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Dear friends and readers,

(Downton Abbey will have to wait.) This is to recommend going to see Selma and why.

Selma is a powerful re-enactment of some central costs of protest against what the powerful in a society and their brutal henchman and the parts of their constituencies filled with deep resentment, hatred, mindless meannes will inflict –bodily. The sequences that are telling are the marches and the attempts to integrate public places in the south. Pain is important — as a weapon. Death, its shadow, the fog it places around your mind and acts (these are from lines spoken by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King). We are made to see and feel close up what it is to be beaten and relentlessly hunted down and murdered. We see a white priest who came from Boston to join the protest beaten to death and we hear the blows. We see a young black man shot up close in a bar: the police chase him down, beat and then murder him in front of very one in the bar. We see older women, all sorts of people flee and hurt. Remember Voltaire: “pour encourager les autres?”

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TV footage from the 1960s

It’s not all violence. We watch Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper fill out a voting registration form, go up to the courthouse, how hard to walk through that door, stand in front of a sneering man who says her boss will like to hear about this, listen to his questions, she can answer each hard one until he wants to know the names of the 67 men who were county executives in the last number of years. I find it to be a woman’s film by this emphasis, by the choice of intimately felt scenes throughout.

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Here she is in the first fall out from the scene just above

See Miss Izzy on the film as by a black woman director: “But perhaps the refusal to be nicer to the big famous white guy in the story illustrates why this film is important … ”

Although Fergusson occurred after the filming or late in during it, this incident and so many others across the US, is what this film is about. Historical films are ways of taking a usable past and speaking to audiences about that past in terms of the present. Not just Fergusson, and all the countless other racial protest marches and mass assemblies and demonstrations around the Us, and not just what happened to the Occupy movement now almost 3 years ago – but by metaphor when these public demonstrations and the beatings and state terror tactics that destroy them occur across the earth in all the places the US and its allies occupying forces beat down (not to omit Israel on the Palestinians, now ISIS, Boko Haram and the boss of that state who lets them do what they want). I say possibly because these other places and forces are there by analogy and the protests against them are quite different from the racial ones in the US which Selma is about (analogy works only so far).

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In the talk between the Kings we do hear references to the affairs he was accused of using vile language — and how these were communicated to his wife through phone, anonymous letters …

It is a kind of odd thrill (to me) to see re-enacted John Lewis (by Stephan James) when young, how he came to join King too. These are my heroes too. Other people are enacted (Andre Holland as Andrew Young, Reuben Santiago-Young as Bayard Rustin and almost not recognizable small parts well done: Alessandro Nivola as Johnson’s political operative trying to persuade King to cool it and protect himself, Tim Roth in the thankless role of the snake-sleaze Wallace) but the plaudits have to go to David Oyelowo who I’ve seen a number of times before: most notably in memory, Small Island. He made the daring intelligent choice not to do a virtuoso imitation but act the part from within himself; he is in physical type like King, round face, stocky body, and he did when delivering some of King’s speeches allow himself (so to speak) suddenly to begin to imitate King’s speech patterns, tones, body language — well it was terrifically successful and then I felt a strong wave of wishing King had lived and wishing he had been permitted to do something far more than he was able.

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Those who were alive at the time (1960s) may remember King began to emerge as someone moving beyond racial issues. He began to argue eloquently against the vicious policies of the US abroad; and he began to become more widely popular, even with whites. That wouldn’t do and those who had the abilities and power to do so with impunity had him murdered.

It’s also good to go as a kind of political statement. At my local art house there was a considerable row of black people in the audience. It’s a movie house deep in Fairfax, hardly ever any black people. The audience was not full but they applauded afterwards as I’ve seen people do at political films and also when they want to express their approval intensely.

It has its problems. Overproduced, over melodramatic, glossy surface, too quick scenes. It’s getting so it’s hard to find a movie which doesn’t do these things and they ruin the experience, do not permit nuances. It’s not a very nuanced film — it reminded me of Lincoln, a pious parable. The worst thing is that the relationship between King and Johnson is apparently wrong. King did not have to force Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to pass the legislation which made it for about 50 years very hard — impossible — to stop black people voting. (No more. The present reactionary Supreme Court has eviscerated it. It must be re-enacted now in a contemporary form and soon.) They worked together.

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Tom Wilkinson who played Lord Mansfield in the film, Belle, seems to be this year’s idea of the benevolent well-meaning (but somewhat misguided) white patriarch (patriarchy not questioned in this film, or Belle, for that matter)

It would have been less dramatic to tell the truth. Still a historical film like this ought to have some conscience — and the real truth of how they worked together is probably of real interest instead of this heads-on melodrama. It would tell far more about human nature and how politics works, how such legislation came to be passed. There was no emphasis on the reporters except that they were there. None on lobbyists, there needed to be more intermediary people. Read Elizabeth Drew in the NYRB.

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You see the film showed those marches in an entirely different spirit from the way they were framed in the early 1960s. The film tried to suggest that in the 1960s the marches were fairly shown on TV.

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The Selma bridge that was filmed (CGI) to look like the original bridge

Not so. The depictions on TV were appalled but often very hostile. I was like many people moved by the outpouring of (in effect) protest and standing together on behalf of liberty and against barbarity (though we saw the French police practice murderering too, full-scale shoot-outs of the type that happen frequently in the US). The film does have a reference to Fergusson near its end, in the themed underscore music, but in the US we don’t frame marches that way — in the US after the horrors of Fergusson we did have marches, people did come out to protest, to defy, to stand for all people (blacks included especially) mattering, but what it televised that way? Was it framed that way? not at all. The same holds true for our Occupy Movement three years ago now. (The French don’t murder each other daily the way US people do. It’s no use talking about the NRA — how did they get to be so powerful; they must have backers among the US population wide enough). So it was more than the marches which passed the legislation. Again the film didn’t want to go there — that’s why it remained unfortunately a child-like parable.

Sometimes I wonder why I study films. Well, because it is the medium in which our world communicates to one another. I liked that rap song that rightly won the Golden Globes last night: Stop and listen.

The director used a combination of means. There were realistic scenes, iconic emblematic large scenes, scenes where the actors spoke to one another in effect allegorically, all against a backdrop of recreated sixties-looking cities and towns and landscapes. The scenes were punctuated — across them appeared suddenly typed letters in white — the recordings of the FBI and other watchdogs onto machines keeping track of where the people under surveillance were and what they were doing. This too has resonance in 2014 — the methods were much cruder then; the people monitoring those acting could not capture their very conversations through digital technology.

Towards the end of the film you get footage and when the last huge march to the Alabama courthouse happened and the marchers had many whites among them and star black people — you will see a young Harry Belafonte marching, Sammy Davis Junior over to the side apparently not wanting to call attention to himself, but there.

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Note the little girl

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.; DR. RALPH BUNCHE;  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel;  Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth

Vote for it. Go.

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Martin Luther King day is soon — he gave up his life

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

Better Left Unsaid, reviewed by Ellen Moody

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

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

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

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

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

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(Kazan/Schulberg, 1954 On the Waterfront)

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

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

Ellen

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Tobias (John Lithgow) with his sister-in-law and occasional lover, Claire (A Delicate Balance, directed by Pam MacKinnon)

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Henry (Ewan McGregor) with Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), at first his mistress and then his wife (The Real Thing, directed by Sam Gold, David Zinn set design)

I am so much accustomed to be alone — Madame Max, in Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn

Dear friends and readers,

While in NYC I went to two great plays performed greatly. Well, maybe the actors playing The Real Thing needed to project depths of emotions much more, only the highly verbal intellectual continually witty script was in the way while in A Delicate Balance Glenn Close played Agnes with such balance, discretion, strength that one was almost as fooled as she pretended half to be so that I didn’t quite realize their topic was the same thing: deep betrayals and treacheries (only one aspect of which is adultery).

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Agnes (Glenn Close) with Tobias, apparently all serenity if you don’t listen to her words: she opens and closes the play with how she’s about to go mad

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A similar confidential moment between Henry and Annie (The Real Thing)

Happily the plot-summaries and character sketches for both plays are on-line so I need not retell the matter. Both are plays you should read before you go.

I had unexpected experiences in both theaters. I never expected to find Albee Jamesian (all I had seen before was the film of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with Burton, Taylor and Sandy ) but Glenn Close or her director brought this out and a strong unexpected unusual form of feminism: an ambivalent portrayal of the woman who keeps it all in, who will not openly admit to the pain, adultery, betrayal, so she becomes “luminous.” James often emits such solemn and vague or not explicit terms for something some character does we are to admire — at the cost of everything real in her; that darkness is stronger in James than it felt in this production-play. Until now just about all the plays by Stoppard I’ve seen, have had as their central focus, play-acting itself and the theater, or there is a great poet or literary person whose life he is exploring; I’ve also seen farces and he does like to avail himself of a previous work which he rewrites from another angle (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is no aberration).

The Real Thing is directly about the emotional life of a marriage, of two marriages or three depending on how you reconfigure the characters (Henry and Charlotte, Max and Charlotte, Max and Annie, Henry and Annie), and it was done through intellectual battles of wits — it’s hard to see how it becomes popular, but the theater was full and I expect some of that was the name of the playwright and the stellar cast (all young stars, and I heard people recite where they had seen the actor/actress before). People were listening and laughed at the right spots; perhaps it was a more intelligent audience than usual who could see themselves in these characters. I read half-way through the text last night and it is singularly bare of any indication of how the actor should play the part or stage setting. At any rate the characters were continually half-discussing their adulteries, acting them out, judging them, singing about them through 50s pop songs (said to be Henry-as-Stoppard’s favorite music)

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Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), Henry’s wife at the opening of the play (Real Thing)

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Max (Josh Hamilton), sometimes a “real” betrayed husband and sometimes a character in a play by Henry who is a betrayed husband (Real Thing)

The Real Thing had fine actors: you had to be to convey the complexities of language of the material. Ewan McGregor had the lead role, a surrogate for Stoppard. At first I was thinking as I watched and left the theater, the problem with this The Real Thing about the intense pain one can know in marriage or through the dependencies of love is what is shown is not common, at least among those few people whose marriages I have known something for real about while A Delicate Balance is the more universal.

But then I realized A Delicate Balance also had at its center adulteries casual and long-term and emotional disloyalties about other thing as important (one’s writing and politics in Stoppard’s play, one’s life career and friendships hard to sustain in A Delicate Balance). And I thought about how many couples I know and my own experience of sexual and other unfaithfulness. The real difference is Stoppard treats adultery and bitterness so frankly while Albee keeps them contained (that balance Close maintains — like a Henry James character). I dare say the commoner thing is to pretend in the way of Albee’s characters, not to look or act upon hurt.

At first I had a hard time in Stoppard’s play figuring out what was happening: sometimes the characters were characters in a Stoppard play, sometimes a bad play (of course not by Stoppard); sometimes characters in the reality of the play. But in a tiny first break in the first act I whipped out my trusty cell phone (a handheld computer) and read wikipedia’s summary just as I had in the first full intermission of A Delicate Balance: then for both I could get immersed. Many are the uses of our World Wide Web with its shared worlds. Oh how the loss of net neutrality threatens us in “small” and large ways.

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What was remarkable about A Delicate Balance and made it a comment on The Real Thing is how Glenn Close played the lead heroine deeply sympathetically — as in a Henry James story, we were to admire her as “beautiful” and “tremendous” without being explicitly told that she was holding the whole household together by her magnficient hypocrisy, her act. Agnes as Maggie Verver (I hope my reader has read The Golden Bowl) whose father, Adam, marries Maggie’s prince-husband’s lover, Charlotte (the same name as Stoppard’s heroine) in order to remove Charlotte from Maggie’s prince husband though he likes neither Charlotte nor that prince.

If you read the criticism of the play (and wikipedia) you get a diatribe on Agnes as all repression, and (surely a sign something is seriously wrong) the moralistic rigid Edna who with her husband, Harry has fled her apparent in fear and shows up in Close’s apartment and proceeds to blame and carp and blurt out corrosive rebarbative descriptions of the others (especially Julia, Tobias and Agnes’s many-times divorced daughter, come home once again and wanting her room in which Edna and Harry have taken up temporary residence). Close’s clothes were of peaceful colors (as the guy, majoring in theater who sat next to me and talked to me said), signalling how she was holding the best emotions to the fore in all the scenes luminously (as James might have said), with intense bravery and pain.

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Agnes (Glenn Close) in a rare moment showing how betrayed and bitter and hurt she is, her sister, Claire, having fallen down (she drinks heavily, but maintains she is not an alcoholic, or no more than the others)

Were it not for her fake act, her sister, Claire would be out on the streets, Tobias incapacitated by fear and his own need to support others he calls his friends in order to believe in some good emotion somewhere.

I had chosen to see A Delicate Balance because I so admire Lindsay Duncan in all the roles I’ve seen her in, and I gather she played Claire utterly differently from Elaine Stritch (who did it caustically, a hard caricature of a drunk) and Maggie Smith who was wry, insouciant, amoral. This Claire was warm, witty, appealing, the only one in the room who could comfort Julia.

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Julia (Martha Plimpton), on her fourth break-up (A Delicate Balance)

The “thing” is that it doesn’t help to tell the truth, it doesn’t help to verbalize or articulate in The Real Thing. Similarly there is (seemingly mysteriously) Tobias and Agnes don’t demand that Edna and Harry tell them what has so terrified Edna and Harry that they must retreat to one of Tobias’ and Agnes’s bedrooms, namely Julia’s:

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Harry (Bob Balaban) and Edna (Clare Higgins) (A Delicate Balance)

The characters in The Real Thing achieve their best relief when they put records on of familiar 50s songs — creating a kind of nostalgia in the audience for a comfort that never was. I did find the performance too brittle and the transitions into song awkward. The play is of course about Stoppard (his marriages, his “low” tastes in music, his playwriting) and Henry had the funniest undercutting lines. The characters in A Delicate Balance do once in a while lose it, and we get this great emotional outpouring, but it does not seem to provide much release. The funniest moments were Clare’s (playing an accordion) and Harry’s (Bob Balaban is a remarkable actor, he was inimitable in Gosford Park)

It has been for me a deep treat to go to the theater and really have a deep or thoughtful or exhilarating or grief-striken or funny experience — it was with Jim I first went and he who taught me to go, and where. London has great theater too (and we went when we were there to the National Theater, Old Vic, and RSC especially) — both London and NYC attract the best as best paid and respected; in other cities English speaking you can have greatness too — here in DC sometimes, in London often. (There is a lot of junk in NYC too). Jim would have enjoyed both plays; had he been alive, both are the sort of play we’d have seen together and talked about over drinks afterward.

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Group scenes

I’m aware that readers coming to this blog have wondered why I write the way I do, why I often go on at length, why so many. It’s always been out of loneliness, even with Jim, but when he was here, my blog was prompted by our talk, and after I’d write it, we’d talk about what I’d written. Now I write out to try not to feel so alone in the silence. I trust I am talking to someone who comes here and reads these even if mine are imagined sounds and more than 99% of the time I’ve no idea what the reader is thinking or how responding.

Ellen

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The actual day dress and hat worn by Elizabeth McGovern as Cora Crawley, Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey — rich heavy cloth

Described, who funds it, how the Duponts grew so (obscenely may I use the word) rich — gunpowder. The gardens, the exhibits, dwelling of course on Downton Abbey, the fetish dresses. How it functions as a social facility faute de mieux.

Dear friends and readers,

As my header and picture tell immediately, I have been to Winterthur Museum: this past Thursday afternoon and evening. I have decidedly mixed feelings about such places: I asked more questions of our guide than anyone else (note: she was grateful and wanted questions she could answer to fill out the time allotted to each of several rooms in the central house she showed us), especially who owned this house originally (the Duponts — they owned everything worth having at one time in Delaware), who’s funding it now: there’s an endowment by the Duponts substantially added to by philanthropists, selling memberships to local people for activities like lectures, evening receptions, tours. Winterthur Museum is one secular local social and cultural center; the university is the other. At each stop of this tour I noticed how the particular Dupont she was often talking of (a male born in the early 20th century who became a collector, connoisseur, sportsman, lover of art, builder of museum rooms and garden) spent enormously on each whim however art-oriented he might have: move whole ceilings, change contours to accommodate every detail of an 18th century wallpaper handed scenes around a room from China, have opera music piped in from miles away to where he was golfing. The guide picked up on my perspective (drift?) and became just a trifle defensive, regaling us with the two schools of art and conservation supported at the Winterthur (by fellowships? she didn’t say? or students loans?), to one of which she had been and gotten a degree in fine arts and is paid now for working there.

The gardens are beautiful and extensive; there are treasures of pottery, sculpture, home furnishings of all sorts, musical instruments, specific objects owned by this famous person and that; an indoor garden all bewindows; we were invited to look at the rooms the family once used and those originally built to be shown to the public. There is a research library — for American artefacts and architecture. I regret I didn’t buy at the gift shop a pair of exquisitely filligreed earrings in the Downton Abbey style, and a light weight woven jackets, lovely dark blue threads woven into this light lacey cloth, again a Downton Abbey style. Had Jim been alive, I probably would have, but don’t have the urge to treat myself the way I once did (indeed it feels somehow downright wrong), and told myself he’d have said I couldn’t wear it, as it was too delicate so I was getting a bogus relic. But when I noticed a colleague and friend had gotten herself an exquisitely embroidered scarf, Downton Abbey mode, I wished I had (they sell for $30 and up).

I had the same response which Jim and I shared when we were taken through a castle-like house, now a full-fledged week-long-trip place at Asheville, North Carolina, where a similarly super-gargantuan rich family filled a huge building and made a garden, Biltmore (a bus takes you) that ordinary people are invited to visit. The unexamined adulation of such places supports the present oligarchy and its past — and forgets that but for a brief time (1930s to 60s) there was in the US an attempt to make life more decent and share the goods, fulfilling occupations, enjoyment, and security with the average person. We did not have to be grateful for the crumbs off the table of the 1%.

What I enjoyed most of the museum itself was the most foolish thing probably: the rooms given over to the actual costumes worn by the actors and actresses of Downton Abbey. I felt my heart-strings tug as I heard the familiar strains of the music coming from the corridor as I climbed the marble stairwell. The museum knows the draw of this place and it is advertised everywhere in the museum. The information about what we were seeing was accurate: the Grantham family dresses and some of the suits are a mix of style then with style today. The staff had rebuilt the bell system — that is the sort of thing that grates. Are we to celebrate this? Here and there perpetual films were going of this or that episode where a costume we were viewing could be seen. Of course this was a tiny percentage of the stock the program costumer and her assistants have made but it was sufficiently wide that you could see each of the main characters’ sort of dress (two each for each of the daughters for example, a couple each for each of the older upper class family women). Unfortunately, I was taking photos with my cell phone and even with a real camera I am not exactly competent so while I tried to get some of the hats, I seem only to have captured two (the above and this one below):

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Summer dress and hat worn by Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley — light cotton (muslin?)

I had predicted and indeed found the “creations” for the married Lady of the house (Cora) stood out for the work, material, expense, lavishness over all the other females.

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One of Cora’s evening dresses: my photo doesn’t capture the heavy and delicate working of the embroidery up and down the front of Cora’s dress — the varied textile dress is expensive

I have favorite characters so I am glad I managed to photograph Mr Bates’s working clothes as worn by Brendan Coyle and his bench, even if smudged:

Bates

I like Joanne Froggart as Anne Smith but must agree with her (as she’s hinted) that her outfits are so dull (and there is but one of Sophia McShera as Daisy’s and one of Leslie Nicol’s as Mrs Patmore), and in this exhibit none from the time of her being a lady’s maid — to tell the truth I have better photos to share from the books I’ve bought. Who makes a fetish of a servant’s outfit?

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Remember Rose Leslie as Gwen, the housemaid, whom the Winterthur people are aware was a popular favorite once —

I note that the choice of fetish items show a class perspective and emphasis at work — minimal for the servants and several for the family each time. There is the one typical housemaid outfit we first see her in, one for Siobhan Finneran as Miss O’Brien, the lady’s maid; here is but one the glitter and richness of Phyllis Logan’s layered dress as housekeeper: an expensive set of sewn varied textiles and chains:

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In the physical place, you can see the stiffness of Rob James-Collier’s outfit as a footman:

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The costumes did seem to be almost all from the first season. Winterthur did not go to this expense for more than one and the beginning of another (to get in Shirley MacLaine’s garments doubtless). All of them looked remarkably comfortable as styles (they simple hang on the body)

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Post World War One coat and hat – this kind of semi-sexy outfit was there, the fur expensive, rich velvet gold cloth

— as long as you didn’t remember the women wore corsets underneath to provide the form of body that the dress was to wrap round and cling to.

It was an exhibit of textiles the rich could use as imagined by the ITV costume workshop. it might have been interesting to see information about the dress designer, materials, who made the dresses (how much paid?). There were also objects the Grantleys used (beyond the re-built bell system):

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Gloves worn by the actresses — kid is the slang

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Crockery used — the same kind as Jim and I used to see at Landmark Trust houses

I did go into other parts of the museum — found an 18th century sack dress and noticed that a couple of the later 19th century ones did resemble aspects of the Downton Abbey costumes.

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Of course if this man and his family of Duponts had not wanted to spend their money this way, we the public could not have this functioning funded social facility and pretty space. But it testifies to the continued domination of private property and huge fortunes as the controlling factors in US society that we owe such places to private foundations: of course the discourses they will support will not be those that undermine their positions; we see everything from a limited perspective of the privileged. The guide mentioned in passing that the basis of the Dupont money was gunpowder. All that slaughter and destruction of the Civil War enriched the Duponts, modern uses of chemistry in industry (and one of its results the spread of cancer) are the bedrock of this dream place.

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Michelle Dockery’s silk layers Christmas ball dress from the first season; this is next to Dan Steevens’s tux (rather like a needed Ken doll) behind which is played over and over his proposal on bended knees to her in the snow

The museum several years ago allowed EC/ASECS to have its banquet in the museum (I’m not sure where); this year we were allowed to use a beautiful area for a reception for snacks, sweets and drinks and enjoyable talk, and then for another hour to wax exhilarated reading 18th century poetry and verse playlets aloud to one another. Peter Staffel, our master of ceremonies, chose to end these on Gray’s brilliant “Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes” which for me nowadays especially evokes an ambivalent response too to conclude the festivities.

’Twas on a lofty vase’s side,
Where China’s gayest art had dyed
  The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclined,
  Gazed on the lake below.

Her conscious tail her joy declared;
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
  The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
  She saw; and purred applause.

Still had she gazed; but ’midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
  The genii of the stream;
Their scaly armour’s Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betrayed a golden gleam.

The hapless nymph with wonder saw;
A whisker first and then a claw,
  With many an ardent wish,
She stretched in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
  What cat’s averse to fish?

Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch’d, again she bent,
  Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smiled)
The slippery verge her feet beguiled,
  She tumbled headlong in.
Eight times emerging from the flood
She mewed to every watery god,
  Some speedy aid to send.
No dolphin came, no Nereid stirred;
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard;
  A Favourite has no friend!

From hence, ye beauties, undeceived,
Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved,
  And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;
  Nor all that glisters, gold.

Ellen

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Kevin Kline as Matthias Gold and Maggie Smith, Matilde Girard (no she is not his mother after all) in My Old Lady 2014)

Have you ever listened
to the steps of your mother
walking around the whole house
during the night

    without putting the lights on,
    knowing her way in the dark by heart,
    quite quietly,
    step by step,
    as drop by drop
    from a leaking roof?

How she runs her fingers on the walls,
to make out the features
of her past life,
turned into a house.
Blaga Dimitrova, trans. Ludmilla Popova-Wightman, from poems to her mother, Scars

Dear friends and readers,

I went to see this film because after having been told by one of the three students left in my gothic class “don’t miss it, Ellen, I loved it,” and noticing it was play in only one theater in all my area, and that the theater which specializes in good unusual films because there is no parking around it, except maybe weekday mornings (Shirlington); after noticing all this, I say, I saw the author, director, and part producer is Israel Horovitz. Well Jim and I used to know him: Israel was enrolled in the Ph.D. program in English at the Graduate Center while I was there. I remember Jim talking to him, then telling me “we must see The Line” (we never did, nor Indian Joe wants the Bronx). I knew Israel was a gifted dramatist. As the film came to its close, I thought to myself, Jim would have said, “it’s okay, a win.” He’d have liked the movie as a whole.

It’s the story of Matthias, a sad man just over 57 who has nothing, no money, no friends, no career, but whose father has left him a large old beautiful house and garden in one of the more exquisitely preserved neighborhoods of Paris — part of the pleasure of the film is these streets, the bridges, the waters, the houses, furniture, all we see. Twice Jim rented an apartment for us and Izzy in just such a courtyard in Paris.

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Matthias arrives from NYC to find his father’s aging mistress, Mathilde Girard, living there with the right to stay until she dies and to be paid 2400 Euros a month by the house’s owner (by French law). She has living with her, a daughter, Chloe, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, an English teacher, who we gradually come to see is as lost as to any joy in her life, or hope for something she finds sustaining to do, as he is. She is more than irritated by Matthias’s presence and the threat he represents (he wants to sell the place to a developer); she is angry

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It was originally a stage play, and the characters emerge through their talk, with the sets (albeit real places) used symbolically,

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A cultured boathouse (filled with books) on the Seine

The gradually compelling interest is the unfolding of these three characters’ pasts, especially that of aging old woman, Matilde, who puts on quite a performance as a woman of the world, all savoir faire, adjusted to all the hard truths of life, as she spends her last years in a civilized pattern of dining, drinking, reading, teaching too (young French adults to read English. specifically James Joyce), all equability. Maggie does not break down quite as far as both Kline and Thomas (I feel impelled to use their real names somehow) as they all slowly make out the features of their painful shared pasts to one another — Matthias’s mother killed herself after years of living marginalized while her husband was the faithful lover and companion of Matilde; Chloe could be the daughter of Matthias’s father and not her mother’s husband who lived not far from the house most discreetly (and mostly broke). Matilde insists her long life with Mattias’s father was a deeply happy and fulfilled one, that he was a kind, generous, tactful, loving man. Well not to me, declares Matthias. Matilde would prefer him to believe his miserable state at this point is all his fault (for being an egoistic depressive you see). Confronted with Chloe’s suddenly open feelings of how her legitimate father hated her (discreetly of course), and how Chloe has given up her life to her mother by living with her (I never asked you to, replies Matilde), Matilde has nothing to offer as compensation — except life itself. That she says is enough.

As I watched I felt that Horovitz was examining and releasing his own self-doubt, rage, hurt, and using the desperate attempts of Matthias to re-establish himself (he visits antique shops with furniture taken from the house to sell it) as part of a quiet reflection of the middle years of his life — Matthias it emerges is a failed American playright, has endured divorces too many. Chloe is reactive (during the course of the film she breaks off a long standing affair she had been having with a married man with two children and a grandchild to boot). Each of them finds old photos and brings them out to show the others. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, taking down his bundle to open and going over the things in it. There is something “old Woody-Allenish” about this film; Horovitz in this first film (he’s 75) is much influenced by Woody Allen.

Kline has the most lines, Thomas the strong sudden movements, but Smith has more presence than either. At one point she forces herself up the stairs (the first time in years it seems) to find and comfort her daughter, to take back something she has said, the walk itself bringing to mind her journey. She ends up dominating the film. We feel for her as she holds on to her cherished memories, with more effort we begin to see than she’s showing (a quiet moment shows her reading in bed, tiring, and as she falls asleep to the side, Thomas coming in and taking off her glasses, covering her). Yes, she says, she lies (a lot). Her dignity is a daily act that keeps her going.

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It does fall off at the close, a “pat denouement” Glenn Kenny calls it. Of course Mattias and Chloe turn to one another, become lovers and we are in a romance; when it seems possibly they are half-brother-sister, Matilde is still unperturbed: what’s the harm (both past breeding), if you find happiness …, the film punts, and we are shown Kline collecting some DNA results from Matilde’s doctor to show Chloe is after all not his half-sister: her legitimate was her biological father. Happily this part of the film is short. The point is everyone’s better instincts are brought forth, and Mattias decides not to sell, and to stay, Chloe to cooperate, and all may build a life here among the flower beds near the Seine — where people sing songs from Mozart’s Don Giovanni as they walk.

The good and genuinely moral message of the film is give of yourself, forgive others, keep with them if they will have you and are themselves good people (not destroyers) and stay alive. The real problem may be seen by contrasting it with Allen’s better films. My Old Lady needed to be funnier. There is not enough self-irony, not enough distance nor reaching out to the audience. Delpy did that in her imitation of Allen set in Paris: reached out. Horovitz is too guarded.

The reviews have not been generous. Not enough insight into themselves is brought out; this is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (with Burton, Taylor, Sondra Dee tearing themselves and one another truly apart). It’s gentle, like the effective background music. (One person near me stayed through all the credits, not to see the surprise comic last scenes interpersed, but learn who sung which songs.)

As a light comic play taking a deep plunge below the surface of what has been now and again turned into a grave movie, My Old Lady will yield some analogies and parallels, like the one I find in the poetry of Dimitrova characterizing her mother. This room here had some splendid parties, that there we ate and read in, over there we played the piano … such are some of the lines Matilde murmurs and speaks aloud now and again

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Ellen

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Nearclosure
With Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman standing aside, Bryan Cranston as Mr White advising Aaron Paul as Jesse to find a new identity — near closure

Dear friends and readers,

When I began watching and then writing about Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad I did not intend to write seriously about it, but gradually I came to see the it comprises an unusual set of quality TV films worth study and evaluative commentary. They mirror central deeply disquieting and central aspects of US life, the whole plot-design actuated by the cancer epidemic (from our ubiquitous “chemistry, yo Mr White!”) and the horrendous price of a pretense at effective chemical medicine:

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Anna Gunn as Skyer desperate and believing Walt could be saved, pressuring him into going for the out-of-range expensive chemotherapy and operation.

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At film’s end: she sits, chain-smokes, drinks coffee, listens to others in a corner of a trailer-home

As film art they are brilliant. The genre finally American gothic: the mini-series has the recipe except for the supernatural: the double self, death, labyrinthine haunted places, the past never goes away, even sexuality in the form of homo-eroticism unacknowledged, and at the end a house in ruin. Less known but common characteristics: exploration of science, doctors (as in Frankenstein). Kafkaesque, majorly says Jesse of his experiences.

So now, as I’ve done for the Palliser, Poldark and Downton Abbey mini-series, as well as many Jane Austen and Andrew Davies’ films, I offer a handy list in one place for people who are interested easily to reach my summaries and commentary. I’ll keep it to this blog (and not attempt to put it on a new website when I finally make it) as after all I discover I did not write as many here as for these previous series:

1) Cancer and Anatomies of Violence: Season 1:1-3

2) Cancer and Money: Season 1:4-6

3) Parallels distract common sense from seeing who is the villain here: Season 1:17

4) It’s the reverse of what’s claimed: Season 2:1-4

5) A Crime Adventure Story: Season 2:5-7 to Finale

6) A Crime Adventure Story (Cont’d): Season 2:8-10

7) American Gothic: Season 2:11-13

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Their first lab

8) Sensational Screenplay into a film: Season 3:1-4

9) Rather poorer stuff: Season 3:5-7

10) Stasis (includes Fly and Kafkaesque): Season 3:8-10

11) A Killing Way of Life: Season 3:11-13; 4:1-4

12) I change my mind about Skyler: Season 4:5-13 & Reprise 1:1-7

13) Walt and the Emmys: Season 5:1-8 & Reprise Season 2:5-13

14) The Dark Tragic End: Season 6:1-8

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From The Fly

I’ve two books to recommend, and transcripts of what was said in each episode. As I discover new essays or materials (reviews welcome) on-line that are good, I’ll add them here:

David R. Koepsell and Robert Arp’s collection of essays by themselves and others, Breaking Bad and Philosophy: Badder Living Through Chemistry

Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad by Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz

The Breaking Bad episodes scripts — simply the dialogue taken down (not the screenplay, not shooting scipts as they have no stage directions, no description of production design, no designation for shots)

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One of the many landscapes and bags of chemicals from the series

Ellen

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Happiness is the state of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves — Jonathan Swift, The Tale of a Tub, 1704, alluded to in Magic in the Moonlight, 2014

Clarence: Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he? — screenplay for It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946

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Colin Firth as Stanley Crawford and Emma Stone as Sophie Baker, soaked from rain, gaze out at the sky in an observatory (Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen film)

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Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey looking up at the sky from a town degraded by misery, with people debased from lack of economic opportunity his Building Company had given him, as the angel Clarence has changed the past so that he never existed (It’s a Wonderful Life, Frank Capra film)

Dear friends and readers,

Surely sheer coincidence that I, for whom these topics have a direct personal anguish, should have watched in tandem two films which either assert (It’s a Wonderful Life) or debate (Magic in the Moonlight) if there is a God, if prayers are answered, if there is some meaning in existence, a pattern beautiful imposed by a supernatural realm beyond the natural. I knew a belief that this is so (however comically enacted by Henry Travers as the prosaic Angel looking for a promotion, Clarence) was the central assertion of Capra’s famous Christmas movie, but I had long ago forgotten how this was demonstrated and how George Bailey came to know such anguish as is seen on the mobile face of the great actor, Jimmy Stewart, and I neglected to read the reviews of Allen’s latest summer movie project so didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.

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George dreaming over travel literature

As Joseph (an angel who appears as a twinkling star in the firmament) tells it to Clarence, George Bailey’s life is one where one enemy of promise after another takes away each of George’s ambitious dreams. He dreamed of leaving the dull small town, Bedford Falls, of taking a trip around the world. He couldn’t because his father’s business, a Building Association which loaned money to people, needed his expertise. Four years pass and he is now hoping to go to college. He can’t because his father dies, and that business will go to pieces if he doesn’t sustain it. Instead his brother uses the money he earned to become an engineer, meet a rich young woman and take a well-paying job in her father’s firm far away from Bedford Falls. At each turn in his life some promise, some ambition, some average expectation is thwarted. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Mary (Donna Reed) and hopes to take a luxurious cruise honeymoon, and there is a rush on the association so all their money must go to satisfy their customers’ demand for their money. He and his wife take over the ruin of a house and fix it.

Unlike real life though these enemies of promise turn out to be good things: each time George is led to do good — he fights Mr Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore) the mean capitalist banker, the film’s villain, who seeks to make everyone else live poorly, work for little, have no decent place to live so they will be vulnerable, weak, serve him abjectly as he grows richer and richer. George Bailey on the surface looks the selfless man who has provided a beautiful village of small houses for the people of this town, seen his brother become a WW2 hero, but we are to see he feels his lack of a fancy car, beautiful home; he never goes to Europe (a dream of upper middle class fulfillment found in the last season of Breaking Bad too: Marie tells Hanjk Walt and Skylar are planning to go to Europe but this is thwarted when Walt is found out by Hank and his cancer returns).

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Thomas Mitchell as Uncle Billy abject before his loss of the important money

Then on Christmas eve during some excitement either he or his faithful kind honest uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) puts a desperately needed $800 in an envelope which gets wrapped up in a newspaper and into the hands of the evil Mr Potter, who keeps it. George has been financing all he does on tenuous grounds and when the bank examiners come that night, there is no money in the till. He is bankrupt; Mr Potter as chief banker, is able to call in loans and demand a warrant for his arrest. George will be exposed as a failure, crook, shamed, and there wells up in him the years of personal sacrifice. He screams at his loving family (4 children who cost), his endlessly hard-working selfless wife (decorating the tree, making food for all), and for once tells those around them what underneath his kind exterior what he thinks of them. Fools, incompetent, irritating. He has given up his time to support others not as smart as he. He then sees how useless it is to them them these truths, apologizes, and rushes out into the street.

We next see him in a bar run by an Italian man who owes the happy physically comfortable existence of his family to George’s generous trust in him. George is getting very drunk. Heaven, though, is alerted to his suicidal thoughts because so many people in the town pray to God (we hear these prayers) and Clarence is sent down to help. Just as George is about to jump off a bridge, into teeming cold water, Clarence jumps. Naturally George jumps in also to save Clarence, and both are taken to a local station house to dry off. After some initial comic dressing by the angel (changing a heavenly gown for a suit), the two go walking, Clarence carrying a favorite book, Tom Sawyer.

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Henry Travers as Clarence listening to George

As Clarence listens to George’s immiseration, he comes up with a radical way to prove to George his life has not been wasted, worth nothing, achieved nothing: he puts a spell on the world so that George will see what would have happened to many in Bedford Falls had George not existed: George is deaf in one ear because he saved his brother from drowning in ice one winter; his brother would have died at age 8. The Building Association would have failed and the whole town resemble the impoverished huge population in the US today: dives for drunkenness, wretched food, oblivion sought, hopelessness, everyone biting at everyone else.

It’s a movie which denies Mrs Thatcher’s famous contention (today often repeated as a canny truth) that there is no such thing as society only individuals and families, each a unit apart from the other units. It demonstrates that people matter to each other. That we are all “in it” together. George’s Building Association is the New Deal, a genuinely pro-people gov’t as we’ve not seen in the US since FDR, only in fits and starts since then up to the 1970s, when an anti-people group of powerful associations began to turn the US back to the pre-WW1 era socially as far as is possible. And it does show the underside of poverty and despair: depression era places and dress abound when George’s existence is subtracted.

Stewart becomes hysterical as he sees what the town became. It’s a deeply sexist film so Mary is envisioned as a uptight virgin librarian who never married and is horrified when Stewart attempts to approach her.

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What Donna Reed must’ve been had George not married her

A secondary sexually unchaste young woman Violet (Gloria Graham) who he helped escape the punished existence she had been living

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Gloria Graham as all glistening gratitude to the kindly man who rescues her ..

is seen as just about a prostitute being beaten up and taken off to jail by cops. George is now seen as a danger to all, a crazy man, and (really sad this), the one place where what is happening in this 1946 film corresponds to US society today is when a cop pulls out a gun and starts to shoot to kill Stewart who flees back to the bridge where he had originally intended to jump. George stands there praying hard that Clarence will make it that he did exist, and the magic happens and suddenly the cop recognizes him. Meanwhile Mary has visited all the people George ever helped and they have all contributed what they could and the debt will be paid. What a contrast to Breaking Bad: no one in Breaking Bad gives anything to anyone without expecting something monetarily valuable back (it can be prestige, respectability). If Walter White wants to make enough money to afford effective chemotherapy for his cancer, he must turn to selling something that commands a big price: meths.

No American value is questioned. Mr Potter is a twisted evil man, not presented as representative of usual humanity. War is a good thing in It’s a Wonderful Life: George’s brother Henry’s heroism saving people by his airforce work is not seen to kill people at the same time. We see George help one seriously presented black man, but otherwise black people are represented as comical and contented — especially in the “colored” maid the Bailey family seems to be able to afford to keep. It is a fable controlled by the Hays Code.

Famously people cry over this film. I became hysterical as I watched — it seemed to give me a license to wild crying.

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There is something indescribably touching in Stewart’s face as he is made to feel he had a valuable life

Yes if I had never existed this house which we bought would probably not be here (have been bought and pulled down by someone far richer), Jim would not have moved to the US, and would have died years earlier from the very unhealthy life he was living. No Laura, no Izzy. I suppose on some level the argument is silly, but its radically root-and-branch evacuation of an existence make a radical point. Maybe others when they watch Stewart travel the huge trajectory of extravagant emotions their losses or yearnings come out too. For me I thought about how I just don’t have the strength I once did any more, as all happiness is gone from life for me. I see myself as trying hard and then as repeatedly finding it’s no use, stomach ache, so exhausting this being alive without him, nothing I do gives me any surcease. I will never now have the dreams I hoped to fulfill: I can’t travel, am all anxiety, am excluded from real companionship as much as ever. He alone assuaged that, he was my friend, so now for me it’s deep loneliness and frustration, true silence. I surmise others who cry do not cry with delirious joy, but because they know the film’s fulfillment for George Bailey is a fairy tale they wish were true

Izzy has told me the fable is told in many forms in various places since 1946, and when in some films one is going to get a version, of here’s what the world would have been without you, the film turns black-and-white. I know there are other classic popular films and musicals where suddenly the audience is presented with characters in heaven looking down at and affecting the people “below.” Carousel for one. The egoistic outlook which imagines that a single person (“I”) inside the vast universe can control or interfere with complicated events across a big earth suddenly so they change to satisfy that person’s needs through wishing which reaches some super-power is apparently one many people still fantasize with. When I taught ghost stories to my students each term there would be a couple of students who’d during their talks assert a belief in ghosts. They did not go on to witches, werewolves or vampires, but ghosts are enough.

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Simon McBurney is the jealous magician who with Sophie deludes Firth as Stanley into believing in her medium powers; there they are, all complacent with Eileen Atkins as rich pampered loving and loved aunt

First, let me not be misunderstood. It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film fable; Magic in the Moonlight is often tiresome, exasperating (to me especially when I had to watch the half-embarrassed actor, Colin Firth fold his hands, look up piously and pray for his aunt’s life), and self-indulgent. Lazy. At the end of the movie after lengthy discussion, finally Sophie is found to be hiding in Aunt Vanessa (Eileen Atkins)’s house, ready to kiss and marry Stanley. The young woman-older man couple is too close to Allen’s own marriage to his young step-daughter for comfort. Firth is not the first male matinee idol type actor to stand in for Allen too closely in these last years as Allen faced the reality he is even too old looking to be the heroine’s father; he needs to play the grandfather at least. As with other of Allen’s last films (not last year’s Blue Jasmine), this film occurs in a never-land of luxury, idleness and gorgeous landscapes and ceaseless effortless vacations:

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no one has any hard work to do: jobs are all of the art-y type (including being a magician); clothes are lavish (especially Atkins’s wardrobe which seems tactlessly over-designed to hide her aging body and face). The laziness is in having the actors tell one another at the opening of the film what they have been doing these last years, what they are now planning to do (go off to a rich estate and expose a fake medium), fill us in repeatedly (like Prospero in the first act of The Tempest). And everyone praises Firth’s art and Aunt Vanessa’s existence to the extent I thought of the characters in Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison’s excruciating open praise of him and later Harriet. And Emma Stone is lifeless; she looks like a Woody Allen heroine, but she can’t act.

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Sophie and Stanley discuss nature of existence

Yet if you are intrigued by an ironic debate on the issues presented in It’s a Wonderful Life, interested in Allen’s films (as the New York Times critic immediately noted) which present and debate the problem of the existence of the paranormal, superstition (as in fortune-tellers — often found in Allen films), doubt and faith, whether life is worth living given how cruel are the fates of so many people, how unfeeling people are to one another, rampant injustice everywhere (not seen in this film), desperate poverty (which we are told Sophie and her mother experienced until they took up their fake trade) — the film has the suspense of whether we will end up in preferring the fatuous contentment of the deluded (go to the fortuneteller and hold to what she says) or the desperate bleakness of recognizing death as meaningless annihilation after a life of mostly failure and distress with performative lies as one way to get through knowingly. Some of the talk is absorbing with Firth playing the disillusioned misanthrope.

Conor Langton liked it, thought that Firth’s performance carried it.

The haughty reserve, the perfectly phrased disdain, the deeply romantic nature hidden beneath the chill: Firth does this sort of thing better than anyone. But this time the character’s name is Stanley Crawford … At times, the movie sounds like an overwritten drawing-room comedy from eighty years ago, or like Shaw without the irony … The renowned cinematographer Darius Khondji, shooting on 35-mm. film, with old CinemaScope lenses, achieves a soft, lemon-tinted light .. the swank is held in place by Allen’s instinctive classicism: the camera that gently recedes as the actors walk toward it; the long-lasting immovable shots as people talk and talk. It’s an accomplished, stately movie—unimpassioned but pleasing.

The movie stands up to intellectual scrutiny and aesthetically is intelligent. When Firth finally figures out how the delusion is achieved, he’s not keen to return to his arid hopelessness. The film connects to It’s Wonderful Life because Allen and Firth both want to long to believe in faery and understand it is not so, but in understanding it’s not so realize something else has to be substituted: love, kindness, toleration of those who need illusions, recognizing you do have illusions of your own in other areas, need some reassurance there is some enjoyment and at least some comradeship to be hoped for.

The final problem with Allen’s new film is it lacks of sense of humor, Allen is taking himself so seriously. Now Capra in It’s a Wonderful Life does the same thing: takes the issues and American icons of family life seriously. For myself I bothered to write this because I wanted to recognize people’s serious involvement. Yet our public visions of can’t accept more than fleeting moments

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To please today’s public, Allen needed more of the spirit of his 1972 New Yorker piece called “Examining Psychic Phenomena, “There is no question that there is an unseen world … The problem is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open?”  And Capra needed to let the dark side of his movie — what we are shown is the reality with no George Baileys about — come out more dominantly had he not had the Hays Code to contend with.

I neglected to mention the elderly very rich widow in Allen’s film who is paying huge sums to be made to believe she is getting in touch with her dead husband’s spirit. She is not quite made merciless fun of.

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Jacki Weaver as Brice’s (Hamish Linklater) mother (he is the super-rich young man about to marry Sophie)

Other widows: George Bailey’s mother who with George having lived is presented as mostly worrying about money; without George she would have ended childless, a bleak lonely woman who takes in boarders; Sophie Baker’s career is dependent on the efforts of her widowed mother to secure clients and keep the sceptical at bay. We never learn whether Aunt Vanessa ever married.

Ellen

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