Archive for the ‘American literature’ Category

The team (Elizabeth Moss, Topher Grace to the left) intensely anxious as they watch their TV journalism play out (2015 Truth, scripted, directed James Vanderbilt, out of Mapes’s memoir)

Dear friends and readers,

The climax of James Vanderbilt’s Truth (directed and scripted by him) is a conversation Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) have on a terrace in New York City. Very glamorous setting. Rather has decided to retire to protect himself; he is telling Mary she must knock under to pressure because she’s too young to give up the investigative journalist career ahead of her. Mapes had just delivered a documented story of the horrors at the Abu Graib prison tortures by Americans — and seemed to have such potential.

But Rather does not argue that. Instead he goes off on a tangent which relates to his own career. He tells Mary stories of early news shows, of how he was among the first to start up Sixty Minutes, and how Sixty Minutes showed a TV channel could make money on the news. The irony here is rich. The reason for the existence of new shows had been to satisfy the FCC demands that all “sides” have equal time. But now they could turn a profit. Redford as Rather looks intensely wry. His next words imply what happened was the profit motive took over other news-shows, so they all now are the product of their advertiser’s advertisements galore and exist in a universe where other news-shows have become forms of entertainment and no serious investigative reporting is done. It’s not wanted.

This movie is not getting the attention it should get nor the positive reviews for its content. It has flaws, but they are of the artistic kind (too much melodrama, too much hype), but it’s retelling of the story puts the emphasis on the right place: the rot in news shows themselves. At its center is a courageous woman.

Truth is about the rot within that we see the full results of in 2015 on not only Fox and CNN but new shows that are still respectable. We see how one reason Mary Mapes rushed her story was it was necessary to keep the ratings of Sixty Minutes high. We see how her high-powered pressuring methods were a product of this system and worked successfully within it as long as she didn’t expose the wrong group of people. It indicts the news-papers that repeated the ploy and method of the Bush administration at the time to attack the story that would have exposed Bush’s lack of any military experience just as Kerry was smeared by distorted stories of his experience of the realities of actual military life.

Thus the strongly qualified praise meted out to exploration of what investigative journalism via a TV medium has become, which is what Vanderbilt’s film, Truth, tries to dramatize unbiasedly, is disquieting. The New York Times appears to want to uphold the establishment’s judgement that these reporters at a minimum exercised bad judgement (she is “not exonerated” — from what, pray tell?), and suggests the movie is a detective story as propaganda out of political bias. In the film Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) avers that for her she was bringing out the truth, but it undermines her too: for ambition; as family bread-winner. Read also Roger Ebert’s Brian Tallerico half-dismissal; Tim Robery in the Telegraph (the actors focused on); Peter Travers strange short Rolling Stone review. David Edelstein for the Vulture at lease explains the situation, what is said to have happened, and the result : not Bush exposed, but Rather’s departure from CBS and Mary Mapes unable to work in journalism for a long time afterward — recalling Nina Tottenberg who was fired after in the 1980s she bravely exposed lies about marijuana.

I recommend seeing it though I have mixed feelings about the film. The continual hectic pace and hyped-up melodrama is at times over the top (not that TV producers don’t need to make a deadline), the message speech (true enough) shouted by Mike Smith, about to be dismissed to homelessness once again (Topher Grace as Mary’s aide), that Viacom profits are protected here is intended as deep background. But it does come across as hysteria, and the dialectic gives the man firing Mike the opportunity to call him a fool for thinking all the people in the office are evil. Mike was not saying that.

The film was also marred by its closing scenes, which included an insistent upbeat presentation of Redford as Dan Rather walking away surrounded by admiring loving compassionate faces. Those who fired Mary and were working to push Dan out, were represented as remorseful (!), and as having acted only because they had to, as nearly (the film makers did draw back) overcome with guilt because they feel for their ex-friends and associates. Right. As with a protest novel, a protest film needs at a minimum to reach the wider audience and such sentimentality is one crowd-pleaser.

I was moved at its penultimate scenes. The performances were very good: Stacey Keach as the opaque whistleblower Bill Burkett and Noni Hazlehurst as his wife.


Hazlehurst lights into Mapes for pretending to care about her husband’s health with the implication they have used and are now discarding him for no good reason. Some watching the film may come away believing her perspective, holding to it.

In the film’s scenes nuances get nowhere. Still I can be manipulated. I was touched as the film-maker intended me to be when Mary leaned on her husband (Conor Burke), and agreed to go out for walk with him now: she’ll have plenty of time to recuperate. Vanderbilt and Mapes (as it’s her book) are presenting material much less socially acceptable than the coming film (I want to see badly) Suffragette. Who is against the rights of women to fight wars? A general political witch-hunt has been dramatized too in the story of Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston, no less) “coming soon.”

Perhaps Mapes’s caustic memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power does suggest that she became an aggressive reporter after facts and documents because her father had physically abused her, and she was standing up to him. That she worshipped Rather as a father substitute in the form of a mentor.
Real Mary Mapes — as I looked at the photo I remembered this moment of distress, harassment, shock, sheer tiredness registered on her face

The film needed to provide a usable past for understanding the new shows’ behavior towards their journalists, and the scapegoating (witch-hunt) of these journalists as their framework. It did come close. It’s not a propaganda but a political film and the reason it may not fully convince is its melodramatic mode, not its content.

Redford, Vanderbilt and Keach on set — Redford has done strong political films in his life

The full context of 2004 was the Iraq war, its falseness, and we do see in the film Tony Blair saying how much he wants peace (two weeks ago we read his memorandum to Bush a year before the war that Blair would support attacking Iraq), early footage from the Iraq war. The film could have emphasized this context more as when I watched it this afternoon in November 2015 I couldn’t forget the refugee crisis in Europe, the massacres in Syria, the raw violence of Afghanistan, ISIS; the Bush presidency as another step in the direction of chaos in the colonized lands, and the impoverishment blight engineered across Europe and the western hemisphere. Its topic was spot on: the origin and develpoment of “news” shows like Fox (liars), CNN & MSNBC (compromised), which are influential.

This image is seen in the movie — it was shown by Mapes as the photo of one of the people tortured at Abu Graib, a human being suffering horribly standing as he is humiliated, de-humanized and then laughed at by that outfit


For me the worst thing about the film had nothing to do with its news and war politics or art: it is Cate Blanchett’s new rubbery mask-face, which her inner experience of intense drama managed to project through:

Also Mary at worship of Dan

Poor woman (I mean Blanchett), she’s had some kind of cosmetic surgery or face-lift or used some kind of wax on her face: her face can’t do subtlety any more the way it could. In this film’s scenes nuances get nowhere anyway, but she might want to do great stage plays again. I also felt her American accent as disconcerting because together with the new false flesh mask fitted around what used to be the old facial structure, the actress I’m familiar with him seemed hidden away. Surely she did not have to do this to keep getting good roles.

Cate Blanchett when she still had her real face: 2013, Blue Jasmine


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What happens to a dream deferred? … Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun? from Harlem, Langston Hughes

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I watched a YouTube of all of American Theater production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun with Danny Glover and Estelle Rolle. It is long (2 hours and 50 minutes) and to do it I stayed up to 1:45 am, but it was well worth it, yes. I recommend to all who come to my blog to watch it sometime in the next couple of days (or soon) too and then read on:

Elaine Pigeon, a listserv friend, who I’ve also met at a JASNA conference, who alerted us on WomenWriters at Yahoo to the production, wrote concisely:

While it’s main premise is an African American’s family’s desire to realize the American Dream and own their own house, Hansberry’s play touches on many issues that resonate today: racism, gender conflict, the fragility of masculinity, money, class issues, slavery, Africa and colonialism and more.

For some excellent essays and exegeses and commentary (one by Hansberry herself), see commments. I was deeply moved. I have read it before (just once) and seen it once but no longer remember that production. Now done rightly it seemed to me the equivalent in strength of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. At mid-century in the US there were a number of plays exploding the realities of American culture, the “American experience” as PBS glibly calls one of its (good) series. Williams’ plays shows us what sex is like, its premises; Miller shows how class and money work, and here Hansberry, race. What was omitted (and still is) are the imperialist militarist facist politics of the gov’t; at mid-century the gov’t was merely oligarchical, it’s gone well beyond that now. It may be that this level of life is hard to dramatize in a play where we are most affected by intimate human stories; at any rate, the only medium it’s been is film as in Gavras-Costos’s Z (so one can have a nation- and city-wide landscape as what the action is embedded in). I suspect too that the strong Jewish component of American arts (especially the theater for funding) prevented this even then, as Israel already existed (its gov’t has done all it can to stop any treaty with Iran these last few weeks). Why don’t we have plays like this any more beyond the patriot act declaring presentations of the realities of continual-war global politics treason?

I’m not discounting earlier plays, e.g., Lilian Hellman’s plays on lesbianism and the politics of war (Watch on the Rhine, The Children’s Hour), Sam Shephard’s True West exposing the results of the macho male hegemony, but in the 1970s the impetus turned to the new independent film industry and for a while there were remarkable films. Arthur Miller talked and wrote about the turn to psychological -fantasy angles as a strong retreat and I believe he’s right. He also said that films were killing live theater and there’s a truth to that.

I was most impressed by how many things in that play are still so. Yes black people can now some of them get decent jobs, but many have none at all. Ta Nehisi-Coats’s essay on how for over a century the way local economics are structured and allowed to be practiced prevents black people from having accumulation of money is relevant. $10,000 from the father’s insurance policy and irreplaceable. The bombing and desctruction of a black person’s home who dared to move into a white neighborhood.

The most disquieting aspect of the continual police murders of black people at the rare of a couple of week is that they continue. The police were taken aback when the first videos of what they do began to surface. There were riots as genuine knowledge this is happening daily spread and we’ve seen a couple of inditement –a couple! just a couple and do not know what has happened since. But yesterday it surfaced a black man’s face was destroy while he was murdered. The police are now shameless and determined to continue. Sandra Bland is not a turning point, just a low that happens. Two years ago a woman terrified of the police’s response to her running her car into one of these cement barriers in DC was gunned down and murdered and the police congratulated. (Disabled people are nearly equally at risk; homeless people.) The massacre of 9 black people while in church followed by a demonstration of the Klu Klux Klan re-asserting its right to murder black people (with its swastikas, flags, in sheets, with red crosses) is a paradigm of the behavior: murder of blacks (immigrants), riots when an individual encounter manages to be publicized, and then the power reasserts itself.

There would today be guns in play as there are not in this 1959 play. I’ll tell all that in the south east Bronx preferred weapons were bats, razors and knives. But it is harder to kill with these weapons. I bring up where I grew up (from age 4 or so to age 10 1/2) to say as I watched I bonded utterly and entered into the anguished feeling of these thwarted people. The self-inflicted berating, the loss of self-esteem, the turning on one another (especially that), the wild mistakes (because you don’t know the middle class rules nor how to protect yourself or at least try) was what I saw in my home growing up, and that of relatives and people living round us.

The qualified happy ending of the play to have its full bite shows why sometimes it’s not just irrelevant but necessary to know the autobiography. Hansberry’s family moved into a white neighborhood, and the white home owners association went to court to have them thrown out on the grounds the white man in the play cited: people have a “right” to form what communities they want. WIkipedia article writes: The restrictive covenant was ruled contestable, though not inherently invalid.” Today we have gated communities everywhere and the leaders of these associations set the grounds for who”s allowed in.

I end on the reality too that Hansberry as she became more active was surveyed, harassed, probably hounded by US agencies — as today BlackLivesMatter is. This has not been reported in mainstream media. Never is. She died at 35 (!) of pancreatic cancer. I agree with James Baldwin that this hounding and the strain of being alive in the US at the time helped bring on that cancer and her very early death.

Elaine also included a worthwhile YouTube telling of Hansberry’s life: remember as you listen to the words (the play tells people “we are just as complicated” as they — meaning white people) that the popular TV show about black people in the US was Amos ‘n Andy:


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Poster Image for the show

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I went to the first of five plays I mean to attend, just a small number of the many events sponsored by the Capitol Fringe Festival this summer. It was a one-woman story-telling play: The Hello Girls: A Tribute to Women Veterans of WW1 written and performed by Ellouise Schoettler. I was attracted to it because I so enjoyed The Bletchley Girls (a BBC mini-series) about young women hired to break codes during WW2: I did not realize this show was also about women doing hard important work who are not recognized for it. Schoettler is a professional storyteller whose plays include Eloise, I presume an amalgam of the Eloise books which my older daughter when she was 11-12 just reveled in.


In this 75 minute play Schoettler enacted three historically real women who around 1914 volunteered for military duty as switchboard operators in France in WW1. What happened is when the war was over, and the women came home, an official person phoned each and told them they were not regarded as veterans, were not therefore entitled to benefits, and the only recognition or thank they would be getting was the parade of ceremony General Pershing went through once when all the women from all the stations (over 100) were brought together and thanked. Each was chosen as representing a type: Schoettler could not know what was their personality so I assume she extrapolated from what she could find out about their previous and subsequent jobs, their education and what they did precisely when they were in this military corps.

She began as Olive Shaw, the least educated and most timid of the three, the most trained to acccept, who had been, working in some kind of shop and had taken French in high school. She was one of the ordinary switchboard operators. Then we met Grace Banker Paddock, the most upper class of them, had gone to Barnard College, and put in charge of the first group of 33 women. These first told us where they were right now: it’s 1989 and Olive is in assisted living and is just thrilled because at long last she was visited and thanked by a general; she had been told that she was recognized as a veteran as a codicil to a GI Improvement Bill of 1977, but after that heard nothing about it. Alas all her friends from the corps had died, one two weeks ago; there were now only 18 women left. It is 1938 when Grace is talking to us; she is now married and has tried to find out why the women were not recognized as vets — and presumably denied benefits, thought this was not said. An unfortunate lacuna. As part of their riveting stories (as told by the story-teller actress), we heard of the hardships, the way they were treated as in servitude (the way men in the armed forces are especially when of lower rank), the real dangers, the moving about, never told where they are going, warned everything is a secret (or they will be in trouble), and briefly about their return.

The third woman, Merle Anderson had the shortest speech. It is 1977 and she is exultant. She is clearly a pushy kind of woman, mid-western accent (from Montana she tells us) and tells much less of her experiences in the war; but rather how she led the political fight to get the women recognized and managed it in 1977. How indignant she was when she was told she would not be recognized (no talk about money again). How she lobbied and fought with this and that other group, how the bills they brought up were buried before they got to the congress floor. She told us about the group leader, Grace, who died in 1938 and so will not know. She regrets that.

When she was done, she asked if we had anything to say. There were but two minutes and I was not quick enuogh to ask a question.

The problem with the play was it was conceived as a tribute to being “feisty,” and the moral was that if you fight for something steadily (like Merle) did you can move mountains or some such idea. Its subtitle is A Tribute to the Women Veterans of WW1. That’s why I regret not asking if they got any money for pensions. But I’m not sure that this was not a ploy on the part of Schoettler because what her playlets showed was the exploitation, lack of respect, the (I presume) lack of compensation at least until 1977 for these women. Perhaps afterwards for those still alive. Her title does emphasize that the women were endlessly greeted by a “hello” and their job of sending on and receiving needed information began with a “hello.” This was a feminist play but the feminist was muted because of the way it was conceived. The only woman of the three given some words talking about the power relationships exposed and exploitation and lies was the third.

Among the incidents told about how these women were treated and the risks they were made to take (several unnecessary) was one by Grace that struck me most because I have a personal identification or similar experience. Grace shows how the women were often forgotten (she was organizer and would know), and once in a building about to burn down where they were at first hesitant to flee though everyone else did (all men), she gets a phone call just before a bomb did hit, and she was told to get these women out or she would be disciplined. This reminded me of how when my husband was dying of cancer, very weak, emaciated, and I was similarly traumatically pressured as well as treated disrespectfully and without any regard for my or my husband’s true interests.

So I admit their hardships are not just experienced by women who as a group didn’t (and most still don’t) matter, but anyone without power who others treat as if they don’t count because they don’t count. Jim counted even less than me. But there was only one man in the audience, and he was there as one woman’s husband. Most of the women in the room were past forty and somewhat older. Schoettler looked in her sixties. She said on the stage after she had finished she was pleased to see so many younger women. Maybe it was 20%? Wasn’t she pleased with women over 50? don’t we count too?

I now have a preponderance of older women in the classrooms am teaching in with me — in their 50s to 60s. At Oscher Lifelong Learning Institutes, the women outnumber the men full-stop, and in literature and art courses, there is one man for every 7-8 women. Most people avoid the world feminism; it is now a word that stigmatizes. Most are reticent to speak of oppression as this is “complaining,” and may ostracize them, or (heavens forfend) make a man in the room uncomfortable; some will deny the meaning of what they see if you make it too clear. But these women older women having had much experience of the world (unlike younger ones) at least are quick to see misogyny, recognize it and remark on it, or conversely feminist stories. They are not fooled by faux feminism (apparent strength, mainstream capitalist behavior, imitations of men), and not fooled by presentations of women as violent as necessarily positive. In a way they don’t wouldn’t need explanations for The Hello Girls. Except without explicit talk, it is not clear who understands what. Not everyone can go further than experiencing their instincts since they too are reticent to speak — as if it were complaining (a no-no), not protest, reluctant to be seen “as feminist” as that’s now a stigma, want men about and men don’t come back when feminism begins to be discussed openly too often. You can only stand up for yourself if you are “feisty,” not questioning any deeper values that give rise to the situation.

The Iconic Ending of the first episode of the first season of The Bletchley Circle

I don”t know how many other events were on at the Fringe at this time — there is a perpetual cabaret in a tent this year. There are raw caucus kinds of plays going on, electronic music. I doubt any young men would come to a play like this on their own; this helps explain why despite good ratings The Bletchley Circle was cancelled after the second season (they were told the ratings weren’t high enough; or the new Upstairs Downstairs similarly cancelled.

The Fringe Festival does have here and there real feminist pieces in its at least 50 events — I don’t know how many they put on, it goes on for 3 weeks, a few starting at mid-day, most at 6 pm and ending around 11 pm, most about 1 to 2 hours at most, one after another in numerous venues. This is the only one I picked out — the other political play is about the Israeli soldiers who refused to carry on slaughtering Palestinians and spoke out against the slaughter last summer. Then I chose 2 Shakespeare and one Middleton play (transposed to the French revolution). Mine is actually a staid and conservative taste aesthetically (see Season 1; Season 2).

They seem to be in different venues this year from previous — few in the center of DC, hence harder to find the first time. The Hello Girls was done in a seemingly gentrifying neighborhood in northeast Washington — I say seemingly as it was also clearly poor, many of the shops in open air hovels below high-rise buildings, most though art stores, for and selling painting, some book stores too, two theaters in not bad shape, people sitting out on the sidewalk in front of cafes. I was almost late getting there because my pro-quest map gave me unnecessarily and puzzling instructions once I got off the Metro stop: Brookland-CUA (Catholic University of America). Luckily I had the nerve to ask people and several directed me aright. Then when I got there, the doors on the building were all locked. I almost left in despair, but went next door which was a building decorated with signs from the Fringe Festival. Yes it was next door and I was told to go back. I said the doors are locked. It transpired the doors are kept locked and someone was supposed to be sitting by that door with nothing else to do but let patrons in. A young man got a key from a chain of them and crossed over with me and let me in. Just in time.

I did not have the kind of acute anxiety and STUGS I experienced last summer. I think about what Jim would have said (making the second man); he might have remembered key incidents in his life from his time as a day boy (ages 11-17) wearing a different colored shirt so as to stigmatize him as there because he was so smart but could not pay, much less board. When I got back by Metro and car, I bought myself some penne (pasta) from a nearby Noodles and Company and settled down with wine in front of my computer to watch Amy Goodman’s DemocracyNow.org. Had Jim still alive we would have gone to one of the bookstores, eaten out in one of the cafes.

Normally I would have “filed” this blog under My Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog as about women’s art, or my Sylvia one as partly autobiographical and political, but I thought I’d put all the Capitol Fringe reviews I do on this blog site so they may be found together.


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Murray Griffin (1903-2), The Stables

Two Fires

One, the summer fire
outside: the trees melting, returning
to their first red elements
on all sides, cutting me off
from escape or the saving lake

I sat in the house, raised up
between that shapeless raging
and my sleeping children
a charm: concentrate on
form, geometry, the human
architecture of the house, square
closed doors, proved roofbeams,
the logic of windows

(the children could not be wakened:
in their calm dreaming
the trees were straight and still
had branches and were green)

The other, the winter
first inside: the protective roof
shriveling overhead, the rafters
incandescent, all those corners
and straight lines flaming, the carefully-
made structure
prisoning us in a cage of blazing
    the children
were awake and crying:
I wrapped them, carried them
outside into the snow.
Then I tried to rescue
what was left of their scorched dream
about the house: blankets,
warm clothes, the singed furniture
of safety cast away withthem
in a white chaos

    Two fires in
    formed me,

    (each refuge fails
    us; each danger
    becomes a haven)

    left charred marks
    now around which I
    try to grow

from Margaret Atwood’s poetry sequence, The Journals of Susanna Moodie

Dear Friends and readers,

Since my last blog on Trollope from a post-colonialist perspective about two weeks ago, I’ve been reading more Australian authors, about Australian history and literature, and watching more Australian films, especially those having to do with Victorian and Edwardian settlers. I’m still trying to work out thoughts I’ve had and understand the criticism and controversies. In this blog I’ll focus on a novel, bringing in a couple of films and critical-historical essays more briefly.


I’ve finished Catherine Martin’s 1890 An Australian Girl about Stella Courtland, a perceptive, ethical reading girl, who lives just outside Adelaide, South Australia. We see how family and social pressures, unscrupulous relatives and friends who use her to extract money needed to carry on an ambitious social life, the limited range of options and people the heroine can meet — all lead to her ending up with a thwarted life. Letters and the heroine’s experiences within Australia among different towns (or the city) and Bush (rural, mining, farming, desert, aborigine) communities enable Martin to elaborate a persuasive understanding of the environment and varied cultural groups in Australia, and of its books, of the influence of landscape and climate. Martin roots the manners and crises we see in the real Australian and colonial past of her characters and their families. Boredom or frustration and stress seems the cause of the alcoholism of Ted Ritchie, the unintellectual businessman Stella is tricked into marrying by Ted’s unscrupulous desperate sister, Laurette, who lives in a version of le monde in Sydney; her sexually unfaithful, spendthrift husband bankrupts them. That Anselm Langdale, a young physician Stella falls in love with has to go back to England thousands of miles away from her enables Laurette to separate the lovers and causes Stella’s tragedy — the loss of a man who could have helped her lead a fulfilled life.

Meanwhile due to what Stella reads, her education, her thoughts, how she understands life is mainly as a person living at the far periphery of an English empire where the center is London and (from her reading) ambiance European. (This reminds me of Andrea Levy’s Small Island: black Jamaicans are given English history to read so that they identify as English and are shocked when they emigrate to London to discover they are not respected, not seen as English at all.) This is not to say she doesn’t know better at some level: one of the remarkable features of the book is how Stella repeatedly comes across characters outside her milieu whose life stories are fitted into the narrative and we read of types of desperate characters enduring harsh lives, brutal experiences typical of life in Bush stories where characters are carving out an existence where there is no built society or cultivated landscape to start with. These feel powerful in the way of Henry Lawson’s famous sketches (“The Drover’s Wife”) or the grim scenarios of Barbara Baynton (I loved her one of a servant’s life of semi-slavery, servitude in a middle class home). Stella shows real respect for aborigine beliefs and the people she sees (admittedly from afar). Memory is treacherous but the only (it’s not only) group omitted seems to be convicts; at least I don’t remember any characters (maybe the realism made them ex-convicts hiding their pasts). The book has a lot of subtle satire exposing the European characters, a post-colonialist outlook where she inveigns against the devastating desolating wars the imperial powers inflict on the native people.

Telegraph Depot, Ninety Miles up the Roper River, Northern Territory,” Illustrated Sydney News, 31 August 1872

I’ve been reading about what is Australian identity or the central hallmarks of its culture and again and again it’s said to be life for people in the “bush:” its terrific hardships, the background of forced transportation of the poorest and most miserable as convicts, or self-forced emigration because voluntary life had no future (one reason for the rise of these horrific organizations is there is nowadays no new continent to take over, to send young men and women to to get rid of them); the strong leftist communitarian ideals of early Australian politics come from this. It seems most classic Australian literature is of the Bush type.

What are some of the results for women — they are the marginal vulnerable people, victims who could be raped, or the stalwart re-creators as far as is possible of the older British homelife, with all its mores, holidays (Christmas) and repressions.

Ray Winstone and Emily Watson as Morris and Martha Stanley (The Proposition)

Martin’s book pinpoints this Bush material (so to speak) philosophically and emotionally and as something aesthetic and spiritual. I dislike that word very much as it seems to me so ambiguous so let me define my use as something not pragmatic, not dependent on something that gives the person bodily or monetary advantage or prestige. Inward experience that is valued that comes from this odd living in an imagined perphery, in this harsh but (to Europeans let us remember) strange and beautiful landscape. This inwardness which is identified as religious feeling may be found in Patrick White, especially it’s said his Voss (which I’ve read about, not read); but also is in his Fringe of Green Leaves (which I have read). — central to it. I can see that as opposed to White, Martin wants to analyse this. And she wants to make an unconventional woman her center (as does Barbara Baynton).


Hanging Rock

The second Australian film I chose (my first was Cave and Hillcoat’s The Proposition) was Picnic at Hanging Rock, directed by Peter Weir, often identified as a “first” and primary one which began the “new” Australian film industry (post-WW2) that seemed modern contemporary and was carried outside Australia to the US, to Europe. There was an Australian film industry before this film by Weir (a 1970s film), and it told important mythic stories — the very first of the talkies was about the Kelly Gang: Peter Carey’s book which won the Booker was about the Kelley Gang; The Proposition centers on the Burns brothers.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is based on a novel by Joan Lindsay, said to be a mystery but if you expect anything like Agatha Christie you are quickly disabused. There is no Sherlock Holmes, solver of puzzles. It moves slowly and most of the time not much happens in a dramatic or theatric way. A group of girls, adolescent, going into puberty, go on a picnic they hold once a year by a scary outcrop of rocks (like a neolithic site). The heat, snakes and insects are venomous, can cause disease or death. We are not told why they go to such a place, only see the headmistress is a fierce woman not likely to give any reasons.


Once there the girls seem to fall into an entranced state, and playfully go behind or into the rocks.

Disappearing in an kind of trance

Cut to the end of the day when they are late back (worrying this woman), and we learn that four of the girls and a key teacher there never returned from the rock: were they abducted and raped? did they decide to join the aborigines, a bushranger gang? did the landscape gods take them? One is found near death, without her corset; she is gradually nursed back to health but either never tells, cannot tell or is not asked to tell what happened to her and the others. The pace, the continual return to the rock, filming it from this and now that angle, the girls’ interactions, the music, the juxtapositions of incidents that happened and are happening at the school make the film mesmerizing.

In the features to Picnic at Hanging Rock it is suggested by one of the different members of the team (Weir himself, screenwriter, producer, production and costume design, also actors grown older are among these) that the girls eventually themselves joined some violent group of men. These bushrangers, people living outside the control of state apparatus (with their control of legitimate violence), people gone into a permanent rage from what has been done to them by such state terror and punitive militarism, torture (convicts say, with Israel as the equivalent terror state). There are parallels with American outlaws, not to omit modern Middle Eastern marauding groups under a central command (like ISIS). The movie is a meditation on intersections between Australian kinds of lives (class is important in the interactions of a couple of young males who become part of the search team), manners and cultures and its landscape and geology akin to An Australian girl.

It’s a woman’s movie as the central characters are all women — though the sexual perspective on the students is that of a man who thinks most of their problems come from sexual repression (the girls play voyeuristically and are shown to be prurient) The fable was a woman’s of the more genteel type. We see do see their rigid obedient routines, their trussed up bodies in clothes that grew out of a northern European climate.


The strict headmistress who cares intensely about money: she threatens to eject a girl whose parent has not been paying her bills; the girl dies, seemingly trying to get back to Hanging Rock, perhaps murdered by the headmistress, who seems also to end up destroyed by what has happened.


Weir credits Lindsay with giving him the basic matter for what can only be called an inexplicable visonary film; I’ve just gotten the book. On first blush it appears to be a gothic — more Shirley Jackson and DuMaurier than the 1930s gentlelady mysteries. Maybe it will help me understand what the fable is intended to convey; I feel it’s a flaw that the film remains inexplicable.


Jimmie (Tommy Lewis)

On the night of July 4th as I heard the noise of (as my husband, Jim would have said) senseless firecrackers outside, I watched an intensely compelling Fred Shepisi’s Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, based on a novel by Thomas Kenneally (nominated for Booker). I cannot speak highly enough of this film — again it’s the “weird melancholy” of the landscape that does stand out as the suffusing ambiance of the work — Marcus Clarke, author of For the Term of his Natural life, used the phrase This is neither the usual bush frontier story nor that of the struggles of genteel or convict or working class or unfortunate women. It’s the story of an aborigine young man — this is so rare because it’s hard to tell their stories as their way of life does not lend itself to the conventional European narrative story of individual social rise, and they are not individualist in their worlds overtly nor do they seek success in this manner. Shepisi and Kenneally manage to make a film that somewhat fits by dramatizing the story of an aborigine young man said to be half white.


We see him taken from his tribe by a well-meaning but strict, repressive white clergyman: the clergyman has a switch with which he hits the boy when young after he has done something deemed wrong. Jimmie is educated to be Christian, taught to read, and live in the modern world with real skills, but when it’s time to leave this Reverence and find work, he not only cannot find work commensurate with his education, but at every turn as he does very hard menial tasks (like putting up fences) he is cheated, insulted, mocked, threatened, kicked, debased and given impossibly high standards before he can get his fully-earned salary. We see he is decent, not violent, and when given the opportunity gentle and courteous. The setting and time are the turn of the 19th century, just when a referendum for federation (what Trollope is so intent on as needed) is about to be voted upon. Also talk about the colony separating from the UK. We hear the talk of all this as background.

Jimmie becomes an officer briefly in order to better himself — to have less arduous work, dress better, be treated according to some rules. But he soon learns he is still treated derisorily, and put in a filthy stable to sleep. He becomes complicit in policing and repressing the aborigine groups in the area (breaking up their encampments, whipping them, wrecking their campsites), and finds he gets some real money (less than the others but still a percentage that is visible) for the first time. He experiences gestures of respect. But when the boss gets drunk and one night and tortures and kills an aborigine who has begged Jimmie to let him go (out of terror of this policeman), Jimmie cannot endure to cut the man down from where he is hanging and destroy his body before burying it. He runs off, and has made some enemies at that station.


We see too how aborigine culture has changed a lot — how they do dress in a sort of modern style and how they are prevented from developing a reasonable way of life with parts of their culture intact because what’s wanted is their disappearance.

The crisis occurs when while working on a farm he has an affair with a white girl servant, and marries her because he think she has gotten pregnant by him. He takes her to live with him in a cabin (very poor but comfortable enough) that he lives in on the bare land nearby. It turns out the child is wholly white, not his. She cries when she sees how hovel like is their home, but she has experienced his kindness, how well he means, how gentle and tender he is with the baby and her.

Jimmie’s wife (Liddy Clark)

Almost immediately though he is again not getting the pay he is owed and the farmer’s wife refuses to bring groceries back from town for them. Soon they are near starving — no milk for the baby. The boss’s daughter wants that girl servant as cheap servant for herself as she is about to marry; all the whites think they have the right to part this couple. He tries to reason with them; they reject him, citing how he has his brother and family members in his house on their land, showing how they regard his people (and him by extension) hideous.

In a mad rage he returns to the house with an axe and begins to kill, the women there, the children; he picks up a gun, and begins a killing spree of all the people who have treated him so deeply abusively. Schepisi says in his feature we are seeing Jimmie tipped over the edge finally; he is having a mental breakdown, he feels horrible about what he is doing (and Tommy Lewis had a look of appalled horror as he axed the women who had tried to erase him, take his wife, starve him) and yet has no control over himself any more. He conveys the horror of the people who are being killed. Who Jimmie is doing this to.




Well this mad spree of self-inflicted horrors brings down on him a vengeful posse and on his brother too the brutal vengeance of these people — who are themselves deeply grieved at their losses. Jimmie did hurt them back. A couple of the whites – the original pastor, and a schoolmaster he takes as a hostage — could be and are decent to him even in the exigent circumstances of the flight into the bush. The pastor blames himself for taking Jimmie out of his culture. Jimmie tries to save his brother by going off alone; it only enables the posse to find and murder his brother quicker.

His brother’s traditional face-mask out of make-up takes on a poignancy (Freddy Reynolds)

Exhausted, hungry, he is cornered in a stream, his mouth shot off and he creeps into a nunnery. He is picked up by the police, beaten savagely by butts of rifles, rakes, hit by stones, anything people can lay their hands on, on the way to the temporary prison, and last seen, he is shivering, shaking uncontrollably, miserable wrapped in a blanket leaning on a wall. One of the images from The Proposition I remember is the youngest brother of the Burns gang put in prison by Ray Winstone as police officer (to protect him from the mob), looking like that.

Tommy Lewis has said Jimmie is the underdog in all situations, all of us; the film enables the underdog to gain strength, to sit up and buck: “the medicine is to keep singing, the chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is the song of all men.” The film projects all that has happened to aborigine people in Australia.


Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984), An Image of Bonfire in the Bush

Tamara Wagner’s Victorian Settler Narratives, a collection of essays, includes three centering on Trollope’s fictions, one about bushfire (a terrifying event for anyone new to it) connects to Trollope’s Harry Heathcoat. Wagner’s book is informative and judicious and looks to see what was the cultural work done by most of the ficitions, not which were the best artistically or as statements about imperialism or colonialism. I made notes only on those pertaining to my project, omitting for example an essay on Susannah Moodie whose great Roughing it in the Bush I loved, as well as Atwood’s Booker Prize, Alias Grace, and Charlotte Gray’s biography of Susannah and her sister, Cartheine Parr Traill: Sisters in the Wilderness. In the book somewhere it’s mentioned that Moodie’s masterpiece may be read as about futility (yes, she exposes false ideas about independence and what the experience is like). It seem to me Atwood’s poetry sequence, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (quoted above) tell all that the popularizing narratives below elide, erase, and try to impose colonialist-imperialist agendas on.

The introduction by Wagner: that the representations of the settler world transformed the idea of home itself (p 1), that while the narratives were “meant to realize the Utopian plans that promised a better world … successful or disrupted … they “exploded as often as reaffirmed the metropolitan home’s presumed inviolability as a cultural center or home.” The porosity of the imagined borders … Some stories were presented as “masculine adventure,” genre experiments emerged (3). The “portable home’ was part of the conception (3), propaganda for emigration, cautionary tales. Disappointments included the nature of the land, the real hardships (not mentioned explicitly by Wagner), and that emigrants were easily made dupes (Susanna Moodie mentions this). Wagner sees this phase of literature as ending in attempt at re-mapping of what is greater Britain (7). On Morusi’s essay Wagner adds state welfare for orphaned children in Australian (and elsewhere?) consolidated the imperial family.

Dorice Williams Elliot’s “Unsettled status in Australian Settler Novels” is on emerging tropes of Australia’s popular image in 19th century; she says the wild west as a trope was worked back into early Australian novels. Mary Vidal’s Bengala (1860) and Alexander Harris’s The Emigrant Family (1849) redefine gentility and feminity in a new Australian model while solidifying class positions, which are themselves paired with metropolitan reactions. She presents a rereading of Harry Heathcote: it consists of a new amalgam of masculine gentility, not just (or not quite at all) family connections and at least manners, taste, dress, but also business skills, resourcefulness, practical skills. Harry Heathcote resembles Bengala because we get an alliance between rivals. The hero very like Harry and Giles Medlicot. The new (or expanded) style of femininity stresses the creation of home with alliance on the wife having to have practical skills. The Emigrant Family and Kingsley’s Geoffrey Hamlin shows a woman squatter and ex-convict working side-by-side: more roles for women. Critical to present squatters as sharing work ethic and work, lead and compromise, practical skills. These books tried to do the cultural work of creating a united Australian gentry.

From Amy Lloyd’s “For Fortune and Adventure: Representations of emigrations in British Popular Fiction, 1870-1914.” The US rivalled Australia as most popular destination. Canada much less popular as a place for emigration; depicted as a vast wilderness, hardworking and lucky people might achieve a better life, daring seek adventure. They were envisioning a new lot; women not shown as independent but joining relatives abroad, escaping desperate circumstances and abandonment (Diana Archibald begins with story of her grandmother where she finds the latter at the core of her story.) Positive emulation is the thrust. Paul Denham’s After Twenty Years is thus an unusual story of a man broken by his experience, returning to the US to die. Some stories of dangerous violence but mostly not. Absence of females in these stories did not encourage female emigration; an intense desire to return with enough to build better life in the UK is part of these stories. Trollope’s books could serve as an antidote to idealism and exotic portrayals.

Mrs Smith aboard the Goldfinder: from Francis Moseley’s 20th century illustrations for John Caldigate

On Tamara Wagner’s “Setting Back in At Home:” Imposters and Imperial Panic in Victorian Narratives of Return.” She finds often in these stories the best reward is the return home to an idealized existence. She brings out how Tichbourne claimant connects to fraudulent identities made possible; adds to scams the Indian emigration story in Collins’s Moonstone. She discusses Clarke’s For the Term of his natural Life, Charles Reade’s Gold! and It’s Never Too Late; Diana Craik’s Olive. The 1886 A Rolling Stone by Clara Cheeseman (New Zealander) comes out of trials (fraudulent identities again). We have failed emgration in Great Expectations: Dickens novels have unwanted returnees (so too Lady Audley’s Secret, Collins’s No Name). These and Mansfield Park lay bare dysfunctional arrangements in England. People’s existence in English homes are ripped apart by returnees or emigration results: Jane Eyre, Craik’s Olive, Trollope’s John Caldigate. It became common for emigrating women to be represented not just as useful and vulnerable, but also as undomestic or corrupt. They must transport domesticity and the domestic virtues changed and do not. She thinks that John Caldigate complicates the sensational plot of the return home, satirizes the stereotyping of undomestic space by allowing Mrs Smith, the shabby genteel widow, to speak, although Trollope centrally uses a sexual double standard. We have a reverse portability – Shand returns to Australia; Mick Maggot becomes an alcoholic; but Caldigate discovers he does not like this new Australian life, although he has been moderately successful. She sees a reversal of the literary conventions and finds the scenes of Hester’s imprisonment comic (I disagree on both counts). Three Clerks debunks notion that emigration is magic cure for whatever has been wrong.

Grace Moor’s “Surviving Black Thursday: The Great Bushfire of 1851,” on the sheer terror of the bush fires and how people learned to avoid and then cope. Moves from stories of destruction and horror to heroism and survival. She sees how fiction became an important means of reasserting a mastery of the landscape and the permanence and stability of the home.

Kristine Morusi: “The Freedom suits me: encouraging girls to settle in the colonies” – this one is about Catherine Spencer’s Handfasted and girls’ magazines and finds an empowerment of white women as well as stories which intend to control mixed marriages.


old 18th century Varanasi picture
An 18th century picturesque style depiction of Varanasi, an area in India (Utter Pradesh, by the Ganges)

To conclude: I now see emigration anew and remember it takes in far more texts and historical individuals than I usually think of in this context. For example, in The Austen Papers the story letters of Eliza Hancock de Feuillide Austen, Jane Austen’s cousin, daughter of Austen’s aunt, Philadelphia, the woman who went (or was pressured into going) to India from England to sell herself in marriage, and of Warren Hastings (never openly acknowledged). The letters of her legal father, Tysoe Hancock, to her mother and hers call out for contextualization by post-colonial studies of the British in India. On wikipedia you may discover a famine was occurring as Hancock wrote one his letters so we can see the true context for this man’s complaints that he had to do some work as a surgeon for his sinecure, and his indignant irritation at the state of the streets too (which he does not explain) — just littered with these corpses and the starving and diseased? Eliza is the child of an emigration; she became an emigrant when she went to France and lived with a man who hoped by marrying her to gain money to drain his land after he threw his tenants off (instead they or their representatives guillotined him and another ruthless female owner who said aloud she had the right to salt the soil rather than let the tenants continue to grow produce on it). These Austen figures will yield far more about what happens to people under the pressure of imperialism and settler colonialism than Mansfield Park; they call out to be seen in the context of colonialism and all that was happening in India and France globally.

Joseph Vernet, Antibes Port Hinterland (1756)


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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?”

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.

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).

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.


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.

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.


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.

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.

Note the little girl

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

Vote for it. Go.

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


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

Dear friends and readers,

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

Better Left Unsaid, reviewed by Ellen Moody

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

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

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

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

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

(Kazan/Schulberg, 1954 On the Waterfront)

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

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


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

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).

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

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)

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

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.


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.

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.

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:

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.


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.


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