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Fonny (James Stephen) and Tish (Kiki Layne) as we first see them walking together


Gradually appearing intertitle introducing the film

I wanted to write something for Martin Luther King day on the web itself. So I read most of Baldwin’s If Beale Street could Talk, and then rewrote a blog written about If Beale Street could talk mostly just as a movie and from commentary about the book: I was startled to find what a tender tone is suffused throughout the book because of the inner spirit of the narrator, Tish (Clementine is a give-away of sorts, a symbolic name). It is a sort of romance! But also a book much like The Bluest Eye (a Coming of Age for girls book), except (one could say) Bluest Eye is l’ecriture-femme, Beale Street from a more masculine point of view. My theme is the tragic waste of US American racism for all, the pity of it, the terror too.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day: here in Virginia finally some mild gun control legislation has been passed by a democratic house and governor, and the result has been a threatened violent riot in Charlottesville, Va., organized by white supremacist groups with credible evidence they mean to cause havoc and use their guns; they are misrepresenting the legislation which does not at all infringe on the right of legitimate gun ownership. This demonstration and its misrepresentation of the passed gun control law has been endorsed by Trump. Governor Northam called in the FBI to investigate and three people were arrested. The day chosen was naturally this one, our National Holiday for remembering Martin Luther King, who might have been the best president we ever had — if he had lived. Murdered at 37 (before 40 like Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and other black male leaders), MLK was responsible for a movement which culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights act, today partly gutted by the Supreme Court. The demonstration was not violent but was immense as was the state police presence; OTOH, something a sizable majority of Virginians support gun control, and the democrats won on the issue. It is hopeful that no violence occurred because it may be that if Trump loses the next election, riots on his behalf to keep him in the presidency will be prevented.

Friends and readers,

If Beale Street could talk, book and film, tell the same terrible tale we learn about in When They See Us. A system of incarceration whose structure and rules give African-Americans no hearing, only injustice and the felt hostility of blind chance & dependence on other vulnerable frightened people.

I began with the film, which I’ve wanted to watch for quite some time:  we are thrust into the story of two lovers walking down a paved alley in a park, and they vow love to one another, and determine they will tell their families, who, it seems, may not approve. Cut to Tish’s voice saying “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love…through glass:” we now see her sitting in a prison visiting room on one side of a glass waiting for Fonny to be brought out to sit on the other side. They cannot touch one another, they cannot hear unless they pick up the phones attached to each side of the booth they share. We are puzzled for a long time: why is he in prison. He seems utterly upstanding, he makes little money as a sculptor, but he is the son of church-going people, not an alcoholic, not drinking, trying to get together money to bribe someone willing to rent to them. Much of the film is interwoven flashbacks and we see in one: someone finally offers them a concrete garage space that is described as a loft (so the man can charge more). Most of the time no one will rent to them.

Gradually the story unfolds bit-by-bit: flashbacks interwoven and a narrator’s voice to connect is the mode: so throughout with increasing poignancy we see their ecstatic first days and nights of love.  But then after he is jailed, she finds she is pregnant, then (something she dreads) she has to tell her family and then his without him, because he is in prison (still unexplained): her family accepts the baby and coming marriage:

His mother does not, nor his sisters who speak in ugly spiteful ways using church dogma as a cover.

More time goes by in the ongoing forward time narrative as Tish gets a job selling perfume (one she is told she should be grateful for as she is black), and then one night in a flashback while they are walking in the street we see how from out of nowhere Fonny was accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), he never met and was nowhere near. They are told she singled Fonny out in a police-formed row of men; and are gradually led to a white lawyer (Finn Whittrock), well-meaning, who tells them the woman has fled to Puerto Rico. Fonny is beginning to become angry, frantic, violent, resentful, half-crazy in the bare cell room.

Then finally, either as flashback, just before or after, we see a brief encounter between Fonny and a sly angry-looking, resentful white police officer whose name we learn is Bell (Ed Skrein) grows livid when after he accuses Fonny of stealing, the store owner vindicates Fonny. Fonny himself is proud, often hot-tempered and has to be controlled by Tish. Bell warns Fonny he will get back. Early on Tish remarks what happened was the result of Fonny’s strong pride. Yes and it took just one resentful white man.


The police officer, seen only once, his sneer hardly has time to register

And all came clear to me. This white officer incensed at Fonny has lied, pressured the woman into accusing him, probably helped her to flee. There is no way Fonny can clear himself of this crime unless the Puerto Rican woman comes back to refute her testimony.

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The movie seemed to me and now I know is a deeply felt adaptation of a novel by Baldwin, both of which (book and movie) dramatize as the on-going story the need African-American people have of one another. Again we see the two family groups early on, and Fonny’s mother and sisters are incensed, cruel and corrosive in what they say. After Fonny is imprisoned, the two fathers getting together to steal little-by-little to get up the money for Sharon Rivers, Trish’s mother (Regina King) to go to Puerto Rico to speak to the woman.

Mrs Rivers is so brave, ever changing her clothes, her wig, wanting to look presentable, right somehow, so intense, worried, tight, hopeful still, goes and at first is rebuffed by the woman’s older male relative, but eventually he yields (perhaps a bribe) but then Victoria becomes hysterical and refuses to go back to withdraw her testimony. She asks Mrs Rogers if she has ever been raped. This is the desolate climax of the film.


Mrs Rivers trying to appeal to Victoria


But Victoria is herself walled in by her own anger, resentment hopeless impoverishment

When it’s clear they can’t count on any evidence in their favor except there is no evidence but the identification by a woman who won’t come to the court, at first the lawyer holds out, but we see the case is going nowhere, there is no trial set.  Tish gives birth to her baby; fast forward and Tish tells us that he plea bargained and it’s clear they are waiting for the years of prison to go by as they meet regularly in a freer prison room for visitors. His son is a small child and they try to act as a family during the time they have together. Eat, play a board game, tell each other how the week has been. This is how the  film ends; the family in a visiting room in a prison, with the wife’s salary and will power holding them together.

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I now got hold of and read the book, before rewriting the original blog — as well as returning to David Leeming’s commentary and quotation of Baldwin in his James Baldwin: A Biography, and Joyce Carol Oates’s review for the New York Times of the book and film before writing this blog.

Crucially, no one in the feature that came with the film never anywhere said that Fonny was framed; that he will spend years of his life behind bars helplessly. Not one person said it was the spite of a single police officer. I wanted to read the book to make sure (since in the film this is never made explicit) this a parable about how vulnerable black people are at any moment to be plunged into non-life, death in prison. Why keep silent? This is supposed to be Beale Street talking at last, telling. What is startling is how tender the tone of the novel when it comes to Fonny; the book is also a loving deeply sad romance, mourning how Fonny never had a chance.

It’s an instance of what we experience in When They See Us: it is the same story writ little from the point of view of the woman who loved the man. In the US if you are black and someone somewhere with some authority who is white can destroy you.

Baldwin emphasizes the story is a parable about “the black man’s bondage … everywhere; and “the emotional imprisonment of whites.” I again admit I didn’t see that much, only that the lawyer was as helpless as his client finally. In David Leeming’s biography, Baldwin says he also meant to show how isolated black are at the same time that they recognize they must be involved with one another, recognize their need of one another, share and bond experience in a way of imprisoned (if often invisible) life. The context is a “battle for integrity” in a world where the struggle to survive makes them have painfully to give integrity up — or compromise reality.

Joyce Carol Oates, like the people in the feature to the DVD, seems to want to make this an affirmative story about the endurance of African-American people helping one another Oates says it is a “traditional celebration of love:” and it is all she says, including a portrait of the white lawyer as sympathetic and doing his weak best.


Regina King as Sharon and Colman Domingo as Tish’s parents


The white lawyer

Her review doubts the wisdom of using Tish as a narrator (voice-over) retrospectively — there seems to me her doubt of this young girl having gravitas enough doubt about a woman’s gravity and seriousness, and a black woman. I admit Oates goes over and makes plain the horror at the center of this disaster, but did she have to say “so patiently,” of course the police officer is a villain (who has killed a 12 year old black boy some time ago), and to de-emphasize this seems racist to me.

Now I see that the film, through an integrated back-and-forth series of flashbacks tells the story of both Fonny and Tish since they were children bathing together, the stages of their earliest life in black-and-white photos. I thought of the third-century Greek romance, Daphnis and Chloe, the later 18th century Rouseauistic Paul and Virginia. We see his friendship with a man who gives evidence him (coerced); moments of Fonny doing sculpture, Tish selling things, coping with customers, the two of them begging a meal when they have no money, fixing their apartment, but I suggest a thread through the love affair is Tish’s mother’s support of them, of her; Tish’s sister gets the lawyer but Tish’s mother helps her to give birth and bathe the baby first. And especially Tish coping from pregnancy to still waiting.


Tish giving birth with her mother’s help


Bathing the baby

The film rightly was nominated for many awards; it should have won more. At least Regina King won for Best Supporting Actress.

It’s a beautiful book and wish I had known about it before; I had placed a version of this on my Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog because the narrated voice and point of view is that if the young woman and her mother. It has many scenes of intimate domestic life: the kinds of furniture black people can afford; Fonny and Tish doing all sorts of things in their lives: he with friends, she in the subway. The book is a heroine’s text. A poignant romance where courage is holding out (like Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop). It is a woman’s film using the characteristics of women’s art to powerful effect.


An iconic scene from their beginning love story

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But today I know it belongs on my general blog and I have moved it here, and widened my purview in a coda where I offer my first response to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which I began reading for the first time yesterday.

What a masterpiece of a first book. I recommend it and her Beloved on this day. The Bluest Eye is quiet, unassuming, the story of an American black family from the point of view of one of the younger daughter/sisters, Claudia. It brings home to me what a tragedy it is that working class white and black people in the US do not realize how much we have in common. As I read although my family did not have quite these hideous experiences (the house is burnt down – something white people did regularly and got away with until the last part of the 20th century) many of the desolating exclusionary experiences her family members know we knew. The attitudes of mind remind me of what we knew. So much in common and denied because of the use of “middle class” which skews whom one identifies with and enables people to ignore their real circumstances, what are their real expectations/hopes. Howard Zinn in his History of the People of the US shows that from the very beginning of the US state, the upper classes have been concerned to keep better off and poor whites from identifying with Native and African-Americans.

The story of the girl being given a white doll and destroying it bit by bit reminded me of Maggie Tulliver in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. How Maggie hated that doll too and took it up to the attic to abuse it. I didn’t hate my dolls but an ugly story occurred around one, after which I destroyed it and had no more dolls but one Ginny (age 11) and tired of her soon with her fancy wardrobe &c The title comes from a little girl in the book, Pecola, who Claudia’s mother is kind enough to take in (her family has been smashed) and who tells her new friends, Claudia and her sister, Frieda, she longs for a blue eye, though all her features are African. Claudia is out of sympathy with this, thus producing an alienated perspective within an implicitly alienated earnest one.

The book has several of the classic incidents of a mature young girl’s novel, for example, when Pecola menstruates for the first time, is very frightened and how she is treated. By the way none of these occur in Little Women (another is sexual harassment, the closest Alcott gets to this is Meg Goes to Vanity Fair when Meg allows her hostess to sexualize her dress.) My last image for this blog is Emily Watson playing Maggie Tulliver in a 1997 BBC Mill on the Floss; she has been the best Marmee thus far too (in the 2017/8 BBC 3 part Little Women). When I got to the end of the book I was so angry, I threw it across the room and then through it out. The book ended with her forgiveness of a brother who had destroyed her life, her senseless death trying to rescue him.

We are reading these two novels by Morrison now on WomenWriters@groups.io; the last two months we read Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter: she mentions only three girls’ books but two are Little Women and Mill on the Floss — she identified with Jo and Maggie. Well Claudia and Pecola and Clementine (Tish) are three more such heroines in the same vein ….

For Martin Luther King day a great powerful African-American literature and its close parallels with great powerful European-American literature by women — novels of girls growing up and the choices inflicted on them …

Ellen

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From August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson: this is the version I watched as a YouTube on-line

“It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow.” Cromwell to his son Gregory as they leave the princess Mary in her cold room at Hatfield, Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Friends and readers,

At each year’s end many people look back over the year and ask themselves, how I or we did, how did this year compare to others, what do we remember as significant, as particularly happy and good (any successes) or as especially grievous, the bad failure. In public here I will mostly confine myself to books & movies; what did I read & see is the first problem. Often I think some book or movie was my favorite this year, when it was last year I read or saw it. I ask, Did any transform my attitudes to this or that; any new literary masterpieces; what lingers in my mind and what did I want to re-read and re-see.

My list is complicated because I do a lot of re-reading, re-discovery. Further, I spend a helluva lot of time watching movies, and I study them as intently as any book. Another thing I do is skip around, dip in and read here and there in books: none of that counted.  I skip all essays and articles, single short stories, even if a particular one was meaningful. I often do not finish a book and do not include those.  The list still seems hardly meaningful as it is varied (unless you start to see parallels), and it is hard for me to chose say the “top 10.” I also don’t want to go on about them individually because the blog would become insufferably long.

So, for once, like other people, here are simply lists, three of them. Sometimes I combine a few books or a series of movies as one


I also loved the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film which I saw years ago, but read the book this year for the first time, finally, at last

Of books, the ones that will stay with me that I read through for the first time:

August Wilson Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Jitney
Agier Michel, The Jungle: Calais’s camps and migrants
Naomi Mitchison The Bull Calves; Calder, Jenni The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison
Philips, Carol Crossing the River
Weil, Simone, Uprootedness; Simone de Beauvoir, Ethics of Ambiguity & Memoires d’une fille rangee (sans accents, only superior in the French)
Anne Boyd Rioux Meg Jo Beth Amy; Writing for Immortality
Rebecca Traistor’s All the Single Ladies; Lee Virginia Chambers-Schiller, Liberty: a Better Husband, Single Women in America, 1780 to 1840; Martha Vicinus’ Work and community for single Women, 1850-1930
Clifford D. Connor’s Colonel Despard: The Life and times of an Anglo-Irish Rebel
Peter Cameron, The City of Your Final Destination
Elaine Showalter, Inventing Herself
Virginia Woolf, Night and Day (superb, badly underrated)
Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name, Those who Leave and Those who Stay, The Beach at Night
Francis Power Cobbe, The Confessions of a Lost Dog
Oliphant’s The Rector’s Family, The Curate in Charge


Dazzling artistry

Of books, those that I reread for the first time in a long time so I had almost forgotten them (so I must not this year’s Trollope, masterpieces though the first three are: HKHWR, CYFH?, Phineas Finn, and Miss Mackenzie):

Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (and the 2018 series with Jessie Buckley, scripted Fiona Seres)
Adhaf Soueif, Map of Love
Olivia Manning, The Great Fortune
Daphne DuMaurier, Jamaica Inn
Diderot, The Nun; Madame Roland’s Memoirs; Voltaire’s Letters from England
Penelope Fitzgerald, The bookshop; EL Carr, A Month in the Country — Booker Prize books
Margaret Oliphant, Autobiography and Letters as edited by Annie Walker; “The Open Door” (a short story, but pure gothic poetry)
E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
Winston Graham, Cordelia, The Walking Stick, The Tumbled House


Just unforgettable series, Fortunes of War out of Manning’s 7 book series, Balkan and Levant Trilogies: Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as the Pringles and Ronald Pickup as Prince Yakimov (scripted by Alan Plater)

Of movies, series and cinema and plays

Outlander, all four seasons
Poldark, the 1970s, both seasons; the New Poldark, Seasons 1-5
The Pallisers episodes 1-12
The Fortunes of War
The Durrells of Corfu (seasons 1-3); Hampstead (with Diane Keaton, Brendan Gleeson) (comfort movies)
Chernobyl
When They See Us
Chasing the Deer (another Culloden humanized, 1994)
Culloden (Watkins’s docudrama)
A Christmas Tale (Desplechin)
Metropolitan (Whit Stillman)
Wild Strawberries
The Lady’s Not For Burning, play and film (with Kenneth Branagh)
An Inspector Calls as rewritten by Aisling Walsh (& Priestley’s play)
Sheila Delaney A Taste of Honey, play and film
Dark Waters
Andrew Davies Les Miserables
Ruth Wilsons’ Mrs Wilson; Miss Pym’s Day Out (with Patricia Routledge, a YouTube)
Greta Gertwig’s Little Women
Amadeus, Wm Davenent’s Macbeth


I also listened to JR more than once


Fifty-Five Steps in court

I suppose, if this means anything, when I try to remember from 2 years, and a wee further back, here are titles books and films that leap to & linger in my mind: books, Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own, Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover; movies, Kedi (Cats of Istanbul), Fifty-five Steps (featuring Helena Bonham Carter) and Andrew Davies’s TV series, War and Peace.

Gentle reader, I promise you, swear I did not just throw at you all the books and movies I read and saw, but this represents a thoughtful selection, about 80% of what I read through and watched (and re-watched).


Claire at the Window as Outlander begins (with over-voice)

People disappear all the time.
Young girls run away from home.
Children stray from their parents and are never seen again.
Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station.
Most are found eventually.
Disappearances, after all, have explanations.
Usually.
Strange, the things you remember.
Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Last night meaning to read a Christmas story by Anthony Trollope, I was deterred by Amazon. Amazon strikes again. On my stoop I found one of their harassed employees had left C.W. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, and, finding the book irresistible, read it through instead of Trollope. And naturally a blog came …


Skating by Moonlight — Ladybird Advent Calendar

Someone — a Latin poet — had defined eternity as no more than this: to hold and possess the whole fullness of life in one moment, here and now, past and present and to come — last chapter of Ross Poldark, where we have just experienced a sequence of Christmas scenes

In a (to Trollopians) a notorious screed against most matter produced for Christmas, Anthony Trollope defined what he thought a work for Christmas should contain:

Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instill others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities, — , better yet, with Christmas charity” (from An Autobiography)

Should it be that? Trollope’s own “The Widow’s Mite” is the story by him that comes closest to this but not all the others are quite that.  “Christmas at Thompson Hall” the one he produced after writing his frustrated thoughts is a story of comic anguish and strong stress in a woman trying to reach her relatives once a year from abroad on Christmas day.

What I discover is typical is a story usually set around Christmas, but it need not be (not all Trollope’s are, as for example, “Catherine Carmichael,” The Telegraph Girl,” and “Two Generals”), a story where characters are in need of kindness and show kindness, characters who forgive, reconcile or accept themselves with one another or something, but also make sudden philosophic comments appropriate to the story, who reach for some meaning.

I have a few recent Christmas movies and stories as examples, and C.W. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, a meditation on the story behind one of them, for a coda.


The last pair of lovers, the lucky Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Steevens) clutching one another wildly in front of enormous house …. (Downton Abbey, 2011)

I’ll begin with the TV “Christmas special” (two hours) I watched tonight:  appropriate to Christmas eve, thought I, a “feature” or coda which ended the second season of Downton Abbey, itself set during World War One and mostly about World War One (much softened). The sequences of events, the stories, what the characters are doing are all shaped by their occurring from a few days before December 25th, until what seems to be Twelfth Night, or January 6th, at any rate some time after the 1st when we’ve just had a “servants ball.”

Has what we have just experienced been Christmasy — well, yes, as the characters have put up and decorated a tree, had two servants’s special lunches and dinners, a Christmas eve party complete with charades, went shooting, exchanged presents. But have the individual stories been imbued “with a desire for … Christmas charity.” Not altogether but there has been much forgiveness of others and the self, some growth in self-acceptance and acceptance of one’s circumstances without blaming someone else, there’s been some real selfless love enacted, and just scenes of feeling good, partly by the characters all making sacrifices (however small) to enable another character to feel better about themselves, and have a good time. There’s been regret at having done a bad deed (but the deliberately lost dog was found), and we’ve even had ghostly doing with a ouija or spirit board.

My favorite line in the two hours is Mrs Hughes’s answer to Daisy’s “Don’t you believe in spirits, then?”: “I don’t believe they play board games.”


Audrey (Carolyn Farina) at Patrick’s Cathedral with her mother (1990 Metropolitan)

Two nights ago I saw a similar effort. The way Whit Stillman appropriated Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is to set an analogous set of characters and action in Manhattan Christmas week (starting a few days before Christmas and ending just after New Year’s Eve) in the 1990s. Metropolitan is to me a deeply appealing movie because it’s one of the few appropriations which use words from Austen (more from Emma than Mansfield Park) and mirrors some of her central ethical questionings.

We see a group of upper class twenty-year olds from very wealthy families accept among them a young man with far fewer funds (he lives on the West side, not East, takes buses and walks instead of hailing cabs); they discuss what is a good person, reject sexual harassment (and rape), worry the question of success for upper class people like themselves who have too high expectations and have never had to endure boredom, hardship or work hard as yet. The Fanny character (Audrey) rejects Lionel Trilling’s reading of Mansfield Park as egocentric, narrow-minded and domineering. (He does not like Fanny Price and says no one can; well, Audrey loves Fanny.)  The characters squabble, insult, and even fight one another (to the point of toy pistols), but the stories show our favored characters ending up tolerating, understanding, controlling themselves more out of respect for others, getting a wider perspective.

I admit I respond most deeply to the filming of typical NYC scenes during Christmas week at Rockefeller Center, on TV (the burning Yule log on Channel 11), shopping, lonely crowded streets and people going to rituals. Each time I watch I cry when Audrey and her mother sing carols in St Patrick’s cathedral.


Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) reads Goethe to Elizabeth on Christmas Day eve (towards the end of A Christmas Tale)

Last year it became my favorite Christmas movie and still is — why I began with Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. A family strained for many years by an estrangement between the middle living child, Henri, who facing bankruptcy, took advantage of the father and made him liable for his debts. The family would have lost their beloved ancient spacious house and their cloth dying business gone under, but the oldest girl, Elizabeth, is a money-making playwright and paid off the debt with the proviso Henri must be excluded from the family from now on. But Junon, the mother (played by Catherine Deneuve) has leukemia, is probably dying, so all now must pull together, including a younger son, Ivan, and Sylvia, his wife. It is explicitly a story of attempted reconciliations of all sorts.

What I love about this movie is what I like so about the Downton Abbey piece and Metropolitan, only here this central characteristic is so much stronger, more in play: just about all the characters are so complex in the way of characters in a novel, and (like Rohmer and Bergmann’s movies) you can watch and re-watch and each time learn more about all the characters. A viewer probably tends to focus on Elizabeth who is so bitter and who has a good relationship with Abel, her highly intelligent reading father, but not with Paul, her son who we’d call autistic and whom she wants to put in an asylum; her husband, Claude, has little patience with the boy. Also on Henri who dislikes his mother since she dislikes him, his grief over his dead wife, and restless Jewish girlfriend. It is Henri who helps bring Paul back to himself by paying attention to Paul: Henri identifies with the boy

This time (my fourth through) I noticed Junon, the mother, had self-consciously married a man who was ugly, not of high status, because Abel is kind and competent, a protector, loyal, and that he has enabled her to spend her life keeping at a distance from everyone. Also that Simon, the best friend of Ivan, Junon and Abel’s youngest son, and Sylvia, Simon’s wife’s has been leading a depressive life, until (in this week) he and Sylvia become lovers and Abel takes him into the factory. It seems that he was a rival for Sylvia long ago and she chose (probably not wisely she sees now) Ivan. This time I noticed it is Abel who takes both Simon and Paul into the family home they all find so precious, a kind of sanctuary inside a hard industrial city. Abel is seen quietly cleaning up, always there, the mainstay those who need to, lean on. In other words, the parents as complex people began to emerge in my mind.


The Come From Away cast as puzzled passengers ….

I’ve two more, neither occur around Christmas. Briefly this past Saturday afternoon, Izzy, Laura and I saw at the Kennedy Center the extraordinary (in the depths of feeling it occasionally reached) for an group concept, Canadian musical; and astonishing (in sudden individual moments, separate soliloquies, character sketches), Come from Away. It is the upbeat story of how a large group of American planes were landed in Newfoundland, Canada, because the area had a large unused airport, and how the people living in the towns all about welcomed the people on the planes, took care of them.

It’s a story we are much in need of since the spread of hatred and fear these past few years by Trump and his regime, and others like itaround the world. I’ll content myself with a review in the New York Times. Ben Brantley explains this show and its context better than I could.


Deborah Winger and Anthony Hopkins as Joy and Jack

More at length: last week with a friend I watched Richard Attenborough’s Shadowlands, the story of the slow coming together of C.S.Lewis in his later year as a Don, with Joy Gresham, an American woman with whom he had been corresponding for years. If Christmas is mentioned, that’s because the movie covers a number of years. It does show characters behaving with singular charity and forbearance towards one another. It’s Christmasy, though, because it seeks to put the events of the story, especially a painful death of Joy Gresham (played by Deborah Winger), a relatively young woman, from bone cancer; a framework that makes it meaningful at the same time as the central character, “Jack” Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) cries out in anguish over the senselessness, cruel suffering and loss such a death entails. It is shaped by Christian apologetics, so to speak, especially on the existence of pain (as found in Lewis’s own writing). In the film we see Jack giving sermons on this topic.

Shadowlands was a hit the year it came out, gained many prizes. C.S. Lewis is nowadays known widely for his children’s fantasy series, Narnia Chronicles, whose stories may be allegorized as about the life and figure of Christ. I knew Lewis’s work from my 20s in graduate school as a brilliant literary critic (The Allegory of Love springs to mind), but Jim when I met him knew and was still under the spell of Lewis’s religious apologetic polemics ( which years later Jim found abhorrent): The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and Surprized by Joy, the story of his supposed conversion from atheism to Anglicanism. Maybe this is why the movie was dared and accepted.

The problem is, for some, maybe many, Lewis’s arguments can be seen as ultimately sadistic, a romancing of pain and suffering. The movie is hagiographic, follows an idealizing biography of the Gresham-Lewis relationship (with the same title): by contrast, another by Abigail Santamara tells of how Gresham pursued Lewis consciously, was very ambitious, and how Lewis was at first reluctant, married her yes to provide her with the right to live in London, and gradually fell in love. It’s a popular-oriented film so we get this reductive idea Lewis was simply cold, inhibited, in retreat, not daring risks like the figure in The Roman de la Rose (which he lectures on), and Joy brought him out of this. She is presented probably as she was — slightly obnoxious, rude in her bluntness. But the romance is very well done, the script intelligent, tasteful — the history of Joy’s cancer; the diagnosis, first radiation treatments, the remission, the return and then the decline into death is done realistically (to some extent) and made moving. We watch Lewis by Joy’s side throughout; he is there for her as she goes out — as I was when Jim died. The movie does not stop at her death but carries on, showing Lewis at first in a rage, then slowly calming down, and towards the end still with his brother and now Joy’s boy, his son growing up, if not accepting what happened, able to deal sanely with this unexpected past.

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Helen Dahm Swiff (1878-1986), Silent Night

I’ll end on the book I was prompted to buy after seeing Shadowlands. It arrived today, just in time for Christmas Eve: Lewis’s A Grief Observed, yet another memoir of someone dealing with extreme grief over the loss for him or her of a beloved person, and the death and suffering that person knew. All four of these movies record deaths: in Downton Abbey, it’s the hero’s fiancee, then her father, the scullery maid and cook’s husband, son of a farmer who has lost all his children. A Christmas Tale begins with the death of the first boy of Abel and Junon, age 6; he is never forgotten during the film. In Metropolitan we are told of the death of some of the characters’ parents, the divorce of others, and one of the intelligent young men discusses what he says is everyone’s need to believe in God, and what he regards as the probably that there is a God. How else carry on? These kinds of inference I think come from over-reaching: you can see life as good and enjoy much even if it has no meaning beyond the experience of life itself. Come From Away shows awareness that thousands have just been killed in an engineered disaster.

As I began to read, I found myself remembering immediately what a wonderfully alive writer Lewis is, how eloquent, how daring his use of language. And how brilliant he is, and how persuasive he can be — partly because he tells enough truth, is so perceptive about whatever experiences he is getting down. He spoke home to me, and ranged widely. He kept several notebooks from which this slender book came. Towards the end he talks of the “arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry ‘masculine’ when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as ‘feminine.’ “Poor warped fragments of humanity.”

The first chapter is his own strong anger, and fear. Lewis finds grief feels like fear — yes, I felt profound terror when I first truly had the thought I would have to be alone in the world without Jim. He talks of how “it is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ In this first state he is an embarrassment to others; he cannot endure to listen to them. It resonated with me when Lewis says he cannot remember Joy’s face (he’s seen too many versions), hear her voice, imagine what she would say or do in this or that situation. She is now an absence. I like how he says Joy remained the other, a self apart, and when she would be with him, he would see how he had distorted her in his mind.

In the second chapter he draws himself up and realizes he has been thinking only of himself: what of her, of the pain she knew, of her loss, what happened as she experienced it. Then the cant: she is in God’s hands. Right. Will fatal disease be diagnosed in his body too? “What does it matter how this grief of mine evolves or what I do with it? what does it matter how I remember her or whether I remember her at all? None of these alternatives will either ease or aggravate her past anguish.”

The third and fourth chapter are much harder to capture. Unlike Julian Barnes’s masterly grief memoir in Levels of Life, Lewis does not move as an argument because in a way there is none: he sees the senselessness and cruelty of what has happened and then refuses to infer there is no God, and so moves in circles around the torturous draining traumatic and gradually therapeutic experiences he is enduring. He questions himself a lot. “If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have bee so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came.” He explores what love is. We all experience “love cut short; like a dance stopped in mid-career … bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.” Then what grief: “something new to be chronicled every day. Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.”

There is much more: on God, on human consciousness, on misunderstanding less, on mystic experiences, and how he and Joy their intimacy could only reach so far. He ends with a quotation from Dante where Joy is likened (if I am not mistaken) to either Beatrice or some eternal presence and “Poi si torno all’eterna fontana.”

I hope all who read this manage a contented cheerful Winter Solstice.

Ellen

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Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) after listening to Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) attempts to investigate the poisoned farm land, water and miserably dying animals

Dear friends and readers,

The word gratitude refers to a feeling of thankfulness and obligation to a specific person who has done something for you, with the implication causing the person significant sacrifice. Robert Bilott had no specific individual in mind, not even the seemingly mad ignorant impoverished West Virginia farmer who with another neighbor barged into Bilott’s office with cardboard boxes of papers and gruesome evidence of abnormal frightening deformities in local fish and animal life. But when Dupont reneged on a bargain to admit fault in a case-action suit and pay an enormous sum, Bilott (after the shock) went on to fight individual case after case, with bigger and bigger money damages until the company relented, and, using  formula that avoids conceding guilt, paid a huge fine, and agreed to clean up in (alas limited) designated ways. The actor Mark Ruffalo and the director wanted to thank this “dogged Cincinnati lawyer” and tell his and the story he managed to convey to the public.

According to Todd Haynes (director) and Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan (script-writers)’s movie, Dark Waters, as Robert Bilott gradually and against considerable obstacles (the company provided a room filled with boxes filled with papers for Bilott to study first, the reluctance of Bilott’s own lawyer firm, to say nothing of Dupont and other involved corporations, scientist teams, gov’t agencies, brought before the courts and then a large public the truth that Dupont knowingly for decades continued to market PFOA after they discovered it, together with a complex of other non-regulated substances, were poisoning the water supply and blood stream of people coming into contact with their products. In this case one of the products being marketed was teflon on pots, which the public seemed to be able to remember and grasp. As with the movie, All the President’s Men, we see the long hard slog that begins with tiny ambiguous but troubling evidence, the difficult gathering of hard information, the many meetings with all sorts of people in all sorts of venues, many of whom don’t want to know about this. This movie has something the previous muck-raking movie lacks: it shows the cost to Ruffalo in his private life that years takes, and it shows something beyond a single criminal syndicate (under Nixon in effect): the allowing of crucial poisoning of our environment and bodies by corporations, bought up gov’t agencies, ruthless and indifferent individuals. We also see the gaps in the law that permit unregulated substances to be marketed.

Don’t miss it. Go see it — the more people watch, the more agencies and corporations become wary of an informed pro-active public.


A scene where the farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) explains to Bilott what he is seeing

It’s also an absorbing movie, very well done — no idiotic action-adventure, no excessive violence to lure us (apparently this lures) in. The thriller element (the genre the movie is advertised as) is small. The movie is rather a protest movie, an expose in the manner of Chernobyl, only done in a way that enables it to play to large audiences in movie-theaters. At one point Bilott gets scared because he’s told to park at the bottom of a many floored garage to go to a confrontation meeting with a group of corporate officials. His is the only car way down there. As he returns to his car remembering the angry faces he contended with, he begins to feel scared, and the film hesitates as he hesitates before turning the key in his car — we and he fear he will be blown up. In fact he was just experiencing the way the ordinary people is treated in the heavily reserved and charged-for garage spaces beneath corporate buildings nowadays.


Sarah Bilott (Anna Hathaway) comforts her husband — he is very weary — she defends him as someone who is not a failure except if you use a false definition of what is meaningful success in life

It is not a brilliant original indie film: production values are high (it’s a presentable high quality commodity product) so we get beautiful or horrible looking landscapes, city scenes for codas. The presentation of Bilott’s wife, Sarah (Anne Hathaway) is done in a heavily clichéd manner: her middle class assumptions, and behavior, the three sons, the home, her protests are out of Donna Reed. There is also too much cliché in the presentation of the wretched impoverished people of West Virginia and other places, all down-trodden and when not quietly virtuous, angry sullen (sometimes at Bilott for not producing quicker results and money while they are losing jobs). It’s forgivable — if you showed the truth of average lives (a lack of coherent pattern), people might not come or critics could chose to complain about this or that subsidiary point and the main themes of the movie be lost. When there are wins in court, the presentation of Bilott and his wife is somewhat sentimental. But real hard life is immersed in sentiment; we just don’t show it on cue. And Mark Ruffalo (known for his roles in Kenneth Lonergan films) carries most of the weight of the film. We meet various people along the way who have lost their jobs upon being whistle-blowers; people with cancer; people who have had deformed children; the deformed baby all grown up now and working in a gas station as an attendant.

The Observer gave the movie a rave review (Rex Reed). Other reviews are more qualified, in The Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan basically praised the movie for not pretending to be what it’s not; it is a clearly informed passionate outrage machine. In Variety, though, Owen Gleiberman demonstrates that this is not your “usual” protest movie but original in a stunningly real way (the slow building court case): you do really feel like these are situations you have been involved in or know people who have been. Common Sense Media, Jeffrey Anderson breaks down the different elements into a “must see.”

I thought of Flint, Michigan (no official has been put in jail as yet, not one); a movie I saw a few years ago about  an attempt to put water under the control of corporations in a Latin American  country; cancer-poisoned places everywhere. Among sobering thoughts was the realization today since Trump and the criminal syndicate he is putting in place everywhere (his sycophants, patsies, profound reactionaries), Bilott would not even have gotten to first base. He had to begin with the EPA. He also had to have wins in courts with fair judges. The movie urges on us the necessity of removing Trump and his corporate bough; taking out evangelical-fanatic patsies from US offices; work to begin to reverse the calculated putting into power in courts with reactionaries and thugs like Kavanagh (as judges). Agencies there to help the public are run by people who mission in life is to destroy their effectiveness (appointees downsize refuse to allow employees to do the job they are supposed to.

It is scary in the sense Elena Nicolaou says (Entertainment): at its close, the inter-titles remind us that this stuff is in the blood of 99% of all of  us, and our animals too. I thought of my unknowing pussycats.

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See this Intercept article by Sharon Lerner, the Case against DuPont: it includes a video by Tennant showing the continual contamination of the waters near his and another farm discussing how the state gave permission to DuPont to unload this poison into the state’s water streams. The article tells of other individuals who fought the company and how the company fought back, using among other things a statute of limitations. Joe Kiger, a Parkersburg elementary school gym teacher and former field coordinator for the AFL-CIO, was central to Bilott’s case and an actor playing him is in the film

Papers, fine print, using laws and courts against people are central methods of large corporations; they also pay individuals off.

Ellen

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Inside the Culloden museum

As brevity is the soul of wit, I hope for once to please here that way. Over on my Austen reveries blog I told of my months of effort towards a paper on Culloden and the highland clearances as a crossroads of existence for so many: and that I finally focused on Naomi Mitchison’s masterpiece of a historical novel, The Bull Calves, written over 1941-47, set over two days in June, 1747, not far from Inverness, and the 1994 indie movie, Chasing the Deer, which adds a moving human story and the beauty of Scotland and another sophisticated interpretation of what was Jacobitism: well, I delivered said paper in a session on Jacobitism: Then and Now, at the recent EC/ASECS conference at Gettysburg, and have put the paper on my site at academia.edu.

Here it is: At this Crossroads of my Life: books & movies about Culloden and Its Aftermath.

Do read it, gentle reader, and if you have time or are so disposed, send comments, suggestions, thoughts for future reading and watching.


This is not a trailer advertisement, but a promotional reel made to attract funding for Chasing the Deer (first aired on Grampian TV)

Ellen

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