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Archive for the ‘gothic’ Category

The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Eric Owens as the Flying Dutchman

Dear friends and readers,

Are you someone tired of over-produced plays, movies, operas? This opera has one set, a proscenium arched rectangle which serves as backdrop for ships, the port, houses, places for dancing, and ghostly sequences. Are you tired of scenes where you are continually distracted from the characters’ personality, situation, engagement with other characters? This production leaves you to experience for lengths of time the central psychological state of each character alone and as they are in contact with others all aria long, framed by occasional eruptions of the male and female choruses. You are given a chance to savor the characters’ and the music.

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Christiane Libor as Senta

OTOH, if you are tired of symbolism, of 21st century interpretations of older material, this production will not serve as a relief. For me the quiet use of costume, prop, and pictures (set designer Giles Cadle), not to omit the racial composition of the cast to suggest that the Dutchman is not just some Gothic Wanderer, male outcast wandering amid seas, but a cynosure of the black slave of last century and the exploited and destroyed and angry and brooding black man of today made the production more meaningful.

Owens’s performance a few years ago as Alberic the dwarf in a kraken rage intended to evoke black men’s rage was repeated here — only he is not in a rage so much as as profoundly melancholy and in need. The use of red (=blood) ropes to entangle him was part of this. The drawing that Christiane Libor as Senta is so taken by reminded me of so many depictions of black men in the 19th century either as slaves or sharecroppers or stage minstrels:

SentaatPicture

With Oscar Wilde (“contradiction is the bugbear of little minds” said he or something like that), I don’t mind contradiction. So somewhat startlingly to me who have endured so many outrageously masculinist (not to use a worse word) Wagnerian operas, as we neared the ending where Christian Libor as Senta dressed in fire-engine red is about to board the ghost ship, to follow her dutchman about for life, out came a row of whorish (from their make-up and centuries of stereotypical wigs, outfits, leering expressions, exposed breasts) frightening-looking women. They reminded me of the women imprisoned forever in Bluebeard’s Castle in the recent HD Met production of of Iolanthe & Bluebeard’s Castle. Instead of being asked to condemn Senta for her sudden withdrawal from the Dutchman, we were asked to identify with her justifiable fear. The words in the surtitles of her change-of-heart aria to Erik, whom she had been engaged to before her father was seduced by the Dutchman’s gold and had deserted, referred to her long knowledge of Erik and how much affection they had known:

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Jay Hunter Morris as Erik dressed as white southern gentleman (might have been a slave-trader from his costume)

I heard someone remark on how Senta’s father (Daland, sung by Peter Volpe) would have seemed to someone in the later 19th century acceptable and understandable, and how we saw him today as absurd, naive, over-bearing, a fool to give his daughter away like this; as with the HD Met opera, this one production attempted to address this shift in values on behalf of a women’s autonomy, and in a similar spirit. Only this heroine was strong and would not become a hag accused endlessly of infidelity. This did not quite work as the feminist interpretation of Iothanthe and Bluebeard’s Castle did not work because neither are true to the opera’s libretto or music.

This opera is about a deep longing for death, for surcease; this is Tennyson’s poetry longing for rest from too many of the world’s demands and imprisonment. The Dutchman longs to die again and again and is death he says. At the close of the opera, dressed all in white, Senta flings herself into the waters to drown. She is so distraught at the Dutchman’s fate she wants to join him in death itself now too. I cannot find any photos of this scene so will refer to the reader to expressionist drawings of this final moment of the opera:

19thcenturydrawing

A couple of people around me agreed the opera was “well-sung.” There was no intermission so no let-off in build-up. A woman nearby declared it “perfect in every way.” No more detail than that. It was directed by Stephen Lawless and there are two different conductors listed. For myself I admit I thought some of phases of the male and female choruses dull (as obvious as Oklahoma in early versions): too much simpering sentiment over women cooking and sewing and admirable manly males.

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A typical choral scene of men

The Flying Dutchman, WNO
Women with spinning wheel in front

It required patience somehow for me to sit through some of it.

Nonetheless I felt good I had gone when I read in my playbill that this production was modeled upon or similar to the one done at Glimmerglass in summer 2013. I went because Jim had bought tickets for he and I to see a Flying Dutchman at Glimmerglass during the later part of the second week of August 2013. He had bought for a concert as well as Camelot. He also got two lovely rooms for us in a boarding house by a lake. We never went. By that time the cancer had metatasized into his liver for over a week and he could hardly walk from one room into another. He knew by the last week of July he would not make it but did not know why. I can’t replicate what we would have known, nor bring him back to enjoy what he would have been engaged by. But I went partly on his behalf, in his place even if I am now half a person.

I suspect he might not have liked this production that much. When we went to a recital by Owens, he said Owens could not let himself go enough, not allow himself the inherent variety that was in him because of his black identity and memories. Had to remain noble. It was probably the symbolic direction because in Porgy and Bess Owens was remarkably many-sided and brilliant.

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I recommend going if you live nearby or if the production moves to where you live, or if it’s aired, turning on the TV or your computer to watch.

Ellen

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Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) and Garrick arrived at Nampara (2015)

Dear friends and readers,

As you doubtless know if you’ve been reading this blog, the new Poldark mini-series is garnering much attention. Among remarkable items of interest suddenly turning up on-line are five texts by him read aloud sensitively, beautifully by two actors. One reason the Poldark novels have not been acceptable to the establishment is that while Graham is alive to this post-modern aspect of his fiction: how you can’t know the past, memory is failing, the universe itself unknowable, much relative, he does not make it central to his historical fiction and mystery larger structures — he mentions it now and again and there is a strong gothic undertow — well this idea and a gothic feel is central to these:

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In Cornwall

Meeting Demelza: a story written late in life where Graham meets his character at last; she tells what still hurts, we feel his ghostly desire: read by Ewan Bailey

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yqp4r

Ross and Demelza: one of the most powerful and visionary all chapters in Graham, where shortly after they are married, he takes her to an all night pilchard harvest in a brilliantly lit cove — read by Ewan Bailey, from Ross Poldark

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yqfx1

Three stories, all three abridged:

The Cornish Farm: set in the 20th century, a couple come to live and work a Cornish farm, a haunting marital suicide tale read by Nicholas Farrell

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ynmf3

PoldarkCountry
Click on the drawing to enlarge it

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Other places

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Claude Monet, Vetheuil Winter

At the Chalet Lartrec: One not set in Cornwall but the Swiss Alps in the 1960s where the narrator seeks shelter from a blizzard (I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “A Lodging for the Night”); another haunting tale of apparent murder. Read by Ewan Bailey

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03yngnh

The Old Boys: two now grown up boys meet on the grounds of their school, a meditation on how we re-interpret our past, how what for one is now amusement, for another is deep trauma. Read by Nicholas Farrell

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03ymztf

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If you’ve listened through, you’ll have experienced a shared set of themes, moods, character types and peculiar similarities, down to the man who claims to have strangled his wife resembling Mark Daniels (who in the Poldark books does), the throwing of precious things deep down a well.

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Caeria Israel, a painting inspired by Trollope’s “Malachi’s Cove,” set in Cornwall

These feel dark and the snatches chosen are apolitical. The Poldark novels have a strong element of intermittent sunshine and hope and are political, left-liberal, just now in public media beginning to be talked about for the first time. Read this short essay by Stephen Fielding, a professor of political history at Birmingham:

http://nottspolitics.org/2015/03/11/sexing-up-cornwall-but-theres-more-to-poldark-than-good-looks/

Poldark was actually one of the most radical period dramas of its day, reflecting the influence of the novels written by Winston Graham on which it was based. The first Poldark novel was published in 1945, the year Britain elected a Labour government intent on building a more egalitarian society. Graham’s work was shaped by that context.

His villains are the Warleggans, described in the novel as the “new aristocracy”. These financiers-cum-industrialists are the “the people of the future”, monopoly capitalists in all but name, intent on destroying communities to earn a profit, and able to exploit a legal and political system that reflects their interest. Against them stands Poldark, who, as an impoverished squire, gestured to a more classless past in which squire and tenant shared the same economic interests. As Graham wrote in Ross Poldark (1945): “All men were born in the same way: no privilege existed which was not of man’s own contriving” …

Ross Poldark was, then, one of literature’s classic figures on the fringe, a man of noble birth who identifies with the people rather than with his own class.

I wouldn’t call him Robin Hood, rather a combination of the old romance hero of the Gainsborough films (remember Stewart Grainger in the UK, Errol Flynn in the US) and Che Guevara. Robin Ellis captured this latter aspect of the mood of Graham’s hero in this moment in spades:

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Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark — Drawing by Hope James

Ellen

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

Better Left Unsaid, reviewed by Ellen Moody

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

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

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

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

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

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(Kazan/Schulberg, 1954 On the Waterfront)

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

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

Ellen

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FrankensteinMillercumberbatch
Jonny Lee Miller as the creature desperately trying to bring an exhausted Bernard Cumberbatch as Frankenstein back to life on the ice

Dear friends and readers,

Yes, I’ve just returned from watching the version of Nick Dear and Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein where Miller is the creature and Cumberbatch Frankenstein. The moviehouse had the version where Cumberbatch is the creature and Miller Frankenstein on Monday night. I didn’t know. Next year if my local HD theater repeats this duo, I’ll be sure and see Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as Dr Frankenstein.

Not that I was at all disappointed: I have known since watching Miller in an episode of Prime Suspect (and in the difficult roles of Edmund Bertram in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 MP and Mr Knightley in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma) what a versatile, effective, deeply feeling compelling actor he is. In this intelligent adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel (and the novel is kept in mind throughout), the creature is far more central to the action and consciousness of the play than his creator. We see his birth from his point of view,

Millerborn
Jonny Lee Miller as the monster being born

how he moves bewilder through a landscape of powerful machines and cruel people, to happening on the French family escaped from injustice and the kindness of the blind old scholar, De Lacey (Karl Johnson gets some comedy out of this role) to him, in succouring him, teaching him,

blindscholar

so (except for Frankenstein’s horrified rejection of his creature and abandonment of him) it is a long time before before Cumberbatch returns to the stage. And Frankenstein is the far less astonishing presence, even if central to the emotional action-reaction at play’s center

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein pushing away from him what he has done

I’d just like to see how different would be the feel and meaning in the reversal; according to Michael Billington of The Guardian, considerable.

What Dear and Boyle did was pare down the novel to its doppelganger, and in their characters, their talk, their relationship all the themes of Mary Shelley are drawn out. Some of the matter is lost: the depiction of larger social injustice is not there and so the instinctive fears and savagery of human beings to one another is not outweighed; much of Frankenstein’s life and relationships: the depiction of education (critiqued), how Frankenstein began to try to recreate life partly in reaction to his mother’s death; his arrogance and lack of responsible behavior to others, the intense distrust of science. Frankenstein is someone not social (of course a no no), going off on his own. The emphasis of this twist is so 21st century. The role of Elizabeth is made to enact socialableness (a new word), responsibility, an attempt at kindness towards the creature, and that natural ways trump egoistic artifice. Naomi Harris is effective in the hard role in both versions (a side note, she played the black heroine to Cumberbatch’s white anti-hero in Small Island). ElizabethCreature

I suppose what is so compelling is the dialogue between the two, what’s said, but one is exhilarated even in a movie version by the staging, the use of machinery, the pivotal stage, the symbolic way each phase of the story is presented — matching the fantasy aspects of the story (for it is fantasy). I’ve been to the National Theater in London (with Jim) and seen a number of these creative productions: Aeschylus trilogy comes to mind, Henry IV part 2 (Michael Gambon as Falstaff), and at home on Bravo, the Yorkshire Mystery Plays. The material from Shelley is gothic, but the conventions here eschew anything like film noir or horror/slash movies. it’s really an intimate one-on-one play (not so different in this from say the Fly episode of Breaking Bad where we get a similar intense interaction for an hour between Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul as Mr White and Jesse respectively, with bodies entangled eventually too).

One of the best reviews is that of Paul Taylor of the Independent, only he is wrong to say the play ends so differently from the novel. Yes at the close of Shelley’s novel it seems the creature immolates himself on a pyre on a slab of ice, while Frankenstein expires in Walton’s ship but it seems to me this dying is not what is important: it is the the pursuit and the insight (emphasized by Shelley in her text) that the two creatures to live on are forever intertwined in their hatred and (due to Frankenstein) thwarted love.

He lives for my destruction. I live to lead him on

I haven’t any shots of Frankenstein pulling his sled after the creature (nor of Andrea Padurariu as the Female Creature Frankenstein is drawn to himself, but destroys), but I do of the creature’s desperation when he thinks Frankenstein may have died, and his loving attempt to bring Frankenstein back to life so they can up and move on again (see still at top). In this one the director had Michelangelo’s famous image of God and Adam in mind:

Michelangelgo

Ice is central to the gothic and among the additions to Shelley’s vision, is that of body snatchers: the uses of corpses, poor people’s remains is brought out in comic pragmaticism when in Scotland Dr Frankenstein pays two Scots peasants to bring him materials. I thought of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher.

Perhaps Dear congratulated himself too much on having given the creature back his voice, for Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 production of Frankenstein (screenplay Steph Lady, and Frank Darabout, producer Francis Ford Coppola) with Robert De Niro as the monster and Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth and a bride-monster of Frankenstein, had an equally articulate poignant presence for the monster. Dear and Boyle learned from Branagh and De Niro.

It was a production and is now a film which shows how transcendent and variable the gothic can be. The New York Times critic made fun of it — a paradoxical measure of its transcendence (the monster is alive and peeved!) It’s very effective in this film production – – where they do intersperse some stills from the 1931 Whale Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff), but for once I will concede that I was aware how much more charged it must be to have been in the theater. I don’t often feel this in the HD operas which are directed for film; this is a play taking advantage of all the techniques and stagings possible nowadays of a theater in the round and live stage.

It’s worth while to listen to Dear’s description of a many year project and the book as providing a contemporary creation myth:

Ellen

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Crying
Anna Gunn about to fall to her knees on the ground as Skyler crying after her baby is taken from her by Walt

if you cut them [man’s laws] down … d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then … Yes I’d give the Devil the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake — Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons

AndreaBrockwhocares
But see this pinned up photo of Andrea (Emily Rios), among the world’s targets: who cares what happens to her: anyone may and does shoot her in the head

Dear friends and readers,

I finished what I’m calling a first viewing of the extraordinary 42 hour Breaking Bad to the bitter end last night. Even to try to take it in would require several viewings. Each of the last shots of the principles epitomizes some final statement about what each has become and how they related to the story’s themes and action. In the last feature as well as a parody, “Alternate Ending,” Vince Gilligan offered his view of the two men’s last moments.

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The series’ last shot of Bryan Cranston as Walter White

White, he suggests, is “spiritually broken, his hopes for revenge pipe dreams; he’s too sick,” the last episode “an elegy, a bit of a goodbye — he goes out on his own terms, the cancer does not kill him, he is killed saving Jesse, there’s almost a perverse feeling of victory to it for me, at least.” Walt’s life up to the time he began to cook meths was a long mortification, failure as most in his society saw it, mocked by the bully brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) in a video replayed briefly made during Holly’s baby shower. He tells Skyler he did it “for me. I liked it. And I was good at it. I was alive.” Look at that look of bliss on the man’s face as Walt enters the darkness from which we all come, for him the release of oblivion. His life as Walter White ended when he was told he had terminal inoperable cancer; now the love he depended upon is gone from his family, he has done for them what he could monetarily, and he now dies on his own terms, blithe to go.

I’m not as persuaded by Gilligan’s view of Jesse. He’d “like to think Jesse escapes,” that there is “some hope of a life ahead.” Look at that face whose every nerve is suffused with moral pain and despair:

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Last shot of Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman

Jesse crashes in a junk car at full throttle through an iron fence from the last lair of murderous crooks with which he and Mr White have had to deal and Walt destroyed. Realistically, he’s nowhere to hide: Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) has vanished (“it’s over”) and with him his mechanisms for creating new identities for his clients. Jesse will end up seeking out his two feeble friends, Skinny Pete and Badger, and die on the streets if not jailed: he has been called “the moral compass” of the series;” it’s more true to say he has bneen its bleak victim, the one beat up continually, targeted again and again for killing, enslaved with chains, at the close yes knowing he made a killing choice to join Walter White and Jesse is no killer. Each time he shot or killed someone it was after an intense effort to force himself: only the strangulation of Todd (well deserved after Todd coolly shoots Andrea in the head) came naturally.

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The alternate ending has Cranston as Hal, a comic emasculated character with Lois, his formidable wife (Jane Kaczmarek, from a once TV popular series, the two of them starred in, 2006 Malcolm in the Middle) waking in the night, trembling from the “scariest” dream you can imagine: told he had cancer (!), he took to cooking meths, making bombs, killing people (!), alongside a “lost waif, a man child who looked like he was always wearing his older brother’s clothes and he would always say things like “b…” [he stops embarrassed and worried his wife won’t approve], the b word he would use the b word a lot he would say (shouting) “yo B word” and “yah science b word …” In “Felina” we see Jesse when young lovingly carpentering a wooden box, his drawings of himself as a boy hero were recognized by Jane (Krysten Ritter), one of his two loves, as the work of a comically self-deprecating artist. Despised and rejected, with no Mr White to save him, Jesse zooms into the darkness too.

In this dream Hal tells Lois, as his actual wife (much TV self-reflexivity here) that he, Hal, was married to this “tall beautiful blonde woman” — Lois the wife semi-jeers, incredulous of course. When Skyler is last seen she is continually smoking, chain-smoking. She sits and smokes. She is terrorized twice in this season, both through her baby. After a terrific scene after Walt has produced another set of lies to account for his absence and where Hank could be, she sees a fancy knife in a knife set on the table we have seen many times. She grabs it and lunges at him, screaming, “leave us alone, just leave us alone.” Walt defends himself and they fall to the fall, rolling, tussling; he manages to wrench the knife back but not before she has slashed his hand. Horrified, Walt junior becomes hysterical as he watches this.

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Flynnhorrified (1)

To this they have descended. Well he gets back; before she can rise and adjust herself, he has taken the baby in its carrier, run to his car and is driving off. She rushes out after them frantic, asking for her baby back, and falls on her knees to the ground as he drives away. A stunning moment. She begins at long last to cry. Walt does care for Holly and leaves her with the firemen, where we presume Skyler can pick her up safe and sound.

Again another moment in this last season, late at night, she hears a sound from the baby’s room and finds herself by the crib with three men who surround it. They are masked and the dangerous Todd is one of them. They say she has been talking to the police and if she tells about who Lydia is or anything she knows they will return — implication and kill this baby. She mouths obedience.

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Last shot of Anna Gunn as the show’s princess Skyler White seeing how bad Walt looks

Anna Gunn interprets her character inadequately throughout. She says Skyler is a shell, nothing in her. But for her life is not pointless as yet: she has her children, but like Jesse, they make her intensely vulnerable to those who want to get at Walt or any of his associates. Unlike Jesse, once her court case is done, if she does not go to prison (and a plea bargain seems probable), she must (like Saul) move, and if not get a new identity, keep out of harm’s way. Her beauty is of no help for what she cares about — though perhaps it attracted Walter White in the first place, made him dump Gretchen Schwartz. The characters in the series invite these kinds of speculations: we learn enough about them suggestively over the slow-moving 6 year series. I imagine she will eventually stop the heavy smoking — though she will never be the complacent woman she once was. She will remember a world of terror that she joined in on (to the extent of telling Walt to have Jesse killed when Walt balks at this), that still exists but which she now wants no part of.

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The very last shot of the series: the men with big guns in the scientific lab (as Fortinbras has the last word in Hamlet)

There is a bleak inference to be garnered at this end: at each and every turn of their career, the two men came up against people who had become inured to murder by dint of murdering other people lest they be murdered or found out, bullied into confessions, and then tortured by penal servitude for decades to come. Each set of murderers were worse than the ones before: from Krazy-8 (seemingly sane) to Tuco Salamanca (who commits acts of wild crazed violence), replaced by the frighteningly homocidal Gus Esposito and his ruthless hitman, Mike Ermantraut, replaced in this last season by the vicious Nazi crew run by Jack Welker (Michael Bowen), with perhaps the scariest pair of them all, Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) and Lydia Rodart-Quayle (Laura Fraser). Hank tells Walt he is a dead man ten minutes ago when Walt is still so foolish as to try to bargain with Jack for Hank’s life based on reasoning:

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Near last shot of Dean Norris as Hank: to Walt “you were the smartest guy I ever knew, but you are too stupid to know it was over ten minutes ago.”

The mini-series presents law as providing a modicum of safety for those who do not break it: those administering (inflicting?) and obeying it do not fear one another and however personally awful, mean, demeaning of others, have a vested interest in not breaking it. So some control is exerted over people, some order set up (however morally cruel or wrong) whose rules most of the time can be depended upon — at least by white middle class people.

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Marie (Betsy Brandt) left alone, widowed in her impeccable kitchen — having learned nothing, her lips tight as she spews out unfocused anger

At least you know where you are with the DEA, the medical establishment, the schools, family rituals. There are levels of barbarity such people most of the time do not stoop to. Not everyone is inside this net — those on drugs, alcoholics, non-whites, the poor, women who are driven to prostitution, for whom there is no pity, no understanding. The show does not include GLBT people who presumably are not inside the Net if they reveal themselves.

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Walt’s last view of Walter Junior (RJMitte) who he has tried to provide money for funneled through the Schwartzes

I would not want to be a disabled person, a child, someone who does not conform in the surface way the well-rewarded Schwartzes have.

A bad dream? Says Mr White to Hank (who soon after ends up buried in sand), if you do not know what this has been about (“who I am”), tread lightly:

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Treadlightly (1)

The remark is not to limited to Heisenberg as Hyde but the whole complex of life we’ve experienced.

Have I mentioned how effective are the inconsequential shots of the series: as Walter White is taken away to hide in the granite state, a stray dog crosses the road

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Final shot of Oxymandias (13:6)

Ellen

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A Syllabus for a Class at the Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute at George Mason University

Exploring the Gothic

Day: 8 Tuesday afternoons, 2:15-3:40 pm, Sept 24th to Nov 11th
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road. Fairfax
Instructor: Ellen Moody

Description of Course:

This course explore varieties of gothic and its terrain which conform to recipe format. Take one labyrinthine or partly ruined dwelling, place inside murderous incestuous father or chained mother (preferably in a dungeon), heroes and heroines (as wanderers, nuns), stir in a tempest; have on hand blood, night-birds, and supernatural phenomena, with fore-, and back-stories set in the past. We’ll read short stories, three novellas and sample films. We’ll begin with ghosts and witches, move to vampires, werewolves, and end on socially critical mysteries and stories of the paranormal (e.g., possession). We cover terror, horror, male and female gothic. We’ll also view clips from two films considered the most powerful film gothics ever made and an Oscar winning short.

Schedule:

September 23:   Origin, definition, history of genre, characteristics. I’ll show parts of DVD for The Haunting and The Woman in Black (if possible, otherwise substitute clip from “Afterward” from Shades of Darkness).
September 30:   Stevenson, “Markheim, ” Wharton’s “Afterward” and Mary Reilly
October 7:  Mary Reilly (possible clip) and F. Marion Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life”
October 14:   Stoker, “The Judge’s House,” Conan Doyle, “Adventure of Abbey Grange;” Wharton’s “Kerfol”
October 21:   Vampire Tapestry (first 3 tales), LeFanu’s “Carmilla” and Oliphant’s “The Open Door”
October 28:   Vampire Tapestry (last 2 tales), Stevenson, “The Body Snatchers,” Wharton, “Mr Jones”
November 4 :  Dickens, “Signalman”'; M. R. James, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale”; Bierce, “Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge”; A. M. Burrage’s “Smee.”
November 11:  The Haunting of Hill House

Texts:

Martin, Valerie. Mary Reilly. New York: Vintage, 1990. ISBN 978-0-375-72599-9. It’s available as a kindle, and there have been many editions: Doubleday 1990, Washington Square Press, 1994.
Charnas, Suzy McKee. The Vampire Tapestry. Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1980. It’s available as a Kindle and two newer edition: Orb Books, 2008; The Women’s Press, 1992.
Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. NY: Penguin 2006. ISBN978-0-14-303998-3

Online short stories:

R.L. Stevenson, “Markheim”  
http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Mark.shtml

Edith Wharton, “Afterward”
http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/ewharton/bl-ewhar-afterward.htm

F. Marion Crawford, “For the Blood is the Life” (scroll down)
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0605421.txt

Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House”
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10150/10150-h/10150-h.htm

Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of Abbey Grange”
http://sherlock-holmes.classic-literature.co.uk/the-adventure-of-the-abbey-grange/

Edith Wharton, “Kerfol”
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/24350/24350-h/24350-h.htm

R.L. Stevenson, “The Body Snatchers”
http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/body.htm

Edith Wharton, “Mr Jones”
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200121.txt

Sheridan LeFanu, “Carmilla”
http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/carmilla.htm

Margaret Oliphant, “The Open Door”
http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10052/pg10052.html

Charles Dickens, “The Signalman”
http://anilbalan.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/the-signalman.pdf

M. R. James, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedrale”
https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/mr/more/chapter5.html

A.M. Burrage, “Smee”
http://anilbalan.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/smee-by-am-burrage-_-scary-for-kids.pdf

Ambrose Bierce, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/
YouTube for Oscar Winning Short: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GuP5kUQro40

For further materials on the gothic, see my website under Ghosts and gothics, vampires and witches and l’ecriture-femme; under Austen Reveries, the category “Gothic.”

Ellen

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comingbackfromPool
Macauley (Mike) Connor (Jimmy Stewart) carrying the drunken Tracy Lord (Katherine Hepburn) back from mid-night time at pool, encountering her nearly divorced husband, CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and soon-to-be-husband, George Kittredge (John Howard) (Philadelphia Story, 1940)

gaslight
Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) bullying into bewildered madness the anxiety-ridden Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) (Gaslight, 1944)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been watching, reading about, and contextualizing George Cukor films with other films by him, other films in the same genre over the past week and a half. I’ve read Gavin Lambert’s On Cukor: filled with remarkable stills, photos and interviews of Cukor. He was a brilliant film-maker, really an elegant controller of a camera, a man who could form an archetypal image or picture on film and build a story from this. I especially much enjoyed and laughed at, was moved by his screwball comedy-romance, Philadelphia Story,

firstlov
Tracy looking at Dexter’s handmade replica of the boat they had their first loving honeymoon on

and found his psychological gothic, Gaslight, which conforms to the Bluebeard female gothic type, as subtle and grippingly worrying until near its end as Robert Wise’s later heart-terrifying Haunting (1960). No technological gadgetry or overproduction, nothing wildly theatrical, no bodily taboos broken, yet Gaslight similarly gets to the attentive viewer where he or she lives — until its last 20 minutes or so.

gaslight-fog
Scenes in quiet greys of gaslight pull the viewer in, symbolic of this haze the husband surrounds the wife with.

I assume the storylines of both are familiar to my readers (if not, see Philadelphia Story; Gaslight). So let me cut to the chase, as with Preston Sturges’s Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, far from agreeing with the book I’m reviewing that the greatness of these films partly stems from the coping with the repressive Hays code, I felt the Hays Code only codified and strengthened some of the troubling aspects of the screwball comedy, and hopelessly enfeebled the conclusion of the gothic.

Philadelphia Story resembles Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (as well as the very early screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, also with Cary Grant, but this time the errant wife is Irene Dunne). Its crucial turning point is a scene of possible sexual intercourse off screen which (as in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) our heroine cannot remember because she was too drunk; sometimes it’s insinuated she and Connor (your brash but literate newspaper man) had full sexual intercourse by poolside, but sometimes not and at the close Connor says there are rules and limits to what a man can do with reference to her drunken state (which is supposed to imply to have had full sexual intercourse would have been a rape, as it was in case of Betty Hutton as Trudy Kockenlocker).

In Miracle of Morgan’s Creek we never learn who the man was — the erasure of a specific identity robs the function of an imagined presence so we end up feeling most decent men would never rape a drunken woman (the indecency here is felt in the cowardly man not coming forward at all; he took advantage and fled). But even if we go with Stewart’s sincerely-uttered explanation, Tracy proceeds to apologize: she apologizes to both ex-husband and husband-about-to-be, to Connor, and to her father for giving him a hard time when he was merely having a long-time affair with a Broadway dancer-star. When the father comes home for the wedding (to which Tracy did not invite him), her mother does not seem to have minded either his continued adultery or absence enough to separate herself from him. All all Tracy’s fault: she is told off by Dexter especially for her coldness, for imagining herself a goddess (and thus above all others, she should do like them), for being a spinster (this is a low blow in the film). (Trudy also apologizes to Norval, her father, and whoever else is around.)

Philadelphia_Story
Tracy telling her mother Margaret (Mary Nash) and sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler) they will not have her father at the wedding

It didn’t help Philadelphia Story to obscure the central incident; it would have been more effective if we could have known for sure that sexual intercourse happened with the third man or not. I don’t see that making the woman character drunk both times added to my pleasure or promoted anything meaningful for women except that the films accepted women being drunk or not just they accepted men – there was no special angry prejudice against women such as I’ve observed too often. I have discovered that not all screwball or romantic comedies of the 1940s have a heroine apologize or go through a humiliation ritual. Arguably Barbara Stanwyk in The Lady Eve (Sturges) does not; at the close of The Awful Truth Irene Dunne does not apologize, but then Cary Grant is not asked to account for his week away which we know he lied about while Irene Dunne is.

The acting of the principals in The Philadelphia Story overcomes the worst thing about all these screwball comedies done under the Hays Code: a superficiality in the relationship between men and women. By having the characters people who were once married, that endows them with an automatic depth knowledge of one another but nothing we see in most of these gives them any depth of feeling. The lack of honest sexual feeling is central to this. Grant and Hepburn give the pair real emotion by having him insult her for not having enough feeling; Grant and Stewart use the class issues between them (he is supposed lower class, though it turns out of course he really is middle) and he is made an author she reads. But the others I’ve watched, and especially the more recent of the type, Love in the Afternoon (1957) with Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper never give any sense of feeling over his having a liaison and her love for him remains girlish, sentimental.

The ending of a film matters (no matter how much David Lean famously downplays that). People who want to trivialize, scoff at and use Thelma and Louise as yet another warning lesson for women, use the ending in suicide — for that’s what it is practically speaking. See what happens to women like that. (Thelma and Louise is another movie where one heroine’s experience of rape and the attempted rape of the other is hardly mentioned.) At any rate by the end of Philadelphia Story, Katherine Hepburn as Tracy is parroting all that Cary Grant as Dexter says and is now his obedient grateful wife (Taming of the Shew anyone?). Dexter monitors Tracy’s activities throughout. The relationship between the two is not much different than that between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in Cukor’s 1950s Adam’s Rib.

monitoring

There are some continuities between Philadelphia Story and very recent films worth noticing: the lawyer type in all three movies (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, The Awful Truth, and The Philadelphia Story) resembles Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad; an unscrupulous shyster who we don’t fear because when push comes to shove he’s a coward (not favorable at all). This is probably the way most Americans accept the way lawyers are shown in mass media. It’s utterly inadequate, if it was not tragic (as lawyers are so important) it’s pathetic. Tracy’s uncle ( we are supposed to laugh and find this funny) enjoys pinching Hepburn’s behind – the way the uncle did in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Miracle of Morgan’s Creek and Philadelphia Story have a wry younger sister who speaks a few home truths; again her role reminds me of the vestigial Margaret in Austen’s S&S

It’s said that Cukor made women’s films, he was a woman director in disguise. He once made a film which had no men actors in it, The Women, and I remember it as excellent — feminist and yet with a fashion show because for women looks matter in our world. He himself disliked this label and said it was not true. I’d like to agree with him, and say while he had a number of strong-women actresses play ove and over again in his films, the strongest effectively subversive and comic presence across all the screwball comedies is Cary Grant. He could deliver a line that undercut whatever piety was going, lightly, suggestively, effectively.

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Colman-Winter-A-Double-LIfe
Anthony John, the aging actor (Ronald Colman) and his mistress, Pat Kroll whom he kills (Shelley Winters) (A Double Life, 1947): also a film where the central character seems half-insane

Gaslight is much less a studio product. It’s is based on a play; its script is literate and fine the way Philadelphia story is. But unlike Philadelphia Story until near the end when the Hays code kicks in, it does not fit into preconceived genres in the way most of Cukor films finally do — from Little Women to Lost Horizon, the ending must be uplifting, optimistic, providential. The Double Life, a film noir re-make in modern terms of Othello featuring Ronald Colman which comes closest to Gaslight in its unnerving feel suffers very badly by its redemptive ending. (All these I’ve watched before and rewatched these past couple of weeks.) Cukor could not be the auteur in his films for most of his life: later films, especially when aspects of the story reflected Cukor’s own internal story of himself, say A Star is Born, escaped this stifling.

For Gaslight is not a horror (monster) movie, it’s not a thriller either. Cukor was evolving the modern film gothic (seen best in ghost stories turned into films): psychologically disquieting and suspenseful. Cukor manages to make you fear for the wife who is being closed in, driven, quietly slowly bullied into continual isolation and humiliation, and persuaded she is mad. The sets, the lighting, the quiet dialogues, the use of servants to thwart Paula are all discreetly done, repetitive, crowded. She is crowded out.

Gaslightsetting

A young Angela Lansbury as a sexy hostile London cockney maid sides with the master and frustrates the old-world courtesy of Paula. The film does capture what a man in charge of a woman can do to her — cultures where the woman is under the control of someone.

The film’s power is then choked off. In no time at all, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton) who knew the Paula’s aunt and somehow works for Scotland yard (though he has an American accent) is able to track Anton in Anton’s nightly treks up to his own attic to terrify his wife, to reach the wife while Anton is in said attic, convince her, and then easily capture, tie up and take Anton away. Ingrid Bergman as Paula gets to torment Boyer as Anton for a few moments, and holds a knife to his head, but her jeering is lame and her act tame.

gaslightknife

And as the film closes the neighborly like lady (Dame May Whitty) who comforted Ingrid on the train and while she enjoys reading about bloodthirsty people, believes all is fine with the world and police can and so solve everything, is seen coming to visit Ingrid again. Cukor’s little joke?

bloodthirsty-bessieheerful

In talking of Gaslight, Cukor said that its style came out of its story, a near murder “in a Victorian house.” He meant to make it “claustrophobic” and stir up emotion. He again says he followed the Van Druten script and tried to erase himself. If he had been allowed to take the logic of the story of a woman made a hostage to its conclusion, how great the film would have been.

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I honestly would prefer to like, to revel in these early much-praised films, but I find they grate. I watched as much as I could stand of My Man Godfrey (1936 version). I can see why William Powell stood out: he is a genuinely sardonic presence as a hobo turned into a butler for the amusement of a super-rich family who are presented (naively) as simply frivolous and naive, idle, doing nothing (including not much harm if you don’t ask how the expensive parties with their luxuriously dressed guests got there). I find I can’t take watching the supposedly elegantly mannered somewhat effete matinee idol type men and fat-cat salacious but somehow bullied older men by their fat stupid wives, with the heroines looking adoringly at the hero: I hadn’t realized how much Jean Arthur does just that, much to my surprise — from my favorite 1942 Talk of the Town to Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr Smith Goes to Washington which fits the type except for Jimmy Stewart’s agonized face now and again).

Cukor claimed that what irreparably weakened The Double Life was Colman lacked a sense of the demonic. I find the older films only reach this when they are made in Europe and left to be expressionistic of trauma and cynicism. The Hays Code clamped down on these but nowadays American films often flounder still when it comes to the gothic and are crassly melodramatic, over-produced with much bodily horror (e.g., Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). Ironically (or perhaps in character) the US films which have been able to project the darker prevailing ironies and metaphysics of American culture are the gangster to modern melodramatic crime films, from James Cagney’s psychopathic killer in White Heat (unforgettable, his bullying of Virginia Mayo, and his blowing himself upk, “Top of the World, ma”) to last year’s Breaking Bad. Cukor does not seem to have made this kind of film at all. From On Cukor he seems to have been too sensitive (and oddly) too self-effacing a man.

He is said not to be identified or remembered enough because he did not develop a single style you could trace throughout his films. He couldn’t — he had too many constraints. He also wanted to contain a lot, so I chose this photo as capturing that ideal.

cukor (in 1945)

Ellen

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