ransom, mistreated and nearly killed. Because that happened a lot in Victorian England. Cobbe also wrote non-fiction, “The Consciousness of Dogs” (Quarterly Review), then “Dogs I have Met,” which dogs have sometimes had very bad times (boys’ careless cruelty, eminent scientist’s’ deliberate torture, a man who kept a rat pit in Paddington and aristocrats shooting pigeons sprung from traps).

Flush was a present from Sackville-West; and Woolf’s book is a researched biography of both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her dog, from a dog’s point of view insofar as Woolf could do it. There are letters, documents, and Woolf is brilliant at not overstepping so that the dog somehow understands others the way a dog might (not through language). I taught the book as a canonical modernist biography. To this I have added (for the class I’m teaching) from Woolf’s The Complete Fiction, a touching short fictional memoir,

“Gypsy, a mongrel,” about Tom Bagot’s memories of a dog he loved, whom he tried to kill and could not (because of the way she looked into his eyes and grinned), who was a burden, bothering the cats, getting into mischief, but then falling in love (it seems) with a pedigree male, Hector, and when Hector was removed (as too much of a burden) so pined for him, that she disappeared one day in search of him. The retrospective memoir begins after Gypsy has vanished and is by turns poignant and funny.

Woolf had a dog who one day just disappeared.

Then there’s Bunny or David Garnett’s (yes he is Constance Garnett the translator’s son) Lady Into Fox.

It is a chilling book (not horrifying in the way of Kafka’s Metamorphosis where a man wakes up one morning to find he’s become a cockroach in body). One morning the narrator’s wife wakes to find herself become a fox. The first thing Garnett has to do is kill two perfectly fine dogs lest they kill his wife — we feel these as murder. She is regarded by all the world as vermin, as there to be killed. Gradually her eyes and whole demeanor become less and less human woman, more and more a fox as she mingles with other foxes, has a liter. Our narrator tries to become fox-like too Doesn’t work. He is not accepted. The book has a tragically felt ending.

It is sometimes printed with Garnett’s The People in the Zoo (in this one you see the original origin of animal literature in the satiric beast fable.)

So to come to Ackerley’s comic masterpiece; he might be said not to practice so much as to undermine the dog memoir. It is a love story, the story of his devotion to his female German shepherd whom he wants to have full life – not to miss out on anything, and that means for him, mating, sex, pups. As told it is surely a man’s idea of what sex is, and the obsessiveness of the quest (and graphically told failures) reveal Ackerley’s purpose as also to make fun of heterosexual sentimentalities about sex and marriage (as well as homosexual ones). As in portrait biographies, we also learn as much about Ackerley as Tulip. The humor is exquisite: it’s a matter of language and tone: our narrator is every so polite and impeccable, very dignified in the language he chooses; also startling and inventive: he began to think he had an “undoctorable dog.” He shows the cruelty indifference and urge to master and make others bend to your will in how many owners treat their ever so yearning dogs. I began to realize how many dogs might be emotionally abused.

Here is Dean Flower from the Hudson Review:

As he put it in his autobiography, My Father and Myself, “peace and contentment reached me in the shape of an animal, an Alsatian bitch … [who] entered my life . . . and entirely transformed it”:

She offered me what I had never found in my sexual life, constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which it is in the nature of dogs to offer. She placed herself entirely under my control.

From the moment she established herself in my heart and home, obsession with sex fell wholly away from me. The pubs I had spent much of my time in were never revisited, my single desire was to get back to her, to her waiting love and unstaling welcome. So urgent was my longing every day to rejoin her that I would often take taxis way, even the whole way, home to Putney from my London office, rather than endure the dawdling of buses and the rush-hour traffic jams in Park Lane. I sang with joy at the thought of seeing her.

Here is the language of a man in love, for the first time and irrevocably. The scales fell from his eyes. This was love, as he had never understood it before. He does not voice it so directly in My Dog Tulip, choosing rather to dwell on his own innocent confusions and anxieties—a con firmed bachelor of refined tastes at the center of London’s literary life, driven to care for a creature who cared so utterly for him. For Ackerley, loving Tulip (whose actual name, Queenie, was deemed too prosaic for the book) meant understanding her desires, her emotions and charac ter, her spiritual as well as her sexual and excretory nature, her myste rious and essential beauty as well as her irreducible dogginess. Inevi tably, that led to some comic incongruities, which Ackerley skillfully played. … Recent admirers too have commented on Ackerley’s excessive, perhaps ironic use of Renaissance sonnets as sources for these bursts of eloquence:

Her ears are tall and pointed, like the ears of Anubis. How she manages to hold them constantly erect, as though starched, I do not know, for with their fine covering of mouse-gray fur they are soft and flimsy; when she stands with her back to the sun it shines through the delicate tissue, so that they glow shell-pink as though incandescent. Her face also is long and pointed, basically stone-gray but the and lower jaw are jet black. Jet, too, are the rims of her amber eyes, though heavily mascara’d, and the tiny mobile eyebrow tufts that set like accents above them. And in the midst of her forehead is a kind of Indian caste-mark, a black diamond suspended there, like the jewel on the brow of Pegasus in Mantegna’s Parnassus, by a fine dark thread, no more than a penciled line, which is drawn from it right over her poll midway between the tall ears . . . her skull, bisected by the thread, is two primrose pools, the center of her face light gray, the bridge of her nose above the long black lips fawn, and upon each a patte de mouche has been tastefully set.

But here again the language of love is unmistakable. The elaborate anatomizing, the fine penciling and drawing, the chiaroscuro, the classical allusions and chiasmus (“are jet . . . Jet are”) all attest to the lover’s devout gaze. What may be harder to see is that Ackerley had no wish to be witty or extravagant in passages like these, least of all ironic. He put all his art and heart into them. Yet many readers were disgusted nevertheless. Why did Ackerley have to focus so relentlessly on feces and urine; or in the chapters concern ing sex, i.e., his efforts (all failures) to find Tulip a mate, why did he have to dwell on vaginal lubricants and penile stimulation and the odors of a bitch in heat? The answer is at least threefold: (a) nothing—again —is by love debarred; (b) the problem is with humans, not dogs; and (c) Ackerley chose that means to demonstrate something fundamental about love and sex. As to (a), Ackerley earnestly sought to understand the facts of canine sex, on Tulip’s behalf. He consulted her most trusted veterinarians, but also dog breeders and other self-professed experts, plus all the books available, and learned that the process of “marrying” two dogs is not simple or straightforward, and that a great deal of ignorance, misinformation, and mystery still surrounds it.

On the film, from “One man and his dog,” The Spectator (V315, #9532, 7 May 2011, p. 48 — no author cited)

a labour of love, the visuals mesh with the words perfectly and capture all the various moods, from melancholy and autumnal, to comic and skittish. The film comprises nearly 60,000 drawings hand-drawn digitally (that is, on to a computer), and are just so lovely, like the best ever watercolours come to life … Tulip has her foibles. Tulip can be flirtatious one minute and fiercely possessive the next. Tulip can be infuriating. Tulip sometimes earns herself a biff on the nose. But, all the while, Ackerley marvels at her every detail, rhapsodising not just about her beauty and constancy, but also her defecations and urinations. There isn’t a bit of Tulip he doesn’t find fascinating, or isn’t curious about. Occasionally, the animation leeches into black and white pencil sketches where Tulip appears half human wearing a little skirt and holding court. … The film, like the book, does not directly address Ackerley’s loneliness and homosexuality and childlessness, but it is there in the chinks … It’s marvellous, probably the best dog-flick you are ever going to see, based on the best dog-lit you are ever going to read. What more can I say?

There are three levels of cartoon:  beyond the beautiful colored pictures, which dissolve at the edges and turn into black-and-white satirical exposures of the less than admirable passions and impulses driving the characters, which turn into lovely lines of classical gods (now archetypally psychoanalysing).

Once again here is the vimeo:

https://vimeo.com/264796405

Ellen

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