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TheCharlestonFarmhouseSussexTheStudio
The Studio, Vanessa Bell’s Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex

Dear friends and readers,

I know I told of how on one of my listservs, we are reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a group with each of us reading different other related works or watching films; on the other, WWta (Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo) we’ve started a similar project (far few people alas) around Virginia Woolf. Our central focus is a slow read through another massive volume: Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and have talked at length about the art of biography, Woolf’s own life writings and writing about biography (her Memoirs of a Novelist, her “Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being). One of us read To the Lighthouse; we’ve discussed Gaston Bachelard’s perhaps now-dated Poetics of Space; I’ve watched the remarkably complex )(novel-like? biography-like) Carrington and am now determined to make Dora Carrington my next woman artist in that blog series.

First impression:

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From Christopher Hampton’s Carrington: this is based on an actual photo of the house (Emma Thompson who is made to look like Carrington as Jonathan Pryce looks like Strachey in the photos of him)

Strachey asked Woolf to marry him at one point; they were close. Strachey was much older than Carrington and I was thinking about the extraordinary convoluted tortured sexual and marital relationships in this wider group. Leonard and Virginia look conventional from the outside, but look in and you see her several deep lesbian relationships.

Jonathan Pryce who was such a wonderful Wolsey, is perfect for Strachey, and Emma Thompson takes on her stout boyish persona to play Carrington. I’ve only got half-way through: it’s a very long movie. What I wanted to say is that in a way it’s lacking:  Hampton wrote and directed it, and he is following Holroyd’s book and therein is the problem. Carrington is such a painful spectacle. The whole menagerie at her and Lytton’s home are wholly outside the mainstream. She loved Strachey because his homosexuality took the form of no sexual intercourse with a woman, so he was not aggressive at all. For someone who wants safety I am now puzzled (not rereading Holroyd) why she ever went to Mark Gertler (played by the then spectacularly handsome Rufus Sewell) who demanded rough sex as central to the relationship (not painful but agressive) and Sewell plays him as a man driven wild by her. The audience is allowed to see this clearly and Gertler’s attack on Lytton when it becomes obvious Carrington loves Lytton. But to keep Lytton she had to allow this reactionary hulk, Reginald Patridge (renamed Rafe by Strachey) to live with them and to keep him she had to have sex with him; in turn he’d have sex with Strachey.  This is not shown clearly in the film. Gerald Brennan (the young excellent actor Samuel West) who left for Spain and wrote two wonderful travel-memoirs of his life in Spain is brought in; but as I’ve not read Holroyd in a while I forget the bargain, but think Carrington was also required to have sex with Brennan to please someone.

Thompson says over and over this is an abject love. Hampton together with these remarkable actors conveyed something different than I’ve read before. Hitherto it was see how abject this woman was, what a mystery but it was Lytton’s kindness, gentleness and their shared love of art that made her invest her very life in his life.

This film shows him a cool egoist who uses her; he may not admit it to himself but he does. All the sex scenes after Mark are her degenerating, allowing her body to be used by man after man to get them for Strachey. That is what the film shows. She goes so far even to marry Partridge who in the film she sees as a macho male reactionary horror though fun as a man to dance with, handsome to draw. She endures his ugly jealousy and infidelities. She leads Gerald Brennan to lie in ways that violate his character — all for this Lytton. It gets to the point she wants to validate her body and gets involved with a man (Jeremy Northam turns up to do it) who just takes her cruelly for sex, getting pregnant by him she gets an abortion. Thee’s a dialogue where Lytton says why not have the baby.I think the film suggests had she, she might have had something else to live for. But she only wants his baby and he never fucks her it seems.

Pryce plays Strachey as realizing how he is using her, but being unable to resist it and enjoying her company, now and again guilty — as when he will advise her to leave off a man, or have a baby, or makes his will to leave her a pension. A very young Alex Kingston as Patridge’s partner after he tires of Carrington plus Strachey. A younger Penelope Wilton does Ottoline so well. The men in the film do seem attached to Carrington and enduring Strachey for the sake of Carrington except the stud last played by Northam. Thompson and Pryce impeccably involving. I grieved over Carrington’s death yet understood. It ends with a series of images of those of her paintings she did not destroy.

It’s a deeply searing portrait of a on the surface beautiful love but just below deeply destructive of her. We are told nothing of her family or childhood. She turns up sui generis and all film long she is without any group but this Bloomsbury one attached to Strachey and her art school. She goes off to London where she finds characters like Patridge and brings him back as a trophy or fodder for Lytton. Was she promiscuous in London somewhere. Patridge’s questioning of her in fact is understandable.

I want to read the screenplay, watch again and have now bought a book (natch) recent, Gerzina’s Carrington (who wrote on FrancesHodgson Burnett if I’m not mistaken).

As a result of the debate on the art of biography and novels (peel them off and you have an autobiography), we debated (a bit) Tim Parks’s iconoclastic theses about novel writing and reading in yet another thinking book from him, The Novel: A Survival Skill on both listservs.

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Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Kutusov after defying everyone and ordering a retreat so as to save as many men and as much of Moscow as he can (1966)

Let me say upfront there is no woman author in Parks’s universe in this book who counts, who he discusses at length. He might mention a woman now and again. He focuses on five males and when he has any examples they are all males. He has a history of Italian literature organized by great authors. Apparently in Italy since the Renaissance there has been but one woman writer of note. Something like 25 authors, one is a woman.

I wonder what women do with themselves when I read Parks. It’s important to the man’s outlook, tells us what he reads, how he reads. So by no means is he a guru when he leaves out half the human race; women do write differently, they make art differently — from social life and from innate elements.

Parks’s idea that novels threaten us has some powerful explanatory force; this is why people talk (and perhaps) think consciously about novels so moralistically. They inveigh against characters who do not obey social norms because they don’t want to articulate why those who don’t don’t, nor admit to identification. He follows this up with the iconoclastic idea we love books which are substitutes for the presence and sense of real person they contain, stand for. This a complete refutation of the “biographical fallacy.” Kraggsby says she becomes so emotional when she has to write or feel about Woolf after a bout with a book. This helps explain that. I so agree with it.

With Parks I really feel a mind thinking, not just putting together the platitudes and nouns referring to theoretical positions which the author then aligns him or herself with. He offers this possible description of what’s meant by creativity: “the ability to produce …. The emotional tone and the play of forces in whch the narrator lives, the particular mental world in which he moves …. “ Parks doesn’t need to have Coetzee in front of him, in fact the Coetzee we meet (as Proust would say) is the partial social man, not the man who counts. The greatness of such works, the triumph “we find their work drenched with their personalities, supreme expressionof theirmanner and character and behavior, each absolutely recognizable, triumphantly unmistakable … He does cite Woolf a little way down; her understanding is just so to the point, and what she does. Paradoxically l’ecriture-femme (women’s texts) exemplify much more centrally than men’s what he begins with.

When you say that a novel threatens the reader, and that therefore we need to learn actually how to survive them (really taken into consciousness what they can show) and that the author’s identity (I’ll call it) is everywhere there in different ways, you are set on a very different road than most books on the novel. I just love how he does not repeat cant and situate himself next to it or with it — not that a great books don’t do this: Jerome de Troot’s two books on historical fiction do it, but he examines these theories often to show their fallacies, not always.

Tim Parks is consistent with his view that the great writer conveys an authentic specific self across his or her work, asks about the writer’s tension when he or she thinks of who is reading this text. Parks says the novel is “officially addressed to everyone,but in reality they are not thinking of today’s Ph D student in say Korea addressing scholarly conversations in 2016; the actual circumstances the writer writes in frames his or her perception of what is being written; relatives do often complain and are hurt, as well as friends; t often he or she is thinking of some subgroup of readers alive at the time, “the implicit reader”. He proposes we think of ourselves as overhearing the author’s address to his or her audience at the time. Park then goes over specific details in a Becket text and they come so much more alive when you nail who specific savage ironies are aimed at. Lee quotes Woolf’s life-writing a lot and Woolf assumes her readership knows what the life of the upper class at the time was; her tales of childhood assume familiarity.

Parks says it is not a retreat from the text to be interested in the author’s patterns of behavior, relationships at the time of a text writtten, but rather it can increase our engagement. He then goes on to Gregory Bateson who argues that personality differentation ,how we establish our identities to ourselves are in relation to others aroud us which often are binaries and are reactions against. he is not talking about one-on-one equivalencies but a general presence surrounded by particulars then transposed but often more transparently than we like to allow.

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Helen Mirren as Sonya in Jay Parini’s The Last Station (which is part of our Tolstoy matter)

Now to apply Parks’s thesis to The Last Station, for example, you have to know about Hoffman and his life and relationship to the film (which he does bring in in the feature to the film, also Parini, not to forget Tolstoy, Cherthov, the various actors who inhabit the roles.

It is a complex film and now I’ve got to find time to read the book. A good performance can make a character come alive: In the screenplay Hoffman worked to condense, make a coherent POV (Valentine, the most invented of the characters) and in general sort of gave more meaning to what’s in the book and made me wonder if a movie because of its form often does simplify. It’s hard to fight it as successful as Bergman did. He didn’t care if his films made money when he started out. I thought I’d mention that the train was to be much much more important: it was to open with Valentine on the train; the deleted scenes are of Tolstoy fleeing on the train, Sofya following. It now only ends with the train. Hoffman says he wanted it to be a symbol but as he proceeded he decided the characters and their relationships were what he should spend time on. More practically I have watched enough honest features to have heard directors say you have to cut and you have to choose, and many he saw this skein or thread one he could eliminate neatly — to make the movie marketable. This was to be an allusion to Anna Karenina, with Sofya as our Anna who survives. I suspect so.

Also from our Tolstoy group: I am finding A. N. Wilson’s biography on Tolstoy without bothering to argue this in effect bases his biography and assessment of Tolstoy’s novels on a perspective like Parks; Lee is more reticent but then we’ve hardly gotten Virginia born. Wilson thinks Tolstoy is addressing other Russian writers, how he conceives of the cultural and political situation in Russia, but deeply by the time of Anna Karenina moved inward and dealing with his own many layered psyche through her.

Lastly (since I’m going away for a week — to Cornwall, where Woolf spent summer holidays for years on end — and have little time) I thought I’d just briefly call attention to an excellent review essay in TLS by Francesca Wade on the rebuilding of all sorts of house space the various Bloomsbury people had in different sites and museusm: “Interior Designs, Interior Desires: examing the inside of Bloomsbury homes as a guide to their owners’ artistry and personality.”

Wade begins with Bachelard and then goes on to show how the Bloomsbury group utterly defied conventions not just in painting happy pictures of what they were doing on their walls, and but in scattering all the things they used over a day freely around the house, making rooms serve real and different functions peculiar to the people living there all at once. In the movie Carrington we see the house Strachey (Jonathan Pryce) and Carrington (Emma Thompson) live in have her paintings on the wall, and a couple of the rooms are clearly shown to be reflective of how they live. Outsiders thought the decorations were lascivious or salacious because of the unconventional sexual relationships people who came and lived there had, but not at all. Nudes were not sexy nudes — as in the film. They were gay (old use of word), defying the colors, atmosphere of the homes these people had been brought up in.

Most houses today and apartments too are set up in conventional ways with several rooms sometimes given over “to making a show.” More time and energy making the room a symbol of the expected social life and status than the comfort of people living in it. The purpose of the US family room is to have a place where people can do their own thing but even there I’ve seen status and money the criteria for decorations — how many Xs you did of this or that.

Jim and my house was and today mine alone with his presence as memory and filling the objects is not like that. There is no room for show, the rooms have — or had (he’s gone now) several functions. I have been told if I wanted to sell it and/or sell it for a high priceI would have to empty it out and make it a soulless display. So that’s what the average person wants: plus and a soulless display. No thank you I said. Either it’s sold the way it looks or not sold. So Bloomsbury space is still iconoclastic.

Ellen off for a week on holiday in Cornwall

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Charles Camoin, Cat before the Open Window — from Sixtine, one of the lights of my existence

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Hugh Grant as St Clair Bayfield when we first see him, cavalierly, knowingly, giving an inadequate rendition of one of Hamlet’s speeches before his wife comes on stage

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Meryl Streep as Florence singing ecstatically (2016, Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by Stephen Frears, scripted by Nicolas Martin)

Dear friends and readers,

Just as I began to give up hoping for a truly good absorbing film for cinemas this summer, along came three: in July Shemi Zarhin’s The Kind Words urging us to give over unreal ethnicities; in early August Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople in rural impoverished worlds, and now the extraordinary Stephen Frears and Nicolas Turner’s Florence Foster Jenkins, with a little help from Hugh Grant and Meryl Streep.

At first the film seems to be about an over-dressed, naively happy, fatuously absurd Florence, a wealthy woman kept apart from most other people by her somewhat younger, carefully preserved coolly impossibly husband: since she is a philanthropist most institutions are prepared to indulge her in whatever she wants in the way of concerts, no matter how corny, creaking or badly done. St Clair has hired a voice coach and we watch him hire Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) a piano-player musician to play and give her voice lessons. When Florence is not around, St Clair’s face goes hard and asks brief cynical questions about what we’ve seen him smile pleasantly and coo over. We begin to suspect a pervasive underlying studied hypocrisy when at night St Clair wishes Florence a good night’s rest, and himself goes to a Greenwich village or lower Manhattan slum block where he finds his mistress a young beautiful Kathleen (Rebecca Fergusson) waiting for him. He lives another different life with this mistress: wild modern dancing, late night parties, strong drinking promiscuous sex going on around him. He is then just so sweetly affectionate to her, so controlled, hiding from her life’s unpleasant truths that it feels like a performance. Then we discover Florence cannot sing, her voice is reedy, awful, she can’t hold a tune.

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As the movie progresses we begin to see that this steely-performance of St Clair where he protects this wife of his from every adverse criticism made of her is not hollow. It cannot be as he gives over his whole being to it: he has to work very hard to prevent anyone who would laugh at or heckle her from coming to any of her performances. He does not have to do any of this to remain rich; she need not perform to be worshipped. Her singing lessons do keep the two of them busy, and her pre-occupied, seeing herself as endlessly working at something beautiful. To silence or get people to cooperate, he hand white envelopes stuffed with cash to people. Those who will not cooperate are excluded from performances and their drawing-room.

Their back story emerges as he, and then she, confide in McMoon: as a 19 year old she married a cad who had syphilus, the cad de-camped, died, and one day in an audience she spotted St Clair who she says had the kindest most generous smile she’d ever seen on a face. They abstained from sex lest he become diseased or she have a diseased child. There’s an intense pathos to the story as she tells it to Cosme whom she has visited on one of St Clair’s golf weekends (we know he has gone to the Hamptons with Kathleen). Cosme is continually on the edge of quitting lest he lose all respect as a serious musician, and when Florence comes up with the idea of playing at Carnegie Hall to thousands, balks; in response St Clair tells Cosme he must not obey the tyranny of ambition to be great, or respected as wonderful, or his art even understood — all egoistic delusions in probability: he found himself a failed stage actor when he met St Clair, and when she married him, he liberated himself from ambition to live this comfortable life.

But is it? is it comfortable? is he in a prison of performances to get his hands on her will (which she carries about her in a briefcase). The movie asks, how far is all life a performance? what are worthy goals?

If the mark of a summer movie is non-seriousness underlying the performance, Frears has never in all the films I’ve seen by him resorted to such obvious broad caricatures: the sexy blonde vulgar noisy young wife is just one. OTOH: when St Claire reads aloud to Florence Shakespeare’s cliched 116th sonnet (“Let me to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”), the joke is Shakespeare was ironic (most readers seem not to know this), making fun. Anyhow Florence falls asleep before he’s finished the first eight lines. Late in the movie he reads aloud Keat’s “Bright Star” sonnet: same response from Florence, pathetically grateful but in actuality bored so falls asleep.

Streep and Grant deliver as exquisitely perfect performances as I remember Grant doing as a young man in Remains of the Day (where Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins were the pitch perfect people who missed out). Grant is underrated as an actor since he made his place in Hollywood films as a fine comic actor in Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, and in beloved costume dramas like Sense and Sensibility or Maurice. I first saw him and Bob Hoskins in a filmed version of Thomas Middleton’s brilliant Jacobean play, The Changeling. Grant was corrupt weakling duke who nonetheless becomes a relentless murder out of sexual jealousy; Hoskins the hired thug killer who himself lives out seething resentments. I felt Grant saw some of his own choices in his role. He left the serious stage for Hollywood and has not looked back.

Streep’s role was harder to play” as Grant melts into tenderness, opens his face up to recognize “Bunny’s” dependency on him to her, she has to seem mostly obtuse and yet capable of the finest feeling, at once ridiculous and courageous. She is our American version of the British grand-dame actresses (e.g., Lindsay Duncan, Emma Thompson).

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Reviews have been generous, noting the sentimentality at the close: far too forgiving and benign, sliding over after pointing to the cruelty of crowds, the stupidity of audience mob-like reactions, how no one really cares what this music is. The New York Times reminds us these were a real couple in the 1940s and that Helberg stole the show with his shock, distress, and at the end sparkling identification with his two bosses. We are left in two minds about the principals: how far was she fooled? she has a wise desperate look on her worn face as she lies dying in her closing moments. Did or how far did St Clair Bayfield love her and his life as her tender protector? he seems never to hurt her which is way beyond probable if it was just the money. The credits afterward included photos of the real original people. Cosme never became a great musician; his reached his heights in venues at Carnegie hall with Florence. St Claire late in life looks utterly non-pretentious; after that last performance and her illness killed her, he never remarried.

To return to my first paragraph: there is something delightful in all three, Kind Words, Wilderpeople, Florence, and we are badly in need of delight this August.

Ellen

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Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe) looking into Farrell’s shop window in a highland village

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(Outlander 1, scripted Ronald Moore)

People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years. Like the moment I realized I’d never owned a vase. That I’d never lived any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing. And how at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world as to have a vase of my very own. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Six months after the end of the war (taken direct from Gabaldon’s Outlander, opening.

Friends,

It’s time. Overdue. It may be my readers think I am above Outlander. I am not. I love it. I have now watched all sixteen episodes of the first season three times. I’ve read Gabaldon’s novel, I’ve read her Outlandish Companion. It connects to so much I’m deeply engaged by: it’s Daphne DuMaurier in the high romance mode, elegant, controlled wildness. Outlander is a cross between DuMaurier’s The Hungry Hill where the hero travels back and forth between the mid-20th and 14th century, and her historical romances, say King’s General (set in the 17th century civil war), Frenchman’s Creek, or Jamaica Inn (smugglers as misunderstood free-trader outlaws set in the very early 19th). Claire is the many times great-grandaughter of Sophia Lee’s Elinor and Matilda, the twin daughters of Mary Queen of Scots in her The Recess. I’ve been reading about Scotland and its civil wars, diaspora (to among other places, Canada), poetry and fiction by its writers (from Anne Murray Halkett to RLS Stevenson and Margaret Oliphant and onto Margaret Atwood) for years and years.

The immediate inspiration though is the new Poldark. Outlander reflects mores of the last few years far more frankly explored, and unlike the new Poldark thus far is a woman’s mini-series, a proto-feminist series of films. I’ve learned the second season of Poldark is going to depart so radically from Graham’s books as to change a crucial thread across all twelve novels and one of my favorite characters (though like Jane Austen over Emma it seems no one but me will much like), Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan. So I thought I might sustain a comparison of the two similar mini-series: Poldark drawn from historical novels, Outlander from historical romance, both obeying naturalism and verisimilitude once the terms of the fiction are set up). I don’t say I won’t compare the 1970s Poldark nor the two books, Jeremy Poldark (1950) and Warleggan (1953), but I will keep in mind and bring in this contemporary comparable series. Run them on this blog in tandem.

The Outlander resembles the new (2015) Poldark in its grimness, brutal violence, grimyness, the POV from below, the peasants and outlaws, not the elegant and fringe people of the older (1975) Poldark, Oneddin Line. But this is Claire’s story, make no mistake about that. The central consciousness, the voice-over in this season in all but one episode (when it is Jamie’s [Sam Heughan] and that very unusual, as “real” men don’t do over-voice). By keeping the central consciousness a woman’s, the narrator a heroine, Gabaldon kept all the intense ambiguity about a woman’s helplessness in pre-19th century eras against males, who then in reaction to the heroine manifest unashamed or shall I say unhidden attitudes towards her sexuality (the film is written, directed and produced mostly by men): upon meeting Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) the film’s 18th century men, British soldiers and aristocrats, Irish thugs and clansmen alike promptly think her or ask if she is a whore because she is alone. Jonathan Wolverton Randall aka Black Jack (Tobias Menzies, also Frank, Claire’s gentle husband in the mid-20th century, a descendant of Black Jack, whom he has been researching) proceeds to try to rape her. But she is a 20th century woman, pro-active on her own and others’ behalf, not inclined to regard herself as secondary person or take punishment, self-confident, with a sense of what she is entitled to.

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As our story begins, Claire Randall has been a nurse in WW2 and presided over and helped in horrifying operations, and the war now over, she and her her academic archaeologist husband, Frank (set for a professorship in Oxford), meet again after a near 5 year absence. They visit Scotland for its ruins, look at neolithic sites. They are trying hard to recreate what they once had, but it’s not quite working. The whole section, the way the bed-sit room looked, reminded me of women’s films of the 1940s, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard stuff. The two actors convey the strain the couple is trying to overcome:

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I thought of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

All photographed with soft brown lights too, stark dark and bleak blacks for the houses, yet in gentle light grey light. He explores genealogy, ruins of ancient fortresses, clans, primitive neolithic stone sites; she half ironically goes along.

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Sunlit

Frank has made friends with a local scholarly vicar, genealogist a Reverend Wakefield, as in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, played exquisitely fine, with subtle humor and gravity by James Fleet. Our honeymooning (in effect) couple take to visiting this gentle vicar and Mrs Graham (Tracy Wilkinson), his wry housekeeper. Again I was so reminded of say Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers material before the murder occurs. The men discuss Scots and English aristocracy, Scots clans, the injustices of the 18th century, the patronage system, speculate that perhaps Jonathon Wolverton Randall could act with inpunity because his patron was the Earl of Sandringham. Claire goes off for women’s gossip and tea; Mrs Graham asks to read her palm and finds odd marks on Claire’s hand, and tells of rituals she participates in by Crag na Dunn, a circle of standing stones.

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They are allured by these woman’s midnight rituals.

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Here I was not only reminded of Dorothy in Oz, but the language in the book and series alludes to Frank L. Baum, especially later when Claire-Dorothy wants to get back to the stones as gateway to Kansas, but there is something new here: this is a tale of national identity, of seeking who one is by asking what group one belongs to, and it’s done from a post-colonial perspective, highly critical of the British. Whence the title: Claire is an outsider, a Brit, from elsewhere we know. A Scottish film company is a major producer, Scots actors, venerable (Bill Paterson as the lawyer, Ned Gowan) and new (Duncan Lacroix as the faithful Murtagh, so we are not far from Scott after all) are everywhere. Geography, landscape, blended time frames, intense interiority, mix with lessons in clans, Jacobitism, and the medicine and witchcraft of the era.

What I hope to do is apply to Outlander, several studies of DuMaurier, the gothic, women’s films and Scottish studies, and then by transference see how what is said today about films and books like Outlander relates to the new Poldark mini-series and what is being done to Graham’s Poldark books in them. So this is film, historical fiction, historical romance and delvings into time-traveling fantasies research in progress. It fits into post-colonial patterns too.

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We begin for real and earnest when we move into the time-traveling sequence. Gabaldon knows that women in the 18th century went in for botany, studying herbs and so does our Claire so while Frank is buried in papers, she goes back to the stones and touching one she melts into another realm, coming out somehow into the year 1743.

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She leaves her car

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She has to come close to the stones of Crag Na Dunn to reach the flowers and herbs she wants

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She hears something, music, looks up, and moves to touch the wondrous tall neolithic stone

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The transported moment

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Waking

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An empty world, different older trees, no city in the distance (this is straight from Hungry Hill)

At first Claire thinks she has stumbled onto the set of costume drama (wonderful self-reflexity here) but no the bullets are real and she finds herself having to account for herself. So a re-naming, using her birth name, Beauchamp, she has to deal with everyone looking at her as stray whore: who else wanders in the wood in just her shift. This is an extraordinary moment that can only be done by a film: having the same actor, Tobias Menzies, play the hard mean ancester, Black Jack. Claire does a double take: he is but he is not Frank

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So it’s a re-encounter

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He now the 18th century educated man

she
she still the mid-20th century educated woman

The drums of sudden movement, excitement, she flees, he after and so her adventure begins. A snarling redcoat, upholder of a vicious colonialist order, and she finds herself shot at, nearly raped (this will repeat and repeat) by Randall, is taken up by one of the Scotsmen (Murtagh we later realize), rescued (or herself takes up, saved) by the Scots clansmen, and is paired with the wounded Jamie Fraser, whose arm she correctly sets (and thus saves), and soon she is riding in front of him (anticipating Turner and Tomlinson as Ross and Demelza), warning the clan from her memories of what Frank told her of ambushes, becomes one of them. She resists at first and we get the most old-fashioned of gentle abductions:

Claire: [having fled during the ambush, Jamie having gone back to retrieve her] I hope you haven’t been misusing that shoulder. You’re hurt.
Jamie: This lot isna my blood.
She: Not much of it, anyway.
He: Dougal and the others will be waiting further up the stream. We should go.
She: – I’m not going with you.
He: – Yes, you are.
She: What, are you going to cut my throat if I don’t?
He: Why not? But You don’t look that heavy. Now if you won’t walk, I shall pick you up and throw you over my shoulder. Do you want me to do that?
She: No.
He: Well, then I suppose that means your coming with me.
She – [Climbing, he Grunting] – Serves you right. Probably torn your muscles as well as bruising.
He: Well, wasna much of a choice. If I dinna move my shoulder, I’d never have moved anything else ever again. I can handle a single redcoat with one hand. Maybe even two. Not three. Besides, you can fix it for me again when we get to where we’re going.
She: That’s what you think.
He: Here’s to you, lass. For tipping us to the villains in the rocks and giving us a wee bit o’ fun! [All speak Gaelic] [Speaks Gaelic] Have a wee nip.It willna fill your belly, but will make you forget you’re hungry.

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One blanket, one whiskey pouch

The band comes to a stone castle that she and her 20th century husband explored now become fully inhabited. I thought I was back with Frank Yerby’s The Border Lord, Book-of-the-Month club special (from the early 1950s like the Poldark series. I though of Radcliffe’s Emily coming up to Udolpho:

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Leogh

Only the voice again is wry, prosaic, slightly comical:

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain.

When they get inside we are not in a gloomy, grand place, but a busy courtyard where everyone is going about her or his daily business. From the next episode:

Mrs Fitzgibbon [Annette Badland]: Mwah! Ye’ll all be needing breakfast, I reckon. Plenty in the kitchen. Away in, and feed yerselves. [chuckles] Murtagh, you look and smell like a rat that’s been dragged through sheep dung.
Murtagh: Gi’ us a kiss, then.
Mrs Fitzgibbon: Oh, no! A kiss, then! [laughing] And what do we have here?
Jamie: Claire Beauchamp, Mistress Fitzgibbons. Murtagh found her, and Dougal said we must bring her along with us, so So.

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Mrs Fitzgibbon looks at Claire in ways the men do not, sees what the men do not see

Mrs F: Well Claire. Come with me. We shall find you something to eat, something to wear that’s a bit more Well, a bit more

It’s the voice-over that held me especially in this first episode, compellingly, Catrionia Balfe’s voice perfect for a DuMaurier Rebecca too. A sophisticated use of old-fashioned realism smashed together with fantasy gothic and superb cinematography, a richly colored Scotland complete, with the themed music part minor key bagpipes, make for an undercurrent of thrill. I will be concentrating on the women in the series.

As for the book, the source, this first episode is lifted directly from the novel. Many of the lines are taken from Gabaldon; it’s as if she wrote the book with a film in mind. She began in earnestness from an online experience, a Literary Forum in the Net’s earliest days. In her Outlandish Companion her language gives away hat when she started, Gabaldon had Now Voyageur, the old Bette Davis trope in mind but was also thinking of “the Age of Enlightenment,” i.e., the realities of the 18th century.

I love her illustration are soft-focus photographs or line-drawing illustrations, evoking imagination on the part of the reader: emblems, herbs, older symbolic pictures (the zodaic for example). Much richness for us to explore for quite a number of weeks to come.

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From the site of Castle Leogh in Scotland today

Ellen

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (the first season)

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Aidan Turner as Ross

As all those who have been waiting for the second season of Poldark to air know, there has been an unexpected delay in the airing of the second season of Poldark. Usually when a series is a real hit, the producers, channel, film-maker strike while the iron is still hot. The second season of Outlander came before the end of another year, and a third and possibly fourth season have already been announced.

I am among those eager to see the new second season. So late last spring I noticed a column by Debbie Horsfield containing a carefully worded statement (around the time a second season might have ended) that they had decided to present the sexual events of the coming season discreetly. They were going to be suggestive, not graphic. All who have read the books knew a rape was coming and I took this to mean that as in the 1975 Poldark, we would only see the prologue to rape, and then the screen would go dark. She was saying that modern film-making customs would not be followed, and explicit sex scenes would not be developed.

Not that Ross’s rape of Elizabeth would be obliterated altogether.

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Robin Ellis as Ross in the scenes prologue to the rape

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Jill Townsend as Elizabeth in the same scenes (1975-76 Poldark)

That is what has been done. A suddenly timid BBC has perhaps pressured the film-makers of the new Poldark series to destroy a central event that makes for a meaningful plot design with a first climax at the end of the 7th book (The Angry Tide) and the final denouement of the whole cycle, at the close of the 12th book (Bella):

The BBC and film-makers say they feel that the modern audience could not accept a rape from a hero. It’s too shocking, rape. Have they not been watching other TV series of late? read any recent contemporary novels?

I wonder how much or if they fought over this. Robin Ellis tells us that in Making Poldark the script-writers and director were in conflict with some of the actors over the way in the 1970s mini-series Ross’s marriage to Demelza was presented as a shot-gun wedding, the result of a pregnancy which she first tried to abort, none of which is in Graham’s books.

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Anghared Rees as Demelza protesting the morning after sex, declaring she wants to leave

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With Ellis as Ross, she struggles to free herself so as to go for her abortion (again 1975 Poldark, wholly invented and unlike the book)

In Graham’s books Ross rebels against hierarchy, rank, status norms to marry a servant in his house because he and she have started to go to bed together, and he feels he is destroying her future unless he stops this before she gets pregnant or marries her. He finds himself comfortable with her, does not want to give her up as a servant, companion, and bed-mate, and is deeply angry against the social order. So defies it. Was this an important change? thereafter the script-makers and director kept faithfully to the books until near the end of Warleggan (Episodoes 14 to 15 in the first season, 1975-76) when they again departed radically, causing problems for the second season two years later (1977-78).

How important is the rape? I’d argue it’s far more important than the initial precipitating cause for Ross and Demelza’s marriage, as nothing else hinged on it. Not so the rape. To put it abstractly, in what ways can a film adaptation depart from a novel in order to erase or betray it? well, it can expunge a crucial plot-event that gives rise to a succession of climactic and centrally thematic fraught consequences in this or later novels, in other words further crucial plot-events. A series of consequences that make for the very ending of novels that are turning points in the novel series. You might say, this would not be easy to do. If A (so we’ll call the final moment in a novel) is the result of B, C, D, and E, and they came as a direct result of F, and F is missing (the rape), what happens to B, C, D, and E? Especially if they are particularly moving and tragic and give the characters acting these events depth and intense interest?

True. events A, B, C, and D will not come until the 3rd season. The results of Ross’s rape of Elizabeth about 2/3s the way through Warleggan (Poldark Novel 4) do not emerge until the birth of Valentine, Ross and Elizabeth’s son in The Black Moon (Poldark Novel 5), i.e, Season 3. The intense jealousy of Warleggan, and his abuse of Elizabeth, and her misery and wretchedness begin only when Warleggan has reason to suspect Valentine is Ross’s much later in The Four Swans (Poldark Novel 6). Indeed the script writer, Debbie Horsfield will not have to trouble herself over the final tragedy in say Episode 8 or 10 since it is only at the close of The Angry Tide (Poldark Novel 7) that desperate to make Warleggan think her present pregnancy is by him and accept Valentine’s his, Elizabeth decides she will make Warleggan believe she tends to give birth early and goes to a doctor for a dangerous concoction of herbs to precipitate early parturition and her own death. Never can tell, there might not be a Season 3.

But if there is (and I hope there will be), how will all this be handled? In Graham’s books Elizabeth was left to deal with it on her own. In the older Poldark mini-series ditto.

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Jill Townsend as Elizabeth, this time pregnant by Warleggan, ashamed as she visits a doctor

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The unsympathetic suspicious doctor who supplies the needed abortifacient

If there is a third season, and say, we actually reach a last season, and the 12th and final book of the series, Bella, what will they do with the plangent meaningful tragic close (our hypothetical E)? What guilt could Ross have over how Valentine became twisted and isolated if he did not for all these books and all these years evade his responsibility, refuse to admit to anyone that the boy was his, he was the father who left the boy fatherless? The gut-wrenching nightmares, Valentine’s turn to a pet orangutan (don’t laugh, the last books do justice to characters with disability, and develop an animal rights point of view implicit in the early books), Valentine’s own choice of death or self-destruction?

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A very young David Hemmings and Samantha Egg in the 1970 Walking Stick

Graham has been credited with being an instinctive feminist, and with presenting women in transgressive and iconoclastic roles. Not just in his historical novels, but also his spy thrillers and modern mysteries and a few remarkable novels centering on mental disorder and disability (i.e., Marni (1964, Hitchcock film), The Walking Stick, both of which were filmed, the second brilliantly). I knew much of this was erased in the new first season, including any undermining of male gender stereotypes, but the protest level of feminism had been at least embodied to some extent in Verity’s story as well as Demelza’s. The first season saw the character of Elizabeth, in the original books and series, an insecure and ambitious woman, who found more joy in motherhood than she did understanding or support in her husband Francis; who didn’t care for sex particularly, turned into a pious moral exemplar, whose every thought was to make her husband a good entrepreneur and imitator of his father, Charles and every waking act to nurture her baby.

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Heida Reed as Elizabeth near tears because Francis is not coming up to masculine norms (2015 Poldark)

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Kyle Soller as a moving Francis Poldark in considerable distress because he’s come down in the world as he can’t manage the work ethic (wholly unlike the aristocratic Francis of the books and 1970s series)

Henry James said what a character does is central to how we know a character’s psychology and ethical character. I am wondering now how they will change this character so that she falls into adultery with Ross? If they have an affair, that means sex with some frequency, no? If we are to see a succession of days and nights of sex between Ross and Elizabeth, what does that do to his character? his relationship with Demelza? In the original books and mini-series, the Scots Captain McNeill almost succeeds in seducing Demelza; she backs away at the last moment. Will she “have an affair in turn.” I hope not because she does have a real love romance in The Four Swans that is meaningful: as a young girl she never had a romantic courtship nor a man near her age, respect and courtesy and poetry she yearned for comes her way. No one is expecting Graham’s hero to be as believable as Tolstoy’s Pierre (from War and Peace) I suppose, but the books do contain a real man as protagonist, a complex enough character to interest us. Real men who are not utter villains rape women — this even happens the statistics tell us often. This is an issue that should not be swept under a rug.

In the first season Horsfield boasted that she was closer to the original books than the 1970s mini-series. She’s given that up — or was forced to. Could it be that the BBC read fan sites where people have argued fiercely that Ross could not have raped Elizabeth; or, that Elizabeth is to blame for the night of sex; or anything rather than Graham’s disquieting novel for mature adults. No longer do fans have nowhere to voice their displeasure. They were worried lest sticking to the original books mar their ratings. Recent film studies have shown that further seasons of a series will alter intentions and characters to please on-line fan groups or at least exert considerable pressure (Andrea Schmidt, “The Imaginative Power of Downton Abbey Fan Fiction” in Julie Taddeo and James Leggott’s collection, Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume TV Drama: The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey). So perhaps the BBC was willing to mar their matter and pressured Horsfield to change her stance towards faithfulness. Whether the result will deprive the central heros and heroines of a complexly develping consistent personalities over a long series of books or (if it should come to pass) series of films remains to be seen.

I had been planning to write about the second season without referring to the 1970s mini-series. Now I will compare the two series with the books as I did last year (see my blog and an essay, Poldark Rebooted, 40 Years On). I may even teach the second trilogy of Graham’s books (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, and The Angry Tide, 1973-77) as last and two years ago I taught the first quartet (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan, 1945-53)

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From the cover illustration of the first paperback edition of Graham’s Black Moon

Ellen

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Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) going over the manuscripts together

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Maggie (Greta Gerwig) and Georgette (Julianne Moore) plotting to trick John (Ethan Hawke) to go to a conference with Georgette (where Zizek is speaking! — John’s favorite) – two women plotting over worthless man

Dear readers and friends,

Reviews of Michael Grandage’s Genius (script Joshua Logan) haven’t been exactly ecstatic (come to think of it an embarrassing title); like the reviews of Rebecca Miller and Maggie’s Plan, we are told to rejoice that this is not another senseless alpha male action-adventure, or Marvel cartoon.

In her Maggie’s Plan, Rebecca Miller has given us 2nd rate Woodie Allen (3rd rate is closer to the mark but would be unkind) from a story by Karen Rinaldi. It’s good-natured — mostly from the warmth and awareness Gert Getwig endowed her generous (all-giving) heroine with, but tepid in its unwillingness to make it clear what a self-indulgent narcissistic male is Ethan Hawke’s thankless John, whom the two women were supporting, giving themselves bodily to and fighting over. What did occur that revealed this (and other aspects of their lives) was then made nonsense of by a tacked-on sudden switch to your happy ending, nostalgic music to the fore, no not a wedding, but everyone happily ice-skating in Central Park. Maggie’s core is that of a woman’s film, the dream of a single woman to have a child without having to marry a man since she is not inclined to stay “in love” with anyone she meets, and the great joke that after all the prowess of John did not impregnate Maggie, some artificially inseminated sperm from a pickle dealer (Travis Fimmel) did. Critics have been unduly kind, though Roger Ebert’s continuing blog recognized tired romance.

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Your falling in love scene

I concede it did not aggress at me, and there was occasionally some wry wisdom on display (Julie Delpy’s feminization of Allen, Two Days in Paris, was actually witty). At his best and in his prime Allen’s films made serious statements about American mores and culture (and recently he did one about British culture: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). This movie represents an off-day, a retreat from her career thus far That Miller is daughter to Arthur Miller and his long-time photographer wife, Inge Morath, and her previous work might account for the critical “delight” in Maggie’s Plan. Maybe we are not meant to find the film pleasant but probably we are.

Genius (a seeming team effort) reminded me of Trumbo: a fine idea turned into a mainstream film where the character preach to one another in ways no one would in life, so that the audience can understand some subtle unusual ideas, ending in an inspirational moment: here after Wolfe’s death, a letter by Wolfe reaches Perkins where Wolfe thanks him. Suffragettes suffered from having been turned into a ratcheted up chase thriller. Two ostensibly art movies I’ve seen this summer (which will go unnamed) were insufferably pompous, over-produced, literally hard-to-follow, and sexed up in an misguided attempt to make them widely appealing commodities. The result: no one is pleased. Love and Friendship (click for my review), the third endurable film still playing at my local “better” movie theater, is a disappointing timid period drama. Women are going and men accompanying them because it’s billed as a Jane Austen film and looks and feels like what’s expected. It’s what PBS is not doing any more.

In Genius, there are no women authors even to be heard of. The mid-20th century is an era replete with great women writers. Perhaps Perkins didn’t edit any of them, but I can’t believe Scribner’s didn’t publish any. Not to mention even one in passing gives the falsity of the picture of publishing away. It’s a curiously empty story, as if the production people had insisted on few characters in order to have few actors to pay. The second woman in the film would not pass the Bechtel movie test either: no woman talks to another, and Nicole Kidman is another brittle possessive woman who has given all her to her man, including leaving her husband, and children and supporting him (as the women in Maggie’s Plan support their shared man). Prestige pandering (like the two supposed art films I saw earlier this season) is what Rolling Stone magazine accused this film of? But I see an insistent erasure of women which is unreal today.

Both films have spirited performances (as does Love and Friendship), Moore as the erudite professor:

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Firth as usual scrupulously not over-acting a character presented as reserved without vicariously enacting, living out the passion he reads and crosses out (though his accent was not quite American)

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with Laura Linney as his long-suffering, half-neglected but convincingly loving loyal wife (who writes plays which he seems not to publish)

Genius does have something more and so I recommend going (though don’t drive major distances) before it disappears (rapidly I fear) from theaters. What you will see are characters genuinely concerned to make good books. No small thing. The film-makers dare to make the process of revision of a gargantuan text to a recognizable “classic” central to the plot-design. Logan’s script make the inner psychology of authors however simplified the story –cameo appearances of a depressed Scott Fitzgerald, desperately woebegone Zelda, Hemingway as the apparently firm male icon whose self-control doesn’t require editing. the story.

The relationship of Wolfe with the famed editor, Maxwell Perkins is proverbial (I suppose that’s why the film was dared in the first place): Perkins was far more ambitious and driving than appears in the film (though we see how beautifully paid he is by the mansion he lives in, and well-educated comfortable lives he is providing for seven daughters), while Wolfe’s madly self-enthusiastic fits (as enacted by Jude Law) are said to have happened: he would burst from his apartment, wild with pleasure from something he had written, and run downstairs to the street to tell passers-by of his joy, maybe share the passage. The profit motive is there: Perkins is cutting and shaping Wolfe’s manuscripts so they will be coherent and sell, but he is not re-making them, not demanding they be other than they are, say another genre, in a different mood, with language smoothed out to be easy — which is what editors demand of authors before they will even accept a script for consideration that a film whose aesthetic core is a belief in the effectiveness and staying power of beautifully written, (we have to take this on credit) visionary poetic prose is not to be overlooked. And Firth and Linney were convincing as a couple who understood why they were living the way they did and valued high literary careers and considerate behavior to other people and one another. I felt uplift and cheered in a way Maggie’s Plan failed at (though Maggie’s Plan was trying ever so hard as Genius was not) and finally not disappointed.

I went home and read for the first time the chapter in Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds [on American prose writers of the 20th century, one chapter only on women] about Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner, the first of whom I’ve never read and Faulkner I dislike very much (violent, like Flannery O’Connor something mean-spirited there). I took a course in American literary naturalism and the 1920s and as a result since then have read and liked Upton Sinclair, Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and Elinor Wylie, Ambrose Bierce. I felt Hemingway all about broken American males and not much more, though “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is a story which hits centrally at American myths; Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby also, but over-assigned to students and read because it’s so slender. Jim did not read much American literature: I remember him reading e.e. cummings, Truman Capote, American historians and contemporary essayists; mostly he turned to British and European writers. So I have in my house only a few books by Fitzgerald and Hemingway and of Wolfe only an old copy of a old-fashioned 50 cent paperback (New American Library, Signet) of Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again (published posthumously by Harper, with another editor shaping and cutting).

I found this: Kazin says like other male American writers he admires so much: as did Henry Miller (this appallingly bad writer is discussed seriously by Kazin), Melville, Whitman, Saul Bellow (Kazin’s chapter on two American women writers shows he has little use for them as they are apolitical — he does not understand Ellen Glasgow or Willa Cather), “Just so did Wolfe burn himself out trying to bring all the rivers, sights, sounds, pleasures, torments, books in America within a single compass of the long long novel he wrote all his life. Just so did he express his final contempt in You Can’t Go Home Again, for ‘the world’s fool-bigotry, fool-ignorance, fool-cowardice, fool-faddism, fool mockery, fool-stylism, and fool hatred for anyone who was not corrupted, beaten and a fool'” (468). The world is the enemy. Genius left out Wolfe’s frantic critique and self-ironic disillusionment: all we were told (by one of the two women. perhaps Linney as Mrs Perkins) is Wolfe is searching for a father, and Perkins a son (pop psychology).

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Thomas Wolfe in 1937

Several things are going badly wrong with better films in the movie-houses this summer. In the three mentioned disrespect for the audience (at least 50% women), failures of nerve, and a curious indifference to the very matter (Wolfe’s text, Maggie and her baby, Lady Susan’s inhumanity) chosen to be filmed.

Ellen

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Klytamnestra (Waltraud Meier) and Elektra (Nina Stemme)

Friends and readers,

Perhaps I should just direct readers to where Virginia Woolf wrote, who could watch the story of Clytemnestra today and not side with her? she had probably read also Euripides’ version, though her “On Not Knowing Greek” centers on the anguished madness of Sophocles’ Electra. It’s in Euripides’ play the cowardly superstition of Agammenon choosing to burn Iphigenia comes out most strongly against the eloquence of Clytemnestra.

The problem is Strauss’s opera is said to be based on Hofmannstal, about whose version I know only what I read on wikipedia. In any case this too is a side-track as the last opera of the season was presented as Chereau’s parting gift to us — he’s another devoured at too early an age by the spread of cancer. (See my blog on his film adaptation from Conrad, Gabrielle.) All the reviews emphasize Chereau’s shaping presence. We are given specific details for each character and actor-singer by Anthony Tommassini but no sense of what Chereau’s actuating idea might be. To say it’s expressionist is to say nothing. Expressionist of what?

A cursory glance at the promotional stills tells it. A sad tale of the anguish of women in the context of our punitive public world. Dysfunctional family, super-bloody, says Bruce Scott. Except the murder occurs off-stage; only at about 2/3s the way through does Eric Owens as Orestes show up, and he’s catatonic, overwhelmed by the women, seeking comfort, effeminized like Hercules among the women:

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In any case he forgot his axe. That’s in the script. Unless the subtitles distorted the dialogue. Elektra is alert enough to notice.

Agamemnon, a tenor (here identified as a weak voice) only enters the drama near the close, and he’s done away with by a single knife thrust by Pylades. Orestes slinks off to the side. I saw no blood. The major presences are all women. The chorus is mostly women prisoners, women slaves, women who ready murdered bodies, a rare old man here or there. As far as I could tell the singing was superb; I liked best Owens’s voice; what melody I heard came from him. The women are too pained.

Chereau has returned the Hofmannstal rendition into a stark contrast, an adamantine stubborness between a mother and daughter who will not listen to one another, because, well, would it help? A conflict that in inward and cannot see to the source or will not admit it. What they have to say is in this Hofmannstal is as uncomplicated and unnuanced as Woolf’s essay on Sophocles’ play suggests. I was surprised that nowhere in the subtitles is Klytamnestra given words to justify herself. She treats her daughter like any cognitive therapist. No references to the past please. “What can I do to restore your sleep?” Elektra answers a sacrifice could free her from these intrusive nightmares. “Who shall we kill?” asks Klytamnestra.

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The confidante is Susan Neves

“Why you, mother,” and the daughter proceeds to imagine Orestes hacking her mother to death.

Klytamnestra exits, all silent dignity. Did I mention, Klytamnestra is dressed in a beautiful outfit with beads in good taste?

Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis has the usual thankless task, Ismene-like, to worry herself over conventional expectations not met: like not getting a chance to marry and have children. Gee. No wonder her face is frozen:

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Give in, she urges Elektra, give over. Then we can leave this prison, have clothes appropriate to our rank. Except in his case Elektra, a figure comparable to Antigone, a parallel experience Izzy and I saw at the Kennedy Center last spring, seems unconcerned with what she’s wearing. She cannot forget her grief, rage, terror. Stemme plays the role as a woman gone insane.

The contrast between the stories and the productions can help instruct us. The Kennedy Center design turned Sophocles’ Antigone into (or it is) a deeply anti-war, anti-totalitarian, humane statement where love did matter, could have flourished. Juliet Binoche played the role as a brave loving woman, speaking principle, speaking family passion, and yet all poignancy, oh the pity of this death and mine too. There are flashes of sanity about in the Antigone, even in Creon who becomes a quietly tragic figure. None of that in this opera. Stemme played it right as woman gone insane, a heart of darkness. “Hit once more, strike again.”

There is no sunlight on Chereau’s stage; it’s all grey steel and cement. The servants sweep and bring in water in buckets and sprinkle it about. This season and previous ones the Metropolitan Opera-goer has gotten used to stages that are prisons where torture chambers are suggested, people in impoverished garb, everyone cowed. It was another opera filmed by Gary Halverson, but here one felt that he was filming another man’s work.

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The poster for the opera — “Electra” “neglected, suffering, blunted, debased” yet “Clytemnestra is no unmitigated villainess” (from Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek”)

We have too many references to cats on the Internet, but for once the vulnerable nervous proud, guarded weak predator, in this case in a poem offers a hint how to read or take this last experience of this season:

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought horne.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

— by Marie Louise Kaschnitz (1901-74), translated by S.L. Cocalis

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Perhaps an antidote is in order: Strauss has three operas where picturesqueness and nostalgia (Der Rosencavalier, a pastiche), a self-conscious return to 19th century style Edwardian comic heroine’s text drama (Arabella, libretto Hofmannstal) and a subtle self-reflexive meditation on opera framing a love-in-death myth (Ariadne auf Naxos) are the mode. All highly artificial. Play-acting. I’ve seen them all — with Jim, sometimes Izzy with us.

And the point is, things need not be this way: treated with kindness, cats react quite differently

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Ellen

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The first shot of Tom Hollander as Dr Thorne in the film’s first scene with

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Stephanie Martini as Mary Thorne, where she asks the question [visible in the subtitle] as a prompt for Hollander, Prospero-like to tell us and her not just many chapters of history but what is held back until near the end of the book’s plot-design (ITV Dr Thorne, 2015, scripted Julian Fellowes, director Niall MacCormick)

Friends and readers,

Julian Fellowes has managed to turn the novel Michael Sadleir ended his ground-breaking study of Trollope on (the book that first attracted respectable attention to Trollope — with preferring Dr Thorne to The Way We Live Now) into an embarrassment. A telling travesty. Reviewers veer from lamenting the very existence of this throw-back to picturesqueness as a travesty to earnestly showing how it has eliminated just about everything that counts in the novel. Viv Groskop of The Guardian suggested we take a drug to forget this disgrace. The courteous and judicious Alison Moulds of the Victorian clinic demonstrated the central matter of the tale, medicine and illness, comic and tragic, is left out. As might have been expected, Philip Hensher of the Telegraph demonstrates that the point Fellowes gets across (and by implication, Trollope’s) is that it’s impossible to cross (ontological?) class boundaries.

As it happened when the film aired on British TV, I was teaching the novel to a group of retired adults genuinely engaged by the book. Two British, the rest American. Contrary to Hensher (and like a number of scholarly critics, e.g. James Kincaid), they are persuaded this is an obsessive attack on the mindset that erects uncrossable boundaries and about the hurt (Mary made a taboo person) and damage, indeed death (Sir Roger’s and Sir Louis’s) the behavior enacting this idea incurs. Miss Dunstable’s role is to expose the hypocrisy of the social codes as we watch money and power throw people away, ruin their lives (e.g., Mr Romer, the liberal barrister who tried to help Roger Scatcherd, the railway contractor and banker) into parliament). I had hoped to screen the film until I saw that (worse than Downton Abbey where all deeper issues may be skimmed over, but at least suggested) Fellowes was simply not going to allow any depth to this, among Trollope’s most emotionally direct of all his novels. I admit there was no character they hated more than Lady Arabella and Fellowes fed this by giving full vent to her as the villainess who experiences a mortifying comeuppance (rather like Miss O’Brien and other upper level servants in Downton Abbey). She is in many scenes endlessly repeating her mantra, but then she is presented simply as winning out, having her way in the end. Rebecca Front was given this thankless role as she was given an analogous sycophantic snob in Andrew Davies’s recent War and Peace.

Trollope’s novel utterly resists treating it as light satiric comedy or “fairy tale romance” (which Fellowes in the feature labels his film and by extension Trollope’s book).

Arabella

Thorne
As Hollander squirms and twists his body to avoid the barrage, the scene becomes a tasteless joke

So why bother write about? Fellowes’s erasure and corrections reveal where the power of the novel lies and where there are cranks for us in Trollope’s attitudes.

In all the Fellowes’s films I’ve seen thus far he abjures all flashbacks, voice-over, soliloquy, montage, filmic epistolarity (where a character writes or reads a letter that is voiced by the actor who is played the character who wrote the letter) or any techniques that demands we go into the vulnerable psychology of any character to the extent of questioning a norm or value asserted. Trollope’s first four chapters are a daring retelling of deep, intermediate general past, and individuals personal histories (which he ironically apologizes for). He then recurs repeatedly throughout the novel to these pasts so that when the character in a social scene reveals his inner psychology, we realize the context which has given rise to this self normally hidden to us in our daily lives the social scenes. I had not realized how the novel is continually working through, back and forth, deeply layered intertwined time until I watched this film adaptation. In most of Trollope’s novels we recognize his gifts for showing the private self unable not to reveal itself in the social scene for those with eyes to see and understand (Trollope’s narrator and occasional preternatually perceptive characters like the Signora Neroni and Miss Dunstable). Here in Trollope’s seventh book he was consciously adding to that by making the character a product of a particular time, relationship, literal and social space.

Since Fellowes resists all deep wide explanation that filmic techniques can offer (including in-depth dialogue), all we have as opening for the film is some dialogue of nasty excluding of Mary from Frank’s coming birthday party by his (in this film) by his stupid dense and clumsy sister, Augusta (Gwyneth Keyworth) egged on by the apparently frigid manipulative Lady Alexandrina de Courcy (Kate O’Flynn). We then launch into Frank’s proposal to Mary to marry him, her “no,” and stay in the superficial linear time of the present, with the party, and Lady De Courcy’s nagging Frank (Harry Richardson, who plays the part of a privileged sheltered and thus idealistic male aristocrat — true to the book) to chase the rich Miss Dunstable (Alison Brie) now an inanely giggling rich American. (I read that the ITV people were told they would get no American funding unless they had an American character in the cast.) As in Downton Abbey Phoebe Nicholls is given the distasteful role of an utterly ineffectual despicable older woman bully. (She is paid well for it.) Fellowes just loves to invent this kind of female monster. But he must tell the important past or the present story makes no sense. How to do it? he is reduced to having Hollander as Thorne in the very first scene he appears, Prospero-like, tell Stephanie Martini as Miranda, just about everything in one go of her sordid Scatcherd family background. Since there is too much to tell, Thorne and Mary get together twice more (after the said party) and again in the second episode after her other uncle, Sir Roger Scatcherd’s death. What’s done for compression leaves the effect of a story turned inside out.

Far from admitting to anything serious in the novel, in the feature released on the DVD, Fellowes says he regards the book as a fairy tale romance. What he has done is chosen the scenes susceptible to being presented as light satiric comedy. I had not realized before what an experimental novel this is in its use of layered past and movement within different times and memories.

Then Fellowes has the problem of the book’s hinge points which he feels he cannot eliminate. Scatcherd must die so that Mary can win the property. In the novel Scatcherd dies from alcoholism and we read a rare protracted death scene in a Trollope novel. The man has drunk himself to death because he has not been accepted by his true peers because of his lack of surface manners, he regrets deeply what has happened to his son who has been similarly ostracized and exploited, but can do nothing about it. The unhappy man his son has become results from cultural realities beyond his reach. Trollope captures perfectly the mood of someone near death, and shows us that real kindness to such a person is to take seriously what they have to say and respond to it — as Dr Thorne does and Sir Roger’s son does not. He is devastated when the powerful remove him from the place in Parliament he has worked hard to win.

LadyScatcherd
Lady Scatcherd (Janine Duvitski) over-hearing her husband talk to Thorne

I’m told that Ian McShane is a great actor; well he’s thrown away here. He is presented as foolish jackass. His alcoholism is made a joke of in order to us to laugh at elections as such. The working and townspeople are of course fools, and McShane directed to play the part archly until he falls into a pigsty. (Fellowes might tell us, have you not been watching how popular Donald Trump is?) In the book’s death scene, the pain of Scatcherd’s isolation is made worse because Thorne himself has invested so much in Mary, he cannot get himself to allow Scatcherd to know or to see her after Scatcherd first offers all his money to her and his son, if Thorne will encourage a marriage with that son. This horrifies Thorne who is as exacerbated by the class structure of the place as anyone. He wants above all that his darling niece-daughter be a lady, live with ladies and gentleman and turn to him. And how does Fellowes treat this matter at the center of the second episode? For a moment I had a hard time believing that Fellowes was allowing Thorne allow Mary to come over and nurse Scatcherd so we could get this emotional bath of sentimentality instead and listen to McShane as Scatcherd say he is consoled for his “misspent existence.”

angelsappears2 (2)

angelsappears2 (1)
“Very well,” says Hollander, and the puzzled angel appears, at which McShane says he thinks he will now cope better with “what is to come … ”

Beyond erasing all the material hung from the present time romance story (including its use of excruciating and satiric letter presences), Fellowes has done a Nahum Tate, a David Garrick! Nahum Tate was the man who rewrote King Lear to give it a happy ending; Garrick-like was the the man who rewrote Romeo and Juliet so as to make the lovers wake up to bid sentimental tearful farewells before they lie down to die. He reverses Trollope’s Dr Thorne’s refusal to allow Sir Roger to see or be seen by his sister Mary’s grown daughter, lest he, Dr Thorne, be dispossessed of what has made his existence meaningful, before he dies, even when Scatcherd threatens to leave all his fortune away from her (without which Mary has only the interest from 800£ in the funds, all Dr Thorne has managed to “amass” from his village doctor practice). Perhaps he thought no one reads Dr Thorne, or if we read it, we don’t remember it. Is there no limit to the man’s contempt for his audience?

Well yes.

Fellowes almost unexpectedly turns Scatcherd’s son, Sir Louis (Edward Franklin), the character pitied by Trollope’s narrator just a little, but most often despised, caricatured, sneered at, presented as a money-hungry creditor (as if he has no right to look into the arrangements Dr Thorne has made to keep Squire Gresham afloat all these years) — into the tragic hero of the film story. A chunk of its second episode and full third of the last was given over to a mortifying plangent rendition of Louis’s pursuit of Mary Thorne, his excruciatingly inept presence at a dinner party and then death (not from delirium tremens) but a suppurating bleeding lung (reminiscent in its stagy-ness of Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham near death for a few seconds in Downton Abbey) because he galloped across the landscape out of anguish at her rejection and fell off his horse and punctured his rib cage with the horse’s saddle. This subtextual slapstick is not in Trollope.

deathasbuffoon
Among the character’s last lines is “she thought me a buffoon,” but Fellowes has not lifted him out of that

Fellowes has highlighted a problem his predecessor film adaptors managed to finesse. What are we to do with Trollope’s shameless stigmatizing of lower class males trying to “ape” gentlemen as ultimately slime to be expelled? In 1983 Alan Plater, scriptwriter of Barchester Chronicles (and thus the linchpin person) cast the part against type by hiring Alan Rickman and then had Rickman play the part with a self-controlled dignity, guarded rage, subtle manipulative ability (though out-maneuvred by Susan Hampshire as the irresistible erotic Signora Neroni). Before that a full 40 years ago (1975) in The Pallisers Simon Raven similarly endowed Trollope’s anti-semitic depiction of a Jewish hypocritical murderer, the Rev Emilius (Anthony Ainley) with a seething intensity of ambition that the amoral Lizzie Eustace (Sarah Badel) was too stupid to flee from. Fellowes, though, wanted to grant the character a full burden of human gravitas earlier, but could not pull out enough depth to invent longer scenes to show this. All we get is his screeching at his mother, Lady Scatcherd, how could you prefer Frank to me? Lady Scatcherd (as in Trollope) is otherwise mostly caricatured but as Lady Scatcherd’s preference for the heir is too much even for Fellowes (and he feared too much for pious viewers) Fellowes made her feeling acceptable by having her much earlier on insist how she loved both equally. To this low is Trollope brought and for those who know the text exposed.

I grant Fellowes much of the dialogue used in the film is in the novel — he chose the surface dialogues. He transfers the powerful epistolary narrative chapter where Augusta is treacherously persuaded to give up a possible happy marriage with the De Courcy solicitor, Mr Gazebee (Nicholas Rowe) on the grounds of his lack of rank into pantomime comic moments of dramatic startle. Her great cousin-friend, advisor has grabbed Gazebee for herself.

Harhar
Augusta is made into an “old maid” buffoon

There are a lot of silences. Another actor-character thrown away is Richard McShane as Squire Gresham; he wanders around looking sheepish by the end behaving as if by not cold-shouldering others he’s doing enough. In the book it is his unexamined snobbery and self-indulgence in the book that wasted the Gresham fortune; the ambivalent and interesting friendship with Thorne and their dialogues are gone. Istead Fellowes has Hollander as Thorne giving Brie as Miss Dunstable sly glances. Yet the man avoids montage so the explanation at the end must be gone through in words character by character.

As a side note the production did not pay for the the use of the houses. We never see anyone going in and out. They were filmed from afar and then we found ourselves in the usual sets. One reminded me of the set from the 2009 Sense and Sensibility for Norland Park.

Ironically the film adaptation vindicates Trollope from being seen as simply material which lends itself for hijacking from the elite. Last year John McCourt asked why the bicentennial celebrations were so muted? He suggested that the kinds of things done were not the sorts of events a larger audience, especially one not equipped with tuxes and gowns could easily join into. As has been said before (John Letts among those saying this), Trollope has partly been hijacked by his elite mainstream fans. I’d maintain that more than his academic readers lean to the left. Plater wrote brilliantly radical 1970s style plays for TV and stage; Simon Raven was radical in his outlook; Andrew Davies is a humane left-leaning liberal; Herbert Herbert’s gem, “Malachi’s Cove” shows just how down-to-earth is Trollope’s appreciation of humanity.

So while I regret very much this opportunity to film another Barsetshire book was botched, it’s salutary to see the material of this Trollope novel resist the kind of treatment Fellowes tries to give it. A friend said to me this film adaptation is something Popplecourt (from The Duke’s Children) might have written. Perhaps that’s too strong, but pace what I’ve heard some fans say, Trollope’s novels are not at all like P. G. Wodehouse.

Farshot
A rare far shot of the bedroom scene: Winterbones taking notes, Scatcherd helped up from his bed by Thorne, Lady Scatcherd leaving …

Ellen

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